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About This Blog

Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Saturday, 29 January 2011

January 29th: Tiruvannamalai in Southern India

On January 29th 1982 I was in Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu in Southern India.  Tiruvannamalai is a small town with a huge temple.  The backdrop to the town is the Arunachala hill, which is seen as Shiva himself and is the real object of devotion here.  The hill has been the abode of ascetics down the ages: in the first half of the twentieth century Ramana Maharshi lived here, and although not a guru many Indians and Westerners have devoted themselves to his teaching.

The previous evening I had gone to the temple and been impressed by its size, courtyard within courtyard, two tanks, lots of commercialism, monkeys, an elephant, even cows inside, lots of sadhus and babas, more Shiva here than I'd seen elsewhere.  A brahmin hustled me down to a lingam shrine beneath a pillared hall where Maharshi is supposed to have done tapas; it has a plaque and two photos; he did a puja for me so I had a mark on my forehead which got much looked at.  Many of the visitors were sitting facing the mountain.

Arunachala from the temple:  My picture
In the morning I went to the temple again and then wandered around taking photos of Arunachala, and of some people in the market/bazaar who to my surprise made friendly and willing subjects. Then I sought out the little hill to the north of the temple, going up through a charming little lane, nearly a cul-de-sac, and felt a little free of the town.  The temple at the top was rather spoiled by graffiti, but this did not detract from the good feeling.  I looked down on a little temple below where there was a lot of activity, and the people walking round seemed to be mostly women.  I also looked down on the five houses which seemed perfectly fitted into the edge of the hill.  One of them had new whitewash and red tiles, the local sort that fitted tightly on top of one another; next door had coils of rope outside the door and a strange slightly oversize dummy of a woman.

In the afternoon I tackled Arunachala itself, not getting especially far up - it was too late in the day.  I passed the cave where Maharshi spent many years but what I wanted was some feel of the mountain itself.  I wrote this in my notebook:
I am perched on a huge boulder on the first ridge of this most holy mountain.  Late afternoon, sunshine alternating with cloud shade, and there's a lot of haze.  So far the climb has been dry and dusty, small herby plants, short grass and some cactus, some kites coming close to my head, a neophron landing on a rock, a pack of well-behaved monkeys, a big old male moving behind his family, slow but dignified.  Above it gets a little greener, long grass and some flowers, scarcely attractive though, a small group of people collecting something, grass perhaps.

Below the town is laid out.  I can see almost all of it, roads leading out at strategic angles, I can see seven at least, the eternal bleating of horns, the train line on the far side, and a train chugs slowly across and stops at the station.  The flat plain stretches out until it gets lost in the haze, some clumps of hills in the distance, but nothing as spectacular as this hill.

The temple:  My picture
The temple dominates everything; it covers almost 10% of the town area.  I can make out three courtyards and the shrine within, 4 gopurams for the two outside courtyards and one for the inside one, plus two tanks, one shining green, and various porticoes and the large covered hall of pillars.  There are trees in the outer courtyard on the far side.  On three sides around is the town, but on this side only a few red-tiled houses before the slope of the hill.  On the left is the smaller hill with temple on top and at its foot, it acts as Nandi to Arunachala itself which is Shiva.  Beyond is a temple and tank, an ugly yellow school, the mosque:  I heard them calling prayer-time not long ago, and I heard also the call for Friday prayers at noon.

I can see one or two shrines on the slope of the hill, one with the friendly well-spoken baba, but the cave and the ashram are hidden by a fold in the hill.  I cannot deny Raman Maharshi's presence; although it is the name on everyone's lips, the presence is getting rather dim, dimmed by the passing years.  But the mountain lives on, that is the presence, for here the mountain is Shiva, the mountain is God, and I can sense the reverence folk have had for this extraordinary mountain over the millennia.
On the way down I stopped by the shrine with the English-speaking baba, a happy soul.  "England is in London?"  He came from Tirutani, near Tirupati, and had been staying at the shrine two months.  He put ash on my forehead.  He told me the shrine was to "Annam that is Mata, Devi," I think that is what he said.

Roger Housden in "Travels Through Sacred India" describes the walk round the mountain. The internet has a vast amount of information about Ramana Maharshi, for instance this website and this website; there is also David Godman's blog with this post of old photographs.  There is also a webcam of Arunachala.

Temple Entrance:  My picture


Garland Seller:  My picture

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

January 26th: Kanchipuram in Southern India

On January 26th 1982 I was in Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, the holiest city in South India.

The day before I had taken the bus from Madras across the flat plain.  We drove past a pretty temple town and then I could see the big gopuram rising up in the glow of the setting sun fifteen miles before Kanchipuram.  I stayed in a simple but clean Hindu hotel on the first floor with a street view and ate in the place next door that served pilgrims.  The area near where I stayed was the old part of town, full of white-dressed pilgrims, old temples, sandy streets, Sri Sankara houses, medical places, a small market but no main street.

This day was Republic Day and a national, non-sectarian holiday, so many places were closed, including temples for at least part of the day.  I found my way out to the Kailasanatha temple, an early 8th Century Shiva temple, a monument nowadays, on the outskirts of the town.  Kanchipuram had been the capital of the Pallavas when this temple had been built.  I wrote this in my notebook:
I linger here on the outskirts of this most ancient of temples, because I like the feel, because it's the nearest to rural India I've been able to linger, for it's really a little village just outside the limits of the town.  Many of the houses around are of the tiny low-roofed thatched variety, with white-washed mud walls and brown geometric designs, miniature windows, cooking utensils outside; some boys build up a little shrine with leaves and flags of India for Republic Day. 

House by the Temple:  My picture
I had an immediate good feeling for the temple as a hoopoe crossed my first sight of it.  A Shiva temple, but the statues made of soft sandstone have not weathered well, one or two give clues that they may have been fine; however much has been covered with plaster ("100 years ago" said someone), giving crude lines to the smiles of Shiva and Parvati and the fierce faces of the lions.  Its shape is interesting, small and slightly cramped in comparison with the magnificent later Dravidian styles, big niches on the inside courtyard walls with statues and some remnants of paintings on the difficult to reach inside.

