22 days trying to fathom out India – 2013
DAY 1 in DELHI
Landing in Delhi in the intense morning fog that permeated the city on the last morning of January must have been an enormous challenge, so it was amazing that we touched down almost imperceptibly. More surprises were on the way, since the Indira Ghandi airport was by no means the bustling place we remembered, but quiet and slightly eerie, its arrivals hall almost void of local people in the early morning. Our representative, Ahmed and the driver, Manoj were waiting outside and we were soon driving past tall buildings, sketchy in the fog, and characterless grey zones towards the city centre.
The Shangri-La hotel was a little worn but charming. We were shown into our room by friendly, competent staff, unpacked and had breakfast in the Horizon Club lounge on the nineteenth floor. Our table was at the huge window. Flashes of velvety green passed by as the parakeets graciously swerved to and fro from floors at the top of the building, displaying fine long feathers fanned out to brake them as they landed on rooftop ledges. This was the only discernible colour. Below them, constant traffic circled non-stop round Windsor Place and beyond the roundabout, only a bright, modern hotel broke the monotony of greyness under a smutty sky.
We were nevertheless highly motivated to do a little exploring and set off for Connaught Place on foot. We found Delhi surprisingly cool but were adequately dressed in polo shirts and jeans. Round the first corner, we followed Jainpath, passing the legendary Imperial Hotel, then passed small shops selling textiles and cheap musical instruments, wooden souvenirs and metal. The pavements, about 30 – 50 cm high, kept disappearing , forcing us to continue on the road alongside the horrendous traffic. Our eagerness to discover the busy centre was soon dampened by the number of con men who accosted us again and again, wanting to send us to their businesses or to the government crafts shop, though the hawkers and tuctuc drivers were actually quite reserved. Eventually we reached the outer circle of Connaught Place and spent quite some time trying to cross the road whilst fobbing off a local trader.
A helpful “bank worker” then stopped us to warn of the danger of tricksters and suggested that we should go to the Tourist Information Office just up the road to get free street maps and information. We had no real intention of doing any such thing, but he practically pushed us towards this office, saying he was on the way back to his nearby bank. We managed to get rid of him, but kept him in sight and noticed that he was watching us and speaking into his mobile phone all the time. We did not want to offend him, so we did pop into the Information Office. It was weird. Hardly into the front office, which looked nothing like a Tourist Information place at all, we were shoved into a very small office where a young man came in, asking what we wanted. Feeling trapped and very uncomfortable, we had to be quite rude in the end, making it clear that we were only there for a free map, which, in the end, he gave us.
Daunted by this experience so early on our trip, wondering how this could have happened to us, seasoned travellers, we tried to avoid all further contact with local people for a while. We continued for a short distance along the middle circle of Connaught Place through colonnades divided into numbered blocks, past cafes called Dunkins Doughnuts and McDonalds that look nothing like the chains you find in Europe, then into the centre, where a large park relieves the British architecture of its severity. We had to have our bags scanned to get into the park and photography was forbidden. It was full of young lovers tenderly and shyly touching hands and groups of mainly young people having a picnic. At a sort of arena in the middle we sat and had a rest, then decide to walk to Jantar Mantar, the 17th century observatory.
To get there, we had to cross a very bewildering low-priced textile and shoe market, loud with the sharp voices of market criers. Young boys were selling nuts and chats, deep-fried snacks, here. Still baffled by the effrontery and skill of the tricksters, we were on our guard.
Jantar Mantar was also in a park, a less verdant one than the park at the centre of Connaught Place. We spent a proverbial penny here, hoping the water, inside and out, was cleaner than it looked. The stone instruments themselves are not in good shape but some of them are unique to Delhi, including the Ram Yantra and another baffling construction used for measuring the distance of celestial bodies. It was almost sunny here. Locals have free entrance to the site, so a young bridal couple were posing for photos and there were lots of children running round, using the strange constructions as a playground.
Beyond the metal fence there were demonstrators, men and women gathered in separate groups with booming voices from an invisible microphone and enthusiastic echoings from the crowds. It appeared that they were municipal workers hired from the lowest castes who were demanding fixed jobs. There were numerous policemen and policewomen around. They patrolled, very alert, opposite the demonstrators outside their Parliament Road headquarters, a few in camouflage dress on the path and hundreds cooped up in the HQ yard, just in case. The avenue was flanked by several police buses and further up the road the city’s eco-buses, which had transported the demonstrators. This peaceful demonstration was being covered by the media.
It was here that we were approached by another person, who warned us not to carry our rucksacks on our backs and hailed a rickshaw for us, to take us out of this insalubrious area and into a shopping mall where we would be able to buy silk without too much hassle. This time we resisted, not in the least bit interested in buying silk! We just turned away and left this trickster standing with his rickshaw and proceeded down a chokingly busy road to a Sikh temple complex.
Having never before set foot in a gurudwara, we were not entirely sure of what behaviour would be expected of us. We left our socks and shoes at the appropriate place and covered our heads, Willi with a handkerchief that looked remotely like the shiny, coloured pieces of cloth that the other men were using. I knotted a silk scarf carried for such occasions under my chin. The temple grounds were spic and span. We just kept watching the devotees and copied them, so we bent down to touch each stair we walked up and arrived in front of a golden temple. Alas! here Willi offended an old man who offered him prasad, a very sweet and holy semolina sweet, which he said was God’s blessing. Willi thought he wanted to sell it and refused it, which caused great consternation. Everyone was carrying an aluminium foil bowl of prasad with a square of cardboard on top and some were rolling the contents into small balls and popping it into their mouths.
No photos were allowed in the holiest area, which was the totally golden centre of the temple. There were no statues or gods, but a golden canopy on the ceiling then another above the altar where people were offering pujas, flowers and huge lengths of glittery material. Three turbaned men were chanting non-stop as the devotees handed over their offerings. We just sat and listened and watched, tucking our feet inwards so as not to offend. Then we walked clockwise round the altar and left to admire and photograph the facade, in white marble with a leafy design and a golden onion dome.
At an expansive rectangular water well, people were taking a walk and splashing their heads. The Sikhs always have a place where you can eat a vegetarian meal and drink water, free or for a small donation. Here, we now noticed coloured, glittery head squares in baskets, for the men folk to put on before entering the temple. And at a stand, I was given free booklets and allowed to photograph a poster highlighting the Sikh beliefs. Smartly dressed older men with purple turbans and purple and tan-coloured jackets over tight trousers kept turning up. They sported thick, white moustaches curved upwards and curved scimitars on belts round their waists. I would have loved a photograph, but when I shyly asked permission, I was told it would cost “many rupees” and decided against the idea. Instead an old lady asked me to photograph her. We felt very much at home here, in the company of good, wholesome people.
It took us only a few minutes to reach our hotel, passing a kiosk where monkeys kept diving down to steal fruit then scamper away along a metal fence. Striped squirrels scurried across the path. We enjoyed the gin and tonic and many glasses of red wine with snacks at the Horizon Club lounge and had an early night in a really comfortable bed.
The Shangri-La has an unbeatable breakfast buffet selection. Once replete, we met our guide Umesh, a tall, well-built man a little younger than ourselves, at reception and started for Raj Ghat on this damp, foggy morning. At Ghandi’s tomb, a woman and a man were removing the petal decorations that had been laid out on the anniversary of his death three days previously. Following Umesh, I walked round the tomb clockwise in the Hindu way to honour him. Umesh uttered a little prayer. We carried on to Indira Ghandi’s monument, a tall, strong monolith and a white terrace that we couldn’t really see because work was being done there. Raj Ghandi’s simple tomb followed. All three Ghandi’s had been assassinated and Umesh told their stories. A snake charmer was waiting for the tourists on our way out and it really was fascinating to see him charm his cobra with curious fist movements.
The Red Fort was next on our itinerary, but first Manoj drove round the fort to give us a good overview, then made a slight diversion to show us the palace-like building of Old Delhi Railway Station. This station is used by wholesale traders who live in the villages outside the city and the picture that unfolded before our incredulous eyes was amazing. There were carts driven by salivating bullocks in tatty woollen coats, with a hole cut out for their hump, their mouths full of dry fodder. Other carts were pushed by briny men who didn’t look strong enough for this strenuous labour. Rickshaw and tuctuc drivers were shouting and hooting. At small stalls and cook shops for retailers and passengers alike steam rose from teapots and bubbling cauldrons.
There was an old-timer exhibition at the Red Fort. Not overly interested, we concentrated on Umesh’s shocking stories about the Mughal massacre of thousands of Hindus that had taken place on the road right opposite the fort, which we would later visit by bicycle rickshaw. For now, we entered the huge main gate that was a convincing demonstration of Mughal power in itself and visited the charming divans inside the fort area. Particularly attractive was the inlay work in the marble that became so popular in North India during the Mughal period.
The rickshaw drive through Old Delhi was naturally a highlight. It is a quite different experience to be actually a part of the noise and chaos here, to be one of countless vehicles making their way along the busy streets that have no lanes and no system but surprisingly few accidents. The noise was deafening, but we were getting accustomed to that by now. Having reached the colourful spice market, our driver turned round and changed course, heading for the extremely narrow streets of Chandi Chowk, which leads to the Friday Mosque.
It is no exaggeration to maintain that many shops here are no wider than a German pillow. We peered into several of these, mainly textile and cheap jewelry shops, where the customers sat cross-legged one next to another, while their dusty chappals waited on the thresholds. There were also shops selling sweets and snacks and electrical parts and there were fruit and vegetable vendors. Above us, cables, telephone cables, not electric ones Umesh assured us, hung in gigantic loopy knots. The road itself is two-way, but two vehicles can only pass at one time if there are no pedestrians, and the street is FULL of pedestrians. I felt sorry for the people whose feet we nearly drove across, but the Indians are patient and used to stepping in and out of shops to let the rickshaws pass.
The Red Mosque was cleaner than it had been when we visited it last, three years ago. This time, I was required to done a sort of flimsy dressing-gown. I have no idea why, since it did not cover much of me and I was very decently clothed underneath. We had to wait for the devotees to leave, then followed Umesh round, admiring the symmetry and the opulence of the Mughal architecture. From the main gates, there were views across the old town, a kaleidoscope of tiny shapes and colour. In the courtyard, a carpet of grain had been laid out for the pigeons.
We had lunch with Umesh at Chicken Inn. He advised us to taste degai boneless chicken with rice and roti and explained that roti, which is the same as chapati, contains more bran than naan and less ghee. During the meal we had a very good chat with Umesh, who told us a lot about his own arranged marriage and about his family.
