I doubt that you can find a place in the world where people love so much to be photographed. India is for sure such a place and its people and their eagerness to stand in front of the camera make it a perfect destination for photographers. You may walk on the street and you are hailed by passerby to stop and take their picture or even if somebody carries a huge load on his back or head he would always stop if he senses that you want to take his picture. On the same token the Indians on pilgrimages that have a phone would want to take your picture or even better to have a picture with you so you will end up in a collection of photos in households around the country. I wrote extensively about this in a post about traveling in Southern India. I usually do not take portraits but I still got here a collection of them just by being asked to take them.
Category Archives: India
We published an albums with frames from the shoot in Chennai, known also by its old name of Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu. The city is the fourth largest in India and is sprawled around the extended Gulf of Bengal’s Marina Beach. Besides several interesting buildings and government offices, the city is the place where Jesus Christ’ apostle Thomas, the Doubting Thomas, was entombed. Saint Tomas Church was built on top of his tomb. Together with St Peter in Rome and Santiago de Compostella in Spain, these are the only three churches built on apostles’ tombs. For more information read our blog’s post about Chennai
We published an albums with frames from the shoot in Vellore and Tirumala.
Vellore’s fort dates from the 16th century being used by all dynasties that ruled Southern India from the Nayaks to the British.
Close by in Sripuram, is located the famous Golden temple, Mahalakshmi Temple. Founded several years ago by Sri Shakti Amma, the temple is completely covered in 1.5 tons of gold. For security purposes cameras and cellphones are completely prohibited.
Several hours away by bus, on the sacred hill Tirumala towering over the city of Tirupati is located Sri Venkateshwara temple dedicated to a manifestation of Lord Vishnu.The temple is the most visited temple in the world with an average of 50000-100000 visitors a day, the darshan lines going every regular day for 6-7 hours, with days in waiting during the festivals. For more information please read our post about Vellore’s Golden Temple, Vellore Fort and Tirumala
We published an album with frames from the shoot in the holy city of Tiruvannamalai, located at the base of the Arunachala Mountain, a place full of caves where sages and saints found the needed tranquility to meditate in seclusion. The holy mountain is mentioned in the old puranas and is the abode of Lord Shiva who manifested on its top as a column of light, a tradition that is reenacted in a yearly festival when a column of fire is lit for days in a row on top of the mountain. Because of its strong spiritual tradition Tiruvannamalai is home for many ashrams, the most famous being the one established by Sri Ramana Maharishi. For more information read our two blog posts about Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala
We posted an album with frames from the shoot in Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, the place of the famous Five Rathas, monolithic temples dating from the 7th century, rock cut in granite adorned with scenes from Mahabharata. The temples and its sculptures represent the early phase of the Dravidian architecture of Southern India. For more information please read our posts, Pondiceherry to Mamallapuram and Mamallapuram.
We published the photo album with frames from the shoot in Pondicherry; a place where the French spirit and tradition flourishes. The tree-shaded streets, the white villas, and the relaxed cafes on the ocean promenade give the traveler a change in mood. The town is home of the Sri Aurobindo’s ashram and enjoys the proximity of Auroville, a work and meditation community created by the Mother. For more info please check our blog post about Pondicherry.
We published the photo album with frames from the shoot in Trichy, a city of old traditions ruled in history by most of the dynasties that ruled Southern India. The dynasties include Pallavas, Cholas, Nayaks and various sultanates. The city has three remarkable Hindu temples: Sri Raganathaswami, possibly the largest temple in India, Jambukeshwarar Temple, and the Rockfort Temple . For more information check out our post about Trichy.
We published the photo album with frames from the shoot in Madurai and Tanjavur, cities that have two of the most interesting Dravidian Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu. Madurai’s Sree Meenakshi Temple, with its intricacies of courts, temples and gopurams embellished with zillions of painted deities spread on 10 ha is probably the most impressive temple in the entire India. Tanjavur, the fabled Tanjore, used to be the epitome of exquisiteness and refinement of the old Indian courts. For more info check our blog for the Madurai post and Tanjavur post.
We published a photo album with frames from the shoot in and around Munnar, one of the beautiful hill station in eastern Kerala. The town is situated at the confluence of three rivers and is surrounded by many lakes. It is surrounded by tall and misty peaks and sprawling tea estates whose patterns is a pleasure to admire. After I was rained out in the hill stations of Sri Lanka I was lucky of a beautiful day in Munnar and everything around the town looks spectacular in the sun. Most of the tea plantations were full of the women who were picking tea leaves and they eagerly came close for a photo op.
We published a photo album with frames from the shoot in the southern part of Kerala, this time around the town of Kochi, the historical spice trade hub of India’s Malabar Coast. The town’s charm is hardly surpassed by any other in the region and a sunrise stroll on its promenade is unforgettable. The lucrative spice commerce brought many Europeans in Kochi. The Portuguese founded the first church in India being pushed out by the Dutch who were pushed out latter by the Brits. But the ones who sustained their turf during all these times where the Malabar Jews, the oldest Jews of India, coming here as the legend says from the times of King Solomon. Their quarter and the Synagogue is still in operation in spite of the strong immigration to Israel who depleted the streets of its original inhabitants. Check our blog for more details!
We published a photo album with frames from the shoot in the southern part of Kerala, this time around the beach towns of Kovalam and Varkhala. Going North from Varkhala we boarded the public ferry in Kolam and enjoyed the backwaters of Kerala on an 8 hour ride to Allapuzha, Allepy. This ride is extremely pleasant and offers views of the famous Chinese fishing nets, fishermen and tranquil village life on small canals of these relaxed back waters. Check our blog and also here for more details.
We published the photo album with frames from the shoot in Trivandrum and Kanyakumari, in the Southern part of Kerala, Southern India. Kanyakumari, known also by Cape Comorin, is the geographical southern tip of India where three waters meet, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Bengal. The name of the city is given by the Hindu goddess Kanyakumari that is venerated in the main temple. A short ferry ride in front of the town is located an island where is a memorial to Swami Vivekananda who meditated here, and a large statue of the national poet Thiruvalluvar. Check our blog for more details.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu
Well, after 3 years India again… As I wrote in a post in 2010, India may wear you out and you may be so exhausted that you just want to get over it and go home but somehow after a while you are still thinking in coming back. The lure is there in a country where the mystique and spirituality lives together with dire poverty, dirt and refuse in an unmatched way.
I was trying to make sense of this and I think that the attraction, beside its amazing history and wealth of religious sites, national parks and palaces, resides in India’s unmatched mystical spirit that is able to survive and even excel in a society where the allover modernization process is kept at bay by an even stronger tradition. In your travels in India you encounter a raw, simple and sometimes barely livable society, like in the slums, far from the protected environment of the intellectuals, professionals and businessmen, the IT and business India. The people you encounter are mostly poor and the needs are so obvious that in time they may wear you out. India is rural and many towns evolved from large villages relatively recent and you will see a large mass of people in each and every small place you visit. The major difference between India and China is that, in spite of the same level of population, China’s travelers gravitate around large cities whose large crowds are similar in a way to the ones in the large European and American cities, the poverty of China’s countryside remaining hidden.
So what is to be said about travel in Southern India. I just have several words: travel, rest, taste, admire and smile. Makes sense? Let’s see.
Travel: ..or how to get to India or somewhere in India.
All travelers I talked to came here through the Gulf states. It’s funny how these airlines compete now. Qatar, Etihad, Emirates, etc all compete on this segments. Nobody uses Lufthansa, Air France or Delta, whose prices are higher and service of lower standards. This tells volumes where the money is…..Besides, all these airlines let you fly to one city and return from another even from a different country. So you can fly to BKK and return from Chennai all for the same low price. My choice was Qatar Airlines that had excellent layover times in Doha compared with the others. The reason that they concentrate on South Asia is because of the mass of migratory people that come from these countries to sustain the infrastructure and the workforce in the Gulf.
Inside India the train would be ideal but is hard to book. It can be done from abroad in a convoluted way but you have to go through so many hoops that I gave up. India is a very bureaucratic society, an inheritance both from tradition and maybe from the Brits, and everywhere you go there are forms to fill up and approvals to be obtained or denied. The train booking ticket system is obviously from the past century, beside the fact that the credit card would deny the transaction without prior notice.
Car+driver is the best option. Well, because would be insane for you to drive in India or as the song says, “There are so many dumb ways to die”. The price of gasoline forced the prices up 2-3 times since we first came here in 1998 at the time when the only available car was the Ambassador designed by the Brits in 1936 and built by the Indians on that design in 1996. But now the prices are competitive and, if you book from a place with many agencies, you will get very close quotes from them. They have a specific scheme of calculations, with max 200km a day included but non-accumulative and the extra km being charged individually. In the hotel rooms I found a table of prices, per car size and model, distance, number of days, extra km, etc. Also, in many towns in Kerala the ride prices to all destinations were painted on a wall at the taxi parking stand, establishing in this way an official rate of the town.
This being said haggling and asking in many places helped especially for a day trip, the prices I found could vary up to 35% and for one day trip they are high.
Do not expect a lot from your driver. The drivers are really nice and they would bring you anywhere you want if is not out of the designated way. They try to please you expecting a tip at the end but they barely speak some words in English that you will have a hard time to understand. Many times they don’t know how to get in a city and they ask around several people to make sure that the answer is the right one. Also, in general they are not familiar with the sights except from a traditional perspective. If they are over this level, they start soon their own companies a thing that happened with my first driver in 1998.
Buses are a very good alternative. Maybe they don’t look like you want to take one home and play with it, but they run every 10-15 minutes and you just show up and buy a ticket in the bus. Rarely they are completely full and if you take it from the end terminal stop you can get a conformable seat. The difference between the fancy AC ones and the regular is that the second run about 25% slower because they do stop, not a big deal at a 3-4 hour ride time considering that you jump in the first bus that shows up on the road.
Rest: Hotels in India are not great and this to be said in a very gentle way. If you compare with Sri Lanka or SE Asia you would have major surprises and not the nice ones. What is done casually in Sri Lanka or Laos, to stay in somebody’s extended house as a guesthouse, would not be the most pleasant move in India, except if it is a question of budget.
Even when you stay in a hotel, mid range, 1300-1500R the quality is very poor, the hotel being old and ill maintained, badly lit, the pipes are broken, no shower, the AC is good for the local museum, the ceiling may be caved in and all this in what they call a “Deluxe room”, etc. All Indian towns suffer of continuous power outages so if the hotel does not a generator you may be out in the dark. It is actually just a small difference to move one notch up and it is worth it. Changing rooms every night I concluded that the best bet is to look for newly built hotels whose room rate can be around 2000-2300R per night, taxes included. If you are in this bracket you are fine, even for somebody who is more demanding. Besides you also get breakfast and internet included, a 300-350R savings.
Taste: As I posted earlier, the South is way cleaner than the Northern India. You see it in every town, on the streets, highways and in restaurants. Of course, when we talk about cleanness the comparison should stay inside the boundary of the country. We do not make comparisons with Switzerland or not even with SE Asia.
The South Indian food is great, at least for my taste. I felt very conformable to eat in any restaurant that I found to be clean and pleasant especially when I remember the ones in Varanasi where the cleanness level was appalling. One of the restaurants I ate in Varanasi in 2010 had proudly stated on its street sign: “Eat at us. We are less dirty”. The veg food is extremely good, a little spicy but pleasant.
In Kerala you are able to find beer in restaurants but in Tamil Nadu is impossible if you don’t go to a bar. Obviously absolutely no wine. So it goes with water that you better drink all day because is very hot and you will lose most by sweat. Almost no bathroom visits.
In Pondy and many touristy places there are great restaurants that serve French, Portuguese or European fancy dishes at Indian prices. They are really good but not always generous in quantity. In the other towns the veg restaurants are the haven.
Admire and take pictures: It is a lot. Some of the temples in Southern India were built when Europe was dealing with the migrations and Paris and London were mere villages. They are stupendous in architecture and decoration and the fact that they are active and essential for the Hindu religion makes them a magnet for pilgrims. people congregating at them from dawn to late night. If you are at one crowded pooja or a darshan you cannot be but impressed, if you are not the type that is scared by large crowds.
In many temples they advice you not to take photos or pay a hefty fee for the camera but you are rarely bothered after you get inside. But don’t take photos of the deities because according to tradition their power decreases.
Indians love to be photographed and so many asked me to take a picture of them and just show it. I took lots of images being asked and also, by the same token, when I saw an interesting subject I did not hesitate to ask or shoot and extend my portrait gallery on the web.
But the other side of the coin brings you in the picture. Lots of them want to have a picture with the foreigners and they simply take a picture or ask but always they are very happy to do it. I posed and took lots of pictures with groups of people that one day might think that I am a Bollywood/Hollywood actor. Being a foreigner you are the star. So take picture and let others take your picture. It’s nice and you make people happy!
Smile: That’s the most important tip. I know that is hot and you are thirsty or even hungry and tired and continuously harassed and you just want to get it over and escape in your AC hotel room. But don’t forget and beam a smile! You will see how people open up and they start sketching a smile on their stern and concerned faces. Besides, YOU will open up and the burdens of travel will look way easier. When you sincerely smile you open your heart chakra and in time you will see that somehow that smile goes down and you feel it coming from your heart. You will smile with your heart and notice that people feel it. It is a gift that you can give, first to your good self, and further to any other person you encounter. And some of them need it badly. When you travel, a smile would open padlocked doors like nothing else.
In this travel I brought with me more than 2 pounds of discarded pens and pencils from home. They make a great gift for kids who come in droves and ask for something like to write with. I love that they ask for pens and not for money and I gave them joyfully. The joy on their faces it was my best gift of the day and a payback for the effort to carry the apparent useless bag. Another collected smile!
And on a little unusual note. In all my travels I carried at least a travel book. This time I decided that is too much, because beside the two guidebooks I needed, India and Sri Lanka, I was reading the 1000 pages “Shantaram” to stay in the spirit. I know that some of you may think that I am so “yesterday” not to do it till now, but I decided to load pdfs in my iPhone and that proved to be the best organizational decision of the entire trip. The iPhone being always in my pocket I was able to read on the street, in tuk-tuk or in any bus or car the guide book and even to use its maps for directions with the drivers.
I planned from the beginning to stay in Chennai because I had the flight from here at 4:30 am. But I kept hearing that is not worth to visit or worse, in an unkind way, that is a dump. A lot of travelers stay actually in Mamallapuram, 2 hours away by bus, and take a taxi from there directly to airport.
Chennai is the fourth largest city of India and as it is expected after I saw Delhi is hectic, polluted and dusty. The traffic is intense that does not let you cross the street. I started to use the Saigon way to cross the street, only that the Indians are not so used with it and the traffic is also way more complex than the flow of motorbikes from Vietnam.
The Brits established a fort in Chennai that serves even today as the seat of the government from where the omnipresent Lady Chief Minister Jayalalyta oversees the state. It has also a relatively interesting museum with the history of the Fort and a church were many Brits found their spot for eternity. The Absolutely-No-Photos obsession was extended even here in the Fort but I walked around and shot a little, unfortunately not too interesting.
In a city spread on 70 sq. km the sights are far apart. I tried to walk to the High Court, that could be seen closely but it took forever and unfortunately could not be visited except on Sundays, So I started to haggle with the tuk-tuk drivers who are asking astronomical prices in Chennai but you can bring them to reason if you know the rate and I finally got one guy to bring me to Swami Vivekananda’s House, called the IceBox, a beautiful pink villa on the sea side, unfortunately closed on Wednesdays.
It was hot so I went on the beach, a stretch of sand so wide like I never saw before anywhere. I guess it should be around 400 meters or more to the sea, a beach of good sand.
I walked and shot on the sea shore the fisherman’s boats that were going out in the Gulf of Bengal. Lots of people were in the water and many more wanted to have their picture taken, so I obliged. Some were completely painted in red and I guess should be something related with Holi festival and they were getting in the gulf to wash off.
I was walking toward the south where is St Thomas church and the Hindu Temple that I planned to visit, when at one moment it started to stink. Sewage, refuse, shit and garbage. First I could not see anything till I realized that the beach, near the water, was full of shit. I thought that it was from animals till I saw it right in front of me and further away…..There were people defecating right near the water and waiting for the evening tide, probably, to do the flush. The smell was penetrating, raised by the breeze so I started to walk further away from the sea shore and then I saw for the first time the slum. I am reading in this trip Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” whose action happens in a Bombay slum but one is to read completely protected in a posh environment a book, even so in depth described, and another is to be in it with all the olfactive senses triggered. The book really hits home.
There were tents made out of scrap, rests of cardboard, some pieces of plastic, reed and all tied together by strings. Inside or in front of that makeshift, that could be put down by a slow wind, were entire families, with many naked kids or in rags. In the middle was a river of sewage that was trickling down on the beach till it made a little pool that might be cleared hopefully by the tide. And everything was engulfed in this stench that probably here, on the beach, was way softer than in the sweltering Bombay. I felt guilty, like a voyeur of sadness and tragedy and I tried to walk away, maybe inside of me afraid of such appalling scene. There were few tents but behind them were the “cushy” makeshift slum houses made in the same way but a little sturdier. Behind them you could see a building site of a new high rise and St Tomas Church. When the building will be finished these people would be pushed away to find another spot where to live their misery for another short span of life.
I crossed the slum toward the church. The stench was allover and bombarding my senses from all direction and for a long time followed me. I was sure that somehow I stepped on something and carried it with me but it was always there, everywhere, and only far away after I went to the main Hindu temple and the Ramakrishna temple it faded but the wind was occasional bringing it back to remind me that those people are there as real, alive and human as me.
I tried to escape the reality and went to the regular motions of visiting St Thomas Church. Behind it is the tomb of Thomas the apostle, in a crypt underneath. It is recorded in history or legends that after he went with Christ, St Thomas went to India and he died here. Together with St Peter in Rome and Santiago de Compostella, these are the three churches built on the tombs of apostles. From there I walked to the Kapaleeshwarar temple, mentioned in history by Ptolomy. The temple was rebuilt about 300 years ago in Dravidian style being very atmospheric inside where deities can be seen deep in their temple lit by candles. I could visit the inside of the temples with no problem and even i could take all the shots needed outside. I continued to the Ramakrishna Mutt temple, the old temple built at the beginning of the 20th century that has a meditation chapel with the portraits of Rama Krishna, Swami Vivekananda and his Mother, whose statue is also on the first floor.
But in spite of the visits, the occasional stench coming with the breeze still reminded me of those people. I walked on the beautiful promenade of the Marina Beach, devoid of any places typical for such a location in the west: no beer and food tables, no roof top cafes, no frapuccinos. Kids were playing cricket or soccer on the beach. The sellers were positioning their carts to burn corn, or to sell ice cream from iceboxes, makeshift carts for a makeshift life.
Around 6:00 pm I decided to go and maybe to do some shopping in the bazaars and I ended up in a completely different world, so far apart from the slum people. It was a world of Movenpick, Lavazza bars, Swatches, Natuzzi front store, Van Heusen, Gabana.life and all the labels you imagine where a shirt cost would feed a slum family for a month. I ended up also at one mall, Express Avenue, built on a very large surface with Tissot and Rolex, Levis, Quinzo and Gloria Jean’s Coffee that was pumping Madonna on each floor. What world are we living in that we can have these two sides so close to each other? What lesson do we get? What karma do we accumulate, or they cleanse? Then I realized, a thing that in fact I always knew, that we travelers are never in contact with this affluent part of the Indian society. We roam the temples, sites, markets and traveler hotels and deal daily with bus and tuk-tuk drivers, talking mainly with peasants that barely know a word in English and occasionally we meet the slum people, begging to us a chance-less beg in a country of too many that forces our minds to render them invisible. Somehow, the world of Natuzzi cohabits with the world of the slum like we do with the poor of Harlem or from wherever, about which we know nothing. Each one in his own cage according to the level of comfort he could afford, oblivious that they others exist more than in the TV News.
