If you visit the Kamala Nehru Park in Mumbai, you are first struck by the huge shoe that serves as a children’s climbing frame cum slide. It reminds you of the old woman from the nursery rhyme who had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. Like this old woman, Mother India is struggling now more than ever to cater for its ever expanding population, which currently exceeds 1.3 billion. Mumbai, in particular, despite the development of New Mumbai to the north-east of the sprawling old city, is bursting at the seams with an estimated population of 22 million, though how you go about recording the population numbers of Mumbai, I do not know.
Our first impression of the city was coloured by the drive from the airport to our hotel in Colaba. The suburbs around the airport were dark and silent, but at two in the morning, Marine Drive, the famous Queen’s Necklace, was glittering full of street lights and lined by parked black and yellow taxis and rickshaws. The beaches themselves were humming with life.
We had treated ourselves to the Taj Palace Hotel, that emblem of British authority and colonial superiority, the most photographed building in Mumbai. Now owned by the Tata family, the hotel has retained its aura of majesty. It exudes luxury without exorbitance, tradition without stuffiness. The staff are friendly and discreet without being subservient, masters of perfection in their trade, snug in the awareness that they belong to the best.
With a red smudge of welcome on our foreheads and a garland of tulsi, holy basil, round our necks, we were accompanied to our room in the new tower adjacent to the old building and left to sleep for a few hours before breakfast. For me, this had to include a dhosa masala, a crisp Indian pancake made of rice flour filled with potato curry and served with a cool coconut relish.
We spent the day acclimatising, exploring the hotel complex and the promenade and beyond that the Gateway to India. Within yards of the hotel, we were stopped by a “holy man”, who smeared our foreheads with red paste, bound bands of red and yellow thread round our wrists and pressed tiny sugary blessed sweets, prasad, into our hands before blessing us and asking, in vain, for a donation. As seasoned travellers, we know that a true Hindu priest does not bless you outside the temples. Needless to say, the sweets disappeared discreetly into the Arabian Sea.
To reach the gateway, we had to press our way through the crowds that were queuing up to purchase a boat ticket for Elephanta island. Outside the public toilets next to the ticket offices, a white poster informed us that today was World Toilet day. Opposite the toilet building, a man was selling ice-creams that came straight out of steel forms immersed in a bucket of ice. Another man was waiting to polish shoes. A little girl in a pretty dress sat next to him on a concrete slab, licking her ice-cream. A section of pavement to one side of the huge square in front of the gateway had been sectioned off. The pavement was strewn with corn and the pigeons had flocked there to feed, instead of assaulting and thereby dirtying the monument itself.
The monument is a triumphal arch and best seen from the sea, as George V would have seen it the first time a British monarch set foot in India. So we wandered round with the local day trippers, past tourist boats bearing rigid plastic seats bobbing up and down on the filthy water, past the man selling food to be thrown over the fence to the pigeons and a lady sitting on her flip flops under a sunshade selling water. Several times we were asked to pose with the very friendly local people for selfies. It was hot and sticky, so we were happy to seek the shade of a small garden to admire the statue of Maharashtra’s hero, Shivaji, who led the revolt against the Moghul leaders in the seventeenth century. A little further in another cool garden we found the statue of the Hindu reformer and initiator of the Ramakrishna movement Swami Vivekananda.
Our walk took us to Wellington Circle, past the art gallery, over a junction that was almost impossible to cross and down streets others that intersected the main shopping road. A strange building caught my eye: It was a kind of chawl, a tenement block of the type that was built in the nineteenth century to accommodate mill-workers. They don’t build these any more, apparently. Bags of rubbish were stacked neatly in the yard. Just outside on the street, a barber was at work, watched by a group of children from the tenements. The noise here was very intense, from the traffic but also from the crows who really are a pest here.
We were booked in for a heritage walk of the Taj, but there was just time to relax for half an hour by the pool. The hooping of horns and the crowing of the birds, a couple of which flew so close to my head that it made my hair blow, were muffled here. A man whose sole purpose was to wave a triangular red flag to scare them was proving to be ineffective. Water trickled soothingly from the mouths of two lions flanking the pool and it was very pleasant to escape the buzz of the city. Meanwhile in our room, someone had rustled up a foot bath with herbal salts for a soak and scrub.
A very pretty assistant manager with sparkling eyes and mischievous comments, dressed in an impeccable and very elegant sari, then showed us round the property and told us about the history of the place. A wealthy Indian built it as the answer to a British hotel, the best there was in Mumbai at the time, at which no coloured people were admitted. The oldest parts of the hotel were particularly attractive with pretty ironwork and an incredibly tall and beautiful staircase. Especially interesting was the art gallery, which promotes work from young Indian artists from all over the country. Our tour ended with a visit to the waterfall memorial that commemorates those who lost their lives in the 2008 bombings. Every evening, a ritual takes place here, a moving affair in which a piper leads a trail of beautiful ladies that remind you of vestal virgins to light candles in the lobby.
No stay at the Taj would be complete without a visit to the Masala Kraft restaurant for a tiffin menu, a tribute to the famous dabba wallas who collect and deliver tiffins from a central point in Mumbai every week day. Even by European standards this was expensive, but exquisite. The highlight of our vegetarian meal was a pounded smoky mushroom kebab called kumbh galouti. Two different varieties of pan or betel leaves filled with limestone and dates with cloves were brought to our table at the end and our hands were washed with warm water poured from a silver pot into a silver bowl.
Outside, where we went to get a breath of fresh air before bedtime, the stench of urine contrasted with the silver-coloured illuminated carriages that were being pulled along the promenade by elegantly bejewelled horses. Inside the lobby people were arriving for a cocktail event. The women in particular, an amazingly medley as far as weight and height were concerned, were dressed to kill in the smartest of outfits, saris and Punjab suits made from expensive-looking silks but also glittering mini cocktail dresses and always lethal heels.
Our guide in Mumbai was waiting for us in reception in a cream-coloured shalwar and matching dupatta and black and cream kameez. A Gujurati, Yamini is taller than most Indian women. She wore her hair in a thick plait that hung down her back. Beneath the unruly sprouting eyebrows, kind brown eyes welcomed us to Mumbai.
True to her physique, Yamini strode ahead of us so fast that I had to ask her to slow down. She ushered us through the handbag control into a boat bound for Gharapuri, or Elephanta Island, where we sat in the middle for the hour’s trip on the dirty Arabian Sea. A long jetty on the island took us to the innumerable stalls and kiosks that line the steep climb to the rock temples. Hard-working men and women never tired of offering their wares – sunhats, chess pieces, embroidered table mats, bright-coloured food sizzling in deep fat and Hindu deities in mini form crafted from every imaginable material. Monkeys dashed around on the steps and the earth and across branches over our heads. There was a kerfuffle at the entrance gate over our ticket, something about a copy and an original, which took Yamini a few minutes to sort out.
And then we found ourselves in front of the Shiva temple, the most popular monument in the Elephanta Caves, dated at late 5th to early 8th century AD. Like most of the rock-cut temples in India, the Elephanta Caves are monolithic and hewn from solid basalt rock. As Yamini reminded us, the executors of this incredible architecture had only one chance to perform exceptional art; only one mistake would ruin an entire temple.
In the centre of this huge temple, a Shiva lingam was warded by eight guardians. The huge carvings along the walls that depicted various other gods and evoked legends which Yamini explained with great patience have sadly been damaged by Portuguese soldiers, who used them for target practice. Yamini showed us the classical representations of Shiva including the Yogishvara and Nataraja sculptures and explained the depiction of the Gangadhara or descent of the river Ganges . I found the Ardhanarisvara sculpture of Shiva as half man and half woman particularly intriguing. There was also a dramatic rendering of the ten-headed demon king Ravana shaking the legendary Mount Kailash. All the themes represented here would reappear in the caves that we were to visit in the next few days. At the side of the main cave a huge portico leads to a small sanctum. Here, a thin old man with a long grey beard, apparently a guide, was chanting “om”. The acoustics were incredible.
On the way back down the steps, Yamini stopped to buy some food for a dog who regularly follows her around here. An aggressive langur leapt onto a tall lady tourist in an attempt to snatch something from the bag held across her chest. We were fairly drenched by the time we reached the bottom of the hill, so we took a short trip on the rattly tourist train back to the jetty.
We were chatting to several tourist including two amusing Brazilian ladies and a couple from New Zealand when suddenly the waves from a container ship that was moving too quickly alongside our boat almost tipped us out of our vessel. My stomach lurched and my whole body began to tremble and it took me some time to regain my composure. So I was grateful for the break we were given back at our hotel before the afternoon guided tour of Mumbai commenced. There was another foot scrub waiting for us and a sandalwood face mask to boot!
Shatru, the driver who had picked us up at the airport two days earlier, was waiting for us in our Toyota Innova. We drove to the colonial Fort, an orderly green area where British architecture can be seen at its most flamboyant. The Victorian-style university here, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, has a clock tower, Rajabai, which looks rather like Big Ben. You are not allowed to enter the campus since the bombings of 2008, so we took a few hasty snaps and continued past the oval recreational area called the Maiden, past the book stalls that are reminiscent of those that flank the Seine in Paris, past the Victorian post office and the home of the railway administration and past the law courts to a beautiful but pompous building that is worthy of a cathedral. It is, in fact, a station, inspired by Sat. Pancras in London. Known as Victoria Terminus, the station was declared a UNESCO site in 2004 and is one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world. It is constructed from brown sandstone and decorated with tiny turrets and towers and arches and a dome and sadly for us, partly hidden by scaffolding.
If Sunday was a poor day for visiting Elephanta Island, it was certainly an advantage when driving through the city and within minutes we arrived at Dhobi Ghat, the largest open-air laundry in the world. We read that 3,000 people work here, Yamini was sceptical, on the internet they mention 5,000. In washing pens equipped with flogging stones, men, but also a few women, were scrubbing and rinsing and slapping clothes, towels, sheets, uniforms and newly sewn jeans. Others were wielding giant wooden props, hanging up, taking down, folding. But there are washing and ironing machines here, too, these days. From the railway bridge we were dazzled by splashes of colour, wooden tubs and hoses and washing lines and electric cables and heaps of textiles. And in the background, snarling trains ground slowly to a halt at Mahalaxmi Station while glass-fronted skyscrapers reared their roofs into the haze. Before we left, a persistent little girl wanted to sell us her sheets of press-on bindis and decorations, but owing to the governments sudden withdrawal of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes a few days earlier, we were penniless.
On our way to Malabar Hill, home of the rich, Yamini deplored the appearance of the modern high-rise buildings that are replacing the charming town houses of yore. One building in particular is a thorn in the side of many Mumbai people. Built in 2010 as a family home for billionaire Mukesh Ambani and his wife and three children, the “greenest of all buildings”, Antilia House, now stands empty. It boasts 27 stories at 568 feet high, with a total area of over 398,000 square feet of living space that house a health club and gym, a dance studio and ballroom, a cinema and a swimming pool of-course and needed a staff of 600 people. The building is actually rather ugly.
We left the car to enter a small recreational park, Kamala Nehru Park, which is dominated by the old woman’s shoe and offers a splendid view of Chowpatty Beach with Marine Drive curving away behind it. Much more interesting are the Hanging Gardens opposite. The name comes from the fact that the gardens are built over a reservoir, but the fascination of the gardens is that they hide the Parsi Tower of Silence, the hill on which the Parsis leave their deceased to the local vultures. The hill is, of-course, concealed by fine old trees. In fact, the vultures no longer circle here and it is said that their population diminished because the diclofenac found in the bodies they fed on killed them. The Parsis now have a problem and most of them are forced to cremate their dead instead of disposing of them in the traditional way.
Our next stop was the Mani Bhawan, a Mahatma Ghandi Museum, in which Ghandiji’s life is depicted in a series of very touching dioramas. The walls of house where Ghandi used to stay is covered with his sayings and mottos. Most of the visitors seemed to be especially interested in the simple room he lived in, in which his famous spinning wheel and sandals are exhibited. The museum is most informative and we spent quite some time here. On the way to the next museum we passed the pretty Victorian Churchgate Station, where the tiffins from the whole of Mumbai are collected before being conveyed to their receivers. By the time we reached the lovely Prince of Wales Museum, we were beginning to flag and our concentration was wavering, so we restricted our visit to the department of miniature paintings.
Yamini and Shatru were good enough to take us to the Kholi fishing community in Colaba before ending the guided tour. The Kholis are the original natives of the group of islands now called Mumbai and still cultivate their own language and traditions and their Panchayat, decentralized form of local government. Like many of the Maharashtra women, the Kholis tie their saris between their legs to form trousers. Yamini politely asked a group of cheerful men playing cards if we could walk around the village and was told we should be careful, as open defecation was the norm there. Indeed, the lowly one- and two-storey houses appeared to have no plumbing. The first lady we met was taking down dried Bombay duck, lizardfish, from the wooden rod frames they were draped over. Young boys and fishermen alike were using rafts made of tightly bound plastic containers to access their colourful boats. The fishing boats themselves bore even more colourful flags and looked rather pretty bobbing up and down against a backdrop of dull high-rise blocks in the evening sun.
The restaurant that Yamini recommended was excellent but jolly pricey! We sat on the upstairs terrace and treated ourselves to a Singapore Sling. I feasted on lobster bisque with lobster brioche and king prawns with Lebanese pilaf rice, followed by toffee pudding, banana brulée, brown butter ice and caramel sauce. Willi decided on lemon parmesan gnocchi and tandoori chicken. Excellent!
There was dhosa for breakfast. An early breakfast, because we had a lengthy journey ahead and an afternoon guided tour booked in Nashik.
We crossed Mumbai city fairly quickly passing slums next to skyscrapers and a great deal of tenements. Mumbai stretches directly into Thane, a satellite town which goes on forever, with tall decent-looking apartment blocks and several malls but few green areas. A good hour into our journey, we reached a rural area, then the road stretched into the hills covered in brushland. During a lavatory stop I’m afraid I experimented with the toilet shower and ended up with sopping wet trousers , which was terribly embarrassing! We continued through bare mountains until we reached the paddyfields that lead to Nashik, Maharashtra’s third largest city, famous for its mint and printing of banknotes and stamps.
On reaching Nashik, we first settled into our Gateway Taj Hotel, a post-colonial hotel with huge green lawns and a spacious lobby. Then our guide arrived, a lovely young man called Abhigiit, wearing the local style of leather slippers. He took us to the Pandavleni caves, which demanded a steep walk up innumerable steps in the afternoon heat. The 24 caves have been attributed to a period between the third century BC and the second century AD, mainly because of the Brahmi inscriptions in the ancient Prakrit language. They are stunning Buddhist rock-cut temples in amazing stone that ranges from sandy to black in colour, built by Jain kings. Most of the caves are viharas or monasteries, but the most significant one is a chaitya or prayer hall. Countless times we asked by the local visitors to have photographs taken with them and Abhigiit confirmed that the locals are open, friendly but curious people. While we peered over the hillside to look across towards the city, he told us that Nashik specialises in mechanical engineering and has a huge spare parts industry. He told us that a Russian settlement here is responsible for the maintenance of Indian aeroplanes and that Singapore sends students to the city to train in the use of weapons.
Nashik’s most recent economic development can perhaps be attributed to its vineyards, of which the city boasts 22. We could have visited these, but chose to spend more time at the ghats instead. Panchavati or five banyan trees is the name of the holy place on the river Godavari, which later forms the Ganges and is considered to be a holy river. It is an amazing place where people take dips and bathe and do their washing up or wash their clothes in the holy Ramkund tank. The Kumbh Mela, the largest regular religious gathering in the world, takes place here once every 12 years and up to 10 million peaceful folk turn up here for that celebration. Even this afternoon, the place was lively. Vendors of fruit and vegetables as well as flowers for pujas were offering their wares under bright coloured shades on stands or spread out on the ground in the shade. Nomadic people had roots and seeds and leaves from the nearby forests on sale as herbal remedies. Languid flea-bitten dogs followed everybody round.
There are several temples at this site. We first visited one of the oldest, Kapaleshwara Mandir, a florid dark stone temple swarming with dedicated Hindu families inside. Then we progressed round the Ramkund area, observing groups of men and women, usually dressed in white, offering pujas before having the ashes of their loved ones strewn into the holy waters. After this, it is essential for Hindus to take a holy dip, we were told. You could pick out a couple of strangely embellished saddhus in the crowds.
Behind the Ramkund was a street full of souvenir and snacks stalls. Pomegranites and peeled cucumbers were attracting the local visitors. Huge transparent tubs were filled with sultanas and raisins and nuts. In a shady street, the five banyan trees, neatly numbered, stood in front of us. We were ushered into a tiny museum where there were two dioramas showing the Ramayana episode, where Lakshmana cut off the nose of Ravana’s sister Surpanakha to teach her a lesson. Rama, Lakshmana and Sita were supposed to have lived in the dense forest that once covered this part of the city. Indeed the name Nashik or Nasik comes from the nose-cutting legend.
Only a few yards away we were asked to take off our shoes once again to visit the Kalaram Temple, a very popular Rama temple that houses a black statue of the god. The statues of Sita and Lakshma are also worshipped here.
It was pleasant to relax on the giant swings by the swimming-pool at our hotel until the hugest mosquitoes came to bite. So we went inside for a mojito before dinner.
People were still sleeping on the streets of Nashik when we left the following morning. We had asked Shatru to take us back to Panchavati. The early morning sunshine made the colours even brighter than the day before. Reflections of temple spires rippled in the Godvari river. Smoke rose from small fires. Although the market stalls were mainly closed and the general aspect of the ghats quiet, the shores of the Ramkund were teeming with devotees taking part in pujas and other rituals. The men were always dressed in white and mainly completely shorn, sitting round the priests. Many of the women wore colourful scarves over their heads and shoulders. They sat in rows and watched the menfolk in silence. A chalky faced saddhu wearing an orange glittery cloak crossed our path.
Behind the Ramkund, washing was strung on makeshift lines across the lanes and ladies outside the temporary tents of the visitors to the ghats, occupying a piece of road for a night or two, brushed the areas in front of their abodes clean with the typical short-handled brooms. Cows were scavaging from the heaps of plastic bags and fruit and vegetable skins and shells that gaily carpeted the streets. Ladies selling wiltering greens on the relatively clean roadside sprinkled water on them to revive them. Barefooted children ran around, the older ones hanging around us out of curiosity. At my side, a toddler walking with his mother whose hair was totally matted tugged at my trousers. We arrived at a Ganesha shrine at the back of the temple we had visited yesterday. Marigold garlands were on sale in the shade of the temple and the place was clean and peaceful. It occurred to me that mutual respect might be the key to the peace that prevailed here.
A good 4-laned road took us towards Aurangabad, passing the first vines that we had seen. Cows, bullocks and oxen, some of which sported horns painted in red, yellow or blue, were in the fields where sugar cane was either still growing or being harvested and heaps of fibre from the stripped cane was stacked in shades of cream and brown. At this time of the year, there appeared to be no shortage of water, although we were to hear horrid stories about desperate farmers who had committed suicide following poor monsoons. Men and women tended fields of onion and other vegetables using small hoes. We passed brick kilns and crops that could have been rice or sorghum. Most of the menfolk were dressed in white and sported Nehru caps. A diversion forced us to leave the main road and we came to a railway crossing where we waited for ages for a dirty rattling train to pass. Here a man of our own age in a dirty white dhoti tried to catch my attention several times by waving his open palm in front of the window. Two young men carrying cartons of snacks and eatables wrapped in cones of paper took advantage of the waiting crowds to weave in and out of the cars and mopeds and bikes advertising their wares in bored voices. There were nomad camps set up next to the larger sugar cane and maize plantations, with huge cooking pots drying in the sun on tarpaulin tent roofs. The grains of freshly harvested maize were drying on plastic sheeting. A woman was turning these using a small steel bowl. At the edge of the cornfields, the leaves had been twisted into huge cones to dry. At the roadside we also noticed custard apple trees and baskets of guavas and a fruit which has recently be introduced to India from China called appleberry. The road was badly potholed and it took a while to reach the main road again, but it was so interesting!
Aurangabad is a huge, sprawling city. One of the first statues we noticed, on a busy dual carriageway close to our hotel, was that of the Mahrashtra hero Shivaji, almost always depicted on the back of a rearing horse. The Lemon Tree Hotel is a poorly run modern business hotel with all mod cons and rather arrogant receptionists. While Shatru drove off to find a cheap place for lunch, we had a look round the hotel and ate our bananas until our guide arrived.
Unlike all the other guides we have had in India, Hassan is Muslim. He appeared to lack any humour whatsoever on our first afternoon, but as our stay in Aurangabad developed, he became quite friendly. This afternoon he addressed Willi rather than me. We drove just out of town to the Bibi Ka Maqbara , the Mini Taj Mahal, a replica of the great mausoleum in Agra, built by Azam Shah, son of the great Moghul leader Aurangzeb, for his mother. On the way, he gave us a potted history of the city, which must once have been magnificent, with 52 pompous town gates of which 14 are still intact. The old Moghul palace stands in ruins, with parts transformed into flats.
There was a problem with the entrance fees to the monument, since Modi’s plans to tackle the problem of illicit earnings in India with a sudden demoneterisation had left us with a single banknote of 2,000 rupees which nobody was prepared to change. However Hassan paid in the end (and later claimed the fees back from his company). Beautiful though the mausoleum is, it just does not have the charm of the original Taj Mahal. I believe the main difference lies in the translucence of the marble used. Unlike the rectangular original, this Taj is square and its pillars taller than the central dome. There was no pietra dura work on the marble front, but it was beautifully carved. It took us ages to reach the interior of the mausoleum, because so many people stopped to ask if we would stop for a selfie with them or pose with children who did not want to stand with us that Hassan got quite cross! We followed Hassan to the pit inside where Mumtaz rests, covered in coins and banknotes. Here we met a group of five charming Muslim girls who were eager to practise their English on us and finally posed for me showing the henna decorations on their hands.
Passing the old city walls, which have a charm of their own, Shatru took us to the next monument, a seventeenth century water mill known as Panchakki. The water-mill is fed with sufficient water by an underground conduit, which starts at a mountain stream eight km away. The water falls into the Panchakki cistern from quite a height in order to generate the necessary power to drive the mill, which was used to feed pilgrims. What is left is a lovely tank and a pool in pretty gardens with arched walls and an open-sided mosque and cool, underground buildings that used to house a caravanserai. The watermill and grindstone still function but are no longer used. There is a tiny museum, which, typically, was closed; we glimpsed at a few cloths and artefacts from Mecca through grimy glass doors. One side of the building is known as the Department of Philanthropy and contains government offices where the rich can donate lands to the poor. Hassan drily commented that the officials here take bribes.
Near the tourist attractions were shops and outlets selling silk and himroo. Himroo is a local material favoured by the royalty and the rich and if I have understood correctly it is woven out of silk and cotton. I would have loved to visit one of these weaving factories, but both the guides and the local people put you under pressure to purchase at horrendous prices and we could not face that, so we declined Hassan’s offer to take us to such an outlet. Instead we returned to the sanctuary of our hotel and spent a pleasant hour relaxing by the pool till dinner.
This consisted of chicken satays in the open-air restaurant, complimented by a Laotian chicken curry and a Massaman vegetable curry, washed down with refreshing Kingfisher beer.
The next morning was hot and sunny. With fresh orange juice and omelette inside, we travelled alongside mustard green fields and fields of white cotton to the rock-cut temple caves in Ajanta. Stacks of corn straw and carpets of dried corn flashed by as Hassan proceeded to lecture us on Buddha’s life and the history of Buddhism in India, so that we would be in a position to understand the historic paintings in the caves. It was interesting to hear about the gradual incorporation of Hindu deities and legends into the Buddhist religion over time. Hassan touched on other themes, too – politics and the discrimination of minority groups. It was clear that Hassan himself felt persecuted as a Muslim and that he feared the rise of right-wing Hindu parties. Hassan also discussed the doubtful legacy of the British government. It occurred to me that one of the positive legacies of colonial Britain was the English language, without which the Indian states would not be able to intercommunicate.
Having briefed us on how to handle the souvenir vendors without disgracing our guide, Hassan guided us from the parking space, along the shady avenues of stalls and tiny restaurants to the bus park. We visited the impeccable loos that smelt of Harpic and the mothballs that rested in the drains and on leaving the toilets were promptly accosted by two insistent men who wanted to give us a present. Naturally we managed to refuse the presents and naturally we had to promise to visit the kiosks on our way back, but we made it unscathed to the dusty, run-down bus that panted up the hill towards us.
We were the only foreigners in the bus. It dropped us at the foot of steep slopes that wound further up the hill. There were porters waiting to carry people up the slopes in sedan chairs, four to each chair, but the thought of being carried up terrified me more than the thought of the strenuous walk in the heat.
The caves, about 30 monolithic Buddhist temples hewn in a horseshoe shape in the hills, are beyond belief. It would be stupid to attempt a description here. The oldest of the temples is dated at 2nd century BC, the most recent at between 400 – 650 AD. Basically the site consists of ancient monasteries and worship halls of different Buddhist traditions carved into a 250 feet wall of rock. The caves are thought to have functioned as lodging places for devotees and tradesmen alike and it is interesting that similar sites have been discovered every 30 km or so along the Silk Road. Though the themes of the sculptures and the incredible frescoes, many of which are still magnificent in detail and colour, are recurrent, each temple is unique and wonderful. The entire legendary Buddhist world comes to life here. The lighting, a mixture of sensitively introduced electric lighting and daylight, makes the discovery of the frescoes exciting and enthralling. Even Willi was impressed!
Equally interesting were the visitors. Buddhists from all over Asia were here, lay people and monks, but also local Indians, Europeans and visitors from the Americas. One Vietnamese lady in a long bordeaux-coloured dress with her Guru told Willi the man was her master. The two of them often sat down in the temples to chant. Monkeys, striped squirrels, birds and a cow with its calf accompanied us down the pleasant slope at the edge of the forest which used to be a hunting area and led back to the bus stop. We had fun trying to communicate with a family of locals. Then we tackled the vendors, who were not in the least impressed by the fact that we had no cash to spend.
We usually skip lunch, but Hassan was hungry and disappeared to snatch a drink and some biscuits. He was promptly attacked by a monkey but was able to scare him away. Poor Hassan must have been exhausted after continuously talking in the caves and after pointing out some fields of ginger on the way back, he fell asleep next to Shatru. They stopped for chai at a roadside café selling all manner of greasy deep-fried snacks just before we reached Aurangabad. Then he talked a little about his private life and recommended some good Indian films to us, including “PK” and “Mother India”.
Back at the Lemon Tree, Willi went jogging in the gym. We had a delicious dinner of crispy chicken and pot stickers, a sort of vegetable-filled dumpling, followed by khao soi and pineapple rice with chicken and cashew, eating outside once again while the restaurant inside filled up with busloads of Asians..
Before visiting the Ellora caves, Hassan took us to the photogenic ruins at Daulatabad, via the Cantonment and military graveyard, where hundreds of British army officers lie.
Daulatabad or Devagiri, hill of the gods, is said to have been the home of Lord Shiva. In the early 14th century, Daulatabad was designated to be the new capital of India. In the attempt to transfer the court here, hundreds of people lost their lives during the thousand kms of long foot march. Only 17 years later, the decision to make Daulatabad the new capital had to be reversed. It is now reduced to a small village with a developing tourist potential on account of the picturesque conical fortress.
This is a masterpiece of Mughal defense architecture, featuring 7 fortified walls, one of which measured 4.5 kms and a moat that was once full of crocodiles. First we passed through the huge nailed gate and walked on cobbled stones past a beautiful watchtower with an ornately chiselled balcony. We decided not to walk right up to the top, since the steps are still more than treacherous, but Hassan enjoyed pointing out the various tricks and snares within the fortress, the dead ends and zigzagging paths, the trap doors and the windows from which curious heads were cut off. A bat-filled cave leads to the labyrinthal climb up some 600 uneven steps. The fortress site also includes various palaces and a particularly a gracious minaret, where we saw a beautiful pair of bee-eaters. A huge canon decorated a citadel where a haughty, elderly local woman looked down at us like a princess. A temple that has served Hindus and Jains and has also been used a as a mosque, was being invaded by a school-class. A family of langurs watched on, some of them having a noisy fight.
Back at the car park, we walked past food stalls, where guavas had been cut open to reveal enticingly sweet red flesh and custard apples were stacked in baskets according to their size. On the way to the Ellora Caves, built after the Ajanta Caves had been abandoned at the end of the 6th century, we passed more himroo factories and Aurangzeb’s grave, which apparently is very modest and was not on our programme. Shatru parked the car at Hotel Kailas, a modest hotel with the only good toilets in the vicinity, and from here we walked across a square packed with souvenir and food stalls to the entrance gates. The place was full of local tourists, many of whom are totally unaware of the historic significance of the site and only come to use the romantic caves as a picnic location, Hassan maintained. There were also monkeys, many monkeys, with babies clinging to their bellies.
The rock-cut edifices stretch along a promontory. We began our discovery with the Buddhist caves on the right-hand side of the complex, mainly prayer halls but also a huge monastery with a dining hall built into the floor. Hassan began to chant a mantra to show off the acoustics in one hall, while the Vietnamese lady we had seen yesterday sang a whole series of prayers with her guru. A highlight was a three storey monastery with living and study quarters above the prayer hall. There were very few fresco remains. The floors were totally uneven, making the visit of these Buddhist caves a little troublesome.
We walked round some of the early Hindu temples, leaving the main temple, the most impressive, to visit at the end of our tour. The Jain temples are situated at quite some distance from the Buddhist caves, so we boarded a bus. The caves are beautiful, interconnecting, rambling and partly multi-storeyed. We admired the statues of the Jain tirthankaras or spritual leaders, always naked, and learned that Mahavira, the 24th and last great Jain leader, is usually portrayed seated below three canopies. We walked up and down weathered steps, many of them too high for comfort, and round rock shelves, under low arches and down narrow corridors until I had totally lost my bearings. There were elephant statues and dancing deities and a tower of judgement and a shrine open on all four sides so that the devoted could see their god from all directions. Here remains of frescoes could be made out. The sculptures, however, were stunning. I found the atmosphere here particularly serene and the experience truly overwhelming.
I was pleased to have 10 minutes or so on the bus, to gather myself together, but the senses don’t rest when you are travelling in such an exotic land. I studied the attire of the ladies, members of one family group, it appeared, who were boarding the bus. Most of them, dressed in pretty saris with silver toe-rings and badly cracked heels, were barefoot. The ends of their saris – an extremely practical garment – were worn hanging down the back or across the head, leaving arms bare or covered and sometimes used as a handkerchief. A lady from the back of the bus carried a steel water container that resembled a milk can to an older woman at the front and tipped some water into the lid for her to drink from. Meanwhile women and girls in impeccable saris were walking at the side of the bus where they were tending cows and goats.
Kailashantatha temple was waiting to be visited, now at its most beautiful in the early afternoon sun. An absolute highlight, this enormous edifice, hewn in one piece from top to bottom and from the outside inwards, dwarfs you physically and dazzles you psychologically. How it is possible to plan such a complexity without knowing what material lies beneath and behind the rock surface perplexes me totally. The temples took 200 years to complete. How on earth could the first architect have passed on his hunches to the last one? Did the construction evolve more or less by chance? We walked around the main temple, then Hassan left us to admire the buildings in our own time. By now we were familiar with the deities and the legendary scenes and at home with shiva lingams and erotic representations and able to move around in the temples with decorum and ease. Once again, we were approached for selfies and photos time and again, but it was so nice to be asked!
The Ellora experience left us shattered, emotionally drained, and we travelled back in silence, happy to help ourselves to a buffet dinner that demanded no choices.
Breakfast was bedlam. Two groups were leaving for visits to the caves and everyone wanted to leave early. An English couple who had spent several years in Nairobi invited us to share their table, thank goodness.
The trip to Poona would take us around 5 hours at the least. Before we reached the Poona highway, which does not warrant the name, we passed a group of devout Jain women, enrobed in white, barefoot, with huge cooking pots and pans strapped to their backs. Shatru, who was not at all sure of the way and kept asking passers-by for directions, despite his double system of GPS on two separate mobiles, purchased a marigold garland for 10 rupees, which he hung round the neck of the Ganesha statue that stuck to his dashboard.
The journey was entertaining enough. In one small town we saw two men on a scooter with 3 goats sandwiched between them. Further on, a passenger on another moped was carrying 5 chickens by the feet in each hand. There were fields of maize and trains of gypsies walking alongside bullock carts. There were cows with horns like rams’ horns. There were dry, grassy hills with patches of dark green where water had trickled down from somewhere. Just outside a busy town called Ahmednagar, an elderly man on a moped turned left directly in front of our vehicle without looking, which caused our gentle Shatru to brake, then shout out a string of insults.
Poona or Pune as it is now called is the second largest city in Maharashtra and from the side we approached it from rather grim. However our hotel was a perfect mix of tradition and modernity and a wonderful haven of tranquility. With the rare treat of a free afternoon ahead, we decided to explore the area on foot, but crossing the road turned out to be a murderous pastime. The system seemed to be that you walked into the never-ending stream of hooting vehicles and trusted that the drivers would brake or swerve. We had to undergo this operation several times on our quest for Bund Gardens. Although we could see the gardens, we could not fathom how to get into them and had to abandon our plans. So we turned in the opposite direction in an attempt to reach the Tribal Cultural Museum instead, to see the making of papier mâché masks. Unfortunately, pedestrians have to share a flyover with rickshaws and lorries and scooters and buses and there is no pavement. So that plan also had to be abandoned.
After a nerve-calming sit down by the pool, we decided to have another try and attempt a sortie which avoided crossing any main roads. We were eventually successful in finding the Osho International Centre in a beautifully green and peaceful street not far from our hotel. You aren’t actually allowed in and there is a road block and predominant police presence here since the bombings in 2010. We continued along the shady avenues on this block until we arrived at the Osho Teerth Park, beautiful meditation gardens in Zen style. Apart from the stray dogs that were barking like fury, the park was peaceful and relaxing. However, the gardens were quite dark, though it was long before dusk, and the mosquitoes were rampant, so our stay was short.
Our walk back to the hotel took us past dream villas with lush lawns in leafy lanes and stalls where you could buy chappals and robes for the meditation resort. We also passed the German Bakery, a pretty seedy cafe which had also been attacked by the terrorists in 2010. In the hotel car park, we passed Shatru in the car, his bed for the entire three weeks.
To end this spectacular day, we had a drink in the bar, then I put on my best, posh punjab suit which I refer to as my “princess dress”, for a delicious Indian meal in the hotel’s Mystic Masala restaurant. We tried baluchi raan, a rich Pashtun lamb starter that we have come to adore. Willi had butter chicken with naan. I chose okra and spring onion with roasted mango powder and spices prepared on a hot stone. It was delicious but too spicy for my poor intestines. Two gents were entertaining us with bollywood-style music. The singer was not too bad, but the incessant oompapaa on the accompanying keyboard was nothing short of dreadful!
