Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Today I was blessed by Ganesh – the Elephant, not the god

Pondicherry Vibe on the Bay of Bengal, India

Beside the Bay of Bengal
"The literature of travel shows the effects of solitude, sometimes mournful, more often enriching, now and then unexpectedly spiritual." (Paul Theroux, 'The Tao of Travel,' 2011)

Sitting at a seaside café on the Promenade in Pondycherry, I looked up as two European tourists walked by. This wasn’t unusual in this part of India where most of the tourists are French, but the gent greeted me with a word I didn’t recognize as either French or English as he passed by.

I didn’t even hear the word clearly, and I certainly don’t speak Swedish. And yet, somehow, I knew that he had spoken Swedish and that we had connected in that fleeting moment of his passage.

The casually dressed couple was looking for a table for two, but we had taken the last one in this tiny café looking out over the Bay of Bengal. As they turned the corner, I watched them, and, as our eyes met, I invited them to join us at our table for four.

It’s something I would normally do anyway, but there was more to it than that. As I said, we had connected and I was about to learn from Anders that a spiritual element was involved.

Cafe on the Promenade

Pondycherry is a former French colony and is known as the French Riviera of the East. It is, I was surprised to learn, a part of India never colonized by the British. It has French street signs, which in itself is doubly odd in a country where a street sign in any language is rare.

Carved stone writing on the building across the Promenade from us reads “Douane – Customs.” Another reads "Travaux Publics." French colonial-era buildings light up the sunny streets of the old French quarter in the bright colours of the Caribbean. French is still one of the official languages of the regional government.

Travaux Publics (Public Works)

Indian "Gendarme" with Kepi
Restaurants here serve faux baguettes, faux croissants (Hello, they’re supposed to be flaky and buttery not just dense bread in a crescent shape!), and pseudo-French meals. But the police all wear the famous red “kepi” hat of the French gendarmes and you can hear French spoken everywhere.

As interesting as all that is, we came to Pondycherry, not because of the French aspect, but because of a little known book by Canadian author Yann Martell called the ‘Life of Pi,’ a story about a boy’s spiritual awakening in India. We both loved the book and thought it would be fun to explore the locale of the book and visit some of the ruins here.

We had also been told that this area was a spiritual hub, with a “World Peace” village, temples and ashrams. But I wasn’t looking to get immersed in an ashram or in any form of mysticism for that matter. I was really just looking for a beach vacation.

It’s very pleasant in Pondycherry, warm, sunny, tropical and maritime; a world removed from the dry, arid northern India we visited in November. It’s a relaxing, laid-back seaside resort town, but not gussied up, just slow and casual.

At night the sea breezes from the Bay of Bengal blow across the Promenade and thousands of locals stroll along in the cool night air. The police close off all of the streets leading down to the Promenade so there are no screaming motorbikes, belching tuk tuks or honking cars to disturb the peace.

This has to be the most pleasant town we have visited in all of India. For the first time in months, we actually saw the stars in the clear night sky.

The Promenade in Pondycherry

But it’s not just physically different from northern India, its spirit is different too.  It has a different vibe. Pondycherry is full of mystics, lost souls in search of spirtitual enlightenment, and faded old hippies searching for the guru they misplaced 40 years ago.

Shops are filled with “mystic” crystals and books on yoga, yogis and yoghurt. Healthy food and vegetarian restaurants abound. Many of the French tourists wear Indian longis or sarongs and brightly dyed t-shirts that contrast with their long grey hair and beards.

There’s a special spiritual air about this town that you sense from the laid-back tourists, the slow pace of life, and the bemused smiles of contentment.

Candy Floss Vendors
And so, when the Swedish Anders sat down at our table with his latest devotee Marjvie, he said he knew that I was going to ask them to join us. He was just waiting for me to realize it.

He had read my “inner spirit” as he walked by and felt a “connection.” He could “see” my “aura” and knew we were meant to meet and exchange life stories.

Carolann and I both seemed to connect with him immediately, so there may be something to this whole spirituality thing after all.

I was fascinated by his talk of reading our divine inner spirits by looking at our palms. As a small demonstration, he asked us to hold up our hands and proceeded to tell us what sign we were and what our social skills were based on the shape of our hand. He said he wanted to help people get in touch with their “inner selves” and he offered to help us achieve a sense of enlightenment and freedom.

Anders and Marjvie
He claimed to have worked with Meryl Streep and John Travolta in his earlier life in Hollywood when he charged $1,000 per hour for helping them connect.

I asked how he could walk away from a gig like that and he simply said, “My past lives [my emphasis] tell me where to go and what to do next in this life.” Now he was leading tours of people in search of their past life experiences and had just finished a 14-day tour of temples and ashrams. When he met us he was taking a day off with Marjvie, one of his students and now a true believer.

He told us about a fascinating ritual practiced by Indian holy men who can predict your past and future by consulting ancient texts written on palm leaves stored in a temple. You give them your thumbprint and they proceed to ask questions about you by reading from the palm scroll.

This leads them to tell you, without further prompting, your parents’ names, your birthday, and what you did in a previous life.

Bill Gates had gone through this experience and Anders claimed it changed the history of Microsoft. In fact, Gates has built one of the biggest IT complexes in India because of this spiritual experience.

It was all incredibly interesting and I was intrigued by the palm leaf ritual and determined to find out how the holy men did it. What was the trick? I was dying to find out if there was any truth to Anders’ stories or if it was all BS. But then he helped me by saying, “You know that all of the pyramids were built by aliens using anti-gravity devices.” I took a metaphysical step back and asked if he knew Thor Hyderdahl, but he ignored my implied skepticism.

Nevertheless, after lunch we parted on good terms and he left me amazed by his sales pitch. I was tempted to call him to set up an appointment for a reading of my “inner spirit” and past lives just to learn more about his shtick, but I really thought it was all hype and held off. Maybe I was wrong to be so skeptical.

Downtown Pondycherry
The next day, we were walking along a laneway looking for the Bureau de Postes/Post Office. We took a wrong turn and got lost. Suddenly at the end of the dead-end street I saw an elephant. In India, an elephant downtown is not that unusual, but this one was all painted up and swaying his trunk. 

We had, in fact, stumbled upon the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple of Ganesh. I had wanted to visit this site, but Carolann had told me it was too far outside of Pondycherry to warrant the drive so I had given up on it.

And suddenly there it was, appearing out of nowhere, as if by magic. Was some divine spiritual guidance at work? Was I subconsciously heading down the path to enlightenment? Anders would have said that everything happens for a reason and I wasn’t lost that day on that narrow street in Pondycherry, I was actually just starting to find my way.

The temple Sri Manakula Vinayagar is known as the place where Ganesh, in the form of an elephant, blesses all those who make a donation to the temple. Ganesh is the Hindu deity or Lord of Beginnings and is widely worshipped in India and honoured at the beginning of spiritual rituals.

Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple
But this Ganesh was a real live elephant waving its trunk around and blessing people by tapping them gently on the head. I bought some grass and fruit and offered them up to “Ganesh.” She patted my head and then suddenly wandered off down the street, her shift having ended for the day.

It was like she was waiting for me to come and be blessed. Was this Karma again? Or did “Ganesh” just see me buying the food and decided to wait around for me. At any rate, I had been blessed.

Elephant Food for Sale

Elephant Blessing a Child
On our last day in Pondycherry, I decided to wander off on my own to take some photos of mandalas. Mandalas are beautiful handmade chalk drawings that people create in front of their house or shop. I didn’t know it at the time, but they have a spiritual significance. Carl Jung saw the mandala as "a representation of the unconscious self." Was I unconsciously looking for enlightenment again?

As I was photographing an elegant woman in a sari who was delicately pouring white chalk around the geometric design, I heard a voice behind me say in French “Isn’t it beautiful?” A small Indian dressed like a tourist stood behind me admiring the artwork. 

In French, he explained the spiritual significance of the mandala. He told me he was a doctor living in France, but originally from Pondycherry. He came back every year to enjoy the relaxed quiet lifestyle.

We walked together for a while as he told me his connection with Indian ayurvedic medicine and the importance of diet and meditation in healing. “The mind plays an important role in the health of the body,” he said. “Spirituality and mysticism are all interconnected with the physical world and your body is but a vessel.”

As we passed some large trees that were blown down by Cyclone Thane in December, we reflected on the damage inflicted on the town of Pondycherry and he commented how all things were meant to happen, just like Anders had said. 

So I asked if he had heard about the palm leaf readers and whether the stories were true. “Anything is possible in the spirit world,” he replied with a wink and left me to puzzle over the strange vibe of Pondycherry.

I struggled over how to end this story. I’m still puzzling over Anders and his tales of reincarnation and rebirth weeks later. But then Carolann pointed out that the story of life never ends, life is continuous like the geometric manadala and Anders will be reincarnated over and over again.

1 comment:

Tricia A. Mitchell said...

What a lovely account of your time in Pondicherry. We were in southern India last spring (Kerala, Munnar, Mumbai) and didn't have enough time to make it there. The mandalas are stunning!