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October 2019

A mistreated goddess

Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Haridwar - 13th to 16th January 2018

sunny 25 °C

The Ganges - iconic, sacred...

and polluted.

It's yet another of those unfathomable dichotomies that is India.

Hindu legend relates how the gods commanded goddess Ganga, a river living in the heavens, to fall to Earth. Ganga didn't really want to leave and, because she was being forced, threatened to destroy all life on Earth by the strength of her flow.

Fortunately, as she fell, the powerful god Shiva, the ‘destroyer of evil’, caught her in his dreadlocks and tied her in knots. Later, he released her to tumble gently down from the Himalayas and meander across the plains of India to the ocean, riding on her traditional crocodile transport.

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On Earth, Ganga offered devout Hindus a way of life and a way back to the heavens. As a goddess, her water is considered very pure and, as believers in reincarnation, Hindus regard bathing in the river as cleansing sins from past and present lives as well as the body. What’s more, immersing the deceased in her water brings their spirits closer to Moksha, liberation from the cycle of life and death.

This all sounds very complicated – which it is!

I've said before that to understand Hinduism you have to be born into it.

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The River Ganges irrigates the land, sustains industries, and provides hydroelectricity and drinking water. It's India’s longest and most sacred waterway - the embodiment of the divine, the aforementioned goddess Ganga. Yet, perhaps inevitably in a land where poverty and illiteracy are still commonplace today, it’s also become a depository for all manner of waste.

It’s estimated that more than 1.5 Billion litres of untreated sewage and 500 Million litres of industrial effluent from tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughterhouses and hospitals are pumped into the river every day. Certainly, while we saw how clear the water was near its source at Devprayag, Rishikesh and Haridwar, it was opaque, dark grey and virtually devoid of life by the time it reached Varanasi a thousand kilometres downstream.

Village rubbish, mainly food waste and plastic bags and bottles, adorns many of its steep banks, eventually to be swept downstream during monsoon floods. Dead animals are put in the river. We saw several bloated carcasses of cows, goats and dogs on our journeys.

The bodies of certain humans – those from the very poorest families, unmarried women, children and those killed by snakebite, for example - are weighted with rocks, taken to the centre of the river and simply lowered into the water. Others are cremated on the banks and their remains, sometimes only partly burnt if relatives had been unable to afford sufficient wood for the funeral pyre, are consigned to the river.

All these things have combined to make the Ganges one of the world's most polluted rivers.

Is it not ironic that the people who worship the river are killing the very thing they revere?

Surely, the Ganges is far too toxic, at least in the lower reaches, to be holy any more. Last year, a court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand tended to think so and ordered that the Ganges (and its main tributary, the Yamuna) be accorded the status of living human entities. That decision effectively meant that polluting or damaging the rivers would be legally equivalent to harming a person - but how could infringements be effectively monitored or enforced in such a vast and impoverished country?

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A diya (a little lamp) is set afloat on the river to signal hope and fulfilment of wishes

Pollution threatens not only humans of course. The many fish and amphibian species which live in the river, including endangered Ganges River Dolphins, are all at risk too. Although we spent time actually on the river, we didn’t see the latter, nor did we see any frogs or turtles. Downstream of Allahabad, there were a few optimistic fishermen, using nets suspended from floats made of plastic bottles or expanded polystyrene, wooden fish traps and traditional ‘Chinese’ lift nets. There were even occasional cormorants - fish-eating birds, close to notoriously-polluted Varanasi. So, it seems that, against all the odds, some life may continue to exist in this water.

The government is said to be investing heavily in cleaning up the river. Just last year, the title of ‘Ministry of Water Resources’ was suffixed with the additional tag of ‘River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation'. There's little evidence, however, to suggest that India's politicians are prepared to commit long-term to what would be an immensely costly 'rejuvenation'. In any case, an even greater obstacle is likely to be the significant change in centuries-old culture needed to reverse this river's decline.

While a clean river may be pie in the sky, at least for generations to come, perhaps Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat’ mission will help to ‘Clean India’ of at least some of its refuse by the target of October 2019. Perhaps..!

Meantime, immersion in the waters of this holy river continues to wash away the sins of the devout. In places, however, it’s also likely to make the living very sick. Hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery and a variety of other waterborne diseases and skin afflictions, most carried by the fecal/oral route, are prevalent here. Yet many who bathe in the river, wash their clothes in it, brush their teeth with water from it and drink it too, still fail to make a connection between disease and the sanctity of the river.

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The fast-flowing Ganges - and a chain to help those bathing in its holy waters from being swept away

Despite everything, holy water from the river’s upper reaches is often bottled and carried back by the devout to their homes rather like it is at other holy places elsewhere in the world. Plastic containers of many sizes are sold in markets beside the river for pilgrims to collect the water for themselves.

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In Rajasthan, I once saw a group of pilgrims carrying Ganges water that they’d collected in large, weighty pots and suspended from stout canes over their shoulders. It transpired that they were walking to Bateshwar, many hundreds of miles away, to give the water as an offering at their own Shiva temple.

Oh, and if you can’t visit the Ganges yourself, pop over to eBay, where you can buy 100ml of its water for around a fiver!

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Haridwar
For now at least, the pollution becomes apparent only as the river broadens and slows in its middle and lower reaches. Here in Haridwar, the ‘Gateway to God’, one of the seven holiest places in Hinduism, the ice-cold water flowing from nearby glaciers to the north remains sparkling and clear.

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The Ganges at Haridwar. This great river, born in the Himalayas, flows south, east, then south again into the Bay of Bengal.
Along its 2,500kms, it supports over half a billion people – that’s more than the entire populations of Russia and the USA combined!

Our tour had been planned so as to be in Haridwar for 14 January, the day of the ancient Makar Sankranti festival, one of few observed according to the solar cycle (as opposed to the lunar one of the lunisolar Hindu calendar). According to religious texts, the sun enters the Zodiacal sign of 'Makara' (Capricorn) and starts moving to the north, marking a change in seasons. This time is regarded as important for spiritual practices and people take a holy dip in rivers, especially the Ganges, for merit or absolution of past sins. They also pray to the sun and give thanks for their successes and prosperity.

We’d arrived the day before the festival, yet on our afternoon walk through the town we encountered huge crowds preparing themselves for the great event. In the river, people took a holy dip.

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After a ritual bathe in the river - swimming costumes are unheard of!

Men sat cross-legged in a line of barbers near the banks of the river to have their faces and heads shaved with cut-throat razors, in readiness for the next day's rituals. Women shopped for bangles and beads. Vendors encouraged visitors to buy their diyas - floating lamps made of carefully-folded leaves bound together with twigs and filled with red rosebuds, bright orange marigold petals and tiny clay cups with solidified ghee (purified butter) and a wick. Others sold strings of yellow and maroon marigolds like those used as garlands to welcome guests into homes and hotels, but today to be draped on statues of gods or cast into the sacred waters.

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Little shops, one after another, all selling similar brightly-coloured goods, abounded in the narrow lanes. Vast quantities of vegetables - beautifully displayed as they should be in this predominantly vegetarian city, sparkling bangles and, somewhat weirdly, tropical seashells (we’re thousands of miles from the sea) were common sights. Above the streets, a tangle of cables supplied electrical power. Beneath our feet, sandy, uneven paving or roadways strewn with innumerable parked cars and motorbikes enabled difficult movement of people, cows and dogs. All around were enticing smells of spicy street-food being cooked and the heavy scent of incense sticks, their smoke spiralling skywards. The air was rent with the noise of a thousand conversations, vehicle horns, high-pitched singing from oversized loudspeakers, ritual bells, and more.

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Some things could never be easily found in this holy city - notably alcohol and meat. It’s officially ‘dry’ and vegetarian! Foreign tourists too were noticeable by their absence; in our three days here, we saw only five or six of them. Indian tourists - or more correctly: pilgrims - were here in their thousands though and we met many who’d come great distances especially for this festival.

At sundown, we reached a place called Har-ki-Pauri, the ‘Footstep of God’ (‘Har’ refers to the god Shiva or Vishnu, ’ki’ = of, ‘Pauri’ = step), so called because Hindu theology states that Shiva or Vishnu (they're one and the same entity) visited this place in antiquity and an impression of Vishnu’s footstep is said to be found here, on a wall somewhere beneath the fast-flowing river.

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Faces at Har-ki-Pauri, including one of very few European ones (my brother David!)

It's considered that the holy river leaves the mountains and enters the plains here and it's become a very auspicious place, of equal status to the revered Dashashwamedh Ghat in the most holy city of Varanasi. Consequently, Haridwar's ghats (a series of steps leading down to the water) see many hundreds taking a dip in the Ganges every day of the year, women fully dressed in colourful saris, men stripped down to their equally-colourful underpants, and most holding tightly to thoughtfully-provided chains to prevent being swept away by the rushing current.

When we eventually found a suitable place to sit, it was here that we witnessed our first ever aarthi.

As evening turned to night, hundreds gathered on both sides of the river. On the opposite bank from where we sat, temple bells rang, red-robed priests blew conch shells and rang little hand-bells. Their chants and singing filled the evening air with praise to Shiva, Surya the sun god, Ganga, and the entire universe. In a choreographed spectacle, the aarthi (a ritual of worship, a part of puja or prayer) was completed with great fireballs being waved round and round, above the priests' heads, to the side, and towards the sacred Ganges.

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This was followed by hundreds of diyas being set adrift on the river, the flicker of the lamps casting shadows in the fast-flowing stream.

Next day, accompanied by a local guide, we set forth to discover more about this fascinating city. The scene then, however, was quite different to our previous foray. The crowds had swollen to multitudinous proportions...

Accommodation:

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If you plan to visit Haridwar - and I'd recommend that you do, be sure to stay at the Devnadi Hotel. It's situated right on the banks of the Ganges and is a peaceful eight-room haven within easy reach of all the sights and sounds of this amazing city. It was originally built as a summer retreat for the Queen of Nepal with a private bathing ghat on the river bank and was later owned by a Bollywood film director.

Today, after much tasteful and careful restoration, this charming house is operated as a hotel by the lovely Saigal family. Rohan Saigal and his wife Jasmeet, a delightful young couple who were both educated in the UK, run the hotel and provided a truly warm welcome. They went out of their way to help us with all the information and arrangements we needed, both before we arrived (email: info@devnadi.com) and during our stay.

Our well-appointed bedroom with its high ceilings, private bathroom and 'art-nouveau' touches was immaculately clean and very comfortable. It even had access to a private terrace looking out to the river and to the ghat below. The service from a happy and enthusiastic team of staff was very good indeed.

In summary, we found this a friendly, convenient and reasonably-priced heritage hotel. I'll certainly stay there again when I return one day to Haridwar.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:08 Archived in India Tagged india ganges haridwar Comments (1)

Tea with a sadhu

Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Haridwar - 16th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

The temperature had dropped like a stone as soon as the sun went down at Har-ki-Pauri the previous evening. Seated on a step within inches of the river watching the aarthi ceremony, I'd respected tradition with bare feet. They'd been as cold as the Ganges' icy water!

Clearly, it wasn't much warmer outside this morning. We awoke to a heavy grey mist almost obliterating the view from our terrace at the Devnadi Hotel.

It happens at this time of year - warm by day, cold by night... fog in the morning.

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We added an extra layer, went down to the restaurant for a hot breakfast and hoped that things might improve later.

Satish, a knowledgeable guide booked for our next two days by the hotel's lovely Jasmeet, soon arrived. Thankfully, so did the sun...

Visibility had begun to improve as we tuk-tuked down to a bridge over the river. As we crossed, the sun finally broke through, giving us a panoramic view upstream towards the town, its ghats, waterside temples and colourful ashrams. At this early hour, the wide footpath bordering the shallow steps of ghats on this bank was calm and fairly free of people. A few braved the icy waters dressed only in underpants, clearly enjoying the experience but gripping chains attached to the concrete bank. More chains dangled beneath the span of a distant bridge in case other bathers upstream were swept away by the fast-moving current.

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A statue of a bearded guru sat beneath a huge tree while a nearby barber shaved the beard of his first customer of the day, a priest on his way to the ceremonies. Numerous lingams (a symbol of Lord Shiva, or some might think it a male/female fertility image) bordered the river bank, together with effigies of Lord Shiva himself (blue), the monkey god Hanuman (orange) and Nandi the bull (Shiva's transport).

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As we neared the bridge leading to Har-ki-Pauri, so the crowds began to swell. Families relaxed, squatting expectantly, enjoying the crisp morning sunshine. Beggars looked towards us with pleading eyes and outstretched hands. Priests blessed shaven-headed men seated on the ghats. Vendors sold bundles of peacock feathers suspended from their backs (peacock feathers are auspicious... but were the feathers found or plucked from an illegally-killed bird? Don't buy them!). Others carefully placed vermilion tilaks between the eyes of the devout in exchange for small coins. Little shops, with piles of coloured paper kites and reels of thread catered to a children's after-school hobby that's also a fervent tradition at this festive time. Pilgrims bought wooden walking sticks and staves from a shop displaying hundreds of them in various shapes and sizes, together with a few cricket bats for good measure.

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At Har-ki-Pauri, today in daylight, the scene was in complete contrast to the previous evening. Now, on this 14th day of January, the day of Makar Sankranti, it was difficult to move easily through a shifting tide of humanity. Hundreds thronged the banks on each side of the sparkling waters, eager to step down the ghats for a holy dip. As they submerged themselves, a sharp intake of breath clearly showed that the chill took some by surprise. Youngsters meanwhile splashed around having fun, seemingly unaware of the importance of their morning paddle.

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I should mention perhaps that this was not the true River Ganges here, but the narrow Upper Ganga Canal. Just yards from this point, the massive sluice gates of Bhimgoda Barrage control the power of the river, here swift and swirling so close to its source in the Himalayas to the north. The canal continues in straight lines for hundreds of miles south, its water being used to generate electricity and irrigate the land. Along its length, man-made banks provide ghats for ritual bathing in many places - the water, after all, is from the holy Ganges itself. The river's main stream, severely reduced except during Spring ice-melt from glaciers and Summer monsoon floods, is to be found on its wide flood-plain away to the east.

We stayed a while at Har-ki-Pauri to consider this scene of devotion. It never ceased to amaze us that so many could have so much faith, that they would journey enormous distances - often on foot - to observe that faith, and that they celebrated their ancestral heritage and hopes for their future lives with such zeal. Here, tens of thousands were gathering on this happy, auspicious day to praise a sun god and a river goddess. Compare the picture below with one taken just the previous day (A mistreated goddess).

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To see so many milling around, smiling, praying and bathing in these rapid waters was an overwhelming sight. It was one that we'd experience again that evening as we attended the aarthi ceremony for a second time, but with a massively greater audience than before. Then, as the sun dipped behind temples on the far bank, it would be standing room only for us as vast crowds occupied all the steps and most of what might normally have been open spaces and promenade areas. Audience participation in the rituals became even more vigorous too, with animated responses to the priests' chants and songs, rhythmic clapping during the tuneful mantra of 'Har Har Gangee, Jai Maa Gangee', and much waving of hands in the air.

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Even now during our daytime visit, people released their diyas onto the water, the night-time candles within these little boats of leaves replaced by sticks of smouldering incense and a small coin or two for good luck. Those coins seldom travelled far though, as they were plucked out by the swift hands of young boys or, when they fell into the water, recovered by others with magnets pulled across the river's flow on strings.

Coconuts too were common offerings cast into the river. Ingenious lads had constructed metal mesh baskets on long, thin ropes, which they hurled into the river from bridges to capture the floating nuts. Those they caught were dried off and resold to other pilgrims! Why coconuts, I hear you ask. Well, they're apparently the plant equivalent of a cow in Hinduism as they're significant to life as a whole - an eternal giver of food, water, oil and coir rope in this case, and they're offered to gods as a substitute for what may have been animal sacrifice in antiquity. Some Hindu religious texts, by the way, explain that a person should be like a coconut - hard and tough on the outside, soft and generous on the inside. Now there's a thought!

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Devotions in a dark doorway

Over the course of two days, Satish earned his modest guiding fee by taking us to places often missed by other visitors to this crowded city.

He also showed us ceremonies the likes of which I'd never seen in all my previous journeys around this country. I tried to understand what some of them might have been about (Satish's English wasn't always entirely precise - or maybe he didn't fully understand what was going on either!). Anyway, to truly comprehend a Hindu ritual, there's always something else you need to know.

