India 6: The Ganges Valley & The Andaman Islands – February 2012

Heaven & Hell

 

Madhya PradeshKhajuraho

 

 

After the Golden Triangle, I followed the Ganges Eastwards towards the Bay of Bengal. My first port of call was Khajuraho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its daring tenth century temple carvings. Khajuraho is a bit of a backwater yet an international airport is under construction and it has the highest concentration of international hotel chains that I’ve seen in India – I wonder who is visiting? I’m continually surprised by India’s diversity of landscapes and Madhya Pradesh’s wheat fields made me think of Little House on the Prairie.

 

Uttar PradeshVaranasi

 

This swathe of India, known as the Cow Belt, is both incredibly densely populated and also rather poor. It is the area where tourists encounter the most hassle and Lonely Planet warned us of the Varanasi Shakedown. This was more prescient than we expected and the friend I was travelling with had cash stolen from her handbag while she slept on an overnight train. Things didn’t improve when we arrived… rain mingled with the waste of the city’s many freerange cows to taint the pavement underfoot.

 

The banks of the Ganges in Varanasi are one of the holiest places in Hinduism so the city draws a lot of pilgrims and European ‘travellers’ (who are emphatically not tourists!) in search of spiritual enlightenment. Some of them seem to find what they are looking for and can be found chanting and playing guitars on the steps of the ghats. Many Hindus come to Varnasi to die, because they believe that they can achieve Moksha and escape the eternal cycle of reincarnation if they are cremated by the Ganges. This practice is conducted openly at its famous Burning Ghats.

 

 

We faced some outrageous scamming by tourist touts but we were also surprised by how easy it is to step off the tourist trail and into a local bazaar, where you are of little or no interest to vendors who don’t speak English. As well as the all-conquering Kolaveri Di and songs from Agneepath, Akon’s recent foray into Bollywood music followed us across the Cow Belt, blaring from mobile phones on every rail journey.

 

 

After passing through the Cow Belt, I am less convinced that the Western World is at imminent risk of being eclipsed by a rising East. The story of affluent young IT engineers from Bangalore is no fallacy, but it misleadingly diverts the commentator’s attention away from the existential struggles faced by hundreds of millions of people in the darker parts of India.

 

West BengalCalcutta


 

Calcutta is India’s intellectual centre and it literally teems with museums and galleries. It was the capital of British India for over two hundred years and is consequently decorated with a panoply of charming colonial era buildings. My effusive response to Calcutta’s historic centre disappointed me; it seems I have travelled so far from home only to be drawn to areas that are reminiscent of the UK!

 

 

My exploration of Calcutta was regrettably restricted by violent stomach problems that began in the infamous Varanasi. I managed to visit the Indian museum but I found it surprisingly underwhelming – I wonder if all the best antiquities were siphoned away to the British Museum?

 

The Andaman IslandsThe new Thailand, Bali, Cambodia etc…

 

Havelock Island was the closest thing to tropical paradise that I’ve ever visited. Palm fringed beaches are backed by verdant mountainsides and I felt like I’d stepped onto the film set of Lost. Reaching the Andamans is sufficiently arduous and bureaucratic to deter all but the most tenacious foreigner, so the islands have thus far largely evaded the blight of package tourism. Once you finally do arrive, the people are friendlier than on the mainland, there is much less poverty and you enter a bubble of twenty-somethings who have been searching for paradise. The situation is not too dissimilar to The Beach except that falling coconuts pose a greater risk than drug warfare. I suspect however, that life for the Bengali settlers is not without problems because more than once I came across local men staggering drunk in the afternoon.

 

 

It is analogy that cannot be taken too far, but I can’t help seeing parallels between the way post-Independence India has treated the indigenous inhabitants of the Andmans and the way Indians were treated by their British colonisers. It isn’t the first time on this gap year that I’ve observed a nation failing to recognise how its behaviour reprises that of its erstwhile oppressor. I wonder what hypocrisies are noted by tourists visiting the UK?

 

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India 5: The Golden Triangle – February 2012

 

Delhithe New India

 

After my rather obscure detour through rural Punjab, Delhi heralded my return to the well-trodden tourist trail of Northern India. I have noticed that the centres of even mediocre Indian towns sprawl much further than the compact centres of British cities, but the scale of Delhi was astonishing.

