Sunday, August 30, 2009


We're back from Pelling after spending the whole morning trying to get a glimpse of the Himalayans through the fog (and failing at it), and especially the great Mt. Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world (8586 metres) lying along the western border of Sikkim. Sikkimese people regard Mt. Khangchendzonga, "The mountain of five magnificent treasures", as the guardian deity of Sikkim.

The Swedish-Japanese-French team celebrates its exploits of the past few days around a copious meal of yak cheese on tibetan wholemeal bread, chili chicken and local rum. The traditional fermented millet beer is also there, naturally. At around 10pm (All restaurants and shops have been shut since 8pm, it is therefore very late at night by now, to Sikkimese standards), we're kindly asked to put an end to our little party by the waitress, not used to staying up that late. Two men sitting at the table opposite us seem to be having a lot of fun just by watching us finishing our bottle of rum and oredering three more 650 mililitres "Hit" beers and engaging in rather crude talking (I will spare you the details here). In Swedish, they cheer by saying "skull", which means the same as in English, and comes from the fact that the Vikings would extirpate the skull of their victims before cutting the top, to be able to drink in it and celebrate their victory in a proper barbarian way. The expression is still used today. In Japanese, "Pierre" means "bi-mi", litterally "beautiful and delicious". After finishing our drinks we finally call it a night. Both of my comrads are waking up early tomorrow to catch the 6.30am Jeep to Jorethang, while I will stay a few days more in the village.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Today, we climbed a mountain.

On the road to Yuksom two days earlier, Danny and I met a Japanese guy, Kimura Hiroki, a 22 years old student in chemistry who is travelling alone and will be accompanying us in our stroll around Yuksum. By the way, Danny is 32 and is employed as an IT engineer for a medical company. Today we're heading towards the holy lake of Khecheopalri, five kilometres away from Yuksom. The great Khandchendzonga falls are on the way, where we take a break and enjoy a good bath in the fresh water down the falls. After walking another kilometre or so, we must choose from three routes, and a local advises us to begin directly by climbing the mountain through the jungle rather than to stay on the road. We thus engage in this shortcut of the trekking road (the other way being the road). The lake is on the other side of the mountain ahead of us. The path turns out to be more than sloppy and very steep. It seems that we're climbing half a metre up at each of our steps. And it will be that steep for the whole way, more than two kilometres. I will have to stop the climbing every forty minutes so my heart can slow down its beating to a normal rythm, instead of continuing it acceleration until it bursts my chest. I am also heavily sweating thanks to the effort and a burning midday sun.

As we almost reached the mountain top, we settle near a sugar cane field to gather our remaining energy. Exhausted with fatigue and hunger, I'm close to hallucinating. I have a strong impression of having lived this scene before. In a dream! Dan sitting in the rock in front of me, admiring the green mountains with small villages on them and the brilliant blue sky, while I'm getting my energy back sitting on my rock. I had dreamed this very moment and place a couple of nights ago, and the memory I have of it fits precisely and vividely with the moment. This was doubtelessly due to the mixture of heights, intense physical effort and heat.

We get offered a stick of sugar cane, cut in three pieces of approximately forty centimetres by a kind lady farmer and a sharp billhook. We tear away the green skin to reach the white flesh, of which we suck the sweetness while resuming slowly our walk toward the heights.

At the top, we halt at a restaurant / hotel and we feast on today's special, a mixture of sticky rice and vegetables with local pickles and chillies. Delicious. And three litre bottles of water. Our waiter, a twelve years old kid, teaches me how to say "namaste" in three local languages. They correspond to three different castes of the region. In Limboo, "sawaro". "Khamri" in Lepcha, a language close to Tibetan. And "kyapso che" in Bhutia. After a much deserved one hour break and a tasty lunch, the lake awaits us just half a kilometre away from here.

We remove our shoes to cross the bridge going onto the lake, rolling the prayers rolls on our way. We pray looking at the lake, with two other Buddhists by our side. Hiro is of Buddhist faith too, and he's closing his eyes while praying. We drink some holy water from the lake, which we purified with Dan's SteriPEN that he bought in Kathmandu. 99,9999% of the bacterias are killed by leaving the SteriPEN in half a litre of holy water during forty eight seconds. We prey some more after each sip.

It' s getting too late to walk back to Yuksom, so we decide to rent a Jeep to go to Pelling, further to the West. The tourist season only begins in a few weeks (from the end of September till December, then from March to mid-June) and nobody is interested in going to Pelling with us. Since the driver can't fill his Jeep with more tourists, we have to pay him for the whole vehicle, instead of buying single seats for each of us. We negociate the journey at Rs700.

