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Published: March 12th 2008
After several weeks of rest, shanti
, and a certain amount of hesitation, I have finally moved to an ashram. 'Have fun in your nice prison', says Hee, as she helps me move my belongings to my new abode. My room is sparse but comfortable, with two single beds, a concrete shelving unit, a bedside table, and two plastic chairs. I have a private bathroom, too, and a sunny balcony with a(somewhat restricted) view to the mountains. The ashram is a bright, new building with a big roof terrace, two yoga halls, a garden with a ritual space, a lovely dining room, and many beautiful paintings and statues of Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
So, what is ashram life like? It's great. I love it, although of course, there are challenges, too. Our typical day goes like this: the sound of a bell wakes us up at 5 am, and we go the morning meditation, which begins at 5.30 am. At 6 am, the yoga class begins, which lasts until 8 am and breakfast time. At 8.30 am, some of us participate in the fire puja
(a lovely Hindu ceremony at the ashram's ceremonial site, during which we chant vedic mantras and
light the daily ceremonial fire, which we feed with fragrant herbs and ghee). We have free time until 12 pm, when we eat lunch. Then again there is free time until 4 pm, and from 4-6 pm is another yoga & meditation class. Dinner is at 6 pm, and three times a week we have kirtan
chanting (the chanting of devotional mantras and songs, in honour of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses, such as Shiva, Devi and Krishna), with drums and singing bowls. On Sunday mornings, we also do an hour of 'karma yoga' before breakfast, which basically means cleaning parts of the ashram together - communal and altruistic work is meant to generate good karma! 😊 On my second day in the ashram, we(some of the residents and the yogi) experience the joys of karmic yoga by carrying heaps of stones from one end of the road to another, while a bunch of moustachoed builders who work opposite congregate, point, and laugh their heads off.
The ashram meals, which we take turns serving, are very tasty and nutritious, and quite light: generally they consist of daal, saabji (mixed vegetables), rice and/or chapattis, and ghee. Having chickpeas or vegetable
rice for breakfast takes some getting used to, though! Apart from the morning class, nothing is actually compulsory (it is simply 'encouraged'), but I figure that I might as well make the most of my stay in the ashram by attending and practising as much as I can. I surprise myself by seeing how much I like getting up so early: in particular as it has become very hot here in Rishikesh in the last couple of weeks, so it's good to be able to go out and do errands early in the morning, and then relax in the afternoons.
It's an enjoyable lifestyle, and my fellow residents are very nice. It's a fusion ashram though, run by a young yogi and his yogini wife - wonderful people and teachers with a great vision - , so the only 'complaint' I have is maybe that the ashram is not austere enough. People often show up late for the classes and meals, and the silence we are supposed to keep from 9 pm to 9 am isn't really adhered to by some people: maybe this has to do with the fact that there is a yoga teacher training going on
right now and most of the residents are young Western women in their 20's. But the positive aspects definitely outweigh the negative, and I plan to stay there until mid-April perhaps, if I can stand the heat for that long. All in all, it is a great place for people who have never staid in an ashram before (like me!), and as it's a relatively new ashram, I am sure this will all work itself out in the future.
Last Thursday was Sivaratri festival, one of the most important festivals in India. Sivaratri falls on the 13th (or 14th) day of the dark half of Phalgun (February-March). The name means 'the night of Shiva', and the ceremonies take place chiefly at night. Lord Shiva was also married to Parvati on this day. During the festival, many people fast and keep a vigil all night. The Shiva lingam is worshipped by washing it every three hours with milk, curd, honey, rose water, etc, whilst the chanting of the mantra 'Om Namah Shivayah' continues with great fervour and devotion. It is said that s/he who utters the names of Shiva during Shivaratri with perfect devotion and concentration is freed from all
sins, and is liberated from the wheel of births and deaths. Many pilgrims flock to places where there are Shiva temples - the most important ones being Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, and on the Teleti, the sacred area at the base of Mount Girnar in Saurashtra.
