Imperfect guide of spiritual and conscious travels in India

India has, for long, stood the onus of being the spiritual darling of the world. The lost, suffering, restless masses have often sought refuge in the chaos, and hospitable arms of Mother India. The destitute finding a corner in pravachan sabhaas and the affluent a villa in high-end ashrams of Osho, Ravishankar and Sadhguru. But there is more to India, much more when it comes to offering the spiritual experience – not in a secret Sanskrit code but in the very humdrum of life. You do not need a spiritual guru to decipher it, you just need your eyes and an open heart.

This entry is a scrapbook, more like randomly chosen pages from an encyclopedia, rather than a carefully written guide. I am not going to try to give it a fanciful name but these are some places that touched me or made my inner sense of wonder come out more strongly. I hail from a religious brahmin family and had finished my chaar dhaam in early teens. I wish I was old enough to know what any of that was about.

Coming back from USA is when I really started exploring India mythology, spirituality (I hate how cliched this word is becoming, I wish there was a better synonym). Because let’s face it, consciousness does not appeal to you when you are sitting lavishly in a comfortable home with a PS3 and iPad lying around you. Or when you have kids or partners keeping you busy.At that time, it is a leisure read and a thing to show off at your social gatherings. It really seems important when life throws you a curve ball and the shit hits the fan. Then, my friend, consciousness looks very appealing. As they say, “you dont know how strong you are, until being strong is the only option you have.” This ‘being strong’ is a very spiritual characteristic. So, that is the consciousness that came gliding into my life in my late twenties.

Why is Ramayana so touching and purifying? Why is Ram called Purushottam? Why is the character of Krishn so complex? What is the moral basis of Mahabharata? Can there even be a moral basis of historical and mythical things? Why are we here? What happens when we die? Why do we suffer? By the way, if you are feeling sad or hopeless for whatever reason, just read Tulsidas’s Ramacharitmanas – open it anywhere and start reading it with translation. Read it for ten days, I can bet 200% you will feel better. And if you are feeling lost and restless, read Gita (or Seven Conversations :D).

Next phase of my exploration happened over last two years when unknowingly I touched upon some of India’s conscious kernels. So, I am compiling a list of my spiritual places and experiences in India. These are not made to go into LonelyPlanet guide as they are not at all famous but they were significant in my journey. Plus, I felt many people long to experience these understated experiences and don’t know where to start. If you cannot find anything else, my dear reader, please feel free to visit these (of course at your own risk)-

Experiencing Auroville over longer periods of time

A town or colony of 20 sq km near Pondicherry stands obscure from most of the popular tourist itineraries. Relatively less known even to Indians, the place is nothing like anything you will experience elsewhere. A meager population of 2000, less than 10 dusty roads, a handful of buildings, hardly any cars except that of visitors and a throng of white and local population on bicycles and bikes. It is sometimes so futuristic that it seems ancient. a I remember a distinct moment in the Matrimandir amphitheater when I could feel the presence very strongly. Of what? Of something that I cannot verbalize very well – an awareness of the grandness of it all.  Do not make the mistake of doing a day tour of Auroville. You need to stay there at least for a week, roam around, watch the sunset on Thursdays in Matrimandir with the background Savitri music. You need to walk around and hug the banyan tree. You need to visit Savitri bhavan and watch SA’s statue against the moonlight. You need to meet strangers from everywhere and have a filter coffee in the visitor center. You need to see the units run by foreigners and locals. You need to see Sadhana forest. You need to eat the red rice dosa and hibiscus syrup. You need to bike back in pitch dark on the dust road. You need to hear the crickets and watch the world around you falling quiet to zero. You need to just be. It has become my yearly retreat.

Attending Jeevan Vidya

A very unassuming teacher, a very simple setting often chosen in conscious institutes and places, locally sourced organic simple meals and deceptively simple yet profound discussions over 9 days. A free workshop, run by one of the best teachers I have come across – Vinish ji. A man who evokes deep respect and awe, talks about basics of life and casts a surprisingly wide net that covers everything from relationships to food to body to mind. And he famously says, “there is no going back from here”. I wonder if the Matrix scene of ‘choosing the pills’ was inspired from him. The difference is he smiles a wry smile after making u take the pill. He announces – you have been transformed. Welcome to this new thinking and being. Nothing ever will meet your eyes in an uninspired way again.

