A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

Varanasi - Holy C###!

sunny 32 °C

The River Ganges is a probably the world’s largest open sewer. It carries downstream the untreated excrement and detritus of many millions of people and animals. And, in the end, it even takes their bodies. The rich are cremated and their ashes scattered on the waters, while funeral pyres on the riverbank consume the ultra-devout and the poor.
Our guidebook warns that the water is so toxic that it cannot sustain life, and that the faecal coliform count is more than 3,000 times the maximum permitted under WHO rules. So why on earth would anyone risk almost certain gastric meltdown and possible death by drinking and bathing in this poisonous brew?
The answer lies in the Hindu beliefs that the water of the Ganges is so holy it will wash away a lifetime of sins, and that to die in Varanasi guarantees freedom from the cycle of life and death, (moksha), that binds us poor mortals to eternal misery.
We’ve seen the river and are willing to take our chance on eternal misery! But Varanasi is fascinating because millions of pilgrims come from all over India and the rest of the world in the certain belief that submersion in this sewer will purify them. Some people need a reality check here! Bathing_in_the_Ganges.jpg

The winding narrow lanes leading to the ghats, (the stone steps at the water’s edge), are reminiscent of London in the middle-ages...
Goats, cows, scrawny dogs and untouchables scramble for scraps of food in the garbage strewn alleys, animals and humans turn dark corners into smelly toilets; beggars plead for alms; merchants of every kind hawk dust-covered wares from dingy shops; and the traffic chaos is indescribable. It took an hour and a half to travel 5 kilometres from our hotel to see the choreographed Hindu ritual that takes place each evening on the ghats. large_Ghats_at_night.jpg
Viewed from our boat, away from the shoreside squalor, the ceremony was a symphony of light and sound. (although it appeared to be more of an orchestrated crowd-puller than a true Hindu ceremony).
But Hindus aren’t alone here. Our journey to the evening show was hampered by great herds of goats that were being driven through the narrow streets in advance of today’s mass slaughter to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid.

This little guy hitched a ride to the slaughterhouse in a rickshaw…I_got_a_ride.jpg
Next week 3 million Hindu pilgrims are expected to arrive in Varanasi to celebrate the second Diwali, known as Dev Deepawali,(who knew?), and we are told that the city will be chaotic. Fortunately, we will be two thousand kilometers away in Hyderabad. But these devotees will still be here on the ghats - still hoping to die...soon!

P.S. Here are a few absolutely true snippits from today’s edition of The Times of India.
'Muslims have agreed not to slaughter cows for Eid this year to avoid offending Hindus.’
‘A blind Muslim woman has trained a seeing-eye horse because it would be unclean to have a dog in her house.’
'A sacrificial goat whose coat had a pattern that looked like the Arabic spelling of Mohammed was sold for $2,000.’
And, finally, ‘The Indian Government has announced that the River Ganges will be perfectly clean and pure within ten years.’ (And now, from our own correspondent in India, "Pigs have been spotted flying all over the place.")

Posted by Hawkson 17:47 Archived in India Comments (3)

Lucknow - Past and Present

sunny 29 °C

From what we've seen on our travels so far. ancient history seems to be a thing of the past here in India. For instance, this magnificent tomb of Mohammed Ali Shak in Lucknow, (the Bara Imambara), looks as though it should have been built in the 12th or 13th centuries, yet it is less than two centuries old.
Although these building look impressive from a distance, up close they are a sorry sight. Here's one old guy with a trowel trying to patch up the plasterwork - he has a very long way to go.
Work on the complex was abandoned in 1840 before it was completed because Shak died. And nothing has changed here since; nothing is properly finished; everything is in a state of collapse... (Including a relatively new 5 storey building in Delhi the other day).
However, in the early eighteen-hundreds a magnificent city within a city was built here in Lucknow. It was the British Residency and was the seat of power for the Raj in this part of India. Some 3,000 British and their army of Sepoys lived in palatial buildings surrounded by manicured gardens until 1857 when some Sepoys mutineered and attempted to overthrow the British in the First War of Independence. Here are the remains of some of the buildings...

