Information On India
Information on India: A journey through the mystical lands of India witnessing it's diverse culture, rich heritage, different languages and dialects, various attires and, of course, poverty to it's extreme
My November 1997 trip to India was my first time off the North American continent. Kalyan and I arrived in India at Delhi, travelled to Agra, Jaipur, Hooghly, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Calcutta and lots of places . I suspect that my way of looking at what I saw in India might make for more interesting reading.
No matter how willing you are to step outside logic-based Western thinking and give up the joys of using toilet paper, India will still manage to sideswipe you with its size, clamour and diversity. Nothing in the country is ever quite the way you expect it to be, and the only thing to expect is that the unexpected comes in many forms and it will always want to sit next to you. If you enjoy delving into convoluted cosmologies, thrive on sensual overload, and have a firm grasp of the absurd, then India is one of the most intricate and rewarding dramas unfolding on earth.
Two questions that I have been asked by a number of people since my return is how I felt seeing the poverty in India, and what I thought about the pollution. Nobody can argue that Delhi or Calcutta is clean. While I was in Delhi there were days that you could not tell if it was fog or smog that made it very hard to see very much in front of you.
When I saw the many people on the streets of Calcutta, I had to remind myself of much of what I had read and what I had heard when talking to people. Poverty can be looked at more of an issue of where you are facing than where you are standing. While India clearly has some problems in this area, poverty is primarily a result of a population problem, a problem I was well aware of before traveling to India. Even more than 50 years after independence from almost two centuries of British rule, large scale poverty remains the most shameful blot on the face of India.
India still has the world’s largest number of poor people in a single country. Of its nearly 1 billion inhabitants, an estimated 350-400 million are below the poverty line, 75 per cent of them in the rural areas.
More than 40 per cent of the population is illiterate, with , tribal and scheduled castes particularly affected.
It would be incorrect to say that all poverty reduction programmes have failed. The growth of the middle class (which was virtually non-existent when India became a free nation in August 1947) indicates that economic prosperity has indeed been very impressive in India, but the DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH has been very uneven. I did note that while corporate logos representing western consumerism was everywhere in India, that there is still more of a connection to other people than to products. The feeling I had was one where relationships were one of the most important aspects of people's lives.
Late in the trip while visiting some friends of Kalyan in Hooghly I was asked if I found India to be warm. My immediate answer was, "Do you mean the weather, or the people". While this little comment made everyone laugh a bit, it was a reflection of how I was feeling at the time. There is a caring for each other, and a much stronger bond in families that I felt there. While in Delhi I felt ill one evening and we were invited to stay the night for me to recover at the home of some people who I had just met that evening. It is a feeling that I have felt since meeting the first Indian and becoming part of this community, and it was clear where this came from while in India.
As I write this article almost a year has passed, but in many ways I do not feel as if the trip is over. Being in constant contact with people living and working in India I am always reminded of what I have seen. While my body may be here in USA, my mind feels as if it is still in India.
Each state had it's own language, a dress code and a way of life. While the south Indians eat "idli" and "dosa" in their daily meals, these dishes are found only in the restaurants in north India. They communicate with each other in their national language "Hindi" while English is far sighted. Yet, the hospitality and the underlying warmth is fascinating. Tourists and travellers are welcomed from the core of their heart.
India is a large, triangular-shaped country in southern Asia, buttressed by the long sweep of the Himalaya in the north and protruding into the Indian Ocean in the south. It's bordered by Pakistan to the north-west, China, Nepal and Bhutan to the north, and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. Sri Lanka is the teardrop-shaped island hanging off its southern tip. India covers a land area of some 3,287,000 sq km, though disputed borders with Pakistan and China make this figure somewhat arbitrary. It is the seventh largest country in the world.
Northern India contains the snow-bound peaks and deep valleys of the Himalaya and the vast Gangetic Plain, which separates the Himalayan region from the southern peninsula and stretches from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. South of the plains, the land rises up into a triangular-shaped plateau known as the Deccan, which ranges in altitude from 300m to 900m. The plateau is bordered by the Eastern and Western ghats, ranges of hills which run parallel to India's eastern and western coasts and separate the fertile coastal strips from the interior.
Wildlife in India is often purported to have enjoyed a privileged and protected position thanks to the religious ideals and sentiments of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, but much of this tradition has been lost. Extensive hunting by the British and the Indian rajahs, large-scale clearing of forests for agriculture, poaching, pesticides and the ever-increasing population have had disastrous effects on India's environment. Only around 10% of the country still has forest cover, and only 4% is protected within national parks and reserves. In the past few decades the government has taken serious steps to improve environmental management and has established over 350 parks, sanctuaries and reserves.
The highlights of India's fauna are its lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, elephants and rhinoceroses, but the country is also home to a rich variety of deer and antelope, wild buffaloes, massive Indian bisons, shaggy sloth bears, striped hyenas, wild pigs, jackals and Indian wild dogs. Monkeys include rhesus macaques, bonnet macaques and long-tailed common langurs. The reptilian world boasts magnificent king cobras, pythons, crocodiles, large freshwater tortoises and monitor lizards, while the diverse birdlife includes large hornbills, serpent eagles and fishing owls, as well as the elegant national bird, the peacock.
