India is considered the mystical land, extraordinarily magical – the embodiment of spirituality. It is said that those who visit India are touched by its ancient charm, forever entranced by its majesty. My experience in India was no exception. I was utterly vulnerable to its power, fully captivated by the energy flowing throughout that sacred land. And it was through such captivation that I discovered that India is also a land of resiliency – people, animals, and culture prevailing despite the struggle to survive. Raw and unadulterated, India is a place of ultimate wonderment and beauty, yet a place where the unspeakable occurs. My connection to it evoked intense experiences: spiritual moments of profound energy, fleeting and powerful emotions, and physical encounters that ravaged my senses.
There is no other place in the world quite as vibrant as India. Even when inside the home, the energy that is the essence of India penetrates the concrete walls and beckons one to experience it. Outside that door, every sense belonging to the human being is overwhelmed and stimulated beyond conception. It is for this reason that people feel alive when in India. Because every element that makes a being sentient – the physical, mental, emotional, and the spiritual – are awakened and moved to become part of the larger whole. It is not millions of other beings living outside of our own existence, it is a single organism of energy from which each one of us connects with, feeds upon, and contributes to. This collective energy encompasses the whole of India, yet its qualities vary so greatly that the feel of it is unique to each specific location.
Bangalore, an urban development within the southern state of Karnataka, was my city. To write about the deep and sometimes perplexing relationship I have with Bangalore, and India as a whole, would require an expansively detailed account of every single experience that formed that connection. I cannot describe it in a summarized or shallow piece. It would take me a book, maybe even several to fully get my perspective across. Yet, as I sit and contemplate how I am to fit an elephant into a mouse hole, I being to think about puja malas (prayer garlands). Constructed of exactly 108 beads, puja malas are used in daily prayers to the divine. My story in India – the occurrence of my own entrancement – cannot be told in one bead, but many beads that make up the whole – my puja mala. A single experience – one bead of the garland – will never tell my story, but it will provide a glimpse into a perspective that is my own.
My connection to India on a transcendent level was roused by the rich spiritual culture consisting of multiple religions, ancient philosophy, and the mystical. The enigmatic religions within India have always drawn me like a moth to a flame. I am a Pagan, my religion near extinction in the Western world. Yet in India, I have seen reflections of it in spiritual practice. Festivals celebrate the solstices and equinoxes – the cyclic alignment of the moon and the sun. The divine is connected to nature – Earth goddesses and Sun gods revered and worshipped on auspicious days – all life, including animals and plants, valued as sacred.
It was in the Hindu temples and the Buddhist monasteries that I found the strongest vibrations of the collective life energy of India and the essence of the divine. Beautifully designed and adorned with colorful images of the deities, the outward appearance of any Hindu temple enticed me to come inside. I would enter one with bare feet, weaving my way through the cumulative crowds, until I found my own place. There, I would ground myself to the Earth below the temple’s structure, breathing in the positive energy conjured by the hundreds of daily visitors that released their energies through prayers to the divine. The smell of burning sandalwood incense and fresh cut flowers, both given in observance of the Gods, permeated the air in and around the temple, and was accompanied by the sounds of sacred chants and prayers. Through pujas, I obliged to run my right hand through the orange flame in prayer, offer flowers to the Gods represented in sculptured form, and sit in a meditative pose on the cold marble floors while reflecting on life. During such visits I observed the divine, and such experiences became the spiritual beads of my mala.
Through my daily experiences to discover the real India, I had various encounters that gave birth to my physical and emotional connections with India. On a physical level, my senses were constantly assaulted. While eating Indian food, the variety of tastes – sweet, salty, and very spicy, enveloped me in an environment of worldly pleasures. I said I hated mangoes until I tried one native to India. Alphonsos they were called, small, but packed with a delicate sweetness so divine that I became obsessed with obtaining their juicy flesh. My love for sweet and spicy coconut chutneys paired with the crispy wafer of a dosa served with spiced potato became my most desired meal. Indian chai – the perfect blend of native northern teas and boiled milk and water became a fixation, the sweet smoothness of it served in ridiculously miniscule quantities and just the right amount of caffeine left me endlessly jonesing for its warm pick me up. On my daily walks, I would visit a local restaurant, order two chai, and sit on the entrance stairs, my presence stationary among the bustle; my eyes forever straying to faces glancing my way as I sipped for a moment’s respite.
