The place all travelers leave fascinated after a thousand and one experiences, but also the place that is most feared when approached for the first time. There is definitely nowhere like India. Many are the stories to be told, even though I stayed for a short month that literally passed as quick as it came. Might be because I knew it would be the last of the "big" chapters, but also because life in India is simply so intense. Everyday feels like jumping into a pond, but do not stop swimming or else you will inevitably drown, pulled down by the insistence of the shopkeepers and their grabbing hands, by the dirt in the back-alleys to be washed off in the evening, by the poverty that hits you in the face hard as a hammer or by the cows that silently threaten with their horns. However, when back in your peaceful guesthouse, maybe drinking a warm cup of chae, you come to realize a few things: what you bought from the shopkeeper are actually fantastic souvenirs (for which you probably overpaid, but still - peanuts for such great items!), the back-alleys were a mysterious maze that you enjoyed exploring and that surprised you with some amazing encounters, the visit to the poorer areas of the city has given you some of the most wholehearted smiles (especially when you take your time to get to know people, instead of turning your head away) and the cows fondly remind you of your own dear Swiss cows back at home. India is a place that never fails to get deep into your bones, be that for good or bad reasons. I am happy I could finish my journey with this fascinating country, as the experiences I have had are some of the most life-changing (or at least those that finalized a personal development that has been happening over the last 7 months) and that I will gladly remember as most vivid when back home.
Of course, one month is not nearly enough to say "I visited India". I only traveled from Kolkata to New Delhi, going through Rajasthan and up in the north to Amritsar. India is huge, and so different. Moreover, there are so many layers in each place that even by staying put in a city for a month would not allow you to grasp it completely. Nevertheless, I visited at least a bit of it, and got a general idea about what India could be. I will not tell you that much of it, as it is simply too much and you should live it on you own. This is the place where people travel for 6 months and say that they could go on for other 6 easily because there is still so much to see. This is a place that even after reading books about Hindu religion will still confuse you with its thousands practices related to their millions of gods, some of them with a elephant trunk (Ganesh), some wearing necklace of chopped heads (Kali). This is a place where society was originally divided into castes (Bhramins - the priests, Kshatriyas - the warriors, Vaishyas - the merchants, Shudras - the labourers and finally the caste that is not a caste: the Untouchables, "those who clean the streets") and is still nowadays partly affected by it, where marriages are in the majority of the cases arranged by the parents, where you are supposed to use your right hand when meeting another person or eating (the left is... for something else!). Many are the traditions, many the customs - India is a world in itself, that allow for a never-ending exploration. Of course I cannot write an essay on India, but I will gladly tell you a few stories about my India: one about the spiritual Varanasi, one about some of the most amazing temples I have ever seen, one about life on a train, one about the city of Pushkar and a last one about a special girl I met. I've got many more, but I guess that these are the ones that mostly made my journey through India what it was.
The one about Varanasi
Varanasi is the definition of a holy city. Everything revolves around the sanctity of the temples and especially the Gange, said to be born from Lord Vishnu's feet. One of the main feature of the Varanasi & Gange's combo is that dying in Varanasi and have one's ashes spread in the river's waters will free his soul from the never-ending cycle of rebirth. It is no surprise then to see many dead bodies being carried around the small alleys to be cremated at the burning ghats (steps leading down to the holy river), where families pay the expensive price of cremation according to the type and how many kilos of wood are used. The rest of the city is a maze in which small and bigger temples are hidden, but the unique spirit of Varanasi is to be found at the numerous waterfronts where the life of citizens and pilgrims revolves, be that by a puja (prayer) in the morning ending with a candle sent floating in hope for good luck (mine always tipped over after a few seconds), be that by washing your clothes in a water that in my opinion is even dirtier than the clothes themselves, or by splashing around with your young friends. However, you need to go and look for these "moments" as Varanasi has turned into a tourist machine, and this overshadows its famous spirituality in favor of expensive boat rides and insistent souvenir shopkeepers. I did enjoy this place a lot though. One morning I visited a popular ghat at 6.00am so to enjoy an original puja, with each person interpreting it differently, but always with a close relationship with the Gange. This sadhu was probably the person that struck me the most, with a strong solemnity in performing his prayer:
You can imagine how interesting and engaging this public ritual was, so much that... I had to go into the water myself. How can you not dip yourself in the waters of the Gange when it is standing right there? When you do it it is highly advised however not to think about the burning ghat upstream and the level of pollution in the water. Another morning I enjoyed whas when I got to some less known ghats and the alleys nearby. First me and a Spanish couple spent half an hour lifting kids after kids up in the air, simply playing - and I put "simply" because those kids asked for no money afterwards, and who has been in India in touristic cities knows how much of a let down it can be to enjoy some good times with the kids and being asked for money afterwards. We were disturbing a game of cricket among the older kids with our playing around, so we left but... it was such a fun moment!
In the back-alleys I stumbled upon a meditation session with the words of a famous guru coming from Mumbai being broadcasted in the streets filled with people in meditative pose. I was also led up to the main altar under the eyes of all the participants, but besides being tremendously awkward I was offered some sacred food by the "organizer" of the event, which I gratefully accepted. These, all together, definitely made my Varanasi a highlight in my Indian journey, especially because they represent a slightly more hidden face of the city than the touristic one you get by riding a boat ride in late afternoon.
The one about the temples
India is for sure on the top list when it comes to beautiful temples, not only because of their beauty but also because of the peculiarity. It is no surprise that I will talk a bit about temples then, but only about those that impressed me the most. Or better, I will show you some pictures. Let's start with the main attraction of India: the majestic Taj Mahal of Agra, a white marble mausoleum built in the 17th century by a Mughal emperor in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, something that can definitely be defined as a jewel of Muslim art. I was afraid that I would be surrounded by hordes of tourists, but luckily at 6.30am it was not the case - on the contrary, it was relatively peaceful. The only bother was being stopped half-way in drawing a sketch on my travel journal by an official, as apparently it is forbidden to draw a picture of the Taj. This, when 30 people around me were taking pictures with their camera. Still today I do not know what the reason behind it was.
The second are the unique erotic carvings of Khajuraho. It is not sure if they depicts the famous Kama Sutra, but nobody can doubt that their fantasy and agility is hard to beat, especially for the "head stand position". This should not diminish the piece of art that these carvings are, or how beautiful the temple architecture is, but let's be honest... most come here for the sex on the walls!
Another interesting temple is the Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke, also called the "Rat Temple". The reason for the name is simple: Karni Mata's son drowned in a pond, and following the prayers of his mother the god of death granted him and his friends to be rebornas rats, now roaming free in thousands in the temple. I cannot say it was very hygienic to walk around barefooted, but at least I got to see the extremely holy (and rare) white rat. What a blessing!
Probably the nicest in my opinion, the Ranakpur temple is a circular Jain temple punctuated by hundreds of white marble pillars creating a vast array of smaller and larger halls and domes. Strolling through it, more than once, does not diminish the fascination you get when the light passes through the pillars and creates different shades of white. If lucky, such light will hit a extraneous body, turning it into a colored beauty in a white cloudy world:
The last of this series is the shining Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest place for the Sikhs, a religion typical of the region of Punjab up in the north. Its structure is unique, with this Golden temple in the middle of a sacred pond surrounded by white buildings and a walkway where pilgrims stroll around or dip into the waters. I got goosebumps in the evening when during the final prayer everybody stood up around the pond and chanted together facing this precious temple. The atmosphere is even more characteristic given the typical garments of Sikh men, with their turbans, the long beards and especially their knifes/daggers/swords.
The one about life on a train
Traveling by train in India is an experience itself. There are many classes available, upper classes with AC are more expensive, but also more anonymous. If you wanna dive deep into the chaotic India, go for the second-class and enjoy all different kinds of people that will swirl around you. The stations also provide their form of entertainment, as they seems to be a place where everybody can take shelter. Just visit a train station in the night, wherever, and you will find dozens of people sleeping on its grounds, maybe waiting for a late train, maybe just enjoying a pseudo-clean floor on which to relax. In the trains voices and screams will never let you really sleep, kids will scream for their candies, men will shout in their phones to their buddies, but everybody will be silenced by the boy selling tea and shouting "CHAEEEE, CHAEEEEE!!!". And what a good tea it is! Some of the most interesting encounters were with a couple of sadhus coming from the mountains, that had rarely seen an iPod (or a foreigner for what matters) - it was a fun moment to hand it over to one of them and watch him wonder where and how he should put the earphones! But we managed it, and together they enjoyed a small bit of western music!
Many are the the people I met on those rides, many the times I had to fight for a place in a crowded carriage, many the times I got woke up by the chae-kid. But it was always a fun experience, and even though I did not see those famous trains with the people on the rooftop, I can definitely say that I got a good glimpse at the Indian railway universe!
The one about Pushkar
Pushkar is a small city in the middle of Rajastan, famous for its holy lake sacred to Lord Brahma (hence comparable to Lord Vishnu and the river Gange), where pilgrims come to receive blessings by the Brahmins and perform holy pujas, as I also did (the typical brown/yellow bracelet is the proof), to ensure happiness in your life. Even though it has become a touristic city, the atmosphere is definitely more laid back than in Varanasi and it is very enjoyable, as it is walking around the lake without being harassed by touts or anything. I stayed in this city the longest, mainly for two reasons. The first is a foundation of which I will talk in the next section, the second is yoga. I found a very pleasant yoga teacher, Prakash, with which I met at 6.30am and 8pm for an hour focusing on the Pranayama style of yoga, i.e. breathing exercises while sitting. I simply loved it, I loved his style, and I loved the location with a view of the lake where we could calmly go through the exercises with nobody bothering us. I was originally planning to spend a few days for a yoga retreat in the famous Rishikesh, but why go to a class led by a random teacher with 10 people when you can have a real spiritual experience near a holy lake? I gave up yoga in Rishikesh and enjoyed my yoga in Pushkar. Moreover, the life around the lake provided me with some more good moments, like when I met this girl with beautiful green eyes that allowed me to take some good shots. Well, I discovered later that she is quite a "clever girl" and that thanks to those eyes she always manages to sell a few ankle bracelets or a music cd in which she sings with her uncle playing the ravanhatta. Whatever, I got some pictures and she sold me some bracelets, win-win situation.
Still, some moments are priceless. I was walking along the gahts, and I came to this pool were local people were washing their clothes and bathing. I started having some laugh with a group of men as we were trying to communicate but nobody could understand each other, so we kept on laughing. Then there was this kid that was washing himself with a small bucket, but when his sister came along it turned into a water fight between the two. It might sounds weird to hear, but it is such a pleasure to found yourself in the middle of a genuine slice of local life!
The one about the special girl
I met a special girl, her name is Lalita, she's 10 and comes from the small village of Chavindya. I met her because she is a student at the school Fior di Loto, which is also the name of the organization that founded it. The school provides education to more than300 girls from the area of Pushkar that given their family situation would never have the opportunity to go to school (Rajasthan is the region of India with the greatest disparity between sexes in school attendance) . Even though the government says public schools are free, the reality is far from it, especially for families with lots of children or difficult financial situation. In the case of Lalita, her father died of AIDS a few years ago, her mother is mentally unstable and she has got five sister - that is why this organization is providing her with a life-changing opportunity. So do not let yourselves be fooled by the smiles in the pictures, that school is often a bubble of happiness compared a harsher world back at home. A sponsoring system allows the girls to receive education, transportation, school uniforms, lunch at school, a pretty dress for a special festival in autumn and especially medical insurance. After visiting the school several times, visiting the village Lalita is from, talking with the founders and simply getting the feeling that what they are doing is the best way to support the development of a country (girls + education = progress!), I decided to get involved and became the "sponsor" of Lalita.
When I will be back home I would like to organize a fund raising for Fior di Loto, as they have finally received a piece of land on which to build their own school, and I would like to support them in their project. I was imagining a photo exposition, as my pictures and my stories are the only thing I can give in exchange for small donations, but I still feel unsure about it. Would anybody be interested in attending such a thing? Please let me know so that I can get the confidence to go through with it, and in the meantime you are welcomed to check out Fior di Loto's website =)
Alright, these were a few of my stories. India has been for sure the most intense country I visited, and the one that touched me the most. It has disappointed me, surprised me, disgusted me, fascinated me. It can be said that if you manage to travel through India, the other places are a piece of cake, as here there is a lot to be learned about travelling, but also about the world and yourself. Even the monsoon season was not that much of a hassle, as the rain is often refreshing and keeps away the masses of tourists.
The end of my journey is coming closer, I will get on my last plane from Mumbai the 27th of August, but before that I still have a 10 days Sri Lankan holiday with my girlfriend, to whom I promised I would not plan any visit to a temple or countryside but would stay quiet and relaxed on the beach. Sounds good to me, I am becoming quite exhausted from changing bed every 2 days and spending every day walking around an unknown city. I miss home and my beautiful life, so I guess the timing is right. I will see most of you very soon, and I am very much looking forward to it!
I wish you all a beautiful summer day,
cheers from Delhi!!!