Dinner at the hotel / resto-bar of Pelling, where they will play live music every evening... a month from now! A dozen employees of the hotel are all busy watching TV in the reception room, on the other side of the window that separates them from the restaurant section. We accompany our meal with some local strong beer (the "Hit") and some tasty honey-flavoured Sikkimese rum.



In the region of Yuksom, all the people I meet seem to be busy with some work. In any case everyone has a task to carry out. The four kind of workers I meet are: peasants and farmers who are bringing up animals (chickens, cows, goats, yaks) and cultivate cardamone, sugar cane, rice, millet ; The construction workers who clean the road of land slides and fallen rocks, and repair or build roads ; People (of 5 to 80 years old) sitting on heaps of pebbles which they break with a hammer in smaller pebbles, again for construction ; I also encounter those who are carrying bunches of herbs and plants on their backs. The burden is held by a strip around their head which they hold with both hands. From behind we can only see there legs and it is a funny sight to see those running bushes tumbling down the mountainous slopes. There again, it's a job you can get at any age.

In all my journey, I've never thrown so many "namaste" as during my stay in Yuksum. I was trying to compete with the sincere politeness of the inhabitants, unsuccessfully. My "namaste", if I can say it before the people I cross, invariably meets a genuinely happy smile and a warm "namaste". The children do not hesitate to repeat the greetins several times, the same children who were throwing joyful "bye-bye"'s towards our Jeep.

In Yuksum and its suroundings, we greet by saying "namaste" and joining both hands in front of the chest, with the wrists in an almost 90° angle. Otherwise, only the left hand can assume this position, or, even cooler, be positioned on the forehead. In this last case, the wrist is folded at 45°. We can also join both hands before the forehead. Children sometimes greet me with an amused (and amusing) "namaste tourist!" ; They also call me "dada" (older brother) or "uncle". The younger ones are invited by their parents to join hands on my way.

People from around here have a genuine curiosity to the tourists, and they are always delighted to converse with me, either in English or Hindi. In 2002, the Khangchendzonga Conservation Commitee launched a program of Home Stay,a community-based tourism program that allows the curious traveller eager for cultural learnings to stay with locals in a village, for Rs500 per night and per person. Home stays operators are chosen from houses which are not large enough to be hotels, but are clean and comfortable and it provides the locals who cannot afford to build a hotel or lodge with a sustainable source of income. The inhabitants are also trained by the KCC and are handed a guidebook which explains what a tourist is, and how to welcome him in the best way. The first two pages give a clear definition of a tourist and tourism. Then, the textbook goes through everything from cleaning and tidying up the tourist's room to cooking in an hygienic way, and describes full menus. It emphasises on having the tourist getting a taste of local culture. For instance, it recommends that the family should welcome the guest on the first day with a local celebration, if possible with the other villagers, because "the first contact is an essential part of the whole experience" (page 12 of the textbook).

See for more informations.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Hidden paradise

"Known as Bayul Demazong (Hidden paradise) to Sikkimese people, and Nye-mae-el (Heaven!) to the Lepchas, Sikkim is one of the most beautiful and peaceful state of Inida. It is regarded as a sacred and holy landscape. Diversity of culture, traditions, rich biodiversity, scenic beauty and a strong Buddhist culture have made Sikkim an attractive place for tourists, ecologists, pilgrims, nature lovers, zoologists and environmentalists alike."

Sikkim protects its cultural and natural ressources with an ecotourism policy, a step towards solving the problem of recent increase in tourism by guiding and driving environmentally friendly tourism in the state, particularly the Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP) area. Strict regulations are in place and the impact of tourism on the environment is monitored through constant observation and evaluation. The Khangchendzonga Conservation Comittee (KCC), a grass root, non-profit community based non governmental organization based in Yuksam, was created in 1997 to facilitate the implementation of such ecotourism policies, work for the conservation of biodiversity in the KNP and educate the local community as well as tourists. It also regularly conducts checks on the environmental conditions to evaluate the effectiveness of its policies.

