Hundreds of cave temples, sculptures and frescoes carved into the mountainside… simply awe inspiring and one of the real highlights of India!
Every now and then, you chance to do something that throws up a challenge to that cosy, known, predictable procession that is everyday life. A 10 day silent meditation retreat in an ashram in the middle of India promised all this of course, plus a little bit more. In actuality though it managed to not only deliver the profound personal inspiration I was seeking, but also impart a deep cultural experience and still provide enough material for a serious horror movie script to boot…
I seemed to have been following in the footsteps of Buddha for sometime now. 8 years of living in Japan was a good start and combined nicely with our recent adventures through Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Nepal, all major Buddhist societies. We had visited Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini in Nepal and where he reached enlightenment in Bodhgaya, Northern India, but in all my reading, knowledge, experiences and interactions with both the religion and people, I had never really sat down and tried to practically experiment with it.
Now I am not a religious man, a little too rational, egotistic, scarred or sceptical for the great ‘leap of faith’ that seems to be a pre-requisite for the major creeds I think, though I can certainly respect people’s own individual beliefs that way. I do however have a strong belief in the metaphysical and higher plains of consciousness and also the inner confidence that we have the potential for far greater evolutionary steps. And as with the philosophies of the great yogi’s, Buddhism has always appealed to me this way – the power of meditation to awaken mans potential within, to form a union with the universe and transcend it – it all just seems to speak truth and flow logically for me somehow.
So Vipassana is the Buddha’s gift to mankind. And while there are many forms of meditation both before Buddha and since, Vipassana was specifically his technique – provided and taught to the people of India by him during his lifetime as a way to gain control over their own minds and ease life’s suffering & misery. Lost to India for a long time, it was preserved in Myanmar in its original form and brought back to India by Goenka in the 70’s and now is sustained and taught in retreat centres all around the world. The 10 day, silent meditation course we embarked on was really just an introduction to this technique, but a chance to experience an aspect of Buddhism first hand. For me (and to some extent Megumi), it was a first really deep dive into the world of meditation and something we had been eagerly anticipating as a natural rounding out of our Buddha trail, Indian and Yogic experiments and experiences.
We had chosen to do the course in Hyderabad almost completely at random. It was a way to give us a destination really, to both compliment and complete our travels. Placed at the centre of India, Hydrabad is very much a melting pot for India’s tribes and a little more off the tourist trail which enhanced its appeal.
As we arrived at the centre on day 1, down a dusty, dry road about an hours drive out of the city, an old Indian guy at the entry gate was giving an Irish guy Justin, a quite serious once over on whether he was really committed to seeing out the program. It seemed funny at the time, but was a warning shot that resounded slightly more ominously upon later reflection. Once through the gate, the compound was segregated into men’s and women’s areas complete with separate dining areas, dormitories, common areas & separate entrances to our shared meditation halls. At this point, Megumi had to jump the fence into her own quarter for registration. As we said our goodbyes, the first physical separation since the start of the trip, it started to hit home and I turned to the registration task with a little apprehension. Together with Justin, we then embarked on a series of entry procedures filling in numerous forms / waivers, handing over valuable possessions, organizing storage for our books, pens & other distractions and also receiving room allocations. A sombre bureaucratic atmosphere had taken hold and the process began to ominously resemble entering prison. Had they ask us to strip for delousing, I would have fled!
In total there were 120 other inmates, 80 odd men and 40 women and somewhat surprisingly only a handful of foreigners; as well as me & Justin, there were 2 other non-Indian men – a young, blonde quite serious Italian and an older French guy, plus a couple of women (Dutch & English) in Megumi’s pen. Unlike the other foreigners though, I missed out on my own room and got billeted with a rather curious 50 year old Indian guy, who spoke only 3 words of English I think. Our room was simple and our 2 mosquito net covered cots were divided by a single curtain down the centre of the room, with a separate bathroom / washroom area. A chronic snorer and 3 am riser (to do his washing!), I later christened my roomie Gollum, for the strange whispered arguments he started having with himself in Tagalu from days 5 or so on in the program.
The program itself was pretty regimented, total silence from the morning of Day 2 to Day 10. Every morning (and every session) we were greeted by bells gonged in our windows to wake us up and get us moving. We got to the mediation hall at 4.30am for a 2 hour meditation session. At 6.30, we had breakfast in the dining hall, followed by an hour break. Then a 3 hour meditation session, lunch and a 2 hour rest, then a 4 hour afternoon meditation followed by a light meal, rest and in the evening, a 1 hour meditation, followed by 90 minute video discourse on the technique & the philosophy before a 30 minute meditation finishing at 9pm.
There were plenty of rules – no talking obviously, but this also was extended to looking at anyone or engaging in any form of interaction, a concept called noble silence. Unfortunately to my considerable consternation throughout the meditation sessions, in this part of India at least, the term ‘noble silence’ does not seem to extend itself to cover both burping and farting. Meals were taken sitting on the floor of the dining hall Indian style. While the food was a bland, humble rotation of local Indian food, it was not tasty, but proved to be quite edible none the less (Apparently spices affect the body and the mind) When I wasn’t eating during the breaks, I was sleeping or meditating in my room and that was that really, there was not much room for anything else.
Getting Inside My Head
10 hours a day is a long time to be roaming in the depths of the mind and the Vipassana meditation program is designed to go in deep, but build up to it in very gradual stages. For the first 2 days, we focused simply on concentrating on our breath and the action of breathing. A skill designed to try to focus on the present and in the process gain control of the mind. The conscious mind hates this and jumps around like crazy, a concept called the ‘monkey mind’. For the first 2 days, I was constantly experiencing random emotional thoughts and reactions to lots of things both in the past or future. For 2 days it seems, I was confused, emotional and agitated trying to fight with the mind to focus on the task at hand. I constantly caught myself dwelling on something, an issue in the past, sharing a room with my flat, what I was going to do after this meditation was over or coming up with a brilliant distracting idea – anything to keep me from being in the here and now. Other forms of meditation gives you a mantra, which makes this easier to do, giving the mind something to focus on. Here though, you patiently had to keep bringing your focus back to the breath from each new random departure. Agonisingly slowly this seemed to get easier and easier and by day 3 I was able to concentrate for a long time at a stretch, without the random interruptions.
