My destination, Almora, was way to the east and north of Delhi. India’s roads and the way her cavalier, not to say daredevil drivers use them was enough to encourage me to go for the train, after all, the distances involved were considerable, Australian even. Except for in India there hardly seemed to be a single mile of country undecorated by some human sign, some humble human activity, some earnest, hard working community surrendering to the timeless cycle of survival. The published timetable for India’s trains probably only represented a vague approximation of departure and arrival times so I anticipated a journey in excess of ten hours or so to a place called Bareilly, on the Lucknow line. New Delhi’s central station spread out before me like a flooded lake, shapeless and vast, the crowds a mixture of residents and travellers, a mélange of spices so complex, so dense, so heady as to stop the senses. The train sat at the head of the line apparently exhausted before its journey had even begun. I walked along the platform looking into the carriages for a spot to sit, perhaps even a seat, although the numbers scrambling about on the platform and already filling the carriages discouraged any serious hope. They were jamming into the train from the open track side, and not just into the train. The roof appeared quite popular. The platform gasped under the strain of the multitudes, some travelling, others serving the travellers with chai, a hot sweet and aromatic tea served in small, disposable hand thrown clay cups. The vendors proffered biscuits and breads, sweets and fruit; yet more people wearing odd bits of uniform supervised the chaos with whistles and truncheons, shouting and shoving as best they could to get the long, very long antique machine, now nicely packed to the gunnels (the way the crowds flowed into, within, and over the train was decidedly aquatic) out of Delhi and steaming down the track to distant Lucknow. There was also something unarguably heroic in that old train’s effort to serve. Eventually I gave up looking from the platform and breached the body of the increasingly animatronic train, a strange beast whose human cargo by degrees transformed its machinery into an extension of its congregated load. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the thing had started breathing. It was breathing of course and its breath stank. Waves of black sooty smoke wafted through the front carriages, its acidic aftertaste suggesting the beast was not pleased with its heavy load. I’d weaved my way up through the packed carriages not finding a seat until eventually, in the second carriage from the engine, right outside a toilet, on the floor, I was able to sit down. This floor was no luxury accommodation as I’d experienced as a kid in aeroplanes when I would sleep on the floor under the seats. Here there was only enough space for my backside as I squeezed down between a couple of lads facing the toilet door. Welcome to third class. Travellers intent on avoiding the discomfort and unpalatable odours of lower third class would pay more and ride first class. Probably get a seat, maybe even a bunk. I did catch a glimpse inside a first class carriage and although it appeared crowded it did look as though the proportion of people to available seating was preserved so gentrified, cashed up Indians could travel with a veneer of decorum. And there were a few Europeans going the soft route too. But not for this little babba saddhu for whom the sound of first class was somehow wrong. I was still trying to do everything as cheaply as possible, not knowing how long the money had to hold out, so probably even if I’d known about India Rail’s three class travel arrangements I’d still have selected the cheapest ticket. The discomfort was negligible for this twenty two year old body and the hours passed with the train stopping and starting, sometimes without any apparent reason, no station, no crossing roads, it would just pull up and nobody seemed to notice, let alone complain. These delays could last for anything up to forty five minutes. I’d hop down and wander around a dry and dusty paddock, getting maybe twenty, thirty meters from the train to get a good look at its extraordinary profile; the steel and wood of its machinery mostly buried somewhere under the crowds adorning the roofs and spilling from the windows and doors, creating a giant worm infested with hundreds of two-legged parasites. Even the engine had passengers. After five or six hours sharing a steel floor with a couple of young and friendly lads, we’d developed a simple communication - some single English words, some gestures the deaf might recognise, all generously wrapped up with grinning goodwill; we shared if nothing else the harmony of the mute, victims of the presumptuous power of hierarchy. Bonded by our common humanity and predicament in sharing the lowest rung of the lowest rung, (not only on the floor but outside the very busy toilet), one boy wanted to try on my hat. In exchange the lad offered me his, a sharing, train brothers all. After about half an hour of wearing my hat, he offered it back. Shortly afterwards the boys