Temples & Tigers by Peter Lewis

Peter Lewis travelled on our 'Temples & Tigers - The Best of Northern India' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Chital by Bret Charman

Snuffling through the roadside heaps of rubbish, rubble and straw is the scruffiest pig I’ve ever seen: body the colour of pale cheese with mouldy grey blotches around the front seen through a sparse ‘woodland’ of long silvery-grey bristles with a pink backside protruding.

We are picking our way along country roads through some of India’s countless villages. There are the same seeping flows of grey effluent with ridged deposits of filthy plastic and other solids as we’ve seen in the towns, just less of it. Distant singing takes our attention instead. The singing gets louder and clearer until a trailer-load of women appears, pulled by a tractor: a mix of deep scarlet with shocking yellow, green, orange and blue.

We stop in Baretha village as the buildings here seem particularly decorated and the people particularly welcoming – they smile and wave and are happy to crowd round and let us see their homes or decorated ‘dung-patty’ sheds. Taking part in their lives for even a moment is seen as great fun for all, with a laughing audience from roof-top as well as ground.

Further on and a winning election-candidate is being mobbed by a jigging crowd of well-wishers bedecked in vivid pink garlands, which we visitors are immediately dressed in too, then enveloped by the joyful, arm-waving, dancing people.

Women in intense colours walk gracefully carrying bundles of fodder from the fields or squat on sandstone slabs washing coloured, patterned garments in water from shining steel containers at the village pumps. One woman in a beautiful sari is bashing metal by a workshop forge – sparks are showering over her and we wonder how she hasn’t gone up in a pillar of flame.

We find groups of ‘bullock-cart blacksmiths’ by the next village roadside. The men are squatting by a small steel anvil-block set on the ground by a charcoal fire, hammering sickles and other implements out of metal bars. Little children are all around, supplying charcoal, playing in the dust behind the reversing Tata lorry ...

It’s early in the dry teak forest of Panna and we are feeling chilly in the grey morning air. Our excellent guide has stopped the open-top jeep and switched off the engine: he knows there’s something we’d be interested in here. At first all seems still, but then our searching senses pick up sounds and movement on the forest floor: something is flicking the dead, brittle teak leaves about. Binoculars reveal a beautiful bird with orange underparts, soft blue-grey mantle and white and black vertical marks on the face: a male Orange-headed Thrush foraging in the leaf litter (a bird even better than I’d imagined it to be and something I’d really wanted to see; a fact which our guide – he with the serene satisfied look on his face – was well aware of).

We move on as the day lightens and the air warms. More wildlife is now to be seen. Grey Langur monkeys sit upright in pairs on an old drystone wall – old men watching the world go by. Birds of many new species are perching in or hopping through the trees and bushes and at the track side. Down by the river, five Peacocks have gathered – birds of such size and shimmering brilliant colour they just don’t seem possible – but, to prove how possible they are, they take off to fly across the water and land, train-tails stiff and horizontal, on the rocks of the other side where they argue and jump. Further on, a herd of gentle-faced Spotted Deer (Chital) move through the dry grass and, around a corner, a pair of impressive Sambhar stags push and heave at one another, heads down and locked together so we can hear the scraping and screeching of antler on antler. Out on the stony grassland vultures rise from a carcass as we head the jeep towards it. We identify (parts of) a female Nilgai but ... killed by what?

A staccato bark from Chital is quickly followed by alarm roars of Sambhar; already nearby Langur troupes are heading up trees in panic, coughing warnings to all. The atmosphere feels taut, prickly like static.  Following the treetop stares of Langurs we pinpoint a grove of trees and speed round to the other side: ahead of us the big Leopard bursts out in great stretching bounds with thick, long tail flying out behind, crosses the track and disappears through the sandstone boulders and dry grasses.

Not far away a reserve worker, carrying a mattock over one shoulder, continues walking alone along the dusty track.

In India it seems, for people as for other creatures, life is enjoyed for the moment without dwelling too much on what may be around the corner.

Read more about our 'Temples & Tigers - The Best of Northern India' holiday.