Lord of the Dance
Ritual and the struggle for inches in ancient cities
Mount Abu to Jaipur, India
29th February, 2004
"And so, Holi festival," he explained, "half-man half-lion, found the man, beloved of Brahma, who could not die,
there was also an aunt, lived near a tree, then the man dies in his door, but she liked colours, colours important, and
that is why we celebrate Holi today."
We shook our heads. Noone wanted to look unprofound in the face of ancient wisdom. Noone had a clue what he
was on about, of course. But who wants to look stupid?
Temple guides in India do not choose to speak the common version of English, but prefer an ornate
version known only to themselves. To qualify as an official guide you must be incomprehensible, not
only to the point of confusion, but beyond that to an almost mesmeric state of bedazzlment.
He is discussing the central mysteries of Indian faith after all. We should not expect
to understand anything, merely listen in reverent, awestruck silence.
Our guide carried on. We were visiting the ancient Jain temples of Dilwara on Mount Abu. The granite batholith rises
1000m above the plains of Rajasthan, a cool refuge from the heat and dust below. Its isolation also
protected the temples from Muslim iconoclasm. The main temples are a miracle of detail - solid marble blocks transformed into
intricate retelling of Jain and Hindu myths that whorl together.
And so did his words. Rama employed monkeys as a bridge,
while the twenty fourth saint was reborn and cowgirls giggled.
Shiva is the destroyer but created the world in a cosmic dance. As our guides words flowed
on and on, they too began to dance, and suddenly I understood everything.
"These carvings look just like an elephant!"
"Yes," he said. "Very true."
India has little interest in exercise. Physical work is for the poor.
Therefore, why punish your body if you can
afford an alternative?
When I decided to walk the mile or so to Mount Abu's famous Sunset Point, I walked alone.
Every few seconds
I was passed by newy wed couples in a tour bus, a rickshaw, on a pony, or even, faces set in solemnity,
sitting in small blue trollies pushed by old men . Everyone seemed amused by the
sight of a rich foreigner deliberately inflicting ten minutes of unnecessary effort on himself.
Determined to be utterly outrageous, some of us went on a peaceful four hour hike around the mountain. It was
good to get away from the fumes and litter for a while.
Unfortunately, most people here will gaily throw rubbish into every possible corner
of their country. I have seen entire rivers choked with plastic waste. The ancient fortress of Bikaner was built by a translucent lake
that is now no more than a sea of polyester rags and dark, fetid ooze.
When we had walked two minutes away from the metalled roads, the garbage stopped. Noone would
concieve of going for a walk in the woods, except the poorest cowherds and we crazy foreigners.
Our guide, Charles, was an Indian of a different mind. Although only young, he scouted trails around the mountain, repairing
the old huts and watering sites, where he could bring walkers or teach yoga.
"No Indian ever comes," he said, sadly.
Struggle of Inches
Space. In the cities, space is everything, and there is no space.
At first sight, all Indian towns look the same. As you enter, all you can see are a piles of single or double storey
houses and tiny shops, built at any angle to steal as much living room as possible.
There is nowhere for rubbish to go, so it piles up indiscriminately, and stray dogs, wandering pigs and cows
stir through it all, hunting for scraps.
Traffic pollution hums in the air, never far from choking point.
Squalor and life fight for inches where there is no room.
There are people, everywhere; children, everywhere. Some tend their businesses, whether a rich sari dealer sitting comfortably on his padded floor,
or a neighbouring bangle seller in a cardboard hut built on planks over an open sewer. A couple of
square yards mean the difference between hope and no hope. They are the lucky ones, the envied ones.
Other people earn precious rupees running errands - a cup of chai for a storekeeper, an orange
for a clerk. Some ply the roads endlessly in cycle rickshaws, breaking themselves to carry us a few miles
for enough rupees to buy a meal before another night spent sleeping in the streets.
Some push carts, selling precious produce. A cup of chai, a fresh-squeezed juice, a handful of fruit
a new fried samosa. We never go hungry on this trip. Every corner is a cornucopia,
three feet of dirt turned into a miniature kitchen, another business, another lifeline.
Heart of the Scrum
Noone can queue patiently in India. There is no time, no room. If you must struggle daily against a mass
of a billion people, there is no place for delicacy. You must shove in and battle for your crust.
Auto-rickshaws crowd round Jenny fighting for her attention. Five tourist loads can feed a family for a week, perhaps.
But there are thirty who want the work. They shout, exclaim, point, try to mislead us into boarding their rickshaw instead of the ones Jenny has paid for. She is calm, resolute in the face of each mob.
And the mob falls back before her.
I saw a driver fight back tears over the wheel of his vehicle. He lost the scrum today. Then his jaw hardened again.
He must be ready for the next opportunity.
The poverty is overwhelming. The spirit of the people, indomitable.
Lake Palace Ritual
At first sight, all Indian towns look the same. But that is a mirage. Every town has a different heart,
a separate history and character. The city of Udaipur is built by a lake, surrounded by mountains.
The maharaja built graceful palaces on the lake for the pleasure of his court, where they could spend their time
in music and ritual.
Once again, Intrepid found us a palace of our own. Our airy restaurant looked down over the lake palaces and
ancient ghats where the people still gathered to bathe and wash their clothes every morning.
Ritual is vital in India. Water purifies the body. Stains are removed from the soul.
Everyone must adopt ritual according to their needs. Octopussy was filmed in Udaipur. What else should Jordan and I do in this ancient, fascinating
city, but sit in a rooftop restaurant and watch a Bond movie. When the film panned to the Palace of Winds, the whole
audience, as one, turned to look at the real thing. As one, we pointed. As one, said "oooh". And then, "aahhh". The ritual
Ritual is vital in India. By now, Athena was living according to a litany of complaint
against this cut-price trip she had freely chosen, relieved only bouts of expensive shopping. Her discontent rubbed on everyone.
Ravi now commanded a cult of Ravi. His self obsession grew and grew as he heard endless reports of
women lining up in the South to be his bride. Someone had put in a bid for his hand, USD150,000 sight unseen.
He decided he was worth more.
John and Holly, our English 18-year olds, seemed to walk in a daze, overwhelmed by both the rigour of travel and the power of India. We
wondered whether they would wander from the hotel, unable to find the way back, be kidnapped, be eaten, fall into a pothole, or be worshipped as pale Jain gods. But with the aura of the true innocent abroad, nothing bad could ever happen to them. Except Ravi's medication.
I became friends with Janice and Jordan. Janice was cheerful, laid back. Jordan could tell more stories than the devil himself.
Blessing of Parvati
You can see astonishing things at any time here. As we wandered down a dusty street in Udaipur, crowded with
with the usual motorbikes, handcarts and cows, we suddenly met a procession of
women, led by drums, bearing puja on their heads, offerings to the gods.
They ignored the traffic - they were blind to everything - swaying their heads in religious ecstacy,
following only the drums. We let them past, understanding nothing.
Some collapsed in the road, carried away with devotion.
There were to be three weddings that day. Three is unlucky. So the women created a new ritual, this
procession, to make the number four.
A Gift for Shiva
Ritual is everything. Space is everything. We travelled by overnight train to Jaipur in time for Shivrati, the
festival of Shiva. With Jenny and Jordan, I wandered to the Shiva temple. Mayhem. We understood
nothing. We bought puja outside the temple, and, almost fearful, joined the crowd.
Everyone was calm, yet a high emotion lay charged under their skin. We did not know what to do,
nor how we might be received. As foreign intruders or welcome guests? Yet almost by magic we were
wafted to the head of the line. Everyone smiled at us and helped us onward - to the inner sanctum.
The santuary was quiet pandemonium, as men and women in separate lines hurled themselves forward
to place their offering and annoint themselves with the holy milk that washed before the lingam of Shiva.
The temple priests fought to control the press, and shovel the old puja back as more showered in.
Many of the people were far gone in spirtual delerium and staggered, close to collapse.
The quiet excitement, the sense of buried passion, bubbled higher and higher. Men, women, calling out, shouting, imploring, soaking themselves in milk and water. We skidded
through the milk-sodden floor, holding back, being forced forwards, eager to see more, afraid of angering the crowd. Everything was a tinderbox, everything was on edge. Passion, demand, submission. For the briefest moment, we were caught in a storm of feeling, as the focal point of all the yearning of a thousand people reared up in front of us.
And then it fell back. Everyone helped everyone else, supporting the weak, advising the ignorant.
The priests made a space for us, and devotees showed us how to make offering. Passion, self-control, kindness
and acceptance were cut into every movement. A thousand people, in a shared desire, moving together like a ripple on a pond.
We understood nothing. But as we walked away, shaking slightly, we knew that we had been given
a moment of space inside the ritual, a glimpse of the beating heart of
India. We had seen the Lord of the Dance.