Before I left for India, people were approaching me with various stereotypes. Most common were the ones about India being ´too much´ even for an experienced traveller, or that the country is very dangerous for solo women travellers. Surprisingly (or not), none of the above resonate in my memories of this beautiful place, and here are few things that actually do!
Women safety matters
When I went to pick up my visa at the Indian embassy in Bratislava, the ambassador called me for a meeting just to tell me not to go out alone, especially in the dark, wherever in India I will be. Surely, this made me think about the safety issues of the country I was going to. First couple of days in New Delhi I was cautious, but then I realised that “hey, it is not as bad as they say!” When driving through Indian towns, especially New Delhi, you will see huge posters urging for women safety; some tuk-tuk drivers had stickers with the note saying they are respecting the women; all check-up points had male and female parts (which means you were never checked by a man, when entering the mall or any of the sights); and in each public place there is a police officer taking care of people´s safety. Exception makes the rule and you can face some problems (just like anywhere else in the world), but this was not my case. What matters is that despite situation still not being ideal, little progress is done and visible 🙂
Thousands shades of culture
You can see the culture everywhere you look and it is fascinating! When you get out to the streets of India, it is like you are opening the door to a different world – women wearing stunning sarees, markets full of beautiful fabrics, or locals selling yellow and orange flowers for prayers. This all gives a lot of colour to otherwise quite dusty and extremely hot country and creates a memorable experience. Some of the places like for example Delhi Haat market in New Delhi, or Rose Garden in Chandigarh are especially built for pleasing your eyes with its variety of colours. So what are you still waiting for?
Feeling festive? There is a festival almost every day
When I was in Bali I was surprised by how many holidays and festivals they had, but India is no exception! Gandhi´s birthday celebrated on 2nd October each year is a huge thing. Pictures of Gandhi are everywhere; shopping centres and streets are beautifully decorated; the documentary about Gandhi´s life is shown in the cinemas around the country; and most importantly, everything, except for big malls, is closed, so people can celebrate at home (I have chosen to celebrate with my friends in the local cinema).
Hindu festivals are also widely celebrated across India. One of the most interesting festivals for me was Karwa Chauth Vrat Vidhi (8th October 2017), which is one of the most strict and sacred fasts of married woman. The preparations for this festival could be seen at the local markets, because there are a lot of things to be done and followed. For one day, starting with the sunrise and finishing when the moon comes up at night, women are not allowed to eat or drink anything. They are also required to look like at their wedding day, which means wearing wedding dresses, getting mehndi (henna tattoos on both of their hands), red chandan applied to their forehead, or red bangles - all this to show love and commitment to their husbands. Isn´t that beautiful?
Prayers, prayers, and then prayers again
Hindu religion is very important part of the Hindu people and their lives in general - it became a culture and a way of life. Some of the Hindu temples are built as huge complexes that include a food court or a playground for kids, and their popularity could be seen by the huge queues of locals waiting to get in (the queues are there at any time of the day you come!). My friend´s family was waking up early in the morning (sometimes even 4 am) to go for the prayers before work; another round of prayers was planned before and after dinner (sometimes as late as 10 pm), which means almost all their free time is spent in one of the temples.
On the other side, there was a small local temple just around the corner from the place where I was staying. Bare feet monks walking around, whole families having fun in the nearby park, or kids bathing in the lake right next to the small altars, that is what really helps you to see how these people live and experience the contrasts of India.
Castes system in India is still a thing
More than 3,000 years old hierarchical system based on karma (work) and dharma (duty) is still present and widely seen in India. Families living under the bridges begging at the traffic lights; people literally living on the street sleeping on top of the rubbish bins covered with blankets or having a plastic bag put between the two trees with mattress calling it home is something you will be confronted with on an everyday basis. Merchants and middle class is present at the markets, however, you would be surprised that some markets are ticketed, so the poorest people won´t be able to enter.
If you have time and decide to go to the malls, you will face another class of people. Malls are full of worldwide brands as well as food chains that are, comparing to local food and markets, very expensive. All entrances to the malls are guarded, so people, who cannot afford shopping there won´t bother the ones, who can. This also allows the customers to live in a bubble and spend big amounts of money without any remorse.
Slums, temples, huge blogs of flats (many of them uninhabited), people living on the streets, but also big houses with only few people in them – that is all part of the Indian landscape.