Sunday, 4 May 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Riding The Rails

Day in, day out across India, about 24 million (I double checked this number to see if it was a typo!) passengers squeeze themselves into 14,000 trains. Indian Rail employs 1.4 million people, with 8,000 stations linked by 40,000 miles of track. Some journeys are epic, with the Himsagar Express winning the prize for the longest route. It leaves the northern city of Jammu just before midnight on a Monday. Some 2,300 miles and 70 hours later, it arrives at India's southern tip in Kanniyakumari.

Today was my introduction to Indian Rail on a day train for a couple of hours as I traveled from Agra to Jhansi. Having ridden the rails across China this surely was going to be a walk in the park. Right?

“Let vigilance be your motto,” urged a sign at the station. Off to a good start then, I thought to myself as I double checked all 6 of my padlocks on my two packs all but vacuumed to my body.

"Clean habits make clean station." How unfortunate that, after reading this sign, I looked down at the tracks. It would appear some people don't know you aren't supposed to flush whilst stationary at the station.

Thankfully the train arrived on time. As in "really on time". Usually "on time" in India equals at least 20 minutes late. Late equals hours late. It was already starting to get unbearably hot at 815am and, bearing in mind what I'd seen on the tracks, I didn't really want to abuse my olfaction any longer.

I joined the scrum struggling to get to my nicely air-conditioned seat: pushing, pulling, heaving, hoisting. They don't give you long either, after about 5 minutes we were pulling out of the station. Some people had bagged and chained up their belongings with such impregnability that I wondered what on earth I was getting myself into. I threw my larger bag up into the rack above me and literally sat on the other, just as a man in an official looking uniform walked by with what looked like an AK47. It was a big gun regardless of the model. Ok, so perhaps I don't need to succumb to psychotic levels of paranoia I thought to myself, just as a man in chains and handcuffs was led down the carriage by another male with an even bigger gun. Oh well, my "please leave me alone" bag was basically fully accessible if you really wanted to become the proud new owner of a photocopied Heinrich Harrer book, a very squished protein bar and my hand washed underwear. I reclined my seat and cranked up my iPod. Ignorance is bliss.

If you're not traveling with a bottle of hand-sanitizer already you should really consider buying one. I hardly ever use the stuff back home, a good ol' hand wash with soap and water usually suffices, but here I've had a bottle practically glued to me. A lot of people with a lot of interesting and varying levels of personal hygiene travel on Indian Rail and so it's advisable following trips to the toilets etc. I would also avoid the food. Aside from the two slices of bread that I ate, the rest looked dubious.

After about 2.5hrs the train arrived at Jhansi. This is apparently the town where the fight for freedom against the British started. I was fighting for air as I tried to make my way through the bustling crowd. Some what disconcerting was the fact that here the kids start grabbing at you, trying to pull stuff from your hands. Granted I was only carrying a half empty container of porridge oats and an empty Tupperware for making breakfast in but I didn't like having my personal space invaded in such a way. It was never threatening or scary mind you but it certainly took me by surprise.

Thankfully I was soon on a bus and heading to the picturesque town of Orchha, about half an hours drive away.

Orchha (or Urchha) is a typical, small Indian town on the Betwa River in the Tikamgarh district of the Madhya Pradesh state. It owes it's popularity to its history as the oldest and highest in rank of all the Bundela states. The town was established by the Bundela chief, Maharaja Rudra Pratap Singh, in 1501 as the seat of a former princely state of central India, in the Bundelkhand region. Maharaja Pratap Singh (born 1854, died 1930), who succeeded to the throne in 1874, devoted himself entirely to the development of his state, himself designing most of the engineering and irrigation works executed during his reign. In 1901, the state had an area of over 2000 sq. mi, and population of over 300 000, warranted a 15-gun salute, and its Maharajas bore the hereditary title of First of the Princes of Bundelkhand. This is all a tad hard to believe as you wander the sleepy town that it is today. Eventually, Vir Singh, Pratap Singh's successor, merged his state with the Union of India on January 1, 1950.

You can basically walk around the town itself in about 15 minutes but it has a certain charm about it that makes you glad you did. The people are friendly and don't hassle you. Sitting on the banks of the Betwa River would be the perfect antidote to the chaos of India's cities, if it didn't also serve as the local toilet and washing area. However, there are many temples and palaces here, including the town's imposing 17th century fort Chaturbhuj temple, that you soon forget about what you have just seen down by the river. I plan to visit some of them early tomorrow when the temperature isn't quite boiling the mercury.

After almost getting attacked by a monkey that was possibly as big as I am (it seemed to think my camera lens was a food offering), this evening I went to a puja ceremony at the Ram Raja Temple, the only temple in India where where Lord Ram (Or Rama) is worshiped as a king. A Guard of Honour is held everyday, police personnel have been designated as Guards at the temple, much in the manner of a king. Ram is the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, and a king of Ayodhya in Hindu scriptures. Ram is also the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, which narrates his supremacy. Along with Krishna, he is considered to be the most important avatars of Vishnu. In a few Rama-centric sects, he is considered the Supreme Being.The prayer ritual performed by Hindus to host, honour and worship one or more deities, or to spiritually celebrate an event. It was fascinating to watch and take part in. There's lots of bell ringing and chanting/singing. The priest will bless you with water which locals drink but you're free to run it through your hair (I saw this as the safer option).

Dinner was at this fantastic hole-in-the-wall where I had my best Indian dish to date. The Dal Thadka was amazing and it cost me just over $1. Jal jeera, a popular drink made with lime juice, cumin, mint and rock salt, is drank by the earthenware pot-full. Once was probably enough for me, it's definitely an acquired taste. Let's hope this place doesn't become too touristy and lose little things like this that make this town so charming. That would be a real shame. 

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