20/20 World Cup Final

This evening was the final of the T20 World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka.

I’d been invited by the students to watch the game in JBIH ( the boarding house for Grades 6 – 8.) The biggest surprise was that they had been told they had to watch the match without talking!! After dinner I moved to the senior boys’ boarding house to do my evening supervision duty – which involved watching the end of the match.

The thing I was most impressed with this evening was at the beginning of the match every student stood, without being told to, for the national anthem and even sang along.

The thing that most surprised me was that when I arrived on the Grade 10 floor for duty the TV was showing the English Premier League – in India, surrounded by Indian students; they were more interested in watching Liverpool play than their own country compete in the final of a world cup!!! I decided very quickly that I was going to do my duty on the floor below where the cricket was on TV.

Probably the least surprising thing was that the cable channel stopped working for ten minutes mid way through the match.

Hampi – Day 2

We decided to have another early start (although not quite as early as Saturday’s) as there was still a lot we wanted to do.

We were back in Hampi by 8:45 and mad our way back to Virupaksha temple to meet our guide for the morning.

Hampi is divided into two key areas – the temple area and the royal area. We began with a tour of the Virupaksha temple and our guide pointed out a rather explicit carving from the Karma Sutra on the corner of the tower. Apparently there are such carvings in every Hindu temple in order to distract the evil eye so that everything else in the temple can remain pure. He also pointed out the metal girders that support the entrance through the main tower. These date from when Hampi was rediscovered by the British in 1888 and if you look carefully you can see the words ‘Middlesborough, England’ stamped onto them. The final feature of the temple that stands out is the statue of the three headed cow -  the only one of its kind in India. It represents the ‘vehicle’ of Shiva. The three heads represent that Shiva is part of the Hindu trinity along with Brahma and Vishnu.

We then collected our bicycles and set of in the already 30° heat and as soon as we met our first uphill stretch got off and pushed! At the top of the short hill was a temple dedicated to Ganesha housing one of the largest statues of him in India. The statue was hewn from a boulder and the temple constructed around it, the pillars supporting the porch of the temple depicting images of the various incarnations of the Hindu trinity as well as the obligatory Karma Sutra images. The statue was completed enclosed by the temple and reserved purely for use by the royal family.

A short way on and we saw another giant statue of Ganesha, this time in an open sided temple for public use.

Our next stop was the Krishna temple which was adorned with many carvings. The Hindu tradition is that you wash before entering a temple, but if this is not possible there is often flowing water across the temple’s entrance so that you wash your feet as you enter. At the Krishna temple there is a carving of the Goddess Ganga on the left of the entrance and the Goddess Saraswati on the right – these goddesses represent the River Ganges and the River Sarasvati, thus by walking between them one symbolically washes one’s feet. Inside are yet more carvings from the Karma Sutra as well a balustrade representing seven animals in one.

From here, we made our way to the Lakshmi Narasimha temple – home to Hampi’s largest statue. It is of one of the incarnations of Vishnu (half man, half lion,) and is surrounded by monkeys. Next to it is a small temple which houses a Hindu fertility symbol.

The final stop on our tour of the sacred centre was at the underground temple, which is another royal temple that is still being excavated.

Our final stop was the royal centre of Hampi. The Queen’s bath was a palace built over a pool (now only the pool remains) in which the Queen and her ladies could swim and cool down. The Lotus Palace, was another palace in the ladies’ area (guarded by watch towers that were manned by eunuchs.) It had a series of pipes running through the roof that created an early air conditioning system. The final stop in the royal quarter was the elephant stables – home to the King’s elephants. Afterwards we stopped for a drink and I got a phone call from the car hire company asking when we would be returning the car. I’d booked it until 11pm but they wanted it back t 4pm, after a long and heated ‘discussion they agreed on 8pm. We cycled back to our starting point and, since it was downhill most of the way, had to deal with our bikes’ main fault – a complete lack of brakes!!

Having returned the bikes we set of on another entertaining drive to get back home. We saw more crashed lorries, ridiculous overtaking (a lorry overtaking another lorry, uphill at a maximum speed of 20 kph!) and possibly the worst bit of driving I’ve seen anywhere in the world. A driver, who was clearly running low on fuel overshot the exit on the highway for the petrol station. He stopped in the middle lane before deciding to move forwards and exit the highway via the entrance ramp. Fortunately the motorway was empty at the time, unfortunately the driver in question was Tom and caused me to fear ever so slightly for my life!!!

After we’d pulled of the final stretch of highway we had to negotiate our way through the villages back to Whitefield. Tom was driving again as we met with a major religious festival that involved the very narrow streets being completely blocked with people, vehicles and animals.

Hampi – Day 1

One of the places that I’ve really wanted to visit since I’ve been in India is Hampi, so this weekend Tom and I hired a car a set off on a road trip. The main downside is that Hampi is a 405km and seven hour drive away and, because of boarding duty on a Friday night, we couldn’t leave until Saturday morning. That meant that our time was very limited.

So, on Saturday we drove out of school as quietly as we could at 3:30am and started the long trip to Hampi. Apart from a couple of easily corrected wrong turns we had a very good journey and both quickly got into the Indian style of driving, particularly during the final 140km stretch. This was along a two lane road which was heaving with lorries. After a while neither of us thought anything about pulling out from behind a lorry and overtaking two or three at a time, whilst facing an oncoming truck, before pulling back in.

Eventually we reached Hospet, where our hotel was, and checked in. Both of us were surprised at the quality of the hotel – it was the best that either of us had stayed in whilst travelling in India! We had  a quick lunch and set out on the short drive to Hampi itself.

Once there we made our way to the Virupaksha temple where, according to Hindu mythology, Shiva opened his third eye in order to kill a demon. While there we visited the Government Tourist Office and arranged a bicycle tour of the religious and royal areas of Hampi for the next day.

From the temple we made our way to the river to wait for a boat to take us across. After all 23 passengers had boarded the very small boat we set of on the short crossing. It says a lot that one guy who decided to swim the river, made it to the other side before us! Once on the other side we set off to the Hanuman temple (also know as the monkey temple), where it is believed that the monkey god Lord Hanuman was born.

On the way there we asked directions and found out it was 5km away, also there were no rickshaws or taxis until the main road (1.5km away.) The lady we asked offered to call her son who would be able to rent some scooters to us at cost of Rs. 150 for the bike plus another Rs. 100 for a 1.5l of fuel. It took him five minutes to get there and after a 30 second introduction as to how the scooter worked and a two minute test drive up and down a patch of dirt, we were on our way. It was the first time either of us had ridden anything with two wheels other than a push bike!

After the 570 step climb, all of which were steep and uneven, we arrived at the small whitewashed temple and found no monkeys at the top. A walk across the boulder strewn mountain top led us to some amazing views over the valley. As we were walking we heard chanting drifting through the air, eventually we discovered a small cave with a group of priests in prayer. It really was a magical moment – listening to the eerily haunting sound of Hindu prayer chanting whilst enjoying the view below.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and made our way back down the hill to ride on the the Laxshmi Temple down the road. On our way down we noticed the monkeys gathering above us. At the bottom we sat down for a drink and realised how relaxed the monkeys were around people. One was hand fed by the owner of the café and another was sitting on a parked bicycle.

When we got back to the river crossing, we had a longer than expected wait as the boat engine would not start. 20 minutes later we were underway and soon back in our air conditioned car on the way to our hotel, a beer (or two) and the pool.

Holi

Today is the Hindu festival of Holi. Also known as the Festival of Colour, it is a celebration of the beginning of spring as well as the triumph of good over evil. As today was a work day we were invited to celebrate yesterday.

Following brunch at the Novotel we headed back to school to change before going to a Holi party hosted by one of the staff (and off campus.)

Walking down the drive we were greeted with a cry of “new people” before being covered in coloured powder and bucket loads of water!! The rest of the afternoon was spent with a few drinks along with several more buckets of water and many handfuls of coloured powder.

After a very long shower (and scouring my arms and face enough to remove several layers of skin) plus a repeated assault this morning I managed to remove most of the colour – except the blue through one side of my hair and the pink at the back of my head. Needless to say it raised a few eyebrows today at work!

Agra – 19th Feb

On our final morning in Agra we decided to do things the easy way by hiring an auto-rickshaw for the morning. Their starting price was 1200 rupees which we eventually got down to a much fairer 600 rupees. Just as we were about to set off a young lad jumped in the front of the rickshaw with the driver and joined us for the morning. Our first stop was the tomb of Akbar, one of the Mughal emperors.

This was followed by a visit to the Rambagh Gardens, the oldest Mughal gardens in India dating from 1528. When we pulled up outside the young lad who had joined us jumped out and asked if he could come in with us. Since it only cost 5 rupees for an Indian to visit we happily paid for him. As we walked through the gates he introduced himself as Amun and told us that he often accompanied our driver when he had English speaking tourists as the driver couldn’t speak very much English but he could. As we walked through the gardens we asked Amun where he had learnt English and he told us it was taught at school. However, he couldn’t go to school all the time as it cost 230 rupees a week and his family didn’t always have the money, hence he worked when he had to by selling souvenirs to tourists and a little bit of money came from assisting the driver.

