An Indian Odyssey – Gangotri

An Indian Odyssey

Gangotri – May 9 – 13th

 

250 kms to Gangotri by bus – 13 hours, that’s a massive 20-odd km/h! The end of the road. Finally, virtually no more car horns – what sweet relief!


The real journey started in Gangotri. Up until then it had just been a haze of people and car horns. Gangotri is at the end of the road, a road which is only open for 6 months of the year due to winter snowfall. There were still loads of pilgrims, thousands in fact, but that was nothing compared to the cities in the foothills. The arduous 13 hour trip along narrow and rocky mountain roads from the foothills had weaned out the less hardy pilgrims. Yet each day, dozens of buses and taxis and private cars arrived first thing in the morning, disgorging their ‘seeker’ inhabitants at the end of this mountain road and at the beginning of Gangotri’s one and only street. For 95% of these pilgrims their goal was at the other end of this street: the Gangotri temple, one of the spiritual sources of Ganga Ma (Ganges River).


Rockslides are common, especially during the monsoon, along these mountain roads.


Ganga Ma and a hillside covered with Deodar Cedars, a tree that can live up to 1000 years and is endemic to the Himalaya mountains from Tibet to Afghanistan.


A house built into a rocky overhang – very common in these parts.


The Om symbol painted on a rock in the valley.


Pilgrims carried to temple in a palanquin (chair strapped to two long parallel poles and carried by four porters).


Deodar Cedar at the base of massive cliffs.


Gangotri at night.


The river here (although still the Ganges) is called the Bhagarathi River.


The sculpted rock face of the waterfalls.


Many saddhus (holy men), like this one, walk many hundreds of kilometres barefoot on pilgrimages around the country.


But unfortunately I’ve brought with me four days worth of galloping stomach due to an overnight stay in Uttarkarshi, halfway between Haridwar and Gangotri. Fun, fun, fun. My first taste of India Belly.

On the fourth day I rose, a bit slower than some other well-known prophets, pulled on my hiking boots and pack, pushed aside my barricading door and strode forth to ahcive my goal in the mountains. I was feeling good. Strong again, full of solids and ready for the 14 km hike to Bhojbasa, a staging post for Tapovan. I strode down the main street of Gangotri, feeling the pack comfortably/reassuringly formed around my back, passing pilgrleaving pilgrim after pilgrim in my wake, buying the same fruit and nut offerings as the pilgrims – but for me, not the gods – but neglecting to invest in the pvc screw-top container. Instead I had the Yalumba Shiraz Chateau de Cask bladder from which I hoped to collect and drink Ganga straight from the source.

Through the temple grounds I floated, passed that easily attained spiritual source, out the back gate and up. Up, up, up, up, up. There was seemingly no stopping this ‘up’ phase and my self-assured assupmption that my rise to the heavens would be easy was smashed. After only 150 metres I was left doubled over, arms akimbo trying to find room for that breath that had comfortably been there up until very recently. It seemed a vice had been placed around my chest and quickly tightened while I wasn’t looking. Perhaps it had happened in the temple grounds as karma for my sacrilegious  nature. I couldn’t get any breath into my body but there was a strange wheezing sound coming from somewhere, my throat I decided in my semi-delirious state. I was in trouble, quite serious trouble and the pathetic yet hilarious nature of my demise gripped me along with the vice and the wheezing.

Fortunately I was out of sight of any folk in the temple grounds, beyond further embarrassment at this stage at least. I clung to the rock wall for support and waited, having luckily told myself that time may help ease the pain and I may in fact recover. Hopefully not another four days staring at the waterfall. ‘one foot in front of the other’, this had been my motto when I more sensibly assessed the potential difficulties of a trip like this prior to committing.

I threw one foot out in front of the other, then the other, and continued to do so at a much more rational pace. It worked. Soon I reached the crest where the trail levelled out and which, I had been assured, would be a ‘moderate’ grade. Things felt possible again.

An Indian Odyssey – Haridwar

 

An Indian Odyssey

Haridwar – Fri May 6th

I quickly headed for Haridwar and the Shivalik Mountains, the foothills to the Himalaya – about 250 kms NE of Delhi.

Hit by car today – side-swiped by a four-wheel drive and reeled back in shock, the weight of my backpack making me wobble like a bouncy-clown, while the onlooking Indians laughed heartily. Not nastily, just heartily. All I could do once I realised all limbs were intact and in their proper places was to join them in laughing and continue on with life, satisfied I had survived. But in truth, this sort of occurrence made me impatient to reach the Himalaya.

Haridwar’s main strip/road is a 3 km stretch lined with with merchandise, souvenir and religious shops, tea stalls and restaurants. But the closer you got to the river end the more it was lined with religious paraphernalia. All in the name of God – but which god I wasn’t sure. Shiva? Hanuman? Ganesha? Vishnu? Or was it just The Dollar?

