India Primer: Part 3: Mapping Your Journey
By Rico Zook, Edited By Nina Osswald
PLANNING YOUR TRIP to the IPC in INDIA
This is the really fun part about preparing. Get some good maps. Read, listen, and watch things that inform you about this amazing country with a deep history. Accept that you will not be able to see or experience even a tenth of this culturally and geographically diverse country in the time you have available, assuming it is less than a few years.
So, what calls to you most? What climates are you comfortable in? What interests you, aside from permaculture and related things? The following is a brief introduction to a limited number of various regions of India. This is only to get you started, and you will need to do more in-depth research to make your most informed decisions. We will start nearest to Hyderabad where the convergence is and work towards more distant places, which means we go a bit south, then turn northward. How to travel between various places will be discussed in Part V of this series; Day-to-Day Knowledge.
The first decision before booking your flight is where you want to land. If it is right before the Convergence, or you are going to one of the pre-convergences courses, than Hyderabad International airport is it. Here is the link to the airport’s website, http://www.hyderabad.aero/traveller.aspx
If you think you may arrive early enough before the gathering to have a bit of travel, then there are choices. Of course, if you have the monetary means, land closest to where you want to adventure to. If finances are a challenge and economy primary, then there is potentially a simple either/or choice, Kolkata or Bombay, though Delhi could figure in. The former is best and often cheapest place to land if you are departing from or near to the west coast of the states. If you are departing the east coast, Chennai is likely the cheapest to land at. There was, and likely still is, a non-stop flight from Chicago to Delhi, that takes 16 hours.
If you are more inland, domestic travel can be a good way to save money in getting to a coast for cheaper international flights. You can also visit a great coastal city. I strongly recommend, and humbly request, to have all your overland travel be on the land, by train, bus, auto, or boat (to stretch the request). Air travel is the most environmentally impactive common travel mode there is. I have read that train travel is the most environmentally friendly mode, though one person argued with me that bus travel is. Either way, fly only when there is no other choice. If you book far enough ahead, usually at least 3 months, Amtrak rates can be at or less than a flight. It does take longer, but it is immensely better for our environment (reason enough to do it), you get a more civilized experience, and get to see some of this amazing country.
Once you know where you are going to land, you can consider where you are going after that. As I am recommending overland travel, this greatly limits you in the pre-trip preparation of booking internal travel in India. It is quite easy, and often affordable for those on a medium budget to book domestic flights. India has pretty good airline service coverage; however, budget wise, environmentally, and in regards to a wider exposure to culture, traveling overland has much more sexiness, to use a “permie technical term,” compared to air travel.
The booking site Clear Trip has an Indian Rail booking procedure for train tickets. [part V in this series will include more about train booking and travel] You need to register before hand with the Indian Rail via the Clear Trip website. I tried once, but they sent a response saying there was some problem and asked me to resubmit. I did not as it was not a ticket I needed to rush getting. I was more just curious. I do consider this a viable option for booking train travel from outside of India.
The website Makemytrip.com has a page for booking a bus in India, but I am unsure if you can use it outside of India, as it shows rupees as the currency of payment. Other possible websites for buses include Redbus and Yatra. The unknown here is if you can book on these from outside the country. If you are arriving in Chennai and going to Auroville, you may be able to book a taxi via an Auroville website, as they have a couple taxi services based there and regularly go to Chennai. Check their site for this. Auroville is an excellent ‘halfway house’ for those visiting India for the first time and looking to learn more about intentional communities.
The basic approach is to book your travel inside of India when you are in India. The challenge of your first travel inside of India, if you are arriving other than immediately before the IPC gathering, is that you are just arriving, perhaps for the first time, so getting up to speed in regards to managing travel through India must also overlay managing all the new realities of India and basic needs. This is why it is very helpful, but not a necessity, to have the first leg of the journey booked before you land. It will give you a bit of time to adjust, which helps with the immediate transition to a radically different culture.
If you are going to book your first internal travel after you arrive I suggest to plan for 5 to 7 days in your arrival city so you can adjust to India, and have time to book tickets via a travel agent. It is occasionally possible to book certain bus trips a day or two prior to departure. Travel agents are readily available at many points in big cities. They will always be around the major bus stands, which are government run and the buses there are most often state buses. For booking government buses, you would go to the bus stand itself, and often pay when you board your bus, though do look for ticket windows at the larger bus stands.
