Mama India || Film photographs and words by Birralee Hassen
I arrived in India not really knowing what to expect. I had been told of life changing experiences, exceptionally strong smells and flavours, and crowded trains. I did, of course, experience all these things, yet I also experienced so much more than I ever could have imagined.
Nowhere else in the world could a population of 1.252 billion live in such crowded conditions and somehow make it work so beautifully and wonderfully well. Strangers fall asleep on each others shoulders on crowded trains, rickshaws beep crazily, groups link arms and hold hands as they walk, markets swarm with people going about their daily business, side-stepping to make way for the cows that lazily chew their cud in the middle of congested streets. The country is alive with a heartbeat that pulses through every aspect of daily life.
Our first destination was Cochin, a city grown from a fishing village, with a rich history dating back to the 1300’s, when it was first used as a sea port to accommodate for the flood of merchants eagerly chasing the legend of bounty that India had on offer. Over the years Cochin has passed through Portuguese, Dutch, and British Rule, before finally coming back to Indian rule when the country became independent in 1947. The Arab, Chinese and European merchants that passed through Cochin left a trail of influence behind them, and today you can still see the evidence of their presence. The Chinese fishing nets that line the waters edge have become an iconic part of Cochins culture. Cochin is the only place outside of China where these nets may be found. I watched the fishermen as they creakily lowered the nets into the water, my gaze joined by the many eyes of the hungry birds that eagerly awaited the nets to be pulled up. I’m sure that once upon a time these nets would have risen out of the water laden with an abundance of healthy sized fish, however in my time spent watching the nets there was nothing to report on the size scale that was much bigger than my hand. The fisherman didn’t seem to be deterred by this fact however, and continued their rhythmic lowering and raising, racing the swooping birds to collect the wriggling fish from the nets and place them in their woven baskets.
We took a trip to the backwaters of Kerala, a network of water canals that spider web through the lush jungle. We sat on a boat while a man with a leathery face and wide gapped smile pushed us along with a pole of bamboo. The beauty of the place was mesmerising, and an appreciative silence settled over us as we watched the greenery on the banks of the canals slowly pass us by. The snails pace we were moving at allowed us to take in the minute details, to really notice what was going on around us. My eyes were filled with beauty and my heart with gratitude as I greedily began to notice everything that was around me. A hundred different shades of green made themselves known to me in the leaves of the trees, leaves danced gracefully with each other in the light wind, birds sung out to one another, the water dripped off the pole of bamboo each time it was pulled out of the water, before creating gentle ripples as it was pushed back in to propel us forward. The stillness of the water created a mirrored effect, the type of effect where if you turn your head upside down the view still looks the same, the scene only broken here and there by a lump of floating wood or landing water bird.
We made our way up the coast via train, an experience that is so uniquely India that it must be personally taken to truly understand. Masses of bodies bustle against one another in hopes of getting a bottom onto a hard bench seat, or even better of getting a face near a window to be relieved of the heavy heat by the passing breeze. I managed once to get the seat near the window, and I hung my head out the window and watched with mesmerised eyes the wonderful world that is India pass me by. Fields of green, cows and goats, palm trees, earth coloured buildings, burning piles of rubbish all flew past me, accompanied by the thick smell which escorts everything in India, a mixture of dirt, smoke, heat, rubbish and moisture. We crossed bridges where the train would sway heavily above riverbanks, people below lining the waters edge as they fished or washed clothes. When pulling into stations eyes framed by beautiful dark skin, gold jewellery, and bright sari’s would stare unfalteringly back into mine from the platform. Children with eyes older than their bodies sat perched on hips next to exposed bellies.
I spent a month in Agonda, a region in the South of the state of Goa, where I would rise before the sun each morning for various forms of meditation and breathing techniques before practising four hours of yoga throughout the day. The physical practice of yoga was broken up by intervals of study of the human body and the history of yoga, and lunch breaks where I would spend my free time wandering down to the beach and observing the cows laying together in groups on the sand. The sunsets in Agonda were stunning; the falling sun doing it’s best to break through the heavy blanket of Indian sky, yet never quite achieving the clarity that I am accustomed to as a result of growing up in Australia. The result is a hazy pastel mirror image; a seamless union of soft colours where ocean reflects sky and the horizon line is no longer required to divide.
After Agonda I headed north to New Delhi and Agra with a friend I made in Agonda, Rachel. We decided we couldn’t go to India and not see the Taj Mahal, yet were on a tight time budget so committed to the two thousand kilometre change in location by boarding an aeroplane. The difference in temperature with the new northern location was drastic, and the disparities between north and south didn’t stop there. The food was spicier, the horns were noisier, and the people had a heightened intensity about them that was not present in the southern states. We spent a night on a freezing bus from New Delhi to Agra, our bones chattering on a metal seat as we huddled together for warmth. The layers of yoga tights and newly acquired Indian sarongs and blankets wrapped around us seemed to do nothing to keep out the chill that sliced in from windows that wouldn’t properly close. Needless to say there was a severe lack of sleep that night, and we arrived in Agra tired yet keen to make the most of our short time budget and see the Taj Mahal before the crowds, setting our alarm clocks for a five am wake up. We awoke, layered up with all items of clothing that we had with us, put on as many socks as our shoes would allow, wrapped blankets around our heads and headed out into the darkened streets in the direction of the Taj. We stopped along the way for freshly made chai tea, the warm sweetness momentarily soothing our cold bodies from the inside out. We were some of the first people to line up to the Taj, which has an average of 3 million visitors each year.
The Taj Mahal is a surreal experience, especially when it is still before seven am and the air is heavy with fog, which adds to the mystical feeling of seeing a giant white fairy tale castle made entirely from marble. Taking 20,000 labourers and over seventeen years to complete, the Taj Mahal is a majestic labour of love completed by ruler Shah Jahan as a tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth. Eventually overthrown by his son, Shah Jahan was left to live out his days as a captive in the Agra Fort, where he could view the Taj Mahal from his bedroom window. When he passed away he was also placed in the giant tomb, the final resting place for his earthly body beside the wife that he had loved so dearly. The Taj Mahal, with its long and sombre history, has an almost eerie feel to it, and I spent the whole time there in a reverend silence. Whether looking closely at the intricate detail hand carved into the marble, or taking a step backwards and dropping my head to gaze up and attempt to take in the sheer size of it, I was in constant state of awe.
Of course everyone experiences India differently, and that is part of its unique beauty. One thing that I definitely took away from there is that even though your physical body may arrive in India at the time that you step foot off the plane, it may take another day or week or month before your mind truly arrives and is capable of experiencing the real nature of mother India. The real nature, where you understand things differently, where you feel rather than see. There is life running through the veins of India, pulsing in a way that cannot be seen with the human eye, it must be felt with the soul.