Category: Tales of India


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By Sharon St Joan

 

On this planet, as we all know, life began in the sea, with the fish and other sea creatures; then came reptiles like the turtles, as animals began to adapt to life on land. Great sea turtles still swim in the sea, but they lay their eggs on the shore. Then the land animals, like the boar, appeared. And of course, much, much later humanoid beings appeared, including the several species of early humans.

 

In Hindu tradition, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu is Narasimha, who is half-man, half-lion. Preceding Narasimha are three Vishnu incarnations that have an animal form: Matsya, the fish, Kurma, the turtle, and Varaha, the boar. The incarnations that follow Narasimha are all human in form: Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Ballarama (or in some sources, Buddha) and Kalki.

 

Interestingly, this progression throughout time corresponds to the theory of evolution: first a fish; then a reptile; then a mammal; then a half-mammal half-human, followed by the human forms.

 

An eighteenth century painting This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.808px-Narasimha_oil_colour

 

How did ancient Hindu seers know about the theory of evolution—which was only “discovered” by Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century? Well, they seem to have known quite a lot of things. Ancient Sanskrit writings are filled with scientific treatises on mathematical and scientific topics, especially astronomical knowledge, a lot of which was only “discovered” many centuries later by Europeans, yet this knowledge was there all along, and was written down in very early Sanskrit texts.

 

We are so used to thinking that only modern humans, within the past few centuries, have possessed any real knowledge about the world, that we remain ignorant of all the thousands of years of human history in which there is evidence that humans knew far more than we give them credit for.

 

In any case, Narasimha stands on the threshold between the animal and the human forms of Vishnu. He is an intriguing figure.

 

Author Adityamadhav Narasimha at Simhachalam Temple in Visakhapatnam

 

Many stories in Hinduism and in legends all over the world, portray the great battle that takes place between the self-absorbed forces of darkness and the beings of light who defend the innocent from wrongdoing. Narasimha is a defender against injustice.

 

Once upon a time, so one of these stories goes, there was a demon named Hiranyakasipu who didn’t like Vishnu very much because in a previous incarnation Vishnu had killed his younger brother. This had happened because one day the brother, Hiranyaksha, had brutally attacked and then tried to drown Mother Earth at the bottom of the sea. In his role as protector of the innocent, Vishnu had saved Mother Earth from the sea, and killed the demon brother.

 

The demon Hiranyakasipu, who was perhaps afraid because his brother had been killed as a consequence of his evil deeds, feared death and wanted to live forever.

 

So one day, he approached Brahma to ask for the gift of immortality. Brahma replied that that gift was not within his power to bestow, but, at Hiranyakasipu’s insistence, he agreed to do the next best thing. Brahma granted him a boon – that he would not die either inside or outside, neither during the day nor the night; also that he would not be killed by any weapon, or by any human being or any animal. Hiranyakasipu was quite happy with all this and felt pretty certain that he would now live forever.

 

A few years passed, and Hiranyakasipu had a son named Prahalada. Unfortunately for Hiranyakasipu, his son became an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. This upset Hiranyakasipu no end because he saw Vishnu as his mortal enemy. One day just as the sun was setting, Hiranyakasipu came upon his son Prahalada, who despite all his father’s objections, was still praying to Vishnu. He even said to his father that Vishnu is all-powerful and is present everywhere. Thoroughly exasperated, his father shouted at him, “Look at that pillar; is your God Vishnu inside that pillar?”

 

Prahalada replied, “Vishnu is inside every pillar and even every twig.” Losing his temper completely, Hiranyakasipu picked up his heavy mace and smashed the pillar into pieces. Out jumped Narasimha. By this time Hiranyakasipu was swinging his mace wildly, and his son’s life was in danger. To save the boy Prahalada, from the wrath of his father, Narasimha lifted the demon Hiranyakasipu up off his feet and killed him with his bare hands.

