Friday, 30 March 2012

Forest Life

And so it was that I, completely unsure of what to expect, dropped my pack in the red earth outside of Sadhana Forest and walked into the main bamboo hut, curiously awaiting my new life in a sustainable community.

Aerial view of Sadhana c/o Rashi Kalra Lawani 

View of the pizza oven, dosa kitchen & washing area
Free hugs happen every day at Morning Circle
Sadhana Forest is an ecological project started by an Israeli family who moved to Tamil Nadu in 2003 with a vision to reforest the 70 acres of red, arid soil upon which once stood a great coastal forest. Now, despite having suffered damage from the recent cyclone, Sadhana is a 60-70 strong community situated on the outskirts of Auroville, made up of passing volunteers who sign up for a 4 week minimum stay and a handful of long term volunteers who live there for up to 3 years at a time. People live communally - cooking, cleaning, working, eating and sleeping together in bamboo huts around the 'main hut' and participating in events, 'sharing circles' and workshops in spare time. The day begins at 05.30 with a morning 'wake up' - instead of alarm clocks, a group of people wander between huts and sing songs to wake the others. This is followed by 'morning circle', where there is more singing, holding of hands and hugs. Then, work commences with first 'seva' (service) - workers are either sent to the forest to plant or allotted  a permanent morning task for 5 or 7 days. In addition to this volunteers are given 2-3 'community shifts' per week doing jobs such as cooking meals or cleaning up.

Everything is recycled
Upon arrival we were given the list of 'thank yous' or commitments we would make: no smoking, alcohol, drugs (prescribed or otherwise), no toiletries, no processed foods, no non-vegan foods, no stimulants for  either in or outside for the duration of our stay. For those of you who know me well, appreciate that sticking to this list would be some mean feat! As a woman who usually showers minimum twice a day, luxuriates in toiletries and bathes myself in various products and perfumes for pleasure, I wondered how I would get along with one mini hotel sized bottle of organic shampoo and one handmade organic soap bar for an entire month. It transpired that in the whole time I was there I would only take 2 showers - lack of time, and the energy required to go and pump water from the bore hole, then carry a pail of water to the laundry usually countered any desire to rid myself of the perpetual musk coming from my armpits. The one time I did take a shower the flimsy bamboo screen kept blowing away, leaving me standing there, starkers, revealing myself to the entire community. So I ended up swimming in the mud pool and washing my hair with the mulch (which was surprisingly effective).

Meal time in the main hut
Sunday night ushered in my first ever 'sharing circle' where the community sits together in the main hut in a circle and shares their emotions and feelings of the previous week. I expressed that I was so excited to be there as living communally was something that I had wanted to do my whole life. And it was with typical vigor that I threw myself in - teaching yoga, giving reiki, holding my hand up and volunteering for extra work additional to my shifts (even shovelling shit from the toilets, especially cooking), attending workshops for new things that I wanted to try such as tantra yoga. I loved the fact that we all ate and slept together. I made many friends. At night I would peek out of the eaves of my bamboo hut and look at the moon and feel so connected to nature, to the universe and stars. I would often spend some time in the evening on the swing, gently rocking back and forth beneath the bright light of the waxing moon. I loved to wake up to music and beautiful singing. Indeed I sang my heart out at weekly 'khirtan' (a session of devotional singing). I was very appreciative of the fact that the people at Sadhana worked incredibly hard - not just to keep themselves but also to restore the environment and work together with local communities and children.

Supportive hugs
It struck me that me this simple way of living, in peace and harmony and openness with others, was infinitely preferable to the life I was living before - a selfish life - one in pursuit of cardinal pleasure. A nuclear life which was not shared, where I was not loved. In Sadhana I was never short of someone to talk to or to receive a cuddle from. In the beginning I became very close to a scientist from Ohio and we spent every evening together, listening to music, laughing, sharing life stories and intimate moments and passing the hours in our own little world. It was a beautiful and unexpected connection. I was wary of attachment but enjoying having a special little light with another, it was difficult not to.

Our luxurious toilets
This says it all, really
Yet with yin comes yang, with light, comes the dark. I would soon find that life in the forest during the onset of brutal Tamil summer (up to 34 degrees) was physically incredibly challenging.  After contracting a severe bladder infection on Day 2 and being constantly dehydrated, I soon tired of having to run to the toilet every 5 minutes and embraced the Sadhana maxim 'pee by a tree', squatting down wherever I was. Going for a poo, however, was a little more complex. Firstly, you had to open a metal drum and draw a jug of water, balance it on top of the drum. Then, open the 'poo hole', squat down over it and do your business. If you needed to both pee and poo, you had to simultaneously catch the urine in a shovel and then later pour that down the 'pee hole' (poo was dry composted whearas wee was harvested to put back into the soil). Once done, you had to take a cup full of sawdust, cover up your poo, replace the lid and then wash yourself, using your left hand and the jug of water, over the pee hole. The next part was to try and pull your pants back up with only your right hand, replace the water jug and drum lid, then open the door of the toilet cubicle (again with only right hand) then attempt to wash both hands thoroughly in one cup of water and natural soap, dispensed again with only the right, clean (ish) hand. This was a challenge at the best of times, never mind last thing at night, or morning, in the dark or having to add menstruation into the mix. In all my life, I have never felt that going to the toilet could be such hard work.

The 'sink' where we washed after pooing
My bedroom in Sadhana
The lovely Steph and our daily schedule
My beloved friend from Ohio left abruptly to continue his pursuits in the states and I was bereft. In addition (and after our secret outing together to Pondi in which we broke all the rules), I contracted severe dehydration and sunstroke and spent several days racked with shivers, pouring in sweat and in a feverish, hallucinatory state. I don't know if it was the sickness, the cleansing that my body was undertaking from all the vegan food, the powerful energies that undoubtedly exist in Sadhana or the pressures of community life under the microscope but I began to experience a kind of mental crisis. Old wounds emerged, emotional scum started to rise to the surface and with it, self doubt, fear and paranoia. I couldn't retain water so had to drink saline. I hadn't washed in days and could only manage to climb down from my bamboo attic to squat down. I stank but couldn't wash. My hair was awry. I felt like a madwoman. Although I was surrounded by people I felt constantly lonely. I wanted to escape. I felt that I didn't even know myself any more. Drinking only salt water, I began to believe that I was going mad. I wrote home. A long and dramatic email that I think might have scared my closest friends. Thankfully their missives came flooding back - filled with love - a life line. I started to recover. 

Front view of the toilets (yes I'm obsessed!)
During my darkest hours in Sadhana I questioned the authenticity of the project and how truly 'sustainable' it was - (local Indian workers constructed the huts, food was not grown there but brought in by rickshaw). There is a lot of manual labour that seems unnecessary - I spent a week on my hands and knees cutting grass in the scorching heat with only a blunt scythe for the job where a couple of goats could have happily fulfilled the task. Much watering of the many trees that have been planted over the years is done by hand. With this in mind, I don't feel that the economies of scale are there for true growth and sustainability.

Having fun with Sholev
There are families at Sadhana whose children are being purposefully 'uneducated' - which was never explained to me but as far as I can see involves always allowing a child to do exactly what it is that he or she wants to do. In theory, I like the idea of natural, beautiful children running around naked in the forest with no cares or worries. In reality, a child who articulates herself in many language but cannot tell time or read and write does not seem to me to be fulfilling her creative potential. I couldn't help but feel that the children were being equipped for one sort of life only, and not being given the tools to be able to live a fulfilling life in the outside 'real' world. That said, the children were beautiful and I took great pleasure in enjoying their company and playing with them.

The cooking shift in progress
And of course, as with all of these things a hierarchy exists - and why shouldn't it - this is Yorit and Aviram's home after all - but I couldn't help but feeling on occasion that local Indians were more employees than participants. The nature of the turnover of many short term volunteers and the sheer size of Sadhana means that it sometimes functions in more of a military fashion - with volunteers simply keeping the engines turning and to make a real difference people have to stay there for 3 years or more which is a shame as many of those people who have the talent or ideas to instigate real change are often unable to make this committment. That said, I do believe that what Yorit and Aviram have achieved in the circumstances is a triumph and having watched Aviram in action and consulted him personally on a project post-Sadhana, I admire his intellect, his ideals and his lifetime dedication to a goal, which is more than those who pass remarks on Sadhana in a negative light can claim to have.

NVC smiles with Jason and Arbele
It was around the time of my illnesss  that I began a course in NVC or 'Non Violent Communication'. This was a course that was offered for free in Sadhana Forest and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have participated. The premise of NVC is that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies are learnt behaviors taught by the prevailing culture. NVC helps people to be able to communicate with one another in a compassionate, non violent way and thus creates deeper understanding, connections and enables conflict resolution ( NVC at Sadhana involved a small group spending many of our waking hours together in sharing circles.  I will not attempt to paraphrase here what NVC entailed, but I would like to say that it was a life-changing experience full of significant realisations about myself and the wounds that I have to heal, about how strong beliefs that I had previously held had shaped me and why they came about. It also gave me the greatest gift of all - that of hope. This was all down to the careful curation of our week long NVC course by Jason Stewart, a long term volunteer and 'NVC expert', who I have to thank for so much, not least the personal help he gave me at the height of my crisis (as well as the lovely Steph who healed me with both homeopathy and love). NVC gave me connections again to the community around me from whom I had began to withdraw after the departure of my friend. I experienced so much love for those people who had hitherto been strangers and it was wonderful to get closer to them on this deeper level.

Solar panels at Sadhana Forest
One of the greatest things that NVC helped me to understand was that I alone have the ability to empower myself to make me happy. Although Sadhana had been good for me, I had many realisations: I was not a vegan. I never could be. Ellen DeGeneres I am not. Nigella Lawson on the other hand... The food there was not making me feel healthy. I was permanently dehydrated and couldn't retain any water, not even the salt stuff by the end. There was no escape from the brutal heat. Although I was interested in permaculture, I am not a farmer and nor do I have the physical consitution to undertake manual labour in the heat of South Indian summer. I felt the project was good but I couldn't buy into it entirely. I had learnt many lessons  but it was time to move on.

Saying goodbye....
And so, at breakfast on Monday morning I made the announcement: "today is Monday, which is Shiva's day and Shiva is telling me to move on." I had met another Shiva devotee in the forest who had told me about Thiruvannamalai, the mountain town in which the God was said to have appeared as a column of fire and his spirit is embodied by the living Mountain, Arunachala. I had not managed to complete the four week minimum stay, but I felt called elsewhere. The definition of 'sadhana' - is 'a spiritual journey in pursuit of a goal'. Despite my premature departure, I certainly felt that I'd completed my own sadhana.

Flushed and joyous after the Shiva temple

Following my call, I based myself in Auroville and the next weekend I visited Thiruvannamalai. Taking darshan in the temple, suddenly I was overcome - sick, flushed, sweating, ecstatic - full of the divine.  I felt Shiva enter my entire body. As was observed by Ananda, a Shiva devotee who runs a small scale community in the shadow of the Mount Arunachala - something had changed in me. The next day I climbed the living embodiment of Shiva, barefoot, in pilgrimage to him. I was one with the mountain. I was free.

Climbing Mount Arunachala

Meditation on top of the mountain, the living 'Shiva'

PS Thanks to Sadhana Forest for the opportunity to participate and all of the gorgeous people I met there who changed my life...

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Surrendering in Pondicherry

Back in the distant past of December 2010, I was at home in my parents’ house in Liverpool. It was a typical family Christmas where tensions were running high, resulting in squabbles. The wider picture of my life wasn’t too bright either – my mother had recently had a major health scare, I had failed my driving test, split up from a very intense relationship and I had started to use alcohol as a way of escaping my woes. I loved London life but it was exhausting. I was single and unfulfilled in my job. I came down with a nasty flu bug and spent most of the holiday season lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and meditating on what my life had become. During this time I was reading a book about India which was rekindling a long held desire to come to this place. At one point I remember reading the word surrender - this word literally jumped out of the page. I threw my head back onto the pillow and dropped my book to the floor. That was it. I would pack up my life and go to India.

Colonial architecture in Pondicherry 
Fast forward to the present: having left Mumbai I travelled the 23hrs to Chennai in relative luxury in a high class cabin. I befriended my fellow passengers, a newly wed Indian couple who were also Shiva devotees and in the morning we sang bhajans (religious devotional songs) together as the landscape changed as we moved through three Indian states. After an overnight stop in Chennai and a 4 hour local bus (which only broke down once) , I arrived in the picturesque former French colony of Pondicherry. This breezy breath of fresh air on the South East coast of India provides welcome relief from the stonking heat of the Tamil Nadu summer. Magenta bougainvillea explodes from the greying, elegant facades of characteristic colonial architecture and for a moment, you could be in Europe. No doubt the peaceful serenity of Pondi is owed to the Sri Aurobindo ashram, which lies at the heart of it.

The serenity of the house in Pondicherry
I had arranged to stay with my friend's great uncle Praveen and had been warned that my accomodation for the night was a 'pure house', but I had no idea what to expect when I rocked up after my epic journey. I arrived to the beautiful, circular front door of one of the oldest and grandest houses in Pondi and stepped into the cool marble of a room hung with pictures of Sri Aurobindo and 'The Mother', the spiritual leaders of Pondicherry and Auroville. Through the translucent blue of an enormous fish tank, I could see flashes of the golden fins of enormous koi carp. The place was so calm and silent that it was almost intimidating, like a museum. I shuffled uncomfortably in my tattered travellers' clothes and was promptly packed off alone to the ashram for a simple yet wholesome lunch. This being India, I had not been given any clear communications as to what I was supposed to be doing, so I spent the afternoon amusing myself taking in the beauty of Pondi, sipping chai and smelling the sea air and meditating in the cool breeze of the ashram, next to the flower strewn tomb where Sri Aurobindo and The Mother are laid to rest. 

Sri Aurobindo image c/o
Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta in 1872 and, despite being educated in England during his formative years, returned to India at the age of 21 to play a strong and passionate role in the fight for Indian independence, becoming leader of the Indian national party and later being detained by the British government.  Devotees say that he paved the way for Gandhi to continue and complete his work. In 1910 Sri Aurobindo received a calling to withdraw from the political stage and instead dedicate himself to a life of the evolution of the spirit - he spoke of having a direct channel to the consciousness of Vishnu. He settled in Pondicherry in 1910 to continue to work towards the greater good of mankind through his writings and teaching his system of 'integral yoga'.

The Mother image c/o 
Six years after the birth of Sri Aurobindo (and on the other side of the globe), Mirra Alfassa (later to become known as 'The Mother') was born in Paris to a Turkish mother and Egyptian father who had previously settled in France in 1877. At a very early age The Mother knew that she had innate psychic and spiritual abilities and that she had direct access to a higher consciousness (that she called 'Vishnu'), realising around the age of 11 that she was to "manifest Him on earth in a life divine".  Although she studied occultism and directed spiritual gatherings, The Mother led a relatively secular life, marrying and having a child, and it was not until the age of 36 that she met Sri Aurobindo and saw that he was her spiritual counterpart. She was unable to return to India until after the First World War and settled in Pondi in 1920 to collaborate with him, founding the ashram in 1926. Together, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother represented the male and female consciousness - the yin and yang - spiritual collaborators in perfect harmony. 

The Mother's vision for Auroville
After Sri Aurobindo's death, The Mother continued his work and in 1968 called for the creation of Auroville a "universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and nationalities. Auroville lies on the coast, just north of Pondicherry and consists of communities which are mostly self sustainable, vegan and utilising permaculture farming methods. The communities all have very evocative names such as Solitude, Certitude, Shanti, Fertility, Discipline, Sincerity. The only requirement to live in Auroville is to be a "willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness". 

Later that evening, I enjoyed a warm, intimate evening of generous hospitality with Praveen's family and yet I still hadn't connected with him. Back at the house, I sat awkwardly with him and had no idea what to say. There was something that made me uncomfortable: I felt that he disapproved of me with my womanly western ways, my nervous chit chat and small talk. His silence and piercing stare was disarming. And then - a breakthrough. I started talking of my spiritual journey thus far - of how I wrestled with 'faith versus expectation', my struggle with dualism, how I was scared to let go and become 'spiritual'. Though all of this Praveen sat, calm and beautific and gave me answers to all of my questions with so much compassion, gentleness and wisdom, that I wept at the table. In Praveen's presence, I felt closest to the divine. 

The Matrimandir meditation centre, the soul of Auroville
Praveen's story goes like this: he was a complete atheist - having been an entrepreneur in his late teens the only god he had worshipped was that of wealth. He wanted a better life and sought that out through material gain. However, at the age of 21 he received an inner calling to go to Pondicherry to meet The Mother. He told me that she imbued flowers with great significance and when he went to meet her for the first time, he carried with him a pink rose - said to denote 'surrender'. I couldn't believe the coincidence. Praveen took one look into the blue-grey eyes of The Mother and said that he saw directly into God. He has lived in the ashram ever since. 

I slept wonderfully...
Despite being a little scared at first of the monastic nature of the house, I slept the sleep of angels in my clean room, beneath pictures of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The next day, after several more hours of discussion in the ashram, during which time he seemed to answer the questions in my head that I had before I had even voiced them, I set off for Sadhana Forest - the self sustainable community which was to become my home for the next 4 weeks. It was with some trepidation that I left for there as I had heard rumours of large numbers of hospitalisation due to food poisoning and even that a rape had taken place in the surrounding area. However, I was eager to come to my own conclusions about it and give it a try.

Little did I know that during my stay in Sadhana forest I would make a beautiful connection with a scientist from Ohio. One day, we were to break out and walk to the Aurovillean town of 'Surrender'. For us, there was no other place to go...

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Fairytale of Mumbai

Mumbai can be summed up in one word: trying. I say with certainty that this was without doubt the most challenging stretch of our travels to date. Previously, we had been basking in the serenity and peace of Pushkar, blissed out and in love with the nonpareils we had collected during our Rajasthan jaunt. Our arrival in ‘The Bay’ brought us  back to earth with a bump – and with it came bad news, ill health, corruption and claustrophobia. Ah beautiful India, how you give and take in equal measure… 

The dancing posture in front of the Trimurti
But perhaps we asked for it. Our devotion to Lord Shiva was ongoing and again we found ourselves worshipping at his altar in the stunning caves of Elephanta, a 10km boat ride out of the Mumbai harbour. We had reunited with the Argentinean couple Fa and so and spent some wonderful time with them marvelling at the natural caves and the Shiva temples within. I have talked in previous blogs how it that was in Hampi when I realised that Shiva seemed to follow me through India and I had started to feel his presence everywhere. He is an incredibly powerful force - one of the 3 aspects of the divine Trimurti which consists of Brahma (creation) , Vishnu (protection) and Shiva (destruction). At Elephanta we did yoga asanas in front of the stunning 20ft stone Trimurti. I could not stop worshipping Shiva - it had become almost an addiction for me and I had even started to believe that a wish that I had made at his statue in Bangalore had come true (we will still have to wait and see on that one...) But in order to create and preserve, Shiva must destroy. Landing back in the incessant city smog of cosmopolitan Mumbai, staying in an apartment with a music producer friend of Liz's (to whom we were behest and therefore not completely in control of our situation), I felt that the spiritual preserve of the north had been shattered and I was once again plunged into the secularity of Western life. Add to this the challenges of the Indian city, the uncertainty of our living situation, some professional difficulties for Liz, illness and the resulting fractiousness between the two of us, I felt my patience and tolerance under threat. Shiva was teaching us many lessons. 

Relatives of the groom dance in celebration
However, the glittering jewel in the Bombay crown was the epic Indian wedding at which we were privileged to be guests - the wedding of my friend Shally's cousin Vinit to his bride Manali. We arrived just in time for one of the pre-celebrations at the house of the groom to find the high-rise building drizzled in fairy lights and a tent swathed in various colourful fabrics pitched outside. This sight is not unusual at this time in India when it is wedding season. Indeed, wherever we had been on our travels previously we could see them and hear the unmistakable sound of the wedding drums practically every night - not conducive to a good night's sleep! 

Having our mendhi painted with heena 

Once the tent has been pitched for the duration of the celebrations it becomes a hub for singing, drumming (special musicians are drafted in for the occasion), and of course, fabulous Indian food. On this night (one of three pre-wedding celebrations) we were entertained with dancing, and the family sat around, singing songs and laughing together. One very theatrical uncle led the celebrations, making people laugh with his impressions. It struck me that I could be at any wedding in any culture - there seemed to be the typical cast of characters from any family in any part of the globe. The aunties swirled ten rupee notes around the heads of the men (for good fortune) and we had our ‘mendhi’ – ladies hired for the job painted our hands with heena, staining them with motifs as delicate as if they were wrought in lace. The mendhi would linger long after the nuptials were over - a nostalgic reminder, stained into our skin.  

Our wedding gift: a statue of Ganesha
We had asked what gift might be appropriate to take to a Brahmin caste wedding, the warrior caste from the north of India (Vinit's family originate from Punjab) and had been told to take a statue of Ganesha. We picked up a colorful little number in Elephanta (appropriately) - white marble tinted in pinks and golds and wreathed in miniature stone flowers and were proud of our choice. However, later on, one of the guests kindly decided to tell us that our choice might have been a bit too garish and that when it comes to religious statury 'less is more'... Ooops. Oh well, I still liked it...

Me in my wedding clothes, tailor made in Rajasthan
The big day itself dawned and despite  having had no running water in the flat for 2 x days (Shiva was dancing his dance of destruction once more) Liz and I enjoyed dolling ourself up in our Rajasthani finery - outfits we had had made especially for us. Although we had desperately wanted saris, we decided against them due to practicality: it is impossible to tie a sari and there is a good chance that if not done properly, it will come undone. So we had had sari tops and skirts made for us in Jodhpur - Liz fuschia pink and me in aqua marine. We felt so spangly in all of our sequins and drew many stares as we walked through the (relatively Western) streets of Mumbai to hail a rickshaw.

Vinit sits with his mother & family & is instructed by the priest
The wedding was wonderous, colourful, epic. It began at 4pm at the family house and finished at 8am the following morning, by which point I was hallucinating with tiredness. Firstly we sat with many other relatives in the house, whilst the family bustled around and got into their bridal togs. In typical Indian style, we were being plied with wonderful home made food - rajma, poppdams, sweets and chai. An official ‘turban tier’ was present to adorn the men with matching red and white turbans to signify the warrior status of the Punjabi family. Then we all went down to the tent, to sit and watch as the groom sat with the priest and was given instruction. Vinit's mother and aunties adorned him in wreaths consisting of many tens of rupee notes. There were emotional moments – much weeping as the groom was dressed in his ostentatious gold turban with fringes that hid his face and his mother and aunties crying as they placed them around his neck. I must admit I sobbed too - I'm such a softie at weddings! 

The wedding procession dances through the streets
We followed the musicians with the drums into the streets and what a crowd we were - women looking fabulous in colourful saris and smartly dressed men in turbans dancing funky Indian moves. Vinit was placed on a white horse that had been draped in colourful gold, red and green crepe decorations and was accompanied by a small boy on the saddle. I wondered if this was some sort of lucky talisman but was told that it was a tradition dating back to the days when the groom had to go to win his bride and he always took a younger male from the clan to succeed him if he died in the fight. This tradition is continued today in India. We led the way with Vinit on horseback behind and every few yards some of the men would lay fireworks right in front of us which exploded all around.  My Romany blood was rising in my head as I swirled and swathed and jangled and bangled in the night air while crowds lined the streets. 

Trumpets herald the arrival of the groom
Next the party clamboured aboard a private bus for more songs and merriment and when we landed at the event…..WOW. Trumpets blared and little men in red coats carried illuminated candelabras and we danced outside amongst hundreds of trees hung with fairylights. This was a very boisterous part of the celebration - the arrival of the groom's family to the 'house' of the bride and we danced our hearts out. The wedding itself consisted of the menfolk from each family greeting one another with hugs and exchanging flower garlands as the priest watched over and blessed preceedings. Once this symbolic act has been undertaken, the bride and groom are officially married.

The beautiful Minty looks out from the 300 strong wedding crowd
When this was over we walked into the event itself and were overwhelmed with what we found. Think: Willy Wonka curating the marriage of Jordan and Peter Andre…pink, Disney-esque, magical, strangely romantic. I can only compare it to a festival site - with marquees, swimming pools, chairs, tables, couches, several bars serving food from almost every country imaginable, illuminated fountains, a stage! The whole thing was an exercise in excess with Sky cams broadcasting the event live on big screens and 80s tunes piped through the night air. Sitting together on one of the many upholstered cream sofas under the night sky, visions in turquoise and magenta, Liz and I felt very romantic, princesses in a fairytale. 

The bride is taken onstage to meet her husband
We had settled ourselves in front of the stage for the arrival of the bride. And when she did she looked terrified, weighed down with saris and thousands of jewels, a rabbit in the headlights. Manali was led onto the stage in a procession of relatives, carrying fabric over her head, then Vinit was also lifted onto the stage and they were able to look each other in the eyes for the first time - already married after the symbolic exchange of garlands between the menfolk outside. Many photographs and celebrations between both sides of the family followed.

Vinit & Mali undertaking the ceremony
It was way after midnight when the religious ceremony took place, lasting over 3 hours. The bride and groom sat with the priest under decorated archways in a separate area, whilst beautiful hypnotic rounds of vows were conducted in Sanskrit in which Vinit and Manali honoured their commitments to themselves, to friendship, to their parents and families. There were many offerings of rice, crushed flowers, incense and fruits - we were given fresh jasmine to pluck, scrunch and throw over the couple and the night air was filled with scent. One of the central motifs of a Hindu wedding is the presence of the sacred fire or agni, which bears witness to the vows and must be circumambulated 3 times.  

Fruit, flowers, incense and agni, the holy fire
The wedding celebration finally drew to a close around 6am, when the guests piled back again to Vinit's house. At this point Manali had to say tearful goodbyes to her family as she left them for the last time to start her new life. There was not a dry eye in the house. I was reeling with exhaustion but we had to gather around the newly weds in the living room while they played games, swirling their hands in milk to fish out their wedding rings.. then Manali was sent off to be derobed and dressed for her first night with her future husband by all of his aunties. It is moments like these that you really recognise the cultural differences - Imagine all of my aunties gathered around me, doing the same on my wedding night.. God forbid! 

For a number of reasons, I decided to leave Mumbai earlier than planned and on the day before my departure the city celebrated Mahashivrati - the anniversary of Shiva's marriage to Parvati. This is an important day not only for Shaivites (Shiva devotees like me) but for all Hindus and is celebrated with zeal throughout the whole of India. Women rise early to ritually bathe and then pay tribute to Shiva, annointing lingums with milk and honey and celebrations last well into the night. Shiva was appeased. I left Mumbai. All was well. 
Posing in my veil 

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