I’ve been wanting to write a new post for some time now but the words have not been coming. Travelling round India, I’ve been overwhelmed by sensation and experience; I haven’t known how to begin describing my time here. It makes me think of one of those slides used in a PowerPoint presentation where words whoosh on to the screen and before you’ve registered what they are, they’ve gone again, or changed colour, or moved position. At times, I’ve felt like the empty slide, ready and waiting to be filled up with the vibrancy and chaos of India; more often, I’ve felt like I’m the words – busy, noisy, kaleidoscopic.
From time to time I’ve tried to scribble down a few things, while sitting on a crowded train or resting on a bench or settled near a monument. A few days ago, what came to me when I tried to allow some words to filter through me was feet. I’d recently been to the Ellora and Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra and, out of all the detail in the beautiful sculptures and murals, it was feet that made the deepest impression on me. There was one cave in particular in Ajanta, with a large, reclining Buddha carved in to the rock. It was an exquisite sculpture, radiating peace and wisdom. The feet were beautiful, perfectly formed. All sorts of values and qualities radiated from these feet: integrity, strength, fortitude, dedication, endeavour, equanimity, compassion. To me, they seemed to convey the significance of what we each stand for, and what we can stand for together
It made me think about my feet, as I do from time to time; how much they do for me, carrying me hither and thither; supporting me, usually uncomplainingly, trusting in my choices. Perhaps feet have also come to mind because recently I was volunteering at Anandwan, which is home to patients with leprosy and people living with the disabilities caused by leprosy.
I spent some time in the homes for the elderly there, giving massage. Some people had no feet to massage. Some had feet but no toes. Some had feet and toes but the feet, like the people themselves, had received little attention for a long while. At times I found it hard, especially at first, to be fully with these feet. And then I remembered my own and how much they do for me and how lucky I am that they can take me where I want to go, when I want to go. I would look up from the person’s feet in to their eyes and would see that we were sharing the mystery of the beauty and pain of that moment; the intimacy, the difference and the similarity between us.
Later, when I visited the Caves, I tramped around in the heat. At Ellora it was over 30 degrees and the site is spread over a couple of kilometres. I felt how hot and tired my feet were, how they were keeping going and keeping me going, enabling me to see such exquisite, ancient works of art.
In Bodhgaya, I walked clockwise around old buddhist temples in the company of monks, tourists and pilgrims. I rested on steps and benches, turned away from touts selling photos, trinkets and devotional offerings and turned towards sunrises, sunsets and the waning moon. In the holy city of Varanasi, my feet walked up and down the ghats that line the Ganges, past sadhus, shrines, funeral pyres, stray dogs, cows, sheep, goats, monkeys, musicians, meditators and yogis.
Walking barefoot around a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva in Varanasi I stubbed my little toe on my left foot. By the time I had returned to my guest house, it was swollen, purple and tender. Later, inside my shoe, my foot felt trapped. It wanted to spread out, feel the air, have some space.
The next day in Sarnath, where the Buddha is believed to have given his first sermon after becoming enlightened, I took off my shoes and socks while the sun rose. As the heat of the morning began to build, I felt space and peace flow through my body and mind. Amongst the old ruins, the imposing stupa and the landscaped park, stillness opened up and, as I sat for some time on a wall under a tree, my feet hanging free, I wondered whether the colour and confusion – the life of India – might be beginning to settle and whether words might follow.