In My Socks: Climbing Seven Hundred 1000 Year Old Stairs

IMG_0522At the top of Vindyhyagiri Hill that I see in the distance is a majestic granite monolithic sculpture of Lord Bahubali, a revered Jain saint. (What I didn’t know at the time is that I would soon be climbing all 700 steps to the top of the hill and to the foot of the statue. In my socks.)

At the gate to this world famous site in Karnataka South India we dodge touts, postcard salesmen, socks salesmen and fake tour guides. Then following a rough homemade sign, we twist our way through the crowds to the shoe check in. Like most religious sites in India shoes must be left outside the entranceeven in this case which, for me, includes a scary long flight of 700 steep stone stairs to climb. I will have to chill out my fear and simply imagine that the new socks I brought with me to India are hiking boots.IMG_0529

Cutting through another welcoming party of hawkers and self-promoters we make our way through a simple gate and start to climb the granite stairs. The noon sun beats down and the sky, blue as though it were painted for a children’s story book, is unbroken by clouds. Colourful crowds of barefoot climbers––families with young children, large groups of school children, and a handful of European tourists––grab the sturdy railing alongside the stairs, and laughing and romping about, make their way up in a long line.

“Take your time,” a French tourist says to me as I stop to rest and chat. “You’ve got 600 more stairs to go.” IMG_0530Far below a checkerboard of green vegetable gardens, vineyards, coconut groves and fields of millet and corn glitters in the sun.IMG_0522

It’s easy to pad up these ancient stone stairs one slow step at a time (we’ve had lot of stair practice this week visiting old forts and the World Heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora even though I could usually wear my hiking shoes there.) Pad, pad, pad. I like the feel of rough-cut granite through my socks. The rhythm of my stepping up the stairs is mesmerizing and I’m brought into an ancient world I did not know about.IMG_0531

Sravanabelagola, the town below, means monk of the white pond. Towering above, serene and simple, the sculpture that represents the deity Bahubali, is a five story high monolith carved out of granite in 981A.D. People of the Jain faith, (which was founded in the 6th century B.C. to deal with the constraints of caste in Hinduism) have been making pilgrimages to this site for over a thousand years. I can only imagine their thoughts as they plodded along up the stairs to work toward their goal of achieving complete purity.

I reach the foot of the giant rock saint in an hour or so. IMG_0538For me it is not the faith that brings me here but the sight. I am living in history, surrounded by the lives those who have come to this place for inspiration.

Slowly I pad back down the 700 granite steps, refreshed and enlightened.IMG_0544

Even with my socks on.


Gentle India:Yoga

P1050869“This is your wakeup call Ma’am. It is six o’clock. Have a nice day,” the quiet voice on the phone tells me. With a quick hot shower and a cup of tea in the still, dark, morning our day begins. Sunlight is beginning to break its way through the tall trees surrounding our cabin in the woods as we walk a couple hundred feet along a rock path that leads to a large open pavilion. A few yoga mats are laid out. One is for me. A small candle with a ring of marigold and rose petals around it burns in the corner.

I silently sit down on my mat, cross my legs, and breathe in the smell of burning incense. A small thin man wearing a turban strides around the pavilion swinging a vessel of smoking eucalyptus leaves to keep the mosquitoes away. The only sound is the sweet song of birds––singing in dozens of different voices. Am I awake? I feel I as though I’m in a mystical dream world.

“Please sit comfortably. Make sure you are comfortable. Keep your back and neck straight. Close your eyes gently. Be aware of your surroundings,” the slow quiet lilt of Doctor P., the young woman who is the in-house physician of Ayruvedic medicine and our yoga master this morning, intones. How can I not be aware of the beauty of early morning all around me?

“Be aware of your body,” she says next. Aware I am. My thighs are burning and the rest of my body trembles with awareness of muscles I didn’t know I had before I came to this place a few days ago. Now I’ve been here long enough to know that soon I’ll forget my initial discomfort of sitting with my legs crossed in front of me.

My 1½-hour practice, that was long and difficult when we first arrived, comes to a close too soon. “With a little smile on your face, open your eyes with a few blinks,” Doctor P. says.

