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 al 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.
An overnight luxury bus from Diu to Ahmedabad and another bus bound for the north1 saw me arrive in the hill station of Mt Abu. The monsoon is doing funny things this year – it leapt from being from five days behind schedule to being ahead of schedule in just 24 hours, jumping across half the country in just one day having only dropped 45 per cent of the expected rain by this point. With this in mind, I settled in to enjoy the relatively low humidity of the 1200m-high plateau of Mt Abu.
I only stopped at Mt Abu to break up the long journey north – yet another overnight bus ride would have blown my mind – but it turned out to be one of the best moves I've made in a long time. Sufficiently off the tourist trail to be almost totally free of westerners, it is instead a haven for Indian tourists. Mt Abu is the honeymoon capital of Rajasthan, itself one of the most romantic states in India, and as a result it's fascinating to someone whose concept of marriage is totally different to the Indian one.
A Marriage Made in Mt Abu
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.
The first thing you notice is not just the friendliness of the people, but the way in which they are friendly. In developing countries it's rare to feel that people are talking to you on an even keel; either they are slightly in awe of your western status, equating you with overseas luxury and the American dream, or they are middle class, in which case they tend simply to accept your existence and are interested in what you have to say, rather than fascinated by the simple fact that you're talking. Mt Abu is overwhelmingly in the latter category; the people you meet are also tourists, on the same wavelength as you but simply in their own country rather than abroad, and as such, talking is easy. Conversation is from one tourist to another, nothing more, nothing less.
The general lack of westerners is one key to Mt Abu's success; from an Indian point of view it must be a tourist hell, but for me it was a great place to watch the Indians at play without having to screen out the impact of western tourism. And they're a funny bunch; no matter how long I travel round this country, I can't get my head round the Indians on holiday. Seemingly biologically attached to each other, you never see an Indian holidaying alone; they always come in huge groups, whether with family or friends. Among Indian tourists, the universal reaction to the news that I am travelling alone is one of amazement, as if what I'm doing is slightly sacrilegious; this attitude is similar to the stereotypical Chinese and Japanese tourist, and in a similar way Indians always take tours with others instead of going it alone, they always take a guide at the attractions rather than getting a book and doing it at their own pace, and they even manage to take their honeymoons in huge groups. It's hard to imagine that happening back home... but then again, in India the concept of sex before marriage is total anathema, so the whole marriage thing is another world to start with.
It's a successful world though, if you throw away your preconceptions of what a marriage actually is. Indian marriages are, in the vast majority of cases, arranged; there are a few 'love marriages', but the fact that this category has its very own name indicates its rarity. People get married at fairly fixed times in their lives; it's a shock to the Indians to learn that I am 27 and unmarried. The fascination with western liberalism is as universal as the Gujarati fascination with alcohol, but the desire to enjoy the fruits of western marriage is surprisingly rare; yet again the American media is an influence. Divorce is almost totally unheard of in India, but it forms a staple ingredient in hundreds of western soap operas, along with infidelity and the scourge of AIDS. Generally Indian marriages last until one of the parties dies, because the marriage starts from nothing – an arrangement for social and business reasons, not love – and develops from there. And the vast majority of marriages develop into successful ones.
Of course, you can look at it another way. Most marriages here work because the patriarchal society makes it so; the man is in charge, and he gets his way, end of story. Also, if society totally banishes and rejects divorcees, people are far less likely to get divorced; it is technically legal to divorce in India, but then again I once signed an agreement never to drive my cattle through the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which only goes to show that technical legalities are nonsense everywhere. I'll never know how successful Indian marriage is in terms of my definition of 'successful', but few people here complain. I had imagined that I would meet young people pouring scorn on the idea of arranged marriages and wishing for western liberalisation, but I have yet to find someone who doesn't equate the West with marriages failing. I can't help wondering if they've got a point, with such a huge proportion of first time marriages in the West ending in divorce.
But these grisly thoughts are far from the minds of the happy couples strolling round picturesque Nakki Lake in central Mt Abu. As the sun sets over the lake, the people come out in their hundreds to have their photographs taken with the hills in the background; this being an Indian tourist spot, there are plenty of men standing around offering to take pictures for those who don't own cameras, and film shops rent cameras by the hour. It must be a lucrative business; honeymooners are hardly going to visit Mt Abu and not want some recorded memories, even if they're too poor to buy a camera, but you'd never see this in the West – it'd be as attractive a business proposition as a contract to sell fridges in Greenland.