There are also other locations where the many private bus services cluster their offices and boarding points. These are quite often a city street without any particular bus stop or lane. Sometimes there is a bus yard for a particular company that you start from. Bus travel can often be booked 4 days or less ahead of time, depending on holidays and the route. Booking agents are generally pretty good. Do ask before they book what they charge, and if it is per ticket (usually is). A fee of rs.150/ticket is good. Likely it will be rs.200 to 250. If the booking fee is getting rs.300 or above I would bargain or go to another agent. An agent may represent or steer you towards a particular bus company, which could be, or not, good company. There are definitely things to know about bus travel, but for now, just know that there are many many travel agents, likely in a long row with the one you are currently at. So only get the conveyance that suits your needs and desires. We will discuss the buses and bus companies in part V of this series.
TRAVEL ON HOLIDAYS
It is very important to know when the major holidays are for India, and for the regions in which you are traveling. Prior to and immediately after these major holidays the number of people traveling can skyrocket. This means getting a ticket can be very hard to impossible. And if you get one, be ready for sharing. (see last paragraph in this section) For the IPCIndia events there are only two holidays I know of that you need to be aware of. One is a month prior to the event, and one several weeks after and with limited impact.
Diwali is one of the major holidays in all of India. Travel leading up to and after is often completely booked months in advance. This coming year it is the 19th of October, well in advance of the late November IPCIndia conference. However, it is just 2 days prior to the start of the pre convergence IPC Teacher Training. If you are landing in Hyderabad for this, there should be no problems getting into town, just be sure to book a hotel over the internet. We will be arranging a bus from Hyderabad out to the venue. If you are arriving early to travel through India, you will need to be very aware of this holiday. It is a beautiful one and referred to as the ‘Festival of Lights’ and the Goddess Lakshmi is a focus. It is also a very, very noisy holiday. Our links page has several websites with information about this holiday.
Christmas is a big holiday in some parts of India, particularly the Northeast. This region was heavily missionized by the protestant sects and has large Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian populations. I once took a train to Guwahati (capital of Assam state) during this time. There were from 3 to 4 people in each berth (bed) and many people sitting and standing in all available spaces. My berth already had two people sitting in it. I, of course, had paid for a single only bed, but as they say in India, ‘what to do?’ People showed deference to me as a foreigner (and a white one at that), but I would not have felt good about being the only one not sharing my berth, so I did share, though with only one other person. When the conductor came through he did not make any attempt to check tickets or such.
This is just one example of the imperative to be open, adaptable, and willing to accept India for what she is, and to not trying to impose a western perspective or mindset in a very non-western culture.
There are Christians in all of India, though in much smaller populations than the northeast. Kerala likely has a large population, thus travel may be a challenge there during mid to latter December.
Pongal is another big holy day in south India. This coming year it will be 13th to 16th of January 2018. (many holidays are multiple days in India) It is the harvest festival and as such is one of joyous celebration. The traditions associated with it vary from region to region in the south, but common to it are honouring cattle (who plow the fields) and rice (rice being the staple crop harvested). The common celebratory dish is also called Pongal, it is a hot spice rice dish that has multiple variations throughout the region.
In south India, the wedding season starts with Pongal as there is time off and, hopefully, an abundance of food from the harvest. These can be boisterous affairs that go deep into the night over multiple days.
CHOOSING YOUR DEPARTURE CITY
A round trip ticket that lands and departs from the same airport will likely be the cheapest, if you want to do a tour it may not be convenient to depart from the city you landed in. For those on a budget, this may be the deciding factor in regards to departure point.
OTHER GENERAL POINTS RELATING TO INTERNAL TRAVEL
LEFT SIDE TIME
India is a left sided country. This means that vehicles travel on the left side of the road in the direction they are going. For India this left side is more a reference point rather than an actual requirement. In part V of our series we will give a broad introduction to driving in India with some basic understandings. Remember that this left side flow also applies to sidewalks, hallways and any path where movement is happening.
JEEP, BUS, TAXI STANDS
In every city, town, and village there will be a place where the public transportation vehicles gather, be them buses, jeeps, or taxis of various types. Be aware that with buses there will be government ones (operated by the state for longer distance, city for more local distances) and private companies, which only do longer distances. [We will cover all aspect of buses, taxis, etc. in part V] In larger towns and cities there will be a Bus Stand that locals can point you to. In the larger cities the long distance buses (state) will be separate from the more local buses (city), while in smaller municipalities, these might share the same stand. In some larger cities there will potentially be several different bus stands that service different directions (e.g. a bus stand for all northern routes). As with all travel tickets, be very clear which stand, or airport, your bus is leaving from when you purchase your ticket.
