India, as the cliché goes, is a frenzied place full of colour, spiritual charm and strange customs to dazzle the senses of the western traveller in ways they never thought possible.
This, to a large extent, is entirely the case; a country of breathtaking beauty it is also one of crippling poverty and extraordinary wealth. Indeed, the juxtaposed nature of this subcontinent are enough to send any new visitor into a whirl of their own contradictions.
Pahar Gang in Delhi’s Old Town is often the first port of call for new arrivals in the city, it is also a magnet for the city’s alternative travellers and a main spot for hedonism in what is a predominantly conservative society. There are strange quirks about this place too. One will often see a solitary Rabbi scouring the streets for Israeli youths in order to put them back on the straight and narrow – many of whom flock to India for a laid back lifestyle of marijuana haze and chilled beaches after years of army conscription.
Bony oxen, not the fat and cumbersome kind to be found in European fields, but wiry and noble, strut about the narrow, dusty streets with anonymity as the bicycles and auto-rickshaws race past. Street vendors display elaborate goods excitedly – anything from Hindu iconography to fake Ray Bans. Everyone wants your attention for one thing or another and it is an exhilarating assault on the senses, if not a little exhausting.
The sheer curiosity of the place is amazing. Things pounce, shimmer, fry and whirl from all directions. Colours, smells and sensations radiate from every crevice, bellowing their presence into a hotch-potch of dubiously kept buildings and tangled masses of electrical wires. If you’re used to the gargantuan modernism of European cities, Delhi certainly delivers the rustic exhilaration of travel we all too often crave.
As India’s capital there are of course numerous sights to see, and Delhi is certainly the right way to throw yourself in at the deep end. Hop on one of the city’s many brightly adorned auto-rickshaws (for more practice in the art of persuasion) and you get a wonderful view of the bustling metropolis as you weave between the mayhem as well as meeting a few characters along the way.
Traffic lights and road signs don’t seem to the done thing in New Delhi; drivers will simply dart about blazing their horns in order to proclaim their presence. The whole arrangement further adds to the cacophony of this dizzy town, though if I’m honest I never saw so much as the smallest collision during my visit.
The city recently inaugurated a new metro-train system, which is also a relatively cheap, clean and efficient way to dart around the more well-healed districts. Again, it’s the small quirks that will bring a smile to your face, signs expressly forbidding the riding atop of train roofs instantly spring to mind.
Firmly established as a world city, Delhi is capable of catering for upmarket tastes too. In the centre of town is Connaught Place; a public park and shopping area with a distinct European vibe left courtesy of the British Empire. Built between 1929 and 1933, Connaught Place now represent’s Delhi’s main business hub and is thronging with plush hotels, restaurants and bars – most of which sport European prices for the city’s business elite. It’s also an excellent place to indulge in some shopping and you’ll find all your favourite brands on sale here alongside more traditional markets. The central square itself is a relatively serene getaway from the bustle, and the blistering heat aside, this is a place that feels more conventional to western eyes with its trimmed grass, neat pathways and shaped hedges. You can even check out the latest Bollywood flick at the British 1930s-built Regal Cinema.
Rail travel from Delhi
Travelling by railway in India can be a tiring experience but one which beats road or air travel hands down and will provide you with a real flavour of the country. The first thing you will notice is the level of bureaucracy. Foreign travellers are required to use a separate ticket office and must register for travel within the country. Finding these offices, often tucked away in the bustle can be a tricky task, and that’s before you’ve avoided the scammers who will try and intercept you in between, (these vendors overcharge, do not provide proper guarantee of travel and should be avoided at all costs).
Once you’ve navigated these, rail provides a cheap and insightful alternative to navigate vast swathes of the continent at a slower pace, and Delhi’s main railway station is certainly a gateway to the entire country. A ticket for a sleeper train to my next destination, Varanasi, costs around Rs 1,300 (£18) and takes around 14 hours; plenty of time to read up and relax. Second class sleeping carriages provide open windows with no air conditioning, although this doesn’t seem to be much of a problem as long as the train is moving. Seats fold down to four beds per compartment, increasing to six or eight in third class. First class carriages are usually fairly segregated in air-conditioned carriages that are few and far between on most trains.
