Albuquerque to Delhi
Once again, away from the familiar, through the Veil.
First leg of the trip, Albuquerque to Chicago: a whiteout. Dips, upswings, rock-n-roll. Fine. Let the heavens fill with the portentous and unexplained, a new page to rattle the eye. The white turns faded rose as my eyes adjust. In the O’Hare airport, a medley of passengers waits for the connecting flight to Delhi: a purple-turbaned Sikh stares into space, twisting his pointed beard; a kohl-eyed child in pink babbles in her father’s lap while he chatters on his cell-phone, loud Hindi echoing through the waiting room. Two rows behind, a Muslim elder—looking quite rustic in a brown knee-length cotton tunic and baggy trousers—polishes a wooden cane between his palms. His wife, covered head to toe in black, nibbles corn chips inside her burqa. In the mix, an American girl with thin aquiline features stares into her Blackberry with mute surprise. She’s in loose-fitting jeans, cuffs rolled up over pink Converse shoes, a yellow t-shirt with a rearing horse over the points of her breasts: I AM A STALLION.
No flight announcement, but people suddenly begin to stir. Without queue, in silent chaos, passengers push toward the gate, no particular order—a good preview of what’s to come in India. The Sikh, Hindu, American girl, and Muslim couple evaporate into separate seats. Cabin doors sealed, the plane surges powerfully up into a boiling crescent of thunderheads, soon replaced by 15-hr darkness. I take out Mountain Tasting from my daypack, a selection of Santoka’s haiku translated from the Japanese:
“Behind, in front—
Who can all
these pilgrims be?”
I’ve bound two journals in cheap cardboard wraps, one for Renée, one for me. Saraswati on an open lotus strumming a veena is pasted onto mine. On Renée’s, an all-seeing third-eye goddess. My usual method of recording: jot anything abrupt, noteworthy, head-wobbling, lingam-rousing, fragmentary, or beyond-context into pocket notepad—while cliff hopping, sidewalk ambling, taking a break on the can, etc. Later transfer scribbles into larger 7x10 notebook, clarifying them into legible, but not perfect, jottings—no alteration of content, metaphor, implication. I considered a tape recorder but ditched the idea, last minute. Too much! Best to remember what I remember and let frazzled tape ends, dangling standouts, scrawled euphoria loop through my inner circulatory system and form their own musicality. Notes, glyphs, pollen, and chaff I can de-code in quiet moments along the trail, riding the rails, soaking my toes.
Travel lifts the veil from our daily lives, familiar borders, habits, routines. It dismembers thoughts, fuses perceptions with uncertainties kept hidden by the logical mind. As a poet I have a head start on the irrational. Thomas Merton, in his Asian Journals, strikes a chord: “poetry is not ordinary speech, poetic experience is not ordinary experience.” It is transcendent by nature, whether dark or radiant. Poetry, in fact, is what saves me from the direness of the conventional world. It opens a door to a Reality beyond the reality I usually inhabit; allows me into a mytho-poetic realm. Traversing such territory does not mean I’m exempt from scratching my way through the nettles or slogging through the bog. Nor am I exempt from having to lodge in some pretty dowdy inns or strange hotels. The strangest hotel of all, wrote Thomas Merton, is the one known as “Hotel Karma.”
No singular pursuit to this journey. Destination is in the little epiphanies between up-the-stair stumbles and plods through the floodwaters. I’m not going to India to “look for something.” Given the preposterous amount of matter and energy we’re part of, why take to the road with a single-minded attitude, trying to stay balanced in one dimension? It’s futile to approach travel in a self-absorbed state, planning, expecting, judging, always remaining within the realm of what Merton called “perfectly safe consciousness (which) put on a diet of select thoughts, poisons itself.” A better option is relaxed consciousness. Open, unstrung. Remove the veil, along with “point of view,” and the familiar is experienced anew:
Just an ordinary day
the horse has four legs
I have two.
What’s to be noticed in the world is largely emancipated from its original context through an alchemic process—given new power, energy, slant—through poetic chemistry. I think of Wang Wei, letting color flow from his lyre as he strummed and sang in his hermit grove. His poems are exaltations, pulsing mind frames, moody hues of pewter, apricot, mauve sifting through rustling bamboo into elusive pictures re-conjugating in the air around him. Each jade-cool moment hovers as a 4th-dimensional realm, evanescent, clothed with the supra-natural, brushed onto silk:
Through waving trees
rides the river breeze.
Above the Great Lakes, the zenith burns with phosphors. Bars of chartreuse light the sky over Hudson Bay. Before the flight I was heavy. Now I’m buoyant, unthreaded, losing the imaginings I’m married to, the sleep I think I need. I might even take off my good-luck amulet and toss the phrasebook I’ve tucked into my pocket. Greenland, polar Norway, the Urals. Thousands of miles to go before touchdown, yet the fight crew is already passing out customs forms: who are you, where from, why going? Months ago I had to sign an affidavit promising “no writing about India while in India.” Only then would they issue a visa.
Travel—no superfluous pastime. More of climb, a test, a balancing act—no nets allowed. The minute you leave the nest to pursue the bare outline of a path (the one hidden beneath the rubble of mainstream monoculture), you are subject to mental, psychic, and social re-arrangement. The boundaries of consciousness are removed, the “I” left behind, the flesh becoming thin as sudden thermals carry off the bones.
the crow stays balanced
pebble in beak.
No expectations this time around, or at least I’ve kidded myself into thinking so. It’d be great, of course, to have a train or two arrive on time, or an expertise sole repair if my sandals begin to flap. For now I’ll recline the seat, loosen belt, air out my socks, and give way to the night. The heart quietly strays from the “planned trip.” It wants to sneeze, welcome the unforeseen, leave the well-packed satchel in the station, let a quirky jazz beat scramble the head. Why do I go out into the world? For the same reason I sit in a chair. To see what comes up. I don’t want to saddle-up the “investigative reporter” horse. I’m just a poet who wants to move through the world bearing witness. I’ll examine what I happen upon, glean the chaff, winnow the residue carried by the wind, scribble a line or two.
Yes, dear Goddess: bequest me vision, let my output become smaller! What’s the rush? I’ll walk behind the caravan, take delight in small things: sparks compressed in granite, dew on a thorn tip, moss decorating a cliff ledge, the foreshortened shadow of my own dance. No clever displays of wit, just swivels and free falls. A bumble, blink, chance-happenstance wake up. A giddy bafflement, quick-snippet revelation. With so much of the world in crash mode, it’s harder to find the beauty in the blur. But, as Santoka notes:
the fire was, something
State of mind progress, state of no-mind void prance. Dust and light seeding the extrasensory third-eye. Tongue on a bar of rust, shins through bending grass, feet in step with the earth’s roll. Eyes follow rhythm of ridges, ears tune into the beat of the vernacular. Travel to become unsure of things. Trade the well-worn rug of habit for a magic carpet. Leave the newspapers, dine on messages headlines are deaf to. Extrapolate the poem from things transient rising on the breeze. The idea? Not to convey meaning, but to evoke psychic reverberation. Ezra Pound:
should be a ball of light
in one’s hands.”
At 36,000 feet, my reflection is superimposed on the star-filled window. I connect the flaring dots, trace a new face over the old. That scroungy weathered guy I’ll leave behind. (Am I really nearing seven decades on the planet?) Aloft in shifting jet streams, I’m suspended in a shadow state. “Where going, where began” slip away, leaving me sure of only one thing: I’ve been compelled forward by a calling imbedded in the genes. Perhaps it’s an imprint from childhood: a map of India tacked to the wall by my father; nights in the darkroom helping him develop photos he took in Benares. Or maybe it’s the archetypal figure who steps forward in a dream pointing to a distant shore. The “Messenger” Nicolas Roerich painted, a genie in the smoke of a cracked-open geode. The envoy who says, “Come along. I can show you, but I can’t explain.”
Around me passengers wrap themselves like mummies, snore, sag over their seats like bags of potatoes. And I’m another potato, thoughts sprouting from every pore. While pursuing the exterior journey, I color in an interior one. The mind dips and rises, a seismograph recording shortcomings, saturations, exaltations. Farther I go, closer I am to ones left behind. There’s a poem waiting in the A Train, another in water rushing through canyons. There’s one in the substrata, ancient consciousness shared with ferns and rocks; another in the tortured outer-world blown through Charlie Parker’s sax. On busy streets drunks mumble on the curb, lovers fondle in the shadows. In solitude I press forward through brambles, rope-climb the heights. Leaves fall, the trail is buried, a new path comes clear.
In grief, flowers grow
Another visit to India? Why not? It’s like a poem I’m drawn to again and again, each time a new taste, different meaning. The idea of “India” is beyond me, the feeling of India is in me. The words of the poem, the stanzas of the journey lift my feet until they begin an illogical spin. Nothing is as it was before the whirl. In the dervish state, sleeping energies are roused, personality erased, awareness transformed by chance encounters. Like Shiva, Lord of Boundless Energies, my body gyrates inside a fiery wheel, is carried Elsewhere, brought into the dust of Creation.
A good journey finds its own course. Hit the whitewater, go down, come up someone new. Unsure that the place where you began even exists, you equally question where you are bound. Destination? A tremor descending through the toes, vibrating up the spine like the metallic cry of an insect. Follow a breeze, move with a dragonfly, ramble the fields. Every farmer gives a different direction. Finally, the bramble gatherer, arms full, lifts her chin to show the way. During it all, you experience a rise of contradictions, stand beside yourself, off to the side. You feel the tug of an inner shadow, begin a poem, then crumple it to the wind.
even the biting mosquitoes
have stopped for it.
I eat what I can of the airline meal, get up, stretch, walk around, return to my seat, buckle myself in for a nod. But I can’t sleep. Coach class is becoming smaller and smaller—can’t find a place for my head, arms, legs. Houdini’s nightmare. Renée’s herbal “Deep Sleep” doesn’t do the trick, so I read, ruminate, give in to the cramped seat, feel a hostile numbness in my right leg. I’m envious of Renée who wraps her head in a shawl and slips off into space. One could easily stay home, I suppose. Why turn dollars into jet fuel and ball yourself into a knot for 14 hours to get to the world’s other half? In-and-out of dreams, I wake to lavender dawn over smooth-knuckled hills rippling with a deep mantle of woods. I look seven miles below, reach for the tea bag dangling from my cup, notice my gnarly hands.
Age spots and veins
the slow moving rivers
Lowering into New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport, I double check our luggage. We’ve packed light: cheap 22-inch carry-on suitcases for one month. The heaviest items are books, binocs, medicine. Other than what we’re wearing, Renée has packed a silk shawl, two sleeveless jerseys, two cotton kurtas, linen trousers, cotton salwar, a French-designed mid-length blouse, a hat, and sturdy sandals. I’ve got two extra kurtas, cotton trousers, sweater, walking shoes, and cap. Each of us has a sarong—always useful for towel, sheet, tablecloth, blanket, or shawl. Despite my rather non-descript clothes, I’ll stand out, no way around that. But I can take advantage of my status as an elder, a special boon in India—a little formal respect, help from strangers, good train discounts. I’ll be a target for touts, though. They’ll think me a retiree from a well-paying job, the job I’ve never had. Hardly worth it to let them know I’ve no pension, tenure, stocks, bonds—just a $234 monthly social security that barely pays my half of the mortgage. For many Indians, though, $234 is twice their year’s earnings.
Old Delhi is but a shadow of its former self, the courtly 17th-century Mughal city once known as Shahjahanabad. Few tourists stay here. Too intense. They prefer New Delhi, a brief cab ride through the gates of the old walls. For a hit of “old Asia,” they day-trip into Shahjahanabad to explore its glittery bazaars, the Red Fort, the mosque, the spice market. At day’s end they climb into their air-conditioned taxis and head back to the inns and beer joints of Pahar Gang, the backpacker ghetto. Shahjahanabad is a good choice, though. We opt for a clean hotel at the end of a dim cul-de-sac in the bicycle bazaar. Coolies press through the alley, bales and boxes on heads. Monkeys prowl the balconies, a young Sikh sits with his dad in a dank cubicle over wholesale sprockets and chains, clacking an adding machine, spindling invoices. The hit is unanimously male, including a whole staff of men in our hotel. We miss the softer presence of women that so often accommodated us in South India.
The hotel lobby presents a strange circumstance. Beyond the doorman, window cleaner, and elevator clerk, a courteous man smiles over an oversize register book on a pink marble counter—one of two brothers who expertly manage the place. This is the shorter casually dressed guy, cheerful, outgoing, helpful beyond all expectations. A man in his heart. Ask and you shall receive! The other brother sits at a huge desk in an air-conditioned glass cubical directly behind his desk-clerk brother. This is the alter ego: tall, impeccably dressed, tightly-wound, unsmiling. A man in his head. Whenever we deal with the brother out front, we deal with the one behind. The stern one enclosed by glass, the jovial one in the open air—they are two in one. As the shorter brother smiles and draws us a map to Old Delhi’s sights, the taller one un-smiles, notes the time on his giant wall clock, bows to Ganesha, and begins his propitiations, waving incense around the fat belly of the idol. Undoubtedly, it is this strange combination that makes the establishment entirely successful.
Into the register book our passports are recorded. Visas, too. Along with veg or non-veg preferences, individual karmas, “origin” of next destination, “destination” of next origin, visible marks: moles, ink stains, dribble blots. All pertinent numbers and codes are impeccably penned in their proper boxes, after which we are ushered to the 6x6 lift, the grate is pulled open, the elevator man steps in.
Up we go
Infidels and believer
on the same lift.
A little reading helps ease the strangeness of new cities. Before leaving home, I enjoyed a good book on the history of Old Delhi and the rise and fall of the Mughals: William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. I read again The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, looked at Joseph Campbell’s Baksheesh and Brahman, re-read Joanne Kyger’s mind-specific India Journal, and wrote a review of Gary Snyder’s Passage Through India (the new edition) for Kyoto Journal. Gary’s writing is sharp, clear. Brief, no frills. From his preface: “India anciently belongs with the Occident and the Middle East far more than East Asia. Main population Caucasoid, and at least half of the languages belonging to the same family as Gaelic: Indo-European. ‘Iran’ a version of the word Aryan.”
The Middle-East influence is what we’ll mostly experience as we travel from Delhi to Agra, east across the Gangetic Plain to Madhya Pradesh, then south onto the central plateau. The Mughals swept toward the Indus from the Asian steppes, absorbed the Persian culture, planted it in north India. Shahjahanabad (founded by emperor Shah Jahan) was their capital after they abandoned the old one, Fatehpur Sikri, now a well-preserved ghost town near Agra. The Mughals enjoyed the height of their culture under Akbar the Great, 16th century. At the start of the 18th they began to decline, struggling for 150 years until they fell to the British, 1857. When the Brits moved their capital from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911, Shahjahanabad collapsed into decay. After partition, most of Old Delhi’s Muslims fled to newly-created Pakistan, quickly replaced by Hindu refugees flooding in from the same area (the former West Punjab).
Thirty years ago I peered into Shajahanabad’s chaos from an upstairs room in a private haveli that doubled as a pilgrim’s inn. The old mansion is long gone, but I recall its quaint rooms rising around a roofless courtyard shared by several families and a few travelers. The world below, unruly and strange, spooked me. I left the window, stood at the mirror, examined my bearded face as if it weren’t mine. I was 36, my father’s age when he arrived in Delhi as an army conscript in the India-Burma Theater. The war was almost over. With little to keep him busy he rented a bike, ventured into the Old City lanes, saw the sights, found his way onto offbeat trails to rural villages. Camera and notepad in hand, he was anxious to record something of the East other than war. (His sojourns, and their effect on me, I’ve described in “Elegy for my Father,” the final essay in Reflections in the Lizard’s Eye.)
Mustering the courage, I shuffled down the haveli’s narrow stairway, dodged a ghost beggar on the curb, elbowed through a horde of temple-goers, and found the bazaar. A labyrinthine madhouse! Same as now. Overloaded rickshaws jangled through tangled lanes writhing like the tentacles of a giant anemone. A girl with liquid eyes sized up my pockets and blocked my path with her crutch. Rickshaw wallahs, dusty with sweat and labor, revived themselves over tea in blackened chai stalls. Ragmen and well-to-do rubbed shoulders over bubbling vats of samosas. Amber-skinned beauties held out their wrists for a sample of fragrance in glass-walled perfumeries. From fan-cooled sweets shops mounds of milk candies exuded sugary overkill. Multi-storied dwellings lurched and leaned, windows made up like women’s eyes, doors tall enough for an elephant and its driver. Behind fretted walls, a chorus of coughs, a blue bull, a shelf of gods. My face repeated itself in a hundred mirrored sunglasses displayed on wires around pillars glued with Bollywood stars. Between them peeked a street child, not a stitch of clothing. A passing tourist held out something. The child grabbed it with a quizzical glee.
The naked stray
bites the almsgiver’s coin
and slips back into her dress.
On that first trip to Old Delhi I shared a room with a Spanish man who felt suffocated by India. He kept repeating: Mucho mundo, mucho mundo! as he buried his head in a dirty pillow. I tried to explain what “coming unplugged” meant, the potential benefits of giving oneself over to chaos. He didn’t buy the idea of losing his individuality to the multiplicity of the throng. All he saw then is what is here now: an opaque jungle of garish temples, vendors pushing zinc-sided carts of Refrigerated Cold Water, hawkers shouting their wares: colored powders, self-adhesive third eyes, “Sleep Soft” earplugs, mounds of temple kitsch. “Hey hey, rugs from Gujurat! Blankets from Lhasa! Metal toys from Orissa!” Bells clanged, minarets blared, languages exchanged places in the ear. The imagination took a break while apparitions filled the eye: a naked man sat in a nest of snakes, a magician swallowed a bag of diamonds for a small fee. Veiled women left trails of bergamot and violetwood, quickly replaced by the retching stink of a tanner’s vat. A street artist sipped tea with his trained bear. A fakir looked at me, puffed his cheeks, opened a mouthful of burning embers. A sadhu braided his dreads into a tower, a sedated hippie imitated him. One big side show.
Above the priest
thumping his drum, a monkey
keeps time on his chest.
The Old Delhi Station looks the same as it did on my first visit. But those ghost-outlines of chuffing locomotives in surreal steam and smoke are gone: the iron faces bolted with stars, India painted on the wheel hubs; the eerie death whistles, slow grind of wheels gaining momentum. These were the belching relics I traveled on in the 70s—my clothes riddled with cinder burns. Now they’ve gone the way of diesel or electric, their coal shovelers replaced by computer-trained engineers. The brakeman swinging a lantern at the end of the train? The checkered flagman floating like a genie in the steam? Only the station platforms have stayed the same: a dirty montage of girders and overhead walkways crisscrossing a maze of tracks; a helter-skelter mob rushing in, settling down, getting up, scanning the rails for the non-existent express. Then, in reverse motion, the same mob returning to the deck to undo bedrolls, nap, and wait. When the train finally appears, red-turbaned porters lift the luggage of the well-to-do onto their heads and bark a path through tribes of families, relatives, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends. The train wheezes to a halt, empties, fills, rolls off. Amid rooster-like cries of food and drink sellers, a new tribe takes over. Everybody hunkers on blankets waiting for tomorrow’s train, or simply feigning travel to camp for as long as the station master allows, a little baksheesh to oil the stay.
Rehearsing his shtick
a holy man combs his beard
scopes his prey.
A few changes are to be noticed these days. Amid the chaos electronic timetables blink, automated announcements echo in four different languages, mobile phones give a constant ring-tone. Monks, army conscripts, businessmen, party girls, the ten year old, the rag peddler: all carry them. Even the guru on his straw mat fiddles with a pair of ear buds as he talks into empty space. Vociferous chatter, no particular purpose. The once-kept secret now everybody’s business.
Stepping from her limo
the bride lifts her veil
to answer a call.
While checking the digital blink of train-arrival times, I greet the man next to me. He returns my folded-palms Namaskar with an equal gesture, but with a cell-phone clasped between his raised palms. In first-class waiting rooms, laptops illuminate entrepreneurs sitting Buddha-like in pixel land. For all the technological inroads, India’s turmoil and disarray remain unchanged. Delhi’s new subway is a mess of ongoing construction. A couple lines are up and running—one from Old to New Delhi. But people don’t know how to use them. They have to be urged by baton-waving police into queues, an alien concept. Even the most civilized suit-and-tie man turns into a charging bull when the train arrives. Commuters comply with the queue-masters only to disband into anarchy as the cars halt. Elbows out, umbrellas forward, they bulldoze and beat their way into the carriages before the arriving passengers can get off. An irreplaceable habit, as if they were boarding a third-class workingman’s train.
“The impossibility of India,” I once wrote. I’d write the same today. Concrete oozes out onto the plains: suburbs for the swelling blister of the new middle-class. And from the plains surges a tsunami of invaders: country folk pushed from their lands by corporate profit-mongers. The festering throng atom bombs into the 21st century with its alarming birthrate, its ancient bundle of castes, codes, and karma. A beggar comes up to you like a praying mantis, his spindly arms needling you for a coin while billionaire moguls ride glass elevators, chanting Bigger, better, faster, replacing the old Sanskrit mantras with new ones from the West.
Crumbs on a plate
the doubled-up mother
feeds her child first.
Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, Ryszard Kapuscinski—they do a good job of sizing things up. I read them for that. But as a bard I take my cues from Basho—a poet moving through the natural world, realizing its complexity, yet refusing to sabotage Mystery by imposing analysis or intellect upon it. This is not to say that Basho didn’t shut out the devastation of the human imprint. In 1689, at the site of a 12th century battle in Mutsu Province, he was moved to tears as he wrote his famous haiku:
all that remains of warriors’
To hear the rustling grasses, see their scorched tips, take note of their hardy roots: this was an occasion to reflect on history, feel the plight of human folly. Can I move with Basho’s lightness, yet deepness, though the plunder of our own world? The growing menace of greed and violence, the escalating indifference to the natural world? Decades, centuries of it! My entire life spent under America’s wars. The whole rotting empire with its head in a hole, trying, with flaccid arms and fattened waists, to dig itself out. Amid the slander and blame and who’s-gonna-rule game—in our own country, in the heads of territorial-crazed dictators abroad—what about the earth? When it comes to slaughter of forests, cruelty to water, killing of air, jihad against mountains, rivers, oceans, we’re all infidels.
Where am I supposed to be while things get worse before they get better? In the garden, at the desk, on the cushion, tasting mountains, out in the world building homes for orphans? Is writing poetry enough? Do I continue to pay my taxes, give my nickels and dimes to an investor who’ll put them toward the corporate rampage that so upsets me? Basho again:
“Above the moor
not attached to anything
a skylark sings.”
With subtle grace, the bird is drawn toward the infinite, singing as it goes. A creature of the world, but above it, clinging to nothing. A feeling of what the Japanese call yugen: elegance, mystery, depth. Basho—monk, teacher, serious poet wanting to perfect his work—moved between permanence and impermanence, seeking to reveal in the ordinary something overlooked, a certain dynamism in what others took to be inanimate. For Basho travel was an ascetic exercise, a walking meditation. This was not the usual religious exercise of priests.
Perhaps the poem, that little chirp of a song, is my only resource for getting a true picture of a life greater than the obvious one before me. Basho brings a certain timbre to his work. His haiku are pictures of the real, colored with mood—rich, deep, yet featherweight in tone. I’m reminded of Bill Evans, who played his piano the way Basho wrote his poems. His touch on the keys brought a single note into the furthest depths: deep song, erupting with moods rarely accessible to us. And pictures, too—rarified, compressed, of the ordinary, of the subconscious. Mood bardo! Listening to Evans play or reading Basho is to hear with the eyes, see with the ears:
the shriek lies stretched
across the water.”
The Old Quarter
In Kim, Rudyard Kipling mentioned “the mixture of old-world piety and modern progress that is the note of India today.” His today was 1900. When Joseph Campbell visited Kipling’s India fifty years later, he found it “the most interesting and least enjoyable country in the world.” But Campbell was prickly, he never gave himself over to India the way Kipling did. He preferred Lourdes to India’s boorish temple traffic, the “great business of tossing flowers at gods (and) touching their feet.” Riled by the rude contrast of dramatic spirituality with grim social struggles, Campbell labored through his fieldwork, taking refuge from the flies and beggars in rarified circles of scholars in classy hotels. His travel diaries, posthumously published as Baksheesh and Brahman, present a man plagued by his own judgments, anxious to get at what he was looking for, and all too often badgered by misguided nationalists, bogus philosophers, and over-the-top poverty. “There is no bottom here to the distance one can drop.”
His diaries, riddled with complaints, are worth reading for his insights. Plus they are blazingly truthful. Campbell discloses what every traveler experiences in India. One day up, one day down. One moment he’s blissfully in love with the country, never wanting to leave. Next moment he’s ready to pack and be done with it. The shouting priests that irritated him still irritate us today. The omnipresent cow annoyed him too. The sacred beast with red-painted horns and phallic hump. The fertility emblem of newlyweds, provider of dung and milk, time-honored traffic blocker festooned with marigolds. Beast lazing in intersections, nosing into temples and cafes. Campbell complained: “India will never become a modern nation as long as these cows are here—even the trains have to watch out for them. It is the cows that slow down the whole pace and make for a kind of general Bohemia. With them, naked old men and everything else is possible. Without them, India will be out of her troubles!”
Campbell’s rant about cows was one of his many metaphors for India’s rote attachment to tradition, the unquestioned acceptance of an inherited prototype. The gentle brute blocking the train track, the priests and politicos and money makers in the way of change. Super Bull staring from calendars, a halo around its head, horns cradling the sun, hump gleaming like holy Mt. Meru. India! Why come back and bear witness? The cloud-swollen monsoon unleashes the question, but I don’t want it answered this first day in Old Delhi. I want only the rain beating against the window, distorting the spires of the Jain temple, north, the flat rooftops below, the phallic minarets of Jama Masjid, south. Between them, a Cubist collage: honking taxis, ambling trinket vendors, hunkered eggplant ladies. Burfi stalls and biryani parlors. Beheaded chickens in the butcheries, goats waiting to be slaughtered behind the mosque. We’ve already made one foray. Still the madhouse it was in the 70s. Jewelers hyping fake sapphires in Dariba Kalan. Pyrotechnic displays of “Cock-rockets” in Guliyan. Leaning pillars of used textbooks in Nai Sarak. Bins of crystallized fruit in Khari Baoli. Sequined wedding veils, fake banknotes, blazing nativity lights: Kinari Bazaar. Weight-takers with portable scales, ear-cleaners filing picks on the curb. The once-proud havelis gape like broken hags, partitioned into apartments for laborers, made into warehouses for wholesalers, fallen to the wrecking ball for ambitious chain operations like McDonald’s or KFC.
