From out of the Dust in India

“From our perception of the world there follows acceptance…the person who sees, the screen on which he sees, and the light by which he sees: he himself is all of these.”

~Sri Ramana Maharshi

It was the last place I expected to find myself.

Face down, in the dirt, shimmying beneath a span of razor-wire.

But somehow, I’d become convinced I was nearing the exact spot where National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry shot one of his iconic images. Unclipping my camera bag, I drew my breath, then burrowed beneath a coil of concertina. Scrambling to my feet on the other side, I dashed across a troft of alluvial sand. Reaching the edge of the Yamuna River, I stood amidst the smell of decay and damp earth, awestruck by the scene before me. For there, above the coppery surface; bathed in a band of chartreuse light, soared the vast white domes of the Taj Mahal.

I raised my camera, framed an image, and fired the shutter.

“Hey!” ”You!” ”Stop!” came a call from behind.

I turned to see a pair of Taj “Police” in hot pursuit, temporarily breaking away from their throngs of tourists, then turned my attention back to the Taj Mahal.It’d been built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631. So overwhelmed with grief at loss of his wife Mumtaz Mahal during the birth of their 14th child, Emperor Jahan spent the next 20 years employing 22,000 workers to build a monument in her honor. The result of which became one of the seven wonders of the world.Meanwhile, back home, tucked safely in the depths of a junk drawer–was my own monument to recent love lost. It consisted of a solitary chopstick entwined with a single strand of long black hair. Next to it, a hand written note in the shape of a heart that read simply, “I love you forever.”

They were all that remained of a year-long relationship.

I’d come to India to forget.

To put 3 months, and 2000 miles beneath my bicycle tires. To move through the wheel of grief in hopes of reaching the promised land–acceptance. My journey began in the northwest city of Amritsar. Joining me was my good friend and fellow-photographer Eric “Jarv” Jarvis. Having negotiated his own share of recent heartache, the two of us would cycle western India from north to south. ”You ready dude?” he asked, outside Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

“Let’s do this.” I concurred. And with that,  we were off. Seconds later, Punjabi traffic descended upon us like a sky full of lawn-darts. Legs charged and adrenaline pumping, we cycled into the midst the multi-directional maelstrom; punching through an explosion of cars, buses, heavy trucks, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, and ox-carts. Darting through the mayhem was a tornado of pedestrians, while a barnyard of animals lumbered in between.

Bouncing through the splatter of liquid-gray potholes, our fenders began the hard work of deflecting a virtual world of scattered excreta. This included, (but was not limited to), that of pig, dog, cow, goat, horse, human, (and several others as yet to be identified.) As someone wiser than me once said, “In India, shit doesn’t happen, shit is.” Cow pies were the worst. More than just a mucky nuisance, these royal dung piles were of such size, plentitude, and viscosity, they could literally bring an unwitting cyclist to the ground. Jarv handled all this flawlessly. Quick on his feet, with above-average intelligence, he quickly recognized our ride across India for what it would be. This is to say, 6 to 8 hours of pedaling a day, immersed in complete vehicular chaos, through a succession of hair-raising near-misses.

Halfway through the first mile, we’d asserted our place among the lowest rung of the vehicular hierarchy. So I signaled our arrival by ringing my bell. Reaching for their car horns, the drivers responded with an aural assault of such frequency–such sonic ferocity–that at any given moment it felt as though our tympanic nerves were being etched-out by a razorblades. All of this was tied together by India’s single unifying element. Dust. Like the Hindu deities themselves, it appeared in myriad form; omnipotent and all pervading.It permeated everything–sparing nothing. From the palpable airborne chunks that bounced off our helmets, or the thick-chalky grit that ground in our teeth–to the microscopic particulate that blotted-out the sun, this powdery manifestation of Shiva the Destroyer eventually took it’s toll on our eyes, throats, noses and lungs. By the end of the first week, the two of us would incur full-blown respiratory infections. If any of this engaged the Indian psyche, neither of us were privy to it. What did engage them–we soon found out–was the presence of a pair of foreign cycle tourists rolling through their neighborhood.”Hah!” they’d shout in Hindi, “Look everybody! Here comes a pair of foreign freaks on bikes!” Though after the thousandth time, this would become painfully tiresome, more times than not, I would look up, only to discover a genuine smile, a sincere curiosity, or a heartfelt, traditional palms-together greeting of “Namaste.” (“The God in me recognizes the God in you.”) And so it was, on this, my third visit to the sub-continent–while I peered upon this crush of humanity, pulsing through their homes, businesses, and temples–that I fell in love with India and Indians all over again.

Pedaling with the rising sun, Highway 15 shot south through Punjab, as smooth and straight as a laser-beam.

This, until a point where the greenery stopped, the landscape emptied, and the pavement delivered us into a solitary expanse of rolling dunes.

Pedaling through these wind-blown drifts–we cycled over what had been the remnants of the earth’s oldest mountain range–the Aravalli. Dating back some 25,000 million years, the decomposition of this range had long-since scattered to formed the Great Thar Desert. Stretching south to the Rann of Kachch–through the far border of eastern Pakistan, this sizable stretch of sand marked our entrance into India’s largest state of Rajasthan.

Staring back at us, with fierce, fiery eyes, were the land’s inhabitants. Having occupied this sand for the last thousand years, according to the ancient Vedic text, they’d originated from the “sun, moon, and  fire.” Rolling past their camel trains, horse-carts and oxen, they took visual inventories of our bikes, clothes and gear. Clad in dhoti-legged pants, the men wore sizable daggers. The majority of them wearing turbans, of which their size, shape, and color denoted region, climate, or socio-economic status. None of this compared to the costumes of the Rajasthani women.

