Sunday, April 20, 2014

Luxury, life, and death on the Ganges

It was time for a little bit of royal luxury in our lives but we were surprised at the extremes we were in for when we decided as a group to stay at the Hammeer Garhi Heritage Resort. A mini fortress, it was built over 350 years ago and surrounded by a settlement now called Basari. The resort was fabulous: 4 poster beds, private balconies, lush dining room and halls, chandeliers, courtyard garden. Everything you would expect, it even had a lake behind it with a small palace in the middle that you can boat to for chai tea while watching the sunset.

Water by hand pump
In stark contrast the tiny village of Basari was a step into a past of mud brick houses and thatched roofs, with people living mostly as they would have hundreds of years ago. Water was obtained either from large open wells using a bucket or by hand pump. The caste system here is well entrenched with different living areas for the different castes with correspondingly different quality housing and water supply. There were few modern conveniences in evidence, but some children told me about the brands of computers they have.

Bishal demonstrating the difference between a
dried out cow pat and a fresh one.
We had a brilliant afternoon wandering around this village and trying to get to know about their way of life. The village was surprisingly clean (compared to most of India), and there were many cow pats drying in corners everywhere. A very renewable resource, cow poo is used for many purposes including as paint on the walls, small fires for repelling mosquitoes and as a fuel. Temperatures here can reach the high 40's so the walls and doors of many houses are very thick and without windows. Houses mostly consist of just one or two rooms with no aircon or fans.

The people were very friendly and as curious about us as we were about them, especially the children, who came running from all directions and basically mobbed Elizabeth. Next thing I know she is riding a bike and wielding a cricket bat. (This was the day after India thrashed Australia so I think they were saying even a girl can play better cricket than the Australian cricket team.) Being teachers we asked them lots of questions about their ages and their schooling, and finished up playing a very shonky game of cricket that the children seemed to be taking way too seriously... We ate a sumptuous Indian dinner and danced the night away.

Umm are you guys supposed to be on the roof?

Dancing at the resort

Feel free to click on and
zoom in...

The next morning we reluctantly left for our trip to Varanasi and the river Ganges. On the way we stopped at Khajuraho, famous for its Hindu and Jain temples that are over 1,000 years old and covered in carvings depicting scenes from ordinary life. About 10 per cent of the carvings are of a very sexual nature so there is a huge focus here on Kama Sutra and Tantric paraphernalia and souvenirs. The temples themselves are amazing to look at and the carvings intricate and well done. We had a very funny tour guide who had a dry sense of humour and seemed unembarrassable (unlike most of us). After a very busy day we boarded a train for our overnight journey to Varanasi.

Our last stop in India, the city of Varanasi was a prime (if not the best) example of the frenetic way of life we had come to expect in most of India: insane traffic, numerous lumbering cows, never ending heat and dust and noise. One of the holiest and oldest continuously inhabited cities in India, death here is supposed to bring salvation.  But if we thought the city was an assault on the senses the river Ganges declared war on them.

The Ganges is India's most sacred river. The Indians bathe in it, wash their clothes and animals in it, drink from it, pray along it and scatter their ashes in it. Not sure if drinking and bathing is a good idea when according to Wikipedia it is the fifth most polluted river in the world. We went for a wander along the shoreline watching the throngs of people carry on their daily lives. We came upon a small funeral pyre at a traditional cremation site (there are different sites for different castes). Three wrapped bodies were being brought down to the site to await their turn at instant salvation.

Towards sunset we boarded a small wooden boat, one of hundreds all clustered together. Our oarsman lost his oar and bounded across several boats to retrieve it. I videoed it so will post it below if internet allows :-) The trip up river left most of us speechless. As we approached one of the main cremation sites where several funeral pyres were at different stages of completion the smell, the smoke and the realisation of what was happening was something none of us had ever encountered before. We watched as a shrouded body was brought down and prepared for burning. As the sun fell an eerie quiet twilight descended on us punctuated by the flames from the receding fires and tempered by the billowing smoke. Just writing about it brings back memories that make me melancholy again. This goes on 24/7.

Our boat reclustered with the others as we approached the shore, and we watched one of the religious ceremonies that occur at several points along the river every night. Just before the ceremonies ended our driver manouvered our boat around several others in the queue. He then directed us on to another boat as a stepping stone to reach the shore and join the massive crowds escaping these overpowering scenes before the rush.

