Shifting his weight from one limb to the next with the edginess of a puma about to stalk it’s prey, the unwieldy primate eyes my modest dinner of bread and tea. The expression on his face is a cross between the innocence of a child’s playful mischief and the calculation of a menacing killer. His furry gray coat is rounded at the neck with a white collar of soft spiky hairs, and for a moment I consider that he is actually quite beautiful, but I don’t have time to think about that now. Two more monkeys join in on the foray, the shrill of their battle cries rousing me from my paralysis. I make a race for the door of my cell and slam it shut. I even block the door with a chair. Whew!
I am here in Rishikesh for the Kumbha Mela. An event that occurs only once every twelve years on the Hindu calendar, the Festival of the Kumbha commemorates the mythological struggle between the Gods for the Holy Nectar of Immortality and is marked by the entry of the planet Jupiter into the constellation of Aquarius. Representing the guru or teacher, the cyclical arrival of the planet Jupiter into the Aquarian skies portends a year-long period of enlightenment and good fortune. A letter of introduction from my local yoga center in Los Angeles, along with a prerequisite donation, has earned me the opportunity to be housed in an ashram on the banks of the Ganges. From here, I can easily visit the nearby city of Hardwar. Known as the “City of God” and the “Gateway to the Himalayas,” this crowded settlement along a stretch of the River Ganga has been host to the Kumbha Mela for 25 centuries. Perhaps I might gain some spiritual revelation here, but so far my experience of India has fallen far short of enlightenment.
Traveling alone through the cities of Bombay, Delhi, Agra, and now Rishikesh, I have been poked, grabbed, followed, and harassed. I’ve had my stamps stolen at the Post Office, been cheated at the Money Exchange, propositioned by total strangers, and abandoned by my driver on a desolate road. Curious children tug at my long hair, peddlers jangle beads in front of my face, and beggars bow to the ground to kiss my feet. I have been on guard, on the defense and in a protective mode for two weeks now, shielding myself against an onslaught of malefactors; this, in a country known for it’s spiritualism throughout the world. I did not expect this. Was I so naive?
Adding to my distress, I have unknowingly arrived during the three high holy days of the festival. Reportedly, over a million pilgrims have already reached Hardwar. There is a food shortage and no transportation out of the area. I am literally stranded here with wild monkeys on my roof and a tarantula on my wall. A tarantula on my wall??
Yikes! I head for the Deet spray, the only weapon I can fathom in my panicked mind. Gripping the nozzle with a ferocity I never knew was in me, I aim it at the venomous intruder. “Eeehhhhhh!” I wail in a whine of horror as I spew a non-stop dose just inches away from the spider, whose body mass is as big as a small fist.
“No, no, you must stop! We do not kill God’s creatures!” These are the soft-spoken and unforgettable words that are my introduction to Mataji, the petite bald-headed “woman of the cloth,” whose cell I am sharing for the duration of my stay at the ashram.
“But, it’s a taran …” I protest, feeling a bit stunned by her entrance and slightly embarrassed to have been caught in the throes of such a heinous mission. I shrink back from the wall and release the can to the ground, the tarantula remaining unfazed.
“All living things are God’s creatures,” she says in an airy whisper, almost as if talking to herself. Then calmly gathering the tails of her orange robes in a makeshift cradle, she fearlessly scoops the spider off the wall in one gentle sweep. With a steadiness of purpose that only the confidence of faith could bring, she is out the door to the open courtyard, her bare feet plodding ground still muddy from a morning of rain. From the portal of our ashram cell, I study her with fascination as she deliberates her options in the sparse flowerless bush. Walking from left to right, then left again, until all at once she drops the folds of her orange skirt and with a mumble of words I cannot decipher, releases the spider to a tangle of leafy vines.
When nightfall arrives in Rishikesh, there really isn’t much to do. There is no street activity to speak of, and there are no local cafés to frequent. Up at the ashram, only the bank of the river is about us; the sight of it now blackened into the moonless sky. In the windowless cell I share with Mataji, an oil lamp provides the only light. The room is truly a monk’s chamber, a no frills, basic shelter for prayer and meditation that is just large enough to hold the two beds that are placed opposite each other on either side of the doorway. Hard beds they are, at that. Constructed from your basic wooden slats, I have only a white sheet to provide what little cushioning I will sleep with tonight.
