It has been 27 years since I backpacked around the mighty democracy of India. It was my first foray into the third world and while it was tough as hell (food poisoning, groping, filthy hotels, corrupt officials, crazy road accidents and witnessing horrendous poverty) it was also mind bendingly fantastic. India kickstarted my enduring desire to be on the road with a tiny backpack and a sense of adventure. While I have been back several times for work, this will be my first time returning as a backpacker criss-crossing the country in rickshaws and overnight trains. I am between jobs so have planned a number of adventures over the next four months – covering all the parts of India that I have been longing to see. The December edition will be focussed on visiting the loveliest Unesco sites that I missed on my first big trip. First up the Bodhi tree….
Bodhgaya – where Buddha found enlightenment
Bihar is considered the most lawless and corrupt state in India and it is definitely the poorest. Tourists are typically discouraged from coming here apart from the small town of Bodhgaya which is a mecca for Buddhist Pilgrims – as it is the location of where Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree which is now next to the magnificent Mahabodhi Temple.
Prostrating, chanting and marigolds at the Mahabodhi
The temple grounds are a wonderful example of religion in action. Like the holy mosques of Karbala and Najaf, the Mahabodhi temple is an active place of worship. Monks bring their own offcuts of linoleum, gloves and pillows for energetic hours of prostration. More zen monks bring pop up mesh tents so they can calmly meditate without being bothered by the mosquitos. Groups of pilgrims from around the world gather in groups and chant ….their voices merging into one as I circumnavigate the temple. The colours are wonderful, the spiky pink lotus blossoms and the bright orange marigolds blending with the bountiful pilgrims offerings of packaged goods and the air is heavy with peppery incense. Cell phones are not allowed within the temple, although you can bring a camera if you have one (I didn’t). But that made it a much nicer experience, everyone was worshipping, chanting, prostrating or meditating and I was just soaking up the atmosphere. The tree is pretty unprepossessing, and I read in the guidebook that the original was actually poisoned by Ashoka’s wife, but luckily a sapling which had been sent to Sri lanka was recovered and replanted.
Round the (buddhist) world in less than two hours
After a lovely few hours soaking up the atmosphere, I meandered around town and visited the other monasteries – each of which represents a different country and their branch of Buddhism, Thai, Japanese, Bhutanese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Chinese – it was fascinating to compare the simplicity versus ostentatiousness of the different temples. The pilgrims were being bused from place to place (in spite of the town being small and walkable) and would swarm a temple en mass, taking photos and then stopping for a short prayer session before swarming off.
The monasteries close for lunch – so I headed back to my hotel which had a pretty good restaurant – for lime soda, dahl makhani, naan and masala chai. Then I headed back out to see the Tempur temple, walking there and being overtaken by tuktuks full of pilgrims. The safety scaffolding was quite something – they were literally balancing on a single bamboo pole and painting at the same time. I passed by the chinese temple and had a family of Indian ladies ask me for a photo – so i got one of us too. A bunch of guys then asked, so I scarpered. I then wandered back to the main temple which was more lively. It turns out the international chanting festival starts tomorrow so every country was setting up tents in the gardens, and lots of them had bought mattresses. It was lively but very zen and friendly. I wandered around town watching buddhist monks haggle with stall holders over prayerbeads and scarfs and then retired for dinner (thali – more curry!) and a few zoom meetings.
Varanasi – Ghats and the holy Ganges
There is a flight from Gaya to Varanasi but not every day. So, I booked a car from an online agency with variable reviews to pick me up early and make the 5.5 hour drive. Surprisingly the driver arrived almost on time for a 6am departure. The smog, even at dawn, was really thick, and I still haven’t seen the sky properly since I left London. Laxman was a decent driver, just as well as the seat belts didn’t work in the back, but like all Indian drivers he had his hand on the horn about 70% of the time. We stopped half way at a truly filthy truck stop and had a most excellent cheese paratha, potato curry and masala chai for breakfast. It was delicious and I crossed my fingers it wouldn’t have any unpleasant consequences.
