18 March, 2011

Indian Odyssey, Xmas 2010 (Part 1 of 4)

"Camel-thorn" treat for Kalu the Camel, in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India

At last - our account of the eight weeks spent traveling through northern India, plus one week in Sri Lanka. Where to start??  Right here in Part 1 is a good spot. When you complete Part 1, you'll get a link to continue to Part 2, and so forth.

Part 1   Bangkok, Kolkata, a wedding in Delhi, Headhunting in Nagaland, Darjeerling, Agra, Orcha Fort, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Sarnath.
On the other hand, you may care to leap direct to Part 2, 3, or 4 via the following links:
Part 2  Goa, Mumbai, Aurangabad, Ellora & Ajanta Cave Temples, Delhi.
Part 3  Mt Abu, Udaipur, Chittorgarh, Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort, Deogarh Palace, Rohet, Manver Camp.
Part 4  Johdpur, Mehrangarh Fort, Jaipur, Amber Fort, Mandawar, as well as both the Jaipur & Galle Literary Festivals.
These four posts are consecutive, making it a rather long read in total, so you may prefer to read only one of the 4 at a time. Either way, grab yourself a coffee and settle in. Film clips are all quite short so shouldn't take long to load. Any photo can be enlarged by clicking on it (after viewing it, click your 'Back' button).
If you came here specifically to look at any of our earlier posts, don't spend time scrolling down: it's simpler to use the links in the sidebar under Browse by Category or Browse our Archives >

And now we depart from home in Chiang Mai: (streamers, tears, hankies)
Brief stopover in Bangkok
Air Asia hostess announcements: "Prease present your boring pus"... "Thank you for your tension". 
In a Bangkok dress shop, Marie detected a new goth-sensationalist trend in mannequin styles:

 ...and found a new musical friend outside Siam Paragon:

  Next morning, after observing a whole batch of lottery tickets being blessed by a Buddhist monk, we took an early Indian Jet Airways fright to Kolkata (Announcement: "Grew indoo bosition for dake-off"). The plane was peppered with Thai pilgrims in identical white outfits and gnome-like white knitted beanies, heading off to Sarnath and/or Bodhgaya. Yep, we'd be seeing Sarnath soon, too.
The first thing that strikes you about Calcutta is the NOISE level. Then the amount of poverty. Sure, I'm aware of the current fascination with perving on other peoples' misfortunes ever since Slumdog Millionaire (sometimes dubbed 'Poverty Porn'), but the squalor certainly did hit me in the face. We're just naive people who live in modern luxuriousThailand. Here's a Kolkata shoe-repair shop:

 ...and here's a family home with street frontage and a water feature:

But having said all that, there is now a rapidly rising middle-class with disposable income - we're certainly seeing increasing numbers of them as tourists in Thailand. But - caveat emptor - India's caste system is still a controlling feature of the social landscape, but determined individuals CAN escape its vice-like grip if both motivated and lucky... and it's usually to do with the Lure of the Rupee, of course...
Here's a pedi-rickshaw with a customer ostentatiously brandishing his mobile phone - big status symbol:

Kolkata's traffic noise (mainly horns) has to be experienced ...but maybe once is enough:

A typical night market street in a more middle-class area of Kolkata:

A Family Wedding ...in Delhi
(Thanks Rajika, Michael, Nick & Penny! It was all great fun :-)
  One of Marie's relatives got married in a full Hindu ceremony in the Delhi Military Cantonment.
The brass band played on... gosh, this is a class act:

...then the bagpipers arrived...

...and kept bonging on till the wedding party arrived...

Marie chats with cousin Rajika Horsburgh

  All I need is a colourful turban thingo, a bejewelled plastic sword,
and... oh yes, a Hindi phrasebook.
Nagaland and the Hornbill Festival 2010
After a return flight to Kolkata to listen to the next movement of its Symphony for Horns, it was another early morning flight to Nagaland. In ignorance, we made the near fatal error of choosing Air India. Oh dear. After a five-hour delay then 15 minutes in the air, the ricketty old twin-prop had to return to the airport with oil leaking from one engine. Then the compensation bun-fight began... accommodation overnight to be arranged and paid for by Air India... guarantee of a (different!) flight next day...

