The Great Flood (Part Two)

And they carved elaborate effigies of the Buddha, seated and reclining, in the darkest recesses of their crepuscular, subterranean world… 

North of Aurangabad, the road descends an escarpment of dusty basalt in a series of rutted, pot-holed hair-pins. My driver, Shanti, curses the government, the Prime Minister and various gods as he navigates a tenuous route down the uneven surface, dodging the biggest holes and the oncoming trucks. One thing you learn very quickly on India’s roads: no-one has right of way and everyone has right of way!

We reach the valley floor and enter a wilderness of car and bus parks. Touts descend on us offering great deals in their souvenir shops and guides to the caves. There are crows hopping about on the periphery and rubbish in the trees: the usual Indian scene.

“I will be waiting here for you,” says Shanti as I clamber from the car into the knot of touts. Helpful hands guide me towards the entrance gates. Someone presses a small piece of quartz crystal into my hand. “Come to my shop, friend,” he whispers. I tell him that I will. Later. The entrance fee for foreigners to visit the Ajanta Caves is 600 Rupees: fifteen times the price that locals pay.

When India crashed into Asia, her great burden of tholeiitic basalt, erupted from the volcanoes of the Reunion Mantle Plume (see The Great Flood Part One ) had already been solidified for millions of years. Eons passed. The sun crept across the sky day after day. The Monsoon rains scoured and shaped the basalts into deep ravines and sharp-edged ranges. The moon, another chunk of sodium-poor, tholeiitic basalt, poured its light onto the landscape. The stars slowly changed their positions as they rotated across the heavens.

Far off, in Africa, a species of primate slowly evolved into a new, highly intelligent species  known as Homo sapiens. Resourceful and inquisitive, they began expanding their territory. Exploring along the coastlines, they eventually began settling in India in large numbers, creating civilisations that rose and fell, ebbed and flowed across the subcontinent.  

Some of them kept moving: peopling the landmasses and island arcs of Southeast Asia and out across the great, blue, inverted universe of the Pacific Ocean. Eventually, some of them would reach a group of islands far to the south of this vast ocean. They would name these islands after the clouds draped across them: Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. And these islands would one day also be my home.

In India, religions established themselves. One of these, Buddhism, arose in the time before the birth of the Christian era. Many of its adherents were monks who sought out isolated places in which to live and to meditate on the nature of life and existence. At Ajanta, there were caves: isolated, inaccessible, quiet. These bubbles and fissures in the ancient stone of the Deccan Flood Basalts were perfect for the contemplation of the Universe. The monks set to work. With endless patience they enlarged the existing caverns. They excavated new ones. They decorated the walls and ceilings with mandalas. And they carved elaborate effigies of the Buddha, seated and reclining, in the darkest recesses of their crepuscular, subterranean world.   

Beyond the ticket office, another gaggle of touts and guides await. There are wiry men with palanquins to carry the less physically able (i.e. fat) pilgrims up to the caves. I brush their advances and platitudes aside. Two flights of steps, one steep, one less so, are carved into the living rock of the valley wall. I take the steep set and ascend towards Nirvana…

(To be continued) 

The Great Flood (Part One)

For tens of thousands of years the lava flooded out over the eastern side of India…

It was a hellish time to be alive. The Earth’s atmosphere was polluted with sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and a stew of other noxious gases. The chemicals, compounds and elements that formed this global atmospheric pall were being emitted from a mass of volcanoes, erupting like bubbles in a vast, roiling porridge-pot of molten rock on the planet’s surface. This miasma of poison blotted out the sun and caused the planet’s temperature to plummet. A dreadful, endless winter enveloped the world in its cold grip. And then, as if all of this wasn’t enough, a massive asteroid struck the Earth, filling the already choked and hazy air with a fine, planet-encircling film of iridium. It was a hellish time to be alive. In fact, most of the larger creatures that had, for millions of years, dominated the planet’s ecosystems, would soon not be.

When the block of continental crust that would one day be called India separated from the supercontinent of Gondwana, it began drifting northwards towards the continent of Asia. It was a slow journey, no more than 80 millimetres per year. But there was plenty of time and for the next 100 million years or so India crept along on her raft of crust. Things were, however, about to get busy. 

The Deccan Traps

In what is now the South Atlantic Ocean, India passed over a mantle plume: a place where molten magma rose in a great column from deep in the Earth. As the continent passed slowly over the plume (which today still lies beneath the island of La Reunion), two things happened. Firstly, vast amounts of lava spewed out onto the subcontinent, covering the landscape with deep, alternating layers of basalt. And secondly, the heat from the fires beneath melted the underside of India’s crust, like a candle held over a flame.

