Monday, March 27, 2006

:::Banishing and Bollywood:::

Jodhpur sunrise

Namaste sweet friend!

I apologize for the lapse in communication. Our trip
has been so crazy busy that we have been wont for much
free time to sit and do internet. I apologize for not
responding personally to those of you who have written
me- I love receiving your responses... it makes me
want to keep writing!

Ahhh, yes, the saga continues. So much has happened
between then and now. I write to you from the magical
deserts of Pushkar, Rajisthan about the magick of
union in the dusty little town of Siligury. Let me
see if I can teleport back a couple weeks...

Day two of the wedding, yes that's where I left off.
Day two actually started the night previous, with the
beautician who was scheduled to henna the hands of the
females in the wedding party suddenly and inexplicably
cancelling. As it turns out, it wasn't such an
inexplicable cancellation. Gina, who is famous for
her ability to create ultimatums had given one to the
beautician a couple days before: "you're gonna do the
makeup my way or I wash it all off and make you do it
again." Apparently she didn't like that very much and
retaliated by 'accidentally' double booking herself
that night. She sent a servant woman who happened to
know a little about henna instead.

So there we are, getting our hands covered in
sandalwood-scented dookie when we realize this woman
really doesn't know what she's doing. her lines
aren't straight and her patterns are inconsistent.
Rather than call her on it, we do the politely Indian
thing and wait until she is gone to rush to the
bathroom and wash it off. Gina is more than a little
upset that her hands look like they have been dipped
in cow pies. But that is the least of her worries.

hennaed hands

The florists have arrived and are beginning work on
the room in the hotel that is to house the ceremony
and her 100 guests. If you've seen Monsoon Wedding you
might know what I'm implying when I say this.
Apparently the florist decided that someone else was
going to build the stage. Who that someone else is,
no one can quite figure out. So its 9am Saturday
morning and there is no stage for the ceremony. Gina
is running around like a chicken with its head
recently severed trying to get everything arranged. I
don't really understand why she's freaking out until I
see the room... before I tell you about it, I should
preface it by saying that Gina is severely allergic to
Marigolds. Marigolds grow abuntantly in India and are
used en masse in nearly EVERY wedding decoration. But
Gina, as I said, is severely allergic to Marigolds.
And Indians, as I have mentioned previously, are
severely biased towards using marigolds. For Gina it was a
battle just getting the florist to understand why she
wanted him to completely abstain from using marigolds.
Let alone explaining to him how to execute her
elaborate plan for a fairy-tale wedding gazebo in the
middle of a concrete room in the middle of a dusty
town in West Bengal, India. But she did a magnificent

The room is concrete with no ventilation, no decor,
stained pergo floors and not even a hint of good feng
shui. Gina had told me about her plans for the room
but I couldn't imagine. I come downstairs around 3pm
to check on the progress and figure out where my
altars to the four directions were going to go.

The outside of the Hotel

The first thing I see is a 3 foot wide path of perfectly
placed red rose petals running from the front door of
the hotel to the front door of the ceremony room.
When I enter the room, the smell of freesia and lilac
and rose and lily tickles my nose. My breath catches
in my throat. The room has been transformed into
something that is later described as, " the place
where people get married in heaven". The walls are
covered in white satin. the floors in white pillows.
all over the walls are bouquets of roses and purple
orchids and ferns and lilies and... and... wow. Tears
are streaming down my face. It is the most beautiful
wedding arrangement I have ever seen. And I've been
to a lot of weddings.

How gorgeous is this?!

So the ceremony is set to begin around 7, as this is a
very auspicious time. Though we are on Indian
Standard time here, remember? So the guests begin
arriving around 7. They flood through the perfectly
decorated front gate and the breathtaking arch over
the front door and mar the perfect trail of
rosepetals. Deepayan's father and Pael's mother are
bantering about when Gina's ritual will take place.
Pael's mother wants us to do it before the Hindu
ceremony begins, while all the guests are still
eating. Gina gets wind of that and firmly puts an end
to that idea. We will perform our ritual when each
and every guest is sitting with rapt attention, and
not a moment before.
The beautiful bride

So we go upstairs and wait. and wait. and wait. we
have been assured that it will be only 15 minutes
while they round up the guests and that James will
come upstairs to retrieve us. I light my chalice full
of dried coconut and dhoop and incense and wait. and
wait. and wait. I light a fire so big, trying to get
the smoke going that I have to actually pour water on
the whole concoction to put it out, lest I light my
sari (which the beautician, by the way, intentionally
wrapped me in so I would look like a brightly-colored
hippo and thus not outshine the bride) on fire.

