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Surely it's no coincidence that it’s so close to the French mélange – a “set of diverse elements”? or even “Melee” meaning a "confused or agitated scramble"?
I’m pulled from my reverie when the crowd in front of me parts to reveal a wild-eyed horseman, on an even wilder-eyed horse, approaching at what feels a lot like a gallop. One arm held aloft like the lone ranger he utters a loud yell as he bears down on me. Just as I’m beginning to wonder if this is personal he brings his horse to a stop in a cloud of dust about 10 yards away, with the equestrian version of a handbrake turn, before disappearing headlong into the crowds again.
This, it turns out is a fairly representative example of what Sonepur is like; loud, intensely colourful and brimming with spectacle; like the Bath and West show on speed. But despite the intensity of the sensory assault, I’m struck by the sense of order that prevails within the chaos.
There’s no feeling of threat or panic here, despite the sheer weight of people who walk shoulder to shoulder through the narrow streets. As any first time visitor to India notices, the concept of personal space has little traction here, but even as a 6ft 5 giant I’m amazed that I don’t feel more uncomfortable - perhaps in the setting of the fair with its elephants, snake charmers, bull, bird and dog markets, I blend in as just one more oddity among many.
Sonepur Mela, in the state of Bihar is a remarkably ancient institution; far less known than fairs like the Pushkar camel fair in Rajasthan, but it’s both larger and older. Visited by Chandragupta Maurya in the 3rd Century BC who came to buy elephants across the Ganges, the fair has drawn countless generations of others who came – and still some - to trade animals from elephants to bulls to horses, birds and dogs.
Today the elephants are no longer officially for sale, but they are still here in the haathi bazaar and deals these days are allegedly are done behind closed doors. The bull, horse, dog and bird markets still thrive.
To the outside world, despite being the home of unified India and the birth-place of Buddhism, Bihar is one of India’s lesser known states. A victim of poor economic policy in the 60s and 70s that some suggest robbed it of the birthright of its natural mineral wealth.
In recent decades Bihar has been plagued by dissident activists and suffered a lack of tourists as a result. To date tourism infrastructure remains minimal so Sonepur Mela has remained steadfastly off the radar for all but the most determined of visitors. Of course this feels like a real privilege and I’m aware of being one of a very small number who are walking around with cameras; this is still a place where people watch things that they find interesting with the naked eye, rather than through the frame of an Iphone.
Staying aboard the stunning river boat, the MV Sukahpa, owned by the wonderfully named Assam Bengal Navigation Company, we travel by village boat to the fair and spend two full days exploring. We witness elephants being made-up with colourful paints by their mahouts, spend time chatting to their owners who sit in deckchairs beside their beasts (just out of trunk range) basking in their reflected glory.
We accompany a huge bull elephant as he walks through the tightly-pressed crowds, somehow avoiding squashing anyone, to the banks of the Ganges, and we share his palpable joy at being allowed to roll over into the cooling water to have every inch washed by his mahout.
I’m powerfully reminded of bath-time with my sons when they were little, with even the same commands issued in a tone somewhere between a request and a threat “leg up please…leg UP!” “turn over… please turn over” all the while the elephant much absorbed in the blowing of bubbles and the all pervading joy of feeling weightless.
And there’s another side to the fair that interests me – as a traveller culture is a fascinating allure, but it’s easy to subconsciously apply an authenticity filter and miss things. For all the horsemen, snake-charmers and decorated cattle, there’s a brash and indescribably noisy side to this event, but a side that is no less valid as a cultural experience. Its icon must surely be the Tannoy public address system.
Albeit hand painted and decorated, it blares almost nonstop through the tight streets by the Hariharnat temple and the rows of commercial stalls selling mostly the same blankets, bangles, vermillion and small brass pots for placing offerings in the temples. There’s a harder commercial edge to this side of the fair – the pots these days aren’t hand-beaten brass, but all bear the stamp of a single company in Gujurat. It’s an undeniably modern aspect to the mela, but of course still a resoundingly valid cultural experience.
At the far end of the rows of stalls I find the apotheosis of the modern cultural experience. A tall structure made of cast iron and wooden floorboards towers above me. Rickety staircases climb the sides going up not one, but three shaky stories to a set of balconies that look down, like a steampunk version of Shakespeare’s Globe, into a deep, sheer-sided well.
This is a Wall of Death, India style. While Tannoys outside blast their sales pitch in competition with the un-silenced roar of the motorcycles warming up, we wait while almost three hundred people climb to the balconies to witness the spectacle. 20 minutes later we’re off and within minutes the wall is – incredibly – populated by what looks like a vertical rush-hour.
Four motorcycles, the first driven by a girl of no more than twelve in a gold shalwar kameez, compete for wall space with 2 small Maruti family cars whose drivers sit not inside, but outside on the doors, even reaching across to shake hands. At speed. While hurtling round and round the wall vertically.
It is instantly and unforgettably outrageous - a mixture of comedy and reckless jackass-ery. There must be a word to describe this chaos, this disorderly scramble. There is, what I’m looking at is a melee.
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The valley is steep sided, made up of purple rocks, great slabs of grey slate and mud banks filled with rounded stones that were forced up from the sea bed 40 million years ago.
Rock falls happen daily and the Border Road Organisation are responsible for clearing it – often with shovels and brooms, with the occasional digger for the heavier stuff. The BRO are also responsible for the road signs – when there's not an inch of room either side of the road, they'll paint it on the steep rockface.
Chilling means the place of the Muslims – Chi being Muslim, Ling being place – and is a tiny village whose population of 30 are all involved in metal working, apart from the 4 who are the noisy voices in the two-room school. The village is no more than a cluster of houses reached by a narrow path winding up from the road; some buildings have been here since the first Muslim arrived in the 14th century and cling to the rocks like limpets.
These days, everyone is Buddhist, have been for hundreds of years if the pile of stones on the Mani is anything to go by.Metal working sounds much more industrial that it's meant to. The metal here is copper, brass or tin and small sheets of it are gently knocked into submission with minature hammers and heated on outside grates - no more than 2 foot long - in the apple orchard, with a fire made from a couple of bits of coal and bellows which turn out to be an entire sheep skin.
A blanket over his knees, his lined walnut face low over the flame, the metal worker sits on the floor and taps out intricate patterns on teapots, copper spoons and cooking vessels which line the walls of his kitchen and also those in the King's Palace at Stok. As we leave he reaches into his pocket and hands over a spoon, a lotus flower embossed on the handle and tiny hammer marks in the bowl.
It is not polished, the edges aren't straight but it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever been given.
Scenes of hunts, spoor depicted alongside their respective animals for teaching purposes, records of the arrival of white people in pith helmets with ox-wagons. No one else in their right mind calls the Kalahari home and it’s no small feat to subsist in this hostile landscape. As semi-nomads, the Bushmen move with the seasons, their destinations determined by the availability of food and water.
It’s hard to imagine that there are still people whose street knowledge includes how to concoct lethal poison from bits of a tortoise, which stunted and desiccated shrub will yield a juicy tuber, and remembering where, in an immense landscape, you buried an ostrich egg filled with water a few months ago. It rather puts a trip to Tesco in perspective.
The Bushmen are hospitable to strangers and place a high value on family (particularly children), gift-giving and story-telling – told in their largely unwritten “click” language. Their deep understanding of the environment and its inhabitants goes beyond textbook stuff; hunters are so tuned to the psychology of their prey that they can follow animals where the spoor has long since vanished and still come up with the goods.
Walking in the footsteps of the Bushmen is something we all ought to do at least once.
Read more about Kalahari Mobile Safaris
Lying on a grassy bank at the bottom of our garden over the weekend, enjoying the (rare) warmth of the Dorset countryside I found myself sleepily tracing the flight path of a pair of swallows as they sliced in and out of our garage on their endless mission to gather insects for their growing brood.
Like watching a flame (and perhaps because of the beer I had at lunch time) it was hard to take my eyes off the effortless aerial maneuvers. High-speed swoops a few inches above the lawn were turned, rollercoaster-like, into controlled stalls at altitude to catch insects.
The mere act of catching a flying insect is remarkable, but then everything about a swallow is far too easy to take for granted.
Think about this – an animal weighing approximately 21 grams (that's about the same as a slice of white bread, or one fifth of the weight that Royal Mail defines as a letter) thinks nothing of travelling some 7,500 miles. Twice a year. And that's just the straight line distance (and when do you ever see a swallow flying in a straight line?).
The oldest swallow on record allegedly lived for just over 8 years, so if you do the maths, that would conservatively equate to well over 100,000 airmiles in its lifetime - or the equivalent of flying half way to the moon.
And each year, the swallows we see flitting around our English gardens travel through some of the planet’s more extreme climatic conditions – from sand storms to droughts and thunderstorms, all the while feeding their 21 grams and retaining enough energy for their epic journey.
Their route takes them from South Africa through Botswana, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Morocco to Spain and France before reaching the UK.
Unsurprisingly many migratory birds don’t survive the journey. But when you consider the challenges they face it seems remarkable that any make it.
Leave aside the physiology of the swallow for a moment; how it feeds, breeds or builds. It is remarkable that so high a level of consciousness can be contained in a body so small. Science seems an inadequate tool to explain how this animal is able to navigate to and from a nest the size of a cereal bowl in a range that extends over two of the planets continents.
Is it a coincidence that 21 grams is supposed to be the weight of the human soul?
There seemed to be a kinship among our four camels. They walked in each other’s footsteps, nosing against the next one’s tail and releasing their low resonant rumblings in companiable unison.
Each evening, when their panniers were heaved from their backs, they loped off in their langorous gait, together, and grazed until nightfall when they made their way back to the security of our little camp and remained there untethered.
Our mule however walked alone. He did not share in carrying our camp each day or walk with the camels. His ungainly load was made up of two soft mattresses, stools, our mess tent and all the paraphernalia for our daily cooked lunch.
An hour before lunch he and his muleteer and our cook would gather pace and disappear in the fold of a valley. When we arrived at the lunch spot, beside a stream or under the shade of a walnut grove, a small camp was laid out and the smell of spices and barbequed lamb scented the air.
Mattresses were laid in the shade, the stools and table, so precariously attached to the mule, were set up under the white mess tent and a silver water jug and bowl were ready to wash the dust of the Atlas from our hands.
Berber lunch is something to enjoy and indulge in, delicious meals were produced from the kitchen on the mule, vegetable couscous, delicately spiced lamb on skewers, flat breads and bowls of olives.
We lay in the sunshine after lunches, watching the eagles soaring the thermals above us and picking the sweet scented herbs that grow in profusion on these hillsides.
Then patiently our mule stood as he was loaded once again as we left to walk on, feeling the small sense of unease that our day seemed so utterly free of the usual chores of camping.
Before long we heard him trotting behind us and then deftly moving past on the narrow paths. As we walked into camp as the evening drew in, there he grazed, alone, while the camels communed in the last rays of the sun.
The Taj Mahal Palace hotel on Bombay’s harbour front is almost as iconic as the adjacent Gateway of India, the grand ceremonial entrance built by the British Raj to receive international VIPs arriving by sea. Interesting then that the Gateway was only completed in 1924, a whole 21 years after the hotel so for many years the first thing those VIPs saw was a ‘native Indian’ edifice, not an imperial British one. And the rear, or the ‘backside’ as they say in India, of it at that.
Some suggest that the contractor misread the architects’ plans and he built the hotel the wrong way round, but in reality it was deliberately built facing inland for ease of access by carriages and cars arriving from the city not the sea. The old front was only closed off in the 1970’s and guests now enter from the harbour ‘backside’. Whichever way you look at it, this old-world luxury hotel is full of charm and character and is a welcome oasis of calm I love returning to when staying in the city.
When I arrived in the wee hours for my latest sojourn at the hotel, for the first time in many years of travel, I couldn’t find the key to the padlock securing my luggage. And no amount of jiggling or poking would open the lock.
Too embarrassed to call anyone I knew to help me, I determined to haul my bag through the streets of Bombay in 38’ heat looking for someone to hack off the lock. There’s a little man on every street corner who can do such things, or polish your shoes, stitch your handbag back together, clean out your ears or type up a legal note, but the thing is knowing exactly which street corner to go to. Not a plan to relish. I called the floor attendant and shared my predicament.
15 minutes later a man in sharply pressed overalls arrived, panting, with box of tricks in hand. He explained it had taken him all this time to reach me from his maintenance hideout on the other side of the building. I could well believe it. This gorgeous heritage hotel has grand sweeping staircases that wind forever upwards towards an Italianate dome and quite possibly miles of pillared verandas, marble floored corridors lined by carved wooden balustrades, decorated with stunning paintings and fabulous antiques, all flooded with natural light from above. No time at all, I thought, considering.
I don’t know what he did but 30seconds later and my worldly goods were free – the bag was open. I haven’t bothered locking it since.
Sunrise is early in Ladakh, the tips of the mountains turn pink by 5.00am and the sky is nothing but pure blue an hour later. At Thiksey monastery the day starts early too – standing on the flat roof, 3600 metres above sea level, are two monks in maroon robes each blowing long trumpets – drungchens - out into the thin mountain air. The deep booming echoes around the Indus valley, bouncing off the slopes, reminding villages for miles around that morning prayers are about to start.
The monks of Thiksey are from the Yellow Hat sect, founded by Je Tsongkhapa in the 14th century, so called because when Tsongkhapa came over the moutains without a hat he used his yellow bag to keep his head warm. There are about 60 in Thiksey, ages ranging from eighty six to three and a half, who live in mud brick buildings, painted white, that tumble off the slopes and have willow sticks stacked tightly above the doors to stop them collapsing in an earthquake.
Some of the buildings are far from the main hall and as the sound of chanting begins to pour down the 107 steps, monks race up, their feet slapping on the stone. Outside the ornately carved entrance are many pairs of shoes - crocs in bright pink and green, plastic flip flops - all kicked off in a hurry.
It takes a moment or two to adjust to the dark and the cool of the inside, but by the time we're seated on rugs that are laid out for visitors and are leaning against the beautifully painted plaster walls, it's easy to see the line of monks sitting on raised benches – the eldest at the front, the youngest by the doors.
At first the prayers seem very solemn, heads bowed over the text; the chanting is mesmeric and beguiling, even though it's relatively tuneless. After several minutes individual voices strike out, high squeaky ones that spill over the low melliflous sounds nearer the front. Offerings of rice in round flat dishes are placed in intervals along the benches.
A small boy wrapped tight in his maroon robes against the morning chill, leans over to his friend and whispers something into his ear. Without missing a beat, the friend, shoulders shaking with laughter, grabs a fistful of rice and chucks it at him. They laugh so hard they lose their place in the text. Behind them sits an older monk, completely bald, wearing dark sunglasses and mustard coloured robes, swaying to the prayers like Stevie Wonder.
Suddenly, with no warning, the room erupts with noise – conch shells, bells, trumpets, drungchens and drums – all together, an overwhelming sound, joyous and full of hope and life. We feel it wash over and into us and soon it's almost impossible not to laugh out loud. By the time the young monks come round offering us yak butter tea - and I'm not sure if it's the altitude, or the early morning, or the sheer joy of being here – whatever it is, we're weightless.
The collection in the City Palace contains priceless family heirlooms dating back to 743AD and includes a stunning elephant howdah (the preferred mode of royal transport for centuries) decorated with a lion just to make sure the passenger can be identified, and has room in the back for a friend or the odd bag of jewels.
The largest item on display is a 1939 horse-drawn buggy custom-made in shining solid silver in Birmingham. Commissioned by the maharaja of Bikaner it was a surprise gift for his daughter as part of her dowry and the start of her new married life in Udaipur. A smaller unusual exhibit is a little ornamental palanquin used to carry a deity. This one is for Shree Eklingji, the real ruler of Udaipur and Mewar - the maharana is merely a custodian.
Apart from eying up the family silver you need to leave plenty of time to explore the rest of the City Palace complex. There are splendid palaces (11 in all), courtyards, verandas and rooms of mirror-work, tiles, peacocks, dazzling crystal and intricate miniature paintings. Some of it’s a bit of maze – deliberately designed that way to confuse an enemy attack.
For lovers of culture, history and romance, or just the plain nosy there’s nothing better at the end of the day than to wander the palace grounds in absolute peace after the last visitors have left. Pass the shopping arcade closed up for the night (once elephant and horse stables), saunter past the restaurant (palanquin storage) cross the lawns (ceremonial procession square) and then unlock the door to your room – and stay in the palace.
So said Miles Kington. I wonder if he was ever in Nemo, a village in Ladakh that's built on the Indus flood plain, surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world and cut off from everywhere during the winter. Or whether he was ever lucky enough to eat Gajar Ka Halva, a pudding made mostly from grated carrots.
Ladakh's closest neighbours are China so the Indian Army are well represented here: it's they who fly supplies into Leh airport – the second highest in the world after Lhasa – between December and end of March when the main Srinigar to Manali road is closed.
Dry goods, matches, fruit and vegetables, tomatoes and carrots, all come in this way so things get scarce in winter, the prices rocketing. Tomatoes, 120 rupees a kilo in the summer, can reach 1200 in January.
The Ladakhis are self reliant as a result – barley and wheat are grown in the short summer season, some south facing slopes of terraced fields can manage two crops in the year. All the food grown is stored below the village houses, trapdoors in the kitchen floor allow access to the basement when the temperature outside is -30 and the snow is too high to open the beautifully carved front doors.
Animals and people share the houses, sheep and yaks, donkeys and zos – a cross between a yak and a cow, prized for high yields of milk and looking like a Frank Oz creation – on the ground floor with the grain, families above. Small windows with wooden shutters try to keep out the worst of the weather, even in the Summer it's very cold once the sun goes down.
Severe winters govern everything in Ladakh. The terrain, the trees, the population. Western clothes have arrived, no question, plenty of school children wear bright pink Hello Kitty anoraks but they're worn over thick wool waistcoats and knee length tunics. Then there's the food. In a place where keeping warm is a full time task, fat is consumed in a way that we couldn't possibly imagine.
Yak butter tea is a strangely delicious staple, black tea is served with lots of milk and powdered barley – tsampa – and food is cooked in plenty of oil and butter. When choice is limited, cooks get inventive and one of the best things to eat in Ladakh is Gajar ka Halva – or Carrot pudding.
The carrot isn't a fruit – everyone knows that - but when it's served in a beaten copper dish, with slivers of roasted almonds and tiny sprigs of saffron, at over 3500 metres above sea level, no-one's going to question the wisdom of using it for one of the most delicious puddings ever made.
The Victorians didn’t believe in Gorillas. This is a fact and it’s just one of the many amusing facts about a group of people whose hubris apparently knew few bounds. At one point they also famously decided that there was nothing left to invent, so closed the patent office (although it soon needed re-opening when someone invented yet another device for covering the sexually provocative legs of pianos.)
Anyway, back to Gorillas because ridiculous as it seems to us now, it is of course a default position for most of us to at least question the existence of something that isn’t there for us to see. Put another way, there’s a chance we only find what we look for.
A story caught my eye this week on the BBC website showcasing a study conducted on Rock Hyraxes, the thrust of which was to question whether all the extensive snorting and whistling noises that they make add up to anything more than..well, snorts and whistles. At first glance, the conclusion, like most scientific papers seemed to lie somewhere between “definitely’ and “probably not.”
But one of the things that caught my eye was the suggestion that “The hyrax is one of only a few mammals which have syntax.” And this is where I’m reminded Victorians and Gorillas. Because I wonder which is more likely – that God singled out a few animals (people, dolphins, hyraxes and the odd parrot) to be able to talk, then got bored and left the rest out, saying “Let Them Make Only Meaningless Squeaks All the Days of Their Lives”? Or that those are some of the few animals we’ve got round to paying attention to? I think it’s also known as observer bias.
Most of the many mammals that I’ve spent time watching in Africa, whether elephant, lion, or the countless smaller species (including the hyrax) or the Gerbils, Hamster (RIP) or Guinea pigs that my sons now keep, seem to make pretty significant use of vocal communication (roughly on a par with that of my sons). I wouldn’t mind betting that the overwhelming majority are pretty good conversationalists…if only someone will listen.
Of course none of this would really add up to a hill of beans if it didn’t illustrate quite so clearly the contrast between our collective position as custodians of the planet and our total lack of qualification for the job. The Victorian refusal to believe in Gorillas is pure comedy, but today’s misunderstandings – from climate change to how to stop rhino poaching (another thought provoking article) - are far less funny.