On Jan. 6 my flight left Tucson, arriving in Delhi Jan. 8 at 1:30 am. Without much thought, I had booked my first 4 nights hotel for the 8th through the 12th, missing the fact I was arriving at the hotel in the wee hours of the morning on what for the hotel was the night of the 7th. They found me a small room in the hotel next door which served for my first few hours rest.
The airport arrival was somewhat memorable; this time of year all of north India is shrouded in heavy fog at night and sometimes all morning. The newspaper the next morning stated that over 50 flights had been unable to land that night. On my British Air flight, half an hour before landing, the pilot announced to all passengers that all electronic devices of any type must be turned off, as we would be making a long approach, landing entirely by instruments, as visibility due to fog was effectively zero – he quickly added that we were not to worry. That final admonition was not followed by most of us.
For those of you reading this who do not know or remember, India is where I grew up, from ages 3 to 17. My parents lived in Maharashtra State (the old Bombay State) in central India, and I spent 9 months of most years 1,000 miles south in a boarding school in south India. I last visited India in 1982, so 33 years have intervened. I will spend close to 3 months on this visit, almost all pre-arranged. The second 6 weeks of the trip I will be joined by my old boarding school room mate and best friend from long ago years, together with his wife (Ken and Anna) – and the last week we will travel to the town of our old boarding school where we will meet up with 7 more old class mates. In the interval, I will travel much of northern India and Nepal, meeting my friends in late February in Assam.
Delhi was cold and foggy pretty much the whole four days, with some moderate clearing in the afternoons. My first full day I spent hours in the wonderful National Museum, which is not much visited by tourists. This is the repository of many of the great works of the Harappan Civilization (also known as the Indus Valley or Mohenjo-Daro civilization) – considered one of the 3 earliest civilizations of humanity – most of the ceramics and bronzes date from the 28th – 21st centuries BC, though the ruins and civilization date back much further. What really surprised me was to find 3 of the most interesting bronzes (see picture of rhinoceros) to be from a site in Maharashtra, the state I grew up in – I certainly had not realized the Harappan civilization in the 21st century BC extended into central India. The museum also contained a room of artifacts of the great Mauryan Dynasty of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, which greatest ruler was King Ashoka, who turned to Buddhism and probably ensured the lasting reach of that great belief system. The remaining rooms contained wonderful stone carvings of gods and religious themes from the Shunga Dynasty of the 2nd C BC through the last 2,200 years. I have included a handful of photos to give a sense of the artifacts. A long walk through this museum, as with the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, conveys better than most other archaeology museums on earth the great antiquity of mankind’s settlements.
My third day I, unfortunately, got a good case of food poisoning, apparently from the little tandoori restaurant nearby which displayed its roasted fowl hanging unrefrigerated in the window, and spent the day unpleasantly in bed. This gave me just one day to try a number of the major tourist sites, all of which I last visited 33 years ago. With the perpetual foggy weather, great photos were not generally in the cards. I hired a private car and driver, and visited just 4 sites. First was the Red Fort and nearby Jama Masjid Mosque, both built by Shaw Jahan – who also built the Taj Majal and Agra Fort. We then traveled to south Delhi to the famous Qutb Complex, the first of the 7 cities of Delhi, built in the 11th century; its MInar Pillar rises over 230 feet and is covered with Koranic verses – an early wonder of India. I read that a later historian lamented it presents a hint to the modern eye more of a factory chimney, something that smoke should be emerging from – I think this is unnecessarily unkind. Finally I visited Humayun’s Tomb, a Mughal predecessor to Jahan’s Taj – the overall form of Mughal garden tombs is well represented here.
On Monday I flew to Varanasi. This is where my agency-pre-booked trip commenced, and it was a most unfortunate start. Without going into many details, suffice it to say the hotel was not just unsatisfactory but completely unacceptable in every way, including cleanliness, bed covers, hot water, food service, staffing and access. Being festival time prevented my private car for two days from getting closer than 1 km from the hotel, and as I had limited time, changing hotels would have prevented sight-seeing. This unfortunate situation cast quite a pall over my stay and left me fairly depressed.
I did a sunrise boat on the Ganges River, visiting all the ghats from south to north. Varanasi (aka Benares) is the holiest city of the Hindus, with its ghats (wide stone stairways descending from the banks into the river and lined with temples) filled in the morning hours with sadhus (holy men) and all manner of bathing and worshiping men and women, along with cows, goats and, of course, tourists. The city is perhaps the most ancient living city on earth, with passageways and sections said to date back 4,000 years. The heavy fog prevented any kind of sunrise photography. I did get some decent photos of the colorful people doing there morning ablutions from the ghats. The river water is not just dirty from the multitudes of pilgrims and residents who daily bathe in the holy water, and from the endless and countless remains of the dead being scattered into the river after cremation on the holy banks, but also apparently from a number of factories upstream which permit heavy metals to pollute the waters. Still, I understand that most Hindus believe it is purified and safe for bathing and even consumption due to its holiness. On the southern and northern ghats are crematoriums, the famous “burning ghats”, where countless Hindu dead are cremated in the open upon the banks of the river, the remains to be scattered into the river, believed by the devout to end the cycle of necessary reincarnations. Indeed, thousand of men and women travel to Varanasi in their old age, to live out their final years alone perhaps begging in temples along the ghats, so that they may die and be cremated in this holy place.
