The white cotton kurta-pajama I wore was plain and unadorned, as was the clothing worn by my wife behind me.
Beforehand, in the dark, we had washed and dressed in the pilgrim quarters. For today’s experience, only the perfection of simplicity would do. Slipping from our minds were the usual cares one has when traveling in India: we didn’t worry about the safety of our rented car, our luggage, our futures.
By the time we had gotten to the bottom of the steps carved into the stone, it was just beginning to grow candy red at the horizon. No one else was here. The wind spoke around our bodies using friendly dialects.
We both were reasonably fit, but after what seemed the thousandth step upward on the stone mountain we were panting, climbing, pausing. The rock was bare everywhere we could see. The steps went up to the unknown.
It was really only a small mountain as far as mountains go, but it was the only thing in the area that rose above the flat plain. It also was the only thing that wasn’t colored the burnt brownish red of the soil. This land constantly proclaimed that you too would look like it if you had the same kind of sun shining on you day after day.
We had arrived the night before. The temple site was in the middle of nowhere. Dry landscape dotted with plants, rocks, and lots of dust was all that we had seen for hours riding in the back of the Ambassador sedan yesterday. It was flat; the horizon was an eerie full circle.
In the very late afternoon we had seen the big rock that formed the single mountain. It grew large and dark, pushing up the sky. It was an anomaly. I could see how many years ago it had attracted someone’s attention and it became a holy place. It was the only notable thing to see for miles; to get there even by car felt like it took years of travel.
There was a small complex of offices where the administrators did whatever busy things administrators do at an isolated religious area. We entered the office to let them know we’d arrived, secured a place to sleep, and made a donation.
The old man sitting behind the desk had a gray, trimmed moustache, a full head of hair, and a sturdy cane leaning against the desk for when he walked. The cane looked older than he, but was just as venerable in the same simplicity.
“Did you bring your own food?” he asked in Hindi.
“No,” my wife replied for us.
“You can eat with the priests and the pilgrims if you like. The food is simple, but hot,” he said in Hindi.
“Thank you,” I said in Hindi.
He looked closely at me through his thick glasses. I get this all the time. I listen and speak in Hindi as much as I am able, but Indians never talk to me. They don’t believe their ears, and only speak to my wife when they use Hindi. An American couldn’t have taken the time to learn the language, they are sure; Americans don’t bother to do that.
He asked her, “Will he be able to eat Indian food? It will be vegetarian, and with the spiciness of whatever masalas the cook uses. Most Americans don’t like such food. There are no tables or chairs either.”
“He eats that kind of food regularly,” she replied. “And at our home he often sits on the floor.” She didn’t mention that this was usually in front of the television, so for diplomacy I didn’t add that fact.
“Well, all right,” he said doubtfully, and for the sake of friendliness he put on a big smile looking up at me.
At the evening meal, the sadhus didn’t seem to notice that a blue-eyed firangi was sitting on the floor with them at dinner, although of course they had.
At this time of year they had only a few pilgrims. Those travelers were sitting around the room with us and the sadhus. They were the ones who stared at the white guy who must have hypnotized the Indian woman next to him into marrying him.
But to their credit, even those pilgrims soon forgot about us. They were simple—a word that I’d grown to realize my family used to describe a person that was without guile, not a person who was uneducated or stupid. These pilgrim travelers, simple, were more concerned with inner thought and the meditation of perfection. They came to this place to work on the mind-twisting problem of shedding karma completely.
The food was uncomplicated—the kind I like even when in the States: a couple of cooked vegetables, plus a heap of curry-chawal, rice with a yellow sauce. We ate using that technique I still found hard to master: taking an amount of steaming food using fingers held straight down with all fingers grasping, then moving it to the mouth without spilling. I always stained my kurta.
The people serving us with food were middle-aged holy men living at this place. They dished out as much food as anyone wanted, going around the circle of us sitting on the ground, treating all of us with a respect usually only given to royalty.
The respectful attitude came from the religion. These serving people were practitioners with a purity: they held that any younger human who was sitting before them, his or her steel thali, or plate, waiting for a scoop of food from the giant pot, may have lived more lifetimes than they had, maybe even progressed further.
After supper the sun sat, and I sat too on the porch near the main ground-level temple building. My wife floated around, hands in that respectful praying position drummed into her since she could walk. She looked at the carved images of the old saints: they were people who lived a long time ago. Some of these statues were many centuries old.
I sat quietly, legs crossed correctly, absorbing things: the evening air, the sounds of the Rajasthani desert, my wife’s soft footsteps as she moved looking at the statues—and I found that I could let go of every thought that appeared, automatically seeking the fullness of emptiness. This was a special place indeed: I usually couldn’t let go so easily. The posture, the breath, the mind: this place was bringing them into unity.