At the edge of the barbed-wire compound is a plaster covered Nani.  A small tank has been excluded from the compound and given to some villagers who have built their small typical houses under the shade of ancient mango-trees.  Boys play cricket against the outside of the back temple wall.  One or two sightseers, rickshaws and bullock-carts, a big yellow Fargo parked and now started up.  In the distance the big gopurams of later, finer, more grandiose temples, and inevitably the sounds of a loud-speaker swirling in the windy humid air.

One of the boys from the village got talking to me, 7 years old, a Christian.  I also got invited into a handloom lungi factory in a field (Kanchi is a famous weaving centre), impressive looms, women gently spinning and twisting, but the men were working with great, possibly involuntary, intensity, naked except for loin-cloths.  So much work on a national holiday seemed like exploitation and I hurried away.
I went to the huge gopuram I had seen across the plain, a big closed Shiva temple; I climbed onto a pillared hall and looked out over huge grassy expanses in the courtyard but saw only rubble; outside by a small market I sat eating tangerines sitting under a stone shelter and heard the sound of Hindi from pilgrims from Madhya Pradesh; there were fine statues in this open space, unusual subjects including a man with a beard, some much venerated.

Towards evening I found the Vaikuntha Perumal Vishnu temple almost as old as the Shiva temple I'd seen earlier.  After a few minutes in the inner courtyard, very intimate, the electric lights came on and I could see some fine sculptures, only a few with the recent plaster overlay; more day to day motifs.  And then I had a glimpse into the sanctum; the black Vishnu image made me shudder but the power of this made me feel good and calm.  Then I went to the Kamakshi Temple, the Shakti temple.  I sat for half an hour undisturbed in a columned pavilion to the right of the main shrine, partly looking at the sculpture, including some mildly erotic ones, partly watching the to and fro of the pilgrims and the night sky above, with a new moon.  This was my favourite place in Kanchi.

The next day with time running out I hired a bicycle to visit the main Vishnu temple, in its own suburb across the river, the Vardhamana temple.  I found it full of Vaishnavite brahmins with characteristic hairstyles, long and sometimes braided at the back and short or shaven in the front.  The temple I could see little of, except for a fine 100 pillared hall and a nice tank; the hall had good sculptures, fierce men on horses and Krishnas playing the flute.  The river was almost empty and home for untouchables.
By the Kailasanatha:  My picture

Kailasanatha:  My picture

Monday, 24 January 2011

January 24th: Tiruchirapalli in Southern India

On January 24th 1982 I was in Tiruchirapalli (Trichy) in Tamil Nadu in Southern India.

When I had first arrived a couple of days previously, I had taken the bus to Srirangam, an island in the Cauvery River which holds one of the largest and most famous Vishnu temples in South India, the Ranganatha Temple.  I went straight to the temple which is vast, a series of squares within squares, the sanctum, the outer courtyards and small temples and several layers of houses which made up the town section, with thick high walls between each enclosure.  The temple itself I found a bit hustly, and a youth attached himself like a limpet to me.  But there were some nice areas, statues and gopurams amongst sand-filled roads, Vishnu marks large on the walls, Vishnu marks on an elephant, some nice column halls.  I climbed onto a roof for aerial views, and saw gopurams receding into the green palms, and the central shrine covered with gold.  But the best bit came when I left the temple and wandered amongst the outer town sections, some pilgrim areas, then a line of byres along the biggest wall, people friendly now, children running after me "Where's your come-from?", a hand-driven ferris -wheel with children caged in groups of 2 or 3 in the cars.  As I got the bus back I noticed another large temple on the other side of the main road and resolved to return.

Tanjore: Brihadishvara Temple:  My picture
The next day I took the bus to Tanjore (Thanjavur), a pretty dull journey - the only interesting little town I passed was Vallam with an old temple and a match factory.  In Tanjore I took a rickshaw to the big temple, being unsure of my direction.  The temple is impressive enough, one of the main Chola relics, giant in scale and very open with a cloister and frescoes and lingams all round.  The central principal shrine is perfect in form.  With no signs prohibiting I walked straight in and got shooed out smartly like a pariah dog.  Still there was plenty to enjoy in the precincts.  Then I walked around the old town built around the later Nayak Palace.  The residential Main Street forms a squarish circumference and has some nice old houses, temples and a tank to the inside.  Then there is a bazaar street running straight down the middle.  I found a side street with a temple and a lovely old temple cart, then a strange building to the left which I think was the observatory of the palace.  I went into the art gallery in the palace, which was a real treat, with some beautiful statues, both stone and bronze, mainly classical Chola period, 10th - 14th Century, the finest were Shivas, especially the stone one from Darasuram, "Shiva Killing The Demons With His Smile."   In one room was the bronze collection, some fine Natarajas and Parvatis.  I was surprised to find a couple of Buddhas, unusual and not as fine as the Shivas.  Upstairs there was a tower which you could climb and a rooftop where you could look out over the massive walls of the palace, the roofs of the pleasant sleepy town, and the distant towers of the big temple.  I had a peep into the library with the nice palm-leaf Mahabharatas just like those I had seen being inscribed in Bali. 

On the day of the 24th, I had a long walk around Trichy with a friend, five hours in the heat of the day.  We went first to the Rock Fort, which towers over the town,  through the gateway temple which was full of devotees; they had had a procession out on the main street with elephant and carts.  We dropped in on the little Shiva temple halfway up, where a music festival was underway to mark the birthday of some great music guru from c1860 by singing his songs; while we were there, there was a great chorus of devotional song to Ram with tabla and violin and tamboura.  Further up we couldn't look in at the great Shiva temple, just the 6th to 8th Century upper rock cave to Shiva which had fine sculpture.  Up top there was a modern Ganesh temple and fine views all over the city and into the haze beyond to the industrial south and Srirangam to the north.