got up and migrated elsewhere in the train. Their departure unremarkable at the time. Suddenly there was some space for me to stretch out a bit and maybe have a sleep; we were still probably only half way to Bareilly. I was just drifting away, my bag with its valuables tucked comfortably under my head, the hard floor softening by clouds of dreaming, when the carriage jerked and squealing brakes dragged me back as the beast pulled into a station. After about ten minutes a conductor appeared and asked for my ticket. I’d put it inside the hat’s headband. The conductor’s English didn’t exist and neither did my ticket. He started grabbing at my arm to get me off the train. Apparently no ticket, no travel. In the rising heat I was cranky I’d been conned and robbed by the two boys as I indulged in the fairytale of peace on earth and goodwill to all men. They must have seen me put the ticket in the hat and invented their scam for one of them to cover his ticketless travel. Tant pis. Things happen. You expect some sort of uncomfortable wealth redistribution, it seems only fair, but at the time of being off-loaded into a sun-bleached Indian city that looked like something out of the middle ages, replete with a billion flies, dust and heat, the disappointment, the injustice of being mistaken for a free-loader all mounted up as I waited in a long queue to buy another ticket. On my way to the queue a railway worker had told me if I could get a ticket I could get straight back on the train. He said the train wouldn’t leave for another five minutes. I was barely half way to the ticket counter when it pulled out. The ticket seller told me the next train for Bareilly was tomorrow, same time, same place. Twenty four hours in god knows where. I’ve got absolutely no idea what the place was called, the Hindi script which proclaimed the town’s name on the platform was a lot prettier than the place itself. Finally it didn’t much matter what it was called I was going to have to stay here overnight so I set out from the station to walk to the town a couple of kilometers away. The country was flat but I could see, stretching into the hazy distance a cluster of buildings, all the same colour as the ground, a one colour canvas the light brown desiccated mud of the plains. High overhead vultures soared in majestic slow motion circles held effortlessly in the washed out blue sky by shimmering waves of heat rising off the parched land. Down on the ground though, no air moved, no light breeze for comfort, almost no breath to breathe. All the way from the station into town a dusty and vapourising roadway divided the increasingly congested makeshift shelters and shops in the landscape like Moses divided the Red Sea, its traffic shouldering away any encroaching bits so the ox carts, trucks, rickshaws, bicycles, sugar cane juice wallahs of this large Indian town could get about their business. Just before the town proper I noticed that a lot of the men sitting about in groups drinking tea, smoking, were saddhus, their sparse clothing a token to the conservative sensibilities of the general population. Some didn’t bother with tokenism but strode about stark naked, clothed only in splashes of messy white chalk adorning their torsos decorated with beads and bangles, dreadlocks and shaved heads; these were the hippies, the ferals of ancient times, still extant as spiritual seekers, drop outs, believers, unbelievers and the disenchanted, the chillum heads, bludgers, cultists, itinerants in flight from segregating materialism; they were all there, happily integrated into the generous picture plane that is India. And this little corner of the hot plains, apparently undiscovered by other Europeans, hustled about its affairs, its people with an unblinking conviction nurtured by centuries of practice. I began to feel slightly invisible, just a pair of eyes, ears and nostrils moving through space, receiving the impressions of place by osmosis; offering scant opportunity to the locals they didn’t know how to exploit the resource when it appeared. Perhaps the place had never had tourists. Maybe they couldn’t even see me. Like those stories of the MesoAmerican Indians apparently unable to see the Spaniards’ tall ships anchored menacingly off their coast. Certainly some of the kids could see me and from time to time would cluster around with their little hands reaching up for money. They could see my relatively flash clothes, trousers, t shirt and probably wanted some of their own. Round here the dhoti seemed universal. Maybe they could sense my full belly and fancied some of that too. I found myself climbing a long flight of stone stairs in the centre of town; the place appeared to be a popular hangout for people dressed only in sackcloth. My knowledge of India’s caste system was sketchy but whatever caste they were, too many of them were diseased. Corrupted hands with fingers partially eaten away, some with no hands, faces ravaged, some leaning on improvised crutches. A leper reached out to me as I climbed past, offering an empty tin hung over the stump of his arm and inviting me with a toothless grin to contribute something as he wrapped his other handed arm around my shoulder. Early in my travels I’d worked out a system to manage the hundreds of requests for money from beggars. My trousers had four pockets and I would, at random, put any change I got into one of them. It wasn’t always the same pocket, so I never had a clear idea as to how much was in the pockets. When somebody asked me for money I would reach into a pocket and whatever I found there I would give it all. Sometimes it was a lot in local value, sometimes nothing at all, but through this strategy I was relieved of the impossible task of having to make a judgement about the relative merits of each plea leaving my conscience placated and my cash supply not stripped by charity. As I wandered about in this fantastic land whose poverty was almost sentient, I would sometimes hear in my head a saying remembered from my Christian upbringing and attributed to the Naz: “The poor will always be with you…” as he rebuffed Judas’s attack on Mary (not the mum) and her profligate foot massage. Looking about this place lying on the hot plains somewhere between Delhi and Lucknow and seeing the intense poverty of its people I could sense the inevitability he described with his remark. But here they all seemed happy enough, even the handless leper smiled a sweet smile of innocence. No indelible correlation has ever been demonstrated between poverty and unhappiness, and in India the refutation of this self-serving lie is everywhere. Living in a Western city sometimes wealth and unhappiness go hand in hand with the rich having the time and inclination to explore more fully the estates of unhappiness that mushroom from dependence on the acquisition and retention of things - and then having the time to think about it as huge volumes of mind-altering propaganda tirelessly propose a material solution to matters of the spirit, the heart, the mind. Is it surprising then that people come to believe their unhappiness results from poverty? The next day I sauntered back to the station along the same road, past the same congregations of saddhus whose gaze lazily followed my steps; but now an uncanny sensation filled me as though my body had generated roots from the souls of my feet and each step, each touch allowed those roots to sink deep into the land permitting an exchange of vitality between my body and this place. Overnight I’d become a semi-permeable membrane allowing the inflow and outflow of life force. An identical looking train festooned with identical human cargo duly arrived and I climbed aboard with my second third class ticket to find a freshly vacated spot on a bench by a window – the Hindu god of the railroad (there had to be at least one) finally compassionate to this traveller. Some hours later, late at night we pulled into Bareilly. Concern that I’d somehow miss the place through either sleep or failure to recognise it had me resisting sleep and studying very carefully the Hindi script for ‘Bareilly’. Like the faces of an alien race which all look alike at first, so it was for the Hindi script, all those little curly bits and flat lines…the prospect of overshooting my junction and the consequences of having to get back inspired special effort, so when at around 2am the train pulled into Bareilly I knew I’d nailed it, offloading onto what looked like an overnight camp for the homeless. Since that was now my status, I felt right at home and after some exhaustive research discovered which platform to join for my connection north to Kathgodam and the end of the line. I had a few hours to wait for the train so I settled into a dusty corner to watch the nocturnal lives of the station’s people. Most seemed not to be travelling and looked like residents, their makeshift shelters having an air of permanency about them. Maybe it’s like the game of Monopoly where individuals may own public utilities, but here in India, rather than individuals owning property, the utilities become sites of collective ownership. In a nation of such vast populations each subgroup must have enough membership to create a demographic of some power, unlike say Brisbane where, to my knowledge there’s only one man who chooses to live in comparable accommodation, his shelter shaped by that emblem of the consumer industry, the plastic bag. With just one expressing this preference, threatening no one, he constitutes only a source of fascination to journalism students from a nearby university where he is the token and quotable misanthrope. When you get hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of such people they represent so solid a section of society that they are a powerful demographic and presumably in democratic India their vote counts. Although the Indian parliament now has some twenty percent of its seats reserved for Dalits or so-called untouchables it wasn’t until the mid 1990s the first Dalit was voted into the parliament and the Hindu caste system underwent some public interrogation of some of the more bizarre embedded cruelties such as the belief that if the shadow of a Dalit fell on the Brahman class, the ‘high-born’ spirit would be polluted. The Dalit former bandit queen, Phoolan Devi, after spending