Monday 16 December 2013

A Passage to India

 It's so lovely to be back in India, the characteristic smell when you arrive into the airport, women in beautiful saris, and other types of traditional dress. All the officials still in khaki uniforms, there seem to be millions of them, our tickets are checked five times on the way to our transfer plane...

Out of Indore airport into the crazy traffic of an Indian city. We are headed to Maheshwar, which is well off the beaten track, and two and half hours away from the airport. We drive past the slum of corrugated tin shacks and tiny mobile shops. There are people everywhere, yellow and green tuc-tucs and scooters weaving around them and the constant noise of horns. 

The lorries are painted in intricate patterns with BLOW HORN emblazoned in large letters on the back. They carry huge loads, sometimes covered in hessian which billows out over the top of the truck. There are a million motorbikes often with the entire family on board, the women sit side saddle in their saris and the youngest member on the handlebars. I've just seen a long bamboo ladder being carried between two bicycles, the two cyclists pedalling in unison like a stretch tandem. Flat carts on gaily painted wheels, piled high with sticks of sugarcane stacked for juice, coconuts, pomegranates… 

There is pottery drying in the sun by the roadside, men making bricks, little stalls selling a variety of nuts. Everyone is on a mission trying to earn a living in a trillion innovative ways.

There are more traditional forms of transport too. Cattle carts and water buffalo. Some cows with their horns painted. Closer to Maheshwar we see a herd of haughty camels walking along the roadside with their turbaned herder. In the countryside and villages the women are all wearing saris, and some older men are still wearing the dhoti. But in the cities many are opting for western clothes.

Indians are very devout and worship a million gods, so there are a myriad of temples along the road, some just tiny grottos, others huge and elaborately decorated and garlanded. These also create opportunities for others to sell marigold garlands, incense and other offerings. Everywhere is a riot of color.

There's a wide diversity of crops, every scrap of land is used for cotton, sugarcane, papayas, and mangoes which are at their juicy best during the monsoon season. The cherimoya season has just finished but there are lots of dates and chestnuts which they roast until charred black then split.

The sheer regional diversity of the food in India makes it intriguing and deliciously rewarding but difficult to define. From the rich meaty dishes of the Moguls in the North to the superb variety of vegetarian and fish dishes, the rice, breads, the dahls, fruits, pickles and relishes.

Religion plays a major part in people’s diets and is considered to be as critical to the mind as the body. India’s Sikh, Parsi and Christian communities have little or no restrictions on what they eat. Hindus do not eat beef as the cow is sacred and revered. Traditionally they avoid foods that are thought to inhibit spiritual or physical development: some devout Hindus also avoid onions and garlic as do the Jains who believe they heat the blood and inflame sexual desire. The Jains are also strict vegetarians and there are rigid restrictions to avoid injury even to insects so they don’t eat any vegetable that comes from below the ground for fear of potential damage during cultivation and harvesting. Buddhists are mostly vegetarian and pork is strictly taboo for Muslims many of who also avoid alcohol. Many Indians also fast once and sometimes twice a week or longer to gain spiritual rewards and also to better understand the suffering of the poor. Ayurveda, the ancient science of health and longevity also influences food customs. The whole mix makes for a fascinating and diverse food culture which I always relish the opportunity to explore and learn more about on our travels.