Stage 8 – India & Bangladesh: Punjab To Bengal [2/2]
Having crossed the Indian Punjab and explored the impressive desert state of Rajasthan, I would now set off across the historic Gangetic Plain of northern India, following the Grand Trunk Road to the vibrant city of Kolkata, crossing into the teeming lowlands of Bangladesh and completing my eastward crossing of the subcontinent on the paradise island of St. Martin’s, overlooking the forbidden coastline of Myanmar.
It’s the 24th March 2008, and I leave Boštjan in the city of Kota, where we had relaxed for a day after the excesses of Holi. Boštjan is moving north, to go skiing in Kashmir (somewhere I will not reach until the end of August), and I am heading east, out of Rajasthan. The traffic is light on the smooth new road which moves from the arid plains of Rajasthan onto the red-rock plateau of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Farmland starts to appear, and I stop in the ancient town of Orchha, where the wheat fields are dotted with centuries-old Hindu temples, many abandoned (a temple may no longer be used if the main idol is broken). I relax here a day before moving on east.
Beyond the reach of zealous Muslim invaders and covetous colonial art-collectors, the sandstone temples in the village of Khajuraho, hidden away in the sparsely populated Panna Hills of northern Madhya Pradesh, show perhaps the largest and best preserved collection of erotic temple sculptures in India. A set of twenty-five 10th to 12th century, Chandela-era temples lie in the village, the exterior of many of which is covered in thousands of intricately carved figurines. Whilst most show scenes of battle (as is common in temple architecture of the period), some show highly erotic scenes reminiscent (though not representative) of the Kamasutra.
Some of the dioramas show extremely elaborate coital arrangements, necessitating the use of several assistants, while others are far cruder, and some show outright bestiality. Behind the light-hearted titillation lies considerable artistic skill, and for carvings up to a thousand years old, they are in an amazing state of preservation. Some of the ‘dancing girls’ (a euphemism still used today in South Asia for prostitutes), whose more curved areas are polished smooth by centuries of (presumably male) caresses, are of eye-catching sensuality, depicting lithe, full-breasted and comely girls in scanty clothing. It’s surprising how similar their poses and attire are to models in contemporary western ‘gentlemans’ magazines, but poses the obvious question in this prudish society, where women of wealthy families are usually rather large, and hidden from view, of what these pictures really represent. Are they depicting the antics of kings and their ‘dancing girls’ or was Indian society of a thousand years ago more open with regards to sex and sensuality than today?
The answer lies the invaders who have come to India in the intervening period; firstly the Moghuls, who although famed for their harems and pleasure palaces, represented a religion which found the artistic rendition of the human form unacceptable. One can only imagine the reaction of Muslim settlers on seeing that the temples of these idolatrous Hindus were adorned with such obscene decorations. But it was under the Victorian British colonial overlords that the last blow was dealt to Indian sexual liberalism. Together, the Muslims and the British brought a prudishness into Indian society, which remains largely intact. Interestingly, Indian society is slowly loosening-up when it comes to such matters, with scenes of mild intimacy arriving for the first time on Bollywood screens, amid much controversy.
The time has come to head down onto the Gangetic Plain of Northern India, the wide, lowland belt between the Himalaya and the Deccan Plateau, through which that most venerated of Indian rivers, the Ganga (Ganges) flows. This swathe of fertile land lies at the very heart of the Indian story; it is here where the invading Aryans planted the seeds of Vedic beliefs that would become Hinduism, and here where Buddhism was born. I head straight to one of India’s great cultural centres; the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.
At Manikarnika Ghat (a concourse of steps leading down to the banks of a river), one sees laid-bare one important aspect of Hinduism, in fact of life itself: Death, in the funeral ritual of Antyesti. Varanasi is a holy place to die; it is said that anything which dies here will break free from the cycle of endless rebirths, and the soul will be transported to heaven. People come to Varanasi to die, and along the river there are buildings full of old people waiting to do just that. These ghats on the Ganga are the municipal funerary grounds, and the air is thick with the smoke of numerous funerary pyres. The body of the deceased, wrapped in new clothes, is brought down to the riverside by members of a caste of untouchable undertakers, who ritually cleanse the body in the murky green waters of the Ganga. The chief mourner, generally the eldest son of the deceased (women are not permitted at the funeral, lest their displays of emotion prevents the gods from accepting the soul into heaven), his head shaved, and dressed in the mourning colour of white, leads the service. The body, rigid, emaciated and cocooned, is placed upon the pyre, feet facing south, and an untouchable carrying a flaming handful of straw from a nearby temple sets it ablaze. The fire soon consumes the body, giving off a subtle but nauseating odour. The critical point is the breaking of the skull, which releases the soul of the deceased into the hereafter. The bereaved men look on, showing no emotion aside perhaps from a hint of celebration as their loved one’s soul departs, unmoved by the destruction of the soul’s Earthly vehicle. It’s a deeply telling scene of Hinduism.