During the 3 month seige of Lucknow by more than 30,000 Indians, some 2,000 of the residents were killed and most of the buildings were razed. However, reinforcements eventually arrived and fought off the insurgents. The buildings were never repaired and provide a poignant memorial to India's violent past. However, we were surprised at the large number of teenagers who were visiting this site until we discovered that it's ruins and rambling grounds provide numerous hidey-holes for young lovers. Arranged marriages are the norm here and there are very few private places in this teeming city away from the prying eyes of parents and chaperons where unapproved assignations can take place. Here's a couple spooning under a banyan tree in the Residency's lush surroundings.

We are now on our way to Varanasi, (formerly known as Benares), the famous religious centre on the River Ganges which loftily claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.We read that there are no buildings older than 200 years in the entire place, but we are optimistic that we might discover India’s answer to Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Cheops there.

Posted by Hawkson 21:04 Archived in India Comments (3)

War of the Worlds

sunny 31 °C

When it comes to ‘flat’ the great Canadian Prairies have nothing on the northern plains of India. Apart from the Himalayas, we’ve traveled over two thousand kilometers across a landscape where the only features have been the bumps in the road – but, oh boy, have we experienced some remarkable bumps. We would have photos if we could ever have held the camera still enough, and if the perpetual smog of dust and pollution allowed. This is a driver's eye view of the road ahead...
And this is a quiet road without buses or trucks...
We are now recovering in Lucknow after a two day journey that should have taken seven hours. It began when the promised three- hour taxi ride from our Himalayan retreat to the nearest railway took six hours because of the state of the roads which, in any Western country, would have been barricaded and condemned as impassable. Net result - we missed our train by two hours. Entire sections of mountain road had been washed away, (god knows when), leaving narrow rocky ledges to drive on, and we by-passed one village on a goat track. After stopping to fix a puncture we eventually reached the plain where we were told the roads were better – they lied. Nothing here in India is better; nothing is maintained. The buildings, vehicles, roads and railways are all in an unbelievable state of degradation. It is impossible to adequately describe the squalid conditions in which people live – and the roads! Here's a pothole - we've hit worse...
Several worlds collide on the roads here. Modern cars and motorbikes fight with clapped out buses and overloaded trucks that are at least 50 years old. Beat-up old bangers and rickety auto-rickshaws skirmish with medieval bullock carts, pack-horses and donkey carts, while tricycle rickshaws and bicycles squeeze pedestrians into the garbage-strewn gutters. And then there are the animals: stray cows, bullocks, goats, monkeys, and dogs weave amongst the traffic, and small children scrape up the cow shit and form it into pancakes which are dried into fuel for cooking. Here's an auto-rickshaw you wouldn't want to ride in...
The roads are littered with smashed and abandoned vehicles and entire roadside villages have grown up to keep the clapped-out trucks and buses from certain death – but no one repairs the roads. There are short stretches of sanity, but a few hundred yards of newly tarmac’d road quickly disintegrates into the most appallingly potholed track. The Germans tried to build a new highway here but it all fell apart when the Indian contractors chopped off every corner and skimped on every ingredient.
The roads are bad; very bad, but the driving is worse. Might is right here. Truck and bus drivers know that lesser mortals will always give way to their heaps of junk, so, with an ear-shattering horn blast they forge ahead, often on the wrong side of the road, and expect everyone to move. No one obeys any traffic law, and drivers do whatever it takes to make their way. Timid drivers or passengers would be well-advised to stay home.
Jim says, “Am I glad that I listened to Sheila and didn’t buy a car for our travels through India.”

