A Travellerspoint blog

September 2008

Ancient sites of central India

From Khajuraho via Jhansi to Ajanta and Ellora

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Khajuraho is a small town, centred around a group of ancient Hindu and Jain temples, which are the towns main reason for existing and source of income. A total of 85 temples have been identified, but only 25 have been restored. Most date from between AD 950 to AD 1050, by the Chandela dynasty. Eventually, they abandoned the temples, as they were threatened by Afghan invaders. The temples fell into ruin and were hidden by the lush jungle that still surrounds the town. The were rediscovered by a British officer in 1838, and the main temples have since been reconstructed to their original splendour.







The temples are famous for their erotic carvings, found among numerous other carvings on all the temples. With or without this Kama Sutra in stone, the carvings on these temples are fantastic. The detail, and the softness of especially the female figures is stunning. Their breasts are enormous, looking like silicone breasts, but their hips, shoulders and stomachs are rounded, giving the figures a look of softness that makes them look like they are not made of stone at all. We spent most of a day exploring these temples, studying the variety of figures. Parades of soldiers, elephants and camels, mythical beasts, gods and goddesses.




And women busy with a variety of things, some putting on makeup, some playing with children or animals, some washing, their wet saris clinging to their bodies, others simply posing in suggestive poses, looking over their shoulders, their spines curved and their hips thrust to one side. All of them beautiful.



And of course, there is the erotica - couples, threesomes and foursomes in all imaginable and some unimaginable poses and positions. In places, large orgies are portrayed, one even involving a man and a horse (in the background, a woman looks shocked, peeking out from behind her hands).




All in all, the temples were a fantastic experience, and the stonework here is uniquely detailed and skilled. The town itself though, has little appeal, and so once we had enjoyed the temples, we headed on for other things.

Once we left Khajuraho, we went to Jhansi, only a few hours away. This is the town where Alan’s dad grew up, as the family moved here from Goa, so we thought we would visit and have a look. The town is centred around an ancient fort, which we visited, and also has several churches. Jhansi’s main importance today, however, is as a railhead. Several of the main railway lines of India converge here. We spent the night here, and then caught a train onwards to Jalgaon.




Jalgaon is the nearest town to the famous Ajanta caves, which is what we came here to see. We spent the night, and the next morning headed out to these ancient Buddhist monuments. The caves date from around 200 BC to AD 650, and are all carved out of a steep cliff side along a horseshoe-shaped gorge overlooking a bend in the Waghore river. They were built by Buddhist monks, and later abandoned as Buddhism in India waned. They lay forgotten until 1819, when a British hunting party stumbled upon them in a long forgotten river gorge.



There are 30 caves altogether. Some are small, simple monasteries, with cells for the monks to sleep in and a plain central hall, while others are large temples, with carved pillars and sculptures, all carved out of the same rock as the temples themselves.





In many of the temples, original paintings have survived the ages, and show how colourfully the temples were decorated when they were in use.
We walked around the gorge, entering each cave, and marvelling and the work that would have been involved in creating these temples - the amount of rock that would have been removed and transported away, and with the tools available at the time that they were constructed - its truly mind-boggling! A group of Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns were touring the caves as well, and their presence added to a sense of spirituality and worship. We watched kneel and pray at the many, huge Buddha statues carved inside the caves - in a way bringing the temples back to life if only for a moment.



After the caves at Ajanta, we thought we should also see the nearby caves at Ellora, another World Heritage site. We moved from Jalgaon to the town of Aurangabad, which is nearer to Ellora. The caves here are later than the ones at Ajanta - as Buddhism waned and Hinduism had a renaissance as the main religion of India, Ajanta was forgotten and Ellora came into being, although not all the caves here are Hindu - out of 34 caves, 12 are Buddhist, 17 Hindu and five Jain. The caves here have fewer preserved paintings, but the carvings are more elaborate, especially in the Hindu caves. Also, unlike the steep gorge at Ajanta, the caves here are hewn from a gentle slope. This means that many of the caves have elaborate courtyards in front of their entrances. The interiors are damp and dark, and full of bats, adding to a mysterious atmosphere. The Buddhist caves are serene and calm, like in Ajanta, with large Buddha sculptures, while the Hindu and Jain are far more dramatic and busy. Either style has its own charm, and all the caves are amazing.







