Ripples Following Ripples ~ THE SUBCONTINENT

On October 26th, I flew from Malaysia to Kathmandu, where I contacted my old porter, Subha, with the idea of him going with me to India, as a translator and to help with my baggage; he agreed to this, but first, I had him accompany me on some treks around the valley, and even walked most of the way Daman and down the other side to Hetauda, in order to get fit for the longer trip. During this time, I came to see that his Hindi was very limited; he wouldn’t be of much use as a translator after all. I then sent him home to his village while I got my visa for India.

In the meantime, I met someone whose English ~ and Hindi ~ was better than Subha’s, and asked if he’d like to go with me. He readily agreed, as he had only a part-time job in a restaurant, for which he was paid virtually nothing. His name was Dawa, but I later called him Jack, as in Jackdaw. He said he’d spent over ten years in school in India, and assured me that I would not regret employing him, as he was honest and trustworthy. I had then the unpleasant task of telling Subha that I’d changed my mind, and when he came, I broke it to him, but, needless to say, he was disappointed. I gave him some money instead.

After the usual ridiculous procedure of applying for the Indian visa, my passport was endorsed for a double-entry, 6-months’ stay, and we left Kathmandu for Pokhara. In my eagerness to be started, I overlooked what soon became clear in Jack: that he was not as honest and trustworthy as he’d claimed to be ~ and in fact, was just the opposite. I would ~ and should ~ have dis-missed him early, but I’d already paid him a month in advance, as he’d begged me to do this in order to help his cousin pay the rent on the room they shared. He’d also asked me to pay him at the end of the trip, clever fellow, which meant me paying for all his needs, apart from food and transport. In retrospect, I should have cut my losses and gone on alone, because apart from carrying one of my bags, he was a distinct liability.

Maybe I should mention that days of traveling light are a thing of ancient history; I seem to need so much now ~ especially in the way of medication ~ that I never needed before. I also carry stuff that I think might be useful, and often is.

I intended to retrace my footsteps and visit places I’d been be-fore, and also go to places I’d not been. I know India much better than I know England, and could even be a guide there. I’d told him we’d be walking a lot, but despite the claim that he was a trekking-guide, he really wasn’t a walker at all. I reminded him, numerous times, how I’d urged Subha to walk with me instead of behind, but it had no effect. I thought he’d be interested in the sights I had to show him, but a sack of rice would have cared as much. He slept most of the time in buses and trains.

He requested me, many times, to help him with his English, and I willingly agreed to, as we had plenty of time, but when I set him simple exercises on things I’d explained to him, he refused to do them, saying he couldn’t. Of course, my efforts to help him in this area didn’t last long; I felt I was dealing with a donkey.

In India, we went first to Lucknow, where he complained of sick-ness, so I took him to a hospital for a blood-test, which showed he had mild jaundice. I left him in the hotel to rest, and got him food and medicine, but later discovered that he’d stopped taking it when he felt better. I was careful to keep his eating utensils and mine separate.

We proceeded from Lucknow to Allahabad, to visit Mughal tombs and Raj-era buildings. Then, while boarding a crowded train, Jack’s wallet was ~ almost predictably ~ lifted from his back pocket. There was nothing to be done; he just had to accept it.

On we went to Khajuraho, where I’d never been before; I decided not to miss it this time. It is famous, world-wide, for its tantric-temples carved with figures in erotic postures depicting the teach-ings of the Kama Sutra, a Hindu treatise on sex. Because of the explicit detail, they are known as ‘the Love-temples’, some of which are over 1000 years old, and their art is marvelous. Of course, Khajuraho is a major tourist-spot, and there are hotels to suit every pocket. I chose a cheapie, paying just Rs60.

Further west, we spent several days in Orchha, a small place that had centuries before been a mighty city; there were fortifications, temples and tombs in abundance to remind one of its former glory. Its water-source, a placid and unpolluted river ~ something rare in India ~ ran nearby, and I found it conducive to meditation. Hotels here were very cheap; I got a room for Rs100.

