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Trip Report India; A land of contrasts

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My husband and I are dedicated travellers who made up a life list of places we wanted to visit. In the 13 years we have known each other , we have been able to cross many places off our list. For me, the Taj Mahal was near the top. It is one place that lives up to it's hype. There are more many more beautiful sights to be seen in India...and some grim ones, too.

When I reflect upon our travels in India, what first comes to mind is a lot of "C" words; contrasts, contradictions, chaos, confusion, castes, curry, cremations, cows, and colors. As it happens, my husband and I arrived in the midst of a 5-day holiday celebration called Holi, a holiday of colors. We were never able to exactly determine its significance, but it dates back to ancient times. It is characterized by the practice of painting oneself and as many others you can manage with vivid powdery dyes mixed with water and delivered by water guns or balloons. Anyone can become a target. Parties, drinking, reveling, and dancing in the streets abound, the result being similar to our Halloween and New Year’s Eve celebrations rolled into one. Even the (holy) cows get spray-painted, along with many of the other animals one sees walking around quite freely on the city streets dodging in and around traffic. Besides cows, I observed goats, camels, elephants, monkeys, water buffalo, bulls, and dogs. No cats, though. Not even one.

Speaking of traffic, Indians do not appear to be hampered by rules of the road. While their cars’ steering is on the right in the English style, they drive not only on the left, as would be the norm, but on the right, in the middle, and across lanes with no regard for right of way. It is a total free for all. I witnessed many close calls during our time there, and one evening I had the misfortune of seeing a dead man from our bus window. He was lying in the middle of the street, his blood pooling around him, while the ambulance driver and another witness stood over him, staring matter-of-factly, as they would at a cow.

Most street scenes we witnessed were not quite as ghastly, but were very instructive concerning customs and culture: Sari-clad women wearing bright colors, browsing the markets or squatting in groups to gossip, creating a colorful contrast against the dust and grit of the streets and roads. Tuk-tuks, tongas, and cyclo-rickshaws lining the roadsides waiting to pick up passengers, the drivers often lying sprawled asleep in the seats. Cows clogging streets and sidewalks, grazing on grass or garbage, their foul odors blending with the stench of stale urine and teeming humanity…a nose-offending, gut-jolting stew. In shop-fronts, live chickens in cages, about to be turned into someone’s dinner, and butchered meat hung out in the sun and dust of the road, a meal for flies.

Here is India, a country of about 1.1 billion people, rich in natural resources, (including coal, iron ore, manganese petroleum, diamonds, bauxite, titanium, limestone, and natural gas), and poised to become a world economic force. Yet roughly 25% of the population lives below the poverty line, many of these in unbelievable filth and squalor, lacking even the most basic concepts of hygiene and sanitation. There is a whole tribe in the North, dedicated to begging. Their legions and imitators can be found at every tourist stop with palms extended, competing with the dozens of vendors hawking everything from bangles to books. If you dare stop to look, they will surround you, follow you, and cling to you like barnacles to a whale.

On the other end of the economic scale are the rich and the Royals. It is the world of Tata, one of the wealthiest men in India and probably the world, owner of 77 hotels including the Pierre in NYC. His name appears on dozens of products from cars to bottled water. It is the tradition of Maharajahs and Moghuls, their harems, and their elaborate palaces and tombs. They no longer keep harems, of course, and many have opened their palaces to tourists as a means of supporting themselves, as they are no longer receiving government support. Other palaces have been turned into hotels. They stand as monuments to the rich past when India was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We stayed at several, part of the Taj chain, now owned or leased from the government by Tata. The most memorable was the Taj Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur. It was also the main setting for the James Bond film, Octopussy. A white marble structure, it was built 250 years ago by a Maharajah in the middle of Lake Pichola so there is a water view from every window. As our party entered the front doors we were showered with rose petals falling from the roof, as though we were royalty ourselves. Gorgeous flowers adorned every table and the scent of attar of rose was everywhere. Each room was a jewel box of elegance and romance.

The most famous tomb of all in India, is, of course the Taj Mahal (pronounced Ma-hell by the natives). It has been my life-long dream to see it and it did not disappoint. We arrived there before sunrise to capture the special light of dawn. As we walked through the entrance gate, it appeared in the distance like a pearly mirage afloat in the morning mist. It is an incredibly beautiful sight, an architectural wonder, and a spiritual and almost mystical experience that literally brought me to tears. I am tearing up now, just remembering it. For this alone, it was worth the trip.

Our sunset boat ride on the Ganges River in Varanasi was a mystical experience of another kind, not as sublime as the Taj Mahal but just as affecting. The Indian consider the Ganges a holy river with special purifying properties. People flock there from all over the country to swim and bathe in it, wash their clothing in it, pray over it and immerse their dead in it before cremation. On the river banks (ghats) in Varanasi, scattered smoky crematory fires were visible everywhere, but were especially concentrated within the main cremation site where we were allowed to watch from our boats but not photograph, except from a distance. Other fires from torches lit up the night, the air heavy with the smells of incense and smoke, as we watched the aarti ceremony and listened to rows of monks chanting and praying from platforms rising above the river. Our boat, steered by two wiry oarsmen was one among a multitude. At some predetermined time each person in every boat was given a candle and flower float to place on the river surface. We watched, enchanted, as they floated down river, flickering like a thousand fireflies in the night. Later, as we climbed the steps leading back to the streets and our van, thinking our Ganges experience was over for the evening, we were forced aside to make way for a wrapped corpse being carried down to the riverbank for a ceremonial dip in the River before cremation. A return to the ghats at dawn was rewarded with new and different sights, scenes, and rituals taking place before us. With its swamis, mystics, monks, and nadus (holy men) mystical rites and ceremonies, I think I understand now why people come to India from all over the world seeking spiritual enlightenment.

We visited many more beautiful temples and palaces, some of which were UNESCO and World Heritage sights. These were interesting and give a fascinating glimpse into India’s history and cultural development. However, equally as interesting, were the everyday scenes we observed on the streets. Watching the daily commerce and social interplay of the people going about their business, revealed so much more about that country than piles of ancient stones or marble could, no matter how lovely.

Other highlights; we rode elephants up a steep ramp in Jaipur to visit the Amber Fort, a sprawling ancient fortress named for its color, walked through old markets and bazaars, gawked at the erotic carvings on the Khajuraho temples, ate dinner and had high tea with local families in their homes, were treated to both classic and folk forms of traditional dance, and journeyed to Agra by train. We also learned a great deal about contemporary Indian life from our charming young guide, Ajay, who often spoke of his wife and son, marriage customs, and family dynamics. Through all this I have gained the sense that India is a country that can really get under your skin; a place you can love, and yet abhor; be drawn to, and repelled by, respect , and disdain, all at the same time.

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