The Plains of Madhya Pradesh.

Empty platforms in nameless towns flashing by.

I made these notes in my diary as I crossed the state of Madhya Pradesh on the SC DNR Express from Nagpur to Allahabad. 

07:20 Monday 17/2
Mist over the fields in the cool of dawn vanish in moments as the sun rises.
A man in an orange jacket standing beside a fire, the smoke rising vertically.
Scarecrows and low, rounded hills in the distance. Barley, wheat, canola with bright yellow flowers.¹
Dew dusting the crops with silver-grey.
Two cups of hot, sweet, gingery chai on the dawn-chilled platform at Jabalpur.


The fields encircled with trees.
The little ramshackle shelter shacks: roofs of junk on spindley stick legs.
Quicksilver pools of water in the hollows.
A yellow school bus on a red-dirt road.
Empty platforms in nameless towns flashing by.
A temple in a dappled clearing.
Farm workers, their heads swaddled in scarves against the morning chill, walk briskly towards the fields.
A man in a white dhoti and blue shirt holding a tethered calf.

The train stopped for half an hour in Satna. Leaving town, along the backs of houses I saw shitting dogs, mooching cows, razor-backed pigs, a schoolboy in a bright red sweater and tie. Then the littered outskirts. The word SEX painted in white on a brick wall. Mr Feet², as I’ve named him, noisily eating chaat from a tinfoil bag. Then brick kilns, warehouses, slummy dwellings and the smokestacks of factories steaming in the distance.

A bright yellow square temple on an embankment, surrounded by equally yellow canola flowers.
A battalion of pylons marching across the landscape and disappearing into the brown, smokey haze.    

¹ I discovered later that the bright green crop with yellow flowers was, in fact, mustard.
² One of the other passengers in my 2AC compartment.

THE CHAI WALLAH’S KITCHEN

Along the sandstone terrace beside the Kali temple and out into the sunlight beside the Ganges…

Dawn on Manikarnika Ghat. A cold breeze blows down the Ganges, chopping the water of the river with tiny wavelets and flapping the orange triangular flags adorning the riverside temples. It eddies around the funeral pyres burning down at the water’s edge, wafting the smell of woodsmoke up into the steep terraces of buildings stepping back and upwards from the river. A few bathers wash themselves in the sluggish water; a few cows mooch in search of breakfast. And in a tiny stall, the chai wallah is preparing his first brew of tea.

The Chai Wallah’s Kitchen.

I have walked down the labyrinth of narrow alleys to the ghat for my morning cup of chai. It’s become a ritual since I arrived in Varanasi. Wake up, check my social media, dress, walk down the six flights of concrete stairs to the alley outside the Shanti Guest House, avoid the cow and monkey shit on the flagstones as I descend to the river: right, left, left, down alleys cut like canyons between the overhanging houses. Down past the piles of firewood stacked up ready for sale to the body-burners. Along the sandstone terrace beside the Kali temple and out into the sunlight beside the Ganges.

The chai wallah has milk boiling in an aluminium pan over a little diesel burner. He stirs in sugar and a handful of tea leaves. He is sitting cross-legged on the worn wooden step of his little stall. He takes a small piece of ginger and grinds it to a paste on a flat stone with a stone pestle. The ginger goes into the milk which is now frothing up as it boils. The chai wallah tidies his work area and arranges five little cups made from fired Ganges mud: the ultimate disposable containers. 

The tea boils for a minute or two. I chat to the four other patrons, all local men, waiting for their chai. One man speaks a little English and I tell him that I will pay for their chai. A small boy arrives, a collection of coins jingling in his hand. I tell the man that I’ll buy his chai as well and that he can keep his change for pocket money.

The chai wallah pours the milky tea through a sieve into another aluminium pot then pours it into the five cups. I hand him a hundred Rupee note. The tea is hot and sweet and spicy, just the thing for a cold Varanasi morning. The chai wallah begins brewing his next batch of tea. Out on the river, the sun comes up through the fog. Another day begins on Manikarnika Ghat.

The Chai Wallah at work.

