India! Within that one word lives a hundred thousand stories, the scent of a million spice markets and an indefinable mystery that has lured travelers for thousands of years and given birth to countless stories.
It may come as some surprise to the official promoters of Tourism in India that most of us travelers from the West have absolutely no understanding of the complicated history of India. So while a guide drones on about dynasties and mythologies, most of us are scratching our legs and feeling indescribably bored. Unless you are a talented story-teller who hasn’t yet been replaced by those wretched audio tours, chances are the tourists are going to be much more interested in finding the nearest Cafe Coffee Day than listening to you.
The marketing of India’s rich cultural heritage needs a bit of tweaking. The richest cultural heritage that India has is the art of story telling, stories that span centuries, eons and eternity. Novels and poetry, films and dance, street dramas and rituals are all connected to the story of India that we have come to seek.
Most of us have read or hear about India by stories. Books, films and travelers bring us word of India. Everyone loves a good story and India is a story so rich that it inspires us to travel across the world to find it, to step into the story that is India. And what stories! The greatest epic ever told, the Mahabharata. The Ramayan, the gossip at the local chai shop! Everywhere you look in India, every time you look there is a story going on.
A huge majority of us have come already with a story clutched to our bosom. This version of India is the one we have come to dip our toes in. One where we were a Rajput princess or a gypsy dancer, one where we drew water from a well or became lighter than our own being. One that inspired us to save our money, get injections, ignore the hysterical advice of friends ad family and head off to India. That’s the pull of a great story, India Tourism. Why don’t you capitalise on that?
So it’s pretty disappointing to get here and find yourself being lectured to when you have a story lodged in your heart and fizzing through your bloodstream. A story reduced to a few fat-free facts when we all know that the juice is in the details. But if you interrupt an official guide lecture at the Taj Mahal and ask “But what about the story of Shah Jahanabad dying of an overdose of aphrodisiacs, is there any truth to that?” the guide will stutter and splutter and tell you that he will answer that question after his lecture. By then the story that raised its head and threatened to come alive before you, has sunk into a pool of disappointment. This is the rich cultural tradition of India that should be marketed, the stories that built the buildings and not the buildings themselves.
If you visit the beautiful fort in Jodphur and are lucky enough to be attended to by Mr Singh pictured here whose duty is to hand out the audio tours, which he does in such a way that you want to ditch the audio and bring him along to guide you through the fort. Under his tutelage the fort comes alive, you can feel the rustle of silk in the breeze, hear the titter of princesses in the havelli. This is how it was back in the days when monument guides breathed palaces into life with their stories.
This is because story tellers have lost their value in the world of audio tours in twenty different languages, and because we rely more and more on information sourced online which is factual only in nature or because we have a guide-book in our hand or phones with apps or any number of means of actually distancing ourselves from the stories. But this isn’t how to experience India! India is best experienced through stories since stories like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana have informed society at all levels and still do today such is the power of a story!
If stories have led you here to India then let those stories be your guide to exploring. It’s a bit like stepping through the looking-glass, where everything is as strange as it is true.If you heard tales of Rajput warriors and princesses then go to Rajasthan and ask for stories. From whom? From everyone you may meet, from the Rajput themselves. A lot of them run heritage hotels, with walls that are lined with photos from an era you may have read about and ancestors who participated in them. The same is true in South India where plantation owners have opened up home stays run by people with a passion for stories as part of entertainment and food as an intrinsic part of the story.
I grew up in a family of story tellers, my constant childhood chant was “tell me a story!” I would beg stories from my grandparents and aunts. As an adult I traveled around India asking people to tell me their stories. Thus on rooftops and in dusty chai stops, in bus stations and in trains people would simply most obligingly step into a story and weave a tale for me randomly and spontaneously.
As you journey through the stories of India, relax and enjoy the story. Don’t try to match the stories you will hear up with stale facts from a guide-book, absorb the story as a story and don’t worry if it is true or not. You don’t do that when you read a book do you? You allow yourself to be carried along by the narrative, don’t you? So let it be the same in India.