Another thing to bear in mind is what many travellers to the sub-continent call the prevalence of ‘Indian Time’; things just don’t always move when or at the pace they are supposed to here. Be aware that unscheduled stops and deviations are frequent and to be expected, and the best way to deal with these is remain calm, take it in your stride and let the bafflingly beautiful culture wash over you – India feels like a place where destiny has you firmly in its grasp.
I catch my first glimpses of the Ganges amidst the insistent tones of a rickshaw driver that he will take me no further. Funeral pyres burn along the scorched banks as throngs of the inhabitants saunter down to the banks for morning prayer and bathing alongside stunning examples of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain architecture.
This is Varanasi, perhaps the most sought after place in India to die, where Bhuddists can finally be released from the cycle of death and reincarnation. It is also one of the most holy cities in the entire country and probably one of the oldest continually habited dwellings in the world at around 3,000 years old. Mythological in origin, the city is said to have been founded by Lord Shiva and is mentioned in the 4th Century epic ‘Ramayana’ and the Indian Puranas. The Mughals left many of the original temples in ruins before leaving behind some beautiful examples of Islamic architecture, but there are also smatterings of colonial motifs alongside a jigsaw of modern and religious dwellings from the presence of ten Lakh peoples. Despite appearances, these constant reinventions mean that few buildings are more than 300 years old.
Many of these take the form of a series of jetties or ‘ghats’ that line the east banks of the river Ganges in a flurry of spiritualism and magnificent colour. The melting pot of cultures in Varanasi means that you’d be hard-pressed not to stumble into one of the many religious festivals that adorn these hallowed banks, especially from August to September.
Another thing you will notice are the funeral pyres that burn along the banks of the river in full view. The stoic notions of death that we are used to in the West are not practiced here.
There are no veils to hide behind it’s all very public – though this doesn’t negate the deep spiritualism of the place – respect for the dead in this most holy of cities is paramount. It is acceptable that anyone may view the pyres, although of course photography is strictly forbidden. Take a trip on the Ganges with one of the many obliging vendors (this also a handy way to navigate the banks). A hierarchy seems to run between the rowers, with young teenagers beginning at the bottom of the business with the hope of one day owning their own boats. They will often wax lyrical about their dreams for the future and will almost certainly be interested in your life in the west. There’s always an interesting exchange to be had and the less resistance you offer, the fewer barriers you will come across. Having said that, be careful who you shake hands with here; an offer of the left hand is a sign of deep disrespect (as this is the hand to clean one’s self). Also watch out vendors who will grasp your hand into a massage before asking for payment.
Another strenuous train journey to the east lies the state of West Bengal and it the cloud city of Darjeeling. Famed for its tea production, high altitudes and stunning views of the Himalayas, tea is big business here and the steep hillsides are covered with the stuff, which makes for a gorgeous aroma you ascend the vast slopes. Much of it is destined for high profile stores worldwide and sells for up to $3,000 per pound, but here you are totally immersed a dreamlike existence at 6,700 feet.
Unlike much of India, Darjeeling is blissfully cool. High in the hills, Buddhist monasteries and shrines seem to rise upon impossible slopes while clouds drift in and out through the streets. Life may cling precariously to the hillside here, but once you reach these tea-drenched peaks, the pace seems to slow and travellers will find that locals are far more reserved that their counterparts in larger metropolises.
In the centre of town a faux colonial-style clock rings out a discordant rendition of Big Ben, further adding to the almost surreal existence. Pipes, wires and cables seem to spew unannounced from the rocky streets, worn silver through footfall and further evidence of a precariously entrenched civilisation at odds with the pull of gravity.
There are also numerous markets and antique shops to explore. Darjeeling’s proximity to Nepal and Tibet has made it a vital trading link and the area is rich in traditional crafts including stunning wool rugs and hand-painted Thangkas (traditional detailed depictions of the Lord Buddha). Food here also has a more oriental influence, with local delicacies consisting of mo-mo dumplings and noodle dishes. Unlike most of India, you’ll also find pork on the menu here.
Another main feature of Darjeeling is the remarkable toy steam train that serves the town and surrounding villages. Built between 1879 and 1881 on a two-foot narrow gauge, the beautiful vintage carriages serve as a practical transport route in addition to heritage tours that can be taken to Ghum, India’s highest railway station. Other attractions include tea estate tours and stunning drives to watch the sunrise above the Himalayas and Mt Everest from the Tiger Hill viewing spot.
Although Darjeeling’s relative affluence supports luxurious tastes via upmarket hotels and restaurants, reminders of its isolation are never far away. During my stay, the area’s internet and phone connection was severed for three days. This can effectively leave you stranded as local travel agents will be unable to book flights and other long-distance transport. This also means that cash machines will be unavailable, so it’s always useful to have a few rupees tucked away somewhere. Still, there are certainly worse places to be stranded, and after a few delicious days exploring the hills, I embarked for my next destination, Kerala.
It takes two hours and thirty minutes to fly from the snow-capped peaks of Darjeeling to the tropical coast of Kerala, and the contrast could not be greater. I arrive in Fort Kochi, where traditional vala fishing nets grasp the sea like silhouetted insects against the mars-red horizon. Lone fishing boats bob helplessly alongside gigantic vessels of industry as the smell of the day’s catch wafts headily along the shore.
Known nationally as ‘God’s Own Country’, Kerala is home to India’s largest Christian population and bears the architectural legacy of the Portuguese colonial period. Until May 2011 it was also home to the world’s only democratic Communist government, which ran the region with semi-autonomy for 30 years until being narrowly ousted by the United Democratic Front.
Around an hour’s drive south on a suitably rickety and brightly adorned bus is the medium-sized town of Alleppey. This is where the lush tropical scenery really begins to kick in and where access to the majestic backwaters and broad, palm tree-lined beaches can be found. The pace of life here again is different, the tropical haze subdues the manic activity found in much of the north and life next to the backwaters feels decisively laid back.
A short drive in an auto-rickshaw reveals the glorious countryside of Kerala. Large paddy fields are bordered with thick jungle where coconut and banana trees leer over the water as dazzling birds call out overhead. Truly one of the most opulent ways to travel around this part of India is on a house barge. This luxurious experience allows you to saunter through the backwaters at your own pace whilst stopping at local villages to indulge in a few delicacies. These barges usually come equipped with a crew to drive and cook for guests, with larger ones resembling floating hotels and sporting several rooms, dining area, lounge deck and meals included. A three-day cruise on a medium sized vessel with viewing deck and crew costs the eye-wateringly low price of Rs 4,000 (around £55). It is in fact so luxurious, as you watch your delicious pearl spot fish being freshly caught and prepared for a traditional Keralan meal, that I confess slight pangs of guilt began to infringe on my blissful surroundings.
And with that, the setting sun blushes the huge sky above the silhouetted jungle while fireflies begin dance just above my secluded look-out post. A fitting end to a journey that has revealed just a few of India’s many personalities – and what a beautiful character she is.
It’s been a long ride, but this experience was merely a taste of what the subcontinent has to offer. It is almost impossible to define India as a single entity, rather as a vast array of peoples, landscapes and history that renders the term ‘cultural melting pot’ wholly inadequate. It’s a land where – for the moment – the spiritual life abandoned in the west jostles with India’s modern prominence on a daily basis. One may be inclined view India as just another casualty of globalisation, but from what I’ve seen; her soul is still alive and well.