I travelled to India with the eager heart of one who wants to exhaust it, to extract one secret, one essence, one story. But India is so diverse, so vast and so powerful that I became seduced by it instead. The hidden corners of the Rajasthan, the overwhelming spirituality of Varanasi, the contrasts of Delhi… Delight after delight, tale after tale, enough to fill a travel book, a full chapter of my memoirs. So instead of a single story, I decided to write the equivalent of a postcard, four to be precise, that capture my impressions of India.
PALACES OF NAUGHT
One after one, the abandoned Havelis of Churu tell a story of grandeur hidden under a veil of crumbling walls, discoloured frescoes and intruding weeds.
These were the homes of Silk Road merchants, enriched by the passing camel caravans that fueled the trade between East and West. When the ancient routes were abandoned for the sugar plantations and the cotton mills of the coast, this Rajasthani region was living grand on borrowed time.
GO ON AN AMAZING HOLIDAY
The Havelis kept cropping up, mixing Mughal, European and Rajasthani styles. The painted walls and intricate decorations were meant to impress and display wealth. Their grandiose luxury and exotic architecture made these palaces precious gems in the middle of the harsh and unforgiving Thar Desert.
It is not unusual to find abandoned places… we call them ruins and dream of their golden ages, marvel at the ingenuity of those who built them and create a mythology around the remains with studious affectation: the Colosseum, Angkor Wat, Borobudur, to name a few. But here the abandonment feels eerily unusual. Here, you can still hear the sound of the parties at night, the oil lamps flickering against the complex shadows created by the wall decorations.
The Havelis cast a strange spell on my imagination. They possess a strange kind of beauty because even the ghosts seem to have abandoned them.
GRAND NAGAUR LIVING
There are no tourists in sight. The 18th-century Nagaur Fort was built precisely for this purpose, to keep the troubles of the world at bay. For the Maharaja of Jodhpur, these were war and politics. For me, this is a refuge to enjoy, to take a break from the wonderful craziness of India. Nobody’s here and it could not be more different from all the Rajasthan landmarks that constitute the obligatory tourist circuits. Here, I can experience the life of a Maharaja.
The paintings that adorn the walls were commissioned from Mughal artists. By the time international institutions stepped in, the palace was in disarray. Nowadays, the immense fort in the middle of the city, its royal buildings, gardens and the Queen’s chambers have been restored into a charming hotel. It is from within its walls that I am writing these words.
I walked the hallways adorned with jaali windows, drank tea in the marble balconies, delighted in the plastered ceilings and the grapevines painted in the floor. I enjoyed, as if from my own private collection, paintings of landscapes, women, and Nagaur religious motifs. For a little while at least, the garden fountains and the rainwater tanks were my own.
A SPELL OF VARANASI
The lights illuminate and liberate the souls that are trapped in darkness. The light is the nectar of life that nurtures those in search of meaning. It is also the place to seek out rest, to prepare for the journey ahead for those waiting to depart this world. Varanasi is a city of transformation, the home of Shiva.
Eventually, you will surrender to the power of Varanasi. Lose the map and follow your heart, listen to your emotions to decide which way to turn. Wander like Shiva, give in to the sounds, follow your nose and discover endless treasures, perhaps even stalk a Sadhu… Find new gods and practise a new religion. Walk singing Shiva’s mantra: Om Namah Sivaya, O! Salutations to the auspicious one, and let peace flood your mind.
I walk the streets of Varanasi and venture into the Ghats. The known version of the Ramayana was written in this city. The life of Rama is the ideal life. As such, the best of India is here, but also the worst.
This is the city of hell, but if you learn to enjoy it, you will reach happiness. The goal is to lead an ideal life, to know what is right and what is good.
The Ganga is a stream of energy that carries you from one lever of consciousness to the next. We invite a flute player to our boat and ask him to play Raag Bhairavi. The music flows with the river as the Ganga takes the golden hue of sunrise. A learned man tells us the story of a Brahman ostracised for loving a Muslim girl. He asked the river to allow their love.
I arrive at the Dasashwamedh Gate. The tourists are gathering around the celebration, taking pictures, seeing from the outside. I join the crowd and join the ceremony, I clap my hands and sing along, I salute the sun and meditate under the trees and perform ablutions.
On the sacred steps of the Ghat, I get my fate told by a palmist. I am surrounded by the 64 female saints at Chausatthi Ghat. As I write a postcard of peace to my loved ones, I wonder if I should ever write about the fate that was revealed to me.
Mauna, or Silence, has a voice of its own. I begin my day with an hour without words nor thoughts. I eat only a Saatvik diet to nourish my body and calm my mind.
Now I can truly listen. I close my eyes and the harmony of the chants, the ringing of the bells, the whisper of prayers that floods the city, everything is accented by the perennial rhythm of the rive. This is the music of Varanasi, a symphony for the soul.
I study meditation with a Kabir master, I devote my day to yoga, to the chanting of mantras, I try to decipher the Upanishad with a scholar for the University. I am far away from enlightenment but I heed sage words and devote the rest of my days to helping others and everyone around me. That is death and rebirth: a promenade through Varanasi.
The Old City is like nowhere else in India, a sense that is underlined by the scent of the wet earth fresh after a drizzle. My exploration will have to wait a bit: Delhi is best experienced by night.
Delhi is a city to get lost but also to find yourself. Here you will find people that will befriend you and take care of you. It is overwhelming at times and you might think that you cannot cope. But it is carefully staged. The streets of Delhi are a theatre: the way the people dress, talk and move, all are carefully developed and follow strict rules. Despite that, it is a place for the interaction of religions and cultures: Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and refugees.
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That is the beauty of India that tourists so often fail to see: that it is full of surprises. At every turn, you’ll find treasures of architecture, treasures of life and religion. It is a place of contrast, where the threads of a country stand sometimes in stark opposition: the modern and the ancient, the unwillingness to change and the openness, purity and filth, poverty and wealth.
Intimidating and overwhelming as it may be, the intimacy India creates is a great opportunity to see life unapologetically on display. You walk shoulder to shoulder, you cross doors that remain open, you meet people that look you straight in the eyes.
It is a place for all the senses where everything is on display… I even bought from a Parfumier in Delhi a vial of petrichor, the smell of wet earth after rain.
India is where you go to put your fragmented self together and embrace the full breadth of life.