29 April 2013

India: Teeming with beautiful contrasts

In the cool comfort of a July morning before the unrelenting heat of the day reduces me to a wet rag, I find myself staring open mouthed at the world’s most astonishing building, the Taj Mahal. Having seen innumerable pictures, I knew that it was going to be stunning, yet nothing prepares me for the first sight of the real thing. The gleaming white marble contrasts the azure blue sky in an intensely vivid tableau that assaults the eyes and heightens all senses.

The construction was begun in 1634 by Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal (jewel of the palace), who died at the age of 39 giving birth to their 14th child. Plainly they didn’t do things by halves in those days. His devotion to his wife drove him to spend the rest of his life concentrating on the construction of a magnificent memorial to her, so much so that he completely neglected the affairs of state. The resulting Taj Mahal is the world’s most romantic building that will bewilder visitors with its power and beauty for eternity.  The Indian poet Tagore captured its essence in the words of a poem:

“A teardrop on the face of humanity, a building to echo the cry ‘I have not forgotten, I have not forgotten, O beloved.’”

Rudyard Kipling called it “the embodiment of all things pure.”

To me, the outside edifice is undoubtedly the most stunning building I have ever seen and that it is in India is unsurprising because, at its best, India is a country that will surprise the visitor like no other. The French scholar Romaine Rolland said that India “is the one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home” and although India provides an enormous canvas on which dreams can be painted enough humans of genius have left an indelible mark that require several visits of considerable length from an inquisitive traveller to experience all the wonders that are on offer.

The Taj Mahal is but one of many. The palaces of Rajasthan, the Lutyens designed government buildings in New Delhi, The Red Forts of the frontiers, the incomprehensible train system, The Chaminar in Hyderabad, The Buddhist temples of Ajanta, the Pearl Mosque in Agra are but a few more of the wonderful architectural creations that alone are worth the price of an air ticket. Most of the buildings have been constructed by conquerors in a display of power and wealth that reflects both the rich history of this extraordinary country and its ability to absorb outsiders in a fusion of contrasting traditions.

In fact India itself is a fusion of contrasts. Indeed, the only truth about India, as someone once said, is that no single statement about the country is wholly true. The general belief is that it is hot and steamy but I have frozen my whotsits off in the icy fastness of the Himalayas. If there are floods in Rajasthan there is a drought in Uttar Pradesh. It has a reputation for the manufacture of cutting edge technology but can’t provide a Wi-Fi connection. It is an ancient land but a young nation. If it is a land of mystery and spiritualism, it is also a land of material values and pragmatic realism.

In his book Shantaram, the Australian author Gregory David Roberts described his early arrival in India thus, “The contrast between the familiar and the exceptional was everywhere around me – the impression was of an indefatigable and distant past that had crashed intact through barriers of time into its own future.” Well said!  The living incarnation of this can be found in Delhi articulated in the contrasting bricks and mortar of the old and new cities. The new city is spacious and planned, with neoclassical architecture, wide boulevards, open spaces and sanitation. It is the essence of modernity and achievement. The old is an eclectic blend of ancient history, Mughal architecture, narrow alleyways, poverty, germs and chaos. Here you feel that time stopped still 100 years ago. Yet both are essentially India.

This is a country where over one million people are millionaires and which boasts the second highest number of billionaires after the USA yet most of its people live on less than US$2 per day. According to the United Nations, 55% (representing 645 million souls) exist below the poverty line. It’s ridiculous but that’s why we want to come here.

Such is the paradox of India that many modern day Indians who live in the major metropolises are all but indistinguishable from their counterparts in other countries. Here is to be seen the urban sophistication of the west: businessmen and bureaucrats in sober suits who are highly educated and often more comfortable in English than in their mother tongues. There are college boys and girls in either jeans or the latest fashions, both western and Indian, their pattern of amusement much the same as in Europe or America; their mothers usually sticking tenaciously to their native dress but familiar with all the latest gadgets in their modern, up to date apartments. But cheek by jowl with them and as much part of the big city, will be seen the itinerant ironsmith or lohar, the saffron clad sadhu, the local fortune teller, the cobbler mending shoes on the pavement.

With such contrasts and contradictions it is well nigh impossible to describe India. Whether speaking about the good, bad or indifferent, one tends to run out of epithets. In the language of the cliché, it is a total experience, an assault on the senses, but what one needs to remember is that such an assault on the senses comes from the excitement and colour, the pageantry, the sense of history and above all the diversity that is India.

Words by James Suenson 



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