India Scrapbook

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After a few days checking affairs in Salalah and finding all was well, I flew to India …

Every state in India is different, it is a large country, of many parts and as their national tourism boasts, truly incredible…

Air India have a direct budget service from Salalah to Cochin in Kerala, Southern India, a reflection of the number of Keralan ex-pats working in Oman.
Kerala is a relaxed part of the country, popular now with back-packing tourists for its beaches and backwaters, but it has always been on the main spice trading route with Europe. Port Cochin with its fort is one of the strategic points.
It is now a Socialist state with an elected communist government, so although the general standard of living is better than India on average and there isn’t the extreme poverty,  it lacks the development and wealth that comes with private enterprise. It is strikingly different in that respect.

Cochin (Kochi) is built on penisulas and islands so is a well sheltered port

and is one of the few places in India to make any attempt to welcome yachts. There is an anchorage set aside off the Bolgatty resort on the Bolgatty island where yachts are permitted to stay, although despite many promises so far, there are still no facilities. However, it is a location out of the way of shipping and reasonably convenient to town, but by ferry boat only.
The waters are also plied by the characteristically Keralan houseboats of holidaying tourists going to the Keralan backwaters to experience life aboard -in rain forest conditions.

It is indeed rainforest, -everywhere. It is a wet part of the country with high rain fall, vigorous growth and the town is notable for its many trees. They overhang the streets making welcome shade from the Southern Indian heat, but limiting long-term parking!

In the part of town known as Fort Cochin, the European,(Dutch and Portuguese) influence is still plain to see, in the culture and the architecture. The old Christian churches still stand, including St Francis, the (first) burial place of Vasco da Gama,

and the Christian faith is still strong…  -church-going with a festival atmosphere, -at the ‘Festival’ Church.

There is a Jewish quarter in Mattancherry, it has a synagogue and naturally, many traders. There is a string of spice shops and others selling everyday Indian needs, but also craft shops, ‘antiques’, bronze, pottery and carpets, not from Kerala alone, but from all over India.

In retrospect, the quality was better and although I didn’t think so at the time, the sales tactics more tolerable than elsewhere in India, I regretted being unable to buy.

Fort Cochin has missed out on much development so far, but it is a busy little town, crowded streets and traffic chaos, -in a relaxed and friendly way. There is still room for goats and cows wander undisturbed…

The entrance from the Indian Ocean to the port is through a weed filled channel, past the old Fort,

and along the line of those curious fishing nets, said to be a legacy of the Chinese court of Kubla Khan in the 14th century

Used at high tide, with the power of several men and counterweights, they dip, then lift, with a tiny haul of little waterway fish for the nearby market…and a lot of weed.

Calcutta was a shock, but is now a place I’d go back to any day!

The surprise was the squalor and the poverty, -not that I hadn’t expected it, -but just not so much!

 My flight arrived in the evening and to meet Calcutta for the first time in the early morning was more than a wake-up, finding people picking through rubbish piled high at the side of the street; literally living in filth and excrement.

 and so many homeless, sleeping rough

or in makeshift accommodation on any available land anywhere

 But after a little time and learning to watch your step, it’s possible to see beyond that, relax a little and enjoy the new sights, smells and sounds of so many  living in such a small place.

They are welcoming and unthreatening,

the streets are full of life and colour

and there’s exciting fresh cooked streetside food at every turn.
If the hygiene standard for the cooked meat is a little concerning, the numbers of chickens passing through the nearby New Market

the high turnover and rapid delivery to the user, still with sqwark,

must be some reassurance of freshness!

Being a city on a swamp there is plenty of water freely available

and although the people may be happy to live in filth with open sewers, personal cleanliness must be seen as godliness, as they all bathe openly in the water from the pumps

and there’s a man who makes ‘toothbrushes’ on every corner…

For a time when Britain ruled, Calcutta (Kolkata) was the Indian Capital. Many fine looking old buildings of the time remain although many more are in serious disrepair.

