Tea Bushes, Holy Mountains and the Odd Brahman (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India)

December 2008 - January 2009


Right after breakfast, we started across the border with India. Other than a big, imposing Bhutanese gate, there was not much to remind one he/she was crossing a border. Hundreds of people were going up and down, heaps of merchandise flowed especially from India into Bhutan loaded on trucks or carts. The change was total however: any sort of "order" there had existed in Bhutan was history in Jaigaon, with rickshaws, thousands of people, the asphalt being replaced by dusty or muddy lanes, dozens of kiosks sporting colourful commercials and serving as anything, from banks to drug stores. Out of the whole lot, the building hosting the immigration post was the newest and best maintained, as it was brand new. Going to have my passport stamped, I started smiling; it looked as if one had placed an ATM in a bazaar and pretended this had turned the bazaar into a mall; but then, I was familiar with this childish approach from Romania, where people still live thinking they must prove something to the world by taking out their ego and having it painted in pink. Formalities completed, I was free to proceed to the bus stand, host of the typical, colourful and vibrant crowd, respectively of still sleepy merchants and to brightly painted, otherwise aging buses attendants were shouting the destination of. For the first time in many days, it felt hot. Hot and humid, while the air was filled with those impossible to forget fragrances of the Subcontinent.

On the bus to Siliguri I was (against the rule, but they were coming from Bhutan, while I had been assigned that seat first) among a group of ladies living in Phuentsholing and going to Gangtok to celebrate New Year's, as it was December 31. Actually half India seemed to have chosen the mountains as a destination, whether this was about going to Sikkim or to neighbouring Bhutan. Of a mixed origin (half Nepali, half Bhutanese), they were keen to offer me a lot of advice for my onward travels. It was the well so typical border crossing warnings, disregarding of my reassuring them that I had traveled to India before. Siliguri was a transport hub and a busy trading post with the streets steaming of the people and merchandise flow. Caught between a few different ethnic groups (Tibetans, Nepali, Indians, Bhutanese and even Bangladeshi), Siliguri also was host to striking contrasts, from the fine residential property bordered by luxuriant gardens and all the way to the meagre and starving living under the blue sky between the railway tracks at New Jalpaiguri Railway Station. While taking half an hour to breathe at the latter, looking at those skinny children attempt to play in the dust, a woman shyly approached me; dressed in a poor sari she wore with dignity however, she did not dare beg. As I had enough of them anyway, I gave her some pakoras. Disappearing for a minute, she returned with a plastic bottle filled with water she wanted to share in exchange, as it was rather hot. While I was trying to refuse without hurting her feelings, a man appeared, hit her and took away the bottle, as well as what was left of the pakoras. Even though it was obvious it hurt badly, she calmly sat down and looked away, seeming used to it.

Eventually meeting my friend which had come from Gangtok, as trains were overbooked and we were too late for the "waiting list" / "emergency allotment" strategy we had used before, we got on a "sleeper bus" to Kolkata, to experience the seemingly never ending road full of potholes, bumps and cracks all night long. Nearly 13 hours later we reached the city; one hour later we got to the bus station at Esplanade. Busy and crowded, the city also showed the already familiar Delhi contrasts. With those decaying Victorian era mansions and administrative buildings sporting a ghostly atmosphere, as well as with the much more joyful and colour-filled (but also much smaller) houses of the locals, one wondered how the city would have looked shouldn't the British have come and attempted to change the world by building everywhere small red brick, London cakes. As always, history paid it back however, as the British were gone and the city now laughed at their intrusion at its loudest and most joyful.

Far worse than Delhi's Paharganj, Kolkata's Sudder Street was crap, capital C; the stinkiest form of it that is. A street packed with budget hotels, foreign cafeterias and other imports, it had nothing to do with the city around it, just like its yoghurt and cornflakes were half the world away from paratha and chai. It looked more like a resort on the Turkish coast, or like the Costa Daurada's concrete, tourist ghettos. As one would have expected it, the 100% imported cafes were full of foreigners wearing shorts and flip flops, reading newspapers with a superiority air over a glass of milkshake after a night's partying, as it was January 1. The block matched in a way Victoria Memorial, a structure that reminded me of yet other misplaced monsters, Bucharest's Palace of the Parliament or Agra's Taj Mahal, best expressions of one's megalomania and lack of connection with the world beyond their self-built, blind-folding golden aura. Instead, the wide park between Victoria Memorial and the imposing Tata Tower provided a much more pleasant and natural place to be for a change. The whole city was beaming of life, from the yellow, old taxis to the fewer and fewer hand-pulled rickshaws, bustling merchant streets, large market places and all the way to the crowded ferries crossing River Hoowgly to the Howrah side.

Traveling by train across India will always be one of the things I shall not forget and be always eager to repeat: women dressed in bright colour saris, long haul riders sleeping in next to impossible corners and positions, local people coming to sell chai, raisins, pakoras, spicy banana chips, peanuts or even biryani, those endless plains with rice plantations stretching forever, only bordered by palm trees and dotted with mud-and-straw houses, where only local women's saris would bring some colour... That hot afternoon air, where one goes beyond the heat, the fatigue or long distance ahead, simply taking the moment for what it is. A fast moment that is well worth an eternity, as one wrote on a cross placed on Romania's highest point in Fagaras Mountains.

On and off trains in busy Chennai, respectively after looking for the popular man in black (i.e. conductor) and another night on a sleeper, we got to Trichy in the early morning, just in time to see its streets like abandoned and quiet, with the odd shop attendant getting ready for yet another working day. The city seemed to only get back to life beginning with the barefoot faithful going up the stairs to the Fort Rock Temple. Just across the river there was another sort of vibration setting the town in motion: the colourful temples of Sri Ranganathaswamy and Sri Jambukeswara. While the former was more crowded, with people, music and flower offerings flowing across it in an endless procession, the latter was more quiet and peaceful, allowing one to take things at a time and to enjoy the moment. Both of them stroke the visitor with their extremely rich detail and so vivid colour scheme; they were all different and interesting, even though I for one preferred such rich stone carving on a single colour, as I had seen it at the mosque in Ta'izz (Yemen) for one.

Evening found us at Madurai, home of yet another such temple. More fame, many tourists, fancier restaurants serving the same food like the street stalls, less chai and more ale, things we slowly sliding off my track. Luckily (in a way), the temple in Madurai was undergoing restoration works, so that its glamorous colour scheme was covered by big palm tree leave planks. This way it was more interesting to see the faithful and the otherwise superb stone carvings, without the shiny, too colourful top. And anyway, people were far more interesting, with their processions, curiosity, eagerness to talk to the stranger, or with that overwhelming life buzz. Later on, going South of Madurai, the scenery began to change: rice plantations were fewer and fewer, there were more and more dry bushes, arid areas and rocky hills; the air was getting drier too. However the early evening saw us arrive in Kanyakumari, at the very lowest tip of India, the place where the Bengal Bay meets the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Despite the existence of a few mid-sized hotels, the small town did not seem suffocated by tourists, most of which preferred the resorts to the North-West. Its sleepy narrow streets and alleys were only brought to life by children's running around or by the chanting coming from a church or from someone's house. The narrow beaches had the sand altered by oil spills. The town was host to many Indian tourists that had come on pilgrimage tours to the local temple or to the Vivekananda's memorial located on a small rocky isle off the coast.

Time was running short and we started on a bus to Trivandrum one morning, talking to an 78 year old lady from Switzerland, which had come to India in search of memories of her earlier travels, some 25 years earlier. Both Padmanabhapuram Palace in Thuckalay and Puthe Maliga Palace in Trivandrum featured some of the finest wood carvings I had seen in India. The space management had also been done exquisitely, with a relaxed atmosphere that hardly let one believe there were buzzing towns just some 100 m. away. Other than that, Trivandrum was crowded on the main avenues, just to turn totally quiet in the side streets bordered by small houses and budget hotels. I liked the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple more than the ones in Madurai or Trichy, as it was "simpler", it lacked that crazy potpourri and it was less imposing.

The long journey back home soon began, with aircrafts full of holiday makers, whether it was about British and Germans going back home via Abu Dhabi after spending New Year's on the Indian coast, Syrians returning to Damascus after having gone shopping in the Emirates, or the same Syrian families returning to their businesses in Bucharest after spending a few days back home. It was rather cold in Bucharest, and even taxi drivers, always ready to rip one off, were quiet, cold hands in their pockets. The City Hall had turned off the holiday lights along the main streets and avenues; 2009 was to be a crisis year and Europe, like any society based exclusively on money, did not afford to smile after getting the electricity bill. So much unlike India.



THE INDIAN SECTION (you are here)

It had been an older dream to go to South India. Without having really enjoyed the Bollywoodian painted temples at Madurai and Trichy, as always, India is about human communication and about the local people next to you while traveling. Then, I found some of the greatest wood carvings in the country at Thuckalay and Trivandrum.