Growing up as a Christian, I was taught that it's better to give than to receive, with Jesus Who Died For Our Sins as my example. Though I wasn't too keen on sharing with my two grabby younger siblings, I liked giving. I still remember the December when I turned eight, the joy and pride I felt from pulling dollars out of my Snoopy wallet to buy my first round of Christmas presents at Spring Hill Mall. Using my own money for the first time, I felt the slight intoxication of "spending power."
I felt this joy for a few years, as I liked working the puzzle of what to give the people in my life: cheap wallets, candles, plaques from the Hallmark store. But as the years went on, my joy dimmed. I learned the difference between giving from the heart and giving out of obligation. It didn't matter if I was mad at my mother; I still had to buy her a Christmas gift because that's what I did now. Of course, this dilemma didn't improve when I became an adult with disposable income.
I came to India this December for many reasons, but one was, yes, to sneak out of the obligations around Christmas. Being alone on the holiday, the only present I'll be giving is to myself: a break from the cycle of giving and getting. (Though of course I left a small gift under my mother's tree, an olive branch for being away over the holiday.)
I had another present to myself, more of a promise: for my December 3rd birthday, I would go to the giant Shiva statue in the caves on Elephanta Island off of Mumbai and chant a special Sanskrit mantra called "Om Trayambakam." (Clearly I have expanded my spiritual understanding from my Christian roots.) I confess that this was a completely selfish endeavor, as I'd heard that to do the "Om Trayambakam" on my birthday would bring me health, a long life, liberation, and prosperity. My plan was to chant it 108 times to ensure that I would receive all of these things.
However, I couldn't do the chant on my birthday, even though I'd gotten to Mumbai the day before. On my birthday eve, I'd fallen into a deep, jetlagged sleep that lasted until I heard a pounding on my door. Wearing my birthday suit--less because of my birthday, but more because of the heat--I wrapped a towel around myself and went to stop the knocking.
In my towel, I opened the door to find one of the Indian boys who worked at the hotel. "Coffee, tea, madam?" he chirped, confusing my room with the one next door, the one who wanted room service.
"What time is it?" I croaked.
He pulled out his smartphone--for now even hotel boys have them--and showed me the time: 1:45 pm. I had slept for 14 hours.
By the time I had forced myself to get dressed and drink a chai, it was too late to take the hour-long ferry to Elephanta Island. After a few wandering, sleepy hours, I took a taxi to Marine Drive to implement my backup plan. I clambered down from the pedestrian thoroughfare to sit on one of the seaside rocks lining the western shore to start my chant at sunset. But again, I was too late. I had vastly underestimated how long it would take me to repeat a five-verse song with some tongue-twisting lyrics 108 times. Also, I was trying to use my faux-pearl mala beads to keep track of how many times I'd done the chant, but when I clasped the small pearls, my fingertips touched two at a time so I kept forgetting which pearl I was counting. I don't know, then, how many times I had done the chant when an Indian policeman dressed in his tidy brown uniform shone his flashlight down on me and blew his whistle. Clearly white ladies weren't allowed to sit by the sea in the dark.
Using the flashlight on my cell phone, I picked my way back over the rocks and up a crumbling staircase. I then reentered the flow of pedestrians enjoying the evening's respite from the heat. Joggers, families, boys up to trouble, me--all of us moved along the seaside walkway that looked upon on the vast row of twinkling lights that is the Mumbai skyline, jewel-like enough to be called "The Queen's Necklace."
The upside to the jet lag that comes from being 11-1/2 hours ahead of myself is that I can be more flexible about time. I figured that if I left for Elephanta Island early the next morning, when I got there, it would still be my birthday back at home. Miraculously, I was able to get up early enough to do yoga, get breakfast, and arrive at the row of ticket offices in time to catch a 9:30 am ferry. However, only one office was open, and they were selling tickets at 40 rupees higher than what I'd heard was the price. The ticket seller explained that the extra fee was due to the "Naval Show," which had closed this wharf so that we had to board a shuttle bus to get to a different one. Though the 40 rs included a ticket on the shuttle bus out, we would have to find our own way back.
If I've learned anything in India, it's that sometimes, the extra hassle really is not worth it. Jacked up on cappuccino (yes, there was cappuccino!) I took off by foot to explore on my own. I went to art museums, bought books, stopped to watch the white-clad cricket players at the Oval Maidan park, and ate the best lunch of my life. It was a fine extended birthday.
On the third day of this tale, I finally arrive at Elephanta Island. I pass the time on the ferry ride by chatting with some Brits who are surprised that I'm American. "Aren't Americans supposed to be loud?" they ask.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN?" I shout, getting a laugh.
Elephanta Island is not so glamourous. After disembarking from the ferry, I walked past a graveyard of rusted, broken-down boats moored in the mud flats, the fetid middle ground that is not land nor sea. Anywhere else, these boats would be declared dead, but not in India. Sure enough, I saw a couple of men on one of the rusted ships, working to get it back to life.
The island itself is infested with monkeys that gnaw on corn cobs left by tourists that eat the hot-roasted corn sold by the vendors that line the promenade and the long steep staircase that goes up to the entrance to the caves. The stone staircase is covered by tarps that keep the sun off but also trap the humidity, forcing some of my fellow tourists to stop, red-faced, and catch their breath as the vendors of tee-shirts, fake-gem jewelry and god statues look on.