Historically, tourism started in the region with the coming of foreign nationals in 1977, who came from Tashiding or Phamrong to settle in Yuksam and work in road construction. In 1980, the first tourist lodge, "Dzongrila", opened, and tourist started coming regularly from 1985 onwards. Also, stray dogs started multiplying. In 2002, telephone and Internet facilities were installed in Yuksam. Tourism is now a major source of revenue, which is, thanks to the Sikkimese government and the KCC, directed towards the local community and the pretection of biodiversity. The KNP attracts annually

The KCC trains local guides and porters to be made environmentally conscious, making them aware that if the natural flora and fauna are not preserved, the surrounding areas will lose its beauty, leading to a decrease in tourism. The KCC worked so well for the training of guides that they no longer need to hire them from neighbouring town (Gangtok, Darjeeling, Delhi or even Nepal). Instead, it is now the Yuksam guides, trained by the KCC, who are being hired from other parts of the region, leading to an increase in income from tourism.

The KNP covers a huge 1,784 km², occupying 25% of the total geographical area of Sikkim with an elevation range of 1,829 to 8,586 metres. The park was notified by the Sikkim government in August 1977 and was later expanded in May 1997. It extends from 29°19'13'' to 27°29'4'' north latitude and 88°9'18'' to 88°15' east longitude, from the lowland of Yuksam (1,780m) and Mt Khangchendzonga (8,586m). The cultural heritage of the region is rich and diverse, with some ten ethnic groups of traditional subsistence lifestyles, including Bhotia, Sherpa, Lepcha, Limbu, Gurung, Rai, Chettri-Brahmin, Newar, Kami and Damai. The entire landscape is considered sacred by the locals, and all the physical components such as lakes, streams, caves, snow-capped mountains etc. are treated as deities, an important sacred lake being the one of Khecheopalri. The form of Buddhism that is practiced in Sikkim, especially spread around the western part of the state where Buddhism is the main religion, is known as "Tibitian Lamasim", a form of Buddhism mixed with mysticism.

Sometimes in the seventh century, Lord Padma Sambhava was invited to Tibet by King Trisong Deutsen to introduce and establish Buddhism. On his way, he travelled through Sikkim where it is believed that he hid many treasures ("Ters", according to the book "Ney-Sol", the book that prophetised that Sikkim would one day become Buddhist). In the year 1642, three great monks, Lhabchen Chempo, Gnadak Sempa Chempo and Kathok Rikzin Chempo, came to Sikkim from Tibet via the northern, southern and western gates and met at Norbugang, now known as... Yuksam. In Lepcha, Yuksam translates as "the meeting place of the three learned ones". The three monks consecrated Phuntsok Nymgyal from the east as the first Dharma Raja. With the establishment of the first Buddhist monastery at Dubdi by Gyalwa Lhastun Namkha Jigme in the year 1701, Buddhism was introduced into Sikkim and became a state religion until Sikkim merged into India in 1975.

Sources: Yuksam, Travel Guidebook, published by KCC (2008) ; Khangchendzonga, the Sacred Mountain. A Biodiversity Handbook, published by KCC (2002).


(or Yoksum, Yaksum, Yoksom, Yuksum, Yuksom)

Our Jeep has left Gangtok at 6.30am. I'm sitting by the window on the passenger seat. The guy to my right has his legs on both sides of the gearshift. Always up to gathering informations and talking, I chat with the lady behind me during the trip. She's American and is travelling in India to follow the Buddhist way and find happiness. She warns me about leeches. There are a lot of them around here in the Summer, so I should avoid tall grass and expect to be attacked by leeches at one point or another, especially on trekking trails. I tell her that I'm pretty sure I can avoid them and stuffing my pants in my socks should suffice to protect my legs. She remains doubtful. And, as we reach Yuksam and get off the Jeep, a red spot on my pants around my ankle tells me that I'm gonna have to deal with leeches after all. It was quite a big one too considering the wound.

Leeches release both an anticoagulant and an anesthetic that allow them to feast on blood without being noticed by the victim. After a while, sometimes after the leech detached itself, the wound bleeds abundantly and itches a little. The best remedy to get rid of a leech is to sprinkle the animal with a pinch of salt. The salt will dehydrate it and it will almost instantaneously fall, before crawling to its death, leaving behind a beautiful trail of your blood.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


The Jeep picks us up at our hotel, the Bellevue near the Mall. My new Swedish friend, Danny Wennberg, a French and Italian couple and myself.

From the heights of Tiger Hill, we fail to see any of the view we were expecting due to heavy fog. We drink a few coffees anyway and head back down the hill towards the Ghum Buddhist Monastery. And then back to Darjeeling, quite disappointed.

Sitting next to our breakfast table at Glenary's, where we're enjoying coffee, fried eggs, sausages et tomatoes, an Amerikan trekker is telling us about his excursions in Nepal and Sikkim. He's just got back from Yuksum, in West Sikkim. I heard about landslides and bad weather in that part of the country. However, the American denies those claims and even say that the weather is far better up there! Road blockages are also cleared in no time.