Sign above a lock:
“Not To Be Opened
An Irish traveler, middle-aged guy, comes sloshing into our hotel. Cheery but soaked, he sizes up the monsoon: “Dire rain! Makes the poor look poorer and poverty seem all the more irresolvable.” Nevertheless, Renée and I open our umbrellas and head out. Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s main street, has the imposing Lal Qila on its eastern end, the 17th-century Red Fort built by Shah Jahan. To the west is Fatehpuri Masjid and the spice market. Between are the bazaars, secret quarters of the eunuchs, and the famous paratha parlors where flash-fry chefs expertly stuff sweet pumpkin, crushed almonds, mint, and pickled mango into savory flatbreads.
Foreigners don’t last long on the Chowk. It’s as if a hundred projectors, all with different films, have fallen to the ground, reels running wild, images all mixed up on one screen. Stepping onto the boulevard, we’re hit by a waft of carnations from the flower market, and a suffocating shock of ammonia from the public latrine. Around us crowd the pursuers of costume jewelry, electronic toys, faux designer jeans, Hindu-goddess alarm clocks, plastic prayer mats, all-healing concoctions, glossy posters of Guru Nanak, Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, and Sai Baba. A vendor unrolls Muhammad Ali, then Jesus, then a Rajasthani farm girl Waiting for Her Soldier Husband. She’s at a desert well lifting a clay jug above her head, her veil parted to reveal a coy smile, a hint of cleavage, and a pair of wide eyes turned toward a distant dune. Over it rides her husband on a camel, preening his mustache, waving a battle axe.
The house of 19th-century Urdu poet, Mizra Ghalib, is what we’ve come for. Along our search are three temples: Hindu, Jain, and Sikh (I believe there is a Baptist church in the mix, too). We skip the Hindu temple (the priest is already on the sidewalk waiting to snag his tourist quota for the morning) and visit the lesser-known Jain temple with its sacred tree, small courtyard, and sculpted marble interior full of mirrors and prophets. Stone floors cool our bare feet. Flower petals, coconuts, and flickering clay lamps adorn the water-washed altars. Women’s faces flare and dim as they congregate and drift apart, as if blown on a breeze. Wrapped in flowing cloth, they go icon to icon, flicking rice, murmuring prayers, filling the rooms with a soft hummm, leaving traces of orange-flower and almond.
sifting between her
The temple is dedicated to Mahavira, the Jain reformer, contemporary of Buddha, born 599 BC in north India. To the Jains he’s the twenty-fourth Tirthankara, or “ford maker,” the prophet who laid out their core teachings. Mahavira is sculpted in milky marble, seated in open-eyed smiling meditation. His ears are elongated, , his nipples are gold, his nails polished bright red. He emanates utmost serenity, if not a removed austerity. In a side room hangs a framed painting of another Tirthankara, earth toned, standing in meditation, vines wrapping his naked torso. Mahavira in a different pose?
Outside, two Jain mendicants appear from the crowd. A pair of wandering Aborigines! Stark naked they amble—following the strict path of their forbears, the Digambar sect of Jainism to which this temple is devoted. Chocolate skinned, balls swinging, penises flopping, they wander nonchalantly into the frenzy of the Chowk, perhaps on a shopping mission—toothpowder or bananas. (Speaking of toothpowder, the Chowk still sells that ancient brand of Darkie toothpaste—but it’s been renamed Darlie. The label once had a smiling black man in tux and top hat—bright white teeth, ebony face. Now the black man is tan, his grin forced. Inside, the same old crud, made in China, where it is still sold under the name Black Man Toothpaste.)
West of the Jain temple, the rutted sidewalk turns to marble in front of the Sikh temple: Sisgang Gurudwara, “Door to the Guru.” We’d like to go inside and hear a little chanting. Water laps over a stone trough where we remove shoes, wash feet, tie scarves on heads, and climb the steps to the prayer hall. The scarves are provided by an affable elder who, when he learns we are Americans, says: “Ah, Obama good. Friendly to people. All people. Mona Lisa smile.”
In the prayer hall we sit cross-legged on a carpet with other worshipers before three white-bearded musicians—snowy turbans, flowing robes. They sing their praise over wheezing harmoniums while a priest, seated on a raised plinth, turns the pages of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. He whisks the printed word with a yak-tail wand. For two poets, the praise of the book and fanning of perfumed air over poetry and prophecy, is worth a pause and a bow. When we study the temple’s history, though, the soothing vibes betray the violence that took place here. In 1675 King Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s belligerent son, beheaded Teg Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, for refusing to convert to Islam.
The Guru Granth Sahib includes the poems of 15th-century Kabir, a low-caste weaver born in Benares, and a bard especially significant to the Sikhs. A true rebel, he rejected the notion of caste, debunked idols, rebuffed the authority of the Vedas and Qur’an in exchange for the Bhakti path: songs of love to unite all beings. For Kabir a shout from the heart could lift consciousness into the Ineffable. Borrowing from Hindu and Muslim traditions, Sanskrit and Persian languages, Kabir used everyday speech to popularize religious themes. He was often rapturous and romantic:
have you been looking?
in the temple, in the mosque
around Ka'bah, in Kailash?
I’m not in rites and ceremonies
or yoga or renunciation
Open the door inside—
The Guest of Love
He could be bold and up-front, too. Orthodox believers called him a heretic:
“Pierce your tongue
shake your dreads, shave your head?
Kill your desires
pour butter on stones
read the Gita, learn to blabber?
You want to die like this?
A Muslim shoe vendor says, “Go right, halfway down Meena Bazaar, one time more right,” as he arranges popsicle-pink stilettos on a rusty rack inside his shop. His directions to Ghalib’s house lead us into one of Shahjanabad’s original quarters. In the tangled lanes a few havelis have been repaired, their upper-story grillwork shined, the good-luck Ganeshas over the doors repainted. During Ghalib’s time these were well-kept servant-staffed homes of merchant families. One by one he saw them razed by the British. Mutineers were hanged, entire neighborhoods vanished, the bazaars filled with rubble, rats began their feast—and are still enjoying it today.
The alleys ring with hammering urn makers, booksellers snapping books open and closed to rid them of dust, coolies clearing a path with shouts, ear-deafening vendor rap blasting from six-foot loudspeakers. Suddenly, silence. We round a corner, no shoppers, no hawkers, no wares. It’s like reaching the sunlit bottom of a pool after a murky dive. There’s only a calf at rest on the concrete lip of a closed-up shop opposite a shrine marked with vermilion handprints. A brass bell dangles over a timeworn image, its cleaves and curves so fingered by worshipers that it has become an androgynous puddle. From its foil-pasted forehead a third eye beams. On its belly a good-luck swastika has been daubed. In its lap coils of honeysuckle sweeten the air. Walk a little further and the silence ends. Shoppers reappear, groping through piles of bras, panties, bolts of khadi, tangles of jute. Here the old havelis have been turned into suspicious enterprises: Hear Well Doctor of Ear, Dental Mender Facilities, A curtained doorway reads Cataract Repair. Another: Medical Master of Bunyons and Corn. A third: Fix Here Your Zipper.
Buildings lean into one another, roofs rubbing, a slice of gray spitting bits of rain. Gargoyles on the parapets hunker and grimace as if constipated. Schoolgirls giggle by, balancing bookbags on their heads. An unbelievable gnarl of electric wires is looped seriously low, post to post through hanging laundry. Caged birds, stray cats, flapping parakeets, the ever-present Indian crow—they create their own system of caste and frenzy above the crowd. Coolies sweat under boxes of fake jewelry (some of it real), outdated Viagra, mold-made Shiva lingams, contraband Playboy. A certain Doctor of Fits Cure arranges vials of molasses-like ooze on a square of cardboard:
hacking over bottles of
Deep Fits Syrup
The bazaar funnels into a barrio of stone-paved alleys tapering into peaceful cul-de-sacs. Signs in Hindi give way to Arabic. Men wear knit caps, long white tunics. A goat rests in a doorway, a donkey is strapped with kindling. Women shape dung cakes and pat them to the walls to dry, wash children at spigots, scrub pans and platters. Now the signs are in Hindi again. In a fluorescent niche stands Parvati, the smiling All Mother bare-toed in redolent veils, an open-armed Blessed Virgin. As Shiva’s consort she’s known as Shakti, the primal creative-energy flowing through the universe. Her naked breasts are lit with an electric necklace. The shrine tender is a young girl deftly braiding strings of marigolds, flicking water with her fingertips to cool the blossoms. The joss scent, the girl’s perspiration, the pungent flowers in the drizzle: “May she still want to, even if she can’t,” I hear Ghalib say. But we’ve already moved on. Renée walks ahead, I trail behind feeling a tremble, my pocket pad open, pages curled with smoke and humidity.
In the flower girl’s eyes
the All Mother’s
Right turn, and another. At a juncture stands Alps Cosmetic Dry Cleaners and a small mosque whose stairs ascend into darkness, repeatedly warning the visitor: Here Remove Shoes, Here Remove Shoes, Here Remove Shoes. On Guli Qasim Jaan, we find Ghalib’s house, what’s left of it anyway. No charge to enter, the old Muslim doorkeeper hardly looks up from his scripture as we step into the open courtyard. How many rooms were above? What melodies flowed from the balconies, what clang of cook pans, what snap of fire in the hearth? One restored brick wall is all that remains. There’s a case of books, letters, and bits of Ghalib’s verse translated from Urdu:
interested / displeased
knowledge / net - trap
sick of / angel faced beggar’s words / amorous voice
hard work / tough life intuition/sword
half dream / arrow - pain speech / imprisonment
rare / world – universe lair / roasted
ring/circle on fire oath / determination
meeting with lover / trust – confidence
alas / one-sixteenth of a yard 100 colors
taste / wound collar / ashamed
naked / dagger eyelid / skill
canal of milk / nerve song / stone flash
difficult / possible weeping / wilderness
The caretaker gets up from his stool to check on us. Perplexed that we are copying out the fragments, he examines us curiously. No conversation, he doesn’t speak English, but he’s obviously pleased that we like a poet who’s a favorite here. We meander off after purchasing Ghalib’s Life and Poetry. It’s been a worthy visit, if just for the reminder to look again at this poet’s strangely flavored work, his difficult life, his doubts and battles with earthly and Divine. Born into the oppression of colonial rule, Ghalib saw Delhi in turmoil, witnessed the Mughals’ defeat and countless hangings of insurgents in the gallows opposite the Sikh temple.
“People get a real sense of what the sun is like
When I let the light reflect
off one of my scars”
Ghalib worships the Omniscient, goes for the wine, gets lost in work-of-art faces, sees into women’s dreams, falls over in love, gets put down by the literati, is chastised for being difficult. He sizes it all up from the point of view of a water-smoothed stone in a rushing stream. His lingo burns like a deep black wound, or soothes like resinous pine on a breeze:
“The hem of my robe is tied to a stone
no dancer whirls on a carpet before me
Why account for my deeds?
the desperate can be irreverent and rude.
Bowing before the worthless
my head is covered with dust.
Kissing the Threshold of the Mighty
my lips are bruised.”
Best to read Ghalib without limits in the mind, for he unveils secrets that invite not “meaning” but quandary, significance. See more than what the eye lets in, he seems to say. Let the poem be beyond you, a meaning not quite understood. He wants another part of the brain to work, the soul to renew its encounter with the word. You can almost hear him call from a window above the courtyard: “Exit my home, seek more than what the alleys appear to hold. Stumble into flooded alcoves, try the dead-end streets. Taste the uneasy secrets, the matted tangles, the oozing abrasions. Listen to the click of passing feet, the whine of human catastrophe.”
Outside Ghalib’s house, the misting rain ceases. Ambling pedestrians are no longer a fast-forward traffic jam of shapes cropped by historic buildings, or strangers tied to creed. They all breathe in unison: Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jain, Christian—freed of divisive faiths, hostilities, battles. Shadows slip away like smoke, bodies drift into moveable thresholds. Voices I did not understand—mouths speaking in slur of idiosyncratic tonalities—are no longer an affront, but an opening. In the grime and scuffle, an anklet of gold on a muddy foot. Under a tattered canopy an elderly couple tenderly shares one bowl. Through the bazaar, a schoolgirl bicycles—her thin legs are powerful, her feet a kaleidoscope of fire on the rubber pedals. Ghalib says:
“There must be some sense
to all this ecstasy!
Is something hiding behind
Birla House and Jama Masjid
The rain begins again. There’s no kept schedule anymore, the monsoon revs into full gear at a time when it should be tapering. We hire a cab to Birla House, a former business magnate’s residence that’s been turned into a museum. This is where Mahatma Gandhi lived the last 144 days of his life, until his assassination on January 30, 1948, at a political event in the rear garden. Interesting that, on the day we choose to visit, the delayed monsoons unleash their full fury, and the Times of India runs an article on Obama’s recent USA talk, where a student asked him who he might like to have dinner with, living or dead. “Gandhi,” he replied.
Obama, more pragmatist than utopian, is coolly realistic about the paradoxes of our times. He may be able to articulate Gandhi’s ideals, but likely he won’t be going out on a limb to act upon them. Plus he’s sadly hedged in by America’s idea of democracy: corporate lobbyists, party compromise, a capitalist mechanism that refuses to budge, a self-centered congress that, like a whining teenager, loves to balk and complicate things. Legislative bodies are no longer composed of intrinsic working parts. They are battlegrounds of self-esteem ruled by uncreative career-wrapped egotists who’ve replaced dialogue with deadlock. They could take some cues from Americans south of us—Costa Ricans, for example—who believe no quarrel should last more than a day.
Obama is also faced with a country that bites its lip at change, and a media obsessed with negative lingo, as if “socialism” (read: Armageddon) were part of the latest health-care package. Add the well-oiled gears of expansionism, protectionism, racism, the making of war, corporations that stand to make a buck on war, and a legislative body that gives the green signal to more drones and missiles to obliterate the same people it once funded to topple rival governments. In the Birla House, Renée copies out a Gandhi quote:
“I have nothing new to teach the world.
Truth and non-violence
are as old as the hills”
When the rain breaks, we visit Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the 17th-century mosque built by Shah Jahan. An imposing structure, fat domes, skinny minarets. All bulk, no rhyme. Why not a gleaming mosque, domes tiled blue, as if they belonged to the sky. Instead, the stone feels weighty. It doesn’t want to be there. You can tell it resisted leaving the quarry to meet the ideals of an emperor obsessed with superiority.
We climb the steps to the huge wall surrounding the mosque. At the gate are several guards. Hands in the air, we are frisked and told to leave our shoes. Without cameras, the entry is gratis. But, being the only tourists without cameras, we receive suspicious looks. “Why visit India’s largest mosque and take no pictures!” Meanwhile, the women have to be “tented.” Renée is forced into a polka-dot mumu, as are the European, African, and Asian ladies fresh off a tour bus. The Japanese look especially absurd in the oversized mumus, while their Slavic tour sisters can hardly get into them. The rain begins again, the ladies move uneasily in their sodden rags. Everyone sidesteps the pigeon droppings melting into sludge in the massive prayer yard. We take cover in an arcade where men and boys linger, slouch, and shift about on all fours like monkeys—picking toes, scratching behinds, eyeing the zoo goers.
The gloom drives us back outside. When the rain halts we pay a set fee of 100 rupees to climb a minaret. The fee is steep, so are the stairs. The guide is a tiny man from Bihar, white cap and gown, red-tinted beard. He’s congenial, but he’s already sizing us up, and when all’s through, he’ll want an additional “as you like” tip—which I’ll dismiss. The minaret spirals up and up, a stone vortex through the planes of existence. The looping ascent inside the tight passageway evokes a spiritual journey, illusory to divine, an ethereal summit. Mt. Kailash would merit a better symbol. Or the lofty rise of Machapuchare. No prayers, no speakers, no rattling call to order on its summit—only the pure stream of snow banners in the ultra-violet silence.
In a city I suppose a minaret will have to do. In the clammy dark, however, I feel carried not toward a higher source, but toward the Source within, a private god. At top, nausea overcomes me. The triple domes of the Jama Masjid look like movie props, the mosque pompous and commanding—as it was surely meant to be. When the tower’s loudspeaker suddenly blares out a muezzin’s call, a sound reminiscent of conquerors and religious wars, whatever symbolism I attached to the minarets abruptly disappears. The whole uneasy truce between Islamic and Hindu kingdoms—past, present, and into the shaky future—becomes apparent as my eyes drop, as if on a spider’s filament, into the crammed overlay of color and noise below.
the halting call of
the pre-recorded muezzin.
Soon we are back on the streets. Old Delhi’s bedlam puts the stepped-up volume of a heavy-metal concert to shame. If not the brass-band revelry of a wedding (where bride and bridegroom look like masked bandits), it’s the conch bellowing from a parapet, shaved heads bobbing before bell-clashing priests, rear-ends rising to pre-recorded wails, toothless mumblers clanging cymbals in puja halls painted like ice-cream parlors. The ablution tanks are empty, but the flock scrambles to them anyway, clawing and colliding. The foot-wipers give no service but demand money. The beggars
beat on pans for coins, stare and whine and won’t lay down their bandaged stumps until you give. The holy-rollers are also in the mix, crowing and harping. If you pass without giving alms, they throw you the evil eye while chanting their sacred verse. Monkeys steal from you, too—a trait surely learned from their human offspring.
There’s no solid place for the feet. One goes about pushed and squeezed between butcher shops, dung sellers, perfumeries, spooky dens of face-lifters and dope dealers. Loudspeakers crackle—a prayer or a film hit? A Vishnu devotee’s amulet blinks in a nest of chest hair. The auspicious orphan shows off her extra toe. A gymnast greases himself, gives a kick, and contorts into a pretzel.
On a bed of nails
the fakir reclines
to read the Financial Times.
It all seems shaky.
Under torn awnings a motley cast squeezes in from the rain. Farmer, quiz kid, nomad, moneychanger. At odds, in harmony, they wag tails, butt heads, sneak up the phone poles, tap the electric lines for whatever juice they can. The humpback, the plugged-in hotshot; the wise, the loose-knit; the clairvoyant, the nitro-glycerin addict head-banging to a song no one else hears; the child laborer, the high-beam salesman, the street queen behind his veil—everybody wants a glass of tea, a puff on the hookah, a sniff from the snuff box. All seem to be doing their best at getting ahead or getting behind or getting nowhere. In the blur, behind the religious temples is another set of temples: the blue-ray girl parlors, Madame Bhuvi’s Unmatched Guest Room, Padva’s Pink Box, Meena’s Snug Comfort (the latter among hardware and electronic outlets, disguised as a “software shop”). Many parlors date back to the British who needed “comfort zones” for their troops. Some employ girls from villages where prostitution has been a tradition for 400 years. Others find girls via “recruiters” who trap, drug, tame, and traffic girls barely into their teens. The orgy goes on—as it has for ages, bodies twined between bedposts—animal heat and odors.
The Train to Agra / Ruminations
The 6:15 Shatabdi Express leaves Delhi Station on time. Our bogie fills with sunlight and the smell of ink as porters pass out The India Express—followed by tea and boxed omelets. The Shatabdi trains are the best of India’s trains, cheaper than hiring a car or flying, more comfortable and safer than buses. The fare includes a/c chair cars with reclining seats, meals, newspapers, and drinks. The trains are fast, punctual, and make very few stops—inconvenient if you’re village bound. There’s not the color and brouhaha of hard-bottom third-class trains, but those agonizingly slow locals are only doable for the fun of an occasional short run.
Bronze light, pewter clouds. Deluged fields, smoky green. White herons stand motionless, royal-blue rollers skim the reeds. In the swales cattle give off steam. A temple spire appears, its pennant limp in the haze. No mind No mind No mind, the track rattles. But the mind is there, and thoughts wrangle. The train’s roll and sway and repeating click-clack sets thoughts in motion.
Renée and I made a beeline for Old Delhi when we first arrived, but very few Indian vacationers or business people would do the same. Too crude and frenzied, too much of the “old and in the way.” The Red Fort, the hectic bazaars are not priority for the eager-to-get-ahead generation busy with spread sheets and Skype deals. Forts, mosques, collapsed havelis are ghosts of failed dynasties—sights reserved for foreign tourists. Besides, to see them one must wade through dire poverty, and the unnerving fact that absolutely no progress has been made to resolve such poverty.
The India we pursue is the one the Indian wishes to avoid—parts of the cultural anatomy that bring embarrassment or apology. Much of what we’re after—things made by hand, architecture erected according to the laws of geomancy, co-operative fields worked with an intimacy unknown to commercial farms, a group of women enjoying the benefits of the micro-credit revolution—is shunned by the eager-for-profit clan. Anything non-profitable, or not profitable enough, is irksome to the technocrat with his master plan, who sees a double-ikat weaving perfected by a tribal artist not as technology, but as a time-consuming “craft.” Part of the old ways. In the face of slick, quick, and upgraded stands Thoreau: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only dispensable, but hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
The pleading beggar
pauses for the ring
of his mobile.
A few years ago, when Renée and I told a student from Shanghai that we were bound for the hill-tribe area of Southwest China, she looked at us with a grimace, as if we were going to the wrong China. “Oh, those places. Not Han people. Not China.” On the same trip, visiting a Dong village—now touted as “top-class scenic spot where fishermen fish with cormorants”—we witnessed a group of eager (and thoroughly drunk) businessmen there to organize a test-run of a dance performance that would be sold to European sightseers by a Beijing “eco-tour” company. During the recital we were embarrassingly singled out and ushered into a front row by the promoters—one of whom swaggered into the village performers, patted a dancer on the head, and drunkenly stammered (with a spittle-dripping smile): “How do you like our China?”
Who knows what has become of that Dong village? If there’s another to be found, I’ll leave it be. Photograph it, talk about it, post it, and it’ll be off the hidden path for good. Thinking back, those villagers had little interest in leaving their fields to accommodate tourists. The village was so unpretentiously “there,” with a kind of “nothing-happening, nothing-to-do-ness,” that it didn’t fit most travelers’ itineraries. Too rustic for more than an overnight stay. No English, no wi-fi, no café au latte, not one flush toilet, no reliable transport. Which is why Renée and I loved it. There is an existential quality to a place which exists only for itself. Besides, within the nothing-to-do-ness, a lot was happening: tilling, sowing, harvesting, threshing, shearing, carding, dyeing, weaving, brewing, feasting. Everyone active. Stonemasons, midwives, embroiderers, blacksmith, tailor, butcher, coffin maker, tanner: anyone who was fit and able participated in house-raising, bridge repair, ditch cleaning, hay stacking—with enough time left over to dance at a wedding or get drunk at a wake.
Romantics about to visit India, be warned. If you don’t like having the cushion pulled out from under you, the mind unraveled, every rational plan sabotaged, best to stay home. People wonder why there are so many heads on Indian gods. Well, they are a good back-up system for tens of thousands of situations in which one head is not enough. All too soon everything comes undone. The many-armed Shiva dances you off the wheel. Whirled about, you either go mad or slowly regain stability. Peel away the modern veneer, get to the core, and you’ll find what you seek is alive and well. All you have to do is slow down, find a crack in the wreckage, slip through.
the slow creak of an oxcart
under roar of army jets.
Within India’s diverse peoples and geographies, millennia-old shrines bake in the sun, Stone Age rocks speak their painted messages, ritual labyrinths (imitating those in the psyche) are walked upon by millions every day. On the shore where Buddha bathed, monkeys sit with newspapers scanning the “available for marriage” page. The show goes on with unceasing contrasts, outrageous sensory explosions. Black limousine strung with marigolds. Cart driver talking on his cell phone. Dung pancaked to the walls of the state bank. Plastic roses in the flower vendor’s hair. Vishnu wrapped with serpents. Kali’s tongue rolled out in defiance. Lakshmi’s privates darkened by a thousand years of prayer. India. I wait to arrive but I am already here.
In the crooked mirror
I always liked Thomas Merton’s response (in his Asian Journal) to the question: “Did you find the real Asia?” You can see him scratching his head before looking up with a twinkle: “I am at a loss to know what one means by ‘the real Asia.’ It’s all real as far as I can see.” Maybe thirty years ago you could find an India that was a “world apart” from the rest of the world; things done exactly the opposite of the way the West was doing them. These days, questing to find the real Asia, a first-time visitor’s big surprise is that the smallest corners have been gotten to. Nearly every hill, temple town, heritage site, has its cyber-tower. The erotic temple, the bazaars with strangely-dressed natives cooking braziers of street food, the astrologer with his hand-drawn charts? The temple is now a world heritage site known for its up-market gift shop and sound-and-light show. Seated in the new McDonald’s, an astrologer opens his laptop and burns your horoscope onto a disk.
Disappointed travelers recoil to cyber cafés (where once were rice paddies) to chill at the keyboards, post their latest bellyache, tick off places visited. There’s not much between the lines. It’s as if the digital age has blown the fuse to details and feelings. Everyone’s walking around with a mental bypass, an information gap. Why talk when you can text? Hardly a person writes in a journal at the end of the day. Instead, rows of travelers are hunkered over screens clicking away at lightning speed, anxious to find out what’s happening at home—chained to the humdrum they could have left behind. Writing en situ seems to be a lost art, too. On the streets, from taxi windows, riding a zip line, out comes the camcorder, the portable phone. Later, over an open laptop you’re held hostage to the electronic slideshow—no talk required.
Funny, and a bit sad, to see a tourist walk the Chowk, camera over head, oblivious to things being said to him, what hawkers are hawking, what the lathe-turner is milling, why the housewife is chalking designs on her door step, how many coins the beggar has just removed from his begging bowl to make it look empty. Once we traveled simply to let things happen, to let questions rise, to chance a new identity. Now, it’s the “know before go” syndrome. Circle Mt. Kailash on the internet, snorkel the Red Sea on You-tube, peek through cyberspace into the lobby of Hotel Tara. And Lonely Planet—it’s just the facts, M’am. It’s not there to remind you: let dust fill your boots, allow instinct to point the way. Santoka:
“Wet with evening dew
A friend once told me she felt the old bard’s contentment when, years ago, she slept on a rooftop in Kabul. Aloof at the world’s heart, she was happy to have been given a simple blanket doubled into a mattress for a bed under the stars—impossible these days. If there’s a comparison between the act of traveling and the act of poetry, I’ll take my stance with Renée:
“The poem has no plan,
it’s a plunge!”
