Saturday, March 26, 2011

India: II: Valley of the Shawls

Setting off from Rishikesh, Pi shawl underway, we set off to Kasauli. A relatively non descript British Raj era hill station.
We'd set out for a 4 hour car journey after having morning tea with Babaji, so when we hadn't arrived at our hotel by 9pm, the 'romance' of a car ride through the low lying Himalayas was quickly losing it's shine. This was mostly due to the roadworks underway to widen and reinforce the winding road up the mountain after the previous monsoon season. Watching the men on the sides of the road breaking up boulders by hand was one thing, seeing them continue at night and with enormous trucks passing either side of them simultaneously, horns blaring, was something else! There had been a number of mudslides and occasionally we would see in the (not too far away) distance a dust cloud from a recent landslide, which was all the reminder I needed as to where I was and how 'safe' these roads were compared to similar roads at home. Its mostly luck that more people aren't killed or their homes destroyed in any given year. The journey the next day to Mandi was far more pleasant and the scenery much prettier, as the snow capped mountains shone all around us and the air became significanly cooler. I was very glad I had my (finished) "New York Delhi' Cream Cardigan - I sewed the collar on during the first few days at Rishikesh - no way I was getting up for a 4am class without it!
It was no surprise then that we began to see shawl shops appear, at first a few and a then more shawl shops and signs for shawl shops than I could believe. Since we weren't stopping every 5 minutes my photographic record of these signs is less than 1% of what I saw, but you get the picture. It turns out that the Kullu Valley is famous for its shawls. That and being the place where Alexander the Great's men mutinied and refused to travel further into India. Kullu supposedly translates as 'The end of the habitable world'. This is where the Beas River meets the Parvati river (Shiva's wife). We stopped at a Shawl factory and watched women working the looms with some of the most beautifully coloured pashmina yarn I'd ever seen. I was also struck by the women's local dress. It was very different to the Saree's worn by other Indian women. Actually it reminded me a lot of the dress worn by women I'd seen in the mountains of Guatemala. I found myself noticing many similarties with travelling through Mexico and Central America in India as it happened.
En route we passed many temples perched on cliffs and walked across a bridge to see the valley from another perspective, passing a cement bag laden donkey on the way of course. No guesses for who had right of way. There was even a cement manufacturing tower that looked like a spaceship launcher on top of a Himalayan peak. My camera was playing up so I don't have a photo, maybe its better I don't, not quite the image of the Himalayas that was appealing. Together with the power stations this was a saddening site.
The best hotel we stayed in along the way was in Mandi, called the Raj Mahal. We ended up having dinner and then breakfast with the 80 year old Raj, Ashok (though he was stripped of his title during partition in 1947). He was resplendant in pyjamas and dressing gown on both occasions, and I guess you really can do what you like when you're 80 and you own the place. His family have owned the building (now hotel) for 800 years and there was so much character to the place. From the white metal outdoor chairs with red cushions that looked like they were off the set of Alice in Wonderland and a Mad Hatter's tea party, to the longest barrelled musket rifles any of us had ever seen, nearly 2m long. In the rooms there was wood pannelling and lots of switches for numerous different types of lights. I figured it was to get the mood just right. Turns out it's probably more because electricity is free in this state (probably a trade off for all those power stations supplying the north of India) and a keen electrician had a blank canvass to play with.

After a walk around the town looking for silk fabric and pricing up harmoniums (average price 3000 Rupees = $70, alas, no room in the backpack - hubby was spared my dulcit tones) it was back to the Raj for a seemingly appropriate G&T. Though I expected some significance of ordering a gin and tonic in such a place I wasn't prepared for the ceremony that went with it. The tray arrived with a highball glass with a very generous measure of gin, another high ball glass with fresh lemon juice, another with sugar syrup, another with tonic syrup and a bottle of soda water on the side. There were two of us at the table (me and my tour buddy Eileen), so just double the number of glasses and bottles on the table at this point. Then came the pouring, which I very quickly realised was not my job, that honour was the Indian gentleman serving us dressed in formal wait attire Indian style with cap and white waistcoat. First the tonic syrup added to the gin, then sugar, then soda water, a touch of lemon and a little more soda water. Through hand gestures I was offered to taste then tweak as required. This was so much fun that when the others in our group arrived we ordered another and few on the other side of the table. I lost count how many high ball glasses we had on the table at one point, but there wasn't much white table cloth to spare. To top it off, it was one the best Indian meals I ate while visiting. Ashok entertained us with his riddles, such a , he reminded me of my own, who also happened to be an accountant and loved number puzzles. He was adorable and when I arrived last to breakfast the next morning (a few drinks after a sober time at the ashram will do that) he didn't miss a beat giving me the next puzzle to work on. Fortunately there was tea, just the one cup and saucer this time.

