In Spring 2007, I went to South India to study Ayurveda at the Ayurvedic Retreat Hospital in Conoor, India. While there, I sent 4 emails to a small group of my family and closest friends. I thought some of you might enjoy reading my unedited thoughts and experiences. This was my second trip to India, and my first real introduction to Ayurveda beyond library books. I went with my boyfriend-at-the-time, Michael, and we had an amazing experience. I was just beginning to learn about white privilege and cultural appropriation, so please excuse any ignorance on my part back then - this was 14 years ago!
4/13/2007 re: another chapter of an American in India
Hello family and friends,
Michael and I had a 4 day break from classes as our teacher, Dr. Sundar, needed to leave to attend his cousin's wedding. As the only doctor in the family he was a hot commodity as many people attempt to match-make at weddings. He said it was too hot and as a key organizer, he was kept busy ensuring that everything flowed smoothly. I am eager to see some pictures, which he promised to take.
So Michael and I headed to Mysore, a town of one million people about 4 hours away by taxi, to experience more of India. I'll start with what I didn't like about Mysore: oppressive heat, frequent power outages that inspired noisy and fume-y generator use, exceptionally loud and chaotic traffic with suffocating diesel fumes, and very aggressive street vendors that harassed and followed us.
Okay, now that I got that out of the way, here is what I really liked about Mysore:
ADVENTURING WITH MICHAEL, who keeps his calm, is silly, notices details I don't notice, tells me about the history of where we are, and was nice even to the street vendors that really irritated me. Plus I love holding his hand. Each morning we did yoga together, which was sweet - but so hot I kept getting dizzy!
THE MAHARAJ'S PALACE, which is a huge complex of 700 year old elaborate temples and a 100 yr-old palace built for the last Maharaj before India's Independence. To visit the interior, we traded our shoes for a number with one of the shoe wallahs, and padded up and down 3 stories of palace rooms with thousands of other Indians. We had so much fun imagining what royal life was like - doors of solid silver, high domes of exquisite glass, and a vast ceiling painted like the Sistine Chapel but with various Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
I also had a great time checking out all the exquisite Indian women in their jewels, bindhis and brightly flowing outfits and they also giggled and goggled at me. My blonde/blue-eyed features and tall height is quite a novelty here! There was a lot of winking and shy smiling as we acknowledged each other.
The temples and palace are covered in 100-yr-old light bulbs that are turned on for 45 minutes every Sunday evening only (to save electricity). The complex turned into a huge family festival faery land of bright lights outlining the exotic architecture of the palace and temple turrets and peaks. To enter, we crowded around a mass of people slowly inching their way through a tiny gate with a single metal detector that beeped continuously and swayed as 3-4 people at a time smooshed their way through it. It took quite awhile to move just a few feet and our tall pale heads hovered high above the tightly-packed dark-haired heads. At a few points I was tempted to panic as mobs in my country mean Danger, but when I glanced down at the people pressed against me and pushing me forward millimeter by millimeter, all I saw were jovial smiles and peaceful families.
CANDLE-LIT DINNERS IN THE COURTYARD of our hotel where the wait staff dressed like English waiters from decades ago and we ate endless amounts of delicious palak paneer, pappadum, biryani, naan, paratha......
AN AYURVEDIC FACIAL where I was dribbled in cool milk, cucumber juice, scrubbed with curds and couscous, massaged with rose butter, marinated in exotic herbs, and wiped clean with rice paste. My skin
was exceptionally smooth and clear.
A TEMPLE FROM 1200 A.D. to Sri Chamundeswari where I saw a distinguished women in a red sari with elaborate gold embroidery be surprised when one of the cows started nibbling on the fresh jasmine garland in her hair. Her husband reached his hand to swat the cow away but caught himself, as cows are holy, and gently pushed it away, then touched his 3rd eye and heart chakra while chanting a prayer. Many pilgrims at this temple patted the cows, then touched their heart as if the cows were bestowing blessings.
OUR DRIVER IN MYSORE
One of the retreat drivers gave us the name and number of his friend in Mysore who turned out to be a wonderful driver. He fascinated me because he is a recent convert to Christianity and changed his name from a Sanskrit name to Samuel - a Biblical name. Though his family has been Hindu for generations, he kept wanting to tell us how wrong Hinduism was whenever we wanted to visit a temple. After the first day, he no longer needed to convert us and we all had a great time. Though most taxi drivers here all have the same small white car, he was always easy to find in the parking lot because his front window had huge letters that said "King of Kings". He drove us back to Conoor with his wife and two adorable little girls (ages 4 and 7) who all sat in the front bucket seat together. We kept offering to give them some room in the back but they kept saying they preferred to be together even though they looked uncomfortable.
