The Culturally Diverse Beauty of Northern India
India has long been a place where travelers in search of spirituality and of something greater than themselves have traveled to. When one thinks of India, images of vibrant color, beauty, and chaos merge in a cacophony of experiences, hitting all senses at once. People say that you'll either embrace it as is, and love every moment, or you'll hate it and not want to return. It's black or white, with little in-between.
For us, the former is true. When you stop and take in your surroundings, observing the hustle and bustle, you see the country in a new light. Yes, it's noisy, crowded, and dirty. But it's also magnificent. The juxtaposition of Sari-clad women set against the crumbling ruins of old buildings further enhances the colours you see. Neighbouring shop keepers chatting with one another give you a true sense of community and togetherness. They look out for each other. They help each other, supporting one another, as is their way of life.
After discussing this further with our guide Raj, we better understood the Indian way of life. Everyone works together to get by, and each persons religions and spirituality play a large part in that. Take the Sikh Temple in Delhi for example. This temple is open to everyone, whether you're Sikh, Hindu, Atheist or otherwise. All are welcome, and all are fed. The temple we visited feeds 10,000 people a day for free, and everyone 'working' in the temple grounds are volunteers. We spent some time enjoying a meal with the others there and afterwards we rolled chapatis and shucked peas to do our part to 'pay' for the meal. Such a simple and lovely way to give thanks and to give back for what was consumed.
In Varanasi, we took part in a Puja, a sunset ceremony blessing the gods for the gift of the Ganges River. Hundreds of riverboats sailed up to the shore to witness the ceremony and receive their own blessings. Chai sellers jumped from boat to boat offering cups of piping hot Masala tea in clay cups for 10 rupees a piece, which we took to warm our hands as well as our insides (Varanasi in January is COLD at night).
One of the moments of this night stands out in particular: At the end of the ceremony we were each given an offering of an oil candle nestled in a bed of flowers and told to make a wish for something you hold dear to your heart, then release it into the water and let the waves carry it to fruition. Though none of us were religious by nature, we all had a powerful moment of belonging to something greater than ourselves, which is precisely what India does. It grabs hold of you, and wraps you in an embrace of colour and sound and warmth and acceptance.
In Gregory David Roberts' novel Shantaram, the main character Lin has an exchange with Prabakar, a local Indian man living the slums of Mumbai. This exchange perfectlysums up this magnificent country:
"That's how we keep this crazy place together--with the heart. Two hundred [...] languages, and a billion people. India isthe heart. It's the heart that keeps us together. There's no place with people like my people, Lin. There's no heart like the Indian heart."
Wherever you go, the heart of a place speaks to you. This could not be more true of Northern India and its cultural presence. The people are hard-working, friendly, and openhearted. Different religions co-exist peacefully without violence, and the acceptance of others, both tourists and locals alike, make India such an extraordinary place to visit.
All Images: Rose Huet