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Published: January 31st 2005
The Jaganath Temple, Puri
Non-Hindus aren't allowed inside. Fortunately mother nature isn't so discriminating!
It’s almost midnight as the train rolls nonchalantly into the station some three hours late. The platform erupts as passengers and porters rush around locating their carriages. I take up position opposite mine about two metres away from a fellow tourist. The train doors remain firmly shut and it seems nobody is in a hurry to unlock them. The minutes drag and I begin to feel a slight unease that the two tourists have yet to be introduced. Maybe he’s thinking the same as me? Possibly? I make an attempt at conversation, which is met with a grunt of disapproval. I half expected this response, and stand grinning from ear to ear amid the platform chaos.
As a keen amateur tourist sociologist, I’d noted this phenomena when I was here a couple of years back and christened it ‘India Malaise’; a general anti-social outlook constituting a refusal to acknowledge another tourists existence whilst passing in the street, sitting in a restaurant, or any other public dwelling place. Extensive research points to several possible causes; too many tourists, pushy salesman, beggars, spiritual guides, general dodgy bastards, recreational drug abuse, spicy food, diarrhoea, living in shit, homesickness and general culture shock clashing headlong
with the all-too-present social conformities of the motherland… Or maybe he’s just French?
I’m to meet my girlfriend and her mother on Christmas Eve in Varanasi, over 700kms from Calcutta. However, due to the extensive train network in India, travelling this vast country is relatively easy. They’re frequently delayed, always late, ferociously hot in summer and have dreadful toilets. But compared to the buses they’re bliss. And if you allow yourself to be drawn into their existence they’re usually, eventful, lively social affairs and excellent opportunities to talk to Indians (who usually don’t have a brother who owns a silk factory). Not to mention quirky; it’s traditional in India for transvestites to beg on trains; with men wearing saris and too much make-up seen on occasion trawling through the carriages collecting money from nervous giggly passengers.
Crossing the Ganges the following day in the dense fog and failing light a day late, I look out at the first few twinkling lights of evening and the silhouetted temples lining the holy river and can’t help but feel a sense of Varanasi’s holy power. Holy places the world over possess a certain mystical beauty and indefinable aura that lured the
first worshippers to build the first temples. For Hindus the ancient city of Varanasi is the holiest place on earth.
Ditte and her mother are also extremely delayed. A thick fog has descended on central India over the previous two weeks, wreaking havoc with all forms of transport. Their past week together in Delhi and Agra has been a cold and foggy experience - not really what Ditte’s mother anticipated when booking her Christmas holidays to India. And so it was we awoke to a White Christmas of sorts, that, and the festive smell of burning human flesh.
Varanasi has a unique bouquet; the rich smells of incense and spices mingle with sandalwood fuelled funeral pyres, cow shit and the arteries of pungent piss that flow merrily down the myriad of narrow slippery lanes and nonsensical dead-ends. The only landmarks seem to be cows, although they have an annoying habit of roaming between the piles of foetid rubbish. Its no wonder Hindus worship cows around here - you’d need supernatural powers to successfully negotiate this place.
Dying in Varanasi is extremely auspicious for Hindus, releasing them from the cycle of re-births. Following the chants of “Ram Nam…Ram Nam”
that accompany funeral processions through the lanes is a foolproof method of locating the Ganges. The dead are carried on wooden stretchers wrapped in orange and golden sheets down to the river via ghats, or steps, past people in silent meditation to be immersed in the holy water in which garlands of marigolds, burnt timber and human ashes float amongst boats and devotees waist deep in the holy brown soup taking their daily ablutions. The bodies are then flame-grilled on pyres of sandalwood lit from an eternal flame before the remains are scattered in the Ganges and drift slowly away to moksha, or freedom.
I’m under strict orders from my girlfriend not to freak-out at dodgy salesman, beggars, or taxi drivers regardless of the provocation whilst her mother is with us: ‘The Mother in Law factor’.
This however will be difficult since we seem to attract slightly more attention than I’m accustomed.
My resolve is challenged on our first trip outside Varanasi. Arriving at an auto-rickshaw stand with a middle aged woman we’re instantly labelled wealthy tourists as apposed to stingy backpackers. The frenzy begins as they pull, shove and fight for our custom, outrageous prices are banded
about - I remain firm and calm, but they sense a weakness in me, an impotence - I’m being treated with a disrespect and disdain I am unaccustomed to and usually unwilling to accept. I make a mental note of their faces and vow to return… Alone! Outwardly I am calm and composed; smiling through gritted teeth but inside I’m raging. With my hands tied firmly behind my back and the situation spiralling out of control, I negotiate a price that’s obviously too high just to bring an end to the debacle. We squeeze into the back of the rickshaw and the driver asks: ‘First time in India, sir?’
Sarnatha is just a few kilometres outside Varanasi, and the place where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. People come to this spot from far and wide to kora, pray and leave white silk scarves with wishes attached to them - reading just one was enough to overindulge my cynicism; a request for ‘Fame and Wealth’.
In his previous life Buddha was a deer (its written!) and to commemorate this fact the compound contains a mini deer park. As we stood surrounded by women selling deer food a
Mahabodhi temple, Bodh Gaya
doe stared expectantly at us from beyond the fence, an ingenious saleswomen then commented to Ditte: ‘Look miss, poor Buddha is hungry!’ … Game over!
Varanasi really is quintessential postcard-perfect India. On our final day I planned to spend a couple of hours wandering alone along the riverfront in the soft amber light of dawn soaking up the atmosphere and taking pictures. Unfortunately the fog meant I couldn’t see past the end of my nose!