Priestess in preparation

An hour later (it's now 8:30), all the fires are out
and James finally arrives upstairs to retrieve us for
the ceremony. I am sure that they have finished the
whole thing by now and all the guests are gone, but he
assures me that the ceremony has just begun. I
arrange everyone in the proper order and we all take a
deep breath. This is the first time I have ever
conducted a truly public ceremony. My heart is racing
and I am making a concerted effort to stay grounded
and centered at the same time.

We enter the heavenly room and all one hundred and
fifty eyes are on us. I can feel each eyeball on me
like little laser lights. The videographer sticks his
camera and his uber bright light in my face and I keep
breathing deeply; stay calm, Alli.

We get to the stage and all of my perfectly laid
altars have been carelessly shoved to the side. I
insist wordlessly that they be moved, and relatives
scramble in all directions to restore my offerings to
the four directions to their original position.

James begins throat singing. The low, earth-shaking
kind of throat singing and we encircle the stage, each
of us landing in their assigned direction and me in
the center. I light the center candle and I pass the
flame around the circle, bringing light to each
direction. I unsheath my athame, raise it to the sky
and then to the ground and I banish the evil spirits
and unwanted guests from the room. James aids me with
his deep undulations. When I utter for the last time,
"BE GONE!" the stillness in the room is tangible. I
feel the rush of adrenaline I have known and loved so
well from my past on the stage. But this time, there
is another kind of fuel behind this surge, a desire to
create sacred space, a sincere intention to create a
safe circle for the union of two people.

We begin in the north, where Deepayan stands. I call
to the guardians of the North and Deepayan reads from
his card the invocation I have written for him.

(The cards I used, by the way, were a synchronistic
addition, as they were postcards that I happened to
have, printed with my dear friend Roman's depiction of
the Green Tara on them.) Linda sprinkles salt water
to purify and Gina charges with fire and air. We
continue around the circle, James in the east, Gina in
the south, Linda in the west. We all come into the
center bearing candles from each direction and light
the center candle together. The circle is cast. I
can see it ringing us, like a blue flame. I step down,
into the North to hold the space. The ritual has

The hindu side of the ritual is fascinating, though I
have very little context with which to understand it.
A fire is lit and Gina and Deepayan are asked to
repeat sanskrit phrases over and over again and then
throw things into the fire. Every once in awhile a
relative is called up to do the same. It becomes a
little repetitive on the thirtieth time around, but
all the same entrancing. The most interesting part
for me is the casual nature with which most guests
regard the ceremony. By the end, not more than 25 of
the original 125 guests are left in the room- they
have left to mill around, get some chai, snack a bit,
you know... the ceremony doesn't seem to be all that
important to anyone but the bride, the groom and their
immediate families.

In the middle of the ceremony I notice that the
videographer is also the photographer. Being a
wedding videographer myself, I know that's all but
impossible. I realize that if he is trying to capture
decent video he won't get many still photos of the
ceremony. So I coax Deepayan's uncle into translating
for me and convince the guy that- no, I'm not trying
to steal your camera- I'm a professional- and he hands
over the goods. heheh. Priestess and videographer
all in one. What a package, eh?

Afterwards, the trickle of guests that's left gurgles
their way into the dining hall and feasts together.
Banerji-Da, the vedic priest who had conducted the
ritual approaches my table.
"Very beautiful. I know very well, the offerings you
make to the elements. Our practices have many things
in common, priestess."
"Thank you Banerji-Da. Your ritual as well, was very
beautiful. I only wish I could have understood half
of the sanskrit. It is so beautiful."
"Tell me, are you Christian? Buddhist? Jewish?"
I smile- this again- and with a little more confidence
this time,
"I believe that all gods are one god, that all beliefs
are really the same, and that all forms of worship are
but one path to the same mountaintop"
It still surprises me, but he smiles with
understanding at a deep level.
"we believe the same, that all gods are one and that
we all have a different path towards the light"
(well, that was pretty much it-- he speaks only broken
English and it takes him a few more words than that to
get his point across, but you get the idea).
We shake hands and look the other in the eye. I feel
something profound exchanged. For the first time
since arriving in India, I feel truly understood.

That night is a beautiful extension of this
understanding. I finish my dinner, take some photos
with Deepayan and James and Banerji-Da and then head
upstairs to take off my uncomfortable shoes and have a
clandestino sip off the warm beer that awaits me in my
room. But I am met with a surprise-- a soundsystem--
A SOUNDSYSTEM!!! on the upper floor of the hotel
playing nothing less than super funky arabic remixes
from the archives of the Tandav crew, aka Baba James
and Shri Deepayan. Yes, J&D have not only managed to
find a great soundsystem, they have managed to talk
the hotel into letting them blare it late-night in a
town where there is a strict noise ordinance
punishable by a hefty fine.

What a scene it is. Aunties in their fanciest saris
bobbing their heads at the edge of the crowd, cousins
getting jiggy bollywood style in the midst of it- Gina
and Deepayan in their wedding finery grooving like
they were back in Seattle, the bellhops from the hotel
giggling and watching in awe at the mishmash of
cultures and rhythms and styles. We dance until the
music stops and our silks are soaked. Then we retire
to James' and my room for that warm beer. Ahhhh.
Warm beer never tasted so good.

The next few days are a flurry of activity- ritual
upon tradition upon meal upon custom are sprung upon
the bride and groom- and us, the wedding party. among
them the eating and feeding of seemingly endless
supplies of Bengali sweets- Rosh Gola and milk cookies
and Gulab Jamon- All interspersed with a lot of
Pranam- the touching of feet to show respect. You
know, feet and sweets- they go so well together.

The highlight of the remaining four days of wedding
ceremony is, without a doubt, the reception at
Deepayan's parents' home. They have spent weeks
preparing their home, building a temporary room with
stretched canvases across the walls, a temporary
dining tent on the lot next door for feeding the
guests. I don my second sari and prepare to just be a
guest this time. It feels nice to be able to blend in
with the crowd. Ok. I have never once gotten to
actually blend here in India, but you know what I

James and Deepayan have set up a huge soundsystem
again and are prepared to rock Siligury. And they do.
Gina and Deepayan endure an hour or so of very
formal gift receiving and guerilla pranams from their
honorary thrones. The traditional Ball singer finishes
his set. James pumps up the volume from the laptop and
we are all amazed at what happens next.

Gina's Mom, silent and sullen all week, jumps up from
her chair and starts flailing around like a seagull
just bit by a sand flea. This inspires Dadu,
Deepayan's 90-year old Grandfather to get up and
boogie too. Before anyone can say "pickle up the bum"
nearly half of the 300-odd guests are dancing.
DANCING!!! And not just politely bobbing their heads
but really getting down_ towwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwn.

We rock Siligury that night. Correction, James and
Deepayan rock Siligury. It's like Tandav in the
middle of nowhere, India. James asks Jaitu,
Deepayan's uncle later if it was perhaps the best
party Siligury has EVER seen. He replies, prudent as
usual, "well I can't say, since I haven't BEEN to
every party in Siligury. But I would venture that it
was definitely ONE of the best... definitely."

We all sleep well that night, and the following day
its time to get out of town for a bit. We pack up a
jeep with six of us and head out to the Jaldapara
Wildlife Sanctuary for a little peace and quiet. For
around $15 each we get three lovely rooms, three
delicious meals plus tea service and a ride on the
back of a beautiful Indian Elephant. We see four
one-horned rhinos (a rare occurence!) from the back of
our wrinkled long-trunked friends at dawn and spend
the morning sipping tea and playing in the It is the
perfect ending to a hectic but exciting seven days of
wedding preparation and undertaking.

