It was a country I was going to go to when I first left the UK, but met the guy and changed the plans and 17 years later I went.
It started in Bangalore, arriving on my 46th birthday at pretty much the stroke of midnight. Early arrival, hugs, cab, ‘home’, and 6 hours of sitting on the veranda drinking local red wine saw my birthday start off amazingly well.
Some sleep and up and out to explore Bangalore.
What can I tell you - it’s crowded, dusty, street shops, bad pavements, auto-rickshaws everywhere, uber drivers who can’t get to you, no street names are obvious, and it’s crowded (did I already say that?).
I had a whirlwind tour of the place, the veggie market, flowers for prayers, meat market (pretty gross), said hi to a lot of cows wandering about, and was stuck in the traffic for I have no idea how long!
Out of the old part and into the “expat” part for a beer - a quieter street with the modern day malls sprawling on either side, the same traffic but less frenetic, and streets that you can walk on.
One of the many contrasts I saw.
Crossing the same cross-roads 4 times to find where our user had stopped we drove to another area for dinner sat over looking yet another mall lined street. Wonderful fusion cuisine, and a special mango birthday desert for me!! yay….
Sunday, a day to travel up to Varanasi (Banares) - after Sunday brunch, too much food !!! My stomach was already starting to rebel.
A 4 hour flight took us up into North India and to a place whose energy blew me away. If you don’t know, this is the place where people go to dip in the Ganges &/or to die
As the Lonely Planet says:
“This is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. Pilgrims come to the ghats lining the Ganges to wash away sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. It's a particularly auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth).
Most visitors agree Varanasi is magical – but not for the faint-hearted. Intimate rituals of life and death take place in public, and the sights, sounds and smells on the ghats – not to mention almost constant attention from touts – can be intense. Still, the so-called City of Light may turn out to be your favourite stop of all. Walking the ghats and alleyways or watching sunrise from a boat can be unforgettable.”
I would disagree with the touts, the rickshaws ask you as you are walking about but it is no worse than I’ve experienced in Singapore in Lucky Plaza with the “you want a suit Sir”….
It is an amazing city, walking tours took us to the places we might never have found, and also stopped us getting lost. It is a labyrinth of narrow streets, designed to stop invaders (for the ’n’ th time) - high buildings on each side make it dark quickly and the width of the streets mean you are close to each other and the cows. Simply watch out for the brown pats on the ground!!
Locals sitting around outside their shops, men sitting together in tea shops discussing politics, street food vendors creating culinary delights, that tantalise your taste buds and upset your stomach!!….
The buildings are mainly sandstone and I was convinced they were run down and abandoned, which some are for sure, but many of them - the outside means nothing. One was the local music school!
And that’s the thing, the outside doesn’t mean anything - and I related this to people in general and “questioned" many of the people I saw there and people in general. One place we had breakfast at, a corner stall which was one of the best there (it was good!!) - he opens early, is non stop, lives nearby and you might (which I did) come to the conclusion he doesn’t make huge amounts of money doing what he does. Later we found out he is a millionaire - he lives a simple life, doesn’t want to open another place even though he has been asked to, could afford but doesn’t want a car - and his money is for his children.
What a difference to the modern world in which I live where a big house and a car are often the goals. What do we really need to live?
Watching an old man push his heavily loaded bike up the hill, I wonder how content he is with his life - if he even contemplates it or simply accepts it.
The milk market - maybe 20 farmers with their old steel milk churns full of buffalo or cow’s milk for sale. One guy cycled up, took his place and unloaded his churns. His bike looked like it belonged on the scrap heap. He’d cycled 20km with 70ltrs of milk and it had taken him 2 hours.
My 10km commute to work pales into insignificance.
We stopped to watch the looms thread the silks to create sarees, such an old fashioned way to weave but necessary to create these artistic fine fabrics. These guys sitting there hour on hour, pushing the loom back and forth as the loom follows the intricate ‘hole’ pattern to create the design. The silk so fine, the colours so bright, the room so dark and airless…
A wonderful meal to finish our tour, a meal that repeated on me for the rest of the evening, before bidding farewell to a most wonderful place.
Oh and yes I did dip in the Ganges. I sat for a moment giving gratitude to the waters and the area before I submerged to cleanse, and I do believe the waters answered my ‘prayers’ through a stomach bug that has meant no toxins (wine, chocolate, coffee) in me for the last 14 days now!!
The other amazing thing was to see cremations as weird as that might sound. We wandered along the bank and saw a pyre being built up, the body wrapped in its ceremonial ‘robes’ and being wetted from the river before placed on the pyre and lit from a torch a holy man had run down from the crematorium with. I’ll be honest and say he looked a bit worried that the flame would stay alight….. The pyre lit, the men stepped back and stayed for maybe 20 minutes as the person ascended into the sky and their afterlife. No wailing, no tears (no women), a simple send off in many a way, but full of deep beliefs and devotion to their gods.
How could I not stop and question life and death, one cannot exist without the other.
People go to Varanasi from all around the area, save up so they can have a fire ceremony as opposed to the electric furnace, and leave this Earth with the hope of salvation. It was actually beautiful to watch, no tears so no negativity accompanied the soul as it went on to its next journey. The next day outside the larger crematorium we saw 13 fires, the beliefs held by the people inspired me. The diligence to their prayers and faith in their gods made me question how far many of us have stepped from that path.
I am not religious, I have beliefs but not based on any ‘god’. What I admired was the rituals, the rituals that brought so many of them (I think) peace and purpose. But I also wondered if it meant less responsibility for ones own life “it’s in the hands of the gods”…??? As ever many a question in my mind, but my take home has been that rituals that bring us stillness are a good thing! Since I have sat each evening in peace with my thoughts sometimes whirring, sometimes not and it reminded me how much I enjoyed this years ago when I meditated regularly. The plan is to continue……
From Varanasi to Bangalore to an early start to catch the train to Mysore. A train that we couldn’t find, was told 4 different platforms, to then discover it was delayed 3 hours (which a station man had said “3 hours later” - misinterpreted by me as meaning it takes 3 hours). We sat on a platform for 2 hours to get the next one and by now the ‘iffy’ food had kicked into my system and I slept for most of the journey.
Mysore (home of ashtanga yoga) is like the Singapore of India, clean and tidy and roads that have a bit more order than the other 2 cities!!… What it lacked was the energy of Varanasi which really surprised me, it is a lovely city, the palace is stunning and there is still a calm to it, but not quite what I was expecting ( I had some hippy image in mind). An auto rickshaw took us round, up to the hills for a stunning view, and to an incense maker - where I received the strongest head massage I have ever had and an egg white face mask - looking 10 years younger after (apparently). The incense was rich in aroma, and with a bag of them in hand and some lotus oil, we headed to the best samosa stall in Mysore.
I cannot deny the samosa was amazing, the sauce was divine… but something wasn’t right and on return to the hotel our stomachs revolted. I’ll spare you the details as I am sure you all know the effects of Delhi Belly!!
We carried on regardless, both on a forced fast - trying to keep whatever we could in us and we were driven up to the BR Hills and into the natural side of the area. Stunning is all I can say. A few cottages nestled in between natural surroundings, the sounds of nature and birds and peace and calm. A new energy. The food they made us was the best I’d had yet, which was so sad as we couldn’t eat much of it… I felt guilty sending it away, apologising for my stomach.
An early sleep and a 2 hour nature walk - I miss the natural rawness of the Earth, the way plants grow in a disordered but orderly way, intwined with each other. As birds flit from tree to tree, gossiping about the people walking along! The area is stunning and the drive back to Bangalore showed me the immensity of India. 4 hours later and 1 hour then sat in the traffic we arrive home again. Our stomachs still unable to handle much and much in need of more sleep.
My last day involved some physical movement - finally I moved more than the last few days, my body craved it and a visit to an Ayurvedic doctor. She read our pulses, told us our dosha (I’m vata) and after a 90min Ayurvedic massage including the oil drip on the head (so meditative) we left armed with our medicine to balance us out….
“The term “Ayurveda” combines the Sanskrit words ayur (life) and veda (science or knowledge). Ayurvedic medicine, as practiced in India, is one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world. Many Ayurvedic practices predate written records and were handed down by word of mouth.
Key concepts of Ayurvedic medicine include universal interconnectedness (among people, their health, and the universe), the body’s constitution (prakriti), and life forces (dosha), which are often compared to the biologic humors of the ancient Greek system. Using these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualized treatments, including compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients, and diet, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations.”
Lifestyle recommendations….. hers was - meditate…… okay okay I’m getting the message!!
Home and case packed, out to dinner where a glass of wine took me 2 hours to drink - my body really wanted to detox…
It was a fascinating trip - the highlight to spend time with a great friend, get to know each other more and more. Spending 6 days solidly with someone is never easy - especially for me when I am used to a lot of alone time! We did great though and it was amazing to hear all she had to tell me about this country she for now considers home…..
It is a place I may venture back to, and Varanasi is definitely a place I’d say to go visit.
My final thoughts of the bits of India I saw are that it is a country of far too many people, in total chaos but somehow or other it seems to work. It has helped me get back on a healthier track (so far) and inspired me to start meditating again. It's opened my eyes wider to how I live life, what I need, what is important and that you can never tell from external appearances what is inside......