Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Chamunda Devi Mandir
I was touched by all the history and the strong sense of devotion and piety of the faithful. We left the huge temple, full of pandits, to find an old man sitting outside by the gate. He pointed up the road to a tree and told us that real devotees of Kali (Chamunda) left a stone there as a gift and to remind mother of our needs. “Go there,” he told me gently. “It is called the Devi Tree.”
A few of us women walked up the hill to the tree. Sure enough the trunk was split open and inside was full of little stones. I added my stone to the pile of offerings and bowed deeply in my heart. It was then that I realized the name of this natural temple: Devi Tree. Those are the two names given to me by Gurudev.
As we are called back down to the group, several of the young men are standing together in animated conversation. I stop to listen. “What this shakti anyway?”one of them asks. They see me and turn to me for a quick answer. I tell them about the female force of the universe, that causes all action, and is the source of all power, and they become visibly discomforted.
"You mean its female?"
"Wait a minute. What about Shiva?" asks one of them.
"Oh yeah,” answers another. “I heard that Shiva contains Shakti inside himself."
"Oh, well then that explains it" says the original questioner. The rest of the men nod their heads in agreement and they walk confidently away.
Why is it so difficult for some men to acknowledge female power, including spiritual power? The very mention of the Divine as real female power brings arguments, meaningless clarifications, explaining away. What would they do if the Divine Mother appeared now in all her glory? Would they tell me it was really a man?
I remember living in Japan as a consultant to a large Japanese healing religion founded by a former military man. After the founder's death, the organization was passed on to his adopted daughter to run. The group is large, powerful, wealthy, full of the strange and beautiful rituals of Shinto mixed with Jewish scripture. The female spiritual head is charming, wields absolute authority among members, and is considered a divine aspiration in their midst. While hearing about all the male-dominant features of the Japanese culture and this religious culture in particular, I inquired about the powerful woman in charge. "Ah, well," I was gently corrected by one of the main male teachers, "while she does happen to have a female body, her soul is, of course, male."
Once, long ago, Swamiji and I were sitting drinking tea together when I brought up the topic of male and female in spirituality. He explained about the energy of pure potency--male energy--named Shiva and the energy of all action, all form, all power--female energy--called shakti. He asked for a pen and paper and when I brought them he said, "Look, here is a dead body." Saying so he wrote the Sanskrit letters for "shva" or "corpse." "You see, without the female, there is no life, no power, no divinity." Then he took the paper again and said, “When you add the female force, Shakti," saying so he added one more letter, -the letter I, symbol for Shakti to the word on the page, "even a dead corpse becomes God." And there before me was the Sanskrit word 'Shiva' written in his fine hand.
Dharamsala Mountain Hike
At 8500 feet I could go no farther. My legs will not lift themselves for another step. My heart pounds painfully; my breath comes in sputters. I tell the kind young man that I will stop here for a while, that he should go ahead to join the group. At that moment one of the guides calls to us from the path above. He is concerned about us. Are we all right? My companion tells him I will wait for the group to return. He says it is fine, but would I please wait at the regular meeting place? I agree. Mike goes on after I assure him once again that I will be fine and much prefer to wait alone. I silently bless him for all his care of me and sit on a boulder by the rocky path. I watch him disappear around the rising bend, knowing he must feel free to walk at his own pace once again.
Twenty yards ahead of me I see the roof of the tea shop and stand up to walk there. I feel fine. I am surprised. There is no queasiness, no pain, no dizziness. I walk carefully a few steps, but I feel fresh and strong and free. Within minutes I reach the shack, grandiosely called the Rama Cafe. It is a small, raised enclosure made of four big tree branches held up by piles of rocks and hung with bunches of canvas and plastic sheets. A branch over the top holds it all in place.
The cafe is empty save for a young man sitting on his haunches in the corner reading a book. We nod to each other and he asks if I am feeling all right now. Can he get me something to eat or drink? Perhaps some tea later, I tell him and ask his name.
“Desersa” he tells me with a dazzling smile.
“Are you a student?” I ask.
“Yes. I am studying how to write, and English, and Indian history. You see, I have books.”
