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It’s easy to label Khajuraho for its ‘erotic’ (read ‘explicit’) sculptures, and indeed this is probably the main draw for most visitors. But the town is not a UNESCO World Heritage inscribed site for nothing, and the temples are so much more than kinky renditions of acrobatics from the Kama Sutra.
It’s astonishing how well preserved the buildings are. Compare them to Angkor or Ayutthaya and the difference is obvious – and then note that the architecture in Khajuraho dates from about 1000AD, a full three to five centuries earlier than the masterpieces of Southeast Asian civilisations.
Then again, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Khajuraho is certainly breathtaking (or shocking, depending how deep your blue-rinse runs) but a lot of the sculpture is pretty much the same, mass produced, even. Nevertheless, when you tire of temple gazing, the resident langur monkeys will keep you entertained too.
Matru, the ‘owner’ of Hari Chandra ghat, a wiry old man with three days of fuzzy stubble and ochre-yellow eyes and teeth, is telling us about karma. What he really wants is for us to visit his silk shop, but for now karma is the topic of conversation.
Before us, covered by cloth and saffron garlands, lies a dead body on a wooden litter. We saw them earlier, someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, husband or wife, borne unceremoniously atop an autorickshaw through the tangle of traffic in the streets behind us.
The corpse is attended only by men. Matru throws back his shawl and explains to us no women are allowed among the mourners.
“There is still the danger of suttee,” he says. “Even now. Sometimes the woman will throw herself on the pyre – so we do not allow women close enough to the flames.”
Continue reading "Varanasi: Karma" »
I had been warned about Varanasi. “It’s incredibly dirty,” they said. “Full of filth and squalor! Don’t go there!” “I don’t know why you want to go there,” said another. “You’ll get loads of hassle.” “There is no spirituality there, only cheats.”
Of course, none of them had ever been to Varanasi, Benares, the holy city on the banks of the great Ganga. And the blacker a place is painted, the more you appreciate its true colours once you arrive. So we went anyway.
At five in the evening, as the dusk draws in and the light over the river fades to a beige shadow, the bells of the temple at the summit of Kedarghat begin to toll.
Continue reading "Varanasi: an Impression" »
No trip to India is complete without coming here.
Of the hundreds of guides to places to see or things to do before you die, all are agreed on the Asian continent’s number one attraction. Agra’s exquisite dome of inlaid white marble must be one of the planet’s most recognised and admired feats of architecture - and probably the most enigmatic monument to romance ever created.
Agra is not all about the Taj Mahal, of course; the nearby fort is another marvel of the Mughals’ ambition and achievements and there are countless other attractions to occupy you for a couple of days at least.
It’s also the jump-off point for a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, another of the area’s UNESCO World Heritage inscribed sites, a majestic sprawl of buildings and monuments built by the great Emperor Akbar.
But we don’t have time, and after all, why rush it on Christmas day? Like the best present ever, it’s almost impossible to take our eyes off it. Even the crowds don’t get in the way.
The Taj Mahal is incapable of disappointing, but people always are. Graffiti has been etched into the marble tiles beside the main dome as recently as the 1990s. It’s sad.
Even outside the enclosure of the Taj Mahal, India remains a land of stark contrasts. Amid the breathtaking beauty you’re just as likely to find the scams, fakes, squalor and filth that are the blight of many travellers’ experiences, if not more so – it’s all part of the mix.
Be on your guard, then, but also remind yourself that Agra is still one of the few places on Earth where you truly can touch the face of eternity.
'A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time' - Rabindrath Tagore
All entries in Indian time (GMT +530)
17.30: Simona checks in, is taken to hotel and told to wait
19.30: Simona's flight IA349 due to depart from Pudong (Shanghai) to Indira Gandhi International New Delhi via Bangkok.
00.00 Boarding call for flight IA349
05.00 Flight lands in Bangkok and is grounded.
09.00 Phil calls airline and told ETA 11.25
10.00 Phil calls airline and told flight has now left Bangkok, ETA 12.25
12.30 Phil arrives airport
13.30 Phil begins to feel dejected
13.45 Wife of one of Bacchu's colleagues reports flight has been diverted to Mumbai, and promises 'special treatment'
15.30 Simona calls from Mumbai where she has no idea what is going on
17.00 Phil told flight will arrive at 17.30! Speed to airport!
18.30 Phil begins to feel sceptical
19.00 Bacchu discovers that Simona has been placed on flight IA3552 from Bombay, time of arrival delayed
20.30 Simona exits customs, rather knackered, 28 hours after setting off for Pudong airport.
All this due to fog, we are told. So why didn't the original plane have a CAT III Instrument Landing System?
