My last full day in India took me to the most colorful location I visited during my trip: Mallick Ghat. This wholesale flower market is situated on the banks of the Hooghly River, in the center of Kolkata. An incredible volume of fresh flowers are bought and sold each day here, and even as it prepared to close down for the day, it was packed with people. Throughout India, there are flower vendors outside of almost every temple, selling small strings of flowers for offerings to the gods. A market like Mallick Ghat market is where those venders would get their daily supply of flowers. This was a beautifully vibrant and energetic location to visit at the end of my time in India. The trip was an amazing experience, as it was my first time traveling to India or Asia in general. For only spending six full days in India, I witnessed a diverse swath of the country, but I still feel as though I had limited opportunities to go in-depth into the country's food, landscapes, people, and culture. I hope to make another opportunity to visit the country, spending more time getting to know the people and places better.
Kolktata is known as a center for music and arts in India, with many musicians including Ravi Shankar coming from the city. As a music fan, one of my goals while in India was to find a sitar maker. On our final day in Kolkata, we took a cab from our hotel across the city to a street suggested by someone the day before. Walking for blocks, passing many of the typical clothing, food and home goods shops that line almost every street, we finally found one small storefront with three men sitting on the floor working on instruments.
It happened to be Valentine's Day, and I had a small set of flowers strapped to the side of my backpack (from the Kolkata flower market, which I'll share photos of tomorrow). The flowers quickly broke the ice, as I asked permission to step into the shop and watch for a little while.
The older man in the front of the shop continued to work on the repair of a harmonium, while I spoke with the owner of the workshop, Suman Karmaker. While carefully filing a small piece of bone for the a repair, he explained how the business has been in the space for 70 years crafting sitars, and he himself had been crafting them for 20 years. Each new sitar, Suman explained, takes 2-4 months to finish. I love seeing the conversion of fine-art and craft into a functional piece of art, and wish I could have spent more time watching and learning about the process of crafting a sitar.
There is something about Darjeeling has a mystical appeal to Americans. As I worked to put together a list of dream places to visit while in India, Darjeeling rose up the list. Researching, it became clear it was not going to be quick and simple to get to from Kolkata. While planning the trip, I learned a close friend from college was starting a job in Bangladesh as we would be leaving India. As details came together, it became clear the timing would be perfect for us to travel together on an adventure to Darjeeling while Meghan was attending her conference in Kolata.
To get to Darjeeling, we took the Darjeeling Mail train 10 hours from Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri Station (NJP). Departing Kolkata at 10pm, we slept most of the way to NJP, traveling in AC3 class, we got a pair of bunks in a berth of eight people, and arriving just after 8am. From there we knew we had to find a jeep to take us the rest of the way to Darjeeling. This was easier than expected, quickly getting an offer for in one of the many shared jeeps that act like busses/taxis to Darjeeling. We paid for four seats giving us the entire back row and allowing us to keep our bags with us rather then have them strapped to the roof.
As we left New Jalpaiguri, making our way out of the city, the straight and flat road quickly tuned into winding switchbacks along steep hillsides. From NJP to Darjeeling we traveled only 70km, but gained nearly 6500ft of elevation in the three hour drive. Along the drive, each time we crested a pass, it felt as we must be reaching the top, but reach time a new, higher pass appeared through the misty clouds. The road was narrow and windy, but it was obvious these drivers did this every day and knew the worst of the countless corners by heart. Along the road most of the way were the narrow railroad tracks of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Darjeeling itself was a contrast to Kolkata. Here the building clung onto the hillsides, and as we began to walk around, we were happy to begin to find quieter areas with fewer people. Our first afternoon in Darjeeling, we walked to Happy Valley Tea Estate, following a small street that narrowed to became just a dirt footpath. We passed through the tea gardens on the way to the processing facility. A short 30 minute tour taught me more about tea then I'd known ever before; from the picking and drying process, to the different qualities of tea picked at different times of the year. However, by visiting in February, we were in Darjeeling during the only 3-4 months of the year where they are not harvesting or processing any tea, but instead repairing machinery and fertilizing the gardens.
Returning to the center of Darjeeling in a lightly misting rain, we visited the Elgin Hotel, a "manor house" from the 1880s. Every afternoon they serve tea in their gorgeous parlor. Escaping from the rain, we gratefully sipped the hot tea, not caring what tea and biscuits would cost in this luxury hotel. But as we went to pay, we were startled to be told, 150 rupees – less than $3 for the hour we enjoyed in this time capsule.
Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India, sits on the banks of the Ganges River and is credited as the city where Buddhism was founded. Hindus also consider the city a holy site, with many believing that by dying in Varanasi, one is granted salvation.
Our trip to Varanasi was hectic. We had to fly from 2.5 hours from Kolkata, then travel by bouncing van for another hour into the city, and finally walk the last mile through impossibly narrow streets to our hole-in-the-wall hotel. But the next morning, as we got on a boat in the pre-dawn light, we knew it was worth the trip. The crowds of pilgrims from across India and the world were gathering on the ghats - the large concrete platforms that lead to the river. As we made our way along the river we watched as people bathed, said payers, and did laundry, beginning their normal day.
We had arranged for a guide for the day through the recommendation of a friend. Amit was local graduate student working on finishing his masters in tourism, and really was helpful and explained the religious history of Varanasi and about how each ghat belongs to a different regional or religious group – identifying those from north or south India, or belonging to the Hindu, buddhist, or Jain religion.
Watching the sun come up over the horizon through the hazy sky was gorgeous, but it wasn't all as easy to witness. Two of the ghats were built for cremations, with small funeral pyres built right in the open. There was something that felt dignified about not hiding such an important stage of life. This, in contrast with all of the people starting a fresh new day, made for a powerful morning along the banks of the Ganges.
Late in the fall, the opportunity to travel to India in February went from a distant possibility into a reality. Having a few friends visit India in the last two years brining back some incredible stories, I jumped on the chance to make the trip with my girlfriend as she attended the World Congress on Public Health in Kolkata. It was a bit of a scramble to pull together the visa, immunizations, and travel details in only about six weeks, but was totally worth it.
From the moment we stepped out of the arrivals terminal at the airport, the chaos of Kolkata surrounded us. Even arriving at 8pm on a Sunday night, we were thrown into the crazy mix of traffic that includes taxis, jeeps, motorcycles, busses and bicycles – all competing for the same scarce inches of open space on the road.
As someone who generally spends time on a bicycle for recreation at home, I loved watching the range of utility that people could get from their bikes in India. As we traveled through our six day trip, I tried to capture some of the bikes I saw while we walked and drove around Kolkata and Varanasi.
This week each day I'll publish one small glimpse into my trip. While I went into the trip with some rough ideas where I wanted to concentrate my photography, it was still difficult to stay focused when surrounded everywhere by a visual richness that was completely new to me.
I want to thank designer Ben Johnson who created the hand drawn title for each day's post.