Because he very much wanted to see the Taj Mahal, I took him to Agra, but gave up showing him around other places there as his interest was of brief duration. I gave him money to go to the Taj ~ Rs20 ~ but saved $20 by not going in myself; I had been several times before when the entrance-fee was much lower and the lines of people waiting to go in not so long.

We boarded an overnight train to Hyderabad, and reaching there, we found it hard to find a hotel-room as it was New Year’s Eve, and I had to settle for one at double what I usually paid. This far south, it was already very warm. We stopped only long enough for a quick look around. I particularly wanted to see the old British Residency, built at the beginning of the 19th century in palatial style, and paid for ~ probably under thinly-veiled pressure ~ by the immensely-wealthy ruler of Hyderabad, known as the Nizam. It is now used as a women’s college, but is grossly neglected and rapidly falling into ruin. Unable to find anyone to unlock the front door and let me in, I wandered around and found the back-door open, and went in, to be confronted by a splendid double stair-case, mounting which, I was able to see the upper rooms and view the great hall from above. Everywhere was a thick layer of dust and pigeon-droppings. No-one challenged me or asked to see the ticket that I didn’t have. I felt sad that such a magnificent building should be so uncared for.

In the middle of a man-made lake stands an 18-meter-tall mono-lithic Buddha-image of recent sculpting. Size took precedence over beauty in it, however. And, while getting it into position, it fell into the lake and remained there for several years until a way was devised to salvage and erect it on its pedestal.

We got an overnight train to Madras, which was even hotter. It used not to be so hot at this time of year, but then, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything like this these days.

Jack had never seen the ocean before, and his inability to under-stand was amusing. I told him that Thailand was on the other side from where we were standing, but because he couldn’t see any land, he found it hard to imagine; the largest body of water he had seen until then was Lake Manasarova in Tibet. He had me take photos of him with the camera someone had given him; he always had to be in his photos, and if there was no-one to take them for him, he wouldn’t take any, no matter what was to be seen. He was also in love with mirrors, vainly preening himself.

Madras had never been a place I liked; in spite of its wide roads, it is hot, humid, dirty and smelly. I went to an overgrown British cemetery, the graves thereof are used by locals as perches to let their feces go. Have I not said that India is one big open toilet?

From Madras, we went next to Rameshwaram, a place of some significance to me, as one of the turning-points in my life took place there. I went into the temple to meditate beside one of the bathing-pools, and take photos of the mandalas on the corridor-ceilings; but nothing is free, and I emerged to find my sandals gone. I had to walk barefoot back to the hotel to get my spare pair. From then on, whenever I went to a temple or mosque, I would put my sandals in a plastic-bag and carry them with me. If only I’d been more cautious with other things.

Having made contact with my old Austrian friend, Erwin, the year before (after losing touch with him since ’77), we exchanged emails, and since he and his wife also intended to make a trip to India, we planned to meet. When the time and opportunity came, however, neither of us, it seemed, was prepared to go out of the way for the other; perhaps we’d changed too much in the inter-vening years, and were afraid of what we might find. We didn’t meet, and the communication lapsed yet again.

Rameshwaram was our furthest-south point, from where we went to Madurai, to see its stupendous temples; we stayed only one night there before going on to a hill-station named Kodaicanal that had been established by American missionaries in the 19th century. The road up was long and steep, climbing through thickly-wooded hills, and I wondered how they’d decided upon this place to establish their settlement. Again, we spent just one night there, then descended to Coimbatore, ready to catch a toy-train the next day to Ooty (the most-favorite hill-station of the Brits in the south during their Raj; its complete name is Udagamandalam). The engine of the train ~ at the rear, in order to push ~ belched thick black smoke as it chugged and puffed its way up-hill; it was over 100 years old, while the carriages had been con-structed in 1931; no need to say that they were not the most-comfortable seats I’d sat on, but then, we were along for the ex-perience, and I marveled at the feat of engineering needed to push this line up through jungle and over ravines.

