Sophie Hughes recently travelled with us on a walking holiday to South India, a trip that shows the many faces of India, from teeming cities to glorious lakes and mountains – and everywhere, she was charmed by its people. India is certainly an assault on the senses, and here Sophie has written an elegant and very atmospheric account of her experiences.
Our airport bus joins the torrent of colour & ramshackle beauty that is the road from Bangalore to Mysore. This is morning rush hour. Women brilliant in their saris walk the roadsides, apparently to nowhere, their children already beautiful, men stick thin. Watermelon, pineapples, sugar cane and long green beans are piled on palm mats in the roadside dust. Families are clearly here for the day. Men stroke their motorbikes, grannies watch babies play in the scant shade. A woman drinks deep from a green coconut then shucks off a lid to spoon its soft white meat to her child.
We glimpse workers in stuffed buses, men divided from the women. Holding back the cheap curtains they nudge each other as we try not to stare at them. But many smile and wave, unbidden. Our driver carves through trucks dangling baubles, ribbons, bells, overflowing with scrap metal, hump-backed cattle, plastic bowls, swaying loads of hay, massed limbs revealing gleaming teeth and eyes. Lean arms wave. Shoals of mopeds with babies squashed between their parents weave through wildly decorated trucks and tuctucs. Only the driver has a helmet. Annie, our guide, tells us that these men in ironed shirts and women, effortlessly elegant and shimmering in their saris, are likely to be making their way to call centres for BT and Southern Electric. As we near the city, flocks of uniformed lads and glittering young women on their way to school turn and wave as they laugh and stare.
We hit the city, plunging into its tangle of street stalls and alleys, turmeric-dusted cows milked in their street pens by dark-skinned men. Mothers in the shadows hold on to their children, who watch us as we look away, uneasy that we might invade their privacy. We turn and the reek of the animals is shot through with scent from jasmine and chrysanthemum garlands strung by women in scarlet, orange, acid green, peacock blue. Few have sanitation, but other than the beggars with their twisted bodies, most we pass are pristine, leaving a whiff of perfumed hair and silk.
The tarpaulin-covered market is a fragrant shaded warren of flowers and fresh spices, heaps of patterned aubergine and radish, striped marrows, huge okra, bundles of glistening leafy green. Dragon fruits and melons are slashed open, revealing bright flesh of scarlet, orange and cream. Traders look at us with open curiosity, but all respond with a shy smile as we admire.
On to Kalpetta, a Shangri-La of lakeside stilted wooden huts. First walk through jungle in early light past shacks where parents did not smile. “These are tribal people”, said our guide, with their own gods and languages, resisting calls for schooling and sanitation. Dark-skinned, wary, the adults avoid our gaze, though shy children look up from their games and grannies peer through twigged walls. Their homes are made of bamboo, woven palm, mud. Our guide tells us that because, unlike us, they smell of woodsmoke and the earth they are in no danger from elephants which leave them alone. We moved on, uneasy and unable to stare uninvited into the dark corners of their lives.
Tigers and leopards are now rarely seen in the jungle, but a group of men known to our guides showed us their bows and arrows and are proud hunters of deer and wild pig.
We walk past men picking pepper from thin light ladders, and our guide, a farmer, shows us how ginger, turmeric, vanilla, cardamom, coffee, and cashews grow in the woods. Settlements of more prosperous growers welcome us to admire their ginger, tapioca, beans, and tomatoes. Shy women let us see their children and the peppercorns laid out to dry, first green and yellow, then black and ready to trade. Bantams pick over the crop, chased away from the precious potted okra by bigger girls and boys. Some fetch a baby, showing us the filigree chains and bells around its soft plump ankles
Had a vigorous ayurvedic massage from a bejewelled beauty, and a hot steam bath in a portable tin shed. No shared language, but warm laughter and a mutual understanding of what we were both about. Afterwards felt light and alive and started writing these notes.
Frogs, monkeys, cicadas, unknown birds echo through the night over the water and round the valley. Noises like singing whales one night – perhaps elephants making their way to drink from the lake. Their dung was evident the next day and though our guides were wary on our behalf on our walk, they had moved on, they said. Half-crazed dogs that guard dark empty shacks we had seen in the forest call in the dusk. Bells, chanting, song from different faiths reach over the water from the village.
Walk today up mountain through jungle. Blue-black butterflies flicker in the sun. Cicadas raise and cease their noise together like vast engines. Heavy black squirrels jump through the high canopy, whiffs from lemongrass and leaves from unknown trees as we crunch them underfoot. Our guides, moving soft as panthers, show us a tiny brown snake, a wasp nest high in the cathedral roof of the forest, a wren-sized yellow bird that floods the canopy with liquid song.
On to a pilgrim city – Guruvayoor. Evening walk to the temple. Wide-eyed families in their white and gold finery watch glittering dancing girls whirling their silks, arched arms and hands fluttering, eyes flashing. Old men observe beadily from the back. I linger on into the dusk alone, buying vicious steel kitchen knives, a heart-shaped metal pointing float, small bright treasures for those I love, sandals. A salutary bat squeak of anxiety as sudden dark fell in the bright streets where I was the only stranger.
A temple wedding on a raised dais the following dawn. The sombre frightened bride, barely visible within a jostle of men, suddenly radiant as it was all over, laughing with her girlfriends, fragrant with massed loops of jasmine woven through their heavy raven hair. An arranged marriage, her proud plump new husband explained as we were drawn at his insistence into their wedding photographs. Our western selves felt clumsy as we brushed their iridescent silks and they showed us the woven gold of their necklaces and anklets. They touched and stroked our hair, smiles and laughter revealing perfect teeth and breath sweet with spices.
Then to the seaside – a white slick of sand strung out with shanty shacks, clusters of boats, a sturdy pink-turbaned man wary of me as he cast his parachute net for plump silvery fish glinting with red. Green coconut milk by the roadside from a proud toothless old man, then spiced prawns cooked on open-air gas burner by a beaming mama before longish journey to lakes. Greens and texture from palm groves and plantings intensify as we penetrate this lush land.
Dawn trip on a thatched houseboat through canals at Kumarakom. Relaxed women, minding their children and pounding their washing, smile and wave, men climb and cut green coconuts for us, their sweet cool milk a joy in the heat. Herons and cormorants in silhouette, brilliant greens and blues of kingfishers who have learned to live on the wires. A lean solitary man in scarlet cloak, loping across a grassed embankment, raises a long arm we pass. Dignity of body and perhaps soul manifest.
Early evening walk to the village. We pass a very old man with fabulously gnarled hands selling small fishes. Surrounded by clusters of cronies he remains there still on our return, as do the fish.
We pause by a yellow painted temple built for a sage who talked with Gandhi. Its colour brings joy to the soul, our guide tells us. He is right. Children draw round us as we walk, wanting to know our names. We pass rice fields, emerald green, a grain store for those who can show they need help to feed their families. Posters and red flags proclaim this is a communist country, though it is hard, as outsiders, to fathom what this means to the communities.
Blue water hyacinth in full flower fills the ditches. A small child playing on his porch runs excited to tell the house we are here. Women emerge from the shadows within to see and smile, their wide eyes reflecting our own curiosity. Water buffalo raise sculpted heads from lush pasture, scattering their white egrets. These are scenes from medieval and prehistoric times.
We break our walk in the shimmering heat for coconut toddy in a shaded bamboo hut served by a tall young man, his striped lunghi draped with grace and style. Observed with undisguised curiosity by our sombre male fellow drinkers we are approached by one who is eager to tell us he has worked in Australia and has a brother in Ealing.
Quiet dawn walk. We gather more smiling children who run home to fetch their grannies. Men emerge to meet, brush their teeth and wash. We pass farmed ducks and tethered cattle. Plumed cocks strut with their hens and chicks. The men chug past us on their bikes to work, shirts ironed, hair gleaming. We hear soft laughter as the women clatter their pots and get ready for their day.
We rejoice in the food here, delicately spiced, subtle, various.
Second boat trip across open waters this time. We pass floating rafts of scarlet-flowering water lilies, colonies of cormorants, lone green herons, bee-eaters. Then a walk through a sanctuary with our dreadlocked guide. The air fills with liquid song. Back on the boat, unseen creatures call over the silence of the waters. We glimpse bright feathers and long tufted tails like birds of paradise.
Now to Munnar. Blessed cool of the mountains and long afternoon in the shambles and squalor of the town. Stayed on to buy from and photograph smiling stallholders in the dark market: chocolate makers, jasmine sellers, traders in cardamom and cloves that burst with sharp fragrance. No silk or wonderful scarves in this teeming place where most are workers on the tea plantations. The destination of bull calves is revealed in a long corridor buried at the foot of the market. Great sides of dark meat and piles of offal in stalls that overhang the rocky river that divides the town, flowing low and sluggish now through a midden of plastic and human detritus.
Found a red metal hammer with a fluted head, more kitchen knives. Fellow customers much amused and the proprietor fetched his large purple swathed lady, glittering with gold, for advice on what I should buy. Bought a length of jasmine spiked with scarlet, small sweet bananas. Tuctuc back up the two-mile dusty hill to the hotel 60 rupees – 60 pence – picking up others on the way.
Now a drive through tea plantations to a high mountains walk. Annie, our leader, as ever, an endless source of quiet interest and warmth sees and touches the best in everyone. Gently she draws out our handsome local guide who tells her his extended family of 13 live together in the town. A Hindu, his marriage to a Christian girl had included in its different stages one thousand guests. His wife has a degree in nautical engineering, wants to do her masters and live in Chennai but is for now looking after Tiara, their new baby. He is not so sure about the Chennai plan. She had made him bread omelette for lunch. He and I exchanged a corner of his for a piece of my spiced vegetable patty. Subtle, made with loving care with fresh coriander, I thought his delicious. But It was better hot he said.
