When I took my decision to quit my job and travel around the world for a year – which was the basis for my project365 – I had to take a decision. And it all revolved around India.
It was August 2014. I had been to 29 countries by then (As of now, I am at 53) and had a whole year of travelling ahead of me. But wherever I went, whomever I met, whatever the social setting – I was always faced by a barrage of questions pertaining to one topic. India.
“Is it safe to travel in India?“
“Is the Taj Mahal beautiful?“
“Which is more spiritual – Pushkar or Varanasi?”
The answer to all of the above questions was, “I don’t know”. I am from Kerala, located at the Southern-most tip of India. And I had rarely travelled outside South India. I was 31, and I had only seen Taj Mahal in glossy travel magazines. I was Indian, yet I have not even been to my national capital!
What kind of an Indian claims to have travelled the world, but has not yet travelled his own country? The worst one, I know.
So, I took a massive hint, and decided to first take a few months to travel my own country before I continued with my travels around the world. And to do it best, it had to be on a motorbike. I love the Enfield Bikermania groups in India, but I knew there would be very few people who would join up for such a lengthy trip, and finding them was going to be a huge problem.
So, I decided that this was one of those trips which had to be done alone. Hence, came the momentous decision to buy myself an Enfield Thunderbird 350, and fit it with some extra frame for carrying my backpack and other luggage. And get some basic training in motorbike maintenance and repair, just in case I come across any difficulties on the road.
The plan was too simple for words. Ride like the wind is beneath my wings. Move like there is no ground beneath my feet.
No dates. No targets.
No promises. No expectations.
Get as far as I could from my own comfort zone. Get deep as I could into the soul of my country.
The Southern Episode
The epic motor-bike trip started on September 11th, from my hometown of Kozhikode in Kerala. My final plan – or whatever little I had of a ‘plan’ – was to go up towards the north, but I found myself first going towards the east, towards Chennai. My brother lived there, and I had to pay him a visit. I passed through beautiful Kochi which awed me with it’s Kathakali dances, Chinese fishing nets at sunset, and soothing houseboat rides on beautiful, serene backwaters. And I rode through the mystical Munnar area in Kerala where the smell of tea engulfed me, and riding was suddenly a passionate affair, far removed from the air quality in some other parts of India.
I then crossed the state border from Kerala to Tamil Nadu, and decided to check out the beautiful temples of Thanjavur and Madurai on my way to Chennai. Chennai has always been one of my favourite cities in India, but Mamallapuram, just 40 KMs away from Chennai was a revelation with its new-found surf culture and beach shacks filled with tasty seafood.
The beaches of Goa beckon
With the family get-together in Chennai behind me, I rode from Chennai to Goa. But first I had to get through some other beautiful regions of South India before Goa filled my senses. I passed the French bastion of Pondicherry, where apart from the beautiful beach promenade, Auroville brought to life an international community. I couch-surfed in the chic-city of Bengaluru and then proceeded to the ancient town of Hampi with ruins that can rival Petra in magnificence. After riding past the magnificent Tungabadra dam and through the forests of Belgaum, I finally arrived in Goa.
Goa had me in it’s sway for a few days, with me completing some services for my Enfield Thunderbird, and enjoying the beaches – all the way from Baga to Arambol. The churches around Panjim were too attractive and filled me with curiosity to explore them, but the unexpected and totally hidden surprise of this stretch was actually a few kilometres north of Goa. It was only by pure luck that I landed up there, but Tarkarli in Southern Maharashtra is one of the most underrated tourist spots in India, and has one of the best sunsets that I have ever come across.
The long ride to Rajasthan
Then came the long ride to Rajasthan. Getting past the 600 km of stretch between Goa and Mumbai turned out to be not as unpleasant as I thought, finding some hidden gems of Maharashtra in the form of Tarkarli, Mahad and Murud. Finally I was in Mumbai, which was one of the few cities in the north that I have had the pleasure of visiting before. So I spent just a couple of days there, exploring the lesser visited Global vipassana pagoda. And then, I proceeded to Rajasthan.
The journey went through Gujarat, as the Enfield passed through some of the beautiful mosques of Ahmedabad, and the chaotic vibrance of Surat. And then, the desert started to show its head, along with many camels. That’s when I knew that I was in Rajasthan.
Rajasthan will be one of the most favourite parts of my trip, with its colour, vibrance and overall luminosity of life. I began in Udaipur, exploring the beautiful palaces and soaking in the view by the lake. Then, I rode through Ajmer, and found a spiritual den in Pushkar. I Finished the Rajasthan episode in Jaipur where the snake charmer still lives, in the midst of beautiful palaces.
