We all know it as India’s biggest ‘Symbol of Love’. And, over a life-time, I have not been totally immune to the impact of this iconic marble structure’s image. Clichéd as it sounds, I too have harboured a bit of a long-standing (if casual) desire to not only see Taj Mahal, but also promised myself that if and when I ever came face-to-face with what is probably India’s most pre-eminent tourist attraction, to make doubly sure I go inside it – just to get the full-on experience. If you happen to be on a whirlwind tour of the thrilling colour, chaos, tastes, sights and sounds that make up Mystic India, why would you pass on a chance to get straight to the heart of her (purported) greatest cultural treasure? After all, most of us have been catching tantalising glimpses of this resplendent wonder of the world on our calendars or screensavers since we were children. But, now that this superlative shrine to enduring love is standing right here in front of me, all ready, waiting and openly inviting, I am, (to my own astonishment), just not remotely ‘feeling it’. Having finally made it to what I thought was India’s ultimate inspirational edifice, I’d be quite happy now to leave and move on. For some reason, this particular bubble has just burst.
Changing with the Light
It’s not because I can’t face battling through hordes eagerly queuing up all close and personal around the Taj’s finely proportioned walls in order to secure entry to the bitter-sweet mysteries of its highly-polished interior. I’m a Londoner, and, whether I like them or not, am used to crowds. Besides, I came into the Taj’s manicured surroundings on a ‘Foreigner’s’ entry-ticket, which, at 1,000 Rupees, not only includes a bottle of water and shoe-covers, but also enabled me to opportunely enter the gates to these grounds ahead of Indians waiting in line with their ‘bargain’ 40 Rupee tickets. So far, so good. I’m sure the craftsmanship inside the great big building is astonishing. But the penny (or rather the 1,000 Rupee note) has well-and-truly dropped that I am not here on this sub-continent on a mere mission to assimilate what is essentially a mausoleum, or to get pictorial evidence (be it in the form of a proverbial ‘selfie’, or the hopefully better-angled handiwork of a professional photographer) that, look everyone, I too was here.
The Ephemera of Fame
I fully appreciate that this beautiful burial place, which, intriguingly, looks completely different as daylight changes (modest silvery-white or pale pastel-pink at dawn, then alluring ivory changing to irresistible golden saffron towards sunset) is the dream of many a romantic, poet or dedicated photographer. But the calculated speed at which today’s resident photographer is snapping visitor after visitor on the marble ‘Diana Bench’ for 100 Rupees a shot (not included in the ‘Foreigner’s ticket’), reduces the grand structural vision in white, in my eyes at least, to a stage backdrop, highlighting the most vapid and vacuous aspects not only of mass tourism, but of glorious ‘fame’ itself. We are being sold yet another picture postcard, but where’s the substance and meaning behind it?
However, in truth, had I come here on another day, in a different context, I may well have been more smitten by this palest of beauties, whose every symmetrical feature stands as a monument to perfection, and not dismissed her quite so easily as a soulless tourist trap. But today I am not (quite) the casual tourist, having, for the last ten days been on the road courtesy of the Krishna Wisdom team, a tight-knit crew of devotees who have both patiently and adeptly guided a whole group of us ‘spiritual seekers’ through temples, ashrams and holy sites in and around down-town Delhi, the pilgrimage site and ancient city of Haridwar (with all its incumbent Mystics and Yogis), as well as that gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas and self-purported ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ known as Rishikesh, before – perhaps most significantly – steering us towards the soft fine sands and lush woodlands of Vrindavan, the idyllic place where Lord Krishna spend his childhood days, and where the faith is very much alive with joyous prayers in its many temples as sacred greetings abound between all and sundry on the streets.
Mystic India – You either see it or you don’t….
In the course of these magical travels we’ve had countless blessings in the form of holy water, fire, flowers, mantras, bindis on the forehead, and sweets.
We’ve dipped into holy waters, be it when we first discovered Mother Ganga quietly waiting for us at the bottom of the gardens of our residence in Haridwar, or while perched on small rocks lacing her peaceful river-banks near Rishiskesh. Spectacularly, we’ve taken part in Ganga Aarti, a ritual of light and sound where, surrounded by mantras, we floated small candles and flowers while priests performed prayers with bowls of fire accompanied by ringing temple bells.
