Friday, 12 July 2013

All of India in four hours

India is a huge country. I've travelled in India twice, first for three months, then for nearly six; and I still haven't seen most of Himachal Pradesh, or any of Uttarkhand, or much of Bengal, or any of the North-East states apart from Assam. And both the Thar Desert and the Rann of Kutch remain on my 'to-do' list.

So if nine months isn't enough time to see the whole country, it seems strange that I'm writing about how to visit India in four hours.

First stop, Mount Abu. A welcome coolness pervades - the plains of Gujarat were toasting nicely in the forties, but it felt at least ten degrees cooler once my bus had crawled from Abu Road's station up the side of the mountain to Mount Abu itself. A fresh breeze off the lake takes the temperature down even more. And there are mature trees everywhere; Mount Abu seems almost like a garden city.

Plus, you can get quite good pizza. Which after a month of Gujarati thali was an appealing thought.

Early morning saw me up already and striding out down the road southwards. I stopped off at a Gujarat state-owned hotel for breakfast - a very good breakfast, French toast and a big pot of tea (or 'service tea' as the menu calls it).

"This is a Gujarati hotel?" I asked.

"Yes madam. Owned by Gujarati State Tourism."

"But we're not in Gujarat. Mount Abu is in Rajasthan, isn't it?"

"Not always," the waiter said. I had visions of the mountain skating around on the geological strata beneath, like a giant ile flottante in a lake of cream, before he continued.

"When India got independence, all this was Mumbai state. Then state was split in two, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Changes, all kinds changes, and Mount Abu becomes Rajasthan, but Gujarati government kept this hotel and other places. So this is Rajasthan, but Gujarat owns the hotel."

Which explained why every other place in town (but not Uncle Sam's Pizza) had Gujarati thali on the menu. And why one restaurant had a prominently displayed sign saying "No Gujarati thali," as if they were fed up of people wandering in and saying airily, without looking at the menu, "Oh, can we have a Gujarati thali."

Anyway... I wandered on. The road went uphill slightly. It got curvier and curvier. It passed a house with a temple built into the front room; oboe music writhed in the air, with tinkling bells which might have been real ones, or might have been part of the music from the loudspeakers. The road spun around on its own tail and stopped abruptly, because there was nowhere for it to go. Ahead, a cliff fell away, down and down towards the plain, and the lowlands stretched dull fawn and dry for ever away from the mountain under the glaring blue sky.

From here, four hundred steps, or seven hundred, or seven hundred and fifty, depending on who you ask, descend to the temple and the spring. Deep steps, steps with paving slabs that tip and wobble, steps of varying and unpredictable depth. Steps that twist like a corkscrew around the crevices of the cliff, always in the shade of huge trees, trees that obstruct the view; you can't see any temple, you can't even see the plain or the sky.

And then, suddenly, there was the temple, and in front of it the square tank, and the spring water rushing into the tank and making the surface shimmer with light.. I watched while an Indian family did their puja; rolling up their trousers, and gingerly descending the steps to touch the marble cow's head from which the water issued, and then their own foreheads, and to drink and sprinkle a little of the water, and brush some of the fresh water back on their hair like Mods refreshing their Brylcreem; and then going meekly into the temple above the spring, where a bearded priest gave them prasad and recited scriptures for them.

 This was a dry day, and the whole of Gujarat had been brown and shrivelled up for weeks, and yet the water was not seeping or dribbling but rushing out in a torrent.

A younger priest arrived and started to pick leaves out of the pool. The Indian family got up, and left. A woodcutter was smashing a log with his axe somewhere in the trees. A little later he came through, taking his sandals off to lug the branch he'd cut to the other side of the pool. A mynah bubbled. A leaf fell, taking for ever to fall slowly, into the water where it skittered and turned in the wind.

Some places you go to, and you wonder what all the fuss was about. The Taj Mahal was like that for me. Other places you immediately feel a certain - I hesitate to use the word holiness, but that's what it feels like; a certain spiritual quality to them. Kathok Lake in Yoksum, Sikkim is like that for me. So is Wayland's Smithy on the Ridgeway, in southern England. Gaumukh was one of these places; still, serene, sacred.

I went into the temple. The bearded priest must have been about my age, a bit older perhaps; his smile was ready, his eyes bright.

"You have come to India," he said. I thought that's obvious, but he continued; "You have come to Gaumukh, and Gaumukh is all India. The water, the water is Ganga, the sacred river. And the mountain, that is Himalaya, where Shiva lives. Ganga and Himalaya, that is all of India. So you travel all of India in one day, and when you are here, you make your bath in Ganga and you visit Mount Kailash in Himalaya, all at one and the same time."

We chatted a little. He gave me prasad; little hard nubbins of sugar candy as white as Tippex that cracked between my teeth. He told me the water was good to drink; he indicated a little metal pot I could use to take the water from the spring, if I needed it. He told me I should bathe in Ganga. I didn't bother to roll my trousers up. (They were dry, anyway, within a few minutes.) The steps were slightly slippery; I held on to the cow's ear to steady myself, and cupped a hand under the water. It was fresh, cool, sweet. I drank my fill.

