Find Meaning. Create Beauty.

Via on Feb 5, 2013
Self Portrait after Chidambaram Homa en route to Chennai (photo SHR.com)
Self Portrait after Chidambaram Homa en route to Chennai (photo SHR.com)

I am standing on a few inches of stone and held tightly in place by dozens of bodies radiating outward from every side of me.

It is hot and dark and there is sweat trickling from odd places, such as the drop moving down the back of my left thigh and making its way toward my ankle. Some people cough, others are murmuring, a woman leans her hand on my shoulder-there is nowhere else for it to fit in this dense puzzle of bodies and prayer.

Susanna After-Homa,  Chidambaram (photo-by Lisbeth Lippert)
Susanna After Homa, Chidambaram (photo detail by Lisbeth Lippert)

All of us crane our necks in the direction of the same thing. We are in the Chidambaram Temple peering toward Nataraja in the central shrine. Rows and layers of ghee lamps line a series of doorways progressively framing Nataraja, teasing our attention and drawing it back into the space of the inner sanctum. The rows of shadow and illumination make me blink and refocus in an attempt to determine foreground from background.

A young priest moves easily around the sanctum, ladling more ghee into each of the lamps so that the glow shifts and flares, offering a sudden illumination of Nataraja’s graceful form enveloped in elaborate decoration: the intricately stitched gold thread of his clothing draped and wrapped around him and almost concealed by multiple layers of his perfumed flower garlands, the glitter of precisely placed jewels catching and refracting light, everything glowing in a confounding of light with gold and gold with sun and with moonlight in a way that I can’t entirely capture in words.

Gazing through the progression of recessed doorways leading to the center is like moving through layers of your consciousness. In fact this area of the temple is called the Cit Sabha—the hall of consciousness, and its physical arrangement invites you into an analogous inner experience. As I move through layers of thought and awareness, I realize that the layers are not necessarily sequential-they shift, like tectonic plates moving in the earth of my psyche. It makes me think of how mica can be peeled back and peeled back, revealing endless glittering layers beneath. So what appears to be on the surface may actually be found in the middle or bottom and what seems set or fixed in my mind, in this place, in my life, contains infinite layers of subtle definition. Nothing is entirely what it seems or what I expect it to be, but I can choose to find meaning and to create beauty.

Nighttime Natarajas at my Favorite Murti Vendor East Gate, Chidambaram Temple (photo-SHR.com)
Nighttime Natarajas at my Favorite Murti Vendor East Gate, Chidambaram Temple (photo-SHR.com)

So this is where I am. In an orange and purple silk cotton sari, jasmine woven into my braid, forehead dotted red with kumkum and marked white with vibhuti, and exhausted, ecstatic. I’ve stayed on in Chidambaram for a few extra days at the end of a pilgrimage with my friend and teacher, Douglas Brooks, because I want to do exactly this- join my body to the other bodies in the Cit Sabha at night and at dawn for darshan, which means seeing and being seen. This is what I am doing right now.

There is really no way to explain why or how I love this as much as I do.

Some of my friends on the trip were interested but not moved, some were drawn to it and others perplexed, and I understand all of these reactions because I can’t really even explain why it does what it does to me, which has only a tangential relation to the customs of my New England Catholic upbringing. There is some connection I can make with my love of ritual, with the smell of incense and the lighting of candles, but it departs from there. It is an entirely separate thing, although it accesses a similar part of me. I am back in Chidambaram for the fourth time because being in the heart of the temple feels like falling in love. I feel myself soften and melt like the ghee that overflows from the lamps to the stones under my feet. It touches me in a way that nothing else can, causing me to bow down inside myself.

Ghee Lamps at Meenaksi Temple, Madurai
Ghee Lamps at Meenaksi Temple, Madurai

Suddenly, as the priests close the folding doors surrounding the Cit Sabha, the electricity goes out. We are in utter darkness in the heart of this colossal labyrinthine temple. But nothing happens. No one shrieks. No one flinches. No one panics. There is a slight sway of our bodies to the left, then to the right, then back to center. I feel us breathing together as one giant body made of many parts. Someone lights up their cell phone, then lets it go out again. We are looking at one of the most stunning sights I have ever witnessed. In the concentrated light of the ghee lamps glowing in the blackness everything has turned to gold. There are layers and layers of intricate illuminated detail.

