Thursday, January 29, 2009

Incredible India

We arrive in Bangalore at midday and are glad that we're leaving at 10 that night - it might be the centre of India's IT revolution (read Infosys and more call centres than we've had hot curries) but it's also a great example of India's rapid urban expansion (read traffic chaos, pollution and more traffic chaos). We take a bus to the botannical gardens, stopping off first for a veggie burger - they like their Westernised ways here. The gardens are a great refuge from the city and there's a flower show on to boot. Eventually we return to the chaos. From the bus we see shopping centres and malls and McDonalds - it's a stereotypical image of the city - and later find ourselves walking amongst building rubble and dug-up roads. Ten o'clock can't come quick enough. As usual, the station is alive with people and there are plenty of trains coming and going.

In the morning we step off in Hubli and have chilli doughnuts for breakfast before catching a state battle bus up to Badami. Our bus conductor is a woman, quite a rare sight, and she sits next to Gayle to chat. At one point she comments on her "lovely white skin". Most Indians are dark-skinned but the TV presenters and Bollywood stars are usually light-skinned. We see TV adverts for skin-lightening creams. Clinics advertise 'skin treatments'. It's a great example of how media and business can create demand through fantasy people, fantasy worlds. Just like home, really.

Badami's a small town with a busy main street and a quiet old town full of old mud houses, built together in blocks. We have come to visit the rock-cut cave temples which sit in a cliff face above a small reservoir, built in the 5th century, along with the temples, when the place was capital of an old kingdom. The reservoir has a dam with ghats (steps) and behind the dam sits the old town. On rocky outcrops there are ruined forts and temples overlooking the place. It's a great place to wander around, besides the aggressive dogs and a few children asking for pens or money. The cave temples are similar to others we have seen, the carving very good in places, and one features naked gods in stark relief, so to speak, which is a novelty. Each day on the ghats the local women are to be seen washing their pots and doing the laundry. The sound of wet clothes being heaved and slapped against the stone steps echoes all around. Their labour is tedious and incessant. None of the old houses have running water.

We find ourselves in a hotel popular with other tourists, some of them here to climb, and there's a peaceful garden restaurant out the back. By the temples we had seen signs warning "Monkey Menace". They hang around in groups, like the unemployed and idle young men of the town, waiting to be fed or foraging amongst rubbish for scraps (that's the monkeys, not the young men, who can be seen engaged in the national past-times of paan-chewing and ball-scratching). Occasionally they'll (monkeys again) appear at the hotel to make a raid. They seem to be tolerated, despite their nuisance, but everyone seems to be wary of them. I get sick here and have to spend the day not further than 5 metres from the toilet. I am confused by the automatic flush on the toilet - until I realise that the sound is coming from me. It's days like these when I rue not checking the room properly before taking it. (It was only after we checked in that we realised there was no sink in the bathroom. A careless omission.... on both sides.) Gayle makes the most of it and spends some time walking around the old streets and meeting people and taking photos of them - something she's very good at.

Finally we move on to Bijapur, just up the road, where there are remains of the old city and a mausoleum or two that have survived from the Mughal era of the 17th century. The town is much bigger and hotter and possibly dustier and not so nice for walking around. However, the Islamic architecture is impressive and the Golgumbaz mausoleum is a huge empty building (bodies in the crypt below, whooohoohoo....) topped by a huge dome. You can climb up to the top and test the acoustics on the 'Whispering Gallery' just like St.Paul's in London. But no-one knows what whispering is in India, so instead you can be deafened by young men howling and squawking like afore-mentioned monkeys, whilst a security guard blows his ear-piercing whistle at full blast for some minor infringement unseen and unknown by anybody but him. The other sights are far more peaceful.

