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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

India: Mt Abu

The main waterfront, Mt Abu
The main waterfront, Mt Abu

It didn't take much persuasion for me to drop my plans to visit Bhuj and Junagadh in western Gujarat; the chaos from the cyclone has sparked fears of epidemic diseases (which are being denied by the government), but whatever the risk of cholera, there's no doubt that the electricity, water and transport infrastructures are in all sorts of trouble, and I figure I could always come back another time. The journalist in me wants to investigate; the traveller in me never wants to see another bus ride like the last one. The traveller has won hands down.

A Marriage Made in Mt Abu

A boat on the lake at Mt Abu
A boat ride on the lake is an essential part of every Mt Abu honeymoon

It's obvious from the moment you step off the bus. Surrounding a small lake, just the right size for intimate boat rides at sunset, Mt Abu manages to combine a pleasantly cool temperature with a complete tourist set-up; ice cream stalls stand side by side with shops peddling sarees and Kashmiri trinkets2, cute parks sit alongside piers hiring pedal-boats, and luxury hotels rub shoulders with cheap guest houses, all vying for a lucrative slice of the honeymoon market. And for once this tourist market is entirely Indian, and the differences between it and other more westernised tourist spots are interesting.

Boats on the lake at Mt Abu
Just before sunset the boats all madly try to get in place for the perfect view...
Sunset over the lake
Every evening the sun sets over the lake; it's the perfect romantic backdrop

The Summer Palace

The Maharaja of Jaipur's old summer palace
The Maharaja of Jaipur's old summer palace overlooks central Mt Abu

My intentions in Mt Abu were physical but somewhat less romantic; I had an aching body and wanted to do nothing strenuous for a few days. I couldn't have picked a better spot because, according to my guidebook, there is precious little going on in Mt Abu, and that suited me fine. What I didn't realise was that my guidebook is utterly useless when it comes to the reality of Mt Abu; it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.

Brahma Kumaris

Headquarters of Brahma Kumaris
The headquarters of Brahma Kumaris

One of the reasons for this is the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual University, the headquarters of which are in Mt Abu. Purporting to combine all the religions of the world into one spiritual philosophy, this multinational collection of ashrams is totally funded by donations (evidently very large donations) and fills the streets of Mt Abu with white-clad people who are obviously quite at ease with life. I decided to float along to the centre's museum where the basics of their mission are explained, just to see what the beatific smiles were all about.

Puzzle of Life Solved

All suffering is due to vices. Vices are due to ignorance. Ignorance can be removed by godly knowledge. Godly knowledge is imparted by God himself at the end of Iron Age (Kaliyuga). This is the end of Iron Age. Therefore, now you can attain supreme purity, peace and prosperity, which is your godfatherly birthright in the new Golden-aged world now being re-established. Now or never.

What on earth is that supposed to mean? If that one's a little too esoteric, try this one. On another wall in the museum is the following list of entries in God's curriculum vitae:

Who is God? Supreme father of all souls

Name: Trimurti Shiva

Form: Incorporeal point of light

Abode: Infinite divine light (Brahmlok or Paramdham)

Attributes: Purifier; Ocean of Knowledge; Bestower of Peace, Love, Happiness and Bliss; Almighty Authority

Occupation: Re-establishes one original golden-aged deity religion after destruction of numerous iron-aged degraded religions of the world

Time of Descent: Confluence (Sangam) of the end of Iron Age and beginning of Golden Age (at the end of every Kalpa – one Kalpa is 5000 years)

Whoa! So God is an incorporeal point of light, after all, and that's what students like Dave get into when they hang out doing raja yoga in their ashrams (of which there are over 4000 in over 60 countries, incidentally). It all starts to make sense now... in a sense.

The Delwara Jain Temples

Mt Abu at dusk
Dusk falls and the lights come on

This is all different to what the Jains think; they're more into going round naked and avoiding the accidental murder of defenceless insects (or, at least, that's what the Digambara sect do; the less austere Shevetambara Jains wear white robes and aren't confined to monasteries, but they still believe in the same philosophies). But irrespective of whether you think God is an incorporeal point of light, a burning bush, a man on a cross or the culmination of a philosophy of enlightenment, you have to agree that the Delwara Jain Temples in northwestern Mt Abu are quite amazing. They are, without doubt, some of the most incredible temples I have ever seen, and that includes all the Taj Mahals and Mughal tombs you can muster.

A pan shop
Pan for sale in Mt Abu
Central Mt Abu
Central Mt Abu

Shanti Shankar

Rugged scenery on top of Shanti Shankar
Scenery on top of Shanti Shankar

Leaving the temples behind, I decided to climb a hill, as you do, and stocking up on Bisleri3 I headed for the Shanti Shikhar, a famous meditation spot overlooking the town. My guidebook proclaimed that it was 'not advisable to come up here alone', so I applied my Guidebook Theorem to the situation and headed straight for the track.

Mt Abu from Shanti Shankar
Mt Abu from Shanti Shankar

1 To underline that it's not just western tourists who get stung by travel agents and touts, I paid Rs150 for my luxury bus ticket, while one Indian tourist on the same bus paid Rs120, and another couple Rs160. If you're open for a scam, you'll get sucked in regardless of skin colour, it seems.

2 Although not one but three shops, right there on the main street, sells a huge range of ancient but effective guns. No doubt they're for shotgun weddings and quick divorces.

3 Bisleri is to Indian mineral water what Microsoft is to computers: a big, bad corporation. Back in the days when the Indians were still cottoning on to the fact that foreigners want pure bottled water instead of dodgy tap water, Bisleri became the instant market leader. It was so ubiquitous that people in India still refer to Bisleri instead of mineral water, much as the English hoover their carpets, Americans eat jello and hippies roll joints with rizlas. But the whole empire came crashing down when it was discovered that one Bisleri bottling plant had simply been shoving untreated tap water into bottles and flogging it, and the competition seized on the opportunity; these days there are more brands of water available in India than there are people, from common brands like Yes to less common brands like Bisil, Kingfisher, Euro and Bailley. The story doesn't end there, though; while I was in India, a spelling mistake crept into the bottle-printing machine and created a national joke; Bisleri's slogan 'The sweet taste of purity' had been magically transformed into something very different. Whenever I bought Bisleri, which was as little as possible, I would now be buying 'The sweat taste of purity'. Heads rolled, I am sure.

4 A great name for an American travelling through the developing world, don't you think? 'Hello, I'm Rich,' is possibly not the sort of thing you want to shout too loudly round these parts. Then again, someone mentioned that my name is a type of European currency, so who am I to talk?