Thursday, 10 March 2011

India: some highlights

Travelling around India, I found the Rough Guide was almost always wrong about a place. If it says it's wonderful, it's probably either grotty, or too touristy; if it says don't bother to stay there, it's probably a place with great cheap hotels, good pure veg restaurants, and a nice relaxed feel. Maybe that's just me... but I thought I'd put up a few personal highlights.

  • Hampi. First off, a chance to see some incredible temple architecture, but for once set in a landscape rather than among the streets of a bustling town or in municipally-flower-bedded ASI compounds. The landscape, pale orange boulders and lush riverside plantations, makes you feel as if you're walking in an Indian miniature; there are hills to climb, views to sit and soak up. And the place has a marvellous feeling to it - despite the global hippie hangouts, the didj music, the buy-a-cool-tshirt joints, there's an underlying sweetness to the place. I meant to spend two days there; I stayed a week.

  • Mandvi, Gujarat. I only went to see the boatbuilders, and I'm glad I did; most of the boats are reaching completion - the superstructure was already being finished on one, delicate banisters and a carved wheelhouse - and it seems there may not be many more new commissions. But Mandvi also possesses a glorious beach, 8 kilometres and almost unvisited, except for the funfair at the town end; and one of the best restaurants I ate in during my entire stay, the Osho.  (No choice at all; you get a thali. Which, of course, is in itself choice.) Fine old shipowners' mansions, a long straggling market street, small town India at its best.

  • Madurai temple. The city of Madurai is unlovely, and hotel owners there might like to know that physical aggression in pursuit of tips is not a great way to get anyone to return... but the temple, a claustrophobic agglomeration of inhumanly huge corridors, dark halls, tiny gilded shrines, soaring towers, where chants echo and bells are ringing all the time, where every sculpture and every wall seems to be painted in violent, strident colours...  where you enter a twilit world of ritual... the temple is something else. It's worth going for the entire day, participating in the life of the temple and its deities, slowly feeling it capture you.

  • Trichy. Not on anyone's list - I was told it was the one place in Tamil Nadu I could miss out. Not for anything! Where else would I have seen one man chopping veg to feed two hundred hungry people at lunchtime, at the Rock Fort? Or seen the huge Srirangam temple, so huge it holds its own village inside it? All this, and a marvellous electronics bazaar where I could buy SD cards for three quid. I enjoyed Trichy. A very civilised place.

  • Tughluqabad - one of the past cities of Delhi, now the most atmospheric ruins, on a ridge above a few remaining scraps of plain and forest holding back the development of the Delhi exurbs. Cricketers use the plain in front of the huge mausoleum, striking with its stone the colour of congealed blood and its tapering walls, more a fortress than a tomb. The Red Fort is more photogenic, but Tughluqabad has a million times more atmosphere.

  • Bundi, Rajasthan. Here, yes, I do agree with the guidebooks. A delightful small town. Though the main road is full of tourist businesses, as soon as you wander off it, you're in small town India - particularly in the market (wonderful Mahaveer kulfi centre!) Stepwells, paintings with an amazing bright turquoise I never saw anywhere else, palaces clinging to the rock... I loved it.

  • Amber. The best palace in Rajasthan bar none. And behind it, a village of fine havelis, soaring temples, cobbled streets.

  • Jaipur. Which Rough Guide says is busy and stressful and not worth staying more than a couple of days... I got into a nice rhythm. Morning; French toast and coffee at the Indian Coffee House, and a chat with my friend Mr Krishan the retired schoolteacher; then to Lassiwalla (the original, the one that doesn't sell snacks as well, just lassi); then exploring, by foot - to Galta, Gaitor, Nahalgarh, or just wandering the alleys off Tripolia bazar, finding small temples of unparalleled grace, or tiny palaces with panels of fine painting. Or, on one occasion, an entire street taken over by huge steaming cauldrons over their cookfires, for a wedding. No, Jaipur is worth it - providing you are prepared for a long walk. It is big.

  • Pushkar. I didn't like Pushkar. A fight broke out on the bus there, and I had to duck in my seat to avoid punches. The internet didn't work. The hotel turned out to have vicious dogs (which weren't vicious, according to the owner, but they still wanted to bite me). The next day I couldn't find my way up to Gayatri temple, and when I did, I twisted my ankle on the way down. Brahma temple won't let you in with a bag, and I'm not going to leave a grand's worth of photographic equipment on a bench outside. So... and then suddenly, it started working its magic. I can't explain. The unwonted honesty of stallholders ('Madam, that is only glass, this is real stone. Madam, this is synthetic coral, you understand, real we are not having...') The porridge at a little street stall, glinting with jewel-like pomegranate seeds. The chikku shakes. The ladies at Savitri temple singing bhajans, who laughed and joked and let me take their photos on the way down the steep path, and had broad hips and broad smiles.

  • Lodi Gardens, Delhi. I walked there down the long tree-lined streets of New Delhi, finally able to stride out after days in the crowded, twisting alleys of Old Delhi. There were games of cricket, and softball, and toddlers in Sunday best making their unsteady and very serious way across the lawns. There were courting couples holding hands in hidden arbours, and teenagers listening to radios. (You never see that in London any more; iPods have privatised music, it's no longer a communal experience.) Old men reading the newspaper. And among all this, fine Mughal tombs, high domes and Persian style tiles and hidden staircases.

  • Sarkhej, Ahmedabad. At Nizamuddin, Delhi, and at Ajmer, I'd been disturbed by the feeling of the dargahs (Sufi shrines); madwomen at Nizamuddin clutching the screens, yelling at visitors, a feeling of downtrodden poverty and grabbing. But at Sarkhej, the shrine has a holiday feeling; kids playing with huge brightly coloured balls, women chatting in the dim dappled shade of the corridors round the mausoleum, pan puri stands outside (where I was bought one, and everyone shared a laugh when the pepperwater proved too hot for me). It's a lovely place, despite the poverty of the local Muslim community - sidelined by the development of huge residential estates around Sarkhej.

  • Kumbakonam and Kanchipuram - the two best Tamil towns in my book. Kanchi may not have the amazing architecture of Mamallapuram, but it's a much nicer place to stay; Kumbakonam is just cram-full of temples, all in use, all visitable, and again, it's a great little town, part ancient city, part modern mall strip - real India. I have fond memories of both; not perhaps up there on the 'extremely special' list with Amber or Hampi, but very enjoyable and slightly off the beaten track.

Not that other days weren't magnificent. Humayun's tomb. The Gulbumgaz in Bijapur, a huge, looming dome; I went there at dawn and sang Hahn's 'A Cloris' in the dim echoing space, and heard my voice return seconds later, darkened and enriched by the reverberation. The temples in Osian, near Jodhpur. The brigadier-type who hands out the audio guides in Meherengarh fort, and promises you 'this will be, positively, I can guarantee, such an unforgettable experience for you, madam!' (and he was right). The temples of Bhubaneshwar.... I could go on.

And then there are the places I wouldn't bother with again. Tiruvannamalai, a grave disappointment; the volcano Arunachal that is unspectacular, the muddy, unprepossessing track around it, the perpetual demands for money... except that the ashram there has such a feeling of peace and softness; monkeys that don't steal, dogs that don't bark, a chance to sit in the stillness of the cave and meditate.  So that was a day that had its special moments, even though overall it was rather miserable.

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