By Rachael Watcher
Report from Haridwar, India
“Nourishing the Balance of the Universe” was held March 3rd through 7th in north-central India’s city of Haridwar, which means “Gateway to God” in Hindustani. Sponsored by the International Center for Cultural Studies and others, the gathering was by, for, and about Pagan and Indigenous peoples and their issues. For me it was unique – attending a conference where most participants were indigenous peoples from around the world, including a large number of European Pagans, but no Christians, Muslims, or Jews.
On the first day, following a morning sunrise ceremony and a meditation, everyone began to gather for the parade. It was led by the local university band followed by over 450 pagan and indigenous folks representing communities from all over the world. We were supposed to walk three abreast. But as groups begin to sing, play their native instruments, and dance, it quickly broke into a synergistic cacophony of sound, color, and motion, all full of joy. Groups merged and everyone shared in the dancing and singing. As the week went on, every tradition shared its prayers and rituals. The workshops were engaging and full of interesting information.
Looking back now, the five days left at least three powerful impressions on me. First, the organizational structure of the event was “chaordic,” chaotic, that is, and quite ordered at the same time.
I had come to be quiet, to listen and learn. During the opening plenary I took a seat in the journalists’ section, prepared to take photographs and copious notes. Instead I found myself escorted up to the stage to be seated among 30 or so honored Elders, which I had not expected. On the second day, I was approached at lunch and asked the subject of my workshop that afternoon and personal information for a brief introduction. Again, what a surprise!
It had been billed as the “Fourth International Conference and Gathering of the Elders.” I was attending as a Wiccan Elder, and the organizers assumed that elders would each have something to say. Other presenters were equally surprised. Remarkably, this did nothing diminish the fine presentations, though it did seem we talked about everything.
My second impression was an abundant energy suffusing and supporting us all. The energy at so many conferences is careful and subdued, with everyone politically correct. Haridwar was uninhibited and spontaneous. The energy during the rituals was fierce, joyous, and impossible to contain, more intense than anything I’ve experienced in interfaith gatherings, much closer to that of pagan festivals.
Finally, a wealth of wisdom and information was offered from people with little time to prepare. A number of participants had graduate degrees in sociology, anthropology, philology, philosophy, and religious studies – and everyone seemed to have their hearts on fire.
The most important part of any conference is the contacts that you make and the friends that you bring back. I gave out all of my cards (and I brought a great handful). My Facebook page was filled with “friend” requests when I finally reached internet connections again. For me the program was successful in building friendships, connecting people and cultures that need to stand together in order not to fall apart in the face of pressures to assimilate or fade into obscurity.