some years in jail was able to inspire enough votes for election. It’s unlikely the Toowong bagman’s place will accede to anything more significant than a mild curiosity, amusing human interest copy for a student newspaper. He and his plastic bags however are certain to live a longer life…Ms Devi was killed by relatives of a victim of her earlier banditry. As early morning light splintered the dark night high overhead I wandered about looking for a cup of chai to start the day which seemed suddenly to explode, shoving the crowds from their sticky sleep with a wave of fresh heat, arrived as if by train down the track from the south. The platform was filled with army. Uniforms and packs waiting to load. The train came in, already three quarters full from the depot; did they have ticket sellers there too? The army crowd worked as a team, a scrum, tight and exclusive, quickly jamming the central carriages. As I realised what was going on I started to run to the front of the train, hoping there’d be less congestion and I’d squeeze in. The train was already moving as I jogged next to a carriage trying to open a door to get in. The soldiers simply held the doors closed, not letting me in. They were having fun. I kept running, had to pick up speed as the train was itself gathering some momentum. Finally I arrived at the last carriage. No access. The soldiers thought it was hugely amusing watching me desperately trying to clamber on the train. In the back of my mind the prospect of 24 hours in Bareilly spiked my efforts. But there were no carriages left and I was fast running out of platform. At the last moment I jumped onto the coupling securing the coal carrier to the carriages. It was safe enough, with plenty of room for good footing and places to hang onto. Dawn marched brightly on as the train accelerated up to cruising speed. I hung on in the pinking air, at once cool and refreshing, but then foully tainted with ugly doses of black smoke sucked down into the small steel canyon where I clung precariously, at once lightheaded and mildly ecstatic, thumbing my nose at the soldiers whose efforts to keep me off the train had failed. Pulling into the next station half an hour later dawn had already surrendered to her brassy cousin and had evapourated; I jumped down from the coupling and this time the soldiers allowed me to open a carriage door and climb in. Maybe they’d enjoyed my daring, which wasn’t daring at all but desperation. Kathgodam, the end of the line, a town at the foot of the Kumaon hills, themselves but a ripple at the feet of the Himalaya, massive rock front of northward tectonic plate migration. In India feet have powerful metaphorical significance, particularly within ashrams, the spiritual communities of Hinduism where the teacher or guru encourages a variety of behaviours for relations with his/her devotees that usually involve some variation of a foot-touching ritual. The followers touch the master’s feet, apparently an outward and visible sign of humility. I now stood at the feet of Himalaya, anthropomorphic giant, embodiment of the sacred, refuge for the heaven-bent, and focus for the worship of many, breathing in the dust and heat, as she looked down from afar with what can only be adequately described as detachment. I was humbled. My enthusiasm for the moment as I approached my journey’s destination got all tangled up with mythology, ethereal anticipation and hardcore reality to create a cocktail of potent delight. The town appeared to hold little interest beyond its role as gateway, so stepping through, I headed up the road to the hill town of Almora, crown of the Kumaon. On the outskirts of Kathgodam, just as the road began to climb, a mad crowded bus, lit up like a Christmas tree with twinkly fairy lights and vivid floral painted decorations, came thundering down from the hills. Scampering for safety the thing hurtled past me, barely slowing as its driver hung out of his window and scattered some coins on to the road at my feet. As they ricocheted around in the dust and the roar of the bus receded a couple of young boys appeared, collected the coins and climbed a steep path at the side of the road up to a small, half finished mundir, a temple I later found out housed the local saddhu. I was about to continue up the road when someone called out from the mundir and beckoned me to come up. He was tall, slim, dressed with just a cloth around his waist, and decorated with the usual beads and bangles and spectacular head of matted hair. He looked like an Australian Aborigine from afar, standing on one leg looking down at me, but up close the similarity was uncanny, a glimpse into a sixty thousand year old ancestral journey when early man and his dogs went for a long walk and, isolated by the rising seas, never went back. US African Americans have been doing pilgrimage to discover their ancestral origins in Africa, admittedly not that long ago; could there be a similar drive by Indigenous Australians to explore their origins in India multiple millennia ago? Perhaps there are stories in Hindu mythology about the Old Ones who left in search of greener pastures in a distant southern