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.


Enlightenment, don’t know what it is…
– Van Morrison

He was a vision in orange. His robes hung from his lean frame in flowing billows. Around his neck he wore a collection of sacred threads and clackering beads. His sandaled feet glided across the polished linoleum floor of the Nagpur Railway Station’s booking office. A crocheted bag of many colours hung from his tattooed shoulder. His wooden stick tapped on the tiles.

“I heff missed my train,” he said, pushing to the head of the queue, Indian fashion. “Vot vill I must do now?”

The woman behind the scratched and grimy perspex counter-guard eyed him with the long-practised scorn that Indian railway staff, used to dealing with an endless barrage of queue-jumpers, have perfected over the years.

“Counter three,” she said and returned to the business of organising my ticket to Allahabad. The German psuedo-Hindu groaned and moved away. The ticket clerk glanced up at me but I was silent. Karma is a bitch, I thought. No need to aggravate it by adding my opinion.

India is full of Westerners pretending to to be Indians. You see them on the ghats at Varanasi and in the Buddhist temple at Nagpur. They think they blend in, with their ethnic clothes, orange robes, matted hair and beads. But they are just as obvious as the elderly tourists in expensive clothes and improper footwear you see in the same places: shepherded around by touts and guides, shell-shocked and horrified, through the chamber of horrors that is Varanasi or the indecipherable chaos of the temples at Ellora.

You see them bathing in the Ganges, sitting cross-legged on the Raj Ghat, meditating in the temples, and wearing blue robes at the Buddhist shrines. They believe every word their handlers tell them. They wear their sacred threads. They stretch their limbs in the ashrams. They seek enlightenment. They collect their monthly remittances from trust funds back home. 

India, to them, is a fully-immersive theme park. And they can go home any time they like.

Westerners visiting India seeking enlightenment are going to be disappointed. At the very least, they are only going to delude themselves into thinking that they have found enlightenment. India is, in fact, frightening. There is no enlightenment to be found here. India is crowded, chaotic, fascinating, brutal and relentlessly, overwhelmingly filthy. The erratic, stupid and plain dangerous behaviour of its drivers defies comprehension. The noise is constant and intense.

India is incomprehensible and unknowable. But perhaps that is it’s greatest attraction. India is impossible to understand; so it is best not to try and understand it. You just dive in, go with the flow and take from the experience anything you like. There is no enlightenment here. But you will find out things you didn’t know: mostly about yourself.

Besides, who needs enlightenment? Your orange robes won’t stop the train from leaving without you.  Van Morrison said it best: “Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.”

The Bridge Across Forever

“When Brahm ceases to dream, the Gods go…”
– Rudyard Kipling, The Bridge Builders

Findlayson of the Public Works Department would be proud. The bridge that he, Findlayson, C.S.I., built still stands after one hundred and  forty years. It’s stone piers, capped with red Agra stone, and sunk eighty feet into the shifting ooze of the Ganges’ bed, have stood up to monsoonal floods and catastrophic collisions. Its carefully engineered lattice of girders and trusses, Findlayson trusses, have stood up to the ever-increasing live load stresses created by the flood of vehicles and people crossing it every day. Its two brick piers, facing each other across the river, “loop-holed for musketry and pierced for big guns”, are as clean and fresh as the day the bridge was opened by the Viceroy.

“Loop-holed for musketry…”

The Dufferin Bridge, also known as the Kashi Bridge and by its official (since 1948) name Malviya Bridge, spans the Ganges at Varanasi, just north of the Raj Ghat. This area of Varanasi is way beyond the tourists. This is workaday Benares. Buffaloes chew their cuds beside a rotting timber boat. The rusted remains of a river steamer, its hull pocked with corrosion, its boiler gaping open like a sightless skull, lies half-buried in Ganges mud. A group of men surreptitiously play cards on the ground beside a pile of funeral pyre wood. And dominating the scene, the bridge steps across the river into the hazy, half-seen forever of the northern bank.

In his short story The Bridge Builders, published in 1898 in his collection of stories titled The Day’s Work, Rudyard Kipling describes a catastrophic flood sent by the Gods to destroy the bridge before its completion. The bridge’s Chief Engineer, Findlayson, gets caught up in the flood along with his Indian serang (overseer) Peroo and, together, they are swept away and are washed up on an island. Peroo gives his half-drowned master some opium to revive him and Findlayson has a vision of the enraged Gods discussing the bridge.

“They have chained my flood, and my river is not free any more,” snarls a crocodile, the blunt-nosed, ford-haunting Mugger of the Ganges. “Heavenly Ones, take this yoke away! Give me clear water between bank and bank.”

The Gods rage against the bridge and against the “fire-carriages”, trains, that were beginning to criss-cross the sacred landscapes of India. But amid the rage there is also reason.

“Let the dirt dig in the dirt,” the elephant-headed god Ganesh says to Mother Gunga. “My people grow rich [with the trade enabled by the roads and the railways] and praise me.

The gods argue to and fro. But the waters are dropping. Mother Gunga has done her best but the “fire-carriages” will still thread their way across the land, each one bearing “a thousand pilgrims” to worship at the altars of the Gods. 

“Be content, Gunga,” the Tigress says. “Neither these men nor those that follow them mock thee at all.”

The flood subsides, the sun comes out. Findlayson and Peroo are rescued and the bridge is completed. But Peroo understands the ramifications of the fire-carriages and the roads. He understands what the new rulers of India, The British, and their single, all-powerful God means for the old gods.

“When Brahm ceases to dream, the gods go,” he says to himself as he and Findlayson are taken back upriver to the undamaged Kashi Bridge.

I thought of Kipling’s story as I explored the southern approach of the bridge. Up on the deck, the traffic on the Grand Trunk Road, which stretches from Dhaka, in Bangladesh, all the way to Lahore, in Pakistan, thundered and roared. In the dank, shady confines below, fires smouldered beside shanties of tin and tar-paper. Dogs prowled the rubbish-heaps and filthy children eyed me suspiciously. On the face of the red-brick bridge tower, beside the railway lines, was a plaque:  

O. & R. R. Co.
The following Consulting Engineers to Government held Office
at Lucknow during the projection and construction of the Bridge.
The general features of the bridge were determined
by Messrs. Batho & Hederstedt.
The steel girders and the plant and appliances used in
erecting them, and in sinking the foundations of the piers,
were designed by Mr. Batho.  All the other
portions of the bridge were designed by Mr. Hederstedt

These were the people that Kipling knew; the inspiration for the characters in The Bridge Builders. There were no tourists here. There was just me, the ghosts of Findlayson and Peroo, and the roar and rattle of traffic on the steel lattices of the bridge across forever.

A Perfect Pearl

Never mind those making promises of the afterlife;
Join us now, righteous friends, in this intoxication…
– Zeb-un-Nissa, Mughal poetess.

She was the love of his life. His favourite wife. Mother of his heir. To Aurangzeb, soon to become Emperor of the Moghul Empire, the greatest empire that India had seen, she was the world: a perfect pearl in a jewelled firmament. Her name had been Dilras Banu Begum. She had borne him four children. The eldest, Zeb-un-Nissa, would become a gifted poet. Their son, Muhammad Azam Shah, would one day succeed him, albeit briefly, as Emperor. 

But in giving birth to their fifth child, Dilras Banu Begum died. Grief-stricken, Aurangzeb commissioned a monumental tomb for her. It would be the only great building that the Emperor would build during his reign. A pious, austere and parsimonious Muslem, Aurangzeb had little time for monuments. To him, the great works of his predecessors – Akbar’s Fatepur Sikri, Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal – were of little use. To him, creating illuminated copies of the Qur’an were of much more significance in the temporal world. His late and beloved wife, however, deserved a monument that was of suitable grandeur: a monument to Aurangzeb’s conjugal fidelity. And so, Aurangzeb designed and built the Bibi Ka Maqbara. 

Stepping through the vaulted arch of the marble entrance gate I was immediately transported back to the day in 1992 when I first saw the Taj Mahal. Flanked by four slender minarets, the perfect dome of the Bibi Ka Maqbara, perched lightly on its dias of polished marble and red sandstone, is an almost exact of its larger and more famous contemporary. 

Crowds of afternoon visitors thronged the flagstones and side gardens. A long marble water-garden, dry now but still perfectly proportioned, drew me forward. I climbed a set of stone steps, removed my boots and entered the cool, dim inner sanctum. A cool breeze flowed through the interior from delicate lattices, carved from single slabs of pure white marble, set into four alcoves. Below the level of the floor, and covered by an intricate silken blanken, lay the tomb of Dilras Banu Begum: a perfect pearl intombed forever within her marble shroud.

I sat on the edge of the west alcove, savouring the zepher of wind flowing through the lattice and watched the crowds walking reverentially around the tomb, clockwise, and tossing coins for luck down onto the Begum’s tomb. Gravestones and monuments are for the living. They are no use to the dead. The Bibi Ka Maqbara is a living, breathing tomb: an incarnation in marble of the words of Zeb-un-Nissa, Aurangzeb’s daughter. Never mind making promises of the afterlife; join us now in this intoxication. 

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) 

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.