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Bihar

Behold the great capital of Magadha standing in all its beauty. Filled with flocks and herds and its stock of water never exhausted and adorned also with fine mansions standing in excellent array, it is free from every kind of calamity’. Thus reads a breathless description of Emperor Jarasandha’s capital Girivraja in the Mahabharata.

Going up the road from Patna to Gaya and then on to Nalanda, it is clear that this description no longer applies to Bihar, as Magadha is known these days. There are shanties on the sides of the roads everywhere. Even the brick-lined pukka houses look incomplete as though the builders ran out of cement and paint with which to finish them up.

Bihar is a cautionary tale for any grand civilization that might be tempted to take itself too seriously. It has become a cliché to compare the state of modern Bihar to its history as the mighty kingdom Magadha and shake one’s head with a certain schadenfreude.

Several thousand years ago, Magadha was the most powerful kingdom in India. Magadhan kings proved themselves worthy successors to the ruthless Jarasandha. The ironically-named Ajatashatru was so much in a hurry to rule Magadha that he had his father executed – and then lived to repent it. Men would emerge out of complete obscurity and go on to build wealthy empires. The Nanda dynasty would be founded by an upwardly mobile barber.

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bihar gaya street 1

Magadha was shaped by the exploits of various men called Chandragupta, and they themselves were shaped by Magadha. The first one would found the Maurya dynasty. The second Chandragupta would start the famed Gupta dynasty. His grandson, the last of the Chandrauptas, would expand what his grandfather started and preside over a magnificent ‘golden age’. Collectively, the Chandraguptas have provided employment to generations of modern historians.

If Magadha was known for its power and wealth on the one hand, it was also known for learning, philosophy, renunciation and its monasteries. It wasn’t merely a happy intellectual fluke that new faiths such as Jainism and Buddhism emerged in Bihar and spread out to other parts of the Sub-continent and beyond. The Buddha preached in Vaishali, not too far from the then Magadhan capital of Rajagriha.

There is almost no trace of all this physical and intellectual grandeur in today’s Bihar. The revered ancient temples of Gaya are filthy and unkempt. It seems to have been decided that with so much holiness to go around in Gaya, hygiene and maintenance are really unnecessary. Open drains with overflowing sewage decorate the sides of the roads. Still, it is not all bad. I can attest from personal experience that the food stalls at the edge of the gutters serve up the most delicious and fresh food. Hot steaming rotis fly off the tavas. It is just not advisable to glance into the dark dingy kitchens where the hot subzis are cooked.

gaya temple

The fields around the countryside are lush and green and fertile. This perhaps has been the one constant in the last many millenia. The lush green fields contrast with the advertisements for Lays Chips and Pepsi that accentuate the manmade squalor of the towns such as Makhdumpur and Jahanabad that whiz past. It is fun to imagine that these plains that contain the green fields and clumsy shanties once saw Magadhan armies thundering out to show the rest of India who was boss. Today’s Bihar sends armies of blue collar workers out to other states of India in search of basic livelihood.

In the ruins of the famous Nalanda, we hear about students who here from far off places all over the Indian sub-continent, and even all the way from Korea and China. Upon arrival, they would be tested at the entrance by the security guards who would allow them in only if they were satisfied with the quality of the answers. Otherwise they would have to make the long journey back to their native lands.  This story is a testimony to both the high standards of the intake at Nalanda and the quality of its personnel. For if the guards were so erudite, what to say of the teachers and philosophers at Nalanda?

Much before Nalanda, ancient Pataliputra was renowned for its education. “There is a tradition that Pataliputra was a place which was the center of examination of all the makers of shastra, the founders and exponents of different systems. Here were thus examined eminent creative geniuses and authors like Varsha and Upavarsha, Panini and Pingala, and Vyadi. In later times Vararuchi and Patanjali achieved fame as scholars by first passing their examination at this center of learning.“ [source: Kavyamimamsa – by poet rajashekhara].

