On waking this morning I enter’d the 14th week of my Indian adventure, passing the half-way mark in the process & finding myself well deep into the real India, like. En route I have nearly drown’d in a riptide in the Indian Ocean, been a top Goa DJ, translated an ancient Tamil text, & just about a million other cool events, moments & opportunities for simply living which this wonderful country has offer’d so far. All of that was in the south, but now I’ll be slowly ranging across the north, beginning with today’s two & a half hour bus ride in search of Deomali – the highest mountain of the Eastern Ghats.
The journey took us thro’ Koriput, which was full of gun-toting guarding against attacks from the Maoist Naxalites. By the time I got to Pattangi, a small dusty town, I still had another 30K to go to get to Deomali. However, there was a pretty massive hill right in front of me, so I just climbed that instead. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey that counts most. At the top I found myself like the sungod Surya, with peaks of green hills circling on every side like orbiting planets. It was so reminiscent of northern Britain it was uncanny, & I could make out the outlines of both Pendle Hill & Arthur’s seat.
Returning to Jeypore, I’ve just had a lovely meal at the Sai Krishna hotel, the town’s finest restaurant. It was paid for by Biswa & his mate Saroj (meaning Lotus). I guess I kinda paid for the meal myself with me being a more than regular customer these past few days, & I did feel guilty when Biswa look’d shock’d the bill – approaching 500 rupees, a fiver to me, but clearly a lot more to them. Still, it was their invitation, so then;s the rules.
We had a lovely chat, with him filling me in on Orissa – its poverty, education problems, temples & dynasties – & me promising the lads somewhere to stay if they ever visited Edinburgh. Incidentally, Saraj says the freedom that Republic Day represents is merely a facade.
Tomorrow I’m gonna set off into the Orissan hinterland. It’s a proper step into the unknown really. Of the five million tourists who visit India, less than one percent hit this state. Of these, the vast majority visit just Puri & the Konark Sun Temple. The district I’m heading for tomorrow is call’d Mayurbhanj – which has lovely nature reserves full of tigers, but also 3 rapes & 2 kidnappings a day, alongside a wild killer elephant that hasn’t been caught yet. In Jeypore I’ve been getting my bearings really, Orissa is another India completely & I’ve been learning a few words of Oriya to assist me – including ‘bolo swada’ which means good taste. I figure if I do get kidnapp’d by the Naxalites, by complementing their food I should get on their good side.
I left Jeypore this morning on what appeared to be a normal bus. It was, however, a boneshaker, & the driver insisted on haring down the road, sending the bus flying thro’ the air at every bump. It was like being on the dodgems for four & a half fuckin’ hours. The first part of the journey was unspectacular; a level & spacious world dotted with rough-built huts, & pepper’d with chequerboard squares of paddy fields. Then we hit a forest & after a while began a sharp drop through the trees. It seems that Jeypore had stood on a plateau.
On reaching the bottom of the hills we began moving thro’ a vast plain, interspersed with the lovely, isolated, idiosyncratic hills of Kalhandi District. The region is kinda famous, apparently, for a series of devasting droughts that hit the area – reducing women to selling their daughters for 40 rupees just to feed the rest of the family. Then, after a short while, the bus pull’d into this pathetic wee place to fix a puncture. The Indian busses are hard-core & have eight tyres each. It was interesting enough watching the conductor unscrew the great wheels from its axle, manhandle it to the garage & an hour later reverse the process.
So, I finally reach’d Bwanipatana, the capital of Kalahandi. It was pleasant enough, a series of intersecting triangular squares. My attempts at getting a decent night’s sleep were thwarted, however, by the racket that echoed thro’ the cavernous hotel. Every room had their TV turnd up full volume in an attempt, I think, to drown out all the other TVs. Total nightmare, & with the mozzys on full assault any moment of exhausted slumber were very precious & much appreciated indeed.