Convinced, we decide to push it to the North and go to Sikkim to find better weather and new adventures, as Darjeeling didn't really live up to our expectations and we wanna check out what the real North has to offer. A permit is needed, but it can be obtained right at the Sikkimese border in the form of a stamp on the passport. It can be done from Darjeeling but it seems like a more complicated process.

From Darjeeling, the Jeep takes us around mountains to the Sikkimese border. Quick copies of our passport and Visas at the nearby "Xerox" shop, stamp at the police station and we climb back in the vehicle. In the many booze shops we see on the way, as soon as we cross the border, each bottle is half the price it is in the rest of the country... We're off to a good start.

Within Sikkim, jeeps are the most popular means of transport as they can navigate rocky slopes. Mini buses link the smaller towns to the state and district headquarters.



On the way, a young dude is chatting with us fron the middle seat. Casanova is holding a pretty Sikkimese chick around his arm and explains that relationships between men and women are much freer in Sikkim compared to the rest of India.

We check Danny in the best hotel in town while I find a much cheaper room in darker corners of the town. I negotiate it for Rs200 which isn't so great considering we're off season. However the dark corner doesn't seem so dark and looks actually pretty safe, much like the rest of the city. The people look content and are very smily. According to some office men coming back from work, everyone is satisfied and earns good money here, and unemployment is almost non-existent.

Nestled in the Himalayas bordering Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north and east, Bhutan to the southeast and West Bengal to its south, Sikkim has been the twenty second state of India since 1975. It is the least populated state with approximately 600,000 inhabitants, and the smallest (approximately 7,096 km²). Sikkim decided to become part of India in order to not be won by China after the Chinese Indian conflict of 1962. Nowadays the pressure from China seem to be coming back and there are rumours amongst the youths that China will attack again to conquer Sikkim, a state they never recognised as being really part of India.

On many levels, it is an exemplary state, and it could easily be used as a model to the rest of the country (I'm talking here about the India I visited, being all the Northern states from Maharashtra to West Bengal and excluding Maddhya Pradesh). The litteracy level of 82% is higher than the national average (90% of Assam's population is litterate). Sikkim was the first state in the world to ban the use of polythene carry bags. And with the recent ban of fertilizers and perticides, it is the first state with an all-organic food production. Another contrast with the rest of India (Again, I'm only reffering to the India I've encountered), there are rubbish bins everywhere, around every street corner and especially along trekking routes. The inhabitants also have the upmost respect towards theirs villages and nature. The huge influence of Buddhism, the second state religion after Hinduism, surely has something to do with this respect for the environment.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fresh air and ganja


Here in darjeeling, the foreign influence by tourism can be seen through the very western choice of pastries on offer in many shops and restaurant. Chocolate cakes and brioche, brownies or croissants available everywhere. The slogan "Don't drink and drive, smoke and fly" is on a few tee-shirts and painted at the back of trucks. Some youngsters listen to reggae music and wear Ethiopian flag coloured necklace (green, yellow, red) and smoke weed occasionally.

To travel the 45 kilometres, 3 hours and 2,300 metres of altitude from Siliguri train station to Darjeeling, I board one of those shared Jeeps available outside of the station. The guy at the "Pre-Paid Taxi" booth confirms the price announced by the Jeep driver ; It'll be Rs140 for the ride. With me in the trekker are three men, including a Bengali doctor who's been working at the Darjeeling Hospital for the past fifteen years. A couple with their two children are in the middle seat, and a Nepalese looking woman is at the front with the driver and one of his colleagues. The journey requires two conditions: 1) A good four wheel drive Jeep, 2) And a good driver. Indeed, the vehicle and the road, and the vehicle and the other cars coming from the opposite direction are rarely separated by more than 10 centimetres, and often by less than that. After two hours, we're above the clouds! The Ghum station, a few kilometres before Darjeeling, is the second highest train station in the world, at 2,257 metres above sea level.

Heavy rains have damaged the road. We witness the result of a land slide that happened recently : a house has collapsed on the side of the road, some twenty metres down. Some workers are already at work to rebuild it up where it was. Further North, in the state of Sikkim, the weather is frequently causing road blockages.

