A Travellerspoint blog

Kochi

The Start of our Southern Journey

We flew from Kolkata to Kochi via Chennai. Thankfully, a problem with our flights south was detected before our arrival in Kolkata by our hosts and the situation addressed – elsewise, we could have been stranded in Chennai.

We were met at the airport by Prince Charles, our Southern Indian guide and we drove to Kochi by bus arriving about an hour and a half later. After our arrival at our hotel, we went to a local seafood restaurant and proceeded to empty the fridge of cold beer – much to the amusement of the staff (highly unusual behavior for our group of course - must have been the humidity).

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Given we were back by the sea, I took that opportunity to negotiate the purchase of a seafood platter of sorts –tiger prawns, fish, calamari, French fries and steamed vegetables. Very nice – much more appetizing than the bland toasted sandwiches that others of our group ordered.

The following morning at 9am, we went for a short bus ride to see the Chinese fishing nets in action. These constructions are quite large and support fishing nets which were approximately six metres square. The fishermen dip the nets into the water and raise the nets again shortly afterwards to catch whatever is passing.

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Many of us took the opportunity to pull the nets up and down - with around six people manning a rope each to raise the net.
Once done, we walked along the waterfront to see the variety of seafood on offer – ranging from snapper, mullet, gernard, prawns and octopus.

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On the way back to the old town, we stopped and walked in a dhoby (washing) factory. There we watched the dhoby wallas hand washing and ironing clothes – there were two people ironing with coal fired irons which was quite fascinating.

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From the waterfront, we went to see some of the Portuguese and Dutch buildings in old Kochi town, including a Jewish synagogue. We concluded that part of our day with a visit to the church were Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer was buried for 12 years before being exhumed and taken back to Lisbon in Portugal. Then we went into nearby Ernakulam for a very nice local lunch – and some garlic prawns which were delightful.

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After our return to Kochi, we had a few quiet hours before walking to a K…… performance. This is very much a Kerala dance tradition and we watched makeup being applied before the performance. Facial expression is very much a part of this form of dance. The show lasted for one hour – time enough to get an idea of how it flows.

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We then returned to the restaurant visited the night before for dinner and again, I ate the local seafood – a wonderful platter of snapper, tiger prawns and calamari with fries and steamed vegetables.

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The following morning we departed by train for Wayanad.

Posted by Chris White 10:14 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kolkata

We flew to Kolkata from Varanasi, one of the long overland trips avoided during the tour. On arrival we were greeted by members of the 41 Clubs of Kolkata and home hosted for the three nights were were in Kolkata.

We returned to our various host's homes overnight and met for a city tour of Kolkata the following morning. During the course of the day we visited three different temples, the Kolkata Police Museum, the St Paul's Cathedral and the majestic Victoria Monument.

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We returned to our hosts places after the tour and spent a pleasant evening with our hosts.

Freeset

The following morning, we reassembled and visited Freeset, a New Zealand founded company which operates within the massive Sonagacchi red light district in Kolkata. The aim of the business is to provide a way out of prostitution for women - some 10,000 work in the area. There are some 200 women working at Freeset currently. They produce bags and tee shirts of a very high quality and market and sell them to the likes of the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia. We saw tee shirt screen printing for New Zealand schools, some promotional bags for the Observer newspaper in the UK and other custom printed products. A very positive business initiative indeed and the Indian 41 Club members who came with us were very enthusiastic - hopefully something will flow from that.

We were unable to take photographs in the factory, but the website link is as follows:

FreeSet Website

The best support to this now established business we can provide is to encourage anyone who wants promotional bags manufactured or tee shits produced would be to consider using this business to help them achieve their goals. The quality of their product range was very good.

After the Freeset tour, we went for a lovely lunch at the lawn bowling club of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club - the only bowling green in Kolkata.

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A visit to a local shopping mall followed, after which we returned to our hosts homes ahead of a lovely combined dinner which included a cultural show with some beautiful song and dance for which we responded by singing Pokarekare Ana . A very pleasant evening.

All in all, a very pleasant stay in Kolkata where our hosts provided us with their time to get a taste of their city.

Sadly, Peter Everett left us in Kolkata as he has a cruise ahead of him in a few weeks. Interesting to note, however that he left with some excess baggage by all accounts (laundry from the hosts where he had been with Bill and Liz Hammond). Not quite sure what he has planned for Liz's underwear and nighty - the mind boggles. Good luck with that Peter - I'm sure Alison will be a little intrigued.