Well, Air India is a public owned company. It's not modern, it's not accountable and it's not competitive. Jet Airways on the other hand is a private venture and gave quite excellent service on the London-Delhi route.
OK, so it's two isolated examples. But still: go figure.
There have been mixed messages from China this year. On one hand it has:
Passed a law authorising military action if Taiwan formally declares independence
Made threatening gestures at Japan regarding offshore oil and gas exploration
Tacitly authorised anti-Japanese protests
A vociferous general has even threatened to 'go nuclear'
Moreover, crackdowns on local protests and the media have continued, and even gathered pace. This report in The Guardian (reprinted below) can therefore be viewed with either optimism or a pinch of salt.
In many ways it's another clever diplomatic signal from the PRC. It has to be said that Japan has been continually putting its foot in these days, especially with regard to the Yasakuni shrine.
There again, there's the good old bluffing tactic. In the past other nations with hostile intent have not been shy to say they want only peace, but really they are shouting over the din of the tanks revving up
Continue reading "The Scrape of Sabres Being Sheathed" »
Nothing wrong with this per se, but it does exemplify the general direction things are going.
As the world's second largest consumer of oil, and the fourth or the sixth largest world economy (depending on how you reckon it), China's demand for oil can only grow. Currently most of its energy demands are met by coal, with is not only extremely damaging for the environment but inefficient and unsustainable. There's a mine disaster every week in China.
Moreover, petroleum products contribute more than just energy to China's economy, but also transportation and plastics etc..
Thus it makes a lot of sense for China to improve ties with Opec.
Read between the lines, however, and a couple of things come to light. China's recent restatement of its economic figures for example - is it mere co-incidence or was the CCP showing its hand before entering the talks?
And finally the obvious point that most of Opec's members are Islamic nations. They have probably never been more hostile to the US than now; not only has the Iraq invasion angered the general populace but the seeming positive moves towards democracy may well have unnerved the current generation of sheikhs and other unelected despots that pull the Opec strings.
Everyone's unhappy with the West. So time to make new friends, perhaps.
So there's no better time for China to be getting in there. The middle eastern and central Asian oil-producing nations that lie between Europe and East Asia are the new battlegrounds of the new cold war. BBC report reprinted below.
Continue reading "Opec on the Cheek from the PRC" »
Aboard the Kathgodam-Delhi train, recovering from a nasty bout of D&V incurred via Saturday night's meal (note to self - when kitchen staff are sniggering during the preparation of your food, go without), I read Ruskin's seminal essay from The Stones of Venice, The Nature of Gothic.
Why, you ask, are you writing about architecture? Isn't this meant to to be a blog on international relations and global politics? Well, since visiting the Ruskin house at Brantwood in September, my interest in the nineteenth century critic and man of letters has revived.
Ironically, at Oxford I was taught by one of Britain's foremost Ruskin scholars, Dr Francis O'Gorman, but regrettably I must have been having an off week at the time. After two years in China, however, I found myself rediscovering Ruskin with a new understanding of his contemporary relevance.
Ruskin was something of an early socialist, and an inspiration for Gandhi. The excerpt reprinted below, I think, has great relevance for the modern era and in its condemnation of the slavery of mass production and exhortation of the benefits of variation offered by the fallible but free craftsman, much can be read into the current economic situations in China and India.
Continue reading "The Nature of Gothic" »
If I hadn't taken the snaps, you wouldn't be able to picture this.
Imagine a train carrying at least a thousand people pulling into a station. The train turns around in half an hour so another thousand are waiting to board.
On the platform are carts full of baggage and goods, interspersed by porters with heavy and bulky loads carried Indian style on their heads. The platform itself looks like an earthquake has just visited; covered in rubble, steel cables and stone chippings, parts of the surface are literally undulating a couple of feet above the rest.
It took me 25 minutes - I timed it - to get from 50 or so yards from the train to the top of the stairs. I was pushed, shoved and jostled; at one point station officers (the only time they ever appeared) got concerned about the stampede and forced people off the stairs, resulting in me travelling backwards.
It's all very well to laud India's economic development, but in the 11 years since I last visited things have got worse. The population has increased by the size of Europe - 300 million. It's not sustainable. It doesn't work.
