It’s hot, crowded, dirty, corrupt. You’re likely to be ripped off, robbed and mis-directed. You may spend hours waiting for a train that never comes, or go to a guest house to find it hasn’t been built yet. So why on Earth would anyone choose to spend their precious free-time and hard-earned cash going to India, when there’s a thousand other beautiful destinations in the world to choose from?
For years, visiting India has been an “Experience” rather than a holiday. Going to India seems less like going to a spa and more like going to a boot-camp: it may not be thoroughly enjoyable whilst you’re there, but in hindsight you feel you’ve “gained” and “learned” something. Of course, its also an intensely “spiritual” experience and you learn “loads about poverty and materialism and stuff”. India is a popular destination for wide-eyed gap-year students, hoping to get a taste of the “real” world. They’ll spend time in India, haggling over auto-rickshaw prices, discovering gastric movements they never thought possible, growing dreadlocks, getting henna tattoos, smoking chillums of ganja, feeling terribly guilty about all the poverty and realigning their chakras. The pay-off for all this bodily and mental abuse is bragging rights when they return home and see their Gap-Year compatriots: their friends’ trips to Australia may have been full of fun, beer, sex and good food. But what is that in comparison to learning and maturing? And then there are the benefits of becoming spiritually aware, worldy and conscientious: qualities that are very important when you arrive at university and take yourself very seriously whilst studying philosophy and politics.
I say these things only because I was one such fellow. These voyages to India are the direct descendants of those hardy trailblazers of the Hippie Trail: thousands of Brits, Americans, Dutch, Antipodeans and others dressed in Apache headbands and paisley waistcoats, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and listening to The Who. Tired of post-war gloom and Cold War negativity, they sought ways of universal consciousness and a release from materialism; seeking adventure, education and the opportunity to chill out and experience the world. The travelled overland from London, through Istanbul and Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and then into Delhi. From there they spread to Goa, Varanasi, Nepal and a million other places. The poet Ginsberg wrote about the “pure and sacred atmosphere” of Rishikesh and in 1968 a 5-week stay by the Beatles changed the place, and tourism to India, forever.
After the Beatles trip, India gained credibility as a popular destination, which rather than offering an alternative to other holiday destinations, offered something greater: a deeper truth, spiritual fulfilment, release from unhappiness. Between then and the end of the 70s, the steady drip of people crossing overland became a torrent of people, until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution made the overland route impossible.
But the legacy of the Beat Generation left a lasting impression on the countries which the Hippies came from. Ideas imported from Indiacan be seen all over Britain today: Yoga, Astrology, Polo, Ayurvedic medicine, Reiki, the Kama Sutra, Tantra, Buddhism, meditation, non-violence.
Tourism to India today doesn’t have to involve the kind of suffering and displeasure I talked about at the start of this piece. Many tourists to India today are knowledge-tourists going to study one of the disciplines I mention above. There seems to be something missing in Western society: a spiritual gap that some of India’s ancient knowledge can fill. I want to understand what it is that India has to offer, what draws thousands of people there every year when they could easily sit on a beach in the Mediterranean. Why would anyone want to go to India? Is it a myth perpetuated since the Beat generation? Or does the popularity of Indian disciplines in Britain suggest that India is worth the effort?