About 5 years ago I came across a video on Youtube of an Indian guy hand-painting the gold pinstripes onto the petrol tank of a Royal Enfield motorcycle. In a country where traditional skills often haven’t been mechanised: the skill, craftsmanship and mastery of the brush was something sincerely Indian and completely fascinating to watch.
India’s relationship with the British built Royal Enfield Bullet began in 1949 when the Indian Army ordered Royal Enfield Bullets for border patrol use. The bikes were imported in kit form from the UK and assembled in Chennai.
Before long Enfield India Ltd soon developed and opened a production factory completely independently under licence in Madras. The 1955, Indian built Royal Enfield Bullet model remained almost unchanged for years and the Madras plant produced over 20,000 Bullets annually.
The Bullet is now produced in Chennai and has the longest production run of any motorcycle having remained continuously in production since 1948. The Bullet marque is even older, and has passed 75 years of continuous production.
The company has now reached cult status within India and has begun to cash in on its celebrity as the Indian economy grows. Trendy outlets selling the Retro Street range of Bullets can also sell you colour coordinated helmets, leather jackets and knitwear to complete the look.
Yoga is big business in India, wander around the tourist hubs of Goa and Kerala early morning and you will see many committed souls in designer yoga pants, clutching their rolled-up mates under their arms, faces full of serenity, smugness yet definitely a little self-regret as they file to ashrams and yoga centres for a few hours of uplifting uncomfortableness.
Invited by a fellow road-trip enthusiast to stay at his family’s Ayurveda resort, I was presented with the opportunity to attend a dawn yoga class. So many people do this weird spiritual stretching that I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. I was reassured by staff and fellow guests at the resort that “yoga was about your own personal abilities, with no competition or stress” and that the teacher was “not aggressive” and the class “suitable for beginners and all abilities… just do things at your own pace”. These people, I would like to point out, were not at the 5.45am class and based on their advice had never attended one.
The teacher, a young, slim Indian man, was sat crossed-legged at the front of the class, egotistically in front of a large portrait of Buddha in the same position. The room was lit only by a small candle at the front. I sat in the far corner at the back, alongside three perfectly-toned European women. Everyone lay down and the three women covered themselves with floaty, ethnic-patterned scarves (should have done my research, thought lycra and mat was the total checklist)… surely not a scarf for warmth, this is South India? Mosquito’s maybe, I was struggling to hold my hands in the gyan mudra position without the odd swipe at my bare ankles to deter the blood-thirsty buggers. Until now, the lycra leggings in my clothing box served only the purpose of an extra layer under trousers in sub-zero temperatures so at least they were getting extra wear.
We all sat up, crossed-legged and the teacher began humming and chanting. The three women joined in, chanting and humming in unison. I closed my eyes and cringed, hoping they would soon stop this kind of trendy Hindu humming.
One of the reasons for choosing at 5.45am class was that it was dark, therefore surely reducing the humiliation factor. Once the spiritual singing was over, the teacher turned on a small light in the far, back corner of the room. My far, back corner. Now in my own personal spotlight he made a beeline for me and asked if I knew “something something Samsara” I managed to whisper to the instructor that it was my first time trying Yoga, clearly giving him an “I’m inexperienced, not crap” look. And that will be a definite no to the ‘something something samsara’.
The other women launched expertly into some kind of routine under softly, sung instructions from the teacher; standing with hands ‘praying’, stretching arms above head and bending backwards (slightly unnerved by the fact the women in front of me was now looking at me, despite her body still facing the opposite direction). There was leg lunging, back-arching, arm-stretching and head twisting. Each position I successfully managed to achieve was pushed expertly into the pain threshold by the teacher; knee a little bit further over (ouch), leg a bit higher (ouch), chest closer to the floor (ouch). Even my ‘relaxed’ lying on my back was changed to widen my legs (seriously even I wouldn’t have touched my feet after 2 months wearing only flip-flops adventuring round India).
Every time I closed my eyes I would hear his feet echoing on the wooden floor coming towards me to contort my body into more pain. How could I inhale and exhale deeply when I literally held my breath whenever he walked past for fear he would actually try and tie me in a knot. It is not easy to attain the perfect position in line with the universe when your head is twisting in line with the person next to you so you can copy them.
Even before sunrise, the Keralan backwaters are stiflingly hot and humid so now with hair stuck to my face with sweat I was hoping he didn’t move any clammy, sticky part of me for both our sakes.
We lay on our backs and lifted alternate legs into the air, momentarily impressed with my straight (yet shaking) leg I noticed the woman in front of me had managed to hook her foot to the back of her head. Lying stretched out with back arched unnaturally our Indian instructor encouraged us to “try and look at the ceiling” I admit I was stretching more to try and look at the clock on the wall (only half way, another 45 minutes to go).
I have never been able to ‘clear my mind of thoughts’, especially difficult when the yoga hall is above the kitchen and you can smell the mornings Sambah cooking and I’m more focused on what’s for breakfast rather than aligning my Chakras.
Inhale downwards dog… exhale upwards dog. What?!? When I was up, they were down, when I was stretched out in a leg lunge, they were already in a tight ball. I found myself crumpling in a heap when he wasn’t looking, then straining to obtain physical, contorted perfection when his gaze turned to my direction. This is supposed to be relaxing?
This actually hurt, I was relieved when the dogs of all directions slowed down and the session seemed to be winding down. Back in our lotus-like sitting positions we were instructed to cover our right nostril with our right thumb, then breathe out rhythmically and forcefully through the opposite nostril. Repeated several times with each nostril, then both nostrils together, until you resemble something of an asthmatic pig trying to free a stone wedged up its nostril. Or maybe that was just me.
It was difficult to know if the people around me were actually enjoying what they were doing. I certainly felt good at the end of the class, but mainly because it was over. As the sun rose over the misty backwaters, my attention veered to try and identify the bird I could see wandering across the grass from the window… birdwatching, now that’s actually a relaxing hobby that I can get up at unearthly hours for. Keep your mat, I’ll stick to my binoculars.
No-one forgets their first day in India- a full on sensory onslaught of sights, smells, and sounds with the volume and colour saturation turned up to maximum. Then add extra glitter and bells. Our journey started in Mumbai (our car was to join us later than planned due to the logistical minefield that is Indian customs). Mumbai is a heaving metropolis with millions jostling for space on the cramped island peninsular. It’s worth spending a couple of days in the city, striking colonial architecture gives the city a grand, old-fashioned feel alongside modern, luxury buildings along sweeping Marine Drive. The Iconic Gateway to India and Taj Palace Hotel dominate the seafront where crowds of tourists gather and mingle at sunset. Family groups huddle round snack ‘chaat’ on Chowpatty beach and boats chug to and from the Gateway, ferrying visitors out to nearby Elephanta Island with incredible rock-cut caves and with carved temples.
So the journey begins, for us travelling in our trusty Toyota Hilux ‘Bee-bee’ we bumped slowly along Maharashtra’s chaotic and crowded roads, swerving round cows and rickshaws in a constant cacophony of horns beeping. Travel options are varied and include private taxis, local and tourist buses, trains or brave the Indian roads yourself and hire a car or motorbike. For short distances 3-wheeler auto-rickshaws veer and bounce through urban backstreets- every transport medium is recommended for the full Indian tour experience.
This stretch of our travels in India would see us travel the south-western coast from Mumbai, all the way to the southernmost point of the country at Kanyakumari.
We paused in Goa state at Agonda and Patnem beaches, a far cry from the hippy-heyday but an easy introduction to South India as the state attracts tourists in their droves. Tie-dye and techno beats fill the beach huts and restaurants with idyllic sunsets over the horizon.
The next state on route is Karnataka, our first stop Gokarna where pilgrims flocked to visit the ancient temple, wrapped in orange lunghi skirts and dutifully bearing offerings of coconuts, pink lotus flowers and butter lamps.
