Diwali in the House of Shio Mgvime

Published on Elsewhere

Above Mtskheta the air is hot.

It is not thin.

Our taxi driver, tells us Batumi—Batumi is really hot.

At least this is what I think he’s saying. We—my partner and I—do not speak Georgian, and he does not speak English. Many Georgians also speak Russian, and we don’t speak that either. Only the younger people tend to know English. This is what abstract political events look like in real-life: the Soviet-Union falls, so the young people learn English, while their parents speak Russian.

“Horrorshow” I say, Nadsat being in part, Russian-inspired: “good”.

“Batumi”, he nods.

We’re heading to the the Shio Mgvime Monastery, which we’re told is on the left bank of the Mtkvari river, on the southern slope of the Sarkine ridge, but there is no sign of water.

Shio is honoured as one of the 13 Assyrian “fathers” who came to Georgia in the 6th Century to strengthen Christianity. Under the guidance of John of Zedazel (‘Saint John’), the group lived in Mtskheta, and then on Zedazeni mountain, where they founded a monastery.

Shio left after four years, and then inhabited a cave on Mount Sarkin. The monastery was founded literally above this cave, and grew over the next several centuries, evolving into six or seven buildings, experiencing growth and decline as the country was invaded, at peace, taken over by Christian powers, Islamic powers, the Soviets, and now after all that, offered as a tourist destination.

Shio is buried in the monastery complex.

Pathetically, I am feeling nauseous. The roads through the low mountains rise and fall. They are winding, winding. My partner tells me: “you look green”. I close my eyes. My brown skin, so beautifully evened out and darkened by the late Summer heat here, looks green. How pathetic, can’t even take a few winding roads—even a few good winding roads.

“Batumi”, he says again. “My brother, in Batumi. My brother.”

“Horrorshow”, I say.

He nods.

I press my hands against my stomach and close my eyes. Pathetic.

Motion sickness occurs — they say — when there is a discontinuity between visual and proprioceptive information. Your body expects one kind of motion and experiences another. Your eyes expect gentle slopes, your body experiences long, harsh ones. Your inner-ear and eyes argue. Your brain asks your stomach to regurgitate.

The advice is to keep your eyes closed. I try to do this but it’s hard to not look out the window. A dry, orange, almost Australian landscape passes by. Australia with hills, and where mountains shimmer in the distance. The outback where greenery occasionally blooms.

By the side of the road, there are the bones of a cow or buffalo, mostly intact. It gives the place an atmosphere.

I should not have eaten those jellied peanuts in Mtsketa.

“Batumi”, he says. “Batumi khorosho”.

I close my eyes.

*

What does the world look like to a person like Shio? To someone who believes in God so much that they are willing to leave society and try their luck on a mountain?

The mountain is dry and seething and the air hot.

The footprints of animals. The sound of breaking twigs. There is no wind.

The limestone cliffs surrounding the monastery are bright and pitted with large holes which could have been the caves of other ascetics. Is it hot or cool in them? Stuffy or fresh? Do you sleep in one, bitten by insects, barely able to breathe, and in the morning, emerge into the hot sun and say ‘thank you God’?

TV sound buzzes: taxi drivers are assembled outside the gates of the complex, just waiting, watching Youtube on their phones.

You walk up a dry, brown path to the buildings.

Some of them are ruined, their interiors broken, their walls dark and the images of Jesus are faded and fragmented. Some of the buildings do not allow cameras inside. Their frescoes are daunting and huge; God and Jesus together looking down onto the sinful world, the super-ego itself enthroned in red and gold and aquamarine.

The stones are hard underfoot. There is no matted grass. Dark shrubs, blue sky.

Does someone like Shio not see ‘mountain’, or ‘cave’, but ‘creation’?

What would make someone spend two years in a cave?

*

Inside the Church, a few people pray loudly.

Some touch the glass containing holy relics.

For at least the third time in Georgia we find a relic which claims to be from the shroud Jesus was wrapped in.

My partner makes the ‘can you believe it?’ face. She rolls her eyes.

It just so happens that today is Diwali, the Hindu and Sikh festival. Hindus celebrate the festival to mark Rama and Sita’s homecoming to Ayodhya, after their banishment to the forest. That’s not the whole story of course, there’s a war, a monkey God, a ten-headed demon, a giant who sleeps for years, magic herbs. There’s loads more.

Sikhs celebrate Diwali, or as it’s known, Bandi Chhor Divas, to mark the release of the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind from prison in the mid-Seventeenth Century. There’s more here too: the Guru helped secure the release of several dozen other political prisoners.

Both Sikhs and Hindus light divas or candles in celebration.

The Church in the monastery of Shio Mgvime offers candles to light.

Having left the Sikh religion some years before, I do not celebrate the festival. But I also do not participate in the kitsch or sentimental renewal or display of faith by lighting a candle ‘just for fun’. I especially do not confuse the various traditions by lighting a candle in the Church to mark an Indian festival.

And yet, the world offers these possibilities, with traditions overlapping, with meanings reaching over one another, pulling each other inside out, so that if I wanted to, I could join the schoolchildren and pilgrims in lighting a candle in the dark incense-filled Church to honour Shio, and also Rama, or the Guru’s release.

This is what abstract events look like in real-life:

A discontinuity between what you see and what you experience.

*

Outside, large sheets of shade cast by the brick buildings are occupied by Russian tourists. A family, it seems, and they sip water from plastic bottles and sketch the dry, intensely bright landscape around them.

The limestone cliffs resound with the hum of sunshine. Dark birds fly overhead.

My What’sapp buzzes: photos mum sends of her lighting candles in the Gurudwara.

We walk back down the hard stone path to our taxi.

My partner tells me some monks were back there working with power tools.

Small, violet-tinged pigeons pick up the bread the taxi driver crumbles for them.

He wipes sweat from his face with a cloth.

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