A Travellerspoint blog

India: Varanasi update

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I'm not sure if it was operator error or technical problems but some of the text I put in to the previous posting on Varanasi didn't publish properly. I have amended it and it should be OK. You may find that some of the material is new since you read the last blog.

Posted by JohnandJac 22:35 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India: Varanasi

The heart of Hindu India

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John:.....I don't know if it was cow, buffalo, dog, monkey, goat, mystic or standard issue human; it was hard to see in the early morning light but I suspect it was cow because my left foot felt blessed and I'm sure that I could see a slight glow coming from my Adidas shoe. Defecation is an issue here in Varanasi as it is elsewhere in India. Passing by a village on the train it is not unusual to see a line of (always) men squatting for their early morning poo on the rubbish tip. Varanasi is India, but India magnified, mystified and absolutely full on. It is to followers of the Hindu faith what Mecca is for Muslims. Situated on the River Ganges (or Ganga as she is known locally) Varanasi is the centre of Hinduism. The introduction to Varanasi in The Lonely Planet Guide to India is an indication of what to expect:

'Brace yourself. You're about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.'

We arrived in Varanasi on the night train from New Delhi. We were woken early by a Libyan man on the top bunk with his cell phone set at maximum volume. His early morning conversation consisted of 10 'ellos' in a row before another word was used. We have noticed a similar trend amongst Indian fellow travellers. Conversations are conducted loudly and I suspect there is no direct Hindi translation for 'I say old chap could you keep it down a little' (also no Hindi translation, I suspect for 'I am in the middle of serving this gentleman, please wait in line', and 'no thankyou, I already have some postcards and your copy of the Karma Sutra does not interest me' and 'look, signal, maneuver').

The station, like every other Indian railway station at any time of the day or night, looked like something very, very bad had just happened. Many people laying on the platform as porters jumped on to the tracks with huge parcels, marked fragile, before tossing them carelessly on to the next platform. Footbridge ignored as people jumped down onto the tracks and climbed up the next platform towards the exit. Scaborous dogs scrounging what they could along the tracks, and the heat. At 09:30, 2 hours late arriving, the temperature was already in the low 40s. The signs 'please do not use the toilet whilst the train is at a station' had obviously been removed from every train. The seething mass of humanity had to exit the station through an impossibly small door and it became clear how easily 3 people had died at New Delhi station, only a couple of days before, because of a late platform change and the resulting stampede. Fortunately our driver, Anand, was on the platform waiting for us.

We fought our way out of the station to Anand's air conditioned Toyota van. The traffic in Varanasi was chaotic. Drivers would approach a congested roundabout and judge which way round would be quickest. Three wheeled tuk tuks jammed every inch of available space whilst pencil thin men peddled cyclo rickshaws as best they could. Through the narrow, streets of Varanasi, the crumbling dark store fronts and workshops illuminated by women wearing the brightest colours, we eventually reached our hotel The Ganges View. As the name suggests this hotel is on the city side bank of the Ganges, just by the Assi Ghat (bathing place). From our room we could see the river clearly. The hotel was excellent. Full of books, high quality art work, excellent food and no televisions. Marred only by frequent and unpredictable power cuts (out of their hands) the accommodation was excellent.

Our first evening was easy going. We strolled along the riverside walk way, past the bathing ghats taking in the fantastic, the mysterious, the colours and the smells. We met two young men, Praveen and Sunil of whom more later, and enjoyed their conversation and the gebnerosity with which they shared their knowledge of Hinduism, Varanasi, India and much more. After dinner we walked the few metres across the road leading to the River and stone baked our behinds on the flag stones that had been harbouring heat from the 47 degree daytime for just this purpose. We only intended to watch the sunset across the river....


...but ended up watching the evening Aarti ceremony, an offering of fire and smoke to the heavens at the end of each day. The sunset was spectacular and without doubt flattered the otherwise very grimey Ganga River. Our new friends joined us and many inquisitive local people came up to ask the standard first question: 'Where you from?". The answer was usually met with "aahh, Daniel Vettori, Scott Styris, Brendon etc etc." The ceremony carried on below us and the chanting, incense burning, orange robed celebrant and helpers banged gongs, rang bells and burned dry cow dung. Youngsters came up to us selling prayer candles to float down the Ganga River. We explained that as we were not Hindu our candles may not work so they solemly lit the candles for us, for a small fee, and our prayers for family and friends hopefully reached the right ears.

