I was in India for six weeks and this incredible country shook me. It taught me multiple lessons, but one of the things that has stayed with me the most so far has been the sense of impermanence in traditional Indian culture.
About 10 days into the trip I headed to an ashram in Tamil Nadu, an area in the south of India which is not particularly on the tourist trail. Right next to the ashram there was a very small and somewhat unremarkable village. While I was there it happened to be the Pongal festival, which celabrates the harvest and appreciates animals (in particular cows) for their hard work during the year.
To celebrate Pongal, people in the village decorated the streets with mandala-like drawings painstakingly made overnight with multi-coloured chalk. In Tamil these are called kolam, and they can be seen in several regions of India.
They are traditionally white and made with rice flour or white rock powder. The purpose of kolam is not just to decorate the entrance but also to bring prosperity into the home (and worship to the goddess of prosperity and wealth, Laxshmi) and, in the case of the rice flour, to invite nature; ants, birds and the likes, to co-exist with the household.
The kolam take hours to make, but yet during the day they are slowly rubbed out by wind, by the comings and goings of the family’s feet, by cows sniffing or the tyre of a motorbike. The next morning at dawn the women will be crouching outside their house creating another kolam. The beauty is in the process of creation, rather than in the permanence of the design.
Walking around the village and seeing these elaborate decorations being slowly rubbed away made me wonder if I would be quite as detached as the villagers. If I had spent even so much as one hour making a drawing half as elaborate and a gust of wind blew it away I would be upset. I would probably put a plastic sheet on top of it to preserve it, and scowl at passersby thinking you stay the f*ck off my amazing kolam, or I’ll beat you up. (still working on becoming a bastion of peace and tranquility over here…)
The other thing in India which also makes me ponder impermanence are the flowers everywhere.
Marigolds, roses and jasmine are all used as offerings in the temple, to decorate, and left at tiny shrines at the base of the holy Banyan trees.
People spend hours threading these flowers into garlands to decorate images of gods, or to bless their boats. These flowers will be left there and will slowly wilt in the heat of the afternoon, until the next morning when someone else will bring a fresh offering. When I buy flowers at home, my main aim is for them to stay fresh and last as long as possible. I try to preserve them with flower food, or spraying them… all for them to last, for them to be as permanent as possible.
In southern India in particular, women also decorate their hair with fresh flowers. Their coconut-oiled tresses will be adorned with bunches of jasmine or other flowers, making it a delight to see and smell. Towards the end of the day these flowers will be hanging limp in their hair, and the next day they will be replaced with fresh ones.
Also in southern India they use placemats made from banana leaves as plates. Little dabs of coconut curry and rice pancakes will be arranged on the banana leaf and mixed together into a paste before being popped into hungry mouths.
Seeing all these elements of nature being incorporated so easily into people’s lives and then being allowed to fall away just as easily really struck me. I feel that in the west we are obsessed with making things last. When we die we make a mark of the place where our bodies lie to make sure everyone remembers us, and that we live on in some way. Hindu dead are placed on a pyre and if they are lucky they are thrown into the Ganges river, or back into nature.
In India people often wear a red dot on their forehead, known as a bindi. These dots are made from different powders and often change throughout the day, white, gold and brown are also seen. This dot, which is used in Hindu religious ceremonies to show the point at which creation begins, and also the site of the third eye chakra, is a transient symbol of the divine in each one of us. The powders used slowly rub and fade away and are replaced by different powders.
All these things made me question why we are so fixated on making things last? Everything in nature ends, it dies, it renews itself, and makes way for something fresh. Why do we hold on to the things that are not permanent?
In India I realised that the flowers, the banana leaves, the bodies of the dead…. they are part of the cycle of life, which naturally starts and ends every day. Nature teaches us detachment by her very being, and somehow in the “developed” world we strive to go against that. We attach ourselves to jobs, to houses, to cars, to all these things which we believe to be permanent, but as we are increasingly seeing, are not.
The sense I got from the flowers, the bindis, the banana leaves, the kolam and the way death is seen, is that India is a place where everything lives and dies, it comes and goes; and when it goes, people don’t try to hold on to it. This easy impermanence I saw charmed me, and in some way I would like to incorporate it into my life, because sometimes I feel that my grip on things, places, situations, is too tight… and maybe if I allow these things to be, and to live and die as they must, I will feel lighter.
All this reminds me of a Bible verse (A Sunday School attendee never forgets the verses dutifuly memorised… ) which says: “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” So for now I will keep my hands and mind open and welcome the impermanence into my life.