I didn’t know it at the time, but somebody had been watching us through a window. A message was sent overnight up the stone mountain.
At the top, the sun having just risen, we reached a very large carved-out enclave. There were partitioned-off areas along each side, created by long walls of tall white cloth. Straight ahead the huge murti, or statue, stood, carved out of the stone mountain, but still a part of it. Above us was naked sky, blue and getting lighter by the minute.
A sadhu emerged from one of the cloth partitions and approached us. He spoke, again directly and only to my wife because he was using Hindi.
I listened, then whispered to her with wonder, “Did he just say … I mean … to take off my clothes?”
“Not exactly,” my wife replied softly. She looked up into my face. Her eyes were very wide. “He says that they saw us last night and believes that we’re true pilgrims, and he is going to let you do the washing ceremony of the murti. I’ve never, ever seen a Westerner allowed to do this, especially first thing in the morning. This is unprecedented.”
“So what do I do?” I asked.
“Just follow him. I don’t know what is going to happen.”
“Then you come with me.”
“I can’t go back there,” she gestured to the cloth partitions. “It’s only for men, and it’s only by invitation. Go … go now.”
The priest led me away from the center of the stone carved-out rectangle. Behind the broad white sheets was a maze of little rooms used for various purposes.
The priest motioned me to follow him through the maze, and in the fifth cubicle he stopped. Using a few words and lots of gestures—knowing that I couldn’t possibly understand any Hindi—he indicated that I was to remove my clothes and he would help me wear a dhoti of homespun cloth, Gandhi style.
I was very mystified as to what was going on but I didn’t speak, for words might have popped the rainbow soap bubble that was moving me through this.
The priest led me back outside where my wife was waiting. But he guided me away from her before getting close enough to touch her.
He and I stood before a waist-high stone murti—it was a miniature of the gigantic statue carved out of the mountain.
He explained, speaking very slowly, and using a few English words he had picked up, that except for festivals or special holy days, they only consecrate this small murti in the morning. It represented the large one.
I said to him haltingly, “But … I am not strictly a follower of this religion. My wife’s family is. They …”
The priest smiled. “That doesn’t matter. You were seen last night, down below. All you have to be is a follower of the true principles of the universe, however they make themselves known to you. We could see that was in you.”
I didn’t feel worthy of that kind of compliment. I didn’t know what to say.
He led me step by step through the process of consecrating the smaller version of the god-reminder statue before us. He had me do it all: first the milk, then water, then red teeka on the forehead. A little rice was applied and thrown over the miniature murti’s head. Finally he had me put some flowers and food at the base, and wrap a small red cloth around the stone shoulders.
We stepped backwards, away from the miniature murti. The towering stone one behind it gazed down at us with a kind, peaceful expression. The priest said a few prayers, and it was over.
He gently took me by the elbow and led me back to the fifth cubicle and left me without a word. I stood for a moment, unsure of what to do. I dressed in my kurta pajama and folded the homespun cloth.
When I came out a few minutes later, my wife moved to my side. With whispered awe in her voice she said, “They never let an outsider do those things here. In fact, they don’t invite even the pilgrims to do what you have just done.”
I was silent. I was dazed. And I didn’t understand why.
I noticed the priest was close by and I turned to him, and with my wife’s help asked him why I had I been granted such an honor.
He replied, “Because we saw how good your attention was when you sat before the statues last night. We saw your breathing. Your posture. We felt your mind.”
I was moved beyond words. I wouldn’t have given myself what he had given me. “Not worthy, not worthy” were the only words floating through my head.
The only response I could give graciously was to silently thank him. I joined my hands in front of my face, saluting the god in him. I closed my eyes and also slowly and reverently bowed.
My wife took my hand and led me back to the stone steps to descend the mountain. On her face the wonder of it all was still there, her eyes still wide. She shook her head gently, as if she didn’t believe what she had seen. Then, after a few moments, she said, “This will be something that the priests will never forget. It was a good experience for them, that sadhu told me.”
Later, driving away in the car, I glanced at my watch and saw what today’s date was. I took a deep breath. I remembered how many times my brothers and I had awoken very early on this date when we were kids, in America. We would slip downstairs, trying to keep our parents asleep, and see what presents were under the Christmas tree.
The present given to me today by that priest was greater than anything I had ever found under a tree in a wrapped-up box.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family. This story concludes the Through Blue Eyes series. The entire series is archived on www.ticg.wpengine.com.