Heaven & Hell
Madhya Pradesh – Khajuraho
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 Pradesh – Varanasi
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 Bengal – Calcutta
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 Islands – The 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?