During the last two months of a difficult year in which I bid my father adieu, my body was racked by pain and fatigue from both travel and overwork. I had just finished my first book. I should have felt alive and triumphant. Instead, I felt drained. In those final weeks of the year I went about my daily life feeling divested of any positive charge. I told family and friends that I felt drained of all “shakti.”
I used the word in the way most people of Indian origin might use it to describe an inner force that empowers them and drives their day. “Shakti,” according to the dictionary, is defined as “the dynamic energy of a Hindu god personified as his female consort.” In broader terms, however, the word alludes to a cosmic power and derives from the Sanskrit word, shakti, which refers to “power” or “divine energy.”
In India, “shakti” is believed to have penetrated the earth across many parts of the subcontinent eons ago. On a visit to the city of Baroda in Gujarat, a friend, Rahul Gajjar, led me towards one such “Shakti Peeth,” a place of pilgrimage at which the earth is believed to hold extraordinary spiritual energy. I remember the morning I stepped out of my airplane and looked up at the rheumy skies above me.
“Arrey baba, I’m telling you, don’t worry about the rain,” Rahul said, scowling at the grey above while flicking the ash from his half-smoked cigarette into the puddle of water under his foot. “I have yet to see a more beautiful day through my lens. I’m telling you. I’m lucky. So YOU are lucky. Just trust Rahul Gajjar.” I had been told that there wasn’t anyone in the town more qualified than Rahul to show me around Champaner-Pavagadh, now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tossing his cigarette into the brown sludge just before he opened the door of the beat-up purple Tata Indica, Rahul told me that given the inclement weather we would not have the time to trek up to the 10th century Shakti temple in Pavagadh hill and that we would be walking through the ruins of the medieval city of Champaner at the foothills instead.
We headed towards the mountain and Rahul delved into the history of the area. Between his narration, on and off, he’d bristle at my ignorance with respect to history and folklore.
“Arrey, how come you don’t know what Shakti Peeth is?” he said. “Kalpana-ji, you are Hindu, are you not?” he asked in a low voice. I steeled myself to swallow several veiled insults that morning.
“A Shakti Peeth is a place that has been blessed by Goddess Shakti’s powers,” he continued, slipping into the story of Shiva and his consort Sati, who was the embodiment of Shakti, or energy, at the dawn of civilization. When Shiva heard about his wife Sati’s self-immolation at her father’s sacrificial fire, he arrived at King Daksha’s palace, seized Sati’s body from the fire and roamed around the universe in a frenzy with her charred body over his shoulders. “As usual, he danced the thandav,” he said. Skepticism now writ on the downward curve of his mustache, he turned to me to check that I did in fact understand.
“You do know what the thandav is, right?” I nodded eagerly. Of course, every Hindu knew about Shiva’s cosmic dance of destruction. I employed the thandavall the time in my marriage, to make a point to my husband or my children.
Between puffs of smoke, Rahul shared other mythological details. “To stop the destruction of the world, Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, launched his discus, the sudarshana chakra, in Shiva’s direction, slashing Sati’s body into pieces.”
In the distance, I saw the green curve of Pavagadh hill believed to hold one of the 51 parts of the goddess’ body that had crashed into the earth from the heavens. “And her toe fell right here at Pavagadh,” Rahul said. “That’s why this mountain is shaped like a toe.” I imagined the Lord of Dance, Shiva, crisscrossing the length and breadth of India with Sati’s blackening body slung over his shoulder, his trident hanging in mid-air, steam curling off of it while flames trailed on the palloo of Sati’s once golden sari.
Rahul and I sped past mahua, bamboo and teak trees and emerged just outside Champaner Archeological Park. Holding my dupatta over my head to protect myself from the beginning showers, I stood by the desolate medieval ruins of Champaner that morning hearing the steady trickle of water on the ground and the twitter of sparrows. I took a deep breath and then another. Inside the vast prayer room of the Jami Masjid I felt the power of the duality, that yin-yang of Indian-Muslim cohabitation that had once been India’s way of life, long before any Englishman had sought to inject his dose of anarchy into the tenuous peace.
As we walked around Rahul spoke in hushed tones in a voice imbued with reverence. This talented artist had been photographing the ruins for twenty years, capturing its moods in different times and climes. The BBC had profiled him for documentaries on India. Reedy, as a homegrown beedi filled with tobacco flake rolled inside a tendu leaf, Rahul seemed more like a brooding sidekick of a villain in a James Bond movie, the mustachioed fall guy who ultimately got pushed off the topmost floor of a skyscraper, camera first, by the cat-stroking villain.
At the ruins that morning, as Rahul clicked his ponderous camera, he seemed contrite about tainting the quiet of the place with the clutter of his shutter. He scuttled about in an energetic trance in the drizzle, watching stealthily sometimes, running at other times, just in case he should let a picture perfect moment slip away from his pointer finger. He stopped, often just before putting his eye to the lens, shaking his head in disbelief, it seemed, at the beauty of what rose before him. I simply followed his eye.
Soon I too was swirling in the center of an inexplicable shakti soaked into the earth at Champaner-Pavagadh.