"Kumbh Mela or Kumbha Mela (/ˌkʊm ˈmeɪlə/ or /ˌkʊm məˈlɑː/) is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. It is considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world where around 100 million (10 crore) people were expected to visit during the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 in Allahabad. It is held every third year at one of the four places by rotation: Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayaga), Nashik and Ujjain. Thus the Kumbh Mela is held at each of these four places every twelfth year. Ardha ("Half") Kumbh Mela is held at only two places, Haridwar and Allahabad, every sixth year. The rivers at these four places are: the Ganges (Ganga) at Haridwar, the confluence (Sangam) of the Ganges and the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad, the Godawari at Nashik, and the Shipra at Ujjain. The name Kumbh Mela comes from Hindi, and in the original Sanskrit and other Indian languages it is more often known as Kumbha Mela. Kumbha means a pitcher and Mela means fair in Sanskrit.
The Kumbh Mela occurrences follow the Hindu calendar, as follows:
In 2001, more than 40 million gathered on the busiest of its 55 days. "
The last maha kumbh mela happened in Prayag (Allahabad) in 2001 and this is the story of how I ended up there.
I wanted to go to the Kumbh Mela.
The Kumbh Mela was on same day as the Mahakumbh which happens only once in 144 years and the whole world seemed to be converging to it -- umpteen crore Indians, hordes of foreigners and an innumerable number of reporters.
I had been watching the developments on the TV and press curiously. But when I tried researching it on the Net, I was really hooked. The internet itself was pretty new to us, and stuff like wikipedia and blogs were still some years away. The Indian presence on the web was still quite low and the best sites on the Kumbh Mela were by firangs, and the bulletin boards were all about how so-and-so was planning to come to the Kumbh, and where they could stay, and some so-and-so saying that he had reached the Kumbh, and how he was totally overawed...
I was getting more and more cheesed off… how come all kinds of firangs were able to go to the Kumbh, and I, as an Indian, couldn't. Bah!
The issues were simple - I was not going to get any leave, as the big boss didnt like me much; I didn't have any money, and air tickets were pretty expensive back then, and it was just too difficult...and the crowds and health and law and order issues and what not.
The big issue was mental - it always is - I was simply scared of going there, as the papers were full of horror stories about how crowded everything was, and there was a huge crush every where, and the law and order issues, health issues....yada yada yada.
At that time, however, suddenly a lot of things fell into place.
The big boss who didn't like me went on a long vacation, and my immediate boss was new and hopefully more easily handled. More importantly - I realised that if I really wanted to go, I could just go and damn the leave.
Always better to apologise after having done, rather than ask for permission to do.
Suddenly I got an interview call from a company in Delhi, and they wanted to meet me and they were willing to reimburse the airfare. And they wanted me to book the ticket.That meant that I could do the management myself - cancelling and rescheduling and so forth. So the money problem was solved.
And I had just experienced the joys of backpacking, and my mental bonds were loosening. Nothing is as bad as you think it is - just go and try it.
Wow, I said.
At that point the plan started crystallizing in my mind that Kumbh really seemed to be calling. I decided that Kumbh would happen.
The next issue was company. It was difficult to find someone crazy enough to go with me at such short notice.
I tried to catch my old backpacking mate Chinmay, but he thought I was crazy. Then I tied up with another dude, but he ditched at the last moment.
To hell with it, I said.
I'll go alone.
On Friday, I took the morning Delhi flight, with some 2K in my pocket, a backpack and my trusty Lonely Planet. No reservations, no hotel bookings, no clear plans, nothing. That's what real adventure is all about anyway.
Landed in Delhi at about 12 noon. Called up some people i knew from the airport to ask about a ticket to Allahabad , but got only cribs. No tickets, no room, all trains booked, huge crowds, no rooms in Allahabad, lawlessness, his own sales people had left Allahabad and were avoiding it as much as possible... and so on.
Okay, Okay I said, forget it. I'll handle it myself.
This was back when the huge national highway was still under construction, and there was only a small little road to go to Gurgaon - which was still a small backwater at the time. Companies were just discovering it, and Nestle was among the few companies who had taken the plunge and relocated there. There was no easy way to get to Gurgaon from Delhi airport, and I ended up taking a terribly crowded government bus that left me crushed and gasping in Gurgaon.
A 2-minute walk, and there I was at the Nestle building. A huge place, positively awe-inspiring, new structure, new age architecture, very hep indeed. The lobby was totally fancy, marble and chrome, and a video wall continuously showed Nestle ads, various meeting rooms etc., very hep indeed.
The company seemed to be quite straitlaced - with a pretty formal tie-clad culture. There seemed to be a lot of expats around and the people were conservatively dressed, and quiet and reserved.
And me? I was dressed in a formal blue shirt and a formal black pair of pants. No tie. But, as I did not want to wear black leather shoes to the Kumbh, I was wearing a dirty old pair of sneakers. And I was carrying a bright red backpack.
When the HR guy came down, he looked at me for a couple of minutes, as if he couldn't believe his eyes. Then he came to me hesitantly and asked, "Ketan?"
"Yes!" I answered enthusiastically, thoroughly enjoying myself. Words failed him for a minute, then he manfully mastered himself, and invited me to a conference room. As I was early I would have to wait.
"No problem," I said and brightened up when he asked for my ticket so that he could reimburse the money. That was the main reason why I was there!
Then he treated me to a hot chocolate from a really neat vending machine and left. I whiled away the time drinking hot chocolate, making phone calls, reading the Lonely Planet... In the meantime, the guy brought the money in lovely cold cash... ahhh, solved my solvency problems.
The interview was an amusing thing as well. I was pretty sick of Marico by then and was keen to get out and Nestle would have been a really cool option. But they wanted to launch a brand of mineral water water and were looking for a brand manager for that. I was pretty disappointed - I was handling a brand of salt in Marico and the essence of a commodity was that there was not much profit margin in it; and everyone used to look at me as if it was my fault that the product was not profitable.
I explained to the swiss interviewer in great detail as to why his idea was a terrible idea and could never work. he tried to defend himself, but I countered him at every point and showed him how the launch would be a total failure.
Not a great way to clear an interview. Must have left him scratching his head and wondering about the strangest interview he would ever have taken.
Nestle did launch the product later, and it crashed and burnt exactly the way I told him it would. sigh )
After the interview , I left for Delhi station with a spring in my step.
I was no longer an interviewee... I was a backpacker!
The Great Train Journey
The bus dropped me at the New Delhi railway station, and now being an experienced person, I went immediately to the ticket counter and bought an open second class unreserved ticket to Allahabad (Rs 142). Armed with the ticket I barged into the first platform. There was a train already standing there.
"What train is this?"
"Allahabad jaati hai?”
"Jaroor jaati hai."
Very good, I thought, and went to the unreserved compartment. On seeing it, I recoiled... it was packed like a Bombay local in peak time, like a can of sardines. And it was full of weird characters -- normal guys, sadhus with tridents, some seriously warped looking characters -- no way I was going to travel like that for 12 hours, all night.
Then I went up and down the train, generally checking it out -- it was quite full.
Then I went to phase 2, the TC pleading phase... went and caught the TC -- saa'b jagah chaahiye -- berth, No.… seat, No... Attendant’s seat, No... anything at all -- No. Arre, what to do now?
Then I went and spoke to the stallwalas out there.
"Boss, I want to go to Allahabad, no reservation -- what to do?"
The first person suggested waiting for the next train, so that I could get a seat in the unreserved compartment (ugh), but it was the next guy who really gave the jackpot suggestion. "Arre saa'b, just pile on to the reserved 2nd class compartment...TC thoda fine marega, wo bhar do."
Yes! That is a good idea. The train was due to leave at 8 p.m. Two minutes before departure, I jumped into the train in the reserved compartment. Stood like a good boy until we were well out of Delhi, and then sat down.It was bloody crowded even out by the door and was a total crush - couldn't even stretch out my legs -- first squatted, then sat cross-legged, then tried vajrasana -- was changing my position every 2 hours, as I got fresh cramps. I had bought a newspaper - not to read, but to sit on.
I had to get up a couple of times, as we stopped at Aligarh, and some other place, and there I lost my newspaper on which I was sitting. Later though, some space was created as people got off, or went to other compartments. And it was getting colder and colder, and I was chilled to the bone. It was February in North India, and it was bloody freezing sitting outside the railway compartment like that.
Luckily, I had worn my sweatshirt over my shirt, then I dug out my sweater and put it on, then I found a scarf and put it on, then I shoved all the newspapers i had left inside my clothes for insulation - then I had nothing else, so I shivered through the night. Brrrr.
I finally reached Allahabad at six in the morning, and was really glad to get out of the train -- being half frozen and half dead. I first made a beeline for a cup of tea and stood there watching various people get off, all of whom seemed to be people in various shades of ochre, with or without tridents, all bound for the Kumbh. Then I walked out of the station.
