By some divinely inspired act of tolerance, this last week Chris (a fellow student) agreed to let me tag along on his adventure to Uttar Pradesh. We had just finished an intense 8-week Bangla language program in Kolkata, which for me ended appropriately with my performance of a blues song I wrote in Bangla (entitled 'Please Don't Break my Balls'). Located in Northern India and just south of Nepal, UP is home to over 200 million people. Within its borders are some of the most sacred sites (tirtha) in the sub-continent including Varanasi, Vrindavan and Mathura. Together with some photographs taken along the way, this blurb is intended as a window, muggy as it may be, into the sometimes magical and ever-frustrating India.
Having traveled nearly every weekend around West Bengal (and briefly to Puri), this was the first time that I was stripped of the tinfoil armour that is my Bangla. Cast into the wild wild west of Hindi-speaking India, I was lucky to have a Hindi-speaking Chris by my side. Leaving behind the now inexplicably comfortable surroundings of Kolkata, we set out on a 20-hour train ride to Janpur.
For those of you who have never had the privilege of taking a train in India, let me elaborate. As train routes span the length and breath of the country, it's common for journeys to take over 10, 20 or up to 50 hours. Settling in, and sometimes getting a little too cosy with your neighbour, you can expect your thoughts to be constantly disrupted by the never-ending parade of vendors, selling everything from snacks, chai and biryani to chains, locks and reject toys (that would probably terrify most children). As well as vendors, there are beggars vying for your attention (and rupees), from blind men with sticks to magicians hammering out the routine they have already under-performed on 20 carriages before yours.
The sleeper train (a different beat altogether) offers you some respite from the traffic, if only in the form of a little blue curtain, but just in case you miss a great deal, the vendors will never pass without shouting (almost melodiously) their wares at you. As night falls, people turn to the arduous task of making their beds. In each cabin area along the carriage (blocked off from the corridor by optional curtains), there are 6 beds, 3 on each side from the floor to the ceiling. While the sheets are stained and sometimes hairy, perks from the top bunk include not being able to see the mice and bugs scuttle about the floor below you. On this particular train (I am told, as I slept through this episode), we had the distinct honour of sharing our cabin with a talkative individual who was transporting 3 fine Kashmiri chickens in a bag that could barely carry 3 eggs. Less fortunate than myself - at this stage in a deep sleep - Chris was on the bottom bunk and had to listen to this man's colourful tales while he clucked over the chickens trying to escape.
Back to the trip...our first stop was Janpur where we visited some mosques and forts. In light of the apparent lack of anything else in the area, we quickly headed for Banaras (also known to the British as Varanasi, or more traditionally as Kashi). Banaras, 2 hours away by train, is arguably the most important religious site in India. It is home to an amazing variety of colourful sadhus and ancient traditions and along with Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, is very much on the beaten track for most backpackers, especially at this time of the year. We arrived, checked in and quickly got back out as I was keen to get some dusk shots by the ghats (steps leading down to the river). After a long rickshaw ride, we finally reached the Ganga only to find that as a result of flooding, the very ghats that made this city famous were submerged in the very river that made them auspicious. Having waded through some swampy roads, and getting stuck in the mud by the river, we decided it was a lost cause.
I spent the next day doing what I do in most new cities - walking. I left the hotel at around 7am and headed for the ghats. Though they were far from the spectacle I had hoped for, the area surrounding the ghats and the bazar was buzzing. From very early, the streets and alleyways are bustling with fruit and vegetable vendors, chai wallahs, rickshaws and everything you would expect from a vibrant city centre...in India. Visiting the burning ghat (where photography is prohibited for obvious reasons), you cannot help but be overwhelmed. Though most of the ghat was under water, there was an elevated platform where one body was being prepared, two were burning, and another had all but disappeared, now reduced to charred cinders. Family members (male only) gather here to perform the rites as the body is prepared, wrapped and covered in garlands and other offerings. I was told by a local that over 100 bodies are burnt here a day. If a family lacks the financial resources to pay for the cremation, bodies were weighed down with a rock and dumped into the river from a small boat. Not only is the Ganga the very lifeblood of the city, but also its graveyard.
