An Information Source About Traveling in India
India is a country with over one billion people in a size about 40% of the USA. It is majestic, maddening, and exotic. It is never quite what you expect it to be, sometimes underwhelming, yet somehow always overwhelming. It is a fiercely independent country boasting the world's largest democratically-elected government whose written constitution is based upon the USA's and England's. It is a land of great contrasts: tremendous wealth and devastating poverty, the smells of jasmine and urine. In many places I could, in the same scene, see a family living under a bus bench beside a modern three story house with a satellite dish on its roof and a Mercedes in the driveway. With over 120 countries participating in the Fulbright Program, why did I choose India? Even fellow Fulbrighters have asked me as I have asked them, why India? It is a complex and loaded question. However, have you ever had an early and special fascination with another country? Perhaps, it may have been the native country of your parents or grandparents. Well, for no reason that I can consciously recall, I have been fascinated with India. Early, like in the fourth grade, I imagined it to have elephants, camels, monkeys, and jungles with lost cities and underground caves full of golden treasures guarded by cobras. And now, nearly 40 years later, after two four-month long Fulbright Fellowships to live and work in India, I have ridden elephants, taken a camel ride into the desert for three days, rescued a village woman's bag of rice from a wild monkey, seen Fatepuhr Sikri, a Mogul ruler's huge and majestic abandoned city, and waited for a cobra to pass while hiking in a jungle. I have seen golden treasures as well but only in an Indian museum.
Delhi is the capital of India. It is the only the third largest city in India yet has over 11,000,000 people. During a drought in 1994, it was estimated that over 100,000 rural villagers were moving to Delhi every month! Delhi is the quintessential Indian city of contrast. There are towering modern skyscrapers, whose interiors rent for more money than in New York city while hundreds of thousands of slum-dwelling residents scrape and forage for food in the streets, in the dumpsters or in the dumps. This picture is of a barefoot man hauling goods in downtown Delhi. The area is a typical middle eastern bazaar known as Paharganj (ganj means city in Hindi, the official language of India). Nearly a mile long, full of small businesses, it has narrow streets crowded by 500 year old multi-storied buildings built willy-nilly over the centuries and which sometimes crumble in the streets in heavy rains. It is popular with foreign travelers (the low budget kind) because rooms can still be had for about $2 a night. One can eat breakfast there, like masala dosa, a spicy potato-filled crepe, for about 25 cents, or eggs and toast for about the same price.
Begging is an accepted way of life, and Indians themselves give to beggars on a regular basis as part of the Hindu religion. This old woman is nearly blind, although she immediately put the paper money I gave her to her good eye to ascertain its value. There is no social security system, although many major companies and the Indian government workers are offered pension plans. However, probably over 500 million Indian workers and their families do not work for either, and thus, the death or disability of the major wage earner can have devastating consequences for a family. Children are very frequently, and at very early ages, put to "work" in the streets begging.
T his man has elephantiasis. The enlargement of his leg has taken place over years due to an infestation of small worms that have blocked the lymphatic system in his leg causing it to distend. He is not begging. He owns a business. It is the scale in front of him. When you see a scale like this in the streets, you can check your weight (although it will be in kilograms and it is nearly guaranteed it will not be accurate) for whatever you are willing to pay him. Because of his disease, however, you are more likely to feel sorry for him, and thus, his disease is an attraction for him in his business. Some beggars are wrapped in "bloody" bandages that surprisingly stay red and bloody all week long. How does one choose among all of these beggars? It is difficult and ultimately a personal decision. Some people only give to children, some only to women with children, some only to people with missing limbs, some only to people missing all of their limbs.
I have traveled India by plane, train, bus, taxi, motorized rickshaw, bicycle rickshaw, man-driven rickshaw, motorcycle, bicycle, ferry, sailboat, rowboat, and by foot. I like train travel. It is one of the positive British legacies. They left an elaborate and now fairly well-run and inexpensive network of trains and tracks. Even jet plane travel is fairly cheap: it might cost $100 to fly 500 miles between major cities. But train travel might be only five dollars between the same cities. These fellows were my travel mates on a 24 hour trip. I bought a second class sleeper ticket. Our day seats folded down into beds so that all six of us had our own very firm beds. Although there are numerous no smoking signs nearly every one in this group smoked, nearly choking me. A first class ticket might cost five times more but usually includes fewer smokers. In the morning, despite the rough conditions, everyone was cheerful as the chai boy made his rounds. Chai is the ubiquitous Indian tea, always brewed with milk and sugar. It is often sold cheaply in little nonreusable clay cups.