A really forced smile from WTO Director-General and erstwhile Nosferatu lookalike Pascal Lamy.
Having been on the road in Bhimtal for the past few days, I've not been able to deal with this one in much detail, but suffice it to say that major events have been afoot with the simultaneous EU budget talks and the WTO Hong Kong negotiations.
And both ultimately appear to have failed.
Continue reading "The Battle of Brussels and the Siege of Wan Chai" »
A rare chance today to see local democracy in action.
Purely by chance, while checking out the last of Bhimtal's resorts, the YMCA, I stumbled upon a meeting of the local panchayats, the village councils that are at the core of grassroots politics. Advocated by Gandhi, in a system as complex as India's it's possibly the most relevant aspect of government to the average person's daily needs.
The meeting was chaired by World Vision, an NGO/charity woring for rural development, and each of the five councils was assisted by academuc delegates from the local university.
Though proceedings were conducted in Hindi, I caught the gist of what was going on - a discussion of the ambitions and aspirtations for the local economy with reference to agriculture, social empowerment etc..
World Vision is a Christian organisation, and I am naturally suspicious of religious charities, but like Rama Krishna seems to be doing a good job. There again, I was a bit surprised when the meeting concluded with prayers... yet it's not seen as unusual in India for people to follow parallel spiritual paths that merge Hindu and Christian ideals. The number of convent schools, for example, shows the extent of this cross-pollination.
And on the way back, this woman walking in front of me illustrated clearly the kind of lives that people live around here, and why local development is so necessary.
Took the opportunity today to travel to Nainital, the district capital. Considerably larger and busier than Bhimtal, it's something of a tourist hotspot though at this time of year it's relatively quiet.
Nainital has many things Bhimtal has not. It has restaurants and shops; it has tourist agents and activities; a cable car takes you to the top of the hill for snow views; and it has colonial history and a place in local legend and myth.
On the other hand it's become something of a tacky sprawl of holiday industry staples like pony rides and yachting, and today every other person seemed to be half of a honeymooning couple.
One of the great things about in India is that around every corner a surprise lies in wait - for example this huge Hanuman figure I discovered while walking from Bhimtal to nearby Naukuchiatal.
I'm spending four days here in order to reconnoitre the plot of land my father owns in the industrial estate and get to know the area in general.
It's a sleepy-ish tourist resort set around Bhim Tal lake itself - Bhim is a character from the Mahabharata of Hindu legend, one of the Pandava brothers. According to the legend he was fathered by the lord of the wind and was one of the mightiest warriors to serve Krishna in battle.
Circled by a string of luxury hotels, pursuits in Bhimtal consist mainly of fishing and boating. But right now it looks like I'm the only tourist in town.
Having recently written something of a brickbat review on The Rough Guide to China for The Sunday Times, now's my chance to redress the balance.
The company has just launched this site in conjunction with the UK government's Department for International Development (DFID). I haven't seen the book itself, but if it's free - why not order it?
I wasn't sure what to expect when I mounted Dr Mandal's motorbike, wrapped up well for the cold that hits you at high speed in the shade of the forest, but the experience was a pleasant surprise.
We stopped at the roadside and the monk descended to greet us. He wasn't the bearded, bedraggled sadhu I expected (like Rama Krishna himself, above), but a young man of thirty five in a clean white robe topped with the region's typical woolly 'monkey hat' (see the picture below).
Twenty minutes walk up the path and we were at the ashram. Beside it was an orchard, now devoid of fruit in the wintry sunlight, and the monk's own quarters, a small glass-panelled hut contained in a wide patio area.
I know very little of Hinduism, but on mantlepieces, bedroom posters, restaurant shrines and phut-phut dashboards I had noticed a few recurring images. I learned that the people depicted are 'saints', gurus of a kind, and one of these was Rama Krishna.
Continue reading "Ram Krishna Mission" »
Nice to see my contribution to Been There in The Guardian today. Today Bangkok, tomorrow Shanghai and Hong Kong?
There is a hotel on the road to Mukteshwar called 'The British Retreat'. Dominated by the Indian Vetinerary Research Institute (IVRI), a campus of greying Edwardian buildings in much the style of The Far Pavilions, at the centre of the town there is even the old officer's club.
Here you can play billiards with the octagenarian caretaker, a toothless old chap who will play shots to rival Hendry yet gracaiously let you win. The trophies on the mantelpiece are engraved with the names of champions at the table and on the golf course and alternate from year to year from English to Indian: Manning; Sengupta; Fields; Singh.
