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We love the Brahman cattle, with their big humps and blue-painted horns with bells on the ends.

We saw a dead body lying by the side of the road one day. It was covered with an orange cloth and someone had laid a wreath over it. We passed by it again later in the day and the cloth had been removed from the face and coins placed over the eyes. By the next day it was gone. Death is so out in the open here. Nothing hidden. Death is viewed as a natural aspect of life. We’ve seen several funeral processions. To my shame I chased after the first one I saw to photograph it. I had no idea that it was a funeral procession. Funeral processions in this part of India are not the solemn occasions we see in the west. There are drummers leading the way, and loud firecrackers are set off at regular intervals and flowers are thrown all over the road, and the “hearse” is richly decorated with flowers both front and back. I thought I was witnessing some kind of religious ritual or celebration. Which I was I guess, I was just unaware of the nature of it. The back of the vehicle containing the body is completely open. The body is covered, except for the face and feet, with cloths and flowers. In my ignorance I actually took a picture of the back of the hearse without knowing what I’d photographed as I wasn’t close enough to really see what was in it. Later when I described it to Bhakti she said what I’d seen was a funeral and that there would have been a body in the back of the vehicle. Sure enough when I uploaded the photos onto the computer I could see that there was. There is a lot of noise and passion and display as the men walk along. No stiff upper lip. No pretending. I’m woefully ignorant of the Hindu religion, and its gods and beliefs and ceremonies, but it did seem to me that the dead are sent off in fine style here. This is very hard for me to write about. I feel like an ignorant western tourist. It was a fascinating thing for me to experience, but at the same time I don’t want to be disrespectful.

The five subtle but unrelenting pressures of life in this part of India:

1.The heat and humidity. It’s mid to high 30’s now with little relief. The most relief comes from being in a place where there are fans, but the power goes off for several hours each day so even the fans are not always available.

2.The constant noise. Loud speakers blaring, vehicles roaring, horns blaring, dogs barking, cows bellowing, people shouting, birds screeching. It is never quiet except in the dead of night. Sometimes – if the hoards of dogs have decided to not bark for a while.

3. The garbage and filth. As far as I can tell the Indian psyche with regard to garbage is “just put it anywhere”. All the streets are littered with garbage. And everywhere is dusty and dirty. Except in front of peoples’ homes and businesses where a lot of sweeping happens. There are stinky open drains.

4. The health issues. Although we had all the requisite shots before we came there is still always a risk of eating something that can cause giardia, dysentery, parasites, worms or other gastrointestinal problems. And, although not a high risk here, there is always the threat of malaria.

5. The lack of beauty and uplifting aesthetic. Tiruvannamalai is far from being an attractive place. It’s dirty and dusty and crowded and shabby, and the natural surroundings are brown and rocky. There’s nothing lush or pretty or aesthetically pleasing about this place. I am aware that there are a great number of places in India where there is breathtaking natural beauty, it’s just that Tiru is not one of them.

So. What does all this mean? There’s times one or other of us is not happy about it – drained by the heat and the power cuts so there’s no relief, sick of the filth and the garbage and the noise, and worried about what’s safe to eat when we eat out. I don’t want to sugar-coat our India experience. Even if I’m a complaining rich westerner living in a country where my problems are minuscule compared to most who live here, I’d still rather be honest about how it is for us. At the same time I understand that how I experience life here is up to me. I can either see all these things as pressures or irritants or annoyances, or I can accept life the way it is. Usually when I emerge from my daily meditation and satsang sessions I feel so open hearted that I see the beauty in everything, and all judgments have fallen away. Life is simple. It is what it is, and all these issues are only problematic if I make up stories about how awful they are. Without the stories all is well. So, while being aware of the reality, I’m mostly at peace with it all, though the health issues still cause us both some concern. We’ve both had gastrointestinal troubles in addition to the problems caused by taking Artemisia. As I write this I’m sitting in the shade on the balcony with the great Mt Arunachala in front of me. It’s about 37 degrees. From time to time there’s a cooling breeze. I can hear lovely singing from the French woman next door. I’m having a wonderful time creating this next blog post. In this moment life is pretty sweet. And of course there’s beauty everywhere if you look for it:

We are sitting every morning with two different teachers, and twice a week with a third. It is wonderful to be part of a group of people all with the same intention, all seeking the truth of being. It becomes very powerful.

And every day we go to hear the boys sing. Each day at 5pm a group of about 14 boys, aged approximately eight to twenty, sing sacred chants for about 45 minutes while the monks perform an elaborate ritual at Ramana’s samadhi, or tomb as it would be called in the west. Great samādhi is a term often used for the final absorption into the Self at death, and the place where the remains of the enlightened one are kept is referred to as their samadhi. Occasionally I’ve watched some of the ritual, a colourful, and heart-felt affair with lots of flowers and water and ringing of bells, but our great love is to meditate listening to the beautiful singing of the boys.

From Don: India Under My Skin

Okay, I admit it, after being here for nine weeks India has finally got under my skin and into my heart in a good way. After all my griping about the dirt, the garbage and the general lack of esthetic I get it: the India I’ve come to appreciate is a country of great openheartedness. This might be because the most popular path in the Hindu religion is the path of bhakti yoga, the way of the heart, where the devotees strive to love God more than anything else. I haven’t seen this suggested anywhere, but it seems to me that this desire to be openhearted towards God leads people here to be generally more openhearted than people living in Europe or North America, and I’m a pushover for openheartedness.

So when I’m walking along the litter-strewn, cow-poop filled streets, as people walk towards me, if I smile and put a hand on my heart then 99% of the time there’s an immediate response of a warm openhearted smile and either a Namaste gesture of both hands in prayer or one hand pressed to the heart. I love that. I also love the Indian head wobble. If you’ve ever been to India you’ll know what I mean by that. If you ask an Indian person a yes/no question you’re more likely to get a head wobble than you are to get a verbal response. Usually the faster the head wobble the more positive the response, and the slower the wobble the less positive the response, although in restaurants the waiters will sometimes give a slow head wobble that is an affirmative. It can also signify “nice to see you” “I understand” and “okay.” The very gesture makes me smile every time I see it. I’ve been practicing my own version of the head wobble with some of the people I meet on the street to find out if it’s close enough to get a response. So far I seem to be doing okay as it almost always results in a reciprocal head wobble and a big smile. I love that too. Those of you who know me well know that my spiritual focus for many years has been all about becoming fully openhearted, and India keeps on offering many wonderful opportunities every day for me to practice openheartedness. What’s not to love about that?

Next post: blessed by an elephant, Indian dancing, peacock dancing, how many people can you get on a motorbike, and smart monkeys.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.