Private buses will occasionally use the public stand, though most often, especially in the larger cities, they will have one or several different locations from which they start or stop by in route. When purchasing a ticket get very clear with the Travel agent where you are to meet this bus. Sometimes the travel agent or bus operator organizes a van our similar that meets you at, or in the area of, the travel agent to take you to where the bus stand is. Also be very clear about where the bus will drop you at your arrival point. A bus going to Bangalore will start stopping at certain points as it enters into the city. Its final destination could be, often is, some district away from the city centre. The final stop of the bus could be completely across town from where you want to be in that city. I have benefited by knowing when to get of the bus earlier so I was closer to this final destination.
In many mountainous areas of India, as well as areas that are very rural and/or remote, there will be private individuals operating shared jeeps, or small mini vans, to specific destinations from the transportation hub of the larger settlement. In smaller hubs it is common for all the shared transportations to meet in one location. In areas with higher populations and higher numbers of people traveling, each destination may have its own location within the hub city. In Siliguri, the Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim transportation hub, Darjeeling, Gangtok, Kalimpong, Mirik, and a few other regional Himalayan towns have specific Jeep stands where you need to go to find the shared vehicles going to that town or area.
CITIES, TOWNS, and DIFFERENT PLACES
BANGALORE AND AREA
This city is also known as Bengaluru. Many of the bigger cities have been slowly changing their names from the more Anglicized version to the more Indian one, Calcutta to Kolkata, Bombay to Mumbai, Madras to Chennai, to name just a few of the largest ones. In some places the new name is only used (Chennai), in some both are used interchangeably (Mumbai/Bombay), in some the new name is slow to be regularly spoken, though literature often uses it. Bengaluru is like the last of these.
This is the major metropolis due south of Hyderabad. It is also known as a major IT centre, one of its major districts is called Electronic City. It was once a very beautiful city known for its many parks and lakes within the city proper. Now these have all but been lost to pollution, development and corruption. It is an ongoing loss, though efforts have started to revive some of these. It still has its comfortable climate that is cool in winter and a mild warm in summer. Summer in India is March to onset of monsoon, usually sometime in June, depending where you are. These are the hottest and driest months, often above 100 degrees in other parts of peninsular India, and getting above 110 in some of these. Bangalore maintains a cool to warm climate, with occasional appreciated breezes.
Bangalore has all the big city features of cultural events, music, arts, shopping, sports, different districts, and traffic. This last one is legendary here. I strongly recommend not trying to travel across town, or even part of it, most times during the day. As that is not always possible, do plan in sufficient time for getting place to place. Try to do all your needfuls in one area. And give more than enough time to get to your travel departure station (bus, train or airport) so you do not miss it due to traffic. If you fly out of the international airport, there is an hourly, often more frequent, bus that goes directly there from the city’s main transportation hub, referred to as majestic. This name, Majestic, can be used for the city’s main train station, city bus stand, and regional bus stand all clustered here within easy walking distance. The bus to the airport is very easy to find as it parks on the main street in front of the city bus stand, and flashes the airports name on its sign.
In 2011 Bangalore started construction of a Metro, with building still being completed today. Many lines of it are operational, and the Majestic staion should be open by IPC time.
Around Bangalore there are several places to know about, the most significant one for me being Navadarshanam. This is a land based Intentional Community based on a Ghandian philosophy. It has been around since the late 80’s I believe. It is located on ~100 acres outside a small village about 3 hours southeast of the city. It is reachable by public transport. Gopi Sankarasubramani, who is on the pre-IPC PDC teaching team, is their land manager. He has done amazing work there, though is currently being challenged with an extended drought that is still occurring as of this writing. He also has to deal with ongoing pressure from the local elephant herd.
Bhoomi College is located in the outer area of the city. Bhoomi basically means earth, and this private college focuses its courses and programs on this and social concerns. It has held permaculture courses and has a curriculum that supports permaculture and our interests. Some very interesting and great teachers have been here.
Mysore is a small city southwest of Bangalore easily reached by a short train or bus ride. It is well known as a yoga hub, with a larger foreign population, and district, due to this. It is a historical city with a palace that has tours. It is an enjoyable and accommodating city that is easy for foreigners to navigate and reside in.
This is the only American Hill station from the colonial era. It is located high in the Western Ghats (Ghats means steps, and is used to describe these coastal mountains), in a very cold temperate region. This is why the British established many of the Hill stations through the Western Ghats and Himalayas, to escape the heat and disease of the lower cities in the plains.
Founded by Methodist missionaries who also built an international school that has become one of the most prestigious and respected boarding schools in India, with many children from Bollywood, Industrial, and foreign and/or diplomatic families. Its large campus is located in the middle of town. Kodai, as it is called in conversation, is a major tourist destination for Indians. It has a small reservoir lake that is a beautiful addition to its landscape. It is a small town on a hillside, with the bus station well located in its hub and private buses down a near by street.
Karuna farm is located a short distance outside of town. It is a ‘subdivision’ of small parcels that many foreigners have taken. There is a yoga shala (school) there, and a permaculturalist, American I believe, has been doing work over its full landscape. One of its residents has built an Earthship dome.
Up past this town there are many natural areas worth visiting. Getting to Kodaikanal is best done via private bus service out of Bangalore, though buses from Pondicherry also go there. The road up is one of those that have you praying and becomes a story to share back home. I do not recommend getting the top back berth on a the sleeper bus on this route, as happened to me recently. (more on sleeper buses in part V)
Kodaikanal is a special place, and one of my favorites in India. It has a bit of the mountainous America feel to it, so I get that temperate vibe I so miss as a dominantly tropical person.
This is the state along the southeast coast of India. Lush and verdant it has given itself the name of ‘God’s country’. It is abundant with water, being famous for its fabled Backwaters, which can be toured in luxury on beautiful traditional houseboats. There are several small beach towns along its coast that are part of the Hippy trail, think bonsai Goas. Ammachi’s (the famous hugging Ma) main ashram is located in the small fishing village Parayakadavu, one hour north of Kollam on its coast. Warren Bush has been doing trainings and consultations for her European centres, as she has made a commitment to sustainability and tells all her followers to do likewise. And while India as a whole tends to be pious and spiritual, Kerala seems a bit denser in this way, it seems that every couple of kilometres along its coast there is a mosque, church or both. The majority of Catholic priests and nuns seem to be from Kerala.
Kerala is well worth a visit if you want a jungley, fecund, traditional, coastal experience.
AUROVILLE AND PONDICHERRY
Pondicherry, or now known as Puducherry, was a French colony during the colonial era. It joined India in the late 50’s. Its political status in India is that of a state, which is actually a bit larger than the city of Pondicherry itself. Its old town centre is very beautiful, clean, and traditional, with a strong colonial French appearance. The Sri Aurobindo ashram is located here and dominates this old section, owning many buildings and running many enterprises. Due to the high number of Indian and foreign followers here, and the support of the ashram, accommodations are very cheap and clean. If you are considering visiting Pondi (as it is sometimes referred to) do the research. Knowing its and the ashram’s history are helpful for you to get the most from a visit. Be aware that there are at least to other Pondicherrys in India. This is the one south of Chennai, an easy 3 hour bus ride.
If you are leaving India from Auroville or the southeast coast of India, Chennai’s International airport is the one to do it from. If you are flying to the east coast U.S. they may want to book you domestically to Bombay. If you have the time, as with any departure, it is often the funniest and cheapest to travel overland to fly out from either Kolkata or Bombay, depending which coast you are going to, west or east respectively.
Located 5 kms north of Puducherry Auroville is, very simplistically put, an extensive intentional community founded in the early 70’s by followers, mostly foreigners, of The Mother. She was the spiritual partner of Sri Aurobindo, and again, read about Auroville’s history as it is too much to convey in this article.
Today, Auroville has the highest concentration in India of things related to sustainability and its component parts. Auroville can best be understood as an overarching conceptual idea under which different enterprises have been established. These include; farms, communities, schools, NGO’s, businesses, guesthouses, and private residences. A few of these are specifically permaculture based, others just doing some element that falls within the permaculture focus and work areas. There is also a strong presence of the arts, architecture, sustainable building, and Sacred Groves.
And, if you are having a hard time with India, Auroville is a bit of respite due to its concentration of foreigners and the pervading sense of being a bit different from the rest of India. While here, do try to see and enter the Matrimandir, the spiritual focus of Auroville. To do this there is a process that takes a couple of days, and begins at the Visitor Centre.
The following is a short and incomplete list of places I recommend checking out while in Auroville. To really have time to visit all of these as well as other places, and not fill rushed and time compressed, I recommend at 2 week visit. You can see many of these within a week, but you’ll not be as relaxed and spontaneous.
