There's something peculiarly enchanting I didn't expect about being barefoot in temples, each requiring guests to leave their shoes at the steps. The tactile sensation of bare feet on millennia old sandstone makes one feel more connected with the place and all the millions who have past in the same way before you.
I spent the last day in the capitol exploring Old Delhi, where I explored my first mosque, the largest in Delhi, Jama Masjid. After leaving my sandals with the shoe minder, I entered the encompassing main courtyard and was struck jaw agape and speechless. My eyes locked onto the central pool where Muslims were cleaning themselves, then drifted up the central surface of the mosque, and lastly into the air, following flocks of birds flying from minaret to minaret. For a small fee, you're permitted to climb to the top of the south-west minaret and take in a grander sweep of the old Delhi slams and markets. I'm sure you could see for miles if it weren't for the all-choking smog.
A little bit east from there is a public sanctuary where the great Gandhi's body was cremated. Already tender from paying my respects, I turned my gaze in stifled agony towards the sky and was completely overwhelmed by what I saw: in a perfect circle directly above me, the color blue. I hadn't seen the sky in the better part of a week, and here was an aperture letting in the sun, as if the ashen blanket of smog was keeping a reverent distance for India's kind hero.
I was glad to hop on a train leaving Delhi, but frustrated with what little efficacy I had with my time there. I did and saw so little in my three days that I'm sure in could have been squeezed into a well planned single day. There was still more I wanted to do there, but for the life of me I needed a change of scenery. My train was an overnight to Khajuraho. This city was already on my radar before I received an invitation to a wedding there by a fellow Couch Surfer, but when I finally reached the village, I learned he had suffered a severe case of food poisoning in Mumbai, and was unable to take the train as he planned. Heartbroken, but determined to have a good time, I rented a bicycle and headed for Khajuraho's famous erotic temples.
I was led to a temple dedicated to Shiva, where I received my first tika, one of the many names for the little Hindu forehead dot which bears good fortune. I was taken to the centerpiece in the inner sanctum, a large stone cylinder snug and erect in a large stone basin, representing Shiva's love making to his wife and their respective genitalia.
I followed barefoot through the steps of worship. Climbing the stairs, you pause to touch a step and step and then your heart. You ring a bell to announce your presence. I was instructed to place my hands on the centerpiece, Shiva's stone phallus, and I was led through a series of chants. It started with Ohms and then a series of other I couldn't put now into words. The chanting is rhythmic and builds in tempo and intensity; the eroticism of the act is impossible to miss. A strange euphoria begins to take hold as you get lost in the chanting, somehow exhilarating and calming at the same time. I felt serotonin and endorphins rush through my arms and legs: the orgasm-like rush I assume people might call a religious experience.
I wonder if the thrill of chanting was enhanced or diminished by being a westerner who knows naught of Hinduism. More, because of its exoticism, or less, for my being without the tradition of it and its associated lore.
I was later joined by two young local boys, and the three of us took to the old village by bicycle.
Still locally governed by the caste system, the village was physically divided into five sections -- one for each caste. The village doesn't trust Indian police, fearing their corruption, so they prefer to settle matters of the law internally. They trust a panel of five judges -- again one from each caste, from the Brahmin right down to the untouchables.
The women of the village were up on ladders, painting their houses in anticipation of Diwali. The children were running up and down the alleyways with empty tires and inflatable balls, pausing occasionally to beg, "hello sir, Rupees?" or "Namaste, pen please?" The boys guiding me urged me not to give, not wanting the children to find reliable gains from begging. Instead, they took me to the volunteer run school by Belgians, I think, where I could make a more meaningful contribution to their community if I wanted.
The boys lived in the old village so I tipped them for their time and head to the east temple complex, dodging holy cows all along the way.
The eastern temples were maintained by Jains, a sect I've been curious about as they too are vegans, even if their reasons are different than my own. They permit no leather or tobacco on their holy grounds, and explained their religion as a Hinduism/Bhuddism cross breed. The main difference between their central figure and the Buddha is merely a matter of where their holy mark resides: Bhudda, on his forehead, and for the Jains, centered on his chest.
A young Muslim outside the grounds asked if I cared to take a motorcycle ride with him up the mountain to watch the sunset and smoke biri cigarettes over conversation. My experience in New Delhi urged me to trust no one, but I was eager for plain conversation and he assured me he didn't want compensation, so the two of us plus his friend hopped on a bike -- that's "Indian style" -- and hit the mountain for nice conversation and biri cigarettes. Not gunpoint robbery and left for dead in the mountains.
Expanding on "Indian style," specifically the missing concept of personal space: India is so densely populated, placing value on maintaining space between yourself and other things would be a terrible inconvenience. The three of us on the motor bike isn't a particular impressive feat. I've seen 12 men in a single SUV and ten passengers in a three wheeled rickshaw! There are regularly up to six vehicles wide in the two lanes of traffic, and I've been so tightly packed in lines of people that anywhere else it would have been a kinky thing.
There is also a great deal of platonic intimacy between men. You will see more dudes holding hands than at the gay parade in Chelsea.
Anyways, I finished the day at a restaurant where I befriended a kind Tibetan-Swiss man on his fifth visit to India. He sung of New Delhi as being up there with London and Paris, and as one of the world's greenest capitals! I told him of my experience there and wondered if we could possibly be talking about the same New Delhi. He'd convinced me to give it another shot, and since it's such a central location, I very well may.