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Published: October 7th 2010
It may please you to know, my few faceless readers, that I intend this entry to be short and succinct. We are coming to the end of our first stay in India and I wish to clear my slate before entering Nepal. In this blog I will attempt to make you envious of my time in Orchha, and fascinated, though at a happy remove, by Varanasi. You will read of my staggering incompetence in the face of eminent simplicity, and the lengths to which virtual strangers are willing to go to help remedy my mistakes. I will briefly describe both sunrises and sets, the blistering heat of early afternoon, and Anny's methods of relieving it. I will write a little about death and the smell of burning flesh at breakfast, and the worlds most packed train. And you, my dear readers, should probably stop reading right here and simply enjoy the pictures which, especially when placed in competition with my writing, speak many more eloquent words.
Because of the perceived inferiority of its temple's erotic sculptures, Orchha has become known as something of a poor man's Khajaraho. I cannot verify the validity of that statement, as although I have previously
visited Khajuraho and found the erotic sculptures there to be exquisite, I did not see a single carved nubile in Orchha with which to compare. Even without this information I still believe that Orchha is a far more interesting destination, due in part to its superior location, but largely because of its welcoming population. The small town of Orchha is surrounded by gently rolling, thickly forested countryside which is broken only by several wide rivers and the brown spires of numerous temples. The town itself is sandwiched between the imposing Jehangir Mahal and the triple spired Chaturbhuj temple, with most of the activity centred on the market that sits below the peach and magnolia Ram Raja Temple.
The reason that I have not seen any rock hard couplings is because I haven't been bothered to look. We were too busy lazing by the river enjoying the temples at a beautiful remove. To some this would seem a little pointless: why travel all the way to Orchha and spend three days there, then fail to examine the famous sculptures or visit the imposing palace? To us, Orchha was a place more than worthy of our visit, only for differing reasons
than most. To sit upon the roof of the elephant stables listening to a temple priest sing his uplifting songs of devotion whilst watching the sun slowly rise from out of the mist carpeted forests, was reason enough to warrant our journey here. To be in the same spot watching the sun drifting towards the horizon at the end of the day, casting the palace in inky silhouette and giving the vultures a pastel orange backdrop against which to circle, was the moment that sealed the deal.
Instead of examining the temples and clambering up the palaces stairs, we took ourselves into Orchha's nature reserve. On a pair of brand new, but spectacularly uncomfortable bikes, we cycled the dry and dusty tracks that ricocheted their way between the twin rivers that create the island reserve. We saw some deer, a couple of peacocks, a monitor lizard, plenty of birds and several troops of the now ubiquitous macaques and langur. The days highlight though was watching Anny escaping the relentless heat of midday by taking a swim in one of the river's secluded pools. At lunch time we dined on bananas and biscuits under the shade of a thickly canopied
tree whilst listening to parakeets tweet and chatter in the branches above. On the way home my "mountain bike's" chain snapped, forcing us to walk the final few kilometres under an increasingly punishing sun. A cold shower, followed immediately by standing under the ceiling fan, quickly gave deliciously cooling succour to my body. A little snooze completed the restorative process.
I could witter on for many paragraphs to come about the sublime street food we ate in the market and the numerous friends we made there. I would love to tell you in greater detail how pleasurable it was to have my first drink in two months. The fear and excitement felt when riding the back of a speeding, packed tempo, facing backwards with legs dangling in the air as huge trucks nuzzled my knees as they continually fought to overtake, will have to wait for another time. Flying peacocks that resemble Chinese dragons, shooting stars, musical babas and the secret ingredients of the finest masala chai are all, due to my earlier promise of brevity, going to have to remain undiscussed. I will shortly move on to a brief description of Varanasi, but first I shall explain how
my stupidity meant we nearly didn't make it.
Because we knew the date we wanted to enter Nepal, and because I thought it would be sensible (good God I really am getting old), I pre-booked our final two train tickets a month in advance to guarantee our places upon them and so as to be assured that we could get the train as close as possible to Nepal before we had to punish ourselves with a bus. Two tickets: Jhansi to Varanasi; Varanasi to Gorakhpur. Simple and sensible I'm sure you'll agree. On the morning of our scheduled departure from Jhansi (a city 15km from Orchha) Anny checked the ticket and found that it was in fact for the previous day. Loosing track of the day, the month, sometimes the year, is a common travellers ailment and one that normally manifests no serious symptoms, but this lack of dateual awareness had the potential to turn nasty. In the end it didn't, but only due to the lengths that my friend Srinath was willing to go to help rectify my mistake.
