It turns out my obsession with India is not over, so I’ve decided to dedicate yet another page to India! This is my A to Z guide of India…I’ve documented our holiday experience using each letter of the alphabet!
A for Astrology
We had stopped at a restaurant en route to Jaipur for lunch and no later than 5 minutes after we had finished our lunch, a man approached us asking if he could tell us our fortune. Remember how I said in an earlier blog that you’re not an Indian if you don’t have someone in your family who is an astrologer? It turns out you’re not in India if someone doesn’t approach you as an astrologer!
B for Bollywood
There’s Bollywood everywhere around you in India! From billboards to TV ads, all products come with a Bollywood star’s seal of approval. I also found out that Jaipur is a favourite location for shooting Bollywood movies.
C for Cricket
We were in India during the Cricket World Cup and the atmosphere was electric! It is amazing how a sport brings a nation together, and I got to witness that first hand. The pride and jubilation of all Indians were palpable for days after the win…and equally the frustrations over the trophy corruption scandal.
D for Discount
You don’t buy a single thing, with the exception of food, without asking for a discount! We even saw a foreign couple haggling at a Levi’s store, which came as a bit of a surprise for me as I limited haggling to stalls and privately owned shops rather than at franchises.
E for Elephant
I can’t believe I saw so many elephants but returned home without the proper opportunity to snap a photo of an elephant. Neither could we go on an elephant ride up the City Palace in Jaipur as it was the start of Navratri and the elephants were being rallied for the evening processions at temples.
F for Food
F is for food and also for something else not-so-pleasant! Well isn’t India famous for its juxtapositions! Indian food is amazing! We stuck to places frequented by the locals as much as possible when we were not at the mercy of the driver’s choice. The food at Reshmi’s Guest House in Varanasi was probably one of the best: delectable lamb biryani that you can tuck into while gazing at the ghats from the hotel balcony.
(Sorry, India, but the other F is for faeces. It’s not always the cleanest of places.)
G for Ganges
Hindus believe that you wash away your sins when you immerse yourself in the Ganges. It is reported that the toxin levels of the Ganges water are very high due to unscrupulous factories dumping their waste in the river, but people’s faith remains undeterred and a lot of people still drink the water.
The water was quite stagnant when we went and needless to say it looked filthy. I think my husband and I are more pragmatic than religious, so we didn’t even touch the water! Besides, I don’t believe your sins can literally be washed away without repentance, paying penance or suffering.
H for Hinduism
India is the birthplace of Hinduism. To me, the religion is as mystical as the country, as unlike some other mainstream religions, Hinduism does not have a bible of its teachings. What I love about Hinduism is that Hindus are not bound by indoctrinated teachings but are open to self-revelations. It very much espouses the ideology that you define your relationship with God.
I for Incense
The smell of incense envelopes you everywhere, only to be hijacked by the stench of urine here and there! I could smell sandalwood in so many places…the hotels we stayed at, along the streets and bazaars of Chandni Chowk and sometimes while passing random shops lining the streets. I bought some bedspread in India and the smell of incense filled the air when I opened my luggage back home. I had brought back a little bit of India with me! A few washes later, it fortunately still smells of sandalwood! Ahhh divine!
J for Jaipur
Ah the beautiful pink city! Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, the largest city in the largest state in India. It was founded by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1727. He built the City Palace, Jantar Mantar and most of Nahargarh Fort, all of which are a must-visit while in Jaipur. Jaipur also boasts a world-reknown beauty, Princess Gayatri Devi, who was once named by Vogue as one of the “World’s 10 Most Beautiful Women”.
K for Kulfi
Kulfi, as ice-cream is known in India, comes in a variety of flavours with an Indian touch, such as cream, mango, pistachio, cardamom and saffron. We found a roadside stall in Delhi selling kulfi that had long queues every night. We resisted the first two nights, as we fervently followed the ‘travelling around India’ rule-of-thumb that forbids eating at roadside stalls, especially if the food is not hot. We also noticed that the seller dunked vermicelli on the kulfi with his bare hand and accepted money with the same hand. No way we were going to eat that! Then on our last night in Delhi, and India, we caved in after seeing the long queues yet again. We reasoned it would be okay if we fell sick as we would be on our way back from India anyway…So we had kulfi after all! I must say I much prefer Haagen Dazs, but kulfi has quite a distinctive taste that you don’t get from off-the-shelf brands.
L for Lorry
Indian lorries are so colourful and reflect the personality of India both literally and figuratively! The top of the windscreen is painted colourfully, displaying the name of the truck company. The lorry’s grille guard is also painted with rings of colours. Some lorries have ribbons and all kinds of charms dangling from the side mirrors. They are quite an interesting sight compared to the lorries we are used to in other countries: nondescript and impersonal.
M for Mahatma
India gave us Mahatma Gandhi. This is the man who showed us we can fight violence with non-violence and hatred with love; the man who showed us that it is possible to go against the grain of our natural inclination to attack when attacked and yet emerge victorious. I felt blessed to visit the Smriti where he spent his last 144 days and was assassinated. Note that the Smriti is an entirely different place to the Memorial. By the way, did you know Gandhi was ambidextrous?
N for Norm (the lack of)
India is full of surprises and will challenge your perception of what you consider to be the norm. Safety measures are ignored like there is no tomorrow, literally! In fact, I don’t think I’d live so carelessly on my last day on Earth, even if I knew it was my last day! I saw way too many people hanging out of trucks and autos, up to three people riding pillion on a single motorbike, vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road…you name it! I also saw an auto performing a u-turn on the approach to the roundabout. He did not go round the roundabout, he made a u-turn by going in the opposite direction!
Whatever would these people think of the kind of road rules enforced elsewhere? Probably draconian! But who knows how our ancestors behaved when roads were newly paved in front of their doorstep? Maybe with the same frustration that the roads don’t necessarily take them from A to B in the shortest possible route. Why go along x and y when you can manoeuvre via z? (think Pythagoras)
O for Omelette
I had the best omelette every morning for breakfast while staying at the Colonel’s Retreat in Delhi, which by the way is the nicest, cosiest, family-run B&B. It was fried with red and green peppers as well as some herbs – which I couldn’t quite work out – but it was lovely! There was also some home-made banana cake every day and it was yummy! I’d highly recommend this place if you’re staying in Delhi.
P for Poverty
Be prepared. Poverty is all around you. If you are not used to seeing beggars and people living off the streets you may be disturbed by what you see. Indians, however, go about their daily routine without feeling disturbed by what they see. I read somewhere that seeing distressing images daily, like hardcore poverty, catastrophe and war may eventually desensitise you to others’ suffering. Maybe that’s what has happened to them; at least that is the theory behind why big Indian companies are not forthcoming with their social projects and donations.
Q for Qutub Minar
Qutub Minar is located in Delhi, India. It is the highest tower in India and the tallest brick minaret in the world. The first Muslim ruler of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din-Aibak, was inspired by the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan and commenced construction of this tower. It is not essential that you visit this site while in Delhi, but if you’ve got a few days to spare, why not.
R for Rickshaw
You have to go on a rickshaw ride in India. Don’t let the sight of a tattered rickshaw discourage you, like it did me at first, as it’s one of the best ways to see parts of India. We went twice on a rickshaw ride, at Chandni Chowk and in Varanasi. The best way to Chandni Chowk is without a doubt on a rickshaw. The rickshaw driver pedalled along passing the spice market, the tea stalls, sari shops and jewellery shops while I snapped away with my camera like there was no tomorrow! In Varanasi, we ended up taking the rickshaw as they had closed down one of the main routes to our hotel for road works, and only rickshaws could go through. I passed very close to a funeral procession and felt quite disturbed by it. You see, in India they don’t use coffins; dead bodies are just wrapped in white cloth and placed on a stretcher. So death suddenly felt very tangible to me!
S for Sarnath
About 13 kilometres north-east of Varanasi lies Sarnath, a garden where Buddha gave his first sermon to his friends after his enlightenment. Legend has it that Buddha’s friends immediately knew upon seeing him, that he had achieved enlightenment, for his face glowed with an aura of wisdom and bliss. It felt surreal setting foot on a land where a spiritual leader with a worldwide following had set foot thousands of years ago; hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus or Muhammad.
T for Taj Mahal
How can I not include an entry on Taj Mahal when I’m talking about India! The Taj Mahal looks even more resplendent when you are standing right in front of it. The jewels on the Taj Mahal gleamed in the morning sunlight and the whole structure was bathed in muted pink. Some interesting facts I learn about the Taj Mahal: the four minarets were built leaning outward so that if they fell in the event of an earthquake they would fall away from the base. The quran verses bordering the entrance were designed such that they would look evenly spaced from afar. The water pools and garden fronting the Taj Mahal are meant to be a replica of paradise.
U for Uncle
In Indian culture, you don’t call anyone older than you by name. So, any elderly man is ‘Uncle’ and elderly woman, ‘Aunty’. I can’t guarantee any special treatment, but our guide in Varanasi, whom we called ‘Uncle’ bought us some Indian sweets before sending us off.
V for Varanasi
Varanasi, commonly known as Benares, lies in Uttar Pradesh in India. It is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world and probably the oldest in India. Places of interest include, apart from the ghats itself, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Benares University, the Bharat Mata temple and of course, Sarnath. A sunrise boat ride is a must, for you will see the place gradually come alive with pilgrims, human laundromats or dobi, sadhus and priests.
W for Water
India is one of those places where you probably get as much, if not more, “don’t” advice than “do”s when you tell friends about your holiday plans. One of the things people never fail to tell you is to not drink tap or boiled water while there as it can make you ill. Some friends went to the extreme of telling us not to even brush our teeth with tap water, which we found a bit odd, but decided to follow without giving it much thought. I think it was a week gone in India when I was lost in thought while taking a shower, and accidentally caught shower water in my mouth. As soon as I had done it, the warning from friends flashed before me and I spat out the water. I spent the next day being paranoid that I was going to fall sick…I kept thinking about the Sex and the City movie scene where Charlotte did the same thing, but in Mexico, and had a bad case of diarrhoea! Thankfully I did not. I didn’t even tell my husband in case I jinxed myself, but decided to brush my teeth with tap water from then onwards. A good few days later, when I felt confident “my experiment” wasn’t going to fail me, I finally told him! It’s a lesson that you shouldn’t be too paranoid!
X for X-ray
The Indian government requires you to bring along a copy of your chest x-ray when you’re flying to Delhi. This is a way to screen out tourists who have contracted TB. Just joking…there is no such thing! What else was I going to write for ‘X’?
Y for Yoga
I’m afraid I did no such thing in India. My holidays are of gastronomy and gluttony…so there is no place for anything remotely healthy! 🙂 However, we went to Lodhi Garden in Delhi one evening and saw a human pretzel there! I’m serious! There was a man who was practising yoga at the park and he was in a position I never knew was humanly possible! He was at least in his 50s! Needless to say he put me to shame as, although I’m quite slim, I am not the least bit agile or flexible.
Z for Zoot
Zoot? There’s no such word…or is there? I’ve just remembered there was quite a clever HTC Pulse ad on tv in India. It starts with two guys playing scrabble and one of them making the word ‘zoot’. The other guys says there’s no such word but they stop the game, to be continued another day. In the mean time, the guy who played ‘zoot’ uses his HTC mobile to popularise the word and get it included in the dictionary!
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.