My 43-Day-Long Lesson From India

The author in Delhi

Text and photos by Anna Zimolglyad

Beyond Pannini’s Sanskrit Grammar

I had fallen in love with India long before I visited that fascinating country. It all started with the very strange decision to start my studies in the faculty of Oriental Studies in Lomonosov Moscow State University. I had a wide choice of oriental languages including Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic to choose from, which opened up great career possibilities, I chose Hindi just out of curiosity. Having only a vague understanding of what kind of job I would get after finishing this course of languages of the South Asia region, I started my adventure full of persistence, despair, sleepless nights with another volume of Pannini’s grammar in Sanskrit, but full of inspiration and gratitude at the same time. I enjoyed my studies, I was very inspired by Indian culture and art, but still had the question in my head: “Why am I doing this? Just for fun? Is there any specific purpose? Is there any practical outcome?”

         That was when I was in the 3rd year of my course (January, 2015), facing a line, most of the students couldn’t cross, to continue these studies with a vaguely perspective future or not. I was offered the chance to go to an expedition to India for 43 days. A group of students with a very enthusiastic professor created a magnificent route, which included visits to 6 states and 15 cities, and invited me to join them. It sounded very ambitious, unbelievable, impossible and scary at the same time. But being a real risk-taker, I picked myself up and prepared myself to face this challenge. This is the map of our journey: Delhi – Agra – Lucknow – Ayodhya – Allahabad – Varanasi – Siliguri – Darjeeling – Guwahati – Shillong – Silchar – Aizal – Imphal – Kohima – Nagaon -Delhi.

         Being aware of specific features of the country, I didn’t expect any cultural shock. I was ready for traffic-crazy Delhi; as it appeared to be a kind of organised chaos with its own rules and culture and smiling people behind the wheel. I was ready for the attention my fair hair and face could attract (and that was true). Of course, my education had entrenched my initial stereotyped picture of India — as a county of Taj Mahal, dances, spices and Bollywood. But I didn’t expect India to be so unbelievably diverse.

Street life in Delhi

         India as a country itself was founded in 1947. It had never been a united country before. Dozens, hundreds of independent states with their own history, culture and traditions were united in one country, which has become the biggest democracy in the world. If you ask people from India who they are, they will hardly say: “I’m Indian”, they are more likely to say: ‘Panjabee’, ’Gujratee’, or ‘Biharee’. In other words, they associate themselves more with the state they were born in, than the country itself. That was one of things which came as a surprise to me. But the whole trip proved one of the national mottos: ‘Anekta mein ekta’ — which in Hindi means ‘unity in diversity’.

The Golden Triangle

         Our trip started with the cities of the ‘Golden Triangle’: New Delhi — the former capital of the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526), Agra — one of the main Muslim cities of the country, famous for one of the most visited places in the world — the Taj Mahal,  and Varanasi — the heart of the Hindu world, where the sacred Ganga river flows, which gathers all pilgrims from the entirety of India. The visit to Varanasi or Kashi, as some locals call it, had a great impact on me. Let me explain why.

Ganga river ghats        

It was late at night. We had finished yet another delicious dinner — my favourite palak paneer (white cheese in spinach dip) in one of the local cafés nearby the riverfront, which is called ghats. It was nice and warm outside, so we decided to go for a little walk. As we were approaching the river, I expected a chilly wind to rise. It was getting warmer and warmer. Then I noticed a light from a fire and a man singing some mantras nearby. We were at Manikarnika Ghat — the place which is believed that a dead human’s soul finds salvation, when cremated here. The fire was from a cremation pile , where the body of one Hindu was passing away. It was so calm and quiet. A few people were sitting there, singing mantras and drinking masala tea. No tears. Life is gone from this body, but it might be reborn in a new one…

Darjeeling and the perception of time

         No sooner had I got my mind off thinking about life and death, we set off to travel to our next destination Darjeeling. It was a long way to get there by train with two connections. During this short journey to another part of the country we faced another national feature — perception of time. Hindu culture has a cyclical (concept of a wheel of time, Kaal-Charka) notion of time, whereas European tradition is linear (beginning with the act of creation by God). I’m not sure if this was the reason, but the train from Mugal Saraj junction to Siliguri was late for – 13 hours! Every hour the operator informed us that the train would arrive in 40 minutes. We took our time and spent 13 hours of our life in a very unexpected way! We became acquainted with a family we shared the bench with in the waiting room and we were nearly dragged off to the wedding they were heading to. We tried all types of cookies and chips from the little shop in the station. We read all the latest news of the state Uttar Pradesh from the local newspapers. We didn’t waste a minute!

                   I must say all of this time with 13 hours of  waiting and 9 hours of a train journey was worth it. We booked sleeper class tickets for the train because we wanted to see India from the inside (if that makes sense). We witnessed two family dramas, a police arrest; we saw a group of students eagerly discussing politics and one band of musicians who were singing and playing famous Bollywood songs; most of the passengers were singing along. This was not a Bollywood film, it was real life, which I still couldn’t believe!

