I wouldn’t say you “see” India so much as experience it. I’ve just returned from a two-week tour and my abiding memory is rubbish. Rubbish, rubbish everywhere. There is no refuse collection, and plastic lasts forever – so the ground was littered with white knives and forks. Even in the Himalayas, where it looked like snow on the mountains. One morning as our train pulled out of New Delhi, we passed a row of men casually defecating in a field of white cutlery. You don’t see that in Majorca.
I’m not disparaging the country. It’s just very … different. The poverty is so common that it’s almost casual. Families sleep out in the open, surrounded by dogs and water buffaloes. The buffaloes give milk longer than cows, yet Hinduism forbids the killing of the latter, so any cows you do see are abandoned and normally at death’s door.
In the middle of this ugliness is astonishing beauty. Beauty in the people, particularly the girls wrapped in bright saris. Beauty in the legacy of the Mughal Empire, which is awesome and alien – like the ruins of a civilisation found on a distant planet.
The English language cannot describe the sensation that overtakes you when the Taj Mahal first comes into view. It is so incredibly white. And yet, over the course of the day, it becomes red, yellow, gold and cold grey.
The monkeys come out to play at dusk. The man responsible for their playground, Emperor Shah Jahan, built it to house the body of his late wife. The plan was to construct an identical black version next door. Before he could finish his project, Shah Jahan’s son led a coup and locked him up in the Agra Fort. The fallen king was permitted a view of the Taj, so that he could mourn from a distance.
I fell in love with Islam all over again in India. Here it was innovative, humane and mysterious. Emperor Akbar the Great tried to create a syncretic faith that combined all the faiths of his people. He was also devoted to a Sufi mystic who is buried at Fatehpur Sikri. There one enters a white lattice building, where a queue forms to throw money and donated clothes onto the mystic’s coffin, to purchase his prayers. On the way out, an acolyte in a red hat hits you with a giant broom and shouts: “You are blessed!”
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