Take, for example, the circle of young boys Satish led us to see. They were seated cross-legged next to men (their dads perhaps?) offering them guidance on what to do with the flowers and rice placed on leaves beside their feet. The boys had their heads shaved clean, except for tufts of hair on the very tops of their skulls. The circle was surrounded by dozens of adults, including many women (the boys' mums maybe?) wearing colourful orange scarves fringed with silver tinsel. It wasn't any easier to find out what was happening than it was to wriggle through the mêlée to take these photographs to show you.

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As far as I could make out, it was what's called a 'thread ceremony', something that happens when boys of the Brahmin caste reach about 12 years of age - a bit like a Jewish Bar Mitzvah. The boys vow to respect knowledge, their parents and society and are given three strands of a sacred thread in return. Hair, as we all know, is a symbol of vanity - so, the shaved heads were a gesture of humility. The choti or shikha (the lock of hair remaining on each boy's head), represents exclusive focus on a spiritual goal, devotion to God.

Well, I think that's what it was all about!

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Some were more interested in playing with their phones than in the ceremony!


We also discovered a part-covered area nearby with a dozen or more seemingly contented cows standing quietly or sitting chewing the cud. Hindus consider the cow a sacred symbol of life that should be protected, revered and fed. In many places, cows feed themselves on waste food and stuff they find in the streets. Here, these very lucky and rather chubby ones were being ritually fed bananas, apples, oranges and chapattis.

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Here too were other rituals in progress, some receiving blessings for recently-deceased relatives or remembering ancestors. Others involved priests saying prayers or offering prasad - a little food item donated to a deity.

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We saw people simply registering their attendance on this holy day with a family priest. It's an unusual fact that, here in Haridwar, a custom of family genealogy continues to be maintained by Brahmin priests (known as pandas), who keep hand-written registers passed down over many generations. For centuries, pilgrims visiting this holy town have sought out their family's particular panda and updated their records with details of births, deaths and marriages. Apparently, it's not uncommon for these pandas to hold information on more than seven generations in their ancient books. Uncomputerised 'Ancestry.com' in action!

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On the fringes of the town, Satish showed us some other fascinating places.

One of them involved a choice of a steep 785-step uphill walk or a short cable-car ride to Mansa Devi Temple. No prizes for guessing which one we two old blokes chose. A visit to this temple is a 'must' for all pilgrims to Haridwar and a benefit of having a guide was that we didn't need to join the queue for cable-car tickets; Satish simply 'paid' the ticket-collector at the entrance!

The view towards the Ganges from our little cage-like cabin as it made its way up to the top of the Bilwa Parvat hill was marred by a lingering mist. The views of simple dwellings below, green trees littered with downed kites and tangled lines and of the other cages as they clattered by, however, were as clear as a bell - as were the clanging of temple bells and a message specifying that photography was forbidden as we disembarked.

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Outside the temple was a huge photograph of the three-headed goddess whose shrine was inside! This temple was devoted to wish-fulfilling goddess Mansa Devi. On the way in, stalls sold a mountain of offerings and prasad that believers could give to the priests at each shrine, adding a monetary donation in return for blessings.

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It was difficult to see much of the inner sanctum where the goddess resided because of the teeming masses but, towards the exit, was a holy tree bound in thousands of colourful threads. Each one had been tied in the hope of a wish being granted. If I understood correctly, pilgrims whose wishes were fulfilled would later return and untie their threads. Benevolent sceptics might say that a lot of pilgrims hadn't managed to return after their wishes had been granted!

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A visit to a place is sometimes particularly memorable because of the unexpected.

This afternoon, for example, a procession blocked our path on the way back to the charming Devnadi Hotel. A team of drummers led a procession of smiling, dancing men, women and children wearing multi-coloured caps. Behind them came a giant carriage resembling two white elephants with red and gold trappings topped by a gilded howdah in which sat men wearing orange robes and gold crowns. It was a special occasion for the Jain community, we were told. Certainly, the welcome and the joyful music were infectious, as brother David will confirm - he joined in the dancing with gusto, cheered on by the whirling throng.

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On another occasion, an electric tuk-tuk quietly took-tooked us through mile upon mile of dusty, impoverished and almost treeless grounds dotted with occasional tent dwellers and their buffaloes, goats and cows. Every 12 years, this entire expanse would be densely covered by a tented town accommodating some of the millions of pilgrims attending the Kumbh Mela - the largest religious gathering on the planet (at least 10 Million people bathed in the Ganges at Haridwar on a single day in 2010). I made a diary note to return in 2022.

That same road took us past a fantastic 108-feet (33 metres) tall statue of Lord Shiva that we'd seen from a distance while at Har-ki-Pauri

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Shiva is easily recognisable by his trident, his leopard skin, and the snake around his neck.
People flock to Haridwar particularly because of Shiva.


We continued onwards to a colony of sadhus hidden among trees beside the Ganges itself. Here, many dozens of sadhus - holy men, monks, ascetics who'd given up all the trappings of a worldly existence - lived in a cramped village of gloomy, squalid-looking tents beneath trees close to the river.

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Atop a concrete mount close to the stony river shore was a colourful, makeshift assemblage of logs and branches encased in plastic sheets and golden-yellow fabric decorated with garlands of orange and yellow marigolds.

Inside was a bright-eyed, bearded sadhu. He sat cross-legged and bare-chested, his long, unkempt hair piled up into a top-knot secured with a metal clip. Satish translated that he lived here for part of the year, returning to his village in the hills when monsoon rains made it unsafe to live so close to the flooding river.

With a gentle smile, this friendly, unassuming man quietly invited us to join him for tea, which he made in a large metal pan and presented to us in small cups.

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Memorable indeed.

Posted by Keep Smiling 03:08 Archived in India Tagged india ganges haridwar Comments (2)

'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da...'

Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Rishikesh - 17th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

'...life goes on, braah.
La-la, how the life goes on!'

This blog could have been titled 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey' or possibly any of the other tracks on The Beatles 'White Album'. Most of them were composed during their encounter with transcendental meditation here in Rishikesh during March and April of 1968.

But, yes, 'life goes on' today much as it was when Paul McCartney wrote Ob-La-Di... all those years ago.

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Backpackers still flock here in search of 'enlightenment' and the town remains preoccupied with meditation and yoga. It's a kind of spiritual Disneyland for Westerners. Indeed, some of the tourists we encountered during our short stay - and they were here in vastly greater numbers than in Haridwar - apparently thought it was still the '60s or '70s. Their long hair and baggy, flower-power attire that no self-respecting Indian would ever dream of wearing was of a past era.

Although only an hour's taxi ride from holy Haridwar and similarly centred around the sacred Ganges, Rishikesh seemed light years away in terms of atmosphere and environment. This was an altogether more relaxed, somehow prettier, and distinctly more touristy place.

It's where, if you had the time and inclination, you could take any one of a hundred different yoga courses - it's renowned as 'the yoga capital of the world'. You could trek in the foothills of the Himalayas too, or learn to play the sitar like George Harrison, or even get rapidly drenched in a rubber raft on the river.

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Alternatively, you could do as we did and sit on your hotel balcony enjoying the sunshine and glorious views towards the range of green hills on our doorstep!

Our stay in Rishikesh was short, so we opted to take a long walk from our hotel to the evening aarthi ceremony at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram on the Ganges' eastern bank.

The town's west side is where most hotels and the town itself are located. The only way to reach the eastern side is by suspension bridges called jhulas (pronounced like jewellers). They're narrow, designed for pedestrians in two-way single file, but frequented by cows, monkeys, bicycles, scooters and motorbikes too. The happy result is that the east side has no cars - ideal for our walk.

It was less than a 10-minute stroll to the Lakshman Jhula (often spelt Laxman Jhula) from our hotel in the pleasant north-western part of town. In ancient myth, Lakshman was the younger brother of Rama - an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and he's said to have crossed the Ganges at this exact point using a jute rope bridge. Today, we followed in his footsteps by the now metal suspension bridge brightly painted in the colours of the Indian flag.

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Proximity to the Lakshman Jhula had an added advantage in that we could cross the wide, free-flowing Ganges avoiding the unattractive downtown area we'd driven through on our way here from Haridwar. From the bridge, we enjoyed remarkable countryside views both upstream and downstream, jostled all the time by the comings and goings of others. David even had a bottle of water sneakily snatched from his backpack by a monkey!

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Once on the far bank, we moved swiftly past tiny stalls selling the usual tourist tat and pilgrims' requisites, together with even smaller niches where you could book yoga lessons, flights, buses and river rafting. In the bustling streets, we passed children returning from school, foreigners with yoga mats slung on their backpacks, small ashrams, hostels and cafés with names like Freedom, Little Buddha, Soul and Nirvana.

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Then, like a breath of fresh air, we came out onto a wide footpath, really an infrequently-used road, fringed by stone walls, tall trees and shrubs on either side. There were very few people and even fewer vehicles, merely an occasional motorbike.

For about 1½ miles (2.4kms), this well-maintained, metalled roadway followed the contours of the meandering Ganges somewhere far below us and rarely visible because of dense greenery.

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In parts, one side of the path was lined with coloured concrete benches, mostly vacant but now and then occupied by old men passing the time of day or by sadhus in bright orange robes with turbans or woolly hats to match.

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The only other people were an itinerant stallholder selling crushed sugar cane drinks and a few visitors like ourselves heading in the same direction.

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More than an hour after we'd left (we walked at old men's pace), we eventually reached Ram Jhula, the town's other footbridge, almost a facsimile of the one we'd crossed earlier. Again, there were great views of the river and towards forested hills receding into the misty distance. A lonely cow and a crowded wooden ferry-boat waited by the bridge. The boat presumably carried people to parts of the town not easily reached by the bridges or otherwise requiring very long walks - we didn't stop to ask, this wasn't our destination.

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Another half mile (850 metres), past ashrams and temples on our left side and the river bank on our right, brought us to Parmarth Niketan. This is the largest ashram of the many in Rishikesh, where visitors come to stay inexpensively in its thousand or more rooms and to participate in its yoga, meditation and wellness programmes. An annual International Yoga Festival is held here in March.

In front of this enormous spiritual retreat, on steep ghats bordering the river, was the site of this evening's aarthi ceremony.

Near the entrance to the ghats was an imposing statue of Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, an avatar of the god Shiva (the destroyer of evil) and an ardent devotee of the god Rama. Here he's seen seated in semi-lotus position with his hands ripping opening his chest to reveal, close to his heart, the standing figures of Rama and his beautiful wife Sita.

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At first, we chose to clamber down the steps of the ghats to sit beside the river and to watch the ceremony from beneath. It transpired however that, unlike the formal ceremonies we'd witnessed at Haridwar, this celebration of devotion to Mother Ganges was to be smaller, more audience-friendly, altogether more intimate. We soon rose up and mingled with everyone else - the priests, old and young, dressed in their familiar yellow and crimson robes seated at river level, above and among the gathering, now inter-mixed with visiting Westerners and Indians alike.

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An harmonium, a sort of floor-level squeeze-box pumped by one hand and a tiny piano-like keyboard played with the other, sounded its tuneless melody. Finger cymbals, tabla drums and bells provided more interesting accompaniment.

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The priests chanted and sang lengthy mantras, amplified by large speakers on either side - they don't do 'quiet' at aarthi ceremonies! The audience joined in with enthusiasm, singing, clapping, swaying, with hands above their heads or in prayer. Flames were lit in cobra-shaped lamps and waved through the air in choreographed unison. Later, some of the flaming lamps were passed from hand to hand among the friendly congregation.

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Much of this celebration to the ever-sacred Ganges was performed by a sprightly, heavily-bearded gentleman - the ashram's 65-year-old president, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj - call him 'Swamiji' for short. We saw this man again at an airport a day or two later - he travels the world with his message of caring for people and the planet (he's also the spiritual head of the Hindu Jain Temple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Clearly highly regarded and hugely respected, the aarthi's congregation followed his every word and, at the end of the ceremony, they followed hotly in his footsteps as he left the auditorium.

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Our evening observation at an end, we retreated to the Ram Jhula. Nearby, we ate dinner at the rather bare but highly-recommended Chotiwala Restaurant. Then, fatigued from our walk and enthralling time at the aarthi, we strolled back over the bridge to the west side and caught a tuk-tuk to our hotel.

It had been an energetic and interesting day and these two oldies needed to sleep before their next spiritual adventure - tomorrow's long ride to Devprayag, birthplace of the holy River Ganges.

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Accommodation

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The Dewa Retreat, glowingly described as 'a subdued spa resort with organic dining', is a fairly standard modern hotel located in the peaceful north-western part of Rishikesh. We particularly liked its location, away from the grimy, busy town-centre.

As well as regular accommodation for visitors, it offers traditional Ayurvedic herbal treatments and massages together with a yoga and meditation room. Regrettably, we didn't have time to sample any of these. There's also a swimming pool, around which a few guests sat - the water was cold.

The welcome from the staff was friendly and efficient, and our room was clean and comfortable. We enjoyed having a narrow balcony to take in the views over agricultural land close by and towards the green hills beyond. The restaurant served a wide variety of vegetarian food although, strangely and annoyingly, the waiters failed to mention that some items were produced in the organic café opposite and would take a lifetime to arrive.

On balance, this was a good choice for location and comfort, but at around £75 for a night's bed and breakfast in a double room, a bit expensive by Indian standards.

*

Footnote:
Even though it's credited to Lennon & McCartney, John Lennon hated the 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' song, calling it 'Paul’s granny music'. A BBC poll some years later named it the single worst song of all time.

I remember this awful song vividly - if you don't, you can listen to it on YouTube by clicking here.

Oh, and here's a useless fact: 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' comes from a Nigerian tribe called the Yoruba and, of course, it means 'life goes on'.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:48 Archived in India Tagged india ganges rishikesh Comments (2)

The energy giver and healer

Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Devprayag - 18th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

India's high caste Brahmins say a prayer three times a day, just before sunrise, at noon and just before sunset, in which they praise water as the energy giver and healer.

No water in India is praised more highly than that of the Ganges and our spiritual journey would have been incomplete without a visit to where this holiest of all holy rivers begins its life.

Perhaps that's why we chose to go to Rishikesh - not so much to discover what all The Beatles fuss was about ('Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da...'), nor even to experience another evening aarthi ceremony (even though that alone was worth going there for). Rather, it may have been because Rishikesh was only a couple of hours from where the sacred Ganges is born.

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There's a popular misconception that the Ganges starts at the Gangotri Glacier, high up in the Himalayas. Well, it does - and it doesn't... The Gangotri actually provides the headwaters of the Bhagirathi (pronounced bag-ee-raaht-eee), one of two sacred tributaries of the Ganges that meet at a place called Devprayag (pronounced as it's spelt: dev-pray-ag). The other river is the Alaknanda (al-ak-nan-da), which flows from the Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers near the Tibetan border. There's also another unseen, mythical one - more of which later.

It's at the prayag - the confluence - of these rivers in Devprayag ('Dev' means 'godly') that Ganga, the one we know as the Ganges, really begins.

On paper, Rishikesh is only about 70kms (42 miles) from Devprayag, or a little less from our hotel near the road out of the town to the north. At only 370 metres (1,220 feet) above sea level, however, Rishikesh is also over 560 metres (1,840 feet) lower, and there's mountainous terrain in between. We faced a taxi journey of more than two hours to reach our destination - but, wow, what a lovely journey it was.

Our scenic route followed the river flowing towards us far below in a deep ravine, the good single-carriageway road twisting and turning throughout the winding, uphill, downhill journey. All around were tree-covered hills, foothills of the mighty Himalayas, disappearing one after another into mist to the north, an ever-changing picture. There were very few places to stop in safety to take in the wonderful panoramic views but, whenever we could, David and I asked our driver to pull over and out came our cameras.

At these leisurely halts, we enjoyed sweeping vistas along the emerald-tinged waters sparkling in the late morning sun, down into the steep-sided ravines, and off into the hills and the hazy distance.

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The last stop was made a few minutes from our destination, overlooking from on high the little town of Devprayag. Backed by rocky, green hills, the cluster of white, blue and yellow box-like houses with a temple tower reaching skywards sat on a triangle of land jutting out into what had now become the Ganges. The white water of the Bhagirathi thundered down on one side and the slower, darker, silt-laden flow of the Alaknanda joined it on the other.

