Ranchi, Jarhkand. 11th March 2020
I left Ranchi in the morning, intending to go to the town of Bodh Gaya. But fate had a different day lined up for me. About fifteen kilometres past the town of Hazaribagh, out on a lonely expressway, the engine suddenly made a loud banging noise. I pulled in to the side of the road, tried restarting, which it did for a couple of seconds before dying again. It sounded as if the spark plug had come out and I thought back to the work recently undertaken in Kolkata. Out with the tools, off with the tank and the plug was checked. It was in place but I took it out anyway and found that the nose of the plug was missing. I replaced the plug and tried to start it again. Same noise as before. My assumption now was that a valve had dropped, damaging the spark plug in the process, in which case I expected the piston would also be damaged. Disaster! This was a new road, with no buildings in sight, 15kms from any town and the data signal on my phone was very hit and miss. I was living the motorised traveller’s worse nightmare.
I needed help. The engine, as far as I knew, was unfixable at the roadside. Had it been, I’d have fixed it. The only person I knew who was anywhere near me was the son of the hotel owner, who was probably about to regret giving me his number. I rang him and laid my problem at his feet, poor boy. He rang his father, who lives in Hazaribagh. He contacted a friend, Suresh, who contacted me. I explained that I needed a truck to get me back to town. He promised to do what he could.
After a couple of hours a car full of policemen stopped to see what was going one. One of them insisted on trying to start it, with me thinking he was wasting his time. To my amazement it roared into life! He revved it right up, too much for my liking, and it sounded perfect. It sat there, happily ticking over as if nothing had ever happened. I was delighted but very puzzled. Clearly, a valve hadn’t dropped and the only conclusion was that the nose of the spark plug, having broken off, had temporarily become lodged under the edge of the exhaust valve, giving me the noisy problem. This hadn’t occurred to me before. Having never before seen a spark plug fail in that way, I’d assumed that it had been damaged by the dropped valve. I rang the lad at the hotel to tell him I was now mobile again. He rang his Dad, who then advised Suresh. It was now mid afternoon so I decided to stay the night in Hazaribagh rather than push on. I was, naturally, still very concerned about the bike.
Do you know the meaning of the word Serendipity? Chance events that lead to good outcomes? For the rest of the day I lived it. When I got back to Hazaribagh, and was looking for a hotel, I got a call from Suresh. He wanted to meet me and when he came he was accompanied by a guy named Faiz. He runs a Facebook group called Humans of Jharkhand. As the name suggests, he writes about events that affect people in the state. He wanted to interview me and it was clear that Suresh had told him about the day’s events. He videoed me as I sat on the bike talking about what had happened, where I’d been in India, what I thought of the people and so on. The link to that is here.
We were, by now, surrounded by 30 to 40 people so it took a while to escape the selfies and handshakes. I seemed to have moved from being an object of curiosity to being a minor celebrity. Then, Faiz and Suresh took me to visit the Sanskrit Museum and Art Gallery, where I met a very, very interesting man, Bulu Imam. He’s a very cultured gentleman, seventy seven years old, who has spent his life campaigning to protect the environment and support tribal people from Jharkhand and surrounding areas. He’s written many books about tribal art and tribal life, and has set up women’s groups to produce artwork, weaving and so on, aimed at giving them some independence from the patriarchal way of tribal life. He discovered tribal rock art in some caves and demonstrated the link between that and the artwork found in tribal dwellings. He has been awarded the Ghandi International Peace Award, in Britain’s House of Lords, and was also awarded the Padma Shri, which is India’s fourth highest civilian honour. I was clearly in the company of greatness!
Bulu and I chatted about his work and his career. He spent many years fighting on environmental issues, such as protecting the local areas against the damage from road building. In fact, he campaigned against the very road that I broke down on. We spent some time discussing Indian politics and he says things are not very good for anyone who opposes the government. There’s no real opposition to speak of, so Modi has a free hand. He’s given up his environmental work partly because of how difficult it’s getting. He has a son who continues many aspects of his work, but he discourages him from campaigning, out of fear for his safety. That doesn’t sound very good. But what was good for me was being invited to stay the night. I was fed (twice) and was given the guest room.
