The day I met the Buddha, and killed him

Delhi. Many people say they have “done” Delhi, but in all honesty they haven’t. They have perhaps done the tourist parts of New Delhi, or maybe spent some time in an Ashram there – which amounts to the same thing: a tourist experience. Delhi is so large to be beyond being “done” should you spend a lifetime there.

For one thing there are 16 million people living in Delhi and 249 thousand in New Delhi (the capital of the capital). This makes Delhi the 8th largest metropolis in the world (we will visit the largest towards the end of these journals), and once something gets that big you know that no two stories of visiting it will be the same. Each will be a “slice of life”, a “moment in time” and a “vision” of the city. Also, like other gigantic cities, it is more than possible to leave with a very un-favourable impression. Walk down the wrong street or pass by the wrong district in any major city and you may not come out the other side alive, but perhaps in Delhi of all these places are you risking coming out a different colour.

That is because coming here during the Hindu festival of Holi, white and vulnerable, must make you a serious paint target as if you are running the gauntlet of 16 million amateur Jackson Pollacks’. That’s what first went through my mind when we arrived on the train, our last train journey in India.

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Shimla mountains and a happy meeting

Breaking out of the Backpacker Bubble in India

Jaipur, the Kalka–Shimla Railway and onto Shimla

I sat on the balcony and considered the view. The remote 7800ft high mountain town of Shimla flowed over the hills in front of our […]

Jodhpur

Cesca left me snoozing in our room and went out to the roof top café/restaurant to take some photos of the city.

The city is blue, blue of the Brahmin caste we were told, but I can’t help wondering if there is another reason for its popular -nay ubiquitous-shade. I heard one rumour that it was due to the blue paint putting off the mosquitos. However, I am more inclined to believe it is to challenge the other brightly-coloured-city it is most often confused with (Jaipur, which is bright pink!) I leaned back on the bed and spied out of the window at the huge cliff-wall behind the hotel, and then up, up and eventually to the turrets of the Mehrangarh Fort high above.

It towered over the entire city of a million people, ever watching like a sleeping dragon turned to stone by some mighty magic, frozen with one eye open and brooding over its faded dominance.

The city’s name? Where else but Jodhpur: the blue city of India set amongst the stark landscape of the Thar Desert.

 

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Udaipur

Udaipur is famous for many reasons. To those in the west it is mostly known for its gleaming white Jag Niwas hotel found in the middle of one of its many lakes. To the Indians themselves is it known as a home of the great Maharana family. To the travellers, who could never afford a night in such a famous hotel and are relegated to simply looking at it, Udaipur is mainly known for a very special ceremony involving unmarried women and coloured hats.

Udaipur was the first stop for us into Rajasthan. We had heard so much about this part of India and were looking forwards to our visit with relish. The historic capital of the former kingdom of Mewar in Rajputana Agency, Udaipur’s fierce independence had successfully led it into the modern world almost untouched. This is in part due to its mountainous region being unsuitable for heavily armoured Mughal horses; Udaipur remained unmolested from Mughal influence in spite of much pressure.

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Agra and the Taj Mahal

Ask a hundred people where in the world they would like to visit most of all and a significant percentage of them will say Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Indeed there are tours (and we met a few people on such) that fly into Delhi, drive to Agra for a day and then drive back to fly out. That these people can claim to have experienced India is to some laughable.

But then they are probably not trying to, instead they are after a unique chance of visiting the worlds greatest monument to romantic love ever constructed. For that is what this strange tomb is; one man’s attempt to express his love and loss. Seen in that sense, flying half way across the world just to see the sun rise here is perhaps not so crazy after all.

Cesca and I arrived a different way, a much more down to earth way; by train. Agra was one of the few places that we had phoned ahead and booked. This is because Agra has quite a different reputation amongst backpackers; a deadly reputation.

Surrounding the great tomb is, what some might call, a shanty town. In the past it probably was, just a place for the Mountebanks, snake charmers and con artists to live when they weren’t begging outside the tomb proper. Then came the era of international tourism and the arrival of backpackers. I can hardly imagine what courage it took to backpack India in those first days. I get some of the stories from fifteen years ago when my sister-in-law was in the north of India. Back then, the population was tiny compared to now and everyone much poorer. Staying in the area around the Taj, called the Ganj, was probably taking your life in your hands even just from the point of view of the water quality (drawn directly from the great river flowing behind the Taj and very polluted). You may consider this an exaggeration, but even in our more modern times there has been deaths here. The story I was told was that there was a con being played, which went like this:

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Varanasi – City of the Hindus

Many Indian cities are a jumble, a mix of the ancient and modern, but nowhere I have ever been compares in this regard to Varanasi. I come from a country, and from a city, which has a long history and many ancient sites of worship, but even the 1000 year old site of Saint Pauls in London pails next to the 3000 years of worship maintained here by the Vedic priesthood. Its mythical history goes even further back than this. The legend is that Varanasi was founded by none other than the Hindu deity Lord Shiva himself.

It is that this point that the average Westerner or British’er should try to forget everything that they have ever been taught in school regarding Hinduism.