I returned at the hotel to pack and check out. Chandra Park was a good choice recommended by Lonely Planet. It is actually a 24 hour check out hotel, that it means, only in India I saw this, if I arrived the previous evening close to 11:30pm I could officially stay till 11:30pm the next day, but they let me stay till I leave to the airport around 1:00 am. It served me well this time because my flight is at 4:30 am.
The waiter at dinner pointed to my shirt and I remembered again about the political gaffe I did today. All my shirts being dirty after such a long trip, forced me take a new T-shirt that I purchased, on which it spells Sri Lanka over some elephants. I was too immersed in my travel plans and oblivious for a moment of the serious row that happens right now between the Tamil population and the Sri Lanka government that conducts a genocide against the local Tamils in the island. The issue is so serious that in the morning it was announced the Lanka professional cricket players purchased to play for Indian teams will not to be used in the games played in Chennai in order not to create tensions at the game. I noticed on the way today that many people looked at the shirt and some asked if I am Sri Lankan, a possible look alike after 30 days in the Southern India sun but in the current political situation it was hard to explain that it was not a political statement but just the only clean shirt that I had….
I did not want to spend a lot of time in Vellore and at 9:30 am I got to the bus stop and boarded the first bus to Tirupati, that turned out that was going directly to Tirumala, the temple of wealth, money and wishes that come true. The ride was relatively short and we reached Tirumala after about 3 1/2 hours.
From Tirupati the 2 lane-one-way road starts climbing a hill for 18 km where is located the temple. For the return they built another 2 lane-one-way road. The access is completely controlled and at the base of the hill and the start of the bus ride, you exit the bus and all people and luggage are scanned. Obviously with my huge luggage and the tons of electronics I created a commotion and they wanted to open everything till I started to yell that they will have to put all back if they open so they gave up for most of the luggage. After we boarded the bus we got quickly on top of the mountain on a beautiful drive on switchbacks.
On top was complete mayhem, with lots of people and too few places to ask questions. It looks being completely chaotic, an opposite situation compared with the Golden Temple that I visited the previous night. The Indians are crazy about money and wealth and this temple attracts them like a magnet. There were lots of pilgrims and I noticed lots of multi apartments bungalows to accommodate them, the accommodation office being the most sought after.
I had my luggage with me; a heavy backpack, the camera backpack and another bag with the laptop and others and I had to deposit them somewhere. But where, because nobody had a clue sending me from left to right with no solution in sight? Finally I got rescued by an Indian from Hollywood, CA who was dressed in orange swami clothes. He moved me around asking in Hindi left and right for quite a while till he finally, when I was ready to give up, found the right place. It was a pavilion for foreigners named Suphatam, where you could show the passport, pay the fast line fee of 300R, Seva Q line, and you were let to enter the line even more in front that the others locals who get into this fast line. After some confusion in regards to my luggage, some guys from the scanning, yes you are scanned again, helped me and deposited two of the large luggage in a nearby cloak room. The camera backpack with all the valuables but no cash, you carry that with you, I gave to the officer in charge of the security who took out everything and made a note what they are, gave me the note and put them in a locker. They were concerned not to be any cash in the bag but all the equipment on the table, valued at many thousand of US$, were OK.…. I am writing all this because I wished I knew how is dealt with the luggage in advance and I tried to find out but to no avail.
This being done, I was scanned again and let in to buy the ticket. When the guy from the office asked and found out that I am not Hindu he asked me to sign a paper in three forms that I support Lord Vishnu, who is venerated here as Sri Venkateshwara, one of its avatars, this being also the name of the temple. The papers had to be signed also by a witness that was promptly collected from the line to do it. With the support for Lord Vishnu in my bag I could enter the gauntlet of the cages.
I did some darshans in various places. The first I did in Balaji, a small village in Rajasthan, 15 years ago not even knowing that it was a darshan. The driver suggested to see that temple where only men were allowed inside. So I Ieft my shoes outside, walked for the first time on the dirty street and entered the cage. Cristina was left outside, at the entrance, surrounded by lots of Indian men who were startled to see a western woman in their village, looking at her like she was ET. The cage was actually a one person wide corridor where Indians were pushing to get ahead fitting 2-3 people. It was full of smoke and incense, the air being almost solid, barely breathable and I was wondering if I will ever get out alive. in the end, I saw the deity, a frightening figure of Hanuman that I still remember even today and I exited through a courtyard where fires were lit on barrels and trance like people were throwing stones over their head waving on top of the fires.
The cage in Tirumala remembered me of Balaji without the smoke and incense, just the crowds, sweat and sweltering heat. You cannot escape from it and the Indians were pushing and yelling something to be heard by the deity, being happy to be in the cage since 9:00 am, already 6 hours. The line moved better than expected, in total about 1 hour wait on the fast line, and of course I had to answer all and the same questions all over again. After an hour we became friends and if I stayed longer, even relatives…..After another scanning and patting we were let inside the temple where the yelling and pushing increased.
The temple is interesting, covered in silver at the gate and further in gold, it has a roof entirely covered in gold glittering in the sun. The security is very tight having also manned observation towers in front of the temple.
Pilgrims were already hyped up by the long 7 hours wait and after we waited again at the entrance mandapam we were let inside the altar from where you can see somewhere deep in the back the statue of Sri Venkateshwara. At this moment everybody got crazy. They were pushing and shoving and I thought that this is the way how a stampede may happen in Indian temples. Yelling, raising their hands and imploring the deity to grant their wishes they were pulling their ear with their hands crossed and jumping. I stayed out of it and admired the temple interior and the mayhem created by the presence of the deity. After a while I got back in the cage and was shoved both by the pilgrims but mainly by the security to get out as soon as possible, The number of pilgrims can reach 100000 per day and the temple is open 24/7. In any darshan is not too much time to see the deity. Just a peep and go.
Happy to be out I recovered my items, camera, shoes, etc and I shot a little bit outside the temple and rushed to the bus, special shuttle buses running all day from Tirumala to Tirupati (40R). I was so thirsty that I drank 1 litter of water in 2 sips. You cannot buy water in the temple and I was shy of drinking from the tap no matter that it was advertised as purified.
Finally at 6:45 pm I boarded a bus to Chennai (4 hours) that I am riding right now writing this blog in a full moon Southern Indian night on a very bumpy road.
Vellore fort’s ramparts are worth a visit. Surrounded by a moat filled with water, they represent the best example of fortifications in the entire India. They are continuous and tall with places for cannons that one time protected the city. They were built by Nayaks and extended latter by Mughals who took over the city and at the end by the Brits till a revolt sent them home. Inside the fortifications are some museums and government buildings, completely uninteresting, but the atmosphere was very pleasant in the early hours of the morning. The Hindu Sri Jalagandeeswarar temple began its day of worship and I stayed through the entire procedure of washing the idols, in this case a lingam, Shiva’ symbol.
The bus to Vellore was ready to go and I got a seat in front right under the TV and watched all the way a Bollywood movie, that in US would be considered naive but probably it was a great hit in India. The ride took a little more than 2 hours (37R) and in Vellore I asked a tuk-tuk to bring me to a good hotel. This notion is not so easy to pass to a tuk-tuk driver. The bottom line is that we drove the entire town and during this time I saw rooms that were incredible that they exist. The places were drab and some were completely dirty, the keeper trying to explain that he washed everything afresh. It may have happen sometime but the way they looked it was probably latest done in the 90s. They looked like cells in a jail and when I walked away he insisted in showing me some other rooms, all the same, that did not have mattresses just the base wooden plank of a bed. I asked the driver to look for way better places to stay and he went to an older built hotel, quite expensive, that did not have a shower spout in the bathroom and I was told that only Deluxe room have showers. The room with shower had an AC unit that I could bet was louder than a 747 and the guy wanted to charge double, “super deluxe room, Sir”, no matter that it looked like being used last time by the Brits before they left India. In the end, when I almost thought about leaving the town, we ended up in Darling Residency and all the problems were solved. The place is a “Darling” with impeccable rooms, breakfast included and wifi complimentary and you cannot stop loving it after all what you saw in town.
After getting settled with the paperwork I hopped in another tuk-tuk (250R RT) and I went to visit the Golden Temple in Sripuram, a village outside of Vellore. I had serious doubts to come and visit it because the temple is a brand new built, sometimes in 2007 I guess if not earlier. Its construction raised some controversy when the main temple was covered in 1.5 tons of gold…
The temple was built by an enterprising local guru, obviously a very shrewd businessman besides his spiritual qualities, Sri Shakti Amma and is dedicated to Lakshmi Narayan, being named Mahalakshmi Temple.
No matter what you see in India this temple would impress and not necessarily by the amount of gold on his roofs and columns. I was literally blew away by it.
First, the organization is astounding. It has stands for leaving all your luggage, separate for shows and separate for any valuables that are all tagged with unique tickets. You are not allowed with any electronic in the temple, so even the cellphones should be deposited, everything being clearly labeled in English .
Second, the general darshan, the way to access the temple, is controlled in such a way to last longer and was estimated when i came at 45 minutes but a ticker was announcing 3 hours, so the main result was that many pilgrims were buying the fast access one for 250R, a sure way to make the money to cover the costs.
You enter the temple and the alley that brings you from the gate close to the temple, guarded by the covered walks, skillfully winding through lots of gift shops in an American way, is about 3/4 km. In its middle has working fountains and Chinese lamps all the way to the temple .
When you are done with this alley you enter a six pointed star, that has 12 arms that will bring you the darshan. The entire start walk is about 1.5 km, on covered corridors guarded by plaster columns, with water stands and toilets, everything impeccably clean. The walk has on its side quotes from Sri Amma and a whole propagandist material about his charitable work. For sure he knows how to promote himself because wherever you go is all about him and his work: photos, posters, panels, stories, brochures, etc
The temple itself, completely covered in gold from the roof to the base of all its columns, is placed in the middle of the 6 pointed star in a pool of water and lit by iodine lamps in all its splendor. You continue you walk around it on another circular covered corridor admiring its gilded roof till you get to the darshan where you are hushed quickly away by the priests. The exist continues on the rest of the same 6 pointed star, through stalls selling albums and photos mainly with Sri Amma, exclusively sold here. It looks like is a huge operation and they keep a complete control of the enterprise. The exist again forces you through lots of gift shops and in the end a juice bar, before you reach another area where you can get your parsed but, even that, can be easily purchased in advance from various stalls for 15R.
In any case the experience was absolutely astounding. Sri Shankti Amma founded lots of humanitarian projects for the area including one hospital in Vellore, known as one of the best in India, The only photo that could be taken, and even that it said that is prohibited is from the outside of the main entrance.
Arunachala is the soul of Tiruvannamalai. Everything in this city gravitates around this mountain, a spiritual symbol used by many gurus in time as a place of meditation. The mountain is an abode of Shiva whose footprint was supposed to be somewhere on the top, no matter that I saw only ghee all over that covered the mountain top black and slippery.
I made arrangements yesterday to get a guide at 6:00 am to go up the mountain early in the day when is not so hot. You may not need a guide but I was here for such a short time that I could not figure out where the access path was. In the morning I waited more than 30 minutes and I decided to leave and get another guide when a guy came and brought me to the mountain path, but it turned out that the guide could not make it so I was passed to a boy in the area who showed me the way. The climb is way more difficult that expected. The mountain is only 881 meters but in the heat of the Indian South and a little clouds traveling down after a short night rain, the sweat was pouring down like another rain. The climb itself starts with some steps but it continues with abrupt rocks and boulders all straight up to the peak. On the way up I met lots of Russians, none of them speaking English. After I did Adam’s peak at 2800 meters I thought about this as a walk in the park but I had to muster all my effort to be able to make it to the top, With the shooting and photo taking it took me close to two hours, that is actually the official time, 4 hours round trip. But when I got there I was exhausted to no comparison with Adam’s Peak….In India everything is more difficult, even the mountain climbing. And besides, on top you have to walk barefoot on the ghee and heated rock….
On top the rock is covered by ghee, from the November Festival fire burning, on top of which are drawn yantras. It is also an open place for meditation maintained by some guys living in a hut on top, a place where their guru used to live 16 years in isolation doing only meditation with one milk and one tea only per day. Now he moved to Kanyakumari, by the ocean doing the same thing. Under the mountain top is a meditation cave with a Shiva lingam, good for one person or maybe two. I stopped at both of these places for a little meditation. There are way more meditation caves down the mountain and I understood why people spend the entire day on the mountain by stopping at all of them for a short meditation.
The descent was not so bad, and in spite of the sun that starting to heat the mountain it was better being less humid as in the morning. About one quarter of the climb from the bottom of the mountain we stopped at the Ramana Maharishi’s meditation cave, a tranquil place frequented by adepts from the ashram to which is connected by a mountain path. After a short break and less meditation being so exhausted and drain by the heat, we continued our descent and stopped to another major cave, Virupaksha, where I was joined in meditation by a monkey that sat near me, nosy to see what’s cooking inside. There are lots of them roaming the entire mountain. Further, just before descending to the road, we stopped at Mango Cave, very picturesquely ornate with statues where a local pujari invited me inside and gave me a blessing with vibooti and a cone that they place on your head.
I paid my guide, bought a cold water that I finished right away, and two bananas, my breakfast, and went to the hotel to check out, pay and take my stuff and leave to Vellore
Tiruvannamalai, or Tiru, is the place where Shiva, according to tradition, got manifested in an lingam of fire on top of Arunachala Mountain, the hill symbiotically connected with the town. The event is reenacted yearly in a festival sometime in October-November, at the month of Kartik, when a fire is ignited on top of the mountain and burns for many days being seen by everybody in town that came for the festival. Beside this major event, every full moon pilgrims congregate from all over to circumbambulate Arunachala on a parikrama of about 14 km. Actually this event will happen in two days, on March 26 and my original plan was to come and do the walk but this would complicate my departure so I may give up. This parikrama called here Girivalam has obviously lots of symbols on it with Shiva shrines or temples, some with lingams and some with Nandi Bull, with water tanks blessed by the God, etc. on its entire circumference. Around the full moon the city is flooded by Vaishistas, followers of Shiva, with their forehead painted with horizontal bands of vibooti, ash.. They beg and are given food in the temples and you can see them walking or congregating on the parikrama road. During the full moon day there should be tens of thousands that come to do the walk. It exists an inner walk, shorter and the road walk, 14 km. Now, because of an order from the Forestry Department concerned but heat and the fire danger, the walk will be done on the road.
The power went on and off all night. I could hear the generator kicking in but I slept all the way. The room proved that was actually an apartment with living room and large kitchen with fridge. Tiruvannamalai is immersed in Ramana Maharishi‘s personality, one of the most famous gurus of India who “was absorbed in Arunachala” in 1950. His remarkable personality left a strong trace and even nowadays the ashram he established is one of the most well known in India, full of locals and foreigners alike, coming and staying here for several months at a time. The atmosphere is serene and entices you to stay and meditate, Ramana‘s energy permeating inside. I walked its ground in a sentiment of peace that I hardly had in India anywhere else.
In the middle of the town is the Arunachaleswarar temple, a 2800 years old temple that has 4 unfinished gompuran that guard its four entrances. Except some security at its entrance, that is more concerned not to have the shoes in the bag than all the electronics in the world, you are not bothered by anybody in the temple and I could shoot all over. Anybody is allowed to enter the main shrines and get darshan, even non-Hindus, but without cameras. The main concern is not to take photo of the idols, taking away in this mode their power, probably.
I spent the morning, first at the ashram and latter at the temple that is about 2 km away from the ashram. The temple closed at 12:30 for lunch break so I returned to the ashram and visited it in detail, bought some Ramana’s teaching books and around 5:00 pm I went for a ride, instead of a walk, on the parikrama being dropped at the temple for the 6:00 pm pooja.
Indian temples may have remarkable architecture but what make them alive and spectacular are the religious services. The pooja was spectacular with huge crowds, lots of candles and blessing fires, agni, smoke, chants, music, drums and the smell of ghee, characteristic for this temple. It looked like everybody came to the temple for this event maybe waiting for the cooler air of the evening to settle.
From the Arunachaleswarar temple I took again the 2 km walk to the ashram and landed in Auro-Usha restaurant for my well deserved dinner, the main meal of the day. Still I could not find wi-fi, with many Internet stores closing for the off-season that will start in April but I was able to use an Internet computer that they have in the hotel.
Mamallapuram, or Mal, is one of the many cities of the Distributed Republic of Backpackistan. It is a beach hang out full of travelers that forget themselves here for a while in an inexpensive respite from India. The town is full of shops and restaurants like no other place I saw during this travel. The shops are selling all the typical “Indian” clothing never ever worn by an Indian guy in his life, lots of Tibetan souvenirs, Indian bronzes, tailors making any type of clothing you want and many others. But the largest number of shops are the stonemasons who you can see and hear chiseling in every store beautiful statues, natural or polished, large Ganesh, Shivas, Vishnu, sitting and reclining Buddhas and lots of small souvenir made out of stone. You can find stone for any taste and budget and if you look closely you may see that the higher prices are related with exquisite workmanship.
The Cafes and restaurants are full all day of Westerners having their lathis in the absence of beer that was banished for the past week by some overzealous official. Fusion music comes from every cafes and Bob Marley rules. I was always wondering if he ever thought during his lifetime that his music will last as a freedom/vacation music being listened all over the world in places so diverse..
My not-so-nice-room proved even worse overnight being full of mosquitoes. I was able to sleep late in the night after an organized hunt that proved relatively successful. The power is continuously being cut in India. It happens every night and in all cities I stayed and happens several times per night. It comes and goes and the only way I could tell is that the fan or AC stopped and the iPhone chirped.
In the morning I did my sunrise worship on the beach followed by a dip in the Gulf of Bengal and a visit of the back alleys of the town where women were drawing the yantras, or kolam, before their house and shops. After a quick crepe and cappuccino breakfast I went again to see some of the temples we visited yesterday. For sure I stopped at Arjuna’s Penance a 99 feet by 45 feet bas-relief cut in the granite of the mountain, impeccable chiseled that was discovered by the Brits 200 years ago when they were making surveys for the road. I went also to several other caves and temples that I missed the previous day, all embellished with bass-reliefs cut in granite of Vishnu, Shiva or Durga fighting various bad guys.
Mal is the perfect place to do some travel shopping and because I planned to leave for Tiru in the afternoon I started to browse for a couple of hours the stores and bought some stones, “non-Indian” blouses and dealt with a tailor to fashion a jacket. At 4:00 pm I hopped in a tuk-tuk who brought me to the junction where I got in a bus for Changal Pattu, the connection town for Tiruvannamalai. The one hour drive was OK but when I got off the bus I landed in a rural bus stop where everybody was running chaotically to catch buses. It goes without saying that is nobody that would give you any info, neither in Tamil or English… It took me a while to figure out that the buses for Tiru do not come in the station. After I rambled around for about 15 minutes a tuk-tuk picked me up and brought me to the tollgate on the highway, where, for sure, there are lots of buses to Tiruvannamalai stopping to pay the toll and taking passengers on the fly. The drive was way longer that I have been told, about 3 1/2 hours, and I finally got in Tiruvannamalai around 9:45 pm. Another tuk-tuk brought me to Ramana Towers, very close to the Ramana ashram, but at the time I arrived all restaurants were closed and I had just some biscuits, the only thing I ate all day after my morning crepe.
Pondy wakes up at sunrise but everybody is quiet like they sleepwalk. People pack the promenade jogging, stretching, doing yoga posture or meditation, or just simply quietly chatting. Kids are starting their play day and roam all over. But after 2-3 hours when the sun is up and hot the promenade is completely deserted like nobody was ever there.
I walked in the morning in the city, on the shaded streets with French writers names all the way to an area where there are Tamil houses preserved like before. It is just one block, with trees completely covering the street and the balconies or open porches of the houses. When I tried to walk on the parallel street, just one block away, the mayhem was in full swing and I gave up.
I stopped at Le Cafe, on the beach, for breakfast with a good coffee and pane au chocolate admiring the Gulf of Bengal, completely flat at that hour.
Returning to the hotel I met again Nicholas. First he sent one of the boys on scooter to check what is going on with the strike. Yesterday it was a strike and the buses did not run and the shops were closed. The Tamil population was protesting against the policy of the Sri Lanka government who used terrorist tactics against them. I heard about the way they got rid of the leader of the Tamil Tigers and some people here suspected an American involvement with advisers and technology. The strike was on hold, or on and off, so the buses were running and we continued the discussion from where we left it yesterday, He told me how he sold his bar and moved with three kids from a place near Lyon to Pondicherry with all the challenges associated. He knew the settled life in France and he wanted to see what is next. You never know if the “NEXT” is good or bad and for sure any NEXT that comes will not be easy but is an experiment on your own soul and this may add new dimensions and understanding to your life. You can sit tight and accumulate many toys but one day you will leave all the toys behind and emerge only with what was deposited in your soul. What is there is your only asset!
But talking about toys I was looking the night before at some bronze statues and after the regular haggling, I ended up purchasing one that will be shipped to NYC around middle of April. Pondy has remarkable bronze artists and you can get very good work but also lots of stuff made cheaply and fast for the numb re of tourists that abound.
I got to the hotel to pick up my stuff. Nicholas went for lunch so I left him word that I will write and hoped in a tuk-tuk and at the bus station jumped in an AC bus that was just leaving on a highway to Mamallapuram (115R). It dropped me after 2 hours at the intersection and another tuk-tuk picked me up and brought me to a guesthouse that is relatively nice but not so clean. However with too much of a casual look I took it and left with the tuk-tuk to visit the temples but, as I quickly found out, you don’t need one for the visit, the temples being very close to each other.
Mamalapuram was a prosperous seaport during its tenure as a second capital of the Palava Kings that ruled Southern India, being also a strong religious and ceremonial place. The temple complex is mind boggling. The temples were built around 7-8 century AD and were carved in the granite of the mountain or in boulders that came from it. There are temples and caves, all embellished with roofs made and carved also from granite. The workmanship is superb.
There are several groups of temples but many of them are in a central area of the town, a sort of town park where you enter free of charge.
The Five Rathas are 5 temples in a complex, in front of them being carved an natural size elephant and a lion. Close by is Arjuna’s Penance, an astounding frieze of colossal dimensions cut in the side of the granite mountain that presents Arjuna’s penitence in order to be remarked by the Shiva. We visited the park’s temples and ended at the Shore Temple, whose base was completely flooded at the tsunami. Also, in 2004 the waves uncovered another temple that nobody knew about, somewhere at 8 km from here.
Mal, as the Mamalapuram is known by travelers, is a backpacker place full of guesthouses, restaurants and an incredible number of stores selling the regular tourist stuff, but also stone carvings for which the town is famous. With so many temples built here is no surprise that this is a trade in fashion. I walked a little bit the streets and ended up at the top of a restaurant overlooking the Gulf of Bengal for a excellent dinner of grilled fish.
Pondy, or Pudicherry by its new name, means the New City. in spite of its location it is not part of the state of Tamil Nadu but to the Union of India. Its port somehow got under the French control around the middle of the 18th century and stayed with them till 1962, 15 years after India got its independence. But the French did not simply packed and leave. They signed a treaty that India should recognize a local referendum if Pondy would vote at any time to return to France. And it is probably no surprise in a city that still have 45000 Frenchmen with probably lots of business interests.
The city was and is still divided in two areas; the French Quarter and the Indian one, that used to be called in the past the White and Black quarters. The French Quarter still preserves the French atmosphere with tree shaded streets and alleys aligned with old white French villas and government buildings. On Rue de la Marine is the French Consulate heavily defended by barriers. The streets still carry French names: Labourdonnais, Suffren, Dumas, Sourcouf, etc. The sea shore, Avenue Gobert has a beautiful promenade where people stroll from sunrise to late in the night. The beach is almost non existent and if you want to get into the Gulf of Bengal for a swim you may have to drive several km out of town.
In the morning after a great breakfast on the top terrace of the beautiful L’Espace villa, I had a chat with Nicholas Smith, its owner. The discussion was extremely interesting and regretfully I had to leave and get into an organized day tour to the city but I hope to continue tomorrow. In any case Nicholas sees life like a 3 week vacation; you feel when you leave that you have all the time in the world and only when you get at half time you start to realize that this will not go forever. And you take it as it is…..
The city tour is definitively not worth it at all; first a visit to the Pudicherry Museum located in a villa rescued from demolition that preserve a nice atmosphere. The collection is not great but there are some interesting things. It was followed by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s Paper Factory, relatively interesting, the paper being manufactured by a manual process. They make extremely nice things from paper sold in their store.
The third stop was at an water complex at the outskirts of town where we got in a boat trip. a total waste of time.
In the afternoon, the guide announced us that is a strike of the Tamils related with the policies of the Sri Lanka government so we will change the program and go directly to Auroville. The village is an international community created by The Mother, the French-turn-of-the-century-traveler who settled in Pondy and together with Sri Aurobindo established and ran the ashram. She came up with the idea of people living in a territory not bound by any country, religion, color and race and Auroville is meant to be such a place. The land was somehow donated by 124 countries and on it were built different living communes, named after the qualities of The Mother, certitude, honesty, truth, etc. There are about 1800 people residing in Auroville and about 2/3 of them are foreigners.
In these communities people live a life like in an Israeli kibbutz, with all work performed for the community, with the difference that the final goal is a spiritual achievement by meditation and concentration. For this it was conceived and built the Matrimandir that represents the spiritual center of the community. The building is a shiny golden sphere and inside of it is a spherical crystal, the largest in India. The light of the sun is captured and beamed toward the crystal creating an interesting effect. The Matrimandir is a meditation place with no other string of any kind attached to it. It is supposed to be the manifestation of pure consciousness.
You can visit the community and walk about 1 km to the viewing point from where the view of the Matrimandir is remarkable. I was wondering what future generations of archeologists would tell when they will discover it. This visit was way too short. I wished that I would have stayed longer and look in the communities and see how people live.
Pondy has several interesting places. Down from the French Consulate is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram where you can enter just in the main courtyard and sit in meditation in front of the flower altar or browse the bookstore that have his and The Mother’s writings.
There are two Hindu temples. Mankula Vinayagar Temple is dedicated to Ganesh and it has inside a golden roof. When I got there the temple’s elephant just squeezed through the temple’s doors and was paraded to the altar where it got the blessing from Ganesh that it will pass latter to the pilgrims who tip him. The elephant franchise business….The other temple with no named in English has lots of animals, cows, peacocks,etc made out of metal on carts for some kind of festival. I played there with a group of children so happy to have around a foreigner who gave them also some candy.
The French left a strong Christian heritage and there are lots of churches and cathedrals that are impressive, built in neo-gothic style, the white of the painting accented by blue or red.
I finally got to the hotel and try to relax with a dinner of fish in Satsanga restaurant, not so great as Lonely Planet recommended it and I ended with the mandatory stroll on the Promenade.
Yesterday was a tough day; two of the best temples of India and two palaces. The idea was to gain a day and after I visited that palace from Tanjavur I decided that I wished to stay in that city maybe 500 years ago but not now.
Trichy, or Tiruchirappali as is officially called, is also full of temples and today would be even a more difficult task than yesterday so we started early, around 7:30 am. I told Kumar that I let him go today, one day earlier, and he needed also time to drive home.
The Rock Temple was opened all day with no lunch break so I decided to leave last.
We drove across the bridge over Cauvery River. mostly dry and used by locals to do laundry and went first to the temple considered to be the largest in India, Sri Raganathaswami Temple. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu in one of his animal form Nairarishma and the main temple in the complex should have inside his representation, that I could not see without converting to Hinduism.
What strikes you at this temple beside its size is that you pass through probably 3 or 4 towers, gopurams, till you reach the actual temple area where the sacred areas are, the place were you have to remove your shoes. All gopurams are decorated with anything that mind can create when you sleep. Inside, the same temples and deities all over and in all directions. I was able to locate the main ones where I was not allowed to enter and roam the grounds for a while. They have a view point in the temple(10R), a roof from where you can see all the gopurams.
The columns are made of granite and the decoration is relatively similar with the one from Madurai, the major difference being the size of the compound and the fact that is not covered. And also, the entrance is free and you may pay 30/100R for the cameras.
At one of the side gates are remarkable sculpted columns, with horses and deities in fight against various animals.
When I got out I asked Kumar to go to Jambukeshawara Temple, a temple dedicated to Shiva and Parvati, one of the most important Shiva Temples. For some reason he got some info from another driver and he drove me ten km out of town to a village where it took me a while to figure out that the temple I visit is not even close to Jambukeshawara. No Shiva, no Parvati but a long line to a darshan to Sri Maryam, that I decided to bypass by paying a 250R fee and got a blessing and a flower garland, good for photos.
Outside was an elephant that was blessing the people with the same 1 rupee coin trick. It looks like the elephant business was franchised…..
I went back to the car and told Kumar that was the wrong temple. He started to ask around and soon we arrived at the real Jambukeshwara temple. Built in the same style, with gompurams, inside the compound, the main temples are dedicated to for Shiva, Parvati and the medium of water. One pujari wanted to show me around because the temple was closing and I gave him some money and a pencil that he liked a lot. I gave actually lots of pen also in Sri Ranganataswami, when a number of swamis asked me for pens to write. So my pen campaign moves successfully ahead….
We finally went to the Rock Temple, the citadel-temple situated in Trichy. The temple is located on top of a tall rock that was used in the past for defense also. You reach it by walking about 450 steps, but being a temple you should walk barefoot. These guys have an obsession with this barefoot business…The main problems is that I had to walk up around 1:00 pm when the entire rock was heated at the maximum, so you wait in the shade and start running up the steps till you get shade again….Come on guys! Let’s find another option….The temple, dedicated to Ganesh, Shiva and Parvati’s son, confer excellent views over the city. Beside the top temple it was another middle one that was closed at the time. I don’t know if forever or just for midday lunch.
I descended the steps and continued on the street to a neo-Gothic church name Feast of our Lady of Lourdes, a catholic church that looks completely out of place in the mayhem of an Indian city. When you cross inside its gates the atmosphere was much quieter than in the street in front.
On my way to the car i saw a guy with watches and belts and I asked him to change my watch belt that broke completely somewhere on a beach in Sri Lanka. He did it on the spot for 50R and finally I have a watch and don’t have to use my iPhone to know the time.
In the car I settled my bills with Kumar, paying him the difference and a generous tip covering some of his parking and toll expenses that made him happy. He wrote me the bill and we took a picture together in front of the Chevy SUV that carried us in the last week.
I took my backpacks and went to the bus station nearby where I boarded the first bus to Chennai, with a change in Villupuram(120R) and catch a bus to Pondicherry(18R).
The bus ride on the highway to Chennai is story-less like any other drive on highways anywhere in the world. It is just a highway and all look more or less the same, impersonal and boring.
The drive took 3 hours in a nice non-AC bus, my first ever bus ride in India. As the manager of the hotel in Trichy said, “It is not luxurious but is close to luxurious”, And he was perfect;y right…I got off at the bus stop of Villupuram and I boarded the a local bus, 1 hour, to Pondicherry. But his drive was different and not boring at all. This Pondicherry bus was full with people standing on top of each other and was going fast in the night. I was sitting right in front near the driver. He was doing 60 km.hour easily and managing continuously two horns, a very loud and annoying one and the classical sea ship one used according to the needs but almost all the time. When he wanted to announce the road that he is coming was using the loud one, but when things need to be controlled on the road he was using the sea ship one, When some car or motorbike made something stupid making it close to get creamed he was using both horns in a cacophony envied by all traffic partners. He was the king of the road. In front of my eyes the road displayed a macabre dance of vehicle passing each other, survival, light signals and close calls to which my neighbor driver was treating as the norm and he would not even flinch when a bus or truck was coming full front or a passing happened at just an inch. Just a casual look and move on. It is just life…. Travel by bus in India is not bad at all, however this was my first experience. I was always renting cars and driver and not necessarily for the comfort but because the time I am able to allocate for the trip is always short in reference to the travel plans. The car gives you the flexibility of saving days, like we did yesterday but if you have some extra time buses are perfectly fine. The train would be even better if it were not so difficult to reserve tickets from abroad.
In the end we made it safely in Pondy, got a tuk-tuk for 100R and found a beautiful room in Moorish style at L’Escale villa, close to the beach in the French Quarter and had dinner of Portuguese fish in Bamboo Garden. originally I planned to stay in Park Beach Guesthouse that has room views over the ocean but the staff is so unfriendly that I would give it a pass.
Tanjavour is Tanjore, the old city symbol of exquisite Indian art and poetry. Most of the road from Madurai to Tanjavur is on a highway but still takes about 4 hours to get there, locate the places to visit. Many sites in India are closed for lunch and based on the opening schedule of the places I decided first to visit the Royal Palace.
The disappointment was at the maximum. First, the entire thing is a ruin, but in the sense of archeological ruin but just a ruin of neglect that descended upon it and left as is. It is one of those deserted palaces that people dismantle, where animals roam and bats take over. There are many in India like this. The difference is that somehow this palace is supposed to be a highlight. It has several enclosures glorified as museums, hidden and dark, and at each one of them you have to pay an entrance fee. You have no clue where to go next and the English spoken by the people I asked did not removed the confusion, I never saw anything as disorganized at this place. Except a Bell tower that may be worth visiting, and a manuscript library, the only reason to be here is if you stay overnight in Tanjavur and you have nothing else to do after you visited the temple. The only thing that stayed with me from this Palace was the smell of guano from the bats that I was able to get rid of only the following morning.
From there, around 5:00 pm I went to see the temple that opens in the afternoon at 4:30 pm.
Brihgadishwara temple is magnificent and I spent easily 2 hours to roam his immense surface. If Madurai‘s main temple had 12 towers, this one has only one, named vimana, but with 13 floors and in front of it is the largest statue of a Nandi Bull in India, 6 meter long. It is no entrance fee and cameras are OK, except in the sacred area. The non-Hindus are permitted to enter the sacred area and are even blessed. Inside the vimana it is a large Shina-linga, under the four headed snake canopy made out of a gilded metal.
The temple was commissioned in 1010 by a well known ruler of the Chola dynasty named Rajaraja, or King of the Kings and represents the best example of temple building of the Cholas.
Besides the 13 stories Vimana and the Nandi Bull, the large complex has a number of temples spread around and dedicated to various deities visited by Hindus to get blessings.
The sunset brought a magical yellow tint on the temple and in the evening the temple was floodlit. I spent some time just enjoying the serenity of the place but we had to get going and spend the night in Trichy, another place with many temples. Before I got to the car I stop in front of local blessing Ganesh. He took my 1 rupee from my hand and blessed me on top of the head with his trunk. I did not have time for a photo but I felt his blessing with me all the way to Trichy. The drive to Trichy was OK and got here around the Central Bus Station area where are most of the hotels.
The hotel prices went up considerably, more than doubled, in comparison with the Lonely Planet travel guide that I have, outdated a little bit and I booked a not so inspired guide-recommended Femina Hotel, noisy and full of mosquitoes. But based on my current experience the price difference in hotels in India is not significant and going for a higher level and newer hotel is worth the money.
Another thing that is prevalent in Southern India are short power outages. You drive around and see that parts of the city or the highway lights go dark, stay like this maybe 10 seconds to a minute and come back. In the hotels I stayed this happened the entire night, making my iPhone beep when it went again back to charging.
Madurai is the heart of Tamil Nadu. It was recorded in history for spice trades done with the Greeks in the 4th century BC. It was ruled by many, one of them being king Vishvayata of the Nayak dynasty who began three construction of a majestic Hindu temple here in 1560. The temple was dedicated to fish-eye Sri Meenakshi, the three breasted goddess who according to tradition became the consort of Shiva. Since the construction, the temple, probably the largest and most impressive in the entire India, Madurai represented one of the most important center of Hinduism and an important place of pilgrimage.
Sri Meenakshi temple is actually an enormous complex spread on 6 hectares. From afar you may see a number of polychrome towers, adorned with deities, gods and goddesses, demons, heros and sacred vehicle-animals. There are 12 towers in total, named gopurams, and four of them mark the 4 cardinal entrances to the temple complex. You have to leave your shoes at the cloak room and absolutely nothing is allowed on you except money. No camera, in spite some notices that state that you can pay and go. In the morning I had to return to the hotel and drop my backpack and I came back to the temple just with the GoPro but even that they were able to find and asked me to leave it at the cloak room.
Inside the complex is another surrounding wall with gates that let in the temple compound. Inside is a forest of granite columns, each of 3-6 feet wide, that on one side are shaped as the column itself and on the other side comes out of the stone a deity or elephant sculpted from that huge block of granite. And everything is still only one piece together with the columns, all sculpted with intricate details. And this is granite, not limestone or marble…The labyrinth of corridors and spaces guarded by this forest of columns is at least confusing in the beginning. All these corridors converge somehow to the two main sacred temples of the complex dedicated first to Sri Meenakshi and the second one to Lord Shiva, both of them off sites for non-Hindu people. The entire complex is covered by a roof supported by this extensive forest of granite columns, with the exception of a pool area that is roofless.
Hindu believers show a profound devotion in all temples and this one is no exception. There are people stretched on the ground and kissing the yantra in front of the deities’ temples, there are ceremonies with trumpet, drum and bells where bare chested pujaris carry a shrine, in another corner musicians chants, in the courtyard is an elephant that takes the coin from your hand and blesses you by placing the end of his trunk on top of your head. You may lose yourself through the corridors and passages that bring you in and out and sometimes accidentally in the sacred shrines were Hindus wait in line for darshan. On one of the side area is the Temple Art Museum, with another forest of sculpted granite columns, where a dancing Shiva is lit at the end of a hall guarded by elephant columns that measures around 150 feet. The effect is spellbinding,
The temple is impressive and you can easily spend lots of hours there following the events.
But I did not have the luxury of time and I went back to the hotel, picked up my cameras and got in a tuk-tuk to visit the Palace residence of the Nayaks, named Tirumalai Palace, now in not such a great state. However the main courtyard is renovated together with what used to be the Dance Hall, that accommodate a museum. The decoration is done with plaster, nice but not remarkable.
From the palace I took a ricksha driven by an old man and went back to the temple to shoot anything the entrance towers and zipped to the hotel where Kumar was waiting for me to leave for Tanjavur.
Munnar is a hill station. Established probably during the Brits’ time it was the place to go out of the cities to escape the heat. It is surrounded by tea plantations and tea factories but none of the factories organize visits.
The hotel I stayed in Old Munnar, drab as it was, proved to be OK but I woke up for no reason too early. I went for a weird buffet breakfast at the same top hotel, SilverTips, where I had the dinner and the internet access and made my morning calls. I love this Vonage app that let you call any phone in the US for free over hi-fi.
Around 8:00 am I met Kumar who went o wash and change. The drivers in India sleep in the car. I feel bad but I cannot change a country. I will just tip him….
We left to Muttupetty, a destination around Munnar where there are interesting sites.
Shortly after getting out of the New Munnar I found my elusive women that I looked all over Sri Lanka and either because of schedule or the rain were never to be found. The tea pickers were in full swing, picturesque like in a postcard and caring on their back, not the shaped basket of the Sri Lanka’s colleagues but just a sack where they deposited the leaves. I was on top of the hill overlooking a tea plantation peppered with these women and I was shooting and taking pictures. At one point one started to make some signs like writing something, and first I thought that she wanted for me to send her the photo. But after a while I figured out that they were looking for writing pens and pencils. I have still a full bag and I started to give it to them, all coming and picking up leaves right near me to get the pens. It went for a while because all of them figure out that is a freebee to get so I was able to get rid of lots of pens and pencils and take great footage and images.
I continued with Kumar to Mattupetty dam, a very, bevy beautiful place especially in the morning light and further to various points around the lake, Echo Point and the Shooting Point, a place where probably Bollywood got involved in calling the name. Latter we got to another lake, another dam and finally to a top station point (30R) where the mist was so thick that reminded me of Emeishan and the Chinese women running around to rent military coats to save the tourists of freezing, I told this episode to a collection of Poles and Canadians on the way back that were hope\ing that the mist will simply vanish. From there we returned to Munnar and admired again the abstract shapes of the rows of tea plants in the plantations. You cannot but stop and take pictures because the beauty of them is spectacular. I did appreciated it in Sri Lanka also but here the weather was better with occasional sun and the green was overwhelming. Shapes after shapes, with canals for passages that bring you to another interesting shape. I took lots of footage of just the shapes, similar in a way with the rice paddies in Vietnam. The beauty of the road made me to try to shoot it so for the first time I Installed the Gopro and shot most of the way, taking advantage also of the phone charger Kumar had that helped me keep the camera alive.
The traffic is very slow and Kumar did not rush so we arrived back in Munnar around 1:00 pm with a definite plan to leave at 2:00 pm. Around Munnar there are lots of National Parks that require time for hiking but it was no way that I can make it so I settled for the city, scruffy as is called in Lonely Planet. It has a Hindu temple, a new mosque and a Carmel Catholic Church. I walked around and stopped at a home made chocolate shop that was selling large barks of chocolate like in any chocolate place in New York and I could not resist to get some because I thought that it goes well with my rice and curry…..
A thing that you see all over Kerala, and Munnar is no exception, are the flags with hammer and sickle that adorn the public spaces, the posters of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and much newer lots of posters with Che Guevara, Fidel and Chavez. They were also in Munnar and I stopped to take photos of them all, an archaic trait that still kicks. All this comes from the elected government that is communist and was running in the state’s election successfully since 1957. They raised the literacy level in the state, Kerala being now the best educated state with 91% literacy but the investments are lagging so unemployment is high for all these educated people. Kerala is a beautiful state. It is the place where Indians come in vacation. Lagging in development a strong accent is put on tourism, no matter that you could not tell this based on the road conditions. Also somebody who traveled in India’s North can easily say that it is cleaner, a thing that I heard also about the South in general. Of course for anybody who came first to India in Kerala this may not be apparent. On the Kolam-Allepy ferry I tried to make this point to the Polish girls and to some German students from Munich and they thought that I am out of my mind. They saw only the rubbish but this is different and less visible than the junk in the North that makes you feel sometimes that you almost swim in it. Also, without pulling the curtains from the kitchen even the food look cleaner and the food poisoning thought , real as they are, may fade a little away. Because the hotels cater mainly to tourists, Indian and foreign, with relatively bigger pockets than the regular locals, many restaurants serve in porcelain, and some are very fancy looking ones. If you eat on a local eatery you are given a stainless steel circular tray shiny and clean where you will put together everything you want to eat. Is similar with the North trays but it does have separations. How it is cleaned latter remains still a mystery that I don’t want to debacle.
The drive out of Munnar was again through tea plantains, even more beautiful than the ones we saw before. However my elusive women proved as such and plantations were empty. The clouds that engulfed us at Top Station were more serious and rain showers started to come, On the way, in the showers, I found some other women picking tea leaves but they were ready to leave. The pass on top of the mountains that separates Kerala of Tamil Nadu is the facto “border” and it is manned by guys who are pulling some ropes for a barrier to lift. As I understood this is a steady income and a great job because every merchandise truck that passes gives them a tip of several hundred rupees. Unofficially….The border guy, fluent in English, was adamant for me not to take a picture, no matter that the border is irrelevant being in the same country.
The drive to Madurai was long, about 5 hours. And most of the time is spent on descending the mountains from Munnar to Techi, about 3 hours for about 60 km, on a sliver of a road about the size of a regular lane potholed or asphalt-less. After that the road is good and relatively large all the way to Madurai.
When we reached Madurai, the traffic became insanely slow and we we crawling through the city at snail pace till finally we go in front of a group of hotels and I booked a room in Golden Park, a decent place but where they told me that hot water is only after 5:00 am. I am writing this blog on the 7th floor of the Hotel Madurai Residency that has a roof garden where I had my dinner. After dinner I wanted to walk on the streets but in Madurai I found the India that I know. Lots and lots of children and adults living and sleeping on the street, some on newspapers or posters and others just on the sidewalk, eating from newspapers and begging, all in the middle of a mayhem of traffic. Being too tired for this I gave up and escaped to the comfort of my hotel to publish this blog. For a week, in Kerala, I forgot about this India that I knew so well..
Located on the famous spice coast of Malabar, Kochi used to be the heart of the spice commerce in the 1500. The ships were coming here and were loading the coveted culinary and health marvels and would bring them to improve the palate of the European aristocracy and the regular gents. The Portuguese were first who settled here on the entire east Coast of India and Sri Lanka and when the business proved to be successful the Dutch fought them tooth and nail and latter the Brits did the same with the Dutch. Implicitly you have cemeteries, a famous one being the Dutch one, and probably some Brits should be somewhere entombed here. The Portuguese came here with the cross and established impressive churches, St Francis being probably the oldest church in India. Inside it was entombed Vasco da Gama, his tomb being still here but the body was moved to Lisbon in Bellem. In the photo is Santa Cruz, full of people for the morning Sunday mass and sporting on the facade a large poster of the new Pope. I wonder how they were able to spread that poster so quickly all over the world. Say FEDEX!. In the entire Kerala the number of churches exceeds by far the number of Hindu temples. There are areas were you may not see even one Hindu temple but churches and mosques. In the morning I was awaken by my of old friend from Istambul, the muezzin. who somehow got up early, climbed the minaret and woke up everybody in town. It was 5:30 am and is no sunrise on this coast….But I left for a walk in Fort Cochin, one part of the town, that being by the ocean’s shore was enchanting. The town is tranquil in the morning, not resembling an Indian town. People stroll, some run, photo ops are happening, the individual fishermen were throwing their 8 kg nets, other were cleaning their boats or selling fish in the market and the fishermen using the Chinese nets that we saw yesterday on the backwaters were waiting for the current to subside. But everybody was relaxed waiting for another day of their life to, somehow, happen. Latter in the day I watched how the fishermen were using the Chinese nets and it was quite a show. 8 people were operating the contraption that was lowering in the water a huge net and when it was supposed to have some fish in it, a commotion started and all were pulling some ropes that have huge boulders at their ends, bringing the nets out of the water. After that, 2 or 3 of them were trying to get any of the presumptive fish out of the net and the cycle was repeated.
So Kochin is a town that was shaped by many European influences plus one more, a very strong and prosperous Jewish, that according to tradition came here after the Jerusalem temple destruction by the Romans and settled on the coast. They were traders and they formed a community that was dealing in spices and other goods. Somehow they had at one point a kingdom of their own destroyed in time by many and they asked for the protection of the local kings. The location was and is still is in Mathengeri, the second important area of Cochin. In the middle of the “Jew Town” is the “Jew Cemetery” and the Synagogue built in the 1600. It can be visited barefoot like everything in India and it has impressive lamps hanging on the entire perimeter of the room. Women were allowed to enter only by a separate staircase and were seated in a gallery far from the curious looks.
But the Jew Town is charming, full of shops who do not offer commission. There are so many things to check that you may need a day only for this. I entered during the day in two places that had art exhibits that were part of the first Biennial in India and I spoke with one organizers about its perspective. Also, I spoke with an old Jewish woman who was deploring the state of the community that is almost wiped out, most of the Jews emigrating in the last years to Israel. She was looking like the last standing in Kochin, an old and frail woman looking like any Jew in Europe or New York
In Mathegeri is also the Dutch Palace, that is actually a Palace built by the Portuguese and given as a gift to the Maharaja in exchange of being forgiven when they screwed up and attacked a local temple, plundering it by mistake. The palace is a museum and it has inside absolutely amazing murals from Ramayana. The rest of the exhibits are not so interesting except from a historical perspective.
From Mathengeri, I left with regrets because I would have like to stay longer, to Thavera where is located a private museum, the Folklore Museum of Kerala. Its building took 7 years to complete and is built in the airy style of the wooden palaces of Kerala. It is the pet project of some Kerala enthusiasts who accumulated an impressive eclectic collection of old artifacts from the state. The rooms were decorated in various Kerala styles and on the top floor was constructed a theater that was supposed to have daily shows from Ramayana, now more sporadic. In the museum I met a American from Manhattan’s Upper West side that was living and working for years in Kabul, deploring the entire situation in Afganisthan. But he told me that the museum is selling some items in order to raise some cash because they have some debt issues. He mentioned also the possibility to be in foreclosure. Latter, talking with the people they told me that anything is for sale. The prices were very high for India and probably for sure you could get them cheaper if you find the them but I ended up buying an overpriced shield because I thought that I will never had the chance to go in a museum, open any wall cases and pick up an item. How about I will try this in April at the Met!!!!!
From Thavera we left directly to Munnar, 120 km that took, Indian road style, only 3 1/2 hours because it is Sunday and was no traffic. The average speed here it did not improved since we were first time in Rajatshan. We finally arrived and stayed in Old Munnar in a basic place but I was able to eat some Kerala fish and find an open wi-fi Internet connection, no matter that I was told is only for the hotel’s customers…..
Varkala is for sure in another category of places in India, first because is mainly catering for foreigners. The restaurants and shops, are all built on the cliff and you can have your dinner watching the ships go by in the night at the horizon. My Kerala fish wrapped in banana leaves was a treat and I woke up after sunrise with it in my head.
In the morning I went for a walk to the beach where pujaris were in full swing doing puja for early risers in a serene atmosphere. Varkala has an important temple and is a deeply religious place, a thing that you may miss if you look only at the bikini clad foreigner girls roaming the beach and restaurants.
If you walk 5 minutes from the beach you get to Janardhana Swami Temple where a ceremony with drums and fireworks was going on. I roamed the temple’s compound after I paid 100R for my camera. Only Hindus are allowed to enter the main temple so I looked only from the door. Returning to the hotel the puja on the beach was way more evolved, many bare chested men dressed only with a dotty were receiving the blessing. I followed the ceremony that, like any puja in India, is very involved so I learned something from the pujari but I would not steal their trade.
At the hotel was a big rush because a tourist bus was leaving but through luggage shuffling I was able to get parts of my breakfast. I had to wait a little bit and I decided to go for a walk on the cliff and shoot during day light the stores and restaurants. Latter I said good bye to the guys in Sanctum Spring Beach Resort, a hotel I would highly recommend, a little bit higher in price but really great.
At 9:00 am we left to Kolam on a narrow road and the 30 km took abbot 75 minutes so we arrived in time for the ferry ride that starts at 10:30 am. The plan for the day was to do the famous ferry ride from Kolam to Alappzuha,, nicknamed also Allepy, an 8 hours affair over about 70km (300R) with two stops. The deck was already full, foreigners crammed on top under a canopy whose height may have made a midget crawl, The Indians were all downstairs in conformable chairs but from where you see less perspective. however they were using the ferry as a ferry and not as a tour boat like the foreigner do.
The ride was very pleasant, maybe a touch too long. On board there we French, Spanish, Germans and a group of three Polish girls, two from Warsaw and one from London, Anna, with whom I had a great chat the entire way. Anna is living in London and the moment she makes some money travels, This meaning almost every month; she just came from Jordan, is in India now for a month, will go to Poland and in the summer/fall in China for month. That’s what I mean a real traveler … Have a great time in India, Anna and be safe!
The ferry ride happens on the backwaters, canals and lakes that are occasionally connected to the ocean but most of the parts are completely separated. The landscape and the life on the backwaters is fascinating. First everything is covered by palm trees giving the tropical look of Kerala. The Chinese nets are aligning the canals. they have a large net and a light on top that is turned on to attract the fish to come into the net. The fisherman are all over throwing their nets and bringing them up still empty. Kids were swimming. Women were washing dishes and doing laundry at the lake/canals. Youth were playing cricket or ball. Old men were watching life passing by.
And beside was the boat traffic. Lots of boats were crossing the lakes, moving merchandise, moving passengers or tourists. At one point our ferry that had some poles to be pushed manually, just in case, caught an aerial cable wire and broke it making fall into the water so those villagers will not be able to update their Facebook status tonight. We stopped first around 12:30 when we had a basic Indian lunch of rice and several other unidentified foods and the second time just for a tea break around 4:00 pm in a village where I made a kid happy with a pen. But the joke with Facebook proved not to be so far off, surprisingly, because in that small forgotten village,it was a small temple, insignificant. It had the name written in Tamil but underneath it was spelled out its Facebook page!!! Go figure….
On the way the boat stopped and picked up two Germans who were actually in Amma’s ashram. The place were it stooped was Amritapuri. She told me that her boyfriend met Amma four time before in Switzerland. I told her that I took also darshan in New York from Amma and it felt very good. Amma was not there, again being in one of her big tours around the world and they told me that the people in ashram are neither nice nor warm as she is, so they did not like so much.
When we got close to Allepy the house boats started to show up. These are large boat5s that have built on them a whole apartment on one or even two floors. They are rented by hour or by day for cruises in Kerala and they serve food, you can sleep or sightseeing or just relax. The rental price depends if is rented by the hour or by the day. A sort of limos on the water…. They were slowly floating or moving up and down and we were close to Allepy we saw lots of them -parked fro the night.
Kumar was waiting for me in Allepy and would have liked to stay there overnight but I insisted on going to Kochi for schedule reasons. So we started driving around 6:15 pm and drove about one hour in the night arriving in Kochi around 8:00 pm. This blog was written in the car during this drive. Indian drivers do not want to drive during night time and neither do I. But beside that he told me that he never came to Kochin in the night and he did not know the hotels. We looked on the guidebook but we could not locate neither and driving on we parked ourselves in a beautiful hotel, Fort Kochin with a charming garden lit by lamps hanging from the trees and had dinner by the water.
The hotel proved to be decent in the end and I went to see the sunrise at the tip of India with the sun coming out of the Bay of Bengal with hundreds of Indian people. They were already on the tip of the jetty when I showed up and after the sunrise I walked in the fisherman’s area of town, an area of small houses polychrome painted that are dwarfed by the nearby hotels. Only in India you may still find waterfront property with majestic views kept in these dismal conditions. But for how long? Nearby is Our Lady of Ransom, an impressive catholic church, the number of churches being high in Kerala. For sure the missionaries made some inroads here. At the church and latter on the way I gave all my pens to kids who were so happy to receive them. You could see how they were beaming. Around 7:45 am I got in line for the ferry that crosses to the island (34R or special 169R both RT). The line was very long and I could not stop admiring the beautiful saris the women were wearing. The island has a mondop where is a footprint, considered to be of Sita, if I remember correctly and opposite it is the temple dedicated to swami Vivekananda, famous Indian philosopher and yogi, who is credited with the exposure of yoga and the Indian philosophy to the Western World by participating at the Religion Congress in 1913 in Chicago. The temple has a statue inside and underneath is a meditation chapel built on the location where Swami Vivekananda meditated. pilgrims stop to meditate here for a little bit under a constant sound of AUM.
The temple was full of pilgrims and lots of foreigners, mainly Russian these times, young people interested in Yoga who came with a guide that was explaining them about the place.
At 10:30 am, after I bought my bananas for breakfast and a bag because I got luggage overflow from Sri Lanka, we left to Kovalam but we stopped on the way to Padmanabhapuram Palace (1 hour), the residence of the Maharajah of Travancore (200R). The palace built about 300 years ago is made out of wood sculpted in remarkable details. Each column capital is different and is covered in special lacquer to preserve it. What impresses the most is the technique they used to ventilate the palace. Even if they had long rooms with limited outside access, they made perforated panels that kept a constant air flow in the rooms. Besides, the rooms were getting in interior courtyards where the rain water was coming inside and draining on the basinet at the base keeping the atmosphere cool and pleasant. the palace is very large being added buildings in different stages by various Maharajas. They have a ridiculous fee to shoot video, 1500R, so I took some photos inside and I tried also video with my new small Canon. We’ll see if it did the trick or not.
We got back in the car and after about 2 hours, during which I dozed a lot being too tired and hot, we were in Kovalam. It reminded me again that In India, even if you see a distance of 60 km that still may mean 2 hours, the traffic is horrific and the roads are small.We reached Kovalam around 2:15 pm and I went to walk on the beach. The town is very touristy, full of foreigners but as far as I could tell are all older people.It has two nice bays and in the middle it has a nice white-red painted light house that is worth a visit (25R) and the small fee they charge for the cameras (25R). The views from thew top are spectacular. The sand on the beach has a black tint on top.The beaches are guarded by hotels, cottages, cabanas, lots of restaurants all with free wi-fi so at least from this you could tell that is a foreigner’s hang out place. But it was just pretty and not much to see and at around 4:00 pm we left to Varkhala…
…where we arrived in about 90 minutes with traffic and such and got a beautiful room in a hotel by the cliff. I went to shoot the sunset and right after that got into the water for a late day bath. The rip currents are strong and ported me a while so when I got out took me a while to locate my sandals…
The hotel has free wi-fi and latter, when I went for dinner on the cliff walk full of restaurants and beautiful shops, I noticed that all restaurants had free wi-fi also. No matter that I was very tired, dozing all day in the car, I went and did some shopping of music and pouches in a charming stores of the cliff before going to bed.
Today was a very hectic day. I woke up at 4:00 am to pack and at 5:00 am the tuk-tuk was already waiting. In 25 minutes we arrived at the airport, the major cultural advantage of Negombo. I paid the driver 800Rs and gave him an extra tip from the money I still have left and also some pens for his children. Like everybody in Sri Lanka he was very happy and grateful. After the check-in I went to get on the Internet at one cafe with free Wi-fi but it did not work so I just wrote my blog and ended buying a beautifully looking Ceylon tea, a pleasure just to look at it beside tasting, mango+pineapple.
Sri Lanka Airlines surprised all the foreigners because they put us, without asking, in the first class and I ended up near Angie, a British lady living in France who used to have a house in Sri Lanka and used to come twice a year. Now she sold it but she still comes many times and now was going to India. She was a well versed traveler as I understood and obviously she was very knowledgeable about Sri Lanka so we chat the entire flight, about 1 hour.
In the airport the passport officer had to figure out how come I had extra pages in my passport. As Angie told me in the plane the Indians are more pedantic and this was exactly the situation. In the end he let me go and after I changed some money and tried to figure out a price for renting a car at the single agency in the airport, I gave up and bought a prepaid taxi to the city (350R) and got at the railway station where after some investigation, I chose an agency and I started the negotiations for the car. We fixed an itinerary of about 8 days that would bring me to Kanyakumari, Kovalam, Allepy, Munar, Madurai all the way to Tanjavour and Trichy for 21000R for a Chevy van and negotiated down to 20000R.
But India is India and I felt it the moment I landed. The Sri Lanka smile is not there anymore even if you salute the people or smile to them; men are very stern looking, women may budge occasionally. But from the moment I got off from the airport taxi I was surrounded by porters, sellers, beggars and all sorts that all wanted business. Welcome to india! It is hard to get rid of all of them…
I asked the guy from the agency to bring me to a bank so I rode on a scooter behind a surly guy who brought me first to an exchange office and at my insistence to a bank after a second attempt. But the bureaucracy in India is its second name and it took more than 30 minutes to exchange TCs and cash to the desperation of the scooter guy. But everything went all and I came back to the car rental place flying on the scooter and holding tight to my new friend. The traffic reminded me of scenes from the past visits. Lots of people, everybody pushes, honks, fumes and exhaust, dirt everywhere. My driver speaks several words in English, better than the previous one I had in 2010 who did not speak at all, and after I paid and got a receipt with the itinerary, we left to visit the main temple in Trivandrum, Padmanabhaswamy temple. This proved to be fast because you cannot get inside as non-Hindu but I could visit its impressive outside decoration.
