Published: May 13th 2006May 8th 2006
How can you describe a country that spans from the Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhutanese Himalaya in the north, nearly 3000km to the Gulf of Mannar near troubled Sri Lanka in the south, from the borders of Pakistan in the west, 2500km to the border of 'East Pakistan' (Bangladesh) in the..well, east, and with a magnamonious (yes, I made that word up) population of over 1 Billion people? Answer: you can't.
India. There can't be many words to start a paragraph that invoke so many varied reactions and so much imagery: Bollywood, bright hindi clothing, Kashmir and Pakistan, curry, the Maharajas, the sort of music Saif, if you knew him, would famously play in his car, elephants, nuclear weapons testing, the Taj Mahal. But to assign such preconceptions to a country made up of 28 states diverse in culture, geography, their economies, religion and habits, would be sacrilege.
And how long do I have to experience all this? Just one month.
After a 'relaxed' month in Nepal (i.e. limited travel and not having to orientate myself around a new place every couple ofdays), I'm suitably rested for what will be a hectic month here (i.e. lots of
travel and having to orientate myself to a new place every few days), as I try to glimpse at least a few different ways of life and sights in the north-west, while there is a heat-wave on. Urgh. Unfortunately, I've just realised it's India's holiday season, which basically means nearly all trains are booked 2 weeks in advance. Double bugger. So all my plans to see some non-tourist areas, like Gujurat by the west coast, have sadly fallen through as no way am I doing long-distance travel in the passenger carraiges (see next blog..). Still, I'll try and get some variety included. Wish me luck.
First stop Varanasi, having travelled over the picturesque Lower Himalaya by bus, where a tyre exploded beneath me bruising my foot, and befriending a man who then battled it out against a conductor trying to screw me out of money (we won). I must say, there's nothing quite like experiencing India as being thrown head-on into the chaos of one of its million+ cities for the first time, putting all my senses into overload mode. Crazyness prevails - cows and goats battle it out on the streets against an onslaught of rickshaws ringing bells,
people eat tasty street-food out of bowls made of leaves while drinking mango shakes, lassis or bags of milk, others oblivious to the crowds squat at street edges defaecating away, while wedding parties with music, lights, dance and portable generators flash past.
Then you reach the surprising magical calm of the ghats that lie along the Ganges, and of course, the reason for the city's international fame. I spent my first day casually walking the entire length of the 100+ ghats spanning many kilometers, surprised at how calm it was relative to the photos that everyone sees (during festivals, 1000s transcend each ghat and the word 'crazy' takes on a new meaning). A wonderful and inciteful afternoon watching kids playing cricket, women demolishing clothes on rocks beating out the dirt, a few cremations, the inevitable wallowing of yet more cows and bathers bathing. Not something I'd want to do - according to trusty Lonely PLanet, safe bathing water should have less than 500 faecal coliforms per 100ml; at Varanasi, there's over 1.5million! A sad state, but it is slowly improving.
Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India and one of the oldest cities in the world
with a 2m-wide 'no-man's land' where it would be wise not to tread
(4000+ years). Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi liberates one from the cycle of birth and death, while bathers come to wash away their sins. After an evening meal, where I had my first taste of an Indian Masala with naan, accompanied by traditional music on a rooftop overlooking the Ganes and Golden Temple (all very romantic, isn't it?), I got an early night so as to be up for the sunrise.
The morning boat trip is something that will be difficult to forget. I managed to hop on board with a 30-something businessment, classically called Dave, and spent 2 hours calmly being rowed along watching the morning rituals. At times, little Dave became slightly too obtrusive for my liking, but his charm meant the locals didn't seem to mind and I got some good photos. Much busier, as men and women came to bathe, give offerings and wash clothes, dead bodies float in the water, as do flowery bowls with candles. Men sieve through ashes searching for jewellery or gold teeth, others have their heads shaved, all to the backdrop of a rising sun. It's a unique and vivid mixture of life and death, and I was
I explored the city some more, occasionally becoming frustrated as everyone does at times in India - e.g. finding an envelope: starting at the main post office (a natural place you would have thought), it took me on an hour's question with a shoddy result. That evening, I then managed to catch a skrawny night-train to Satna, followed by a stupidly crowded bus to Khajuraho filled with as many people standing as those sitting. The conductor forced me into a seat but sitting in the narrowest of spaces, I think my right to make babies has sadly come to an end. I was also subtly warned by a local that it was probably not a good idea reading the business section of a newspaper when there's a man with a big gun nearby. Not really sure why, but nevertheless brings home what sort of place I'm still travelling in.
To be blunt, Khajuraho is home to erotic temples. Ornately carved sculptures of Kama Sutra positions and even the odd bit of beasteality (I've added a photo, because it was too amusin not to, but it's right at the bottom so that parents with kids (basically, Uncle Phil)
can be a little on the careful side). That aside, the temples are a World Heritage Site and the sculptural art of figurines, battle scenes, daily life as well as eroticism, are amongst the best in the world. The temples are pretty impressive too. It's been a joy to wander around the place at sunrise, admiring the architecture. Yes, sunrise again - but going any later, it's so hot I feel like a roast potato. Besides, the heat makes it too unbearable to sleep this month anyway.
A local teenager who seemed to be fluent in about 5 languages attached himself to me the day before, and showed me around his local village of Khajuraho (rather than the tourist-village of Khajuraho), where India's 4-caste social hierachy is still evident in the village layout. Indie (my nickname for him as my Indiana Jones-style hat suited him, and his name is Pharat, Hindi for India), then took me to his house for chai, meeting his family where, as luck would have it, his Uncle was a wood carver and around to show me some pieces for sale. To be fair, they were good but sadly either too heavy or expensive for
From one expensive World Heritage Site to another, this time at a pleasant little town called Sanchi. The main attraction this time is a collection of 23-century-old Buddhist stupas, temples and monasteries. Briefly, these Buddhist structures are some of the most impressive around, and the ornately picturesque gateways (see photos) are amongst the best stone structures I've seen, especially when you consider how old they are, and so I spent many hours exploring the place intricately, with guide book, making the most of the hefty entrance fee while drinking my 5th litre of water of the day so far.
However, the other main attraction for me on this day cost me no rupee and took a mere few minutes: walking around Sunchi's small market where I've never seen anywhere so noisy and alive - all kinds of vegetables, vendors with scales, and all with time to smile at me, the only white boy in town. Indeed, it's been such friendliness these last few days that reminds me how great travelling can be, which is often clouded by the stress of getting from A to B.
Now I've headed into Rajastan (sooner than expected due to the
booked trains), via Bhopal, famous for the tragic US-based 1984 disaster. I stopped briefly to spend a few hours visiting a very impressive museum and reinactment of Indian tribal villages built by the actual tribes. Strange I was one of the only visitors...
It's been a lot of "I did this, then I did that" this week, but that's the way this month is going to be; hopping about like a demented bunny. Just keeping those interested updated. Lots already to talk about in the next blog, including sleeping on train platforms and becoming a Wedding Dancer, but you've had enough excitement for one blog.
Good luck to everyone taking exams about now!! Just one final push! Byebye for another few days, if I survive the heat that is. Urgh..
There are more photos below