Welcome to flowing chaos
New Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, Ft. Cochin 2009
How is it that India functions? It is so wrecked on so many levels – garbage, human waste, extreme poverty, crumbling buildings, dangerous tangles of electrical lines, animals in the streets, choking traffic and pollution, constant honking of horns, and crowds everywhere: picture 3 times as many people in 1/3 of the space of the United States. That’s a 9-fold increase in intensity.
And yet at times it is beautiful, dignified, kind, wonderfully varied, and somehow the chaos all flows together in a harmonic dance. I kept expecting it to break down, but it keeps flowing. Hinduism seems to be like that – totally out of control, way too comprehensive, but somehow hanging together as a whole, beautiful, and working.
The colors, deep and rich. Holy men and scores of saffron-robed monks on the riverbank saluting the dawn with conch shells and incense. Rats and cows mingling with bundled human shapes on the train platform in the middle of the night. Dense crowds and exhaust and honking horns everywhere. Subtle spiced food tasting centuries old (in a good way). The monkey-god Hanuman’s temple, with hundreds of monkeys scampering around the pilgrims, lotus flowers being offered, chanting. Gandhi’s hushed assassination site with swarming schoolchildren learning of their liberation, his glasses, prayer beads and bloodstained clothing on display. Men being shaved with straight razors on the sidewalk, barber and client sitting on the ground. More Arab than I knew, smiling children at the mosque leading me on a guided tour of the dark back stairway up to the roof. The Taj, seeming to float lightly in white marble, a still and perfect dream. Down tiny alleyways in the Old City, in Varanasi’s Golden Temple, Hinduism’s Mecca/Vatican, Shiva’s phallic lingam rises out of the earth, bringing all things into life, but the site is closed to non-Hindus and non-Muslims (side-by-side mosque and temple) and surrounded with armed and watchful soldiers. We peek over the wall. Beggars everywhere. Constant badgering from shopkeepers and bicycle rickshaw drivers. A feeling of calm in the midst of the storm, gentleness and acceptance between people, men holding hands and speaking affectionately, women in saris, burqas, modestly guarding their eyes.
It is a different world. Part of the retreat portion of our trip was time spent in Hindu temples, some of them used continually for the last 1,000 years as lively centers of daily devotion. There were times in these temples when I felt that I had been transported into another world, another dimension. Medieval.
Crowds of barefoot pilgrims wander in and out and around all day. They bring offerings of food, flowers, money, give them to the Brahmin priests, who take them in to one of the deity statues, place them on the idol, circle it with ghee-butter lamps, and then bless the people with the fire and red, ash, or yellow-colored powder on their foreheads. In the larger temples - a company of young Tamil students doing sacred dance, men sitting in meditation chanting, a loud bell clanging from time to time, families eating a picnic lunch (shared w/the gods) on the floor, a little procession of drummers and loud double-reed Middle-Eastern oboe-like honkers blasting what sounded like a blues improv, old ladies standing immobile before an obscure, black medieval idol carved into a stone pillar, incense burning everywhere, rising up around dozens of shrines to the one God who is manifested as elephant, monkey, terrifying warrior woman, flute-playing cowherder, or as a primitive stone phallic shape. Brahmin priests walk around in white sarongs, no shirt and the front half of the head shaved, the sounds of spoken prayers echoing around the vast halls…just another ordinary Wednesday afternoon at your local house of worship. The whole circus goes on at once in a massive labyrinthine complex - a little city, really - with 4 or 5 rings of buildings separated by wide columned halls with 30-foot high stone ceilings. The scale of it is stunning. I felt as if I were transported back a thousand years into an ancient Mayan world, sort of - to put it crassly - like Indiana Jones. We had entered the mythic realm. Because it was so unfamiliar to me, it sometimes felt like some dark, unfathomable, medieval underworld. The effect was a change in my consciousness. Walking out into the sunlight, I was aware of another dimension, knowing that our neat little material world is infused with a timeless, divine mystery.