The Brits came here to unwind, trudging up by bullock-cart before the train-line was laid. What a relief it must have been for them to escape the heat of the plains! For me, it was just a brief stop-over on the way to somewhere else, and I had not the feeling here that I’d had in hill-stations of the north, where there was a distinct melancholic atmosphere of old ghosts. We stayed here only one night, too, and then descended by bus (there’s no train down the other side), to Mysore.

I‘d been to Mysore only once before, in 1970, and remembered little about it. It is now much more crowded and congested, of course, but nicer, in some ways, than most other Indian cities. There is so much to see in and around the city. It is from here that you can visit Somnathpur, an intricately-carved temple built 750 years ago. Although small as Indian temples go, the wealth of detail is simply staggering; the type of stone used allowed the artists to carve it like butter. This was the high-water mark of the Hoysala dynasty that flourished in this region for several centuries. Similar temples lie further to the north, the most-famous of which are found at Halebid and Belur.

In the vicinity, too, is Sravanabelagola, a pilgrimage-site of Jains, where stands an image of one of their saints, almost 18 meters tall, and shown naked to demonstrate detachment from worldly things. I did not go there.

Apart from the maharaja’s extensive city-palace, which is open to the public, and other places, I found the old British residency of great interest, because unlike the one in Hyderabad, this is well-maintained and even used at times by VIPs. I was shown around by a polite old caretaker, and noticed on a wall a photo showing some Buddhist caves at a place called Melkote, not far away. I resolved to go there, but first, went to visit Srirangapatnam, a heavily-fortified town that had been the capital of a Muslim ruler of Mysore state named Tipu Sultan at the end of the 18th century. Far-sighted, he realized what the British in India had in mind, and opposed their encroachments; of course, he was demonized by them, although by other accounts he was quite a benevolent ruler, and treated his non-Muslim subjects fairly. Allying himself with the French ~ who were also there, with similar colonial aims ~ he defeated British armies several times, but was finally over-thrown in 1799, and the British grabbed Mysore. Tipu’s beautiful summer-palace is well-preserved but only the ground-floor is open to the public; I’d seen the upper portion in 1970.

Next day, I made my way out to Melkote with Jack, but only to find that there were no caves on the rocky outcrop; maybe I’d read the words on the photo wrongly. Even so, I enjoyed it there, but loss was near. While meditating on the steps of a temple-tank, I put my camera down beside me, and then forgot it, only to remember it two minutes later, and rush back, but it was too late, and it had gone. What to do? I wasn’t happy about it, of course, as it contained all the photos of my trip in Nepal and India so far, but I accepted it and let it go.

Another day, we went to the Tibetan monasteries to the west ~ Sera-Je and Namdroling ~ huge and beautiful places in traditional style, lodging thousands of monks and nuns. They had been built from scratch by refugees granted land by the Indian government in the ‘60’s; being mountain-people, they must have found the hot climate very trying, but with hard work and determination, they succeeded to a remarkable degree. Many good things came from the Chinese take-over of Tibet, and not just pain and sorrow.

Leaving Mysore, we went to Halebid and Belur, mentioned above. More tourists visit these amazing temples than Somnath-pur. I’d visited Halebid in 1970, but missed Belur at that time.

