An ex­plo­ration of In­dia’s kind soul

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Our read­ers share tales of their ram­blings around the world. Who: Eileen Gra­ham (the au­thor) and her hus­band, John Gra­ham, of Gard­ners, Pa. Where, when, why: In­dia was not at the top of our list, but the ex­otic 23-day itin­er­ary — the Chandni Chowk bazaar of Delhi; the Am­ber Palace and Palace of Winds in Jaipur; a tented camp at the Na­gaur Cat­tle Fair; Ranthambore Na­tional Park in Ra­jasthan; the Taj Ma­hal in Agra; Varanasi and the Ganges River; and Kochi — drew us in like the folds of a silk sari. We trav­eled with a small-group com­pany that al­lowed a max­i­mum of 16 trav­el­ers and went in Fe­bru­ary, prior to mon­soon sea­son. Highlights and high points: I told my­self not to be dis­ap­pointed if we didn’t see a royal Ben­gal tiger in Ranthambore, one of 11 na­tional tiger pre­serves. On dusty drives into the park via an open-air “can­ter,” we ob­served sam­bar deer, blue an­telopes, lan­gur mon­keys, spot­ted deer and some of the 450 na­tive bird species, in­clud­ing the ru­fous treepie, white-throated king­fisher and black-headed ibis. There are 26 tigers in the 100square-mile for­mer hunt­ing re­serve of ma­hara­jas and our guide knew them like his own fam­ily. Just when we had given up hope, we sighted the reign­ing fe­male, Ar­row­head (named for tri­an­gu­lar white mark­ings on her ears), stalk­ing her prey not 100 feet away. Cul­tural con­nec­tion or dis­con­nect: Work­ing for Dastkar, a nearby vil­lage hand­i­crafts co­op­er­a­tive, can en­able women to send their chil­dren to pri­vate school. We vis­ited the Bright Fu­ture English School, a pri­vate school where par­ents pay a sub­stan­tial part of their in­come on a slid­ing scale. We had the honor of meet­ing their grad­u­at­ing class of 13 or so sev­enth-graders, only two of whom were girls. Af­ter I took their photo with my iPhone, some of the boys crowded around, hun­gry to lay hands on tech­nol­ogy. When we got home, I found self­ies of five of them with their names and phone num­bers in my con­tact list. Big­gest laugh or cry: Camels are a fea­ture of the Na­gaur cat­tle fair, where they are bought and sold along­side cows and horses, and tourists are of­fered camel rides. Look­ing at the lineup, I saw an an­cient beast with a tiny, white­bearded man in a big tur­ban and thought, “Betcha that’s the one they give me.” My camel had a mouth full of slob­ber, only a few teeth, a makeshift sad­dle with a pom­mel made of re­bar and frayed rope stir­rups. Get­ting on the kneel­ing camel, lean­ing way back when it rises, is a fear­some thing. But as we strolled the fair­grounds, I es­chewed the stir­rups and hap­pily lolled back and forth un­til a group of teenagers spied me (think: old woman, old camel, old keeper) and dou­bled over in laugh­ter. How un­ex­pected: Noth­ing can pre­pare you for Varanasi. It is a Hindu mecca where 20,000 pil­grims flock each day, ec­stat­i­cally wan­der­ing amid the chaos of car and mo­tor­bike horns, mer­chants hawk­ing their wares, holy men beg­ging alms, and cows, goats, sheep and dogs search­ing the garbage-strewn streets for food. El­bow-to-el­bow, we watched where we walked to avoid all man­ner of ex­cre­ment, all on our way to the Ganges. We boarded a boat and re­ceived pa­per saucers with flow­ers and a can­dle in each as we pad­dled to the cre­ma­tion grounds. Bod­ies are placed in white shrouds on san­dal­wood pyres and cre­mated on the night of their death. As we watched, mes­mer­ized by white-clad fig­ures car­ry­ing out this fi­nal cel­e­bra­tion while sa­cred cows roamed among them, one of our num­ber qui­etly floated her hus­band’s ashes off the stern of our boat. The next morn­ing, we rose be­fore dawn to see the same pil­grims bathing in the Ganges. Fa­vorite me­mento or mem­ory: Though it is a mi­nor­ity re­li­gion, there are more than 31,000 Sikh tem­ples in In­dia, whose mis­sion it is to do good works and feed the hun­gry. In­di­ans’ over­ar­ch­ing be­lief in karma and the chance to re­turn as a bet­ter be­ing in the next life brings thou­sands of vol­un­teers daily to make soup and bread. Help­ing to bake bread at a Sikh tem­ple touched me deeply and pro­vided an un­for­get­table glimpse into the kind soul of In­dia.

COUR­TESY OF EILEEN GRA­HAM

The au­thor and her hus­band, John Gra­ham, in Agra, In­dia, ar­rived be­fore dawn to see the Taj Ma­hal in its best light.

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