Despite our boat driver's helpful queue jumping it took us an hour to walk back to our hotel as all rickshaws both human and motor powered were already taken. We felt decidedly punch drunk as we dodged cows, cars, bikes, dogs and other people on narrow noisy streets full of fumes and blaring horns. By the time we arrived 'home' we were praying for a different kind of salvation, the anticipated salvation of neighbouring Nepal.

I love all the random animal scenes you
come across in India
The river Ganges

Video of boat driver fetching oar

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Love and the Taj Mahal

Obligatory crazy shot
(jumping is no longer allowed)
Next stop on our tour of India was Agra, which at its high point was capital of the Mughal empire. Its main claim to fame now is as the location of the Taj Mahal. Built in 1653 by Shah Jahan, it took 22 years and 20,000 workers to create this white marble monument to his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. They are now laid together inside this mausoleum. I expected a single building that you could see from the street but instead I found a whole complex surrounded by large walls and flanked on both sides by temples to complete the Taj's symmetry. It does take your breath away as you enter through large ancient doors and the Taj is revealed step by step in all its glory, beautifully presented with a leading foreground of ponds and gardens.

Shah Jahan's prison
Seen outside Fatehpur Sikri

Agra has many other impressive archaeological sites including the Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned until his death by his son in a magnificent area of the palace overlooking the Taj. We were told that this was because he wanted to build a black onyx Taj and his son thought this excessive and wasteful. He was right of course, but it would have been amazing. We also went to see Fatehpur Sikri (another fort), which was the capital at one stage but abandoned due to a lack of water. It's incredible how many local people want to take photos with you and turnabout became fair play when I was dared to ask a group of sari dressed girls if I could have my picture taken with them. They very kindly agreed.

From there we left the frenetic cities for the more rural towns to get a feeling for Indian country life, travelling first to the small town of Orchha of around 9,000 people. The difference was palpable as the streets were cleaner and quieter and the town had a much more tranquil feel about it. It still had the requisite fort and accompanying palace (Raja Mahal), but straight behind the first palace is a second palace Jahangir Mahal. It was built by the then ruler Vir Singh Deo in honour of his friend the Mughal king Jahangir. It apparently took decades to build and was only used for one night. Hmmm, more money than sense.

View from the palace
We took a pleasant walk around the fort to the river and had our first morning run since Mexico. The palaces would be a great location for a 5km park run (2 laps around the perimeter). It was strange to see the river being used simultaneously for rafting, swimming, washing clothes and bathing, where they soap themselves up before rinsing in the river. The views from anywhere in this place are fantastic as the awesome scenery is complemented by the many temples, palaces and cenotaphs.

The girls making Chapati
Enjoying our meal
One of our most interesting experiences was when we had dinner with a local family, the husband being an autocycle rickshaw driver. It was really nice of them to open up their home to us, and our tour group girls helped make chapatis for dinner. We watched cricket with their boys (the 20/20 India vs Australia match - we were thrashed) and then ate a delicious meal of rice, tandoori chicken, salad, lentil soup and veg curry. As teachers we were disappointed to learn that their 15 year old daughter had recently given up high school because it had been decided that the school was too far to go (15km). Literacy is at 64% for boys but only 42% for girls (courtesy Wikipedia). It will take a long time for their traditional values to change.

This was a refreshing inclusion in the itinerary and even smaller villages were coming up.

Some random photos from Orchha

Monkey business at the fort

Our early morning run

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Poverty and palaces

Pumping water while a friend washes his face
After the quiet solitude of the camel safari we were thrust back in to the hustle and bustle of larger and busier towns and cities. Using a variety of travel mechanisms including trains, buses, jeeps, walking and autocycle rickshaws (little 3 wheeled contraptions), we made our way south and east from Jaisalmer, which was next to the Pakistan border. We found ourselves preferring autocycle rickshaw travel in the cities, even over walking, as they could zip in and out of traffic with relative ease and had no problem with going the wrong way when necessary or even taking the footpath.