The town has a large Muslim population, judging by the number of chadors and skull-caps we see around, but the old Jammi Masjid (literally Friday Mosque i.e. the main mosque) looks a bit sad. I sit on the outside steps whilst Gayle goes for a look around inside. There's a group of pesky lads who hustle up to us with instructions and directions and orders to leave our shoes at the entrance and we try our best to ignore them. They don't leave us alone. One of them comes up to me shouting gibberish right in my face so I reach up and slap him. He looks surprised, but not as surprised as I am. He shuts up and leaves me alone to worry about what I have just done. How can I tell Gayle? What is happening to me? Gayle reappears with a sheepish look on her face and tells me that she's just had to cuff one of the older boys on the head who was making kissing noises in her ear. We both seem to have lost it. Or have we? We know you're not supposed to leave your sense of humour behind when you walk out the door, and most of the time we manage with the children who appear at our sides asking What is your country? China. What is your name? Wan Pen. One pen please? Yes, that's right, nice to meet you, ad infinitum. If we are asked for money we just say no money and that's it. Invariably the boys are cheekier than the girls. What we don't tolerate is people grabbing us, but usually we just growl a bit. So what has driven us to strike out separately but simultaneously? Maybe the boys were just too pushy. Maybe because we know they would never behave the same to Indian tourists (they ignored the ones that were there). With hope, they'll think twice before doing it again. We will, that's for certain.

It's another night train to Hyderabad. We change trains at a junction called Sholapur and the station is a scene like a refugee crisis - people lying around the platforms and entrance hall with their belongings, villagers carrying their loads on their heads, old folk looking lost and bewildered. Trains come and go frequently. At the unreserved carriages there is an unholy scrum to get aboard first, verging on hysterical. Most windows are barred, except for the emergency exit through which the more nimble climb onto the train to bag a place. Luggage racks are cherished as a place to lie down. We board ours and meet a man who works for an Austrian company. He tells us that they speak Dutch in Vienna. We haven't the heart to correct him. In the morning hawkers pass along the carriages announcing their produce by repeating it endlessly "vadai vadai vadai vadai" "chai chai chai chai" "samosa samosa samosa samosa", not pausing for breath, like kabbadi players. As the train pulls in a man shouts hopefully through the window at us: "Coolie?"

Sometimes we see the Indian Tourist Board's swish adverts on cable TV, beautifully shot, full of wonderful ruins and monuments, colourful people, fantastic landscapes. 'Incredible India' is their tag line. It can be like that sometimes, but there's a lot lot more too it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pongal fever

In Trichy we engage in 'hearty discussion' with an unfriendly hotel manager who insists we pay in advance for our room. We hate paying in advance but after looking at our alternatives we give in, only to discover cockroaches scuttling about the room within twenty minutes of arrival. So, after further 'hearty discussion' we finally manage to get a full refund and relocate to a nearby hotel where the cockroaches are far more friendly. The town is relatively quiet - many shops closed for the beginning of the Pongal festival - but there's some life in the bazaar and at the Rock Fort Temple, which unfortunately is not a temple to French cheese, but is a temple that looks like a fort that sits on a rock overlooking the city. From the top we can see boys flying kites from the roofs of the houses below. We also visit another temple, of the kitsch variety, which is overrun with the faithful. It's mildly claustrophobic getting caught in a crowd in India, so we don't hang around too long.
We catch a night train to Mysore in the next state, where Pongal is not a holiday. ( We soon learn that many Tamils have the same idea.) Our comfy three - tier AC 'compartment' is shared with a family and a friend who have been on a Christian pilgrimage from Goa to a church in Tamil Nadu.
We're riding in relative comfort here - judging from the horror stories told by others travelling in non-AC standard sleeper class. For a start, whole families are not sharing one berth. The corridor is not full of sleeping bodies. We chat to the family a bit and then prepare our beds for sleep. Sadly for Gayle, this is disturbed by the father opposite her who is snoring louder than the train's hooter. Instead of sensibly putting a pillow over his face and giving us all some relief, she changes berth.

