The lowdown: I follow the ancient Mughal route between their two colonial capitals, Delhi and Agra, but also stop for 2 days in the holy Hindu cities of Mathura and Vrindavan. I get offered hash by some policemen, get invited to a wedding, bump into elephants, and speak to 1000 school children.
Amongst the chaos and stress of navigating cities, finding good food and sleeping well, the long stints on my bicycle were rapidly becoming periods of calm reflection, and I looked forward to them as opportunities to switch off from the constant vigilance of trying (and sometimes failing) to look after myself. Nonetheless, strolling through Old Delhi’s Raj Ghat (a powerfully understated memorial to Gandhi’s cremation) and up past the Red Fort to the Kashmiri Gate as the sun began to fade, the scrum of the dirty streets faded somewhat and I reflected over a cup of chai on the two weeks that had just shot by. What immediately struck me was not the exhaustion or wobbly cycling legs, but just how screwed I would have been without the assistance of incredible Indian hosts. Not only had they all provided delicious local food (which kept me remarkably free from any trace of Delhi belly) and offered warm showers and comfy beds, but they had gone out of their way to make my experience unforgettable: they had insisted on motorbike tours of their cities, talked at length about India past and present, and retuned my bike, all the while refusing any payment. They had made an alien and at times bewildering place feel more homely. Chatting to the Hofflands was particularly eye-opening. The Anglo-Indian community has a long and proud ancestry throughout India, staffing the many convent schools and churches from Darjeeling to the southern tip of the continent. Yet it is only quite recently that they feel increasingly threatened as a community, with the BJP’s Modi government turning a blind eye to acts of violence against churches, and, more frequently, fellow Indians asking ‘no, but where are you actually from’. Andy said, regretfully, that with his family all over the world, he felt like a gypsy, reminding me of Theresa May’s awful speech that ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’.
The next leg of the trip, to Vrindavan, had filled me with nerves for a few days. At about 160km, it was the longest day I had attempted, and crossing into Uttar Pradesh the temperature hit 30 fairly early in the day, and 2 weeks of warnings about people from UP lingered in my mind. Andy Hoffland insisted on giving a very kind escort to Noida, a sprawling city south east of Delhi that is quickly being enveloped by the population explosion, and so together we hit the road at 6.30am, keen to avoid the brunt of the day’s heat. Having said our fond fairwells, I set about tackling the Yamuna Expressway, a mammoth concrete stretch connecting the two great Mughal cities, Delhi and Agra, but one that was completed in its modern form only 4 years ago. Not 1 hour into it, the Expressway Patrol team drove up to me and flagged me down. My first thought was that I would have to bribe them, knowing full well that bicycles were banned on this highway, and that such a transaction was pretty common fare. I was indeed told that I would have to turn off the road, onto the parallel support road, and with that I headed off, but not before they offered me a joint. Hash, grown up north in the Himalayan foothills of Manauli, is very popular here, but it was pretty alarming to be offered it by patrol officers, whose day job was to drive at quite high speeds up what was essentially a motorway. Deciding to politely decline, I tackled the support road, which quickly disintegrated into a sandy dune, unsuitable for all but the hardiest of trucks and altogether impassible for my bike. Hot, dusty and a bit concerned at this new impasse, I chucked my bike over my shoulder and hiked up the small embankment to rejoin the Expressway, where I promptly got back into the rhythm of cycling. Perhaps delayed after finishing that joint, the patrol team approached once more from behind, this time insisting that i wait for another of their vehicles. Unsure as to how much trouble I was now in, my concern at the sandy track now seemed somewhat trivial, but fortunately after sitting by the wayside and scoffing a whole bag of Jelly Babies (the last of my British comfort food), I was cleared to head off unaccompanied. With a dry tailwind behind me, I fairly flew to Vrindavan, stopping once for the now standard dal and chapatti (paying an inordinate ‘tourist tax’ but too hungry to negotiate hard), I checked in at a Hare Krishna hotel that had kindly been arranged by the General Secretary of the Institute of the Blind in Delhi, himself an ISKCON devotee.