Dropping in is doable here, and they have a great botanical area with beautiful signage displaying the high diversity of medicinal plants of the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest ecosystem. Try to visit their Nadikupam project if you get the opportunity. Joss Brooks, the founder of Pitchandikulam, does some of the most amazing bio-conservation and permaculture work I have ever seen. This is a must visit.
This is specifically a permaculture site. Bernard and his wife —- are major seed saving activists.
An amazing production farm run mostly on volunteering. Based on natural farming, the cropping and systems are well executed and educational to see.
Incorporating some Permaculture, the farm has had fluctuating functionality. It is well worth a visit, and has the most reasonable volunteering arrangement.
Bamboo Research Centre
A good informative place to visit. Check about tours.
This is more of a nursery rather than a classic botanical park. Not sure about drop in visits. Best to research this is you wish to see it.
An amazing market farm that has dome some great cropping and other permaculture style things.
There is a number of Appropriate Technology places and businesses, including; Aurodyne (water), Earth Institute (building and windmills), CSR (Centre for Scientific Research, though this may have closed), water harvesting NGO, wind turbine building business, and more.
If you are considering a visit to Auroville, and I do recommend this for an educational experience, be sure to thoroughly look through their websites in preparation. Volunteering at Solitude, Buddha’s Garden or another community is a good and less expensive way to go. There are also plenty of guesthouses, from more affordable to very expensive. Be aware that Auroville is a very popular tourist destination for both foreigners and Indians. Accommodations can get booked up well ahead of time, especially for February that has Auroville’s founding date and Mother’s birthday, both very celebrated events.
Chennai has a well known beach area, though not as interesting or varied as Mumbai’s. This is the location of Theosophical Society, for those of you who know what this is. There was recently a large and amazing restoration project of Adyar, the large estuary in the middle of Chennai, that Joss Brooks lead. The Chennai Dance and Music Festival is happening mid December to mid January. The link for this is given in our
This is an amazingly beautiful location with both cultural and religious history. It is a World Heritage Site due to the extensive and widely spread 12th century ruins of the capital of the Vijaynagara empire. It is also the birthplace of Hanuman, the monkey God of Hinduism that is a major figure in its pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. The landscape is an amazing combination of mountainous pale reddish granite boulders and lush verdant rice paddies in between. The contrast between these is exquisite, and almost hard to look at due to the contrast and depth. The boulders are similar to Joshua tree in California, and many foreigners come here to do bouldering. Well worth a visit for history and beauty. However, come March the temperatures start to climb, and can reach over 110 degrees (45+ Celsius) in the height of summer, April to May. The region has been suffering from an ongoing drought for the past two seasons which has the river at the lowest my friend, who was born and raised here, has ever seen it. As with other places in India and around the planet, people are hoping for a good monsoon this coming season.
I am conflicted in how to describe this place. I have and know good people that live here. However, in all honesty, I usually have a hard time when there is a concentration of foreigners in one spot in India. I will not detail why this is, but that Goa is the epitome of my reasons. It is a very beautiful place, with some great beaches. It was a Portuguese colony that was liberated or invaded (depending on your point of view) in December 1961 by India. It became famous in the late 60’s and early 70’s as a hippy gathering and party spot. It has only grown in this way ever since. I find it a very expensive place compared to the rest of India. I was just there teaching, and would pay 50% to 100% more for food and other items compared to true local Indian prices, especially some places in the larger cities. You will get a much more western cuisine and tinted experience here. And if you have any allergies to overly tattooed, pierced, tribal gypsy people, best to avoid Goa. If you are, or have an attraction to these, this is the place to be. It is a great place for dental or medical needs if you have them. If you want yoga trainings, tantra experiences (and trainings), channeled or past live information, an Enfield motorcycle, satsang with anglo ladies, several tribal belly dance variations (cool to watch, no doubt fun to do), with innumerable musical groups of a wide spectrum (a few actually very good), or crystal, sound, auric, channeled, past life, or chakra healings then Goa can easily and continually overwhelm your social calendar with this and so many more offerings. There are many different towns and locations in Goa, so researching their different ambiences and the demographics of who likes to stay there will help you make a choice. Goa is also a place to be extra careful, especially women, as crime is more prominent. It is still generally safe, just more awareness is advised.