After a long gaze to the distance, this time we walked the few kilometres to Srirangam island and visited the Sri Jambukeshvara temple.  It is a Shiva temple and not as old as the main Srirangam shrine.  However it was less grand and more relaxed.  An old baba showed us some aspects, going over the numerology of the place, five courtyards for the five elements and so on, but he did raise my consciousness to some of the architectural features, some really beautiful ornate pillars with creatures like dragons at the top, and some fine carvings in niches which are losing their crisp clarity from generations of oil and powder libations.  He pointed out the system bringing water from the river that kept the holy lingam submerged in the central shrine.  We sat a long time absorbing the atmosphere despite some overt begging near the "No Begging Allowed" signs.  We did a quick puja to Devi to give an old baba a tip.  Outside the main walls of the temple was a community living in the streets around the inner temple as at the Vishnu temple, but lower key and less fine; there were byres around the thickest wall and we sat for a while at a tea-shop to the amusement of the locals.

Michael Wood shows in his series of films for the BBC, The Story of India, how the culture of the classical Chola period has survived.  He showed how modern bronze casters keep up the ancient standards for temple idols and how palm-books are still inscribed in the traditional way.

Patrimonium Mundi:  Panoramas of the temple at Tanjore.

Elephant in Procession in Trichy:  My picture
Chola Nandi and Frescoes at Tanjore:  My picture

The Rock Fort above Trichy:  My picture


Old street in Tanjore:  My picture

Temple Car in Tanjore:  My picture

Tanjore street:  My picture

Saturday, 22 January 2011

January 22nd: Trichur in Kerala

On January 22nd 1973 I was in Trichur in Kerala in Southern India.

We had the address of Sam's office in the town.  He had been my cousin John Cameron's driver and now ran a trucking agency with three trucks, as he told us proudly.  He drove and we followed to the family house which was a mile or two out of town in a semi-rural setting, a two or three room house with a farm around which could not have been much more than an acre and was probably less.  His wife equally proudly showed us round the farm, half of which was paddy which two wiry bare-chested men were working, the rest crowded and fruitful, chickens and maybe other animals. She pointed out the pepper vines and coffee and so on.  The farm was entirely her business; Sam's work was with the trucks.

Their son, called Sonny (or Sunny) asked us to go with him to meet his girlfriend's family.  He drove off with us through the palm-trees down dusty tracks in his battered red Renault Dauphine, the sporty model which still had a certain following in Europe then.  Foreign cars were more common here in Kerala as spare parts could be found in Cochin as they could be in Goa and Bombay, where merchants had found ways round the foreign goods embargo.  We ended up on an almost empty beach where a tall man in a lunghi was working over a huge pit sunk in the sand, at least eight feet deep.  He was stirring different items into a  liquid which he pointed out to us swirling in the pit below. We were shown little bottles with a lurid label which the liquid would go into - it was a hair tonic.  A few weeks later we saw some of these bottles for sale in a shop in downtown Madras.  All the while another man with grey hair and dhoti and a Brahmin's string around his chest was following us, with a begging bowl in his hand making signs for us to put money into the bowl.  Sonny explained that this was his girlfriend's uncle, the brother of the man making the tonic.

Back at the house, supper was ready, a magnificent feast, as was usual on these occasions, much more than we could eat, meat and vegetables, but with a very different character from what we were accustomed to, a different sort of heat, grey-black colour rather than red-brown.  It was explained to us that they didn't use chillies, but that everything was spiced with black pepper along with other spices.  We were in the heart of the area which was the central object of the spice trade in the middle ages, before chillies came with the Portuguese from the Americas.

Sam had bought his trucks with his pension from the army.  His wife had inherited the farm, a perfect matrilineal arrangement, which was still practised in this area.  It seemed a very good set-up to me, both man and woman living independent lives.  I saw a little of the same system in Bukittinggi in Sumatra some years later, where the Minangkabau women certainly had independence, but I have read that the matrilineal tradition there is declining in response to more normal, Islamic, views spreading from Java and Aceh. 

Friday, 21 January 2011

January 21st: Madurai in Southern India

On January 21st 1982 I was in Madurai, a large pilgrimage city in Tamil Nadu in Southern India, where the attraction is the temple of Meenakshi.  The temple is only 400 years old but the city is known to date back to 500BC and was visited by the Greek Megasthenes in the third century BC.

I came to Madurai by the same route as I had in 1973, descending from the hills in Kerala by bus this time, whereas I had driven before.  Madurai seemed bigger and even brighter and more colourful than I remembered it.  The journey seemed almost as good, a wide valley full of towns and temples and a very low pass not too long before Madurai.  Tamil Nadu seemed western Asia, as opposed to SE Asia in Kerala, with ploughed fields stretching to jagged hills, much poorer than Kerala and less developed, clusters of untouchable villages and some really poor-looking houses in the townships.  I don't think I can remember a single church, but some colourful temples.  There were donkeys and cows and goats, cotton-fields and coconut plantations, alternating with rice-fields.

In Madurai I went that day to the temple for an hour or more, wandering around the parts open to me, slowly and barefoot, and gradually relaxing and smiling, looking without a lot of thinking I suppose, and sat for a while by the tank, looking at the Golden Lotus and being chatted to by young Tamils. It all felt good.  There was devotional music over the loudspeaker system; I walked round the shopping precincts and took in the goddess who is given butter.  I had a fine view out of the Western Gate into a red sky with bright stove-lights in the street.  I took a walk around the streets surrounding the temple, where the trades were divided into different sections.  There were smells of incense, coffee, perfume and urine.

Next day I returned and spent a longer time in the temple, looking round the museum until I was too tired in the gloom - lack of electricity made for some interesting light in some places and gloom in others.  Then I sat by the tank, writing my thoughts:
The Golden Lotus Tank:  Picture by McKay Savage, CC, 2007
The temple bell is rung, a trumpet sounds, there is a movement of people away from the tank to the inner recesses forbidden to me.  But after a few moments the gentle rhythms of the temple reassert themselves.  An old man goes to bathe in the green water, a policeman dips in his feet.  The sounds of ambulatory pilgrims and tourists come through the consistent hum of the power plant.  Men walk round  with garlands or coconuts and bananas, the jingle of anklets, women wear their finest silk and flowers in the buns of their hair.

