An exploration of India’s kind soul
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.
The author and her husband, John Graham, in Agra, India, arrived before dawn to see the Taj Mahal in its best light.