Lost in tradition

August 2015

My comeback to India was indeed intense this time. On the same day I arrived in Delhi I received a phone call with horrible news: My best friend in the village had died of mushroom poisoning. I couldn’t believe it, she had a pretty good mushroom hunting knowledge.There are rumors that unhappy Indian wives occasionally mix some “special” mushrooms into their husbands’ dishes to get rid of them, but that’s another story…

She was an Indian lady, a strong woman, kind and fun. My daughter loved to go to her place to play with her grandchildren and I loved to go there, because I felt absolutely comfortable in her company. I don’t even know how old she was; every time I asked about her age over the past seven years she used to answer “40”. I will miss her hugs, laughter, company and listening to her singing and playing the dolak, especially during the Holi Festival.


After coming back to our mountain village, I went to visit the family to offer my condolences. It was hard. And of course, as all too often, I unknowingly blundered.

When I came back from there, our neighbor told me that TODAY was NOT the right day to visit a mourning family. The good days were Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. I sighed. How would I know? But being a foreigner, the family probably understood and kindly ignored my mistake.

Indian traditions and social rules are really complicated to get for a foreigner, no matter how hard you try. There are innumerable details that have to be observed and all of it depends on the region, community, family and caste. Sure you can always ask an Indian, but for them all the details just come naturally and if you do not ask precisely about any possible little thing, they will probably forget explaining it to you.

I live in India since almost eight years and I only can say that the bit I know is equal to nothing!

Where we live a mourning period of eleven days is observed after somebody passes away. Close family members are not supposed to leave the house, except for performing the corresponding rituals for the parting soul in the temple. The ladies of the household will wear simple clothes and will renounce wearing jewelry and cosmetics, while the male members of the family shave their heads; the sons wear traditional white colored clothing.

On the eleventh day the mourning phase ends and people start slowly getting back to their routine. A humble celebration is held in remembrance of the departed person and people dress up for the occasion. Exactly on that day my daughter ran away to meet the children of the family and I followed her. I didn’t know that it was the end of the morning period and was completely under dressed, my faded clothes stained with flour from baking. I greeted timidly from a distance, caught my girl and disappeared unobtrusively.

People here must think that I am a real weirdo. I am a bit of a disaster when it comes to remembering dates: I usually barely know which day of the week it actually is. I guess it has something to do that during the tourist season we open our cafe seven days a week and in the off-season, every day is a Sunday for us. Usually I forget about fasting days and most of the religious celebrations, too.


Sometimes I only know about a festivity because our neighbor Mataji suddenly shows up with a plate full of treats in her hands. Shame on me!

Some might wonder how come that I do not have more knowledge about the Indian rituals and traditions being married with an Indian. I have been asking myself the same question and came to the conclusion that it figures that my husband left his home at the young age of eleven. He did not witness many years of deep family traditions inside of his home. Another point is that in most of the traditions there is a great difference in behavior and rituals, depending on whether you are a man or a woman.

Many times I asked my husband if I should go to this or that ceremony, what I should wear or what I should bring. He never really knew which advice to give me. He lived most of his life as a sadhu, which means that he did not live with any female presence that was not the image or a sculpture of a goddess. How would he know about how his wife was supposed to behave on a wedding, a funeral, when a new baby was born or if she was to attend this or that temple ceremony or not?

Baba also never has been a very ritualistic person himself and uses to say:

” If you are happy, then god is also happy. God doesn’t care if you fast or not; or even if you fail visiting the temple. All this, people actually just do for themselves. What really matters is that you try to be the best person you can be in your daily life ”



Honeymoon With Rumpelstilskin Part 2

Gangotri‘s best chai

May 2008

Sita Ram found us having breakfast and ordered a potato parantha and a chai while he was giving his usual morning grouching-speech; on our behalf, of course. Again he decided to come with us on our walk.

We climbed over rocks and stones and suddenly stood in front of a small cave entrance. A local who passed by with his donkeys, who were carrying rocks explained that a Russian Sadhu was living there. Unfortunately the door was locked; I would really have liked to meet the Russian spiritual man.


Russian Baba Cave

We followed a small path when all of a sudden it started raining. A voice called us over, coming from an old Sadhu who was sitting at his fire pit under a ledge. I wondered why we had not noticed him earlier. The old man offered us chai. He even had real cow-milk, it was the best chai I had in all of Gangotri! His English was pretty good and he told me that for the last thirty years he had been living most time of the year in Gangotri, but due to the isolation and the rough climate conditions he was forced to spend some months further down in the valley. It was very pleasant to enjoy a good, hot cup of tea while chatting with the Sadhu. I marvelled at the beauty of nature; the rains had turned the rocks into glimmering silver.

A Russian couple, who was in search of the Russian Sadhu came through the rain out of nowhere an joined us. We talked little; everybody seemed to be absorbed by the amazing landscape.

When the rain eventually stopped, we thanked the old Sadhu and started our descent where we met another interesting figure; a Nath Sadhu jumped on the path from behind a bush.

I almost got a heart attack!

His long, thick dreadlocks were knotted together high upon his head. He wore nothing but a tiger patterned loincloth and many heavy malas. His entire body was smeared with ash, he held a brazen trishul in one hand and a Baba-bag hung over his shoulder. We ended up crouching in a circle on the side of the trail; the Tiger-Loincloth-Baba passed a chillum and the three holy men had a vivid conversation in Hindi. He spotted my digicam and his eyes became big as saucers. He started rummaging in his Baba-bag and pulled out a cellphone and a digital camera.

“I have a Sony Camera, 4 megapixel, very good quality! My cellphone inside also have one camera.”

This was the last thing I had expected from this particular Sadhu and I had to fight pretty hard to stifle a laugh.

Like that we spent several days in Gangotri; with Sita Ram Baba at our side. There was no way to get rid of him; the only moments I spent alone with my husbands were at night inside of our room.

What a great honeymoon in company of Rumpelstiltskin!

Baba and Sita RamTime had come to leave, but before that we wanted to visit the temple, which receives countless pilgrims every year. At the market Baba and I bought a plate with offerings for the goddess that contained kajal, bangles, a comb, a small mirror, coconut and a variety of sweets. Happily we approached the main temple and I wondered what had happened to the large queue that normally lines up in front of the entrance. Cheerfully I walked in with the plate of offerings in my hands. The pandit spotted me and snarled at me

“Now no godtime! You chalo! Fast!”

and shooed me away. Bewildered I looked alternately at my plate and back to the pandit. What was that? This was the first temple I visited in India where god apparently observed a timetable.

We waited for some time and eventually went to a smaller, secondary temple nearby. Confused I followed a line of women into the building. In Hindu temples, everything happens really fast; at least during the pilgrim season. Most of the time you don’t have time to take a proper look at the resident deity and before you even start understanding what is actually going on inside of the temple you suddenly find yourself outside of it again. I guess this is why I like the gurdwaras so much, there is always a place where to sit down to let the incredible vibrations rain down on you.

Anyways, it was my turn, the pandit blessed my offerings and after only a couple of seconds I stood again outside of the temple. In all this rush I forgot to hand over my 20 rupee donation, the bill was still sitting on my plate. I sighed and went to undergo the whole procedure again. Back in the temple I put the money next to the deity’s figure and the pundit eventually blessed me, too, marking my forehead with a vermilion tilak.


I thought…

“No money, no honey!”