Our time in Varanasi was divided by the set tour arrangements that Ajiv helped us with and included going out on the Ganga River to watch the sunrise. This is an auspicious time for the faithful, local and pilgrims from far away, to bathe from the numerous ghats along the river. Here, for me is one of the many contradictions about India. This sacred river is used for bathing, taking away the burning remains of the recently deceased but also for raw sewage disposal. The men who sell milk clean their churns in the dreadful water. People wash their clothes, and selves including drinking the water for inner cleansing....


...we attended the preparations for the main Aarti ceremony in the centre of the city but it looked rather glitzy and we preferred our humble little out of tune version just along the river.

We visited temples by the handful, each more colourful and interesting than the last....Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and at each one attempts were made to uncover the mystery of each religion. We did our best but understand that the Hindu faith alone claims around 30 000 000 different Gods...we stayed attentive but probably forgot quite a lot of the detail.

A silk weaving workshop was interesting as were several fine galleries featuring Moghul paintings, regional wooden carvings, statues, fantastic looking Gods and Godesses, genuine new antiques and much more.

As interesting as the set piece visits were it was the unplanned things that may leave the longer lasting memories....eating masala dosa at the Madhur Milan Cafe, a guided tour through the winding streets of old Varanasi with Praveen and Sunil as guides, sitting on the floor in a Sitar makers workshop listening to him talk about the great sitar players of India.

The tour around the old city was particularly good. The streets too narrow for cars...too narrow for motorbikes too but they managed somehow held fabulous stories and pictures. Around a crumbling colourful corner was a temple, glossy bright with green, red, white, gold painted walls and roof and flags, red and yellow blowing in the river breeze. Workshops and tiny stores...a barber shop with a queue of men waiting patiently in the relative cool of the shade outside, chai wallahs, dhal sellers, tailors in the street with old manual Singer sewing machines, cafes, bookstores, and men with ancient typewriters typing up letters for people, all scrabbling for space. Around one corner a sacred tree, so wide now that it completely blocked the alleyway...a house would have to come down before the sacred tree was damaged. Stepping through dark alleyways, past the beggars, the street children, touts and hustlers the Ganga River revealed in its pre monsoon state, low and slow but disguised as silver in the mid day sun, the centre of Hindu India.

My guides, Sunnil and Praveen, were excellent. I had asked them if they would act as guide and interpreter on a tour of the tight little alleyways of the old city. Both self taught in English and, against all the odds, put themselves through school and college through this kind of activity, they were both devout Hindus and thoroughly modern young men. Inevitably streetwise, they knew the places to visit, the old warehouse where straw bodies of the elephant god Ganesh were being prepared for a forthcoming festival. Where the little sweet making shop was and the men making ghee and lassi. The guides worked out really well; no hustling, no scams but heaps of the kind of insights not contained in the Lonely Planet. I promised I would list their email address for anybody reading this blog who is planning to visit Varanasi:

Contact person Praveen Pathak: deviramvaranasi@yahoo.com

Cows are everywhere. If I was a buffalo (also many of them) I would be pretty fed up that, genetically so similar, our lives are so different. Cows are reveared, indulged, unharmed and milked occasionally to provide for religious ceremonies. Buffalo on the other hand pull ploughs, provide milk for everyday use and provide meat (but only after a hard life). Cows roam the streets of urban as well as rural India and in Varanasi's tiny, congested, smelly, colourful streets their presence is magnified. Cows seemingly have the right of way on roads and footpaths and appear from the strangest places. Jackie and I saw one coming out of the front door of a medical centre in Kajuraho this week.

Bizarre sights included a monkey on the second floor of a house, the windows of which were carefully barred against such intruders. The monkey put its arm in through the bars, extracted a golden colour sari a raced off across the rooftops waving it in triumph.

I had a maths lesson Varanasi style....stopping at a little storefront selling hardware I asked:

"How much is this chain please?"

"18 rupees"

"...and these nail clippers?"

"30 rupees"

I handed over a 50 rupee note only for the old chap to say

"no sir, 110 rupees"

I did the sum for him on an envelope 18 + 30 = 48

"no sir 110 rupees"

It was hot, I wanted the chain for the train journey that night and, as has often been the case I reminded myself that we were talking about a total of 4 dollars NZ. I handed over a 100 and a 20 rupee note.

