Holy Cow! India April 2009 Each day in India is a complete assault on all your senses; it is like no other place I have ever been. I had heard that the crowds, beggars, touts, and sheer intensity of life can overwhelm some seasoned travelers pushing them over the edge. With that in mind, I tried to come prepared and to anticipate it all. My Driver At the last minute before I left the States, I decided to hire a car and driver for the beginning of my trip, help me acclimate by taking me around the north and western part of India because I just did not have enough time to plan things out. I posted questions on a couple travel forums (Lonely Planet and India Mike) and received some pretty good advice on places to go and various means of transportation. Several people suggested that I hire a car and driver. After reading several peoples comments left on various websites, I narrowed it down to two drivers with similar qualities. I sent a message to both and Ashok was the first one to respond. I told him which cities I was interested in seeing and was open to suggestions. He plotted out a route and included a few places I had considered but had not suggested because I was not sure how difficult it would be to travel to all the places. Ashok is in his late 40s but looks older than his age and sort of reminds me of the former Shah of Iran. Once during one of the long drives I asked Ashok about the caste system and whether it is still practiced in India. He was quick to reply “yes” and that he was a Brahmin, from of the upper caste. Most of the people have inherited their profession from their family thanks to the caste and sub-caste social system that predetermines your profession, your ability to attend school, to live in the city; etc. It is hard to define personal or professional ambition in a society where you are predestined to a lot of things in everyday life, from same-caste marriage to your life long profession… it is something you are stuck with and have no way out. In the mornings Ashok tended to start off the drive very quiet, not a morning person and does not seem to be in the mood to answer questions. In the early afternoon he often becomes very chatty. When he is trying to explain something to me his voice gets very loud, like saying it loudly makes me understand it better. In the evening or at the end of a long day’s journey he gets a little moody and his driving gets more aggressive. Typically I would look at my travel book for suggestions on things to see and do prior to arriving as a refresher but I had to stop reading my guide book because he would be driving very fast and going all over the road. You could hear his disgust with things that were not happening to his liking as he made utterances under his breath. Another sign was his honking. It would become nonstop, sometimes he would just lay on the horn. It really bothered me when it is obvious that whatever was in the way (pedestrian, guy pushing a cart, bicycle rider, auto rickshaw driver, etc.) were trying there best to move
out of the way. At times I arrived at my hotel completely worn out by the final hour’s drive. I have been told that my music is monotonous… Ashok only had one CD that he played non-stop and at times would sing to it. The melody still haunts me. Krishna, Hari Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hari Hari. Now repeat it 50 billion times and imagine a slight drumbeat in the background and that would be one days drive. The last couple days I broke out my iPod because I could not take it any longer. Towards the end of my time with Ashok, I think we were both done with each other. He tried to convince me that he was putting me up in the “nicer” hotels that he reserves for those paying him more. When I happen to chat with the hotel people they tell me that it is low season and everyone is hoping for a guest and that they give big discounts. I have to admit that some of the places we stayed at were actually very nice. They were newly built or completely renovated with a nice look and layout. The bathrooms were all designed the same way… no shower curtain, shower next to the toilet, water all over the bathroom floor and toilet as well as toilet paper… that is if they offered toilet paper rather than the trusty water spray. A few of the hotels did not have hot water either or you had to let them know you wanted it and they would provide it to your room via some secret switch. Most rooms had king size beds, ceiling fans, TVs, phones, and all but the first one had air-conditioning. The hotels all had the ability to turn off the power to your room. So, sometimes I would plug things in to charge before going out to get a bite to eat, only to come back to find that my room had no power and I had to find the hotel owner and have him turn things back on, again some secret switch. Most of the hotels included restaurants on their roof tops. This made it nice if you arrived late after a long day touring and you just did not want to go fight the traffic in the streets. I honestly had good meals at several of the hotels and they all provided an “American Breakfast” as part of staying at the hotel. The American Breakfast included an omelet, toast, butter, jam, and tea or coffee. At the end of our time together Ashok asked me what I thought about the hotels and I gave him my honest opinion on a couple that needed improvements in either service or location. He was quick to defend his decision on their choice and reminded me that they were upper tier locations. One great thing about Ashok is that he always had water in the trunk of the car. It may not have been cold but he kept a container full of half liter bottles (~16 ounces) of water. Whenever he saw me coming back from a sight he would go and get a bottle for me and many times before I headed off to a sight he would give me a bottle to take with me. They were the perfect size to fit in either my front shirt pocket or trouser pocket leaving my hands free to take photographs. In the end, renting a car and driver in India is a great way to travel around. Having a car and driver has a lot of advantages. No time lost trying to manage the confusing public transportation options; you go from point A to point B at your own pace. You eat when you want not when the bus or train reaches a destination, you go the bathroom
whenever you want, no need to rush for breakfast or wait for a rickshaw or bus. There are no fighting long lines and hassles trying to get bus or train tickets. You reach remote locations or sights of interests without any problems. The price you are quoted includes the rental of the car, car insurance, fuel, unlimited kilometers, driver's salary, driver's accommodation, driver's food, road taxes, and all parking fees. Ashok seemed very annoyed at paying the latter two, barely rolling down his window to pay and never looking at the person he was giving his money to. Once you agree on a price with the driver you should not worry about anything else afterwards. Typically the car offered is a Tata Indica which if fine for two people but would be cramped with any more. Another popular option is the Ambassador, a throwback to a 1950s designed car. The last few days of my touring Varanasi and New Delhi were done in an Ambassador.
