Part 1 - India
04.04.2014 - 15.04.2014 -38 °C
It’s just over 4,000 miles to Delhi from London; a mere eight and a half hours before you are plunged into a country of extremes which will eventually leave you exhausted and fascinated in equal measure. Whether it is the weather, the number of people, the traffic, the noise, the dust, the colours, India has it in truckloads. They have over 800 different languages shared around the 22 provinces and 22 religions with Hindu being the dominant force. Politically, India was just starting its General Election process as we arrived with the BJP attempting to wrestle power away from Congress.
The airport in New Delhi is recent, modern and thankfully efficient. We obtained our Visas prior to travelling although India will soon switch to a ‘visa on arrival’ system which may or may not be an advantage. Anyway, landed safely, reunited with baggage and met by our rep, we were soon on our way to the first hotel on our tour of Northern India and Nepal.
Delhi, like Istanbul and Cairo, is simply one of those cities that you shouldn’t even consider hiring a car. Our driver battled through the lunchtime traffic negotiating the five or six lanes of vehicles that evolved from the three that were marked on the road and the never-ending mash-up of cars, lorries, vans, tuk-tuk’s, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles and cattle created a chaos that was audibly reinforced by the constant use of the horn as the drivers battled with one another.
It was warm , very warm, but protected by the air conditioning in the Hotel Suryaa for most of the first day we didn’t really notice just how warm India was until we met up with Vinod (guide) the following morning and stepped into 37 degrees. Vinod, along with Rajesh (driver) would keep us company for the next five days as we toured Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
Our visit to Delhi took us to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (one of Asia’s largest mosques), Raj Ghat (a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the place where he was cremated in 1948), Qutub Minar, Humayan’s Tomb, India Gate, the Parliament building, Rastrapathi Bhawan (the President’s residence), the old Viceroy’s Palace (the last viceroy being Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the very new Akshardham Temples. Looking up, the sky was full of large black birds that we eventually learned were Black Kites and they were everywhere to be found during our tour of India and Nepal. We travelled between the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort on a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of old Delhi dodging tuk-tuks, carts and cattle as we went. The narrow streets and large tangled knots of exposed electrical cables draped high across the roads were reminiscent of old Hanoi in Vietnam. Bicycle rickshaw driving is obviously a tough way to earn a living but our driver saw fit to regularly remind us as he pedalled us to the fort (not hinting for a tip then!!). Delhi and its noise, colour, heat, traffic and architecture had introduced us to India and given us a taste of what was to follow.
From Delhi we moved on to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, nicknamed The Pink City. It was a six hour drive but with so much to see that was new to us the time passed easily. You really do see a lot of life from the passenger seat of a car in some countries. No motorways as such so the main and minor roads had a lot to offer and gave us an insight into everyday life for rural India. On route to Jaipur we saw our first ‘working’ camel trudging along the road pulling its load, a sight that I probably didn’t expect to see. We also had our first sighting of a wild monkey taking shade under a tree followed soon after by an elephant, as we approached the outskirts of Jaipur, heavily lumbering its way up a hill in the mid afternoon heat. Camels, Monkeys and Elephants are commonplace in Jaipur as we soon discovered. The detailed facade of Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 as a royal grandstand for the palace women, stands out as you drive through the centre of town and from there it was a short journey to the Marriott Hotel.
The following morning we were to see the Amber Fort Palace but first we were going for an elephant ride which was great. Elephant and owner had been together for 26 years and clearly had an understanding which was more than I could say for me and the stalking photographer who busied himself as we left on our short ride and met us with a set of ten photographs on our return. Why I would want ten photographs of us on an elephant I will never know – especially at 2,500 Rupees (£25) for the set. I offered him 100 Rupees for one and to cut a very long story short left with all ten for 200 Rupees after a protracted discussion.
The Amber Fort Palace in Jaipur is a main attraction in the city and was a real highlight. A snake charmer sits outside and usually pulls in a crowd before you climb the hill and enter the main gate. Musicians lurk around another corner and street vendors with musical instruments and beads home in on you as you walk. Everywhere you go In India there seems to be somebody appearing from nowhere to sell something but a polite ‘No thank you’ generally worked. Failing that we had to resort to Vinod’s advice and that was to simply ignore them. There is a lot to see and appreciate at the Amber Fort but beware, there’s not much shade!