The main event at Ellora is the Hindu Kailasa temple, located approximately in the centre of the slope. This temple is more a rock-cut sculpture on a huge scale, than a simple cave. It was constructed by cutting three huge trenches into the slope, and then cutting out the outside of the temple from the top to the bottom, and then hollowing out the inside to create the inner chambers and prayer rooms. It is must have been a massive undertaking - if Ajanta was mind-boggling, then this defies description. This temple is said to be the largest monolithic sculpture in the world, and its construction would have meant removing 200,000 tonnes of rock! It was cut from the rock by 7000 labourers over 150 years. It is not only the scale of this temple that amazes, but also its detailed decoration. Every surface is carved with decorative figures and patterns, and there are sculptures everywhere. Alongside the temple there is a path, and we climbed up to the top of the slope and looked down on the temple, getting an overview of its proportion. A truly amazing sight!





Posted by monkyhands 05:02 Archived in India Comments (0)

Holy Cities, Dirty Cities

Amritsar and Varanasi

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We caught a rickshaw to the nearest railhead at Pathankot, as we were trying everything to avoid any more Indian buses, at least over night. From Pathankot, we caught a train to Amritsar, and found ourselves back in the hot homeland of the Sikhs. Amritsar is home to the holiest shrine in Sikhism, the Golden Temple. The temple is a Gurdwara, plated with gold. The dome alone is said to be covered with 750kg of pure gold. This holy golden building shimmers amidst the pool of ‘nectar’ surrounding it. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes and wash their feet, as well as cover their heads, before entering the shrine. We walked round the marble walkway, surrounding the pool with the temple in the centre, and past the food stands there, where temple workers feed pilgrims and visitors for free. Community dining rooms are a feature of all Sikh temples, illustrating the inclusive nature of the religion. You don’t have to be Sikh to eat there, or even Indian, just show up.





In the evening, we went to the India-Pakistan border at Attari, 30 km west of Amritsar. This border post is the only operating border crossing between the two countries, but we did not come here to cross into Pakistan - simply to witness the enigmatic and bizarre afternoon border-closing ceremony. Just before sunset, the Indian and Pakistani border guards perform a theatrical ceremony, involving a lot of posturing and running about. On either side, there are viewing platforms as if in a sports stadium, for spectators to view the ceremony probably. In preparation for the ceremony, some of the Indian spectators would pretend to charge the border, carrying Indian flags. A guy then turned up with a microphone, stirring the crowd into a frenzy by leading them in cries of ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ (Hindustan forever). From the other side came similar yelling about Pakistan. The soldiers then march up and down in front of the crowd, looking fiersome. The stomp their feet, twirl their moustaches and scowl left and right. Then they march up to the border gate, kicking their legs as high in the air as they can, nearly kicking themselves in the head. When the gates open, the commanding officers salute and shake hands, and the flags are lowered by soldiers on either side, standing shoulder to shoulder, so close they nearly touch. The flags are folded and carried to the guardrooms, and the border is officially closed.



The whole thing is a bizarre display of fevered nationalism, with the crowd yelling and all the stomping and clenched fists. Yet at the same time, there are some several diplomatic elements, like the handshaking, and the fact the flags are lowered at exactly the same rate, so that one is never lower than the other. And the activities on either side are practically identical, each side in fact careful not to out stage the other - at least that’s how it seemed to me. Once the border was closed, we returned to Amritsar and booked a train ticket out of there.

We took a 24 hour or so train to Varanasi. This is another city which we missed out on last time we were in India, so we thought we would catch it now. Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India, where Hindu pilgrims come to wash away their sins in the waters of the Ganges which snakes through the city, or to cremate their loved ones on its shores. Varanasi is considered a most auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers ‘moksha’ - liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. All sorts of rituals of life and death take place in plain view of the ghats, or bathing steps, of the city. To me, the city was fascinating and revolting at the same time, an extreme and concentrated version of the paradox that defines all of India in my mind. The old city made up of tiny alleys, too narrow for traffic, which snake and turn into a disorienting maze. We got lost several times, but always eventually found our way back out. The alleys are full of colourful stalls, appealing little restaurants, and amazing hand silk weaving cooperatives. At the same time, they are covered in shit and piss, and packed with mangy dogs and naked street children, crippled beggars and drunken men sleeping on top of all the filth. The heat increases the smells to a nauseating level, and sometimes you feel like screaming and running away. As fascinating and intriguing the city is, it is matched by is disgusting and revolting sides.






We stayed for three days, and walked to the various ghats, including the fascinating burning ghats, where bodies are continually cremated, and so on. But in the end, we’d had enough and escaped from here on another train, this time to Khajuraho.

