Vil­lage walk

The gen­tle at­tributes of the vil­lagers in In­dia that truly in­spired me were their sim­plic­ity, their gen­eros­ity, their re­spect, and their good hu­mour.

Living Now - - Editorial - by Peter Walker

The strength, power, and gen­uine beauty of the In­dia I saw, em­anated from the vil­lages and their peo­ple.

Fear churned my stom­ach as I left my ho­tel room in cen­tral In­dia to walk for just three days to Uj­jain, one of the four holy cities where a sangam, or ‘meet­ing of rivers’, marked the site of the big­gest re­li­gious gath­er­ing in the world, the Hindu Khumba Mela. What I knew of In­dia was just a spot above noth­ing af­ter fly­ing into Goa, spend­ing a lit­tle time at a back­packer hos­tel and then trav­el­ling by sleeper bus with my new friend Rit­tam to Ma­hesh­wah in cen­tral In­dia. I had vir­tu­ally no lo­cal lan­guage be­yond hello, good­bye and thank you, no idea of cus­tom, no knowl­edge of the ter­rain, and a clear warn­ing from Rit­tam that a white per­son walk­ing alone would al­most cer­tainly face vi­o­lence, theft, and trick­ery – and even per­haps lose their life.

Not ex­actly an en­cour­ag­ing be­gin­ning, yet I was deter­mined to walk a good por­tion of In­dia be­fore I re­turned to Aus­tralia as a part of my Walk­ing Our World pil­grim­age. I have a the­ory that peo­ple are es­sen­tially good all over the world, so to with­draw from my walk on the ba­sis of a few warn­ings would com­pletely in­val­i­date my testing of that the­ory. Risk or not, I was deter­mined to walk. Rather than try to find my way through by­ways of the city to the main road, I hailed a mo­torised rick­shaw to nav­i­gate the streets and laneways to the tem­ple that marked the start of the In­doreUj­jain road. Af­ter about a 15-minute jour­ney un­der over­passes, along­side busy free­ways, be­tween mar­kets and tiny shops, across rail­ways and down nar­row laneways that had me think­ing I was never go­ing to reach my des­ti­na­tion, we popped out onto a main road and there was the tem­ple, towering above us as the cab skid­ded to a stop.

I climbed out, dragged my back­pack with me, re­trieved my walk­ing staff, paid the driver his 250 ru­pee and an ex­tra 100 (about $2) which was re­ceived with great and demon­strated grat­i­tude, then said thank you in my poor Hindi. He drove off with a smile and a wave. I be­gan to take stock of the walk­ing jour­ney ahead of me.

Lin­ing the wide, straight road that stretched to a dusty, smoky hori­zon were hun­dreds of mar­ket stalls, manned by dark, thin In­dian men sell­ing fruit and veg­eta­bles, cloth­ing, small hard­ware items, kitchen and house­hold clut­ter, and a myr­iad of trin­kets and re­li­gious icons. Al­ready the ap­pear­ance of a Cau­casian man was draw­ing at­ten­tion and I saw men squint­ing in the hazy sun­light at me – a tall, bearded, white man in khaki trousers, wield­ing a big wooden walk­ing staff and a grubby red

back­pack. Some pointed and grabbed at their friends to mut­ter some­thing in­audi­ble, yet clearly di­rected at me, this strange fig­ure in their land.

One man called out, “Na­maste Baba, at­titi deva bhava.” While I could sense the good in­ten­tion in the cry and saw his wave and smile, at this point I knew only that the first part was a greet­ing of re­spect. It was much later that I was to dis­cover the mean­ing of at­titi deva bhava.

I waved back, shouted, “Na­maste”, in re­turn, shoul­dered my un­wieldy back­pack, gripped my walk­ing staff, glanced at the tem­ple and silently asked the Hindu god of the tem­ple to take good care of me, and then be­gan walk­ing.

