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India – chaotic, bamboozling, intoxicating, exasperating & overwhelmingly beautiful

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A land of remarkable diversity – from ancient traditions and artistic heritage to magnificent landscapes and culinary creations – it ignites curiosity, assaults the senses and warms the soul. We tailored our trip to concentrate on the Northern and Central part of India which included the all-time classic Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) but would also give us insight into rural life and different culinary experiences.

We travelled with a family from India who had done the hotel bookings and secured us a reliable personal driver for our three week trip. This made the entire experience special as we had someone that understood the language and could bargain on our behalf which came in very handy on our shopping sprees. It also allowed for a lot of flexibility as we were not controlled by time and tour groups. The saying goes that to drive in India you need a good horn, good brakes and good luck. We had all three and a great travel experience with our driver Dinesh; a local farmer from Bharuch, Gujarat. Soon we learned that not everything works out as planned in India, but somehow the universe conspired and the alternatives seemed to work out even better than anticipated.

The long rides between destinations weaved in and out of rural towns and cities. It provided us with the opportunity to witness everyday life in India, all the while chatting to our travel companions and nodding off at times. Much exploration and research was done on my phone during the journey, while I sorted through my thoughts.

We entered India on-board Ethiopian Airlines via the magnificent Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. Arriving in Mumbai was an exciting beginning to our journey. We had our first taste of India when they were trying to fit three adults, together with our entire luggage into a Tuk-Tuk (a moped motorcycle), which was not very successful. We transferred to a metered taxi and had a rather uneventful trip to our hotel located in the magnificent old part of Mumbai. There was no time for our stomachs to acclimatise as we hit the streets for some amazing street food, immediately after dropping off our luggage at the hotel.

Mumbai makes space for everyone and welcomes you openheartedly. We quickly learnt how to cross the busy roads, dodge cows and tiptoe around the trails of manure. It was a cacophony of sounds, disorganisation (so it seems), craziness, smells and A member’s Travelogue chaos but somehow it all worked. It is a system that you can penetrate after you discard your own expectations. Roads everywhere were crammed with thousands of taxis, bicycles, scooters and Tuk-Tuks – all pushing forward, stopping abruptly with horns blaring, every driver forcing their vehicle into the smallest possible space with an unbelievable sense of timing.

After spending a few days in Mumbai our journey continued with a seven-hour train trip to Bharuch in Gujarat. From there our three week tour of Rajasthan’s captivating collection of Mughal forts started with the first stop being Jaisalmer; a settlement which originated as part of the silk route and also known as the Golden City. It is one of the last big towns in Rajasthan closest to the India-Pakistan border in the heart of the Thar Desert; the very vision of an Arabian Nights desert fortress. One of the memorable experiences was a Rajasthan Desert Safari and exploring the humongous Jaisalmer Fort, the only living fort of India which provides beautiful views of the golden city. Winter is the best time to enjoy and explore the gems of the magnificent state of Rajastan, as the summers and monsoons in Rajasthan are too unpleasant (the very reason for the timing of our trip).

If you are a spiritual creature or just love architecture, you will be able to find temples and places of worship around every corner, but in North and Central India, we were truly spoiled for choice. Our itinerary included Jodhpur, Delhi, the twin cities of Vrindavan and Mathura, Jaipur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur and Ahmedabad before returning to Mumbai.

I developed a fascination with ghats (basically a set of steps leading down to a river or lake) well before our trip to India through following works by Indian photographers and during conversations I had with them on Facebook. Sacred places like Varanasi have burning ghats where Hindus cremate their departed. These ghats are fascinating places to visit as it offers the perfect place to witness traditions and puja rituals (worship).

One of my favourites was the Yumanu Ghats in Delhi which is situated on the banks of the Yumanu River, which also flows through plains of Vrindavan, Mathura and Agra. It is truly a breathtaking sight watching thousands of seagulls swirl around the rivers as they get fed by the locals. Seagulls start migrating from Europe & Siberia before the onset of winter and stay in India till March, the beginning of the Indian hot summer.