It was cold and dark, and the city had not woken up as yet. Some pilgrims were sitting around a small bonfire under a shelter. As I was leaving the station, a cyclerickshawala approached me.
"Saa'b, hotel chahiye?"
I looked at him. Yes, I do want a hotel, but you will take me only to the place where you get your commission.
"Nahin saa'b. I will show you as many hotels as you like. Only after you are satisfied, you pay me 5 rupees."
Just 5 rupees, eh? That was fine by me and I hopped into his cycle.
And the very first hotel he brought me to was perfectly fine, though we had to wake up the proprietor. He just gave me a reassuring smile, shouted for the flunky to show me the room, and went right back to sleep. The flunk showed me the room, and it was perfectly fine -- clean room, with clean white bed sheets, and an attached bath. Rate? Rs. 300. Inwardly I gave a big smile -- the net was talking about 1000 -1500 rates… but I frowned and said, "It's expensive."
"Yes," he agreed, "don't want it?"
"No, no -- I do want it. Definitely."
So with no problem whatsoever, I got a nice cheap room -- others reported hunting high and low for a room, or paying huge rates.
The first thing I did after checking in was slip under the two blankets on the double bed and get some sleep. I was totally zonked after that terrible freezing night journey. After an uneasy nap of a couple of hours, I woke up and left at about 10 o' clock.
Went out and immediately went to a chaiwala to put some hot tea into my still frozen body. There I asked a passerby how to get to the Kumbh...
"Catch an auto -- go to (some) place, catch a cycle rickshaw from there, go to (some) place, and then walk..."
"Haan theek hai -- but how far is it from here?"
"Oh -- about 8 km."
Well, I was still cold, so I thought -- let's walk.
I walked and walked and walked, and as I came nearer and nearer to the Mela, the crowd went on increasing. Soon it consumed the entire road and there was a mother-of-all-traffic-jams. Huge number of devotees, trucks, cars, tempos, buses and hajaar cycle rickshaws who were doing their best to screw up the traffic as much as possible.
I went on walking; the bloody township was huge. Tents and people everywhere, lots of dust, janta around.
The janta was basically of 4 types:
a) Pure devotees: These actually impressed me the most. Tons and tons of these guys -- totaldehatis, no possessions apart from the clothes on their back and a bundle of oddments on their head -- they had come from all over the country to take part in the Kumbh. Janta from Nepal, Himachal, Maharashtra, assorted south and large numbers from UP and Bihar. They had come out of pure faith -- no other aim than to take a Ganga snaan and wash away their sins. Normally quite a cynical person, I was quite humbled by their faith -- no jokes.
b) Sadhus: These were the most eye-catching. All kinds of them -- many real weirdos. Some were the standard ochre clad, trishul wielding, some were mendicant / beggar kind, some were propertantrics, some Naga kinds with ash smeared and matted locks, some posh-looking fair-skinned silk adorned ones, kapalis holding skulls and so on.
c) Indian tourists: Semi-devotional types, rich / semi-rich pot-bellied Punjabis en famille -- generally came in Sumos, made a lot of noise, took a bath and went off with huge 5-liter canisters of 'gangajal'.
Also many poorer ones with smaller cars or none at all, making less noise, less irritating and carried smaller canisters of 'gangajal'.
d) Firangs: Either the budget backpacker types, which can be further classified into 'devotional / discover myself types' and 'see the freakshow' types or the expensive 'package tour with European tent' types or of course the media guys with expensive camera equipment and with an eye out for the most 'happening' shots.
Of course, there were the original Kumbh people -- the kapalwasis who stay by the riverside for the entire month, and bathe three times a day and spend the time engrossed in prayer, but to be honest, I didn't see them. And of course there were all those people who were making a living out of the Kumbh -- stallwalas, boatwalas, curio sellers etc., honest and dishonest in equal measure.
I walked around in a daze... well... not quite in a daze, to be honest, but taking in the whole atmosphere and trying to absorb as much as possible. While I had read a lot about the Kumbh on the Net and in the papers, being part of it was quite an experience, which I cannot really describe. The collection of people around, though huge, was not really overpowering. For one thing, for Bombayites, crowds are not such a big deal, as we seem to be in one at any given time of the day. And secondly the area of the Kumbh was so huge (40 square kilometers) that the crowd was spread out. It was the composition of the crowd, which was really interesting.
All kinds of people, as I said earlier -- all coming together, for a common cause, without any problem whatsoever. In a 10-minute walk you would encounter large numbers of dehatis / small towners, weird sadhus, who may or may not accost you for money ( generally not, to be quite honest), a couple of bemused looking firang backpackers, lots of stallwalas, and lots and lots of cops.
That's one thing, which was quite impressive -- the government preparations. I really can't describe them all at once, but it was really impressive. Numerous tents, ropeways all across the river bank, information booths, lost-and-found booth, first aid tents, roads, sand banks, lighting, public conveniences everywhere, lots and lots of licensed stalls selling food and drink, PCOs... and a huge police presence. Thus there was no mara mari, no lawlessness, no wholesale ripping off of tourists, no harassment. Good show, hats off to the government.
Well, anyway, getting back to the Sangam... I was generally roaming around finding my way to the actual Sangam... stopped at a phone booth (yes, there were STD booths aplenty right in theKumbh area -- I told you the arrangements were good) to call Dad at home and reassure him that I was alive and well. He got damn excited when I told him that I was at the Sangam: "Took a dip, eh?"
"Well no," I replied a little apologetically, "I am not actually at the Sangam, but in the vicinity."
Finally (whew!) I came in sight of the actual confluence. Quite a sight -- the deep blue, cleaner, faster flowing Yamuna meeting the sluggish, muddy Ganga. Yamuna flows straight, with better formed banks, while the Ganga takes a huge loop around -- which makes it difficult to make out. The colour change is quite dramatic, the deep blue Yamuna combines with the muddy Ganga and you can clearly see the different colours and the third colour of the Ganga after the confluence.
On the Yamuna, just before the Sangam, there is a huge fort that was built by Akbar, which dominates the surroundings -- even now it looks very solid and in excellent condition, very beautiful and scenic right on the banks of the river, the trees on the fort bending over the river and gently swaying... very nice indeed!
It took quite some time to absorb all this (and to be perfectly honest, I didn't -- the whole thing sunk into me over the whole day as I was pottering around in the area). I had hardly walked five minutes when a boatwala spotted me as easy prey -- "Saa'b, boat ride?"
Sure, why not.
He took me to his boat, and in fact had some trouble locating it, there were so many boats on that blessed river! Thousands and thousands! Well... hundreds anyway. All dilapidated looking wrecks, but floated fairly well. We went over three boats until we came to his boat and headed out. Like all the people I met, he was mystified by the fact that I had come alone to Kumbh, all the way from Bombay and had no interest in bathing!
We finally got into the river, and luckily I was the only one on the boat, so I was very comfortable and had a 360-degree view. (Not so lucky perhaps, as I had to pay for the whole boat by myself.) We floated down to the Sangam point, and what I earlier thought was a rocky promontory, jutting out into the water -- turned out actually to be a long, long line of boats anchored at the Sangampoint, with hajaar janta stripped down and taking their holy dips. Everyone was busily scrubbing away with soap -- why soap? I wondered. The water is too dirty for the soap to make any difference -- you would probably come out dirtier than when you went in first, and whatever positioning statements we marketers make, nobody has appropriated the 'good for soul' segment yet.
I wanted to take photos of that line of well-scrubbed holiness, but my boatman cautioned me, "Nosaa'b. Very strict rules against taking photos of people while bathing saa'b." Probably, the furore of our moral guardians after the press guys went wild taking photos of some firang babe bathing in the nude. I looked around desperately for that babe, but she seemed to be as invisible as the Saraswati river.
Out there again my boatman asked me, "Saa'b, Sangam nahaaenge nahin?" He was quite foxed as to why one should take the trouble to come all the way, and finally not take the obligatory dip. But seeing the general condition of the river, I politely refused, though I did fill some Sangamwater in a plastic bottle. Finally the boatman was satisfied -- something as per tradition finally. Then, to assuage his feelings rather than mine, I cupped up some water in my palm and poured it on my head as a token bath. (Some thing which was to become famous later as the 'Sonia' bath, when Sonia Gandhi did the same thing.)
After the Sangam, I told him to take a general chakkar of the river and take a long route back. An amusing thing I saw on the river was a floating post office -- a boat painted red and actually a fully functional post office -- I was impressed.
After the boat ride, I did the usual tourist thing and visited the fort. There's a 1000-year-old 'akshay vat' in a temple full of rapacious priests demanding money at every step (not getting much though) and a Hanuman temple, which had a two-kilometer line in front of it -- so I did not enter it.
