I return to India as a photographer not, as last time, also a story teller. Expect luminous images underlined by a sentence or two. However, first, a few paragraphs distilled from the story-telling of the previous years:
“This is India!“ is a phrase tourists hear after complaining that their hotel room has no hot water, sheets or toilet paper. After hearing these words for the first time, I hiked with friends to the temple of Hanuman, the monkey god. As we assumed only dumb tourists rented sticks ‘to fight off the monkeys that guard the temple,’ we had to fend the beasts off with hastily gathered stones. Just as we broke through the last ring of angry primates and slipped inside the temple, a monkey ran screeching in after us. Fearful devotees dodged the scrambling monkey. The priest, with one commanding gesture, waved the monkey out. I felt like I was living out a scene from an imaginary film I’d have entitled, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Monkey God. I thought, “Wow, this is India!”
Later, in a Hindu ashram I ate silently with Catholic nuns, natives of India who were here to gain insights that would help them train their sisters. When our vow of silence ended, I asked a nun if she found the Hare Krishna mantras in the Shiva temple a little disconcerting. She replied, “No, this is my home, this is India.”
It was in that ashram that I felt closest to this India that had been so trying and yet so exciting. I realized then that prayer needn't be asking God for something, it could be just listening for something beyond our thoughts—waiting for what cannot be anticipated. I learned that it’s easier to escape for months from the customary conveniences of our time, than it is to slip for an instant from the comforts of the mind.
I returned to India to attend Kumbh Mela, an ancient festival that occurs once every 12 years. It stars homeless ash-covered naked holy men. However, looking back from this alternate universe in a travel blog I was writing, America seemed no less exotic:
February 10th (Mauni Amavasya Snan) will be the most auspicious bathing day at this Kumbh Mela—30 million Hindus are expected to begin gathering before dawn to bathe in a sacred river in the belief that it will wash away their karmic debt.
November 29th (Black Friday) will be the most auspicious shopping day in America—250 million consumers, many lining up before sunrise, are expected to buy on that day in the belief that its reduced sale prices will lessen their financial debt.
Of course, it isn ’t fair to compare the attendance at Kumbh Mela which happens in one place to Black Friday which takes place at stores in every city and at countless online stores. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition does make the point that the same vessel can be filled with different substances. Much of the mind space that is filled by religious rituals and the karmic relief people here believe that they bring, is filled in our hemisphere by shopping rituals and the temporary relief from anxiety that each new purchase brings.
In the Mela photos that began this booklet, it might still be the classical age. As Michael Wood put it in The Story of India, it is as if on a visit to Greece one discovered that Athena was still worshipped in the Parthenon and Socrates still walked the streets in a toga.
Beggars, sadhus, chai sellers—all of old India passes down the aisle. The chai still comes in an earthen cup (toss it out the window, it recycles itself). I’m gently rocked to sleep on a bunk bed as firm as a yoga mat—perhaps the only white man on a vintage train leaving an ancient festival. Oh, to live in a world where train travel is time travel. A ticket man shakes me awake and shouts:
“You, you can’t raise the price after I’ve paid for my tickets.”
“We are always doing it. This is India!”