From Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, we took an express train to Jhansi en route to the incredible medieval Orccha fort complex that houses a number of palaces and temples. From there it was on to Khajuraho, an ancient city in the Madhya Pradesh region of northern India.
It was an oasis of calm following a rather long coach journey on very bad roads but totally worth it to see the remarkable temples which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its claim to fame is that the temple walls feature erotic rock carvings, known as the Kama Sutra. Our local guide had a wonderful sense of humour and enjoyed pointing out the racier ones and explaining the background to some of the sculptures! I decided not to give you any close-ups as I do not want to offend anyone!
We stayed in a rather nice hotel here (part of the international Ramada group) with a big swimming pool, and where many of us indulged in massages. We also enjoyed a pleasant lunch and then dinner later on at the Raja rooftop restaurant.
If the road to Khajuraho was bad, the one to Varanasi was apparently so appalling that an internal flight was deemed the most appropriate mode of transport for the next leg of our trip.
Regarded as the spiritual capital of India, the city is crazy, with Hindu pilgrims making their way from all over India to the Ganges to bathe in its holy waters (below)
and to perform cremations and funeral rites throughout the day (and night) in the ghats at the riverside (below).
We had two fascinating trips on the Ganges, firstly at daybreak (including a dead cow floating by) and later at dusk, and saw the city at its craziest. Opinion was divided on Varanasi although I loved it and found it fascinating (particularly the ritual of the Aarti ceremony, performed every evening to respect the goddess Ganga, see below), whereas others found it overwhelming. Some of our party had succumbed to the dreaded Delhi Belly, so that possibly coloured their experience.
It is true that you see far more beggars here and the poverty can be distressing, while the suffocating crowds of people on the way to the waterfront in the evening made the journey a bit more difficult. Nobody got lost though. An enterprising young local decided to adopt us and kept shepherding us along after our guide. We were perfectly alright, but rewarded him anyway for his efforts.
An overnight train trip brought us to our final destination. Trains are seldom on time in India and ours had been on the go for two days and one night and we were joining it on the second night of its journey. So, yes it was not on time; in fact, it was several hours late. The station was packed, people were asleep anywhere they could find a patch and seats were few and far between.
We talked to one couple who had been waiting 10 hours and as there theirs was now not arriving until the following day, decided to sleep elsewhere. We took their seats, but soon discovered that we were target practice for a parade of pigeons on the ledge overhead. We passed some of the time singing Irish songs, much to the amusement of our fellow travellers.
Now the train journey deserves a post all on its own. If you dislike being in close proximity to other people, I suggest you fly. Because we were joining the train near the end of its journey, we had to take beds vacated by others, (you did get clean sheets) which meant we were split up. Some of us were in what was termed ‘first class’ with two-tiered berths. But it was a lot better than the far more crowded three-tier berths and therefore far less comfortable ‘second class’. It has to be said that some of them were not happy.
Getting into the top bunk on the corridor (above) in two-tier ‘heaven’ was a struggle, only successful because the gallant William Wallace (one of our group of six) gave me a helping hand. We discovered rungs to step up on the following day! Surprisingly, I slept quite well and the night passed without incident; yes, there was snoring and strange noises, and I did wish I had some earplugs, which would have drowned out some of the sounds.
Next day, as we sat on our bunks, we made friends with our fellow travellers and had really interesting conversations about India. Among the people we met were a dress designer, a boutique owner and a family whose son hoped to study medicine in Dublin. At every station, enterprising food and drink hawkers climbed on board to peddle their wares and it was lovely to stretch your legs without going too far from the train. I won’t put a pic of the toilet facilities here but if you are on Instagram and go to my India highlights, you can see it.
KOLKATA…is not that old. Founded by The East Indian Tea Company, it was India’s capital under the British Raj from 1773 to 1911. This cultural city was totally different and far more westernised – for example, we saw no cows roaming the streets here – and the effects of colonisation are still very much in evidence. The highlights here included a visit to the vibrant Flower Market near the famous Howrah Bridge (below).
St John’s Anglican Church has a memorial to the infamous event known as The Black Hole of Calcutta incident where the local nawab (ruler) took over the city and locked 143 British men and women in a room…only 20 survived.
It was a little surprising and rather shocking to see hand-pulled rickshaws still in use in certain areas, a legacy of British rule, although apparently there are plans to replace them with battery-operated modern vehicles.
The imposing Victoria Memorial (above) built by the British in the early 20th century seems out of place and the statue of a grumpy Queen Victoria dominates the front entrance. A perfect example of British and Mughal architecture, it is a homage to the British Raj empire and now houses a museum (below). Beautiful gardens with lakes and water features surround it, and it was filled with visitors and locals enjoying themselves the day we were there.
What intrigued me was the difference in culture between one area and the next, and Kolkata is so modern in contrast to the others. As in the other cities we visited, there is poverty and a burgeoning middle class, but here you will see far more of a western influence. Modern shopping centres, with western companies like Starbucks (I admit I did succumb to a few coffees, though at home I would not cross the threshold) and Marks & Spencer are more prevalent. Though this was my least favourite part of the trip, possibly partly coloured by the hotel being below par, I am still glad we got to see it.
And so it was time for home and, boy, had we done and seen a huge amount in our sixteen days. You need stamina for a holiday like this and you need to be able to adapt and go with the flow. If you would like to go to India, but feel that the early starts etc. would be too much for you, I know that Travel Department do a shorter 5-star version, which I believe is fabulous. We did toy with it briefly, but decided to go for the adventure instead and what an adventure it was!
Now I need a holiday!
Thanks again to Bill Wallace and David Carbery for their photographic contributions