Meeting Shiva is a spiritual memoir. Tiziana, a single woman in her mid-thirties, is at the end of an adventurous overland trip through the Himalayas, which she embarked on to search for her tantric soul mate. When the soul mate hasn’t materialized after eight months of wandering through Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan and India, she decides to go home. Before her departure, she sets out on a final mountain trip. It is here that she meets Rudra, the man she has been waiting for all her life. But there is a catch: Rudra is a sannyasi, a celibate Hindu monk who lives in an austere ashram in the remote Himalayas. The two get drawn into an intense, romantic relationship that soon spirals out of control as Tiziana is drawn into a past long forgotten that ultimately leads her through pain and misery to healing and transformation.
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About the Author
Tiziana Stupia is a writer, yoga teacher, ayurvedic consultant, vedic fire ceremonies practitioner, and traveller. She publishes widely on the topics of spirituality, travel, health and personal growth. She lives in Leamington Spa, UK.
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Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas
By Tiziana Stupia
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Tiziana Stupia
All rights reserved.
Somewhere in the Himalayas
But now the destined spot and hour were close; Unknowing she had neared her nameless goal. For though a dress of blind and devious chance Is laid upon the work of all-wise Fate, Our acts interpret an omniscient Force That dwells in the compelling stuff of things, And nothing happens in the cosmic play But at its time and in its foreseen place.
From 'Savitri', Sri Aurobindo
1.1: The Flip of the Coin
On a stifling hot morning in May, I stood on the dusty balcony of a yoga ashram in Rishikesh and shielded my eyes against the intense sun. My friend MJ leaned against the railing next to me with a glass of sweet, milky chai in her hand. We had spent the last four months in this small Himalayan town by the Ganga, studying yoga under the guidance of a young bearded yogi who, with his long black hair and white robes, looked like an Indian version of Jesus.
'Do you think they will come?' I asked and craned my neck. We were about to leave the ashram for the wilderness of the Himalayas and were waiting for a driver to collect us. Before MJ could answer me, a weathered VW crawled down the dirt path that connected the main road with the ashram, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. When the car had come to a halt, a wiry young man with a goatee beard, an Italian flat-cap and trendy sunglasses jumped out of the car and waved at us vigorously. We grabbed our backpacks and ran out to meet him.
'Sanjay!' he beamed. 'Welcome! I am your guide.' He heaved our backpacks onto the roof of the car and strapped them onto a luggage rack that was already packed with tents and sleeping bags.
'Chalo!' he hollered, 'Let's go!', and ushered us into the back of the car. With a final wave of goodbyes and 'Namaste's to Mata-ji, the yogi's imposing mother, who had come to see us off with the ashram's cooks, we set off on our trip: towards the Himalayas, and into the Unknown. I watched with quiet excitement as we edged out of Rishikesh, past the little chai stalls, German bakeries and internet cafés, the stoned and dreadlocked sadhus in the Shiva temple, the Western tourists clad in hippy clothes with red tilaks on their foreheads, obese cows, beggars and street children. With all of its contradictions, I had grown fond of Rishikesh – a lively mix of East and West, with more yoga schools, ashrams, temples and spiritual bookshops than you could care to imagine.
Guide Sanjay, whose ear was glued to his constantly ringing mobile phone, had a look and demeanor so Sicilian that we named him Al Pacino before we reached our first stop. In contrast, the driver, Ram, was of stocky build. Clad in a blue-grey driver's uniform, he sported a thick bush of shiny black hair, a black stubbly beard and even blacker circles beneath his eyes. Eyebrows furrowed and knuckles white, his speedy driving style consisted of leaning over the stirring wheel while laughing hysterically from time to time. Consequently, his nickname could be no other than Maniac.
