I should have realized that spending two nights in a Hilton and one night in a Sheraton would bring India back with a bang. And of course, it did in Ujjain.
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We’d left Vadodara, taken the train to Ahmedabad, and checked out where the Sabarmati Ashram where Gandhi stayed near the banks of the river. We used up some about-to-expire hotel points at the Ahmedabad Sheraton, where we booked our trek in Nepal We ate more magnificent Gujarati Thali and then caught our next train. It was easy finding our names on the reservations sheet, which we saw attached to the carriage for the first time on the train.
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Arriving in Ujjain
We crawled off the (late running) train from Ahmedabad at 6 am into Ujjain. It’s still dark for a while yet, so we find a dirty half-closed cafe at the station and get a drink to wait for a while. Nige has drunk half of my coffee before he realizes it’s not his tea. His tea tastes like coffee that has been stirred with a used teaspoon.
After dropping our backpacks with the unfriendliest cloakroom attendant in the world we head outside.
A nasty welcome to Ujjain
Welcome to Ujjain screams the strongest smell of rancid piss we’ve encountered in India. Or, indeed anywhere. Lonely Planet did tell us that the area around the train station was a little grungy, but this is a new all-time low. It doesn’t get much better as we traverse the streets by the station.
“Restaurant not open”, we’re told as we rock up at 827am at a place that gets good reviews for its breakfast. What time does it open we ask. 830am. I raise my eyes skywards and ask to use the toilet to kill the next 3 minutes. It’s a small, once-white, windowless tiled room. There are two urinals one in each of the far corners of the room. There’s a shower drain in the middle of the room and two “footprints tiles” next to it. No proper drain. No nothing. No running water to rinse anything. No bin to drop your own provided paper in.
This too is an all-time low. I guess they don’t get many women here. Or repeat customers.
Breakfast surprises us, the kitchen is clean, the staff nervous (we have that effect on people it seems) but the food is good. There, is perhaps hope for Ujjain.
The Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga Temple, Ujjain
That is blown as we head to the first temple. Where, as we follow a steady stream of folks, we’re stopped. Told that we have to buy a ticket for 151 INR “over there”.
Now I know I’m special, but here, where there is nothing in English and where there is no one who can tell me why us two have to buy a ticket that no one else has. (and there is a constant stream of Indians walking in. Just walking in.) No one can tell us what it gets us, I vote with my feet and so we pass on the Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga Temple.
The Harsiddhi Temple, Ujjain
The Harsiddhi Temple, close by doesn’t charge us, but the beggars sitting on the steps on the way in, seem to think we owe them more than their fellow Indians do and we skirt the outstretched hands that seem determined to grab me.
The temple entrance is dominated by two large black towers, which are dotted with containers to burn ghee and oil during the Navaratri Festival and which must look amazing at twilight burning. Now they just look sticky and dirty.
Still. We came here specifically for two locations and we haven’t got there yet. So now we head to the river. Here in Ujjain, this is the River Shipra, one of the sacred rivers in Hinduism. And we’re headed to Ram Mandir Ghat.
The Ram Mandir Ghat, Ujjain
A “Ghat”in this instance refers to the place where steps go down to a holy river. Ghats are used for cleaning (both the body and clothes) and religious rites – ritual bathing, ablutions) and for cremation. There are specific cremation ghats where bodies are cremated waterside, allowing ashes to be washed away by rivers. (The most famous and holy in Varanasi – which we’ll visit soon).
Here in Ujjain, the devout still light candles and oil at the river at dawn and dusk. We missed that, as the thought of walking through dirty stinking streets in the dark was not appealing.
But here in Ujjain, you can also find people washing themselves and their clothes in the river throughout the day.
And there are indeed people washing in the river and washing their clothes.
I can’t help feeling that while this may be tradition, it’s also clung to by the local authorities who are failing to provide adequate facilities for their citizens. Goodness only knows what is in the water, because on the way here, we’ve walked past open sewers on the street, streaming down towards here. Garbage is bobbing at the edges of the river.
We can apparently rent pedal boats to investigate closer, but the idea of getting even metres closer to that water is not something I want to happen in this lifetime.
Besides, my way down is blocked by a woman holding out her hand which contains rupee coins. 10 rupees she’s saying. I ignore her.
She pushes herself into my face. 1 RUPEE she starts shrieking now. 1 RUPEE. Other people stop and stare.
The shrieking continues as she points to her deformed feet. I walk away. She continues shrieking. I imagine it’s either insults or curses, but figure my shoulders are broad enough.
One Final Stop in Ujjain
There’s one more stop in Ujjain and then we’ll get the hell out of dodge. And it’s a walk through the streets again.
Jantar Mantar Ujjain
It takes us 20 minutes to get to our final destination, this is Jantar Mantar, or rather the observatory of Ujjain, commonly known, as Jantar Mantar.
This is India’s Greenwich. The Jantar Mantar of Ujjain. Our third Jantar Mantar.
Jantar Mantars in India
There are four Jantar Mantars in India – the largest in Jaipur. It was in the early 18th century that the Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur constructed five observatories in total – Delhi, Mathura, Varanasi, Jaipur, and here in Ujjain. The purpose was to compile astronomical tables and to predict the times and movements of the sun, moon, and planets.
The Jantar Mantar is essentially a big sundial. (It’s a lot more complicated than that, but for ease of explanation…) It’s used to measure the time of day and the distance to the north of south of an object from the celestial equator.
The Jantar Mantars are the same but different.
Other Jantar Mantars in India
Delhi was expensive (100 INR, and pretty damned poor). (Our bad experience in Delhi really put me off) Jaipur was well kept, expensive, but informative). And now here, the entrance is just 10 rupees. I think we woke up the guy selling tickets. What’s unique about this Jantar Mantar is that it’s actually still in use to measure elements of astronomy here in India. The others are mere tourist attractions.
That explains a lot, says Nige, as we wander around the site, paint peeling, standing water pools abound.
It’s peaceful though. I guess they don’t get many folks here. It’s peaceful though. And despite the feel of decaying history, its probably the nicest place we’ve found in Ujjain.
A quick walk back to the railway station and we buy a ticket on the next train out – canceling our later tickets and we wait on the platform, immediately attracting two new friends. Both are older men. neither clean. One has the dirt of an entire lifetime under his nails. He’s the one who’s desperate to touch Nigel. We really don’t have enough sanitiser to deal with that, so we move away.
It’s a relief to get on the train, but we’re not done yet. This is one of the new trains – introduced in September 2013, a double decker AirCon chair car. It’s like it hasn’t been cleaned since then. Or at least the table trays where we sit haven’t. At noon is it too early to be wishing the day was over?
Indian Train Tickets – Owing more money
Our tickets are checked once we set off and we owe another 740 rupees each. Because the tickets that we bought didn’t include our reservation fee for our seats. But we didn’t reserve seats, we say. No, says the conductor, you can’t. They don’t have that at the ticket office. You need to pay me so that I can update the chart. It’s not just us that he’s asking this for. And he does indeed update the chart. By scribbling on it in biro. What he scribbles I don’t know, because it’s not our names.
But we get a receipt and I close my eyes.
India, today you’ve beaten me. I give up. You’re illogical, and disorganized. You’re dirty, smelly, grabbing and you scare me. Today. I don’t like you much at all. and I’m going to shut you out.
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