Posted by Chris White 09:26 Archived in India Comments (2)

Varanasi

Mother Ganges

On arrival in Varanasi, we checked into our hotel and had a quiet afternoon before leaving for our first visit to the ghats along the Ganges River.

We travelled through Varanasi by tuk tuk for about four kilometers before walking the final kilometer to the river. We paused along the way for some chai - a well known chai shop by all accounts.

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On arrival at the ghats, we spent 45 minutes having a quiet walk along the riverside where people were engaged in various activities including a bathe in the river.

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Once we'd had a walk, we boarded a boat and went mid stream in the Ganges where we lit candles and set them down into the river (with our right hand) in memory of family members no longer with us. From a personal perspective, it was a lovely time to remember my own father who passed away in October 2012. This was quite special, a quiet time to pause, reflect and remember loved ones. The sight of those candles on the water was quite beautiful as they quietly drifted down the river.

Jenni and Candle

Jenni and Candle


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The evening prayers started a little after 7pm and we sat and watched most of the ceremony from the boat before returning to the shore.

Priests at Evening Ceremony

Priests at Evening Ceremony

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On completion, we returned to our hotel by cycle rickshaw.

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The following morning, we left the Hotel at 0445 to see the sunrise over the Ganges by boat. The surprise for us were two musicians - one playing the sittar and the other tabla drums which was beautiful to listen to as we were rowed along the river to see the various sights.

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We were rowed to the Manikarnika cremation ghat which is considered to be the most auspicious place to be cremated. One burial pyre was well alight, another couple were virtually ash and two bodies were ready for cremation. There are around 250 cremations every day alongside the river. It was very interesting to watch some of the rituals associated with the cremation. The body is washed in the Ganges, placed on the pyre. The flame for the cremation is taken from a fire which is reputed to have been burning continuously for 3,500 years.

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I returned to the Manikarnika Cremation Ghat that evening to sit and watch the proceedings. There were about 10 cremation fires burning and three bodies awaiting to be cremated. The ceremony starts with the male members of the family washing the wrapped body in the river. They expose the head and pour water over the mouth before taking the body and placing it on the funeral pyre. The flame is taken from the ancient fire and all of the male family members present walk around the body five times before the body is burned.

There are also different areas for cremation based on caste - while I was there, a high caste (and very large) body was carried down to the river. Once the body had been washed, the body was carried over another awaiting cremation and off to another more discrete area for cremation.

Other activity is taking place all the time - the hips of women and the ribs of men do not apparently burn in the fire as they are the toughest bones. There were several sets of hips which were thrown into the river by holy men (sadhus) immediately in front of the cremation ghat in the period I was watching from my boat.

The other thing that was most bizarre was the sight of a very large man reclined in a boat while several men were sifting through the ashes of the cremations for precious metals (gold, silver and copper). He is evidently very rich and sells the precious metals to jewellers for reuse. He seemed quite happy - drinking and eating whilst he supervised the harvest. Only in India...

Holy men, children under the age of five years, those who are unmarried, those bitten by a snake, and those who are pregnant are weighted down with a stone and lowered directly into the Ganges. Turtles have been bred and live in the Ganges with the express purpose of eating human flesh off unburned or partially burnt bodies.

We concluded the morning walk through the old part of Varanasi where we passed by a Government Bhang Store - bhang being a preparation from the leaves and flowers (buds) of the female cannabis plant, smoked or consumed as a beverage.

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Posted by Chris White 07:09 Archived in India Comments (2)

Orchha and Khujaraho

Mausoleums and Temples

After our train journey from Agra, we drove to Orchha for lunch and a look at the mausoleums there.

Orchha

Orchha was founded in the 15th century and was the seat of power for the local king. The town also contains a number of mausoleums for various Maharajahs of that area.

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Once we'd seen the Orchha mausoleums, we drove to Khajuraho, arriving a little after 10pm.

Khajuraho

Khajuraho is the location of some famous temples, the most visited being the Western temple complex.

We had a later start in the morning, visiting the Western Temple complex at Khajuraho a little after 10am. The temples which are around 1000 years old have a number of carvings on them – some of which are quite erotic. Health and Safety Warning - Please avert your eyes if sensitive to the final few photos (its the art that counts...).

