India was a total unknown for us as the information on getting around was usually pitched at rough travel and emphasised the strenuousness and grot of travel on the subcontinent. Tales of Delhi belly, disease and explosive gut were almost regarded as de rigour by anyone we asked. Other people merely asked, "Why go to India? You wouldn't catch me going anywhere near India!"
Once booked, paid for and airborne we had no time to concern ourselves with other people's worries. The first leg Air NZ to Singapore was smooth and without a hitch. The second leg, Air India to Mumbai then Delhi was to prove a killer... the plane landed first at Chennai - midnight - which required a 45 minute layover while locals disembarked and new passengers climbed on. Here the cabin crew sprayed the aircraft for possible bug infestations which did little except to encourage a couple of cockroaches to crawl out from behind the entertainment screen and amble along the wall for several minutes.
Then it was on to Mumbai. A flight accompanied by a Bollywood movie of uncertain plot structure and atrocious singing. Here we were in transit from 1.35am till 8.45am in an "empty" lounge staffed by a couple of touts who, for a fee, would collect tea & snacks from a shabby snack bar hidden in one corner of the lounge. They also collected fees from anyone who chose to lie down on the loungers arrayed in one end of the place.
There were two toilets - one at each end of the room - both of which were without toilet paper and which encouraged anyone to consider constipation as being a religious experience.
With such facilities welcoming us to India we dozed, woke, walked around, watched a miscellany of cultures passing and chatted with other transiting travellers until the airport eased itself into full life and our flight was called.
We arrived at Delhi around 10.20 to be met by the Oasis Tours, the tour company which had arranged our trip, to be taken to our hotel in Karol Bargh and for the first time on any of our trips we slept for fourteen hours - not jet lag just plain, old fashioned exhaustion.
Delhi, when we emerged, was a mass of hustling auto-rickshaws, self appointed guides and small children begging. There was no way we could walk any where and get our bearings which decided Joy that we should wait until the guide the Oasis provided appeared and would escort us through the maze of streets, lanes, auto rickshaws, cycles, cows, cars, mechanics repairing cars, motor bikes and machinery, clothing stalls and people and help us get some bearings amid the pot holes and tendrils of haphazard electrical wiring.
Joy had her shoes buffed to a glaze by a shoe cleaner who used his fingers to rub the polish into the leather. For this Joy paid him 100 rupees ( $NZ 3.00 ) which, our guide told us, was about a week's wages for him.
|Nothing like a quick shave on the street.|
We were then taken on a tiki tour of the sites of Delhi - Qitab Minal, Najafkhan's tomb, Snake charmers, India Gate, Parliament Buildings... through squatter camps of India's poor huddled out in lives of digging, lifting, carrying under blankets, tents, flimsy shelters of cardboard, plastic and Iron. Among all this women in bright coloured saris carried loads of bricks on their heads while the men squatted, smoked and talked amid the dust and grey of the building sites.
The contrasts couldn't have been more marked that evening when we ended up in Connaught Place for New Year's Eve. The noise and enthusiasm of middle class young Indians on the town was at odds to the desperate quiet of the squatter shacks we'd seen earlier.
|Thieves Market- Delhi|
New Year's Day we visited the Red Fort, Ghandi's ghat and the Thieves Market below the Red Mosque where the bustle of noise, hawkers and pilgrims grew in intensity.
We headed back into Connaught Place in the afternoon where the remains of the Raj - the last New Delhi fade into decay. Here Buildings reminiscent of Bath and neo-classic English architecture collapse in a melange of traders, vehicles and dusty shops. The streets around the Circle were continually jammed with auto-rickshaws, taxis, carts, and buses all using the one essential instrument of an Indian vehicle- a horn which, when combined with the shouts of hawkers , the chatter of pedestrians and the jangle of speakers calling prayers in Hindi creates the overwhelming impression of India.
|Nothing like a few snakes to keep one amused.|
We explored Delhi over the next two days learning, at each stage, about the necessary elements of India driving - a good horn, good brakes and a relentless belief in any one of five Gods. It also helped to hang a shoe or a black hang man's noose to the bumpers of the vehicle to ward off any possible disaster that didn't come from your own driving. At one stage we were caught in a traffic jam, caused by a Sikh religious procession, that stopped us getting back to our hotel by the most direct route so our driver took us on a two hour tour of the back alleys of Delhi, past people huddled by fires, washing in puddles left by the local water tanker, urinating, cooking, feeding their babies, welding furniture, weaving mats, dying, assembling rattan blinds, conducting business amid bullocks, horses, rickety wagons and wandering cows.
|Hindu Religious procession - Delhi|
On Wednesday we set off on our trip proper - to Sariska and the sights and sounds of Jaipur.