I tell him that I will just sit quietly for a while and he nods, understanding. I pass on to the rocks beyond the cafe. There I find a kind of throne above the cafe, above the trail, made of huge black and white boulders with green grass and wild strawberry plants growing all around it. Behind me are more boulders leading to a few visible, and probably many invisible caves in the mountain. Before me the rich panorama of the Himalayan valley.
As I sit there the fog sneaks in, like spirits floating by, until the entire landscape is hidden in a thick cloud of white. I could see the cafe and about 50 feet of the path, nothing else. I watched as the last few trees were swallowed in the greyness and even the sound of the nearby waterfall was hushed. On my throne I was queen of the mountains, sitting high atop the world and loving every living thing around and beneath me. My problems fled. Could remember no pain, no fear, no anger, no worry. I simple was. It was glorious to be alone at last. I thought of the spiders again. they seem to be telling me something. But what? When I was climbing the mountains, I had to leave the path and threw up in a carpet of spider webs and when I sat down, exhausted, a spider sat beside me, another crawled on the rock wall at my eye level, another pumped on my shoe. I felt too sick to react, or was it merely that I began to see some beauty in them?
As the fog continued to roll in, I fell asleep on my little perch, wedged between the rocks. I felt like I was rocked in the arms of the Mother of the Universe, held close to her heart. I would have fallen about 15 feet if I lost my balance, but I felt perfectly safe. When I woke up, the fog was completely gone. The sun shone over the vast expanse of mountain and valley. The trees materialized again, the waterfall gurgled loudly. Up the path came four French men and their guides asking each other when they could eat. They stopped for water, deep in animated conversation, their backs to the beauty in front of them. They guzzled water, bragged about their speed in climbing, debated who had the heaviest pack, tossing their plastic bottles on the mountain side they continued their noisy way up.
Silence again. The falls grow louder and the birds begin to sing again. I hear whistling now. Desersa jumps from his cafe whistling a jaunty tune and carrying a huge, empty, plastic jug. It must hold at least five gallons. He skips down the path, takes a sharp right, and disappears down the mountain out of view. Five minutes later he reappears with the jug, full, on his shoulder. He hefts the water up to the floor of the cafe, jumps in after it and begins to make tea after collecting firewood from a nearby pile. As he worked, the fog began to tumble in again, shutting down the sounds and movement around me. I pull my scarf over my head and around my shoulders and prepare to shut down too.
I sit in the beauty around me as the fog moves in again, obliterating all. I am surprised at myself. Only a handful of people in the world know where I am. I’m sitting alone in the Himalayas and there is no fear at all. Where is the woman who never lived a day alone in her life? Where is the woman with the fear of heights? Where the woman who hates storms and fog and cold?
The fog speaks to me of illusion and of change. Who are we really? Am I a child of a certain family? Am I someone who does a particular job? A person living in a certain country? As I sit here now, along in the fog of the Himalayas, none of these things seems important to me, rather it is obvious how easy it is to shed all those names and roles. They can all change as they have so often in the past. Is my life an illusion of self-important work, a series of relationships, a citizenship of a certain place? Are they the reasons I was born? And if they change? If the reason of my life is dissolved in a Himalayan fog at 8500 feet, then who am I? What am I doing here? Why?
The Dalai Lama says he believes the purpose of life is to be happy. But that is too small for me, too apparently selfish. There must be another reason why I came to earth, meet certain people, learn particular skills, and have such a deep, hunger, such a thorough yearning for something beyond what I know.
The little black bird perches on a nearby rock and chirps at me, bobbing its tail up and down, up and down. It tilts its head, this way, that way, jumping closer and closer. Finally it sits right in front of me, singing a high-pitched, sweet, sweet song. My mind soars with each note, out of the route of thinking, of planning, of questioning, of judging. I am alone in the mountains, floating on the notes of a small black bird, and I am perfectly happy.
The cafe man came out of the hut with a pad of paper and a pen. Oh! a writer, I think. We both sat writing, I with my little papers carried up from Dharamshala in my pocket, he in his red sweater, sitting against the precipice, tapping his chin with his bright red pen, grimacing in confusion and laughing when he finds what he wants to say. I took his picture and he asked if he could take mine. I climb down from my perch and ask him to make me some tea. He is pleased to do so and confused when I tell him I would like to buy a cup for him as well. “That is wonderful! No one has ever done that! Where are you from?” all in one breath.
I ask about his life. He walks up the mountain path each morning at 7 AM from Dharamshala carrying what he needs for the day. Sometimes he stays, but usually it is too cold. He works only at certain parts of the year because in January, February, and March, there is much snow here so no one can climb and in July, August, and September the monsoons also prevent climbers. I am astounded at his energy, his simple beauty. He shows me his books, this son of the mountain, and proudly displays his careful writing, Hindi letters lined up neatly in a schoolboy’s copy book.
Jwaladevi Temple, Jwalanmuki
The city is still quiet, clear and sunny as we drive away down the mountain roads the traffic becomes heavy. Hindus and yogis and Sikhs by the thousands are going to the temple, this 9th day of Navaratri. We pass busses packed with pilgrims and one bus filled with a huge black cow in the aisle, dozens of pilgrims riding on the roof.
We leave our bus and proceed on foot past shop after shop of goods: stalls of food, toys, shoes, clothes, pots and pans, statues of the deities, incense, sweets, breads being fried, huge pans of milk being boiled, vegetables weighed, rice cooked, bread dough kneaded. There are stalls of electronic goods next to stalls selling bags of sweet offerings for the temple. Children’s balloons, dolls, whirligigs dance on sticks; tinsel-edged flags for spiritual souvenirs, embroidered cloth, gold-edged saris, piles of powers in every color in large silver trays, paintings of the Hindu gods and goddesses, men and women making gargantuan woks of halvah studded with raisins and nuts and coconut, breads of every size and shape baking on red hot coals, or in portable ovens, slipped sizzling into hot oil. The streets are electric with excitement packed with people who seemed to have walked out of a paint box. Gold-edged saris in hot pink, purple, green; sadhus in ochre robes; Sikhs in turbans of bright blue, red, orange, black; children in their holiday best starched and ironed and combed; widows in white saris, brides in red; groups of men and women in bright yellow garb with red hand prints on their backs; one frightening man dressed all in black with black painted face and long red tongue hanging out clasping cardboard weapons representing the Goddess Kali. All the world seemed to have converged on Jwalanmuki.
It is hot, very hot. Pandit Rajmani leads us to a shop where we buy prasad to offer in the temple. Indian police, in quickly-soaking uniforms line us up two by two in the center of the street, blocks away from the temple. The line reaches so far and is moving so slowly that I doubt ever reaching the temple. We are told the crowds have been lined up since daybreak. The police are keeping strict order. The pandit tells us to remove our shoes here rather than by the temple so we can find them after worshipping at the temple. I cannot believe my ears. Here? On the street? Where the cows and goats and dogs and children relieve themselves? Where food is dropped, the garbage dumped, the smokers spit? Yes, here and quickly, quickly! So we shed our sandals and Reeboks into the helper’s waiting hands and watch them thrown under a bench on the sweetshop floor.
We inch along in the intense heat, holding our little packages of offerings for the Divine Mother: puffed lotus seeds, round slices of coconut, plumb brown dates. We will give the package to the priest who will offer it in the inner shrine, touching it to the image, and return some to us. Someone asks the pandit’s wife about her package of sweet, which has ants crawling in it. “Oh, that’s nothing,” she says to brush away concern, “the Goddess loves the ants too.” My partner and I both raise our eyebrows to each other but say nothing.
Earlier that morning I myself received an offering. Up at 4 AM with a burning throat, I wrapped my meditation shawl around me and tiptoed down the staircase into the hotel dining room in search of salt. Back in my room I gargled with saltwater, dressed, and came back down to return the salt to the table. The early morning was soft, dark, moist, full of the smell of flowers. I sat down to pray on a little seat in a corner of the lobby. No one was about; all was quiet, expectant. After some time in meditation, I felt a presence near me and opened my eyes. Our Indian tour guide, dressed for his morning prayer, was stooping over me to drop a beautiful red rose in my lap. “Devi” he whispered, “Divine Mother, please accept my offering on this holy, auspicious day.” He bowed deeply, turned, and quickly walked away, leaving me wondering, breathing in the fragrance of the fully-opened, lush flower resting in my lap.