CONFLUENCE

Few things can prepare you for your first sight of the River Ganges…

The driver was lost. Confused by the labyrinth of one-way streets, roadblocks, police checkpoints and conflicting signposts he became disoriented and anxious. His battered Ola cab bumped along a rutted, potholed street running diagonally across a wide, empty expanse of empty ground and was brought to a stop by a barricade of bright orange plastic barriers. He fiddled with the map on his phone. I fiddled with mine. It was obvious that we could go no further. I paid the fare and began to walk.

MY FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE RIVER GANGES.

I knew that the river lay somewhere to my left. I squeezed between the row of barriers, crossed a stretch of bare earth where coloured saris lay drying in the sun and followed a long straight road framed by shady peepal trees. There were tiny shrines around some of the trees: painted effigies, brass symbols, offerings of flowers and coloured rice. Dogs lazed in the shade. I paused at a chai stall beneath a spreading fig tree and drank a cup of hot, sweet, spicy tea. The road climbed a rise along which ran a busy street, crowded with buses and pilgrims. Beyond it lay the river.  

Few things can prepare you for your first sight of the River Ganges. In the course of my travels I have been lucky enough to see many of the world’s great rivers. I have seen the River Thames in London, the Bow River in Alberta and the Murray River in Australia. I have floated down the River Nile in Egypt, the Congo River in Zaire and the Yangtze River in China. I have seen the headwaters of the Indus in Pakistan, crossed the Niger River in North Africa and the Hudson River in New York.  

And now, here I was, standing beside the greatest river in the world: Mother Ganga. She lay brown and wide, her sleek surface rippled by the warm wind gusting downstream beneath the Old Naini Bridge. Her banks were a sea of dried silt. It was summer in India and the river was at her lowest flow. The water was a pallid brown colour. It hissed around the moored steel pontoons of a bailey bridge and eddied amongst the swimmers and bathers on the muddy ghats. Downstream, crouched in the haze, lay the temples of Prayagraj.  

The Triveni Sangam is the place where India’s three sacred rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Sarasvati, converge. For Hindus it is one of the most propitious places in the universe and to bathe in the waters here is to dispel all the profane sins of the soul and guarantee liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth and death. The Prayag Kumbh Mela Festival, held here every twelve years, is the world’s largest religious gathering. In 2013, one hundred and twenty million people attended the festival. The vast, empty expanses of bare ground I had walked across to reach the river became temporary cities, heaving with the mass of humanity that comes to celebrate at the Triveni Sangam.

I walked across the steel-decked bailey bridge to the opposite bank of the river. Graceful white herons waited in the shallows with endless patience for a passing minnow. Fishermen in rough wooden boats cast their nets beneath the concrete piers of the New Yamuna Bridge. A continuous stream of trucks and scooters rattled across the bridge raising a fine miasma of silty dust. The wire-rope guardrails were festooned with tangles of cotton streamers. Three women in bright saris – one blue, one green and one orange – walked ahead of me.  

Beyond the water’s edge the river flats stretched away, flat and grey under a sky of brass. The wind whipped up the silt into a gritty haze. A sadhu with dreadlocks wrapped around his head like a turban sat gazing out across the water, lost in some devotional reverie. Downstream, I could see the temples of the Triveni Sangam, floating in the shimmering air like the castles of Nirvana above the confluence of the sacred rivers.

THE GRAND TRUNK ROAD

“Such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.”
– Rudyard Kipling

On the Dufferin Bridge I was standing on the Grand Trunk Road. Formerly known as Uttarapath, as Sadak-e-Azam and as Badshahi, the Grand Trunk Road is one of Asia’s oldest and longest main roads. Its route from Chittagong in Bangladesh to Kabul in Afghanistan has spanned the subcontinent for at least 2,500 years.

The Dufferin Bridge at Varanasi

The original route of the Grand Trunk Road was mapped out by the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta Maurya in the 3rd century BC. The route spanned his entire empire: from the mouths of the Ganges, now in modern day Bangladesh, to the north-western frontier of the empire in the wild, lawless valleys of the Hindu Kush. His grandson, Ashoka, made improvements to the road. In his edicts¹, Ashoka recorded that he had planted trees along the route, built wells “every half KOS”² and constructed “nimisdhayas” or rest houses along the route.