Living it up in the Brijrama Palace
We arrived in the mad hustle and bustle of Varanasi just before lunch. The very fancy hotel I was staying in had sent a boat to pick me up from Assi Ghat as you can’t drive to the hotel, and their other guests apparently won’t walk (I would have but I didn’t want to say no to a free boat trip). Luxury is nice, I got a lovely sweet and salty ginger tea on my private boat and enjoyed the view.
I had treated myself to the fanciest hotel in Varanasi – the Brijrama Palace – also one of the oldest buildings in Varanasi. The security guard at the ghat level elevator entry was keeping out the riffraff (apparently you can’t even come in to the bar unless you agree to a minimum spend :-)). They had a room free early so I had a shower and two coffees and then went for a stroll along the ghats.
Gambolling along the ghats
There is no place more full of life than Varanasi – as a foreigner it takes a moment to recognise that most of the people on the ghats are Indian tourists, who are getting just as much hassle for henna and boat tours as the westerners. The westerners do stand out – mostly idiots wearing shorts and t-shirts – two items of clothing you don’t see anyone over the age of four wear here. But fortunately I only saw about 50 westerners over the two days. I am dressed sensibly, and have noticed this time in India that very few people (apart from young girls begging) are actually bothering me. I have decided it is because I am now ancient and therefore deserving of respect, versus when I was 21 and here getting harassed last time.
Varanasi/Benares is one of the holiest places in Hinduism as you can wash away your sins in the sacred waters of the holy river ganges. Manikarnika ghat on the river is the most auspicious place for Hindus to be cremated and the ceremonies run 24/7 on the river bed. You can watch but obviously be respectful and don’t take any photos (you wouldnt want some random person showing up at your relative’s funeral and taking photos). I had a lovely wander to the north end of the ghats past Manikarnika – I did try to visit the Vishwanath temple but you aren’t allowed in with a cell phone and it was all a bit of a faff so instead I made friends with some young students who were keen to take a selfie (i felt ancient ‘oh ma’am you are so sweeeeet).
Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh
After a shower and a nap, I adjourned to the third floor for high tea (think masala chai, samosas and cookies rather than tea and scones) and chatted to the Indian couple at the next table as we watched the sun go down through the smog. We then headed downstairs for a sunset boat trip along the river (‘free’ from the hotel). The boat was full and I was the only westerner with about 30 older Indian couples who were all lovely.
We rode up to the burning ghats and then came back to Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony where offerings are made to the Goddess River Ganges. It was quite a spectacle, well over a hundred boats pushed their way along side the main ghat. there were two ceremonies going on – and the loudspeakers competed with each other. There were hundreds of people in the boats, 99% of them Indian tourists. Chai, puja and flower wallahs jumped from boat to boat selling their wares. The ceremony was amazing – lots of fire and chanting – everyone on my boat sang along for the main bits of the chant.
It was really lovely to be surrounded by super excited devout Hindus – I am pretty pretty sure I was the only atheist on the boat – the offering man came round and got a lot of tips for his blessings. It was very zen and a lovely way to spend the evening – in spite of the bonkers crowds it was lovely. I am remembering why I loved India – it’s mad and calm all at the same time.
I had a quiet dinner in the hotel – aloo chat, roti and malai paneer and then watched a Kathak performance in the lobby. I then headed to my room for my evening’s calls (the time zone works in my favour here)
A morning dunk in the Ganges
I didn’t sleep well – jet lag and the old stone building echoed some annoying guests who were talking outside my room late. I stumbled out of bed around 6, had a coffee, and then headed back to Dashashwamedh to watch pilgrims do puja and dunk themselves in the Ganges. The hassle from the touts was relatively light, the smells largely sweet and the joy and happiness of the pilgrims was magical. The ladies contort themselves trying to get dressed and undressed into clothes to dunk in. The men strip down to fairly skimpy underpants and sometimes do stretches. I sat on the side of the ghat and enjoyed the atmosphere. (I had dunked myself in the holy Ganges last time I was here, and I feel like once will do)
I wandered back for breakfast – chole battura, puris, and kulcha…… I am fully embracing the local food as I think most of the western food they make isn’t’ great. So far I have avoided meat, and the hotel was vegetarian (given the proximity to the holy river), and the food is still delicious.
