Book Review – A Search in Secret India

I’ll be honest, this was a spur of the moment buy for me. We were renovating our en-suite bathroom camping out in the spare room (usually my yoga room) and I was desperate for something to read to take my mind of the stresses of the building work going on smothering everything in our house in a fine layer of dust.

I downloaded the Kindle version and was hooked from the first page. I didn’t know anything about the author, Paul Brunton, or that the book was first published in 1935. The writing style is definitely of that era, but it reads pretty easily. Paul was born in London and travelled to India and Egypt in search of broadening his knowledge on the sacred and religious practices of these countries. He was convinced that these teachings and practices could be adapted to benefit those living in the West so they too could benefit from them.

The book is written like a travel diary. It starts off with a bit of background information on Paul and how his interest in India, and most importantly, India’s holy men began. He wishes to travel to India, but life happens and it’s not until later he gets the opportunity.

As he travels through India (which couldn’t have been easy back then given how vast the country is), he meets various sages and holy men. Some are merely performers doing magic tricks, while others seem to fit the stories of what he’s heard of the holy men. He documents his experiences and conversations with these holy men. Some he comes across by chance, others suggest the teacher they follow like Ramana Maharshi in Arunachala.

He’s a sceptic when he starts out on his journey and continues to ask the sages he comes across to repeat the seemingly impossible feats they do. Most humour him, but some you get the sense that they feel as a Westener and someone on the outside, i.e. someone who doesn’t follow their teacher or have spent years trying to learn what they’re doing, regardless of how many times they show him he still wouldn’t believe it.

What I like about the book is that you can sense his genuine interest and thirst for knowledge and his quest for turning his focus inwards. I loved reading about his visit in Varanasi as I have travelled there before. I was delighted to read his description of the area around the ghats where I stayed as it matched what I saw exactly. It’s amazing to think that so little in that area has changed architecturally.

I don’t want to give too much away as it’s really well worth reading if you’re interested in yoga and meditation and just interested in India in general.

Preparing for India

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With so many of my yoga friends making the trip to Mysore lately, I’ve been reminiscing about our trip a few year ago and am finding once again India is tugging at my heart. India is one of those places; you either love it or hate it and I absolutely love it. I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on how to prepare for a trip to the motherland of yoga, although I don’t think you can ever really prepare yourself for India.

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Sweet shop in Orchha

Food
I’m sure everyone knows at least one person who’ve shared their story on that explosive curry they had while travelling through India. Most guide books suggest adopting a vegetarian diet (if you’re not one already) for the duration of your trip. I remember how smug I was eating one delicious vegetarian dish after another while my Hubby went on what I called The Grand Tour of Mutton. “Any minute now” I thought at every bite he took until…I woke up in the middle of a hot,sweaty, humid night in Varanasi and didn’t feel too well. “Just dehydration after a day’s sightseeing” I thought. Unfortunately for me, I must have eaten something that got contaminated (we had dinner at a restaurant right on the ghats that night) and said bug traveled with me for the rest of our trip. So my tip would be to make sure you eat at busy, well reviewed places if you’re worried and to accept that while you can try and minimize your chances of picking up a stomach bug, sometimes the universe likes to remind you that you really aren’t in control.

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The banks of the Ganges in Varanasi

Travel Insurance
This leads me onto my next tip, get travel insurance! I can’t believe how many people risk it and travel without it. Sure chances of you using it is slim but it’ll save you bankruptcy, a whole lot of stress and tears in the unfortunate event something does go wrong. As my bug seemed resistant to all the medication I brought with me plus the ones we got from the pharmacies and local remedies, my Hubby ended up taking me to the hospital in McLeod Ganj up in the mountains. We were already risking our lives heading down the mountain at breakneck speed in a tiny taxi at night with me clutching the bin from the hotel room we were staying in. I ended up in what was the hospital’s tiny emergency room waiting for the Dr to be summoned from her home. Had things been worse, I would have been transferred to a private hospital where the fees would have been significantly higher and would quickly add up. Luckily we had travel insurance. Thankfully we were able to avoid that but I was very grateful that I didn’t have to think twice about going to the hospital.

 

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Jet-lagged but super impressed with the big gates

Clothing
Dressing modestly is key in India. As a foreigner, chances are you will get people starting at you regardless of what you wear. You look different and some people might never have seen red hair or blond hair before. I found that being friendly helps and often times, before you know it you’ve made new friends. However, India is a relatively conservative country. It’s changing slowly in big cities such as Mumbai, but it’s still best to make sure that you dress respectfully. This means trying to stay away from strappy tops and shorts or short skirts. I always carried a shawl with me as some holy places require you to cover your hair, and if you are wearing a strappy top, you can always cover up with your shawl.

