After a day in Mumbai we were to fly down to Goa for a spot of relaxation. When the length of the first queue came into sight my heart sank. Then I remembered how queues in India 25 years ago had thrown up some very interesting experiences, and sure enough 2013 still had a surprise in store for me.
As we waited patiently for the line to inch forward, a group of people gathered excitedly around us. Cell phones (the favoured method of photography in India) were held above the crowd and soon we saw a tall, thin-lipped man posing with people as they lined up to have a photograph taken with him. He didn’t crack a smile but it was obvious he was used to this attention. Travelling with him was a plump woman and two children we presumed to be family. The eldest boy seemed to be the appointed photographer and handled all different types of camera for all sorts of different people. He didn’t seem much more enthusiastic about the attention than his father, and I daresay he got bored with taking photographs of his unsmiling Dad all day. I turned to an Indian in the queue and asked what was going on. His response was one of disbelief that I didn’t know who Mr thin-lips was.
“Jitendra Kapoor, a famous actor; a Bollywood star” my informant enthused.
Wow, how stupid of me not to recognise him. I was fascinated though watching the way he responded to people. The queuing, posing, photographing cycle went on for about 10 minutes and neither his stance nor expression changed. A challenge had been posed for me! Make the guy smile. I’m generally not a pushy type but something about India just makes me want to interact with people all along the way. After three weeks both Harry and I were enjoying interludes of conversation with locals and now I thought was another experience to be tried: with a BOLLYWOOD STAR. Harry volunteered to take the photo and pushed me forward.
“Hello,” I beamed as I approached. Not knowing what to say in the circumstances I blurted out, “I’d love my photo taken with a famous Bollywood star”. He laughed then put his arm around me. I did a bit of an Ellen-type dance with him. He played along with me and laughed, “I’m just a has-been.” I told him he was still a very fine looking ‘has-been’ and thanked him for the pose. As I joined Harry and we walked away Indians began taking our photographs! Talk about a few seconds of fame. Finding it in India was a surprise.
Bollywood star & Me
Imagine this: you have a prayer or petition you want actioned by God, but you fear it could be too petty to warrant his intervention. Help is at hand in the form of Hinduism. 330million Gods on-line are waiting for your call at the great call centre in the sky. If the first god is unable to assist then you will be transferred to another incarnation or a new god altogether with whom you may enter into a rewarding relationship.
This short time I’ve been in India, I’ve managed to glean a more literal understanding of this ancient and confusing religion. Gandhi is recorded as saying “I believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. Religions are given to mankind so as to accelerate the process of realization of fundamental unity” [quoted in the Gandhi Museum, Mumbai, Nov 2013] For me personally, and certainly as I observe the culture of India all about me, I am very comfortable with Gandhi’s philosophy. Harry thinks God (all 330 million and one versions of him/her) are a figment of the human imagination. Be that as it may, here in Goa we visited a Hindu temple where pilgrims flow in all year round to pay homage to a particular incarnation of the Shiva (a main god). The incarnation lies as an effigy in a glass display case. Outside the temple is a very green yucky pond. I asked our guide how people respond to the display case? Do they really believe an incarnation of Shiva is in there? ‘Oh yes’ he replied. While we were in the temple the display case holding the effigy of Shiva’s incarnation was lifted onto a stretcher and taken outside. I asked our guide what was going on? I received a very simple answer to my simple question.
“They take him outside sometimes.”
And the guide went on to explain how the god gets bored inside day and night, Visiting pilgrims take him out for a turn around the temple. The effigy is then washed in the green yucky pond before returning to his gloomy shrine. I pondered on this for some time and believe Gandhi has got it right; the religious activity I had just witnessed met the needs of the people involved.
F IS FOR FREEDOM: New Delhi to Agra
We’ve been on our own with just a guide and driver for several days now. I’m enjoying the lack of timeliness required by group travel and so the opportunity to sneak a few more minutes in bed is luxury. Being on the roads is an experience in itself. It took us nearly 2 hours to get out of Delhi. I’ve spoken about the building of the metro extension before, but it was travelling from North Delhi out to Agra that it came home what a vast job it was. It seemed over ground light rail links being constructed simultaneously and the disruption to commuter traffic is a nightmare. There was no let up to the urban sprawl along the way. We seemed to be driving though urban environments 90% of the trip to Agra.
The front page of today’s The Times of India cries; ‘in 175 years, India has seen many changes. And one constant. The Taste of Freedom. [sic]. A first cynical glimpse of India today would express ‘freedom to interpret t road law’; blast your horn at anything that moves, or even if it might move; use other traffic as an opportunity to practice evasion techniques and yet the traffic still moves.
