Up at the crack of dawn to see the sun rise at one of the most auspicious sites for Hindus in the world: sangam, or Confluence. It’s where not two but three rivers meet, with the mythical saraswati meeting both the Ganges and the Yamuna. Four years ago, my sleeper train had whistled past Allahabad during the Kumb Mela on the way to Rajasthan; the memory of tents stretching further than the eye could see has proved unforgettable, and it was surreal to stand on the banks where every 7 years a billion people congregate. There was still a steady buzz of regular pilgrims and the power of the Mela lingers. Overlooking this, one of Akbar’s great forts, sadly closed to the public and lacking the love that its historical importance merits.
Back on the GTR, and I trundled pretty contentedly east towards Varanasi, veering off the highway to stay for lunch with a friend of my Allahabad host, in Mirzapur. Mirzapur is a centre of the carpet weaving cottage industry and my lunch companion not only ran the local school but took an active role in his family’s huge carpet export business – Europe makes up an increasing portion of their trade and they found Brexit similarly unfathomable. Can someone please forward my blog on to Team Brexit in Downing Street? This morning of steady progress was devastatingly interrupted by the most pathetic excuse for a road so far: the potholes/craters were farcical, and the constant rattling did for my camera handlebar mount, which snapped into pieces during the ordeal. The bike, miraculously, was otherwise unscathed. I arrived for a delicious lunch, incidentally in front of the TV showing newly released exit polls which suggested a landslide win for the BJP (which was to be confirmed in the results a few days later). Echoing an almost unanimous message (although it must be noted I have been staying exclusively with Hindu men), my host asserted that the BJP’s return to UP state politics is good news for business and development (the incipient social tension complications, it appears, will be dealt with later, if at all).
Still with 70km to complete that afternoon, I got going as the midday heat receded slightly, plugging in to my comforting playlist of podcasts and music (made it back to the 2005 archives of Desert Island Discs). Some scientist might be able to explain why the light vanishes so quickly in the evening – something to do with being near the equator? Anyway, this time I got properly caught out after dark, so to speak, and found myself precariously weaving out of a gigantic queue of trucks that stretched for over 10km on the approach to Varanasi in the dying light with my high-vis and lights doing overtime to ward off maniac motorcyclists. (The best way for parents to hear about these things are a week later, via the means of a blog post).
And so, eventually, to Varanasi. My encounter with Holi in Allahabad would soon fade into insignificance compared to the onslaught of Varanasi during Holi. I had a couple of days to catch up on sleep and recover, or so I thought. Wrong – Holi builds in a crescendo towards the 13th, and then reverberates like an almighty orchestra for days after (even on the 17th, my waiter at a restaurant was apologising because the chef hadn’t bothered to turn up, apparently citing continued Holi celebrations). Varanasi is one of those inimitable places – no Indian city comes close to capturing its idiosyncrasies, in part perhaps because it is the oldest continually lived in city in the world. As a result, many tourists do visit, bringing the (very welcome) trappings of proper coffee shops etc.
Holi arrived and despite warnings from my hostel, I braved the bhang-fuelled carnage of the streets, armed with my camera and a bit of cash. I immediately turned back to the hostel to deposit both items before returning to the fray – the warring masses, engulfing one another with paint, tar, water and bhang lassi whilst ripping the clothes off each other, found solo westerners particularly fun target practice. It was quite an experience, but I can’t honestly say I would be desperate to do it again.
Because the city itself is so overpowering in its allure, very few make the 10km trek north to Sarnath, one of the 4 most sacred sites to Buddhists. At this point, it might be worth reflecting on my observation, at the outset of this trip, that the Grand Trunk Road represents an absolutely unrivalled concentration of spiritual significance – maybe only Jerusalem can contest the crown of religious cohabitation that it proudly wears. Sarnath was not deserted though – far from it: thousands of Buddhist pilgrims, many from Japan, sat in silent contemplation around a magnificent stupa. To my naive surprise, even Buddhists try and rip you off but I still enjoyed the serenity of what literally translates as Deer Park.