From our hotel we walked to the National Museum, which was, unfortunately, just about to close. On the way it occurred to me that the Indians are much more tolerant about the presence of the poor than we Europeans are. It does not appear to disturb anyone that the washed garments of the homeless are spread out to dry on the fences of people’s houses or on public buildings, even in exclusive areas. The homeless seem to set up camp just anywhere and heaps of rubbish and excrement and mangy dogs are tolerated everywhere.
Umesh was bright and cheerful again the following morning. We headed for Humayan’s tomb, an imposing 16th century Mughal mausoleum (which some say was the prototype for the Taj Mahal), on quiet roads through ever-thickening fog. It was a pity that the tomb was only sketchily visible as we approached, but the fog did give the place a romantic touch. There were only few tourists visiting so early in the morning, so we were able to take in the austere beauty of the place undisturbed. Umesh explained that the simple decorations on the tombs of men resembled a stick of chalk and those of the women had a spoon-shaped decoration. We followed him through the slightly eerie interior admiring its perfect Persian symmetry.
Outside, a wan sun was beginning to light up colourful Persian tiles on the roof. Lush gardens with gnarled mango trees and green parakeets were being softly warmed as we crossed the charbagh, or four-square gardens that are typical of Mughal landscaping, to visit a completely different style of mausoleum, built only a few decades before Humayan’s tomb. The tomb of Isa khan is built in the Lodhi style. It is a slightly crumbling octagonal building that boasts much floral decoration and flanked by a mosque.
I would have loved to have visited Durgha Hazrat Nizmuddin next, the mausoleum of the Sufi Saint Nizmuddin, but Umesh was loathe to take us there. Not only is it a very sacred place for Muslims, but also a place of congregation for beggars where harassment and unpleasant reactions are likely, he explained. So instead we drove outside the city to the Bahá’í Centre of Worship, which is an architectural wonder in the form of a lotus flower set amongst fresh green lawns.. Completed in 1986, the Centre is a place where people of any religion can gather to worship and has already attracted as many as 50 million visitors.
Qutub Minar was the next place on our agenda. This is a 12th century brick minar, the tallest in the world, constructed in the third of the many historic sites of what today is known as Delhi. Umesh gave us a very detailed explanation of the history and architecture of the Qutub Minar complex, revealing his passion for the equally old Qubbat-al-Islam Mosque that adorns the complex in white marble and red sandstone as well as the original sarai or inn, and the Jain and Hindu temple relics. The complex was not new to us, but we found it as fascinating now as we had done three years previously and filled our memory cards with beautiful digital impressions.
On our way back to Lutyen’s Delhi, the part of the city constructed by the British to house government buildings, we passed Hauz Khas, which Umesh casually mentioned was an upmarket shopping street. I had read about this area, which is situated between two former historic sites, and expressed the wish to have a walk there. We agreed on a thirty-minute break and I immediately regretted not having allowed more time, for the street with fashionable shops and trendy restaurants led us to a lovely green area with a huge lake and a natural park full of young people, picturesque pavilion-like tombs and other attractive remnants of the past.
We stopped to withdraw cash at an ATM, which caused Manoj and Umesh to tell each other horror stories about attacks at such places. However we were soon in the “safe” area near to our hotel which includes the president’s residence, the houses of parliament and ministries, where for security reasons, no vehicles are permitted to stop. To our surprise, Umesh explained that one of the neat little “Britisher” bungalows had been his childhood home. Lutyen’s architecture, which dominates a huge area, is a successful, harmonious combination of British, Mughal and Indian styles.
After tea and cake in the hotel lounge and a brief rest, we had a stroll to Hyderbad House and on to India Gate before it got dark. The long avenues leading to India Gate were full of Sunday evening walkers and Indian tourists having spontaneous picnics on the grass verges. The atmosphere was nothing short of fantastic! There were food and drinks stalls everywhere. Crouching women were wafting corn roasting over small fires, waiting for peckish customers. There were electric cars on hire for the kids and balloon sellers. Groups of young men eyed groups of young women across the crowded pavements and mobile phones stretched into the air as everyone seemed to be taking a selfie. People were spilling onto the lawns at each side of the road, where signs warned that entrance was forbidden. At the crossroads there was the usual chaotic hooting and the traffic police were useless. As for the noise, it was deafening!
DAY 4 in SAMODE
The following morning we were greeted by a smiling Manoj behind the wheel of a new car. It took us a while to pass through Delhi, which was hiding behind low cloud. Outside the city, where trucks are forbidden during the daytime, heavy traffic hit us in the suburbs and I was jolted out of my reveries on the uneven stretches of tarmac. However, the cloud eventually lifted and we were soon sailing past fields a-bloom with yellow rapeseed flowers. At wayside cafes lorry drivers were scrubbing themselves at water pumps in their underpants and the bottom of a freshly washed boy glistened in the sun. Abandoned cows grazed at the side the of the roads and then the first camel-drawn carts appeared, driven by white-clad whiskered and turbaned gents standing behind the animals with a whip. Ladies in brilliantly coloured garments shone like precious jewels in the fields or clustered together in courtyards.
As we reached the Aravali hills, there were small flocks of sheep feeding amongst the rubble between huge, ugly cement works. Some four and a half hours after our departure, past the sand quarries we entered the desert. The narrow thoroughfare that leads to Samode Palace was blocked by two camels and a cart bursting with fodder, so it took us some time to reach the Medieval village and beyond that, the hotel.
Samode Palace is totally charming and very luxurious. It is a pretty, huge yellow sandstone palace, a collection of turrets and domes and cusped arches, which contrasts with the harsh dark grey mountains that surround it. We were shown into the princess’s room which is often used a honeymoon suite and boasts a four-poster bed in the middle and a huge bath next to it. As we were investigating the balcony, flocks of pigeons homed in and out, shining blue-grey in front of the naked hills, making a terrific flapping noise. Drummers could be heard from the pink and white wedding tent that we had noticed at the entrance to the village. We unpacked briefly, then explored our new surroundings, watching the monkeys from the rooftop pool for a while, then relaxing by another pool downstairs to the sound of the wedding music that ricocheted from hillside to hillside.
After a cool beer in the courtyard we were given a guided tour of the palace with its sumptuous mirror hall and a durbar hall in which the frescoes and mirrors and miniature paintings shimmered in candle-light. Solid silver chairs and sofas from the 16th century gave us an impression of the enormous wealth of the maharajas of the day. Today, the impoverished maharaja lives in a more modest property opposite the hotel.
Dinner was a fine dining experience conjured up by a signature chef. We had a beetroot and paneer amuse-gueule with a spicy mango sauce, banana flower croquettes and crispy spinach with yoghurt and tamarind, a lychee sorbet followed by duck kidchi with lentils and cherry tomato chutney, eggplant masala, a variety of rotis and naans and rice and finally a delicious infusion of lemon and orange with spices and honey.
Next morning the hotel suggested we should take a jeep trip to the Samode Bagh, a second hotel belonging to the maharaja.
Our trip took us through the village and along a sandy country road where bristly black pigs and dirty cows were sharing the meagre pickings. Colourful ladies and solemn-looking men glowered at us from a bus stop. We did not get the impression that we were particularly welcome.
The Bagh is a pleasant hotel with tent-like bungalows and restaurant and hundreds of shady trees including guavas and mangos and a local fruit that looks like mirabelle plums. This was formerly a recreation place for the palace-dwellers with Mughal-style gardens, a fountain and a farm. Today, horses are still kept here and many birds, above all the green parakeets, inhabit the trees. There are bats, too, the cause of a very awful smell around the walls. We were offered tea and coffee and spent a pleasant hour bird-watching. The jungle babblers were babbling away in loving pairs, whereas the kingfishers kept flying away before we had chance to snap them.
Back in the village, we alighted in front of a scruffy step-well that had once been painted sky blue, obviously the pride of the village, but now sadly choking amongst overgrown vegetation and rubbish and neither attractive nor worthy of admiration. A crude picture sign indicated that there was a maternity unit nearby.
Accompanied by our guide, we passed through a thick gate in the old town wall to enter an ironmongers’ quarter. We were permitted to take photographs but nobody smiled and we did not feel very comfortable. A few metres further, a couple of men stooped over their tools on the floor were making resin bracelets, which were then decorated with tiny pieces of glass, the local style of bracelet that is popular at weddings, we were told. Of course they wanted to sell them and of course we had no desire to buy them, which did not go down well. Occasionally a cow would saunter past and blue-shirted school children who should have been in school, I would have thought, tittered as they passed. Some of the houses here were brightly coloured, photogenic mansions adorned with wrought-iron balconies, but most were small, simple buildings with badly blistered paint, no windows, open doors and no evidence of furniture inside. On the whole, the village was depressing and the only sign of happiness was the sound of laughter and play that emerged from within the walls of the school yard.
The temples were exceedingly scruffy and nobody attempted to show us in until we reached a building on the edge of the village, which looked rather romantic from the outside. A barking dog with blank yellow eyes growled at us constantly and I was rather afraid to follow our guide into the small temple complex. There was nothing to see in this temple apart from the pigeons that dived in and out of the untidy shrines, an elderly woman in a faded red dress who made futile efforts to chase them away and a younger woman who was washing pots in a corner. As we left the temple, the mad dog stopped growling and watched with a docile expression as we passed.
Just before we got back into our jeep, a boy asked me for chocolate and I cautiously put my hand into my bag to retrieve a handful of wrapped sweets. Before I knew what had hit me, I was suddenly surrounded by a hoard of vicious little monsters pulling onto my hand and scratching me, drawing blood. They were uncontrollable and I had to escape into our vehicle to avoid them. They hung on to the side of the jeep even when it was moving and I had to throw a handful of sweets onto the road behind them to make them let go.
The escapade filled me with sadness, a feeling of depression and helplessness that was to reoccur often during this India trip. Back at the palace, I tried hard to concentrate on my guide book and learn about the history of the religions of India, not an easy subject. Uncomfortable mental images of the alien village we had visited kept interfering with the written text and in the end I gave up and had a spontaneous pedicure instead.
The prospect of an exotic dinner always cheers me up and that evening we tried a local speciality, ghosh kebas, spicy hand-pounded lamb with grilled vegetables. We also ordered a Malabar prawn curry and the Rajasthan gram meal dumplings, ghatta masala. An event was taking place in the courtyard below our balcony when we retired to our room. Accompanied by fireworks and drums and an accordion-like instrument played by musicians kneeling on the floor, female dancers were performing a Rajasthan dance with fire-bowls on their heads, gliding along the square with long running steps.
DAY 6 in JAIPUR
There was no need to leave early the next morning, so we had a leisurely breakfast chatting to Nirwal, a lovely young homesick waiter from Calcutta. Outside, naive Australian tourists were feeding monkeys with bananas from the buffet, so it was not surprising that they started snatching bread from the tables of other guests.
