Wednesday, 5 December 2012

102. Camels, trains and tuk-tuks: back and forth across northern India

It 's 4 a.m. on our first morning in India. The train stands in the dark station at Gorakhpur with the shrouded corpses of the sleeping lying prone on the platforms. The smell of urine drifts in through the barred window of our second class carriage. As the train moves south towards Varanasi, across green plains, dawn highlights the individuals who come down near the tracks for their morning ablutions, indifferent to the passing audience. A mouse in search of breakfast runs over my bare foot on his way down through the carriage. Our sole companion tries in vain to have an exchange in Hindi before giving up and returning to his paper.

In the clear post-monsoon skies, the Ganges has begun to recede as we roll into the centre of the Hindu universe. Varanasi is busy welcoming the onset of the cool, dry winter months and is in the midst of the Durga Puja festival. Intricate sculptures of voluptuous women, adorned with garlands, are housed at regular intervals along the street before being immersed in the great river. Offered a special lassi by the guesthouse owner on our first night, I don't realise that its curd laced with bhang (cannabis). The lights and music on the street move past in a fascinating and uncomprehending swirl.

We journey west to the erotic temple at Khajuraho and then to the Moghul strongholds at Agra and Delhi - monuments such as the Taj Mahal drowning in the urban onslaught. Air pollution holds back the glow of the rising sun and eats away at the marble edifice.

We try to decide whether to go north or south but end up doing neither. With Diwali approaching and most of India on the move, securing train tickets for longer journeys is problematic so we settle on one region and spend the next three weeks exploring India's arid western province of Rajasthan. Our first port of call is Jaipur, where we are taken in by Hemant and his family - fed wonderful food and given a peaceful place to stay. The last (and first) time we met was along the Oregon coast where Hemant slept on a picnic bench beside our tent as we all pedaled north towards Washington. Hemant was on his annual cycling pilgrimmage to the Lion's International annual conference. We were given an on-the-spot invite to Jaipur, although naturally he had expected us to arrive on our bikes rather than a train.

We had moved from the Moghul remnants to the Rajput kingdoms, where Maharajahs were retained also by the British colonial government and only lost their power at independence in 1947. Jaipur was gearing up for Diwali festival and we retreated from the Pink city to the relative quiet desert scrub of the Shekhawati, where crumbling havelis were raised with money made from trade and taxes on passing caravans. The arrival of the East India Company and the establishment of the railway network meant these routes were eventually bypassed and then crumbled back into the sand.

Jaipur was under siege during Diwali and thousands of fireworks kept the sky ablaze.

Heading south to Bundi we were back in small-town Rajasthan and liking it. A morning's desert cycling on Indian Hero's was followed by an afternoon of magic at a small village where thousands of people came to witness a variety of gravity-defying sculptures. Hand in hand with our chaperones - a Bundi family who had picked us up on the roadside - we were guided through the throngs of villagers, cross-dressers and turbaned men. Thirty restless bulls pulling the boulder representing the god through the dusty street as crowds through money at the rock. We piled back into the family mini-van and were invited home for chapattis and chai. It's our first experience of the host feeding us with his own hands. The women surround Ellie protectively and she emerges with henna paintings on her arms.

After a couple of days in Udaipur, the theme became strictly camel and we walked among the thousands of dromedaries, locals and tourists attending the Pushkar fair.

Jaisalmer lies at the end of the western railway line in Rajasthan. The surrounding area bulges into the Pakistan border like an angry spot before the desert gives way to the Indus river valley. Jaisalmer is another forgotten outpost of Rajputana, with its fort and surrounding Thar desert attracting tourists. In the tranquil desert just one hundred kilometres away, India tested its first nuclear bombs in May 1998, bringing the region one giant step closer to nuclear war with its Islamic neighbour. We opt for a three day camel trek and spend a couple of nights under the full moon. Our time on a bicycle saddle offers little protection for the rigors of three days on a camel.

In Bikaner we have tea with the caretaker of the Jain temple and again we're fed by him. Outside a bicycle mechanic with the longest moustache I've seen welcomes us with a warm smile. Another day we visit the Temple of Rats in nearby Deshnok. We return across northern India via Delhi to Varanasi. The nights on the train are cold now, everyone bundled up in most of the clothes they own. The trains are a sanctuary from hectic urban India. A sense of calm pervades them as people relax, chat and share food.

While we've met a lot of wonderful and warm people, Indians and foreigners alike, urban India has at times been a challenging place to spend a lot of time for us and particularly Ellie. Indian society doesn't always appear kind, particularly to its female members, and the need for safeguards is evident everywhere - from the women-only sections of the Delhi metro to the daily articles concerning gender based inequality and harassment in the Times of India. Constant attention and groping were a reality in some places and became frustrating at times. A more general problem are the extraordinary levels of pollution that pervade the metropolis' and take a toll on the mind and body.

There has been plenty of time for reading and particularly interesting books were Edward Luce's (2007) In Spite of the Gods, Gandhi's early memoirs My Story of Experiments with Truth, and especially Amartya Sen's (2005) The Argumentative Indian.

Our final journey will take us from Varanasi to Calcutta before we return to the bikes and start cycling again next week.

Varanasi, India

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent! India is insane! I think Varanasi is one of the most mind boggling places on earth. I'm also thrilled to see you got a picture of the sculpture depicting a guy fucking a horse in Khajuraho!

-Eric (Kumagaya)