29 November, 2009
we were instructed to bring nothing with us. no cameras, no valuables. just ourselves. it was the first, and only, time in india that i didn't have the option to capture images. not on the horse-drawn rickshaws that took us from the hotel to the other end of town, past the lake, the expressions, the tones and dream-like wisps that taunted and enticed me. the surreality of it all, the blending of time and space and history and present was whirling on my senses. all i could do was look, let it wash through me, and be present.
the rickshaws dropped us off at the top of a cobbled road, where we were to walk another couple of blocks to the gates of the dargah. a dargah is a Sufi shrine that is built over the grave of a revered saint. we arrived on a sacred day, one that drew more visitors than usual. it was back to belly as we removed our shoes and handed them over to the gatekeeper who bundled them tightly to one another, tagged them and gave the ticket to our guide. barefoot and empty handed, scarf covering all but my face, i passed through the questionable metal detector and into the walls of the dargah bazaar.
immediately, there was music and silence, chaos and stillness. more instructions: stick together, buddy up. keep head covered, wash feet, show respect. in briefly met glances, i see sparks of fear and faith in the eyes of others in our group.
we line up to enter the inner sanctum of the shrine. offerings of flowers and food are piled high on the heads of the devoted. prayers are sung and chanted through reverberating speakers. as we get closer, an urgency is mounting and i feel the tightrope of fear and surrender. there is no choice but to trust when we are pressed up against one another. when humanity is over and under and above. when the urgent breath of the faithful is swirling in your ears and the promise of redemption is a hand on your back and an elbow in your face. i lost awareness of where i ended and another began. just one sweating, tangled mass of hope and curiosity clawing the way to the doorway. flowers falling as the offering baskets are crushed and dropped. the sacrifice of reaching the sacred destination.
i trip over the threshold as i am forced inside. it is such a small space and there is a hum, an echo of mortality colliding with spiritual burning. all i see are fragments of people, of ornament, of light and consciousness. we are so close, no part of me is untouched. i close my eyes for an eternal second, yielding any grip of control, knowing joy. then, a moment of reckoning. fear and the illusion of safety beckons. i see the hand of my friend and grab on tightly. she pulls me toward the exit. we funnel sideways, ducking under a rope and through another portal. as quickly as we entered, we are outside. there is room to breath, and speak, again. the whole thing lasted maybe a minute. and i am already longing to go back through.
afterward, we are given the red thread to hold in our hands as we silently release our prayers. i close my eyes and pray to know the feeling of this experience. again. to fear and to say yes anyway. to love, deeply, and to be met with unbound love. no matter the illusion of risk. to be struck dumb by awe as often as possible. to be of service. to be free. always my prayer: to be free.
i knew nothing of the Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti the day we arrived in ajmer to visit the dargah built in his honor hundreds of years ago; the place of pilgrimage for Muslims that is second only to Mecca and Medina. i still don't know much in the way of his story or precise teachings. only that he is said to be a living spirit of peace and harmony. but i do know what i felt there. as deep and true and sure as blood and bone and the pulse of living. and i left my prayers bound up in red thread tied to the shrine walls because i trusted they were safe there. as do all who come.
the other half of the thread i tied around my neck. it is traditional to tie them to the wrist– so i did that, too. but something about having it closer to my heart, to my voice, felt important. i left it on for as long as it lasted, until i was a month home and it felt listless and done and out of place.
today, i woke up and brought my hand up to touch the soft part just above where the clavicles meet. where i feel vulnerability and separation; and where i get stuck. i wished that the red thread was still there to twist through my fingers. to remind me of where i have been and where i will go. to give me strength to stay in gratitude and to reside in the hum of that sanctum. the hum that is creation and all things true. the place were i don't end and you don't begin. where we hungrily push forward to let go and lay down our offerings. where we are all one being on a pilgrimage to be free.
"Perfection in faith is evident by three things: (i) Fear, (ii) Hope, and (iii) Love" ~ Hazrat Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti