There is nothing quite like India.
The official tourism tagline IncredibleIndia! is not far from the truth. One can experience this huge and incredibly diverse country many times and it will still have surprising wonders to offer.
For me, going to India is like entering a textile fantasy world – sarees, kurtas, lenghas, salwar kameez and dupattas in mind-boggling colours, textures and arrays of intricate embroidery.
On this trip, I also discovered one of the local favourite brands, Biba, which has great designs for everyday Indian wear. Khan Market is in a Delhi neighbourhood that offers all of these brands along with other quirky shops selling local Indian fashion and accessories. The Kinari bazaar in old Delhi is the mecca of accessories for clothes as it is contains a bewildering array of embroidery, lace, beads, sequins, mirrors and other embellishments for clothes in whatever colours and textures you can imagine.
Peacocks, flowers, fruits are some themes spotted on the embroidered borders for skirts and sarees. The way Indian designers use colour, embroidery and embellishments on their textiles I think are unique and unparalleled in creativity, sophistication and beauty. Some of these beautifully designed saree textiles and silk shawls feature in Senijari’s Instagram shots leading up to the Hindu Festival of Lights, Deepavali which will be celebrated in Malaysia on the 18th and 19th of October.
Apart from a rich textile heritage, India has a strong spiritual heritage. It is the home of many religions including Hinduism and Buddhism. During the wedding, I discovered that the bride’s family profess the Jain religion, which I did not know much about. The Jains are strict vegetarians, and they don’t even eat eggs as they still consider eggs as containing living things. After the wedding, we headed to the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi (also known as Benares).
In Varanasi, the Ganges river is considered sacred. People come from all over India and the world as pilgrims to Varanasi. Some Indians also go to die in Varanasi, their bodies cremated and ashes scattered in the Ganges as it is believed that to you would go straight to heaven if you die this way. As a spiritual haven, Varanasi was to be experienced through the sacred river. Along the Ganges, there are many temples with steps leading down to the river, called ghats. At each ghat there are multiple scenes and activities: There would be people bathing or cleaning their clothes, Indian priests offering cleansing rituals, chanting or practicing early morning yoga and buffaloes immersed in the water to keep cool. Then there were also cremation sites all along the river with bundles of logs for the constantly burning funeral pyres, yellow and gold cloths for covering the dead, butter and sandalwood for treating the dead bodies before they are cremated. The ghats are indeed the spiritual pulse of Varanasi.
Every evening, a massive crowd will gather at the main ghats and temples to witness and participate in the Aarti, a prayer session and worshipping ritual overlooking the Ganges. The air will be thick with smoke, incense and chanting. The best view is from the boats. The atmosphere is magnificent as an expectant air is created with live Indian classical music preceding the slow and steady chanting which signals the beginning of the prayers. Priests will slowly hold up in unison and in circling motions offerings with lanterns lit with fire and incense to the Ganges River whilst the chanting grows hypnotically stronger. We just sat in our boats, watching, inhaling and listening to Aarti being performed, totally immersed along with thousands of others who came on boats.
Although Varanasi is known for its spiritual heritage, it is also home to the best sarees called Banarasi sarees. The Banarasi sarees are distinctive for its colourful and fine hand woven silks and highly intricate “Zari” embroidery workmanship on the borders with silver or gold threads. I was brought to a workshop with genuine Banarasi sarees and was so impressed with the fine quality. Months of work go into each saree, which usually measures 6 meters in length and 45 inches in width. It is heartening to see that silk weaving on the handloom is still very much alive in India even though factories producing mass fashion also exist.
And after my fifth trip, India remains incredible.