The temple defies symmetry, for although there are superficial patterns, nothing is alike in the end.  The tank typifies this, an even rectangle in shape, but around the edges the steps are sometimes closed off with red and white striped walls, and sometimes left complete.  The column and lamp standard is in the centre I think, but it is offset by the golden lotus which floats anchored to one side and near this corner is a square open box with gangway and inscriptions and bulls in the corners which provides a seat for a kingfisher.  The cloisters around have colonnades but each of the columns is individual and the friezes above are different on each of the four sides.  The colonnades have circular motifs painted above and on two walls there are rather faded frescoes; a third has a Tamil poem inscribed in more durable marble.  The stone steps on which I sit have internal geometric patterns in red and white, as do many of the floors of the temple and streets and villages in the south of India.

Above soar the lofty gopurams, studded with innumerable coloured statues, unrecognisable gods and goddesses with many arms, rakish moustaches or slender figures, riding on garlanded bulls perhaps or standing cross-legged, the higher ones could scarcely be seen or comprehended by anyone, except for the giant grotesque masks at very the top with great bulging eyes and gaping fanged mouths, where circle the kites and swifts and pigeons of the air.
Later in the day, I wandered beyond the temple and found I really liked what I saw.  I walked through the Pudu Mandapam, summer abode of Meenakshi and Sundareshvara, which is a very atmospheric place: the inner hall was locked off, but the outer corridor was used as a market, stalls set amongst the statues, some of which were quite fine, and some, being of gods, were covered with powder and with clothes, yet boys were working at their feet at sewing machines.  Then I wandered through ordinary streets where they weren't used to tourists, past a spice market and some grandiose buildings, where men pulled huge carts, and  round the closed palace built like a fortress, plaster over brick.  Some of the side streets here are tidy straight residential lanes, the traditional atmosphere intact.  I walked back along a long street of silversmiths and goldsmiths among striking architecture.

Michael Wood describes a visit to the temple in The Smile Of Murugan;  he came with Tamil friends on a pilgrimage tour and therefore describes the temple as seen by many Indian visitors.
Outside the Pudu Mandapam:  My picture

Madurai:  My picture

Thursday, 20 January 2011

January 20th: Benares

On January 20th 1979 I was in Benares.  Map of Benares.

I stayed a month or more in Benares. Benares is a city very rich on the senses. This day was towards the beginning of my stay and I was still not distinguishing clearly the things that passed before my eyes. The ghats were obvious places to sit and watch and on this day I was moved to write:
Near the Central Ghats, the day much clearer so that you can see the entire length of the river front from Varuna to Assi.  Prompted to write by my first sight of a body floating past, caught between the houseboats and the rowboats, no one takes any notice: they carry on with their body scrubbing, their clothes washing.  Behind me is one of the big palaces, a high front off the ghats where the pigeons nest, and above towers and rotundas and balconies and shuttered windows - it seems deserted, a neglected elegance.  A group of donkeys doing a little dance.  Next to the palace steps rising flanked with little temples.  People sit, talk, stare, smoke. 

Benares Ghats:  My picture (1982)
The noise of Hindi, a distant radio, a passing rowboat, a donkey starts a desperate neigh.  Across the river they're building a temple of what looks like straw and bamboo, people say it's some guru and his non-sadhu adherents, they're going to burn it down next month.  They row boats laden with pilgrims across, and further downstream there's a big encampment of tents.  Beside me all the time is a shape covered by a white cloth, I thought at first it was some small person sleeping, but it could be a corpse, or just a pile of belongings.

A few metres downstream, more activity, the body continues its passage to the sea.  To my right a line of twelve men, with nearly shaven heads and white clothes, sit with their hands out receiving food and verbal admonitions from an old man wrapped in a blanket.  At his request they get up and turn round.  A Japanese hippie plays the flute.  To my left sit three cows chained.  A poor man in a light crimson turban counts his money.  An ancient woman is building a little fire under a pot, using bricks, paper and a few pieces of wood; she tried to take a heavily soiled Hindi newspaper from some Brahmin pilgrims in front of me and they were aghast.  A line of barbers, tilak men and pundits under their matting sunshades on their little wooden balconies.  Shouts of Om or Bom from a neighbouring temple and the ringing of the bell.

Another day I sat on Scindia Ghat and wrote this:
I chose this ghat to sit on because it seems lively and colourful on this grey day.  A rich group in colourful sweaters and saris is moving away.  The ghats I passed coming here have been mainly empty, just one place noticeable where a lot of men wearing white had their heads shaved bar a top-knot.  A cold wind sweeps across the Ganga from the east, it's a wintry sweater day despite occasional incursions from a hot sun. 

Scindia Ghat:  My picture taken in 1982
One baba in white has a bag of food for the goats, and some puppies come along for a bite.  So often here in Benares it's the animals I notice, they live and produce and suffer and die just like the rest of us.  Away to the right a column of smoke rises from the burning ghat.  An old white-bearded baba is curled up on the step, a blanket over his head, and a goat sniffs him enquiringly.  Another old guy with white marks on his forehead, a blanket around his head, an umbrella with fancy handle in his hand and a strange fringed shirt over his  legs.