Another notable temple was the Govind Dev Temple, which I found despite insistence from a local boy that it was in diametrically the opposite direction. This really was a cool place, but was ferociously guarded by monkeys, whose threatening lingering actually made me feel pretty uncomfortable and I didn’t stay too long. It looks kinda squished, which it is: Aurangzeb, a descendant of Akbar who had built it, truncated it by a few stories do as not to overshadow any mosque.
Vrindavan is a holy city for Hindus, the place where Krishna, one of the central gods in an otherwise polytheistic religion, had grown up, and was therefore especially sacred for followers of ISKCON, which perceives Krishna as the one true god of Hinduism. I was in fact fairly familiar with the workings of ISKCON, having had a lengthy conversation with an Oxford ISKCON devotee a few years ago and another one with an Australian devotee staying in the same hostel in Delhi over 2 weeks ago. In a small town with other 4000 temples, it should be significantly easier to find all the sites I hoped to explore, but their vibrancy and diversity was worth the hunt. I had timed my visit to ISKCON well, as a western-looking devotee began the rhythmic, and slightly hypnotising, Hare Krishna chant whilst sitting cross-legged in a circle in the middle of the temple. Watching people sway as they made their way around the room, and then promptly launching themselves to the floor in supplication to the figure of Krishna, I was reminded of the ‘positive energy’ that I was told to expect from many previous hosts. Somewhat regrettably, the extent of the positive energy for me was an incredulous awe at the intensity of these people’s faith, rather than anything more profound, but the memory of their chanting did stick around in my head as I cycled over the next couple of days, slightly disconcerting and enough to make me turn the volume on my podcasts a few notches.
On to Mathura, where I met Sujoy and his friends, who gave me a whistestop tour of Mathura, before finishing with a delicious aloo bhalla, which has fast become one of my favourite local snacks. One of the more unexpected stops was at Sujoy’s family factory, which produces cheap saris for villagers across Northern India. Not quite sure what to expect, I was blown away by the scale and speed of production, although as Wedding Season now draws to a close, they’ve shortened their 24 hour production hours.
Visiting the beautifully peaceful ghats of Mathura, on the banks on the Yamuna, it was again striking how ambivalent many of the young generation are towards the historical and religious significance of their environment. Indeed, Sujoy and his friends hadn’t visited the main temple in Mathura for months, but when pressed, all would claim to be staunchly Hindu, just without the need for the regular practice of temple worship. At one particular temple, I asked them who the temple was dedicated to. One knew the answer, Dwarkan, but all drew blanks at what he represented. In their defence they pointed out that there are over ’33 crore’ Hindu gods, a stupefying figure that accounts for all the local deities and sects.
My visit here had coincided with the festival celebrating Shiva’s marriage to Parvati, and the hostels, as well as the temples, were therefore rammed. The first hostel stated that we must book online, but were unable to remember the name of the website. If this seemed suspicious, all became clear at the next hostel we tried, which turned me away outright for being a tourist. Here, a complaint from a tourist to the police can land the hostel with a hefty fine, and they were happier with an empty room so as not to run the risk. The next hostel would give me a room, thankfully, but was in what might be described as an ongoing state of construction, with holes in the plasterboard and no electricity. An ongoing state of construction might imply progress, though I suspect that this was as close to the finished article as this hostel was going to get. We got lucky with the next hostel, a reasonably priced room with a working shower. However, after a night staying there, I can understand why hostels fear tourists complaining to the police; it was hands down the worst night sleep I have had on the trip, as the absolute racket generated by all the neighbouring occupants reverberated off the concrete walls and through the empty window panes throughout the night. Confused by the need for many to shower at 3 in the morning, I headed back to Sujoy’s for breakfast, and my mood completely lightened at the sight of the delicious breakfast snack of jalebi, a sugary lattice doughnut that I ate way too much of, accompanied by cornflakes with the mandatory hot milk.
Setting off for the short trip to Agra, I anticipated a fairly gentle ride along the Yamuna in order to arrive in the early evening for some sight seeing – the most illustrious Mughal emperor, Akbar, built mausoleums for him and his Christian wife Miriam directly on the road from Mathura – but was surprised to see my route pass within 50m of a famous elephant sanctuary. Deciding to head off the beaten path for a bone-shatteringly bumpy detour off-road to the sanctuary, I was rewarded by a mesmerising hour hearing about the elephants and the awful captivity to which they are subjected before being saved. Unlike the dancing bear trade, which this sanctuary successfully eradicated through its efforts from 2002-2009, the elephant trade is altogether much harder to overcome. Bound by tradition, religion (Hindus see elephants as gods, and are therefore very protective of them, though why they would treat their gods so cruelly is initially difficult to understand) and law (there are 3500 legal permits for owning an elephant), these conservative forces are all underpinned essentially by human greed, deploying Hinduism, tradition and the law to suit the owners. Please do check out http://wildlifesos.org/ as I found their work very inspiring.
Without exception, people are rude about Agra, as a dirty and chaotic city overflowing with touts. My first impression was somewhat different. Arriving at Akbar’s tomb, the city starts pleasantly enough (excusing the standard urban sprawl that surrounds all Indian cities), and I made my way south to Agra Cantonment, where I would stay with Father Dennis. My impressions soured a bit after half an hour heading through the city, not in response to the city itself but the behaviour of its people. One driver ploughed into the side of my pannier while I was waiting at a set of lights (no damage done, but I did some good British swearing which felt great), and spitting is an absolute pandemic here, staining the road and pavement with an unappealing red tar. Nonetheless, I arrived in good time, and met my new hosts, who immediately invited me not only to speak at the school assembly the following day but also to attend a wedding of two of the teachers the following evening. If the first was nerve wracking, I have nothing but excitement for the wedding, although I’m told they’re slightly more restrained occasions than their Punjabi counterparts. We will see!
PSA: ‘Pretentious Waffle’
I’m now staying with a friend of the Hofflands, Father Dennis, in Agra at St Clare’s Senior Secondary School, and was struck by his unveiled warnings about the growth of the Muslim community. He is a very kind and welcoming man, and his words came not from a direct distrust of Muslims or Islam, but a concern about India’s inescapable problem of ‘communalism’. During the Independence movement, both Gandhi and Nehru acknowledged the potential for the ‘spectre of communalism’, whereby communities live in isolation from one another, and actively oppose integration. The problem persists today. Indian Muslims are the biggest minority group in the world, and politicians competing in the ongoing state elections of Uttar Pradesh continue to appeal to religious blocs through both rhetoric and policy, despite steps to condemn such practices as divisive. The BSP court the Muslim vote, whilst Modi risks instigating communal unease by demanding the presence of (Hindu) cremation grounds in every village with a (Muslim) burial ground. The latter might seem to actively counter communalism by encouraging mixed communities, but the rhetoric is intentionally inflammatory. Meanwhile, a senior member of the BJP uses a speech at the LSE in London to dismiss ongoing Delhi university protests about Free Speech as contrary to the sovereignty of the nation. If India feels like it is lurching back towards a more divided and complicated society, then that’s most likely because it is doing precisely that.
This supports my growing theory, which I have aired to most of my hosts (who, by and large, agree quite strongly) that Indian loyalties – intensely strong towards their family and close community, appreciable towards the nation – do not extend to the more Western model of societal loyalty. The disdain for traffic rules, the endemic littering and spitting, the intolerance between religious groups, the rampant corruption (the BJP are not corrupt at all, I’m told, ‘if you look at it relatively’): to me, this all supports the notion that behavioural codes are defined not by a loyalty to a society beyond the immediate confines of community, but by an intense determination to better one’s own. Say what you want about the London or New York about how unfriendly everyone is, but I’d wager a New Yorker holds greater loyalty to the invisible community of Western society than a typical Delhi-wallah to Indian society. Maybe I’m wrong.