I spent the rest of the day roaming about the Kumbh area -- paid a long visit to the Sangam shoreline, watching people take holy dips. As today was not a particularly auspicious day, people were able to take dips without any hassle. One sight that I remember very vividly was seeing two huge police dogs frolicking about like puppies -- a very cute sight. On the ghat, I had a chat with a policeman, asking him about his experiences with the Kumbh, and congratulated him on the excellent arrangements. In turn, he was impressed that I had come alone, all the way from Bombay to the Kumbh.
Later I went across to see the famous 'Naga' sadhus -- they were in a separate enclave the other side of the Ganga -- a very reasonable walk. How much I walked out there, must have walked 25-30 km everyday. I did see a few of them -- naked, smeared with ashes and smoking pot, and doing some sundry yagnas, but very frankly, didn't see it worth pursuing much. I saw some, got bored after some time, and then left. Taking photos is actually not allowed, but I did sneak a photo.
Spent time till nightfall, then walked back. Blessed with a sense of direction, which, if it was present in birds, would help them migrate to a different place every year, I naturally walked confidently in the wrong direction, got lost and had to double back and walk nearly twice the distance required. Was dog-tired when I reached the hotel and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next day, I went to Anand Bhavan -- the ancestral house of the Nehrus. Being on my macho walking kick, I eschewed autos and walked all the 8 km there and back. Anand Bhavan was OK, quite a well-maintained house, with beautiful lawns. The interior has been maintained as it was in Jawaharlal Nehru's time, and looks like the dwelling place of very serious-minded people -- all dark mahogany furniture and loads of serious books.
I came back to the hotel, and then walked back to the Kumbh. There was nothing much new there, except that I got lost yet again and was totally fagged out when I reached the Sangam, having had to walk double the distance. Listened to the evening pooja and walked back, being careful to ask directions this time.
When I came back, I had enough of the Kumbh, and decided to go to Benares (Kashi / Varanasi) the next day. I checked out the next morning, and got a bus to Kashi. Bus was cheap, but bloody crowded, and left us quite some distance away from the city. Again, being on my walking kick, I walked all the way to the river side -- the Dasashwamedha Ghat. This time, it was not quite so enjoyable, as I had a heavy backpack on me.
Anyway, I finally reached the ghat and took my bearings from the map in the Lonely Planet. Located some cheap hotels nearby (as nearby as possible, I was close to collapse). The first one was full (I asked him whether he had any problem with Indian tourists), but the second had room. It was more expensive than my Allahabad room, but was a good deal nicer, being directly on the river side, so you had a beautiful view of the Ganga from the gallery. And being a LP recommended hotel, it was mainly firangs all the way. And indeed the owner had put in all the possible things that a firang crowd could want -- rooms, river side café with Indian and continental food, cyber café, STD/ISD booth, travel agent and money changer, some reading material for sale, and even a music class, teaching Indian classical music. The only thing missing was a yoga class.
In fact, later I got chummy with the owner and asked him why there was no yoga class. He replied that the owner of the nearest yoga class was a friend of his, and so he did not want to hurt his business!
The owner himself was an interesting character -- hardcore UP-ite, but very smart-looking. He had converted his ancestral house into his hotel. In fact, it was hilarious when he started pointing out rooms to me… "See that room -- our cow used to live there -- now I rent it out for 500 rupees per day. The cow's hay used to be stored in that room -- I rent it out for 400 rupees per day." He had certainly done a good job of building up his hotel's equity, and had a reasonably good review in the Lonely Planet as well. Also, he had somehow patoed a Spanish babe and married her, and now he had a shop in Spain, where he sold Indian curios at exorbitant prices. In fact he lived half the year in Spain, as he claimed he couldn't bear the heat in India. Enterprising fellow!
Anyway, I spent the afternoon lazing around in the hotel, and went for a dusk river ride across the Ganges. A very beautiful experience indeed to float across the Ganga in the failing light. The boatman pointed out all the ghats on the river -- including Mankramanika Ghat, the funeral ghat where pyres burn 24 hours, and Harishchandra ghat where the king served as a servant to the king of the 'Doms' (funeral workers), and Dasashwamedha Ghat, supposed to be the oldest ghat in Kashi.
This is really the heart of Kashi, and of Hinduism too, in a way. There were a huge number of devotees having their holy dips (and a lot of people like me -- spillovers from the Kumbh). For a single person like me, who was having pleasure cruises on the river, there were a hundred pilgrims for whom this trip on the river was the fulfilment of life itself and were singing hymns and doing aartis, or deep in prayer and meditation. The rationalist in me scoffs at such superstition, but the human in me salutes such faith and devotion. I myself desisted from bathing -- the water was filthy.
As we came back, the light was failing and my boatman proudly showed me a really jhatak aartion Dasashwamedha Ghat, with some 20-odd priests swinging their diyas in tandem and a fearful racket of cymbals and ghantas and other instruments. The devotees seemed to be in good spirits, and all the firangs were photographing and camcording away to glory, but I was not very impressed.
After some more relaxation in the hotel, I set out for the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The Vishwanath temple was the focal point of Hinduism, and so to cow down the populace, the fanatic tyrant Aurangzeb had it razed to the ground, and a mosque raised on that spot, breaking the hearts of Hindus all over the nation. The current temple was one built by our fellow marathi lady, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi , and the gold canopy on the top was provided by Ranjeetsingh of the Punjab.
Lately the VHP has been making threatening noises about breaking down the mosque and rebuilding the temple (and after seeing the spot, I must say that I sympathize with them) -- so the police have cordoned off the place in a rather ham-handed way, and an easy entry into the temple has been made rather difficult. Anyway, I went to the temple and had a long and comfortable communion with the deity for nearly half an hour.
After this, I had enough religion for a day, so I decided against going to the Gyaan Kupoor (the well where the original shiv linga is supposed to be hidden) and chose rather to wander through the amazing gullies of Benares. Small labyrinthine gullies with shops selling all kinds of stuff from paan, to bhaang to pickles -- lots of mithai outlets, religious artifacts etc. I spent nearly two hours generally roaming about -- absolutely fascinating. (If I was fascinated, I can just imagine how overwhelmed the firangs felt.) Going back to the hotel, I felt a bit lonely, but later started chatting with the owner till bedtime.
The next day, I got up bright and early for a dawn river ride on the Ganga, equally enjoyable, but nothing very new, except the exhilaration of the dawn over the river. Then I went back to the hotel and decided to go to the Buddhist relics of Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. The owner's cousin offered me a lift, and it nearly gave me a holy death in the holy city. Rushing about on a bike in those narrow gullies had me scared stiff -- and sure enough we slipped on a glob of cowdung on a steep turn and BAM we were both on the ground! I was unhurt, but 6 inches further, I would've split my skull open on a stone step. Flustered by the fall, the guy drove a little more safely, but as soon as we emerged on the main road, there were a hundred two-wheelers as reckless as him, and we promptly banged into another lunatic coming from the opposite direction, breaking somebody's clutch lever (I saw the piece fly in the sky). Anyway, he dropped me at a point where I could get an auto, and in due course of time I landed up at Sarnath.
It was a very beautiful place. The local temples are sponsored by Buddhist nations like Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand etc., while the actual archeological site is maintained by the ASI, and indeed, is the first time I have seen any good work done by the organization. Very beautifully laid out site, with well marked excavations and lawns, and even a deer park with very tame deer.
I was approached by a very good and knowledgeable young guide who showed me the birthplace of the Jain tirthankara as well as the Buddhist relics. He was an employee of the local Buddhist refugee organization, which teaches the locals to form cooperatives to make and sell Banarasi silks without getting jacked by middlemen. So I went and saw a real traditional silk handloom, and later bought a couple of silk sarees for mom. The first time ever that I bought a saree!
When I came back in the evening, I had another interesting experience. In the evening I had again gone to roam about in the gullies, when I suddenly felt like having hot milk from the corner doodhwala. (After all, this is the USP of the region -- hot milk in winter.) I was standing there and chatting with the doodhwala, when an acharya also came along to chat with us. He was a font of information and told us the significance of the Mauni amavasya, and then told me about the Vichalaxmi mandir nearby. (I later found out that it was one of the major Devi temples in India.)
Suddenly one crowd came our way. I was wondering what this crowd was all about, when suddenly I saw a familiar face. "Arre...Ravishankarji!" I blurted out, as he passed on, and somebody in the crowd said "Yes, yes" and hurried on.
It was Sri Sri Ravishankar, the new famous Guruji of 'Art of Living' fame. How strange to see him here. I finished off my milk and the acharya offered to show me the Vichalaxmi mandir. Ok, I said and we went there, only to find that the entire crowd was there.
This seems to be fated, I thought, and stood there. One beautiful aarti happened... not the normal type, but some beautiful devotional songs, sung extremely well. I was very impressed.
After 15-20 minutes they came out, and suddenly I found myself face to face with the Sri Sri himself! What a surprise!
