Between the famous ‘Temple of Love’ at Agra, and the infamous temples of Khajuraho (Kajar-raa-ho) and Kama Sutra, the Indians have everything covered from kissing to copulation. So it comes as no surprise that India is one of the … Continue reading
Varanasi. Where does one begin? Archaeologists believe it’s been around since the 11th or 12th-century BC. Hindus, on the other hand, say Lord Shiva created it 20 centuries earlier.
Regardless of how and when Varanasi came to be, Kuldip reckons it hasn’t been cleaned since day one. And, by the look of it, he’s right. There’s crap everywhere, literally. Kuldip and I went in May when it was 45oC each day; the heat, cow dung, litter and cooking and people smells spawned a pungent brew. The closer one is to the Ganges or Ganga, the worse it gets. Nevertheless, unlike Kuldip, I enjoyed the place, warts and all.
To arrive in Varanasi, dead or alive, is on the bucket list of every practising Hindu. It’s where the living bathe in the Ganges to wash away their sins and the dead come to be cremated. Hindus believe in reincarnation. That’s why they won’t kill anything for it might be someone’s dear departed. However, Hindus cremated on the west bank of the Ganges in Varanasi, circumvent the reincarnation process. (Hindus call it Moksha and explain it as a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.) In other words, it’s an express elevator to heaven. Luckily Kuldip’s not Hindu because he wouldn’t be seen dead in Varanasi again.
Varanasi is overwhelming in many ways especially regarding numbers. Around 3.5 million people live there. That’s nearly 2,500 people per square kilometre. We went in the low season, and the place was packed. I can’t image what Varanasi is like at peak time when an extra 2.5 million people, give or take a few thousand, descend upon the city. When one adds the untold number of stray dogs and transportation of all types, Varanasi must be bulging at the seams from October to March. Then, there is the countless number of sacred cows.
Regardless of whether one is Hindu or not, killing cattle in India is a big no no and illegal in some states. Therefore, when a cow or bull has outlived its usefulness, its owner has no option but to dump it on the side of the road to fend for itself. I’m not suggesting that people like doing it, but the last thing most of them need is another mouth to feed. That’s why where are so many strays on the streets in India.
Lahori Tola is the oldest and most congested part of Varanasi. It’s right behind the ghats (stairs that lead to the river). While Kuldip couldn’t stand the place, I had a good time exploring its tiny lanes where vendors sell tourist tatt and all sorts of interesting stuff. It’s a good idea in the old part of town to stand with your back against the wall to let a cow or bull or group of them squeeze past. It’s also wise to keep one eye on the ground while walking around. Furthermore, it’s not unusual in Lahori Tola to see cowsheds jammed in between shops and houses. No prizes for guessing how one knows when there’s a barn nearby.
Many people have written about what it’s like to witness the beginning and the end of a day on the Ganges, or Ganga, in Varanasi. As you will see from the photos that follow, we did all the touristy things too.
Although Varanasi is the seat of India’s current Prime Minister, it’s behind the eight ball regarding urban development. Long-term improvement is one thing, but surely Narendra Modi can use his influence to get his electorate cleaned up, and quickly. Lucknow’s administration got their city ship-shape in no time. Maybe Modi should get on the blower to find out how they did it.
Varanasi is, to my mind, the best and worst of India and the epitome of life and death itself.
Could Varanasi become squeaky clean and clinical? Not a chance. No one wants it to be, but it’s one of India’s tourist hot spots and should leave a better impression.
Note: We stayed at the Rivatas Hotel it’s in a good location and great value for money. Check out my review on TripAdvisor for more info.
Kuldip and I were taken completely by surprise recently when we visited Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. It’s the cleanest and the prettiest city I’ve seen in India. I can’t believe that there’s hardly any litter on the streets of Lucknow and it’s nearby villages; that’s saying something for incredibly dirty India.
Uttar Pradesh, formerly the province of Awadh, was ruled by the Persian Oudh dynasty for over 150 years from the early 18th century. In 1755, the fourth Nawab, Asif-ud-daula, moved the kingdom’s capital from Faizabad to Lucknow and founded this thriving city. He was the greatest builder of all the Nawabi rulers. Without Asif-ud-daula, Lucknow wouldn’t have the great Rajput and Moghul-inspired skyline it has today. My favourite places in the old Nawabi city are the Bara Imambara (Lucknow’s biggest draw card) and the extraordinary La Martiniere College.
The vast Bara Imambara complex comprises four primary structures plus two impressive gateways leading to the main prayer hall, the Bara Imambara. The other components are the Asfi Mosque and the Bhool Bhulaiya or Labyrinth. A stepped well, called the Shahi Baoli, was built early on to provide water. Legend has it that when the British invaded Lucknow, a senior Nawabi administration officer committed suicide by jumping into the well clutching the keys to the treasury. As I peered into the murky depths, I wondered if the keys were still down there.
The founder of the La Martiniere College was a French soldier from humble beginnings who arrived in India in 1752 and never left. Labelled an adventurer by many, and an entrepreneur by some, Major General Claude Martin’s curriculum vitae is an interesting read. He was a self-made man with many talents.
Shortly after the city was founded, Martin worked for Asif-ud-daula as superintendent of the arsenal. It was here that Martin made his fortune. The two men had much in common, including a love of architecture, and quickly became friends. In addition to working with the Nawab on some of his major projects, Martin’s most notable creation is his stately home, Constantia, which, upon his death, became the first hall of the La Martinere College.
It’s the mixture of building styles in that make Constantia extraordinary. The combination of Italian Palladian, Ottoman and Moghul and Rajput architecture is like India itself; it’s chaotic but the chaos works. It is often called a “wedding-cake in brick, a Gothic castle and a baroque folly.” The splash of an English Wedgewood effect on the ground floor is the icing on Martin’s curious cake. What is within the framework of the building that comprises four large octagonal towers, also makes this mansion an absolute marvel. In addition to being a lavish home with a sizeable chapel, Constantia was also a fortress complete with cannon and arsenal.
Construction of the six-storey building began in 1795. Sadly, Martin died aged sixty-five in September 1800, two years before it’s completion. Since Martin is laid to rest in the mausoleum he built for himself in the basement; Constantia is also known as the “finest and largest example of a European funerary monument in the subcontinent.”
Kuldip and I have seen some excellent examples of Hindu and Islamic architecture in other Indian kingdoms past. In addition to wanting to see more of it in Lucknow, we also went there to sample it’s legendary Awadhi cuisine, which also didn’t disappoint. True to its word, Lucknow is a gourmet’s paradise. For example, the melt-in-your-mouth Kakori Seekh Kebabs made from minced lamb, called mutton in India, are sensational. The story is that a chef who worked for a toothless Nawab created them. These kebabs are soft food at it’s best.
The local department of tourism works hard to generate awareness of Lucknow and its sightseeing treasures. Since it’s off the tourist track, though, their efforts are lost. The locals we came into contact with, including the front office staff at our 4-star hotel and our taxi driver, didn’t have a clue about the places of historical interest that we wanted to see.
Weatherwise, October to March is the best time to visit. We went there in summer in May. As forecast, the mercury hit 45 degrees celsius every day resulting in Kuldip getting hotter under the collar than usual in our non-tourist taxi.
Even though Lucknow is a bit remote, do yourself a favour; veer off the tourist track and go there. If you do, I recommend you hire a registered guide to take you around. It will save a lot of time and angst.
A few weeks ago, Kuldip and I were invited to accompany some Chandigarh-based friends on a five-day road trip to the headquarters of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. We were riding high when we left, high into the … Continue reading
Yesterday, Indians around the world celebrated Diwali known as the Festival of Lights. It’s the Indian equivalent of Christmas Day and Chinese New Year and a time for prayers, prezzies, and partying. Kuldip and I were fortunate to be in India and to have good friends with which to rejoice.
Our Diwali began at around 1.00pm with snacks at Sunny and Gauri’s home in Chandigarh. While our men chatted about the woes of the world including their golf game, the Indian economy and the voters’ move against Modi, we girls, including their eighteen-year-old daughter, Kamya, had a great time playing dress-ups with her mum, Gauri’s, gorgeous wardrobe.
We spent the rest of Diwali with friends Divye, Sonia and other members of their family that included her sister, Nanveet and her husband Neeraj and son and Daughter Shantanu and Srishti respectively. Sonia hosted a Chaat Party that comprises a range of tasty dishes and morsels including Golgappa.
