Our base is a small guesthouse, owned and run by a gracious, loving and generous local family, the Jadhavs, in the village of Ganeshpuri, two hours from Mumbai. Off the tourist trails, Ganeshpuri is a pilgrimage site that grew up around a great spiritual master called Bhagavan Nityananda in the early 1900s. His grave, and that of his leading disciple, are the focal points around which the village’s life evolves.
This is our third tour since 2015 and each one has had its own unique flavour.
As with all things Indian, no matter how much you plan a program, you have to be very flexible and adaptive to the constantly changing conditions.
This year was no different. The monsoons came late, flooding Mumbai for three weeks. Each year we have a beautiful pavilion erected in the middle of a flower farm to use for our meditations and circle work. The bucketing rain on our arrival this year, turned it into a swamp! And so once again, we had to adapt!
Each morning we start our daily program - a mixture of local meditations and chants. We share some of the great mythic stories of Indian culture and use the magic of Western experiential astrology, to connect with a particular goddess and her consort. Inwardly, this combination works with each god and goddess representing a sub personality, an archetype, found both within ourselves and in all cultures, and as deity, an aspect of the divine that permeates the collective.
And however masculinised Indian culture is on many levels, the goddess layer is incredibly deep, rich, pervasive and highly accessible with the right tools.
Once we’ve had two to three hours of this preparation each day, we go and visit her local temples, either on foot, by rickshaw, car or hired bus.
In the days that follow our arrival, we visit the triple Kali temple in the next village. Our women sift through and buy the colourful Shakti-filled saris worn by these three lifesized statues, to adorn themselves for our later ceremonies. We have a glorious day at the Maha Lakshmi temple in Dahanu about an hour away, and honour the goddess of spiritual and material abundance. It is a day where everyone seems to be smiling and where the Indian people spontaneously create circle dances in the central courtyard between temples. To their delight, we join in, having been taught the dances by our hosts.
Next morning we are bumping along in rickshaws in the predawn darkness, attempting to beat the Navratri crowds to the hilltop temple of the Jivdani Devi.
Boosted by another ridiculously sweet chai, we climb the ridgeline path to visit the very beautiful goddess of sacred sexuality, Lalita. One of the temple attendants takes a shine to our group and directs us to a relatively quiet spot where we can meditate in clear sight of the goddess’s image, shooing away any over-curious Indian pilgrims. This temple has a spiritual form of mosh pit where, during the daily arati, a light waving ceremony for invoking the goddess, people are permitted to dance wildly and go into trance. We missed the 4am session and the temple is filling up rapidly as the sun appears over the horizon.
Alongside our daytime adventures, each evening of the nine days of the festival those of us who have the stamina attend the two hour circle dance in the village. These start slowly, wrapping around most of the main street in a singular serpentine motion, building in pace and joyfulness, until eventually breaking apart into a chaotic Bollywood-like dance scene. These dances are simultaneously great fun and allow us to join the goddess-inspired community spirit. It is also highly entertaining, as it’s a forum for the local young people to get dressed up, the teenagers checking each other out and the boys in particular showing off their dance skills.
Of the many things to admire about Indian people, they sure can dance, from the very young to the very old.
Once Navratri is over and the massive crowds diminish, we go on a four day pilgrimage to some of the great Shiva and Shakti temples in the Satmala Ranges, travelling by minibus through the city of Nasik to get to Saptashrungi Mountain. This is the home of the great Saptashrungi Devi who embodies a mixture of Durga, the great mother warrior, the fierce destroyer and awakener Kali and Parvati, the goddess of the sacred marriage.
Her temple is an intersection point of some of the great mythological sagas in Hinduism, including the story of Shiva’s first wife Sati, the Ramayana and the defeat of the buffalo headed demon Mahisha in a famous mythic battle with Durga. The Devi’s image itself is a natural feature found in the wall of the last peak of the mountain by the sage Markendaya, mentioned in a 1500 year old Vedic text. She stands three metres high, has 18 arms and a face that is part alien, part Moon goddess and part child.
And as soon as you get your first glimpse of the mountain from afar, you also get a surge of her great Shakti and sacred power.
As soon as we had arrived we learned that the trustees of the temple had invited me and my co-leader Chandu Bickford, to perform a sacred ceremony and wave the lights in the morning arati - the morning invocation of the goddess for the benefit of all.
This was an awesome and tremendously humbling experience; dressing traditionally for the occasion and being allowed into the inner sanctum of the temple, we stood so close that she towered above us in all her blazing colour and potency. And as the drums, gongs and symbols start to clang, priests belting out mantras like liquid poetry, joined by the rhythmic clapping of early morning pilgrims, we wave multiple flames to her, inviting her fire to join our own, to illuminate and purify our hearts and bring her grace into the world. Time became very elastic as my psyche expanded and contracted; at times I felt very small, at others, I felt my own inner Shiva or sacred masculine rising to meet her.
I roll out of this experience feeling simultaneously very clear and quiet, yet joyful and euphoric, as other members of our group are invited to join in as well. Feeling incapable of doing much else, we sit to meditate and watch the sunrise as the monkeys scamper through the temple trees.
By this time our group members have become more comfortable and confident in the relative chaos of Indian society, food, temple and cultural protocols – this is their first trip to the subcontinent.
It is simply not possible to be around this amount of Shakti, especially after 10 days of daily immersion, without experiencing significant inner shifts and movements, purification and healing, heart openings, insights and awakenings. And however murky and intense some of these purifications need to be, the fruit of this deep inner and outer exploration within this huge cultural container that honours the sacred feminine can have life changing implications.
One issue that inevitably surfaces on these tours, and particularly for the women, is the continuing dominance of the masculine and the patriarch.
While the deepest places spiritually are the realms of the goddess, who our participants come to experience more and more as the substratum not just of this culture but of life itself, the surface spiritual culture is still predominantly masculine. Most temples, even those dedicated to the goddess, are manned by male priests.
However, at Saptashrungi this is turned on its head by the fact that the equally ancient and yet much smaller Shiva temple on the mountain is served by a young resident priestess. Her closest friend is a much older female Swami who spoke excellent English and was once a student of psychology but had chosen the life of an ascetic, sleeping on the steps of the Devi temple and living off alms. It was a delight to come out of the temple to find all our women sitting in conversation with these two exceptional women in the warm sun of the temple precinct.
Having spent two days on the mountain, we descend to honour the sacred masculine in the form of Shiva at the famous black granite Jyotilingum temple at Trimbakeshwara. This is one of the events leading up to our tour’s finale, a Shiva - Shakti ceremony back at home base. In the same town, partly buried under a more recent ashram built exclusively for male sadhus, is a tiny temple to Parvati, the goddess of the sacred marriage. We spend time basking in her sweet but powerful Shakti, embodied not by statue but far more ancient womblike stone, resonant with India’s pre-Hindu aboriginal spiritual traditions.
Once back home, the men and women separate, Chandu leads the women’s business ceremonies, while we men join with an older but very passionate Shiva swami for what turned into a five hour traditional fire ceremony to this tantric yogi god. We gathered around a fire pit and poured mantras, ghee, incense and impurities into the sacred fire, sitting stripped to the waist and sweating in the already intense humidity.
In the morning, we men prepare the now dry pavilion wearing pure white. As Shiva men, we sweeten the temple space with flowers, incense, kum kum, sweets and gifts to welcome the goddess. The divine feminine is embodied in the women of our group, as they emerge silently from the surrounding jungle, resplendent in Shakti-infused saris.
One by one, each participant enters the astrological medicine wheel to symbolically and energetically connect their own unique inner masculine and feminine to form the sacred marriage within. This produces various forms of inner and outer explosions, releases and heart openings, then after a period of exquisite silence, we lead into some spirited chanting to make way for the release of joy and gratitude.
Normally, this is the end of our 15 day process but on this tour the goddess decided to have the last say. After another beautiful and lovingly cooked meal with our hosts, some of us decide to have a last visit to the triple Kali temple in the next village to offer our thanks and gratitude. Even though the entire morning’s ceremony was held in bright sunshine, we could hear the early rumbles of another significant storm getting closer.
And just as we reach the last of 50 steps into the ancient hilltop temple, the storm suddenly unleashes 80 km/hour winds that literally blew us into the throat of this temple.
The next 20 minutes the whole valley is pounded with violent thunder and lightning.
Grateful for the thick granite walls, all we can do is watch with a mixture of fear and exhilaration, knowing that the goddess was indeed having her say and in her own way, and giving us a final blessing amidst such a display of her wild freedom and awesome power.
Dripping wet and filled with Shakti, we leave the temple. Saddened to say goodbye, but joyous, knowing we will return to the bosom of mother India for our next tour in 2018.
Photo: Navratri festival ©Devansh / Wikimedia Commons
Daniel Sowelu (BSc Dip Ed) is a therapeutic astrologer, primal therapist and groupleader in his 35th year of private practice.