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Our driver took us on a little farther, eventually stopping at a sort of partly-covered terrace with a lay-by in front of it. His command of the English language wasn't terrific but we understood that he'd wait for us here, although he insisted we pay 100 Rupees (about £1.20) for parking - strange, I know, for it was just a lay-by, a pull-in place. I guessed he may have had to bribe a caretaker or a policeman or, perhaps, buy himself some lunch!

He pointed to where we had to go - to the other side of what we knew from our earlier viewpoint stop was raging white water. What he knew, but failed to tell us, was that, to reach that other side, we had to walk down hundreds of steps and then cross a bridge, none of which were visible from the terrace.

Through a stone archway, we jolted our knees down 20 or more extremely steep, deep steps. We reached a landing area at right angles to our path and could then see off to our left a long, flimsy-looking structure similar to, but narrower than, those at Rishikesh - a thin suspension footbridge painted in the familiar red, white and green of the Indian flag.

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Avoiding sleeping dogs, cows and fresh brown reminders of their existence littering the path, we continued down a long flight of uneven steps. Ahead were two women in colourful outfits, each with a weighty-looking bag slung over one shoulder and an even weightier sack of something on their heads. They negotiated this precipitous stairway with ease. The only excuse I can offer for our own comparatively laboured descent is that we had bottles of water and cameras in the rucksacks on our backs - oh, and we were a few years older than them!

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In the shade of a tree at the foot of the steps sat a bearded sadhu with his worldly goods in a red cloth bag. Next to him, on a pink plastic chair, a man wearing a heavily-padded jacket and a scarf tied elegantly around his head was reading a newspaper. In the background, the sound of a raging, bubbling torrent of white water was loud, not deafening, but loud enough to make conversation difficult. We braved the bridge. Fortunately, it was a calm day and, if the cow in front of us could do it, so could we.

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Beneath us, the Bhagirathi River flowed briskly through a high-sided, rocky valley. Downstream was a bathing ghat and what appeared to be the site of a recent open-air cremation (or maybe it was just building work in progress, who knows). The Bhagirathi, incidentally, was once an even more mighty river, today tamed by a hydro-power project upstream at the Tehri dam, but capable of producing the rushing waters tumbling beneath us nonetheless.

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Ahead of us was the little town with a shaded, narrow street running parallel to the river and containing hole-in-the-wall shops catering to the needs of its 2,000 or so inhabitants and pilgrims alike.

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While sauntering past the shops, we couldn't resist investigating sounds of children speaking together in rhythmic tones. We'd discovered a lesson in progress at the grandly-named but tiny Omkarananda Public School and were beckoned in by the teacher. Thirty or so pupils, dressed in blue uniforms complete with dark-blue knock-off Nike woollen hats, proudly stood to attention to say 'hello'. They listened intently to our 'Good morning, how are you?', responding 'Fine, thank you' and then waving 'Goodbye' with big smiles when we left a few minutes later.

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At the end of the lane, came more steps. These led down, past a blue and red shrine with what appeared to be images of the goddess Ganga, to the prayag we'd come all this way to see.

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Part way down to the confluence point, I was approached by a man who said he was a local pujari, a priest. He offered to take me down to the prayag to say a puja, a prayer to cleanse all my sins in the holy Ganges. Apart from the fact that no amount of cleansing could even scratch the surface of sins committed in my extraordinarily long life, I knew from experience that such offers seldom ended well. The mumbo-jumbo of the puja almost always resulted in demands for exorbitant fees and consequent unpleasant disagreement. He ignored my repeated, polite 'no thank you', until I told him sternly that my religion would not permit me to say Hindu prayers in a language I couldn't understand. He folded his hands in pranam, respectfully putting his palms together, and smiled knowingly as I continued on my way.

At the foot of the steps, was a sadhu with a curly beard and hair to match. He said he lived in one of the caves behind him. Perhaps he did, even though there was no sign of any furniture or bedding in there and heaven help him anyway during times of ice-melt and monsoon rains as the whole area would be totally submerged. He was selling rolled pellets of dough, which I believe pilgrims bought to offer as prasad - food for deities, in this case in the form of carp-like fish called mahseer, which are known to inhabit these churning waters.

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Here too was an army soldier from the Bengal Engineers stationed at Roorkee, a four-hour journey to the south-west. As a service to the temple, he was spending his leave using wood ash and some sand from the river to clean and polish a ritual kukri (a Nepalese-style of knife) and priests' metal instruments. I later saw him dousing his son with a bucket of icy water from the Ganges - another ritual similar to that being done by the husband to his wife in the accompanying photo. It seemed to be a lot safer than attempting to bathe in the rapidly-flowing water.

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As you already know, 'prayag' means 'confluence' but there's a similar word 'prayaga' that means 'a place of sacrifice'. I'm told that people are sometimes seen floating down the river here trying hard to take their last breath - some may have just been accidentally swept away 'by the will of Mother Ganga' but some do it of their own free will. The mythical River Saraswati mentioned earlier (there's another story about this too - read on...) is said to flow underground, making the prayag a confluence of three rivers and thus even more important - so much so that some choose this place as their prayaga and head to the next world.

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The confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Rivers - birthplace of the Ganges

Back to the mythical Saraswati... In the depths of Hindu mythology, this is the third river at the start of the sacred Ganges. It's said to originate from a village near Badrinath higher up in the mountains and, at Devprayag, it stems from beneath the feet of one Raghunathji, whose much-worshipped image is to be found in his ancient eponymous temple here. Raghunath is also known as Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. (The 'ji' at the end of his name is a sign of respect - to some, for example, I'm Mikeji and my brother is Davidji.)

Raghunath is believed to have performed penance at this place after being cursed for killing the ten-headed, 20-armed demon king Ravana of Lanka (don't ask... I'll have to read the Hindu epic 'Ramayana' to find out more!). The temple with its tall, grey, oddly-shaped dome topped by a golden canopy is clearly visible in all views of the town and is reached by a near-vertical staircase of more than 100 steps. Fortunately, we'd heard that it was only open to visitors until 12.30pm and it was already after that as we passed by on our way back to the bridge and the hundreds of steps back up to our taxi!

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Our return to Rishikesh was by the same road, although travelling downhill it was a faster journey and the views as we descended were quite different. They were sometimes even more dramatic, towering hills all around dwarfing the mighty Ganges in the valleys beneath.

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Today would not be our last encounter with this important, sacred river. We were only a week into our month's adventure and, while we would now take a few days out to search for tigers, our spiritual journey would soon continue on the Ganges farther downstream.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:11 Archived in India Tagged india ganges rishikesh devprayag Comments (2)

'Tyger, Tyger, burning bright...'

Asia » India » Madhya Pradesh » Bandhavgarh National Park - 18th to 22nd January 2018

sunny 30 °C

...'In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry'

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William Blake's original printing of his poem 'The Tyger', c.1795

With these words from the 18th-century poet William Blake ringing in our ears ('symmetry' can be made to rhyme with 'eye' - if you try!), we set forth from Rishikesh in the northern state of Uttarakhand on a journey of more than 1,000 kms (600 miles) south to Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh.

Our goal: to see a wild tiger (with an 'i', not a 'y'). We'd have been happy to see just one of the 2,000 or so remaining on the Indian subcontinent. It was something that had eluded us five years before, even after 20 hours of safaris in Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park, that most famous of tiger reserves.

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Oh, and just in case we should be accused of giving up on the spiritual side of our trip, I should perhaps mention that, in Hindu culture, the tiger is a symbol of unlimited power. Indeed, a tiger was the chosen mode of travel for the invincible goddess Durga on her missions of war against demons!

I don’t remember which draft of our itinerary it was but, if we wanted the best chance of seeing tigers in the wild and to continue our spiritual journey in the holy cities of Allahabad and Varanasi and yet leave enough time for a week's wildlife tour in Rajasthan, we’d have to do this long journey in the shortest time possible. We had a choice of three ways:

- a 20-hour car ride from Rishikesh to Bandhavgarh, plus a night stop on the way (too long, too boring and too expensive - and too many 'too's too),
or
- the Kalinga Utkal Express train from Haridwar to Umaria (24 hours at least, involving a pre-dawn departure from Rishikesh by taxi to Haridwar, a full day's clickety-clack-clickety-clack, a disturbed night's sleep, an early arrival next morning at Umaria - all assuming the train wasn't delayed on the way of course), then an hour's taxi ride onwards to Bandhavgarh,
or
- a half-hour taxi ride at dawn from Rishikesh to Dehradun's Jolly Grant Airport, a little 72-seater turbo-prop ATR-72 aircraft for 50 minutes to Delhi, a late breakfast and doze at the airport for a few hours in the Plaza Premium Lounge, followed by lunch, another ATR-72 for two hours to Jabalpur, and finally a pre-arranged car for a four-hour drive to Bandhavgarh.

Okay, it wasn't ideal, but we opted for the last one, the most complicated but not the most expensive option and an opportunity to get it all over and done with in a day. Fortunately, the weather and St Joseph of Cupertino* were kind to us. Everything ran exactly as planned and bang on schedule. We did a fair amount of thumb-twiddling at airports, but we reached the delightful Tigergarh, just outside Bandhavgarh National Park's boundary and our home for the next four nights, in time for dinner.

Then followed a leisurely morning with a stroll around the local village and countryside. Later in our stay here, we'd venture into the park for four half-day safaris and a final bird-watching afternoon.

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From the moment we were greeted on arrival until we were bid farewell four days later, much of our time was spent in the company of new-found friend Gagan Gahlot, the amiable owner of Tigergarh.

He went out of his way to ensure that whatever googlies were bowled his way they'd always be batted into the outfield. He wasn't even phased when Bandhavgarh's wildlife rangers and official jeep drivers (all of whom are required to accompany every visitor entering the park) went on an all-out strike towards the end of our stay. He simply took us in his own jeep and hired a member of the Forestry Department's office staff to accompany us. I did begin to wonder whether Gagan was actually a male incarnation of Durga. Ride that tiger, Gagan!

Readers of one of my Indian blogs from a few years ago will recall that the 'garh' in 'Bandhavgarh' means 'fort' (A 'garh' is a fort). The 'Bandhav' bit is a Sanskrit word meaning 'brother'. So now we have 'Brother's Fort'.

There's a third-century fort (among the very oldest in the entire country) on a hill here. It's believed to have been given by the god Rama to his younger brother Lakshman (he of Laksham Jhula fame - 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da...'), hence the name. The fort later became the property of various ruling dynasties as part of their hunting estates. In 1917, the most recent rulers relocated their capital an hour north to Rewa, relinquishing their land to the state government, which turned it into a national park some 50 years later. I think the fort may still belong to the erstwhile Maharaja of Rewa.

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The hill on which the fort is located. You might also spot a couple of deer and a peacock in this picture!

The core area of the national park remains at its original 105 sq kms (40½ sq miles). Its boundaries have been extended over the years and, including buffer zones, it now covers some 450 sq kms (173¾ sq miles). I've seen other figures suggesting it might be even larger. Whatever, it's a huge area that provides sanctuary to an amazing quantity and variety of animals and birds - 22 species of mammals and 250 species of birds at the last count. We saw many of these and photographed some, but this park is particularly well-known for one rare species in particular. Yes, Bandhavgarh is claimed to have the highest population density of mighty tigers anywhere in India. That's what really brought us here, of course!

Much of the park is made up of sparse, dry undergrowth, but there are large wooded areas of native Sal trees interspersed with swathes of tall yellow and green bamboo. There are rocky hill ranges, some grassy swamps and forested valleys too. The core area is divided into five zones and within each of these are several specified routes that vehicles have to follow. Gagan had booked our safaris to show us a variety of terrain and wildlife in the very best zones - these took us twice into the central Tala zone and once into each of Magdhi to the south and Khitauli to the west.

Although safari vehicles, open four-wheel-drive jeeps or Gypsys, stick to the well-worn tracks within their zones, the area is so large and the number of visitors strictly limited to 20 jeeps per zone (less in Khitauli, I think) for each morning and evening safari time, that we were frequently on our own. Compared to the crowded, over-commercialized Ranthambore National Park this was positively luxurious - as, indeed, were the well-maintained, albeit rather dusty tracks.

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In the chill of dawn before breakfast or after a lunchtime nap in the late-afternoon warmth, on each of our safaris we headed first to the park's main gate to collect a ranger-guide (unless they were on strike!) and then drove on to our allotted zone in 'the jungle'.

The drivers, guides and Gagan all had the eyes of eagles, spotting birds and animals we two lesser mortals might have so easily missed.

'There's a Chital among the trees over there...'

'Look, up there in the fork of that tree, it's a Scops Owl...'

'On that dead branch - there's a Coppersmith Barbet...'

'Down by the stream, that's a Lesser Adjutant...'

'Stop the jeep, that's a jackal...'

'Keep still. Stay quiet. There's a Jungle Cat coming out of the grass over there...'

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On morning safaris, we'd take a break halfway in a shaded clearing surrounded by tall Sal trees with crows cawing loudly overhead in anticipation. There, we'd take a cup of hot, sweet masala chai from local villagers who'd been permitted to set up a refreshment stall. Then, our driver would spread a tablecloth on the Jeep's bonnet and open a wicker picnic-basket thoughtfully provided by Gagan for a simple but much-needed breakfast - hygienic hand gel to wipe away the dust, a carton of fruit juice, a sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a banana or two perhaps.

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Afterwards, we'd continue our search for the star attraction - the largest of all Asian big cats, the apex predator, India's national animal, Rudyard Kipling's 'Shere Khan', the endangered Panthera tigris tigris - the Bengal Tiger.

These huge, beautiful, and usually solitary animals jealously guard large territories, patrolling quietly and stealthily, superbly camouflaged by their fabulous markings. As there were so few in such a vast terrain, we were unlikely to come across one by chance. They were extremely difficult to spot too, so our driver would stop from time to time to examine the dusty track for footprints or he'd switch off the engine and listen for alarm calls from deer or peacocks that might give a hint to the presence of a predator.

The best indicators were rangers mounted on elephants who set forth on patrol most mornings to seek out the elusive tigers, reporting their findings to any jeep drivers they encountered along the way. Bush telegraph then spread the word and soon a small cluster of vehicles would arrive at a likely spot and their occupants would wait patiently for a sighting.

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This park ranger's t-shirt says: 'Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman'. Wise words!

Late on our very first afternoon drive, we encountered a tiger - no, we were mistaken, there were two - some distance away, concealed beneath the shade of broad-leaved trees, one on her back with a leg in the air and the other on its side farther away to the left. How they'd even been noticed by the vehicle ahead of us, we didn't know - there were no signs of movement to give them away. We jokingly decided that they were either dead or pump-up dummies placed here for the entertainment of tourists!

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Tyger, Tyger, sleeping tight!
(With apologies to William Blake)

After half an hour, the unconcerned duo had still failed to stir. It became clear that they were sleeping off a very heavy lunch and unlikely to wake up any time soon. So, elated at no longer being tiger-virgins, we headed home.

Next day, we'd drawn a blank on our morning safari - just deer, Spotted Owlet, occasional bulbuls and hoophoes, a group of vultures, some ibis, sandpipers, kingfishers and rollers, storks in a tree...

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On our afternoon drive, however, as the sun began to dip, a large female tiger suddenly appeared among dry grass, clumps of bamboo and spindly tree trunks away to our right. Hearts racing and camera shutters chattering in burst mode, we watched entranced as she strolled gracefully through the trees and out into the long grass. There, she stood still for a moment checking us out, then walked on, lay down, looked at us again, got back up, and disappeared into the undergrowth. Wow - a truly magical sight.

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'In what distant deeps or skies, Burnt the fire of thine eyes.'
(Another quote from William Blake's poem 'Tyger')

Our driver continued slowly up the wide, dusty track. Without warning, the same cat reappeared from behind a tree just a few feet from the jeep, catching us unawares and unprepared. We stopped abruptly. She stopped too, casually glanced our way, marked the tree trunk with a quick spray from her rear, sauntered across the road and quickly disappeared once again among the shaded woods. That minute was just a fleeting rendezvous with this magnificent beast, but it was one that will remain with me for years to come.