After breakfast and a shower I drank tea on the terrace until time to depart. I shared a boat with two incredibly impressive high court judges from NZ to the taxi dock and then headed to the airport. It is nice having more money than the last time I backpacked, as getting to Khajuraho back then would have involved a 12 hour train, this time it involved a 55 minute flight in the front row. I was out of the airport 3 minutes after the plane door opened…..
Kama Sutra in Khajuraho
After checking in at the Radisson I went for a stroll and was immediately hounded by several ‘kind’ men on motorbikes who thought it was their ‘duty to give me a lift as a visitor to their country and then I could just pay them a little something for petrol’. They were bloody persistent, so I put my headphones on and sang to myself loudly (and out of tune, as I can’t sing) and they eventually left me alone. I was saving the temples for the morning, so I just wandered around town, checked out some ruins and then had an exceptional Thali and lemon soda at the Badri Seth Marwari Bhoj which was a super busy family restaurant for local tourists. It was the best food I had eaten in India so far, and I rounded it out by buying some barfi, kulfi and rasmalai to take home (super sweet fudge and cottage cheese pudding) and had an early night.
The light was lovely on my main tourist day. After a great breakfast of Chole Battura (puris and chickpea curry) and lots of chai, I wandered up to the Western Group of temples. It was still early so it wasn’t too mad, but I did get 14 offers for a guide or a kama sutra book before i made it to the ticket office. Things have modernised in India, and also probably as a way to reduce theft and corruption, so the tickets had to be bought online. I was lucky I had an Indian mobile, but it did take three goes on different cards before it worked.
The Western Group of Temples
Khajuraho is famous for its erotic stone carvings on their temples. 85 temples were originally built in the area by the Chandela dynasty. The best are in the ticketed Western enclosure and feature lots of heavenly nymphs and heroines and couples and threesomes in erotic (albeit occasionally improbable) poses.
First up the Lakshmana Temple, AD954 which is probably the best preserved of the temples, and had the only carving of a man entertaining himself with a horse (yes it is in the photos). I didn’t notice it at first, but I heard the guide of a large group of local tourists say ‘bestiality’ loudly so I went to take a look. The security guard at this temple tried very hard to show me all the best places to take ‘kama sutra’ pictures, so I put my headphones back in. It was pretty fascinating, and the carvings
Then the Kandariya Mahadev and `Devi Jagadamba temples– the Kandariya had the 872 statues and these were the biggest in the region. The most amusing has a headstand post (yes also in the photos below). It was quite fascinating watching the giggles of the elderly Indian tourists as they looked at the carvings
The last three were the Chitragupta, Parvati and Vishvanath – which had a lovely large statue of Nandi – Shiva’s bull. The light was lovely in the morning to take the photos and when I was back in the area later in the day, there were big crowds so i was glad i was in at 8am.
Outside of the fenced and ticketed enclosure I popped into the Matangasvara Temple (literally 2 metres away from the Lakshmana Temple on the other side of the fence) – but the difference is that this temple is still actively used for prayers and offerings, which was lovely to see. My ticket included a visit to the archaeological museum 1km up the road, so I thought I better get value for money. It was worth a visit as it was nice to see the examples of the statues at eye level versus 2-3m above your head, but photography was not allowed.