land. I was invited into the small temple and sat down to join a group of six or seven people in a circle on the concrete floor. The saddhu, after some introductory sounding remarks, called to one of the boys who’d collected the money from the roadway, and gave what looked like an instruction. The boy left the dark concrete room and quickly came back with a small box. He sat down and took out a chillum, a clay pipe for smoking hashish or cannabis, and began to mull up. When he’d done the job he handed the loaded chillum to the saddhu who lit up and in a single in-breath exhausted the pipe, exhaling an industrial volume of curling hashish smoke. Not understanding anything anyone was saying, I sat and observed the ritual. The saddhu then gave the chillum back to the boy who loaded it up again and, on a nod from his boss, the chillum was handed to me. I’d never smoked anything like this pipe before and struggled with the damp, moist rag that is ceremonially wrapped around the base of the pipe, a kind of damp filter catching bits of burning mull and cooling the hot smoke. After amusing the gathering with my ineptitude, my brain blown away with an intense charge of the psychotropic drug, I lay back and savoured the cool dark room and morning chai which the other boy had prepared and served, the background of animated conversation eventually fading, coalescing into a cocoon of comfort. Most of the traffic on the road was pedestrian but every ten or fifteen minutes a vehicle would pass by the mundir, give a blast on a horn and the two boys would scamper off to pick up the money from the road. Apparently the mundir was a toll station with all monies destined for the treasury of the saddhu. But whatever other supply of funds were available to this highway toll- collector, he was still evidently short of the necessaries to complete the building of his temple. The building was made of rocks, mud brick and cement, the rocks and mud gathered from the hillside behind the mundir, the principle residence of a troupe of macaque monkeys. The monkeys sat watching the goings on below them with some irritation I thought. They always seemed just a bit cranky with the way things were panning out. Maybe boys walking up into their territory and knocking off soil and bits of rock and carrying it away had not been good PR between monkey and man. The story I gleaned from the saddhu was that the building was only half finished. That was evident. It was a two story building with the second floor awaiting pretty much all of its detail; it only had its outer walls and aside from a vast and magnificently thorned bougainvillea, no roof. Through a series of clumsy translations (one of the guests had some English) and sign language the saddhu offered me the second floor. “It’s mine?” “Oh yes, we will share this place, you upstairs me downstairs." Then it came to me what he was on about. He wanted me to finance the completion of his mundir, and to that end was prepared to offer a nominal partnership. It was a cute idea, living on the side of the road in Kathgodam, collecting the toll, having people from the town come up, cook and serve all meals, chai, chillums, the two boys even cleaned the place…and a room with a view. From up there you could look out over the road to a rough stony landscape jittering down to a river, the cascade fat with melting glacier water exploding through mini-canyons of boulders some the size of half a house. The attraction of icy water in that hot place was irresistible. The saddhu had some objection to my going to the river but it was never explained – or at least I didn’t understand if it was explained. The water was a treat, but I did notice no one else seemed to swim in it. Maybe the roaring power of its descent was just too scary for a people not familiar with wild water like the pounding surf of Sydney’s beaches. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that all waterways in India are sewers. The toilet for the mundir was a dry creek bed at the back snaking around monkeys’ hill. The creek bed was peppered with small round boulders and human excreta in various stages of decay. The smell in the place was not attractive, but then public toilets often share this unsurprising characteristic. For a boy who’d been brought up in places where the sit-on toilet was standard the boulders were good to squat on and didn’t place too much of a strain on short Achilles tendons, a feature of the westernised body conditioned by ‘the chair’. That creek bed led into the river, so presumably every now and then, when it rained, all that human shit would be flushed into the river. Maybe somewhere back in time it was decided to not swim in the sewer? All this did occur at the time, but the mountains of cold water cascading down the river and the fact that it had obviously been a long time since rain had done any flushing, persuaded me that swimming was OK. I don’t think I drank any. Coming back from the river and a refreshing dip one morning I happened upon another mundir, but this one evidently of a different divinity. Here the monkey god ruled. There was an enormous ape chained in the dusty forecourt whose leaping