The usual solution would have been the simple procurement of a new ticket. Unfortunately this was not possible
at either Orchha's station (no computerised booking office), nor Jhansi's (some unexplained problem with their system). This left the option of booking through a travel agency. Three places in Orchha had broadband but the server had been down for a day, and they were not confident of its resumption any time soon. The other three had dial-up connections which did work, after a fashion, but were staffed by idiots and incompetents. The only recourse left available to us was booking them ourselves using the computer at our fabulously friendly guest house ("All Orchha View", if anyone's interested) which had one of those dongle thingies that produced a workable connection. "Clear Trip", and other sites like it, we were unable to use as they would not allow us to book a train using the Taktal quota (a system whereby seats are reserved for people who wish to book within two days of departure when, like the train we wanted for the next day, all the normal seats are sold). The only site where this was possible was the Indian railways own site. This is notoriously awkward to navigate, but we managed to find our train and were happy to find there
were still five Tatkal seats available. After signing up and filling in countless forms, including many that asked for my nationality, we were finally in a position to pay, only to find out that they don't accept foreign cards!
I should never have claimed that this was going to be a short blog. I should amend the opening paragraph and remove my promises and in their place warn you guys that what you are about to read is likely to be long and boring, but to do that would necessitate rewriting several of the sections where I've bragged about brevity, and make the words I'm now typing utterly superfluous and therefore a waste of my time which is, I'm sorry to say, far more important than the potential (probable) waste of yours! Anyway, in a final effort to keep things brief, I'll finish describing the ticket episode. It is now the morning of the day that contained the evening which possessed the train that was to be our final chance of making our connection in Varanasi for our train to Gorakhpur. Even if we managed to book this train we would be left with only six hours in which
to see Varanasi. We did manage to snaffle the last two tickets however, but only because Srinath was willing to find someone to look after his shop, take me to his house, drive me on his motorbike to our guest house and sit at the computer with me for several hours until on the third attempt, and after being twice erroneously charged but without completing the booking, he was able to use his Indian credit card to purchase the tickets.
Such kindness, generosity and selflessness, and all, to an extent, for nothing. One hour later, bags packed and ready to leave, Anny thought she had better check the ticket from Varanasi to Gorakhpur. It was the 3rd October and our train was leaving that evening. I was relieved to here Anny confirm that the ticket was indeed for the third, but utterly distraught when she pointed out that it was for 00.15 on the 3rd, and had therefore left almost eighteen hours earlier! Stacking idiocy upon stupidity is unfortunately a common problem of mine and one that encroaching middle age seems unable or unwilling to rectify. I am rarely too badly effected by these temporary aberrations of cognitive reasoning
(I am after all well used to it by now), so it is left to my nearest and dearest to suffer on my behalf. Things worked out fine in the end though, as they always do and always will do. We admitted defeat and booked another train to Gorakhpur three days later as we had decided a few days of relaxation in Varanasi before our mammoth journey to Nepal was probably a good idea. Also, the always fantastic Indian railways came up trumps again by giving me a full refund on the Gorakhpur ticket (5 hours before departure) and over half my money back on the two day old Varanasi one so, in the end, the only thing wasted were the two days in Orchha trying to procure the ticket (if you can call making friends a waste. Indeed, after I managed to get my ticket and was walking back through town, I was congratulated by several new Indian friends who had all become interested and involved with my plight) and we gained three fantastic days in Varanasi which, I'll no longer lie to you, I'll now describe in no doubt excruciatingly dull detail.
On the way to
Varanasi - you see, we're still not even there yet - we witnessed what may possibly have been the worlds most packed train. We saw, and have video evidence of, a general class compartment that was so full that people were literally stacked to the roof. I do not employ hyperbole for effect here, I speak the cold hard truth. To enter this train, and there were many either desperate or stupid enough to want to do so, the masochists had to climb over those in the doorway and worm there way to a free square foot of space on the ceiling, to be held aloft by nothing more than the crush of bodies below. The crazy thing was, as the passengers swam over this sea of humanity to enter the carriage they, and the people they were kicking in the face as they swam, were all laughing and smiling as though they were taking a splendid little day trip to the coast! Our train was the next one to arrive and we thankfully found our beds unoccupied and with only a moderate crush to negotiate in finding them.
So, to Varanasi we finally come, but I find myself
at a loss as to how to describe it for you. I believe this is the reason for my previous loquacity; it served to mask a procrastination born of looming fear. Varanasi is just too much. I can't reach out and grasp it with words as it is too well greased with shit and piss and the lithe brown tongue of the ganga to allow the letters to stick. I would love to be in possession of the skills and intelligence necessary to distillate the myriad individual facets of this city into a few succinct paragraphs that contain the simple essence of the confused whole, but I can't. Even my pictures fail to capture much more than a glossy travel brochure's idealised and simplified portrayal of a city that is so unique, so incomprehensible yet at the same time so perfectly realised and simple, that to achieve much more than this would take more than the insights gained on a three day visit that takes my total time spent in this alluring city to little more than a week.
