The Lonely Planet writes about India:
“Bamboozing. There’s simply no other word that captions the enigma that is India. With an ability to inspire, frustrate, thrill and confound all at once, India presents an extraordinary spectrum of encounters for the traveller. Some of these can be challenging, particularly for the first-time visitor: the poverty is confronting, Indian bureaucracy can be exasperating and the crush of humanity sometimes turns the simplest task into an energy-zapping battle. Even veteran travelers find their sanity frayed at some point.”
Rishikesh 10 am: The Devraj Coffee Corner is already full as it is a popular place for Indians and foreigners. It is located right above the Laxman Jhula bridge and perfect for watching Indian life beside and on the bridge. In theory, Laxman Jula is a pedestrian bridge but in India that means that more or less everything moves on it; ‘real’ pedestrians, monkeys, cows, motorbikes and handcarts with all kinds of goods. If the bridge would be wider or cars smaller they also would regard themselves as pedestrian and cross the river via the bridge.
It is kind of funny: the Indians try really really hard to set up rules and regulations in order to get things perfectly organized. The thing is – nobody really cares, which leads to the chaos which is so typical for India, also because there are just so many people here. Well-intended rules are bent or just ignored.
Western people are mostly used to following rules and for many who came to India for the first timethey feel very lonely very quickly as they seem to be the only ones who care about the rules and quickly become frustrated and annoyed. The most important rule is to stay calm and ‘mentally survive’ in India is to let go of the Western thinking and open up to the chaos. It may help to talk to experienced travellers of India who already know that in the end everything will miraculously work out, despite the chaos.
When you have experienced the chaos many times you just build up a certain trust that makes it easier to let go and ‘go with the flow’. Those who have been to India and coped often speak of a certain ‘freedom’ they feel when they don’t have to follow so many rules anymore or even better, they learned how to bend them the ‘Indian way’. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about I’ve attached a short video of the morning traffic on the bridge. Although not a long bridge it requires patience and time to cross it and usually depends on:
- the number of motorbikes and cows
- how many big groups stop in the middle of the bridge to take photos of themselves unaware that nobody can pass them
- how many people have to fight off the monkeys attacking their snacks or hand bags
- and most important – how many people are willing to stay in their ‘lane’
Sometimes it works out pretty well and sometimes not! Some people are even more ignorant than others and the definitely leads to a knot of chaos which can hardly be untied again. Anyway, a simple example like crossing this bridge can turn into a learning exercise to practice patience and let go of expectations.
It was in Kolkata (here more info in english and german) and it was the year 2006. My first impulse when I left the airport building was to leave again immediately. I regarded myself as an experienced traveller as I had already spent some time travelling in South East Asia. My idea was that India could not be that different. On my cab ride to the centre I felt like I had landed on another planet or had travelled at least 50 years back in time.
It was completely overwhelming as there were so many “extreme” impressions to deal with at the same time. The ‘Ambassador’-cab looked like a vintage car but it is still built in India and Kolkata was full of them. The poverty, barefooted men pulling rickshaws (see also ‘My Barefoot Friend:’ The story of Kolkata’s rickshaw pullers), the dirt, the smog, the noise of the traffic, the smell and the sheer volume of people made me speechless. Outside the cab it looked a little bit like a post-war scene and it took me some time to realize that the buildings only ‘looked’ destroyed. They were often just half-finished, in need of paint and inhabited.
I was not really a spiritual seeker but extremely curious and open for new experiences. Many years before I had started with meditation, Reiki and workshops of all kinds and had met many people who told me that they had been to India. Some just for fun and many to visit ashrams and undertake a spiritual journey. I was so curious to explore this fascinating country which is so highly regarded as the holy land of gurus and spiritual teachers.
Quote from abcnews:
Tales of divine intervention float out of local villages, telling of young girls who cry tears of blood, yogis who can lie in roaring fires, healers who can cure the sick with a single touch, Sufi shrines that ward off bad spirits, and Hindu holy men who live for decades without a single drop of water or crumb of food.
For some in India, these ‘miracles’ are unquestionable acts of God. To others they are falsities that hinder the progress and development of the country. For still others, the performance of miracles is a way to make a living. Nonetheless, whether they come from God men or con men, no other place on Earth sees more miracles performed than India — whatever they really are.’
On my travels here I have also spent some time in ashrams, not looking for a guru but to experience the atmosphere there. Mostly I found when I watched the deep devotion of others to the ‘guru’ I found out what is NOT for me. Anyway, for me the real spiritual experience of India lies in finding your way to let go of the Western attitude and to ‘go with the flow’. In our series ‘soulrefresher’s travels: India’ we will describe some of the extreme everyday situations and what one could learn from them.
