Words Ginou Choueiry
If five years ago someone had asked me whether I would be interested in traveling to India, I would have immediately said no. The image that sprang to my mind was one of crowded, polluted cities filled with begging children, rats mingling around people’s feet, and dead bodies floating in the river. I wasn’t entirely mistaken, but at the time I had no idea that India also held many secrets of invaluable wisdom that I would one day discover.
Fast-forwarding a few years…India started popping frequently into my mind. I was subject to countless stories from fellow travelers who had gone to the spiritual Mecca and came back transformed. Being a perpetual seeker, I was intrigued by what piece of the puzzle in my endless quest I would discover if I stepped into the land of chai and Shiva. It was time for me to find out.
My first encounter with the spirit of India was at the Indian Embassy in Lebanon. Unlike many other embassies- where the personnel seem to thrive with sadistic pleasure on their power to deny your visa the people behind the desk at the Indian Embassy were humble and greeted me with welcoming eyes. Enthusiastically, they ask me what was taking me to their country. Curiosity, I answered. Their smiles confirmed that this was a good enough answer.
My first stop in India was Goa, as I knew some friends who were already there. My plane landed at dawn. I was greeted by the tropical landscape as it opened its eyes to the first rays of morning light. The taxi ride was a delight as the sun played hide-and-seek behind the low-story houses. I watched as it flirtatiously changed hues, going from red to orange to yellow, while the morning slowly rose to its feet. The view from the car window was like watching a film in fast-forward motion. Rapid images of women in colorful saris with baskets on their heads, grazing cows, and workers in spice plantations passed me by. I felt a stir of anticipation towards the adventure that lay ahead.
As I got closer to Arambol, my destination in the north of Goa, successive signs of hotels and restaurants filled the side of the roads. The taxi dropped me off at my friend Leila’s place. She had rented a small apartment, a ten-minute walk from the beach. The town was still asleep. It was Sunday morning and people were probably still recuperating from their Saturday night out.
Goa was once an off-the map hippie haven. In the 1960s, musicians, travelers, seekers, and bohemians converged on this tropical, white sandy beach paradise that smelled of freedom. It was there that the Goa Psychedelic Trance dance subculture was born. Goa became famous for its all night dance raves, and today, while it is still a destination for laid-back travelers, the place has become a popular tourist destination harboring everyone from local Indian families on holiday to international college students who want to experience Goa’s psychedelic scene. The beaches were no longer untouched, with lounge chairs scrawled across the shoreline. However one ritual that celebrated the essence of Goa’s culture still survived: Every sunset, a drum circle would form where people would gather to dance throughout the night.
My friend Leila had spoken to me about her singing lessons with a Kazakhstani woman called Hanza who lived in Arambol part of the year. Within the first two days of my arrival, Hanza showed up at our doorstep. Hanza was a trained opera singer who was also a shaman. I told her that I was interested in taking singing classes with her. She looked at me with piercing eyes and in her strong accent, she said that she could help me. What I did not know at the time was that Hanza was about to guide me on a journey of deep personal healing.
The next day, I headed over to her place across town. She was sitting by her electric piano, which was against the wall in the small narrow room that served as her studio, kitchen, and bedroom. She was wearing a pink, strapless cotton dress that showed off her smooth, plump arms. A yellow flower protruded from her long black hair. She smiled at me and asked that I sit next to her. We went through classical singing exercises on the piano, which lasted for around 20 minutes. Then she directed me to sit on the floor, on a straw mat next to her bed as she faced me. She guided me through a series of repetitive breathing exercises, telling me to keep looking into her eyes, as we swayed and breathed in synchronized back and forth motion. Sporadically, without taking her eyes off mine, she would share something she sensed pertaining to my life, and her intuition was spot on. I allowed myself to surrender further to this hypnotic state, my initial discomfort towards this intimate experience slowly fading away. I would return to see Hanza three times a week for a total of three weeks, where I underwent her powerful energetic healing sessions, which she later revealed stemmed from esoteric tantric practices. Every time I stepped out of her dark room into the Indian sun, I emerged feeling lighter, as if a load was taken off my shoulders.