I turned to look at MJ, who shook her head and smirked as we flew through a precarious bend with screeching wheels. I laughed. MJ was a tall woman with piercing sky-blue eyes and shoulder-length blonde hair. We had met at the ashram, and I liked her for her complex nature. Generally lively and emotional, she had a wry sense of humor and was prone to frequent outbursts of 'Tabernac!' and other religiously inspired swearwords when things didn't go as planned. There was also a deep, thoughtful and vulnerable side to her. We were on a similar wavelength and often enjoyed long, intense conversations about things that mattered to us. I was looking forward to going on this adventure with her. What a fantastic way to end my epic journey to the East.
Accompanied by an abundant diet of high-pitched Hindi disco music, we drove for hours through lush wooded, mountainous landscapes, and occasionally sighted the sparkling Ganga in the desolate valleys beneath us. Absorbed in the scenery, we didn't speak much. It was strange, I mused as we passed a small shrine dedicated to the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, that I ended up in India. And even stranger that I liked it so much. When I was younger, I'd never wanted to go to India. Ever. Since I could remember, I had harbored a strong, irrational aversion to this vast, bewildering country of holy cows, mousta-chioed men and haloed Gurus. There was a time when even the smell of Indian food would make me feel sick.
My hippie friend Kassandra, on the other hand, loved India. While I spent my early twenties running a record label in England, she repeatedly pilgrimaged to the Holy Land, as she called it, in search of spiritual enlightenment. I would receive a flood of letters and postcards bearing vivid descriptions of life in India from her, bursting with tales of crazy tuk-tuk rides, gawking crowds, silent mountain monasteries and ominous Gurus with names like Sai Baba and Osho. These Gurus, she said, could magically produce sacred ash and wristwatches out of thin air and sometimes appeared in your dreams to grant you boons, if you recited the right mantras.
Kassandra's quest was unfathomable to me. 'Why are you going to this crazy Third World country?' I would question her dismissively. 'Why?'
I don't know where my aversion to India came from. I had never been there and knew preciously little about the country. I just knew I hated it. And now, through an odd series of circumstances, I was here and had completely, irrevocably fallen in love with the country. How interesting and contradictory life could be sometimes.
We stopped in a small town to buy supplies for the week ahead. The place bustled with market stalls, cows and donkeys. As so often in India, I was mesmerized by the colorful mix of human beings, deities and animals, the traders and their strange wares on offer. A young girl, sitting in the back of her parents' four-wheel drive, threw up through the open window all over the road with a woeful expression on her face in near proximity to our car. I watched her with a mixture of sympathy and curiosity, while MJ groaned in disgust. The girl shot me a 'What?!' look, and I pondered the 'sick women on Asian buses' phenomenon.
It was a sight that I'd grown accustomed to all over Asia: women with green faces and suffering expressions leaning out of buses, long black hair fluttering in the wind, throwing up while sympathetic relatives patted their hands. Invariably, the victims were women, while cheerfully chattering men leant back in their seats and smoked. One time, when I was returning from a temple in Tibet, the bus stopped en route and we were treated to the sight of a long line of women who all leant against a wall and purged their stomachs in unison. Why was it only women who got sick? I wondered.
Maniac inhaled some lunch at one of the roadside stalls; MJ and I followed Al Pacino through the afternoon heat down cobbled alleyways to the vegetable market, where he bartered with different traders. Meanwhile, MJ and I were befriended by a group of young Muslim vegetable sellers in blue shalwar kameez outfits who enthusiastically fed us cucumber slices and involved us in a fervent discussion about Allah. I was in a good mood, excited to be on the road again.
Al Pacino signaled that he had finished his purchases, and we headed back to the car to continue our drive. That night, we were supposed to stay in a 'beautiful and remote wooden cabin in nature overlooking a river'. At least that's what it said on the itinerary.
However, as we soon found out, our trip was very loosely organized. When we arrived at said location, the cabins were being renovated by an army of moustachioed workers. Admittedly, the location was glorious, quiet and wild, but with their smell of fresh paint and damp, the huts didn't promise to be an inviting place to spend the night. After a short debate, we decided to move on and climbed back into the car. We stopped at various places in search of a room, but without much luck. The promising ones were fully booked and what was left were places we weren't keen to stay in.
Dusk set in, and MJ was losing her sense of humor when we were shown to a tiny cramped shed by the roadside that had a man's moldy Y-fronts draped gracefully over the wardrobe. At this point, I was tired and just wanted to stop somewhere, but she flatly refused.
'Forget it,' she spat and stomped back to the car. 'I'm not staying in that hole! And have you seen those ... underpants?! Putain! They are crayzeee to charge money for zis!'
Glumly, we carried on driving for another hour. It was getting dark. After eight hours of having to endure Maniac's driving to the backdrop of Al Pacino's hysterical Hindi disco music, I'd had enough.
'Right,' I said, 'we're stopping at the next place. I don't care where or what it is. I'm tired.' Al Pacino and Maniac nodded grimly in the front seats, clearly as irritated about the situation as I was.
The road snaked up a mountain, and in the fading light of dusk, I could make out some habitation: little houses by the hillside, trees and fields. It looked idyllic, and I spotted a sign informing us of a nearby guesthouse. This looked promising. A few yards onwards, a large yellow building caught my eye. 'ASHRAM,' big letters exclaimed on the sign that accompanied it.
'Oh!' I cried out. My mood perked up dramatically and I jabbed Al Pacino on the shoulder. 'An ashram! Look! That's where I want to stay!' He gave me a bemused look. MJ turned towards me and raised an eyebrow.
'No, no, guesthouse!' Al Pacino shook his head and pointed towards the left, where foretold guesthouse was located.
'No, no, ashram!' I insisted, leaning forward.
Maniac stopped the car. While Al Pacino set off to check out the guesthouse, I ran over the road to the ashram and skipped up its stairs with a bedazzled Maniac in tow. The ashram was a big multi-storey building with a seemingly endless number of steps that were framed by steel banisters and balconies with wire mesh around them. With its yellow walls and contrasting green window shutters, it looked like a prison made from Lego. The ashram stood at the edge of a steep hill that overlooked a gorge, at the bottom of which ran a torrential river. On one of the landings, a black Alsatian raised its head and eyed us curiously.
In the ashram's office, located at the end of the first flight of stairs, I caught sight of a young Indian man dressed in saffron-colored robes – probably the sannyasi in charge. He had a beautiful, round, almost child-like face, with short black hair and a small tuft of longer hair at the back of his head. Our eyes met briefly. Then the weirdest thing happened. Suddenly, as I was standing in the doorway of this ascetic ashram office, space and time transcended. I felt myself flinching with surprise – it was almost a feeling of physical pain that started in my belly and rapidly shot through every inch of my body. Perplexed, I dived into the sannyasi's deep brown eyes as if to search for the answer to a question my mind hadn't even formed yet. The astonishment I found in them mirrored mine, and in this moment, I knew that, whatever it was, he felt it, too.
The moment only lasted for about two seconds. Not knowing what to make of it, I shook my head slightly and diverted my attention to Maniac, who asked the sannyasi whether rooms were available for the night.
'Haa,' the sannyasi affirmed in Hindi, and instructed a skinny young man in jeans who was hovering nearby to show us the room.
We followed him down two flights of stairs, and watched him unlock a heavy, dark green steel door. He switched on a neon light. Curiously, we inspected the concrete-floored room. It had pale dirty yellow walls and housed five single beds plus a small table covered in dust. The en-suite bathroom consisted of a squat toilet, two grimy buckets and a copper tap on one of the walls from which cold water emerged sporadically. The window was obstructed with green iron bars and heavy shutters that rattled synchronous with the sharp mountain winds. On the upside, the sturdy beds were adorned with beautiful pillow cases depicting red roses. I was smitten.
I ran back up the stairs and waved MJ, who still languidly reclined in the car, over animatedly. She climbed out of the car in slow motion and followed me down the ashram stairs. She glanced at me doubtfully when I, proud as a mother hen, showed her the room. 'Let's look at the guesthouse, too,' was all she could muster. 'I'm sure it's more comfortable.'
