The next time you travel to India, ditch the touristy sightseeing to explore India’s hidden gems, advises Catherine Cullen.
India is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. She takes you deep into her heart and holds you in a spell. It is one of those travel experiences that changes you. Open your mind, open your heart and you will discover the beauty of this ancient land and her people.
My partner Varis and I first came to India in 2014. We arrived in Kerala with the intention of attending a rejuvenation programme involving yoga and meditation. After a couple of days of gentle persuasion by our Ayurvedic doctor and others at the retreat, we signed up for a 23-day panchakarma detox.
Cleansed and renewed after the programme, we set off to Mysore where we spent our days exploring the back streets of the old part of the city. We were amazed by the traditional handicrafts and the skills of the artisans. Learning how these skills are passed down through the generations, much as a guru teaches his student, filled us with awe. Varis started imagining how wonderful it would be to share these skills with people from the west so that even they could learn how to make these beautiful objects. We hoped in some small way, by making travellers aware of these crafts, we might contribute to keeping these ancient traditions alive. At the time, it was just a passing thought.
When we got back to Australia, we decided that we hadn’t had our fill of India in the short six weeks that we spent there so we decided to go back. We waited in Australia just long enough to get our visa to India, and once back in Mysore, we were even more captivated by the culture, the feeling of community, the depth of the people’s faith and the general sense of harmony among India’s chaos. It seemed that the people lived more in sync with nature, the seasons, the animals and each other. Indians are extremely resourceful and resilient people. Their ability to accept life as it is and be happy really touches you. There is so much to learn here by observing and interacting with the local people. By being present and open, not looking through your first world eyes, but with new eyes.
A year later, at Varis’ urging, we packed up our home, quit our jobs and came to India to learn more about the culture that had captivated us. Varis had been to North India on a spiritual journey 30 years ago so for him, it was a sense of coming home. For me, it was a whole new world to explore and I just wanted to soak it all in. The more people we met, the more we learned and explored the way of life, the more we wanted to share what we had discovered with others. I had worked in travel for more than 10 years and had booked many trips to India, mostly for people interested in sightseeing.
There are so many options available if you want to tick off a list of monuments, palaces and forts, but we wanted to offer something different. We wanted westerners to come to India and experience her culture. So we started India Unravelled, our philosophy is for people to actually feel India and to explore her in a deeper, more thought-provoking way by slowing down, connecting with the people and allowing yourself time to just be. India is a land of spirituality, devotion, colour and festivals. She is so full of magic and mystery — you couldn’t experience all of her in a thousand lifetimes. We have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in temples while devotees chanted mantras, we drank chai around a village campfire, hugged strangers on the street where the language was no barrier because in India, you connect with your hearts, not with words. Babies have been thrust into our arms for selfies, we have played with children in the street, shared laughter on a rooftop with possibly the happiest woman we’ve ever met and at times, shed tears of joy overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude.
We are blessed with abundant precious moments that are deep within our hearts and have become a part of us. India has bestowed upon us so many unforgettable experiences that it would be impossible to count them. When you embrace the local people, you become a part of their community. They will invite you into their homes, to join wedding processions, receive blessings at a temple or participate in a festival celebration. Imagine yourself dancing through the streets with the locals, hearing the jubilant sound of countless bells ringing inside a temple and the children chanting their morning mantras before the school day starts. There is an exhilarating explosion of colour and noise on the streets of India and everywhere you turn, there are wonders waiting to be found. You will find them in her people.
Catherine Cullen and Varis Lux are the founders of India Unravelled.