Our journey to Sariska was four hours encountering all forms of transport - children walking carrying babies, men and women cycling carrying loads of cartons , pony and cart, horse and cart, bullock and cart, camel and cart, people and cart all carrying loads that were out of all proportion to the size of the harnessed animal. Add to these tractors and carts, motorcycles and carts, motorised hoes and cart, auto rickshaws and carts all carrying at least eight passengers as well as the load between the villages that sprawl, like strange organisms, along and across the roads and one could realise why the trip took four hours.
|Camels & carts on the road to Siriska|
The villages offered every sort of trade imaginable - marble carving, steel welding, brick making, dung briquette making, furniture making and TATA Truck repairing complete with itinerant ear cleaners, vegetable hawkers, somosa stalls and water sales (served in glasses of doubtful cleanliness ) which added interest to the trip.
Sariska is in the heart of the National Tiger Reserve (800 sq km with 40 tigers roaming free ) with the hotel being the maharajah's hunting lodge, a base for tiger hunting expeditions between the Wars and immediately after W/WII. Here one learnt that Tiger hunting had the odds loaded against the tiger in a greater manner than those loaded against a fox. According to the photos at Sariska to be an effective Tiger hunt one needed 15 elephants, 200 beaters, a photographer and a hunting party made up of a young Maharajah (preferably able to look smug when standing beside a dead tiger ), several weedy looking, bespectacled English men and at least three heavy, tweed clad, leather booted women who would pose for the camera with thin smiles all of whom were armed with heavy bore rifles guaranteed to knock either the firer or the target over with one shot.
Our safari drive through the park allowed us to hear of a tiger sighting the day before and lots of sightings of deer, hyenas, jackals, wild boar, peacocks and a miscellany of birds one needed a reference book to identify. (Something a bus load of Yorkshire twitchers had in abundance back at the hotel.!! )
|Hawa Mahal the facade to hide the harem.|
The next day was on to Jaipur - a drive through open countryside punctuated with small hamlets and occasional workers then huge truck stops with more TATA trucks in various stages of repair spread along the roadside. Some were perched on oil drums while men crawled underneath stripping differentials or draining oil in conditions that NZ OSH inspectors would spasm over.
Jaipur, nestled under the protection of the hills and walls of the ancient fortifications, welcomed us with a parade of elephants heading towards the Amber Fort and a sky full of fighting kites looping and swirling above the city.
The city is a monument to the obsessions and hobbies of the Jaiput Royal family. The Royal Observatory, a sculpture garden, built by the Maharajah in 1728, of gigantic instruments designed to measure time and the position of the planets at particular zodiacal moments impresses one, not only for the technical brilliance but also for the dedication to the concept that larger gives greater accuracy. The royal hobby was such that five of these massive instrument collections had been built through out India.
Throughout the city the other royal obsession can be seen in the Hawa Mahal -a giant facade that allowed the ladies of the royal court to observe the processions and people without being seen themselves, the Jal Mahal - a pleasure palace in the middle of the lake so that the royal women could be cool in the heat of summer, and the Royal Palace and Amber Fort where the Maharajah could indulge himself and his wives in mirrored and jewelled rooms where, with a single candle, one could imagine making love under the night sky or, in summer, lying on a swing, shaded by a marbled roof they could indulge their passion to the sound of artificial rain dripping from the eaves.
Mind you, the ramps and especially built carriages on which the royal women were wheeled through the Palace and Fort, by the court eunuchs, hinted that there was a lot of each woman to love.
|If you need Ganges water.. take in silver only.|
A feature of the Palace are the two giant silver urns, each 1.5 metres high, created by Madho Singh II in 1901 to take Ganges water to England when he attended the coronation of King Edward VIII as he didn’t trust western water to be pure enough.
From Jaipur to Agra was meant to be a four hour trip which took six on a road punctuated with villages, lifting tar seal, countless road works and stops to pay state transport tax to use a Delhi registered car in Uttah Pradesh. As is usual in India the roads were a mess of every different transport and loads so that speed was often limited to the top speed of the slowest family transport.
From Fatehup Sikar to Agra the road was lined with men and their “trained” bears all attempting to slow and stop the tourist cars so the bears could dance. Interestingly, no cars stopped even though the bear owners often moved their bears into the centre of the road.
Driving through Agra Market - narrow streets, thousands of bicycles, bullocks, auto rickshaws, walkers we saw one of the more bizarre sights - three men wheeling a cycle rickshaw with a dead cow strapped across the handle bars and seats with its rigour mortised legs sticking mournfully in the air. Their priority, to remove the cow from sight, seemed appropriate as we hurried to see the Taj Mahal in the early evening light.... after all both were celebrations of a deep seated love.
The Taj Mahal, once we had worked our way through the streets, touts and beggars, proved to be, as all the brochures exclaim, an architectural wonder - a marriage of Moguhl and Hindu building and art and the skill of the marble craftsman all done in the name of love.
|Taj Mahal at sunset|
The builder, Emperor Shah Jahan, had commanded the tomb to be built when his wife of 19 years, Mumtaz Mahal, died on giving birth to their 14th child as a statement of his devotion to her. He, however, spent the last years of his life imprisoned in the Red Fort condemned, by his son, Aurangzeb, to live on gazing at the Taj Mahal until his death in 1666.
That evening we were treated to a firework display and wedding procession that marched, instruments blaring and skyrockets exploding through the streets at 2.00am - an astrologically propitious time for the nuptials regardless of all else.
From Agra we took the train to Jhansi then a car to Khajuraho.
The Agra Railway Station revealed the lives of the beggars of the city for, on arrival, we watched as, from a plastic sheet, a family emerged. First, a man intent on folding the blankets into orderly piles, then a little girl holding her baby brother toddled out to sit in the gutter waiting for their mother who soon emerged with what appeared to be their breakfast - a bun and a bottle of some sort of drink. This was shared, not only with the children and the blanket folder but with a puppy and two other men who appeared out of the car park. One of the men, legless from the waist, was being dragged along on a wheeled board by another whose feet had been distorted by elephantiasis. They later appeared on the train platform begging and offering to clean our shoes.
The train trip was a demonstration of Indian Rail efficiency. Within minutes we’d been served water, tea and a snack and the assurance that we would have breakfast as soon as we’d left the station. A promise that was rapidly kept.
The drive to Khajuraho took four hours along a road that, despite being a tourist route, varied from genuine two lane to pot-holed three quarter lane tracks through villages, townships and truck stops.
On arrival the Tour guide took us on a brief tour of the eastern temples and an introduction to the exuberance of the sculptures that cover the many temples the village is known for. The evening Son et Luminere at the Western Complex provided the mytho-legendary history of the temples and the Chandellas - the Rajput family that commanded the 85 temples to be built, over the 500 years of the dynasty, in celebration of the union of the 16 year old widow Hemvati with Chandra, the moon god and the birth of their son, Chandravarman.
|Temple carvings Khajuraho|
In day light the detail and dynamic of the sculptures reveal the diversity and unabashed celebration of life in all its forms that flourished under the Chandellas. The only active temple, Matangeshwar, was, that morning, a constant line of women in brightly coloured saris, offering homage to Shiva by walking up the steps to the temple then emerging to continue by walking 108 times around the sacred fig trees in a ritual guaranteed, according to the guide, to relieve them of any of the female ills they may be suffering from and ensuring long and prosperous life for their husbands.
|May their husbands live long and happy lives while they remain free of "female ills".|
From Khajuraho we flew to Varanasi, the holy of holies of the Hindu cities. To live and die in Varanasi is, apparently, something to be aspired to, for here, on the banks of the Ganges, the rivers Varuna and Assi converge “from the body of the primordial person at the beginning of time”, thus making the city even more sacred.
The city presented its-self as a constant noise of horns, cows, pigs, dogs, cars carrying the dead, strapped, wrapped in gold or red foil, on thier rooves to their sacred end and pilgrims all streaming towards the Ganges and the numerous ghats that line its banks.
|Devotee on the Ganges at Varanasi|
We joined the throngs at 6.00am, and, following a group of other tourists and an enthusiastic band of Shiva devotees came to the Dasashvamedha Ghat where we passed through souvenir sellers, beggars and mendicients who were all clamouring for different forms of salvation - financial or spiritual, to our boatman to row past the ghats to the first of the two cremation ghats on the river. Here a fire was burning, supervised by six men who stood in front as we drifted past.
