Nederlandse versie

Taking the ‘A’ train to B2

India | Anno 2004


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That was a rat, Marleen whispers to me, startled.

Hell no, that was an innocent little mouse. And don't tell the others what you saw. We have enough on our mind.

But of course Marleen is right. That filthy hairball on legs was definitely a rat. Where else but in India are rats your traveling companions on the train? Fortunately, no one saw the rodent. The mood in the group is at an all-time low anyway. The long wait at the station, the heat, the fatigue, the uncertainty take their toll. Stories of rats happily running from one train compartment to another will not cheer us up. We’re here to see tigers, not rats. How did we end up in this situation?


* * * * *


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Sunrise over the Ganga


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Varanasi – Ghats

This morning everything looked fine. Admittedly, half past four was an early morning call, but a visit to Varanasi – or Benares, as the British called the Hindu holy city – comes with a price. After all, this city of death lives to the rhythm of the sun. Sunrise is the time when the most important rituals take place on the banks of the Ganga. So we had to get up early, even though we realized that Anup, our travel guide, had a tough program in mind for the rest of the day.

This city of death lives to the rhythm of the sun

In the east, the sun had already risen a few degrees above the horizon when we appeared at Dasaswamedh Ghat. Wide steps steeply led down to the river. Brahmins sat there waiting for customers. With aloof devotion, they performed appropriate rituals for pilgrims – for a modest fee, of course. As a devout Hindu, Anup was one of their first customers today.


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Varanasi – Ghat

It wasn't even six o'clock when we boarded a rowboat and set out on the Ganga. Promptly, Ashokji, our local guide, confidently planted a chair in the middle of the boat. We had already made his acquaintance yesterday. We perceived him as a somewhat mystical figure, who made frivolous narcissism his personal virtue and shunned neither theatricality nor pedantry. Now he sat there on his chair like a Buddha on his throne. In European pose, indeed, not in lotus position. It was no coincidence that we had to sit a little lower, like devout followers at his feet. In this way we were forced to look up to him as monks do to their master.

Ashokji spoke lyrically and enthusiastically, in a woolly style that tolerated no disagreement. Of the many holy cities on the banks of the Ganga, he said, Varanasi is by far the most important. One of the oldest too, for the city is probably five to six thousand years old.


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The Ganga is so sacred that it purifies everything it touches

Worshiping nature has taken place here for many centuries. The cleansing power of water is something every right-minded Hindu has an unshakable faith in. This is especially true of gangajel – that was the tender name Ashokji used for the waters of the Ganga. The Ganga is so sacred that it purifies everything it touches. In addition, the water of the Ganges cannot even become unclean during cleaning.

Not only does the Ganga wash away all your sins, it is also a good idea to drink its water while bathing, because gangajel contains medicinal herbs and minerals. A bold position, we objected, given the high concentration of industrial waste, animal carcasses and human corpses in this most sacred water. But Ashokji brushed off our critical comments without hesitation. The Ganga is a healthy river, he argued, because dolphins and turtles swim in it. It’s absolutely inconceivable that such a mighty river could not cope with those corpses.

With no more than a gracious nod, Ashokji then pointed to the pilgrims performing their arghia on the steps of the ghats. With a silver pitcher they scooped the unsurpassed water from the Ganga. Then they lifted it high above their heads and poured the water slowly toward the rising sun.


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Then it was time for our own aarati. We each were handed a chalice made from banana leaves strung together with toothpicks. In the chalice burned a delicate flame with a few petals scattered around it. In a deep, sonorous voice, Ashokji began to sing the mantra Aum Shivainana. With furrowed brows, he urged us to sing along with him. No simple thing, given the fact that we hadn’t the faintest clue what this was all about. Yet somehow we managed to mumble some phrases that sounded very profound and very unintelligible at the same time. Then we carefully lowered our chalices onto the water. Against the majestic backdrop of the colourful ghats, our fragile fleet drifted slowly across the twinkling waters of the Ganga towards the rising morning sun. A moment of silence ensued.

After a cremation, the undertaker will carefully sieve the ashes to recover all jewels

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Manikarnika Ghat

At Manikarnika Ghat, the largest and most famous of the cremation ghats, a cremation was just taking place. A pyre with a corpse was waiting to be set on fire. That corpse had previously been ceremonially wrapped in a cloth and bathed in the Ganga, Ashokji explained. Now they were shaving the head of the predecessor in the cremation ritual. Normally this is the eldest son. After that, the deceased had holy gangajel poured into his mouth five times. Thereafter fragrant sandalwood powder would be sprinkled on the pyre, as this is clearly a poor people’s cremation. A complete pyre of sandalwood is only affordable for the rich. Finally, the predecessor would walk around the pyre five times with a burning torch before setting it on fire.

Those who die under the age of twelve are not cremated, as they have not yet undergone the main Hindu rituals. Their body is wrapped in a cloth, weighted down with stones and entrusted to the holy Ganga. Lepers suffer a similar fate. Being leprous, they must have messed up quite a bit in their past life. So they have forfeited their right to a cremation and are thrown into the Ganga. The same goes for sacred cows, Ashokji added in the same breath. Elsewhere in India they are buried, here they are unceremoniously thrown into the Ganga.

Being leprous, they must have messed up quite a bit in their past life

In Varanasi, cremations take place all day long. For where can a Hindu find a more suitable place to be cremated than in the holiest city on the bank of the holiest river? To meet the rising demand, the government even had an electric crematorium built. The processing capacity is many times greater than the capacity of traditional crematoria with wooden pyres. But right-minded Hindus reject such novelties. And Ashokji considered himself to be a right-minded Hindu.

Moreover, cremations are a very impure activity. Only the Dalits, the untouchables, are involved in such business. But that doesn't mean they are poor, Ashokji emphasized. Hindus are cremated with their jewels. So once a cremation is completed, the undertaker will carefully sieve the ashes to recover all those valuables. In Varanasi, therefore, it is mainly the untouchables, the outcasts of society, who are rich. Some Brahmins, on the other hand, members of the highest caste, can be seen sitting on the steps of the ghats, performing rituals day in day out for next to nothing. It’s their only means of making a living.


* * * * *


Everything still looked fine when Imran took us to Varanasi Junction at half past eleven. There the Sarnath Express would be waiting for us in the station. In just over eight hours, this express train would take us from Varanasi to Katni. We were supposed to arrive there about nine o'clock tonight. Then we would need another two and a half hours by bus to reach the National Park of Bandhavgarh, just in time to go to bed before midnight. And tomorrow morning before sunrise our dream would come true – standing face to face with one of Bandhavgarh's tigers.


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But life is what happens while you’re making other plans, John Lennon knew. No sooner we had set foot on platform 5 of Varanasi Junction than the Sarnath Express was announced with a 25 minute delay. Not much later, the delay was upgraded to 45 minutes. That didn’t please us, nor did it surprise us. Delays simply are a trusted companion of the traveller. The fact that in the meantime a holy cow had discovered some tasty snacks between the rails of track 5 and had started eating leisurely, exactly on the spot where our Sarnath Express should stop, only added to the local colour.

Delays simply are a trusted companion of the traveller

At a quarter past one the arrival of the 5160 finally was announced. His job apparently being done, Imran left the station at once. As if she too had understood the message, the cow promptly switched from track 5 to track 6. Almost half an hour later the 5160 finally showed up.


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Varanasi Junction – Platform 5


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Being billeted in sleepers should have alarmed us. However, the perspective of a short afternoon nap became an appealing thought to us. No doubt the train operator would shift up a gear and make up for the hour and a half delay.

But that turned out differently. Since the Varanasi-Katni line has only one track, trains that were on time were given priority. Logical, because otherwise our delay would spread like a virus across the Indian railway network. Being sidetracked, left to watch other trains rumble by, became the rule rather than the exception. Instead of being reduced, our delay increased hour by hour.


* * * * *


And now it turns out there are rats aboard this train. Anup found out about the rats too, but doesn't seem to care. More importantly, he is looking for food and drink. He manages to find someone who takes our orders and passes them on by phone to the next station in Allahabad. As soon as we arrive, food and drink will be brought on board. A lot of negotiation is involved – what to eat at what price. Even cold beer and soft drinks are on offer. Guys, what a luxury. But then suddenly the man insists on getting a 50 % advance. That tends to be a scam. Nothing guarantees that the food will be available once we arrive at the next station. When Anup threatens to inform the conductor about the scam, the scammer instantly runs off.

That tends to be a scam. Nothing guarantees that the food will be available once we arrive at the next station

Anup picks up his cell phone and orders some food at the next station. Problem solved. At eight o'clock, the moment we arrive in Allahabad, the dishes arrive on board in no time. Two boiled eggs float in a tomato substance, in containers similar to the ones we launched this morning on the Ganga with a lit candle. Rice and chapati, and even cool beer and soft drinks are included. Guys, what a luxury.

With many hours ahead of us, our train thunders through the pitch-black darkness. Sheets, blankets, pillows, that's what we need now. During our previous trip we found out that these kinds of trains have such luxurious objects on board. We install ourselves as well as possible between our fellow travellers. The more the night evolves, the more we become acquainted with sleeping Indians equipped with limbs which preferably are stretched out in all directions at all times, thus penetrating in every corner of our comfort zone. And a snoring Indian on his own generates more decibels than a full 5160.


