Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India where Hindu pilgrims come to wash their sins away in the Ganges River. This is a real act of faith as the river is one of the most polluted in the world. The pollution comes from raw sewage (80% of the rural and 10% of the urban population in India do not have access to a toilet) and from industry that pumps 300 million gallons of waste in to the water every day. This, coupled with about 100 bodies that are daily burned and dumped in the river, and the dead dogs and cattle that float around, results in a bacteria content 10,000% higher than the government “safe standard” for bathing.
Watching all this action unfold in a row boat at dawn was a truly magical experience. Floating by, watching people playing with death by immersing themselves in the water, cleaning their teeth or burning a recently deceased relative, gave one a real taste of what this country is about. This was also reinforced by the con-men and pushy sales people who likewise take to the boats to badger you at every step of the way. Even stepping out from the boat at a “burning ghat” (one of the jetties where bodies are burned) you are approached by a “representative” who tries to get you to sponsor the next burning. The actual burning is a remarkably peaceful experience – no crying, no wailing – the families are pleased that their relatives are off to their next life and that they managed to get a burning appointment (there is a long waiting list) and their contentment shows.
Hotels in Varanasi are not that much better than Agra. The citys’ electricity supply is so unreliable; it is not surprising families resort to burnings, a crematorium would constantly have black-outs.
Leaving Varanasi, we took the first class train to Calcutta – a far nicer experience all-round. Here we actually had a door and a conductor as well as a much better class of vermin – we had a mouse rather than the usual cockroaches.
Calcutta is a great place and was the first place we visited where the splendor of the British rule was really apparent – from the majestic Victoria Memorial a mix between St. Pauls and the Taj Mahal – to the astounding collection of memorabilia housed in the Marble Palace. Built in 1835, by an avid collection of Victoriana, it now houses a collection which the London Victoria and Albert Museum would kill for. The whistle-stop tour takes you through a treasure of chintz, marble busts, huge candle chandeliers and gold clocks. This eventually leads to the ball-room where the dim 60 watt bulb is briefly illuminated to show the huge Rubens masterpiece “The Marriage of St. Catherine” and a number from Joshua Reynolds – all sitting in non-air conditioned rooms open to the not insignificant city air pollution.
Calcutta left a number of impressions on me – swimming in the hotel pool while a flock of crows arrived to have a drink, watching Harry Potter in the “expensive” seats of the Empire Cinema while huge fans cool the enormous clanking projectors and watching the police manage the daily traffic direction change at 2 p.m.
The final experience of Calcutta, however, did rather shock and showed the delta between new and old. Stepping off the shiny metro and going down a side street you find the Kalighat Temple – supposedly the original temple from which the of the village of Kolikata and thus Calcutta originates. Walking round the temple a small black billy-goat was being washed and blessed with petals and incense, when a bell was rung. Looking round 2 pre-washed goats were dragged out and beheaded in front of me. More disturbing than holding up their dripping headless bodies was the fact their decapitated torsos continued to spasm for about 20 seconds after death. It is an enduring image.
Our hotel, the J.W. Marriott, was the type of accommodation featured in the Sunday colour supplements. A beach front location with 3 pools (including one with filtered sea water – nobody swims in the actual sea it is so polluted and in a country where the ultimate nirvana is to douse yourself in the filthy Ganges, that is saying something.)
Bombay is vast sprawling conurbation built on 7 islands and again, although hot, is a really nice city. Sporadic Victoriana jumps out at you at every turn and the hustle and bustle of a big trading city.
Apart from downtown and the India Gate, the main tourist attraction in Mumbai lies in some caves on Elephanta Island outside the city. The caves date between 450 and 750 AD and are dedicated to Shiva (the Hindu destroyer) with some amazing sculptures.
The people are also nice and friendly offering you food in the train on the way back. However, such food may have unforeseen consequences resulting in a quick trip to the local alchemist. Our guide book suggested an antibiotic, which was handed over the counter despite the large, red “only to be sold under prescription” label on the box. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask for some medical marijuana, but a violent bowel movement preempted my question, necessitating a rather swift dash back to the hotel. With my underwear stuffed with toilet paper we said good-bye to Mumbai and flew to our final port of call, Aurangabad.
A town of 1.5 million inhabitants that would be inconsequential was it not for its proximity to two of India’s highlights, the Buddhist Caves of Ajanta and the Ellora Cave Temples.
The 30 Ajanta caves are set in the steep face of a U-shaped rock gorge and date from the 5th century AD – remnants of the richly decorated paintings adorn both the 25 residential caves and the 5 temple caves. They were discovered accidentally by a British Captain, John Smith in 1819 on military maneuvers, and the first thing he did? Scratch his name, date and regiment on the wall – yes, the first graffiti artist of the time, and naturally British.
The Ellora caves in contrast are a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples decorated with a profusion of remarkably detailed sculptured. The main attraction is the Kailasa Temple, dedicated again to Shiva it is the world’s largest monolithic sculpture, hewn from solid rock by 7000 laborers over 150 years.
In conclusion, a fascinating trip but I have had enough of India, for now. The pollution and over-population coupled with rapid industrialization mean major growing pains for this democracy – but for now things work, but the growing pain for both India and the rest of the world will be there for many years to come.