My spiritual awakening

With the food poisoning, hair fall, homesickness, loneliness, sleepless nights, humidity and bed bugs of the last few months to contend with, I’d been struggling to gather momentum with my work and my mind was unsettled to say the least. I decided it was time to turn to spirituality to see if it had anything on offer to help me cope better.

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I began by attending a seminar on Ayurveda – an ancient medical science of life developed in India thousands of years ago (Ayur = Life, Veda = Science). I learnt that there are 3 personality types, dictated by physical appearance as well as personal preferences and habits; Vata, Pitta and Kapha, comprising of the 5 elements, (space&air, fire&water and water&earth respectively), and was made to do a quiz, which told me I was Vata-Pitta (quick/tense and reflective/moody). However after being preached to about the merits of healthy eating and sleeping habits from 6-10pm with no dinner break at a venue an hour from the campus, I was starving hungry and too tired to want to get up at 5am to attend the next class.

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My second stab at spirituality took the form of a weekend trip to Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India. Situated on the bank of the Ganges, it is considered the holiest city by many and famous for sending burning bodies into the Ganges.

Arriving at 5am (after another sleepless night on the Indian railways), I made my way through crowds of barefooted orange devotees filing past to fill plastic containers with holy water. Even at this early hour, stalls were already selling orange key rings, orange flowers, orange trousers, orange scarfs and orange religious offerings. I began by visiting the ghats (steps leading down to the river) to watch some early morning religious ceremonies, dodging an enormous amount of shit, and sadly two dead cows slumped in the alleyways covered in flies on my way.

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I’d booked to stay in a peaceful looking yoga house in the hope of spending the weekend practising yoga. However since it was off-season there was no-one else around, so my only option was a private lesson from an old dude with a massive belly who’s first words were to tell me I looked like Robert Redford?! So the two of us began our sun salutations overlooking the Ganges to the accompaniment of the laboured breaths from my instructor and a loudly belching cow below us… ‘Inhale… Exhale….. beruuuurrrghhh’ – the cow was definitely good at the latter.

Later I enquired about the possibility of a massage at around 6pm. The masseuse reached for my wrist, checked my pulse (for less than a second) and told me that 4.30pm would suit me better, due to my digestive system?! I’d heard stories of people who practice Ayurveda being able to tell your personality type (Vata, Pitta, Kapha) just by feeling your pulse, but in this instance I got the strong impression that my masseuse had plans at 6pm…

On my last evening I visited the famous burning ghats, where they burn the bodies and throw the ashes in the Ganges. Or in instances when burning of the body is not allowed (I think this is the case for Brahmins – a particular class of Hindus), they instead tie rocks to the body before throwing it into the middle of the river. On arrival we were whisked up to the top of a tower to watch the ceremony, but weren’t allowed to take photos. It was explained to us that it is Shiva’s fire which is used to burn the bodies, and that it never stops, not even when it rains (probably because the main fire is kept undercover) and has been burning for thousands of years. About a dozen bodies were on fire at a time and apparently there are bodies burning all day and night. Crying is not allowed (it is deemed bad luck for the dead person) and there was a calm atmosphere, with a group of locals playing cards on the deck of a nearby boat. Despite this I was grateful for the company of a friend I’d made earlier in a cafe. Women are also banned from the ceremony because it is assumed they will be unable to hold back their tears!

Before putting the body on the wood pile (renewed for each individual), they must first wash the body in the Ganges to purify it. After a while two water buffalo pushed through the crowds and sauntered into the washing spot for a cool down. This turned out to be problematic for the next candidate to be cleansed, and the bearers had to wrestle the body from the grasps of the water buffalo as they tried to nibble the necklace of flowers.

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Finally when our red streaming eyes couldn’t take the ash and smoke any longer, we received our blessing and paid our donation for eternal good karma which would be used to pay for wood to burn for the deaths of people who cannot afford it and headed to a cafe for some live music, lassi and rather unbelievably cheese fondu! There were some clear signs that Varanasi is popular with the tourists and throughout the weekend I received plenty of warnings that I was emotionally ‘blocked’ in some form or other, and each time a solution was offered in exchange for my rupees. I politely refused.

Despite these efforts, my most spiritual influence has been my neighbour Rani. Originally from Kerala, she and her husband spent the last 10 years living in the Netherlands until she finally decided last year that she and her son would move back to India so that he might spend some of his younger years in his homeland. In Kerala Ayurvedic medicine is the normal medicine which the doctors practice and Rani has clearly grown up surrounded by such herbal anecdotes. I’ve found her warm open caring nature and amazing cooking very soothing to my soul, and we spend most weekends cooking, gossiping, applying henna to our hair and honey and rose water to our faces!

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She once explained to me that the word ‘yoga’ itself means the union of the body, mind and soul and that meditation is the highest form of yoga. When you are successful in your practise, your chakras become activated, and once they are all activated you become enlightened. Becoming enlightened makes you realise that everything is within you, that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which applies also to the energy within us, which lives on in our soul. Only on this planet are we faced with so many limitations and go through so much emotional upset. She also talked about the idea of there being past lives which are not labelled as being either good or bad. The idea is to learn everything, from how it feels to be a worm, or a tree, to live as a prince or to live in a war zone. But there is a law of karma, so whatever you do there will be consequences for your actions. Before embarking upon a life, you have meetings with a spiritual mentor, a kind of higher self of you who you can talk to and they are always in touch with your spirit guides. They help you plan what to do to for the next life. Apparently we are also in groups, people that effect your energy in a positive or even negative way are part of your spirit family and you will meet them again. She said that we we are made to learn to help ourselves and others. I like that idea.

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But there is no escaping it, Kanpur and the insular isolated IIT campus can be a lonely place for a single foreigner at times, where most people my age are married with children. So I joined the gym, played my fiddle till my fingers blistered and took up german lessons (with plenty of head wiggling) until it was time to reunite myself with Europe and everything and everyone contained within that I had been missing so much it for a short time.

Battle of the Bugs

Arriving back into the campus in Kanpur, I had to cross a river to get to my apartment. Apparently the rains had arrived.

Even though the temperature had dropped (very slightly), humidity had crept in so that I was constantly covered in a layer of moisture. We were not allowed air conditioning in my building since the electrics weren’t set up to be able to deal with such a heavy drain on the power, so sleeping became a distant memory. To make matters worse, a plethora of creatures seemed to condense out of the moisture and fly across my room. I often found small ants crawling up my arms and legs, I found almost invisible white creatures wriggling across my book, brown fleas attached to my ankles, cockroaches running over my feet and lizards slithering across the walls (I liked theses guys because hopefully they were eating the rest). Meal times became a constant battle with heat flies.

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Banging Bangalore

My travel to Bangalore was spent praying that my bottom wouldn’t erupt, and the first few days of the summer school followed in a similar manner, with me positioned close to the lecture theatre door…

During this summer school I experienced my first real mood drop since being in India. Micha had just left, it was raining, cold, and I was to be confined to an institute in the middle of nowhere, 20km from the city, comprising of grey buildings, under a grey sky, with nothing around, and whose perimeter I could traverse in less than 5 minutes. It may also have been caused by residual effects of the stomach bug, or the fact that we had to share rooms, and being a light sleeper this meant my sleep was even more disturbed than usual. Just to add salt to the wound, the Brexit news came out, and my country appeared to be in disarray, with no prime minister and the political parties fighting amongst themselves. My Indian colleagues seem more concerned about the football result.

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To Nepal… or not to Nepal

The same day I bid farewell to mum at Delhi airport, I later returned to greet Micha who had flown out to ‘patch up’ some holes forming in our relationship.

After a few days acclimatisation in fancy air-conditioned hotels (with pools!) in Delhi we made the move to Kanpur and the task of surviving the now 40 degree heat in my un-air-conditioned room. Micha spent a large proportion of the following few days sprawled like a lizard panting in the corner, only getting up to pour water on the floor at regular intervals – his attempt at cooling the place down.

After a week of this routine I decided I needed to move Micha out of this environment before he melted into my mattress. We escaped to Lucknow from where I had a devised a plan to travel “5 hours” (said google maps) to the Nepalese border, cross, and visit Bardia National Park in Nepal for the weekend.

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Pommy pilgrims

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Finally everyone in kashmir had finished asking me if I wanted to buy a shawl, and it was time to wind our way back down the mountain (via the last beautiful hill station called Pahalgam), to where life simmered away in 40 degree heat. Before we parted ways however we had one final destination on our whistle stop tour; the religious town Katra, to join the millions of pilgrims spilling in and out every year to visit the holy Vaishno Devi shrine, hidden 14km up in the Trikuta mountains.

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Dreamy Dal Lake

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I had been dreaming (which turned out to be quite an accurate description of the experience) of the houseboats in Srinagar since I first saw photos at the beginning of the year, so mum and I took a day off from the sightseeing agenda to fulfil this desire.

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The moment we stepped onto the shikara (the small wooden boat used transport people to the houseboat) adorned with lace cushions and flowery curtains, it was as if the whole place had been transformed and reality dissipated like the ripple from the heart shaped paddle of our oarsman as we glided soundlessly through the dusky waters. The sparkle and glow from the nearby houseboats reflected from the painted wood between hand woven curtains of passing shikaras which our driver deftly manoeuvred us between, until the only thing left to manoeuvre were patches of dark green lily pads in the ripple-less lake. It was intensely romantic.

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Kolkat-ian Kashmir

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Arriving at Jammu train station (after a 20hour train journey) you would not have recognised it for a war zone. The platform was as crowded as any in India, with the usual family groups sprawled on mats on the floor sleeping, eating, waiting. Arriving in the north west of the country I noticed a change in the faces again (similarly to Darjeeling – the north east – where they had appeared more circular), only this time they were more oblong, with prominent ears, noses and beards.

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Subterranean Homesick Blues

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And so concludes my first 6 months living in the east. My second visit to Kolkata was drawing to a close, I had learnt to program, embraced the hair loss (by employing new hairstyles), and made new friends in and outside of work. I’d spent weekends racing through the city on motorbikes and spent nights sharing a bed with pregnant friends and their grandmothers (it is believed to be good luck for pregnant women to share the bed with the oldest family member).

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The vanishing sea

During this stay in Kolkata, I decided to spend every other weekend exploring the surrounding area. This mainly involved beach hopping along the south coast (Bay of Bengal), as it was too hot to do much else.

My first two trips were to the neighbouring state of Orissa, firstly to a popular beach town called Puri, where I arrived in the early morning after a difficult overnight trip on a sleeper coach, trying to control my stomach after eating (what I found the next morning was) raw chicken. I had been in a rush to get the coach the night before and had clearly made an error asking for super fast preparation of this meat for my takeaway dinner.

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The beach scene which greeted my weary eyes at this early hour felt surreal. Half the population of India appeared to be crowded together between lifeguard huts, with brightly decorated donkeys and camels prowling the periphery saddled with flowery bed sheets, tinsel and glittery pom-poms dangling in front of their eyes. It was absolute chaos, with big family groups splashing about fully clothed in the surprisingly large waves, taking selfies, praying and squealing. The sari (in my humble opinion) is not well designed for swimming, but instead works excellently as a trip hazard, and drenched grandmas were being rescued by laughing family members left right and centre. And at the back, chilling under the shade of chai and coffee stands, lay the holy cow, winking at the camels and philosophically surveying the madness.

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