For the next few days, we were then asked to switch focus, in order to help concentrate the mind. This was done by focusing on feeling the breath at the very tip of your nose in the triangle down to your bottom lip. Apparently your mind naturally thinks on things at a macro scale, so in order to go inwards for Vipassana, you first need to re-train it to focus on more subtler, micro sensations. As tedious as water torture, drip by drip, this is just as effective. After the wild mood swings of day 1 and 2, by day 3 and 4 I was feeling quite peaceful and the mind started to become particularly sensitive to the touch of every breath and I started to uncover new sensations. Which is just as well really, because by day 3, the physical torture of sitting for 10 hours a day starts to become unbearable. From 30 minutes in a seating position to start with, by day 3 this has regressed to 5 minutes in a series of positions that I moved through quicker a quicker, like a dog chasing its tail. I lasted til the end of day 3 before I move to a chair. With some semblance of false pride I noted that the other foreigners have all broken slightly ahead of me or were doing just as badly at least. The French guy had quit already (2 days in), Justin has taken a back rest for his cushion, which he later abandons for a chair and the Italian guy has gone for a chair as well. I last a day and half in the chair before stealing Justin’s backrest – the chair was causing me even more pain.
On Day 5, minds focused and now concentrated, we finally start the actual Vipassana meditation. This part is a lot more complicated to explain, so give me some creative license here. Vipassana is introduced as a surgical like process where you expand your new awareness out to your entire body. Moving slowly, you start to become aware of hundreds of small sensations all over and objectively (this is the most important word here), you start to observe them, both the positive and negative sensations. An observation process that over time, through careful non-reaction, works to remove many of the cravings and sufferings (which is what the sensations represent), all embedded deeply within the human mind and the primary cause of our unhappiness. Hard to swallow (or explain simply) I know, but this is the technique Buddha came up with and its been working for thousands of years.
On day 6 pondering these things, I have my AHA moment. We retire to a private meditation cell (a small 1m x 2m windowless room) and suddenly I am able to really tune into my entire body, and have sensations tingling from head to toe. As I focus in on the sensations I feel the tingling grow and become almost a uniform energy or pulse across my entire body, the flow builds to a creshendo and suddenly I become aware of my body as being made up entirely of vibrations and experience a sensation of peace sweep over me, an awareness of myself as becoming like light. I experience the truth that my body consists purely of vibrations and feel a lightening / awareness of myself existing beyond time and space. I expand upwards, relishing this awareness and sensation, vaguely conscious of my actual body as a shadowy meditation pose much further below me. In total this altered euphoric state lasts no more than a couple of minutes, leaving me very slowly, I fade back to the floor unable to resist and keep the moment, the sensations though lingering on.
Which is where things suddenly got a lot more interesting! Here I had, had an experience that was very exciting and obviously opening doors at a higher conscious level, I wanted more of it, to go deeper, but I also felt that I had wandered off radar from the courses objectives, I was operating outside the textbook so to speak and had started craving an experience of my own making, cravings being exactly what we had been told to avoid. I consulted Guruji, an old Indian chap who was presiding over all the inmates and the only one we were able to actually converse with. He told me that this was positive progress and that the experience was simply a release. But I went away somewhat conflicted not sure he had really understood my experience. I still felt discouraged and that I had tried to do something a little off the charts so I consciously shelved this area of exploration reluctantly and went back to the program of simply feeling sensations.
Now, I had been detecting some sensations that manifested themselves as tiny crawling sensations on my body & being objective means not reacting to the various tickles, stabs of pain or euphoric tingles that these sensations give off. So for the next 3 days I focused on exploring these and in the process delving deeper & deeper into my psyche. Dark worms that gave electric shocks, thin insects that wiggled and tingled and the occasional fairy puff of pleasure. How my mind chose these manifestations I don’t know, but I was in deep here. Many of these sensations were lying deep beneath the surface of the face and at times I could feel my head as a complete cup of insects and their resultant sensations struggling to get out. Objectively I watched and appraised them, trying not to feel any emotion or so I thought, waiting for each to emerge one by one in my minds eye and in the process goes the logic, dispense with another deep attachment.
After several days of this torture, the lectures started to reveal that my earlier euphoric experience had actually been right on track that we were supposed to be working towards to feeling sensations at every level of the body and in so doing experience a free flow of energy throughout, I realized that I had just jumped far ahead with my own experiences. I was also starting to feel frustration with the ‘insect mining’ that I was currently doing and these worries started to permeate the process I was going through. Unable to switch off the awareness of the senses and very deep in by now, I continued to feel the creepy, crawling sensations on my face and could not get past it to recapture the free flow of energy. The bugs kept crawling even when we stopped the mediations, during meals (and for several days afterwards).
Everyone’s experience is different I guess and everyone has their own demons and manifestations. If this process was easy, we would all be running around on Cloud 9 and blissfully free of the worlds problems. But hindsight is equally a wonderful thing, and I now realize I went a little too deep and somewhere along the line I started to become too aggressive with the sensations I was feeling, perhaps frustrated by the misdirection of my own progress. I began trying to force the sensations to reveal themselves and exterminate them, rather than simply observe – a reactionary affect that just multiplied the sensations themselves, dug them in and made them worse and in so doing creating a block.
To be honest, as the 10 days of meditation came to an end, I was far from relaxed and getting completely worked up about the bugs in my system. And as the program ended I felt a little disappointed. I guess I was expecting things to be more completed, more defined, perhaps ecstatic – yet I felt I had only just started to grasp the process and had achieved little. Yes, I had had, several moments of higher awareness and had gained an invaluable understanding of my mind, conscious thought and the overall process, but my over-riding sense was more one of confusion and a weird preoccupation with the insect like sensations. This is dangerous territory and I can easily see how people can open themselves up to all sorts of dangerous obsessions & psychosis here. The ego and competitor in me, wanted to feel some resolution that I had cleaned everything out, reached a certain level with this and pushed the point. At the end I really I just wanted the crawlings to stop and if that mean’t the meditation as well, then fine.
