Chapter Nine - Off the beaten track
The Hotel Gomti in Jaunpur has been closed down. Most of the locals advised me another place anyway : the Rajendra Rest House at 92/4-A Olendganj. Phone number : (05452) 62059. Clean enough doubles with attached bathroom (clean, but don't expect too much) go for Rs 80. The manager and his family are very friendly people who make you feel very welcome. They also run a travel company : Rajendra Tours & Travels. It had only opened its doors on the day I stayed there (Diwali). They claim to handle domestic and international air ticketing and railway reservations. The English vocabulary here is very limited though, but everybody is helpful and willing. I was told by locals all over town that this was the best place in town and better than the Gomti Hotel had ever been. Virtually next door is another rest house, but I've forgotten its name. It's not that important, because if you can find the Rajendra, you've also found the other one. Quality, I heard, is less.
The people in Jaunpur are very friendly and surprised to see a foreigner, especially if you venture out of the town centre. I attracted big crowds at the interesting Jami Masjid and Lal Darwaza Masjid.
Jaunpur Fort is worth visiting. There's an old pillar, a mosque and a hammam to be seen. None of them is particularly interesting, but they make a nice composition to look at and there are good views from the fort's walls, especially towards Akbari Bridge (the best view is from the fort) and on another side to the Atala Masjid.
In Jaunpur I met a cool Indian guy who would accompany me the following days. We went to Kushinagar where we stayed in the UP State Tourist Bungalow, Pathik Nivas. Non-AC rooms are Rs 315/400 for singles/ doubles. The manager is very friendly, speaks English well and is fun to talk to. He has some great opinions, for example about faith (Buddhists and Muslims) and about prophecies (especially those from Nostradamus). The rest of the staff is also really friendly. There's a restaurant also. There are limitations to what's on offer, but what is there is very good !
The rooms were something of a mini-zoo. I counted at least twenty different species of insects, some spiders and two species of lizards (one of them was biiiig)... all inside the room. The bathroom has Indian toilets. I had to go, so I pulled down my pants and sat down. It was crazy, but I suddenly felt and saw lots of insects jumping against my bottom and into my pulled down pants. My undies had some creepy crawlies inside now and they were having a ball. These little critters came from under the sides of the toilet bowl where the water comes out of. I had learned something : always flush before using ! Even if there is the possibility of using up your last water. The bugs were harmless, but it was just the fact that they were unexpected inside a clean toilet bowl. Now don't start thinking that the hotel was filthy. It wasn't. It's just located in an area where there's a lot of vegetation.
The sights in Kushinagar are limited but interesting enough (very for the pilgrims). The brick cremation stupa, the Ramabhar, is nothing special, but it's its supposed history that makes it worth a visit.
On the Mahaparinirvana Temple grounds, it's forbidden to take photographs. I did it anyway without anyone complaining. For a little bribe, the guards will even let you take pictures of the Buddha figure inside the building.
Near the serenely beautiful Indo/Japanese/Sri Lankan Buddhist Centre a new hotel has been built : the Lotus Nikho Hotel. It's Japanese and looks quite flashy. When I was there, signs said it was 'opening soon'. So, maybe by the time you read this letter, it will be open already.
From Kushinagar we continued with my new made friend's car to Ayodhya. On the way, he wanted his car serviced. So, we stopped in a very modern garage, located along the main road in Gorakhpur. It was a Maruti dealer and the equipment used there wouldn't look bad in a smaller European garage. We needed an oil change and a new oil filter. It's really unbelievable, but just this took around four hours to complete, without waiting time. Really, this was the actual working time. As the garage' sales executive said to me : "Labour is very cheap in India. The output is very poor." He told me another wise thing. One that I would remember at the end of my trip : "You Westerners are strong and Indians are not. But, Indians have a lot of resistance and you Westerners have not."
The garage is built on the shores of Ramgarh Tal. The management has bought part of the lake and is planning on making it a recreational area. In a later stadium they want to establish a floating hotel.
The maintenance of the car made us loose almost half a day, so it was late at night when we arrived in Ayodhya. We took a room in the Tourist Bungalow, Pathik Niwas Saket. A double was Rs 300. The restaurant served the most basic vegetarian food that I ate in India. The dhal was not half as good than when you had it from a street stall. The people were all friendly, but the food is terribly bland.