In the morning, crammed between breakfast and a very early lunch, Bulu showed me around his museum. A lot of it is work that he has done himself, copying the tribal artwork of small figures and paintings. On the outside of the buildings he’s replicated the art that they use to decorate the walls of their homes. The method they use is to coat the walls in black kaolin, which is a type of clay. Once dry, the wall is painted with white kaolin but before that dries a comb is used to form the patterns you can see in the photos. The designs were very unusual: cats with human faces; pregnant elephants, with the baby in the womb included in the painting. Some of the drawings were in colour and reminded me very much of the Aboriginal art I’d seen around Australia. We talked about many things and we seemed to be like minded on several subjects. Before I left he made me promise I’d come back for another visit. I will do my very best.
As I rejoined the main road I kept a very close ear on the engine, alert to any sound of mechanical trouble. All was smooth and normal. Not that it meant anything because it had been that way just before it went BANG! The afternoon’s ride got me to Bodh Gaya, a very special place for Buddhists. It’s where the Buddha finally found enlightenment, and from where his five disciples began to spread his teachings. The first thing for me to do was to find accommodation and worry about the temple next day. Once I’d done that I went out for a walk and had a look at the giant Buddha statue. A very impressive piece of sculpture, it was built in 1989 and is twenty five metres high, sitting in a very nice garden. There were plenty of visitors around, gazing up at it.
The big event was the visit to Mahabodhi Temple the next day. I had to deposit my phone, so wasn’t able to take photos, but I have to say this was easily the nicest temple area I’d been into, anywhere. It became a shrine around 25BCE and the current temple was built in the 6th century CE. It is very simple in its design, although the whole of its surface is covered in bas relief carvings. One thing I really liked was that they’d managed to avoid overpowering it with gold, only the topmost dome having any kind of decoration. And that’s what makes it a powerful place, in my opinion.
The Bohdi tree is a massive fig tree, and is many hundreds of years old. It’s not the original, but is third generation. It sits next to the temple, with its branches spreading out across the courtyard, supported by wooden crutches in some places. The spiritual feeling in this place is very strong indeed. I spent over three hours inside the complex, much of that just sitting near the Bohdi tree and running thoughts through my mind. I walked around the gardens as well, admiring the flowery displays, mostly of marigolds, placed in small coffee cups and arranged in patterns. I dodged a few rain showers, sitting under a verandah and people watching. I was reluctant to leave in the end. This is a powerful place, more so because of its simplicity and history. Coffee and pizza brought me back to modern times, before walking back to my hotel.
Next day it chucked it down with rain all day long. I was happy to hide in my room even though there was no power most of the day. I did escape for coffee and cake at lunchtime, but mostly I was making plans. The very famous city of Varanasi was next.
Varanasi sits on the River Ganges, possibly the most spiritually important river in the world. To all Hindus it is Ganga Mata, Mother Ganges, and Varanasi is the most notable town along its banks. My research had shown there was lots to see there, but first I needed somewhere to stay, and this was proving difficult.
I’d earmarked a hotel with a good location and secure parking. No rooms. Three more nearby hotels all gave the same response. It was very obvious that being a foreigner was causing doors to close and shutters – especially in peoples’ minds – to come down. Covid-19 was having its effects. I found a place eventually, which was probably better located, being closer to the river. The owner had good English, they supplied food and the price was negotiated down. I was happy.
Needless to say the river bank is lined with ghats, in an almost continuous flow from one end of the city to the other. Occasionally a temple or other building blocked the way as I walked along, so I sometimes had to climb up and down steps to get around them. “Ghat”, by the way, is the Hindi word that refers to the steps that lead down to a river. The word can also refer to a range of stepped hills too. There are eighty eight of them here, mostly used for bathing and washing. They’d been refurbished during the 18th century. Some of them had ceremonial purposes too.
The steps down to them are very steep, and go down a long way. The buildings at the top of them are very grand and used to be owned by Maharajahs and Princes, from various parts of India. I imagine that being rich enough to have a house next to Ganga Mata was a sign of great wealth and status. Running up between these buildings were more steps, which led up to the narrow streets, running through this part of the city. This was in sharp contrast to those I saw in Kolkata, where the roads and the river weren’t very far apart. These streets were little more than cobbled alleyways, threading their way between tall buildings. Even narrower alleys led into small courtyards and more buildings. In some places there was just enough room for a scooter and a pedestrian to pass. Shops and small markets abounded in the bigger streets, colourful and busy. If ever there was a place that gave the flavour of ‘Old India’, it was here.
