Last night I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with a circle of friends. It’s a film about travelers all seeking something—even if they didn’t know it—against the backdrop of very foreign land, in this case Jaipur, India. As we sat around a restaurant table afterwards, my friends and I had plenty of fodder for discussion—and for me, waves of beautifully intense memories flooded back.
In February of 1998 I was in Delhi and Jaipur studying raga, Indian classical vocal music, with Pir Shabda Kahn, who is now spiritual leader of the Sufi Ruhaniat International and Director of the Chisti Sabri School of Music. I was truly ripe for my experience in Mother India and what unfolded back then. Through the daily hours-long practice the veil became quite thin. I remember having a challenge staying grounded in “normal” reality at all. The drone of the tamboura going straight in through my crown set up the ensuing Initiation quite nicely. I relayed part of my experience in my first book: Calling Our Spirits Home.
Burial temple in Delhi of Hazrat Inayat Khan, who brought Sufism to the west.
I was drawn to go to India. I was inexplicably drawn from the depths of my soul. I had no words of explanation for my friends and family. I had no expectations toward the outcome. Yet, I knew that India had something to teach me, and that I would learn. I found myself in a state of not knowing, but trusting.
We landed in Delhi in the early morning hours. As our taxi conveyed us to our hotel, I was immediately transported back to 1978. Magically, my time travel took me to the six months I spent in Iran. There was a palpable aura of dejá vu as I noted the walls at streets’ edges barring glimpses into homes beyond and battered shutters rolled down over crumbling shop fronts. The same coating of dust blanketed everything. I saw the faces of the Iranian people I knew back then in the dark skin and beautiful brown eyes of our taxi driver. I said to myself: This is nothing new.
In the days that followed, I made entries into my mental databank: beautiful architecture, beggars on the street, tent dwellings, exquisite handicrafts, waves of people, gracious smiles, noxious fumes and traffic without rules. Each time effectively dissociated, I said: I’ve seen this before. Then we left Delhi and went to Jaipur.
While still in Delhi, I wrote about my feelings that, as I looked back on them later, seemed prophetic to me. From my journal: “I feel as though I am waiting to leave Delhi and go to Jaipur where something awaits me. I have the sense of going into myself and knowing that Self in all its manifestations—past, present and future…”
I spent the first days in Jaipur in meditative practices sequestered in the compound of Diggi Palace where we were staying. Diggi Palace was so named from its history as the hunting lodge of a long-gone maharaja. Its modest rooms and grounds provided an oasis in the heart of Jaipur. On the third day, my companion and I left the grounds and encountered Choutu Singh, the young Indian man who would become our constant guide. He offered us the services of his rickshaw and there I began my Initiation.
It seemed that Choutu drove us through every aspect of Jaipur and suddenly I experienced all as new—and connected directly to me. From my enduring meditations, or perhaps from just being in Mother India, I was in a heightened state of awareness. As we drove through byways and alleyways, the material destitution of the people I saw entered me. The filth I saw entered me. The barrage of noise and toxic air entered me. The open sides of the rickshaw found no barrier, physical or psychic, that divided any experience from me. There were no boundaries. All was seamless and I said out loud, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Street scene Jaipur.
Author Carla Woody in a Jain Temple in Jaipur.
We had stopped in a gem shop when I experienced waves of illness—immediate, sudden. Although quite healthy prior to our venture out that afternoon, by the time we returned to Diggi Palace less than an hour later, I was desperately ill. Fever, chills, insomnia and acute body aches were my companion through the night.
Inexplicably, waves of intense sadness arose from unaccountable depths. It was mine and it was not mine. Tears streamed down my face off and on through the night and during meditation the next morning. Then, I put hands on myself with the intent toward healing and began to feel better throughout the day. That night I had a normal night’s sleep and awoke feeling energetic and light as though I had been through a deep cleanse.
It took me two years to integrate this gift. Through that process I learned that dissociating from what brings fear only enlarges upon fear. Solely by fully associating, inviting the demon to tea as Shabda was fond of saying, allowing the aversion or angst to wash through consciousness may it be transformed. I remain indebted to Pir Shabda Kahn for creating the safe haven for this particular Initiation of mine.