Despite the poor visibility as a result of the severe air-pollution which makes photography challenging, the ambience around the sacred places was calm, dignified and a wonderful experience to witness the worshipping rituals, prayers and interaction with locals. Devotees often also visit the ghats early in the morning to bathe in the holy water of the Yumanu River.

Life close to the banks of the Yumanu River (Ghats) is beautiful in its own way. Listening to the chanting of mantras, seeing the sacred sadhus and the exquisite architecture of the temples are what make a visit to these Ghats an unforgettable experience. The other memorable place we visited in Delhi was the Lotus Temple, another architectural gem, which is open to all regardless of religion. The temple is built in the shape of a lotus flower using pure white marble and is the last of seven Bahai’s temples built around the world. It is a perfect place for introspection – absorbing its calmness and tranquillity. No trip to Delhi can be complete without visiting Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. This incredible 7th wonder of the world with its flawless majestic edifice lived up to all expectations. The actual architecture, perfectly symmetrical structures, and layout are nothing less than perfect and visiting it gave me a fresh perspective on the history and achievements of humankind. The Taj Mahal was partially covered with heavy fog on a typical winter’s morning with very large numbers of visitors, which did not bother me.

After just a short (relative) drive from Agra we arrived at Mathura, a sacred city in Uttar Pradesh which is said to have been the birthplace of the deity Lord Krishna. Dotting the Yamuna River are 25 ghats, of which Vishram Ghats is considered the holiest. Next came Chittorgarh, the home of the Chittor Fort – the largest one in India.

When it comes to shopping in India, Jaipur with its pink terracotta architecture is unbeatable. It is impossible not to fall in love with Udaipur, the ‘City of Lakes’. We explored the Gangaur Ghats which is the main ghat situated near the waterfront of Lake Pichola with prime views of the stunning Taj Udaipur and lit-up City Palace. It was a hype of activity with yoga, prayers and worshipping. The locals were very helpful and less forceful trying to sell you their wares. At one stage, I lost my credit card and had two hands full of locals, including taxi drivers, helping me trace my movements and trying to find it.

We all developed a weak spot for the savoury street food served in the many alleys and lanes of cities. Udaipur is one such city that is known for its delightful varieties of street delicacies, but with a twist of the mind-blowing spices of Rajasthan (which also helps with relieving any sinus issues). We found Udaipur to be the destination for the best and biggest variety of street food, including Pav Bhaji, Paani Puri, egg Bhurji and egg curries. After Udaipur we spend two days in a rural village outside Bharuch, which was another special experience.

I found myself instantly drawn to the people of India. I loved their generosity, kindness, their subtle smiles, all the intricate facial details, and only wished that I could speak their language to get to know what hides behind their faces and what stories they have to tell. Beside their admirable entrepreneurial spirit which can annoy you at times, I admired their sense of calm and willingness to allow me to photograph them. Although I didn’t know these people personally, I somehow felt very connected to them – a connection that surpassed any language barrier.

It touched me how the people conduct their lives even when they have none of the resources or means readily available to us. Yet they happily coexist with each other, ‘complementing’ not ‘competing’ with their fellow countrymen. India is the place where so many different beliefs and practices can live together in complete harmony. Faith is so deeply ingrained in the many shrines and religious places that it leaves even a non-worshipper in bewilderment. I never felt unsafe and never felt threatened walking the streets with expensive camera gear during the day or at night. Even walking through one of the slums in Mumbai to take photos of the prestigious Bandra-Woli Sea Link, I felt safe and could even manage a few conversations with curious slum-dwellers about Hansie Cronje, who is still remembered by cricket-mad Indians.

India is a photographer’s paradise – all of the colours, textures, architecture and the people present themselves as perfect photo opportunity on every corner. The way people languidly sit on their front steps seem better than what any professional model can offer. The poorest woman wears her colourful saree with so much pride, entices us foreigners with their dark tresses and kohl-lined eyes.

In my bag was a full-frame Sony body with only a Zeiss 24-70mm lens and cellphone. My tripod became a hindrance after a while as I could not take it inside many religious sites and it was not always easy to mount it in narrow or crowded places. I therefore decided to abandon it when we visited a village in Bharuch before departing back to Mumbai for the last few days. Somehow it found its way back to South Africa and was returned to me with the message ‘These things cost money and you just don’t leave it behind’!

