Bodhgaya, as one might expect from a Buddhist pilgrimage site, is incredibly serene and relaxing – despite the lakhs (1 lakh = 100000) of beggars attempting to take advantage of the pilgrims’ good nature. I attended a service at the Japanese temple, which involved a lot of sitting (I defy anyone to keep concentration with mosquitoes flying in their ears) and continued to sample the varying international cuisine (Bodhgaya’s restaurants sensibly cater to the tastes of the pilgrims, which means authentic food from places like Bhutan, Thailand, Vietnam and so on). Back on the train, a large and gregarious Indian family sitting in my carriage showed a keen interest in my guitar, on the face of it as the kids hadn’t seen one up close before, but more likely another reason when the father started cranking out songs from Doctor Zhivago.
The train took me to Varanasi, one of the holiest Hindu sites in India. Superficially, it’s a lot like Stone Town with thousands of narrow alleyways and overhanging buildings – however, there are two major differences. Firstly, there are no legions of feral cats – but the large numbers of cows, buffaloes, goats and dogs more than compensate. Secondly, the streets don’t follow a rough (if haphazard) grid but have a kind of fractal pattern – meaning that there are more dead ends than thoroughfares and once lost it’s harder to reorient yourself.
People come here from all over India to bathe in the hideously polluted Ganges and cremate their loved ones (though not always at the same time). The cremation process itself is an exact science, and the mass of a given type of wood needed to incinerate a body of a given mass is known to the gram. Every ten minutes or so a body is carried down a ghat (a series of steps leading down to the river) on a bamboo stretcher, dipped in the river, placed on a bier and then set alight. There are frequent small explosions caused by various body gases igniting. It’s a fairly solemn affair (as one might expect), but that doesn’t stop people incessantly using their mobile phones or drying their clothes by the pyre.
What’s the quintissential image of India? The Taj Mahal, of course. I felt that I would get mocked if I visited India without giving it at least a cursory look, so after Varanasi I swung by Agra. Roughly every twelve hours (at dawn and dusk), in a rather un-Indian display of coordination, business owners simultaneously emerge from their shops, restaurants or hotels armed with long bamboo poles and chase away all the monkeys that gather on the rooftops looking to steal food from tourists. The Taj itself is breathtaking, and there isn’t a picture that does it full justice. Actually seeing it in the flesh, as it were, is like the difference between looking at a photograph of someone and being in their actual presence. It has a kind of peaceful aura about it, but if you want to find out exactly what I mean you’ll have to go there yourself.
Despite Christmas not being an official Indian holiday, all trains heading south from Agra were booked solid chiz. This meant a long (6 hours) bus ride back up to Delhi and a longer (26 hours) train journey down to Mumbai chiz chiz. It also meant missing the Ajanta caves chiz chiz chiz. Still, on the train I managed to incite a Delhi student to form an all-India students’ union with the general aim of government reform so the day was well-spent in the grand scheme of things.
Mumbai City Council (or the Indian equivalent), possibly hitting closer to the mark that it realises, has adopted the inverted pentacle as its symbol of Christmas. The municipal decorations are delightfully subversive. I now have only a few hours left in India before causing some serious (but offset) climate damage on my way to Japan. Banzai!