Set a-sparkle by a tinkling of silver and brass, they drifted through the desert like neon ghosts. With their billowing saris ablaze in electric shades of yellow, red, orange and blue, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t become a little more than engrossed.

Witnessing their lives, from the seat of my passing bicycle, I studied these ancient people, as they flitted from their simple dwellings:  plowing their fields, tending their livestock; or threshing their grain. While I did, my imagination spun through the millennium; my mind’s eye witnessing each generation as they sprang from, walked upon, then returned to, the sand.

Four miles north of nowhere, well off any reasonable map, we pushed our bikes through six inches of sand. Searching for a place to pitch our tents, a motorcycle appeared from out of nowhere. Armed in pair of slacks and a sweater-vest–his thick-black hair combed neatly to the side–the rider pulled up next to us and smiled.

“Hello,” he initiated, “Where are you going?” ”Here,” we answered back. ”Where?” he replied with a look of confusion. ”Here,” we reiterated, “We are camping.” He returned a look of non-registration. We pointed to a clump of nearby Khejri trees. ”We are going to sleep there for the night.” ”No.” our new friend replied, “Too dangerous.”"You will stay with me,” he insisted. Jarv and I just smiled. ”My name is Sarjeet,” he said, reaching to shake our hands. Following him back down the main road, we turned into the village of Bramsar, where we again pushed through the sand. This while a predictable herd of children trailed from behind.

Delivering us to blockish cement building, Sarjeet opened the door and waved us in. Pointing to what looked like a dank-dark closet with a simple hole in the floor, he pronounced, “Bathroom.” Waving us from that room, we passed two beds, on one of which I spotted red-stained sheets. Beyond it, perched in a windowsill, I spied a surgical tray. In  it, was a razorblade coagulated with dark mahogany blood. We followed Sarjeet from that building to another, where he opened the door and flicked-on a switch. Scanning the room in the dim florescent light, we looked upon a pair of seemingly unused desks, joined by a few dusty chairs. Again he pointed. Only this time it was to a pair of iron beds. Next to them, stood an I.V. unit, its dirty-chrome post covered with small squares of medical tape. ”You sleep here,” our host offered. Recognizing the look of curiosity that washed across our faces, Sarjeet searched for the words to explain. ”Is hospital,” he clarified.”I am doctor.” With that he disappeared. When he returned, he’d brought with him a platter of food. Atop it was a simple dish of curried carrots brazed in clarified butter, or ghee. It was seasoned with the traditional spices of turmeric, capsicum, cloves, ginger, cumin and coriander. Accompanying this was a stack of soft-hot flatbread, or chapatis. After 70 hilly miles, the meal danced upon our tongues like music to our ears. When the sun crept into the room the next morning without warning, Sarjeet appeared at the door with two cups of Chai. Readying ourselves to leave, I pulled out a small wad of rupees and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. ”Hospital donation,” I proclaimed with a nervous smile. ”No!” he said, placing it back in my palm, then looked me in the eye. Placing my hand over my heart, I thanked him, and we were on our way.

What came next, was the end of the beginning. Throttled on Amoxicillin, chai and cheap butter cookies, I cranked my pedals up a smallish pass, while my fever-addled brain rattled within my skull. Battling against a secondary bacterial infection, the two of us huffed over a smallish pass. Reaching the summit, we swooped down, through a monkey-forest, until we’d reached one of the five holy cities recognized in the Hindu Scriptures: Pushkar.

We’d intentionally timed our arrival for the Poornima, or full-moon festival. According to the ancient Vedic scripture, during November’s full moon, all 330 million Hindu deities dwelled within the town’s central lake. For the Hindu pilgrim, bathing in these waters during this time was thought to purify and wash away sin. Elbowing our bikes through the streets of the city, we pushed through a crowd of tens of thousands. Wading into this “hallucinatory potion of sound and spectacle,” we mingled with holy men, cows, children, dogs, pigs, priests, pickpockets, touts, artists, tourists and thieves. Swirling all around us was a flood of music, food, flowers, festival and prayers.

Had that not been enough sensory overload, just over the hill, in an open spread of dirt, was Pushkar’s conjoining camel festival.

Here, an estimated 50,000 ornately decorated camels were gathered, groomed, sold or raced.

Ten minutes after we’d unpacked our things, the two of us made quickly for our cameras. For three days we wandered among Pushkar’s Ghats and temples, spending our mornings stealing photos of pilgrims. In the afternoon, we wandered through the dirt, dust and dung of the camel fair, making images of Rajasthani camel traders, while they haggled, yelled or simply walked-away. After 36 hours, the two of us ended what would later be described as a 3-day photographic marathon. Clothes dirty and lungs rattling, I parted the torrent of people and took a seat near a temple. There I sat  smelling of curry, incense and cheap Indian whisky. Just then, a Holy man parted from the crowd, and took the seat next to mine. Draped in tattered cloth, beads, and a long salt and pepper beard, his feet were clad in a pair of ancient Converse High Tops. When he finally turned his jaundiced eyes toward me, he studied the bags beneath mine. It was hard to deny that we were both pilgrims of sort, the two of us looking to the end of our suffering. Me with my recent heartache, and he to the wheel of endless births and deaths. Silent and contemplative, the pair of us sat still–staring at the crowd passing us by. Like the dust that surrounded me, my mind lifted and twirled, until it eventually landed upon a thought of the Taj Mahal.

Or moreover, the words of it’s architect, the Emperor Shah Jahan. After being asked to comment on his life’s creation, he was reported to have announced: ”Should the guilty seek asylum here, like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin. Should a sinner make his way to this mansion, all his past sins are to be washed away.”

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