This morning the village looked more friendly as we drove through, but people were still avoiding eye contact. Outside the village centre, the standard of housing seemed to improve. As a rule, the women were busy, while the men hung around idly in groups. Within an hour we reached the outskirts of Jaipur, a busy town which stretches on forever in a jungle of old buildings and new ones. The traffic was intense. A man leaned out of a bus to spit a long jet of phlegm onto the road.
A representative from our travel agency joined us at a crossroads and together we drove to our hotel, Narain Niwas, a heritage building that has seen better days. In the dull reception, stern, oldish men with oiled parted hair and thick moustaches seated behind a dark desk signed us in and we were shown into a garden room. We spent the early afternoon bird-watching in a part of the gardens that seemed to be a nursery. There were hoopoes and green parakeets and seven sisters and a wader by the pool. Here we watched, fascinated, as a parakeet pair mated and the male regurgitated into the female’s beak, giving the impression that they were kissing.
At the appointed time we met Manoj and drove into the old town, which had enchanted us three years previously. We parked in a street immediately outside the imposing city gates, a street full of high-class shops selling suits and silver and furniture and displaying names like Blackberry, Adidas, John Player and others. Well-dressed folk stepped in and out of these. The shops for the public at large are the stalls and small establishments on the old, arcaded streets within the gates. Here the streets were full of rubbish and the pavements, raised high to keep them dry, were blocked by men assembling bikes or doing repairs and piles of sand or gravel. Sickly-looking cakes and noodles and rice and tea were on sale, but the shop that fascinated me most was the sugar shop, in which different kinds of sugar and candies and meringues were piled high on platters. There were also shoe shops and stalls selling cheap jewelry and fabrics. A cow or two strolled through the arcades, munching. On the opposite side of the road, the sun, quite low by now, was illuminating the pink storeyed buildings and the rosy minarets and domes that stretched up in a row behind them. There seemed to be more traffic than ever and the fumes were stinging our eyes and irritating our lungs, while the pungent stink of stale urine and rubbish offended the nose. At least three men lay sprawled across the pavements, one in a heap of rubbish along with a mangy dog, seemingly drunk and wearing the dull clothes of the unwashed.
On the far side of the old town, where we would normally have strolled across to the city palace and the other sights, we found it impossible to cross the road; buses and rickshaws and cars were blocking each others’ way. So we turned into a side street, in which we were threatened by two-wheelers of all types and blocked by cows. Here were tiny tea places and photo shops and digital printing businesses and shops where ladies inspected bracelets or fabrics cross-legged on padded floors. Many businesses, where men were sitting on chairs at narrow tables, were not more than about 80cm wide. Some of the alleys at the sides, in which men stopped to relieve themselves, were so full of rubbish that walking was impossible. To be quite honest, we soon got tired of the smell and the dirt and returned somewhat dejected to the car.
We felt we had earned a gin and tonic on the terrace in front of the dining hall. We watched the daylight fade and the pleasant outlines of the historic building light up with dozens of fairy lights. Despite the cool wind, we dined in the garden, where a Rajasthan puppet show and a rather good dance show were being offered. This being the wedding season, fireworks were exploding all around us. But the best part of the evening’s entertainment came later; we were lulled to sleep by pleasant classical music, Indian-style, from a function taking place not far from our room.
Our guide in Jaipur was Sunita, a very educated thirty-three-year old lady from Delhi. She accompanied us to the famous Hawal Mahal or Palace of Winds for a photo stop then on to Amber. We skipped the elephant ride, content to photograph these gentle animals to the sound of the wind instrument player on a balcony. We went straight on to the beautiful palace and visited the Hall of Mirrors and the summer palace and ladies’ balcony and the so-called palaces, in fact quite simple rooms, that were built for the twelve wives of the former maharaja. Here, a colourful Dalit couple, sweepers, had abandoned their brooms and were posing for the tourists.
The highlight of this morning was undoubtedly our visit to the Galtaji Temple. This, the temple of monkeys, is situated ten kilometres from the city on the other side of a very poor area, where people evidently live in patchwork tents on heaps of rubble. As we pushed our way passed a number of holy cows at the entrance on a pitted road, we were approached by vendors of monkey food. Ladies with dripping hair and holding plastic bags containing wet garments were walking down the hill towards us, freshly bathed. We set off up the hill past various impressive old temple buildings set in a wonderful natural mountainous landscape to three huge basins of holy water fed by fresh springs.
At the first pool, many older women were discarding their blouses with no apparent sign of embarrassment, some dipping into the water in brassieres, others revealing naked breasts. Here they prayed above billowing skirts, some of them murmuring, fulfilling the ritual that will clean them of their sins and allow them a fresh start in their spiritual life. There were monkeys everywhere, gentle macaque monkeys, many with babies.
On the way up the steps to the second pool, we passed numerous beggars and vendors of bindis and other small items and a snake-charming family. At this basin, designated to both sexes but segregated, young women were pouring water over their heads. They were fully dressed, the men bathed in underpants.
They say the third tank is for the monkeys and indeed here, outside a shrine dedicated to a rishi or Hindu saint, named Galav, whole families of monkeys were bending down to drink. The view down across the temple complex was more than enjoyable.
Sunita left us to have a snack at a restaurant with a photogenic musician next to a turban museum. From here we walked to the famous Jantar Mantar, where gigantic 18th century astronomical instruments and geometric devices built in local stone and marble were baking under an inclement sun. After a brief visit to the City Palace, we were relieved to be able to take a short rest at the hotel. Later Manoj kindly drove us to see the beautiful black statues of a Rajasthani procession, not far from the famous Rambagh Palace, which so clearly invoke vivid images of India’s past. However a stern policeman forbade me to photograph them.
Our day ended with a thunderstorm and heavy rain that began just after our garden dinner.
DAY 8 in RANTHAMBORE
Manoj decided to take a minor road through a very rural area to take us to Sawai Madhopur. This made our journey very pleasant, for life in India seems much more intact in the agricultural areas than in the cities. The rural dwellings we passed were certainly modest by our European standards, simple farmhouses made from the locally made bricks or dried mud and thatched. Hardworking people could be seen in the bright yellow fields of rapeseed and, where there was sufficient water, wheat. The Rajasthan women we saw are tall and angular and very strong. They usually carry their toddlers on one hip and use the other hand to steady huge bundles of fresh green fodder for their cattle, sometimes wrapped in red cloth, balanced on the head.
On the pitted roads, colourfully decorated trucks and tractors churned along, hooting or with loud radio music floating from the open windows. Even in the poorest of areas fruit was stacked decoratively on the roadside stalls on which the vendors sit crossed-legged amongst their wares. Pigs and cattle and dogs were everywhere, but we noticed no chickens.
We joined the national highway at Lalsot, a thriving and very colourful market town with tarmacked roads that led us to the sprawling town of Sawai Madhopur. We were met by Vivek, who accompanied us to the beautiful resort at Narhagarh. As return guests we had been upgraded and were given an exquisite room with our own personal turret sitting area. The dining room had been renovated and extended, but the staff were, on the whole, people we recognised and were almost embarrassingly attentive.
Our first game drive in Ranthambore National Park, in a jeep driven by Raj Singh, took us to zone eight, a buffer zone about twelve kilometres from the town. The camels here are decorated with dark geometrical markings on their coat, particularly handsome. We passed the area where Shakir, our bearded and mostly silent guide, was brought up and just before the entrance to our zone, a picturesque, ancient temple.
Although we were not fortunate enough to spot the elusive tiger, we saw chinkara antelopes and sambar deer, red spotted deer and nilgais. We identified a white-chested kingfisher, a long-tail shrike, many jungle-babblers and a black-capped bulbul. There were wild boars and forest hogs all in the most lovely forest scenery. So we went to bed very satisfied.
Our night was rather restless thanks to the constant hootings of passing trains. I drank my early morning tea alone in cold, open courtyard, then we waited as a stream of guides entered the main gates uniformly protected from the icy wind in woollen hats or with scarves wound round their heads Indian-style, calling names such as Rosemary or Rachel or Claudia. Our guide was one of the last to appear. The seats in our open vehicle were wet with dew and the fleece blankets provided were hardly adequate, so before we set off, we put on all the clothes we had taken with us.
The sun was not yet up so the forest in zone four, alive with red spotted and sambar deer and black-faced monkeys, presented itself in monotone grey. At a waterhole favoured by cranes and moorhens, white-collared storks huddled together in the treetops. We were told that the Aravali mountain range stretching before our eyes is the second oldest in the world. Cheeky squawking tree pies perched on the frame of our open roof at the toilet stop. After this we made our way to a waterhole and our driver, Firo, tried to follow a series of tiger footprints. These led to a pond where the ground was too rugged even for our military jeep. Instead of a tiger, we were rewarded by a huge male sambar deer with magnificent antlers, who cocked his head defiantly as if to challenge us when we passed his bachelor herd on the roadside. Against the sun, two male deer were having a fight by a crocodile-infested lake. The dry, snapping sound of wood on wood ricocheted across the forest and apart from birdsong and the occasional drone of an insect, there was no other sound to be heard.
After a short breakfast and a shower we spent a considerable amount of time trying to get thoroughly warm. Then it was time for a light lunch before the afternoon tour began. Ekram turned out to be a very ambitious driver who was determined to show us a tiger. We headed for zone two and checked out all the waterholes along incredibly bumpy roads and across many fords. These offered sightings of crocodiles and waders and kingfishers. Afterwards we spent much time scanning a spot where a tiger had caught a red spotted deer earlier but there were no footprints to be seen. Alerted by the piercing cry of sambar deer and peacocks , we did catch sight of a very large leopard stalking rapidly across the horizon, belly-fat swinging under its lithe muscular back. Everyone wanted to get a good view of this magnificent beast and the drivers were vying for the best positions, which caused a terrible row, with our driver bellowing uncontrollably. It was already late and we had to race back to the checkpoint with only seconds to spare before the gates officially closed.
Once again, it was terribly cold. We had tea then put the heating on in our room before meeting up with a British couple for dinner. That night I concluded that despite our upgrade, we had been given the highest and hardest bed in Rajasthan.
Day 10 in BHARATPUR
We woke up to a lovely bright, fresh day to the sound of chanting from a nearby temple. The forest, however, was enshrouded in heavy mist.
Lalsot was full of people but this being Sunday, there was much less traffic than during our journey to Sawai Madhopur. On the main road, a woman with a vivid green dress observed us surreptitiously from under her matching veil, a sparkling steel water jar in her hand. Other women, balancing bowls of washing on their heads, were on their way to the water pumps. Boys and men were playing cricket on waste ground. Suddenly a group of five or six naked men appear on the road ahead, accompanied by a small group of white clad men. These were revered and respected Jain ascetics and nobody paid the slightest attention to their nakedness.
