When you come from a small country with a population of just over 5 million it’s hard to get your head round the complexities of a juggernaut like India with its 1.25 billion souls – and that was in 2013. The army was called out in Haryana last week where a north Indian martial and farming community not traditionally considered ‘backward’ have been offered a special backward class quota for much prized government jobs. After blocking highways and rail tracks and causing the cancellation of 40 train services in two days, the unrest led to 19 people dead. It’s a complex business as caste groups, in an inversion of the ideal of social mobility, compete to be defined as ‘backward’ in order to corner the benefits of reservation of government jobs that are increasingly scarce.
Meanwhile such events are somewhat overshadowed by the 4 Maoist guerrillas recently killed in a gun battle with police in the northeast of the country. Indeed several Maoist groups (Naxalites) are active in a large swathe of India from the northeast down the central belt and east coast – a third of India’s landmass – and constitute, according to the government, the biggest security threat to the country. That’s against stiff competition given the continuing struggle in Kashmir, the stirrings of Daesh in some areas and a nuclearated Pakistan living next door.
Around three-quarters of the population still live in rural areas where there are over 250 million landless agricultural labourers, the traditionally downtrodden. No wonder the economy is booming when you can hire labour for less than $2 dollars a day (top rate). No wonder the Naxalites have a strong foothold in impoverished rural areas. (If I may nick a statistic from The Guardian: India leads the world in open defecation. At least 636 million Indians lack toilets, according to the latest census data, a crisis that contributes to disease, childhood malnutrition, loss of economic output and violence against women[because they are vulnerable to attack when they have to use the toilet in isolated areas after dark).
But the economy continues to grow at around 7% per annum with a considerable number of Indians entering the middle class every year with enough disposable income to spend on luxuries such as designer gear, holidays, SUVs and big spanking new motorcycles like Harley Davidsons and Honda Goldwings. This is IBW (Indian Bike Week) where thousands of bikers from India and beyond congregate in north Goa for motorcycle fun and games. One local paper reported that “the 36th Cavalry members all rode down from distant Chattisgarh.” Pity George Bush couldn’t have witnessed this, he and his crew got excited about cavalry charges after seeing Afghanistan’s Uzbek Warlord lead his men in a horse-backed charge against the retreating Taliban back in 2001.
Apart from attracting motorcycle enthusiasts, Goa also caters for those Indians from more conservative states where activities involving gambling, drugs, sex and rock n’ roll are more frowned upon. It has certainly earned its title as India’s Las Vegas but many of the locals are up in arms about the decimation of traditional Goan cultural values. The big hotel chains like Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt are all moving in fast to cash in on the wealthier set of Indian tourists looking for a bit of luxury with their sun and sand.
Building construction is everywhere, easier now that the Goan state government has reclassified the coconut palm tree as a ‘grass’ (!) enabling it to be cut down without permission from the Forestry Department so that concrete monstrosities can be erected to host the hordes of Indian tourists who now far outnumber ‘foreigners’. The fall of the rouble has slashed the number of arriving Russians and high costs of visas for Brits have also reduced their numbers. Goa still has its charms away from the coastal ‘strip’ but with its crumbling roads and garbage strewn everywhere it stands in marked contrast to Rajasthan.
Knowing the local roads in Goa and the infamous potholed Highway NH17, after a few days in Jaipur (known as the pink city) we decided to fly to Udaipur as driving the 400kms seemed a drive too far. How mistaken can you be. As the plane descended we could see the almost traffic-free modern 4-lane toll highway that separates the two cities. It would have made an interesting road trip. On driving the 30kms from the airport into Udaipur we noticed how clean everything was compared to Goa, much less garbage strewn everywhere.
The Rajasthanis we met were universally friendly and helpful and the State obviously caters for tourists more interested in culture and sightseeing, both Indians and foreigners, than Goa’s razzmatazz. There were also quite a few tourists from China, mostly young and with a tendency to be abrasive in their dealings with the locals. Certainly Indians and Chinese constitute the future face of global tourism, no doubt.