 

As it turned out, Hiranyakasipu was after all subject to death, despite the boon granted by Brahma, because he was killed at twilight – neither in the day or in the night; by Narasimha’s powerful hands, not by any weapon; in the doorway, and therefore neither inside nor out, and he was killed not by any animal or any human, but by Narasimha, who was part man, part lion. Perhaps the lesson is also that no matter what kind of deal one tries to strike with fate or with the Gods, one cannot evade one’s karma.

 

As an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Narasimha is a fierce and powerful, magical being who protects those who call on him from harm and danger.

 

The twenty feet high, beautifully carved statue of Narasimha at Hampi, however, was not immune to the violence done by the invading army which destroyed the city in 1565. His legs and hands were cut off, and they lay nearby on the ground for several hundred years until significant restoration work was done in the 1980’s by the Archeological Survey of India. Now he looks down, once again an imposing presence, ready to spring into action to bring about justice and rid the earth of evil.

 

© Sharon St Joan, 2017.

 

Top photo: Sharon St Joan. Narasimha at Hampi.

 

Second photo: An eighteenth century painting of Narasimha. Wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.”

 

Third photo: Author: Adityamadhav83 / CC BY-SA 3.0, Narasimha at the Simhachalam Temple in Visakhapatnam.

 

 

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By Sharon St Joan

 

The now deserted site of Hampi, in Karnataka, in south India, covers 25 square miles, of stunning ancient ruins – the temples, palaces, and bazaars of this ancient city.

 

Knocking on the pillars of the beautiful Vitthala Temple is no longer allowed; but when they used to be struck, each pillar would produce a unique musical tone.

 

The main temple features 56 columns – each of the columns is made up of a circle of musical pillars — long, slender, and graceful. The rock that resonates contains large quantities of metallic ore, including silica. Other temples in India also feature musical pillars, including some at the Chidambaram Temple on the east coast and at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. They produce a clear, bell-like sound, with each pillar sounding its own unique note. In some cases, when one pillar is rung, others in the same circle will also ring.

 

Begun in the Fourteenth Century, the Vitthala Temple was expanded later on by the great Vijayanagara king, Krishna Deva Raya in the Sixteenth Century.

 

Vitthala is a traditional name by which Krishna is known in this area.

 

The structures at Hampi, as is typical of old temples, are constructed in two sections, the bottom part being built of heavy stone, and the top section made of clay bricks which are much lighter, so the structure is stable with the heavier stone on the bottom. The clay bricks tend to wear away easily over the centuries, while the stone sections, less affected by weathering, remain much as they always were.

 

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In front of the Vitthala Temple at Hampi stands a great stone chariot. The stone wheels of the chariot are made to be able to turn, just as they would in a real chariot; however, to prevent damage to them, they have been fixed in place in modern times and no longer revolve. Inside the chariot is the icon of Garuda, the winged being, part man, part eagle – or part brahminy kite, who is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu.

 

Where, a few centuries ago, two stone horses were placed in front to pull the chariot, now there are two stone elephants instead. The horses were destroyed by the invading army that leveled the city of Vijayanagara (Hampi) in 1565. The topmost part of the chariot, made of bricks is also gone; the great carved stone section of the chariot remains.

 

A powerful, magical being, Garuda is seen as one who has access to mystical knowledge and insights. Ferocious and fearless, he targets evil with his keen eyes and sharp claws. He is particularly an enemy of snakes.

 

This does not mean, however, that snakes are evil. Like all the animals of the earth, snakes are innocent beings. The nagas, who are mythical snakes and serpents, possess great knowledge of the earth; after all, snakes live within in the earth so they know it well. (Even in western mythologies, dragons guard the hidden treasures of the earth.) Snakes, however, are also likely to eat eggs, which does not endear them to birds.

 

It may be said that eagles, hawks, and all birds, have an opposing worldview from that of snakes – the birds’ domain is the sky, the realm between heaven and earth, so their perspective is opposite to that of snakes, but neither one is evil (There are, in fact, a few birds that do make their homes in caves in the earth, but only a few.) In many mythologies, among the peoples of South America, for example, there are tales of feathered serpents – who, one supposes, must have an affinity with both snakes and birds.

