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.

Scenes From a Doorway

So you are on a train, rolling across the plains of Central India. What do you do? Simple…you sit in the doorway of the carriage, with your feet on the steel footplate, and watch the pageant of rural India sweep by:

Curling diesel smoke.

A man grazing 2 cows in the shade of a tree.

Endless dry cotton fields.

A distant swell of low, distant hills, beige against the opaque sky.

Rivers flowing between banks of smooth red sandstone.

The rhythm of the bogies on the rails.

A herd of brown and white cows drinking at a river.

A wooden cart drawn by 2 white bullocks through a sea of green and yellow mustard.

At the railway crossings, tuk-tuks and trucks, cars and carts.
A man in a white shirt picking snow-white cotton bolls.

A woman in an orange sari alone on a dirt path.

Hours later, beyond Manjur, the triple stacks of a coal-fired power station filled the air with a silver-blue haze.

RAGE IN EDEN

Lines join in faint discord, and the Stormwatch brews
a concert of kings…
– Jethro Tull, Dun Ringill

The gods were angry. In the predawn darkness of Varanasi I was jolted awake, disoriented and cold, by an eruption of dense, booming sound. My fuddled mind processed the banshee wail of wind around the eaves outside my sixth-floor window and the clang of temple bells. An incandescent flash of silver-blue lightning lit the room as I struggled to extricate myself from the billowing folds of my mosquito net. A applause of rain spattered on the roof, increasing in volume to a tumult, then cutting off with the suddenness of a pulled plug. Another column of light, intense and jagged, erupted out on the river flats beyond the silver sheet of the Ganges; then the deep, reverberant, window-rattling crash of more thunder.

I had slept badly, haunted by a dream of having to escape the city in darkness. The previous evening, the power supply had been cut suddenly with an accompanying BANG that had echoed across to the far side of the river and back. I’d drifted off to sleep imagining terrorists attacking the city, hunting down and killing tourists. I’d lain there in the dark (power cuts are common in India) and plotted my solo escape from Varanasi, making my way through deserted alleys and back streets out into the safety of the countryside. The first peal of thunder had brought me back to wakefulness via these ethereal, half-remembered dreams. 

Fully awake now, and upright, I pushed the rotted sliding window open. The temple bells echoed up from the ghats below. I could see the dim glow of funeral pyres and smell the acrid smoke of burning wood. A gust of wind pushed another squall of rain across the rooftops. It splattered into my face and dripped onto the floor. There were neon lights ablaze down by the river and the rain blurred them into pastel stains of blue and pink. 

The lightning was coming in almost continual bursts now: retina-blinding shafts of white leaping from the white sandy river flats into the black belly of the sky. The detonations of thunder reverberated from the riverbanks and thudded from the tiers of buildings stepping upwards and back from the water’s edge. The rain hit the rooftops with a sound like flung ball bearings and the wind screamed around the flat concrete exterior of the Shanti Guest House.

The storm passed. The thunder died away to a distant rumble, like an angry man coming back into an argument as if to say “and another thing!” The sizzle and blast of lightning subsided into an occasional, insubstantial flicker. A great silence descended on the city, broken only by the continuing clang of the temple bells. I could hear the discordant chanting of the holy men down on the Manikarnika Ghat. A grey, watery light began to seep into the sky. The Ganges glowed like a curved strip cut from a sheet of burnished metal. The gods had been raging in their Eden. But for now, they rested.

The Great Flood (Part 3)

…a long, basso profundo chant which echoed hollowly inside the temple.

It was almost silent in the cavern. The air was cool, and fragrant with the aroma of polished teak. The only light filtered in through the narrow doorway, with its carved lintel and ornately-decorated flanking columns. I was barefoot. The floor of the cavern, polished smooth by the passage of countless other bare feet before mine, was cold and slightly damp. At the rear of the cavern, half hidden in darkness, a statue of the Buddha, composed and serene, sat in asana.   

The Ajanta Caves are carved into the wall of a gorge cut over millennia into the basalt rock of the Deccan Traps, two hour’s drive north-east of Aurangabad. The soft, black rock was erupted by the Deccan Volcanoes 65 million years ago as India passed over the Reunion Hotspot (see The Great Flood Part 1). It had lain on India’s western flank as the continent moved north and, eventually, slammed into the underside of Asia. As the continent pushed further north it raised up the Himalayas, changing the climatic patterns of India as it did so. The barrier of the Himalayas created a barrier to the moist air flowing off the Arabian Sea towards the centre of Asia. The air was now forced to rise in order to flow over the mountains. As the air rose, the moisture within condensed and fell as rain. Lots of rain. The Monsoon was born.

The annual monsoonal floods began eroding the rocks of the Deccan Traps. It carved gorges and valleys. It shaped the ridges into narrow knife-edges. It sculpted the canyon walls into smooth billows and ledges. Waterfalls tumbled from vertiginous declivities. Rivers curled over beds of boulders that had tumbled from the heights. Forests grew in profusion, their roots and branches probing into every crevice and crack. Caves dotted the landscape: bubbles in the solid matrix of stone where gases had been trapped in the erupting lava. Eventually, men discovered the caves.

Beginning in the second century BCE (around 2,200 years ago), Buddhist monks began enlarging the caves at Ajanta. The carved elaborate decorations and effigies of the Buddha. The carved prayer halls and monasteries, temples and kitchens, cells for meditation and rooms for contemplation. When they ran out of natural caves to decorate, they began carving new ones. With endless patience, and the simplest of tools, they dug and scraped. The caves were works of art, affirmations in living stone to their deity, the Buddha.

I spent hours in the caves. Each one was similar but at the same time completely different: the sound of one hand clapping. In one cave, a Japanese tourist stood before a statue of the Buddha and sang a long, basso profundo chant which echoed hollowly inside the temple. In another, a statue of the Buddha reclining stretched for twenty metres along the wall. Many of the caves were decorated with paintings depicting emotions in pose, form and colour. Some were completely bare of decoration. 

The monks of Ajanta kept up their cave carving for seven hundred years. And then, around AD600, they just stopped. In one cave, the floor was only half excavated. Its pillars and platforms still bear the marks of their tools. There were no decorations. It was as if they had finished work one day and never returned. No one knows why the work stopped. Perhaps some great environmental catastrophe occurred. Perhaps the region was over-run by invaders. Perhaps they just got sick of scratching holes in the ground.

But their work remains, carved into the black, crystalline basalt erupted so long ago, and so far away, during the great flood.