A Latin American high for Mumbai

Updated: Sep 28, 2016, 14:42 IST | Gaurav Sarkar |

Ayahuasca, an ancient brew that originated in the forests of the Amazon, is finding favour with many Mumbaikars who vouch for its soul cleansing properties

It is pitch dark. There are 30 people gathered around a man who has been softly illuminated by candles. One by one, those gathered around walk up to him and drink from a cup that he proffers. The man himself then consumes the concoction. Within the next 40 minutes, all those in the room begin purging — crying and sweating, even urinating. After eight hours, the ceremony is complete, and the participants return to the circle to share their individual experiences — some experience an intense spiritual connection, some experience intense healing and some intense emotions.

Participants at a traditional ayahuasca ceremony in Eucador in June 2005. pic/afp
Participants at a traditional ayahuasca ceremony in Eucador in June 2005. Pic/AFP

This is perhaps the briefest description one can give of an ayahuasca ceremony, a tradition that finds its roots in the Amazonian forests of South America and has become a rage the world over for its ‘spiritual and healing’ prowess. For a snappier recall, British-Indian actor and model Sofia Hayat, once touted as a Curvy Icon by Vogue Italia, donned the role of Mother Goddess after an introduction to ayahuasca at a London retreat in September 2015. In an interview to this paper in June this year, Hayat said the brew "has the power to reveal your true purpose on Earth". She was the planet, the earth and the goddess, she found out.

A photograph of an ayahuasca ceremony being conducted in Eucador in 2005. Ayahuasca ceremonies have become common in India over the last three years. A Mumbai resident says the number of participants has increased from 12 to 30 in recent times. Represenatation Pic Courtesy AFP
A photograph of an ayahuasca ceremony being conducted in Eucador in 2005. Ayahuasca ceremonies have become common in India over the last three years. A Mumbai resident says the number of participants has increased from 12 to 30 in recent times. Represenatation Pic Courtesy AFP 

But, Indians don’t have to go to either the Amazonian forests or to London retreats to be introduced to their true selves. For the last three years, ayahuasca ceremonies have been held at secret locations no one wishes to reveal any details about.

PIC for representation/afp
Pic for Representation/AFP

Plant-based intoxication
The reason for the secrecy is perhaps the legally grey area in which ayahuasca stands. The ayahuasca is a herbal drink made from a vine called the banisteriopsis caapi or ayahuasca (which means ‘vine of the soul’ or ‘vine with a soul’). The secondary ingredient is either chacruna (psychotria viridis) or chagropanga (diplopterys cabrerana), plants that contain a relatively high amount of the psychedelic substance DMT. It is here where the problem begins. While DMT has been made illegal in almost every country, the common botanical sources for it, are still legal mostly everywhere. You can even freely purchase DMT containing plants from specialized ethnobotanical shops on the Internet.

It was first recorded in literature in 1851 by Richard Spruce, an English ethnobotanist. However, archeological evidence suggests the use of the plant dates to at least two millennia. The brew is at the center of healing ceremonies that have become a booming industry and have now crossed the edges of the rainforest.

It seeks you out
Online, entries about ayahuasca are plenty. One, by a Melody Fletcher talks about how the experience reached out to him rather than the other way around. "I first read about Ayahuasca about five years ago and I instantly knew that this was something I would experience someday. I wasn’t ready for it at that time, but it was definitely in my future. This past July, I suddenly received the strong impulse to book the trip. I just knew it was time. I’d found Infinite Light Peru, through the internet and instantly resonated with it. This was the place for me," she writes in a post that dates back to at least 2010.

Back here, a Mumbai couple would agree with her experience. Priyanka, 24, and Rajeev, 26, (names changed) were first introduced to the brew four months after their December 2014 wedding. While the two have known about ayahuasca for years now, it was only when friends mentioned that ceremonies are being conducted across the country that the two took serious note of it.

"We started researching various organisations that conduct the ceremonies here. There’s almost no information available online. You have to be introduced to it by someone," says Priyanka. While the couple, who runs a successful family business in the city, has had a brush with other psychdelluic substances in the past, ayahuasca they say is different. "Initially, I found the idea strange, but realised after a while that in Indian culture, medicine has traditionally been linked to plants," says Rajeev. "We use haldi, tulsi, neem, regularly. Even today, some of us opt for natural medicines over pharmaceuticals."