The next day we return to siligury. James and I pack,
say goodbye to all of our new friends at the hotel and
at Deepayan's home and head off on a very bumpy bus
ride towards Gangtok, Sikkim, the last stronghold of
tibetan buddhist culture still accessible to tourists.
Sikkim was once an independent buddhist kingdom but,
upon witnessing the fate of its neighbor Tibet,
decided to become a part of India instead of being
forcibly occupied by China. It's tough being bordered
by the worlds two most densely populated nations.
Deepayan tells us that its a good thing we are
visiting now, because in five years, he hypothesizes,
the whole place will be gobbled up by Bollywood. We
don't quite understand him but we nod agreeably. We
will come to understand the verity of his words later.

Ok, It is time for me to break here. In the time it
has taken me to write this email so much has happened-
we have travelled from Rajisthan (or as we now call
it, Raji-SCAM) to Kolkata. seven people have been
murdered needlessly in Seattle. Amma has come to
town. The world keeps moving and here I am babbling.
My words seem so silly and trite when tabbed next to
the grim story I am reading in the Seattle times. My
heart and my love goes out to the friends and families
of those torn by these horrific crimes. We are
leaving India tonight on a red-eye to Bangkok. I will
send my thoughts and my blessings from the sky.

Much more to come when I don't feel the weight of the
cloud hanging over my hometown. I love you all and
look forward to sharing stories of magical trees and
dung trains with you sometime in the near future.

Kisses and tea and gulab jamon juice,

Monday, March 13, 2006

::Sandalwood Smudges::

Tashi Delek dear one!

I send these words to you from the Himalayas- Gangtok, Sikkim, one of the last Tibetan Buddhist enclaves still accessible to foreigners. This morning we were blessed by a group of chanting monks in the stairwell outside our hotel room... but wait-- I think there are still more Siligury stories to tell before I head into the Himalayas.

Let's see, where was I... oh yes. I, the humble moon ceremonialist was spontaneously initiated as the high pagan/wiccan priestess from the United States. "The ceremonies start tomorrow morning. I'm sure you will come up with something fabulous, Alli." This at 7pm.

Deepayan and Gina headed immediately to the market to collect my list of supplies for the
ritual-- clay chalices for the four directions, incense, dried coconut for purification, puja knives/athames and various small altar pieces. I retired to my room to frantically work on rituals for the the next two days' festivities. Thank Goddess I had a copy of Starhawk's Spiral Dance with me! A witch never knows when that will come in handy...

A small interjection: if you aren't familliar with Indian/Hindu weddings, I think I should explain that the ceremonies are spread out over for at least 5 days, with the actual wedding ceremony usually taking place on the second day and a melange of sometimes outmoded (from my western perspective) rituals and traditions carried out for the next three. Also keep
in mind that this particular Indian family is notorious for their indirect communication (read: they don't tell anyone anything directly, but rather rely on the grapevine to get important information out). Compounded with the communication issue is the pervasiveness of what Deepayan affectionately refers to as 'Indian Flexi-Time', a clock system which basically works like this:
Gina: "when will you be arriving for the first ceremony?"
Family member: "10 o'clock in the morning. It is a very auspicious time."
Gina: "so you will be here ready to start by ten?"
Family Member: "Yes of course, ten o'clock."

So it's ten o'clock and no family. Not a trace of them. I am dressed in the most priestess-y 'western' outfit I could muster with my limited backpacker's wardrobe. Funny, because the outfit was actually comprised of a very bold tribal print skirt I bought in Thailand and a plain tank top and a purple puja scarf with "om" sanskrit symbols on it that I bought in Kolkata wrapped around me. So it wasn't very western at all... anyways. I am very tangential today.

So it's now eleven o'clock and no sign of the family
or of Pael, the Indian girl Deepayan's family brought in to be on Gina's side. I have set beautiful altars in the four directions, grounded and centered myself, lit the candles and cast the circle and am ready to cleanse and purify each family member before they enter the room.