Like the asanas in yoga, movement of life within Bangalore is fluid, seamless throughout the day. I used to stand on the rooftop of my four-story apartment building and watch the city. Everywhere there is life, pulsing with that hidden energy of which we are instinctually attracted to. Spotted eagles above me soared in the sky, crying their eagle calls. Parakeets glided across the ever-present breeze in streaks of green color that only added to the array of hues painted upon the endless expanse of buildings below. Above me, monsoon clouds gathered and slowly rolled across the sky. They were foreboding, threatening at any moment to open up, while the sun continued to peak through in bursts of light that shed golden shafts of beauty upon the environment.
When walking the streets, I experienced an array of smells so contrastive that I either wanted to vomit or breathe deeply and sigh. Most often, the smells unveiled were of cow or dog shit, rotting garbage, and putrid smoke. If lucky however, I’d come across the cultural fragrances: jasmine flowers, quality incense, steaming chai, or authentic Indian cuisine. It was when I got to experience such exotic sensory stimulators that I felt the sacredness of India and the beat of its life all around me.
The collection of color presented throughout the whole of India is best described as a kaleidoscope of piquancy. Experiencing such an endemic element of India was a daily occurrence, found in the bright saris the women wore, the billboard signs, and the contrastive buildings, trees, and soil of the environment surrounding me. Wandering the streets, my sense of sight, along with my hearing, was assailed through the movement on the streets. People, dogs, and cows walking every which way, and the flow of traffic too close for comfort created a dizzying display, while the noise that accompanied it incessantly incapacitated my hearing.
Everywhere I went I carried my camera, eyes alert for scenes that might just capture the energy of India. I would walk feeling as though I was moving through a sea of energy, a vacuum of which my presence was floating and existing among millions of others. The farther outward I explored, the more people stared. Facial expressions revealed curiosity, surprise, or distaste for the presence of a white skinned woman roaming their territory. Poor children approached me, sheer curiosity overcoming their shyness to ask me to photograph them. They would gather together, happily smiling as I arranged compositions. Their delightful giggles drawing more to the crowd that encircled me to catch a glimpse of images produced.
My emotional connection to India grew intense and compelling. I respected India, feared it, loved it, and hated it. The encounters with the people and animals stirred my emotions in ways that left me wondering who I was. I fell in love with India through the experiences that were uplifting, inspiring, and transcendent. My love for India grew because of the welcoming and kind-hearted people that invited me into their homes, introduced me to their culture and befriended me in lonely times. That love was also found in the rich culture that drew me in through its promotion of peace, and in the life energy that encompasses all existence.
I hated India because of my witness to raw and indescribable things that saddened me so severely I felt utterly helpless. The emotions that brought pain to my heart included my encounters with the starving and suffering animals, the homeless beggars, the abandoned elders, and exploited children. Poverty and resilience are everywhere in India, and I could not escape their impressions upon my life. The poor gypsy children without education, food security, or positive futures unveiled their despair and their hope when I looked into their eyes. Their dirty, tattered clothing, and frail, tiny bodies reminiscent of experiences no child should ever endure. I encountered the malnourished and neglected animals fighting for survival in a cruel world, bodies ravaged, and rampant with disease, yet awareness and tenderness still presented for those who showed them the slightest bit of compassion. I witnessed centuries old trees cut down for development, felt their Earth spirits dying, as I smelled the exhaust of the machines that took their lives. Such an emotional attachment and empathy for all life within India provoked me, informed me, that I would one day return no matter how painful it would be. The proverbial beads of emotion within my mala reflected all that was right and wrong within the world I lived.
My connection to India encompasses every element of life, the deepness of it surpassing my shallow existence in America. India’s impression continues to evoke my awareness, connect me to the spiritual, and remind me that I am alive. In all its majesty, tragedy, and mysticism, India is a sensory, emotional, and spiritual experience like no other.