“(M)ore than a religion or a social system; it is the core of Indian civilization.” Fernand Braudel, On History, pg.226
The subject is Hinduism.
If you plan to go to India, it’s probably a good idea to learn as much as you can about the beliefs and practices of the Hindus before you leave. Otherwise, you risk feeling as clueless and confused as I was when confronted with that country’s ubiquitous and fantastic array of Hindu gods, goddesses, mythological figures, temples, shrines, mantras, processions and festivals.
Nowhere in my travels have I ever experienced anything as intense as India, Everything — the traffic, the street smells, the poverty, the pollution, and the attention of the touts, hawkers and rickshaw wallahs — has the exaggerated character of a dream.
Getting off the bus in Pushkar, Rajasthan is like falling through a wormhole in the fabric of time and going backwards 35 years. The 60s are an increasingly distant memory in the West, while here in Pushkar they still exist, at least in their outward and visible signs. Really, there are parts of this town that look like a dreamscape evoked by the Magical Mystery Tour.
The night bus from Pushkar to Udaipur was yet another chapter in the adventure that is India. I had bought a “sleeper” compartment without knowing exactly what it was, feeling that stretching out would be better than sitting up all night. The bus stand, just a shoulder along side a highway in Ajmer, was a bit chaotic, and luckily my car driver found my bus and oversaw loading my large backpack into the luggage compartment.
Jaipur has been a pleasant surprise. First, there is this hotel, an oasis in the desert of backpacker lodgings I’ve been staying in for the last two weeks. The staff is kind and attentive, and the surroundings with their well-chosen furnishings are a delight to the eye. Last night I had some trouble sleeping, I think because of the silence. I haven’t been in an atmosphere so quiet since I arrived in India.
The western-style breakfast in the dining room, among some Australians and a Spanish couple was tasty: two fried eggs, toast, juice and tea.
No non-Indian should register surprise at feeling overwhelmed in this country. The dirt, squalor, noise and poisonous air are extreme. Yet there are also islands of extraordinary beauty and cultural interest. Unlike some cities whose points of interest for the visitor are more or less centered and close together, Delhi’s are more broadly scattered. One needs a form of transportation to visit them.
I shared the train journey with a Sikh couple, a young consultant, who is a Jain, and Jeff Mitton, a 53-year-old Canadian from Nova Scotia, who is a Buddhist and who motorcycles around India and elsewhere. We had some good conversations and I learned something about the different classes of India trains.
Slept only an hour and a half before my breakfast came. My first meal in India: white toast with butter and orange marmalade and tea. Got dressed and went out. Any first impressions of India have to begin with the weather. Mumbai’s humidity is awful. It combined with temps in the mid 80s is really unpleasant. There is a haze everywhere that drains the distant features of color and sharpness. There is lots of traffic, especially taxis, but it is controlled, so getting across the wide boulevards is easier than in Istanbul.
In Amritsar, I insisted that the cab driver take me to the Grace Hotel near the Golden Temple even though he had another hotel in mind. The owner of the Grace was welcoming. I took a 1200-rupee room touted as super deluxe that turned out to be just another ordinary grungy hotel room on the lower end of the scale. It does however have clean sheets and good hot water. These, I’m learning, are things not to take for granted in India.