Further into the countryside, cow dung patties were drying at the side of the road and on the roofs of humble, doorless farmhouses, where they had been assembled in decorative rows. At a pump, a woman was washing her cow.
We reached the city of Dhausa. From here to Bharatpur, our next destination, temporary colourful gateways had been built at all the villages to welcome the touring Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Some villages had organised drummers to welcome the VIP, others had erected pavilions where he would be expected to rest and take refreshment. At one village an important-looking man was holding garlands of marigolds and throngs of people were waiting to greet the Chief Minister, mainly men, white-clad farmers in their dhotis and turbans. This was all very festive and peaceful but it held us up somewhat. We stopped for a coke while Manoj bought his lunch. Then he noticed our flat tyre.
Forced to stop at the side of the road where Manoj swiftly changed our wheel, we were scrutinised by a row of friendly men and boys who stopped to look and laugh at us. Behind them stood a farmhouse from where a woman and a small girl were heading for the fields down a trodden path bearing bundles of greens in cloths on their heads. They kept stopping to have a look at us. Flat disks of dung were drying in the late morning sun, propped up against the kerb. An outhouse made of mud had been artistically decorated with geometrical shapes. I was allowed to take a photo of the inquisitive onlookers.
Our spare wheel was rather flat, too, so for the modest price of five rupees, Manoj had the pressure checked and the wheel pumped at the next village. This area seemed to specialise in brick factories. Although this was Sunday, the kilns were smoking and people working. We noticed that many houses in the area were made of brick and there were small estates of single storey rooms with no windows and no doors in blocks of four or five, presumably for the workers. These people have virtually no furniture, everyone sleeps on the floor. At Bharatpur, the crowds thickened and we were diverted by the police.
We were given the best room in the house at Laxmi Heritage Vilas Hotel. This overlooked a courtyard with a view of the countryside from a broad balcony on the other side. The steep steps leading to our suite of three rooms were covered in small blobs of white paint and pigeon droppings. The rooms were full of old stuff including a gramophone and a baby’s cradle; a marble fountain sprouted out of the floor in the middle of the bedroom.
With an hour or two to spare before our local guide would accompany us to the bird sanctuary, we went on a discovery-tour and found that a wedding was being prepared on two immense lawns in front of the opulent restaurant. A tremendous fuss was being made, and a lot of work going on; tables were being laid and others set up, arches were being decorated with fresh flowers and sofas and chaises longues were being carted to sitting areas. Amplifiers and all sorts of electronic stuff were being brought in. A long entrance tent in white and gold had been erected from the street to the garden. Two men were overseeing these activities so we asked them how many guests would be expected. They told us that there would be 700 – 800 guests and invited us to come and try the food. A catering manager was called across and told to read us the wedding buffet menu. This was incredible. The menu consisted of twenty-two pages of type-written dishes, various Indian styles of food from Punjab and Rajasthan, Moghul dishes and Chinese and continental ones. There were mocktail stations and chattas and children’s starters as well as the main dishes. The catering manager also invited us to come and sample the food that evening.
Meanwhile, our lively, nimble nature guide Ramesh Gupta picked us up at reception and we drove to Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, one of the biggest world-wide. We were surprised to be asked to board a bicycle rickshaw at the gate. This was steered by Rampan, whose left hand was enveloped in a dirty cotton bag tied with a drawstring. Rampan had the typical unhealthy and hungry appearance of the lowest class and I felt sorry for him.
The park is absolutely delightful and though it was cool, the sun was out and diffusing a pleasant light across the many water landscapes. These are now fed by piped water, a consequence of five years of no rain in the area, after which the birds, particularly the Siberian cranes, stopped immigrating. Fortunately the sanctuary is visited by 400 other species. Ramesh pointed out ducks of all kinds, including species from the Himalayas, Siberia and China. We observed kingfishers, various cranes and stained storks; in the swamps there were purple swamp hens and grey geese and many other beautiful waders. The highlight was a pair of Indian Sarus cranes, the male taller than me at around 160 cm.
These are superb creatures and while we watched, they stretched their necks in unison and let out a piercing shriek, many times over, in response to the cries of their young, hidden on the other side of the narrow bank we were standing on. Then they suddenly stopped, also in unison, and continued to feed. The sun set. The shadows of jackals, larger than the ones we have often seen in Africa, moved behind us in the swamps. It was very peaceful and the light was wonderful but the evening was very chilly.
As a result of skipping lunch and the cold ride in the sanctuary, we felt that our hotel room was freezing cold. Willi had a hot shower to warm up and we found a heater to put on, then we went down to dinner and decided to sit down with a friendly group of eight French tourists in front of a log fire in the courtyard. We ordered a beer between us and shared our travel experiences with the French. Neither of us thought it would be right to accept the invitation to eat at the wedding and besides we were already ravenous, so we tucked into the buffet offered in the beautiful hotel dining-room, the highlight of which was undoubtedly a delicious, very sweet carrot dessert called gujar ka halwa.
Along with the other hotel guests, we observed the wedding from a distance at first and then just joined in. The local people were so kind and inviting and this being a rich man’s world, most people were speaking English. We politely refused the non-alcoholic drinks we were offered, but it was fascinating to move in and out of the crowds and enjoy the fireworks and terrific dance shows, which were performed on a stage in front of the sofa for the bridal couple. The shows were also broadcast on screens at the other end of the garden. A revolving movie-camera on a pole filmed the event. Eventually people started to eat.
It was really nippy but all the women were in glamorous saris, some of them sleeveless. The costly fabrics were bordered with fake stones and gold and silver or heavy with exquisite embroidery. The closest relations were wearing their best jewels; rubies and sapphires glittered on gold and silver around necks, ears and occasionally noses. We showed our enthusiasm and were rewarded by smiles and small talk.
One gent in the arrivals tent explained that the red turbans with long tails were being worn by the male members of the bridegroom’s family. A group of wedding musicians were drumming frenetically around the bridegroom, who we could not really see but appeared to be seated on a white recliner on a raised platform. Those still coming in left presents, mainly of money, at a table where everything was recorded into a ledger. I chatted to a group of elaborately dressed women, who turned out to be close relatives of the bride, and took a photo. Their younger children came up to speak to me and shook hands politely. A band was now playing and the professional dancers continuing to perform. We were suffering from the cold, so we went back to the courtyard, where the fire was still burning, and ordered a nightcap. We pondered over the rumours that we had heard about this wedding: that the bride came from far away, that this was a royal family wedding, that the entire wedding would cost more than one million pounds, that there were, in fact, a thousand guests and that the groom’s father was a very rich business man.
At eleven we were roused by curious cheerings and whistlings and decided to check on the wedding proceedings. Many frozen guests had already left and the crowd had thinned out considerably, which we found strange, since the bride had only just arrived. Decked out in very heavy jewelry and garments weighted down by silver embroidery, she was making her way through the crowds, towards the groom, accompanied by friends who were holding a red cloth above her head as she walked. The two met behind a stage I hadn’t noticed before, where the dancers were performing a new number to modern music. A huge lotus flower could be seen to rise slowly behind the stage, stopping about ten feet high. The flower opened to reveal the couple, who looked anything but happy, standing above the stage on a pedestal. She, double chinned, kept her eyes fixed demurely on the ground; he squinted into the bright lights. To each side of the two, a huge shower of Roman candles exploded into the cold night. This was very Bollywoodesque!
The crowds dispersed as the couple descended and appeared on the stage. They now split up again and made their ways separately along parallel paths to each side of a canal, where spouting water gushed through fountains. The musicians encouraged them by beating out traditional music that got increasingly intense and it was all rather erotic. The male friends and relatives surrounded the groom, dancing with hands in the air and hips swinging suggestively, and those of the bride did the same. The musicians stopped every now and again to chant things that we did not understand, then performed amazing dances and acrobatics with their drums. This all took time. A male guest charmingly handed me the rose that was tucked into his breast pocket when I asked what it signified. Eventually the couple reached the marriage sofa and sat down to be photographed with their families. Satisfied that we had seen most of what there was to see, we retired just after midnight to the strains of more wedding music.
This continued until late into the night, keeping us awake for hours and a mosquito just outside the net over our four poster bed kept us awake in the early hours. In the end we switched on a light on the far side of the room to divert its attention and were wide awake for our early bird-watching start.
DAY 11 in AGRA
It was clear that we were going to freeze on the bicycle rickshaw in the park at seven in the morning, before the sun had had a chance to warm the park up, but we had not anticipated such a biting cold in our fingers. Ramesh was punctual, Manoj arrived soon after and Rampan greeted us with a warm shake from his very calloused hands.
We soon got down from the rickshaw to walk. This was a kingfisher morning, but we also identified a woodpecker, brighter than I have ever seen. There was a stone eagle and there were owlets. We were photographed by a famous press reporter. The highlight, sighted on the way back, was a blue jay.
This was perched on a telephone wire and as it flew away, its glossy coat shone in a brilliant flash of blue. We looked hard to find blue throats under a bush, following the example of some locals. At the end of our tour, Rampan urged Willi, in vain, to give him a large tip, suggesting that 500 rupees would be “no problem”.
Breakfast was speedy and non-eventful but the shower water pleasantly hot, for which we were grateful. The journey to Fatehpur Sikri, over the border in Uttar Pradesh, took us less than an hour. Here we were met by Ram, an excellent, fashion-conscious local guide wearing fake Ray Ban sunglasses and a winter sports jacket over smart woollen trousers. From the car park, a bus fuelled by natural gas took us up the hill to the 16th century city built by Akhbar the Great.
The Mughal Akhbar was illiterate, they say, but diplomatic, tolerant, liberal, deeply loved by his people and surrounded by able scholars. The ancient city is something very special, a red stone palace complex featuring a water system with a tank for rain collection, a hall of private audience with a unique central pillar, a Hindu temple for his favourite wife and a fine chamber for his Muslim begum that is full of ornately sculptured fruits and flowers as well as birds and animals whose heads have since been removed. There are also decorative pools and a fantastically designed airy, tiered, palatial structure that was probably intended to accommodate the leisure activities of the ladies of the court. But the highlight of the complex is a huge mosque with the highest gate in India. To visit this we exited the palace grounds and were harassed a little by the hawkers. Huge groups of local tourists were seated on the steep, wide steps leading to the gate.
We drove to Agra, an ever-extending city that is gasping for space and throttled by four- and two-wheelers. On the way, we chatted to Ram about the castes and their systems and schooling, about meditation and yogi, the spiritual art of leaving the body through meditation. The city was totally smoggy. Our hotel, a business hotel that we were already familiar with, is huge and characterless but we were welcomed by garlands and had yellow paste smeared on our foreheads in the customary welcome. I spent the afternoon relaxing while Willi went to the gym.
The traditional Paatra restaurant here is well worth a visit. I made the mistake of ordering a horrible salty Punjab lemonade, but the rest of the meal was delicious. We ordered raan sikandra or Pashtun-style slow-cooked lamb which was classed as a starter but would have sufficed for the two of us as a full meal. This was the most excellent dish that we have ever tasted in this country and that is a true compliment. We also had chicken murg and vegetable curry with rice. A trio with a very gifted vocalist and musicians playing soft classical music, and excellent service complemented our lovely evening.
DAY 12 in AGRA and GWALIOR
At breakfast the following morning I returned from the buffet to find Willi sitting opposite a young, vivacious Chinese lady. She had appropriated my crockery and serviette. Her table manners were, by our standards, atrocious but she was friendly and forthcoming; in good English she told us that she had been in Agra for an exhibition, representing her father, whose company in Shanghai makes car parts. Apparently she was in a hurry to get to the airport and wanted to sit at a table from where she could keep an eye on her suitcase.
Two more Asian ladies were to join us that day. Ram asked for permission to include a pair of Japanese ladies on our tour of the Taj Mahal. These were Sumi , a 49 year-old architect with limited English and Yukatra, a 24 year-old designer with virtually none. They were friendly enough and we assumed that Ram was able to earn a little extra money from them, so we agreed.
The Taj Mahal struck me with the same magical attraction as before. This time the light was perfect, so the translucence of the Makrana marble was almost tangible. Ram explained that though marble is non-porous, light permeates the stone so it changes colour according to the position and intensity of the sun. He reminded us of the romantic story behind the building of this most magnificent of mausoleums. Early in the morning there were not so many visitors, though the numbers did increase. The tomb itself with its delicate, feminine latticework and ever so intricate flowery inlay work just happened to be empty of visitors as we went in, so we were able to look around and admire it at leisure. The jasper on the stonework round the tomb was particularly beautiful; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
After his excellent tour, Ram left us to enjoy the Taj and its settings in our own time. Later, the Japanese women wanted to go shopping at the tourist stands which was a little annoying and after waiting for them for a while in the hot sun, we decided to continue to the famous fortress on our own. However, Ram insisted that we should call in at a factory that produces the traditionally Persian marble inlay work first. We obliged, though somewhat reluctantly. The objects produced here are exquisitely made and the table tops in particular appealed to me very much, but the prices are exorbitant and we do not want to keep acquiring new things.
The town seemed less grey and dismal as it had done the day before but the traffic was still asphyxiating and there was chaos at the fortress. After our trip to the outlet, Ram seemed to be pushed for time. We assumed that he had found an afternoon engagement and wished to be free of us. Although this fortress is much larger than the one in Delhi, there seemed to be less to visit. The massive entrance gate is simply splendid. We rapidly perused the chamber that used to be frescoed in silver and gold and the twin chambers that were built for Akhbar’s daughters. Sadly, the hall of mirrors is now closed to visitors. There were constant views of the Taj Mahal through lacy screens and under cusped arches and finally we had a magnificent view of the so-called Pearl Mosque. However, on the whole I found the tour a little disappointing.
Gwalior, the capital of the Scindia state, was our next destination. The toilet facilities en route are few and far between, Manoj had warned us, so still on the outskirts of Agra we visited a loo at a filling station, a blackened but basically clean squat-pan in a cabin where the door would not close. Outside Agra there were simple markets selling roughly hewn stepladders and crude clay pots. We reached Madhya Pradesh, India’s central province, where the cow patties were stapled differently and less artistically. The women were wearing shorter veils. Then suddenly we were in Rajasthan again, a province with a distinctly different feel to it, a province that we have come to feel at home in, full of gaily clad groups of women in long veils.
Manoj told us that the district that followed, a desert no man’s land where Rajasthan, Uttah Pradesh and Madyha Pradesh meet, is a dangerous, criminal place that you avoid at night. The sparse housing that lines the highway consists of terribly poor shacks and half-destroyed houses. Beyond that, we crossed the wide, crocodile-infested River Chambal and Manoj left the car to pay our Uttah Pradesh road tax – an incredible 2,400 rupees for eight days.
Exotic market scenes made the journey pleasant until we turned off for Gwalior into the worst area we have ever seen. There were no proper roads for miles. Gypsies housed under plastic sheeting covered thick with heavy, brown dust from the road works. Even in the car, our eyes were stinging. The area was pathetic and depressing. A young girl aged about ten, with totally matted hair and drab, faded clothes was looking for things she might be able to use or even eat on the railway tracks. Cows were also walking along these tracks and a young man was actually driving his three cows along them. Then a train suddenly came puffing onto the scene, a train like the ones you see on television and think they cannot possible exist, with people travelling crossed-legged on the roof and others spilling out of the open doorways before it has halted. Behind open window bars, the seated passengers were squashed together in ridiculously close rows. Needless to say, there was no platform; the train stopped directly at the side of the road.
The town itself was not so depressing. There are tarmacked roads and there is even a zoo. However we were shocked by the sight of a woman and a young child who had been knocked down and were lying injured on road. Our representative, Prakash, joined us at the Taj Usha Kiran Palace Hotel, which was built as a guest house for the Prince of Wales 125 years ago. The hotel was perfect, very pretty with a winding staircase at the entrance and a balcony that ran round the entire building. A friendly receptionist brought us slightly salty coke and showed us into a magnificent room with an exotic bathroom. There was nothing more on our programme for that afternoon so we explored the hotel and its grounds, discovering extensive gardens with well-kept lawns that were being decked out in two places for weddings. There were temples and birds and whistling striped squirrels. The spa was a dream and offered, among other treatments, a “royal” massage with musicians playing live behind a screen.
Once we had found the elusive young barkeeper, we ordered a gin and tonic and chatted to him for over an hour, then dined in the hotel restaurant, which specialises in Nepalese and Maratha food. We chose cottage cheese dumplings filled with dates and lamb kebabs with rice and badam halwa, a calorific peanut desert with lots of sugar and ghee.
Prakash arrived punctually at ten and introduced us to Manu, a surly Brahman with a hoarse voice and no sense of humour. I’m afraid I took an instant dislike to him, partly owing to his thin, greasy hair that curled up where it met the collar of his shirt. Manoj drove us through the town to the ancient fortress. From the hill on which the fortress was built, set in natural rock, you do not actually see much of it, though it is visible from most parts of the town. Within the complex, only the exclusive Scindia school still actually functions. On a platform overlooking the city, relaying its daily noises and colour, we watched a family playing with kites between washing, laid out to dry on the roof.
Blue and green tiles on the outside walls portray parrots and ducks that are supposed to be swans and there are elephants for luck. The first Gwalior school of music, for which the city is famous, was integrated within its walls. Mandir Palace, inside the fortress, is a magnificent 15th century building, constructed completely in Hindu style, which makes it so unique. You can still see an elephant boarding point here, a space in the solid wall level with the average elephant back. From here the visitor steps into the first courtyard and a ladies’ music room, from where the ladies used to listen to court musicians who would be playing behind screens.
In the same courtyard was the ladies’ bedroom, a common room from where musicians and singers apparently used to wake the royal ladies by singing or playing. Opposite there was a library, the place where the maharaja consulted the scholars he had surrounded himself with. Secret passages led from here through the palace. The courtyard was decorated by sculptures portraying lotus flowers, coconuts and even a betel box. And, of-course, the sun, symbolic of the royal family. These ancient sandstone carvings were diffused in rosy sunlight, giving the palace a magical touch.
We showed interest in the posters advertising the light and sound show that takes place every evening at the fortress and after many suspicious calls on his mobile, Manu organised the agent to accompany us that evening and booked our tickets. Outside the palace, young boys were selling poor quality postcard books. I managed to hand one of these boys a handful of sweets without being seen by the others, then we drove a mile or two further to visit the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law temples, dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva respectively. The carvings in these remarkable buildings were Jain-style and the representations of dancing girls would have been lovely, had the Mughals not erased the faces of all the carvings they could reach. From the upper temple, there were clear views across the entire city.
Before we descended the hill to reach the present maharaja’s palace, we stopped to admire gigantic statues of Jain tirthankars or enlightened humans, which were hewn in the rock in the mid-fifteenth century. Many of these are huge, one measuring seventeen metres and considered to be the largest in Northern India.
The royal family normally reside in Delhi, since the maharaja is the Minister of Electricity, but they still inhabit part of the sprawling Jai Vilas palace which is only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. The rest of the palace houses government offices and a museum. The highlight of the visit is without doubt the former dining-room for up to 150 guests, in which a solid silver toy train used to run on silver tracks along the central table to supply spirits and wines and cigars to the illustrious guests. Next to this is a traditional Marathi-style dining-room in which the guests would have sat crossed-legged on the floor and eaten from individual thali tables. We admired a gigantic chandelier made from Murano glass and a crystal fountain from Belgium. The private audience room was a sumptuous sitting-room all in gold with two more incredible chandeliers. These are so heavy that it is said an elephant was first hung from the ceiling to see if it could hold the combined weight of these chandeliers.
We took leave of Manu after only two and a half hours. There was ample time to book a massage at the spa, where we were treated to a detox drink with honey and lemon at the poolside, then have lunch, a kathi roll with chicken tikka for me and a chicken burger for Willi. Then we walked to town, passing under a lovely ornamented gate, blue on one side and pink on other. The town centre was dusty and fumy and quite stressful since there was a great deal of lethal traffic and hardly any pavement. In a word, this walk was nothing like the romantic stroll we had envisaged. A beggar asked us for money and followed us for some time and we were stared at rather, so we decided that the hotel surroundings were much more pleasant than the smoky town and soon retraced our steps.
The nearer we got to the hotel, the more we passed particularly nicely dressed grown-ups with nicely dressed children who were walking towards us. They were coming from a school opposite the hotel. We cautiously looked into the garden and were waved in by friendly-looking adults who turned out to be taking part in a parents’ meeting. For this occasion the school had planned an Indian culture programme and the children were dressed in traditional clothes and wearing a lot of make-up for the songs and dances which they had performed. Not only were we encouraged to take photos of the children with their mothers and fathers, the teachers also invited us to partake of a tiny cup of sweet and very milky tea. Communication was difficult, but we came away with a new Hindi word: shickshacka or teacher.
Our Indian aroma therapy massage was not only very reasonable at 2,500 rupees, it was also bliss! We were shown into a steam room first, to clean the pores, then two delightful, attractive and very gentle Thai girls accompanied us into a dimmed room overflowing with rose petals for a foot-washing ceremony. The massage itself, with rosewood creams and oils, was given simultaneously and was totally relaxing.