"Pranam Ravishankarji," I said. He gave me a smile and hurried on. People were really impressed that I had the good fortune to meet the Guruji, even without doing the 'Art of Living' course.
Meanwhile, the acharya had given me a solid dose on 'Mauni amavasya' which was the next day. He praised the holiness of the day to the skies, and gave me a detailed SOP on how to take the bath. (Wake up before dawn, keep silence (maun) until you take the bath, take achaman from abrahmin and give dakshina and I will get maximum moksha.) Well, I thought, why not -- I was in Kashi on such a holy day, and right on the river side.
I went back to the hotel, and chatted with the owner's cousin till bed time.
The next day, I duly awoke before dawn and took my holy bath in complete silence as recommended by that acharya, which I hope has blessed me and erased my former sins!
After coming back, I checked out of the hotel and asked the owner what I could see in the town until my flight later in the day. He gave me directions and a walking route.
Given the adventurous nature of the trip, it was only fitting that it should also end in a thrilling fashion.
I had some bhaang in the market and was feeling very happy indeed and had just finished seeing the new Vishwanath temple on the Benares Hindu University campus, when I heard someone shout out for me.
I was shocked! Turning to see who this could possibly be -- it was my host, the hotel owner!
'What the...' I blinked in amazement. Did I have too much bhang? Was I stoned? Where did this guy spring from?
He grinned at me and said 'Thank god I found you...You need to rush back.'
'Rush back! Why?'
'Arre...your flight has been pre poned! The flight will leave 2 hours earlier than planned. Thats why I came rushing to find you.'
'Preponed! I never heard of such a thing....how can they prepone a flight, bloody rascals. And how did you find me?' I asked in amazement.
'Arre, I had chalked out the route for you, so I came running all along the route to look for you.'
'Running all the way! What a thing to do....thanks a lot.'
'Arre...what thanks...you are our guest! This is the least we can do.'
I was very touched.
We had a rushed trip to the hotel to pick up my luggage, then to the travel agent to pick up my ticket and then to the airport.
It was a smooth flight back and I was at home-sweet-home, with another backpacking vacation concluded - thanks to Nestle and the fates.
Mom met me at the door and touched my feet, as befits the first of the Joshi clan to do a pilgrimage of the Mahakumbh and Kashi.
One upon a time long long ago….there was a bunch of MBA students who decided to go on a long journey....
Many years back when we were in MBA school, we decided on the spur of the moment to go to IIM Calcutta for an inter MBA school festival that they were going to have.
A lot of debating, shilly shallying, yes-no happened and till the penultimate day, we were still not decided who should go to represent the institute, and chances were that finally it would be a no-show from our end. Then we got news that IIM Lucknow was having a fest at the same time, and two of our colleagues had gone by flight to attend it. This sparked off our resolve and we decided that we would go to Calcutta
Finally it came down to three people who were willing to go – Me, Chinmay and the great man – Anand “Cute” Kute. The obvious question was “how?!!!”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Chinmay, with the smug assurance of the seasoned traveler (a complete sham, as we discovered later) “We’ll just take tickets in black, or take an open ticket and go in the general compartment.” He made it sound as if reservations, berths and all that kind of stuff were for wussies. In our innocence (and hope) we swallowed that line, and turned up at the Bombay VT train terminus that evening with bag and baggage, having wished our surprised folks a cheery good bye.
Words couldn’t describe our swagger as we came to VT, we were the chosen ones, from a premier MBA institute, and were embarking on an amazingly adventurous journey. We were looking down our noses at the proletariat who were rushing hither and thither to get tickets or find their berth.
Soon it was time for the first reality check. It turned out that due to some problem or the other, trains for Calcutta had been canceled for the past 3 days, and out of the 3 trains scheduled today, 2 had been canceled. So the entire load of 3 days (9-10 trains) had come on to one train, and VT was looking more like a flood or riot refugee camp than a train terminus. Any way, like those who rush in where angels fear to tread, we did not understand the import of that situation.
As per Chinmay's instruction, we started looking out for a tout. Strangely, the atmosphere seemed entirely toutless. Generally they are all over the place, and bother you, and get in your way, but here we had to look around quite a bit until we found one. Anyway, we found one finally.
“Kahan jaana hai?”
That answer seemed to throw him a bit. He pondered a bit and said, “Hmm… AC ticket is possible...”
We all had some 500-600 bucks in our pocket, so AC was out of the question.
“No, we want 2nd class tickets”
The tout looked at us, looked around at the huge, milling crowd and started laughing, and went away.
We were a bit taken aback at the failure of the first strategy, but we were not to be defeated. We shifted to plan 2 - an open ticket. After standing for what seemed to be an interminable time, we finally reached the counter and became the proud possessors of 4 open tickets to Calcutta at the cost of Rs 152 each. We were very happy about the bargain – cheap travel, save money.
The train had not come in to the station yet, the track was looking empty and forlorn. The platform was really packed. We were wondering how to enter the general compartment, seeing the huge crowd, full of rough and dangerous looking characters. Seeing us standing there, a coolie came along. He was an imposing figure – tall, sinewy, paan chewing, slightly drunk – looked totally homicidal.
“Kidhar jaana hai?”
“Want a seat?”
Seat? We had thought that there was no reservation in an open class bogey. But Chinmay, the great traveler, told us what he meant.
“Arre, these guys have a total Mafia going. They enter the train first and grab seats, beating up anybody who tries to sit there. He will get us the seat, but keeping it is our problem.”
Oh. Good. We bargained the rate at 30 bucks per seat, and were again pleased with ourselves at the economical way in which we were traveling.
Soon the train finally arrived, and a sea of humanity flung itself at the general compartment. Words cannot describe the bedlam, desperation and agony of that rush. Though as Bombayites we are phlegmatic about such things, and proudly show the world how we enter and exit out of the madly packed local trains every day, this was something out of our league. However, we fought gamely and managed to make our way into the bogey in the first lot, and sure enough, our Mafioso coolie was standing on a berth like a colossus, warding off all comers.
It was a surreal scene - the lights were not on in the compartment, it was full of smoke for some reason and the noise of the platform was dimmed inside the bogey. It was a strange, dark scene with various coolies and other thugs standing on seats and screaming away like demons. It reminded me of Tolkein's description of Sauron’s forge “This was the centre of Sauron's power on the middle-earth and all other powers were here subdued”. We made it to him and nearly got clouted by him before he recognized us. Finally we got the seat; he collected his money and vanished.
Four of us were sitting scrunched up on a berth made for three, when suddenly another ruffian came along and started to seat another guy next to us. Anand, our muscleman, objected.
“What is this? The seat is full and we have paid for it”
“Shut up!” he responded. “This seat is for five”
Anand flexed his muscles and said, “We will not allow him to sit”
The ruffian immediately jumped on the seat, and before we could realize what was happening, reached up and broke the over head bulb with this fingers, took out a jagged fragment of glass and brandished it in Anand’s face, causing him to blanch and quietly deflate like a balloon with a large hole in it.
“Cool, man, cool……by all means let him sit.”
All of us were huddling in our seats, awed by this raw display of aggression and brutality. The guy was plainly willing to slit our faces into shreds if we argued, and one glance of the crowd showed that there would be no help forthcoming. He sat the guy down next to us, and he slipped the ruffian some money, which plainly the ruffian found unsuitable. He grabbed his client by the collar, put the glass piece to his face and showed him his hand, which had got cut while breaking the bulb, and menacingly said,
“Old man, I cut my hand while breaking the bulb. Any natak out of you, and I will put these cuts on your face.”
The man paid up without a word.
Soon, the thugs left the compartment, and left it to the travelers. The only people there were either those too poor and ignorant to afford reservation, or those desperate to get to their destination. It was amazingly crowded, like a Virar local in rush hour. People were sitting 5 to a berth meant for three, five on each overhead luggage rack, sitting on the floor between the berths, on the causeway. It became so packed that I could not move my led from one position to another. I had to request the people in front of me to move so that I could shift my leg by a few degrees.
Phir bhi, all in all, we felt it was OK. A few hours of discomfort and we would be in Cal. Unfortunately, the railway authorities did not share our optimism. The train remained where it was. For 3 hours. And people were streaming in all the while. Where they were getting space god only knows, but we could see people entering the bogey. We thought it had reached maximum extent of overcrowding, but it just went on and on.
Finally, the train shook it self and started moving, a palpable cheer went through the crowd. The train staggered out of the platform and again stopped. We were rather taken aback. Well, we shrugged to ourselves; at least no more people are getting into the damn train. Knowledgeable people started talking about damaged tracks and slipped points (whatever that means) and that’s why the train was late.
Suddenly Kute looks at me.
“I have to piss”
“Congratulations. There’s no room to move an inch. Just hold it”
“Hold it? How? I have to piss.”
I passed him our (now empty) bottle of water. He looked at it.
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Don’t be silly” he got exasperated.