On the other hand, news about the state of modern education in Bihar tends to be depressing or amusing depending on your point of view. Bihar’s universities have been more in the news for the inventive ways their students manage to cheat in exams than the quality of their scholarship.  Of course, all this is a somewhat lazy comparison, like so, in which I compare the best of one era with the less lovable aspects of the present day.

But there is something curious going on here, despite the depressing press coverage of modern higher education in Bihar. Everywhere one looks, there are schools, even in the smallest hamlets. Girls’ schools, boys’ schools, residential schools, co-ed schools and coaching classes for competitive exams such as the IITs and Indian Civil Services. Girls and boys in school uniforms stream out on the streets in the late afternoon on their way back from school.

magadh cambridge school 2

Bihar is on a single-minded mission to educate its young. Houses and buildings are shabby, and the only imposing buildings around here are the schools. This is a place that seems to have gotten its priorities right. It is okay to live in shabby, nondescript dwellings, provided your kids are educated in good schools, Bihar’s residents seem to be collectively saying.

For an ancient civilization whose glory days are far behind it, perhaps this is the seed of a new hope. There is no longer a Maurya or a Gupta running affairs at Pataliputra. The great schools of philosophy that provided thought-leadership all over India and across much of Asia are now in ruins. Pingala and Patanjali no longer take their examinations here. But perhaps this is the beginning of something modest but marvelous – children going to school en masse.

 

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Try to ignore the aggressive monkeys out to steal all your worldly possessions. It is not easy, but do try. Do definitely ignore the crowds. In this part of the world, ignoring crowds should be an ingrained habit by now anyway. Tune out the guides reciting their rote-learned history in a painful, singsong voice. Remind yourself –again -that they all have as much right to be there as you do, the monkeys perhaps even more so. And do try to put the aesthetically-challenged town at the bottom of the hill out of your mind.

Camera at the ready, run up the steps up the hill and make your way around a group of some 30 restless schoolchildren being subjected to a history lesson by a teacher.

The view is well worth it.

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 We visited the Badami caves while touring Hampi, Aihole and Pattadakkal. All these places can be combined in a single trip.

Hyderabad’s Old City has got to be one of the busiest and most chaotic places on the planet.

Autorickshaws really believe that laws of physics (and common sense) don’t apply to them, and try to head in different directions all at once, then find they cannot get anywhere. The pungent fumes from the exhausts almost jump off the photograph to assault the reader on his comfortable sofa.

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Heaven forbid that there should be any sort of urban planning.

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But a very short distance from this chaotic center of the universe is an oasis of peacefulness, good taste and planning: Chowmahalla palace, home to the Nizams of Hyderabad in the 19th century and modern day museum.

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The interiors of the palace are just as good.

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This is the founder of the Hyderabadi Asaf Jahi dynasty, Mr. Asaf Jah the First, no less.

DSCN0327 And this gentleman below  is the last of this illustrious dynasty.

DSCN0342 There surely must be a mathematical law that postulates that corpulence is inversely proportional to one’s sequence in the dynastic tree .

This is the Nizam’s car collection. In an earlier era it might have been elephants and horses.

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And welcome back to the present:  DSCN0212

Vienna’s Cafe’ Central

A coffee house should have the right to feel satisfied if the only thing it ever does is to serve up excellent coffee and pastries. By this exacting standard Café Centrale should feel very satisfied.

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Central pastry 2

But that is not all. Not only does it serve delicious coffee and pastries, but also it does so in a very magnificent setting, though it may just look ordinary by Viennese architectural standards.

Cafe central exterior

Furthermore, it turns out that Vienna’s cafes were the scenes of much intellectual ferment in the 19th & early 20th centuries. Café Centrale has been frequented some very well known (if notorious) people – Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler,  and Leon Trotsky amongst others – as well as the usual roster of writers and intellectuals. It was also the scene of much chess playing and new philosophies such as logical positivism.

