Agra to Kolkata

An Indian Journal | Agra to Kolkata

Kau Ban Mosque west of the Taj Mahal | December 2010


Uttar Pradesh State

Uttar Pradesh, a.k.a. UP in Indian parlance, is the most populous state of India and the most populous country subdivision on Earth. Being established roughly in its present day territory in 1902 as the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. The Government of India Act of 1935 shortened its name to United Provinces, under which it was popularly known anyway. Independent India changed the name once more in 1950 to Uttar Pradesh, conveniently keeping the popular UP acronym.

Agra | Dec. 1

We wanted to stop over in Agra for the one reason around 8 million others do each year. The Taj Mahal, the world’s most famous grave. Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his beloved favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. On the one hand that is as obvious as it gets when traveling India. On the other hand the Taj is not for no reason a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered the best example of Mughal architecture to cast an eye on. Not to mention that you are in glittering company having been there. So we planned a touch and go visit. We arrived by night bus from Jaipur around 4am, dumped our luggage at the railway station, payed visit to the Taj Mahal at 5:30am right when it opened, spent the rest of the day in Agra, and took the night train to Varanasi in the evening.

The most beautiful grave in the world

That proved to be a good plan. The whole complex at the Yamuna river, comprised of the great gate, a guest house, a mosque and the Taj Mahal itself inside a 17-hectare garden, is indeed awe inspiring. Its architecture is of outstanding beauty, its dimensions monumental, and the artisanship all over the place breath-taking. Since we entered at dawn there were not many other visitors as opposed to thousands of them pushing and shoving each other through during daytime.

Hauling ass again

It too proved to be a good plan to get out of Agra again as soon as possible. When we left the Taj we searched for a decent breakfast-venue. Among the thousand guest houses outside its walls we were offered continental breakfasts, Italian ones, English ones, and American ones, but nothing local was in sight. When we finally found one proudly offering traditional Indian breakfast, we payed ten times the rate we normally spent at a tiffin stall and got some hard and dry Pooris every street vendor would consider beneath his honor to sell for money. In the afternoon we asked a bicycle rickshaw driver to bring us to a nice place for a late lunch, naively assuming he would bring us to a place he himself would go to. He in fact of course brought us to a place where he most probably got a commission for bringing guests, a pretentious restaurant half an hour away. After we had stopped by Agra’s Red Fort and watched swarms of street vendors hustling and harassing Russian tourists, we were happy to retire to the railway station and wait for our train to Varanasi to arrive.

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Varanasi | Dec. 2 to 6

Cricketers at the ghats of river Ganges | December 2010

Varanasi is the holiest of the seven holy cities of Hinduism and Jainism. Apart from that the Buddha is believed to have founded his religion here around 528 BCE. Both facts make for quite some tourist traffic in the city formerly known as Benares. Hindus and Jains visit the city to tick off boxes on their faiths pilgrimage circuit. I guess the history in Buddhism explains why we saw quite some Japanese tourists. And last but not least there were western tourists in three different varieties. Young and hip backpackers, mostly somewhat older cultural tourists, and finally western Hindus seeking for enlightenment. Around them, among them and between them are locals, children, cricketers, vendors, Sadhus, cows, goats, dogs, bulls, and bullocks – business as usual one may say.

Life at the Riverfront

We stayed at Singh Guest House near Ganges River that sported a lovely green inner courtyard to recuperate from the hot and dusty turmoil of the crowded city. Most of our time we have spent walking up and down the riverfront and watching the goings-on at the Ghats. One time at dusk we were one or two streets behind the riverfront when we turned a corner and suddenly walked between rows upon rows of high stacks of massive wooden logs. I was somewhat baffled and still wondering what could possibly go on when we turned another corner and stood at Manikarnika Ghat, one of the holiest and most desirable cremation sites all along the Ganges.

Funeral Pyres

Coming from a culture where all things surrounding death tend to get hidden away, it was a remarkable feeling to stand there and watch human bodies being cremated on open funeral pyres at the riverside. One could hear constant hissing and sizzling from fat burning away while it turned dark over the city. When I was still arguing with myself if it would be appropriate to take some pictures, a hawker carrying the air of officialdom sternly marched over to us and informed me that taking photographs is strictly forbidden at the ghat. Except of course if I would pay him an amount of money I have meanwhile forgotten, then it would have been all right. I was honestly outraged by that blatancy and rejected his offer in the strongest possible terms. Of course I then was denied the chance to take some photographs because the man watched me like a hawk as long as we stayed at the ghat.

