Archive for travel

Images on the Road ’16-’17

Practicing Tai Chi – Beside the Forbidden City, Beijing

I’ve been on the road for over a year; Spain, Italy, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Nepal, India, soon to be Ethiopia (flying visit), Lebanon….. I enjoy taking photographs and I challenged myself to pick a few of my favourite images to show you. I came up with these.  All taken on my Mum’s old phone.

Girls dressed up for a festival – Kathmandu

The Togean Ocean – Sulawesi, Indonesia

Annapurna 1 – Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal

Graffiti – Valora, Albania

One of a Billion Diety – Kathmandu, Nepal

Have a coconut – Pondicherry, India

Green Canopy – Somewhere in Indonesia

Shepherd Family – The Accursed Mountains, Between Albania and Kosovo

Flower Shower – Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

Chai Stop – Mcleod Ganj, India

Books by the Fire – Pokhara, Nepal

Snack Time – Kolkatta, India

Guru Bar – Anjuna, Goa

Incense Offerings – Henan, China

Streetside Art – Lecce, Italy

Mountain Donkeys – Annapurna, Nepal

Little Monks – Kopan Monastery, Nepal

Old Men Gambling – Guangxhi Province, China

Concrete Nightmare – Guangzhou, China

Baba – Kathmandu, Nepal

Home grown Chilli – Longchi Rice Terraces, China

La Azhoia Sunset – Murcia, Spain

Longchi Rice Terraces, China

Meditation – Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Taken by Jase Web)

Monkey Minds – Bins, Mcleod Ganj

Sewing Machine – Kathmandu

Riding Effortlessly on the Great Wall – China

 

 

Advertisements

Comments (6) »

Bardsey Island – The Island of 20,000 Saints

Yesterday we walked around the northern coasts of the Llyn Penisula (North Wales), braving the high winds and feral seagulls.  There is something quite dramatic about  the Llyn, with the trio of mountains (known as ‘The Rivals’) forming a gateway to a landscape dotted with remnants of ancient settlements and worship.  It seems that each time I visit the Llyn I am drawn deeper into its story.

At the tip of the Llyn Penisula we find Bardsey Island and there is definitely something about Bardsey.  In English its name refers to an island of bards, in Welsh (Yns Enlli) it suggests an island in the currents.  It sits like a small jewel off the tip of the jagged coast line and has been inhabited since neolithic times.  Bardsey has been a pilgrimage site for many years, three trips to Bardsey was the equal of a trip to Rome.  A hermitage has stood here since the earliest days of Christianity in Britain, although it has been knocked down a few times along the way.  Brave and devout souls floated over from France and Ireland on rudimentary rafts to preach the words they regarded to be true and lead this wild and untamed island nation away from sin, towards redemption.  These remarkable old saints, hermits and pilgrims were very wise, putting a little ocean between themselves and their rabid flock (although that didn’t help when the vikings showed up!).

The history of this isolated retreat is fascinating, its location stunning, but as usual, the myths and legends are what sets it apart and fuels the imagination to imbued a large rock with magical properties and some intangible, mystical allure.  20,000 saints are said to be buried on the island, making the soil rich and fertile.  It has even been claimed that Prince Arthur is buried in a cave there.  To get there, you still need to call a local chap in a small fishing boat to take you there and hopefully back.  If the weather flares up, you can be stranded on the island, where there is still no electricity.  It suggested that you draw up a will before visiting Bardsey, it is said that the Llyn extends into the ocean just as life extends into the unknown emptiness and once we have reached Bardsey, we are relieved of earthly cares (meaning we are now number 20,001).

What can be said about the allure of Bardsey, it seems so close from the shore, we feel that we could touch it, except it is far enough away for us to fall and perish in the fierce waves of the Irish Sea.  I see Bardsey Island as a metaphor for our spiritual journey through life, as we build a bastion from rocks and earth to hide us from the endless waves and commotion, deep inside our soul is ever drawing us deeper towards harmony, as we venture out into the raging oceans of calm and set sail into the blissful unknown.  One pilgrim wrote that Bardsey is “the land of indulgences, absolution and pardon, the road to Heaven, and the gate to Paradise” and on a day like yesterday, I can see why.

I have included some photographs and poetry that I hope captures something of these sentiments:

 

Bardsey Island in the distance

Bardsey Island in the distance

Gorse and Heather

Gorse and Heather

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat, the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar, and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us, and
leaving as we arrive.