'Okay, if you want to ...' I mumbled, and we made our way back to the ashram office to inform the sannyasi that we would have a look at the guesthouse, too, 'for comparison'.
'Sure,' he replied curtly from behind his desk.
Across the road, things were indeed more luxurious, though smaller. The guestrooms had showers, comfortable beds, a sink, and even carpets. MJ's eyes lit up, but I wasn't convinced. I had my heart set on the ashram. It was more austere, sure, but as I told MJ, it was also more interesting. 'There's love in the place, a friendly dog, the sannyasi ...'
'Think about how much you're paying for this tour,' MJ interrupted my thought processes sharply. 'Do you really want to stay in that cold ashram? What for?'
I didn't reply. Suddenly, comprehension entered her clear blue eyes and she sighed with exasperation. 'It's just because he's cute!'
I grinned. She knew me too well already. Yes, I admitted, he was, but that wasn't the main reason. There was something else that drew me to the place. I wanted to stay in an authentic Indian ashram and see how it compared to the relative comforts of the Westernized yoga ashram we'd lived in for the past months. We were in the Himalayas, after all, and what could be more appropriate than to live among the religious and righteous of rural India for a while?
Unable to find a consensus on the matter, we flipped a coin, and, impartially, the decision was made. We moved into the ashram. I beamed, whereas my three companions shrugged their shoulders and followed me with an air of resignation.
And thus, my fate was sealed.
1.2: In Lord Shiva's Abode: Chubby Gurus, Barred Windows and Rose-Covered Pillows
After we'd moved our bags into our new home, I curiously walked through the ashram to find out what spiritual activities I could get involved in. I discovered a handwritten note on the ashram's office door. Aarti 7.30 pm, it read. I glanced at my watch. It was seven pm now. This promised to be exciting. I loved aarti, a Hindu ceremony in which oil lamps are offered and songs are sung in praise of a deity. I wondered what it would be like in this remote mountain ashram.
A few people were sitting on a bench nearby. As I looked towards them to greet them with the traditional Indian 'Namaste', I saw that the young sannyasi was among them. He sat on the edge of the bench with a mala, a chain of prayer beads, in his hands and recited mantras quietly. I wondered how old he was. Late twenties, early thirties maybe? He raised his head and nodded in acknowledgement when he saw me. I smiled and edged towards him.
'Swami-ji,' I addressed him formally, 'did I read this correctly? Your aarti is at seven thirty pm?'
He cleared his throat. 'Yes,' he answered. 'But try to come earlier. I start the hime at seven fifteen in the temple, just over there.' He pointed towards the end of the corridor.
'The hime?' I asked, confused.
'Yes, you know, a ... a song. We chant it together every evening before the aarti,' he said, still counting the prayer beads with his right hand. 'At seven fifteen.'
'Oh', I said, 'the hymn! Yes, great. I'll be there.'
When he turned his attention back to his mala, I walked to our room to tell MJ about the aarti. She was unpacking and said she'd meet me in the temple. On my way back, I ran into Al Pacino and Maniac and tried to inspire them to accompany me to the aarti. My attempts were unsuccessful, as they had already made plans to spend the evening in the car to consume liquor and listen to disco music. Undeterred by their blatant lack of piety, I made my way to the temple alone.
The temple's heavy steel door was ajar, and with a tingling feeling of anticipation in my belly, I entered the room cautiously. It was brimming with Indian pilgrims who sat with crossed legs and bent backs on the concrete floor, which was partially covered with patterned rugs. Perused by the curious eyes of the congregation, I tiptoed towards the altar at the far end of the room. There was a space by the wall between two large Indian ladies in saris. I made my way across to them and slid to the floor. One of the ladies turned towards me and smiled kindly. Relieved, I returned her smile. I was never quite sure how welcome I was in Hindu temples, as some of them were closed to Westerners.
Excerpted from Meeting Shiva by Tiziana Stupia. Copyright © 2012 Tiziana Stupia. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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