Once I started writing these I couldn’t stop, so I’m posting a couple more here today. They’re both from my travels in India, a country guaranteed to generate amazing life moments.
Sitting on a garden bench in an ashram in Rishikesh, India that overlooks the Ganges river. It is evening, and there are still traces of sunset in the sky. From the Hindu temple across the river I hear the most beautiful singing. It’s an aarti, or song of devotion: ‘Om jai Laksmi mata…’ The sound floats across to me like golden bells in the dark.
My last week in Rishikesh. I traverse the fantastical suspension bridge that spans the Ganga, running the usual gauntlet of beggars, sleazy Indian men, and thieving monkeys. On the other side are temples with multi-coloured spires, giant statues of Hindu gods and goddesses painted in technicolour, and a main street crammed with tiny shopfronts selling cigarettes and paan, saris and bolts of cloth, sweets and samosas, and everything in between.
As evening falls I go to make my way back across the bridge. And then I hear it – the aarti that is so searingly beautiful it breaks my heart a little to hear it: Om jai Lakshmi mata…. It’s coming from a temple down on the Ganga, and as I make my way down steep stone steps I hear the voices swelling louder. I enter the temple which is just a big open pavilion facing the river. There are people everywhere, though I am the only Westerner – this is not a place where tourists habitually tread.
A group of smiling women in saris take my elbow and pull me into their midst. They never stop singing, or beaming radiantly, their expressive Indian eyes telling me I am welcome and a part of this communal celebration of God. As the chant becomes faster and more intense, I notice there is a glowing silver lamp being passed around. When the lamp approaches, every woman within reach places her hands upon it, and they make circles with the lamp while they sing. Then the lamp comes towards me and the women take my hands and place them on it with theirs.
The song is slowing now, the music has lost its plaintive edge and is reaching resolution. I look down at the bright lamp, circling in midst of so many brown hands and arms, and my own paler ones, and then up into the glowing faces of these Indian women so full of warmth and faith and love.
Jai jai Lakshmi mata
Jai jai Lakshmi mata…
The aarti ends and I go into the night, feeling empty and elated at the same time. I walk across the bridge in the dark, knowing that India has gotten its hooks into me yet again, and as usual when I least expected it. For a brief moment a magical portal into another way of being opened, just long enough for me to catch a tantalising glimpse before the door swung shut again. I’m left with the memory of a song, smiles, warm lamplight, and gratitude that such beauty can exist in the world.