It’s not hard to smile. I open my eyes and the pavilion is flooded with sunlight, the early morning mist is disappearing into the forest and my day unfolds.

After a breakfast of fresh fruit, porridge and yoghurt Ross and I take a long walk through the farm past the greenhouses and some other sheds where the cows sleep at night.P1050874
Farther on there is a little Hindu shrine to Ganesh, a god of good luck that some of the workers decorate with chrysanthemums and pray in every morning.IMG_0491P1050878

My favourite spot is a small raised pavilion in the middle of the vegetable garden. It’s surrounded by bougainvillea and has a big mat on the floor with colourful handcrafted quilt and pillows to lean back on. Gentle breezes rustle the leaves in exotic trees at the edge of the garden and dozens of colourful birds call out to one another and  perform their little dances near the pavilion. It’s and ideal place for writing and sketching.P1050882

Ayruvedic principles, (arus=life; veda= science) including a vegetarian diet, herbal treatments (for me a message,) yoga and a no-alcohol-on-the-premises policy, in Shreyas retreat, near Bangalore, are a big healthy change, from my usual life style.

“This place is as good as it gets. Anywhere,” whispers Ross.

Gentle India is waiting for me to discover . P1050890

This Is India

IMG_9945How can anyone sleep? Way up over the Bay of Bombay is a thin slice of silver in the black sky, which reminds me I should stop looking out my window and get some rest. The sea glistens like thick molasses. It is 5am, and the in the darkness I can only just make out the gathering place beneath the triumphal arch of the Gateway of India. Under a dim street lamp a couple of dogs are curled up asleep on the seaside promenade.

The emptiness is silent—even the pigeons are asleep.

I’ve been here before. I know that soon India will wake up. I can hardly wait to start another journey. After an 11 ½ hour flight to Frankfurt, and a short change onto another flight 9 ½ hours to Mumbai, I’ve arrived as though by magic into another world.

It’s 5am and I am convincing myself that I should stay awake. There is long orange line stretching to the horizon, hinting of daylight. Slowly the sun breaks through the mist. A few small boats begin to quiver and move out to sea; a vendor or two push their carts into place beside the promenade. The dogs have changed their positions.P1050424

And my stomach is growling in anticipation of a breakfast of the sambar, masala dosa and coriander chutney that I’ve been dreaming of all year.

Now it’s 7am and the harbour and gathering place beneath the arch have come alive. There are a few little boats moving out to sea with fishermen standing in them casting their nets. A small ferry, the first of the day, makes its way across the bay to the 1500 year-old labyrinth of caves and Hindu temples carved into the rock on Elephant Island. In a corner near the arch a monk is emptying a large sack of grain for the pigeons and a large crowd of people gathers around them. A trio of men dressed in shorts and long shirts is facing the sun and beginning a yoga practice. Colourful women with their saris flowing walk along the promenade in small groups. The vendors have come to life.IMG_9974

After breakfast in the garden, I brace myself for the mayhem outside. I know with my sun deprived Canadian skin I’m like a sitting duck on the street and try my best to comport myself as a local. It doesn’t work. I am surrounded by the postcard sellers, giant balloon sellers and touts offering city tours “cheap cheap cheap.” I try hold my eyes straight ahead and (skilfully I think) work my way into group of teenage school children passing by. It’s a triple bonus. I’ve escaped the postcard sellers, am guaranteed safe crossing the busy streets, and I’ve helped the school children practice their English.P1050472

I love wandering up Chhatrapati Shiva Marg, slightly off the usual tourist pathway, past Mumbai’s 19th century colonial buildings ­–– the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Elphinstone College and the David Sassoon Library. It is a feast of colour. I don’t mind being enticed to step into the tiny women’s cooperative shops along the way that offer a stunning variety of hand-loomed textiles, embroideries and weaving from cottage industries in the surrounding districts.  P1050498

Late in the afternoon we settle into a quiet evening (in our palace hotel) with a yoga practice, especially designed for us by the “palace” yoga master, to help us “detoxify” the effects of jet lag.

Slowwwwly. Breathe in and out. Relaxxxxxx. Strechhhhh your body.


Sooooo hummmsa hummmsa sooooo.

This is where I am. India. P1050388