At the top, one can walk right into the mouth of the main cave. It doesn't feel like a "cave," as the space under the rock cliff is cool, but also open and large like a museum. Basalt gods emerge fully-formed from the walls, alongside their curvy goddesses of breasts and hips. Some limbs and genitals are missing, having been hacked off by the Portuguese, but the deities are still astounding, not only because of their size and their age (built sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries AD) but also because of the cavalcade of smaller deities filling the frame of each frieze. Numerous English-speaking tour guides wander about, willing to point out the details of the conch shells and tridents and lotus flowers, but I don't want to hear facts that I'll forget; I want to enjoy these gods on a level deeper than the mind.
The main event, a 20-foot high Shiva statue, silently lords over the hall, his three heads representing his forms of the Creator, Sustainer, and Destroyer. I have a special fondness for Lord Shiva, worshipped as the first yogi, the god who meditated in the Himalayas for eons, and as the Cosmic Dancer, whose dancing feet stomped on the ignorance of our divine nature. This Shiva statue is serene, easily confused with a Buddha, his broken hand raised in a blessing. Seeing him, something inside me stirs, and a subtle warmth spreads from my heart through my limbs.
I want to sit under his hand, to meditate under the ancient statue, but this is impossible. Tourists stream through this UNESCO World Heritage site, immediately snapping photos of the gods and then photos of each other standing under the gods. It is odd to see so many people using real cameras, ones with long lenses. I am annoyed, but I understand. Photography has become the mode for people to connect with grandeur, substituting for prayer or prostration. And of course, I also take a picture:
As I linger in the hall watching tourists from all over the world come and go, I realize that they would snap photos of any image in the stone - instead of Lord Shiva, the statue could have been Indira Ghandi or Spongebob Squarepants. They just want something to fill their frame. Tourists leave and are replaced by more tourists. I think of when I traveled in Mexico years ago, how the indigenous people resisted photography because they believed that photographs swipe a bit of soul, take one's energy. Now I consider: how many tourists have been here, how much energy has been taken from the statues? This is not a temple, where people give the gods gifts of flowers or a half coconut. This is only quiet stone and tourists with their special cameras. I know that this is what humans do with gods - take from them, ask for something without giving back - but all my years of being forced to sit in Sunday school have their effect because to witness all this consumption bothers me.
After a time, I go to the smaller caves where the relics are less showy, more broken. Off to the side of one of the caves, I see a small entryway. Ducking inside, I enter a bedroom-sized chamber of empty space and rock. Alone, I chant "Ohm," and the acoustics give the sacred syllable a delicate resonance, an extra shiver of sound. I plop down in the corner just inside the entryway, take my mala beads in my hand, and begin to softly chant the Ohm Trayambakam. I am nervous to hear my own voice chanting Sanskrit, but with each round, my voice gains power and volume. Tourists poke their heads inside the cave, and a few enter, but I keep chanting. The continuity of the chant, which leaves me no time to defend or explain myself between rounds, emboldens me. Even when a young Indian man comes inside the cave, squats, and takes photos of me from behind his long lens, I only chant. (Though I am tempted to put out a cup for him to toss me some rupees.)
But I am not chanting for the tourists, nor am I even chanting for myself. Now I am chanting for Shiva. Maybe this is why I can finally sail through the final, tongue-mangling verse as quickly as I've heard it, words flying out of my mouth:
Ohm purnamadah purnamidam
At times, I sense that I am alone, the only other noise the tink-tink of workingmen's hammers outside. Often, I hear people rustling in the doorway behind me. I am glad that I cannot understand their languages as they try to make sense of what is going on. I hear a few childen mocking me with a long, dramatic "Ohm!"s. I also hear one old man chant "Ohm Namah Shivaya--Hail to Lord Shiva," a small validation of what I am doing. Inevitably I hear the clicks of cameras. Even though my appearance is less remarkable than the sound of my voice chanting Sanskrit, I know that when people don't understand, they take a picture.
All the attention sparks my imagination, now that I am The Loud American, and I picture everyone waiting outside for me to finish. How will they look at me? Do any of the clicks I hear belong to a camera involved in the Indian media? Would I be in an Indian newspaper?
I chuckle at these egoic thoughts and come back to the chant. It is easy to let the mind wander until I get to what I consider the emotional climax, a prayer of liberation from our mundane human concerns. I always close my eyes during this part, which I know by heart:
Asato ma sat gamaya
Tamaso ma jhotir gamaya
Myritor ma amritam gamaya
I have never chanted like this, so full-heartedly and continuously, and certainly never for so long. The 108 repetitions take me over two hours. Despite my cracking voice, I only pause a couple of times to cough or sip water. Giving myself over to the chant, giving back to Lord Shiva and the other gods of the cave, praying for the liberation of all beings, I feel ecstatic. I notice how the colors of my scarf perfectly match th colors of a sticker on my notebook. The colors are so beautiful to me that I realize I am high from the chanting. Maybe Jesus was onto something when he said how good it is to give.
Despite my ecstasy, I am slightly apprehensive to finish the chant. What would happen next? What would I find in the awaiting crowd?
There is no crowd, of course. When I emerge from the cave, there is only the dusty ground, the hot sun, and the ongoing tink-tink of the hammers. Alone, I make my way back to the boat as I whistle the chant's tune. Already I can feel the health, prosperity, and liberation from the chant, as promised.