Over successive centuries the road was re-built many times: under Sher Shah, the Moghuls and the British. Sher Shah Suri (who controlled the Mughal Empire from 1540, when he usurped power from the second Emperor Humayan, until 1555) straightened the route and widened its breadth. Fruit and shade trees were planted and at intervals of 2 KOS a “serai”² was built.

In the 1830s, the East India Company began a programme of metalled road construction from Calcutta to Peshawar (now in Pakistan) at a cost of £1,000 per mile. By the end of the century the Grand Trunk Road was India’s busiest thoroughfare, inspiring Rudyard Kipling to write:

“Look! Look again!…at chumars³, bankers, tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters, all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood. And truly, the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles – such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.”

On the Dufferin Bridge, that warm afternoon, I listened to the roar of engines, the screech and blare of horns, the shouts of taxi touts and the rumble and clank of the steel deck plates as the river of life flowed out of Varanasi on the Grand Trunk Road and on into India.     

On the Grand Trunk Road.

¹The Edicts of Ashoka were a series of stone towers erected across Ashoka’s empire outlining the Emperor’s goals and decrees. The first years of Ashoka’s reign as emperor had been characterized by violent wars and brutal cruelty to his people. But after a particularly violent period, Ashoka had an epiphany and decided to abandon violence and become a benevolent ruler. To this end he decreed that his rule would now be characterised by fairness and compassion for his citizens and that a set of edicts (guidelines for living a just and compassionate life) would be inscribed on towers across the empire for all to see. They included rules about food safety, weights and measures, marriage, the ownership of property and the right of animals to be treated kindly and without cruelty.

² A serai is a guest house. The word caravanserai expands on this to include lodging for animals.

³ Untouchables 

TWO BEERS AT THE LEOPOLD

The head waiter has a moustache with the tips waxed and curled up in twin hooks, giving him the look of a villain in a 1920s silent movie…

The Leopold Café is the go-to place for the white folks here in Colaba.¹ It is expensive, of course, but after a long day of walking the streets of Mumbai I felt that a cold beer would be a good reward for my efforts.

Bullet hole in the timberwork.

There is a bullet hole scored in the pillar beside my table: a relic of a terrorist attack that took place here in 2008.  Melissa, the flight attendant on the Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore told me about it. But she also recommended the Leopold as a good place to hang out so here I am. My ice cold bottle of Kingfisher beer came with a bowl of peanuts. The head waiter has a moustache with the tips waxed and curled up in twin hooks, giving him the look of a villain in a 1920s silent movie.

This place is also a hangout for hip young locals. Outside the traffic is stalled on the street. Young couples hold hands and whisper to each other; table groups of young men quaff cocktails from dispensers shaped like antique petrol pumps. The ceiling fans stir the torpid air. The  food looks good but it is expensive. Besides, I have my eye on a local joint serving Mowgli foods across the road. I think I’ll have another beer and enjoy the ambience.

The Leopold has, according to the t-shirts for sale, been here since 1871. Some Chinese tourists come in, some older Europeans wearing shorts (they look shell-shocked) and a couple of burly pseudo-hippies.  I can imagine Bollywood stars here, and professional cricketers. The people next to me are Russians. I heard one of them say “spasiba” as he left. At another table a young Indian couple share a plate of ice cream covered with a tracery of chocolate syrup. The boy lovingly feeds spoonfuls of it to his girlfriend.

THE LEOPOLD CAFE

The menu under the table’s glass top advertises “Indian, Continental, Chinese and Desserts.” There is CHILLY CHICKEN, MANGOLIAN CHICKEN, SINGAPORE NOOLDES and, my favourite, CHOCOLATE EXTACY.

