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Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Unhindered Joy

A 14-hour train ride can really deteriorate your personality, even if it is snaking its way through the Himalayas. After 4 hours I’d seen enough beautiful views, shanty towns, cows, trees and brightly coloured houses scattered across the hills like a spilt bag of jewelry.  Wedged into an unconditioned toy train is enough to give even the most seasoned traveller, the grumps.  Suffice to say I was relieved to reach Shimla. My first little mountain town!

Shimla may be one of my favourite places in the world so far. Though I feel I might say that about everywhere in India. It really is such a magical little spot, and don’t we all need buckets more magic in our lives.  Strolling through the town, the palette of colours couldn’t have been better picked by an artist. The Pinks, Blues, Greys, Cobblestone Shades, Mountain Greens, Turquoises and Bright Oranges are like children, all fighting for my attention.

I take a pine scented hour-long walk to the 1700-year-old learning center, its path dotted with monkeys and disconcerting looks at my one bare shoulder. I wish I could tell you more about the magnificent building but too distracted by the gardens outside, I spend most of my time there catching butterflies and sipping cardamom tea in the garden.

En route home I decide to climb down to The Lower Bazaar, a more local style market one road down from the main strip of shops.  Just as I turn to go down a cascade of small hobbly steps, I am lured into a local fabric shop and seduced by the idea of a new set of scatter cushions. Now that I had one bargain in my bag I feel ready for a day of shopping, tasting, talking and walking. As the day and my time in Shimla draws to an end I treat myself to some freshly cut coconut, vegetable samosas and a rice pancake stuffed with masala and drizzled with Dahl and coconut paste.  The next stop on my journey is a town called Mandi, famous for its temples.

Imagine marbles in a small tin can being thrown down the steep side of a cliff. This is what it feels like to transcend from the serenity of Shimla into the madness of Mandi, by taxi. I’d like to say this was the scariest part but I’d be wrong. The scariest part was my first encounter with an Asian toilet (don’t ask me how I’d managed to avoid the ordeal up until this point) at a truck stop along the way.

I arrive in Mandi, a town not quite as picturesque as Shimla and amongst the murky fog of smells and enquiring looks from locals, is an oasis, no, a palace where I am staying. Its Maharaja, who tells jokes and comes down to dinner in his Pajamas, hosts the old palace, now converted into a hotel.  My plate clinks as it settles in front of me and I immediately smell the paneer-cream stuffed dumplings in a creamy curry sauce. I can literally feel my pants getting tighter as I rip apart a mint chapatti and dip it into a pot of loveliness to shlurp up – but I don’t care. It’s delicious. 

We take a walk around Mandi and though I am enticed by the bright temples and the rushing sound of the Ganges, my best part of the day catches me completely off guard. I love when that happens.
A group of schoolgirls dressed in white linen uniforms rush up to me to shake my hand and give me hug after hug. They are so full of innocent happiness and wonder and I’m really touched by their display of unhindered joy.

My first auto rickshaw trip in India takes me up a tall slope to the temple of Kali, a Hindu goddess I’ve been really excited to learn more about. Kali is known as a powerful goddess as well as a destroyer, we have the same name (Everyone in India pronounces my name Kali and I secretly love it) and somehow I really connect with her energy.

I walk up the steps to the temple and ring the bell; not really knowing what protocol is for a western tourist wanting to send a prayer up to the Hindu goddess.  I kneel down and look around me at the golden walls, glittering fabrics and flowers and then at the holy man in the red turbine next to me waiting for me to pray. I haven’t prayed in a very long time and see this as a chance to be spiritually moved. Closing my eyes I ask Kali to help me realize my power as a woman and to help me manifest this power in my life.

Whatever greatness I have inside me. Help me realize it and use it. I think.

The man in the red turbine hands me holy water to drink and a crumpled up piece of newspaper wrapping sugary sweets inside like treasure.  I get up and take a walk around the temple looking at some of the pictures and forms of Kali. The goddess is beautiful with long, dark hair and haunting eyes. Sometimes she is shown with bones and death around her but the picture I enjoy the most is where she is painted blue and looking straight at me holding a pink flower. I press my head against the wall, hoping I’m doing it right and then head back to the palace to sit with my thoughts. 


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