In 1570, one of India's greatest Mogul rulers, Akbar, built a completely new capital city in the small village of Sikri, about 40 kilometers west of Agra (home of the Taj Mahal which itself is 204 kilometers south of Delhi). He relocated his ruling headquarters on the top of a three kilometer long ridge of stone in the honor of a local Muslim holyman. The holyman supposedly foretold the birth of Akbar's son, Jahangir (whose name means world grasper and who became the father of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal). However, the city never had an adequate water supply, and it is said that the buildings were abandoned about the time it was completed in about 1586. This picture shows some of the elaborate terraces with water courses and pools (called tanks in India). Akbar played a Parcheesi-like game with his servants on a large sandstone square next to this pool. He directed their movements from an elaborate ornamental tower. Fatepuhr Sikri is considered India's finest example of a "ghost town" or abandoned city. One early Saturday morning, my daughters and I were the first to buy tickets (about six cents a piece, and one day a week it's free), and we toured the entire complex virtually alone. Akbar had built a huge and imposing "victory" gate, sauna baths, and numerous and elaborate apartments for his wives and concubines.
T he emperor Shah Jahan began building the Taj Mahal in 1631 as a Muslim tomb for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of the their 14th child. It is said that 20,000 workers, with artisans coming as far away as Italy, took until 1653 to complete the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is constructed of white marble which subtly changes colors throughout the day. No one is allowed in after dark (because of a fear of terrorists) so any stories of the Taj Mahal viewed up close after dark in the moonlight are imaginary. But near closing time, India usually has magnificent pink sunsets that lend the Taj Mahal a beautiful pink hue. I have visited the Taj Mahal on at least 10 or more separate visits, and I do not think I'd ever miss a chance to visit again. Although crowded at peak times, visiting early is nearly always a good idea: it's cooler and far less crowded. The Taj Mahal has inlays of semi-precious stones. A marble lace screen surrounds the two "fake" tombs of Shah Jahan and his bride upstairs. The marble has all been exquisitely hand carved and polished and is inlaid with a flowery motif of semi-precious stones. I have counted over a hundred single gemstones in a single flower on the screen, and the screen possesses hundreds of flowers and vines. The real tombs are actually downstairs and are also made of white marble inlaid with thousands of semi-precious gems. There are two mosques of red sandstone that flank the Taj Mahal. The whole complex sits on the banks of the Yamuna river.
Varanasi is one of India's holiest cities. Its name is ancient, meaning the city between two rivers, although since the British occupation it has been known as Benares. Varanasi sits on the banks of the Ganges (or Ganga) river. Upon death, many male Hindus hope that their bodies are burned in cremation ghats along the Ganges in Varanasi. It is said that if a Hindu has his ashes cast in the Ganges, their soul will enter their next life more quickly . Hindu women and children are not cremated. Their bodies are wrapped and placed on a board weighted with rocks and thrown into the Ganges. Yes, their bodies decay, ferment, and rise to the surface, and then float a thousand kilometers downstream to Calcutta and the bay of Bengal. Also, a sadhu, a Hindu holyman who has renounced all worldly possessions including their families, is not cremated but also like women and children placed whole in the river. There are hundreds of these ghats along the Varanasi edge of the Ganges. A few are cremation ghats. A standard cremation will cost at least $100 or more, thus, the most sacred of Hindu burials is far outside the finances of most Hindu families. The more popular and ubiquitous ghats are of the bathing type. On Saturdays, Sundays, and Hindu holydays, the ghats are crowded with thousands of people bathing, swimming, washing clothes, and drinking the river water.
Here is a young man washing his family's water buffalo in the sacred Ganges river in Varanasi. Since most Hindus are vegetarians, this domesticated animal would never be raised for meat. It probably pulls a wheeled cart, may provide milk, or plow a field. For about $4 per hour you can rent a rowboat complete with guide/rower, and tour the various ghats. Pictures are not allowed near the cremation ghats. The highest caste in the Hindu religion, the Brahmans, are the priests of the religion. They also line the banks sitting under permanent umbrellas. For a donation, they chant prayers and make blessings for other Hindus.
India probably has over 200,000,000 small businesses if not more. This, young fellow, on a side street in downtown Varanasi, does not own a store. He sets up his yarn sales in front of a real store and probably pays the owner a small rental fee. He sells his yarns when the main store is closed, typically on Sunday and all Hindu holydays. The latter are actually quite frequent occurring almost once a week. I thought the picture would be an excellent test for color film.