Three nights was enough in the big city. We stayed in the Hotel Meghniwas somewhere deep in the bowels of Jaipur. It was an oasis with its helpful staff, pool and home cooking Indian-style. Our arranged car and driver arrived but not the driver we had expected, this was a smiling older man with ruby ear studs, the mark of a modern day Rajput (the old warrior caste) and a cotton bud sticking horizontally out of his right ear for most of the day, a day spent visiting a factory that made many varieties, colours, thicknesses and shapes of paper out of old cotton cloth (for Liz’s paper sculpture back in Scotland). It was fascinating watching Walmart bags being made out of someone’s old vests and pants. After visiting the remarkable Amber Fort on the city’s outskirts and ambling through a few markets the next day it was time for the one hour flight to Udaipur.
Six days in Udaipur was not really enough, six weeks would have been better. The narrow-laned Old City and the City Palace, the only one left in India still occupied by a Maharajah, overlooking the picturesque Lake Pichola encourages a laidback ambience – hastily adopted! However, there are always more palaces, forts and castles to see and we dutifully hired another car with Om, a most careful and unusually considerate driver. The fort at Kumbalgarh and the Jain temple at Ranakpur, a 150kms round trip to visit both, were worth the effort notwithstanding being lost on more than one occasion due to ‘road construction’ ie block the road with rocks and divert vehicles up some unknown farm track for several miles.
The temple provides lunch for visitors who want it, at 50 rupees (52p) a bargain. Set in a huge canteen-styled building sitting in rows at lines of trestle tables all set with stainless steel plates and mugs, the food is served from big pots direct to your plate by men trudging up and down the lines of diners. They just keep coming with refills until you politely say, ‘please stop, no more!’ There is only one choice available on the menu – take it or leave it – and we took it. The food was vegetarian, simple and most delicious.
We ambled through the souks of Udaipur for the next few days chatting to shopkeepers and fellow travellers and managed to spend half a day in an Artists’ Cooperative that churned out Indian miniature paintings. I say ‘churn’ with all due respect, because these artists are copying old miniature paintings that never change but are handed down from generation to generation as a traditional art form. Some were simply stunning, taking months to finish using a single-haired brush from a squirrel’s tail to complete the intricate detail using paint that is ground from the rocks of Rajasthan’s Aravalli hills.
Then we departed for Mount Abu about 180kms to the southwest along a mainly traffic-free highway with Om handling the last 30kms up a continuous hairpin bend with utmost care and attention to prevent any up-chucking on our part. Bands of monkeys watched from the roadside waiting for bananas to be thrown out of car windows and despite a road sign saying ‘Beware of the Bears’ we never saw one. Neither did we see any of the leopards that roam the mountain.
Mount Abu is a holy site for both Hindus and Jains but the pilgrims seemed outweighed by the number of Gujuratis up from their dry State to enjoy the pleasures of the many ‘English Wine Shops’ that seemed to prevail in the town. Meanwhile other family members enjoyed taking a giant-sized Swan pedalo out on Lake Naki while the kids munched their way through large sticks of yellow and pink candy floss. It was like Blackpool up a mountain, with few non-Indian tourists around.
Hiring a local guide, Mahindra, an enterprising and knowledgable young man who must be the only person to have a half page dedicated to him in a Lonely Planet Guide (ie the latest Lonely Planet Guide to Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra.) He certainly merited it and took us trekking up the mountain for a day although I nearly lost it on a particularly steep and smooth rock face. Sandals are not for going up mountains. The two young French yoga teachers that accompanied us on the trek took the attached pic for posterity and your early morning chuckle.
PS A few days ago a 35-year-old man in Mumbai killed 14 members of his own family, including seven children and his parents, before killing himself. Reports suggest Hasnin Warekar laced his family’s food with sedatives before slitting their throats. So much for ahimsa, Ghandi’s maxim of ‘cause no injury, do no harm’. Yesterday two Muslim men, a 35-year old and a 15-year old, were beaten up and hanged from a tree, hands tied behind their backs and mouths stuffed with cloth, in Ranchi in Jharkhand State as they were herding ten buffaloes to market. The police are looking for suspected cattle-protection vigilantes from up state. Peace indeed…..