When I travelled in my twenties and early thirties I never wanted to go to India. I’d heard of the poverty, and of the “Black Hole of Calcutta” and it frightened me. It took about another thirty years before I was finally ready. Now I wonder what took me so long.
I miss India. I miss the madness of it, and the heart of it, and the way the people, in the midst of hardships we westerners can scarcely fathom, are still so welcoming and open hearted. The power of thousands of years of spirituality informs everything in the most grandiose and the most subtle of ways, and is impossible to ignore. I miss the way their spirituality is lived with such enthusiasm and optimism. I miss the sheer force of Life in India. Life is lived out loud; the good, the bad, the ugly, the sacred, the profane, all stewed together to create a culture unlike anywhere else.
Rishikesh by the Ganges, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the state of Uttarakhand, is a holy city. Hindus have long been making pilgrimages here where it is said saints and sages have meditated for millennia. Indians and visitors alike gather here hoping to find freedom from suffering. It is full of swamis and gurus, yogis and ascetics and sadhus, and ordinary people.
Things are different with the pandemic of course, but the state of Uttarakhand is now open to people with a negative Covid-19 test result, and the yoga centres have reopened. Life there is slowly starting up again. And India being India I have no doubt that the people will find a way through.
Here then is my photo essay of the people of India as seen during our stay in Rishikesh. Some are residents, some are pilgrims, some are mystics. The photos were taken during our visits in 2019 and 2020.
There are six main unifying forces in India – chai, garbage, free-range cattle, marauding monkeys, dust, and snarling howling traffic that is a both mystical and terrifying insanity.
In India you will be confronted with your humanity: in the face of an old man in a filthy dhoti using a long stick for balance as he shuffles along the street; in the faces and strong but tired bodies of the women carrying bricks on their heads at construction sites; in the face of the severely deformed beggar-woman whose smile lights up the sky as she recognises you from previous days and knows you see her humanity; in the inscrutable faces of the sadhus who have given up everything in the hope of gaining it all; in the faces of the tribes of young men who swagger down the road to loud bhangra music; in the unrestrained joy of the dancing guests of a wedding celebration filling the street; in the unrestrained colours of the women’s saris; and in the shining face of the woman who speaks little English but nevertheless wants to know you and wants you to say hello to her mama on WhatsApp.
India will reflect back to you both the best and worst of humanity in hundreds of strands, millions of hopes and dreams and disappointments, billions of heartaches and joys that can never be separated, that coalesce into a ball that can never be unravelled. India will rip you open and tear you into a million pieces, and then grab your heart and reform it into a golden radiant flower. There is nowhere else on earth quite like it.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.