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We returned to the hotel around midday – by which time the outside temperature was a margin over 40C. We had a walk through the local Khajuraho village for an hour which was quite enjoyable. Dinner was at a local restaurant during which we had a power cut. There had been a local protest about restrictions around trading hours - the power cut (the transformer was sabotaged) was a part of that protest.

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Everyone then enjoyed some down time ahead of an overnight train journey to Varanasi - some of us into the pool in our underwear (and a few with less) when one of our group had locked the key in the room we'd been allocated before dinner - it took some 30 minutes for the hotel staff to get the door open.

The train trip was quite uneventful - it even arrived on time (which apparently is quite uncharacteristic..). We have one more overnight train ride in Southern India. I trust it will be just as uneventful. Whoops my tale would be replete if I forgot to mention the "Psycho" like screams we got just after lights out when a cockroach dropped onto one of our ladies and the subsequent hunt for the beast which could have been filleted by all accounts if the commentary is to be believed... Hitchcock would certainly have been very pleased with the sound effects.

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Posted by Chris White 22:37 Archived in India Comments (6)

Agra - Home to the Taj Mahal

After a five hour drive, we stopped briefly at Fatehpur Sikri, the capital city built by Emperor Akbar which served for 12-15 years before it was deserted. This was quite a wonderful palace and unfolded a little like the Forbidden City in Beijing. Sadly at the end of our visit, with an impending rain storm approaching, we got quite a dust storm ahead of that rain and had to leave before seeing the entire palace.

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On arrival in Agra, we had a quick freshen up before leaving to see Taj Mahal under a full moon. It is hard to describe the security arrangements for a night visit to Taj (only done during the full moon). We had a quick frisk down and then awaited the call for our 30 minute visit to Taj Mahal where we were restricted to a view from the main gate. It is difficult to take security seriously where the guards are armed with WW2 303 rifles, but I guess if the guano hit the fan then a round from an ancient rifle will still have the desired effect.

There had been a report of a bomb blast close to the Taj that day so I was relieved to hear we were all ok to make the visit. It later turned out that the blast was caused in a scrap metal merchants premises where they were trying to extract copper from unused Army ordnance (three people died in the blast). It would certainly have been a downer on the trip if Taj were closed due to terrorist activity.

Sadly the night was cloudy, so the view of Taj under the moonlight was patchy. However, it was a lovely way to get a first glimpse of this very famous monument. Photography proved to be a little difficult trying to use the barriers as a steadying point. Only 100 people per hour are allowed to view Taj during the full moon, so we were very lucky to get the opportunity.

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A total of 100 people per hour over a period of three hours are allowed to stand at the gatehouse for 30 minutes to see how Taj looks in the moonlight every month. Whilst there was a bit of cloud about, the viewing was quite special. This viewing was made possible in Delhi by Ranjit, the International Relations Officer for India 41 who had a few contacts and made the arrangements ahead of our visit which was much appreciated.

We had a late start the following morning and made our way to Agra Fort, built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. This was a highlight for many as the fort is quite spectacular, as are the views across to Taj Mahal from where Shan Jahan was held for the last eight years of his life by his youngest son Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb also had his elder brother Dara Shikoh’s head presented to his father at the fort during that time once he had had him executed – a lovely family.

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Following our visit to Agra fort, we visited an embroidery and jewellery business. We were shown some exquisite three dimensional needlework which was quite extraordinary – some pieces had taken 30 years to complete. Once we’d seen those pieces, we were taken upstairs to the jewellery show room which was huge. Of interest was a necklace of large uncut but polished emeralds which had belonged to Mumtaz Mahal (she who is buried at Taj Mahal). Another large necklace made using emeralds belonging to Mumtaz Mahal but mounted in the 1930’s along with some other fine emerald jewellery were shown to us – a number of our ladies took great pleasure in being adorned with this priceless collection of bling.

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After a very lovely lunch, we visited “Baby Taj”, the mausoleum of the parents of Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s wife Nur Jahan’s. This exquisite tomb complex predates the Taj Mahal ,but is similar in layout.

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The following morning, we arose early for sunrise at Taj Mahal which could never fail to impress. The morning was stunning and we all enjoyed our visit.

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Then it was time to return to our hotel and checkout ahead of a long train and bus trip.

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Posted by Chris White 03:12 Archived in India Comments (2)

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