Empire of the soul

Photograph of the evening aarti in Haridwar, India during Kumbh Mela 2011

Evening aarti in Haridwar, India during Kumbh Mela 2011

Getting ready to return to India for the third time

I am “borrowing” the title of this post from writer Paul William Roberts. It’s the name of his book about his travels in India and I think it just perfectly describes how I — and so many others — feel about India. I am leaving for my third trip to India in 17 days (January 30, 2009), and am completely immersed in figuring out my itinerary, getting ready, and getting excited. Also sending out as many query letters as I can, to newspapers and magazines and radio shows — hoping to write about my trip: a one-month train journey around India’s heartland.

And, as usual, I am always on the lookout for movies, books, shows, articles — whatever — about India. Here are two I recommend …

Highly Recommended

First and foremost, the PBS series airing on Monday nights, “The Story of India,” is really terrific. Host Michael Wood, a British historian, is knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic. He is so understandably bowled over by attending rituals that have performed in the same way and in the same place for 1,000 years. The two shows I have seen so far have covered the periods from about 150 BC to about 400 AD, but it’s not dead-and-gone-history, the kind that bored most of us to distraction in school.

This is one of the amazing things about India. Ancient history is alive and well in the architecture, culture, traditions and rituals of modern India: The sea routes and trading practices of the ancient Greek and Roman traders; the story of Rama; the Gupta dynasty in the north; the Cholan empire in the south (which is the world’s last remaining classical civilization — Wood interviewed a descendant of the great Cholan King Raja Raja). All of these were brought alive under Wood’s careful observations.

Maybe this is one of the reasons  India stirs my soul so much. The cultures of India have evolved unbroken for centuries, and the stories and values of the past are just as important as they ever were. It is both a wisdom culture and a soul culture.

Also enjoying Mark Tully‘s new book, India’s Unending Journey. Tully was the chief BBC correspondent in India for 22 years (and he was also born there, in Calcutta). In the book, Tully traces his own journey from rigid Christian to someone who is “certain about uncertainty.” He takes an introspective look at religion and spirituality and how Hinduism and India’s pluralistic approach has deeply influenced him and his own views. I also enjoyed one of Tully’s previous books, No Full Stops in India, and plan to read more.

India Itinerary

The holidays for me were overshadowed by my need and desire to create a journey for my trip to India. I really threw myself into the creative process of thinking, reading, researching and weighing various factors, which included time, money, interest, feasability and … what would make a good travel story or stories.

In the end, I got my inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and Slumdog Millionaire. In the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the two young brothers jump on a train to escape Bombay and ride around India, using their wits to survive. Watching this part of the movie reminded me about how much I like train journeys in India, and also reminded me of another great movie, Gandhi, and of course of the man himself.

The first “tourist” spot I visited in India, back in 2005, was Raj Ghat, the place where Gandhi was cremated. It is now a large and peaceful park by the river Jumuna, which runs through Delhi. I was moved by the simple marble slab and eternal flame that pays respect to this incredible man. Later, I spent an afternoon at Birla House, also known as Gandhi Samadhi, the place Gandhi lived when in Delhi — and also the place where he died by assassination.

So, I decided to take a train journey that would allow me to visit both of Gandhi’s ashrams in India — Sabarmati in Gujurat and Sevagram in Maharashtra, as well as Jaisalamer and Varanasi, my top two wish-list destinations. I am buying a one-month train pass and in early February I will travel from Delhi west to Rajasthan; then south to Ahmedabad (Gujurat) Mumbai and the Konkan coast; and then inland to Sevagram ashram, Kanha and /or Bandhavgarh Naitonal Parks in Madyha Pradesh (for tiger spotting); and finally a week in Varanasi; then the overnight trian back to Delhi, arriving the day before my birthday.

If anyone has any tips, advice, must-see places or invitations to dinner (hahaha), please let me know!

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One Response to Empire of the soul

  1. gooddeedaday January 25, 2009 at 10:57 pm #

    Looking forward to following your journey!

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