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Beaches, Buddhists and Baranas

The latest installment takes me from the beach in Arambol to the amazing city of Varanasi via temple caves in Maharashta state, and the important Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya in Bihar.

When I arrived at Arambol, my first impressions had been that there were a lot of freaks there - though I mean that in a nice way. Everywhere I looked I saw dreadlocked backpackers juggling, or twirling fire-sticks; new-agers howling at the sun; thin, serious-looking people contorting themselves into unnatural shapes; and near-naked hippies crisping themselves on the beach. Within a couple of days it all seemed quite normal, and by the time of the carnival, I felt quite at home.

Without a doubt Arambol Carnival is the coolest thing I've ever been to. The word "carnival" probably conjures up images of floats moving along a road lined with people, but this one was a little different. Each of the participating places set up their "floats" along the beach - static displays and performance art - and, instead of standing and watching, the crowd became the parade making its way along the shore. The theme was Space, so there were aliens and "space chickens", and all manner of colourful and exotic costumes. We danced along to beating of drums and the blowing of didgeridoos, the tide going out as the sun set. I had a ball.

The parade finished up at the surf club, where there was a dodgy hour or two where really bad music played by an English DJ, before most people gathered around a bonfire instead. I listened in awe to the fantastic music that was being produced live on bongos, loving every minute of it. My companions, Chris and James, took it upon themselves to tend the fire, gathering wood and making sure the flames didn't go out. They both called it a night some time after one, and soon after the fire dwindled. I left an hour or so later, sitting on the beach and watching the stars for a while before going to bed. It was a great note to leave Goa on, and I promised myself that one day I would come back, and stay for the season.

I wanted to see the religious caves at Ellora and Ajanta, so I spent eighteen hours on a train to the town of Ahmednagar, followed by four hours on a bus to reach the town of Aurangabad, my base for the Ellora caves. I'd been kept awake by the usual - noisy groups of men getting on the train in the middle of the night. One man banged on my bunk, demanding that I get out of it so he could have it; he almost got physical, but was restrained by his companions. It turned out that he - travelling on a Wait-Listed ticked - had been allocated my berth from the station where I got off. A confusing situation, and I can see how he thought he was entitled to evict me, although his aggressive approach was well over the top.

Once I'd caught up on my sleep, I spent a day exploring the town of Aurangabad. I was expecting "real India" to be a bit of a shock to the system after friendly, laid-back Goa. Fortunately I had chosen a good place to get back into the swing of things, as I found the town to be a relaxed, enjoyable place full of nice, cheerful people. The staff at the hotel where I was staying (which was round, curiously) were a good example of the townsfolk; they were probably the most helpful I have come across in the whole country. They also offered massages for the unbelievably low price of 65 rupees - that's under a quid - for a 45 minute massage. And it wasn't a dodgy one either.

The following day I visited the temple caves at Ellora. The caves were excavated from the sixth century AD onwards, taking advantage of a passing trade route (religious leaders always being good at spotting an opportunity to make a quick buck). The earliest caves are Buddhist, later ones are Hindu, and the most recent (still a millennia old) are Jain. I was excited to see something relating to Buddhism as - except for a single cave near Badami - I had seen nothing to do with the religion. Before coming to India I had expected to see lots of Buddhist stuff, this being the birthplace of the religion and all. Granted under one percent of the population today are Buddhist - but there are a similar numbers of people belonging to the Jain religion, and I've seen Jain temples and monuments (and of course nudie men) all over the place.

I thought the Ellora caves were fantastic. Many were elaborate affairs, with a number of levels and connected chambers, decorated with beautiful carvings. The site was quite spread out, so I took a rickshaw to get to some of it, and the helpful driver guided me up to some of the less-visited caves, past a pool where local villagers were catching fish with improvised nets (two saris tied together). He also advised me not to go to some of the caves, because of the inordinate amount of bees; as I looked I could see numerous hives hanging from trees and the entrances of the caves themselves. The icing on the cake of Ellora is the Kailash temple, a massive structure carved from a single piece of rock, that took over a hundred years to build.