Finally at eleven thirty (Indian Standard time, see?) Pael shows up looking a little flustered and running through the halls calling out, "Gina? Gina! Ginaaaaaaaa!" Gina calmly ushers her into the ceremony room and introduces me to Pael as her High Priestess. This is all still very new to me and I try not to wince as I shake Pael's hand-- I feel somehow that I do not yet deserve the title that has been so hastily bestowed upon me. Pael begins frantically setting up the room for the Hindi blessing ceremony. She attempts to absentmindedly clear my carefully set altars to make room for her trays of sweets but Gina
catches her and in a authoritative tone says,

"No! those are altars, they are sacred space! You may set sacred items on them but you may not move anything!" I smile silently.

Flustered, Pael attempts to arrange things around the altars and again Gina, enjoying the rush of being more in control of the ceremonies implores her, "stop! You must only walk counterclockwise around this room! This is sacred space!" Pael scowls at me and I do my best to smile benevolently. This was more intensity than I usually work with.

I'm a pretty laid-back witch, see. I believe that if you put the energy out there with a pure heart and a clear intention that it gets out there. period. some people work better with rigid guidelines and stringent ceremonies that must be followed to the letter lest they backfire. As with all things in my life, I say the less structure the better... but to each her own.

So around about noon, James came upstairs to announce the arrival of the family. finally. James has been appointed as the official ambassador to the temporary US/Indian consulate in Siligury, West Bengal. I refill my incense chalice after burning all of its contents in the two hours of anticipation and wait at the door. Dadu, Deepayan's 90 year old grandfather with three teeth and a heart of gold is the first in line. He looks a bit confused at this strange western woman blocking the doorway. Pael explains to him in Bengali as best as she can what I am doing and he relaxes a bit. I take a deep breath and with all the authority of the goddess I can collect I blow smoke on him and say:
"only those bearing gifts of perfect love and perfect harmony may cross this threshold. all others are banished."
he bows to me in Namaskar and with a flourish I allow him entry. I do this to every person
in line before they enter the room, including James and the very confused videographer. heheh. It's fun being on the other side of the wedding video camera. The first few guests seem a bit intrepid but by the end of the line everyone is thanking me upon completion of the cleansing.

The blessing ceremony begins and Deepayan's father says some words in Bengali and then everyone puts grass on Gina's head and smudges her forehead with sandalwood and feeds her a bite of sweet treats. I sit behind her and try to look official as all eyes are on me, the strange but fascinating western priestess. By the end of the ceremony, Gina has so much sandalwood on her face it looks as though a well-fed bird has been sitting on her head all morning.

Deepayan's father concludes the ceremony and we all gather for a plate of Bengali Sweets- milk-based coconut and almond cookies in the shape of fish (the unofficial vegetable of Bengal) and fruits and birds. Deepayan's father and uncle both approach me with big smiles on their faces and tell me, "thank you, Alli, priestess. We are so honored that you have come all
the way to India to share your ceremonies with us." With a deep breath I smile and bow to them in Namaskar and return the sentiment, "it is a great honor for me to be here and to share in the blessing of Gina and Deepayan on this happy occasion!"

Jaitu, Deepayan's uncle, comes to sit next to me before he leaves to conduct the same ritual for
Deepayan who is at his house. "Alli, tell me, what religion do you come from? Are you Buddhist? Christian? Muslim?" I shake my head yes/no to all of these and realize that I am not sure how exactly to respond. What religion do I represent? Paganism? perhaps a bit. Wiccan? a bit more so. Shamanism? yes, there is a touch of that. Christian? There is a sprinkle of Christ Consciousness there as well. I took a deep breath and spoke from my heart: "I would
say that I do not represent a religion but rather a belief that we are all one, that all gods and
goddesses are one deity, that all things are interconnected." To my surprise, he got it and smiled a smile of deep understanding. "Indeed, we believe as well that all gods are one god, it is only our paths to them that are different." We smiled at each other and it is in this moment I realize that I am indeed a high priestess...

And that is only the beginning of the story, but my fingers are tired and my toes are freezing here in this mountain air. More juicy bits to come... next up, day 2- the wedding ceremony.

Sending you deep breaths of mountain air,

Sunday, March 05, 2006

::Sacred Cows and the Pagan Priestess::

Greetings dear friend! *ahhhhh* yes. As you may or may not already know, James and I left lovely
Seattle for a journey to the east. We arrived in Thailand on the 24th and spent 3 leisurely days in
Bangkok strolling along the river and sipping Singhas. Good thing we took it easy.

