Hello from a very hot India, I'm writing this from a place called Khajuraho which aside from being 5 hours from anywhere is home to the 'Karma Sutra' temples- they're educating. Rereading my journal last night I've seen and done some great stuff this month including some very important religious spots, some amazing architecture and seeing why Britain deserved its prefix once upon a time. Oh and if you're a bit squeamish I advise skipping the last paragraph.
But before all that my Mum made the incomprehensible decision to leave our gorgeous dog for a couple of weeks and come out to visit her other, rather less attractive male dependent. Before Bhutan we met up in the lovely hill station of Darjeeling, which is part Victorian holiday resort part tea growing centre straddling a ridge 2200m up in the Himalayas. It's an amazing journey up from the plains below, the thing that most hits you about the Himalayas is just how steep they are, the altitude goes from just 100m to 8500m in little more than 30km as the crow flies. Unsurprisingly Darjeelings greatest attraction is its stupendous mountain vistas with Kanchenjunga the third highest mountain in the world dominating the horizon. Unfortunately we were never to see it as permanent cloud cover persistently blocked our view, however the cloud did add a beautiful and at times eerie quality to the scenery and isolated monasteries we visited. Up in the Himalayas it feels incredibly peaceful but it's actually quite a volatile area, there are loads of asylum seekers from Tibet and Myanmar who've been here so long they have their own recognised communities but the indigenous Gorkha people also want their own state within India so there are police everywhere. Residents of this area, mainly Nepali speaking Gorkhas have long sought a separate state for themselves to improve their socioeconomic conditions and seemingly every building is draped in 'self-autonomy' graffiti. They also have weekly demonstrations and my Mum inadvertently found herself in the middle of a demonstration through the town before somewhat surreally being featured in the first item on the news one evening.
After two nights in Darjeeling we crossed into Sikkim and headed to Pelling. Sikkim is a tiny, beautiful state lying to the south of Tibet and sandwiched between Nepal to the West and Bhutan to the East. It was, until the early 1960s an isolated, independent Buddhist kingdom but annexed by India it is now a predominately Hindu, fully fledged Indian state. Utterly serene in atmosphere this part of India felt an absolute world away from the chaos of the plains below and despite a couple of fairly tiring weeks at altitude answering incessant questions about Leyton Orient and the state of Peter Andre's career Mum was happy to have finished her holiday in this environment, oh and pleased to see the back of me for a while.
On coming back from Bhutan I went on a water safari to the Sundarbans- one of the tigers last main refuges. The Sundarbans are a huge area of mangrove swamp forest straddling the Bangladesh/India border and are home to some 500 Royal Bengal tigers. The only way to access them properly is via boat and it was an extremely peaceful few days watching the birds etc, whilst I was never likely to spot a tiger plenty of people living nearby do. Due to the swampy nature of the land there's little man can do with it and so the tigers appear to be relatively safe there, in fact the one major industry that can take place is the high quality honey collecting from the bees that live there. If management consultancy or similar feels a bit 'flat' as a job then I recommend becoming a honey collector in the Sundarbans. It really is a spectacularly dangerous job, on the Bangladesh side alone about 120 people a year are taken by tigers (or one every three days) and indeed our guide told the stories of how 2 of his uncles copped it from the super cats in this way.
On going back to Kolkata I was plunged into a city of colonial splendour mixed with abject poverty. It was the capital city in colonial times and regardless of your views on the empire etc you can't help but be amazed at what Britain achieved in India. The city was very much the administrative and economic centre although it has quite an odd visual feel to it. After many Communist governments there are loads of nationalist symbols and plenty of memorials to Chandra Bose, a sort of pro violence anti Ghandian figure in the independence movement, but also lots of decaying mansions. The British left an incredible architectural legacy of handsome 4 storey buildings for homes and administrative offices, thankfully the offices have been kept in use and maintained so really wouldn't look out of place in South Kensington. For the residential building though the Communists brought in rent control policies so that rents could not be legally increased dating back to the '70's and so you have the crazy situation of people paying as little as 5 cents a month to live in a gorgeous crumbling mansion as the landlords understandably refuse to repair or maintain the properties. Topped by the magnificent Victoria Monument it's the sort of place which shows why Britain was once so economically powerful; elsewhere I've seen loads evidence of Britain's former military might and how it maintained control of such a vast, sprawling area. The almighty but beautiful 12km fort perched 100m above the town at Gwalior was incredibly photogenic though my favourite military sight was in Lucknow. Ranking only behind Rourkes Drift in 1879 and Cardiff in June 2009 in the finest defensive actions against upstarts within the empire, the Residency there held out for an insane 5 months under constant shelling during the Indian uprising of 1857 before being eventually relieved and defeating the local rebels. Whilst it's somewhat delusionally called the First War of Independence here, the uprising has a fascinating history and the stories of what Britain held onto despite being vastly outnumbered and often out gunned have been awesome to hear and see.