Now in the line of pilgrims in the pulsing city, we watch as people return from the temple, excited, happy, their hands clutching their sweet gifts from the deity, their foreheads marked with red powder by the priests. One tall, thin man, garbed only in a gray loincloth, is making his way up the street to the temple by prostrating fully, face and body in the dirt of the street, then rising, taking one large step, and prostrating in the dust again.
On our right I see two women make their way down the street. The first is dressed in bright red cloth, her dark hair standing out in wild waves around her head, her eyes are blazing, her arms, hands, fingers moving in unusual rhythms. Power flows from her tangibly. Behind her a smaller woman dressed completely in violet, is struggling to keep up with the speed and determination of the other. As the two move past the line of pilgrims, I look into the eyes of the lady in red. They are dark, wild, yet full of light and power. Mentally I bow my head to her, acknowledging the divine feminine so evident in her. Suddenly she veers off her route and turns to rush towards me. She stops and looks deep into my eyes for a long minute, her arms moving, her breath deep and fast. The air is electric around her. Then she bows her head to me and quickly continues her route, followed by her attendant shielding her mistress from all harm.
Next to me, Brian is full of excitement. He is all questions. “Why did she bow to you?” “Why did she come here?” he demands. “She seemed to recognize you. Do you know her?” “Who was that woman?”
“Did you see the great yogini?” shouts the Pandit rushing by on another errand. “She manifests the Divine Mother today, full of power, full of grace. She was near here, dressed all in red with her student in purple. Did any of you see her? Where is she? I want to see her.”
I wonder at my blessing and Brian moves a step closer to me and the questions continue: “Why did she recognize you?” he whispers, “Why?” “Why?” But I had no answer.
After more than an hour in line, we enter the temple area, dedicated to the Goddess Jwala, there is “not even room for a mustard seed,” as the Pandit said. The image of the Divine was covered in fine silks and garlands of flowers so it was difficult to see her very clearly. We bowed and asked a blessing and were given prasad as the priests accepted our offerings. In the dark cave, we found the sacred flames quite clearly burning. They were about two inches tall and burned with a blue-white color. The cave was very hot, and it seemed as if flames were everywhere. We were told that there are six other places that have the eternal flames also.
Dalai Lama and the Buddhist Temple
After breakfast, Doris, Mike and I go next door to the Himalayan Queen to inquire about the telephone. We take turns calling our respective homes. Doris checks on her dogs and the safety of her house; Mike is pleased to reach his wife; I talk to Justin on his birthday and send him wishes from the mountains.
Afterwards, we spent 30 minutes trying to pay for the calls. Mine is easy; I have the exact number of rupees. Doris only needed to make change, but it seemed to be a major feat as the proprietor runs next door for the appropriate coinage. But Mike, realizing his call to South America would be costly, had gone to the bank yesterday and had a huge wad of bills. In typical Indian fashion, they were held in a half-inch pile by two heavy metal staples. Mike worked for five minutes to free the staples to no avail. The Indian clerk asked to assist and the wad of bills is passed over to him. He gently tugged at the staple, he tried pulling a single bill out without tearing it, he tried prying the metal up with the edge of his ball point. "Just wait, please sir" he asked and handing back the bills, ran out the front door. Each of us tried to wedge open the heavy staple during his absence, but it was a fruitless struggle. After some time the telephone proprietor returned with a screwdriver in hand. He took the pile of rupees and began to carefully insert the tip of the screwdriver under the metal staple. But he did not have the strength to move the metal. Another Indian, watching from the doorway, came over to offer his help. He, too, could not budge the staple. Both worked together next, one held the bills down, one pried the staple. The edges of the staple were raised slightly, enough so that a bill or two could be manipulated out with only slight damage. While one man attempted to smooth out the mangled bill, the other worked at getting the staple edges raised a little more. Of course he hurt his hand with the screwdriver, of course this stopped the procedure while the stack of money was passed around for someone else to try. Michael could stand it no longer. His annoyance was all the strength necessary at this point to raise the edges of the staple and pry off the bills, two by two, from the stack.
Seeing him work, I knew why all the Indian bills I had been given had two holes in them, about an inch from the edge. "Excuse me sir," I asked of the proprietor, "why does the bank staple the bills like that?"
"Why madame," he answered, surprised that I would ask such a stupid question, "without them someone would steal some bills and the stack would not have the right count!"
"But the money was counted at the bank and handed right to the cashier. Do you think someone in the bank would steal it while it was carried between the safe and the customer?"
The man looked at me as if I were a simpleton. Where has this woman been living, on Mars? He smiled at me, pity in his eyes. "Good morning, Madame." he said. "Enjoy your stay with us."
We climbed up to the Buddhist temple to join the special celebration. At the top we found that we arrived just twenty minutes after the Dalai Lama left. Had I not telephoned, I would have seen him. But for me calling Justin on his birthday was as important as darshan from this great leader of Tibet. Isn't this his message of compassion? As the large temple emptied around us, the candles were extinguished, the monks shuffled off to other duties, the sun rose majestically, turning the entire mountain into a golden painting. Doris and I continued down the road along the back side of the official residence. There we found a smaller temple, beautiful white, decorated with tall prayer flags flapping merrily in the breeze. I made a spot for myself on a short wall near the temple and sat to do some japa. Dozens of small birds were wild with joy, the crows complained loudly, the bells of the 108 prayer wheels changed one by one as a few old women walked by spinning their prayers. I sat in the midst of this busy world and watched. Cows grazed on the slope a few yards above the temple, babies played with their moms on the path. Below a new residence was rising, brick by brick, while women in saris carried the hobs of cement to the men who laid the bricks. Three old men, their clothes grey with dust, sat down next to me, chatting the patient talk of the elderly, their prayer beads slipping through their fingers as they spoke. Two young monks walk by in their purple robes, their shaven heads, their Adidas shoes. Seven Tibetan women in their beautiful long jumpers and aprons walked by turning the painted prayer wheels. All of them smile at me, nodding "good morning," I am touched by their beauty, their peace, their incredible smiles. Who knows what they believe as they look up to the temple image. Do they realize they have a Buddha nature or do they pray to the Buddha for family and crops and health as Westerners pray to God? They bow before the Dalai Lama as Westerners kiss the ring of the Pope or stand in line to see Billy Graham. With the daily life of the Indians and Tibetans unfolding before me, I think it is good to recognize the holy, the divine in spiritual leaders. It is infinitely better, however, to recognize it in each other, and in ourselves.
I had been looking for one of my authors, the Buddhist nun Tenzin Dechen, but I cannot find her. I was stunned to learn that the nuns have no convent there; they are not taken care of like the Buddhist male monks. The women must rent rooms in the town with money they earn or receive from relatives or friends. Tenzin has told me that she flies home each year to work at a publishing house for six months in order to earn enough money to spend another year in study in Dharamshala. I wanted to complain, but to whom?
The next morning we leave Dharamshala to continue our pilgrimage. But first we ask to return to the temple for puja. This will be a special morning, we are told, an auspicious ceremony presided over by the Dalai Lama. We walk up the steep road to the sound of Tibetan horns, like cows lowing over the hills, and find the temple grounds already full of praying monks and laity. Here and there a Westerner sits deep in thought. Brian, Michael, Doris, Ralph and I find a place on the marble walkway just outside the main prayer hall, by the huge open panels, and directly in front of the main altar. An old monk pushes his companion over and beckons me to come forward to his row. So Ralph and I squeeze in, nodding our thanks to the toothless old man smiling at us. I find myself centered directly before the Dalai Lama's throne with rows and rows of swaying monks chanting between that place and myself. I take in the bright yellow walls, hung with rich painted and embroidered thangkas, the huge doll-like face of the Buddha in a chorus of candles looking down on a sea of monks in marron and yellow-gold robes.
