Describing olfactory experiences is the hardest thing, I think. Yet I really have to try because it is one of the most paramount sensory perceptions when your are in India.
Smells, whether good or bad, are just as vivid as colours in this country. When you look around, you see much more colours than in Europe. Women's sarees, lights and decorations used in shops and temples, fruits, vegetables, flowers, birds, butterflies all tease the eyes with unexpected richness. Especially because all is out on display in the street. Sounds are also more intense, I feel. When walking down the street, all the hooting of the vehicles, the vendors' cries as they walk around the neighbourhoods, even people talking on their phones can only do it very loudly.
But if you close your eyes are ears, you still feel the million smells of India. When inside, there is this typical smell of disinfectant, they seem to use but one type all over the whole country. Then, the smell of constant dampness. It creeps up into your brain, making you remember that nothing is ever totally dry. Not just the clothes and papers but even the buildings are emitting this notion of wet material.
Then the heavy smell of traffic mixed with the smell of bitter beedi (Indian cigarettes) and smoke that make your nose congested, your lungs heavy, your head dizzy and your skin having the feeling of always being dirty.
Then still on the street, you pass a small cage, which turns out to be the holy abode of a Hindu god, or a street vendor and you immediately feel the smoky, dense smell of incense. Some like it but I find it a smell too thick, too robust.
Then the smell of people, their smell is similar to that of their food. Spicy, strong, sometimes mixed with a tinge of sweat and oily hair. It is different but not repulsive.
Then the smells that I should rather call odours, the smell of garbage that you find everywhere on the streets in smaller or larger heaps, the ammoniac smell of urine in hidden corners and in the bus stops. Or the small, innocent open channel running through the city that becomes a ravaging, reeking monster stream, quitting its boundaries as soon as the monsoon rain hits the city.
The smell of greenery when you enter a park, a hint of sweet flowers in it mixed with the fresh green smell of lawn but the rotted smell of fallen leaves, petals, petioles and leaves of palm trees underlying all of it.
But my all time favourite is the smell of herbs and lemon at the vegetable sellers' stalls. You find coriander there, the reminiscent of stink bug, in huge bunches, as this herb is added to almost anything that is edible. You either love it or hate it.
But the experience that made me want to write about the smells of India was that the other day I was walking down the street and I stopped to buy some lemon to aromatise my drinking water with and the vendor was busy doing something in the background. And then it hit me. The deepest of smells you can imagine. That of fresh curry leaves. That earthy, bitter yet sweet, deep, deep smell of this wonderful spice. I could go on smelling it forever as if it were some kind of aphrodisiac. You just close your eyes, smell it and immediately you are in the lush, sinful world of your instincts, guided by some prehistoric desire. And whenever you go to a restaurant, you can relive this daze as curry leaves (not the poor spice mix called curry in the Western world) are added to most South-Indian dishes.
Now I understand why Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, is so important in yoga. You cannot turn inwards when your senses are bombarded with all these strong influences that you find magnified here.