about and generally feral attitude had me hoping there’d be no escape for the hairy beast while I was about. The Hanuman saddhu strode out to meet me, no doubt summoned by the ruckus created by his chained primate. The man was considerably bigger than my saddhu on the hill, with a belly that suggested he might have been a vegetarian and like the gorilla, had to swallow large volumes of food to satisfy his appetite. Here was another uncanny moment as the saddhu approached; his face looked remarkably like that of his temple mascot. Except happier. The pictorial representations of Hanuman have him in human form but with a monkey’s face. This man before me could have been the model for the poster. I’ve witnessed the phenomenon before where quite often people seem to morph into the shapes of their pet animals…or is it the other way round? Since neither of us could understand the other we smiled, and exchanging gestures of respect, I took my leave, careful to include the ape in my courtesies. Back at my temporary home of maybe five days and reasonably well set-up in the uncompleted upstairs section, I noticed my guitar was missing. It was a small light-weight Spanish style guitar and thanks to the heat of the plains and the beating it had received in transit it was warping. The saddhu, Mungul Giri Babba, had apparently decided it should be given to someone else…wealth redistribution being a major function of the religious classes, although mostly the distribution is their way – to the greater glory of god of course. I kicked up a fuss and told him I wanted it back. He said it was up in the hills and then I didn’t see him for about four days. The bad blood stemming from this exchange brought to an end any idea he might have had that I’d be chipping in for his building and so after he’d retrieved the guitar I thanked him for his hospitality and set off up the road to Almora, the intricacies of cross cultural communication and conflicting notions of ownership just too complex to handle with grace. I finished up giving the guitar to a school in Dharamsala, the Indian home of a big family of expat Tibetans. This small town was also the residence of the Dalai Lama, at the time away preaching the Middle Path to an ever expanding and receptive audience in the West. On the road to Almora it wasn’t long before a bus came along and I jammed in for the breath- taking ride up the mountain to the hill station once a favoured summer haunt for the colonial British. The scenery was good too as the road edged dangerous precipices, the mountain falling unobstructed to a distant snaking river far below. The Brits were long gone from the hill station but their spectacularly sited stone houses remain for the affluent to pass the summer season in luxury and comfort. I wandered about in the town for a couple of hours, eating, drinking and watching the busy world of merchants, townsfolk and tourists. The maze of little alleyways made the town look like it had risen up from the ground, in organic growth like you’d see in a termites nest. In one of these alleyways I noticed a friendly looking tailor working his machine and decided it was time to ditch the now thinning pants I’d worn all the way from Oz. I explained to him by pointing and gesture that I was after a pair of pyjama style trousers with big pockets. I chose a blue material, its weight seemed about right; but the colour was apparently a source of some consternation for the tailor and he suggested several alternatives. But I liked the blue and couldn’t understand his difficulty. I guess all over the world the customer is always right so he took my measurements and told me to come back in an hour as he pointed to a large loudly ticking clock on the wall behind him. When I slipped the pants on they felt a bit rough but the fit was good. Paying the tailor I strode out of the alleyway in my new and a little bit scratchy pyjamas to join the rest of the pyjama wearers. I was going native. At the end of the alleyway I emerged into the sunlight and the hustle of Almora central and straight away came face to face with a long line of school girls in uniform. Immediately I understood the tailor’s disquiet. The girls’ uniform was made with the identical fabric. Oops. The moment proved too much for the propriety of the twenty or so young women whose amusement erupted through hands held over mouths and just so there’d be no confusion a good number couldn’t resist pointing as well, mocking the wearing of female material. When you inadvertently create so much fun for such an orderly procession of neat young women, throwing their progress into a mess, public ridicule is quickly replaced by the physical sensation of reciprocity. In a place where I was being hugely entertained by the ordinary world, I’d provided some entertainment of my own and for a once-upon-a-time actor the audience is Queen. For the rest of my stay in Almora, wherever I went girls would buckle up with delight at my blue pants and their pleasure was contagious. I wasn’t the only European entertaining the people of Almora. One afternoon I was sitting in a chai shop on the edge of town tucking into some of the sweet