Mataji sits cross-legged in a lotus pose. Her black horn-rimmed glasses fall down to the middle of her nose, giving her a seriousness of demeanor that belies the childlike features of her pixie face. Born in Ceylon, she has been cloistered at the ashram for fifteen years, dedicating her life and will to the call of the religious life in the same way that a nun would enter a convent and commit herself to the church. The name Mataji means mother in Hindi and is more of a title than a given name, comparable to sister in the Christian order. I am curious about her age, but don’t ask.
“Where is your family…your husband or your mother?” The tone of her voice expresses what I imagine is her horror at my being a woman traveling alone.
Knowing full well that the Indian point of view on this is in direct opposition to my American values, I give her the answer that I know she will not be able to accept. “I am not traveling with a husband or a mother. In America, it is common for a woman to travel without her family.”
Her words are spare and voiced with an innocent quality when she responds. “In India, this would not be proper.”
Well, no doubt, I have had my share of hassles as a woman traveling solo. Despite my following all the rules of dress code and protocol, I’d been dodging the bullet since ‘Day One’ in India. This was not an easy place for females. I had, in fact, been very distressed at witnessing the treatment of the Hindu women and children themselves. I’d seen the beggar trade made “business” with female children maimed or burned so as to make a more pitiful specimen for tourists; mothers who were virtual outcasts in their family for not giving birth to a boy; and young girls who were only fed after all the males in the family had eaten.
“Why are females treated so poorly in India?” I ask. Mataji’s eyes open wide. She seems taken aback by my question. It was a very Western question to pose and perhaps impertinent of me, but I had been struggling with such issues since my first day here. Hard as I tried, I could not rationalize the ethics of Hinduism and its theorems of cause and effect with the awful realities in practice on the streets.
“I have never seen the things you speak of,” Mataji answers flatly. Is it
possible she is so isolated that she’s totally unaware of any corruption outside the ashram walls?
“I assure you that such things are happening every day,” I continue, revealing what has been my deep disappointment at my experience in India…”I came to India to study Hinduism, but where is Hinduism if not in the practice of daily living?”
Mataji stares straight down at the floorboard deep in thought, for what seems a minute or more. When she finally looks up again, she fixes aim straight into my eyes through the glare of her lenses, and chooses her words carefully. “The people…these people you speak of have lost their way. They are lost now, but they will return eventually. They will return to Hinduism because this is their roots.” Is it blind faith, the purity of an innocent mind, or the clarity of vision? I’m not sure.
A lizard plops down from the ceiling and slithers across the floor. Even in the shadows of night I can recognize the antics of this familiar reptile. I learned to appreciate them at my hotel in Delhi when I realized they ate the insects that crawled about and bit me, while I slept. Mataji cups her hands to her forehead in a silent gesture and then turns off the oil lamp. I take it as a signal to stop talking and go to sleep. How different our lives are, I think to myself. The disparity of our ways made transparent for the second time tonight.
The voice is high-pitched and smooth, gently vibrating with delicate emotion. I must be dreaming. It can’t be morning yet. I groan and turn over, my back aching from the board of a bed I’ve slept on. I squint at my wristwatch to see the time. It is all of 4 a.m. and Mataji is awake and singing to the accompaniment of a small stringed hand organ.
“You have a beautiful voice.”
“I don’t sing very often. I shouldn’t be singing now. It makes me very emotional and I am working for a less emotional plane.” Admonishing herself for falling victim to such a temptation of the senses, she ceases her singing and hastily places the hand organ under her bed.
I let out a huge yawn and turn over, attempting to go back to sleep, but not a chance! It all falls into place now. The purpose of my roommate assignment, that is, as Mataji makes it clear that she will be my escort for the duration of my stay at the ashram. There will be no going it alone here. I will be put on a strict schedule of meditation and study. “Where I go, you will go,” she says emphatically.