So we continued the trip up to Dharamsala, it was a long ride in the car and I really needed to get out and stretch. The views continued to be amazing and we stopped overnight in Manali. A town with many Kashmiri salesmen who were a little more persistant. Had a lunch at a great place call the Dragon restaurant next to hotel of the same name. If you're headed to this part of the world I highly recommend staying at the Dragon. We didn't and had a less than satisfying night in a very basic hotel, owing to a monumental stuff up by our tour guide. Actually that was her in a nutshell, but that's another story. Shopping was good in Manali and fun haggling. I bought a black wool and hand embroidered coat for under $50, just as well too as the temperature dropped that night, out came the woollens from the Knitting Man!

Oh, I almost forgot one of the funniest sites of the trip. We visited a temple in the afternoon and no sooner out of the car we were descended upon by Yak men wanting us to have a ride or photo sat on a Yak, and they were huge. While local women tried to throw angora bunny rabbits into your arms for about a dollar a time. Now I'm allergic to angora (such a shame) so I kept our driver in stitches trying to avoid having a bunny flung into my arms. Meanwhile, even the Yak men and rabbit women were in hysterics at my tour buddy Chris who had ended up with 2 bunnies in her arms, another 2 perched on her shoulders and a fifth trying to nuzzle in hence the title 'Pancha Angora' (five rabbits). It was hilarious and I haven't laughed so hard for so long in ages. We were still laughing about it at dinner, so was our driver 'Kashmiri Pashmina'. I don't remember much about the temple, apart from the snow outside it and how slippery it was, but I sure remember the bunnies!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

India: I : The Ashram

With so much to tell from a 3 week tour of India, it's probably best to post by theme. Seeing as I set out on a 'Yoga Tour' of India, lets begin at the Ashram. Once upon a time there was a yoga student who was into yoga a few classes a week. A few years later she'd twisted deeper into yoga teacher training and it wasn't long before the idea of visiting the birth place of yoga began to shout rather loudly from within. Not very considerate when meditating I must say. An opportunity arose and off she went to join some 400+ yogi's (male) and yogini's (female) at the 10th International Yoga Festival, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh, at the foothills of the Himalayas in India.

The programme was extensive, a choice of up to 6 classes per day, starting at 4am, with activities most evenings if you could keep your eyes open. After doing 4 classes a day for the first couple of days, I scaled it back to 2-3 per day to let my body catch up with my enthusiasm. I did do one 4am class later in the week and that was a very long day. There was also the early morning wake up call at about 4:30am of chanting and music coming from the temples just outside the main entrance of the ashram by the Ganges River, nearly always referred to as 'Ma Ganga' or Mother Ganges. So, for an ashram and my preconceptions about an ashram it sure was a noisy place at times.
The highlights of the classes I attended included Shiva Rea and her dance style flowing yoga; Bhava Ram & Laura Plumb who run Deep Yoga in San Diego (and yes I met many San Diegoan's/Diegans (?) through out the week) - Bhava (later named 'Bob' by Elfi, read on) had such a great sense of humour which he mostly accompanied with his guitar; Sadhvi Abha Saraswati for her Yoga Nidra Classes and singing through out the week; Hikaru Hashimoto and his Shintoh yoga - hopefully we'll see him in Sydney, he had to leave the programme early and this was before the quake. I really enjoyed Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati's classes and as the public face for the ashram she is a most impressive speaker (originated from the US, Masters degrees from Stanford and has been living at the ashram for 15 years!), we nicknamed her the 'Beautiful Saraswati' and she was never far from Swami Chidanand's (Swamiji's) side, both with their locks and saffron robes flowing behind them. Probably the highlight for me was attending 6:15am classes with Swami Yogananda, aka the "Laughing Yogi", whose classes were mostly the Pawanmuktasana series for those that means something to, or for any knitters, the type of joint rotation exercises I might have led you through before Guild meetings. On at least one occasion Swami Yogananda ended the class by putting both his ankles behind his head - oh and did I mention he was 103 years of age! Hahahaha, hehehehe, hohohoho...dunce cap and all!

Doing yoga on the steps of the Ganges was very special, so too was meeting so many great people from all over the place. There was the Indian-Canadian couple who filled in a lot of the blanks for me about various aspects of Indian history and culture, the Canadian-Kundalini couple who were both very tall and always happy to compare notes on classes we'd been to, even at 6am! Another lovely Canadian (just got along well with the Canadians I guess & Mike Meyers has a lot to answer for - if you haven't seen teh Love Guru just doo eeit), Lyn, en route to Shiva Rea's 10 day retreat in Kerala, the Italian Kundalini yoga teacher who wouldn't hang out with anyone for too long, else he became part of a 'group'. That still makes me laugh, seeing as he was amongst the largest representation of Kundalini yogi's ever! Meeting up with Anita at Delhi airport (we did our original teacher training together in Australia years ago) and Elfi whom she'd met on the plane from Sydney and her wonderfully direct and good humoured observations about everything. Everyone needs a bit of Elfi's insight in their day!
I was thrilled to meet up with my dear friend Liz, from Sydney, who will be in Rishikesh for a few more months yet (108 days in all), while she completes her meditation course and probably floats back to Oz afterwards.

As for the monkeys, cows, dogs and vendors that line the main streets of Rishikesh, they're all there to add to the atmosphere. A little walk down the road and there are 2 bridges that can be crossed over to various spots. The first takes you over to some better value shopping (Pashmina's are half the price as near the ashram) but after discovering the boat, I'd recommend taking it for 15Rupees (A$0.25) round trip and avoid the hilarity of dodging the cows, donkeys, crowds and motorbikes on the bridge - at the same time. Another 2kms down the road heading toward Lakshmanjula and you'll not only past the 'Knitting Man' (a future post will be dedicated to hand crafts) you'll come to one of the most festive round abouts of all time, cross that bridge (and if its late on a Sunday, you really will find yourself dodging the monkeys and motorbikes) to the German Bakery - let's face it, no village overseas is complete without its German Bakery (and I thought it was an anomaly in Antigua, Guatemala some 16 years ago@!). Fortunately there are 2 in Rishikesh. But the one across the bridge has the best view of Ma Ganga, with lemon honey ginger tea for 15Rupees, Cinnamon biscuits for 20Rupees, or apple honey cake for 25Rupees. Just watch the monkeys don't pinch your food off the tables as they scale the windows on their way to go play with the dogs at the bridge entrance.

Speaking of food...Its good to know where the hotspots are for those days when you realise its the cook's day off at the ashram and you need something more than a thin soup and rice. Many days the food at Parmath Niketan Ashram was good, but there were days I was very glad that The Office was just down the road with their samosas (including apple/spice and banana/nutella versions) and half pint pots of honey-lemon-ginger tea for 35 Rupees (tea+samosa). The ashram down the road where Liz is staying is also great for food if there's only a few of you and you don't risk piercing the quieter atmosphere of the meditations in progress.

Each evening there was Ganga Aarti (Light ceremony by the Ganges) and the week I was there, I was fortunate to be part of Shivartri, which is the Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva on the eve of the new moon, that's a very large statue of Shiva sitting on the pontoon over the Ganges. A few months ago it was swept away by the floods, and quickly replaced (the previous one was blue in colour) before the yoga and other festivals took place. I later saw many donkeys carrying bags of cement that would have been part of the pontoon reconstruction. The phrase "donkey work" took on new meaning.

If you're thinking of going to the yoga festival any time, its much easier than you might think, just hop on a plane for Delhi, change for a flight to Dehra Dun and get a prepaid car (1200 Rupees) to Rishikesh, which you'll probably end up sharing with a couple of new best friends you met en route - yoga mats are a good give away, just ensure you've booked your accommodation before you get there and if you figure you're going to be kept awake most of the time anyway, I'd spring the extra $100 for the rooms with cleaner bathrooms and views of the Ganges. I was in a more modest room where the mothballs in the sink served their purpose (albeit a toxic option). Don't hesitate to send me any questions, I'm only too happy to tell you more details of my experience. Oh, and as for the 'whites', I took some white clothing, bought more there and overall it was optional. Though, in amongst the dust it was nice to walk around in some comparatively 'clean' looking clothes and I now have a range of Kurta Pyjamas!

Eight days went quickly and didn't leave much down time, thank goodness for Yoga Nidra sessions in the afternoon. The morning we left Rishikesh our small tour group of seven, including local guide and driver set off 'up the mountain' towards Dharamsala, home of HH the Dalai Llama and many exiled Tibetans. That wasn't before calling in on Baba Shiva Rudra Balayogi's Ashram near Dehra Dun. This was on a whim of Rose's, my room/tour buddy who'd met Babaji in Queensland last October. We were so close it would have been a shame not to see if he was in or at least visit the ashram, for future reference. I'm so glad we did. Babaji was not only in, he took time out of a board meeting to meet us, offer us chai (one of the best I had in India, not too sweet) and biscuits, answer our questions, sign (bless) our books - I'm part way through his commentary on the Guru Gita and pose for a photo. In stark contrast to the yoga festival, this was a very quiet, peaceful ashram, dedicated to meditation and it certainly was an ideal way to end the week. Back in the bus it was, where I managed to successfully do a circular cast on for a Pi shawl - What a great day I was having, but more on the knitting later...