The sun is falling on a bustling temple town situated on the banks of one of India's holiest rivers, the Godavri. I stand on a wedge of land jutting out into the river. To my right is an exotic temple, to my left a colourful bathing ghat, or a series of steps leading down to a river. Knots of men and women are floating lamps in the water.
The faithful and the curious have descended, donning kumkum tilak (mark worn on the forehead), performing aarti (ritual offering light from wicks soaked in oil to deities), engaging in a holy dip. What perhaps is even more engaging than this poetic scene is the number of tourists that arrive, eager for a peek at the exotic. Chandu, the local guide plays to the gallery. If exotica is what tourists want, exotica he ladles out. He exhorts us to bathe in the "golden sun" and buy red chillies in the bustling marketplace from a lady he fondly refers to as the "Indian Mistress of Spices".
My American friend exclaims, "Finally – true India."
"What is true India?" prods Gopal, her NRI (non-resident Indian) husband, "It's all true".
"But this is truer," she insists and dashes off to photograph a priest standing by the temple.
It's not only the opportunity for photography that makes Nashik so popular. It is as surely its myriad associations with the Ramayana (ancient Sanskrit epic) that has crowds pouring in. Legend has it that Hindu deity Lord Rama and his wife Sita were exiled here. And it was here that his brother Lakshman severed the nasika (nose) of Ravana's (mythical king of the demons) sister, giving the city its name.
I wander away from the stories briefly, away from Ramkund and the centrally-located tank believed to mark the spot where Ram and Sita bathed. Past the immensity of sky and water. Past the priest greedily eyeing the geometrically perfect milkmaid.
Past the fragile and frugal peasant ringing the temple bell. Past the steps where women gather for heated conversations that we read through gesture and grimace.
Instead I head towards the market where colour and sound compete for victory, where we are regarded with the same curiosity we exhibit, where the eyes of vendors meet mine unblinkingly in anticipation of being shot by cameras, the prime tourist weapon.
"Come photograph me," a woman beckons, "I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts."
She proffers a palm to be crossed with ten rupees as photographing tariff.
The balance of power has shifted. We own this photograph together.
She throws in a snippet of information as bonus on our deal: "Nashik is as well known for its fruits as for its temples. Eighty-five percent of India's grapes are grown here. You must visit one of the vineyards nearby."
Strolling through the narrow winding lanes, I see old houses that step out of a time when rooms were large and ceilings high. We are approaching the Kalaram Mandir – the city's holiest edifice that dates back to 1794.
I marvel at the unusual black stone representations of Rama, Sita and Lakshman inside and the way that God is everything to some devotees. Air, water, food. The believers encircle us with marigolds and modak. "Faith's a big festival," I say.
Chandu the guide nods in agreement and says: "The religion of divinity is alive even in this digital age. It is here by the waters that sadhus (Hindu ascetics) and commoners, foreigners and natives become one.
"Exotica for the west at its best," counters his friend Mundu. His critique is in the sharp, cynical tone of a man who has just lost his job with the tourism board.
Chandu will not be cowed. He resumes his little discourse: "The Kumbh Mela, which is the largest religious gathering on earth, happens here once every twelve years," he says. "Young NRI's return to rediscover their roots. Celebrities like Madonna, Richard Gere, even Sir Paul McCartney have witnessed the awesome spectacle in previous years."
"Entertainment for the media," counters Mundu. We are having this conversation in the middle of a walled enclosure with 96 pillars.
Before the light fails completely, we visit the Rameshwar temple with splendid carvings on the ceiling of its hall, and the Muktidham temple that carries inscriptions from the Bhagvad Gita (sacred Hindu scripture).
It is the end of the day and I scrutinise the fruits of my journey. I've come away with an assortment of photographs – of shrines and pundits, of fruits and rituals, of brick buildings and winding lanes. But here's the image that means the most to me: A little grape vendor dancing with delight when she sees an image of herself in my camera's viewfinder.
I forget about the cows and the spices, content to make pictures of her alone. Not for my story, but because I feel a tug at my heartstrings – anthropological interest has been overridden by a more personal emotion, tougher to label, classify or construct.
Emirates, Jet Airways, Oman Air, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Eithad Airways, Gulf Air, Bahrain and Ethiopian Airlines – all offer direct flights between Dubai and Mumbai. Once in Mumbai, there are frequent luxury buses and taxis to Nashik from outside Dadar Railway Station. This journey takes five hours by road. A train called Panchavati Express also plies daily between Mumbai and Nashik.
- Taj Residency (www.tajhotels.com): If you want to be ensconced in luxurious solitude after a day's hectic adventure, this is the place for you.
- Hotel Abhishek (firstname.lastname@example.org): If you have a limited amount to spend and a want to be in the thick of things, near the river, the marketplace and the mayhem, and are content with a reasonably comfortable room, check in here.
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