Cafe centrale

Cafe centrale

Peter Altenberg was a German writer who spent most of his waking hours at the café and even had his mail delivered here. So they have put up this poster of him right at the entrance to the café.

Peter Altenberg

Modern visitors to Vienna’s coffee houses are mostly tourists such as myself, looking to grasp a slice of history along with a slice of cake. There is also a sprinkling of affluent-looking locals.

cafe central coffee

And did I say, the coffee is excellent?

It is one of life’s great pleasures to be walking around Istanbul’s bazaars, sampling the sweets, and getting ripped off by the master salesmen.

“Try this locum. Have you eaten the pistachio locum? Best in the world, my friend”

 

 “See that photograph on the wall? That’s my brother’s daughter. She went to university last year. His son is in high school. My second cousin’s brother in law is in Germany. And my grandmother’s sister ……….etc etc.”

Grand Bazaar

“Have some more baklava. You should take the chocolate baklava for all your friends?”

                                                                                                                                               

“Saffron from Iran, Spices from India.”

[Sounds very exotic, except that the exact same saffron is available in California for less, and the latter is just plain old turmeric. Still, buying turmeric has never been so much fun.]

 

“You like pomegranate tea? Green tea, hibiscus tea? What about apple tea? You don’t like tea? No problem, I give you one big packet of each. Special for You.”

At night you go back to your hotel room and reluctantly, hesitantly, review your spending. You sigh, shake your head and attempt to fit in all the stuff into your suitcases. Then you have to go out and buy another suitcase from a salesman who convinces you to buy a Turkish suitcase that is twice as expensive as a Chinese made one, because “those Chinese imports are junk”.

Let me start with a confession. I cheated. Before you get shocked that I sold my soul for a mere meal, let me reassure you that I did not slide into eating meat. Not even in my most hungry moments was I tempted to jump out of the car on the SH-1 and run up the rolling hills to steal a sheep or two for my much delayed lunch. Yes, there are 12 million sheep in New Zealand and if I had made away with a couple for a quick takeout meal, they wouldn’t have been missed, but that’s not the point. I have been a lifelong vegetarian and mean to stay that way.

No, what I really meant was that I didn’t do a whole lot of exploring native cuisine that we’re expected to do while traveling. We are told that a great deal of a culture is mixed up with the cuisine and to explore native cuisine is to immerse oneself in that culture. Alas, I failed in that in New Zealand. Since the staple cuisine of New Zealand is steak, sea food, lamb or venison, what did you expect, really?

So I cheated by eating a lot of Indian food. And since I’m Indian myself, this is very unglamorous and non-adventurous. In my defense, I can only say that in all the major cities -Auckland, Wellignton and Queenstown, and even in the smaller towns such as Greymouth, Franz Josef – Indian food  was readily available. Even when I told myself that I would try to find a different type of cuisine, I ended up succumbing to Indian food. I would be walking around pretending to look for something both vegetarian and ‘authentic’ and suddenly, my taste and smell buds would be hit by a combination of about 22 different Indian spices. I’d shrug to myself and head over to eat dal makhani or paneer tikka from  restaurants that called themselves Rasoi, Tulsi or Flavors of India. I didn’t try very hard to resist the temptation.

Of course there are other options as well for vegetarians. Thai restaurants are ubiquitous, and one can get vegetarian versions of most dishes. Just ask them to skip the fish or oyster sauce and send up a prayer that they don’t add any other sort of obscure sauce derived from some poor animal without its explicit approval.

Turkish and Greek restaurants and bistros also seem to be very popular. I did try to eat at a Greek restaurant one day, but readily gave up when it did not seem to be well stocked with veggie options. The guy behind the counter pointed to one single item on the menu – falafels -when I asked about vegetarian food, and said they did not have anything else. While I like falafals, I didn’t much like his attitude. So back I headed to the Indian joint -hey they had at least a dozen dishes.

