Tag Archives: Travel

20 Reflecting on McLeod Ganj

I had a reasonably good night in my 60rs room, but after breakfast was inclined to look for something a little less rustic. Hard travelling had taken its toll on me, and I was ready for a little creature comfort. I’d rather liked a room with an attached bathroom with a hot water shower. It gets chilly at this altitude. After walking around town and Bagsu and Draramkot, the Green Hotel still looked like a good bet at 250 rs for all that I want, plus a nice view. It ain’t the Taj, but it’ll do for me.

Being here isn’t like being in the rest of the India that I saw. There were few beggars and few touts. There seems to be lots to entice the New Age types – classes of all descriptions, alternative therapies, music, spirituality, nature… There are many beautiful people with clear eyes and bright smiles. There are Bob-Marley-dreadlock-dope-smoking types, mantra-chanting-prayer-wheel-whirling-mala-clicking types, Kishmiris, Tibetans Nepalis, Punjabis, and other Himalayan peoples, new age buddhists, old school hippies, add to that the diverse international and Indian tourists… The whole world does seem to meet here.

And who are the foreigners? Some look like first world rejects – healers, spiritual seekers, yogis, musicians and their hangers-on, those running from themselves and those who are looking for themselves. Young rebels with their belly button rings and dreadlocks denouncing the materialistic world. Here almost everyone is making a statement about who they are or aren’t, usually by some sort of head gear and hairstyle. A lot of the foreign men wear bandanas or scarfs, or are shaved bald, or have topknots or long braids. But alas they are no match for the men of the exotic east. 

An abundance of young foreign women seemed infatuated with the exotic east. The exotic east seem only too happy to oblige. Bare bellied nubile blonds lounge with arms around ear-ringed Tibetan youths with shining, long black hair. They look into those long, sensual eyes set on high cheek bones and hear  sad stories of heroic sojourns across the mountains into freedom. I can see how girls fall hard and fast.  If truth be told, most of those young men were born outside of Tibetan and made no such journey. Disenchanted and unrooted, they seem to be looking for validation and their reason to be. Living in exile must leave a deep scar unable to heal. What does a young man in his prime, with no job, little prospects, awaiting for a first world country to approve his refugee status do with all that restlessness, longing and angst?

Here, unlike in south east Asia, I did not see local young women  flirting with foreign men; no sign of the sarong party girl anywhere. Except for vendors and nuns, women seem kind of rare.  The most gregarious of women seem to be the middle age matrons who man the stalls in the streets. 

Kishmiris come to sell handcrafts, since tourists are not going to Kashmir, Kashmir has come to the tourists. So here buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, new agers, bohemians, monastics, materialists all exist in mutual dependence and relative prosperity. All this is, because His Holiness, the Dalai Lama resides in McLeod Ganj, and is this part of the Himalayas’ biggest draw.

McLeod Ganj probably has more Tibetan culture per square inch than in Tibet itself. The Dalai Lama predicted that Tibetan culture will only exist outside of Tibetan in the decades to come. The Chinese are taking over Lhasa it seems. Tibetans have become the under-class in their own country.

19 Journey of 1000 kilometers

One does not sit in the south pole and winch about the weather…. One does not travel non-aircon sleeper from Varanasi to Chakki Bank and winch about the distance. People who travel with “unreserved” tickets sit on the floor or perch off other’s bunks when they fell asleep.  All in all the train was 5½ late in pulling into Chakki Bank. I thought that wasn’t bad for a journey of over 1100 kilometers.  It cost Rs369 for this trip of about 36 hours. The almost completely Indian men kept to themselves. The women were very kind, and curious, especially the middle-aged aunties. They kept feeding me , and invited me to stay with them.

On arrival in Chakki Bank, Thomas and I managed to find each other on the platform. We shared a 3 hour taxi ride to McLeod Ganj. The 3 other foreign girls who were also going there went to take the bus. They had a ‘closed sisterhood’ thing going and weren’t very friendly. The prospect of another 5 hour bone-rattling bus journey didn’t quite appeal to me. Thomas and I arrived at McLeod Ganj at 8.30pm to find that rooms were scarce. It could be that we took the only 2 rooms to be had that night. I had the Rs 60 (US$1.50) hole-in-the-wall at the Green Hotel. Thomas took the strastospheric Rs500 (US$12.50) room at the …. hotel. Everything is relative.