There are the cows, more than I thought existed on Earth. Once while walking past a herd of cows one turned its head brushing my ass with its horn. Memories of those funny 'running with the bulls' videos flashed into my mind; they did not seem so funny all of a sudden. I give them a much wider berth now. Then there are the people, the women always looking very colourful in their saris. On bikes, motorcycles, being pulled by camels or horses on a cart, in cars, autocycle rickshaws, selling, begging, struggling.
A room in the palace

I find it difficult to reconcile the length and breadth of their history, the sheer past grandeur and opulence of the many palaces and forts with the reality of India as it is today. How did they get from there to the scale of the poverty that currently exists? Many theories are put forward in the many discussions that are had. Elections are currently being held and I wonder why anybody would want the job; the likelihood of even making a dent in the problem seems unattainable. The place is fascinating and so different though and your tourist dollar goes a long, long way. Where else could you buy a 600ml Coke, a banana and an icecream for less than a dollar Australian?

Mehrangarh fort

Let's try and shake off my melancholy mood and get back to the trip. Next up was Jodhpur, the blue city on account of the many houses in the old section that are painted blue. Also home of the fabulous Mehrangarh fort, which looked amazing from our hotel room, was amazing inside and had amazing views. A tour of this fort does not disappoint; very well organised it included demonstrations of rolling on your turban, psychic readings and live traditional meditation music.

The blue city it is
View from the hotel of the fort

Elizabeth  ziplining

The other thing you can do at this fort is zipline it. This consists of six separate lines of cable that you hook on to and slide, flying fox style, your way around the fort. I was unsure about this particular activity but at $30 Aust Elizabeth said, 'Where else in the world can you zoom around a fort for $30?' Well, I could not fault that kind of logic so zoom we did. It was a blast and the views were brilliant. Not scary at all once you got going. I did a video I will share below so you can get a sense of the experience. Stick with it, as initially I had to start it going and then put my gloves on and hook up to the cable. so you cannot see much. Then you get to see what I see for a bit, until a point near the end where I run out of slide too early. Apparently you need to be more streamlined than I was (I was more focussed on the video) so I had to spin around and hand over hand pull myself up the last bit, lol.

Next stop was Udaipur, the city of lakes. We stayed at a hotel run by a family of artists, and first point of order was to paint our thumbnails with a very tiny portrait. I got a maharaja (king of course) and Elizabeth got a peacock and one of our group got something from the Kama Sutra but I better not elaborate. Walking distance from the City Palace and with wonderful views from the restaurant at the rooftop, our time here was very comfortable. That night we went to see a traditional dance performance at a local temple. The dancing was very entertaining, complete with a puppet master dancing his puppets and finishing with a lady dancing with pots on her head and they kept adding more pots. This is a bit like watching car racing, you keep expecting the pots to fall off; luckily though she kept her balance perfectly.

City Palace
Our time here was spent visiting the City Palace, wandering through the streets, the markets, across the bridge to one of several nicely located restaurants along the lake and visiting the Lake Palace, which you can get to by boat and you can stay at for a surprisingly reasonable $450 per night. Some of the scenes from the James Bond film Octopussy were filmed here.

The Lake Palace
On the way back from the Lake Palace

Amer Fort
Next city on our journey was Jaipur, otherwise known as 'the pink city' (do I sense a theme here?), the largest in this district with over three million people. The highlights for me were the Amer (Amber) fort and the Jantar Mantar archaeological site of astronomical instruments. The fort was the best I had seen and even the journey was worthy of mention. On the way to the fort we passed many beautiful sites including the lake palace, and came across quite a few elephants on their way home for lunch. At the fort itself there were the usual animals including water buffalo. There is a long walk up to the fort with increasingly stunning views of the countryside and town, enclosed by a wall 40 km long that snakes across the surrounding hills.

That is one big clock!

Jantar Mantar displays the incredible scientific and engineeering ingenuity of man when put to good use. The instruments were used to measure the time, predict eclipses and track the stars. It starts off with some small ones (about 3m) that were not accurate enough so a huge one (27m) with stairs was built that has an accuracy of two seconds. Built in the early 1700's there are also individual ones for every star sign that are still used today for predicting the best time for weddings.

Honourable mention activity was a trip to the Raj Mandir cinema to see a Bollywood movie. This was a lucky dip as we went to see whatever movie was on at the time. Well, the movie was called MMS 2 and was a cross between The Exorcist and Grease. Every now and again they would break into dance but most of the movie was a murdering possession story of the beautiful Bollywood star. Unlike Western cinemas, the crowd was very animated, clapping and whooping during the dance scenes or just continuing to talk and answer phones during the rest. Not quite what we expected but an interesting experience.

So, as we leave the pink city behind us, next stop the Taj Mahal.

Udaipur City Palace from a restaurant across a bridge