Now it is 2012 and my own way of travelling in India has totally changed since that first arrival in India. I have found my way to deal with the extremes and the chaos and to understand that this chaos often leads to a solution in the end. On my first visit I moved frequently and spent only a few days at each place before moving on to the next. Today I enjoy spending longer time at places I like and really having time to experience them. Usually it increases the chances of meeting locals which opens doors to experience special things and lead you to places you normally could not visit as a tourist. One example is Jitu, a friend who owns a travel agency; he introduced us to a Sadhu who lives in a small, simple hut close to Himalaya caves in Rishikesh. The time and the talks with the sadhu have been a highlight of my travels. We are working on a longer blogpost about that.
Travelling here again is also about coming back to places I had been before and to meet again people I have built up a connection with. In 2006 I made my Reiki master course in Mc Leod Ganj/Dharamsala with Amit Namdev (Amit Reiki) and we have kept up the contact until today. It was great to meet him again and experience that there still is a special connection between us. In spite of his young age he has been an inspiration for me since we have met. In the meantime I have practiced Reiki a lot and it became an important part of my life for myself and also to help others – hence Reiki is an important part of soulrefresher’s services. Sitting together with Amit after six years gave me the feeling that a circle became complete. Also Deb, (other half of soulrefresher) developed trust in him very quickly and decided to do her Yoga Teacher Training not in Rishikesh, often described as the ‘Yoga capital of the world’ but with Amit (Yoga TTC) in McLeod Ganj. A post about her experiences in this course will follow.
So, many people say “You love India or you hate it”. I think this is generally true even if I don’t see it that extremely. I don’t really ‘love’ India but I have a deep respect for the country and it’s people. My respect increases even more when I get the chance to meet the locals and get glimpses into their lives, particularly the role spirituality has for them. It is extremely interesting how everyday life and spirituality go hand in hand here. In a way it seems that it does not fit at all and then again everything fits together perfectly. I know that sounds contradictory but that is India and India starts to be relaxing when you just accept and stop asking ‘why’.
Hope you will enjoy our upcoming posts about our experiences in India.
Arne Kruse ‘Gopal’ for soulrefresher
McLeod Ganj is the home of the Tibetan Government in exile and the spiritual leader of Tibet, his Holiness the Dalai Lama. A small mountain town located at the foot of the Himalayas in the North of India, it offers visitors a curious confluence of Indian and Tibetan culture. Although his official residence is in McLeod Ganj, His Holiness is rarely at home due to the unyielding demands of his international appearance schedule. As one of the most sought after individuals in the world for spiritual, political and celebrity reasons, it is a special occasion when he is ‘at home’.
Fortunately for us he was ‘at home’ during our visit to McLeod Ganj. To quote from his website:
His Holiness will give three days of teachings on Chapter 24 of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Treatise of the Middle Way (uma tsawai sherab) at the request of a group of Koreans at the Main Tibetan Temple.
The invitation to attend was extended to the public. This only happens a few times a year, so of course for many people, residents and tourists alike, this is the only opportunity to see and hear the Dalai Lama. For health reasons his Holiness no longer holds public audiences and getting a private audience is challenging due to his limited availability.
The current situation in Tibet is that for the majority of the Tibetan people their cultural and human rights are denied by the Chinese government. You can read more here about a recent representation at the 19th session of UN Human Rights Council. The 59th act of self-immolation occurred last week in Tibet and protests for freedom against the Chinese are frequent and often end in death or imprisonment. Many Tibetans take the decision to leave Tibet and follow the treacherous path over the Himalayas and into Nepal, finally reaching salvation in the form of their exiled community in McLeod Ganj. For them an opportunity to meet with the ‘spiritual leader of Tibet’, his Holiness the Dalai Lama, makes that journey worthwhile. You can learn more about the Tibetan situation by watching this presentation.
We intended to spend a few days in McLeod Ganj but on realising that an extended stay would grant us the privilege to see and hear His Holiness, on his proverbial ‘home turf’, we decided to extend our stay. McLeod Ganj has its own energy and where there is chaos there is also calm as the Indian and Tibetan ways merge on the narrow hillside streets. In the lead up to the teachings the town became increasingly busier as the overnight buses from Delhi began to slowly unload more and more spiritual enthuasists. Our regular haunt, Nick’s Italian at Kunga Guesthouse was full to capacity the night before the ‘teachings’. It felt like the lead up to a festival for us as people descended upon the small town and prepped themselves for the now much used word on everyone’s lips – ‘the teachings’.