Wandering around Darjeeling all the way up to the hills, I find myself at the Monkey Temple, about fifteen minutes away from The Mall, the main square where people are hanging around, enjoying the view while chatting with friends. Some benches are under a shelter to cover from the rain. Up there, I hear music and singing from behind the temple, coming from a small hut hidden by the prayer flags hanging everywhere between the trees. I open the door, ask if I can enter, leave my shoes outside and step in. Seven men are sitting around a camp fire above which a huge iron teapot is resting. We share a tea, the inhabitants are playing tabla and drums. They chant to the glory of Shiva, the Supreme Deity and God of Destruction. They sing and smoke the chilum. They often prey "Om Namay Shiva" and "Jai mata", raising the smoking herb-filled chilum in the air and on their forehead. Woodfire, steaming-hot tea and weed smoking.

Part of the team, I find Dilip, who offers me to be my guide and take me to Tiger Hill, from where the panorama over the Khandchendzonga mountain is supposed to be one of the best in the region. It is the third highest mountain in the world. The four hours Jeep ride will cost Rs500, a fare that I can share with three others.

Sunday, August 23, 2009



I take the 234 bus going to Sealdah Station. I'm sharing the back seat with 7 others in a bus so hot that we're almost sticking to each other with sweat. I am with with two close neighbors anyway. It's probably coming from me since I come from a cooler place, But as I bring my legs close to each other I can't help but noticing two wet marks on the outsides of my trousers. The ticket controller comes towards us through the standing and shaking crowd and points his index finger at us, one after each other, those who just got on the bus and have not yet purchased a ticket. We all start look into our pockets / wallets and get the change ready. Alternatively, it is perfectly fine to produce the smallest note available, quite usually a 10 Ruppees note. And that's exactly what the person to my right give to the man. By a lack of synchronisation between the two, the bill falls from the hand and slowly floats its way down to the ground. At this moment, the controller produces a "tkk tkk tkk" sound by slamming the tip of his tongue against his two front upper teeths. He bends, picks the note from the floor with his right hand. He stands again, affixes it briefly on his forehead then to the middle of his chest. He gives the note to the passenger who will do the same as him, before handing it back. The controller can then safely collect it, folding it in two the lengthwide before folding it again in the width around hone of his left hand's fingers ; All the left hand's fingers have one or a few notes placed around them the same way. He then grab a handful of coins from his money bag to count the right change and give it to the passenger, along with the ticket.

The 22:05 Darjeeling Mail to Darjeeling (West Bengal) departs from platform number 9. As it does so, the person sitting right in front of me brings his hands together before his chest and mumble a short prayer to himself, his eyes closed. He raises both his hands, still stuck together, to his forehead for about a second. He opens the eyes again and goes back to chatting with his mates on the same seat (to his right). Two of the three passengers on the seats to my right, next to the window, will do the same a few moments later.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Snake charmers

Back in Bishnupur, we take part in the annual snake charming festival.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Feeling like travelling further in the countryside, we leave our hotel the "Bishnupur Tourist Complex" planning on exploring the village of Garpancha, a dozen kilometres away from here. The bus leave Bishnupur for Bakura and takes 40 of our Ruppees. In Bakura we change for Shaltora, another Rs20 trip. The journey is already getting longer than expected and, a few hours after having left the hotel, we realize that we've only traveled half of the way!

From Shaltora we ask the driver of a Trekker (a shared Jeep) to take us somewhere on the way to Garhpanchkot. He's going in the right direction but stops at Sarbarimore. As far as they go but it seems that Sarbarimore is close to ouf destination. Perfect. Except maybe that the Jeep's full. I understand by the word "Ooper" in Bengali and a finger pointed at the hood of the car that we will have to travel on the roof of the vehicle. Sitting comfortably in the middle of a spare wheel, between two bags of potatoes and a banana tree, I enjoy the wind in my face and a priviledged view of our driving through the jungle, with the green hills of Garhpanchkot in the background. The jeep driver will ask for Rs12 to drop us at Sarbarimore train station. The village itself is a little further down, so we ask a young guy on a motorbike for a lift. The road is in a very bad state (I understand why the Jeep doesn't go that far), so the bike has to slow down often.

Lunch time! Sitting at a friendly Sarbarimore table, we feast of a generous portion of steaming hot white rice, delicious chicken curry with the usual daal as a starter and a few unidentified exotic vegetables. The rice is in the middle of the dried banana leaves plate (probably to avoid the washing up), while the daal is served on a side of it. We mix it using the whole hand (the right one) in order to have the rice taking taking the colour of the daal. Once the mix daal / rice has been enjoyed, I pour the chicken sauce (served with a drumstick on a tiny banana leaf plate) on the remaining white rice to start the same process. I place the piece of chicken somewhere on a corner of the plate, where it can easily be carved with the forefinger and thumb while being hold to the plate by the other fingers. The small pieces can be combined with the rice / sauce mix. The chicken can also be consumed on the bone, before or after eating a small portion of rice that has been assembled by 3, 4 or 5 of the right hand fingers. The hand is then shaken in a quick up and down movement to let the grains of rice stuck to it fall on the plate. The same grains of rice can also be licked straight from the fingers. It is common, during the meal, to gather sauce, vegetables and rice to the middle of the plate so to make it look more tidy, as well as ensuring that nothing will be left aside. At the end of the meal, we go outside to use pitchers of water to wash our hands and bring handfuls of water to our mouths and around the mouth to clean it. We also rub our faces with water to wash away the dust and rehydrate the skin. We then put the pitcher back on the wooden tables inside or on the counter.

Some more hitchicking (a car, this time) to reach our destination, Garhpanchkot. The Forest Department Lodge to be exact, in the middle of the jungle. It is getting slightly late and we're considering staying here for the night, even though our stuffs are in Bishnupur. However the hotel is quite famous and booked out today. We meet three Bengalis leaving the hotel to stroll around the area with their local guide. We crowd ourselved in the car to accompany them.

Amongst Indians, Bengalis have a reputation of being big travellers. It is said that you can find them anywhere in India, playing tourists. Indeed, our three friends all have a passion for travels and adventure, and they've been all around India. They tell me that they would like to go outside as well, but not before having saved enough money.

After going around all the main spots of the area, hills, temple, we decide that it is early enough to go back to Bishnupur, and our friends are kind enough to drop us at Sarbarimore so we can get train tickets to go back. We'll leave Sarbarimore by the 17:50 express train to Bishnupur (!)

One thing I've learnt during the short trip from Bishnupur train station back to the hotel, is this: If you don't mind having only one half of your ass sitting in the front seat of an auto-rickshaw, the one next to the driver (which is in fact already taken, so you have, to your right, one person between the driver and you, with another person to the right of the driver), having half of your body actually outside of the vehicle, sitting on nothing but wind, with your left hand holding tighlty the handle on on top of the rickshaw as if it is holding your life (because it is! The auto driving at full speed through the damaged alleys of the town), and with your left foot struggling to half fit inside of the rickshaw, sliding at each sudden turn or nest-hole on the road ; And holding this precarious position for the two kilometres that lasts the trip, then you will only pay Rs7 for this fare! The driver kindly taking in consideration that you shared his auto with 6 other passengers and that, technically, only half of your body actually travelled IN the vehicle... They call it a "shared rickshaw".

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ruposhi Bangla


152km away from kolkata, that we left by the 6:15 train this morning.

The place is known for its beautiful and many Temples. They are made in Terra Cotta using the red soil. Tiles of red clay are also made and engraved with scenes from the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharatta and the Ramayana, to decorate the temples.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Durga Puja

After staying at a hostel near Sudder street (where most tourists end up at, or start from), Sourabh Datta Gupta welcomes me in his flat. He lives 500 metres North of Kalighat metro station, opposite Workhardt Hospital on Rash Behari Avenue, and will be my Kolkata host for a few nights. I'm planning to use Kolkata as a base to explore West Bengal.

It is said that South Kolkata is mainly occupied by sons or grandsons of immigrants from East Bengal, known today as Bengladesh, while people in the North of the city, the Old Town, have been here for more then 4 generations.

Sourabh's family is atheist, and himself is an active member of the Indian Science and Rationalist Association, which raises awareness of the power of the human brain, exposes the inconsistencies of blind religious practices and educates people into behaving in a more civic and lofical manner (civic sense, respect of the environment, education of children). Like his father and grandfather, he had a love marriage and not an arranged one. He works for a public company as well as being an investor on the stock market and being a financial advisor. He therefore enjoys his status of working for the public sector, and makes the money on the market. As he explained it to me, public companies tend to pay around three times less than private ones, but they only make you work five days a week and without doing much overtime, whereas people often work six days a week in private companies.

In Kurmatuli, in the Bakura area, the sculptors and craftsmen are working on the Gods, Goddess and Demons idols for the next big celebration in India and even more important in West Bengal, the Durga Puja ("prayer to Durga"), which takes place during four days at the end of September. Durga has ten arms and a third eye on her forehead.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Hinduism is not a religion ; It is a philosophy. So I'm told at the Chinese restaurant around the corner, a joint for old retired men to have beers and lunch.

