International Women’s Day 2024

This year International Women’s Day falls on the same day as MahaShivaratri, the Hindu festival of Shiva celebrating the union in marriage of Shiva and Parvati. I am blessed to be in India at this time and I am also blessed to be in Varanasi, the place where my journey with textiles really began over two decades ago 

Varanasi, is the holy city that Parvati and Shiva chose for their winter abode when it was too cold in the Himalayas! I have things to say about the significance of their divine union representing the union of male and female energies and also about why Varanasi is a place of huge personal significance for me. 

Before I talk about me, I will talk about the Gods. Which for me symbolise aspects of primordial energies that are moving in all of us.

One form Shiva took is that of Ardhanari, a deity with a body that is half man and half woman. This ancient form talks to the space beyond the deeply embedded crumbling walls of division the patriarchy has engendered in our current worldview. 

According to the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, the ultimate reality is a non-dual consciousness that is beyond gender, form, and attributes. This consciousness is referred to as Brahman, and it is believed to be the source of all existence. The Ardhanari form of Shiva symbolizes the unity and balance of masculine and feminine energies in the universe. The form also represents the idea that Shiva and Shakti, or the male and female aspects of the divine, are inseparable and complementary.

While Shiva signifies Purusha – which is mindfulness, Parvati signifies Prakriti – which is nature. Thus, consciousness and energy unified is  creation.

The Ardhanari form of Shiva also represents the union of the individual self (Atma) with the universal self (Brahman). In this form, Shiva and Parvati, depicted as a single being with both male and female attributes, also represent the unity of the two polarities of the universe. This form symbolises the idea that everything in the universe is interconnected and that duality is an illusion.

As I return to the holy city of Varanasi, as I have done many times in my life,  I  feel to share some personal details about how my life story as a girl born in Manchester in northern England became somehow interwoven with the fabric of Varanasi. It’s the details I don’t often tell.

I started making clothes for myself and then others at age 27 inspired by and living in Varanasi. I was having a love affair with a Japanese man who played Bansuri, classical Indian flute, and had made Varanasi his home for the previous decade.  He had just left to travel to Tokyo to see his family after three years of being away. I had moved up river away from Assi Ghat where all my friends were to Nahrad Ghat because I was insistent that I wanted a room right next to the river. The Swollen Ganga was at its highest after the monsoon. Deep and wide And flowing fast. Coming half way up the trees at the bank of the river.  These were the days of post restant,  before mobile phones and social media. I had just made my first collection from khadi (Handspun and Handloom cotton) and raw silk with the last money from my savings. The only reason I was checking my recently acquired email address in an internet cafe is because I was waiting to see if my first ever clothing collection had made it to my friends shop in Nottingham where I used to live.

The email I received instead was ‘ Amanda phone home, we need you’ Eventually I got my brother and he said ‘ Amanda, mum is dead’ the shock of that sentence still reverberates in me today as I write it. In that moment, I only vaguely remember walking through Bengali tola, an alleyway  that runs all the way parallel to the ghats in Varanasi, in a blur. I had a moment where I was split open to the universe and in that moment I knew everything and I knew that I was pregnant. I confirmed this pretty soon with a pregnancy test bought at Heathrow Airport. The details of the trains, planes and automobiles paid for on a credit card on the way back are hazy.  I am not going to fill in all the blanks of the story but it was a time when I walked a fine balance between grieving my mother’s death and embracing life through the baby growing inside me.

A few months later I returned to Varanasi with Isamu, Haruka’s father, with a plane ticket booked to fly back to the UK at the outer limits of when you are allowed to fly pregnant. I planned to return for my Nanna and Grandads’ diamond wedding anniversary. I went to call my Nanna before I got on the train to begin my journey to the UK and she told me that my Grandad had just died. So again I began a journey on trains and planes across the world to arrange the second funeral of my pregnancy and eventually to start my new life with Isamu in the UK. We moved to Glastonbury and started doing the market, selling the clothes I had made. Me heavily pregnant and both of us dressed head to toe in beige and white raw silk.

I tell you this because Varanasi , kashi, is famous as a city of death. The city of Shiva. In Hinduism, it is said that to take God’s name and die in Varanasi is to attain moksha, release from the constant cycle of death and rebirth.

The line between death and birth was something I was literally walking at that time of my life. In Varanassi there are funeral pyres on the ghats and you can see children playing nearby and by the warm embers of them at night cows and dogs sleep. Life and death as one. The time when both my son Haruka and my business Haruka was born and in many ways, I was reborn. I will always feel a huge reverence for this city and feel the power in my life of me being there at such a significance turning point in my road. 

For much of the journey I was a single parent and I have definitely had to embrace both the masculine and feminine energies in me to lift up both Haruka my son and Haruka my business.  

It  feels especially significant to be here on International Women’s day in a place I will always associate with my mother and the beginning of my own journey into motherhood. It’s such a city of convergence and contrasts. Teeming with life and a place of death. In many ways a very masculine city being holy to Shiva but softened by the water flowing through it.

River Ganges, believed to be a goddess, often referred to as a mother, flows through this city. Descended From the tresses of Lord Shiva, Ganga descends to earth and absolves the sins of everyone who comes to her for penance. Varanasi, Kashi, the City of Light, the city of death, the city of illumination. Shiva’s city where life thrives from in ashes of death and the river reflecting the light and prayers of the people in every sense constantly reminds us of the inevitability of change with her gentle flow. A magical city where everything is possible. I give great thanks for all the ways this city and the people here and the ancient traditions and the sublime ridiculousness and grace of day to day moments have forever touched my life and my heart.

Om Nam Shivaya

Love Amanda X

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