Vipassana at Dharamsala

Vipassana has become a synonym of cool Buddhist meditation retreats. Vipassana is a well-established meditation practice in more than 150 centers worldwide. I happened to experience it amidst the beautiful center at Dharamkot. With mist, rains, mountain, pine smell and yes, the monkeys! – it was a memorable and transformative experience. It is not about any religion and the recorded evening sermons provide a good mental cleansing after long hours of meditation everyday. I enjoyed the cerebral discourses, they made a lot of sense. They tell you why they are making you follow these weird rules such as no dinners, no fee, no yoga etc during those 10 days. I developed a good respect for S N Goenka and the practice itself. The crux is to realize how impermanent things are. Although I could not assimilate much during one year after the course, I find threads tying up with my other experiences and I am able to do Vipassana meditation more sincerely now (although not too frequently). But this was the place that spurred me on to reading more about meditation, buddhism, mindfulness and I am glad I did. Some of the beautiful books I recommend highly-



Watching Himalayas

Be it Sikkim, Kashmir or Himachal, if there is one thing that can make you realize the vastness of universe and your physical insignificance, it is the Himalayas. And if there is anything that can make you realize that you are the part of the same vastness and hence infinity packed in a small body, that is the Himalayas 🙂 Go, watch them stand there mighty and towering. They have seen more than you will ever see.

The chaos of Vrindavan

It is messy and dirty and yet, there is nothing like it. With history so intertwined with the presence of one of the most fascinating deities, Krishn, Vrindavan reeks of Hindu faith. During the bhakti era, many saints have taken their inspiration in the holy land, including Mirabai, Surdas, and Tulsidas. Immerse yourself in a morning darshan of Baanke Bihari and an evening bhajan at Iskcon. Who knows what you may find? Or what might find you?

 

Please share your favorite spiritual places in India in the comments 🙂

Best books presented in Jaipur Literature Festival 2017

When a book lover and writer wanders off into India’s biggest Literature Festival, words are going to fly out. JaipurLitFest (JLF) had been on my mind for some time but 2017 was the year to be when JLF itself turned 10 years old. I have a bitter sweet relationship with books. They kept me awake at ungodly hours in early school days and I took my revenge by writing one years later. I thought the patience required to have a comprehensible story reveal itself in my words will teach me a lesson strong enough to not attempt it ever again but alas! The writer’s demons would not leave me alone and the addiction ran deeper than any booze or weed can induce. I worked on more books and articles including this one right after attending the ending ceremony of JLF.

To walk into Diggi Palace, the famed venue of JLF (described as ‘nashediyon ka adda that ye pehle’ by my auto rickshaw driver – that does make it perfect, doesn’t it?) is like walking into a cerebral riot. The festival when calling in stalwarts of Art/Lit fraternity such as Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Shashi Tharoor, Richard Flanagan, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Prasoon Joshi, Devdutt Patnaik, Vikram Chandra, Sadhguru and so on, has to rise itself to meet the standards of its guests. Teamwork team led by Sunjoy Roy, did exactly this by making the festival itself a piece of art. Be it a funky decorated scooter or tuk-tuk providing intravenue commute or the elegant tent designs or the kulhad chai, the festival radiates Rajasthan, Indian culture, art and more art. So that when the literary youths wearing a turban with boots enter the ground, they mingle in rather than standing at odds. The aesthetics not only spoke and listened to the crowd in its own language, inspired it to funk up its crazy quotient.
Here’s a roundup of my favorite moments and reading lists for you lazy fellows out there!

1. Gulzar sahab opening the JLF in his trademark graceful yet cynical note – ‘Don’t make me sit on that high Guest of Honor chair in which my feet are left hanging off the ground. When feet don’t touch the soil, pen stops respecting the ink.’

Gulzar at JLF

Reading List: He is a living poetry himself. His latest launch is Suspected Poems

2. Sadhguru: Watching the famed guru for first time on stage, expectations were high. This comment of his stayed with me ever since – ‘Our souls are constantly trying to expand so as to increase our capacity to experience the cosmos – be it through arts, creation, power or sex. It is just our deepest desire to expand our being.’

