Friday, November 26, 2010


Once inside the gates of this temple complex (no camera) and past the long winding footpath (no shoes), I'm greeted not by the standard religious somberness but instead an atmosphere akin to a music festival in full swing. The picture painted of Krishna followers is postcard perfect. For starters, the children are happy to be here, no-one is attending or being dragged along against their will. Laughter is abound and no restraints are being made to combat this, thankfully.

A mass of people, young and old, sit enamored by a religious re-enactment. Like a stage play, priests and holy men, not professional actors, play their parts with colourful costumes amidst the frantic frenzy that engulfs the majority of these temple grounds. Children run freely, jubilant and joyful, while their parents watch on proudly. I'm asked for my name and country of origin countless times, by people who are all too happy to share their culture, religion or a pint of chai.

 A friendly local offers to show me his favorite temple within the complex, a marble hall with many paintings on the ceiling. I'm told they are close to their 2000th birthday, and not only depict events in the life of Krishna, but were around long before Michelangelo's more famous Sistine Chapel. The paintings here, and indeed the whole atmosphere of the place, feel far more authentic without all that fetid fanfare. Once again, India proves itself to be a raw destination. For those of you who are sick of what's been done before, or to death, give the subcontinent a go and get off the beaten track. You'll feel like an explorer, rather than just a plain old tourist.

Also worth checking out is the actual birthplace of Lord Krishna. Once a prison cell, this dark room with barren walls houses a bare slab of concrete - on which the enigmatic blue baby was born. The King at the time had imprisoned Krishna's parents and promised to kill each of their children, due to this, Krishna was given up for adoption. He is one of the most popular figures in Hindu mythology, adored by countless pilgrims all over the country. He is famous for being a bachelor with many girlfriends, a warrior sent to Earth to fight evil, playing pranks on many people and having an affair with a married woman.

In India, there are many many Gods and from them are many reincarnations who have sprung up throughout the ages. What I like most about Hinduism is the reverence these figures are given, yet they are almost always humanized and capable of making mistakes. For instance, Lord Shiva is known as the supreme being, but he also famously made the mistake of beheading his own son - Ganesh. While I usually don't make a point of encouraging fathers out there to maim and injure their children, it's refreshing to see a God who makes errors in judgement - just like the rest of us :)

A fine place to try 'ladoo,' a famous Indian sweet, is Mathura. A delicious treat made primarily with rosewater and hard work, flour is added too. Candied pumpkin or 'petha' is more of an acquired taste but well worth a try. It's perhaps due to the religious significance of the site, but there are few rip-off merchants abound. Exquisitely made souvenirs, like framed pictures of Krishna are only 5 rupees each, making bargaining a non-issue. I was very happy to hear an Indian quoted the same price as me, something of a rarity in these parts!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Amazing Agra

The city of Agra is by no means beautiful. In fact, mere metres from one of the most famous sites in the world (Taj Mahal), you can find people of all ages relieving themselves by the side of the road. Fields of garbage are often burning, and frequently rancid, and provide an interesting backdrop to the 7th wonder of the world.

 My first impressions of the city upon leaving the train station were not pretty. I made my way to my driver's tuk-tuk, to find a million moth march parading on the vehicle's rooftop. I inhaled a few of them as I pushed the rickshaw back to life, and into the ensuing madness of Agra's traffic. Potholes and pollution aside, the city is a fine place to try chaat, as vendors are scattered all over the place. Agra is famous for fine Mughali cuisine, and a haven for those with a sweet tooth. Although candied pumpkin (petha) isn't to everyone's taste.



I know it's cliche, I know it's been done to death, but you just can't escape the significance. If you visit a marble shop beforehand, and work out how much the stuff costs, even in small amounts - it truly is a breathtaking spectacle.

I have visited other well known landmarks in the past, but I have almost always walked away disappointed. The Taj Mahal is the opposite, I had to remind myself to blink. I couldn't even walk away from it without looking back every half a dozen steps. It's as if the intimidating structure dares you to try and turn your back on it. In comparison, the Eiffel Tower seemed like a cheap and tacky toothpick.

It's so big. It's so elaborate. It's perfect.