Mysore is a nice city - it has a fresh climate (it's winter and we're at 700 metres, so the nights are cool) and the streets have pavements you can actually walk down, there are pedestrian crossings, and it's relatively clean. Remarkable. We stay in in a large vaguely art-decoish hotel along with half of Tamil Nadu. Gayle comments on the institutional ambience (I think her actual words were "open prison" ). John correspondingly likes the place because of this.
We awake each mornng at 6am to the sounds of guests shouting orders for coffee down the corridor, then shouting across to other families in other rooms (possibly across the central courtyard), then gathering in the corridor to exchange pleasantries and take photos, all on a high decibel range. The noise dissipates a little by 7am by which time we are fully awake and eager to escape. Our leisurely days are spent visiting the regular tourist sights, which includes the site of Tipu Sultan's demise. Tipu was the local head honcho who resisted the British in the 1790's Mysore wars. In the end they got him, and having seen both his summer palace and his mausoleum, we reckon he's lying in a nicer place these days.
One day we strike out to see a temple built in a particular architectural style (Hoysala - if you're interested) at Somnathpur. The temple is small but in very good nick and covered in very fine carving. To reach it, we have a long wait to change buses in a small village. When the connecting bus finally arrives it is teeming. Men are hanging out of the open doors. At first it looks like everyone is getting off (hooray), but then a huge mass of people we haven't seen before suddenly pile on in front of us (boo). In the end we climb the ladders to the roof with a dozen others and enjoy a scenic ride though the countryside - everywhere busy with the end of harvest, stacking and transporting freshly cut grain, threshing by hand, or that other ancient technique, by spreading it out across the road for the passing traffic to do the work. We raise a few smiles along the way when locals sitting by the road notice us on the roof. It's worth it - the temple is very special and the journey is all part of the fun.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wave goodbye, say hello

The plane takes off from Colombo's airport full of Tamil pilgrims - men in black shirts and lunghis, all barefoot. To one side of the plane is an immense stretch of trees and to the other the ocean. We wave goodbye to Sri Lanka, which we have renamed the 'Island of 10%' - as a result of a tendency to overcharge. We are eager to return to India and looking forward to that little extra edge the country has to offer. Arriving at Chennai International Airport the baggage reclaim is swamped by tons of luggage from a flight from Jeddah. A crowd of Muslim families struggle with overloaded trolleys - returning from the Haj. We emerge outside to face a crush barrier holding back a huge crowd of people waiting to greet travellers - it's noisy and sweaty and we have to elbow through the crowd. Eventually we find out where the bus to the bus station goes from - a half-kilometre walk down the side of a flyover immediately outside the airport. There's no pavement to walk on, only dirt and rubbish and an open drain at the side of the road. The familiar blend of sulphurous and ammonia smells reach our noses. We walk past a man urinating. A small crowd indicates a bus stop and we hop on a clunking Tata bus with glass-less windows heading into the city. Ahh, this must be the 'edge' we were looking forward to.

We head first to Mahabalipuram - a 'must-see' on the tour of the south because of its UNESCO-listed rock-cut temples famous for their carving. The small town is quite touristy as a result. Gayle visited here about 20 years ago and it's not quite how she remembers it. The collection of temples are impressive - they're dotted around the town and include a life-size elephant and a fantastic frieze carved onto a large rockface complete with what looks like a dancing chorus on each flank. One temple sits on the shoreline, its fine carving now weathered and worn by wind and sea. It's the start of Pongal holidays in Tamil Nadu, to celebrate harvest time, and the town is full of people come to see the sights. We come across a kolam competition - the traditional Pongal decoration in front of the doorstep - with colourful designs laid out on the ground.

There's a certain je ne sais quoi about Pondicherry, just down the coast. Maybe it's the leafy tidy quiet streets along the seafront, the colonial architecture, or just the croissants and coffee in the bakery. For the town used to be, like my home town Poulton-le-Fylde, a French conclave despite some belligerent attempts by the British to oust them. Judging from what we see the French brought with them lycees, boutiques, silly hats for the police to wear (the British ones never caught on in the rest of India), and very clean streets. It takes us some time to find a hotel - places are either full or being refurbished. We try the 'Hotel de Ville', but are turned away unceremoniously by some officious angry little man . The rickshaw drivers here honk the kind of horn that a circus clown uses - highly appropiate in our opinion. There is a famous ashram here founded 80 years ago by a guru called Aurobindo and continued by a Frenchwoman after his death known simply as the Mother. Outside of town is a large community called Auroville for those who like to blend a little new age science with yoghurt, or yoga. I can't quite grasp the gist of it myself.......
a room for any price?
We board a mobile disco masquerading as a public bus, booming with Bollywood hits, and dance all the way to Thanjavur. Here we visit the 'Big Temple', which is rather, erm, large. Many temples in the south of India feature the full gamut of Hindu gods and goddesses, all perched on ledges, in a variety of poses and facial expressions and painted in bright colours. The effect is very kitsch. The Big Temple is a more sober affair - and all the buildings and carvings are done in sandstone. We wander around in the evening light and join the pilgrims inside the shrines. The priests are hard at work for Pongal - and the large tea urns that turn out to be receptacles for donations feature predominantly.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Same old stories