It is dazzling and I have this thought, “This is the most beautiful thing I will ever see.”

Cidambaram Courtyard at Night (photo-SHR.com)
Chidambaram Courtyard at Night (photo-SHR.com)

On this visit to Chidambaram there have been frequent brief power outages, but this one lasts and lasts. We stay for several minutes in this suspended place before the electricity flickers back on, the silvery doors of the Kanaka Sabha are folded shut in the moonlight, and we begin to weave our way back through the temple toward the East Gate, where we retrieve our shoes from the shoe check, dreamily making our way past the cows grazing on garbage in the street to return to our hotel.

The biggest cow in Cidambaram (photo-SHR.com)
The biggest cow in Chidambaram, East Car Street (photo-SHR.com)

It is always hard to leave Chidambaram and return to my life in NYC. I burst into tears coming back from the airport when my Supershuttle driver brusquely decides to deposit me several blocks from my apt despite my enormous bags, lack of a winter coat, and my pleas to drive around the block. I am still in that place of smiling at people and having them smile back, of a shared experience of beauty, and it catches me off-guard. As he drives away, I gather myself, return to that crowded stone hallway inside myself, feel the connection to the other bodies around me, and gaze inward at the layers of golden honeyed light. Something inside me softens and something else takes form. Then, shivering, I drag my bags slowly back to my apartment, turn on the heat, and begin to unpack.

Street Sign, Chidambaram (photo SHR.com)
Street Sign, Chidambaram (photo SHR.com)

So this is what I have decided to say to myself  in 2013:

Find meaning. Create beauty.

Cidambaram Gopuram detail
Cidambaram Gopuram detail

 

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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

About Susanna Harwood Rubin

Susanna is passionately committed to finding beauty in everyday life. She is a yoga teacher, visual artist, and writer, which means that she rarely stops moving except to meditate. She has been teaching for over a decade, and has spent over 11 years immersed in studying Rajanaka Tantra with Dr. Douglas Brooks, with whom she travels regularly to South India to delve into the traditions that inspire her teaching, writing, and artwork. She teaches internationally, but her yoga home is Virayoga in NYC. Susanna's artwork is represented in collections such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Berkeley Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art. She lectured and wrote for MoMA for years, including co-writing the book "Looking at Matisse and Picasso." She will still happily talk about Picasso for hours if you ask her. She has been profiled by the Today Show, Yoga Radio, FIT YOGA, YogaSleuth, SocialWorkout, and ChaudiaChan.com. She gives talks on yoga, Hindu myth, and philosophy for the Yoga Teacher Telesummit, and teaches Writing Your Practice writing courses and workshops for yogis. Susanna is an Origin Magazine columnist and writes for Rebelle Society . Overall, she is amazed at the richness of her life. Find her on Twitter , Facebook , & Instagram

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9 Responses to “Find Meaning. Create Beauty.”

  1. I have never been to India. Thank you for the sensual journey, the shared experience. Darshan is a beautiful exchange. I understand the resonance of your own religious ritual making this path more obvious. I must say it's the vision of cows eating garbage that leaves me more than a bit sad and this is the mystery of India. The sad apparently does not destroy the happy.Fascinating.

  2. Thank you so much, Hilary. Most of the garbage was actually organic-leftover from the day, so don't worry TOO much about that! But it is an amazing mix of sights and experiences…absolutely.

  3. Lisbeth Lippert says:

    Susanna… Your ability to create alchemy with words is beautiful!

  4. ava says:

    nice, beautiful piece!

  5. graceonthefly says:

    Thank you, brought tears to my eyes. I am happy and blessed to be able to relate, sharing space like that is the most beautiful thing, wherever you are, what ever spiritual path you're on. Jai Jai!

  6. [...] as you might, you can’t take the glitter out of the [...]

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