India – My First Time 1 (reblog)

As promised, a repost of one of my early travel posts. This is part one of two, so I’ll re-post the second one shortly:

Just a few photos this time, taken on my first proper trip to India. On the only previous visit, in 1988, I had spent a manic 18 hours in Delhi, and then taken a long bus journey to Nepal. That was a journey that really should be the subject of a blog itself, sometime.

On the following year, then, I returned to India, intending to spend rather longer there this time. As it turned out, I had to return to England after a few weeks, but the short time that I was in India whetted my appetite for more. It is said that western visitors to India tend to fall into one or the other of two categories. Either they fall in love with the country, and return whenever they can, or they swear never to go within a thousand miles of it ever again.

I’ve been back about ten times.

Delhi Red Fort 1

The Red Fort (1989)

I arrived in Delhi with a copy of Lonely Planet’s ‘West Asia on a Shoestring’. In those days, the Lonely Planet tomes really were aimed at backpacking budget travellers, with their recommendations for rooms tending to be dormitories and really cheap hotels. My flight arrived in the late afternoon, so that not only was I weary from the long journey, but the light was already fading when I walked out of the airport. In the chaotic maelstrom outside of passengers and taxi drivers fighting over them, I managed to remain calm enough to locate the corner where the buses of the Ex-Servicemen’s Air Link Transport Services waited. I think they are still in operation today (I’m sure someone will tell me), with their yellow (I think) buses providing a cheap link into the centre of Delhi where I was heading.

I was dropped off near the hotel I had decided to use, the Ashok Yatri Niwas, which stood at the junction of Janpath and Ashoka Road. It has long gone, now; a great concrete monster of a place with cement beds and lifts that seemed to take half a day to do the full journey up to the top floor. I don’t think that many people mourn its going, but I was reasonably comfortable there for a couple of nights. It was where I had stayed the previous year for the one night I was in Delhi. There was hot water in the bathroom, as long as you rose early enough, and I remember the cafeteria being fairly basic, but adequate. For someone on a tight budget, it was fine. Back then, it was a case of turn up and hope there was a room, especially if you had just arrived in the country. There was no email in those days. But it was pretty big, and there was room for me.

Unlike my previous flying visit, I now had time to wander about and savour everything around me. And for the first time, it really did seem an alien and exotic society. I had enjoyed browsing in the souks (bazaars) when I had lived in Oman, and also out in the little villages there, but my first taste of India seemed to me to be as exciting and exotic as it got. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by the noise of traffic and the odours of exhaust fumes. But the traffic was different; the buses appeared to be almost falling to pieces, loud and fierce, with people hanging off the outside as well as being crammed inside behind open, barred, windows. I saw autos everywhere; the little three-wheeled taxis that buzzed like wasps through the traffic, squeezing through every available gap. Amongst this impatient, petulant, hooting traffic, carts pulled by horses or buffaloes plodded. Motorbike riders forced their way through, and cyclists cautiously weaved their way along. Everywhere, pedestrians took their lives in their hands to cross the roads, but the traffic all swerved out of the way for the cattle that wandered imperiously through the streets, ignoring it all.

Incredibly, through the traffic pollution so thick that you could grab handfuls of it out of the air, there were dozens of other smells assailing me everywhere I went. I was tempted every few steps by cooking foods, and then I might pass a doorway and a strong smell of incense would waft out. Seconds later, I would suddenly wrinkle my nose as I passed a pool of sewage on the sidewalk, but then immediately I might pass a fragrant flower stall.

delhi_gate

Delhi Gate, in the old city near Chandni Chowk. (1989)

There were temples everywhere, and a shrine of some description every few steps. Here and there were green and white mosques, stalls of old sacking and weathered boards set up outside gleaming new metal, glass and concrete shops. There were holy men jostling office workers, great hump-backed cattle and pariah dogs in corners or in the middle of the footway, beggars, shoe shiners, touts and hustlers, people in a hurry and idlers passing the time of day. I was urged to discretely change money, buy drugs, see pornographic videos, have a massage, change hotels, visit ‘my brother’s’ shop or book a trip to another part of India.

