This rainy Saturday night in Sydney I stay up late and write a collection of memories and reflections from my travels trough India. It’s the right time to light a chubby stick of hand-rolled incense that I pilfered from a Naga shrine. I’d stumbled across the site in a mango orchard where camphor balls and tiny naga statuettes littered the swept dirt floor. Keeping the nagas away from the orchard is an important business and shrine maintenance is a dawn ritual of chanting and incense-burning to keep them happy enough to stay away.
The smell of the incense takes me back to the foothills of the Animalai mountains in Pollachi. That was where it began – a week of a sattvic diet, weird and wonderful vedic therapies and the company of sixteen Australian women with me the youngest yogic representative. My fondest memories from that week are from my austere little room, snug under my kashmiri shawl in the cool pre-dawn air sparkling with the song of geckos, crickets and peacocks. Just the faintest crunch of footsteps on frosty grass outside. The ladies of the retreat rose early to switch off the night lights and start the day’s treatments.
“It’s real early morning
No-one is awake
I’m back at my cliff
Still throwing things off” –Björk
The feeling of walking lighter on the Earth began here; the letting-go of a stressful few months in which a nascent and much longed-for relationship was thrown suddenly off a cliff shortly before a narrow escape from a threatening household. After a week at the vedic retreat, I left Pollachi full of anticipation for the rest of my trip. Recalling it all as I do now, I don’t want to be here in my living room alone. Can I travel back to the huts amongst those tall coconut trees in an instant please?
Next chapter and I was finally travelling solo in the stone streets of old city Jodhpur, with blue-hued havelis towering above me. My room’s balcony was strung with drying underpants and leggings and overlooked a long, narrow alley where boys gave long run-ups before bowling to an inexperienced batter. I recall the night I taught a game of handball to two girls under 10 I’d gifted with a giant bouncy-ball brought from home. The younger of the two was distracted and dragged me by the hand into the Hare Krishna temple across the lane where hypnotic, excessively amplified chanting filled the space (and the surrounding streets) with an urgency of devotional music. We sat awhile before resuming our game – high above their heads the ball bounced and the glee in their voices was music to my ears – children learning something new in sudden amazement. Tomorrow there would be a new traveller, a new game or toy in the lane with them. But that night the bouncy ball was spectacular compared to a concrete one they’d been playing with prior. The night I arrived, myself and another Australian guest were invited to this young girl’s birthday party at a restaurant where twenty small princesses danced, played musical chairs, ate huge quantities of cake and squealed. We were thoroughly questioned by the young men of the family; my first taste of opportune marriage-related inquiries.
I can still feel that feeling of riding in a tuk tuk by myself for the first time. Cliched wind in my hir, broad smile on my face and a firm grip on my rupees. Was it my imagination that the gorgeous, tall flight attendant had been eyeing me as I did him as we flew into Rajasthan? Memorable was an Udaipur evening under the stars and surrounded by tourists from all over the world – a feisty Spanish-speaking woman next to me fidgeted and commanded extra space. Packed like sardines, the audience were transfixed by the dance performers of the Bagor Ki Haveli. A puppet master raised the laughs and a live band set the pace. Three young women circle hypnotically with swishing skirts, dark eye make-up, bangles and bells up to their elbows. An older woman enters for a finale with metal bowls stacked atop her head. An attendant adds more and more bowls to the column as she dances on broken glass.
The Bagor Ki Haveli is a popular tourist nightspot for those in Udaipur because it feels relatively safe ot be out after dark there – even as a solo woman. After a sunset boatride out to a picturesque island where a big wedding had taken place the night before, I wandered into the expensive part of town. Rolls Royces and SUVs parked quayside in a semicircle in front of a magnificent hotel worthy of modern day Rajas and Ranis. Wishing I had a stack of cash to flash in this expensive hotel, I settled for a twilit cocktail beside the lake. There, a woman from Delhi with a moneyed-up look interrupted my reverie most innocently. Conversation quickly turned to her real intent; business. She was quick to insist she line up my accommodation and transport to Agra (her husband works in travel). I declined and explained that, actually, all was pre-arranged.. thank you very much. I got the bill and made my way back to a hotel room with bay windows and delicious, glassy neem soaps. It was then I realised I had drunk a cocktail with ice in it, but no digestional gymnastics for me. I had an iron stomach by then.
Another sunset view in Udaipur is worth remembering; that from the long-abandoned Monsoon Palace a short drive up in the hills. Tourists are joined by a harem of monkeys at the best time of day – they too like to sit in warm wonderment before the descent of the great sun god, Surya. It has been many decades since the palace was last occupied by the Udaipur royal fmaily who escaped the heavy rains by heading for higher ground each year. But it had a revival of sorts in the 1980s when the Bond film ‘Octopussy’ featured a pivotal scene filmed at the palace. Each night in town, most restaurants will play the film to dinner clientele. I still hven’t seen it.
I was in India for the first time and it had taken me half my lifetime to make that happen. I will certainly return before my days are up, next time for a longer trip and with a different resolve. A male companion would be most useful, allowing me to be out at nighttime and to explore the most tempting alleyways. There is a lot more of Rajasthan to see (and shop) and I’d love to study more yoga somewhere beachside like Goa. I want to smell the jasmine flower and tea fields of Madurai, walk the markets and visit the temples where fresh jasmine garlands are woven into ladies’ hair and draped over stone statues. My mind is made up to spend a night on a thatched Kerala houseboat, bunches of water hyacinths slapping at the hull all night. I want to walk mountain paths at the foot of the Himalayas, spend a night in the desert under costellations new to my southern eyes, see the burning ghats of Varanasi, take a sleeper train trip across the plains and, from a lakeside haveli, enjoy the sight-seeing of the Diwali and Holi festivals.
The incense has burnt to its end and if I concentrate, I can still smell the ripe waft of decomposing garbage mingling with faeces that permeates Indian cities. Why do so many Westerners feel drawn to make repeat trips to India in the face of all that is repulsive about the place? That is a question I will be forever re-answering. For me, I think it is a case of ‘better the devil you know’. Before I go again, I will have my stores of adrenaline set for the onslaught of sound, smell and visual pollution, the probable sight of dead bodies, injured animals, impoverished women with their dirt-smeared children and sneering men. But I go back for the exoticism, the aesthetic of one of the most strikingly beautiful cultures, not only remaining on Earth, but thriving and evolving. No-one drapes cloth like a humble Indian housewife, no other children around the world delight with expressive head wobbles quite the same way and few countries can boast the chaos and mishmash of religion that India does. It is an enchanting, frustrating, fascinating and dangerous place that lives in the past, dreams of the future and resides on another spiritual plane. Take me back there tomorrow so I may better understand it.
…And so I can get myself invited to an Indian wedding.
Naga – the snake god
Sattvic – a diet that is rich in prana (life force)