There’s nothing as filling and nourishing as an authentic New Zealand breakfast, as I found at one of our homestays. The jam was all homemade, and so was the honey. Manuka honey is a New Zealand specialty and is said to possess antiseptic properties. And is tasty as hell.

I also fell madly in love with the mocachino in New Zealand, but it deserves a separate post by itself.

Visiting Yellowstone National Park is not usually an adrenaline charged experience. Sure, it involves watching huge geysers erupt from the ground and making a spectacle of themselves. It involves driving through spectacularly lovely landscapes and encountering law-abiding bison munching on grass. But it does not typically involve adrenaline in any significant measure.

Unless you happen to be traveling with my husband, a man driven by a steely determination to get his money’s worth out of every dollar and an obsession with having pictures taken of himself against every possible backdrop. Wait, you say. How does this result in any type of adrenaline rush?  Ah, but therein lies a tale.

Source credit: Daniel Mayer, via Wikipedia

I had a mild foreboding of things to come on our way to Yellowstone from Jackson Hole airport. The night was pitch dark and the road windy. I promptly fell asleep, leaving my husband in charge. On and on, the car went uphill for about 2 hours before we realized that we had gone up the wrong road. We had to retrace our path and managed to take the right road this time around but not before taking an accidental detour into what turned out to be an eerie private dirt road. I started to wonder what would happen if our car were to break down in that place. There was not a soul for miles around, unless any large guys with chainsaws happened to be lurking unseen. I quickly put such thoughts out of my mind and sensibly went back to sleep. At some point presumably, we got back on track and arrived at our destination. .

Despite this inauspicious start, the next 3 days were deceptively peaceful. We drove around as much of the park as we could and met bison so frequently that we started to get to know them by their first names. And this was part of the problem.

You see, in my native India, the bison’s cousins the water buffalo are very common, not only in the countryside but even on city streets. Though they are a major source of milk supply, they are not really well regarded.Buffalo are considered dirty, lazy animals lacking in self respect. Unfair stereotype, especially for so useful an animal, but there it is. So when we encountered bison in Yellowstone, we did acknowledge that they were big and could be dangerous when provoked. But there was the nagging thought in the back of our minds that these animals were merely glorified water buffalo. Were there no other animals around here that were more impressive?

Allegedly, there were. The literature and web sites we had researched had stated that Yellowstone was  home to moose, gray wolf, grizzly and lynx, amongst other species. But to our disappointment, except for the all-pervasive bison and a few deer, we hadn’t really seen any of the others and had not had the opportunity to take their pictures. My husband thought it essential that we see at least a couple of other animals, else we weren’t getting our full money’s worth out of ourYellowstonevisit. I pointed out that we’d seen extraordinary geysers and lovely landscapes and best of all, were not cooped up in the office going to meetings. But the man was having none of it. He demanded grizzly and wolf and moose. At every bend and curve he hoped to see glimpses of these animals but was consistently disappointed for 3 days.

On the last day, we headed out to the airport at Jackson Hole to catch our 5PM flight back home. The husband had his camera on the ready and clicked everything in sight along our route. Every time we passed through a pretty vista, he stopped the car to get pictures.

And so the afternoon wore on.   We then came to a dam that we didn’t remember seeing on our way up toYellowstone, possibly because we were too busy getting lost in the night and driving through eerie fields. So of course the husband insisted that we stop and walk around a bit and take pictures in a variety of poses. I tried to spoil the fun by warning that we were getting late for our flight but was roundly ignored. After much gamboling around the dam, we drove on.

After a while, we saw a small crowd collect on the shore of a very pretty lake. On enquiring, we were told that there was a moose on the other side of the lake. The husband all but flew out of the car, camera on the ready. The moose was too far to be seen with any clarity, but we got chatting with a photographer who had been tracking the moose for a long time. Now I’m one of those people whose expectation of a camera is that it should (a) take pictures  and (b) look cute. In fact, I bought my camera because of its ‘plum’ color. It may not have been the best camera for landscape photos (even I could see that), but boy, was it cute. But this gentleman took his photography very seriously, so seriously in fact, that he had with him a big tripod with a lot of expensive looking gear and assorted lenses and binoculars.