It was dirty, colourful, loud, exciting, and different and I loved it.

I walked everywhere I could, not just because I was on a tight budget, but it is always how I have got to know a place. I went to the Red Fort, on my first full day there, enjoying the relative peace and quiet inside, and it was here that I discovered Mogul architecture: The beautiful soft red stone and the marble, the carvings and inlay, the arches and columns…the only time I’d seen architecture that beautiful, before, was in Grenada, in Spain.

And now, looking at the photos I took, I am struck by an odd discrepancy. In my memory, one of the defining things about Delhi when I arrived was the incredible press of traffic. In my photos, though, there are comparatively few people, and even less traffic. Is my memory at fault? Is it just that there were obviously far fewer people in India 30 years ago? Perhaps it is chance alone.

But I think I’ll return to the architecture at a later date.

Southern India (1)

Southern India differs from the north in several respects. The first difference that the visitor tends to notice, once they have got away from the typical Indian maelstrom of airport, traffic, city centre, etc, is that with the less densely concentrated population comes a somewhat more laid-back atmosphere and attitude than in the north. The hassles and pressures, the touts, are still there, but seem somehow less intense.

The second real difference is in the culture. Southern India was never really assimilated into the Mogul empire, and only ever partly conquered, so there is a huge wealth of Hindu architecture and a proportional lack of Islamic, with next to no Buddhist remains and no continuing tradition of Buddhism at all. At times, it seems as though the visitor has entered a different country, but India has a way of reasserting itself on the senses…

trichy stall

Stall outside Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), Tamil Nadu State. All over India, amongst the heat, dust and drabness that pervades the majority of the population’s day to day life, one finds colour.

trichy garland seller

Garland seller outside Rock Fort Temple complex, Trichy. The garlands will be used to decorate statues of gods during pujas (ceremonies) conducted in the Temples.

rock fort temple

Rock Fort temple, Trichy.  A view of the main temple from the pathway that leads to the tiny temple at the top of the rock. Non Hindus are not allowed into the main temple, dedicated to Shiva, or the temple at the top dedicated to Ganesh…although for a small donation, the priest is willing to waive this rule…

From my journal:

‘The trip is not particularly uncomfortable. It is a typical five hour trip through India – dust, buffaloes, half a dozen schoolchildren stuffed into an autorickshaw, wait-till-the-other-guy-blinks over-taking, temples large, medium and small, huge dry river beds, The Cauvery full of water, trees, strange crops, broken down trucks, train lines stretching arrow-straight into the distance, rows and rows of stalls with neat piles of fruit and vegetables, rows of hanging water bottles from the roof, biscuits, samozas, cigarettes and crisps, a child squatting in the dirt, mum feeding the family beneath the tree, Tiffin Ready signs, smart petrol stations, mud huts, cement buildings, palm shacks, huge residences surrounded by high walls – all concrete, police traffic blocks (ignored), it all blurs into one.’

trichy temple 2

Part of Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple complex. This is the largest of all temple complexes in India, covering a staggering 60 hectares, and is dedicated to Vishnu. The Gopuram (tower) on the left is painted white, as a symbol of purity, and is one of the buildings that non-hindus are not permitted to enter.

white goporam trichy

The White gopuram, in all its glory.

trichy puja 2

Pillar in Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, liberally decorated with coloured powders and with offerings of incense, rice and flowers. Devotees of the god concerned will conduct their own personal pujas to ensure health and prosperity, or perhaps for some more specific purpose, such as to request the birth of a son or success in a particular undertaking. Although this temple is dedicated to Vishnu, other gods are represented there and prayed to.

trichy puja 1

Another, nearby, pillar in the same temple. Although in the same temple and close to the pillar in the previous picture, this shrine will be to another, different, god. Its use, however, will be the same.