I shrugged and looked out of the window. Suddenly there was a rushing moment by my side, and when I looked there, Cute had vanished!! I was foxed!! Where the hell did he go?
“Here” came a voice from above, and I looked to see that Cute had done a pull up on the luggage rack and was swinging from bar to bar like Tarzan!
“Hold my seat for me….” Came his voice as he took his aerial route. After a few minutes he came swinging back. Our neighbour was trying to doze, but the movement woke him, and he got a huge shock as Cute crashed, apparently out of mid air, into his seat.
“Never mind,” said Kute consolingly, “go back to sleep.” Turning to me he said, “Arre, there was a whole family inside the loo. They wouldn’t shift when I told them to, so I had to piss over their head into the bowl.”
Sometime during this, the train had started to move, and was limping along like an arthritic old man, and finally huffed and puffed its way into Dadar station. There the crowd was even worse, and more jam-packed, as the platform area is lesser. I couldn’t believe it, but I saw even more people jam themselves into the train!
The crush was unbelievable. Not an inch could be seen of the train, except for glimpses of the roof. The rest was one solid pack of sweating humanity, many of them illiterate Bengalis bound for Calcutta. There was one guy who was looking half-dead. He was hanging on to the bar, and swaying with each movement of the train. ‘What’s the matter with him?’ we asked his companion. The companion was happily chewing away on a wad of tobacco. ‘Oh, him?’ He answered nonchalantly, ‘He’s got jaundice.’
Jaundice? Then why is he traveling?
He is going to Calcutta for medical treatment.
Medical treatment? The world comes to Bombay for treatment. Why are you taking him away from Bombay?
Apparently he would take treatment only from some quack in his village.
There was another guy near him, who was in equally bad shape. He was something hanging on to the bar, and every now and then, his eyes would roll up and we could see only the white in his eyes.
And what’s the matter with him ?
Oh him? He’s got TB. He was going to Calcutta to see the same quack. You see, they are from the same village.
Wonderful, we thought.
After some time, Chinmay started crinkling his nose. There was a funny smell in the air. Very familiar…..what could it be……..
“KEROSENE” someone shouted, and the crowd cleared somehow, like the Red Sea being parted by Moses.
Sure enough, there was a huge puddle of kerosene on the floor. One guy was carrying all his worldly possessions in a gunnysack, and the stove inside it did not have a fuel lid, and all his kerosene had leaked out on the floor. Everybody started shouting at it, but being a bewildered villager, he just looked at them and said nothing, did nothing.
All 4 of us were silent, but I was just thinking of the crush and sheer impossibility of getting out in case of a fire, when the guy in the overhead rack calmly pulled out a beedi, and lit a match!
All of us whirled around, and Chinmay shouted, “Are you crazy? There’s a kerosene spill and you are lighting matches?!!!”
The guy calmly blew out a cloud of smoke and said, “Not to worry saa’b! This happens all the time….”
Finally a Bengali traveler spoke to the villager in Bengali and managed to get him to mop up the spill, keep his stove upright, and throw away the remaining kerosene.
After several stops and delays, Kalyan junction came into view. Remembering the experience of Dadar, some travelers closed and bolted and the doors. Sure enough there was another mammoth crowd at Kalyan as well. They were already exasperated by the delays and cancellations, and when they saw the bolted doors, they just went mad. The whole crowd burst upon the train like an army besieging a castle – hammering and banging on the doors and cursing away with all the profanities they knew, involving the ancestry of the people inside, their sexual preferences, their profession etc. one guy came to our window and cursed us and demanded we open the door. Chinmay retorted, “I can’t move an inch in here, how do you expect me to get to the door?”
“Kutte, @#@#$%, E%#$%$#%, main tujhe dekh loonga…”
Suddenly, some weak minded person opened the door and the crowd streamed inside and started whacking that poor fellow.
“Is this your father’s train, you bastard?”
“You son of a…$#@%”
“But I only opened it for you…” the poor chap tried to say.
“Who told you to lock it, you @#$$%?”
It was now nearly 8 hours since we had sat in the carriage. It was clear that the normal journey of 36 hours would now take 4-5 days, and the train was due to pass through Bihar and UP. We had little food, no water and limited money.
Quietly and shame facedly we got up, and when the train finally limped into Kalyan after an hour and a half, we fought our way to the door and struggled out of the train.
AAAHHHHH!! What a relief!! It was like a baby getting out of the womb.
We gorged on omelet pav and hot tea at the platform and took the early morning local back to town.
Thus ended the trip that wasn’t.
This is a blog on my very first backpacking trip - which was back in 1998, I think. Me and a friend went backpacking to Calcutta, WB, Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Life was boring and Bombay was getting to me. Travel, they say, broadens the mind (my body is broad enough as it is), so when Chinmay and I met , we decided to go backpacking in the wild, wild east -- Calcutta, Sikkim and Assam. So off we went with a chaddi and a backpack -- no hotel booking, no travel booking, nothing. Just a one-way ticket to Calcutta!
For me the adventure started rather early in the proceedings. The night before ETD, I was down with cough and fever, and mom was on the point of vetoing the trip, but I held firm and insisted that I will go. Chinmay had faxed me the ticket (this was 1998!) and I read the train time as leaving at 6.30 AM.
So to be on the safe side, I decided to reach the station at 6.00 AM - half an hour earlier - so as to have a relaxed embarkation. Why run and huff and puff early in the morning? Board aaram se and enjoy the journey.
So I reached the station promptly at 6.00 AM and see a train puffing majestically out of the station.
'Wonder what train that was?' I wondered idly and imagine my shock when the porter tells me casually - 'Oh that? That was the Gitanjali express, going to Calcutta.'
'WHAT?!!' The porter winced as I screamed in falsetto. 'Gitanjali is my train! It was supposed to leave at 6.30!' I turned to see the schedule and it was written clearly 'Gitanjali...6.00 AM'
SHIT SHIT SHIT!
'OOOOOOO.....my train has goneee.....what shall I dooooooooo?' I wailed out there.
'Take a local and run after the train saa'b.' the porter advised. 'You can catch it at Kalyan or Kasara'
'Really?' I asked piteously.
'Yes of course - but hurry! See - that local is ready to leave! Run for it!'
I sprinted to the local and jumped in, and of course I couldn't catch the Gitanjali. No local can catch an express. The porter just wanted me out of there and not wailing in his ear.
So what to do? I didn't want to go back home and become the laughing stock of the house. Someone suggested going to the airport and catching a flight to Nagpur and catching the train there. but that struck me as a damn stupid idea - straight out of a hindi film called 'Parwana'. Which was a stupid film anyway.
Much better to catch a flight to Calcutta directly! I went to the airport and booked a ticket with my brand new credit card, and my wallet sobbed piteously at the cost - almost a months salary for me at the time and zoom! I was in Calcutta. Via Lucknow and Varanasi - because it was stinking hopping flight which took freakin' forever.
I made my way to Zahid's house - the friend with whom I was supposed to stay tomorrow! He was shocked to see me a day early, and then had a loud laugh at my idiocy.
The next day I had to run to the station to catch Chinmay at the train arrival, as if he slipped through my fingers there, there would have been no way to be in touch with him at all! This was 1998 after all - no mobile phone, no email, no internet. We had no reservations or itinerary, so it would have been impossible to catch him. Luckily I managed to find a short guy in the dirtiest clothes possible and rubber chappals - he was really taking this backpacking thing seriously - -and we retired back to Zahid's place for the night.
We stayed the night there and then we started out on the adventure. We had decided to go with the bible of backpackers -- the Lonely Planet. We moved out of his place and went hunting around for accommodation in the tourist part of town. We finally found a place on Sudder Street, the heart of the town for Rs. 300 per night, double room.
We went around Calcutta for a couple of days, seeing all the sights -- Alipore, Victoria Memorial, Fort William, Maidan, the theatre etc. Chinmay was very excited about going to see the Institute of Cost Accountants, of which he is an alumnus - and which turned out to be a shitty little building, like all buildings in Cal. The tallest building in Calcutta at that time was a 13 storey dump called 'Chatterjee International', which looked as if it would fall down in a stiff breeze.
Also, you keep on bumping into strange sights -- in Sudder Street, on a very dirty broken wall, with a pool of filth beneath it, I caught sight of a dirty marble plaque. It sparked my curiousity, so we went to take a closer look and it turned out to be a commemorative plaque -- "Herein so-and-so date was born the novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray." - writer of the famous 'Vanity fair' and regarded as an equal of Dickens in his hey day. His father had been a writer with the East India company.
In the US, they would have built a cubicle around it and charged $2 to read it, and another $3 to buy a T-shirt; but here it was just a forgotten plaque to a forgotten writer.
In another place, under equally dirty surroundings was a grotesque statue of Rabindranath, commemorating that he completed the Gitanjali in another (now) dirty building.
Another commemorative alcove was in the walls of Fort William, commemorating the fact that, in a laboratory at that location in the year 1898, Dr. Ronald Ross discovered that malaria is spread by the Anopheles mosquito and controlling the mosquito was the key to controlling malaria. Malaria was the number one killer in ancient times, and even contributed to the decline of the Roman empire - it was known as the 'roman fever'. The ancients thought that malaria was caused due to noxious gases emitted from swamps, and thus called it 'Malaria' from the words Mal = bad and aria = air. Malaria became a major health issue in the empire building era, as all the new equatorial possessions of the various new empires were a death trap to the European colonists as they dropped like flies in the equatorial heat. The first scientific breakthrough was in 1880 when Laveran, the french doctor, noticed malarial parasites in red blood cells in a hospital in Algeria, and people realised that Malaria was caused by little organisms rather than bad air. In 1881, Carlos Finlay, a cuban doctor in Havana notcied that this organism was spread by mosquitoes; and in April 1894 the scottish doctor Sir Ronald Ross proved the complete life cycle of the parasite while working in the Presidency hospital in Calcutta. This discovery let to the control of mosquito population to prevent spread of malaria, and the discovery of the curative powers on Cinchona bark let to an effective anti malarial medicine. This was a real triumph of science, and led to the virtual banishment of Malaria.
I found it very ironic that in front of that alcove was a stagnant pool, where presumably, those same disease bearing mosquitoes were breeding.
The feeling that one gets in Calcutta is that this place could have had so much potential -- the main city in the East, so much history, could be a gateway to the East Asian export traffic. Or tourism in the East and Far East or perhaps a regional production base. Or anything it wants. But 50 years of marxist rule and the natural non-productivity of the people have totally screwed the place. In fact, it seems to be still functioning only because of cheap labour from Bihar and Bangladesh. A pity, because in spite of everything, the city has a certain decadent charm. I had been there many times on official business, but this was seeing it from a new angle, purely as a tourist.
One evening we went to the discotheque at The Park Hotel. They had a performing band from the Philippines, which was quite good. The oddity was that there was a black student out there who was freaking out! Be-bopping to the music and trying to hit on the girls. We bumped into him in the loo and found that he was from Kingston, Jamaica! We were quite intrigued and asked him what the hell was he doing in Calcutta of all places; but the only answer he gave was, "Hunting pussy maan!"
Later we got a bit drunk and Chinmay insisted on entering the dance floor to eye the Bengali women in their disco best. There was a cover charge of Rs. 200 each, which Chinmay paid for both of us (he was that desperate)! But when we finally entered, there wasn't a soul in the place! We argued long and loud with the management, but they refused to refund the fee. There being no nothing more we could do, we spent an hour dancing alone in there and then staggered back to the hotel, getting hit on by the Calcutta pimps all the way back!
Then we decided to visit Shantiniketan, the Vishwabharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore. On enquiry we found that we have to take a train called the Shantiniketan express and then get off at a station called Bolpur. So we went to the station to buy a ticket -- but you should see a Cal station current-booking counter! Terrible! So, to avoid the pain, we bought tickets from a tout and on his advice, we parted with some extra dough for reserved seats. When we entered the train though, the blasted train was empty! People filed in later, with hardly anybody with a reservation. We got rooked like anything!
Shantiniketan is very nice. We didn't stay in a hotel, but within the university itself. Though that day was a holiday, we piled on to the registrar (we are tourists from Bombay, can you help...) and he was good enough to put us up in the dorm at Rs. 25 per head, per night. We had a nice time, roamed around the campus -- very nice campus indeed, but decaying, like all of India's education system. Being a holiday, the place was empty so we went for a movie in that one horse town theatre, walked out half-way through the terrible movie and took a cycle rickshaw back, with Chinmay singing ghazals all the way back. That was a real magical experience - the dark of the night, the cool breeze, the rhythmic sound of the cycle pedals and Chinmays melliflous voice and the lovely urdy poetry...
Even the rickshawwala was very moved. When Chinmay stopped, he begged him to continue singing. 'Gaan boloon, gaan boloon' he begged, and no performer would have had a more heartfelt compliment.
Then we went back to Cal and from there took a train to Siliguri, which is the entry point to the North East. It's a little one-horse town, but a very important hub for the North East sector. Hats off to the Lonely Planet -- they actually have a map of Siliguri that even the Siliguri municipality do not have! From there, we took a venhicle to Sikkim, and got deposited in Gangtok.
A very nice town, though not yet completely commercialized (on the way there though) but the town is totally vertical! Point A to point B is only 4-6 km away, which is not bad, but when it is totally vertical and you are going with one fairly heavy backpack, it can get really bad, very fast. Huffing and puffing, we sweat it out even in the cool atmosphere.
We put up at a hotel -- clean and neat, with a friendly staff. Rent? Rs. 150 for a double room! Only, it was on the 5th floor and in the thin air, after walking for miles on those vertical roads, you again huff and puff up to your room. But it was worth it --high and quiet, with a nice view of the Kanchenjunga. The place had an excellent restaurant and bar attached and we spent the evenings eating away and getting drunk.
Being a Lonely Planet recommendation, it was full of firangs. We used to have interesting discussions all night long with everybody getting quite animated. There was quite a variety too -- French, Canadian, Israeli, Spanish, Aussies, Pommies...no yanks though. All these guys were vehemently anti-yank, so any yank male in that company would have got ribbed mercilessly. Chinmay got drunk and scandalized the French guy -- he first accused France of being a banana republic, then when he found that the gentleman's father had been stationed in French Algeria at one time, he accused him of being a member of the OSS . The poor frenchy was shocked out of his wits.
Roamed around quite a bit in Sikkim, seeing the tourist spots, taxi it one way and then walk -- fun, healthy and cheap. Occasionally we took lifts, even from an army truck once. We went white water rafting -- good fun and quite cheap (Rs. 600 per head for a 13 km stretch). It was even more fun because it was off-season and there were only 4 of us in a raft that normally takes 12-15! The other two were honeymooners so naturally there was something nice to look at.
We headed to Tchangu Lake, the highest freshwater lake in the world (3000-odd feet). The lakeside itself is like Chowpatty, with hordes of Bengalis all wrapped up in layers and layers of wool, eating noodles and drinking chai. Bengalis out there are the local equivalent of Gujratis here -- loud, irritating and numerous. So we decided to be adventurous and go for a trek up the mountain side which was extremely beautiful with huge varieties of wild orchids and rhododendrons. We went quite some way up, and found one abandoned machinegun post -- a relic of the China war. The China border (Nathula Pass) is only 16-20 kms away. Climbing at that height really gets you tired, I must say.
We came down and over a cup of chai, we casually asked the guide why people don't climb up to enjoy the beauty. "Well saar, there are still some old land mines leftover from the '62 war. Only last week a yak got its leg blown off." Abey saale, pehele nahin bol sakta tha! It's God's grace that we are still alive!
Then we went on to the Rumtek monastery of the Dalai Lama fame -- not very impressive, but the walk back is very nice. They also have a magnificent zoo / animal park close by. We were the only ones there, so it was like having your own private park. We saw rare varieties of animals -- golden civets, leopard cats and rare birds. Chinmay is a wildlife enthusiast and he got extremely excited. We found one animal keeper out there and made friends with him. As I said, not many people come there, and he was very pleased to meet people who have come from so far away and are eager to know about animals, so he gave us a personalized guided tour. The sky was overcast and it rained slightly, so the atmosphere was simply phenomenal -- green, refreshing and enchanting. We found patches of wild strawberries, gleaming red in the dark green surroundings and munched them all the way down.
Four days in Sikkim and the wanderlust hit us again. So we came back to Siliguri and decided to try Jaldapara National Park, a rhino reserve about 150 kms away. The West Bengal tourism offices in Calcutta and Siliguri flatly refused to give reservations, "Full up, saar." But we decided to go there anyway and give it a try.
We took a bus to the nearest point (buses there are ridiculously cheap -- Rs. 16 for 150 km) and walked over to Jaldapara. We went on and sweet-talked the manager and sure enough, there was a room free! An independent cottage in fact! It was a small cottage with attached an bath. That along with all meals and chai nashta, for Rs. 650 per day -- cool scene! Lonely Planet ki jai! We roamed around in the nearby village that evening and spent time chatting with the locals. We wanted to end up in Tezpur, Assam, so we went to the closest station (Madarihaat). It was narrow guage and you have to see it to believe it. Our Bombay local stations are bigger! Sure enough there was a train to Tezpur but as the stationmaster said, "I would not recommend it, saar. Scheduled time is 2.00 a.m., and yesterday's train has not arrived yet (it was 6.00 p.m. then)." So we dropped the plan.
Instead, we went for an elephant safari the next day. All in all, a great experience but we didn't see anything. Not surprising with a horde of brightly dressed, perfumed, cigarette smoking, chattering Bengali people for company. But anyway, as I said, it was a new experience and good fun.
