The strength, power, and genuine beauty of the India I saw as part of my Walking Our World pilgrimage emanated from the villages and their people.
Fear churned my stomach as I left my hotel room in central India to walk for just three days to Ujjain, one of the four holy cities where a sangam , or ‘meeting of rivers’, marked the site of the biggest religious gathering in the world, the Hindu Khumba Mela. What I knew of India was just a spot above nothing after flying into Goa, spending a little time at a backpacker hostel and then travelling by sleeper bus with my new friend Rittam to Maheshwah in central India. I had virtually no local language beyond hello, goodbye and thank you, no idea of custom, no knowledge of the terrain, and a clear warning from Rittam that a white person walking alone would almost certainly face violence, theft, and trickery – and even perhaps lose their life.
Not exactly an encouraging beginning, yet I was determined to walk a good portion of India before I returned to Australia as a part of my Walking Our World pilgrimage. I have a theory that people are essentially good all over the world, so to withdraw from my walk on the basis of a few warnings would completely invalidate my testing of that theory.
Risk or not, I was determined to walk.
Rather than try to find my way through byways of the city to the main road, I hailed a motorised rickshaw to navigate the streets and laneways to the temple that marked the start of the Indore-Ujjain road. After about a 15-minute journey under overpasses, alongside busy freeways, between markets and tiny shops, across railways and down narrow laneways that had me thinking I was never going to reach my destination, we popped out onto a main road and there was the temple, towering above us as the cab skidded to a stop.
I climbed out, dragged my backpack with me, retrieved my walking staff, paid the driver his 250 rupee and an extra 100 (about $2) which was received with great and demonstrated gratitude, then said thank you in my poor Hindi. He drove off with a smile and a wave. I began to take stock of the walking journey ahead of me.
Namaste Baba, attiti deva bhava
Lining the wide, straight road that stretched to a dusty, smoky horizon were hundreds of market stalls, manned by dark, thin Indian men selling fruit and vegetables, clothing, small hardware items, kitchen and household clutter, and a myriad of trinkets and religious icons. Already the appearance of a Caucasian man was drawing attention and I saw men squinting in the hazy sunlight at me – a tall, bearded, white man in khaki trousers, wielding a big wooden walking staff and a grubby red backpack. Some pointed and grabbed at their friends to mutter something inaudible, yet clearly directed at me, this strange figure in their land.
One man called out, “Namaste Baba, attiti deva bhava.” While I could sense the good intention in the cry and saw his wave and smile, at this point I knew only that the first part was a greeting of respect. It was much later that I was to discover the meaning of attiti deva bhava.
I waved back, shouted, “Namaste”, in return, shouldered my unwieldy backpack, gripped my walking staff, glanced at the temple and silently asked the Hindu god of the temple to take good care of me, and then began walking.
It was hot, noisy, dusty, and uncomfortable. Garishly decorated trucks, three-wheel cabs, cars, bullock drays piled high with grass or sugar cane, myriads of small motorbikes, and thousands upon thousands of people walking all added to the billowing cloud that lifted from the road and clogged mouth, nose, eyes, ears, and lungs. A thick layer of a foul mix of cow and bullock poo, dirt, and diesel exhaust fumes blanketed everything, including me. Men tramped amidst this in grubby dungarees, labouring at one thing or another. Women dressed in brightly coloured saris stared at me in wonder until the moment I looked their way, when they immediately averted their eyes, muttered, shrugged amongst themselves, and continued on their way, heads piled with cloth, food, grass, or sticks of wood.
My pilgrimage begins
After around two hours of steady walking and coughing at the dust, I began to relax into the steady motion of walking that I had known in Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. Almost as soon as this change occurred in me, Indian men began to engage with me, calling out in greeting. Motorcycle riders waved while pillion passengers twisted and gawked as they disappeared into the dusty distance. Inwardly (and perhaps outwardly) I smiled and instantly one motorcycle rider stopped and began to speak to me with that magical sing-song English that is particular to Indians. He asked me what I was doing, called me Baba, smiled a lot, listened carefully to my explanation that I walked for balance, peace, and freedom then said to me, “you must be coming with me to my brother-in-law’s shop in front of the hospital. You will be very welcome.”
I had to take the time to explain that I was dedicated to walking rather than clambering on his motorbike, but promised that I would walk the half hour or so and stop by when I noticed the front gate of the hospital.