Sublime moments as we rested to drink lime sodas in the palm-roofed shade of a ramshackle yoga centre, its haphazard doors and walls picked out in brilliant pink, yellow, peacock blue. Ragged prayer flags over easy spaces to sit held echoes of travellers' good times and invited more. A bearded young ascetic and a New Zealand family with their small children were working on the organic farm as part of their summer. Easy laughter rolled from the dark kitchen.
Walk again through tea plantations up to and along the Lakshmi ridge that dominates our hotel. A stretching, up-and-down trek with views that overwhelm and silence the group. Long day, read and talked in evening sun in a garden overlooking the gorge, birds with tufted heads come to visit and sing to us, falcons wheel overhead. Tried, but am not sure about, the salt lassi that is liked by others.
Long journey to hill station Kodakainal, over the highest mountains we have yet seen, dividing Kerala from Tamil Nadu. The tea plant encrusted mountains and valleys nurturing datura and tree fern give way to lower lying thickets and plains, acacias, palm and scrub. We drive through a tiger sanctuary, a grove of sandalwood, sudden villages. Glimpses of lean hands wielding a draw knife, a mattock, an ancient gas-fired iron, offer a sliver of light into lives. The land becomes more flat, the colours of the women's saris less vivid. This is harsher country. Some of these people are living more roughly, squashed closely alongside ramshackle byres, hayricks and dung heaps. Though signs of rural poverty are clear, still most faces light up as we pass. Each village, we learn, is inhabited by its own tree spirits and snake goddesses. Clusters of children, spruced and smart in their uniforms, turn and smile.
At a break in a roadside cafe a plump pretty woman in her gold chains and pink sari offers us spiced freshly crisped onions. She appears anxious, and is newly married into this family of five, all of whom are called and formally presented. Adolescent lads linger and are not introduced until we ask. These are servants from the village, the paterfamilias explains. One is tea master, another coffee master. The boys beam and squirm with delight. An old lady asks shyly if she can touch our clothes and hair. Her long thin fingers stroke my face, her touch light as a bird's feather. Next to this small cafe lone figures are tending their goats on the arid land among dry stream beds and stinking rubbish. They too stare but do not return our smiles.
New ranges of humped and peaked ridges, rivers and green rimmed lakes re-form at every turn. The bus hovers over sheer gorges, manoeuvring for the angles of the bends, turning with inches to spare. Strung-out villages spike pitted roads through changing forms of jungle and plain. Each draws the eye to glints of colour from brilliant walls, washing out to dry, and to the layered duns and greys of detritus that fill the spaces. Babies folded into their darker and coarser saris, women walk tall with aluminium pots on their heads, men chew betel as they go about their day, old men half-sleep on rags.
Arrival at Munnar, a high hill station originally American, its conglomeration of life and colour splayed over land rising from a suburban lake where swan-headed pedalos and rose-covered porches remind us of Surrey. Holidaying Indians strut and play, gazing out with us over misted mountains from a British-built rampart where Edwardian ladies rustled in their silks.
Walks here are through fragrant eucalyptus forests which open to folding, far ridges which hush our talk. We become aware of pairs or groups of fellow travellers in this place, and realise we have rarely until now seen white faces apart from our own. On impulse this last evening we have our hands hennaed with nets of flowers and arabesques by a serene beauty, sure of her craft, who Annie knew would be there. The sun sets behinds the ridge in a sudden brief burst of orange and shocking pink.
The city wakes In the clear last morning light to echoes from the valley from the mullah, sweet high voices of singing nuns, chanting from the temple, sounds of whisking stick brooms, clearing throats, a dog barking. These are the noises of India. We realise that we have rarely hear a child cry.
Last blast of all that is India through the teeming city and temple at Madurai. Beggars, more assertive now, tug at our sleeves as we weave through vendors of street food, balloons, shocking pink candy floss.
Pilgrims in a whirling mosaic of colour chatter and converge through the great carved doors into pillared vaulted halls, encrusted with tiered deities and flanked by granite dragons gnawing at their tails. Towers of stuccoed gods and goddesses ascend higher than cathedrals, the massed primary colours bewildering the senses. Ceilings, floors and doors crawl with a mix of elegant beasts set about with curlicues and scrolls.
All life is here. Parents and grandparents carry trophy babies with gold-studded ears and kohl-circled eyes. A sleeping newborn is unwrapped from its gold and white cocoon and laid before a shrine. Pilgrims pray and circle through garlanded images of Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesh in unselfconscious obeisance, pouring oil, scattering spices and flowers as they murmur to their gods. This temple is among the greatest, in its opulence and scale, among the palaces of the Hindu deities in India.