* * * * *


Wake up, we're approaching Katni, Anup urges. The train will only stop briefly at the station, he adds, so we'll have to be quick. Still sleepy we make our way to the closed doors. Just before half past two in the morning, the train grinds to a halt. It took us thirteen hours to cover a mere three hundred and fifty kilometres. The town of Katni seems extinct, the station looks dead quiet. Trying to find a bus for the next leg is nothing more than a sinister joke.

Hundreds of people sleep in the open air on the bare ground in front of the station

Hundreds of people sleep in the open air on the bare ground in front of the station. They are probably waiting for an early train. It’s almost impossible to get through. Carefully we navigate with our luggage between and sometimes even over the motionless bodies. Before you know it, you may be stepping on a hand, a foot, a head, or even… a baby. Barely a few weeks old, a baby sleeps next to its mother, on its back in the sand, its little arms and legs stretching out in the air – like a doll that was thrown away carelessly.

Then, much to our surprise, Shailendra, the manager of our hotel in Bandhavgarh, emerges from the dark. Patiently, he has been waiting for us for more than seven hours, along with six drivers and their jeeps.

Shailendra gets straight to the point. It’s a forty-five kilometres drive to Bandhavgarh, but it will take almost three hours. So we will arrive at our destination precisely when the morning safaris start. On arrival we must immediately change jeeps and start the safari. Without sleeping, Shailendra emphasizes. Unless, of course, we'd rather go to bed and decide to drop our morning safari, he adds. In that case, he has to cancel the safari jeeps right now. Going to bed and not seeing any tigers? That is out of the question. We're ready for tigers, not for beds.

Without further ado, our column of six jeeps sets in motion. Three minutes later we come to a stop in front of a closed level crossing. Grinding our teeth we watch the Sarnath Express pass by, as if that old devil wants to raise its middle finger at us one last time. Then we leave Katni behind us in a dark cloud of dust.


* * * * *


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Bandhavgarh National Park


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Bandhavgarh once buzzed with tigers, but the Maharajas of Rewa made short work of this abundance. In 1991, Charger and Sita were released as the Adam and Eve of a new tiger population. Their second litter produced three pups that were given the prosaic names B1, B2, and B3. B1 and B3 were short-lived, but B2 today still rules the park as an alpha male. And that's a full-time job, given that nine females live scattered throughout the park and B2 insists on regularly honouring each of them with his charms.

B2 today still rules the park as an alpha male

As dawn faintly breaks in the east, we reach the National Park of Bandhavgarh. At half past five we stop at Tiger's Den Resort. A handful of cookies and a cup of coffee should keep us alert. Then we hop aboard the safari jeeps.


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Rhesus macaque


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Sambar deer (m)

Soon the local fauna makes its appearance – kingfishers, langurs, deer, peacocks, rhesus macaques, wild boars... Terut, our guide, constantly pricks up his ears. Alarm cries from prey animals, that's all he needs to guess where a tiger hangs out. Regularly, we stand still, hidden on the lookout, silently waiting for a tiger to pass by, but again and again nothing happens.

Just after nine we are back at the hotel. Our only loot is a photo of a tiger's paw print in the sand and a photo of some of its turds. Fresh daily, yes indeed.


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Sambar deer


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Langur with young

Finally, there it is, inviting, on four legs, stable and shock-free, as long and as wide as anyone could wish for – a full-fledged bed. No noisy stations that suddenly emerge from the darkness. No nighttime peddlers constantly pestering you with their knick knacks. No snoring Indians. No stranger’s limbs under your armpits. Finally we can really go to sleep.


* * * * *


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Elephant with mahout


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Just before four we set out for the evening safari. We want to see tigers, we say to Terut with a grin. No problem, he grins back. But for now we have to content ourselves with some birds – a crested serpent eagle, a green bee-eater. An Indian roller is quite impressive with its beautiful blue wings. The first sambar deer make their appearance. Rhesus macaques stare at us from the trees. High in a treetop is a honey buzzard's nest. But there are no tigers to be seen.

Together with the sun, our hope to spot a tiger gradually sinks behind the hills

Along with the sun, our hopes of spotting a tiger slowly sinks behind the hills. Terut heads for Chakradhara, a flat strip of grassland amidst the rolling hills. Tigers like to hang out there among the high swamp grass, he explains, because it makes it easier to approach prey unseen.


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Suddenly he urges us to shut up. I saw some blades of grass moving, he whispers excitedly. There, a tiger is sneaking through the grass, he concludes. Enthusiastically, he points out the trail that the invisible animal makes through the grass. But we lack his eagle eyes. Motionless blades of grass, that's all we see.


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Then, on the edge of the grassland, some blades of grass recede. Without hesitation, B2's mighty head emerges. The image of the Bengal tiger emerging from the swamp grass in the ruddy glow of the setting sun is burned into our retinas. Greater reward is not imaginable.


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Jaak Palmans

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