Photo of a slide projected onto a wall.
It was mid November, 1989. I was four months into my journey through Central Asia. With my visa expiring, my time in Nepal was drawing to a close. Not feeling ready to go home, indeed a deeper sense of purpose and exploration beginning to arise from the trip thus far, I decided to travel down to India. I had left home with a few vague goals of things that I wanted to see or do, otherwise I was following my nose and seeing where the adventures would take me. During my travels to date I had experienced a deepening interest in Buddhism, a story within itself, and because of that I decided to head to Bodhgaya the place of Buddha’s Enlightenment. I was in Kathmandu and Bodhgaya is essentially directly south of the city, albeit a journey in itself. The route that I took went this way,
Kathmandu -> Birgunj at the Nepalese/India border -> Patna -> Gaya -> Bodhgaya
This journey started with an overnight bus ride from Kathmandu to Birgunj at the Indian border. I arrived at the border in the early hours of the morning, 4:30am to be precise. The temperature was cool. Streets were quiet. A full moon shaped like a rugby ball as it hung low in the sky was turning orange. A lot of rickshaws and donkey carts waited around.
I caught a rickshaw and headed towards the border, however I’m not sure that it was the 4km as the driver claimed!
From my memory the immigration and customs process on the Nepalese side was smooth and friendly, the Indian side was completely the opposite. I felt as though the officials were holding it against me to have them up at this unearthly hour…possibly a valid complaint?! From my journal,
Nepal immigration was friendly, let me keep my trekking permit as a souvenir, and as I left said “see you again.” … Then Indian customs; unfriendly, short curt questions, at least he didn’t waste time emptying my pack. Immigration was equally unfriendly, but at least there was a smile out of the guy halfway through the proceedings. He spent a while finishing some other paperwork…, ruled some lines in a book and then dealt with us; a Japanese couple as well. I had filled out my forms and sat there and watched him for a long time.
Once I was through all the red tape I went in search of the bus to Patna. Six hours later, and a couple of stops for chai on the way, the bus came to halt just short of Patna. It turned out to be a demonstration of some sort (I found out later that elections were happening, and this demonstration was related to them). Once we were underway again the bus crossed a long bridge spanning the River Ganges, on which Patna sits.
On arriving at the bus station I quickly found a rickshaw. I asked to be taken to a particular hotel that I had in mind to stay at, but the driver took me to different one. I didn’t know where I was and so I went in to see what I could make of this hotel. I managed to bargain down the price of the room and then the hotel owner took me out on his motorbike to look for a bank to change money - I had been in his country for less than a day. I don’t know why he did this though as it was a Sunday? Banks were closed. I would try again tomorrow.
The next morning the owner of the hotel woke me up, I assume by knocking on my door though I have no record as to his method. He asked me if I would like breakfast - tea and an omelette with toast. With food inside me I went downstairs to chat with him in his cloth shop before heading out to look for a bank. This is where the subject matter for the photograph started to emerge.
On stepping out of his shop I was immediately swept away by a mass of humanity. I was only going in one direction: where the the crowds, old and young, were going. The hotel owner had told me that today was the Hindu Festival, Kartika Purnima, and (as he wrote in my journal),
All people want to bathe in River Ganga.
Down by the river I climbed onto a wall. I shall allow my journal to explain the scene that I looked out on (the photograph can do the rest),
[The River Ganges] must be 3km wide at this point. The far bank was a mass of people, all sizes of boats were plying between the two shores, being rowed and laden with people. On my shore people were bathing in the Ganges, some fully clothed, men in loin cloths or mini sarongs.
And from my memory there was a haze in the air, a haze that in time I came to associate with India - dust driven up by the shear number of people and a mist from this time of year, Autumn slowly crossing into Winter.
In time I went on my way to find a bank and was able to change some travelers cheques. The remainder of the day I spent in Patna. I met an American who had been on the same bus as me from the Indian border and we agreed to travel down to Bodhgaya together. We ate lunch and stopped to watch a fortune teller who was using a bird to pick cards. That evening I returned to the Ganges. It was quieter now. Groups were gathered performing various rituals, symbols playing, incense burning, dancing. Some were cooking. A cremation was taking place to one side.
I returned to my hotel to sleep at the end of my first full day in India.