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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Khajuraho to Calcutta (AKA Kolkata)

INDIA | Saturday, 27 November 2010 | Views [3360] | Comments [1]

Friday 19th November - Last day in Khajuraho and catch a train to Varanasi tonight. Train 1107A departing at 23:00, arriving at 10:50am (Rs546 class 3A). Lots of time to fill. We had a nice reakfast in the roof of the Harmony hotel. They are improving it at the oment with some iron railings, and it is very brightly painted. A cheery start to the day. Last time I was in Khajuraho I stayed at the Zen garden hotel. It is still much the same, but its menu prices seemed to have noticeably risen.

As part of a celebration the temples are all free entry today. Slightly annoying for anyone who arrived yesterday and paid to go in! We went in again and tood advantage of the space away from the touts to relax for a bit.

Found wi-fi available at the Paradise restaurant facing the lake. The only one in town I reckon. Good food and friendly staff.

The return to the Philippines has now been booked. From Kolkata via Bangkok for early December, so will be back there on 3rd December. Not sure what will be happening when we get there as this has been a radical change of plan again. There is also a possible issue over my 'Balikbayan' visa which I will not be able to solve until arriving in Bangkok.

The day dragged so much as there was nothing much to. I am reading a classic novel '1984' by George Orson which is doing my head in. I had planned for a long time to read it. Now that I am, it is a struggle. Not sure if I will be able to finish it before throwing it in the bin. Maybe it is one of those classics that is an acquired taste?

I need some fun soon. Lately it has been a drain. Travel struggles plus other stuff which has made this phase of travel in India very tiring, hence why we are leaving long before the original plan to stay until mid January. We had originally planned to go the Maldives after India. Then it changed to Africa. Then it was going to be a return to Malaysia. Now that has been scrapped and we are going back to the Philippines. All this change has become unsettling and my head is a mess as a result. I also have to resolve my credit card, as it runs out tomorrow and I need to have an address to have the replacement delivered to, which is currently at my mother's house in the UK. So, as of tomorrow, I can buy nothing that requires a credit card or on-line purchase, hence having to get flights sorted out today before it expires. A pain in the ass really.

We decided to head to the train station early, costing Rs80 for the rickshaw. Train 1107A pulled on to the platform at 9:30pm, but we couldn't get on until shortly after 10pm, until they had prepared it. It must be the cleanest train I have ever been on in India. Totally spotless and almost empty.

So we say goodbye to another place and arrive tomorrow morning in another one of India's crazy cities. Take a deep breath and here we go....

Saturday 19th November - We arrived in Varanasi (Aka Banares) at about 1:15pm. Over 2h10min later than scheduled. They have a pre-paid richshaw booth outside of the terminal. Rs5 booking fee plus charge of Rs70 to the popular and nearer Ghats. On the way we learnt that tomorrow is a festival 'Dev Deepawali' that we didn't know about. Consequently everywhere was crazier than normal, and accommodation more difficult. We ended up at the Hotel Sonmony at the Harishchandra ghat, which is just on the southern side of the old town. Rs500 for a basic box room and a shower that doesn't work. Nothing to celebrate, but enough.

After dinner in their roof restaurant where we could watch one of the ceremonial cremations taking place, we headed out for a walk. Today was actually the beginning of the festival and a stage area on the main ghat area had a show in the evening. Beginning almost coincident with the evening pooja at about 5:30pm, there was a mixture of entertainment of classical singing, dancing and presentations to local folks. It was being televised also. One of the male singers seemed familiar, and he certainly had the respect of the crowd. His style was nice to listen to, albeit a bit repetitive to the western ear.

The scene at the ghats its one of those overpowering experiences. So much going on in every direction. Worshippers enthralled in their pooja activities. Masses of tourists on a flotilla of boats watching from the Ganges. Crowds of observers filling the steps of the ghats as the lengthy, colourful and brightly illuminated pooja ritual carries through to its finale.

Considering that tomorrow is the main festival, it will be interesting to see how it exceeds the normal performance. Apparently it supposed to illuminate the ghats with 5001 lights. On the way back to the hotel even though it was 10pm, there were still cremations taking place. The process as I understand it is this....