Golgappa (or Panipuri) includes a hollow ball of fried ‘dough’ that is as light as air. One cracks it open, like a boiled egg, into which goes a flavoursome blend of vegetables and spices. A piquant soupy concoction is then poured over the veggie mix to fill the ball. The test is to get the exploding ball in your mouth in one go and to get it down without getting it down the front of your kurta instead! It was a walk in the park for all the ‘big-mouthed’ boys, including Kuldip. The guys then resorted to adding Bacardi rum to the mix to spice it up even more! We gracious girls, however, struggled to eat our fair share with elegance and poise.
At sunset, Divye, Sonia and their two daughters, Shreerupa and Medha, set about lighting candles in and around the house for prayers, or Puja. Diwali marks the end of the financial year in India, so Hindus pray to Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity. Fireworks and colourful flashing lights are as much a part of Diwali as are family, food and floor art called, Rangoli.
Gauri and her ten-year-old son, Vansh, designed the colourful Rangoli at their place while Divye and Sonia’s twelve-year-old daughter, Shreerupa, did their lovely floral floor art.
Our contribution was to help launch a couple of hot air balloons into the wild inky-blue yonder. Soon after take-off, the Bedi balloon got stuck, high up on the branch of a tree nearby. After a few tense minutes, a gentle breeze set it free. As the balloon drifted away with its candle and not the neighbour’s tree ablaze, Divye said to Kuldip, with a glint his eye: “Who said there wasn’t a God.”
This post is meant to make you laugh; not cry. It illustrates the hazards on India’s roads, including their so-called motorways, as described in Chapter 2 of my book, “Just the Ticket.” I took these photos during our recent two-week road trip to and around Rajasthan. I decided to ignore the shots of India’s ubiquitous holy cows and show you some of the other animals that hit the road.
While Kuldip happily drives around Chandigarh, we usually hire a car and driver when we venture outside city limits. This time, however, since we have a car, Kuldip decided to drive for a number of reasons. Firstly, we’d be more independent; we could holiday for as long as we liked. We would also save around 25,000 rupees or A$500, which paid for a TomTom satellite navigation device and car servicing.
When I told Kuldip how brave I thought he was to do the driving, he replied: “I’m either brave or foolhardy!” I’ll let you be the judge.
Footnote: Readers of my book will know how our European TomTom we named Tom, often drove me to places I didn’t want to go to like around the wrong bend and up the wall! Our Indian Tom must be his twin! Grrr!
In my book, I wrote about the many canal-based cities like Amsterdam, St Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Hamburg that would have us believe they resemble Venice. Brugge in Belgium does it too; it labels itself “Venice of the North.” I went on to say in “Just the Ticket,” that Italy’s famous sinking city is unique and that, in my opinion, there is no prize for second. But there is now, and I award it to “Venice of the East” in Rajasthan in India. Who would have thought that Udaipur, which is devoid of canals, would qualify? My pictures show that, with a little imagination, one could think they were enjoying the vista from the banks of the Grand Canal. The last two shots give the game away. Holy cow!
Kuldip’s and my plan is to split our time between Australia and India over the next few years. So, during our three-month stay in Chandigarh in India’s Punjab last year, Kuldip and I bought an apartment there. We left India bound for a few months in Europe shortly after settlement knowing that when we returned the following year a lot of time, money and effort were needed to bring the place up to western standards.
We got back to our Punjabi ‘palace’ six weeks ago and to say it’s been hard work since we crossed the threshold would be to put it mildly. To start with, the maintenance and repair list we had given the developer before we left wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
After a long flight from Brisbane to Delhi via Singapore where we had a six-hour stopover followed by a five-hour road trip from Delhi to Chandigarh, we experienced every dismal ‘d’ word you can think of when we saw that our apartment was in worse condition than when we left it. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s book, Heat and Dust, is well titled and while it’s not always hot everywhere in India, dust is dominant. Our little domain was no exception thanks to the gaping holes that awaited installation of air-conditioners or exhaust fans and through which the wind whistled. Our Indian dream was a dustbowl that left us disappointed, discouraged, depressed, dejected, dismayed and disheartened.
