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India Travel Diary: More Rampurhat/Tarapith
Chapter 3, Part 2: More Rampurhat/Tarapith
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January 24th, Tarapith
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I take my breakfast in the hotel. It's butter-toast, onion omelette and coffee, not great but edible. Monkeys are chasing each other in the field outside. My laundry is returned, quite well done, and the cost is just 50 rupees (US$1) for two T-shirts and six other small pieces.
The window in my room is open, and a couple of sparrows come and perch on the iron grille, chirping. One of them enters and flies about the room for a bit. Cheeky devil!
I want to go in today to Rampurhat to see if I can find an internet place.
I take a shared taxi into Rampurhat. Get off someplace in the town which I think is near the internet place I saw when I arrived. I ask a local, who advises I take a rickshaw to a certain place, which I do. There's a sign which says "Internet" but the place is closed. But I think I know how to get to the other internet place, so I walk in its direction.
Rampurhat is your typical small Indian town, dusty streets lined with shops and businesses. Eventually I come to the place I'm looking for. Yes, they have two functioning PCs. I manage to connect and am able to pick up some, but not all, of my email. The line is, of course, slow, and is dropped occasionally, requiring reconnection. But after a while, even though the PC is connected to the ISP via the phone line, no websites can be accessed. Seems the domain name server is timing out repeatedly. Nothing to do. I wonder if I'm going to have to return to Calcutta to get anything done on the net.
I get a shared taxi back to Tarapith and go to a place I noticed last night, Eastern Railways Reservations Office. This one is even smaller than the one at Shantiniketan; it's just a one-room hut. As at Shantiniketan, apparently you can only buy second class tickets there, and no reservations can be made, despite what the sign says.
The man at the counter invites me in to his office and explains the trains leaving mornings for Calcutta. There are just two. One leaves from Rampurhat at 7:10 a.m., the other is a local train leaving at 9:30 a.m. for Bolpur where I'd have to catch the 1:00 p.m. train to Calcutta. Neither is an attractive option.
The man, Chandan Roy Chowdhury by name, in his early 40s, turns out to be quite knowledgeable not only about railway timetables but about Hinduism and Buddhism. It seems as a young man he travelled a lot around India. He tells me that Tarapith is actually not a Satipitha, as I'd mistakenly believed. It was an important center for Tara worship but was made famous by the presence of Bamakhepa. He tells me there is a Satipitha called Akalipur-Bhadrapur, about 20 km away, which has an unusual temple in hexagonal form, where there is an image of Bhadra-Kali, a form of Kali, he says, in the style of a Tibetan Buddhist deity, presumably dating from the times when Buddhist and Hindu tantra influenced each other.
I find a man selling posters of Tara and other Hindu deities, five rupees each. I buy one of the silver-faced Tara, take it back to my hotel and put it on the wall of my room.
I go out about 6 p.m. to the local Kali mini-temple and listen to the men singing bhajans. I go to the place cooking chicken — its actually more like stewed in herbs rather than fried — and I get a piece with some dal and roti. It's delicious. It all costs 37 rupees (80 cents).
I browse through the stalls, lit up in the dark, and find a man selling bracelets. One, made of copper and other metals, looks like good workmanship, has (in Sanskrit letters) Om Namah Shivaya — homage to Shiva. I ask how much. Fifteen rupees (30 cents). A steal. I buy it.
I come to the place selling goats and chickens (actually it's the local butcher shop).
There are several goats tethered out front. They like to eat the peel from my mandarines, so I usually give it to them when I buy one. When someone wants some goat meat they take a goat over to the far corner of the shop and slaughter it on the spot, in full view of the goats tethered at the front. Apparently they've recently killed one, since there's plenty of blood on the ground. I ask the man, "Do the goats know they're going to be killed?" but his English is not good enough to understand. Since they can presumably see their companions being slaughtered, one would think they'd know. But they show no sign of anxiety at their impending deaths. They're just being goats in the usual goat way. Maybe a goat just doesn't have a concept of death, at least, not its own death.
January 25th, Tarapith
I get a "taxi" into Rampurhat to the internet place. It's hopeless. Get nothing done.
I go to the railway station to see the man I met yesterday, Chandan, to invite him to lunch when the reservation counter closes at 2 p.m. He invites me into the office, but after the reservation window closes he still has an hour's work to do. I have decided not to return to Calcutta immediately but rather to go on to Guwahati, in Assam, where there is one of the most important tantric temples in India, Kamakhya. Chandan kindly fires up the archaic computer reservation system and we find that there is a suitable overnight train leaving from Rampurhat next Tuesday, a 20-hour journey to Guwahati.
I ask him to help me find an internet place that works. Around 4 p.m. he takes me to a place where he is taking a computer course. They agree to let me use one of their PCs, but they can't connect to their ISP.