I like it here. It’s crowded and noisy but this is the first time on my trip that I’ve simply sat and people-watched and written down some notes.  So much is thrown at you in a city like this: noise, crowds, the holy stench, the religious clamour, the commercial buzz. I like sitting here and not having to move. The people at the table beside me are eating toasted sandwiches, French fries and pizza. They sprinkled the pizza with bright red chilli flakes.

It is growing dark outside. My legs ache. Outside on the street, a man in a skull cap is shouting into his cell phone.  The door staff – a doorman and a doorwoman – check the bags of every customer as they enter. The doorwoman has perfect skin and gold jewellery. Her hair is done up in a bun.

I should go out and find something for dinner. But I like it here. Dinner can wait. I finish my beer and order another.   

¹ The Colaba District, adjacent to the Gateway of India, is one of the main tourist areas of Mumbai.

IN THE TEMPLES OF OUR FATHERS

The worshippers jostled and shoved me along, moving clockwise around the statue and its marble enclosure.

Outside the colourful chaos of the Crawford Market I plunged in deep, following the route set out for me on my phone by Google Maps: half lost and half found. In a densely packed street I came  across a Hindu temple crowded with worshippers. A monk blessed me in the middle of the street as cars, cows and crowds surged around us. He wound a sacred thread of orange and red around my wrist, incanting a prayer as he tied a complex knot to secure the turns and expertly sliced off the excess with a box cutter knife.

The votive offerings given to me by the priest in the temple.

Inside the temple courtyard, a salesman at a stall festooned with bright orange garlands of marigolds and overflowing with votive treats, gestured for me to remove my shoes and socks, sold me a plate of offerings, then bade join the jostling throng entering the temple’s inner sanctum.

A set of metal steps led up to a raised platform where a statue of some god or other sat in an alcove draped with flowers. The worshippers jostled and shoved me along, moving clockwise around the statue and its marble enclosure. I emerged still clutching my tray of offerings, unsure of what to do with them. A young woman told me that I should go around again and this time hand the offerings to the priest (I hadn’t even seen him!) who would “place them on God.”

“I will come with you,” she said and led me back up the steps. She pointed out the temple’s main god, which I’d missed the first time around, but when I asked which god it was she shrugged her shoulders and said that she had no idea.

I handed my offerings over a stainless steel counter slotted for monetary offerings and a sweating attendant took the flowers and sweets from the tray, replacing them with blessed offerings: some yellow sweets, half a coconut and a small square of red and gold cloth. The priest himself, fat, sweating and caked with white makeup, sat cross-legged beside the god statue. My little friend (she had the most beautiful dark eyes) guided me back out into the courtyard, said goodbye, rejoined her waiting mother and was gone, swallowed by the departing crowd of worshippers.

I retrieved my shoes from the stallholder who placed my blessed rewards into a white paper bag and stepped, somewhat dazed and confused but with my karma fully replenished, back out onto the street. I had no idea what I had just witnessed. I felt as though I had been inducted into some secret sect, the membership of which opened up previously unseen facets of the city.  I had become part of Mumbai and the clouds of chaos now seemed a little less opaque. I could hear the temple bells clanging sonorously above the roar of traffic and the cacophony of voices; I could smell the incense and the marigolds. The street lay before me. I plunged in deep. 

Outside the temple, exhausted and stunned by the experience.

MORNINGTOWN RIDE

Good morning from an Indian train…

I came to India to ride trains. They were one of my abiding memories from our visit to northern India in 1992. Trains were fun. They were linear microcosms of Indian life: miniature towns moving horizontally through the landscape and through the mornings, noons and nights of the subcontinent. I wanted to experience that feeling again. So after four days in Mumbai, I took an Uber to the Dadar Station where I was booked on the 2pm Express to Aurangabad.

I arrived early. I wanted to escape from the tourist hubbub of Colaba. And I didn’t want to miss my train. So with two hours to fill in I sat in the shade outside the station and jotted notes in my diary. 

