A man, wrapped in a white shroud, his head freshly shaved, sits mournfully and watches a burning pyre. A bamboo ladder, supporting another body, it’s shape visible under an orange shroud, makes its way to its final immersion in Mother Ganges.
A few steps away, flames lick at another pyre, a body visible, a family waits patiently.
Tree trunks arrive by boat, and are carried by men to be neatly stacked in towering blocks; nearby the sound of an axe, cracks this wood into manageable sized lengths.
Discarded ladders litter the lower steps, interspersed with the brilliant flashes of orange fabric, partly submerged, now obsolete.
Swifts dip and soar overhead, a flock of pigeons are disturbed and circle the buildings up above, before once more finding their perch.
Cows stand idly by then settle down amidst the debris to chew cud. The omnipresent Pye dog picks it’s way down to the waters edge.
A purple kite flown by a child on a nearby roof climbs impossibly high then even higher into the sky.
Doms keep a watchful eye, overseeing these rituals which are their fate. Ashes are picked through, the main prize, a golden nugget from some jewellery or tooth.
Boats full of eager tourists sail by, some caught up in the moments of loss, some frustrated at not being able to photograph the scenes playing out in this most ancient and holy of India’s cities.
A burning candle, surrounded by flowers, someone’s offering bobs along in their wake.
A son performs his final duty, ashes are submerged in the river, her water thrown over the now defunct embers.
A body returning to the five elements from which it is made, fire, earth, water, air and ether.
Thank you for visiting, even though my weakened winter rays were no match for the bracing wind, howling through the barren trees.
The abbey, stark and bold, staunchly braves the persistent winter’s cold. The flocks of sheep, happily huddle within their thick fleeces, months away from their annual trim and graze contentedly, barely noticing my existence on another cold, short day.
The brook still babbles, as brooks will, the ducks float by, oblivious to the chill. The familiar hikers stride along, ruddy cheeked and short of breath to make the most of every moment I can spare before returning to their nearby homes and heated hearths.
But you, day tourists, shivered in the cold whilst marvelling at Wharfdale’s sights, its picture postcard scenes, captured in my fading light.
The solid, quaint cottages nestled in valleys, the occasional pheasant screeching from the hedgerows, the stained-glass windows, vivid and bold standing watch over the graves, the final resting place of the young as well as old.
The surrounding hills which some consider bleak, others romantic, their stark beauty crisscrossed by miles of moss-covered, dry stone walls and higgledy bridges over which the walkers and dogs traverse as the day draws to a close.
I couldn’t keep you warm or protect you from the icy gusts, and yet you came and so, with thanks, I gave my all, to help you create cherished memories before my depleted rays faded to a somnolent grey.
May I take your photograph, I ask (always). They pat their hair and ask why?
“Because you are beautiful,” is my reply.
They respond in various ways, some surprised, some shy, some laugh. But I repeat sincerely, “Because you are beautiful.”
I can’t explain with my dreadful Hindi what I would like to add, “Because your face tells stories, each moment, each year, each sorrow endured, each tragedy overcome, each moment of joy, each bleak, harsh winter and bounteous summer.
Each time you lost and have been lost, each time you have been supported and in return, have supported those in need. It’s been hard, so hard, and yet there have been moments you thought your heart would burst. You are resilient, you are strong, you will have laughed uncontrollably, you may have loved, you may have floundered, but you have survived.
All of this is etched into your face, it sits behind your watery eyes. Your face is your story, and yes, you are beautiful.
India can’t be instantly appreciated, nor can she be rushed. She will reveal herself in her own time, she will move at her own pace.
You can’t demand from her nor hurry her along.
India is magical, baffling, confusing and unfathomable and frustrating.
She is captivating and beguiling, fascinating, awe inspiring but most of all, enchanting.
When she is working with you, she is an unstoppable force. When the time isn’t right, she will leave you hovering indeterminately.
She is the land of the living oxymoron. Her features are multifaceted. She is a cruel mistress. She will test and she will provoke yet she will bewitch and tease and lure you with her endless charms.
You can’t fight her or demand an outcome. One merely has to accept her, love her and see where her journey takes you.