Keeping with the religious vibe, our next destination was Bodh Gaya, the holiest place on earth to Buddhists, where a reformed playboy prince attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree becoming: Lord Buddha. The Mahabodhi Temple now marks the location of this enlightenment, and our first view of which was spectacularly atmospheric, rising up from the centre of town above the darkened treetops of evening bewitching all with its glowing grandeur.
Bodh Gaya is a Buddhist wonderland. Outside the main temple complex are many other Buddhist countries offerings; temples from Japan, Bhutan, Burma, Tibet, China, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh vie to attract the donating pilgrims. Unsurprisingly the Tibetan monastery was the most popular closely followed by the extravagant Thai contribution. Though nobody
seemed very interested in the more conservative ‘middle way’ adherent Bangladeshi or Chinese offerings.
You can visit a tree just outside town under which Buddha had his first meal after meditating for six years in a nearby cave. There’s a tree that Buddha stared at for six days without blinking! And of course the Bodhi tree under which he attained enlightenment (though this isn’t actually THE tree, it is a cutting from a cutting of THE tree now in Sri Lanka). But in my opinion we’ve all missed the point. There is no doubt that Buddha was one of the first ever tree huggers, but wasn’t it Socrates who said he never learnt anything from the trees? Obviously the enlightened one was sitting under THE tree to shelter from the sun …Shadow worship anyone?
The exact opposite side of the world to Bodh Gaya according to Buddhists is the location of hell. This would place hell somewhere in America, in fact quite near Texas. A fact that is very believable - even taking into account the fact that the state in which Bodh Gaya itself is situated, Bihar, is about as close to Indian hell as is possible.
A violent and brutal struggle over the years between the lower castes and the traditional power wielding Brahmins has torn the state apart. Bands of thugs and thieves roam around the countryside murdering and abducting people, creating a rather unpleasant environment! Fortunately Bodh Gaya itself resides in a relative cocoon of safety.
Before Buddha died he asked his followers not to deify him. Nevertheless, and fortunately for tourists and pilgrims alike, you can still see countless little Buddha’s, big Buddha’s, brass Buddha’s, bronze Buddha’s, gold Buddha’s, fat Buddha’s, laughing Buddha’s, reclining Buddha’s, meditating Buddha’s or antique jade Buddha’s for sale or worshipped in the temples…(cheap price miiisterr!).
Catching the night train to our next destination meant hiring an auto-rickshaw to the station. Well aware of the potential anxiety this could bring, I negotiated a price with one of the drugged-up drivers beforehand. Upon returning with Ditte and her mother, however, everyone became a little excited and my preplanning proved about as useful as a fart in a spacesuit. When we eventually got away the drivers equally spaced-out friend decided to come along for the ride. Fifteen minutes into our journey on a pitch-black rural-road the driver pulls over
a villager near Konark.
and ceremoniously turns off the lights, demanding double the negotiated price! =PAUSE= A voice from within screams “EAT THEEEIR SOUUULS!!!” Though out of respect for Buddhist Heaven, I’d settle for depositing them both nicely at the side of the road and driving to the station myself. But the ‘MIL-factor’ puts me in a tight spot…
I lean forward in the darkness and announce ‘we have a train to catch’ (whilst attempting to remove the drivers ear from his head!). The engine starts up and we’re away. Total success - everyone’s a winner; from the back it looks as though I’ve made a simple statement and the driver has politely obliged. “Sometimes a chance for peace is a readiness for war”. Tony Blair.
Puri on India’s east coast and far enough North to have avoided the tsunami was our choice of destination to welcome in the New Year. The tsunami was still fresh in everybody’s minds so New Years was a subdued affair. But five days of beach and penthouse luxury relaxation allowed Ditte’s mother to acquire the requisite holiday tan and me to watch endless hours of cricket and football.
Most temples in Puri are off-limits to
Under duress in Bodh Gaya
non-Hindus, so one day we hired mopeds and travelled along the coast to the Sun Temple at Konark. An impressive 13th century Hindu temple containing amongst other things some fairly graphic pornographic stone carvings. Our guide took great pleasure in explaining (mostly to Dittes mother) their significance in intimate detail. The highlight of which for the guide, was undoubtedly a carving showing a women and a dog in a compromising position. It’s reason the guide enthusiastically informed us was ‘… sexual diseases… ... antibiotic saliva…’
Ditte’s mother’s short time in India was at an end. We arrived early in Calcutta (my third time in just over a month) and hailed a taxi. About 500m before our destination the driver pulled over, takes a chain from under his seat and disappears to the back of the vehicle, returning empty handed? On arrival, 2mins later, we all hop out of the taxi and move to the rear of the car to collect our luggage. Ditte’s mother asks politely for her bag (from the now chained boot!). A request to which the driver replies with an aggressive demand for more cash! =PAUSE= this is a tricky one: I could pay the driver whatever he wants and watch him sneer victoriously at me as he unlocks the chain? (I’d rather nail my balls to the mast of a sinking ship!). I could attempt to politely re-negotiate the price that was previously negotiated in good will, even though he now has me firmly by the balls?
The ‘MIL-factor’ puts me in tight spot…
I belt him sweetly across the face and demand: ‘Open the f'ing boot!’ The driver complies swiftly and without complaint. Not the most civil response granted, but under mitigating circumstances a success; albeit pyrrhic - I’ve been publicly exposed - I’m a lose cannon!
However it seems Ditte and her mother aren’t even slightly perturbed. In fact consensus suggests this was probably the correct response. I’m impressed with their enlightenment and it seems maybe I’ve been worrying a little too much all along?
But whatever the case, I’m badly in need of a holiday; I think I’m developing ‘India Malaise’!
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