One strange fellow passed with yellow ochre lunghi, Buddhist colour, and a large circular top-knot in two stages in layers, a young educated type.  Another group dressed in white just passed to do quick puja at the temple on the ghat, the leader carrying food, bananas, sweets and thin curd.  Beyond is the stone temple that rests in the water almost up to its lowest roof level at a strange angle, a victim of a flood perhaps.  There's even a rooster on this ghat.  Young men doing vigorous push-ups.  Boatmen trying to push their boats against the wind.  A group of large boats without sails appears opposite where they seem to be dredging sand in front of the tent encampment.  A few sailboats near the bridge.  Pigeons settling on a log floating by but they can't all fit on.  A hippie passing by sits for a while almost out of sight at the other end of the ghat; he has a beard, and a new denim vest over a t-shirt.
I walked all over, through the lanes, along the river-front, along the main roads; when I got tired or too lost I could always get a rickshaw.  Some impressions in my memory:  the taste of good buffalo yoghurt in a clay bowl, mixed with papaya;  the noise of bicycle bells in a traffic jam of bicycles and rickshaws, no motorised transport, while the white-gloved policeman in his box at Godowlia fails to sort it out;  the crimson cloth on brown bodies as hundreds of sadhus process along the main street in the early evening, perhaps for Shivaratri, many of them naked and holding tridents; a group of monkeys stealing sheets from the balconies of rooms above Dashashmadhev, the central ghat - everyone becomes focused and animated, even the sadhu who sits over the duni burning the eternal flame on his single log of wood.

As the city sits on one curving bank of the river, the other side is a bare sandbank from the Malviya road and rail bridge to the Palace at Ramnagar.  This year a guru, Jai Gurudev, was building a temple to be ceremonially burnt and this was surrounded by a huge encampment of devotees.  Towards the end of my stay I went to visit:
There were even Jai GuruDev boats crossing from Ghai Ghat, so I took a boat and we went back six or seven times to pick up more passengers, once even from quite a way out.  We had a lovely wizened old boatman with thin scaly legs, cloudy eyes and grey hair, but another young man with paan-filled mouth rowed for him.  On the other side I admired the view from the bank, a different view of the city.  The bank itself less interesting than I'd imagined, flood mud hardening now, and little fields fenced off.  The centre of the "village" is a big temple made of bamboo with little mud shrines under canopies, the whole thing circular and guarded.  The guru was seated inside receiving visitors.  Much joy from the acolytes, people go round saying "Jai Gurudev!" to each other.  A man in a Kangra hat began to lead a chant which sounded to me very Afghan.  A group of followers danced and sang round the temple with a couple of hippies in attendance.  Most people were just gazing at the action, as I was.  I saw almost no sadhus.  People were selling Jai Gurudev pictures and calendars and buttons and literature and hats and scarves, the lot.  The big burning is scheduled for tomorrow morning and should go on for a week.  By now the sun was setting over the city.  I took a crazy crowded boat back to the chaos of the riverside on the city side.

Ghat in Benares:  My picture taken in 1982
I walked the entire length of the waterfront seeing all the ghats and taking care in the few sections between which were used as toilets.  At Assi I was on the edge of the city, with the green fields of Lanka beyond and the pontoon bridge across to the cliffs of Ramnagar, with its fortified front and palace.  To the left I had the whole sweep of Benares to the red spans of the Malviya Bridge.  The river was quieter at the Assi end, just a few people walking, a few boats, little bathing and almost no pundits or vendors, silk saris left out to dry, a black-dressed sadhu in a shrine with his dog, mynahs squabbling and parakeets in a tree above where I sat.  Nearby was a Muslim ghat, undecorated and with no buildings, and a single man at prayer, facing directly away from the river.

I found that the beauty of Benares was in the small details every bit as much as the grand spectacle.
From my window at Ghai Ghat I recorded some impressions:
Lane up from Ghai Ghat:  My picture taken 1982
A man goes past with a great cry, something like "Mallayeki", selling that delicious yellow creamy stuff like whipped egg-white.  Opposite my room is the door of some shrine, open now, an old man with very short hair is doing something, not puja, maybe cleaning, a boy of 10 comes by and sits by him, says a few words.  There are several images in the shrine, three in the middle in yellow, at least two others.  Next door is a little shop-booth, huddled under the steps which lead up to a house - inside a tailor sits at his cloth.  A donkey stumbles past, his front two legs hobbled.  A cow is feeding at the doorstep of one of the houses nearby.  A religiously dressed  man comes out of a house opposite and leaves the inner door closed; round the doorway are traditional Benares paintings and a couple of custodian figures, dressed in yellow this time with a green sword and a flat turban; above is a Ganesh surrounded by two girls and two fish.  The stone pavements in the lane are at different heights and have various functions, for walking on when the street is wet, for chaining up calves and cows, for selling food in the little bazaar area, for lying asleep on during hot afternoons.  A couple of cows block the street, a bookbinder is at work, and I can hear the distant hammering of the silversmith.
I'd be back in Benares three years later.

Ghai Ghat:  My picture taken 1982

Friday, 14 January 2011

January 14th: Journey Through Bolivia to Villazon

On January 14th 1976 I travelled south through Bolivia to Villazon, the border town for Argentina.

This was the second long bus journey I'd taken on the way from La Paz to Argentina.  On the first I had crossed the bleak desert altiplano to Oruro and then passed the salt lake Poopo, where there were flamingos among the mirages.  Most of this was dirt road.  Eventually it had become more mountainous and there was snow on the streets as we entered Potosi.  I spent two nights there, seeing the Casa De Moneda on a dull guided tour and preferring the Indian areas and the market. 

This day to Villazon was a very long ride in the bus which turned out well.   We left rather late, in fact it was 7.30 before we were actually out of Potosi, up the hill, almost climbing the Cerro Rico, where the famous silver mines are, and over bare hills.  The valley became greener with a good deal of agriculture, and it continued that way for a long time, green fields surrounded by mud walls and strung out houses, the people more prosperous than the shepherds of further north.  At one time we took on two Indians for Villazon, who seemed to be generally despised by the passengers, perhaps also because they'd been drinking or celebrating.  Meanwhile in the back of the bus it felt like a community, albeit middle-class, everyone joking and talking, a woman from the Alta Beni, a talkative man with a little beard.  We stopped in an even greener area at Camargo for lunch, a good meal taken outside.  We passed through a region growing wine and figs, then climbed back into more barren areas with lots of cactus, flowering now in a range of colours.  After the turning for Iscayachi we passed smaller lakes and cattle.  Then there was a big descent to the river at Tojo, really magnificent in grey dusty mountains and failing light.  We stopped for supper on the porch of a hotel at Tojo and then I dozed the last two hours to Villazon, where we arrived about 10.45.  It was drizzling and Villazon was a muddy town.  With others from the bus I found a bed in a communal room for 25 pesos at the Residencia 10 de Febrero.