Give me a sleeping-by-the-road, eating-from-the-berries kind of journey. A loose plan blissfully astray from rational schemes. One that follows deep currents, the Nerudas sobbing in front of barbershops, the Lorcas drinking at the Dos Hermanos bar, the Herodotus, purposeful in his journey, working hard on the road. And where are the fugitive meanderers like Fa-Hsien or Cabeza de Vaca, splashed with brine, raw from days adrift on the metaphysical sea? I once met a man on a bus on the rain-sodden curves of equatorial Sumatra, reading aloud passages marked by flower petals pressed between the pages of Finnegan’s Wake. Along the well-traveled road to Mandalay, a traveling musician let me in on the secret metals used to cast kyeezee, a spinning gong with an otherworldly tone. On the Hué River a zoologist studying iridescent beetles was equally obsessed with Li Shangyin’s poetry:
“We have yet to stop
of crazy passion.”
Such encounters drive one deeper. One suddenly feels that around the bend something big is about to happen. Writers who travel, who represent exiles from normalcy, reinforce this notion. I click my heels when I read Antonin Artaud among the Tarahumara (“optical miracles confronted me at least once every day”), Isabelle Eberhardt in the Sahara (“absolutely dependent upon chance”), Tom Laird in Lo Monthang (“exploding horizons, as if we were no longer in a restricted or linear world”), Marilyn Stablein in Nepal (“I compiled a list of positions for lovemaking—positions the deities preferred”), Richard Schultes in the Amazon (“adventures happen only to those incapable of planning an expedition”), Alexandra David-Neel in Llasha, Colin Thubron on the Silk Road, Dervla Murphy in Karnataka, Milarepa climbing into his Himalayan cave (“the unfrequented path is the shortest way”), or Renée hiking the cliffs above the Dudh Kosi (“no layer of comfort to make us at ease”).
We’ve had thoughts that this could be our last trip to India—though they don’t last long. Sometimes it’s the stepped-up airport hassles, or another cowardly attack on innocents abroad—the Jihadist nose for a nose, ear for an ear retaliation—which seems to match America’s obsession for the use of drones and missiles to kill innocents abroad. Sometimes it’s our disgust over the unsavory “enemy” lists our government draws up. Ie: we are dancing and drinking at a Havana wedding, only to discover, next day, that Cuba has been placed on an “international terrorist-threat” list. Why not Wall Street, the corporate shysters, the torture-crafters of Abu Ghraib?
“Never will I let our government stop me from traveling,” says Renée, which is what she said as we ducked the wire during the Bush years to surface in Old Havana. “Why do you go?” seems to be the question whenever we return from afar. But why explain Cuba, its rich traditions of music and poetry, its unabashed hospitality and stunning landscape—all of which should be obvious draws to anyone living in the Americas—save for the pendejos who support the blockade.
People often think we “go” because we have money to spare. Tiresome to clarify that I’m only able to board a plane to Delhi because I’ve saved every dime from those poetry-in-the-schools stints I’ve been doing since before I was born. Besides, the answer to “Why go?” wouldn’t fit most people’s heads. I’m tempted to wax poetic: “To leave the familiar, surrender to what we don’t know, find a new way home.” For most people, that won’t do. So I ponder other possibilities: Do we “go” to climb a distant peak, wander a bend of Sand Creek, stand in the rice fields of My Lai? Feel the truth of history? Meet the waifs, prophets, tillers of the soil and tillers of the soul in countries banned by immigration authorities? Basho wandered threadbare, sleeping in fields, huts, and barebone inns. So did Santoka. “The mountains, the water, and my friends—these are what console and help me survive.” He could be drunk, serious, meditative, often Chaplinesque. In one haiku he pictures himself through others’ eyes:
“How must I look
from behind, going off
in the drizzling rain?”
Might be good for schools to bring a few Santokas in to talk to students (instead of army recruiters) for a good wake-up call. “Get out and see the world!” —that should be the motto of every American school. Talk to people, don’t read about them or hear about them on NPR. We see so few Americans traveling. Why? “Too busy,” or “you never know what to expect over there” (not to mention right here at home), or “I was going to go, but then... the recession.” Hmmm, misaligned priorities? People don’t think twice about filling the gas tank or upgrading their software. But travel, or buy a book? (Latest statistics: 40% of Americans read one book or less per year). People still watch TV, hit fast-food places, drive to the mall to buy more creature comforts, or opt out of thinking to join the Google society. These days students “write” entire reports, grabbing them off the internet without even bothering to delete the web-site from their papers. American students are hardly language adept, either. They graduate without knowing another language or traveling abroad or experiencing real poverty at home or elsewhere. A teacher gave me a pin: “Art saves lives.” But when it comes to budget cuts in schools, art goes first. A university that invited me to read and talk to students last year asked me back this year: “Can you do it for half of what we paid you last year?” Do they ask the same of their plumbers or roofers?
Amazing the looks you get from those who don’t travel (because of fear, debt, lethargy, or the need to upgrade material wealth) when you say you “go” because you need a break from America’s monochromatic politics and relentless warmongering. Or because you’re tired of what Americans are best at: capitalism, imperialism, outsourcing, lousy automobiles, football, racism, guns, xenophobia, reactionary behavior, strong-arming defenseless countries. Or that as a poet you’re sick of writers churned out of MFA programs elbowing their way to stardom, trained by professors who’ve never left the classroom, marketing themselves and their poems (that hit you over the head like a tire-iron) as if they were overlooked heroes. There should be a law against America’s most rampant virus: dullness.
I wish the train would get to Agra. I need the garden of the Taj! An oasis, a pause in paradise. I’m tired of techno echo. Plastic twitter. Control and Command. Delete and Escape. Pixel-heads streaming live. Give me ears eyes tongue and toes: nerve-ending communiqué. No to Facebook! Send me a bottle of ink, a few postage stamps, envelopes, paperweight, a pair of hand-knit socks, feather duster, stove poker. Remove me from your lists. Shove the telemarketing up yr whaazingg. Let me unplug, you bastards! As a sojourner I want to be unreachable. To wake on a straw mat in a new land, start from scratch, learn a new way to speak, let the raw bumps of the road shake my beliefs. If I don’t survive the challenges, so what? Does one always need to come clear, reach an end, regain footing on the same old path? Nothing wrong with returning home in absolute befuddlement—worth a Pulitzer Prize!
Sign at the bottom
of a stairway:
Our friend Bassara talks about visiting places “because of the JUICE.” Juice, in Sanskrit, is rasa, sap—the life force you feel in a place that bounces you from the ordinary and drops you into the slipstream. An emotional rise that happens when feet and psyche go astray. “Gone walkabout,” Peter Garland says. Letting the rhythm of the land carry you further out than you can walk, paddle, or fly. As when you spread the bedroll under Orion in a bone-bleached arroyo, overlook crenulated loops of canyonlands from Dead Horse Point, spin in the whirlpools of the Komodo Sea, or stand at the summit of Gokyo-ri—Chomolungma close enough to touch. Rasa! Miles Davis’ Flamenco Sketches, Toumani Dibaté’s Mandi Variations. Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
The JUICE. If it calls you, drink! The world being so compressed by modern travel, why not take in a Theyyam ceremony in Kerala, the Shalako at Zuni, Noche de Muertos in Janitzio, the Shadow Plays of Yogyakarta, the masked dances of Lamayuru? If you can’t leap that far, there is always something at home. In New Mexico, the ritual-dramas: the green corn dance at Ohkay Owingeh, the Christmas Deer Dance at Taos, the winter animal dance at Walatowa. Shakti and Shiva materializing as Maiden and Buffalo to singers beating drums, chanting in Towa—all sense of time lost to rhythm that returns us to the elemental taste of life. Rasa!
Prancing from canyons
walking through cliffs—
Nearing Agra, an eerie haze mottles the air. My writing gets smaller, details more profuse. Road notes always seem more intricate than ones at home. Bus tires slap, pistons bang. Engine chuffs, aloof aloof aloof rattle the tracks. In motion, I step outside myself. In distant travels—surrounded by newness, interior difficulties, exterior quandaries—mad scribbles erupt. Sometimes random splinters, other times deliberate squiggles—as if trying to work myself out of a maze. In the middle of it all, some aspect of the new land—a violin player in a window, a girl washing her water buffalo in a stream, a guy blowing a battered tuba at the edge of a cliff—lifts me out of myself. I think of Campbell, shocked at what his venture into India delivered, bolting from Old Delhi’s streets into the lounge of the Imperial Hotel: “India is a land where one is forever surprised by things previously unseen.”
In his time there was more room to see the unseen. Less people, slower modes of travel. There’s plenty to interrupt the art of true venturing these days. Speed, for one—only a few centuries back it took six months for Europeans to reach India. The internet, for another. Open your laptop, ascend Annapurna, choose a hotel in Panjim, take a virtual tour, book room #22, the one that got the best reviews. Book a guide from 10,000 miles away, arrive in the dusty terminal of Timbuktu and there he is, the guy you hired in cyberspace, holding up a cardboard sign
of waving arms: Welcome
Jhon and Rinne.
My father used a Murray’s Handbook for India, 800 Bible-thin pages packed with cultural information, multi-colored fold-out maps, glossary, and an index of cultural terms. On the inside title page was a quote from Milton:
“India and the Golden Chersonese
And utmost Indian Isle Taprobane
Dusk faces with white silken turbans wreathed.”
Today a tourist browses the internet, gleaning ideas of the land he is about to set out for. There’s no denying web-site ease when booking Indian railway tickets—no more agonizing queues! But it doesn’t compare to the slow absorption of information Murray’s Handbook provides. A tourist logs on, shuts down, and arrives in India with pre-packaged ideas of the “Orient”: a camel dozing in the souk, a snake charmer swooning boa constrictors from a basket, tribal women dressed in mirrors, a sitar player under your fretted window. The tourist, prepared for what he thinks India will be like, takes to the streets and discovers the India that isn’t. The one rapidly being left behind, the one hell-bent on replicating the place he just came from. Instead of griping about how India has changed, one could drop down a level. Find an offbeat path, seek individuals who are creating ways of living and doing that are original. Instead of taking along Fodor’s, one might bring a guide to regional foods, a handbook of birds, textiles, music, architecture, plant life. Or poems. Nanao Sakaki:
“If you want to know the land
Learn the weeds.
If you want to know the culture
Check the craft.
If you want to know the future of the land
Listen to the folk music.
If you want to know the people
The Taj Mahal
When our train pulls into the Agra, hordes of men are waiting outside the station, screaming like crows. They all want our business, to drive us to a hotel where they’ll reap a commission, to gem shops where they’ll reap further cuts on marble chess sets, ali baba snuff boxes, plugs of hashish mixed with dung. I spot a prepaid-taxi booth and throw myself forward. Renée sizes up the situation and remains safely enclosed in her own self-created space. She stands over our bags and simply watches, sympathetic to the plight, poverty, and desperate anxiety of these hysterical jackals. Unbelievably, nobody bothers her—just a beggar girl who she at first refuses, then engages with by talking to her. For a moment the girl’s eyes brighten and she forgets her alms routine. But not for long. An Indian friend once revealed his secret on how to discourage beggars, though it only works for Indians: “if I reach out and touch a beggar, he’s taken aback. It’s uncool. We are not of the same caste, he can’t handle it. It breaks the social code. He screws up his face and retreats.”
We head to Taj Ganj, a busti near the east gate, reasonably quiet since it’s a an automobile-free zone. It’s not tout-free, though. Among several solicitors we find a reliable rickshaw driver: “Mr. Bulbul” (a pair of bulbuls painted on the side of his cart), who wants to take us everywhere. I only want to cross the Jumna for a look at the Taj from a more unusual perspective. Renée gets him talking, though. He tells her, “There are many things to do if you are interesting.” We have a good laugh, but when I begin to write it down, Renée looks alarmed. “Hey, that’s mine, not yours. Copyright Renée Gregorio!” Mr. Bulbul drives us across the Jumna. We stand on the sandy banks with two other tourists—a Malaysian photographer and her boyfriend. The Taj glows under massive thunderheads piled in a baby-blue sky. From this angle, the monument appears not as a famous world wonder, but as a resurrection of light, breath gathered in stone. It is as Rabindranath Tagore expressed:
“A solitary tear
suspended on the cheek
Next morning, rise at 5:30, take tea, walk to the Taj Mahal’s east gate. A weekday, we’re here at the opening hour, tourists are thin—the buses won’t arrive until mid morning. This is not the famous main gate where inlaid Arabic script adorns the portal with “Enter thou my Paradise.” But it’s nearly identical, with fewer people. Interestingly, one’s first glimpse of the Taj is from afar, but on close approach the Taj hides behind huge walls. You don’t see it again until you step through the threshold.
Passing through the arched gate, there’s darkness, then a blast of daylight as a green garden appears, bisected by a slice of water that refects the—a narrow pool that leads the eye straight to the Taj. The busy human world is left behind—the traffic and craze of Agra, the traffic and craze of the mind. We follow into the garden, amazed at how few tourists there are at this hour. Shoes off, we leave the sandstone path, step up to the marble plinth and stand before the Taj proper. The entrance to the chamber where Mumtaz Mahal rests is under an arched marble portico framed with jet inlay of Arabic calligraphy extolling the splendors of Paradise. Inside: a muted translucence, all is softly illumined. The octagonal chamber, with its filigree screens of fine-grained marble, is like a finely-spun orb. A weightless, liquid feeling. Ghalib was right:
“Even God’s Paradise as chanted by fanatics
merely decorates the path
for us connoisseurs of ecstasy.”
For all its hype, the Taj is amazingly simple. A Mughal creation built by Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz, who died bearing their 14th child while accompanying him on a military campaign, it is without figurative imagery. No confusion of multi-armed ten-headed gods as in Hindu temples. No ten-headed priests, either. No monkey idol dripping with ghee, no tongue-wagging Kali with blood-dripping skulls. Instead, a profusion of natural images. The white walls are inlaid semi-precious stones to represent tulips, poppies, lilies, narcissus, etc—flowers in the surrounding gardens.
These days, the gardens are manicured, the trees thinned so the monument can be easily viewed. Old photos show the original garden to be quite wild. Cypress, poplar, almonds, figs, and fruit trees were profuse. Poppies fluttered in a breeze sifted through a copse of deodar trees—a Himalayan breeze. Rows of iris rippled with the color of dusk. Sprays of carnations, scrolls of jasmine and honeysuckle infused the air with erotic fragrance. Herbs, moon flowers, anemones were arranged into designs like an illuminated manuscript. Lotus flowers filled aquamarine pools. Mango trees hosted flocks of parakeets. For the Mughals, dwellers of arid lands, this kind of oasis symbolized Paradise. A divinely-inspired plan of pools, palms, green lawns, organized paths, tranquil symmetry, meditative resting places. An orderly wilderness bordered with dark tangles of bamboo. Like a thought, this garden! A wild thought put into words and paragraphs, evenly spaced, proportionately indented and aligned.
The walls of the Taj are themselves fragrant. Intoxicating tendrils of precious stone shine with even greater radiance than the flowers in the garden. Shah Jahan’s stonemasons created floral displays that rivaled their natural counterparts. Vines, corollas, and fluttering petals dazzle the eye as if lit by the sun after a fresh rain. Shades of jade, malachite, and turquoise worked into leaves, ringlets, creepers, and tendrils. Lapis lazuli into raindrops. Agate, mother-of-pearl, carnelian, and jasper into exploding blossoms. Botanical detail everywhere! All of it achieved through a method known as pietra-dura. Originating in Italy, reaching its zenith in India, the technique consists of precisely measuring, cutting, and fitting rare stones into fine intaglios traced into a soft marble background. Thus
From ice-white stone
the bright heat
of a poppy.
Inside the main chamber, the side-by-side tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are surrounded by octagonal marble screens carved with hundreds of lacy apertures inscribed with polished stones. These are the false tombs; the real ones are hidden in a downstairs chamber. Mumtaz’s tomb below is inlaid with the ninety-nine names for Allah; the false tomb, above, is inlaid with Qur’anic verses meant to ease her soul into Paradise. On every side of the tomb’s plinth flowers burst from trident-like stems. Shah Jahan’s cenotaph is of equal mastery: covered with blazing arabesques, nacreous creepers, agate poppies, mother-of-pearl lilies—all of pietra dura. On its lid is a raised marble box meant for the safekeeping of pens and brushes, symbol of governance. There’s a sun circle, too, a motif carried forward from Persia, where it denoted “enlightened ruler.”
Originally the Taj was designed only for Mumtaz Mahal, whose tomb sits directly below the dome, at the very center of its inscribed circle. Her body rests like a seed at the center of the universe: a bindu—the kernel of immortality. Here, at the heart of the cosmos, from an auspicious intersection where primal energies converge, her soul would begin its journey.
The presence of her husband’s remains next to hers was never intended. Shah Jahan wished to be buried across the Jumna, in an identical mausoleum made of pure jet. A black Taj that would be connected to his wife’s mausoleum by a silver bridge spanning the river Jumna. Pompous, sure, but what a sight it would have been: the Jumna symbolizing the eternal flow of time, the bridge like an artery joining husband and wife, suspending their love above the flow of time.
It was Aurangzeb, the despised third son of Shah Jahan, who prevented his father’s dream from evolving. He was the one who murdered his own brothers as he fought his way to the throne, had his father imprisoned, seized the Black Taj funds, saved them to build mausoleums for his own wives, and after Shah Jahan died, irreverently had his tomb placed alongside Mumtaz’s. Not only did this disrupt the entire mathematical balance of the main chamber, it threw Aurangzeb’s karma into perpetual spin. Stanley Wolpert, in his New History of India:
“The conquest of the Deccan, to which Aurangzeb devoted the last 26 years of his life, was in many ways a Pyrrhic victory, costing an estimated hundred thousand lives a year during its last decade of futile chess game warfare... stripped peninsular India of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth. Not only famine but bubonic plague arose. Even Aurangzeb had ceased to understand the purpose of it all by the time he was nearing 90. ‘I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am, nor what I have been doing,’ the dying old man confessed to his son in February 1707.”
During a precious moment without sightseers, I stand alone feeling a breeze slip through the marble screens. As if inside a veil, a phosphorescent honeycomb, I peer through tiny filigree apertures and see the world outside as if through a pinhole camera—a precise and extraordinary focus. Clouds shift, the chamber goes from pearl to olivine. In the dimness the muddled corners of the imagination brighten. A psychic shudder. The walls of the Taj are the walls of my mind! I’m in my own head, a mineral storm. Purple gentians burst through quartz. Pomegranate seeds blaze like sparks from a blacksmith’s hammer. The walls are not solid, they are organic, formed by heat and pressure—a metamorphic process, limestone re-crystallizing into marble. The precious inlay also begins with fire. Magma, teutonic pressure. The gems that dazzle the eye were meant to lift us into a paradise above, yet they honor the earth below: the fire from which they were born.
No one looking
I press my lips to warm
Standing inside the Taj, beneath its dome, our voices become a mosaic of echoes. Shah Jahan’s architects created this space for praise. Prayers would rise in amplified wavelengths, higher and higher, to rest inside the dome of heaven, then gradually descend with diminishing reverberations. The worshiper would be engulfed by prayer, a song that would not stop, but continue to begin. Perhaps this continuing echo of song is what gives the Taj its radiance. For centuries, songs have been dividing and subdividing into wavelengths, resounding in the dome of heaven, radiating out to influence the sky’s color. And the sky, in turn, mottled by prisms of moisture, would transform the mood of the Taj. And the mood of visitors.
so many faces changed
by a single shadow.
End of day. Sun flattens into a fiery gong. I am alive, the woman I love is alive. And, thank god, we are still misbehaving. She is sitting on a bench in the garden as the Taj goes pearl, celadon, magnolia, amaranth, rose, iris. I recall how, thirty years ago, the mastery of this architecture tricked my eye. Around the Taj I saw a double shadow in whose penumbra the white marble turned pale violet—like the outer edges of a datura petal. The aura was not only visual, it was sonic. When darkness absorbed the Taj, an emotional reverberation stayed with me—exactly what happens after reading a good poem. My notes then read as they would today:
“The enigma of the Taj is its reality. A reality which both lures and repels, gives rise to myth, marks historical as well as allegorical time, all the while revealing Shah Jahan’s passionate yet decadent fervor. The splendor of its whiteness paradoxically opens a door to our nocturnal selves. Within its chambers we go from sunlight to shadow, human to sacred realms. The marble’s soft translucency, the dazzle of pietra dura, the interplay of light on the monument’s contours evokes dream, awakens lost moments, attempts to define the Absolute. Circling the Taj, my body pressed against its warmth, I feel an unexpected reconciliation with nature. With death, stone, and sunlight. With heat and snow, the very effect of light on the Himalayas. Like those floating glimmering peaks, the Taj is a mirage that one can touch. But as the fingers retreat, the Taj also retreats. With a sonar ripple it fades into the imagination where it now lives, a bright echo conversing with itself.”
On our last morning in Agra, we glimpse the Taj through a flock of parakeets looping over the slums. This is the monument my father visited in the Forties; where he lingered, photographed, and wrote; where he purchased the souvenirs that would become the seeds of my India journeys: a brass puja bell, an engraved tumbler, a platter inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Will I see the Taj Mahal again? Will it survive human violence, poisoned air, and fierce religious tensions as it has in the past? Will it remain as it is, a poem whose stanzas of precious stone combine to reveal the hidden and make visible the Absolute?
strap on my sandals
walk back into the world.
Train to Khajuraho
I pick sleep from my eyes, brush teeth at a tiny basin to the rear of the bogie, return to my berth, fold the bed into a seat. Renée continues sleeping above. Hills fill the sunrise, brown and knobby through tangled greenery, boulders every which way massed like spores. The train shakes and shimmies. The thump and roll of the rails and the cherry-red sunrise brings up an old rock-n-roll tune:
“I’ve been waiting
so long to be where
A good match for the eagerness I feel about Khajuraho. We’ve never been to India’s heartland, Madhya Pradesh. Inside our coach everyone is waking, stretching, scrabbling toward the loo. I’m glad we discovered this newly-inaugurated line. It means we get dropped off right in Khajuraho. The old route ended at a distant station that meant transferring to a bus for a tiring ride over potholed roads.
Out the window are sesame fields, vegetable plots, and shady mango trees bordered with live cactus fences. Along the rails villagers wait for the slower local trains. The men mostly lounge, some sit in the dirt and play cards. The women stand, strapped with bales and boxes, tied with babies, plastic jugs of cooking oil, portable stoves. Their daughters play by the wayside, dressed in ruffled frocks, soon to be in saris. A milkman wobbles on his bike, cow herders shit in a ravine, a kingfisher dips from a wire. Renée spots a low-flying pheasant.
When the chai wallah enters our coach, I notice he no longer totes those little from-the-earth/back-to-the-earth clay cups. Instead, he pours the chai into non-recyclable plastic cups, through which the hot tea burns the fingers. If you don’t drink quickly (which means burning your lips), the cup melts into a grotesque shape and the tea spills over your lap. The profanity of change! Why should an improper tea cup bother me? Then again, why shouldn’t it? Those old baked-earth cups were essential to the taste buds. Nothing like that combo of cardamom-spiced, sugar-sweetened milk-tea and the earthy flavor of the cup. Add, too, the pleasant pop and smash of the clay as the cups were tossed from the train, back to the earth to melt in the rain.
After tea, hotel touts ply the train, popping up from nowhere, slapping down their cards. I politely tell them I don’t wish to begin my day like this, and they evaporate (it saves a lot of hassle, being a crank). The woman in the opposite berth turns out to be a man. He rattled his beads (I thought they were anklets) all night under his blanket, now he’s up and ready for business. “Yoga master,” he says. “You must take my exercises. Big benefits for thinking. Find me at Khajuraho Om Stay.” When his mobile rings he darts to the open doorway for better reception. I reach into my pack for Santoka, who lived without such needs, and suffered a bit for it too. In his journals he describes being laughed at by moderns, mistreated for begging, scorned for wearing sandals, and deliberately mocked by arrogant drivers swerving to splash him as he walked Japan’s narrow roads. As he drifts back into the hills, he ponders the modern era, and poetry:
“Real haiku is the soul of poetry.
Anything not actually present in one’s heart is not haiku.
Go beyond the restrictions of your era,
forget about purpose or meaning,
separate yourself from historical limitations.
There you will find true art,
religion, and science.”
It’s often difficult to shake loose from “meaning” and enjoy whatever scruffy edge happens to frame the moment. Especially if the edge requires you to linger in discomfort or get poked by thorns while admiring pearls of dew. Why am I out here, anyway? Amid the chaos I want to write the truth of the world, as is. A moment put into a picture, uncensored. Let others rush forward with the weight of “where going, what means.” I’d rather shoulder the tools of the trade, hold out an empty bowl, see what falls into it. The essence of poetry is dust and chaff—all that is unfinished that settles on the plate.
In the un-pondered moment
what emotion burns, and from it
what details unfold?
I think back to a dying man in Agra. A homeless wreck of a rag curled up on a hot sidewalk, his arse hanging out, flies buzzing everywhere. A well-dressed man steps around him, pauses, fiddles with his phone, and walks on. Was he calling for aid? Doing business? No ambulance appeared. Only one other person stopped, holding up his phone to take a photo. In the country where Buddhism began, I saw no Buddha, only Shiva dancing up dust in the Wheel of Time. India, its juxtapositions! A man dies on the curb; a newborn wails from a doorway. “The Cosmic Organism,” Campbell called it. “And every one of us is part of that organism. Every one of us has a role to play.”
The wheel of fate had stopped for an instant on that sidewalk. It wasn’t just the Hindu wheel of karmic destiny, it was the wheel of life in which we are all caught: the privileged, the underdog, the devotee tossing petals on Lakshmi for wealth, the salesman texting a client. But help a dying man? No, they’d rather hold up a phone and photograph him. I’m in the mix, too. No bodhisattva of compassion, I’m more like a war correspondent bearing witness, shuffling off to the far shore with his account.
What dagger, what thirst
what histories lie hidden
in the trick of Samsara?
