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The contours of faith at Ajmer Sharif #GirlyRoadTrip Day 2

On the stretch from Udaipur to Ajmer, I had the pleasure of getting off of NH8 onto NH79, an equally good highway that passes by Chittorgarh and Bhilwara through some really pretty countryside. Again hilly and dotted with spectacular water bodies, I really enjoyed the drive. At one point where the scenery got particularly enjoyable, we stopped and took a break, breathing in the fresh air and reveling in the wonderful freedom of being out on the road._DSC5416


There is a certain spirituality in beautiful landscapes and this hit me at this spot!

At this magical place, we decided to finally bring into action the camera and its little tripod! Timer zindabad!

At this magical place, we decided to finally bring into action the camera and its little tripod! Timer zindabad!

At Ajmer, we stopped very briefly at our homestay. Badnor House is quite a neat little property, well located and convenient. Pretty too!

_DSC5425IMG_5460IMG_2824We headed for the Dargah Sharif the same evening. It just didn’t seem right to come to the city and not go. And it was quite the experience. Our host Sanjay set us up with Furkan bhai, a tall strapping gentleman who is a khadim (equivalent of a priest). Furkan bhai would take us through the dargah with businesslike gentleness. You cannot take cameras in, or the pictures would have spoken of the atmosphere of utter faith inside this famous Sufi shrine, the final resting place of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, who established the Chisti order in the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century. The Chisti order would go on to become one of the most important religious movements in the northern part of the subcontinent and the dargahs of his descendants like Salim Chisti and Nizamuddin Aulia are also living shrines in Fatehpur Sikri and Delhi, very much revered.

I’m not very religious, but I’ve come to believe religion and faith are perhaps two different things. At the Ajmer Sharif, I went in with little expectations, mostly curiosity. We entered through the magnificent, ornate main gate, past the hauz (water tank) called Victoria Tank that was dedicated to the shrine by Queen Mary, and past hundreds of devotees into a courtyard milling with people and the enchanting sounds of a sufi qawwali. Furkan bhai took the three of us into the sanctum and ushered us close to the enclosure, putting a green chadar (sheet) over us as he murmured the ritualistic passing of our wishes to the saint. Without explanation, I found myself weeping, uncontrollably. Rachna put her arms around me, Nupur sidled closer. All three of us were crying, in various degree. Next to us, pilgrims from Pakistan were also offering their prayers.

It was a defining, irrational, moving moment, after which I felt visibly relaxed. We made a cash donation to the shrine, we walked around, we tied a string around a jaali to make a wish, we saw the enormous cauldron in which something yummy was cooking away, we walked past many Mughal monuments built by Jehangir, Shahjahan, Akbar, others. And then we walked out, back into the street in a bit of a daze. Back to the real world, we went into a giggly, selfie-taking mode, then found a simple and delicious dal-roti meal at a local eatery before finding a ride back to our homestay.

Heading to the Dargah Sharif

Heading to the Dargah Sharif

The Buland Darwaza, main gate to the Dargah

The Buland Darwaza, main gate to the Dargah

The magnificent dome. This pic was sent later to me by our khadim

The magnificent dome. This pic was sent later to me by our khadim

Tired, relieved, mad- the selfie spree

Tired, relieved, mad- the selfie spree


Dancing kathak on stage: Why this has been my biggest high in years!

I am slowly beginning to realize just how traumatic urban living is getting to be. Oh, we would not give up this life easily, those of us who have lived in a city for long. We value our ‘freedom’ just as we bemoan the lack of safety. We love the anonymity, but worry about loneliness. We wonder how long the water will last, just after we’ve taken that refreshing shower!

I am certainly very much the strange urban creature, a powerhouse of contrast and confusion. I notice that we all find our own survival strategies to endure the strange confused nature of our city lives. Social networks have certainly begun to close some gaps for those of us who find it hard to have the energy to keep up with a ‘real’ social life; or we combine the two in some way to remain afloat on the tide of anonymous humanity that surrounds us. But this wasn’t enough for me and I found myself turning towards cultural stimulation to fulfill some of the void inside.

I took up kathak a year and a half ago and entered the world of the classical arts, slowly slipping into it and letting it seep into me. Soon after, I resumed training in Hindustani classical vocal music. My life- work, family, home, friends- all the things that I think and do find anchor in these two weekend time slots-one for dance and another for music.

The weekend gone by, it felt like one branch of me was bearing fruit when my friend Shruti and me performed on stage at Epicentre, Gurgaon. Minutes before the show, standing in the wings, I found myself calm and eager, and completely satisfied. A short while earlier, I had spontaneously touched my guruji’s feet, probably surprising her a bit, but really needing her to put her faith in me. I think the transfer of energy worked some little magic. I told myself that a few months of intense riyaaz and real desire to do well should be enough. And it was!

Shruti and me taking a pose as the alaap starts... photo credit: Nupur

Shruti and me taking a pose as the alaap starts… photo credit: Nupur

After completing our piece, a superbly choreographed Shiv Stuti ‘Damroo har kar baaje…‘ set in Raag Gunakali, Taal Roopak, I felt a level of achievement I do not remember reaching in the past few years through my many other pursuits. This had been a hard, personal battle. A battle to re-prioritize, to push myself, a test of self-confidence, a desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a classical dancer….all of that!

