Cosmic Snakes and Ladders

Regan O'Callaghan Stepped symbol and waves, Chazuta, Peru, CeramicsThe jungle speaks in so many ways!

So what were my intentions for travelling to the Amazon, Peru?  I left the leafy suburbs of West Hampstead early December flying first to the U.S where I spent a wonderful month in California which included leading an art workshop for the festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Episcopalian Church, Oakland, California.  The art scene in Oakland is fantastic! On the first friday of every month Art Murmer  stages an evening of open studios, galleries and workshops, music, food and entertainment in closed off streets in the city.   The creative buzz is contagious and I was especially inspired by Creative Growth Art centre  which serves adults with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. Absolutely amazing work!   I visited lots of galleries and museums in L.A and San Francisco and spent quality time with dear friends.  The month went by rather quickly and before I knew it I was on a plane to Peru where the Amazon beckoned.

I didnt stay at my first port of call Lima but headed straigth up to Iquitos and a trip down the Amazon River to the Refugio Altiplano. I had stayed at the lodge before and so was looking forward to my time.  Not surprisingly I got sick while there!  The city in this gringo was strong!  Bad spirits said the shaman after a night walk in the jungle.  Two days in bed and regular visits and good care by the shaman and I was better!

Ten days later  I caught a flight to Tarapoto and then a 45 minutes journey in a crammed taxi down a dirt road to the small village of San Roque de Cumbaza, home to 8oo people, 3 churches, friendly people and Sachaqa Art Centre my home for the next 2 and a half months. Here I was warmly welcomed by Trina, Daniel, Jacob, Grace Jones the cat and Arcoeides the Golden Labrador.

Sachaqa which is Quechuan for "spirit of the forest" is an artist residency.  I had come hoping to learn about natural pigments found in the region and other natural materials and be inspired by the Amazon.  One of my first experiences was a visit to Chazuta a small town a few hours away.  Famous for its handmade crafts, I was also planning to collect small stones from the river to make into pigments but the rain had other ideas.  However I did see some of the work of the locals including a visit to a small museum of ancient ceramic burial pots.  It is here I learned about the "The Stepped symbol and the Wave".

This symbol which I drew a copy of is one of the most recuring symbols in the iconography of the region including the Northern Andes.  Studies about the steps and spiral especially from the iconographic point of view seem to indicate that the symbol represents a close relationship between life and death (1).  Which made sense of why it is found on the ceramic burial urns. It also intrigued me due to my love of the Koru a Maori symbol of eternal life.   Chazuta is also a community in which traditional medicines is deeply rooted including use of the plant medicine Ayahausca  or "vine of death".

Even within my short time in the jungle it was easy to see why a symbol of life and death would be so relevant.  The constant rhythm of the jungle reveals an ongoing life and death drama!  From the quick lives and easy deaths of million of insects, the constant falling and rotting leaves,  to the local river which had washed away villagers during flooding after heavy downpours, death was ever present.  But so was life.  The crops of coffee and banana on steep hillsides were a reminder of the people etching out a living in what could be a harsh environment.   The creativity of the people and their crafts a powerful symbol of strength and perseverance.  The women ceramists of Chazuta's deep rooted belief in ancient traditions and crafts are seen as a resilient force even when the town was plagued by drug trafficking and violence. The leaf cutting ants even made me think of how amazing life is! And the huge variety of life in the jungle from the beautiful Azul butterfly that wafts past everday to the birds, and plants and animals and stars at night.

I had begun to understand that my time in the amazon was going to be so much more than just learning about natural pigments. I also sensed the jungles whisper was going to challeenge me to a some wild experiences and that my boundaried inner cityscape would be quickly overgrown and made moist by an ever expanding jungle.  I dont for a moment believe life is a board game but lifes ups and downs its joys and sorrows its passions and disappointments seem intensified in the jungle. So what next for this priest/artist?

1. "Chazuta Arte Ancestoral" J. Barta Del Castillo & A. Narvaez Vargas. Reg. Gov. of San Martin. 2000 pg.  


