In Indian culture, the extended family is usually close-knit. My cousins and I have viewed each other more along the lines of siblings than as cousins. In this manner, I have many brothers and sisters, as well as nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, from my extended family, and whom I had not seen in about six-and-a-half years, prior to embarking on my journey. This journey provided me with the opportunity to reunite with my family, to attend my cousin-sister D’s wedding, and to spend some time in some of the most amazing places that this planet has to offer a man like myself.
My journey began as many of my journeys have, in the presence of my saintly friend Venerable T. T. Dhammo; his presence seems to set my journeys off on the right foot. Venerable Dhammo dropped me off at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, where I boarded a flight for Amsterdam. On the flight, I happened to be sitting next to a man named S, who is a yoga teacher and Ayurvedic practitioner. He gave me a crash course in Ayurvedic healing and medicine on the flight to Amsterdam, and he informed me that his services normally would cost in the range of $60/ hour.
Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is one of my favourite transit locations, as it has a meditation area in the airport. So, in transition, I had a good hour-long yoga session with S which loosened me up for the subsequent flight to Delhi. I arrived in Delhi on February 5th, and upon arrival, my uncle V and cousin-brother K picked me up.
My first day in Delhi was certainly eventful. K and I began the day by receiving Ayurvedic massages. We were each treated to two practitioners simultaneously working on us, and by the end of the treatment, were absolutely covered in medicinal oil. There, too, happened to be a symposium on Building a Culture of Peace around the corner from my uncle’s place, so after our massages we attended the conference. It was a nice experience to share stories with the folks in Delhi, who are doing some amazing work to help promote a culture of peace for the children of India.
One heart-warming practice that I witnessed is the freedom of holding hands. One frequently finds two men holding hands, or two women holding hands, in a non-romantic way; this palpable gesture of affection is greatly feared in Western culture. One of my favourite activities while staying in India is drinking freshly-squeezed juice by the road side. For the equivalent of about twenty-five cents you can pick up a tall glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice or mixed fruit juice. My father since informed me that this is something I also used to enjoy doing when I visited India as a child.
On the morning of February 10th, after four full days in Delhi catching up with family, I took a four-hour train ride north to Chandigarh where my aunt lives. On the train ride, I noticed many families living in dilapidated brick shanties lining the train tracks. We in North America know nothing of abject poverty; our prison cells would have been luxurious accommodations for these people. Yet, despite their destitute living conditions, the smiles on their faces were beaming and radiant. They might well have been happy enough, just as they were.
Chandigarh is a beautiful city, with a large lake adorning the centre of the college-town. I had the opportunity to take a leisurely stroll along the lake with my aunt, and also to visit its world-famous rock garden, which is, indeed, quite fascinating. After two days in Chandigarh, on the morning of February the 12th, I departed by car for Dharamsala, the meditation capital of the world.
The name Dharamsala translates from Sanskrit to mean “the rest house”, and it is here that His Holiness (H.H.) the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community-in-exile make their home. McLeod Ganj, also known as Upper Dharamsala, or Little Lhasa, is where Namgyal Monastery, the home of His Holiness, is located. McLeod Ganj is also the hotbed for courses in meditation, yoga, Reiki, and other spiritual practices.
McLeod Ganj is a cultural cornucopia of Westerners, Tibetans, and Indians, who have all come together with the goal of furthering their spiritual attainments. It is quietly nestled in the Himalayas at about 2100 metres above sea level. The roads leading up to Dharamsala are steep, winding, and steadily ascending, with monkeys playfully lining the hillside.
I was introduced to the kindness of the Tibetan people on my first night in McLeod Ganj, when I entered a restaurant, and naively sat at a table alone; a Buddhist monk waved for me to come and sit with him and his friend. This monk’s name was K P, and he explained to me in great detail the dire straits of the Tibetan people. He recounted how, in 2005, he made the arduous journey from Tibet to India with several others.
They hiked continuously through the Himalayas for one month from Lhasa to Dharamsala, walking by night and sleeping in caves by day, lest they be captured and killed by the Chinese military patrolling the area. They ate a certain species of small plant (the name of which escapes me now) that grows in this most unfriendly of terrains. Many Tibetans die while undertaking this journey each year whether due to frostbite, starvation, or capture at the hands of the Chinese.