Next on our tour was Chini ka Rauza, the tomb of Shah Jahan’s Prime Minister.

Our final stop of the morning was I’timād-Ud-Daulah’s tomb, locally known as ‘Baby Taj.’   Again Amun joined us and gave us a tour of the site at the same time telling us more about his schooling and home life. As James and I were leaving the Baby Taj we had a quick discussion about Amun and realised that we had both had the same thought. We gave him 1000 rupees, the equivalent of £10 to us, but to him the equivalent of a month at school. His eyes lit up and he pushed the money deep into his pocket as we told him that the money was just for him to go to school and nothing else.

When we arrived back at the hotel we went for a walk around the area surrounding the Taj Mahal. We walked through several very poor looking villages, made all the more shocking as they were all in the shadow of the Taj. As we approached the fourth village we were warned by apassing local that we shouldn’t go any further. We thanked him and carried on until we received the same message from another local 30seconds later. It was at that point that we decided to heed the advice and turned back to the hotel.

That evening we arranged with our driver from earlier in the day to take us to the railway station. As we got in the rickshaw Amun ran over and joined us again. On the way to the station Amun leaned over the front seat and gave us both two keyrings, the souvenirs he sells at tourist locations, telling us that they were a gift from him to say thank you.

Agra – 18th Feb

We had an early start today as we wanted to get to the Taj Mahal before the crowds arrived.

At 7am we were at the ticket counter handing over 750 rupees each (the equivalent of £7.50.) Not a huge amount to see one of the most famous sights in the world but the price for Indians was only 100 rupees!

For our money we received a ticket, a bottle of water, shoe covers and a golf buggy ride to the gate of the Taj. With no queue whatsoever we went straight to security and were searched more thoroughly than at most airports!

On either side of the Taj Mahal itself are two identical mosques facing inwards. Only one of them is an actual mosque. The other, which faces east not west, is an almost identical copy of the actual mosque – built to maintain the total symmetry of the entire site.

There really isn’t a lot to say about the Taj Mahal except that the grounds are beautiful and the Taj itself is magnificent.

After the Taj Mahal we took an auto-rickshaw to Agra Fort, a huge sprawling Mughal fort from which the Koh-I-Noor was plundered in the 1700′s.

When we left Agra Fort we fought off the rickshaw drivers and headed towards the old town of Agra to find a local restaurant that had been recommended in the Rough Guide. A lot of people had told me that the Taj Mahal was beautiful (which it was) but that Agra itself was a dump. From what I had seen of Agra I could not understand what they meant. Then we walked past a tent village and ended up in the old town and I realised exactly what they were talking about!

The bazaar area was narrow and crowded but eventually we found the restaurant that we were looking for. It was small and very basic, there was only one choice on the menu – thalis. This consisted of a metal plate with pickles, dips and two types of curry served with puri (an Indian puffed flat bread) and tasted fantastic The plate kept being topped up until you were full and the grand total, including tea and a bottle of water was 160 rupees (£1.60) between us!!

After lunch we went for another walk through the bazaar and to the local mosque and were given a brief tour by an elderly man who, of course, finished by demanding a tip!

After the mosque we carried on through the streets of the old town. The further we went the more we travelled from the normal tourist paths and the more notice people started to take of us. After an hour or so we turned towards the main roads and flagged down a rickshaw to go back to the hotel.

That evening we went for dinner at another very small local restaurant that we had seen the previous evening just opposite the Taj. As we got closer we noticed that it looked closed until we got beckoned through a small shop into a courtyard and shown upstairs to the seating area. It was a strange place, practically caged in, and decorated with very intense, flashing, coloured lights. We ordered two beers and were also offered the hookah pipe menu, with the added offer of a ‘special’ hookah – which we turned down, as we did with the ‘special’ cigarettes that were offered.

We decided to finish our beers and get out quickly, returning to the same restaurant that we had been to the previous evening.

Trip to Agra – 17th Feb

That afternoon we collected our things from the Hotel Tourist and rushed to New Delhi station.

Despite having booked our tickets a fortnight in advance, we almost fell foul of one of the many oddities of Indian Railways. The money had been taken from James’ account, however the text message notification we received earlier in the day told us that one ticket was confirmed but the other was marked as ‘WL’ meaning wait-listed.

We only found out what this really meant when we checked the seating allocation pasted on the side of the train and saw that James was listed but I was not. We raced to the enquiries counter and were finally told to board the train anyway and a seat would be found for me somewhere.