The family bring the deceased to the ghat on a bamboo stretcher. They come from long distances sometimes as this is the most sacred place in the whole of India for Hindus. They cover the body with a coloured blanket/cloth and usually flower garlands. The body is immersed in the holy water of the Ganges and left to dry for upto an hour. The Doms or untouchables prepare the funeral pyre. Depending on how much the family are to spend, the amount of wood equivalent in weight to that of the body will be purchased. Banyan tree being cheaper than Sandalwood, which is the most expensive. If a cheaper wood is chosen then sometimes sandalwood dust is also sprinkled onto the pyre. The body is placed on the pyre and a final layer of wood placed on top after a ceremony has taken place. An elder of the family or group is chosen to bring the flame to the pyre from the 'Eternal flame', which is kept close to the ghat and never allowed to go out. He must circle the pyre five times anti-clockwise, symbolising the elements of Ether, Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, before then lighting the whole pyre. The body will burn for many hours before completely turning to ash, but after about 2 hours the head is broken to release the spirit. Apparently, it is common for a bone to remain after the cremation, which is then cast into the Ganges. A higher level platform is available for the cremation of someone from a higher caste.

There are five people who cannot be cremated here...A Saddhu, Child, Diseased person (such as Leprosy), Brahmin or someone with a snake bite. A cow can never be cremated. They must be left to die (never killed or put out of their pain prematurely), and their body thrown in to the river.

They have built a new double chimney incinerator in front of the hotel on the ghat. This is for use by people either in a hurry, or in poor weather when it might be too wet for a riverside cremation. This type of cremation costs about 500 rupees, whereas a normal one might be between 3000 to 4000 depending on the amount of wood used and other costs, such as the Brahmin's fees. They have to provide options to the family depending on how much they can afford.

Sunday 21st November - A day spent wandering the streets, mainly around the old town and burning ghats. Cinemascope in full Technicolour with spacial effect surround sound in full polyphonic spectrum.... In other words...a full on assault on your senses from every direction! Varanasi is India on overload. Thousands of people, ranging from poor to extremely poor seem to crowd every square inch. In between them plough the motorbikes, rickshaws and bicycles. Making it impossible to move at any great speed in any direction without fear for your life. Snake charmers were in abundance. Taking advantage of your slow pace are the every abundant touts trying to offer anything from a boat ride, a look in their shop, or generally some pleasant sound of friendship. Which actually means.. Come and look in my shop!

The sight of hundreds of beggars in one place, sleeping amongst the most disgusting filth and covered in dirt, is frankly revolting. The smells come thick and fast, and we are lucky to be able to escape. On the path between one ghat and another, a beautiful stone building, many hundreds of years old, reeks with the smell and festering stains of human urine. Even worse, are the 'deposits' left at the base of the wall. Without thought to its implications or whether it is acting like the animals that pass, so called human beings just squat and excrete or urinate almost anywhere. Words fail to convey how horrid a sight that is. And their children watch and learn and do the same. What does the future hold with behaviour like that?

India is an incredible country despite how filthy it is. The problem is, how does it progress from here when the majority of its occupants think that behaviour as described above is acceptable. The ridiculous amount of rubbish around is a factor to. It isn't easy to fix of course, as you need to dispose of waste, and they have no real way of doing that. Too big a problem and too costly to fix, and even harder to maintain. So I doubt it will ever change.

In the evening the activities got started around 5:30pm with thousands of oil lamps being lit on the ghat steps. Many in fancy designs. At the same time, massive stacks of speakers blurted out at eardrum piercing volume, a bollywoodesque soundtrack. There were still cremations taking place in the burning ghat areas, so it created a surreal image...Cremating bodies, surrounded by lamps, backed by Bollywood, and with fireworks going off overhead...where else would you get that? Now if that isn't enough. We were watching this scene, and a guy appeared and removed a couple of burning logs from one of the burial pyres and carried them off to his wife waiting up the steps. Nothing immediately unusual you might think. They were cooking there dinner with the wood from the pyre...covered in dead persons ashes! India... Incredible isn't it!

Thousands of people, dressed for the occasion, were sandwiched in to the main ghat areas. We couldn't get through and had to give up trying to get a close up. It didn't matter as we got the idea. Shiera had dressed up in white saree again, so attracted a lot of attention. No sane woman would wear white in this place. And she isn't Indian, so they were fascinated with her. She likes the attention.

Monday 22nd November - A late night last night. The music played until late and the area was generally noisy. Cremations were still happening through until midnight, which was surprising.

We had breakfast at the chilled Lotus café facing the ghats. A trio of Japanese girls were doing strange things with eye glasses shaped like cookies. The video was to be posted on youtube. Apparently a theme they have with their travels around the world. The Japanese do have some strange habits, but there are some weird travellers around from all countries. I met someone once who photographed her teddybear everywhere she went. A guy wore a particular hat in every location. Odd really, but why not indeed.

