Category Archives: Inspiration!

How to Make a Mountain

It’s that time of year again. Today is Govardhan Puja, when we remember Sri Krishna’s incredible lifting of a sacred mountain in Vrindavan. In the Vaishnava calendar there are so many festivals and as the years go by they stack on top of one another like layers of sediment. I imagine my life so far as a rock – each layer a testament to the moments that I spent thinking about Krishna – the thick, densely packed areas,  or not – those are the crumbling parts.

I can remember so many distinct Govardhan pujas – many spent in the soggy English October, inside a white marquee, huddling in front of blow heaters while we listened to narrations of the amazing story. As children one of our favourite parts of the day was the creation of ‘the hill’. This is a giant mound of sweets, dressed to mimic Govardhan Hill – usually complete with ponds of honey, boulders made of milk sweets and bright green shredded coconut for grass. The hill would be covered with plastic animals – deer, birds and lots of cows. After everyone had performed the puja of walking around the hill three times, the sweets would start to be handed out, and along with them, the plastic animals. My toy cupboards at home were full of the most prized- the cows. My small herd grew each year, and I would eagerly look forward to each year’s festival, when I would wait with hands outstretched as a priest plucked animals off the mound and dropped them into the reaching palms of all the kids.

So why build a hill of sweets? It’s definitely fun, but deeper than that, it’s just one way to remember the miraculous activities of Krishna, and help our love for him to grow. It’s also a beautiful way to celebrate Govardhan Hill, also known as Giriraj – the king of mountains. In Krishna’s world, everyone has personality – nothing is just stone, or just a tree. Everything is full of life, full of love, full of desire to serve. Giriraj is considered to be one of the greatest servants of Krishna, since he limitlessly gives the bounty of his forests, waterfalls, minerals and more to the villagers of Vrindavan.

Last year I spent Govardhan Puja in Vrindavan, where it is extra special, since the real Govardhan Hill is only miles away. In the central courtyard of the Krishna Balaram temple, I stood on a raised platform with six other girls, scooping handfuls of scorching, fragrant halava and pressing them onto the plastic covered frame of the hill. Our hands quickly became tender, burnt by the steam, and we slid about as the hot ghee oozed from the mound around our feet. In the meantime, raucous, joyful kirtan thundered away. The following week, I was staying at the foot of Govardhan itself. It was one of the most sacred, deep experiences of my life. Each day I would wake and watch the sun light pass over the rocky face of the hill, and after a day absorbed in chanting and hearing about Krishna, I would sit in a small grove of trees and listen to the night songs of the crickets. I never believed I would really feel that a hill was a person, but after seven days, I felt his deep presence, blessing all who came near him to pray.

At the end of my time there, I built a tiny house of stones. Some people do this to pray to Giriraj for a safe, happy home to live in, but I prayed that however long it took, I may one day live there in that sacred place. These days I stay in Manhattan on the 21st floor. Outside my windows the tops of towering buildings remind me of his ridges and peaks, and I realise that whether here or there, his blessings are near.

 

 

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Symphony.

I am writing without really knowing why. Sometimes writing is motivated by a new understanding, a ‘realisation’. But what realisation do I have? You can realise something, as in understand it, but surely to truly realise something means to ‘bring it into reality’, to live it. So to truly have a realisation means to understand something and then apply it every day.

So what have I realised lately? In small ways, like gathering scraps and snippets and threads, I have begun to understand that the things I thought were important – security, companionship, money – are not as important as they seem. Sometimes it seems like we are all living a great misunderstanding. We need so little, and the smallest things are the greatest treasures. To sing, to love, to dance. To smile as we fall asleep and as we wake. We can choose to do these things, or choose not to.

I have begun to glimpse that life is like a symphony of beauty and pain in equal measures. The music plays on, and each of us must decide how to play. We can choose to play with grace and humility. We can choose to play in such a way as to always push ourselves beyond our perceived limits. We can choose that if we trip up on a few notes, we smile and play on, no problem. We can choose to look up from the safety of our sheet music at the conductor, and feel safety and guidance in the movement of his hands. We can choose to play alone, and sometimes that is how the music is supposed to go. But at other times we are surrounded by a full orchestra, and we can feel the joy of harmony, the thrill of delicious syncopation.

Or if we are feeling insecure, we can watch the hands and faces of our fellow musicians and feel strength in togetherness. We can sing a painful song together. Or we can even fall silent. In times when our voices will not sing and our hands will not play, we can just listen to the music that washes within and without, steady like a timeless tide.

This beautiful lino cut was recently created by one of my old teachers, Nicola Barsaleau, a true inspiration.