The second day we drove north of Varanasi to Sarnath, the site where Buddha gave his first discourse upon becoming fully enlightened. The archaeological ruins date from the 3rd century BC, when the Mauryan King Ashoka built the Ashoka Pillar here, with the famous 4 headed lion, now the symbol of India. The site is headquarters for an amalgamation of three great religious traditions, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, and the construction of monasteries and temples reflecting all three belief systems continued here for 1,800 years. It still is a holy site for all three religions, and draws pilgrims from all over the world. The head of the Ashoka Pillar, which stands in the site’s museum, is alone worth the visit – unfortunately no photographs are allowed in the museum – I don’t understand why, as the National and other museums permit photos, and indeed do quite well financially by charging double the foreigner entrance charges for a permit to use a camera. An interesting aside – I do not think I previously appreciated the fact that the Buddha, upon seeking and ultimately achieving enlightenment, realized the all important principal which requires releasing all attachments to worldly goods and all forms of emotional and other ties and commitments, for it is from these attachments that all fear and desire arises, which prevents enlightenment; therefore, as his first step to enlightenment, the Gautama Buddha fully and permanently abandoned his young wife and newborn infant child.
From Varanasi, on Thursday, my driver and I did the very long journey to Khajuraho; the highways in India always are very slow, but on this route, practically the entire road system is undergoing years of renovation. We drove straight for 11 hours averaging barely 20 miles per hour. Khajuraho, a World Heritage Site, contains the complex of famous Hindu temples built by the Chandella Dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries. The temples are monumental and inspiring from a distance, but it is up close that the revelation emerges for their real reason for fame. The outer walls and basements are covered in fully three-dimensional panel friezes, carved into the tan colored sandstone – the intricacy is staggering. It seems every god and goddess in the Hindu pantheon is represented hundreds of times in an unbelievable array of scenes. The temples also are infamous for their stark portrayal of very explicit sexual scenes – all forms and manner of intercourse positions, oral sex, masturbation, sodomy and bestiality. The meaning of these portrayals is debated and simply not understood. My Rough Guide book, though, did provide me with some wonderful quotes displaying the British Victorian view of the temples upon discovery in the mid-19th century. The first systematic survey undertaken by Sir Alexander Cunningham concluded the sculptures to be “highly indecent and most of them disgustingly obscene.” Any wonder that todays guides trek around with their tour groups to point out each and every instance of these most indecent panels.
Yesterday we drove the short distance from Khajuraho to Orchha, a medieval ghost city of the Mughal Bundela Dynasty, with mostly 15th and 16th century palaces and buildings spread over a few kilometers within hardwood jungle along a river bank. It is somewhat eerie to walk along the abandoned pathways meeting derelict building after building standing crumbling in the countryside. The flowering shrubs attracted numbers of the tiny but brilliant Purple Sunbirds, the Asian answer to America’s hummingbirds. At the entrance I photographed a number of primates hanging around the walls. Although the Rhesus Macaques (Rhesus Monkeys) and the Grey Langurs (Hanuman Monkeys) both are common Indian residents, in the forests and around towns and temples, I never have seen them interacting together. The dominant males occasionally displayed aggression toward males of the other species, posturing for position on a favorite stone outcrop, but I never saw actual contact. The small current village of Orchha contained a traditional market square set beside the largest Chandelan temple ruins and the brightly painted modern temple. It presented wonderful opportunities for photos of street vendor transactions, and two grand wedding processions with drummers and dancers.
I have been eating nothing but Indian food, of course. Generally very good. Alcohol is sometimes a bit of a problem to procure. The large hotels tend to serve it, but for exorbitant prices. Some towns have small liquor stores where at least beer and cheap whiskey can be purchased. More than an occasional shot of the cheap whisky does not sit well with me. Orchha does not permit any alcohol sales in the town; my driver yesterday found a black-market dealer from whom I purchased 2 bottles of the mysteriously named “Vasco 50000 Super Strong Beer” – not particularly good, but preferable to the Indian whiskey, and to the Indian wine which I have not tried, as the cheapest bottle runs $15. I may try wine soon, despite the price. Generally I have found the lager Kingfisher to be an ok beer if it can be purchased.
Outside of my hotel in Delhi, I have had internet access only once, at the hotel in Khajuraho, and had to pay $4 a day for that. So although I write this report on the 18th, I am not sure when I will be able to upload it and photos to my website.
From Orchha, we travel tomorrow to Agra, where I will pick up a new driver to take me onward into Rajasthan. Later. Dave