It was a little cushier in the ride but I preferred the Tata Indica because it had more zip and better air conditioning. It is customary to pay half your proposed costs for the car and driver upon arrival and the balance at the end of the trip. Spirituality I found that India is a very spiritual place. The Hindi Gods are displayed in every establishment, in small temples stuck in odd places and I even saw them wedged within tree roots. When the people pass by these places they always make a blessing towards the deity within the enclosure. The two that I saw the most were Shiva (many arms, son of Ganesh) and Ganesh (happy elephant head on the body of a potbellied man). I visited the Jain temples, Muslim mosques, Hindi temples, and Buddhist temples. A common greeting you hear as you walk about is “Namaste”. Namaste is a Hindi greeting which literally means, “I recognize the God within you”. Of all the temples that I visited, the Jain temples were probably the most beautiful and very ornate. The Jain religion is the wealthiest of all the religions. They are strictly Page 3
vegetarian to the point were you cannot enter their temples wearing leather. They will gently sweep the ground in front of them when they walk so as not to accidentally step on an ant. They will not eat any root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets). The priests also do not believe in wearing clothes or having hair. They actually pull their hair out (not cut it)… a very strict, hard religion to belong to. I found their temples to be intricately ornate structures full of dancing figures. The Muslim conquerors of India defaced most of the temples, often removing the heads of the dancing stone carvings. I also found the Muslim mosque architecture to be so beautiful in their symmetry and design. I could spend hours studying the details of their design work. I find the mosques themselves to be beautiful pieces of art. The Hindi religion is so different from other religions in that they have so many Gods. The Hindi religion also views the cow as being holy and sacred. Cows are found everywhere in India except at the Taj Mahal and some of the other sights. Once I asked my driver why they are allowed on the freeway. He answered “because they are a sacred animal and are free to go where they want, no boundaries”. The cows wander along the median of roads, in the middle of the traffic lanes, in tiny alleys, in the doorways to houses, and up and down steps. In the mornings I notice cows halfway in various people’s doorways and I asked my driver about it. He said that the cows go from house to house for food consisting of bread and leftovers from the night before. He told me that they know which houses are Muslim and do not go to them. In the morning I would see people buying what looked like large bundles of herbs or sprouts. These are used to feed the cows. In a couple of the towns I would watch the women bathe the cows and scratch them. One day I noticed a cow standing right up next to some guy, only to see him massaging and scratching its head as he talk to his friends. Sort of the same behavior you see in the US in the way we treat cats and dogs. As for cats and dogs, you do not see very many cats at all. I probably saw three my whole time there and they were very skittish. Life for a dog is pretty miserable. They are yelled at, kicked, and I observed people throwing objects at them. They are skinny, have poor coats, often limping, lying about in the middle of the road, and frequently as road kill. They appear to be afraid of people. The puppies act like puppies but they also approached me wagging their tails but at the same time they were cautious because so many get batted away. At night when in my hotel room I would hear a yelp and I would know that someone was mean to a dog. A bindi is the forehead dot worn by Indian both men and women. I noticed in Delhi the women may not have the red dot but they have a couple inches of red within the part of their hair (hair parted in middle). I often received the mark while visiting the various temples. The priest would come up to me and utter a few words then mark my forehead with both orange and then red. Sometimes I would forget I had it and would spend all day going from sight to sight not realizing I had it on my forehead. I wondered if it was considered OK to have it.
Dress Quite a few men wear turbans. The Sikhs wear them to put their long, uncut hair up inside and they are usually smaller and pulled in tight around the head. They even pull their beards and mustaches up along their cheeks and tuck them in to the turban. Many Indians wear large turbans that appear to be made up of a lot of material. The younger guys often have very colorful turbans but it seems as they grow older the colors become more muted or they just wear plain white. To me it seems that they would be very hot to have your head wrapped up with so much cloth, holding in all the heat from your head. Also, many younger guys have a deep red color in their hair. It is henna that they apply to their hair and it signifies that they are Muslim. Older men, whose hair has gone white, will have patchy orange hair instead of a deep red color.
The style of dress for men also varies. The modern day jeans or dark slacks seem to be the normal dress. Many men in the country will wear a wrap like a sari that goes from the waist down to about mid calf. They also wear a garment made up of a large amount of material which they wrap around their legs and have it tucked in various places leaving their legs partially exposed. The reason I bring up the legs is because people in India do not seem to wear shorts. In fact, most people even have their arms covered as well with long sleeves. The temperatures have been in the low one hundreds to 115 degrees Fahrenheit (째F) everyday. When I was in Delhi, the paper said that the temperatures were warmer by about 6 degrees Celcius, ranging from 42 to 45 Celcius. I brought along some powdered Propel to add to the bottled water to help maintain my electrolytes while loosing so much to the heat. There have been a couple days that I thought I could not stand another minute of it then I would see an amazing sight and forget all about the heat. I brought my convertibles but have been reluctant to make them into shorts since so many people here frown upon that. One day, I came back to the car having removed the bottoms of my long pants and I could tell that the
driver was just disgusted with me. I could see him scowling every time he looked at my bare calves. The majority of the women wear the full Indian dress including the head piece and if they you looking in their direction, they will pull the head piece around to cover up their face. Many women will wear it completely covering their head and face similar to a burka and since it is made out of thin material, they can still see through it.
The women also wear a lot of bangles on their upper and lower arms. I have been told that they sometimes wear up to 10 kilograms (~22 pounds of jewelry). In the far western portion of India I notice that the nose rings were very large and disk like (imagine the rings of Saturn) made of gold with jewels and most had elaborate designs in them. The bigger the disk, the more money the husband earns. In the main cities most women appear to wear a stud or small single hoop. The menâ€™s jewelry is a little less flashy but a large percentage of men have both their ears pierced and wear either a small disc that seems to cover their whole earlobe or something smaller but flashy, like diamonds. If they are wearing the small discs, it signifies that they are part of the Rajput clan. I want to thank the makers of the movie Slumdog Millionaire for the mineral water bottle/superglue trick and the leaving of your shoes at monuments. Now if I receive a bottle of mineral water and the top seems to come off too easily, I then imagine that the water appears cloudy and that it has a funny taste. Also, I am not a fan of having to take off my shoes at monuments and I have always worried that my shoes will not be there when I get back. The first time I went barefooted I tried to be careful where I stepped but after a few temples I gave up and walked all through the bird crap knowing that I had sanitary wipes to clean the bottom of my feet before putting my socks and shoes back on. Surprising how much stuff was ground into the bottom of my feet after each temple visit.
