Asia | India | Maharashtra – Mastering the Head Bobble
One of my bosses when I was in Tanzania — the Assistant Director actually — was a pretty solid Hindiphile. I remember a day, a couple of weeks before I finished my service, where he took about half an hour out of his typically hectic schedule of bureaucracy and administrative fire-fighting to sketch me out a map of India and show me where I really *had* to go on my trip.
‘Don’t try and cover Bombay to Delhi in one shot….you’ll find yourself looking out the window and thinking, ‘*This* is what I came here to see, not these huge, polluted cities,” he said.
‘Take the train as much as you can,’ he said, ‘the people you meet will be some of the best experiences of your trip.’
But lastly he said, ‘These caves. These Buddhist and Hindu caves here in Maharashtra. I forget what they’re called, but they’re like a thousand, fifteen-hundred years old, and absolutely incredible. You have to see them. I’d go back to India just to see them again…it’d be worth it.’
They’re called Ellora and Ajanta, and they are amazing, and they’re the last things I saw in India before I left.
I took a night train from Goa to Bombay, not sure how exactly to spend my last three days in the country. A group of twenty-somethings in the compartment next to mine swept me into a little impromptu party they held at the end of the train car, smoking chillums and haranguing the steward for food and drinks and ice-cream from the pantry car. They did their best to convince me to stay with them in Bombay until I flew out; they’d all lived abroad for a while and were sure they could show me a good time.
Tempting as it was, when I woke the next morning with the train pulling into Thane, half an hour before Bombay, I remembered my former boss’s words, and looked at a rail map, and decided to go. It took the rest of the day and a lot of switching trains and busses in obscure but friendly market towns, but by the time night fell, I was 5km from Ajanta, the older of the two complexes.
An early morning start the next day proved to be a mistake, since it was a Saturday and the caves were jam-packed with school groups, but once afternoon came I was able to explore some of them in relative quiet. These caves are the sorts of places that benefit a lot from peaceful moments. Most of them were constructed either as monasteries or shrines, and in the absence of other people, it’s easy to imagine them humming calmly with monks and pilgrims, chanting and studying in their rock cut cells. The constant *tink-tink* of the stone-cutters outside restoring the intricate facades and columns emphasizes the feeling of antiquity, the sound echoing in these vast chambers probably identical to that produced in 550 AD when they were first constructed.
Ajanta in particular is also well decorated with absurdly detailed tempera paintings. Endless depictions of the Buddha grace the columns and niches. Animals and trees surround boddhisattvas on the walls of some of the larger monasteries, and even the ceilings still sport enormous prayer wheels and geometric designs, still vivid after 1400 years of weathering and vandalism.
Ellora, though little painted, gives you the feeling of walking through a Flintstones-era city like nowhere else I’ve been. Some of the monasteries here are two or even three stories high, bored straight into the living rock like a horizontal prairie dog town, walls frantic with reliefs of Buddhas and, in the later caves, Hindu gods. The settings are dramatic as well: the last cave I visited, a Hindu temple from the seventh century, was an entire pillared hall, reachable either by stairs from a waterfall-gouged pool below, or by sculpted archway from a slot-canyon on the other side. I found myself walking around mindlessly repeating the mantra ‘Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow…’
There were plenty of Tibetans around too. Monks, judging by their crimson and yellow robes, checking out their own religious heritage the way a devout American Christian might visit Jerusalem or Rome, and snapping as many pictures as that American probably would.
Tourists love Tibetan monks. *I* love them. I sat on the third floor of a monastery cave listening to 20 or so of them chant before a 1200 year old Buddha. It was that rumbling, monotonous chanting that makes you feel like you’re in outer space. After they stopped, one of them approached and motioned for me to shoot a group photo. They really know how to pose, too: Two somber groups in profile, facing each other while a single candle flickered at the foot of the 3 meter high seated Buddha in the background. I wish I’d gotten that shot on my own camera.
I found myself wondering — if there were a group of Indians exiled in Tibet, would foreigners flock to come see them, the way the do to Tibetans in places like Dharamsala? I think if they hung onto their traditions and culture as tenaciously and colorfully as the Tibetans do, they might. We love exiles. It’s the underdog thing, plus perhaps a certain kinship: us as travellers feeling isolated and excluded as well, and seeing a certain vindication — or glorification? — of our outsider status in them.
* * * *
On Jan. 6 I wrote this in my sketchbook:
I *just* now realized how much I’m going to miss India when I leave. I have to admit I’ve spent more than a few moments over the past few months getting annoyed with all the hassle and stress, wishing I could snap myself instantly home, or at least someplace else where I don’t feel a thousand eyes on me, or have to second-guess every transaction or gesture of apparent goodwill. But I’ve also realized that this is what happens in Tourist India, like it or not.
I’ve spent the past couple of hours nibbling on kachori in a little fry shop near the railway station in Chalisgaon. Chalisgaon is so entirely off the tourist map that I’m hard pressed to even find a sign in English script, and I walked through a pack of auto-rickshaw drivers three times without hearing a single ‘Hello? Rickshaw?’
I killed time at this fry shop getting introduced to the cook’s extended family, including one son who kept scampering back and forth between me and his brothers, asking my name and country and relaying the answers back to them. He dug out his fifth grade Geography book and we looked through the pictures reverently, his dad chiming in with the occasional relevant English word (‘Ah! This Industry!’ ‘Mountains!’).
It didn’t feel special at all. It didn’t feel like I was Building Bridges of Cultural Understanding or Expanding a Young Boy’s Horizons or anything like that, it just felt like the way to kill some time before catching a train.
It was at the train station that all these realizations hit me: how *used* to this stuff I’ve gotten, to the little towns with eager kids and proud fathers, but also to the train stations late at night, to families asleep in loose blanket-wrapped knots on the platform, to newsstands with book titles ranging from history to Osho to How to Be A Better Salesman in three different languages. There was a goat asleep on a bench in the second class waiting room and I looked at it and thought ‘Oh, hey. Goat.’
But tomorrow night I’ll fly away and not see any of this again for a very long time. It was sobering, as I strolled across the flyover, looking down on the train tracks, to think that the day after tomorrow, if I get the urge for a box of laddoo and burfi, I *won’t be able to get it!* If I want to travel halfway across the country, it *won’t* be in an Indian Railways carriage with the familiar 6+2 berth configuration, the two toilets at the end of the car, one mysteriously locked, the endless peanut sellers, chai sellers, coffee sellers, chikoo sellers, popcorn sellers, tangerine sellers, beggars, sweepers, singers, garrulous packs of students, warm families of nine, steely old men, unhurried Travelling Ticket Examiners.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but New York may look dull by comparison.
A lot of it comes down to a certain reliability that India’s got in ways the US could never touch. *Every town* has the same sweet shops, dhabas, barbers and cigarette stands. Porters at the train stations always wear red shirts. Dour-looking men on benches waiting for the same train as you are always smile back from under bushy moustaches when you smile at them. The Indian Head Bobble is understood from the Himalaya to Kerala.
And because of this uniformity, I was *finally* starting to get the hang of it. I finally figured out the difference between a Booking Counter and a Reservation Counter. Finally learned that special hand wave that makes hawkers instantly dissapear as if conjured away. Finally got the knack of estimating the cost of a lunch thali just by glancing at a dhaba and its clientele.
And now I have to go. It just isn’t fair.
India takes a lot of getting used to, but once you’re used to it, it’s hard to imagine going anywhere else.