11:20pm THE SCENE AT DADAR STATION.  An unholy noise, a sweet smell of cooking food, people everywhere: talking into phones, arriving, departing, the squall of car horns. A woman in a red sari, her hair tied up in a matching barrette, hoists her ample arse onto the back of her husband’s motorbike and they depart. From within the nearby temple, a sonorous clang of bells and the strident rhythm of drums rises to a crescendo then falls silent. A fountain of balancing cherubs – Eros of the subcontinent – stands waterless and dusty outside the terminal. A pair of bewildered-looking European tourists wearing sandals and socks, is shepherded past by a guide. In the sky, pale blue, cloudless, dusty, a black kite soars on a thermal, its outstretched wings motionless. A yellow dog mooches among the traffic; a scrawny black cow is tethered outside the station medical centre.

I watch 3 people clamber onto a scooter: mother, father and daughter along with mother’s luggage which is piled in the footwell. Only father puts on a helmet. A film crew arrives. They interview a boy sitting on a scooter. His grandfather – white dhoti, skinny brown legs, glasses – sits beside me watching.

The train was intense: crowded, hot and full of movement and activity. Halfway through the journey, at some town whose name I forget, hundreds of extra passengers got on board: freeloaders riding for nothing. They crowded the aisle, sat on the floor and squeezed into every cranny. It was dark by the time we rolled into Aurangabad.

Sunset along the Delhi-Aurangabad Line.

Trains have been an integral part of the Indian transport system since they were introduced by the British in 1837. The first train was named the Red Hills Railway and was opened in 1837. It carried quarried granite from the Red Hills to Madras. The first passenger train began operating in Bombay (now Mumbai) on April 16th, 1853. Today, India’s network of railways is the fourth largest in the world, comprising 121,471 kilometres of track covering a distance of 67,368 kilometres. India Railway operates over 20,000 passenger services per day from 7,349 stations across the subcontinent. Many books have been written about the trains of India including the American travel writer Paul Theroux, whose book The Great Railway Bazaar was one of the primary inspirations for my becoming a travel writer.

After a few days I took a train to Nagpur in the centre of India. My berth was the top bunk in a 2AC carriage. It was warm and comfortable and the gentle rocking of the train sent me straight to sleep. I awoke at dawn, dressed and looked out onto a cool, landscape of low hills and bright green crops coated with a silver-grey wash of dew. I stood in an open doorway and watched the countryside roll past. It was perfect. I held out my phone, set to record video, and said: “good morning from an Indian train.”

Dirt Music

A tall, gangly man in a white shirt and black pants, was opening channels along the rows with his bare feet so that a trickle of water could flow across the field.

The driver was a lunatic. I won’t go into the details…but fuck me, what an idiot! It had all begun happily enough. I’d decided to catch a bus up to Warud, two hours north of Nagpur. I wanted to walk among the orange groves the town is famous for and wander at random in the countryside. So I walked up to the Nagpur bus station and climbed aboard the Warud bus, which, conveniently, happened to be sitting in the compound waiting to depart.

The ticket wallah invited me to sit in the “special seat” right up front beside the driver. I could see through the floor and there were no seat belts but, hey, I thought, this will give me a great view of the journey. As we set off out through the crowded city streets, I began jotting notes in my diary:

  • Children in white marching on a dirt square.
  • A walled forest
  • A cow with a necklace of flowers
  • A white Hindu temple stupa like a wedding cake.

My diary continues: “very soon after I began jotting down these vignettes the driver went berserk. I won’t describe it…a total lunatic, a reckless disregard for the safety of his passengers.” It was insane: weaving back and forth across the highway, passing on blind corners and into the face of oncoming traffic, speeding. I kept thinking of a newspaper headline I’d read that morning about a bust crash that had killed 48 people: “DRIVER WAS BEHAVING RECKLESSLY.” I got off at the first town we stopped in and swore that I would never ride a bus in India again.

Yerla

And then I heard the Dirt Music.

I had walked out of town. Google Maps told me that it would take four hours to walk back to Nagpur. It was a warm, sunny day. I could cope with a walk like that. After leaping from the bus in a deserted compound (I’d said “get fucked you idiot” when the driver objected) I had Face-timed home, figured out where I was, had a cold Coke to settle my jangling nerves, and wandered through the town’s back streets, stared at like I was from an alien planet.

