The monk, the palace and the bird
Writing about India requires a caveat or two: First trip (just back), I am not Indian, and I possess no specialised knowledge. As a writer, first impressions are all I offer.
First stop was Bodh Gaya, the home-ground of Buddhism, to hear the Dalai Lama. It felt like the deep end, in a good way. When you walk with an open heart among thousands of chanting monks, or sit by a meditator and find yourself pushed sideways by an invisible force, your world may well alter, or at least, your idea of how things should be.
On to a rowboat in ancient Varanasi, where I witnessed - simultaneously - spiritual cleansing and cremation on the banks of the Ganges. The great river - sacred to Hindus - is revered in daily rituals. The ordinary world here seems to fade in significance behind a pervasive sense of eternity.
For the tourist new to the country, ironies abound. For one, in a country marked by rising Hindu nationalism, I was 'not to miss' the glories of the 'golden age' of the (Islamic) Mughal Empire.
I am not sure every westerner bursts into tears at the sight of the Taj Mahal, the magical glow of which cannot be captured by a camera. Nor perhaps are they as lucky to turn up at dawn at Humayan's Tomb in Delhi - the forerunner to the Taj Mahal - to wander the grand mausoleum and its gardens alone.
India is indeed a feast for the senses and for the deeper questions of being alive. You'll be struck too, at times, by the kindness of strangers, and sadly, amid the bustle of half a billion people going about their working day, you'll witness the disturbing manifestations of extreme poverty.
At one point, recovering from illness and sensory overload, I sat by the window in a fine hotel restaurant, cocooned in five-star Delhi, surrounded by mostly very-well-dressed men chatting quietly. It was here, over breakfast, tuned to international radio news through my headphones, I learned of the growing stark inequalities in India, and how the very few are securing more and more of the country's growing wealth.
All over the world you can find people of means who will ignore the shrunken young child at the car window, or walk on by the beggar with a severe disability who can barely hold up their hand. As well, others will readily perform the role of concealing the unacceptable, while plastering their dear leader's image all over town.
The waiter brought me almond milk freshly made from the kitchen to pour on my granola and curd and asked me for whatever I might need. I thanked him and looked blankly at the display of food. Turning to the serene view of the hotel gardens, I noticed a play of feathers drifting down from the branch of a tree. I looked up to see a large vulture tearing apart the flesh of a bird.
My spiritual travels in India ended at Naddi, a village in the north, at an altitude of 2000m, with a spectacular view of the Dhauladhar mountains (at the lower end of the Himalayas). Naddi is 3km from the mountainside-town of McLeod Ganj, home to the residence of the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan refugees and their families. In the area, you can visit sites and temples that preserve Tibetan culture and traditions.
Perched at Naddi, my final stop, a month after arriving at Bangalore, I felt humbled, and an immense gratitude, and tried to understand what I had just lived through. It was too soon. But I was not the same person, and I would return 'to the west' with new eyes.