This amazing spectacle unfolds openly, hundreds of times each day along the short stretch of ghats here in the city’s old centre, whilst in a street not twenty metres away motorcycles wind through crowds of busy pilgrims, foreign tourists and itinerant cows. A hundred metres downstream of the funeral ghats, close enough to see the last remains of funeral pyres floating past (plus plenty of sewage outfalls), hundreds of pilgrims gather at dawn each day to bathe in this most holy of Indian rivers; families bring their aged relatives and help them into the soothing murkiness of the Ganga, children are anointed with its waters and people will even take nips of the stuff. The streets throng with visitors, holy men, souvenir peddlers, beggars, con-artists and pickpockets, all jostling through the crowded bazaars and deftly avoiding the numerous piles of cow manure.
Varanasi is in many ways the quintessential Indian experience. For all its piety as a holy city, and the insight into Hindu life, it’s equally soulless, embodying the seedy Indian tourist industry and the most revolting squalor. It’s shocking, fascinating, life-affirming, repulsive, tiresome, and awful all at once; no place better embodies the Indian travel experience for me. The city is something of a milestone on my Indian journey, as from here, everything will feel more low-key and easy-going as I head further east towards the point where the Ganga and the Brahmaputra meet and flow into the Indian Ocean: Bengal.
Sometime shortly after 500 BC, at the southern edge of the Gangetic Plain, south of the city of Patna in the sweltering green plains of the state of Bihar, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, one of the region’s many haggard mendicants and renouncers, sat under a pipal tree. He was tempted by a she-demon with all the pleasures of the world, and in denying them attained supreme enlightenment, to become the Buddha. Today, this sacred spot, the most holy site for Buddhists, lies in the village of Bodh Gaya. Though Buddha would have rejected the notion of making a place, or even himself, the object of adoration, such is the human need for some physical object of worship, that the village has grown into what resembles an embassy district of temples constructed by various Buddhist countries. In the desperately poor Bihari rice paddies, amid scenes of un-mechanised agriculture which must have changed little since the time of the Buddha, stand the temples, monasteries and guest houses from Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Bangladesh and South Korea. Monks flit around town from their respective centres, dressed in crimson, bright orange, mustard brown or sepia robes, amongst pilgrims from all over Asia. At the centre of the entire complex is the 5th to 6th century Mahabodhi Temple, built next to the very point upon which the Prince Siddhartha is said to have sat, where there stands a tree which is said to be a descendent of a tree in Sri Lanka which itself was a descendent of the original. To this revered spot, some come after days, weeks, months, or sometimes even years of painful prostrations; moving two steps before stooping to lie flat on the ground, pressing their forehead against the Earth, their palms pressed together ahead of them in prayer.
Sitting around this temple, watching the shades of devotion from pilgrims and tourists from across a huge swathe of Asia, I meet Tenzin, a forty-seven year old monk from Tibet. He speaks good English, and he tells me he is here as a refugee, rather than just a pilgrim. After guiding an American journalist in Tibet for five months, he was left with a videotape from the Dalai Lama containing messages of support from western activists; a dangerous thing in Tibet. The authorities soon came to hear of the materials, and seven PSB (Chinese police) visited his monastery, beating the eighty-seven year old head Lama until Tenzin arrived at the scene. They told Tenzin to spit and urinate on a picture of the Dalai Lama, and when he refused, beat him savagely, inserted a baton into his anus and wiped it on the picture, before beating him unconscious.
Tenzin was sentenced to three years in a Lhasa prison, but in October 2007, he and two others bribed a prison guard and fled. After making a final visit to his only remaining relative, his eighty-eight year-old mother (his father was killed by the PSB in 1960, and his sister died within a week of being released from a PSB jail in 1986), he started a hazardous journey across the freezing wastes of the Tibetan Plateau, travelling by night for fear of being spotted, crossing the world’s highest mountain range to reach the Nepali border. Here the Nepali authorities took everything he owned except for his clothes, destroyed his identity documents, but finally allowed him to pass. Tenzin, a man who had lived in a monastery since the age of seven, suddenly found himself alone and destitute in a foreign country, but managed to make his way to Bodh Gaya, where he survived on handouts and some work showing foreign tourists around. He’s an immediately endearing guy, and has a hint of child-like wonder at his new life. He plans to make it all the way south to a Buddhist monastery in Bangalore. There are thousands of such stories of the brutalities from the present-day Chinese occupation of Tibet, but the story also reminds one of just how religiously tolerant India really is, and has been, for centuries.
Consider the story of the Buddha himself. As he wandered through this region of India, then known as Magadha, in the 5th century BC, he renounced not just the technicalities of the early Hindu faith, but its very basis; that the ancient Brahmin fire-rituals were not bringing people any spiritual gain. For doing this, no harm came to him, and Buddhism spread peacefully throughout the region. Buddhism subsequently spread across Asia in two schools, Theravada (south and east to South-east Asia) and Mahayana (initially west, then north and east to Tibet and Mongolia). Ironically, given it was the birthplace of Buddhism, India now has virtually no Buddhist communities which can trace their faith back to its origins here in Bihar. A renaissance and resurgence in the popularity of Hinduism between the 5th and 11th centuries largely replaced Buddhism, with Nepal and Sri-Lanka having the only indigenous Theravada Buddhist communities on the subcontinent.
I leave Bodh Gaya with a more positive view of India, and make my final drive along the Grand Trunk Road through the dry hills of the tribal state of Jharkhand, down into the almost fluorescent green rice paddies and water-hyacinth fields of West Bengal, to the metropolis of Kolkata (Calcutta). My first indication that West Bengal is a little different from the rest of India, a little more civilised, comes shortly after the state border, as I’m driving through a small town. I sound the horn to scatter some pedestrians from a zebra crossing (standard practice in India), and am immediately pulled over by a policeman, who shrugs his shoulders and raises his arms; the message is clear. In West Bengal, there are rules!
I drive over the Hugli River into Kolkata and immediately warm to the place; despite being a city of fourteen million, it has a noticeably different air from other parts of India; not of a holy city, or a tourist trap, but of a real city in the modern sense of the word; a place of commerce, unrelated to the spiritual. This in my mind is due to two reasons; firstly that the city was created from scratch as a planned city (principally by the British), but more importantly, due to the Bengalis themselves. Bengalis strike me as being more civilised, open-minded, intelligent, and cultured than other Indian city-dwellers I have encountered. Bengal was the intellectual and industrial centre of the British Raj, with Calcutta its capital from around 1690 to 1911, and this legacy survives today. Many of the country’s big industrialists such as Tata and Birla hail from, and still base themselves here, recruiting from the city’s prestigious universities. It’s a city of modest attractions; colonial churches and monuments, which seem more conspicuous than the many Hindu temples, a welcome respite from Varanasi. It’s the first place in India I’ve enjoyed as a whole, rather than for a specific attraction.
My host in the city is Rudradeb, a Bengali Lawyer who speaks English with a public-school accent that I’m a touch envious of. He comes from a wealthy and once powerful Bengali background, and as we sit on his balcony in the salubrious suburb of Tollygunge, watching the oily clouds of a pre-monsoonal storm gather, he indicates that much of the land in this area once belonged to his family. Now, luxury new apartments have been constructed here, and a squad of painters, balancing without ropes on a scaffolding of lashed-together coconut-palm trunks, put the finishing touches to the facades of the twelve-storey buildings.
The storm gathers into a great deluge of lightning and rain, and in the morning I wade through flooded streets on the way to the Bangladeshi Mission. Everyone has their trousers rolled up beyond their knees, and steps carefully through the murky water, leaping onto passing buses and helping others on. There’s an air of excitement at the impending coolness and change of season which the monsoon brings, and I further warm to the citizens of Kolkata; people here seem friendlier, and more decent to one and other than elsewhere.
After six wonderful days with Rudradeb and his wife, who cooked traditional Bengali food quite different from that known in Europe, rich in fish and fresh vegetables, I move on, ever east, crossing the border from West Bengal into what was once East Bengal, then East Pakistan, and is now the independent country known as Bangladesh, or ‘Land of the Bangla speakers’. Bangladesh, the world’s most densely populated large nation, had an extremely troubled birth, witnessing the upheavals of independence twice in twenty-five years; firstly from British India, and secondly from Pakistan. Bengal, rather like Punjab was split by the partition of India in 1947 to form the eastern section of the disjointed country of Pakistan. In this rather ludicrous country, its capital in Karachi, thousands of kilometres from Bengal, the Bengalis were pushed to breaking point after marginalisation, flawed elections and most crucially the adoption of Urdu as state language, one which virtually no Bengali spoke. This culminated in a liberation movement, based largely on the right to speak Bangla, the native tongue of Bengal, and led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
Having crossed the border in the town of Benapole, I’m struck by how much emptier the roads are compared to West Bengal, as I pass through endless villages of intense cultivation. Simply everywhere is green and fecund. My first port of call is the city of Jessore, a homely, charming provincial town of friendly bazaar merchants and quiet streets. The city’s traffic consists almost entirely of bicycles and bicycle rickshaws and the silence is profound, almost eerie, after the infernal noise of India. This was to be a cruelly, brutally deceptive introduction to my next destination, the capital city of Dhaka.