I remember a woman in Agra, too. Pulling back a frayed curtain, poised for a moment at her doorway, a brass pot under her arm. Out she steps to become a brittle silhouette in a trash-strewn alley. Moving into a ray of sun, she ignites into diaphanous blaze, floats like a bird, then drops into darkness again. Crouched at a public well, she steadies the urn under a pump, works the handle with her free hand, all the while giving a glazed stare into space. In her busy day, this may be her only moment of pause. Lifting the urn to her head, she regains balance—a practiced labor, her movements precise. The urn finally above her, she carefully turns, steps back into the alley, disappears into the gloom of her cloth-draped, makeshift dwelling.
Who was she
aglow like a flame
shouldering a blackened pot
that bittersweet look
I’ll never know the pain of her unending labor, the toll of her expected role. I’m just am a watcher who returns to a shady courtyard to pen his thoughts. To justify my voyeurism, I jot Kerouac’s dictum: “Keep track every day of the date emblazoned in yr morning.” But the woman haunts me. My writing turns jagged on the page. Such a woman, often beaten for not bearing a male child, or for not fulfilling her mother-in-law’s demands, recalls the words of Ghalib, the fragments we copied at his house:
imprisonment / captivity
The train rattles on. It’ll soon reach its destination. What waits? I prefer the fragile state of not knowing. I think of a young couple in Delhi we took under our wing—tourists, their first time in India. They were from Los Angeles: he, light, ruddy, dressed badly—as most Americans are—in jeans and t-shirt; she, dark, of Mexican decent, ablaze in royal blue, eyes faultlessly made up. Both wore fanny packs, and held to them tightly. Their passports dangled conspicuously from their necks, half tucked into their wear. They were eager for experience, to have something happen. He had patience, adaptability. She, a short fuse, quick boundaries. If India didn’t meet their expectations, they had funds to go elsewhere. In just a few hours together I could see problems ahead. He would work his way tolerantly through the touts, she would swat them away hatefully. He would put up with mice at the Shanti Lodge, she would demand a Marriott. He would love train travel, she would stuff her ears with cotton and escape into a book. He would walk into the unexpected, she would hire an air-conditioned car. Already he was trying to calm her over the flies attacking her legs. Already she was opting out of the Pearl Mosque to shop for insect repellent—and new clothes. The flies and the touts wouldn’t stop In Old Delhi, either, but appear again at Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur. It would be a test for him, a bane for her.
I thought to help them off the trail a little, but why rob their experience and replace it with mine? “What’s the quickest way to know India?” he asked. “Take a third class train,” I advised. “Get off to the side.” She overheard, grimaced, turned to Renée and asked about the beaches of Goa. Maybe I was cutting them short, though. Perhaps they would weather the rough edges—the shock of squalor, the foul gutters, the ribald devotion—and find themselves submitting, the walls cracking. Insight, new discoveries pouring through.
I’m not sure I like being asked for advice. As if I am sure of myself or even know what I’m doing. A guy reading Santoka and Ghalib must surely be a misfit. An outcast who prefers an open map, no GPS, plenty of sidetracks where I can leave myself behind to enter a reality beyond my imagination. What those young kids will experience—if they don’t hide in an ashram, hang with a tour group, or lay on the beach behind a book—is an India that will pull the cataracts from the eyes, shatter the mirror, shake all sense of time, change one’s life forever. Meanwhile, across from me, on the Khajuraho Express:
A shared glance
through the half moons
glittering on her veil.
Rhythm in Stone
Khajuraho’s sandstone temples rise without effort from the earth. Their sunburned ridges finalize into rounded peaks, replicas of Mt. Meru, spiritual axis of the universe. Organic motifs wrap the peaks in stratified layers. Frieze after frieze of carved flowers and trees, and within them: softly-chiseled figures at work and play, while—higher up—they enjoy sublime postures of lovemaking. They bathe, dress, caress, undress, bend playfully, unite, lose all boundaries, dissolve into abstractions of bliss. These are not the dark, hard-edged figures of Konarak, Orissa’s famous Sun Temple—whose architecture seems heavy, dropped down onto the earth. Khajuraho’s figures are soft, sensuous, of the earth. Beyond the realm of mere sculpture. Stone as skin! (I paid tribute to our visit to Konarak in earlier writings.) Here the fusion of sculpture and architecture outdoes anything we’ve seen. Gary Snyder visited once, and paid apt tribute to Khajuraho’s temples:
“a kind of geological-paleontological system of strata, moving up through animal friezes to the “human” level—fossils of dancers, lovers, fighters—temple wall like a human paleontology laid bare—rising; to the Divine Couples seated in shrines on sub-pinnacles—vegetable, mineral, and animal universes—complete—to the mountain summit, spire of pure geometry, a rock crown like the sun.”
Khajuraho’s setting is attractive—woods, hills, knobby stone—but not with any apparent auspicious quality that would have led settlers to create a dynasty here. No significant rise, provocative indentation, meeting of rivers. Perhaps it was simply isolated enough to prove safe haven for the new settlers. Maybe they envisioned mountains where there were none, and so had them created—labor intensive, for sure. Likely, they occupied a stable moment in history in which they could comfortably actualize the mythological mountains of the gods into stone—as well as embroider them with potent symbols of procreation. The temple that Snyder described is the famous Mahadev Temple, a model for sacred Mt. Kailash, Shiva’s abode. Inside the temple—beyond its mind-boggling exterior carvings—is an austere sanctum that holds a lingam, symbol for Lord Shiva who meditated in a cave, danced his way into light, and squelched ignorance to keep the world turning.
Snaking its way
between heated stone
the morning breeze.
Khajuraho derives from the Sanskrit, kharjur, date palm. Hardly any native vegetation surrounds the twenty or so temples that remain of the eighty originals. The shallow lake described in historical documents is now a well-trimmed lawn with brick walkways, hedges, and flowerbeds. It’d be cool to be transported back in time to when the temples rose like islands from the lake. Or to come upon them as we did those of Angkor Wat, between vines and brambles, eyes opened in sudden disbelief. But this is a minor grumble!
Khajuraho’s temples not only rise like peaks into the heat of the sun, they rise above the mind’s capacity to imagine. It is as if the erotic dreams of day and the wet dreams of night joined to fix themselves in stone. They are towering phalli decorated with bizarre and alarming images. If a lake did surround the temples, they would have appeared as magic mountains mirrored in a Cosmic Ocean, a mythic sea beyond space and time. From the Mahadev Temple you can envision the sun rising over a smooth sheet of water. The door to the inner sanctum faces east, as do the doors of all these temples. Thinking of the temples as mountains, it is not hard to imagine the doors as cave openings, ones inhabited by Himalayan rishis who lived without and saw within. Staff, tripod, cook pot, rice jar—and a bow to the morning sun.
Here I am in the heat of Madhya Pradesh thinking of mountains. Sky temples of ice and granite. The original temples! All the mantras attributed to the gods, were they not simply bestowed by the wind, sound of a cascade, trickle of pebbles into a glacial moraine? All religions begin from the earth. But how quickly they waver into dogma, fear, delusion, greed—dictating our reality, separating us from one another, and from the Garden. Instead of humbling us, religion supposes that humans stand above all the wise creatures Noah gathered onto the Ark. I wonder about that story. It’s a bit ass backwards. It seems the wise creatures should have taken us onto the ark! And as for a god in the sky—one like Michelangelo’s who looks like us—it’s just a dive into folly.
a crow’s passing glide
over fingers too numb to write.
It was the Chandelas, a dynasty that evolved from a group of easterly-migrating rulers from Rajasthan, who established Khajuraho between 950 and 1050, eventually abandoning their temples as Muslim invaders swept in. Fortunately, the assailants overlooked Khajuraho. The temples remained overgrown until a British officer discovered them in 1838. In typically Victorian terms he reported the erotic carvings on the facades to be “a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for.” Perhaps he was a man who kept his pants on all the time.
Erotica comprises less than ten-percent of Khajuraho’s sculpture, but it’s what tourists come for. Are the nakedly entwined figures related to Tantric practices? Were they meant to be a sex manual for newlyweds, page after page explicitly unfolding in stone? Are they glimpses of life among the courtly—the bedroom undraped, wives playfully sporting their charms as did the gopis for Krishna? Do they represent a melding of male and female natures, a blissful union of lovers becoming androgynous as they slowly meet the Divine? Or is the erotica simply an artistic depiction of unhampered sex? The lovemaking we imagine as a possibility. The kind we do in the open, under the sunshine, realized with gone-beyond rapture? Even the blind can read these stone pages, running fingers over soft Braille of breasts and cunts and hard ons.
the butterfly inspects
a stone blossom.
Questions are best left as arousals. Explanations are as endless as the panels themselves: a mass orgy of copulating symbols, a happy visitation of temptation, an explicit ritual-drama of flirtation, a cunning dance of foreplay, a refined culmination of seduction. Hard core in soft stone. Fundamental indulgence. Life as art, energy as bliss. Paleolithic fertility rites carried forward into our own age: big-breasted, wide-hipped Mother goddesses, intercourse with animals, a leaping stag under Kama’s bow. Lotus-eyed girls teasing rain from clouds, pollen swirling about their breasts. A maiden covers her eyes to feign embarrassment while happening upon two lovers in prolonged orgasm—just look at their rolled-back eyes and clenched toes! And the courtesan fondling a man’s lingam while simultaneously undoing her jeweled waistband? No inhibition, she’s ready for it!
Solar rays heat the flesh
arousal moistens the inner spirit
the Cosmos awakens.
Mr. Kurian, our guide, points out a princely figure enjoying sex with three favorites. Two of them help the third onto him, her rear toward his face, his member thrust deep into her. His free hands stroke the yonis of the two maidens who smile as they look on, obviously enjoying the transmission of sexual passion through the woman they support. According to Alistair Shearer’s Guide to The Sacred Places of Northern India, most of Khajuraho’s sculptures have double meanings. Shearer writes about Tantricism’s arcane teachings and their relation to the pictorial forms sculpted by Chandela artists. He theorizes that Khajuraho was a Tantric hub, the reason for so much erotica on the temples. Other scholars dismiss this, claiming that Tantra is a highly esoteric cult whose teachings are passed on orally in secret settings. There was a tradition of “whispered transmission” in the Tantric lineage. Its arcane path would never be revealed in the open as sculpture on a temple.
up one leg, down the other
Bliss, Love, Sex, Poetry
A triptych of carvings reveals the gradual opening of a woman’s pudendum, seen from the rear, in all its muscular expansion, to receive the lingam of a lover, the thrusting cock gradually thickening and penetrating until, in the final panel—the highest one—she throws back her head with a scream. Our guide cheerfully allows us on our own for this one! He chuckles as he moves aside from what he calls “a 12th-century porn show.” But this intercourse, carved in monsoon-burnished stone sparkling with quartz and feldspar, is too stylish and graceful, too full of ritual and enhanced pleasure to be lewd. It is, ultimately, an act of mutual devotion between god and goddess. A naturalistic representation of Shakti, and probably loaded with esoteric meaning for the initiated. But we are not of the initiated, we are poets—and approach Khajuraho as we would Indian love poetry:
Meeting a lover
my sash unloosened
on its own
He touched my body
I dug out my breasts
left my hips
What happened next
is all astir
who he was
who I was
Khajuraho’s artists could animate this in stone. Give charge to the instant with chisel and hammer. Sand into shape the fermenting desire of two lovers about to consummate their longing. Filled with anticipation, they would step closer in each panel: stroking each other, snuffing the camphor lamp, undoing the hair, baring the goose-bumped flesh, throwing off jewelry in a fit of zeal. Throwing off names, too—and thoughts and words—in the fury of bliss. The swollen kiss, trembling breasts, erotic backbends into acts of cunnilingus—they would be rendered with precision. And beneath them, sculpted with equal care: musicians, dancers, open-mouthed singers. Frieze after frieze surging with sexual elation—replicating the organic chemistry of nature: a lotus opening, a snake uncoiling, clouds swelling. And the monsoon-wet wrappings of the sculpted maiden:
Rain rippled, wind kissed
by the wet skirt.
In one panel a monkey hides in a tree. Like the mind, he cannot remain still. The artists had fun with this monkey. Swinging through the foliage, he pairs with another, is about to copulate, but is too agitated, too distracted. A branch of mangos hangs nearby. The monkeys lose themselves for the fruit even though the flesh bristles with desire. Below the monkeys is a hearth-bound wife next to a caged songbird. On another panel, the bird is free of the cage, the wife free from the hearth. She meets a lover in the reeds. Her anklets off, her back full of scratches, she brings her eyes to the sky. Her hips grow ample in passion, you can hear her sighs. What the artist carves in stone the storyteller renders into words:
or all the treasures hidden deep
Someone should publish a collection of remarks made by Western explorers at Khajuraho. It’d be a best seller. One 18th century traveler, Captain Edward Moor, wrote of “monstrous delineations ... human nudities in the most indecent, uncleanly situations exposed in the most shameful combinations that a brutal imagination could suggest, in all the filthy attitudes of unnatural depravity.” Had he looked closer, the “human nudities” weren’t naked, but cloaked in gossamer silk sewn with jingling pendants. A woven breeze, a dragonfly-thin wrapping. Not only did the artists intend the illusion of bare skin to compel the eye closer, they aspired to portray with exactness the courtly attire of the era: sheer, mod, styled to emphasize the body’s curves—not so distant from women’s attire in modern India. In Benares, women perform their morning ablutions in the Ganges, dunking, then praying to the sunrise. Saris pressed to every curve, they exit the river in stained-glass hues of silk, bodies sumptuously exposed by the very cloth meant to hide them.
In the West, god puts restrictions on the artist. In the East, the goddess gives permission. Written accounts by the first foreigners to visit Khajuraho—ones who took to task “the error of the senses, the ocean of carnality lashing against the shore of our spiritual natures”—make you wonder: did they take their own lovers to bed with such brainy condemnation? With a little chutzpah they could have inhaled some bhang, loosened their chastity belts, and stepped into the minds of the artists who submitted to bliss and went to work with their chisels. There is no word for “obscene” in Sanskrit. Nor in the language of monkeys, dolphins, elephants, or pandas.
Above the pond
one dragonfly joined to another
float in union.
It’s hard to re-create the life of the Chandelas without a hefty amount of reading or an expert historian who can paint a picture of then as now. Our guide, Mr. Kurian, has been at his craft for forty years. He’s knowledgeable, gifted with a sense of humor, gives us plenty of room to ponder, understands when enough is enough, and doesn’t answer every question. He knows if we work a little harder we’ll find it inside us. He’s from South India, raised as a Christian, well read, and doesn’t shun the erotic iconography with its myriad implications: worldly, spiritual, esoteric. Every evening he rides the bus back to his village, returns at dawn, has a chai, and walks out into his office: the erotica of the temples. He goes to work with a smile. He’s beyond any Hindu-Muslim loop, so remains objective. (Some of these Khajuraho “guides” will tell you Martians built the temples.)
A few highlights we wouldn’t have seen without Mr. Kurian: two dancing figures on a high relief, inhaling to broaden their breasts, exhaling to tighten their waists. A beauty brushing make-up around her eyes, giving a coy smile, hips thrust outward, a wasp at her nipple. A naked courtesan applying henna to the bottom of one foot, her privates exposed, her broken necklace between the fingers of a waiting lover. A girl plucking a thorn from her flesh while pressing her hips to an “escort.” A woman letting a thinner-than-thin veil fall from her thigh—onto which a scorpion with raised stinger has crawled. A man inserting an acupuncture needle into his lover’s spine as she lifts her behind to him. “You must account for the moon,” our guide says. “The position of the needle corresponds to the position of the moon. Arousal has many forms.”
sparks from the cook’s fan
as she looks my way.
At sunset, we return to the temples by ourselves. Easy to avoid the crowds that arrive and depart at predictable hours. Indian tourists don’t linger, they pass noisily through and vanish. Foreign tourists linger, but in compact groups. A few visitors are history buffs, most are simply curious. Some come for a peek, contemplate what they prohibit themselves from seeing or doing at home, and depart with a little inspiration to spice up their sex lives. Others arrive totally unprepared, Khajuraho is just another stop on the itinerary.
“What is it about this place?” I keep asking.
“Rhythm captured in stone,” Renée suggests. “The grace of it.” She’s right. There is a discernable “ripple” to these temples, warp and weft of movement. Each wraparound frieze can simultaneously be read horizontally or vertically. The eye goes two ways at once. Side to side, bottom to top. At bottom are everyday scenes: cooking, washing, coiffing the hair, herding elephants, drumming, preparing for battle, praising the gods, praising the king. Up high, humans leave the mundane for the exotic: tender fondling, explicit coupling. Male and female become each other, their acrobatic poses impossible to untangle. Such interlocked figures are beyond intercourse. They are mutations of energy, the awakening of Kundalini, dormant psychic energy. One of the earliest Upanishads reminds us:
“From Joy springs all Creation
by Joy it is sustained
towards Joy it proceeds
into Joy it returns.”
Evening is the best time at Khajuraho. When the stone turns gold to cinnamon to plum. When the light aligns the spirit with divinity. When you aren’t staring at the lovers as spectator, but swept away as participant. Yes, “rhythm captured in stone.” A mantra given physical dimension. Khajuraho! Blake’s “eternal delight.”
Breakfast with Mr. Jain
A dream last night: Joanne Kyger is looking over my shoulder, saying: “You’re writing too close to the edge of the page.” As I jot the dream into my journal (writing too close to the edge of the page, of course), Mr. Jain, the owner of our inn, joins us for a simple vegetarian breakfast. I spent last evening with him, walking his garden, asking him to identify trees and herbs. He’s sixty, a retired science teacher. His sons manage the inn now. Yesterday, one of them found my wallet on front desk and called me immediately. I ran down stairs to retrieve it—right where I left it—thanking him profusely. I offered a reward, but he refused. “Honesty is our way.”
Over tea and stuffed parathas we inquire about the vine-wrapped figure we saw in Old Delhi’s Jain temple. “That is Bahubali,” Mr. Jain explains. “The second of a hundred sons of the first Tirthankara. The vines growing around him indicate how long he was standing in meditation. In South India there is a famous statue of Bahubali, 150 meters high, surrounded by Jain temples. There is a story about him. In a contest of strength he wins everything from his brother. He could have become the emperor, but he returned everything to the brother. What he demonstrated in the match was that he had strength not with muscles, but with mind. He conquered pride and envy. Tirthankara means one who has victory over enemies, those inside.”
“And your professions?” Mr. Jain asks.
We show him photos of our house, my paintings, and give him one of Renée’s books. He’s the first Indian who has asked about what we do, where we live, or had questions about our lifestyle. Rare, for sure. We’ve had gracious conversations with Indians (recounted in other journals), but we’ve also tolerated our share of monologues—Indians who don’t converse, but insist on a point of view. Mr. Jain has no call waiting, nothing to sell, no attitude, no expectation, no assumption of who we are, and no agenda based on what he wants from us. Miracle!
I bring up the subject of the annoying touts in Agra and Khajuraho. “Yes, those are the boys who laugh and splash at the river—the same boys who become ugly when they see tourists. Begging needs to be changed. Parents don’t want to work, so they keep their children home from school and order them to sell things to tourists or pretend to be guides.” Mr. Jain adds a twist on all this. “It is an occasion to be risen above. Until the parents are educated and the problem is remedied, you and I have an opportunity to develop our tolerance—ten minutes one day, extend to twenty minutes next day. Finally, become victor over what irks you. That is our practice. That is what ‘Jain’ means—follower of the victor.”
When we discuss the world’s plight, the recent Mumbai shootings, the isolation of one person from another in the electronic age, Mr. Jain draws a wheel in Renée’s journal. He makes the spokes, the outer rim, then stops. “The wheel turns through ages too vast to comprehend. The wheel has already reached top and is descending. We are in a state of degeneration. The wheel will hit bottom and go up again. New Thirthankaras will revive knowledge.” He draws a hand cupping the wheel: “ahimsa, non violence.” A symbol we’ve seen at Buddhist sites. Above the hand he makes a swastika, ancient sign of good luck. But he sees it differently. “It represents samsara. Cycle of birth, death, rebirth.” Above the swastika he adds three dots: “right faith, right knowledge, right conduct.” Finally, he adds a topmost dot. “Nirvana!”
Mr. Jain’s final words before we board our hired car for Orchha: “A pleasure to meet. You lead simple lives. You go deeper.” We are profoundly touched.
the monkey at the window
happens to be me.
Beautiful drive, three hours west from Khajuraho on a tree-shaded road—the Narrow Road to Orchha. Willowy girl with head-load of sticks appears from a blossoming sesame field. Kid in yellow shorts swings a pail, dancing like Michael Jackson. Beggar hunts for scraps under a billboard of unsmiling politicians. Little girl in peppermint-stripe frock practices hiphops while mother ties laundry into a bundle, her baby with it. A long procession winds into the hills, mourners behind a white-swaddled corpse on a bier. Ram Nam Satya Hai! Boys ride water buffaloes, the police take tea in an open-air stall. Saris—five, six, eight meters long—are stretched out to dry on a lawn: gold, purple, viridian, copper, fuchsia; ablaze like fire, a contemporary art installation—but without a single spectator.
Arriving in Orchha, we pass through an arched gate. Feels ceremonious. It’s pretty much a one-street town, with a web of side alleys. Among the hand-painted hotel ads on a wall, one says: Fine View Palace: No Separate Charge for Cooler Air. After a bit of searching, we find a room facing the Betwa River: 600 rupees ($12), with a/c. The river, quite low, winds serenely around big gray boulders. Plenty of birdlife right from our window: mynahs, bee-eaters, swifts, hummingbirds, egrets. From an island rises the crumbling fort and palace—the once lavish center of the Bundela rulers (1531-1738) who hailed from a larger empire to the east. Orchha is dotted with other ruins, including the evocative smoke-darkened cenotaphs where the royalty was cremated. Honey-stoned, several stories high, their steeply-tiered spires rise from the river banks just beyond town. In town there is a lively market, a traveler-friendly eatery, and a Rama temple where, nightly, locals sing while receiving platters of fire.
We’ll catch our breath here, take some walks, and book a train to Sanchi, the Buddhist ruins five hours south. Orchha’s laid-back atmosphere and steaming greenery causes us to slow down, follow the way people walk, linger in patches of shade, and strike up spontaneous talk. A very un-Indian place—small enough to walk around in, no hype, no hassle of street urchins.
Or maybe I speak too soon. After showering and washing a few clothes, we head for the market—where a young prostitute gives me the eye, rubs her breasts, extends an arm, takes my hand and presses it against her sari. “Yes,” I say, “Nice girl but I have wife. I am happy man.” Renée appears and the prostitute walks off in a huff. “She is crazy woman,” a bystander says. Renée returns to what she was doing before the interruption: buying a little framed portrait of Kali. Exiting the market, we arrive in a small square and meet a transvestite. Tall, thin, dark skinned, he wears a powder-blue dress with a radical neckline. He’s profusely decked in baubles and well made up. A long braid falls down his back, probably fake. He’s not the meddling sort, just quietly curious—as we are about him. We ask for a photo; he obliges. Children encircle him and crowd around the camera to see themselves after the shot is taken. Their faces in the LED screen is enough to satisfy them. The kids get very serious when seeing themselves. They are quick to tell us if the photo isn’t up to par. “No. Not good. Delete. Take one more new!” They’re the best editors. My eyes are no longer strong enough to call the final edit.
Near the market is a large temple, massively plain, with a looming spire—all of dark stone. In its courtyard, we run into a young girl, floppy straw hat, rolled-up travel pants, and a sport jersey with a number 28 on it—her age? She’s busy looking around, her finger placed on a miniscule map in a Lonely Planet guide. “What are we looking at?” I ask. “Ohhh,” she trails off with a big smile. “I believe it is the Chaturbhuj Temple.” She reminds me of young Jane March in “The Lovers.” Full lips, eager eyes. Alert face with a bit of mischief. She’s Polish, from a town on the Baltic Sea, more talkative than we usually tolerate, but her enthusiasm and charm save her. She suggests a walk out of town to an old hill shrine.
Through a gate
signed No Trespassing
tiny wet frog tracks.
The walk is hot but pleasant, two kilometers to Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, a 17th-century temple overlooking Orchha. The heat doesn’t make us want to explore the place, but we give the caretaker a few rupees for a brief peek anyway. He shows us through dilapidated rooms, shrines and chambers linked by dim passages. There are some okay murals, but sweat is rolling down my chest and I’m not up for another guano-smelling mansion built by a vain ruler. Of the painted hunters, wrestlers, musicians, horse riders, and various Hindu gods, the best mural is of Vishnu. Rendered in sepias, vermilion, chocolate, and lampblack, Vishnu reclines on a ten-headed serpent with Lakshmi at his feet. From his navel grows a lotus on which Brahma, creator of the universe, sits. Goddess Ganga began from Vishnu, too—pouring from his feet, splashing onto Shiva’s head, who broke her fall into multiple streams, symbolized by his dreads, one of which became the Ganges.
A relief to be back outside. A cool breeze, even. On the temple steps a boy sells primitive scratched-earth paintings of animals, humans, and star-like designs. His mother is the artist, but she’s not present. The kid should be in school—he’s eight or nine—but isn’t. “I have work selling things.” Already he manifests the hard-bargaining traits of a fulltime vendor, and likely will grow up to be one. The paintings are on thin cardboard, primitive, easy to carry. Renée buys one. A moment of spark fills the boy’s eyes, followed by a quiet lull. We all sit together looking out over temple spires poking from the heat-drenched greenery. In the pastel sky, clouds puff by with the same primitive charm of the cardboard paintings.
where do the fireflies
Later, we have curry and nan in the town’s eatery: tables on the street, two upright fans to keep the flies at bay. In the kitchen, we notice a bare-chested boy wrapped in a saffron lungi. He leans back on a low stool in a graceful way, his hair done up in a knot, a silver trident at his side. He’s talking to the dhaba owner with words soft and considered, his gestures refined, one arm extended, hand bent like a dancer’s, slender fingers in mudra-like signals. He reminds me of a Buddhist monk engaged in ritual debate, energizing words with stylized hand signals. The kid has an otherworldly look. He is present but somewhere else. The slow-shifting eyes are eons apart from those of other village boys his age. The dhaba owner, who doubles as a conch player at the Rama Temple, says the boy is twelve and into his second year of sadhu apprenticeship. “He studies with a master sadhu at the Hanuman shrine, the one with the big tree behind the palace. He’s come to ask for alms. Not rupees, but lentils, rice, subjee. He does this every week.”