Like the tram system, clanking its way to a slow destruction and the fleet of aged Morris ‘Ambassador’ Taxis,

there are many old relics of Britain rule now not seen in the western world. Maintenance keeps them going, -just…

The Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River is also over 60 years old and one of the busiest anywhere, -they say.

Just beneath it is the Mullik Ghat flower market, full of colour and activity.

The Hooghly River itself is sacred for the Hindu, especially the nearby Babu Ghat, which is a particularly auspicious place to bathe and take the waters,

but also,  the Shanager Burning Ghat. Like those on the riverbank of the Ganges, it’s a sacred ghat reserved for cremations. It is on the Tolismala stream, a tiny, putrid tributary of the Hooghly and  has been the final departure point for many important local figures.

Quite significantly, that is just about adjacent to the Khaligat Temple, an ancient Hindu Temple. Understated as the exterior may seem, it is probably the founding and most sacred temple site in the city.
It’s an unbelievably busy place with crowds of devotees flocking to pay homage to the 3 eyed Kali image, to bathe in a pool of sacred waters piped there from the Ganges and to observe the ritual beheading of goats…

As our visit happened to be timed with the festival of Durga Puja (a Hindu celebration of good over evil, of victory of the Goddess Durga) much of the city was on holiday and the streets crowded, especially around the Kali Temple. But everywhere there were night time parades, temporary temples of straw blocking traffic on streets and people manufacturing straw/cement female effigies in the thousands, just for the event!

Incidentally, immediately next door to the Kali Temple, but completely blocked to me by impenetrable crowds of people is Nirmal Hriday, Mother Theresa’s home for the dying. I couldn’t see a thing.

Much quieter, more accessible and just a short way from Sudder St, nearer the middle of town is the ‘Motherhouse’, Mother Theresa’s home, mission and now final resting place. It’s well worth the walk to visit to see the humble life she led.

The Memorial to the other ‘mother’ in Calcutta, Queen Victoria, is grand at the opposite end of the scale, built in the best of British ways; lacking none of the silver plated and bejewelled finery, -albeit with a slightly Indian flavour, maybe…


It’s probably also worth the visit

although the long queue to enter is daunting and the air inside the marble monument, without air conditioning, thick and stifling.
It is unfortunate that you can see  very little in the picture galleries for the numbers of people, but perhaps it is also essential to life, as the crowd relentlessly carries you through; you’ve not seen much, but it’s a relief to once again breathe fresh air outside!

A much more tranquil and equally impressive building is the St Paul’s Cathedral,

apart from the give-away ceiling fans, -it’s perfectly ‘English’, and very cool!

We could happily have stayed longer, but had to move on, so left the crowds of the big city, flew north to Siliguri then took a taxi with driver to Darjeeling.
Leaving the heat and dirt of the Bengal Plain behind, there’s a steady climb to more than 2000 metres. The very winding road is adjacent to and often sharing a bed with the narrow gauge railway. The only access to Darjeeling is by this road and rail.

The celebration of Durga Puja was still in full swing, at every town the crowds were out in parades, the streets crowded and the progress slow.

Facial decoration with sticky coloured rice a badge of the day.

Darjeeling is a mountain town

in the Himalayan foothills, close to Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan so is a cultural mix of all the Himalayan states.

Still very strong however, is the British influence from the days of the tea-planters. English is widely spoken, with some of the old British institutions remaining and many tea houses!

Mt Khangchendzonga is not far away and the view of the 8000 metre plus mountain from the town in the early morning quite spectacular, but before long the clouds roll in and the  view is no longer.

It’s cooler up there at 2000 m, the people have a ‘mountain’ look and the shops sell clothing for the climate.

There is a trekking and outdoor adventure industry based here, but most of the serious walking begins higher in the hills.
Here in Darjeeling, the attractions are really more sedentary…
There is the tea growing industry, the hillsides of carefully topiaried tea bushes making for a park-like atmosphere.

