Thailand / Bangkok:
Making full use of the butler service in our double suite at the Sheraton Grand in Bangkok.
Our journey through India began with one of the most famous women in India, so it seemed only fitting that we finished our six weeks in the country by visiting the abode of the most famous Indian man, Mahatma Ghandi.
A trip to Mani Bhavan near Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai made for a fascinating review of the milestones of Ghandi’s life. Anyone who has ever seen the Oscar winning biographical film about the Mahatma’s life (literally Great Soul in Sanskrit), or read Ghandi’s autobiography will be at least vaguely familiar with many of the events which shaped him as a young man. The museum which has been established at Mani Bhavan, Ghandi’s residence when he was in Bombay, does not simply rehash the facts; here you can see the room where he slept and some of his modest personal belongings, look through photos and read quotations which succinctly explain the philosophy of Satyagraha, which Gandhi is famous for.
Gandhi is an international inspiration with disciples such as Martin Luther King Jr, Einstein, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. His personal experience of discrimination in Apartheid South Africa is well known, as are the civil protests which he lead that morphed into a catalyst for change, eventually signalling the death knell for the British Empire. However, the most interesting exhibit at Mani Bhavan was Gandhi’s letter to Adolf Hitler.
Addressing Hitler as “My Friend”, the letter is written in the humblest of tones; Gandhi urges the Führer to retreat from the brink of war, but the strangest thing about this letter is the way it contrasts with popular thinking about Hitler in India today. Walking around Mumbai, we were able to find numerous booksellers stacking copies on Mein Kampf for sale. I interviewed one man who told me that it was a bestseller in India. When asked why the book was so popular, he explained that “Hitler was a Mastermind”, but was unable to expand on this claim.
His views are echoed by Jaico, the publishers, who are racing to produce at least two reprints per year to satisfy demand from young Indians who claim that it is a ‘management guide’. As Sohin Lakani, owner of the Mumbai- based Embassy books put it in a Telegraph interview “Students are increasingly coming in asking for it and we are happy to sell it to them…They see it as kind of a success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan and how to implement it and then successfully complete it”.
The same article quotes an Indian reader, Ram Kumar: “In our country we need more pride and self-confidence. Hitler developed his country in a very short time through industrialization. Yes, he definitely had some bad qualities, but we can learn from his management style and leadership skills.”
Naturally, such admiration of an historical character, viewed as a monster by many in the West, is disturbing. Especially worrying is the lack of historical context in which the book is being distributed and that some young Indians mistakenly view the letters to Hitler as a sign that there was a relationship between Gandhi and Hitler. To add to the confusion, according to some academics, the Nazis borrowed the Sawstika, a Hindu motif and ideas about Aryan supremacy.
It is ironic that Gandhi wrote to Hitler some months before the beginning of WWII and pleaded him to abandon his warmongering and that President Obama described Gandhi as “The father of your nation” when he addressed the Indian parliament during his visit last November. However, some like Ram Kumar seem to be taking inspiration from a man who is the very antithesis of everything Gandhi stood for.
We had only heard vague mentions of Hampi from other travellers; although our guidebook ranked it as one of the must-sees in India, nothing we had heard could have prepared us for this magnificent World Heritage Site.
As we approached Hampi Bazaar in a rickshaw from Hospet station, we were greeted by the majestic gopuram of Virupaksha temple towering above the palm trees like an ancient Mayan pyramid. Though it was built in 1442, the carvings are incredibly well preserved, but less risqué than those at other sites in the area (parental guidance advised!). If you want to enter the temple, which is still in daily use, the locals welcome you to do so – if you are lucky, you may even get to see the resident elephant, Lakshmi in the morning.
We spent many hours getting lost among the ruins, which date from 1336, in the most unexpected places: nestled between giant boulders scattered along the Tungabhadra River and hidden in the banana plantations which surround Hampi.
The ruins are incredibly quiet today, but by the 16th century the settlement had morphed into an urban centre supporting some 500,000 people (more than the contemporary population of London).
Although we felt safe exploring the ruins in a pair, if you do get lost or twist an ankle, it is so eerily deserted that there really is nobody around to help you. The terrain is also quite difficult to navigate, so a decent map, sunscreen and plenty of water are essential.
Even without the ancient architectural gems which are dotted around the surrounding countryside, the boulders, lush palm trees and paddies would be awe inspiring, but the obelisks, palaces and temples which have been superimposed on the landscape make it utterly breathtaking.
One of our favourite sites was the splendid Vittala Temple which sits in an isolated spot near the river. It is incredibly well preserved and contains beautiful examples of Vijayangar sculptures and an exquisitely carved stone chariot which sits in its courtyard, that even has stone wheels which could turn.
Unlike Angkor Wat, the whole complex remains largely untouched; there was not another tourist in sight, giving us the feeling that we were the first people to have ‘discovered’ Hampi. It was hard to believe that we were free to wander the sites alone and that almost all of them are accessible without an entrance ticket!
Thankfully, Hampi is not yet visited by hoards of tourists; no artificial walkways have been built to protect the stone steps and most of the ruins are unguarded, however as the volume of visitors increases, as it undoubtedly will, it remains to be seen whether the site will be able to retain its charm.
The ferry from Alappuzha to Kottayam is a great way to slow down the pace and get a glimpse of daily life in Kerala. You can either travel on a houseboat for a couple of days (4500-7000 Rs), or you can take the ferry like the locals do, and cruise through one of the most tranquil parts of India.
The journey takes you through tiny villages on the edge of the marshy backwaters, giving you the chance to glimpse rural life in India at its best. Houseboat cruises, designed like kettuvallams (rice barges), are big business in the state of Kerala; in recent years they have even been upgraded to match the demand for air-con, onboard chefs and romantic getaways. Though renting a houseboat is one of the most expensive experiences in India, local ferries make it possible to get the same views (though not the ambience) without forking out hundreds of Euros.
Kottayam bound services leave regularly, and at just 10 Rs for the 2.5 hour journey, cost a fraction of a trip on a tourist houseboat. Ferries travel slowly and you are likely to be one of the few foreigners onboard, which allows you the chance to rub shoulders with Indian passengers rather than simply observing the backwaters through the lens of your camera.
Here you can escape to a place far removed from the hectic roads of India. This water world is a far cry from the car horns and pollution of the big cities. Men fish, talk on their mobiles as they walk along the canals and women wash clothes and plates in the water as children splash about. With elections looming, villages are decorated with hammers sickles; cheesy posters promote plump candidates sporting sparking smiles. It is ironic to think that in the world’s largest democracy, communist flags can be seen fluttering in the wind from Kolkata to Kovalam, but in China, the world’s largest Communist nation, the hammer and sickle are gradually be retiring from public life.
From Kottayam it is a rickshaw or bus ride to the fascinating Fort Kochin, where you can maintain the slow pace for a few days while soaking up the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, Arab and Jewish influences on this small island facing the Arabian Sea.
Kochin was so difficult to leave that as we were having breakfast on the morning of our planned departure, we decided that we were not ready to leave behind the orthodox churches, 400 year old synagogue, Chinese fishing nets and crumbling colonial buildings, so we checked into our hotel for an extra night!