Rajasthan; covered largely by the enormous Thar Desert, it is a land of beautiful, dazzling saris worn by equally beautiful women; imposing camels whose heads swing so gracefully and whose feet, in contrast, clomp along with clumsy aloofness as they drag their bulky loads down busy highways and quiet dirt roads alike; grand, red-stoned palaces that remember the time of the legendary Rajput and Maharajas; and extravagant, thick, curled moustaches adorned by men whose eyes sparkle with greens, blues, greys, yellows and browns.
The ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur is the state’s premier destination, though this seems to be based more on reputation than merit. Outside the extensive bazaar where one can buy fruit and veg, electronics, saris, hardware, pets, suits, sweets, Singer sewing machines, shoes, ornaments, pots and pans, and just about anything else one can imagine, the streets are polluted, overcrowded, dangerous to walk and filled with tourist-directed cries of “Rickshaw?! Rickshaw?!! Rickshaw?!!!”
Regardless, I spent a good few days there, sleeping in a room that was probably once a broom closet or quarters for the lowliest servant in an old palace that looked as though it had not seen an hour’s maintenance since the 19th Century. I indulged in excellent, cheap Indian food at a dhaba that I came to love and spent an afternoon under the sun in a park on the day of the annual kite-flying festival. The sky was filled with colourful paper diamonds while kids with gashes over their fingers, inflicted by the glass-coated string, raced eachother to claim fallen kites – their line having been skilfully cut by that of a friendly competitor. As I lay on the grass marvelling at the sight overhead, I was invited to join in a game of park cric. Once again however, this was not park cricket as I know it. It was an ugly display of the Indian ego at its most ruthless. Each team consisted of two or three slightly more talented players who, by arrogant force, opened the batting and bowled the entirety of their team’s overs. Most of the kids there did little more than make up the numbers. ‘It’s just not cricket,’ I thought.
I spent most of my time in the outfield flying a kite, but when the ball was skied in my direction, I quickly back-pedalled and took a neat catch. The offending batsman had batted for the duration of his team’s innings in the previous game and now refused to go, claiming that I had run over some imaginary boundary line while wildly celebrating the catch. This was too much. “Mate, just sit down and give someone else a bat!” I implored. He did not understand what I was saying and batted for the remainder of that innings aswell.
As I pushed deeper into the desert towards the peaceful, holy town of Pushkar, I mused at the fact that in 2009 – a time in which sci-fi writers from 40 years ago predicted that we would all be racing along sky highways in flying cars – there are still people who use camels as a primary mode of transport.
Set around the atmospheric Pushkar Lake, this town has thousands of Indian pilgrims and foreign backpackers alike flocking to its ‘shores’ – the Indians coming to visit the unique Brahma temple and carry out good karma-ensuring puja ceremonies by the lake; the backpackers coming to smoke cheap charas and to be in a place where, as I heard over and over again, “It is just easy to be a foreigner.” After my testing 1,000 kilometre leg across the vast country, such an environment of anonymity is exactly what I needed to recharge my core. I spent nearly two weeks lazing on the cushions of my guesthouse verandah that overlooked the lake, reading incessantly, chatting to other travellers and simply taking in the serenity. Several sunsets were enjoyed atop one of two local hills that housed temples overlooking the town and the vast nothingness of the golden brown desert, which seemingly stretched to the end of the earth.
Strolling the nearly vehicle-less town and the ghats running around the banks of the lake was a daily pleasure. The only hasslers to be dealt with were the flower-puja touts, their scam being that with a phoney grin of goodwill, they would hand the unsuspecting tourist a flower and instruct them to place it in the lake – bad karma be upon them if they refused. They would then demand a hefty ‘donation’ for their ‘services.’ I felt that this made a mockery of a sacred ritual upon which the Hindus place such great importance and found that the best course of action was to thank the tout for his gift and walk on, only to have him scamper after me demanding I give him back his flower. I would feign great hurt that after giving me such a lovely present, he should want to take it back. He would say that this is no place to make jokes. But I guess exploitation is ok.
I could not believe that for two weeks the same fat man would keep giving me flowers only to have to chase me along the steps in order to retrieve them.
As seems to happen in all places where I become very comfortable and do not know when or what will induce me to leave, I awoke one morning with a sudden pang of desire to be back on the road. And as seems to happen when I do finally hit it again, it felt invigorating to be turning the pedals over and pushing the road beneath my wheels once more – as though I was moving forward in more ways than one. Re-energised – as though it was my first day on tour. I had completely forgotten that just two weeks ago I had conceded that I was ‘done’ and had vowed to hop a bus the hell out of India. I now looked forward to covering the 800 kilometres between me and the exit door, not sheltered in a rattly tin can, but exposed and connected to this stretch of earth, feeling its life flow through me and back again like an electric current that links me to all else. My eyes were open – I could see the magic once more.
For six days I pedalled over the undulating sand dunes – patiently rising and gently dropping – each night falling asleep with the satisfying sensation of complete physical exhaustion felt deep within my muscles. I enjoyed the relative serenity of the desert roads, save for the occasional convoy of monstrous army trucks that carried tanks, cannons and other instruments of death and destruction intended for use against their Pakistani neighbours.
Death is what I unexpectedly stumbled upon one quiet, sunny afternoon as I approached a small desert village. Across the road, acting as a blockade, a truck was parked while a crowd stood around, looking decidedly less lively that a typical Indian mob. It was only as I got nearer that I realised why. Facing me in the middle of the road was a pair of legs, twisted and broken. The body and head of the woman to whom they belonged were covered in her sari. I pulled off to the side of the road nearby and was surprised by a couple of things; the first was that despite the formation of a lump in my throat and feelings that could be described perhaps as sorrow, compassion and sympathy, I felt a distinct lack of horror – a lack of horror despite the fact that a human life had been violently extinguished just moments earlier and I was now standing just metres from its corpse. I remember that as a young boy in the western suburbs, I was in the car with Mum and a road near our house had been barricaded by police. Way off in the distance where emergency vehicles were parked was a dark lump on the road. We later learned that a fatal accident had occurred. I was horrified, “What if it was the body?” I pleaded with Mum, “What if I saw a dead body?!”
The second thing that surprised me was the lack of emotion showed by the mob. I had seen how nonchalant Indian culture could be with regards to death at funerals, but that was when the element of shock was removed. Being such a small village, I assumed that everyone knew this poor woman and yet, half the crowd still seemed far more interested in me and kids smiled and laughed at the sight of me as though the lump on the road nearby was nothing more than just another snoozing cow. When a policeman arrived, he stood over the corpse with its head just about between his boots and the crowd converged on him while he made his report on account of twenty shouting voices. Had they converged half a metre more, they would have crushed the lifeless body, seemingly without even noticing it. All of this took place while passing cars left the road for the dirt shoulder, swerving at speed around the truck, honking their horns, kicking up dust and very nearly taking out a few more pedestrians.
‘Only in India,’ I thought and rode on.
One night on this desert leg was spent in Deshnok; a small, innocuous town that is home to one of the most unique and disgustingly beautiful temples in the world. It is here that multitudes of resident rats are considered to be incarnations of future sadhus and priests and are therefore treated as sacred. Devotees offer them milk and sweet prasad, which in a mass of slick, brown fur and long, naked tails, they push and shove, scurry and scamper, to get their nasty little teeth on. Despite it being auspicious to have one of the ugly little critters run over ones bare feet, most devotees still gave a little shriek and jumped away in revulsion if they came too close. And if any of these lucky buggers were to lose their way and find themselves outside the temple, workers were on hand to pick them up by their tails and insert them back into their oasis.
Only in India.
Crossing the state line from Rajasthan, the surrounding environment changed almost immediately from harsh, dry, golden desert to lush, green, fertile, agricultural lands that, along with a strong work ethic, have made the Punjab the most affluent state in India. Such a work ethic is strongly promoted by the Sikh religion, as is the Punjabis’ legendary hospitality, which in my experience is second to none. For five nights through northern Rajasthan and the Punjab, upon entering the town in which I intended to rest my head, I would not stray from fruit-wallah to paan-wallah to rickshaw-wallah asking for “hotel sasta-wallah?” but would make a beeline for the sparkling white dome of the local gurdwara, the golden spire of which always stood high above the dull buildings around.
For five nights, my requests for a bed were not met with even an inkling of hesitation, only goodwill, warmth and of course; chai.
For five nights, I ate in the various guru ka langars, the communal kitchens that have a place in all gurdwaras. It is here that people of all religions, races, castes and genders are welcome to receive as much food as they desire, free of charge. The long rows in which diners sit side by side, cross-legged on the ground, symbolise that no man is above any other – we are all brothers and sisters and we shall eat and live as such.
For five nights, I was mesmerised by the beautiful kirtan played by each gurdwara’s priests on harmonium and tabla and accompanied by hauntingly sweet vocals. Contained in what is considered to be the last guru, the Guru Granth Sahib or the Holy Book, these kirtan are beautiful songs of prayer. Despite my not understanding the words, they invariably drew me into a deep tunnel of meditation each morning and evening during the respective ceremonies of placing the Guru Granth Sahib upon the alter for the day and returning it to its resting place in the evening.
For five nights, I was not given a moments rest by the locals – kids and adults alike – who had no hesitation in entering my room uninvited and unannounced to attempt a conversation in ‘Hindish’ or to simply stare. This, I felt at times, was the trade off – I gave others the opportunity to exhibit goodwill and charity and in return, I was given the opportunity to strengthen my virtues of patience and tolerance.
Strong is exactly how I felt when on the sixth night I arrived in the gurdwara of all gurdwaras; the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The city of Amritsar itself is, in a word, a shithole – polluted, overcrowded, obscenely loud and any other number of adjectives common to most Indian cities. But in its midst lies a sanctuary – a place that emanates peace, compassion, harmony, goodwill, love and indeed, God. So strong are these positive vibrations that I felt them as soon as I entered the outer square and when a man wearing a turban and carrying an almighty spear beckoned me to follow him, I blindly did so, somehow simply knowing that he had my best interests at heart. He led me to one of several gurdwaras that house thousands of pilgrims every night free of charge, either in rooms or on the floor of the courtyard. The foreigners are provided with a sanctuary within a sanctuary in the form of a friendly and lively dormitory, complete with hot shower and washing machine, away from the ever prying eyes. A volunteer guards the door at all times, just as volunteers manage the guests, provide bedding and clean the bathrooms and rooms, at no point directly asking the pilgrims for any donation.
If I was impressed by the sleeping arrangements, the kitchen was to absolutely blow me away. This, the biggest guru ka langar in the world, is capable of feeding 40,000 mouths per day including up to 10,000 in a single sitting and remains open and ready to satisfy 24/7. Such an operation can only be achieved through the right blend of chaos and organisation and an overwhelming amount of selfless goodwill that manifests itself as chopped veggies, cooked rice, flat chapattis, warm kiel, cold water, served thalis, mopped floors, clean plates and hot chai. The thing that surprised me most in this madhouse of activity – accentuated by the constant clang of metal as stainless steel thalis and bowls flew through the air from diner to scrapper to washer to server – was that there was a constant surplus of volunteers. Everyone was filled with such a great sense of gratitude that they felt compelled to convert it into service for their fellow man. It made me wonder if the material focus of religious groups should not be on simply taking donations, taking offerings and taking praise, but on giving with the aim of instilling this sense of gratitude in its followers and thus allowing it to circulate.
I felt blessed to have the opportunity to return a fraction of the goodwill shown to me by some means other than my rupees and I made sure that I spent a couple of hours each day, sitting on the ground, chopping carrots, potatoes and garlic, while chatting to the locals and pilgrims who came from all religious backgrounds from all over India and the world.
Stepping out of the guru ka langar, invariably with a very full, satisfied stomach, one enters the gateway to the historic centrepiece that is seated in the heart of a great water-filled tank, dating back to the 16th century. Whether the middle of the day when the sun reflects brilliantly off its golden plating; or dusk when the oranges and purples marking the end of another day soften its surface; or the late evening when it sparkles as an enormous beacon against the black of night, the Golden Temple is an amazing spectacle at any time. A particularly magical time is pre-dawn when the crowds are still in bed and just a few devotees are braving the early morning chill to bathe in the icy waters of the tank, stroll around its perimeter or meditate to the melodic kirtan being chanted within the compact, atmospheric temple.
Words can not describe how this very special place made me feel, but after several days, I saw it in the face of a newly arrived Dutch traveller. As we strolled around the tank together at dusk, her expression was one of awe. I knew that she could feel the energy and see the magic.
“You can feel it, can’t you?” I asked.
“Wow,” she replied – her mouth involuntarily curving into a smile.
Just thirty kilometres from the exit door and I had forgotten all about my desperate desire to rid myself of India – to scrub its dirt from my pores, cough its particles from my airways and wash its stench from my body (indeed, after ten months in Southern Asia, I well and truly smelt like a curry-munching Indian. Often, after taking a shower, I would lay on my bed with my hands behind my head, ‘Woah,’ I would think, ‘Did I forget to do my underarms?’
Nope, that is just how I smell now).
For this, I was very thankful, for it is not what such a legendary, fascinating and unique country deserves. It is undoubtedly deserved of the bitter taste that it has left on my tongue, but this is unavoidable if one is to experience the sweetness.
I have been asked by many if India is worth visiting. To them I say YES!, but remember; India is a land of extremes and an assault on the senses – it must be swallowed whole; wince at the bitter, suckle on the sweet; bear the pain, embrace the pleasure; wrinkle your nose at the putrid, deeply suck in the aromatic; shudder at the scratching on the blackboard, listen to the melodic.
Do not shy away from the ugly and the beautiful will reveal itself.
India will be.
Be with it.