India was truly incredible. Chaotic, bamboozling, intoxicating, crazy, generous, charming, intensely irritating, exasperating, wonderful, squalid, beautiful, daunting, overwhelming, colourful and fantastic! India is all these things rolled into one, with a diversity that few nations can claim. Christopher Poindexter said “The thing about chaos is that while it disturbs us, it too forces our hearts to roar in a way we secretly find magnificent”. I found that magnificence and will never be the same again. Hope to return to this amazing country later this year. This time as a wedding photographer.

Incredible Mumbai

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When life gifts you a chance, the key is to grab it and run with it. This gift presented itself in the form of a wedding invitation to a remote Indian village in the state of Gujarat at very short notice. It was an easy decision to take as the memories of the welcoming nature of India, the generosity, warmth and fragrant food from a previous trip was still fresh in my mind and no argument could convince me otherwise. I was also excited about experiencing my first Indian wedding.

My itinerary was tight. The journey was to commence in Mumbai, followed by a couple of days in Parkhet, Gujarat for the wedding and then a couple of days in Pune, Maharashtra visiting my Indian colleagues.

Mumbai never disappoint. It’s always buzzing with activity in every corner with endless interest that keep you wanting more. I arrived in Mumbai on Republic Day, the day the Indian nation commemorates the Constitution of India. Indians love a good party and the city was abuzz with parades, flag hosting ceremonies, cultural events, photography exhibitions, and colourful floats. Flags of all shapes and sizes were draped around people, motorbikes, lampposts … and anything tangible.

The street vibe was addictive with ample of photographic opportunities but I learned from my previous trip that with so much happening one must take time to appreciate and enjoy the process of exploration and observation. I enjoy interacting with people and sometimes missed a picture opportunity but then in hindsight taking one would have interfered with the moment.

After an amazing three days I returned to Mumbai by train and travelled by taxi to Pune 150kms away where I met with my team face-to-face for the first time.

Pune is the second largest city in the Indian state of Maharashtra, after Mumbai and one of the fastest growing urban cities. It is a vibrant metropolis and a perfect example of the ‘New India’; with an interesting mix of the old tradition and modernism, academia and business and a perplexing mix of capitalism and ancient and modern spirituality. Because of its close proximity to Mumbai and the availability of skilled resources it is home to several IT companies one of which provides IT support and application development to my local client. It has a pleasant climate throughout the year and is well known for its Western Ghats and hill stations (nature reserves). It is quite acceptable to start work at 10am so I had time in the mornings to explore the city, visiting temples, enjoying street food and chai tea. I’ve been working with the team since 2017 but this opportunity gave me important insights into their work ethic and culture. The team made me feel at home and treated me to some of the best eateries Pune has to offer.  

My last few days in Mumbai were spend exploring different parts of Mumbai. On every last Sunday of the month some of the streets in Mumbai are closed for traffic till 11am and everyone comes out to play, ride their bikes, do yoga, meditate, pray, walk, talk, wash their cars and engage in all sorts of interesting activities. Sometimes going out with the intention to get a few good shots doesn’t work. You just have to immerse yourself with street life, soak up the energy, engage with people and that makes me happy even though I sometimes do not get the shot. Once again India did not disappoint and I left with a sense of inner peace and a deep love for this ancient civilisation.

Magnificent splendour of an Indian wedding

Author:

When life gifts you a chance, the key is to grab it and run with it. This gift presented itself in the form of a wedding invitation to a remote Indian village in the state of Gujarat at very short notice. It was an easy decision to take as the memories of the welcoming nature of India, the generosity, warmth and fragrant food from a previous trip was still fresh in my mind and no argument could convince me otherwise. I was also excited about experiencing my first Indian wedding.

My itinerary was tight. The journey was to commence in Mumbai, followed by a couple of days in Parkhet, Gujarat for the wedding and then a couple of days in Pune, Maharashtra visiting my Indian colleagues.

My short time was littered with happy memories of faces and places. Mumbai did not disappoint. It’s always buzzing with activity in every corner with endless interest that keep you wanting more. I arrived in Mumbai on Republic Day, the day the Indian nation commemorates the Constitution of India. Indians love a good party and the city was abuzz with parades, flag hosting ceremonies, cultural events, photography exhibitions, and colourful floats. Flags of all shapes and sizes were draped around people, motorbikes, lampposts … and anything tangible.

The street vibe was addictive with ample of photographic opportunities but I learned from my previous trip that with so much happening one must take time to appreciate and enjoy the process of exploration and observation. I enjoy interacting with people and sometimes missed a picture opportunity but then in hindsight taking one would have interfered with the moment.

The period between October and February is the most popular time of the year for weddings when the days are sunny and dry. I travelled by train from Mumbai to Bharuch from a very lively Mumbai Central Station. Transportation is not the only reason to take the train. It is not just a means to a destination, but an adventure on its own. The activity and life on trains and stations is filled with many photo opportunities, interesting people, railway entrepreneurs, and gives a different perspective of urban life. The view from the trains also reiterates the big divide between the affluent and the poor. It is through these windows that poverty in India becomes a reality. It is only then that you start to comprehend the masked beauty of the continent. The railway also forms an intricate part of the linen courier system. Through this system, bales of linen used as wedding decor are transported to wedding venues around Mumbai. I’m grateful to good samaritan who gave me a ride to the Mumbai Central Station and provided me with snacks as I found myself without a single rupee to pay for transport and food after Standard Bank in their wisdom decided to block my bank card in error. 

The journey was delightful. I made myself comfortable and ready to read a book on my Kindle, but my travel companions had other plans for the trip. This is not unusual in India. An older gentleman and two young girls sat opposite me and we all started sharing stories and reasons for our respective journeys. We were all on our way to weddings. The wedding took place in a village called Parkhet which is about 22kms away from Bharuch in the state of Gujarat, with a population of just over 3000.

There are weddings and then there are Indian weddings and it was an absolute wonderful experience witnessing the warmest of all hospitality and a large part of the Gujarat culture. The Patels, which is a cast, rather than a family, are known for their lavish wedding celebrations which lasts for four days. During these four days, the wedding guests participate in a variety of rituals, ceremonies and culinary feasts. Attending a wedding in India is like exploring a part of the country as it is a reflection of the culture and traditions specific to the area.

I arrived in time for the Pithi ceremony, the day after the Mehendi evening. This ritual is performed by both the bride and the groom at their respective homes   The groom sits on a low chair with  upturned palms and all  the female relatives take turns to apply a paste of turmeric, sandalwood, rosewater and herbs to the groom’s face and feet. Turmeric has healing powers and enhances the skin tone. The Pithi was a whirlwind of vibrant colours as most women dressed in bright yellow sarees for the ceremony.

The Pihti ceremony was followed by many ceremonies and preparations for the main wedding day. And this starts with the ‘Mandap Mahurat’.  A priest or pandit is invited to perform a Griha Shanti Puja at both the homes, seeking God’s blessings over the couple, their homes and all wedding-related tasks ahead. They pray for an extended envelope of peace and happiness over both the households and to remove any possible obstacles that may hinder the couple’s path ahead

The Garba evening is one of the highlights of the Indian Gujarati wedding. The ritual presents an informal setting for the two families to get to know each other, as most marriages in the villages of India are still arranged.  It is a fun-filled evening of music and traditional dancing the night before the wedding day. The women are dressed in their finest jewellery, matching bangles and the latest chaniya choli’s (a skirt and blouse, and a scarf draped around their waists). These sights are often seen in Bollywood movies, where all the guests dance in sync. The guests are twirling and clapping to the beat of Garba and Dandiya till the early hours of the morning and the whole village participated. Besides these main rituals, the days are filled with fascinating traditions, celebration and ceremonies unique to the village, an endless food fare and forever changing attires.

I was treated in the most special way. It didn’t matter that for some of the time I didn’t understand what was going on even though I was guided through each stage of the wedding in broken English. It was an all-vegetarian affair as most Hindus are pure vegetarian in Gujarat, the Ghandi State. The food was lip-smacking good. Gujaratis surely know how to combine soul food with the festivities. The food is fragrant, with a very subtle taste and a delicate blend of flavours and textures which favour the sweet palate. During the day, meals with Dhal, rotis, talis and sweet meats were served. The festivities often continued until the early hours of the morning, which was also significantly colder. Platters of freshly fried samoosas, pakoras and chai were served to ensure that the guests stay warm and their tummies full.