Passing on, we got a bus to a place called Hospet, but the road was bad and the bus slow. At one point, I stood up to give a woman my seat (in India, it is rare to see anyone do this), but 40 minutes later, I got another. An hour out of Hospet there was a traffic-jam, with one-way traffic for almost an hour; it was hot sitting there. At Hospet, hordes of people were waiting to get on the bus, and we had to force our way out. We got another bus to our destination of that day: Hampi, the capital of a Hindu dynasty some centuries ago; the ruins of which are spread over a vast area among huge granite boulders; there was no shortage of building material here. I’d come here mainly to sit beside the river and meditate, as I’d done during a visit in 1987. In the meantime, a sizeable village had sprung up to cater to the influx of tourists, and had I known it would be like this ~ a hippie-place ~ I wouldn’t have come again. Getting a room in a cheapie, I discovered I’d lost my padlock ~ must have left it at Belur ~ and was more upset about this than the loss of my camera! I always carry my own lock in India, to use on the hasps on most hotel-rooms; that way, no-one can enter your room when you’re out.

I spent some time ~ as intended ~ sitting beside the lovely river, and even crossed it by coracle ~ another first; never been in such a boat before. On the way back, I went into a cyber-café, and while doing my mail, an old English guy two chairs away from me started to smoke, so I eventually asked him not to. He argued that there were ash-trays, and the owner, who was standing by, said some people liked to smoke. I said I didn’t, and it’s the law now. As I went out, I told the owner he should have signs up so everyone could see. Later, I met the English guy on the street, and he apologized to me, saying he realized he should have thought about others. I told him I had to say it as I tell Indians about it, and if I tell only Indians but not others, it would mean I am racist. We shook hands.

By this time, Jack had become uncommunicative, and resisted my scolding about this, saying he didn’t know what to say; some days he would speak no more than 100 words to me. I gave up expecting much of him, and looked forward to parting company with him. If I could have put him on a direct train to Gorakhpur, I would have done, but there was none, and he was so afraid of going alone that I dared not send him on a journey that required changing trains; I felt that much responsibility towards him, at least. I began to give him advances on his pay, even though he didn’t want it, preferring to let me pay for everything. I told him he needed money to buy whatever he needed beyond his food and transport; I should have done this from the start, as he only took advantage of me.

Moving north, stage by stage, we stopped briefly at other places in Karnataka ~ Badami, Bijapur and Bidar ~ places of Muslim kingdoms in the past, with extensive fortifications. Then on to Maharashtra, which is perhaps my favorite state of India because of the numerous Buddhist caves there. Using Aurangabad as a hub, I went out several times to Ellora, leaving Jack to his own devices, as he was clearly not interested, and I wanted to be on my own anyway. There, I sat beside the rock-pools of a stream that runs at one side of the caves, a tranquil spot that captured my heart years before. Although there are hordes of tourists at the caves themselves, few of them come here, and the smaller caves beside the stream here are sometimes used by sadhus.

After a few days in Aurangabad, we went to Ajanta, three hours away in the other direction. Since my last visit there, things had changed, and the stalls selling crystals and trinkets had been re-located from near the caves to a place near the road-junction. Many people remembered me, and I them, but I soon learned of the demise of Mahmoud, someone who’d befriended me before. His younger brother, Sharif, took me to visit his widow and chil-dren to extend my condolences, and as I was leaving, I gave him some money for her, but the way he quickly pocketed it made me think that she would never see it.

Stocking up on ‘thunder-eggs’, as I usually did whenever I was there ~ and getting cheated by some of the stall-holders in the process ~ we returned to Aurangabad to send most of them off by post to Malaysia, to await my return. I also bought a cheap Kodak at Ajanta, to replace my lost camera; it took quite good pictures even so.

It was the beginning of February, and unseasonably hot, and whereas in the north, people had been dying of cold in January, the sudden heat-wave also took its toll; it lasted about two weeks before the temperature dropped considerably. February used to be a pleasant month, cold enough at night for the use of blankets, but just right in the daytime. Not any more!

