The streets in India are pulsating with movement. Stepping out of your door in any major city, you’re immediately hit by an onslaught of sounds and colors. It’s a dazzling, dizzying crescendo that only mildly mutes when the monsoon skies open and blanket the city below with untamed rainfall.
Vibrating with life and movement, the sea of traffic consists of virtually anything that can move — at whatever pace: mules and rickshaw trucks weighed under by loads of bricks; buses with passengers hanging off the sides; cows waddling past at their own leisurely pace; ornately decorated trucks, bursting with color, their shrines displayed proudly on their dashboards… Taxis, rickshaws, pedal-rickshaws, rickshaw trucks, horse-drawn carts, BMW, bus, cow, rickshaw, stray dog, human, mule, scooter, bus, truck, scooter, dog, bicycle, cow, calf, horse, truck, human, repeat. And the horn, arguably the official sound of India, carries the currents of movement along, propelling the motion forward and in and out and around like water pushing through a dam.
But the thing about the horn is that, sure, it’s used incessantly but the ferocity and frequency has a friendly ring to it (on the buses it’s a whole singsong minus the lyrics). “We’re just letting you know we’re coming,” it tells you. “You can move, or not, we’ll continue anyway, but we won’t hold it against you.” No road rage where cutting off is the standard practice.
This so reflective of the people as well, who seem to have this calmness about them despite the frenetic pace around them. Here the chaos itself is leisurely.
“The bus was meant to come at 6pm? What time is it now? Oh, 7pm? Don’t worry about it. It will come. Here, come in. Sit. Have some chai! Have some digestives.”
They’re at home in it. In fact, the noise, the movement, the whirlwind is home. You see this in the street-side artisans hunched over concentrating on their craft despite the noise around them. In the rickshaw drivers who decorate the interiors of their rickshaws, taking pride in their office. In the shop owners who, when the monsoon hits, stop haggling with you over the price of their wares, and invite you in for cups of steaming chai as you take cover. In the street food vendor who after selling you one plate of momos, insists three more portions on you at no cost. Or the rickshaw driver sleeping in his vehicle parked on the side of a busy street, his head and feet hanging out of either end. They’re kind despite the fierce competition for business. Communicative despite no common language.
It’s wild, overwhelming and so lovable.
“All morning a hot wind had whipped through the city streets, driving sheets of grit, soda-bottle caps and beedi stubs before it, smacking them into car windscreens and cyclists’ eyes. When the wind died, the sun, already high in the sky, burned through the haze and once again the heat rose and shimmered on the streets like a belly dancer. People waited for the thunderstorm that always followed a dust storm…”
Arundhati Roy (in “The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness”)
Perhaps this hecticness has to do with India’s staggering population size, which at 1.3 billion people is second in the world after China. Much of the population resides in the urban centers like Mumbai (above), Delhi and Bangalore, but a large amount still live in quiet rural villages, a far contrast to the sound bustling cities.
“The soul of India lives in its villages…”
The latst census showed that 70% of people still live in rural villages, like Ashte village in the state of Maharashtra (above). Somehow this pocket of green remains immune to the buzzing Mumbai just few hours away by car. Here the pace is slow. A paved road came four years ago. Staggered rice paddies sit between the mud huts. No cell service, but a satellite dish scattered here or there — everyone, after all, needs their Bollywood fix. Farmers use traditional methods like oxen and plows to tend to their rice paddies. Here, the weather is like an old friend you’ve come to rely on heavily, informing you when its the right time to plant, to tend, to pick.
The shoe of choice remains the same as in any other place in India: flip flops.
Sari Not Sorry
(L) Balancing on the back or the head, women carry their loads in McLeod Gang, a town in northern India. (R) A woman does laundry on the streets of Mumbai as she calls to her children nearby. The cows, regular and revered company.
(L) Women sell fish and other food items alongside a highway in Mumbai. (R) Visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra.
(L) A woman from one of the indigenous communities in Manali, a high-altitude town in India’s Himalayan region, carries a load on her back as she crosses the Beas River. (R) Across the river, a woman chats to a friend as she awaits customers in her store.
