During our travels in India while in conversation with the locals we have discussed our route, and many have commented on the transit from west to east. At least three have said ‘don’t bother with the interior part of the country, there’s nothing to see there. You may as well get on a train’. Well, we completely disagree as our experience has been completely the opposite…
Nanded. 17 and 18 February 2019.
So, we met Mohit, our Couchsurfing host in Nanded, and were firmly ensconced on the sofa in the front room (where his grandparents also live and sleep) and were welcomed by just about the whole family. Mohit is a successful 27-year-old businessman who runs an internal furnishings shop in Nanded. He lives with his extended family in what is known as a “joint family” in Indian culture…which means that in addition to his grandparents, Mohit’s father and uncle and their respective families live under the same roof – 10 of them in total. The mothers, cousins, uncles and aunts are all very close and get on well and there is a really lovely family atmosphere.
Unfortunately Mohit had to go back to his work later in the afternoon, but we were left in the safe hands of his family. His brother Om and cousin Ram took us to the Shri Guru Gobind Singh Ji gurudwara, which was one of our main reasons for visiting Nanded.
Most westerners have heard of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which was built as a memorial and pilgrimage site to the first Sikh guru. The Shri Guru Gobind Singh temple and gurudwara in Nanded, which most westerners will NOT have heard of, is the second biggest in India and was built as a memorial to the tenth or last human guru – a great warrior and spiritual leader (the eleventh and current guru is a book). This guru’s ashes are kept under the temple – a very impressive white and gold building. There is also a large peaceful complex around the temple, which happens to be 10-minute walk from Mohit’s house.
We went for a look around – with Om and Ram as our guides. We’d been to gurudwaras in Delhi and Jaipur, but that was a while ago so having someone to show us the ropes in terms of protocol was fantastic. The temple is golden, mirrored and jewelled inside which is very spectacular and there was great music being played, with the worshippers singing and chanting the words from the book.
We learned that Sikh men strive to own five things – a turban, a sword (we saw many carrying swords and daggers), a shield, a bangle and a special comb. We also learned that the colours of the turbans worn by the Sikh men is purely a personal choice. A special thanks must go to Rakesh, our driver back in Delhi, (such a long time ago!) as I’m not sure we’d even know about gurudwaras if it hadn’t been for him.
In terms of religion, Mohit’s family are Sindhi, which is a sect of Hinduism, and whilst we were in their family home we definitely experienced how this is a lifestyle rather than just a religion. In all of the Hindu homes we have visited here, there is a small shrine or temple, and Mohit’s house was no different. And the whole day revolves around religion, with praying to their idols and rituals in both the morning and evening. Even though the family are Sindhi they still visit Sikh gurudwaras and while we were with Ram and Om they both performed the rituals as we were shown around, which meant we could copy them. For us westerners it is a bit confusing as to why or how they knew the rituals of the other religion so well!
That evening the family invited us along to the wedding reception of one of Mohit’s friends, which apart from the grandparents, everyone was attending. We were given suitable clothes to wear and were out the door by about 9:30pm. Picture of Martina in their front room. Note grandparents’ bed in the background…
It was a very glamorous affair (think Bollywood dresses!) and we were welcomed by loads of their friends and neighbours. There are many parts to an Indian wedding and the reception is generally where the bride and groom are on a stage and get their photos taken with every guest/family in attendance. We were part of Mohit’s family photo and were duly ushered onto the stage for the photoshoot. Like at the last Indian wedding we attended in Jaipur, I’m sure they will look back at their pictures and wonder who these unknown foreigners were! (Note that Indian men don’t smile much in photos!)
We had a great time meeting people, chatting to the kiddies, eating great food and generally socialising. We could have stayed longer, but Mohit took us home around 11.30 as I think he thought we must be tired – but we thoroughly enjoyed the experience!
We had a nice chilled get-up the next day and had lovely breakfast of aloo paratha and chai with Mohit’s uncle. Up until now we weren’t too sure if Mohit’s grandmother was too happy with the sudden arrival of two strange guests who seemed to hang around her bedroom a lot, but at this point it was apparent that she was in fact VERY happy and took a real shine to Martina, which was really lovely.