Poet-amigo, Ira Cohen, saw into India’s sadhus—sat with them, shared bowls of hashish, let them see into him, and, in the end, was allowed to take their portraits. These guys were off-the-planet specters loosened from a hallucinatory dream. Some were posturing, but most were bred from years of austere training: meditation, fasting on wild herbs, drinking from glaciers, testing their will-power by remaining in yogic positions for extraordinary lengths of time. They were for real, or should it be said, for “un-real.” They scraped honey from trees, licked skulls in charnal grounds, borrowed stones for pillows, slept on river banks. They did not marry, held no jobs, carried no luggage, and didn’t shop for apparel. Instead, they sought frugal solitude, a cliff edge, a flat boulder in the river’s current. A place where they could purify themselves from worldly tendencies.
clouds changing shape
to the river’s sound.
Eight a.m. and already sweltering. I saw Allen Ginsberg last night. A dream triggered by the sadhu kid? Allen was chanting, a silly look on his face, a trident by his side, a parcel in his lap. He looked like one of those Indian men who sit in post offices sewing wraps around parcels to be mailed. “Look inside,” he kept saying. “There are kissing girls.” I opened the wrapping. Nothing but swarming insects!
We grab our umbrellas, climb up to Orchha palace, give a brief look, and descend to walk the river fields. Back on main street we stop at an open-front tailor’s shop. The whitewashed walls, bordered in blue, are without decor—only a picture of Lord Rama with arrows and bow, draped with marigolds. On a canvas-covered table are wooden rules, scissors, pincushion, and tissue paper. Below it a goat nibbles at a pile of serrated shreds. The tailor walks in from the back door. Big bushy beard, white kurta and trousers, bare feet. He looks like Ginsberg! I talk to him about shortening my trousers—the dragging cuffs have been a bother ever since we got to India. They’ll be ready late afternoon, 30 rupees—less than a buck.
After a late lunch, we stroll out of town to see the cenotaphs. Tall and sinister, their spires and cupolas are honeycombed with bees and bats. High up, each tier is ornamented with what seems to be mythical griffins. But when they begin to move, I realize these are real griffins, Indian vultures preening their wings! The cenotaphs rise from the steamy fields like dream symbols from Dali or de Chirico. They trigger disturbing images of Orchha’s feudal past, rulers obsessed with power and worldly display. From these blackened towers, half-willing widows performed sati, jumping into the funeral pyres of their royal husbands to follow them into the afterworld.
from stone railings
where the courtesans leaped.
When a group of villagers files through the fields, we sense an ancestral presence more timeless and earthbound than the cenotaphs. They are mostly women, balancing baskets on their heads. Soundlessly, they walk—leaving an acidy sweat-smell in the air. A fleeting scene, it strikes a note more powerful than the monuments of the old rulers. Despite their loads, the women move gracefully, wrapped in flowing transparence of cobalts and goldenrods—jingling anklets, tinkling bangles, a medicinal leaf between the white teeth in the dark face of the youngest.
A parade of women
through tall grass
not one blade disturbed.
Back in town, we search for the tailor but get lost. No complaints, it’s a chance to observe village life: a farmer picking up a plowshare from a blacksmith, girls expertly jumping rope, a laundry wallah swinging his charcoal-heated iron to fan the coals, a man frying samosas in a bubbling vat, a sadhu strumming a lute, a river bather re-wrapping herself in a blood-red sari with practiced finesse. Three shops in a row are decorated orange and blue: the first is piled with wooden wheels and a wheelwright is fitting spokes to a rim; the second is piled with chiseled rock and a stone-cutter is hammering away; the third is hung with hasps and brackets and an ironsmith is working his bellows with one foot, shaping a metal digging stick held in the other. Finally we stumble upon the tailor’s shop:
Sorry for the pants
he cut too short, the tailor offers
to sew back the cuffs.
We return to the dhaba for dinner, meet again our Polish friend, a lively French couple, Luc and Isa, and an American woman teaching at a local school. The tin-roof eatery, without walls save for the kitchen, resembles a rural cocina in Mexico. The food is far tastier and cheaper than the guidebook-recommended buffet at Sheesh Mahal, a formal restaurant in the old palace. Along with genuine camaraderie, the dhaba offers generous plates of rice, curried vegetables, parathas, chai, and lassis. We end our stay in Orchha exchanging travel details. As twilight descends, maps are folded and we all fall quiet, ready to go different ways in the morning. Past our tables file day laborers, vanishing into the fields back to their homes. A haiku by Santoka:
The Train to Sanchi
In the Jhansi station, I get hit with a sudden flu, heated body, aching back. To make matters worse, the train to Sanchi is three hours late. In a normal state, it’d require a bit of stamina to wait it out (there’s no place to sit), but in my state—sweaty delirium with should-be-in-bed aches—it’s one of those India “tests.” No choice but to weather the wait. I almost muster a smile, thinking of Renée’s words before bed last night: “India has to strip you bare of anything you expect. Why should anything go according to how it does at home? Only after you’ve been stripped naked can you begin to fully be here.”
a new bride steps
into the morning light.
Inside the train, I remain delirious. On my back in an upper berth, head wrapped in a spare shirt, I hear muffled voices—Renée’s among them. She is laughing, has been given curried rice to snack on, is patiently answering questions with her usual charm. Then I drift off, sweating like mad, healing—albeit hallucinating. A weird clash of cymbals, or just the railroad tracks? Blood-red curtains and seats. An Italian opera house? Faces of long-lost school mates. Old teachers. A Kerouac kind of guy, shyly sitting beside my young heart-throb, Consuelo. James Joyce, too, in glasses and bow tie, complaining of the sour reek of armpits. My own snores awake me, spittle drooled onto my arm.
“The journey is home” said Basho. Is it becoming less so for me? This trip, my fifth or sixth to the subcontinent since the 70s, might be signaling a need to retreat from the world. Much of what I see hurts the eye. Much of what I feel I’ve felt before. Things once foreign have become familiar. But I am still ready to receive the greatest epiphany in the smallest uncertainty, to let the ordinary teach me what the gurus are supposed to. Despite the world’s malice, I remain a romantic, open to enchantment, the joys of dialogue, the jagged precipices that startle. People run to meditation halls for heady teachings—questing clarity, even revelation—but why not begin in the dust, investigate the cities, the fjords, the mountains you’ve dreamed of. Go! Become part of that place, not just wondering about it. Gain a little experience as you sweat and cough in the upper berth of a train. Kerouac:
outside yr own house
submissive to everything.”
An odd suggestion, perhaps, to an aspiring poet who’s been swooned into the “stay-connected” bubble of email, satellite phones, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Once the walls of cyberland begin to enclose your world it’s hard to find an exit. When Alice asked the Cheshire cat how to get out of Wonderland, he gave a wide grin and pointed everywhere at once. Last year a poet brought her students to El Rito for a haiku session. After an hour around the wood stove with tea and sack lunches, they asked questions. Most of the queries had to do with the out-of-the-loop lifestyles embraced by the outrider poets I had presented. But a first-year college student wasn’t buying it. She looked up from a message she was texting, and made a declarative statement in the form of a question: “What if you want to be in the loop!”
Northern New Mexico is about as far out of the loop from America that I can get while still living in America. Not wilderness living, by any means, but village life: fields to till, fences to repair, stones to move, a garden to grow, neighbors to help. Exhilaration in the simplest things: dipping a bucket into the current where the river turns white, clearing old growth, leaving the primrose tangled just so, tying a spray of Indian rice grass into a brush to ink the page. Some days, mend the shed; other days, mend the head. Or, nada. Watch clouds fill the sky, spade the squash, go back to the desk, put down a poem. Steve Sanfield, summing up his afternoon activity:
“Changing the stream’s song
simply by moving
a stone or two.”
Here’s a poem by an out-of-the-loop poet that harkens a couple millennia back to those early Chinese poets of streams-and-mountains lineage—ones who took their cues from forebears like Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu. How marvelous in these times to find a guy like Sanfield hunkered in a stream, at play like a child, like Carl Jung in his sandbox, like those Chinese bards who wrote not “about” nature, but from nature. Steve’s haiku draws from this deep lineage, yet it is quite contemporary and can be understood in a very straightforward way—without forfeiting its allusions.
Getting back to Basho’s “the journey is home”—it’s good to be out here like we are, but there’s no denying: when I find myself jumping through too many distractions, stumbling repeatedly into the mire of red tape and ravaged landscapes, clasping a dead branch to lift myself out (while trying to hold on to a flash of insight as I regain stance)—then it’s time to rethink. When the compass spins to a stop, the arrow points to New Mexico. The white marble of the Taj is fine, but there’s nothing like kissing the adobe walls of our living room after a long time away. Throw a round of piñon on the coals, uncork a local wine, listen to the coyotes do a Bebop riff. Turn the compost, mulch the garden, mulch the mind, go back to the desk when my hands are too raw to move another stone. Let others shift into the high gear of literary pursuit! I’ll take the honors of going deeper, staying in place.
Brush my hair
in a mirror
The train compartment is sticky. Midway to Sanchi low clouds roll in with slashing rain and the perfume of hayfields. Fever breaks, aches begin to ease. I look up and a young man is sitting halfway onto our seat, striking up talk in near-perfect English. He says he’s in the army, though he’s not in uniform, and has left “first-class privilege” to wander second class. “My wife and kids like first-class, but I do not. You are sealed in. You see nothing, talk to nobody.”
Then he really gets going. “I stand outside the religious norm. I don’t need to attend the mosque so others can see that I am a good Muslim. I have my own form of thinking. I am not so much religious as I am scientist. I believe Allah is the supreme scientist. The Qur’an, if you read it, is very practical, it tells you exactly how to live. If you are Muslim you prostrate five times a day. For me that is not enough. Prostration balances the equilibrium of the body. When the body is in balance, the way to paradise is more easily opened. That is why I bow thirty times a day. My need is to spend more time in horizontal position—bring my head level with my heart as many times as I can daily. When head and heart are level, flow of blood and oxygen between them is in perfect balance. This you cannot achieve in standing position.”
We nod, follow along, all smiles when the man tells us his wife says: “You spend too much time on your knees.” After he leaves I reflect on my own prostrations: genuflections in a Catholic church, bows to Buddha in a zendo, palms joined in a Hindu temple, kneeling to eat from bowls of chile spread on ground cloths at Pueblo ceremonies. In the end, my real bow is to Mother Earth, a humble curtsy to the river’s water cupped in my hands. Santoka, who centered his life on things directly in front of him, had no religious attachment, no affiliation with a future world. He drifted buoyantly, bathed in hot springs, slept where he could, and believed in the “eternal now.” Many of his poems are about water—he loved it as much as sakè.
“Scooping up water
lifting it to the moon
full of light.”
The Great Stupa
We expected reasonable accommodations in Sanchi, but with little to choose from we take a room at the back of a private house. Maybe it was once well kept but now the walls are peeling, screens busted, door wagging on its hinges. We have to ask twice for two handkerchief-size towels, and twice more to get a fire lit under the shower tank. Mosquitoes are plentiful, food scarce: a plate of refried rice, a smatter of limp veggies, a bland cup of Lipton tea. It’s late, we are tired, and Renée seems to be coming down with what I’m recovering from. As night falls we realize, for a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere, Sanchi is noisy. It’s on the main track between Delhi and Mumbai and express trains rumble by non-stop. Hindu temples boom, Mosques answer back with crackling loudspeakers. I remember Nanao being put off by so much outward praise. He once commented on the incessant chanting performed by the Pure Land Sect in which he was raised: “Namo amida Buddha, Namo amidha Buddha! Chant to be happy in another lifetime, that’s all!”
In the morning we rise early and walk out of the village uphill to the Great Stupa. Langurs crouch in the trees, mothers with babies check us out as if we don’t belong. The hill has commanding views of the countryside, empty and beautiful. I’ve seen pictures of the Great Stupa ever since my first visit to India, now it’s in front of us—one of the oldest and finest Buddhist monuments in India. And the sun is just beginning to light it.
To the Buddha shrine
following a hopping frog
I begin to hop.
The Mauryan emperor Ashoka laid the plan for the Great Stupa, middle of the third century BC. Over time it was enlarged and enhanced, the last embellishments around 450 AD. The remains of lesser stupas are scattered nearby, along with those of an ancient university and several shrines. But the Great Stupa is the main attraction, bathed in golden light at this hour, and totally clear of visitors. This is the prototype of Buddhist memorials all over south and southeast Asia: the chedi (Thailand), the chorten (Himalayas), the pagoda (Burma), the dagaba (Sri Lanka).
We circumambulate the base of the stupa and inspect the carvings on the toranas—four stone gates built in the style of wooden gates once common in India’s villages. Joanne Kyger presented us with a rubbing she did here in 1963—an elephant inscribed in a circle, walking through a river of fish under an open lotus. It was her gift that helped inspire this visit. The elephant is the remover of obstacles. If anything stood in the way of our visit, mentally, physically, it was certainly vanquished before we boarded the plane in Albuquerque or got on the train in Jhansi. Thanks, Joanne.
Sanchi’s most impressive carvings depict Buddha’s life and deeds. There are scenes from the Jataka tales, old folk stories adapted to Buddhist teachings. Even with bright sun on the tawny sandstone, the images stand out—accentuated by deeply-carved outlines. The job of carving the images was given to local artisans, who were already adept in sculpting wood and ivory. There are stylized banyans, flowering shrubs, birds, beasts (some looking quite mythical), elephants, parading figures with parasols, loops of organic design. Actual depictions of Buddha do not appear in the early imagery. There are four seated Buddhas attached to the Great Stupa, but they were added centuries later—around 450.
In the early days Buddha was indicated by symbols: a horse for his departure from secular life, a pipal tree for enlightenment, a wheel for the spread of his doctrine, a pair of feet for his journey through the stages of life. The first Buddha–in-human-form images date from the second or third centuries AD, and show Greek influence. Few people realize the influence Alexander the Great’s influence on Buddhist art. As he progressed through Central Asia and Afghanistan into northwest India in 329 BC, he left behind a fusion of European and Asian cultures, including a vibrant Buddhist-Greek civilization in the Hindu Kush. Bamiyan was part of it. Some of this history is mentioned in the first pages of Taliban, by Ahmed Rashid.
The stone gateways at Sanchi were built around 35 BC and lay in ruins until restoration of the stupa began, about 1912. The toranas are now beautifully preserved in their original state, one standing at each compass point just outside the stupa. Each torana is over twice my height and consists of two vertical pillars arched by three horizontal crossbars. Every inch is richly carved, especially the crossbars where scenes from the Jataka tales sweep across the stone, terminating in symbolic spirals—like the ends of an unrolled text. Covered with narratives, the torana was designed to impart Buddha’s teachings to villagers who could not read or write. It also served as a demarcation between secular and sacred space. Walls around mosques and temples do the same, but I prefer a simple walk through the stone pillars of the torana, no thick walls or wooden door, just a gradual blending of one world into another. The breeze wafts in and out, the butterflies too.
No entry ticket
for the monkeys
and flitting damselflies.
Sanchi’s carvings are no less beautiful than those of Khajuraho, but they are of much earlier, more primitive style: more conceptual, less realistic; less fluid. Alistair Shearer says the artistry was intentionally simple: cubes for mountains, a hut for a village, a banyan for a whole forest, a wave for a river:
“What was important to the artist was to convey the essence of the scene as rapidly and directly as possible. Only as much as necessary for the communication of the important information was included (and) in its most readily apprehensible form, for its job was to instruct by reminding the viewer of specific well-known scenes and stories. To this didactic end, conventional rules of proportion are irrelevant.”
On the east torana is one of Sanchi’s famous carvings: a yakshi. Naked, free-floating, she is a fertility figure in airy flight who serves as a bracket adornment on the lower crossbar. Hewn from stone, she gracefully hovers between sky and earth, one leg straightened, the other bent, as if dancing. She is brilliantly lit a this hour, the eye drawn to her ample features: large breasts, generous thighs, evocatively swollen yoni. Shearer writes:
“The yakshi is the bride of the tree, a crystallization of its life sap, and as such performs the same protective function as the amorous couples on the outside of a Hindu temple. The aura of moist fecundity she exudes is echoed in the sappy fruit and (mango) leaves—themselves yoni-shaped. As both a protectress from evil and an invitation to a fullness of life that culminates in religious devotion, this figure is a perfect illustration of that intermingling of the spiritual and the sensual that is found in the best of India art, no matter what period or medium. ”
The yakshi is actually a holdover from Dravidian times, a voluptuous flirt who arouses the procreative forces of nature and brings the fields into fruition. As she leans out from the tree, one arm curls around a mango branch, the other reaches into its leaves to bring down the fruit. Poised as such, she is a fitting symbol for the dissemination of Buddha’s teachings into the arms of the waiting sangha.
Sailing through the trees
a band of monkeys
after the dharma fruit.
In Myths and Symbols in Indian Art (a great traveling companion for India), Heinrich Zimmer writes about how certain trees are embraced or kicked by girls during village rituals. The pubescent girls, by means of magic, stir the trees from dormancy, causing sap to rise and branches to bloom. The girls are “human embodiments of the maternal energy of nature, diminutive doubles of the Great Mother, vessels of fertility, life in full sap, potential sources of new offspring.” Once again, rasa!
Renée and I have seen these “diminutive doubles of the Great Mother” in the Balinese festival honoring Indra, where, in the village of Tenganan, they descend from the sky as apsaras to rouse the dry fields. The part of the apsaras is played by pre-menstrual girls wrapped in their finest hand-woven double-ikat cloth and crowned with gold tiaras. On festival days they ride hand-pegged wooden Ferris wheels up into the sun, and descend like sparkling raindrops to the earth. The same idea of rousing-the-earth can be seen in the ritual dramas of the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico. On certain feast days, women and girls wear painted wooden tiaras and wrap themselves in hand-woven mantas embroidered with rain clouds and sprouting corn. They wave fir sprigs in their hands while gently tapping the earth with their bare feet. Imitating “female rain,” they call up new growth as they move slowly through the plaza to a chorus of male singers beating painted drums.
The stupa itself is a compressed three-dimensional spiral, a cosmogram whose plinth represents earth, its dome the sky (also the head of Buddha), its topmost square the mythical peak at the center of the earth—Kailash. Three stone “parasols” crown the peak: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The stupa is wrapped by a path that spirals upward, so that the pilgrim can meditatively ascend the cosmic mountain.
around the Buddha shrine
After a couple hours we take to the shady side of the stupa on the path that wraps the upper level. We make a second circumambulation then stop to rest, legs outstretched, backs to the stonework, journals open. Shortly, an Indian family appears. Passing us, each member bows in greeting with both hands cupped around ours—a moment of hushed honor. Later we meet on the lawn below the stupa, where they invite us for tea and cookies at a kiosk. The head of the clan, who works at the state bank in Nagpur, says they are on a holiday visiting Buddhist sites. Having noticed our journals, he hands us each a crisp five-rupee bill. “For your books. A souvenir.”
We spread out under a grove of shade trees, have our tea and cookies, take photos, and exchange what we can of conversation—not much English spoken. Two of the women begin to giggle, hiding their mouths with the ends of their saris. The laughter proves contagious and slowly ripples to the others. Soon everybody is laughing, no restraint, no reason. A pure, healthy, up-from-the-inside music of breath, as if from one body, one nervous system. The laughter is inebriating. We walk to the Mahabodhi Temple, giggling all the way. The women gather on the floor and begin singing in low voices under the votive-lit Buddha. A nice finish to our quiet morning at Sanchi. These are the moments when India really delivers!
We all bow, bring palms to earth, rise before Buddha, and exit. Leaving the Great Stupa, a member of the group informs us that a local train to Bhopal is due at Sanchi in an hour. We hurry to our home-stay, pack, and hail a rickshaw for Sanchi’s tiny station. An even earlier train is pulling up, so the ticket-master quickly issues two tickets—less than a dollar for the 2-hr ride. We board, wave goodbye to our family, and find a second-class compartment filled with women seated cross-legged before the open windows. The train clunks off, warm wind filtering the green of the fields through their veils. I take Santoka from my pack, open a random page:
“In the blazing sun
After lodging in the old quarters of Bhopal, a city remembered for the horrific chemical leak from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in 1984 (see Dominic La Pierre’s Five Past Midnight in Bhopal), we make arrangements to visit Bhimbetka, the prehistoric rock shelters two hours away (a Unesco World Heritage site). Around the corner from our hotel, we find a spotless restaurant and feast on masala dosas, fresh pomegranate juice, and mango ice-cream. The Manohar Dairy is Hindu-owned and has been serving Muslim and Hindu families for forty years. It’s slogan: Committed to Enhance Emotional Contact with the Customer. The menu specializes in vegetable thalis, biryanis, chaat, paneer curries, Bengali sweets, South-Indian coffee, and faluda—a thick dessert of rose syrup, vermicelli, tapioca, and milk.
We’ll head to Bhimbetka tomorrow by cab. Today, a visit to the museum, which isn’t too exciting. I do drawings of some tribal folk art—which is the best part. A rehearsal is in progress in an adjoining theater, so we duck in and watch six dancers practice their kathak steps, backed by harmonium, tabla, sitars, and singer. Returning to our hotel, we find the shrine opposite our balcony filled with activity. Devotees have crowded into the street to sing before Goddess Durga, celebrating another night of the ten-day Durga Puja feast. From above, the women devotees—in bright saris and gilded veils—glow like agates at the bottom of a pool. Inside the shrine Durga rides a tiger, rays bolting from her third eye. One of her ten arms flails a saber to slice away evil. A tray of flames is passed around, the chanting heightens, and each person takes fire, bringing it with a wave of the hand to face and shoulders.
Next morning we head to the Manohar for idlis and coffee before our run to Bimbhetka. To our surprise the place is empty. The staff is busy scrubbing floors, cleaning the glass cases, throwing tablecloths over long buffet tables and moving them onto the sidewalk. The manager recognizes us and tells us we’re too early. “Everybody is at the mosque offering prayer. We are preparing for Eid ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.” The restaurant is officially closed, but the manager shows us to a backroom and brings two coffees and plates of idli with sambar. He chats with us, but it’s obvious this is a big day, the place will soon be packed, and he’s very busy. He says his sister is living in D.C., and not liking it, even though she has an Indian husband and there is a small Indian community. “No family bonding in your country. Too much separation, everybody is individual.”
Exiting the sweets shop
diners take turns
on the public scale.
The drive to Bhimbetka is on a major highway, rough and potholed. I thought we might pass quickly into rural fields, but no, it takes awhile. The highway is clogged with a suffocating anarchy of trucks, autos, taxis, hay wagons, bicycles, tractors. One long pall of poisonous exhaust. Motorbikes careen around us, packed with mom, dad, sister, brother, baby perilously balanced on fenders, seats, and handlebars. Kurtas, veils, cellophane-thin dupattas dangerously flap at the wheel spokes—visions of Isadora Duncan. Everybody is headed to a place of worship, or rushing away from it to “break fast.” To one side of road, mosques with speakers aimed every which way like missiles; to the other, temples with flashing lights synchronized to the beat of ear-deafening pujas. On both sides are parking lots filled with a jungle of chrome and metal. Across the fields, behind a pair of minarets, a pair of smoking towers billows a brown streak over crops stretching as far as the eye can see.
the gleaming minarets
of an industrial plant.
As we drive through this mess, I think of the sheer numbers scrambling for existence on our planet. When I visited India in 1979 the world had under 4.5 billion people. Today, nearly 7 billion. In 1970, when I arrived in Rio Arriba county, it had 25,000 people. It’s now 40,000. Population density at home is about seven per square-mile, blissful compared to most places in the world. Still, we’re not exempt from the effect of fossil-fuel emissions (which have increased more than a hundred percent in the last 30 years). Hardly a sustainable snowpack in the mountains these days, bark beetles have devastated the piñon pine, and people still insist on barreling down the highway in oversize SUVs, double-cab trucks, or the banal Hummer—heated steering wheel, fireproof storage vault—which the kid just back from Iraq drives.
Finally the traffic thins, mosques and temples give way to suburbs, the suburbs to concrete-block learning facilities: School of Public Excellence, Raj Heights College of Logistics, Fairy Convenient School, Deep Educational Facilities. They look like story-book pop ups; ideas of the real thing (just as in America we have ideas of real tomatoes). A few more kilometers and the grunt of civilization gives way to lush fields, mud huts, glint of water, bullocks dragging plows, farm girls bringing in their buffalos, men ambling under loads of hay. Life is simple again. Or is it? Aren’t these the very farmers who are being pushed off their lands by the onslaught of corporate “farms”?
A rise of thickly vegetated hills appears, the air clears, my heart lifts. Reddish-tan crags poke from dense woods: sal trees, teak, rambling vines, insect nests, animal paths. Civilization! The road narrows, curves up to a trailhead for the rock shelters. Bhimbetka has hundreds of Stone Age sites covered with Paleolithic paintings, some of the earliest traces of human life in India. Waves of rock break out of the greenery, pinkish-tan and mineral stained, lit by indirect light that gives a cathedral glow. Archeologists believe their alcoves were occupied as far back as 100,000 years. Many of the paintings date from the Upper Paleolithic, 10,000-plus years back. The largest were done between 8000 and 5000 BC. The prehistoric imagery includes hunters with raised spears, prancing deer, bison, tigers, elephants, scenes of childbirth. There are scatterings of lizards and jackals, and a striking panel of arm-in-arm ritual dancers. The historic imagery includes horsemen, elephant tamers, battle scenes, even a few chariots. Red iron-oxide, ochre, chalkstone, and burned wood seem to be the main pigments used. Some images are scratched into water stains, white on black ground bordered by geometrical designs. The caves are numbered and there’s a particular reason for the sequence, I suppose. But, halfway around the loop, I realize we’ve been walking the trail backwards.
doing the wrong thing
Heading back to Bhopal we ask Akshay, our driver, to stop for tea. “Of course. We will visit my daughter.” Half hour later we turn off the highway into a village and bump down a dusty lane between compact dwellings—tin roofs, block walls—receiving stares all the way. At a well, children are helping mothers fill brass vessels, working the pump with vigor. Akshay walks us to his daughter’s rented house—tiny downstairs kitchen, equally small upstairs bedroom with porch. Blue door, pink wall, a string of drying laundry. Simple enough to bring tears.
