The Bond between Womenby China Galland
The story is the same all over the world. In Nepal, a woman doctor works tirelessly to rescue children who have
In beautiful prose, China Galland weaves myths and travel narrative into a powerful chronicle of the spiritual journey, tracing the reemergence of fierce compassion both in the struggles of women around the world and at sacred sites of pilgrimage.
The story is the same all over the world. In Nepal, a woman doctor works tirelessly to rescue children who have been sold to Indian brothels. In Argentina, the mothers of the "disappeared" bear witness against the government that stole the lives of their children. In India, Mother Theresa's Sisters soothe the fears of the dying, and an international women's campaign works to clean the waters of the Ganges River.
Around the world, women are working for justice, for healing, and the lives of these women reveal an unusual source of strength: the fiercemess of comapssion symbolized in ancient icons, images, and archetypes of the wrathful divine feminine. Known in India as Durga and Kali, in Nepal and Tibet as Tara, and in Europe and Latin America as the Black Madonna and Yemaya, it is the fierce divine feminine, which arises when the world is on the brink of destruction.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
The Return of the Fierce Goddess
The Festival of Durga
Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
DAVID WAGONER, "LOST"
Thousands pour through the narrow streets to the blare of trumpets and the beat of drums in the ancient village of Bhaktapur, in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. Sarangis soar like violins, cymbals clash, triangles and bells ring, while tablas keep the heart-pounding rhythms of Nepali music. We follow the music, snaking our way slowly in the late-afternoon sun to the Hindu temple of the Goddess Durga, the Warrior Queen.
The annual October celebration of Durga's victory, called Durga Puja or Navaratra, the Nine Nights of the Goddess, goes on throughout Nepal and India. Here in the Kathmandu Valley, signs of the feast are everywhere. Women and girls walk along the rutted roadway carrying trays of food adorned with brilliant red hibiscus and green rice sprigs for the temples. Feeding the deity is part of worship in Hinduism, where people are as at home with the divine as one is with a beloved family member.
Bhaktapur, the most medieval of the villages in the Kathmandu Valley countryside, is famous not only for its temples and shrines but also for the masked dances I've come to see. Here, I am told, Durga returns at the moment the dancers pull her masks down over their heads during tonight's celebration.
I press through the moving crowd, making my way slowly, in a cycle of losing and finding the new friends I've come with. There are few Westerners here. Fortunately, one of the friends is a young Nepali woman, Tsering Gurung, who patiently answers my questions. The distinctive black saris with brilliant red borders that I admire are worn by women from a traditional caste, she explains, the Jyapu, farmers, who are Newaris, the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley. The Newaris gave Bhaktapur and Kathmandu a spectacular medieval artistic and architectural legacy, examples of which we pass on our way to the riverelaborate temples with carved wooden stories rising as high as one hundred feet off the cobbled street, aged red-brick houses with tiled roofs built in rectangles around courtyards called chowks. To the Newaris, the family was the focal point of life, and the shrines, temples, and water were placed in the center of the chowks while family life bustled around them, as it still does. Our path winds through a series of squares, twisting past temples, crumbling stone palaces, carved doorways into more chowks, and an elaborately sculpted water tank guarded by a bronze cobra that rises out of the center to show the presence of the nagas, the serpent deities who have control over water and who guard against evil spirits. I keep stopping to look, then fall behind, then catch up. Tsering manages to appear, laughing, just at the moment when I think I've lost our group altogether.
"Over here," she says, tugging my day pack, pulling me aside, out of the river of people into a tea stall. Inside are two of the women from our group, Marcia Anderson, a trim fifty-year-old American, and Federica Mastropaolo, a tall young Italian woman. Faces familiar only for days seem suddenly to have been known for much longer. I breathe a sigh of relief at being reunited.
Slipping into the crowded stream of celebrants and devotees, I feel the subtle presence of shakti, that powerful energy traditionally considered feminine, with its. "kinetic," vibrational quality, as the Hindu scholar Diana Eck puts it. I had been told that Bhaktapur is full of shakti, but now I feel itin the living faith in the crowd, in the tempo of music, in the growing excitement as we draw nearer the temple. The word shakti itself means "power" or "energy," and its root means "to be able," Eck explains. It is his Shakti, his divine female counterparther energythat gives the Hindu god Shiva, the Lord of the Universe, his power. In the fluid Hindu cosmology, the Trimurti, a threefold form of God, contains Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the sustainer; and Shiva, the destroyer. Of Shiva it is said that he is shava, a corpse, unless he is connected to his shakti, that dynamic, surging, radiating, activating, sacred, feminine life energy, personified as the Goddess in her myriad forms. Here her energy is palpable.