Surrounded by manicured and maintained gardens, flanked on each side by Mughali monuments, the imposing building is situated on a raised platform and made entirely of marble - ka-ching! An inevitable trip to a marble shop will highlight the price involved and the prosperity enjoyed by the nawab Shah Jahan, who built it as a mausoleum for his beloved (third) wife as the ultimate symbol of undying love. Upon learning of his wife's death, Shah Jahan's hair is said to have turned gray overnight.

It truly makes any romance past seem like mere puppy love.

Another sight worth seeing in town is Agra Fort. It's good for a gawk, although a guide may provide useful as there is a lot to see and neither sign nor textbox to explain it all. It's also handy to have someone present to tell you which parts of the fort are currently occupied by the military, as you'll get an abrupt discharge by soldiers clutching AK-47s should you venture down the wrong path. The fort is also home to many mobs of monkeys, squillions of squirrels and dozens of dozing dogs. Beggars are also persistent at this point of interest, and are more persistent here than in other parts of the country. People will grab hold of your body, clutch at your wrists and demand payment rather than ask for it.

It is almost always safe to assume the worst of any friendly stranger you meet in Agra. There are predatory tuk-tuk drivers, terrible touts and unsavory vultures lurking on almost every uneven city corner. There is a heavy influx of foreigners on any given day, and many who are on package tours are unfamiliar with Indian bargaining and 'outsider prices' - so the chances of being ripped off are sky high. Unfortunately this practice is not just limited to rickshaw wallahs and street side merchants, expect travel agents and even retail vendors to cheat you, all with a smile on their face.
Hotel Riya Palace deserves a mention for all the right reasons. Spacious and spotless rooms with all the facilities, at a fair and reasonable price (less than $30). The room service was 24/7, entirely vegetarian and absolutely delicious, while the staff were pleasant and friendly. A welcome relief from the filth and furore of Hotel Regency..


In complete contrast, Hotel Regency (near Agra Cantt station) is a festering shithole. The rooms are filthy, and there are frequent power cuts day and night. Stampedes of cockroaches scatter loudly throughout the night, down the hallways and scurrying under doors. Stained sheets that smell of recent sex cling to dusty beds, while the showers are icy cold, not to mention piss-weak. Nothing works, and the only thing this hotel seems to supply in bulk are bullshit excuses and a blazing indifference.

Worst of all though, is the night manager. A rude and greedy vulture who tried to con me into using a taxi service all the way to Manali (750km), as there was 'no bus or train.' I knew this was bullshit straight away, but I wonder how many people the sleazebag has hoodwinked. The only questions he asked me were about money, and ranged from the price of my sunglasses to how much my flight to India was. Like the shifty snake he was, he was sizing me up before launching an attack on my finances. His plan failed though, and I was so repulsed by his lack of morals that I only paid half of what he demanded at checkout. I left the worst hotel in India with a smile on my face and laughing heavily, he could holler all he wanted, there was no way I was paying full price =)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Capital City (Lucknow)

As bad luck would have it, in the form of prolonged frustration at Allahabad Junction (train station) - I found myself bound for the city of Lucknow. For some foolish reason, I decided to tackle the train system alone and without the help of a travel agent. I arrived at the station early, primed and in attack mode. I waited in several different lines, for varying lengths of time, only to be told to wait in a different area at the end of each queue. The local soundtrack was grotesque, a never ending battle between hacks and splutters. Spitting is a serious sport here, with pools of red phlegm (betel induced) dotting the ground, forcing me to watch where I walk and remain balanced at all times.

The weather is hot, the room is crowded, the sounds are repulsive and my patience is waning. Fed up, and not wanting to fly off the handle, I opt to share my dismay with some of the staff members before finding the bus station. The bus system in India is far simpler, as you just ask the driver standing outside the bus where he's heading. That's it. If you like the sounds of it, jump on, if not - look elsewhere. I decide that as Lucknow is between Allahabad and Agra, I don't have to backtrack or detour on my way to see the Taj Mahal. Knowing only the geographical location of Lucknow, I set off and hope for the best.

Lucknow is the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with over 190 million people, it is on par with Brazil in terms of population but closer to the UK in terms of size. As you might expect, things get a little hectic. Like the majority of the state, the capital city is invariably clogged with not just vehicular traffic, but rickshaws, free-roaming livestock and people. Patience is more than just a virtue here, it's something you need wherever you go.