Breakfast began with a new culinary favourite for me; I discovered bhapa doi, baked yoghurt, which has more calories than the rest of my breakfast put together, probably.
I liked our guide Pratibha from the word go. A little older than myself, she wore her greying hair loosely pinned back so that wisps kept trying to escape from the engraved metal slide. She has brown, vivacious eyes with a mischievous twinkle in them and a black mole to the side of her left one. A former teacher, Pratibha is married with one son, for whom she has found a wife and preparing for the marriage. Her husband works in the textile industry and they both spent 30 years in Nigeria. That day, she wore a cream coloured Punjab suit spun from the local khaadi cotton with a bright scarf and sensible walking shoes.
Pratibha took us to the Osho Meditation centre that we had seen on our own the day before and ushered into the reception there as if we were looking for information about the courses, since this was the only way we would be allowed to get a closer look. Indeed the centre is extremely attractive and the courses look really interesting, with a very liberal attitude which permits you to take part in all the many activities, which range from dancing to archery and meditative painting to yoga and lectures, or just do your own thing. Participants are expected to wear special Bordeaux-coloured robes and white ones in the evening. The zen gardens are immaculate with little waterfalls and bridges, soothing to the eye. However, there have, in the past, been moral doubts about the teachings of Osho and especially about the tantric sessions that were popular in the hippie era.
The marketing side of the business became immediately obvious when we entered the bookshop. Osho was everywhere, on the cover of books and videos and CDs. Courses, discourses, yoga programmes and philosophical works were attributed to the Master in row upon row of publications.
Our next destination, the Agha Khan palace, which now houses a museum dedicated to Mahatma Ghandi, who spent several years here in exile, was equally serene. The gardens surrounding the palace are a joy to behold, with a particular Banyan tree that is enormous. The tree is considered to be everlasting, because its aerial roots just grow down into the earth and make new trees round the first trunk. Built in 1892, the majestic building was donated to the Indian people in 1969 and is now almost lovingly maintained.
A wide veranda surrounds the main building and the prettily sculptured windows have no glass, keeping it cool and airy. A young lady was bent double sweeping the floor with a tiny broom, her spare hand held permanently behind her back, so I asked why. It turned out that the other hand was holding a scraper for the pigeon droppings. The lady’s explanation did not justify the unhealthy posture that the lower-caste cleaners seem to adopt.
We learned a great deal about Mahatma Ghandi that morning, the most important of which was that the Indian people never refer to him as Ghandi, but always add the respectful suffix –ji when mentioning his name. At the back of the palace there is a training centre for the weaving of the tradional khaadi cloth, with an exhibition hall for local art work. Both were closed. There are also memorials for Mahatma Ghandi’s wife Kasturba and his adopted son- secretary with a larger one for the great man himself.
It was time to change direction and cross the joint Mula-Mutha River, past the huge, prestigious engineering college which is the pride of Pune, to visit Pataleshwar rock-temple. In front of the temple thrones a Nandi mandapa or porch, which serves as a seat for visitors and the local devotees. The temple itself with its four rows of sturdy pillars was not particularly wonderful after the ancient architecture that we had seen over the past few days, but it clearly holds a special place in the hearts of the Pune’s people and the statues of Ganesha and Nandi were all lit with small oil lamps. I wandered round the shiva lingam, adorned with flowers, with Prathiba and learned from her not to complete a circle but to return after three-quarters of the way. A family from Tamil-Nadu was worshipping the lingam. They touched the flowers, touched themselves, then prayed and finally sang.
Outside in the bright daylight once more, I asked a sweeper who had caught my eye in her yellow flowery sari if I might photograph her. This was a mistake, for while she had been working naturally before, she now stood motionless to have her photograph taken. I also took some portraits of Pratibha, who, for a moment, forgot I was a foreigner and began to address me in Marathi.
We were not particularly looking forward to visiting the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in the old town, but I have to admit its 20,000 ever-changing objects are truly fascinating. There were exquisitely carved doorways and window frames from the whole of India, marble devotionals, oil lamps in every conceivable size and shape, cosmetic articles and jewelry including pearl nose-rings. The household articles included all sorts of knives and spoons, two different noodle-gadgets, coconut graters, grinding-stones and pestles and mortars, portable ovens and water-pots that were designed to fit in the space above the female porter’s hips. There were Ramayana puppets on string and leather puppets that you hold against a lamp and household shrines and Ganeshas and Krishnas with a crawling a baby Krishna statue. We admired costumes and fabrics, woven and embroidered, “comforters” made of old saris and the much sought-after Parsi embroideries. Then there were musical instruments of all kinds and inkwells and paper carriers and a spray for diffusing rose-water and whole sets for betel nuts with crackers and little pots for the limestone and other fillings. And there were swing cradles for babies and pottery and tribal decoration.
We were still somewhat dazed as we stepped out of the museum, but Pratibha steered us assuredly into the traffic, putting out her hand to summon bikes, cars and buses to a halt. Every now and again, she stopped to exchange a few words to former schoolgirl, relaxed and very good-naturedly. It was hot and congested and very noisy in the town, but we did not sweat here and there was surprisingly little dust in the town. Nevertheless we were pleased to seek the tranquillity of our hotel and had a delicious Thai meal at the Whispering Bamboo restaurant. A waitress that looked like a little Chinese doll brought us vegetables in tempura and tiny corn cakes, with red chicken curry and jasmine rice. The message in my fortune cookie read: The care and sensitivity you show to others will be returned. Willi had the following note: You have the ability to decide quickly and wisely.
That night the temperature went down to 10 °C. We felt very sorry for Shatru with his thin blanket in the car, but it was lovely to go out into the crisp morning air. Pratibha greeted us in a pretty sari, in a beige and maroon silk mix fabric with elephants along the hem.
A silent demonstration was due to take place in the old town and the demonstrators were getting together wearing white T-shirts and waving blue flags in support of the constitution and the visionary Dr. Ambedkar, who wrote it. But there was no difficulty getting to the Shaniwar Wada Palace, where Shatru drooped us off.
Apart from the main gate, which is monstrous in its proportions, the Marathi palace, which boasted 7 storeys and was once home of the Peshwa dynasty, is now a mere shell, having been gutted by a mysterious fire that the British may have started in 1827. Standing at 21 feet, the nailed teakwood gate dwarfed Pratibha and Willi. We contented ourselves with strolling along the remains, an outline of the grand building which covers an underground escape system and massive storage rooms that would have held enough supplies to feed 1,000 inhabitants for 7 – 8 months.
Outside the palace walls, modern day squalor presented itself on the streets. We passed an old man who stank so severely that we were aware of his dirty body long before we saw him. Bunches of fresh young lentils that looked like berries were heaped together for sale on the pavement. A few yards further, a bundle of rags on the pavement turned out to be an old lady curled up like a dog, bare feet protruding from the faded fabric of her sari. Tattered plastic bags and bundles squeezed behind rubbish bins were testimony to the other people who returned here at night to sleep.
We trotted behind Pratibha peering into a courtyard here and there to spy a museum that was closed or an ancient house that was being renovated until we reached the richly decorated roofs of the Dagadusheth Halwai Ganapati Temple. The temple, built by a wealthy sweet maker and dedicated to Ganesha, is immensely popular and suffered a terrorist attack only two years ago. Since then, security has been beefed up and a concrete wall shields the temple from the road. All manner of offerings are on sale here, but in addition to the usual flowers and coconuts were various lotus-shaped sweets and three types of grass wound round tiny single red roses.
A large tented room with a counter at which you can leave your belongings and a couple of benches was provided for the taking off of shoes. We then filed along two queues to be searched and proceeded along a dark passage to the sanctum sanctorum. The Ganesha shrine was full of devotees doing their darshan or holy visit and I understand the trust is one of the wealthiest in Maharashtra. Ganesha resides in an alcove made entirely of solid gold and silver, the idol himself wearing almost 8 kg gold. While priests, naked from the waist upwards except for the sacred upanayanam thread worn diagonally across the chest, accepted the offerings of coconuts and flowers, chanting devotees were seated on the floor in front to watch the ceremony. Outside, the temple is intricately carved; two marble sentinels guard the shrine and a beautiful oil lamp waits to be lit not far from a silver statue of Ganesha’s carrier, the rat. People were whispering their hopes and wishes into the rat’s ear. I followed an old lady with dark, skinny rickety legs shuffling along in a faded pink sari. When I had overtaken her, I looked back to give her a smile and was shocked to see that her face was covered with white bristles. She smiled back.
We popped into a Shiva shrine in the same complex, where a robed gent was surveying the donations and Pratibha dived into a shop to buy sandalwood for the ritual face masks that her future daughter-in-law would need before the wedding the following week. Meanwhile a group of youngsters were doing a selfie with Willi.
Our next temple was a completely different place. Hidden away behind the bustling Belbaug Chowk, this Vishnu temple with a small monastery attached is serene and there was a specially spiritual feel about the temple today, since a ceremony was taking place at which a highly ranked leader was reciting mantras and waving his hand methodically non-stop from north to south and east to west, watched by a dozen or so white-clad men. A beautiful, fresh rangoli in front of the dark wooden edifice spoke for the importance of the ceremony.
On the opposite side of the road, we could make out the first library in Pune, but our walk continued to the busy street market. Like all Asian bazaars, this was a bustling, noisy, colourful market selling almost everything. Flowers in garlands and loose heads in baskets filled the stalls of the first shops. Then there were clothes and gold trinkets that dripped from the awnings of the jewelry stands and bronze pots and pans that hung from shops selling household wares. A tiny, wrinkled lady in a lilac sari hurried past me carrying a tray of white cord knotted into sellable twists. It surprised me that Pratibha had not warned us to be wary of pickpockets, though she did keep a surveillant hand draped across her own open shoulder bag.
All at once, the hustle and bustle of the bazaar stopped. We had turned into a narrow alleyway and surfaced in a quiet little square famous for its tulsi or holy basil plants and dominated by a Ram temple. The temple was built by the Marathis in teakwood, now rather weathered, and very untypically sported a clock like the ones you used to find at railway stations. It now has a pretty shikhar or conical dome. Bright paintings stood out on one wall of the little square; the other sides were occupied by shops selling devotional objects and oil lamps made mainly of bronze and copper.
The octagonal shaped indoor market was not far from here. It is huge, each one of its eight arms offering a different kind of fruit or vegetable. One of the most interesting products here was the banana leaf, which was being cut into huge plates for use at weddings and other feasts. There seems to be no age limit for the people working here; a really thin old lady in a pale green shawl was sitting cross-legged on the floor completely bent over the lentils she was podding. At a stall outside, we bought three small rangoli forms for spreading colour in designs on the pavement. Pratibha then bought roasted chickpeas at a roastery and showed us a Bodo settlement, where people fashion bamboo into baskets and mats and other products. I was fascinated by the dyed red hair of some of the women and thrilled when a lady agreed for me to take a picture.
We had agreed to meet our driver at an appointed place and when he failed to turn up, Pratibha was informed that the traffic had been stopped because of the demonstrations. There was no alternative to retracing our steps, but at a crossroads, the demonstrators would not let us past their ranks. It was only when the police interceded that we were allowed to cross the road. As we left the main road, small groups of demonstrators came towards us. I noticed that the old lady was still lying in the same position as this morning.
For the car journey that had taken us 12 minutes yesterday, we now took over an hour, since the main traffic vein was now closed owing to the demonstrations. It gave us time to observe. The young man, for example, who was trying to sell a single balloon with a lifeless infant slung across his shoulder, both of them filthy dirty.
Our delicious Indian hotel dinner was not so good for my digestion that night.
To get to Ganapatipule, we had to cross the Western Ghats. After a small breakfast, we were ready to explore the part of Pune which we had not yet seen, an impressive Pune with many residential blocks and colleges. Most of the shops and kiosks were still closed. Before we turned onto the highway, we passed a group of men with picks and huge bowls in their hands waiting for work on the roads. Out of the city we came across a few lakes with posters for development plots. We had noticed that Donald Trump has left his mark on this city and agreed that Pune looked like a good place to invest in.
There was fog in the mountains and the road became steep and very winding but had the advantage of being one-way. Shatru overtook whenever he could. At the top of the mountain there was a village where the side roads were no more than dirt tracks. It was 10.15 am. Children in brown uniforms and teachers were walking to school, those who had already arrived were letting off steam in the playground. We reached the town of Satara where the land came in patches of different colours, dark green where the cabbage fields were and brown where the fields were freshly furrowed and yellow where the marigolds were flowering. The headlines in our daily paper had reported that 2,600 farmers had committed suicide in 2016 alone. And yet this area looked so fertile. Shatru needed to have a meal, so when we stopped at a place outside the town, Willi and I walked up a country road watching the floridly painted trucks transporting cane to the sugar factories and peering into a brick factory. A man pushing his bicycle was almost buried under the huge bail of grass he was carrying.
Shatru took a short cut though a jungle road to get onto another highway, and here, in a small village, we were surprised by a huge group of happy, boisterous males and a few young women coming towards us covered in fuchsia-coloured powder. Some were on lorries, hooping and waving, others on swerving on bikes and others walked or ran greeting us in loud voices and making thumbs-up signs. They did look rather wild but were obviously just celebrating and having a good time. A little pink powder found its way into the car until Shatru wound the window closed. Shortly afterwards, it was whole families wearing orange scarves with yellow badges who were waiting at the roadside to welcome some famous politician. We came across herds of goats and rustic settlements, often boasting picturesque little temples and monasteries.
We finally reached the coast and our resort, which was a beautiful green oasis. Our room was a pleasant bungalow. Unfortunately we were practically the only guests. The resort was badly managed and the staff friendly but untrained, it had just been taken over.
Ganipatipule is not a place where tourists come to, but it does have an attraction and that is a popular sandstone Ganesha temple right on the beach. These days, it is separated from the shore by a wire fence. We left our shoes with the shoe wallah who looked after them for 5 rupees and went to have a look. There was nothing spectacular about the temple; it was very simple and despite the surprisingly high number of visitors very quiet. A couple of rows of men in flimsy robes were sitting quietly waiting to sing, I think. Like the visitors to the Ganesha temple in Pune, I bent down to whisper a wish in the ears of Ganesha’s rat. Then we walked out onto the beach. The guide book had mentioned aggressive dogs, but there were only a few lazy ones here today. Many people walked fully dressed along the sea, a few were enjoying horse rides on the shore. The coconut vendor had a huge stall but was doing not much business.
Back at the resort, we tried to have a sundowner at their beach café, but nobody seemed to be able to find a beer, though there were several whiskies to choose from. In the end we settled for a Kingfisher strong with our meal in the restaurant. The air-conditioning was not working properly in our room, so there was a huge puddle on the floor when we turned in for the night.
The puddle on the floor had more than doubled in size when we woke up.
Our trip today was to take us to Goa and Shatru was clearly worried about the border controls. We drove back inland for a while, passing cane straw stacks that looked like little muffins and mango plantations, where the trees were packed in little mounds of earth. We came across the first coconuts and bananas. The road became hilly and jungly. On a poster, I read: Safety on the roads means safe tea at home. A man stroked the back of his cow lovingly.
As we progressed south, alongside coconut plantations and haystacks now shaped like domes, the rural area reminded me more and more of that of the southern regions had visited before. In some places the highway was completely canopied and it was not unusual to find people sitting on the road with their legs stretched so far onto the highway that the vehicles had to swerve round them. But after a certain roundabout, the appearance of this highway changed dramatically with green road signs replacing the brown ones and a freshly carpeted road that cut straight across the countryside and I realised we must be in Goa.
The official border crossing with the road tax office was, however, further ahead, at the side of the road just outside a settlement in a place that smelled of dog dirt. Shatru went into the office and was asked to produce all his documents. We could see that he was getting agitated and when he started shouting and waving his hands in despair, he was complimented out of the office by a fat security man with negroid features. He calmed down and asked Willi to join him inside, where a calm officer quietly explained that Shatru did not have the correct papers for conveying passengers. We were not in a position to judge this, of-course, but it appeared that the officer was asking for a bribe and Shatru not willing to pay. Several phone calls and over an hour later, he relented and we were able to continue.
The Portuguese influence in the small villages we passed on our way to the coast was not to be overseen. There were almost as many churches here as temples or mosques. There was a very relaxed atmosphere. The further we got to the coast, the more tourists we saw, mainly young people on scooters with bronzed faces and no helmets, showing a lot of leg. It is jolly difficult to find the Otto Creek Resort, especially since you have to leave your car at the end of a sandy road and cross a bridge on foot to get to it. We followed our written instructions to the letter and having first missed the porters who had trudged to the main road to show us the way, eventually found them and were duly escorted across.
The resort is on a lonely duney stretch of beach full of coconut palms on a creek, as the name suggests. Our tent was pretty from the outside and pretty basic inside, with very little room for our cases and only a few, dangerous-looking electric sockets, but it was adequate. There were sunbeds on our terrace and a mattress on our private pier overlooking the creek. However I was a little alarmed to find a whole battery of gadgets and chemicals to combat insects, especially as the website had claimed there was no problem with mosquitoes here.
We were invited to have a coconut water straight out of the shell in the attractive open restaurant, then settled into the tent and went for an explorative walk on the beach. This was actually very clean, but we were a little disturbed by the number of dogs, friendly at the moment but organised in packs. There were starfish and tiny crabs that made strange patterns in the sand and fishing boats moored under the palms. Several kilometres further along the beach, colourful beach huts appeared and strains of music could be heard. There were a few kite sailors and many people practising yoga in groups or meditating alone. We sat down near some upturned boats where a three-legged dog came along to snuffle and got up again when he was threatened by an aggressive group of three stronger animals. The sun was setting when we arrived back at our resort and like the day before, it disappeared long before it hit the horizon. The staff were enjoying a game of volleyball. The mosquitoes came out and we went in to change for dinner.
This was delicious. We started with momos – sticky Tibet dumplings filled with chicken, prawn and spinach and served in their own broth and a sweet chilli sauce. I had a fantastic prawn curry, Cadeen style and Willi chose paneer tikka masala.
I woke up to the dull, resonant thud of wood on hollow wood that echoed from the woodland on the other side of the creek. Then there was a short spell of singing, Hare Krishna style, that sounded as if it was coming from mobile loudspeakers on a van. There were hoops and twitters, but it was mainly the crows that were responsible for the bird sounds. Willi went for a jog on the beach, so I got up to do a spot of bird-watching from our terrace. While the sun slowly lit up the other side of the creek, I searched the treetops in vain. There were butterflies galore, with rather dull-coloured wings and almost too fast to photograph. Then a fishing bird, probably a striated heron, joined me and a large pigeon, too. It felt a little like Autumn as I sat watching the reflection of the branches above me ripple gently in the creek and yellowing leaves spiral weightlessly, noiselessly onto the sandy banks.
I had fresh pineapple juice and two starchy waffles for breakfast. We spent most of the morning chatting to Barbara, the owner and manager of our resort, and to a most interesting Indian couple of our own age and to a Polish man with his Czech girlfriend. I was also able to borrow a book on Goa to plan the following days in more detail, since no local guides were foreseen.
After a lunch comprising of two lime sodas, Willi and I walked on the other side of the beach, from where we got a stunning view of our little bridge. The beach was a little more developed this side with attractive-looking flats for rent and a few shops and cafés. We admired several yogis who really knew their stuff! But, alas! there were many dogs.
Willi had a swim before dinner. We ordered the most fantastic, really large tandoori prawns that tasted like lobster. Willi then had chicken tandoor with naan, while I went for a typically Goan curry, a mushroom xacutti. And encouraged by the lower tax on alcohol in Goa, we even indulged in a bottle of South African white wine and a half bottle of bubbly.
We intended to visit Old Goa on our way to the very south today. The road took us uphill and downhill several times before we reached the outskirts of Mapusa, where the landscape reminded me of the pictures I have seen of Bali. It was rather steamy, with lots of coconut palms and jungle-type vegetation. A highway took us to the bridge that leads to Panjim, the capital of Goa, and within minutes we had reached Old Goa Town.
We knew that the following day, the locals would be celebrating the saint day of Francis Xavier, who is buried in the huge, majestic brick Bom Jesus Church, and that this festival always attracts many visitors. But we were not prepared for the extent of the celebrations. We were very lucky to find a parking space so close to the church and its precincts. The entire town centre had been turned into a gigantic market and was teeming with people. A true pilgrimage!
Once we had got our bearings, we naturally wanted to have a look at Bom Jesus, though the crowds of people queueing for the security check before entering the church were equally as fascinating. Everyone was decked out in their Sunday best, most of the ladies dressed in posh saris and frilly nylon dresses like the ones we wore to parties as children, dresses embellished with frills and flounces, sequins and rhinestones, lace and satin. Many wore flowers in their hair, buds of green lentils and rosebud garlands, and gold on their noses and ears. The queue moved painfully slowly, but there was so much to take in. The church itself was whitewashed inside. The gilded altars and pulpit stand out magnificent against the white. A statue of Francis Xavier, bearded and benign-looking, fills the main altar. His remains are kept in a silver reliquary box that was adorned with gifts of marigolds. An officious woman urged the crowds to move on, crying “No selfies”.
Having no choice, we followed the crowds to a side room where a very bloody statue of Christ on the cross was being stroked by devoted ladies who then crossed themselves. Then we found ourselves in a plain white cloister, whose walls on both sides were flanked by bundles of sleeping people or the bags and blankets of those who intended to sleep there. We entered the precincts and what we saw here was sheer unbelievable. The entire lawn space had been taken over by people camping. Steam rose from cooking pots that balanced on large stones, blankets and rugs were airing on makeshift lines and belongings were rolled into bundles of cloth. Buckets of soapy water and bags and cartons tied with string lay in the shade of palm fronds. People were sleeping, eating or cooking, the children playing in between the busy adults. It was chaos and yet very peaceful. There were lavatories here and we needed to use them, which I was dreading. The ones I used were modern and relatively new and spanking clean, though there was water everywhere.
Outside on hundreds of plastic chairs in neat rows, people were following a service. A strong voice bellowed into a microphone and was reproduced by several loudspeakers; everyone else was silent. We walked alongside the makeshift outdoor church towards the lovely churches of Saint Francis and the Sé Cathedral, glistening white in the sunshine on the other side of lush green lawns. Here on the grass other people were picknicking. There were benches in the shade that were strewn with rugs and covers for the night.
We entered the cathedral briefly. This used to be covered in frescoes, we heard one guide explain, but the upkeep became too expensive, so they have been whitewashed. The surprisingly narrow apsis is flanked by richly decorated wrought iron gates that lead into side chapels. It was so interesting to watch Indian Christians carry on the Hindu tradition of making offerings of marigold garlands which they drape around the pictures and statues of Mary and the other saints. Directly in front of the cathedral doors and spilling over onto the grass families sat together sharing meals which they helped themselves to using their fingers out of communal dishes.
Aware of the fact that we still had a good 70 km ahead of us, we returned to the market, entering via a narrow gate where a family of balloon sellers were seated on the ground. The market was packed but just about passable. Some vendors of musical instruments were playing a kind of trumpet and there were other brass and wind instruments making weird sounds. People were selling tablecloths and nightdresses, pans, nail varnish and roasted peas. There was even a Wall’s van where ice-cream was being sold. Many of the roads were closed for the market, making leaving the town difficult. Still in the town centre, coconut plantations appeared. Then we were in a residential area again, where a church like St. Paul’s in Rome hid between the trees.