The couple then researched the ayahuasquero, shamans who specialize in ayahusaca ceremonies, that were brought down by the organization that would be conducting the ceremonies. Since then the couple has attended a total 16 such ceremonies, each lasting eight hours and costing as much as your iPhone.

An Indian who attended a ceremony in Peru, has written in a website: "It was from my second ceremony that I started having a clearer communication with the medicine, when it started doing serious deep healing work. I was taken through a plethora of visions and experiences, sometimes taking me to frightening depths and overwhelming heights, sometimes breaking me down and then building me up, sometimes knocking me out and then waking me up. The millions of cells in my body were ringing with new information and as I struggled with a paralyzing fear which arose from me in the third ceremony, I felt like I died and then returned, renewed and free."

"The experience is not enjoyable all the time," says Priyanka. "Purging could be anything. In native cultures purging was referred to as getting well, as one is removing whatever ails them from within. The actual healing process starts when you get back to the real world — that is the real ceremony," she adds. "The real challenge is to live with the same amount of compassion, respect, and humility that you experienced during the ceremony."

Participants usually take part in a three-day retreat, wherein each night they consume the brew. The first day is mostly about getting to know other participants and getting acquainted with the properties of the plant, which, the shaman explains to all participants before the ceremony. The shaman himself drinks the brew along with the participants. Traditionally, the shaman plays the role of a guide.

"At the end of it, ayahuasca is a medicine, a healing process, not an enlightenment potion. The first ceremony starts the healing process and beyond that, you keep understanding it better," says Rajeev.

Rajeev, who had always been short tempered, had a ceremony wherein he had to confront his anger issues, and claims to have been rid of his temper thereafter. "The changes are small, like the way we view our work, our own duties and responsibilities, respect towards our bodies. After the medicine, we have stopped eating red meat and drinking alcohol…things that are detrimental to our health. It has also strengthened our bond and helped us work past our issues to understand each other."

Experiences differ
The participants at the ceremonies vary. There have been doctors, lawyers, journalists, and in some cases, even a mother-daughter duo.

"However, what one sees depends on their intent," said 34 year-old Siddharth Vatnani (name changed), another Mumbaikar who attended his first ceremony three years ago. Prior to the ceremony, participants are guided by the shaman in communicating with the brew of the teacher plant and convey their intent.

"If you have a disease and have to come to heal yourself, that healing becomes your intent." Once you sign up as a participant for a ritual, you are not supposed to leave the room no matter what, unless you have to urinate or poop, he adds. Yet, sometimes, the experience can be overwhelming. "People leave the room and isolate themselves…some even whip out their phones and start playing the hanuman chalisa, for protection from evil spirits."

But, not all those who find ayahuasca need to have a spiritual or a healing intent. "When I first participated in a ceremony two years ago, my intention was to have a very powerful psychedelic experience," says 24-year-old Varun Basu (name changed), a Mumbaikar who was, at the time, working in the software industry. His first ceremony, in 2014, was at the Spirit Vine Centre in Brazil, a retreat founded in 1997, led by master ayahuasquero Silvia Polivoy with over 20 years experience with the sacred plant. Today, Basu works as a facilitator there, and has been a part of over 100 ceremonies.

Booming centres
Vatnani recalls that the number of other participants at his first ceremony, three years ago, was around 12. Today, the average participation per ceremony is 30. Many are from Chennai ansd Pune as well as foreigners. "For foreigners, India proves a much more feasible option compared to South America," he adds.

But, research your shaman first. This is perhaps why the founder of Anahata Retreats, located outside of Mumbai, is planning to head to Brazil to find the real deal. "We will be conducting ayahuasca ceremonies for those interested," says Bijay J. Anand. "However, it is critical that the shaman overseeing the ceremony be authentic. For that, I need to visit Brazil and handpick a shaman."

Some times, after all, finding the right teacher is the tougher journey.

A controversial brew

>> While many talk of the healing and purging properties of ayahuasca, the ceremonies have also been subject of headlines due to the many deaths reported in the Western press.

 In 2012, an 18-year-old American man, Kyle Nolan, died during an ayahuasca retreat and the shaman leading the ceremony, Jose Manuel Pineda Vargas, buried his body in an attempt to cover up the death.

 In December 2015, a British national was stabbed to death by a Canadian man during an ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian Amazon.

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