 

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In any case, Garuda’s realm is the space between heaven and earth; his home is the skies, which he traverses to carry Lord Vishnu from his heavenly home down to the earth. Whenever unrighteousness holds sway over the earth (which seems to happen quite a bit), Vishnu descends to the earth, where he incarnates as an earthly being to overcome injustice and set things right again.

 

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The number of avatars of Vishnu varies from one source to another, but most commonly is said to be ten; of these, the ninth is Krishna. These are described in Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s beautiful “Book of Vishnu,” where she writes, “Vishnu means all-pervading: he is the all-pervading sun, whose rays envelope the earth, who protects the sacrifice and sends forth the rain and is the final abode of the pious dead…Benevolence, goodwill, and willingness to help his devotees whenever they call upon him are characteristics that made Vishnu popular in an increasingly material world and which brought him into the world in several incarnations.”

© Text and photos, Sharon St Joan, 2017

Photos:

Top photo: The Vitthala Temple, with its musical pillars.

Second photo: The stone chariot of Garuda.

Third photo: A flowering tree in the courtyard.

Fourth photo: Traces of painting still present on one of the sculptures.

The Book of Vishnu, by Dr. Nanditha Krishna, is available on Amazon –www.amazon.com

 

 

 

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To the one who lived among the hills,

 

Unseen,

 

Now your voice has become an echo

 

In the distant mist.

 

You have gone

 

to other worlds on star-bright

 

Wings of snow,

 

To that far mountain

 

You call home, where white-

 

Throated swifts soar

 

In the shifting clouds,

 

Where silver chimes

 

Ring

 

In the rain-cloaked ravine

 

And deer nibble

 

In the frost-green

 

Stillness,

 

Where crowds

 

Of petals

 

Fall

 

From the nagalingam tree

 

In ever-present peace,

 

And the wind brings

 

Gales of blessings from across the wandering sea,

 

Where geese

 

Climb the sunlit stairway of the morning,

 

And the langur monkey

 

Sings lullabies to her children

 

In the foothills

 

Of times beyond times,

 

Where the Gods of the forest

 

Listen

 

In the dawn

 

To leaf-told tales

 

Of nevermore

 

And long before.

 

© Sharon St Joan, April, 2017

 

Photo: © Ronnachai Limpakdeesavasd | Dreamstime.com

 

ilango

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By Sharon St Joan

 

Centuries ago, as today, travelers waited at crossing points to go across the Tungabadra. Nearby are stone platforms no longer in use where the heat of the Indian summer was broken by leaves overhead as they rested in the shade waiting for their turn to cross the great river. Round boats called coracles would carry them to the island just across the way.

 

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A few yards downhill was a small shrine to Ganesha where they could ask the God’s blessing for their trip.

 

From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, Hampi was the great capital of the Vijanagara dynasty, which ruled all of south India. Many of the citizens had leisure time; they were well off, and their city, estimated to be three times the size of Paris at the time, may have been the largest and wealthiest city in the world.

 

The British economic historian, Angus Maddison, has described India as the richest country on earth for well over a thousand years, possessing from one quarter to one third of the entire global wealth – until the advent of the British.

 

How short our memories are that some of us do not even think of the ancient lands of Asia, Africa, and South America in any way other than as “developing” countries struggling to catch up.

 

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The Tungabadra is a broad, pale, blue-gray river, wide, as many Indian rivers are, nearly a mile across, it winds its way along the border of Hampi, narrowing and deepening, as it runs through a gorge with spectacular huge boulders on either side. These boulders, scattered throughout the area, are a distinctive feature of Hampi. Some are as big as houses; looking for all the world as if a giant hand has swept them up and dropped them again in great heaps; they line the roadsides, as well as the horizons, in towering piles.

 

 

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A beautiful river with many small green islands, the Tungabadra, along with the amazing boulders, forms natural defensive barriers that helped protect the city for hundreds of years — reasons that this site was originally chosen to be the capitol of south India.

 

The line of the Vijayanagara kings who ruled this area began with two brothers, Harihara I and Bukka Raya I. It is said that, as boys, they were enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam, in 1327, when their father was taken prisoner by advancing forces.

 

The two boys grew up, took back their freedom, and in 1336, they set up their capitol city at Hampi, and spent the rest of their lives staging a firm resistance to the Moslem intruders who were sweeping down the western regions of India from the north. The line of rulers and the empire they established held its ground against repeated incursions for around two hundred years.

 

Even though the city of Vijayanagara, or Hampi, was eventually overrun, the brave centuries-long stand of the Vijayanagara kings and their people meant that regions of India’s far south, like Tamil Nadu and Travancore (which was divided up later in the twentieth century), were able to retain their freedom, and unlike the central and most of the northern states, were never taken over and ruled by invaders.

 

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Since the sacking of Hampi in 1565, the city has never been rebuilt. No one lives there now, but the area has many people all the same. Tourists visit, especially from all over India. Guides offer their services, there are cold drink stands, and young boys, some clearly destined to be future entrepreneurs, sell guide books.

 

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No small family houses remain at Hampi, but hundreds of fascinating stone structures still stand in the approximately two mile by three mile area south of the river, which is a UNESCO heritage site.

 

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Many of the temples have been excavated in recent years, and archeological work is ongoing. One can walk up sloping rock hills to visit palaces, giant sculptures, and beautiful sites of worship, peering into the windows of the past. Long stone bazaars now stand empty – once they thronged with crowds where merchants sold diamonds, rubies, and gold; others fruits and vegetables, or simply trinkets and bangles.

 

An impressive 162 feet high dam has been built on the Tungabadra River to provide electricity and irrigation to the region around Hampi. Completed in 1953, it creates a large reservoir and the dam itself is lit up at night with colored lights. Despite the dam and the seemingly huge quantities of water, the area is suffering from a severe drought.

 

Trees dot the hillsides, some with leaves faded from the lack of rain. There are many date palms too, not originally native to south India.

 

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In the fading light of the sunset, one can sense the presence of ancient spirits among the immense sculptures and temples; in them the glory and majesty of this great empire lives on. There is a gentleness in the beautifully carved sculptures and a lingering memory of the heroic strength of those who fought well to defend their land.

 

Top photo: The Tungabadra river where people can cross by boat to an island.

 

Second photo: A Ganesha shrine.

 

Third photo: Huge boulders, a natural feature of this region.

 

Fourth photo: The Tungabadra where it widens.

 

Fifth photo: Boys selling guide books.

 

Sixth photo: Tourists and a toppled pillar.

 

Seventh photo: This used to be a row of shops.

 

Eighth photo: Palms around a little shrine.

 

 

© Text and photos, Sharon St Joan, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

*DSC00077little ganesha one 2017

 

The 500 year old peepal tree, majestic, lifts its branches into the sunlight. In front of it stands a stone Ganesha which has been there even longer, for around a thousand years, extending his blessings of profound peace to all. This is a special place near the buildings of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. The land of the Foundation was originally the ancestral home of the family of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the Foundation’s Honorary Director. She recalls that when she was a child, much of the area was covered in trees with jackals scurrying through the brush and deer browsing among the leaves. Now, among the buildings built in the past few decades, trees still stand tall offering shade and tranquility, though sadly some fell during the recent severe cyclone, Vardah, which blew through in December.

 

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As the site of regular pujas, ceremonies to express devotion to the Gods, the air of this special place becomes filled with incense and ancient songs to Ganesha, who grants prosperity and knowledge, and who has the power to overcome all obstacles.

 

One day in 2006, when Dr. Chinny Krishna, who founded, with his parents, the well-known animal organization, Blue Cross of India, and who is the husband of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, had come to this site to spend a few quiet moments with Ganesha, he spotted a small brown form, barely visible, concealed in the brush off to one side.