The area south of Old Goa was beautiful, with lovely houses in more or less psychedelic colours and mangroves. Water buffalos wallowed in paddy fields and there were mango trees galore. But after the further we travelled, the more remote it became and the more mountainous, too. From the highest point on our trip, the road suddenly plummeted to sea level in sharp curves and the GPS system sent us through a small village in an unlikely area full of shacks and small shops and a sandy little lane. A local man pointed in the direction of the sea, which was not yet visible behind the small buildings. There was a lot of construction work going on and my heart sank as we walked past fine turquoise netting in the sand put up to hide the building work. Our path took us between a few wooden huts and ended in an open air reception area consisting of a long wooden table with a pile of paperback books at one end. A few rows of tables with cheap plastic lights and uncomfortable chairs indicated that there was at least a café here.
We checked in and the man at the reception said that if we wanted our room cleaned, we should remember to leave the key. Our room was a few steps away across a patch of spiky grass and wobbly paving stones and, like the rest of the resort, was practically on the beach. The furnishings were pathetically basic and the huge bathroom looked as if it had not yet been completed, but the lights and the shower and the air-conditioning all worked and the linen was clean. Nevertheless, I felt rather despondent.
Although it was no longer lunchtime, we decided to cheer ourselves up with a snack. Willi had fish and chips and I chose aubergine pakoras, which were excellent. And we did indeed feel better after it. And after our walk on Palolem’s beautiful, clean beach, we felt even better. Passing rows of wooden beach huts on stilts with colourful tented roofs, we strolled right to the opposite end of the beach where there is a rocky promontory called Sunset Point. Here we met a very sweet newly married couple. He was a tall, handsome guy and she was a plump little thing with soft dark downy hair on the lower part of her cheeks.
We talked for a while then turned back to watch the fishermen unload their sardines. And what a catch they had hauled in! The silvery fish lay waiting in baskets and the womenfolk came from behind the beach huts to take their allocated portion. Meanwhile people were leaving the beach across a bridge to a yoga and massage centre. The boats that were resting under the palms were lovely bright works of art. Behind them, in very modest straw housing covered with plastic roofing and dried coconut leaves twisted into doors, lived the fishermen with their families.
We had a couple of cocktails overlooking the beach till the mosquitoes arrived, then changed into long trousers. My sea-food sizzler was really good and Willi enjoyed his chicken tikka masala, too. The night was balmy and the sky full of stars. The resort was perhaps not so bad, after all.
We were woken early the following morning by the staff, all Nepalese, calling to one another. They were busy watering the tiny garden and getting the sunbeds out onto the beach. It looked as if we were going to have a dull day, but by eight, the sky was blue. During breakfast, we watched a very skilful yogini greeting the sun. The staff were chasing the hungry stray dogs on the beach away with long sticks.
We had planned to visit Cabo de Rama early, but Shatru noticed a puncture which he insisted hadn’t been there an hour before. He openly accused a man working on the construction work of having caused it. So we started a little later, calling in at Agonda beach to compare it to ours. This was also a very pleasant, clean beach, wider and a little longer than in Palolem and the hotels there looked a little more upmarket than ours. The souvenir vendors and the cafes were also more professionally organised. But there were at least as many dogs there as on our beach and the beach was not quite as flat to walk along. A number of cows were curled up enjoying the sun here.
At the abandoned fortress of Cabo de Rama we were surprised to find several tourist buses carrying school children. Beyond the entrance gate, with its long thin canon, the pretty blue and white church of St. Anthony looks rather incongruous. There is not a great deal left to see of the ancient fort, but it is a romantic place with stone walls overgrown with stubborn spiky grasses and wonderful views over the coast. You can take a path down to the coast, but the steps looked awful, so we didn’t bother.
Instead we stopped at a temple whose lavish roof had caught our attention on the way here. It is a private Laxmi temple, an exclusive building with immaculate shining marble floors but lacking character and soul, I thought. Much more interesting was the fishing village a few kilometres further. The fishermen’s wives were hauling huge blocks of ice from a container to keep the fresh fish fresh. But most of the fish was being dried, lying out under nets on the sand in the sun next to upturned wicker baskets. The shore was absolutely full of boats while in the creek, three men sat in one boat mending the fine white nets. A handful of dogs patrolled the shore. It was very quiet and peaceful.
Back at Palolem, Willi and I had a walk through the village. There were pigs everywhere, smallish black pigs minding their own businesses. The village is poor but seems intact and the locals make their money in small ways, offering a room here or snacks there and selling plastic chappals or printed cotton shawls and tableware. There was also a second-hand bookshop and a shop selling bags. The lady selling spices at the corner of one street was deep in conversation with a German tourist who sounded as if she had had a drink or two. Sandy passages take you to backpacker lodgings more or less on the beach that are simple and often used by families. Before we had our evening stroll, we looked in at the On the Rocks disco which is actually on the rocks and apparently is responsible for a great deal of noise in the main season, which was just about due to start.
Several classes from the same school, presumably on their way back from the fortress, were playing in the sea. They were lively, gay children who were obviously used to discipline but allowed to roam free on the beach. I found a little picture of a saint dangling on a red string half-buried in the wet sand and handed it to one of the teachers. But I doubt whether it ever found its owner!
Then it was time for dinner, a prawn xacutti again for me with a chicken sizzler for Willi and a Kingfisher strong.
This morning I had a delicious hot ginger with my breakfast for a change. It was time to renegotiate that long winding road up to the mountains towards the capital city of Panajim on our way to our last Goan hotel right up in the north.
One of the small details that make Goa different from the other Indian states we have visited is that the women usually wear dresses. Not the kind worn in Europe, but the kind of modest, conservative long cotton print dresses worn by Africans, for example. In this quiet rural area, the ladies were working in the paddy fields bent double with sodden skirts, in combat against hundreds of cattle egrets.
We drove through Chinchinim, a rather attractive town where a magnificent new yellow and white building houses the municipality and a very posh Levis shop stands right next to a hovel, no contradiction in India. And then we were in Margao, one of the larger cities in this state. A huge poster appeared several times advertising strawberry flavoured condoms. And at a hospital a huge notice reminded that: Hospitality is your right, cleanliness your duty. In fact there were lots of reminders to keep Goa clean. One lorry was literally plastered with notices of good advice; the slogans read: “ India, A Clean Country is our Responsibility” and “ Dear literate Goans, STOP littering Goa” and “Be the change you want to see in the world, Be the first to stop littering”. The same lorry advocated taking your shopping bag with you to avoid plastic bags. Modern thoughts. In Margao we also saw the Goan sausages, short, plump and dark red, hanging in rings from the stalls.
By the time we reached Panajim it was almost midday and very hot. Shatru parked next to the pretty scruffy municipal gardens with a milk distribution kiosk opposite the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. As long as its name are also the flights of steps that lead to the entrance of the church. The building was dazzling white in the sun and very majestic and inside much smaller than you expected; it consisted of a single nave with no side chapels. A couple of pretty balconies clung to the whitewashed walls and banners bearing photos hung from broad pale blue and yellow ribbons from the ceiling. It was guarded by a tiny wizened lady who wore her greying hair in a tight little bun, with a faded cloth over her pink and orange sari and the inevitable little broom. She swept non-stop. An Asian couple was in the throes of posing in front of their mobile phone with the altar as a background when she waved her arms frantically and barked, angrily, “No selfies!”
We wandered round the old town, the UNESCO site district known as Fontainhas, which is full of Portuguese colonial buildings in narrow streets full of nooks and crannies. The wooden houses have carved balconies that have been wonderfully preserved and the whole area is delightful. You would feel as if time had stopped were it not for the rows of mopeds and the occasional car parked on the streets. Every building is worth a picture! The gardens and paths are full of trees or potted plants and there is even a picturesque little well and a tiled market place. A guitar was being played inside a blue house with its windows open. Further on a couple was leaning out of their window to get better reception on their mobile phone. Two smiling ladies rushed past with steel bowls washed pots on their heads and plastic bundles clasped under their arms. A man selling fish on a bike was handing over his wares to an elderly lady behind a wrought iron gate, watched by two playful cats. The footbridge over the Querim Creek, in a bad state of repair, was supported by bamboo stakes.
To reach Fort Aguada, we had to retrace our drive past the pretty Secretariat building, a former guest palace, and cross the bridge to North Goa. A huge Kingfisher sign seen from the waterside partly hid the fishermen’s community under the trees, an impoverished area where life was certainly a struggle. What a contrast to the area around our beautiful Taj hotel! Here, there were plenty of European tourists and smart Indian ladies were wearing tunics over leggings and tight jeans or even mini-skirts. In the huge marble lobby, we were given mango juice and a welcoming garland of tiny shells.
We settled in then treated ourselves to a very late, simply wonderful seafood thali. Which featured spinach and tomato pappadums with two chutneys, spicy fried kingfish in breadcrumbs, prawn curry, crab xec-xec, baby green gourds, coconut with clams, sprout salad, two kinds of rice, naans and a purple salty drink with coriander. For dessert there was a coconut pancake with a rum and chocolate sauce.
Fortunately, the hotel stands at one end of a beach that stretches much further than you can walk and it was here that we walked on the wet shore, passing many large hotels and several small bed and breakfast places and cafes. Both the beach and the sea seemed extraordinarily clean. It was full of people, Indians who walked into the ocean fully clothed and Eastern Europeans in the tiniest of bikinis. We watched as two policemen patrolled the beach. One stood transfixed in front of a buxom blonde tourist lying on her tummy in a tanga, legs wide open. At the end of the beach where our hotel stood, there were a few pleasure boats and a banana boat and even a jetski, but it was still very peaceful. Only the stray dogs were sometimes disturbing. We walked until the sun had dropped behind the horizon and, still full of seafood, we decided that dinner would be replaced by a beer that evening.
Day sixteen was a very lazy day that started with an excellent breakfast including idli and sambar.
The Taj Fort Aguada Hotel is built inside the old city walls, making for a very pretty backdrop for the generous, lush gardens. While Willi jogged, I read here for most of the day, lapping up V. S. Naipaul’s “Wounded Civilisation” , which puts the mystery of India into perspective and attempts to explain some of the aspects of Indian life that puzzle the uninitiated. Of-course we undertook our afternoon stroll, this time accosted by a lady in a grubby Punjab suit with gold dripping from her ears and nose, who wanted to give us a massage.
That evening, the waiter’s recommendation was not very useful, since my prawn balchao turned out to be extremely spicy and I had to leave most of it. I ordered a plain lassi to take away the heat; it was lumpy and tasted of goats’ milk.
The trip to Arambol, our next destination, was only a question of an hour or so, so we intended to visit Fort Aguada before leaving this part of the coast. The fortress, which is very well kept and boasts a fine photographic documentation, well-presented on flat wooden boards, was full of Indian and Russian tourists. At first it was rather cloudy, but when the sun came out, lighting up the wide fortress complex, it was most inclement! We walked around the sturdy ground walls and the narrow raised wall, a slippery ledge, and photographed the old lighthouse, now a water tower, reminiscent of a windmill without its sails. Beneath us, dolphins were jumping in the sea, followed by quaint little boats full of tourists.
The bright, photogenic dolphin-viewing boats started a few kilometres back from the fortress. The boat owners were doing a good business with tourists piling into the boats at a regular speed with no queues and no rush. In between the pleasure boats, fishermen were hauling their nets into their vessels. Vendors of coconuts and drinks waited patiently, almost nonchalantly, for customers.
How different the coast turned out to be between Calangute Beach, popular with young Western kiting and surfing tourists and old hippies, and the seaside villages surrounding it! Throngs of tourists and western people who have made their homes there, added to the already understandably high number of local inhabitants and fugitives from poorer states like Bihar and Andra Pradesh, filled the streets and Calangute town was totally congested. The main road showed prosperity with brands like Benetton and Lacoste and Double Tree and Ibis appearing between the usual modest shacks and kiosks and the occasional church, Portuguese-style, often situated bang in the middle of the road. Here was obviously a chance to make a penny or two.
