Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

India 2015: From West Bengal to Goa

– visited December 2015 –

Sundarbans

The Sundarbans is a mangrove area in the delta of the river Ganges. It is a mix of closed and open mangrove forests, land used for agricultural purposes, mudflats and barren land, and is intersected by multiple tidal streams and channels. Four protected areas in the Sundarbans are enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Sundarbans are shared between India and Bangladesh, I visit from the Indian side as tours are easier to organize and a lot cheaper.

We leave Kolkata in a minivan, take a boat, take a rickshaw and take another boat to reach the small village where the camp is located. The trip is already a fascinating insight in life in the countryside. Upon arrival, we also tour the village where we are based. Exploring the Sundarbans is done by boat, so the next two days will be spent slowly gliding through the mangrove forests. We see plenty of animals: Macaques, various beautiful species of kingfishers, mudskippers, eagles, crocodiles, fiddler crabs, herons, cormorants, a buffy fish owl (nice!), monitor lizards, brahminy kites, a juvenile imperial eagle, lesser adjutant storks, many other birds and many of the beautiful spotted deer. Ah, I nearly forgot the Irrawaddy dolphins.

What we do not see, is what we all came for: The salt-water drinking Sundarbans Tiger. But let’s be honest, that would have required luck. But nature still holds a special moment. We leave the boat at a viewpoint and a small green pit viper, as bilious green as a green can be, is slung around a fence. Beautiful and poisonous. We walk to the watchtower and observe some deer, nothing more around. On the way back, it’s just me and the guide, we see some movement in the grass. Suddenly a king cobra raises its head. Don’t make another step, the snake seems to say before it turns around, glides away and disappears through a fence into a nearby pond. I take as many pictures as I can, my heart is still beating a bit faster even now.

We are a mixed bunch on the boat. Tourist from Europe, the US, Egypt but also a cross selection of Indians. Wildlife enthusiast and people who just came to have a look. I am talking a lot with Martino, a musician from Chennai. We talk about languages and I ask him how many Indian languages he speaks. His reply is a surprise. “I’m an Anglo Indian,” he tells me, “I speak only English. My sister-in-law always makes fun of me when I do not understand Hindi.” The boat trip is very relaxing as most of the time absolutely nothing happens. We have a cook on board and the food is plentiful and delicious.

On the way back to Kolkata, a ride of about four hours, we have a near collision with a pedestrian in a hectic Indian town. To break the journey, we stop for some tea in a small village. It is pitch-black dark and one guy from our group falls into a ditch as he is looking for a place to pee. The villagers have to help him out but unfortunately, he has hurt his arm and his knee.

Kolkata

Kolkata is known as the cultural capital of India and is the primary hub of Eastern India. It is an amazing place and I could just wander around for days on end. I have never seen so many beautiful old buildings, many of them crumbling though. The “New Market” dates from 1874. Centrepiece of the city is the Maidan, a vast stretch of field that includes play grounds, a cricket stadium, several football stadiums and the Kolkata Race Course. A lot of greenery for an Indian metropolis. The Maidan is dotted with statues and architectural works, the most notable being the Victoria Memorial. This magnificent marble building was erected after the death of Queen Victoria, then the Empress of India. It is a museum nowadays. St. Paul’s Cathedral was the first newly-built cathedral in the overseas territory of the British Empire. Raj Bavan, also known as Curzon Mansion was the official residence of the Viceroy of India from 1858 to 1911. Bhawanipore Cemetery holds many colonial and also a section of military graves. The Hoowrah Bridge spanning the Hooghly River is a famous symbol of Kolkata and the whole state of West Bengal.

For the more Indian feel I visit the Kalighat Kali temple. Kalighat was a Ghat (landing stage) sacred to Kali on the old course (Adi Ganga) of the Hooghly river. The name Calcutta (Kolkata’s old name) is said to have been derived from the word Kalighat. It is crowded and hectic, there is a lot of pushing and shoving and I am not allowed to take any pictures. From the temple to the metro, I take a pulled rickshaw, which is kind of a weird feeling to be pulled by a running human.