Talking of old India, Varanasi (formerly Benares) is thought to be India’s oldest city, and also the oldest living city in the world. There were cities long before this time, especially in the middle east, but none of those are there any more. India, in fact, has about a dozen similarly ancient cities. But Varanasi is the oldest and could also lay claim to being the world’s holiest city. It’s also the place where The Buddha founded Buddhism when he gave his first sermon. It’s stuffed full of temples and has been a tourist attraction since the mid 17th century. On a more modern note, it is also the seat of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. I’m not going to tell you everything there is to know. You can read about it yourself here.
On the first evening in the city I visited the Dashashwamedh Ghat, were the Aarti Ceremony is held every evening at sunset. This is a spectacle based around smoke and fire in the form of lamps, joss sticks, charcoal burners and lots of chanting. Aarti simply refers to the offering of light, usually from a flame, and chanting in praise of one or more deities. Here it’s about Lord Shiva and Ganga Mata, who are very much tied together in the Hindu religion. There was quite a crowd gathered round, a mixture of devotees and tourists. There were quite a few boats filled with onlookers too. It was colourful, noisy and smoky. Fascinating to watch. But I left before the end, mostly due to boredom born out of my ignorance about what was happening. I’d spotted a café that sold pizza and I was hungry. My heathen stomach needed filling.
Next day I spent more time walking along the river. I went to see the sunken temple at Scindia ghat. It wasn’t always sunken. Ironically it was the building of the ghat which caused it to sink and also to lean. While I walked along the riverside I could see people involved in all sorts of activities, ranging from simple meditation to ritual bathing and puja (offering of prayers using the river water). There were many boats moored up, and some had been hauled up onto the ghat for repair. Holy men sat around, dressed in orange robes and with white painted faces. Beggars too, of course, but also many people just sitting around in quiet contemplation.
I came to Manikarnika ghat, where the cremations take place. I walked up into the streets above it, to gain access, and here I saw businesses selling wood in weighed out bundles. It’s used on the funeral bier to burn the body. I walked into a building that overlooked the riverside biers and was taking some photographs when a guy came up beside me and told me to stop. He then demanded that I delete the photos I’d taken and to apologise. I’d been seen on the CCTV, he said. I was happy to apologise and told him I was very interested in what was taking place, particularly the cultural and religious aspects of it all. Before long he was offering to show me around provided I made a contribution to buying wood for the poor people, who couldn’t afford it. It costs about Rs700-800 for enough to burn a body.
We went down lower and sat overlooking the biers next to the river. Hindus don’t regard death with any great sorrow. It’s just another part of the endless journey. Fire is important in that it purifies the soul and helps to make sure it is able to continue on its journey. But the cremation has to be done in the right way. If a person can be cremated next to the Ganges then they will achieve Moksha, the Hindu equivalent of Nirvana, and the end of the cycle of death and rebirth. To die in Varanasi is the best, but to be brought there for cremation will also do the trick. To this end the trains arriving at the station will always have bodies on them. They will be transported up to the ghat by boat. The body will be wrapped in an orange robe, if male, red and orange if female. It is laid on the bier and covered in wood, although the robes are replaced with a white shroud.
There are very specific rituals that surround a cremation. The ceremony can only be led by a male relative, and only attended by men. He has to remove all body hair and will wear a white robe.
The assistants are all Doms, a sub caste who deal with cremations, and they will have piled the bier with wood. The man has to go up into one of the buildings where he’ll find the eternal flame – actually a fire. My guide reckoned it had been burning for 3,500 years. Yes, well. He’ll be given a bundle of straw on the end of which will be placed an ember. He goes back to the bier where he walks around it five times, chanting as he goes. The ember will have become a flame and he puts in in the wood, by the feet. The body will have been coated with ghee (clarified butter). The men will walk around the bier, clockwise, chanting “Ram, nam,sitya, hair.”The family will leave and once the body has burned fully, after about three hours, the bones are taken out onto the river and dropped in. Before that the Doms will sift the ashes looking for anything valuable that was left with, or on, the body.
This is an industry, with a hierarchy among the Doms, who make good money. They sell the wood, sourced from far and wide these days, get payments from the family and are entitled to anything valuable from the bier. There are fifteen biers here, on two levels. The city have built electric crematoria but for ‘reasons unknown’, they never seem to work properly. Around one hundred cremations take place in Varanasi daily, fewer in the monsoon season. The Doms poke around the flames with a long pole, to encourage full burning. One issue is that if not enough wood is used then some bones will still have flesh on them. The river is home to special snapping turtles, who have been trained to live off dead flesh. They will clean these bones, enjoying about a pound of flesh per day, but will never touch bathers or swimmers. I found this whole experience fascinating, as well as informative. There’s a great description of this vital part of Hindu culture to be found here.
I’d read in a guidebook about an area where I could get bhang, the Indian version of cannabis. I thought I’d try some and walked up there. I found myself in an area of shops and market stalls. An English speaking stall holder asked if he could help. I told him what I wanted. He didn’t look at all surprised. He called another guy over and he got on his phone. A few minutes later a boy arrived, about ten years of age. I was starting to feel like I was a character in a bad movie! The lad led me up more narrow streets and around corners until we came to a small, set back area where a guy was making and selling fruit drinks from a stall. I bought one, along with a putty-like lump of green stuff, and swiftly made my escape, before the rozzers arrived. After some food the evening drifted pleasantly by, aided by bhang and beer. A very nice finish to an interesting day.
Next day had a slow start but I’d planned to visit Ramnagar Fort, on the other side of the river. On the way I explored more of the ghats, stopping off at a café, recommended in the guide book for its delicious apple pie with ice cream, accompanied by decent coffee. The walk to the fort worked off the excess quite nicely.
The fort comes from the Moghul era, having been built in 1750. The descendants of the family still live there, which meant that some areas were closed off. The main area for visitors is the river frontage, where the temple is located. But the main attraction is the rather bizarre museum, down in the main courtyard, which contains cars, palanquins and sedans, weapons and musical instruments. All of them have been left untouched since being put there. The exhibits are musty, dusty and going rusty. There’s some very nice vintage American cars, completely unrestored, and some fascinating old guns, such as dualing pistols and elephant guns. Other items are encrusted in jewels and made from ivory. I can only presume it’s the wish of the family that they’re not touched, although I know not why.
It had been suggested that I visit the cremation ghat after dark, to see a different aspect of it. The walk along the ghats was fascinating. They’re brightly lit and there were people who’d put up badminton nets for an evening game, others just sitting around chatting or strolling around. It was a really pleasant place to be although the mood became more sombre as I neared the cremation ghat. I’d been planning to walk up past the buildings again, to look down from above, but I was stopped by a guy who then proceeded to tell me everything I’d already heard. I knew what his game was and told him I’d heard it all before. But he kept talking, with barely a pause for breath. When he finally stopped I thanked him for his time and made to leave. The expected request came, money for the poor to buy wood. I told him I’d donated enough yesterday for the poor to buy a small forest, then left him to it.
Over on Facebook, on the travellers’ forums, there were many people offering shelter or bike parking to any travellers in their area. Covid 19 was closing in and it was clear that movement for those like me was slowly being restricted around the world. No word on that front from the Indian government yet, but I was anticipating it. Travel was becoming more difficult, as a Canadian couple who were in my hotel had discovered. They had a flight booked but were uncertain about getting to Delhi to catch it. But trains were still running at that point. They used my phone to call their embassy, who told them to carry on with their plans for now and see what happens. The hotel owner was getting twitchy and wanted to close down. He said all the tourist sites were closing and there was no business, despite it being high season. He wanted us gone next day.
Early that morning I’d gone for a dawn boat ride, at the suggestion of the hotel owner. I paid for an hour. The boat was quite big and heavy, the skinny guy rowing it seemed to have his work cut out to move it, especially when we came back upstream. It was nice to see the buildings from the river and he pointed out a mark, high up on a wall, depicting the highest ever flooding level from back in 1978. It was at least ten metres above the current river level, a quite alarming rise, and fully explaining why the streets were so far above the river.
It was time to go. I didn’t know what was going to happen with regard to the Covid 19 situation but I decided to head to Lucknow. There was plenty to see there, with lots of hotels to choose from, or so I thought. But that’s a story for the next blog post. The Canadian couple gave me their address, somewhere up in he Rockies, and we said our goodbyes. I hope they made it back home with no major problems. Me? I just hit the road, same as usual, with the hotel owner locking the door behind me as I loaded the bike and left.