I mostly wore salwar kameezes (super comfortable and perfect for hot days) and received so many compliments from the local women. Other days I wore long skirts, jeans or loose cotton pants with loose t-shirts or kurtas.

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Temple in Khajuraho

Respect
India is unlike any other country on earth. It has a long history and is incredibly diverse. This means that there are many religions, languages and people all living together for the most part in crazy, chaotic harmony. There are some places where religious tensions run high and we did our best to avoid them. People were always happy to tell us more about their religion, beliefs and culture when we asked and we were genuinely interested. I feel we learnt so much just listening to their stories and you often get to learn something you haven’t come across before.

It’s also important to know when it’s the right time to take a photo and when to be respectful. So many people try to take photos of the cremation ghats in Varanasi, but it’s actually considered incredibly rude and very disrespectful towards the family who are mourning the passing of a loved one. It would be the same as random strangers showing up at a funeral and starting to take pictures. The same goes for when you’re attending a religious ceremony at a temple. Always have a look and see what the locals are doing. We were lucky enough to attend the evening aarti at the Ram Raja temple in Orchha which is quite intimate. Taking photos would have felt out of place and I’m sure the locals wouldn’t have appreciated it. The evening aarti along the Ganges in Varanasi however is a big attraction and locals and tourists alike tend to take photos.

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Kangra Fort at the foothills of the Himalayas

Travel
As it was our first trip, we opted to have a driver. We had a few out of the way places we wanted to visit and taking public transport would have taken too long to get us there. Our driver was absolutely wonderful and ended up being a wealth of information. After our time in India he felt like part of the family and we were quite sad to say good bye. He knew all the unspoken rules of the road in India (there are many, the most important being the biggest vehicle gets right of way, doesn’t matter which side of the road it’s driving). He pointed out long forgotten forts and temples on hill tops, knew where we could stop in the middle of nowhere to get a bite to eat and took us along back routes showing us sights we would never have seen.

Travelling by rail is also a great way to see the countryside and meet people. Unfortunately we had limited time in India so opted for a more reliable mode of transport as trains can often times be delayed. Trips can also take quite a while. We flew from Varanasi to Amritsar and it was relatively inexpensive. Considering how ill I was feeling I was quite grateful I was able to crawl into a warm bed that night instead of having to sleep on the train.

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Life in Paharganj in Delhi

Put the camera down
You will fill up your memory card with photos, and then some! India is the most photogenic country I’ve ever visited. It’s riot of colours, beautiful smiles, incredible temple architecture, amazing sunrises, snow capped mountains, holy men, monks, beautiful sari clad women and stalls stacked sky high with spices, fruits and gorgeous fabrics. You’ll want to take photos of everything, but doing so you’ll miss out on the experience of just being there. Nothing beats sitting at the Ganga aarti in Varanasi, surrounded by laughing women trying to teach you the mantra blaring over the loudspeakers, or enjoying a rare, quiet moment as the forest surrounding McLeod Ganj erupts with thousands of butterflies.

A few other tips:

  • Don’t drink the tap water.
  • Remember that the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.
  • Take earplugs, you’ll need them, especially in the cities.
  • Make sure you have some smaller denomination notes with you for tips.
  • India is known for absolutely mouth watering dishes, from super spicy hot to mild. Don’t spend your time eating at McDonalds. There are countless hole in the wall eateries and restaurants where you can enjoy a meal without getting the feared Delhi Belly. A good rule of thumb is go anywhere popular with lots of locals.
  • Cows always have right of way.
  • You will get haggled by people trying to sell you everything under the sun. Try not to get annoyed and instead just say you’re not interested and walk away. Some might follow you but will soon lose interest to move on to someone who might buy something.
  • Wear shoes that are easy to remove. You’ll be taking them off and putting them on a 1000 times a day as you visit temples.
  • Most people understand some English in the cities, but that’s not always true in more rural areas. Usually some amusing arm waving and interpretative dancing gets the message across much to the delight of the laughing locals.
  • Don’t do anything you would’t do back home. I was asked several times by groups of guys to pose for a photo with them, but I wouldn’t do that with a group of strange guys back home, so just politely declined.
  • Do sit back and enjoy the beautiful chaos that India is.