The Beauty In The Chaos Of Northern India

Before I begin my blog post, I’d like to thank Meenu & Pawan Deol from Living Atman, Patricia Tallman, and Sony for providing me with the amazing opportunities that this retreat to India has afforded me, with particular thanks to Gustav Kiburg and Ian Lopez at Sony for allowing me to use their amazing camera, a Sony a6500, to capture the journey. As well as a huge shout out to my roomie Melissa! Without whom I might’ve gone crazy and helped me with some of the details in this blog! *Posh British accent* Thank you my Darling!

In February/March, I travelled to India, and whilst I’m home again now, I’m still on that journey in a way…. Unpacking and processing everything that happened.. As well as dealing with the emotions and feelings that came up during the trip. Maybe that’s why writing this took so long. 

If I’m honest with you, I’m not entirely sure where to start when it comes to my time in India. But as I look back on it, and go through the thousands of images I took over my time there (no I’m not joking, it was thousands), I think ‘chaos’ is the word that comes to mind. But don’t get me wrong, the chaos of India is beautiful, rather than depressing. It forces you to rethink the way you look at life and changes your perspective. There is immense joy to be found amid the bright colours of the country. Sometimes it can seem hard to believe from a Western perspective, when you find yourself confronted with different hygiene standards and a higher level of poverty than you’re used to. But it’s true. 

Seeing a whole family on a scooter, not wearing helmets and with maybe a blanket to protect the little one was a shock. The drivers zip into apparently non-existent spaces, and the vehicles clog the roads. It’s a wonder that they get anywhere. And I found myself wondering just what you had to do to pass a driving test there, or if anyone taught road safety. Vendors would rush past with whole stacks of merchandise on a cart, people would hurry by carrying things on their head, these are the things a photographer dreams of, but also the things that scare those of us who aren’t used to them.

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Children grabbing at your arm, begging for food and money, people sleeping in train stations and on the streets, the slums, toilets that are literally just holes in the floor; but all the while the people are dressed in the same bright colours that are rich throughout the landscape itself, and often have smiles on their faces. There’s a striking contrast between the lack of provisions and the simplicity of their happiness that you don’t find present in the West. I think it’s part of what makes Northern India so unique and beautiful.

I arrived early in Delhi, a few days before most of the retreat group, and it gave me a chance to explore with a friend who was also on the retreat. Our first day was spent exploring the area around our hotel, taking a tuk tuk to a shopping centre getting those last minute supplies we had invariably forgotten to bring with us and grabbing some lunch. Neither of us expected to see cows walking through the centre, that’s definitely something you don’t see back home! 

During those first few days, we also visited Akshardam temple where we weren’t allowed to take photos (unfortunately), as well as the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib temple (Sikh), a stepping well, and Kashmiri Cottage Industries where we were introduced to the craft of making carpets, scarves and saris. We’d visit the Sikh temple and Kashmiri Cottage Industries again, with our retreat group, later in the trip.

The stepping well was called Ugrasen ki Baoli and it was an ideal place to take some of my first shots of India. Birds and bats inhabited the area, with the latter flying like the birds but also hanging from the ceiling in the former well, the way in which the light fell gave it a sort of mystical effect. The only downside was the very steep steps and a LOT of dust! 

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The Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh temple was surreally beautiful from a photographic perspective. The colour clothing of the people doing service in the kitchen contrasted with the white of the temple and the blue of the water to create a picture book effect that I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to see and capture. Wherever we travelled on our journey through India, one thing that struck me was the way in which people were willing to help each other, regardless of what they themselves have. It’s something that we could learn from here in the West.

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We took a Rickshaw through the Old Delhi Markets. The markets of India are where everything comes together. The chaotic rhythm of life that flows through them is magnificent. Everything erupts with colour, each individual market is a lively community all of its own where stallholders all have their own stories to tell and will happily haggle with you over the cost of their wares; music plays from so many different places within the market creating a chaotic crescendo amid the chatter and the hagglers, there is beauty everywhere, and those insanely rich smells that fill your head (although as with all things, sometimes those smells make you want to move on by rather quickly), I just wanted to keep taking pictures.

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The Jama Masjid Mosque made us feel like we’d joined the Indian Hogwarts! We were handed colourful robes on entering and each one felt like it was representative of our own house colour… is peach the colour of the Indian equivalent of Ravenclaw or Gryffindor? Who knows? Inside the gate, the sunlight glints off the marble detailing of buildings surrounding an inner courtyard hidden from the view of the outside world.

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The Taj Mahal, There’s this moment when you stand in the grounds and it’s like standing in the middle of a postcard or movie, you’re not really sure that you’re standing there, in the shadow of this iconic landmark. The gardens are beautiful, and were definitely my favourite part of our Taj Mahal experience, contrast between the white of the Taj, the green of the garden, the blues of the sky and fountains… add to that the flower and it’s beautiful wherever you look. Inside the Taj l itself, I got a little claustrophobic. It IS a mausoleum and once you get inside, it gets really small and crowded. To be honest, I was longing to get back outside to the open air, but it was definitely worth the experience, and I’d recommend doing the whole thing. There are 2 identical buildings on each side of the Taj made from sandstone which you don’t really expect to see. They are rarely shown in the photographs that we see online or in magazines.