When he could finally speak, Kuldip said: “We’ve made a big mistake buying a place in India.” Kuldip may have wanted to take flight, but since I had just been on a long one, I didn’t relish the thought of another. What confronted us was undeniably soul-destroying, but India had, by now, seeped into my soul as it had done with Prawer Jhabvala’s main character, Olivia. And like Olivia, I was in India to stay.
Six weeks on, our apartment is beginning to look like home. The developer has avoided us like the plague since we arrived, so we’ve chosen the path of least resistance and fixed many of the items on his list for him. The painters have also been and gone and while the original paint job was a whitewash, literally and figuratively, our two young Punjabi painters, Avinder and Brahmdev, did an excellent job especially on the feature walls that comprise amethyst, crimson red, ‘Sikh’ orange, lime green and aquamarine for the living, dining, and guest rooms and the master bedroom and study respectively. The final effect is so foreign to Indians that we had a stream of people from the complex we live in come to our place to take a peak at what the “foreigners” have done. While Indians wear lots of bright colours, they paint the interiors of their homes in one of two colours, whitewash or beige (that is, if they paint them at all!). While what we’ve done is out there according to the locals, they love what we’ve done too.
Now that the painters have been and gone and curtains to match have been hung in the living and guest rooms, as well as the master bedroom, Kuldip and I have had fun hanging some pictures on the walls. For example, the Monet prints we bought from the artist’s home at Giverny in France last year look stunning hanging along one wall in our living room. (The Monet prints comprise Impression, Sunrise, Water-Lilies, Green Reflections, Woman with a Parasol, Poppies and The Magpie.) A framed poster of the cover of my book, Just the Ticket and the tapestries of Renoir’s Danse a la Campagne and Danse a la Ville, which we also bought, last year, at Mont Saint Michel in France all look sensational hanging on the red feature wall in our dining room. All of the framed images were done here in Chandigarh at a fraction of what it would cost in Australia, or anywhere else in the western world. All we need now is for the furniture to arrive, which was originally promised for 7th April. But that’s incredible India where everything happens in time, not on time!
While the book records my travels around India and Europe with Kuldip in 2011, it also touches on our journey through life since we became an item in 2005. In the book, I also tell why Kuldip really is Just the Ticket and, therefore, the inspiration for the title of my book.
My first trip to India to attend a traditional Sikh wedding was the catalyst for me to write Just the Ticket. And, to be honest, being recently retired, I also had the luxury of time in which to do it.
Just the Ticket comprises two parts – the first is about my very own passage to India, which began with an invitation to a Sikh wedding in the Punjab, in India’s northwest. The latter part of the book is about the four-months in Europe that followed.
We have all, at times, regretted having said we would never do things we have ended up doing. I’m as guilty as the next person and fess up, in Just the Ticket, about my lack of foresight after I had told Kuldip, on more than one occasion, that I would never wear a sari and that I would never, ever go camping. (It’s not that I didn’t like India’s national dress; it’s just that I thought I would look silly in a sari compared to every Indian woman who looks simply sensational in one.)
When the glitzy invitation to Roop and Tania’s wedding in Chandigarh arrived, I immediately reached the conclusion that I had nothing to wear for the five-day event. Although I’ve got a wardrobe full of glamorous and flashy gear, none of it would do. None of it would make me fit in. None of it would help me integrate into India.
Once I had told Kuldip: “When in Rome. Do as the Romans do”, I was off and running to call Kuldip’s sister-in-law, who was also the mother of the groom, for advice on how I could arrange to get wrapped in a sari or two, or three in which to swan about at the wedding with the sari-swathed sisterhood.
Just the Ticket is aptly billed as a travel memoir, because it’s also about my first trip to a sari shop, what happened there and what, unfortunately, was to come. Slipping into a sari isn’t simple, but then simplicity isn’t India’s thing, which I discovered soon after my inaugural arrival at Delhi airport.
After Roop and Tania’s wedding, which I write at length about in the book, we travelled south to Goa where I was bewildered to find that bi-pods aren’t the only idle beach bums lounging beside the Arabian Sea.
Although Kuldip had travelled it twice before, after Goa he took me around the Golden Triangle that comprises Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. It’s a glorious part of the world and a must-do for first-timers to India like me.
In Delhi, we stayed in a top-class hotel, which if there were such a rating, I would score nine-stars and tell why in the book. It was heaven on earth and a perfect haven after seeing the sights and bargain hunting in Delhi’s main market, which makes the big bazaars I’ve been to in Cairo and Istanbul appear quiet.
