YEDFAS visit to India February 2016
For sixteen intrepid YEDFAS members an exhilarating two week journey through Rajasthan and Gujarat began at the iconic Imperial hotel in the heart of Edwin Lutyens New Delhi on 2nd February 2016. It ended at the House of MG - another astonishing hotel, once the magnificent home of a 19th century textile magnate and philanthropist - in the bustling and fast-growing city of Ahmedabad. From the very outset the extreme contrasts that India presents at every turn assaulted our senses and filled every moment. Everywhere just teemed with life of all sorts.
On our first afternoon, following a visit to the calm, humbling serenity of Mahatma Gandhi the peacemaker’s house and gardens and the site of his martyrdom in 1948, we were suddenly thrust on to bicycle rickshaws. Our drivers were instructed to negotiate a safe passage through a seething and deafening crush of people and vehicles into the markets of Old Delhi. What an experience! Someone later said it was a remarkably quick and effective way to deal with jet lag.
The air in the spice market was chokingly thick with the smells of turmeric, cumin, coriander and fennel seed being roasted and ground. Ramshackle stacked up living quarters were festooned with makeshift electric cabling and monkeys somersaulted along rickety balconies and rooftops.
The grandeur and monumental scale of the Lutyens designed government buildings in New Delhi - the president's house alone contains 340 rooms and at one time had 418 gardeners and 50 bird chasers - were in absolute contrast to the oft-repeated scenes of poverty along the roadsides throughout our travels. Makeshift shelters and shacks housed the very poorest. Women carrying water and various commodities on their heads, along with cows, goats, dogs, and circling birds of prey were a constant feature of the journey.
Travelling through the barren, semi-desert landscapes in Rajasthan, where rain is an unpredictable luxury and crops often fail, scrubby acacia is one of the dominant plants. Gradually as we travelled south into more fertile Gujarat small fields of crops such as mustard, flowering fennel and the castor oil plant, and large roadside neem and banyan trees dotted the countryside.
Functioning anarchy is how life in India has been described. Take traffic. India's road traffic (where there is the luxury of a road) is among the most chaotic in the world. It has to be - in order to accommodate everyone. At any given time, a typical urban thoroughfare can simultaneously have on it buses, cows, bullock-carts, cars, camels, tuk-tuks, scooters, rickshaws, lorries and more.
Everything somehow finds its way and generally the traffic keeps moving, even if it sometimes means travelling against the prevailing direction of other road users. Horns blare constantly to warn other drivers, people and animals of their approach but despite all the hundreds of traffic infringements (well, according to the UK highway code) there is, surprisingly, no apparent road rage!
Alongside the seeming anarchy of the traffic system, bureaucracy imposing strict order on life for the tourist/traveller was very evident. Completing forms and obtaining a visa required great stamina and time. Airport security, run by the military, was very tightly controlled. Similarly the beautiful Calico Museum was also a very regimented experience with security checks and no bags or shoes allowed. A carefully timed guided tour whizzed us past a wealth of amazing textile history allowing no time for questions!
Our stay in the village of Chandelao Garh and visit to the Bishnoi community near Jodhpur was so different. Approached by tracks and semi surfaced roads this arid rural area is home to a religious group of people whose guiding principle is the conservation of nature in all its forms – even trees are protected.Wild life abounds, supported by the communities, and blackbucks, chinkaras, gazelles, peacocks and antelope are just some of the creatures that can be seen freely roaming. Attached to our hotel, the Sunder Rang arts and crafts project employs village women on a fair trade basis enabling them to learn skills and gain some financial independence.
India abounds in stunning historic buildings. From the exquisite Afghan architecture of the Qutb Minar religious complex, built by 12th century Muslim invaders, with its 73m victory tower and many pillared mosque and Humayan’s tomb (a precursor of the Taj Mahal) to the extraordinary step wells such as the one at Rani-ki-Vav at Patan. Hard to describe, but the well descends like an inverted seven storey temple, adorned with more than eight hundred elaborate sculptures of the Hindu god Vishnu, to a communal water supply in its breathtaking depths 30m below ground level. Royal palaces provided vistas of extraordinary wealth and craftsmanship. At Mehrangarh Fort, situated 120m above Jodhpur’s skyline, we marvelled at the beautiful network of stone-latticed courtyards and halls housing collections of miniature paintings, elephant howdahs and palanquins. The magnificent City Palace, rises beautifully and imposingly above the shimmering banks of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, and contains mosaics, mirror work, antique paintings, white filigreed balconies, ornate marble arches and intricately carved granite.
And of course being members of YEDFAS we were interested to see artists at work.
Miniature painting was introduced to India by the Mughals who brought the art form from Persia. We watched artists using fine chipmunk-haired brushes and colours mixed from minerals, vegetables and precious stones painstakingly producing plush court scenes and heroic hunting pictures. Near the small town of Pipar we visited a traditional family run textile dyeing and printing business. This is arduous work using natural dyes and wooden hand blocks. We learned that the dye in the indigo vat had not been changed for over ten years and that scrap iron was used to make the black printing ink. In Patan we saw the incredible skill involved in double ikat weaving. Before the silk threads can be woven into a repeating pattern both the warp and weft threads are dyed using a resist process. It takes two workers up to eight months to produce one very special sari length – ‘an heirloom’, the owner of the workshop explained. Textiles were for me one of the highlights of the trip and the visit to the Calico Museum did not disappoint. Its outstanding collection of Indian fabrics exemplifies handicraft textiles spanning five centuries - gallery after gallery, hung with the most exquisite pieces.
The architecture too provided so many rich contrasts. From the complexities of the stone carving at the 15th century Jain temple complex at Ranakpur to Le Corbusier’s 1950s brutalist Mill Owner’s
Association Building in Ahmedabad. From the antique crammed interior of a very exclusive private house-cum-gallery in Delhi to the simple rustic homes in the Bishnoi community and from the golden-domed Sikh temple, providing thousands of free meals daily from its cavernous kitchens, to the Victorian style stock exchange in old Ahmedabad.
Our guide, Vineet, was especially good giving an account not only of what we saw but also of the political situation and how the health and education systems work. He spoke personally about the change in relationships between his parents` generation and his own: how his mother would not call his father by his first name in front of others but how he and his wife laughed together in a way he never saw between his parents. Although amazingly proficient with I.T. Vineet would read daily of his fate in the stars.
What a land of wonder! India is a fascinating and colourful country with a wealth of history. Our senses were constantly overloaded along with our suitcases which had to cope with ever more fine examples of textiles and mementos to be carried home. The group had great fun on this excellently organised trip and Richard Drysdale must be heartily thanked for having the idea and then putting it all into action.
India is huge and I think many of us will be hoping to find ways of returning in order to savour more of its diversity.