And as the insects slowly slipped away over the coming days (I became afraid to close my eyes), I did come to feel a very subtle overall increase in my personal sense of peace and control from the experience. I realised I had gained a lot from the first few days alone and I felt different now, albeit subtly so. While on one hand I had wanted it all to end, I also wanted to start it again, to retrace my steps so to speak with more equanimity and see where I could really have gotten to. The physical side of the meditation while still uncomfortable but had become quite secondary to the overall experience, my attention was focused much deeper in now..
Apart from the insect horrors though, the experience itself was fascinating. While I tried desperately to ignore Justin and the other foreigners attention for my own sanity, I naturally turned my attention to the other Indians, observing everyone’s idiosyncracies in ‘oh too close detail’. From the endless stream of bodily noises that seemed strangely socially acceptable, to my room-mates psychotic late night mutter arguments as he battled his own demons (if I was seeing insects, I can’t imagine what he was fighting off!), the whole experience was a fascinating insight into everday Indian living and lives. The complete diaspora of Indian society seemed represented here – from old folks with obvious health issues seeking some kind of peaceful reckoning to young kids with the attention span of a gnat obviously forced to be here and to the more mature seekers in between. And then there were the women, always resplendent in their Sari’s, somehow always looking more composed and able to concentrate than any of the men. Megumi for one, had managed to completely avoid eye contact with me the entire time and always seemed to be in a perfect state of meditation and posture.
And as the silence gloves came off on the last day, I reconnected with Justin and Megumi and some of the other meditators that were obviously resonating on the same level as us. As we shared experiences (and nightmares) and the shared joy of survival, I realized that this was something I needed to do again. Next time though armed with more information and experience, I was confident there was a lot more to do and that this was only just the start of something. I left feeling sharper and more aware of myself than ever before, but still with many things unresolved and those damn insects…….!
NB: 6 weeks later neck deep in Africa I had a recurrence of the middle eye infection that had first cropped up in India, though this time it almost left me blind. I realized it was the same left eye that had tortured me during meditation. Can’t help thinking the bug action wasn’t just a simple coincidence!
It appears that detailed, timely blog postings on our adventures has proven to be a most elusive skill so far in our travels. So… in order to keep things moving and regular (and also break up the tedium of introspective contemplations), I thought bundling a lazy, slightly irreverent, but mostly expedient take on the “Incredible India” sights into a single post might be worth a go.
This really is in no particular order or actually a Top 10! But it should give you the quick skinny (plus some snaps) on the touristy, but nevertheless stunning stuff that we have checked out along out merry way around India. I will keep adding to this and updating it as we go, so be sure to check back!
1) The Bodhi Tree – Bodhgaya
The spot where Buddha reached enlightenment is marked by a beautiful park, monolith, many monasteries and a huge tree that is a direct cutting from the original Bodhi tree. The park vibrates with a magical, spiritual energy and peace, as thousands of monks from all countries (in all colours) meditate, chant, relentlessly protraste themselves on special boards or circumambulate the site and its prayer wheels – all simply amazing to behold. Of course there is precious little space under the tree for a conservatively dressed Australian, even with the peaceful application of the elbows; all the good spots are well staked out by the many Tibetan, Bhutanese, Thai or Nepali’s who have trained for decades to get up at 4am; all keen to have another stab at seeking enlightenment and some divine inspiration. While we were there an international Thervada Chanting Conference was taking place (Lots of Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Korean monks) plus thousands of Tibetans were in town (including the 17th Karmapa) so the place was jumping. Outside the park though, Bodhgaya is classic India – poor, dusty, loud, confusing with hundreds of beggars lined up to prey on the Buddhist’s karmic conscience.
2) The Erotic Temples – Khajuraho
Built around the 11th -14th century, the stone carvings on these temples are simply amazing in their intricacy though not nearly as erotic as every tourist brochure would have you believe – but then India is very conservative these days. The said scenes, when you can find them amongst the thousands of detailed sculptures, represent various states of undress, a few interesting positions and some rather more bestial explorations with horses and elephants. Set in 3 locations around the small town, the temples make a pleasant days viewing and feature a ‘sound and light’ historical show at night which is actually worth checking out. Right outside the park though (and everywhere else actually) touts outnumber the tourists 10 to 1 and do really test the patience. Endless in-your-face demands to buy sex keyrings, books on karma sutra or enter discussion on the servicing of multiple wives and girlfriends abound in English, Japanese and a dozen other attempted languages. The Indians seem to think that any tourist checking out this sight has to be as debauched, kinky and sex obsessed as the average Indian male’s secret imagination and fantasies – which is a pretty tall ask believe me – be warned.
3) Tiger Safari – Bandhavgarh National Park
Bit out of the way this one, but definitely worth it. With the highest density of Tigers in India, this is the best place to see one in the wild of anywhere, so we splurged a bit to have a couple of cracks. Initially we tried to do the safari on an elephant back’s – but the bull (male) phant was horny, the female was on heat and the other elephant was knocked up – so we were humbly reduced to a jeep. Our first safari at sunrise accompanied by a guide, roamed the misty dirt tracks & waterholes in the jungle looking for tiger prints (there were many) and listening for monkey & bird alarm calls (constantly) that tell you a Tiger is near. 4 hours later we gave up, though we did see stacks of deer, eagles, vultures, monkeys, wild boar and other stuff. No-one else saw a tiger that morning either which was strangely satisfying. Doubling down, we went back in the afternoon for a sunset session and got immediately lucky. Within 15 minutes, the jungle went wild with monkey calls and we tore up the dirt track to discover a huge, 2 year old tiger lying happily on the track. Completely ignoring the mad, camera totting jeep creatures around him – he then proceeded to walk along the road for 20 minutes with us snapping wildly behind, stopping for an occasional roar, stretch or snooze. In total we got an hour of wild tiger face (& photo) time which is pretty much unheard of!