Of course, the credit goes largely to our guru Jayashree Acharya, for reposing her faith in us. For not questioning us, but simply taking our decisions for us at a time when we did not know what our own capabilities were. To offer us the experience of preparing a stage-ready dance piece, to learn to dance to live music of high caliber (Shiv Shankar Ray on the tabla, vocals by Anirban Bhattacharya and Pritam Ghoshal on the Sarod), to learn to focus, take criticism and be graceful about it. To be a student of an able guru, a hugely valuable experience. I have written about this before (on my experiences as a student, and as an observer), but in the past year and a half I have been gladly re-acquainted with the best aspects of the guru-shishya parampara, where the relationship between teacher and disciple is a continuously evolving one, bringing in aspects of spirituality, respect, devotion and commitment and moving beyond mere instruction and obedience.

This sort of training has a lot to do with why I feel a greater sense of satisfaction after this performance as compared to the many times I danced on stage through the past few years, as a student with Shiamak Davar’s group. That also involved practise and dedication, a lot of technical training too. But this involved a spiritual awakening that only the classical arts can invoke. It’s something I will remember all my life. Of course, there is much more to learn and it is an endless journey, but I’m grateful and proud to be able to be in this place, at this time…..

Shiv and Pravati pose

Shiv and Parvati pose

In motion...

In motion..

Shiv ki aradhana...

Shiv ki aradhana…

Really enjoying this bit...Shruti and me

Really enjoying this bit…Shruti and me

Scary cable car, awesome views and finding peace: More glimpses of the Punjab trip- Oct 4, 2012

I promise. This will be the last of my Punjab posts, unless I visit again! That said, I write today about devotion, the pursuit of God and the experience of peace within a shrine. What you consider your devotion and your shrine is a very personal thing.

Personally, religious tourism has never excited me. And so, when locals mentioned that the Naina Devi temple is a must visit while returning from the Bhakra Dam, I wasn’t quite sure if expressing negative sentiments would ruffle feathers. I was curious about the cable car ride up to the temple though. And that turned out to be quite an experience. The rickety, locally fabricated cars painted in garish colors inspired no confidence at all. And when we saw a guy pour fuel into the motor using a severed bottle of Bisleri as a funnel, we really did not know whether to laugh or cry as we climbed in to the cars for the ride up. Fortunately for us, the fantastic views of the simply enormous and breathtaking Gobind Sagar Lake distracted us from being nervous; after all, all’s well that ends well and I am here to tell the tale!

Tacky cars for a cable car…no, thank you..and still we all trooped in!

Yes, he did pour the fuel in like that!

Layers of peaks….

The lake peeked at us here, there and everywhere from behind the peaks

The shrine was nothing spectacular, but there weren’t too many people and the visit was pleasant enough. I found a bunch of raggedy kids playing with cons outside the temple. Or rather, they found me. As I put my shoes back on, they pestered me for money. We ended up cracking jokes and I got a few good shots of them in the process!

This vacation turned out to be quite a pilgrimage, for the next on our itinerary was the Keshgarh Gurudwara at Anandpur Sahib. It’s pristine whiteness, pleasing proportions and sense of queit discipline, a submission to higher powers so to speak, made this a spiritual experience, even for someone like me who confesses to not having much of a spirit! Three aspects set gurudwaras apart for me, making them my favorite places of worship. The first is the divine sounds of the raagis singing the gurbaani, in perfect tune, with voices that sear through me and bring tears of joy to my eyes. Really. The second is the truly equal treatment of everyone, rich or poor, man or woman, adult or child, whoever. The third, of course , is the Karah prasad! We caught a spectacular sunset that made this visit extra memorable.

Entering peace zone

I could learn some discipline and restfulness from these children!

Sunset over the Doab

Our trip was nearly over. We had seen the sights and lived the holiday. I brought back with me the sound of our singing the classic old Hindi film melodies as the breeze blew our hair, the astonishing variety of green we saw outside the window, the rippling flow of zillion little streams and brooks that flow down from the Shivaliks, the simple wholesome food and open-hearted people of Punjab- a memorable three days indeed.

Do you really feel as good as you feel? Feb 5, 2012

Today’s blog is following up on yesterday’s post about salons and looking good and after reading Nupur’s comment about how salons are about making us feel good, much beyond the looks……I would go as far as saying that the popularity of parlors, gadgets, retail therapy and a zillion other status-related things we crave for in modern, especially urban (but not strictly so) societies have a lot to do with our shrinking confidence in ourselves as people.

Looking around, I suspect we all seek confirmation in our success from external sources and hence the dramatic increase in material consumption, but also consumption of another kind–the spiritual. Whether stress therapy, spirituality, religion or a pursuit of mentors and gurus, more of us are attracted to the idea of being guided by forces we perceive as beyond us and more powerful than us.

Is it because we don’t want to ask ourselves the tough questions and worse, not take decisions for ourselves?

Do we really need to be in the rat race, or do we need the rat race so we have parameters by which we can compare ourselves with others? Isn’t it comparison that offers us a basis for considering ourselves better, improved, more successful? And if so, what when we find ourselves lacking? We perceive that as failure and go into a cycle of guilt and low-esteem. Which brings us back to the point of seeking easy solutions to break out of that cycle all over again!

I’m as much a victim of this repetitive cycle as anyone else. And I must confess that as long as life is good and the status quo acceptable, I do not feel a particular desire to break this cycle. When the chips are down though, the doubts return…..and I do know the tough questions need to be asked!

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