When I arrived I could have been royalty – between young university students touching my feet and declaring my yogihood and blessing me with Baba and Attiti Deva Bhava and my new friend insisting that I shake hands with all his friends and his shop-owning brother-in-law. The delay in getting there had meant I had been promoted as a white Aussie sadhu or ‘wandering holy man’ and was an instant local hero. This was a long way from threat, risk, danger, and theft.
My Indian pilgrimage had truly begun.
It is impossible to portray exactly what India is like in a short article. If you can picture these things, perhaps it will help: smiling, white-toothed, dark-skinned children playing beside the road in exposed sewage drains; a farming family cooking me a late dinner from scratch, sharing their sleeping space and mosquito net simply because I had no other roof, the man of the house taking me proudly on a tour of every temple in the local region; beggar children laughing and cajoling for a few rupees in reward; dead bodies burning on massive piles of wood beside India’s holiest of rivers in Kashi, the holy city of Shiva; holy men and sadhus blessing me with dots of red and yellow ochre on my forehead; bells tolling in Hindu temples competing with Muslim prayers echoing through thousand year old streets; dirt, dust, and smoke so thick that the sun is never more than an eerie orange ball in a brown-stained sky; people, people, and more people, then even more people; never-ending noise; snow-capped mountains towering in the distance from a highland city whose houses are every colour and awe-inspiring patterns of a kaleidoscope.
It was the villages that I experienced in rural central India near Kashi, and just north of the yoga tourism mecca of Rishikesh, that inspired me most. They were populated by anything from fifty to several hundred people living and sharing everything together.
It was in these villages that my genuine love and regard for the Indian people lodged gently in my heart. In village after village I was welcomed and cared for as though I was a visiting king. I was introduced to brothers, sisters, mothers, children, grandparents, great-grandparents, close friends, teachers, merchants, potters, weavers, musicians, and holy men and was instantly called friend, yogi, Baba, holy man. In some places most of the people spoke almost no English, except for the children and young people, who understood enough to translate my sign declaring that I walked their country, their region, their village – for balance, peace, and freedom.
That alone gained me respect. That alone made me Baba. That made me a sadhu (a holy man) and that meant that these generous, friendly people took me into their homes, fed me, housed me, shared what they had with me and asked nothing in return. They wished me well as I walked away to my next experience, to the next village, to another day of walking across a land where walking priests and holy men are part of a long tradition.
It became clear to me that the teeming cities, the churning industry, the endless honking traffic, and the rush to embrace Western ways are not the strength and beauty of India. The strength, power, and genuine beauty of the India I saw emanated from the villages and their people. The gentle attributes of these villagers that truly inspired me were their simplicity, their generosity, their respect, and their good humour with each other and with me.
Bringing the village experience home
Since returning from India I have dedicated myself to recreating some of that village experience here in Australia. When I started walking over four years ago, part of my intention was to form and inspire ‘community’; people connected with one another by more than their mobile phones and their Facebook profiles. Now with the education of walking India and to some extent my earlier village experiences in Fiji, I have formulated a clear vision. Since returning from India I have championed this vision and called it The Village.
The really good news is that the idea has begun to expand. The idea is based on a simple theory of connection, of shared respect not needing to be earned or proven, but present simply because another person is present. There is an assumption that every person brings a unique offering and is encouraged and welcomed to offer it.
Now, organically and with no effort at all from me, the idea has expanded so that before I fly to Europe to walk Britain, mainland Europe, and the Middle East, there will be two more incarnations of The Village, further testing my theory that people are essentially good all over the world.
The experience of The Village is entirely opposite to the loneliness of city living, of not even knowing your next-door neighbour. In this strange world of distractions, smart phones and screens, crushing mortgages, stranger danger, fear of terrorists, and separation there is a rapidly burgeoning call for genuine, human, face-to-face acceptance and connection.
By the time I left India, I did learn a little more of the Hindi language.
I learned what these Indian villagers were saying to me when they said Namaste Baba, Attiti deva Bhava.
Their first heartfelt greeting to a walking stranger from another land roughly translates as The divine in me bows to the divine in you, respected sir; you are my guest and guest is God.
Peter Walker left his partner, family, career and friends, sold or gave away all his possessions and began a personal pilgrimage, now called Walking Our World. Peter is a writer, orator, teacher and student of the possibilities and opportunities of life.
#walkwithme | http://walkingourworld.org
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