Friday, December 30, 2005

Broken Resolution

When I arrived in Singapore some 9 months back I resolved that I would not take any more flights on my trip and return home overland if at all possible. Unfortunately I have had to break that promise I made myself to get to Sri Lanka. One would think that since, at their nearest point, the distance between India and Sri Lanka is less than 50km that there would be a ferry service; but no, the only way to get there is by plane. And despite this making a dent in my budget I told myself that I had to go seeing I was so close.

My timing, however, is perhaps not as spot on as I would have liked, as the ceasefire between the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and the government seems to be falling apart as I write this post. There's nothing like being in the middle of a low-level, internal guerrilla war to make your holiday that much more exciting. On top of that I've arrived on a Friday afternoon and need to stick around until Monday to be able to start my visa application process at the Indian embassy. (Generally they give 6 month multiple entry visas every time, but instead I only got a 3 month single entry one. Perhaps they thought I was a trouble-maker or terrorist or something.) Nevertheless I am very glad I made the decision to pop over as my first impressions of the place are very positive. As anybody who has been to India will testify, it can be a trying place: persistent touts, beggars and rickshaw drivers, annoying children, shit on the streets (and I mean literally human excrement) and dodgy traffic to name but a few aspects of travelling in India that can wear away at your patience (and I must admit on a couple of days mine did wear through). Sri Lanka (or at least Colombo) on the other hand seems to be blissfully neat and ordered by comparison: (reasonably) clean streets, rickshaw drivers who actually take no for an answer, polite people, and traffic that actually respects pelican crossings!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Ho Ho Ho!

Merry Christmas everybody! I arrived in Chennai (formerly known as Madras) from Tirumala and spent 3 days basically writing Christmas greetings to friends and relatives (as well as buying my airline ticket to Sri Lanka). I'm not a big fan of mass e-mails so I prefer to write individual ones if I can, but Chennai isn't too interesting anyway so it was no great loss. Now, though, I am in Pondicherry, a town which used to be all that remained of France's colonial ambitions in India. The French would argue that whilst the British went in for quantity (taking over the entire subcontinent) they went in for quality. And, surprisingly, a few vestiges of French rule have remained: from the Catholic churches to the odd smattering of French briefly overheard here and there.

To evade accusations of being a scrooge I have insinuated myself into the company of Alex and Sarah, a Kiwi couple who I fist met on the bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. They continued to follow me through Vietnam, until I finally lost them by crossing over the border into China. But now I have come to repay the compliment. We haven't achieved much, generally just lounging about, chatting and eating (a typical Christmas then) as well as exchanging small, kitschy presents (I got some chocolate money). But it's a nice break from the arduous work of backpacking which I will be resuming in a few days time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Pilgrim's Progress

All religions have places that are more sacred to them than others which often serve as pilgrimage sites: the Muslims have Mecca, Christian's have Bethlehem and the Vatican, Jews have Jerusalem, Sikhs have Amritsar and Hindus have the Ganges at Varanasi. However, all of these are eclipsed for sheer pilgrim numbers by Tirumala. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised as neither had I before coming to India (and even many people that I meet travelling here haven't heard of it). It is estimated that an average 50,000 pilgrims visit the temple complex a day, making it 18 million every year.

The temple complex is built in a pleasant little upland plateau surrounded by 7 holy hills. There is a constant stream of buses winding their way up the hillside from the hub town of Tirupati in the valley below. Pilgrims come to pray before a 50cm statue of Lord Venkateswara, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. It is said that any wish made in front of Lord Venkateswara will be fulfilled (no wonder so many people come here). Wishes are, of course, more likely to be successful with an appropriate donation. Usually (i.e. always) this involves money, but also, rather strangely, hair. All around you see people, both men and women, who have given up their hair for their Lord. All this has naturally made the Tirumala temple exceedingly rich (they have a lucrative sideline in providing real hair for rich westerners), which has allowed them to buy over a tonne of gold jewellery for the eponymous statue.