Tours through the factories can be readily arranged and free-lancing tea pluckers on days off will readily demonstrate their craft  and brew a taste of the ‘local’, -for just a small fee… 

There’s also the Himalayan Mountain Institute which was set up in the 1950s as a school and museum of climbing in the Himalayas, especially relating to the Everest. Nearby it is the cremation site and memorial to Tenzing Norgay who lived in Darjeeling for most of his life.

Immediately alongside that is the Himalayan zoo; a small, well cared for, collection of rarer Himalayan animal species with an active breeding program.

But the ‘must-do for every visitor to Darjeeling is the early morning trip to Tiger Hill to experience sunrise over the Himalayas.
Literally hundreds of 4wd vehicles trundle out of town in the 4am cold and darkness to Tiger Hill, a not particularly notable hill, but one with an excellent view above the town.

Thousands of people crowd there on a viewing platform every morning, wrapped up against the cold and served cups of hot ‘chai’ by many persistant hawkers with thermos flasks…

As the first rays of the sun appear there’s vigorous applause…

and the flashing of a thousand digital cameras, but then interest rapidly wanes. They all  slope off to try to be first back down to their vehicles, down the narrow winding road and back to the warmth of their hotel beds…

…but  they get there little sooner. It’s easier to avoid the crush, be last to leave and enjoy watching the day spreading over Darjeeling and the Himalayas.
Almost all the major peaks are visible from this point, even Everest can often be seen above the ridge, if a small, inopportune cloud doesn’t obscure it, as it did on this day.

On the return trip there is usually a stop at the ‘Batasia Loop’, a place where the little mountain railway to Siliguri takes a series of loops on itself to gain height. It is an admirable piece of railway engineering and the area has been developed as a place of parkland,

It includes the Ghurka war memorial.

Trains are infrequent however, so ever-opportunist hawkers occupy the early morning tracks with more cups of tea, clothes and memorabilia to capture the rupees of the people returning from Tiger Hill.

India is India everywhere…

Along with the tea growing, Darjeeling has to be best known for its ‘toy train’, the little narrow gauge railway from Siliguri, built by the British in 1881. Its significance now is such that it is even listed as ‘World Heritage’ and it still has a commercial use with regular services down to the plains.

It is a novel way to experience the town, riding in vintage carriages as the train inches its way up the hill, mixing it with the cars on the road

and so close to the people…  they are just outside the windows, often even partly inside,  -you could touch them, -if you felt inclined!
Although it goes on most days, the enormity of the train coming up the street is still a crowd-puller,-especially on a day when it is pulled by steam!
Generally now it is drawn by a diesel locomotive, but if you are lucky, it is still possible to ride with steam and maybe as it was still Durga Puja, we were.


A bit of soot, smoke, cinders and steam with a lot of local flavour!

As an avid and incurable lover of steam trains, for me it was a definite highlight of India!

The way to Sikkim from Darjeeling is by road. Local busses are 4WD vehicles, there isn’t the room on the roads for big ones.

We looked at catching a public service, until we went to the central bus station and saw the reservation and seating arrangements…

It was obvious why most white people and us included prefer to rent their own vehicle and driver for the journey!
The route takes you over more hills and very narrow winding roads through small villages

with views across the top of the world.

Past more tea pickers and the man fluffing up his kapok

then it drops down to join the main route from Siliguri into Sikkim,


up the valley of the Teesta River, which is one of the major tributaries of the Ganges Delta.

This is the main highway into the country, not much more than one truck wide and fortunately with little traffic.

Gangtok is the State Capital of Sikkim, but it’s not a place with a lot of beauty. Like Darjeeling it is a hill town, at about 1600m (although that very much depends which part of the town you are in, it varies by hundreds of metres!) and it too is in the shadow of Khangchendzonga’

It’s a modern concrete town having really only developed since the country lost independence to India in 1975.

Sikkim is definitely now an Indian state,

but to some extent self-governing.