He was (alas!), a very friendly guy and offered to let us view the moose through his fancy equipment. By now, I’d lost all hope of making it to the flight on time and just decided to go with the flow. We took turns looking at the moose through the photographer’s binoculars and admired its horns, the way it was sitting on the grass and even its facial expressions. We also excitedly pointed it out to some others who had also by now stopped to see what all the fuss was about. A rollicking good time was had by all, including me, I should confess.

Finally the moose decided it had enough of us humans and scampered away. So off we drove again.

This was the point at which our laidback trip got transformed into an adrenaline charged race against time. My husband finally realized how precariously close we were to missing our flight and decided that our ‘sub-compact’ rental vehicle could moonlight as a Formula One race car and stepped hard on the accelerator. We zipped through the road, only occasionally touching the ground.

We still might have made it to airport within time. But in a little while, we saw another small crowd on the side of the road. Predictably, I heard the dreaded words, ‘let’s check it out’. So we did.

It turned out to be a grizzly bear, big and fat and brown. Delightedly, we stood there and admired it, congratulating ourselves on our good fortune.

But there was the small matter of possibly missing our flight. So off we raced again, sending up a prayer not to encounter any cops. We got onto the airport road ofJackson Holeand made the last mad dash for the airport.

At this point, the husband declared, “We need to fill up on gas because the tank is less than one quarter full. Or the rental company is gonna charge us $3.15 additional for each gallon of gas’. I glared. ‘Are you kidding me? If we miss the flight, we’ll have to stay overnight and pay extra for the hotel rooms, and rebook flights tomorrow at very high prices, and be in the pleasant position of explaining why we did not show up at work’.  To my astonishment, for I’d expected some more argument, he agreed with my logic. So we went straight for the airport and I jumped off the vehicle and ran blindly to the check-in counter at exactly 19 minutes to 5PM.

Now if this had been my usual Southwest counter at Burbank Airport, it might still have been okay. But the lady at the check-in counter was determined to do her duty and that meant telling me to go to hell because we were simply too late.

By then the husband had hurried up, having returned the rental car. He turned on what he considered his charm and tried to sweet talk the lady, but she would not budge. Secretly I was rather pleased. This was going to be good for at least 5 years’ worth of ‘I Told Yous’. You see, I tend to be the absent minded one in the family and my husband is the careful, organized type. So something like this could give me and enormous amount of ammunition for future use, and even the inconvenience of rebooking flights and staying in Jackson Hole would be well worth it.

My husband wasn’t giving up so easily and went to find a supervisor. The guy came to the counter and told us that even if we had been a five minutes early, he could have helped, but now it was 11 minutes to 5 and simply too late and sorry and all that but we couldn’t check in. At which point we breathlessly pointed out that we had been very much there 5 minutes ago but the lady hadn’t let us check in so please, please, please, help us. Finally he relented and let us check in our bags and had us board the plane. It was a small airport so we got this done pretty fast.

At 4.53, we sank to our seats in relief, which in my case, was tempered with a little bit of regret that we hadn’t missed the flight after all, thereby depriving me of all that excellent ‘I told you so’ ammunition. Still, it was good to be going home as planned, and I promised myself that I would find other opportunities to gather ammunition.

At 5.05, the plane taxied out on the runway and started to take off. The husband, as always, hijacked the window seat and started clicking away, taking pictures of the wings of the plane during takeoff. He does that on every single flight, though as far as I can tell, all aircraft wings look the same. At last, once we were fully airborne and the plane had tucked in its wings, he shut his camera and put it away. Relaxing into his seat, he turned around and looked at me. ‘We got our money’s worth’ he said and smiled happily.

I submitted a version of this post for the Wanderlust and Lipstick Travel Writing Contest of 2011.