And so, our day begins at 4 a.m. with a visit to Swami Atananda for a full hour of sitar performance. Bracing myself upright in traditional cross-legged posture, I can feel the cement floor beneath me, still cold in the dark hours of early dawn. The softly strung notes of Swami Atananda’s sitar are rapid and furious, escalating from middle to high and down again like a flurry of snowflakes in a windstorm. The rhythmic trail of the music resounds through my body in the most gentle of spells, and I willingly surrender myself to it.
In the meditation hall we are joined by a group of twenty or so devotees for the 5 a.m. hour of contemplation and silence. Having gotten so little sleep, I can barely stay awake, but I struggle to concentrate on my breath and clear my mind of invasive thoughts. Fidgeting and squirming in my knees-bent lotus position, I am hard-pressed to sit still with all the insect bites I received last night. I glance over at Mataji to my right, who looks entirely focused and serene. Then suddenly, I have a revelation. It occurs to me that everyone’s eyes are closed and that no one will notice if mine are open. I seize the opportunity to reach into my tote bag and retrieve a palm-size hand mirror to inspect the itchy welt on the back of my shoulder. One, two, oh dear, there are three red blotches I can see so far! I raise the mirror for a better view…and then, comes the eerie sensation of eyes upon me. It is Mataji, the reproach of her stare having caught me red-handed and guilty of inattention in the meditation hall! “Now, she will think I am not a serious student,” I fret. I throw Mataji a nervous smile that says “sorry” and stash the mirror into my bag.
At the sunrise ceremony in the small garden temple overlooking the courtyard, the sweet scent of sandalwood incense cuts the foul of musty air; a respite from the omnipresent odor of death and decay one learns to live with in India. A clan of orange-robed swamis, their baritone chants joining together in a solicitous wail of the mantra, touch their palms to the ground in a synchronized gesture of humility. I can’t understand any of the words that I hear, but somehow I comprehend their meaning.
When it’s over, Mataji beckons with a wave of her hand. I follow her, anticipating my next instruction, but there is a strange expression on her face that I can’t translate. It is the look of someone who wants to ask a question. What does it mean? I trail along at her elbow as she leads me on a short path at the back of the temple shrine. She stops, then turns to look behind us; her eyes racing left to right, the sleuthing of her body language speaking of discomfort. She seems to be searching for a place where no one can find us, a zone of privacy, but why? What’s going on? As I take a seat beside her on a block of broken concrete, I can only wonder what I’ve done wrong now, when in a hush, her voice implores…”The mirror…”
“The mirror?” I can feel my body flinch backwards in a knee-jerk reaction.
“The mirror,” she repeats. “May I see it?”
First the singing and now the mirror! Has my presence somehow stirred the forbidden? I rummage through my tote bag to dig out the small compact-mirror and offer it to her open hand. A souvenir from Paris, its faux porcelain lid sports a little pink Eiffel Tower. How inappropriate it seems at this moment.
“Uhhh!” A huge gasp from Mataji.
I realize that I have handed her the mirror with the magnified side face up. She pauses, takes a moment to compose herself and with a hard swallow confesses, “I have not seen my face in fifteen years.”
I am stunned and I’m sure my mouth is half-open. I flip the mirror to the smaller view.
Moving in what seems like slow-motion time, Mataji removes the large horn-rimmed glasses covering so much of her petite face and proceeds to examine each of her eyes in the mirror, one at a time. I watch in silence as she fingers the surface of her sun-tanned skin, carefully tracing every crease line of the past fifteen years. Are they wrinkles born of sunwear or of sadness? I don’t know.
Mataji heaves a huge sigh. It is the only sound I hear her make as she continues her inspection, scrutinizing her mouth, chin, and neck, the tentativeness of her unsteady hands exposing a gentleness tinged with fear. I try to imagine how she feels, but I have no comparison in my own life. What I do know is that Mataji is exposing a vulnerability to me, and more importantly, that she is trusting me to hold that vulnerability in confidence and care for it. I feel privileged to do so.
Suddenly, the strike of the temple bell beckons from the hall. Sensing that our stolen time is nearing to an end, Mataji performs her final act of inspection at a hurried pace as she bends forward, holds the mirror high above herself and examines her shaven head. Then, finally breaking her gaze from the face she might never have seen again, she nods to me in a gesture that says “thank you” and returns the mirror without a word.