Suddenly horns begin to blare and a huge brass gong is banged, announcing the arrival of the spiritual head of Tibet. Two yards away from us a small procession winds its way quickly up the steps. First come soldiers carrying Uzi machine guns, looking right and left as they walk with guns at the ready. Next is a group of monks wearing multicolored brocade capes and the unmistakable yellow hats. They are blowing long horns, wailing their sounds as if in agony. In the center of the monks walks the Dalai Lama, head down, papers in his hand, shoes too big for him, turned up at the tips, shoulders seemingly bowed under the weight of responsibility. Right next to us he stops, adjusts his glasses, looks up, and smiles and nods at all of us welcoming his arrival.
Another gong reverberates loudly as the Dalai Lama enters the main prayer hall. Everyone stands as he enters, and the monks all don their big, strange hats for the occasion. Bright yellow hats on all the monks sitting in the center of the hall, rich red hats on those down the sides. The chanting begins again as the Dalai Lama takes his seat on the throne and begins swaying side to side. Soon we are all caught up in the rhythm of the chant. The deep voices wash over me like waves on the seashore. I listen. My body also begins a little sway as all the monks around me chant, and sway, and turn the pages of their little books. The old monk next to me taps my knee and offers me a chant book, but I smile my refusal. knowing I could not read the words. After some time I notice that the monks around us are now pulling little crumbled plastic bags out of the folds of their garments. They look around expectantly and poke each other as they spot the young monks walking down the aisles carrying large tin buckets with wooden ladles. Soon one of the buckets is next to me and the monk is reaching for the little blue plastic bags and filling them with rice. I help to pass the portions of rice back to the monks and nuns around me until all are holding their breakfast. The serving monk raises the next full ladle for me, but I show him that I have no plastic bag, so he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a saucer-sized square of newspaper, mounding the rice into it and offering it to me. Life seems so beautiful at that moment—the chanting continuing, quieter than before, the old ones around me munching on little piles of rice in their hands, the generosity of the temple to feed all those who come as guests along with all the monks, the feeling of love and respect and universal connection to each other as to the divine.
My own little pile of rice was the best I have ever eaten. It is slippery with butter, peppered with raisins and nuts and cinnamon. Just as I was on my last bite, the server was back tapping my shoulder. This time he had a huge blue pot of tea and the monks were now passing their mugs to me. I gathered them one by one, held them to be filled and then passed them back along the line, watching as each was carefully moved hand to hand until it reached the smiling face of the one who claimed it. My heart jerked inside as I noted the little mugs, some cracked pottery, some small porcelain cups, some white enamel, chipped in spots down to the metal. The serving monk pulls out a tiny earthen cup from his pocket for me and pours out some tea for me, then moving down to the steps below us. The tea is hot, oily, smelling of rancid butter and smoke. But it is surprisingly invigorating. Meanwhile the chanting is going on in the main hall, and amongst those not munching rice or sipping tea. I look up to the see the Dalai Lama leaning down from his throne, motioning to a monk off to the side. As the monk comes before him, bowing, the Lama points to a monk in one of the front rows and uses the international eating symbol to say that somehow that monk got nothing to eat. It is quickly rectified and only then does the Dalai Lama smiles and resumes his prayer. I am touched by his humanity even in the midst of the important spiritual ceremony.
All too soon it is time for us to leave. We tiptoe out backwards, trying not to disturb the devotion of the mass of people around us and make the walk back to our hotel. I pass a man carrying an old-fashioned, heavy sewing machine, sweating profusely with the weight, but stopping to smile and nod to us. We manage to step over all the broken concrete, avoid the muddy puddles, the dogs, the garbage, and make our way back to the hotel. Twenty minutes of pure confusion as luggage is packed, filming equipment stashed, box lunches run up from the kitchen, hugs given, goodbyes shouted, the huge bus turned around in the narrow road. We make our noisy way through the streets, as the proprietors are just opening their shops, setting up the rickety tables of wares for sale. We slowly leave the town and pick up speed on the highway, as Doris says with finality, "So! That was Dharamshala. Incredible."