Climate varies greatly, from the arid deserts of Rajasthan to the cool highlands of Assam, allegedly the wettest place on earth. But basically India has a three-season year - the hot, the wet and the cool. The heat starts to build up on the northern plains around February and by April it becomes unbearable. The first signs of the monsoon appear in May with high humidity, short rainstorms and violent electrical storms. The monsoon rains begin around 1 June in the extreme south and sweep north to cover the whole country by early July. The monsoon doesn't really cool things off, but it's a great relief - especially to farmers. The main monsoon comes from the south-west, but the south-eastern coast is affected by the short and surprisingly wet north-eastern monsoon, which brings rain from mid-October to the end of December. The main monsoon ends around October and India's northern cities become crisp at night in December. In the far south, where it never gets cool, the temperature is comfortably warm rather than hot.
The flight to Kashmir was indeed breathtaking! The stunning view nearly melted my heart and I immediately forgave the airline for the 5 hours delay. First, we were treated with an appetizer of the beautiful view of the snow-capped mountains as we flew along the Himalayas ranges. After the stopover at Jammu, the plane started to head towards the mountain ranges. It was flying at a low altitude just above the mountaintops. It was at such a close range that I could almost stretch my hands out and touch the mountains. Mist of fog hung above the valleys and became thicker as we flew closer into the mountains. Then the plane started to drop height and a beautiful valley began to unfold itself amidst the thickly fogged mountain ranges. This was the heavenly located Kashmir valley!
As we took the 20 minutes drive from the airport to Dal Lake, one could immediately feel the tension underlying this picturesque valley. Armed militants and security check-posts were seen everywhere. For years, Kashmir had been the disputed land between India and Pakistan. And beneath the clamour of the 2 nations for sovereignty, the Kashmiri actually wanted independence themselves. Exchange of fires and terrorist acts were not uncommon.
Despite the undercurrent and tension on mainland, Dal Lake itself was surprisingly peaceful and almost free from militants. As we were transferred to our houseboat by Shikaras (traditional Kashmiri boat), the sky was painted beautifully in a pinkish-purple tone by the setting winter sun. Kashmir was said to be most beautiful during the summer season. Nevertheless, I found it equally enchanting in winter, especially during the foggy morning. With the Himalayas mountains as a backdrop, the morning frost had turned the lake and the houseboats into a beautiful black and white portrait. To this was added the varied colored dresses of the village belles who wore long robes, a head scarf with lots of accessories and shoes, the forms of which I have never seen before. They had flower baskets in their hands and along with the two plaits, they presented a perfect doll-look.
The Shikara touts, or crocodiles as the locals called them, were really pains in the ass. As soon as the day broke, dozens of them had already gathered outside our houseboat. They attacked us left-right-front-back as soon as we boarded our Shikaras for the cruise around the lake. These annoying and persistent salesmen were trying to sell us handicrafts of all sorts. They obstructed my view of the lake and photography was seriously hindered. I ignored them completely, which seemed to be the best way to tell them off. If everyone had applied the same method as I did, these crocodiles would have left us alone. But Kalyan seemed to be enjoying his shopping-on-the-cruise and bargaining away with them.
On the 2nd day, we went for a day excursion to the skiing resort in Gulmurg. As we approached the hill station, the geographical features started to turn into a winter wonderland. Before our vehicles could even stop for a change over and security check, sled operators were already dashing forward fighting for customers. We had problem opening the door to get out as there were so many of them crowding around the car. The security was tight and heavy - a machine gun was pointing down at us from a rundown building next to the check-post. After some through security checks on our baggage and full body search, we changed over to a mini bus and proceeded uphill.
Renowned as a premium skiing resort before the boarder conflict blew up in recent years, I could now see only a few souls enjoying themselves on the cotton white and soft snow. My group was brought straight to the restaurant in a nice little hotel for lunch without having any chance to try skiing. The only 'winter sport' that we had was just a sled ride with the operators pushing behind us. I was so disgusted with this inferior option that I refused the ride totally.
This state lies in the extreme west with a landscape comprising of mostly dry and desert lands. Vegetation is mainly cactus and other xerophytes. People wear huge turbans in their heads as a protection from the intense heat and travel long distances in the desert in search of water when there is a scarcity in the village. They sport music playing on a typical instrument with strings at night time when they gather around a huge fire. Their life is simple, music is charming and the clothes are gorgeous and intricately designed.
The city was painted in a pale tone of pink. Just like in Delhi, the first thing we visited was a hindu temple. This one was a nice modern temple made from white marble. The next thing we visited was the famous 'palace of the winds', the Hawa Mahal. But here the bus only drove by without stopping. We now went to a large astronomical observatory, with a couple of huge sundials. Then we went to the old maharaja palace. After this we went to the Amber fort, which was a bit outside the city. This was one of the nicest we had seen so far. The tour also went to a tourist shop, but we were not interested in that and instead went to a nearby terrace. There we found out that Indian cows really love banana-peels.
