India: A feast for all the senses

By Fraser Alexander

You don't have to be able to see to enjoy India's magic, writes Fraser Alexander.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Photo / Getty Images
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Photo / Getty Images

I'm standing in Gandhi's Memorial home in Delhi listening to my guide. He quotes the great Indian: "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind."

I'm blind. A blind Kiwi traveller in India. What I hear, touch, smell and tasted in a month of intoxicating excitement, astonishing diversity and enduring unpredictability leaves me pondering my sense of privilege at having experienced such spiritual richness, culinary decadence, historical splendour and cultural multiplicity.

Our guide Sanjay says, "Sir, Madam, please, jump in - you'll bump around, smell and hear everything going on and if you have questions Vijay, your driver, has driven rickshaws for 20 years."

A ride through the dawn-to-dusk wholesale markets of Chandni Chowk and its squawking traders offering traditional Indian clothes, artefacts and street food is, among many "Only in India" moments, our "sensory overload" favourite.

Thirty minutes of smells so pleasant and putrid - paratha (wheat pancakes), rose petal drinks, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla cumin, turmeric, jasmine, marigolds, sandalwood, incense alternating swiftly with garbage, urine and diesel.

Overlay this with the intense soundscape of vehicle horns, barking dogs, hawkers, trader chit-chat, sirens, wedding drums/bells and the distant Azan.

At our first meal we experience the observing, the poised, and the loitering men scenario. Feeling like Louis XIV being fussed over at the Palace of Versailles, "no sir, excuse me" "sir, I'll pour, let me serve that".

Agra-bound, Sahil, our driver says, "The three things you need to drive in India are a good horn, good brakes and good luck."

We enter the iconic Muslim mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. Our guide, Mr Su, talks our ears and hands through the decorative elements - calligraphy, abstract forms and vegetative motifs. We pause to experience the 20-second echo delay and buy a marble replica of the Taj, enabling me to appreciate shape and proportion.

Having disembarked our elephant at the entrance to the great palace at Amber, we are surrounded by beautiful carved marble panels. Ajit runs my hand over the smooth "magic flower" fresco carved in marble. As I touch, he gives a running commentary: "The seven unique designs, fish tail, a lotus, a hooded cobra, an elephant trunk, a lion's tail, a cob of corn and a scorpion."

Without exception, our guides give understandable simplifications of what we touch, hear, smell and taste.

We visit Jaipur's Galtaji monkey temple. Monkey man lets fly with his distinctive low pitched "aaaaaaaaaa" sounds and monkeys approach. We hold out peanuts and the monkey's hands feel like warm little leather gloves as they gently prize open our closed fists.

In downtown Pushkar, we find ourselves sidestepping the chanting, bell-ringing, drum beating pilgrims. We pass a buffalo, cows, camels and excited tourists.

Sahil frantically shoves my wife, Christina, out of the way of a bull - whew, that was scary, almost bowled by the Blessed Bovine. As the panic subsides, I'm conscious of the irony of sacrifice we nearly experienced. Giving so much and asking nothing in return, cows form the core of religious sacrifices.

Chatting about tour-guiding in Udaipur, Manish recalls the amusing story of the day he guided Madonna. Completely oblivious to her identity, he only found out via the next day's newspaper, which featured himself in a photo with the woman who had asked him the day before, "You have no idea who I am, do you?"

Fraser Alexander with his wife Christina during their trip to India.
Fraser Alexander with his wife Christina during their trip to India.

Fernandez informs us our guide for the next day is Chandrasekhar.

I say, "Ah, the spinner of the 1970s, cool, it will be great to meet him."

Being cricket tragics, they laughed before recalling the deeds of the Indian spin quartet - Chandrasekhar, Prasanna, Bedi and Venkataraghavan.

Christina sighs with boredom.

Herald sports journalist Steve Deane once wrote, "Cricket continues to divide the sexes. Women will scale mountains, swim oceans and pack down in scrums but they won't watch the middle session on the fourth day of a test that is destined for a draw."

Now in Bangalore at the Nandi temple, we meet the Brahmin priest who asked us to run our hands over the flame and touch them on our eyes.

Fire is symbolic of the divine light of the gods. Darshan is an important aspect of Hindu worship and refers to viewing an image of a deity. I wonder how a Hindu who is blind gets on given the dominance of vision in the Hindu's relation to his gods.

At the Palace of Mysore, our guide Raghu asks, "Can you feel how detailed it all is?" as my fingers traverse elegantly carved rosewood doorways inlaid with ivory, ornately gilded columns, decorative steel grills and mosaic floors embellished with semi-precious stones.

Experiencing the chaos of the Mysore flower and vegetable market is Raghu's olfactory sensitivity test: "Let's see if you are knowing what you are smelling then."

The bananas and roses, no problem - but dismal failure with the carrots, beetle nuts and marigolds.

Dozing in our cabin in Mudumalai National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, we hear tapping of feet, scrambling and thumping on the roof. Rats? Squirrels? No, 30 monkeys - we later curse that we didn't go outside and play Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall with them.

Smells of wild ginger, turmeric and cinnamon and sounds of bluebirds, mynas, peacocks, owls and woodpeckers surround us. Unfortunately, our hosts mimick the surrounding fauna - sloth bears, pit vipers, drongos, cuckoos, tit-babblers and rats.

Our snake boat excursion along Alleppey backwaters purrs past children shrieking, the thwacking laundry sounds of cotton on stone and chattering canoe fishermen. Hilariously, the crew freak at our alighting manoeuvres. My Hindi for left, right and blind seemed unintelligible so worthless in co-ordinating the safe guiding.

Reflecting on indelible Indian memories of experiences so humorous, baffling and intriguing, we feel drawn to return by a magnetism that few countries possess.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has same-day connections from Auckland, via Hong Kong, to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

- NZ Herald

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