City Palace was our next stop as the sun really started to warm things up. It’s a huge complex covering approximately one seventh of the walled city of Jaipur and combines Mughal (Mongol) and Indian architecture. Men in costume playing traditional instruments and women in sari’s hang around the most photogenic backdrops; some deliberately to pose for a photo for a small tip while the highly detailed and coloured architecture also keeps the camera busy and without the need for money to change hands! One of the palace buildings has an amazing room decorated in silver and glass while the general architecture, the doorways and interiors of the other rooms were equally impressive including one doorway decorated with a stunning peacock design that drew a lot of attention from visitors. We had lunch inside the grounds of the City Palace and found enough shade to be able to sit outside and eat while a musician provided some background music before we headed off to see Jantar Mantar.
Jantar Mantar is Jaipur’s observatory park containing oversized astronomical instruments – one of five such observatories around India and said to be the largest and best preserved. It is still in use and while originally less appealing on our itinerary it was actually worth the visit. In addition to having huge instruments designed and built for telling the time to a high degree of accuracy there are astrological constructions for each of the star signs. However, the area is totally exposed to the sun and while you could have spent hours wandering around the park and understanding everything that was there the appeal of the air conditioned car and a couple of lazy hours at the hotel convinced us otherwise.
From the first few days it became apparent that Jan was something of an attraction to the local people. People would randomly at will stand behind her while a friend took their picture or one would simple walk up, take the shot and walk away again. Some even asked to have their photo taken with her. This happened throughout our time in India.
We had eaten at one of the various restaurants available in the hotels so far on the trip but for our last night in Jaipur we had the option of eating out at a restaurant in a village resort called Chowki Dhani. It seemed a good idea at the time as we washed our hands and took our places, seated on the floor around small individual tables. Plates made from leaves and clay cups were handed out before the food and drink was brought around. It was impossible to try everything as it just kept on coming and some of the drink provided was a bit challenging. Nonetheless, we had as much as we wanted and headed back to the hotel to collapse after a long day.
From Jaipur, we hit the road again, this time heading for Agra and the Taj Mahal. The landscape during the journey was punctuated by the tall brick chimneys attached to brick factories and also three overturned vehicles in the middle of the road. If they are guilty of nothing else then Indians are certainly at fault for overloading their commercial vehicles to an extreme. Having navigated around the ‘dead’ trucks we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a great mosque built in the 17th century and located about an hour outside of Agra. Now empty, it was another huge sandstone fortress.
We reached the Wyndham Grand hotel in Agra late afternoon. As we drove into the centre of town and bumped tentatively along the road that desperately needed some kind of even surface Rajesh announced sarcastically “Welcome to Agra!” The immediate impression was that living in Agra would be especially tough and maybe the town relied exclusively on the benefit derived from having the Taj Mahal close by. As we turned off the main road into the hotel drive it was like entering a different world.
We had an early start the following morning with the aim of getting in to the Taj Mahal for sunrise but before that we were going out in the evening for a show. It was just over an hour long and in a colourful Bollywood style production it told the story of Shah Jahan and the events that led up to the building of the great memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Vinod picked us up at 5 a.m. for the short but slow drive to the Taj followed by a fairly swift horse and carriage ride that got us to the main gate in time to be relatively near the front of the queue waiting for the area to open. There is a security presence everywhere in India and here was no exception with the separate lines for men and women being kept in check as the queue gradually lengthened ahead of the 6 a.m. opening time. On the dot we filed through for the regulatory bag check and frisking before being freed to wander up the wide path to the large arched gate through which you see the Taj Mahal at the far end of the complex. Between the gate and the Taj the area is landscaped as a large garden with a spine of water leading up to the main building flanked either side by identical smaller buildings. Tourists gather around the ‘Princess Diana’ seat rendering it virtually impossible to photograph from there even if you wanted to. The Taj was bigger than I expected and when we reached the steps we were given plastic coverings for our shoes prior to entering. The early morning temperatures were already rising steadily, and even at 6:30 in the morning it was good to escape into the shade of what is a marble masterpiece. Inside, the Taj is fairly ordinary compared to the amazing detail on the outside. With everything seen that there is to see and all photos taken, it was time to stroll back taking a slightly different route through the garden to where Vinod was waiting for us ‘in the shade!’.
