Himalayan pilgrimage part I: Dharmalaya

When I look back on my summer study travels, often it is the flavor and tenor of those places, the light and coziness of spaces, people, their pasts and so many interlinked stories, that fill my heart with some unknown affection, as though I have spread my roots into those places and people, as though they are very much part of my being…

Every day of my stay in Himachal, I woke up to the vision of Dhauladhar snow peaks. I thanked them every day for their mystical blessings that reached me through people, food and endless conversations.

The learning and growing of every pilgrim like me is made possible by these places and people. The smallest things in my routine life remind me of their smiling faces and I feel some warm and pleasant heartache.

I wish to narrate what happened on this Himalayan pilgrimage, and how it has altered me irreversibly… But I doubt if I can convey fully everything I have to say, while tides of love and joy burst against the walls of my heart, even at the thought of this journey… I am still too overwhelmed… Too touched to be able to find crisp words for everything… But I must write this now, with all this vulnerability still alive in me… And I hope that no matter how confused or ambiguous I may write, something will reach you just between those awkward lines.

There are three distinct legs of this journey that were staged through three different places in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh. The visions, experiences, challenges, and their solutions evolve into an overall flavor of first two places. It keeps climbing and intensifying with every passing day… coming together into an unexpected climax of the story in its last week — a beautiful closing note to a melodious song.

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It starts way up in the awe-inspiring hills of the Dhauladhar range, winding through the half-asleep village of Bir, when we were dropped at the fringe of a pine wood to hike the last stretch up a hill to reach Dharmalaya. Walking up to the campus with all your baggage is the first gateway into the ‘Dharmalaya lifestyle’ that awaits us up top! And, there, the valley encircled with hills provides a literally breathtaking distraction!

That first vision of Himalayan peaks after so long… every time, it unfailingly takes you away from your urban presence. Your name, designations and credentials are all washed away. You become a being… a clean and simple unit of existence, cleansed and ready to live a life in the hills.

Dharmalaya is a place that functions as an opportunity for learning a sustainable lifestyle by practicing it. Although it is a campus still in the making, it already lives and grows, true to its fundamentals.

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The place staged some simple and obvious challenges that, surprisingly, I had never faced before. It feels differently alive when you work toward the naked, crude reality of survival and stand straight, holding your head high, looking up into the face of a lofty mountain, and smile…

And there were my personal attempts to overcome past records! It is astonishing how much one can accomplish even after crossing the known limits of physical or mental exhaustion. Exhaustion is possibly just an illusory barrier after all, beyond which lies the world of personal miracles!

Every evening, when I would let myself become aware of how tired I was, it felt absolutely the opposite! I felt eased, as if all my limbs were completely relaxed after such a long time! I realize that it was because they had worked well beyond their limit of exhaustion! I would watch sunburns and bruises on my arms and legs, and wonder why it did not hurt even in near-freezing cold wind. But my hands have known a worse pain: that of spotless, useless idleness… bruises rather feel better!

I would think of quiet, peaceful afternoons back home… times when I watched my clean and spotless hands, hurting inside, for I was hungry to know what I could do with those.

It gave me some violent pleasure to think of clean hands while I mixed and danced in cold mud, wiped wooden molds for another batch of adobes… or got funny, throbbing blisters after a day of sod cutting.

There have been long evenings back home when I used to sit motionless through meetings, feeling a dead, heavy fatigue in my legs, for I was dying to find out how far I could hike or run through wilderness with those legs, as I know every human is born to do! It gave me the same violent pleasure to think of those idle evenings while I actually went jumping over boulders through possibly some of world’s most pristine hills, feeling light, strong and so so alive! Village dogs often joined me and raced through the trees by my side, with a grave look of comradeship in their hairy, warm faces.

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Of course there were quiet moments here as well, when there was warm, buttery sunshine and I could stretch out under some random, beautiful oak tree, thinking about nothing too human… Simply balancing sun and shadow over my body, according to how cold or warm it felt that day… Or finding the most comfortable angle to rest my neck into the rough lovely tree trunk! And then somehow the hills would become silent for a long time.

I know I was not there on a holiday! There was architecture happening, taking shape among all of us. We were breaking through the most obvious assumptions in architectural practice and starting our thought process at the very beginning… Somewhere near the instinct of ‘shelter making’.

It frustrates the best of us when we realize that, in the course of sophistication, we have let our instincts rot for generations. We have no clue of how to survive! Most people remain unskilled in this way because they simply do not know there is something lacking. Our schools and colleges have ensured that we remain oblivious to reality. But when one realizes what is missing, it becomes a personal challenge to learn things, to do things by hand… and to know that the most beautiful attribute of human anatomy is its ability to learn and do and create — an ability that often remains untapped!

I am not going to quantify and spoil all the learning that happened to me… To be honest, I cannot measure the depth and intensity of changes that these lessons have brought and are continuing to bring. The lessons of life and architecture have blended together inseparably. I simply believe that they will seep into my being and express themselves as I encounter relevant situations in the design of life. Nobody knows where this learning may take me with time. Slowly, I am starting to appreciate the beauty of this ‘not-knowing’ — a fat achievement for someone who has been such a control freak for years!