The National Capital and the Northern Belt!
From Jaipur, I continued the ride to find my way to Delhi. I was finally in my country’s capital. Finally!
Five days in Delhi went by like a breeze, exploring tombs, gates and temples. And then I headed deeper from Delhi into UP and Bihar. This was taxing for me at first, with my mother tongue being Malayalam. But I was finally learning what national integration was all about. I spent my birthday in Agra ogling at the Taj Mahal and the Agra fort, and then continued to Kanpur visiting street-side shopkeepers who reminisced about how beautiful it was to ride their Enfields in their youth. And before I knew it, I was in the magical, mystical lands of Varanasi, listening to the evening prayers and talking to Sadhus and the Ganga boatsmen, both of whom called it home.
And just 250 Km from Varanasi, was the Buddhist centre of Bodhgaya. I am not a very spiritual person, but both these towns have something in them that made me feel a little bit spiritual. To the point that I was sitting for an hour at the evening ganges prayers in Varanasi searching for inner peace, and another few hours below the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, hoping for some enlightenment of my own. I am not sure if I found either, but that was some of the most peaceful times of this trip.
The best of Bengal
From Bodhgaya, I took a slight detour to ride a couple of weeks through Nepal, before exiting on the eastern side towards the hill station of Darjeeling. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was sweltering in the heat of Varanasi, but now, I was freezing in the high altitudes of Darjeeling. I think that difference in climate alone is enough to summarise India for a lot of people. From a broader viewpoint, it is also surprising how similar Darjeeling was to Munnar in Kerala, despite the fact that one was way up in the north, and the other was in the extreme south.
After Darjeeling, I decided to take a quick detour to Bhutan, before returning back to India (the cold in Bhutan was unbearable for me!) and riding down again to Kolkata, where I had planned to finish my journey. Kolkata accepted me with all the joy – now, you know why it is called the ‘city of joy’ – for 3 weeks! I was in love with Sudder street, that backpacker haven of the country, and couldn’t leave at all. It was surprising how much of a colonial edge Kolkata has, and how the colonial past has intertwined with the smart Indian concept of Jugaad. I will forever remember the image of a vendor selling chaat in front of the Victoria Memorial. At the background was the Victoria memorial, an image that reminded us of our past and history. And in the front was the image of a man who reminded us that we have perfected the art of survival. It was glorious!
Am I going to Summarize? Yes, of course!
After enjoying my time in the delicious chaos of Kolkata, I was finally done with my trip. I shipped my bike to Kerala, and I was ready to get on a flight and fly there too. It has taken me 3 months to get from Kerala to Kolkata, and it was one of the best 3 months of my life. It has taken my Thunderbird through 12000 kilometres – sometimes in the pristine highways of Gujarat, and sometimes in the under-construction highways of West Bengal – but every bit of it was totally worth it.
Like I often remind my friends in Europe, travelling through India is like travelling through an entire continent. It is challenging, but is worth every single bit of effort that you put into it. Every day, I felt like I woke up in a different country. The food was different between Kerala and Goa, despite both being coastal areas. The people were different between Bengaluru and Chennai, despite being just 8 hours from each other. The language was different between Mumbai and Kolkata, despite both being metro cities.
For every day that I was revelling in the desert life of Rajasthan, I had to spend a day shivering in the cold winds of Darjeeling, being warmed mainly by the smell of tea everywhere. For every day that I was floating on the idle backwaters of Kerala, there was a day in Goa awaiting a heavy downpour. For every kilometre I rode through the Mahad region in total peace and serenity for kilometres with only my shadow for company, there was a whole day spent trying to ride just 3 kilometres in Varanasi, trying to dodge people and cows at the same time.
Every time I ran into one of the beautiful Muslim mosques of Ahmedabad, there was another day where I would be admiring the Brahma temple of Pushkar. If I was clicking the Christian churches of Goa one day, on another I was awestruck at the Bahai temple of Delhi or the Buddhist temple at Bodhgaya. For every single day I was in Kolkata enjoying the rich variety of street food, there was another spent in Pushkar where even eggs were considered sacrilegious!
If one thing defines India – if one word captures it’s soul in all it’s feathers and colours – it is diversity. And I spent 3 of the best months of my life, soaking up all of that diversity. Soaked it all, till I was awed and trembling by both its magnitude and magnificence. And I ended my trip with a silent prayer.
That every Indian understands, appreciates, withholds and protects this very ‘diversity‘ which defines us.
This entry has been shortlisted for Holidify’s Travelogue Writing Contest in association with Linger. The content and pictures may not be used without prior permission of the author.
Submitted by: Abhilash Surendran
The original post can be found here.