In the morning I walked up and down the main street, looking for a good exchange rate.  I had a farewell saltena, the Bolivian pasty, and was lucky, as I only found sandwiches on the Argentina side and I had to wait several hours for a bus to Jujuy.

The border at Villazon in 2005:  Picture by Lakerae, CC

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Thursday, 13 January 2011

January 13th: Rumbek

On January 13th 1981 I was in Rumbek.  The school was slowly coming back to life after the Christmas break but I was only managing about one session a day, with some classes not having restarted and most others being cancelled for political meetings which never took place.

I took the opportunity offered by Jeremy and Peter of the British Institute of Nairobi to go for a trip out into the bush.  We visited two empty wet-season cattle-camps which were interesting enough to look round, seeing unusual artefacts such as mosquito-net covers, clay cooking-stones and the different cattle pegs.  The first one was Jalla in empty toich, the second was closer to acacia woods with good bird life around.  Then we saw animals, especially giraffe, 6 or 7 moving shyly away from us at speed, and I think there were kob there as well.  Finally we went to an enormous cattle-camp at Warnyang, where there is a luaich or ceremonial house for Makot an elder who must have died eleven generations ago, which would be 200 years; he had been buried with special sacrificial posts and other tombs were marked.  Special sacrifices to God are held there each year and there are two houses on stilts for two old women who live there and look after the place.  It was very atmospheric and nice to have a few young Dinka warriors passing through.  There were low houses on one side for the fattening camp, post dry-season.  

Guardian Women's House at Warnyang:  My Picture

Detail of Guardians' House:  My picture

Ancestral Byre at Warnyang:  My picture

Fattening Camp near Rumbek:  My picture

Monday, 10 January 2011

January 10th: Train to Benares

On January 10th 1979 I was on a train journey to Benares.

After Pune I was headed for Benares, where I planned to spend a few weeks.  I got my ticket as usual two or three days in advance; I was unsure of the route and the journey time seemed to be about 18 hours.  That would make it a reasonably fast journey, but the reality was that it was scheduled to be a day and 18 hours.  I recorded some of the sights at three points.  First at the start, in the carriage, waiting to leave:
Platform full of life after dull waiting-room, full of people with three trains in half an hour, even some Thai bhikkus (Buddhist monks) giving something different to look at.  My near neighbours are young single men which does not augur well, but I'm still full of excitement for the journey and the destination.
In the morning the train pulled into the junction of Bhusaval and the carriages were left deep in the marshalling yard, the doors locked if requested.
I didn't realise I was in for a whole day's wait here, and getting to Varanasi at 2pm tomorrow.  Still it's been interesting, as well as boring, to see the sort of small town I saw so often in 72/73.  The centre of small streets and no heavy traffic, so many strange looks, unused to foreigners.  Many Muslims here, two mosques seem the biggest buildings, but also temples, like one beside the market by the bridge where I stopped, and I've seen more sadhus here than in Pune.  Side streets full of goats as well as cows and pigs.  Guy on the bridge selling cuts from a huge root or palm-heart, as if from a cheese.  Overwhelming smell of ghee in the restaurant/sweetshop areas, but little attractive to eat.  I sit in a cane-juice shop near the railway, away from interesting sights, but the whole thing is worthwhile.  Bullock-carts passing, red or blue painted horns.  A stall selling posters.  Rickshaw drivers wait for business.  A grey and white calf eats paper.  Two donkeys carrying something, looks like waste leaves.  A sadhu passes with red shirt and locked hair in a red band.  People, people, people, someone is playing a harmonium.  A snake-charmer with two little green and white snakes and a ratty-looking mongoose.  A little boy and black stuffed doll.
Next day we were pulled through Uttar Pradesh north of the Ganges by an old steam engine that belched smoke and burning ashes through any open window.  We stopped at every little station, it seemed.
Steam Locomotive:  My picture, taken in 1982
Yet another little town on this desperately slow run from Allahabad to Benares.  Little towns with red brick walls and pale-coloured camels, little fields of sugar-cane, and some yellow crop like rape or mustard.  People carrying rolled-up new carpets at this station and the last.  A guy selling one newspaper.  Another carrying some strange stringed instrument.  A man with three women came on at the last, wearing his best clothes, white handloom dhoti, wool jacket in green and a brown wool waistcoat on top, a handloom white cloth around his neck as a scarf; he's getting his shoes polished, a greying crew-cut, he looks like some village headman; his women are reticent, but interested in me and the bhikku I've been talking to, all wear sandals, some little bits of gold, multi-coloured saris.  Here the vendors sell peanuts, chai in pots for 25 paise and channa, no fruit since Allahabad.  Beyond the earth platform there are big shade trees and little fields, some brick houses, lean-tos covered with straw or tiles or corrugated iron.  It seems very rural and slow, like the train has become, yet the platform still has quite a crowd of people; they can't all be seeing off friends, surely?
When I got to Benares, I took a rickshaw to a guest-house near Ghai Ghat.  When I went out on the terrace, there was a full moon and the stars were out, but the river was couched in mist and I could hardly make out the water.  I was tired after the journey but revived when I walked into the centre of the city through the maze of lanes, taking in all the sights and colours and smells.

Railway Platform:  My picture, taken in 1982

Railway Station:  My picture, taken in 1982

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Sunday, 9 January 2011

January 9th: Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka

On January 9th 1982 I was in Anuradhapura in central Sri Lanka.