People queue up for hours just to be able to catch a brief glimpse of their idol. I didn't have so much time, or more to the point, so much patience, so I bought myself a VIP ticket whereby, along with a modest donation of 100Rs and a signing of a form declaring my devotion to Lord Venkateswara, I got to bypass most of the queue. That said, it still took me 2 hours to get to the sanctum sanctorum, so I shudder to think how long it must take for those poor pilgrims who pay nothing at all. Apart from the occasional chants of "Govinda! Govinda!" there was, alas, precious little religious harmony or tolerance in the queue, with constant pushing and shoving giving the wait more an impression of a continuous rugby scrum. I'm surprised more people are not injured in the melee. And once at the heart of the temple I had 3 seconds to focus on the little statue 10m down the corridor, almost drowned in flower garlands, before I was roughly manhandled out to make room for the next devotees. Despite this apparent anticlimax I was just fascinated by the whole process. The army of volunteers marshalling the pilgrims and handing out food and assistance; the kitsch stands selling devotional posters of various Hindu deities and other useless trinkets; and the pilgrims themselves, the bald and the soon-to-be bald, barefoot, often silently chanting devotional mantras. And not a single tourist in sight. This was real India: chaotic, esoteric, bizarre, contradictory.

Monday, December 19, 2005

On The Rocks

The ruins at Hampi are all that remain of Vijayanagara, the capital city of the empire of the same name which, at one point (14th to 16th centuries), controlled the entire southern half of India. Few of the buildings have survived as more than bare skeletons, but the beauty of the place resides in the setting. The 40-odd square km of remains lie within a series of small valleys that are covered in granite boulders of all shapes and sizes, singly or forming large hills, giving the place an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere. Many of the old temple ruins are also built directly on top of these rocks with no foundations at all, sometimes perched precariously on boulders only tens of metres across. It's such an enchantingly beautiful place, like nowhere else on earth, that I spent one whole day ignoring the ruins and just clambering around the boulders, getting lost, backtracking and getting covered in scratches. I felt like I was 8 years old again. Ah, what fun. The only dampener was the fact that Hampi, very naturally, is a big hit with the tourists. This means it is very difficult to go anywhere without having a horde of little brats following you around shouting helloschoolpen! when they should, instead, actually be in school. Hmm, I feel a touch of the old cynicism might be showing there.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Too Much Time For Thought

From Aurangabad I've been heading ever southwards, stopping first at Bijapur, then Badami and now Hampi. Although the towns may not be on everyone's radars, each one has been the capital of major kingdoms throughout India's history, and they all have the requisite remnants of past glories to prove it. From Bijapur's Islamic mausoleums to die for (as it were), Badami's Hindu temples to Hampi's bizarre, boulder-strewn surroundings. This has got me thinking...

In the 2000 years prior to British rule, the subcontinent had only been united under one flag on two separate occasions: once, under the legendary emperor Ashoka for about 100 years in the third century BC; and then under the Afghan Mughals for 150 years in the 16th and 17th centuries. Apart from these two periods India has been a patchwork of kingdoms, sultanates and confederacies, and even under the empires local rulers had a large degree of autonomy. This all means that the India of today has a dazzling degree of diversity: 18 official (and over a thousand non-official) languages; similar numbers of ethnic, cultural and tribal groups; and on top of that a smorgasbord of gods and religions. It is larger, more populated, more heterogeneous and more complex than Europe, and yet it is one country. No wonder there are half a dozen separatist movements, including the Sikhs in Punjab, the Gurkhas in Sikkim and the Nagas in Nagaland.

Why should India be just one country? what gives these separatist movements less legitimacy than the Tibetans or the Timorese? It seems to me (and perhaps I have too much time on my hands and therefore spend it trying to resolve the world's problems) that the root of many of today's geopolitical problems lies in the carving up of the colonial world after the second world war. When the great powers drew their borders there seems to have been little heed paid to local populations, their feelings, their traditional boundaries or their aspirations for independence. Thus, some ethnic groups were split between several countries without one of their own, like the Kurds (despite having been promised one in 1920 in the treaty of Sevres); other countries became mish-mashes of many disparate ethnic groups, like Nigeria; and some countries were created where none existed before, like Israel. And so the scene was set for many of the bloodiest and most intractable conflicts of the past 60 years. For there is no motivating power as strong, or as irrational, as the Us versus Them mentality of the freedom fighter. Then, depending on which side in any given conflict is more amenable to other countries' views (i.e. how much of their country they will allow to be plundered) the international community will step in whilst, for the television viewers at home, continually paying lip service to Human Rights and the Moral High Ground, seeming to effortlessly distinguish between black and white when in fact everyone is coloured exactly the same shade of faecal brown. Many people in such affected countries see this all as a huge (often Zionist) conspiracy. I'm not so sure. It's probable that it's just initial stupidity followed by self-interested profiteering.