Speaking of walking and stepping in thingsâ€Ś I cannot imagine wearing sandals and walking around the streets of India. There is crap (cow, goat, sheep, camel, elephant, etc.) every where and it is a real art trying to avoid it and all the other obstacles as you make your way through the streets. I heard one Indian say, right foot good luck, left foot bad luck. Another told me that stepping in cow crap is considered good luck anytime, with either foot. I would consider it bad luck anytime, period. The worst is walking at night through the city streets because you cannot see where you are stepping. When I would return to my hotel room, I always take off my shoes before going through the room. I brought along a pair of flip flops to handle walking around the room because the floors are still dirty from all the dust and soot that settles on everything all day long. Environmental I noticed a major issue within the countryside having to do with poor soil management practices. I saw it soon after leaving the airport. There are smoke stacks dotting the landscape and it turns out that they are brick kilns used to make bricks for all the building going on all around. In order to get the clay for the bricks they have been cutting the soil away from around power poles, digging out around the side of the road, and potholing the land and wash basins. It appears that if they see the color red in the soil, then they excavate it to make red bricks. The landscape is covered with what looks like bomb craters. I mentioned all the building going on all aroundâ€Ś I also noticed so many building projects that were started but never completed. These included houses, stores, buildings, and large complexes. Everything was left abandoned and it appeared that they are uninhabited. I mention this because of all the tent cities where the poor put up plastic sheeting against buildings or over things to form shelters. I wondered why some did not take up residence in the abandoned buildings. Other environmental issues I observed were open sewers (which many times were running down the streets), burning of everything, changing vehicle oil or transmissions directly over the bare ground, dumping of trash or unknown debris on the side of the road or on vacant land, plastic bags stuck in thorny acacia trees (sometimes the whole tree would be completely covered up with plastic bags), and marble dust piled everywhere. Piles of trash are placed everywhere and most of the time it is adjacent to the last house as you leave the town. I have watched people walk out of their shops in order to throw trash out onto the streets. When I have gone looking for a trash can, people ask me what I am doing and when I tell them, they just point to the ground or roadway with a puzzled look on their face. The sad thing is that I have seen the cows eating everything that is discarded along the roadway â€“ newspapers, cardboard, plastic bags, paper, etc. Rajasthan is known for its marble and one area we drove through seemed to have miles upon miles of marble vendors selling very large panels of mainly white marble. Adjacent to these vendors are piles of white marble dust as a result of cutting and
polishing the marble. It is also dumped along the side of the roads, vacant property, behind buildings, in ravines, drainage ditches, anywhere you can imagine. The cows, goats, and sheep wander through it all looking for something to eat. Standing water along the sides of the roads and below bridges was often black in color. I do not know what causes the dark color but I imagine that the animals and birds probably drink from it. At one point we crossed a river and I noticed the water was a very odd color and just as we were leaving it behind, I could smell a very pungent, acrid odor. What ever was in the river, it was obvious that it was heavily polluted by run off from nearby factories. Roadway Traffic I have also seen countless automobiles and trucks flipped over or mangled beyond belief along the roadways. When a truck has flipped over, most of the goods are spilled out all over the road and the driver is sitting in the shade of his truck. On our way to Agra we were about to pass a truck on the highway when we noticed that he was swerving slightly and then he seemed to loose control because he was too top heavy and the truck started teeter-tottering back and forth going from his left side tires then to his right side tires. We attempted to go around him again and he almost lost it again so we kept our distance until we turned off the road. I was surprised on the amount of trucks I saw on the Indian roads. They seem to haul everything in over packed trucks, tractors, carts, buses, and cars.
Also, trucks, tractors, cars, buses, camel carts, motorcycles, all drive going the wrong way on the wrong side of the divided highway, coming directly at you in the fast lane. This seems to be more prevalent in the mornings and evenings. I imagine people must be in a hurry to go to work or come home. My least favorite of the Indian roads are the one lane roads for both directions of traffic. We are in a little car and the jeeps and trucks never seem to give way. It feels like a last minute ditch to the left and many times it is a pretty sharp drop off the asphalt to the ground below. My driver seems to play it to the end and appears pissed off to give way. Also many roads have been trenched across and not repatched so the cuts end up wearing away into deep potholes. One of the things I was most surprised about were the women seen along side of the roads doing road work. What even surprised me more was that they are fully dressed in saris of brilliant colors of red, saffron, blue and pinks, their anklets and bracelet bangles clinking as they worked carrying the soil in large metal pans on their heads. The women carry large pans of soil and gravel materials on their heads and fill in the potholes or trenches. The women also carry dirt removed from hand dug excavations (normally done by backhoes) along the side of the road to get it out of the way of construction activities.
My least favorite roadway designs are the roundabouts and speed bumps. The roundabout is a total Russian roulette gamble because it is anybodies guess as to who is doing what. The speed bumps seem to be located in the oddest of places and there is no warning. Most are just single bumps but three speed bumps right in a row together is fairly common as well. Ashok has been taken by surprise with them and we have slammed into quite a few. I am surprised that the little car can handle them and has not fallen apart. If a vehicle is broken down on the side of the road, then the driver will place small rocks out around the perimeter of the vehicle and then when he finished his repair, he leaves the rock outline on the road. It is obvious when you come across the rock outline and have to dodge them along with everything else in the road. I figure that the rocks give the worker a little room to move around the truck without getting clipped by all the fast moving traffic. Like in Egypt, they do not seem to like to use headlights at night. I asked my driver a couple of times if he could turn on his headlights while driving. It is hard at night walking as a pedestrian when you hear the vehicle coming but you canâ€™t see it. Money The conversion rate was about 50 Rupees (Rs) to $1. A 1-liter bottle (~32 ounces) of water cost 12-15 Rs, a roadside meal 50-60 Rs, a restaurant meal 100-150 Rs. At the sights the foreign tourist paid about 250 Rs while the Indian tourist paid 5 Rs. The one thing I found odd was they charged for cameras at all the sights and many times it was the same as the cost of the ticket or more. They also would ask if it was video because that would double the cost. I always said no, even though I used my camera at times to take a few videos. They still do not know that digital SLRs have the ability to take video as well as photos. The cheapest cost I paid for a room was 250 Rs and that basically included a fan, bed and not much else. There was a common bathroom right next door
