There are two types of people in the world: those who have been to India and those who haven’t.
Never really cared about this thing told me somewhere some time ago, but after visiting Bombay, Calcutta, Varanasi and the most of this amazing sub-continent, i do strongly quote this.
Travelling itself is an incredible experience, all countries are unique,but India, dear my friends, is the most awesome place on earth.
Welcome to Calcutta, the city of joy.
Calcutta is a city with a heart, with a soul.
I get to Kolky in the afternoon, right after a storm, and I start another socio-cultural experience, the ones you can only find in Asia, and each one is stronger the previous, more real, more true.
The smell of humanity saturates the air, from open air sewers – if they are there, to the clouds that follow the swarms of people that keep on accumulating at the railway station; an apparent chaos that hides the essence of Indianity. Everyone is busy with something and everyone has his role in creating the expressionist painting I enjoy, my senses maximized.
I don’t even notice these porters, serious and sweaty carrying around humongous weights on old and crappy carts, running through the traffic jungle of ancient yellow cabs – awesome ambassador in great shape – and new and boring cars.
Rickshaw carried by slim runners in dothi and undershirts are jumping in the jams successfully bringing some people home, with bags full of vegetables for the dinner and flowers for the pooja, the constant, humble offerings Indians make to the panoply of the Gods .
Through a nice iron bridge human rivers are flowing, twisting in every direction like a loop, accompanied by a cacophony of horns and whistles, policemen yelling, hoping to earn a bit more baksheesh with some bribes. Street sellers assuring me that their dirty, dusty wares are just what I need.
I get to flowers market, right next to a temple with ghats that touch the river where worshippers take their daily baths.
The market reminds me of a mud war field, huge flower necklaces yellow and orange sleep like snakes inebriated with the noise; dark shapes move quickly filling up newspapers with colored powders, whose quantity forms a nice multicolor mountain range in a world where we sell and buy colours.
Street business and its laws count much more than street and safety codes. They just go on in their amazingly neat shirts and pants; shoe shiners happily clean up the leather wearing the feet of office men, who in turn comb their hair proudly showing their social status.
Having nice chats with these gentlemen I see the goodwill and positive attitudes, rare stuff in faraway western markets. From these guys I learn the three precepts about India: “In India all colours you can find”, ”Always remember India is n.1”, and, most of all, “In India everything is MAXIMUM”
Liters of boiling chai are enjoyed at every crossroad. Each chai is a sweet intense experience that pushes the soul away from the earthly state high up, where the peace of senses rests. But with rupies five you can’t go that far and after minutes two we are again in the human limbo fighting for spaces.
Groups of boys happily wash themselves with water from wells on the sidewalks, pumped up by kids whose play brings great joy to those above.
Countless human specimen are sleeping anywhere at any time, not bothered by the mass of life that flows thunderously at their side. A man uses the sidewalk as a pillow.
Meanwhile I notice that roads became wider and I’m on Calcutta’s Wall Street, the first capital of the Raj, the Jewel of the British Empire. Buildings are Victorian-style, some of them really impressive symbolizing a special feeling among Britishers, Indians and this city.
Relative to India, at least, the center of Calcutta developed some civic sense: I pleasantly notice, amazingly, trash cans on the streets!
The shops’ billboards and the shopkeepers themselves seem to be there forever, the former dusty and vintage, the latter busy in fighting dust that swarms like mosquitoes. The paint and the writings hand-painted on the walls are other splashes of color and artistic expressions, that overshadow the modern digital prints flattening the atmosphere.
Each wall is a perfect photographic set, each face is a perfect model and each moment is a perfect movie plot. No ticket is required to enjoy these life episodes that happened in Sudder Street between locals and tourists, the first in normal daily mode and the latter as charmed as me by the craziness happening before their eyes: barber shops set up next to big pot of food cooked by boys on the sidewalk, poles moving in the ether, bikes with five people on board driving through needles’ eyes, clouds of mosquitoes that sometimes let us spot a sweet-store inside them, gangs of cows, dogs and goats that just don’t care and live their lives roaming the overcrowded streets.
A group of Japanese is stuck in observing an itinerant piece of modern art quite popular in India: hundreds of electric wires endlessly twisted, hanging desperately from old and suffering poles.
In their Japanese perfection they will be asking themselves how come nothing is blown up yet; thinking of a regulator plan for this country I smile and I get another chai, toasting to India once more.
And in the night we play drums in the streets, we make bonfires and party; everyday in India there’s a festival, and this one I’m in is one of the biggest: Holi, the festival of colours!
Shbaaaang explosions of colours in the land of colours, taste buds in tilt and maximum enjoyment for eyes, ears, nose, hands and feet. The three precepts learnt before are painted on every smiling face, today there’s no rule and men and women happily play splashing water and colours on their semi naked bodies. My holy (and holey)t-shirt is eaten by the fire’s flames and we all dance barefoot in brotherhood.
Sure I wasn’t there in Woodstock, but these Technicolor scenes are a sober acid: we are all hippies, Jimmy Hendrix is reincarnated in India!
A deaf-mute guy, called FriendFinder, speaks everybody’s language – body language, and he’s the center of life in Sudder street where the exception is the rule.
Many people stay under beneficial sphere of Calcutta as long as possible because the energy here is objectively touchable. Dear my Kolky!
With my heart full I leave the city and I spend some time at the feet of Himalayas between Darjeeling and Sikkim, deep into Tibetan Buddhism, prayer flags who bring the words of Buddha in all directions through the wind and prayer wheels whose ethereal spinning helps in making good karma. It’s always amazing to be up in the mountains breathing nature and energy.
A short stop in Bodhgaya, under the famous tree where Siddharta Gautama, a disillusioned Hindu noble man looking for answers about the reason of sufferings, meditating reached enlightenment becoming Buddha, whose teachings of love and compassion are the solid base on which the whole oriental culture developed afterwards.
And finally I reach the cradle of life, Varanasi, the eternal city.
The river Ganges reaches the ghats where thousands of pilgrims are making cleansing ablutions. The fire of Lord Shiva burns under Manikarnika, where from the last 2500 years every day hundreds of dead bodies are burned offering Mokhsa, liberation, to the soul whose ashes enter the holy Ganges.
This is the ultimate goal for a Hindu: escaping the cycle of life and reincarnations, Samsara, that relegate the soul to a mere human life. Once obtained Mokhsa the soul is granted eternal salvation, breaking the manifestation of life in human form, too much contaminated by material ties to achieve pure spirituality.
To be here and to live the truth of these rituals is a true lesson about consciousness: death is not the end of life, and being scared of it shows an immature approach to life.
In the west our fear of death - a strongly christian concept - terrifies us and leaves us without explanation when this tragical event strike our small lives, as if we don’t know that our cycle is made of begin and end.
The earthly experience is just a small moment of the huge cycle of life.
The sadness and the rage that overcomes us when we lose somebody is also a form of energy that we should lean to control, and teaches us that we should get the personal best out of this life. About next life, I really don’t know.
It’s always the hardest lesson that makes us grow up.
From my rooftop I observe to the west old Benares, in the middle the holy river and on the other side the valley of death, where life fades away ritually, while ironically the sun rises from east every morning bringing new life.
Never ending Samsara.
My guru (Shiv from Woodstock!) is my key to understanding this city where life has a totally different meaning than anywhere else on earth, where you can live for a moment, in the present or 2000 years ago, or even stop the concept of time itself; where death and life are two sides of the same coin.
Tourism has in part conditioned the eternal city, well used to host pilgrims for the last millennia. But the aura of respect for Varanasi is way too big and powerful, nobody can scratch it.
Looking at the ghats in the silence of night or sunrise, walking through narrow alleys saturated with palpable deities highly worshipped by the community; attending magical poojas where the Brahmins play with fire and talk to the divine following precise and mysterious rituals, something moves inside me and I have the impression of elevating to a superior human state of comprehension.
it’s very difficult to see beyond Maya, the apparent reality, but the power is all inside every single soul, Atman; the challenge is to control its energy. Everybody can fly. Magic is just a shift of thought. Too much charas?
Varanasi is the perfect summary of Indian spirituality, something that for a western eye might seem ‘too much, incomprehensible and untouchable’, but the city carries real signs of something that we’ve lost irreparably, something that the new man, as said, has to take back in order to not lose the whole path we’ve been through.
Soul my friend, where is our soul?
With the soul in my pockets I enter Taj Mahal in Agra, still a splendid live vision far beyond photos and posters. A perspective game makes incalculable the space between me and the Taj: now I can touch it, now it’s a mile away. I have fun in watching the interactions of rich western tour groups of 50 50-years-old people with videocameras hanging from the neck and a flock of Rajastani pilgrims, with turbans and earrings grazing barefoot in the crowd, followed by wives wrapped in colorful sarees and home made jewels. Beautiful. Far away worlds skim over each other, sharing humanity.
In Rajasthan indeed the scene is repeating with turbans and sarees filling up the alleys of forts and towns as a background for the most typical postcards from India. I’m a little bit in a hurry though because in Haridwar a huge event is calling me: Kumbh Mela, the biggest religious festival on the planet.
On april 14th, lucky day for astrologers, I was among the 5 millions pilgrims that bathed in the holy waters of the river Ganges (again), running fast from the Himalayas to the Indian plateau.
It’s the festival for Babas and pure people. Babas are these men who quit all the material ties with the world and live a totally spiritual life. During Kumbh Mela worshippers from any corner of the sub-continent pour in and pay homage to them acquiring credits. Religion and cash have always found a way to cooperate in human history and this festival becomes the money box for Babas, who make of spirituality their portfolio and of wisdom their business.
I’m in Delhi just before leaving India, pondering about how much this experience is one of these personal key points, understood only by who tried same feelings and seen same things, and for a moment touch upon the untouchable.
In the city spirituality remains a personal matter, and even though New Delhi has a modern and civilized character it happens that in Paharganj, the streets who welcomes every tourist and pilgrim approaching the capital, there’s pure madness. The order of the government is to smash down all the abusive and crappy buildings to leave room for a new big clean avenue full of hotels worthy the new India. The way things work in India is to give nonsense orders to keep the people moving; hence the whole Paharganj is destroyed in just one night, with bulldozers and people hanging from balconies smashing walls with hammers and blowlamps.
It seems the end of an era, the end of old India that must keep up the pace with modern times. How impossible all this!
What will happen if and when the Indians will accept the pact with the devil? Our soul is going to be sellout?
If the Amazon forest is the lung of the planet, India is its soul. We are destroying our lungs and covering our soul with a new and out of place dress; right or wrong it might be, this is where we are going.
But it’s ok man, no complaints.
Positive and negative energy will keep on intertwining in an infinite loop.
Everything is perfect, in its imperfection.
I’m not scared, because as Buddha said before leaving this planet: “We have all the teachings we need, now it’s time to strive for our own salvation”.
Of the two kinds of people describes at begin, maybe the former have some more instrument to understand and accept the present human condition, both in global and spiritual form.
The latter probably don’t really care, rightly.
For who will survive the apocalypse of 2012, we will find in 2013 at Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, to open a new chapter of human history.
So we have a bunch of month to enjoy this planet!
Burocratic problems don’t allow me to go through Pakistan, hence I’m flying to Iran!
Goodbye, Unbelievable India.