A blanket is spread, we are seated, tumblers of water are set down, and there’s a spontaneous gathering of children and young women. We playfully glance at each other, the oldest girls trying out their limited English—which is more than our limited Hindi. Soon we are called to the kitchen. Akshay’s daughter, Punam, is crouched before a single-burner kerosene stove on which she does all her cooking. The windowless room, a deep depressing green, begins to foul with fumes. It’s uneasy to breathe—the kind of compressed, toxic space that brings disease and death to millions of Indian women every year.
Soon two milk teas are before us. Her job done, Punam wordlessly leaves, calls in her father and her husband, and disappears after serving them tea. Her husband says he works at the local textile factory, earning the equivalent of three US dollars a day (wonder if I heard that right?). We finish our tea, Punam returns, and I give her three times what I’d pay in a tea stall. Not much but she’s extremely gratified. She bows to my feet—even though I dissuade her—touches them, brings her hand to her head, and bows again—the traditional, if not outdated, sign of respect for an elder.
Back on the road, Akshay says he can take us to the site of the exploded Union Carbide factory tomorrow. But what we would do there? More interesting would be to visit one of thousands of survivors still suffering from the disaster who’ve received little or no recompense. Akshay himself was lucky, he was working out of town the day the disaster occurred. “Besides, my house was not downwind from the plant.” He says government officials want to open the site to visitors on the upcoming 25th anniversary of the gas tragedy—hoping to assure doubters that the place is toxin-free, a claim contested by independent studies. (BBC reporters recently took a sample from a neighborhood well near the plant, had the water tested in the UK, and found it to have nearly a thousand times the World Health Organization’s safe limit for carbon tetrachloride, a highly toxic pollutant that causes liver cancer.) Organized protests happen regularly in Bhopal. Murals have been painted depicting tortured figures on the night of the disaster. In the old city, graffiti denouncing Union Carbide is prominent. I have to do a retake when I see a wall facing a busy intersection tagged with:
“Do not go gentle
into that good night.
Rage, rage against
the dying of the light.”
The Train to Bundi
The ten-hour night train to southern Rajasthan departs Bhopal at 5 pm, right on schedule. We’ll arrive before dawn in Kota, some 400 kms north, and transfer to a bus for the hour ride to the town of Bundi. Inside our compartment I unfold a newspaper and read about Eid celebrations, one in Bhopal, another in Afghanistan. In Bhopal the head mullah urged youths to refrain from “intoxication and bad habits.” Addressing a huge crowd on the maidan, he said: “Islam means peace and harmony, there is no connection or relation with terrorism.” He praised the friendship between Bhopal’s religious communities: “Eid is a time when Muslims and non Muslims exchange greetings.” From the Mullah Mohammed Omar in Afghanistan, the message was decidedly different: “We will continue to wage jihad until we gain independence and force invaders to pull out. The US and NATO should study the history of Alexander the Great, defeated by Pashtun tribesmen in the 4th century, and of our fight against the British from 1839 to 1919, and how we defeated them.” Accompanying the article is a photo of an Afghan boy waving a toy gun as he rides a merry-go-round.
Another article highlights the drought in Bihar: “Farmers have asked their unmarried daughters to plow parched fields without clothes in a bid to embarrass the gods to deliver badly needed rain. The girls are to plow naked and chant hymns after sunset to invoke the gods.” A village council official was quoted: "This is the most trusted social custom in the area and the villagers have vowed to continue this practice until it rains very heavily."
Such customs disguised as religious tradition are deeply entrenched in India’s rural communities. When villagers leave for cities the mind-set goes with them. 30,000 rapes were reported in India last year, a low number considering that only five percent of rapes are reported annually. Male government officials have offered skewered remedies toward rape prevention. Most are aimed at further limiting women’s rights. The Hindustan Times published an article about an education minister in a tropical South Indian city who suggested having girls wear overcoats “so men wouldn’t be driven mad with lust.” Skirts would be banned in public schools, girls would ride special buses with blackened windows, mobile phones would be prohibited on the grounds that girls should not be making “futile small talk with people outside their homes.” Dressing girls in trousers was another “remedy,” as was having girls threatened by rape yield to their attackers, instead of resisting, to prevent violence.
At 3 am our train arrives in Kota, a long slow haul. We had originally booked a faster train, but, deciding to stay an extra day in Bhopal, we ditched the booking only to find other trains full. We finally settled for the Jodhpur Passenger, a non-express train. Renée counted 34 stops during the night! In Kota we decide to walk across the platforms, book a railroad retiring room, and rest until the town begins to stir.
Last evening’s ride out of Bhopal skirted the hills of Sanchi as we veered north towards Rajasthan. Twilight. The winding-down part of day, the land liquid green, crows roosting in darkened trees, cattle lingering at courtyard gateways. Plows and yokes had been put to rest against mud-brick walls, kitchen fires flickered in swept-earth rooms. Naked children splashed away the day’s dust at roadside wells. Herders appeared from bushy hollows, raising sticks, calling out behind their goats.
Melancholy overcame me. I was passing, they were staying. In this in-between time, the moment when all seems floating undersea, things began to appear not as they are, but more dream-like: as they aren’t. A monkey became a seahorse, a bull a fish, a child a star, the locusts a clatter of tin, the ring of a temple bell clear flame, the circling birds bits of confetti. DH Lawrence once described swallows on an Italian eve, “flickering like lost fragments of life.” It was this same dream-like time of day, and the birds were soaring on gusts of turquoise and gold. He thought of the gods, that they must have been smelting the whole human lot back into a “transmuted oneness.” Not an outlandish leap. For this is the hour when you become a stranger even to yourself. You are a throw of the dice in Maya’s play.
From the train
the village moves by
from the village
the train moves by.
The Jodhpur Express was lively. In our compartment a family bantered with each other, and with us, even though we had no language in common. Metal tiffans were unlidded, a cloth spread, chapattis passed out. Lime chutney and spicy potatoes. One of the ladies nudged her way forward and sat beside us. “I am Indira.” Thin and animated, in her late fifties, she wore an outfit she designed and sewed, a variation on the salwar kameez, which in many parts of India has replaced the sari, particularly among college women.
“My husband hates travel, so I go alone. When I visited your country I went as a single woman to see my daughter in San Jose. I landed in New York and took the Greyhound. Bus is the means when you wish to talk to people. Besides, that way I was able to see the national parks.” She’s from a family of advocates, trained in law. Her views are left-leaning when she speaks of society, environment, and women in India. Yet without skipping a beat she tells us that her current mission is to find a bride for her 34-year-old son. It seems incongruous, given her views, this connection to the old tradition of parents calling the shots on their children’s marriage.
“It is the way of the family. Some things we do not give up. Even if marriage is the biggest family expense in India. Cheap weddings cost 6000 US dollars. Many cost three times that amount.” She digs into her purse and produces a glossy 8x10 photo of her son along with his astrological chart and personal statistics. In the photo, he looks like a baby just out of diapers. He’s fair, good looking, sweetly smiling, his cheeks rosy, his demeanor that of a virgin in waiting. “He has studied electrical engineering,” Indira beams. Among the data is his horoscope, age, weight, caste, hobbies, professional skills, and auspicious dates for betrothal. Indira stuffs everything back into her bag and looks toward her traditionally-dressed cousin across the aisle. “Everybody is already married by her age,” she whispers. “That girl has no favorable chance now. No man wants a woman who is approaching forty years.”
On the wings
of a lone kingfisher
the sun’s final light.
We wake from the railroad retiring room, splash our faces at an outside basin, and find a bus from Kota to Bundi, forty kilometers north. The bus winds into a pretty nook of the Aravalli Hills and leaves us at the base of the old walled town of Bundi. We taxi uphill from the tiny depot, past a flurry of color in the streets—men in orange safas (turbans) and blue dhotis, women in an explosion of cranberry, lemon, and aubergine. Rajasthan! We drive through an arch decorated with Arabesque motifs, an alley strung with paper flags, and turn onto a street that narrows into a lane too thin to maneuver. We pay our taxi man and walk into a cul-de-sac, past a bhang shop and laundry wallah, where a sign points to a restored haveli with rooms to let. A young couple shows us to the topmost floor, “Best for you, very relax.” A beautiful room, and with little hesitation we take it—even though it’s over our budget: 1000 rupees, about $20. We need a rest, the heat’s at 100º, and this is a good place to chill.
Bundi is far enough south to be free of the tour buses that ply Rajasthan’s popular northern destinations. Even with 90,000 people (small for India), Bundi’s scale is human. Pedestrians outnumber autos, a market sprawls onto the streets, the rocky cliff above town holds an old palace and fort. The town steps up into the hills in a compact patchwork of flat-roofed houses washed with blue. It was founded in 1342 by a Rajput ruler, who began the fort and its adjoining palace, onto which were added a profusion of pavilions, courtyards, and chambers over the next 300 years. “The work of goblins rather than of men,” wrote Kipling, who lived in Bundi for a spell.
The owners of the haveli—he’s native of Bundi, she’s from northern Rajasthan—tell us the place was vacant for eighty years before they began renovation. The entire complex dates from the 16th-century, crafted of stone, including many flights of foot-smoothed stairways. The walls are decorated at top and bottom with bands of recently-painted murals—dancers, musicians, elephants, fish, angels, peacocks—that continue right into our room. The place is more than adequate, with cool tile floors, a touch of stained glass, and big windows with screens that we are advised to keep shut because of the monkeys. There is a cozy divan, two rattan chairs, and a writing desk. In the top drawer someone has left a torn-out newspaper ad: “Star Chance for Diploma Holders from Any Stream.” A photo shows overly-earnest students at the feet of a Groucho Marx-looking professor. In the bottom drawer are two sun-faded pamphlets: Golden Thoughts from Olden Days, by a Dutch author, Dr. Junk; and Act Out Your Life in the Presence of a Master, by Swami Allawash, who has added a postscript:
We take advantage of the comfy space and catch up in our journals. Wonder if I’ll transcribe this journal like I have those from past journeys? A lot of work, but—for others to get an idea of what spontaneous-thought, hand-written road-note-taking means in an age when communication is largely electronic—it is a worthy exercise. The prose-haiku-prose form (somewhat akin to the haibun form established by Basho) is how my journals have evolved over the years, along with drawings and impromptu collage. In that respect, they are unique artifacts in an age where things aren’t written by hand. Instead, people leave behind a trail of pixels subject to the whim of the FBI or the virus of international hackers.
Renée and I have talked of doing a back-n-forth poem exchange from incidents on this trip, which excites me—something like Road to the Cloud’s House, the prose-poem swap we did after our stay in Chiapas. “Chance-operational assemblages” we called those poems: an exchange of run-with-the-flow, free-association thoughts. It goes like this: one of us hands a poem to the other, who eventually responds with a “bounce”—a poem not necessarily having to do with the content of the poem received. Back and forth it goes, a process like the Japanese renga (which includes plenty of saké to lift poets out of “considered response” into that of “impulsive free-play”).
quivering into a moonflower
the only sound.
We’ve talked about ending this India journey in Ladakh. We both love high mountains, and the Himalayas would be a refreshing get-away from the lowland heat. Might be too late in the season, though. India’s cool season begins in October, easing travel in most regions, except for Ladakh where temperatures plummet dramatically. Leh, the capital, is at 11,500 feet. After October, roads in can be dicey—the 14,000-17,000’ passes often snowbound. We’ll opt for a flight from Delhi if we go.
For now, we’re happy to take it easy and wander Bundi’s pale-yellow alleys: ornate mansions, street barbers, religious shrines, vegetable and flower marts, kids at their games, and an entire street of musicians for hire—an echoing cacophony of battered brass horns and drums played by turbaned, mustachioed guys practicing in open doorways. Along the curb are their tin-sided wagons, gaily painted, bolted with loudspeakers, into which they pile for parades and weddings.
Eventually we find ourselves drawn to the steep crag behind town, where we meet an affable man who offers to be our guide. He unfolds his government-approved papers (they appear to be real) and we hire him to explore Garh Palace—a good move, for he turns out to be an experienced professional.
The palace gates, enormously tall, are crowned with two sculpted elephants butting their tusks. They open into a labyrinth of peeling arcades, courtyards, multi-level pavilions, screened galleries, canopied balconies, and mirrored chambers—all made of green serpentine. The stone, quarried locally, is unsuited for carving—thus, no bas-relief panels or free-standing sculpture. Instead, there are murals. Many feature Krishna themes painted with natural pigments—turquoise, indigo, yellow, deep crimson—and are found in rooms “untouched by direct sunlight,” our guide reminds us. “In such manner much glow of the original is obtained.” There is no glass over these murals, no ropes, security guards, or hidden cameras—you simply walk among pillars and niches and there they are! Our two favorites are Krishna stealing the gopi’s saris while they bathe, and the rasa lila, Krishna’s circular dance with the gopis—where he multiplies his image so that each gopi can have him as her own. The crumbling murals are like Sappho’s fragments. You get part of the picture, but not all. Your imagination is challenged to fill in the rest. The paintings are more powerful this way, like stanzas that suddenly quit, words missing, rhythms gone blank—inviting the listener deeper in.
The naked bather
modestly hides herself
behind a spider’s web.
Bundi doesn’t fit the mold of arid expanses Rajasthan is noted for. Standing on a latticed-stone balcony, we look over powder-blue neighborhoods, past rippling green hills, into fields of mustard, chile, rice, and sugarcane. An occasional spire pokes from a dense grove of trees. We could rent bicycles and head out there, but—the heat. Instead, we’ll nap, and when shadows lengthen, peruse the market. I need an India-made padlock and some Ayurvedic eye drops. Renée is after a pair of leather slippers. We’d both love to bring home one of those huge hammered-brass urns!
Overall, this has been a non-buying trip. After years of hitting markets all over Asia and Mexico—collecting textiles, masks, jewelry, paper, folk-art, gifts for friends and family, even unwieldy pottery—I’ve reached a halt. More interesting to look rather than haggle. A school of miniature painting was established in Bundi in the 17th century, and we had hoped to find painters still active in that tradition. But things have been scanty. Renée purchased a few paintings on paper for presents, but nothing of high quality. We may find something at our next stop, Udaipur, though it seems the best of what is produced locally is carted off to more lucrative markets in Mumbai or Delhi where tourists shop before flying home.
A traditional Rajasthani miniature would be inspired by the Indian raga, music created to awaken certain emotions in the observer—love, joy, sorrow, awe, serenity, etc. An Indian painter could evoke such feelings by choosing certain colors, evocative times of day (dawn, dusk), or by presenting calculated themes: a lover longing, a sage meditating, a wanderer seeking lodging, a storm about to break. The Europeans had a similar tradition. My favorite childhood art book had a reproduction of a medieval rural scene in winter, a miniature by Pol de Limbourg. Frigid blues predominated. Details of a snowbound farm were done in flattened perspective. The artist left out a wall of a farmhouse to show a peasant family at the hearth. Outside were sheep in a corral, crows pecking grain, a woman blowing into her palms to warm them, a man chopping firewood, a donkey-driver off to a distant village. A white sun shone without casting shadows. The painting was a compressed narrative, maximum details in a small space, everything with intense clarity, bathed in an almost divine light.
Rajasthani miniatures also demonstrate compressed narrative and evocative color. The painter might remove a palace wall to show a maiden resting on a divan, in the state of anxiety (is that her lover in the arms of another, through an open window across the alley?). The sky might be brought into the room, black and heavy, to show her anguish. The floor, normally of cool tiles, might be ablaze in burnt-orange with her feverish mood. Juxtaposed with these colors: a servant cooling her with a blue fan while serving her a glass of clear juice. The artist would take delight in simplicity and fine delineation of detail. He would not be bound by scale, conventional perspective, or correct angles of shadow. Nor would he shun enchantment, graphic erotica, or cosmic delight—Krishna with his gopis, for example. Direct seeing, direct feeling. Painting-poetry-music perfectly fused.
In the kitchen heat
a red dragonfly at the neck
of the sweating cook.
The famed city palace doesn’t interest us, and we’re not going to hire a boat to cross Lake Pichola to the water palace where Octopussy was filmed. The city palace is worthy, but as a congested must-see filled with honeymooners and squawking school kids, it holds minimal attraction. We’re too jaded. Tired of opulence, old tins of moustache wax favored by the Raj, shiny battle armor, bugles, snuff boxes, hunting knives, stuffed tigers, toy steam trains, and crystal goblets housed in wallpapered rooms turned into galleries. I’d rather walk through a mud hut.
The ghats below the palace teem with daily life, the steps and jetties quite animated at sunrise when mothers and daughters bathe, do laundry, exchange gossip, offer puja. The puja consists of arranging pebbles into mandalas, bathing them with curd, marigold petals, a sprinkle of red powder. Mantras are intoned, incense and tiny clay lamps lighted, pomegranates and coconuts are added. Everything is placed to receive the first rays of sun off the lake—a tribute to fire and life-giving water. The red dye simulates blood. When mixed with milk, it becomes what Zimmer called: “the counterpart on earth of the liquor of heaven, Amrita, the drink of the gods.”
Along the river
a sleeping child dressed
in ripples of light.
In Hindu mythology water is equated with Vishnu, supreme procreator of the universe. When we ask the husband of one of the women what the offerings are for, he answers, “Woman power, prosperity.” Child bearing, he means. Lakshmi, Vishnu’s mate, known as Padma, is a special draw for women. She is the lotus which rises from murky depths to blossom. The women arrive at the ghats wearing shades of red, Lakshmi’s color. Their bangles are scarlet, their feet elaborately dyed with henna.
Up from the ghats, the alleys of the old bazaar converge at the Jagdish Mandir, a 17th-century temple with a black stone image of Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu. The temple is white stone, three tiers, with many profusely-carved pillars. It is raised on a high plinth approached by foot-worn steps between two sculpted elephants, tusks raised to the sky. The sanctum is brightly lit and welcoming. We sit on the floor with devotees who sing and clap to a long-haired musician playing a two-headed drum. On the altar, in a small chamber, sits the gold-veiled Jagannath idol.
Behind Jagdish Mandir, an ashram feeds the homeless. A scraggly crew of men recline against a wall, bone-thin, waiting for volunteers to scoop rice and dal onto their aluminum platters (the poorer men have a only sheet of newspaper for plates). Above them a message is printed on the wall: Free foods supplied to poor helpless maimed crippled hermits saints. If you help with cash do not forget to collect receipt. Great to witness this community service. In many Hindu temples, food is reserved for the gods. Since the idols have no teeth or stomachs, it is the stray cows who arrive to feast on the coconuts left by the devotees.
Leaving Jagish Mandir we find the streets filled with commotion. A loud parade is following an elephant dusted with colored powders. Trumpets and drums. Bearded men in loincloths. Children with spacey eyes. Dogs in a what-it’s-all-about trot. A spastic boy blowing a paper whistle. A woman whose neck has grown into a basketball. The human parade—broken from its moorings. A rainbow with rusty edges. Rats in the shadows, war on the radio, planets in places they shouldn’t be.
her painted toes—
the temple elephant.
Wandering the alleys, we discover a blue-painted box set into a brick wall: a shrine with incense, clay water jug, and the melted shape of an idol. But the idol isn’t the highlight. A tray of earth spouting young rice shoots is what is prominent. The tender shoots are full of newborn life—so worthy, so innocent! The act of paying tribute to the Force behind their germination seems almost more important than the prayer we offer to a bowl of cooked rice before it is eaten.
Baby rice shoots
blessed by the shrine keeper’s
The shops in old Udaipur have stone lips at their entrances where merchants sit to do business, or recline for naps during lulls in trade. The shops have austere white walls and lemon-yellow doors. They belong to silversmiths, cloth vendors, launderers, a spice lady, and a fortune-teller who advertises:
Experienced Figure Reader
Courtesy Face Message.
We stop to photograph a wall painted with a Rajasthani herder driving a happy cow, horns festooned with flags, the hump decorated with vermilion handprints. On a balcony a madman wails, prancing back and forth, saliva drooling from his beard. Two streets later, another painted wall: two giant tigers on either side of a cucumber-green doorway, where, of course, a cart of cucumbers is parked. While we fiddle with our cameras, a girl in diaphanous black comes up. Silver chains, amulets, and strings of garnets adorn her neck. Her veil is pulled back to reveal a serious face with bolting obsidian eyes. She holds out a metal platter with a black-stone idol floating in oil. “Shani, shani,” she mutters. But we don’t understand. A passing man tries to explain. “God of justice, god of justice. You give one or two rupees, your curse will take away.” We drop a five-rupee note into the tray, and the girl moves dutifully on.
Returning to the lakefront we discover a large tree, gnarled at the base, ascending into a smooth trunk topped by a bold head of fluttering leaves. Women are on their knees bowing to a slit in the trunk, an obvious female contour into which one of them dribbles milk. One anoints the trunk with oil, another smokes the base with perfume. The sweet incense smell mixes with leaf mulch, garbage scraps, fermenting mangos, mold, and the musky odor of worshipers.
Tree of life—
We hoped to visit at least one Jain temple in this area, Mt. Abu a priority. But it now seems too far. Having just booked an overnight train from Udaipur to Delhi, and a flight to Ladakh, we’ve decided on something closer—the Adinatha temple at Ranakpur, two hours north of Udaipur. Our taxi driver has a nazar hanging from his rearview mirror, a glass eye that wards off evil. Perhaps it will also ward off the oncoming traffic into which he is driving—for he is on the wrong side of the new four-lane highway! I lean forward to say something, but he shuns me. “No worry, everybody on same side.” A spanking new four-lane highway, but—like the new subway in Delhi—no one knows how to use it. Drivers are so accustomed to heading into one another on the old rutted non-divided highway—playing chicken, claxons blasting—that a divided highway isn’t much fun. Traffic on the new interstate has thus re-routed itself into two of the four lanes, recreating the old non-divided highway. Yeah, crank it up, charge like smoking bulls, swerve aside at the last second, brakes hissing, rubber burning. A joy ride for the driver, but not for us.
When we turn onto a small back road to Ranakpur, I am greatly relieved. A pretty route, it curves into the Aravalli Hills between clusters of eucalyptus, rolling pastures, and herders. At every turn there are more of them, sheep and goats all along the road. “Where are they going?” I ask. “To the next pasture,” the driver frowns. The road provides a smooth trail and the herders have made it their right of way. Either the driver yields or he gets his windshield stoned.
Shortly we come to an old Persian-style waterwheel driven by two bullocks tramping around the pole to which they are tethered. This engages the gears that operate the wheel, which is fitted with metal scoops that lift water from ravine to fields. The bullocks are kept moving by a boy with a whip who sits on a wooden platform behind the beasts. Further on, we are stopped by several wild-looking girls wearing rough indigo and vermilion weave—two riding camels, two on foot leading camels. Tribal girls, and plenty feisty. Our driver shuts off the engine and turns to us: “Camera, camera!” The girls on foot press at our window with soot-stained fingers and clanking jewelry. They ask for money, rapping their bangles violently against the glass. Our driver gives a few coins, without our asking. Now we are obliged to “shoot picture.” Neither of us are into it, the camel girls aren’t either. Money in hand, they gallop off leaving a faint smoky trace in the air.
heads of heat, bodies of smoke
anklets ringing in the wind.
The driver gives a wince of disgust. He’s after a tip, and this stop is just one of many on the list of “favors” he says he is doing for us. He’s already stopped at various photo-op pull-offs (where every other driver stops), plus taken up our time in a rug shop of absolutely no interest. We were given a gratis backstrap-loom demo, but it was obvious that the rugs for sale were not woven there; they were purchased from weavers elsewhere, probably for a pittance.
Ranakpur is set in thickly-wooded hills at the bend of a stream. Built in the 15th-century, it is one of India’s five holy Jain sites, and is dedicated to Adinath, first of the 24 Tirthankaras. It is a very surreal temple. At least two dozen pavilions rise from various tiers, all crowned with marble spires. Stepping up into the inner sanctum, you walk among hundreds of milk-white columns. A stone forest! Each “tree” is nearly translucent, so finely carved that when light enters its delicate tangles it is absorbed by the marble. And there it lives, sending out a subtle glow. For how many centuries has this light been alive here, recycling itself into the eye of the beholder?!
Most of the carving focuses on the Jain pantheon: prophets, angels, dancers, deities, musicians surrounded with lacy representations of the natural world. Vines, tendrils, blooms, vortices of wind, water, cloud. Lingering among this minute filigree, an unexpected phenomenon occurs. The forest reverberates with a ringing. Insects drone, streams ripple, wind shudders through a hollow, trees rustle their leaves. You are breathing, the marble is breathing, a whole countryside is breathing! Form as consciousness! A biological organism expanding into a hymn of ringlets rising toward heaven—which, craning our heads, is represented by a circular marble ceiling spoked with floral motifs. A mandala, a wheel, a halo. Karma made visible! A breast, a nipple at center. The mineral world. The Mother world. The gods have cracked open a cosmic geode and one stands dumbfounded inside it.
Several dozen chapels surround the main temple, one of them open to visitors. I almost pass because of the heat, but Renée insists. We pop our umbrellas and hike over to it. It’s a marvelous little chapel with a richly-ornate doorframe, deliberately raised at the bottom—so that when stepping over it you know you are crossing a threshold. Inside is a seated Tirthankara in meditative pose. The softness of the carving makes these Jain representations very approachable. Their eyes, usually of glass or porcelain, have a spacey transparent look, as if they have truly left the shore, crossed to the other side, been freed of karmic matters. Yes, “gone beyond.” Having left they cannot return, only offer themselves as examples, not actual helpers.
over blooming poppies
on the far shore.
The one-hour flight, Delhi to Leh brings us north over the ragged teeth of the Himalayas. Banking west between the Zanskar and Ladakh ranges, lowering into the wrinkled desert of the Leh Valley, snow peaks rise above the plane. As we descend over the hairpin road that climbs Khardung La, one of the highest motorable passes in the world (18,400’) we spot a caravan of Indian army trucks on the switchbacks—mere ants in an endless offensive to prevent China from taking any more of Ladakh than what it did in the Sino-Indian War of 1962.
The Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport, at 11,000 feet, is small and laid back, despite the presence of the Indian army—here to prevent the spread of ongoing unrest in western Jammu-Kashmir, which borders Pakistan. Ladakh forms the eastern part of this state and is primarily Buddhist. Kashmir, in the west, is mostly Muslim. There’s plenty of tension is between the Indian government and Kashmiri separatists, with deadly mischief stirred into the pot by Pakistani militants who never expected Kashmir to belong to India after Partition.