We arrived in Kolkata, India in the dead of night and our taxi drivers took full advantage of the darkness
to drive us through the most poverty-ridden parts of town. By the time we arrived at our hotel I was fairly
sure that India's situation was worse than I could have every imagined in my worst nightmares. And the
taxi driver tried to play on our fear to get us to double pay... but when James busted out his hindi and I
busted out my Lonely Planet they knew their gig was up. James and I are a good team that way...

When the light (and our friend Deepayan) arrived in the morning, things were a little less chaotic. I emphasize a
LITTLE. We ran all over town gathering stuff needed for Deepayan and Gina's wedding. I found two beautiful Saris
and nearly had a heart attack three times over when leaving the shop-- if you've been to India, you know. If you
haven't, well, lemme just say-- crossing the road as a pedestrian in India continues to be a life-affirming experience
for me. That is, it makes me realize how happy I am to be alive when I reach the other side unharmed. Not to
worry though, despite the seeming chaos of the road systems here, Deepayan has assured me that in his entire life
he has never seen a car accident or a pedestrian hit. He likened the indian style of driving to an extreme sport and
was half joking when he told us that this is the reason there are no roller coasters in India. heh. The adrenaline
rush is five times that of any fun park ride I've ever experienced. I imagine one could get addicted to it after awhile...

Anywho, we set out one day after arriving in Kolkata
for Siligury, a 12-hour train ride. Siligury was
described as a 'small', crazy town in NE India where
the wedding was to take place. Deepayan helped us get
our stuff into our 3rd tier sleeper car and we quickly
realized that 3rd tier AC, while extremely economical,
was going to be uncomfortable to say the least. 3
tier means that there are 3 tiers of beds in the
berth-- and my ticket was the top bunk. ummmm. maybe
it would have been fine if we had been in India for a
month or so and were used to a lack of personal
space... but squishing three people per side on a seat
was looking to be a little too intense for our first
train ride. But my little travel angel (and Deepayan)
was looking over us... Deepayan came from his first class berth and said there had been a cancellation in
his berth... and that we could at least keep our stuff there and one of us could sleep there. As it turned out,
there were actually two extra seats in that particular first class sleeper-- one for each of us. We got lucky,
because the rest of the train was totally packed... gotta give props to that travel angel.

We arrived in Siligury to more chaos... but at least we got to enjoy it from the comfort of our air-conditioned
hotel room. Gina (the bride) was a bit stressed out but our arrival lessened her burden a bit. Gina, in case
you don't know the story, is an American woman who is marrying Deepayan, a Bengali man who lives in Seattle.
The are legally married already in the US, but Deepayan's family is very traditional and insisted upon a large,
full-fledged Indian wedding...

So Gina was freaking out when we arrived. We all went
for beers and a long lunch at a nice hotel and then
the boys were whisked off for lunch at the groom's
house. That left us ladies in town to do a whirlwind
of shopping. I tell you, if I ever get married it
will not be in a developing country where I don't
speak the language... we ran around the central
bazaar like hens with our heads cut off, squaking at
the tailor and the florist and the goats and the shop
owner and the beggars... I was exhasted by the end of
the day, but I was even more exhausted when I learned
that Gina had been enduring 7 days straight of this by
herself. ugh.

That night, Gina and Deepayan and I were talking about the ceremonies that would commence the following day.
Gina had done so much work fighting the traditional tendancies of the decorators and florists and make-up artists
and beauticians that she had just conceded to let all the rituals flow in the traditional Bengalistyle. But Deepayan
didn't feel quite right about that, and neither did Gina and neither did I... though Gina had no energy or time left
to coordinate anything new. Deepayan really believed that Gina should do something to represent her belief system
in the rituals. Gina is a semi-nonpractising self-taught witch/pagan/wiccan. So they looked at me and I looked at
me and at that moment I became Gina's priestess,imported from the United States. heheh. Oh you can only
imagine what comes next... this is where it gets really juicy... but I think that's enough for you to chew on for now.
I'll give you the good stuff in the next installment. tee hee.

dusty roads and kali pujas,