There is meditative pleasure in doing things by hand, and it grows deeper and more compellingly addictive with time. For example, before using soil for making earth blocks, one needs to set aside the precious top soil layer, for it contains all the organic nutritive treasures of life. Cutting chunks of sod and replanting them as part of landscaping can, in fact, turn into a blissfully exhausting experience. It also teaches one to watch carefully, at the scale and amount of ecological damage that has to happen in course of building anything, even with the least processed forms of earth construction.

Earth is a highly instructive teacher when we stop being morons and allow her to lead the way. She teaches us to look at life carefully… to treasure it and, at the very least, to limit our destructive activities and find ways to heal life as much as we possibly can.

Every time we make a choice of saving or healing, we must also be prepared to put in additional time, human effort, skill and sensitivity, because acts of benignity cannot be purchased: they must be ‘done’. But somehow modern man often does not care about investing these trivial things into a building activity. He has built his systems such that they compel him to become more and more insensitive, unskilled, thoughtless, and yet surprisingly too busy to do things!

So, probably, we are a funny bunch of people trying to turn the wheel back, while the rest of the world is moving forward. But the increasing number of restless architects setting out to find hands-on work opportunities definitely means something. It hints at things we have lost with time — things that are human and possibly even trivial, but things we have started to miss in our daily lives. It is instinctive and apt for a human to want to go back to the basics and relearn those things. It is no more going back in time; it is not reversing the wheels of development. It is simply nurturing our roots to have better grip in the future.

Apart from making adobes and maintaining the existing building, we also had a design task to finish in two weeks’ time: We had to build a toilet, by hand, without using any industrially manufactured, purchased building material, and without using and help from outside.

Indeed, we did install a dry pit toilet with a bamboo enclosure at Dharmalaya, but only after two highly eventful weeks. It started out with long discussions, calculations, sketches, frustrating setbacks and redesigns. Through this, we architects discovered that none of us actually knew how to build!

So, we learned to select bamboo, clean their nodes and then cut the right lengths. We scavenged the hill slopes with our local thatch consultants, learning to select the right kind of grass for thatch roofing. And at the end, one sunny day, we had heaps of harvested grass — and no frame on which to tie it!

One needs something to tie bamboo joints together. Again, we ran to our local skill consultants and Rajinder bhaiyya showed us how, for generations, they have been making ropes out of the bark fibre of a specific tree that they call ‘dhaman’. After several frustrating and failed attempts at rope-making, finally our hands learned to roll the fibres into a rope! Rope-making is like a rhythmic dance that goes on into timelessness once we learn the motions well. I sat through a beautiful sunset, my eyes closed against the pleasant reddish-purple glow on the horizon, while my hands played with the bark fibres, rolling out seamless, neat spirals of rope. What a blessing it is to be alive!

There were several things happening around us in loosely connected dynamics: We were splitting bamboos, cutting bamboos, tying joints, falling, cutting ourselves, laughing into hysteria — and some of us snoring through the evening sessions!

One day, with outdoor work stalled by bad weather, we had fun with a new instrument: a glass cutter. Using this tool for cutting glass bottles was a quiet, precision task, and I had the warm glow of candle flame right by my side. All the cut bottles will be wrapped in reflective foils and embedded in earthen walls as tiny, glowing day lights.

There was a platter of tasks from which we could pick and choose, learning whatever we pleased! There were a thousand more things I could have learned, but I learned what I could gather in the time available and made a note to myself about things that I now know must be learned.

Dharmalaya is also a place where one learns to live as a community and participates in its daily chores. Unlike urban settings, no invisible cleaning staff comes here to maintain this place while we are oblivious to their presence, busy at work. We are our own janitors, cooks and housekeepers. Tasks as simple as chopping fruits and vegetables, cleaning the kitchen, dishwashing, and toilet cleaning have a very deep effect within us when we perform them with full attention. Chores were indeed highly contemplative opportunities to continue what we were striving to learn outdoors.

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One cannot drift through and remain untouched by the pristine hills and humble lifestyle at Dharmalaya. It is a hard life if not accepted with full understanding — as hard as reaching this place is!

Still, somehow it is much harder to leave this place, once we catch the rhythm of it. Yes, it has a heartbeat of its own that throbs in dung-plastered walls and in a solitary light beam stretched from the ceiling across the earth floor… a pulse that is the sum total of many hearts and hands that have shaped this place.

Himalayan Pilgrimage Part II: Sambhaavnaa

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Fulfilled…

Again I stand at the ground zero

Unable to know which way to go…

Again I’m here with my bleeding heart

My wings are cut, I’m fallen apart…

Again I watch the blazing sun

far beyond my reach of run….

Again I wish in sullen melancholy…

Does my dream have a chance really?

May be something’s wrong with the dream itself…

I jumped to own the God himself!

My two tiny hands can’t hold his glory….