We go on to Chandan's home, where he introduces me to his mother, wife, son and nephew, and gives me tea and biscuits. He shows me the family altar, which has a half-dozen pictures of Shiva, Kali, Tara, etc. He also shows me a picture of the image of Bhadra-Kali at Akalipur-Bhadrapur, which he told me about yesterday. She is black, two-armed, holding flowers in each hand, sitting cross-legged on a large snake, and with snakes around her neck and her waist. As in all Kali images her tongue sticks out. Chandran again says that this image is similar to images of Buddhist tantric deities, and he thinks there is a connection.
I ask why Kali is always shown with her tongue sticking out. He tells me that the Hindu story is that there are asuras (like devils) and devas (like gods), who fight each other. When the asuras have begun to dominate and get out of control Kali enters the scene and seeks to slaughter them. She is siezed by a frenzy of destruction. In order to stop her from destroying the whole world Shiva, her husband, lies down in her path. Kali accidentally steps on Shiva, and, looking down, notices that she has touched her husband with her feet. For a Hindu wife this is a great source of shame, and Kali is shocked (expressed by her poking her tongue out) and thus awakens from her frenzy, and the world is saved from destruction.
Chandan's nephew, who is studying e-commerce, takes me to an internet place, not the same one I was at before (this one is a few PCs at the rear of a grocery store). Fortunately they can connect, it's not too slow, and in an hour I have done all I need to do for now.
It's 7 p.m., and dark, and I need to be getting back to Tarapith, 8 km away. The nephew advises me to go to the railway station and get a seat in a tuk-tuk. I do, but find that all the tuk-tuk drivers are waiting for passengers from the train due to arrive at 7:30, and no-one's leaving until then. So I stand around for half an hour and talk in minimal English with the tuk-tuk drivers, who ask me about myself and about where I come from. Finally the train arrives and we get enough passengers to leave. A tuk-tuk is built for a driver in the front seat and for two or three passengers in the back, but when we set out it has the driver and six passengers. It's a chilly ride in the open tuk-tuk back to Tarapith.
January 26th, Tarapith
Wake late. Take breakfast. Get a jeep into Rampurhat, pay the Indian fare of five rupees.
I meet Chandan at the railway reservation office. He kindly arranges my ticket and reservation for the train to Guwahati on Tuesday. I'm going 1st class, 4-berth sleeper, costs 1260 rupees (US$26). We talk for a bit about the U.S. having killed a lot of innocent people in Iraq. I remind him of what he told me yesterday about Kali, the devas and the asuras. I suggest that the leaders of the U.S., who apparently want perpetual war, are asuras. He agrees. At some time Kali will be aroused and will slaughter them all.
I go to the internet place I was at yesterday and spend three hours catching up on the backlog of email.
I find a place selling big glossy posters of Hindu deities and buy eight of them, three rupees (6 cents) each.
I go to the "taxi" stand at the railway station and get one as it's leaving, one person inside. I tell the driver twice "five rupees" for Tarapith and he seems to agree. We depart with only one other passenger. He gets off halfway and pays. The driver's sidekick is trying to find other passengers on the way, but no luck. We arrive at Tarapith and I offer ten rupees for the trip, but, no, they want more. It seems like the same scam that was run on me when I first arrived, agreeing to the fare for one seat then demanding the full price for an unshared "taxi". We go into my hotel where I expect the manager to sort it out. The driver and his sidekick, and other Indians present, are all jabbering away in Bengali. The driver refuses my ten rupees. I get angry and throw them both out of the hotel. The manager then talks to them, and comes to me and says they'll take the ten rupees, which they do, and go off. I'm still pretty pissed off about it though. Yet, on reflection, it could be that it was a genuine misunderstanding, though that's stretching things a bit. More likely the taxi drivers think that if they arrive with one Western (not Indian) passenger (no matter how many passengers they had on the way) they can demand the fare for an unshared "taxi" and expect the bystanders to support their demand.
January 27th, Tarapith
I'm glad I decided not to move to the other hotel. This room is sunny and quite pleasant. Birds can be heard twittering in the mornings.
After breakfast, since I am leaving tomorrow, I pay my hotel bill. It's 2016 rupees for six nights including breakfast, US$7 per night.
I go to the smashana, the cremation ground, buy some incense and make offerings before the shrines of Ma Tara and of Bamakhepa. I sit awhile and watch some sadhus make offerings.
I go for a walk in the smashana. The sadhus live in sadhu houses, flimsy structures built of bamboo, matting and whatever can be found, with a mat on the floor, an altar and pictures of Hindu deities on the wall, mainly Shiva and Ma Tara. They have no material possessions other than their clothes, a blanket, a chillum (for smoking ganja) and some basic utensils. Most sadhu houses are built for one person, but there are a couple of larger structures. They are arranged haphazardly through the smashana, amidst piles of rubbish and the ashes of burnt-out fires. The worldly desires of the sadhus have also burnt away, and they make no distinction between wealth and poverty, respect and disdain, high class and low class — for them all is Tara, all holy.