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Incredibly, on our final morning safari, we saw yet another tigress ambling along among distant trees. She was aware of us, stood still and stared for a while, then turned her back and walked away.

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Four safaris, four tigers. Mission accomplished.

Or was it...?

These were all females. We didn't see a single male tiger.

I'll have to come back.

As if I needed an excuse!

*

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Accommodation:
Tigergarh, Bandhavgarh National Park (http://www.tigergarh.com, Telephone: +91 9922820103 / 7489826868 / 9407583050)

You can stay in swanky hotels, where you'll be anonymous, just another tourist, a number - or you can stay at Tigergarh, where you'll be treated like a long-lost friend.

It's an oasis of greenery with bungalow-style cottages spread among deliberately neglected gardens - wild forest pigs keep digging everything up! Here you'll be very comfortable in one of a dozen or so simple but well-equipped rooms with chairs on their terraces to while away the few hours not spent out on safari. Among the grounds are several thatched pavilions with chairs for casual snoozing or outdoor gatherings, a plunge pool for cooling off in the hottest of weathers and even a private shrine for prayers to a variety of gods. Oh, and there's another shallow pool - for turtles and frogs - beside the restaurant door.

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In the restaurant, two of the hotel's local, willing and friendly staff (the ever-smiling Ashok and Manod) will ensure you enjoy breakfast and a variety of mainly Indian meals with the cook's occasional take on 'continental' food too. There's also a lovely terrace above the characterful reception area, where you can enjoy a magnificent display of bougainvillea, relax with a beer in the shade or sometimes take dinner.

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But it's not just the grounds, the rooms, food and informal service that make this such a great place to stay. It's owned and run by Gagan Gahlot, a passionate wildlife expert who's more interested in sharing his knowledge and experience with his guests than in making huge profits. Of course, he has his attentive manager Kuldeep and a few other staff to help with the hotel's everyday operation, but he's almost always on hand to offer personal help and advice. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and his presence and involvement made it particularly memorable.

It's important to note that, like most other hotels catering to safari visitors, your stay here will be organized as an inclusive package. Email or phone Gagan with your requirements (he speaks perfect English) and he'll confirm a price including accommodation, meals and safaris. He'll handle everything for you - and very efficiently too.

You should also be aware that there's no Wi-Fi, and usually, no telephone network to distract you either - it's in the middle of a tiger reserve, what do you expect?!

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Everyone loves a sunset!

For my brother David's take on our adventure, take a look at his blogs here.

*St Joseph of Cupertino is one of the patron saints of airline passengers - he could fly, although without an aircraft!

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:46 Archived in India Tagged india ganges bandhavgarh Comments (0)

Another holy city. Another extraordinary experience!

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Allahabad (Prayag) - 24th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

It was a cool, clear, crisp morning as we left by car for the six-hour journey to our next destination, from the State of Madhya Pradesh northwards into Uttar Pradesh, from tranquil Bandhavgarh to the hot, hectic, holy megalopolis of Allahabad. After a too-brief pause to search for tigers, we were continuing our spiritual journey along the sacred River Ganges.

But this next holy city was quite unlike those we'd previously experienced.

I'd go so far as to say it was distinctly more frenetic, more crowded, more disorganized, more - how can I put this politely - more smelly.

Maybe it was different because of its particularly huge resident population - currently around 2.3 Million - in a tiny 70.5 sq kms (20.5 sq miles). More likely, there was something happening here at exactly this time, something that I hadn't planned for: the annual Magh Mela (Semi Kumbh Mela), a massive religious event, was swelling its population by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

Perhaps though it was because the whole city appeared to be in more of a time-warp than others. There was an unusual predominance of ancient cycle-rickshaws throughout the city. Their skinny drivers, young and old, pedalled tirelessly to convey goods and people amid a fog of vehicle fumes and a mass of honking, near-stationary traffic on roads ill-equipped for such volumes. Meanwhile, streams of motorbikes and scooters weaved in and out around them.

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The school bus - with pedals!

It's the second oldest city in the whole of India - and it didn't seem too ashamed to show its great age.

Despite becoming a major industrial and educational centre, this sprawling city had lacked serious investment in its basic infrastructure for too many years, resulting in crumbling buildings and congested, potholed roads. Things like pipelines dating from the British era too had become seriously inadequate for what had been one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

Belatedly, roads were now being dug up to improve the sewerage system in advance of an expected influx of many more millions of pilgrims for the Ardh (Half) Kumbh Mela in 2019 and of many, many, many more millions for the next Purna (Full) Kumbh Mela - the largest congregation of religious pilgrims anywhere on the planet - in 2025. Twelve of those latter, incidentally, make a Maha Kumbh Mela - the next of which will be here in the year 2157. I won't bother making a diary note!

Alas, this massive task was apparently being done with no co-ordination or sense of urgency, one lot of excavations being left unfinished before diggers moved on to make yet another hole in yet another road.

In fading light after a full-day drive from Bandhavgarh ('Tyger, Tyger, burning bright...'), our fatigued driver was being repeatedly frustrated by impassable roads. It was only thanks to the GPS maps on my phone that we eventually discovered a route to our accommodation.

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What a relief to find that oasis of calm! There, beneath a giant mango tree, behind a tall gate and solid walls, was our welcoming homestay (B&B). Here we could escape from reality in quiet comfort, hosted in style by the charming Purnima and Ivan Lamech in this huge ancestral home.

Our hosts treated us more like family than paying guests, inviting us to join them for pre-dinner drinks in their cosy lounge and we joined them for meals, discreetly served by two young male servants at one of the big tables in their high-ceilinged dining room.

We were even treated to a song from Ivan and his guitar on one memorable occasion. They also guided our choice of sightseeing, bringing a sparkle of light to what might otherwise have been a somewhat gloomy city.

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Khusro Bagh

Late on our first afternoon, Purnima pointed us towards Khusro Bagh, a ten-minute walk away. Here, amid spacious walled grounds, was a group of three 17th-century Mughal mausoleums with a fascinating history.

Those buried here were all related to the fourth Mughal king, Mirza Nur-ud-din Beig Mohammad Khan Salim (which must have been a bit of a mouthful even then, because he was known as Jahangir - 'Conqueror of the World').

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The earliest tomb, in a three-tiered sandstone mausoleum with a sort of canopied roof, seen in the background of the first photo above, was that of Jahangir's wife Man Bai (known as Shah Begum, the 'Royal Lady'). She had become so fed up with Jahangir arguing with their son Khusro that she committed suicide by swallowing opium. The most imposing building, but the least interesting historically because there's no tomb inside, is the one in the centre of the photo below - that of Shah Begum's daughter Nithar. At the back is the smaller dome of Khusro's tomb - he was Jahangir's eldest son, who rebelled against his father, was captured, imprisoned in these gardens, blinded on his father's instructions and later killed on the orders of his younger brother Khurram (subsequently Emperor Shah Jahan). What a loving, happy family!

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The gardens here were now a popular venue for picnics and for young people to meet their friends. Two grey-haired old Westerners - the only foreigners in the place, became the focus of a group of smiling boys eager to practice their language skills.

'What is your good name, sir?' they asked, individually and in unison.

'Which country, sir?' - the inevitable question.

We'd grown accustomed to such familiarity - if we'd been younger, they'd have enquired about our jobs, our salaries, our girlfriends...

We lost count of the selfies they took with us and photographs we were asked to take of them, with and without us. We felt obliged to participate in this good-humoured exchange until the rapidly sinking sun gave us an excuse to break free, take photos of the monuments and beat a hasty retreat.

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Anand Bhawan
There were few sights around the city worthy of a lengthy visit, but those we went to briefly included memorials related mainly to political events. Seven of the 15 Prime Ministers of India since Independence in 1947 were either born in Allahabad, attended the city's university or were elected from one of its constituencies.

A plaque attached to a large brown rock in the gardens of the gleaming white Anand Bhawan said: 'This house is more than a structure of brick and mortar. It is intimately connected with our national struggle for freedom and, within its walls, great decisions were taken and great events happened'.

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The house had been built in 1927 by Motilal Nehru, an eminent lawyer and distinguished nationalist leader. It became not only the family home of the Nehru/Gandhi clan but an important centre of activity during India's struggle to gain freedom from British rule. Well-kept displays in some of its many rooms contain mementoes of those days.

That sign on the rock could only hint at the debates which must have raged here. Party to those debates included famous names you'll possibly recognise: Motilal's son Jawaharlal ('Pandit') Nehru - Cambridge-educated and eventually independent India's first Prime Minister; his daughter, Indira Gandhi, India's first (and only) female PM, who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards; and her son Rajiv Gandhi, the country's youngest ever PM, who was killed by a Tamil Tigers' suicide bomber. Family tragedies feature yet again in India's turbulent history!

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Chandrashekhar Azad Park
More evidence of that struggle for independence from Britain was to be found in the city's largest public park, variously known as Albert Park or Chandrashekhar Azad Park.

It was originally built to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria's fourth child, Prince Albert, in 1870. It was renamed after Chandrashekhar Tiwari (aka 'Azad', meaning 'The Free'), a young revolutionary who was fighting for independence and had committed various crimes to raise money for the cause. He fought a battle with police here in 1931 and killed himself with his last bullet.

Considered a martyr, his giant statue, one hand twirling his military-style moustache, now stands respectfully garlanded with yellow and orange marigolds on the spot where he died.

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All Saints' Cathedral
It's not unusual to find Christian churches in India's cities - leftovers from the days when the British worshipped here, of course.

Today, it was an enormous Gothic-style edifice, the All Saint's Cathedral, to which we'd been directed by our hosts, themselves of the minority Christian faith (Allahabad's population is 85 percent Hindu and 13 percent Muslim). Located in a large open space at a major crossroads, this now pollution-stained building with weeds growing from its upper parts was designed to accommodate up to 400 in Victorian times.

The friendly guardian apologised for not allowing us inside; it has a small congregation these days and is now only open on Sundays - reminiscent of our own churches in Britain!

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The Triveni Sangam
It was, however, this vast city's Hindu holiness which had really brought us here on our spiritual journey.

The Moghul emperor Akbar had called this city by the Persian name Ilahabad, meaning 'place of god'. It was the British who renamed it Allahabad. Historically, it was also known as Prayaga, meaning 'a place of sacrifice', this emanating from Hindu scriptures as the location where Brahma, creator of the universe, attended a ritual sacrifice. Some call it Prayag (an entirely different word, without an 'a' at the end), which, as readers of a previous blog (The energy giver and healer) already know, refers to a river confluence - in this case the Ganges, the Yamuna, and once again the invisible, mythical, underground Saraswati.

Whether you wish to call it by its historic or present-day name, it is the river confluence, a traditionally revered place of worship, which makes this city one of the most holy places for Hindus in the whole of India. Here the prayag is known as the Sangam (the same meaning but from the Sanskrit word sangama) or, more correctly, the Triveni Sangam ('Three River Confluence'). It's considered even more efficient in flushing away sins and freeing the soul from the cycle of rebirth than a simple dip in the Ganges could ever be.

Consequently, as I have only now discovered, pilgrims arrive here in their millions at this time every year - particularly during the 45 days following Makar Sankranti (the festival which drew us to that other holy city, Haridwar - see Tea with a sadhu) just ten days or so ago. Here, many - nay many hundreds of thousands, if not millions - spend a whole month near the Sangam in makeshift houses or purpose-built tents, praying and bathing in this holy place every day. Our car passed through several extensive tented townships on our way to where we hoped we could observe for ourselves the volume of humanity participating in the rituals.

So many thousands were arriving from outlying towns and villages on foot, by car, three- or four-up on motorbikes, or crammed together like sardines in trailers drawn by tractors that it was difficult to see the correct road or to locate a parking place.

At one massive car park a long way from the water, our driver, Amit, had to confront an officious police officer, pleading with him to permit us to take the car farther. There were no other foreigners anywhere to be seen and that seemed to be in our favour for we were eventually allowed through a barrier.

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Quite where we were headed was never properly explained, but it soon became clear that our destination was a mooring place for hundreds of small boats taking pilgrims out to a shallow sandbank on the horizon, where the Ganges met the Yamuna - the Sangam itself.

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This was just an Magh Mela. What, I wonder, would it be like during the full Kumbh Mela in 2025? That gathering will be dozens of times this size. I've heard that even the additional tented villages, special bus services, medical posts, security stations and camps for the lost and found planned to be provided by the state government for that event will struggle to cope.

As for the sewers - well, I hope they finish digging up the roads and installing them in time!

However, I digress...

Near the river, Amit parked his car beside stalls selling religious offerings, found a tout and negotiated a good price for a boat, as he'd been instructed to do by Ivan before we'd left the homestay. The unwary could easily be charged many times more than the ride was worth. As it was, I'm sure these boatmen (and their touts) must be among the wealthiest on the entire Ganges - they were in great demand from the multitudes waiting to reach the Sangam and even our much-reduced price was outrageous by Indian standards.

Our boatman wanted to use his noisy engine, I guess to save time and allow him to accept even more business. We wanted to savour the vibrant atmosphere. We compromised on him rowing us out to the distant Sangam and using his motor on the way back.

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This was certain to be no ordinary boat ride. Indeed, even as we boarded the colourful wooden boat, people were immersing themselves in the Ganges on either side of it and between all the other boats along the sandy shoreline. Using his sturdy oars of heavy bamboo with spade-shaped pedals at the ends, the boatman pulled away, keeping pace with numerous other similar vessels. Unlike others though, we were the only two passengers in this boat - many of those from which we quickly moved ahead had a dozen or more heavy souls on board.

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It was a colourful scene of painted boats, multi-coloured awnings, women in bright saris and hundreds of white gulls whirling around, behind, alongside and over the boats before settling on the water to eat the prasad - small food offerings - being thrown to them by the pilgrims. The shore, with its lines of boats, crowds of bathers, a paddle-steamer contraption (a government cleaning boat on an endless mission to remove litter from this busy stretch of water) and tall posts carrying power to the tented communities, faded into the distance behind us.

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Beyond other boats being rowed merrily ahead of us lay a strip of colour on the horizon. As we drew ever closer we could make out boats moored in a long line. Then we joined them, manoeuvring for position with clashes of oars and bumping of gunnels amid the noise of hundreds conversing, saying mantras and splashing in the holy waters.

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This was the Sangam. This was where the Ganges met the Yamuna (and the invisible Saraswati), a vast sandbank with wooden piles driven into it for mooring of boats and wooden platforms for pilgrims to walk on, to bathe from and for priests to provide them with offerings and prayers.

I hesitated and remained in the boat as we hovered beside one of the platforms. David disembarked, immediately being seized upon by one of the priests. Only after he'd been involved in part of a prayer with milk being ritually poured into the Sangam were we able to find enough small change to extricate him from their clutches!

Ahead of us was an amazing scene of people in sarongs, saris or underpants wading up to their thighs in water, here shallow and brown with disturbed sediment and possibly more. Hundreds of other pilgrims were entering from the river bank beyond.

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This was the holy place where millions come to wash away their sins and obtain moksha, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.

We were privileged to have witnessed it.

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Accommodation:

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Kanchan Villa, 64 Lukerganj, Allahabad (Prayagraj). http://www.kanchanvilla.com/index.html Tel: +91 9838631111/7800161000.

This large, white 1930s pile is the ancestral home of our amiable host Purnima and her husband Ivan Lamech, a charming couple whose English is impeccable and whose hospitality is second to none.

Our first-floor room at the rear of this imposing property, named 'Gulmohar' after the flowering trees of that name close by, was clean, comfortable and well-equipped. Its patio with an abundance of potted plants overlooked the Lukerganj Club grounds where local boys practised their batting, bowling and fielding after school each evening. It was quiet and well away from an occasionally noisy wedding venue that was a thorn in the side of residents of this otherwise peaceful neighbourhood.

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It was a great pleasure to share Purnima and Ivan's home, which we found convenient for all we'd come to see - and reasonably priced too: Rs.3600 (£40/US$55) for the room per night including breakfast and with excellent, freshly-prepared vegetarian meals just an extra Rs.350 (£4/US$5.50) each.

When I return to Allahabad, I'd stay here again without hesitation.

A footnote: Since writing this, the government has renamed the city (in October 2018) Prayagraj - returning it to one of its ancient names, prayag meaning 'place of sacrifice or offering').