Delhi left me breathless, but the blingy Rajput-style architecture in Jaipur took my breath away. It was here that I ate in the most spectacular dining room I have ever seen … the food wasn’t too shabby either!
On our way to Agra to see one Mogul ruler’s greatest triumph – the Taj Mahal, we stopped off at Fatehpur Sikri to see, what I consider being, another Mogul ruler’s greatest failure.
While Just the Ticket gives my impressions of these landmark places and the many ode-to-bling palaces, I discuss some of India’s social issues in the book too; such as the apparent fascination that Indians have with fair skin and why I find the advertising industry’s response to it anathema. I also write about the traditional approach to arranged marriages versus today’s matrimonial trends.
The connection I make between the bigger than Ben Hur Indian weddings and doing the laundry also features as do my thoughts on the juxtaposition of what is acceptable behaviour for Bollywood and the realities of ultra-conservative life in India.
I will always regret having said to Kuldip that I would never wear a sari because I lived in one, two or three during my passage to India once my very sad and sorry sari state of affairs was sorted.
I mentioned earlier that I had also said to Kuldip, in no uncertain terms that I would never, ever go camping. Undaunted and undeterred, Kuldip proceeded to buy a fifteen year-old campervan in England over the Internet, sight unseen, which would become our mobile European home for 4 months after our glamorous five-star hotel stays in India.
The campervan quickly became known as ‘the truck’ and along with Tom (our TomTom satellite navigator) Kuldip and I drove across eight European countries while sometimes driving one another up the wall, around the bend and, thank heavens, always to drink at the end of every day!
Throughout all this, as the publicity blurb on the back of my book says, I really did manage to keep a stylish stilettoed foot in all camps at all times. In the book, I tell what happened at the handover of the truck when Kuldip and the truck’s previous owner went pale when I asked to see the vanity unit, wardrobe space, shoe storage and the on-board laundry and ironing facilities.
Kuldip went even paler the following day when I equipped the truck with a range of lifestyle prerequisites and creature comforts that he considered crazy for campers. One of the items was a very classy sandalwood scented candle, which Kuldip said had cost the same of money as a half a tank of diesel.
Getting to and from, and in and out, of some of the towns and cities we visited in a vehicle close to the size of a semi was, at times, thanks to our navigator Tom, enough to age a girl ten years. The horrendous day’s drive we had on Italy’s Amalfi Coast is a good example. Those of you who have had experience with satellite navigators, will understand when I say that Tom was lucky to survive that day and, regrettably, there were many more times like it, such as the time, thanks again to Tom that we knocked over a security gate while under the watchful eye of the gate owner’s security guard.
While Kuldip and Tom had their moments, Kuldip and I had some very memorable moments in Europe too, which are all an open book in my book.
History was my best subject at school and continues to fascinate me today, as do the principles, values and religious beliefs of every country I visit. My love of cultural exchange extends to the local food and wine, plus the performing arts, literature and architecture so, when I travel restaurants, museums, art galleries, theatres and opera houses are my favourite haunts and there are plenty of them in Europe.
Kuldip loves all of that stuff too, but my amusia man draws the line when it comes to going to the opera and ballet. Amusia, for those who wish to know, means, in clinical terms, to be tone deaf!
Undaunted and undeterred, I ended up persuading Kuldip to take me to operatic performances in Venice and Vienna and to pas de deux at a ballet performance in Prague. And while I thoroughly enjoyed writing about these times in Just the Ticket, you will probably equally enjoy reading about Kuldip’s impressions of each performance!
Handsome men fascinate me as much as history and culture. And, ladies, there are plenty of them in Europe too. Apart from my constant swooning over Daniel Craig, aka the latest James Bond, I did meet a few good Daniel Craig substitutes in Italy whom I introduce in the book. If you want to know where they can be found, I suggest you go straight to chapters 41 and 42.
Like with men, they say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s not the case with Just the Ticket; the designers at Horizon Publishing were spot on. So should the cover inspire you to buy a copy of “Just the Ticket”, I hope you enjoy the read as well as the ride as much as I did.
And what do I think about camping now that I have done it for four months?
Well … you’ll just have to read the book.