"Sorry sir, no change" MMmm.

Four days in Varanasi was an education on many fronts and feeling rather like two people whose heads are full to bursting we set about preparing to leave. Our last evening showed how quickly peace turns to savage anger on the sub continent. We were watching the Aarti ceremony for the last time as a rapid movement of people to the water's edge caught our attention. Jackie saw a man being severely beaten and kicked by a mob of angry men. Soon the mob arrived, egging it all on while the service carried on a few yards away. After a few moments fights broke out in the 'congregation' with one of the men setting about another with a large stick...we exited smartly back to our hotel and heard later that the man who was beaten had been accused of theft....but they beat the wrong man. We don't know if he survived.

I should close this blog with a picture of a man who represents so many of the men we saw in Varanasi...devout holy men, mystics, misfits, disturbed, enlightened, shaggy....ageless and harmless. I would love to hear their stories.


We have seen and done so much since Varanasi...seen tigers at Bhandhavgar, visited temples at Khajuraho and Orccha and now preparing to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. As always lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 05:27 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India: Amritsar, Dharamsala, Palampur and Delhi

Sikhism to Buddhism to tea and chaos

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John:....Our drive was from Amritsar in The Punjab across the state boundary and in to Himachal Pradesh finishing up in Mcleod Ganj. The drive was long, enjoyable and largely uneventful. We were all grateful to be out of the 45 degree heat in the air conditioned comfort of the Toyota. We left the city behind and became part of another India, the India we had seen from the train but that seemed more real from the car. The India that is the rural, dusty plains of the Punjab with its house sized, house shaped piles and piles of recently harvested wheat, Mahindra tractors, donkey pulled carts, small, choked townships with their colourful fruit and vegetables on display amongst crumbling buildings and yet more dust.

Sikhs on scooters, their heads 'protected' from crash damage by the tightly wrapped turbans wove their way through the traffic. Our driver, Raman, drove us steadily, introducing us to a yet unexplored facet of Indian music, the Bollywood soundtrack. Popular music here is so inextricably linked to Indian movies that it is hard to work out which is a vehicle for the other. So popular are they that popular songs from the movies were played at the vigorous border closing ceremony near Amritsar (see previous blog). Raman attempted to replicate the volume of the border ceremony in the van and there began a subtle battle between those who wanted just a little less volume and Raman.

We crossed the border from the Punjab into the state of Himachel Pradesh after paying a series of tolls/taxes for the car, and began climbing up into the foothills of the outer Himalayas. Bit by bit the scenery changed from the flat plains of Punjab to hilly, pine forested country. House designs changed, and the dusty atmosphere was perfumed with pine and eucalyptus. After a long drive, requiring lots of concentration and defensive driving methods, Raman delivered us safely to our hotel, Pema Thang, in the town of McLeod Ganj, and extension of Dharamshala.

This bustling, congested little town was once the kind of place that the country's rulers in Delhi would flee to in order to escape from the blistering heat of the capital city. That pretty well fitted our purpose as well. The temperature here at 1200 feet was nearly 10 degrees cooler than Delhi which still made it up in the low 30s but with a little mountain breeze it felt fresher.

McLeod Ganj/ Dharamshala is probably best known as the seat of the Dalai Lama and the Government of Tibet in Exile. Our excellent little hotel was perched on the hill top just above the Dalai Lama's residence and the temple complex attached to it. From our balcony ('please keep windows and doors closed to keep monkies out') we looked, through the lines of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, down on the complex. We could clearly see the lines of pilgrims, visitors and, in their maroon robes, monks passing by the large brass prayer wheels on their way towards the temple itself. Beyond that the Karanga valley.


We had several days in this delightful place. Our hotel, sparcely furnished, very comfortable and spotlessly clean was run by Tibetan people. The food in their restaurant was Tibetan influenced...in fact there was so much Tibetan influence in the town it was easy to forget we were in India. India, to its credit and in amongst all the other challenges it faced at the time, accomodated the Tibetans in 1951 after the Chinese 'liberated' the people of Tibet from its 'tyranical rule' and replaced it with the well known brand of liberal free thinking that I associate China with. This 'liberation' has cost somewhere in the region of 1 000 000 Tibetan lives. Rumours abound in the Tibetan and Indian communities about the presence of spies from China keeping tabs on the Tibetan Government and the Dalai Lama. I'm sure that the Chinese account differs considerably but the Tibetan version sounds bitterly sad. The most optimistic place we found in McLeod Ganj was the Tibetan Childrens' Village and School.