After customs, we walk into the brisk air and look for transport. No one. Just the opposite of India, where everyone badgers you for a ride that usually includes an aggravating detour to a trinket shop, black-market money exchange, or to a hotel you didn’t book. A young mini-van driver appears, but he’s here for a group of climbers. “You just wait. Somebody coming.” His voice is almost whispered, typical of soft-spoken Ladakhis. You get up high, the voices become soft. Same in the American Southwest—speech is whispered on those Hopi mesas.
Shortly, a jeep rumbles up. The driver takes us into Leh at the going rate, no haggling, just a smile. We don’t have a hotel plan, just want to be within walking distance of town. Perhaps Changspa will do, the hamlet where I stayed thirty years ago. The driver takes us there, but Changspa has changed. Less fields, more houses—many with additions to receive summer tourists. Tillable land has dwindled. But, still, there are many terraced plots of barley, wheat, and potatoes. And, just as I remember them, every flat-roofed two-story adobe house has an orchard, flower garden, and vegetable patch. Apricots are drying on rooftops, apples bright red on spindly branches. Water rushes everywhere, the smells are sweet. We are both tickled with excitement. Behind irrigated lowland, aprons of fawn-colored desert sift between ragged slopes soaring into the cobalt sky. Prayer-flags play in the wind, fluttering from cairns and chortens that mark the summits.
Our driver finds a hotel, one of a handful still open beyond tourist season. Too new, too big for us. “Small place, small place,” I say. He smiles, swings the jeep around. We rattle up a rutted lane, past a huge painted prayer-wheel at a stream crossing where locals in maroon gowns (the older) and jeans (the younger) say prayers while spinning the wheel. The driver delivers us to a small home-stay near the 9th-century whitewashed Gomang Stupa. Amazingly, this is the exact area where I lodged all those decades ago. The home-stay is just outside Gomang’s crumbling chorten-filled compound. A young girl tending two miniature donkeys smiles Julay! She ushers us upstairs, above the donkey byre, into the family house. We meet her mother, father, and grandfather, all smiles. The room we are given is on yet a higher level, bright and clean, overlooking the Leh Valley. Log ceiling beams, tall windows, double bed, carpeted floor. Perfect! 200 rupees, roughly $4.50. Meals are a little extra, taken in the sitting room downstairs beside the kitchen. There’s only one other guest, a Swedish man who’s been here for weeks, now preparing to leave for south India.
It doesn’t take long to settle in, nothing to unpack. We’ve left our bigger bags in Delhi; all we have are daypacks stuffed with long underwear, sweaters, and caps. I chuckle, recalling how light Basho traveled, how he urged his students to keep their poetry light. Gary Snyder, in his flint-sharp addendum to Riprap, reminds us that, although there are some poets who “show the world through the prism of language, there is also the work of seeing the world without the prism of language, and to bring that seeing into language.” Delight in the ordinary, the shine of things as they are. Flecks of mica, polished agate, brightening the pool’s bottom.
Facing the stream’s current
a silver minnow
From our window, snow peaks—roughly 30 kilometers south—are etched into absolute clarity. In such lucidity, “far away” or “far behind” do not exist. Everything is here, un-distant, touchable. What’s up ahead, what’s been left behind, where one should have gotten in life, what didn’t happen back when. They are extinguished. Why dwell on what didn’t happen when there’s so much on the plate that does happen, did happen, is happening, will happen. I recall a road trip with my father—me 50, him in his 80s. Driving through a blaze of October colors in the Adirondacks, I turned to him: “Interesting how things have turned out.” To which he raised his brow like an old Zen master: “How things are turning out,” he corrected me.
Stretching to reach
a branch of ripe apples—
I’m ten years old again.
Speaking of Zen, and of October, my smile broadens into a laugh. Out of nowhere, flash, I recall a scene from the mid 70s—maybe because I just quoted Snyder; or perhaps it’s the dry mountain air and the sound of water. I’m bumping down a dusty Sierra Nevada fire road toward the Yuba River in my 51 Chevy, when I suddenly meet Gary and Nanao driving up from the river in Gary’s old Willys jeep. Two bums low in the seats, rough-cut, bhikku-like, Gary at the wheel, hair tied back, Nanao co-piloting in breechcloth, red dust in beard, engine-heat boiling up from the fender wells. Both just the way they were:
In dust and heat
all pretense ground into thin air
by the years.
Autumn in the Sierras. Spring in the soul. The dreamy state of being charged by the wonders of nature, all the while recognizing that we ourselves are shifting seasons. As a haiku revolutionary, Basho wandered from the Japanese tradition of including a seasonal word in haiku. Rather, he stressed seasonal awareness in oneself—and beginning from there.
“Toward the sun’s path
their dark heads.”
We are anxious to explore our new surroundings, but Tsering, the young girl of the house who serves us breakfast on the roof, warns: “today you rest, Ladakh very high.” I’m sure she tells all visitors this. Wonder if I’ll have the discipline to heed her advice. The bright sun and pure quiet feels sublime after India. Breakfast hits the spot: tea, vegetable omelets, Ladakhi flatbread with farm butter and apricot jam. Our view looks over the neighbors’ mud-wall houses toward the old whitewashed stupa. Each house has a courtyard and flat roof to provide extra living and work space. Fruit and vegetable greens dry on some roofs. On others, golden pyramids of barley are spread to dry with wooden rakes. Bundles of fodder line the parapets, and kindling for the cold months to come. A network of paths flanked by high walls stitches one neighborhood to another, so all of Changspa takes on a communal feeling. Through the poplars, across the valley, the Stok range rises blue-gray, just before the Zanskar Range. At 20,000’ Stok Kangri is the glacial crown.
From the tip of my pen
ridge tops, one by one
onto the page.
I didn’t heed Tsering’s warning about acclimatizing. The boxed text in our guidebook reiterates her words: “Any strenuous physical activity should be avoided for at least 24 hours. Leh’s altitude can cause insomnia, headaches, and breathlessness.” Last night I felt my head explode with all three symptoms. Cup after cup of mint tea, plus a heavy dose of ibuprofen brought me out of it. I slept soundly, retiring at seven, getting up to view a powdery sheet of stars at 2 am, feeling clear, the waning moon shining brightly into our room, Jupiter riding its rim.
All we did yesterday was walk into town, explore the market, and return—albeit in a relentlessly meandering fashion. The roughly six or seven kilometers was enough to tax the body, dry out the lungs, sunburn the neck, and, at bedtime, cause a hard-to-breathe jumpiness that prevents sleep. Much more severe than our experience a few years ago on the flanks of Gokyo-ri, 13 miles opposite Mt. Everest. Bedding down in a yak herder’s hut at 15,500 feet, we never did sleep. Only a gagging sense of not being able to get enough oxygen into the lungs, the body all the while saying, hey give me time, I need to re-adjust. According to Himalayan climbers, it’s 10,000’ higher where the hallucinations really begin—the death zone.
Besides the moon, the other bright light in the sky last night was Shanti Stupa, illuminated by electric light on a crag just west of Changspa. The stupa didn’t exist when I visited in the 70s. The Japanese built it in the 80s, on a spree of inaugurating world peace monuments. We visited one of their stupas in Orissa, a rather ungainly one on Dhauli Hill that commemorates Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. In contrast, Shanti stupa looks austerely beautiful. We decide to visit it after breakfast: a climb of 500 or so steps up the 100-meter crag on which it rests.
We eat in the family room, the main living quarters during late fall, winter, and early spring when mornings fall below zero. Ceiling beams and pillars have been seasoned over the years to a smoky molasses. A large rectangular stove sits at one wall, its earthen body overlaid with stamped metal, jeweled with red glass, turquoise, and copper. Behind the stove are gleaming copper vessels, stainless-steel plates, a samovar, two churns, and several Chinese thermoses. The room is banked with low sitting platforms made comfortable with Tibetan carpets. In front of them are low wooden tables. The floor is covered with khabdans—bold and bright pile carpets woven on Tibetan vertical looms.
We are all eyes and curiosity. So much to look at! Tea pots, brooms with copper handles, enormous brass vessels, wooden utensils, whisks, beaters, spindles. Meanwhile, Tsering—perpetually and gracefully busy—lifts a curtain and appears from the kitchen, setting before us a tray of coffee, omelets, and rounds of freshly-baked bread. Aware of our plans to visit Shanti Stupa, she’s added a treat for our hike: dried apricots, extra bread, and two apples—as red and shiny as her wind-seared cheeks.
Her bow, our bow
in a ray of light.
The hike up to the stupa is slow and steep. Though sparkling new, the stupa is reminiscent of Sanchi’s ancient design. It has two levels of ambulatory paths that guide the pilgrim around its body, which is banded with brightly-painted bas-reliefs depicting Buddha’s life. The view out, into pure-void emptiness, is spellbinding. The air vibrates with a tinnng, a silence shot through with radiant ripples: the “lines of force,” that Arthur Dove painted, the aura-strokes of Emily Carr. My ears begin to ring: time recycling itself, space filling with eons of earth history, Lao Tzu’s star dust, the chortle of Han Shan, Milarepa’s songs, Sappho’s lyre, the genealogies of gods and heroes in the airwaves. And then:
only the sky’s breath
Leh hugs a rocky cliff a few kilometers off, the old city rising up to meet the decaying palace, Potola-like, etched against the sky. Leh’s jumbled dwellings, squares of umber, cubes of raw sienna, seem composed by Braque—sober hues, warped angles, uncanny perspective. Beyond Leh, unrolls the wind-scraped valley of the Indus River. The water finds source in Tibet, drops off the plateau into Ladakh, down through the Hindu Kush, into Pakistan and the Arabian Sea. Up high: the old Shamanistic cultures. Down low: the remains of the great Harappan civilization—3500 BC. Here the river is a turquoise thread through fields of barley hedged with poplars—some have already turned gold. Behind the fields, barren deposits of sand sweep from purple canyons rising into ragged peaks. All seems human-empty, until the eye makes out a monastery on a rocky bluff, Mars red against the beige desert. And another. The gompas occupy commanding positions. They look into eternity. Down below, life goes on: toil of human activity around houses scattered like shards along irrigated fields.
Shanti Stupa is a good place to get our geographic bearings. Every breath I give to the universe creates a ripple in what the eye sees. Topographic swirls, glitter of quartz. Mauve sandbars, sun-polished femur. Smooth bellies, magnetic folds. Earth’s anatomy! I run my eyes over it, run my hand over my knuckles and knees. In the silvered distance—so near, so clear—I imagine minuscule figures singing themselves up footholds among rocky moraines, glacial scars. Traders slipping through serrated keyholes, a bit of gear, minimal staples: toasted barely, dried meat, leathered fruit. Melding the quest for new trade routes with spiritual inroads. No wonder they wore amulets, appeased the spirits, set their thoughts and actions into harmony with the sentient forces of the land. One could be swept from a cliff by a sudden wind, die in an avalanche, disappear into a crevasse, become a frost-embalmed mummy. True wilderness! No place for a self-centered, thought-heavy person. Align yourself with the gods or die! Form a rapport with nature and don’t wait for a divine revelation. Kindle awareness, make smoke of the ego, cultivate a mind as vast as the sky.
Renée opens her journal and writes, standing among winged devas, upward-gazing bodhisattvas, earth-touching Buddhas. She melds with them, cheek-burned, serene—attractively sexy in red headband, cardamom blouse, dusty-rose sweatshirt, black pants, burgundy shoes. Today, we know each other without mask, intellect, or shadow. We turn with the planet, drift without selves, and come back to selves—two flames burning as One. Below us, on the steep path below the stupa, two figures in maroon:
Up 500 steps
an old monk effortlessly
helps the novice along.
The monasteries, or gompas, as they are locally called, function as spiritual centers of Buddhist learning. They once were protective strongholds from which local farmers were governed. Some of the gompas, such as Alchi, are maintained more for their historical significance rather than for everyday monastic practice. Most gompas sit on table-top crags or cling to cliff sides. A few nestle in canyons and are fed by springs. The central prayer hall is the focus—dimly lit, profuse with religious images, painted scrolls (thangkas), protective deities, the Buddha, and various bodhisattvas. Murals, old and new, depict earthly and cosmic realities. There are long narrow seating areas for the monks—raised platforms spread with carpets—and benches for their paraphernalia. Near the altar, the lama sits on a wooden platform raised a bit higher than the sangha. There are musical instruments: horns, cymbals, a conch, a yak-skin drum hanging from a painted wooden rack. A wall of brightly-painted cubicles holds sacred texts—block-printed mantras on loose leaves of paper gathered between decorated boards wrapped in silk. There is a kitchen for preparing tea and tsampa (toasted barley), smaller prayer rooms off the assembly hall, classrooms and housing for monks and nuns along paths zigzagging below the gompa.
On or near the grounds are whitewashed chortens, an evolution of the stupa, but smaller. Made of mud-covered brick, they may hold relics of saints, lamas, or pieces of scripture; or they may be purely symbolic, little monuments erected in memory of Buddha. Their differently-shaped levels—squares, circles, triangles—represent earth, air, fire, and ether. At the gompa entrance are prayer wheels. If not there, they are at nearby water sources, crossroads, or trailheads. Often quaintly housed under painted eaves, the wooden cylinders (some are of painted leather) are banded with copper, stamped with Om Mani Padme Hum—O Jewel in the Lotus—the mantra given by Avelokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion.
As devotees intone their mantras, they whirl the prayer wheels clockwise, spinning mystic syllables into the universe—the same breath (life force) that was originally given by the universe. We’ve seen monkeys spin the wheels, too—with very serious looks, as if trying to help the human world back into balance. Often a single prayer wheel—three or four meters high, like the one at the stream crossing near our home-stay—sits on a giant spindle inside a brightly-painted shrine. When pilgrims spin the wheel, a tinng tinng sounds as a small metal arm at the wheel’s top hits a bell. In Nepal, on the Everest trail, there are water-worked prayer wheels where crows perch, squawking in time to the squeak of the wheels as whitewater foams around them.
So many intricacies to consider in these gompas. We’d have to remain years to fully appreciate them. For example, on closer inspection, the prayer wheels reveal amazing repoussé work—decorative patterns of raised motifs created by beating the metal from the reverse side to raise the surface, then working the front side. Painted mandalas, too, especially the Wheel of Life, are nearly impenetrable on first look. Tucked between the more obvious designs are all sorts of cosmological symbols: a rabbit on the moon grinding the nectar of immortality; a sunburst in a deity’s bellybutton; a red, three-legged crow—images that cause the mind to leap.
Mud daubers too
the Wheel of Life.
Another feature of the gompa is the mani wall. A very old one is right outside our home-stay next to Gomsang Stupa. The wall is more like a berm—long, narrow, flat-topped, built of rubble, plastered and gessoed, covered with river stones carved with Om Mani Padme Hum. The wall, often a hundred meters or more in length, is always passed on the left side. We were on a bus, once, when the driver suddenly detoured from his route to ride us all clockwise around a mani wall. Some guidebooks say that stupas and mani walls are circumambulated clockwise “to ward off evil spirits.” More simply, a clockwise turning sets the body in tune with earth’s turning. The way the dancers at Tesuque Pueblo enter the plaza in a spiral. How a stream meets a boulder, braids a circle around it, and continues to the ocean.
filled with singing
I’ve always loved how those monasteries grow right out of the cliffs, their walls sloped dramatically into the sky—continuing the motion of the bluff. Hokusai’s Great Wave! The gompa gains energy as it crests, its many tiers surging up, tinkling with bells, shaking with banners, smiling with painted skulls. Narrow windows are outlined in charcoal, ruffled with multi-colored valances. Lintels, corbels, doorframes, balconies are carved and decorated in gaudy colors. It must be the nature of dwellers in a monochrome environment to add color! The gompa seems to be the main relief from Ladakh’s monochrome. I suppose color TV is the other.
Within walking distance of our home-stay is a café run by a affable Sikh from Jammu. It’s one of the few eateries still open in October, though right now he’s low on supplies and preparing to close. Good coffee, Indian chai, and curries can be had, and there are used and new books for sale. We purchase the excellent Pilgrims (my India publisher) guide to Ladakh’s monasteries. Today we’ll trek through Changspa’s fields to Shankar Gompa, and in the following days take a local bus to Thiske, and check out rides to Alchi, Likir, and Hemis—all within a 70-kilometer radius of Leh.
We find our way toward Shankar on a path bordered with running water. Villages houses are of whitewashed stone and neatly-maintained, balconies brightened with rusty cans of marigolds, roofs lined with drying bundles of grass. Most houses have low walls enclosing gardens of squash and beans, chard, carrots, and cabbage, random plantings of amaranth and sunflowers. A comical scarecrow stands amid a flutter of pink cosmos. Another, off duty, leans against squares of solar panels waiting to be installed. Spare adobes are piled into impromptu walls. Dung cakes are stacked into chorten-like piles. As the paddies dry they exude a sweet hay smell. When fully dry, they offer a clean source of fuel.
On a grassy bank, a group of ladies enjoys a tea party, laughing and joking over bread, apples, toasted barley, and a big yellow thermos of solja—salty butter tea. In a stream diversion reserved for washing, a woman does her laundry. She slaps the clothes with a paddle, rinses them, spreads them on low shrubs to dry. Over everything, blue mountain light. A chisel taps, a bucket splashes, a woodpecker tats. Hoo hoo! someone calls from a balcony. A young girl steps from a doorway with dripping hair, knots and wrings it in the bright sun. A magpie preens a wing, iridescent tail feathers quivering in the breeze. For a moment I find myself
Leaving the trail
to follow the crooked path
of a butterfly.
Hundreds of sensations flutter into my head as I walk. A good re-charge under the autumn sky. A dzo in the field, blue deer in the crags, ants marching up a thistle. I’m glad to be away from the unnatural position of sitting at a desk—the writing routine that often engulfs me at home. Give me the active state: walking, weeding, hammering nails on the roof, fitting stone into a path, splitting pine for the hearth, splashing paint onto canvas. Staring at a blank piece of paper waiting for the poem to come is not my sense of duty. A dull idea! A blank sheet of sky does me better. Under it, all sorts of ideas flow into the head.
I once got paid to judge a poetry contest—a little funding to put towards a root canal (which turned out to be less painful than reading the contest submissions). The poems seemed to be authored by writers painfully aware of the kind of awards-in-mind “craft” one learns in MFA programs. Every manuscript was baked in the same mold: cupcake look-alikes, cupcake taste-alikes. Why didn’t these authors leave the superhighway (and its rules) for a zigzag trail? Tearing up the images and reassembling them might have helped. Or opening a window to let the breeze rearrange the pages. For sure the work would have profited if the authors had some real life experience. A good non-academic head shake, an impromptu burlesque, a roll in the hardscrabble, a stint as a butcher, nurse, steel worker, farmhand, or midwife. Anything but sixteen-plus years in an institution, where, with each step up the grade, one descends further into the abyss of abstraction. Santoka:
on its way to becoming bamboo
how honest of it!”
We stop to watch a potato harvest. A yoked beast drags the tubers up with a wooden plow and earth-crusted hands scoop them into baskets. A farmer waves us over to a blanket spread with biscuits and tea. A girl in red scarf, indigo apron, her leggings bright orange, gives a coy look before labor reclaims her. Blue sky, warm bread, salty tea—once again we are pulled from our separate realities into the lives of others. It’s what Basho did when he took to the road. Not with the idea of escaping a weary world, but going further in. Gaining a new set of eyes in the wilderness of one’s own mind while tramping a new watershed. Santoka:
“The deeper I go
the deeper I go, green
I’m probably skimming the surface, but it seems that most Ladakhis—those who adhere to the old ways, at least—are quite content with “just enough.” Enough snowmelt to get the spring crops going; enough harvest to insure ample fruit, grain, and hay to hold through the winter; enough time between work to play. I look at these terraced plots—every little bit of land carefully nourished and cultivated—and feel the energy of people helping people. A balance of work, laughter, and prayer. A far cry from northern New Mexico where many fields lie fallow. And in such a time of hunger and dire cost of living! In the last few months we’ve lost our general store, gas station, village priest, and—almost—the community library. Dance halls are boarded up, barn-raising a thing of the past, and all those once well-kept adobes are collapsing back into the earth. Modular homes, satellite TVs, old pickups, new pickups, ATVs, and all sorts of junk interrupt the land. Now and then a glimmer of hope. A bean field where yesterday was a patch of rusting cars. An old shed converted to a blacksmith’s shop. A greenhouse where an empty house trailer sat. A new home built of real adobe. A tree lovingly set into the earth to inaugurate a new elementary school.
Amid harvest laughter
of resting sickles.
Shankar Gompa, where is it? Enjoyably, we have strayed. But up comes a an old monk spinning a prayer wheel, adjusting his thick glasses at the sight of us. He knows what we are looking for, helps us through the fields, over an irrigation ditch—and there it is: the monastery, tucked into a copse of poplars. He opens the little zinc gate hand-painted with SAMKAR GONPA, and shows us into a garden filled with pink roses and purple lilacs. A tranquil warmth. Not much going on, only the mellow buzzing of bees. Morning puja is over, most of the monks are in their rooms. One finally appears with a ring of keys and unlocks the big red doors of the dukhang, the assembly hall. We remove shoes, walk onto the parquet floor polished espresso brown by decades of bare feet. The darkness slowly becomes a hazy red as our eyes adjust.
The first thing we make out is a weird wooden statue. “Mi Gan,” says the monk, “Old man of long life.” Mi Gan looks like a goblin, his white face gaping with a mischievous mouth. One of his many arms holds a bowl of flaming jewels before his torn-open chest. Reminds me of the bleeding saints in Mexican churches, only the torn-open chest emits no blood. Instead, the peeled back skin reveals dozens of little golden Buddhas—the Buddha in all of us. On the altar, behind a large Buddha circled with blinking bulbs is Avelokiteshvara: gold body frocked in bronze silks, triple heads looking in all directions, six arms radiating with bow, arrow, rosary, bell, drum—and behind them, a halo composed of hundreds of more arms. Mind blowing!
The dukhang has the usual long benches set with wooden bowls and block-printed prayers, and before them the low platforms covered with small Tibetan rugs where the monks sit. There’s that large round drum on its spindle, too; animal-skin head dyed black, wooden body ornamented with a lacquered band of white and black smiling skulls. The drum is next to a table set with a jar of candies, brass bell, dorje, and damaru—the two-headed hand-drum, which can be traced to the old shamanistic cultures of central Asia, as well as to the Tantric cults of India.
Day is dimming as we return to our home-stay. There’s a bucket of hot water waiting for us in the upstairs bath. Renee takes half, mixes it with cold water, hunkers to wash under a window open to a line of snow peaks lit by the last beams of sun. I follow in the same ritual, afterwards wrap towel around waist, step onto the porch.
seen through the body’s
Sonam Dorje, the patriarch of the house, comes upstairs to chat after we bathe. He’s 76, lost his wife to stomach cancer in ’94. He shows us her photograph. Warm and forthright look on her face. Mother of five daughters and a son who is in the army, stationed in Rajasthan. The daughters, all except one, live in Ladakh. One of them is the mother of Tsering, and lives with her husband in the casa here.
Sonam opens the door to his puja room, a brightly-painted chamber next to our sleeping quarters—blues and reds among sprays and scrolls of gold and green. The floor is linoleum, overlaid with Tibetan carpets. There are two low benches, and the usual assortment of ceremonial implements: brass bell, cymbals, dorje, drum. Ritual scarves and thangkas hang from one wall; a large wooden altar occupies most of another. The base of the altar has eight panels painted with Buddhist symbols: a pair of golden fish, a parasol, the vessel of unlimited treasures, a lotus, conch shell, endless knot, victory banner, dharma wheel. The altar is adorned with plastic sunflowers and colored lights. Seven silver bowls are set before glass-doored cabinets housing various deities. A photo of the Dalai Lama is pinned below Sonam Dorje’s favorite bodhisattva: Avelokiteshvara—of whom the Dalai Lama is an embodiment.
Sonam takes great care of his puja room, dusting it regularly, chanting before the altar every morning and evening. A lama visits monthly to perform ritual offerings. “Unfortunately,” Sonam tells us, “you missed him today. He left before you arrived” (the scent of burnt juniper still lingers). Sonam is the first of the household to rise. Just after dawn, he walks to the village spring and fills the silver bowls, all the while intoning Om Mani Padme Hum. “I do this to have a good day.” In the evening the bowls are emptied, wiped, and stacked upside down in preparation for the next day. “Clear water purifies negative thinking. Empty bad thoughts and positive actions will fill the day.” The bowls are set before the deities to welcome them as guests. The compassion of Avelokitesvara, the diligence of Buddha, the protection of Mahakala are brought to Sonam’s mind as he rings a bell in his left hand and waves a brass dorje—the thunderbolt scepter—in his right. In mid-air, feminine meets masculine.
the bray of a donkey
under a passing cloud.
At dawn we walk into Leh to catch a mini-bus for Thikse. But nothing stirs. Bakers and poets are the only ones up. (I think of lowland India at this hour—like a runaway train, buses revving, carts rattling, the multitude amped with all the full-blast brouhaha it can muster.) After some walking around we locate a parking lot of rickety buses, but no drivers. Fine, we’ll take tea, hang out, and open our journals.
A dream last night: a few of us were gathered around a big Atlas, determined to locate a land supposedly rising from a “psychic convergence” where Pakistan-China-Ladakh come together. The closer we looked at the Atlas, the more it began to swell. “Another country has been found!” somebody yelled. We had to mount stepladders to see its dimension properly. Indeed, there was a bulging laccolith rising from the map, a bluish-white stupa ringed with clouds. “A new world!” I gasped. I awoke at 3 a.m., walked out under the blazing stars, and wondered: is this how it felt when large segments of the world were not only left to discover, but to imagine? Tu Fu’s time, Alexander’s time, Homer’s time? Have we have exhausted our “discoveries” (or sense of discovery) in this day and age—and thus our imaginative powers?