cakes on offer when in the distance a small crowd approached. I heard them first, a mix of shouts, yells and laughter as the swarm slowly drew near. All the while people were falling off the bunch, others were joining in and like a swarm of bees there seemed to something in the centre focusing their energies. As the crowd got nearer their shouts became more belligerent and then I noticed there was some kicking and punching going on. The target for the agitation was a young white man, long haired and naked except for a thin cloth he was waving about in a futile attempt to keep his tormentors at bay; he was being driven along with abuse and torment as he tried pathetically to protect himself from the now evidently angry crowd of men. Some were still laughing derisively but the majority had clearly decided to chase him out of town. The ugly parade quickly passed out of sight and its sounds faded bearing away an obviously confused lad who wore his persecution like a memory. I was just finishing off my cake when one of the men who’d been harassing the hippy walked past. I called him over and asked him what the fuss was about. Apparently the hapless hippy had dropped some potent mind-altering drug and his psychotic behaviour had offended public taste. He told me the scene was not unusual and the townsfolk of Almora had to put up with a regular serving of mad young men locked in psychosis. These were not his terms, but rather my interpretation of what he recounted. Evidently the place had many attractions for young Europeans – not all were spiritual seekers, most it seemed attracted by cheap psychotropic drugs, exotic locations and low-rent accommodation. There was never a moment when it occurred to me that I might intervene and somehow curtail the suffering of a fellow human. Now as I tell the story it seems callous and uncaring, even cowardly to have not interfered but in India I encountered such widespread displays of human degradation, not all with outcomes or consequences I could comprehend, that the poor bastard’s plight sat undisturbed in a sociology vastly beyond any solution I might suddenly have concocted on that balmy late afternoon in Almora. My destination, the residence of Lama Anagarika Govinda, lay some five kilometers out of town along a ridge. The path was a confection of fool’s gold, glittering dirt that sparkled the evening light as I ambled along watching the night well up like a dark rising tide in the distant valleys on either side of the ridge. Listening to the sporadic and occasionally syncopated barking of dogs far below I could see dozens of cooking fires springing up like radiant miniature jewels decorating the inky valley belly below. The house had once belonged to Evans Wentz, an American who specialised in translating Tibetan scriptures. His translations of some of Tibetan Buddhism’s leading texts were complete with exhaustive tertiary notation and had intrigued me from the time the books fell into my hands. When he died in the late 1970s a short legal battle delivered the house to the Govindas. Lama Govinda, a German national and Tibetan scholar and his Indian wife have occupied the house since. I didn’t at the time know anything about his wife or his specific interests, but rather approached him because of the general way his book on the mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, had penetrated my mind, exciting a deepening curiosity to explore the way as described by the great ancient masters of Tibet including my cultural hero of the time, Milarepa. It was almost dark as I knocked on the heavy wooden door. Nothing happened. Maybe he wasn’t here. I’d met no one in Almora who had news of his whereabouts, so I just hoped that after however many thousands of kilometers I’d travelled to see him, he’d be there. I was about to knock again when the door slowly opened and an Indian woman stood there looking at me with a look that suggested importuning the great man might not be a smart move. “Lama Govinda is busy at this moment and not receiving visitors, I’m sorry”. Damn. “I’m really sorry to come uninvited, knocking on your door at this time of day, but I’ve come a long way to see Lama Govinda, from Australia.” She stood there looking at me, unmelting, guardlike. Unimpressed. “We have too many people coming to see him, and he is an old man with much work to do.” “Look I’m really sorry, I won’t take up too much of his time, perhaps a couple of minutes?” I wasn’t about to turn on my heel and walk away after all the effort of getting there; my whole trip required some sort of response from the man who wrote Introduction to Tibetan Mysticism, the book that launched this little ship of exploration. Still she held her ground and from inside the house I could hear a voice, frail and Germanic. “Who is it?” She turned and went back inside, leaving the door open; I waited. A couple of minutes later the man himself slowly materialised out of the shadows of the house. He looked just like the thumbnail picture on the back cover, including the Tibetan bonnet. He looked tired as he asked me where I was from. “Sydney.” “A beautiful city, no? And the Opera House? One of the