I had thought Anuradhapura would primarily be about its ruins of an ancient capital, so I had not anticipated the amount of pilgrimage activity.  It was a Poya day, meaning it was a holiday for the full moon and that night was due to be an eclipse.  The central focus appeared to be an ancient bo-tree.  I wrote this that evening: 
I was unprepared for the activity around the Mahabodhi tree, a real pilgrimage centre as dynamic as many in India, flocks of people dressed in white, kneeling and praying and sitting and watching and getting all excited when a little procession started with drums.  A woman chanting something amongst the bowls of burning oil.  "She was dumb and can now speak" said someone passing knowledgeably to me in English, she had a little group of 10 or so admirers.  All the bo-trees around, the ground covered in fallen leaves.  Outside pilgrims were sitting on the ground being fed, and later sitting in groups where there was shade being addressed at great length by a monk over a loud-speaker.  I made a considerable tour of the Sacred Area, enjoying walking along the roads which had the charms of rural Sri Lanka and in the end reached an area without visitors, only big trees and ruins and birds and butterflies and monkeys and more.  

Patrimonium Mundi:  Panorama of Anuradhapura


Healed Woman at Anuradhapura:  My picture

Under the Bo-Tree at Anuradhapura:  My picture

Anuradhapura:  My picture

Saturday, 8 January 2011

January 8th: Pune


On January 8th 1979 I was in Pune in Western India.

My primary motivation in visiting Pune (Poona) was to see the Rajneesh ashram; simply out of curiosity because while in India I had seen so many of the Oranges, his orange-wearing, mainly Western followers.  I wrote this in my journal in the evening:
Rajneesh Ashram 1980:  Picture by Akbar Simonse, CC
I made my visit to the Rajneesh ashram this morning, so I've completed what I want to do here.  Last night at the restaurant downstairs from my hotel room, I spoke to a German girl in Rajneesh clothes who sat at my table; she gave me the information to be there at 7.30 am, and he speaks at 7.45.  I woke at 7 and it seemed to be a full half hour walk there, being passed all the while by Oranges in scooter-rickshaws and on bicycles, only one person walking there until I was close.  The number of people there still surprised me.  I paid my 5 rupees and went into the sniffing queue and had to take off my waistcoat because it was too "dusty", also my bag.  These procedures might have rattled me, and I was detailed to sit behind the green cord, where the area was for mainly non-orange wearers.  All the security arrangements were done in superior sounding American accents.  These priests or acolytes add to the smooth running and to the cultish feel.  We were told not to cough or leave before the end of the discourse, and one bearded man next to me was constantly looking around to see who was coughing and got very agitated when one orange left and walked right across the room.  I guess there were a thousand people there under a kind of marquee on a cold-surfaced floor, loud speakers and someone was filming.  I think it's all taped so people can listen to the wisdom and put it into one of Rajneesh's books.  He was brought in in his yellow/orange Mercedes, wearing white robes and as he entered and left most people made an exaggerated namaste prayer sign.   This is a daily ritual.

The previous day had been Sunday and in the afternoon I chose to visit the old city.  Pune was famous as a modern, developed city, maybe that was a reason for the ashram being located there, so it was surprising to find the old city so intact.  I usually tried to visit the old commercial and market areas in Indian cities; they were always interesting and revealing of everyday life and they were usually off the normal tourist beat.  I wrote this visit up like this:
Old Pune 2009:  Picture by Nandu Chitnis, CC
The old city felt once more like the "real India", really as colourful as anything I've seen on this trip, comparable only with the old cities of Peshawar and Delhi, so that I just wandered looking vaguely for somewhere to sit and relax, like a chai-shop with a view, or just by the roadside.  And although I thought it would be very quiet, it being Sunday afternoon, even the market was open, though not doing much business, a group of orange sellers sitting around playing cards, rows on rows of potatoes, cauliflowers, onions, some other fruits, one or two things I had not seen before, no inclination to look closer as I did not want to buy anything,  but I remember one fruit with a hard green-white skin, and brown inside, looking a bit like a walnut.  Not much in the way of handicrafts to buy, not immediately obvious anyway as the central area was full of manufactured goods.  A bangle bazaar, a row of tilak/incense sellers.  Garish pictures, of minor deities, a photographic style youngish portrait of Indira.  An ornately styled Sikh temple by the river.  Right in the centre, the silver bazaar, the finest looking shop in a house of painted and carved woodwork, quite notable, a group of countrymen inside visiting in best clothes and tilaks, their women sitting outside on the pavement.  Big crowds at the cinema, signs saying "House Full."  I stopped for a lassi, rose flavoured, the best I've had.  Little temples dotted about, some brightly coloured, some discreet.  Virtually no beggars, no saddhus, no signs of Shiva.  Always surprised by the height of the buildings in the cities, many are four or five storied, the oldest ones with wooden balconies and upper parts.  For all the time I was down there I was the only foreigner.

Friday, 7 January 2011

January 7th: Juba

On January 7th 1981 I was driving a Land-Rover from Juba to Rumbek.  This is adapted from what I wrote in my journal:
I managed to get up soon after 5.20, and to get things ready before Tim, an English teacher working near Wau, showed up nearer 6.30.  Donato, from the school, had come about 6, and by the time I'd picked up Rose, wife of Theophilus a teacher at Rumbek, and son and small girl, who slept in the back with Donato most of the way, it was 7 o'clock, which meant that I was on schedule.  We got to Lui at 9.30, left Mundri at 10.30, passed Yeri at 12.30 and Mvolo at 2.00, all times approximate, getting here at 5.30 which was exactly right.  I was worried about turning the engine off as I had had difficulties the day before but my main worry was about petrol: in Juba I filled the tank partially with fuel from the drum, almost inhaling which was horrible; I was still anxious at Lui when I couldn't get more petrol out of the drum, but when I put in some from the jerry-cans, it overflowed and I realised that the fuel gauge like most of the electrics wasn't working.  I was worried about getting stuck after dark in case I ran out of fuel or couldn't get the vehicle started.