It was hot, noisy, dusty, and un­com­fort­able. Gar­ishly dec­o­rated trucks, three-wheel cabs, cars, bul­lock drays piled high with grass or su­gar cane, myr­i­ads of small mo­tor­bikes, and thou­sands upon thou­sands of peo­ple walk­ing all added to the bil­low­ing cloud that lifted from the road and clogged mouth, nose, eyes, ears, and lungs. A thick layer of a foul mix of cow and bul­lock poo, dirt, and diesel ex­haust fumes blan­keted ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing me. Men tramped amidst this in grubby dun­ga­rees, labour­ing at one thing or another. Women dressed in brightly coloured saris stared at me in won­der un­til the mo­ment I looked their way, when they im­me­di­ately averted their eyes, mut­tered, shrugged amongst them­selves, and con­tin­ued on their way, heads piled with cloth, food, grass, or sticks of wood.

Af­ter around two hours of steady walk­ing and cough­ing at the dust, I be­gan to re­lax into the steady mo­tion of walk­ing that I had known in Aus­tralia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Al­most as soon as this change oc­curred in me, In­dian men be­gan to en­gage with me, call­ing out in greet­ing. Mo­tor­cy­cle rid­ers waved while pil­lion pas­sen­gers twisted and gawked as they dis­ap­peared into the dusty dis­tance. In­wardly (and per­haps out­wardly) I smiled and in­stantly one mo­tor­cy­cle rider stopped and be­gan to speak to me with that mag­i­cal sing-song English that is par­tic­u­lar to In­di­ans. He asked me what I was do­ing, called me Baba, smiled a lot, lis­tened care­fully to my ex­pla­na­tion that I walked for bal­ance, peace, and free­dom then said to me, “you must be com­ing with me to my brother-in-law’s shop in front of the hospi­tal. You will be very wel­come.”

I had to take the time to ex­plain that I was ded­i­cated to walk­ing rather than clam­ber­ing on his mo­tor­bike, but promised that I would walk the half hour or so and stop by when I no­ticed the front gate of the hospi­tal. When I ar­rived I could have been roy­alty – be­tween young univer­sity stu­dents touch­ing my feet and declar­ing my yo­gi­hood and bless­ing me with Baba and At­titi Deva Bhava and my new friend in­sist­ing that I shake hands with all his friends and his shop-own­ing brother-in­law. The de­lay in get­ting there had meant I had been pro­moted as a white Aussie sadhu or ‘wan­der­ing holy man’ and was an in­stant lo­cal hero. This was a long way from threat, risk, dan­ger, and theft. My In­dian pil­grim­age had truly be­gun. It is im­pos­si­ble to por­tray ex­actly what In­dia is like in a short ar­ti­cle. If you can pic­ture th­ese things, per­haps it will help: smil­ing, white-toothed, dark­skinned chil­dren play­ing be­side the road in ex­posed sewage drains; a farm­ing fam­ily cook­ing me a late din­ner from scratch, shar­ing their sleep­ing space and mosquito net sim­ply be­cause I had no other roof, the man of the house tak­ing me proudly on a tour of ev­ery tem­ple in the lo­cal re­gion; beg­gar chil­dren laugh­ing and ca­jol­ing for a few ru­pees in re­ward; dead bod­ies burn­ing on mas­sive piles of wood be­side In­dia’s holi­est of rivers in Kashi, the holy city of Shiva; holy men and sad­hus bless­ing me with dots of red and yel­low ochre on my fore­head; bells tolling in Hindu tem­ples com­pet­ing with Mus­lim prayers echo­ing through thou­sand year old streets; dirt, dust, and smoke so thick that the sun is never more than an eerie or­ange ball in a brown-stained sky; peo­ple, peo­ple, and

The strength, power, and gen­uine beauty of the In­dia I saw em­anated from the vil­lages and their peo­ple.

more peo­ple, then even more peo­ple; never-end­ing noise; snow-capped moun­tains towering in the dis­tance from a high­land city whose houses are ev­ery colour and awe-in­spir­ing pat­terns of a kalei­do­scope. And vil­lages. It was the vil­lages that I ex­pe­ri­enced in ru­ral cen­tral In­dia near Kashi, and just north of the yoga tourism mecca of Rishikesh, that in­spired me most. They were pop­u­lated by any­thing from fifty to sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple liv­ing and shar­ing ev­ery­thing to­gether.

It was in th­ese vil­lages that my gen­uine love and re­gard for the In­dian peo­ple lodged gen­tly in my heart. In vil­lage af­ter vil­lage I was wel­comed and cared for as though I was a vis­it­ing king. I was in­tro­duced to broth­ers, sis­ters, moth­ers, chil­dren, grand­par­ents, great-grand­par­ents, close friends, teach­ers, mer­chants, pot­ters, weavers, mu­si­cians, and holy men and was in­stantly called friend, yogi, Baba, holy man. In some places most of the peo­ple spoke al­most no English, ex­cept for the chil­dren and young peo­ple, who un­der­stood enough to trans­late my sign declar­ing that I walked their coun­try, their re­gion, their vil­lage – for bal­ance, peace, and free­dom. That alone gained me re­spect. That alone made me Baba. That made me a sadhu (a holy man) and that meant that th­ese gen­er­ous, friendly peo­ple took me into their homes, fed me, housed me, shared what they had with me and asked noth­ing in re­turn. They wished me well as I walked away to my next ex­pe­ri­ence, to the next vil­lage, to another day of walk­ing across a land where walk­ing priests and holy men are part of a long tra­di­tion.

It be­came clear to me that the teem­ing cities, the churn­ing in­dus­try, the end­less honk­ing traf­fic, and the rush to em­brace Western ways are not the strength and beauty of In­dia. The strength, power, and gen­uine beauty of the In­dia I saw em­anated from the vil­lages and their peo­ple. The gen­tle at­tributes of th­ese vil­lagers that truly in­spired me were their sim­plic­ity, their gen­eros­ity, their re­spect, and their good hu­mour with each other and with me.

Since re­turn­ing from In­dia I have ded­i­cated my­self to recre­at­ing some of that vil­lage ex­pe­ri­ence here in Aus­tralia. When I started walk­ing over four years ago, part of my in­ten­tion was to form and in­spire ‘com­mu­nity’; peo­ple con­nected with one another by more than their mo­bile phones and their Facebook pro­files. Now with the ed­u­ca­tion of walk­ing In­dia and to some ex­tent my ear­lier vil­lage ex­pe­ri­ences in Fiji, I have for­mu­lated a clear vi­sion. Since re­turn­ing from In­dia I have cham­pi­oned this vi­sion and called it The Vil­lage.

The re­ally good news is that the idea has be­gun to ex­pand. The idea is based on a sim­ple the­ory of con­nec­tion, of shared re­spect not need­ing to be earned or proven, but present sim­ply be­cause another per­son is present. There is an as­sump­tion that ev­ery per­son brings a unique of­fer­ing and is en­cour­aged and wel­comed to of­fer it.

Now, or­gan­i­cally and with no ef­fort at all from me, the idea has ex­panded so that be­fore I fly to Europe to walk Bri­tain, main­land Europe, and the Mid­dle East, there will be two more in­car­na­tions of The Vil­lage, fur­ther testing my the­ory that peo­ple are es­sen­tially good all over the world.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of The Vil­lage is en­tirely op­po­site to the lone­li­ness of city liv­ing, of not even know­ing your nextdoor neigh­bour. In this strange world of dis­trac­tions, smart phones and screens, crush­ing mort­gages, stranger dan­ger, fear of ter­ror­ists, and sep­a­ra­tion there is a rapidly bur­geon­ing call for gen­uine, hu­man, face-to-face ac­cep­tance and con­nec­tion.

By the time I left In­dia, I did learn a lit­tle more of the Hindi lan­guage.

I learned what th­ese In­dian vil­lagers were say­ing to me when they said Na­maste Baba, At­titi deva Bhava.

Their first heart­felt greet­ing to a walk­ing stranger from another land roughly trans­lates as The divine in me bows to the divine in you, re­spected sir; you are my guest and guest is God. n Con­nect with other read­ers & com­ment on this ar­ti­cle at www.liv­ing­now.com.au

Peter Walker left his part­ner, fam­ily, ca­reer and friends, sold or gave away all his pos­ses­sions and be­gan a per­sonal pil­grim­age. Peter is a writer, or­a­tor, teacher and stu­dent of the pos­si­bil­i­ties and op­por­tu­ni­ties of life.

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