18 The Virtue of Incense

Varanasi Station. The signboard reads “Ladies Waiting Room for first class, second class and sleeper ACC”. It must have been quite a beautiful room in its time. The station itself is quite a nice structure in the colonial style. The room is half full. It has plastic chairs, and a couple of coffee tables being used by ladies as day beds. 2 other ladies spread an old sari out on the dirty floor, and curl up. Next to them a pair of once white men’s underwear inexplicably spread out on a suitcase. Some one is eating grapes and dropping the peel and stems onto the floor. An elderly lady chews paan. The lovely old tiled fireplace has been sealed. A slight reek wafts from the adjoining toilet. Hanging off the high ceiling are 4 dangerously wobbly fans spinning at alarming speeds. This reminds me fondly of the fan in my borrowed room in Bodhgaya. It had 2 speeds – “ready for take off” and “dead in the water”. An Indian man and a small boy wander in. May be they are lost?

Varanasi has been amazing – teeming, overwhelming, bursting at the seams, yet so much history, culture, spirituality. That river, I can’t really do it justice. It is beyond my competence of expression to describe. To appreciate India, one needs to perceive without prejudice, with fresh eyes free of fear, with more than the physical senses. India is a journey into your psyche. She’s the best guru if you let her be.

A sweeper drags a foul smelling broom around. I begin to see the function of incense. I light one. 

A couple with a small bare-bottomed baby come in. “5 months old”, says the proud father. 

“For your kind attention, train number …. Is now running late…” The only white guy on the platform had asked me for clarification. He had a Germanic accent. On striking up a conversation we find out that we were both going to McLeod Ganj. Thus Thomas and I decided to meet up at the end of the trip, i.e., at Chakki Bank and share a taxi to McLeod Ganj. The train journey of over 1000 kilometers across northern India.

I come back to Ladies Waiting room to see the 5-month old being dangled, over the coffee table, now technically a “public convenience”. I light another stick of incense 

17 Ganga Morning

The river Ganges or Ganga winds 1560 miles from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, supporting nearly half a billion people as she meanders through the great wide plains. The river is revered as a goddess who grants purity and aids the dead towards heaven. It is said that a single drop of Ganges water washes away a lifetime of sin. 

The pock-marked rickshaw wallah picked me up at 5.15 to get to the river. The streets were beginning to wake. Bus loads of tourists pass us. When the rickshaw wallah pulled over, I followed a group of western tourists to the boats. There were many boatmen and not as many tourists so I got away with paying only 50 rupees for an hour’s ride, 50 rupees being the government price. The city is built on the west bank of the river. The east side seems to be only sand banks. At the last moment an Indian chap holding a small stick, which turned out to be his tooth brush jumped in as well. He was going to one of the ghats north of Dasaswmehd. We pass a series of ghats including the main ‘burning’ ghat. “Here burning place, no picture. Fine (something we Singaporeans are familiar with)”. There were piles of wood and a couple of what looked like starter fires but no sign of a funeral. May be it was too early in the morning. The boatman asked if I was married and had children. He also suggested that I should tip him.

As it got brighter, I scrutinized the river but could not see visible signs of pollution, or other large floating objects. I soon forgot the danger of having a half cremated corpse bob up next to my boat. There was some debris (plastic bottles, flowers, slippers, scum) at places along the water’s edge. There were lots of yellow, gold and red flowers from offerings floating around. Little candle and flower offerings bob on the surface. The water at the bathing places also looked reasonable. Still I was not tempted to stick even a finger into what the 2003 edition of the Lonely Planet guide said had no dissolved oxygen and 1.5M faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml. Boats full of souvenirs, light offerings and fish (to be set free?) compete for the tourists’ attention. A band of monkeys invade a couple of buildings and a man on the roof terrace waves a large stick threateningly. The monkeys screech and move on. 

On the banks, saddhus, yogis, mere mortals bathe and meditate. As the sum came up and photography became possible, spectacle of Indian life materialized. I watch a few women expertly manoeuvre their change of saris after their bath. That means working with 2 x 5 metres of fabric. The saddhus adjust their loin-cloths, a piece of fabric of opposite size to the sari. Along the ghats, all sorts of businesses open shop: masseurs, palm readers, hair dressers, child barbers, people who anoint (or decorate) your forehead (these were particularly plentiful), sellers of paan and chai and everything imaginable. They all sit on little platforms; some have large umbrellas, their wares in front of them. Touts bother tourists. Tourists ignore touts; ditto for beggars, newspaper & other vendors. The usual cast of dogs, goats, cows and the odd buffalo add to the melee. The resident population go about their business of bathing and dressing in public, a practice I thought completely contrary to the normal Indian sense of modesty. 

More tourists are around now. I wonder what the locals think about us, gawking and photographing their daily routine. It must be very annoying. A very wet child runs past me up the steps, snapping his wet towel. Thus I was anointed by the holy river. 



