Monday, 16 May 2011

India (Part 2)

The Taj Mahal
I was back in the now much hotter but equally hectic New Delhi, hounded once again by its relentless rickshaw sharks and tourist touts.

The fast train to Agra, just three hours away and home of the Taj Mahal, was a good escape. Much has been said about the Taj and there is a huge amount of hype surrounding it, but it turns out it’s actually quite nice. In fact, it’s undeniably stunning. It’s another of those places that one sees in pictures all one’s life but is still awestruck upon experiencing it in the flesh. As you walk through the gate the crowds of people do nothing to distract you from its pristine white beauty, its dome nestled comfortably between the four spires. It teases you by forcing you to walk towards it just off centre, when you really want to trample across the gardens and splash through the fountains to keep in front of its perfect symmetry. Across the river you can lie all day in the gardens on the edge of the water, watching the mausoleum change colour slowly with the rising and setting sun and moon. As sunset approaches it is drenched in golden red, and even after dark its silhouette remains, as it has for hundreds of years.

The Taj Mahal. Again.
The architects really knew what they were up to. Apparently it’s “mathematically perfect”, which I think means it has equal sides. As is the case with most famous landmarks, it looks much better on the outside than on the inside, which is a bit dark and full of tourists taking underexposed photos. It was designed by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to his third wife, Arjumand Begum, who died giving birth to his 14th child – not bad considering he had only 16 in total. She was betrothed to him at the age of just 14 but they were married five years later when the astrologers thought it would be a good date. He then gave her the title Mumtaz Mahal, which means ‘beloved ornament of the palace’. I’m not sure that being called an ornament is a good thing but apparently he loved her more than bookends or doorknobs. I wonder what his other wives thought of this huge testimony, but I don’t think he cared: he was apparently so in love with Mumtaz for the entire 19 years of their marriage that he paid them little attention, apart from to produce the obligatory one child each.

The ghats of Varanasi along the Ganges
From Agra it was on by overnight train to Varanasi, renowned for being one of the most religious places in India. It stretches along the west bank of the Ganges river, the final destination for Hindu pilgrims across the world. The small lanes weave around temples, people jostling with cows, trying not to step on or over the burning piles of incense devoted to the gods. The air is thick with spice and your eyes are confronted by bright, mystical colours, with the yellow and orange of the devotees dominating the scene. It’s along the river banks, however, that the real magic takes place. Known as ghats, there are steps every few hundred yards leading from the street level down to the water. Each ghat has a name and each has a purpose. Some are boat landing points; some are places people congregate; beneath others boys play cricket, hitting their homemade balls into the water for six. But still others are used for religious ceremonies, the most well-known being the open-air cremations of the recently deceased. Women are no longer permitted to attend these events, as the wives of the dead men used to throw themselves in grief on to the flames. I’m glad I didn’t have to see that.

The colours of Varanasi.
As the red sun sets into the haze, the heat fails to subside: Varanasi is hot and humid. Another overnight train was in order, this time towards Darjeeling in the east. Overnight trains in India are not as bad as they might sound. The pictures we see of overcrowded carriages and people hanging out the sides are of local trains; the long-distance ones are strictly reservation only and, for the most part, air conditioned. It’s a pleasant experience to be rocked to sleep and to wake up to a fresh masala tea – though it’s advisable to bring earplugs: the chai wallahs walk the aisles all night selling their sweet, steaming tea, chanting “chai, chai, chai” as they do so. During the day, all manner of enterprising individuals find ways of making money. From book sellers carrying impossibly large piles of paperbacks under their chins to street kids sweeping under your feet, there are plenty of ways to get rid of your rupees.

In order to get to Darjeeling one must first arrive in New Jalpaiguri, a three or four hours’ drive from the hilltop town. Or so I thought. Together with some other travellers, we chartered a taxi to deliver us up the mountain. Although this is a route ploughed throughout the day, we somehow ended up with the one driver who didn’t know where we were going: this was obvious five minutes into the journey when he started asking for directions. After five hours it was obvious he was utterly lost. It was another two hours and midnight before we arrived in the misty dark of Darjeeling – all the lights go out at sunset and everyone goes to bed. We walked the streets knocking on the locked gates in the vain hope that someone might still be up. Eventually, after a particularly loud “hello”, a voice came out of the night, high above us. An hotelier had been expecting guests who hadn’t arrived – it was luck or fate that we were there to fill their places.

Overlooking Darjeeling.
During the day Darjeeling is a bustling town with a distinctly Nepali feel, with that laidback atmosphere possessed by mountain villages. Kids in blue uniforms wave as they run to school, old women sit quietly in their stalls amongst their vegetables. In the afternoon, the clouds roll in discreetly to cover the town with a damp mist. It has a cool air of calm about it, and the altitude is a welcome respite from the oppressive heat of the lowlands. Huge peaks beckon in the distance (when you can see them) and the Tibetan and Nepali food hints at waiting cultures.

I was not long before making the descent again and crossing another border, this time into Nepal.

Afterthought
There are many things difficult to deal with in India but above all is the problem of the poverty and associated begging that occurs in every city. Worst of all are the deformities one sees in the limbs of many of the beggars: these are often the result of breakages carried out by the parents when the child is still young, in the knowledge that he or she will earn more money begging. It’s not that I don’t feel pity, or guilt that it doesn’t happen in my country (as much); quite the opposite. But it’s a problem that most people end up trying to ignore whilst visiting India, simply absorbing it into the rich tapestry of life here, because otherwise it’ll drive you insane. However, people shouldn’t ignore it: they should think consciously that every time they give money to a child, they are encouraging that child to stay on the streets. It works actively against the aims of aid organisations who toil every day to offer these children an alternative; giving the child a handout undoes all that in one fell swoop.

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