A shepherdess in Ashte watches her cows graze after the first monsoon rain of the season. What was parched land days earlier gave way to lush greenery after three days straight of heavy monsoon rains. The rainy season appeared weeks later than usual this year, likely due to climate change, a challenge for the community that relies heavily on rice cultivation for its income.
Color, Chaos and Charm…
(L) A mango vendor sits by his wares seemingly unconcerned with the competition by the many mango carts lined up alongside his on a busy Mumbai road. (R) On the Colaba Causeway, a worker sips chai as he takes shelter from the Monsoon rains. The stall owners almost have a sixth sense when it comes to the rain, one minute competing with each other for customers, the next moment they assist each other in strategically placing the protective tarps over their carts.
(L) A tea vendor in Varanasi watches TV on his phone as he awaits customers. ( C ) In Mumbai, chickens await their fate in cages below the butcher’s chopping board. In a last gesture of kindness, the rolling door is left half open to give them air to breathe and sights to see. (R) Transporting his wares the most economical way. (Below) Keeping busy while keeping shop.
(L) A chaiwala prepares steaming chai for customers early Sunday morning on a Mumbai street in the Colaba district. The stand he works at prepares over 4000 cups per day. (R) A friendly Mumbaikar enjoys the early morning quiet with his dog before the daily rush sets in.
Def: Full of/with faith.
(L) Jain Priests rest after finishing the daily ceremony of dressing the Buddha in the alcove behind them. (R) A roadside Hindu shrine in Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum. Passersby stop to pray and offer puja.
The great Ganges river, or “Goddess Ganga”, is revered as holy water by Hindus who pilgrimage from around the world to bathe in its waters. They believe it absolves them of sin and releases them from the cycle of reincarnation.
Along the ghats, the stepped-platforms overlooking the Ganges, one finds people communing with the river. Drinking from their cupped palms, seeking to fill their bodies with the holy water; lighting puja offerings and sending their prayers off into the currents; or for the lucky ones that live near the water, bathing and washing their clothes and dishes.
Around 400 million people live in the river’s basin which stretches for over 1,500 miles from the Himalayan region to Bangladesh. Sadly, despite its holy status it’s one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
(L) Visitors walk along the paths outside the Buddha’s temple in Sarnath, near Varanasi. Considered one of the holiest cities for Buddhists, it was here that the Buddha gave his first speech after receiving enlightenment and set forth the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. The Dhamek Stupa can be seen in the background on the left.
(L) At temple sits amid the bare grounds of a construction site in Varanasi. Demolition and construction had to be continuously halted as shrines and temples were found tucked into the winding alleys of the streets along the Ganges. Here, residents walk their children to school in the early morning through the active construction site. (R) The Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath. Built in 500CE to commemorate the spot where the Buddha gave the first sermon to his first five brahmin disciples after attaining enlightenment.
(L) The entrance to a synagogue thought to over 100 years old on the Konkan coast in Maharashtra. Once a vibrant Jewish community, India is now home to approximately 3500 Jews. (R) Monks walk within the archeological park in Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first sermon and gained his first disciples. Now the city is home to many monasteries and welcomes Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world.
(L) A cow sanctuary in Mumbai is home to over 300 cows. (R) A Buddhist temple in McLeod Ganj.
Perhaps another form of a religious shrine, the ‘Beatles Ashram’ in Rishikesh, where the British band stayed for a few months in the late 1960s to practice Transcendental Meditation under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Abandoned but alive: Since it was closed down in the 1970s, it has become a canvas for street artists who have decorated the barren walls. Foliage now grows through the abandoned buildings giving the campus an eery but earthy feel.
Faces Of Faith
Diverse devotion tucked into every nook and cranny.
Sadhus line the steps leading down to the Ganges in Varanasi. These religious ascetics have taken a vow of poverty and renounced a worldly life in order to achieve higher spiritual planes.
(L) A Buddhist monk sits in prayer outside the Buddha’s temple in Sarnath. ( C ) A Sikh man rides his bicycle down the street in Amritsar. (R) In Varanasi, peering into the smartphone — not not a spiritual endeavor.
