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

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. 

"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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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. 

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."

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