4) Agra– Taj Mahal, Baby Taj, Agra Fort, Fatephur Sikri
India’s number 1 destination and rightly so – Agra is jam packed with incredibly history and architectural wonders and worthy of at least a couple of days exploration. It is also full of pushy Indian tourists, egotistical guards, dodgy guesthouses, annoying rickshaw drivers, postcard sellers and squirrels! The Taj is amazing – everyone should see it at some point and a million better minds than mine have described its splendours eloquently; what they don’t tell you though is that its very expensive; ridiculously crowded (trying to get a clear shot is impossible next to a thousand other Indians with no sense of personal space all trying to do the same); oh and the security guards are arseholes. They had the audacity to confiscate Megumi’s finger puppet P-chan, banning him from entry. Apparently soft toys constitute both a significant religious and terrorist threat (the line of crying babies was more than 50m long). After our own angry confrontation and a lot of Indian hand and head waving – we left in disgust. To balance this experience though, we did happily discover the somewhat secret Baby Taj (Itimad-ud-Daulah) – a smaller, earlier constructed, similar completely marble tomb – that while not as stupendous it is just as fascinating architecturally, much cheaper, was all to ourselves and happily not intimidated by the presence of finger puppets. The Agra Fort is also a stunning complex and steeped in interesting architecture, politics and history, though most recently invaded by squirrels it is well worth the visit, if only just to comprehend the palatial harems of the great Mughals. A short bus-ride out of Agra is also the fort town of Fatephur Sikri- an equally magnificent fort, mosque and ranging red marble conquest, that fully warrants a days adventuring.
5) Delhi – Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb & Old Delhi Markets
Delhi was quite the surprise – green, full of parks and possibly the most unpolluted city we visited in India. It teems with ancient ruins and innumerable testaments to the Moghul era and other age’s past littered across the Delhi landscape, seemingly so integrated into the Delhi urbanity that they are easily overlooked. We spent plenty of time exploring and still really only scratched the surface. The red fort is the major attraction and though impressive from the outside, inside it is a very poor cousin to the forts of Agra, Fatephur Sikri and Rajasthan, hardly worth the entrance fee. Much more compelling was Humayun’s Tomb, an early predecessor to the Taj Mahal and set amongst an amazing park like complex of different tombs, sculptures and gardens very well preserved. We didn’t make the largest mosque in India,the Jama Masdjid, but did wander the nearby ancient market complex’s and labrynths’ of old Delhi. An endlessly fascinating maze of thematic markets – spices, fruits, fabrics, wedding jewellery, sweets – you name it, there is a mind numbingly complex, bustling, dedicated market to suit all tastes here. An endless insight into India’s true inner workings and a real orgy for the senses – though you would require several days to come close to getting your head around what’s what and what’s really going on.
6) Jaipur – The Amber Fort, Hawa Mahal & the pink city
Jaipur was a bit dissapointing to be honest, though perhaps its a view tarnished a tad by a sordid dose of Delhi Belly. The city is indeed pink and the fort and key monuments are contained within large square, well organized streets each with specialized markets and wares largely unchanged in centuries. The Hawa Mahal was definitely a highlight – the palace where the Maharaja kept his wives and harem, all cleverly designed so that they could see out but the public could not see in. The palace itself is quite amazing with all the wealthy trims of the Rajasthani elite and the surrounding hills and lakes are all scenically peppered with other forts, summer palaces. Most interesting perhaps was the Maharaja’s astrological centre, full of large complex astrological sun dials and other such toys, the envy of all star gazing obsessives everywhere. The Rajasthani food is also amazing and markets abound with Rajasthans famous jewelry and threads, but all this is offset by a big city vibe and the constant harassment from touts, shopkeepers and most of the locals you meet. Constantly on the defensive, its not a friendly or comfortable place and a day is more than enough for the sites, 2 or 3 due to illness is definite overkill and not worth the resulting sacrifices to our Rajasthan tour!
7) Jodhpur – Mehrangarh Fort & the blue city
The city really is blue and dominated by the amazing fort that sits on the hill in the centre of town. The fort is a perfectly preserved vision of the Maharaja’s of Rajasthan lifestyle and impregnable military might and an easy way to fill in a day. We stayed in a beautiful, 500 year old haveli under the fort walls and were completely enchanted by the town itself. The blue buildings represent bramin (Hindu caste elite) houses and the town is a labyrinth of tiny, winding back alleys and shops that are fascinating to wander. The place does not feel like it has changed that much in the last 3 or 400 years. The people costume up nicely with plenty of fat, Rajasthani mustaches to savour and are generally quite friendly, approachable and proud; though the dogs do seem to be particularly viscous – carry a stick! Its also a great place to sample the many delights of the Rajasthani diet.
8) Hampi – Rocks, ruins and relaxation
Hampi takes you by surprise. Nestled inland to the South, it is easily accessible from Goa and acts as a perfect relaxation and recovery haven for travellers. Set on 2 sides of a river, it is a holy city, one side an active mecca for Indians, while the other side, accessible by a single small rowing boat, is a relaxing collection of cheap backpacker friendly, huts. The surrounding area is literally littered with the ancient ruins of temples and magnificent sculptured palaces from ages past, all set against stunning stone covered hills and rice paddies that form the most amazing backdrop that we encountered in India. You can happily spend weeks here in a traveller bubble, with little agenda other than relaxation and meeting other like minded folk. There is plenty of yoga, a large lake and river to swim in for the hot days, casual movie nights and endless adventures further afield to explore the many ruins and temples on motorbike or check out some of the best rock climbing in India. The highlight for mine, was the Hanuman (Monkey god) temple at the top of a mountain. The temple is occupied by a bunch of sadhu’s seemingly glued to their chillum’s, but its all about the stunning views of the landscapes in all directions. Highly recommend it if you get the chance, a hard place to leave!
9) Ellora – Buddhist, Hindi & Jain cave temples
Ellora and the somewhat adjacent Ajanta were probably the highlight of all the stunning ancient sights that we visited in India. Ellora is located about 30 or 40 minutes out of Aurangubad and incorporates a vast network of caves literally carved out of the cliff-faces in the 1st to the 8th century. There are more than 40 cave temples in total and each represents a kind of time capsule of India’s various religions of the time divided into 3 major sections – sets of buddhist, hindu and Jain temples. The detail of these temples is completely amazing, some of the temples are massive and represent hundreds of years of chipping away at rock faces to create the space, let alone craft the thousands of intricate statues contained within each. The buddhist temples were a lot more minimal, focused on monasteries, prayer & education halls and music / meditation chambers. While the hindu temples were of a grand scale with thousands of intricate sculptures and temples designs dedicated to the major deities. Unfortunately our temple tour was cut short at the magnificent Kailash temple (the largest and most stunning) when someone’s flash set of a swarm of bee’s. I was stung at least 20 times on the head and arms as I was fleeing the temple and enveloped in a swarm of bee’s that chased me some 200 metres outside the complex. They only desisted when I buried myself in a pile of smoking leaves, the guards pointed me at. As helpful as they were the guards seemed quite relaxed and content to get the whole thing on video; it seems this is nothing unusual at this time of year – be warned. Even with a swollen face and savagely stung pride though, the bewildering wonder at human achievement was only marginally subdued and we didn’t even get to the Jain temples, with supposedly the best sculptural detail. Another time perhaps!
