It is generally agreed that to drive in India one needs three things: good horn, good brakes, and good luck.
India is among the most difficult – and most rewarding – of places to travel. Some have said India stands for “I’ll Never Do It Again.” Many more are drawn back time after time because India is the best show on earth, the best bazaar of human experiences that can be visited in a lifetime. India dissolves ideas about what it means to be alive, and its people give new meaning to compassion, perseverance, ingenuity, and friendship. India – monsoon and marigold, dung and dust, colours and corpses, smoke and ash, endless myth – can be a cruel, unrelenting place of ineffable sweetness. What a paradox. Much like life itself. Incredible India!
And so I call it a ‘Swirling Experience’ – a swirl of colours, tastes, smells, sounds and touch, often experienced all at once, in one fell gigantic swoop. Or, in smaller doses. Walk along a street in Varanasi leading to the Mother Ganga (Ganges River) at sunrise and again at sunset and you experience this vitality; visit the Pushgar Fair and swelter in the heat of the noonday sun; stroll along Mansingh Road in Delhi and feel the coolness of the shade trees; visit the many forts built by the great Mughals in Rajasthan state and become overwhelmed by the opulence of their reign…. Every place gives you a bit of everything but some places more than others. Or, to put it another way – chaos which works!
Main ghat (steps) leading down to the Ganges – Pushgar Camel Fair
I never thought I would ever go to India. It was one of those places that I had no desire to visit (much like I have no desire to visit either Japan or Australia today). But something must have turned me on to wanting to go. Perhaps it was a desire to travel by train; perhaps it was a desire to see the holy river Ganges, perhaps it was the desire to see the fabled Taj Mahal – but perhaps it was something else or a combination of things. However that change of mind came about, I had to go.
How does one begin to write about this country with so many facets to it? Do I start with the people and it’s diversity (that would be interesting)? Do I start with the crazy quilt that is Hinduism? I’ll start and stop with the concept of Brahman (what we in the West would term as God) – one can then add Shiva and Vishnu and Ganesh and the other 33 million or so gods from which one can choose (!) and to whom for everyday needs the people pray and worship. These are the less remote, less awesome figures of their god-kings and heroes who know and understand the intimacies of the daily lives of the people in a way that the Great Gods cannot, like the needs of the cattle in the village. It is these local gods who are believed to guard and regulate the daily lives of the people. Not that the other gods are far away. Gods are gods, I suppose – whatever god you worship, he is close to you. I’ll let you decide whether you, on your own, want to tackle that one.
Remover of Obstacles
I arrived in Delhi in the dead of night. One-fifteen in the morning to be precise. Because of its location, arrivals in India often seem to arrive at this unearthly hour. However, I’ve never seen such bustling at an airport at that hour. You’d think it was JFK at two in the afternoon. Was this the way it was going to be for the next two-and-a-half weeks, day and night?
After a day or so in Delhi – both old and new – we travelled to Jaipur to begin the train journey to the other cities in Rajasthan, the fabled state of the 300 plus years of the Mughal Empire – from Babur and Humayun to Shah Jahan, the builder of the famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal, and beyond. I’ve referred to other trips as the ABC tour in Europe (Another Bloody Cathedral), the ABT tour in Egypt (Another Bloody Temple) and this tour in India can be called the ABF tour (Another Bloody Fort). From Jaipur, the Pink City to Jaisalmer, the Golden Fortress to Jodhpur, the Blue City to Chittargarh to Udaipur to Bharatpur to the monumental beauty of the Taj Mahal in Agra and finally ending up in Varanasi on the Ganges River. What a swirl, what a whirlwind, what an experience of being ‘whelmed’, in the words of our leader David Silverberg, an excellent and knowledgeable geographer, conservationist and earth scientist.
Amber Fort, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer
Along the way there were visits to the tiger sanctuary at Ranthanbore National Park, (unfortunately no tigers were sighted on our game drive), the Pushgar Camel and Horse Fair, the Indian Thar Desert (where I kept to my vow of never again riding a camel!), and ending this part of the journey in Agra, the site of the magnificent Taj Mahal.
And so we travelled from the sublime to the ,,, well. not exactly the ridiculous but certainly the chaotic. Varanasi has to be the epicentre of controlled chaos; the hub around which revolves the surge of pilgrims, hawkers, bathers, cripples, the faithful, the fakers (not to be confused with fakirs) – all focused on the mythic Ganges River.
Bathers in the Ganges at sunrise
Twice a day this ebb and flow occurs: down to the river and back again. Bathing in the river, swimming in the river, drinking the water of the river, washing clothes in the river, being cremated at the edge of the river – everything that water, the aqua vitae, provides the people of India and more.
Cremation fires on the Ganges
Ah yes, the people of India – all 1.27 billion. And sometimes it seemed that I was in the middle of them! And it also seemed like they were speaking all 21 languages of that country – all at once. I always thought that I had a pretty good ear for languages but I was defeated in India.
And I can rest contentedly knowing that the cow is sacred, king of the road, untouchable, sublimely wandering wherever he or she wants. Perhaps subliminally the cow has influenced the drivers of India for I saw no road rage nor any accidents!
India – ‘I’ll Never Do It Again’? On the contrary – I would return again, probably to the south which I understand is completely different; more agrarian than the north.
Regardless of where I go, I go keeping in mind my own mantra when traveling: Have no expectations, but live in expectancy. There will always be new experiences, new sights, sounds and smells. Where else but In India!