No matter how many times I visit India, I never fail to be mesmerised by the culture, customs and the way of life – everything looks so disorganised … noisy, colourful, yet quiet and beautiful.
From this subcontinent of 1.34 billion people rise golden temples and mosques of white marble.
I am still reeling from the culture shock of my last visit – a pilgrimage to some of the most holy places in India.
More than half the population of Amritsar are Sikhs – and yet thousands more come here from all over India to pray and bathe in the water that surrounds the Golden Temple. The architecture is fabulous and the 750 kilos of gold on the temple roof top is dazzling in the bright sunshine. The people queue for up to 8 hours, 24 hours a day to ‘walk past’ the Holy Book which is housed here. But mostly they pray, some join the chanting and some pray quietly alone. And some men, women and children, bathe in the holy water to cleanse their bodies and minds. Our guide took us on a tour of the kitchens – I wasn’t sure what that was about, but I was soon to find out! Run entirely by volunteers and food provided entirely through donations – thousands of visitors, pilgrims and beggars are fed every day, free of charge – and it’s a major operation! Preparation, cooking, storing, serving and the washing up involved are phenomenal! No one goes hungry in Amritsar.
Not far away is the Pakistan border at Wagah (or Attari) – a tourist attraction now really – but amazing to see the crowds, cheering for India and waving their flags and the women in colourful saris. Infectious Indian music and dancing… and then, lowering of the flags ceremony overstated and like the “Ministry of Silly Walks” the Indians and Pakistanis try to outdo each other with their marching moves and their gestures on either side of the gate… while the crowds go wild with their cheering. I’ve never seen a border like it anywhere in the world!
From Amritsar, via Delhi, I flew to Varanasi – an important place for Hindus who flock from all over the world to the sacred Ganges River. The city is very old and the streets are too narrow for traffic in places, and so we walked the last couple of hundred yards to our hotel. Weaving through cows and bulls, and dung – it was a challenge for me, but the locals don’t seem to notice at all.
Hindus have many Gods – there’s one for everything you may need – long life, fertility, wealth, love etc etc. Varanasi is the home of Lord Shiva, and Lord Shiva’s vehicle is the cow. So sacred, they have right of way, are never shooed and even have particular places to sleep at night in shop doorways under cover!
Life, and death, is centred on the riverbank – prayers at sunset where thousands gather, and dawn cremation on wooden pyres. Life is fatalistic and it’s every Hindus wish to have their ashes scattered on the Ganges River. We were up at five, and sailing down the river before dawn – and the sights and sounds are imprinted in my mind – better than any photograph.
People embracing the water, bathing, some fully clothed, some almost naked – “taking the dip” our guide called it. Next to them, the dhobis, waist deep, beat clothes on rocks and then spread them flat in the sunshine to dry, held down on 4 corners with stones. A little way along a group of novice priests were gathered chanting mantras, facing the sunrise, all dressed in white. All the while our boat was skilfully manoeuvred by a boy (who couldn’t have been more than 15) through other boats, fishermen, traders and lit candles left to float down the river.
The river bank is lined by ghats – wide steps that lead to the water, and built as walkways from the beautiful houses and palaces of the Moghuls and aristocracy when they visited the Holy Waters.
There are many other sights to visit, Buddhist ruins, museums and markets – but I was drawn like a magnet to the river, and could sit and contemplate by its side for days or weeks, it was so calming… maybe, one day, when I retire!