Two bridges later we had reached the area we had stayed in a few days ago, where the pace is slower and the local inhabitants more rustic. I spent the rest of the journey studying the wrinkled old ladies, tough old birds that still worked hard on the fields. They were all of a type with a fine layer of weather-beaten skin stretched in over toothless gums where plump cheeks used to be and grey hair rebelling against hairpins. Skinny, rickety legs poked out of thin saris that were expertly tucked up way above the knee to allow freedom of movement for weeding. Most of the old women worked bent double. One was sitting on her haunches at the side of the road, just sitting, just “being”, her garments folded between her legs to assure absolute decency.
Our hotel, Fort Tiracol, was a heritage building, a mansion with its own chapel rather than a fortress. There were seven absolutely luxurious rooms, one for each day of the week, and we were put in Monday. A handsome four-poster bed with English-style furbishing featuring dark pink roses dominated a huge bedroom and a tiny balcony looked over the sea. We enjoyed an orange-juice on the small terrace in front of the comfortably furnished restaurant and spent literally hours watching the many dolphins and exchanging a few words with external visitors to the fort and the staff.
When the afternoon began to cool, we had a walk through the village, passing coconut plantations, a church, and a huge notice board that displayed plans for a new golf resort in the village, a plan that is being strongly opposed by the local population, we were told. But the strangest phenomenon of this village was the extraordinary number of liquor shops. The explanation was easy – the tax on alcohol is considerably lower in Goa than in Maharashtra and here we were actually in an enclave. By bribing the local police, you could make an Indian fortune by coming across regularly to stock up on your supplies. The village was very contained and our road quickly became an unmarked tarmac road through jungle. The small country holdings with crosses and statues of the Virgin Mother were neat and tidy and the village church, though shabby from the outside, quite sweet with a tiled floor and a bell on a long rope. We spied a bee-eater and sunbirds on the telegraph wires.
The beach here is depleting fast, we were told, because people steal and sell the sand. Indeed there was little sign of tourism left here. On the way back to the hotel, we paused near the cemetery where a group of lads were playing football in their school uniform, a man was sweeping dead leaves off the roof to make a fire and a barefooted woman with an apron over her sari was chopping driftwood on the shore. A few houses further up the road, a man was smoothing a cow dung and water mixture over his entrance with a broom, to keep it fresh and clean. The village clearly belongs to the local population, despite the prestigious hotel.
We were the only guests that night and our meal was a little disappointing. We had a tomato and aubergine bake and an insipid prawn mole in my case, with baked fish for Willi.
It was already warm at 7. 30 when we shared the terrace with the striped squirrels for our exotic, individually cooked breakfast. There were no dolphins to be seen this morning. Workers were already busy on the new paving stones when we went down to the car park. They work very slowly, these workers, one action at a time and not at all hand in hand, so that one works while the other nine or so look on. You can’t blame them. This style of work ensures that about ten men have a tiny income for many days. Shatru was positively beaming! For the first time in eighteen days he had slept in a bed and had a bathroom to himself and breakfast to boot.
A quiet rural road running parallel to the coast took us through quiet villages. I noticed, for the first time in India, that a group of schoolgirls in uniform were actually wearing trousers. In an open van-like taxi, about 20 young children were packed like sardines, standing of-course. We reached Sarwantwadi, a major town with 2 reservoirs, then we arrived at the Western Ghats. A river was bedded with flat stones that were perfect for slapping and drying the washing that the womenfolk were doing. But then the road became very steep and I felt so sorry for the women transporting headloads of water or firewood, especially since the rocks themselves looked dangerous and there were certainly all kinds of snakes around here. There were viewpoints along the way and several moped cyclists had come for an exhilarating drive around the curves, but the landscape was veiled by thick mist. There were also several signs to government rest houses and kiosks, suggesting that the area has its own local tourism. At times, we felt that Shatru was generally driving a little too fast on these winding roads and could have been more prudent when overtaking.
At a left turn we followed a road that lead into rural India as we know it from other trips. A whiskery gent in a Nehru cap and a grubby dhoti walked his goat on a tether. Bow-legged, grim old women worked in the sugar cane fields. A farmer in a traditional white turban wearing a torn shirt over his working dhoti drove his bullocks in front of our vehicle. We passed a sugar factory, where lanes and lanes of psychedelic decorated trucks waited to be unloaded. We entered the State of Karnataka for a few kilometres. Not every farmer can afford a truck, and so it was that bullocks strained as they pulled carts laden with cane and more often than not a couple of pieces of furniture or passengers, alongside the motorway. There were small banana plantations and fields of sorghum and wheat-coloured stacks of straw. Lalit ladies were walking by the side of the road picking up litter and stacking it in huge plastic bags.
Kolhapur is back in the state of Maharashtra. It is a busy, modern, thriving town, far away from the tourist routes. Our guide book mentioned that its inhabitants are exceptionally helpful, friendly people and we can only confirm this. Our hotel was fairly new, an eleven-storey luxurious giant on a busy dual carriageway. We were directed to our floor to be checked in, given a mango juice and told that we could call our private butler at any time. The staff were very helpful in providing us with copied maps of the town and in telling Shatru where to take us, since the tour company had not managed to find a guide here.
Our first stop was at the “new palace”, a maharaja palace that is now the Shree Chhatrapatri Sabu Museum, a fairy-tale palace designed by the British star architect Charles Mant. Alone the facade was enough to make my heart beat faster. Built in stone and set in gardens with impeccable lawns, kept tidy by hardworking women from the lower castes, the palace boasts turrets and arches and a magnificent slim clock tower. A row of shoes along the path leading to the main door made it clear we should take them off. The museum is an unusual hotch-potch of weapons, old photographs, games, stuffed animals and birds, maps, furniture, robes and a magnificent silver elephant head cloth. It was full and the local visitors were greatly amused by us, especially the long lines of schoolchildren. The highlight of the museum was the durbar hall, which is so fantastically ornate in an Asian sort of way that it is impossible to imagine that this was the work of a British person. The detail in this very high room with its intricately carved panelling and elaborate pillars and the incredible complicated tiled floor takes your breath away.
After visiting the palace, we walked round to a small park shared by emus and deer and left alongside a miniature lake. It was extremely difficult to find the Mahalaxmi Temple in the centre of the old town and even harder to find a parking space, but with the help of the locals, Shatru was able to park within easy walking distance, assured that the police would not fine him. The temple, built in the 7th century out of dark stone with modern cream-coloured spires, was guarded by policemen who politely informed us that neither filming nor photography was allowed. Willi was told to leave his rucksack with a stallholder.
Visitors were required to assemble in different lines for men and women, so I was separated from Willi for a while. Sandwiched between ladies carrying tots and offerings of sweets and flowers, I inched forwarded with the others to the sanctum sanctorum, past various idols not really understanding the proceedings. Just before we reached the main altar, the temple attendants urged me to come out of the queue and pushed me forward in a gesture of respect. Here, the Goddess Mahalakshmi throned, black pupils staring out of white opaque eyes shining in a completely black face like the Jain Tirthankaras sometimes do. She was sculpted with four arms and was wearing a sari in Karnataka style. Just as fast as the devotees were thrusting their offerings into the hands of the priests, so a lady was handing out the sweets and flowers to others as prasad or blessed gift. She gave me a prettily bound flower and a handful of sweetmeats, something resembling marzipan balls, which I clumsily accepted in both hands, thereby automatically making them dirty according to Hindu belief. Another lady, a visitor, piled more of her sticky little pastries into my hands. I was overwhelmed by these gestures, but dared not eat them, having had a very bad experience from eating prasad last time we were in India. I found Willi and we handed the food over to a family eating together on the floor of the complex, though they probably didn’t even touch it since some of it came from my left hand. I gave the flower to Shatru for Ganesha in the car.
When we came out of the temple complex, a lady wearing lots of jewels and a white sari was about to enter, balancing a copper pot with a flowery decoration on her head. People were pushing rupee notes into her hand; I suppose she was about to take part in some ceremony. Meanwhile Willi wanted to give the shop holder a tip for guarding his rucksack, but she refused it. Looking back, I deeply regret not having been able to find a guide here, because I had the feeling I had only scratched the surface of all there was to see and understand in this wonderful place. And also because I would have liked to have seen the Kolhapur wrestling practice halls, which are supposed to be very near the temple.
As it was, we were conscious of the fact that Shatru was not 100% comfortable about his parking space and did not want to linger. This was a pity because this was India pure. Opposite the usual marigold garland shops, old ladies were selling herbs and colours and forms for rangolis and I hoped to catch a glimpse of the famous Kolhapur chappals or hand-crafted, beautifully stitched leather sandals. In the end I saw a picture of them, on our way to the lake.
Lake Rankali actually had nothing spectacular to offer, but when you spend so much time in the car and standing in temples and museums, you really feel the need to take a stroll. And that is what the locals do here. They were just starting to open up their stalls at the lakeside, waiting for the evening strollers. There were children’s playgrounds here and at the far side of the lake, outside the old palace and next to the pier for the paddling boats and the rowing boats, men and women were using the open-air mechanical exercise machines. Many others were power-walking or jogging on the promenade. Back at the hotel, I noticed that my feet were completely black!
That night we had a culinary highlight. On the top floor of our hotel was an open-air barbecue restaurant, one of a chain called Barbecue Nation. In the centre of every table was a hole for charcoal and above this a tiny grill. The waiters brought you as many starters to be grilled at your table as you could eat. After this there was a buffet for your main course, which was actually superfluous, and the desserts. We began with sharply seasoned chicken legs, prawns, fish, chicken breast and meatballs of lamb, all served with sauces and marinades. Willi had rogan josh, a delightful lamb dish afterwards. For dessert I picked beetroot halwa and galub jamun dumplings and mango rasmallai, which has been described as a “rich cheesecake without a crust”. We thought we had finished, but the waiter saw that we had had no ice-cream and presented us with a bowl of fennel-seed flavoured kulfi with rose jam. What a meal! And what service! However, it was very rich and I’m afraid I suffered so badly that I had to forego breakfast the next day.
The relative quietness of the night was pierced by bursts of fireworks that seemed to go on until early morning. This was the wedding season, after all. As I sipped my tea in the room, I could hear strains of high-pitched religious songs coming from various temples in the town.
During the journey I concentrated on the many gypsy camps that had been set up on the outskirts of the towns we passed. As a rule, the tents within each camp had the same form and were usually made of the same material, that is plastic sheeting or coconut matting. Most of the tents were triangular but there were also rectangular ones. We skirted the city of Satara , a city that boasts a series of colleges and institutes placed in modern buildings but apparently no other infrastructure. There were cement works here surrounded by corrugated iron shacks. Shatru stopped for breakfast at a cafe where a man with hennaed hair and a pink jumper over a pink gingham lungi and socks with holes in stuffed into non-descript sandals urinated directly in front of our car, revealing enormous whitish underpants as he flicked his skirt up.
Mahabaleshwar is a hill station, which we reached by spiralling up the edge of a mountainside. Naturally, it was very green here. Posters advertised hotels and strawberry gardens, the area being famous for its strawberry plantations. Paint ball and go-karting were also available and apparently candles are made here by the blind. Our hotel was hidden by trees and very shady. The reception area was very simple. Our welcome drink was salty and spicy and gingery and we did not drink much of it, I confess. Very little English was spoken here. Our room was large but simple and would have been perfectably acceptable had it not reeked of mothballs. We located these in the wardrobe and removed them to the balcony.