The presence of maroon robed monks mushroomed as more and more cafes were taken over by informal buddhist teachings. The curious thing about McLeod Ganj is the number of non-Tibetan monks. It is not unusual to see a fresh-faced guy in his 20s with a thick American drawl, wearing red cons (underneath his robes), sipping a latte and discussing complex buddhist texts with groups of well dressed Western or Asian ladies. There are also many short haired or shaven Western women dressed in maroon robes about McLeod Ganj who are studying Tibetan Buddhism – some of whom live in the monastery.
The most important thing that all the guidebooks and websites mentioned was to register for the teachings. This process happened in the offices of the Tibetan Government in exile – a very basic building that resembled an outhouse more than a country’s administrative offices. In the days leading up to the teachings the dark, ‘aromatic’ little alleyway in front of the office was filled with a plethora of different people from all cultures, creeds and walks of life. A few days before I joined this mixed group to queue for registration armed with my passport, passport photos, completed registration form and 10 rupees administration fee.
There were only 3 people in front of us so we assumed a swift process until I looked inside the office and saw one man dealing with everything.
His process, although simple could not have been more time consuming. He personally checked and wrote out each of the registration passes, trimmed the photo down to size with a large rusty scissors and took the cash – a whole 10 rupees approximately 15 euro cent.! After a 15min standstill I looked again and realised that one of the three in front of me was processing 28 badges for a group – there was no group bookings section!
In our small waiting group we mumbled, then laughed, then chatted and all accepted in our ‘western way’ that this was the system and we would just have to be patient. After all, we were queing to go to a buddhist teaching, not for IKEA. It was fascinating to hear to see and hear the full flavour of nationalities and their particular reason for coming to see the Dalai Lama amongst the Tibetan people.
A very friendly Japanese woman I befriended in the queue gave me some insider’s tips:
- go to the temple the day before the teaching at 0600 to reserve your spot
- remember to leave your mobile phone, camera and other forbidden items at home
- bring an FM radio so that you can listen to the teaching in your own language
- arrive at the temple at 0600 for a 0930 start on the morning of the teaching to ensure that you get your reserved place
- bring a cushion
- bring a cup – ‘they serve tea’
Slowly, we made our way behind him and upstairs to our ‘spots’.We found our spot with two people comfortably sitting there. I attempted to point out our sign but they just offered to let us sit on their mat. In the spirit of the event we squeezed in beside them, half sitting, half standing between a row of monks in front and behind us.The heat of the compressed bodies made our woolen items redundant – air was more important now as the space between us was so tight. The teaching began. All of the westerners were attired in various styles of earphones tuned to Dalai Lama FM radio. The multi-media provision was simple: two screens displaying a live feed from inside the temple and a PA system which meant that we were able to see the Dalai Lama at certain times.
We were being clever and using a splitter for our Fraggle Rock sized radio. Unfortunately, the splitter only liked one set of our earphones and could just about bear the second pair. The format was that the Korean group representative posed a ‘long’ question to the Dalai Lama in Korean and he then responded in Tibetan. His answer ranged in length from 5 to 20mins after which the English translator interpreted for the translation broadcast. This meant that for a period of up to 30 mins we could only hear Korean and Tibetan. The Tibetan people and Monks around us prayed and meditated throughout, being close to his Holiness was sufficent for them. When we did hear the translation it was difficult to access as it was in the middle of a complex text. One very clear thing that we did take (our version) from the Dalai Lama’s words was:
‘You need to make yourself happy first before you can begin to look outwards for happiness or bring happiness to other people’.
As part of the ritual of the teaching the Dalai Lama blessed tea and then the monks distributed this to the audience. It was a real feat of accomplishment for them to make their way through the milling crowd with a humongous hot tea pot. My Japanese friend had advised well in telling me to take a cup with me. However the prospect of Tibetan Butter Tea was not to my liking. It was a real treat however to watch the monk in front of us take out his well used wooden bowl and offer it up for tea, which he slowly slurped for some time after. Amidst the main ritual there were many minor rituals occurring all around me as Tibetan people and Tibetan monks unwrapped tight packages in closely held cloth bags. The ‘taking out of their cup or bowl’ and cleaning it in advance of their tea was a very basic and beautiful ritual to watch. The sheer reverence that they showed in receiving the tea blessed by the head Lama was so simple and pure and held such meaning for them. It was challenging to remain focused on the teaching but was wonderful to absorb the atmosphere of the complex all around me. The mood was light too as monks snored or dozed softly and were quickly jerked back into attention by their colleagues. After some time the Dalai Lama suggested that people might be feeling pain in their legs at this point and were welcome to ‘stretch their legs’ – a true understanding of his western audience – an entertainer who cared for his audience.
The Dalai Lama called the morning session to a close and made his way down the steps of the complex and into his 4 x 4 where he was driven the 30m to his residence. A clear statement that this is one of the world’s most important people and his security is threatened – a humble, 77 year old smiling monk! As we left the complex in our hordes we saw the enormous vats of rice and vegetarian dal set out for the monks and nuns who had of course come equipped with their own bowl.
We didn’t gain any deeper knowledge of the Buddhist text but gained a once in a lifetime experience of seeing and hearing a man who deservedly garners world respect, not least for the hope that he offers to his people who live their lives through the curtain of oppression. I felt privileged for the life that I have been born into and for the opportunities that have been afforded to me – something that should be always remembered. Of course, if we were looking for insight or wisdom we could not do better than to hear the wisdom of these words
‘You need to make yourself happy first before you can begin to look outwards for happiness or bring happiness to other people’
spoken directly from the mouth of the Dalai Lama himself.
If you are interested in learning more about the Tibetan situation then you might like to check out some of the following:
http://www.tibetnetwork.org – this is an excellent resource to learn more about the Tibetan situation and to watch films and documentaries about Tibet.
http://www.facebook.com/tibethopecenter – a great NGO based in McLeod Ganj who wish to work with non-Tibetans through social media and other forms to promote the Tibetan situation.
http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/dispatches-undercover-in-tibet/– an excellent overview of the modern day situation of leaving Tibet
Slide share Presentation on Tibet – I attended a very informative talk at the Hope Center in Mc Leod Ganj which provides great insight into the current situation of Chinese occupation of Tibet and the environmental toll that it is having.
Himalaya – a beautifully shot film that captures the integrity of the traditional Tibetan culture.
The soulrefresher team has left the beautiful Thai island of Koh Phangan for India. We invite our readers to accompany us on this trip. The idea of soulrefresher is to offer simple solutions for finding balance in life. Finding or keeping your balance is even harder in India than in most other countries. Everything is intense and often extreme. It seems that everything is completely out of balance in India and yet still oddly in total balance. If this sounds like a contradiction – welcome to India!
Many people in the West think of India as the holy land of spiritual seekers with it’s ashrams and hundreds of spiritual leaders or gurus of all kinds. When soulrefresher came to India for the first time we also spent some time exploring life in the ashram to experience what it is like but the real “spiritual” experience lies in India’s everyday life with all it’s intensity:
- The smell: people often talk about the special ‘smell of India’ which is a mixture of pleasant incense and spices and smog, cow or dog poo, the smell of urine and much more.
- The colors: Beautiful colorful saris, golden spices, decorative trucks and on the other hand houses that are in urgent need of paint which the next monsoon would wash away anyway.
- The restricted personal space: the masses of people who don’t have any sense of personal space as we have in the West.
- The fact that people use their hand (left hand) in their ‘toilet’ in place of the toilet paper we use in the West and then switch to the right one for eating. (A surprisingly clean method fuelled by large quantities of water and repetitive hand washing).
- The mixture of high technology and a cast systemthat seems to be of another age and many more things that makes a stay in India a challenge everyday.
Some people say that you either love or hate India and there is a lot of truth in that. The sentence may seem radical but it is as radical as the country of India itself. You need to find your own way to deal with the daily challenge or you will lose patience and leave very quickly. For this reason India is a great ‘teacher’. It offers us so many opportunities to learn about ourselves and others and to take this learning home for our ‘everyday life’.
A little example of India:
Have you ever tried to cross a busy Indian road (if you have been to India if not just imagine) with it’s crazy traffic jams, rickshaws,bikes, ox cars, cows and whatever else moves on it ? In the West we know we can just go to the next traffic light and wait for the green signal. This won’t work in India as there are hardly any traffic lights and if there are they usually don’t work. The challenge is to find the right mixture between TRUST (that someone ‘above’ is watching over you and that others will stop or drive around you), CAREFULNESS (always good to be ready to jump aside anyway), TIMING (to wait for the break in the traffic that is not there) and DETERMINATION (I WILL reach the other side whatever might come). And to LET GO, as hoping for Western ways to work in India won’t help us at all!
This can be fun though if you start to let go and open up to the incredible experience of India.
soulrefresher wants to share this journey with you. Meet the everyday challenges with us and the lessons this country has to offer for everyone and always with that touch of humor that makes it so much easier. As always we invite you to comment on our posts and to tell us about your thoughts and own experiences.
And what could be a better start than going on a rickshaw ride? So, fasten your seat belt (oh, there is none…) and get ready…