I don't pretend to give a lecture on religion, but rather a short summary of my conversation with the man, as well as a few field observations and comments about them.

Hinduism describes life and death as part of an universal pattern. The universe is a cosmical entity, of which the timeless infinity lies behind everyday life's reality. The material world made of atoms is actually ruled by superior mystical powers which decide of the fate of all things and beings. Each man has a destiny embedded in him, and if he doesn't fulfill it in this life he will reincarnate to continue the quest. Atoms, protons, neutrons and electrons are all part of this universal scheme and encourage the fulfillment of destinies. The concept of good and evil is formed by each person's morality. Someone is bad if another person is here to judge his actions as bad. Moreover, determinism makes us stay what we were yesterday, and we will be the same tomorrow. This concept of eternal soul reminds me of what I've already learned with the Krishna followers. So much for free will...

Hinduism religion is unrationalizable. It takes us light years away from our Western philosophy and its rationalist (Descartes, Spinoza) or empiricist (Locke, Hume, Berkeley) tradition. The starting point for building our understanding of the world is Reason, whereas Hinduism as a philosophy describes a knowledge which is above reason, a higher reality. A the ISKCON temple for instance, the classes are given by the Institute of Higher Consciousness. The understanding of reality is not achieved by repeted experiments and study of causality, but by years of meditation, prayers and a blind faith (blind to us as faith does not use Reason, but rather a kind of Intuition that comes from the heart, or the soul) in another world, beyond ours, that we hope to reach after going through the four stages of spiritual life. Being a "student" first (mainly studying the Vedas) ; Then a "housekeeper" (everyday life, material happiness and experience of pleasure, sacrifice of instant individual happiness for the one of our family, more rewarding) ; To then become a "forest-dweller" (retire oneself for everyday life distractions to begin spiritual awakening) ; And eventually be an "ermit" (Sannyasa), virtually cut from the outside world in order to complete one's consciousness of the spiritual world. Dictature of the senses versus meditation. To sum up, Hinduist philosophy is hard for us to apprehend as it does not fit our rationalist understanding. Eastern spirituality doesn't rule out Reason, it transcends it.

As artistically stunning as it is, Hinduist artwork (shrines, statues...) and the devotion to the many Gods of Hinduism might actually be against the old foundations of the religion, according to which one should not worship the representations of the Gods. This information remains unverified (any grounds for this assertion Sourabh?), and even if it was true I don't know of any religion which still follows its founding principles. We usually read what we want to in the Holy Scriptures of any faith (Jesus always told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to give the other cheek ; But how many Christian families actually apply these? The fear of our own neighbours being very common in our society). The foundations of hinduism were layed in the Vedas, or vedic writings, including the oldest one the Rig-Veda, written between 1500 and 900 B.C., being the oldest book about philosophy or religion. The Vedas gather a great number of stories about the Gods, myths and beliefs, some of whom date back as far as 5000 B.C. The caste system, roughly set in the Vedas, was then further developped in the Upanishad. A lot more was depicted in the two most famous epics of Hinduism, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, written between 800 and 200 B.C. They are the most refered to when it comes to religious practices, rather than the Vedas.

Originally, the caste system was invented by the Aryans invaders, who used it to keep the natives in their position of conquered people by calling them "Dasas" (slaves). Then the karmic hierarchy developped, placing in order from high to low: the Brahmins (priests), Ksatriya (nobles, warriors), Vaisyas (farmers, merchants) and Sudras (servants), and many other sub-castes (carpenters, cleaners etc..). The untouchables are outside of this hierarchy. It is worth noting that it is uncertain whether religion backed up this cast system, and it was often broken, sometimes resulting in new caste formations. in facts, it seems clear that the caste system was mainly used as a powerful tool to maintain the relations of socio-economic domination.

Although source of unvaluable beauty to the observer, a lot of religious practices seem to be taking a lot of time, money and energy, for the whole of Indian society. So much time and money that is not allocated to infrastructures (roads...), cleaning and maintaining of public spaces, and furthermore education. Just to cite three of the main issues, in big cities and rural areas. What would be the cost of setting up an irrigation system to make farmers less dependant of the monsoon? A lot of religious practices and supersition get in the way of freedom for some youths, and may even substitute to their education.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009




Arrived at 9am, already feeling much better.