Why this profusion of religiousity? Every night of the year thousands of people file along this street as sunset approaches to Harkipuri, the town’s main ghat, to witness the famous nightly aarti ceremony on the banks of the world’s most well known river, the mighty Ganges. The ceremony is a puja (religious offering) in which tiny boats made from leaves and flowers are released into Ganga’s waters. Each boat carries a lit candle.

As you approach the three km mark on the main road it rounds its one and only bend and comes face to face with the river. She flows swiftly here, faster than one would expect, carrying the rainfall and snow-melt from the Himalayan peaks 250 odd km to the north. It is about 400 metres wide and on the western side, separated from the main flow, lies a 30 metre wide concrete channel, lined on both sides with steps down into the water. This is Harkipuri Ghat.

In part, it’s like a carnival atmosphere …but with a strong religious air. Novelty salesman roam widely spruiking glo-sticks and glo-helicopters. Plastic water container salesman push plastic so folks can take Ganga home in a screw top pvc container. And tikka (a religious mark placed on the forehead) salesman swoop unexpectedly, make their mark right between your eyes without invitation, then promptly demand payment. At dusk, by which time the ghats are packed with seated, standing and bathing spectators, the official ceremony begins, broadcast over loudspeakers to the audience here and beyond. Mantras are chanted, prayers offered, fires lit and the official aarti boats are launched.


A pujari (Brahmin priest) coordinates a puja ceremony for pilgrims.


The aarti boats packed with flowers and candles await purchase by the pilgrims.


No, he’s not a nazi – the swastika symbol is one of the 108 symbols of the Hindu deity, Vishnu and one interpretation says that it represents the sun’s rays, upon which life depends.


The PVC ‘Pushers’ – selling ‘beautiful’ containers in which to collect the sacred water from the Ganges.


A couple says prayers before sending the aarti on its way downstream.


A mixture of frivolity and profound worship occurs as pilgrims bathe in the sacred Ganga.


The carnival atmosphere prevails for this brother and sister duo.


An aarti floats by on its journey down the Ganges.


An in case mayhem breaks out amongst the pilgrims, never fear, there is an army officer with machine gun up there in the guard tower!


Pilgrims line the ghat as an aarti is swept by in the strong current.


Rajaji National Park Safari – our driver’s assistant asked if we minded if he drove. "No, of course not." He failed to mention it was only his second time at the wheel! Bunnyhops and swerving ensued as we continued down the already rocky road. I dropped from my standing position to the relative safety of the seat.

 


A Black-faced Monkey (Langur) takes a break from the monkey madness.


An Indian Roller swoops by as it comes in to land.


A Sambar Deer caught in the lens.


 


Haridwar – Sat May 7th

Someone’s throwing up in the restaurant where I’m eating. ‘Mmmm, really adds to the flavour of my dahl. It’s a tad off-putting.


10 pm and work goes on.

An Indian Odyssey – Old Delhi

An Indian Odyssey

Old Delhi – Thurs May 5th

Breakfast on the rooftop terrace. The weather is cooler but more humid today. A light but refreshing breeze passes through occasionally on its way to somewhere. Soon I  will be on my way to Rishikesh, and then somewhere too.

Showers and a small thunderstorm passed through last night. Lighting cut the night air. Bulbous raindrops fell heavily and continuously for some time, scattering the homeless sleepers who had set up on the median strip. All bar one who simply rolled over, wrapping himself in his cloth and quickly getting drenched, the cloth like a second skin, outlining every curve and jagged edge of his form.


  

Leaving Delhi by train I see shanti towns with rooftop TV satellite dishes.

Old Delhi – Wed May 4th
 

6.40 am, Hotel New City Palace: the sun rises over the Jama Masjid and immediately countless beads of sweat erupt in a unified response across my body.


Poverty and suffering are visible on many streets here, but not so complaints. Although totally unfair, the superficial scene at least is one of acceptance.

And now it’s time for some food…

 
Chapatis being cooked.


One of the oldest dhabas in Delhi – photos in background of Indira Ghandi dining here.


The Pulse-wallah


The Chai-wallah


The Bread-wallah


The Grain-wallah


A meal at Karim’s muslim restaurant.


Baking naan in the tandoor.

Other random scenes from Old Delhi…
 


‘mmm, somehow I don’t think this’ll be my first choice for dental work.


Public washroom


Muslim Prayer Time


Human Workhorse


Public Bathing

The Kite-Flying Game: kites armed with glass-coated string cut the opponent’s string. The cut kite dances forlornly on the breeze, uncontrolled, and is carried away to be plastered on the principal minaret of India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid; an out-of-place red diamond flattened askew against the beige onion minaret.

Overlapping waves of wailing as multiple ‘calls to prayer’ converge from all corners of town.

Old Delhi – Tues May 3rd

For two days running someone has pickpocketed my banana from my backpack. So on day 3 I just handed it over to the person of my choice. Actually, he really chose me and I couldn’t say No.


He was one of dozens of impoverished and/or ill men sitting patiently underneath the chef’s position in dhabas (street-front restaurants), waiting for someone to buy them a meal.

Other kindly folk I met along the way…



The Chai-wallah – I love this guy!