 

With a lifelong understanding of street dogs – he and Blue Cross have rescued many, many thousands — he knew that a subtle approach was required with a frightened dog. Dr. Krishna sat down on the stone steps. Quietly, he called to a staff person and asked him to bring a little milk in a bowl and a leash. Leashes are always handy because rescuing dogs is a common event. Placing the bowl beside him on the step, Dr. Krishna waited. After half an hour or so, the brown form emerged from the bushes, gently approached the milk, and the thirsty dog began to drink. Within a few minutes, Dr. Krishna was able to slip the leash over the dog’s head. He did not touch the dog or try to pet him, and when he stood up, the small brown dog went with him. He put the dog into his car, into the back, and gave him a few moments to settle down while he went to have a bite of breakfast, then he drove him to Blue Cross to be neutered.

 

All street dogs rescued by Blue Cross are spayed or neutered if this has not already been done, along with many thousands of dogs on the streets of Madras, as part of Blue Cross of India’s ABC program. Blue Cross of India runs the world’s first and longest continuously operating spay/neuter program that began in 1964.

 

Giving the little dog time to recover from his surgery, Dr. Krishna picked him up a few days later from Blue Cross. He set him down by the gate of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, and walked away, giving the dog the chance to return to where he had come from. Generally, street dogs live in a neighborhood which is their home, where they know the other dogs who are their friends, and where one or two kind people will feed them and keep an eye on them. In this way they lead a stable life and may live for many years.

 

TNR (trap/neuter/ vaccinate/return) for dogs, not just for cats (as in the U.S.), is the accepted best practice way to relate to community dogs in most countries in the world. A shelter system, as is found in the U.S. and other developed countries does not work, and, for many reasons, wherever it has been tried in developing countries, putting street dogs in shelters creates an inhumane, over-crowded situation. TNR is the best and only workable solution for the many millions of street dogs in India. All animal welfare organizations in India are no-kill, and it would not occur to any of them to kill homeless animals. Also, it would be illegal to do so.

 

By evening, the small brown dog had shown no signs of going away and had found his way back into the center of the compound among the trees and the buildings. The next morning Dr. Krishna put him once again out by the gate. And by evening, he had wandered back. Clearly, he had no attention of leaving such a calm, welcoming place.

 

Soon given the name of Bhairava, or Bhairu for short, he joined the twelve to twenty rescued street dogs who, at any one time, are part of the family of Dr. Nanditha and Dr. Chinny Krishna. They go where they wish, inside or out, are much-loved and cared for, and they are safe within the gates of the large, walled compound, which contains the buildings of the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation.

 

Now perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old, Bhairava has a touch of arthritis, but otherwise he is fine. Appropriately, a natural white mark on the fur of his forehead resembles the sign that devout Hindus wear as a mark of devotion. Bhairava is the form of Lord Shiva who wanders the world as a homeless outcaste, always accompanied by his faithful dog. When reminded that, since the little dog Bhairava appeared, as if dropped from heaven, in the middle of the centuries-old site of worship of the peepal tree and the little stone Ganesha, he must certainly be a sacred dog, Dr. Krishna, replied, “Yes, of course, all dogs are sacred.”

 

 

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The most ancient myths of India tend to have a magical, timeless quality. Do they happen in this world, in another world? In this time? Or perhaps in all time, or no time? Do they simply transcend our limited, prosaic awareness of the nature of time?

Vrindivan is a town in Uttar Pradesh where it is said that Krishna passed the days of his childhood.

There, the Yamuna River is the second largest tributary of the Ganges. It originates from the Yamunotri Glacier in the Himalayas, at a height of 20,000 feet. It flows through several states and eventually merges with the Ganges.

A long time ago, an ancient story goes, a serpent king, Kaliya, had fled from his original home because he was afraid of Garuda, the great eagle or kite who is the enemy of all serpents. Garuda could not go to Vrindivan because of a curse that prophesied that he would meet his death there, so Vrindivan was a good place for Kaliya to live since his mortal enemy could not come there.

