There are sometimes periods or moments in a lifetime that bring accelerated growth, often resulting in a profound shift in perception and perspective. I anticipated insight and inspiration when I finally embarked on a journey to India, but what I received has fundamentally changed me. I suspect that this happens to a great many visitors to this magical place, because how could it not? So, at the risk of sounding like yet another clichéd awe-struck traveler, my story is here to share.
There is a lot of expectation and anticipation that builds when you spend many hours travelling. Two flight connections and a 4-hour road trip finally brought us to Agra where our hotel, true to Indian expectation, was located in an ally next to a pile of dogs sleeping in the dirt. (By the way, everything that you thought you knew about traffic in big Indian cities such as Delhi, is under stated. It is utter, unadulterated chaos.)
After so much sitting, yoga was first priority when we arrived. Our yoga teacher was a local doctor, who took us to a little park behind his house for a yoga class. The park was home to some beautiful parakeets nesting in an old temple of sort. And as if on que, the most beautiful India tunes start belting out through mega-watt speakers at a nearby event as soon as we start practicing!
The darker it got though, the more mozzies joined the yoga party until they became quite unbearable. We were then promptly uplifted and moved to a little studio beneath the good doctor’s house where a couple of dancers were kicked out for us to use the space. Yoga finished, photoshoot with locals completed and then we asked the dancers to show us some Bollywood moves. And then all happy- Bollywood-hell broke loose as we were all dancing in the basement studio.
Early morning start the next day to get to the Taj Mahal by sunrise, but the sheer volume of humans at this world-wonder just couldn’t make that a reality. Make no mistake, the Taj Mahal is breathtakingly spectacular, every bit as beautiful as what you imagine it to be, but there is a feeling of sadness there for me. Perhaps it is because of the sad loss that triggered its construction, but I look at this monument of spectacular proportions, exquisite craft and blindingly white marble and I can’t help but wonder how the poverty-stricken population felt about such vast sums of money being spent on a shrine, a grave, for one person? I guess that on some level it has, eventually, brought prosperity to these people from the sheer volume of tourism it generates…
Long drive back to Delhi, a connecting flight to Amritsar and 9 of us on a tuk-tuk through traffic brought us to the next fabled attraction in our journey, the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The temple houses the sacred text of the Sikh religion, a book that was compiled by the last living guru as the definitive word in the absence of a successor. The temple is in the middle of a lake and almost has the illusion of floating on water. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims come to pay homage at the temple, many of them sleeping in the surrounding structure overnight as part of their pilgrimage ritual.
Here is where the world’s largest communal kitchen serves a free meal to over 100,000 people each day. There are massive pots cooking lentils, rice and potatoes raised over wood-burning fires that are stoked day and night. Chapati breads are made by the thousands on continuous production lines and are buttered by hand before being served in the dining halls. The spaces where the food is prepared are derelict, resembling unfinished construction sites that are filthy and dark, yet the food is prepared with loving kindness by Sikh religious volunteers.
The pace of our trip changes when we start our journey by car from Amritsar to Dharmsala and the fabled Indian traffic takes on a whole new dimension when we wind our way on single-lane roads through the mountain passes. At times it felt as if we were dangling off the side of a cliff while busses, motorbikes, cows, dogs and taxis maneuver on these roads. As the landscape changed, so did the culture and pace of India. Dharmsala feels like a country removed from India, largely due to the population of Tibetan refugees that have settled in an area known as McCleod Ganj on the hilltop above the city.
Here, under the snow-capped majestic Himalayas, the Tibetans have recreated a little of their beloved home country. They have built temples, institutions, schools and monasteries to keep their culture alive and thriving in the hope that they can someday return to Tibet. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan’s spiritual leader, lives here in Dharmsala, a short distance from the main temple.
I am in awe of these people and how they are so deeply connected to their culture, each other and the nature of everything. They are humble, kind, peaceful people who continue to practice and teach their culture and religion with vigour and conviction. We have so much to learn about compassion, tolerance and forgiveness in a world gone mad with violence and anger.
Around the main temple complex is a footpath called the Lingor Kora (kora is a Tibetan word describing circumambulation around a sacred object), which is a meditation walk filled with prayer wheels and prayer flags all along the way. You find many Tibetans on the walk throughout the day clutching their mala beads and mumbling the mantra “om mani Padme hum”, which is the mantra of compassion.
We were fortunate to visit many beautiful and significant places in and around Dharmsala, all created to preserve and further develop Tibetan art, culture and religion. One of the highlights was being in the Karmapa lama’s temple during their morning ceremony while the monks chanted together. We were tucked away to the side of the temple observing but were invited and included to share their bread and tea, which was such a touching gesture of kindness.
We had the opportunity to meet many prominent Tibetans who we could learn from and have conversations with, to cultivate a deeper understanding of the teachings of compassion, mindfulness and meditation. We also met with monks who had escaped imprisonment and torture in Tibet, telling of their experiences of surviving in the Himalayas to come to India and what the Chinese are doing to decimate and destroy the Tibetan way of life.
And then there was Dr. Tenzin Dolha who is a Tibetan healer. At our first consultation, I became intrigued with a Tibetan breathing meditation he fleetingly demonstrated. I then spent more time with him one afternoon learning a sequence of breathing techniques and movements that have roots in Bon, the ancient Tibetan religion prior to Buddhism being introduced. With the help and direction of both Dr. Dolha and our hugely knowledgeable facilitator Klasie, I have started down a research path to learn more about this branch of yoga in order to teach the techniques competently.
Of course, the highlight of this journey was the totally unexpected, most touching blessing of being granted an audience with the Dalai Lama.
I was struck by the calmness and quietness and kindness with which all the visitors in the line were treated. Security, passport copies, searches and scans were friendly and courteous. There must have been over 200 people in the line to see the Dalai Lama yet every single person was peaceful and patient, which spills over into one’s own experience and emotion.
I somehow found myself in the right position in the line to walk up and hold his hand while we spoke to him. Klasie told me to say that Bishop Tutu sends his regards from South Africa and that connected deeply with the Dalai Lama. He paused, still holding tightly onto my hand with a tear of sadness in his eye, and then asked us to return the regards to his dear friend. He still found humour in the moment and said “If Bishop Tutu dies, he will go to God in heaven and when I die, I will go somewhere else”
The entire experience is completely surreal, but for me there was so much contained in those few moments:
- His presence is profound and his compassion is palpable
- He makes eye contact with each and every person he greets, making a meaningful human connection with each individual
- He feels physically soft, which exudes the softness of kindness, but his grip on my hand was strong, with strength and intention
- I feel a massive responsibility to spread this energy and this blessing and “pay it forward” in every way I can
I have learned so much on this journey about myself, my relationship to others, about our common human connections and so much more. It has been a journey of discovery in so many ways and one that I will treasure and share forever.