I hitch-hiked from my home town of Preston in the north of England, to India, leaving first in December 1965 and finally arriving at the third attempt in August 1967. Kevin Rigby inspired my decision to go in the summer of 1965, just talking about what it would be like in India, how wonderful it was, almost channelling it, although of course he’d never been there and couldn’t have had a clue about the reality; apart from the fact that it was the home of the Buddha Dharma and Indians still totally understood spirituality as an alternative way of life to the materialism of the West. I was so impressed with this spontaneous spiel that I just said “well let’s go there, then.”
After a pause he said “OK, let’s go.” So we went. We kitted ourselves out for the trip with First World War Army Surplus blanket and poplin sleeping bags for thirty shillings apeice and US Army Cargo Packs for a pound, mail order from Exchange and Mart. I bought Bartholemews maps of Europe, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent to figure out what route to take. We also bought Army Surplus bayonets and Kevin fashioned slick wooden sheaths for them to hang from our belts. We sewed shoulder straps on the cargo packs with two more straps underneath to hold the sleeping bags and that was it. I gave in my notice as a clerk at the accountants’ office, telling Kevin I’d catch up with him in Trafalgar Square in London and off we’d go. But I couldn’t find him when I got there, he’d done one of his famous disappearing tricks, so in the end I left on my own; I hitched to Dover, caught the ferry to Boulogne and headed east to Germany only to be beaten back by early winter blizzards in Europe. Then, Kevin and I separately spent the next year or so ‘on the road’ up and down the UK, youthful beatniks fomenting the 60s revolution and, of course, tripping out completely.
Eventually we got it together to try to get to India again in the spring of 1967. We scraped together £5 between us and had a hilarious hitching trip across the north of Europe but after being refused entry into Austria for lack of funds we lost each other crossing the German/Austrian border illegally, just before dawn. Out of my brains, I also lost my passport and was forced to be repatriated after a week in Salzburg prison but Kevin slipped through the net. He disappeared into thin air, walked over the mountains to Yugoslavia and reached Istanbul. There, after sleeping rough by Bosphorus he stashed his gear in the bushes by the water’s edge while going to get his visa for Iran, but got back to find everything stolen and found himself left with just his passport and his pair of jeans, nothing else. Determined and desperate to make it out of Europe to India however he persevered, took the road from Istanbul to the East and made his way to India, penniless, hairy and barefoot, while back in Preston again I got a job rubbing cars down for respray in a garage to pay off my repatriation costs and regain my passort. Kevin, mourned for three days by his parents to whom he had been reported dead, rose again and sent me his address at an ashram in Rishikesh. With nothing better to do I set off again and hitched to India, without a hitch as it were, this time there were no obstacles, I flew along with long, fast lifts and arrived within a single month. Only to find when I strolled into Rishikesh that Kevin had upped and gone off across India to Benares, leaving me a note to meet him at the Manikarnika Ghat there, ‘the burning ghat’ where bodies were burned by the side of the Ganges.
Nothing loath, I took the impossibly crowded train changing at Saharanpur, third class. My journal for August 1967 notes: “Kipped at Benaras station after horrific 27 hour train journey and next day up and off to find the ‘burning ghat’ just as the monsoon breaks, big drops splashing on my head and the penetrating odour of parched earth suddenly getting wet. The bicycle rickshaw wallahs rejoice in the rain, shrilly ringing their bells in a chorus of delight at the rain as people come out of shacks and huts to dance and take showers in the downpour, singing praises to the gods. Walk 4 miles in rain, go wrong way, shin deep in water, eventually get bus to centre and walk to golden temple with guides, to burning ghat; of course, no Kevin; no-one would ‘stay’ there (just dead bodies, mud and ashes). In nearby alleys cloth-wrapped bodies are being tipped in the river and slip beneath the wavelets, the ritual accompanied by chaotic brass bands, while enormous bedraggled crows hop around, one of them almost choking as it tries to swallow a dead rat just in front of me. This is India, I’ve made it, I tell myself. Then suddenly meet 3 beatniks in the street, sitting at a tiny open air chai shop under an awning in the triangular central square by the river. They wear colurful lungis, one has long blond hair, they are super cool and are making a chillum. I approach to talk and ask if they know Kevin but one thinks he’s left and gone back to Europe a few days ago. “Yes, that English guy, he decided he belonged in Europe,” confirms another “and left on his way”. Drat! So I get high with the ganja smoke and become ultra-normal.