H. H. the Dalai Lama himself was on a journey abroad at this time – the man travels like a rock star – nonetheless, I had the pleasure of visiting Namgyal Monastery and seeing his home. At the Dalai Lama monastery and the Tibetan museum, I had the opportunity to learn further of the injustices that are currently happening in Tibet itself. Many Tibetans who have remained in their homeland, especially the monks and nuns, are regularly beaten by the Chinese police for the open practice of their religion and culture. All of human behaviour is motivated by one of two intentions, either fear or love, and it is a psychology of fear that causes one being to inflict harm upon another.
Also while in McLeod Ganj, I completed my second degree of Reiki under the tutelage of a renowned Master. I also had a chance to immerse myself in meditation, and am grateful to my friends at Dhamma Sikhara, the Vipassana Meditation Centre, for keeping the centre open for me to meditate at my leisure. I also had the honour of visiting the offices of the Tibetan Government in Exile, in Lower Dharamsala, and talking to some of the officials working there. Dharamsala is a tranquil abode that fully lives up to its name, and is absolutely the ideal place for furthering one’s spiritual practice. It is with great enthusiasm that I look forward to returning to Dharamsala.
From McLeod Ganj I took a car to Jammu, a five-hour drive away, and this is my father’s birthplace. Hence, it was of great personal significance for me to visit there. I arrived on the evening of Friday the 20th, and had the full day of Saturday the 21st to spend in Jammu. I flew back to Delhi on the following day, Sunday, the 22nd, to partake in the week-long wedding festivities of my cousin-sister D.
D moved to the United Kingdom from India about five years ago where she attended teacher’s college, and subsequently took a job as a teacher. While there she met a wonderful young man named J; their wedding was to take place on the evening of Friday, February 27th. About a dozen of J’s closest family and friends accompanied him from the U. K. to India.
The festive nature of Indian weddings is incomparable in scope, and this one was certainly no exception; D and J’s wedding was one wild week-long celebration. The week began innocuously enough with a small gathering at my uncle V’s place- D’s father- on the Monday evening. Wednesday evening was the ring ceremony, and this featured an outdoor celebration that included dancing, flowers, and food.
The following day was the henna ceremony where D had her body painted in intricate designs using henna paint. Many of the others in attendance, both men and women, had their hands or parts of their arms painted in henna. I had a gallant peacock painted on my left hand. This night also featured dancing, flowers, and food: the three staples of any Indian gathering.
Finally, the night everyone had been waiting for had arrived. J was elegantly handsome in his traditional Indian garb, D was stunning in her colourful attire, and the night once more featured dancing, flowers, and food; we didn’t get to sleep until well past 5 am. After the wedding, I took a day of reprieve before heading for Rishikesh.
If Dharamsala is the meditation capital of the world, then Rishikesh is certainly the yoga capital of the world. It was made famous in the Western world in the 1960’s by four fellows named John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It is here that the Beatles came to learn yoga and meditation, and composed the majority of the songs from their masterpiece work, The White Album. Rishikesh is considered a holy city by Hindus, and therefore the consumption of alcohol and meat are strictly prohibited.
I was blessed by a wonderful stroke of fortune as I arrived in Rishikesh on March 1st, the same day as the week-long International Yoga Festival (IYF) was beginning. The IYF is the single largest gathering of yogis and yoginis in the world, and this year’s event had about five hundred participants. Another wonderful stroke of luck was that I happened to be staying adjacent to Parmarth Niketan, the ashram where the IYF was being held.
I went out for an evening stroll and it is here that I first saw the massive crowd seated by the riverbank of the Ganges, celebrating the opening of the festival. Needless to say, I sat down amongst the crowd on the riverbank and observed the wonderful aarti festival where small oil lamps are sent out into the river as an offering of light back to the Divine source. The Ganges is much cleaner in Rishikesh than in other locations such as Haridwar, even though the two cities are only an hour’s drive apart.
The next day I took part in the classes and festivities of the IYF. Throughout the day I met some amazing people from all over the world. One significant person whom I met, and who took a particular liking to me, was J A, a New York Times best-selling author, and she happily gave me words of encouragement as I embarked on my career of authorship.
That evening a great honour was bestowed upon me as I was asked to go on stage and represent Canada at the evening’s aarti ceremony. It was with immeasurable gratitude that I represented my country at the largest yoga gathering in the world. Although, I had to leave Rishikesh the next day – due only to the fact that I had a flight back to Canada the day following – attending the festival was an incredible experience and, God-willing, I will be back again in the near future.
I am delighted to have been immersed in the presence of loving people, diverse landscapes, a fascinating culture, and an incomparable spiritual heritage. One thing I have learned is that destiny is fluid, and I am absolutely elated that it has brought me once more into the lap of Mother India.