Reading List: Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy

3. When I casually strolled into the Mughal Tent session by Vikram Chandra on visual poetry of medieval Sanskrit times, I was just trying to escape the crowd thronging the front lawn where Rishi Kapoor was launching his book. But in hindsight, that was the hand of destiny shepherding me towards the genius of this talk. In this nerdy talk, it became clear that he has embraced the formal logic of computing as much as his comfort with ambiguities of literary narrative. Effortlessly weaving the narrative between seemingly disjoint worlds of sanskrit grammar, and geometrical structures, Chandra never lost the grip on his subject or the audience. He gave vivid examples of medieval sanskrit poetry which when written formed interesting geometrical shapes such as matrix, spokes of a wheel and so on. I felt compelled to read him end to end after this talk.

Reading List: Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code

4. Neil McGregor, a name I had not heard of before. The British historian’s talk on Shakespeare’s Restless World covered themes and the times in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. It was reliving the moments of Elizabethan era – what people were like, what they felt, ate or saw. The fantastic execution ceremonies of law breakers, conspiracy of murdering the kings and disguises were Shakespearean themes picked from the very streets of London life! This was the first generation that had house clocks – that heard the ticking of a minute in their households. This was the generation that read Bible in English but whose grandparents were still reading in Latin – a theme observed in Hamlet where old people use Latin terms more commonly. If someone can make art history as interesting as this person (who headed London National Gallery, refused Knighthood, presented Art series on BBC and so on), then that someone has to be an extraordinary orator and presenter of facts. The talk was one of the most thought provoking and enchanting sessions of the festival.

Reading List: Shakespeare’s Restless World

5. Shashi Tharoor received raucous applause every time I heard him speak in 3 different sessions. After his viral Oxford Debate, Penguin was savvy enough to ask him to write a full book on British oppression. And being the walking historical encyclopedia that he is, he did it with flair! His speeches/arguments are music to one’s ears – the clarity of thought, articulation and relevance to the point with pleasurable succinct is a deadly combination. Although it was mostly rehashing of the Oxford speech, that takes little away from his oratory or the ability to get the audience going. No wonder, he was the part of panel for closing debate moderated by Barkha Dutt.

Tharoor at JLF

Reading List: An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India

6. Luke Harding is a journalist at The Guardian, who was contacted by Edward Snowden. He had the unenviable opportunity to sift through the cryptic, intricate documents from NSA sent by Snowden and received multiple threats from intelligence agencies in USA and UK alike. In his talk, he repeated what we have been hearing about how nothing we do on Internet is private. But perhaps it was listening to his own story of being spied upon in Russia or the fact that it was a real person talking about it in front of you live – he was able to generate that sense of creep in the public. According to him we are living in an era which has crossed Orwellian fantasies in 1984. Thankfully, he ended up on a not so glum note, giving us tips on how to stay more secure – use paper for writing important mails and switch your phones off in any important meeting. Ha! Interestingly, while Harding sympathizes with Snowden, he has a much less forgiving take on Julian Assange.

Reading List: The Snowden Files

So, that was the JLF special for me. And here are some memories

The scary ride called 2016

I possibly could not have envisioned 2016 to unfold the way it did – meandering in its complexity, perplexing me with difficult shots to call, alarming me with fears that I had been nursing but, in the end, mirroring the courage with which I have aways hit back when going gets tough. It has been the culmination of all that I have aspired to through a toiling journey inwards. Oh, and it has been hell at times. Believe me.

This entry is more for me, because face it, you don’t know me. You don’t even know yourself, do you? And if you are smiling at this statement that I have made, perhaps you know what I am talking about. Do you ask yourself what are you afraid of? Have you introspected why you made certain decisions? We don’t normally because we are not required to. Unless the pain cracks you open. The inner unhappiness becomes too loud to ignore. And once you start heeding your inner voices, they show you the mess you are carrying inside. But, as the veil lifts from this mess, you eventually get to be aware. And that awareness is enough. That is where the light starts. This light will guide you to your own golden place. It is like a secret chamber made just for you. Your chamber might look very different from mine. That peace and silence are yours to find.