As we’d only had a very quick look around the gurudwara the day before, we decided to return on our own and just sit in the grounds chilling out, watching the people go by. We haven’t done much people-watching recently so this was the perfect opportunity.
As usual we attracted attention and we were soon in conversation with people sitting near us with the odd selfie thrown in for good measure – we duly obliged as for some reason we felt it wouldn’t be right to decline in a place of religious worship! We also had another look inside the temple and this time went upstairs to a quiet area where the scholars were learning from the books, which was very quiet and peaceful. We visited the Langer (food hall) where we sat with the other visitors and had the free lunch, which is typically provided in gurudwaras, though we did donate what we would have paid for a meal of that type.
The food was fantastic and we think it’s a great system to provide food for pilgrims and needy people. It’s not a soup kitchen or a place for freeloaders – it’s completely acceptable for people from all walks of life eat there on their visit.
Once fed, we decided to visit the market area to visit Mohit at work and his father who also works nearby. As we were leaving we were met by Mohit’s uncle who then invited us to visit his shop – and in every shop we were given refreshments so at the end of our visits we left feeling slightly stuffed!
Back at their house we managed a quick snooze before being taken around the colony (a “colony” or “society” is how Indian’s refer to housing estates or blocks of apartments) by Kashesh, Mohit’s younger cousin and we went to our second gurudwara of the day. This time it was the very much smaller, but no less interesting, Shindi Colony gurudwara just around the corner. We met the caretaker who introduced us to the elder lady of the gurudwara to whom we paid our respects and were given packets of biscuits each as a blessing!
Back in their house Kashesh brought in some of her friends (or the “fan club”as the older boys referred to them) who had gathered outside the front door, and we had a great time answering all of their questions.
Not to be outdone, grandmother then brought in a load of her friends and again we answered their questions with the kids as translators – we’re not too sure what any of them thought about two crazy westerners who’d turned up on bikes! When Mohit returned from work we went out for a lovely meal with him and one of his friends, Pradik. The meal was only slightly marred by a selfie-taker who thrust his son at us just as we were about to start eating. Once the photo was taken he then walked off without so much as a thanks! We still haven’t gotten used to this.
Nanded to Bhairsa – 87km. 19Feb.
We were up at our usual early time with only Kashesh awake at that point. We quietly packed our bikes and said our goodbyes to Mohit, his father and mother who were now up to see us off.
We had said most of our goodbyes the night before as we didn’t expect them to get up early to see us off but we were genuinely sad to leave as this had been one of the best experiences we’ve had in India so far! (We found out later from Mohit that his grandmother had been so upset not to say goodbye!).
The first 10km out of Nanded was easy cycling and we stopped for breakfast at a dhaba before getting into our proper cycling for the day. It was at about this time that that road deteriorated into a potholed nightmare – which then continued for the next 65km – really hard going in temperatures of 34 degrees.
Thankfully the last 10km into Bhainsa our destination for the day, smoothed out again.
A few days earlier we had been in touch with a WarmShowers host in Nirmal, called Bharat, who had agreed to host us. Nanded to Nirmal is a bit too far for us for one day so Bharat put us in touch with Mr Jadhav Randas, aka ‘Sir’ – the principle of Sri Gowthami public school (nursery, primary and high school), in Bhainsa, which was a good stopping point. The plan was to meet him at his school and once we arrived the whirlwind started! Firstly, there was a welcoming committee of children lined up for our arrival, singing and cheering us into the school yard. We were asked if we would speak in front of some of the pupils about our journey in India – 200 pupils to be precise – we said yes, not a problem. And would we do it whilst wearing traditional Indian dress? Okay, sounds good, though not at all what we had expected the afternoon to hold! Martina and I then went our separate ways to get changed and ended up looking like this…
19th February is the feast day of Shivaji Bohonsle – an Indian warrior king from the state of Maharashtra (neighbouring state) so we performed a pooja to him, which is a formal worshipping ceremony, before being plonked in front of the pupils and had a great question and answer session – though it was only the girls doing the asking!
