Having spent two weeks travelling in Rajasthan in India, I am frequently asked how I enjoyed the trip. It is a difficult question to answer. “Ja -nee, wat!”, a great Afrikaans expression, might be an appropriate answer -Yes-no, what! – but in truth, I found it fascinating, disturbing, exciting, endearing and on some levels hard work!
The great imposing forts of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Kumbalgarh that we visited, with their commanding views over the surrounding countryside, stand as testimony to the turbulent and violent history of the nation as well as the unbelievable wealth of its erstwhile rulers. Within the walls of the fort of Jaisalmer, built in 1156, lay the entire city with its palaces, temples, markets and households, linked by a network of narrow alleys. The latest invaders that the fort has to contend with are the tourists. Ancient structures within the fort have been converted into boutique hotels, complete with waterborne sewage. Where the ramming rods and weapons of yore did not succeed in breaking down its huge ramparts, modern toilet flushing systems just might. Its waterlogged foundations are crumbling.
Equally imposing are the palaces built by the maharajas, stark counterpoints then, as now, to the impoverished homes of the masses of India. Awaking on our first morning in the country to the gentle sound of chanting from a Hindu temple across the water from our hotel on the banks of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, I sat at the open bay window for an hour feasting my eyes on the scenery outside. The morning light played colourful melodies over the sparkling white palaces in the middle of the lake, brushing their marble walls in subtle hues of orange and pink and cream, while green ringneck parrots swooped noisily from perch to perch. On the bank to my left the huge bulk of the extensive City Palace complex loomed over the lake, the beauty of its intricate carved masonry, inlaid stonework and glass mosaics only revealed on closer inspection. Along the banks the women slapped their piles of washing with paddles, the sound accompanying the joyful shrieks of the young boys swimming in the waters in which the older men were doing their daily ablutions.
Around and below the forts and the resplendent palaces with their inlaid gems, exquisitely detailed paintings and glorious tiles, lie the crowded streets lined with one-roomed homes from which thousands of people are trying to eke out a living selling chai, home cooked food, sweets and chips, baubles and bangles, filthy drain water flowing in open gutters just below the doorways. My observations here ignore the middle class as it is in the older parts of the towns and cities that we chose to stay, wishing to experience “real” and ancient India and not the Westernised parts of it.
The big waterways that we saw in India are polluted and I would not joyfully dip my toes into any of them. The Yamuna River running behind the astoundingly beautiful Taj Mahal is a thick sludge with very few birds inhabiting its banks. It was heartening to read that nature reserves in Delhi have seen an increase in the amount of bird and animal life, and that a reserve is to be created on the banks of the Yamuna. The sacred Ganges is cleaner – thank goodness there are NGOs concerned about it and trying to clean it up – but still it is sad to see its plastic and junk strewn banks and to smell some of the streams running into it. We saw a large effigy of the goddess of destruction, Kali, draped in fabric and gold and silver foil, being cast overboard at the end of Diwali into the fast flowing waters and I found myself wandering about the interface between spirituality and superstition. I could not reconcile my idea of spirituality, which embraces a reverence for life and nature, with the careless disposal of waste into the water, onto the land and into air …with the caste system …with the numberless scar-torn dogs roaming the streets. Discussing the issue of the dogs with an Ayurvedic practitioner, his comment was: “We don’t show any respect for the dogs because there are too many of them.” My question whether the same pertained to people was ignored.
Travelling through this land of contradictions is not easy. It is difficult to enter a clean, spacious and air-conditioned hotel foyer without a great sense of discomfort, with a hundred and more men sleeping on the grimy pavement within three hundred metres of your attractive bedroom. It is painful to ignore a young boy, his face severely disfigured by a cleft palate, begging on the platform when you are about to enter a first class carriage and consume a three course meal on the two hour express between Agra, home of the magnificent Taj Mahal, and Delhi station, the ticket for which cost a mere R135. What holds one back from giving? The fear of being besieged by the little beggar girls in tatty dresses, the crippled men crawling across the platform, the very young and very old women carrying dehydrated looking babies who have also approached you.
The Taj Mahal exceeded all expectations and we lazed away an entire afternoon sitting in the lovely gardens in front of it watching the great colourful numbers of visitors, mainly Indian families enjoying time together over Diwali. Smiling at the passersby evoked warm friendly smiles in return with the inevitable questions as to our names and where we came from and the hopeful question as to whether we liked India. Of course we did! As the hours passed and the sun headed for the horizon, the magnificent monument to love slowly changed colour running through the range of pinks and oranges through to blue and we found it difficult to draw ourselves away from it.
A visit to the Gandhi Museum in Delhi was another emotional experience – amongst the relics and writings of Mahatma Gandhi one truly feels in the presence of a great man. The park dedicated as a memorial to his cremation is surrounded by great trees planted by international heads of states on 16 October 1990, the 15 October being Independence Day. And, yup, I hugged the Anthocephalus Cadanba planted by our own great man, Nelson Mandela…and it felt good!
We met travellers in Varanasi, the sacred city on the banks of the Ganges River, so bewildered and overwhelmed by India that they chose to sit on the rooftop balcony of the hotel smoking cigars, reading the newspaper and viewing life in India from a distance. We, meanwhile, found the vibrant streets of this 2500 year old city, one of the oldest living cities in the world, fascinating, our senses pleasantly and unpleasantly assailed by the sounds, sights and smells. Cartloads of luscious brinjals, cauliflowers, tomatoes, marrows, garlic, chillies, pawpaws and bananas and garlands of golden and orange marigolds vied with the colourful saris of the graceful women for attention. Throughout our trip, we tried to ignore the sights alongside these picturesque scenes – great piles of rubbish on top of which you might find a sacred cow or two and sleeping dogs, worn out by their night of noisy roaming in scavenging packs.
The roads are a noisy, vibrant confusion of pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, three-wheeled tuk tuks, small black Honda taxis, sacred cows, ox-and man-drawn carts, the occasional camel train, packs of scabby mongrel dogs and the occasional SUV carrying wealthier Indian families or tourists. (Only 2% of the population own private motor vehicles). The law of the road is that whoever has his nose up front has right of way. Side mirrors are turned inward, all the better for squeezing though gaps while hooters are honked incessantly to indicate overtaking or annoyance. Despite the seeming chaos it all works and the traffic moves! Indian drivers are extraordinarily skilful and are also extremely patient and polite – we experienced no signs of road rage, shaking fists or verbal abuse. Coming from South Africa where daily we see aggression on the roads – relatively empty and orderly by Indian standards – we were deeply impressed.
As we were by the ingenuity of the people and their resourcefulness. Someone else’s need is seen as an entrepreneurial opportunity and if a shopkeeper is unable to provide the item you require he is onto his cell phone immediately with the promise that the item will be there within five minutes. That aside, shopping is an exhausting and exasperating activity which we kept to the barest minimum, not relishing the game of bargaining and have “S” for “sucker” written all over our foreheads!
Our final two days in India were spent in Mumbai which had a very different flavour to the places we had seen, perhaps because of the presence of the ocean, the stately Victorian and Gothic buildings of the British Raj and the open spaces where endless games of cricket were being played. It also seemed somewhat cleaner, although once again nothing would persuade us to walk on the beach or stick a toe in the ocean. Visibility here was greater than that in New Delhi, where one could not see beyond 2kms. A long walk along the Marine Drive to famous Chapatti beach with the multitudes of families and young couples enjoying the balmy sunset along with us was a fitting end to a colourful, hectic and exotic holiday.
Would I go back? My decision in India was that I would not … but now, a few days after returning to my spacious home in Fish Hoek overlooking the Boland mountains across False Bay and crystal clear Chapman’s Peak above the Atlantic, where the nights and much of the days are exquisitely silent and birds sing all day long in our fynbos garden … I miss India!!