I had heard about a Sadhu who lived up in the forest, under a banyan tree. A Sadhu is a holy man who renounces all material comfort in exchange for spiritual liberation. Apparently, we were allowed to go and visit him, so my friend and I decided to head there. We asked a few locals along the way who guided us immediately in the right direction. We walked to the end of the beach and followed a narrow path up into the forest. We soon realized that we were not the only ones on this mission. There were numerous other tourists in front of us and behind us on the dirt path. At one point I could see the banyan tree standing majestically in the distance. It stood out because of its size and unique trunk of crawling intertwined roots. Banyans are revered as sacred trees in India. Shrines and offerings are almost always found at the base of their massive trunks, as are Sadhus, also known to grow dreadlocks, as they resemble the twisted and knotted branches of this sacred tree.
Once we reached the tree, I saw the Sadhu sitting underneath. There were about fifteen people, mostly foreigners, gathered around him in a circle. A few people were standing in the back taking pictures. People were sitting there silently, staring at him, some with veneration others with curiosity. A few were meditating. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. There was a lady in a shiny pink overall cat suit that covered her entire body from head to toe. Beads of sweat dripped down her face, her red lipstick on the verge of meltdown. She held her hands in prayer, looking at the Sadhu with imploring eyes filled with tears. The Sadhu looked bored, not paying much attention to the crowd around him, as if he was so accustomed to curious eyes watching that he forgot that they were even there. He had a few helpers, young travelers, who were preparing a meal on a fire in a corner. Boxes of food, tea, candles, and cigarettes were stacked behind him. It felt like we were in a zoo waiting for an animal to perform a trick. After twenty minutes of this awkward scene, I was ready to leave.
I had heard of people sitting in the presence of an enlightened being and feeling something special in their presence. I definitely didn’t get that feeling here, although I was not sure what to expect in such a situation anyway. Maybe my skeptical mind required solid proof, like a halo hovering the person’s head, or maybe my intuition was just telling me that there was something odd about this situation.
On our way back down the path, a voice shouted from the forest. I could make out a man with white hair and beard sitting under a tree. He gestured for us to join him. After a moment’s hesitation, curiosity got the best of us, and we headed his way. He asked us what we were doing and we told him about our recent visit. “How was it?” he asked. “Strange…” I replied. He beamed, nodding his head.
“Let me tell you something.” He kept us waiting in suspense as he rolled a joint filled with hash “That banyan tree… it was my home. I am the real Sadhu!” He lit his joint, took a long puff, holding his breath in, and then released the smoke that formed a big cloud over our heads before dissipating into the humid air. He continued, “I lived under that tree for many years! This man up there is a fake. He is no Sadhu! He threw me out and took my place. Now he is getting money from tourists.” He proceeded to show us his business card which had his name and underneath a title which read, “The Real Sadhu from the Banyan Tree”.
He also said that he gave massages and would be happy to give us one. Although I didn’t trust this guy as a Sadhu or massage therapist, he certainly added more layers to the “The Sadhu of the Banyan Tree” enigma.
My next stop was the holy city of Rishikesh that lay at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, alongside the sacred river Ganga. People from all over India converge to the Ganga to pray, bathe, heal and, and ultimately, to burn their dead.
Walking around the narrow streets of Rishikesh, alongside the hustle and bustle of local daily life, one can expect to encounter strolling cows blocking traffic, sneaky monkeys waiting for the opportune moment to snatch a meal from a distracted fruit vendor, and Sadhus (real ones) in deep meditation. It is a place where the sacred and mundane blend into India’s paradoxical, harmonious chaos.
I arrived at the ashram where I had signed up for a month-long yoga training. It was my first time in an ashram, which is similar to a monastery, where one can go to learn about spirituality and practice meditation. Rishi Kumars, young priests in orange gowns, were hurrying about their business. Statues of Indian gods stood out in bright colors against the lush green gardens. Monkeys were playfully swaying on trees.
Every evening a crowd gathered by the Ganga to take part in a fire ceremony known as Aarti. The young priests would lead the ritual, offering flowers, rice, and incense to the fire while reciting mantras. The crowd gathered in prayer and song alongside the water lit up with flowers and candles. I looked around moved by the feeling of love and peace that emanated from this scene.
My days at the ashram started at sunrise, with morning meditation by the Ganga. The rest of the day was a continuous immersion into sound yoga and meditation. The effect of this practice was immensely impactful. I was drinking straight from the nectar of life, which filled me with deep inner bliss. I also felt the lenses of my perception being wiped cleaner every day. Suddenly everything around me seemed brighter and more alive. I realized that I was also free of the inner nagging dialogues that for years had set up camp in my mental landscape. At the end of the course, my teacher invited me and few fellow students to join her on a pilgrimage higher into the Himalayas, where we would visit some of the most ancient temples of the Hindu gods.
As we drove up the narrow windy roads the air became cooler and the horizon grew wider. The next morning, we started our walk towards a cave that my teacher had discovered by chance while exploring the surroundings eighteen years back. It was apparently a sacred cave where the Hindu God Shiva came into being. She hadn’t been back to that cave since then. She led us on a path into the forest where we reached an old bridge that crossed a deep valley, linking two steep mountains. The bridge was missing some planks here and there and was rocking in the wind. We were not sure if it was even functional, as no one was around, but following our teacher’s steps, we courageously set across hoping it would carry us through. Once on the other side, we walked another ten minutes and reached a small, cold and damp cave. A few offerings of flowers were signs that this was the sacred cave we were seeking. We sat and fell silently into meditation.
As I learned on this trip, Shiva, one of the main gods from the Hindu pantheon, is the creator and destroyer of universes. He is consciousness itself, what everything is made of and where our souls return. Connecting to this archetypal energy helps us to connect to our true essence, where we are beyond conditioning, beyond our fears and limited thoughts.
My attraction to the Hindu gods was first aroused by the visual feast of colors and symbols they carried. I loved entering shrines filled with shiny and bright decorations. My curiosity soon extended to the stories behind these colorful and exuberant figures that were hanging out in every shop, house and street corner. Each Hindu god represents a particular attribute that is also an aspiring human trait, such as strength, wisdom, and compassion. Connecting to these gods means connecting to the higher values that we want to strengthen in ourselves.
The next stop was to the highest Shiva temple in the world that dates back over 4,000 years. As we journeyed higher into the mountains, time seemed to slow down. Disconnecting from technology and the fast paced life of our modern world brought me back to the present moment, which was filled with a soft serenity I hadn’t felt in a long time. I noticed that there was more space between my thoughts.
The walk to the temple took about four hours up the mountain. I finally reached the top, panting due to the low oxygen in the air. All fatigue washed away as soon as I took in the 360 degrees panoramic view of mountains stretching across the horizon in blue grey hues. The sound of silence dominated, only occasionally interrupted by birds and temple bells singing in the wind. I inhaled the moment and tried to retain every detail, pushing away the thought that my time in India was coming to an end.
A week later I was back in Beirut. I held on tightly to the experience of my three-month journey, but my possessive Mediterranean city quickly took over, invading all my senses without asking for permission.
There is the traveler’s tendency to romanticize foreign lands like the euphoric feeling brought on by the gaze of a new lover. India’s sensual residue filled me with longing.
In contrast, Beirut was acting like an old husband walking around the house in outgrown slippers and torn boxer shorts. It was familiar, perhaps too familiar. I knew all its moves by heart. India, on the other hand, was offering new terrains to explore. It was the getaway from the mundane to the mystical. It nourished my yearning for depth with the layers of spiritual wisdom that permeated its soil. India held the key to the invisible world, where gods and humans could mingle over masala chai, sharing tales of woes and wisdom. It is a place where peace seemed to prevail even amidst the turmoil, where people treat patience as if it were their only child. In India, everything is revered. Life itself is a prayer.
As weeks passed, the memories of my trip were receding into the distance like a faded dream. However I noticed something had changed. My perception of reality had shifted, more specifically; I no longer experienced the material and spiritual as separate realms. They were one of the same, intertwined like the branches of the banyan tree. God, universal consciousness, divine intelligence, or whatever you want to call it, dwells everywhere – from the quarks of our cells to the eternal dark matter in the universe. The divine, I could finally confirm, was even present in my morning coffee – which, I admit, I’ve always considered as one of the most sacred inventions of the universe. The point is that we are all part of this sublime, creative process. Nothing is separate. We are all interconnected parts of a larger whole. I understood this, not only conceptually but also through personal experience during deep moments of meditation. This is the truth that I discovered in India and brought back home with me.