For your interest, here's a brief video clip of the ensuing scene at the Air India Customer Service Desk (I missed the most violent bits because I was wedged against people and couldn't safely get my camera out). To get the most realistic effect, turn up your volume...

Dimapur (the capital of Nagaland) was nothing special, but I do fondly remember an excellent Mutton Keema curry. It nearly converted me to Indian food. Mutton = goat, throughout Asia. I reckon I ate my way through most of a goat during the 2 months in India... yum. Bleat.

Nagaland is a newly-established state of India to the north-west of Bangladesh and abutting Burma. It's as far east as you can go in India. In reality, it is a bureaucratic amalgamation of many different sub-groups of Naga tribes, not all of whom have always been on neighbourly terms or respect borders. Competitive head-hunting was their favourite sport in the 19th century, but Baptist missionaries put a stop to that. Now that they're converted to Christianity, they've switched to soul-hunting instead. Not really all that different, methinks.

Anyway, once a year in November they all gather for a dance, music & culture expo to attract much needed tourist dollars. There isn't really much of that, however - last year there were only 1400 foreign tourists visited Nagaland, and I estimate most of those would have been during the week of the festival. Hotel accommodation is woeful because [a] they have little experience of western-style hotels, and [b] they couldn't afford to build infrastructure for the 51 weeks of the year when the place was empty. Tourism is awkward because travellers need to apppy to Delhi for a Restricted Area Permit at least 2 months in advance, and are required to travel either as a married couple or in a group of at least four. It is also mandatory to have an official guide 24/7.

But it's worth the trouble if you can stand the 'hotels' and lack of electricity. Maybe better to avoid the Solitary Rice Hotel - Foodings & Lodgings, for instance. Menu items - "Fresh Crim & Pie", or perhaps "Baby & Capsicum Fish" (huh? are they still hunting heads?). But the festival itself is certainly worthwhile and unique in a 'staged' kind of way... it has its own dedicated cultural 'village' site centered on a performance ring - a bit like a large open-air circus:

 Hornbill feathers are a prominent symbol among Naga tribes.

Some of the many tribes arrive...

...and wait their turn to perform...

...and later return from their performance...

Performance on a log drum:

Male dancers/singers.
(Musicologists alert! Here are some genuine home-grown whole-tone harmonies...)

...and some female dancers:

...and a male/female responsorial song:

Spot the Odd-One-Out:
 Marie likes red. She blended in well, but was a tad wary of the spears.
Nearby, in the Gents loo, I saw "Please Flash" scribbled in marker pen above the urinal.

...and a few photos from around Kohima. Bear in mind it is considerably more elevated than Dimapur, so is quite cool:

(Sign: "Not all men clean their cities but real men do")

Marie and Ellen after a comfortingly hot masala tea plus samosas.
Soon after that we walked past the "Merry Marble" headstone shop.

Main street, Kohima

Seyie, our official guide, proudly shows us a sacred magic stone, believed by locals to have
 fallen from heaven. What goes on in the minds of ex-Headhunter Baptists?

 It can be tricky to track down internet services in downtown Kohima.

From Kohima we drove to Dimapur where we said goodbye to our driver Bablu, and took a 5hr train to Guwahati. After a brief sojourn in the cloth markets, we caught a SpiceJet flight to Bagdogra. Here was our view of the Himalayas poking through the clouds. Jaws dropped. Where exactly do clouds stop and snow begin?

From nearby Siliguri we expected to ride to Darjeerling on the ancient British narrow-guage miniature 'Toy Train', as we had previously bought online tickets for the cute little 8-hour trip...

  The Toy Train on its infamous "Loop".

 ...but ah, the best laid plans! It had been cancelled that day due to security precautions. So we drove up the mountain in 2 hours, roughly following the same path as the train would have taken.  Halfway up we were, indeed, delayed by a noisy demonstration by Gorka separatists agitating for the establishment of Gorkhaland (Gurkaland) as a separate state of India. Not really a viable project in my opinion, but hey, who am I to meddle?
Here's a 7-second clip of the demo, sufficient to give you the idea:

They had the propaganda well under way:

 The view down from the passenger window. It was getting colder by the minute.

