Odyssey through India


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Category: Travel Date: 27 Jan 97

January 27. We have, in our imaginary odyssey through India, just left New Delhi. We are on our way to Agra by train (the Agra airport is shut for repairs). Once again, everywhere we hear commands of “coolie” and the wiry men scuttle about carrying our luggage on their heads. Again the crowds press upon us and the vendors rush about shoving their wares in our faces.


Having stayed in five-star hotels in New Delhi, once again we are startled by the poverty. Women and children bundled up - in boxes they make their homes, begging for alms. Inside the train we stow away our baggage and watch fascinated at the Indian rural landscape speed past us - the enormous fields, the traditional farmer ploughing his land with oxen, barefoot women with chunky jewellery balancing earthen pots on their heads.


Lulled by the rhythmic movement of the train’s great wheels on the railroad, we remember our last event in Delhi when Prime Minister Panday sat as chief guest to India’s Republic Day parade. It was a spectacular display of India’s military and aircraft equipment and regiments. We are reminded of the awesome power of the Indian army, with 1.2 million people in uniform, which has served the country through defence of Kashmir, police action in Hyderabad in 1948, liberation of Goa from the Portuguese in 1961, resisting Chinese aggression in 1962, protecting Western India from Pakistan in 1965, liberating Bangladesh in 1971, serving the UN in peace-keeping operations in troubled areas in the Middle East, Africa and Bosnia, well for half a century since independence.


To follow the Prime Minister we need to recall a memory more than ten years old. But it will have to do. The pick of the navy regiments turned out in sparkling white, the air-force regiments in crisp khaki; the army in olive green, followed by the territorial army, the police force, national cadet corps and homeguards. But more than the pomp of the inspection of the regiments and the marching bands is the spectacle of tableaux representing all India's 17 states. These consist of floats, each with people dressed in traditional garb waving to the crowds.  The cavalry was to be expected but not the old camel regiments which are used in the desert - even elephant units were part of the parade.


The train stops in Agra. We are told Agra is a major road and rail junction and commercial and industrial centre, but forgive us if we are distracted by one of the wonders of the world  - the Taj Mahal. After we sit on a bench and have our photograph taken in front of it we are ready to listen to the story of this monument to love.


The Taj Mahal was built by the most famous of the Moghul Emperors of India, Shah Jehan, for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mehal, who died in childbirth. The Emperor wanted to give his Queen the best mausoleum in the world. It took 40 years to build by craftsmen from Turkey, Iran, Afganistahan and India. Shah Jenah used to watch them from the Red Fort across the Jamuna river. Eventually, at his death he was placed next to his wife.


Originally, the Taj Mahal was studded with precious gems and stones, but these were all vandalised. It is carved in pure white marble inlaid with black and coloured marble. There are Quaranic verses in beautiful gold leaf calligraphy around the two tombs. Four beautiful minarets in four corners. The minarets are now closed because dozens of people have attempted to commit suicide from its heights. Today vandals still pick away at the marble and its walls are dirtied by imprint of thousands of hands of those who want to be part of this love story. Despite this it stands in its beauty and glory apart from the masses who throng its halls.


The history of Agra’s various conquerors is like a mini history of India. Founded by Sikandar Lodi in the early 16th century, it was the Mughal capital during some periods of their empire. In the late 18th century, the city fell successively to the Jats, the Marathas, the Mughals and the ruler of Gwalior and finally to the British in 1803.


We gaze on and walk through the gardens and fountains but now we are called away to join thousands of pilgrims to visit one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus Varanasi or Benares. Benares is one of the oldest cities in the world and was settled by the first Aryans on the banks of the Ganges River. Benares has been a city of Hindu-learning through the ages. An array of shrines, hundreds of temples and palaces, rise tier on tier from the water’s edge.


The learned Brahmins, of which there are countless, tell us Benares was the capital of the kingdom of Kasi during the time of Buddha (6th century BC), who gave his first sermon near here. By the 2nd millennium BC, Benares was a seat of Aryan religion and philosophy and a commercial and industrial centre, famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfume, ivory works and sculpture.


Today, it is a centre of arts, crafts, music and dance. We are shown its famous silks and brocades with gold and silver threadwork. Some of us pick up wooden toys, glass bangles and brass ware - and the less environmentally conscious of us succumb to the much coveted ivory for which hundreds of elephants are killed each year.


Here we are on the river front on miles of steps or ghats from which a million pilgrims descend into the water every year for religious bathing. Despite the darkly polluted water, some of us descend with all our clothes on and take the holy bath. Then we are taken on a tour of the city’s numerous temples, all elaborately carved with erotic figures of Hindu mythology. Here we are at the most revered temple of Visvanatha on the banks of the Holy Ganges. Amazingly, inside it is a mosque built during Moghul rule where Muslims come to pray everyday. And this is Sankathmochana, dedicated to the monkey God Hanuman. At Durga temple we see swarms of monkeys that inhabit the large trees near it.


We are invited to embark on a boat ride along the Ganges for a view of the bank studded by temples built through the ages. The sound of devotional music reverberates along the river. We have missed the famous sunrise here but the afternoon light floods this holy city with gold. At Benares Hindu University (one of Benares’ three universities), we follow Prime Minister Basdeo Panday and witness the honour conferred upon him - an Honorary Doctor of Law degree.


Here we are on a tour of the campus and countless times we remove our footwear and follow our hosts into several modern temples. This sacred city is bounded by a road known as Panchakosi: every devout Hindu pilgrim hopes to walk this road - and perhaps Mr Panday will do so too.


Our guide tells us if we had more time we could see the ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries and temples. But we have to make ready for a historic moment for us. The coming together of two countries across thousands of miles and three generations. The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago is to meet the family of his maternal grandmother, and his emotion will be ours as we pay respect to origins.


We start for Lakshmanpur tomorrow. Tonight we rest. Even the imagination needs to take a break.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur