The Indian Subcontinent
Our archive of travel stories from South India, North India and Nepal
Iain and I first arrived in India in 2006. We intended to spend three months in the country before heading east to China via Nepal. Instead, the Subcontinent swallowed us, churned us around in its vast belly, sending us far south to India’s tip, tumbling through its middle, and into Nepal, where we applied for new visas, turned around and went back to Delhi. After ten months, the Subcontinent finally spat us out and we did, eventually, reach China.
It’s difficult to say what kept us there, chugging along the railway, seemingly in circles. Our love affair began in Mumbai, which we fell for instantly – in spite of all the dirt, squalor and horrors we’d been warned against. A ride on an intercity train, packed to the carriage ceilings with small, spindly men – some hanging out the doors, others squeezing their way towards me, the only woman silly enough not to be in the Women’s Only carriage – shook me into realising that India was a world unto itself. Transitioning slowly between Europe and Asia via the Middle East had been valuable experience, but in India everything was different to what had gone before.
With their bare, greasy shelves for beds, the cheap sleeper class carriages were another fast lesson in the redefining of boundaries and, once we’d gotten through a tough first night, it was in sleeper class that we travelled the length and breadth of the country. We visited the capital of every southern state, joining dots on a railway map of this vast country’s southern half, and returned to Mumbai three months later.
Further north, in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, the daily comfort of speaking English all but vanished, and in Jamnagar we were such a rare sight that we were interviewed for the Nobat Evening Gujarati Daily. From Gujarat, we joined a well-trodden route through Rajasthan and moved east to Delhi, across India’s northern plains. The abundance of locals accustomed to tourists throwing dollars around persuaded us to dodge the Golden Triangle’s epicentre – Agra, and the Taj Mahal – and begin the two day journey to Nepal instead.
About an hour by bicycle rickshaw over Nepal’s border was Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha: a village with one dusty road and two or three simple eateries, surrounded by a monastic zone speckled with temples in the traditional architectural style of the countries that built them. Two meditation centres with rigorous methods involving mindfulness and noble silence were inside the monastic zone on a tree-lined path. I’d read about Vipassana meditation, but the idea of not speaking for a week terrified me. We peeked in and saw people dressed in loose cotton clothes inching silently across a courtyard – so slowly , in fact, that it seemed they were weren’t moving at all.
After leaving Nepal’s plains, we met up with friends and spent four days trekking in the Himalayas. It was the rainy season and the weather in Nepal was cool. The people’s temperaments reflected that; its calm made India’s plains seem oppressive. I’ve heard it called India lite: a sugar-free version of its neighbour, with an equally rich culture but far less frustration. We spent a few happy weeks in Kathmandu where, just off the Durbar Square, with its evocative pagodas and crumbling stone work, we ate large, lopsided slices of chocolate cake at The Snowman on Freak Street, a dingy café with psychedelic murals left over from the sixties on its walls, when the city was a major stopover on the Hippie Trail.
We returned to India’s northern plains, now seething hot in the pre-monsoon summer, and baked in a concrete box of a hotel in Varanasi before escaping to the mountains, to Darjeeling. When the rains finally fell, we started making our way back towards Nepal, stopping to wade past cows in the flooded streets of Rishikesh, where I found a yoga class that taught the Sivananda method I had first practised in Kerala. We spent two months teaching Tibetan monks English in Mcleod Ganj, home of Tibet’s government-in-exile. Back in Nepal, we managed almost a week in silence at one of the meditation centres before climbing in a jeep and leaving Nepal for the Roof of the World: Tibet.
We stayed in China for three years, but rather than an open-ended journey, it was our writing careers and pursuit of Mandarin that kept us there. In January 2011, we left our life in Shanghai behind and returned to India.
Mumbai was once again our starting point and, purely out of nostalgia, we stayed in the same dingy hotel from which our eyes had first adjusted to India’s vibrancy, four years before. The ancient Hindu town of Gokarna became our home for a month while I tied up the loose ends of a book I’d begun in China, and Iain began dusting the cobwebs off a travelogue that hadn’t seen so much as a short holiday documented since the flurry of Shanghai life took hold. And from there, off we went again, riding on sleeper class trains to new towns and cities and returning to a few old favourites, but ultimately just being back in India: a world unto itself.