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Bihar State

I cannot say much about Bihar except that it is one of the poorest states of the Indian Republic. We have made just one stop there in Rajgir and spent a couple of hours between trains in the capital at Patna Junction railway station. I guess because Bihar is one of the poorest states in India, there are Maoist insurgents operating there. We had researched the fact in advance. But we were reminded of it when on every train ride in Bihar, every single coach of each train was boarded by two policemen or paramilitaries armed with assault rifles.

Rajgir | Dec. 7 to 11

At Rajgir railway station | December 2010

Rajgir is a moderately sized town of about 40.000 people some 50 kilometres to the south and east of the capital Patna in Bihar. Being in the middle of nowhere in the poorest state in India, it is of notice because it is one of the eight main Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Gautama Buddha lived and taught in the Gangetic plains roughly in the area between Delhi and Rajgir. There are four main sites of pilgrimage that the Lord Buddha himself listed as the most worthy sites to visit for his followers. A second quartet of additional sites where miraculous things happened was mentioned by his followers. In Rajgir solely through his love and friendliness the Buddha tamed Nalagiri, a mighty elephant on a rampage.

Digestive Rampage

Also on sort of a rampage in Rajgir was my digestive system. It was my turn there to suffer a bout of illness. When we arrived from Varanasi, we almost could not find a hotel to stay. There were many but all of them were booked out. We clearly had misunderestimated (to quote George W. Bush) the lure Rajgir represented to Buddhism-tourists. After quite some odyssey on a horse drawn coach we got a most basic room in a hotel, I guess aiming at lesser solvent Indian guests. It comprised of a naked and run down room with solely a bed and a rather squalid squat restroom.

After one night there it became clear that I was not at the top of my game. I had developed a little fever and an increasing rumble in my guts bode ill. Under the circumstances we decided that we had to find another hotel if I wanted to recuperate in time. Our coachman from the day before – who had made pretty good business with us and was out for more – already waited outside the entrance and we told him that we needed something else and cost was not a limiting factor. So Rani (his horses name, the female form of the term for princely rulers in India, i.e. the wife of a Raja or Rana) jog trotted us to the Siddharth Hotel on the outskirts of town.

Siddharth Hotel

We spent the next three nights there during which I slowly recovered. The most credible sign that I was ill was the fact that I had no appetite whatsoever. For the best part of the time there I ate some chopped and salted vegetables my companion brought back from her forays into town but not much else. The Siddharth Hotel is a brown bunker-like structure, clearly top notch for the region and oozing the chic of the 1980s. The fact that we payed well over 2.000 Rs a night did however not mean that the establishment spared us from Indian idiosyncrasies.

Firstly, when I heard the fare for our room I asked if there was hot water available. Since a decent hot water shower is a luxury much cherished by me, I kind of expected it from high priced hotels. The concierge answered in the affirmative, seeming almost a little indignant that I even dared to ask. As was standard procedure I immediately checked that when we were settled in and noticed that there was indeed no hot water. When I called the concierge I was told there was hot water from 6 to 8 pm. Not quite what we were told before but good enough I thought. At 6 pm sharp boiling hot water came out of the tap … but then exclusively with no cold water to mix it down to a temerature not causing burns. Obviously the hotel had a single pipe plumbing setup and for two hours each evening they changed from cold water to one way too hot to shower. Even the toilet flushed boiling hot and every time you pressed the button a substantial cloud of steam ascended from the bowl. Eventually we filled buckets with hot water towards the end of the hot water period and mixed it with cold one for a cat wash when that was back again.

Secondly, power cuts are frequent in India and upper class hotels tend to have therefor backup generators. So we were not overly surprised upon seeing two of them in front of our window. One highly modern, one seemingly from the times of the British Raj. But we were indeed surprised when we realized that for quite some hours every night not the modern, surely silenced generator was up and running, but the legacy piece, generating not merely power but also deafening and sleep cancelling turmoil.

Patna Mushrooms

Only on our last day in Rajgir I had recovered sufficiently to go out for a stroll again. Consequently my photographic booty from there is rather meagre. Coming from Rajgir we had a stopover in Patna where we waited for our night train to New Jalpaiguri Junction on the way to Darjeeling. While there I felt my appetite coming back and ordered a mushroom masala that tasted like the best dish I ever devoured to me. Showing slightly manic traits concerning food all over India, I was for some time on the lookout for another mushroom masala as heavenly as the one from Patna Junction.

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West Bengal State

Darjeeling | Dec. 12 to 16

View from Gandhi Road down towards Chowk Bazar on a foggy day | December 2010

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Kolkata | Dec. 17

A horse grazing at the Maidan, a.k.a. Brigade Parade Ground | December 2010

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