Founded soon after the Chinese invasion this thriving school is a delight. We visited with a gift of fresh fruit and some other bits and pieces to discover this place bursting with energy. Many of the children here are orphans of Tibetans or the children of Tibetans that have smuggled them across the border. The Head teacher is, himself, an ex student of the school who went on to train as a teacher and then returned to serve his people...the same for the school doctor. The classrooms were buzzing with chat and singing, the children very smart in their school uniform and whilst I watched the games lesson in the playground Jackie chatted with the librarian in the well stocked school library. I don't want to over romanticise the place but it seemed to have so much going for it...the children seemed to be very positive about their school and their culture, the school grounds were well maintained and tidy, no shouting and an air of positivity was almost tangible. Unsupervised children would walk up to us and welcome us to their school, interested in where we were from. The school receives support from many offers of help from overseas and from within India.

The rest of the town was fascinating too. We watched a very popular (in India) movie called 'My Name is Khan' in a basement cinema seating 15 people. Whilst following a similar theme, it made Rainman look like King Lear and Dustin Hoffman look like Sir Laurence Olivier. The soundtrack was great thumping stuff which Raman had previewed, at volume, on the drive from Amritsar. We enjoyed the experience, the totally implausible plot lines and the happy ending but felt that at just over 3 hours it was a little long. If I described the story line to you.....

Like many towns in India, McLeod Ganj was as colourful and congested as a town can be.


Cars trying to move through streets where cars have no real right to be and motorbikes honk honk honk all the time. The town is populated by local people going about their daily business as well as genuine seekers after truth, hippies, tourists, cows, charlatans, monks, builders and purveyors of all manner of quackery: A million ways to learn about Yoga, counselling ranging from the pastoral to the downright confrontational, a hairdresser that proudly proclaimed the use of moonpower and much much more. 'Antique' prayer wheels could be purchased as could prayer flags, texts of inspiring materials, flutes, drums, robes, bells, statues of the Buddha of varying sizes and signed pictures of the Dalai Lama (currently visting the USA)...as I said before, a different country.


From McLeod Ganj we drove across to Palampur, only 30 kilometres away. Before we left the Tibetans completely we stopped at The Norbalingka Institute to watch master craftsmen and their apprentices producing authentic, traditional Tibetan arts and crafts. This was the real thing; one Thangka painting can take 7 months to produce and is subject to the most extraordinary levels of scrutiny before iot is allowed to be sold or to be placed in a temple. The gardens and grounds of the Institute are beautifully designed and peaceful. We could have stayed longer but needed to finish our journey.

Our accomodation was at 'Country Cottage', on a tea plantation. Our host, Naveen Sarin was in his early 70s and was a fascinating conversationalist and considerate host. Planted with China Hybrid tea the first cup of tea we had was delicious...they kept getting better. We had only been there for 5 minutes before we decided to stay in Palampur longer and not continue our trip to Shimla. Subsequently we heard that Shimla was crowded and noisy so we were pleased to have stayed put. For two nights we stayed at Country Cottage and from there moved to Naveen's brother's house just up the road. The food at both places was very good; at Parvi and Reeta's place it was outstanding. We stuck with the vegetarian options throughout and very tasty they were too.

The view from their garden was of mountains; big snow covered mountains, a timely reminder of the powerful views that await us on our return to South Westland. The garden was intermittently full of parrots, doves, fantails and all sorts of other birdlife. Parvi and Reeta were generous with their time and tales of India, Hinduism and Tea. Parvi, now almost 70 had entered the tea trade as a shiny 19 year old on the plantations in Assam. His passion is still tea and to him this was more than just a leaf to make a beverage; this was a career, a discipline and a link to international friends and colleagues.

I mentioned that I had heard some very moving Sufi music in Delhi and without further ado we sat in his car (nothing else was working due to the frequent power cuts) listening to Sufi music as Parvi translated the lyrics for me. Around us crashed a mountainous electric storm, all pink, blue and yellow lightning and the kind of thunder that rolls and rumbles around looking for a way out. Parvi's generosity knew no bounds. He took us with him and Reeta up the switchback steep mountain road to their temple late one afternoon. The more we protested the more insistent he became.

