PEI

Armchair travel: Teresa Doyle's 'journey to the heart of India'

P.E.I. folk singer-songwriter Teresa Doyle has just returned from a month in India, learning Vedic chant — the oldest songs on the planet, she said — and she shares her experience through her stunning photos.

'The whole experience was life-altering and I'll be digesting it for some time to come'

'We arrived in town Chennai Jan. 10 and spent the first few days at a tiny beach resort on the Bay of Bengal. Alas the ocean was too rough for swimming which was really tough for a beach bum like me,' says Doyle. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle )

Veteran P.E.I. folk singer-songwriter Teresa Doyle calls herself a "vocal explorer" — while her sound is rooted in Celtic tradition, she travels every year to expand her musical horizons. She's sung with farm women in Kenya, a lute player in Japan and traditional Gaelic singers in Ireland.

Last month, as she turned 60, Doyle spent a month in India, learning Vedic chant — the oldest songs on the planet, she said — from Russill Paul, from whom she'd already taken courses online. 

The locals seemed rather surprised to hear us chant their ancient Sanskrit songs.— Teresa Doyle

"I've long been interested in how people use their voices in cultures around the world and the vocal traditions of South India are perhaps the deepest and most complex," she said. 

Doyle agreed to share photos and stories from what she calls her "journey to the heart of India," for CBC P.E.I.'s occasional ongoing series on armchair travel. 

Colour and flowers everywhere

"We arrived in town Chennai Jan. 10 and spent the first few days at a tiny beach resort on the bay of Bengal," said Doyle. "Alas, the ocean was too rough for swimming which was really tough for a beach bum like me."

'We visit a small monastery run by women yogis. Before the purification ceremony we are invited to decorate a cow,' says Doyle. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle )
'Flowers are such a big part of life in India. Every time we go to the temple we are presented with a gorgeous garlands of flowers. This necklace of white blossoms smells amazing,' says Doyle. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)
Designs on the ground in front of homes and temples made of rice flour, called kokams, are made for the Pongol harvest festival. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)

Doyle arrived in India in the middle of the Pongol harvest festival, when women make beautiful designs in front of homes and temples with rice flour. Called kokams, they are usually white but sometimes quite colourful. 

Every morning one of the women working at the ashram would draw new kokams in front of the meditation hall, Doyle said. The designs were always different and very complex.

"It is a sad harvest festival this year in town in Tamil Nadu because of a terrible drought that caused 40 per cent of the crops to fail," Doyle noted. 

Humble abodes

Doyle was part of a group of Russill Paul's students who gathered at a remote ashram for 30 days on the banks of the Cauvery River in Tamil Nadu in southern India. 

"The ashram is a curious mix of ancient Christian and Hindu influences and is home to a full-fledged dairy farm," she explained. 

"I pick a room in a remote corner where I can get the morning sun. This was such a peaceful place to spend a month," she said.

'This was such a peaceful place to spend a month,' says Doyle of the humble Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)
'These women graciously invited us to see their tiny abodes. Each home is about 80 square feet,' said Doyle of the row housing for single senior women. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle )

The most touching part of her journey was visiting tiny row housing in the nearby village, she said, built by the ashram for elderly single women. They "graciously invited us to see their tiny abodes," Doyle said. 

Each home is about 80 feet square, and the women have creative ways to use all available space, Doyle said.

'Inside this tiny house the owner has creative ways to use all available space. No clutter here,' says Doyle. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)
'Even the tiniest house has a shrine,' says Doyle. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)

Sacred cows

Cows have the right of way everywhere, even on the freeways, Doyle said. 

"It takes some getting used to, I'm so happy not to be driving," she said. 

Indians make use of the cow dung, mixing it with water to make a paste then drying it on a concrete slab, she explained. Then the dung is broken into pieces and used as fertilizer or for cooking fires.

'I'm so happy not to be driving,' says Doyle, noting cows have the right of way on roads, even the freeways. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle. )
Why are the horns of these Brahman bulls painted? 'Why not? Everything is decorated in India,' says Doyle. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)
'Isn't this beautiful? It is actually cow dung,' said Doyle. It's used as fertilizer or for cooking fires. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle )

Temple time

Before heading to the temples a tailor came to the ashram to make the students clothing suitable for visiting sacred sites, Doyle said.

"I decide to go with some wild colours. I don't expect I'll ever wear this outfit again," she said.

"The temples of South India are a sight to behold, some complex sites to rival Vatican City, others remote mountain-top locations," she said.

'I decide to go with some wild colours — I don't expect I'll ever wear this outfit again,' Doyle (second from right) laughs, posing with some fellow students in their new outfits. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle )
'The temple carvings are amazing,' says Doyle. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)

As soon as Doyle and the other students arrived, they dove into learning a complex set of Vedic mantras that date back more than 3,000 years. Learning the chants allowed them entry into temples that are generally closed to Westerners, Doyle explained.

"Our studies were rewarded by participating in rituals that have been performed in these temples for more than 1,000 years. The locals seemed rather surprised to hear us chant their ancient Sanskrit songs," she shared. 

Learning Vedic chants gained Doyle and her fellow students entry into temples that are normally closed to Westerners, she explains. 'The women yogis actually let us take photographs during their ceremony … we passed small bowls of herbs from one person to the next and they were put into the ceremonial fire.' (Submitted by Teresa Doyle )
Orphan girls taken care of by women yogis at an Indian monastery Doyle visited. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)

Doyle and Paul noticed similarities between Sanskrit and Gaelic words, Celtic and Vedic customs and rhyme schemes, she said. "This link is one of the reasons I've long been drawn to Indian music and I'll continue to explore this connection."

They visited a small monastery run by female yogis, decorating a cow before a purification ceremony. 

The yogis take care of a few dozen orphan girls, who "seemed so happy, healthy and well taken care of," Doyle said. 

Food and friends

"Everywhere we go people want us to take their picture with us," Doyle said. "We were in the shop buying silver toe rings for friends back on the Island, and all the girls working in the shop gathered around for a photo."

Doyle made new friends in her fellow students, bonding over food. 

The food was good, she shared, but some of the students didn't like eating in silence sitting on a cement floor, so they went into the village and bought a kettle, some plates and beautiful fruit. "It was so nice to begin our day sitting on the deck eating papayas and pomegranates and enjoying a decent cup of tea," Doyle said.

"I feel I have a much stronger knowledge of chanting to share with my students," said Doyle, who's teaching classes every Tuesday at two locations: 4:30 p.m. at 12 Valley Street and 6:30 p.m. at Health Within Holistics on Queen Street. 

'We were in the shop buying silver toe rings for friends back on the Island and all the girls working in the shop gathered around for a photo,' says Doyle. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)
'The food was actually quite good,' said Doyle. On the right, she shares 'a wonderful Indian meal sever on a banana leaf.' (Submitted by Teresa Doyle)
'I am sporting a scrape on my forehead, a little mishap on the climb up Mt Arunachala,' says Teresa Doyle (right), with her teacher Russill Paul. (Submitted by Teresa Doyle )

She's also presenting Kirtan concerts — call and response Indian singing — at studios around the province and across the country before she and her son Patrick head out on tour to Quebec and Ontario.

"I cannot wait to return to India," she said. "The whole experience was life-altering and I'll be digesting it for some time to come."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a bachelor of journalism (honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca

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