One’s first impression of Dhaka is simply chaos, as one gets swept up in the traffic through broken, shambolic streets. There are no real suburbs in this incredibly densely packed aggregation of humanity, one simply enters the city. After only a couple of hours, I manage to squeeze and scrape the car down old lanes to the apartment of my host, thirty-four year-old filmmaker Joyanta. He represents part of a huge group of highly intelligent, university-educated Bangladeshis, who not only make Bangladesh something of an intellectual powerhouse (though sadly many of the most intelligent move abroad), but who, as a student movement, were crucial in the very formation of the country in 1971, and still play a very active role in politics.
One’s second impression of Dhaka is of crushing, omnipresent poverty. Beggars work the lanes of traffic at every intersection; wild, scruffy street children, and skeletal polio cripples who stagger painfully on all fours or are pushed along on porter’s carts. Beggars line the main streets, amputees and hideously deformed cripples writhing in the filth, muttering ‘Allah u Akbar!’ Like many beggars in the subcontinent, where alms-giving is a deeply rooted feature of society, they are controlled by gangs, who organise them into territories and cream-off their profits. As I walk with Joyanta along one street which is something of an open air freak show; a toddler with a vastly swollen head, and a man so covered in warts he might have smallpox, he tells me that such eye-catching deformities are often deliberately induced in the children of the destitute to make them successful beggars. With so many people living on the streets of the city, one must step carefully around the sleeping bodies of vagrants; on the pavements, in parks, and just about any free space, and there is the near constant, unmistakable stink of human excrement. It lies, slowly drying in the torrid heat behind every street-side tree, against every park wall, in every shady corner; anywhere where one may find a modicum of cover.
Joyanta lives in a middle-class district of the city, a small area of narrow, unpaved streets alive with bicycle rickshaws (the most convenient mode of transport in the city), and filled with an unthinkable concentration of apartment buildings. From one window I can see – close up – at least five other apartment blocks, the nearest perhaps three metres away, while from the other window, the gap is just a metre. I’m within a stone’s throw of at least twenty apartment buildings, and in the sweltering, sticky heat which builds-up before the monsoon breaks, everyone’s windows are open. I’m surrounded by the sound of other people’s lives; that low, featureless hum which one only hears when one listens for it, occasionally punctuated with the scream of a child, the nasal, nagging voice of a woman, or a man clearing his throat and spitting – carefully so as not to spit into someone else’s apartment – out of the window. There is a proximity of humanity, the concentration of which I have never experienced, not in Kolkata, Karachi or Cairo.
Dhaka’s public transport system is predictably startling. The buses are quite a sight; not for their decoration, as in Pakistan, but for their bodywork, which has the appearance of having been worked-over by an angry, hammer-wielding mob. Not one square centimetre is flat, and the skin of the bus resembles a hand-beaten copper bowl. The reason for this becomes obvious on the cripplingly choked streets of the city, where the buses are all in competition for fares, and race along with reckless abandon up to traffic lights, stopping in such a way as to obstruct other buses from passing. To counter this, shunting is an accepted technique, as is clipping corners. A small shunt will not so much as move the eyebrow of a driver, though the loss of a wing mirror may elicit a tirade of abuse at his driving adversary. All this time, the ticket boy, who manages to keep his balance inside the careening and crashing bus, and remember exactly who has, and who hasn’t paid, is busy shouting out destinations (important in a country where many are illiterate), and physically cramming more and more passengers on the already far-overloaded bus. The opportunities for death and serious injury are rife, and constant.
Despite the shocking quality of many of the city’s aspects – the chaos, noise, beggars, filth, traffic and sheer squeeze of humanity – I like the place, which is not without its attractive corners, and spend almost two weeks here. The National Assembly Building, for instance, is a fine piece of modern architecture, though it has been closed since parliament was dissolved by the army in January 2007. A history of military coups and martial law are one of the few things Bangladesh does have in common with Pakistan.
