I wouldn’t say you “see” India so much as experience it. I’ve just returned from a two-week tour and my abiding memory is rubbish. Rubbish, rubbish everywhere. There is no refuse collection, and plastic lasts forever – so the ground was littered with white knives and forks. Even in the Himalayas, where it looked like snow on the mountains. One morning as our train pulled out of New Delhi, we passed a row of men casually defecating in a field of white cutlery. You don’t see that in Majorca.
I’m not disparaging the country. It’s just very … different. The poverty is so common that it’s almost casual. Families sleep out in the open, surrounded by dogs and water buffaloes. The buffaloes give milk longer than cows, yet Hinduism forbids the killing of the latter, so any cows you do see are abandoned and normally at death’s door.
In the middle of this ugliness is astonishing beauty. Beauty in the people, particularly the girls wrapped in bright saris. Beauty in the legacy of the Mughal Empire, which is awesome and alien – like the ruins of a civilisation found on a distant planet.
The English language cannot describe the sensation that overtakes you when the Taj Mahal first comes into view. It is so incredibly white. And yet, over the course of the day, it becomes red, yellow, gold and cold grey.
The monkeys come out to play at dusk. The man responsible for their playground, Emperor Shah Jahan, built it to house the body of his late wife. The plan was to construct an identical black version next door. Before he could finish his project, Shah Jahan’s son led a coup and locked him up in the Agra Fort. The fallen king was permitted a view of the Taj, so that he could mourn from a distance.
I fell in love with Islam all over again in India. Here it was innovative, humane and mysterious. Emperor Akbar the Great tried to create a syncretic faith that combined all the faiths of his people. He was also devoted to a Sufi mystic who is buried at Fatehpur Sikri. There one enters a white lattice building, where a queue forms to throw money and donated clothes onto the mystic’s coffin, to purchase his prayers. On the way out, an acolyte in a red hat hits you with a giant broom and shouts: “You are blessed!”
The crowds are so large, so passionate that it’s overwhelming. It reminded me of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where I had to elbow an old Russian woman out of the way to get a glimpse of where Jesus died.
A visit to a Hindu temple is like a trip on LSD. Holy men, elephant gods, bells, smells and a thousand old ladies chanting in unison. “They have done the cooking and now they have nothing else to do,” said our guide. “Better they come here to temple than sit at home irritating their husbands.” Quite right, too.
At the Birla Temple in Jaipur, the fun begins when night falls. We gathered in a vast marble hall in front of a holy sanctum shrouded with a red curtain. When the sun hit the horizon, something like disco music rang through the temple: “Lakshmi, we love you! You are so beautiful! You are the best!”
The curtain was pulled back to reveal statues of the goddess Lakshmi and her husband wearing real clothes. People donate their clothes in the morning and if they get approval, the priest telephones the lucky winner mid-afternoon to tell them that they’ve won. So they come to the temple to see Lakshmi wearing their frock.
Hinduism is so vast, so utilitarian, so weird that it’s tempting to say that they just make it up as they go along. But as the guide and I compared the lives of his gods with my saints, I realised that they could conclude the same of us – except that they wouldn’t because they take faith deadly seriously. India still has popular piety. Religion is everywhere and in a land of starving cows and homeless people, it offers a hope that is precious beyond rubies. I was envious of their certain religion. Envious that they felt no inhibitions about practising it. How did we lose that in the West?
In Bombay, I saw one statue of Jesus suspiciously repainted to look like a Hindu deity. And I encountered a small church in the Himalayas that offered just a single Mass on a Sunday. On the outside wall was a giant memorial to Mother Teresa, who is as important to Indian identity as Akbar or Shah Jahan. The memorial contained a quotation condemning abortion. In a land of such noise and confusion, there is still moral clarity.
Tim Stanley is a historian, Daily Telegraph columnist and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald