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A literary tour up the Ganges

This article was first published in the Times Online on December 22, 2005

Roving writer and voracious reader Sarah Anderson sets forth to India armed with required reading

From the moment that I heard that Louise Nicholson was leading a tour up the Ganges, following in the footsteps of 18th and 19th century European artists, I knew that I wanted to go.

We started in Kolkata: “It is a huge city and fine, and is called the City of Palaces. It is rich in historical memories; rich in British achievement – military, political, commercial; rich in the results of the miracles done by that brace of mighty magicians, Clive and Hastings” (Mark Twain in Following the Equator).

We stayed at the Oberoi Grand and although we were 24 in the group, due to Louise’s remarkable policy (included in the price), of allowing everyone to eat where and what they liked, one never felt that one was being herded around as in a package tour. We were also lucky to have our unflappable Indian guide, Sumit Battacharyya, on hand at all times to answer any queries.

“There was boating on the Hoogly in the cool evening breeze, when parties would take to a budgerow or a mourpunkhy, a snake boat which was eight feet wide and sometimes one hundred feet long, paddled by thirty or forty men” (Geoffrey Moorhouse, Calcutta). Just before sunset we too took a boat, but somewhat more prosaically a ferry, to the artisan district of northern Kolkata.

Penny Treadwell, author of the forthcoming biography of Zoffany, gave a talk on the painters William Hodges, Thomas and William Daniell (uncle and nephew). That, coupled with a visit to the Asiatic Society and a tour-de-force talk by Louise on founder Sir William Jones, made me see the river through 18th century eyes.

After a day in Bishnupur, capital city of the Mallas from the 7th-19th centuries with its exquisitely carved terracotta temples and where we didn’t see a single other tourist, we flew to Lucknow, scene of paintings by William Daniell and Zoffany, and stayed at the Taj Residency.

After learning about the Siege of Lucknow we wandered round the Residency: ” … a tall and ugly thing, from whose upper stories one could survey the whole expanse of the city, its towers, domes and minarets rising splendidly from the squalor at their feet” (Jan Morris, Heaven’s Command).

In the afternoon we were lucky enough to see the inside of Claude Martin’s vast house, La Martiniere, with its extraordinarily ornate chapel and library ceilings – this was the school of Kipling’s Kim: “The great old school of St Xavier’s in Partibus, block on block of low white buildings, stands in vast grounds over against the Gumti River, at some distance from the city.”

From the Kanha Shyam Hotel in Allahabad, we went to the museum with its stunning sculptures and interesting collection of early 20th century Bengal School art, as well as several paintings by Nicholas Roerich, the Russian philosopher, painter, stage designer for Diaghilev, mystic, Nobel prize nominee and traveller.

We followed a visit to Nehru’s house with a boat ride to where the two sacred rivers, the Ganga and the Jamuna, and the mythical underground river of enlightenment, the Saraswati, meet. This is the site of the Maha Kumbh Mela held every 12 years. We continued round to the back of the fort built by Akbar and now inhabited by the army to see the view Hodges had painted.

In Varanasi, painted by William Hodges and James Prinsep, we attended the evening puja from a boat on the Ganga placing our candle-lit flowery offerings in the river, in memory of our own dead family members: “Although Shiva dwells everywhere and in everyone, he is said to dwell with special intensity here, where the membrane between this world and the transcendent reality is so thin as to be virtually transparent” (Diana Eck, Banaras: City of Light).

After a performance of Kathakali dance we returned to the hotel. Rising at dawn we went back to the Ganga: “It was one of those beautifully clear winter mornings I had come to love during my months in Benares, kites hanging high in the blue sky, and the river full of sparkle” (Pankaj Mishra, An End to Suffering).

The park at Khajuraho is meticulously kept and the Western temples, with their erotic sculptures were magical in the evening light: “I found … seven Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing” (Captain T.S. Burt quoted in John Keay India Discovered).

Back at the Taj Chandela Hotel, we had the best puppet show I have ever seen and the shop in the hotel made clothes for many of us over night.

En route to Agra we stopped at Orchha and after a very full day arrived at the luxurious Oberoi Amarvilas (www.oberoiamarvilas.com) where every room has a view of the Taj Mahal, painted by many including Thomas Daniell, I hauled myself out of bed at sunrise to see the Taj, a time that was virtually tourist-free: “Seen in the first pale flush of sunrise, with a cool wind stirring the treetops in the adjacent gardens, it has the fragile delicacy of a soap bubble; no other building I have ever seen has conveyed to me quite that degree of airy grace, of absolute purity” (S.J. Perelman Westward Ha!). The evening was spent listening to haunting Sufi music played and sung by the acclaimed vocalist Sudhir Narain (sudhirnarain2000@yahoo.com).

Another magical early morning was spent at Bharatpur where drifting along in a boat we saw 38 different kinds of birds including hundreds of painted storks. Now our trip was fast approaching its end; in Delhi we stayed at the Imperial Hotel (www.theimperialindia.com) with its wonderful collection of Company School paintings, explored the newly restored Humayun’s Tomb with Giles Tillotson and went to the little-visited and ancient Muslim quarter to see the tomb of the poet Khusrow.

Throughout the trip, I felt that there was a pride and confidence about India and the Indians that I hadn’t been aware of during any of my previous visits. With Louise’s enthusiasm, extraordinary knowledge and attention to detail, I can’t think of a better way to experience India whether as a novice or as an old Indian hand, since one sees the obscure as well as the more obvious. There are still a few places available on her North Indian tour in January; she also tailor-makes tours and special itineraries for people (www.louisesindia.com).




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