Varanasi has over 1,000,000 residents, however, for India (believe it or not) it has a small town flavor. I have stayed at Hotel Clarks Varanasi (four star rating, the highest) for 2,625 rupees per night (about $75; air-conditioned, safe swimming pool) which you might consider if you've been roughing it or have been on the road and need a luxury break for a while. Many travelers in India go cheaply for spells and then once a week or so treat themselves to a four star Indian hotel. Indians do know luxury, and although you'll pay for it, it'll still be far cheaper than the comparable in the USA. I also found a hotel about 50 meters from the Ganges and a cremation ghat. I stumbled on it at night during a rainstorm, so I had no idea where it was located until I woke up in the morning and went outside. My room with two beds and private bath with hot water was 150 rupees (about $4.25). I took this picture the next day while standing on a street median watching the early morning traffic racing by.
Buddhism is a minority religion in India with its proponents numbering far less than 1% of India's total population. Actually Buddhism is nontheistic, thus, it more of a philosophy than a religion. There is a famous apocryphal story where Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama (about 560 BC - 480 BC) was asked if he was a god, and he said no. Was he a saint? He answered no. "What are you?" he was asked. "I am awake," was his reply. Records claim that Buddha left his royal home at the age of 29 in a search for meaning. After starving himself as an ascetic, and meditating under a tree, he came to the realization that deprivation was not the path to enlightenment. He believed that life is suffering but suffering comes primarily from our sensual desires and the illusion that they are important. He developed the philosophy of the middle path or moderation in all things. Also, compassion and detachment lead to the extinction of desire, which leads to nirvana. Buddhists believe in a cycle of rebirths until we are freed from the cycle. Karma is a spiritual cause and effect that determines how many more rebirths we must suffer. Buddha's last words are reputed to be: "Be a lamp unto yourselves, be a refuge unto yourselves, seek no refuge outside yourselves." Buddhists revere four holy sites: where Buddha was born (in Nepal), where he died, where he first preached (in Sarnath about 10 kilometers from Varanasi), and where he attained enlightenment. The holiest of these sites is the latter, in the town of Bo dhgaya, Bihar state, in northeastern India. This is a picture, taken in Bodhgaya, of a 25 meter high statue of Buddha dedicated by the Dalai Lama in 1989.
This large bo tree (which appears to be related to the tropical banyan tree) is said to be the 2,500 year old descendant of the original tree that Buddha sat under and received enlightenment. I took this picture of the sacred bo tree and tall temple behind it. The great northern Indian emperor Ashoka (who ruled from 269 BC to 232 BC) converted to Buddhism, preached nonviolence, asked for universal respect for all faiths, promoted vegetarianism, built good roads lined with trees, fruits, and wells, and encouraged his people to tell the truth. In about 250 BC, Ashoka built a temple at the site where the bo tree and temple are now standing. Bodhgaya is a small town (probably less than 25,000 regular residents) with a very small downtown area. However, its population swells with Buddhist pilgrims in December and January. The exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, is said to visit Bodhgaya annually during the winter.
India has an extensive and picturesque coastline with magnificent-looking beaches. That's the good news. No guidebook ever quite tells the truth about the Indian coasts. I will because I want to save its beaches. It's this: Indian beaches and its waters are toilets. The surf near any settlement near the ocean is brown from fecal matter. Millions of Indians defecate on the shore, daily. Walking along the beaches takes great skill. One small wave can make your shoes reek for life. The fecal matter is often covered with a little sand so even if you think you are stepping carefully, you are frequently surprised. Indian industries are probably worse about the pollution of the ocean than even the average beach-dwelling Indian. Goa is a heavily promoted beach resort area about midway along the Western Indian coast. Away from the beaches, it is quaint, picturesque, and heavily influenced by the Portuguese who officially occupied it until 1961. The Catholic influence is pervasive with many beautiful churches. There are still a few beaches in Goa where international hippies still congregate. Apparently it's fallen from its heydays in the 1960's but the unusual smells of handrolled cigarettes can still be detected. Drug use (including marijuana) is highly illegal, Indian jails are said to be unusually and creatively miserable, jail sentences are long, and the police and judicial system are very prejudiced against foreigners breaking the laws in this regard. There are also very limited beach areas in Goa for public nudity but it is barely (!) tolerated. Native Indians have adopted their own sport, and that is, walking repeatedly by in droves, laughing, pointing, and smiling at the nude foreigners. Guide books also promote Trivandrum and nearby Kovalam beach as the beach where the Beatles visited in the 1960's. Trivandrum is the nearest city inland from Kovalam beach, and they are both situated near the southern most tip of India. Kovalam beach is beautiful-looking. It consists of three relatively small coves with perfect waves for surfing after the monsoons. Directly south of the coves, perhaps 25,000 villagers use the surf as a giant toilet. The Kovalam beach surf is brown. You tell me why.