But unlike the low-landers, the Sikkimese are strong and hard-working Himalayan people!

with a similar lifestyle to the Nepali or Tibetans. 

Near Gangtok is a memorial commemorating the mixing of the Lepchas, the original inhabitants who moved up from Burma in about 13th century and the later Tibetan arrivals who were fleeing religious strife in the 15 century, together they went on to develop the country of Sikkim.

On the ridge above the town is a monastery, the Enchey Gompa,

following and teaching a Tibetan form of Buddhism.

We went hoping to see some of the high country of Sikkim and it wasn’t difficult to arrange. Within 2 hours of arriving in Gangtok a tour operator had called on us at the hotel and we had the next 2 weeks mapped out. We were taking a hire vehicle, driver and guide on an expedition!

There are a few western tourists, but by far the majority are Indians from Bengal who travel into the mountains to have a break from the heat of Calcutta.

They come to look at the many waterfalls and experience ‘cold’.

Everyone travels in ‘4WD’  look alikes, in fact the Indian made vehicles have rear wheel drive only, -but given the state of the roads, they would be much better off  if indeed there was 4 wheel traction!
We were quite incredulous of the state of the country’s main roads, people do this sort of driving off-road at home for thrills!

The scenery was breathtaking, but the roads ‘white-knuckling’

and with delays not caused by laborious road works, but just the difficulty of manouvering large vehicles

It was a time just to trust the driver…

We first went north up the agricultural Teesta Valley, where there’s rice grown on terraces and wild cardoman harvested from the hillsides,

 on into the mountains behind Khangchendzonga,

stopping a night in the town of Lachen.

The next day we continued along the ever diminishing Teesta River, passing through hamlets of poor farming people,

-Nepalese folk, we were told, recent migrants after a better life in the neighbouring country.

We followed up into the headwaters, up and up, almost to Tibet!

There were dramatic climbs

and big mountain scenery.

Tsopta is essentially the end of the road as access to Tibet over the pass a few kilometres beyond is permanently closed. Although we as westerners are not permitted beyond this town, the few Indian nationals who make it this far can travel along a branch road to a higher mountain lake, but we didn’t see many going by.

Tsopta is well about the snow line at about 4000 metres, the air noticeably thin, yaks graze the slopes above -and it’s cold…

The people who live there are almost all Tibetan,

with typically Tibetan belief in

prayer flags,

prayer wheels,

and here they’re big with water-power, making the best of a ready resource…

…and cosy warm houses and Tibetan ways.

Tempting as it was, the altitude prevented any intrepid mountain climbing, the alpine meadows above the town were good enough for an easy walk before returning for another cup of ginger tea.

Having other places to go and bookings to meet we retraced our way down the Teesta to the town of Chungthang, turning onto the only other road, up the Yumthang Valley to spend a night in the town of Lachung.

Above the town the next morning, the route climbed steeply again

sadly it was not the time for rhohodendron flowers

as the road passed through great forests(?) of them.

Yumthang was the end of the road for us and the Bengalis too; no access beyond for anyone. It’s pretty high up there too at over 4000 metres, -we were told there’s a small, basic ski-field in the area.
But at the end of the road we and the Bengalis watched the yaks tussling as they grazed

then joined them (the Bengalis) for a warming cup of tea 

Even at that altitude there are hot springs,

across the suspension bridge is a little hot-spring spa. Our guide was a little disconcerted when we declined the offer of joining the Indians for the treat of a muddy-soak…
Instead we made our way slowly, (there is no choice on those roads) back to Gangtok but stopping to view more sights, -notably the Labrang Ghompa.

The external artwork on this one is in a particularly good state of preservation. Like several others we were shown, it claims to be the oldest Bhuddist Temple in Sikkim… We never did find out which one really is, if anyone truly knows.

Our next Sikkim journey was from Gangtok out to the east through comparative lowlands,

rice growing, rain-forests and with all the rain, beautiful waterfalls

Although there were mountains above, we could see little of them in the clouds.