There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns, but the slow chemistry of the soil,
that turns saints’ bones into dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.

There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon; they are just
here, with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that, in times
like these, and for one like me,
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather, and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?

“Pilgrimages” by R. S. Thomas

P1060794

P1060950

And that’s why I have to go back
to so many places in the future,
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy.
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road.

Pablo Neruda

P1060782

P1060817

We passed the ice of pain,

And came to a dark ravine,

And there we sang with the sea:

The wide, the bleak abyss

Shifted with our slow kiss.

Space struggled with time;

The gong of midnight struck

The naked absolute.

Sound, silence sang as one.

All flowed: without, within;

Body met body, we

Created what’s to be.

What else to say?

We end in joy.

The Moment – Theodore Roethke

P1060730

P1070004

Comments (2) »

Walking the White Cliffs with Jose – 29th January 2013

P1190136

Shepherds House – Aguillas, Murica

Jose is kind and peaceful man, a friend who lives over in Spain.  He walks everyday around the hills and ramblas (dried river beds) of Mazarron in the region of Murcia.  He always walks with his two dogs Amy and Robbie and lives closely with nature, seeing things most others miss.  Sometimes he takes us with him on these walks and on each occasion adventure never seems far and nature much closer.  Here is an account of one such walk:   

Walking the White Cliffs with Jose

Out with Jose, in nature, finding heart shaped rocks and stooping to taste herbs straight from the bush;

painting symbols with purple minerals in ancient mines, taking long legged strides towards the

sky; opening nature like the pages of a children’s book, well thumbed and cherished, yet lonely on the

school shelf.  Fantasy translates and the fascination of unfettered, child-like innocence blows down

the Spanish valleys.

With Jose dried up river beds spring back to life and blossom returns as old friends from great travels,

together we scramble on mountainsides through fresh seams of black crumble earth seeking white

crystals of calcite.  Rare gales have cleared the sky, pushed clouds to never never and we are left with

blue, hanging uncluttered and serene.  Bathing in its stillness.

Acacias stir as we pass, dropping yellow flowers landing in the shadow of my arm.  These

great winds are blowing pine cones towards Africa.  The fragrance of wild herbs fills our lungs with a

new mornings hope and gladly we surrender ourselves to the day.  Without purpose or cause, only

breathes and beats and moments stretching out in a line.

The fine red dust enriches the skin, cloaks us in the landscape, clings to our sweat; a familiar smell of

fresh blood, of raw iron and earth.  An old air raid siren kicks up a mournful wail that hangs around, our

minds jolt back to fascist bombs falling like poisoned metal rains, rebels hid in caves and times of

mechanised war, but it’s just the lunch bell for the tomato plantation workers below.

Jose knows no ordinariness within living, no normal route to meander, his trails lead ever up

and each one has it’s own legend; taking in derelict mines and cottages, fossil beds, Roman hideouts and

beaches made of bullets and coves where smugglers still hide.  He takes us to the points where the

bravest fishermen will not venture, crevasses where even mountain goats don’t tread.  His small

backpack is filled with ancient nails and hand-made ropes, alien carved stones, sandals

woven from dried palm and a mad old shepherds treasure tin filled with owl feathers and gold teeth.

He still shivers for the ghosts of dead carcasses drying in the sun, their white bones picked clean by small

jackals and hooded vultures.

We rest for water in a donkey cave, shaded and fresh, the nearby well has retreated as the desert creeps

closer to the sea.  Jose tells us that as a child he cared for animals more than people and still does.  He

lived in the old country and never knew of Surinam, Turkey or differences between people.  Each year

he watched the crops grow, the seasons change; swimming in the ocean each day and not returning to

shore unless threatened by his mother.

Jose raised cattle and took care of many Alsatians and Mastiffs from the Canary Islands, which he picked

up whilst on national service.  A reluctant soldier who would not swat a fly.  Although inhabiting the

archetypal warriors frame, from mythical Trojans he surely descends, his jaw alone could fell an ox; his

army days only led to a greater interest in cards games and laying under trees.  He became accustom to

the sound of different guns and now sits on his porch sipping strong coffee, commenting on the calibre

of rifle used in the nearby valleys, as the Sunday hunters shot everything in sight and drag the local

families of wild boars towards oblivion.

Jose spends most weekdays seeking semi-petrified woods for his log fire and always takes a flask of tea.

He sits on the bends of dried rivers over smoothed ripple rocks where come the November rains

white water will flow again.  For a short time only, things will be greener and

clover will carpet his land.  He explores the thousands of caves cut from limestone and hides rocks

shaped like animals to know he has visited each one.  He seeks treasures in the ruins of old shepherd

houses and when the tides are just right, extracts the purest of sea water to dry as salt on the copper

plates above his fire.  He takes tea with his loving dogs, listening for the bells of the local goat herd,

fearing their feral packs of shepherd dogs.  He kept a pet owl for a time that only left him when a suitor

took over a nearby tree.  He is as generous and caring as the nature that surrounds his life and that is

more than enough.

Over dried stones we climb, disturbed for a while by the wild goats that roam.

The Billy, all squared pride and flamboyance in spiralled horns, flares its arrogance through it’s nose and

trots off in a cloud of dust and battered Rosemary.  The dogs run wilder up here, far off we see them

galloping like race horses, in their element and ever curious with endless enthusiasm; both bearded,

kind and bitches.

At the summit of the white cliffs over Mazarron the views are rich and vast.  We stand in customary

awe of such a sight, for a time in silent reflection, just taking it all in.  The sparkling ocean with forested

peninsulas spilling into the waves and vast swathes of barren ochre land, only interrupted by areas of

green rolling hills, like giant sleeping lizards reclining in the plains and the occasional distant cobalt

mountain range, all jagged and mighty.  One diamond snowy peak reigns the rough horizon, the Sierra

Nevada, off south towards Granada.

White washed windmills punctuate the arid flatness below, for many years sat just watching the wind,

sail-less monuments.  Tomato fields, fincas of olive trees and lemons, whole swathes of almond trees in

blossom, all sit in man-made geometric patches; some grace old terraced orchards and haciendas built

with white wattle and daub and red tiles.  Rampant Bougainvillea almost eclipsing  their roofs.

We see the ancient port of Cartagena, where the Phoenicians traded salt and Hannibal battled the

Romans for supremacy and pages of history.  We make out the shadows of a battery of hill top guns

built by Franco, pointing out to sea and only fired in vain; the old monasteries and prisons that dot the

northern hills, inhabiting crests and bluffs.  We also see our tiny dot of our a car by the snake-like

road that cuts and winds through these remote parts where the ramblas are stretched

out like networks of veins.

There are birds up here living in the crags and caves, blackbirds with orange beaks, they never venture

below and play all day in the thermals diverted by the vast wall of chalk and limestone.  They rise and

dive, graceful and carelessly involved in unbridled play, occasionally venturing our way, flying low to

see what we are.  It’s a joyful sight to see them take on the open skies.  We wonder where they have

come from and where they are going?  How far they migrate?  And why they would leave such a place?

Jose points out El Dorado, hidden in the setting sun and the tremors of the Mediterranean, its treasures

now surely exposed.  The first star drops out, our sign to head for home, to find a small rock cottage,

sheltered from the wind and laugh around a candle and carve our names in the rafters; spill wine on the

stony ground, dried out thyme clinging to our socks; our skin alive with experience.

P1180978

Jose with Amy (black) and Robbie (brown)

Comments (4) »

Fresh Meat – Hampi

P1110329

Hampi houses

‘Fresh meat’.

‘Worlds no.1 moulded chocolate chip cookie’.

The signs are all around, but what are they saying. White mongrels howl and an infant throws rocks at calves. Another kid lies in the road, eyes closed to the skies and looking for answers to death, all enacted below a plateau punctuated with wild bush ruby boulder hills. Temples pour out of caves like pious lava flow, heavily decorated with menacing idols and acts of cruelty. Far from beauty or heaven. No strangers to the glorious Greeks, pantheons erected on high hill tops, tall pillars left with no ceilings to support. All built by hands of slaves of Kings, for the Gods who need and all that human greed.

A buffalo with down turned horns eats plastic sheets. Women crash laundry on black rocks in shallow, rapid frenzy. Red clay water holds splashing children afloat in the current. All talking is touched by the glow of a glimmering amber late light show. We are living in the ruins of an ancient empire. Hampi.