While in Bwanipatana last night, I was googling up an ongoing route, & discovered there was an ancient fort called Asurgah, 30K away, which was only a couple of Kilometres from the train line which would keep me going north. So, I set off this morning on another boneshaker bus – which was nothing more than a rusting tin-can with wheels. It dropp’d me off at a place called Narla, from which I walk’d & hitched bike lifts about 4k to Asurgah Fort. It is situated a sleepy village & this gorgeous lake surrounded by paddy fields, & consists of four great banks of earth & four equally massive empty spaces where the gates would once have been. Within the walls, a few houses nestle together in rural existence, fetching water from a deep well with a tall rope-pully-bucket-thing. The experience produc’d the following sonnet;
There is a village in the world not yet connected to the grid
Where life is led at the pace of the plodding Water Buffalo
& puppies freely play & all the children collect wild berries
& paddy dries in the searing sun, peck’d at by Sonepur’s chickens,
Where dogs spend all day dozing & the pigs get into everything
The cute shack of a shop tends to its community’s needs, somehow
From herbs for the turakarree to the village alcoholic
There’s eggs & rice, there’s flour & spice, there’s onions & plastic toys
& boys divide their leisure between the volleyball & cricket
& a wee minority possess power bars on their phones
Where the old men chatter drinking chi & smoking perfumed beedies
By squatting women sporting nose-bling, arms full of glimm’ring bracelets
Discussing another happy bride’s matrimonial TV
That gathers dust, unwatch’d – you can hear it in the serenity
While pottering about, I met a very eloquent, English speaking 22-year old engineer student, who showed me a wee temple hidden in a corner of the fort, guarded over by two stone lions with their ‘member’s sticking out like dogs on heat. The keeper of the temple asked if I had washed that day – a major premise to getting inside. Luckily, I had, so he brought me out some rice & coconut – nice guy. Then, I goes into the temple, & sees this vivid image of a man-god, who my eloquent guide explain’d had destroyed the idols of local gods & charmed the chief into worshipping him as a god on earth instead.
After a wee while, with my several night’s lack of proper sleep accumulating into an ‘I’m gonna fall over exhausted & got robbed kinda soon’ kinda vibe, I set off towards a nearby train station, & the rest of my journey around India. So I came to Rupra Road, where I discovered the trains were that day on strike… possibly. Three hours & several different answers from the train guys’ later this was confirmed, & remembering I’d seen a sign for a hotel back in Narla I set off walking the 7k. This was helped by my third boneshaker, a ride in the back of a shed thing carried by a tractor. Soon I was walking down Narla Road – which is basically a street that runs parallel to the train line. The hotel is lovely actually, & finally I got a decent kip.
On waking I found myself in a poet’s paradise – peace & quiet & this great u-cup of hills, full of spacious agriculture thro’ which one can wander & muse. At one point I joined in this herdsman who was ferrying his cattle between patches of green shoots. For a while I held the leash of his pet goat, a spritely wee thing, while he dash’d from stray cow to stray cow, whipping them with his stick. It has been a lovely day, I mean total pace & quiet mentally & I’m so far from anyway, & quite at random too, I feel completely liberated, & free.
I’ve decided to chill out for a couple of days at the heart of my day, kickin’ back on an eye of the hurricane vibe. I mean, this is the true India. They don’t get Westerners here, period – even during the Raj the sole British officer of Kalahndi was based at Bwanipatana & ‘ruled’ the place through Indian police officers. This surfaces in the 21st century as lots of starings & curiosities, but my steadily growing advances in the Oriyan tongue is amusing them no end. I even got my first ever moustache today! I’d gone to a barbers for a ten rupees shave & soon realized he was leaving my upper lip area free of foam. I was so amused I gave him double money – ten rupees for the shave & ten for the Freddie Mercury.
Shaved off my moustache first thing – I look’d like a dick. Continued the day in fine spirits, & even had a shower with shampoo – it was mainly to work up enough lather to shave off my daft ‘tache.
Left Narla for Sambalpur, a four-hour train ride away. The city was a big dark cancer of a place & I bought the first ticket out of there. I had to wait a few hours so I took a hotel room to avoid being kill’d. On checking my emails discover’d I will be meeting Charlie in Puri next week – what joy! Remaining on the internet, tnstead of exploring Sambalpur I thought I’d google it instead – a much safer proposition. So here’s some facts.
Sambalpur is located on the banks of river Mahanadi, with a population of about a third of a million. Nearby is Hirakud Dam, the longest earthen dam in the world and the largest artificial lake of Asia. The name Sambalpur is derived from the Goddess Samalei (Odia: ସମଲେଇ ମାଁ), who is regarded as the reigning deity of the region, while Claudius Ptolemy called it “Sambalak”.
So it was now 10PM, & with my train ar 1AM, & not wanting to risk walking the 4K from my hotel to the station through cold-war-eastern-euro-streets, my backpack screaming to murderous thugs ‘rob me’ – I set off at 10PM, where there were just enough friendly faces about to see me thro’. This meant a substantial wait at the station, but a safe one.
Earlier this morning my sleeper train had disgorg’d me at Puri. Despite its reputation as an essential go-to for the Indian tourist, it’s quite a charmless place. The maddest thing about Puri, tho’, is the government Bhang shop, where you can legally buy cannabis & opium, & I’ve bought a bit of both – for both fun & convenience. I’m the same in Amsterdam, I’ll always buy magic mushrooms because they’re on sale in the windows – & I’ll always regret it at some point as I whitey by a canal.