Writer in Transit
I don’t have a single journal entry about my three months in India. I didn’t write anything about my time there, except for a post about the dancer that didn’t dance, in a Bombay beer bar. The scene – a slice out of a furtive, alternative reality, swallowed up in Mumbai’s underworld – spoke to me, forming sentences in my head. But those brief moments of inspiration stood alone.
The Curse of Gokarna
Gokarna is a village growing awkwardly and uncomfortably into a town. It is in this sense an adolescent, unsure of itself in the modern world, but in every other sense Gokarna is old, with a history that stretches into the remotest parts of human memory.
Dawn on the Ganges
Sunrise and sunset are when the Ganges is most magical and most alive, with activity and with ceremony. Varanasi’s intense heat hasn’t yet descended on [...]
Bubbling Over: Attukal Pongala
Celebrated in the South Indian city Trivandrum, the Attukal Pongala Festival is the largest annual gathering of women in the world.
Mark Twain visited Varanasi in 1895, while following the equator around the world. “Benares” he wrote, referring to the city by its Raj era name, [...]
India’s Touts: Journal Entry, Day 75
India’s touts treat tourists like walking wallets. Why should tourists treat them any better?
Rickshaw Art in a City Settled by God
Cycle-rickshaws rattle along streets across Asia, carrying freight as well as people, but Allahabad’s cycle-rickshaws were special: rural landscapes and Bollywood starlets, as well as animals and symbols of luck were hand-painted onto the carriages. The armrests were carved in the shape of fish, and occasionally the whole carriage had been carved – hollowed out to more closely resemble an animal, or sculpted at the edges in decorative waves and columns.
Ticking off the Taj Mahal
Claire and I visited the Taj Mahal on Monday morning. It was a departure for us: despite spending nine months in India four years ago, [...]
Holi: India’s Festival of Colours
Two days ago, the Times of India’s Delhi insert included an article on the “ten dirtiest things crazy revellers had played Holi with.” It was impenetrable, like so [...]
Murudeshwar and the Millionaire
The ancient temple at Murudeshwar in Kerala, India, is like a Hindu Disneyland. It has the largest gopuram in the world, and even the dustbins seem borrowed from the idea of a theme park.
A Bombay Beer Bar
I started going to the beer bars because I was puzzled. I couldn’t figure out why men would want to spend colossal amounts of money [...]
One Minute at Attukal Pongala
Claire is writing a post about it, but in the meantime here is a short, shaky clip from the Attukal Pongala Festival. (That post is [...]
Cockroaches in Sleeper Class: Journal Entry – Day 4
Written on an overnight train from Mumbai to Gokarna. There are cockroaches all over our train carriage. They are scuttling along the floor, crawling over [...]
Travel and Nostalgia
“What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.”
Hyderabad / Cyberabad
I awoke to the muffled beeping of my mobile phone’s alarm, heard through airline issue earplugs and the metal of the train clattering on its [...]
Backwaters and Beer Teapots in Cochin
The train rattled along, inducing in me the sluggish fatigue of rock-rocking train travel and blanketing heat. I sat atop a wooden luggage rack in [...]
Mysore: The Demon, the Goddess and the Indian Prince
Mysore, which was one of India’s most important princely states, traces its history back to a Hindu goddess and a demon doing battle on Chamundi Hill.
A Homestay in a South Indian Village
Rural India is changing: electrifying, learning English and accepting tourists into its homes.
Goa’s Haughty Hippies
Vagator in Goa has a reputation for trance parties. It didn’t live up to it when we visited, but its hippies were there, most of them drug-addled and obnoxious.
Matheran: A Hill Station Petting Zoo
Matheran is hill station outside Mumbai. It where the city comes to breathe: all mechanised vehicles are banned – even bicycles – and monkeys, ponies, cows, goats and dogs roam its streets.
The Mumbai Revelation
Arriving in Mumbai was a revelation. Bollywood, Indian newspapers, cows on Khar Road and crowded trains: all of them began our love affair with India.
A Passage to India (with apologies to E.M. Forster)
“The brown skins, the bare feet, the nose-rings, the humped bullocks – all these things were foreseeable, seemed obvious and familiar from the moment of [...]