Thousands of years ago, both Gods and Demons worked in tandem, spinning the depths of the Milky Ocean in an effort to find the coveted “amrita,” the holy nectar of immortality. But once the Kumbha (pot) of holy nectar was finally retrieved, the Gods and Demons turned against each other, waging a fierce battle in the heavens for possession of the sacred ambrosia. For twelve days and twelve nights, the struggle between the primeval forces of good and evil raged, spilling drops of the precious liquid at four different spots in India, one of which was the waters of the ancient city of Hardwar. And so it is that once every twelve years, in a ritual celebrated since the 2nd century B.C., pilgrims from India and the world converge onto the banks of the Ganges in a mela (festival) to celebrate this blessed event.
By the look of it, time has stood still in Hardwar. I could be arriving at the Kumbha Mela a hundred years ago, and I’m certain it would look exactly the same. Mataji instructs me to stick close at her heel and not get separated. It is the main bathing day of the festival, and the streets are jam-packed with people all pushing, shoving and eager to make it to the riverbank. If history stands to repeat itself, millions of the faithful are here today, hoping to bathe themselves in the purifying waters of the Ganges at the same spot where the holy nectar of “amrita” is said to have fallen. Yogis, mystics, musicians, and tourists intermingle with camels, oxcarts, and cows. For many, it is the pilgrimage of a lifetime. To make one’s way to this anointed city and to cleanse oneself in its waters is to cleanse one’s soul of the past and achieve immortality.
A nude monk with a flowing white beard right down to his toes walks ahead of us with a somewhat glazed look on his face. Might he be one of the cave sadhus to come out of his hermit existence on this special occasion? Sari-swathed women, their foreheads marked with the red dot of the Third Eye and their hands ornamented with delicate henna designs, dance to the music of the snake charmer’s flute. A mob of squealing children surround a magician performing tricks while a fakir pokes pins through his cheek in a test of endurance. The appearance of an elephant elicits an uproar from the crowd. It’s head is decorated with a mask of green and yellow rhinestones and on it’s back is a make-shift float of sorts made from what appears to be human limbs, six of them in all. I pause to mop my forehead, dripping with perspiration. The heat and dust are almost unbearable. The smell is the smell of India – a combination of death, feces, and filth hang heavy in the humid air. I feel certain I will never see or experience such sights again in my life.
“The people who have lost their way will return eventually. They will return to Hinduism because this is their roots.”
Mataji’s words echo through my mind. I think back on my time spent in India — the disappointment, the disillusionment, the fall of my expectations. What lesson was there to learn from this experience? I had looked to Mataji for answers, but she really had no answers. She saw no conflict and she had no quarrel. Her sights were set on the transcendent, and in the pursuit, her sense of stalwart faith prevailed. There wasn’t much I understood about Mataji’s world. Most of it was a world I could not tolerate, and yet I felt a common ground with her. We had connected in ways that broached our vulnerabilities and tested our courage. We shared in a search for self-understanding and we shared as in the camaraderie of friends. Worlds apart and yet not wholly unalike, these were the greater of the things that outweighed the differences in our lives.
It is time. Mataji reaches out and leads me by the arm. I could swear that I recognize the same steadiness of purpose about her that I first saw when she released that migrant spider to the garden. Together we walk down the sandy hillside to the edge of the River Ganga. Nearby, a local barber busily shaves the heads of worshipers who will offer their hair to the river today. Mataji lifts her orange robe and I my lungi. At the ashram, we were fed as equals alongside beggars and lepers, and now we bathe together, poor men, sages, and voyagers alike, united in a mass of humankind. Together we step into the same waters where countless ashes of the dead have floated to their rest. Together, we immerse our bodies in the holy nectar of amrit as did the same hopeful pilgrims who stood at this spot centuries before us. Here in this moment, we revel. And in this moment, there are no questions. There are no judgments. Perhaps, I have learned something after all.
Phyllis Mazzocchi is an avid traveler, writer, and lifelong learner who currently resides in Carmel Valley, California. Born and raised in New York City, she spent half her life working in the entertainment business in Los Angeles while managing to earn a PhD in Mythological Studies. Several of her travel musings have been published as magazine articles and essays.