Goa has a permaculture facebook group to check out. Clea Chandmal, another of our IPC-PDC teaching team lives here and has an amazing farm where she accepts volunteers. There are other projects here worth a visit, Samata (outside of Arambol) with its beautiful and well done gardens by Jonathan, and Peter and Rosie’s place are both great to visit.
While in Goa do visit the Other India Bookstore (cum publishing house), one of India’s most important alternative bookstores. Located in the north Goa town of Mapusa (pronounceced ‘mopsa’), it has a great selection of organic and natural farming books, as well as diverse social and political titles. You can also purchase their books online.
MUMBAI and PUNE
I describe Mumbai as the NYC of India. While India has many cities that are international, Bombay is by far its most global city, from Bollywood to Business. As such it can be expensive, especially the accommodations. There is a strong and growing urban farming movement here with a couple of groups such as, Urban Leaves, Green Souls, and City farmers. www.sulins.org is an internet chat group all about sustainability, started here and has the strongest online presence There is much history in Bombay, and the older parts of town are well worth a walkabout. It is a massive city (20 to 25 million depending on your source), so plan well when moving through it. If you can avoid peak hours, the local trains make it easy and fast to get around Mumbai, especially traveling along the north-south axis.
Pune is its sister city, with much happening in between the two. One of my advanced students has her great farm near Pune. I have heard of other projects, but none I have locations for. Pune is also the home of Osho’s main ashram. Visiting it is not an easy thing, so research what is required if you are interested or into Osho.
GUJARAT and RAJASTHAN
These are the two states in the northwest of India. Gujarat is north of Mumbai and is dryland to desert climatically. There is some amazing old traditional water harvesting structures here. Step wells are ancient hand dug wells with stairways descending down into them. Some of these have rooms along the descent for relaxing in during the heat of summer. Many of these wells are still functional today. There are also some of these in Rajasthan.
The Thar desert of Rajasthan is the most densely populated desert of its type in the world. In some places it only gets one rain event a year, if that. There is a traditional saying, “Rain is so precious in Rajasthan that it is measured not in inches, but drops.” This area is a testament to the ingenuity of the traditional water harvesting and agricultural techniques and strategies of this region. Many of these are seriously threatened now, but some NGO’s are working to save and revive them. Gravis, a Jodhpur based NGO, is doing amazing work with this.
Winter is the perfect time to visit these regions. There are many cultural events and locations to visit here, especially forts and cities. A world famous camel market happens here. Again research as there is too much to cover in this article.
I have never been there though hear about its incredible scenery and beauty. Be aware that it is an area of conflict between India and Pakistan. There are occasional politically motivated bombings, and at times riots, with a strong police/army response to suppress them and maintain control.
This city is the capital of India and a bit like DC in that it is an independent district, not part of any state. It is a massive city, as many are in India, and has several distinct districts within it. There is old Delhi, New Delhi, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida, and Ghaziabad. It has a functioning metro that is a great help in getting around the large land base of Delhi. Be aware, it can get crazy during and near to peak hours. Tokens are purchased at windows within the metro. If you are to be using it for a few days, getting a multi-use card will save the hassle and time of having to get a token for every ride. As with all travel in India, always plan plenty of time to get where you are going. Though the metro helps, it can still be a demanding journey.
As with all India cities, there are multiple train stations in the city. Be very clear if you are arriving or departing from one that you know the correct one.
Pahar Ganj is the neighborhood that is the big backpacker haven. It is immediately next to the New Delhi Rail station, which has a metro station on the opposite side from Pahar Ganj. So this is a good place to find cheaper rooms, and has good access for navigating Delhi.
Delhites are known for being rude and unfriendly. Of course, as with all generalities, there are plenty of people in Delhi who are friendly and quite helpful. Just be aware that it is a busy, busy national capital, with a very competitive nature about it.
Flying in or out of the international airport here is easy as there is a dedicated metro link going from New Delhi Metro station (at the rail station) to the airport. This is a separate and more expensive ticket from the regular metro fees.
India is a very artistically expressive nation, with the various arts being well represented all across the country. Wherever you go there will be a a variety of crafts and arts well made and . Orissa for me has a wide and diverse representation of the arts. If you want to see and experience Indian Artistic expression, this state is a good one to visit. Do the research as many festivals and art events happen here throughout the year. There are also specific locations and village(s) that are known for specific arts or crafts. One year I was taken to a set of villages that were all about appliqué, and I got some beautiful Hanumans, and Indian scenes for gifts.
It is hard for me to describe Kolkata. It seems the oldest of the major cities. The city with the least ‘modernization’ imposed. It feels like the India cities of old, though I say that from never having been there of old. It is a gritting city, and I say that endearingly. It was my favorite city in India for a long time, if only for its vibe, ambience, texture, or some unknown wu woo.
It is a Bengali city, so food and art are big. If you like seafood and spice, eat Bengali. India has many outstanding cuisines, and Bengali is known all over. A serious foodie would not pass up the opportunity to eat Bengali in Kolkata. There are many exceptional restaurants in Kolkata.
There is a good book culture also. India, in general, is a bookish culture. There are classic remnants of colonial architecture all around the city. There is a major and famous Kali temple just on its edge. (Kolkata is identified with Kali) A pre dawn arrival is best for its puja. Puja means altar, as well as the rituals of offerings and other services at the altar.
The foreigner low budget area in Kolkata is Sudder street. It is a street, but the general area for several blocks has low to moderately priced accommodations. Do check out the room before agreeing to stay the night (always recommended). I have seen some pretty questionable offerings in this area. and you can find some gems also. I once stayed in an old colonial structure with high roofs, columns and some curious detailing for $3. Shabby bygone era accommodation does have a charm, with the right attitude. Another time my room was through a small maze that included, I am pretty sure, the back hallway of a small residence. But when you got there it was a comfortably sized clean room that included a sofa and had a balcony with a sweet, though common, view over my little aspect of Kolkata. That I think was about $4.
Kolkata has 2 rail stations. Seldah is in its north and trains generally are departing in that direction. The other station is Howrah. If you have an overnight in Kolkata that involves Howrah rail station, stay at the Howrah Hotel. It is an amazing old colonial structure
Kolkata has had a metro for a long time. When I was last on it (over 8+ years ago) it had a limited reach. Major Indian cities have been building mass transit systems, so hopefully Kolkata’s has been expanded.
DARJEELING HILLS and SIKKIM
The Darjeeling hills and Sikkim are part of the Himalayan Kangchenjuga range. Kangchenjuga itself is considered a very sacred peak. It is the third tallest in the world, and it is illegal to stand on its summit. This area is a peninsula of India that sits between Nepal to the west, and Bhutan to the southeast. To the north and northeast is the Tibet – China border. The local language and major culture is Nepali, Darjeeling has a long history of mixed regional cultures, which today includes, Nepali, Bengali, Bhutanese, and the local tribals, of which there are several different groups.
Darjeeling town is the Hill station the British built in the Himalayas to escape the heat and disease of Kolkata. Traditionally this part of India was part of Sikkim, the state north of it, but was given over to the British as part of a long and complicated relationship between British colonial India and Sikkim . Until 1975 when it joined India Sikkim was a Buddhist Kingdom with a royal family, much like Bhutan. The original Darjeeling town was sited by the British as there was no village or settlement prior to this. A fair bit of the original town still exists, but as with most of India, the last 20 years has seen large-scale expansion. New construction, mostly up, continues strongly today.
For transparency, I have a long history with Darjeeling as I did my first international course here 14 years ago, and have come here every year since. I consider it a home of mine. I have been adopted into family here and have worked with Prerna, a local NGO, for the past 13 years doing different projects and running the longest annual PDC in Asia. This course is held down in Aapbotay, in Mineral Springs.
Mineral Spring’s traditional name is Dabi Pani, which means Medicine Water. This is the valley on the east side of Darjeeling town, where the now lost spring was said to have healing properties. This area is where the second tea estate was established in Darjeeling, with the removal of native jungle and mono-cropping tea. With independence the British Tea Estate owners left and no one took it over, an uncommon occurrence in this regard. Over the next years the tea workers spread out on to the estate, building homes and removing a few tea bushes for vegetable growing. Over the next couple of decades certain crops were introduce (citrus, cardamom, broomstick), while various forest species, some native some previously introduced, started returning. Some were removed and kept out; others were left as they had uses and harvest (timber, fodder trees, medicines, traditional foods, etc.). Now, after this unplanned and organically evolving process, the thousands of acres that spans the 14 villages with over 400 farms that make up Mineral springs is almost completely a Forest Garden. All of these farms are part of Sanjukta Vikas Cooperative Society. This started out as, and is still essentially, a farmer’s co-operative; however, other social concerns have been overlaid onto this framework, including women’s empowerment, health, and cultural preservation. All the farmers in this Society are organic certified under a single document. And they have a Fair Trade contract with a local tea corporation who purchases all their fresh green tea leaves immediate at harvest, which happens 4 times a year.
There are several other large towns/small cities in the Darjeeling hills. While Darjeeling is a new town, Kalimpong has been a market town for a long time. The Silk Route had several different routes. One went along the base of the Himalayas and then up and over to reach Lhasa by a pass to the east of Kangchenjuga. Kalimpong was the market town and staging area on this side for that trek over the high Himalayas. If you want a small contemporary Himalayan traditional market town experience, this is the place. Kalimpong is different from Darjeeling. Read up if you think you might visit.
If you wish to go to Sikkim you need to get a special permit. This you can do in Darjeeling or at the border crossing at Rangpo. You can take jeeps there from NJP (see below), Darjeeling, and Kalimpong. If you are in a shared jeep, let your driver know as you will have to stop just after you cross the river. Here you go into the office on the right that everyone points you to. This office is behind the row of classic glass bureaucrat booths in front that are for other types of permits and such, and is accessed by the middle hall in this row of booths. Be aware that this crossing closes for the night, so be sure to cross both ways while it is open, as you need to ‘check-out’ when you leave Sikkim.
Bamboo Retreat in Sikkim accepts permaculture volunteers. I and Sailesh Sharma did a design for them and he is now guiding its implementation.
To travel to Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim take the train to New Jalpiguri (known as NJP) Station, or fly to Bagdogra international airport (it has flights to Nepal, Bhutan, and Thailand). Outside of the Train station are shared Jeeps to Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Gangtok, as well as other Darjeeling hill towns. From the airport you can hire a taxi to Darjeeling (rs. 2,500+) or take a shared auto or taxi to the appropriate Jeep stand in Siliguri, about 10kms away. Shared jeeps are about rs.150+ per person.
Sikkim is the first state you encounter as you enter the region referred to as the Northeast. The other states are, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram. This area is more tribal than most other areas of India, and has a more southeast Asian feel to it. This has some more remote and less traveled areas within it. Assam produces more tea than anywhere else in the world. Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China and there are occasional border incidents. This area has some unrest, though it is generally safe for travel. This is a restricted area and most states in this region, though not all, require a special permit to enter. If you have interest in visiting this area research the permits needed and how to get them. Unlike Sikkim, you have to get them ahead of time, usually in Delhi.
ANDMANS and NICOBAR
These are island chains far out in the Bay of Bengal. The Andmans are classic tropical islands. It has basic infrastructure for tourism, though the 2004 tsunami hit them very hard. Travel to them is either by plane or ferry.
The Nicobar islands are strictly off limits to everyone, even government people. They have the last ‘untouched’ communities in the world. It is said that they have not had any contact (or likely very, very little) with the rest of the world. After the tsunami when a helicopter went to check on them with a fly over they responded by shooting arrows at it.
THE HIPPY TRAIL
This is the name given to the most common stops for most young backpackers traveling through India. We have spoken of some of these already; Goa, Hampi, and Auroville. Others we have not: Rishikesh, Jaipur, and Gokharna being examples. What is important to understand is that there are many faces of India, there are many different ways, levels, perspectives, communities, influences, and a deep history that defines India as not anyone place, anyone style or community, or dress, or language. Everything and everyone has a place that is India. India is too complex, expansive and deep to call something within it ‘not India’. So the experiences you have in Goa, in Rishikesh, in Auroville are all Indian. The question to ask is, what India do you want to see and experience? If it is a more authentic day-to-day India, step off the trail. If it is one with intact communities and traditions, step off the trail. If it is one without an artifice that is trying to sell you some version of itself, step off the trail. If you want to know some of the many, many different communities and cultures that are India, keep off the trail.
NEPAL and SRI LANKA
These definitely deserve their own primers. They are quickly mentioned here as they are the most common countries for overland travel to from India. One can go into Pakistan from India, but that has a lot of ramifications for future India travel. I imagine it is easy to travel into Bangladesh from India, but that country is not often on people’s travel list.
If you need to do a visa run these two countries, Nepal and Sri Lanka, are the common choice, often based upon proximity. Be aware that India visas obtained in countries other than your country of origin will only be 1 to 3 month visas. For longer visas you need to good home to apply for.
Govinda Sharma, one of the pre-IPCIndia PDC instructors, is from Nepal. There is still much work happening in Nepal from the massive earthquake a few years ago. Both Nepal and Sri Lanka have many permaculture, and related things, happening.
Photos by Rico Zook