Sunday, 20 May 2012

India: A Love Letter

View of the snowy peaks of the Himalayas
After the austerities of vipassana, I decided to stay in the beautiful mountainous town of upper Bhagsu in Dharamsala, to allow myself to gradually normalise again and to integrate and process the lessons of the silent meditation. Liz had a couple of days left before she had to depart for the UK, so we stayed in a serene and peaceful guest house, coincidentally complete with shrines to Shiva (my God) and Amma (her guru) overlooking the valley. We mostly talked, walked, shopped, kept up a daily practice of yoga and meditation, read and wrote. Breathing in the mountain air and looking out at the snowy capped peaks of the Himalayas, I felt pleased to be alive. 

Me and Liz enjoying epic muesli in chill out cafe, Bhagsu

Once I had simmered down and got over the hysteria of my initial release, I realised that I had, in fact, really, really changed. I didn't want to indulge in excesses any more. My mind – once a wild, untamed beast which would descend into fantasy at the drop of the hat - remained more measured and present. I found that I had more control over my thoughts. I had patience, compassion and tolerance in even the most trying of situations. I was highly attuned to the energies and vibrations of others. I wanted to live simply. I had attained a new-found consciousness. For this, I had vipassana to thank.

Me in my pink Shiva guest house
The appointed day for Liz's departure arrived and she left – it felt strange to wave her goodbye after all the experiences we had lived through together on the subcontinent. It felt even stranger that she was going back to London and yet I was not (for a long time - maybe, indeed, ever) going home. I checked into a new guest house - it was candy pink and had pictures of Shiva painted all over it. It was made for me. I was in the hands of new friends: Indians, Irish, English, Czech - a merry band of us would spend our days doing as we pleased then would all meet up after dinner in Om Star chill cafe, to cuddle around steaming cups of chai or ginger lemon honey drinks, wrapped in blankets as the black stark cold of the Himalayan night descended. There was often music (beautiful Sufi sounds) and sometimes marijuana. A peaceful vibe prevailed. 

Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the breeze
I passed my days with onward travel planning, administration, writing, blogging, reading and awaiting the arrival of a parcel from Delhi. I wandered in the hills, the primary colours of thousands of Tibetan prayer flags - each of them signifying the utterance of a mantra - fluttered overhead. Flashes of scarlet amongst the lush mountain landscape – the peace of Tibetan monks pervaded the air. I visited the residency of the Dalai Lama amidst the flames of a thousand butter lamps and watched the rhythmical ritual of women in traditional tibetan dress, their brown faces creased with age and wisdom, bowing and prostrating rhythmically onto a plank of polished wood. Vipassana had gifted to me a new-found appreciation of Buddhism. I hummed along to the "Om Mani Padem Hum" mantra as it resounded daily through the mountains.

The disenfranchised people of Tibet - still fighting the good fight in Dharamsala

Butter lamps aflame in the residency of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala
Inside the temple - you had to go through the lion's
mouth to enter the 'cave'
But despite this, my devotion was still ardent to Lord Shiva. I found the most amazing temple on the road to Upper Bhagsu - it was like a crazy haunted house fairground ride - complete with a sculpted lion whose mouth you had to enter to get into the 'cave' of the inner sanctum. Worshippers have to crouch low to wander through the labyrinthine fibreglass wonderworld passing gods, deities, serpents and Shiva linga until you finally come to a teeny tiny cave where, each night, you could squish in with other Indian devotees and take evening puja. This became a nightly ritual for me - firstly to sit in front of the deities and meditate downstairs after paying respects to the giant Shiva linga and then cram into the tiny, airless space - dizzy with the smell of incence.
Inside the cave
The priest was fabulously scruffy and disorganised. He would rock up in stained clothes and trainers, complete the chants as quickly as his voice would carry them, occasionally being interrupted by the beeping of his mobile phone. In amongst this, there was one other Westerner who would attend. Busy in prayer and with my thoughts, I tried not to look at him. But I felt a certain energy between us - an attraction and a question. What was he doing there too? I enjoyed the tension, and other than a few passing comments as we placed our shoes back on after taking tikka and prasad and ringing the bell (to awaken the Gods), we didn't talk.  The mystery between us heightened the experience, plus I enjoyed the nightly ritual, which always culminated with sitting cross legged on the floor, clapping and singing along as schoolboys and girls trickled in, picked up instruments and banged along to the rousing devotional songs - the whiny melody of the village women and the jingling of the bells being carried across the night air.

Golden prayer wheels turning at the Dalai Lama Residency
On one particular day – I was walking down the mountain path into McLeod Gange (the nearest big town) to attend to some business when I literally bumped into none other than the gorgeous friend Sunshine I had met in Auroville. It's a long story that entails a broken nose and more hospital visiations (including to the Tibetan hospital which I was very impressed with) but she ended up staying with me in the pink house. And so it was that I shared a bed with her again, sleeping in her energy, manifesting great things, having positive thoughts, indulging in girly time, going shopping for clothes and fabrics for her burgeoning fashion business. Together we enjoyed the chill out scene of Bhagsu - having epic breakfasts in 'Munchies' healthy chill out cafe and even attending the odd party in the evening. I was definitely integrating myself back into normal life again with a vengeance!

Munchies Healthy Chill out cafe: best breakfasts in Bhagsu
We went to a reggae party and danced the night away. On full moon we went to another party at Rainbows bar - high up in Upper Bhagsu, perched precariously on the edge of the mountain. We were told that on this night the moon was the closest to the earth than it had been in thousands of year - and here we were the closet we had ever been to the moon, ourselves up in the Himalayas. It was a powerful and beautiful experience - bathed in milky white light we sipped 'Rumplechaiskins' (our own homemade concoction of chai spiced with a bit of rum) and danced and sang to Shiva. I was devastatingly happy. And guess who was there? The man from the temple. I saw his face through the flames of a fire dancer (the beautiful Petra  - a mate from the Bhagsu massive). We couldn't wait to speak to one another and found, when we did, that we had a wonderful connection. His name is Govinda and he was born in India, although raised in Itlay. In the temple, we shared the love of nightly puja. In life - we shared the same hopes and dreams. I felt beautiful energy emanating from me - my eyes and my heart - full of life and love and attracting and manifesting wonderful people and things.

The gang in Munchies
I had a reason to be happy. Some of you might remember the Rambunctious Englishman of my Udaipur... blog. Well, all the way back when we had enjoyed each other's company so much that we had made a little commitment to meet each other again. For four months we had corresponded, readers. Four months. A correspondence I had kept secret from you in case I cursed it, but I dared to hope – with baited breath - that this blue eyed boy might be the one I had been searching for. I had felt that Shiva had decreed it so, having met Tom (his real name) immediately after my prayer to the statue in Bangalore (in which I asked to meet my soul mate). I had also been told by an astrologer in January that I was about to meet the man of my dreams in India. In a guided meditation I met Tom himself (in spirit)  and he told me that he loved me.

With Annie, a lovely Irish lass I met in Bhagsu 
But, but, but, he also told me that he “wasn’t a grown up” and in those times since our wonderful weekend together in Januay, I had had ups and downs, experienced intense connections with others, re-evaluated myself, had doubts about him and his place on my new-found ‘sattvic’ path. But, dear readers - I had faith. I knew that I had found myself in India and hoped that I had found love. It was the most perfect story - meeting in Udaipur (the most romantic city in India) and being reuinted in the Himalayas 4 months later. But this, of course, is the classic example of me "writing the story before it has begun" as was foretold to me I would do, many months ago back in Goa . After a late night Facebook chat with Tom back in Amritsar I woke up the next day with a heavy heart. I intuitively knew that he wasn't for me. The clues were there. All my spiritual work had proven to me to have no expectations - but ever the romantic, I continued to believe. Embracing a newly skinny body, I beautified and prepared. I endured a 'third world waxing session'. I bought him gifts and stocked up on films I knew he would like. I invested in a whole new wardrobe and left my beloved India (and Sunshine and the joy of Dharamsala) a month early. I know it - I was foolish.

The train I spent 22hrs on before receiving the news..
Reader - I did not marry him. In fact, I didn't even meet up with him. On disembarkation at Gorakhpur, near the Indo Nepalese border, after a horrendous 22hr sleeper class non AC train journey in which 7 indian people were in my seat, I arrived to a cockroach infested hotel. I checked my messages only to be in receipt of a 'dump email' from Tom, who had decided to go it to Thailand (where we were headed together), alone. The dream was over.

My final few hours in India were pure survival. After a blazing row with the hotelier (it was recommended in Lonely Planet, by the way), I managed to acquire a new room where the cockroaches only adorned the floor and bathroom, not the pillows and sheets as in my previous room. Unable to bear the thought of insects crawling on me as I processed the shocking news, I took a sleeping pill.

Last sunset in India at a stop along the way...
I woke up the next day and realised I had to get out of there. Already reconciled to the fact that I didn't want to journey back into the nearly unbearable Indian summer for the few weeks left on my visa, I decided to continue to Nepal. From there I would make a plan. Unfortunately (and very unusually for me in my otherwise untainted time in India) I was ludicriously ripped off by a cowboy of a travel agent who - telling me that Nepal was 'closed' and that there was no way to get thereby bus for 2 x days - charged me $170 (a ridiculous sum by Western standards - never mind Indian) plus an additional 2,000 rupees to be flown to Kathmandu. It actually transpired that this money did not get me to the airport, in fact it barely got me to the border. On arrival at the frontier I was turfed out of the taxi due to political strikes in Nepal blocking the road. Heartbroken but determined, I crossed the border on foot. Goodbye Mother India - I wish it didn't have to be this way.

My anguish at the journey, the hotel, the dumping
What greeted my arrival in Nepal was the realisation that I had been overcharged by $70 for the air ticket by the travel agent. The money I had paid for a taxi was wasted. All of the roads in Nepal were closed due to a political strike or 'bandh' and I was forced to have carriage to the airport on the back of a cart. It was the blazing heat of day - I had no guide book, no map and mobile phone. The most vulnerable I had ever been - I was headed into unknown country with a peasant who couldn't speak English, going through what I can only describe as third world villages on one pot holed road. And out here the villagers were angry. We passed many soldiers - roadblocks and people following us menacingly with guns and sticks. (At the time I did not know it but the driver of the cart was taking a huge risk in conveying me to the airport during a country-wide ban on transportation). I knew that if I let fear take hold of me I would collapse - so I chanted and prayed and trusted and finally I arrived at the 'airport'. My onward flight was cancelled and I spent the night in a Nepali village - no power, sharing a bed with a young 19 yr old I had met at the airport. Planes, Trains and Automobiles eat your heart out. Finally - after 5 days of journeying. I arrived in Kathmandu.

First sights of Nepal - impoverished villages
But I will not let this last image of heartbreak embellish the profound and life changing experience of the previous months. Ah India, India, India...where do I even begin? There comes a time that the things that no longer serve you fall away. In the past 5 months I have given up cigarettes, alcohol (to all intents and purposes) and casual encounters. And what about the space those things have left behind? Well, I’ve filled them with bhakti (devotion), sanga (community), puja (prayer) and prem (love). My life has improved immeasurably. It is wonderful.

Mother India - you have had an irreversible effect on me. I have made such progress here! You have given me faith - in Lord Shiva, in the universe, in the divine and in myself. In you I have learnt trust. Under your nurturing, beautiful wings, love and compassion have blossomed within me. I now possess equanimity. Though my heart and my body have been shaken and rattled - you shined a beacon of light - a Pharos in every tempest. Thanks to all you have taught me I now know infinite gratitude in every waking moment. I have no reason to complain ever again - all my so called 'first world problems' are just that - meaningless. Thanks to you I discovered the joy in devotion and, in so doing, meaning has been restored to my life. I understand (truly, have experienced) the law of attraction. I am an extension of everyone and we are all children of God. You took my hand and showed me the truth of impermanence. Nothing will ever stay the same and therefore everything is bearable. You showed me my spiritual powers, opened my eyes (all three of them) and welcomed me with your many, open blue arms onto a powerful path direct to the gods. Not only this - you took me 'inside', where I met the real Sophie once more - and found that she was beautiful. The soft side as well as the party animal. The healer. The orator. The storyteller. Now, my alter ego lies dead on the road and I can love myself once more.

You gave me Saraswati who, lovingly from her lotus flower plucked the strings of her veena and the creativity flowed up my spine and flowered in my brain. You showed me a different life - one suffused with faith and music and friendship and books. And you taught me that I should return to my first love...that of the written word.

From drunken media girl...

to blissed out hippy chick

Thank you, India. Thank you, for all that you have gifted to me. How will I ever repay you?


  1. I have read and reread it over and over again... there is so much to learn from every word you have written.... for me this little travelogue is actually life in microcosm... what a roller coaster ride!I am filled with gratitude for the universe for teaching me that to live with much more awareness and equanimity is in real terms to live in balance. Thank you for sharing... it has enriched my soul!

  2. High praise indeed, thank you so much for these words Varsha. I agree that it is a microcosm and as this trip goes on I realise this truth more and more everyday. Life itself is a journey.

    Thanks for sharing the vipassana experience with me and your true Shaivite soul sister.

    Much love

    Sophie x

  3. Dear Sophie,

    having read your precious words about your time in India and how it has captivated so many different aspects of you has made me very happy and has brought back many memories of me. While reading your words i felt like being in touch again with the immense powers that i have experienced out there and for a few moments i was completely connected with the memories and emotions of my last trip, which were so strong that my eyes begann to fill with tears while reading your words . I have experienced so many similar aspects of which you were writing about but i never got down to writing it down as wonderfully detailed as you did. It is of immense value to me to see and feel how much is out there and of how great benefit it is and i am so glad and proud of you that you have this blog and it gives you the opportunity to share such life changing experiences with others.. Thank you so much for reanimating something inside me which got a little bit lost in the routine of my daily life here.

  4. Hi Daniel

    How is this for more magic in India... here I find myself in this crazy and beautiful country once again, this time in a beach hut in Goa. I came back to do a yoga teacher training in the Himalayas and teach a Tantra workshop down here. I have no idea why I decided to click onto this blog again tonight to read over it once more but the resultant effect was that I saw your comment. Thank you so much for your beautiful words that now leave me weeping under my mozzie net!

    Trying to maintain the blog, especially given the connectivity issues has often been a labour of love and I'm still behind and trying to update it. However, I always felt that it allowed me in India to pick out these significant details and beautiful events and weave them together into a narrative that was nothing short of magical! It also allowed me to make sense of my own spiritual awakening and evolution. At times of loneliness and darkness it became a kind of therapy. And, through the bad times when I lived through experiences such as the border dumping incident, it allowed me to think... "oh well, at least it is a good story!"

    As for me, I'm about to leave India again in pursuit of lovel but hopefully this one will be more lasting. I'm off to Thailand to meet the man I met there in a tantric community (more blogs on this to come). I'm still messing about a little with my life, but think that next year could be about 'making the film' and 'writing the book' as well as continuing to inspire people spiritually. Thank you so much for your appreciation and these encouraging words which continue to point me in the direction of writing and my path of dharma.

    Sending much love and light to you

    Sophie xx

  5. hey.. great blog..
    did u visit kasol??


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