Darjeerling was f#*king cold to say the least. No wonder the Brits chose it as their preferred 'hill station' in the 19th century. It constitutes, after all, the foothills of the Himalayas:. In this pic you are standing (well rugged up) at 2200m; the range in the distance is 8300m.

I stayed chained to the heater in the Snow Lion Homestay.

Some oh-so British architecture:

...and some 'gee-wiz' Indian infrastructure:  

 Darjeerling's water reticulation system.
As u can see, all the joins leak after cars back onto the pipes.

On the way down from Darjeerling (a day early, to escape certain death by freezing), there were Tea Fields Forever... like this one near Siliguri:

Flew from Bagdogra to Delhi [yes, again, but this time as tourists, not wedding guests], then drove to Agra. Too many places to describe fully - have a look at some pix instead, starting with the Agra Fort:

 (yes, marble)

The mesh breeze-screens are marble too. They used to hang wet hessian over them for air-con. 
 In the distance looms the Taj Mahal.

The gateway into the Taj Mahal's grounds would be impressive all on its own:
 The Sanskrit inscriptions get progressively further apart the higher you go,
in order to all look equally spaced from ground level.

Marie with Baldy. Well, ya can't not take this shot, can ya?

There are two small mosques either side of the Taj Mahal (which is actually a tomb, not a mosque). Perspective dictates that they look small by comparison, but in actual fact, they're big too. Clever architectural sleight of hand. The postcard sunset was free:
No photos allowed inside the Taj, but much of it was inlaid and patterned intricately with inlaid semi-precious coloured stones. Afterwards we went to a marble showroom (tout-code for "shop") which employed workmen doing the same sort of inlay work. This marble really is extremely hard. Here's a 14" piece they wanted to sell to us for a trillion rupees, plus a 4' Ganesh, which, er, cost a bit m-m-more... delivered to your door, of course:

An early morning shortcut to the train station took us through some truly slummy lanes. In the Stygian pre-dawn misty darkness were blanketed people huddled close around cow-pat fires on the mud-flats, or sleeping wrapped close to each other for warmth. Cattle wore blankets. These are the shots you regret missing... From the train, moonscapes of erosion with interspersed fields of yellow mustard crops. So verry many mustards, sirrh.

 Next, Orcha, and its Jehangir Mahal (Mahal = Palace):

Mr Annan chats with Marie while the photographer :) zips around...

...and the same area, but seen from downstairs:

Dance floor for the Maharajah's concubines: Marie does an impromptu Riverdance. 
This was strictly a 'women only' zone, except for the Maharajah and some eunuch guards.

We were treated to an expert description of the Nine Incarnations of Vishnu.
Charles Darwin would probably have approved.

...and finally, the impressive exterior. This was both fort and palace:

Meanwhile, back in the more prosaic town square near the "Pompous Tea Emporium" and a door with a sign "Harvard Playgroup":

 I'm sure I'd make a fine Sadhu... my forehead's got a bigger paintable area than his.

Psst! Want erotic carvings?? Khajuraho has every variety carved into its temples. Amazingly good condition for having been in the weather for 1000 years. The worst damage happened during the Moghul Empire in the 15th century when Muslims went around smashing a lot of it - especially faces - because the Koran said representations of the human body or animals were improper. Therefore these temples are officially 'dead' in Hindu terms. They can be preserved 'as is', but can no longer be used for official religious purposes.
Here's the Goddess Temple. That day, lucky for us, the giant 12-foot Goddess was at home:

 There's a row of elephants along one wall, all looking primly pachydermal.
But this one is turning around and grinning as it peeks at a pair of lovers.

 It all got too much for us...

 Khajuraho has jollies for everyone. Hours of fun for all the family.

 Varanasi    ...the throbbing heart of Hindu India.

I must go down to the Ghats again
To the lonely Ghats and the cows...

