New Delhi - I am chugging down the holy river Ganges in Calcutta, which stretches 2 400km from the lofty Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal when, amid hundreds of people performing sacred ceremonies on the banks, funeral pyres brightly burning, thousands of commuters walking over the famous iron bridge built by the British in World War II, small boys washing and bathing, and rowboats floating past, I see a large tree growing out of a ruined building.
“Why is that tree growing out of that building?” I ask our guide. “Ah,” he says, without a nano-second’s pause, “That’s the Magic of India.”
And that sums up India perfectly. Whether it’s an old bent monk in red robes feeding pigeons in a hilltop monastery, women in jewel-coloured saris moving rocks and boulders by hand from landslides blocking the mountain roads; whether it’s the unique beauty of the Taj Mahal; priceless paintings, traffic-choked streets, gracious colonial hotels and house-high dumps of roadside rubbish – they all add up to the almost indescribable magic of India.
India quenches the senses. You are drowned in sights, smells, touches, sounds and tastes. Example: I am reclining on scarlet brocade cushions on a shikara – one of the small canopied boats being paddled by a faithful retainer from the quayside in Kashmir to a handcarved houseboat where Kashmiri tea and macaroons Indian style will be served on bone china on arrival.
The still lake glitters in the early evening sunlight. As you glide along, dabchicks and moorhens forage amid fields of lotus and water lilies. The Himalayas – the world’s highest mountains – tower above the glassy surface of Lake Dal. For a moment, all is peace and perfection.
But the word is out that tourists are here. Like a swarm of bees the vendors arrive alongside in their shikaras, each offering different and exotic goods. Here is the seed man in his boat festooned with bright blossoms. We tell him that last time we were here we bought his seeds, but they didn’t grow in South Africa. Undaunted he presses us with marigolds, foxgloves, dahlias, lotus bulbs. Meanwhile, on the other side of my shikara, a jewellery boat and a memory card boat and a pashmina boat are vying for attention. Kites and Brahmin eagles circle overhead as more boats ferry the lake inhabitants between their water-based homes and wooden shops to the stone steps at the quay.
Kashmir, the houseboats, the Garden of Shalimar and the “Switzerland of Kashmir” were our last resting place at the end of a fabulous, unforgettable, not-for-sissies trip to North East India, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the Punjab.
I travelled with a group of very good friends, ranging in age from 22-78, all of whom already loved India with a passion, or who fell in love with it on this trip.
We started in Calcutta – and there’s no doubt about it, Mother Teresa, bless her, has given Kolkata a bad name. Yes, the stereotypical picture of starving people, disease, ignorance and poverty is partly true, but this is also the city where the British East India Company first formed the foothold of the British Empire more than 300 years ago. Expect grand 18th century houses and classically inspired buildings such as the famous 1776 “Writers’ Building” – not a creative centre for poets and authors, but a warren of tiny rooms where clerks with feather quills on high stools conducted the business of empire.
The Victoria Memorial, which looks like St Paul’s Cathedral, is busy with local visitors. Inside, under the mighty dome, is a collection of Victorian memorabilia, manuscripts, books, maps, early drawings and Queen Victoria’s piano.
“We love Queen Victoria,” our guide tells us, “Because she was the first monarch to allow Indians into the British House of Lords.”
Although the traffic is chaotic, there is a gentleness and quiet rhythm to this city of culture and grace, where the locals take photos of us, not the other way around. “It’s not a touristic city,” explains our guide. Almost everywhere we went on our travels in this part of India, we were the only tourists.
My son-in-law, Mike, at 1.9m, instantly becomes the most photographed man in India. Over and over again, people cluster around him as one of their family captures him on a cellphone.
Of course we visit Mother Teresa’s ashram. Her room is tiny with a small truckle bed, a small wooden table and bench, and a small desk tucked into the corner.
Downstairs, a group of nuns sit on the floor waiting for mass to be said. Mother Teresa’s knee-high tomb takes up a quarter of the ground floor space. Such a big tomb for such a little woman, I think, as I pause to smell the fresh roses adorning the tomb. We all get given a “miracle medal” which promises some sort of personal future miracle.
Further north, further into the mountains, we take to 4x4s and navigate hairpin bends, landslides, mudslides and swirling mist as we ascend further and further up into the mountains. The roads are so precipitous and blocked by landslides that we take eight hours of kamikaze driving to go 150km to our destination high in the hills.
Two days later we are in Darjeeling, the hill station where the British, and today’s well-heeled Indians, come to escape the stifling heat of the plains in summer.
The lovely Windamere Hotel, which describes itself as “A Colonial Hotel of India in the Himalayas” is run by a charming, friendly Englishwoman named Elizabeth Clarke, who implores us to come back one day. It grew out of British Raj days when bachelor tea planters away from home needed accommodation, rest and respite from their labours. Built on Observatory Hill, overlooking the busy town of Darjeeling, before the British arrived here, this land was part of the Royal Kingdom of Sikkim and the hill was declared by a famous monk to have “holy and energetic powers”. Thirteen of us were certainly energised because we got up at 4am to see the sunrise on Kanchenjunga – the world’s third highest mountain.
Our guide tried to dissuade us. “The peaks and Mount Everest to the west are only visible on seven days a year,” he warned us, obviously not enamoured of the idea of such an early start.
But maybe the miracle medal helped, because we had awesome views of both mountains rosy in the dawn light, and felt humbled to have seen such beauty.
Darjeeling Tea, “the champagne of teas”, lives up to its name. It tastes so good that we drink pots and pots of it.
On a trip to a tea plantation where women must work all day under the sun and have to pick a minimum of 8kg of leaf tips a day for R80 per day, we learned about the first, second, third and fourth “flush” of tea.
The first flush is in April when the tender green tips of the camellia bushes are picked for the first time. (Yes, tea comes from the camellia genus.)
Another highlight of our trip was the 15th century Golden Temple of Amritsar in the Punjab. Surrounded by a sacred lake, it is Sikhdom’s most holy place. Again, we are the only tourists and, heads covered with obligatory golden doeks, we make our way through approximately 80 000 pilgrims, some bathing in the holy lake, some sleeping, some eating and drinking, to maybe the most famous kitchen in the world, where 300 chapatties are turned out every five minutes to feed anyone from anywhere of any denomination who needs food. Again, in spite of the crush, there is an atmosphere of love and peace.
I could tell you so much more: of other temples and ancient mosques, of saffron fields, of crumbling palaces holding priceless paintings and Ming vases, of delicious food, of wading knee-deep in monsoon, of emperors and princes, peasants and the poor. Of the luminescent white marble of the Taj Mahal, the most beautiful building in the world, of three-hour traffic jams to go 3km, of camels, packs of roaming dogs, learner monks and border guards facing off at the Indian/Pakistan border in the Punjab. Of little towns at 1 524m tucked away in the clouds, of emeralds, red pandas, pythons, the highest steam train in the world and snow leopards.
But maybe you should go and see for yourself…
If You Go...
l The writer’s tour was organised by the incomparably efficient Mercury Tours of Delhi.
Mercury Travels Ltd; Jeevan Tara Building, Parliament Street, New Delhi, 110001, India.
Tel: 0091 11 451 86120. Fax: 0091 11 237 42013