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Shreeya Kishanpuria Agarwal

JWB Intern

JWB Talks To The Girl Who Shaved Her Head, Slept In Caves & Swept Floors To Find Herself

  • JWB Post
  •  January 13, 2017


A sprightly young woman, clad in a dark frayed cloak and a thin cloth covering her short hair – it was the first time I was seeing her in over a year.

My eyes struggled to place her. She had changed. She always had big beautiful dreamy eyes, but they now constantly seemed to be engaged in a conversation between themselves. This young woman carried her sorrows and joys on her sleeves as a testimony to her growth since the last time I had seen her.

The last time, was in November 2015 at Qutb Minar in Delhi, where our conversations centered on art, creation, heartbreaks, Khoj foundation, Tibet and roof top b-boying.

The year before that, 2014, we met in an art gallery in Bangalore. Women, cancer, wombs and performance; Swapna spoke with utmost passion about each of these subjects.

This time the setting was that of a gurudwara in the sleepy small town of Manikaran in the land of Gods, Himachal Pradesh. It was cold and we froze in a hug. I carried for her a copy of Consolation of the Forest by Sylvia Tesson. It was my gift to her, to her travels in solitude.

Swapnashree Bhasi, an artist from the city of Bengaluru, embarked on a journey last year traversing the mountains of Himalayas to the monasteries of Bihar, to shed and re-discover herself in her most natural state of existence. This is her story.

JWB: Who are you?

Swapna: Me?… long silence

Sometimes a bunch of butterflies, sometimes wind, at times mountains and at times fear.

JWB: Fear?

Swapna: Of not being sure of my dreams anymore.

JWB: What is your dream?

Swapna: Mountains, fire, water and a roof.

JWB: Why roof? Do you have a new definition of home?

Swapna: My home can no longer be captured in a painting. It’s made of elements now.

(And she repeats) Mountains, fire, water and roof.

I am no longer in the mountains. I am here, in a city. But my home is in the fire I see being lit along roadsides to keep warm, in water that nourishes me and teaches me to adapt and flow. Innumerable spaces in the city today offer me a roof over my head. I am grateful. I am home in each one of those spaces. I did have a painting before. But this painting inspired my travels, and my travels have detached me from the painting. The newness, the joy and excitement of a beginning has come to a natural end. The seed has sprouted. From now on, it’s just the complexity of growth. Like the tree, moving towards the sun.

JWB: Why did you leave the city for the mountains?

Swapna: To shed. To view myself naked stripped of all emotions, labels, bonds, pre-set notions, dance and life itself.

As a child, I always had a voice guiding me. Take right now, it would say, when I would walk around scanning neighbourhoods. And I did, without any questions. All I did was open my ears to this voice again. Take right it kept screaming. I packed up and left. I knew it would hurt but I just had to do it.

JWB: Where did your travels take you?

Swapna: It all began from a riverside tent in Kasol. My brother Roy and his incredible spirit that anchors me every time. He is my constant. Then brother’s house in Delhi – Rs 50/- guesthouse in Bodhgaya – 10 days in a Vipassana centre – Delhi again – Kalga – Kheerganga – sleeping in tents close to the forest, in caves – the rainbow gathering in the mountains – Tunda Bhuj trek that lasted 15 days with a baba – Manikaran. I was accompanied by my lovely friend as we tented up all over Spiti. We experienced the culture and life of spitian houses in Kaza, slept in a sleeping bag in an old age home and tented along roadside mountains. My most cherished memory is that of a 14th century open cave in Tabo used by monks to meditate. The cave is practically open to anybody who wishes to practice and meditate. That is how you treat space: respect and regard. From there we travelled to Tichu – Chicham – key monastery, perched high up in a beautiful setting – Mud village – back to Kalga – Manikaran – and now homeless in Bengaluru.

JWB: I was with you in that last bit – Kalga, Manikaran and Bengaluru. What a joy seeing you there! Do you remember the time in the kund in Kheerganga? It was almost six by the time we reached up. It was so cold. There inside the hot waters of the natural spring, I saw you. Like a she-wolf, naked under the moon, the stars and the mountains around. You looked wild. I shall never be able to let go of that image. So powerful! Do you think of Kalga now? How was life in the mountains with no money, no family, no home?

Swapna: Kalga is Ma. Kalga is Goddess Parvati. She provided for me. There is abundance of all things one needs for survival: the icy cold water flowing down from the glaciers, the hot kund cleansing bodies every morning, the mountains and the forests that bring rain, wood from the forests for the fire. I woke up every morning with a question, ‘Where do I belong?’. The mountains whispered, ‘right here, right now, this place.’

I learnt to belong to the now. The mountains are mystical but also merciless. There rules are same for all beings – animals or humans.

I was a nature’s warrior in Kalga; an element coexisting with other elements. Living alone in the caves of Kheerganga, the ants, rats and the vultures were my companions. I cannot explain to you my joy when one morning I was greeted by a mountain dog. My companion! I screamed out of joy.

I am here now, back in the city and I question why people come back from travels and write down their experiences, share it and in a way find a closure. Why not let it be and fester?

