INDIA (excerpts from ALONG the Path (book) free pdf)
India is India, because it is not like home!
“Most people never travel. They simply transport the mad loop of their brain’s thoughts from place to place. To truly travel is to stand on the fields of yourself where you have never stood before. “ – Speed Levitch
“India will bend your mind, assault your body, flood your senses, and shred your nerves, from the moment you step off the plane into its smoky unforgettable perfume of burning cow dung, diesel fumes, and a few thousand years of accumulated human sweat. And ultimately, if you’re lucky, your old identity will break down like one of the decrepit, smog-belching auto-rickshaws that clog the Indian streets—and you’ll have to walk on without it, through the twisting alleys of an unknown city, with cows eating empty juice cartons from street-side garbage dumps and ash-daubed mystics chanting mantras in the gutters. It’s this breakdown and the attendant possibilities for transformation—more than a specific teacher or spiritual site—that’s the real blessing India has to offer. “ – Ann Cushman & Jerry Jones, From Here to Nirvana
You don’t need to go to India to look inside. But those who do inevitably come back transformed. Sometimes the changes are radical. Other times, their inner journey manifests itself in subtle details: a glint in their eyes, a silent presence, a fluidity in their stride, or a special glow (even if a few pounds lighter). They may be shaken by the poverty and suffering they have seen, and have vowed never to complain again about their petty problems. They may notice details that escaped them before, or see the magic in simple conveniences like a hot shower or tap water that can be drunk without worry.
Travel has a way of extracting us from our daily grind and making us look at our habits and ways of life. We re-evaluate everything that makes up our life back home—relationships, work, time—and decide we need to make some changes. Or, if we’re lucky, the changes may just happen on their own.
Travel, however, can be especially moving when it is taken as a pilgrimage (yatra), not only through the outer world, but more so in discovering the inner world and the dark mazes of the mind. It seems to be in the nature of a pilgrimage to test our limits. But if we surrender to the journey, without looking for the final goal, we can find peace and joy in the present moment.
This book is meant to travel to India with you, to accompany you on bumpy bus rides and when you’re waiting three hours for a delayed train. It’s also meant to provide inspiration along the way, to support your meditation, and to be a reminder of why you came to India in the first place: to have equanimity with all obstacles India may throw at you.
The danger of guidebooks, however, is that every single place mentioned seems so alluring that many people fall into the trap of wanting to ‘see it all.’ Although a vague plan is sometimes helpful, be prepared to chuck it if you find a place you like and want to stay longer.
“At no time are we ever in such complete possession of a journey, down to its last nook and cranny, as when we are busy with preparations for it. After that, there remains only the journey itself, which is nothing but the process through which we lose our ownership of it.” Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
Winter (Hemanta): mid-November to early February. Indian winters can get quite chilly in northern cities like Delhi and Jaipur. During the day you can wear long sleeves without sweating; at night, you will need a sweater, a shawl, or both. In the south, it is pleasantly warm, without being too hot. The cool season is pleasantly mild—not too hot, not too cold. You start shedding the thicker layers, and before you know it, you’re wearing a T-shirt.
There are different kinds of travellers. Some people love to temple-hop and visit every single World Heritage Site in a 1 000-km radius, whereas others prefer to get to know the locals: how they live, how they eat, etc. Whatever your temperament, be warned that travel in India is slow, even when it is ‘deluxe’ or ‘super-fast.’
You will never see a crow within a flock of parrots, or vice versa. In the same way, friends travelling together tend to share common goals and interests.
If you’re planning a trip with friends, everyone should have a say in the preparations, so that nobody is held responsible when things don’t work out precisely according to plan.
Be sensitive to your travelling companion’s budget. If you are travelling for a long stretch together, it’s true that “Good accounts make good friends.” But a “what- goes-around-comes-around” attitude is handy for short partnerships; you may treat someone to a 40-rupee rickshaw ride, and the next day, someone else may treat you to a meal.
The popular saying “In India, anything is possible,” not only applies to the bank clerk hinting for a bribe, but to the daily miracles of bumping into a long-lost friend on a Himālayan mountain pass, or a car offering you a ride to exactly where you want to go after your rickshaw breaks down on a rural road in the dead of night. But the only way for these miracles to happen is with an unwavering trust that everything will be okay. The naïve traveller goes for the impossible by attempting to impose order on what is chaotic. The illusion of control, as you pack your bags, design a travel itinerary, buy your plane ticket and make reservations, is bound to be shattered within the first few days, as the simplest task becomes a day-long operation involving several bureaucratic layers.
India is a gastronomic paradise for vegetarians. Who knew that you could produce so much variety with grains and legumes? We suggest that even non-vegetarians stick to a veggie diet in India because bad meat is a prime cause of food poison- ing: who knows what conditions the animal was brought up in, how the meat was stored, and how it was cooked? Even without meat, there is so much diversity from which to choose. To be safe, we try to go for ‘Pure Veg’ restaurants if we have the choice, which means that they don’t use eggs or onions, and that the food has not come in contact with any meat.
Khadi means hand-spun and hand-woven natural textiles (cotton, silk and wool), where the entire process, from picking the cotton or shaving the sheep, to dying the fabric, is performed in a non-violent way. Khadi-makers also say that because of their unique weaving technique, khadi is the coolest and most comfortable fabric (although it may initially be quite rough, after a few vigorous washings it will become as soft as baby clothes).
Gandhi started the khadi movement as a way of boycotting British textiles and making India self-sufficient. He encouraged every Indian to spin cotton a couple of hours every day as a form of protest as well as a meditation. Gandhi considered wearing khadi a moral duty, and even that it had beneficial psychological and spiritual effects on the person who wore it.
You can find khadi shops in almost every town, although the big cities usually have a much wider selection. In Mumbai and Delhi, the khadi bhavans have ready- made clothes as well as uncut fabrics, and fabulous shawls. (If you buy fabric and want to have it stitched, make sure you find a reliable tailor, because once you’ve spent the money on expensive raw silk, it’s a shame to have it ruined by a bad cut or sloppy job.)
In most khadi shops you can also find village industry products, which are all produced in a non-violent way. You will find honey, jams, pickles and chutneys, woven baskets, handmade paper, pottery, oils, shampoo, incense, soap and leather products made from animals that have died natural deaths.
In a country where the mechanized industries have put thousands of people out of work, encouraging the local artisans has a concrete effect.
The North: Delhi
India’s bustling capital is usually a source of severe culture shock for travellers arriving in the subcontinent for the first (or tenth!) time. The city’s manifold extremes expose your senses to a myriad of contrasting realities: modern high rises hovering over makeshift slums and hutments, spired sandstone temples and domed marble mosques; streets crowded with continually honking cars fender-to-tail against cows meandering amidst the frenetic traffic of rickshaws, motorbikes, pedestrians and vendors. You’ll find McDonald’s restaurants just steps away from street stalls selling samosa, pakoras, fresh fruits and mysterious unknown edibles; the delicious aromas of curried vegetables and sandalwood perfumes blending with the awful stench of urine, cigarette smoke and diesel fumes. Sellers and eager touts add a chorus of calls to the sensory confusion, singing “Cheap tickets,” and “Come see my shop,” while gleeful children play street cricket and well-dressed business- men talk on their mobile phones, all sharing sidewalk space with aged holy men wearing dhotis, chanting mantras and asking for alms along streets where ATM machines spit out rupees a mere stone’s throw away from shrines for religious deities offering salvation to both the financially and spiritually poor.
This exceptional city is divided into two sections: Delhi (or Old Delhi) and New Delhi, though the greater capital area now includes a growing suburban sprawl and several satellite cities. Old Delhi, or Shahjahanbad, was the intermittent capital of the Mughal Empire between the 12th and 17th centuries, and today remains the primary Muslim sector, with its innumerable mosques and tombs, halal restaurants and butcher shops, markets and forts. Majnu Ka Tila, the relaxed Tibetan refugee and foreign tourist centre, is also to be found in Old Delhi. New Delhi was originally designed as the British capital after the imperial government shifted its head- quarters from Kolkata, and the city continues to be India’s capital. Today, this part of Delhi is a fairly open green space, with wide avenues, tourist ghettos, exclusive gated communities, government buildings and foreign embassies.
Shopping, Activities, Services & Sites
Delhi is a great place to satisfy most of your travel needs or buy souvenirs to bring back home. Pahar Ganj, Delhi’s ubiquitous travellers’ ghetto, is crammed with shops selling all sorts of stuff, though shoppers will have to look hard to find quality products here. Nestled between the Red Fort, Jami Masjid, and Fatehpuri Masjid in Old Delhi is Chandni Chowk, a congested yet colourful bazaar where you can get good deals on household items, art, jewellery, carpets and perfumes.
Connaught Place in central Delhi is made up of uniformly concentric ring roads lined with boutique shops, street stalls, restaurants, and hotels. The 3-storied Khadi Bhavan in Connaught Place is one of India’s best retailers for khadi, or home- spun cloth. Around the corner in the Regal Building, The Shop has excellent, high quality clothing, linen, furniture, ceramics, incense and essential oils; and People Tree, an artisan’s collective boutique, carries a unique assortment of printed t- shirts, clothing, decorative items and books. Fab India and Soma are also popular Connaught Place choices for ethical clothing, handicrafts and furniture.”
Book lovers will become infatuated with Connaught Place’s numerous bookshops and pavement stalls, whose books are much cheaper than in the West.
On Janpath, just off Connaught Place, you’ll find the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, which has, primarily, high-quality goods from around the country; convenient for shoppers but more expensive than elsewhere in India, as with most shops in the city. Around the corner on Baba Kharak Singh Marg are state emporiums selling handicrafts from their particular states.