Back to the hotel for breakfast before venturing out again. I was starting to struggle on our way out from the Taj Mahal and I was soon thinking that eating out in the way that we did at Chowki Dhani was possibly not a great idea. Regardless, we went on to see the Baby Taj which was where I finally conceded defeat. Agra Fort was next on the itinerary but not feeling so great plus the intense midday heat finally got the better of me and so I left Jan and Vinod to see the Agra Fort while I stayed in the relative cool of the car. Rajesh did his best by moving the car in the congested car park to a spot under a tree as soon as it became available. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a sitting target for any hawkers trying to sell whatever it was they were trying to sell but apart from muttering a feeble “No thanks” I had no idea what they were doing or offering at the time.
Feeling as I did, the prospect of an overnight train to Amritsar was more daunting than it would have been otherwise but later that afternoon we had to be back in the car and leaving the hotel for Agra Railway Station and at the same time saying goodbye to both Vinod and Rajesh who had looked after us so well. Vinod walked us on to the extremely busy Platform 1 and stayed until he knew we would be ok. He was a nice guy and really good company.
The train journey was 16 hours and would get us to Amritsar at around 8 am. Amritsar was the end of the line so at least there were no worries about missing the station. The train itself was in the middle of a 3 day journey. We joined at the end of day 2 and found our compartment before settling down. Three hours into the journey we were bluntly interrupted by one of the train attendants who told us we were on the wrong side of the compartment. We were in a 4-berth compartment, 2 on each side, and had taken the two bunks that we were told only to then be told to move. We started to move and after watching us do most of the work he informed us that he meant we were in the wrong compartment!! A fairly predictable communication breakdown!! Eventually we settled down again in the compartment next door and, feeling as I did, simply set the bed up and crashed for the night.
Any hopes we had of having the compartment to ourselves were dashed around 8 p.m. when a family boarded and took their places on the two beds opposite. Not ideal but the disturbed rest helped a bit and one or two stops before Amritsar the family left the train which gave us the time and space to sort ourselves out. At Amritsar we were met by another rep who took us to the Hyatt Hotel where we had breakfast and met Anil who would show us the sights of the city.
The Golden Temple at Amritsar was something I was really looking forward to seeing. Amritsar is in the Punjab and is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Around 100,000 people wash their feet and cover their heads before entering to visit the Golden Temple every day. Originally constructed of white marble the temple now has much of its outer walls covered in a thick layer of gold; something which is added to as and when funds/donations allow. The temple is surrounded almost entirely by water and sits inside a complex that has entrances on all four sides. Followers of all faiths are allowed inside although the queue to see the holy book can be hours long which for us was prohibitive so we settled for walking around the outside of the temple before venturing inside some of the surrounding buildings. Anil also took us to see, as he described it, the largest kitchen in the world. Still within the Golden Temple complex, the kitchen serves 80,000 free meals each day and is manned by volunteers who prepare, cook, serve and wash up from 8 a.m. each morning until late at night.
Still barefooted, we walked through the different kitchen areas to watch the ingredients being prepared, mixed and then cooked. Dough was being rolled to make bread and the silver metal plates and cutlery were spotlessly clean and piled high ready for use. Anil explained that we would be welcome to join in and have food but we declined and made our way back into the temple complex after washing our feet again and rinsing the cauliflower from between our toes!!
After a couple of hours looking around the Golden Temple it was time to set off for Wagah, the border with Pakistan. Daily at 6 pm there is a ceremonial opening and closing of the gates between India and Pakistan which is watched by thousands of people on both sides. We arrived at around 5:30 pm and had seats in the ‘foreigners only’ section of the stand. A kind of pre-match entertainment kept our attention with M.C.’s either side of the gate whipping up the crowd in a competitive manner followed by music, dancing and some patriotic flag waving up to the border gate and back by privileged volunteers. Then, on the dot at 6 pm the main feature began with ceremonial foot stamping, fast marching and fist pumping aimed at the opposition.
A group of eight soldiers took their turn to perform the ritual, each ending at the gates facing across the border. The gates are opened and this is then followed by the national flags being crossed as if to signify unity between the two nations followed by a lowering and then more high kicks and stomping of feet before the gates are ultimately slammed shut as if to conclude a failure to agree by both parties. The crowd disperses, buying ice creams and snacks from street vendors as they make their way home and 24 hours later it all happens again. A brilliant end to an amazing day.
Amritsar had a slightly different feel about it. It was still very typically India and looked generally like everywhere else that we had visited but the Punjab is a comparatively affluent area with many wealthy farming families and maybe this had something to do with what we saw as a difference in attitudes of some of the people.
