We confess a deep bias towards India, an attraction which goes back, for one of us, to teenage years spent reading Aurobindo and Tagore, meditating and doing hatha yoga, to the other roaming India as a young man, a temporary sadhu from Minnesota.
India is everything human. It is all of our history, it is the past, it is the future. If it has been thought, experienced or imagined, it has all happened before in India and you can be sure it is happening right now.
It is among the most difficult of places to travel, and the most rewarding. Some say India stands for “I’ll Never Do It Again,” many more are drawn back time and again because India is the best show on earth, the best bazaar of human experiences that can be visited in a lifetime. It has been said that there are 330 million gods in India, and there are at least that many varieties of experience available, religious or otherwise.
Many go to India on the eternal pilgrimage, looking for enlightenment and answers, and India has plenty, from the genuine article to those devised by the cleverest touts and swindlers born. India will dissolve your ideas about what it is to be a human being, what it is to be compassionate, what it is to be spiritual or conscious. Its people give new meaning to perserverence, courage, ingenuity, and friendship. India’s is a bewilderingly old culture, with myth and history so intertwined and layered that one knows immediately it cannot be known nor understood, only experienced.
Similarly, it is an exercise in futility to compile a single volume on India, where ten would suffice—as a beginning. In Travelers’ Tales India, we’ve admittedly only dipped our toes in, but one has to begin somewhere.
India, of course, is more than gods and swamis and ancient art, ashrams and temples and ruins too numerous to count, it is a vast expanse of jungle, desert, oasis, and the utterly peerless Himalayas, which tear open the hearts and minds of all pilgrims. India, an embarrassment of riches, is also home to elephants and tigers, leopards and rhinos and maybe even the elusive yeti in the rhododendron forests of Sikkim.
It is also a country strained beyond belief with people and pollution, an incomprehensible bureaucratic labyrinth, and the calcification of caste structure, laws against it notwithstanding. It is home to the world’s largest movie industry and some of the world’s worst living conditions, a place where advanced technology and science coexist with crushing poverty and disease, where exquisite music and dance and the science of right living live side by side with political corruption and mob violence on a massive scale.
India’s colonial relationship with Great Britain produced one of the most fascinating meldings of civilizations ever, and one of the bloodiest nation-birthings during the Partition of 1947. India is the world’s largest democracy but one threatened by Hindu-Muslim religious conflict, an ever-tense border situation with Pakistan in Kashmir, trouble in Tamil Nadu state spilling over from civil conflicts in Sri Lanka, and numerous movements trying to break off autonomous pieces from the nation: Sikhs in the Punjab, Gurkhas in Sikkim and Darjeeling, indigenous groups in Assam and Nagaland.
India—monsoon and marigold, dung and dust, colors and corpses, smoke and ash, snow and endless myth—is a cruel, unrelenting place of ineffable sweetness. Much like life itself. And, like life itself (if reincarnation be true) worth visiting repeatedly, in this turn of the wheel and the next.
About James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger:
James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger are the editors of the Travelers’ Tales series. They also write “World Travel Watch,” a column that appears in newspapers throughout the United States.