When I was at school, Hinduism was brought up in Religious Education classes. Unfortunately, these classes forced all religions into the structure of Christianity in order to compare them. So, where in Christianity you have God, you had Shiva and under that you had, in place of Jesus, Krishna, and so on and so forth through the angels (the Deva), the priests (the Brahmans), the Bible (the Vedas) and the Kingdom of Heaven (Rebirth). The one thing is that it is clear from such a muddle is that the people who wrote the RE syllabus had little-to-no idea of Hinduism either. Placed into this twisted context it all looks a little crazy and no wonder as the Hindu faith isn’t like Christianity in almost every way possible. It is a totally different beast. In the first instance it is vital to realise that “Hinduism” is an umbrella term for a whole host of beliefs all interlocked only by their founding geography – that is they all come from India. Then you must realise that when we discuss the Hindu Cosmology we are not talking about a Celestial Hierarchy in the same way that we do in Christianity at all. I.E. with God at the top and you near the bottom just above the animals.

No, in Hinduism you are God.

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Tuk Tuk in the dark – A journey into Varanasi

There was only one time in our journey around India that I didn’t feel entirely safe, one moment where I thought to myself, “Ah, this is potentially a dangerous situation” and took measures accordingly. That was in my first hour in Varanasi.

We arrived on the train from Bodh Gaya relaxed and ready for more adventure.

It was a dark night and, unlike the Buddhist Centre, the large city of Varanasi was busy even at this time of year, so we joined the hordes at the station exit trying to find transport. The Tuk Tuk drivers descended on us travellers like raptors and the experience soon became a walk amongst shouting voices all vying for our attention. Over the top of the throng I could make out a government taxi ticket booth. These large booths sell fixed price tickets to people wanting transport into the city proper and are the only way to avoid being totally fleeced by the touts. It was only when I approached the counter and saw two policemen armed with sub machineguns standing behind the ticket seller that I started to get a feeling that this might not be the safest place. Indeed in my time in Varanasi I was to see more armed policemen than in all the other cities put together and I don’t mean with pistols, I mean with large rifles, assault rifles and Stirling sub machineguns. We bought a fare to our hotel at the far end of the strip running along the Ganges. It was a good price, slightly higher than one would want, but fixed – and that is worth paying a premium for. We jumped in the first Tuk Tuk, which had two men in the front, one driving and another along for the ride, and handed him our ticket. He immediately pulled off onto the road and started pootling along.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked with a thick accent placing a heavy emphasis on the ‘o’ in ‘go’ so it sounded like ‘Gohhh’

To the “Anami Lodge please.”

He shook his head, “No sir, that not good hotel.”

“Just take us there please.”

“Yes sir, but please this not a good hotel, very bad. I can show you a better hotel. It’s on the way no problem. You need a guide to the city?”

“No, we’re fine thanks.”

“Sir, please let me tell you, I am a government sponsored guide, I can show you the whole city for a fixed price.”

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Bodh Gaya and the Tree of Enlightenment

“Who are your inspirational hero’s?” I asked a friend.

“Dunno. King David, I guess, would be one.”

“Awesome answer,” I said impressed that he hadn’t picked a modern actor or, worse, a footballer.

“How about you?”

“My grandfather, Ghandi and the Buddha,” I said quickly.

“You’ve obviously thought about this!”

“Lots. My grandfather is easy; fighter-bomber pilot in the Second World War, boxing champion, and gentile but courageous Welshman. He died before I became old enough to truly know him, but I carry one of his service uniform buttons with me everywhere.”

“How about Ghandi? A bit pacifist for you?”

“Ghandi was anything but a pacifist. He was very strong and he used his strength, not of his body, but of his mind; his soul. His belief was in the Indian people and of leading by example. Not using violence was far more effective than using it.”

“And the Buddha?”

“I became a real fan of him when I visited Bodh Gaya and the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’…” I began.

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Mysore

“Can you take us to this hotel please?” I asked the tuk tuk driver.

He shook his head, “No, that hotel burned down.”

“Burned down? I just spoke to them on the phone…”

He held his hands apart and looked slightly hurt that I was doubting him, “Hotel closed,” he insisted, “I take you to one much better.”

Time for the Bad Cop.

In India, catching a tuk tuk and negotiating the fare – or even the simple existence of the destination – is a national pastime. Not one driver, in three months, took us where we wanted to go without comment, argument or an all out fight. At first, this grates on the nerves and then you cant help but be brought down by it. Then you feel victimised for being western and (relatively) rich. You start to think that they are all out to get you personally. However, it is none of these; it is an official sport. Take it as a sport, a sparring match, and you suddenly find it fun.

And you develop tactics.

Our tactic is to use the old Good Cop, Bad Cop routine, but with a twist. The twist being that I, the large white man in slightly military clothing, am not the bad cop. Cesca is. There is something about confident English women that is like Kryptonite to a tuk tuk driver. We sometimes really played it up. Cesca would fake anger at the guy and then I would step in and take his side.

“But Darling,” I would plead, “he has to earn a living, I am sure he is not ripping us off.” I would then give the driver a look, one I practiced, which said ‘Hey buddy, look at this, I have an angry white women here. I know you need to rip us off, you know I know, but please let’s just defuse this bomb before it goes off and we both look embarrassed’. It was a kind of shared-trauma pleading look.

Worked 90% of the time. The 10% is a story for later…

It was very easy to feel a little guilty about such behaviour, but honestly this is just part of the game as well. There is no White Man’s Burden, I didn’t owe anyone being “gouged” (the travelers term for rip off rides).

Cesca looked the guy in the eye and scowled – something she is very good at, “We want to go to this one please?” She said proffering the Lonely Planet aloft.

This guy was not cracking, “I not take you to that one,” he said.

Time for Phase Two. […]