I was not excited to go to India. While its history was as rich and interesting as any on the planet, what was left today felt almost burned away by the burden of overpopulation, poverty, and western colonialism. My previous trips to China had been my first taste of what real class disparity looked like, and the trip to Bali just the past November had left a bad taste in my mouth for hot, overcrowded places with more regard for fighting to the top of the heap than for the drifts of trash strewn everywhere. India I had always felt would be little different.
And I wasn’t necessarily wrong. Pune itself was in such a state of construction upheaval that it looked like a bombed-out war zone. Even the airport was scattered with broken concrete and rebar. Movement, either on foot or by car, was a perpetual game of chess in which far too many pieces had been placed on the board. And stray, mangy dogs wandered through the corrugated iron shanty towns that were wedged into free spaces, digging through the drifts of trash that collected in every corner or patch of untrod ground. But there was a difference in India. There was a dignity to how people carried themselves.
This photo was taken on the Sunday we struck out of the city for some sightseeing, for a place I had found just by link-hopping on the internet while trying to find points of interest: Karla Caves. Made over 2000 years ago, it was Indian Buddhist temple carved straight into the rock that has since been taken over for normal Hindi religious service, as many places are due to the overwhelming demand placed by having millions of gods to appease. A short hike from the overcrowded parking lot that doubled as a weekend picnic spot took my co-worker-in-tow and I through a meandering path up the hillside, lined with stalls selling everything a weekend worshiper might need, from offerings to freshly made snacks. We were also the only white people in sight. Apart from the now familiar steady stream of stares and one half-hearted attempt at selling guide service, nothing was pushed on us. My usual guard against hawkers catching a whiff of tourist blood dropped as I realized the feeding frenzy was not coming.
As we reached the top, the heavy summer noon sun, normally flattening and oppressive, was caught and reflected by the people themselves into a whirl of color. Of the many things that had continued to snag my attention in India was the ornate and colorful style still commonly worn by women on a day-to-day basis, and this mixed with the dress whites on the men and the many colorful offerings made the crowd slowly whirl and shift like a kaleidoscope. This press of people filing into an enormous line that never seemed to grow any shorter seemed unhurried and unconcerned, even with various animals, live or dead, in tow. A table had been set up below the archway of ceremonial bells, and money and items exchanged hands between the small throng around it, the man in the white tank top manning it, and the people passing behind the iron gate, perhaps a ceremonial short cut for those who were either more pragmatic, a bit less patient, or perhaps had a bit more money to burn on the day’s worship. All this was punctuated by a band that would sporadically strike up for sometimes 15 minutes or more, playing an overwhelming but not unpleasant accompaniment of drums and horns. As we paused briefly in the shade, a man wearing a broad grin saw us and paused with his large bag of red powder to smudg a ‘tikka’ on each of our foreheads before scooping his puppy back up, which had a red smudge of its own, and carrying leisurely on is his way.
Over the course of the day, and in fact the entire two weeks, people were at most curious and shyly friendly, but never pushy unless you were on good terms with them. There was always a sense of intent and intelligence, rather than raw hungry opportunity. This was a culture still very sure of itself, unshaken by change or adversity. Despite all these trappings that I had dreaded, the foundation I appreciated was still there.