My flame-haired appearance just before the death sentence was called on El Beardo :)
[ Note : This, the final of my journal entries from my six months in India was written about four months ago now but its 'publishing' held back awaiting the completion of a unique travel video that was to (and shall in the future) accompany it. The video is still under production, so for that and various other reasons - lack of any other new material for one - it seems about time now to publish the writing and photos at least. But more fun to follow in times to come friends. ]
'There is no happiness for him who does not travel, Rohita! Thus we have heard. Living in the society of men, the best man becomes a sinner... therefore wander!
The feet of the wanderer are like the flower, his soul is growing and reaping the fruit; and all his sins are destroyed by his fatigues in wandering.
Therefore wander!' - words of the god Indra, protector of travellers, from the Aitareya Brahmana *
Conch shells by gaslight
'India is like a garden. A garden with so many roses, so many flowers, so many peoples, religions and sects.' - words of Akhbar Khan when I had a tea and chat with him near the I-Ezir mosque in Mysore.
Kanyakumari : Where land and wandering ends?
My arrival at 3.30am in Kanyakumari, the southern most point of the Indian subcontinent is a little inglorious.
People await the dawn at Kanyakumari
But only a little. Whilst it's best to bypass the details of discomfort or illness in travel writing I'm sure, swiftly drawing a veil over the boring and the needlessly grotesque, suffice to say that after six months in the country, India had one more little scene of... um?... 'bathroom complications'
, to put me through. Tatty and tired off the bus at 4.00am with 15-20 kilos of luggage on my back I was saved at the very last possible moment by a dirty hole in a dirty floor of a dirty hut in a car park full of grinning Indian lads, their grins made that much wider and more mocking in the dark for the froth of all the paste-brushing from their fingers on their teeth. A last chance saloon, by the light of the moon. The most important 5 Rupees I handed over in all my time here.
Sun rise at Kanyakumari
India reminding me and my belly who's boss.
Yes, six months - or there about - in 'India !ncredible !ndia' as the ongoing tourist board campaign slogan prints and sings loud and proud. And now my yatra is almost at an end. Yatra? Yatra is the Hindi word which roughly translates as a 'journey' or 'voyage'. It is most often used in the context of a journey of spiritual intent; a pilgrimage. India has a great tradition of yatra-making (if I can use such a phrase?). Its holy men and indeed large portions of its vast population at any time of the year are continually engaged in different yatras (if like myself, these days often undertaken by bus and train rather than on foot) to visit the holy, auspicious places and great festivals of their nation. A great never ending circumambulation of humanity moving around the subcontinent.
The southern most man in all of India surveys his land and people to the North.
Kanyakumari then an appropriate destination to (almost) conclude my time in this wonderful, baffling, beautiful, bonkers land as not only is it as far south as you can get in India, India’s ’Land's End’ (and south is where my global yatra is heading) but it is also intimately tied through the actions of one individual to the act of undergoing and concluding a yatra.
India has a long tradition of great wanderers. Those taking to their toes with itchy feet and a mission in mind. Or to go in search of that mission whatever it may be. The Mahatma just one of the arts more recent and renowned exponents. One of the most famous individuals to perform a great yatra of his nation was the sage Swami Vivakananda who following the death of his guru undertook to walk the length and breadth of India for five years as a 'sanyasi' (a Hindu wandering mendicant, or 'world renouncer' akin to a saddhu) with only a wooden staff, water pot and two books to his name.
This undertaking earned him the nickname of The Wandering Monk. His journey was a journey to try to understand his country, his people, their poverty, their suffering and potential by being amidst them. Moving through them. Often with them.
His journey commenced in Varanasi ( 'Oh glorious Varanasi!' ) and ended here at Kanyakumari - or Cape Camorin as it was then known under the British - where three oceans meet : The Bay of Bengal, The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Legend has it that determined to conclude his grand yatra on the 'last bit of Indian rock' (an outcrop about 400 metres off shore that now houses a memorial building to him) but unable to afford a boat across he threw himself into the mercy of the (apparently but I suspect apocryphally shark infested) waves and was safely washed up onto the rock where he then meditated for three days commencing on Christmas Eve 1892.
