Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Slow travel and the art of context

I have a friend who has 'done' India. Taj Mahal, check; Jaipur, Amber, check; Red Fort, Delhi, check.

Well, there are several responses to that. Apart from the fact that the 'Golden Triangle' isn't India, and that he hasn't seen a single decent Hindu temple, or any of India's Buddhist heritage, he's missed all the enjoyable small towns - Orchha, Mandu, Bundi...

But I think the biggest problem with that kind of speedy highlights-only travel is that you miss out the context. Even with the Taj Mahal, there's a whole load of context that people miss. For instance, the tiny but elegant tombs of two of Shah Jahan's other wives that occupy matching corners near the entrance (one is now used as a depot for bits of old stonework, carpentry tools and other maintenance essentials, though I managed to wander in while the gate was open); who knew that Mumtaz Mahal wasn't the only one?

But there are other contexts, too. For instance, visiting the tomb of the first and arguably the greatest of the Mughals, Akbar, is instructive; it's a massive, brutal pile, with strange little chhattris stuck on top, creating a weirdly turretted silhouette as well as mixing Hindu and Muslim architecture in the typically eclectic style of this multicultural monarch. Nothing in it prefigures the Taj - except for its lovely gardens, quartered by causeways in the Mughal style, and now home to tiny tame squirrels with tails like licorice allsorts, and elegant antelopes. The fountains of the Taj Mahal are silent, and the only noise you hear in the gardens is that of tour groups - it's in Akbar's gardens, surrounded by young courting couples who come to feed the squirrels, that you understand why the Mughals saw the garden as an image of Paradise.

Wander around the back streets of Agra and you find other Mughal tombs, much smaller, and in the typical red sandstone of the area rather than the tremendously expensive white marble of the Taj. But in every case, the geometry is the same; a square or octagon with a done, within a containing wall. Some are locked up behind chicken wire, others open to visit; one is full of feral cats. None of them are worth the air miles on their own - but once you've seen them, you understand the ideas behind the Taj, the earth, so to speak, from which it springs. And its genius then seems even more amazing.

You don't need weeks to take this approach; visiting every Mughal monument of note in Agra would take three or four days. Not everything you see will be a highlight; but you'll understand the highlight much more once you do finally see it. (I was quite glad my first three days in Agra were filled with freezing fog; it made the Taj all the more impressive once the skies cleared.)

But the other thing that's wrong with a 'highlights' tour is that if you're not careful, you miss some of the flavour of the country. I know well the sheer size of India, having taken a two-day train from Mumbai to Kolkata and another stunningly long journey from Chennai up the coast to Bhubaneshwar. It was boring in some ways, enlightening in others - a chance to talk to Indian MBA and engineering students going back to university after the vacation - but above all it instilled in me an appreciation of the immensity of the country, and the way everyone always seems to be on the move. Taking the toy train in Sikkim is more interesting to a railway buff, but it doesn't give you that insight into India.

So, suppose you have only three weeks to 'do' India? Be mindful of the context. Give yourself enough time to know one place properly; get a bicycle and wander around Hampi and Anegundi, or settle down in Leh and hike the surrounding hills and gardens, or just get a hotel room on the ghats in Varanasi and start wandering. You'll learn far more about India that way than just seeing the highlights.

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