Dianne Sharma-Winter writes:
One of the many names for the river Ganga (or Ganges) translates to “Roaming around delighting in Apple Tree Island”
Anyone who has plotted the course of this river knows that this is exactly what the Ganga likes to do. Her riverbanks have changed many miles over the course of time and then there is the monsoon where she breaks her banks exuberantly.
Slow travel is a bit like that. I have had the luck to roam around delighting in India like a river, slow and languid at times and rushing with purpose and intent at others.
India lends itself easily to the charms of slow travel; in fact it’s almost obligatory. Nothing moves much faster than 40kph here, unless it’s a plane that isn’t stranded on a runway. If you look at a distance chart in order to map a journey in India, it always pays to follow the local habit of measuring a journey in time passed to reach rather than measuring miles in speed per hour. Unlike the West where time is spent or invested or sometimes even wasted, Time, like a river, is something that is passed in India. Travel therefore is more about the journey than the arrival.
This philosophical difference in our approach to time and journeys is where a lot of tourists come unstuck. In planning a trip to India, it’s vital to understand that your enjoyment and your afternoons will be lengthened by not trying to swallow the country whole in the space of a few weeks. Instead find one place and settle down. Explore the country in miniature, get into the nitty gritty or just relax into the lazy luxury of Time Pass and watch the world go past. In this way, you the traveller begins to unwind and sink into the sense and sensation of simply being. And India presents herself to you as a painting, a slow inspection of the ordinary miracle of daily life, a work of art if you like!
Shekhawati in Rajasthan is such a place. A unique outdoor gallery of painted havelis crumbling into the dusty rural landscape of Rajasthan. The history of this place concerns the famous Marwari traders who were located here during the days of the Spice route where Shekhawati was a major junction. Eventually as the railway began to stretch across India, the Marwari moved to Calcutta and made their fortunes. The painted houses of this era are a testimony to rapidly changing era in Indian history and unique in the world. There is no organised tourism as such, you just drive around and stand hopefully outside some places where you will be invited in for a look, a cup of tea, a chat. Your driver will know where to take you or drop you. As an informal kind of service local boys will take you to houses and smooth your entry or point out otherwise undiscovered treasures.
In the evenings you can retire to a palace to rest and reflect on this amazingly quiet area of Rajasthan where this is little for the foreign tourist except top class accommodation and locally driven tourism.
Best time to visit Shekhawati is during November before the biting cold of winter and February through March.
If you are at the other end of India a that time, prepare to delight yourself in a little known ritual event known as the Theyyam. During the month of February/March according to the lunar calendar in Kannur, north Kerala the Theyyam festival is celebrated with pomp and style, fire dances and trances. Every small village will hold a Theyyam said to have developed out of the mists of history when low caste people were refused entry to temples. Nothing daunted they evolved their own festival and each Theyyam will take on a particular theme or story relevant to the locality where it is held. The dancers are sent into a divine trance by a series of ritual acts and the result is often breathtaking!
Another way to indulge in slow travel in India is to head for the hills. Cottages and home stays in villages are an ideal way to keep your expenses low and spend some time on your own creative or artistic endeavours. This form of tourism is especially popular in UK, an area overnight from Delhi and with a view of the Himalayas from every valley. Almora has a long history of literary luminaries visiting there, with people like DH Lawrence, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens among the list of people who have come for reflection and inspiration. Life is simple and reminiscent of the good old days when tourists were less demanding and happy with a local food and simple amenities. These days the cottages available for rent are modern and well maintained and very well priced. Tucked away on a hillside in Kipling’s jungle, a lot of cottages require a walk from the road; your days are filled with the sound of birdsong and the varying sounds of the jungle. It’s an area I am happy to recommend to solo female travellers.
Parking myself in Almora early this year, I have for the most part simply walked in the hills, stuck to my writing schedule and explored the area from this base.
Nearby is Corbett Park, a wildlife reserve of over a thousand square kilometres and home to 240 of the last remaining tigers in India. An amazing variety of mammals and bird life abound in this park and some conservation programs such as the Mahseer Conservancy are worth mentioning. Other mammals in the park include sloth bears, leopards, deer, otters and herds of wild elephants. Chances of spotting a tiger or forgetting about the tiger in the face of the amazing variety of wildlife here are high. Private resorts are the best point of call for foreign tourists visiting the park, since you pay a premium almost ten times the local price and get a very little in return if you book anything through the park. Park policy and management are inconsistent for a successful visit to the park, although private resorts are excellent and reflect world-class standards.
The Monsoon season also offers a unique view of India that is less marketed. The Sunderbans area south of Kolkatta is a photographers delight during the monsoon with miraculous plays of light and sound put on by Mother Nature. Even Goa, party central, throws herself into a low gear that is all about long lunches enjoyed in tropical gardens and a feeling that someone is winding back the clock of time.
Slow travel allows you to roam around India delighting, which is what travelling simply should be all about.