 

Old Delhi and New Delhi are like two different worlds. The former is a warren of chaotic streets draped with a menacing canopy of archaic electricity cables, whereas New Delhi is breathtaking in its grandeur. What was formerly the British Viceroy’s palace is now the President’s mansion and it presents a fair challenge to Buckingham Palace. I find it very interesting that Britain built a capital for its colony with ceremonial buildings that rival those of Imperial London. The irony of Britain bequeathing its erstwhile dominion with a capital fit for a twenty-first century imperial power is unmissable.

 

 

Contemporary Delhi is different again and this is where you most clearly see the ‘New India.’ The monied are whisked from shopping mall to café on an excellent Metro system, undercutting the congestion and roadworks above. I saw the city through the eyes of a friend of a friend from St Andrews (and her chauffeur!) as well as some young professionals from Couchsurfing. I’ve been really fortunate on this trip to have met Indians from every walk of life; the lifestyles and attitudes of the different communities contrast starkly even though they live in parallel.

 

As I coasted out of Delhi, passing through unending construction works and business parks, I felt a sense of déjà vu for my visit to Istanbul. Putting the pace of India’s economic development, albeit very uneven, into the context of its colossal size relegates the self-important but tiny European nations to a marginal future.

 

While industrial might is imminent, resolution of the country’s social problems sometimes seems less certain. The position of women in Indian society still perplexes me. They are conspicuously absent from the Metro and tourist attractions like Delhi’s Red Ford, and in restaurants I am sometimes expected to order on behalf of female travel companions. Yet India was led by a female prime minister in the 1960’s and I’ve noticed that women pepper the upper echelons of the civil service. India is a country where a black market for antenatal sex determination testing still exists but women also have the infuriating right to walk straight to the front of any queue.

 

RajasthanPushkar & Jaipur

 

A friend from St Andrews joined me in Delhi and we took a very rattly overnight bus to Pushkar, a Hindu holy town deep in Rajasthan. It isn’t really on the mainstream tourist trail unless you’re Israeli, in which case it’s an essential pit stop on the classic post-military service tour of the Subcontinent. We even noticed a building fronted solely with Hebrew signage that looked like some sort of Israeli community centre! The Israelis are onto a good thing because serene Pushkar was the perfect antidote to three days racing around frenetic Delhi.

 

 

 

 

Next we took a train to Jaipur, the second corner of the Golden Triangle and the embodiment of bustling, colourful India. Rajasthan, with it’s rich curries and naan breads is also the region with the most quintessentially ‘Indian’ cuisine. It was here that I finally came to the conclusion that India is generally a louder place than home. A vehicle that isn’t honking its horn probably isn’t moving, desi pop music blares at top volume across the speakers on buses and even conversation in the home is several decibels higher! Do Indians never suffer from headaches?

 

 

Jaipur was the seat of a prosperous Maharaja, and the city is bejewelled with several forts, palaces and a charming early twentieth century cinema. We took this opportunity to go see our first Bollywood film, Agneepath, the box office hit of 2012. We weren’t the only tourists to have the same idea and the McDonalds beside the cinema was packed with tourists guzzling McSpicy paneer burgers just before the screening. I must confess that an Oreo McFlurry has never tasted so good! There were no subtitles and I was surprised by how much I could enjoy the film without understanding what was being said. Bollywood supplied the hyper-intensity of colour and sound that I expected of India but which reality cannot deliver.

 

 

 

AgraNone other than the…Taj Mahal

 

The Taj Mahal was the busiest tourist attraction I have ever visited. Ever. We got there at 06:40 (before it even opened!) and we still had to queue for half an hour to get inside – by 08:30 it was swamped. It is a lovely monument but I can’t help but think that India has plenty of other – more interesting – sights that are obscured by the hype surrounding the Taj. It was also the first attraction I’ve visited where women outnumbered men… where did they all come from?

 

 

I’ve covered literally thousands of miles on this trip and I devised quite a personalised route but I seem to be more predictable than I thought as I consistently collide with the same backpackers over and over again. The most interesting comrades were an elderly Chinese couple who spoke virtually no English. After bumping into them four times we started ‘chatting’ using the universal language of mobile phone photographs; it transpired that they were retired university lecturers from Shanghai.

 

I read a rather grim edition of the Times of India as I was recovering from my Taj Mahal expedition in one of Agra’s ubiquitous ‘rooftop cafés’. One story described a pupil in Chennai who stabbed his teacher to death, the kind of crime I expect more from American or British teenagers. The other surprising article lamented the fact that half of all Indians still lack access to a toilet after 65 years of Independence. My ignorance to the conditions of half the country, and the fact that I have stuck so rigidly to the well-trodden tourist trail, have made me wonder if how much of India I’ve really seen.