Sadhu or sufferer of mental illness? it wasn’t clear to me.


After-school antics – let’s hassle the white guy and be silly 🙂

Sitting on my bed at the New City Palace Hotel looking out through the grilled window to the Jama Masjid, India’s superlatively largest mosque. If it wasn’tfor the industrial sized fan-box sitting oaf-like in my window, I’d be able to see a hell of a lot more! Then again, I could get up off my bed perhaps.

Not suprisingle the New City Palace ain’t that new…and it ain’t no palace. But it does have ‘character’, that wonderful universally useful euphemism. The poster on the wall assures me, “God’s voice is heard in many ways.” If that be true, currently he’s speaking in tongues via incessant and annoyingly high-pitched car and motorbike horns, with a background garnishing of ceiling fan hum. And I think his message is, “Get the fuck out of Delhi before you lose your bleedin’mind, an eardrum or a leg.

Of my three days thus far, it’s definitely the horns that I hate the most. They are unforgiving, arrogant and violent. But I like it up here on the 2nd floor, above the two-way stream of hassling, haggling humanity.


Apparently "God’s voice is heard in many ways."
 

The New City Palace Hotels’ tagline reads: ‘A Home for Paltial Comforts’. ‘Mmmm, maybe that needs revising – of the 39-odd holes in my shower rose only 6 tried to do any work, spitting pathetically at me as I scrubbed away today’s layer of Delhi masala. This tagline I noticed under the splay of blinding light from the palatial flouro above, which lights the clean yet permamently stained bed sheets (I’m just thankful it’s not one of those CSI-style forensic lights which detects old semen stains).

Ah, perhaps somewhat appropriately the Islamic call to prayer is underway across town, but is somewhat marred by the street din below and blaring Hindi TV from the next room.
 

Lesson 1 of 1 on ‘How to Negotiate Delhi Traffic’:

Hold your line. Hesitate and Die. It’s a game of bluff…although the big vehicles do tend to hurt quite a lot when they hit you.

Old Delhi – Mon May 2nd

I hide in the cracks and crevices that are the lanes and alleyways of old Delhi to escape the searing sun which manages to cut a path through the heavy pollution. Around midday I slink along the walls in the narrow strips of shade.

 


 

Old Delhi is full of bazaars selling all variety of goods and producing all manner of things. It is in your face – you get to learn things you would never expect. And people love getting their photo taken – it is impossible not to take a good portrait – like shooting fish in a barrel!



I forgot how sore one’s arse gets from riding in a rickshaw!

 The Meat Bazaar


The Paper Bazaar…


Putting the gluey bits on envelopes – fun, fun, fun!


Guillotining folders.

The Car Bazaar…

The Metals Bazaar…


These guys spend hour after hour banging in the design into these brass plates with a hammer and small metal chisel.



Alley cricket is a popular past-time with children and teenagers.

…and just hangin’ out is popular with the older folk…

…while more popular still are serious sleeping sessions. ‘Ad hoc Sleeping Reaches New Heights’.

After a day out and about in the pollution, dirty, filthy black boogas clog my nostrils. And a layer of grime coats my skin. Looking forward to clean mountain air.
 

Old Delhi – Sun May 1st

It all came flooding back as I took that first step outside the airport terminal – petrol fumes mixed with dust, heat and noise. And then there was the driving – chaotic, jam-packed, frantic and horn-filled. Exhausted workers sleeping on the 2’ wide median strip, stripped bare to their grimy skin except for tattered shorts.


Offered a fake beard today, not sure why.

Monkey traversing the street on the powerlines like a tightrope walker.


Old delhi is a maze of narrow alleys and what looks like DIY powersupplies. Power cables run every which way and dangling cables, with their frayed ends, look like aerial roots trying to earth themselves.


My eyes feel like they’re drying up layer by layer from the outside in due to the heat and dust.


….’mmm, somehow I don’t think so DTC!

The Lights Come Up Over Geraldton

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The Lights Come Up Over Geraldton

The lights come up over Geraldton, Western Australia: bluish-green streetlights; and port and starboard lights of the shipping channel across a choppy windswept sea. The green and red lights, flashing intermittently, are clear and defined atop their supportive posts which plunge the depths below. But soon they will appear as if sitting on or suspended just above the horizon, their posts dissolving into the sea as the evening light continues to fade and many become one.

It has happened. They are gone. The sea and posts are one. Tankers too now, all but invisible except for their industrial lights. They wait out to sea for their call to port.

And me, I wait here on the balcony of the 19th century Freemason’s Hotel – happily wait for the world to pass me by.

Even the horizon has disappeared now. Sea and sky have become one.

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

Tram # 109, Eastbound ~ 13:40 pm, Feb 25, 2010

I just saw a man
he moved like a praying mantis
somewhere between
jerkily and gracefully
all thin and long-limbed.

This man above pretty clearly had some ‘issues of the mind’. He was wide-eyed, a bit jittery and jerky, unshaven, rough around the edges and carried a battered, well-worn old orange backpack. I liked him. He had a friendly, loving face…and he was full of stories.