Who Was She?

I first noticed the strange happening when I went through the 1800 odd photographs that I had clicked at the recent Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, but could not find even a single photo of hers. I was absolutely sure that I had clicked at least 25 to 30 photographs of the young ascetic and was baffled how she managed to escape the lens.

As a photojournalist based in New Delhi, working with a foreign news agency, I knew that the unusual photographs of the beautiful young woman with her group of woman ascetics was sure to be featured in at least a few European publications. I had photographed them sitting in meditation, walking together towards the river bank for bathing, chanting mantras and performing sacred rituals. The spectacular sights and sounds of Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest spiritual congregation that attracts millions, are a photographer’s delight and always has been my favourite assignment. I have covered it for more than 25 years, but this kind of a thing has never happened before.

I don’t know why I could not shake off her image from my mind. The young Sanyasin (ascetic) with her long flowing hair that almost touched her knees, the half smile on her lips, high arched eyebrows, the calm countenance. I realised that she was everything that I wasn’t. Including the fact that I was an agnostic.

I so wanted to know her story – who was she ? Why did such a beautiful young woman become an ascetic ? What did she want from life ? And most importantly, how did she manage to elude my camera ? I had to find all the answers. I did some digging around and found out that this particular group of woman ascetics lived all by themselves in a cave in the Himalayas. They also had a spiritual hermitage in Uttarkashi where they resided in the winter months.

So I sent a request that I wanted to do a photo feature on them for an international publication. My request was turned down, but I was told that if I wanted I was welcome to just meet them as long as I didn’t publish anything. A bit disappointed that I won’t be able to bring their unusual life before the world, nevertheless I agreed to meet them at their mountain habitat.

Asked to keep my camera and cell phone in Uttarkashi, I trekked for almost nine hours with the caretaker of the Ashram. We only halted once at a village to have food. By that time I had lost all sense of direction.

When we reached their mountain habitat, I was surprised to see how the narrow entrance led to the large cave. There were 12 Sanyasins there, who seemed happy to see me. I am sure if I was a man, I would have never been allowed to come here. The woman whose search had brought me here was nowhere around.

After I had had a simple meal of fruits and rested for a while, the eldest of them, who everyone addressed as Maa Tara spoke to me, “We will take you to our temple now where you can take the blessings of our goddess. This is the most sacred place for our order and rarely has an outsider been allowed inside.”

I had little interest in seeking blessings from their goddess, but I silently nodded my head. A narrow passage led to a large cavern dominated by their stone goddess, from ceiling to the floor. “She is Devi, the Divine Feminine,” whispered Tara, pointing out that the image in stone was not crafted by man, but had emerged on its own.

I stared dumbfounded at the beautiful face, the same half smile, the long hair, the arched eyebrow …. It seemed the young woman who almost had a hypnotic spell on me now stood as a gigantic image in stone.

“Where is the woman who looked like her ?” I almost shouted, my mind was whirring, I couldn’t make out any sense from all this. I did not know what was happening to me as tears flowed down my eyes, as I kept asking, “Where is she, who is she?”

My hosts were clearly stunned, at what I was saying and maybe by my reaction also. “What are you talking about ? Which woman? Whom did you see?” asked Tara.

“There was a beautiful woman who looked like the statue, she was constantly with you in the Kumbh Mela. I clicked so many photographs of your group, but she was not there even in one. It was my curiosity about her that made me search for you and brought me here,” I blurted out.

“So she brought you here. You are very fortunate to follow the call.” Tara continued,

“She appears as you want to see her, that is why we only call her Devi (the Goddess), the manifestation of the Divine Feminine. You may call her by any name, but her essence remains the same. She is also in you.”

Tara continued, “She has manifested as you want to see her … in essence as you want to see yourself. The young woman whose beauty and peaceful face mesmerized you so much is your inner goddess. She wants you to find her – not in a mountain cave or photograph, but in your heart.”

The skeptic in me had taken a beating … no reasoning or logic could explain what had happened. I returned to Delhi but whenever possibly made a short trip to their Uttarkashi Ashram.

Gradually, meditation, mantra recitation, chanting, became an everyday practice for me. It took me many more years to understand what Tara had meant that Autumn afternoon in the cave temple.

My restless heart had by then found its anchor.

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