After all the walking, I headed back to the Badri Seth restaurant and had an outstanding Masala Dosa and a lemon soda for £1.40 (the dosa was 95p). I was lucky enough to have room at my table in a busy restaurant, so i was joined by the lovely Namrara from Bhopal who was in town for work. I have never met a single Indian woman travelling alone before, so I quizzed her about what that was like. She was lovely, and I was fascinated that she credited improvements in women’s education in India to Infosys who fund women’s engineering studies (we got onto infosys by talking about the fact that I am delighted to have a Hindu Prime Minister – even if I would never vote for the Tories).
Go east and avoid the tuktuk gauntlet
I had an afternoon nap (it was sweltering) and then headed out in the afternoon to check out the best of the Eastern and Southern Group of temples. I ran the gauntlet of helpful taxi and tuktuk drivers outside my hotel and then strolled the 2km to the Duladeo Temple which was small and lovely. I then headed up to the Ghantai temple which was unusually a pillared porch with lovely chain and bell decorations – i didn’t stay long as I was mobbed by some enthusiastic kids pulling on my arms. Then I had to wander through the town dump and some massive bullocks to get to the Javari temple which was lovely, and a short wander further to the Vamana Temple. The highlight at Vamana was the girls on the neighbours roof practising their bollywood moves. These temples were all lovely and uncrowded and worth a visit if you have extra time.
I wandered back to town, and it was too early for a Thali so I stopped at the Raja cafe for a drink. Then I smelled someone’s grilled cheese sandwich, so I ended up with a fresh lime soda and a grilled cheese (not quite the Thali I was planning for dinner, but yummy nonetheless). The prices were probably 2-3 times those at the Badri Seth and you could absolutely tell by the clientele. The patrons at the Raja were all upper class kids from Delhi in jeans drinking espresso (and illicit Kingfisher beer that wasn’t on the menu). I watched the sun set over the temples from the Raja terrace, and I wandered back to the hotel, stopping to pick up some unbelievably good Rabari from the Badri Seth (recommended by Namrara who I bumped into again) and some more barfi and pede. I am definitely not going home thinner.
My plan tomorrow had been to take the train to Bhopal at 1pm (taking 7hours and 20mins). Turns out that my ticket wasn’t exactly confirmed. Also Indian Rail’s website said that the train wasn’t stopping at Khajuraho. Hmmmmmm. I had also managed to get a crappy seat (lowest class) on the 16.30pm train arriving very late in Bhopals not particularly nice station at 11pm as a back up. It didn’t look like that was going to be a fun day. Then I remembered that I was a #midlifebackpacker and that I could throw money at the problem. So I now have a car picking me up at 8.30 am to drive me the 8 hours to Bhopal. Bonus is that I can stop at the Sanchi Stupa on the way – saving me a planned 3 hour round trip the following day and giving me more time in Bhopal. Result! And all for little more than the cost of a taxi from Heathrow to home.
The next blog instalment will include Bhopal, Santi, and the Ellora and Ajanta caves. Until then Namaste
Khajuraho, 4 December, 2022
Hotels – Delhi – Radisson Blu Airport – not recommended as it was pretty grubby. In Bodhgaya – Maya Heritage, clean, friendly, good food, cheap. In Varanasi – Brijrama Palace – probably not worth the price, food not as good as it should have been, but quite the experience. In Khajuraho – Radisson Blu – it was ok, not super clean, breakfast pretty average, but good enough.
Comms – Definitely remember to get an Airtel Sim when you land, just past customs in Arrivals Terminal 3 – 450 rupees for 1.5gb of data per day plus unlimited calls for 30 days. You need to give them your passport. I also had an Airalo esim on my main phone as a back up (as you can buy it before you land). Wifi has been patchy
Payment – change is a nightmare in India. Everyone local solves that by paying with paytm or phonepe – even the chai wallahs (tea sellers) will take a mobile payment for 10 rupees (10 pence). Unfortunately you can’t use any of these without an Indian bank account. Until they let us use foreign cards, keep hold of as many small rupee notes as you can (I suck at this as I always round the bill up to the nearest hundred or more….)