Down at the ghats there were many weddings today. We watched one of them for a while. Arranged I guess, and different from others I have seen. The groom had a coloured garland hanging over his face and what looked like a gag in his mouth. His hands were dyed yellow and his feet red inside his pointed alibaba shoes. The bride seemed very depressed. Very young and possibly scared. Weddings in this setting are very public and chaotic. A raised wooden platform is used for the actual ceremony. Following yesterday's crazy atmosphere, today seemed very subdued, guessing that many people have now gone home or moved on elsewhere.

We spent the evening at the Lotus café chatting to a lady from Germany about the Indian culture and life in general. It is always one of those fascinating pastimes of travellers to talk about opinions on everything from religion, to clothing styles, to the meaning of life etc. On our way back to the hotel we paused as usual at the Harishchandra ghat in front of the hotel to see more cremations. These were a bit more graphic than some others we had seen. Arms and legs still burning were poking out of the flames and I think it was a bit too graphic for Shiera to take.

Tuesday 23rd November - After checkout at 10am we had the day to spend before departing at 5pm for the train station. Breakfast at the Alka Hotel's restaurant overlooking the Ganges. Some shopping for bargain clothes and then aimed for the Golden Temple. Unfortunately, non-Hindus cannot enter and so it was a waste lof time really. I managed to poke my head around one of the doors and caught a small glimpse, but that was all.

Lunch at the superb Brown Bread Bakery near to the Golden Temple. Their menu is the most extensive in Varanasi, from Thai, Chinese, Indian to tibetan food plus lots of goodies from around the world as well of some nice cheeses, some coming from Auroville near to Pondicherry. We headed to Varanasi Junction train station early as the traffic is a bit nuts ans took about 30 minutes to get there.

Train 3050 Amritsar to Howrah Express arrived at 19:50, only half an hour late, which was good. And departed 15 minutes later. It is going to be a long journey, arriving at Kolkata's Howrah station about 4pm tomorrow....or so we expected. Bedding sorted and crawled into our sleepers whilst the train rolled gently out into the night. A guy left the train at about 2am or so and switched on the lights to get his luggage, waking up everyone around. Later on another guy took a call on his cellphone and obviously wanted to share it with the whole train his vice was that loud. Starting at about 7am or so, the intermittent song of 'chai chai coffee coffee chai' at each station flowed through the carriage. Counting the hours away is like soeone keeping on moving the goal posts. The original 4pm became 8pm as our new expected arrival time in kolkata. By 5:30pm it was dark outside and the reality that we had been travelling since leaving our hotel in Varanasi for 24 hours now, and still some time to go. We did manage to get some food on the train to supplement what we had brought. Some belpuri, some chicken biryani with only a vague hint of chicken, and best of all some hard boiled eggs with salt to dip in. At least that was protein at 5 rupees each.

Have managed to get through quite a bit of the 1984 book now. It was funny to find that some of the pages were blank. This dodgy copy, and obviously why it was sold cheap, had many blank pages hidden in the volume. The funny thing was that I didn't lose the plot at all without them. Some books are like that. You can miss loads and it doesn't matter.

Arriving at Howrah station wasn't as bad as I expected. Some porters boarded the train before it stopped. But it was easy to stop them being annoying. The pre-paid taxi booth is right outside and it only cost Rs65 to get a famous yellow cab to the Chowringhee area Sudder street. Within a short distance of enetering the street the touts appeared trying to promote their place or someone else's in an attempt to get commission. With some they got a bit annoying and would not stop following dispite attempts to fend them off. We didn't get the place we wanted at the Galaxy Hotel but will try again tomorrow. Booked into the Delite Hotel for Rs600. Promise of Hot shower but didn't happen, fan and TV. At about 1am a group arrived and for a ages were arguing with the reception who wanted them to accept a room and hand over their money without actually seeing the room. On and on it went. Considering the room is only a few metres from reception, it took him ages to see the room and then it went quiet. I guess they left. We had seen the same room and it was filthy. Paint peeling off the walls and what looked like fungus. And he wanted them to pay 700 for it. No wonder they left. But anyway, it broke the night's sleep. Ther noises throughout the night caused disturbance. We have until December 2nd in Kolkata, so have to move somewhere else quieter.

Thursday 25th Nov - We secured a room at the Galaxy hotel and then had breakfast at the Blue Sky café on Sudder street. The immediate area is really nice and it will be a pleasure to spend a while here. More on Calcutta in the next journal....

 

Comments

1

I would really like to return to India next year (2014) for another long session. Each time I go is about 5 months but seems to be cut short for some unpredictable reason. On my next trip I would like to concentrate on some cooking courses and also some music study as I bought a Sitar on the last trip but only managed to take 1 lesson in Rishikesh. Would be an exciting trip.

  jeff bradshaw Apr 10, 2013 8:57 PM

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