The journey was remarkably easy, and I was able to drive a bit more quickly, which meant that as I got tired, I hit some ruts rather too hard, but the car stood up well.  We had breakfast rather spontaneously at Lui, talking with Mark and Maria who are having a quiet time there, not very involved with the school which at least has a competent director in Alfred.  We bought orange but hard mangoes in Mundri, ate papayas in the forest after Mvolo, and had a chai-stop and Dinka-style begging for lifts at Akot.  Tim was good company and we talked a lot particularly about our different schools which have both suffered from bad directors and relationships with other awajahs.  He talked of Ted Joans, the black US beat poet in whose house he had been staying in Lamu.  Not much wildlife, warthogs, baboons, perhaps vervets.
When I tried to start the Land-Rover the next day it was completely dead.  It was due to go to the house of John Mikis, the sole remainder of the Greek traders who had been in Rumbek for generations. John Mikis's driver was towing me and had stopped when the rope broke outside the Unity Bank.  Two Land-Rovers drove up, an Englishman got out and said "Oh, my old Land-Rover", Peter the archaeologist, who had sold John Ryle this car.
 
Sarah Errington had been using this Land-Rover to help carry equipment for the BBC crew who had been making a film called "The Dinka Bride" for The World About Us.  This was about Marial, a Dinka studying Civil Engineering at Leeds, who had been married by his mother to Yar and had come back to Rumbek to collect her over Christmas.  The crew had stayed in our house while I was away and had returned on New Year's Eve.  A jolly time was had and I got together with the Camera Assistant - we still are together.

I spent a day watching them film, waiting for the uncles to come and sacrifice the goat, while we played cattle songs on cassette, but they did not turn up that day.  They filmed Marial at the house in town, Marial on the bicycle passing through the town.  Best was out at Majak, Marial's house of the sort I had heard of but not seen, built on stilts and with a lot of earth hard baked to make them comfortable. 

Sarah had arranged with a previously unknown local to take the equipment to Juba in his vehicle, but when he arrived at the house about 8am, he had changed his mind and had a full load of passengers.  Sarah would have been stuck but I offered my services to drive the Land-Rover back and was gladly accepted.  We left an hour or so later with minimum preparation.

The journey down was fun.  After a final stop at Majak, I rode on top of the Toyota until way after Yeri, hanging on for dear life in the bumpy stretches.  There was a stretch of track when we left the Yirol road through tukuls, a lunch stop in nice forest with Jur around, and a sight of the bombed out old Rest House on a rock near Mvolo.  Then we saw warthog and some sort of long-necked gazelle.  I sat for an hour in the front of the Land-Rover, then at Mundri I took over and got the feel of the vehicle and was enjoying it, keeping up with the Toyota in front.  There was a good deal of roadkill: two rabbits, a jackal (small and silvery) and a ratel, also one of those nightjars with the long feathers trailing back from the wing, though I didn't know until we arrived, which was about 10.30.  The road into Juba was paved for a couple of miles, the only paved road in the South.  I had to ask which side of the road I should be driving on: I'd been driving for several hours and living in the country for six months.  I think it was the left.

BBC Crew with Toyota at Rumbek:  My picture
After Sarah and the crew left I had a day to do business in Juba.  I had a number of tasks to fulfil for Sarah, I wanted to buy fruit to take to Rumbek and I wanted to know if anyone needed a lift.  I visited the Africa Hotel, the cheap hotel by the river to see if there were any travellers who were interested.  I walked around the Malakia market until I was exhausted, I looked in at the Greek Club.  I visited Issa of Sudan Safaris, part of an Italian family who organised big game hunting trips, because she had the drum of petrol which Sarah had arranged to buy.


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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

January 4th: Aguas Calientes, near Machu Picchu

On January 4th 1976 I was on a train from Aguas Calientes to Cuzco.  I'd been to Machu Picchu the day before and stayed in Aguas Calientes in a sort of hostel which was part of the string of buildings along the railway line, effectively the main street of the little town.  From there it was an easy walk along the rails to Machu Picchu station; you went through a couple of tunnels, the air was humid and flocks of parrots crossed the river.  Then you climbed up 500 metres to the ruins.

This day I only just made it to the train.  I had tried to find out the times but got conflicting reports.  So when I heard the whistle blow, I had to collect my things, check and jump on the train very quickly.  At first I had to stand but later I got a seat and tried to reflect on where I was now and where I'd been the day before:  
Perched on the edge of a seat sharing with a family, father, mother, four kids and one at the breast and some chickens.  Full of the idea that I am lucky to get on the train, that my boots and socks are still wet after the descent yesterday,  We're past the violent bit of the river and the hills are lower and more covered by scrub now that we have climbed higher.

Train at Aguas Calientes:  My picture taken in 1986
I'll long remember Machu Picchu, sitting on a terrace above, seeing all the outline of the city below, the houses, streets, walls, palaces, like it had only just been destroyed.  The tourists around, click, click, an argumentative young blond German, an elderly American couple, a group of English women admiring the flowers.  People leaving almost in a file, quickly.  The Japanese with their cameras.  The tourist train just passed, could be the same lot, anxious faces photographing everything, the station, the Indians, the train, leaning out of windows and platforms.

Above all Huayna Picchu, the long steep climb and sitting on a few rocks above, looking down on the valley 750 metres below, the railway and the tourists arriving, the steep walls of the hills in every direction, green and cloud-covered, some bare patches, the valley winding and twisting through the canyons.  The ruins looking small below, people like ants, the mess of the hotel and the zigzagging scar of the road.
The departure from Cuzco had been just as dramatic.  The train had been very crowded, Indian women sitting all over the place.  The train climbed slowly out of the city at first, going to and fro up the steep hill on a steep zigzag, while I was looking over the red roofs of the Plaza de Armas, adobe houses and mud streets, dogs and sheep and half-naked children.  One woman sat in the corridor in the middle of all the chaos, her skirts and petticoats filling up the space.  We climbed out of the valley and circled around the high grasslands down through a little canyon into a series of fertile valleys.  It got dark as the Urubamba gorge got really narrow.  Through the window all I saw was a brown, rocky, violent river.


Machu Picchu under Huayna Picchu;  My picture taken in 1982

Machu Picchu;  My picture taken in 1982