We were eager to look around the area, so Shatru drove us along pathetically pot-holed roads, for which he had to pay a supplementary road tax and an environment protection tax, to the viewpoints.Sir Arthur’s Seat was the name of the first place we stopped. The story goes that the former governor of Bombay, Sir Arthur, frequently stopped here to mourn his wife and children who drowned in the river. It is now a popular tourist destination full of stands selling street food and berries and drinks. A number of short flights of steps lead downhill to a spectacular viewpoint which has since adorned my Facebook page. The views here are unique and breathtaking. Monkeys feast peacefully on the remains that tourists leave behind, the tourists themselves were open and communicative. Some were sampling the spring water, we did not. We stopped at two further viewpoints here, each one offering spectacular views.
Just outside the town, at ancient Mahabaleshwar there are three temples that warrant a visit. Willi walked around outside while I made the usual clockwise walk round the altars. The first old temple was consecrated to Lord Shiva. On our way to the second one, Panchaganga, which it is claimed to have 5 rivers flowing under its foundations, we met an old man who had worked in Lausanne and told us his life story. He recommended that we should visit the remains of a Krishna temple just outside the village. Meanwhile, in the dark Panchaganga temple I passed a three-headed deity then a Krishna shrine. A woman presiding there handed me prasad sugar, which I wanted to take in my left hand. With twinkling eyes she shook her head vigorously and wobbled her head like only true Indians can. I gave her my right hand for the prasad. She was satisfied.
The fifteenth century Krishna temple lies just outside a strawberry plantation and offers a spectacular view over the town’s fringed lake. On the way we passed shops which sold, untypically, not so many religious articles but a good variety of handcrafted articles made of wood and leather and embroidery which, had we had cash, I would have loved to have purchased.
Before we returned to the hotel we drove to the town, but here was no sign of the hill station of yore. Only tacky shops and lowly shacks and a dirty bus station were there. At Lake Veena, however, Indian tourists were taking boat trips and enjoying horse riding. The number of horses tethered here was astounding. It became misty and very chilly and we were glad to return to our resort.
It was clear that hardly any non-Indians stay here. The over-attentive, nervous young waitresses staff treated us like royalty. We tried to ease their concern by asking them to show us how they folded the serviettes to resemble roses and soon there was a regular competition between the male and female staff. It was rather cold that evening, but the food, stuffed mushrooms followed by chicken korma and chicken biryani, was delicious.
The staff were equally attentive at breakfast time and though there was plenty of choice on the buffet, it was quite difficult to find the right food. The bread, which a waitress cut into wafer-thin slices for me, was awful, the tiny chocolate croissant made of tough puff-pastry and the banana fritters tasted fishy. But there was a tasty beetroot juice and a lovely kiwi punch and a good cappuccino. When we checked out, we were presented with a bag of mineral water, groundnuts and the local chikka which is a nut brittle.
Once we had descended the first mountain we reached the town of Wai, where a bare-bottomed little boy was defecating in front of his house. Further along the town, we passed a settlement of very lowly hovels, a dark place with roofs of plastic and scraps of corrugated iron. People dressed in sombre colours were sitting in groups in front of their huts on the floor. But on the low wall that separated the slum from the main road, piles of freshly washed pots and pans were gleaming in the sun. Shatru claimed that this area was one of the worst hit when it came to droughts, but this did not seem to fit in with the development of strawberry plantations in the area.
The tunnel we passed through was nothing like any highway tunnel I have seen before. There were no lights whatsoever and the road consisted of roughly hewn stone. Consequently there were no markings in the tunnel either. Nevertheless we continued on a well-built six lane road in the direction of Poona. On the one hand, the roads here were flanked by modern apartment blocks, but on the other, some of the men working on the roadside digging trenches were scooping out earth with their bare hands. Having skirted the city centre, we took the expressway, where Shatru, like the other drivers, drove – and overtook – on any lane which happened to be free and the only rule seemed to be: Do not stop! Even here, the roads were kept clean by men and women gathering rubbish. India has its own special way of coping and does at least share the possibility of earning a few rupees with the maximum number of people. By contrast, a poster at the roadside was advertising a New Year’s Eve experience with falling snow – a crazy, expensive and polluting privilege for the rich, I felt.
The closer we got to the hill station of Matheran, the worse the roads became. Only about 20 minutes away from our destination Shatru suddenly pulled up at a cafe at the roadside and announced that he needed to eat. We did not wish to stay in the car but there was really nowhere to walk to, this being a busy crossroads. Whilst we hovered uncertainly deciding which way to walk, we saw a fully disabled young beggar walking on his hands, filed into a pair of flipflops, dragging the lower part of his body behind him. He was cleanly dressed and shaven. He crossed the busy road without flinching and went from shop to shop, where the local people made sure he was given a chai here and a snack there. In general, the local population seemed, indeed, to be rather impoverished here. Just before we began the ascent along the exceedingly steep, narrow mountain road to Matheran, we passed a temple. Here people were perched on the steps or in the shade of the building eating from paper bags.
I had not realised, when planning our tour, that you cannot reach Matheran by car. At one time you could take a toy train, one that runs on narrow gauge tracks, to the town but it no longer runs. So you have three choices. You can walk, you can ride a horse or you can be carried on a man-pulled rickshaw. We pulled up at a dusty car park where there was bedlam. It was hard to find a place to park in the first place. Then the area was full of horses and ponies and monkeys and dogs and men looking for the opportunity to carry one’s bags. The minute you stopped your car, you were surrounded by local people who wanted to help, advise and probably trick you. We left Shatru to negotiate with them to find two strong porters while we were prepared to walk the 5 km or so to our hotel, literally in the middle of a forest.
The hotel website warns that it takes you up to one and a half hours to reach them, but the coolies walk so fast along the disused railway track and through the town and then up and down the partly stony ground in the forest that you have trouble catching up with them even without luggage to carry. On the way, along the railway track, we met Ranja, a very pretty young lady in a bright orange sari who was carrying a huge bale of straw on her head. I spoke to her and when she turned her head towards me, she almost lost her balance briefly and almost lost her load, too. She was very sprightly and walked much faster than us.
At one point, the porters made a right turn and continued their walk along a broad trodden path in the shade of the forest, slightly uphill. A troop of ponies being led downhill were carrying 4 heavy gas bottles each. Others were transporting building materials. At our side, announced by a thud of hooves, local horsemen were passing on horseback at a gallop, filling the air with red dust. We were overtaken by a group of three men transporting a mother with her toddler and several cases, one pulling and two pushing the heavy rickshaw along the uneven pathway.
Walking through the town was like stepping into a Western film. It consisted of many guest houses along the edge of the forest and a main road of shops and restaurants and cafes. Along almost the whole length of this road, horses were tethered to iron bars. I noticed a brand new playground to our left. In a parallel road, the only other one in the town, were local houses and banks and offices. But our hotel lay about a further 2 kilometres ahead, in the forest, where the track became increasingly stumbly, spiced with boulders and roots. We made it in one hour and arrived dirty and sweaty.
It was worth the effort! The Verandah in the Forest is a heritage hotel, a nineteenth century house built by Captain Barr. It is a huge 2 storey house and absolutely charming. Its peculiarity is the delightful broad veranda which runs right round the house and the lovely gardens with a number of quaint little places to sit. The rooms, a total of eleven, are situated right on the veranda. A huge salon and adjacent dining-room complete the facilities. Our room, like the others, contained many of the original furnishings including a four-poster bed. The bathroom was very old indeed with a blistering red-painted floor, but everything worked and we felt very much at home here.
While I intended to recover from my walk with lots of reading on the wooden sun beds outside our room, Willi felt compelled to return to the town to try to get a few rupees from the ATM, since we had hardly any cash left for the porters. While he was away I spoke to a family group of three from Mumbai. They were very eager to help us by paying our guide if there was any problem. Willi came back empty-handed, since the ATM would not accept his card and the bank itself was closed. So we had afternoon tea on the round tables in the most decorative part of the veranda. This was served with local peanut brittle and tiny round shortbreads and a savoury pastry. A member of staff stood by with a sling to ward off the cheeky monkeys, who were hurling themselves from the branches of countless trees onto the corrugated iron roof over our heads. One swang good-naturedly, almost challengingly, on one arm from a tree behind Willi.
Dinner was served on a long table in the colonial dining-room, a slightly stiff affair at which the staff whispered the names of the dishes before placing them in front of us. It was a pity, because at the other end of the table sat a pleasant young couple, but there was no way we could communicate across the length of the table. The food was a mixture of Western dishes that did not combine very well but it was quite tasty.
We awoke to the swishing of water as the staff washed the veranda floor and the ringing of a temple bell not far away. Breakfast, on the veranda, was a simple affair. Willi set off once again for the town, though the hotel manager had already agreed to give us extra cash when we settled the bill by credit card. I tried out the rope swing in the garden and read to the sound of the crickets chirping, the odd cry of a bird, of which there were oddly very few in the garden, the pad of horses’ hooves on the sandy track outside the garden and the rhythmic sweep of the gardeners’ brooms. They stopped for breakfast. The wind got up, wafting freshly fallen leaves across the dusty earth. Occasionally, a horse galloped past, its hooves ringing on stone beneath the sand. I honestly felt as if I was a part of the setting sitting in the semi-shadow with my book, invisible and calm. There was a crackle of dry leaves as the gardeners resumed their sweeping, until a pretty dark girl with lots of glitter on her sari and a marigold garland woven into her hair stopped to rebind her broom. She then banged it on the ground to fix the twigs into the new handle and started to sweep even more energetically than before.
Willi returned after a successful filming session in the town but still had no cash. We decided not to worry about it and had a spontaneous photo shoot with the staff, who had lost their initial reserve and become very friendly.
With a few sweet portraits in my camera, we set off for a stroll to the nearby Lake Charlotte. There was a strong smell of horse on the downward tracks and it had become rather hot. The lake itself was not particularly attractive but there were stupendous views across the mountains. The place was full of local tourists. Across the bridge, which was being repaired, a few kiosks and cafes around the temple were doing good business, as was a gentleman with a telescope at a viewing place called Lord Point. Scratching dogs followed us around, dragonflies and butterflies danced in front of us. Willi had to help me down some steep slippery boulders to reach a viewpoint above a sheer drop. Youngsters were taking selfies there, watched by their porters who were carrying water and snacks.
Back at the hotel, we had a pleasant conversation with the couple from the night before. Our porters had already arrived, but we waited for the appointed time to arrive to give them time to catch their breath. They set off at an incredible pace, but walking uphill is always better for me than downhill walking and I managed to keep up pretty well. In the forest, many horses tore past at a gallop and we were filthy and wet when we reached the car.
The journey back to Mumbai went quickly until we reached the suburbs of the city. It was rush hour, but nobody was rushing here, since the traffic had more or less ground to a halt. Our plan was to stop at a hotel for a meal before driving to the airport for our flight at one o’clock in the morning. We hoped we would be able to have a wash and brush up and get changed before dinner. And here we were stranded in the slum areas with the minutes ticking by. At least we were able to observe the suburbs. We passed a poverty-stricken Muslim area, an area dealing in car mechanics and spare parts. What is a depressing, squalid area at the best of times was particularly depressing at dusk.
A little girl of about four was sitting outside a hovel all on her own, sobbing. Some of the huts had lights on inside and the doors were usually open, so that it was possible to discern whether the interiors were fairly well organised or completely muddled, a plastic chair or two amidst or on top of heaps of clothes and other belongings. There were places where the door to the slum opened out into a drop in the road. And there were rows and rows of single room houses with no plumbing and no street to speak of. The grime, the darkness and the ominous puddles made us both silent and despondent.
By contrast, the street lighting in Juhu Beach was brilliant and festive, particularly in this pre-Christmas period. The shops are exclusive and the hotels swish, the crowds on the beach were having fun. The Marriott Hotel was spacious and luxurious and full of clean, healthy people. They were kind enough to allow us to use the spa facilities to clean up before our fast food dinner and presented us with a sweet from the buffet which we had not ordered.
In the last few hours of our trip to Maharashtra and Goa, we had once again experienced the contrasts and contradictions that make India so fascinating.
Mother India, you continue to amaze me.