Friday, 12 July 2013

All of India in four hours

India is a huge country. I've travelled in India twice, first for three months, then for nearly six; and I still haven't seen most of Himachal Pradesh, or any of Uttarkhand, or much of Bengal, or any of the North-East states apart from Assam. And both the Thar Desert and the Rann of Kutch remain on my 'to-do' list.

So if nine months isn't enough time to see the whole country, it seems strange that I'm writing about how to visit India in four hours.

First stop, Mount Abu. A welcome coolness pervades - the plains of Gujarat were toasting nicely in the forties, but it felt at least ten degrees cooler once my bus had crawled from Abu Road's station up the side of the mountain to Mount Abu itself. A fresh breeze off the lake takes the temperature down even more. And there are mature trees everywhere; Mount Abu seems almost like a garden city.

Plus, you can get quite good pizza. Which after a month of Gujarati thali was an appealing thought.

Early morning saw me up already and striding out down the road southwards. I stopped off at a Gujarat state-owned hotel for breakfast - a very good breakfast, French toast and a big pot of tea (or 'service tea' as the menu calls it).

"This is a Gujarati hotel?" I asked.

"Yes madam. Owned by Gujarati State Tourism."

"But we're not in Gujarat. Mount Abu is in Rajasthan, isn't it?"

"Not always," the waiter said. I had visions of the mountain skating around on the geological strata beneath, like a giant ile flottante in a lake of cream, before he continued.

"When India got independence, all this was Mumbai state. Then state was split in two, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Changes, all kinds changes, and Mount Abu becomes Rajasthan, but Gujarati government kept this hotel and other places. So this is Rajasthan, but Gujarat owns the hotel."

Which explained why every other place in town (but not Uncle Sam's Pizza) had Gujarati thali on the menu. And why one restaurant had a prominently displayed sign saying "No Gujarati thali," as if they were fed up of people wandering in and saying airily, without looking at the menu, "Oh, can we have a Gujarati thali."

Anyway... I wandered on. The road went uphill slightly. It got curvier and curvier. It passed a house with a temple built into the front room; oboe music writhed in the air, with tinkling bells which might have been real ones, or might have been part of the music from the loudspeakers. The road spun around on its own tail and stopped abruptly, because there was nowhere for it to go. Ahead, a cliff fell away, down and down towards the plain, and the lowlands stretched dull fawn and dry for ever away from the mountain under the glaring blue sky.

From here, four hundred steps, or seven hundred, or seven hundred and fifty, depending on who you ask, descend to the temple and the spring. Deep steps, steps with paving slabs that tip and wobble, steps of varying and unpredictable depth. Steps that twist like a corkscrew around the crevices of the cliff, always in the shade of huge trees, trees that obstruct the view; you can't see any temple, you can't even see the plain or the sky.

And then, suddenly, there was the temple, and in front of it the square tank, and the spring water rushing into the tank and making the surface shimmer with light.. I watched while an Indian family did their puja; rolling up their trousers, and gingerly descending the steps to touch the marble cow's head from which the water issued, and then their own foreheads, and to drink and sprinkle a little of the water, and brush some of the fresh water back on their hair like Mods refreshing their Brylcreem; and then going meekly into the temple above the spring, where a bearded priest gave them prasad and recited scriptures for them.

 This was a dry day, and the whole of Gujarat had been brown and shrivelled up for weeks, and yet the water was not seeping or dribbling but rushing out in a torrent.

A younger priest arrived and started to pick leaves out of the pool. The Indian family got up, and left. A woodcutter was smashing a log with his axe somewhere in the trees. A little later he came through, taking his sandals off to lug the branch he'd cut to the other side of the pool. A mynah bubbled. A leaf fell, taking for ever to fall slowly, into the water where it skittered and turned in the wind.

Some places you go to, and you wonder what all the fuss was about. The Taj Mahal was like that for me. Other places you immediately feel a certain - I hesitate to use the word holiness, but that's what it feels like; a certain spiritual quality to them. Kathok Lake in Yoksum, Sikkim is like that for me. So is Wayland's Smithy on the Ridgeway, in southern England. Gaumukh was one of these places; still, serene, sacred.

I went into the temple. The bearded priest must have been about my age, a bit older perhaps; his smile was ready, his eyes bright.

"You have come to India," he said. I thought that's obvious, but he continued; "You have come to Gaumukh, and Gaumukh is all India. The water, the water is Ganga, the sacred river. And the mountain, that is Himalaya, where Shiva lives. Ganga and Himalaya, that is all of India. So you travel all of India in one day, and when you are here, you make your bath in Ganga and you visit Mount Kailash in Himalaya, all at one and the same time."

We chatted a little. He gave me prasad; little hard nubbins of sugar candy as white as Tippex that cracked between my teeth. He told me the water was good to drink; he indicated a little metal pot I could use to take the water from the spring, if I needed it. He told me I should bathe in Ganga. I didn't bother to roll my trousers up. (They were dry, anyway, within a few minutes.) The steps were slightly slippery; I held on to the cow's ear to steady myself, and cupped a hand under the water. It was fresh, cool, sweet. I drank my fill.

And that was India. Two hours to walk there and two hours to walk back, and all of India rolled up in a single visit.

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