Friday, 4 November 2011

Thursday (day 3) was primarily a day of travel, broken by a visit to Fatehpur Sikri.

Fatehpur Sikri was briefly capital of India under a Moghul emperor, effectively built from scratch after a Sufi (Moslem ‘holy man’) foretold the emperor would have an heir by his favourite wife, having been unproductive until that point. In gratitude the emperor relocated his capital in order to live with the Sufi, however there was never sufficient water, and after 16 years the city was abandoned. The buildings are a deliberate mix of Hindu, Moslem and an ‘Indian’ take on Christian styles of architecture, with varying degrees of success. Our guide described this particular emperor as being ‘ecumenical’, but syncretistic (worshiping several gods simultaneously) is probably more accurate. He apparently also tried to start his own religion ‘worshipping god’, which failed to take root.

It is very hard to put my finger on the reason Islamic architectural styles seem out of place here, even though India has had many centuries of Islamic rulers and cultural influence. For me, the style seems to cut across the natural style of the country. I guess someone coming to the UK from India and looking at many of the gothic buildings here might feel similarly. Or maybe it clashes with the internal pictures I’ve carried, of how India should be.

The structures were truly fascinating in places, and held a number of different architectural styles, if not in harmony, then at least in variety. There were pillared buildings, buildings with Arab-style doorways, carvings and domes, buildings with Hindu carvings and doorways. A real melange with no single outstanding feature, but interesting to see as someone’s attempt to blend 3 fairly immiscible cultures.

One of the themes that several of the guides have repeated over and over is how in India everyone gets along together, whether Moslem, Hindu, Jane, Seikh or Christian. While there has been some hard evidence to the contrary, overall most people appear much more concerned about how they will eat next than differences of faith.

In order to reach Ranthambore we had to catch a train. Indian railways seem to be ‘interesting’, in that time is frequently flexible, but when you have to get lots of people onboard there are only two or three minutes to embark – not necessarily convenient with luggage for 18. We were ‘lucky’ to have tickets purchased for us, because in order to track potential terrorists/security threats, it is necessary to use a computerised booking system with details verified with a passport. In fact this kind of verification has become the norm for a variety of activities, and not just transport. It makes me wonder about the future of freedom in India.

Outside the station we were able to stand back and watch ‘real’ India at work for the first time since arriving, mostly due to a lack of time and the hawkers that tirelessly assailed us where ever we went. Tuk-tuk drivers were deep In conversation or trying to obtain business, crowds of people were disgorged from newly arrived trains and poured from the entrance, people with apparently nothing pressing to do just stood around and watched. All this was set against a background of brightly coloured shop fronts, dust, concrete, bicycles being repaired and Indian adverts in eye-popping colours with culturally desirable, smiling people holding or wearing or washing or simply being associated with whatever the product was, supported by Hindi text presumably extolling said product’s virtues.

And so, we gathered our luggage from the coach, pointed it out to the porter marked out by a faded red shirt and brass plate tied to his arm, and trudged up the entry ramp.

In the station we were assailed by a couple of men asking us if we wanted a shoe shine. They were obviously highly imaginative, since almost everyone was in sandals or trainers, but why should that get in the way of business? We dutifully played the game as explained to us, not catching their eyes and continuing to walk forwards. This, we had been told, was the only way to cope with hawkers – any kind of recognition that an actual human being was there beside us would ensure we might never gain our freedom. Once a mark acknowledged a vendors presence, be it trinkets, a rickshaw driver or a glowing LED thing that was shot in the air and descended to earth like a helicopter, the vendor would follow you until physically prevented from doing so.

We had experienced this in a small way when Chris and I wanted a walk in Agra before lunch. We left the hotel grounds (guarded) walked along one side of the block and had just started on the second when we were approached by a rickshaw driver. I said and made NO very clear, but he followed us for the remaining 2 ¾ blocks until we walked through the gate of our hotel, at which point his face fell so completely I felt really sorry for him. I don’t know how or if it is possible for anyone outside of India to make a significant impact on a culture so poor that people must lose their humanity and self-worth in order to scrape together a few rupees to buy food. It scares me that I am having to treat people with such inhumanity and without respect in order to just mind my own business in their country.

As we entered the station there were 2 small girls begging, both very skinny with short hair and large heads. We gave them 2 rupees each and they followed us a long way through the station before giving up and turning back.

We eventually reached our section of the platform where the carriage was supposed to stop, still pursued by the shoe-shine men. After a few minutes we were approached by an old man in ragged traditional clothing, shouting in Hindi. Junaid translated for us – it was actually funny – that he was asking for a light, and what was India coming to when no-one had a match any more? He laid down on the platform and pretended to be tired out and going to sleep, but a shoe-shine man tried to take his stick away and then lifted him to his feet and man-handled him (not too roughly) down the platform.

Chris has also reminded me of the 2 beggars with leg deformities that were on the station. One was 'wearing' a shoe on his knee to protect it while he dragged himself along, while the other had no protection at all. They made a far larger impact on her than anything else in that part of the trip, possibly because she gave them money (by agreement between us) whereas I didn't. Overall she was generally braver than me when it came to dealing with 'strange' people.

There was a little concern about the fate of our luggage, last seen outside the station loaded on an old wooden barrow, edges and wheels pained a faded and dusty red to match the porter’s shirt. The porters had managed to get the whole kit and caboodle across the lines and several hundred yards down the platforms to where we stood. From the main platform to the one on which we stood there was a gentle but distinct slope heading down toward us. The poor porter in front was really struggling to control the load and stop it running away, and I was getting ready to rush across. Fortunately the other porter was at the back, holding on and stopping the load from escaping.

Our train came on time, but nothing is perfect and the carriages stopped about 100 yards further down the platform. Cue lots of running passengers and sweaty, panicked porters pushing an over-loaded cart.

Carriage C2 was pleasantly air conditioned, for which we were grateful considering the 3 hour journey length. We were allocated seats 67 and 68, and found these quickly and without difficulty. The interior was nothing ‘special’, being a mix of 1970s British Rail and economy airline, all with a modest helping of dust. Yellow Perspex windows prevented one enjoying the view of the countryside, so conversation or reading were the most reasonable forms of entertainment. Seats were arranged with the rear half of the carriage facing forward and the front half facing backward. There might be method in the madness, but it eluded me.

I don’t know if there were people on the roof, but ‘cattle class’ appeared to live up to it’s name, with barred windows through which the ‘victims’ could be seen. During the journey men walked up and down the corridor continuously, offering crisps, bottled drinks, tea and coffee. We had been pre-warned about not risking the Tea and coffee, and since we all had water, no-one had a need to partake.

On arrival we were collected in dark green open-top passenger vehicles that we were to come to know much better the following day. They had a crew-cab area with a roll bar (front only – worrying) and seats in pairs on both sides. Behind the crew cab was a bench seat and an open area, where the baggage was stacked. The cool breeze in the warm night air was lovely after being cooped up.

We were greeted at our hotel for the next 2 nights by a small deputation of staff. They were applying a red spot & rice to each forehead (causing minor consternation) hanging a marigold garland on each neck and presenting us with blue and red drinks that tasted almost, but not exactly, like a mix of sugar water and turpentine, or just plain sugar water.

After room assignment and a quick shower we were back together for dinner. First though, we had to survive the entertainment, otherwise known as demonstrating dancing and then embarrassing guests by expecting them to dance too. Some have it, and this particular some don’t, but I will say that Indians appear particularly quick and flexible to a tired 50 year-old. Finally dinner, then bed, with the treat of another early morning ahead, leaving at 6.30am.

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