May 8, 2013

India: A Feast for the Senses. ~ Carl Kerridge

Asana at the royal tomb in Jaipur

India has long been on my “bucket list” of travel destinations. As a photographer, I was excitedly anticipating the visual stimulation offered by a country that stretches from the Himalayan mountains to the Indian ocean. What I did not expect, or even give much thought to prior to arrival, was the effect on my other senses. Allow me to share with you the sensory explosion that is India.

Crowds entering the temple inside the Amber Fort Palace, Jaipur.

Sight: India is a stunning country full of color, vibrancy and culture. The terrain varies from lush tropical jungles, to the highest mountain peaks, to dry, deserted and isolated beaches. India has it all.

The religious and spiritual history of the country, based in mostly Hindu and Muslim traditions, offers fascinating and often flamboyant architectural structures and bold primary colors associated with different deities, ceremonies and beliefs. Due to the caste system, the people range from incredibly wealthy to desperately poor, and yet they all share a fascination for brightly colored outfits and saris which make the clothes we Westerners wear seem bland in comparison. Even the tuk-tuks and rickshaws are vividly hand-painted to attract the attention of anyone needing a ride.

As a photographer, I am known for loving black-and-white images, and yet, after shooting 5,000 digital frames in India, I still haven’t converted any away from color; it just doesn’t seem right.

Touch: The concept of personal space seems to be unknown to most of India’s population. Unlike Westerners, who would never dream of sitting so close to someone on a bus, train or subway that we actually had to touch another person, in India people will literally crowd into any amount of space possible, even if that means sitting or standing pressed up against a complete stranger. It is a sign of friendship for grown men to hold hands while walking, and most Indians, perhaps because of financial reasons, walk barefoot. The people eat with their right hands (the left is reserved for cleaning one’s bottom after a visit to the toilet) and fold dhals (lentils), rice dishes and curry wrapped in roti into bite sized pieces. If you are afraid of losing your personal space, I would suggest crossing India off of your list; or be bold, dive in and conquer your fear!

Idli and dosa, a traditional Indian breakfast

Taste: It’s hard to imagine going to any city in the world and not finding a reasonably decent Indian restaurant. The food—including curries, papadom (flatbread), naan bread and India’s staple export, rice—is known on every continent. Before I arrived, I was not sure how I would handle three meals of curry a day for six weeks, but to my surprise the variety of food and flavors never seemed to get old.

If you have never tried Indian food for fear of it burning your taste buds with overly-spiced chilies and vindaloo curries, then fear no more—the intensity of flavors are as varied as India’s landscape.

The northern part of the country prefers slightly milder and tender dhals, aloo parantha (potato pancake) and pulao (stir fried rice with fruit and nuts), while the south offers spicier dishes like tandoori, tikka and (one of my favorites) channa masala (chick peas and vegetables in sauce). Be sure to visit an Indian restaurant and get started with a thali (a sampler of small dishes). Leave your taste for meat at home, as the majority of Indians prefer a strictly vegetarian diet.

Sari stall in the marketplace.

Listen: Over 1.2 billion people live in a country with half the land mass of the U.S. To say it’s hard to find your own quiet corner is an understatement, especially after visiting the top attractions and tourist destinations that are literally swarming with people. Our tour took us through the so-called Golden Triangle of New Delhi, Agra (home to the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur (The Pink City), and then on to Varanasi (possibly the world’s oldest city) and Allahabad for the Maha Kumbh Mela (the largest festival and gathering of human beings on the planet).

The touts (street hawkers) offer a never-ending selection of services to tempt rupees out of your pockets and into theirs—”Hey Mister, cheap deals inside!” “Everything for sale except me; what you looking for?” and the classic hook: “What country you from?”

At first it seems the polite thing to do is answer, but you soon realize that the moment you stop to talk you become a target for kids who beg, adults who wants photos of you, touts who want to sell you something and the lurking tuk-tuk drivers who constantly want to take you somewhere, anywhere.

There is the constant sound of bicycle rickshaws ringing bells, tuk-tuks revving two-stroke engines, cars and trucks honking—all of them weaving in and out of the lanes for position on the pot-holed roads and to avoid the cows who, as the country’s sacred animal, have right of way. It’s a fuming commotion, and to anyone with the slightest amount of anxiety it’s a chaotic tangle best avoided.

Scent: All of the above senses can be experienced at some level without actually visiting India. I have included pictures of the colors and described the sounds of the traffic.  If you go to any Indian restaurant, you can try the many flavors of Indian food and possibly even eat with your fingers! What I cannot bring back with me are the smells, and, as our sense of smell is directly linked to emotional responses, it is very hard to fully appreciate the experience of India without a description of some of the good and not-so-good aromas.

A bride’s hands are covered with turmeric during an Indian wedding ritual.

The good: Rows of marigolds and rose garlands offered at blessings, incense burning at the temples, market stalls and shops, bubbling pots of curry, fresh ginger and spices in the morning, masala chai, Ayurvedic oils, sandlewood mala beads and fresh mountain air.

The bad: Raw sewage and trash littering the steets, piles of cow dung, tobacco chews and unhygienic bathrooms stalls. The worst smell—which can be sensed from a good 30 feet away—comes from the male public urinals which are basically a few tiles on a wall with an open drain.

With all its sensory experiences, India is by far the most authentic place I have visited.

Having traveled to 30+ countries, I can confidently say that my experiences there will undoubtedly change my perspective on life’s values. It’s a country of extremes: from wealth to poverty, technology to tradition, ritual to chaos and beauty to filth. The “system”—and I use that word very loosely—seems to be “go with the flow”; any deviation from this will undoubtedly cause confusion and the customary head-bobble with a disconcerted look. It is a country I would recommend to anyone with an open mind who loves to be challenged at every level, and it will undoubtedly hold a special place in your heart. Namaste, my friends, and enjoy your journey.

Old man offering his prayers to the Ganga River


Carl Kerridge is a photographer/adventurer who maintains a creative outlook on life. He likes to think of his work as “playing” with light and shadow, sculpting shapes and forms to create high impact images. For 15 years he has been creating lifestyle and editorial images, working mostly with natural light. He seeks to offer the highest quality images and to build lasting relationships with his clients. www.carlkerridge.com

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Assistant Ed: Dejah Beauchamp/Kate Bartolotta

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