I stay in a cheap hotel in Kolkata’s Old Town. The streets are narrow and all is crumbling which gives it a special atmosphere. Soon after I arrive the electricity is gone from the hotel and the surrounding houses. It does not come back until late at night when a group of workers has finished digging up the street. That street transforms into an outdoor eatery in the evening. Several food stalls appear out of nowhere, the food is cheap and delicious. I find a nearby shoemaker who repairs my sandals and the tailor makes nice new pockets for my pants. One of the aspects I love about India, back home in Germany you often just throw things like that away. Here it is just a quick repair.

To leave Kolkata I make use of a tourist quota ticket of an otherwise sold-out train. Indian train tickets are complicated and there is an incredible amount of quota tickets that are reserved for different groups of society. Some go to the disadvantaged, but many also go to the privileged. Kolkata has a Foreign Tourist Booking Office where foreign tourists can get tickets absolutely hassle free. When you buy the ticket, you do not know where your bed is, for that you have to consult the reservation chart on the platform before departure.

Odisha State

With only sixteen days to spend in India, I have to make my way towards Goa. Odisha state is along the way and has plenty of attractions.

On arrival in Puri I immediately jump on a tour of Chilika Lake. The full day tour is cheap (8$) and I am the only foreigner on the big bus. As we visit some temple along the way, the guide tells me that unfortunately, not being Hindu, I cannot visit the temple. Chilika Lake is a brackish coastal lagoon known as an important wintering ground for migratory birds. We switch to several smaller boats each carrying about a dozen passengers. It is boring, there are only a few birds around and they are far away, even with my zoom lens I manage few usable shots. The fishermen are arguably more interesting. I am not the only one to think that the boat trip is a waste of time. One of the passengers repeatedly approaches the boatman and spends time talking at him, trying to convince him to turn around. The problem is just, the boatman does not understand. India has more than four hundred languages and the boatman does not speak any of the major ones. None of the passengers, all Indians beside me, speak his language.    

Puri’s Shree Jagannath Mandir is an important Hindu temple dedicated to Jagannath, a form of Vishnu. The present temple was rebuilt from the 10th century onwards, on the site of an earlier temple. The image of Jagannath, with his outsized eyes, is made of wood and is ceremoniously replaced every twelve or nineteen years by an exact copy. The English term ‘Juggernaut’ derived from the temple’s famous annual Ratha yatra, or chariot festival, in which the three principal deities are pulled on huge and elaborately decorated temple cars. Unfortunately, I can’t go inside as the temple is closed to non-Hindus. The guys from the nearby library make a good business selling their viewpoint on the fourth storey.

Swargadwar is the name of a popular beach in Puri and just behind the beach is a famed cremation ground. Puri is considered one of the holiest cities for Hindus and bodies are brought from afar to be cremated here. You are free to wander around but it seems a very undignified affair, small piles of wood are burning and oupps, there is leg sticking out.

The Konark Sun Temple is a 13th century temple 35 kilometres from Puri. With its massive stone wheels, it resembles a 30-metre-high chariot and was once even twice that height. The stone carvings are intricate and some very explicit sexual.   

Bhubaneswar is Odisha’s capital. It earned the nickname “Temple City” because of the 700 temples which once stood here. It still boasts of a cluster of magnificent temples. The most famous of these temples is the Lingaraja Mandir. Again, no entry for me but a platform has been constructed right at the temple wall to allow a curious look inside.

Hyderabad

I have a bed in AC Three Tier on the train from Bhubaneswar to Hyderabad (Secunderabad). It has AC, is a bit comfier than the standard compartments and bedding is provided. The food is pretty good.

With nearly seven million people Hyderabad is the fourth most-populous city in India. Before exploring, I stop to have a Black Forest Cake. Hussain Sagar is a giant artificial lake from the 16th century who had recently (1992) added a monumental statue of the Gautama Buddha on a rock in the middle of the lake. Birla Mandir is a Hindu temple overlooking the lake.

Hyderabad had its greatest time under the Qutb Shahi dynasty (1518 -1687) which flourished from the trade of large diamonds. Many world-famous diamonds (including the Koh-i-Noor) were produced in the region. The dynasty has left the Golconda Fort, with its astonishing rocks and commanding views and the magnificent Qutb Shahi Tombs. Being currently under renovation not all of them are accessible.

Despite Hindus being in the majority, Muslims form a minority of 30% and dominate in and around the old town. The Charminar (four minarets) is beautiful and Hyderabad’s most famous landmark. A nearby restaurant offers Beef Biryani and I cannot withstand the temptation. It is probably water buffalo as eating cows can prove dangerous in Hindu India.

Hampi

The 14th century capital of the Vijayanagara Empire was described by European travellers as a wealthy and grand and considered the second largest city of the medieval world after Beijing. Nowadays, Hampi is a village. But signs of grandeur are everywhere. Hampi’s ruins cover an area of 41 square kilometres. UNESCO describes it as an “austere, grandiose site” of more than 1,600 surviving remains of the last great Hindu kingdom in South India: “Forts, riverside features, royal and sacred complexes, temples, shrines, pillared halls, mandapas, memorial structures, water structures”. The landscape is otherworldly, a hilly terrain covered/formed by giant granite boulders. Very beautiful. Hampi has become kind of a backpacker hangout with many people staying for weeks.

Hampi continues to be an important religious centre, housing the Virupaksha Temple which attracts a steady stream of pilgrims. The festivities for the betrothal and marriage of Virupaksha and Pampa in December attract huge crowds. I am mostly drawn to Lakshmi, the temple elephant. Asian elephants are often pitiable creatures. Whereas their proud African cousins which are bigger and have big ears are feared (“No one goes close to an elephant!”) and dangerous (several hundred deaths each year) Asian elephants have been subjugated. They are used as work animals and often kept in less-than-ideal conditions. Lakshmi is one of these work animals. She lives in the temple, has to perform during festivals and the rest of the year she gives blessings to the paying faithful. Yes, Lakshmi is able to carefully take, with her trunk, a banknote from your hand and trunk it over to her mahout (handler). She then takes her trunk and puts it over your head to bless you. Honestly, it is an amazing feeling to feel her hairy trunk on your head.

I take a rickshaw to the Dharoji Sloth Bear Sanctuary. The bears are drawn to the viewing spots by food placed there by the staff. Unfortunately, the sloth bears are still really far away and only tiny black dots in the landscape. Even with my 600mm lens they are still small, but the Indian family I meet is happy to get a closer look on my camera screen.  

Goa

The sleeper bus to Goa has a sleeping space that would be very comfortable on your own but not shared with someone else. We arrive at 5 A.M. I walk to my intended place to stay and as there is nothing else to do get my laptop out on the beach and work a bit in the darkness until the sun rises.

Goa is special. The smallest (and richest) state of India it has a distinct history. It never was British, never was a part of British India. The Portuguese defeated the ruling sultan in 1510 and established colonial rule. They stayed for 451 years. As India became independent in 1947, the new government requested Portugal to leave. The Portuguese dictator refused to talk. In December 1961, India took Goa in a short conflict of about 36 hours that left about 50 people dead.

Goa is still distinct; people have names like “Andrea S. Fernandes” and Christianity is strong. Goa is India’s most cosmopolitan state, most liberal and its most touristic. Beer, which is not common in India (most places of religious significance are dry) can be found easily everywhere. Goa draws many international but also Indian tourists.

I stay at beautiful and relaxed Patnem Beach which does not draw the party crowd. I have a simple room right at the beach (thanks for the broom to get that sand out) and can have wonderful food all for about 25 € a day. One day I rent a motorbike (3 €) to explore the countryside.

Velha Goa is surreal. The capital of Portuguese India from the 16th to the 18th century, it was abandoned due to a plague. It was a city of 200,000 inhabitants. The city is long gone but its grandiose churches remain. You can find the Church of St Francis of Assisi, the Convent & Church of St John, the Chapel of St Katherine, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the ruined Monastery of St Augustin, the Basilica of Bom Jesus (holding the body of missionary Saint Francis Xavier), the Sé Cathedral (seat of the archbishop), the Church of St Cajetan or the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. And they are not small affairs.

Panaji, only about 10 kilometres away, replaced Velha Goa as capital. It holds many old colonial buildings but Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is its only church of any significance.