We made it on to the train with minutes to spare and both settled in to the cabin that James was supposed to be in. Since no-one else boarded before we departed we made ourselves at home in the most comfortable railway carriage I have been in. It was like something from the 1940′s, with two bench like leather seats facing each other, plug sockets, individual lights and tables and above the seats they had pull down beds complete with blankets and pillows. It made for a very relaxing 3 hours!

When we left Agra station we were bombarded by taxi drivers but pushed through to the pre-paid taxi booth. Finally we got a taxi and made our way to the Hotel Taj Plaza which was on the same road as the Taj Mahal and had amazing views of the Taj from both the rooftop bar and from our bedroom window.

 

Delhi – 17th Feb

First stop this morning was the Jama Masjid – Old Delhi mosque. It is the largest mosque in India and can accommodate 25,000 worshippers.

After paying a ‘camera fee’ of 300 rupees each and depositing our shoes we were free to wander around. The mosque houses a shrine that contains a hair of Muhammad’s beard, his sandals and also his footprint, which is miraculously preserved in a slab of marble.

A further charge of 100 rupees allowed us to climb the minaret, giving amazing views over Old Delhi. Our guide was very knowledgeable and even took photos for us as we went. On our way out we thanked him and tipped him generously, to which he asked for a larger tip!

Leaving the mosque we made our way to the nearest metro station. Not sure what to expect I was very surprised to see something that very much resembled the London Underground – even down to the same flooring and ticket booths. The main difference here was that in Delhi the metro stations and platforms were clean and the trains were not overcrowded!!

Getting out at the ‘Secretariat’ station we walked a short distance to the government area. As we walked towards parliament we were stopped at a military check point and asked for our ‘I-cards’ (identity cards for government employees.) Obviously we didn’t have these and were sent away. Three paces later another soldier asked where we were going, after explaining that we didn’t have I-cards he tutted and waved us through the cordon. After looking at the parliament building, the two grand secretariat buildings and seeing a political press conference taking place outside we walked up to another military security cordon which stopped us from approaching the Presidential Palace. After being referred to a senior officer we were again waved through the cordon and allowed in to the political centre of India. The Presidential Palace had been designed and built by the British as the official residence of the Viceroy.

A short walk from the Presidential Palace took us to the Gate of India. Modelled on the Arc de Triomphe, it commemorates 70,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War I and is inscribed with the names of a further 13,500 British and Indian soldiers who died during the Afghan War of 1919.

Our final stop in Delhi was at Humayun’s tomb, another of Delhi’s iconic sites.

Delhi – 16th Feb – continued

We decided to walk back to the hotel through Chandi Chowk (the old town’s main bazaar.) It was unlike anything I had seen before! People were packed everywhere, sharing the road with passing vehicles and the noise was unbelievable. After a short walk we decided to get a lift home and flagged down a passing cycle-rickshaw. Now I thought that auto rickshaws were uncomfortable but they are nothing compared to cycle version where you feel every single bump in the road and don’t have the luxury of a horn to let other road users know that you are there. The other slightly disconcerting thing was that our driver was well into his 60s and I was convinced that the effort of pedalling uphill, whilst pulling not only the rickshaw but two people, would be enough to finish him off. Eventually we got back to Qutab Road however we were dropped at the far end and still had a kilometre to walk!

That evening we went for dinner at a revolving restaurant with brilliant views of New Delhi as well as great curries.

Delhi – 16th Feb

The next morning we set off early and made our way to the cluster of museums that explore the early years of India’s independence. We started by visiting the house of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.

His very large house has been turned into a museum that explores India throughout its journey to independence in a lot of detail.

From Nehru’s house we walked to the house of Indira Ghandi (no relation to Mahatma Ghandi) who was Prime Minister between 1966 – 1977 and again from 1980 – 1984. Having walked through her house and seen some excellent displays we walked out into the gardens and followed the last route she had taken before she was assassinated in 1984, by two of her bodyguards, as she was on her way to an interview with the BBC. The last few metres of her walk are covered in crystal glass with the spot where she was shot down marked by clear glass.

There was also a section of the house that was devoted to the story of her son, Rajiv Ghandi who succeeded her as Prime Minister from 1984 to 1989 before his own assassination at a political rally in 1989.

From here we moved to the house where Mahatma Ghandi spent his last 144 days. Along with another fascinating exhibition the most powerful part was following the route that Ghandi took from the very bare, simple room where he spent his time, through the garden to the prayer ground where he was assassinated. The route is marked by raised footprints and the actual spot by a simple stone column.

Following a very quick lunch we too a rickshaw to one of Delhi’s most iconic places – the Red Fort, which was built between 1639 and 1648 and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan.