Dancing Around India

You may remember the first half of my journey east, awakening in the bosom of Mother India. Traveling is never simply a checklist of destinations. Especially in India, the parcels of time between villages and cities are in themselves an ever-changing panorama. As we exited Cochin, where my traveling companion, Annie, and I had adventured into the art of Indian temple-dancing, the passage itself became a dance. By Jena LaFlamme

Before I knew it, Annie was dancing to the music right there on the platform. She began the temple dance moves we had just learned and then began improvising them into her own invention. It must be known that she and I met on a dance floor and shared movement before speech; thus our dance bonds are just as fierce as the intellectual connection between us. I leaned back, smiled, and soaked in the fun she was creating. The locals kept sober faces and said not a word.

Our tag-along Indian admirer however, endeared himself to us by showing no such restraint. Almost on cue with the video and song, he stood up and joined her, forming a hilarious pantomime of the romance on the screen above. I clapped for both of them and then joined in as we turned a mundane wait to pass the time into a sparkling diversion to remember and share.

Once on the train, the view out the windows provided endless entertainment. In India religion protrudes much more from the canvas of secular life than it does in the Westernized world – bumping into it can’t be avoided. For example, it is common to see businesses called “Shakti Motors” or “Krishna Bank,” storefronts that would be the equivalent of “Mother Mary Motors” and “Christ Bank” in the Christian world. Mixing religious icons with small business goes hand in hand in India.

The train sliced through emerald green rice paddies dotted with women barefoot in colorful saris, dressed as beautifully as wedding guests, but working a typical day in the fields. Indian women do not hide their internal splendor; even in the mundane task, they share it through an unashamed luxury and sensuality in their dress. To start with, a sari is lavish by its very nature and design. How could 10 meters of fabric draped around a woman’s natural curves be anything but sensual? Add to that tactile billowing fabric a wondrous amount of color and there can be no doubt about the splendor inside. Indian women dress in loud, bright colors year round and without regard to the event: one day bright orange with a blue trim, the next bright pink, the following green and yellow. It is a constant riot of color. Men, for that matter, also express more freedom with their clothing and their acceptable range is wider and more colorful than in the West too.

Our next adventure was floating on a houseboat in the Backwaters. Though in other parts of the world the phrase “backwaters” has a negative connotation, here in India, the Backwaters are a national gem. An intricate system of natural rivers, canals and lakes flowing parallel to the ocean, this aquatic wonderland spans hundreds of miles and is home to a culture of its very own. Here children and adults alike commute to school and work in canoes and ferries. The equivalent to a hotel is the houseboat for those wise enough to ride along.

Allepey is the principal gateway to the Backwaters. Once there, Annie set off to select us a houseboat while I guarded our ever-growing mass of luggage in a little restaurant. Hours later she returned with the news that all but the worst remnants of the houseboat armada had left for the day and that we would have to remain landlocked for the night.

It was my turn to hunt for a room and hers to rest. By the time I returned, despite the constant stream of tea and food we’d been ordering, we had apparently over-stayed our welcome in the restaurant. Annie recounted later, “when I pulled my laptop out of my bag the owners started looking at me as if I were an alien and began asking me to leave. It was very disconcerting for all of us.” She kept stalling until I eventually came back as she had been rendered virtually immobile due to our recently bulging backpacks. As soon as I returned we hightailed it under the unveiled sneers of the owners behind us. Charming ladies that we are, I can truthfully say that it was the first time we had been kicked out of
a public establishment! Fortunately, as expected, the Backwaters would be much more welcoming hosts.

Waiting a day was the right choice, as we had our pick of the houseboats come morning. Where we had scrimped with a
windowless room on land, we now splurged on a decadent houseboat. By noon, our boat pushed away from the shore, parting a carpet of water lilies as it went. We had three staff: a captain, an engineer and a cook. The entire boat was made of natural materials – wood, bamboo and jute – an aesthetic of earthy elegance. Right at the bow was our table-clothed dining table, behind it our bedroom and en suite, behind that the kitchenette, and at the stern an open deck with lounge chairs and mattresses for utter relaxation.

Annie and I pondered when would we again find ourselves floating in South Indian paradise on a regal houseboat. We
decided we might as well celebrate the uniqueness of our surroundings and dress accordingly. We wore silk, loose, flowing
Thai pants and ornate ethnic tops. The colors and textures were sensuous and felt rich and opulent on our skin, reflecting how we felt in the harmonious houseboat. We darkened our eyes in the Indian style and reddened our lips. We were enacting our own mythology just for the fun of it.

For the next 24 hours we were the maharanis, the queens of our own floating palace. We sat back and took in the sights – palm trees, rice paddies and exotic birds. The fields and water would appear deserted; then, from nowhere a farmer would appear, his lower half ingeniously draped with many yards of white fabric, poking the mud with a stick. Or a dugout canoe would materialize, with mother, daughter and grandmother each rowing in synchronized and efficient harmony.

We saw fisherman swimming in the water for hours, duckdiving over and over to catch eels, and teenage girls in uniforms training for competitive racing. The Backwaters are a drifting plaza, the neighborhood center for commerce as well as recreation. The water glimmered like glass reflecting the sky, and the exuberant foliage on the banks like an
ever-changing masterpiece.

Our boat staff certainly got a giggle out of our get-up. They were attuned to the silence of nature and barely said a word, even amongst themselves. Tranquility seeped into us as if by osmosis and we too began communicating without words and appreciating nature’s hush. At dusk the houseboat pulled into a small canal where we moored for the night. We were served a feast and devoured it with relish: spiced greens with shredded coconut, creamy lentils, freshly cooked flatbread, cumin rice and other aromatic concoctions.

We slept peacefully to the lull and sway of the boat and the next day the houseboat completed a circuit, dropping us where we began.

Our last and final destination before our exit through Mumbai took us to yet another marvel, a small village called Kunya Kumari, the Southern-most tip of India. A renowned pilgrimage site, its principal draw is the phenomenon of being able to watch the sunset and sunrise from the same spot with nothing more than a turn of one’s head.

We pulled in after dark and settled into a room. There was no danger of missing the sunrise as the whole hotel was roused pre-dawn by a loud and persistent bell. Annie and I dressed as best we could in saris, and set out on foot, pulled along by the surge of the crowd.

Although monks and nuns are becoming a thing of the past in the Western world, in India the tradition of renunciation is alive and strong. India’s ascetics are a particular type of yogi called a sadhu. These men and women give up their home and possessions and live in ashrams or wander from place to place. They wear the simplest clothing in only one color, a basic sarong, tunic and turban, most commonly in orange, but also in other “flower colors” – red, yellow and white – symbolizing the blossoming of their souls. Rare sects wear black. during two previous journeys to India I had seen only a handful of black robed sadhus, but here at Kunya Kumari there were hordes more than I had ever seen before.

After the sun had risen we learned why. These men and women were not in fact sadhus – they were regular members of society who had taken an oath to spend 45 days as a sadhu: the committed to sleeping on the bare floor, taking a leave of absence from their jobs, vowing no sensual contact with their spouses, no alcohol, cigarettes or meat, and eating very simple food. Rising before dawn and other rituals were part of the process. We were explained all of this by an unlikely looking attorney dressed in a black sarong – we would never have guessed his usual identity.

“It’s almost over,” he said, “I’ve lost 20 pounds, my digestive issues have cleared up and I am sleeping like a baby. It’s been hard but I would highly recommend the process.”

What a great idea, I thought. Wouldn’t a tradition such as short-term renunciation for the urban professional be useful in our society?

We wiled away the day mingling with the many pilgrims, exploring the temples and people. At sunset we were back in place, along with thousands of other pilgrims, to complete the cycle of the sun as it was swallowed up by the Arabian Sea.

And thus our trip ended under the fading light of our closest star, fully enveloped in the epic atmosphere of South India. We had been through rites and rituals of our own, donned strange garb, left the comforts of home behind, danced up a storm and emerged transformed, already hoping to return one day to the Motherland of India.

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