If you’re really keen on shopping, trek out to the N-Block and M-Block of the Greater Kailash suburb where you’ll find excellent high-end stores such as Fab India selling clothes, furniture, kitchenware, bedding, art, handicrafts, jewellery, carpets and more. Fab India also has a smaller boutique clothing stores in Connaught Place (28 B-Block) and Khan Market, a high-end shopping enclave in central Delhi.
For moving about Delhi, taxis and their less expensive counterparts, rickshaws make life easier, although drivers usually refuse to use the meters or show you the fare conversion cards. Tourists are big business, and you should expect the initial asking rate to be anywhere from double to five times the price accepted by locals. Be aware of the distance you’ll be travelling, and ask hotel or restaurant staff what you should expect to pay at a fair price—then don’t be afraid to haggle with drivers and wave them off if they refuse to deal straight with you. This is true everywhere in India, but especially in the cities.
Depending on where you’re going, the metro can be the cheapest and quickest way to get around the city. Delhi’s expanding metro system connects several major areas, and will soon provide service to the airport. There are two stations in Pahar Ganj (one at the Railway Station, and one at the end of the main bazaar opposite the Rama Krishna Mission), as well as a station in Connaught Place called Rajiv Chowk. Tickets are cheap, and one- to three-day tourist cards are available for unlimited short distance travel. See http://www.delhimetrorail.com for routes, schedules and developments.
Intra-city buses in the Delhis are more complicated than in Mumbai. Some are private, some are public, and they both travel similar but slightly different routes. Although generally inexpensive, prices vary between the companies. If you want to travel by bus, ask locals which ones to take and where to get on board. During crowded rush hours, beware of pickpockets and gropers. Be cautious from whom you accept information, as scam-artists may try to mislead you.
One of the best ways to combat jet lag is to adapt, as quickly as possible, to the local time schedule when you arrive. Whether you try this method or head for sleep as soon as you hit your hotel, plan for a day or two of rest and slow introduction before striking out to experience India’s capital in all its confounding fullness.
Kerala is India’s south-western most state, and a world unto its own. Distinguished by a long coast and meandering backwaters that define much of the geography, Kerala is a place of unique natural beauty. The fertile tropical climate is complemented by a relaxed culture coloured with rich colonial history and renowned for some of the most progressive social politics in the country.
Beginning in 1957, Kerala brought to power the first freely-elected communist government in the world, initiating a system that continues to effectively govern the state according to democratic-socialist principles. Nuanced communist parties abound, and people are apt to complain about local politics, but Kerala has some of the best education, health and social services in the country, and the highest literacy rate anywhere in the developing world. For many travellers, the friendly, laid-back atmosphere of Kerala offers a welcome respite from the sensory-over- load so common elsewhere in India.
Unlike most other regions, Kerala isn’t dominated by its larger cities; the state is a destination in its own right. Trivandrum (Malayalam: Thiruvananthapuram), the capital city, serves as the gateway to Kerala’s southern reaches, but Cochin (Malayalam: Kochi), the largest and central-most city, is the main transport hub for travellers. Cochin consists of two main areas, hectic mainland Ernakulam and the charming island town of Fort Cochin, where we recommend you spend at least a night or two. Other great locales include Alleppey (Malayalam: Alappuzha), which offers access to Kerala’s magical back- waters; Varkala, a lovely beachside vacation town, and Munnar, a rural hill station.
Dhamma Ketana, Kerala Vipassana Centre
Dhamma Ketana is situated on a tranquil 5.2-acre former homestead in Cheriyanad, a rural village near Chengannur town, south-east of Cochin. The centre is located among coconut groves in a very peaceful and rural environment with relatively little disturbance, and in spite of its apparent remoteness, the site is well connected by road and rail.
Dhamma Ketana (‘Sign of Dhamma’) was established in 2006, and the current facilities are rustic and rather spartan. Much of the centre operates out of an old converted Keralan country house on the property, but construction on new accommodation has expanded the course capacity to 50 students. Although Dhamma Ketana has few amenities to offer, the spirited community of local meditators is striving to develop a truly international centre. All courses are conducted in English and Malayalam. Foreign students are truly welcome, and foreign servers are always needed.
Dhamma Ketana suffers from the tropical heat of South India, and sitting courses in this climate can be arduous. Foreign students are advised to attend only during the cool season (October to March) when temperatures are usually quite reasonable. Expect warm afternoons, and dress accordingly. Mosquito nets are provided for all beds at the centre.
The centre is easily accessible.
The city’s islands are famous for their eclectic blend of Indian, European and Chinese cultural landscapes. Cochin’s charm is found in its ancient temples, palaces, churches, mosques, synagogues, Kathakali performances and laid-back atmosphere. Go to Arul Jyoti or Jaya Café in the mid-range Woodland’s Hotel for vegetarian fare.