Greatest experience in Ayodhya was visiting the Babri Masjid. There was an already huge queue in the street near the first gate. I was advised to leave my camera in the car as carrying one can already cause problems here. The whole complex and its surrounding are guarded by armed soldiers of the national (not state) army. First we had to cross through a metal detector and a first checkpoint. From there we were directed to another gate where I had to show my passport and was interrogated by an intelligence officer (that's what he called himself). He was very friendly but thorough. A lot of questions were asked and it took quite a while. Only I, as a foreigner, had to undergo this procedure. I was very polite to the officer and kept smiling all the time. He took a bit of a liking to me and directed me to the front of another huge queue. A tip was appreciated but seemingly not really expected. After a while you tend to start giving money to people merely talking to you, because everybody expects something. When you then meet someone who doesn't, it appears strange. After getting in front of all these people, we had to walk through a long maze-like corridor of iron gates. Soldiers kept watch on everyone. I felt a bit like a prisoner at times. Really strange. Then, there was another checkpoint where my passport was checked again and I was asked a few questions again. No friendly guy here, though. We continued. At a certain point, an army officer was whipping up the devotees to start singing. Everybody complied and another mass hysteria was born (if not already there). On the birthplace of Rama itself there's nothing but a small shrine. A bit disappointing in itself. But it's coming here that creates the experience. After the shrine, much less security was prevalent and you only had to walk out the other side again (even that took some time, because of the crowds). At the exit, many kids try to sell you postcards, even very bloody ones with pictures from the riots. It's worth buying them, even if only to see at which place you're actually standing, to see what actually happened on the grounds you're treading on at the very moment.
The building of a new great temple for Rama has been initiated. I saw the scale model and it looked really impressive and astonishing. It will be built some distance from the actual birthplace but it will be huge.
An important temple that every visitor to Ayodhya should visit, is the Ram Mahal Temple. It's always very crowded. It's interesting because it offers a great opportunity to see the food for the sadhu's being prepared. A lot of these holy men can be seen sitting on the floor selecting and cleaning the ingredients. The food is then cooked in very large iron bowls (the wok-like type). It's great to see. Unfortunately in this temple I was hassled (in a rather big way) for money again.
Right across the street is the Shreemad Valmiki Ramayan Bhavan temple. It's a very interesting place to visit, because inside all the 24000 verses of the Ramayana are inscribed on marble slabs that are attached to the walls. The stories, known as the Valmiki Ramayana, tell about Lord Rama's life and exploits on this earth and are compiled and written by the first poet Maharshi Valmiki. They were originally written in Sanskrit. All the different versions of the Ramayana in various Indian and foreign languages owe their inspiration to Valmiki. The temple is big and spacious and is rather beautiful. I found it more impressive than the similar Tulsi Manas Temple in Varanasi.
The temple society organises a lot of activities. According to a leaflet they publish, these include : a free library and reading room, the International Shri Sitaram Nam Bank, the Universal Yoga Sadhana Centre, the publishing of a religious magazine called Avadh Mani Prabha, daily discourses - Satsanga, daily Ramayana classes, publication of spiritual literature, performances of Ram Leela and Ras Leela and a public dispensary. It's a relaxed place. Donations are highly appreciated but not a must at all.
When we went to see the Hanumangadhi, we needed a place to park the car. A friendly sweets seller near the Raja Dwara (which is, by the way, also a fine sight) waved to us and suggested to park it in front of his stall. It was a tight fit, but the stall owner directed, running 'round the car like a madman. When we got out, he insisted that we should buy some 'prashad'. If we didn't, we had to move our car. Of course, we didn't yield to such blackmail. We found another space and visited the Hunamangadhi after all. Not only the temple but also the fort with the guns actually lying on top of the sloping walls was a great sight.
After that we continued to nearby Faizabad. The first sights we came to were the mosques in the chowk area. Especially the green one is beautiful, making - together with the crowded street scene - a great picture.
We went to see the mausoleums of Bahu Begum and her husband, Nawab Shujaddaula. They're both architecturally interesting. You cannot go inside the first one. I tried to bribe the caretaker, but he was very reluctant to let me in; he was afraid that his superiors would catch us. When the amount of money became interesting enough for him (still only a few rupees), he showed me in. It was certainly worth the tip, but if you can't get in, I'd say don't lose sleep over it.
I spent a quiet afternoon in Guptar Park, which is definitely out of the way, being in the Cantonment area. The park itself was a bit disappointing, but the temples and the riverside made up for it. On the other side of the Ghaghara River, cremations were taking place. The male members of the mourning family were sitting on this side of the water. The elder son had shaved his head, indicating that his father had died (if the mother dies, the youngest son shaves his head). I silently watched their and other people's whereabouts from a distance. There were several small stalls selling food. Some of it was very good (and cheap).