Little girl in Hampi

Little girl in Hampi

This corner of India, this slice of pantomime unfolding outside the green and yellows of a rickshaw chariot. A psychedelic theatre, enlightenment burning slowly in a palm shack on timeless plains, where those blue Gods make their moves and suffering burns out cold to the light of dead stars. Impossible to feel the mediocre here. It is banished to the hills like a soulless heretic. The average is fed to Agni and ravaged, engulfed in the dancing flames of destruction and creation, to be re-born in Surrey with a Fiesta. How did we get here? To this point of living?

I hold my breath and India speaks. Telling me at each stage of the mortal coil, death in rage and filth, everlasting joy, odour of decay, visions of cosmic, orgasmic timeless union. Mother India spells out the truth to those with the heart and tunes. The tingle sensation of past lives waltzing over future incarnations.

Hampi streetside

Hampi streetside

Comments (4) »

The Rainbow People, Kumbh Mela (Part Three), 13th April 2010, Haridwar, India

Sunset from the Rainbow Camp

(Cont.)…  We met many kind Sadhus that night and they regularly usher us into their mobile ashrams, these camps for the pilgrims and chelas (devotees).  A place of shelter both spiritual and phsyical, where all eating and smoking needs (if you’re lucky, or western) are catered for by gangs of holy men and other volunteers.  These ashrams all represent different divisions of the same thing, Hinduism, with its seemingly infinite sect, sub-sects, gurus and Gods.

There is a method here, of the kind that I am not privy to.  Food appears on cue, camps are kept clean, caste rituals practised, everybody sits in the right place, we all sing in the seething mass of 16 million people.  It should be ultimate chaos. Admittedly, sometimes it is.

The Pandas (a branch of Sadhu) keep check of family histories, updated for a small fee each year.  Many poorer Indians can trace their families back generations by visiting their specific Panda, but seemingly only once every twelve years. Groups of devotees sit before their Sadhu or Panda, some seeking a ruling on land disputes, others up-dating the records with deaths, births and marriages. Many people have travelled, some walking, from all corners of India.  That’s a long, old road.

Gangs of pilgrims encircle us at every corner and close in for the kill; like entranced zombies, inquisitive and in my fragile, bewildered state of mind, a little too close for comfort. They stare blankly and find Iain (6″4″ dreaded red hair, Chester bloke) a fascinating puzzle.  Most believe him to be an albino holy man and some touched his feet, one man lay prostrate in the street, chanting in Sanskrit.  Iain handled all of this with charm and patience, but it was regularly intense.

I learn of many fascinating myths and legends of the past Kumbh Melas. Some have stayed with me: a Himalayan Baba who kept a vegetarian lion which could chant ‘Aum’ on request, an Elephant stampede that killed many and sword battles and assassinations between rival sects of Sadhus.  Rumours of a holy man living in a tree just down river, he leaps from branch to branch like a monkey and hynotises all comers with his gaze alone. He is, predictably, married to an Italian lady (Italian ladies like Babas). He has unlocked the doorway to many siddhis (yogic powers) and is capable of levitation and raucous bonhomie, welcoming all with warmth and daal.

These are just a tiny slice of the magic and mystery of the Kumbh.  I have always been fascinated by the legends of India and the mighty Ganga and soon I’ll be literally, up to my neck in it.

Curious Pilgrim

Then, all change.  At a chai stall, we met a lost Frenchman carrying a guitar and we were taken to a hidden village of wig wams, to be amongst the rainbow people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_Family).  A global group of new age hippies.  They had been up in some forests near Rishikesh for a time, but their global gathering had been ruined by bribe hungry police.  The camp was small and fenced.  Kids ran around naked on sheep skin rugs, most people lay on the floor, the atmosphere was still, with a blissful soundtrack.  An oasis in the heart of the mayhem.

On arrival, the Frenchman joined three Japanese dudes with dreadlocks sitting on and bashing large ornate drums.  He picked at a guitar as an elfin Turkish gent wearing a brilliant waistcoat played a four-stringed Japanese instrument with a bow, a younger Californian dude had a bamboo flute.  Other instruments and characters joined in with the music which flowed freely for hours.  Some people spoke occasionally, but most of us just lay and watched the sky.

The rainbow people are great huggers.  We hugged each other with real love.  Big, long, deep embraces.  An honest, heart-felt exchange as opposed to a quick greeting.  Good to start with a hug.  The atmosphere of peace and love was regularly interrupted by an Indian man hitting the surrounding fence with a stick, as people looked over at this unusual gathering of Westerners and wig wams.  This regular surge of aggression was unpleasant. Food was served in one of the wigwams, but I wasnt hungry anymore.