The following morning we had free time and lazed around the hotel pool. After lunch we visited a small summer palace of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh which is now a museum and garden and then drove to the site of the Amritsar Massacre (Jalian Walah Bagh in the local language). The bullet holes from the events on 13th April 1919 (basically 85 years to the day when we visited) are still visible in the brickwork that surrounds the now neatly landscaped garden. An eternal flame burns in memory and at the bottom of the garden stands a large memorial sculpture. Anil had been keen to take photos of us at many of the locations we had been together (to show his mother) and was genuinely very attentive and enthusiastic about what he had shown us during our two days in Amritsar and when the time came to leave for the evening train to Delhi he kindly helped with our bags through to the station platform.
The train to Delhi would take 6 hours, arriving at 11 o’clock at night. Hopefully, our rep would be there to meet us. He was, although hanging around Delhi Railway Station late at night fending off eager porters keen to earn a dollar could have become problematic had he been much more than five minutes late. Understandably in Delhi, the traffic had been the problem.
Half an hour later we were back in the Suryaa Hotel (one of our favourites) for a few hours before setting off to the airport after breakfast for our flight to Varanasi. We were met and transferred to the Gateway Ganges Hotel which was a fabulous hotel in huge grounds with a lovely pool. Overhead, the Black Kites ruled the skies once again! We settled in before Shaquil arrived with the driver to take us to Sarnath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon in 500 BC. Every year in January the Dalai Lama, now exiled in the hills of Northern India, visits Sarnath. Unsurprisingly, prayer wheels, prayer flags and bells take centre stage, providing the colour for more photos and in a way making it feel a little less like the India that we had so far become accustomed to.
Varanasi is a very old city with a strong university sub-culture. Taking its name from a combination of the two rivers, the Varuna and the Assi that still flow in the north of the city, Varanasi is today most famous for its location on the banks of the Ganges. And it was the Ganges that we had really come to see. Probably one of the most polluted rivers in the world it still manages to entice people into its murky but holy waters. Our evening would be taken up on Daswamedh Ghat, one of several ghats (basically a series of steps down to the river) along the Ganges at Varanasi to watch the Aarti Ceremony at sunset. This is a daily ceremony where up to nine holy men offer prayers to the River Ganges by way of thanks for the day just passed. We paid a donation to take two seats on an upper terrace so that we could get a good view as the ceremony unfolded. People attend in large numbers each evening and take their place on the ghats or in boats to listen and watch as the ceremony is performed on the nine platforms. A mix of music, fire, chanting and incense burning takes place during the hour long ceremony before the crowd funnels itself back down the main Varanasi high street, again dodging the street vendors and tuk-tuks.
Twelve hours later and we were back at the same ghat but this time to board a boat and to be on the Ganges for sunrise. We were rowed several hundred yards each way from the ghat where the AARTI Ceremony took place the night before. Again, there were lots of people already descending on the area with many locals dipping and washing in the holy water. Along the river there were other ghats each with their own theme including a laundry ghat from where the dhobi wallah’s and their ‘runners’ operate businesses providing a laundry service for locals. The dhobi wallah’s persistently thrash the clothes against a flat slab of rock before rinsing them clean and hurling them on the banks to dry. They then get returned to their owners. A bit further downstream and a very advanced looking yoga class is underway on the steps of another ghat. It was so still, calm and peaceful on the river.
A few hundred yards in the opposite direction and you reach the cremation ghat. The smell of burning sandalwood fills the air as you approach the ghat and see the smoke from several small pyres. There is a constant supply of wood being brought to the scene on bikes and boats to be stacked in readiness to meet the bodies carried in under a shroud on a stretcher from the centre of town. As a backdrop to the various ghats the Ganges offers a number of temples and palaces that together form a unique waterfront at Varanasi.
We got off our boat here and tipped the boatman before following Shaquil up the steps, past the stocks of sandalwood and through the narrow alleys behind the cremation ghat. Our path was soon blocked by a cow but nervously squeezing past its rear end we continued on our way through the old and tatty but colourful alleyways. Two dogs suddenly went to war which broke the silence and this quickly attracted others from all directions to join the fight. With the dogfight well underway but thankfully behind us we eventually reached the main street again and returned to the hotel for breakfast. Shaquil arranged to collect us later that morning to see more of Varanasi including the Bharat Mata (Mother India) Temple, the Durga Temple (known locally as Monkey Temple for obvious reasons) and the University, an important part of the city, currently with 65,000 students.
Varanasi, like almost everything else we had seen in India, was amazing and this was to be our final sightseeing in the country before we took the flight to Nepal the following day.