India is as diverse as its cacophony of clatter, smorgasbord of scents and menagerie of masses. From sadhus to shrines, and from history to heritage; there is no place quite as enriching and epiphanising as this country. After having planned our trip for nearly 2 years, each time in vain and limited by the seasonality of the country, my husband and I were ecstatic when we confirmed our trip, as it dawned on us that we were finally setting foot on our ancient motherland. I couldn’t wait to see and experience the country that gave us logic and philosophy, and numerals and the decimal system.
One of my first observations of India was the traffic chaos: there is no place quite like it! Everything from cars to cows clamour for rights of way on the roads, there is incessant blaring of horns and traffic using the wrong side of the roads. Yet, despite the madness and seemingly blatant disregard for conventional traffic rules as we know it, there is a sense of order and respect for one another on the road. I did not witness a single accident, nor flaring of emotions while I was there. In fact on one occasion, a naked, destitute child who was no more than 3 years old ran across the busy road in Delhi, instigating the blaring of horns and screeching brakes, but miraculously no one hit him! I was told by my tour guide you need three things to be able to drive in India: good horn, good brakes and good luck! So true!
On our first day in Delhi we went to Chandni Chowk, a bazaar in Old Delhi that houses a host of shops selling clothes and jewellery, spices and all just about everything under the sun. We went around Chandni Chowk on a rickshaw after being told that is one of the best ways to see the bazaar. I remember turning wide-eyed with apprehension to my husband when the rickshaw driver pulled up in his old, tattered rickshaw: surely it wasn’t safe to sit on the rickshaw, as it looked like it was going to fall apart any minute? He convinced me to get on it after much cajoling and I was so glad I did it! It was an amazing experience riding through the streets and alleyways, seeing the true Delhi with all its charm and idiosyncrasies. I got off the rickshaw feeling reborn, for I felt like I had cheated death and come off miraculously unscathed!
On our second day in Delhi, we went to Gandhi Smriti – the place where Mahatma Gandhi spent his last 144 days – and was assassinated. The building, courtyards and garden oozed simplicity, a testament to the modest and unworldly lifestyle Gandhi led during his life. Biographies of his life and quotes by Mahatma filled the corridor leading to the place where he was assassinated, where a shrine-like structure has been erected in his memory. One quote that particularly touched me was Mahatma affirming “Even if I am killed, I will not stop repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.” It almost seems like he had a premonition of what was to come as his last words were “Hey Ram!” (Oh God). Many a times I felt like a hypocrite in this place. There I was, claiming to revere him as the greatest soul to have lived on Earth, the closest a mortal has come to being immortal; and yet there was not a single principle of his that I was following. He practiced simplicity, while I wandered around snapping photos with my expensive DSLR, he preached non-violence, whereas I could not give up meat for a single day, he put aside his whole life and fought for justice, whereas I have forsaken my birth country with the excuse the politics are ruining it; his existence brought freedom to the whole nation whereas I am a self-absorbed human being whose existence, come to think of it, does not really benefit anyone but myself in my quest for worldly pleasures. What right did I have to call this Great Soul my biggest hero and inspiration?
A few days later we were in Jaipur. We visited the City Palace and Jantar Mantar on the first afternoon with one of the best guides we have ever had. Nidhi Mishra was a minefield of knowledge and gave us an excellent narrative as we walked around these places. The theme of the tour seemed to be that ‘there is a reason for everything’, as Nidhi so eloquently put. I was reminded that ignorance is the main impediment to understanding the cultures and practices of another. Many a times we scoff at other cultures, but when we hear an explanation it immediately banishes our prejudices and we grow to understand or accept why things are or were done in a certain way. For instance, to the undiscerning eyes, the low entrances in and around the medieval castles and palaces in India would have suggested that Indians were short people. However this impression would have changed upon learning that the low entrances were an ingenious tactic to ensure that adversaries who attempt to invade the castle would need to bow their heads to enter the castle and this gave the guards ample time to behead their enemies. Why did Indian men have so many wives in the pre-British era? It had nothing to do with Hinduism and everything to do with a culture that was spread by invading rulers: it was a way for them to spread their domination, and slowly over the years this culture became embedded among the society.
Our next stop was Agra. Who could resist a trip to India without seeing the enigmatic, resplendent Taj Mahal! We saw the Taj Mahal at sunrise and it was breath-taking to say the least. Despite the crowds it exuded a kind of serenity usually reserved for holy places. Then again, one might argue that a monument of love is also an embodiment of divinity and godliness. We spotted some stray dogs playfully wrestling each other and I joked that even the dogs were feeling the vibrations of love at the Taj Mahal!
We took the overnight train from Agra to Varanasi which was an amazing experience in itself. I was awake by 5 a.m. and stared out the window the whole time while the train traversed the countryside. The view of wheat fields was interspersed with tiny villages and level crossings at small towns. These were places modernisation had not placed its indelible and irreversible mark yet – the mark of homogeneity both in infrastructure and lifestyles – and I noticed that people were still at one with the elements. Some men gathered around water pumps, brushing their teeth with twigs while others squatted in the open fields to empty their bowels! Well I guess the latter is not really a sign of a lack of modernisation since men in modernised places do relieve themselves in public places, but you catch my drift! (pun unintended!)
Varanasi’s main attraction are the ghats by the Ganges. The Ganges is truly the lifeblood of India: from birth to death and the life in between, everything centres around the river. Hindus celebrate births in the family by offering thanksgiving prayers at the river and they mourn death by cremating their loved ones by the funeral ghat. Hindus believe that the dead will achieve moksha or liberation from reincarnation when their ashes are strewn in the Ganges. Never have I experienced an atmosphere quite like this: children played cricket, sadhus relaxed on the steps and devotees submerged themselves in the river. People congregated to participate in the evening Aarti or prayer ceremony in one corner and boatsmen were busy in another corner building a boat. People from all walks of life converged in this place.
On our second day in Varanasi, we visited the Bharat Mata temple. Unlike all other temples that are dedicated to the worship of God, this temple was devoid of any deities or priests. Instead, there was a map of India, carved out of brass on the ground. This ancient temple was built before the partition of India and Pakistan, and even Sri Lanka and hence included all these countries on the map. I don’t think this temple was built to invoke patriotism among Indians, instead it was to revere the great land that has over thousands of years served as a birthplace to some and provided refuge to others. For some reason it made perfect sense. Why can’t we revere India or any other nation in a temple? Afterall, does our country not provide for us on the ground the same way our Heavenly Father watches us from above?
We returned with a heavy heart from Varanasi to Delhi knowing that our trip was coming to an end. After two more days in Delhi, we boarded the plane back home. I have never felt such reluctance to return from my holidays: usually it is just the thought of going back to work but this time, I was filled with emotions of having to leave my motherland and its wonderful and colourful people.
These 10 days in India have moved me in ways no other country or people have. I have been reminded of how fortunate I am to have a roof over my head, food on my table and an education that has given me a good job, which in turn has enabled me to fulfill my basic necessities and luxuries. I have also started questioning myself: what have I done to help another human being? How has my existence benefited anyone else? What is the legacy I want to leave behind?
I went to India intending to sight-see and quench my photographic thirst, but instead returned from my ancient homeland having experienced a multitude of emotions and growing spiritually. I cannot wait to return to India to take in the sights and be among its wonderful people. In the words of Caroline Quentin, my love for India is not a short romance, but I think it is going to be a lifetime affair.