that consisted of a cold shower, toilet, and sink. An auto rickshaw ride cost about 40 Rs for a roundtrip. The rickshaw drivers would take me to a monument and wait for me and that could be a couple hours, and then take me back. The worst thing about using the rickshaw drivers is they always stop off at a souvenir shop on the way back to where ever you are going. They hope that you buy something and they will get a commission for bringing you there. I used the trick of I am late and needed to be back to meet my driver at a certain time. If they did not hassle me about not stopping then I always doubled whatever the agreed upon price was so I ended up paying anywhere from 80100 Rs and they were always appreciative. The tipping issue in India gets to be a bit much. I always tried to save my 10 Rs notes to use as a tip. When the driver’s car arrives at the hotel, the workers at the hotel all try to grab your bags to bring to the room. When someone gives you pointers for where to take a picture, they ask for a tip. If walking through a monument and one of the attendants sees you, they ask that you take their picture and if you do, then they want a tip. Food I found the food to be very good. I mainly ate vegetarian after having chicken a little on the bloody side. At the start of my trip I asked for meals to be medium spicy since I was afraid of them being too overwhelming in either spiciness or way too many flavors. I have to say that neither were an issue. Everything has tasted fairly mild even when I ask them to spice it up. After stopping at regular restaurants to eat, Ashok decided to stop at roadside eateries between little towns we went through on our way around India. I was a little apprehensive but after a couple times without any issues, I had no hesitation. The one thing that bothered me the most about some of these places was the way they cleaned the dishes prior to serving the new customers. It was simply done with a rag that was used to wipe the last person’s meal from the metal dish and then the rag was tossed onto whatever surface was available to later be used to clean the next metal dish. One eatery was interesting in that it was carved into the side of a hill. Ashok pulls up to a small frontage and goes in through a small doorway that leads into a small room. He continued through another small doorway into another small room. Each room had been carved deeper into the hillside. An extension cord with a small string of lights provided the lighting for the interior. The great thing about the interior of the place was that it was cool inside in comparison to the 110° F outside. The food at these places was always good and very inexpensive. Touts & Beggars India’s population is over one billion. It appears that they still believe in the old policy of an heir to spare which seems more likely, a few heirs to spare. The population appears to be largely young people. I noticed that in some places people are working very hard
and things seem to be in constant motion and then you come across another place and no one seems to be doing anything but lying about. The one thing that is apparent is you can see here the every day struggle of the masses trying to earn a living. An Indian newspaper article stated that many people live on 20 Rs a day. That is about 40 cents a day. At all the monuments and at almost every turn you hear “hallow”. In the beginning I acknowledged each and was polite. The touts had all kinds of handicrafts that they were trying to sell. The price would start at 500 Rs, after 1,000 “no thank you” it would be down to “50 Rs my last price”. At times it was maddening but I tried to remain polite and respond. I watched other tourists and they were much more impolite or pretended not to hear. If I somehow got suckered into going to someone’s store (often), it would take an act of God to intervene to allow me to leave. I learned not to carry much cash with me. That did not always work and they were glad to “go back to my hotel with me, by-the-way, which one are you staying at?” I fell for that one and the next time I stepped out of my hotel, I would have a “friend” waiting for me. My travel guide and my driver both stated not to give out money to the beggars. The first time our car stopped at an intersection on the way out of the city I heard a slap against my window and when I turned to look it was a young girl all unkempt muttering something and motioning with her hand to her mouth that she wanted to eat. I looked at my driver and he did not make any expression. I felt like it was a test. The girl never left the window and kept tapping on it until the light changed and we pulled away leaving her in the crowd of honking vehicles in the middle of the busy intersection. I felt terrible. The next time it happened I rolled my window down and gave some money and the next thing I knew the car was surrounded by kids and women holding crying babies all tapping on the window and motioning that they were hungry. Ashok then said, “see what happens, you give to one then they all want some”. He said it in a very disapproving way while looking straight ahead. From then on I never did it in front of him, although I know he saw me do it while on the streets. Most of the time I gave away my coins which consisted of 1, 2, and 5 Rs, but a few times I gave 10 Rs notes when I had nothing else. Getting There My first leg of the journey left Los Angeles at 6 pm on Thursday stopping in London (10½ hours later) where I had a 5 hour layover before catching the next direct flight to New Delhi (8 hours, 20 minutes) landing Saturday morning at 6:20 am. Both flights were completely full so I did not have any chance of stretching out across several seats to try to sleep. I came prepared with Ambien to help push me over the edge but it did not work on either flight. On the second flight I sat with two British school teachers, both of whom were traveling to India on their own just to check it out. The one sitting next to me looked like Cameron Diaz and had a great personality. She tried to get her boyfriend to come with her but he was more interested in staying home to play video games than going to India. The other was meeting her boyfriend in southern India for a few days before having to return to teach classes.
My Indian visit began with an early morning arrival into New Delhi, the capital of India, located in the north-central portion of India. While looking out the airplane window I noticed Delhi seemed to be shrouded in a morning fog that gave me the false impression that it was cool outside. I went through customs fairly quickly but the wait for my luggage seemed to take forever. By the time I collected mine, everyone from the plane had already left. I stopped off and changed some US currency to Rupees and went to the exit. As I walked out I immediately saw my name on a sign that was held by Ashok. We went directly to his car (Tata Indigo). I had told him in my last email that I preferred to leave Delhi immediately and return there another time. It would have been nice to try to rest up from the two days of traveling to get here but I was anxious to get started in someplace other than a city of 14 million. Ashok suggested that we leave for Mandawa, a 6 hour drive west of Delhi. As I stepped outside the airport I said goodbye to orderliness, neatness, hygiene and hello to chaos. While driving through Delhi I realized that the morning fog was actually smoke from cooking fires. Soon we were out of the city and on the road to Mandawa and the start of lane less anarchy. Since India was once a former British colony the cars travel on the opposite side of the road. After traveling for so long on almost no sleep, it was very hard for me to adjust because it felt like I was in the driverâ€™s seat but without any of the controls. The main roads consist of a single lane for â€œeach direction of trafficâ€?. Actually, travel on the roads in India consists of controlled chaos. The roadways are crowded with trucks, cars, motorbikes, tractors, bicycles, pedestrians, people pushing carts of all sizes, camel carts, oxen carts, auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks), cyclos, cows, camels, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs and women in saris of strikingly rich colors scooping up fresh cow patties, reforming them and placing them out to dry, to be burned as fuel.
I felt like I was at an amusement park where you are just about to hit something and at the last second swerve away and are saved.
At times it felt surreal as we passed women carrying everything from bundles of wood to wide metal pots on their heads, men urinating along the side of the road, and people bathing in what I believe to be water troughs for cows.