We soon realised that Ravi had disappeared.  We were tucked away in a maze-like ashram, with many corrugated iron walkways.  Ian and I began to worry.  Maybe he was lost?  We had no idea how we got here, or how to get out.  I was sent on a mission to find him. I liked the idea at first, stretch the legs a little.  Get away from the angry man with the stick.

After a while, I found my sandals in the pile and made my way into a brave new world, with no soft drumming or flute. I slunk through the maze and soon found Ravi at the entrance, arguing in Hindi with a cadre of heavily moustached men with sticks.  Damn sticks!  I waded in there, a disillusioned peacemaker, trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. It seemed I was invisible at the time, as well as deluded.

Eventually Ravi explained that he was not allowed back into the ashram because he was Indian. This took me a time to comprehend this notion.  Indians banning Indians.  The head Sadhu had made a decree, no mixing with the gringos in the wig wams.

It was getting uglier.  People where throwing hands in the air, kicking up dust and frothing at the mouth.  I joined in the shouting match, not really knowing what I was saying or why.  We drew a great crowd.  I decided that he who waved his hands the most would be victorious.  It worked!  I have long arms.

The man with the biggest stick and bushiest moustache addressed me in English, with respect, he suggested I approach the head honcho and ask him for his ruling.  With respect, I tried not to stare at his fabulous ocra moustache (dyed with henna) and brilliant silver hair.  The combination was striking.  After all this hand waving, I was pumped up and ready for a debate.  We were in the right here (as if that mattered).

Friendly faces

I was taken to a large bell tent, pink in colour, with golden ropes holding the main entrance open.  There were around one hundred people sitting in silence on rugs in front of what appeared to be a low throne.  Had I stepped back in history?  This was like the court of some great Sultan and I suddenly realised, I was out of my depth here.  I would have to confront the Sultan (Sadhu) regarding his racist door policy.  The consequences of which remained a fearful mystery.

The main man was a big lump of billowing robes, with a giant white beard and tall orange turban.  He wore chunks of jewels and seemed more maharaja than ascetic.  This was a courtroom of sorts and two men sat before the throne, their families behind, all heads were bowed.  They were explaining something about a goat dispute (or so I was told).

The man with the ocra moustache led me to the front, the crowd murmured in unison, people craned their necks to see the lamb being led to the slaughter.  My major problem with expressing why I was there would be expressions!  I had no words here.  I had a vocabulary of three words and one of those was ‘tea’.  I was being hung out to dry by a man with a red moustache.  He tugged at my hand as a sign to sit on the floor.  I tried to look calm.  I was wearing a bright yellow bandana.

As the goat dispute was mediated and the verdict accepted with much bowing and many prostrations, it was my turn.  I looked up to the scowling pile of robes, his eyes were on fire and circled with blue dye.  Before I could bow, he erupted into a rage.  I hadn’t even spoken.  It seemed I had ruined his day.  I then realised that Ravi had barged into the tent, dragging a few smaller stick holders with him.

An epic slaging match ensued, insults were traded and the awe-struck crowd of pilgrims watched on, heads bobbed back and forth, like at a tennis match.  Indias really know how to lose it!  I was impressed, but still apprehensive, occasionally they were pointing at me.  I tried to look innocent, of everything.

I was actually relieved, as the battle raged, the spotlight was off me, so I hopped away.  Making fumbling apologise to anyone who would listen.  There seemed to be no clear winner.  Even the stick men lost interest, letting go of Ravi’s arms and wandering off.  Ravi was fuming and our time in the hippie wig wam village was over.  Which was fine by me, I didn’t want to stay in this odd environment anyway.  I’d come to embrace the festival of love, not a flute player from California.

We told a few of the Rainbow guys what had happened to our friend.  They seemed disinterested.  They couldn’t do much anyway.  They were honoured ‘guests’, although ‘spectacles’ would have probably been a better way of putting it.

We went and told Iain and the guys of the situation, managing to drag them away from the impish man and his hypnotic Japanese instrument.  As we left, the stick bearers, seemed relax.  Smiling and chatting to Ravi, they offered us bedis and apologised for the ‘beast’ in the pink tent.  India is perplexing at the best of times.