Dirt Music

On the scruffy edge of the town – it was called Yerla – the road crossed a short bridge spanning a small, half-dry river where a thin stream of stagnant water curled along a bed of fine red sand. Beyond it, the gates of a temple compound were decorated with gaily-painted reliefs of Hindu deities stood beneath the shady fronds of palm trees. A little further on, a rusty gate swung from a weathered timber post opened onto a field of brassicas. There was a group of brightly-dressed women squatted down in the centre of the field pulling weeds. A tall, gangly man in a white shirt and black pants, was opening channels along the rows with his bare feet so that a trickle of water could flow across the field.  

A red-dirt track led from the gateway towards a dilapidated building: half house, half barn. There were some bullocks tethered beside the building. On the track, halfway between the gate and the house, two men, one astride a motorbike, were talking. I approached them and introduced myself. They seemed understandably perplexed at this European stranger who had walked in off the road but as I explained, with gestures and sign language, that I was interested in the crop growing beside us, they relaxed. The man on the motorbike, who spoke a little English, told me the other man was the farmer who owned the land and that the crop was cauliflower plants.

The farmer agreed to show me the crop and guided me along one of the rows to the group of women. They were chattering away as they worked, pulling out weed that looked to me like fathen (Chenopodium album), considered a weed in most crops but sometimes cultivated as a feed crop for chickens. The women seemed uninterested in me and carried on with their work. 

I squatted down with the farmer as he examined some of the cauliflower plants. They were healthy and pest free and were growing exceedingly well in the rich, red, crumbly soil. I left the farmer to his work and walked along the narrow path bordering the field towards a dwelling of some sort. However a barking dog rushed out of the compound towards me so I turned and walked back to the first building I’d seen and photographed a wooden plough standing upright in the soil beside the tethered bullocks.

Then, with the dog still yapping and snarling at me from a distance, I ambled back out to the gate and sat under a tree for a while. Across the road, a pair of bullocks dragged another timber plough, with the ploughman balanced atop, through the soil of a small field. A couple of men had a stall set up under the banyan trees nearby, selling tomatoes, fresh vegetables and pyramids of greenish oranges.

The gangly man was still working his way down the rows of cauliflowers, pushing the soil with his feet to allow the silver trickles of life-giving water to flow. Snow-white egrets followed the water, picking up worms and mollusks the water brought to the surface. I thought: “What a great job on a hot day, playing around in water and soil with cool mud between your toes and everything working in harmony.” 

I still had a long way to go and I wasn’t sure how or when I would be able to find my way back to Nagpur. But I could worry about that later. For now I was happy just to sit there in the shade, watching this tiny pageant of rural Indian life and listening to the dirt music.

Journey to the Centre of India

From the fretted edges of the sub-continent to the highest hills…

The British are great measurers. They have a sense of order. You can see it best in their maps. The Ordnance Survey maps are a perfect representation in two dimensions of every detail of the three dimensional world. Perhaps it’s their Roman heritage. The Romans, too, loved order, measurement and straight lines. It gave their empire a fixed sense of civilisation: of known boundaries. Once you have named a place, and fixed it on a map, its there for good. Incontrovertible. Unassailable.

The British in India were great measurers. The boundaries of their biggest possession, the jewel in the crown of their Queen’s empire, were constantly being mapped and measured and refined, then re-measured, re-mapped and re-defined with ever-increasing accuracy. And to do this effectively they needed a starting point: a set  location from which all subsequent measurements and distances could be calculated. So they measured and surveyed and computed. Through the heat and the dust and the monsoonal floods. From the fretted edges of the sub-continent to the highest hills and the lowest depressions. With theodolites and chains, they measured and calculated and mapped. Until they found the centre of India.

Surveying during the Victorian Era was nothing like it is today. There was no Global Positioning System to find a point on a landscape with a button’s push. There were no computers to crunch the numbers or laser range finders to measure distances. The Victorian surveyors mapped continents using theodolites (a type of small telescope), calibrated ranging rods, steel measuring tapes, Gunter’s Chains (66 feet long) and mathematics. These things are still in use today. A surveyor still has to be able triangulate. But the traditional tools are backed up by sophisticated technologies. 