Posted by Hawkson 17:55 Archived in India Tagged driving Comments (3)

Monkey Business

sunny 30 °C

Here we are on the top of the world; in the forested foothills of India’s highest mountain and just a few miles from the border with Nepal.
Somewhere in these peaks there are tigers, snow leopards, Himalayan bears and a host of exotic creatures – maybe even a Yeti or two. But as the burgeoning population continues to overrun the wilderness with mega-homes and agricultural endeavours many animals are being squeezed to extinction. Ritish, our butler, tells us that it no longer snows in these foothills because of pollution and global warming. Some animals, however, have not only learned to co-exist with humans but are actually thriving on the locals’ droppings. This little monkey is scavenging through piles of roadside garbage – and there’s plenty to choose from.
This is monkey world. Several silver-haired fellows, like handsome youths with spindly arms and legs, greeted us at dusk as we made the final climb to our mountain-top retreat, and a rowdy red-faced troupe uses our lofty roof as a lookout each night. They sound like a gang of hob-nailed roofers as they stomp around on the corrugated iron and leap from ridge to ridge, turning our serene paradise into a nightly Bedlam. Here’s one just waiting to annoy us…
We saw swarms of monkeys in the greener parts of Delhi and the residents threw stones to send the little beggars into the trees. They can be quite aggressive and it was widely reported in the press here that a crack team of police sharpshooters had been detailed to take out any monkey that came too close to President Barack Obama during his recent visit. The headlines, “President mauled by monkeys,” wouldn’t do either his or India’s PR image a lot of good, (although some might think it is analogous to the actions of certain Republicans). However, these two had some monkey business on their minds rather than attacking us or anyone else…
After a week under a cloudless blue sky with fresh sharp air, invigorating mountain walks and starlit nights, we are heading back down to the smog and grime of the plains. We will miss the snow-capped peaks, the exotic birds, even the riotous roof monkeys, but the great cities of the Ganges, Varanasi and Calcutta, await.

Posted by Hawkson 17:16 Archived in India Comments (0)

Happy (Belated) Diwali

sunny 28 °C

It is November 5th, Bonfire Night, and the young Indian boys were already getting trigger-happy with their fireworks when we left Delhi a week ago to seek peace in the Himalayas. But the boys, who have never heard of Guy Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot, seem to have followed us into the mountains. It’s the annual festival of Diwali, and all week we have heard the crack of explosions echoing around the steep valleys as the youngsters warm up for tonight’s joyous fusillade. Other arrangements for the annual festival, (which equates with Christmas), include the making of marigold garlands, preparing special sweets and buying something new for the house. Fridges, televisions and computers seem popular judging by the displays in the bazaars, but many of the locals will have to make do with a new saucepan, a string of plastic flowers or a garish poster for the wall. The meager shops in the neighbouring villages are adorned with colourful displays of cheap decorations like these…
Diwali is the festival of lights, when every household burns mustard seed oil in small earthenware lamps in celebration. But electricity has now come to much of India and, along with this developing power, has come the wasteful habits of the West. Our neighbours here live in a run-down shack and wash themselves and their clothes under a tap by the roadside, yet they splashed out on a string of fairy lights for their door …Diwali_lights.jpg

However, many traditions still survive and this lovely young family was making their own marigold garlands as we walked by…Dewali_preparations.jpg
Like most people here they spoke no English but, with gestures, they stopped us, blessed us by painting a smudge of dye on our foreheads, placed marigolds on our heads and gave us sweets. Here’s Jim getting his smudge…Happy_Diwali.jpg

We try to be sensitive to local custom, (though sometimes we screw up), so we dashed off to the store and bought them a large box of sweets...Sweet_scene.jpg
Diwali is about giving and receiving and it is about being thankful for the gifts we have. We have so much more than any of the people here and could be distressed at the terrible conditions under which they live. Yet, they are kind generous people who smile warmly and wish us a happy Diwali at every opportunity. It is a wish that, through this blog, we pass on to the whole world... Happy Diwali from us and from this lovely lady who was very proud of her Diwali dress… P1070576.jpg

A footnote to our blog about the gate-slamming ceremony on the Pakistan/India border.
Following the posting of our blog we read in the Indian press that, in the pursuit of international peace and harmony during Diwali, the Government proposed to stop the daily hazing and gate-slamming event because it was unseemly and childish. The Pakistanis responded today by saying, in effect, "Get stuffed you ####." Nothing childish about that!

Posted by Hawkson 18:26 Archived in India Comments (1)

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