We hit the packed lanes and were soon watching painted children dancing on a stage, dressed as Gods……….TBC………

The crowds gather

Leave a comment »

Kumbh Mela 2010 Haridwar – Video Clips

I’m writing alot about the Kumbh Mela at the moment.  After settling down for a while, those wild, mystical times seem to be flowing through my me again.  I imagine my soul is craving a level of chaos and vibrant energy that the grey island will never offer.

I love anything that challenges western sensibilities.  Wakes us to something else.  Another way of existing.  The Kumbh is ancient, holy and still wild.  I can’t remember so much, more a blur of images.  It was a short time, but deeply effecting.

So I thought I’d look on youtube and see what was out there.  I was pleasantly surprised.  These clips certainly jogged my memory.  I hope you like them.

A few of my favourite clips of the Kumbh Mela 2010 on Youtube:

A long video of the festival with the babas in all their glory –

Another good video of a day at the Kumbh –

A day with a Sadhu at the Kumbh –

A short Italian film with nice images –

Comments (1) »

With the Babas, Kumbh Mela (Part 2), 13th April 2010, Haridwar, India

File:Vishnuvishvarupa.jpg

“Fear Not. What is not real, never was and never will be. What is real, always was and cannot be destroyed.”  Lord Krishna, Bhagavad Gita

Which begged the question, what is real?  Especially here in the heart of the Kumbh.

All is well and cloaked in a chillum induced fug. Common reality has left these banks of Haridwar for these fleeting moments to be replaced by the sensibilities and traditions of the Hindu sadhus; the ceremony and mysticism of these ancient ascetics, who are standard bearers of the ancient traditions of Hinduism that have profoundly influenced all religions and societies for possibly the last 12,000 years.

Bearded and beaming, we pass the chillum (ceremonial clay pipe) around fires; dried chillies are scattered on the embers, pujas (prayers) are offered to the Gods and the arrival of old friends seems the only distraction from the circle of energy that binds it all together.

Chillie Puja offered to Ajni

This festival of love, the Kumbh Mela 2010, seems to be building a sense of purpose and focus.  The air is charged with something.  We are gaining an insight an older form of perception here, just by experiencing this rarefied atmosphere, all is change for a time.  Many insights come without words, but many colours and only fleeting, normally erratic, movements.  The charras lifting us up.  Higher.

This focus will lead us soon (nobody seems to know when, but soon) to the great parade.  The mass procession and festivities, a volatile torrent of Shiavite Babas (sadhus) and diverse army of spiritual sorts; mendicants and hermits, holy men and celebrity gurus, some clutching swords reciting incantations, trance like.

A cast of millions whipped up for weeks into a religious fervour, a sublime devotion to Shiva and the divine, that will lead us to the shores of the holy Ganga and a chilled bath.  The water is icy, yet the air is scorching.

This mighty Goddess river, that supposedly flows from Shivas matted locks. From its source of Gaumukh in the Himalayan highlands, meandering through countryside and city until the fertile Bengali delta.  This Gangetic plain, the fertile cradle of so much ancient history.  Every inch of this river is sacred, every inch offering a rebirth of hope for Hindus.  These riversides where millions have prayed; made pilgrimages, ablutions and offerings, and ultimately returned to as ash having left their bodies.  It is said that if a vile of water from the Ganga is held by a Hindu, they cannot tell a lie (this could solve much, especially in the political arena!).  No river in the world is so revered.

We are somewhere in the vast network of camps and ashrams, temporary homes for the millions, that has been here for weeks.  Most ashrams are supported by donations from rich, city based devotees.  The charras (a form of pure, handmade hashish) is mainly free to the Babas.  Tonnes of the stuff is supplied by the government and transported to the Kumbh in large military wagons.

The consumption of charras is an integral part of the Shiavite Babas worship.  Shiva was the greatest yogi and loved nothing more than disappearing into the Himalayas for years, smoking charras in caves and meditating.  He is the alpha male rogue of the Hindu Gods.

Shiva Shamboh!

The Babas seem to spend alot of time visiting old friends and catching up on gossip and goings on.  Many Babas live in very remote areas and this is their only chance, once every twelve years, to re-connect with old friends.  They jump from camp to camp, all wearing their own style of Sadhu couture, all looking like a cast of ascetics who have wandered in from the old deserts of Sinai.