In the Hindu cosmos, time is cyclical, the world born anew and destroyed time and again, over and over, in the never-ending divine play, the cosmic dance of dissolving and becoming. The gods and goddesses are numberless, but behind them all is the divine unity of the One in the many.
We pass dark-eyed young men with coal-black mustaches tossing down rakshi, the local alcoholic brew, while girls and excited young women in saris the color of jewels stand by shyly on the sidelines, watching with their big kohl-lined eyes, their bodies swaying to the rhythm of the music. I want to burst into dance, but I contain myself, slipping in and out of the crowd, darting ahead of the musicians, taking pictures, hiding behind the lens of my camera.
The mass of people thickens and surges, growing larger and larger over the more than two hours it takes us to reach the one narrow bridge to the temple that we all must cross. The air cools as the light fades and darkness softly billows. The light of lanterns being struck flickers at first, then glows steadily. Electric streetlamps come on at distant intervals, their harsh glare punching holes in the dark. By the time we reach the Hanumante River it is nightfall.
On the other side of the river, inside the small Durga temple, nine male dancers whirl and move in a trance, unseen by the crowd, nearing the end of their ritual, when they will put on the masks of Durga and become possessed by her presence. I have been told that it is dangerous to watch this ritual. I was also told not to photograph the dancers once they emerge from the temple with the masks, after Durga has come over them. Last year a Westerner was beaten to the ground for breaking this rule. In Hinduism, the image is considered to be a form of the deity itself; gazing at the image of the divine, one receives divine energy and is seen by the deity. Called darshan, this being in the presence of the deity and gazing, this "seeing," is the central act of devotion in Hinduism.
I have been warned to stay out of the temple, told that the moment the dancers put on Durga's masks, her presence is so charged, so heightened, that I would be harmed, as if struck by lightning, that I would die. Though I did not take this warning literally, I resolved not to go inside the temple, not to photograph the dancers. There is a parallel belief in Western culture that the unprepared soul cannot see God face to face and survive the encounter.
"Sight" and "seeing" are as crucial to understanding the Hindu and Buddhist worldviews as are the "Word" and "hearing" to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Hinduism, this world is ablaze with divinity, inseparable from it, completely interpenetrated by it.
The crowd has become so dense, so frenzied as we near the bridge, Tsering decides not to cross. She has been here many times. The way narrows. I want to see the dancers, the masksso do Marcia and Federicawe keep going. Tsering promises to wait on the other side.
When we near the river's edge, just before the bridge, we are picked up and tossed in the sea of bodies like corks, and jammed between people's shoulders, I float across, my feet barely able to touch the ground. This is not a place to fall down. Many of the men are drunk by now.
I look around for my friends Marcia and Federica. Did they make it? We can no longer move independently, we are packed in so tightly. The crowd pulses like the irresistible drums. Federica and I struggle to stay within sight of each other. We've lost Marcia. Suddenly a wave of moving bodies pushes us into an area closer to the temple doorway. A Nepali man shoves his way up to us with a menacing look, staring at the cameras over our shoulders. Once he sees that they're behind us with their lens caps on, he breaks into a big smile and holds up red-and-white strings, drawing circles in the air in front of us. I don't understand what he wants. The people around us grin, the women smile reassuringly, the men hold up their cups of rakshi as if they're offering a toast. Suddenly the man with the strings grabs my hand and pulls me closer to the temple. Federica and I grab on to each other, following him as best we can through the stream of people shouting, drinking, and singing. The dancers will appear at any moment. The air swells with music, almost bursting with the sound of drums; the heavy sweet smell of incense fills the air. One more tug on my arm by the man with the strings, and Federica and I are popped out into a sliver of an opening at the bottom of the temple steps.
There in front of me is the enormous hairy black head of the water buffalo I had seen grazing earlier on the bottom floor of a village temple. He was decapitated only hours ago in the ritual reenactment of Durga's defeating the Buffalo Demon. Now as his head lies resting on the bottom temple stepsa candle burning on top of it and green sprigs of rice shoots tucked behind his earshe looks curiously peaceful, astonishingly calm compared to the wild liveliness of the crowd. His large dark eyes are still open wide, unblinking and clear. People press in on either side.