Among others, (also incidentally claiming the title as oldest) there was the Tashiding Gompa perched on the hill top

with its distinctive collection of chortens

fillagreed windows

ancient Buddhist calendars

and a school for small boys…


We stopped at the wet, but historic town of Yuksom, which is a centre for trekking in West Sikkim

where tourists hire porters and guides with ‘zo’ (Yak/buffalo cross) for a few days walking in the leech infested, steamy hot rainforests of the Khangchendzonga foothills….NOT tempting!
We preferred short walks about, enjoying the local sights and culture,staying in a hotel with a substantial roof to keep the rain and the mosquitos out and cups of ‘bed-tea’ in the morning! (more sanitary plumbing and hot water would have been a plus however)

In Norbugang Park is the supposedly original coronation throne of Sikkim, where in 1641, the first royal chogyal was reputed to have been crowned by 3 Tibetan lamas, there’s even a supposed lama footprint in the stone,

and towering above is a vast cryptomeria pine tree, sacred and especially well adorned with epiphytes!

A little down the hill is the murky, but also very sacred Kathok Lake, sacred as it is from where the water for the first ever coronation was sourced.

On a hill above the town, up a steep path of many many steps is the Dubdi Gompa, another contender for the oldest in the country and like so many others, in a prime piece of real estate with great outlook on the hill top.

From Yuksom, the next place for us to stop was the very sacred Khecheopalri Lake, where wishes tossed onto the water are bound to come true…(we wanted the wet to stop!)
We had intended to go walking from there through some small villages, but the steady rain made walking along the muddy tracks and up hillsides far less than desirable.

Instead we moved on to the town of Pelling.
This is essentially a tourist town, although it doesn’t amount to much, there’s just a strip of hotels along a ridge line and the reason for its being there is the great view of the mountains, -Khangchendzonga in particular.
Like Darjeeling, it is most often clear in the early mornings, but in 2 days, we saw it for a short period only and between heavy clouds.

It was showery for much of our time there spoiling walking on muddy trails, and our grand mountain vistas, we looked more at clouds over Pelling…

Pemayangtse Gompa along the ridge from the town is historic, another ‘one of the oldest in Sikkim’ and built in 1705.

It’s noted for the hill-top setting, the interesting collection of outbuildings

impressive prayer hall,

on the floors above, Zandog Palri, a 7 tiered model of Guru Padmasambhava’s heavenly home

and murals of him in his various forms, 

the content of some of which is questionable!

A little further down the same ridge are the ruins of Rabdentse, the royal capital of Sikkim from 1670 to 1814, it is now a historic site.

Continuing on a steep walk down from Pelling is Geyzing, the market town for the area and a place for lunch,

to check out the goodies

with the friendly women in the market

and admire the doggedness of the women doing the hard work at the roadside…

So then we walked all the way back up to our hotel in Pelling, to the consternation of our driver/guide, -Sherpa’ -he was tired.

The following day our route out of Sikkim took us on down the Teesta River valley again.

As it grew,  we passed massive works building a chain of hydro-electric stations,

Then as we neared Siliguri, suddenly the hills ended and almost like a cork out of a bottle, we were on the flat lowlands of the Bengal Plain and back in India proper, the crowds and the chaos…

The difference was immediately obvious, -how uncrowded, unspoiled and clean the state of Sikkim is compared with the rest of India! 

The local Sikkimese government are making a real effort to keep it that way; commendably, even plastic bags are banned from shops!

Rejoining the lowland turmoil, we paused a while on the roadside in Siliguri just to watch India go by…

…fascinating, entertaining, a constant stream and nobody could care less that you are there!
It IS an amazingly incredible country.

But we hadn’t finished with it yet.

From Siliguri we flew back to Calcutta to overnight and then the next day on to hot and oh so crowded Dehli…

Staying in the old town to try to be near the places of greatest interest, it was still very difficult to get around because of the heat and the terminal gridlock!