My account of our journey on from Maharashtra I will condense by saying that I revisited a number of places and went to others I’d never been before: Surat (centre of India’s diamond-industry), Ahmedabad (former capital of Gujerat state), Junagadh (the Mus-lim maharaja of which had a passion for dogs, some of which he bedraped with jewels, and even held weddings for them, until, at the time of Partition in 1947, he chose Pakistan over India; what became of his dogs, I didn’t learn!), Diu (a former Portuguese en-clave), Mount Abu, with its salubrious climate and exquisitely-carved marble Jain temples (and where a dog suddenly ran up behind me and bit me on the leg, necessitating five anti-rabies shots spread over several weeks; better to be on the safe side), Udaipur (famous for its lake-palace), Chitoorgarh (with its im-mense and almost impregnable fort, where, unable to withstand the protracted siege of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, the Rajput warriors rode forth to be cut down, while their women and chil-dren ~ 13,000 of them ~ threw themselves into a pyre rather than face capture and dishonor), Bundi (where, upset by his denuncia-tions of the Hindu gods and his attempts to convert them, people had hung an effigy of an American missionary in an archway; he’d wisely fled their wrath), Kota (where I was invited to join a wedding-feast in a courtyard of the old palace), Ajmer (renowned for its Sufi shrine), Pushkar (a major Hindu holy-town centered around a lake; I sat in meditation in the only temple to Brahma in the world here), and Alwar, dominated by the fort crowning the hills above the town.

I’d had more than enough of Jack and his surliness by then, so, being only a few hours from Delhi, went to the capital, and finally got what I had looked all over India for: a baggage-trolley. If I’d had this from the start, I wouldn’t have needed Jack’s help, but could have managed on my own. I then got tickets for Gorakhpur, but didn’t tell him until almost time to leave, that I’d be on the same train. We reached there after an overnight journey, and caught a bus to the border, where I paid him off, although he really hadn’t earned what I gave him. He was surprised that I de-ducted what I’d advanced to him ~ a sum of $50 ~ and thought I’d been giving it to him, as I did at first; but even so, he showed no gratitude. He got a direct bus to Kathmandu, and I, relieved of my burden, went to Pokhara. I never saw him again. Hoorah! It was March 1st.

After unwinding for a few days in Pokhara, I went to Kathmandu, running the usual gauntlet of frequent police and army check-points, with the consequent delays. But there, I decided to return to India for more penance, for such I’d come to regard my fatal-attraction to that strange land. It is a country where our Western standards of efficiency, hygiene, manners, punctuality and so on, must be suspended if we are to retain even a tenuous hold on our sanity. Every time I’ve been there I said to myself, “Never again will I come back to this hell”, but it’s not long before my thoughts return to it.

At the border, I met two Koreans who were also going to India, and although ~ like me ~ they were wearing ordinary clothes, I had a feeling that they were monks, too, and when I encountered them again on the train from Gorakhpur to Delhi, I asked them, and they confirmed my feelings. I wasn’t the only one to travel this way, feeling it less of a hassle to do so. I bumped into them several times again in Delhi, where they spent quite a while. Their English was almost non-existent, however, so we were unable to talk much; they didn’t respond to the emails I sent them, so I gave up trying.

Upon returning to India, I’d not, as yet, decided to go to Pakistan, much as I’d wanted to go since my last trip in 1998. I was in two minds about it, feeling that the situation there since 9/11 would be much more risky for Westerners than before. As I went to other places in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, however, the idea grew stronger, until I returned to Delhi to apply for a visa. Before doing this, however, I tried to get my Indian visa endorsed for another re-entry, as the visa was valid until June, but I’d already used the re-entry on it. Well, after waiting four hours in a crowded office of the Ministry of Home Affairs, I finally heard my name called, only to be told that the officer I must see was absent, and that I should come back the next day, something I was not prepared to do. The babu (derogatory term for a bureaucrat) who saw me asked why I wanted to go to Pakistan anyway; I answered, “Why not? There’s no law against it, is there?” (With mind-sets such as his, is there any hope of rapprochement between India and Pakistan?) With-out a re-entry visa, I would need to get a completely new Indian visa in Pakistan; there was no other way.

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