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:50 Archived in India Tagged india ganges allahabad Comments (0)

Too slowly down the Ganges

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Mirzapur - 24th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

Pilgrims often arrive in the holy city of Varanasi on foot. Tourists usually arrive by air or by road. A few travellers arrive by boat. These two grey-haired brothers, determined to be travellers rather than tourists, were among those latter few!

In the late 1960s, one of the finest travel writers of all time, the late Eric Newby, wrote a book* describing how he and his wife Wanda set out by boat to cruise the entire length of the River Ganges. Travelling in a variety of unstable vessels, their journey was more treacherous and slower than they'd imagined, but it was absolutely fascinating nonetheless. One critic rightly observed that the book's pages contained 'all the exasperating charm, dusty enchantment and recurrent dottiness of India'.

Perhaps it was my reading of those same pages long ago which had sown the seed for what we were about to attempt, albeit on a much smaller scale. We planned an adventure on the Ganges for the next two days - by boat from Allahabad downstream to Mirzapur then, after a night stop, continuing on the wide, twisting river to Varanasi.

I recall that, on at least one occasion, Eric and Wanda were bitterly disappointed when they had difficulty finding a boat to carry them along a particular section of the river.

My brother David and I now know exactly how they felt!

*

The plans had been made many moons in advance. I'm usually very hands-on when it comes to organising travel things, but I had no contacts with boat suppliers in Allahabad and our homestay hosts there had been unable to find anything suitable either. After hours of on-line research I'd eventually located a company in Delhi that specialised in such things and they'd fixed everything for us with their local agent - the boat, the timings, meals, hotel for a halfway stop in Mirzapur, sightseeing, the lot...

Things got off to a bad start. I was woken by my mobile phone ringing before daylight on the morning of our planned departure from Allahabad. It was the agent, a man named Bablu, babbling on about how he'd arrived in the locality but couldn't find where we were staying. He wasn't due here for another two hours! As the saying goes: 'better early than never', I suppose!

Bablu must have found us and slept in his car for the next two hours as we didn't see him until after breakfast, when we bid farewell to our homestay hosts.

Sitamarh

We headed eastwards to Sitamarh, where we'd planned to visit an important temple and then board our boat. Twenty minutes into the two-hour journey, Bablu plucked up the courage to sheepishly announce that there was a problem with the boat. It had broken down and might not be fixed for a few hours. He'd try to find out more when we arrived.

On reaching Sitamarh, he tried to persuade us to have lunch in the restaurant of a hotel next to the temple - right now! The place was completely empty. Of course it was - it was only ten o'clock! He was clearly playing for time. We opted to look around the temple while he went off to make some calls about our boat.

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I have to say that the Sitamarhi Temple was definitely worth seeing and spectacularly different to any other we'd seen in our travels so far.

Its story was complicated in the extreme. Suffice to say that, according to the 'Ramayana' (an epic Sanskrit poem about the god Rama's quest to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of an enemy, aided by an army of monkeys), Sita was abandoned, gave birth to twins and 'descended into the lap of Mother Earth' right here, at this very spot.

I don't understand the story either - I told you it was complicated!

However, this white marble temple was unusual in that it was almost surrounded by a large pond and reached by a bridge over the water. Within the complex was what looked like a water-slide with a blue man sitting at the top - it was a symbolic representation of god Shiva meditating in the Himalayas with the river Ganges emerging from the locks of his hair (if you need more explanation, read my blog A mistreated goddess). Under this, in a dimly-lit, cave-like place, was a lingam, a smooth black stone representation of Shiva (or some believe it to be a male/female fertility symbol).

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We crossed the bridge to enter the temple on the first floor and were immediately dazzled by an amazing scene of coloured and mirrored mosaics.

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A marble statue of Sita dressed in a fine, yellow silk gown adorned with a huge garland of flowers stood in its midst beneath a shimmering silver dome. On three sides around her statue, the story of her journey 'into the lap of Mother Earth', together with pictures of Rama, her sons and various other figures, all trying to stop her from going underground, was fabulously depicted in shards of broken glass and bright, shiny pieces of mirror.

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Down a flight of stairs was the exact place where Sita was said to have gone underground. Her tall, white image here was entirely different - sculpted, elegant, lifelike, perhaps wearing a little too much make-up but in a flowing robe with her long hair, as if caught by a breeze, flying out behind her. This too was clearly a much-revered place and women were leaving lamps filled with burning ghee, the belief being that if these flames remained lit for a certain length of time, all their wishes would be fulfilled.

Perhaps I should have lit one of those lamps myself - the news of our boat was no better when we left the temple.

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Hanuman Temple (Bajarang Bali Statue)

Bablu escorted us to the nearby Hanuman Temple, leaving us there while he walked down to the river to investigate if there were any alternative vessels available. He'd be back in an hour.

As Hanuman temples go, this was strange - it was really just a huge effigy of the monkey god, 108 feet (33 metres) tall. Interestingly, this was exactly the same height as the one we'd seen five years ago on Jakhoo Hill in Shimla (Off to join the Raj in their summer capital). The only place for worship seemed to be a small man-made cave underneath it. Judging by the metal stanchions erected around the statue though, a proper temple extension was due to be added soon.

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Bablu hadn't returned from his perambulations by the time we'd explored the statue, so we did a bit of perambulating of our own, into the adjoining market. Its colourful little stalls sold a variety of religious trinkets and offerings and there were a few simple places preparing food as lunchtime approached. We were thirsty more than hungry - an ice-cold beer would have gone down a treat. In this holy place, however, we had to make do with a couple of soft drinks from the only stall with a fridge.

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Eventually (an Indian 'hour' is roughly 90 minutes, sometimes longer!), Bablu returned. His message was a bit like the 'Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?' joke.

The good news was that our boat had been fixed. Hooray...!

The bad news was that it was at Mirzapur, at least six or seven hours away on the water, maybe more. It would have to come up the winding river against the fast-flowing current. It would be dark by the time it arrived here. We'd be unable to get to Mirzapur until tomorrow, putting us a full day behind our carefully-planned and pre-booked schedule. Boo...!

The other bad news was that there were no other boats available here at Sitamarh to take us down to Mirzapur this afternoon. Boo... again!

We discussed abandoning the whole idea of the river adventure and going by road straight to Varanasi. Given our annoyance, this was a distinct possibility.

A compromise would be driving from here to Mirzapur instead of travelling by boat, and then spending just one day on the water from there to Varanasi.

David and I agreed it would be a shame to give up all of our much anticipated river adventure and decided on the compromise solution. I phoned the supplier in Delhi, vented our displeasure and agreed that a substantial reduction in price would be confirmed later.

So, Bablu took us in his car to Mirzapur, a road journey of less than 1½ hours.

It seemed like many similar towns in these parts - busy, dusty, narrow streets lined with shops. It wasn't the sort of place that attracts foreign tourists - you're unlikely to find many other travel blogs that include Mirzapur as a location!

David, never one to sit still for a minute longer than necessary, decided to take a walk before dinner and, by all accounts, had a very interesting stroll and lots of chats with shopkeepers. They weren't accustomed to meeting foreigners or even grey-haired men in general (grey-haired Indian men are few and far between - they usually dye their grey hair with henna, turning it orange!). I remained in the hotel to make more phone calls to my man in Delhi and to confirm our plans with my contact in Varanasi.

Tomorrow would be another day...!

*

Footnote to this strange day:
If I had a suspicious mind, I might begin to wonder whether our boat really did break down. It could, for example, have left Varanasi (where it was based, it transpired) too late to reach Sitamarh in time and only made it as far as Mirzapur before tragically 'breaking down'. But that would mean our almost wasted day was a Bablu charade. Surely not!

*The book was called 'Slowly down the Ganges', originally published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1966. It's terribly out-of-date, of course, but a lot of what Newby wrote is still eminently recognisable in the India of today!

*

Boat:
We definitely would NOT recommend anyone planning to emulate our river boat adventure to contact either the supplier we used (Ecowin Tours of Delhi) or their local agent Bablu. If you really wanted to do something like this, I suggest you email our contact in Varanasi (see my blog that's due to be published soon: 'The name may have changed, but little else had...'. ). His name is Raju Verma. I'm sure he can organise everything for you. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps that's what I should have done!

Accommodation:
Galaxy Hotel, Mirzapur (http://www.mirzapur.in/galaxy.php)
A clean, modern, budget hotel located in the town centre. Wi-Fi was good. Probably used more for meetings or small conferences than for tourism.

Meals were served, for us alone, in what appeared to be a windowless meeting room on the same floor as our bedroom. Rates: about Rs.2500 (£27.50/US$38.50 per room per night).

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:45 Archived in India Tagged india ganges mirzapur sitamarh_uttar_pradesh Comments (0)

Faster down the Ganges!

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Varanasi - 25th January 2018

all seasons in one day 25 °C

The past few mornings had been cool, clear and crisp. Today was positively freezing, foggy and soggy.

But, at last, we'd be travelling by boat on the sacred River Ganges and arriving in Varanasi like proper travellers - providing we didn't freeze to death along the way!

I'm not sure what type of boat we were expecting. A typical wooden boat, perhaps with a pretty awning, colourful cushions and rugs on which to while away the hours, a mast and sail to speed us on our way...? Well, correct on one point at least.

A typical wooden boat awaited our arrival at the foot of one of Mirzapur's ghats, next to an old chap casting a line out into the calm water, more in hope than in anticipation of catching a fish for lunch on a bone-chilling day such as this.

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The boat was of the kind used by men who rowed pilgrims out to the Sangam at a previous port of call (Another holy city. Another extraordinary experience!). It had a chugging diesel engine but neither a mast nor a sail in sight. A set of rustic oars sat idly on its boarded floor, just in case the engine broke down (again?). The dark-skinned boatman, in a jacket zipped up tightly to his neck and with a white bandana tied around his head, manned a tiller at the stern. At least there were two plastic garden chairs and a couple of bright blankets for us to sit on. Given the total absence of sun, a pretty awning would have been surplus to requirements anyway, wouldn't it?

Handing us a couple of bottles of water and a cheerful pink carrier bag containing a meagre lunch of biscuits, crisps and fruit (but no life-jackets), Bablu waved us farewell. So did a small contingent of locals intrigued to see two grey-haired old foreigners wrapped up ready for an Arctic expedition heading off into the grey mist.

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*

Into the freezing fog we headed, the bank on our side of this wide stretch of water just visible, the one on the other side not so. Passing more of the town's ghats, people waved from the steps with a smile (or was it a laugh!).

We waved back - but certainly didn't smile at the piles of ancient rubbish and religious offerings, some still in plastic bags, by their sides and about to add to the river's problems.

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David wrapped a blanket around his knees. I sheltered on the floor behind a convenient windbreak near the prow of our craft.

The silent boatman, clearly able to read the river's currents and sandbanks, steered us in zigzag fashion through the mist.

Sometimes we were near the starboard bank, passing a lone fisherman squatting with a pole in his hands, propelling his tiny boat at a sedate pace close into the muddy shoreline. Elsewhere, men tended elaborate fish traps and an occasional ferry boat loaded a few passengers and their bicycles.

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At other times, we were on the port side observing men seated high up on rickety bamboo platforms seemingly keeping watch for pirates, and a boy tying coloured cloth around bundles of flowers to be taken to market in waiting boats. Here too, at the edge of these holy waters, were bright yellow and red fabric remnants and scorched earth at the site of a lone funeral pyre. Bloated carcasses of a cow and a goat bobbing along were reminders too of the Ganges' sacred significance.

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Sometimes we were way out in the centre overtaking smaller, more heavily-laden boats being rowed or with a single square sail - and with awnings protecting their fortunate occupants from the chill wind that threatened to turn our noses blue! We huddled deeper into the warmth of our jackets and layers of t-shirts and fleeces beneath.

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The bird-life on, above and beside the water in the early morning was prolific. Flocks of ducks (pochard and pintail, I think David said), pairs of grebes, grey herons, pied kingfishers, bright white egrets and black cormorants of varying sizes were commonplace. Ospreys, vultures, red-naped ibis and black kites occasionally flew overhead. The light was poor, making photography awkward, difficult, challenging - and all other euphemisms for nigh on blooming impossible. (Thank you Photoshop for suitably enhancing one or two of my poorly-exposed photos to include with this blog!)

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David confirmed his identification of birds on the river using his Helm Field Guides 'Birds of the Indian Subcontinent'
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By late-morning, the sun had slowly begun to warm the air, lifting the chilling mist from the water, brightening the sky. We passed cultivated banks gold with the blooms of mustard plants and squashes growing in rich silt deposited here during the last monsoon. Huge scarecrows flapped their wings in the breeze. Men washed bowls at the water's edge. Women and girls washed clothes. Boys washed themselves and enjoyed a swim in the swift waters that grew greener, browner, greyer with every mile. Despite everything, fishing with nets suspended beneath floats made of plastic bottles seemed to be a worthwhile enterprise for some.

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The river banks were often high above us, villages concealed but villagers waving to us from on top and their garbage spewing down to await disposal by the next monsoon flood.

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In two places along our route, we encountered floating bridges constructed of flimsy, narrow roadways suspended above cylindrical metal pontoon drums each a little more than the height of a partly-submerged man. We ducked as our boatman found a space between two drums high enough and wide enough for us to squeeze through. Temporary in design but doubtless having been there for years, these pontoon bridges were suitable only for pedestrians and light vehicles. Beyond both of them, high concrete viaducts were under construction - in time, they would allow either trains or the usual heavily-overloaded lorries to cross, changing the landscape and the environment here for ever.

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At one such crossing point, at Chunar part-way through our journey, we stopped to stretch our legs. The mist had cleared, the sun had come up and, finally, we felt warm. We'd been sitting in a cold boat for the past four hours and now we needed to 'spend a penny' (a British term not often used these days, except by polite folk of a certain age). That call of nature would have to wait as our walk to the historic Chunar Fort was up across an open expanse of sand and along a road lined with houses and workshops. Unlike kissing in public, pissing in public isn't frowned upon by Indian men; it was, however, a bit infra dig for two polite old Britons.

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Along the way, we briefly watched some boys playing cricket on a dry, flat pitch complete with a scoreboard and horses grazing on what little bits of greenery they could find around the edges. We also stopped to inspect the work of carpenters making wooden furniture with basic tools in the open air, to watch the local left-handed pressing service in action with his giant, smouldering-charcoal iron, and to exchange smiles with a group of men playing a game of rummy. The penny was spent in woods beneath the fort's ramparts shortly after.

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Chunar Fort itself, however, was a disappointment - we'd have had to walk a lot farther to gain entrance to the small part that's open to the public. It's now largely a police or army training camp, complete with a sports ground where trainees were playing cricket, the game with which all Indians seem obsessed.

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We returned to the boat, continuing downstream, enjoying the sunshine, nibbling our biscuits, crisps and fruit - and looking forward to dinner.

This part of the river was deeper, its sandbanks and islands more frequent, requiring more careful navigation across the currents. Except for small groups of kites and an occasional cormorant, it was now largely devoid of birds. In places, the banks were low and men shovelled dry, sandy silt into a line of boats to be taken off and sold for use in construction elsewhere. A few temples fringed the shoreline and a truly enormous pumping station tried unsuccessfully to empty this equally enormous river to irrigate dry fields inland.

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As the sun began to drop towards the horizon, so it became chilly once again. Fortunately, the imposing, crumbling, red sandstone Ramnagar Fort rising high above us on our starboard bow soon indicated that we were nearing our destination.

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In fading light, with a mist starting to fall, row upon row of ghats and temples hovering above the waterline welcomed us to Varanasi, our spiritual journey's end.

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*

This had certainly been a day to remember, partly for the cold, the lack of comfort and the starvation rations.

Mostly, however, it was memorable for all the right reasons - its unique view of this sacred river, the life (and death) on and beside it, and for the very special way of arriving in one of the world's most ancient and most holy cities.

I'm glad we did this journey by boat.

I'm also glad, looking back, that the boat 'broke down' and limited us to just one day on the river. Two days might have been an experience to remember for all the wrong reasons!

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:06 Archived in India Tagged india ganges Comments (0)

The name may have changed, but little else had!

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Varanasi - 25th to 28th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

'Look over there,' said Raju, pointing with his chin in the Indian manner to some indistinct letters and numbers painted on a building.

'Would you believe that the Ganges reached up to there in the monsoon of 1978?'

We looked down to the river flowing serenely beside the stone steps of Varanasi’s ghats today, a dizzy, mind-boggling 74 metres (242 feet) below. Ahead and beneath us, left and right, as far as the eye could see, everything would have been covered in a fast-flowing, brown inland sea. The vast sandbanks stretching to the horizon, the ghats, the temples and streets throughout the city would have been flooded, flushing away the grime of decades and adding to it with the detritus from towns and villages upstream.

It seemed almost inconceivable that this remarkable city could have survived such inundation. But survive it certainly had - just as it had withstood so many other catastrophes in its long historic past.

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In 1978, this view would have been just water - and, as recently as 2015, the water would only have been a mere 6 metres below us.
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David and Raju walking down from the 1978 high water mark

*

'Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.'
Mark Twain, 'Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World', 1897

Benares or Banaras, or even Kashi - today, they're all Varanasi, the final destination of our spiritual journey along the Ganges.

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*

This holy city, the oldest in all India, thought to date from 1800 BCE, is one of the most written-about places. Without exception, writers of books about Varanasi (and bloggers!) always mention the sacred Ganges, the ghats and the public riverside cremations. Of course they do - they're highlights of any visit to this amazing place.

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Perhaps no-one will notice me as I'm dressed so inconspicuously!

But there's more to this enigmatic and eminently photogenic city. Most previous authors will have trodden in the well-trodden touristy bits. Very few of them would have been fortunate enough to have had our friend Raju, a kind and knowledgeable resident of the city, to help them tread in other things among the backstreets!

It's impossible to walk anywhere here without stumbling up and down the uneven stone steps of the 80-plus ghats which loom high above the river. Every visit must start close to the holy river - a fascinating and vibrant scene at any time of day or night, or high up - more tranquil, with sweeping vistas and stories of monsoon floods, which in recent years have been only marginally less than that of 1978, revealing the unpredictability of life here.

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Assi Ghat, named after the Assi River which once flowed into the Ganges at the city's southernmost end, was where we'd landed after our boat journey from Mirzapur (Faster down the Ganges... ). From on high, we looked northwards along the banks of the Ganges to where, seven kilometres (four miles) distant, the Varuna River joined. The city's name derived from these two tributaries (Varuna + Assi = Varanasi).

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The river near Assi Ghat in the early morning

It was from Assi Ghat that, like hundreds of others - Indians and foreigners alike, on this day and every day for years before, we took a boat ride along the river. We went especially to view the sacred Manikarnika Ghat, a cremation ground like no other - not for any ghoulish reason but, on this final leg of our spiritual journey, to help us to better understand the rites of passage so essential to the Hindu faith.

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Hindus, you see, often have little interest in the afterlife, nor in mourning as we know it. It's believed that, once a person is born, he or she never dies. Few tears are shed, perhaps because the point of a funeral is to show respect, not sadness, or because the dead are believed to be fortunate in going to a world far better than the one they've left behind.

Fire is the chosen method for disposal of the dead because of its association with purity and its power to scare away harmful demons; it releases an individual's spirit from its transitory physical body so it can be reborn. Those who die or are cremated beside the Ganges achieve absolute salvation, escaping that toil of reincarnation.

Many Hindus therefore come to this sacred place to spend their final days. Others are brought from elsewhere within hours of death, without coffins but instead carried through the streets on flower-draped bamboo biers to the banks of the sacred river. Covered in glistening shrouds, the corpse is given a spiritual cleansing dip in the Ganges before being taken to one of many funeral pyres which burn here by day and by night.

Our boat elbowed its way in towards Manikarnika Ghat, where, in growing darkness, with the backs of other boats' passengers silhouetted against the light, flames leapt from twelve simultaneous funeral pyres. Groups of male mourners1gathered on the steps. Doms, a wealthy caste of 'untouchables' who control these places, poked the fires from time to time, speeding up the burning process and sending orange embers spitting into the night sky.

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Similar rituals were being played out at the smaller, less spectacular Harishchandra Ghat, the oldest place of cremation, which some say surpasses even Manikarnika in its sanctity. We saw it both from the water earlier that same evening and, on another occasion, during a walk along the ghats, when numerous fires burnt brightly even in daylight. An electric crematorium was built there in 1989 and refurbished in 2012 but, despite its greater efficiency, ridiculously low-cost funerals and better environmental qualities, it remains little used. Even the poor try to avoid it, insisting on tradition while struggling to afford the high price of 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of wood needed to build an effective funeral pyre.

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Holy men and the really poor often follow another tradition - one we also witnessed - of weighing down a body with rocks, rowing it out in a boat to the centre of the river and simply rolling it over the prow into the swirling waters.

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These were all fascinating, humbling scenes. In the West, we're almost removed from the ritual of death and, in funeral ceremonies, the dead are typically hidden and rarely seen again. Here, the dead were obvious and rituals were simple, poignant, unforgettable.

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Here too, on our eye-opening evening boat ride, were aarthi ceremonies, powerful and uplifting spiritual performances similar to those we'd already experienced in the holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh2.

At Assi Ghat, amid what had become familiar clanging of bells, blowing of conch shells and loud, melodic chants, priests in long red robes waved smoking incense and multi-tiered lamps of fire in praise of the river goddess Ganga, the fire god Agni and of the entire universe. At Dashashwamedh Ghat, a crowd of thousands seated on the ghat's steps and on a raft of boats battling the current out in the river watched another spectacular group of priests, here clad in cream dhotis and red sweaters, the audience contributing their own prayers at appropriate times and taking selfies throughout.

These celebrations, intrinsically the same everywhere, but here in Varanasi a more carefully choreographed and showy extravaganza, never ceased to amaze us.

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So much for the familiar. We wanted to see some unfamiliar places too - those that tourists and other bloggers may have missed or simply decided not to write home about.

Behind and up above the ancient, very holy and rightly fascinating waterfront was a labyrinth of equally ancient, narrow lanes, hidden marketplaces and curiosities that most might never find - unless they were lost perhaps and stumbled upon them by accident. Here's where our friend Raju3 and his young pal Ramu came in, taking us to visit an array of lesser-known things.

Now, we knew in advance that Varanasi wasn't renowned for its cleanliness - one account I'd read said: 'I've never seen so much cowshit outside of a farm!'.

However, I have to add that it wasn't half as bad as we’d expected. Yes, you do have to watch where you're walking - cows and dogs feature heavily here, wandering at will and leaving others to clear up their mess (or not). But, look beyond the crumbling, damp and dirty footways and you'll see little litter or other rubbish here these days. The Modi government's initiative in cleaning up India is starting to take effect, even here – particularly here as Varanasi is represented in the Parliament of India by no less than Prime Minister Modi.

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It was among these labyrinthine lanes that we found a garden devoted to Varanasi's equivalent of Joan of Arc, the 'Rani (Queen) of Jhansi', Laxmi Bhai. She’d campaigned against the British annexation of her kingdom, fast becoming a symbol of resistance to Indian nationalists. She battled against the British from her fort, was besieged for a year, escaping when troops of the 8th Hussars encircled it to Gwalior, where she fought gallantly but was eventually mortally wounded. This place concealed among Varanasi's lanes was now a shrine to her martyrdom in the cause for her country's independence.

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We also came upon an akhada - a gymnasium-meets-wrestling ring, where men of all ages practiced a traditional form of wrestling known as kushti4. Clad in briefs or a loincloth, they first worked out on their own or in pairs, jumping up and down, lifting long cylindrical clubs, hanging upside down from bars. Then, duly warmed up, they headed to the dry-sand ring in the centre of the akhada to begin wrestling practice supervised by an older, grey-haired mentor.

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A variety of colourful markets vied for our attention, each dealing in particular goods – piles of white eggs; live chickens despatched, plucked and jointed to order; beautifully-displayed fresh vegetables of all descriptions; pungent spices; colourful fish cleaned and beheaded while you wait; mountains of orange, yellow, red and white flowers; milk straight from countryside cows ladled from churns into your own containers. There were even cows for sale along one alleyway and others being milked on a demolition site - after which, my shoes needed a thorough clean!.

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Here too were little shrines, including one with an unusual little white-eyed black god. A picture of the goddess Durga on her tiger was tucked behind a window grill. There was a huge temple shaped like a black Shiva lingam; inside, a woman showed respect to a lingam covered in the sacred trifoliate leaves of the Bael tree, of which Lord Shiva is said to be very fond. Graffiti murals of more lingams and of Shiva himself decorated nearby walls. An incredibly detailed scale model of the city’s ghats, 40-feet long, stood hidden in the car park of an apartment block.

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Outside her house, a woman stood knitting a long orange scarf (I’d never before seen an Indian woman using knitting needles!). A neighbour’s black goat wore an elegant red cardigan. Close by, buffaloes were being kept for their milk and their dung – blobs of the latter being beautifully patted by hand onto an adjoining wall to dry and later sold for fuel.

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A sign-writer chiselled out script on a slate using a hammer and a large metal nail, and a group of men toiled away with little pieces of sandpaper smoothing the rough edges of huge carved marble idols.

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Inside the white marble Tulsi Manas Temple, tales from the Hindu epic 'Ramayana' had been translated from their original Sanskrit to make them better understood by the masses and inscribed in Hindi on panels around the walls. For children or others unable to read, the stories of gods and goddesses were played out in numerous little scenes by automated puppets.

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On 26 January, Independence Day was celebrated by all and sundry. Patriotic orange, green and white flags were offered for sale by many little shops. As we wandered the streets, processions of men on open trucks and motorbikes roared noisily past, Hindu and Muslim, rich and poor alike, all waving their national flags. Children on their way home from special celebrations at school, wearing the same tricolour on little badges and peaked caps, smiled brightly and happily stood to attention, soldier-like, for photos.

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In the crowded shopping streets, brilliantly-coloured and bejewelled silk saris (for which the city is known) were stiffly displayed on mannequins, and cycle rickshaws with colourful canopies wove through masses of pedestrians, motorbikes and scooters. I decided to try my hand at capturing some of the typical street scenes in black and white - perhaps with mixed success in this land of vibrant colour!

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Read this carefully - it says Winnie the POOR!

We really only scratched the surface of Varanasi’s attractions, those found in guide books as well as those hidden from view. It was entirely thanks to Raju and Ramu’s local knowledge that we managed to see so much that was both on and off the usual tourist routes - as well as finding us some tasty and unusual meals, Southern Indian, Middle Eastern and street food among them - before we collapsed with exhaustion!

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What we did see was a bewildering kaleidoscope of this wonderful city’s daily life. It was a photographer’s dream, so please excuse the plethora of pictures - they've saved me a few thousand more words!

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One sight still remained on our list. Raju would borrow a car to drive us the ten kilometres (six miles) out of the city to where, in 500 BCE, the enlightened Buddha gave his first sermon to five sceptical followers. I won't detain you with more photos today, so keep your eyes open for another blog coming to a screen near you soon!

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Accommodation:

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Palace on the Ganges, Assi Ghat, Varanasi (http://palaceonganges.com/). Email: info@palaceonganges.com.

A heritage hotel with 24 rooms, each named after a province of India, in a great location close to the waterfront at Assi Ghat. There's a bit of a climb up to the front door but, inside, the reception desk is efficient and service throughout is good. The restaurant is rather gloomy, but the self-service breakfast is excellent and there's a rooftop restaurant with a pleasant view and good food. Our room (called 'Nagaland' if I remember correctly) was clean and very comfortable. We booked through Agoda, which required advance payment - I'd book direct with the hotel in future, if the price was right. We paid around 8,400Rupees (£95/US$130 approx.) per night for the room, including breakfast, service and compulsory taxes.

Guide:

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This is Raju (on the left of the picture) with his friend Ramu

Raju Verma, B1/148 c-1 Assi Ghat, Varanasi. (http://www.beyondvaranasi.com/) Email: raju7pinki@gmail.com

Some years ago, a fellow blogger (on my previous blog site) mentioned that she'd met a very helpful young man during her stay in Varanasi. She pointed me to his Facebook page, I contacted him, told him about our plans for this journey - and 'the rest', as they say, 'is history'. He's no longer just a Facebook Friend.

Raju's very friendly, fun to be with, speaks good English and, because he's a local, he knows his way around and he's known to a lot of people too. He's been a 'fixer' for professional photographers and documentary film-makers. I don't know what we'd have done without him - I'm sure we'd have been hopelessly lost!

Although he has a website and you'll find him on TripAdvisor under his Beyond Varanasi business name, he's really a one-man show with no fixed guiding tariff. Just tell him what you want (he'll book hotels, taxis, boats, whatever you need), be sure to pay him a reasonable rate and to share your lunch or evening meals with him, and he'll reward you with a unique experience from early morning to late evening.

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1 Women aren't forbidden to attend funerals, but tradition says they should not because they might cry and tears are regard as pollutants, unsuited to purification rituals..

2 To read more about aarthi ceremonies we attended, go to: 'A mistreated goddess' and 'Tea with a sadhu' or 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da...'.

3 Raju Verma will, for a fee, take care of everything for you - just email him at: raju7pinki@gmail.com. Be sure to give him plenty of notice though as he's a busy man!

4 That plonker Del Boy may have used the word 'kushti' to mean 'okay' or 'good' - but Indian wrestling used it first! Mind you, Indians do now sometimes use his 'Luvly Jubbly'!

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:18 Archived in India Tagged india ganges varanasi Comments (0)

Riches to rags

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Sarnath - 27th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

'If you let cloudy water settle, it will become clear.
If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear'.*

Is this something Buddha might have said?

I think so - but probably not in those words.
Take a look at an actual quote in the picture below!

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It's a definite fact, however, that Buddha's story was one of riches to rags - but it's not one that many people know about, so be prepared for a bit of history:

Born in 563 BCE as Siddhartha Gautama, he was the son of a wealthy chief from a small kingdom in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. He was brought up in relative luxury but, when he ventured beyond his spoiled existence, he was shocked to discover poverty and suffering in the world outside. A year or so short of his 30th birthday, he forsook his privileged life to become a monk and, leaving behind a wife and child, set about searching for the meaning of existence.

As an ascetic, an itinerant religious beggar, he tried the predominant religion at that time, a form of Hinduism, as well as the Jain faith, later abandoning both because their followers practised the caste system and sacrifices and rituals which he and the masses couldn't understand.

His wanderings brought him to the forests of Gaya (in the eastern Indian state of modern-day Bihar). There he decided to go no farther than the Bodhi tree under which he sat until such time as he'd solved the mystery of existence. Through discipline and meditation and eventual realisation, he achieved the knowledge he desired, becoming the 'Awakened' or 'Enlightened One' - the 'Buddha'. He then spent the remainder of his life travelling around north-eastern India teaching eager disciples his thoughts about suffering, desire and the path to inner peace.

From Bodh Gaya, he walked 250 kms (155 miles) to Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon in 500 BCE. We arrived in Sarnath on an outing from Varanasi, ten kilometres (six miles) away, in a car that Raju had borrowed from a friend!

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Not until now had we fully appreciated the background to this religion - one that's followed by over 500 Million people around the world today. Nor, until we started planning this spiritual journey to India and arrived here at its conclusion had we realised the importance of Sarnath, second only to Bodh Gaya, to followers of Buddhism.

Together with others who'd journeyed from afar, pilgrims from Japan, Thailand, China and many other countries where Buddhism holds sway today, we toured part of a circuit of momentous sites designed to aid visitors' understanding of this revered place.

The tranquillity of our surroundings, amid spacious grounds that would once have been a forest, emphasised the Buddhist tenets of meditation, the sanctity of life and non-violence, some of which had influenced Mahatma Gandhi in his day. Individuals meditated among ruins. Small groups sat shaded from the afternoon heat beneath time-worn trees in silence (possibly finding it difficult to talk because of the inexplicable surgical face-masks many of them were wearing!). Larger groups sat cross-legged, listening attentively to a saffron-robed monk quietly reading Buddha's first sermon.

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Incidentally, it's often possible to discern the nationalities of monks by the colours of their robes. Saffron robes are favoured by those from India, brown ones are typically worn by Thai monks, red robes by Tibetans, and the almost purple ones by monks from Myanmar.

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In modern times, temples in varying styles from all over the Buddhist world have been built here.

Within the sprawling complex, a church-like temple with spires, the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, built by Sri Lanka’s Maha Bodhi Society in the 1930s, was reached by an avenue lined with hedges and illustrated posters with quotes from Buddhist teachings. Multi-coloured prayer flags, spreading their messages of goodwill and compassion, fluttered in the breeze like bunting.

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Its interior had remarkable fresco-covered walls depicting scenes from Buddha's life and housed a beautiful golden statue of the Buddha on a marble platform. This statue, like all those of the Buddha, displayed a particular hand gesture called a mudra - in this case, the Dharmachakra mudra, formed when the inward-facing left hand touches the outward-facing right one, the thumb and index finger of both the hands touching at their tips to form a circle, symbolising the Wheel of Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha).

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More prayer flags lined an area containing a Bodhi tree, claimed to be a descendant of the tree at Bodh Gaya beneath which Buddha had reached enlightenment. A model of him preaching to his first five disciples was donated by a family from Myanmar and constructed beneath it in 1989 (although, of course, this was not actually where Buddha had given that first sermon). There's also an enormous bell with inscriptions of the Buddha's teachings in numerous languages, and lines of prayer-wheels which pilgrims - and we - rotated for good karma, good deeds or actions.

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Manicured gardens of tall trees, colourful shrubs and running fountains with blooming lotus flowers in the water beneath led to a standing Buddha, the tallest in India at over 24 metres (80 feet) high. Here, the mudra was the Abhaya, Buddha's right palm facing outward with the fingers upright and joined, representing protection, peace, benevolence and dispelling of fear.

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In a small shrine nearby was an enactment of him delivering a sermon, his right hand showing the raised three fingers and index finger touching the thumb of the Vitarka mudra, the gesture of discussion and transmission of Buddhist teaching. In contrast, alongside was a gold, morbidly-obese, laughing figure - not Buddha, but a Japanese 'god' of happiness called Hotei, sometimes known as a 'Laughing Buddha' (there's a similar Chinese good luck symbol called Bodai). It's not related to Buddha, except possibly as a future incarnation, but I guess it was there to encourage everyone to smile. Beneath the trees were more appropriate statues of Buddha, one a particularly striking black monument with a patchwork of gold leaf offerings and a magnificent gold fabric off-the-shoulder shawl.

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The incredibly beautiful black Buddha - showing the Bhumisparsha mudra, the 'earth touching' gesture,
representing the moment of Buddha's awakening as he claims the earth as witness to his enlightenment.

The Japanese temple was a double-storey pagoda with a sloping roof curving up at the eaves.The interior was serenely beautiful, adorned with gold, bells hanging above a table of ornaments and photos, and scented with sandalwood. Its predominant feature was an exquisite reclining Buddha, his inscrutable face concealing a calm, hidden smile. It was carved from a single piece of highly-polished brown sandalwood. My late father, who loved the grain in wood of all kinds, would have drooled over the aesthetic qualities of this truly outstanding statue.

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But the highlights of this complex were probably the colossal ruins dominated by a massive stupa, an elaborate mound-like brick and stone structure. In the Third Century BCE, Ashoka the Great, who reigned over an empire that stretched from present-day Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east, was deeply moved by this place’s sense of peace. He would become one of the most passionate converts to Buddhism and erected numerous stupas and monasteries here, as well as a magnificent engraved pillar.

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At the end of the 12th century CE, Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims and the site was subsequently plundered for building materials. What remained lay abandoned until 1834, when it was visited by Sir Alexander Cunningham, later archaeological surveyor to the government of India, who excavated the site. In the ruins that once housed 1500 monks, Cunningham unearthed ancient foundations, reliefs depicting the life of Buddha, railings that dated back many centuries, statues of deities and other exquisitely carved artefacts.

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There's a glass-encased remnant of what was once a gigantic pillar, one of a series of columns erected by Ashoka at important Buddhist places of pilgrimage throughout the Indian subcontinent. This one was made of sandstone from Chunar (which we'd visited on our boat journey down the Ganges - see Faster down the Ganges... ). It would have been around 15 metres (50 feet) tall and, at the very top, would have been a sculpture of four lions standing back to back, symbolising power, courage, confidence and pride. That lion capital, now in the site museum, was adopted as the country's national emblem when it became a republic in 1950 and an adaptation of it appears on the country's currency and its citizens' passports.

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The colossal monastic ruins were dominated by the Dhamek Stupa, the oldest existing stupa, said to mark the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon and to contain relics that can be directly attributed to him and his disciples. This imposing domed shrine, almost 44 metres (143 feet) tall and 28 metres (92 feet) in diameter at the base had an upper part made of red bricks that looked unfinished. The more prominent lower section had huge stones partly covered in delicate floral carvings, inscriptions and geometric patterns.

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Pilgrims walked clockwise around this monument, some leaving white prayer shawls tied to the wooden fence around it or draping marigold garlands on it. Some left lotus blossoms in little glasses. Others lit candles and incense. One or two simply had their photo taken in front of it, while the occasional family asked to have a photo taken with us.

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AN EPILOGUE

On this spiritual journey, we'd visited countless magnificent, fascinating places important to many of the world's major religions - Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and now Buddhist.

We had learned about beliefs and seen rituals associated with their followers' lives and deaths. Many of these were complicated, unbelievable, or simply incomprehensible.

At their places of worship and at their monuments - new, old and positively ancient, we'd taken off our shoes many more times than we'd eaten a hot curry. We'd experienced frenzied crowds, noise, peace and tranquility, kindness, colour, darkness, exotic scents and unpleasant odours, ugliness and incredible beauty.

I confess that I often understood very little of the mumbo-jumbo of the beliefs we were being asked to comprehend, but it was clear that thousands, nay millions, placed considerable trust and hope in their chosen faith. For that, they deserved and received our respect.

*

I hope you've enjoyed sharing our spiritual experiences. We now move on to visit friends and wildlife sanctuaries in Rajasthan for the final week of our stay in India. Join us for blogs that will follow during the coming days about the leopards, blackbuck, rats, vultures, camels, cranes and bustards that we encountered, plus a few tales of royalty, privilege, and joy.

*

* With thanks to Fake Buddha Quotes, from whom I borrowed this supposed 'quotation'!

You don't have to read what follows but, if you do, I think you'll see what I meant about 'not in those words':

Buddha's actual words, which gave way to that fake quote (translated from the 'Samyutta Nikaya') were:
'Again, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering, and does not know, as it really is, the way of escape from doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, nor can he know and see what is to the profit of others, or of both himself and others. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has not studied. Imagine a bowl of water, agitated, stirred up muddied, put in a dark place. If a man with good eyesight were to look at the reflection of his own face in it, he would not know or see it as it really was. In the same way, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, to the profit of others, to the profit of both. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has not studied'.

Posted by Keep Smiling 11:22 Archived in India Tagged india ganges varanasi sarnath Comments (0)

A journey measured in friends

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 28th to 31st January 2018

sunny 30 °C

The sun had barely risen above the horizon as we bid 'Namaste' to Raju and boarded the car he'd borrowed to take us to Varanasi's little airport.

Our fascinating, intensive, exhausting three-week tour along the Ganges had come to an end. We'd been to remarkable places, seen amazing things and travelled a lot of miles - more than 2,000 of them since leaving Delhi.

But what did we remember most?

A tough question - there were so many wonderful things to remember!

However, above all, I think it had to be the people, particularly the new friends we'd made: people like the Saigal family in Haridwar, who'd made us so welcome at the start of our Ganges adventure; like Gagan, who had devoted his time to ensuring we saw at least one tiger a day in Bandhavgarh; and Raju, whose kindness and knowledge had opened our eyes to the spirit and reality of sacred Varanasi.

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The American travel writer Tim Cahill once wrote:

'A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles'.

And I agree, wholeheartedly!

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Wise words!
(Oriental Scops Owl, Jhalana Forest, Jaipur)

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Now we were on our way to a final week in Rajasthan, where the emphasis would be on wildlife more than the divine.

I already had many good friends there. My brother David knew a few of them too, but he - and we - would soon be making more new ones.

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A few Jaipuri friends
Clockwise from left: Dashrath, Girdhar and Manish

Some terrific treats and a few surprises awaited us, but we feared that to enjoy them all in just one week could prove as energetic as the last three put together. With a combined age of 155 years, were we still young enough to survive the challenge?

*

Fortunately, it was only a two-hour SpiceJet flight from Varanasi's modern airport to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.

We'd seen most of Jaipur's familiar tourist sights together five years ago (The Pink City) and I'd been here so many times, before and since, that I'd seen most of the unfamiliar and un-touristy ones too.

One unfamiliar place owned by a familiar face still awaited us though.

Our taxi took us as speedily as Jaipur's chaotic traffic would allow from the airport in the south of the city to Bani Park, a desirable neighbourhood in the north, close to the old 'Pink City'. Here we would be spending the next three nights at the Khandela Haveli, a lovely heritage hotel owned by the respected royal family of Khandela, of which my friend Girdhar was a part. I'd stayed in Bani Park several times before, but never at his hotel - and what a treat it was. It was a great pleasure to meet up with Girdhar, his wife Mittu and their eldest son Yashoraj once again. They're such a happy and hospitable family.

We'd be spending more time with Girdhar later but, as we had no fixed plans for this afternoon, he suggested we visit the Rajasthan Polo Club.

Now, polo's something that David and I knew precious little about and we'd certainly never seen it played in the flesh before - it's a game for the wealthy and, well, we're not.

But this was to be the final match of the season, between Jaipur and Mumbai, and entry was open to all, free of charge.

The atmosphere at the Club was electric as the callithumpian 3rd Battalion, The Grenadiers paraded onto the wide expanse of green grass, bagpipes wailing, bass drum banging, tartan plaids swinging in time to the noise (I hesitate to call bagpipes 'music'!). Women in colourful saris scattered sand from shallow baskets into divots left by horses' hooves.

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Then came the riders, four in each team, with heavily-armoured knees and shins and peaked helmets of various colours. They were dressed in white trousers and coloured short-sleeved shirts, Jaipur in blue, Mumbai in green and umpires in black and white stripes. Among them, wearing the number two shirt, was the renowned polo player Sawai Padmanabh Singh (Pacho to his friends), the 19-year-old Maharaja of Jaipur. Did I mention this was a game for the wealthy?

Their immaculately-groomed ponies with bright eyes and ears pricked seemed anxious to get going.

The excited crowd of men, women and children seated in the grandstand and standing all around the ground - within a few feet of where all the action would be - applauded and cheered.

A hard white ball was ceremoniously tossed onto the pitch by the Club President - and they were off...

The sleek thoroughbred ponies raced up and down the ground faster than racehorses, stopping abruptly, turning on a sixpence. The riders stooped down and swung their mallets in an arc, sometimes making contact with the ball with a resounding 'crack', then chasing after it at a rate of knots, vigorously bumping opponents from time to time in their hurry to reach goals at either end of the ground.

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To this day, I've been unable to entirely figure out the rules, but I do know that there were five sessions known as 'chukkas' and that horses, quickly tiring from their exertions, were changed between each.

At the end of the fifth chukka, the teams were drawn six goals each. An exciting extra chukka resulted in a 'golden goal' for the home team, making Jaipur this year's champions.

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What a thrilling experience!

Alas, we couldn't stay for the presentation of trophies as we had to return to our hotel in time to change - for tonight was party time for these two oldies.

*

The only way to meet up with the 30 or so friends and relatives of my 'Indian son' Lajpal who were living in Jaipur was for them to gather en masse for drinks and dinner, just like they'd done on my previous visits to the city. (Those not familiar with the story of Lajpal, should read Life is like an ice-cream! and subsequent entries.)

What a joy it was to see them all again - just a fraction of Lajpal's many relations: his sister and her husband, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, in-laws, friends - all of them my friends too after so many years.

I was pleased to introduce David to those he didn't already know and, in particular, to Dashrath, Lajpal's father-in-law (who, apart from being the father of Lajpal's wife Rajshri and a good friend of mine, just happened to be Private Secretary to the Minister responsible for all of Rajasthan's wildlife parks. He would mention us to the rangers in charge of the many sanctuaries we'd be visiting later in the week).

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There was also a very welcome surprise guest: Harshvardhan, a young man I hadn't seen since he and his brother Jaivardhan had steered me around the multitude of ceremonies at an important Rajput wedding 11 years ago (It's a long way to go for a wedding!) - they'd grown a bit, as the 'before' and 'after' photos below will confirm.

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Much chatting, drinking and eating ensued, together with the inevitable dancing to happy, hands-in-the-air, hip-gyrating Bollywood music. Even David couldn't resist joining in with the younger generation and learning a few new 'moves'.

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David joins in the dancing (l to r: Lajpal, Harshvardhan, David)

At previous parties, the celebrations had continued into the not-so-small hours of the following morning, but we were already weary - not surprising after our early-morning flight, the excitement of the polo match and all that dancing - plus the fact that we were both at least twice the age of nearly everyone else here! We'd also committed to meeting up with another friend very early next day. Whatever were we thinking? Who planned this chockablock itinerary?

So, we had to take our leave before midnight, bidding farewell with much hugging and waving, allowing the throng to continue partying into the night without us.

*

It's strange that, no matter how fatigued we'd been most days, we had always managed to raise our heads off the pillows when the alarm clocks (we needed more than one!) madly rang at stupid o'clock. I guess we still had that old-fashioned work ethic of years gone by - if we said we'd be there, we needed to be there on time!

And so it was that, before dawn next day, we waited at the hotel reception for the taxi we'd arranged to take us to meet my good friend Manish at the lake called Man Sagar, home to the Jal Mahal, the 'Water Palace'. Unfortunately, much to our chagrin, the taxi worked on Indian Time and, despite several phone calls to the driver, dawn had turned to day before it arrived!

However, Manish was waiting patiently when we eventually reached the pedestrian boulevard beside the lake.

Man Sagar's on the road out of the Pink City heading towards Amber Fort, one of Jaipur's tourist hotspots. Coachloads of visitors always made a quick photo stop at the lake on the way. It's very picturesque - a calm expanse of water, a palace in the middle, birds in the foreground, hills in the background - you know the sort of thing. However, for those with a little more time on their hands and those in the know - like us and Manish, who lives nearby - the lake offered a tranquil walk well away from the camera-clicking hoards and was great for bird-watching.

I was here with Manish last year (Spring is sprung. I wish the mattress was!), but David hadn't met him before. Both keen ornithologists and photographers, however, they seemed to enjoy each other's company and we certainly saw a lot of birds on and around the lake.

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For other bird-lovers among you, just some of the wondrous sights revealed on this morning's walk were: Bay-backed Shrikes, Little Cormorants, Great Cormorants, Egrets - Cattle, Little and Great, Common Teal, Red-vented Bulbul, Spot-billed Ducks, Pond Heron, Mynahs of various types, Treepie, Collared Doves, Prinias, Indian Robins, Pied Kingfishers, Black-winged Stilts, Purple Swamphens, Painted Storks, Knob-billed Ducks, Grey Herons, plus, of course, the occasional Palm Squirrel and lots of colourful shrubs and flowers.

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We returned to the hotel having had a most enjoyable morning with Manish and in the knowledge that we'd be meeting him again, together with his family, when we came back to Jaipur in a week's time. Meanwhile, lunch followed, along with a farewell visit from Lajpal, Rajshri and shy four-year-old daughter Devanshi (aka Dhruvi), who were heading home to Nathdwara, a six-hour drive away.

We needed the few remaining hours of the day for recuperation as tomorrow would be yet another very full day. Were we gluttons for punishment, or what?

*

Girdhar's hospitality would bear no bounds next day. First, he would transport us to Chandlai, an ancient water body about 30 kilometres (18 miles) to the south of the city. I'd been here with him and his son Yashoraj last year, but the monsoon rains had not been good this year and, despite much toing and froing across parched ground in Girdhar's 4x4, we found that many of the smaller ponds had now dried up. Fortunately, some of the larger ponds and the lake itself still held sufficient water to attract an array of ducks, geese, waders and other birds, both resident and migratory.

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We approached the feeding birds on foot, carefully and quietly - except when stumbling down ditches (me) and falling over, drawing blood, among some vicious thorn trees (David). Birds with which we were not familiar were identified for us by Girdhar - at least those which hadn't flown off in alarm at our less-than-stealthy approach, that is.

Today's tally of sightings included, among many others: Snipe, Pipit (uncertain type - there are lots that all look the same!), Common Teal, Little Cormorant, Bar-headed Geese, Northern Shoveller, Painted Storks in trees and in-flight, Steppe Gulls, White Wagtail, Long-tailed and Bay-backed Shrike, Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey Heron, Little Grebe and Little Ringed Plover, many of these in significant numbers.

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It had been a superb excursion, made even better by being in the company of Girdhar, who I'm sure would not mind me describing him as a knowledgeable birder, photographer, businessman, recreational marksman and all-round aristocratic good friend.

*

Then it was back to the hotel for lunch and off with Girdhar again to meet Dashrath at the entrance to the Jhalana Forest Leopard Sanctuary on the city's outskirts.

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Jhalana Forest. The city of Jaipur can just be seen on the horizon


I'd had good sightings of leopards here on previous visits and was anxious for David to see his first wild one too. The Forest Officer himself, Surendra Sharma, was waiting for us and, after a customary glass of hot, sweet chai, we boarded one of the park's new Gypsy jeeps and headed off in search of ever-elusive leopards.

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Surendra Sharma (left) and Girdhar Pratap Singh Khandela (right)

Since converting the area last year from a public park into an official wildlife sanctuary - with associated entry fees, work had begun to improve accessibility and pipelines to waterholes in this otherwise arid land; for this work, Surendra Sharma must be complimented. Rightly or wrongly, however, it had also been decided to commence erecting a fence around the entire 24 square kilometre forest area, intentionally to keep out the public, but potentially restricting movement of animals and resulting in a decline of the leopards' food sources. Meanwhile, it remained one of the few places where there was a good likelihood of seeing wild leopards that, despite growing human intrusion, had not become habituated and remained notoriously shy.

Into the forest we went, following the sandy tracks which enabled vehicles to drive on several circuits, each one controlled by an entrance gate. Perhaps I should mention here that this was not a forest like those in Europe, but mainly dry scrub with stunted trees, rocky outcrops and hills on either side of a flat valley. White orchid-like flowers of a few beautiful Drumstick trees, known here as Shobhanjana (Moringa pterygosperma), punctuated an otherwise brown and green landscape. There was even a temple inside the park and people walked there to worship (despite leopards being seen nearby from time to time!).

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One of the advantages of being with the man in charge was that we could access all areas, paths through locked gates being opened by a man on a motorbike just as we approached. An ancient hilltop fort, normally out-of-bounds to visitors, was put at our disposal for a tea-and-biscuits stop.

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Of course, leopards were not the only wildlife within the forest area. As we drove, we encountered a Grey Mongoose clambering along the wall of an entrance gate, an Oriental Scops Owl high in a leafless tree, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk paddling at a waterhole, Grey Francolin, Nilgai (aka Blue Bull Antelope) and countless Peafowl, whose alarm calls often heralded a roaming leopard. We enjoyed the sight of many peahens launching themselves from a roost near the fort down into the valley while we sipped our cuppa.

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As the sun began to drop from the sky, we had still not spotted a leopard and were losing hope of one gracing us with its presence. The park was due to close its doors in less than half-a-hour. A mobile phone rang into life. It was the driver of another vehicle with news of a sighting. We accelerated, throwing up clouds of dust in our wake and arriving just in time for a fleeting glimpse of a female leopard strolling through the scrub. She glanced our way before moving off and using her remarkable camouflage to disappear into the dry grass.

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What a fitting conclusion to the beginning of our week's wildlife adventure!

We were tired but elated and pleased to have survived these first few days. Tomorrow, we hoped, might be a slightly more relaxed day.

*

Accommodation:

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Khandela Haveli, D219A Bhaskar Marg, Bani Park, Jaipur 302016, Rajasthan.
Tel: +91 141 403 6060 Email: info@khandelahaveli.com or girdharpratap@khandelahaveli.com [/i]

I've stayed at heritage hotels and in Bani Park before, but I can confidently say that nowhere has been quite as fantastic as this. Accommodation, food and service were all exemplary, and the understated decor and carefully-placed pieces of ancient memorabilia provided just the right amount of heritage atmosphere to complement the well-maintained modern facilities.

Every member of staff at the hotel reception was efficient and always willing to help with taxi bookings, information or advice. On each floor were pleasant sitting areas. On the rooftop was an attractive swimming pool. The spacious air-conditioned bedrooms and bathrooms, and indeed the entire hotel, were immaculately clean and tidy - a sign of good supervision of the cleaning staff by a conscientious housekeeper.

The restaurant on the ground-floor struck a balance of tasty, well-cooked food with friendly, efficient service under the ever-watchful eye of its manager Pooran. On the rare occasion that it was a bit busy with a group booking, there were tables in the open-air courtyard just outside.

Rates varied from 4500 to 6500 Rupees (£50 to £71 approx/US$67 to US$96) plus taxes for a double or twin-bedded room or suite.

Lest I should be accused of bias in this complimentary review of Girdhar's hotel, I should add that, while we did receive a generous discount, every other paying guest was treated just as well as we were.

*


Just a few footnotes to clarify some of the things mentioned above:

• Tim Cahill is the renowned author of books with great titles - like: 'A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg', 'Pecked To Death By Ducks' and 'Jaguars Ripped My Flesh'!

• Read about our new friends the Saigals, Gagan and Raju in my previous blogs: A mistreated goddess; 'Tyger, Tyger, burning bright...'; The name may have changed, but little else had...)

• ...and about a previous leopard sighting in Jhalana Forest in: Spotted! Leopards!

• On 24 June 1970, all titles, privileges and privy purses associated with princely states, and thus Maharajas and the like, were abolished by the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India. The royal families still remain highly respected and continue to maintain their traditions and their heritage. Many, like Girdhar's family have opened their palaces, castles and mansions as hotels.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:03 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan jhalana chandlai Comments (1)

A man's home is his castle - yes, really!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Khandela - 31st January to 1st February 2018

sunny 30 °C

Now here's somewhere for those who want to see the real Rajasthan, where time seems to have almost stood still since tourism gentrified most of this regal state's cities, forts and palaces.

It was a breath of fresh air to enter an ancient town that was noticeably quieter and cleaner than most other small towns we'd visited, one that wasn't overflowing with shops devoted to tourist tat or fancy restaurants with international menus. Here we found people who were a little shy in the presence of camera-wielding visitors, who spoke only a few words of a language other than their own, who welcomed everyone with genuine curiosity, courtesy and smiles.

So why had we come to this seemingly idyllic outpost 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of Jaipur?

Well, we'd come to visit the father of our friend Girdhar - and to spend a night at his castle of course!

*

These final days of our month in India would see us journeying by road from Jaipur, first north, then westwards in stages to Jaisalmer, a distance of about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles). I'd followed this route, more or less, by car and by train on a couple of previous occasions, but I wanted to introduce my brother David to some of the splendid sights and wildlife to be found in this lesser-visited part of Rajasthan and to discover some new ones for myself at the same time.

The ever-helpful Monty, Lajpal's brother-in-law, had organised a comfortable car for us, together with a very able driver named Santosh. He was familiar with most of the roads on our proposed route, but he didn't know the way to Khandela. Like us, Santosh had never been there before. (What was more, I'd never actually met the man we were going there to see.)

Early this morning, we'd headed north on National Highway 52, passing through rural villages and arid countryside dotted with tall chimneys of brickworks that are a feature of the landscape here. After about an hour and a half, we turned off onto the road we thought should take us to our destination. Santosh stopped at a petrol station to ask for directions. Yes, we were on the right road - the petrol station, it transpired, was owned by Girdhar's family!

A short while later we drew up outside Castle Khandela, an imposing three-storey, cream and white building with pretty, arched windows and an elephant-sized wooden door - more a palace than a 400-year-old castle really.

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Awaiting our arrival was the owner of this stately home: Maharaja Dr Raisal Singh Khandela, Girdhar's father and a man whose upright stance, distinguished features and venerable bearing confirmed his direct descendancy from the former rulers of this region of Shekhawati. Although we'd only previously met digitally, it was if we'd known each other for years and we were royally welcomed with scented marigold garlands before being escorted across the courtyard with its flowering shrubs and canopied ceremonial carriage to our spacious heritage room.

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The royal coat of arms

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But time was short. Raisal, both erstwhile royalty and a practising medical doctor, had patients to attend to. We too had a lot to fit into this day in our ever-hectic schedule. So, Raisal asked one of his staff to take us for a walk around the town while he went to his clinic within the castle grounds to offer treatment to the town's sick and needy.

*

It's not often that we'd been the only tourists in a town before. And what a pleasure it was to stroll through the town's arched entrance into narrow, almost traffic-free streets and to be greeted with only polite smiles.

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Here, in this town of around 25,000 people, we found little shops selling everyday goods - groceries, clothes, bangles, fabrics. The relaxed boss of a tiny tailor's shop, where two men worked on sewing machines in the open-air, offered to produce made-to-measure shirts, if we had a day or two to spare. A cobbler sitting cross-legged outside his hole-in-the-wall workshop proudly showed us how he cut and sewed leather to make beautiful, traditional footwear.

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In one street, there was a line of stalls with rudimentary covers to provide shade to impressive displays of fruit and vegetables, among them green and orange tomatoes, deep-red carrots, cabbages, cauliflowers, shiny purple aubergines, piles of beans and peas, giant bunches of fresh herbs, bags of onions, chillies, ginger, turmeric and garlic - indeed everything you could ever need for a delicious vegetarian curry. A white-haired man stood behind one of these stalls demonstrating how much he enjoyed his hash pipe, emitting clouds of smoke to match the colour of his impressive moustache.

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Metal bowls containing dried pulses and the brightest coloured pasta I'd ever seen spilled out onto the foot-way from a cupboard-like shop while its owner read his daily newspaper oblivious to our presence. A white donkey pulled a cart laden with used, flattened cardboard boxes on their way to be recycled. A shoe-repair man seated on the floor beside the road, observed by a small audience of a boy, an old man with a magnificent beard and an orange wooly hat, and a woman in a black burqa on a motorbike, mended a sandal with a piece of an old car tyre - and gave my dusty shoes a long-overdue and very thorough polish too.

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Wandering down a street of small houses owned by artisans, with their handmade pots outside the doors, we bumped into a crowd of children coming in the opposite direction. It seemed that the local school had just broken for lunch. A small street-food stall with the grand name of 'Ramsingh Chat Center' did good business selling puri - puffy, deep-fried pastry shells broken on top and filled with curried vegetables.

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The schoolgirls shyly disappeared from view, but soon we were being noisily greeted by 30 adventurous boys of all ages trying out their English skills with the usual 'Which country, sir?', 'How are you?', 'I'm fine sir'. They then watched curiously as we left them in our search for other interesting things. A brown-headed white goat snoozing on someone's doorstep feigned indifference.

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We continued our walk to see some ancient havelis (beautiful former merchants' homes), along the way passing numerous houses with fabulous doorways, most of which I felt compelled to photograph.

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My favourite of the wonderful doorways

There was a little cinema too - one of the posters declared it was showing 'Pad Man', a film about a social activist who revolutionized rural India by creating a low-cost sanitary towel machine. I'm guessing that this blockbuster must have had its fair share of Bollywood dancing somewhere among the plot.

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Khandela was the sort of place you could wander around for days, something new, interesting or unusual constantly catching your eye as you did so. Everywhere - well, almost everywhere - was spick and span; this was a town taking pride in its appearance. Of course, this being India, there were still one or two outlying places in need of a little attention, but we were told that those were mainly in private hands rather than under the control of the municipality.

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Alas, we had only a few hours of daylight remaining on this one day. So, waving farewell to another group of happy children standing in a doorway, every one of whom smiled broadly and waved in return, we boarded the castle's jeep and headed a short way out of town.

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There, we discovered a cluster of slightly neglected, honey-coloured, stone chhatris, memorials erected where the bodies of past rulers of the region were cremated. These beautiful monuments, with their onion-domed canopies ('chhatri' translates as 'canopy' or 'umbrella') characterfully adorned with cacti and thorny shrubs, carried descriptive carvings and were a fitting reminder of this town's glorious past, of its rulers and their traditions. The weather today was perfect - warm but not hot, sunny with a light breeze, pale cerulean skies with wispy clouds - all combining to make these distinctive chhatris particularly photogenic.

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We continued to Raisal's organic farm, where very few crops were in cultivation because of the dry conditions following last year's poor monsoon rains. The ancient baori there, a many-tiered, very deep, stone step-well, was dry. Where water was once collected by hand after descending a few feet to its surface, many dozens of dry steps led down into the bowels of the earth and a generator-driven pump now drew up the scarce liquid.

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From the bare branches of a tree close by, a tiny brown and white Spotted Owlet contorted its head to watch our every move with disproportionately large eyes. A small troop of grey Langur monkeys used their long rear legs to scurry, dance-like, across the dusty fields as we approached.

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I briefly sheltered from the midday sun beneath a small green tree - it was a rare Bael (pronounced 'Bill') with young fruit that would eventually grow to the size of a grapefruit and, when ripened, would be so hard that it would have to be cracked with a hammer. I learnt from our guide that the yellow pulp inside smelt like roses but tasted like marmalade. I'll have to come back at harvest time to try it! The leaves are used in the worship of the god Shiva, who's said to be particularly fond of the Bael tree (as we saw inside Varanasi's Shiva Temple - 'The name may have changed, but little else had...').

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We returned to the castle through scenery of dry thorn scrub with a backdrop of tall, dark, jagged hills. Raisal had hurried to complete his benevolent medical duties and, after a very pleasant lunch, we set forth again, this time enjoying his company on a bird-watching foray.

The area around Khandela was rural, green and fertile in places where water was available, barren where it wasn't. The whole area was home to a wide array of resident and migratory birds. Raisal, a knowledgeable ornithologist and a keen photographer to boot, had the eyes of an eagle. We were in good hands as he scanned the fields and trees around us as we drove, stopping frequently to identify unfamiliar species.

Although many birds were too small to capture satisfactorily on camera, a few highlights accompany this blog. I particularly enjoyed seeing a woodpecker, a Lesser Goldenback - such a colourful little bird. We thought we'd seen a particularly unusual type of tree-creeper too but, on closer examination, it seems it was another type of woodpecker - Yellow-Crowned, not as rare but certainly a 'first' for me. More familiar sightings included Black Redstart, Black-winged Kite, Common Kestrel, Indian Pond Heron, Indian Silverbill, Oriental Magpie Robin and a plethora of 'little brown jobs'. It was a delight to see so many birds in such unspoilt countryside.

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Above: Lesser Goldenback (Female)
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Above: Yellow-crowned Woodpecker and Black Redstart
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Above: Black-winged Kite (aka Black-shouldered Kite) and Indian Pond Heron In non-breeding plumage
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Above: Oriental Magpie Robin (Juvenile) and Indian Silverbill
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Above: Common Kestrel

Our day culminated in a vibrant orange sun illuminating a sky of thin cirrus clouds before it dipped rapidly below the horizon, leaving an inky darkness.

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*

We were sad to leave Raisal and his lovely town next morning, but it had been a memorable experience and, above all, it had been great to meet the man I'd only corresponded with for the past two years.

A Forest Officer and some Blackbuck were waiting for us at the next stop on our lightning visit to Rajasthan. So, bidding farewell to Raisal with gratitude for his wonderful hospitality and a promise of a return visit in the not-too-distant future, we boarded Santosh's comfortable car once again and headed west to the Tal Chhapar Blackbuck Sanctuary and onwards to Bikaner.

Accommodation:
Castle Khandela, Khandela, Dist. Sikar, Rajasthan.
Tel: +91 01575 261227 Email: info@castlekhandela.com or raisal@castlekhandela.com

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This is a charming restoration of part of a huge castle complex. Marble floors and scalloped archways abound, as do family heirlooms, photographs, ancient coin collections and objets d'art from days gone by.

Each of the 15 bedrooms has been designed with attention to detail, cool colours and sympathetic furnishings in keeping with their heritage. Bathrooms are clean and modern and everywhere was clean and tidy. Service, as you would expect, was discreet and efficient.

Expect to pay up to about 6000 Rupees (approx. £67/US$90/€76) a night for a good double room, including breakfast. It's a bargain!

Posted by Keep Smiling 11:11 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan khandela Comments (0)

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