Rooftops in Pushkar
I should have known better … In embarking upon my trip to India this past January—undertaken as part of my seminary program at the Earlham School of Religion—I somehow thought I would be able to blog in real time, capturing and communicating new experiences as they took place. Not a chance … Not only was there minimal time for free writing, given the volume of reading and journaling required for the class, but, more significantly, the intensity of the encounters and the foreign-ness of India left me—and all of us—literally dumbstruck, requiring extended time for decompression and reflection before the words and images were ready to flow from my fingertips. And then there was my spring semester, plus the consulting work I added on top of that. But now I am enjoying the down days of summer, and it is time to write …
As my memories unfold in my mind, I find they are organized around pairings of place and people: the desert jewel of Pushkar and the yoga teacher upon whose rooftop we practiced three hours a day; the ashram in Rishikesh, perched above the sacred Ganges River, and the Hindu wise men at whose feet we sat and learned; the village of McLeod Ganj, above Dharamsala, with neck-craning views to Himalayan peaks and Tibetan Buddhist monks living in exile from their homeland; the Punjabi city of Amritsar, with its astounding Golden Temple and the Sikhs who come from all over the world to worship there; and Delhi, India’s capital city for centuries, where I spent my final day with my new best friend.
I am eager to immerse myself once again among these fascinating places and people, and to share them with all my friends who did not join me on this journey. So let’s begin … in Pushkar.
I spent a lot of time on open-air balconies and rooftops throughout India, as they offer a unique combination of immersion and detached perspective. From these places, usually two to four stories above the street, one can observe while being unobserved, and focus fully on the sights, sounds, and smells without needing to pay attention to navigation and or interacting with others. No place was the viewing better than Pushkar, a town of 15,000 several hours southwest of Delhi, in the desert state of Rajasthan. I awoke each morning before dawn and ascended to the open-air rooftop. These notes captured my experience there:
“It is 6:30 am and there is just the faintest light in the sky over the mountains to the east of me. I am gazing toward a bright moon—one day past full—hanging in the western sky, with a brilliant Jupiter looming just over it. But my primary sensory inputs are auditory. Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India, said to be created by Brahma, and it contains one of the only temples dedicated to Brahma, built in the 14th Century. Today Pushkar has about 500 temples, and I am surrounded on all sides by sounds emanating from them. From one comes the sound of rapid drumming on a tabla, with a man singing in a high register, the whole chant moving toward a frenzied conclusion. From another I hear a slow, deep, sonorous chant, echoing as if from some cavernous space. From yet another comes the clanging of bells hung from chains. Now another sound has started up in the far distance, this one sounding like a brass horn, joined by a chant in a mid-range register. It would take weeks, if not months or years, to visit each source of these sounds, much less to understand the religious stories and historical events that led to their construction.
“Occasionally I have been interrupted by sounds from just across the street, where a team of about 20 camels resides, along with their tenders. At one point I heard a scratching sound and saw that a tender was sweeping the dust from the front of the stand from where they will sell rides to tourists like me. Two days ago I stood at this stand in the mid-afternoon sun and watched them organize the team for our group, decorating each camel with colorful saddles and bridles. I focused on one man in particular and reflected on questions to which I will never know the answer: What kind of home do you return to? How well are you able to meet your basic needs through this living? Do you hope for your son to make his living this way? Two hours later, as we boarded the camels, I got a little closer to the answers. The tender for my camel was a young boy of 10 or 11. Regrettably, neither my Hindi nor his English allowed us to exchange more than a few words, but as we walked through the outskirts of town and out into the surrounding countryside, one could see the pride with which the tenders paraded their animals and the respect and friendliness with which they were greeting by their acquaintances in the street. As I say to myself so often in India, theirs is a reality that seems harsh to me, but I hesitate to consider it lesser—it feels arrogant for me to judge by my western standards, especially when there is so much for which we rightly come under judgment by their standards.”
It has been six months now since I wrote these words, but in my mind I can still feel the warmth of the morning sun as we gathered on another rooftop in Pushkar for yoga. For three hours each morning we were led through cleansing and breathing exercises as well as many asanas (poses)—some familiar to me, some new—by the wise, kind, and humble Dr. Kamal Pandey, in his “studio” on a rooftop facing the Old Rangji Temple. Our group had a wide range of experience and skill with yoga, and in the best teaching tradition he “comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable” so that all could have a positive developmental experience. I also took advantage of his offer of an hour of reflexology and ayurvedic massage, and through both the spoken word and the medium of touch, we came to a deeper understanding of each other’s life story. His lessons permanently influenced my daily morning routine, and provided a perfect “opening” to the discoveries that lay ahead for me in India.