Back in Orissa, Puri is a largish place, settled on a flat coastal plain. I am staying in the travellers quarter, a bustle of hotels, pepper’d with spaced-out travellers. The chief points of interest are the Jaggernath Temple & the sea-beach – but both ultimatley disappointing. For a start, non-Hindus are forbidden the temple, & can merely get a poor glimpse of its innards from a nearby library’s roof. This library was cool, however, a colonial time capsual of a thing, whose books we riddled with bookworm holes like hot rocks on a stoner’s t-shirt. One of these books was the works of an Indian poet call’d Jayadevi – really good stuff, like, which inspired the following poem;
The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity is of wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either
Sir William Jones
From the village of Kenduli by the banks of pretty Prachi
Rode the poet of Orissa, singing Sanskrit to perfections
His temple dancer marrying they would live the life artistic
Give the world his Gita Govind, sang of Krishna’s love for Radha
All aspects of these passion fires from the times of it awaken’d
To contentment in possession, a musical still enacted
From Kerala’s Kathak actors to the folk singers of Nepal
I sing of Krishna’s springtime passion with the melodies of love
Twyx the handsome chief of cowherds – urgent, charming, uncommitted –
& his delicious consort – playful, sulky & tempestuous –
Whose hips & heaving breasts sport with the black bodies of gold robed bees
To & fro the Dark Lord’s earings stroked her cheek, stirr’d her girdle zone
Til morning’s lips exhausted, his body claw’d, her garlands broken
This morning I went back to the library & as I sat beneath the creaking fans once more, flicking thro’ the worm-riddled book, the noisy rush of temple-traffic honking and swirling outside, I felt a memory of the great Imperial adventure surge through my spirit. The colonial era of the British had overseen the translation and study of many ancient texts, a whirl of orientalia which has provided a rich literary canvas for historians to explore. As I read I began to hear a strange, wild music – the long quavering notes of huge horns, like those which awake the echoes of the Alps in the harpy-haunted route to Chamounix. These surreal notes of some ethereal song drew me onto the library roof, where I could observe below me in the street a colorful religious procession of the Hindu sort.
Also watching the events unravel below was a scruffy-looking, fifty-year-old, American gentleman. As we stood together in the blaze of day high on the library’s rooftop he transfixed me with a rather curious tale as if he was an Ancient Mariner & I a hypnotized Wedding Guest.
“Jesus is said to have been there, y’know,” said the American.
“He did…” I replied with nonchalant indifference. It seemed a rather far-fetched notion. Orissa is a long, long way from Jerusalem.
“Yeah man, there’s this book I read a few years back by this Russian guy called… ehm… Notovich – that’s right… it’s called the lost Gospel according to Jesus Christ or something…”
The American went on, explaining that it made a great deal of sense for Jesus to have spent time in India. When he walked on water, for instance, he was merely using the mystical powers of a yogic master. He then described other elements of Indian asceticism that appear in the Gospels, such as reincarnation, as when Jesus declares John the Baptist to have once been the prophet Elijah. Becoming slowly intrigued by the idea, a few days later I found the American’s words whistling around my mind while wandering a provincial library in Bubanaswar, the capital of Orissa. I soon unearthed a copy of Notovich’s book, quietly sitting on a shelf next to another title called ‘Jesus in India,’ by a Muslim writer called, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Taking my seat amidst a silent sea of white shirts, I plunged into both texts, emerging sometime later with the quite solid conviction that Jesus must have spent time in India. The two books in conjunction provided too many coincidences to think otherwise, and being a student of historical mysteries, I have decided to take up the challenge of solving that rather peculiar question – did Jesus live in India?
Away from the books, the portion of seabeach nearest to my rooms is interesting to say the least. It is about 200 m wide, with the first 100 meters being taken up by narrow sandy lanes & the small, one-floor homes of the fishermen that ply the waters. Then comes the beach itself, the first band of which was basically a huge rubbish tip. Then comes a stretch of sand & finally, a few meters from the waves, the blue wooden fisher boats that stretch as far as the eye can see. In between the boats were nets full of the day’s catch, surrounded by onlookers all bartering for fish. When the boats went to sea – forming a D-Day phalanx just off the coast – they leave behind the poo-stools of the fishermen. Proper rank, & I’ve discovered that the phrase ‘seven shades of shit’ is wrong – there’s actually 32.
Charlie arrives tomorrow….