10) Ajanta – Buddhist cave temples and frescoes
Located a couple of hours out of Aurangubad, Ajanta was re-discovered by an Englishmen a few centuries ago while hunting a tiger. The tiger they were tracking disappeared into a cave somewhere out of sight and on further investigation, plus some backing from the local Maharaja, they discovered this set of 26 odd caves completely buried and overtaken by the bush. Each of the caves, like Ellora, were hand carved into the mountainside between the 1st and 5th century and while similarly full of scultptures, due to being largely hidden from the world for 1500 years or so, Ajanta contains walls covered with some of the most amazing frescoes and paintings from that time still largely intact. All of the caves here are Buddhist monasteries and temples, some with adjoining meditation rooms, while others are unfinished and therefore still show how the temples were made (by hammer and chisel). An archeologists absolute wet dream, the paintings and buddhist sculptures here leave you speechless and very much in awe of the skill and dedication of the ancient Indian devotee’s and how alive buddhism must have been. An absolute must see for mine.
More pics coming when I actually score some free bandwidth and a day off!
The beautiful rocky contrasts and horizons of Hampi. A perfect relaxation point among the myriad of ruins, temples, rice fields, rivers and lakes…
Goa, famed for its beaches, Portugese influence and hospitality is India’s favourite holiday destination and one of those places that has loomed large in my life for many years. In the late 80’s and early nineties it was the place everyone seemed to disappear to and come back with new beats, ideas and psychedelic inspiration. Much of the trance music and associated symbologies that I have been promoting, listening and partying to ever since, draws its origins and inspiration from that time and place.
In Rishkesh, one of our fellow yogi aspirants, psy trance DJ (Lusid), psychic alchemist and our favourite Indian – Rohan, had pointed us to Chakra View. A 3 day ecological festival in the jungles around Goa featuring a great musical line-up, yoga and meditation – it seemed like the perfect way to engage with the Goa of my youthful imaginings. So after a brief civilizing experience in Delhi hosted by Rohan, we booked our festival tickets, accommodation and cut short some of our planned Rajasthan tour in order to get to Goa in time. And then just at our most planned and organized, Goa pounced and stripped us bare! Mid way through our 12 hour train journey from Mumbai the phone started buzzing – politics had kicked in, the police weren’t on side, the festival was cancelled and by the time our train reached Goa the phone was almost dead, the party had changed locations 3 times and we, completely at her mercy were shuffling Goan train stops with each new update.
Eventually we alighted in Chapora, rented a scooter and found a quaint shack behind a funky beach café in Morjim, just south of Aranbol with some of Rohan’s other Indian friends. Comfortably located amongst a swarm of Russian beach tourists (no-one ever told me about that) and close to the last suggested location of the migratory festival, we dived into the pristine waters and relaxed on the beach, waiting for the next move. The festival, as with many things to good to be true, never happened of course despite several more attempts and the longer we stayed in Goa the more we understood that this was how things usually work here. No-one could remember the last time there was ever a 3 day festival in Goa. Our foolish enthusiasm in buying tickets / accommodation in advance nicely contrasted the Japanese organisation and security of our recent experiences, with all of India’s special quirks. In the first 3 days alone several other parties were cancelled with numerous others popping up instantly to take their place. The initial frenetic mobile viral network that greeted us just kept evolving and almost without realizing it we became seduced by the chase of the party itself and capturing the underground buzz.
Goa has many faces and obviously as rewards its popularity, many more than we actually got to experience. We based ourselves in Northern Goa entirely throughout, where there are a plethora of clubs, night markets, shops and cafes all designed to cater to the Goan trance and hippy scene. A strange insulated bubble in the Indian experience – meat dishes and wine flow freely and there always seems to be a beat in the background here somewhere, anytime of day. Joints flow freely in the restaurants and chillums on the dance floor and the place is awash with LSD – definitely a one drug town. Many of the markets, clubs and bars still have glowing salutes and remnants of their heydays in the late 80’s – fluro escher like designs in the ceilings and old hippies in all the garb. Around Anjuna and Chapora the party folk congregate during the evenings, waiting news of the latest updates, regaled in all their funky, fashionable tribal best. The parties, like the music are always full power and relentless, though much less psychedelic and fluoro tipped than of old. Many of the bars shut at 10pm and move indoors now and you have to bike-up to travel to the more remote, underground destinations in order to get a full night / outdoor experience. Fleets of trancers on motorbikes and scooters brave the dark labyrinth of roads, villages and their own respective states at night getting to and from parties. For the first few days this was a completely disorientating and nerve racking process – slow, steady and at times completely lost, but after a week, we too were pro’s.
And of the Goan parties – after the seemingly endless chases and disappointments of the first few days we started to find ones with music that really worked for us and by the end of our 2 week stay we were firmly in its clutches. Days were spent recovering on the beach and perfecting the first semblance of a tan that I have perhaps had in 15 years (Set bizarrely amongst Russian supermodel wives in bikini’s, their kids and Indian sari clad nannies). While each evening seemed to produce an even better party than the last – a subtle conspiracy designed to keep us there just that little bit longer. The parties themselves are fascinating in that Indian way and probably best defined by Shiva Valley, next to Curly’s on the beach in Anjuna. While a truly global citizenry dance the night way, swarms of enterprising Indians work the periphery. Everything is always instantly on hand and a seemingly endless stream of young male faces appear out of the dark in front of you proffering anything that might be needed that moment – water, food, cigarettes, glow sticks and the rest. At the same time, mothers and grandmothers guard comfortably, thatched squares on the surrounding sand and sell chai, rolling papers and food to any escapee’s from the dance floor that happen to wander by chasing a moments’ respite.