I loved the open fish markets. Goa and Trivandrum depend heavily upon the fisherpeople, their boats and nets. I got up very early in Goa one morning and joined a shore crew of 20 men and boys. A row boat pulled a large semi-circular net into the water about 100 meters off shore. Ten of us got on each end of a long rope attached to the net, and we pulled it to shore. The men passed a bottle of spirits made from cashew nuts. It was barely 7 AM as the sun rose. Two men divided the fish in to 21 piles of little fish, tiny squid, some stray crabs and shrimp. When I realized they automatically included a pile for me, I explained as best I could that I had no facilities to prepare my fish. I thanked them, they thanked me, and I followed the piles of fish to the market place. Frequently, the fish are not iced but some fish in the market are iced. Men and women shoppers come early to the fish market to bargain for fish. By noon, the markets are usually deserted.
Since I grew up in Miami, I was fascinated by the whole fishing process. I talked with expensive fishing boat owners ($250,000) and with small boat owners. One small sailboat owner gave me a ride across the bay for about two hours for about $2. I also sailed first class on a tourist sailboat in the back bays in southern state of Kerala. For an all day sail with good meals included, I paid $100 for the two of us. We were its sole passengers. I tried fishing during the day in the baywaters but nothing was biting.
During my first Fulbright fellowship in 1987, I was affiliated with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India's fifth largest city (over 4,000,000 residents). Nearly each major state in India has its own language. Bangaloreans speak Kannada along with about 45,000,000 other residents of the southern state of Karnataka. It is a Dravidian language, meaning it is not Sanskrit-based. Sanskrit is the ancient and sacred language of northern India. Hindi is Sanskrit-based, so Kannada is rarely similar to Hindi. Southern India was never conquered by the north, neither the Persians, or the Moguls. Thus, southern Indians remain fiercely independent both in customs, food (more vegetarians in the south), and language. Even the Hindu temple designs vary from north to south. I took this picture on a weekend trip to Masinagudi, a very small village in the Nilghiri mountains, a couple of hundred kilometers south of Bangalore. When my brother (who came to visit me for a week) and I went out of our mountain cabin in the morning, we were warned by the owner to be aware of moving rocks. "What are those?" we asked. "Wild elephants," she said calmly. "They'll stomp you to death. And what direction should you run, uphill or downhill?" she queried. "Uphill?" we reasoned. "The elephant is well-balanced running uphill," she said. "Run downhill. The elephant is much more tenuous going downhill, " she added. I realized, however, that I loved getting that type of advice before going for a walk. It was so much more adventurous than 'bring an umbrella,' or 'watch out for cars.' The next evening she arranged for a tame elephant ride through a national park. The wild animals do not fear the grass eating giants so we were able to see some wild buffalo and deer.
In southern India, the bullock is the ubiquitous beast of burden. I was riding my bicycle on Saturday morning when I saw this bullock cart approaching. Bullocks are also used to pull lawn mowing machines. When the bullock pulls these ancient mechanical devices across a lawn, a driver will empty the grass in front of the bullock as fodder. The bullock's feces might subsequently be used as fertilizer for the lawn. This system is the ultimate in recycling.
One weekend away from Bangalore, I was riding the train back when I saw a small town surrounded by huge boulders, hundreds of meters high, and thousands of meters in length. I looked out the train window and memorized the town's name, Ramanagaram. Although some Indian names seem entirely strange, after a while I found that understanding some of the individual parts made understanding the longer names easier. For example, Rama is the name of a Hindu god. Naga is the name of the cobra god. Also, nagar is the generic name for the word city, and finally garam means hot. Thus, Rama-naga-ram becomes much more understandable when broken down into its parts. The next weekend, I took a bus back to Ramanagaram to go free climbing. As I walked straight into the fields towards the nearest rock hill, I met a farmer. He smiled at me, and I at him. His English was as bad as my Kannada yet we established that he would be my guide to the mountains for the day. I learned the Kannada phrase, 'What is the name for this thing?' so all day long I expanded my vocabulary. He was a patient and kind teacher. Mannaji Rao, the 70 year old farmer, and I became good friends, and we still write each other nine years after our first meeting. This is a picture from one of the giant boulders that flanks the town of Ramanagaram.
Carl Jung said that symbols ultimately represent the unknowable. On another weekend excursion from Bangalore, I got off at a bus stop where I spied a distant hilltop temple. When I had climbed to the top of the small hill, I saw this interesting stone circle in a remote area off the backside of the hill. I walked about two further kilometers until I came to an abandoned ashram or Hindu monastery. A Hindu monk suddenly appeared. He offered to share his afternoon meal. He showed me the abandoned ashram which had been left to his sole care. I didn't speak Kannada well enough to establish what had happened nor for him to explain the stone circle. After a few hours, I said farewell and caught a bus back to Bangalore.
Although this appears to be a statue of Buddha, it is not. It is a Tirthankara or saint of the Jain religion. The Jains are even less numerous than Buddhists in India. The Jain religion was founded by a contemporary of Buddha, Mahavira in about 527 BC. The Jains broke with the Hindu religion, in part, over the Brahmins' control over the practice of the Hinduism. Jains now preach nonviolence and vegetarianism (except no garlic or onions are allowed because they are thought to enhance sexual desire). They are ascetic, believe in reincarnation, fast frequently, meditate often, and promote celibacy. They believe that self-mortification helps us to break the cycle of rebirths. Many Jain statues are nude because even the use of cotton would mean the killing of the living cotton plant. One sect of Jains walk about completely nude or 'sky clad.' The ancient Greeks had written of the Jains as the "naked philosophers." Their temples are usually similar to Hindu temples, and Jains are typically unaggressive and gentle. Unlike the Krishna sect of Hinduism, Jains do not proselytize.
This Hindu man is performing his yagna, a Hindu ritual act of self-mortification. He is standing on a foot-shaped bed of nails and rests the underside of his neck on a metal spearhead. People offer him money and food in honor of his chosen and difficult yagna. I met him on the top of Chamundi hill, outside the southern city of Mysore about 120 kilometers from Bangalore. There are approximately 1,000 ancient granite steps ascending Chamundi hill to a temple at the top of the hill. The famous Indian writer, R. K. Narayan, lived and worked in Mysore for most of his life. I've read nearly every novel he has written, even his autobiography where he writes of Mysore and Chamundi hill. He writes simply and movingly of the interpersonal dilemmas of everyday Indian life.
Indians are highly fond of parades. This is a picture of gaily decorated bullocks marching along in a Mysorean parade.
In the same parade, I took this picture of the local maharaja's elephants. Each Indian state, prior to the independence of India on August 15, 1947, was ruled by a maharaja (maha = great, raja = king). These fellows had immense wealth and huge palaces. Mysore has one of the finest contemporary examples of a maharaja's palaces in all of India. Varanasi has one of the saddest and most decrepit palaces in India. Maharajas were considered god-like by the people in their state, and thus, they spent enormous amounts of money making themselves appear god-like. Thus, this elephant's original decorative covering was no doubt, made of pure gold. Today most domesticated elephants in India are not beasts of burden. They are employed, however, at fairs, carnivals, and weddings. One early evening in the western city of Jaipur, I saw an elephant and its mahout (driver) walking down a main street. I brazenly called out for a ride. The mahout stopped the elephant (by failing to massage the backs of the elephants ears with his feet) and yelled back, "30 rupees." People in India are often fond of bargaining so I called back, "20 rupees." He countered with 25 rupees (at that time about $2), and I agreed. The elephant kneeled. I stepped on her bended knee while reaching for the mahout's outstretched hand. He pulled me onto the elephants back. He gave the elephant the command to rise (her name was Anakalie ) and off we rode. We went straight down the main street of Jaipur during evening traffic. At one point, a camel cart came up along our flank, while a bus and a jumble of traffic waited for us to clear the intersection. I loved it. The evening traffic jam in India! When we left the city, I finally asked where we were heading, "to a fair," he answered. About 20 minutes later, we entered the fairgrounds. The elephant would be giving children rides later in the evening. I thanked the mahout, paid him, and took a taxi back to town.
Being a foreigner has advantages and disadvantages. Being so white, I was often looked upon as wealthy, and prices went up, just for me, accordingly. However, while all Indians were kept off the parade street by the police, I was waved forward and allowed to pass freely throughout the parade participants. I took this picture of the enthusiastic crowd.
Additional traveling advice in India