Yet beneath the eccentric veneer, and the magnificent Himalayan vistas, this is not the greatest place to live. My niece has a nasty cough but there nearest doctor is a two hour drive away. The Victorian house is airy and full of character, but when night falls the only warmth comes from a dwindling supply of logs and to use the toilet at night is an arduous experience.
The children at the village school - the new building is half completed, so they learn outside in the warmth of the morning sun - were pleased to meet me, and hear a few words from one who came from so far. But eventually these children will be gone; their mothers hanker for the conveniences of the cities; and gradually Mukteshwar station is closing down.
Another lesson learnt: I am not as fit as I think I am. And probably never was.
At the foot of the hill straddled by Mukteshwar itself sits Kapileshwar, home of a revered seventeenth century temple. With not much else to do I thought I'd go take a look.
The descent was easy: three hours through jungle trails, the stones scattered across the path flecked with mica, silicon deposits, which give them a silvery sheen. With many of the animals seeking warmer weather elsewhere it was quiet, but for the occasional encounter with local people going about their daily business. Once my guide and I crossed paths with a squadron of Kumaoni women, the saffron colours of their saris standing out against the dull winter greens of the vegetation.
The temple itself was worth the trek down the hill, with a frontispiece decorated with a carved lintel plus engravings of elephants and lingas. A pair of curious local children came to check me out, adding extra interest to the photos (these will be developed and posted later).
The sting in the tail was getting back up the hill. It swiftly became obvious that I was not capable of managing the gradient, and even with my guide Chorta carrying my bag I had to stop every few steps. I began to worry that I wasn't going to make it.
To make matters worse, we ran out of water and I was unable to communicate with Chorta that we needed to backtrack to the roadside stalls we had seen (not that they sold anything other than chai anyway). Eventually, as I painfully tottered my way along, a passer by was able to run up to Mukteshwar and brought back a bottle of water.
However embarrassing, the experience brought home to me just how tough conditions are here in the Himalayan foothills. I'm just a city boy and to the Kumaoni people who climb these hills every day, burdened with firewood and water pots, I raise my hat.
View from Mukteshwar Mandir; IVRI campus main building.
At an altitude of 2800 metres, Mukteshwar offers unrivalled views of Nanda Devi and Trishul to the north, while all around the rolling beauty of the Himalayan foothills is in evidence.
I awoke at 5.00am with a blast of lights in my face. Nope, Indian train travel isn't as great as I remembered.
The couple who I was sharing the compartment with were clearly honeymooners on their way to a romantic holiday. The man sported the very latest camera phone. There's clearly money here, just as in China, and lots of it.
At Kathgodam I disembarked and was met by the driver. For a while, we had an additional passenger - Monica, a TV news anchor from Channel Seven. It turned out that she had studied journalism at Cardiff University at the same time as I. Small world.
The drive was not a fun one, a serious of hairpin bends taken at full speed. A seasickness tablet taken on an empty stomach failed to do the job and I had to stop the driver twice for a puke break. When it comes out bright yellow, you know that there's little left to go. Fortunately I got to Mukteshwar soon after.
Though I was laid up for much of the day, I had enough time to get a little tast of the town I last came to in 1994. Great to see my cousin Dr Arnab Sen again, now a prominent vetinarary researcher, and meet his wife Rai and six-year-old daughter Rim-Chim.
It was one of those times when a picture would have been priceless, but I was too scared to bring out my digital. Not my camera, I should say, a borrowed one, so best not to lose it...
I'd been bombarded with nervous advice about how to handle the Indian railway system but being 'an experienced traveller' expected to take it all in my stride.
Not a chance.
For the first ten minutes I humped my overheavy bags around searching for the departures info board, only to find it in the place I had started from. Heading for the platform it said, I found it swamped with people: sitting on bags; sleeping; drinking tea; loading and unloading baggage carts. It was mayhem. I could hardly move.
There were announcements in English on the PA system, but they were incomprehensible. Not a single railway attendent was to be seen. Eventually, prompted by a call from my cousin, I asked what was going on. The platform was occupied by another train that was delaying my train, they said, so at least I was in the right place.
When the train finally showed up, it was another mad dash through a jumble of people doing the same to try to find my carriage. On the way there I was knocked and jostled more than I'd ever been in China. Then to cap it all, once I'd finally settled in, the aircon got turned up to full blast and I shivered through the night.
Let this be a warning to me!