When I got back to the car the driver told me that we cannot go to KanyaKumari and we had to go back to the agency. On the itinerary the agent spelled Cape Comorin, taking from my notes, but he did not know what it was or at least he pretended this way. When I went to the office he asked for another 2000R. When you are in India you better should act like in India so I started yelling at him that he did the writing and better know what is doing, etc. and he should know better where is Cape Comorin than me. He apologized that he made a mistake and in the end we compromised for another 1000R,.. The Indian way. The distance is about 200 km more and they have a limit for the pricing in Kerala of 200 km a day, so probably it was out of the limit.
We left to Cape Comorin or Kanyakumari, that I found out on the way that is in Tamil Nadu and you need a permit to get here. The drive took close to 3 hours and we arrived here around 3;30 pm, booked in Madhunnai hotel with ocean view but it took a while till I was able to get a reasonable room. The AC was noisy, the view was terrible, kind of old and dusty, no wi-fi and turned out latter that was no hot water.
Around the Cape were throngs of people, a number that you hardly match in any other country. But the location is really beautiful, the place where three oceans and seas merge. Right in front is the rocky island where Swami Vivekananda meditated. An immense statue is built on the island beside a relatively smaller temple. The trips are starting early morning and I will go there around 8:00 am. On the shore is a monument where Gandhi’s ashes are kept. Besides there is very active market and people hang out grateful for the evening breeze. The temple in Kanyakumari is very important and it’s the first temple of Dravidian architecture that I see. Built in sculpted black granite the temple is austere looking inside. You have to remove your shirt and walk bare chested inside and leave all cameras at the entrance. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Kumari, a manifestation of great Goddess Devi. The goddess, famous for being able to defeat demons, is represented in the main altar surrounded by candles. I took twice the tour in the temple because it was really impressive. Unfortunately no photos of any kind were allowed.
The sunset in Sri Lanka and Southern India cannot be matches, a gorgeous red globe going to sleep in the waters. I watched the sunset with an entire audience of Indians who were there looking at the sun and worshiping it, as I may have said before, even without knowing.
Returning to the hotel I tried to get a train ticket from Trichy to Tiravanamalai for the March 21 but everything was booked and only waiting list was available, so I may end up going by car or bus. During dinner in a South Indian restaurant over Boney M songs the power went out and it happened several times over the evening.
India is known for its IT specialists, but the country infrastructure is far behind their expectations. The power grid is weak and in the IT country it is hard to find an internet connection. As far as i could find out In Kanyakamuri is only one Internet cafe, that means one computer and that one did not have power. After trying in several places I found a hotel where I could buy an wi-fi access card for 100R/hour but even there the access was only in the hotel lobby…
A dream come true. Going in India for Khumba Mela can be the dream of any photographer. I doubt that is in the world a place where subjects abound like here. We shot stock travel footage from Kumbha Mela in Haridwar and we continued to Delhi, Gwalior, Orcha, Khajuraho, Allahabad, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath. We ended our travel shooting session in Benares-Varanasi-Kashi a place that you can imagine only if you see it. But you still may not understand it…..
March 2010 Maha Kumbha Mela in Haridwar-Rishikesh-Gwalior-Orcha-Khajuraho-Allahabad-Bodh Gaya-Sarnath-Varanasi-Delhi .
India is not a trip. It is an experience. Everything here is pushing your senses. To say, “I did India” and have in mind a tourist trip where you see the sites and nothing else is impossible. The Indian life enters your skin, your body, in your breath and in your mind like nowhere else in the world. India is a place like no other on the beaten, or even unbeaten, path. In no other place in the world you live symbiotic, like it or not, with your travel destination. India is wearing you out like no other destination. As I noticed first time in Bangkok 15 years ago you could tell in a crowd who was the guy coming from India after a long stay. They look different, tired, weary, exhausted but in a mental way and all the travelers I spoke with confirmed it. This does not mean a bit that they hate it, They are coming every year and stay for quite long hauls, traveling from North to South, coming and going to Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc, but always spending the large part of the time here. They were before and will come again next year but they face the reality that the experience is tougher than in any other parts of the world. A lot of them stay in ashrams for a while taking yoga classes. Here life is different, easier sometimes than the one “on the road” but it has the stricter requirements of the secluded life. Some are forgetting themselves in Goa, Andaman Islands, Shimla, Manali, etc. but no matter where they go and stay, they will always be awed and horrified in the same time. For travelers less exposed to the sheer reality, maybe first time here, who started with a long stay plan, time drags along. They know that they will not extend their stay so they take it easy and stay as comfy as possible thinking about the time when they will be back in their own country. Because India is the only country where you are not regretting that the vacation is over and you are looking forward to return to your country where, after a short while, you will start again dreaming to return here, to India.
The driver was waiting in the station since 7 am but he was not so surprised by the delay. This is India and the time is passing. It was not too much time left so we drove directly to the large mosque in Delhi, Jama Masjid, that I could not see last time because of a festival. After haggling with the guy at the gate about the camera I convinced him to let me in after I paid the Rs 200 for it and entered the mosque, where surprisingly you can shoot anything you like, people being quite friendly. I climbed the minaret that was packed to the point that you could not stand on top, that is anyway tiny but filled with people some of them waiting on the steps to get their turn. From the top you can see a bird eye view over the entire Delhi. Red Fort was closed on Monday and after a very quick look in the Muslim Bazaar I got to India Gate, a photo opportunity for many Indians and up to the Government buildings that are up on the avenue. New Delhi is a far cry from the crowded Old Delhi. With large boulevards guarded by trees it has a very nice an airy atmosphere. The traffic is not congested, there are hawkers and it is a pleasure to drive and walk in the area. Here are the residences of many officials, the embassies, the government buildings, etc.
We drove to Conaught Place, a place that last time we were able just to see in the night, that was under major renovation, all the buildings being supposed to be repainted and the result the entire area was a building site. In India noting is done in chunks but everything all at once. So now because they want to revamp the city for the Commonwealth Games the entire city was in construction. In Conaught Place I did some shopping amazed by the great colors and fabrics of the materials brought from an entire subcontinent to be marketed here where the prices are probably higher. Time is always short, so going from shop to shop I was coming very close for my departure time to NYC and we rushed to the airport in a relatively decent traffic. The security in the airports is at least as tight as in the Hindu temples that I visited so after I told them that my luggage stayed with the driver all day they apologized but had to open everything. They did it in a very diligent way, taking their time that I thought I could not do the check-in but eventually everything went thorough and I got in the plane 5 minutes before they closed the doors ready for a 14 h 40 minutes flight to Newark, NJ in which I was able to sleep about 8 of them finally out of the heat, bugs, pressure, touts, smells, dirt, etc.
India is an experience. Everything here is pushing your senses.
The sunrise was beautiful, somewhere around 6:15 am but I was up earlier to get it when it comes up. In spite of everything it is a pleasure to be on the ghat bin the morning and see the pujas, the offers to the Ganga, the prayers, the candles, the fumigating sticks, and many, many, many flowers. They will become the garbage that clogs everything eaten by the cows latter on but its morning beauty is uplifting. I was trying to get some shots with people praying but it is very hard to know who will do what and I had to move from ghat to ghat just to notice that behind me there were interesting things happening. Finally, when the sun was too high to be nice anymore I left to explore the smaller lanes and alleys towards the Golden Temple.
The most famous temple in Varanasi is Vishvanath Temple. The current terrorist situation in India calls for extreme measures so nothing is allowed in the temple except the offers. So I went to the hotel around 10:30 am to pack, free the room, charge a little more the batteries from camera and iPhone and left the entire baggage, except passport and money at the hotel and took the way of the Temple. The temple is hidden in some alley behind the main ghat, together with the mosque built by Auzerghab and its proximity is flagged by the long lines of pilgrims caring offers followed a very heavy presence of police and military that checks you in order to let you enter the compound. They body check you but very seriously, not like in the airports. Two guys, one after the other body checked me and have in mind that there are thousands of pilgrims coming here……I was allowed to get inside the enclosure , the temple being inside beside another barrier of police. Theoretically only the Hindus are allowed inside the temple but being India, and people being nice in general, the foreigners are allowed if they fill up their passport, address in a log. I did the process, I left my sandals and got inside after another body check, the third one. All the beautiful and old stuff cannot be filmed/photographed and this temple is really very interesting. The architecture is kind of generic but is covered in gold and silver and the hordes of pilgrim make a great show. But it is true that if they let people use the cameras would be a complete traffic jam inside with so many pilgrims so they ask you to keep moving. When I got out I was up for a surprise finding out my sandals missing. Somebody “confused” my sandals with their slippers and the first thing I thought was of C who would be the happiest person to find out that my sandals are gone. I suspect that she made some arrangements with the Indian mob to hijack them. They were a relic of the past, sandals that traveled the entire Asia, and they looked like this, as a result they were banned from the house and spent last winter on the deck. The missing sandals was not a big deal at all, especially at the end of the trip, and being in India not even the fact that I had to walk barefoot on the streets. You have to do it no matter what because in temples and their compounds, that are as clean as the streets, you are forced to do it. Obviously, if you had to walk like this in any other city you may be concerned about the broken glass, nails, rusted metal, lit cigarettes and many other, but in that moment I realized that these kind of things do not exist on the Indian streets and alleys. There is NO industrial garbage because everything is collected and reused, the only things that rusts in the sun are the carcasses of mangled trucks that cannot be cut into pieces by the nearby locals in order to be reused. But the main problem is to walk barefoot at 12:00 pm when is blistering hot so I had to plan my trip to the hotel in the shade and only the last 100 meters would be in the sun. It was also the option to look for some flip-flops but I could not locate a store. On the way I stopped for a break at the German Bakery, made with tables like in Morocco where people lay down on pillows being full only with foreigners and I got a banana chocolate pancake, my brunch. Varanasi is full of foreigners of all kinds and countries. From the guys lost in India who are living here for long time and are dressed in hippie clothes, to the ones who are migrating between Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangkok, to the more uptight young couples who will never come again -you could tell easily-, to the older couples coming in a trip after they worked all their life in demanding jobs to put the kids out of college. All of them are roaming the ghats and the main streets with red faces heat stroke, wasted and like in a trance, tired of all the aggression that surrounds and with which many are not used. The older they are the more disfigured their faces look…I got very quickly at the hotel, got my sneakers and left right away to explore again the area around the temple. I got in some narrow lanes but all of them communicate, cross and merge coming to main roads.
At one point I saw a funerary ceremony going to the burning ghat. The dead is completely covered, like a mummy and covered in shinny orange, the color of the monks. It is carried by 4 fast moving guys and are followed by a whole procession dressed in white, the color of death, that has to move very fast to keep up with the guys in front. They will go to the burning ghat where the dead will be deepened in Ganga after being put in position on the funerary pyre that will burn for about 3 hours. After more walks I went to the Dom’s house, the leader of the untouchables, these being the people that perform the funerary and are allowed to touch the dead. The Brahmins and all the other castes consider this unclean but this stratification comes with advantages and job security. Only some dalits are allowed to do this job, other are allowed to clean the streets, to sweep the compounds, etc. Coming back toward my hotel I stopped to take some shots from the shi-shi roof top restaurant I ate the previous night, “The Dolphin” and latter to buy another CD with Krisha Das. But is hot and I took a stop to eat something, a honey nut, totally dry, cake and get some Internet time.
In the afternoon I am leaving to Delhi with Poorva Express that leaves Benares at 18:46pm arriving Delhi tomorrow morning so I would leave at 5:00 pm for the train station. This may be the last posting till I get in New York, where I already have meetings all next week. I think that is still better in India. I got back at the hotel close to 4:30 pm and found an entire assortments of foreigners in the lobby waiting to leave somewhere. In India you are constantly on the go waiting for all means of transportation. I left at 5:00 pm with a couple from Montreal who was going to Kolkata and got a cyclo and went to the train station. The best resource for travel in Varanasi is the tourist office from the station. Helpful and very articulate in English they are always pointing you in the right direction. Also they give you a free map of the city that is really great. I finally carried my luggage on the platform just to find out that the train, Poorva Express, was 30 minutes delayed. No big deal, I said, but after 30 minutes it became one hour, and after one hour the station master said that it will come right away: “10-20 minutes is here”. And he was right, the train came and with a little more than an hour delay left to Delhi. The carriages definitely saw better times. Relatively clean, they have in AC2, 4 berth separated by curtains from the corridor in which there were two more berth one on top of the other. So the passing corridor was narrow being not so easy to carry your luggage. But it was AC and it worked. I got a berth by the window on the lower side in the corridor and I got myself in the sleeping bag refusing the sheets offered latter by the conductor. This proved a good move, especially when I noticed in the morning the tones of gray the sheets had and to no surprise because when the conductor came back to gather them, he very neatly pack them ready to be reused. Not too many laundry people around and no Ganga….The express was supposed to stop 4 times till Delhi and he did his stops till morning when with the delay he got before I expected an arrival time at around 8:30 am but the moment the sun came up, maybe the heat made it change its mood and it got lazy and slow to the point that it stopped for an hour and everything went downhill from it. It started and stopped continuous in every tiny station that I ended up to know more than I needed about these places, meanwhile train after train passing it and gloriously we entered the New Delhi station at 1:00 pm with 6 hours delay.
Between life and death, shit and flower petals, exalted devotion and total indifference , Varanasi is opening its eyes on the Ganga. The city is fascinating but the contrasts make it difficult to be understood and accepted. The morning sunrise that bath the ghats in a pink light has something godly in it. You cannot stop watching and the morning boat ride becomes a daily repeated experience that you don’t want to miss.
The sun is blessing you and all around and the city that is the oldest and the most holly city in India, a city with no match, a city older than history. People come here to die but not like in Florida!!! They come here because if they die in a specific perimeter, that covers the entire city, they are blessed and cleansed for a new life. So one of the major business in the city are the two burning ghats, Manikarnike and Harishchandra, that work 24 hours a day, the pyres could be seen from far away with the associated smell of the santal wood. The puja is performed daily and the night aarthi ceremony is beautiful, with flowers and lit candles left to float on the Ganga, an offer to the river that gives life to everybody. Everything is magic….if you see it on my video!!!
But when you walk the small alleys you are assaulted by any kind of imaginable smell, by the dung and shit that paves every street, by the men who are peeing in the street, by the toilets oriented to the street for easier use, by the cows who are all over and you have to be careful not be blessed if their purgation time is near, by the flies who are all over aggregating to the street delicacies that I mention before, by the motor bikes that abound, by an incessant and extremely load noise, by the hordes of people that never stop to come and go, by the mad traffic, by the dead animals that are in garbage, by the piles of garbage that is everywhere and mounts at corners, by the occasional corpses that you are be able to accidentally find (!!!), by the touts who are continuously trying to sell you anything that forces you to act like they do not exists or maybe give them just a slight sign of the hand, by the constant question, the number one in Varansi: “Hallo, boat?” that can change to opium, hash, ganja, coke, massage, water, juice, hair cut, silk, see my shop, money, rupees, boat, boat, boat, boat, boat, boat, boat, boat etc.
The begging is prevalent in India. The beggars are a continuous flow that comes to you. Old men and women barely standing, small and older kids or even adult men and women, women with kids all beg for money. The small kids make some gestures that they would like to show their private parts for you to take a picture and pay them. I brushed them away not wanting to know more, too affected by their poverty. If they see you with the camera they ask for photos in order to be paid no matter that in India many are asking for photos just to have their picture taken and knowing that they cannot get it back. But the begging never stops and you, the traveler, are the main target because it is some hope that you will give something. Most are emaciated, hungry, barely walking, crippled and really in need of help, some were mutilated since they were kids and introduced to this begging business that makes lots of cash for their owners. Modern old slavery.
The bottom line is that at he end the day you are wasted and enjoy just to sit and watch the Ganga that flows slowly and lazy, like the Indian life. I walked again at 5:30 am after a good sleep being bothered only by an army of dogs who were loudly barking and I went on the ghats to be bathed by the morning sun, that I can see from my terrace. I shot for about 2 hours till the sun came up and the light was too bright, lots of prayers at the river and people bathing. The Indians are coming at 6:00 am and bath in the river, ritual followed by regular bath with soap. At one point I got a boat for Rs 50 and cross on the other side of the river where many people were bathing and the view over the city and the ghats in the pink light of the morning was amazing. People were praying and bathing, children were frolicking and just 20 meters in the river a large dead furry animal, I think, was happily floating working in a last moment its karma cleansing for a better rebirth. And of course beside the dead animals, all the ashes and unburnt body parts or even entire corpses are thrown into the river. But Ganga is holy and it has the power to cleanse everything , so people bath, wash their teeth, wash their hair every morning in the river, close to the burning ghats. I crossed back to the city side and went for my banana crepe breakfast and masala tea and I bumped in Traude who was having her breakfast.
We continued where we left it yesterday and went latter to post some post cards with stamps from the post office. Today my plans were to cover all the ghats, in spite of the still 42C, so I left towards the south and saw all the ghats, and started to lose myself in the new side of the city where I saw some great temples. Durga Temple is a really beautiful old temple but unfortunately no pictures were allowed inside the temple. On the way I stopped in a hotel to ask direction and the manager asked to stay for a while and cool off. In general you enter a place and you see several men who are sitting. They told me that in the summer they do not do anything during the day because of the heat. But in the same time you cannot ignore the fact that they could swipe and clean the inside place to look better but nobody apparently cares. I saw a great sign that said: “Restaurant Apsara, we are less dirty”. I got a cyclo with a driver who did not know even how to count in English and after having lots of conferences I was able to get to the temples I wanted to see and to the hotel for the quick shower.
From the hotel I left towards the North ghats where I had to pick up some stuff from the some guys with whom I did some shopping the previous day. We had an entire discussion about the burning ghats, with the amount of wood that is needed to burn a person, recommended 360kg at Rs 25/kg, and so for. Coming back I got more pictures and watched kids playing cricket on the ghats. Sometimes a foreigner is invited to try to bat and the result, or the total lack of it, command roars of laughter. At one point I gave in and got a boat, a constant offer, and I crossed again on the other side in front of the burning ghats and shot the entire city in the hours just before dark with another great light on it and the fires of the ghats going in full swing, 12 at a time. Here I had an unexpected surprise. Shooting some kids who were flying kites, the number 1 pass time in traditional India, I came closer that something that looked weird. I did not have my glasses so I came closer to figure out what it was just to find myself in front of a corpse, headless, mutilated and probaly partially burnt. Again this is India. At least in New Jersey they use cement and they do a very “clean job” before the “ablution” in Hudson.
I crossed back and I stopped at the aarthi from a different vantage point, other altercation with touts that are like bothering flies and you cannot get rid of them and I got after another shower, a good dinner of Navratan Korma. I was able not to get sick in this trip. I respected the famous Indian dictum: “If you cannot peel it, boil it or fry it forget about it” so I was always careful with food and I did not drink even a drop of alcohol. I found it funny that in Orcha and Khajuraho and here is Varanasi, beside the whole assortments of drugs that were constantly offered by the dealers, they have on their menu … beer. There are some wine and beer stores as I understood but they were not easy to find. I still am looking for some CDs but these guys are tougher than the ones in Rishikesh and I kind of bought all that I needed but this did not stop me to stay and listened for 30 minutes a selection of great Indian music. My last night in Varanasi.
At 5:30 am I woke up, or even earlier if I could sleep, because at 6:00 am the boatman came to bring me for a sunrise tour on the Ganges, the most popular trip in Benares. I gave the guy from the hotel Rs 100, that I am sure that was his commission, and I was supposed to give the boatman another Rs 100 for the tour. The boat ride is splendid, with the sun lighting over the ghats and the entire Benares waking up to life.
