Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Incredible, unforgettable India!

Incredible India! Whoever coined this tag-line for our tourism board was spot on. Travellers who come on the Smithsonian Journeys Mystical India do go away with some incredible sights and experiences which make the trip to India totally unforgettable.

And so it was with our November 2014 Mystical India travellers – they were witness to an amazing sight, something they had never imagined or even thought possible till they came to India. As part of the Mystical India trip, a lot of my lectures and conversations with travellers are about faith, specifically how faith is an integral part of almost every Indian’s life. I also speak about how India always throws up the unexpected and as travellers in life, we have to be open to possibilities. What was to unfold on this trip left us all spell-bound.

We had just spent two glorious days at the wildlife sanctuary at Ranthambore, soaking in the peace and quiet of the forests and hoping to catch a glimpse of the majestic but elusive big cat – the tiger or a tigress. Our group had the immense good fortune of seeing a tigress and her two cubs up close.

So, as we left Ranthambore that morning, the group was in good spirits of having achieved a wish to see the tiger in the wild. As we made our way to the retreat at Kalakho, the Tour Director Mr Naveen Bhatt noticed something on the side of the road our guests had never ever seen before. It was a sight of a Hindu ascetic doing full body prostration even as cars, trucks and buses whizzed by, within inches of his body.  Here he was, a thin but fit man with a naked upper body, wearing only a loin-cloth wrapped around his hips, measuring as it were the road with his body, hands stretched out before him, placing a coconut where his hands rested. He would then get up, walk to the spot where the coconut was placed, pick it up and lie face down again with his arms outstretched. Again and again, the ascetic got up and performed his prostrations, impervious to the world.  

We stopped the bus and invited the guests to come with us to interact with the holy man if he was willing. Everyone was most intrigued by this sight and accompanied us. The ascetic was kind enough to stop his prostrations to talk to us and what he had to say was simply astounding. He was in his late forties, undertaking a pilgrimage to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the renowned Shiva temple in Varanasi, a journey of 500 miles from his home in Bundi and he was making his way, marking the journey with full body prostrations all the way. Every evening, when the sun set, he would mark the spot on the road where he had stopped and every morning he would start there again.  He spent the night at temples or by the road-side, surviving on the barest minimum. We asked when he would reach – he said it did not matter if he reached in a year or two because this journey was both his penance and his prayer. We asked why he was undertaking this arduous journey. He told us he was a devotee of Lord Shiva and when he had fallen ill, he had asked the God to cure him and had promised to undertake this pilgrimage if his wish was fulfilled. He did get better and this was his moment of surrender, total surrender to the God he worshipped. He was on this journey to purify his soul, hoping to move from his lower instinctive self to a higher purified nature. How great and uplifting this feeling of bhakti (religious devotion) was evident on his beatific face – a sight the travellers can never forget, a sight that made their journey to India truly mystical.