In 1985, the government of India launched the Ganga Action Plan, which was devised to clean up the river in selected areas by installing sewage treatment plants and threatening fines and litigation against industries that pollute. Almost 20 years later, the plan has been largely unsuccessful. The Western-style treatment plants simply did not meet the needs of the region. Such treatment facilities are designed for use in countries where the supply of electricity is stable, there’s no season of overwhelming monsoon rains, and the population doesn’t drink directly from the water source. With a dual identity as Hindu priest and civil engineer, the citizen-based Sankrat Mochan Foundation organization’s founder, Veer Bhadra Mishra, has proposed an alternative sewage-treatment plan for Varanasi that is compatible with the climate and conditions of India. The advanced integrated wastewater oxidation pond system would store sewage in a series of ponds and use bacteria and algae to break down waste and purify the water, so it wouldn’t need electricity. According to Mishra’s view, to tell a Hindu that Ganga, goddess and mother, is “polluted” or “dirty” is an insult; it suggests that she is no longer sacred. Rather, the approach must acknowledge that human action, not the holy river herself, is responsible: “We are allowing our mother to be defiled.” This approach has stimulated grassroots involvement in the clean-up effort, and is transforming the work for environmental preservation into a model for cultural and religious preservation as well. – www.Sacredland.org 

16 City of Learning and Burning

Varanasi, the ex-Benares and ex-Kashi is older than history, older than legend, older than mythology, and older than all three put together, so said Mark Twain. It has been a centre for Indian philosophy and learning for millenniums. Besides the river, Varanasi silk brocades are also world famous. No rich and respectable Indian woman would marry without a wedding sari of brocade silk from Varanasi. Varanasi silk is supposed to be the softest silk around, and made from wild silk worm cocoons, vs. the Chinese’s farmed variety. My guide, Dubai “like the country” said Varanasi was a place of learning and of burning. It’s a good place to die. He tries to drive and explain Varanasi and its connection to the Hindu god Shiva. “Shiva smokes ganja, so Shiva worshippers little bit crazy”. The French ladies keep up their chatter and pay absolutely no attention to our Brahmin. So far I’ve heard only 2 people have announced their caste, both Brahmins. This guy bathes in the Ganges everyday before the sunrise and then meditates for 20 minutes (20 minutes is chicken feed, I thought, especially if one is a Brahmin). Only Brahmins and saddhus bathe before sunrise, I guess it’s an elite thing. Brahmins are strict vegetarians, i.e., no eggs, no buffalo milk (only cow milk), No intoxicants, no caffeine, no ganja. Dubai walks around with a pack of herbal tea in his pocket. No regular chai for our Brahmin. He looks like everybody else except for a little lock of longish hair sticking out of the back of his head, a sign of his high caste.

As we make our way into the heavy dust and chaos, with the windows closed, no air-conditioning in hot weather, I learn that it is very big trouble to hit a cow on the street. For penalty, one would have to compensate the family, fast for 10 days, sleep on the floor, and then feed your Brahmin friends a big banquet in atonement. 

Dubai takes us to the little town of Sarnath, the place where the Buddha first started to teach the middle way. There is a ruined monestary, a museum and huge stupa built by the emperor Ashoka, later sacked by the moguls. The significance of the stupa is that it was topped by a statue of 4 lions, which is the symbol of India today. Also in the stupa are some bits and pieces of the buddha’s mortal remains. What is it with humans that we like to have pieces of some one’s corpse close at hand? Communist leaders are embalmed and displayed. Buddhist leaders are cremated and distributed. Catholics bite off the toes of their deceased saints, at least in Goa they did. I can see having the ashes of some one in your family in an urn, but having a bit of ear or teeth or toe of someone else is a bit morbid.

There was also a smallish museum with tons of whole or broken Buddhist and Hindu statues. One looked pretty much like another at this point. We then also saw a Jain temple “near about 200 years old” and then a Tibetan temple “very new one”. Dubai didn’t know that the Tibetan temple was founded by the Kagyu master Trungku Rinpoche, who is tutor to the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu tradition. The shrine room was beautiful and appropriately ornate without being too extravagant. Everything seemed hand painted and hand carved. There was a huge portrait of the Dalai Lama and one of the Karmapa. “That is the ninth Dalai Lama” said Dubai. “That is the fourteenth Dalai Lama”, said I. Dubai was distraught. “I am Brahmin, a holy man, the highest caste”, said he, in case we’ve forgotten. “Now I am feeling very bad, because I tell many people wrong thing. When I am wrong, then everybody is wrong.” He wanted to know which the current incarnation of the Karmapa is. We were then taken to the usual big carpet and sari store.