 

 

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Just Like Honey

I was thinking about kirtan melodies as I jogged through the fields this morning. I’ve always participated in kirtan in a supportive role, but in the last six months or so, I’ve been getting asked to lead more. There’s nothing like sitting down in front of a roomful of people who are waiting for you to do something, with almost no idea what you’re planning to do.

What do I sing?! It’s a time honoured question. The words are not so difficult, but there are hundreds and hundreds of melodies to choose from. Some great kirtan leaders can archive thousands in their minds, pulling them out in an effortless sequence over hours of sweet chanting. For some, like me, breaking a sweat is not uncommon.

But as I jogged, I realised that even the most beautifully crafted jar can’t make the honey any sweeter. So it is with a tune. The melody is only a vessel that carries the nectarous names of the Lord, which are sweet in a way that can’t be matched by any other sound.

Photo by Purusartha das

So next time you sit down to sing, no worries. Whatever comes out, the honey will still be sweet. But if you are looking for beautiful melodies, you could try listening to some free downloads from Mantralogy.com, where five years of 24 hour kirtans are archived, along with thousands of other recordings. Happy tasting.

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Synaesthetic Santoor


Last night I went to hear Kaviraj Singh play santoor with his brother, Upneet on tabla. It was so wonderful. I’ve never been a big fan of the santoor. Somehow the cross between the plinky-plonky hammered strings and the sometime delicacy of Hindustani music didn’t excite me so much. But this was incredibly beautiful. The faster sections, known as jhalla – sounded like standing under a shower of diamonds – precision cut, refracting light in all directions.

Whenever I attend a concert, I am amazed at how different the experience of listening to music live is to listening to a CD. In my car, I hear the music plain – it may be moving and interesting but there’s a missing layer. In the concert hall, the music rises and shimmers – images and impressions fill the air like mirages. It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to synaesthesia – the condition of the brain that causes colours or other sensations to be triggered by certain sounds. My friend studying bansuri flute in India has synaesthesia, and it’s particularly fascinating for someone studying raga-based music. She can easily identify a raga, as each effortlessly appears as a specific colour in her mind when she hears it. She described how the colour of a word manifests as a mix of the colours of its individual syllables. Usually I keep a book handy to record the images that arise. Last night while Kaviraj played Raag Gorakh Kalyan – a poem appeared.

Dancing grass shudders wildly with every gust;
and starlings swoop across the sky.
Trees laugh, shaking their arms.
A smile spreads across the earth,
all spinning and alive.
Flowers must burst
at the sound of this music.
Spring weaves a lattice –
ribbons of light,
yellow, white and gold,
and a stretch of blue
that never ends.

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Voices Across Oceans

I often moan about the way technology influences my life. I remember the days when I didn’t own a mobile phone; when I actually received handwritten letters in the post and when a keyboard was something I played music on. It was kind of nice to not be accessible at every moment – or at least to be up against the expectation that I should be.

Now, after travelling for the past five years on and off, my once fairly small social circle has exploded to include thousands, across continents and timezones. It can be quite overwhelming to stay in touch, or just understand the nature of those relationships, kept alive by Facebook messages and occasional Skype calls.

The other day though, I thanked God for technology. I met a wonderful lady in Melbourne this year – a fellow Hare Krishna who also happens to love Carnatic music. While I was there we shared a happy hour swapping songs and ragas, and she told me how she’d been doing the same with another lady she knows in India. So last Friday morning we all met up on a conference call to have a music lesson – morning in London, afternoon in Coimbatore and evening in Melbourne. It was so enlivening, and unexpectedly easy, given that we couldn’t even see each other (which I know is possible too). We learnt ‘Jamuna Kinare’, a bhajan in Hindi by the Carnatic composer, Swati Thirunal. Below is a version sung by Prince Rama Varma.

Ahh. Sharing music gives me a warm feeling inside. Perhaps I can live with Skype after all.

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A Glorious End

Some days remain etched within the mind forever. I think yesterday was one I will never forget.

I’ve only attended a few funerals in my life. None have been for people I was particularly close to, but all were moving in their own way. I’m sure everyone remembers the first time they saw a dead body – that strange twist of fear and morbid fascination and loss. I always felt so uncomfortable at the outpouring of emotion. As a teenager, I felt confused at what I was supposed to do. Should I try and cry, even if I don’t feel it? Would people appreciate it if I try and be lighthearted? Am I supposed to comfort people, or do they want to be left alone?

