There was something I noticed in Nepal, and this seemed to be confirmed when i was in India. Further investigation is necessary to come up with concluding evidence (i heard things are different in the South), but in the meantime, i would like to share my findings with you - they are twofold.
1: Buddhist villages and places of worship are usually much tidier and cleaner than Hindu places; and
2: The holier the Hindu place, the filthier it is.
I like to call this the Holy Shit theory.
After Kolkata i went to Puri, on the East coast. It is not only a popular seaside resort, but also one of the four holiest places in India for Hindus. The Jagannath Mandir temple is a truly magnificent piece of Orissan temple architecture, with it’s deul or main sanctuary tower rising up to over 60 metres in height. (Unfortunately it’s not accessible to non-Hindus, though the library opposite the temple makes a good business with “donations” from tourists who like to visit its viewing platform). However the area immediately surrounding the temple is one big jumble and mess of people, errant cows (and big menacing-looking bulls!) and all of their excrements. Right next to one of the walls was a huge pile of rubbish, yet nobody seemed to care. Apparently there’s no need for sacred places to be clean.
In contrast, the site of the Sun Temple in Konark, 36 km further North on the coast, was impeccably clean - maybe because the temple is no longer a place of worship but a Unesco World Heritage site?The ruins were really impressive, with hundreds and hundreds of statues carved in the walls (and a guide who didn’t hesitate to point out, in a hushed voice, all the erotic details on them). The remaining building looked pretty imposing with its 35 metres of height, so one can only imagine how impressive the main tower once was (more than 70 metres high - unfortunately it collapsed in the 19th century).
I rented a moped to go to Konark. Now, i’d never ridden a moped before, but i figured it wouldn’t be to difficult. The best part is that you have a horn too, so you can weave through traffic and blow it at everyone in front of you! Sweet sonic revenge. I felt perfectly at ease manoeuvring through swarms of pedestrians, bikes, cycle and auto rickshaws on the main bazaar in Puri, as if I’d had been doing it all my life!
For some reason I had always thought that Puri was a small seaside town with a couple of backpacker joints near the beach and then the old temple, but it’s actually quite a big place with more than 150,000 inhabitants. The temple alone is said to employ 6,000 people! The whole area around it is swarming with people (we are in India, after all), and hundreds of shops are strung out along a huge boulevard with the usual traffic frenzy. The western end of the beach has an endless string of hotels and resorts aimed at holidaymakers from Kolkata, sort of making it the Benidorm of West Bengal.
Foreign tourists tend to stay in the guesthouses at the eastern end, near the fishing village. All the boats lined up on the beach sure look picturesque, but it’s less appealing when you realize that the fishermen use the beach as an open toilet. Every couple of meters you’ll find one squatting down, letting it all hang out, and taking a dump. To be honest, the beach is one of the least appealing I’ve ever visited: the sea isn’t exactly turquoise, the sand is dirty, and there are no palm trees swaying in the breeze to provide some much-needed shade. But still, it’s the seaside! It was great to go for a swim (provided you were far enough from the toilet part of the beach) or a boat ride with some fishermen, and to feast on delicious fresh fish and sea food. It felt weird, after eating only ridiculously cheap stuff in Kolkata, to have to pay two euros or more for a meal! But oh what good food it was! At night, i hung out on the beach (no mosquitoes there), and watched the fishermen play a game of cricket under the floodlights, while every now and then big fireworks blasted through the sky at random moments.
It was nice to relax in Puri for a couple of days, taking in the temples, the tropical temperatures and the lovely food. From there, i took the longest train ride of my trip, a less comfortable one too (3AC instead of 2AC - three bunks on top of each other instead of two, and i had the middle one), to Varanasi, a place that would further confirm my Holy Shit theory. I didn’t close an eye on that train, partly because of the cramped bunk, partly because i didn’t want to miss the stop i needed to get off at 5 am, and mostly because i had a massive, massive cold again. At one point i just stood in the toilet for five minutes, just sneezing and blowing my nose. My whole point felt like a throwing mass of mucus, and i sent litres of snot flying in metres of toilet paper. But in the morning i did get to Varanasi alright.