I take a rest at my host's place, Ruchira, mother of two lovely daughters of 5 and 6 years old. After a light but filling enough meal of daal and rice, I shower and lie down before waking up and dressing up for going out. We leave with the three girls to go watch a classical dance show, Manipuri dancing and Indian classical music. Lovely evening and a perfect introduction to the cultural liveliness of Kolkata. Also in perfect opposition with the events of the past few days.

The next day I feel happy already to be in West Bengal, which i think will turn out to be my favourite state I visited in India. A nice and honest cycle rickshaw wallah takes me through a shortcut of small alleys to make me reach my destination. He takes Rs30 when the taxi was asking for Rs120 to get to the same place.

Meeting up with Rimjhim, who's been running a travel agency for 17 years and offer to help me with my trip to Darjeeling up in the mountains, famous for being the biggest provider of Indian tea and one of the biggest in the world. She gets me a healthy juice of raw mango and a few spices, good for the belly, as we sit and chat in her home nearby the Big Bazzar shopping Mall. We will meet again next week as she's currently quite busy with work.

I book a bed in a dormatory around the corner from Sudder street, in the city center. Much needed rest, to be ready for a big day of exploring Kolkata tomorrow.

There is 7 kinds of Indian classical dances : The Manipuri (from the state of Manipur), the Bharat Natyam (Tamil Nadu), the Kuchipudi (Andra Pradesh), The Odissi (Orissa), the Khatakali and the Mohiniattam (Kerala) and the Kathak (Uttar Pradesh, generally quite spread accross Northern India).

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Holy Shit



The holliest city in India, by the holly Ganges river. Hundreds of pilgrims come everyday to cremate their lost ones. The purpose of being cremated here being to free oneself from the reincarnation cycle.

The city is a mayhem thanks to a rather bad handling of waste disposal and such. The sewage goes straight into the Ganges, where pilgrims bath. This is the holliest city in India, near Krishna's birthplace (Vindhravan), and they don't hesitate to throw the corpses straight into the river, letting the body float towards its delivrance. A special treatment for the higher castes they say, but outside of Varanasi this is regarded as source of pollution of the water. If it was just for that... Corpses of cows and dogs, garbage, sewage flowing in. The water is actually so polluted and full of bacterias that nothing could hope to survive in it. And they bath happily. They rub themselves with the water. Brush their teeths. Take generous gulps of water to wash their mouths before spitting it out in thin streams of holliness. Blessed, happy.

The place is a contradiction in itself.

Small streets vomiting garbage in all corners. Smell of piss, shit and burning corpses. An old Indian man is crouching by a huge cow dropping. He dips both of his hands in it. I quickly look away, slighlty disgusted, as he plays with it for minutes. I'm later explained that they use small balls of cow droppings for a better combustion.

I can't help but thinking what would happen if I took a poop in the middle of the Vatican. The huge gap between our treatment of (very) holy places and theirs is so wide that it is ununderstandable. What is their notion of respect of religion and the city? They seem to not respect their environment and public places like we do, which makes me wonder. We do take off our shoes before stepping into a temple or someone's house here. The notion seem almost inverted, where what is holy does not need to actually be "clean" because it is clean by essence.

My bad experience of the place is surely related by this:
The first day I arrived in Varanasi I fell ill, after a 14 hours train ride sleeping on the floor because of no beds available. Arriving in the city, bad tummy ache, feeling nauseaus. The migraine became worse thanks to the state of the city and rubbish everywhere (see above), then heavy sweating and feeling exhausted. I became worried when I started having difficulties to breath after the smallest efforts (Standing up and walking for a few metres), and I decided to pay a visit to the hospital. Thirty odd Indians are standing there in line, obviously impatient, waiting to retrieve an admission ticket. As a foreigner, western, I get a special treatment and, as I try to go at the back of the queue, a police officer stops me. He escorts me through the back door straight to the office on the other side of the window to get my ticket straight away for a Rs10 note. An Indian is asked to stand off his chair by a table where doctors are seeing patients to have me seated. Moments later I'm with one of the doctors, to whom I tell about my condition. Nice and quick, enjoyable to be treated in such a way after having walked 3 kilometres to get to the hospital. I'm sweating a lot, feeling very tired and my mouth so dry that I find it even hard to talk. I describe the symptoms to the man. 1 tablet of antibiotiques and a couple of "Electral", minerals to mix with lemon juice, water and salt. The whole hospital visit and purchasing the medicine have taken just over 10 minutes. A pill and I'm feeling better after a few minutes - Sweet placebo effect. I rush to the travel agency office to book my train to Kolkata. 16:25 train. Perfect.

Thursday, August 6, 2009




Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Saturday, August 1, 2009