Up at the crack of dawn to head on to Sasaram, where the architect of my suffering lay in wait. Read that again. Most fortunately, Sheh Shah Suri has been dead for nearly 500 years, but before being interred in this magnificent tomb, he had the outstanding strategic and administrative brilliance to construct the Grand Trunk Road. Or, in its pre-British incarnation, The North Road, linking the great imperial powers of the South Asian 16th century. This city represented another equally significant personal milestone for me: the first stop in Bihar, having been in the previous state UP for nearly 3 weeks. Depending on who you listen to, Bihar is either the Wild West of India or ‘worse than that’. Tales of roaming dacoits (bandits) haggling travellers and locals alike, guerrilla warfare with Maoist insurgents, all paints a rather negative picture. Certainly they are not to be taken lightly, and every effort must be taken to get to the next city well before dark, but thus far my experience has been of astounding hospitality – if anything, the most generous people I’ve encountered. Chai is always free on the roadside (despite my protestations), dhabas range from politely-run simple sheds to rather fantastic airy and shady oases with great trees and cool lassi. My Bodhgaya charity-run hostel operates on a donation-only basis, and is still better than many of the hovels I’d encountered previously. There’s still 200km for Bihar to ruin this first impression but it made a damn good start.
Before the sanctuary of Bodhgaya (Sarnath was in the top 4 for Buddhists, but Bodhgaya rules supreme), I had the inconvenient fact of 140km to tackle. Breaking this up, I had the immense pleasure of staying with a German family in a newly established engineering polytechnic university. Funded, and driven on, by the donations and goodwill of Christians, what they are trying to do in Bihar is nothing short of transformational: changing the attitudes of society to value education as a means for community development. The same values underpin their work in two villages I visited with a German group whose missionary tour happened to coincide with my stay (I was informed that this coincidence ‘must be God’s work’). The missionaries had built a church in the first village, on land donated by the father of a boy whose leg paralysis had been miraculously cured; just outside the church, villagers squatted and watched this group of westerners meander through the lane, and I was told that the lower castes here eat rats. In the second village we visited, the charity is using education to combat the human trafficking trade – this part of Bihar is notorious for the provision of young ‘dancing girls’, who are sent all over India – some just to Calcutta but many as far as Mumbai. By educating the community as well as the children, change is slowly happening, but my guide feared these things take 15 years to fully set roots. Given that they regularly face local conservative opposition (parents who actively want their children taken by the traffickers), you can only imagine the scale of the problem.
Alarmed, but invigorated by the fascinating insight into Bihari village life, I pushed on on to Bodhgaya. Here, the Buddha took himself away to nearby caves where he eventually conceptualised the Middle Way, before returning to preach it as his first sermon. Here, I felt two strong competing tensions – the undeniable peace and tranquility afforded by visiting the Mahabodhi Temple at 6 in the morning with thousands of other Hindus and Buddhists, set against frustration at the now really grating cacophony of horns, barks, yells and pollution that continually mars all booming towns. The balance was tipped unmistakably towards frustration when, on returning to my locked bike after the morning meditation, someone clearly attempted to forcibly remove it, denting the front derailleur severely. Beyond my DIY capabilities, my heart jumped in panic as a local mechanic unveiled a hammer, which he thankfully applied to my bike with quite measured taps. The derailleur is of course buggered, but at least the chain can move freely, meaning I should get to Calcutta (and therefore the UK) without too much difficulty.
This means I am now encountering the last leg of this expedition, with about 500km to go. As a result, views are crystallising about India in general, and what is most striking from recent days is the acclaimed multiculturalism of Indian society. It is true that Muslim calls to prayer echo out over Bodhgaya while Hindus and Buddhists pray fervently side by side (themselves in highly contrasting styles). But it is a mistake to see this ‘unity in diversity’ as a replication of Western ideas of multiculturalism. Friendships only rarely transcend religious boundaries and the coexistence seems to me predicated on an uneasy and silent disregard for one another. I’ve been thinking a lot about what the West can learn from India (lots, is the answer) but not in this case: the intricately interwoven religious communities do not, I think, provide much of an example for Western replication. For one, they are historically generated, rather than imposed rather suddenly through the waves of immigration that the West has recently experienced. With the rise of the BJP, and the continued threat of relations with Pakistan, I’m cautious, and fascinated, about how India’s famed multiculturalism will respond.