Mandawa On the way to Mandawa we pass many brick kiln factories. The land around the kilns was potholed in order to make red clay bricks. The fuel for the kilns is made by grinding up the remains of the wheat stalk or dried mustard plant. If the ground up material is not used to feed the cows, goats, and sheep then it is piled next to the kilns and used as fuel to heat them. The bricks are piled up high everywhere and I saw numerous trucks hauling stacks of bricks that always seemed ready to tumble off the trucks onto the roadways.
We arrived in Mandawa mid afternoon. Mandawa is supposed to be a main tourist destination (though it offers very little as compared to any other cities in Rajasthan). While walking around the town several children came up to me improvising themselves as guides and most were very insistent. I pretended not to speak English and kept saying that I donâ€™t understand in Spanish. They finally left me alone. The ambiance of the little dusty city is very relaxed. I wandered around in the small city and took various artistic photographs of the dilapidated look of the town. The one thing I found interesting were all the water wells located all around. This region of Rajasthan is famous for its painted havelis which are unique grand houses with painted murals. These havelis are found in several small towns in the region. During the 14th century this area became important for the trading of silk and spices along the caravan routes. Most of the buildings in Mandawa date from the 18th and 19th centuries. I was a little disappointed in what I saw of the havelis. Most havelis were either rundown or are in ruins, and inhabited by people who do not seem to care about the upkeep, restoration, or cannot afford to restore them. You have to use your imagination to picture what must have been beautiful buildings at one time. Overall, Mandawa was a dirty, dusty town that can be missed. The best thing I took away from Mandawa were suggestions of what things I should not miss in Rajasthan from an English couple I met at dinner. Bikaner We drove through a couple other cities with havelis and I found them to be in a similar state. After a mediocre nights sleep (no air conditioning and room full of mosquitoes) we head to Bikaner. Before getting to Bikaner we stop at Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok, 20 miles south of Bikaner, where pilgrims come to worship thousands of holy rats.
The story goes that Karni Mata lived in the 14th century and performed many miracles during her lifetime. When her youngest son drowned, Kami Mata ordered Yama, the god of death, to bring him back to life. Yama replied that he was unable to do this but that Karni Mata, as an incarnation of Durga, could restore her son's life. This she did, decreeing that members of her family would no longer die but would be reincarnated as kabas (rats), and that these kabas would return as members of her family. Around 600 families in Deshnok claim to be descendants of Kari Mata and that they will be reincarnated as kabas. It turns out that today is the last day of a pilgrimage to the Hindu temple where worshipers are coming to pay their respects to the kabas so the line of people entering the temple was very long. Like for any Hindu temple, one has to remove their shoes before entering, which makes the experience even more interesting. Luckily the attendant collecting the shoes offered me some crudely made slips of cloth (“booties”) so that I did not have to go barefooted. I realized that the “booties” were not the cleanest and as I slipped them on I could feel they were full of something. With everyone staring at me with these strange looking things on my feet, I tried to not make it worse by removing them to attempt to take whatever was inside them out. Ashok told me to go in through the exit line and not to wait with everyone else. I told him that I was fine but he insisted and grabbed my hand and led me past all those exiting and those waiting to get in all the while I was wearing the “booties” and was the only foreigner in sight. I squeezed my way through the line of worshipers and finally got into the temple grounds. The place was packed with people offering the kabas a yellow meal material and yes, the place was full of rats. I noticed that the rats seemed to really like milk. Large trays of milk were in the corners of the temples and the rats were continuously coming to take a drink.
As I walked around I was glad to have the â€œbootiesâ€? on so that I did not have to step in the food or rat feces that were all over the floor. I have to admit that these were not the healthiest looking rats especially since they were so well fed. I noticed that their coats were a little mangy looking.
I know some people might find this experience somewhat disgusting, but looking back, it made the trip to this part of Rajasthan all the more interesting especially since it deals with the Hindu religion. After leaving the Karni Mata Temple we headed into Bikaner, a busy, dusty, crowded, hot city, in the middle of the desert. The city does not have much charm but does contain a nice fort, Junagarh. Unlike many Rajasthan forts, Junagarh does not sit on a hilltop but through its design, it has never been conquered. It was protected by a wall with 37 bastions, and was once surrounded by a moat (now dry). There was a nice palace within the fort, as well as courtyards, balconies, towers, windows and beautiful ceilings. Jaisalmer Next was another long drive further west towards the Pakistan border. As we neared Jaisalmer we passed through the area where India tested its first nuclear bomb. Also, the area is full of Indian military, practising their exercises. Jaisalmer is known as the golden city and the fort sort of looks like a giant sandcastle rising about 260 feet high on top of a hill.
The fort is comprised of ninety-nine large bastions that encircle the triangular shaped hilltop. One enters the fort through a series of massive gates leading to a large courtyard. Inside the fort you find narrow sandstone block streets, with a palace, houses, guesthouses, shops which are still inhabited by about 25% of the population of the city of Jaisalmer. The houses, temples, roadways, and palace are all carved out of the same yellow sandstone.
The city is surrounded by the Thar Desert. Once the inhabitants of the city worked for the maharajas, but today the city is all about the tourist. It was hard coming at this time of year because it is considered low-season. Since there are very few tourists, I was preyed upon with every step. The old city of Jaisalmer located below the fort was once completely surrounded by an extensive sandstone wall, much of which has been recently torn down for reuse as building material. Within the palace are some nice Jain temples, although very crowded with tourists. The religion only constitutes about 1% of Indiaâ€™s population and they are known for their devotion to animals. High above the fortâ€™s main courtyards is the former maharajaâ€™s palace. I decided to take an Page 19
audio guide tour of the fort and there were some amazing views over the city. Off in the distance around the city are various windmills used for the generation of electricity for powering the security lights along the Indian-Pakistan border. About 4.5 miles north of Jaisalmer is Bada Bagh an area which contains cenotaphs. These cenotaphs are carved roof coverings in memory the former rulers of Jaisalmer. It is sort of like a cemetery however no bodies are buried here since the rulers were cremated as part of the Hindu religion.
When we arrived in town the first hotel Ashok took me to was way out of the way, in a dodgy part of town. While driving there, Ashok kept saying that it was a mere 5 minute walk to the fort. I told him that I wanted to have direct access to the fort since we were staying a couple days. He finally relented and took me to a very nice hotel right around the corner from the entrance to the fort. While staying at the hotel I met an English guy named Will who was beginning a 12-month tour around the world. He spent a few days in Dubai, then took a week with a couple of hired guides hiking in the Himalayan Mountains and was now on the same basic track as myself. Ashok did his best to keep us apart for the next couple weeks. For some reason I think he was trying to keep us from comparing notes of how each of us were being handled by our drivers. One night while in Jaisalmer I stopped into an Italian restaurant and started chatting it up with one of the workers in the restaurant. During the conversation he told me that he made the interior walls. So I inspected the walls closely and noticed that it had a very rough feel to it and it contained bits of hay. He kept saying “causeet” and as I was admiring it I realized that he was attempting to say “cow shit”. I thought, oh great, thanks for having me touch this wall right before I eat… where is the wash basin? Jaisalmer is also known for its havelis. Here are some picture of the outside of them:
One of the things I wanted to do while in Jaisalmer was to go out to the sand dunes in the desert. Ashok had booked me a desert safari that included a camel ride, staying in a local nomadâ€™s tent and spending the night in the desert. I told Ashok over and over again, no thanks. I did the camel ride in Egypt and once was more than enough and I wanted a warm shower and an air conditioned room for the evening. We ended up going to the desert town of Khuri towards the end of one day and I hiked out on the dunes and took a ton of photos.
I saw several tourists come out and get on camels and head off into the dunes with a guide. While photographing, my camera lens was picking up something in the sky off in the distance but I had no idea what it was. As we headed back to Jaisalmer I mention to Ashok that I thought it would rain. After a little bit the winds started to blow and the next thing I knew we were in the middle of a sandstorm. I wondered how the tourists that went out for a camel trek in the desert were doing now. I was sure glad that I was not camping out in the desert at this time. After driving in the sandstorm for a while it started to rain pretty hard. We made it back into town only to find the power was out. I ended up walking into town and found a place that was serving dinner from a wood burning stove. By the time I started back to the hotel the lights came on and I had a nice warm shower and great night sleeping in the air conditioning. Speaking of power outagesâ€Ś I was surprised on how many outages they have in India. I wonder if it could have anything to do with the overloaded electrical system?
Jodhpur We started heading back towards the east to Jodhpur. Jodhpur is another desert city surrounded by dark sandstone quarries and it is dominated by the fort of Meherangarh, which seemed to grow directly from the dark rocky mountain it sits on. The Meherangarh Fort looks like it was a huge feat to construct. It follows the line of a 135 foot hill, with battlements 6 to 39 feet high. As the dark sandstone building materials were chiselled from the rock on which the fort stands, the fort seems to grow from the base of the hill. The fort was added to over the centuries by various Jodhpur maharajas.
It took me a while to visit the whole fort complex with the help of another audio guide. Within the fort there are several small palaces with names such as Pleasure Palace, or Flower palace. I would say that the fort is one of Rajasthanâ€™s best. Beneath the fort sprawls Jodhpur, a mass of blue cubist shapes. Jodhpur is known as the blue city. Old city Jodhpur is surrounded by a little more than a 6 mile long, 16th century wall. The small streets are a tangle of winding roads scented by incense, flowers, open sewers, and shops selling everything. At one time blue signified the home of a Brahmin, but non-Brahmins have picked up on using the color blue as well. I was told on more than one occasion that the color blue is also used as a mosquito repellent. Maybe so, because the haveli that I stayed in that night was not blue and I was eaten alive by mosquitoes on the roof top restaurant.
Jodhpur city is a chaotic place. At the end of the day I decided to wander about the streets and head to the Sadar market at the Clock Tower where I was told I would find an internet cafe. After about a 15 minute walk dodging the cars, carts, auto rickshaws, cows, open flowing sewer, and people I gave up and headed back to the quiet safety of my beautifully renovated haveli. I took a long shower then went up to the roof top restaurant to have a cold Kingfisher beer, chicken curry, and a view of the fort as the sunset.
Ranakpur Ranakpur is one of Indiaâ€™s biggest and most important Jain temples. There are three temples. The main one, Chaumukha Mandir (Four faced Temple), is dedicated to Adinath and built in 1439. It is an incredible building in white marble, a series of 29 halls supported by 1,444 white marble pillars, no two of which are alike. The interior is completely covered in carvings. This Jain temple of Ranakpur is one of Rajasthanâ€™s highlights.
Udaipur It takes us about 6 hours to reach Udaipur. Udaipur is sort of a pale white city adjacent to Pichola lake in a sort of hilly or slightly mountainous area of southern Rajasthan. The old city of Udaipur is a maze of narrow streets. I start the next day by visiting the City Palace. This is one of Rajasthanâ€™s largest palaces. It is a series of buildings built upon and extended by various maharajas but it still has its uniformity in design. Construction on the palace was begun by the maharaja who founded the city. In the middle of the lake sits another white summer palace known as the Lake Palace. It looks sort of like a large ship sitting out on the water. From my hotel windows I have a great view over the city, lake, City Palace and Lake Palace.
One evening I took the suggestion from the English couple I met back in Mandawa and ate at a restaurant on the lake across from the City Palace and Lake Palace. The food was excellent and the views were beautiful. I could have stayed there for hours if the mosquitoes werenâ€™t eating me alive.
Upon leaving Udaipur we head north and stop at the temple at Nagda. This 11th century Jain temple is beautiful. There are very fine and intricate carvings with erotic figures dancing on the exterior and interior of the temple. This is one of the most beautiful and peaceful temples I have seen so far, probably because there are no tourists.
Very close is the village of Eklingji, which has an ancient temple complex. This Shiva temple contains 108 small shrines and was originally built in 734. It is constructed from sandstone and marble, the walled complex has an elaborated pillared hall under a large pyramidal roof and features a four-faced Shiva image of black-marble. There are lots of pilgrims at the time of my visit. I had to stand in a long line and I was the only foreigner there. While waiting in line, the guy behind me had a rather large protruding stomach and he kept bumping me with it. As I stood there in the scorching sun, I decided that I would rather enjoy the place better if he werenâ€™t â€œin my spaceâ€? so I motioned that he could go in front of me. He did not offer any gratitude and as we approached the first temple his whole family suddenly appeared and my moment of shade was out of reach for another few minutes. Once inside I watched the pilgrims come and give blessing to the images. It was a very intimate moment to watch the faithful. On the way to Pushkar, Ashok told me that he had a special place to take me that I would like to photograph. It was a royal water well with steps along four walls leading down to the green water below. It reminded me of the Escher drawing with all the steps. The place was very quiet (again, no tourists) and I really enjoyed the symmetry of things there.