From here, we turned and headed back down stream, accompanied by dolphins and a gradually rising sun - a red-gold globe dim in the morning mist, past the pilgrims, of all nationalities, bathing and performing puja to the rising sun, to the Dom Raja ghat - the most auspicious cremation ghat on the river. Here three fires burned fiercely while the ashes from other cremations were raked into the river while children played and chased scrawny dogs along the water edge.
We scrambled onto the steps of ghat to walk through the warren of lanes, dodging cows, people and piles of rubbish to the Vishwanath Temple - the Golden Temple built in celebration of Shiva in 1777 and coated with one tonne of gold in honour of the god.
The afternoon was spent in Sarnath, a sacred site for Buddhism, for here Buddha preached his first sermon after gaining enlightenment. The village was once a sprawl of monastries and stuphas but is now an archeological site of excavations and devout Buddhist pilgrims praying their way around the stuphas to seek their own enlightenment.
|Simla- Essex in India.|
From Varanasi we flew to Delhi to take the train north to Kalka to join the Himalayan Queen and crawl our way up 7000 feet through the hills to Simla, the one time summer capital of India in the days of the Empire.
Our conductor, a genial Sikh, dozed and talked as we wound our way past villages and shanties, monkeys and children smiling from the hillsides, through orchards and terraced fields to Simla.
We stayed in The woodville Palace Hotel, a decaying Mararajah’s palace built in 1938 as a wedding present. The hotel was filled with photos of the family, hobbies and friends over the years as well as being the base for the filming of a Bollywood style soap opera - “Black” - a circumstance which apparently drew so heavily on the Hotel’s electricity supply that all heating was reduced in the guest rooms and lounge reducing us to a huddle over the two column oil heater in a communal effort to create warmth as the thermometer dropped to C9o.
Simla is an English village transported from Essex and placed along the ridges that dictate the structure of the town. From the town square at one end
of the ridge to “Scandal Point” at the other end all of Simla parades, gossips and trades against the backdrop of the lower Himalayas. Here we experienced, for the first time, the pure Dickensian nature of the Indian banking system when we attempted to exchange some US dollars for rupees.
We went to five banks asking if we could exchange money only to be directed to the next bank. Finally we discovered the State Bank of Punjab which declared, in bold print above its uneven roof, that it was a Foreign Exchange. We eased our way past a moustachioed, shot-gun toting guard into a room with four large battered desks, covered in ledgers and files, behind which were the clerks all busily entering archane data into even more battered ledgers. Above them hung a sign proudly declaring that The State Bank of Punjab was a fully computerised bank. We were directed up a set of narrow steep stairs to another room with three more clerks all scribbling in huge ledgers to the man in charge of foreign exchange. After inspecting Joy’s passport and examining the US 50.00 note we wanted changed he carefully and slowly filled out, in triplicate, the specific details of the transaction.
Once completed he handed the top two copies to the youngest clerk and told us to follow him down the stairs, past the guard and out of the building, along the street to the Bank agency where, after being admitted by another shot gun bearing guard and another sign assuring us that the bank was fully computerised, the papers were passed over to a teller who then slowly counted out the rupees until satisfied that he had counted accurately passed them over to Joy.
Unfortunately for us, The Gaiety Theatre, made even more famous after Michael Palin’s Travel show, was reduced to a skelton of restoration so we couldn’t see any local Theatre group production but the stree theatre that is India provided plenty of entertainment as we explored the markets that sprawl down the sides of the ridge, watching Kashmiri porters carry what seemed to be increasingly heavier loads along the narrow lanes, up the ridges and through the crowds to whatever site or person had ordered them, all the while weaving through stall holders who plied trades from street barber to knife sharper, from tailor to clock repairer, balloon seller and volunteer tourist guiding.
From Simla it was back to Delhi, to be welcomed off the train by the Oasis Tours representative to be taken to our hotel and preparation for our flight home.
The twenty days an experience to definitely remember.
Air New Zealand - Auckland - Singapore. Hong Kong - Auckland.
Air India - Singapore-Delhi. Delhi-Hong Kong
Travel in India arranged by
OASIS TOURS -
2 Hauz Khas Village
Tel: 91 11 26963482, 26963483, 30907759
Telefax: 91 11 26963483
Total cost: India Travel: $NZ 3721.00 for two.Included Hotels, Breakfasts, Car & Driver, English speaking Guides, admission fees, train and internal air travel.