Someone motions us to step up to the buffalo head and touch it to show our fearlessness and willingness to participate in the defeat of the Buffalo Demon. I watch the woman in front of me step forward, bend down, and touch the crown of his head. The crowd surges againthere's a way through. Nervous, I step into the opening, lean down and dip the fingers of my right hand in the thick red tika paste that lies on top of his head by the candle. I place it in the middle of my forehead and lean over again to touch the top of his broad, smooth head. This act feels strange, almost dangerous, but I have done it now, there is no going back. Federica follows suit. As soon as we move aside, the man with the red-and-white strings comes up, takes my arm, his face beaming, and begins to wrap his strings around first my wrist, then Federica's. Now we are part of the celebration, not just bystanders: we have helped "kill the demon" and assured Durga's victory. My mind is reelingthe image of this powerful Goddess Durga dressed like a queen, riding a lion, sailing serenely into battles, her ten hands armed, is in such contrast to the Catholic Mary I grew up with that I stand there shaking my head and begin to laugh.
"Hurry, hurry! The dancers are coming, the dancers are coming!" A young man bursts out of the temple, flying past me, nearly hurling himself down the steps as he staggers under the weight of the ornate, resplendent, and bright-colored three-foot-high mask of Durga and headdress that he wears. The crowd bursts into a roar! People encircle him, handing him small clay cups of rakshi, which he quaffs with abandon, one after another. He reels around wildly, then continues his dance, barely able to move through the crowd, people are so crammed together. Then comes the next masked dancer, blasting out from the temple door, reeling to catch his balance, running more than he is dancing. More shouts, then another dancer, louder shouts, then another, then a roar. They come more quickly now, more forcefully, one after another, running down a gauntlet of men who protect them from the chaos of the crowd, which becomes more unrestrained at each dancer's appearance. The shouts grow deafening, the chanting becomes a steady roar, "Jai Ma, Victory to the Mother, Jai Ma, Victory to the Mother, Jai Ma, Victory to the Mother!"
The world is safe again, the Buffalo Demon has been defeated. Durga has returned.
* * *
Tired but wide awake on the long, bumpy ride back to Kathmandu, I sit next to Marcia. She has come to Nepal from the States to work in a clinic and to make a spiritual retreat with her teacher, a woman yogi. When she asks why I've come and I tell her that I am on the trail of "fierce compassion" and the sacred feminine, she becomes very excited.
"Fierce compassion!" she exclaims to my surprise, seeming to understand that phrase instinctively. "Do we need that now! Do you know what's happening in Nepal?"
I don't know what she means. I have been in Kathmandu for only a week.
"There's been an explosion in child prostitution," she says. "More and more parents are selling their children, particularly their daughters. Selling them," she repeats slowly for emphasis. "It's terrible."
This is the third time in the week that I've been here that someone has brought up the subject of child prostitution. A few days ago at lunch, I was joined by a woman who also talked about the problem and gave me a booklet entitled "Red Light Traffic, the Trade in Nepali Girls." She too was concerned about the problems of children, especially street children and child trafficking, now complicated by AIDS. I took the booklet, but had not read it. I wanted to avoid the subject, I had my agenda set.
The following evening, I was walking down the street in the Thamel district with a friend when a Nepali man stopped us and handed us a magazine on development in Nepal that he'd just published. He explained that he was trying to make contact with Westerners, especially Western women, because he thought we could help. He felt that unless the women of Nepal received help, there was little that could be done for the country. Helping women was his mission. Women were the key to real growth and development, not the million-dollar projects that were called "development." I didn't know what to say, I was so dumbfounded by the directness of his approach. Would we let him interview us, he asked.
I took the magazine and his phone number and said that I hadwork to do in Kathmandu, but that I would think about it and call him. One of the feature stories of his magazine was on the girls in Nepal and how some are forced into "religious" prostitution. Given to the temple when very young, between the ages of five and seven, kept illiterate and unskilled, these girls are taught to believe that they can refuse no man because all men come from God. Though the practice has been outlawed and the women are now allowed a traditional marriage, this is a comparatively recent development, and is still a problem in certain districts, though not all of them.
Now Marcia's talking to me about this problem. We discover that we both have daughters the same age, as do the other women who brought this to my attention. "A lot of people sell their daughters because they're so poor. Villagers up in the mountains. They're told their daughters will have a husband or a job here in Kathmandu and so they let them go, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of greed."
As we bounce along, jarred by the pot-holes in the road, my stomach tightens and my pulse races. I feel frightened. This is not what I came to Nepal to find out about. I am relieved when Federica and Tsering take over the conversation and talk about the Buddhist teachings we've been attending together.
By the time we get back into Kathmandu my spirits are sinking. What did I expect? I think for a moment of the powerful energies I want to understand: Durga, the fearless warrior goddess and the fierce form of compassion. Did I think I was coming to a tea party in Nepal, with gloves and lotus blossoms?
Like the poet Ramprasad, I began this journey calling for Durga, I will take what she gives me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I've peddled my bones in the marketplace
Of this world and bought up Durga's name.
I'm rooming in the house
Of the good soul living in this flesh.
So when Death enters, I've made up my mind
To open my heart, to show Him all.
Tara's name is the best remedy.
I've tied it to my topknot.
Ramprasad says: I have begun
My journey calling on the name
RAMPRASAD, EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, BENGAL
(translated by Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely)
* * *
Before Marcia and I part, she tells me that she has friends who are working to fight child prostitution. She offers to introduce me to Dr. Aruna Uprety, an activist on child prostitution and the related issues for women and children. Aruna Uprety is virtually the only female general practitioner addressing this area, Marcia says, from educating the police force about rape, domestic abuse, and AIDS to training people in women's health issues, and doing advocacy work from the grass-roots to the policy-making level. Very few women in Nepal will speak publicly on these matters, but Aruna does soin person, on television, on the radio. She cofounded the nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Rural Health Education Service Trust (RHEST), which focuses on health and education for women and children. She and her friends have opened halfway houses for women with AIDS, women's clinics, and village maternity centers; she conducts Traditional Birth Attendant trainings (TBAs)the maternal mortality rate here is unbelievably highno one can keep track of all she does. She is very dedicated to stopping child prostitution, Marcia tells me, but it's an uphill battle. It will take a legion of female warriors to help fight the trafficking in women and children.
* * *
The next day I visit the great stupa, the sacred monument, at Boudhanath, on the eastern side of Kathmandu, the famous gleaming white rounded tower over relics of the Buddha, with a squared roof and a pyramid on top, the Buddha's eyes painted on each side, overseeing the four directions. It is said that when this stupa was consecrated, hundreds of years ago, one hundred million Buddhas dissolved into it and filled it with their relics, making it a powerful place for prayer and meditation. Pilgrims come from hundreds of miles around to circumambulate this sacred site and pray. I, too, have come to circumambulate the stupa saying my beads to Tara, the female Buddha in the Tibetan tradition.
As I make my way clockwise around the circle, I hear the rhythmic clip-clop of wooden clogs behind. I turn around to find a wild old pilgrim with a sunburnt face and wearing a leather apron doing full body prostrations. Down on his padded knees, wooden handcovers strapped to his palms hitting the ground, clip-clop, the sound of wood sliding across cement, then sliding back, then up on his knees, then to his feet again, a small bow, then down again, clip-clop. This is the way he does his kora, his circumambulations of the stupa. This pilgrim's long silver hair is in dreadlocks, loosely tied into a topknot with a bright red-orange strip of cotton. He gives me a knowing look, as though we've met. His face is beaming. He's come all the way from Tibet, more than five hundred miles over the Himalayas, doing full prostration bows, stretching out the full length of his body, touching his head to the ground, standing up, then bowing down, stretching out again. Cement, mountains, rocky trails, streets, it makes no difference to him. It's how he travels, chanting his mantras, singing, praising. He is free.
It elates me just to see this pilgrim; nonetheless, I am not free. I still can't forget the conversation with Marcia Anderson and her offer to take me to meet Dr. Aruna Uprety. The pull to follow up with Marcia is strong. It may take days to track down the busy Dr. Uprety, Marcia warned me, but I will call and take Marcia up on her offer. I'm not sure what I'm setting in motion, but the process is no longer in my control. I don't know where it will lead, this unexpected directionif I'm being led or being takenbut there is an inevitability to it that propels me forward.
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