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The Red Fort is somewhere I could’ve gotten lost in for DAYS. Construction work started on it in 1639 and was completed in 1648. Up until 1856 it was the main residence of the Mughal Dynasty. I’m European, so I’m used to seeing older buildings, but I had never seen anything like this! The architecture is superb and there is a clear respect for such an ancient part of India’s heritage. The natural light here was so different to anything I had yet experienced. The way it bounced off the building, created shadow play with the arches, and the views from the fort itself, all of them could, if given the time, create an amazing photography book that I would love to shoot. 

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The Golden Temple was an interesting experience. It was one of the places that I had been most eager to see, and one of the ones that I wanted to take full photographic advantage of. But, as tends to happen, my plan for the day didn’t quite go the way I wanted. It’s what happens with travel, no matter how good your intentions, something comes up. Well, I ended up falling ill, so had to take some time out, sitting under a tree to build my energy back up. But as luck would have it, whilst my original plan changed, serendipity came knocking, in that way it does. I was fortunate enough to watch a young girl catching berries from a jujube tree, look out in a calm zen-like state across the water, and watch locals go about their business, seeing things that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. I did love doing Seva (service – selfless service for the betterment of the community) there as well. Learning how to make roti and naan from locals was a foodie’s dream and will definitely stay with me for a long time to come. 

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A seven hour train ride, an hour by car through a forest, and we arrived in Rishikesh, where everything was so very different from the hubbub of our previous stops. It was so quiet, so peaceful, and so picturesque. Here I was thankful to take early morning walks where I could collect my thoughts and welcome a new day, do yoga admist breathtaking views, and join in morning prayers which were chanted rather than said. Participating in the aarti ceremony by the Ganga River was particularly memorable. The evening Satsang was an incredible revelation for all of us I think, something none of us had ever thought about participating in, but we came away from it with evolving perspectives on things. All of those spiritual moments in a place that still holds a part of me, reverberated through my very core, and when I look back on them, continue to do so now.

I’d definitely recommend attending an Aarti ceremony by the Ganga (Ganges River) I saw one right by the Parmarth Niketan Ashram and a bigger ceremony in Haridwar where we were allowed to sit on the walking bridge to get a better view of the whole ceremony. If you don’t like crowds though I’d recommend the the one at  Parmarth Niketan.

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Dharamsala in the Himalayas remains one of my favourite parts of this retreat. If you hadn’t figured it out from the above, I love nature. And in Dharamsala we were able to enjoy some hiking. That early morning view when you walked out of your room in the WH Grace Hotel was breathtaking, and it made my heart sing. There’s no other way to describe it. Where else in the world would you be woken by a monkey sitting in the tree outside your hotel room?

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The hiking opportunities in this area of India are amazing. Seeing prayer flags out in the open up in the mountains was something that was literally breathtaking. Each one bright against the natural backdrop. The villages are full of life but it’s a slower, more gentler way of living than in the cities like New Delhi. Goats and hens seem to pop up in every direction, living in harmony with the farmers and village people who use them for their meat, milk, and eggs.

One thing none of us expected from this trip was literally once in a lifetime. We went to a Mcleodganj for a meditation class and were fortunate enough to be invited back the next day to a ceremony that was being hosted by the Dalai Lama. Well, let’s be honest, if you turn that sort of chance down, you really don’t know what you’re missing! Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos of that ceremony for security reasons. There are so many moments that I wish I could have taken a picture of, but at the same time, there are somethings that are better off remembered rather than captured. After all, as much as I love to take photographs, I also love to stop for a moment, put down the camera, and just take in what is happening around me.

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Locals love having their picture taken! They are more than happy to let you take a picture, which means I was really able to get some amazing shots. One lady in a village near McLeodGanj even invited us into her house and let us take pictures! But by the same token, when they see obvious foreigners, you can often find them queuing to have a picture with you! It was a bizarre fact of our trip that everywhere we went, local people were literally waiting in line to have their photo taken with people from our group. I’m a photographer, I’m used to being behind the camera, and it was all a little surreal for me.

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I loved our Safari adventure at Rajiji National Park! While we didn’t see any elephants or tigers on the bumpy trip, we did find tiger footprints, evidence that elephants had been through the area, deer, stags with huge antlers, stunning tropical birds, a peacock flying overhead, and so many beautiful creatures and so much plantlife. I did mention I love being in nature, right? Standing on the back of the jeep, hair in the wind, looking at the rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds and reflections in the little pools of water, searching the landscape for wildlife, it felt like such an adventure. Life was definitely good that day.

