the unknown face

It smelled of sandalwood.  Curls of smoke rose above the stacks of wood.  “Let’s go,” Chad urged me, moving away from the smoke that was now enveloping us.  I stayed rooted in my spot, watching as six Indian men torched the wooden case on the banks of the Ganga.  Only the feet were still visible inside the massive wooden crate.

Death is visible here.  A permanent reminder of our impermanence.  The smoke from burning bodies mingles with the heavenly smell of cooking chapatis at a nearby street cart.  A group of rafters setting sail right next to the funereal pyre catch my attention.  I watch them launch into the river from the steps where we sit.

I feel closer to the source here in Rishikesh.  Perhaps it is the spiritual music that echoes in this windy valley between two mountain peaks.  Or my own meditation practice at a nearby ashram.  Or, maybe it’s the monks dressed in orange bathing in the Ganga who bring me closer.  They sit on the river bank reciting mantras, counting each chant with a string of mala beads.

“It’s funny,” Chad told me, “how the freest people here wear orange and in the states it’s the exact opposite.”

Prison.  I hadn’t even thought about it.

It must be strange for him.  To see a  bunch of men dressed in orange wandering the streets here, I thought.  Despite the stories he told me about his former life and time spent behind bars, it was still impossible to imagine my travel companion as a felon with multiple convictions.

Chad and I had traveled to Rishikesh with our philosophy professor, Benu, from our yoga training course.  Benu had left us now, but we still talked about our conversations with him, reviewing the videos I had taken where he describes his life in the upper Himalayas, living in caves.  His six-month vow of silence.  Twenty years on a spiritual quest, and now he wants to get married.

Benu wears a white dhoti and white t-shirt, tucked inside.  His long black hair and beard certainly make him look like a spiritual guru or cave-dwelling monk.  He’s working on a new website called  A bit of cynicism, perhaps.  Mostly reality.

Yoga for Benu is meditation and chanting and has absolutely nothing to do with the physical practice we know as yoga in the west.    “Asana means posture,” Benu would tell us.  “Any movement we make or position in which we sit or stand is an asana.”

Through meditation, we engage in more of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga that Patanjali describes in the ancient Yoga Sutras than we would through asana practice alone.  Meditation is both asana practice (albeit one asana–sitting), pranayama (a practice in breath control and expansion of prana, the vital energy in our bodies), and pratyahara, or withdrawal of our senses from the outside world.  It allows us to transcend our physical bodies and connect our consciousness with universal consciousness.  Something that knows no change or death.

Impermanence.  We tend to think of this word as describing a going away of something, a disappearing of something that once was.  But, what if we think, instead, of impermanence as illumination?  As a coming into the world just as much as a going out?  The way a burning log disappears as the flame from a fire simultaneously gets brighter, more radiant.

I watched as the crowd surrounding the burning wooden crate containing the dead body began to disperse.  The smoke continued to rise.  We got up to leave, but my mind was still on the fire.  And faces.

We had just gotten back from a five day trek in the Himalayas, and I was thinking about one face in particular.  We had hiked through villages carved into the sides of the mountains–villages only traversable via foot or donkey.  No cars could drive there.  The people from Pana knew the people from Jhinjhi–twenty to thirty kilometers across the valley and over the hilltop.  The drums that beat sounded marriage.  Sheep herders called to each other from peak to peak.  Voice is still important there–that emanation whose very existence is indebted to its going out of existence.

But visual recognition is something we all desire.  I could hear them speaking, but I could not see his face in the shadows.  I was sitting on a stone by the fire after a twenty kilometer trek.  Rohit, our friend and guide through these remote areas, sat next to me.  Mahender was squatting opposite me, talking to a man whose face I could not make out.

“They just found out that they’re related,” Rohit told me.  “From villages several days’ journey away from each other.”

I wanted to see his face to put an image with the voice–the unfamiliar tongue–that spoke.  Suddenly, a log rolled from the pile, causing a flame to illuminate the unknown man’s face.  It was lined–the sharp creases across the cheekbones added to the strength of his jaw.  If I hadn’t already learned the ages of the porters, I would have guessed him to be in his seventies.  Knowing this, I put him at fifty.  But he was probably forty-five.

It was nearly impossible to tell age here.  The men and women looked old, much older than they were.  And the children?  Well, they were small and slight and appeared much younger than our hormone-fed children in the west.

My mind wandered to our drive back from the mountains.  To that split second where I could have felt involved in the death of someone else.

Our driver had screeched to a stop, narrowly missing the eighty-five year old woman blindly walking in the middle of the road barefoot with two canes.  We got out and offered her a ride.  She refused us.  As we drove away, I watched as the car behind us veered to the left to avoid hitting the woman.

“You really think she was trying to kill herself?” I repeated to Chad later, wanting to hear a different answer.  “Why else would she be walking in the middle of the road, late at night, with no shoes or socks on, twelve kilometers from the nearest village?”  Chad muttered.

He was probably right.  Even Rohit nodded along.

Impermanence.  Conditioned.  Constructed by our own reality.  One of the three tenants of existence in Buddhism.  Yet, there is some part of us that is unfabricated, unconditioned.  That knows no change or death.

That pain is as impermanent

as shadows on the hills,

And that nirvana’s blessedness

will cure all mortal ills?  (John Stoddard)

I knew we must come down from the mountains.  Down from the villages that seemed unchanged by the modern world.  Down from the mountaintops where merging with that universal thing seemed within reach.

Down to where the elderly woman was charging down the mountain road to her own death.


No man is an island entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were,

as  well as any manner of thy friends or of thine  own were;

any man’s death diminishes me,  because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee (John Donne).


One thought on “the unknown face

  1. Libby

    Wow. What an effective portrait of life and culture in this part of the world. I love your meditation on the many contrasts you have observed–Ganga and mountains (low and high), light and dark, imprisonment and freedom, and the contrasting associations of these concepts in India and the U.S. I love, too, the circular return to the Ganga. So beautifully rendered. Can’t wait to hear more about your travels when you return–and about your traveling companion!


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