Amid all the other party tourists, our experience was made most especially magic through Rohan and his network of Indian friends – old Goan pro’s from their university days treating the occasion as a reunion (Andy, Sid, Viru, Aditi, Praveen et al – big shout outs and thanks!), as well as an Australian couple, Lucy and Adam who we merged paths with for our post Goa recovery. Totally well hosted, crewed and sorted on all fronts, we got an insiders, Indian perspective of the Goa scene – a fantastic way to really connect and bond with some locals on the same, shared wavelength and hopefully make some friends for life!
And after almost 2 weeks of searching we did find our ultimate Goan party; a mix of progressive and intelligent psy-trance at “Club West End”, a beautiful Portugese style old mansion with an outdoor dance floor and a pool, secluded in its own discrete valley and featuring a more refined crowd. After an all day marathon we were well spent and in its wake the remaining crew began to slowly break-up – ultimately succumbing to those compelling, but increasingly unheeded calls for a return to reality. Reluctantly and with considerable reticence on our own part, we too caste aside Goa’s spell and managed to plan our escape as well, keen to clear the head again and strangely seeking a holiday from Goa’s relentless cycles of pursuit. I somehow suspect that we will be back at some point though 😉
The stunning Mehrangarh Fort and blue city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. The undefeated home to many a Maharaja!
Scenes from the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar on the solar eclipse – the worlds largest mustering of people and holy men…
After 5 weeks of intense immersion in all things mind, body and spirit – we finally (and quite reluctantly) managed to eject ourselves from Rishkesh. It’s amazing the difference a month makes! Since Christmas we have fallen all the way through the mystical Indian “Looking Glass” with experiences in Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic medicine, zen macrobiotics, reiki, astrologers, enlightened guru’s and much more; all set against the backdrop of the worlds largest religious festival & spiritual mustering (the Kumbha Mela) and the beautiful, peaceful setting that is the Ganges River and Rishkesh. An indoctrination that was equally balanced through sharing the experience with an amazing, talented and eclectic bunch of people (Indian, Korean, Icelandic, Greek, Canadian, Chinese, German, Bolivian and American amongst many others) that should ensure the experience lasts just as long in the memory, as the new friendships forged.
Stumbled over the edge there have we, I here you say? And perhaps so! Certainly I feel a bit like I have succumbed to my childhood fears and programming and sought out the Indian equivalent of a Christian boot camp! A seemingly well worn path in India and scarily stereotypical, but I can see why the Beatles and millions of others got stuck here for so long. Its not that most of this information is wildly new conceptually or unexpected, but there is a simple liberation in being able to completely open the mind to the possibilities, throw oneself into it and in the process wipe away the rusty cobwebs of the soul, gained through years of neglect. India uniquely probably cultivates this effect – so rich in its traditions, history, veneration and cultural acceptance of the rightness of the grand spiritual pursuit, that explorations of this kind can happen here much more unchecked than other places.
It will certainly take some time for me to really sit down and process all that we experienced and learnt here. It is definitely more akin to a spiritual awakening and the new knowledge and awareness necessitates much more meditation, practice and perspective over the months ahead. But as we rush southward to warmer climes and away from this spiritual Disneyland to the waiting tourist traps of Rajasthan and the beaches (and retoxins) of Goa, I thought I should document some of my more lingering reverberations and thoughts while they remain fresh, pure and unjaded by the return to reality ahead.
- Having not studied anything in almost 15 years, this whole course was really a mental exercise in itself with often several lectures broaching fascinating new subjects on a daily basis. Each subject, new exercise or technique had supportive notes and opened seemingly infinite gateways for further reading, practice and research.
- What I did appreciate most about the Yogic method though – is that it largely see’s itself not as a religion but really as a scientific method for self realization. The Yogic systems have been developed over thousands of years and are seen as proven paths towards systemic improvement of the human spiritual condition and evolving higher states of consciousness.
- The basis of the course we studied was essentially introducing this in detail and the requirements of the path of the Yogi. Accordingly there were many references to the great Indian texts and the works / deeds and experience of the great Yogi masters.
- Important in this, was a series of lectures on Yamas & Niyamas – the ethical codebook of the Yogi’s if you will, exploring the do’s and don’ts of the Yogic system. These include topics such as truth, theft, non-violence, celibacy (or the tantric alternative ejaculation control!) and self study, taking tapas (or vows) which were all worthy contemplations in themselves.
- Central in all this as well though was receiving an understanding and scientific explanation of the various stages of consciousness and the 5 bodies (ie physical, pranic, astral, causal etc) as outlined by the Yogi masters. These are critical to the Yogic system and really where it starts to leave modern science behind. Our general conception of an energetic (pranic), aural (astral) body is minimal and the science while able to prove they exist, is limited beyond that. Whereas the great Yogi’s describe these planes in great detail and offer that progressing our awareness and control of these, beyond just the physical body is central to all transcendence .
- We also learnt about the stages of mind – conscious, sub-conscious and higher consciousness and some beginner techniques for embarking on the difficult task of exploring / training / stilling these – starting with mental concentration exercises and some preliminary meditation techniques.
- Among many other subjects, there were some particularly interesting lectures and initial practical explorations into the field of “Yoga Nidra” – a yoga focused on the development of lucid dreaming, the ability to relax the body completely during sleep, travel in the astral plane and develop / program the subconscious mind whilst sleeping!
- At an internal level – we studied Yogic purification, eating and alternative medicine techniques. These included a series of lectures on things like diets & vegetarianism, Zen Macrobiotics and included the learning of a series of traditional yogic cleansing techniques (Kriyas) that include tongue scraping, gum salt rubs, nasal / eye flushes, vomiting and bowel cleanses – some of which I have been doing everyday & can atest that they work wonders. (But I will leave it to you to guess which 😉
- Of course true to its name we also studied Yoga and over the course learnt 20 asana’s in detail, (plus 6 warming exercises and sun salutations). Each of which had their own individual physiological (and healing) benefits. I can now rather surprisingly do a headstand for 5 minutes (and an inverted table) and at the end of the course we were working up to holding some poses for 5-10 minutes across a 2-3 hour session. The result being I am feeling a lot more flexible, healthy (and impressed with myself) though back bends are a struggle and I still rather frustratingly cannot touch my toes.