It was cold outside by the time we were due to leave the hotel for our sound and light show. We arrived very early and were just sitting down on the blanket-covered steps after the first Hindi version when the maharaja’s son, the uvraj, appeared. A divan made of thick, plush cushions was immediately made up and servants bearing drinks and snacks made a great fuss of the young man, who appeared to have brought a few university friends from England with him. At any rate the English they were speaking was typical of the modern-day British aristocracy and it could have been Will and Harry sitting next to us! The show was really very enjoyable despite the cool wind and it was fascinating to hear about the history of Gwalior and the development of the classical music scene in days gone by.
DAY 14 in ORCHHA
We were prepared for the rough road that takes you from Gwalior to Orchha, but not for the dismal surroundings. On the road I noticed a middle-aged woman standing with her eyes closed and hands pressed together in prayer, muttering silently in the middle of the traffic. On other side a little boy was having a public crap. It started to drizzle. The road was incredible, consisting of narrow patches of tarmac between gigantic potholes. There were sand quarries to the left and to the right and modest tents for the workers. Roughly cleared steps had been carved in the sand cliffs leading to basic clay huts with no doors and no windows.
The surroundings became worse and worse and the dwellings increasingly pathetic, sometimes just brushwood heaped up in an attempt to provide shelter. Here there were no shops, no facilities at all, just sand, dust, fumes and dirt. It became clear why so many poorly clad children were not attending school here. For a start, they probably did not get up until the sun was high enough in the sky to warm them after the chilly nights in inadequate housing. The roads were nearly impassable and there was certainly no sign of any school buses. The traffic became chaotic. Our eyes were stinging and Willi’s throat congested. In between isolated fields of sugar cane, thick black smoke emerged from the tall chimneys of the local brick factories. This was the most depressing journey we had made and that under grey skies which eventually yielded rain.
Not far from Orchha, the countryside became more appealing. We stopped for a masala tea in Datia and carried on to the next large town, which was Jahnsi. I was negatively impressed by the long stretches of rubbish here, not in heaps, but strewn along the wayside where cows were rooting about. Men were crouched together in groups of two or three making fires out of old cement bags on small piles of rubbish in an attempt to get warm. It occurred to me that even for simple necessities like matches, the people here need cash.
Orchha is a very small place but was teeming with people. The Bundelkhand Riverside Hotel was not of the standard we had been fortunate enough to have found so far and I was a little alarmed as a rat scuttled past in the breezy, open reception. The stained, lumpy mattresses on the bed frames outside the rooms were not assuring and neither were the greyish towels and bed linen or the cockroach that appeared from behind the wardrobe. I made a mental note not to shower here. The river Betwa flowing outside our room was bleak and its banks not in the slightest inviting. We were so cold and dispirited, that we decided to make an exception and have a hot lunch.
After which a very pleasant guide called Rajesh came to meet us in reception. We were taken to the romantic Mughal palace Jahangir Mahal, where we were greeted by huge langur monkeys and vultures. It is said that the Rajput king of Orchha built the palace to ingratiate himself with Sha Jahan, who stayed here only one night. Sha Jahan was so impressed that he appointed him maharaja. It is a lovely palace built on several floors in partly blackened yellow and red sandstone, featuring stairways and fluted domes and ornamental balustrades and balconies decorated with tiles that once gleamed turquoise and green. The image of Ganesha is present throughout, particularly on the lintels, with his trunk turned to the left to represent meditation, to the right for prosperity, down as welcome and up for good luck. Camel stables and a water tank complete the complex.
The Raj Mahal palace, just up the road, was built a century before. There is little to explore here but the royal suite contains amazing frescoes depicting the nine incarnations of Vishnu, which have been preserved thanks to an ingenious architectural system of natural lighting, so that sunlight has hardly affected the paintings. More frescoes, these in black and white, were waiting for us at the Laxmi Narain temple on a hill outside the town centre. This is only open to the public on certain religious days, so we were fortunate to be able to see them.
Next Ramesh took us to the banks of river to visit the chattris or cenotaphs built in tiered pavilions for fourteen Bundelkhand kings.
Around the Ram Raja temple, which we were due to visit in the evening when the aarti rituals take place, is a lively market. This was particularly thriving because the thirteenth day of the month has a special religious significance, so the town was full of women walking barefoot and sadhus or religious men. There was plenty to look at and I stopped to talk to a woman selling bracelets, who allowed me to take her photo. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by curious women. Later, three chai-drinking ladies also let me photograph them, but only on condition that I took them drinking their tea!
It was getting rather grey by this time and by the time we reached the sanctity of the hotel it was pouring down with rain and thundering. Consequently we rather reserved about the prospect of visiting the aarti ceremony. It was not only cold as we gingerly stepped barefoot into the wet temple, but also jolly slippery. To be honest, it was not easy to follow what was going on here. Bells were being rung, priests and worshippers alike were opening their arms high above their heads and circling candles and chanting and groups of people were singing. This was followed by more songs in Sanscrit followed by songs in Hindi and a blessing. We followed Ramesh round the temple and I gave a donation of twenty rupees, for which I was given a blessing, a milk sweet, like a crumbly, spherical shortbread, which I shared with Ramesh and Manoj. This, Willi maintained afterwards, was the cause of the ailments that were to prevail in the days to come.
DAY 15 in KHAJURAHO
The trip to Khajuraho took four hours on reasonable roads. The land was blessed with many ponds and lakes and the crops were doing well. It was evident that the rural population here had a relatively easy life.
At the small Radisson hotel, we were met by Dev, a greasy, grumbly travel agent representative who persuaded us to book tickets for a show featuring dances from around the country that evening .
Rajendra, the local guide, was a capable and well-informed man in his thirties in a dark suit with a suave white scarf and sunglasses. We visited the west temple area first. Of the twenty-five middle-aged sandstone temples that still exist in Khajuraho, most are to be found in this area. Originating from as early as the ninth century, these temples are beautifully kept, especially if you consider that they were enveloped in jungle until the till British General Cunningham released them ten centuries later. The temples in Khajuraho are famous for their erotic images.
This was a world in which tantric practices were accepted, so it was natural that an explicit depiction of sexual life should be used to teach the young men and women of the day how to achieve bliss and divine union through ecstasy in the sexual act. Oral sex and fornication as well as the 84 positions from the Kharma Sutra, some of which require excellent physical condition and a great deal of imagination, are on show in these sculptures. It did cross my mind that the whole idea of the attainment of cosmic consciousness through sexual practices could possibly be an excuse for wild sex.
On the whole the temples are very beautiful and the sculptures not at all offensive. Not only our guide but also the others, competent in languages ranging from Italian to Japanese and Korean, were totally unembarrassed. Apart from the erotic themes there are lovely images of wild boars and flowers and elephants. The majority of the people in the temple area were locals and Indian day trippers who appeared to be here for a get-together or a picnic.
The eastern area is much less popular and the temples not as erotic. A working Jain temple was covered with the typical images of dancing girls and statues of Hindu gods, included in the ornament to please the Hindu kings. While we were walking round this beautiful temple, we spotted a magnificently coloured Indian roller. We popped into the Jain museum, which I hoped would give a brief history of the religion, but the exhibits were limited to a few ancient carvings.
There was very little time to rest before we were to be picked up for the dance show in a small theatre with an emporium strategically situated next door. Being early, we admired some silk cushion covers there and debated whether or not they could be packed in our already full cases. The show was a very entertaining, though not exactly authentic, rendering of regional dances and music nicely performed by attractive artists in lovely costumes.
DAY 16 in BHANDHAVGAR
At Bhandhavgar National Park, we were due to have our first game drive the following afternoon, so we had to leave very early. The landscape became increasingly serene, consisting of apparently intact rural areas. I dozed most of the way with stomach cramps.
Once we had left leafy Khajuraho behind us and climbed into the mountains, the roads became completely enshrouded in fog. The visibility was so poor that we needed our warning lights on and the journey became rather exacting for Manoj. Grey silhouettes of tall trees lined the roads and otherwise there was not much to see in the small hamlets apart from many children wrapped in winter jackets, often relieving themselves by the road. Naturally these children were not in school and it became obvious why the literacy rate in the region is well below the national average. The womenfolk here were carrying extraordinary amounts of thick firewood on their heads or fetching water.
It became necessary for me to find a toilet. Manoj was very protective and personally checked the facilities at the filling stations we stopped at before allowing me to use them. He then decided to use a new road, which he considered to be a short cut and which took us to the cement-making town of Satna on the limestone belt. There are several prominent Jain temples in the city and we witnessed a scene which filled us with awe. A pilgrim, accompanied by a small group of devotees, was journeying to the temple by prostrating himself on the road after every single step he took.
We drove through an extremely muddy village where nobody wore shoes. There was a school here and the local brick houses of relatively good quality. Several women were standing barefoot on the thresholds of these houses, looking out onto the road. Just before we entered the national park, the fog lifted and we continued the journey on a broad rough road that was flanked by lovely woods.
Our heart dropped when we drove into the Bhandhavgar Vilas compound, for the car park was a mere clearing in the sand and nobody appeared to greet us. But first impressions can be entirely wrong and we signed in at a charming wooden reception with a library and a clean, restful pool. Our room was enormous with a bathroom that was half as large and an additional outside shower. There were sitting areas at the front and at the back. Utter luxury!
Willi had a hurried but excellent lunch before joining a German couple on a jeep for his game drive. He reported that the guide was unmotivated but the driver very good. There were no tigers to be seen but plenty of spotted deer and he enjoyed the landscape. I felt really quite ill and feverish and slept most of the afternoon and again at night.
For the early morning game drive the next day Willi had to get up at the ridiculous time of a quarter to five! I breakfasted on my own on tea on a banana and a slice of toast served by a sympathetic staff and spent most of my day reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.
Willi reappeared mid-morning for a late breakfast. Again, he had had no tiger luck. We strolled round the beautiful gardens watching birds and butterflies then had lunch outside. I had considered accompanying him on the drive later in the afternoon, but it was just as well I decided to stay at the hotel. This time Willi saw two tiger cubs from a distance lying on the dam, but again he came home frozen stiff. The staff had set the tables for dinner outside, but brought our brazier right up to the table for extra warmth. They bent over backwards to ensure that we were as comfortable as possible. After a medicinal gin and tonic, I risked a homeopathic portion of dinner but this was a serious mistake. Consequently much of my night was spent shivering on the loo in our icy bathroom.
DAY 18 in KATNI and ALLAHABAD
The manager of our hotel provided us with a lunch box for our long trip to Allahabad which was scheduled to include a six-hour train journey from Katni. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through the peaceful park with its spotted deer, which reminded me so much of Kenya’s Rift Valley. I was longing to get rid of the sweets we still had and when I noticed a group of girls in uniform, I asked Manoj to stop. There was a little misunderstanding, for he pulled up outside a small village school and urged me to go into the yard. Three classes with around sixty children were being taught outside and there was not a sound to be heard from them. I approached a teacher who was supervising her class of young teenagers on a balcony. Girls on one side and boys on another, they were quietly writing in workbooks cross-legged on the floor.