Being the largest democracy in the world, Indians are justly proud of their individual choice in every walk of life. Colour is everywhere and in sharp contrast to our most recent travel in Turkey where women were generally seen to be wearing black from head to foot. Here women have the freedom to wear colour and interpret their own sense of fashion. Different religions, sects and philosophies exist side-by-side. I’ve picked up a couple of nuances where Hindu culture and Muslim culture clash. Usually this has been related to events in antiquity. A guide in Delhi explained when people are taken around Muslim sites, only Muslim things are spoken of, and similarly Hindu sites are confined to information relating to Hindu. Personally I’ve found this invaluable to understanding the elements of coexistence here. Tolerance is a gene most Indians appear to have. That democracy has prevailed here successfully for so long must be largely due to this tolerance. There are exceptions of course; there are always exceptions. But like the people, animals too have freedom. Monkeys scamper over rooftops, countless dogs wander the streets unchained, and of course the holy cows meander across congested streets safe in the knowledge of their sanctity. We’ve seen many a cow sleepily nestled on median strips as the frightening chaos of Indian traffic swirls inches from their holy noses. The cows are intelligent enough to know they’re safe on white lines.
The Taj Mahal. Well what more can I say. Indeed it was more beautiful than I remembered and despite the increased number of tourists a tranquility and respect hovers over the monument. Harry was prepared for something special but his breath was taken away at its beauty.
Ours had well and truly begun! Our guide took us to University campus in Varanasi as our first site the same day. The contrast in environment beyond and on campus was severe. The conditions en route to the Ganges was extreme and getting to the University had ben similar. Once we entered the campus it was another world with little traffic, gardens and young people scuttling along shaded footpaths. Indeed it could have been any university in the world had it not been for the majority of Indians moving around the campus. The university was founded in 1918 and today covers an area of 1,000 acres. Faculties ranged from Agriculture and Business Management to Sanskrit and the Performing Arts.
The next morning at 4:45a.m., we were up and ready to meet our guide who was to take us out on the river to watch the sunrise, morning ablutions and more puja on the Ghats leading into the river. Our trip down was very different. Dusty still but with fewer vehicles on the road. Shops and Hawkers don’t open or appear until 10am so our journey in the early morning was much more straight-forward.
I went down to the river 4am when I was here last time and watched as the sun rose and people began appearing on the banks, I can remember we were then out midstream, but this time because of the smog and haze we were very close to the Ghats but I didn’t feel we were invading the people’s space because of the difficulty of viewing through the haze. There were thousands at the waters edge and dozens full submerging themselves, washing bodies, their clothes (men were doing their own too), brush their teeth, and all the while prayers boomed untidily through loudspeakers at the top of the Ghats. Like everything else over here, it’s impossible to describe just how real all these chaotic sights are. Those of you who’ve done the trip will know what I’m saying, although this time morning on the Ganga felt even more vibrant than it had done 25 years ago. The population has certainly mushroomed and is evidenced everywhere we go whether it be the volume of traffic, the numbers of people in the streets, sightseeing just like us, the heaving crowds on station platforms or simply wandering through the few empty spaces.
We visited Sarneth, a Buddhist pilgrimage centre, just a few miles from Varanasi. A small boy latched on to us after a while with the usual patter of how much we needed to buy a small stone frieze. We’d been urged not to buy from children and certainly not to give money to those who beg . I’m something of a soft touch when it comes to beggars and kids so steeled myself against his brown, pleading eyes and asked why he wasn’t at school? A nodding head and continued pleading for me to buy his frieze was interrupted when Harry whispered to me it was Saturday. So much for that line of enquiry. Before he could start the sales pitch again I asked him; where did he go to school; how many days a week; how many hours a day; how many boys in his school (6), How many girls (2). By the time I ran out of questions I noticed the kid had become quite animated and was showing me how he could count in 3 languages; how he could add and multiply; how he could read Sanskrit, and before long I thought we’d be able to slip out the gate to where our guide was waiting, and the child would never notice. Getting him talk about education was certainly a breeze. He must have been about 6 years old, certainly no older than 8. I shook his hand and thanked him for English conversation. And just when I thought I had it all wrapped up he looked up at me and said, “Madam you now buy my frieze; please”. No, I didn’t give in but I enjoy the kids so much I just have to get more innovative with my decoy tactics.
Varanasi is presently laying its first ever sewage line. Waste will be recycled back to water before disposal. Reading thus far you may feel this is a strange introduction to a post about in Varanasi. The problem of pollution and a natural fog rising from the Ganges river has been compounded by earth works digging above ground in preparation to laying the line. Consequently getting around during the day feels more like dusk. I’ve never been in such conditions anywhere in my life, and going down to the Ganges late afternoon on a festival day was tough going. The open tuk-tuk cab drivers and many of the thousands of pilgrims returning from their afternoon puja (praying) at the Ghats wore masks covering mouth and nose. Although travelling in an aircon vehicle, the dust soon got to me and I covered my face in a similar fashion with several layers of scarf. We had to leave the car 400 metres from the area where the festivities began down at the Ganges. Our local guide led us through crowds of thousands, avoiding potholes , side-stepping holy cows, weaving in and out of meandering pilgrims and escaping the hordes of street hawkers pushing all matter of religious statues at us. We finally made it and went up a flight of stairs and out onto a rooftop from where we viewed the festival in a less crowded and more comfortable area. Prayers and blessings were led by priests to the Ganges river and her pilgrims that by this stage had reached 20 deep at the river edge. Photos barely do justice to the event. The noise was incredible; every person seemed to be chanting a different prayer as music played out through dozens of speakers. Clouds of incense being burning below us added to the thick haze in the air. Another type of smoke wafted up to us from time to time as well; lots of whacky bakky being smoked below us.
After two hours it was all over and we had truly begun to ‘experience’ India rather than ‘see’.
– oOo –
e was named Mahal Phool,’Palace of Flowers’. Viewing rural India zipping by and chugging through urban areas was a terrific introduction to India. It certainly mitigates the ‘culture shock’ so easily attributed to travel over here. The carriages are extremely comfortable and offer private facilities. The train was only a third occupied for the tour, but I suspect we had a much different experience to the one we would have found if travelling in high season with the full complement of 85 passengers. Our experience was of order and serenity. Beautifully furnished in soft colours made a comfortable, even luxurious environment. The corridor was as narrow as you’d expect any train to have, but our twin room was spacious enough for contents of three suitcases to be comfortably stowed in drawers and a wardrobe. The en-suite bathroom had a great shower and everything a 4 star hotel would offer.
My previous train travel in India was in a second class carriage. If taking an overnight trip in those days I went all-out luxury in an aircon ladies compartment. Bedding down here was on a hard bunk with a sheet to protect from the early morning chill. As of 8 days ago my expectation of ‘luxury’ wasn’t high. As India’s climate attracts great extremes of heat the hard structure had suffered some breakdown in finish, but it was more comfortable and pleasing to travel than any other form of transport so far taken. We ate breakfast and evening meals in separate carriages and the food was great. Lunch was organized in the locations we visited and were set in private dining areas in superb surroundings a seen in the photograph below taken in Jaipur.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the trip were our fellow-passengers. Travelling in such a confined space then transferring out into unfamiliar environments saw us bond as a group early in the trip. We numbered twenty-five and as posted earlier, we were a fair representation of international travelers, including Scots, Scandinavians and Thai. We all came to feel as ‘family’ with our crew on board and formed a great relationship with our carriage stewards.
We were sorry to leave the train and our new friends in Varanasi We’ve been here a couple of days. I’m posting this in the lobby of the hotel in Varanasi as we wait for our ride out to the airport where we catch a flight back to Delhi.
As foreseen, it’s been some time before posting further notes of travel in India. We’ve been on the train 4 days now, and apart from WiFI being very slow when it is available, I’ve barely had a minute to take a breath let alone sit down and post a blog. At present we’re running very late and jiggling along on the train to Varanassi. We’ve been held up several times on the way from Jaipur. The trains try to run pretty much to schedule, but with a travelling public of 1.237 bil. I guess things occasionally go awry at the crossroads.
For many this is a trip of a lifetime, and it’s easy to understand. The distance travelled and abundance of cultural and heritage sites along the way is just one aspect of the trip. The food served on board is delicious and of the very best quality if somewhat repetitive, but then that’s any Indian dining experience on a day-to-day basis. We are travelling with just 25 other people representing a good variety of Western society; , Americans, Germans, Finns, Dutch, English, Australian and Mexican. The train pulls 18 carriages; one evening dining car, a breakfast car and two bulk food/Manchester carriers. Each carriage has three staterooms with en suite bathrooms. We share a steward and attendant, Ram and Keshar who take wonderful care of us. Apart from wake up coffee and biscuits, they guide us out of the station to the day’s touring transport and meet us on return. Both are terrific company and it’s great to have them meet us at the end of each exhausting, but wonderful day.
Harry’s really loving the trip. Yesterday I found him sitting in a very regal, throne-like chair and waving to people on the platform. They were all waving back. When we’re in our room and Harry’s not to be found with the familiar neckwear of camera/lenses/GPS, this is what he enjoys . When in Jaipur a couple of days ago I was getting a little ‘templed-out’ and chose to sit on a bench and watch the people interacting with each other, as I gazed at the lemur families performing on the parapets of forts and highly decorated facades atop temples. Harry all the while was lost in his own little world at the end of the camera.
Friday the 8th November
We’ve just checked into to our hotel in Varanassi. We’ll be here a couple of days. I’ll probably be taking a dip in the hotel pool, no matter how tempting the Ganges appears! I’ve inserted a few photos below recording we are here alive & well (up until 2 days ago anyway). I’d like to talk about the train a bit more so will make another post tomorrow perhaps. We have good Wifi coverage at last so I hope to be a little more consistent in keeping the blog alive.