An interesting event was the elephant ride up the hill to Pink City Palace. It really had my heart pumping. A Caucasian couple was enjoying their ride down the hill when their saddle suddenly broke loose and both slided down from the 9 feet tall animal. Both of them were sitting on the right side of the beast without another 2 partners to balance the weight on the left side. Luckily, there was no serious injury. Both walked away angrily while the operator was chasing behind, persuading them to continue the ride. Just as I wondered aloud if our saddle was securely fixed to the animal, another on coming elephant edged ours to the side of the fort wall. I was right over the top of the wall built on a cliff that ran 4 stories down! If the saddle was going to gave way this moment… well, at least I had several life policies and travel insurance. I screamed away as the beast, still leaning along the side of the wall, wobbled its way up the hill.
The drive on the streets of Jaipur was quite pleasant. There was not too much traffic, and the countryside was attractive. There were lots of camels and women carrying things on their heads. We passed Bharatpur, Keoladeo Ghana Reserve, and I was reminded how this is right on the way and could be a stop for nature enthusiasts. This former Maharaja's hunting reserve is now one of the most important migratory waterfowl areas in northern India. I have visited it many times and regretted we did not have time to stop on this trip. There seemed to be lots of choices of accommodations in the area, including heritage hotels that attempt to recapture the feeling of the Maharaja era.
The Amber palace of Jai Singh was interesting. Built in the late 18th Century, it was in use by the Maharajas for about 130 years. Conceived by the Hindu Maharajas, it was a place of pleasure and color, but not extraordinary architecture. Still, the Amber Fort commands a great view of the Jaipur state, surrounding hills, villages and fortifications. The fort was really a large pleasure living compound for the royal family. Much of the fort is devoted to a carefully designed compound which housed the Maharaja's harem of 12 wives. He was able to visit each through secret passageways that would not allow the others to know his whereabouts. There must have been some good times as much of the design was based on the Maharaja being able to view all of his wives dancing or performing. Like Fatehpur Sikri, there were elaborate systems for security and cooling through the use of water and water soaked sheets or screens. I do not recommend the elephant rides up to the palace. It is the quintessential cliché tourist experience.
Sawai Jai Singh II built the Jantar Mantar outdoor astrological observatory and City Palace Museum in the heart of Jaipur - worthwhile sites to visit. We spent about 2 1/2 hours there. It would have been worth three or four hours. Most of the displays are not labeled, so a guide is very helpful, if not essential. You will find a great collection of costumes, armaments, art, photographs, elephant paraphernalia and historical relicts here. The observatory consists of remarkably ingenious yet simple instruments to chart the positions of heavenly bodies.
The morning, the day after we reached Jaisalmer, we started our camel ride. We travelled for about 3 or 4 hours with a couple of breaks to stretch our legs. The weather was nice. It was as if it was less hot on top of the camel than down on the ground. The desert had a quite diverse landscape. Sometimes sand-dunes and sometimes barren plains with rocks or small bushes. There were also parts were melons were grown. Around noon we reached a bushy area near a lake. Here we had lunch. At some moment a sheppard came by with a flock of sheep and goats. He milked one of the goats, so we had milk for in our tea! After lunch we went to the lake to swim. For the camels this was a good place to graze.
We saw a couple of very beautiful old haveli's (large houses built by rich merchants). In the afternoon our desert tour started. With a jeep we visited a number of old monuments in the desert area. Later we went to the Sam dunes by camel, together with a guide. We had planned 1 day to visit Jodhpur. Our main target here was the fortress. The fortress of Jodhpur is very massive and heavilly fortified and is located on a hill. It is a kind of fortress that is not easy to conquer by enemies (at least that's what we think. There was no siege going on at that moment). Inside the fortress there was a beautiful palace, just like in Bikaner, a city in the desert of Rajastan. We visited the fortress. Inside the fortress was a beautiful and luxurious palace with many exhibitions. When we were walking back to our guesthouse we found a liquor-store. For the first time in weeks we could enjoy a beer. Alcohol is often hard to find in India. In the afternoon there was a short but heavy rainshower. It made some of the smaller dusty streets change into pools of mud.
There were a great number of people going to Agra. Our bus was very crowded. And we had also seen some trucks fully loaded with people. At the station we ate at the station restaurant. Almost every train station has such a restaurant with usualy one standard meal: thali (a couple of 'dahl' sauces with rice and chapati-bread). When we went to our train we found out that there were a lot of seats that were reserved twice. Many people were argueing about seats. But we were lucky that our reserved seats were still unoccupied.
The train journey lasted for most part of this day. We spent most time by watching through the window, listening at our walkman and laying on our sleeping places. At some moment a guy in our compartment discovered that a bag with his passport and most of his money was stolen.
At the time of the Moghuls, Agra was the capital of India and much of its superb architecture, which includes the Taj Mahal and the enormous Agra Fort, dates from this era. Apart from its smattering of imposing Moghul monuments, Agra shares similar characteristics with other north Indian cities - namely a large cantonment, bustling bazaars, predatory rickshaw riders and persistent guides in temper-fraying profusion. The city is a two-hour train ride south of Delhi and, if you're in a hell of a hurry, can be visited on a daytrip from the capital.
The Taj Mahal, regarded as one of the 7 wonders of the world and described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love, has become the de facto tourist emblem of India. This poignant Moghul mausoleum was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, whose death in childbirth in 1631 left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey overnight.
Construction of the Taj began in the same year and was not completed until 1653. In total, 20,000 people from India and central Asia worked on the building. Experts were also brought from Europe, which allowed the British to delude themselves for some time that such an exquisite building must certainly have been designed by an European.
The Taj stands on a raised marble platform in ornamental gardens on the bank of the Yamuna. Tall, purely decorative white minarets grace each corner of the platform - as the Taj Mahal is not a mosque, nobody is called to prayer from them. Twin red sandstone buildings frame the building; the one on the western side is a mosque, the identical one on the eastern side is purely for symmetry. It cannot be used as a mosque because it faces in the wrong direction.
The central Taj structure has four small domes surrounding the bulbous central dome. The tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are in a basement room. Above them in the main chamber are false tombs, a common practice in mausoleums of this type. Light is admitted into the central chamber by finely cut marble screens. The echo in this high domed chamber is superb, and there is always somebody there to demonstrate it.
Although the Taj is amazingly graceful from almost any angle, it's the close-up detail which is really astounding. Semiprecious stones are inlaid into the marble in beautiful patterns using a process known as pietra dura. The precision and care which went into the Taj Mahal's design and construction is just as impressive whether you view it from across the river or from arm's length.
The city's other major attraction is the massive red sandstone Agra Fort, also on the bank of the Yamuna River. It was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565, though additions were made up until the rule of his grandson, Shah Jahan. In Akbar's time the fort was principally a military structure, but during Shah Jahan's reign it had partially become a palace. The auricular fort's colossal double walls rise over 20m in height and measure 2.5km in circumference. They are encircled by a fetid moat and contain a maze of superb halls, mosques, chambers and gardens which form a small city within a city. Unfortunately not all buildings are open to visitors, including the white marble Pearl Mosque, regarded by some as the most beautiful mosque in India.
Other worthwhile Moghul gems include the Itimad-ud-daulah, many of whose design elements were used in the construction of the Taj, and Akbar's Mausoleum at Sikandra which blends Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Christian motifs, much like the syncretic religious philosophy Akbar developed attempted to do.
We hopped onto a taxi after reaching Varanasi and headed for the Desaswamedh. The driver, seeing me with a guide book, immediately suggested a guesthouse as recommended in the book. I was amazed that he could tell me the exact page to flip to.
We had to switch to an auto-rickshaw, then a manual rickshaw and finally got down on foot to reach the Desaswamedh Ghat. The busy street leading to the ghat became so crowded that it was almost impossible for big vehicles to go through the waves of human wall.
With the help of a young tout, we chose a guesthouse situated next to the river. We wanted convenience and proximity to the river, especially during the early hours. We had a clean and bright double room with a shared bathroom for Rs 150 ($5 approx.). It had a restaurant and offered a good view of the river.
The trip didn’t fail me and really lived up to my expectation. The view of the river was fantastic, especially during the early hours. Small little boats and the row of buildings along the bank disappeared into the misty distance as they followed the curve of the holy river. The golden ray of the rising sun side lighted the whole scenery to look like an artistic oil painting mystified by the morning haze.
Men and women, the olds and the youngs, all came to bath in this holy river even before the day breaks. Some men bared it all while most women bathed discretely still wearing their sarees. And further down, there were some cremation processes that seemed to go on forever on the bank.
Though the Indians regarded it as a holy river, I was skeptical and felt that the water was badly polluted. They had their cremation here and for those without money to buy wood, their bodies were simply thrown into the river. Never would I go for a holy bath nor touch the water. But when I was at the opposite bank walking along the beach taking pictures, my right foot and shin sank into some soft mud. It was soo thick and sticky that I had no choice but to wash it with the river water. My boatman cracked that I had now a holy foot!
We flew to Khajuraho, a small city made up mostly of comfortable tourist hotels and some very elegant, sensual and beautiful Hindu Temples dating to the 9 and 10th centuries. This quiet, genial, dusty village in northern Madhya Pradesh is awash with temples. These temples are remarkable for their lively portrayal of the life of the times. Sculpted lovingly in sandstone quarried many miles away, the temples reflect a certain architectural and artistic perfection absent from any contemporary setting. Temples for everything - sun gods, sacred bulls and, more memorably, sex. Stone figures of apsaras or `celestial maidens' pout and pose like Playboy pin-ups while mithuna, erotic figures, run through a whole Kama Sutra of positions and possibilities. It's highly salacious stuff and one reason why the temples of Khajuraho are famous throughout the world. The other reason is that they are liberally embellished with some of the finest handiwork of the Chandela period, a dynasty which survived for five centuries before falling to the onslaught of Islam. Visitors are also drawn to a dance festival, celebrated in March, which attracts some of the best classical dancers in the country - the floodlit temples provide a spectacular backdrop during the event. I most enjoyed the extraordinary detail in the temple spires and inner chambers.
I like the experience of Khajuraho, both for the actual content of the experience and because it is not in an urban setting with crowds, vehicle congestion and pollution. You can easily see the main sights in a day. This could also be a connecting point for a visit to Bhandavgarh or Sariska National Parks.
CALCUTTA & THE NORTH-EAST
The north-east of India is one of the country's most fascinating regions, which makes it hard to understand why it is ignored by so many travellers. Most visitors grudgingly make only necessary trips to Calcutta and put in fleeting appearances at Darjeeling and Puri. Sure, Calcutta has a bad image problem and the city epitomises contemporary India's most pressing problems, but it is also a friendly and sophisticated metropolis with a vibrant political and artistic heartbeat. The other reason why there have been few travellers in the area is that most of the Indian Himalayan states in the north-east have, until recently, been all but sealed off from the outside world. Government restrictions on travel are now easing and intrepid travellers are making the most of the new freedom.
The region's traumatic history has resulted in an extraordinary political geography. West Bengal loops over Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal) - from which it was severed during Partition - leaving the tribal areas of the north-eastern region connected to India only by the Siliguri corridor. The fragility of this link mirrors the region's tenuous ties with the rest of India.
The region also has an exceptional physical geography, ranging from the marshes and plains of Calcutta to the hill station of Darjeeling and the low-lying valleys, forests and snow-draped plateaus of Sikkim, Assam and Meghalaya. Dotting the landscape are striking temples, isolated Buddhist monasteries, Victorian monuments, and rare flora and fauna. Its people comprise Bengalis, the Nepalese of Darjeeling and Sikkim, the hill tribes of Assam and Meghalaya and the 62 tribal groups in Orissa.
Fascinating, Bewitching, Bewildering. That's Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal and India's largest city, a seething mass of activity with a cosmopolitan atmosphere, a far cry from Job Charnock's Calcutta of 1690 to which the metropolis traces its origin.
The womenfolk here wear beautiful long-flowing sarees draped around their bodies and the men wear Punjabis on top and dhotis at the bottom. Together they make a stylish combination. Lying in the eastern end of Gangetic plain, and extending from the magnanimous Himalayan mountains to the Bay of Bengal, West Bengal has been subjected to a variety of influences from diverse cultures. Since time immemorial, the culmination of these varied cultures along with Bengal's very own evergrowing richness has given birth to a unique Bengali culture which can be identified by its colorful and significant contribution to all epochs of traditional and modern society.
As the popular saying goes, "The pen is mightier than the sword" and where else could this be proved to be more true than Bengal. Over the period of centuries, Bengal has given birth to numerous writers and poets who have with their powerful strenght of words heralded a new world. They were the beginners of modern Bengal and much of their contributions are acclaimed today, to be one of the best in the history of literature.The brave writers and poets had shocked the modern world with their revolutionary thinking and still are the major influences in shaping the present day Bengal and India.
A multitude of religions, cultures and kingdoms have unrolled across the terrain of Karnataka in south India, exchanging ideas, fighting wars and trading with each other. The region's history is a rollcall of important dynasties, from the Chalukyans, the Cholas and the Hoysalas through to the Vijayanagar Empire, the Deccan sultans and the maharajas of Mysore. Today's modern state capital, Bangalore, which has been dubbed the `Silicon Valley' of India, represents just another wave of historical change sweeping across the region. Travellers tend to skip through Karnataka because they've overdosed on temples in Tamil Nadu. This is a shame because Karnataka has one of the richest and most enjoyable architectural legacies of any state in India, some decent national parks and a coastline that few travellers have yet to fully explore.
There was a difference in way the way the womenfolk wore sarees here. Also flowers in their hair is a must, be it at home or outside. Men wear dhotis. They imitate their God Tirupathi and apply ash in their forehead and with some red powder. This was some ritual that I got interested in. The south Indians are so God-loving!
The capital of Karnataka state is a thriving modern business centre, dubbed the `Silicon Valley' of India, whose gracious garrison town features are being re-modelled in the image of India's mall-loving middle class. It likes to think it's more in tune with Mumbai and Manhattan than the state it's located in, but has been scathingly described as a city 'in search of a soul'.
It's said to be one the fastest growing city in Asia, and considered to be India's yuppie heaven. The pace of life, like the intellectual and political climate, is brisk, and progressive social attitudes prevail. The downside is that growth has been so quick that power failures and road congestion are becoming increasing problems.
Tourist brochures are fond of calling Bangalore the 'Garden City', but nothing could be further from the truth. What the city does have to offer, apart from a congenial climate, is not to be found in its civic attractions: it's a useful transport centre, a good place to arrange trips to Karnataka's national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, and it's bars and restaurants can provide some much-needed light relief if you need a break from life on the road. While you're munching on pizza and sinking a few beers you can contemplate the pros and cons of modern India's confused but headlong rush into the 21st century.
The city's most impressive attraction is Vidhana Soudha. Built only in 1954, this overblown neo-Dravidian style granite parliament is considered to be one of India's most spectacular government buildings. Other attractions include shady Cubbon Park, Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, a small fort and Tipu Sultan's decaying wooden palace.
The MG Rd area is the retail, entertainment and social hub for the city's more affluent citizenry and for its student population. This is the bland, internationalised area people talk about when they call Bangalore 'yuppie heaven': it looks like a dozen other neighbourhoods in modern Asian cities that have been keen to adopt the ways of the West. Here you'll find a mixture of budget and luxury hotels, fast-food joints, restaurants, bars, travel agencies, airline offices, tourist information centres, bookshops and craft shops. The City Market area has more familiar Indian iconography and is a good place to stay if you want to avoid the glitz.
This charming, easy-going city has long been a favourite with travellers since it's a manageable size, enjoys a good climate and has chosen to retain and promote its heritage rather than replace it. The city is famous for its silk and is also a thriving sandalwood and incense centre, though don't expect the air to be any more fragrant than the next town.
Until Independence, Mysore was the seat of the maharajas of Mysore, a princely state covering about a third of present-day Karnataka. The Maharaja's Indo-Saracenic Palace is the town's major attraction, with its kaleidoscope of stained glass, ornate mirrors, carved mahogany ceilings, solid silver doors and outrageously gaudy colours.
The Devaraja Fruit & Vegetable Market, in the heart of the town, is one of the most colourful markets in India. The other major attraction is the 1000-step climb up nearby Chamundi Hill, which is topped by the huge Chamundeswari temple. The stairway is guarded by the famous 5m high Nandi (Siva's bull) carved out of solid rock. The 10-day Dussehra Festival in early October culminates in a spectacular procession of richly caparisoned elephants, liveried retainers, cavalry, brass bands and flower-bedecked images of Hindu deities.
Halebid & Belur
The temples at Belur and Halebid are the cream of what remains of the Hoysala dynasty, one of the most artistically exuberant periods of Hindu culture. The sculptural decoration on these superb temples rivals the more famous temples of Khajuraho and the best of European Gothic art. Every single centimetre of the outside walls of the Hoysalswara Temple in Halebid is covered in an endless variety of Hindu deities, sages, dancers, hunters, warriors, stylised animals, gymnastic sexual acts and friezes depicting the life and times of Hoysala rulers. Much of the intricate sculptural work in the Channekeshava Temple in Belur decorates the internal supporting pillars and lintels; bring a torch to get a good view of the gods, goddesses and guardian beasts.
Maharashtra is one of India's largest, most populous and economically important states. Its booming capital, Mumbai (Bombay), is also a major gateway for overseas visitors. From Mumbai most travellers head south to the beaches of Goa, south-east to Pune and its famous ashram, or north-east to the world-heritage cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora. The jagged Western Ghats run parallel to the coast for the full length of the state and are dotted with inviting hill stations such as Mahabaleshwar. Most of the state stands on the high Deccan plateau which stretches east some 800km (496mi) from the ghats. The Deccan was the epicentre of the 17th century Maratha Empire, which, under the rule of Shivaji, defied the Mughals and made a large part of central India its domain. Maharashtra also has strong connections with Gandhi and the political actions that brought on India's independence. Gandhi was interned by the British at the Aga Khan's palace in Pune for two years after the Free India declaration, and his exemplary ashram is located at Sevagram in the far east of the state. Today Maharashtran politics are dominated by the right-wing Shiv Sena (the army of Shiva) named after Shivaji. Headed by its charismatic founder, Bal Thackeray, the Sena was formed in the late 1960s to fight for 'Maharashtra for Maharashtrians', targeting non-Hindus and itinerant workers from the southern states in sometimes violent campaigns. It now panders to the broader Hindu communalism throughout the country, and in 1996 partnered with the Hindu-fundamentalist BJP in an uneasy state-government coalition dubbed the 'saffron alliance'.
While Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated all over India, the festival is most extravagant at Mumbai and, in more recent years, at Pune. Traditionally a household affair, it was converted into a public celebration a century ago when the freedom fighter, Lokmanya Tilak, used it to unite the masses for the freedom struggle. Ganesh is, after all, the remover of all obstacles. At the end of the 11-day festival (usually held in August or September), plaster and clay images of Ganesh are taken from homes and street shrines and carried in huge processions to be immersed in water. In Mumbai this is done at Chowpatty Beach, in Pune it's done down by the river.
The procession of Ganesh is the climax of the very popular Pune Festival - classical dance and music concerts, folk dance, a village festival including bullock cart races and wrestling. The opening ceremony features some of the country's best musicians and dancers, and is usually held around late August or early September, at which time Pune becomes very crowded.
Mumbai is the glamour of Bollywood cinema, cricket on the maidans on weekends, bhelpuri on the beach at Chowpatty and red double-decker buses. It is also the infamous cages of the red-light district, Asia's largest slums, communalist politics and powerful mafia dons. This tug of war for the city's soul is played out against a Victorian townscape more reminiscent of a prosperous 19th century English industrial city than anything you'd expect to find on the edge of the Arabian Sea.
An island connected by bridges to the mainland, Mumbai is the industrial hub of everything from textiles to petrochemicals, and responsible for half of India's foreign trade. But while it aspires to be another Singapore, it's also a magnet for the rural poor. It's these new migrants who are continually re-shaping the city, making sure Mumbai keeps one foot in its hinterland and the other in the global marketplace.
The Buddhist caves at Ajanta in northern Maharashtra are dramatically cut into the precipitous rock face of a gorge on a bend of the Waghore River, and contain some of India's most magnificent paintings. The 29 caves were excavated from around 200 BC but they were abandoned in 650 AD in favour of Ellora . Their tempera murals exquisitely depict scenes from Buddhist legends and reveal telling details of the culture at the time they were painted. Five of the caves were temples and 24 were monasteries, thought to have been occupied by some 200 monks and artisans. The Ajanta Caves were gradually forgotten until their 'rediscovery' by a British tiger-hunting party in 1819. Make sure you pay for a 'lighting' ticket when visiting the caves or you may see very little of the murals. A little light will also prevent you from tripping over the million and one other punters keen for a 'contemplative' look at this religious site. Jalgaon is the nearest railhead.
The Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves at Ellora, carved between 600 and 1000 AD, are renowned for their remarkable sculptural work. Situated on a gentle escarpment, the caves are believed to have been carved by priests and pilgrims using the caravan route between the northern cities of Madhya Pradesh and the ports of the west coast. It seems that the caves were started by the Buddhist builders of Ajanta when they deserted that site, but later non-Buddhist caves were created simultaneously in a flowering of creative competition between the different religions.
The highlight of the 34 caves is the mighty Kailasa Temple, the zenith of Hindu rock-cut temple architecture. The temple's measurements and the statistics involved in its construction are astounding . Hewn from solid rock from the top down, using the most rudimentary of tools, the temple now appears free-standing. It incorporates enclosures, galleries, a bridge, two large stone elephants, massive stone `flagstaffs' and several finely carved panels. Building sandcastles will never be the same again. Aurangabad is the nearest sizeable town to the caves.
Lonar Meteorite Crater
Indians like to ponder the movements of celestial bodies, so it's interesting to see what they make of this impressive meteorite crater, some 2km (1mi) in diameter and several hundred metres deep, which has a shallow lake at the bottom. A plaque on the rim near Lonar village states that it is the `only natural hypervelocity impact crater in basaltic rock in the world'; another looks like it says `Beam me up Scotty', so make up your own mind. There are several Hindu temples on the crater floor, and plenty of chattering langur monkeys inhabiting the bushes around the lake. The village of Lonar is four to five hours south-east of Ajanta by bus.
The Indian Himalaya provide a stark contrast to the dusty plains of the north and the hothouse of the tropical south. In this region of hill stations, fertile valleys, lunar landscapes and rarefied mountain air, local inhabitants have carved out a spartan existence in the pockets of habitable terrain. The Brits were drawn to the foothills simply to escape the summer heat of the plains, travellers have been drawn to the region by its awesome mountain scenery, and Indians come to honeymoon and revere the abode of the gods. The Indian Himalaya marks the crossroads of Asia's three main cultures: the Kashmir Himalaya is the cultural boundary of Islam; the foothills of Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh define the northern limits of Hinduism; while Ladakh is the south-western spur of Buddhism. Unfortunately, this crossroads is now littered with roadblocks and military outposts, and large segments of the region are off-limits to travellers because of the troubles in Jammu & Kashmir state and because of India's border disputes with its neighbours. The accessible parts, however, still offer spectacular trekking, some hair-raising road journeys and a glimpse of life in the shadow of the largest mountain range on earth.
The `summer capital' of British India sprawls along a crescent-shaped ridge at an altitude of over 2100m in southern Himachal Pradesh. This was the most important hill station in India before Independence, and the social life here in the summer months when the Brits came to escape the torrid heat of the plains was legendary - balls, bridge parties and parades went hand in hand with gossip, intrigue and romance. Today, the officers, administrators and lah-di-dah ladies of the Raj have been replaced by throngs of holidaymakers, but echoes of Shimla's British past remain strong. The famous main street, The Mall, still runs along the crest of the ridge and is lined with stately English-looking houses. Christ Church, Gorton Castle and the fortress-like former Viceroyal Lodge reinforce the English flavour. When you've done the obligatory stroll along The Mall dreaming of Kipling, Burton and Merchant-Ivory, it's worth exploring the narrow streets which fall steeply away from the ridge to colourful local bazaars. There's also an interesting walk to Jakhu Temple, dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. It's located near the highest point of the ridge and offers fine views of the town, surrounding valley and snow-capped peaks. Other scenic spots nearby include the 67m high Chadwick Falls, the picnic spot of Prospect Hill, and Wildflower Hall - the site of the former mansion of Lord `Your-Country-Needs-You' Kitchener. The ski resort of Kufri is just 16km east, although snowfalls have been so paltry recently that there are plans to suspend tourist operations. If there is snow, the slopes are suitable for beginners and anyone with a decent plastic bag and a thick pair of trousers. Snow is most likely between January and February.
It's a shame Goa comes burdened with a history of louche living, because there's so much more to it than sun, sand and psychedelia. The allure of Goa is that it remains quite distinct from the rest of India and is small enough to be grasped and explored in a way that other Indian states are not. It's not just the familiar remnants of European colonialism or the picture-book exoticism that make it seem so accessible, it's the prevalence of Roman Catholicism and a form of social and political progressiveness that Westerners feel they can relate to. Although Hindus outnumber Catholics, skirts far outnumber saris, and the people display a liberality and civility which you'll be hard pressed to find elsewhere in India. This former Portuguese enclave on the western coast of India has enjoyed a prominent place in the travellers' lexicon since the heady days of the 1960s when it became a landmark on the hippy trail thanks to its cheap accommodation, the easy availability of drugs, and the overrated opportunity of getting back to nature by frolicking stark bollock naked on the beach. Travellers in Goa still feel obliged to 'hang out' meaningfully, be mellow and wear pretty silly tribal costumes, but the (in)famous hippies have now been replaced by backpackers, Indian visitors and a bevvy of bewildered package tourists on two-week jaunts from Europe. Although there's a palpable nostalgia for the days when the parties were always bigger, better and more authentic than they are now, Goa's current semi-resident Westerners are less inclined to rue the past, and more likely to be spending the low season (March-September) in New York, Amsterdam or Colombia.