It was my plan to let the teacher distribute my sweets as she saw fit, but she insisted that I should hand the sweets out and I began to panic, not really knowing if there were enough to go round. In the end I placed the bag on the floor and changed the subject by asking if English was taught here. One of the children was instructed to show me his English workbook and I was quite impressed, though it became clear that the children were not actually up to speaking freely. I then explained that I was a former teacher and asked if I could teach the children a little song. Now all the children stopped whatever they were doing and stood up to go through the motions of “Hands, shoulders, knees and toes” with me. I regretted having started all this immediately, as Indian children are not used to responding in the European fashion but it is something I have often dreamt of doing on my travels. I did feel rather stupid in the end but they were all very kind and I was allowed to take a photograph. A curious but friendly group of fathers and boys also asked to be photographed outside the school compound.
Katni is a large, chaotic city that Manoj was not familiar with and so it happened that we almost got stuck in the very narrow alleys of the city centre. The old shopping streets, like Delhi’s Chandi Chowk, were almost impassable. Some of the people crowded round the station area had exceptionally dark skin and features more Negroid than Asian and I assumed that these were tribals. They were mostly just hanging around, though one was wielding a broom on platform 2. On the whole, the station area is a disaster. Groups of destitute people were camping on the pavement, their belongings sometimes hidden under a blanket, and children were dozing under plastic sheets in the hot sun on the ground.
One group of such people attracted my attention.
They were two quite pretty and attractively dressed young women with a girl of about seven or eight and two slightly older boys. The two women stashed a few belongings under the blanket and left. I imagined they were prostitutes on their way to work. The little girl, in a faded pink T-shirt, obviously had a broken foot. The image of her hobbling along on her heel with the badly swollen foot sticking out at an abnormal angle has since haunted many of my sleepless nights. She had a stick and a small ball and got up to limp to a side road where she played for a while, driving the ball into puddles with her stick. Then she sat to rest her foot and began to smash something on the road with the stick. Suddenly she got up and flopped down besides one of the boys, exhausted. There was no interaction of any kind between the children and that is what disturbed me most about the situation, I think. This little girl will never have the chance to learn anything other than the work of the two ladies, it occurred to me.
Further along the pavement a group of about seven, including a heavily pregnant woman whose belly protruded defiantly under a long, drab skirt, were clearly getting ready to move somewhere else. Washed clothes and blankets and cooking pots were being wrapped in huge sheets of plastic. The opposite side of the road on which our car was parked was being used as a pissoir by men and little girls alike. On a roof above them, an elderly woman was spread out her washing on a wall to dry. She was being teased by a young man.
Manoj left the car to check where our train was due to leave from, then we carried our baggage up the stairs and onto a dusty platform. The station did not smell nice! Many of the people who were also waiting for trains, obviously returning home after hospital treatment, some with crutches and swollen limbs, were muttering to themselves. A weathered old woman with white hair sprouting from under her headscarf was scratching her trousered bottom non-stop as she walked along the platform. Then a little girl with short hair and no knickers under her tunic approached a well-to-do family standing nearby, holding her hand open in an unmistakeable plea for money or perhaps something to eat. At public taps, people were filling plastic bottles.
Eventually Manoj joined us on the platform again with the bad news that our train would be arriving with sixteen hours’ delay! There was no way that we could stay here until seven o’clock the next morning and I doubt whether Katni has a hotel that we would have felt comfortable in, so we returned to the car and Manoj began a series of phone calls. One hour later we were on the way to Allahabad in Manoj’s vehicle. The prospect of driving a further 258 kilometres on a road surface that resembles a very bad lunar landscape clearly did not appeal to Manoj, but he is a professional in every way and would not have left us alone in Katni.
The drive through the city was interesting enough. There were people everywhere, people in tuctucs or waiting for one, sitting on railings or walls or on plastic chairs in front of their shops or simply resting on the dirty roads and pavements. On the outskirts schoolchildren in smart uniforms were spilling out of school yards, some of them on bicycles. Muslim girls wearing fancy little pillbox hats with veils, like those worn by some Emirate air hostesses, were also leaving school in groups. A little later, ten pairs of curious eyes peeping from the slits in their burquas laughed at us from the back of a transporter and their owners waved to us.
What we saw next made us cringe. A man accompanied by two friends was rolling, to a temple presumably, on a bed of nails! He would roll his body across the board and when he fell to the ground on the other side, his friends would move the board forward for his next roll. Naturally he was covered in blood. Manoj explained that he would be fulfilling a pledge.
The National Highway number 7 is not worthy of its name. There were long stretches where it was impossible to drive faster than 15 kph and the journey took us a total of nine hours. There was plenty of time to look around the villages we were driving through until darkness set in. At first these were pretty villages where traditional neat houses in terracotta colours were painted blue, sometimes with geometric decorations. Some of these seemed to be merely facades with outhouses behind. There were many cement factories in the area.
On the whole, the men stood idly watching the women working. The latter were using their hands as a tool to scoop soil from piles of gravel for making the roads or balancing huge packages of fodder on their heads, usually with a small child in tow, on their hips or straddled across one shoulder. Others were doing the washing at a water pump. As we progressed, we drove through Muslim areas with countless small mosques and schools, in villages where richer schoolgirls were sitting upright on bicycles that bobbed along the rough surfaces of these awful roads. There was a pleasant valley where our road was flanked by mustard seed and a little wheat. A little girl could be seen helping her mother in the field by wrenching long grass from between the crops and making little heaps that would be collected into bundles.
It was completely dark as we entered the town of Rewa. You could see candles flickering outside the huts and naked electric bulbs that were hanging straight down from the brick houses or shining through the cracks in ill-fitting wooden doors. Shadows of men were returning from the fields where they had relieved themselves, carrying the tell-tale plastic bottles of water used for washing themselves .
Before we came to Allahabad the traffic became totally chaotic, because it was past ten o’clock and the trucks were now permitted to enter the city. The drivers were lunatic and a particularly volatile and erratic car driver managed to hit the car in front. Trucks with fat bales of fodder were blocking the road because their drivers had disappeared. There was no discipline whatsoever. Fortunately a man on the roadside gave Manoj the tip that he should take another road and so we sneaked into Allahabad the back way. In the city, Manoj had to ask the way to our hotel several times; the people he approached were all extremely friendly and helpful.
It was almost midnight when we arrived at the Kanha Shyam Hotel, where our guide Anuch had stayed up to greet us. Manoj had been absolutely fantastic. He had stopped neither for food nor for water all day. We had also hardly eaten. My body was shaking and I kept reeling after the short night and the long, bumpy drive. We slumped onto our beds under a ventilator that could not be turned off and slept well despite the churning feeling of emptiness in our stomachs.
Anuch had suggested we leave a little later than normal for our tour of Allahabad and we were grateful for the short lie-in.
Bramod the driver pulled up outside the hotel and we set off with Anuch for the Sangam, the holy place where three rivers meet: the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, which does not actually exist. Before we joined the crowds on the banks of the two physical rivers, Anuch took us to the Mughal Fort, where a holy Banyan tree adorned with red cloth was heavily guarded. There were many holy men there, most of them dressed in orange robes, the colour of which is apparently supposed to curtail sexual desire. The pathway to the fort was lined with beggars and hawkers and fake saddhus. We looked out for the real ones.
Every twelve years the Kumbh Mela, a popular Hindu gathering for ritual bathing, is held here and last year, it attracted 120 million people, with 30 million devotees and ascetics turning up on one single day. Throngs of people pilgrim to this vast, dusty plain on the banks of both rivers to take their cleansing dips and perform pujas for their deceased. This was the anniversary period and therefore very busy, although not comparable to the Kumbh Mela itself. This being the last week of the holy month, the crowds were beginning to return to their homes.
The plain was still covered with tents and shelters which house ascetics and holy men, saddhus , and the heads of the ashrams, the gurus. Lean-to toilets, totally inadequate and not in the least bit private, had been erected at a place near the river banks, but that did not deter people from urinating in public. The site reminded me of the pictures you see of medieval jousting tournaments, though the tents were considerably less romantic and less colourful. Some of the babajis bring a whole entourage with them, entire ashrams and a handful of women who look after them. Bramod drove us around, searching in-between the lines of tents to show us the holy men. We discovered two of these, very strange creatures with blackened faces and straggling beards and white paste smeared over their faces, sitting in front of their shelter, naked except for the cloths wrapped around their genitals.
Anuch asked these men if we could film them in return for a donation for the marijuana they smoke to kill their sexual arousals and to facilitate meditation. They acquiesced, though we, the tourists, were clearly not to bother them with such worldly questions. There was a lot of picking up of cow dung patties and dramatic throwings of iron tongues and pourings of ghee over flames and murmurings. They were supposed to be in trance but they were quick enough to exit when their mobile phones rang.
Elsewhere, the black akhara saddhus who perform at cremations, were also begging for donations. One clearly had a chain clipped through his penis to “kill it”, we were told. Others were singing holy songs and chanting. Nearer the river, a man shaved his little boy’s head so the hair could be offered to the family’s deceased relatives. All around, people were changing behind carefully held cloths and bathing and singing. Joyful family processions with drummers and flagstaffs bound with red cloth were making their way to the rivers. Spiritual women of all ages were lighting ghee candles and placing them in little newspaper boats filled with flowers to sail on the rivers. A young woman who had already taken her dip was pasting red henna on the parting of her long black hair, a ritual to ensure her husband a long life. Not far away, a little girl was admiring her freshly henna’d hands.
The fascinating, festive atmosphere was enhanced by the meal vendors and vendors of fruit and flowers and the little newspaper boats, all of which were being sold as offerings. Boat trips along the banks of the holy rivers were being offered to the day trippers. In the rivers, people were not only bathing but also cupping the waters into their mouths. The atmosphere was that of a huge public party. Then suddenly, anachronistically, a college group marched onto the scene armed with posters that advocated cleaning up the Ganges and pleaded for ecological solutions.
Captivating though this was, it was also exhausting. We returned to our hotel via a large fairground and chatted with Anuch in the reception for quite some time, trying to right the world. Finally, we drove to Nehru’s house and enjoyed the rose garden and the photo exhibition there. A family even photographed me, for a change.
Although it was rather late, we made the spontaneous decision to have a light lunch at the hotel. I could not resist the chicken biryani with masala coke, both of which were a mistake. However, we had the interesting experience of meeting the executive chef, who later sent complimentary cookies to our room.