Varanasi is a city on the Ganges. The Ganges is the holiest of Holies for Hindus and this city, Shiva's
city, can be said to be the epicentre of Hinduism. To die here and be burnt on a pyre on a burning ghat and to have ones ashes then offered to mother Ganga is every Hindu's greatest and most fervent wish. Hindus come here to die. In many ways Varanasi is the worlds biggest old peoples home but the mood is not as depressing as that sounds, for devout Hindus have fully accepted death as an integral and necessary part of life and those that are approaching the end of this one in this most auspicious of places are as happy as their humanity allows. Behind the ghats and temples that line the river's west bank are a maze of streets, a veritable rats run of endless narrow alleys, that all look identical and spread inland for two thoroughly confusing kilometres. This constitutes the old city. Beyond this lies an identikit Indian mega city. We shall concern ourselves only with the warren of streets that striate their way outwards from the brown curve of the Ganga.
Walking these narrow lanes requires one to be fully alert, nimble of feet and possessed of a greater degree of patience than I.
The streets are about five foot wide and one should be aware of the potential of meeting all of the following at all the time: Lumbering four foot wide bulls with impressive horns and a propensity to swish their heads as they walk; the unavoidable products of said animals lower digestive tract; chickens; dogs; speeding motorbikes who believe that a piercing blast on their horn when only feet away is sufficient warning to allow a pedestrian to graciously make way; dead bodies draped in golden silks and marigolds which are born aloft on a stretcher that heads long snakes of chanting mourners that Ram Ram Ram ram their way along the lanes stopping for no one; persistent drug dealers, boat salesmen, silk pimps and spice merchants; monkeys; deep holes; stoned babas and falling stones. To mention just a select few. If one has the necessary faculties to remain both sufficiently aware and moderately calm then Varanasi will surely appeal as an ideal destination; a honeymoon perhaps, maybe a city break with ones family. We loved the city so much that we'd happily recommend it to anyone; when not cursing the fucking place to hell, that is.
Indian cities have
an innate ability to vacillate rapidly between being wonderfully inspiring and utterly intolerable. Varanasi, being one of the worlds oldest cities, has had plenty of time to refine and perfect this particular trick. One morning I took an aimless walk through the narrow alleys surrounding our guest house that lead, quite fortuitously, to a delightfully shanti ghat. On the way I enjoyed many fascinating conversations with sundry Indians, some long, some just a few words, but all investing me with a joy so profound that it near brought me to tears. Each simple meeting fuelled the next and I was borne along on a cresting wave of happiness that surged along the narrow lanes. Smiles begat smiles, laughs were exchanged as easily as words, greetings were sincerely made and leave takings were often as heart wrenching as if I'd known my friend a year, not five minutes. When I finally reached the ghat I was experiencing a genuinely transcendent moment of happiness that reached its peak as I sat unnoticed and unhassled in a shady corner to watch an endless procession of the devout and holy enter the Ganga to make their morning puja. An indescribably perfect moment that shall
stay with me for as long as my faculties allow.
I returned to the guest house to wake up a late sleeping Anny, possessed of a mood so fine that not even a foot full of poop could spoil. We decided to return to the fabulous ghat I was just at, so as Anny could experience its beauty and also to eat breakfast in a small restaurant that was close by. I had memorised the route as best I could on my return to fetch Anny, a journey of about fifteen minutes. After an hour and a half of walking in endless circles, returning again and again to the same spot, I still had not found the ghat. Indeed, I had not even once managed to find the massive Ganga. I was hot, absolutely drenched in sweat, the people I asked for directions, the very same who but two hours earlier seemed the best humanity was capable of producing, now hissed and spat and growled vague directions with a lack of kindness that bordered on the actively hateful. All the pimps, beggars, pushers and touts, clearly scenting a wounded and week animal, homed instinctively in upon my weary and
increasingly angry self. Cows charged, bikes smashed into my ribs as they passed, dogs attacked my shins, potholes tripped me up, shit was stepped in and all the previously sincere hello's, were now sarcastically and maliciously thrown in my direction like barbed imprecations to leave. At this stage I would have given just about anything to do so; unfortunately we had a parcel to send which, as anyone who has tried this before will attest, is not the greatest activity with which to lower one's levels of frustration!
That evening, our last in India for a month, we were able to easily locate the previously hidden ghat and spent a lovely couple of hours saying goodbye to India. We both braved a faecal coliform count so high that it goes some way to explaining the Ganga's viscous brown consistency, by immersing our feet in the river to receive the blessing of Mother Ganga. We floated a pair of flower candles out into the swiftly flowing river and with them went our prayers for a safe journey that night (this evening as I write this) to Khatmandu in Nepal. My return to India has exceeded all my expectations and reaffirmed
my deep attachment I have to this most beguiling of countries. I'm sincerely going to miss my India and am immeasurably grateful for the two weeks, my final two weeks, that we will enjoy after our month in Nepal. I shall save my tears till then.
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