For tens of thousands of years the lava flooded out over the eastern side of India. Occasionally, the flows would subside for a time and wind-blown dust would accumulate in thin, bright layers. At other times, rivers and shallow seas would cover the lava flows, creating layers of fine gravels and beds of silty clays. Small organisms thrived in these waters and their remains became fossils. But then, the eruptions would begin again and these fine layers would be buried in successive layers of black, fine-grained basalt.

Eventually, the continent moved away from the mantle plume and the eruptions ceased. India, carrying her massive burden of solidified basalt with her, continued her journey northwards towards Asia. But she was lighter now, much lighter, despite the weight of the 100,000 cubic kilometres of new rock that the eruptions had bestowed upon her. The subterranean fires had melted so much of her underside away that she now floated high on the crust upon which she rode. 

So she moved fast. Really fast by geological standards. By the time she reached the southern edge of Asia, India was moving at a rate of 150 millimetres per year: breakneck speed. And then, she slammed into Asia. The collision was so violent that a series of massive mountain ranges were pushed up where the edges of the two continents met.   

As this slow but monumental collision was going on, the planet continued to cool, screened from the sun’s warmth by the shroud of volcanic gas and pulverized iridium. The big creatures grew cold and began to die. The smaller creatures, the ones that scurried in the bushes and who needed less warmth to survive, evolved into every niche the big creatures – the dinosaurs – had vacated. Some of them became birds, their feathers slowly evolving from scales into feathers. 


Some of them became primates, furry creatures that, at first, walked on all fours. But as the climate warmed up again, the rainforests forests disappeared and they began to stand upright in order to see over the tall grasses that now covered the savannah lands where they lived. The descendants of this species would one day come to dominate the planet. And they would one day carve deep and spectacular caves of worship into the hard black basalt of the Deccan Traps.

To be continued…


Suli Ram. Evening is near.
Soon the clouds will cool the earth with showers…

– South Asian Lullaby

It was winter in India. The dry, cool season. The earth lay parched and brown under the sun. The rivers, full-bodied and fierce during the Monsoon, lay flat and lifeless: muddy trickles between their banks of clay.

Even Mother Ganga, bringer of life, destroyer of men, curled meekly through the landscape, her waters brown and shallow. On either side of her, wide reaches of bare, grey silt stretched away into the haze. In places, the people buried their dead, garlanding the graves with  rectangles of orange and yellow flowers. In time, with the coming of the Monsoon, Mother Ganga would come down in spate and carry the dead away into eternity.

Varanasi lay under a pall of smokey haze. The ghats stepped back from the river in steep, crumbling, ancient layers, each layer built on the remains of others. Boats plied to and fro on the wind-chopped water. The sun rose scarlet across the river, casting a ladder of gold across the Ganges, then dissolved into the opaque sky.

I walked the day away, lost in the crowds of pilgrims celebrating the festival of Shiva, then climbed the sandstone steps above the Meer Ghat to a bakery where I drank coffee and watched the procession of colours go by outside.

And as I stepped from the  cafe, it began to rain: cool, sweet-smelling rain. Indian rain. The clouds were cooling the earth with showers.

Locomotive Breath


 Say, porter, when’s the next train down?
– Rudyard Kipling, My Sunday at Home

On the platform at Allahabad  Railway Station I saw a dog asleep on a pile of luggage. Or perhaps it was bales of cotton, sewn up into jute parcels. Whatever they were, the dog looked very comfortable: stretched out like a cat in front of a fire.

In the linear world of India’s railway platforms life is condensed into the essentials: food, shelter, drink and movement. And cellphones. Everyone has a cellphone, from the lowliest sweeper to the fattest tycoon. 

Stalls sell chai and chips, pakoras,and panni, biscuits and books. Hawkers ply the polished flagstones calling “chaiiiii….chaiiiii.” A team of green-shirted men sweep and mop and tidy: cleaning up the endless stream of rubbish dropped from train windows. 

I caught a glimpse of another westerner through the open doors of a carriage standing on Platform Two. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the light. The dog slept on, oblivious of the activity around it. I had another two hours to wait until my train to Varanasi departed.

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.

My desire to travel across India by train is heavily influenced by the writing of Paul Theroux, whose book The Great Railway Bazaar was one of the primary inspirations for my becoming a travel writer. The works of the historians Michael Wood, Dan Snow and William Dalrymple have also been pivotal in the development of my interest in India.