Ab kya? Bhutan border is barely 15 kms away, so chalo Bhutan! (Honest ! that was how our decisions were being taken.) So we took another bus to the Bhutan border. Basically there are two towns separated by an arch called the Bhutan gate. There is no border security of any kind on the Indian side so you can come and go as you please -- baap ka maal. On the Bhutan side though there are very smartly dressed (and very tough and capable looking) guards and check posts with the works. Indian nationals can enter Phunshilling (the Bhutanese border town) at will, and can stroll into Bhutan if they have an ID (a Passport or a Voter ID card). If you don't, then show your driving license or credit card to the Indian consullate and they will give you a pass to enter Bhutan.
We had neither the ID nor the time, so we decided to stay in Phunshilling itself. Bhutan is a great place with a vast difference between the Indian Alipore and the Bhutanese Phunshilling -- it is clean, green and neat. Bhutanese people roam around in their Bakhus (their national dress, sort of a Toga and knee-length socks) and drive Toyotas. God knows why Toyotas are so popular -- only Toyotas and Marutis can be seen on the road. They must be having some arrangement with the king.
Bhutan is a monarchy, by the way, with no means of support save for selling electricity and support to rich nations. I dare say India pays all its bills, just to have a satellite country against China. So the citizens have a ball -- with some of them being very rich, and the others also doing not so badly. Only Bhutanese are allowed to carry on business, but all the shops are run by Indian Marwadis. The shop permit is filled out in some Bhutanese local's name, for which the Indians have to pay some consideration. Thus the locals are ensured free and effortless money.
Daru is amazingly cheap -- rum is 5 bucks a peg, whisky 7 bucks, beer 13 bucks a bottle! Drinking seems to be their national pastime. Any chai ki tapri keeps daru as a matter of course, and at any time of the day or night, junta drinks. The king had not allowed TV in Bhutan till about 6 months ago, so I suppose they had nothing better to do.
We went to a nearby monastery early in the morning. It was a very, very beautiful place -- much better than the Rumtek monastery, and far better than any temple or church that I have ever seen. Serene and calm, with a beautiful temple, garden and a wonderful view of the plains of Bengal. Refreshed by this, we went for a cup of tea and breakfast (8.00 a.m.) There was a Bhutanese family there, who had also come for darshan consisting of one male, two females, two children and a baby. After visiting the temple, they also came to the same hotel for refreshments. At eight in the morning, one would expect people to enjoy hot steaming tea. Instead, the male orders rum, the women order beer! After drinking a bit, they fed the beer to the baby (couldn't have been older than 8-10 months). Later, they got fed up with beer, so they gave it to a nearby soldier and ordered rum for themselves...amazing!
Ab kya? We had seen the poster of a palace in a place called Cooch Behar in the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation guest house in Jaldapara. And Chinmay was fascinated by the name -- Cooch Behar -- so romantic (!) and thus we took a bus to the place. We had tickets for the train from Siliguri to Guwahati. We thought that we would board it at the Cooch Behar station.
Cooch Behar is amazing. We got off the bus with relief, the driver was trying to imitate Ayrton Senna and had a simple way to clear the road -- sit on the horn -- all the way from Alipore to Cooch Behar. The bus station is unimpressive, like any small West Bengal town, so we asked for directions to the palace.
The palace left us open-mouthed! Huge structure -- bigger than VT station, out there in the middle of nowhere! The Raja must have really squeezed his people to build that thing. There were a lot of people there, feverishly trying to clear the unkempt lawns and painting the palace. Why all this activity? The Director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was scheduled to visit. Ah!
We went behind the palace and it was in shambles. All the spit and polish was only for the front end. Talk about a Potemkin village!
There's a beautiful garden close by, with a boating pond and Bengali music playing from loudspeakers. At nightfall, the palace is lit up with concealed lighting and the sound of Saxophone music fills the darkening sky. Very romantic. I was very impressed. We were not allowed into the palace lawns though, as the Director was enjoying an evening drink, so we were admiring it from outside.
Later, disaster struck! We took a cycle rickshaw to the new Cooch Behar station and found that the train was a few hours late. Well, okay, we accepted it philosophically. We had with us some interesting books found in a treasure house of a second-hand bookstore in Phunshilling, so we waited. The train finally arrives at midnight and it's raining cats and dogs. We entered the train and the TC has cancelled our reservation, as we had not boarded at Siliguri. Oh no!
We tried to spread out newspapers and sleep on the floor, but the whole bloody train was leaking, so the floor was instantly turned to mud. It was leaking so much that it seemed to be raining as much inside the train as outside! The experienced travelers had actually brought plastic sheets with them, and had strung it over their berths. Others were getting wet while sleeping in their beds.
I noticed a tubelight in the train which it had a plastic case that was already half-full of water. I wondered how much would it have to fill up, before it finally short circuited and electrocuted everyone in the train! We stood around till 4.00 a.m., until we got one berth somehow -- I was too groggy to notice how. Both of us and our backpacks somehow squeezed onto that top berth and we manged to get to Guwahati.
When we reached Guwahati we were in a bad state. First thing we wanted to do was to take a bath and crap and feel human again. Kaun dhoondega... So for the first time we did not go by the Lonely Planet and generally walked into the nearest hotel that we found. And what a hotel ! A more uglier hotel can't be found anywhere. Rate? Rs. 120 for a double room. We hurriedly used the bathroom and freshened up (by torchlight because the bathroom light was not working; perhaps a good thing... nothing could have been worth seeing) and cut out.
As we had the morning to spend, we decided to see the Kamakhya temple, the nodal point of tantricism in India. The legend is that when Sati committed suicide when Shiva was insulted, he was lost in grief and wandered about the universe holding the body of Sati in his hands. To prevent the whole world from being engulfed by Shiva's grief, Vishnu cut up Sati's body into 1008 pieces with his Sudarshan chakra. Temples are there all over india where the various parts of her body are presumed to have landed, and the Kamakhya temple is where her Yoni (vagina) landed.
Well, that time was a particularly auspicious one for that temple, as it was the time of the Earth's menstrual cycle (?) so there was a huge crowd there. Also, animal sacrifices are in vogue at this temple, so we stopped for some time seeing goats and pigeons get the chop. Very soon we had our fill of this gory side of Hinduism and left without attempting to enter the sanctum sanctorum.
We had lunch at an excellent hotel serving Assamese food and took a bus to Tezpur where I planned to spend the next week with my brother, Deepak. We reached there without much of an adventure, though we startled Deepak a bit by landing straight at his place. He was expecting us to call him up from Tezpur and ask him to pick us up.
"How did you find your way here?"
"Arey, after the places we have been to, we can find our way almost anywhere."
In a last gasp of adventure for Chinmay, the flight out of Tezpur was cancelled. A lot of fun because there are flights out of Tezpur only twice a week, he had to get back to Bombay urgently and was stuck with only Rs. 500 in his pocket. And in Tezpur, no credit cards are accepted. Also, it was Sunday so the bank was closed and Deepak did not have that kind of money at home. Luckily I had some Rs. 7000 odd and so Chinmay could buy another ticket on Sahara Airlines and get back via Guwahati and Delhi.
I had a very relaxed time in Tezpur as compared to the earlier two weeks. In the Tezpur town, I went to a nearby tea garden and to a party in their mess. A last gasp of adventure for me too as my flight out of Tezpur was delayed by 6 hours, so when I finally reached Calcutta, the friend with whom I was supposed to spend the night had gone out somewhere, leaving me stranded! Luckily I was able to contact another batchmate of mine and stay the night there, so I was spared the Sudder Street accommodation, which was always there as an option.
The next day I visited old friends in the Calcutta office, took another boat ride on the Hooghly (it was for practical purposes -- the Rs. 2 five-minute ride saved me a half-hour, polluted, jammed and expensive taxi ride to the Hooghly station) and caught the train back home.
Back home to Bombay -- pollution, traffic jams and office! Aaaah...Sikkim!
I don’t think anybody has missed as many flights, trains and buses as I have. Ever.
I have missed trains because I was mistaken about the timing – on my very first backpacking trip, me and my friend Chinmay were supposed to go to Calcutta together on the Gitanjali express. Chinmay sent me a fax of the ticket (this – as you can guess – was a very long time ago) and the time of the journey was a bit garbled. I thought that the time was 6.30 so I decided to reach the station a full half an hour earlier – only to see the Gitanjali express steam out at 6.00 AM – which turned out to be the actual timing. I tried to chase it in a local – but the express took precedence, and I had to give the chase at Kasara and come back and take a flight. You would think that this one experience was enough to teach me a lesson – but I have missed trains as late as 2014 by being mistaken about the timing. Even my mom has blogged about it.
I have missed buses because – well, because I was late, or because I couldn’t find the bus stop – don’t laugh! Bus stops aren’t marked clearly – it could happen to anyone. And once I missed it because me and Dillu were having a drink at Lamba’s restaurant and bar at Chembur. It is right opposite the yogi hotel bus stand, and I am sure better people than me and Dillu have missed the bus by getting carried away by its prawns koliwada and cold beer.
But it is in flights that the true creativity of missing flights comes through.
In olden days (gotta stop saying that – makes me feel like a neathandral) you could turn up just moments before the flight time and still get seated. Once I woke up at 6.00 Am for a 6.30 AM flight.
‘Oh, you have missed your flight.’ Dad said
‘Not on your life!’ I said and dragged him into the car, and drove like Ayrton Senna (gotta think of names of modern racing car drivers) to the airport – Shit shave shampoo and drive all happened in 25 minutes and we were at the airport at 6.25! Dad was white faced, shaking and almost catatonic as I left him and sprinted to the Jet airways counter. There was no irritating CISF at the time, so I could reach the counter in seconds and slammed my ticket on the counter and demanded a boarding pass.
‘Sir...the flight has gone!’ the check in girl said.
‘NO NO...’ I said ‘I can still hear them announcing the last and final departure. Give me the boarding pass.’
Unbelievingly she said ‘Do you have any check in luggage?’
‘NO! DAMMIT! GIVE ME THE PASS!’
She gave me a pass and I sprinted through the security and made to the boarding gate with moments to spare.
Obviously, this was before 9/11 when the world was more innocent. Try this stunt now and you will be in the clink with a security squad guy beating your ass.
But we are talking about missing flights – now anyone can miss flights if you are late, or the flight is preponed or traffic is fucked up (all of which have happened to me) – but I have missed a flight sitting right there in the departure lounge in front of the gate!
I once missed it, because I fell asleep! I was dozing right in front of the counter and missed their boarding announcement and numerous appeals to the mysterious Mr Joshi to turn up. After I woke up, I had to sheepishly go and ask for a seat on another flight. Luckily it was Indian Airlines so they obliged - todays private airlines would have told me to go buy a new ticket.
That is also understandable – if you are asleep, you are asleep! But I had an even stranger experience once.
I was waiting for a Delhi flight – it was an Indian Airlines flight IC655 or something, departing at 9.00 AM. I had reached well in time, and was sitting in the departure lounge, watching the people board. Now, I don’t see the point of boarding the flight early and just sitting in that cramped plane waiting for the other idiots to board. In my book, boarding early is done only if you are escorting neurotic elderly relatives or have a lot of cabin baggage and you need to be first in the cabin so as to get the space in the overhead locker. I generally make it a point of sneering at the fools who stand in line to board the plane, and being the last guy to board the flight, so that as soon as I sit down they do the safety drill and take off. This is a tried and tested procedure, and I have done it hundreds of times.
However, in this particular case – there was a twist.
I strolled up to the check in clerk and royally handed him my boarding pass. He tried to scan it a couple times, but the system couldn’t take it. He peered at my boarding pass and said to me
‘Sir – you are not on this flight!’
‘Eh? What do you mean?’
‘You are on flight IC 655 to Delhi – this is IC 654 to Delhi – via Ranchi! Your flight was at 9.00 AM – this flight is at 9.05 AM.’
‘WHAT!’ I was shocked ‘ Where is my flight then?’
‘At the next counter sir..’ he pointed to the neighbouring boarding gate. ‘But they have closed the boarding. The counter is closed.’
‘WHAT!!!!’ I screamed and ran to that counter, but it was closed. Puffing and gasping, I came back to this fellow and said ‘Put me on your flight man- you are also IC and you are also going to Delhi.’
‘I don’t know...’ he said doubt fully ‘the flight is full. Only one passenger is yet to board – if he turns out to be a no show, then I can give you his seat.’
I waited hopefully, but then the bloody fellow turned up, puffing and gasping and I had to go down to their office and get a seat on a later flight.
However – all this was on domestic flights – which is after all a controllable environment. The worst thing that can happen is an embarrassing call to the client or to the boss.
I have had some interesting goof ups on international flights too!
One was on the Mumbai Dubai flight. We had had a good year and the company was sending us on a junket to Dubai.
I reached the airport well in time and greeted my colleague Shekhar at the airport. We cleared immigration well in time, but after I cleared security, I just couldn’t find my boarding pass! I searched high and low, but the bloody thing had vanished!
Shekhar almost had a heart attack!
‘Sir sir sir....what will we do sir...the cops will arrest us and give us the third degree...OOOOOO.....my first foreign trip.....MERA KYA HOGAAAAA......MY POOR PARENTS....WHERE WILL THEY SEARCH FOR MEEEEEE....’ he broke down and started sobbing bitterly.
‘hush. ‘ I said ‘Why so much tension? Whats the worst that can happen? They will not allow me to board the flight. That’s OK...I am not desperate to see Dubai. If they cut up rough, I will simply go home.’
He stared at me unbelievingly as I calmly went and spoke to the dragon lady who was running the Emirates operations and told her that I had lost my boarding pass.
She almost blew a gasket.
‘HOW COULD YOU LOSE A BOARDING PASS?!!’ she screamed and Shekhar blanched and nearly shat his pants. ‘HOW COULD YOU?!!!!’
I was completely calm and said ‘OK...now that you have got that out of your system, let’s do something productive. I have lost the pass, and I am sorry about it – but shouting isn’t going to bring it back. Let’s get a fresh pass done.’
After fulminating for some more time, we got to do the whole thing again- new boarding pass – new immigration stamp – an interesting discussion with the airport police – new security stamp – the works.
I had taken my jacket off for security, and as I put it on again – I felt a rustling in my sleeve. I put in my hand to investigate, and came out with my old boarding pass! The bloody thing had been in my sleeve all along!
‘See this!’ I said to Shekhar and showed him two boarding passes – both with immigration and security stamps. His eyes almost fell out of his head. ‘Put it away sir....before they arrest both of us!’
But the reason why I was thinking about all this was an interesting experience I had today.
I was in Johannesburg, South Africa – waiting to board a flight to Perth, Australia on Qatar airways. Qatar airways has a hub and spoke system – so the flight was Johannesburg to Doha; and then change to a Doha – Perth flight.
‘It’s a tight connection in Doha’ She-who-must-be-obeyed warned me ‘Only a couple of hours. So please don’t fall asleep or dawdle in Doha.’
‘Not to worry, ma’m’ I replied, giving her a snappy salute. ‘I shall be alert and sober.’
I reached the airport at 10 AM for a 3 PM flight and spent the time looking around the airport and shopping for curios.
However, it turned out that the flight was delayed and delayed and delayed - first they said that it would leave at 4.30, then 5.00 then 5.30. At first, I panicked – as it would leave very little time to catch the Doha Perth flight – but when the flight became very late and then very very late - I relaxed - I would definitely miss the connection – so why worry? The airline would do something.
The Qatar airways guys came and told us to eat at the coffee shop on them – and thus I was convinced that this was going to be a long long delay.
We were supposed to board from gate A3, so I was sitting in the coffee shop right in front of the gate, where I could see the planes. There was no sign of a Qatar airways plane – a South Africa airways plane was sitting at Gate A3.
I surfed the net as long as I could - had taken a South Africa SIM – but as the flight was so delayed, all my balance got over in accessing the internet. When I checked the balance it showed – Airtime – zero; Data – zero.
At 5.00 PM, I got bored of sitting in the coffee shop and decided that this was a good time to take a shit – before I got into a crowded airplane – and made my way to the loo.
I had a satisfactory dump and was feeling the satisfaction of a job well done – and was just washing my hands, when my phone rang.
‘Strange’ was my first thought ‘who has my South Africa number?’
‘Shit!!!’ was my second thought ‘Only the airline has my number. Hope there is no security issue with the check in baggage’
‘Hello?’ luckily incoming calls were free – thus I could take the call on a zero balance
‘Can I speak to Mr JO SHEEE?’
‘I am calling from Qatar airways Mr JO SHEEE’ he said ‘Where are you now?’
‘Where am I now.....I am here...in front of gate No 3...’
‘Please come to the boarding gate sir...we are about to close the boarding.’
‘CLOSE THE BOARDING!!! WHEN DID YOU EVEN START THE BOARDING?!! I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR SO MANY HOURS!!’
‘Yes sir...everyone has boarded...please come immediately’
I sprinted to the boarding gate, thanking the lord that I had a South Africa SIM which they could call on. Unlikely they would have called an India number – and I may not have taken a call from an unknown number on international roaming
I made my way to the plane and saw that it was a bit of a concealed entrance – the entrance was from gate A3, but then the path led to gate A5, where the plane was standing. No wonder I had not seen the plane.
‘All’s well that ends well’, I thought as I sat down. My bowels are empty and I was the last one to board the plane, as I normally like to do.
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!