Pushkar Visiting Pushkar was anticlimax as compared to other place so far. Ashok took us to a hotel that was out of city center and he said it was because the city center was noisy. I think we were the only ones at the hotel and imagine that it was not any quieter than ones in the city center since it was near a city wide speaker system. Pushkar is a holy city with ghats and priests and non-stop, 24/7 prayers and chanting that is broadcast all over the city. It appears to be a holdout for hippies too and I did not see much else appealing about the area or town. I found a great Middle Eastern restaurant and then wandered back in the dark to my hotel to see if I could block out the constant noise. Jaipur Jaipur is the capital of Rajastan with a population of over 1.8 million. In 1876, the city was painted a shade of pink to welcome the Prince of Wales. Since that time Jaipur has been called the Pink city. Jaipur contains several attractions; however, the two main attractions for me were the Fort Palace of Amber and Hawa Mahal (Wind Palace). The Fort Palace of Amber (pronounced Amer) is a good example of Rajput architecture. It rises from a rocky mountainside about 7 miles north of Jaipur. I got to the fort palace in the early morning and ended up riding an elephant up the main road into the fort palace. As the elephant was nearing the end, he raised his trunk and blew something out all over the elephant driver and a little on me. Once I got inside the fort I was completely taken with photographing the place. It had so many interesting artistic looking shots that I could have stayed there hours. When I made my way back down from the fort palace and found my driver. He commented that never in all his time of bringing people here, had anyone taken so long. He truly seemed exasperated with me.
Jaipurâ€™s most distinctive landmark, the Hawa Mahal (Wind Palace) is a honeycombed hive that rises five stories. It was built in 1799 and is an example of Rajput artistry built to enable ladies of the royal household to watch the life and processions of the city down below. From the top you have great views over Jantar Mantar (an astrological observatory), the City Palace, and the bazaars below.
After visiting eight sites (lake palace, hill forts, cenotaphs, bazaars, etc.) total in Jaipur I decided to head on rather than stay another day. Ranthambore National Park I found out that a fellow traveler (English Will) was headed to Ranthambore National Park and I asked Ashok about it and he asked, do you want to go? I said sure and off we went to see if I would be lucky enough to photograph a tiger in the wild. I had no idea that the whole â€œsafariâ€? would be done from basically a large open top bus. The bus came and picked us up at the hotel around 3:00 in the afternoon and off we went in the full sun. It took a while to get into the park and once we were in we came across all kinds of deer (four prong, spotted) and birds (peacocks, ring-neck parrots, hawks, owls, etc.). We saw lots of tiger foot prints but never did come across the elusive cat.
Several other bus-vans were looping through the park and with the loud squealing sound coming from our bus; I was not surprised that we did not see anything. We stayed until sunset and then left the park. I guess the tigers do not go after humans in buses because there was nothing protecting us from the waist down. Also, it had to be the most uncomfortable ride I ever had. The seats were set way too close to each other and I could not sit with my knees in front of me but rather off to the side in order to fit. That night I hung out with an American girl traveling for six weeks on her own and two Norwegian guys that had basically done the same tour as me. Page 31
Agra On the way to Agra we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri. It is a beautiful red sandstone ghost city (a World Heritage site) and was the Mughal Empireâ€™s short lived capital between 1571 and 1585 during the reign of Akbar. Akbar was regarded as the greatest of the Mughal emperors. His empire extended from Afghanistan to northern India. Akbar had three wives, one Portuguese Christian from Goa (India), one Muslim from Turkey, and one Hindu from Rajasthan. His Hindu wife provided him a son. Fatehpur Sikri was erected in an area that suffered from water shortages and it was abandoned shortly after his death. The site is composed of the palace buildings and the mosque. The palace buildings are composed of one for the emperor, and one for each of his wives, Muslim, Christian and the biggest one for the Hindu wife. The main palace blends Hindu and Islamic architectural styles.
I was not impressed with the dumpy hotel that Ashok brought me to in Agra. The only reason I decided to stay there was because it was about Â˝ a block away from the entrance to the Taj Mahal. I got up at 5:00 am so that I could be there at sunrise. The gates open at 6:00 and it is still rather quiet at that time. The park around the Taj was full on Indians going about early morning exercise routines and those waiting at the gates all appeared to be Europeans. The Taj Mahal is probably the most extravagant monument built for love. The Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as an ode of love for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their ninth child in 1631. The death of the Mumtaz left the emperor so heartbroken that he decided to build this monument as a tribute to her. The construction took 22 years to complete. In total, 20,000 people from India and central Asia worked on the building. A strange thing about this monument is that it was built by a Muslim emperor and is now an emblem of India. Remember, India and Pakistan were divided due to religion with Pakistan being the Muslim country. The Taj stands on a raised marble platform at the end of ornamental gardens. The central structure is made of semi translucent white marble, carved with flowers and inlaid with semiprecious stones. The Emperor Shah was about to built a second Taj Mahal (a black Taj), on the other side of the river but his son arrested him, killed his brothers, and imprisoned his father in the Red Fort, where spent the last 8 years of his life, looking out at the monument he built for his wife.
Agra Fort was constructed of same red sandstone used at Fatehpur Sikri on the bank of the Yamuna River in the mid 1500s. Today half the fort is occupied by the Indian army. I had a nice guide that spoke perfect English take his time explaining things to me and showing me various parts of the fort along with some of the history about Emperor Shah Jahan and his imprisonment by his son. His â€œprison cellâ€? was fairly nicely laid out and was comprised of a fairly large space. Not what I imagined when I first heard the story.