The streets were one enormous traffic jam, impossible to get away from, a tuk-tuk could not get through and even to walk was little faster,

just a dense mass of humanity!

The sandstone and marble Red Fort complex in the heart of Old Dehli was an oasis of cool and calm in the mayhem. Inside its walls there were no crowds, there was grass and shade trees -and great buildings of beautifully done stone work, a taste of the much more yet to come over the next few days…

The Red Fort was built in the 1600s by Shah Jahan at the height of the reign of the Mughals and although it has ever since been a centrepiece for the old city, it was never long the seat of power.

Dehli was fascinating to watch, but frustrating to visit, impossible to get around and the list of the places we hoped to visit withered to nothing much beyond the narrow alleys and spice markets of the old city, the Red Fort and the streets we had to walk (jostle) between there and the hotel!

It was with some relief we caught the train in the early morning to Agra…

That in itself was an enlightening experience. We thought in Calcutta that every aspect of Indian life was happening out there on the city streets, but there’s a whole lot more of it out there going on alongside the railway lines!
Even as the train passed through farmlands to get to Agra, people were everywhere, living their lives, in the most unlikely of dwellings -and doing it all there, trackside…

But Agra was incredible too, -in a different way.

There is nothing special about the city, it’s sprawling, industrial, dirty and unsurprisingly, full of tourists!

Without doubt the main attraction is the Taj Mahal. Everyone who visits says it’s ‘stunning’, -so universally so, that it is hard to believe it can be so amazing… -but it is!

We were there at a busy time and there were thousands of people at the gates, but once inside the grounds, the views are quite uninterrupted by the crowds and it is very easy to enjoy the magnificence of the buildings.

The grandure is immense, but so too are the intricacies of the fine marble carving and precious stone inlay work

white marble and red sandstone

and through the changing lights as the sun goes down.

The Taj mahal was built between 1631 and 1653 by the Emperor Sha Jahan as a memorial to his second wife who dies in child birth, ‘the most extravagant memorial ever built for love’ it is said.

But, it is not the only notable building in Agra, it is dwarfed in size by the nearby Agra Fort, just along the river.

That was built in 1565 by the Emperor Akbar, primarily for defence, although it became more palacial in later times, it also held the ‘Peacock Throne’ prior to it moving to Dehli also in the 1600s.

It is a bigger complex of buildings, constructed of sandstone and fine marble as is the Taj Mahal, maybe without the same unity in design, but with equally stunning and more varied craftsmanship, -there’s more accessible to view and there’s more to see.

It is in itself essentially a walled city and from its ramparts above the river are fine views back to the rest of the town and the Taj Mahal.

But it doesn’t stop there for Agra.

About 40 km, a somewhat hair-raising taxi-ride out of town, is Fatephur Sikri
It was built also by the Emperor Akbar, in the mid-1500s, before he built the Agra Fort.
Unfortunately he made a big mistake, the site for his grand new city had no water, it was abandoned after being inhabited for just a few years, he moved to Agra and it is now a beautiful, grand, ghost-city!

Entry is by the 54m high ‘Victory Gate’of sandstone into a wide courtyard surrounded by arcades with opportunist touts and merchants

and across the way, the marble mausoleum of Shaikh Salim Chishti

the interior of which has the finest of carved marble fretworks

extensive mother of pearl inlay…

…and stroppy attendants waving brushwood switches at miscreant tourists…anyone who they perceive as irreverently clothed, taking illicit photos, or leaving without making suitably generous donations!

Unlike the Agra Fort, the Red Fort in Dehli, or the Taj Mahal, it is a whole city and comprises many buildings around extensive courtyards and quadrangles.

It was built in an earlier time, it is all of sandstone, the craftsmanship was probably never so good, neither has it been so well maintained, but it remains a very impressive place and infinitely worthwhile delaying returning  to Dehli for the flight home! 
We kept our time back in that city as short as possible, it is the one place in India I’ve been to yet that I don’t feel an urge to return to …


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