Yet the Victorians, and their successors, the Edwardians, with endless patience and attention to detail, managed to find the centre of the Indian subcontinent and mark it with a stone. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was begun in 1802 under the auspices of the East India Company. Its first leader was a British Army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William Lampton. He was succeed by his assistant, a civilian surveyor named George Everest who went on to become the Surveyor-General of India and after whom the world’s highest mountain is named.

It took more than a century of careful triangulation to complete the survey of India. In 1907, the Zero Mile Stone was established at Nagpur to mark the centre of the subcontinent. The British erected the sandstone tower next to the small marker stone which has a brass plaque affixed to its top which represents the exact centre point. It is from here that all distances in India are still computed.  

It took the British one hundred and five years to find the centre of the subcontinent. For me, the journey to the centre of India was nothing more than a ten minute walk from my favourite Nagpur cafe: Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters. I simply finished my latte, said “see you later” to my friends at the cafe, and walked out into the February sunlight. Guided by the gentle, comforting voice of my Google Maps girl, I walked along Temple Bazaar, the shady street behind the cafe, turned right onto Nagpur-Chandrapur Road, crossed beneath the Mass Transit Flyover and there I was.

The Centre of India is contained within a small garden beside the Zero Mile Metro Station. A wrought iron fence separates the garden from the maelstrom of cars swirling past on Sri Baba Street.  Four stucco horses rear from the ground beside the flagstone path leading to the tower. I walked into the garden through a small gate hanging ajar on rusty hinges, brushed past an overhanging peepal tree and put my hand on the warm, hexagonal stone of the tower. I imagined the vast lands surrounding me in all directions from this point. The towering Himalayas with their moraine-striped glaciers. The desserts of Rajasthan. The teeming Ganges Plain. The long, tropical coastlines of Kerala. The tea-clad hills of Assam and Himachal Pradesh. The stepped and colourful temples of hot, humid Tamil Nadu.

I sat for a while in the shade of the peepal tree and thought about my next move. From here I could go in any direction I chose. All of India lay before me. Anything was possible; any destination was reachable from here where I sat in the Centre of India. I could even, if I wanted to, go back to Corridor Seven and have another coffee.

The Blue Dome

Asleep in perfect blue buildings…
– Counting Crows

It was one of those serendipitous discoveries. I was riding in an Ola to the Ganges (now that’s a sentence you won’t read very often!) in the city of Allahabad. It was a warm, sunny day and I sat in the back seat of the car watching the wide, banyan tree-lined streets pass by outside when I saw the blue dome.

I asked the driver what the building was but I mis-heard his reply and assumed that it was a mosque. The brief glimpse I had seen as we sped past was of a tall sandstone minaret beside a collonaded building surmounted by a dome of delicate cerulean blue. It reminded me of the exquisite mosques my wife and I had seen in the Iranian city of Isfahan in 1994. 

I went down to the Ganges and spent several hours there then returned to the part of the city where the University of Allahabad is located. I’d discovered that the building I had seen was not, in fact, a mosque but was actually the university’s Science Faculty. I made a few enquiries and eventually found my way, via shady, tree-lined streets where vendors sold textbooks from open-air stalls, to the blue dome.

Completed in 1877, the Science Faculty building was designed by the British architect William Emerson, a pioneer of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture which was developed in India during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Emerson would go on to design the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.) 

With its domes, cupolas, arches and columns, the Indo-Saracenic style echoes the classic features of Mughal, Rajasthani and Maratha architecture. As I wandered the collonaded verandahs, where groups of students were gathered to talk, I caught glimpses of the dome framed by arches and recessed windows. The tiles shone in the afternoon sun and flights of birds flipped around the minaret. 

Out on the playing field, a group of young men were playing cricket. There was a chai stall beneath a spreading banyan tree on the south side of the building so I bought a cup (10 Rupees and served in a delicate clay cup) and stood looking up at that perfect blue building.