The following day I visited the Buddhist caves at Ajanta, en route to the town of Jalgaon, leaving my rucksack at the cloakroom. The caves are carved into the steep wall of a horse-shoe shaped gorge. They were built from the second century BC onwards, but amazingly the site disappeared from history nine-hundred years later, and was only re-discovered in 1819 by a British soldier. There are not as many sculptures, but there are some wonderful wall paintings. It's also an example of preservation gone mad, as far as I'm concerned. The anal authorities have banned not only flash photography, but tripods - for reasons unknown; many of the fronts of the caves are smothered in scaffolding; ugly mesh has been erected to keep out bats; and numbers into some of the caves are strictly limited. The low lighting made photography challenging, but at least the barriers erected to keep everyone far away from the dimly lit pictures could sometimes be used to keep my camera steady. I'm glad I visited, but for me it lacked the atmosphere of Ellora.

I collected my bag and continued my journey north to Jalgaon, on a packed bus with people vomiting on the floor (no effort made to do it out of the windows). I stayed in a dingy room that was a stone's throw from the train station, ready to catch my train. I had a 24 hour journey to Varanasi, followed by - in theory - a four hour wait and a five hour train journey to Gaya (the nearest station to my destination of Bodh Gaya). If you read my blog then you'll know that the first train ride was enlivened by perverts; the second train was delayed by seven hours, which meant I was at the train station in Varanasi when a bomb went off; and my first day in Bodh Gaya was taken up with getting my words and pictures on the BBC website, and my voice on the World Service! Quite an eventful couple of days, really.

Bodh Gaya is the place where Prince Siddhartha Gautama meditated his way to enlightenment, sitting under a bodhi tree. It is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world, and houses temples from every Buddhist nation. It is also of importance to Hindus, and in fact they run the Mahabodhi temple, in whose grounds the revered bodhi tree stands...or at least a distant relative of the original, which was destroyed by king (or was he emperor?) Ashoka, before he himself converted to Buddhism (a classic case of, "D'oh!"). Fortunately his daughter saved an offshoot of the original tree and took it to Sri Lanka, and a sapling of that tree was later replanted in place of the original.

The temple complex is a peaceful and incredibly moving place. The grounds are planted with trees and the sweet scent of flowers hangs in the air - which is a lot nicer than what you can normally smell in India. There are numerous stupas, some with a multitude of tiny Buddha images, and offerings of flowers in little cups of water abound. Monks from many countries can be found praying or meditating - or in the case of the Tibetans, repeatedly prostrating themselves on special boards, where the wood has been made shiny by the monks sliding themselves flat to the ground; exercise for the body and soul. On my first visit to the temple I proved that I really am my mother's daughter by crying uncontrollably the whole time I was there - I felt so touched to be walking on the ground where the Buddha had walked.

Because of the Buddhist practice of giving alms to the poor, the town attracts an inordinate amount of beggars; the only thing that out-numbered the beggars were the mosquitoes, which were in plague proportions - resulting in the fattest geckos I've ever seen. Most days I would give something to the beggars - small coins, or I'd buy a big bunch of bananas to distribute - but there were so many that I'd end up swamped. They had cultivated this amazingly annoying, whining tone, and I'd often turn around after handing out the last of my bananas to find a crowd of them shuffling towards me moaning; it felt a little like Dawn of the Dead! I saw some badly mistreated horses too, in a pitiful state. This surprised me, in a centre for Buddhism.

Soon after I got to the town, I heard of an imminent festival called Holi - festival of colour - where people (mostly boys and men) throw coloured dye on one another for two days, to welcome in spring. I figured it could be fun, if wearing appropriate, throw-away clothing; or frustrating if wearing my relatively decent clobber and carrying my backpack. I decided that it would be best to stay put and buy some cheap clothes to wear, so I could enjoy the celebrations. What I hadn't reckoned on was that the restaurants and cafes in town would close for the festivities - and, on the first day, all of the shops too. Luckily I found out with enough time to stock up on fruit, nuts and biscuits - although two and a half days without a meal was a bit much. It'll give you some idea of how hungry I was if I tell you that I continued to eat my cashew nuts after I found a maggot in one...although I did throw the maggoty one away.