We were then asked to join in some traditional dancing led by some of the girls, we completely failing to master some of the fancy moves! Martina thinks she looks a bit like Teresa May when she danced in Kenya recently…
We were staying with Mr Ramdas and his family, so headed to their apartment, where he and his wife even gave up their bedroom for us, which was very kind.(We are learning so much about real hospitality from the Indians!). As it was getting dusky they took us to visit the local reservoir and nature reserve where the locals go to chill out. While Martina travelled in the car with the family I travelled on the back of a Royal Enfield motorbike with Premanand – Mr Ramdas’ right hand man. Great fun!
We finally went for dinner at a dhaba which, rather bizarrely, was the same place we’d had lunch earlier in the day. We even had the same cashew curry, which apparently is their speciality!
Bhainsa to Nirmal – 43km. 20 and 21 Feb.
As we only had a short hop to Nirmal we had some time to spare in the morning, so after packing up we went back to the school as guests of honour to present certificates and trophies to about 45 students during their assembly.
They would usually do this in April, but brought it forward so that we could be involved. Unbeknown to us our picture and story from yesterday had been sent to the local paper and by the morning we were world famous in Bhainsa!
We then packed our bikes and were given a great send-off by the children and staff – as well as some local sweets to eat on our journey!
We arrived on Nirmal around midday to be met by Bharat and a friend on motorbike. Bharat is a teacher and although he’s currently on a sabbatical he continues to be involved with his schools, which cover all age groups from nursery right through to high school. We zipped through town following the motorbike to end up at the nursery and primary school part of the Vasavi schools.
There we were met by lots of very excited young kids and presented with flowers before being ushered into another question and answer session. The level of noise and clapping and cheering made us feel like rock stars. It was absolutely mental!
Over the next day and a half we had five Q+A sessions with groups of up to 250 students of different ages.
Bharat teaches life skills and tries to get the children to think beyond their usual academic lessons so they were eager to know what we thought of India and of our travels and what it’s like living in the west etc.
Really great interactions and we had a fantastic time with all of the groups, from primary right through to 16-year-olds.
We hope that they enjoyed it as much as we did! Rather worryingly one teenager thought I was Martina’s father, which she is never going to let me forget apparently!!
We stayed at Bharat’s friend, Joyson’s, apartment and he was ably aided by Sunil Mon in looking after us – the three amigos!
Around the school visits we had dinner with the school director, went for a walk by their local lake, got a tour of the local temple and a blessing from the priests with the 3 amigos explaining the rituals to us. WE even managed to squeeze in an hour of bike maintenance and route planning! Finally we managed to visit a wooden toy factory, which Nirmal is famous for, where we saw the toys being made by craftsmen.
Amongst all of this activity we also had some great discussions with Bharat and his friends, who we felt very comfortable and relaxed with from the very start.
One funny and bizarre thing happened whilst we were in the area – the police (or more specifically the police intelligence section) caught up with us. We think that this stemmed from being in Bhainsa as we met an officer from the intelligence section there who Mr Ramdas’ personal friend. Whilst we were at Bharat’s he had numerous phone calls from them as they had heard about our arrival (and seen photos in the paper!) and wanted to know the details and purpose of our visit. They have a duty-of-care to foreigners apparently, so if we are ever stuck for somewhere to say we can genuinely go to them to ask to stay at the police station! Poor Bharat – over the time we were with him, 2 officers came to the house to get copies of our passports and visas, called him regularly for missing details and others even came came to the house to make sure we were okay when we were tucked up in bed on the first night! It’s pretty amazing that we’d covered nearly 4,000km on bicycles in India and it’s only now that the police have taken an interest in our safety!
With so much having happened over the past five days-or-so I don’t think that I have been able to capture it in a way that does it justice really, but to be honest though, we are a bit tired now…
However considering we were told there was nothing to see in central India, as well as our time in Hampi, Bidar and Nanded, this last few days in Bhainsa and Nirmal have been some of the best that we’ve had in India so far. Moral of the story being not to listen to everything people tell you!