Mark Twain said of Indians that “with them all life appears to be sacred except human life”. Walking along the riverside in Dwarka it occurred to me that dog life should perhaps be added to his statement.
They are as numerous as the pilgrims here: tall, skeletal, bearded men with no belongings or, apparently, any sense of belonging at all. Dressed in haggard robes that would be called rags on children, they squat in solitude by the temples that line the riverbank, pushed to the fringes of this Hindu Mecca by the hordes of holy holidaymakers less devoted to their God than to their comfort, and happy to arrive by the coach load or private jeep and sleep happily in their hotels.
The pilgrims are resolute and pious, stoic in a way that their fellow street dwellers can never be. Ever present, the pathetic creatures who would be best friends in our land find no love in this country, and skulk the streets wherever you go: beaten, broken, resigned. Unlike the pilgrims, their hardship is without reward, real or imagined, and their suffering without purpose. Only the pups (a miracle of nature considering the state of the parents) do not cower when approached by the human hand. Like the species oas yet unacquainted with man, they have no reason to fear, though it won’t be long before otherwise playful children, mimicking their elders, turn serious and hurl stones at (not near) them to scare them away. They carry the air of a being that is fully aware of its situation, that the life it leads is that of the unfortunate. The miserable.
Comparisons with the edges of false and pretentious tourist towns, the concrete crying clowns, resound, but these are the sombre scenes of an otherwise jubilant place, and Dwarka’s façade is hardly a façade at all. In truth, the restaurants are dirty and fly-infested, the service is non-existent, but these are the hallmarks of something quite refreshing: this is a tourist town, but the tools of commercialism are still unfamiliar to the hands of the locals, and they wield them, if at all, clumsily and without real purpose.
Nobody here is trying to get to England, indeed few people want to leave at all. They have not moved to Dwarka for profit, they are from here, and their children will stay here. They are proud and happy with their home; their families; their food; their delightful climate unaffected by the monsoon; their beautiful temples and marine distractions from the alluvial plains; their fame. Why shouldn’t they be content?
So when you receive a smile, it is genuine, and the joie de vive is created not by the daily arrivals who are all business even in their celebrations and parades, but by the shop-keepers and tea-makers, the locals ready to chat and invite you to dinner with their families.
Surrounded by the Arabian Sea on three sides, a taste bud on a tongue of Gujarati land on the west coast of India, Dwarka was once the home of Lord Krishna, and is the only one of Hinduism’s seven ‘Holy Places’ that is also one of its four ‘Holy Abodes’. A unique distinction, and the town has a unique temple to claim it with: the Dwarkdish, its seven story tower, beautifully carved, rises 170ft out of the flat, sandy plain that is Gujarat, and is topped with a mighty flag, 40m in length, that is changed four times a day by one man atop a slender pole which he climbs like a coconut tree perched on a Himalayan peak.
It is surrounded in myth. The Brahman guides at the temple will tell you that it rose from the ground, statues and all, 5000 years ago (around 500 years before earliest discovered civilisations in India), then they will ask you for a hefty donation for retelling this tale to you. In truth, the temple was probably built around the 16thC, and the inner sanctum no earlier than the 12thC.
5-6000 people arrive here everyday to worship at this temple, parade the streets and soak up the atmosphere of one of India’s most sacred Hindu sites. A veritable, though certainly more wholesome, religious Disneyland, where temples replace roller coasters and tea replaces beer.
Amid the indigenous sightseers there is the odd western pilgrim to be seen, adapting to their new environment in the same way as the other animal of the Indian streets, the cow, that urinates and defecates in the street wherever it feels the urge as though it were still standing on a grassy meadow with a cool breeze lapping its udders. That is to say, by not adapting very well at all.
This well-documented curiosity is especially true of the British, and the jarring image of a tall, ungainly man whose pasty white skin clashes horribly with his orange robes exemplifies the stereotype. In fact, the British ascetic, awkward and flat-footed, rushing at London pace through the crowds, a full head taller than everyone else and managing to make the busy hubbub look slow and peaceful, invariably (and understandably) looks about as ‘at one’ with himself as your average self-conscious teenager. Every aspect of his countenance expresses a ruffled irritation bordering on anger. He is the very picture of a pompous Brit who has been forced to dress to the hilt in what has been mistaken for ‘local’ clothing in an attempt to ‘fit in’. An Eskimo air-dropped into the heart of Mexico City would probably be more comfortable.