Those who, on a subsequent whim, decided to take themselves white-water rafting became very familiar with the great Ganges in a manner both unexpected and abrupt, when their vessel suddenly catapulted them into her fastest and most furiously flowing parts. (We all have karma to burn off and some, well, they just need to be rescued physically as well as spiritually!)
Becoming more Acquainted with The Ganges
So here we are, into the second half of our two-week tour, the men in orange (and some, of course, in white) having effectively opened up what might otherwise have remained but hidden doors, allowing us to see the real Mystic India from the inside. You either see it, or you don’t.
Having had such a tasty sampling of the real thing, visiting touristy Taj Mahal is like being offered a meal that, delicious has it looks, has no taste or succour.
Admittedly, this tour has hardly been a pilgrimage of austerity. Thanks to the seamless organisation of our tour facilitator, Radha Govinda das, there has been no real hanging around as we exchange one place of worship, fortress, palace, exhibition, museum, or comfortable dwelling for another.
The Trusty Orange Bus
Our transport – usually in the form of a roomy air-conditioned orange bus – is always ready and waiting to whisk us off to our next destination. A safe environment has been created for us where we are free to dip into Krishna consciousness without peripheral worry or stress.
Sleepers – Travelling in Style on an Indian Train
Yes, we’ve explored Govardhan, where Krishna used to walk the hills with his cows and where people now walk the 24 km circumference barefoot, but we followed the sacred trail in our accustomed air-conned manner that spared us most of the trekking as it conveniently dropped us off at holy sites along the way. We’ve ridden in rickshaws that rushed like little rockets, travelled on trains, and clambered sedately onto bull-drawn carts which collected us after a visit to an ISKCON-run charity school in Vrindavan, were we spent a morning mingling with bright-eyed and immaculately turned-out girls saved from the certain prospect of child-marriage only by the kindness and commitment of others.
A Labour of Love and Commitment
We have yet to jump into the jeeps that will take us up to the opulent red sandstone and marble Amber Fort in Rajasthan, Land of Kings, on the final leg of our excursion.
Glowing Amber Fort
Because this journey also promises to include sights, sounds and experiences of general historic, aesthetic and cultural interest (plus plenty of shopping opportunities!) for those who may wish to (briefly) side-step matters spiritual. A quirky evening spent at Chokhi Dhani, an ethnic Rajasthani display village, will allow us to experience and interact with folk-dancers, puppeteers, magicians, fire-eaters, and (wildly inaccurate) palm-readers.
The Boys Are Back in Town
Anyone still relatively new to the Krishna Consciousness movement may be ever so slightly surprised to find that, no, there’s never a dull moment when you’re touring with Hare Krishna monks who, when not they’re relating details of Krishna’s pastimes to us in illuminated temple grounds, tranquil sacred gardens or from the familiar front of our trusty orange bus, are not slow to come forward and thoroughly sprinkle our transition from one stop-off to the next with ad hoc anecdotes and stories, while liberally peppering our ongoing successive changes of scenery with their jokes.
We’ve come closer our fellow creatures, frequently meeting with sacred cows (who practically own the streets), sometimes encountering massive elephants, tiny chipmunks, or piglets running free, and tried to avoid mischievous monkeys who are quite prepared to step in and ruin your life (in the short-term) by snatching your spectacles or smartphone and using them as bartering tools to bag themselves a banana. Thankfully I saw no crocodiles, despite being assured they were definitely around somewhere….
Too much Monkey Business
When the inevitable consortium of micro-bacteria comes to temporarily invade our digestive systems, we are able to fend them off, if not from the comfort of our modern luxury 5-star hotels, then at least from a peaceful shady ashram/guesthouse placed around balmy idyllic lawns housing mango trees, peacocks, and parrots.
Comfortable Living Quarters
Some of us may have had our ailing moments in a sleeper bunk amidst all the hustle and bustle of an Indian train. While travelling when you’re feeling below par is not ideal, we had, by then, bonded sufficiently as a group to know instinctively when someone needed a bit more room to recline, a bottle of water, a pillow, or spare blanket passing to them….As some were going down, others bounced right back, but we looked out for each other throughout any off-colour interludes.