One day when the young boy Krishna and his friends were playing ball by the river bank, and Krishna had climbed up a Kadamba tree that was hanging over the river, the ball fell into the river and Krishna jumped into the water after it. Now Kaliya was a naga, a great serpent who lived in the river. Disturbed by this sudden intrusion of the boy Krishna jumping into the river, Kaliya’s giant head rose up above the surface of the water. A vile poison flowed out of his 110 hoods, poisoning the river and turning it black, killing the fish and all life in the river.

Kaliya wrapped himself around Krishna to strangle him, but, unexpectedly, Krishna grew bigger and bigger. He became so huge that Kaliya finally had to release him. When Krishna glanced at the people on the riverbank and saw that they were very frightened, he knew he had to do something. He leaped into Kalia’s head and took on the weight of the whole universe, then he danced on the naga’s many heads, in time to the beat of the music. Kaliya began to die, and his many wives prayed to Krishna for their husband to be saved from death.

At this moment, Kaliya came to his senses, and, acknowledging the power of Krishna, he surrendered, promising not to hurt anyone ever again. Krishna forgave him and let him go free, to return to his original home, Ramanaka Dwipa.

So ends the tale. Is this a story of the past, the present, the future – does it spell out a warning?

It is hard not to see in it a story of pollution — of polluted, lifeless rivers, which belong very much to our own time – of great black snake-like oil worming it’s way downsteam from one of those endless oil spills that, of course, can never really happen because the pipelines are “perfectly safe,” and we are informed that we are being quite silly to worry that they might be hazardous.

There is, however, a deadly spill; then Krishna, the essence of life and goodness vanquishes the pollution, sending it back to where it belongs and freeing the river from its grasp of death. All ends well.

This story, it seems, is a timeless one, of multi-layered meaning – of the past, the future, the present – of all time – of the physical world and the transcendent, spiritual world. Not just an odd tale from the distant past, but instead a profoundly relevant story of eternal truth – of the reality of evil and also of the recurring victory of good over evil.

Image: A painting by Maler in 1640. / Wikipedia / “The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide.”

 

 

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When the great ones return

 

Carrying magic in their wings

 

Then only the white teeth

 

Of the concrete kings

 

Will glimmer

 

In the pool of death.

 

Nothing else will sleep

 

On the stone,

 

No one slain,

 

But only

 

The echo of lies,

 

The din of malice,

 

Shed and gone,

 

When the green waves rise,

 

Bearing the emerald throne,

 

The majesty of the deep

 

Will deliver

 

Those long forgotten

 

Hooves of the innocent

 

To ride

 

Again on the mountain height,

 

Spirits of the living tide,

 

The throat of the lion of wisdom

 

Will rumble anew,

 

The rain

 

Of Indra will crash from

 

The chariot of thunder,

 

When

 

The forests reawaken to reclaim the earth,

 

Nothing will be lost then,

 

Only the masks of terror,

 

Only the mirrors of untruth,

 

When wolves dance on the hillside,

 

And tigers growl

 

In the blue

 

Dark,

 

With bright eyes that burn

 

Along the holy way

 

Of the night,

 

When spirits return

 

In the white magic of winter,

 

Triumphant,

 

On the howl

 

Of the winds of joy, the songs of sunrise,

 

In the victory of the horses of fire and snow

 

That break

 

Unstoppable, across the broad plain.

 

A storm to leave in its wake

 

Only the stillness

 

Of the lily of eternity

 

Waving in the sunlit rain,

 

For the truly living do not die, they say,

 

But only the walking, dissonant

 

Dead,

 

Only the soulless

 

Patterns of dismay.

 

Only the clouds ashen,

 

When the cosmic, winged mother

 

Gathers the wanderlings,

 

The flocks

 

Of garbled geese

 

And their errant goslings,

 

Among the trees of twisted juniper

 

And the radiant

 

Rocks,

 

Bundling all her children,

 

Into her many-storied home of peace

 

By the green-banked river

 

In the haunting bells of dawn.

 

 

© Sharon St Joan, 2017

 

Photo: © Elisa Bistocchi / Dreamstime