Category Archives: Uncategorized

special moments in India: rooftop in India

Special Moments in India: Rooftop Chats

Of course there are so many unforgettable and special moments in India. (Read my series on Men in Orange, for a few.) However, when I was traveling in India last year, I was feeling under the weather. There was a constant sense of chill, except for when tucked in bed. Plus, the dry air and dense smog wasn’t good for my respiratory system. I dressed in lots of layers, took tons of Ayurvedic herbs, and stayed in my hostels once the sun went down.

mountain in Jaipur, India

After traveling thousands of miles within India, via plane, train, motorcycle and tuk tuk, there were two occasions where I felt blissful. Both were quiet times on rooftops. Neither site would have been listed in a travel guide. Although both were in towns that attract many tourists. Following is a recount of one. For privacy reasons, none of the images included are from that experience.

Unfortunately, I ended up being harassed by my guest house host for months after I returned to the U.S. To his credit, he was a perfect gentleman the entire time we shared space. And it was a lot of sharing. For a modest fee, on his tiny motorcycle, he led me on custom made full-day itineraries.

Special Moments in India, Left Alone on the Rooftop

One afternoon was perfect. Definitely one of those special moments in India. Especially for the cultural anthropologist in me. It was a Friday. The Muslim day of worship. He took me to his multi-generational family’s small home. While he and his brother spoke excellent English, no one else uttered a word of it. That didn’t matter. His mother made me a plant-based lunch. The men showered, and changed into stark white clothes. As the men headed to the masjid for prayer, my guide suggested I relax on their rooftop.

special moments in India--from a rooftop

I walked up narrow steps. Sat on the flat surface that had no railings, ledges or walls. In Spanish, I call this an azotea, which is an Arabic word for flat or spread out. Typically, an azotea is used just to wash and dry clothes.

In contrast to the chilly air, I was surrounded by warmth. The sun on my skin and clothes felt like soothing hot chicken soup. The heat of the dark surface under my bottom and legs reminded me of me sitting on the radiator as a friolenta (sensitive to cold) kid in Chicago.

Surrounded by the warm calm, I did some breath work and yin yoga poses.

Then, one of his sisters came up to the roof and sat beside me. Via gestures, I understood she was recently married. I felt her soothing peaceful energy. There was something beautiful about her, despite her awkward features and missing teeth. I felt her gentle honesty and innocence. After a bit, she motioned that she’d return. When she did, she was carrying what seemed to be a bag of jewels. She unpeeled several coverings to show me her prize.

Special Moments in India, Viewing a Bridal Album

special moments in India: weddings

A wedding album*. Hers.

She was dressed exquisitely. It was as if she’d rented the finest apparel, jewelry, hairdresser and makeup artist and venue in another city.

She pointed, without touching, to each picture. Proudly saying the few English words she knew. Fa-ter. Bro-ter.

This was a very humble woman. In a very simple home. The animals in the courtyard were not household pets. They didn’t have a flush toilet. Her neighbors lugged empty pails to a nearby watering pump.

special moments in india: weddings

Her wedding was her Cinderella moment. She and her family were at the ball until midnight. It was her storybook tale.

Most likely, this was her most awaited of special moments in India.

Special Moments Include Just Keeping Space for Someone

special moments in India: weddingsI felt a deep sense of comfort within –and connection with her — sitting on the rooftop. It may have been an hour. Maybe two. I had no desire to even move. Nor for her to leave. Despite her rejoicing in the wedding, I felt her sadness. I read emptiness and sorrow in her eyes. They contrasted with what I saw in the album: positive anticipation, elation, hope, dignity.

Later, I asked her brother if she was visiting, or living here. He said she was temporarily staying in their family home. Her husband was in a city far away. To explain that, he voiced that the marriage wasn’t what the family had expected. In India, traditionally, the bride’s family pays a large dowry. Sadly, this family must have saved for years, wanting the best for their daughter. Apparently, the groom was a successful businessman. Perfect husband material for multiple reasons. But just like in the Cinderella story, nothing is exactly as it appears. Maya. The illusion. In her case, disillusion.  

*Note: All wedding photos displayed are royalty-free images from Pixabay. Therefore, they are NOT actual images from the family wedding album described.

varanasi-sunrise-Ganges

Spiritual Varanasi, India

In my last article, I spoke about finding thousands of Ganeshas in Varanasi. Unexpectedly. Beyond the Ganeshas, almost everywhere in Varanasi spirituality was overflowing.