It takes a (slum) village
About 22 million people live in Mumbai making it the most populous city in India. Limited space, population density and an astronomically expensive housing market have forced about 9 million residents to live in slums around the city (41%).*
Home to only about 200k people, Kalwa is one of the city’s smallest slums. Many residents migrate every year from their home villages in northern India to the city for economic opportunities. Though there is no running water, few toilets and partially paved roads, satellite dishes and carefully maintained potted plants are numerous.
Gregory David Roberts in “Shantaram”
“For the first sight of the slums, as the many lanes of the motorway became one, and the trees disappeared clutched at my heart with talons of shame. Like brown and black dunes, the acres of slums rolled away from the roadside, and met the horizon with dirty heat-haze mirages. The miserable shelters were patched together from rags, scraps of plastic and paper, reed mats, and bamboo sticks. They slumped together, attached one to another, and with narrow lanes winding between them. Nothing in the enormous sprawl of it rose much above the height of a man.
As the kilometers wound past, as the hundreds of people in those slums became thousands, and tens of thousands, my spirit writhed. I felt defiled by my own health and the money in my pockets. If you feel it at all, its a lacerating guilt, that first confrontation with the wretched of the earth…
Then the smolders of shame and guilt flared into anger, became fist-tightening rage at the unfairness of it: What kind of a government, I thought, what kind of a system allows suffering like this?
But the slums went on, kilometer after kilometer, relieved only by the awful contrast of the thriving businesses and crumbling, moss-covered apartment buildings of the comparatively affluent. The slums went on, and their sheer ubiquity wore down my foreigner’s pieties. A kind of wonder possessed me. I began to look beyond the immensity of the slums societies, and to see the people who lived within them. A woman stooped to brush forward the black satin psalm of her hair. Another bathed her children with water from a copper dish. A man led three goats with red ribbons tied to the collars at their throats. Another man shaved himself at a cracked mirror. Children played everywhere. Men carried water in buckets. Men made repairs to one of the huts. And everywhere that I looked, people smiled and laughed. …
I looked at the people, then, and I saw how busy they were —how much industry and energy described their lives. Occasional sudden glimpses inside the huts revealed the astonishing cleanliness of that poverty : the spotless floors, and glistening metal pots in neat, tapering towers. And then, last, what should’ve been first, I saw how beautiful they were: the women wrapped in crimson, blue, and gold; the women walking barefoot through the tangled shabbiness of the slum with patient ethereal grace; the white-toothed, almond-eyed handsomeness of the men; and the affectionate camaraderie of the fine-limbed children, older ones playing with the younger ones, many of them supporting baby brothers and sisters on their slender hips. And half an hour after the bus ride began, I smiled for the first time…”
Below, ride along on a rickshaw through the streets of Kalwa — an unedited experience.
Grandiosity X Functionality
The austerity of the Taj Mahal’s Mughal architecture, alongside the utilitarianism of the slums — perhaps just as beautiful, connoting the resourceful, enterprising nature of the human spirit.
(L) From the train window one can see a view of shanty housing that builds up alongside the train line, always the main artery for transport. (R) The entrance to the Taj Mahal complex in Agra, Mughal-inspired masterpiece.
“When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for those two insomnias!
And the difference between them.”
A Wild Ride
The transport around India is so evocative of the country as a whole. In some ways the infrastructure is seemingly backwards — approx. 15 people die a day from moving trains in Mumbai. But at the same time its uniquely effective. It does, after all, manage to keep a country of 1.3billion moving, granted at a wild pace, but from destination to destination nevertheless.
Passengers crammed into every available space; in and on and under. Train doors remain open with passengers hanging out. The pace could easily outmaneuver a Formula One driver. The horn, a ferocious and friendly accompaniment to every motor vehicle ride. It’s fun, and terrifying, and quintessential India.
From the cities, to the slums, to the quiet villages — here’s the view of life from the window (or in some cases, the open doors) of the trains, rickshaws, buses and bikes I travelled on.
Check out my Instagram stories here for more of a peek into my India experience.
*World Population Review