And after the stroll it's back up the hill to buy an ice cream, a saree or a .44 while the rest of the family settles in for a severely big evening meal (though, to be fair, the people in Mt Abu aren't as half as obese as those in Diu), and then it's off to bed for the traditional honeymoon pursuits. But I couldn't help thinking what it must be like to have the clichéd First Night for real, for it to be a genuine consummation of marriage; if you could find a western couple for whom the First Night was also their first time, that would be pretty impressive, and besides, in our culture the thought of two people marrying without having spent time living together is, by my generation at least, frowned upon. How different these concepts that we both call marriage.
The Summer Palace
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.
I did indeed spend my first two days doing next to nothing, just writing letters, resting my aching toe (following my injury in Palitana), eating copious masala dosas in the local restaurants and ambling round the lake. My hotel, the Shree Ganesh, was so friendly and pleasant that I nearly forgot I was in India (especially as I had satellite TV in my room, a bonus in a room costing Rs150 a night), and I revelled in the holiday atmosphere. Doing nothing was never so much fun, but I can't seem to do nothing for more than a day or my head explodes, so I decided that my foot would just have to suffer; Mt Abu had things to explore, and I was bloody well going to explore them.
Overlooking the lake is the Maharaja of Jaipur's old summer palace, a mouldering old building perched on top of a sheer granite hill. I wandered up there the following morning, just for the view, and soon found myself chatting to the caretaker.
'Want to come inside?' he asked.
'If it's possible,' I replied.
'Why not?' he said, and unable to think of a reason I followed him up to the roof.
'I sleep here every night,' he said, pointing to a beautifully constructed pavilion on the top of a tower, the highest point of the palace. Climbing to the top, I had a view of Mt Abu that was beautiful in the daytime, but which would be simply amazing at dawn and dusk.
'You sleep here?' I asked, unable to believe that a man with such a non-end job – looking after a building that's used for nothing and doesn't even see any tourists – could have such a stunning bedroom.
'Yes, every night,' he said, and winked. It wasn't just the shaggy beard and George Harrison hair that made him look happy, it was his eyes. I was to come across quite a few other intensely happy people in Mt Abu.
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.
It was a real groovy trip, man. Sitting alone in a theatre equipped with funky lasers and mellow soundtracks, I listened to woman with a delightfully English accent tell me that if my life was getting me down, I could solve it all by getting into meditation. I found out that if the rat race was proving a burden, I could commune with the one true God and get into real salvation. And then I began to lose track of quite what was going on.
Perhaps the problem is that my life isn't getting me down, and the rat race is proving nothing but a distant memory, so I'm not really in the target market for Brahma Kumaris... but I still wanted to know what had made these centres spring up all over the world, providing guidance to a huge range of nationalities and creeds, so I kept listening. Unfortunately the presentation started to sink into the realm of sixties cliché, and that's when I realised that every cliché has to start somewhere, and I'd surely found such a source. Meditation is not without merit, but it doesn't half make some people start spouting nonsense, and the Brahma Kumaris does rather veer into this territory. I'd already met two kindly products of the university in the street who had practically begged me to drop by for a chat and to meet the only westerner currently studying there, an Australian painter called Dave; unfortunately for them, my idea of hell is something akin to being stuck in an ashram with an Australian painter called Dave, so I thanked them and made my escape. The museum displays made me feel that it had been a lucky one.
Here's an example of what I discovered. A big sign sits in the museum, proclaiming the following:
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
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.
The two main temples at Delwara are the Vimal Vasahi, dating from 1031, and which took 14 years to build by 1500 artisans and 1200 labourers; and the Luna Vasahi, dating from 1230, which if anything is even more impressive than its neighbour. There are three other temples, which are pleasant but nothing on these two, and as I wandered into the complex I bought a slim guidebook and marvelled at its wonderful Inglish descriptions of the temples, wondering whether the reality could ever live up to the sales pitch.