A perfect example of such realpolitik can be found in the miasma that is Iraq today. The Coalition is fighting tooth and nail to Iraq as a single, unified state and not to let it break up into a Kurdish north, Shi'ite south and Sunni middle, despite the fact that this would alleviate many of the existing sectarian tensions. Why is that? Iraq as a country has only existed since 1932 when it was created by the British as an amalgam of three ex-Ottoman regions, which, funnily enough, correspond to the Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni regions today. Why not leave it as it originally was? The reason is quite simple. An independent Kurdish state would annoy the Turks (allies of the West) and give legitimacy to their Kurdish separatist movement; a Shi'ite south would fall under the influence of Iran, and we can't let that happen; and the Sunnis in the middle would be pissed off at losing their oil wealth and status. So, for these dubious reasons, a shoddy status quo is maintained and the ordinary people on the ground suffer.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Aurangabad used to be the seat of power during the last Mughal emperor's (Aurangzeb, hence the name of the city) reign, though you wouldn't be able to tell by walking around today. Apart from some remains of the old city wall, and some of its gates, there is little to distinguish Aurangabad from any other dusty, commercial Indian city (well, that's not entirely true, there is a rather tatty mausoleum that tries to imitate the Taj Mahal, which must have been pretty in its day). The two reasons for coming here lie in the hills close by. They are Ajanta and Ellora.

The two are cave temple complexes carved out of the basalt rock of the hillsides some 2200 to 1200 years ago. Most of the temples are Buddhist, though at Ellora there are Hindu and even Jain temples, and carved horizontally into the hillside. Some of them still contain their carvings and statues, and others yet have managed to retain some of the exquisite frescoes, which must have adorned the entirety of all the caves, portraying the lives of Buddha. But the crowning glory is to be found amongst the Hindu temples at Ellora. This one temple is called the Kailasa temple because it is supposed to represent Mount Kailash, Shiva's abode on earth. The temple was constructed by digging out the rock from the top down (so in actual fact it's not really a cave), so that this whole, monumental building (twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens) is actually made out of one single piece of rock! Something that, as far as I know, has never been done anywhere before or since. The scale of it just takes your breath away, and yet at closer inspection, despite the awesome grandeur, there is also fine attention to detail with smaller sculptures dotted all over the place. It just boggles the mind that something so audacious was even attempted all that time ago, let alone accomplished with such aplomb.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Party Animal

I'm not having too much luck with birthdays on this trip. One would imagine that crossing the quarter century mark would be a rather momentous occasion, but instead the day has been rather subdued, but interesting nonetheless. Some time was spent at the Prince of Wales museum (now, of course, called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya), but mostly I just wandered around among the many booksellers that throng the pavements around the university and High Court. Although normally I'm no fan of shopping and fail to see how it can be viewed as a leisure activity (for me it's a necessary evil: I know what I want, go in, grab it, buy it, and leave as quickly as possible) I make an exception when it comes to books. By the end of the day I managed to successfully encumber myself with far too many tomes which I shall have to send back home at some point.

As for tonight? well, I'm going to have myself a little fiesta on the night train to Aurangabad (8 hours NE of Bombay). I did know a few people here in town, but they left last night for Goa; probably because they didn't want to fork out to get me birthday presents (only joking). But I suppose it's good training spending a birthday on my own, so that I'll be more used to it when I become an old, eccentric bachelor surrounded by stacks of bric-a-brac.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bollywood Or Bust

I am now in Mumbai, India's economic and (pop) cultural powerhouse. For those of you unable to locate Mumbai on the map, try looking under Bombay. Yes, it is one of those irksome entities: places that have changed their names for jingoistic, nationalistic reasons (as you might have guessed, I'm not a big fan). I have nothing against changing names to reflect local pronunciation or original appellation, such as renaming Calcutta Kolkata and Rangoon Yangon, or even changing Karl-Marx-Stadt back to Chemnitz. What I do object to is when places like Bombay (and Madras further south), which were essentially built on empty plots of land, are renamed in, what appears to me, an act of denial. It may seem like a petty thing to get worked up about, but the colonial era, despite it not being a particularly pleasant time in India's past, forms part of the country, and so airbrusing it out like this is like denying part of one's self. The same thing has been done at a smaller level with the beautiful Victoria (train) Terminus, which is now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (and yes, it is spelt with 2 aitches).