Varanasi turned out to be my real India, though... rather like stepping into pages of grubby old copies of National Geographic (plus scratch'n'sniff, plus soundtrack). Some cities boast impressive monuments, but Varanassi has Humanity, and a lot of it. Sensory overload: smells, hooting, crowds, pedi-rickshaws, monkeys, beggars. Festering black drains. Mazes of sunless cobbled lanes, redolent with urine and dog/cow shit, gravitate erratically down towards the banks of the Ganges. Personal space is an irrelevant western folly here - be it between cows, goats or people.

Cows are respected and granted freedom of the city because they are believed by Hindus to be in their penultimate incarnation before rebirth as a human. They are Future Humans... although we did find a few cafes selling Future Human Curry with nan-bread. Not Hindu ones, though.
Cows, along with dogs, pigs and monkeys, scavenge left-over morsels from Varanasi's rubbish carts.

Varanasi is a living holy city by comparison to some of its lifeless predecessors - I can still hear Angkor's spooky silence. Varanasi's evening Hindu rituals along the chilly Ghats of the Ganges beggar all the senses. Chanting, incense, clattering choruses of brass bells, candle offerings gliding slowly past your boat... Loy Kratong every single night. Old Sadhu dressed in orange, carrying a Shiva trident draped with marigolds. Here comes an itinerant cow with blue horns (I'd guess in honour of the god Shiva, the Destroyer-cum-Recycler. Dozens of cremation wood-fires studded amid the orange smoky glow of sodium lights give the Cremation Ghats an other-worldly Dante-esque feel. But it is very much of this world... fortunately the breeze wafted the odours in the other direction. 
Charon the Boatman conveys us towards some of the night cremations on the banks of the Ganges

 [file pic]

Pilgrims row towards the Ganga Aarta  ceremonial area:

Further upriver, boats jostle for position to view the evening Hindu religious ceremonies:

Hindu evening rituals, Varanasi Ghats:

 Further along next morning, in the river-misty cold colourlessness of first light, is the first cremation of the day on the greenish-grey mud near the water's edge. A mere twenty metres downstream, loin-clothed dhobi-wallahs do their thwackety-thwack laundry in the opaque sewage-coloured water. Yep, downstream. Having had some laundry done, we may well now be wearing traces of fresh human ash. After a body is burned, the ashes plus most remaining bones are swept into the water (what the *%! does the bottom of the river LOOK like??), then small barefoot 'untouchable' boys compete to retrieve any unburned fragments of wood for the next customer. And thus the karmic wheel slowly but inexorably turns, hundreds of times, until very late every night.

Dhobiwallahs working near a morning cremation. The body is wrapped in gold foil:

A quiet morning on the Varanasi Ghats - exotic and novel for us, but this is the daily routine reality for countless thousands:

Ironically, municipal signs next to colossal stacks of firewood implore citizens to 'Keep Varanasi Clean & Green'.

 It pays, however, to ignore the bloated cow half-submerged in the grotesque band of anaerobic green slime, discarded marigold garlands, and plastic bags along the river's holy bank. Overheard a guide telling his clients that the Ganges' water wasn't over-polluted - because it was full of minerals. Yup, sure. Everywhere, piles of plastic bags/bottles and rubbish smolder, a metaphor for the cremation of the Oil Age itself, perhaps. So far, our lungs are holding out... but maybe not for long, forlorn falangs...

More quotidien scenes in the lanes near the Ganges at Varanasi:
Also spotted a government "Bhang" shop selling happy chocolate.

Pilgrims in the early morning. The seagulls(!) migrate here annually, escaping the Mongolian winter.

Sadhus pass an old tree shrine, 200m from the Ganges. 

Baby goat discovers a feed.

School buses (above, and below)

Sign outside Benares University:
"Donate generously to the free meals scheme for the poor meritorious students"

Fresh unpasteurized milk is distributed from Varanasi's early morning milk market.

Near Varanasi is Sarnath, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon.
Not a spectacular place. Quite ordinary, really. Perhaps that's part of Buddha's message.
 But he might not have anticipated the sheer numbers of pilgrims by 2011,
 nor the establishment of accommodation such as the Holi Day Inn.
Plus... The Lord Buddha English School.

 Thus ends Part 1. Click here to bring up Part 2 in its own window.

In Part 2 you will visit
Goa, Mumbai, Aurangabad, Ellora & Ajanta Cave Temples, and Delhi.

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