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India in 1989

Sunday, 12 January 2014 00:00

I first travelled to India in 1988, with no return ticket or itinerary. I had a very loose idea of what I wanted to accomplish, other then taking photographs. Although meeting local people is one of the most rewarding aspects of my international travels, I am also interested in the architecture, ruins, history and culture. I prefer rural settings or small towns, to large cities. Traditional art and customs seems more intact, and life runs at a slower pace, with more opportunities to sit and get to know people. 

 So, I let what I knew of particular cultures within India decide my destinations, plus the friend I travelled with was interested in trekking in the Himalayas, so we first headed north.
India was a surprise for me, and so unlike any other country I had visited. I was surprised by the great expanse that is India, by its endless variety and beauty of landscapes, by the quantity of of people and the exquisite simplicity of life. I was thrilled with the ease with which I was embraced by the women of India and curious at the sweet devotion I saw expressed everywhere, through sacred ritual and ceremony. There was also the continuous challenge of being a young woman, traveling sometime with another woman, but still unaccompanied by a man.
Arriving in Delhi in the middle of the night, without a hotel reservation, I quickly realized this was not the experience I was looking for. I headed north on an overnight bus to Shrenigar - The Kashmir Valley, and Dal Lake. (Train service had been suspended through the Punjab due to civil unrest).  I rented a house boat on Dal Lake which enhanced my vision of a magical setting and allowed me the solitude in order to acclimate myself to this new terrain. I visited Dal Lake's floating vegetable market and many beautiful public gardens.
From Shrenigar I moved on to Leh in Ladakh. This is a Tibetan community high in the Himalayas and on the boarder with China. I spent a month there living on the outskirts of Leh with a Tibetan family. The barley was being harvested and daily I heard the farmers sing the songs of harvest. There was a song for cutting and another song and whistling as the barley was thrown up into the wind to remove the chaff. I spent time trekking and visiting monasteries.
 As winter set in I headed back South to Utter Pradesh and made a short stop at an ashram I had heard about from friends. There I lived quietly by the Ganges River for a very short 10 days. Back through Delhi, I continued on to Rajasthan.
 Rajasthan had always been, in my imagination, a majestic place of Maharajas, beautiful palaces, haunting and windswept ruins and colorful cities - teeming with life. I was not to be disappointed. It was all this and more. I wandered through small cities with homes washed in blue,visited stunningly carved Jain Temples, and slept in palaces meant for the Maharajas of the past. I went on a 3 day camel trek in the desert where I experienced an even more exciting side of India. Eating our campfire dinners one evening, with a blanket of twinkling stars above, suddenly out of the darkness several desert men arrived, with no notice at all. Being serenaded that night by a very unconventional musical group, who played the most hauntingly beautiful music, is something i've never forgotten. 
I made my way to the lakeside town of Mt Abu in the state of Gujarat. and took a short course in meditation.  I remember being enchanted with the special quality of light at twilight. Then on to the Ajanta Ellora Caves, with its endless carved Buddhas. I met a group of fellow travelers who invited me to continue on with them through Bharatpur, a wildlife reserve, and on to Agra with its Taj Mahal. It was so relaxing to travel with a group of travelers - including 2 young men! I appreciated being suddenly completely invisible!! From there I went alone to meet up with friends from the ashram who had arrived at Khumba Mela in Allahabad.
The Khumba Mela of 1989 was a most important and heralded event. Pilgrims and holy men (sadhus) arrived from every corner of India for this approximately 6 week festival. At the confluence of 3 rivers, and next to the town of Allahabad, a small tent city arose out of the dust. The main boulevard cut the length of the town, in preparation for the arrival of10s of thousands of pilgrims. Known holy men had their own compounds where devotees and pilgrims could stay.. There were regularly scheduled aarti and spiritual lectures held in these compounds. Every faith and sect could be represented.
 On the most favorable date and moment everyone would make a dash to bathe at this confluence for the greatest blessing. But a ‘dash’ isn’t really correct at describing the scene. People slept for days on the banks of the river, to be one of the lucky few who actually immersed themselves at that most auspicious
 moment. Those who had slept in a compound tent headed out early to add their urgency by pressing themselves in behind the thousands of people already trying to get to the water. I’m sure it sounds rather frantic and unorganized, but in fact, there was an established protocol for this event and an assuredness that one would get to the water, at some point. No need to panic!!
From Allahabad I decided to go with new friends to the holy city of Benares, also known as Varanasi. This was a quieter setting with fewer pilgrim - who were all still in Allahabad. We wandered through an almost deserted town, and drifted on the Ganges past temples and burning ghat until the masses arrived for the festival of Holi, or the Festival of Color. We headed back to the sanctuary of the ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas.
I had been in India for 5 months and felt called to return to the USA. It would be 10 years before I returned to India, this time bringing along my 5 year old daughter.