great buildings of the world.” “Yes it is.” I didn’t mention the argy bargy that went on between the architect and the New South Wales state government or that the interior was a joke, designed by bureaucrats. I hadn’t come all this way to waffle on about the Opera House. “What brings you to my door?” “I wanted first to thank you for your work, particularly the Introduction to Tibetan Mysticism, which shifted my perception of spiritual practice. And to ask your advice.” “In what regard?” “Since reading your work and the works of Evans-Wentz, I’ve been increasingly drawn to Tibetan meditations and would like to fully commit my life to a deeper exploration of the world within.” I think that did it. He must have realised here was a young man, a boy really, standing on his doorstep with a guru complex. “I do not teach. I am a scholar and I share my research with others. At the moment I’m preparing a lecture tour of the US. If you are determined to explore Tibetan Buddhism I suggest you do as I did…go to the Tibetan university in Benares and learn Tibetan, you will then have direct access to scripture.” That was it. Journey ended. The idea that I had to learn to speak Tibetan and know Sanskrit before I could progress along the path to the inner worlds suddenly seemed very clumsy and not in the least interesting. It certainly looked nothing like the script I’d imagined. At that instant I understood what I sought was any approach which would bypass conventional doctrinal avenues and go straight to the place where matter and spirit are indivisible. In a matter of thirty seconds the entire thrust of my journey was devalued and exposed as a feint. It was now pitch black, and standing on his porch I must have looked disillusioned and slightly sad. The man’s compassion peeped out from behind his robes. “There’s a small pagoda on the hill. It’s too late to walk back to town. You can spend the night there.” I thanked him as graciously as I could muster, wished him well for his lecture tour and with a surprisingly light heart made my way up the hill. I can’t remember what he actually called the small building on the hill, but it looked like a pagoda, circular with two floors, a sort of miniature version of a 19th century music stage frequently found in parks and public gardens. The top circular floor was open, the roof held up by six columns. In the evening breeze three or four wind chimes warbled their sweet tones into the night. The bottom floor was divided into two hemispheres. I could either sleep on the concrete upper floor or in one of the dirt floored lower sections. But only one was accessible. The other hemisphere was bricked in. No access. I chose the more comfortable option, the dirt. I stretched out my cotton blanket and tried to sleep. I had to relocate some quite large insects that apparently owned the venue and didn’t much appreciate the squatter. For the first few hours my dreams were colourful and dramatic and finally waking at around 3am, shivering with cold, I’d had to put on every item of clothing in my bag; that robbed me of a pillow but did warm me up. I couldn’t get back to sleep; I just lay there, my head close to the dividing wall, my imagination stirred up by the idea that there was someone in there. Bricked in. The long-term meditation strategy is well known among certain Tibetan monks who might be immured for six months, a year, two years; small amounts of food and water may be passed to the monk through a light-proof hatchway. The theory, as I understand it, is the monk’s brain, after a certain amount of time and practice decides there’s not much happening and so his astral body disengages from its heavier mortal frame and begins a fabulous and highly educational circumnavigation of the universe. Instead of being imprisoned he is liberated. Within this experience the popular and heavily politicised concept of freedom is exposed as myth. The idea is argued by another expat Tibetan, now deceased, Chogyam Trungpa, in his iconoclastic The Myth of Freedom. A companion piece, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, is also an invigorating read for those of a mind to deconstruct the shibboleths of the day. There I was, possibly lying within centimeters of a human being I imagined detached from the rituals of daily life, soaring the ethers, blissfully unaware of the shivering aspirant next door. But aside from the suite of brilliant dreams no evidence emerged for this fanciful daydream and in the morning I packed up my shoulder bag and wandered back into town to eat. There’s no doubt the brain will hallucinate all manner of engaging material, often when parts of it are damaged or stimulated or deprived in some way. Sense deprivation technologies attempt to exploit this brain behaviour. The stuff of madness? Maybe. The value of such visions is almost exclusively the responsibility of the recipient unless the experience is undertaken within a controlled environment and is framed by traditions and centuries of practice. On our way back to the stars there are more things under heaven than…you can poke a stick at.
No Man’s Land
next top home painting prints writing cv about contact