The tea plantation, a haven of peace and tranquility most of the time was just above the Cantt of The First Battalion (Infantry) of the Indian Army. A huge complex, in itself a small town, our reveries were occasionally punctuated by the sound of the firing range. A reminder, this, of the troubled borders of India to the west and the north of here.

The journey back to Delhi was painless, car to Chandaghar railway station and the 4 hour train journey back to Delhi. New Delhi train station at 23:00 is a fascinating place. Looking around for which way the war went after it left here we found ourself a taxi which took a good thirty minutes to get out of the car park. During that time wen passed the numerous auto rickshaws queueing hopelessly for fares. Men passed out with heroin underneath advertising hoardings. One man, less stoned than the unconscious people around him, was checking the quality of clothing being worn by those around him. The grime of old Delhi, just across the road, was chipping away at the border with New Delhi. Out of nowhere a woman, dressed in shimmering blue sari with several small children serenely drifted through the dirt and the chaos, above the misery and scrapping for life going on all around, oblivious to the man who lit up his reefer, took a big hit and was too stoned to blow out his match.

The sign boasted 'NO TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS WILL BE TOLERATED' we slowly made our way through all the traffic violators, past the sign saying 'THIS IS A NO SMOKING AREA' just above the last of the stoned smokers. The powerless policeman blew his whistle from time to time but even at midnight it was beyond hot and his heart wasn't really in it. All a very long way from the Dalai Lama and the Tea Plantations.

We are now in Varanasi. The oldest continually inhabited city in the world and probably the most 'foreign place' I have ever been to. There is so much to say about Varanasi that will have to wait until the next posting. Suffice to say that it is full of colour, people of all kinds, herds of cows and water buffalo roaming the streets, monkies on power poles, goats and above all else it lies on the banks of Mother Ganges, or Ganga as it is known in India. As implausible as the plot for My Name is Khan we are leaving on the night train to Katni before driving to the National Park and tiger reserve at Bandhavgarh.

Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 03:43 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India: Delhi and Amritsar

Mother Goose to The Golden Temple

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John:....The last time Jackie and I saw the Pakistan-India border was from 33 000 feet looking down at the brightly lit line cutting its way through the dead of night; black and floodlight white the only colours. The only noise was the whine of the jet engines, the temperature carefully controlled and everything the model of order. How different from our next visit to the border.

We arrived in Amritsar on the Delhi-Amritsar Express Train two hours later than scheduled. The delay was due to a bomb scare on the express causing the train to be stopped and searched. To avoid any major inconvenience we were loosely assembled only 5 metres or so from this potentially explosive device and the train was stopped at a station right in the middle of a small but densely populated township just outside Delhi.

Armed police (there is a large number of arms on the streets here and the security police on each train are armed with light machine guns) with the aid of a sniffer dog searched the train. The sniffer dog was a very fat black labrador. Amanda thought he might well be able to find a lamb chop OK but a bomb....? A little while after we disembarked local traders came across the tracks selling chai, water and snacks. We chatted to a Bacardi salesman who had just moved into the north-east of India as other trains passed us, their passengers hanging out from carraige doorways...some of the passengers from our train, frustrated at the wait, climbed aboard the other train as it rumbled past us. As suddenly as the train stopped we were told to get back on and service continued as if nothing had happened.

Our car driver from Amritsar, Raman, collected us and after a brief luggage drop at the hotel whisked us away to the nightly border ceremony at Wagha, 40 minutes from Amritsar. What we saw was a piece of pure theatre, conducted by the Border Defense Force of the Indian Army, dressed up in military costumes and with the remains of ceremony and pomp from pre-independence days. We were directed to our seats in the visitors area, right at the front of all the action. To our right, an arena, divided down the middle into male and female seats. Accomodating several thousand people, the arena was packed full. We sat next to the women's section, ablaze with colours from the most spectacular saris. Between the men's and women's sections and directly in front of us was the road leading from Pakistan into India, leading out towards Amritsar through a large concrete archway surmounted by the distinctive orange, white and green of the Indian Flag. In the other direction Lahor, through the gate and under the green and white Pakistan flag...only a short distance but a whole ideology away. On the road in front of us, people were dancing as if it was club night. Bollywood hits were pumped out at high volume as the women and girls (no men) danced furiously. JAI HO, the big hit from the film Slumdog Millionaire was played as were other Indian favourites.