And that was India. Two hours to walk there and two hours to walk back, and all of India rolled up in a single visit.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Told off!

The shrines of Chamba and Bharmour are rather different in style from other Indian temples I've seen. In Chamba, six temples and a number of other tanks, shrines, and buildings share a single great courtyard; in Bharmour, there are 84 separate shrines, so I was told, through three or four larger temples dominate the space.

But I'll remember Bharmour for other reasons. First, the terrible bus journey from Chamba.

I must admit I regard most Indian bus stations with some trepidations. Buses come and go like lunatic seagulls on Cromer pier, and you never quite know you're on the right one; the 1645 goes at six in the evening, but the five o'clock will set off at quarter past four, for whatever reason... But Chamba is a bit different. The bus station is as chaotic as anywhere else, but once I'd asked for my destination (and it was the same when I went to Khajjiar, and when I finally left for Delhi), all the bus conductors wanted to look after me.

The bus conductor on the way to Bharmour was exceptional. Out I get at the breakfast stop - and I'm told exactly where to eat my breakfast, and fetched when it's time to get back on the bus. And when I get to Bharmour, I'm told how long I've got till the bus goes back (and he actually gave me accurate information, something that doesn't happen a lot in India), and that he'll be on that bus, and he won't go without me (and he didn't). A lovely chap.

But the drive was terrible. Terrifying. Narrow roads with precipices on one side. That's the way Himachal Pradesh is, but the precipices seemed steeper and the road narrower and more twisted and contorted than anywhere else I'd been.

Bharmour was worth it. Below the temples, there were ancient houses of wood - hardly visited by tourists, and many being replaced by new concrete - with intricate balconies, and shady verandahs, and an old lady who called me over to take her photograph and wanted me to sit down and stay there all day. A pharmacist who wanted to practise his English, and translated everything I said to his next-door neighbour the tailor (who was stitching a pair of trousers, and couldn't believe that in England, trousers could cost 3,000 rupees: "You can buy these for 450," he said, and I understood he'd be doing pretty well at that price).

And the temples... from tiny shrines like slightly overgrown mailboxes to the soaring spire of the main temple with its deeply incised decoration and shining gilded finial, temples spread out across a broad paved area, where boys were playing cricket (naturally) and five girls were chasing each other into and out of the compound of the second largest temple. Where travellers wandered through, and one pilgrim dressed in saffron lit incense in front of a deity sat under a tall deodar tree, and every so often someone would slip off their shoes and go into a temple for a few minutes, and come out again and wander off. One wooden gabled temple with age-worn carvings of gods on the facade, so worn they seemed to grow out of the wood like twisted roots, and the smell of cedar everywhere.

"Hello may I ask your name and where you come from and why you visiting Brahmour?" said a confident high voice with an accent that came straight from the Home Counties (a good education for sure).

That was the leader of the girls, the tallest of them, perhaps twelve or thirteen, I couldn't be sure; utterly self-possessed, and at home here - though Bharmour wasn't her home, she was up for the holidays, from somewhere else - Mumbai? Delhi? I've forgotten now.

"There are eighty-four temples," she said. "And a tank."

She then went on to deliver her opinion on the "naughty boys. They are very naughty and very noisy", and showed me how to wish on Nandiji - using one of the other girls as a model.

"You have to crawl under him," she said, as the other girl crawled underneath the gilded bronze bull, from his right side to his left side, and then walked round to do it again.

"You see, crawl under one time, then the second time" - she waited till the other girl was standing up again - "then the third time  you crawl in under his tail, and crawl all the way up to his head. And then you stand up and take his ear" - which for the smaller girl was quite a stretch - "and you make a wish."

"And do you have to keep the wish a secret?"

"I don't know," she said crossly. (After this, I noticed, every time I asked a question to which she didn't know the answer, she'd do the same.)

"Do you want to wish?"

I said I thought I was possibly too big to crawl under Nandiji easily, and she looked at me, biting her bottom lip and considering.

"Do you want to see the tank?"

Oh yes, yes I did. Nandi forgotten, off we went to see the tank, or well, or spring. And then some more temples.

"Oh, that's Ganesh," I said, looking in one.

"No, not Ganesh."

"There's another elephant god?"

"No. You said GA-nesh. It's GUH-nesh-a. You have to say it properly."

She shook her dark hair dismissively. I was not up to scratch, and I knew it. I bet she grows up to become a teacher; possibly not the kind I ever liked very much.

Yet a couple of minutes later she was chatting agreeably about favourite places, and what was London like, and where I should go next, and where was the best sweet shop in Chamba, and how long did the plane take to get me back home to Paris?

Then it was time to head back to the bus, and grab a quick, and inexpensive, rice and daal before it left; and there was my bus conductor, smiling, and asking how I liked the temples. I liked them a lot, I said. And for once, that wasn't just politeness; it was really true.