Because Goa has a large Christian community, most Christian festivals such as Easter and Christmas are celebrated along with a host of minor deity days such as the Feast of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception and the Feast of St Francis Xavier, both in December. Hindu festivals tend to occur at the beginning of the calendar year. The Festival of Shantadurga Prasann, in January, involves a night-time procession of chariots bearing the goddess followed by over 100,000 faithfuls. In the colourful and dramatic Procession of Umbrellas at Cuncolim south of Margao, the same goddes is honoured with a procession carrying a solid silver image of her to the original temple site. The three day zatra of Shri Mangesh takes place in February in the lavish temple of the same name. During the same month in the old Fontainhas district of Panaji, the Maruti zatra draws huge and colourful crowds. March sees the festival of Holi or Shigmo.
Most visitors treat Panaji as little more than a transport hub, but this lovely state capital has retained its Portuguese heritage in a lived-in, knockabout kind of way and exudes an aura more reminiscent of the Mediterranean than of India. If it weren't for the crush at the bus depot, the unmistakable buzz of auto-rickshaws and the fact that the bridge over the Mandovi River has fallen down twice in the last nine years, Panaji could seem like any siesta-ridden provincial town on the Iberian Peninsula. It contains all the quaint Mediterranean iconography - from the cramped cobbled streets, pastel-hued terraces and flower-bedecked balconies to the terracotta-tiled roofs, whitewashed churches and those small bars and cafes that are the social lifeblood of secular Portugal. The old district of Fontainhas is the most atmospheric area to walk around, and includes the Chapel of St Sebastian which contains a striking crucifix that originally stood in the Palace of the Inquisition in Old Goa. The Church of the Immaculate Conception, consecrated in 1541, is Panaji's main place of worship, and it was here that recently arrived sailors from Portugal gave thanks for a safe passage. It's worth taking one of the river cruises along the Mandovi River, but try to persuade your captain not to loiter under the bridge spans in order to admire Indian engineering.
This `holy hill' in the south of Andhra Pradesh is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India thanks to the ancient Vaishnavaite temple of Lord Venkateshwara, the god whose picture graces the reception areas of most hotels and restaurants in southern India. He's the one with the covered eyes (because his gaze would scorch the world) and garlanded in so many flowers that only his feet are visible. Lord Venkateshwara is believed to have the power to grant any wish made in front of the idol at Tirumala. This legend guarantees a cool 30,000 pilgrims a day and has made the temple one of the richest in India, with an annual income of some five billion rupees. Despite the number of pilgrims and the fascinating crowds, very few travellers make it to Tirumala - this may be because it's considered auspicious to have your head shaved when visiting the temple.
Andaman & Nicobar Islands
This string of 300 richly forested tropical islands lies in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar and stretches almost to the tip of Sumatra. Ethnically, the islands are not part of India and, until fairly recently, they were inhabited only by indigenous tribal people. The majority of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are uninhabited, surrounded by coral reefs, and have white sandy beaches and incredibly clear water. This is an excellent place for snorkelling, scuba diving and lazing on the beach. Indian tourists may roam freely, but foreigners are constrained by a 30-day permit, allowing only limited travel. There are regular flights to Port Blair on South Andaman from Calcutta and Chennai (Madras); permits are issued at the airport on arrival. Infrequent boats from Calcutta and Chennai take four days to reach the islands; permits must be obtained in advance if arriving by boat.
The underlying poverty
But what exactly does it mean to live below the official poverty line in India? What is life like for the absolutely poor? Firstly it means calorie deficits: the absolutely poor do not have enough to eat, often subsisting on one meal per day instead of two or three. Hunger is a faithful companion for the very poor. It also means having only one set of clothes, instead of three of four or more sets. It means living in a tiny mud hut or tin shack measuring less than 100 sq. ft.
But beyond the material squalor, it means severe deprivation in access to basic services: the very poor have no access to education, to basic health care, to drinking water supplies, to sanitation services, to affordable transportation, to judicial services, to policing and security and much else. The costs of these deprivations in terms of time, money and physical and emotional distress are difficult to imagine for those who take all these services for granted.
Fifty years after independence, India still has the largest number of poor people of any country in the world. Of its 950 million inhabitants, about 350 million are below the poverty line, 75 per cent of them in the rural areas. More than 40 per cent of the population is illiterate, with women, tribal and scheduled castes particularly affected. From the beginning of the planning process in India, efforts were made to eradicate poverty, first through efforts to speed up economic growth, later through specific anti-poverty programmes. Substantial increases in budgetary allocations of some 178 per cent for poverty alleviation were made during the Eighth Plan period (1992-97). In the present Ninth Plan period, eradication of poverty, empowerment of women and the weaker sections of society, promoting people's participatory institutions, provision of basic minimum services, containing the population growth rate and environmental sustainability are major concerns of the government.