“So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked.”
— Mark Twain
Since the cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies, India has been on my mind, women wearing colorful saris, a religion that has something — literally — for everyone, ancient temples, elephants, jungles, cosmopolitan cities and of course, the much touted gurus.
During this time, it was not uncommon for celebrities to run off to India in search of a guru. India was the “go to” place for enlightenment. So, the question stayed with me for years... are the keys to the mysteries of life waiting to be revealed by a bearded holy-man in far-off India?
Decades ago, Richard Alpert thought so; the former Harvard professor went off to India to find the meaning of life, and came back as Baba Ram Dass, a self-appointed spiritual leader of a generation.
Now it was my turn to explore this spiritual Mecca, treasured by poets, photographers and writers alike. India, the “Jewel in the Crown,” the cradle of civilization... what awaits in this mysterious land?
At this point in the article, I don’t want to sound “nonspiritual,” but ... my recent sojourn to India was, in fact, quite a reality check. In a nutshell, India is: hard traveling (lousy roads, lousy infrastructure), hard living (corruption is a way of life), very poor (for most), crowded (population 1.2 billion), unsafe for the western “intestinal tract,” chaotic and unbelievably polluted.
Yes, it is colorful, diverse, steeped in history, with plenty of cows and holy-men types, but make no mistake, if you are looking for peace, tranquility or enlightenment by osmosis, this may not be the place.
We landed in New Delhi, the starting point of our adventure — traveling with Overseas Adventure Travel (Oattravel.com or (800) 955-1925).
We chose “OAT” because the groups are small (in our case 14), the tour guides are well trained, but more important, OAT manages to capture more sights, sounds, and flavors of a country (for the price) than other travel groups. Our trek was to cover the northern half of India and was dubbed, in the brochure, as “The Heart of India.”
Our itinerary included New Delphi, Jaipur, Ranthambore National Park, Geejgarh village, Agra, Khajuraho and Varanasi. Our main mode of transportation was an overland bus, but we also utilized planes, boats, trains, camels and bike-pedaled rickshaws.
Touring New Delphi, one is initially struck by cows roaming about, they’re everywhere; munching by the side of the road, resting in the middle of a Delphi “freeway,” or sauntering through a shopping center. In the west, a cow is a hamburger in waiting, but in India, they are sacred.
A few thousand years ago, one story goes, the Indo-Aryans migrated from the Caspian sea area into India. They viewed cows as a sign of wealth, and relished the milk products that a cow produced. They met up with the Dravidians — the aboriginal people of India — who didn’t share the same values, i.e., they were meat eaters.
To save the cow from slaughter and possible extinction in India, it was proclaimed that cows were sacred and that killing them would lead to an afterlife filled with torment. (Writers note: In India, migration patterns are a hotly-contested subject.)
The bus ride from Delphi to Jaipur (in the state of Rajasthan) was an introduction to road travel in India. Our driver — a Sikh — had proven himself to be nothing short of a miracle driver, negotiating pot-holed roads with no lanes, trucks coming straight at us, cows meandering their way through traffic, camels hauling people and goods, and women balancing baskets on their heads, walking within arms length of the bus.
By the end of the day, arriving safely at our destination, I thought our driver was actually a Hindu God posing as a Sikh bus driver!
When asked what was the highlight of the India trip, two places come to mind, the Ganges and the Taj Mahal. I can’t even guess how many images I’ve seen of the Taj Mahal in my life, but I’m sure it’s in the thousands.
We left our hotel before sunrise the morning of our Taj Mahal visit, hoping to beat the crowds and catch a glimpse of this magnificent structure reflecting the first morning light. We did get there early enough to avoid the throngs of people soon to arrive. Unfortunately, there was a thick haze in the air — a smog-like haze that prevented the “glistening sun’s reflection” we were hoping for.
Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, has been identified as a “pollution-intensive zone” by the World Health Organization (WHO). In spite of the smog, the Taj Mahal was impressive. A structure built in the 1600’s with the help of 20,000 laborers, working 22 years — a structure built as a testament of one’s love — just has to be seen in person.
For the Hindu, the Ganges is it, “IT” with a capital “I” and a capital “T.” It’s what you strive to see — to bathe in, and perhaps if you’re lucky... to be cremated on its banks.
We were fortunate to see the Ganges during the Diwali festival. As Christmas is a big deal for Americans, Diwali is a big deal for Indians.
On the eve of this major festival, a mile or so from the river’s edge, tens of thousands of people were in a tizzy, vendors selling their wares, fireworks sounding like gun fire, the omnipresent cow, all this mass of humanity making its way to the river’s edge.
With the help of a dozen rickshaws, our group serpentined through the streets of Varanasi to our awaiting, very old, non-motorized wooden boats, that were to take us out about fifty yards to view the cremations and the city’s lights and activities. During this experience, it was — save for the electric lights — impossible to tell what century we were in... the first, the tenth, the fifteenth?
The following morning we were on the Ganges again, at day break, witnessing the bathing and rituals associated with Hinduism. Men and women, ten deep, bathing, some clothed, some not, brushing their teeth in incredibly polluted waters, fulfilling their lifetime dreams. The whole Ganges experience could only be described as surreal.
If you compare India’s Hindu religion with its myriad of colorful deities like Krishna and Ganesh, it’s chanting, meditating, drum-like mantras, bearded yogis wandering about, with Christianity, which is much more restrained and subdued, you can see the attraction for the western mind. After making the movie Eat, Pray, Love, Julia Roberts was drawn to this kaleidoscope of colors and sounds and decided to convert to Hinduism.
At some point in our journey, after trying to remember names of various deities like Krishna, Ganesh, Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, and on and on, I asked our tour guide “How many deities are involved in Hinduism?” He didn’t hesitate, responding with a smile, “oh, about thirty million!”
India is fascinating — the 1st century attempting to coexist with the 21st century; a herd of camels passing by a Tata Motors car showroom; young people gathered at a McDonald’s eating vegan burgers, a short distance from a nomadic gypsy encampment.
If you want to see life up close and personal (as few westerners do), if you want your senses to be assaulted, consider India, it’s like no other place on earth.
Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at: SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com
Copyright ©2011 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved