Murshidabad. 29th February 2020.
“What to do next?”, had been the question at the forefront of my mind. I had always planned to make a summer visit back home, probably around the end of June. I would have left my bike somewhere safe in India meanwhile. Learning about the six month rule imposed by customs stymied that plan. I suppose I could have gone to Nepal but would have struggled to have found enough to do there for the six month time gap required. Having learned about the Royal Enfield Himalayan, I had now made a definite decision to buy one and ship my CCM back home. But there was no point it doing that too soon. It would take about a month for it to get there and I wanted it to arrive when I was there to receive it. My decision was, therefore, to keep travelling for another three or four months while I slowly made my way to Mumbai and its shipping agents. My plans are never very focussed but I reckoned if I headed north west,and then south, I’d find enough to keep me busy. Neel had told me about the town of Murshidabad and what was there to visit. It sounded good so I headed that way from Kolkata, with plans to then explore the state of Jharkhand before turning south.
It was a mixed ride. Some very rough, dusty roads to contend with, just to make negotiating the trucks more interesting. I was glad to reach the expressway, where I found a roadhouse and some lunch. I ordered veg fried rice, then changed my mind and told them I wanted veg chow mein. Fifteen minutes later, they both arrived. I sent the fried rice back and I wasn’t charged for it. I asked for coffee with no sugar. It came with sugar. A couple of guys were stood watching me while I waited for the food. When it arrived they moved in closer and watched me eat! I waved them away, telling them not to watch me, and they went willingly enough. Then the owner came and sat down to talk to me. He spoke English but insisted on speaking loudly to me, as if I was a non English speaking foreigner who didn’t understand. Very amusing. Further along the road I came to a long line of trucks. At the front there was a protest going on but a guy directed me down a side street and I let the GPS direct me around it all.
Once in Murshidabad I found a hotel with basement parking and negotiated a good rate. Then I asked whether breakfast was included. They asked me what I wanted. I told them, and fifteen minutes later it arrived. So breakfast became tea. Ah well, life on the road, eh. I had a walk around nearby, found some cafés and the railway station, then a beer shop. So the evening had a pleasant ending.
The walk down to Hazarduari Palace was very pleasant. This was a small town, not busy with traffic, apart from tourist buses, and with low rise buildings all around. Some of them were nicely decorated and, despite fairly narrow streets, there was a sense of airiness about the place. The palace grounds had two buildings in it. One was the palace, the other was a Muslim congregation hall called Nizamat Imambara. It had a massive frontage to it, with dozens of doors and windows, but it wasn’t open. But the palace was, so that’s were I went. Some of the rooms had displays of household items in them but most of them had artefacts and paintings of people connected with Bengal. Some were of very regal looking Nawabs and their families, others were of very stern looking British East India Company officers.
I discovered that the Nawabs sold them the right to trade for 2.6 million rupees per annum. Whatever that translates to in modern money, it was certainly a tidy sum. But it was clearly a worthwhile investment, given the success of the company. They did this all over India and ran the country like a business for over one hundred years, but a business with an army, until the British government took over. The company invested hugely in education for Indians, obviously to provide them with a usable workforce rather than for any charitable reason. It’s also why they created an industrial base, as mentioned about Kolkata. The palace had dozens of school kids running around and they’d often come and talk to me, taking the inevitable selfies. I got the impression I was a more interesting exhibit than the exhibits themselves. That’s no surprise because someone else had remarked that, outside of Kolkata, Europeans were rarely seen.
I took a long walk, further out of town, past fields and crops, to Kathgola Palace. This had a Jain temple set in the very nice gardens, which included a large aviary and a pond full of koi carp. The palace had clearly been a place of note, judging by things like the Michale Angelo statue set in the grounds.
It was a long and hot walk back to the hotel and I felt I really deserved the visit to the nearby restaurant for pizza. Unfortunately it wasn’t all that good. It had been smothered in some of the rather sickly cream cheese that Indians seem to like, but at least the accompanying beer tasted good.
My next destination was Deoghar, in the state of Jharkhand. On the way I diverted to the Basukinath Temple. It’s dedicated to Lord Shiva, the most notable Hindu god, and is an important place for pilgrims. The clue to this was the number of naked, skinny old men that I passed, making their way along the main road. Well, I assume that was the case, rather than it being a naturists’ day out. In the town I was adopted by a guy who showed me a place to park,then took me to the temple to show me around. It was a busy place, with groups of people worshipping at an altar which had Shiva’s linga on it. Shiva is the god of all creation and life, and this is what the linga represents. In more modern times, the cylindrical column of the linga has been regarded as a phallic symbol, but it isn’t. It simply represents Shiva in the same way that a cross represents Jesus. The devotees wash it with milk, smear some kind of paste on it, then wash that off with more milk. I know not why specifically, it’s just part of the ritual of worship.
I gave my guide some money, “for the poor”. Do the poor ever see the money these guys collect? A cynic might have doubts, but knowing how these temples spend money and time feeding the hungry and homeless, I believe it does. It’s common to see people sleeping here and there, clearly using the area as a sanctuary. I was able to wander around and take photos here. The buildings were nice and there were lots of people around. Outside, I found a tea stall and got chatting to some guys. They left, but paid for my tea when they paid for theirs. I found my way back to the bike and set off, ignoring the guy who was trying to stop me, and making money signs at me. On reflection, he was probably asking for the parking fee. Oh well.
In Deoghar I found the hotel I’d pinpointed, among some very busy streets, but fortunately in a quiet square. The owner initially wanted Rs1,000 for the room but when I showed the price quoted on the booking website, and suggested I could book online, he brought the price down to Rs750 to match it. I got a good price, he saved on the commission. He was a nice guy, who spoke very good English. He explained to me where there was a restaurant that sold chicken, with a beer shop next door. I had a nice curry. The walk down there was through a narrow street, chock full of colourful stalls and colourfully dressed people. There was lots of street food too. Small bikes and scooters fought their way through the crowds, like I’d had to do on my way in. At the end of the street, where it joined the main road, was a clock tower, very reminiscent of the one that houses Big Ben, in London. I decided I liked this town.
My main visit, next day, was to Bababaidyanath Temple, a much revered place of worship. The hotel owner had arranged for me to be taken there by one of the temple helpers. These are people who look after visitors. I wasn’t allowed to have breakfast and I was supposed to bathe beforehand too. That went by the wayside as I’d showered the night before. The owner and I went across the road for some chai before my visit. The helper led me up through the back streets to the temple, not far from the hotel. I insisted we sort out the payments first. I knew the temple would want a ‘contribution’ and that he would too. In addition there was a fee for queue jumping. That was well worth the money because the queue went all round the building and halfway round the compound.
I was given a small jug of water, presumably holy in nature, and some flowers too. We had to force our way in through the door, past the crowds, pushing and shoving our way through. There were unseen steps under our feet and I wondered how someone would manage if they happened to fall over. There was a policemen using his stick (called a lathi) to control the crowds, only allowing small groups in at a time. My helper made sure I didn’t get left behind and eventually I was able to kneel down before Shiva’s linga, pour the holy water on it and rub it with the flowers. Then my group was hustled out to make way for the next gang of eager worshippers. I thanked my helper and wandered around the compound to take photos. Plenty of stalls selling worshippers’ trinkets, flowers etc. The strangest sight though, was of a couple of young boys getting their heads shaved. I’ve no idea why but it was obviously some kind of ritual or rite of passage. The mothers looked pleased, the boys did not!
Later on I visited Naulakha Temple, so called because in 1932 it cost nine lakh rupees to build. (One lakh equals 100,000.) It was a very showy building, with lots of white marble and, fortunately, places to sit. My feet were getting sore from all the walking. Having mentioned the lakh, I’ll tell you that the other large Indian number commonly used is the crore, which is one hundred lakh. They rarely use millions or billions here. A crore would be written as 1,00,00,000; a lakh as 1,00,000. As an example, India’s population of 1.3 billion would be expressed as 130 crore people, or 130,00,00,000.
While walking around I’d spotted a nice looking vegetarian restaurant near the hotel and I decided to have Thali. The word refers to a round platter used to serve food, possibly up to thirty dishes, served in small bowls. In a simple restaurant, it’s usually rice, vegetables and a curried form of whatever it was you asked for, along with chapati or roti. It’s cheap and cheerful. On the way back I came across a street procession, led by a group of men playing brass instruments and banging drums. There was a big display of coloured, flashing lights too, powered by a battery system which was placed on a cycle cart, hidden away at the back. In the middle of this noisy ensemble walked a man and a woman, very obviously the bride and groom. He wore an expression which suggested he’d lost a diamond and found a glass bead. I’ve seldom seen anyone with a more miserable expression on their face.
Next morning I started to walk up to the ThakurAnukul Chandra Ashram, which was five kilometres away. An Ashram is a place for practising meditation, yoga and similar disciplines. A young guy on a bike pulled up, wanting to talk to me. He offered me a lift, which I gratefully accepted. He wanted my phone number, which I declined. What on earth were we ever likely to talk about? We linked up on Facebook instead. This Ashram was modern and very nice. The large grounds contained several shrines but mostly some very nice rose gardens and several aviaries. A very nice place to walk around before heading back to my hotel.
The owner had promised me chicken and rice, which he duly brought from home, cooked by his wife. He had already supplied me with breakfast that morning, so I was doing very well. Both meals were very good. Not too spicy either. We chatted about families and so on. He told me he’d been a marketing manager but had to give it up. It involved a lot of travel and he had elderly parents that had to be looked after. He was expecting good things for the town, and therefore his hotel. They’re planning a new international airport, to be built nearby. I’d already seen a new expressway being built, during my walks. There’s quite a lot of new infrastructure being built in India.
I’d spent three nights in this town and had enjoyed it a lot, especially the hotel owners hospitality. But, as ever, the next destination beckoned. When I left, the young guy on reception actually asked me for some ‘baksheesh’. He said he wanted Rs500. I just looked at him with a ‘get lost’ kind of expression. He tried bringing the amount down – to 200, then 100, his final ‘offer’. I just got on my bike and rode away. The journey to Dhanbad was a good one. As I progressed into the hills the road surface improved, the terrain became wooded and the bends flowed beneath my wheels as the road dipped and rose. I stopped to look at the Kholi Dam. The map showed a road across the dam but it actually narrowed right down by the sluice gates and became a narrow, raised up pathway. The people fishing there looked at me and my big bike, then at the path with its steep ramp, and clearly expected me to turn back. I took a look at it and rode across with no problem. Nice.
At the other end of the dam was a nice park, with play areas and a little railway ride for the kids. It looked very run down, with the train obviously not running, but with people there having fun anyway. Best of all, there was a café, which sold coffee without sugar. That was a big deal and a rare find, so I had two.
I carried on, with the road getting even nicer, until I reached the town that housed the Jain museum. Jainism is a very ancient religion, with roots going back almost 3,000 years. They share many beliefs with Hinduism and Buddhism, particularly the tenets of non possession of goods for their own sake, self improvement and absolute non violence, including vegetarianism. But there are differences too. Likewise, and unlike the Abrahamic religions, they don’t believe in a Boss God or a creator. The museum had interesting displays but little information in English. There were statues of ancient leaders and examples of the iconography they use. Upstairs were glass cases containing small dioramas, telling the story of the birth of the religion, in English this time, which they reckon to be about eight million years ago. They were clearly very short years! Lots of info here.
I stopped in a town to shelter from the rain, an act which somehow managed to involve chai and cake. On the way out I spotted a temple, next to the river, which had a square tower and a sunny face shown on each side. Suryanarayana Temple is dedicated to the Hindu Sun God Suraya, and dates from the 7th century. It’s very pretty and is popular with visitors. It has a statue of the deity inside and twice a year, in early march, then early October the sunrise shines on its feet even when the five entrance gates are closed. I’d expect those dates to be six months apart, so that’s a bit odd. It’s a popular place for townsfolk during many of their festivals.
At the hotel I asked them if I could have the same rate as offered on the booking website. No can do. I explained it would be to their advantage to do so because they’d get the same money but not pay commission. Still no. So I sat in their lobby and booked a room on-line. And they lost money. Crazy! But this was a big hotel and part of a chain, which I suppose makes things different when they deal with the booking websites.
I stayed in this hotel for five nights. It was nice to relax. I went out for a couple of short walks but I was nowhere near the town centre so there was very little to see. So what on earth was I doing all that time? Writing and researching. Writing my blog. Researching information and accessories for the bike I plan to buy. I dropped into an easy routine of three meals a day and a beer in the evening. The staff seemed to like having me around and were very attentive; almost too attentive at times, in that Indian way. But it was a good break and, after all, I was not in any rush. “Get it while you can,” is sometimes a good motto. So I did. The only slight downer was that I heard the news about the death of an old work colleague, who had been part of my team. He was about my age and was a good guy. Receiving such news is one of the things I dislike about being the age I am. It happens more frequently.
I was heading for the town of Ranchi, renowned for its steel works. Much of the state of Jharkhand was dedicated to heavy industry, coal mining being the other big event. On the way I planned to visit the steel works in Bokaro, also known as Steel City, having read that they do guided tours. But the website omitted any details for booking them so I wasn’t too surprised when the security guards didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Ah well, at least there was a nice temple to visit. No. That was closed. While looking for it I’d ridden down a street that had five coffee shops in it. Only two of them actually had coffee, and it was only the far too sweet machine coffee that is popular in India. I drank some anyway, and consoled myself with a chocolate bar, before heading off to find the Sun Temple near Ranchi.
Perched on top of a small hill, this temple is quite a stunning place. It’s another one that’s dedicated to Surya, the Sun God. The building has a dome atop a high tower, which causes sounds to echo around in it. There’s a main shrine inside and the interior is of white marble. But perhaps the most magnificent feature is the seven giant horses placed at the front of it. There are models of wheels placed alongside the building, leading to the impression of it being a chariot pulled by the white horses towards the rising sun. The quality of the horse sculptures is excellent, with harnesses and full anatomical details. It was late afternoon when I arrived and the sun was behind the temple, making photography a little difficult. But It wasn’t hard to imagine how fabulous it would look at sunrise, with the pink dawn light shining on the white bodies of the horses.
In Ranchi I managed to find a hotel, happy to have talked the price down a bit, and even happier when they found a safe place for the bike. I booked in for two nights because the the next day was the festival of Holi. This is the Hindu festival of spring, and focusses on new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, forgiving old grievances and generally starting anew. There’s religious events of course, but the main method of celebration is to become as colourful as possible, mostly achieved by throwing powdered paint over all and sundry. Add water into the mix and everyone becomes a walking, often dancing, colour chart. It’s definitely not an occasion for best clothes. I got involved in a low key way, not having spare clothes to ruin. But when I walked around the streets, expecting to see parades and entertainment, there was very little there. I wasn’t all that close to the town centre and I presumed that was the reason. Later I learned that celebrations were deliberately kept low key because of concerns surrounding the threat of Covid-19.
Everyone takes the day off for Holi. Which meant that all the shops and restaurants were closed. There weren’t even any street stalls. Fortunately the hotel owner took pity on me and brought me some food, so I was OK in the end. His son spoke good English and had very kindly given me his phone number in case I needed anything. I’d been in a restaurant the previous night and he’d rung me three times to make sure I was alright. At that point I didn’t know how useful that would be.