- There were also some interesting lectures that introduced other more exotic and traditional Yogic healing techniques – the most interesting and surprisingly compelling of which was Urine Therapy – but I will give you a reprieve on the details there. (Suffice to say that it does make sense and that these Yogi’s really do go at things hard!)
- We also learn’t about (and visited) several Ayurvedic doctors – Ayurvedic medicine is a 5,000 year old medical science that works hand in hand with Yoga as a system and is based on an analysis of your body type into its constituent dosha’s (there are 3). By simply feeling my pulse a doctor I visited was able to tell me that I suffered from prolonged back pain and a range of other previous conditions that were unnervingly accurate. He then told me what foods I should eat to keep balanced and prescribed some herbal supplements to improve vitality / energy (which has actually worked quite well). This same doctor has had significant success in curing Alzheimer’s disease and ageing with these methods.
- I should also add here that living in a completely alcohol free and vegetarian town (and mostly organic restaurants at that) on top of all the exercise, has also meant that I am back to a weight last seen as a teenager. Though I sincerely doubt that can last!
- A lot of the Yoga we learnt was specifically designed to work on different Chakra points (7 energy points on the body) and in doing so open up / increase our awareness and specific capabilities through the direct development of these. Examples of this might very briefly include cultivating such things as vitality (Root Chakra – Mulladara), sensuality (Sex Chakra – Svadisthana), willpower (Belly – Manipura), love (Heart – Anahata), mastery of time / space (Throat – Vishuda), mental control (3rd Eye – Ajna) or higher states of consciousness (Crown – Shahsrara). As we got more into the yoga postures, you could really start to feel these chakra’s individually become more activated and actually affect your overall state of being, as the energy starts to run and flow more effectively. Additionally through specific sublimation exercises we learn’t to convert energy between the chakra’s, focused largely on energy movement from the lower more popular chakra’s energy centres to the higher and more transcendent ones.
- Assisting these, we also did a serious of music meditations designed to support the yoga with music specifically targeted at stimulating / resonating with a chakra to increase the overall effects.
- We also learnt some meditation techniques – based around chanting and the heart that focus on trying to calm the “wandering monkey mind” and open up for explorations of self. This is obviously really the focus of the great yogi masters and the “yoga of the mind control” was really only a basic introduction at the course level. The greater emphasis being to open things up to start with through the physical yoga systems.
- Outside class, Megumi did also embark on some explorations in Reiki, a Japanese system known more for its healing powers that seems similar to Yoga. With a lot of commonality with what we have learn’t it is certainly something she would like to learn more about.
- But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Rishkesh metaphysical experience was the Astrologer. A strange, early 40’s innocuous looking Indian man whose family had been doing astrology for 20 generations, he possessed the amazing and particularly freaky ability to perceive very personal, secret truths about everyone’s past and key glints into aspects of the future. Everyone who visited him came back equally astounded at his insights and psychic levels of perception – revealing unnervingly accurate truths without exception. I wont go into personal details, I will leave it simply at that – but he left a lot to ponder!
- Daily around Rishkesh as well – there were also a series of Gurus – all wise sages conducting different hearing sessions or lectures with disciples and others at their ashrams on any given day – many featuring dancing and devotional singing which all added to the spiritual vibe and magic of the place.
- Many Guru’s were actually in town as part of the greater Kumbha Mela happening in nearby Haridwar – a gathering (up to 50 million people) of all the great Yogi’s, saddhu’s and hindu’s held every 4 years as they gather to bathe (purify their souls) on the Ganges. Haridwar had prepared by building a tent city 50km by 10 km around the town and while it was only early in the 3 month festival and a bit cold when we attended – the energy was still electric and quite magical; emphasized by the solar eclipse taking place that day – a special experience that warrants its own blog when I find the time.
- There were other workshops / lectures that also proliferated – some that we attended included heart meditations, devotional chanting / singing and bio-wave dance experimentations. The list goes on…
As you can no doubt imagine, my head is now spinning with all this information, ideas, possibilities and experiences and my sincere apologies if I do come across here like a naïve schoolboy. Full to the brim – I have loved every bit of it, though I am very much looking forward to the break of normal travel again. Even as we pried ourselves away, Rishkesh was conspiring to keep us there longer. The 2nd last day we trialled the second month yoga class that was even more engaging than the first month and our last experience on the way to the train station, was sitting down to hear Shantimayi – an American female guru give a beautiful 2 hour open session on love & quantum connectivity, mixed with some lovely chanting. It was cultish but beautiful, pure & inspirational in its simplicity.
As for next steps I really don’t know, I am not a Yogi yet, as tempting as the call has been. But I am certainly inspired and want more. Much of it resonates very well with me and seems a natural extension and development to my own independent naval gazing and latent attraction to buddhism and so I emerge keen to continue my explorations deeper down some of these new paths. There is plenty of time and thinking to do yet though and many more experiences to be added to the mix – including a 10 day silent meditation retreat (Vipassana) in Hyderabad at the start of March…….. It would appear that the Plots are definitely Melting and starting to thicken…!!.
Some Suggested Reading:
A Search in Secret India, by Paul Brunton
Autobiography of a Yogi, by Yogananda
Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, by Swami Satyananda
Yoga Nidra, by Swami Satyananda
Meditations from the Tantras, by Swami Satyananda
After almost a month exploring the dusty, loud and chaotic treasure chest of Northern India, we arrived in Rishkesh and were immediately seduced by the clean, relaxed magnetic energy of the place. We had arrived expecting to maybe stay a week, perhaps two if we really connected. But here we are, 10 days later and 1 week into a 1 month esoteric yoga course; ensconced in an ashram apartment overlooking the Ganges and enjoying more than 6 hours a day of yogic activities focused on balancing the mind, body and soul. Surprised – wasn’t quite on my radar either.
In setting out on this travel adventure, our goals had always been about using this time to focus on rebalancing & realigning ourselves; to clean out some of our baggage and forge new experience’s and perspectives on life. From our auspicious early experiments with the detox, this focus has resonated particularly well and here, now, with the fresh start that a new decade and the onset of the “year of the tiger” augers (we are both tigers!), yoga & meditation seems especially relevant and Rishkesh – the right thing in the right time and place.