Now, I can write a fluff blog describing the hundreds of travels I did (and I can show off!) and some success stories. I can boast of what an amazing year it has been. But I don’t want to. I want to share the real joy I have found which has nothing to do directly with partying on the beautiful white sand beaches in Koh, Thailand (I did that), floating on a houseboat in Kashmir (I did), seeing the night fall over Udaipur palace (yep), chanting at 5 am dawn fire in Auroville (seriously beautiful), meeting a fascinating teacher and inspiring people in the hills of Himachal (I did), going crazy in Bali (did, did), roaming around Singapore (yep), or taking a family trip back to our ancestral home in Panna. Ok yes, little enviable details do help! But in a way, all these did put me in situations which kept my inner journey on. It is less about where you are than who you are and what you see.

  • Solo trips told me that I had settled in my comfort zones and it was awkward opening my heart to strangers and experiences. I pushed and these strangers turned into lifetime friends and mentors.
  • They taught me to be comfortable in my skin, in my beliefs, not succumb to live someone else’s life. I shared my voice more fearlessly and got some articles published on leading places such as Entrepreneur, DailyO, Tribune, DNA, EduTimes etc. Frankly, I could never have imagined this a year ago.
  • I realized I had been taking things and people for granted. Some books changed my perspective and perhaps transformed me for life (esp Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC books). The joy came through reconnecting to age old friends or cousins, or even your own parents. I noticed that I started listening more, feeling more what the other person is saying and going through. A strange feeling of ‘oneness’ took over. I realized that you cannot love one person unless you love everyone. There is no special love. I find empathy to be a much better word than love these days.
  • I smile more often because I appreciate what I have. Such a horribly cliched sentence but it is what it is.
  • And I got a tattoo which read ‘no fear’ in April. The moment I saw the design, I knew it was the one. Little did I know that I was about to witness it so closely in the months to come.

Sorry, it is all too much in the surface but the fact is my experience is mine and you cannot learn from it. Just like you cannot learn swimming by watching YouTube (yep, I tried!), you cannot grow from my journey. You have to find your own. And the first step is to look inwards, know yourself and help yourself in conquering the fears you have harbored, work towards the happiness you seek and eliminate the causes of pain. Ha! How simple. I wish it was.

Now, let me see – did I fulfill any resolution from year before? I think I was wise enough to not make resolutions but I did expect that I would create some voodoo magic in my business – I did not. It grew and I got loving students and that is happier than if had I scaled crazily compromising on the experience I was creating (sour grapes?). I did not attain some unbelievable success. I am still an unknown writer and entrepreneur. But I think it’s okay. I mean I am fine with it. I feel more complete than I have ever before.

So that is what 2016 was for me. It was a fire that transformed, a bitter pill that had to be taken to come out of the coma, a splash of cold water on your face early in the morning, a point of no return.

One advice – have faith.

One lesson learned – all that matters is your growth. Anything that will keep you away from your growth will make you miserable. Find it, change it – keep growing. There is no substitute for inner growth.

Stop going nuts over social media. Marilyn Monroe died of drugs and people quote her on self-help matters. Thank you very much, I am fine on my own. Find out for yourself, everything out there is a marketing message. Read real books. Talk to real people.

As Mark Manson says, stop giving a f*** about stupid things in life. Go, live. Do.

Fog is out there. Truth is out there. Discern.

A trip to Gili T island on Bali

Gili Islands are a group of 3 islands northwest of Lombok and one of the most popular beach destinations around Bali. I had heard about it from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and my friends in Ubud. I knew I wanted to see the white sand beaches before my trip came to an end. It is a destination slightly more expensive than Ubud and it was good that we were going in a group of five people. We rented a taxi to Padang Bai from where the boat to Gili T left at 9:30am. Gili T is more of a party island and Gili Air is romantic place mostly for honeymooners. We used the boat company SindEx (for 310K IDR for round tickets, it was a great deal! Usual rates go upto 500K). It was a calm sea and sunny day, we took our places on the sunny deck. With enthusiastic local staff who kept on serving Bintangs and playing Vengaboys party songs, nice breeze and heavenly view of the shiny blue waters all around, the trip had already started on a high. This is why I would again highly recommend SindEx boats.

