I have an ambiguous relationship with India. I’m sucked back in to further visits, drawn by the exotica, the colour and the fact that it is fascinatingly utterly different to anywhere else. It’s also always a challenge to my resilience and patience. This trip begins in the most unpromising fashion as I have dinner with the wrong tour group (mine haven't arrived yet - the plane is late) and I manage to acquire an upset stomach before I’ve even met the other participants. I think it was probably the cocktail in the hotel bar that did it. I fear the barman used raw egg to froth it up.
I catch up with the rest of the group touring Kolkata in the afternoon. They're not as much fun as last night's group. I'm wondering if it's too late to change my plans. Kolkata is possibly the most famous city in India, it’s definitely the biggest, dirtiest, most sprawling and chaotic. The street outside is filthy and there are a small herd of painted sheep nibbling at the heaps of rubbish.
We start with the colourful flower market and the clay modeller's village. The potters and papier-mâché artists here spend all year creating a wealth of images and idols for the annual festivals and, as the Kali festival is just finishing, there are ongoing ceremonies and pujas in the streets. Some of the brightly coloured and richly attired idols have accomplished the necessary goals and are now being dumped ceremoniously in the River Hoogli.
Also on the agenda, of course are visits to buildings associated with Calcutta’s colonial past, the capital of British India. We visit the Victoria Memorial and grey Dalhousie Square. More interesting is Kolkata's wonderfully intricate pastel coloured Jain temple, and the Mother Theresa Home and Orphanage. I didn't know this famous nun was Albanian. (In fact it’s more complicated than that - she was born in Skopje (now the capital of the Republic of Macedonia), then part of the Kosovo Vilayet of the Ottoman Empire). And the Black Hole of course, in Fort William.
Then, onto the train for the first time and west to the important Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya on the plains of the eastern Ganges. You can’t see an awful lot out of the windows, as they are covered in grime, but the sense of chaos and confusion pervades. Local trains pass by, stuffed to the gunwales with live torsos hanging out of the windows and doors and clinging on to the roof. No-one takes any notice of crossing gates. Pedestrians keep moving until the train is bearing down upon them horn blaring loudly.
Bodh Gaya is the site of the tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment over 2600 years ago, so it is besieged by pilgrims. The actual tree where the Buddha sat is dead, a prominent plaque marks the spot, but a descendant, grown from a cutting, replaces it. This one, in its turn, is so old it has to be propped up with wooden staves. I’ve lost count of the places I’ve visited elsewhere that claim to have trees grown from cuttings of the original.
Adjacent is the majestic Mahbodhi Temple, built in the 6th century AD to replace the original temple erected by the emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. This remarkable temple, topped by a towering 50 metre high spire, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2002 and is one of the oldest brick built Buddhist temples in India. We also visit a 25 metre high Great Buddha Statue, financed by the Japanese. I’ve seen more than a few big Buddhas now, but this one is impressive.
Another train journey to the fabled holy city of Varanasi, which is utterly intoxicating. The schizophrenic nature of India is totally to the fore here, with pungent scents, amazing colour, light and atmosphere. It’s believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth and is one of the most venerated Hindu pilgrimage centres in India. Countless thousands come here to the banks of the sacred River Ganges, to perform puja and cleanse themselves at its myriad temples and ghats. The Hindus believe that this is where the material and spiritual worlds meet.
We make a short side trip north, to another of the four holiest Buddhist sites, Sarnath, the cradle of Buddhism, where the Buddha preached his first sermon following his attainment of enlightenment. Here there is probably the most expansive collection of Buddhist temples and monasteries on earth. It was destroyed by Muslim armies, but two stupas and some towers have been restored, after it was rediscovered by British archaeologists in the middle years of the 19th century.
On the Ganges
Back in Varanasi we have two boat rides along the sacred river itself, one for sunset and one for sunrise. The riverbanks, teeming with colour, are jam-packed with pilgrims and our boat is an excellent place to watch (from a respectful distance) as the local priests perform the revered Aarti ceremonies, with mystical singing and chanting. Further down we can see the cremation rituals and feel the heat of the roaring fires, adding to the glow of the sun: the golden light bathing the ghats is glorious. We are informed that there are several circumstances – such as snakebite and pregnancy – where the dead are not allowed to be burned. On these occasions the bodies are embalmed and thrown into the river. It is at this point that I notice the cloth wrapped figures bobbing in the water around us.
The Taj Mahal is much hyped, but it doesn’t disappoint - even though this is the second time I’ve visited. It is truly an exquisite building. It required the labour of 20,000 men and is estimated to have cost something in the region of three million rupees (at today's prices that equates to around $70 million). Shah Jehan built it as a tomb for his wife and then was overthrown by his son. It’s sad to think of the imprisoned shah locked up across the river - so near and yet so far. Again, it has to be toured both at sunset and sunset for the rosy light and the atmospheric photos. Little men pop up to lead us to the best spots for pictures - for a suitable reward, of course. And visiting Indians queue up to take our photos, have shots taken with us and pose for us to frame their own pictures.
