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The Mystery, The Fragrance, The Search for a Cobra

Mumbai sapphire: The blue waters of Mumbai Harbor surround the Gateway to India monument.

So I’ve been in India for 17 hours now and have yet to witness the bone-chilling specter of a giant hooded cobra undulating before a wizened old guy in a turban, mesmerized by the notes of his flute. Technically, the first four hours don’t count as my flight arrived in Mumbai at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m. An hour later, a silken-haired goddess is welcoming me to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in a cloud of incense. She places a garland of orchids around my neck, and then anoints my third eye with the red and golden powders of crushed vermillion flowers and saffron.

My eyes are stinging with sleep deprivation, but my senses are suddenly wide awake in the pre-dawn darkness. I throw open the bay windows of my palatial suite, have an herbal soak in my marble bath, brew myself a cup of tea and await daybreak. Heady stuff, all this glamour—but it’s not at all the India of the Rudyard Kipling’s bedtime stories from my childhood.

I’ve been dreaming of ancient leather-skinned sages, sitting cross-legged in a dream state before battered baskets with hissing sounds emanating from within. I’m thinking lotus blossoms floating in mysterious pools; of jewel-studded elephants ridden by attractive youths swathed in white linen dhotis; fragrant, mysterious India.

Animated voices in the street below interrupt my reverie. The teacup is still on my lap. Now the blood-red tint of sunrise shimmers on the Bay of Bengal. Sidewalk vendors are arranging spices and jeweled bangles on blankets and tending small fires in crude handcrafted food carts. Fishing boats with peeling paint bob beneath the stone arch of the Gateway of India. So picturesque! Tiptoeing past the portraits of maharajas in the grand lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace, I slip into the muggy Mumbai air in search of a cobra.

By 6 a.m., the huge city already is clogged hoof-to-wheel with traffic and the ear-piercing cacophony of horns. Horn honking is actually less about road rage and more about socializing and personal expression. Despite the frenzy, motorists patiently detour around a slow-moving cow decorated with brilliant blue-painted horns and a necklace of flowers. Parking spaces barely exist, unless you’re a cow, in which case you may have a VIP spot smack in front of your personal temple.

A Rainbow of SarIs

A living rainbow of silky saris ripples through the streets as women begin their day in the city. Note to self: Every woman is beautiful in a sari with its graceful, form-fitting folds and flowing scarf. Even the barefoot beggars, skittering among the cars tapping on windows for coins, possess a certain grace.

A riderless bicycle inches along beneath a tower of chicken cages. Its captives are squawking and feathers are flying. The only evidence of their keeper is a pair of bare feet staggering beside the load.

I’m walking in no particular direction, keeping my eyes open for old men in turbans with flutes under their arms. I pause at a banyan tree growing out of the sidewalk. Painted into its gnarly roots is a bright orange effigy of Lord Ganesha, the laughing elephant-headed boy-deity. Ganesha, the son of Hindu deity Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati, is called the Lord of Success. Before embarking on a mission, Hindus often seek the blessing of Lord Ganesha. I definitely have a mission, so maybe…?

But no, as a non-Hindu, I don’t feel privileged to seek Ganesha’s help.

The faces of India: A smiling woman in a sea of saris; a sacred cow with painted horns; and a street sage.

Mumbai is such a dichotomy. A ragged street vendor rolls narcotic betel nut chews in front of a sophisticated silk and jewelry boutique. An intricately carved and painted temple flanks a shiny steel high rise. An alley can lead to grand colonial mansions or teeming produce stalls. Or both, side by side. In the market, I buy fresh ground turmeric and precious saffron to take home. In an elegant silk shop, I can’t resist a sari the color of the sea to wear to dinner.

Outside Mani Bhavan, the home of Mahatma Gandhi, a man in a white robe (complete with turban!) approaches. He wants to anoint my forehead with precious oils and powders for a few rupees. But he has no telltale basket and no flute, so I move on.

I pick my way back to The Taj through the late afternoon throng of workers, fishermen, young people, vendors and tourists thronging the Gateway of India. And that’s when I spot him: the perfect turbaned, leathery face of those bedtime stories. True, he has no cobra basket, just a bundle of rags under his arm. But he looks the part anyway, and if I can’t have my cobra, I’ll at least get a great photo of this charming old man.

I step up my pace and call to him:

“Excuse me? Sir? May I take your picture?” I gesture with my camera. He turns and looks me over. His crafty grin lets me know he recognizes a sucker tourist, but I don’t care. I’m happy to part with a few coins for my picture. He sets his bundle of rags down close my feet and steps back to pose. I can’t recall exactly what happened next. From the corner of my eye, I see the rags shift. Beside me I hear a ripple of laughter. I follow the gathering crowd’s eyes, and I see it. That “bundle of rags” has come alive, and swaying rhythmically just inches from my knees is a live, undulating king cobra. The crowd thinks it’s hilarious. And I didn’t even get the shot.

Perhaps the playful Ganesha was having fun with me or possibly chastising me for passing up his assistance. But two days later, in the quaint 13th century town of Cochin, a young man with no wrinkles and no turban has set up his baskets of cobras for the tourists, and he is happy to play his flute for my camera and me.

Kerala: Palaces, Fish Nets and Curry

I’ve left the teeming city of Mumbai for the southern coastal state of Kerala, on the Arabian Sea. In this lush, serene landscape of tea, coffee and spice plantations, there are no honking horns. Traffic glides not on paved roads, but in picturesque longboats through a maze of narrow, palm-fringed canals. The historic towns and countryside of Kerala are jeweled with thousands of temples and many lavish palaces. Kerala is also home to the most exquisite cuisine of India—sweet, locally caught seafood and sensuous coconut-based curries—and the ancient healing art of Ayurveda. I see a mystical glow in even the most weathered faces.

Cochin, where I finally meet my snake charmer, was once a key stop on the spice route from China to Rome. After more than 500 years, fishermen still use the dramatic hammock-like nets that lace the shoreline. And there are festivals. This week is the annual Pooram Devi, a multi-day festival honoring Lord Shiva. And just as I imagined, its highlight is a spectacle of magnificent bejeweled elephants ridden by handsome young boys in white linen dhotis.

Charm city: Although she searched Mumbai for a snake charmer, our writer had to look to the city of Cochin for the real deal.Debunking the Cobra Myth

The cobra can’t actually hear the flute music. It’s the rhythmic movement of the handler that incites the snake to a defense position. Snakes are both revered and feared. They have divine status in the Hindu faith, but the cobras on display for tourists are often drugged and de-fanged. Sadly, throughout Asia the elephant is also both revered and disrespected. While the most beautiful few find places of respect in temples, and others adorned in glittering jewels and raiment in holy festivals, the majority are bound in chains for performance or killed for their ivory tusks. India’s government and animal activists are working together toward a future in which the sacred and spectacular traditions are preserved in the most respectful and humane way.—KB

Gilded giants: Boys riding on elephants during the Pooram Devi Festival.When Elephants Could Fly

In ancient times, hindu legends say, elephants were pure white. They had beautiful wings and flew among the clouds. But one day an elephant crash-landed into a tree under which a sage was deep in prayer. Justifiably annoyed, the sage put a curse on all elephants. Forevermore, they would be earth-bound, and no longer white, but a muddy shade of brown.

In Buddhist tradition, Queen Sirimahamaya dreamed that a pure white elephant descended from the sky and entered her womb as she lay sleeping. The child she conceived, it told her, would be a pure and powerful being. When the child was born, she named him Siddhartha, who became the Guatama Buddha.

Muddy brown and wingless though she might be, the elephant is still a magnificent creation. Consider her gently swaying hips as she walks on her toes like a ballerina, with an ever-so-soft touch on the earth –as though she remembers who she truly is. —KB

Taj Hotels, Resorts And PalacesTaj Hotels, Resorts And Palaces

Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, the flagship of the five-star luxury Taj brand, is the place to stay in Mumbai for royalty and Bollywood glitterati. Since its opening in 1903, it has been a preferred setting for the sealing of many arranged marriages among India’s high society. Its stately Moorish/Florentine/Gothic profile presides royally over the Bay of Bengal. Taj has several unique luxury resorts in Kerala. The newest is the stunning beachfront Vivanta, which recently made Travel & Leisure magazine’s “It List”. www.tajhotels.com —KB

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