'The marble has yielded itself with a loving docility to fastidious chiselling,' the book explained; 'No description or drawing can convey an adequate expression of the great beauty and the delicately carved compositions of human beings and animal effigies of the interior of the temples which need a keen approbation,' warbled another breathtakingly long sentence; 'One can imagine the wonderful execution with rough and rustic instruments of those days,' it continued; and 'The minute chiselling and adorned motifs are unequal [sic] and matchless; the profundity of sculptured splendour is beyond fitting description,' it chimed. With the temples inspiring such exquisitely constructed prose, I couldn't wait to explore.
I wasn't disappointed. Indeed, the marble carving of the Delwara Temples is, quite simply, astounding; the nearest description I can come up with is to imagine yourself miniaturised and put inside one of the most amazing ivory carvings you have ever seen, and even then it's only an approximation. The perfection of detail is so intricate and well constructed that it is incredible to think that these carvings were being chipped out so many hundreds of years ago. The guidebook, overpoweringly effervescent though it was, turned out to be spot on.
The ceilings of the corridors surrounding the central shrines are the most amazing parts. Every square inch is covered in geometric designs, many-armed gods and goddesses from the Hindu and Jain pantheons, scenes of everyday life, excerpts from the lives of the tirthankars (the prophets of the Jain religion) and all sorts of other scenes; the sheer range of artistry is beyond imagination, and it is at this point that I have to say that to believe Delwara you have to see it. My descriptions would only serve to add verbosity to the above quotations; what can I say except, 'The profundity of sculptured splendour is beyond fitting description...'
Interestingly the Delwara Temples are the only temples I have visited where photography is totally forbidden. There is no camera charge because there are no cameras allowed – it's as simple as that. And for once I was pleased; not only did this save me reeling off an entire film trying to encompass the huge scale of intricacy I was witnessing, but it also saved me from discovering the hard way that it is impossible to record effectively such an immense work of art. No doubt the British archives contain some wonderful black and white pictures of the temples, but that possibility aside, the marble brilliance of Delwara lives only in the minds of those who have been there.
Unfortunately it seems impossible for some visitors to appreciate such beauty quietly. Demonstrating the exuberance that makes the Taj Mahal a cattle market and the situation in Kashmir a veritable tinder box, guides literally yell at their charges – groups of at least 50 people at a time – and shatter any atmosphere as surely as if they had stuck a jukebox in the corner and played 'Viva Las Vegas' on full volume. Luckily there are respites between the waves of sardine-cosy humans, but this being Mt Abu, bastion of Indian tourism, I had to take my time in order to discover the beautiful silences of the temples. Of course this exuberance has its silver lining, and I met plenty of very friendly Jains (all of whom seemed to have the same surname, Jain, in much the same way that most Sikhs are called Singh). Their smiles more than made up for any disturbance.
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.
Shanti Shankar provides a beautiful view over the entire plateau, and the climb helped me to work up an appetite and provided a talking point as I joined Rich4, an American I had met at the temples, for dinner. Coincidentally another American was sitting at the next table and he soon joined us; it was then that I discovered what must surely be the biggest challenge of all time.
This second American, whose name I never discovered, was in India with a group of fellow students from the University of Chicago, effectively there to learn Hindi. I was intrigued; I hadn't really thought whether America has any kind of cultural ties with India, though of course there are Indians living in America just as there are all over the world. But when I discovered what his purpose was in learning Hindi, I choked on my Thums Up and got what can only be described as a masala nasal experience.
When I'd stopped coughing, he continued. 'I'm a psych student,' he said, abbreviating the study of the brain to five succinct letters. 'I want to learn Hindi so I can do some case studies on Indians and learn how they think and how their minds work.'
I couldn't believe what I was hearing; you might as well admit that your aim in life is to discover a black hole and to stick it in a glass display case on your desk. Hindi has a massive range of words that deal with emotions, some of which can only be described as thoroughly esoteric, and even without the communication challenge, the Indian psyche bears as much resemblance to the American psyche as chapatis do to hot dogs. I was full of admiration for this young man with the exuberance of youthful academia on his side, and I idly wondered if he'd ever read A Passage to India; E M Forster's description of the relationship between Dr Aziz and Fielding, which is arguably the core of the book, is a perfect encapsulation of the social gulf between the two cultures, despite it being over sixty years old and from the Raj era. Somehow I don't think he had, or he wouldn't have sounded quite so confident.
Still smarting from my cola burn, I wished him well, wondering what he would discover. The thought kept me chuckling all the way to Jodhpur, a seven-hour bus ride to the north.
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?