This led to his personal epiphany; the creation of his 'vision of one India'
. The philosophical fruit of all that wandering. All that travel. He had gained insight and wisdom in travelling to the four corners; the cardinal compass points of India and interacting and talking with its diverse peoples. He had become tetraperatos. **
So what about The Wandering Wes now that his tum ‘n’ bum are back online and he’s sat upon his backpack in the dark upon the southern sands of Kanyakumari? He is awaiting the sunrise at this most auspicious of geographical points with hundreds upon hundreds of gaily coloured, jasmine threaded Indians. He’s watching the man selling conch shells and cowries and the peanut wallah hawking their wares by the light of gas lamps.
The central temple and traffic lights at Rameswaram
He’s listening to the invisible wash of night waves and that most welcome of calls ‘Chai chai chai coffee coffee chai!’
, perhaps for the last time, as men wheel bikes with metal tureens of hot water strapped to their saddle racks across the beach. Trade and faith. Two things that never sleep in India. And he’s thinking...
...and I’m thinking in many ways my journey to and around India has been a pilgrimage of sorts. A yatra. Though I cannot claim any spiritual intent. For of all the countries in this sprawling jaunt around the globe India was always the land I felt I was heading to, rather than merely visiting or just passing through. For reasons I've tried but mostly failed to explain to others and to myself throughout my adult life it has always been the country calling me.
A shot of the final stretch of Rameswaram.
Why, I really yet couldn’t say. The history. The hurt. The colour. The dirt. The politics. The people. The long colonial shadow. The chaos, the cultures, festivals and faiths, 'strange' traditions and superstitions, myths and tales. The natural wonders. Its dazzling diversity of all of the above. The physical and mental landscapes that open up before you as you travel around her. It's a country over the years I attempted, from time to time, to live in vicariously; to travel to with my imagination aided by literature, music, movies, art, news, documentaries, photographs and other means. But whilst it is a truth of any country of course, it is profoundly true of India to say that you can have absolutely no idea what it is possibly like until you actually go there.
Napalm sunset at... oh, that beach near Trivy whose name I can't recall right now.
Until you undergo a yatra.
The sun is up now at Kanyakumari. Rising up behind the two rocks that support the Vivakananda memorial building and the huge, somewhat cheap looking statue of the revered Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar between them. ( I later try to take one of the ferry boats to visit them but the queue is just horrendous). The Indian families are happy and mobile-phone photographing each other. Some lucky kids are permitted by parents to be charged up and down the sands on horses. Cantering and kicking up the sand. People are standing in the wash of the surf. White horses here too galloping into land and up around ladies' saris. More boisterous boys have taken to the waters. Jumping in and splashing around fully clothed. Salt water and testosterone in denim and cotton with smiles.
A boatman on his shore.
They fall about and fool about in the froth and tumble of waves that break over their bodies and the rocks here about. Once again, I love the way the sea sets people free. Washing away sadness and boredom and hardship and inhibition for an hour or so. Many visitors have brought jam jars, plastic bottles and other receptacles to gather a portion of these auspicious waters to take home with them. Others bend and cast waters up and back over their heads, this a prayerful blessing to their gods.
Being a southern land tip both sunrise and sunset are visible from this same spot on the coastline. So come sundown these merry surf-drenched scenes repeat themselves. The boys, their bodies slick from the sea ascending slippery rocks victoriously. Women screaming when caught by waves of unexpected vigour.
On shore it's jasmine and ice cream and paan, popcorn and peanuts and conch shells and horses and unguarded sandals and emotions being claimed by the tide.
Rameswaram : Sri Lanka in sight?
Having ended up with a little more time down south than I had anticipated, for a couple of days I decide to cut a mad dash right the way back across from the Keralan west coast to the far side of the country and the south easterly island land stretch of Rameswaram. Even taking advantage of a break in transport half way for a lunch at one of my favourite eateries, Meenakshi Bhavan in Madurai on the way through.
Peach blend sunset at... darn, it's that beach near Trivy again whose name I can't remember! :)
So used now am I to bonkers itineraries, logistics and travelling ridiculous distances at the drop of a hat that what's another night train and two buses (a journey costing just £3 all told) to me now?
Rameswaram is actually an island linked to the mainland via the long reaching metal girder arm of the Indira Gandhi Bridge. It is an island sliver that stretching south east, fragments into a string of smaller landmasses and rocks, referred to as Adam's Bridge, that form geographical stepping stones to the shores of north western Sri Lanka (Mannar Island). The gap is a mere 30 kilometres. Unsurprisingly it is considered an auspicious and holy area and not so long ago played host to one of India's many significant annual festivals, Shivaratri. Myth and legend wash upon these shores too.
The Lady and her Load
It is from Rameswaram that Hanuman, the monkey-god soldier fighting on behalf of Rama (hero of the Ramayana) is believed to have stepped over to Lanka to battle the hordes of the Demon King Ravana and assist in the recovery of Rama's bride Sita.
Fatigued to the point of indifference by faith and fable and the stone houses and tacky statues of gods erected in their names I must confess that my main motivation in popping across to Rameswaram is merely a whim to walk as close to my next travel destination, Sri Lanka, as is physically possible. To this end, on one day, I sit and await the local bus to take me a little further out of town to the hamlet of Dhanushkodi from whereon I must take to the sands and my heels. An ice cream man 'poink-poinks' his horn, and tinkles his little brass bell beneath his striped red and white plastic canopy to draw your attention to 'Chocolate Fantasies' with 'Morrr cone!'.
'Om namha Sivaya! Om namha Sivaya!'
The Magic Rangoli Man
chant and blare the Ramanatha Swamy Temple speakers again and again. Goats hoover their way through the street-side trash with indiscriminate taste and a cow sends its lengthy, party-trick tongue whipping up first one nostril and then the next. The bus arrives. Life momentarily is a maelstrom of shouting and chaos and a desperate crush of limbs and then everyone settles and we're on our way.
This is not a particularly successful trip. The guide book and the locals claim that from the last bus drop at Dhanushkodi it's a 4km walk along the coast to get to the furthest thrown beach tip of the island. I set off along the sands with many other of the bus's inhabitants for company.
A Shortarse Shadow upon the Shore
Thankfully the sky is a little overcast to begin with. The waves turned to steel grey, bereft of the sun, and washing back and forth, nibbling away at this, one of India's furthest lips of land. Children take time out from the pilgrimage of their icon-clutching parents to chase and splash in the surf. We all keep walking, walking, walking. We pass small settlements of once sturdy brick buildings now reduced to rubble and nothingness. With the winds teasing the sands across these possibly colonial era corpses there's an element of the forsaken and the ghostly about it all. A small pastel-blue church with corrugated sheet roof though is in healthy business, thirty or so worshippers squatting in the shade and listening to a sermon.
We pass fishing boats drawn up on the shore, their nets carefully stowed away.
A view of Varkala beach from on high.
We pass the woven-palm store shacks (and homes?) of this far flung fishing community. After a long while, the ruins of a larger village rear out of the sands and for no particular reason of religious import I can discern, this is where pretty much all my fellow pilgrims consider their journey at an end and turn back. But I must continue to reach my goal. Walking, walking, walking. I seem to have been walking for an age! And the clouds have cleared some time ago leaving me exposed to an unblinking sun. I walk and walk and walk. Progress is not that slow. Although on sand, it is packed hard and so not too much of a trudge and drag. The ruined village and all other people long, long behind me now. Fallen from view in fact on this flat straight landscape.
"She sells sea shells by the sea shore"
I continue to trudge along using one distant focal point after another ( a fishing boat etc) as something to reach; motivation to go on, but they are all passed and recede into the background behind me whilst the shoreline continues to stretch away into the distance as far as my eyes can see. In the end, feeling I have walked a good 6 kilometres at least (though in reality I'll never know) and fearful that every step forward under the now punishing midday sun requires the same step back again with a diminishing supply of water, I have to give up out of exasperation and for safety's sake. A shame. I really wanted to reach the end and look across the way to another land. I guess I'll have to fly to Sri Lanka after all.
Varkala and other beaches : Time out for a mind awash with memories
Well here I am folks.