I had been slightly dreading coming to Bombay, and had been visualising traffic-clogged streets, horribly polluted air, unending noise, pestering touts and generally other such disagreeable annoyances. I was pleasantly surprised to find pleasant, leafy areas in the centre of town, with imposing neo-gothic buildings that remind me of home (only it's rarely 30 degrees with 80% humidity back home). It also makes me think that, although the country was exploited and a lot of its wealth appropriated, there were some positive aspects to British colonialism (especially when I see the buildings of Bombay University, which are much more imposing than those of UCL my alma mater). Another advantage is language. Here, more than anywhere else, English is commonly used in everyday life. Billboards, radio commercials, magazines and shop signs are, more often than not, in English. The younger and more educated section of society especially, seem to almost exclusively use English amongst themselves (I find it fascinating to eavesdrop students' conversations to get a feel for their preoccupations and the little Indian-English idiosyncrasies). Apparently, according to the guy who sold me my digital camera (yay! I've finally bought one, so, once I figure how to turn the thing on, expect to find more piccies in my album in the near future), who was a really nice guy, but then I suppose you would be to someone who's going to hand you over a huge was of cash, the reason for the supremacy of English in Bombay is the profusion of so many people from all over India. And since most people have their own local languages and dialects English becomes the great leveller.

Bombay is also home of Bollywood, India's film-making hub. Indian films are known for their bombastic song and dance routines, lip-synching and atrocious acting. Foreigners sometimes manage to get minor, non-speaking roles in these films and the place I'm staying is a well-known casting ground, though unfortunately I didn't look "foreign" enough for their tastes, and so my aspirations of becoming a Bollywood star have been crushed even before they began.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Silly Trousers

I have managed to add another iconic James Bond location to my tally by visiting Udaipur, where many of the scenes from Octopussy were shot, with its stunning palace sitting in the middle of a lake. It's possible to visit the palace as well as it is a hotel, but far beyond the reach of my humble budget, so I will probably have to settle with gazing wistfully from the shore and watching the film at one of the countless guesthouses that show it every night.

My travels around Rajasthan have gone on for longer than I had thought (so nothing new there then) as every little town is a gem. After Jaisalmer my next stop was Jodhpur, home of the eponymous trouser worn by posh riding freaks the world over. I was half expecting everyone in town to be wearing them and so was slightly let down by reality, although I did get to see a pair on a guide in the city fort, which, despite the situation being contrived, made me feel better. The fort is one of the most impressive I have seen to date. It is built on an outcrop of rock that juts some 100m above the rest of the city, with huge ramparts that made it impregnable during its 500 year history. The architecture beautiful and very well preserved, and from the battlements you get an unparalleled view, above the soaring hawks and onto the Blue City (as Jodhpur is called) below. It gets its name from the many houses that are painted bright blue. Apparently this used to be the colour of the upper-caste Brahmins, but now everybody seems to have got in on the act. They say the colour keeps the houses cool in the scorching Rajasthani Summers and even repels mosquitoes. Whatever the case, they look beautiful.

From there it was on to Mount Abu, a pleasant hill station retreat, where I could get away from the hustle and bustle of Indian cities. I got to wander around the lovely boulder-strewn hillsides and scout around for wildlife (apparently bears and panthers live in the forests, but all I saw was a chicken). But what really made my visit worthwhile were the Jain temples. Jainism is one of India's religions, though one we hear little about in the west, despite its strong influence on the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and Buddhism as well. The Jains are big-time animal respecters (all of them are vegetarians and they usually refuse to wear animal products, such as leather, as well) with the more devout sometimes even wearing face masks so as not to inhale any insects. Anyway, to know more about Jains and Jainism click here. Now I've seen a good many temples, churches and mosques on my travels and so have perhaps become slightly blase, but these just blew me away. The buildings, some almost 1000 years old, are made of white marble, and covered with the most intricate carvings I have ever seen. Almost every inch of free space is taken up with complex geometric patterns, animals or dancing female figures (from viewing the sculptures I have come to the conclusion that Jains like their women busty, see below).

As a slight aside, Jains are sometimes misunderstood in the west because their holiest symbol is the swastika (which, incidentally, can be translated as "little good luck charm"), which is ever present in all their temples and shrines. It's a shame that such an ancient symbol was hijacked by the Nazis and now is inexorably associated with them.