It takes you for about 2 hours around the to the center ghats, between the two burning ghats where the dead are cremated round the clock. The boatman told me that everybody is cremated except the swamis, the babies, the pregnant women and the people who dies bitten by cobras, the animal of Lord Shiva, to die like this being considered a blessing. Unfortunately it is a strong restriction to take any kind of pictures around the burning ghats and you have to go far away and zoom in if you really care about it. So I got a scolding latter on when some guy saw me shooting from afar, and no matter that there were no details he explained me that is better not to do it. In front of a number of the ghats there are professional washers who are doing the laundry. The process is by soaping, wetting the clothing in the Ganges and after that hitting the laundry on some stones.
When the process is finished all the laundry is dried out by exposing it in the sun on the ghats’ steps and on any existing usable surface. So from here we get our sheets and towels in the hotels, I guess, and that is the reason that their white is having all sorts of tones in it… Walking back to the hotel I met Vasu, an Indian photographer that I chat with in Haridwar. It was an interesting coincidence to bump into each other. After the boat tour I went to see what is going on with my room “upgrade” and apparently nothing was available, but he asked me to still wait and see. I went to have breakfast of a banana pancake at Monalisa, the German Bakery, where I got in a conversation with Traude from Vienna, who quit her job working for the government to find the sense of life outside office work. She was also in shock traveling in India for quite a while. A lot of people decided to come and travel in India after quitting their job at different stages in life.
To travel in India is very cheap and you can stay here forever with $20/day or even less if you push it. But the shock is still there…. I did not have the entire day for chatting and I had no clue what is happening with my new room so I made some investigations for other hotels and when returning to the hotel the manager told me that they still don’t have anything, I paid , took my bags and left to Sita Hotel where the “deluxe” room is slightly better but 4 times more expensive…..And it has AC. The problem is that the nice hotels in Varanasi are not on Ganges but in posh green areas, slightly far from the river. But you want to stay on the river and as a result you pay roughly the same price for a way worse room than if you stay close to Radisson and the rest. But the advantage of having a room on the ghats, that I used a lot, is that after a short walk on the ghats in 42C you come to the room and take a shower and at least you feel less muck on you. Tauder showed me a great map of Varanasi, that is offered for free, a rare thing in India, at the train station so I took a cyclo, got there and talk with a very nice man who was so helpful. Latter I heard that he is mentioned even in Lonely Planet as a great resource. He also pointed me to the Government approved stores with fixed prices in silk, a store that is very close to the rail station.
This detour transformed my day in a shopping day, going from one store to another and latter to another one and finishing all the shopping around 5:00 pm, a good thing because it is finished and done.Another good thing was that it kept me indoors for the peak of the heat. On the way I moved with cyclos, a sort of full size three wheeler bike, driven by some wallahs who are making a terrible effort but at least are kept employed. During this shopping spree I crossed in a totally different part of town. Green, quiet and secluded it felt more like an American suburb than a short walk from the madness of Varanasi’s center. I could not believe that something like this exists In Benares. There were only villas and, as I understood, a lot of military were living there. When we returned at one point this quietude is brusquely ended when you literally cross a street and you enter the regular mayhem of the Indian city. But it is like a magic line that you accidentally cross. It is not gradual. I came and dropped everything to the hotel in my palatine room with a broken mirror and bugs in the sink, deluxe otherwise, and I left to shoot on the ghats, going again towards the burning ghats. At the burning ghats some touts, that Varanasi is full of, asked me if I would like to shoot some pictures. I told them no way and to get lost but they insisted saying that they can get approval from the owner of the ghat, that is BS because they would pocket the money and go.
After they figured out that I have to shoot video they said that is free to shoot but how about I donate money for the poor people to have wood to be burned!!! These creeps were shameless and like all these type of creatures they were asking exorbitant amounts starting to make a grid of how much footage can I get for the wood I would buy to burn corpses!!!! Quickly they made a chart like in a post footage house…. When I flatly refused they were insulted and asked me to leave. It is against the spirit of the ceremony to take pictures of such an event in consideration for the families that congregate there. I went to the puja where I got some better shots and latter had dinner on the roof of one of the nice and more expansive places in Varanasi, Dolphin restaurant, from where you can see the entire city and the Ganga that is slow and lazy like a summer day. When I got at the hotel I notice that I had a sleep partner, a gecko that was running the walls and ceiling looking for insects to eat. And with so many insects around he was a chubby guy.
It is hot In India. It is the first time when I am now off season and I understand what means this heat. It kills your energy, man and beast, to the point that you don’t want to move. It is so hot that you drink bottle after bottle of water and never see a bathroom in the entire day and you drink more than half a bottle in one sip and you are constantly thirsty.
Your lips are dry and if you do not drink water for an hour you feel an organic sickness in your body that makes you leave anything you do and run for a bottle of cold water, the best medicine in this climate. And if you cannot get some at that moment you will drink even the warm water left over in your bottle, only water to be. The dogs are sleeping in the middle of the street such a deep sleep that last night in Bodh Gaya, a guy was moving his cyclo was going to run over a sleeping dog. In the last moment he carefully avoided the dog, its back wheel just touching the dog’s tail, but the dog did not move a muscle and continued to sleep. Maybe he was in deep meditation. Or maybe he was dead because I saw several dogs and cats dead in the streets and thrown in the garbage in the middle of the street. It is so hot that you cannot walk, barefoot obviously, in any temple outside, so you can visit only areas that have shade or dirt, because the marble or the stone is incinerating your feet. It does not matter that you got a new T shirt, it will be soaked in no time. It is so hot that you cannot eat during the day. You may feel a little hunger but the only thing you dream of is another bottle of cold water or a Fanta.
Somebody said that this is summer temperature, 42-43C, for the month of April but other said that it can be even hotter in May and June that are the summer vacation months for schools. To see dead animals decomposing is quite regular but some American guys were completely shocked to see a dead man in the street in Rishikesh covered in flies and people passing obliviously near the body with not a second view. But this is India where survival is key and people do not see the wholeness from the parts. We left in the morning at 6:00 am from Bodh Gaya with no looking back. It was very nice but we have to move. Today is my last car day in India, except the ride in Delhi, and I don’t regret a bit. It is hard to cover these long distances without a car if you are here for a short time. We drove on the highway in the early morning and we were able to reach Varanasi with no incidents around 11:00 am but we continued through Varanasi to Sarnath that is just about 10 km away that took us about an hour.
Sarnath is the place where is located the deer park where Lord Buddha had the first sermon, or how it is called the DharmaChakra, the Wheel of Law set in motion. He meditated and had his sermon in this park that used to be full of monasteries around 500AD but meanwhile went in disrepair and it was renovated recently. It contains an archeological area where it used to be a shrine, many monasteries and a huge unfinished stupa built by Emperor Ashoka. Also it exists a new temple on the place where Buddha taught the first sermon and near by a bodhi tree that grew from a sapling from the one in Bodh Gaya. I visited all of these and tried to sit a little under the Bodh tree but, like yesterday in Bodh Gaya, was so hot and unpleasant that I gave up soon. When I returned to the car I stopped at the museum and to a tanka store, where after not too much negotiations I got two Tibetan beautiful tankas from a very educated and pleasant guy. We left around 3:00 pm sarnath to visit BHU, Benares Hindu University and Birla temple that was inside. It is inside the city but quite far from the center, a green campus with multiple buildings. From there the driver called a mobile number I had from a guest house on the Ganges, Leela, and the owner came to pick me up from a specific point in town. I packed the stuff from the car trunk and gave the luggage to some boys from the hotel who came to help,
I tipped the driver, not knowing how much would be the correct and he asked for Rs 2000. It is much or little I have no clue. I got to Leela, walking on an alley that a number of cows called home and the amount of dung was dangerous in the night. In the hotel I found out a dismal room with balcony to the Ganges but a kind of a prison cell with a fan on the ceiling. I regretted the choice but no other rooms were available and I had to give it a try for one night. The differences in hotel rooms can be night and day for prices 3-10 times higher. Actually when I asked the manager for the room price and he told me that the room is Rs 350 I knew that something is wrong. I left in the city, shooting a little on the ghats in the evening light and getting for the Puja with aarthi, that here happens as usual on the Ganges but it is more sparse than in other places. The music is not so good like in Haridwar but the show is impressive. Puja finished at 8pm and I went for the dinner, the only meal of the day because of the heat.
At dinner I met two nice guys from Sweden, Madeline and Simon, who were traveling to India since September with some pauses in Bangkok. After 6 months in India they were still in shock with the country, a reaction you can see in many travelers. As Madeline put it, it was no difference when they came from Stockholm to India and latter when they came from Bangkok. The shock was identical. And I know exactly what she meant, it is a dual shock and most of the travelers feel this way. As a matter of fact if you enter Monalisa Cafe, full of foreigners and German cookies, you see on their faces the toll the trip is putting on them. I remember in 1994 on Koh Sarn Road in Bangkok, a totally different place than today, you could pick out from a crowd of travelers the ones who came from India after a longer stay…..We had a great conversation with the Swedes but this delayed my schedule and after the nightly phones I was kicked out from the Internet because of late hour and all stores were closing. So I went to the hotel, where to add insult to injury the power was off, and a limited battery power was on, and all I could get from a boy who was sleeping on the floor at the “reception”, in Hindi(!), was ” power off”. I was upset that I could not charge the batteries so I got into the tiny, prison type shower and when I was in the middle of the process the whole power, battery included turned off and I was left to sing in the dark. During my stumbling process to find a towel the power came fully on and it stayed all night, a night when I could not sleep too well because of the heat in my cell in which the small fan on the ceiling did not make a difference.
Based on the quest I did the day before the road to Bodh Gaya is a good one, a 4 lane road and it takes about 5 hours including the exit from the city. We left at 6 am and on the way out I met Anin, the tuk-tuk driver who will wait for me when I get back. We tried to get to the ghats on the Ganga in the morning but it was no access even if we drove all the way out of the city.
But this was good because we came closer to the highway on a short cut route and we were able to join the traffic that was moving well. But at one point the entire traffic stalled and it was not clear at all what happened. As usual you can see lots of accidents, trucks smashed or tipped, trucks parked on the first lane for km that make the road not a highway anymore, or even worse carcasses of trucks that are stored on the highway . I saw too many of these to think that the stalled traffic can be caused by an accident. I took a lot of pictures of these accidents that are disconcerting at least when you move in a car and you can see how the car might look after such an encounter. You don’t stand a chance! Even when you drive on a four lane road, these truck move OK but some of them are quite erratic and you have to be careful with them.
For example, they can veer and cut you off, when you already started to pass them because they decided to pass themselves the vehicle in front. Of course this happens with no signaling from anybody. After they finish the pass, for the first time I see the use of the signals: they signal you to pass them!!!! After a long wait during which some faster cars took one of the lanes on the opposite sense, it turned out that it was nothing like an accident but a whole convoy of trucks that were driving on one of our lanes. The direct result is that some of our traffic moved to drive on the opposite sense, transforming the 4 lane highway in 2 roads of two lanes each!!!! I saw before trucks coming occasionally but not an entire convoy of 10-20 trucks. Soon after that we entered Bihar, an area famous for its mob and bandits. There are two types of them working together: the real professional ones and ….the politicians. The drive went fine with no incident. The driver fixed the car the previous day and it was no more clunking.
We arrived around 12 pm in Bodh Gaya, that is 22 km off the main road. Bodh Gaya is a small village but having a very important place in Buddhism because here, under a Bodhi tree, Buddha attained enlightenment after a long meditation. The temple and the tree are not the original, the original temple built by Ashoka being demolished, rebuilt latter and modified repeatedly and the tree died but another grew from its leaves and currently is a very sumptuous tree on the spot. No matter of all these the place is very pleasant but quite hot when you have to walk barefoot on the marble temple that burns your feet. Beside that famous temple whose architecture was copied in many others in India and SE Asia, the village has a lot to see and is very interesting. Because the place has such an important place in the history of Buddhism, all the countries that are Buddhist settled here one Maha Bodhi teple or monastery in the style of the country/culture. So you walk the village’s alleys and you find full fledge temples or monasteries that are typical for Thailand, Wat Thai Maha Bodhi, a monastery from Bhutan, a Vietnamese Monastery, a Nepalese temple, a Sikhim temple, a Chinese Temple, 2-3 Tibetan temples for each Tibetan Buddhist sect, a Japanese temple with its own Daibutsu, a copy in stone of the famous statue in Kamakura.
It is like you are hoping from one country to another in South-SE Asia and you are on the same street. To visit all of them take some time and I feel that I am constantly running out of time and this is because of this daily driving. But I remember from last time in India that this is the norm here if you come on short intervals. Meanwhile I was able to have lunch of Paner, a rare occurrence, and purchased some Tibetan music prayer flags, etc. dinner of crepe of banana and chocolate, a very non-Indian dish and and the daily internet and phone. Talking with some guys who were asking me if I returned by train to Benares I found out that the train does not run because the Maoists just blew up the rail track between Varansi and Bodh Gaya somewhere….It happens everywhere but mainly in the eastern part of India now. Tomorrow we will start the return , Bodh Gaya being the furthest point in the trip, and drive back to Varanasi and stop in Sarnath, the place where Buddha had his first sermon in the deer park.
Distances don’t mean anything for the Indian road. It is just an approximation for people who want precision on paper. What matter is the knowledge of the road and the word of mouth. I woke up after a great sleep on bird songs, actually it was a cacophony of birds’ songs that I even recorded, and I got in the car to Allahabad at 6:00 am. The road in the morning is empty and it is pleasantly cool.
It is a pleasure to cruise this way in the Indian landscape, a timeless one. Villages are waking up, people were going to the temple for Navrati, cows were already roaming. We drove on a perfect road 2-3 hours and I shared my breakfast of daily oranges with the driver thinking that such a long drive day can turn in a shorter one. The official numbers of hours for this length of road is between 9-10 hours to 10-12. Around 10:30 am we had only 75 km left to Allahabad. What is 75km in US. Just a drive to buy bread….But here is India and anything can happen. And it happened the road becoming very bad. But bad means a lot of things. It can be just rough, or very rough or like the one we were driving on that was looking like it was bombed and craters were all over. The driver had to stop the car to figure out how to pass. And it went like this for 10 km driven with 10km/hour.
Of course we wanted to get info of what to expect further down. And , optimistic as they are, the guys we asked said that is fine. And it was fine for 4-5 km and became bad again in the same manner. It went like this for about 30 km and even more and at one point it disappeared completely under heavy construction. Here we took by mistake the motorbike track that proved just too narrow 1-2 inches at a specific pass, so the car had to be pushed by volunteers to fit between two mounds of dirt. Meanwhile one car shock got broken and it started to clunck and the driver wanted to fix it in a TATA shop at the entrance of Allahabad, but it was supposed to take too long and I told him that is no need because you can run like this and the only drawback is it may make noise. Been there done that! On the road we saw, as usual in India, a lot of accidents involving trucks, that my driver repeated what I knew: they happen during the night when the drivers drinks, use dope and drive in the same time.
Allahabad was not exactly on the way but very close but I wanted to go there and see the Sangam, the confluence between Ganga and Yamuna and, by tradition, the Sarasvati underground and mental river, a very important place for Hinduism and the place that hosted Maha Kumbha Mela from three years ago. We got in the city around 1pm, after 7 hours drive and start driving towards the Sangam just to find there, on the positive side a full fledge celebration for Navrati, the festival that will end tomorrow but on the negative side a dust storm with hot wind that made visibility terrible and made me and camera caked in dust. It was very bad and unpleasant and I could not stop thinking what if this dust storm would have happened in Haridwar when we were already caked in dust in the tents. In any case the whole thing cut a little my desire to go in Allahabad in three years for the Kumbha Mela.
We left quickly after less than an hour and we drove on one of the “very good road”, a four lane road, to Varanasi with no events, just a clunk here and there from the busted shock. We arrived in Varanasi around 5 pm, after about 11 hours if we put the hour spent in Allahabad, and got to Hotel Surya with its beautiful interior courtyard that proved to be very nice but quite far from the ghats. I took a quick shower and got in a tuk-tuk, letting the driver to go and fix the car. The traffic in Varanasi is like taken from a movie. It is so busy and jammed that it is a show in itself. It is different than in Vietnam being very diverse in vehicles, animals and people but on the same magnitude. I got at the Ghats on the Gang and after a walk by the river I stopped for dinner at the shi-shi Lotus Lounge with pillows on the floor overlooking the Ganga and with splurging prices of $3/dish, comparing with the $1-2 that is the norm, for the SOHO type Shahi Paneer.
Tomorrow we are driving to Bodh Gaya, returning to Varanasi for the last days of the trip. After dinner I started to scout for a hotel on the ghats that I may use after our return to Varanasi and I settle for Leela, being to late and dark to find others. The better hotels, like the one I stay in, Surya, are far from the city, about 4 km, but I needed to find a hotel on the Ganga for convenience. In the evening, walking to Internet, I did some research in guesthouses but one was full and cheap the other one was expensive and not so sure that it was empty. I have to call tomorrow and see. It was an interesting incident with the tuk-tuk driver. We discussed for a RT price from the hotel to town for Rs 100. He did not want to accept money when I left into the town because he wanted to be sure to get the RT. So I made the arrangements for him to pick me up at 10 pm and I was wondering how he will find me.
But when I was walking back to the appointment place, the Mazda Cinema, he was on the street waiting and he got his fare and a little extra because he took a longer road. Another interesting thing I found beside tons of CD stores with lots of good music, it was a German bakery selling chocolate cookies, brownies and espresso. Quite different from Jeere Rice and nan!
I asked the driver to leave at 6:00 am but we postponed the process till 6:30 am and we drove for a quick visit to the river where people were doing their morning wash. The scene was extremely beautiful in sunrise, the villagers coming to bath in the river with the background of the Royal Chatris, the royal tombs. Beautiful and peaceful scene in the sunrise. I tried to be quick and after several shots we left to visit Laxminarayan temple that I did not have time to visit the previous day. The temple, located on top of a hill, is a perfect site for sunrise and there were two foreigners there enjoying the view. Unfortunately the temple was closed and was supposed to open at 10 am. I could not wait so long so after several photos we hit the road to Khajuraho around 7:15am.The road proved to be very good and empty at the morning hours. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to leave early besides getting some more day light.
I asked the driver to buy some oranges and bananas and this was the “moving” breakfast of the day, a breakfast that I enjoyed everyday on the road. Everything went great for about 60-90 minutes till we got in Uttar Pradesh and the road disappeared, or it became the famous one lane of disintegrating asphalt that is not wide enough for a truck. But it changed several times from disastrous to dramatic, to OK, to good and in 3 hours exactly we reached Khajuraho. The place is a village that was put on the map by its famous intensly carved temples that have on them some scenes from Kama Sutra, a tribute to Shakti. The driver knew a place to stay and I got a room for Rs 1000, the standard price, at Hotel Suria. The room is OK with AC, hot water and a beautiful garden in the back. I left right after that at 11:30 am to visit the temples that are distributed in three groups, the most important being right in the village and named the Western Group.
The security guys did not let me take the tripod inside but they let me for a small fee, Rs 25, to get my camera. The temples, built around 1000AD are impressive beyond words. They represent the peak of temple building mania in India. The decoration is so elaborate that no tiny piece of their surface is left untouched. Gods, apsaras, demons, armies, animals, elephants, camels and people in erotic scene are sharing the outside and inside of the these temples. The main attraction are the erotic scene from Kama Sutra represented on the walls, a manifestation of Shakti. The temples are known as the “love temples” because of these scenes but these scenes represent only 10% from the entire decoration. Obviously they do not differ drastically and after spending a lot of time at the first 2-3 temples to see all the details and scenes, you start going faster and spend less and less time.
I was able to see the main 5 temples in the complex till about 3:00 pm and went to the hotel to have lunch mainly because it is very hot, 42C I guess. You drink easily many liters of water without going ever to the bathroom a similar thing that we experienced in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 1995. After the very good biriani lunch I left with the driver to see the temples from the Eastern and Southern complexes. Less interesting and less decorated are more interesting for their landscape, the outskirts of the village with fields full of water buffaloes, pigs, chickens, etc. There the most interesting complex is the one formed by the Jain Temples.