These are the men who could have inspired Jesus and Buddha (and many more who claim to be prophets) to follow the path of renunciation and set off on pilgrimages, living the life of a hermit.  For only with great silence of mind and detachment; great liberation and stillness in life, can the real treasures of being be unearthed.  The treasures that are on show in many of these mens eyes and actions.

“When the sage climbs the heights of Yoga, he follows the path of work; but when he reaches the heights of Yoga, he is in the land of peace.”  Lord Krishna,

Night falls over the Kumbh, no signs of modernity to light the way here (bar the occasional hanging light bulb).  Vision is made possible by the blue moonlight, as we pick a path through the melee of sleeping bodies and wide-eyed night wanderers.  From what appears to be a pile of orange rags, comes a bejewelled trident, thrust in our direction with a barked warning.  The Kumbh never sleeps.

Naga babas

We find ourselves led to a small corrugated iron hut, attached to a large billowing tent.  The type of tent you’d imagine Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta would have been accustom to.  I am then sat below a much revered Baba, with tiny sticks for legs that hang lifelessly as he swings on a chained plank hung above a ceremonial fire.  His body, like a sparrow, wrapped in greying rags.  His white beard cascades down, his eyes are translucent opal plates.

There is a hushed atmosphere of curiosity surrounding or presence, furtive glances are exchanged and hands are cupped to shield whispers.  There is the occasional muffled giggle.  Nobody speaks out.  The fire pit is surrounded by an assortment of Babas in clouds of heavy chillum smoke.  The one sitting opposite seems to be turning into a woman!  He has breasts and regularly flutters his eyelashes in my direction.

A large crowd of devotees sit and watch on, I imagine some had rarely seen such funny looking folk as us.  Ravi later told me that the swinging Sadhu lives in a small corrugated iron lean-to in a bus station in Lucknow.  He is, what you may call, the real deal.

(Ravi is a lovely fellow.  He spends six months a year riding his Enfield around India and smoking with Babas, hence his familiarity with many.  The other six months he bakes goodies for stoned travellers on the beaches of Gokana.  He is from a family of Brahmins (the highest caste, generally richer men well-educated in the Hindhu scriptures and traditions) and is a very chilled and blessed companion/ part-time guide in this adventure.  Helping our gang to make some sense of it all.)

An elderly Baba; with the screwed up face of a happy child, hair to his waist and perfectly circular bald spot, sits to my left.  Below the dangling legs and the swing.  His eyes are closed in deep meditation, yet each time the chillum is passed, he reaches out instinctively and accepts it with a sudden yelp.  He bellows the 101 names of Shiva in a guttoral howl prior to taking a giant lungful of charras.  Then passes it to me.  Difficult to follow such a performance.

The first time this happened, I almost leapt on the fire in sheer terror.  The small man could wail.  I felt hundreds of eyes focusing on me, as I fiddle with the pipe, recovering my composure.  Still a fumbling novice, but attempting to be respectful.  I gave it a good suck and hoped not to cough my lungs up again.

The roof is low, the smoke burns my eyes……are my eyes open or closed?….I feel a poke on the shoulder, it’s the kindly child face of the howling Baba offering me steaming clay cup of creamy chai.  During my time at the Kumbh, I only ever felt at home.  Each ashram we visited, we were treated like lost friends.

From the darkness outside the tent, many small bells begin to clang in unison and we all stood up and shuffle outside.  A hushed exodus to prayer.  A large crowd of sadhus from the ashram had gathered, wrapped in blankets to beat the cold night air.  We all sang and chanted before an altar as the Brahmins, with painted chests and shaved heads; lit candles and wafted incense smoke over the many golden idols.  Constantly arranging and re-arrange garlands.  Blessings were offered with milk and sweets as we began to make our way around the wooden shrine in a clockwise fashion.  We all acquiesce, maybe in a trance.

After what seemed like an age, we decided to stretch our legs and leave the warm fireside of the swining Baba.  We said our goodbyes and they seemed genuinely sorry to see us go.

It was late and the paths were filled with characters.  They surfaced out of the night, whooping ghoul-like figures glowing with white ash and blood-red eyes, receded into shadows.  We were told that one emaciated chap had been sitting cross-legged, in the same spot by the road for months meditating.  Some had bury their heads in earth.  Some had broad swords embedded in their arms and monkey tails hanging from their rectums.  Yes, these paths are filled with characters.  I felt suddenly exhilerated.  Where would they lead us next?  (See part 3)

Baba looks on

Leave a comment »

%d bloggers like this: