In India! (Part One)

Delhi

When it came to driving, Deep had a bit of an ego on him. Our hotel in the central area known as “Old Delhi” had sent him to pick us up from Indira Gandhi International late on a Wednesday night, and he obviously relished his role as the very first of the 1,326,801,576 (as of July 2016) souls that it is possible to meet in this vast, flat, fang-shaped pan of land dangling off Asia.

“Indian driver is international driver,” he said as he barrelled his growling little van down another rapidly-diminishing gap in traffic, and he giggled with a sort of high-pitched buzz, like a cartoon character. With each new death-defying feat his eyes would flash in the rear-view mirror, hanging over his dashboard shrine to the elephant-headed god Ganesha, searching our faces for signs of exhilaration or terror.

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We passed a huge statue of the blue-skinned Hindu god Rama, and here and there the geometric steeple of a Hindu temple or the miniature minaret of a local mosque poked through the dark rooftops. At last we barrelled down the Main Bazaar in ramshackle Paharganj, grey and empty save for the odd moped and the dogs sniffing at piles of rubbish. Deep pointed out our hotel down an alley, then whined at Hailee about how her tip – half a day’s wages if you believed his story – wasn’t enough. Then he wobbled his head in a good-natured way at us and disappeared.

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At Delhi’s Red Fort

Throughout 2016 there had been talk in Hailee’s family about an Indian wedding. A cousin, McKenzie, was marrying her partner, Rahul, who grew up in Delhi. A date was chosen and invitations arrived. My head was still in quiet Australian riverbanks and country pubs when, amidst the goodbyes in Seattle, we booked tickets from Sydney to Delhi, giving ourselves three February weeks in India. And now we were here! Our excitement was twofold, springing from this new place to explore, as well as the chance to see Hailee’s family and help McKenzie and Rahul kick off their married life with a bang.

On our first day we visited Jama Masjid, built with sandstone in 1656 by the Mughals. These Mughals were Central Asian kings who would end up being supplanted by the British as lords of India. We saw the Lotus Temple, an astonishing builing in that it quite closely resembles its namesake, the lotus flower. It’s a place of worship for the Baha’is, a sect started by a 19th century Persian who combined elements of most world religions to create his own. And in the evening we found the Hazrat Nizamuddin, a mosque hidden in a bazaar where Sufis showed their devotion by singing droning kiwaalis under the gaze of serious-faced bearded men.

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At Jama Masjid

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The Lotus Temple

We also saw the India Gate, an Indian version of the Arc de Triomphe which sits at the end of an Indian Champs Elysees. The surrounding parklands are full of hawkers selling chai and snacks, marauding children and picnicking families. The Gate was built as a monument to the Indian soldiers who fell in Europe during the First World War. The great Mahatma Gandhi, who was usually an obsessive proponent of nonviolence, encouraged Indian involvement in Britain’s war, hoping the sacrifice might buy his country’s independence. He was wrong – independence was hurriedly granted in 1947 – so the Indian dead of 1914-1918 have a lovely arch instead, as a sort of consolation prize

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Saree shopping.

The Wedding

Firstly, let me send massive congratulations to McKenzie and Rahul! Thanks for letting me come along and share in the fun.

The rest of Hailee’s family showed up from the United States the following day, and the week following this happy reunion never saw a dull moment. For the bride’s clan, the days of the wedding (there were three, abbreviated from the customary five) were curious, sometimes solemn, often mystifying and always lots of fun. More than an affirmation of mutual love, an Indian wedding seemed a sort of contract between two families. Instead of signing and dating documents the parties – which include parents, uncles, aunts and siblings – cement this pact by burning incense, speaking vows, embracing, presenting wreaths (some of them made from cash), and dozens of other formalities. Throughout it all a soon-to-be-wed couple will be as sorrowful as they are happy, because marriage is a sort of farewell to one’s family.

The following photos are from day two of the wedding, which seemed to involve most of the formalities ahead of the big party.

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Congratulations to McKenzie and Rahul!

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Pradeep, father of the groom, and David, father of the bride.

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New brothers-in-law.

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Bridal henna.

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February is wedding month in India, and in our subsequent travels we saw numerous parties in the streets. Thunderous drums to ward off ill-willed spirits, dancing relatives, and a sick-looking groom resplendent in red and gold kurta pyjamas, usually seated on a white horse. After seeing Rahul and Mckenzie’s wedding, I wondered why all these grooms looked so apprehensive, even pained. It took a while to realize that they, unlike Rahul (who struggled to keep himself from dancing along during his own ceremony), were about to meet their brides for the very first time.

I didn’t have my camera on the final day, but here are some photos from another wedding that I ducked into.

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The groom.

The infamous Delhi Belly struck Hailee down the night before the wedding, and 24 hours later a less potent version brought me to my knees as well. At home, a case of gastro will have me retreating from the world to recover. I’ll eat uninteresting, scentless food and isolate myself in a quiet corner.

This is impossible in India. Between the bright colours of the sarees and the evil-looking waterways, black with pollutants, the rich buttery smell of fresh chapatis against the spicy scent of vegetarian urine (it definitely smells different) and the swerving drives on potholed roads choked by dust and exhaust fumes, India is unkind to the uneasy stomach. At times Hailee and I were forced to find sanctuary in our hotel room, feeling like coddled westerners.

Agra

We left the extended family in Delhi for the final day of feasting, and with Hailee’s mum, dad and sisters we took a train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

Now, I’ve been very lucky to visit some of our more extraordinary structures: the pyramids at Giza, Petra, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Colosseum, the Hoover Dam, the Dome of the Rock, the Aya Sofia. All are impressive for one reason or another – for their scale, or their age, or their beauty, or perhaps their feats of engineering. But none of those structures combine all of those elements with such grace and elegance as the Taj Mahal. “Poetry in marble!” the guides scream at their charges with wild gestures, and somehow it seems appropriate.

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We caught our first glimpse walking through a block-like sandstone gate, the arch of which is designed to frame the visitor’s first glimpse of the Taj’s majestic marble dome. Indeed, the whole building and surrounding grounds are built to be totally symmetrical. For example, a sandstone mosque is built on the bank of the Yamuna river beside the Taj, and a replica was built on its other side to preserve the symmetry. As we walked through the arch, the distant Taj seemed to retreat from us, like a film lens zooming out even as we walked closer. The effect continued for some distance as we were drawn towards it, through the grounds. Serene and aloof from the squawking monkeys and selfie-taking hordes surrounding it, the Taj seems surrounded by a dreamlike haze that has nothing to do with the open crematorium downriver.

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As his favourite wife, Mumtaz, lay dying after the birth of her 14th child, Shah Jahan promised he would build her the most beautiful building in the world. Luckily, Shah Jahan was emperor of the Mughal empire, so he had the means to do just that. Mumtaz died in 1631 and construction began the following year, although this was evidently not fast enough for the queen. Apparently she appeared to Shah Jahan in a dream, to tell him to hurry up. It wasn’t completed until 1653, presumably under the impatient gaze of the Ghost of Mumtaz.

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Shah Jahan ended up being ousted by his son, Aurangzeb, a brat who killed his brothers and placed his father under house arrest in the nearby Agra Fort. Thus, for the last years of his life Shah Jahan was only able to view his creation from a distance, on a certain balcony of the Agra Fort.

Jaipur

The land dries out as you head west into kingly Rajasthan, and its stately capital of Jaipur.

Jaipur is known as the “Pink City” for the sandstone with which the centre was built. The state of Rajasthan was long ruled by warrior kings, and remained independent from the Mughal and British empires before eventually deciding to join in the Indian experiment with democracy.

Jaipur certainly has the feel of a royal city, full of courtyards and palaces and the impressive Amer Fort on a hilltop outside of town. The king who built it had twelve wives – one for each month of the year – and each had her own room. The king had an elaborate maze of passages and staircases to ensure each wife could be visited out of view of the other wives, thereby avoiding undue jealousy. For this, he was regarded as a wise ruler, and the design is much like that of modern courts which must ensure the jury, judge and defendant don’t bump into each other on the way to a hearing.

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It was here that we said goodbye to Hailee’s family, and it was sad to see them go. I’d like to send my thanks here to Pam and Jake for having me along – the various monuments and sights we saw were all the more fun because we were hanging out with them at the same time.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little envious of them, already on their comfortable way home. This was the first time I’ve really felt like this: I was ready to go home already.

This was unsettling – have I gone soft already? I was relieved to return to a comfortable hotel room each night. My stomach turned at the smell of Indian food – this was a result of the lingering Delhi Belly. The streets were a place of persecution, of stinking rubbish and swarming, barefoot children and hustlers and traffic and choking smog and noise. Walking a block in these streets left me exhausted. I didn’t want to see more. I wanted to go home and, failing that, to hole myself up somewhere with a garden behind a high wall, and wait.

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Pushkar

Luckily enough, the hotel in our next destination – the “white city” of Pushkar – did have a lovely, tranquil garden behind a wall. Still, plenty of interesting things happened here. For instance, there was the white-haired Texan woman sitting at a table, occasionally squeezing biceps among a steadily-growing group of handsome local boys. We knew one of them, a heavier youth called Lalit, who had tried to ingratiate himself with Hailee and I the day before – now we knew why. When the Texan left, her entourage followed.

Pushkar, like a thousands of other Indian towns and villages, is a holy place. The story is that the god Shiva, consumed with grief at the death of his wife, Sati, cried so much that a small lake formed. A city formed around it and ghats, or marble steps, were built around it to facilitate the bathing of pilgrims.

India is full of self-declared holy men who, feeling they are nearing the end of their cycles of death and reincarnation, leave all worldly wealth, grow their beards, don orange robes and set off on a Holy Man’s Tour of India. The goal is enlightenment, and there are many seeking it. There are innumerable stops on the Holy Man Tour, and Pushkar caters to all their needs. Many sleep in a blue barracks-like building outside the city centre which, to us, became known as the Holy Man Hostel. They can bathe in the lake, and are entitled to ask for freebies from any business they please. We often saw holy men get huffy when, say, their complimentary cup of chai wasn’t big enough.

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Beyond scrounging cups of chai and plates of dhal, holy men can also find a source of income here. There are many foreigners in India following a sort of New Age version of the Holy Man Tour, and Pushkar is a popular stop. The enterprising holy man can scrounge a few extra rupees by ingratiating himself with some of these foreigners, and these unlikely groupings can be seen sitting under trees all over town, the holy man puffing on a thickly smoking cigarette and waving his arms about, the foreigners nodding and looking sage. Command of English, Spanish, French or Hebrew can help the holy man in his endeavours here, though it doesn’t seem entirely necessary. You see, even if they can’t understand what’s being said, the foreigners do understand that this bearded, bedraggled man in soiled orange robes is a holy man, and – this is the important part – other foreigners can see that they are obviously mates with him.

I came to think of these dreadlocked foreigners, draped in artfully ragged bits of cloth and assorted trinkets, as players in a sort of spiritual video game. A holy man will impart some wisdom in return for something to smoke and a fistful of rupees. After an enlightening (if not mutually intelligible) discussion the holy man will reveal a problem he has, one that can only be solved if the foreigner retrieves for him, say, the Holy Sword of Lord Vishnu.

Off goes the foreigner on this quest. After many trials of the spirit and testing of the faith (and perhaps a quick Facetime session to ask dad for another deposit), the foreigner finds the sword and presents it to the holy man. The holy man (if he’s still around) will perform a mysterious ritual, whereupon he will offer the sword back to the foreigner (in return for another stack of rupees), who will find it useful in the next level.

You might say I was getting on my high horse, but it would be more appropriate to say that I was getting on my high camel. Hailee and I met Gopal, a camel safari guide and occasional camel racer, and his two animals, Moti and Romalio, outside our hotel, for a night of camp cooking, Indian style (think chapatis baked in smouldering cow dung), and a sleep under the stars in the dunes outside town.

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Hailee and Moti.

Gopal helped us mount the bopping, gurgling creatures and lead us through town towards the dunes out west. The holy men stared darkly up at us as we passed Holy Man Hostel, and middle-aged Brits asked if we were comfortable up there. Local boys waved, gypsy women pointed from their babes to their own mouths and held out their hands, and the dreadlocked foreigners pointedly pretended not to see us.

Pushkar gave us our mojo back, I think, and we left feeling ready for the next stage of our journey.

Coming up in Part Two: tigers, Sikhs and doing our best to piss off Pakistan!

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