Our ashram celebrations start on Wednesday night, with a special Shiva kirtan session, during which we chant Shiva mantras and songs for over two hours together with hypnotic drumming. The energy grows as time goes by, and at some point, it feels like Shiva is there, dancing in our midst and sitting in splendid meditation in the quieter moments. When we go to bed, we continue to meditate and chant mantras, and I wake up several times throughout the night, with Shiva mantras resounding in my head. Thursday morning starts with a long and elaborate fire ceremony, faciliated by a Hindu pujari (priest). We chant many vedic mantras by the fire and feed it with herbs, honour the four elements, and a new white Shiva statue is consecrated and blessed ritualistically with libations of water, milk, fire, incense and flowers (not without some hilarity, as the priest and the Indian relatives of
the yogi argue elaborately over how exactly the Shiva statue should sit on the silver plate, and which direction it should face). One man then heaves the heavy stone statue on his head, and a procession to its new place (the yoga hall) starts. Mata-ji, the yogi's mother, takes the remaining milk and water and pours it over a big rock in the garden whilst praying and bowing down in her sari and large headscarf. Several Indian children take part in the ceremony, and it's beautiful to see the children participate enthusiastically and joyfully: they know all of the songs and Sanskrit mantras and are eager to help out with the ritual. After the ritual, we have a fruit feast and are given flowers and blessings by the priest. I feel so privileged to be here during Shivaratri: for me as a Priestess, participating in these ancient fire rituals is incredibly fascinating, and a great honour. At present, I am learning the vedic mantras and I am also starting to learn Hindi, as I would like to learn more about these rituals, and the pujaris often do not speak English.
In the afternoon, I meet Hee in town, and
together we go to the Shiva temple in Rishikesh, which has an enormous black Shiva lingam as its centrepiece. Today, this lingam is decorated with flowers. A Western group of musicians sings, drums, plays guitar and tabla of various 'Om Namah Shivayah' chants for over four hours. The atmosphere is great, and the (mainly Western) crowd goes mad, singing, clapping and dancing, animated by an older man in white with a long beard who resembles the Bible figure Moses, who dances himself into a frenzy and cheers the crowd on. Whenever somebody raises a camera to take a picture of him, he ups the ante and goes just a little crazier. We love him. Indian boys are sitting on the staircase and peek through the railing, greatly amused by the Western devotees, occasionally blowing kisses in our direction. I am amazed to see Senia, a Slovenian woman I met in Pakistan's mountains during the Winter Solstice, amongst the celebrants, and we have a joyful reunion.
On Saturday, I attend my first Indian wedding. One of the staff's son is getting married, and the whole ashram is invited for lunch. We are carted to the festival tent in a big bus which arrives about two hours too late. 'Shanti shanti', our mantra goes as we wait, but there can only ever be a certain amount of shanti when it comes to food, so I, together with two other girls and the yogi's cousin, sneak into the kitchen, where we have a quick lunch. This shall prove to be extremely wise, as at least another two hours pass before we see any food. When we finally do get to the enormous (and very hot) tent, young men in suits dance enthusiastically to the booming sounds of Punjabi rock music. They shake their heads, arms and legs, and twist and swirl to the music while flashing us big smiles. Some children join in, as does Paul, one of our residents. He looks like the pied piper of Hameln amongst them. The atmosphere is expectant, joyful and exciting: there are photographers, video cameras, women in colourful saris, and many smiles. Everything is funny... until I look at the bridegroom. He sits on a throne on the stage, wearing a detailed beaded headdress. He tries to hide it, but he's crying. I catch his eye, and suddenly the tears stream out and he dries them with a handkerchief. People join him from time to time for photocalls. He tries to smile, but he just looks wretched. Somewhat alarmed, I ask the Indian boy sitting next to me, 'Why is the bridegroom crying?' 'Is he?', he asks and looks towards the stage. 'Oh, it could be a love problem. He may be in love with another girl. Here in India most marriages are arranged.' I suddenly see the celebrations from a completely different angle. After lunch, the bride arrives, and she doesn't look much happier either, although I have heard that it is normal for the bride to show sadness and tears on the wedding day, as she will leave her family to live with her husband. We don't get to see the actual wedding ceremony, but it is said to be very beautiful, with the couple circling a ceremonial fire together seven times.
Well, it's now almost exactly six months ago that I left England. I've been wondering where I am with my travels in the last few days, and somehow, it seems as though the real journey, the deeper part, has just begun. Returning to Europe at this stage does not seem an option, as I am taking each day as it comes. I feel I've changed, I've grown, become more flexible in the last few months, and what I am enjoying most is the slow pace of life here, and practising just being in the moment. One thing I feel more than any other here in India is that time is such a luxury. How often can we really be still, enjoy the sunshine on our skin, slowly and sensually sift the fine sand through our hands whilst listening to the water rushing by? My life has really slowed down, even though it feels very full in some ways. Everything is becoming a meditation.
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