Thursday, 15 March 2012

the Big Fat Otentatious Indian Wedding, Allahabad, India

Jumped out of the train at Allahabad.  Negotiated a fee with a bicycle rickshawji and headed to the Royal Hotel.  Once a horse stable, the "Royal" was made into a "hotel" by an Indian gent who was refused a room in a British hotel.

Outside the hotel a huge pink and white tent had been erected.  A wedding was going to take place that night.  My rickshaw driver was sure there wouldn't be a room available, but fortune smiled its gap-toothed grin and I was ushered through the stable doors to the last room in the Inn by two of the most affable young receptionists I have ever encountered.  

"Oh Mam, very lucky.  One small room left."

It was the size of ballroom.

The Royal seemed more a horse stable than hotel, but definitely had character.  The rooms and bathrooms were huge.  The ceiling rose up a good 25 feet.  The doors looked like the original stable affairs of long planks with one cross-beam. Although the bathroom was a traditional dour bucket and pitcher facility with leaky pipes and scary toilet, it was big enough to house a good-sized Arabian.

"Can I watch the wedding," I asked.

"Come Mam, come.  I will ask the groom's family."

The groom's family seemed delighted to have a foreigner bless the couple and the receptionists told me to relax as the party wouldn't start until 11pm.

The beating of drums alerted me that things were getting started at the wedding.  It was wedding season in India.  A time of the year when astrologers found propitious good-luck signs in the alignment of the stars.  All over India makeshift tents were being set up: pink and white and red and blue and orange fabric flapping in the Indian wind.

When I emerged from my room the two receptionists ran over to me: "Mam, do you want to go to wedding now?  Come we take you.  The dancing's started."

My two escorts bustled me across a dirt field to where music was blasting from stadium-like speakers.  Twelve women bearers carried huge battery-driven candelabras atop their heads.  Two drummers decked-out in green and red satin outfits beat a wild rhythm that had nothing in common with the Bollywood music blaring from the huge speakers.  But music was playing so I started to dance and one extremely eager man grabbed me and started to dance with me, then another and another and soon I was at the center of a wild orgiastic dance tomasha.  The culmination was when the bride's father parted the crowd and handed me a one hundred rupee note (the equivalent of roughly two American dollars.) Considering that my stable cost me three hundred and fifty rupees, it wasn't too bad.

Then the truck hauling the sound system started slowly driving down the street and the wild dancers and the candelabra bearers and the groom atop a big white horse all began to promenade behind.  At this point I was happy to walk alongside with my two escorts and just observe.  The sound was deafening what with the speakers designed for a rock concert and pounding of the drums to a completely different rhythm.  The truck moved so slowly I was quickly in front of it and could see it held a large electronic light pattern box forming dazzling shifting light designs.

"Ah Mam, are you hungry?  There is much good food inside the tent."
And indeed there was.  At least twenty-five different hot trays of succulent Indian food lined two long tables.  One of my two escorts got a plate and began to heap curries and masalas onto it for me.

The tent was divided into four separate areas.  There was the "kiddy" section with carnival bouncing tents; the huge dining area; the stage where two masked men in strange costumes shook hands with guests; and the special circling and lifting platform where the bride and groom twirled as they were raised above the guests and pelted with a deluge of flower petals blowing down on them from some devise above it.

The bride was a plump and unsmiling women in red and gold.  The groom a tallish grim man in white.  The guests stared at me as much as they did the bride and groom on their revolving pedestal.

At 1am the festivities ended and I made my way to my stable for a good night's sleep.

The next day I was taking a local bus to the Holy City of Ayodhya.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Bodhi Tree, Bodhgaya, India

the great great great ... grandchild of the original Bodhi tree where Budha attained enlightenment

A fair walk out of town followed by a left turn through rice paddies and fields of yellow mustard flowers takes you to Root Institute, a Buddhist retreat just outside the town where the Buddha sat under the famous Bodhi tree meditating and achieved enlightenment. In the garden of Root Institute a huge red and gold Tibetan prayer wheel spins; every full revolution a knob strikes a bell that clangs a sweet ripple of sound in a slowly ebbing rhythm.  Red, white, blue, green and yellow Tibetan prayer flags flap flap flap in the breeze that blows across the institute from the surrounding fields.  A golden Seated Buddha rests next to the mammoth prayer wheel.  Tall trees surround the center and the cottages laid out in its periphery, their leaves rustling in the wind. Dahlias, marigolds, roses, cosmos fill the grounds with color and fragrance.

Pigeons coo.  Crows caw.  Fluffy fat gray birds twitter and chirp.

There is a rule of "Silence," so every rustle of leaf, trill of bird, and clang of the prayer wheel bell can be heard distinctly.

As I was registering,  a Buddhist nun came scurrying into the office and demanded we all drop everything and follow her into the garden to celebrate the Tibetan New Year.  Everyone is summoned: maroon-draped monks, guests, ground-keepers, cooks, cleaners.  We form a semi-circle around the Buddha in the garden.  One chubby monk presents a bowl filled with what looks like wheat flour.  We each scoop up a bit in our fingers.  He chants "Suuuu..." We raise our flour-filled hands to the sky and lower them.  He chants "Suuu..." again and we repeat the action.  On the third "Suuu..." we throw the flour up into the air so that we all are covered in a fine dusting of white.  Everyone claps and cheers.  The receptionist and myself return to the office where I complete the filling out of the three forms that are requisite at all Indian places of accommodation.  Then I take my pack up to the dorm where I'll share a room that looks over rice paddies on one side and the Center on the other with five other women from around the world who are here to study Buddhist mediation.          

In the evening I go to town.  I enter the temple grounds.  Since it's the Tibetan New Year hundreds of maroon and saffron draped monks crowd the holy place.  We all circumnavigate the temple and Bodhi tree on a path lined with small Tibetan prayer wheels, spinning each wheel as we parade along.  One young monk prostrates himself every few feet.  Another wears red gloves on his hands to protect them as he scrapes his palms in an arc on the ground.  One young woman wears knee pads to protect her knees as she exuberantly hurls herself to the ground every few strides.

I circumnavigate the temple and the holy tree. Stopping here and there; observing some monks sitting cross-legged and meditating in specially designed mosquito-net tents just the perfect size and shape for cross-legged sitting meditation without the nuisance of those pesky, trance disturbing pests.  I spin prayer wheels.  I sit and meditate.  I walk around and around on the path.  Everywhere colored lights are strung.  The Tibetans call the New Year the Festival of Lights.  Monks stride around the temple like prayerful marathon walkers, bounding along with hands pressed together at chest level uttering incantations.  Other Buddhists chant and carry lighted candles.  Tourists take photos.  And on the lawn three Tibetans sit shaking green tambourines and droning Buddhist chants.