Inside it was an exhibit with Jain photos and some Jain renunciates who were parading naked caring only their small broom in the compound to the surprise of the European visitors who were visiting in hordes. Large tourist groups are a norm here, Khajuraho being a major tour destination, one of the top destination in India. After a last stop at sunset at the single temple of the Southern Group, I finished the visit and after a dinner of eggplants with butter nan on one of the many top floor restaurants I went to the internet. Further I intended to spend some time in the many stores but unfortunately the place is full of touts who are quite annoying. Two of them got around to parade with me at some stores to make they coveted commission.
I had a great discussion with an art dealer who was specialized in very old stuff that was interesting but quite expensive. Latter I went and purchased some wedding Ladakh jewelries from a shop on the main road and went to sleep preparing for an early wake up call for the long drive day to Varanasi.
After the breakfast at the hotel the driver came at 7:00 am to pick me up and showed me a place with lots of huge Jain statues sculpted in the rock. He brought me to a terrace that has 26 huge statues plus other temples that on Sunday were used as an extension on the Jain temple from the bottom of the hill and people went there for puja.
The scene was impressive beyond words. This is India. When you think that you saw everything the surprises pour over you like nowhere else. No guide book talks about these statues, at least as I could tell, because they are for worship probably. There were way more impressive than the ones I saw the day before. I stayed there more than 2 hours and when I left I visited the Jain temple, filmed inside and was accosted by a big boss who took me in his office, put a garland around my neck and gave me a portrait of one of the Tirtankaras. English was not an option as a language so I knew only that it was a sign of appreciation for my interest. I left him a business card and asked him to check my website and to look for pictures of his statues latter in April. From there I went back to the Fort where I visited again my Sikh friends from the previous night who recognized me and were happy to pose and latter I went to visit two more temples from the fort’s complex that I could not visit yesterday, the last one Telika Mandir being a very tall structure with Dravidian influences rare to be seen in Northern India. After that we hit the road to Orcha, 122 km that is supposed to take 3 hours and it did. The road is in construction and it comes and goes. The pavement changes from the old “lace pavement” one narrow lane that in India can fit 2-3 vehicles, to a modern finished lane wide for two trucks. But because is in construction it constantly changes from one, to two lanes, to no lanes, to dirt.
We arrived in Orcha around 2:30pm and went directly to Hotel Ganpati, parked myself and left the driver to be. The village is small and picturesque with an amazing palace complex dated from the 16th century augmented in time by many rulers. It is relatively well preserved, but in the Indian way. There are few countries who can boast such a richness of monument and most of these monuments were left in complete neglect just to be partially saved latter. I went and visited the palace complex, its main two palaces, and many other palaces , the place where they kept the elephants and the camels. It was an entire challenge with the filming part because they did not allow the tripod, neither the video camera without a very steep fee but in end I brought both and I was able to shoot everywhere in the palace compound. Towards the end I spend some time in a tiny white temple from where I could hear the entire day the Navrati readings. On the roof of the palace I met a young couple from Brazil who asked me latter in the conversation to give them a lift the next day to Khajuraho. I told them that I will speak with the driver, and I did, but they did not show up latter to find me and coincidentally I bumped into them in the Golden Temple in Varanasi several days latter. I finished the visit around 5:30 pm and went on top of the tallest structure, Chaturbhuj Temple, a Hindu temple from where you could see the entire village, the eagles’ nests, and the love birds from the domes. I got there grace to a boy who had the key and was very happy to get a tip for such an unusual visit. I spent the sunset there on the roof on top of the village admiring the eagles flying in the sunset coming to feed their small ones. I went directly for dinner of curry with cashews, phone and Internet. But the first Internet try was not good because it was on dial up, so I went into the bazaar full of artifacts and very aggressive touts and to the Rama Temple for the Navrati Puja. The temple was, like all others, under high security so you have to leave everything at its entrance, including all the leather objects you may have on you. Inside the Navrati puja was in full swing, more or less like in other temples, with lots of bells and singing.
In the morning I said good bye to Emil and Lydia. My good friends pointed me toward this Kumbha Mela and it was a dream come true to come with them. We had a great time, it was an a great trip and we had a fantastic experience together. So I have to send all my thanks to them for this magic event we were part.
The driver was waiting and I left with the idea to get to a bank and change more money but after 30 minutes ride through Delhi, the bank from a big hotel did not change traveler checks so I gave up. Luckily I was not low on Rs. We started the drive to Gwalior, about 300 km from Delhi. The road is hailed as a “very good road” through Agra and another 100 km further to Gwalior. When you go on an Indian road you have to be very cautious about the statements because implications are multiple. First I heard from various sources that the road to Gwalior may take, 5 hours, 6, hours or 7-8 hours. I discarded the most optimistic and the most pessimistic and I ended up with the 6 hours. But we left at 7:00 am and arrived in Gwalior at 4:30 pm, it is true with a 45 minutes stop in Sikandra. The statement with the “very good road” is correct…. if the road were not have been in India. And this is not because of any technical problems. The road is build well with a large divider in the center, with some sort of barriers at the margins, not like an American highway but technically good. If you have a good road here it slightly helps but this only means that is more space to fill on the road from all directions, so the traffic is moving still slow, maybe a touch better than on the old roads. As I said it is hard to imagine the traffic in India and how these roads are. The traffic is going in all directions on our 2-lane-one-way in spite of the large and famous sign that says: “Please do not drive in the wrong direction”. Absolutely everything imaginable can exist on the road: cars moving in both directions, mopeds, tuk-tuks, ganesh, an older vehicle for people, cows, goats, pigs, dogs that literally sleep on the streets and the drivers are swerving between them to avoid killing them but they do not flinch, stopped trucks in the second lanes that are repaired on the spot with assistance from the side, parked vehicles for km on the first lane, huge loads on minuscule tractors, people, kids playing, occasional cooking, etc. The list remains opened and it will be completed latter with things that our limited western mind cannot imagine. As a result with all this flurry of activity the road is strangled and constantly you have to press the brakes to avoid something. Besides, the Indian people have a tendency to fill up spaces. If you are in the crowd the occasionally empty spaces in front of you will filled little by little till everything becomes a mass that moves and a whole. The result is that the pressure is tremendous in such crowds and I am not surprised about the occasional stampede with many death because when you are in such a crowd, and I was there more than once, you feel very uncomfortable thinking only about this pushing and shoving. Similar, they act similarly in traffic. If it exist a space in a traffic jam I bet anything that it will be filled in no time till everything becomes like a very packed sardine can and the traffic jam becomes even more difficult to solve, nobody being able to move. This is part of the aggressiveness you feel in India. It is not from the people who are in general extremely nice but from the crowds, the traffic, the dry and hot climate, the mosquitoes, ants, animals, beggars, etc. makes it to be a little more than a simple walk in the woods type of experience. The “very good road” have another issues. The trucks are hogging the second lane no matter if they travel fast, slow or stall. So all the passing are done on the first lane, the low speed lane. If it happen that a car/truck/bus driving on the second lane would make space to be passed on its lane, they will never change lane, and obviously nobody signals here, but they will just make enough space for you to squeeze with one wheel out of the pavement on its second lane and the moment you passed they will get back in position. It is exactly like somebody sitting in a doorway blocking the way and barely moving to let somebody else jump in. The traffic was moving slow and I was dozing in the heat of the car where the AC could not keep track with the 38C outside. I did not sleep long enough in the night and I kept going in short dreams and Agra was not closer. Till one moment when the driver woke me up telling that we reached Sikandra. That activated me and I decided to go for a walk in Akbar’s tomb that I visited 12 years ago. The place is beautiful and I felt that it have been renovated meanwhile. We stopped there for about 45 minutes and left around 1:15 pm to Gwalior. The”very good road” stops in Agra and you drive through the city, a hard experience in India, but it continues the moment you leave the city.
Eventually without any other stories we arrived at 4:00 pm in Gwalior and around 4:30 pm at the entrance of its famous fort. I started to do my tour with an inspection of the famous Jain statues sculpted in the fort’ s base rock. They were destroyed by one of the kings but recently some of them have been renovated. Absolutely impressive, they represent Tirtankaras that stand like the famous Buddha from Bamyan destroyed by the Talibans. I continued the tour inside the fort, getting a ticket for the me and one for the camera, something new in India. Also the tripod is not allowed and If I have to use I have to be careful, not that anything is really enforced here. The fort is nice especially in the golden hour of the day. Ruined in most part, has several interesting palaces that were preserved. The main one, Man Singh Palace, has two underground floors used for bath and latter as a dungeon. I spend there all the hours till sunset and after that, meeting a local boy, I went also to visit the Gurudawa Sikh temple. The Sikhs were extremely friendly and happy that I came to visit their temple. They put a bandana on my head and made me walk through water basin to cleanse myself they gave me the green light to shoot anything I like, and I did not to disappoint them. After I shot inside the temple they invited me for prasad, so I ate with them on the floor, see how the women were making chapati and how they were cooking, etc. And they invited me again to visit them the next morning for a better light….. After the visit we drove inside the town and looked for a hotel. I chose Grand Regency that looked great in the lobby and even on the floors with wireless Internet but inside the room the bath, clean thou, was probably last redone when the Brits left…. They changed my room to be able get internet connection on my iPhone inside the room and it helped not to run to an Intenet cafe. But this was latter on when I returned because, now with the hotel booked, I went to the highly recommended sound and light show at the fort that proved a big flop. I don’t like these things but this was nothing special except a long history of the place that had its own merit. The drive into the city is another interesting story. It is not simply driving but just a way of being. First there are no lights to lit the very crowded streets. So the only thing that you see are the incoming cars’ lights in the dark. At one point you start seeing one light to the left of your car and another set of lights to the right and it looks that cars will move around you on both sides.The funny part is when the cow they tried to avoid just start coming out of the dark right in front of your car. In the city some roads were in construction,pavement was done as we drove on it and the entire traffic somehow was going there also, just where ever it was possible, on the new pavement, on the old one, on the sidewalk or the lack of it. But nobody even flinches. The drivers are experienced and this is the norm. I guess if they would drive on an American Highway they would get asleep…. I returned to the hotel, did my email on the iPhone and got a call from home in the room before going to sleep.
The morning of the last day in the Himalayas, even at its bottom hills, was dedicated to Rishikesh so I started in the morning with a tuk-tuk ride, or whatever they call it in India and got to Lakshman Jhula, the second pedestrian bridge in the town. The views from the road are astounding. Close to main road there were some interesting Shiva temples, from whose terraces the views were even better. Ganga by itself starts in the Himalayas but its final structure, after it collected its main effluents, is beginning here in Rishikesh. This part of the city is the place where are located the ashrams. It is way more westernized, all the stores catering mainly for travelers. The town itself is way south and has not resemblance with the meditation atmosphere of its northern sector. I crossed the bridge and visited a temple that stands right on Ganga’s shore that is built with many floors and has inside rooms with statues dedicated to all the main Gods and consorts. Each room has three statues. You have to walk around the perimeter of the building in order to ascend the next floor and this is a ….loooong building. But the views from the top are astounding, well worth the effort. In the Indian temple you have to walk barefoot, and ideally with no socks. The exit of the temple turned out to be in the other side of the building, so I found myself walking barefoot in a market area surrounded by cows, motorbike and stalls to get to the shoe stall and recuperate my sandals. It was quite of an experience, and the first of the day. Getting down I started to inspect the stores in that area. The two main shopping areas are around this bridge and a larger one around Raj Jhula, the other bridge. Unfortunately, the stores were closed at that hour so I rushed back to get a tuk-tuk and go back to the hotel to join with my friends and go together in several places.
On the way I had another experience, an “Indian incident” when I felt on my foot and sandal something soft, warm and mushy and I realized that I stepped in a huge cow dung. I was at a loss contemplating my options, not being in this situation ever, but amused in the same time by the ridiculous of my puzzlement. After trying to no avail to clean myself on the even dirtier pavement one guy pointed to me the water tap on the street, probably used successfully by many who had such an “unfortunate” incident. I rushed to the hotel where Emil made some surprising arrangement to meet a swami who lived dressed with a loin cloth in the Himalayas for 15 years. Swami Ram Kripalu was accepted as a disciple by his guru under this condition and he did not hesitate to cast away all his possessions and join his guru in the cave. We took a tuk-tuk and after buying some gifts we started to look for his address. In his small ashram on the shore of the Ganga Swamiji was in a puja that proved to be very interesting. After the puja he received us for a darshan and my friends pointed the connections they had with him through another friend who stayed at his ashram. It was impressive to meet him, mainly by his feats but also for his …long hair that was 1.5 longer than his height.
After the darshan we went to eat the prasad offered by the swami at the puja that played as lunch for the day, got a tuk-tuk and with a small stop at the hotel we went to Sivananda Ashram, me first followed by my friends. Unfortunately we came latter than 12pm and all the halls , including the library and the Sivananda’s tomb were closed but Bhajan Hall was open and that one was the one we were looking for being then most important. There, since the death of Swami Sivananada, it is continuously recited a matra, the place being energetically charged accordingly. I stayed for a while listening to the matra and inspecting the place, decorated with pictures of gods, prophets including Jesus, Mary and swamis. It was already very late and we originally planned to leave at 12pm.
In the end after all sorts of delays we finally left at 1:30 pm and we stopped for almost one hour in Kankhal, several kms outside of Rishikesh at a temple dedicated to Daksha Mahadev and the 10 manifestations of the Godess. The three temples were impressive, especially the one for the godess with the wall covered in mirrors. More interesting was a tree that was used as a Shiva temple, surrounded by lingams and nandi bulls, whose branches were covered in the strings sold at the temple to adorn this kind of trees. There were three trees in one that symbolizes the three manifestation of the reveled God, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Around the tree were lots of people but the funniest was a swami that started to film us with his cellphone, instead of us filming him… The majority of the swamis, if not all, carry cellphones and take pictures with them. After a short stop on the Ganga’s canals near the temple we left because it was already 2:30 pm and we had a very long road ahead. But the road proved to be OK, the 7 hours promised between Delhi to Rishikesh were now exact almost to the minute getting in Ashwani beautiful place at 9:30 pm. On the road we stopped in the same beautiful Chetal Grand to eat, surrounded by flowers buckets and the entire road was a debate about Hinduism, swamis, sidhis, yoga, meditation without a dull moment, the ideas flowing continuously. The only thing worth mentioning from the road was one man who was doing parikrama on the road’s asphalt in prostrations going to Kumba Mela. A real act of devotion! In Delhi, Ashwani came to meet us and after a quick tea we made the arrangements and the payments for the second part of the trip that I will do solo based on a schedule that was more clear now than when I arrived in India. I asked for the driver to leave at 7:00 am. During this time I was fighting with the Internet that worked so well last time but it was as dead now.
The wake up call was supposed to be early and after a good breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, we move as quickly as possible on a road that is mostly in ruin to Vashishta Guha, a cave at 23 km from Rishikesh where meditated Swami Vashishta. The road was in continuous repair. The monsoon kills it every year and is a Sisific work that cannot be dome quick enough to keep it in a repaired condition. On this road it is very heavy traffic being the main road to the Himalayan towns, Baderkhnat, Kedarkhnat, Mala, etc. 23 km does not seems a lot but on the Himalayan road it can take forever and it took us about one hour to get to the cave. The caves are named locally gufas. This gufa is located on the Ganga’s shore and is an amazing meditation place.
Vashishta lived, as the story goes, 56000 years and he had a whole adventurous and incidental life. How you count the years is up to you. The swami who was at the cave, Swami Shantananda Puri, whom we visited before in order to get a gist about the cave, pointed out that the energetic properties of the cave are unique in this area, existing only two more caves like this and it helps your meditation practice a lot as you would do 20 years in your apartment. So we went inside and indeed the atmosphere is unique and after meditating in the cave for close to one hour, we came out not enlightened but at least with a calm unmatched till now in the trip in spite of the Kumbha Mela.
Right after I went out I was able to ask permission from the swami for an interview that I hoped to be something like 5 minutes. Swami Shantananda Puri, who is well versed in English, ended up with a 20 minutes presentation of the cave and his life at the cave with his old master who passed away and continued for about 40 more minutes answering questions and telling stories about everybody’s role in life, their enlightenment that is not in scriptures but in you. It is only the fact that you don’t know how to open the eyes to see the God in you. It was an amazing and comforting experience augmented by the excellent English of the Swami and his amazing sense of humor and joyful approach. His books are downloadable for free from http://www.scribd.com/group/79503 God bless him! We left the guha around 2:00pm, way latter than originally planned, and we dropped the driver and the car at the hotel, chat with some other travelers, who were horrified that they saw a corpse in the street and people were obliviously passing by, and went to the town to eat in the same restaurant where I had the banana pancakes last night. After lunch we started walk the town main and only street, full of stores catering for foreigners, internet cafes, travel agents, ayurveda stores, jewelery stores and obviously full of ashrams teaching yoga and meditation, a typical backpacker hang out.
We took a rest and watched the aarthie again, a real pleasure and now we are hitting for another banana pancake and lime soda. Here we do not eat Indian food. After dark the stores are enchanting, lots of music stores abound of great CDs with Indian, Tibetan and “New Age” music at a fraction of the price as in the West. Book stores full of spiritual books from great masters and clothing stores do a steep business. In this atmosphere the cows are roaming the main street finding their way among Germans and Americans travelers like in a promenade. They go back and forth the entire evening like walking an Italian Corso.
For the last time in Haridwar I was waken up at 4:00 am by the bajan. It stops in the night, probably around midnight and they start again singing around 4-4:30 am. It is a pleasure to listen to it and every morning I was pleasantly awaken and listen to it. They sing from many tents, each with its own amplification so it is not only one but many bajans making a sort of cacophony but in the morning it sounds great. Obviously if you don’t want to sleep…
We packed starting at 6:00 am and at 8:00 am, after a short satsnag with Babagi who gave us prasad we had to say goodbye to everybody from the camp and thank them for their hospitality. We left to Rishikesh, that is on the Ganga up stream, about 23 km from Haridwar. James pointed us to a hotel where he stayed and liked a lot called the Great Ganga, and we went directly to it and we could right away take a shower because we were caked in dust and dirt after 5 days in the tent eating and sleeping on the floor, the dust coming in waves under the tent’s flaps. At 12:00 pm the driver picked us up and droves us along the Ganga, that is even faster and cleaner than in Hardiwar, a wild mountain river, to Neelkanth, a temple dedicated to Shiva. The road to the temple, like the road to Rishikesh is sublime. From here we start going into the Himalaya, these being the first hills at its base. The atmosphere changes radically and the road is driven only in Indian Jeeps, Mahindras, that look like from the old times. At the temple there were as usual lots of pilgrims making offers. Lots of incense, candles and flowers adorning Shiva and Nandi, Shiva’s bull. It was a very long line of Indians coming to worship the God but the temple itself is very small but with a very strongly adorned top in all colors. We left the place around 4:45 pm and we drove down in Rishikesh with the plans to go to the aarthi that was in one of the yoga & meditation ashrams that make the place well known. Unfortunately, the driver who did not know the place, dropped us to a wrong bridge and we had to walk another 30 minutes to get to the destination. Meanwhile we got lost of each other and I reached the aarthi right when it began. Very beautiful and inspiring.
Rishikesh is a yoga place so it is full of ashrams that are catering mainly for westerners. There are so many of them that is disconcerting. The singing at the aarthi was done also by a European girl. Lot of the audience was European, to my surprise coming in contrast with Kumbha Mela where most of the people were Indians. All these aarthi events are with extensive singing, very nice, and lots of fires that is supposed to burn your bad karma, so people touch the fire and put their hands on their faces for cleansing. After the Internet session the dinner was special, after of so many days of eating on the floor on leaves. An Italian restaurant that was serving everything. We are still in India, but also they served crepes, that they called pancakes. So I ate a delicious banana pancake forgetting for a moment about dal, navratan korma, curry, palak paneer, or rice and enjoy some European decadent food. All Indians were watching cricket on TV that is on all channels, or at least it seems like it, and is the only game played by kids on the street. The evening still lasted longer being all involved later on with E&L in a discussion about yoga, meditation, methods, etc. Still we have to discuss more.