Regan O'Callaghan Dama wyn, religious icon, egg tempera, sainthood of all believers, cornishDama-wyn (Cornish for Grandmother) was a commission for a friend. Mary was his grandmother who lived to over a 100 years of age. This icon was commissioned as a devotional piece in remembrance of her and the positive influence she was in his life.

In this icon we celebrate the sainthood of all believers. The way we live today and throughout our lives will be remembered by those we leave behind when our call comes for our own onward journey. The challenge for us still living and learning in this world is to live a life in the present.  Not one haunted by regrets and guilt of the past or by fear of the future but rather by a life inspired by the important things in this world.  Family, friends, neighbors, the wonder and beauty of the natural world, the diversity of mankind, the sun , the moon and the stars.

Savitri and Satyavan

Regan O'Callaghan Savitri spine, pastel, gold leaf on paper, satyavan"The childless king of Madra, Ashwapati, lives ascetically for many   years and offers oblations to Sun God Savitr.  His consort is Malavi. He wishes to have a son for his lineage. Finally, pleased by the prayers, God Savitr appears to him and grants him a boon: he will soon have a daughter.   The king is joyful at the prospect of a child. She is born and named Savitri in honor of the god.  Savitri is born out of devotion and asceticism, traits she will herself practice.  Savitri is so beautiful and pure, she intimidates all the men in the vicinity.  When she reaches the age of marriage, no man asks for her hand, so her father tells her to find a husband on her own. She sets out on a pilgrimage for this purpose and finds Satyavan, the son of a blind king named Dyumatsena, who after he had lost everything including his sight, lives in exile as a forest-dweller. Savitri returns to find her father speaking with Sage Narada who announces that Savitri has made a bad choice: although perfect in every way, Satyavan is destined to die one year from that day. In response to her father's pleas to choose a more suitable husband, Savitri insists that she will choose her husband but once. After Narada announces his agreement with Savitri, Ashwapati acquiesces.  Savitri and Satyavan are married, and she goes to live in the forest.

Immediately after the marriage, Savitri wears the clothing of a hermit and lives in perfect obedience and respect to her new parents-in-law and husband. Three days before the foreseen death of Satyavan, Savitri takes a vow of fasting and vigil. Her father-in-law tells her she has taken on too harsh of a regimen, but Savitri replies that she has taken an oath to perform these austerities, at which Dyumatsena offers his support.   The morning of Satyavan's predicted death, Savitri asks for her father-in-law's permission to accompany her husband into the forest.  Since she has never aksed for anything during the entire year she has spent at the hermitage, Dyumaysena grants her wish.Regan O'Callaghan Satyavan's visit, oil painting, koru, altar piece

They go and while Satyavan is splitting wood, he suddenly becomes weak and lays his head in Savitri's lap. Yama himself, the Death, comes to claim the soul of Satyavan. Savitri follows Yama as he carries the soul away. When he tries to convince her to turn back, she offers successive formulas of wisdom. First she praises obedience to Dharma, then friendship with the strict, then Yama himself for his just rule, then Yama as King of Dharma, and finally noble conduct with no expectation of return.  Impressed at each speech, Yama praises both the content and style of her words and offers any boon, except the life of Satyavan. She first asks for eyesight and restoration of the kingdom for her father-in-law, then a hundred sons for her father, and then a hundred sons for herself and Satyavan. The last wish creates a dilemma for Yama, as it would indirectly grant the life of Satyavan. However, impressed by Savitri's dedication and purity, he offers one more time for her to choose any boon, but this time omitting "except for the life of Satyavan". Savitri instantly asks for Satyavan to return to life. Yama grants life to Satyavan and blesses Savitri's life with eternal happiness. Satyavan awakens as though he has been in a deep sleep and returns to his parents along with his wife.

Dancing with Death

Meanwhile at their home, Dyumatsena regains his eyesight before Savitri and Satyavan return. Since Satyavan still does not know what happened, Savitri relays the story to her parents-in-law, husband, and the gathered ascetics. As they praise her, Dyumatsena's ministers arrive with news of the death of his usurper.  Joyfully, the king and his entourage return to his kingdom."

The story of Savitri and Satyavan is found in "The Book of the Forest" of the Mahabharata. Article from Wikipedia 2010.

Titles of art workSavitri's SpineSatyavan's VisitDancing with Death