Lucknow sees few western faces, so expect the usual 'point and stare' that is common throughout India to increase ten-fold. It is not a particularly attractive city, and is rather spread out without a city centre to speak of. Impressive architecture can be found though without too much effort, as the city is dotted with impressive remnants of the Mughal empire. Their cuisine has stuck around too, with an abundance of kebab shops found in every corner of town.

The Residency, is famous in Indian history and home to the infamous 'Lucknow Siege.'  The siege took place for over six months, from May 1857 - November 1857 with 2,500 fatalities. What remains of the complex today is overgrown with lush greenery, and a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle that waits impatiently beyond the gates. It is famous for being a hideout in history, and little has changed 153 years later. It is particularly popular with young lovers hoping to escape prying eyes, as well as youngsters playing sport. Stick around long enough, and chances are you'll be asked to join in.

Also worth seeing while in town are the elaborate mausoleums of the Muslim holy men from the 18th century. Bara Imambara is home to the world's largest un-vaulted chamber at 50m long and 15m high. Immaculate gardens and reflection pools make up the foreground, while vendors can provide you with a printed guide at the gates. Hussainabad Imambara is an underdog of sorts, but houses a replica of the Taj Mahal. The graves of both mother and wife of the nawab, Hussainabad, are in the main mausoleum while the mini-taj contains the grave of his daughter.

Nightlife is limited to some truly seedy bars, the kind where cockroaches congregate, mosquitoes muster and grunge gathers - thickly. Glasses contain caked-in dirt, determined to stick around no matter how long the dirty rag perseveres. This might all sound bad, but the staff are beyond friendly and almost always dressed formally - the bow-tie seems almost mandatory!

It is unlike any capital city I've ever seen. Nothing looks planned and venturing down almost any street or alleyway guarantees a surprise. A little Hindi will work wonders, particularly in terms of transport, as few locals speak English. Don't be persuaded to visit any tailor's shop or cotton vendor against your will. Attempting to gain a commission, my rickshaw wallah tried to up-sell the shop by telling me 'there is no cover charge.' Where else but a nightclub can charge you before even buying their products? I wonder if that line ever worked on anyone else.

Things got ugly with this particular hustler. His disappointment was clear when I told him I wouldn't check out his 'Uncle's tailor shop,' so he decided to take me there anyway. Frustrated, I refused to leave the rickshaw and reminded him of my hotel's firm 12pm checkout time. He nodded his head in agreement, but as I remembered that head wobbling means yes, what would nodding mean? I found out, as he took me to yet another cotton vendor and by that point in time, I'd had enough. I called him a vulture in Hindi (Gid) and told him to 'piss off' in both languages.

Mini Taj Mahal
I'd had enough of this bullshit or 'white face parade,' that is alarmingly common on the subcontinent. Crossing a street can be difficult, as there is always someone who'll appear out of nowhere and try to take you on a detour. I nearly traded fists with this parasite, as I was boarding another cycle-rickshaw and he was grabbing at my bags and ankles. I kicked him firmly in the hand, and raised my fist to his face as a warning only. The locals who had surrounded me by this point were cheering me on, and offering to call the police on my behalf. I reason that this guy was only trying to make a living, and probably not worth spending time in an Indian jail cell over. He also reminded me that in India, as in everywhere, there is balance. While this guy may have been a scumbag thinking only green, I shouldn't forget the good and gracious people I meet along the way. Like the cycle-rickshaw wallah in Allahabad, with a severed foot and only one arm. He laughed off both disabilities, and charged me the local price - it just wasn't in his nature to rip people off.

I also feel that an assault charge will change a person, and not always for the best =P

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A day in the (village) life - Bhita

I begin my fourth day in Allahabad with a quick day-trip to an archaeological excavation site, about 25 kms out of town. I had envisioned myself as some sort of Indiana Jones type, digging in the dirt to reveal lost relics and hidden treasures from yesteryear. A hero among the locals and hot property for the associated press. After watching my taxi driver stop every other inch to ask for directions, I told myself I'd be content with just finding the place. Although it's only 25 kms from town, the cab journey here takes over 90 minutes. I'm happy the driver is not a speed demon though, as India has the worst road/traffic fatalities in the world. There only seems to be one rule, 'always use horn.' Mindless...

People say never to judge a place by first impressions, and if ever a point of interest needed that phrase - Bhita was it. We arrive to find a small paddock, with a few piles of bricks descending in size. From a rusty signpost, we learn that this small patch of grass once housed an ancient city from the Gupta period (300 AD), but that some of the other relics found at this site have dated back to 300 BC.

Photo courtesy of: nishitad. Source: flickr
To get a better view of these sad, decaying and uncared for ruins, I climb a small hill nearby and spot some local children engaged in a game of cricket. They soon abandon their game however, and flock to see my camera and catch a glimpse of what I'm recording - their now empty, makeshift cricket pitch.

They invite me to join their game, and hand me a weathered cricket bat. My first two swings are wayward, and the bowler is quick! I don't come close to making contact, yet I survive the onslaught. I manage to escape the whole game with my pride (and wicket) intact, awkwardly ducking under bouncers and utilizing the 'slog-sweep' whenever and wherever possible. After the game is over, a boy named Ramesh introduces himself and invites me back to his family's home for a cup of chai, and gallons of cold water.

It's hot outside, about 38 C (100F), but everyone except me is dressed in long pants. It's part of the culture I'm told, but something I could never subscribe to in such trying conditions. Logic always comes first for me. By the time we reach Ramesh's house, the taxi driver and I have a crowd of people following our every move. People young and old appear from the side streets and alleyways of this charming village, pointing and staring, they whistle onward to their friends and neighbours about my presence. The family's property also houses a temple dating back hundreds of years. It is devoted to Hanuman (monkey God) and towers over their house, much like a barn to a farmhouse.

The inside of the house is quite small, with all 8 members of the family sharing just one room. It is immaculately clean, though unmistakeably bare. There are several sleeping mats in the corner of the room, handmade furniture and an assortment of pots and pans. They rejoice though, at their recent addition of a fan. In this kind of weather, who can blame them? Amidst circulated air, I share their smiles and join them in looking upward in triumph every so often.

A bombardment of chai and sweets later, they ask me if I'd like anything else to eat. I'd have to be mad to pass up the opportunity for a home cooked Indian meal! The amount of food piled on my plate is something special, more than I could ever hope to eat in a full day. I munch on, valiantly, but succumb about halfway through - much to the disappointment of the boy's mother. Her look of anguish, and cries of disappointment that were anything but subtle, continue to haunt me. It seems strange to be the only one eating, especially since I'm in a crowded room, with more than thirty people spilling out of the doors and into the courtyard. These curious locals watch me take each bite, before discussing it thoroughly in Hindi. The 'bite' that gets the most thorough discussion though, is when I choke on a piece of dried mango. My madras-eye (conjunctivitis) is highlighted heavily by the spluttering, not to mention my bright red face.

I'm touched by their kindness, bowled over by their generosity and amused at their curiosity. There was no elaborate dance number (spare the 'mango breakdance'), no wide-eyed spectacle - just the simple act of eating curry and rice. Yet they treated the whole thing as some sort of bizarre incident, nobody even blinked!  No utensils were provided, but this is the norm in India and not something done simply to amplify the entertainment factor. The food was magnificent, whipped up in no time at all.

The staring continues long after the dishes disappear, and I take a few minutes of awkward silence as my cue to leave. My offer of rupees is denied vehemently, so I choose to hide a small bundle underneath one of the larger floor cushions. A difficult task around 30 or so goggle-eyed gawkers =P

On the way back to Allahabad, we stop by the side of the river so I can take some pictures of the impressive 'Yamuna Bridge,' on the outskirts of the holy city (see pic).While I cross the road, both negotiating and navigating my way through chickens, cows and cars, groups of street children appear on either side. As if they appeared out of thin air, but really from behind shrubs, they grab both my hands and tug at my clothes, clearly shocked to see a foreigner. They do all this amidst traffic that slows down for nobody, it's a death defying experience and the children shriek with joy as I make a break for it and run for the taxi.

You're never really alone in India. Everywhere you go, you seem to pull a crowd. It's good to have someone to talk to when you're in a restaurant, drunk at a bar or confused at a temple, but being followed into cyber cafes, just to be grinned at immensely, is something I can do without.