Moving inland we weaved our way into the hills to India’s highest waterfall at Jog Falls then camped amongst Malabar Hornbills and Barking Deer in Sharvati Wildlife Reserve. Emerging from the jungle and back down towards the humid coastal plain we visited Murudeshwara, the world’s second largest Shiva statue looming over the coastline, shimmering silver in the sunlight overlooking a bustling temple complex of devout pilgrims offering gifts and prayers at his feet.
Another important stop on the pilgrimage trail is Udupi, at dusk one of the huge temple chariots on wheels loomed around the inner courtyard of the temple complex in a procession of drummers and young masked boys cartwheeling through a path of fire.
We crossed into the coconut palm-fringed state of Kerala, the northern coastline is largely deserted with gorgeous sandy beaches backed by wooded hills inland. We were fortunate enough to witness the extraordinary event of Theyyam in the tiny village of Parassinikadavu. Before sunrise, in a modest temple on the banks of the murky river, elaborately-dressed priests become possessed by the Hindu God Shiva and enact a series of offerings through dance to the heady repetitive beats of white-cloth wearing temple drummers. The atmosphere is electric as the drum beats intensify and accelerate to a climax of trance-like movements from the priests wearing towering, decorated headdresses, thick orange body paint, with silver eye patches and jangling embellished skirts.
The natural environment of Kerala state is jaw-dropping, both inland and along the coast. We ventured into the pristine forests of the Western Ghats and took a jeep safari into Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, an area rich in wildlife. Spotted Deer peep shyly from the forest, Indian bison, Langur monkeys, Malabar Squirrels, numerous bird species and the highlight- a group of 3 wild elephants crossing the track in front of us.
Briefly entering Tamil Nadu state we visited the regal city of Mysore, the main attraction of the city being its outstanding palace with magnificent halls and pavilions ornately decorated with colourful carvings, paintings and stained glass. Winding our way through the rolling hills of lush tea plantations with colourful villages clinging to the bright green slopes we passed the hill station of Ooty. Further south, the town of Munnar is also surrounded by tea and the tropical jungle hills bursting with spice gardens; cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, pepper and cloves growing wild.
Kerala is famed for its backwaters and as we slid away silently from the jetty near Kottyam on the still waters, our narrow wooden rowing boat gently gliding across the calm surface, it is easy to see why people travel to this watery paradise. The sound of melodic Bollywood drifted across the water from a small cottage, a lady washing the previous night’s pots and pans at the bottom of steps to the dark water. Vivid flashes of electric blue Kingfishers dart across the surface, elegant white Egrets tiptoe through the shallows and camouflaged Pond Herons creep across mats of floating water hyacinth. Stunning cerise water lilies burst floating from the margins as a flame-orange sun rises high over the misty rice paddies.
At Varkala an idyllic sandy beach stretches as far as the eye can see from a high cliff vantage point, surf rolling in from the Indian Ocean.
No trip to Kerala would be complete without sampling the intense dance-drama of Kathkali, one of the world’s oldest forms of theatre. In Trivandrum, a flamboyantly dressed actor leaps onto the stage, face painted thick with green paint twitching and gurning to the fast drumbeats, haunting chants and clashing cymbals.
As we crossed into coastal Tamil Nadu, villages are dominated by ornate and beautifully bizarre gateways leading to pyramid-topped temples bursting with colour and intricate carved statues of the many deity manifestations.
Our final point on our southwestern Indian coastal voyage was Kanyakumari, the most southern point of India where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet. Watching the sun set from this ‘land’s end’ point seemed a fitting end to this stage of our overland journey, as the moon simultaneously rises over the iridescent water we looked forward to our onward travels back North.
This article originally appeared in Envoyage Inflight Magazine where we have been guest travel writers for the last year or so. Back issues are available for download using the Newstand App on iPhone and iPad.
Envoyage is the in-flight lifestyle magazine for Aurigny, the Channel Islanders' airline, voted Best Short Haul Airline by Which? readers in 2013. To find out more click here.