Keeping order were soldiers from the Indian Army Border Security Force. Despite the flamboyance of their ceremonial dress these were serious looking soldiers, clearly enjoying the occasion but also looking like the kind of people not to be messed with.

In between songs an Master of Ceremonies urged the already fervent crowd on with chants of (M/C) HINDUSTAN (CROWD) ZINABAR (long live India), directing the crowd to shout their response to the Pakistan gate. On the other side of the gate the same thing is happening (although I'm not sure about the dancing bit). We could just see the Pakistan crowd, less colourful but equally vociferous, shouting back in response to their M/C. Soon the music stopped and the Indian soldiers, resplendent in their khaki uniforms, brilliant white gaiters and braiding and, most spectacular, their headgear consisting of a turban (Sikh soldiers) or hat crowned with a fan like structure in red and gold rising up out of the hat. The result being that already tall men seemed even taller. There was a great deal of peacockery, preening, posing, stamping, strutting and shouting going on. Ceremonial marching involving high kicks, very fast marching and extraordinary and prolonged military barking followed on from the Indian senior officer and the Pakistan senior officer marching to the border point, briefly shaking hands (blink and you would have missed it). The chanting continued, flag waving....the nearest thing to this I have seen that was as primal was at Cardiff Arms Park many years ago. For just a few minutes we were all Indians!

The whole ceremony lasted about 45 minutes and with the appropriate respect due, both flags were lowered together as the sun set over Pakistan.... and it was all over. Despite the shaky relationship between India and Pakistan, this type of spectacle could only happen with close collaboration between the two of them. Part sporting event, part solemn ceremony, part noisy theatrical spectacle.

We pushed our way back through the still-jubilant crowd to find Raman and our car before and, from the cor blimey to the sublime, we made our way through the late evening to the holiest of places in the Sikh faith, The Golden Temple at Amritsar. We walked the short distance through the busy streets of night time Amritsar, past the postcard and DVD sellers, past the food stalls and beggers, the rickshaw hustlers and taxi touts, towards the temple complex. Removing shoes and washing feet before entering, past the tall, turbaned guard with ceremonial pike who asked if we had cigarettes (strictly forbidden) in our bags, we walked up the short flight of steps and suddenly, as if from from nowhere, the temple appeared, glittering and gleaming in the lights, seemingly floating on the surrounding rectangular lake of sacred water. All around us Sikh pilgrims, the men bearded and turbaned, the women in flowing silks, children, some only days old, accompanying their parents.


Around the lake is a white marble colonaide, inlaid with darker stone and on which the faithful, and visitors, walk in a clockwise direction. As we walked people around us bathed in the waters or knelt and bowed towards the temple. Old men sat in small glass fronted rooms reading from the holy books and the sacred chanting and music from the temple was broadcast around the colonaide. We made our way to the dining area.

Amritsar is a place of pilgrimage as well as a place for local Sikh worship. As such the temple offers food for all visitors irrespective of their faith. Around 70 000 meals per day are served and food is provided 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. A total of approximately 25 500 000 meals per year. In order to meet this demand the methods of serving are rudementary. As you make your way towards the dining area a volunteer hands you an indented steel tray...further along and a spoon is provided. The dining area is a large room, perhaps 20 metres by 15 metres with, running along its length, strips of fibre carpet. Diners sit in lines, facing each other and cross legged, with the carpet in the middle. The visitor places the tray on the floor in front of them (those experienced in this place the tray a little distance from themselves) and volunteers with gleaming buckets and ladles splash a serving of dhal on to the tray and some water into a steel bowl. Another volunteer drops some chappatis into your outstretched hand.

We sat next to a young Sikh man and his father, both from Amritsar. The younger man welcomed us to his temple, emphasised that all were welcome and asked a little about us. Having used up his English and my non-existant Hindi we were content just to sit and eat, enjoying the devotional music and the unique experience of thios beautiful place. The logistics of the whole catering side of the temple are staggering. Volunteers wash up in a busy, clattering way whilst others sit on the floor in groups chatting away as they prepare vegetables, herbs and spices to add to the dhal.


Somehow the noise of the catering arrangements didn't intrude into the atmosphere of quiet contemplation in the rest of the temple complex.

