From the magnificent to the tragic, ostentatious to the outrageous, chaotic to the sublime, India gives and takes, pushes and pulls, discards then embraces in a way that leaves one breathless. The country is vast, our journey just the tip of an iceberg of unfathomable depth. Strong, yet punishing, this subcontinent commands your attention, all of it, all the time. It is pleasure, it is passion, it is serenity, and it is spiritual. The people are a testament to its history, incredibly compassionate, possessing an inner warmth that openly radiates to those around.
On the plane ride back to Savannah my husband and I didn’t watch any movies, we didn’t read any books, we didn’t even really need to talk. Our shared experiences of the past weeks made these efforts seem uninspired. We sat, contented, at peace and spiritually satiated. As time drifted by, the clouds swirling under the aircraft, our eyes closed and we gradually slipped back into that mystic dreamscape of jungles, deserts, elephants, and Maharajahs.
at 3:51 PM
Another short flight today and we are back to where we began. In a way it feels good to be back in the city. The hive of activity invigorates the senses. We are now in the final stretch, shopping must continue, there can be no fatigue or surrender, shopping must prevail. Attacking the streets we hit all the shops, the Colaba, Churchgate, Nariman Point, Malabar Hills, and Kemps Corner, no market is spared as we peruse Chor, Zaveri, and Crawford. Mumbai is like a 30-mile long open bazaar.
Exhausted, our hunger for shopping turns into just hunger in general. I have to briefly describe the food in India. There is a big difference to having an elegant Indian meal in the United States to having a street side meal in India. First of all, there are no bathrooms, and if there are bathrooms, they are indescribably hideous (Can anybody really wash their hands?). Secondly, there are flies everywhere. The local vendors wave them to the side then continue to serve your plate, actually just a circular landing pad for these vociferous flying mouths. Large piles of grains line the markets, but looking closer, the entire mass appears to be slowly moving, crawling with worms, larvae and other assorted creepy-crawlers.
Don’t get me wrong, there is exceptional food to be had, its just you can’t think about it too much. My husband, who has a completely abused palate, ate everything, loved almost everything and never got sick. I, thinking way too much about the no hand washing thing, ate very little except at the main hotels, and by the time we got back to Mumbai, had lost about ten pounds and had the appetite of the Mughal army.
Stopping at one of the business hotels on Nariman Point, we happened on perhaps the finest sight of all, a western style buffet. Everything a woman could want while on vacation in India – pizza, pasta, Chinese and Mexican food, and real bacon – meat I could recognize, even (forgive me for my sins!) a burger. My husband watched in disgust as I shoveled food into my mouth more than making up the ten pounds from the past two weeks. Satiated, we collected our purchases, and returned to the Taj to make plans for our departure.
at 10:18 AM
After a wild twenty-four hours, today we are taking a more spiritual path. A 90 km (55 mile) short, but incredibly winding ride drops us at yet another architectural jewel. Ranakpur is one of the most important Jain temples in India. The Jain religious is as fascinating as it is bizarre. Jains believe every soul is divine and has the potential to achieve God-consciousness. Jains are acutely aware of their environment and will go to extreme lengths not kill any living creature including insects. Spending some time with this gentle religion makes one feel like a bull in a china shop world. We definitely overlook the trees in the forest of life. The temple is a marvel of exquisite detail including over 1444 marble pillars all differently carved with no two alike. The Jains continue to worship in the temple making it both awe-inspiring yet somewhat eerie.
This place oozes with a spirituality that, upon departing, leaves one with a sense of inner peace and serenity.
After contemplating our lot in life, we embarked on the journey back home. The back roads through the mountain range have more hairpin turns than the Pacific Coast highway. We finally convinced our driver to stop at the side of a wonderful ravine to queasily partake in the scenery while allowing our esophagus to return to its rightful place a little closer to the stomach. Closing my eyes trying to quell the continued seesaw motion of my brain, I felt my husband take my hand and gently stoke my wrist. His hand felt sweaty and hairy – and small? I opened my eyes in surprise to find the cutest monkey stroking my hand, mischievously grinning with that look of “what cha got for me?” The driver handed me a candy, which the monkey promptly took out of my hand, unwrapped and popped into his mouth. Intrigued by my newfound friend, I offered him another, only to have it snatched from my hand by another monkey. Soon the entire car was surrounded by first a family, then what appeared to be the entire village of monkeys. I felt like the monkey queen, doling out treats to all my loyal half-pint subjects. This was fun. Then I ran out of candy. These little buggers don’t play nice, and they have a grill that would make a rapper proud. Suddenly I was surrounded by an unhappy midget soccer team, the driver yelled, threw his last handful of candies, and all of us piled headlong in the car. The monkeys, after sizing up the car and us, the occupants, admitted defeat and dispersed to the jungle. At least we weren’t nauseated anymore.
We spent our last evening in Udaipur sipping wine on the terrace, gazing over the lake, the full moon still hanging above the palace, swatting an occasional fly in very un-Jain-like fashion.
at 11:01 AM
This is not for the faint of heart. To be surrounded by thousands of completely drenched color-stained, clearly inebriated revelers is a little disconcerting. The spectacular color wars had begun. All those piles of colored powders had been combined with water and were now being hurled indiscriminately at anyone fool hardy enough to pass by. Mixing all the vivid pigments together eventually turns everyone into a sloppy purple mess. It’s an ugly, muddled chaos and looks like a complete blast. As foreign tourists, we were warned that the ensuing madness can sometimes turn dangerous, thus with some resignation, we watched from a distance. The other explosive ingredient to the carnival is bhang. A mixture of milk, spices, honey, and cannabis, this concoction adds to the surreal flavor of this festival. It also can be a rather problematic ingredient when combined with the usually sober youth. We didn’t try the bhang – sounded too much like dung – and I’m sure that’s what everybody felt like the next day.
at 7:03 PM
For some reason the moon seems bigger and fuller tonight. So close, it seems you could just reach out and touch it. The bright orb hanging low in the sky lights the surrounds in a cool blue hinting at the festivities ahead. We, dressed in our Indian finery, arrived at the Palace to join the distinguished crowd, all eagerly awaiting the evening’s events. The Palace is aglow with a million lights and candles, awash with colorful flowers, intoxicating swirls of incense tickling the nose, while exotic musical notes completed the sensory overload. The air is warm, the sky brilliantly clear, covered in stars, as if in an open competition with the palace grounds below.
The music intensifies and the royal procession enters the palace: guards, horsemen, entourage, and finally in an elegant, antique automobile, the Maharajah of Udaipur himself. Holi, or the Festival of Colors, takes place on the full moon in late February or early March celebrating the arrival of spring. Days before the festival, piles of wood are collected and stacked into elaborate pyres. Theses piles are then burned the night before the full moon, symbolizing the burning of the devil-minded “Holika”, sister of the demon king. Legend also has it that the dark faced Vishnu was jealous of his lover Radha’s fair skin, playfully covering her with pigments. (This year Holi falls on March 11th).
After a lengthy introduction, the celebration begins. The large pyre is lighted, and a flurry of dancers in extravagant costume, begin an ever increasingly frenzied dance. As the tempo and volume slowly increase, so does the amplitude and rhythm of the dance, until the entire movement is a blur of fabric and extremities, fire and humanity entwined in a whirlwind of exuberance. Exhausted, the dancers, royals, and us proletariat, retire to another courtyard for dinner and drinks. The dinner is a buffet that stretches across the length of the entire piazza, food of every shape, color, and size, beautifully displayed, meticulously served, and entirely unpalatable for either me or my husband. Alcohol, normally a rarity in India, flows freely. My husband, eagerly pillaging the Maharajah’s cognac, was now fast friends with the local camel merchant, both deeply entrenched in a boisterous conversation neither could understand. Looking over the parapet, I could see the fires burning throughout the city, the billowing smoke and sounds wafting upwards combining into a wonderful rue of happiness. The festivities lasted long into the night, giving absolutely no hint of the carnage to come the next morning.
at 10:17 AM