Friday 22 October 2010

Maharashtra, first view of rural India

I am in the process of transferring travel stuff from my old travel site to this blog. This is my travelogue from my first trip to India with Mike in 2000, and this was practically my first ever experience of India.  I think I spent most of it observing very carefully from behind the windows of a car  Things couldn't have been more different when I went back, 7 years later, but that's the next post.


Unlike most places, Maharashtra really does looks like a patchwork quilt from the air. and when you land at Aurangabad you can tell you've come to provincial India. The tiny airport has a nice garden, a single runway (a bit bigger than the garden) and a baggage conveyor so old and small that you really might as well pick up your bags directly as they come off the plane. Still the formalities must be observed.

We were taken to our hotel by a genuine Indian Ambassador instead of the fancy modern cars they have in Delhi and Katmandu. The hotel was also old-fashioned in a pleasant kind of way. It had beautiful gardens, a spacious restaurant and public area and clean rooms but the ensemble was reminiscent of one of the very earliest Bond movies and some of it could do with a lick of paint.

From the air we had not been able to see any villages and the next day I discovered why. Most of the newer homes these days are little box-shaped houses built of bricks and they're almost always sheltered by trees. They're often very brightly painted but unfortunately the paint is usually very dirty. This might not be because it's particularly old, the mud and damp of the Monsoon and dryness and dust of the Indian summer can apparently finish off most paint within a year. A few houses are built in an older style, these have a low stone wall with a single opening and a tall sloping thatch roof that reaches almost to the ground. They blend in nicely with their surroundings but I'm sure the locals can't wait to move into the newer but uglier buildings just as soon as they can afford to do so. In either type of house the animals live under low tents of thatched grass or more probably sugar cane leaves, and the people have an outdoor front room area, walled and roofed with woven plants. People usually have only one room indoors, but in any case most of their activities seem to take place in the outdoor room.

The only large buildings you ever see in the villages are temples or mosques, some of which are very impressive. You also see a lot of smaller Hindu shrines. Lower down the housing scale are the tiny tents of the sugar cane workers, who travel from field to field during harvest time. These look just like the smallest kind of western bivouac tents except that they are made from thatched sugar cane leaves. The sugar cane workers live in these temporary settlements for the four months of the harvest, before returning to their villages. We also saw tents belonging to nomadic peoples, of similar size and shape but this time made from modern waste: plastic, old bits of tarpaulin and fabric. These people, we were told, travel around taking what work they can, often road-building, and these are the only homes they have.

We had a lot of opportunity to observe road-building during our travels though not many opportunities to experience fully built roads. The work is very hard and damaging to the worker's health. The task of beating large stones down into smaller ones with a mallet is usually carried out by women. It produces a lot of dust which is very bad for the lungs. The different sizes of stone are then laid on the road and a very thin layer of tar is trickled over them to keep them in place. Men are usually employed to dig the trenches for underground telephone cables. Everywhere we went in India we saw miles of empty trenches along the roads which we were told were for this purpose. These are dug with pick axes and spades, but as a matter of fact I only once saw a few men working on them.

Maharashtra is a fairly dry area, where the hills only turn green for a very small part of the year and that wasn't when we where there. I suppose the land must be quite fertile because many kinds of crops are grown and there seems to be enough water, at least in winter. When we visited the sugar cane and cotton were being harvested, and we constantly passed carts, usually drawn by bullocks with brightly painted horns. We were told that they are painted at an annual festival to celebrate their marriage to the yoke. In the morning the carts were mostly empty, but in the afternoon they were loaded with mounds of cotton or stacks of sugar cane. Sometimes the women and children of the family were perched on top of this huge pile as well.

The working women in this region often wear their saris in a style called Kaccha which is more practical for movement. The sari is pulled between the legs to make something like a pair of trousers or shorts depending on how high it is pulled. Most of the carts are heading for one of the government weighing stations of which we passed several - here the farmers bring their harvest to be weighed and receive a fixed payment from the government. The cotton in the weighing areas forms huge white mountains. It looks like a cross between a quarry and a salt mountain.

Horsemen mural (Jaipur)

I thought Aurangabad would be a nice little city of just about the right size to explore on foot. Actually you don't wander around Indian cities on foot if you value your life, limbs or lungs, at least not in your first week, but Aurangabad is still a nice little city. It seems to have a ridiculous number of gates both old and new as well as the ruins of an old wall. As you drive around you keep passing through gates of various styles and the result is that you never really know if you are inside or outside. As far as sights are concerned, people come to Aurangabad because it is the nearest large town to Ajanta and Ellora, but it has a few things of its own and it mainly comes across historically as being a city of declines and downfalls.

The Aurangabad caves demonstrate how Hinduism gradually displaced Buddhism in India in the carved scene where Ganesh has taken the central position, with the Buddha off to one side worshipping him. The Bibi Ki Maqbara tomb was built in the last days of the Mughal empire and though modelled on the Taj Mahal, it's smaller, cheaper and covered with stucco instead of marble inlay. The town is very pretty in a brightly colourful sort of way. Magenta and scarlet flowering trees are everywhere. The tiny buildings are painted in every available colour, some fresh, some dirty. The space is tightly divided between the various occupants and each one has chosen his own colour randomly, with psychedelic results. At intervals, the colours break down into dust, ruin and raw concrete. And there is the constant cacophony of people, horns, motors, animals and blaring music, in perfect accordance with the visual scene.

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