Otherwise, the old capital city is littered with some of the country's most opulent and iconic buildings: tombs, towers, mosques and a huge fort.
The hotel is the same one I stayed in on my first visit a very long time ago. I don't think they have done anything to it since. We are stuck in the lift for a while - it's not a good experience. Neither is tour leader Rafeequi's announcement that I can come to his room any time. It's conveniently next to mine.
There’s a side trip (again covering old ground) to the nearby abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, lying to the west of Agra and, for a brief time, yet another capital of the Mughals under Akbar the Great. Founded in 1569 it was only inhabited for 16 years later –no-one is quite sure why it was abandoned. It’s brown and ghostly and whilst the arched buildings and squares are interesting, the highlight (as on my last visit) is the old man with flowing grey locks and beard who dives from the ramparts into a tiny algae covered tank many feet below, as long as he can collect enough rupees from the watching crowds to make the leap worthwhile.
Delhi, Capital of India
I’ve been to Delhi several times now. It’s not my favourite place, but it improves on each visit. Fewer people are living on the streets and it is less overwhelming. It's a shame, however, that the snake charmers and floating fakirs round the fort have all been moved on, it's much less atmospheric. Most of the main thoroughfares are blocked by roadworks today, causing additional delay - preparations for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games are in full swing.
More schizophrenia. We have the colonial grandeur of New Delhi; the creation of the British Raj of the 1930s, its streets are filled with a rich collection of the architectural creations of Edward Lutyens the huge memorial arch of the India Gate, the Indian Parliament, and Humayun's Tomb, a 16th century mausoleum famed for its Moghal architecture in the country. We also visit the towering Qutub Minar, a spectacular thirteenth century edifice made of sandstone and marble and glowing in the mellow sunshine. It soars some 73 metres above the city and was built to mark the final demise of the Hindu kings and the arrival of the Muslim sultans.
Then, a tour of Old Delhi by metro and cycle rickshaw. This old city, is a magnificent fusion of grandiose architecture and vibrant chaos, centred around the Chandni Chowk Bazaar, an eclectic cacophony of noise, colour and deafening barter. The spectacular Jama Masjid Mosque (I have to don a flowery hospital type robe to cover myself up before I’m allowed in) is the largest in India.
Next a minor kerfuffle as Rafeequi abandons us amidst remonstrations. He says that only a morning tour is included. If we want to see anything else here we can do it ourselves. Scottish Ken takes over, with his map, and we navigate to the Red Fort and back through the bazaar without getting lost too many times.
And another festival. It’s Diwali when I first arrive and firecrackers and loud parties keep us all awake well into the small hours.
Toy Train to Shimla
More trains – this time to Kalka, just to the north of Chandigarh. There are small mice running up and down the carriage, feeding on biscuit crumbs strewn under the metal seats. From here we transfer to a narrow gauge track and continue to Shimla on the legendary 'Toy Train' (Shimla and the train were made famous in the TV series Indian Summers). Shimla is where the British went to the mountains to escape the heat. The train negotiates a meandering journey of some 93 kilometres, ascending over 1600 metres through 103 tunnels. Locals try to sell us cookies and samosas at the stops, wave at us from the front carriages as the train chugs round the many bends, and risk their lives hanging out of the windows to pose for photographs.
Shimla is pleasantly cool and much as expected. The main square is known as Scandal Point, though no-one is sure if there's any truth in the various lurid explanations for the name. There's a monkey temple and the Vice-Roy's Lodge to visit. As the trip dossier says: ‘the mock Tudor architecture presents a quite surreal imitation of Old England against the magnificent backdrop of the Himalaya’. The hotel is a little surreal too. The swimming pool is full of rubble.
Finally, an afternoon train to the Sikh’s holy city of Amritsar in the Northern Punjab. Its magnificent Golden Temple has a dome covered in over 700 kilograms of pure gold. Yet another festival - I’ve been very lucky - it’s Guru Nanak’s birthday. There are parades through the streets and the grounds of the temple are thronging with the bobbing orange heads of Sikhs on pilgrimage. The temple is strewn with lights and, despite all the visitors, and having been the scene of several historical outrages, is incredibly serene and welcoming. The largest kitchen in the world, attached to the temple is also fascinating - all those volunteers preparing food and all those chapattis rolling off the machines.
A comedic interlude before I depart from home is the excursion to the Wagah Border with Pakistan to see the 'Flag Lowering' ceremony. The cockaded border guards for both India and Pakistan make a competitive and overly-dramatic display of closing the border gates each day. It’s like watching John Cleese at the Ministry of Silly Walks.
Read more about India here.