India: The Arc of the Himalayas–Dispatch 3

Driving in India: Much has been written about the hazards of driving in India.  That vehicles and people go wherever they please, in whichever direction they want, whenever it suits them.  That no one pays attention. That there are no rules. I don’t find that to be true.  In fact, after 14 days on the road,  I’ve discerned a certain lingua franca used to communicate what one’s intentions are to everyone else out there.  The principle means of communication is the horn.  Sexy Beast has a particularly melodious horn, which goes shoo ba loo ba doo, and is a pleasure to use.  Buses have horns that sound like a submarine about to submerge:  ah oooo gah.  And big trucks have tiny, twittering horns that sound very feminine:  tweedle deedle dee.  The rickshaws squawk and bicycles go brrrriiiinnnggg.  When all of this gets going, it’s quite a cacophony of sounds.  Everything moves according to who honks longest.  If you’re coming up behind someone and intend to keep moving into their space, you honk.  If you’re next to someone and are going to go by them, you honk.  If you want someone to move over, you honk.  

Bernard is a master of horn-related driving.  He invokes the horn whenever we’re near a vehicle, and it works like a charm.  Thus, we tootle melodiously as we go through villages, warning rickshaws, buses and big trucks that we intend to pass.  They hear us and move over as soon as they can.  It’s all very cordial, and the tootling has no rage associated with it.  It’s not a rude blast of the horn, but rather a way to communicate with others on a busy street that you’re around and moving forward.  In fact, I’d say Bernard has become totally Indian in his driving, squeezing Sexy Beast into the narrowest of openings and charging through congested city streets or lanes full of bullock carts and motorbikes with the best of them.  I have shrieked only once or twice.

Unexpected encounters: while in the ruined temple city of Hampi, north of Mysore in the state of Karnataka (pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable), we walked around one of the 500-yr old temples and discovered that several marriages were underway.  We both love to stumble upon whatever business of life is going on when we arrive, so we stayed and watched the sumptuous ceremony of a Brahmin princess.  The bride was dressed in a heavy silk sari of flame orange, bordered with emerald green, and had a silk shawl of rich deep purple, all the material shot through with gold thread.  Around her forehead was wrapped a length of gold beads from which hung red tassles on either side of her face.  And on her wrists were heaps of green and gold glass bangles.  Her palms were intricately henna-ed.  Her husband-to-be wore a simple white cloth wrapped around his loins and over his shoulder, and on his head was a white and gold turban.  Family gathered around in the inner sanctum of the Virupaksha temple.  By hovering close and wiggling forward bit by bit I finally made my way under the woven banana-leaf pagoda under which the bride and groom were seated.  One of the ladies of the wedding party notice me smiling apologetically and invited me to sit down inside.  The proceedings lasted for more than 2 hours, during which the bride and groom poured various coloured crystals over each other’s heads, guests flung handfuls of turmeric coated rice at them, they rinsed their hands in sacred water and ate sticky rice from each others’ palm, and the whole family held onto a piece of string which was used to encircle the couple 6 times, then dipped in turmeric to dye it yellow, then cut in half and tied around a talisman and then around the bride’s and her mother’s wrist.  

In Hyderabad, we stumbled upon the annual procession of school children through the old part of the city.  Hyderabad is primarily Muslim, and we stood in the flow of 1,000s of kids age 5-15, as they held up their school banners and chanted Allahu Akbar (God is Great) with great fervor.  They were all smiles, full of happiness to be in the parade and eager to get their picture taken.  There were other tourists around, but they all seemed more interested in climbing to the top of one of the nearby old civic towers, while we stood in this sea of kids for about half an hour.  It was very exciting.

Another unforgettable site related to something India’s particularly well-known for:  cotton.  It’s harvest time and the cotton is being taken to central locations.  Much is brought by large good carriers, but a lot is stuffed into simple carts drawn by bullocks.  We passed one particular location where hundreds of small carts were parked higgledy-piggledy outside the cotton depot, with the enormous overstuffed trucks lining the roadside for another kilometer. Bullocks were untethered from the carts and munching hay inside the cart area.  Farmers sat on top of their cotton piles chatting and spitting red rivulets on paan on the ground.  And more and more carts kept arriving.  Inside the depot walls we could see the fluffy white piles of cotton that had already been weighed and dropped off, easily spanning 20 feet high and 50 feet long.

Today we reached the actual physical center of India, in the town of Hinganghat, just south of Nagpur.  This also is where William Lambton, who started the Great Survey of India and took it so far before George Everest took over, is buried.    HIs grave is now in a derelict part of the town, surrounded by a warren of tiny huts.  We parked in an abandoned green lot and asked around for “Lambton’s grave.   A kid came up who showed us the way through the back lanes to a trashy enclosure which held his tomb.  It’s a bit sad to think that this incredible explorer now has such an ignominious site for his grave.  But at least on this day, 24 people will visit it!

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