Sindex boat to Gili T
Sindex boat to Gili T
Happy on the boat!
Happy on the boat!

We reached Gili T island around 12:30pm and walked to Cotton Tree hotel where we had taken a 5 bed family room for 2.5M IDR for 2 days. There are no automobiles allowed on these islands, therefore you need to use the bicycle, foot or horse carriages. Dumping our stuff, we went back to the main shore side for some lunch. Needless to mention, we were drenched in sweat and starving already. The island, although the biggest among Gilis, is still quite small and can be covered in foot or bicycle.

Selfie time at the beach
Selfie time at the beach

We explored few beach areas before walking up to the West coast which is full of idyllic clean beaches and resorts. You will also find interesting spots where they have swings in middle of the sea which makes for great photo ops. After clicking some pics, we headed to Serene Sunset on Ash’s recommendation. I could not agree with her more because this little bar on the beach is like a place from Alice in Wonderland. It has cute wooden furniture, swings, hammocks, bonfire and done in a taste that makes you want to do nothing but sit and stare at the blue glory in front. It was almost sunset time and we enjoyed the view sipping the best Ginger Mojitos on the island. We went to the neighboring restaurant for dinner. The falafel plate I ordered was fab. Since the horse carriages asked too much, we decided to walk back to our room which took another 45 min or so. I decided to call it a day after nice hot shower.

Swings in the ocean on Gili T
Swings in the ocean on Gili T
Sipping Mojitos on Gili T
Sipping Mojitos on Gili T

Next day, I just wanted to laze by the beach after renting a bike. We hanged around at Horizontal beach bar on the east side and I enjoyed my Kindle and with decent wifi all around in the island, I was able to take my work calls in between as well.  Marbree enjoyed her diving and showed us the pics of turtles and cuttlefish and the amazing sea life later on. By the way, Gili beaches are great for snorkeling too and you just need to take a mask and go on your own just near the shore. Just before the sunset, I knew where I wanted to go back – the Serene Sunset bar! 🙂 So we biked back, noticing how low the tide seemed, exposing the dark green coral on the sea. I needed another Ginger Mojito watching the sun go down. I admit the scene made me very reflective and emotional. I was thinking of a lot of memories and people. But as the day began to set, I noticed how I have come a long way since the beginning of my Bali trip (which some of you might remember from this post). I was happy to witness this magic of the nature and thankful to be with people who are amazing and kind to me (do I need to mention again how amazing Ash has been throughout my journey?). I was literally happy and peaceful. There are so many ‘could have beens’ in life but I was glad to just be. And I did not have any regrets, resentment or anger, only warmth and happiness (sometimes I do wonder if that water priestess thing did work some magic on me since I have really not been feeling any residual emotions after that). I did not want to jump into the future, I just wanted to witness that beautiful sunset and I did.

Most amazing sunset at the Serene Sunset Bar at Gili T
Most amazing sunset at the Serene Sunset Bar at Gili T

We settled there itself for a dinner and guess what, Ash found a wonderful note hidden away in our table drawer. It got us chatting and soon the bar owner (Iranian Mr. _I-dont-know-the-name__) joined us and took us for a walk on the moonlit beach. His passion for the place flowed in his words and we decided to head back to the east side for parties that night. Stopping over at karaoke bar, Irish bar and Sama Sama for a reggae band performance, I retired to my room around midnight. The parties and after parties continued long into the night but I was happy to be back into the bed.

Curious note
Curious note
Lovely dinner conversations
Lovely dinner conversations
Sama Sama Reggae Bar
Sama Sama Reggae Bar

We left at noon next day and the boat ride was choppy in the beginning, so we ended up riding in the lower section of the boat itself. We made it back to Ubud by 6 p.m. We were tired but thankful. We had seen something beautiful and magical. And who can regret that? Financially, I spent around 2M IDR on the full trip which was a great deal for the things we got to experience. If you go to Bali, you do not want to miss the Gilis. And if you are there with your special someone, go off to Gili Air, watch the sun and stars, sip some wine and enjoy the feeling of love.

I have only one week left in Bali now. It has been a phenomenal trip and I am going to always cherish it.