Wandering around Banaras, I came across many of what anthropologists might call 'dramatic delights'. In the bazaar, on the way to the golden temple, a man and his son, dressed almost like clowns, approached me with a basket. I accepted their advances (not in that way!) and inquired as to what they were carrying in the baskets (rookie error). Smiling suspiciously, the man quickly pulled off the lid to reveal a cobra. After taking about 40 steps back and throwing out every curse word I could think of, I grabbed my camera as he began to play his pungi (snake charmer's flute). It was definitely a good show watching the snake dance to the music, but my (very rational) fear of snakes stopped me from getting a close-up shot.
A few feet down the road, I stopped for a glass of chai. After the usual interrogation one should expect in India, the chai wallah spoke Bangla with me. Unfortunately, his Bangla was as broken as mine, and so our awkward smiles and nods were punctuated by phrases and words that we both agreed upon, but didn't understand. Luckily, I was distracted afforded escape by a kid across the street who was playing with his pet monkey…on a chain.
And back on the road...From Banaras, we took a 16 hour train to Mathura. This is traditionally the birthplace of Krishna and though I had been there a couple of years ago, we didn't have time to stop by as we were on our way to Vrindavan. Along with Mayapur (my home to be), Vrindavan is a sacred site for Vaishnavas. This is where Krishna grew up, and where his lilas (pastimes) took place. From the forests of Mathura to the groves of Vrindavan, most stories that involve the young Krishna (stealing butter or playing pranks for the most part) are said to have happened here. This is also home to the ISKCON Sri Sri Krishna Balarama Temple, one of the most important temples in the movement and one which dominates the Vrindavan area. We were very lucky over the next few days to get darshan (glimpsing the deities) in some of the oldest and most beautiful temples in the area and to taste some great prasad (offered food) from some really generous devotees from various sects.
Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of sacred sites in India, Vrindavan can be very difficult to appreciate. The town is a major pilgrimage site (as it has been for centuries) but amongst the open sewers and particularly public toilet habits of both locals and pilgrims, it can be very difficult to accept that this is quite literally a transcendental 'heaven on earth' for Vaishnavs all over the world. The devotees of Vrindavan share their sacred space with an amazing array of wildlife - from cows, goats and rats, to dogs, pigs and monkeys. Warning: The monkeys in particular are notorious for stealing from pilgrims. One evening, as we wound down a narrow lane towards a temple, a monkey, timing his decent to perfection, swooped down and landed on our rickshaw. Pulling the glasses off Chris' head, he scampered onto a nearby roof and waited, all the while chewing Chris' glasses. We were told that the monkeys have developed a system whereby they will relinquish the glasses, wallet or phone in return for some food. Before we could open negotiations a local hit the monkey with a rock and Chris was able to see again (though this service was of course not free of charge).
Escaping the madness of Vrindavan (particularly busy because of Jhulan Yatra), we were lucky enough to meet up with a friend of Chris' from another Vaishnav sect in Gokul nearby. We walked for miles in the midday sun after taking prasad, and met with, among other characters, an incredibly high but curiously articulate sadhu. Unfortunately, as set out on our return to Vrindavan the rain started. The monsoon rain needs no more than 5 minutes to turn villages into waterparks. Despite the bravery (or stupidity) of our tuk-tuk driver, tackling puddles that went up to our knees in what is a lawnmower engine with a shell, we finally cut out….in the middle of a river that was once a street (ironically beside a shrine to Krishna). Through the swampy sewer water, we managed to push the tuk-tuk onto dry land…where after several attempts at blowing on various parts of the engine like a Sega Megadrive, the driver gave up and we got another taxi home.
The next day, we set out on our epic voyage back to Kolkata. From Mathura, the train that was to take us to Delhi for our connecting train home to Kolkata was delayed - at first by one hour, and after several more revisions by about 3 hours. With little other options, we finally got to Delhi and decided to catch a plane back. As a result, and to our shame, what began as a well-intentioned yatra into the heart of sacred India, ended unceremoniously in a KFC in Delhi airport.