Yesterday’s ceremony was perhaps one of the most cathartic, moving experiences I’ve ever had. Close to eight hundred people gathered at the North London crematorium to pay last respects. One hundred and fifty crowded the small, sunlit chapel, whilst the remainder watched outside on TV screens. I sat with a few friends in a corner behind the plinth where the coffin would eventually sit. We were there with harmonium, kartals, mridanga, flute and violin to lead the major portion of the ceremony – continuous kirtan. Several family members gave beautiful speeches, glorifying the unique qualities of their father, uncle and brother. They spoke of his generous, unfailingly open heart and his humility. His desire to serve others and his lighthearted, loving nature were celebrated by so many. From my vantage point at the front of the room, I could see heads nodding as they spoke, each a moving testament to the truth of their words. The time line of his life was recited. It almost felt as if we walked through a gallery, examining images and memories, and fragments of a life, mapping his journey up to the present moment. It can be sobering to hear a life summarised. One life seems so short – a fluttering rush of days and months, like a moth falling towards a flame. But even a short life is glorious when lived with integrity and substance.

After speeches the front and back doors were thrown open, the March wind gusting in with the shafts of sunlight. A non stop line of people passed through, holding flower petals which they placed at his feet as a sign of respect. The kirtan began, and the sound carried up to the high ceiling. Watching every person pass, I was captivated by the range of emotions on each face. So many kinds of tears – of love, of pain and loss, of joy. Some were overwhelmed and wept uncontrollably, whilst others looked on his face with a steady gaze and peaceful heart. Children passed, looking dazed or distressed, and teenagers, trying to control emotions they never expected. Old friends, colleagues, saffron clad monks. Perhaps the worst to see were his parents, saying goodbye to a cherished son. They lovingly touched his face and walked away from the coffin with faltering steps. I sat watching, singing and playing my violin – trying to stay present to my task but finding tears streaming down my face at unexpected moments. They dripped down my nose, falling all over my violin. I looked over at my friends to see them crying too. My dear friend sang with her eyes closed, only pausing once in two continuous hours because emotion overwhelmed her.

Despite so many tears, as the ceremony drew closer to the end, an indescribable feeling of joy began to rise within the room. Voices called with such love and focus. The sound was heavenly in a rare way. With an irresistible rise and fall, the mridanga drum picked up tempo, and a few men began to dance. They stood beside the coffin, gazing at their old friend with such love, arms raised, swaying and stepping in time. More joined in and soon almost everyone was standing and moving to the beat – even those looking on from the rear balcony. I wondered if it was disrespectful to dance at a funeral? It certainly seemed incongruous in the white walled, Victorian chapel. But no one cared – in those last moments, all sounds were of loving prayer – every tear stained face decorated with a smile.

Then silence fell, and my Dad recited the final prayers from the ancient Upanishads. ‘Let this temporary body be burnt to ashes, and let the air of life be merged with the totality of air. Now, O my Lord, please remember all my sacrifices, and because You are the ultimate beneficiary, please remember all that I have done for You.’ We repeated the words together, speaking one final prayer that described the glory of kirtan as the garden-like oasis for the weary soul. Then with the press of a button, it was all over. Vacuums were quickly whipped out to clean away the petals and everyone was ushered out.

May we all lead lives rich with love and service, that flower in such a glorious end.

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The S Word

Tonight I was sitting next to my mum and a few people commented that we looked ‘exactly like sisters!’ Compliment for her. Yes, I know I’m not getting any younger. Tomorrow marks one more year of being, and I’m surprised at how meaningless it’s starting to feel.

When I was younger I was all into birthdays. Each year had a different theme, from St Patrick’s Day, to murder mystery, to Hawaii. It was fun. But now that I’m officially an old crotchet, I don’t feel much for the passing of another twelve months – except the realisation that there’s no time like the present to become more determined to live my words – put my thoughts into action.

So many experiences this year have brought me to the understanding that I have to surrender. I know – it’s almost a dirty word in today’s society. Surrender is what you do when you get arrested, or when you realise that you’re going to be stuck in traffic, whether you beep the horn twenty times or not. Surrender means relinquishing control. Failing to take charge of life.

Well, not really. At least not from where I’m standing. To me surrender means being satisfied with the fact that I’m not in control. It means acknowledging the divine source of everything in my life, and having faith that there is a higher plan. It means letting go to whatever vision I have of the way things are supposed to be, and listening, watching and learning as they unfold the way they will.

Tomorrow is a birthday for me, but a funeral for my uncle. We step into this life for a few moments, and walk off through the wings after the play ends. It’s so important to make everything inbetween count. Not in a frantic way. Not anxiously watching the years passing, our bodies changing. But with grace, good humour, patience and faith.

I love the way my dear friend Gaura put it in his song, ‘Surrender’. Heartfelt realisation.

 

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