On any trip to Asia religion will always be a key part of what's going on around you and Jerusalem excepted perhaps nowhere is more important in world religion than India. Home to 2 of the 'big 4' (Hinduism and Buddhism) it's also home to Sikhism, Parsis and Jainism plus plenty of Muslims and thanks to the British even has a fair few Christians. Whilst I've known for many years that my one true faith is based in the E10 postcode (the latest miracle took place on 13/4/2010) you can't help but enjoy learning how other people live and seeing how important their faith is in the most spiritual continent.
In Kolkata I saw the extremely moving Mother Teresa Mission and then spent a week in the very poor, untouristy state of Bihar seeing the most important Buddhist sites in the world. Whilst Lord Buddha was born across the border in Nepal I visited the other 3 major pilgrimage sites where he became enlightened, preached his first sermon and the very sad reclining statue marking where he died in Kushinagar. Each of the small villages around these sites have monasteries from around the world and aside from getting to stay in them for next t nothing I received the proud mental confirmation that after several months in Buddhist countries I can tell the nationality of a Buddhist temple at 50 paces just by its design. Impressive eh?
I also went to a few Jain holy sights; Jainism is an offshoot (sort of) of Hinduism and the Jain community draws a lot of praise from pretty much everyone else in India. Due to their perceived honest piety Jains have been extremely successful in business and constitute one of the wealthiest communities in India.They're also famed for living one of the most ascetic, pure lives of any religion and whilst in England they're most famous for wearing grilles over their mouths (so no bugs fly in) many of the worshipers here carry a brush and sweep b4 every single step they take so unsurprisingly they've never had any marathon runners. Whilst the temples were beautiful I found I couldn't really enjoy the insides much as the walls are festooned with pictures of ugly naked men (faithful monks in their 'purest form'). What I enjoyed a lot more was the free food they gave you just for visiting them :-)
It was during this period that the temperature was at its hottest, India tends to get its hottest weather before the monsoonal rains in the Summer and most days it was getting into the mid 40's by 9am, but of course being English I'd still spend all day outside doing stuff.
Whilst I'm lucky to have a body which seems to cope pretty well regardless of the weather the main way I got through it was by just chugging 8-10L of water every day. The heat does have quite an odd effect on your body though as I found despite all the water I was only going to the loo once a day in the morning and my torso was covered with blotches like a baby's milk spots caused by the heat. Sleeping could also be terrible as India has a surprisingly big problem with power outs and when the fan stopped working or I was staying somewhere which didn't even have a fan 4 or 5 cold showers a night had only a limited effect.
So I took a bath instead, of course 80%+ of the country are Hindus and I greatly enjoyed visiting a few of the holy cities on the banks of the Ganges. The Kumbh Mela takes place every 4 years and is the largest gathering of humanity anywhere in the world. An astonishing 100m people converge on the counter-intuitively named city of Allahabad to take communal baths and make offerings in the 'Holy Mother' (Ganges). I wasn't around for that unfortunately but saw plenty of others making their offerings and seeing them all definitely filled me with a sense of wonder at their strength of faith in a religion so old and yet so powerful in the collective consciousness of so many people.
