Wake before dawn. The sun has not yet risen on another year, but last night’s music still hangs in the air. Don a jumper for the first time in weeks and straddle the bicycle you can rent for just 40p. Say hello to the cook walking her cow. Say hello to three children riding one bicycle. Say hello to the holy mountain, Arunachala.
Lord Siva, settling a dispute between mind and ego manifests himself in solid rock. The most holy of rocks brings pilgrims from far and wide, which is funny given that we all live on a rock. To me all rocks are holy: still a geologist at heart. Little pieces of history that we can only begin to fathom, ancient landscapes and aeons of time crushed and squeezed into the palm of your hand. I wonder what traces we will leave of our landscapes. Fossilised plastic? Radioisotope anomalies? An abysmal black hole in the great tree of life?
But everything is holy, not just the rock. Not because everything is God, though this is what they say. But because everything is so full of holes that there is hardly anything there at all. Empty, as the Zen masters say. And yet here is me, and my mind is very full.
Back to the mantra. Arunaaaaaaaachala Siva.
Circle the mountain and think of nothing but God. A simple instruction that quickly unravels into the impossible. Keep infinity within the finite window of your mind. Keep your window wide open and look out for what you cannot see. Or is the task not to look out at all? Is he a man with a beard? Does he have an elephants head? Or is this he, in fact, a she? At the very least keep your attention on the task at hand… Instead of thinking about chocolate. Though if there were a food of the gods, surely it would be that rich, dark goodness. Godness.
Eek out the aches to the creak of gears and spokes. To the mountain. Rising from his shroud of dust, pink with refracting light. The Lord does not seem to oblige gender stereotypes. In his left hand, a red ball of fire. Maybe he will perform a trick, dance among the palm trees and pylons. They say the mountain is the best spiritual path. They say just by looking at it, neigh, just by thinking about it! You can reach the light of the enlightened. He sheds the fire of wisdom they say. They failed to mention that he juggles with it too.
I just try not to step in cow dung. Or on scorpion ants. My toes and underfoot already red with swollen welts, itching and exuding pus. Walking barefoot through the chaos of India doesn’t seem so sensible to me, but ‘tis the pilgrim’s way. Given that I am already an imposter, what does it matter? On a pilgrimage in a tradition to which I do not belong, for a God in whom I do not believe. Or do I?
A man dressed in orange robes comes up to me and repeats the only English word he knows: money. Money money money. Is that the real God? He gestures his hands towards his mouth. Does he want to eat my money? Sorry, but you already have the privilege of a man body. I save my money for the women, of which I see only two, who are told they have bigger obstacles.
That is until I realise I have only 100 rupees to my name. The rest is held in the collective imagination somewhere. Out of nowhere charge the children, they will not let me take another step until they finish their holy sermon: chocolate chocolate chocolate. I agree, it is the food of the gods. ‘Do you have some?’ The stingy, imposter pilgrim asks.
I think I am so unique in my brave decisions to ditch my job and my country. And then I see that I am just another hippy flaunting yoghurt sun-kissed skin and tye-dye trousers on this well-worn trail of imposter pilgrims. Just another sole on this worn-out pavement. Does that make my journey any less unique? Does imposter curiosity make you a phoney? Can I feed on the fruits of all these people who have walked before me?
Time to drink from the fresh green fruit, from the young coconuts that hang from trees. Soak up the juice of this new lease of life, then crack it open and eat the flesh too. I want it all, served raw. I reflect on my intentions for the year and marvel at how there is nothing to set. Though the path is not mine, though many have walked it before, it is exactly where I dreamed I would be. Now the more difficult task is to stay, here, in the present. The path keeps slipping away between my daydreams. That, I could have done from my desk.
Open your eyes, take it all in.
Crows crawk on the roadside, pecking at the ribs of a dead stray dog. Stop right in the wake of that stench under the holy shadow of Arunachala. Frankly, this is not how I imagined the most spiritual journey on earth. But maybe this is exactly where it should be. Alongside mountains of rubbish and mountains of cow pats, lives the mountain of God. The mountain of me.
A road sign warns of bumpy times ahead. Beside it: an offering. A delicately rolled ball of dung with a delicately placed flower on top. I suppose life is like that: tumultuous. Beauty and shit all rolled into one.
Here we come.