We're back in Kandy to apply for a 4-month visa to India. This is a bit tricky because the standard issue is only 3 months. One of the consul officials, after a personal interview with us in best bib and tucker, and some dishonest explanations about meeting John's sister in April in Kolkata (we said it was her first time in India and she's young - whereas she's older than John and it'll be her her 3rd or 4th time), agrees to grant us a 4-month single-entry visa. This is no good to us, because we want to visit Nepal before we meet Ruth. So we go for a 2-month visa knowing that we'll have to reapply in Nepal. Ahh, visas, we just love 'em.

Whilst we wait for the Indian bureaucracy to crank some gears and pull a few levers, we head northwards into Sri Lanka's 'Cultural Triangle'. This region is home to some UNESCO-listed sites - ancient cities and monasteries recovered from the forests. They are expensive to visit, but as one wag put it to us, "they won't be any cheaper tomorrow". This turns out to be entirely true as the rates go up on the 1st of January. We begin in Anuradhapura, where the ruins are spread out over a large site. We hire bikes to get around the various huge dagobas (stupas),
and water tanks and brick foundations of the old kingdom that lasted over 1000 years until the 11th century. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka during its growth. Pride of place, and heavily guarded, is the sacred bodhi tree - grown from a cutting of the original tree in India under which the Buddha reached enlightenment (Om!) - and outliving the original. This is understandably a place of holy pilgrimage for Buddhists. So it seems odd that the army are running a transit camp right next to it, to transport soldiers to the northeast. Then again, the Buddhist monks have played a leading role in Sinhalese nationalism, so perhaps it is very appropiate. Attacks from South Indians led to the collapse of this ancient kingdom and a new one setting up at Pollonaruwa where we also hire bikes to visit the ruins. The highlight here are three large Buddha statues carved out of the same rock in various poses - the standard ones of sitting, standing and lying down looking very happy with himself. Other buildings poke up above the treeline, most of them in a sorry state, but cycling around you get the sense of a great and wealthy city. It reminds us of other great jungle ruins we have seen in Mexico, Peru and Cambodia - although it's fair to say there's not much left here. This kingdom also succumbed to South Indian invaders. I get the feeling that these sites might represent a little more to the nationalists than just their cultural heritage.

Our final stop is at Sigiriya, a wonderful monastery complex built around and into a large rock standing huge and square, high above the surrounding landscape. It's the most visited site, and involves a steep ascent of stairs, with a passing view of some surviving frescoes, before emerging onto the flat top with great views all around. We watch the sun set and then descend old iron staircases in the twilight, trying to avoid getting lost in the gardens below. We eat rice and curry in a basic little cafe and catch the news on the television. There's an extended report by a journalist flown into Kilinochchi - the LTTE (Tamil Tigers') administrative centre just taken by the army. There's footage of a senior officer arriving to shake hands with lots of soldiers and salute the flag being raised over what looks like a deserted town. Stirring music is played to archive shots of soldiers firing mortar rounds and shooting into trees, of helicopter gunships firing rockets, of battle-weary bearded troops swaggering down roads armed to the teeth. This is followed by interviews with a couple of soldiers describing the fighting. We obviously don't understand a word of it, but there seems to be no description of the effects of the fighting on the populace - where are they? We do know that there is no independent reporting of the fighting - the government has enforced tight censorship, and there is a history of journalists 'disappearing'. A few locals have appeared to watch the news - this looks like a major development. We read later that a general is quoted as saying that there can be no military solution to this dispute, that a political solution is required. It looks like a brutal way to go about it and there are fears that the LTTE will revert to suicide bombings and other guerilla tactics. All gloomy stuff for the New Year.........

We head back to Kandy one more time to collect our Indian visas - without a hitch. The town is decked out in flags and we're told we've missed a parade to the Temple of the Holy Tooth Relic to celebrate the latest army victory. We ask a man about it and he shrugs "The government asked that every building flies the flag today. The police and government workers came along at 8.30 with flags." He sounds like he's not that impressed. "The war will not end it. We need them involved in our government, like the Tigers in the East. Everyone here is tired of fighting and killing." He does sound tired of it.