Whilst I took a plunge in Allahabad I couldn't bring myself to do it in the holiest city of Varanasi. It's an incredible place where 3000 yr old alleys and cloisters lead towards a set of ghats (bathing steps) flanked by huge palaces on the river. To take a 'sin clearing' dip in the water is the most important pilgrimage site in Hinduism and it's where everyone dreams of dying. Around 70,000 people do it every early morning and evening and it's quite an incredible sight as the pilgrims make their various offerings but I couldn't bring myself to do it. And that was because the water was absolutely disgusting beyond belief. It's really easy to tell where the fish are because they're all gulping oxygen at the surface, this is due to the water being officially classed as 'septic' (no dissolved oxygen). There are 30 huge sewers running into the river and whilst most Hindus are ceremonially burnt before having their ashes scattered, there are quite a few exceptions to this (children, pregnant women, lepers etc.) and their bodies are weighted down and dumped in the river. All this means that the water has a harmful bacteria content of 1.5m per 100m litres of water, for water safe to bath in in the EU it must number less than 500. So both simultaneously 'purifying' and a fast track to cholera.
Neatly continuing the religious theme I've also seen plenty of the Islamic influence in this, the worlds most multifaceted country. India was ruled for several centuries by the Mughals from Iran and Afghanistan and aside from their economic and other cultural legacies they left behind some of the finest architecture in the world. From incredible palaces and famous forts built by the atrociously nicknamed Akbar the Great (Akbar means great in Arabic) to the awesome tombs which are dotted around I seem to have seen something amazing virtually every day in the last few weeks. Chief amongst these is of course the Taj Mahal; whilst best known as the name of seemingly half of the Indian restaurants in England it is actually a very important historical monument as the Taj provided the backdrop for the definitive image of the Charles and Diana divorce when she sat alone in front of it in 1992.
That was quite ironic as it's often been called 'the worlds most beautiful monument to love', built by Shah Jehan in the 17th century as a tribute to his dead wife I couldn't help but agree with that view. After his 2nd wife had just died during the labor of her 14th pregnancy it really must have been love as he could have built the Taj for any one of his 20 something other wives. Or any member of his 5,000 (why would you need 5,000??) strong harem for that matter.
Now I'm at the Karma Sutra temples where I've continued to learn about 'love'; the carvings of women with chests that would put Simona Halep to shame show an incredible degree of artistry and are of course petty graphic. Historians aren't really sure why the obsession with sex but the most common explanation is that the Chandelas (ruling class who built the temples) thought that it was purifying and a way of transcending evil to achieve enlightenment. Personally I prefer the view that it's simply a way of representing love in its most natural and arguably most honest form. And if that form of 'love' requires 3 other people and a horse to achieve, then so be it.
So from here I head south into Central India, enjoy the election and nce again the final paragraph isn't very nice so be warned.
When you're in India you very quickly realise that you don't so much visit the county as absorb and experience it. I've already seen quite a few things about which Indians seem to be very hypocritical; whilst I'm sure I'll say more in the emails ahead one of them is their claim to treat animals so much better. A few times already I've got into conversations where a local has started lecturing me on why we don't treat animals well in England and India is much more humane, but despite being in the socially dubious category of a vegetarian myself I found myself arguing back quite vehemently. Yes, the cow is sacred here and has right of way but I don't think allowing them to roam around motorway reservations and the like supplementing their inadequate food supply by eating plastic bags and other bits of rubbish is better than feeding them grass in a fenced field. Similarly they won't put stray or ill dogs down and so you have the sad sight of ill or wounded dogs desperately begging for scraps everywhere. Therefore I find myself strongly disagreeing with the first part of the phrase "In India all life is sacred- except human life".
The second part of the phrase however was neatly illuminated by an incident on a ghat in Varanasi, whilst sitting in the shade I noticed a dog dragging a doll by its lining, only I looked a bit closer and it wasn't a doll- it was the top half of a baby with its arms and head still attached and the 'lining' were its guts and lungs spilling out. I've no idea where it came from or how the dog got it but needless to say I was bit shocked. I didn't have a phone so asked a few passers by to call the police, the first 2 just said "Why? it's already dead", the 3rd guy then actually made a joke and said "It looks like a monkey" b4 a 12yr old lad corrected him and said "No, that's not a monkey - it's a baby" and they both strolled off.
As the succinct tourist board slogan aptly puts it: Incredible !ndia.