In Dhaka’s old city, on the bank of the Buriganga River, amid the stinking piles of rubbish which are being picked-through by the poor, one catches glimpses of past grandeur; elegant mansions now all but lost in a sea of modern sprawl. Down close to the riverbank is the Ahsan Manzil, the ‘Pink Palace’, in which Lord Curzon would stay when visiting the city. I take a short boat trip on the Buriganga, a moving mass of fluid so filthy it looks to be made as much from raw sewage and used engine oil, as from water, and can be smelt from across the old city. Huge sewage outfalls dump a constant stream of filth into the already black water, yet on the river’s shore, where a truly unspeakable accretion of muck exists, men sell food from roped-together wooden canoes, and women wash clothes. The Buriganga makes the Ganga look clean, and the Nile in Cairo look like spring water.
Nevertheless, in a country where more people move on the waterways than on the roads, it’s a quintessential view of the city. Dozens of enormous ferry boats are moored in the river port of Sadarghat, filled with village-like encampments of humanity waiting to move on to their destinations in the interior of this flat, sponge-like country. In all this glorious human squalor lies the vibrant heart of Dhaka.
Before leaving the city, Joyanta tells me of an upcoming festival; Bengali New Year. It’s a tradition which has been revived by the city’s strong alternative student movement, to become a notable middle-class festival, though the attractions are as much the artistic output of the central university as of clear folk beliefs. Like Pakistan, the middle class here are not too numerous, but being Dhaka there are throngs of brightly clad, well-fed and beautiful people. The women here are striking, with beautiful smooth, fair skin, and large, dark, slightly elongated eyes. For the first time in the Indian subcontinent I see a concentration of genuinely attractive women. They remind me of the girls on the temples in Khajuraho.
From what is almost certainly the most intense spot in the subcontinent, I move to one of its most relaxed, out in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of Myanmar; St Martins Island. The drive takes me south from Dhaka, along the base of the very first ridges which demarcate the eastern edge of the Indian Subcontinent, a world whose western boundary I crossed three months ago as I descended from the interior of Baluchistan to Karachi. The end of the road comes in the smugglers town of Teknaf, which lies on a spit of land separating the Bay of Bengal from a coastal inlet, beyond which, lies Myanmar. Along the coast lies 120 kilometres of sandy beach, the world’s longest. I leave the car in Teknaf and take a boat down to St Martins.
St Martins is, after Dhaka, very nearly paradise. It’s a small tropical island with a tiny population, no real roads or cars, and is ringed by wide, clean and empty sandy beaches. I camp on a vast expanse of sand on the island’s north-east coast, overlooking the distant, hazy coastline of Myanmar. The waters of the Bay of Bengal are turbid; it is after all not far away that the two largest rivers of India, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, pour out all the sediment of the subcontinent into the Indian Ocean, but they are bathwater-warm. During the day, when the heat and intensity of the sun are uncomfortable, I snooze in the foyer of a nearby hotel, part-owned by Joyanta, until the late afternoon when a few souls wander the beach pulling up nets, or digging for shellfish. At other times however, the beach is all mine to enjoy; the long, red skies of dusk, starry nights sleeping under the fly-net of my tent, and the warm dawn, when I float in the warm seawater as a large, pink sun quickly rises over the distant hills of Myanmar, then sit and watch the crabs at the water’s edge, foraging in the flotsam and jetsam, cleaning out their burrows, and leaving intricate and ephemeral concentric patterns of sand around their entrance-holes.
I’ve traversed this vast, seething plain of humanity, through the modern states of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Upon its surface unfold the age-old scenes of worship; the Sufis of Sindh, the Sikhs of Punjab, the Hindu revellers in Rajasthan, the Buddhist monks of Bodh Gaya. Religion is so fundamental in these societies, so defining for people, that I had of course, to question my own beliefs, or rather my lack of them. As a child, I’d dismissed the puerile notion of a bearded, all-seeing God in the sky along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and had never given religion any further consideration. I see few merits of scripture, though it obviously gives a great deal of comfort and reassurance to billions of people. It seems to me that across the religions, and across the ages, there is a struggle between the dumbing-down of a god ‘who’ exists (i.e. the man in the sky), and the god of the philosophers, the metaphysical god of the Hindus and Buddhists (that is, of the Indian subcontinent), or perhaps a god without any transcendence; an underlying constancy in a universe of transience, an absolute that bounds the continuum of existence. That, is what I had come to believe, but what’s the point of that? How does that inspire one to be a decent person, how does that build society?
Leaving these philosophical thoughts, I reflect upon the next stage of my journey. From here, I can only head west; it is very, very nearly impossible to enter Myanmar by land from India or Bangladesh, and entering China is almost as difficult. So I will re-traverse the subcontinent, arcing across the world’s greatest mountain range, the Himalaya, through cultures not of the crowded lowlands of the subcontinent, but of the Burmese and Tibetan peoples which lie in the forbidden lands just beyond.