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Every year I get a little deeper into the country and come to understand the culture even more. This year I made huge strides in learning Hindi: reading, writing, grammar. My pronunciation still causes a great deal of confusion, but at least I can communicate with the locals a little bit beyond getting my necessities met.

Other than my requisite stay in Varanasi, this trip was all about Madhya Pradesh, the middle province where the Narmada river begins on the eastern border in the town of Amarkantak and gathers momentum as it heads west through the marble canyons near Jabalpur, before settling into a lazier pace as it goes through the Holy towns of Omkareshwar and Maheshwar. About 100km before it finds the Arabian Sea it enters the province of Gugarat.

From Varanasi I went straight south by bus to get to Amarkantak. There were a few small water falls nearby Varanasi, but as the bus climbed the mountains, natural beauty gave way to coal mining and power generation. In one particularly polluted town that tasted lie coal dust, I was told that there were ten coal power plants within 40km. My morning chai even had the undrinkable taste of coal. Several of the people I met here or on the buses near here were engineers enjoying the prosperous employment provided by all the smoldering black diamonds.

As the I continued south, the air began to clear and the people began to look healthier. Prosperity gave way to poverty. This is mostly tribal lands: jungle and farm. Huge, ranch-style mud houses with simple line work and dots painted on the outsides (tell-tale indications of tribal people); beautifully simple. I made my way thru Ambikapur, from the bus stand to the train station, surprising all the locals in this quiet city. I suspect that stopping for a night or two would have rewarded me richly, but Shiva Ratri was approaching quickly and I wanted to be in a suitable Shiva town (I was thinking I would get to Puri after a brief stop in Amarkantak). The driver of the shared auto who took me to the train station after I’d walked a few km refused my money and sped away singing what I think was a Bollywood love song.

Waiting for the train I encountered some rare racism: teasing and jokes that I could not understand but made me uncomfortable enough to move to the end of the platform. A couple boys who witnessed it cautiously approached me for conversation and quickly became close friends and guides for the next 14 hours. One boy was shy and from a low cast, and the other had just graduated from collage and was working as a pharmaceutical rep. Both were very cool. I got off the train one stop before they did and found myself a cozy place on the floor of the train station to sleep until morning and slept through until almost ten before catching one more bus to Amarkantak.

In Amarkantak I quickly learned the difference between asking for a “Sasta Hotel” (a cheap hotel) and a “sasta Kamra” (cheap room). Sasta Hotel is about Rs600/night ($15.00), and a sasta kamra is about Rs100/night ($2.50). The cheap room was a dung floor thoroughfare for rats with spiders in every corner and a thin mat on the floor for sleeping; perfect. The Phalhari Ashram was up the hill and had a beautiful view of the Ancient temples across the river (Sri Shankyacharyia, 1100AD) and the white spires of the new temples in the forground. All around me were huge Mango trees that were just starting to consider offering us (and the monkeys) fresh mangos.

The ashram in Amarkantak was nice and simple: a thin mat on a dirt floor, two meals a day and chai in the morning. The rooms all had rats passing through, but for Shivarthri someone apparently supplied them with poison and they began falling from the ceiling as if to beg for mercy. They were offered none. The foreign presence was small here, just myself; Mark, the Bhakti German fellow; and a hippy Alaskan guy with his daughter. Taj, the international gangster came later.

Taj had stories to tell, many stories about his upbringing in Kashmir, his immigration to Canada, his adventures around the world. He was in his early fifties and in the process of assessing his life. He was a doubter and a cynic when it came to religion and spirituality. He had no use for either and he enjoyed spouting his opinion in the ashram, to devotees and even to Babas. The Phalhari baba who ran the ashram wasn’t much different so the two of them became quick friends. Baba was a great manager and had completed 12 years of intense tapas eating only fruit while practicing yoga and tantra. He certainly didn’t recommend such a lifestyle, it was very hard on his body.

I stayed here for a few weeks listening to Taj’s stories and practicing intense yoga and meditation in my room. Baba spoke no (or very little English) so there was no instruction and he led no practices. As an ashram, it was merely a place to stay.

For Shivarathri I was given access to a private Puja in the main temple that went on for over three hours. It was he most intense puja I’ve ever witnessed. I’m certain that they recited an entire Purana with the speed of an auctioneer. When I left, my mind was swimming; I was high from the intensity of it all and I’d felt as though only a few minutes had passed. I wondered if I’d been lulled into some kind of trance. It was beautiful.

Taj and I left together catching buses and trains to haphazardly make our way to Maheshwar.

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