In The Beat Of The Moment

The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age Traveller

21 November 2015


In India it's impossible not to be caught up in festival fervour, writes Tatyana Leonov.

It all starts with confusion. Our driver isn’t there to meet us at Jammu Airport, so we hail a cab, negotiate a fee with the taxi driver and set off to Hotel Jehlum Resort.

The taxi driver spends most of the 10-minute drive shouting to someone on the other line, and upon arrival at the hotel declares we don’t have to pay a cent.

He explains, almost bellowing for some reason, that the driver who was meant to meet us at the airport was there, but somehow we missed each other.

Since my husband and I were the only two international tourists on the plane, the fact that we jumped in with a taxi driver was quickly relayed to him.

Our real driver meets us after we check in to take us to Bahu Fort, a beautiful complex located a few kilometres drive from the hotel on the banks of the Tawi River.

Although our driver’s English isn’t at a scholarly level, through hand signals and the help of hotel staff, we learn that we will be spending the afternoon exploring the fort, believed to be almost 3000 years old and home to a beautiful temple.

Bave Wali Mata Mandir is dedicated to Hindu goddess Kali, and it’s popular with domestic pilgrims year round. In fact, many Hindus consider it second only to Shri Mata Vaishno Devi, one of the most-visited pilgrim sites in India. 

As we near the fort, we notice how frenetically busy the area is. Aromas of deep-fried treats and the spicy-sweet waft of incense drift into the car as we slowly manoeuvre our way through the colourful chaos. Indian incense is an amalgam of various unique aromas not found in many other places in the world, and this is our first time back to India in 10 years, and smell is a powerful memory trigger.

Our driver repeats the word ‘‘Navratri’’ several times, before we grasp that he’s attempting to explain that there’s a festival on. He pulls into an overflowing car park to let us out of the vehicle and points down a road and then at himself, repeating the gesture several times. We conclude that we are to meet him down the road. We’ve declined the offer of a guide for today, and so we set off to explore.

Navratri is a nine-day Hindu festival celebrated four times a year, and we’ve struck it lucky with our timing, as it’s a lively time to visit. During Navratri, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi receives a massive surge in followers. An estimated 8 million to 10 million pilgrims visit each year.

Bave Wali Mata Mandir doesn’t have quite so many visitors, but the city-side temple is packed, and we join hundreds of joyous Hindus in line, not really sure what to expect, making the chance visit all the more exciting.

Jammu and Kashmir is a little stricter on security than most other Indian states, but even knowing this, we are still surprised at the number of security measures employed.

Temple attendees are not allowed to take anything inside, and we are obligated to leave behind bags, cameras and shoes with a shady-looking chap who promises he’s manning the safest locker room in the city. Everyone else is leaving their possessions with him without so much as a glance back, so we just go with the flow.

The flow is then split up into two lines – one for men and one for women – and we each endure four extensive body searches before finally moving into the temple grounds.

Inside, it’s another world – the one you perhaps envisage, having never been to India. It’s a whirlwind of colours – candy pinks, fiery oranges and bright yellows – all singing, chanting, moving and munching.

We notice a group of women seated cross-legged on the ground singing and clapping as two individuals twirl their dreadlocked heads over and over, speeding up as the clapping accelerates.

Mesmerised by the unusual spectacle, we don’t realise that we, too, are starting to move our heads, lost in the beat of the unknown and dancing with people we don’t know. Bliss.  


TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION: incredibleindia.org

GETTING THERE: Air India is the only carrier in Australia flying direct between the two countries. Fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi and then on to Jammu. Phone 1800 247 463, see airindia.in.

SEE + DO: It’s recommended tourists travel to Jammu with a tour company and Pure India Collection is the ultimate in enriching and unique luxury travel experiences. Itineraries are fully customised and include accommodation, activities, guides, drivers and transfers. Phone 1300 365 060, see pureindiacollection.com.au.

SLEEPING THERE: The 50-room Hotel Jehlum Resort is in a central location and has Wi-Fi, a pool and a gym. See jehlumresortjammu.com.

Tatyana Leonov was a guest of Pure India Collection and Air India.