On being somewhere other than Varanasi

My favourite city in the world is Varanasi, which lies on the banks of the Ganges, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is so holy that it is a sort of ‘cheat mode’ for the universe. If you die there you never need be reincarnated, but instantly achieve the state of Moksha: dying in Varanasi saves a soul from millennia of different existences. In consequence there are a large number of hospices in the city, where the devout await the end of their lives in this holy place.

If you live in Varanasi then there is obviously a great danger in leaving it, even for a short time. By going outside Varanasi, you gamble with eternity – to have been so close to moksha and then die somewhere else is is ludicrous. Diane Eck writes, in her book Banaras, that everyone in Varanasi has a story of a relative who went to Calcutta and was unlucky enough to die there.

A friend of mine, E., used to live there about 5 years ago. Whenever we talk about Varanasi (also known as Kashi), we joke about a saying I found about the city, I think in Diane Eck’s book:

“having gained this holy ground one should smash one’s feet with a stone to make certain that the priceless treasure of Kāshī is not negligently lost!”

Both E. and I have negligently wandered from from Varanasi. I have a small fantasy that, when I am old, I move out there to die; but in the meantime I continue to risk life outside Kashi’s boundaries.

But there are those who have decided to forsake the power of dying in Varanasi. The poet Kabīr apparently did not believe in pilgrimage, and went to the town of Magahar to die instead, a place said to be so wretched that its Brahmins were reborn as asses. And there was Pandit Mālavīya who, dying, refused to move to the town because he did not want to be liberated from karma because there was too much to be done in his next lifetime in our world.

Kumbh Mela

In 2013, I was travelling from Jhansi to Varanasi. I’d heard the Kumbh Mela was on in Allahabad and I couldn’t pass by without seeing what was forecast to be the largest gathering in human history, 120 million visitors over the month. But I was also scared of what it might be like. Reliable information was hard to find online and the news featured alarming stories of deadly stampedes at the station. I decided to stop in Allahabad during the daytime, taking a few hours to walk to the Tirtha and back.

On the train, a sadhu spoke to me in Hindi. I had no idea what he wanted and nobody around offered to translate. I handed him a banknote and he drew a cracked, dry thumb across my forehead, leaving a mark of ash.

My camera had broken in Orchha, so I had no way of recording the walk to the river. I was swept along with the crowds, all heading the same direction. My rucksack strap snapped as I hitched it on after using a public toilet. I was picked up by a young brahmin, who decided he should guide me. He led me to the shore where he paid someone to place an ornate mark on his forehead. He then poured Ganges water over my head and told me that all my sins in this lifetime had been forgiven. I didn’t dare ask if it included the ones I had yet to commit.

I saw only a fraction of the festival, a small area of the tents. Being a tourist, much of the event was lost on me. I’m not a spiritual person but I know I could be. I returned with the memory of the riverbank near the tirtha, where the Ganges meets both the Yamuna and the mystical Sarasvati river.

Allahabad’s next Kumbh Mela in is in 2025.

Goa: In search of Vindaloo

There are only two occasions when it is acceptable to wake up and have a drink before 10am. One is Christmas morning and the other is at an airport before a holiday. On 25th December 2015, both of these conditions were satisfied, so I drank a half with breakfast at the Gatwick Airport Wetherspoon’s (‘the Beehive’). I was flying to Goa, where I’d booked a holiday to laze around on the beach. Then, after ten days, I would head on to Varanasi for something more active.

Not even 7am
Not even 7am

As well as swimming and reading, I had another plan for my trip. I recently read Lizzie Collingham’s book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers. She describes it as “a biography of the curries of the Indian subcontinent”, promising that “each recipe tells the tale of the different people who prepared and ate the dish”. It’s an excellent book, explaining where the dishes on the English curry-house menu come from.

My usual curry order is a vegetable vindaloo. Sometimes they are good, other times disappointing, but at least you have an idea how spicy it is going to be. Reading Collingham’s book, I discovered that this much-maligned dish had a tangled, curious history, spanning five hundred years.