Made famous care of an extended stay by the Beatles in the 1960’s – Rishkesh has been a major destination for Westerners seeking the spiritual delights of the Indian sub- continent ever since. The Rishkesh of the pilgrims and travellers though, is set back from the main town, among scenic hills that conceal several settlements either side of the beautiful, smoky aqua waters of the Ganges. Largely car free, it is packed with hundreds of Ashrams, guru’s, sadhu’s (ascetics), yoga / meditation centres, shops and vegetarian restaurants, all linked across the holy river by a pair of long walking bridges.
The yoga course we have signed up for is called Trika Yoga & Meditation under the Agama school. Focused on the esoteric traditions of Indian & Tibetan tantric yoga, it purports to represent many of the secret spiritual, mental and physical techniques as they have been practised for more than 5,000 years. The curriculum is a modern construct though that draws from a range of Yoga practice areas – Hatha Yoga (Physical), Kriya Yoga (Purification), Meditations (including music, yantra’s) and others, along with ideas integrated from other eastern (Tibetan, Zen, Daoist etc), Christian or alternative medicine practices. This is all neatly presented as a fusion of theory, practice, science and philosophy that engages on many levels and seems especially suited to the curious requirements of the enquiring Western mind. In truth it is a bit “new age in a box”, perhaps trying to integrate too much in places and a tad over zealous in its approach to others, but overall it is well structured and captivating; a sound and comprehensive introduction to the path of becoming a Yogi.
Along with a dozen or so other fantastic and engaging classmates from all over the globe, our daily routine has become fairly regulated and full. In the morning, following an early meditation session that I in truth rarely make (Megumi is a star); we learn a new “Asana” (A yoga position) and receive a small lecture on its relative physical, healing and Chakra related effects (ie key body energetic flows). From there we jump into an hour and a half of practice focused as much on holding and visualizing the energy flows of each position as on physical movement or flexibility(rather gratefully). Then in the afternoon, we do a solid 2 hour practice of the various asana’s, which is often supplemented by other practices (ie music meditation or mental concentration) and following a short break, finish with a 2–3 hour evening lecture and discussion on a specific aspect of an esoteric Yoga practice (ie Meditation, Ethics, Mental concentration, Healing etc).
It does all feel a long way from the yoga classes that I had managed to avoid so effectively to date (My classic stereotype of popular yoga as mostly just physical exercise at any rate). In fact, ‘downward facing dog’ has not come up once in any class to date and I hesitate to think how I could rationalize its energetic and healing benefits if it ever actually did. The experience thus far has been transformative and thoroughly enjoyable, not least because it provides an intriguing insight into all those mystical Indian traditions that endlessly fascinate; but also because it forces one to allocate time and systemic study for genuine self analysis and does so against a potential blueprint for self improvement and realization. In truth, I am not sure what will actually really stick and become personal dogma at the courses end, but I can definitely see many seeds for further practice and investigation on several fronts and I look forward to updating these in more detail down the track. For the moment though, mired in the physical – I still have not managed to touch my toes. But I am closer than I have been in years & happily I now realize that this is not really the point anyway…
Strange times these – somewhere in Mayheya Pradesh on a tiger safari, I developed an irritation in my left eye, nothing serious or so I thought. Some minor headaches, redness and it kind of died down after a few days. Then in Agra (Taj Mahal) it popped up again – figured I’d get it checked out in Delhi perhaps, not many other options I was in the mind to explore.
3 or 4 days later we reached Delhi, excited to be in a big city for the first time in almost 2 months, we checked into a nicer hotel intent on re-stocking supplies and reacquainting ourselves with some creature comforts. Second day in though and my eye starts going nuts; full-on migraines whenever I am exposed to the sun or bright lights and the redness spread to my right eye as well. Tricky situation really – an acute light sensitivity is no way to operate in a strange city and I was forced to confine myself to the recesses of a dark Delhi hotel room – windows covered, lights off.
After a day of no improvement, we tracked down an ophthalmologist at the Apollo Hospital in Delhi. Just getting there, a 40 minute rickshaw ride through hectic traffic with me mostly blind; head wrapped up in protective sunglasses and a scarf was an interesting adventure in itself. But thankfully the trepidation I had about dealing with hospitals in India was quickly balanced out by a professional, cheap, but confusingly efficient process. In a country of more than a billion people, I guess you should expect hospitals to operate on overdrive. Mild Conjunctivitis was the quick diagnosis though – a bagful of drugs was subscribed and I was away.
A day later though and nothing had changed, the doc told me otherwise, so I waited it out – hiding in my dark hotel room; saved from craziness by the strange comfort of being able to listen to the test cricket back in Australia live on TV (it still hurt to watch). Megumi had to sate her tourist limbo with some free range roaming of the coffee shops around Pharganj and occasionally fetching me some food. 2 more days & things had actually somehow gotten worse, pressure was building up now so back to hospital we went. A new Doc, lots more tests and a different diagnosis. This time it was Uveitis – a lot more serious apparently as it required twice the handful of drugs. Thankfully this time though the drugs took affect immediately and by the next day I could interact with the world again (sunglasses firmly in place of course) and start catching up on our Delhi explorations – albeit with cloudy vision from the drugs and sporting one freaky engorged, dilated pupil.
Since then I have been enjoying a different kind of India and terrorising the locals with my wild, deranged, pupil look. Most people don’t really notice what it is about me – but the beggars, touts & sadhu’s are now all keeping their distance. On closer study no-one wants to deal with the ‘half deranged, high foreign guy’, whose left eye is slightly crazier than theirs and can’t seem to focus.
The infection, you see is a bit of a mystery. They are not sure how you get it and no-one seems to know how long it lasts – 8-10 weeks, 1 year? Google for once has been unable to provide any real clarity in the form of self diagnosis? All I do know is that I need to keep taking these steroid eye drops 6 times a day and if I stop it will likely reappear. For the moment though, I am quite enjoying it. Having a little more personal space in India is quite the luxury and combined with an enforced, extended break from using the computer (sorry all), there is actually some upside, truth be told. Perhaps there is a divine purpose here after all….. 😉