From my Second Class air conditioned bunk I watched Uttar Pradesh spool past outside. On the outskirts of the city, filthy suburbs of shanties built from junk gave way to a scrubby, litter-strewn hinterland where pigs, dogs, cows and goats picked through the refuse for digestible tidbits. The train rattled across the Ganges on a steel bridge. On the silty river flats people had buried their dead. Rectangular garlands of orange and yellow surrounded each grave. Mother Ganges would come for them during the Monsoon. 

And then the countryside, flat and fecund, gleaming with water. Fields of bright yellow mustard flowers waved on their tall pale green stalks under a sky of featureless silver-grey haze. A girl in a lime green sari pumping water by hand from a well. Stooks of maize stalks and brown domino rows of cow shit, patted into patties and set out too dry. The white exclamation point of a brick kiln chimney. A man in a white dhoti whacking listlessly at the dusty weeds beside a substation. Battalions of pylons marching into the distance. Black and white goats on the edge of a paddy field. Life-giving water shining on the yellow clay.

Some kids were playing cricket on a dirt pitch beside the line where the train stopped for some reason. I climbed down from the carriage and bowled two balls: New Zealand versus India replicated in the dust with a single bat and a pile of bricks for stumps.

I talked to a woman in a beautiful yellow sari. She gave me some jackfruit curry and two chapatis.And then the linear world of the Nandigram Express was at Varanasi Junction and I was back out on another platform.


I heard the Radiohead song Karma Police playing…

In Nagpur, I found the best Eggs Benedict in the world. And some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. Perhaps it was the location. India was the last place that I’d expected to find a café serving such superb food and coffee. I had Googled the phrase “best coffee in Nagpur” and the search engine had returned Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters as the top result. From my hotel, it was a 2.4-kilometre walk. It was the middle of the day, and hot. But I needed a caffeine hit so I set off, guided by the gentle and confident voice of the Google Maps girl…my ever-faithful travel companion

The route lay through back lanes where sacred cows munched on piles of flowers and somnolent dogs lay in the dust, sleeping away the midday heat. I passed temples and townhouses, slums and flower stalls. Beneath a giant flyover, an old lady mixed cow-shit patties beside a mobile crane lifting a section of pre-stressed concrete into the sky. A hawker offered me a pair of sunglasses; another proffered an armful of dangling headphones; a woman with her hand patterned with henna offered flowers at an altar of burning incense. On the wide concrete strip of Temple Bazaar, the sun beat down with almost tactile force on a scene of colourful chaos: beggars, cabbages, cows, clothes, oranges, leather belts, spitting men and chador-shrouded women. The ladies in the bank where I went to change money were eating lunch from stainless steel dabba containers.

“Come back at three,” one of them said, her hand greasy with dhal.

Walking up the lane towards the café I smelt the aroma of roasting coffee. Sunlight fell on chairs and low tables in a tiny courtyard. A row of scooters stood in the shade of an ancient banyan tree. As I walked in the wooden door I heard the Radiohead song Karma Police playing. And I was in heaven!

Lights and Sound

I dived headlong into the crowded, feculent, rubbish-strewn alleyways…

Evening on Marine Drive. Crowds of locals stroll along the concrete bund overlooking the choppy waters of Back Bay. Hawkers sell water, chai and snacks. A few hustlers try their luck with the occasional tourist…including me. Offshore, the sun is setting in a bright orange ball into the Arabian Sea.

Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is home to at least 20 million people. It could be as high as 26 million. No one knows for sure. Whatever its population, arriving in Mumbai from my small New Zealand town, population 2,600, was like being teleported onto the surface of another world. My hotel, in Colaba District, near the Gateway of India, was right in the heart of the market district. So, I dived headlong into the crowded, feculent, rubbish-strewn alleyways where vendors sold vegetables, flowers, meat, snacks, spice, shoes, garments of all shapes and sizes and, of course, chai. 

I walked for hours amongst the confusing, incomprehensible jumble of the city. I navigated with my phone: Google Maps keeping me grounded and in touch with my location in relation to the safe zone of my hotel room. I was occasionally hassled by scam-artists and hustles. One guy followed me around for two days until I told him to fuck off. But mostly, I was invisible: just another face in the crowds.

At sunset each evening, I tried to be near the water. Mumbai evenings are short and as the lower limb of the sun touches the sea, the sky glows momentarily with an incandescent orange then bleeds quickly from pink to mauve to indigo…and it is night.