I went out an played for a while in the morning of the first day of Holi, squirting a group of small boys, and getting coloured dye on me in return - and then photographing them, after they promised not to throw anything while I was taking it. I was beckoned over by a couple of men who ran one of the shops near to where I was staying, and we smeared colours on each other's faces and T-shirts, at their behest. Then I made my excuses and retired to my room, watching from the balcony as the alcohol and excitement took effect. I still have patches of red and green in my hair, though I think I've managed to get all the pink out of my ears now.

My train to Varanasi - a fast, day train for a change - was booked for the day after Holi, and I arrived in this amazing city after dark, with a lovely Dutch couple that I met on the train station. This could well be my new favourite place on earth; it's pretty much blown my mind. Varanasi, AKA Baranas, is one of the oldest cities on earth, and is the centre of the universe for Hindus. The mighty Ganges, or Ganga, flows through it, and the river is lined by ghats (steps) where people pray, wash themselves or their clothes, and even burn the dead. The water is said to wash away sins, although it is also heavily polluted; I read in the paper the other day that the river is thought to be responsible for 9-12% of disease in this state. Everywhere there is activity - colourful, noisy, chaotic, energetic - it never stops. Read more in my blog, if you like.

I've spent days exploring the streets of the city, walked the length of the ghats, taken boat rides on the river, and looked down from the rooftop of my hotel, and I feel as if I've only scratched the surface. It feels to me like a truly fractal place; the more you look, the more you see; there's magic here. After five full days I still feel totally overawed, and can't help myself walking around with a massive grin on my face. I'm moved almost to tears several times a day. I can't see how anyone could fail to fall in love with the place. It's funny too, but my normally crap sense of direction works here - I always know where the river is; mind you I always was contrary.

I went to the train station to book my train ticket to Delhi, and seats for my cousin, Nigel, and I to go from Delhi to Shimla. It's a place where our grandparents spent time when my granddad was stationed in India, so I think it's pretty cool that we're going there together. It felt rather strange to be back at the railway station, exactly two weeks after the bomb attack. I was actually surprised that they'd cleaned the broken glass up. I looked to see whether the crater was still there, but there were too many people sitting and lying on the floor for me to tell. Once I'd sorted the tickets I looked for the loo but was unable to spot it, so I figured I'd head over to platform five and use the one in the waiting room there. After I bought a cup of tea from the chai-wallah outside the ladies waiting room. He shook my hand and said "welcome back". The station didn't appear so dirty to me, as it had done when I'd arrived a fortnight before, and the crowd of staring men I attracted as I drank my chai seemed perfectly normal; I've adjusted back to being in the north of India.

Afterwards I wanted to get a bus to Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and looked for the bus stand as I left the station. I remain impressed at how helpful people are in Varanasi - a place I'd been expecting to encounter aggressive touts, and "cheating men", as they call them here (as in: "You, Sir, are a cheating man!"). Rickshaw-wallahs happily pointed me in the right direction, and when I arrived at the spot a young man with a chewing-tobacco stall was helping out two Japanese men. He was shooing away the less scrupulous rickshaw-wallahs, and reassuring the men that the bus would be along soon. He let me sit in the shade behind his stall, and made sure that we all got on the correct bus. At Sarnath I visited the well-presented museum, and strolled around the ruined site. Visually it was a little disappointing. I know I've become spoilt - anything less than spectacular seems rather flat after some of the great things I've seen. The town had a calm feel to it - very different to Varanasi, just ten kilometres away.

It's almost time for me to leave Varanasi and return to Delhi, but this is place that I will definitely come back to. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm loving India. I think I've had more dramas here than in all the rest of my trips put together, but I've caught the bug, and I'm coming back for sure - I've started planning three seperate trips. My time's running out this trip, and I'm going to have to be a bit more organised in my planning, as there are still a number of places that I really want to see this time around; it'll be all go for the last month.


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