Two days later, on October 28, 1987, we arrived in New Delhi at 3:00 a.m. Delhi hadn't changed since my last visit: immense chaos, the odor of urine, and begging children. I certainly appreciated not having to take care of the logistics and so forth.
Two buses were waiting for us outside the terminal, and the drivers greeted us by putting orange garlands around our necks upon boarding. In spirit we had arrived, but our bodies weren't quite sure.
On arrival at the Oberoi Intercontinental, a beautiful five star hotel with an English flare, we allowed our bodies to have a few hours of sleep, before we ventured out onto the sands of India.
In the afternoon forty of us, with cameras in hand and knapsacks on our backs, loaded onto the two busses. Shanti, our Indian Guide came along and was going to accompany us to the Chattarpur Temple to visit the guru Baba Nagpal, if he was available to us. The air wore a thick blanket of gray smog, but the temperature was pleasantly warm. I remembered from the last time I was there, that it can get unbearably hot and humid in Dehli.
On the way to the Chattarpur Temple, we stopped at some temple ruins where there is an old iron pillar. Shanti said, "This pillar is sixteen hundred years old and has remained rust free. If you can put your arms around it, it will bring you good luck." Try as I might, forward and backward with my arms, I could not do it. There were a few guys with long arms that managed to do so, and they waited for their miracle.
My excitement at being at my first Hindu temple and ashram overrode my severe jet leg. We were all excited and tried our best to follow proper Indian customs. Asha and David asked a resident of the ashram if we could see Baba. We walked around waiting for him to return. The ashram was huge with white walls and marble floors. There were various temples, within the temple, where one can worship the myriad of Indian deities.
The Indian resident returned and apologized that Baba would not be able to see us due to ill health but instead invited us in for tea and cookies. I was overwhelmed by his hospitality-- serving 40 god starving devotees.
In the evenings I chose to be alone. I was willing to fight the phobia during the day when we were touring, but I didn't feel it was important to fight it when I was merely socializing. Being alone in the evening was a time for me to renew. Since I couldn't eat very much at dinner due to my weak stomach, Sharon would bring me a few white dinner rolls from dinner. Not being able to eat very much was a blessing, because I ended up being one of the few that didn't get dysentery. At times life seems to be a series of trade-offs. As I look at this now, I see the sadness of saying, "merely socializing," which I see now can also be a spiritual act, but one that I have had such difficulty with.
On October 30th, we boarded Air India's flight IC 427 on route to Srinagar. In Srinagar, a string of cabs were waiting for us, and in groups of four, we piled in a car. Srinagar is nestled in the Kashmir valley surrounded by the breathtaking Himalayas. In contrast to Delhi, the air is sparkling clean, and the temperature is much cooler. The countryside is beautiful with lush green pastures, wild flowers dancing in the wind, against the backdrop of the majestic Himalayan Mountains. In some places, we could see dozens of wild spider monkeys running through the pine forest. We were all very excited. We could see field workers working the rice fields and women dressed in saris walking down the roads balancing baskets of fruit on their heads. There were men driving horse driven carts, apparently transporting their crops to market, and a boy with a long stick walking in back of a herd of goats. Brightly colored and elaborately decorated buses passed by. The fringe and busy decorations reminded me of the ones I had seen so often when I visited Mexico many years ago.
Our destination was the ancient Shankaracharya temple of Srinagar. It is a gray building made out of stone and somewhat dome shaped. It was a long steep climb up the brick stairs to reach the temple. We were in awe, because these were the exact same steps that Yogananda stood, and where he had a vision of Mt. Washington, the place where he would begin disseminating yoga philosophy in the United States. This was the first of many places where we were to step on the grounds that he had walked upon.
One by one, we entered a small room carrying the flowers we purchased from the vendors in the parking lot as offerings to the temple. We also carried with us sacred objects that we wanted the priest to bless for us. As we entered the temple, we bowed in respect to a large stone lingam shaped like a phallus, which the Hindu scriptures depict as Shiva, meaning pure consciousness God. Sitting on the floor was a priest who must have been at least seventy-five years old. He had a red dot between his eyebrows and wore a gray and brown coat with a matching cap, and tied around his neck was a light blue scarf. In front of him were bowls of food offerings, rose pedals, incense and two statues: one of the god Shiva and Shiva’s consort, Shatki. He gave each one of us a prasad, a sugar candy that he had blessed, while he chanted the Hindu scriptures. I watched him bless the kriya (prayer) beads, necklaces, rings, and photographs that we had taken with us. He took his time and was totally present with each one of us. For the first time that I could ever recall, I felt someone had all the time in the world to just be with me. I was deeply touched by his kindness and was overcome by the intense vibration in that very holy temple.
Walking out of the temple, I was a bit upset with myself for not giving him more of the objects my friends had given me to bless. I didn't want to be greedy and take too much of his time, but realized only then that time was irrelevant to him. This was what he devoted himself, wholeheartedly, to do each day of his life. It was difficult for us to leave such a god filled place, so we sat outside for a while on a large stone ledge. I decided to take out my friends’ objects and lay them on the stones. They couldn't help but be blessed by the holy vibrations that emanated so intensely.
Hundreds of children gathered around us, which was a common occurrence throughout our sojourn. Soiled faces, dressed in ragged clothing, but always wearing smiling faces as they begged for money. Because I wasn’t able to give very much money, I brought hundreds of blue ballpoint pens as give-aways. The children went wild over them. I thought to myself, “My god, do they have paper to write on?” Such a simple gift made them incredibly happy.
We then journeyed on to Srinigar's Dal Lake, where we lived on houseboats for the next few days. These luxurious houseboats originally belonged to the British, because the ruling maharajas prohibited them for buying land in the 19th century. Bright colored boats called shikaras or water taxies were waiting to transport us, and all of our luggage, to the houseboats. Immediately, a young Indian girl paddled toward us in an old brown rowboat. I'll never forget her face. It was so stern and matter-of-fact with a maturity way beyond her years. She wore a long blue dress that had a ruffled collar. On her head she wore a white flowered scarf tied over her pierced ears. She threw us lotus blossoms. Sharon asked, "How much?"
She replied, "Whatever you want?" We handed her a few rupees. I remembered that I was given a tiny wrapped box of chocolate candy on the airplane. I took it out of my purse and handed it to her. Her face then transformed into a child’s as she curiously opened the box. As we rowed on ahead, I could see her eating the chocolate so contently. It made me happy. I only wished I had more candy for her and for all the children I would meet.
There were four to a houseboat. Sharon, Jill, Ann, and I bunked in a boat called Shanaz. The living room was luxurious with brightly colored flowered wall paper, red tapestry rugs throughout, crystal chandlers, carved wood furniture, large white ceiling fans, and vases full of pink bougainvillea. It had a full kitchen, where our own private chef prepared our meals. Our personal houseboy, which we later called our “scheming houseboy,” escorted Sharon and I to our room. We each had a double bed with flowered bedspreads. By a striped couch was a potbelly stove that we certainly needed on the chilly nights.
On October 31st, at 5:00 a.m. we gathered outside on the wooden deck to meditate. It was freezing, so I grabbed one of the light blue blankets off the bed and wrapped it around me. It was still somewhat dark as I stepped outside. We could hear the Moslems chanting passionately. My heart opened to their chanting as we began our own. At that moment I knew God to be everywhere. It's interesting how we all have such different perceptions. What was music to my ears, to others they sounded like a pack of wild animals howling. Lila, a pretty young woman with long black hair said, "One wonders if they are trying to awaken the deities or themselves. And do they think that God is deaf--or are they trying to render Him so?"
After a morning cruise on Dal Lake and shopping for saris, we headed for Swami Lakshmanji's ashram. I didn't know anything about him, but when I saw him walk out into the courtyard, tears rolled down my face. I knew I was in the presence of a man who experienced God. He looked so serene and peaceful sitting in an old wooden chair padded by a large beige cushion. He must have been at least eighty years old. His hair was pure white and he wore a long light green robe. We were overcome by his holiness.
Bill, a minister from the Seattle branch of Ananda, led us in a chant. Chanting was our way of gifting to others. The chant was about our searching for God night and day and wanting him to come to us.
Swami said, "You don't have to sing to God as if he were far away, because he is with you." But then he said, "You are very fortunate to have such good teachers."
There were many in the group that went to him and bowed at his feet for a blessing. I just stood there in tears, as I watched him looking lovingly at Jerry, a member of Ananda who was a young Italian American man. Swami seemed to see something very special in Jerry, beyond what our physical eyes could see.
When we returned to the houseboat, our "scheming houseboy" was standing there looking sad, dressed in his familiar beige tunic top covering his very baggy checkered pants with a short gray sweater tied around his shoulders. He was around twenty-five years of age, about 5'5" tall with short black hair. With his eyes cast downward, in almost a whisper, he told us about his sick grandmother who needed an operation. Sharon and Jill were quite concerned, and they discussed getting everyone on the pilgrimage to donate money to him. I never said anything, but I felt he was lying. Later when we spoke to the other members, we found out he was telling a similar story to them, but about other members of his family. One story was about a cousin whose teeth were falling out, because he couldn't afford dental care. I always wondered why he just didn't stick to the same story. It certainly would have been more believable.