They invite me to go back to their houseboat with them and meet the crowd, including an Indian woman who takes care of them; she is called the Mataji and is wild.
But she insists on washing my feet before smoking chillums prepared from what we used to call Indian bigstick, ganja. There is a whole bunch of freaks wearing lungis including one American guy called Eddie who’s already been living in India for several years. He is two fingers short on one hand and calls himself Eight-finger Eddie. “Got any hash?” he asks me, the new arrival. I hand over the piece that I’ve brought from Afghanistan, he sniffs it and passes it to the Mataji and after bending it and sniffing it she is clearly happy.
Eddie takes charge of things, along with the Mataji. She puts my lump of hash on a wooden block and with a big grin at me she whacks it with a curved cleaver into two equal pieces. Then she takes a huge chillum and heats it until it’s red-hot on a roaring primus stove. When it’s cooled down she ties a long, thin rope to her big toe and stretches it above her head with one hand after passing it through the chillum, then she reams the chillum vigorously, up and down the rope, with great enthusiasm, grinning at me again with anticipation. They smoke gangia here and don’t get much hash it appears, particularly the good stuff like I’ve brought all the way from Herat. This chillum is now perfectly clean and she fills it expertly after selecting a stone to block it. It is prepared with fantastic style, meticulous care and well-honed skill. Finally the Mataji crushes a red-smouldering ball of buring coconut fibre onto the top, wraps a clean piece of cloth around the bottom, folds it in the fingers of both hands, raises it to her forehead and shouts a long ritual chant ending with “BOM SHANKAR!” before puffing away to get the hash burning well with sparks flying out of the top and taking a long draw, then, as a long flame bursts out from the top of the chillum, blowing out a long roll of thick blue smoke she passes it over to Eddie. She has a fantastic vital force, a real presence, powerful eyes and a most impressive facial expression combining dignity, power and joy.
The beats, several of whom like Eddie have already been in India for years, are meek as lambs before her; a very quiet sussy scene as everyone takes one good hit and passes the chillum clockwise. Apparently this is the very first colony of beats in Benares, one of the most ancient holy cities of India. Long rolls of smoke are blown out by everyone and I do my best to get the grip right, airtight, a good draw, and emulate them.
After this hit, delicious mixed chai is cooked up in no time with creamy buffalo milk and spices to help us all refocus and Mataji and Eddie collect paisa from whoever has any, goes out to the bazaar and comes back with bags of food to cook a great dinner of delicious vegetable curry with a huge pot of rice enough for 12 on a single primus stove… followed by perfect Indian coffee. I have been well and truly initiated into the Indian beat scene!
Smoke all evening and flake out on the floor. Morning, the rain has stopped, it is all clear, I go out on the roof to dig the Ganges with shark-sized carp rolling, there are even a few genuine tourist rowing boats passing by in the early morning sun coming up over the distant opposite bank. The Ghats of the city with their ancient buildings curve away in a long curve into the far distance by the limpid water. Later, leave to check out the scene in the bazaar and drink delicious lassi in the milk shops.
Benares is completely unspoilt, no Western-style buildings, hardly; all craftsman shops. Buy some polleny hash (garda) off French guy who is studying Sanskrit at the university. Eat with Australian John, an Aussie who has been 3 years in India, great style, wearing long white robes and with shoulder-length hair he shows me the ropes, how to survive on the street in India, and I buy him chapattis with free dal at 6 paisa a hit. I keep meeting him, and later at Delhi station. Buy a couple of chillums and catch the train back to Rishikesh next morning to see about studying yoga. I decide to quit trying to catch up with Kevin now and make my own way. He’s got me all the way to India on a fool’s errand and then typically disappeared again into thin air, changed his mind completely as is his wont and gone back to Europe.
So now I shall see what I shall see…”
© 2013 sean jones
(Sean Jones has travelled widely & lived the subcontinent, mostly in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, for a dozen years before returning to the UK in 1979 and establishing a successful travel business in London, “REHO Travel” which ran for the next fourteen years. During this time he helped a lot of friends who also came back from India, helped establish Buddhist centres and the global Tibet support group network, as well as being appointed as the Dalai Lama’s personal driver in the UK for 10 years, 1984 to 1993. Sean has now retired to the Pyrenean hills in the South of France with his wife Ariane. He has two sons from a previous relationship).
photo album - sean jones / the flower raj.
web site - sean jones / jamyang study group.
photo album - mataji / the flower raj.