Posted by monkyhands 03:31 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Indian North West

Shimla, Manali, the Spiti valley and McLeod Ganj

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After Chandigarh, and determined to escape the heat, we headed for the hill station and former summer capital of the Raj, Shimla. Sitting at 2205 meters, Shimla was indeed a lot more cool and comfortable than the plains below it. It sits on a ridge, surrounded by pine forest and, if its clear, beautiful mountain views. Unfortunately, it was not clear while we were there, it was raining most of the time. We stayed a few days, and just walked around a bit. Then we booked a bus to Manali, further up the state of Himachal Pradesh, of which Shimla is the capital.

Following a horrible bus ride of around 10 hours, we reached Manali. Once a quiet unassuming village in the Himalayas, Manali has become a popular traveller hangout, and is the starting point for the popular road into Leh in the region of Ladakh (part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir). Manali sits at 2050 meters, and like Shimla it was nice and cool here, although the sunny clays did get nice and warm. Manali sits in the beautiful Kullu valley, surrounded by green, pine forested slopes. We did some nice walks in the area and enjoyed the natural beauty.





On one of the walks we came across a wedding party, taking place in the middle of a small village. It was very interesting to witness this colourful display.




We also visited the vibrant markets and did some people watching here, and just walked around town.





Manali is divided down the middle by a river, and we found a hotel room overlooking the river and the green banks. The river banks, as well as roadsides and any open piece of land here, are covered in cannabis plants - the plant truly lives up to its name ‘weed’ here! Huge bushes of it are found everywhere, and Manali is rightly famous for its charas as they call it here, although picking it and smoking it are still illegal, and harshly punished. Quite ironic, and a clear example of what a bigheaded illusion it is for any state to think it can outlaw a plant.



As the situation in the Kashmir was only getting worse and worse, we decided to head to the isolated Spiti valley instead, to see if things would clear up a bit, and to have a look at Spiti’s unique mountain landscapes and Tibetan-related culture. We took a public bus there, and despite getting stuck behind a mudslide waiting for a bulldozer for seven hours, we got there in one piece. The drive to and from Kaza town in the Spiti valley was one of the most beautiful journeys we have done anywhere in the world. The first part of the trip, from Manali through the Kullu valley and up the Rohtang La pass (3978 m) and on to the tiny hamlet of Gramphu, the road winds up and along mountain sides, among green meadows and pineforest, allowing brief glimpses of snow capped peaks. The slopes here were covered in an amazing array of wild flowers, adding to the beauty. Delicate yet hardy little flowers in clean whites, bright yellows, vivid purples, shy reds and pale pinks are sprinkled across the mountain sides here. Once you cross the Kunzum La pass (4551 m), marked by a white stupa covered in prayer flags, and enter the Spiti valley itself, the landscape changes.


From here, the road follows the river closely, often balancing precariously high above the river. The landscape here was almost devoid of life, only a few goat herders seem to eek out a living here. It resembles in some way a moonscape - empty and lifeless. The river runs through an empty gorge strewn with large and small rocks, ringed by barren, bare mountain peaks and dust coloured scree or sand slopes - maybe the most desolate landscape I have ever seen, and yet highly dramatic and somehow beautiful in its own way, especially when it opened up and showed amazing views of snowcapped Himalayan peeks.



In this dramatic setting lies the town of Kaza, sitting and a breathless 3640 m. Being above 3000 meters really does not agree with me, and I was quite sick while we were here. I had headaches and nausea, and felt completely lethargic all the time. Quite horrible.


Nonetheless, we stayed in Kaza for a week, and did see some very nice areas, visiting by jeep the nearby villages and monasteries of Komic, Langsa, Kee and Kibber. These glimpses into the life in the valley were fascinating - tiny villages and Buddhist ghompas inhabited by monks and nuns, are scattered around this desolate landscape, like a tiny piece of Tibet in India.










Eventually I could not handle the altitude anymore though, and since it had not cleared up after a week I gave up. We were planning to head up to Leh, but I voted that we headed back down to Manali instead, and we decided to go on from there straight to McLeod Ganj, and steer clear of any more high altitude stuff.

After a horrible night bus ride of 11 hours (or first and only night bus in India!), we reached McLeod Ganj. This rainy little town just north of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, happens to be home to the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile, which gives the town a very Tibetan feel rather than Indian. The town in popular with travellers, many of whom volunteer for shorter or longer periods of time with the Tibetan community here. We only stayed a few days however, as the rain was just too much. We did do a great Tibetan cooking class, over the course of three days, learning how to make, in turn, Tibetan soup, momo’s (steamed, stuffed Tibetan dumpling) and some fascinating steamed Tibetan bread called Tingmo. Learned a few great tricks there, that we should be able to use when we get back.