Ghoom Monastery

    Finally, we arrived at Siliguri and took a Jeep to the Himalayan city of West Bengal State — Darjeeling. Darjeeling is still one of the most impressive cities I’ve ever visited. The place is situated at an altitude of about 2,200 meters in the Himalayan Mountains, where Buddhist and Hindu religions are mixed, the place where people are friendly and helpful and very proud of their nature and mindfully take care of it. There was a great difference in flora, fauna and architectural style of local buildings from what we had seen in the north of India. It seemed that it wasn’t India. But these were stereotypes in my head, some of which, once again, were destroyed. Every morning I woke up with my feet and hands cold under a heavy duvet (it was -5°C outside at night with no heater in the room) and ran straight to the coffee shop Glenary’s (which has been in business since 1935!), where I started my day with a cup of Darjeeling tea and a fascinating view of Kanchenjunga mountain.

‘Toy Train’ in Darjeeling

         Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, known as the Toy Train, was one of the must-try things on our trip. It consists of vintage British-built B-Class steam locomotives. Rail was the only way to get to one of the highest points of the city — Ghoom, where the Ghoom Monastery is located. Very friendly, but quite silent Buddhist monks greeted us with shy smiles and opened the doors of their temple, so we could attend the procession. It seemed that three generations of monks were sitting there, playing drums and flutes, which made us fly away in our minds with all this hypnotising, magic sounds and smells of burning candles.

The Seven Sisters

         India didn’t want to stop surprising us. The next destination, which enriched my perception of the diversity of India, was the ‘Seven Sisters’[1] region — states on the north-east of India which are usually grouped together because of their economic and political similarities. These states have been opened recently for tourists. We were recommended to rent a car with a driver, so we could safely and easily travel throughout the country. Kamal, our driver, was such an amazing guy. He intensely loved his motherland Assam (one of the Indian states) and tried to make us love his state as much as he did. He was such a dedicated driver: he madly drove 100 km/h on the serpentine mountain road, so we could catch the last 5 minutes of the sunset at the most humid place in the world — Cherrapunji. 


  The ‘we-are-not-Indians’ spirit had been haunting us throughout our tour to these states. A ‘we are not Indians” monument greeted us as soon as we crossed the border of Nagaland State. Here I’ll focus at this state, because this part of my trip left one of the warmest feelings in my soul. Everything was so unusual and so unfamiliar for us. The eyes of people changed their shape, smiles became more cautious, roads more safe and streets less noisy. We could hardly spot any Muslim mosques or Hindu temples. Imagine our surprised faces when we saw the first Catholic Church on our way! We went inside just to see the decorations and check which language the mass was in. English, of course. We were not surprised anymore, when we saw church after church alongside the roads. In Kohima (capital of Nagaland state) we stayed in a little house with a host family: the librarian of Nagaland State University and his wife and 2 little girls. Their hospitality and desire to do whatever they could do to make us feel comfortable made me so confused, but touched me at the same time. Every night we gathered in front of the fireplace, where they boiled a pot of water for tea and shared a pan (special chewing mixture of betel leaf with areca nuts) with us. We couldn’t understand a word that the little girls were saying but we played hide and seek and coloured pictures of national superheroes together. They were members of the Angami tribe, one of the most respectful tribes in Nagaland. I asked about the unusual ornament of the carpet they had on the wall in the guest room. As we learned later on, at the national museum, each and every tribe (more than 100) has their own ornament with various set of colours, shapes and lines. Each tribe has their occupation, mostly in agriculture. Some of them live on barter-based relations. The silence and calamity of that place amazed me. I didn’t know what to expect from that place and people (we were told it’s quite dangerous with military instability in the region). But those rice terraces, hills, few rivers and small little tribal houses … What a pure natural place!

Ghoom Monastery

This trip made me think that I’m not the centre of this world and it doesn’t rotate around me at all.

         As you can see, I’m madly in love with this fascinating country, but mostly with the people. It seems that I met dozens of people with their own stories and mindsets, which made me think how different we are and how many points of view on such a simple thing as transport, food or more complicated ones like life and death, luck, time there are worldwide. I’m sharing just a little tiny bit of my adventures I had there; it would take another few articles to describe them all. This trip made me think that I’m not the centre of this world and it doesn’t rotate around me at all. I just saw how happy people could be doing things out of what they have, at the place where they are. We all have our individuality and uniqueness, our strengths and weaknesses, but we all are essential parts of a big interconnected world. And we can make it better, if we listen and learn from each other. All we need is to open our eyes and hearts.

Angami tribe children

         Coming back to my questions which bothered me in the beginning, maybe my studies were essential steps for my understanding of what global citizenship is?

Who knows…

Anna Zimolglyad is a Nursery Learning Assistant at Brookes School in Moscow.

[1] Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura states.