We badly needed to stretch our legs and decided to have a closer look at the cathedral, the largest Christian building in Asia. The hotel was preparing for a wedding feast that evening and as we passed the entrance on our way out, a white stallion in all its embroidered finery and a brass band were waiting for the groom to arrive. What a contrast to the slums on the way to the cathedral square! We passed a bus shelter. One of the wooden benches had been converted into a bed, complete with covers, and the space underneath was packed full with household belongings. An elderly lady was crouching behind the bench.
The colourfully upholstered bicycle rickshaws that are typical for the city passed us by in silence on the main road. A couple of children pulled and tugged at our clothes as they asked for money until an old man shouted at them. A puppy was scratching itself so hard that it was whelping with the pain. Around the fence surrounding the cathedral, carpets had been hung out, evidently for sale. The onion vendors were pushing heavily loaded carts of the fresh red vegetables along the road. A small girl in a pink sweatshirt was cleaning her teeth in the gutter as many do. Two others ran away from the guava-sellers stall, each crunching his teeth into an unripe fruit. Women with their backs to us were scrubbing cooking utensils with water from a canister. Nobody bothered us, though plenty gaped and a couple of young men tittered to each other as we passed.
The wedding was in full preparation when we returned. While the guests arrived in full regalia for the wedding feast, we could hear the brass band welcoming in the groom, playing music that sounded like a mix between Spanish Easter processional music and British marches. We were obliged to eat from the buffet that evening since the executive chef had made two dishes especially for me! This was a very spicy mutton rogan josh, which I ate with an equally spicy mushroom mattar and a sweet and greasy moong dal halwa. It was very clear that this was going to cause problems.
The wedding was a very loud affair and so were the Indian men in the next room, until they went out to join the other guests. Every now again, there was an explosion of fireworks and a performance of drums.
DAY 20 in VARANASI
After a dreadful night caused by the rich dinner, we set off for Varanasi. In a rural area Willi wanted to stop so he could film the cow dung patty makers at the roadside. This caused quite a sensation.
An old lady came and grabbed my arm and brabbled away, apparently saying it was a blessing that we had come and that she didn’t hear well these days you know and so on. It was quite funny especially for the other villagers who came to see what was going on. Bramod and Anuch stopped a little later for spinach pakori and tea, which was served in small clay cups. I was a little startled when they smashed the cups on the ground when they had finished.
Varanasi being very congested, it took ages to cross the city and reach the hotel, where Anuch decided it would be better for us to have a rest. I assume he wanted to go home to his wife. The Radisson is a nice enough hotel but there is nowhere pleasant to sit outside, so Willi went for a jog in the gym while I took some medicine and caught up on some sleep. Bramod arrived at a quarter to five and we drove the 30 minutes or so to the old city, which is a traffic calamity.
On the way Anuch told us about the holy significance of the River Ganges, claiming that it was scientifically proven that it is free of bacteria and can boast healing properties. After that preposterous pretension, I more or less stopped listening to him, though as a true Hindu it was clear that he actually believed what he was telling us. Many groups of tourists are conveyed to the ghats by cycle rickshaws, which causes a serious logistical problem in this crowded city. Bramod let us out at a roundabout. We were escorted past the local shops at express speed and had to take care not to step in excrement of some kind. Anuch kindly took my arm to guide me past a white bull sitting on the side of the road, which, he said, is sometimes aggressive. The crowds were particularly large that evening, he said, because the daughter of the Prime Minister would also be attending the aarti ceremony.
We finally reached a small rowing boat and enjoyed about fifteen minutes viewing the ghats from the river in the dusk. I have to admit that the Ganges was surprisingly clean-looking but could not bear to listen to the rubbish that Anuch continued to spout concerning the undisputable purity of the waters. We admired huge temples built like palaces for the maharajas of the past, all of whom wanted at least a small piece of land on this, the holiest of rivers.
For the ceremony we took our seats on the roof of a cafe on two comfy chairs, from where we had a splendid view. On seven small stages, seven priests performed special rites to the amplified chantings of Varanasi’s famous vocalist sons. While the significance of each particular rite remained a mystery to us, it was great to watch the strange people who were walking past, some in very odd clothes. We left shortly before the end and were forced, once again, to race along the exotic pedestrian streets. These were alive with mainly Indian tourists who were keen to purchase some keepsakes for those at home. We felt it was a pity to have to rush. In the car, we passed a number of really tatty local guest houses and restaurants, mainly dhaba stands. At one, a single candle had been placed between two grimy tureens in the dark on a slab of stone, the epitome of simplicity, dining at its rock bottom.
Once again, Willi left the hotel before dawn leaving me in bed, seriously considering consulting a doctor. On his return he reported that watching the sun rise over the city from the river had been a wonderful experience. Although the cremation fires were lit as always, there were no cremations taking place and only a few Hindus were taking their holy dips. He did not visit the Golden Temple, which shines resplendent in the Ganges in the morning sun, but enjoyed his walk through the old city, despite the fact that it is, as he put it, “full of every conceivable kind of shit”.
Our city tour after breakfast began with a visit to the largest university in India, which is sponsored by the government and takes only the very best students. A cremation procession on its way to Assi Ghat passed us by, the corpse being transported on the shoulders of a few men. The university campus, which houses numerous faculties and student residences, looked impressively lovely and green. We visited the Shiva temple, which is similar to the Golden Temple in design and concept. Mainly in marble, it was cool and very, very clean. Not only students and their parents, but also locals come to worship here.
How different was the Durga temple, built in the Nagara style by a queen from Calcutta! This temple, built with a tank that used to fill automatically from the Durga Khand river, is slightly worn and full of ordinary folk. The whole complex is in red ochre with lots of gold on the walls and is surrounded by garland vendors and simple restaurants and by cheeky monkeys that were quietly demolishing the tuctucs waiting outside. Finally we paid a visit to the Mother India Temple, with its stone relief map of India and multiple pictures of freedom fighters.
Our afternoon was spent in Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon to five disciples. We explored a little on our own after Anuch had given us a very longwinded version of the life of Buddha. At the delightful archaeological site where the first Buddha monastery was built by Ashok, we continued to wander round on our own listening to the mantras chanted by small groups of Buddhists sitting cross-legged on the spiky grass.
Here, too, we observed a monk walking round a particularly large stupa, prostrating after every step. The monastery ruins were charming, with delicately carved floral designs etched into the sandstone of the few remaining stupas. We avoided the ladies who were selling fodder for the animals at the adjacent deer park and furtively cast an eye over the young Dalit women, who were renewing pavements in the gardens by smearing cow dung evenly with their bare hands, supervised by men who weren’t doing a thing.
At a rather pleasing, modern museum Anuch showed us statues relating to Buddha and told us about the perfect and auspicious physical features featured in these images – long arms, chaste eyes and curly hair among others. But our concentration was waning and we were glad to get back to the hotel, even though this meant waiting four hours before the pick-up to the station. To fill in the time, we strolled to the nearest shopping mall, a modern complex that doesn’t really looked quite finished and was strangely empty. On the top floor, however, there were bunches of smartly dressed young people in a festive mood. The girls in particular were wearing fantastic clothes, all in the new modern style with flared skirts in traditional materials, full of embroidery and sequins, over skin-tight leggings. They were communicative and wanted to talk and have their photos taken with us, so we learned that they had just passed their exams and were having a prom.
I felt sick with hunger, so we ordered a snack at the hotel restaurant – in my case a bowl of rice to which hot water had been added. The Darjeeling tea came on the house.
Ishwa, a tall, lanky 24 year-old with a sweet, frank, girlish face and a disposition to match came to accompany us to the Varanasi Junction station, which was a good half an hour’s drive away. Along the way we passed about seven wedding ceremonies with horse-drawn carriages, where turbaned grooms were sitting majestically, dressed like maharajas. We caught sight of brass bands and drummers and fireworks and flashing lights and disco setups and yards and yards of coloured materials and thousands of flowers. The station area was, in contrast, very quiet. In the car park, a constant stream of men came to urinate against the wall in front of us.
There were literally dozens of people stretched out on the floor in the first station hall. A strange silence followed us across the bridge and though the platform was relatively full of people, it was also very quiet. It was almost as though the travellers did not want to disturb the mummified bodies asleep on the floor. We had an hour’s wait on the platform which was covered in dried-up excrement and stank to high heaven. A woman carelessly cast her rubbish onto the tracks. The simple waiting-room was packed. Only metres away, a poor family sitting in a circle, all barefoot and apparently without a single possession apart from the torn clothes they were wearing, were telling stories and sharing jokes. It was clear that they would spend the night here, but not a single blanket was in sight. One of the teenage boys searched through a nearby rubbish bin and retrieved a half-eaten chapati wrapped in aluminium foil. He immediately ran away to hide so that he could eat it without being seen by the others. There is no brotherly sharing when you belong to the poorest of the poor and are hungry.
Our train rolled in. Naturally, it smelt and the toilets were gruesome, though not as absolutely filthy as the smell suggested. The toilet floor was a wet brew. Two sheets, a pillow and a blanket in a brown paper bag lay on each plastic berth which was waiting to be made up. The two other men assigned to our compartment were already settled on their berths but the pleasant young man on the lower berth got up to help us make our beds. A cockroach scuttled from the berth to a crack in the wall when Willi put his light on to make the upper bed; a man from across the corridor, which was separated from the compartment only by a skimpy curtain, complained about the light in a rambunctious voice. The other travellers had their cases chained to the leg of their berth. Willi jammed ours beneath the lower bunk. We did actually sleep, using our rucksacks as a second pillow, like the locals.
DAY 22 in DELHI
Delhi was once again ensconced in fog when we arrived the next morning after a surprisingly restful night. The steward brought tea, biscuits and a newspaper which we turned down, but our fellow travellers slurped theirs gratefully. Instead we watched the women busy in houses with broken walls, starting their day by washing things and preparing food. It was like looking into dolls’ houses.
At the station, a spruce and efficient young man turned up in our compartment before we had had time to retrieve our luggage. This was Gurav from the travel agency, a mere slip of a perfumed boy in a smart suit and dangerously long pointed leather shoes. Our friend Manoj, was waiting to take us to the Radisson Blu Plaza, sporting a three-day stubble and a wide smile.
Our luxurious airport hotel was just the job for a stay-over during which you just want to get really clean again and get your bearings before an early morning long-haul flight the following day. A time to wind down and let up. A time to collect your thoughts and attempt to comprehend and interpret the signs and images of another civilisation.
India, you continue to be a mystery to me. You enrapture me and disenchant me at the same time. You attract me and repulse me. And the truth is, probably, that it is exactly this repugnance experienced in the midst of your beauty and your magnanimity that we find so fascinating.