PEOPLE ON SCOOTERS
As gas prices here are equivalent to $4.50/gallon (which is outrageous here as you can buy a really good lunch for under $1), most people walk, bicycle or ride a scooter with as many people as they can fit on it. It's rare to see just one person on a scooter - a family of 4, or 3 men is common, while at least a few are balancing packages of some kind. The little toddlers ride up front without a helmet or straps looking very happy, and at least one person is on their cell phone. The women ride on the back side saddle in billowing saris and very few people wear helmets - most of them held their helmets due to the heat. It was nerve-racking just watching them swerve by.
To visit an ancient temple of intricately carved stone, we drove an hour through the countryside where Michael and I had our noses glued to the car window. One man in a dhoti (cloth skirt), turban and barefeet sat by a mud hut while talking on his cell phone. Another man walked by barefoot on the hot asphalt, while balancing a gigantic load of hay on his head and pushing his bike. Many people lounged on heavy wood carts pulled by oxen with horns painted red or blue leisurely hauling wares to the market. Women pounded their laundry clean at roadside water pipes. Men on bicycles balancing 4-20 plastic jugs full of water, women balancing stacks of fresh bricks on their heads, palm-thatched huts, stalls meagerly supplied with dusty snacks, women hitting big rocks onto other big rocks to smash them into gravel pieces....
Michael wondered how many geniuses squatted in their huts who may never get their chance to do something important in the world as they are pre-occupied with the necessity of simply surviving each day. Amazingly, people looked calm and content - I didn't see any miserable grimaces as they struggled with their massive loads.
BUYING SILK SARIS
At a fabric shop, each 18-foot sari is folded up into a neat little package and stacked in endless rows, so it isn't easy to pick out what you want. The salesmen unroll sari after sari before you as you fondle and pick and choose. At one place, there were over 30 saris swirled in a pile at our feet. We kept telling them not to unroll ones we knew we didn't like the color of, but they kept flinging the shimmering lengths before us. Then an assistant quickly folds them back up - which isn't easy - as it took Michael and I 10 minutes to fold one up together and we vowed not to unroll any of the sari's we purchased until we were ready to use them. It's a little stressful to see that mess created and I can't help but feel pressure to buy most of them, but I noticed that the Indian women expect to see as many as possible before leaving with only one.
PUJA AT A HINDU TEMPLE
So what is it like to go into a Hindu temple you may wonder? Some of the temples are ancient and exquisite hand-carved stone, some are new and made of bare concrete, some are huge complexes with many rooms, and others are tiny shrines (like the size of a dollhouse).
We've happened to stumble into a few during holy festival days where mass amounts of food are cooked over fires in the temple, garlands of
flowers and greens are strewn everywhere, buckets of milk are poured over the resident statue, loud drumming and clanging of bells and many sincere devotees. You walk in barefoot, crowd in front of the room with the statue in it and the priest, and gently push yourself forward until you have a turn to receive puja (standing in line is not a concept here). Drop a rupee or two on the puja plate and stand praying while the priest chants and waves a flame in front of the resident god or goddess. When he comes back, you wave your hands over the flame to purify yourself with the smoke, dip your right ring finger in tikka powder to dot your third eye, and hold out your right hand to receive holy water to sip then pour onto your crown chakra.
As Westerners, we often receive special flowers or treatment as people are delighted to have us there, even though I always inappropriately hold out my "filthy" left hand for offerings and have to be gently reminded to use my right hand. You get away with a lot as a bumbling foreigner.
We are back to our studies and learning more than I imagined - I've taken over 120 pages of notes so far (front and back). Our big final test is Wednesday and I can't help but be a bit nervous. We're learning about all the various herbs and herbal preparations and how to stay healthy in each season based on your body/mind/soul constitution.
A local women is giving me weekly lessons on a technique called 'threading' which is removing body hair with just a little bit of cotton thread. It's very difficult to learn and painful to practice as I have to practice on myself - ouch! Michael generously offered himself as practice grounds but after a few minutes said he needed a break, as threading pulls the hair out one-by-one in rapid succession.
Yes, there really are cows milling around everywhere - on doorsteps, in the middle of the road, at street corners, and shop entrances. Apparently the owners untie the cows each morning and thand let them wander around town grazing on what they can, then meander home by nightfall to be tied up again. No one worries about someone stealing their cow as these giant beasts refuse to go home with anyone but their owner. I always wondered who owned the cows!
HOW TO NOT WRAP A SARI
The sari I ordered online before we left for India finally arrived and the top doesn't fit at all - it is so baggy that I had to take it into town for a tailor to fix. Despite that, l was giddy with excitement so I spent a good 15 minutes carefully folding, tucking and wrapping myself up in the way I had read to wear a sari and
proudly called for Michael's attention. He burst out laughing and said, "I'm not sure what you did wrong, but you look like you're being attacked!" .... I still have a ways to go before becoming a local!
DRUMMING AND SINGING
Two of the guests here have a successful business in London leading corporate retreats and team-building exercises. They have generously led us in 4 evenings of exuberant drumming and singing to African chants that gets us all wiggling and smiling and soaring.
On that note,
Lots of love to all! Tauna