McLeod Ganj is s tiny place, and with the constant rain there was not much to do. We walked around a bit, shopping for a few Tibetan souvenirs, and enjoyed the beautifully green valley whenever the sun made an appearance. After a few days, we decided that it was time to head south, braving the monsoon heat of the plains again, as there were still things we wanted to see around India.

Posted by monkyhands 03:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

Back to India

Singapore to Bangalore, and then via Goa to Delhi and Chandigarh

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From Bali, we flew with Lion Air direct to Singapore. It was a red-eye flight, leaving at midnight and arriving around 2am. Horrible, but cheap. We then stayed in Singapore two nights waiting for our flight to Bangalore. We did as little as possible, as Singapore is so expensive. We just walked around, or took the metro.

We were in Bangalore for one night, before leaving for Goa on another flight. We only came through here due to the connection to Singapore on budget airline Tiger. Bangalore, now officially Bengaluru, is known as the IT capital of India. With such a booming industry here, and so much money going around, we were expecting something rather modern. The airport lived up to this, as it is brand new, and looked much sleeker and more modern than any other we have seen in India. Once our of the airport however, the traffic was the main thing we noticed - we got caught in a traffic jam and took several hours to drive the 40 km from the airport into town - and this was around midnight to 2 am! Apart from this traffic issue, which is typicall Indian, there were signs, however, that Bengaluru is different - we saw huge luxury shops side by side here, that I don’t think you find elsewhere in India - Jaguar dealership, a Louis Vuitton flagship store and even a Tiffany’s. Crazy. We only stayed the night, and returned to the airport next morning to head back to Goa.

In Goa, we stayed a few days with Philo in Maina. It was hot, humid and raining, so the place was green and beautiful, and Goa seemed empty of tourists. We had shipped our guidebook from Chennai back to here when we left India, so happily we could now use the same book to plan our new trip here. We decided to head up north, far north, in order to escape the monsoon, and so booked a train to Delhi to get us started. The express train does not run during the monsoon unfortunately, so the journey took around 40 hours.

In Delhi, it was even more hot than in Goa - unbearably so. We shopped in the glitzy stores in New Delhi, who all had a monsoon sale on. The next day, we walked around the crooked streets of Old Delhi, taking it all in, but it was so hot and sweaty we could hardly stand to move around. The mixture of people here was fascinating though, and so many language were spoken. On our brief encounter with it, Delhi seemed to be a multidimensional and interesting city.












We heard news while we were here, that there had been a large number of bombs set off in two Indian cities - 15 in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, and seven or so in Bangalore, where we had come from only recently. Scary and confusing, as there seemed to be no clear reason behind this. Due to this, the police presence in Delhi was very high. We therefore stayed only a few days, having a quick look around India’s capital, before fleeing the heat and the oppressed mood.

We came to Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, to escape the heat of Delhi, but that turned out to be impossible as the air here seemed even more hot and still. Only when the rain broke did it cool off a little bit. Chandigarh is an Indian anomaly - an entirely ‘modern’ city, with a clear ordered city plan and organised housing and shops etc. It was built as the new capital of the mainly Sikh state of Punjab, after the partition. Designed by Swiss architect Le Corbusier, it was envisaged as a modern utopia, and a democratic and open city of the people. It is full of open plazas, straight tree-lined streets and public gardens - all very different to other Indian cities. It is still Indian though, and there are traffic jams and cows walking the streets etc. We went to see the massive concrete High Court building, also designed by Le Corbusier. It was an interesting building, but it was in a state of disrepair, which took away from its modern clean lines.


Also in Chandigarh, we visited a so-called Fantasy Rock Garden. Essentially a huge area of sculptures, pillars, doorways and mosaics, it was constructed by a man named Nek Chand. He began working on this during the construction of Chandigarh city. Working as a road inspector for the city, he collected large amounts of the waste generated by the constructions, and used it to build his sculptures and other fancies. He eventually created tens of thousands of sculptures and other forms. His work was undiscovered for 15 years, until a government survey crew stumbled upon it in 1973. He had built it all on government land, and so they could have torn it all down. Instead, the local council saw his work as an asset, and gave him labourers as well as a wage, to continue his work. Today, he is in his eighties, but still working on the garden, and it receives and average of 5000 visitors per day. We spent a few hours walking around this rambling garden, creeping through the little doorways, stumbling upon hidden waterfalls and surprise open spaces, all of which are inhabited by figures made of china shards or broken bangles, and decorated with mosaics of other shards or electrical sockets. All in all a very strange place.







Posted by monkyhands 04:26 Archived in India Comments (0)

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