Things finally begin to stir at the bus stand. A puff of engine exhaust, honk of a horn, and a clanking machine with bald tires and cracked windshield pulls up. We’re off. Thikse is 20 kilometers southeast of Leh on a hill overlooking the Indus Valley. It gleams like an island in the middle of a tawny sea. A dozen tiers—monks quarters and a nunnery—climb into the sky, edge after edge narrowing up to the gompa, its dukhang washed with brick red and yellow ochre, topped with gold finials. This was a fortress in the 15th century, expanded over the years, painted with murals in the 19th century, and now, in the 21st, the Archeological Survey of India is doing some renovation. But not without controversy. The bright stone and mud courtyards have been replaced with somber granite, and some of the windows do not resemble the originals.
Although Thikse is a must-see, this morning we see only one other tourist climbing the hundreds of steps up the maze of flat-roofed dwellings and crumbling chortens. At the top, we stop to inhale the view: a burnished sweep of sand every direction, an occasional pencil-mark of dust left by a spinning whirlwind. It’s difficult to measure distance. A hundred kilometers, a stone’s throw. Smooth desert skin over a breathing body. Purple veins. Hips and ankles of metallic sheen. A cinnabar-red fold too suggestive for words. This is not a “landscape,” for there is nothing static here. It is energy made visible, a place where the senses unravel and recombine in proper cosmological context. Wherever you look, a holy land. Not afar in the Levant, not in some imaginable paradise beyond. But right where we stand, all that sings us forward, draws us in, enchants. Which is why the gompas are built where they are. Michael McClure would praise this “boundless something and nothingness!”
“this cameo of perfection
with smoothly polished edges.
Thikse has me recalling the Hopi “sky cities.” Eyes see level with clouds, sky embraces feet. When the masked dancers appear at Thikse, you look between their legs and spinning capes and goggling eyes into ethereal nada—the end and beginning of the world. At Hopi, as the Kachinas shake their rattles and chant, you look between their kilts and see a vast sweep of desert hoodoos and broken cliffs, a convergence of psychic and physical worlds. In both places sacred rivers thread through a baked brown desert. The Hopis have their Colorado, the Ladahkis their Indus. Northeast of Thikse, the Indus pours out of Tibet, the “Shining Land” where shamans could fly and magicians could live on air for thousands of years; where yoginis could meditate, crack open dormant energies, and see through form and consciousness. Rilke:
“There begins the world
as we conceive it.
And its meaning
quietly surpasses us.”
As we stroll the courtyard we hear horns, drums, cymbals. Blaaaah, waaaah! Ump, thump! A clinggg, a crashh. Sun Ra! On the steps of the dukhang we remove shoes, enter, sit on the floor at the rear of the hall. Everything is just finishing up—the grand finale before instruments are collected and set to rest in a dark corner. There remains, however, the sound of a lone monk in a tiny side chamber. We find him through a low door, sitting in smoky murk, going full throttle on his drum, chanting and trancing in front of an array of statues. The place feels millennia old. Solemn and eerie, most of the deities are veiled—too fierce for the human psyche! One is half wrapped—open-jawed, eyes rolling upward—a black vajra cane with skulls in one hand. Another looks like Mahakala. The rest disappear—puffed cheeks and ogling eyeballs—into a ghoulish cavern of frayed drapery. Very much a dream world. The maroon-robed monk is not to be disturbed. His eyes indicate, Leave!
In the darkness
a splinter of burning sun
on the priest’s bell.
A more soothing chapel is the one housing the 12-meter high, gold-crowned Maitreya, the Future Buddha (maitri, Sanskrit: friendly; metta: Pali: loving-kindness). The Dalai Lama thought this image “the most beautiful I have ever seen.” Maitreya’s face is gently burnished, his eyes staring serenely outward as if waiting for his time to come. His crown flares with deities. The attendant monk says these are the five Dhyani Buddhas, “wisdom tathagatas” who represent the five qualities of the Buddha, each of which merits a separate meditation. The Buddhas are different colors to show their individual associations with fire, wind, water, earth, space. “Each Buddha has power to transform negative energy into positive energy. Hate, pride, and lust can become love, understanding, and trust.”
In a tiny eatery run by the monks, we order milk tea and parathas and meet two British men who are bicycling through Ladakh. They’re staying in Leh before heading over the 17,500’ pass to Manali—if they can beat the snows. We agree to meet day after tomorrow and share a jeep to Alchi and Likir, two gompas east of Leh. Renée and I then leave Thikse, walking a road skirting the Indus. Plenty of birdlife in the berry bushes: warblers, white-winged redstarts, bluethroats, wagtails, mountain chiffchaffs. At one point we hear a thump-thudd thump-thuddd echoing through the willows. It’s coming from an adobe hut with a raised waterway leading to it. We divert onto a trail, find a miller at his wheel in a tiny millhouse. Solitude, just the rhythm of water, slow clunk-a-clunk of the grinding stone, sweet smell of toasted barley sifting through a cloth funnel over the stone to be ground into flour. The miller sprinkles a little barley in our palms. The grains are warm. We lick the toasty flavor with child delight. Nomad food. Staple of travelers. Food for marriages, births, the New year.
To the millwheel’s mantra
my eyes well
Hemis is a rambling old gompa, one of Ladakh’s largest. It is 25 kilometers down the valley from Thikse, across the Indus, well hidden at the end of a craggy slit in the mountains. We don’t even see it until we round the last of the zigzag curves up the narrow canyon. Hemis is famous for its masked dances (they draw large crowds in the summer), and for its once-every-12-years ceremony in which a 12-meter wide, four-story-high thangka is unfurled. Plenty of lore is connected with Hemis. Naropa, the great Indian yogi and mystic—teacher of Marpa (the founder of the Kagyu-lineage of Buddhism who taught Milarepa)—is said to have come here in the 11th century from Nalanda, the famous Buddhist University in northern India.
A more questionable visit was that of a certain Saint Isa, made known to the West by Nicolas Notovitch, a 19th-century Russian scholar who traveled extensively through India and Tibet, broke his leg near Hemis, and stayed to recover. In the gompa, he learned that its library had documents about a “Saint Isa,” known in the West as Jesus! When Notovitch had the texts translated, they revealed that Jesus lived seventeen years in India and Tibet, studying with Hindus and Buddhists. His journey from Jerusalem to the Ganges was recorded by Brahman historians, then translated into Tibetan. In 1894 Notovitch published The Unknown Life of Christ, which stirred things up in the West, where he was ridiculed as a charlatan.
One of his Notovitch’s skeptics, Swami Abhedananda, a Bengali scholar and disciple of Vivekananda, visited Hemis in 1922 and translated 224 verses of the same text that Notovitch had studied. He found the story of Saint Isa to be true. In 1925, Nicholas Roerich came to Hemis, examined the documents, and also verified the Saint Isa story. But where are the documents today? Nobody seems to know. Likely the monks got tired of pesky Westerners and hid the texts away.
The view from Hemis is hypnotic. Looking north, wind-scoured cliffs fall away into a pale blue valley where another jumble of cliffs rises. Behind them are the snow-dusted Ladakh mountains with China just beyond. In the immediate foreground, across the gorge, is a rust-colored niche of stone houses, their tenants once linked to the gompa by the old sharecrop tradition. To the west, rumpled summits dwarf the monastery—a scroll painting of shifting crags crisscrossed into combed ridges. Twisted, sea-churned, wind-ripped, they tilt sideways into a deep canyon. The earth is still rumbling, formed only yesterday. Crackkk Clinnk! We look to a knife-edged crest. A puff of dust hangs there. A spray of pebbles has let loose, tumbling into a ravine with an echoing clatter. When we look to the cliffs again, all is silent.
The entire ridge
Entering Hemis, we spin the prayer wheels under a portico facing a courtyard graced by two bannered poles. This is where the masked dances occur. Years ago, while hiking around the Annapurna massif in Nepal, I came upon masked dances in a courtyard just like this one. I wish our timing had been better here, but on the other hand, a quiet day like today has its own rewards. No crowds, ceremonies, or camera flash. No ambient chatter and no one in our way to block the architectural details, murals, or reliquaries.
The prayer-wheel portico is somewhat like the roofed arcade fronting Santa Fe’s 17th-century Palace of the Governors. But Hemis has a more joyous feel than New Mexico’s somber adobe. Its arcade is finished in yellow-ochre with accents of salmon-pink, and the roof overhang is bordered with white dots on a black band. Stepping up to the crimson doors of one of two assembly halls (the other is closed for repair), the decor becomes psychedelic. Corbels and beams are profuse with griffins, protector deities, peonies, lotus blooms, and unfurling clouds: indigo, emerald, vermilion, apricot. A brass bell hangs over the doorway with a twisted-cloth pull rope. I’m tempted to ring myself right into the Void!
The world as is:
big sky, big mountains
a napping monk.
The inside of the assembly hall is permeated by hazy carnelian light, as if filtered through the finest silk. Butter lamps and incense, lingering reverberations of prayer and divination—yet none of the claustrophobia we felt in India’s dank Hindu temples. Sakyamuni sits on the altar, flanked by thangkas and several deities—among them, the goddess Tara. The earthen walls are plastered white, painted with medicine Buddhas and yab-yum erotica: male and female figures in seated intercourse, wisdom and compassion passionately entwined.
An upstairs chamber holds one of the highlights of Hemis: an 8-meter-high statue of Padmasambhava, “The Lotus Born,” also known as Guru Rinpoche, the Indian master of the occult who was invited to Tibet in 747 A.D. Under his influence, Indian Tantric works were translated, and the old Bon-pa shamanism played down. Gold faced and wide-eyed, he is seated on a lotus between purple pillars, his eyes bolting through space. In one hand he raises a gold dorje, in the other a bannered wand. This staff, topped by two carved human heads and a smiling skull, finds origin in similar staffs carried by ancient Indian ascetics—devotees of Shiva and his consort, Shakti—who roamed smoking cannabis, sleeping in charnel grounds, marking themselves with ash, playing trumpets made of human thighbones. Composing poems, they rattled their damarus and sang as they walked. Many of the roving Bauls do the same today, vowing to never sleep more than one night in the same place.
Leaving Padmasambhava’s chamber, we meet a Ladakhi guide attached to a German tourist, who offers a bit of information about Padmasambhava's wand. “It is the sign of a lineage holder. Also of Mt. Meru, the chakras, the five elements. The idea of impermanence is shown by the human heads impaled by the wand, crowned by the smiling skull. Annihilation of desire and ignorance.”
Several murals stand out: the modern ones of Milerepa, Marpa, and Naropa; an older one of a sexy yab-yum couple. Compassion is bright yellow, her back toward us. Below her naked buttocks are human heads and smiling skulls. Her waist is wrapped with pearl-like ornaments, her legs pressed to Wisdom’s ink-blue body. He bites her lips, wraps his thunderbolt-holding hands around her breasts, and thrusts himself deep inside her. As Wisdom and Compassion unite, their appendages become a whirl of rose, indigo, white, and lemon yellow. The arms flail, bearing pinwheels, drums, rosaries, conch, hatchets, dorjes, and scarves. The energy is absolutely out there!
Lovers at climax
from their fingertips.
Likir and Alchi
Our last foray is to Likir and Alchi, two monasteries west of Leh. Likir is known for its huge Maitreya sculpture, Alchi for its exquisite murals and statuary. Both have superb settings in back canyons off the main Leh-Srinagar highway. We cut the cost of the journey by sharing a jeep with the two Brits we met at Thikse and a German woman who works with handicapped children in Leh. Our driver is a laid-back ex-monk who says he left the sangha because he didn’t like the system of hierarchy. “Better everybody on one plane,” his comment.
The slow drive out of Leh runs along a narrow ledge above the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers—the former, muddy brown; the latter, bright turquoise. We drop down into the village of Basgo—once the capital of Ladakh—a quiet well-watered place with pastures, well-tended gardens, and plenty of adobe construction. The driver lets us out for a walk—we’ll meet him at the other end of town. A ruined citadel, mostly collapsed walls, sits on a gray cliff. There’s also a gompa that is supposed to have some fine murals, but no time for it this time around. Next year, next lifetime? We buy water and sweets at a roadside stall, re-board the jeep, and rumble into the wildness for which Ladakh is noted: moon-like valleys, teeth-ragged canyons, razor-sharp peaks—endless rearrangements of consciousness. Wind-driven pebbles shuttle across the hardpan. Emptiness breathes. A mirage cuts apart the sky, a hoodoo wobbles in heat waves. Chortens poke up in unexpected places, mani walls too. Someone’s at work out there—carving stones and chiseling paths to Nirvana Land.
We drive over a rise of desert smooth as glass, a glare like sheet metal. A kiang, wild ass, trots from a shadow as the road descends toward Likir in the distance, a child’s mud-castle perched on a boulder-strewn hill at the mouth of a canyon, huge mountains behind. A road sign gives the distance to Srinagar, 425 kms. Another reads:
“Careful with my curves
There is no sign for Likir. Whirlwinds indicate the way, spinning us down a dusty cut off. The driver turns, follows a rutted track guarded by stupas. The setting is majestic, isolate. Three jewel-like clouds float over Likir’s huge, seated Maitreya—gold against stark blue. The crisp outline of the Zanskar range crinkles off to the southwest. Ethereal vistas dupe the mind. Austerity is the impression here. Open to the wind and cold. A sky so enormous it reduces you to a speck. As a monk, you better have your practice together. All this something of nothingness to dwell on! Kerouac: “How shall we describe the emptiness of reality, the Dharmakaya of the sky, the bliss radiant Void, the huge hint above our heads?”
Some hundred monks live at Likir, but few are around—many of them serve as caretakers of nearby Alchi. The gompa belongs to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Buddhism, a branch that demands high discipline from a sangha that adheres to the Dalai Lama’s leadership; his younger brother, in fact, heads the monastery. Ah, this rocky remoteness, a superb retreat from our tortured world! What obstacles along the karma trail might be exposed by extended time here?
not the bell, but blue sky
I climb an old wooden stair, splinters catching the sun like sparks. I pick up a hand mirror that someone has left next to a bar of soap. A wild-looking animal smiles back at me! His chin is white whiskered, the eyes gone deeper blue, brow furrowed like a potato field, the corners of the mouth creased with stains. Nothing to cry about. The head is happy under its hat, feet high-spirited in their sandals. Life’s getting more interesting. And scary too. Rampant suffering, vicious folly, homeless wanderers. Wars, snipers, ignorant creeps pretending deliverance. The theater keeps playing the same show. The news is never new. The dung beetles roll in it.
Climbing onto the roof, I look into pure-void manifestation of reassembling atoms, rocks exploding, clouds mutating, Buddha under an umbrella of cobras, Jesus mending his charpoy in Benares. Time beginning over again, spitting out old nettles. The bare bones of Now. Salvation only an idea, as are the angels, prophets, and saints. As are John and Renée. Every wrinkle of creation, all notions of “self” and “other” become dust the thermals. Kerouac, again, scratching his head in his mother’s backyard: “God is a warm idea for the cool void.”
Quiet laughter, my own. A no-reason-at-all laughter bouncing off the monks’ quarters into the courtyard. “No path, no origination, nothing to attain!” The Prajnaparamita Sutra. Suddenly, clukclukclukcluk-cluk goes an army helicopter overhead. “No suffering, no origination, no attainment or non attainment.” Clukclukclukcluk. “No ignorance,no extinction of ignorance.” Clukclukclukcluk-cluk the helicopter continues. And then fades . . .
No unkind act
no sparrow left unfed
Likir’s rooftop Maitreya, 25 meters high, is a recent addition, much too garish with its gleaming gold curves and outlandish size—for the gompa’s hard-edged simplicity. On the other hand, for a hugely out of balance world, why not a hugely-proportioned Buddha? Maitreya faces east, sitting with one hand upraised, one resting on knee, both forming mudras. One, I believe, indicates the Wheel of the Law; the other, Dharma. The Buddha of the Future is supposed to appear in 5000 years. That might be a bit too late!
On the roof over the assembly hall painted poles are crowned with smiling wood skulls, each topped with flame-like designs cut from metal. In the hall we inspect an impressive Wheel of Life mural, and examine a library of sacred books, each in its own cubbyhole covered with glass. There is supposed to be an 11th-century thangka, but we never locate it.
Renée, me, our British buddies, the German woman each go separate ways to explore the grounds. Then a young Japanese traveler in Peruvian sweater, Benares scarf, harlequin pants, and leather clogs appears. From where, who knows—a genie in a cloud of dust. The kid doesn’t speak English, so keeps silent as he enjoys the view, retreats to the inner chambers, and, as we are about to leave, shyly asks “Go with you?” We smile a Yes, he scrunches into the back of the jeep, sitting across from the German woman, who tries to get him to speak.
“Zoji-la,” he manages, as we bump down the dirt track to the Srinagar-Leh Highway. Our driver turns and smiles, “Oh you want bus? Zoji la? Bus right there!” As if pre-destined, there is indeed an approaching bus. “Zoji-la?” the kid asks. “Yah, Yah, Zoji-la!” we all join in. “ZOJI LA! ZOJI LA!” Our chant reaches a loud, good-natured volume as we try to make our voices heard to halt the bus so the kid can get on. “GO!” we yell, as he bows and bows again in thanks. Off he hurries, like a jester flapping through the yellow dust. Amazingly he carries no pack, not a damn thing. Just a ragged coat and satchel. The bus, tilting like an old tin can, has a guy riding on top who hears our shouts. He spots the ragamuffin and pounds on the bus roof. The driver stops. Hands reach out, the kid is pulled inside. In a matter of seconds the whole show is over. Did any of it really happen?
and his Merry Pranksters
just a mirage?
Alchi sits astride a narrow gorge formed by the Indus, a lovely place, enclosed by a mud and straw wall, surrounded by apricot trees and quilted barley fields. There are even a few guest houses. The gompa was founded in the 11th century by Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055), who also established several gompas in western Tibet. Zangpo was known as the Great Translator, a key figure in restoring Buddhism in Tibet after it had been repressed and nearly extinguished for about 70 years (beginning mid-9th century). During its revival, Zangpo and twenty other Tibetans were sent to Kashmir to be trained as Buddhist monks. Kashmir was a center of Buddhist learning at this time; an artistic renaissance was underway, incorporating elements from various religious traditions, East and West. There Zangpo translated sutras and Tantric texts with Indian masters (their meanings had been lost over the years in Tibet) and re-introduced them to the Tibetan sangha. He also translated important writings about Manjushri, one of the oldest bodhisattvas, usually associated with transcendent wisdom. (Renée bought a small bronze of Manjushri on our last trip; he sits above her writing desk wielding a flaming sword that cuts through ignorance.)
As we enter the intricate walkways of the gompa—it’s in a copse of trees, not high on a hill like most Ladakhi gompas—we pass the place where Rinchen Zangpo left his walking stick. The staff has sprouted into a huge tree. I reach through a string of prayer flags and touch the gnarled trunk for good luck. I’d like to read more about Zangpo. With his crew of Kashmiri builders and artists, he heavily influenced both the architecture of Alchi and the style of its renowned murals, particularly the mandalas—which have Tantric references. (No photos are allowed of the murals, which is okay. All the better to use our eyes.)
The most important chapel on the grounds is the first we come to, the mini-size wooden Sumtsek Temple. Facing a small tree-filled courtyard, it has a resinous sun-warmed presence. The weathered wood façade is richly carved, reminiscent of Nepalese architecture. Its influence is Kashmir, though—along with Zangpo’s twist of imagination (scholars debate Zangpo’s founding of Alchi, while locals uphold him). A wooden Buddha is seated in a triangular arch directly over the doorway, where there’s also a carved Garuda. Around the chapel doors are murals of Buddhas, flowers, and animals rendered in faded azure, chalk white, sienna, and crimson. Glorious entrance!
Inside the chapel, a stupa occupies most of the space. Painted walls surround it, murals rendered, like those on the outer façade, with mineral pigments. Rusts, ivory, malachites, and lapis give an organic depth to the imagery—a deep-pool luminosity vibrating from the inside out. Hundreds of haloed Buddhas and a many-armed Yamantaka—tamer of death, suffering, and fear—are directly behind us as we enter. Tibetans and Kashmiris worked together on these murals, fusing Indian art with that of Central Asia. The paintings are quite different from those of the Ladakh Valley—a mix of Persian, Kashmiri, even Byzantine influences.
If the murals aren’t enough to blow the tops off our heads, there are three niches in the chapel that certainly fulfill the task—each houses a colossal stucco figure elegantly sculptured and painted: Avelokiteshvara, Maitreya Buddha, and Manjushri. Each towers four-meters high into the chapel’s second story. The walls enclosing them are sculpted with smaller deities and painted with thousands of Buddhas, including Amitabha Buddhas, descendents of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. If the Taj Mahal was an experience in filtered light where I seemed to be standing in a dewdrop on the morning after creation, Alchi is an experience in creation. Redolent pigments, earthy colors. Images emerging every so slowly into visible reality—time walking into space. For a moment, it is simply too much. I return to the door, peek out into the light:
Mind stripped away
one by one, orchard leaves
Back inside, I go straight to Avelokiteshvara—three times my height, in a niche to the left of the stupa—standing in graceful slightly-forward-walking pose. Naked from waist up, the body milky white, four extended arms holding palms outward in blessing and acceptance. The palms are cinnamon colored, the hue of the Ladakhi earth. Wrists and arms are banded with carved gold and azure beads. The smiling open-eyed face is delicately carved, the features sharp. The Bodhisattva’s long ears are capped with blue flowers. A crown, painted lapis and bronze, summits the head. Avelokiteshvara’s smile flows into the universe, deep red lips curved slightly upward at the edges. Peace on all sentient beings! A sarong tied at the waist drapes down just below the knees. Quite convincing, it is sculpted from clay, yet appears as diaphanous silk stylishly flowing over the shape of the torso beneath. Dozens of miniature scenes embellish the sarong: gods, goddesses, palaces, shrines, pathways, gardens, court scenes with Persian features—cobalts, siennas, coppers, burgundies, and indigo.
The walls and niches were painted in the 11th-century. The standing figures are more recent, but blend perfectly with the older artistry. Near Avelokiteshvara is Green Tara, bodhisattva of active compassion, colored deep to faded blue, haloed by mineral reds, lending an other-worldly glow. Her body is full bosomed, her narrow waist typical of the maidens in Indian miniatures. Her eyes seem more Aryan than Tibetan; they are elongated like sideways-blown flames. Her lips, necklace, earrings, tiara, fingertips, and beads are precisely rendered with hair-fine brushes. The azure breasts—emphasized by a tight bodice—are perfectly round and tiny nippled, fading from lighter blue to milky white near their tips.
Between the parted lips
of Tara’s smile
To the rear of the chamber is Maitreya, even taller and more looming than Avelokiteshvara, but similar in feel. The face is gold, body crimson. The figure is clad in a sarong tied at the waist, embellished with scenes from the life of the historical Buddha—which sweep across the robe in bands of gold, indigo, and cinnamon red. Like Avelokiteshvara, Maitreya expresses serenity—but with more seriousness as he steps slightly forward into the world. His niche is richly ornate with hundreds of miniature Buddhas: blue-bodied, red-robed, each seated with one arm extended in the earth-touching position. Unfortunately, this niche is dimly lit, being at the rear of the chapel, and we have to work hard to see the details.
The third statue, in a niche to the right of the main entrance, is a colossal Manjushri. Gold face, turmeric-colored body (at least in this light), his four arms extended, the hands with fingers curled into symbolic mudras. Like the other standing sculptures, he wears a crown and an exquisite sarong—this time with Mondrian-like squares of Mars red, burnt-sienna, navy blue, and yellow. The checkerboard design runs wild over the robe, a touch of modern art. Between the colored squares, tiny painted figures sit in contemplation—Mahasiddhas—enlightened beings who have left traditional monastic communities for solitude. On cliffs, in forests, between the mists, they perfect yogic postures, raise a bowl to the sky, dance, cup a hand to the ear to hear the un-hearable. These forest dwellers are colored sap green, bark, and silvery oxide. They exude wonderment. You can smell the forest on them, smoke from their cooking fires, musky odors of moss and matted pine needles. Santoka:
permeate the town
I reach at twilight.”
My god, I think to myself, if this place had suffered the fate of Bamiyan, encroached upon by misguided fundamentalists, a great treasure would have been burned to the ground. We are lucky for this vivacious and evocative art, that it has survived through the centuries. There is much more to hold the eye, but the lighting is not the best, and other visitors are entering to fill a very small space. I suddenly feel I cannot possibly take it all in. We should have made arrangements to stay at least a couple days here, but we overlooked the guesthouse possibility. We can always return, I console myself, combine another visit with a hike over the mountains to Zanskar.
We leave the chamber through the low wooden door by which we entered. Around the door, painted Buddhas extend their blessing. Exiting the darkness, light floods over the body. We are in the garden again.
Ring of a bell
leaves no shadow, hop of a frog
leaves no sound.
Time to move on. Sweeping, sweeping, the monk in the courtyard never seems to finish. Raking, raking, the patterns he leaves in the sand go round the rocks and flow into stillness. We put on our sandals, walk the stone path under autumn leaves, exit into bright, dry light. With each tinnggg of the gompa’s prayer wheel, distant mountains come closer. Cold seams of fire in cliff veins, ice-chiseled crowns scraped by clouds. Water cascades between fields, peppers turn red on rooftops. Plucking Tsering’s apricots from our cloth bag, we enjoy the sweet taste. And silence, silence. Something in my heart like pipal leaves falling . . .
Wang Wei—I began this journey remembering him. And remember him again as I think of our lives, Renée’s and mine, two into one as we journey. “We’re both travelers dark-eyed with love, white-cloud of mind.” The smile of Maitreya, the cinnamon palms of Avelokiteshvara bless our teetering world. A wink from Green Tara. A glance from the entwined couples of Khajuraho. A hard look from the waif in Agra cleaning windshields with a dirty towel. What have we seen, where have we been? Too beautiful, the golden chaff on Changspa’s crystal breeze. The clear water in Sonam Dorje’s bowls. The simple bath Tsering delivers in a bucket. And, see? There’s plenty of water for both of us, and enough left over to water the geraniums on the porch.
vanish into sky.
photographs by John Brandi
& Renee Gregorio
Taj Mahal from across the Jumna River
Girl from Itimad-ud-Daulah
Royal Cenotaphs, Orchha
Sister and Brother, Orchha
Bangle seller, Orchha
The Great Stupa, Sanchi
Bhimbetka Rock Art
Bhimbetka Rock Art
Morning Puja, Udaipur
Over the Himalayas to Ladakh
Stakna Gompa and Indus River
Maitreya Buddha, Thikse