Pre-dawn puja on the Ganges at Varanasi

“It is the headquarters of the Brahmin faith, and one-eighth of the population are priests of that church.*”

varanasi-sunrise-Ganges

Just as I relished morning arati in Vrindavan, I woke up early each day in Varanasi. Here, mangala arati was on the holy Ganges.

“The Ganges itself and every individual drop of water in it are temples.*” 

Bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India

Before arati started, I strolled along the sand. In the pre-dawn hours, people carefully disrobed and blessed themselves by bathing in the river. Despite the fact that people, especially men, took dips into the Ganges under daylight, it seemed more sanctified prior to the first morning rays.

“All India flocks thither on pilgrimage…*”

The mangala prayer services in the two ever-so-holy towns of Vrindavan and Varanasi were very different. In Vrindavan, it was at ISKCON temple. Prayer was filled with music and devotion to the deities. It appeared as if the vast majority of Vrindavan attendees were local residents. Both Indian and non-Indian.

Morning arati at Ganges in Varanasi, India

Varanasi arati, however, attracted visitors. Albeit primarily visitors of Indian ancestry. Second, prayers in Varanasi didn’t begin at 4:15 a.m. like Vrindavan’s arati. It was much closer to the actual sunrise in Varanasi. Around 6:30 a.m. Furthermore, I didn’t notice deities in Varanasi. It was more of a fire ceremony.

Morning arati at the Ganges in Varanasi, India

In Vrindavan, after the main prayers, women and men formed different circles to circumambulate around a tulsi plant. In Varanasi, many stayed to listen to ragas, live, on stage. Next, it was yoga time. Men sat on lines of red carpet. The women clustered together under a canopy. The practice included 30 minutes of pranayama. Then, 20 minutes of asanas. Rather than closing with savasana, each session ended with laughter yoga.

Varanasi-sunset arati on the Ganges

Evening arati was just as magical as the morning’s in Varanasi. I opted out of the touristy river boat barge views of the ceremony, to sit alongside hundreds, or thousands, of Indians at the waterfront. The white smoke, set against the black night sky was beautiful. So was chanting among the enormous crowd of worshippers.

“Where this eternal light intersects the earth, it is known as Kashi.”**

Evening arati on the Ganges in Varanasi, India

In Varanasi, morning and evening arati were like bookeends. In between, I strolled around the innumerable sacred temples. Some, were in a near state of ruins. Others, were hiding behind buildings, or tunnels. Surprisingly, the most visited, Kashi Vishwanath, was hiding behind untold heaps of construction. And, a maze of visitors in queue. Most likely, waiting at least an hour to approach the sacred space. The endless string of people inched toward the temple, barefoot, as slow as turtles.

Once past the security guards and magnetometers, we were rushed through the ancient golden temple. Certainly to ensure that as many people as possible could pass through this holiest of sites dedicated to Lord Shiva.

“Benares is the sacredest of sacred cities. The moment you step across the sharply-defined line which separates it from the rest of the globe, you stand upon ineffably and unspeakably holy ground.*”

Being herded through the masses to catch a mini-darshan didn’t exactly get me to a state of blissful spirituality. Being one of just a handful of people at an ancient temple in Varanasi, did. Set amid grey rubble was a pristine orange pagoda-like temple.

“The journey to sacred places is the most common way that people travel in India.”**

Near Lalita ghat was a Nepali temple

Near Lalita ghat was a Nepali temple. According to one local guide, “This is one of the oldest and unique temple of Varanasi as it is made up of woods. It is also called as the replica of Pasupatinath temple (Kathmandu, Nepal).” Constructed by a former King of Nepal, it is a most peaceful spiritual place.

All in all, Varanasi made an impact on me. Definitely a place I’d like to return.

*excerpts from Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator,”  Chapter 50

** quotes from Diana L. Eck, author of “Bananas: City of Light”

Surrounded by Ganesha in Varanasi

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

Saving the best for last on my spiritual tour of Northern India was Varanasi. AKA Kashi (city of light) and Benares. Hindus flock here for spiritual cleansing. Plus, this part of the Ganges is the preferred site for cremation and/or releasing ashes. While popular among foreigners, spying on sacred burial rites wasn’t my cup of tea. Rather, a highlight for me was finding thousands of images of Ganesha and other deities.  All in one small room.

After a lovely mangala arati (morning prayer ceremony), followed by ragas and yoga at the Ganges, I was in a state of bliss. I let my intuition guide me to a storefront (the only one I entered in all Varanasi). This was no shopping spree. It was a spiritual infusion.

In all, I spent more than an hour with brothers for whom their lives evolve around Ganesha, and other deities. 

Ashok and Vijay are two of 10 Murtikar siblings. Appropriately, Murtikar means statue maker. Not just any statue, but sacred ones. For generations, the Murtikar men have been carving images of Ganesha, Saraswati and Shiva out of stone. 

Ashok is one of the elders. He has a wonderfully calming demeanor.

Carving Deities as Meditation

carved deities in Varanasi, India

Ashok followed in his father’s footsteps, carving deities, large and small. 

“All time, I sit with papa. Sometimes, I broke (the stone). ‘Again.’” His father would gently encourage him, just like an American dad may say to his child learning to ride a bike.

Creating gods out of stone is a form of meditation for Ashok.  He has such a gentle nature and mannerisms. You can almost visualize how he delicately carves deities with utmost respect and devotion. Not all of what Ashok creates are rooted in his father’s teachings. Some evolve from his dreams.  

“Working, working, working. Stone is the energy. Nature. Mountain.  It’s power.  Prana. Shakti.” 

You can feel his mindfulness in his presence, and in his speech. There is a grace that permeates the space. While Ashok oozes a meditative calm, the younger Vijay is different. He’s focused on Ganesha. He prefers paper to stone. And, he works at lightning pace.

Drawing Ganesha as Meditation

Drawing of Lord Ganesha in Varanasi, India

I’m enthralled with the back room where Ashok takes me. It’s behind the showroom. It looks like a library. Seems full of Vijay’s treasures. There are shelves, floor to ceiling, stashed with drawing pads. Piles of the loose drawings or sketchpads fill the floor. It’s hard to imagine how many drawings are in this one room. 

All are Vijay’s work. Furthermore, all the drawing books are filled with sketches of Ganesha. The overcomer of obstacles. I was mesmerized by the idea that one person would spend their life drawing only images of the elephant god with twisted trunk.

A good percentage of the drawings are monochromatic. Yet, others feature bold colors in geometric shapes.

Ganesha is Happiness

I was in a meditative state, sitting on the floor, rummaging through his deities. This was the most comprehensive collection I could imagine of the iconic elephant on top of a mouse. I was in awe of Vijay’s unparalleled production of Ganeshas. In fact, the marathon Ganesha artist said at times he draws Ganesha for “51, 54, 56 hours non-stop.”

 a marathon ganesha maker in Varanasi, India

“Ganesha is the honor of God. Ganesha is the good brain, giving good luck…happiness always.”

Apparently, he wasn’t as interested in the stonework of multiple generations of Murtikar men.  Most of all, his mother was a great influence. “Your mother is your first, first and first teacher.” 

Nonetheless, he credits both parents for his affinity toward Ganesha. “I see Ganesha everywhere…my parents always worshipped in front of the Lord Ganesha before starting any work on any new sculpture,” he told another newspaper.

“I make a lot of exhibitions.” Actually, three times he was invited by the government to display the elephant deities in a museum in the holy city of Dharmasala (where the Dalai Lama resides). His art has also been shown in Thailand and the United States. The man with Ganesha in his heart may draw 100 images before he selects just the right one for an exhibit.

Not only is he prolific, he’s protected by a higher source. Or, rather, his Ganeshas are protected.  Actually, one of his drawing books is badly worn away from critters. The edges of dozens of pages are frayed. Yet, Vijay smiles as he says no mouse has never touched the images of Ganesha.

His personal collection of Ganesha and other deities, on paper and stone, he estimates at more than 51,000.

Art is Spiritual

Deity makers in Varanasi, India

“Art is the way of the life. Hidden beauty. Spiritual height,” for Vijay. It also seems to be his drug. It powers him. Gives him his spiritual and physical well being. Regardless of what fuels him, he notes that there are messages in his paintings. Sometimes, painting to the sound of tabla drumming, helps reveal messages. “All my paintings have a story.”

One Ganesha, he explains, relates to our body. The five elements, like auras, against a full sky.

First off, colors all have meaning. 

“There is depth in light. All religions love white,” which he equates to sweetness. Black and white, too, is important. Red stands for equality. Because we all bleed the same color. Green is happiness. Orange is luck. Not surprisingly, blue represents water and sky.

Moreover, the thought behind the art is extremely important. 

Finally, he vocalizes his own sense of meditation through art. “I’m never disturbed. I’m an artist.”

Read more about spiritual India, including words of wisdom from Men in Orange.