IMG_20151225_143023 (copy)

Travelling on Christmas Day has its advantages. It meant I got a chocolate with my airline Christmas dinner, and there was a brief visit from Santa Claus. I landed at about eleven on Christmas Day but it was well into Boxing Day before I passed through immigration and found a taxi to Mandrem Beach. It was about two before I was in bed. Spending the day in planes and airports meant it wasn’t the most exciting Christmas Day of my life, but it did mean I woke up in Goa on Boxing Day.

This is the saddest Christmas chocolate I've ever seen.
This is the saddest Christmas chocolate I’ve ever seen.

And it was pretty good. I was about three minutes walk from a quiet beach –  Mandrem is very peaceful compared to its brash neighbour Arambol. I found my way to a seafront cafe and had breakfast. A little later I came back and installed myself on a sun lounger. Once an hour I would go swimming, but the rest of the day I read. Every so often I would move the sunbed back a little to stay in the shade.

I’d read about goan food before setting off, and was impressed by the dishes available at Brighton’s Goan takeaway, the Nishat Tandoori. The thing is, most places on the beaches didn’t go much for local cuisine. They had a few dishes, maybe a vindaloo or a xacuti, but these were crowded out by the usual traveller fare. Some people refer to India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia etc as the ‘banana pancake trail’ because of its reliance on certain standard dishes. Many of the Goan cafes and restaurants had menus similar to the ones I had seen in North India or Nepal. Even worse, the few goan dishes they had contained meat, which is no good for me as a vegetarian.

On the banana pancake trail
On the banana pancake trail

So, while I was content to laze around on the beach for a few days, seeing out the last of 2015, I’d need to explore a little to find an authentic vindaloo.

12: Graffiti at the Beatles Ashram


This is another post that has been languishing in my drafts folder – back in March, I visited the ‘Beatles ashram‘ in Rishikesh, where the Fab Four had stayed in 1968. The atmosphere of the ruins was strange and creepy. Throughout the complex, people had left messages and paintings, some photos of which are below. Click on the images if you want to see larger versions.

Given the England’s grim, rainy Summer this year, I wish I was back in Rishikesh.


9: Indian Museums and bad taxidermy

India contains some wonderful museums, from the massive ones in cities like Kolkata or Delhi to those in smaller towns. 


The Haveli Musuem in Udaipur contains puppets, restored rooms, and the world's largest turban. The turban has been designed so that, viewed from different angles, it is tied like different types of turban:


There were also a couple of rooms filled with polystyrene models: 


Kolkata's Indian Museum is my favourite museum in India so far. It took me half an hour to find someone to give me a camera permit, but I persisted because I had to take some photographs. It was the most atmospheric museum I've ever been in, with rows of wooden cases filled with exhibits.  




Dad spotted the exhibit below, the Tools of a Field Geologist.


Among them was a 'stuffed bird'. I have no idea why a geologist would need a stuffed bird.


Most Indian Museums contain taxidermy. Some of it is excellent, but there are the occasional examples that don't look entirely life-like:





7: In Defence of Tourist Photographs


Ralf Potts wrote a beautiful essay, Tourist Snapshots, which describes the author's relationship with travel and photography. In fact, if you're short of time, you should read that essay rather than this post as it's full of interesting quotes and idea. My favourite bit is the observation from an Anangu guide in Australia who told Potts, "When [the Angaru people] first encountered tourists, they assumed there were people in the world whose job was to travel around in groups and take pictures of everything."

Photography has become intrinsically linked to tourism, both positively and negatively. It's difficult to balance the desire to record an experience with the feeling that photography gets in the way of truly experiencing the moment. Susan Sontag, quoted by Potts, describes tourist photography as a defense mechanism: “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture.” Potts also recounts Paul Fussell's observation about anti-tourists, who ostentatiously don't carry camera in the hope they will be asked about it and can explain their superiority to other travellers. As Jarvis Cocker pointed out, "Everybody hates a tourist".

I wrote a little about this sort of thing in relation to my visit to the Taj Mahal in 2010. The datacard containing the photographs I took was accidentally erased by an Internet cafe. I wasn't too sad about this. Since I was alone in Agra, there was little linking these photos with me and The Taj Mahal is one of the most photographed buildings in the world (which reminded me of the Most Photographed Barn in the World in Don DeLillo's White Noise, which is also quoted by Potts).

I returned to Agra earlier this year, this time visiting the Fatehpur Sikri. Of course I took many photographs of the sights and found myself thinking again about tourist photography. The tourist experience is already mediated. When you visit old palaces, you don't see the sewage or the servants, only a series of settings designed to show the place off to modern visitors. Your residence in a hotel has little relationship to the daily life of the people living in the country. Indeed, the writers of the Rebel Sell, a critique of anti-consumerism, claim that "the only 'authentic' form of tourism is business travel". It is not taking photographs that reduces tourism to something inauthentic.

As I walked around the main palace, framing scenes with my camera, I thought about Claude Glasses. These were tinted mirrors used by 18th century tourists to frame a landscape and give it a tinge more like a painting. It is easy to mock this idea of making the landscape to look more artificial but, once you surrender the possibility one can ever authentically experience a tourist site, this becomes fascinating. The view-screen of a digital camera gives us a way to subtract elements from scenes, focusing attention on detail and becoming mindful of the environment. Even if one doesn't save the digital photographs, the digital camera offers a creative means of experiencing an environment.

Are You Experienced? – my favourite book about India


It is probably best to arrive in India when feeling calm and rested, after a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, after a 14 hour flight, I'm not generally at my best.

The first time I landed in India, a couple of years ago, it was a shock. Delhi can feel very hostile to new arrivals. Soon after arriving at Paharganj, the backpacker's quarter, I had to find some rupees to buy bottled water. Dazed, I was swarmed by touts. They could tell I had just arrived and were eager to divert me. I ignored one persistent tout, who worked through a repetoire of openings to get a reaction. He finally came out with "Why don't you go back to your own country".

This year I arrived in India feeling more confident but the start of a long trip always makes me nervous. To relax myself as I queued for immigrations, I started to re-read Are You Experienced. This is my favourite book about travelling in India. I originally read it before my first trip and it was more interesting and thought-provoking than the numerous worthy texts by white BBC journalists.

In re-reading I recognised many of the misconceptions I had on my first trip. The book is scathing about travellers, questioning the reasons why people travel to India, skewering traveller stereotypes and laying out the stages tourists go through when trying to understand a country as complicated as India.

The novel follows Dave, a gap-year student. Dave decides, on a whim, to visit India with his best friend's girlfriend, the insufferable Liz. Dave finds India difficult to deal with and has various encounters and misadventures. Without being didactic, Dave's encounters illustrate some interesting points about travelling in India.

The book discusses the temptation to develop 'theories of India', with the travellers competing with each other over their interpretations. At one point, Dave decides that he most enjoys travelling between locations, where he is not hassled by touts but instead ends up sharing food with other people on the train. "I had assumed that travelling was the crap bit you had to tolerate in order to get to the places that you wanted to see,  but it occurred to me that maybe the places were the shit bits that you had to tolerate to do the travelling".

Among the jokes and clever observations are some excellent points. When a train breaks down, Dave seeks the company of the only white person he can see, who turns out to be a Reuters journalist. The conversation goes badly as Dave is mocked for having no idea about the current political situation in India, or what Congress or the BJP are. When Dave defends himself by saying that he doesn't have to revise for his holidays, he comes off second best.  The journalist's resulting rant is fantastic, attacking the idea of treating India as a character-building exercise, a more exotic alternative to mountaineering or running a marathon.

The book also contains an epic dysentry scene which acts as the Campbellian crossing of the threshold. There is also this particular quote towards the end:

"I'd never been jealous of the older travellers before, because most of them were such transparent social failures. The people in their 30s who were still trudging around India had so obviously cocked-up their entire lives that there wasn't much to be jealous of."

I didn't read much of the novel before we were through immigration, finishing it in the hotel that night. Bangalore was peaceful compared to Delhi. We checked into the hotel without problems then helped a German tourist to find the station. I am an older and more experienced person than I was on my first visit.

Photos of the ‘Beatles Ashram’ in Rishikesh


In 1968 The Beatles went to India to study at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh. While there, the Beatles wrote much of the White Album: 'Dear Prudence' was written to coax Prudence Farrow out of her meditative seclusion; 'Bungalow Bill' was apparently inspired by the son of an American visitor who went tiger-hunting; 'Mother Nature's Son' (and the unreleased 'Child of Nature') were based on a lecture by the Maharishi; and 'Why Don't We Do it In the Road' was written by Paul McCartney, inspired by the carefree mating of some monkeys in the ashram.


Lennon and Harrison stayed for a couple of months, leaving after a disagreement with the Maharishi, probably arising from accusations of sexual impropriety. The falling-out is referred to in the song 'Sexy Sadie'. It was originally titled 'Maharishi' but changed either to avoid libel or at Harrison's request. There is apparently a vicious outtake full of obscenities aimed at the Maharishi.


The ashram's land was rented from the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department. The site is 14 acres and features a couple of large buildings, various smaller structures and dozens of egg-shaped two storey stone huts. Starr later compared the ashram to "a kind of spiritual Butlins". In 1997 the site was returned to the Forest Department and left to grow wild. The buildings are slowly falling into ruin. There is some footage of the site in its prime on an old Pathe newsreel.


Officially the grounds are out-of-bounds and signs on the gates read 'No Entry'. But it's fairly common knowledge that a 50 rupee payment to the guards will get you access. There are also guided tours available but I didn't manage to organise one in the time available.


While there are no traces of the Beatles themselves, the ashram has an amazing atmosphere. I love ruins and this site is incredibly atmospheric, with lots of stairways and long, dark corridors. I have an over-active imagination and would probably have had a heart attack if anyone had jumped out at me. I waited until returning with my friends Emily and Caspar before exploring some sections.


As you can see from Johnny Vagabond's photos, the old yoga center shown below is regularly repainted.


All around the site were small two-storey huts. In one was writter the words 'John Lennon was here', but I suspect that graffiti was not original. The huts were small but cosy, and I'm surprised no-one has tried to turn the site into a hotel. 


There were two large buildings with egg-like structures on the top. These were the most interesting part of the trip with the roof reached by some spooky stairways (to see the graffiti better click on the photo to load a larger version):


There are ladders on the side of the 'eggs' which lead to a hole in the top. Inside the top half of the egg is a chamber. People were chanting inside one of them when we passed.


I loved visiting this place. On my second visit with Emily and Caspar there were more tourists around, and many of them were hanging out on the roof. It was a fantastic atmosphere.  


A strange job


The photograph above shows a tank near the Jodh Bai palace in Fatepur Sikri. A group of men were sat in the sun and, when they saw me, shouted that they would jump into the water for 150 rupees (£2). I declined. Later, a group of tourists gathered and one of them did leap into the water. I don't know how they collected the man collected his fee, or if they did. It seemed like a strange way to make a living (but I also saw much worse jobs in India).


A day-trip to Agra


Often the major tourist destinations in a city are less interesting than some of the more obscure places. On my first trip to Agra I visited the Taj Mahal and found it slightly underwhelming. The Taj is beautiful, but somehow the experience of being at one of the world's great tourist attractions overwhelms the location's glory. (I wonder what it was like to visit the Taj Mahal in the 50s when Allen Ginsberg could sleep overnight in the compound?)

On my second trip to Agra I went on a Friday, when the Taj was closed. Instead my destination was Fatepur Sikri, a ruined city about 30km away.  This was founded as the capital of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century but was soon abandoned due to water shortages. We took the early train from Delhi and hired a driver from the state tourist office. We had chai then set off for the main site.


The buildings are truly incredible, although there are some very hardworking touts. Even the most persistent of them couldn't detract from the amazing buildings. Below is the gateway to the Jama Masjid:


Behind the main palace was the Caravanserai where visiting merchants stayed. It was an evocative location, impossible not to imagine the people who might have gathered there. Behind the Caravanserai is the lighthouse-like Hiran Minar. This is said to be a monument to the Emporer Akbar's favourite execution elephant and is decorated with hundreds of stone elephant tusks.


Fatepur Sikri was an incredible place to visit, yet there were very few tourists there. On the way back we visited some other locations, including Akbar's Mauseoleum:


Near sunset we went to the Mehtab Bagh gardens, across the Yamuna river from the Taj. There is a small, free viewing area nearby but we paid to enter the gardens for a respite from the touts. Between the gardens and the riverbank is a muddy no-man's land. One tourist had found their way onto it and we watched a Ballardian scene as they were intercepted by guards and led back to the road.