The word ‘Kumbha’ means a pot. The name originates from a story in the Puranas (ancient spiritual literature). The story is about an ‘Amrit Kumbha’ which means a pot filled with nectar. According to Skanda Purana (one of the 18 puranas) for the purpose of obtaining nectar that grants immortality a joint effort was made by the Gods and the demons to churn the ocean. They used Mandarachal mountain as a pillar and Vasuki serpent as a rope for the churning. In the process of churning 14 very precious objects arose. These objects were equally shared by the Gods and the demons. At last Dhanvantari (the God of medicine) came up with the pot of nectar. Seeing the pot Indra (the king of the Gods) gave a sign to his son Jayant to get hold of the pot and run away with it so that the demons are deprived of it. As Jayant began running away with the pot a fight between the Gods and the demons began. The fight lasted for 12 days of the Gods which is equivalent to 12 human years. During the course of the fight the nectar spilled over from the pot and fell at four places Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. To prevent the nectar from falling in the hands of the demons Lord Vishnu took a beautiful female form Mohini (one who enchants) and by Her charm and grace enticed the demons and handed over the pot to the Gods.” From an article wrote by Sri Ved Niketan Ashram
Today is a much more relaxed day because we saw most of the stuff but here the action never ends. So after a quick satsang with Babagi we left to see various camps around our base. We saw some Naga Babas, one of them invited us in their tent and we sat with him. The day before E&L were able to see an Aghori camp, the only one apparently at this Kumbha at least as we could tell. After the short tour we went to sit at Pilot Baba’s camp, a very elaborate production that confirms that spirituality is big business everywhere. Coming to the Haridwar we were surprised to see how many posters with Pilot Baba and Akiko were all over and it was confirmed by the fact the their camps is the largest, full of Russians, where Pilot Baba established and built a temple. They also charge a steep Rs 1300/night in their tents. Pilot Baba’s history is interesting but you always wonder why you move your real spiritual and yoga experience in this commercial way when you never needed the funds.This is disconcerting if you look at the babas industry in India. The number of camps, each with its own sadhu is impressive and all are competing for believers like the sects in USA. The Indians are the core of the business but there are many Europeans to the English speaking swamis like Pilot Baba, Soham Baba, etc, the last getting the niche of global warming, saving the planet, etc. The result is that lots of Europeans are in his retinue, and he was always surrounded by two Germans in black suits and, obviously-because is hard otherwise- white shirts dirty at their collars and ties, looking like security personnel. Beside he had a guy in fatigue with covered face with a machine gun handy. The way he conducted himself was like a manager giving orders and organizing things left and right. I left my friends to rest in Pilot Baba’s camp and after another quick forays to take more pictures of Naga Babas and other swamis I left to the city where the ghats were definitely not so crowded like yesterday and afforded great views. Again I went for lunch to the same place, mostly with the same type of food and walked the city with no other events in site.
After the Internet I took the cable car, that I was earlier assured, “Indian way”, that it was stopped because of the holiday…. and I got up a hill where is located Masadevi temple. The temple is not great but commands great views over the city, over the ghats and the dam. Also is surrounded by black face monkeys that turn to be quite aggressive if you don’t mind your business. Coming back from the temple I was in the bazaar to do some shopping but it was not too much, the city being a major destination for Kumbha Mela, the trade is mainly local oriented. I walked latter to the the puja in Har Ki Pauri temple but I came quite late and the view was definitely not so good like first time. At these events you have to come at least one hour before it starts to get a good view. But the atmosphere was extremely pleasant and walked enchanted back to the camp. When you walk back you have to cross the long Chandevi bridge and all the camps are on the far side of the bridge but right from the beginning you are welcomed by the bajan that penetrate all the noise from the city like a hum. It is great! At the camp the driver came already with the car and slept in one tent and we had a last chat with James and went to sleep because we planned to leave at 8:00 am and everything had to be packed.
Today is one of the the most auspicious days in the entire Kumbha Mela. It is no moon at all and it is a MONDAY. There were two more days like this in the entire 3 months that passed and they are considered as “most auspicious”. Tomorrow, on Tuesday, is another important day but is “rated” only as “auspicious”. We planned the trip to be here on this day and at 2:30 am we walked up together with the entire camp and we started to fast walk to a closer place, only about 30 minutes walk to take a deep in the Ganges. We crossed in dark over some stone erosion barriers and we got to a spot where there were already some other groups. Comparing with all the other nights this night was the warmest, and the temperature was about 12C because you could see your breath in the air.
Around 4:00 am we arrived and everybody undressed and we followed Babagi, who at his eighty-something is better fit and vigorous that all of us put together. We deepened completely, with water over the head, a kind of baptism, and got out but Babagi stayed in the water till all of us were out. But surprisingly it was not cold outside and it was no rush to dry or dress. It was simply pleasant. It is more difficult for the women because they have to go in the water in sari and they have to change after that. We returned to the camp and we noticed, the same as when we left, that the road was full of people on the move. Long lines of people waiting to go to the Ganga and take the bath together with their spiritual leader. The road was full like it were full day. We got back and relax a little. It was only 5:00 am so we had some tea and we assisted when Babagi made his “duna”, his personal fire offer. I was able even to shoot some. After that I told Lydia that I will go and shoot a little around and started to go around the compound, till I met a guy who pointed me to the places where the Naga Babas are. Going there I realized that everybody was going to the parade in town and I started to run together with a group on Naga Babas. The Nagas are complete renunciates. They do not posses anything, they cover their body in ashes and they live and walk everywhere completely naked. They are highly venerated by the people who touch the ground where they walked. I kind of smeared their steps with my sinned shoes, anchored in the greed of the modern society, running with them and shooting all the time.
When we crossed the Ganga I saw that people were already congregated watching all these groups that were supposed to take part in the parade. After several shots I followed Shri Devananda retinue and got on the main drag that was full with floats on tractors representing each baba present and in demand of marketing. I was happily shooting on that street, babas, dressed and naked till they started to move. Here the parade does not happen in a slow pace. People are running so it is quite a show. It took about 1 hour to finish all the floats and after that I watched an amazing exercise in crowd control. To understand what means an Indian crowd you have to have visited once India. No description can match. It is a spiritual dimension that transcended the words. All these events are dangerous because the large amount of people attending. It is happening often to have stampedes and lots of people to be crushed and die, so the amount of police+military police+order people+military+security is so large like I never saw before. And they have ways to deviate people and control the crowds with fencing areas and ropes. I would not want that job and you have to understand that some time are rough. Usually they are very friendly especially with foreigner but sometime it is nothing to do. But caring my large camera it always helps and they help me pass some “borders” sometime even taking me by the hand and bringing me to the other side. After the parade finished I wanted to come to the Internet , about 300 meters from where I was located, but the amount of effort and waiting was like crossing several real borders with lots of red tape. After Internet I had my lunch of the same restaurant. Here if you did not get sick in one place you try to stick with the same if you can and it proved successful for three days in a row. The food is exclusively veggie, no type of alcohol being served in Haridwar, a holy city of the Ganges and one of the oldest cities in India. After lunch I went to see what happened at the ghats where was the days when only sadhus bath, so the ghats and the entire temple was closed for sinners. But the people were curious to see the holy men bath and they were peeking under a cover to the chagrin of the policemen who were hushing people from one place just to notice that people were moving back right behind him. This circus lasted for a while and I tried myself the chance and shot some footage under the cover. Meanwhile the sadhus were poring over the bridge, leaving the ghats after the ritual bath on the other bridge, coming and leaving with large banners representing their akaras. I had enough of sneaking under the cover and moved further from the temples, to the river shore further down where it was full of people, no comparison with the previous day. Somebody told me that 4 million people came today to take the ritual bath. All these people were sleeping under the sky, right were I saw them sitting. They came in large parties from their villages, commanded by an elder, having with them only a bag of rice and a small material that they put on the ground to sleep or sit on it. The entire area was covered by them. It was an impressive scene and all were bathing happily in the Ganges, putting offers of candles on the steps of the ghats or sending offers on the river, making it a stream of candles. All this is very beautiful and inspiring in the evening when it looks magnificent. Around 8:00 pm , totally crushed by my backpack that was full with things, included the tripod, taken by my rushed departure with the Naga Babas, I started to go to the camp where I found my friends sitting at the sastang with Babagi, who explained the power of oneness, followed by a quick dinner of leaves on the ground of dal and kir.
The jet lag woke us up latter than the previous day. We planned to go in the city all of us and show my friends how to get into the temple. However they have been in Haridwar before and know the place relatively well. We plan to leave at 9 am but something gets delayed and I take a walk for an hour around the camp. The place is fascinating. Filled with tents and compounds you have a feeling of a big trade show. Everybody has banners advertising their trade, with “sales people” that want to show you the offer, and “marketing people” that are conducting the prayers. It is mind boggling. I took lots of video/photos of shadus, naga babas (naked babas), prayers with large audiences, in English or Hindi, in large pavilions, sometime huge like ISKRON that is the Hara Krishna International Organization. Shot kids in poor tents that abound by the river bay living in abject poverty. Poverty is endemic in India. You see here poverty like in no other place and this is so obvious mainly because of the incredible number of people. Once C said that her feeling about India is that of a soccer stadium where the gates just opened after the game and people started to go home. But this flow of people will never end.
At around 10 am we leave, all 3 of us including a new addition, James a TV Producer from Smoke and Mirrors in London. Is the world small or what! We walk over the ChandiDevi Bridge and we arrive into the city on the Ganges at the ghats. The ghats were full of people bathing , making offers, all holding on heavy chains anchored by the shore, the river being extremely fast and very dangerous. This is Ganga upriver not the one in the plains, around Varanasi, where is slow and dirty. It is extremely fast, green and very clean. We shoot and take picture all 4 of us and decide to take a deep in the Ganga to deal with our karma and our heat. Around 12pm there are 28C. Emil goes first and after that me and James. We take embarrassing pictures of ourselves not to be published in NY Times. When we leave we are witnessing an amazing scene. A young girl was swept away by the river and she swims frantically to keep afloat but she moves with amazing speed. One guy right in front of us fully dressed jumps in the water and catches her and swims with her to the chains. Meanwhile a fast boat comes with fours guys and helps both of them. This is the most “rapid reaction” I could see both from the guy and the boat. The guy who jumped I am sure that had a moment of illumination when he did that. It was nothing calculated just the gut feeling that she has to help her. God bless him!
We left marked by this event and started to walk to the Har Ki Pauri temple. We got again separated from Emil who went into the bazaar and James and I went on the streets. We took lots of pictures from different vantage points in the city and in the temple, with the ghats full of bathers, to the extent that at 2:00pm James finished his card and his battery. India can be unexpected.We went to lunch going for the already proved Navratan Korma and butter nan, hoping not to get sick. After lunch James helped me to do a recording on a bridge and he went to the camp and I stayed and visited the temples inside the temple compound and taking more pictures. Around 5pm I saw that most of the people were seated on the floor and somebody told me that it will be a puja around 6pm. After kicking myself that I did not get a permit to shoot and get on a platform, I did the best out of the situation where I found myself a place to keep the camera steady and get some good view and shot the entire aarthi, that always ends after sunsets with fires put in various places that make the night absolutely spectacular. It was so much to shoot that you needed two cameras. After the aarthi, people are getting in the water that is now blessed by the puja and put candles and offers with candles that flow on Ganga. Everything is so nice that you are speechless. One thing is sure. To be here it is such a treat and a joy that cannot be matched by any other travel in our sedate, developed world. You breath this joy through each of your pore like a bliss. Maybe is normal because Nirvana is a local product. I feel like V when he gets a new Lego set. I left after a while because some guys suggested to me to get a permit and showed me where but after I found the place, there it was a total hysteria with Europeans journalists who did not get their permits and they needed it for the next morning shoot. Here you have the “I have to do this or die” attitude of the US/Europeans meeting ” No problem. Let’s talk tomorrow” attitude of the Indians. So I gave up because my chances were extremely slim and I had some other plans. I went to the camp, a long walk after a full day of shoot with more than 60 minutes on tape, being also puzzled by a small defect in my camera, that luckily I was able to figure out the next morning. At the camp I found out that we will wake up at 2:30 am and we will go and take a deep in the Ganga so we went to sleep around 9:30pm and we crashed the moment we touch the pillow.
At 6:30 am we have the tea with milk served somewhere in the camp and after a little while I leave with Emil to shoot in the area. The camps are on a separate side of the city not so close to the center. Babas, sadhus and gurus abound. They have posters all over the streets. This is a trade show in self realization. It is a place for the gurus to congregate, meet new disciples and students who are looking for teachers are coming here exactly for this. It is a matching process that may take years but it works. Most of the posters is of Pilot Baba and Akiko who is staying as usually in his camp. We shot some footage and took pictures of some picturesque babas. We returned to the camp where the plans for the day were not so clear of what will happen and we leave again to visit a temple on the hill dedicated to Chan Devi, a manifestation of Parvati. To visit the temple you take a cable car up the hill and on top you walk up to the temple that has a similar security details like the one we saw near Delhi but here you can take the camera with you but NO Photos! But you can take tons of photos out where the people are a show in itself. The atmosphere is interesting, similar with other temples in Asia, and after we do the parikrama we take the cable car down avoiding to be attacked by monkeys that are all over.
Before arriving at the camp we meet a Hara Krishna group that have in it one Naga Baba, a naked baba. First that we saw. At the camp we missed a yagna, a public offering of fire, but the event will be repeated on Monday when we plan to attend. We eat all of us on leaves that are thrown away after that and we try to stay in the shade because it started to be hot in spite of the cold in the night. At 3pm we leave all of us into the city and we have a surprise that they do not let us to cross the bridge to Har Ki Pauri temple without passport, and latter it was very hard to convince the guy from the internet to use the service with no passport. A lady stopped us for lack of passport and camera permit. I should have taken a journalist visa for India and take a local permit to shoot. But I am not so worry about it so I started to move around the lady who behaved like a …..and somehow I manage to sneak over her on the bridge when she did not look But my friends stayed behind not having the usage to do this kind of things. So they waved me to go and I walked into an absolutely amazing experience, the Har Ki Pauri temple with its ghats where people were taking ablutions in the Ganges. But the compromise I did was to leave my video camera with Sharmaji who came to help us find the place. I started to scout the area to find various ways to get inside and get my friends with me. I returned at the entrance in 10 minutes but I could not find them no matter that I stayed and waited.
Latter it turned out that they waited me but they went to get some water in that interval and they returned at the compound being afraid that I got lost in the crowd, a thing that can happen in a festival with 18 million people. So I walked back to the lady, and when she asked me about the passport I said that I don’t need one and walked by and the gods protected me so she could not say anything… The temple is fascinating and for the first time I faced the rituals and the ablutions. It is a spectacle that it is hard to be described just photographed or recorded. India is by far the best destination for photography and video. If it did not existed should have been invented. The problem here is that you always run in lack of tape, cards and batteries. Any turn of a head brings up a subject. I shoot here about 60 minutes a day of intense subjecting and in Europe about 20 minutes per day. And here you do not know what to skip because you have the feeling that everything is worthwhile to be shot. So I shot the ghats with thousands of people bathing, in spite of the fact that theoretically you cannot shoot but everybody does, till dark. I made my phone calls and I posted on the Internet to the only Internet Cafe in Haridwar, the place where he could not give me time with no passport. After the Internet it was already 7:00 pm and I was worried what happened with my friends so I started to go home. The camps are about 30-45 minutes away from the center. It is a large area of compound surrounded by tin foils fences, with tents on dirt. I crossed the bridge and when I was ready to get on our street I was stopped by a car driven by Rajiv with Emil who were looking for me in Haridwar. They were convinced and are still convinced that I was lost. When I got in the camp everybody was so happy to see me like I was coming from dead. They asked me how I got lost and no matter that I explained everybody that I knew exactly where I am and I was busy in town they still did nor believe. Babagi gave me a yellow card to have with me and all the necessary cell phones and told me to be careful and not get lost again and ask police for help….. No comments! So we ate a little and went to sleep in the princely dirt floor tent where I have my sleeping bag caked in dust and dirt, in the music of the kirtan from the adjacent camps.
But the moment we left the posh gated community were we stayed, where the houses and atmosphere are a very pleasant remnant of a different Delhi that we met some years ago, you are thrown into the snarling traffic of the city and you realize that things are again familiar. The traffic is frantic. The cars are brushing one to each other in a way that shocks you that they do not touch. When they stop at a traffic jam they are like sardines cans, so closed packed that people cannot pass between them. And they still do not touch. The roads outside the city are the same that we encountered 12 years ago. I understood that they improved the roads in Rajasthan but in UP is still a log way to go. The traffic stalls and the 200km to Haridwar that we are supposed to drive in 7 hours becomes a reality in time. Yes, the car has AC that I still refuse to use preffering to drive with the window open and my camera outside to shoot in the traffic. The new Toyota Innova hope to have acceleration problems to move us faster, over the standard 40km/h….
On the way we stop to a new temple finished in 2005 and here I face the new India after all the terrorist attacks. The security screening at this temple is probably more strict that at the CIA. There are lots of people that are hired in the process, at least 10 I meet on my way to the temple’s inside and after I deposit everything at the check boxes, no cameras, etc. they turned me around because I still have the wired headphone of my iPhone. They accepted to have on me just money and passport. But the temple is worth the visit. They are building and decorating an extremely already ornate temple, where the mandir is surrounded by elephants taken from the legends. The rest is completely decorated with intricate motives, no area being left untouched. After leaving the temple we hop on the highway, or the way the four lane road is named. There are two senses separated with a heavy boundary that cannot be crossed but somehow if the traffic needs to come on our way it will do it. As a result the 2 one way lane is commonly shared with incoming traffic, and the situation is so normal that the horn pressing is done only to your co directionals in traffic. The incoming traffic is just avoided like flies. After an hour of huge traffic jams we leave the 4 lane road to a 2 lane or better said a generous 1.5 lane road, because we veer into the shoulder, sort of shoulder full with bushes, every time an incoming cars comes our way. And we go like this for some hours with 40km/h and when we get an empty stretch, rarely, it goes to up top 90 km/h….I know it is the Toyota.
We stop on one of those magnificent car stops and have lunch in a bucolic atmosphere surrounded by flowers and we keep going to Haridwar. When we are getting close, the city traffic is diverted and we get into the city on a detour road. But not exactly into the city because being Kumbha Mela all traffic is blocked and after numerous calls to the camp manager and some luck we figure out how to get into the city and we arrive at the camp around 7:00 pm after we met Rajiv, the camp manager who came with some business into the city. We freshen up, get our tent, 5 start tent, because we have even electricity and a tap of water in the back in the mud. But this is no big deal because in the camp you have to walk barefoot so it stays in the spirit. We get introduced to some other people in the camp, Vladimir fro Moscow in search of self realization and Rita from Calgary in search of more travels after a sojourn in South Africa and one in Singapore. Rajiv makes the arrangements and we go and meet Babagi, a close relation of my friends and they introduce me to him. Her is quite of a presence, is very interested to know if everything is taken care of, wants to give me a hook in Varanasi at a monastery and we plan to come back with some gifts after dinner. The dinner is served on the ground, on plates and cups made out of leaves, large leaves, and is a combination of chapati with delicious curry and some potatoes. Everything here is veg with no eggs and some specific grains. After dinner we visit Babagi again and go to sleep in the sumptuous apartments with the music blasting from the outside speakers playing the songs of the kirtan and bajan. It tapper off in the night and we have a great sleep till about 4:00 am because of the jet lag.