Varanasi I took a night train from Agra to Varanasi. I had reserved second class AC with an upper bunk. It was a space not much bigger than my body. I ended up sleeping with my photography equipment and took a chance that my luggage would be safe on the floor below. All night long I was awakened by people milling about just on the other side of my curtains. The train announcer would say something and I would look at my ticket to see if it might sound anything like what he was saying. Finally I stopped a chai tea salesman and he rattled off “next stop”. Luckily I asked because otherwise I am sure I would have ended up in Kolkata (Calcutta). Varanasi (aka Kashi or Benares) is over 2,000 years old and is considered one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi lies on the western bank of the sacred Ganges River (pronounced Ganga) and in India it is considered one of the holiest places. Hindi pilgrims come to offer blessings and wash away all their sins in the Ganges. Varanasi is also an important place to come to die because you are then liberated from the cycle of birth and death. This is a very public city in that people come down to the ghats to bathe and to be cremated. The old city of Varanasi is a maze of small streets or alleyways that are too small for normal road traffic but motorcycles still zip around the “streets” along with cows and water buffalo. The old city can be very confusing to maneuver around in and nearly impossible at night since there is not much lighting. So far Varanasi is the only city that I have visited where everyone every one has warned me to stay out of the old city after dark, especially since power failures occur often and it is estimated that two or three travelers go missing every three to four months. The principal attractions to Varanasi are the 100 or so ghats along the Ganges River. Most are used for bathing but there are also a couple burning ghats where bodies are cremated. The bodies are handled by outcast and carried through the streets down to the river on bamboo stretchers. The bodies are first cleaned in the river prior to cremation. There are large piles of wood stacked and the wood is weighed out to calculate the price of the cremation. One of the ghats has an electric crematory and it is considered a cheaper (1,000 Rs vs 3,000 Rs) way to be cremated. It is estimated that about 60,000 people go down the 4 to 4.5 mile stretch of ghats to bathe on a daily basis. There are also 30 sewers that are continuously discharging into the river in this same stretch. Over 400 million people live along the basin of the Ganges River. The river is so heavily polluted that it is considered septic. I stayed in a hotel along the northern end of the ghats and walked down several times to watch the people come down for a bath. They go through a ritual of making a blessing towards the river then kneeling down scoop up the water and rinse their mouth out three times and throw water up onto their heads. Then they proceed to strip down to their underwear and go into the river. Some will wash the clothes they came in with soap on a rock at the rivers edge and carefully scrub and rinse them in the river. They then take the clothes and lay them out along the steps that lead down to the rivers edge to dry. They then go in to the river and swim around rinsing their mouths out, clearing their nasal passages and then come back to the step to do a through soaping of their bodies
using the stone steps to scrub the grim and dirty from the soles and sides of their feet jumping periodically to rinse off and lastly then wash their hair. They then come back to their clothes and turn them over and return to change out of their underwear from under a thin sari and wash the underwear. By this time the clothes appear to be completely dry (115Â° F). They get dressed and go to work if done in the morning or go home if done in the evening. Several people offered me their saris so that I could join them in their bathing ritual. I smiled and politely declined since I like water to be a little warmerâ€Ś I took a boat ride before dawn to witness the sunrise over the Ganges and to see the city wakeup and start their day at the waters edge. I took photographs but I felt like I was invading their private time even though they were in front of other people doing the same thing as well as other tourist in boats.
Always best to have good dental hygiene.
I took a boat ride in the evening and a young kid paddled out to my boat and came on board. He offered to light candles for people that are special in my life. The candles are set inside flowers that are contained in a small bowl made from dried leaves. I agreed to four candles and he lit them for me. I made my wish with each candle and then released the candles to float in the Ganges River. I watched them slowly float down river out of view before I turned my attention to the activities going on along the bank of the river.
Every night a show is performed at one of the main ghats on the bank of the Ganges River. It is done with five singers/performers that do a ritual with fire. The show goes
on for little over one hour. My boat pulled up right in front and I sat there watching as the five performers did an elaborate ritual to music with various instruments containing fire.
While in Varanasi I visited the Vishwananth Temple (noted for the 1,760 pound of gold plating on the towers), the Durga Temple, Benares Hindu University, a silk factory (basically looms in peoples houses), and Sarnath (noted as a hamlet for Buddha). Sarnath was made up of ruins or more like platforms where something once stood, several temples, and a stupa. I was not too crazy about any of these sites at Varanasi. I was pestered by touts and beggars every step of the way and it was very hot and after getting minimal sleep in Agra and on the train, I was very tired. Delhi Delhi, what can I say about Delhi… what a big, big, noisy, congested city. The traffic is enough to wear anyone down. I stopped off at a few of the major sites but for the most part, I was not impressed with the city. It was under construction, with unfinished projects everywhere. After spending an entire day trying to get to places I was so hot and tired that the following days I spent mornings looking at a few of the sites and the afternoons at the hotel ordering room service and catching up with things. I wandered around Connaught Place, the “nice” area, considered the center of Delhi. The streets are wide and relatively quiet as far as traffic goes. I went to Humayun’s Tomb, Nizam-ud-din’s Shrine, Lodi Gardens and the Qutb Minar. Humayun’s Tomb (shown below) reminded me a little of the Taj Majal. It was built prior to the Taj and is the first structure made of red sandstone and white marble. The grounds are dotted with tombs and very nicely laid out gardens with an intricate water system.
Qutb Minar (tower shown above) was much larger than I expected and the design on the tower was very impressive. The Qutb Minar was started in 1193 and finished in 1368. The surrounding grounds contain the remains of a palace and a few tombs. Just a couple more notes about India before I leave. I found that I had a bloody nose for the first week and a half and I do not know if it was from pollution or the different environment but at first I thought I would have to endure it for the entire trip. Also, I encountered bats in most of the dark interiors of the various monuments I visited in just about every location. You could hear their high pitched peeps and at night if you looked up you could see them swooping around nabbing flying insects. Several places offer ayurvedic medicines and massages to help with any aliments. I had a palm reader and a foot reader give me readings and it was a very fun experience. Oh, and I swear I met Gandi or at least someone who looks like himâ€Ś India, truly, is like nowhere else I have ever been. It is not a destination you visit like France or Australia. India is a place you literally give up to because your first dealings with it are overwhelming. The real beauty in India is in the people, culture and the history. There's no doubt that India has changed me. I have to say that India has not been so much a vacation, but more of an experience I will never forget and yes, I recommend visiting India but come prepared.