Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A miracle in India: Faith, sacred fire or fantasy?

My recent trip to Rajasthan India had a positive start. My husband and I were met by our guide, Munindra, and our driver Pradeep. As I relaxed and reached out to India, I felt immersed in sea of humanity, yet without a sense of stress or uncertainty. One memorable experience linked to yet another, like luminous pearls on a silk cord.

But when we left New Delhi and drove towards Agra, I was surprised to notice that my feet and the lower part of my legs seemed to be much larger than usual. I never had this problem before. ‘Perhaps it’s the change of climate?’ I thought. The next day my legs were more swollen and I had discomfort walking. However the charms of Agra distracted me so I just walked more slowly and occasionally massaged my legs. I also tried taking aspirin, elevating my legs or spraying them with cold water.

But soon my legs and feet were more than double their normal size. I began to feel worried, as we were moving on to the countryside where we would spend a few days in the guide’s rural village. I called my doctor in France and his voice came in waves of broken sound over the phone. Possible blood clot in my for tests? I felt both laughter and panic rising in my throat. As I looked out the car window, I could see people walking along the dirt road and fields. A camel moved past pulling a cart.

“There are no hospitals here,” I said and I heard my doctor give a small sigh. I thought of the pharmacy located just 5 minutes from his office, a treasure chest of modern medicine with every imaginable kind of pill. But not for me.

When we were in Munindra’s village, I eagerly drank in all the new impressions. A gentle 80-year old woman who spoke in Hindi to me but said so much more with her eyes. The shy but excited children, the beautiful ladies in their vibrant clothing, the dignified look of the respected older men with their turbans. I sat at sunset, sipping a chai tea and enjoying the quiet beauty. Yet my legs ached.

Munindra got the idea to make a bath using leaves from a neem tree growing outside the house. Neem has so many qualities, both medical and spiritual, that they can’t be properly described here. Soon my legs were soaking in the neem-infused water. Munindra gently massaged my legs and then rubbed them with an aloe vera leaf.

Despite the temporary relief, my legs continued to look like sausages. We left the village to drive toward Mandawa. During a stopover at a peaceful and historic hotel, the Castle Pachar, the owner’s wife took pity on me and one of the employees massaged my legs with a lotion made with camphor. "Another night, another massage!" my husband joked.

But the next day, as I limped to the car, it wasn’t funny. Munindra sensed my anxiety. ‘I need a doctor,’ I said and he replied ‘yes’. At that point I also knew the Indian cultural habit of hesitating to say no to a request that may not be possible. ‘Yes’ could mean a polite acknowledgement rather than a firm agreement.

The countryside transitioned from fields to dunes. Women walked alongside the road carrying water gourds or bundles of dried grass on their heads. A bus rolled past, filled with people inside and hanging onto the roof.

“Here we can see an interesting place,” Munindra commented as the car stopped in the middle of nowhere. To be honest, I was irritable and uncomfortable so I didn’t listen to his description. The place looked like a cross between an ancient auditorium or a gigantic circular water reservoir. I slowly climbed down the steps under the watchful eyes of Munindra. ‘See the beauty,’ he said with a touch of uncertainty.

We were alone in this hot, open space. My husband took photos. Munindra walked off to wait at a short distance. Climbing up the stone steps I noticed some eucalyptus trees ahead. They seemed to beckon to me with the promise of shade and perhaps something else?

As I painfully walked up the last step, I found myself in front of a temple. An old man was standing in front of a small dome-shaped building which had a thin line of smoke curling from the top. He bowed and said Namaste and looked at me with quiet curiosity. I returned his greeting and stared back. Munindra appeared and began speaking with the man in Hindi.

My husband joined us and we discovered that this holy man’s job was to keep a sacred fire burning. The perpetual fire offered prayers and protection for the village. Munindra asked me to raise my long skirt and the man observed my sad big legs. He walked into the tiny temple, which looked like a large-size beehive of sorts, and Munindra told me to follow him.

I’ll describe what happened next in logical terms, because I am person who is more comfortable with practical answers. But you will see how this approach fails to really explain what I experienced.

The interior walls of the building were pale blue and the ceiling was darkened with years of accumulated smoke. The air was cool yet warm at the same time as I sat down on the stone floor. The man took two small metal sticks and began to pray and move the sticks in and over the fire, then sharply tap them on the floor near my legs. Time seemed to slow down and then speed up. I saw the man gather ashes and put them into a folded piece of paper, which he gave to me. I got up and walked outside. I was quiet as I walked to the car, unsure of what to think or feel, yet I was surprised to feel tears running down my face. Not tears of sadness, just tears of release.

No one said anything in the car for a long time. Then we arrived in Mandawa and we all started talking at once, feeling thirsty, wanting fruit, and eager to walk around. At one point I stumbled and my legs felt weak for a moment, yet also energized. My stomach area also felt energized, similar to the way I feel after an acupuncture session. Munindra smiled and said, “things are moving.”

I hesitated to lift my skirt and look at my legs for the rest of the day. Fearful that they were worse, the same...or completely better. Finally that evening as I got ready for bed I took a deep breath and looked down at my legs. The swelling had vanished. That night I had a deep, dreamless sleep. And for the rest of my 17-day trip, my legs were perfectly fine and returned to their normal size and vitality.

Back home again, I was eager to share this story with my doctor. He listened with interest and respect, then shared a story of his own. His teenage son had a long-time skin problem with his hands. No amount of medication or therapy helped. While the family was on vacation, they stayed in a village where locals told them of an old woman who knew cures. By chance, the doctor and the boy met this woman while hiking. She talked to his son and held his hands as they spoke, then gave him some leaves of a plant to rub on his hands. “The next day the skin on my son’s hands was clear and healthy, something that I could not do!” said my doctor, shaking his head.

I write this text, sitting at my desk in France and miles from India. I think of the holy man, sitting silently in the shade of the eucalyptus trees and tending the sacred fire. I imagine Munindra and his smile when he saw that my legs were better. I walk over to the shelf in my office and pick up the small paper packet of ashes and I hold it tightly in my hand. Some things cannot be easily explained.