Rather like our visit to Machu Piccu earlier in the trip I was worried that The Golden Temple would be unable to live up to its reputation. Like Machu Piccu it exceeded my expectations by a huge margin and is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. We revisited the next morning. In the daylight it looked very different; equally beautiful but different.


We visited several other places in the bustling, crowded city of Amritsar. Of note was the garden shrine, bought and developed by the Sikh community, to commemorate those killed and injured in 1919 following protests about the Rowlett Act. Casualties estimated at 1500 followed the British army opening fire on protesters with in excess of 400 deaths. The shrine is an oasis of peace and tranquility. Just through the doorway is the heaving, noisy, steaming market stall laden main street and, like stepping through into a parallel universe, this shrine is a world away.

Every bus ride and stroll in the park India has the potential to be a blog posting in its own right. I am trying hard to edit events down so the blogs don't get too long but it is harder to do here than anywhere else we have visited. I'll end this blog here, slightly frustrated at how difficult it is to convey the experience of being in India.

The next posting, probably tomorrow, will relate some of the sights, sites and sounds from the next part of the excursion; to McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan Government in Exile and seat of the Dalai Lama. In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 03:45 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India: Delhi plus remaining itinerary for India

Mountains, deserts, cities, wilderness, terrorists and toilets

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John:....New Delhi is a really colourful place. Even in the devastation of the building sites women labour in the heat and dirt wearing the most stunning collection of colours in their sahris. These women are just a small sample, not from a building site but at The India Gate in the heart of New Delhi, out taking the air on Sunday afternoon:


Matt and I visited the National Railway Museum in New Delhi. As with much of Delhi, the amount of WORK IN PROGRESS is considerable. Translated here to RESTORATION IN PROGRESS, many of the RESTORATION IN PROGRESS signs are so degraded through age that they themselves need restoration. We enjoyed the experience however and at only 10 (30 cents) rupees to get in it was a real bargain...better still to charge a realistic foreigners' rate and plough the money into the museum. The facinating story that is the Indian Railway Service is partly told here. Trains, royal carraiges, different track gauges , signals, films, uniforms and tales of pioneering work are all here. We will see plenty more as we use the service to travel around northern India (see below).

All of the exhibits were painted up beautifully. Unfortunately the rust beneath the new paint hadn't been treated so the decay carried on below the surface; perhaps an allegory for India herself...hard to know. Certainly this reveals one of the recognisable, to the foreign visitor, facets of Indian life; namely that the painter paints and the metal worker fixes the rust. The clerk carries out clerical duties; ask him for a glass of water and that task is somebody elses. This way everybody has a job and the strict hierarchy of jobs, and therefore position in society, is very closely observed.

By far the most entertaining exhibit at the Railway Museum was the letter, posted in 1909, from an irrate traveller to the railway authorities. It made me laugh when I read it, I laughed even more when Matt read it out so I could copy it down (to the letter this is a faithful copy):

Dear Sir

I arrive by passenger train Ahmedur Station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefor went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard made whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lotah [water pot] in one hand and dhoti [a piece of unstitched cloth wrapped around the waist and the legs, and knotted at the waist] in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female woman on the platform. I am got leaved at Ahmedpur Station.

This too much bad. If passenger go to make dung that dam guard not wait minutes for him. I am therefor pray your honour make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to papers.

Yours faithfully servent

Okhil Ch. Sen.

The letter conveys a sense of outrage that would have been lost in more 'conventional' English and was instrumental in getting toilets put on trains in India.

Our stay in Delhi has been punctuated by reports of trouble brewing. The excellent 'Travel Safe' service from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, informed by the New Zealand High Comission in Delhi, provides us with timely, specific and helpful advice by email as soon as they hear of such warnings. The most recent of these as follows:

'Specific and credible information indicates that terrorist attacks in Delhi, especially in markets, may be imminent. All New Zealanders should avoid markets in Delhi. You should be very vigilant, be aware of your surroundings, and monitor local news reports'.

To this end we have avoided the markets and taken the opportunity to enjoy other aspects of this extraordinary city.

I mentioned the excellent and well maintained Crafts Market in the last posting. Murals are everywhere and the place is is a joy to visit


Part of the enjoyment here has been in reading the newspapers. On Sundays the Express carries a 'Matrimonial Supplement' in which families advertise for partners for their son/daughter. By reading this supplement you will understand that everybody is handsome/beautiful as well as cultured and tall. Superstition and pragmatism also feature (note request for horoscope details in 2nd clip). As you can see from the two examples below the caste system is far from over. Sadly, a 22 year old New Delhi journalist was murdered last week in what the police believe to be an 'honour killing' (ridiculous name) by her mother because she wished to marry a boy from a lower caste than herself.

'An affluent and cultured Punjabi family seeks alliance for handsome son 30 years old 5 feet 6 inches working in San Francisco, educated from St Stephens, Delhi, The Ohio State and Stanford Universities. Girl should be very beautiful, cultured and professionally qualified'


'Parents seek match from a cultured Brahmin family for their tall, beautiful daughter 26 years old 5 feet 7 inches. Post Graduate engineer, permanent visa and engineer in top MNC of North America. Father senior officer. Send photo and birth details for horoscope...'

I mentioned our visit to the National Museum in the last posting. Rather like the National Railway Museum it seems to have once been grand, with grand aspirations but now seems to be rather tired and shabby. Perhaps representing the ambivalence that many Indians feel about their history. The collection, especially the exquisitely detailed miniature paintings, are wonderful but the neglect of the building left me feeling a little sad by the end of it...paint marks on 800 year old statues because nobody thought to cover the carving before the painter started to paint the plinth, that kind of thing.

Having said that there are some lovely exhibits including a room dedicated to the Indian Navy. In there, a model of the INS Delhi, once HMS Achilles and then HMNZS Achilles seeing action at the River Plate before being sold to the Indian Navy and recommisioned one year later after Indian independence. Like the rest of the museum it feels like it needs a 'champion' but in the heat and chaos of Delhi maybe that is a tall ask.

We have found a great driver here in Delhi. Real name Bhupinder Singh but prefers to be called 'Happy'. He walks just on the right side of the line dividing aggresive driving from assertive driving. He rarely uses the horn in his taxi, unusual in this city, but always seems to get through what ever jam there is on the road. Wearing his navy blue turban he looks quite regal in his taxi whilst being extremely helpful and responsive to our sometimes confusing instructions. He is from Amritsar, our next destination, and his family including his wife, are there. He has been driving in Delhi for 10 years and, unlike many of the auto rickshaw drivers, knows his way around the city really well. Happy takes delivery of a new air conditioned taxi in one week. He is excited about this. More on Happy as our stay progresses.

From what we have done to what we have planned to do. We have four excursions planned, using New Delhi as a 'hub' to travel out from and return to between trips.

Trip 1 - 10 days

We will leave New Delhi on Friday morning, taking the 6 hour train journey up through the Punjab, with our friends Amanda and Matt. Our first destination is Amritsar, up in the north west of India and home to the magnificent Sikh Golden Temples. From there we will travel up into the foothills of the Himalays to the town of Dharamsala, perhaps most famous for being the current home of the Dalai Lama. After a few days there we will be parting company with Amanda and Matt and making our way across to the town of Simla/Shimla. The latter was the place that the entire pre independence Government fled to in the sledgehammer heat of April/May in New Delhi. We are no different! From there back to New Delhi for nearly a week before our next excursion.

Trip 2 - 14 days

From New Delhi we will be taking the overnight train to the city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges. Sacred to the Hindu religion, this place is described as 'one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth'. It sounds irresistable. We will be there for 4 days before taking the overnight train south to Katni and then on to the tiger reserve at Banhavgarh for a couple of days. From there we will travel across country to Khajuraho and Orccha, famous for their temple carvings. Our return to Delhi is via Agra and the Taj Mahal and Agra fort.

Trip 3 - 15 days

This trip takes us out right across Rajasthan, through the Thar Desert to the frontier city of Jaisalmer. We begin by going southwest to Jaipur and then up into the desert from Mandawa and Bikaner to Jaisalmer. Our return to Delhi is through the ancient cities of Jodhpur and Udaipur

Trip 4 - 7 days

..and so back home to Franz Josef. We leave Delhi and take the two hour flight to Mumbai. Driving out of the city the following day we will be staying in Aurangabad for 3 nights to take in the cave temples at Ellora and Ajanta. Back to Mumbai for a couple of days before catching the QANTAS flight to Singapore, Sydney and Christchurch.

Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 05:32 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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