Silhouettes in the Foam at Varkala, Kerala
The very last destination of my Indian odyssey if you discount having to fly out of Trivandrum
. Nothing meaningful or of much note. Just a good stretch of time on a beach to let it all start to sink in. Whilst not a great enthusiast for bumming around on beaches I have visited a number of them in the south of India ( Gokarna's pleasant and fun Kudle and Om, Chowrai on Vypeen Island near Fort Kochi and grotty Kovalam and peaceful Chowara in south Kerala), though I stuck to a long held promise to myself that the only place I knew for certain I would not set foot on in India first time around would be Goa. From the point of view of this journal I have not given mention to 'beach time' as it does not make for interesting reading.
'The Axeman Cometh'- the man charged with the task of lopping off 6 months of bright red hair and beard :))
Precisely because 'beach time' is generally 'nothing time' or 'down time'. Relaxing. Recharging the batteries. Letting the body recline and the mind stretch its legs upon the wash of those endless blue horizons.
So in many ways, though uninspiring in any grand sense, Varkala ( incidentally the best of the beaches I visit) is the perfect, calm environment - quiet now at season's end - to let my mind unwind and begin to playback all of those rich images and experiences of the last six months. The visual narrative of my yatra. A journey of colour and dust, sadness and joy, cities of pink, gold and blue, mourning mists and rivers of myths, meditation, mountains, snows, deserts and symphonies in green, Cow Crap Queens, cloth of a hundred shades of saffron and silk and silence and prayers spinning and rattling in the wind and an old man's chest, eternal flames, lingams abloom like mushrooms, kids their kites and games, food, festivals and fireworks and lights, dung beetles rolling their curious treasures across the dunes, weeping camels, road hog elephants, chasing dogs, imperious cows with coloured horns and rickshaw drivers like so many irritant thorns.
There have been stars, stories and gods unnumbered, a man crumpled on a street having expired with his first steps to the moon, floating mausoleums and temples of gold, avatars of illness, dangerous lassis and futures foretold, borderlands and bullet holes and searching souls and starving, striving, surviving, crazy driving and mad saddhus and saris in the surf and songs sung over a fire, with twinkling eyes, into the Indian night and more...
And what of the Wandering Wes's feelings for the nation as a whole having left all his literary-art-media preconceptions behind in England and actually pressed its earth beneath his feet for half a year? His own 'vision of one India'. Well, if you don't mind I think it's best for now that I set aside the temptation to start summarising, theorising, editorialising and - g*d forbid! - passing judgement on India.
It's a large undertaking for both the body and the mind to tread India's soils for almost any period of time. Six months is a good stretch, but only a start. And it is an exhausting experience even if you love every step. Which for the most part I did. The flow of images imparted, experiences undergone, inspirations, sensations received and thoughts provoked swells the river of one's considerations to burst the banks and flood the heart and brain. Those waters need time to recede. To see what's left behind after the flood. Even writing this three weeks after my departure I begin to understand fully the words of my friend John; words to the effect that you must give yourself proper time to digest the experience of India. Six months at least he said.
Fruit Didi prepares my breakfast :P
And if you loved it, that love is only likely to grow stronger. And call you back someday.
* This translation/ quotation lifted from Banaras : City of Light by Diana L.Eck
** 'Tetraperatos' - If needed, for an explanation/ understanding of this weird but wonderful Greek word (and as all fervent travellers you should all be keen to know) please feel free to refer sometime to the entry from June 2009 of this blog entitled 'Of Love and Tetraperatos'
*** Okay I'll make one judgment only at this time. A judgement by way of an admonishment and plea. Sat up on a cliff edge in Kanyakumari I was yet again heart-saddened and sickened by the sight of the slew of waste and litter that were just thoughtlessly piled up, beetling and thrown over the land's edge onto the sand and into the sea at what should be a site as attractive and respected as it is auspicious.
And then where to from India friends?... well we know now don't we guys. Sri Lanka and Indonesia :D
It is one of the most curious contradictions of the many that inhabit India that a populace given to fastidious rites, rituals and cultural myths of personal hygiene seems almost universally happy to befoul that which is most precious to it : the body, health and sanctity of their beloved Bahrat Mata. Mother India. India, I'm tellin' ya, it's a national disgrace! One you all stand to lose by. Clean up your act!