India is the home of the Buddha and the British Raj, the riches of the Nizam of Hyderabad and the poverty of Mother Theresa, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire and the simplicity of Mahatma Gandhi, the sunrise perfection of the Taj Mahal, the slums of Calcutta. You can find Kipling or Rushdie, Far Horizons or Bollywood. It is an ancient country, full of contrasts and contradictions.
This is not a country for tourists. Traveling is cumbersome; cities can be overwhelming, poverty is apparent. But for a traveler, someone who loves different flavors and smells and sounds, India is a revelation. Like the god Vishnu who is both the creator and the destroyer, India has a multitude of faces. There is abject poverty of course, but there is also grandeur, learning, philosophy and a history of 9,000 years.
I grew up on Kipling and the early exploits of Richard Burton and I must confess the country had me from the first 'salaam'. I was in an old colonial hotel in the town of Darjeeling high in the mountains. The town was a Himalayan 'hill station' for the British Raj seeking relief from the hot summer plains and there are remnants of the Empire. The hotel was full of flowers and I was lit to my room from the dining room by a young boy carrying a candle. Later a room steward, dressed in a white jacket and wearing a turban brought in an old silver tea service left over from the British raj, lit my coal fire and bowed, calling me 'Memsahib'. And the next morning there were tea plantations below and the peak of 29,000ft. Kanchenjunga above. I was hooked.
The Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata (Calcutta) illustrates another example of India's different faces. Kali usually means 'black' but can also mean 'time and change'. (You may remember the Golden Temple of Kali with its murderous Thugs in 'Gunga Din' and the Temple of Doom in an Indiana Jones movie). In the 400-year old temple at opposite ends of a courtyard are two altars, both covered in red. But one is red with flowers, offered by the vegetarians. And one is red with the blood of animal sacrifice. And everyone seemed perfectly happy worshipping at one or the other.
Also in Kolkata, you'll find a little bit of England. In the middle of this hugely teeming city is a large and quiet island of green with an enormous and gleamingly majestic white marble museum. This is the Victoria Memorial, built to honor the Empress of India. It is proper, it is British, it is surrounded by gardens and close to the Royal Calcutta Golf Course. Inside it was cool, quiet and uncrowded and full of European paintings and history of the British Raj as well as some obligatory Indian bits.
Ahead of us in the galleries walked two couples from the south of India (the clothes gave them away) the gentlemen in traditional dhoti pants with silk kurta jackets, the ladies in traditional saris, fabulous fabrics shimmering and shifting colors as they walked. Because they were so traditional, the ladies weren't wearing 'cholis', the cropped sari blouse. Instead they wore only the silk sari fabric draped down from one shoulder, which covered their chests - sort of. I tried not to stare or be judgmental, but that kind of nudity was uncomfortable for this Arizona girl.
However, I got my comeuppance later that week. We stayed at the Oberoi Grand, the elegant 125 year-old grande dame of Calcutta hotels. Getting back to my room the next afternoon, I planned on a very long, very hot shower. (Several days at a game preserve the week before with only outdoor cold water showers had left me with an obsession for hot water.)
I called room service for several cold sodas and they said it would be 45 minutes to an hour because they were so backed up. So I decided to go ahead and get in the shower. Just as I got under the water, there was a knock at the door. I grabbed a robe, a thick, tied, long sleeved white terry robe, which went down to mid thigh. (I used to have dresses shorter than that.) I opened the door to a young attendant perfectly dressed in an immaculate white coat - with a horrified expression. With head averted, he put the tray on the table and with head still turned - took the tip and got out of the room. My bare legs shocked him.
So I shouldn't have been so puritanical about the ladies at the museum. I had inadvertently done the same thing.
Travel is wonderfully broadening.
Leslie and Mike Ross have owned Kachina Travel since 1975.