Hindus do not choose their wedding dates. They consult a pandit who will study the bride and the groom’s horoscopes and then decide on an auspicious time and date for the wedding. The wedding rituals had to commence at exactly midnight as this was the auspicious hour for this wedding couple. During the day the groom visits several homes in the village on horse- back where he receives gifts and blessing.

Finally it was time for the Varghodo. This is when the wedding procession makes its way to the bride’s home. The procession consists of relatives and friends and they are accompanied by a band, gregariously announcing the arrival of the groom. The groom is transported in a brightly lit horse drawn coach, and fireworks are set off on the way.

This concludes the celebrations on the groom’s side and is then continued at the bride’s home. The wedding rituals are very symbolic. The most significant part of the wedding is walking around the sacred fire…during the first four circles the groom leads his wife and during the last three, the bride leads the groom. The marriage is concluded once the groom puts sindhoor (red powder made from turmeric and lime juice) in the bride’s maang (the parting of the hair). This is symbolic of a visible desire of the wife for her husband. The wedding ceremony comes to an end with the newlyweds seeking the elders’ blessings by touching the elders’ feet. One can’t help but feel a strong connection to all the villagers – a connection that surpasses any language barrier.

I was very curious to see how wedding photographers in India handle the rigours of shooting a wedding and it was fascinating to work alongside the Indian wedding photographers. I realised to my horror that everyone was shooting all the images in fine JPG using high apertures in a way I had never seen a professional use before. With the wedding season only lasting about four months with the peak months in January and February being extremely busy, there is very little time between weddings for retouching and preparing wedding albums. When the photographers leave the wedding they have a few hours of work left in the creation of the album. It is therefore important to get the picture 100% correct in camera ensuring every image is album-ready straight out of the camera, thereby reducing their turn-around time.

I was gripped by their process and speed of working; there is so much happening so fast. Detail is everything hence the need for large apertures. A huge part of their approach for the day is their vision which was drilled into me all the time; thinking about what is it is you are doing, how you’re doing it and why. Each photo must tell a story and add to the overall storyline. Very quick decision making is essential … what angle, lens choice, light direction interaction with the subject etc. During the wedding I had a little time to explore a bit of the village between events and wished I could speak their language to get to know what hides behind some of their faces and what stories they have to tell. Some of these houses in the village are more than 200 years old … some of the houses quite modern and some of them tell the story of centuries. After an amazing three days I returned to Mumbai by train and travelled by taxi to Pune 150kms away where I met with my team face-to-face for the first time.

Pune is the second largest city in the Indian state of Maharashtra, after Mumbai and one of the fastest growing urban cities. It is a vibrant metropolis and a perfect example of the ‘New India’; with an interesting mix of the old tradition and modernism, academia and business and a perplexing mix of capitalism and ancient and modern spirituality. Because of its close proximity to Mumbai and the availability of skilled resources it is home to several IT companies one of which provides IT support and application development to my local client. It has a pleasant climate throughout the year and is well known for its Western Ghats and hill stations (nature reserves). It is quite acceptable to start work at 10am so I had time in the mornings to explore the city, visiting temples, enjoying street food and chai tea. I’ve been working with the team since 2017 but this opportunity gave me important insights into their work ethic and culture. The team made me feel at home and treated me to some of the best eateries Pune has to offer.  

My last few days in Mumbai were spend exploring different parts of Mumbai. On every last Sunday of the month some of the streets in Mumbai are closed for traffic till 11am and everyone comes out to play, ride their bikes, do yoga, meditate, pray, walk, talk, wash their cars and engage in all sorts of interesting activities. Sometimes going out with the intention to get a few good shots doesn’t work. You just have to immerse yourself with street life, soak up the energy, engage with people and that makes me happy even though I sometimes do not get the shot. Once again India did not disappoint and I left with a sense of inner peace and a deep love for this ancient civilisation.