But my heart hides a long secret story…

Since it learnt to sing its pulse…

It sang thy name in very verse…

I can’t console my weeping heart…

Unable to give up, again I start…

Now I am robbed of everything I had…

My body is sore…my weather is bad…

My two tiny hands folded into prayer…

I close my eyes and my song aquiver…

I can’t reach thee, my feet so fickle…

I am robbed of the world; I own not a nickel…

But since when thy glory is confined?

Since when thy love cares for the defined?

I heard thee loveth all the same…

Thy glory lives longer than fame…

I tried my best, I toiled till I broke…

Still you deny me, still you forsook…

I wasn’t a saint, I wasn’t a king…

An insignificant one in thy fling…

I could be crushed under mighty feet…

Happily walked to the death I’d meet…

But you make me exist, survive and live….

You make me dream, smile and believe…

Now I give up….thy dreams, thy visions…

I care for nothing, neither for thy mission…

I want thee, only thy face to see…

I want thy love deeper than the sea…

Come to me if thee ever loved me…

Hold me close, never leave me…

Then I will be drowned in thy sweet rose….

I will say yes, to everything you propose….

I will live for thee, and die for thee…

My every heartbeat will sing for thee…

Thy gaze will heal when I am fallen apart…

Thy love will blossom, spread from my heart….

I will be your hand in everything you perform

I will be your sword, in the wars of reform….

My mind my soul was lost in the dream again…

In that moment no tears remain!

Glow of thousand suns fell over me….

Great Joy of love burst within….

In that moment I found your secret…

Not in the skies, you hid in my heart!

My prayer was answered…

And my love was fulfilled…

Keys of success…

The world is full of schools that teach us how to succeed. But yet why are there so many failures?! After the surge of so many management schools and finishing programs, everyone should be superfine business tycoon!

But it does not happen that way, and there is simple single reason to it. Very few of the strugglers really manage to unite the magic of three keys, ability, effort and luck.

Ability is always in born. It is gifted to us by the creator of this universe. Our only part in it is to pin point the greatest gift within us. With sharp introspection, all the debris of praise and self love can be removed and real gold of ability can be mined out. Superficial training or effort can only polish what is already within you. There is nothing in any school of the world that you can learn up if you are a vase with a hole. Most of the times people have unreasonable assumptions about their abilities, often derived from their parents aspirations, peer pressure, blindly chosen role models, celebrities, fashionable trends etc. their true abilities remain unexplored while they keep banging their heads on something they are simply not born to do! With time real ability if not paid attention to, can perish a horrible death. And it can leave the person devoid of everything…. He lives a soul-less life, much worse than death. If you look around with open eyes, you will see half the population suffering the miseries of such soul-less life. Fear them, because you don’t want to be one of them…. And avoid that in time, by hunting down the secret of your true divine ability.

Effort is often viewed as a dumb thing! That if one shovels efforts in bushels; he can achieve anything he wants. This is total illusion. True efforts are not just mechanical act that is overdone. Efforts come only from a heart that is set with conviction and a body that reverberates with divine energy and will. Lack of efforts or laziness is never the obvious state of any human being. Laziness is only a symptom of some deep and hidden decease. Laziness can be outcome of immense stress, pressure of performance, fear of failure or simply lack of firm, convincing goal. Never treat laziness by over-work. If you do not feel like making effort, try to see why your mind is announcing such a strike against yourself! There is something it wants to say and you may have not heard it! When you do the effort, do it with whole heart poured into it. Otherwise it will never work for you.

Luck is not mere game of chances, for those who are dream-hunters, true winners.Luck is earned, just like ability has to be earned. People, who fail, often blame it on their poor luck. But I believe that is nothing like poor luck. But there is a decease called poor faith. A faithless person is everywhere followed by bad luck. If he continues to destroy his faith, he will not be able to walk a single step without tripping over! Everything we can do is because we know we can do it! You can walk because you fully know you can walk! Same way you can succeed if you fully know you can! Do not think that you can, know that you can. Faith is most ignored of all the gifts man has received from god. World of modernism so advanced and comfortable to live in, has robbed people of simple faith… We believe so much in reasoning and logical tussles that innocent faith is killed in the war of reasoning. There was a time when religion was entwined artfully in daily life. It provided great tonic to faith. But now that people have awakened so much, they do not need any god to help them. At least they seem to think so. But slowly they lose not just faith in god, but also faith in themselves! A life that is empty of faith is ever unsatisfied, ever restless, even if surrounded by most luxurious comforts. But on the other hand a person filled with faith and joy of God’s presence is dancing in happiness, without care for food or shelter! For such faithful person, God cares for everything. His wishes and desires are taken care of by the almighty himself! Luck is mere a toy in God’s hand! If so be his wish, he can pour you with all the luck in the world. It is very simple to be lucky… but yet very difficult!

Easy or difficult, it is worth it for sure. The taste of success is tastiest of all! And the one who collects these three magic keys of ability, effort and luck will always know the right thing to do….he will find success running behind him.