I wander over to the black ash-heap where they perform the cremations, but there are none today. I take some photos, talk to some Bengali tourists — whole families in their Sunday best wandering through the cremation ground. I take a photo of a sadhu sitting in the door of his sadhu house, and I offer ten rupees at his altar. He says a prayer for me and puts the red mark on my forehead.
I visit Jayanta Lal Chatterjee, whom I met a few days ago here, and we smoke some ganja together. He shows me a new packet of the asthma medicine which he bought with the hundred rupees I gave him. I ask him his age: 71 His English is not good enough for serious conversation, so I say goodbye and slip him another hundred rupees as I leave.
Continuing my wandering around the smashana I notice something like a sadhu house, but open at the front, perhaps a communal tantric altar. It's got three skulls at the front, painted red, and the main part is a Shiva trident, with a couple more skulls behind.
I take a couple of photos and as I'm about to put a few coins in the offering tray a sadhu runs up (from where he'd been playing cards with some other sadhus a little way away) and objects. He wants a hundred rupees, but I give him ten and he puts it in the offering tray then goes off. He soon comes back and takes the ten rupees, perhaps thinking it too much money to be left lying around.
As I leave I give the few rupees I have left to the beggars at the gate, and proceed back down the main shopping street. I'm accosted by a bunch of girl beggars. They're a nuisance, but I'm happy to buy them some food if they'll take it. They will. They want meat. I buy each of the five girls and a couple of old women a sausage each (costs three rupees apiece). I go on, but three more beggar girls run up; apparently they missed out on the sausage. So I buy five more (two more girls, an old man and a sadhu have since joined the begging party) but some of the girls don't want sausage. They don't want fruit either. What they want is potato chips, so I buy a bag at ten rupees for them to share. As I reach the main square three boys come up and start begging, so I buy them (it's now five) a large biscuit each (they really wanted an egg). I can't say I'm overly generous, having paid only about fifty rupees, one dollar, for some snacks for about fifteen people, but they were all pleased to get what they got.
Later I reflect that it wouldn't have hurt to be more generous (to buy the girls a pack of chips each, and to buy the boys boiled eggs rather than biscuits), though I didn't want to set a precedent as a Western tourist who goes around giving generous handouts of food to anyone who asks. Next time I'll do better. It's a learning experience.
Dinner of sauteed chicken, dal and roti, followed by a mandarine. I buy four more glossy posters: Shiva, Parvarti, Ganesh, Ma Tara and Bamakhepa.
Back in my hotel there's a knock on the door. Two men. Smiling. One says, "You have work for us? I go to your country." Apparently they want me to hire them as manservants. Sorry, I say, no work for you.
Later there's another knock on the door. Some Indian. I don't know what he wants, but I push him away gently, and hear no more from him. Maybe word's got around that the remarkable foreigner is staying here and he wanted a look.
January 28th, Tarapith
I pack in preparation for overnight train to Guwahati. The zipper on one of my boots breaks. I should've got new boots before I arrived in India.
I go to see Chandan at the railway station, leave my rucksack in his office, go to the internet place for a couple of hours, then return in time to catch the train at 4:40 p.m. But I'm told it's 90 minutes late. I read a book. At 6 p.m. I'm told it will be here at 7:30 p.m. It seems the train is coming from Madras, and was held up by a railway workers' strike. Chandan and I go for dinner. I tell Chandan about my boot and he takes me to the shoeshine wallahs at the front of the station. Soon the zipper is fixed! Amazing. Ten rupees only.
We wait for the train on the platform. It finally arrives at 8 p.m., over three hours late. Chandan finds my bunk for me. It's an upper bunk in a compartment with four berths. A couple of women and children occupy the other bunks. The train is crowded and grubby, but not as crowded and grubby as the cheaper compartments. I attach my rucksack to the fold-up table by the window with a chain and padlock and put my laptop and shoulder bag on the upper bunk. I make my bed (it's a sheet, blanket and pillow, provided by the railway), replace my boots with slippers and lie down. Soon I'm asleep, keen to blot out the surrounding reality from consciousness. Later I wake, remove my slippers, place them on a shelf over the bunk (I'll never see them again), and get into the sheet and blanket. The train is pretty bumpy, but I'm able to sleep. About 2:30 a.m. it pulls into New Jaipalguri and one woman and the children leave. I go back to sleep.
The following ten chapters of this India Travel Diary (recounting Peter Meyer’s visits to Guwahati, Bhubaneshwar, Konarak, Puri and eight more towns and cities in India, up to Mumbai) are only available on the Serendipity website on flash drive (whose hundreds of articles are readable on PCs and Macs which have a USB port). Please support him by purchasing a copy of this flash drive . Or better, copies of all three of his flash drives.
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