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Our stay at Norwood Green (a tea plantation) in Palampur, included Holi. The Bundla Tea Estate was peaceful and beautiful, continuing our calming theme of the Himalayas.  There was a family staying there as well, so before setting off to Sujanpur to celebrate Holi, we had our own little party in front of the apartments. On arrival in Sujanpur we went to a bright and colourful fair and afterwards ran into Minister of State who gave each of us a beautiful scarf, there was another opportunity for photos, this time with the Minister of State, and we even ended up on his Facebook page! 

Holi itself was an experience! I managed to stay relatively clean of the colourful powder that gets thrown on everyone whilst I had my camera out. Everyone was too scared of damaging it. However, the moment the camera was put away, I got covered. 

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A unique part of the trip, which I have to admit, I’d rather not do again, was our stay in a tent on a field in Anandpur Sahib. No one should sleep in a tent in a the middle of a field in a thunderstorm with a cow passing by to wake you up, and panthers potentially prowling around outside (which wasn’t mentioned until later), and that was just the first night. But the morning I woke up to a beautiful sunrise and a pleasant local breakfast. Although after all that chaos, all I really wanted at that point was a coffee.

We saw a Hola Mohalla display by Sikh warriors (the Nihang) who were demonstrating their fighting skills, in the style of Gatkar. The Nihang are a semi-nomadic people who have separate beliefs and practices from the mainstream Sikh community but are still a part of it. Their fighting skills are mainly for ceremonial purposes, and with no disrespect to the Nihang, I find myself feeling a little grateful for that. We witnessed one of the men being shot in the leg by an arrow. And with the traditional clothing that is worn, which can include massive turbans, their attire can appear rather bulky for fighting purposes. 

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There are so many other things I could share with you from my time in India. But I could be here for a very long time. So instead, I’m going to leave it here, and share my tips and pics from the trip. If you’ve been to India, why don’t you add your own tips in the comments, and if you’re one of the amazing group of people that I travelled with and feel like I’ve missed out something you’d like to mention, why not add it in the comments?

Tips:

  • Use your scarf to protect from smog/dust in the air if you don’t have a proper dust mask – and if you’re asthmatic make sure you have your inhalers with you, as well as antihistamines.
  • Hire a car with guide if you’re on your own/not travelling with a group. It’s a cheap and safe way to see India. However be prepared to be stuck in traffic.
  • Take a ride in a rickshaw or tuk tuk, it’s a fun adventurous way to see the city. I especially enjoyed taking a rickshaw through old Delhi.
  • Bring your own TP! And wipes! I’m not joking, believe me you’re gonna need it! And if you’re going with a friend, make sure that you both have some in your bags. You will be thanking me later.
  • Bring moisturiser, maybe even a mask. the dry air and dust doesn’t do your skin any favours. Plus it’s a nice way to relax at the end of the day. By the same token, sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen, before you leave your hotel in the morning. It’ll add a layer of moisture protection as well as that important SPF.
  • Don’t eat meat if you can help it. It increases the chance of Delhi Belly and it’s a lot more fun to experience the real local cuisine.
  • Avoid getting your meals from food vendors on the street. Unless you know that it’s a trusted vendor, or you have something to sanitize the meal with. I’m going to say this again, you really don’t want Delhi Belly.
  • Try the Lassi (if you’re not lactose intolerant), and try it in every flavour you can, but especially the mango.
  • Don’t be surprised that rice comes with most meals. You should be able to find other options, but it will be there, at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Walking shoes – make sure you have comfortable shoes to explore in. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world this should be a given, but in India this means something that’s going to support those arches, cover those toes, and protect those feet. Your feet will thank you after you’ve climbed a steep hill, a million stairs, or walked a very dirty street.
  • instead of packing a bar of soap which can get gooey bring travel size packages of Tide or Woolite washing gel or powder for clothes, one packet does a load. So you can wash your clothes in the tub if you’re going to be travelling and staying at places where there isn’t a laundry service. The lighter you can travel the better it will be for you.
  • In train stations, make sure you know how much it’s going to cost for that porter to carry your suitcase, and your travelling companion’s on his head before you let him walk of with it, and if you really don’t want him to carry it, be firm, keep your hand on it and don’t let go.
  • Bottled water. Keep it on you, buy it from a reputable source (not street vendors), and don’t drink the tap water. Not even to brush your teeth! (if you keep forgetting, put a post it on the mirror with a reminder)  You do not want Delhi Belly (yes there is a theme here). And trust me when I say that the quality of tap water is not the same as it is in the West. But yes you can shower in it.
  • bring activated charcoal with you incase of Delhi belly and
  • Travel with a portable immersion heater to boil water for tea, soup etc. and to sterilize things, they are cheap and easy to carry.
  • Bring electrolyte-vitamin packs and protein bars, I used my protein bars up when I couldn’t eat anything else!
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