We had to keep ourselves on form – not least because the food was going to be glorious and plentiful throughout our whole sojourn. No-one wanted to miss out. Now (finally) in a position to live out my long-term fantasy of indulging in Indian food pure and unadulterated for breakfast, lunch, oh and let’s not forget supper, I was surprised at how quickly I fell out with my old friend thali – after just three days to be precise. How glad was I that MVT Bhaktivedanta Ashram in Vrindavan offered pizza, chips and ketchup on arrival – not a combination I would actively seek out in the UK, (always) preferring to go for an Indian. (Un)fortunately, every time I ordered an MVT restaurant dish that sounded small, it turned out to be enormous. It had both quantity and quality. (Happily, I would go on to become reacquainted and thoroughly reconciled with my beloved Indian food before the end of the tour, and, trust me, there was always plenty of it.)
Keeping In Shape
In the course of our Indian fortnight, we would visit enough temples and shrines to know that the most potent spiritual charge is not necessarily always going to be generated in the most breathtakingly intricate and ornate sites (such as Akhardham in New Delhi). A powerful atmosphere can be created in those more lived-in and slightly frayed-round-the-edges sanctuaries where ordinary people convene to celebrate small things and just be in the moment.
Living In The Moment
Looking for Answers at an Early Age
Neither are the most colourful, varied and expansive sites – such as Prem Mandir with its life-like vibrant exhibitions of Krishna’s pastimes, necessarily going to be the most personally inspiring ones.
Temple – That Lived-In Look
The humble and simple rooms where AC Bhaktivedanta swami Prabhupada, founder of the international Hare Krishna movement, spent years in quiet contemplation and doing translation work before setting off to bring Krishna consciousness to the West at the age of 69, can be far more inspiring and conducive to deepening your own spiritual practice than any amount of decor.
In and around the temple – Ordinary Folk
While there’s definitely strength in numbers – some 2,500 visitors to the 5 a.m. arati at Jaipur’s Radha Govinda temple and the rousing kirtans at Vrindavan’s Krishna Balaram temple bear testimony to this – memorable encounters can also be one-on-one. Like the time I found myself alone a Rishikesh temple save for the attendant perched at the top of a long step-ladder polishing a large fan on the ceiling. The pair of us sang the maha mantra in duet for quite some time – me roaming freely round the floor while he remained static on the ceiling – before I had to leave him chanting solo as he continued to buff those elevated blades up to a suitable standard.
Radhakund – A Portal to the Divine…
When we visit Radhakund, a tranquil and supremely holy pond said to be a channel to the Divine, the surface is still and the expanse of water looks unpopulated – apart from a few fish visible near the surface – I spy a solitary Caucasian man who looks like he is levitating in the water just sufficiently to reveal his head and shoulders. This green algae-swathed chap looks mesmerizingly happy, and his eyes are sparkling with glee. He speaks English, so we exchange a bit of easy conversation. He asks where I have come from – “England” sounds a little bit vague, so I tell him “Bhaktivedanta Manor”, (just to give him some co-ordinates within the vast expanse of the universe).
…and Great for Networking
“I was at the manor the day George Harrison gave it to the Hare Krishna” the man tells me, laughing “I was young and handsome then, now I’m like an old freak”. (This chap exudes such vitality, he really doesn’t seem that ‘old’ at all.)
“You must know Kripamoya das “ he says
“I do” I reply “Shall I say hello to him from you? What’s your name?”
On cue, one of three attendant men seated above us on the steps framing this water stands and hands me a card. The delightful man in the lake is none other than His Holiness Partha Sarathi Das Goswami, one of the original ISKCON leaders.
If you’re going to do a meaningful bit of networking, then why not do it in a portal to a more subtle dimension? This is one tailor-made chance encounter I will never forget. I’ve rarely seen anyone more blissful.
No doubt everyone on our tour has had their own encounters and has their own stories to tell. It’s been more than memorable in so many ways for all of us, a trip of a life-time in fact. Who knows if and when we will ever return to Mother India? All of us would like to….
So, don’t get me wrong, when the organisers told us they were throwing in the Taj Mahal as an added extra, I was thrilled. On paper, it looked like added icing on the cake of an already full and varied schedule. Indeed, it promised to be the cherry on top. And I’m still glad I came to the white marble mausoleum. The (good) surprise is that Taj Mahal cake doesn’t taste quite as it should. Perhaps I’ve had a taste of something higher.