I’d never really fancied myself a tarot card kind of girl. Sure, I’ve been known to wear the odd cape and I practise yoga regularly, but tarot? Mysterious predictions of the future based on flimsy pieces of cardboard with kooky drawings on them?
It just seemed a little too … airy-fairy, for me. At least it did until I spent seven months in India last year, partaking in all manner of mad esoteric activities ranging from ashram stays to chakra cleansings, shadow readings to Hindu ceremonies.
And so when, at the tail end of said sojourn, I was invited on a tarot tour of south India run by a company called Touch of Spirit Tours, I decided to throw caution (and perhaps sanity) to the wind, and give it a go.
I’m not sure what I’m expecting as I walk out of Bangalore Airport to meet our tour group. Crystal balls, silk headscarves, a black cat, maybe? But not this.
Not Mela, our sunny-faced tour leader with her elegant shawl and cropped brown hair, who immediately embraces me while professing a deep love of India.
And not Vic, our tarot teacher, a middle-aged gent in reading glasses and sensible button-down shirt who tells me and the other two female travellers in our little group that he came to tarot through studying psychology, mythology and astrology.
Both come across as intelligent and level-headed, and I wonder if I’ve been too quick to judge this whole tarot caper. After all, I really have no idea what it’s all about.
That all changes 24 hours later when, after we’ve flown to Goa and settled into our charming hotel in the old Portuguese town of Panjim, we have our first tarot class.
Vic gives us an introduction to the 78 cards in the tarot deck (thankfully we’re only focusing on the “major arcana” during this trip, the 22 most important cards), telling us that rather than predicting the future, as many people assume they do, tarot cards help “illuminate the life passage we’re negotiating, and those darker parts of ourselves”, to give us a fresh perspective on things that are happening in our lives.
I’m just about to head back to “real life” in Australia and am feeling rather trepidatious about it, so I’m interested to see what the cards reveal.
The following morning is bright, sunny and steeped in Goan lassitude, and we spend it languorously touring the palm tree-ensconced, white-washed churches of Old Goa.
We amble past scores of bright, sari-clad women and serious-looking men entering the great Basilica of Bom Jesus church.
Vic points out images of suns and angels in the elaborate church art, telling us to keep an eye out for these mythological symbols on our tarot cards.
“The tarot is just a representation of these ancient images; you have to learn to read these symbols because the universe won’t just tell you what to do,” whispers Vic, leaving us feeling like characters from The Da Vinci Code novel.
Later that day, after a spice plantation tour and a loll about in the waves at Benaulim Beach where cows roam the sandy shores, we head back to our hotel to study another two tarot cards.
We learn that The Hanged Man (a card depicting a man hanging upside down from a tree) relates to letting go and relinquishing control, while The Magician (a robed man holding a wand to the sky) is about manifesting your vision and higher talents in the world.
By the time day four rolls around, I’ve decided that reading tarot cards is rather like deciphering the meaning behind an artwork: you’re looking for symbology in each image to help you figure out what the image means in its entirety.
When you pull a card from the deck, you bring its message to any problems you may be facing, to help you find a way forward.
I’m also discovering the cards actually are helping members of our tour group “illuminate those deeper parts of themselves”, as Vic had predicted they would.
The Empress card (symbolising fertility, femininity and nature) gets a woman in her late 30s talking about feeling the pressure of her ticking maternal clock.
When the High Priestess card (representing female intuition and the subconscious) comes out, a lady in her mid-50s starts discussing the intuitive gifts she believes she’s had since childhood but has never had the confidence to use.
We make our way through the ancient towns of Aihole and Pattadakal, a ruined ceremonial centre for the Chalukyan kings with extraordinary carved temples, and explore the sensuous carvings in the 1200 year-old cave temples of Badami, where we learn about Shiva, Vishnu and a handful of other Hindu deities.
Along the way, Vic gives out tidbits of information about the history of the tarot. He says that from the mid-15th century it was used throughout Europe as a game, and it wasn’t until the late 18th century that it started being used by mystics and occultists for divination. I decide it’s time to buy a tie-dyed silk scarf from a street seller and blame it on the cards.
Arriving in the magical city of Hampi, we thank our lucky, err, cards, that we’re resting our heads here for a few days.
Rolling fields of acid green grasses covered with thick groves of gangly palms and the occasional cactus, surround mountains of enormous stacked boulders. Scattered in between are majestic ruins from the great 14th century Hindu Vijayanagara Empire.
A little tuk-tuk with peacocks embroidered on the walls and silver tassels dangling from the ceiling shuttles us around town.
We visit a group of disadvantaged kids at the Hampi Children’s Trust, as well as the Anegundi women’s co-op, where local women weave baskets from natural fibres.
We drink fresh coconut milk from local street stalls and watch an elephant get bathed in the river. Meanwhile, India’s magic is enhanced a little each day by our tarot exploration, which forces us to constantly look more closely at our surroundings as we search for tarot imagery.
Vic teaches us how to do “spreads” of the cards, so that we can understand how they relate to one another, and promises to give us each a personal reading by the time we finish our journey.
Next up is Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, set amongst lush forestland beside a monsoon-slushed river.
We take an afternoon jeep safari in the surrounding wilderness, spotting peacocks, wild boars, deer, langur monkeys and jackal, take walks in the forest, watch crocodiles bathe in the river during a traditional coracle boat ride, and take our tarot classes on the verandahs of our charming tented rooms.
Eventually, it’s time for me to have my cards read. Vic tells me to think of what I want to know from the cards before shuffling them, separating them into three stacks, and combining them again.
He then places nine cards face up on the table in three rows of three. I was nervous about getting the Devil or Death cards (even though Vic keeps reminding us that the “darker cards are the keys to liberation and illumination”), but things are looking good: the pretty moon, star, lovers and wheel of fortune cards all surface.
Vic explains each card separately, then gives me my message: “You’ll get to where you need to be. When so much change is going on, you have to let go of what no longer works and that will liberate you.”
It’s relatively vague information, sure, but it gets me thinking about the challenges I’ll be facing in the future and how I might approach them. In this way, I realise, the cards have been almost like a form of therapy for us all.
Our final evening in Mysore, which is also the final night of our tour, coincides with Diwali Festival, India’s five-day Festival of Lights. We take a post-prandial stroll to the Maharaja’s Palace, which will be set ablaze with more than 96,000 bulbs for the festival, and wait patiently in the darkness for the lights to go up.
Three, two, one … Boom! The ancient palace is lit up like a fairytale castle and we stand before it in silent awe. “There you go,” Mela finally manages, “didn’t we promise you the darkness would be illuminated?”
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Bangalore for about $1070 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 7hr) and then to Bangalore (4hr 20min); see singaporeair.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to six months.SEE THERE
Touch of Spirit Tours 16-day Mystical Journey of South India tour stops in Bangalore, Goa, Hampi, Hassan, Dubare and Mysore, and costs $3480 a person twin share. The price includes
air-conditioned travel, accommodation, one domestic flight, all tours, all entrance fees, local guides, jeep safaris, nature treks, elephant interaction program, all mystical classes, bottled water and many meals. The next tour will run from November 23 to December 8, 2014. touchofspirittours.com.au. Touch of Spirit Tours also run tours focusing on Ayurvedic medicine, textiles, volunteering and body, mind and spirit healing, throughout India and Sri Lanka.