I met a lady from London in Lahaul. For 11 years, everyday, she sat in a place and meditated. Not in a monastery, but in solitude, without acknowledgement and appraisal. The world of Buddhism calls out to me, every now and then.

JWB: 1 year is a long time. Most of us have forgotten the art of doing nothing. We give so much importance to being busy and working all day. What was your routine like?

Swapna: I only did household work, reconnecting with chores. I hadn’t come to the mountains to work out, to jog, dance or indulge in self. My body craved movement. I was a dancer in the city. But in the lap of Himalayas, I chose to clean; the outside and the inside. It was a retreat for the self, not to become anything, but to be. Taking it slow. To be able to talk to mountains, wind and sit and look at the colour of the leaves for hours on is a privilege. I was engulfed with the bhaav of Seva during my stay. Clean, clean, clean, clean, clean – the voice said; jhadu, pocha, lighting agarbattis, making beds, cooking or washing vessels. I helped run guesthouses (with a few other friends who joined me time to time from Bengaluru) and every time I ran through the process of cleaning up, we had guests at our doorsteps: guests as artists, musicians, dancers. There was art everywhere. We dreamed of opening art centres there in the mountains. Creating art for art’s sake.

The family at Snow Line cafe, Kalga was my beginning. The second son, Raju, was my mountain hero. His job was to cut trees, bring them down and make furniture for the house. He taught me carpentry. He would walk over, touch my back and hold my arms from behind and teach. Coming from a small village, can you imagine? Alas! He was married. Broke my heart a little. I worked as a cook at their restaurant.

They taught me a lot about life. Raju once said, ‘the looser your hold, the better you cut through.’ Wood and life. His elder brother, Hardev, was a strict school master to me. He was the one who pushed me away to continue on my journey, ‘Why have you come here? To cook? Clean up? Please go on.’

JWB: Cooking! Are you a master cook now? Tell me more about the food.

Swapna: Fooooooooood! Oh God, Shreeya. What a lovely routine we had. Everyday around 7:30, we would gather around the tandoor and eat. Rajma/kadi, rice, roti during the winters. At times potato fry and also kheer. Extra vegetables meant a feast. It was the same food every day. Everything is grown organically. It is here I was introduced to the concept of permaculture. House-Kitchen in the mountains is a sacred space. I craved eating with people, belonging to a family. Come May, and cheese yummy tomato toast is on your table!

I had no money most times. What I received was in form of bhiksha.

JWB:  Of course, I remember our dinner at the gurudwara. Every man, a beggar. Receiving and offering: two words that describe your time, perhaps?

Swapna: Offer what ‘seems’ most important

JWB: Your hair, Swapna! You went bald.

Swapna: Bodhgaya, in Bihar, was my school of new beginnings. I missed my granny. I regret not spending enough time with her. People always said I look like her in short hair.

During my days of vipassana, I encountered two women who always chose the same spot to walk around as me. One, a beautiful Russian called Moony, who was bald. Another, in dreadlocks or jata. What contrasting energies. We never spoke. In silence, we crossed paths and I sensed the itch. My hair wasn’t in sync. On the last day, I received a call from him, the man I loved. He finished it. Wow! I had sensed it coming. I felt compassion, love and an urge to let go.

I found Moony sitting next to me as I spoke to myself: I need to shed out beauty, femininity, my hair. She hugged me. I asked her about her name. Moony. ‘To rediscover myself, I went as bald as the moon’. I told her moony/muni in Sanskrit meant a sage.

The day after that, I walked past a cemetery. I found a young girl cleaning it religiously. The cemetery harbors a space where people offer their hair for good karma to their ancestors. I cleaned the space for 3 days with the girl. The last day, I went bald. My offering.

Strangely, the place where I had breakfast every morning in Bodhgaya was right next to a barber shop. Talk about connections and signs!

JWB: Women have always had strong influences on you.

Swapna: Women are magic. All through my travels, I had women guiding me – Moony, the mother at Snow line Cafe, the ladies of Nagthan village, you, the Japanese girl I met in Kalga who shared with me a book as well, Three Blessings.

To all the women, I want to say, trust yourself. Make your own world. Travel brought this to me: space, solitude and silence. Don’t be afraid of breaking patterns, start from the scratch and get involved in your own story. Believe it is ok to be wrong. The ideas of being selfish, carefree, wild are just projections of our own minds. Pass through them and add meaning to life. It is so important for me to say this to every woman.

JWB: You have seen a lot of pain. I have seen you. I have also seen you in joy. Like a child, beyond numbers and age. You have come back to the city again. Why return?

Swapna:  To check… long silence.

In Walden too, the author returns. They all return.

To check. The experiment, perhaps. ‘Barabar hai bhai, sahi hai’

In the wild, we are in sync with nature but where were you born? Where is your tribe, your clan, your people? Go back. Same room, same people, what has changed?

Spaces don’t matter, be inside.

But I couldn’t learn that until I had been to spaces. I had to have this fairytale trip to learn what a mother rolling chapatis already knows.

I always would return to civilization but I wished to come back a better person. I think of becoming a mother, a wife but in sync, with my voice, my elements.

I can see the big wave just round the corner. I’m gonna ride it like a surfer.

Joy is in the living.

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