Bali Uluwatu Road Trip

There’s something in humans that makes them want to go to the edge, see that vast soaring ocean, see the sun go up and down and stare at the nothingness. It is in this everyday cycle of nature that he realizes his own insignificance – or rather the significance of his insignificance. I have often felt the need to run to the sea water and just watch it wave up and down, uninteresting in its regularity and musical in its rhythm. The tide will go up and then it will recede. Sometimes, it will reveal the ocean floor naked and other times, it will hide the corals. It is a predictable movie that I can watch again and again.

So, I had decided to come back to Bali after my Singapore trip. We joke here at Hubud that no one can leave Ubud in a month, you got to come back. In my last few weeks, I had felt restless to touch the saline water and walk aimlessly on the shore. And with this desire in my heart, I and my never tiring flatmate, Ash decided to head off on a bike trip to Uluwatu, which means lands end + rock. Unsurprisingly, it houses one of the most beautiful cliffs formed by territory limestone resulting from subduction Indo-Australian plate under the Eurasian plate. A surfers’ paradise, Uluwatu is insanely picturesque. Now, biking in Bali is a whole interesting experience. The highways are quite similar to India but less wide. Road signs are not ample enough and we needed to stop every 15 minutes to make sure we are on the right road. Driving on a scooter, helmet is a must. We drove via Canggu (more common beach destination for tourists) and reached Uluwatu in the late afternoon. We checked in on the Bingin beach at a small place called Sticky’s. It had basic and fancier rooms with beautiful lookout terraces on the cliff. The hotel housed so many Aussies who were spending weeks there to surf. Drenched in the sweat from afternoon sun, I took a cold shower and moved to the beach. Alert: lot of rock steps on your way between parking and the beach. Travel with light luggage 🙂

Sticky's at Bingin Beach
Sticky’s at Bingin Beach
Bingin Beach
Bingin Beach

Due to the holiday of Galungan, many cafes were closed but I found a sweet birds nest kind of spot in one and it made for gorgeous view of the beach. The water was dark blue and as far as the sight went, surfers dotted the sea. However, the beach is not entirely safe due to shallow corals very close from the shore. Ash hurt herself with a sharp cut within minutes. Smoothies, drinks and corn made for our light lunch before the sun started to set. It was my first proper sunset view in Bali and was as beautiful as I wished. I sat on the beach watching it go down at its leisurely pace. The cliff, cloud and beach turned colors gradually. In the darkness, lit up the numerous ships standing far on the horizon and the lamps on the seaside shacks.

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Sunset at Bingin
Sunset at Bingin

Fresh seafood was brought out and people hungry from their surfing an swimming retired to find a table with good view. All the views in this place are good by the way. So, we sat down, chatting about the inconsequential episodes of life that tend to rattle us wildly in the moment but mean nothing more than a speck on a sprayed wall. I noticed lights in middle of the sea, someone told us that people are looking for octopuses and squids with a headlight. The light stuns them and you can shoot them with a spear kind of thing and bring it to the cafes on the beach to cook those! Gross! An okay dinner was followed by a party at Single Fin Rock Bar which is located right at the tip of the island giving a 360 degree view of the ocean. The night parties are legendary and we knew we would be coming back there again. It is a must visit in the area. Next day, we checked out from the hotel (paying 200K for a night was a fab deal in that place right on the beach) and headed to Single Fin for the lunch. I had been craving for a good cappuccino but the coffee machine was broken. The food was not great but what people come here is for the view and experience. We did enjoy looking out at the crystal blue waves hitting at the rocks, read a book for an hour before heading back to Ubud on the road.

Single Fin bar at Uluwatu
Single Fin bar at Uluwatu

Again, driving back on the scooter was not all fun but we managed it fine, having a brief stopover at Sanur beach. Frankly, as soon as the paddy fields came into the view, it felt like home is here. There is something about Ubud that is warm and motherly. I was glad to drive across the slanting sun rays on the green fields. Already longing to take a hot shower and slip into the bedsheets. It was a good trip, a major beach checked off the list. Overall I spent a little over 500K IDR on the trip. After two intense work days, I knew I was heading to Gili Islands – one of the most talked about islands in the world. More on it in the next post 🙂