January 24, 2018
What is it like to travel in India? What can you expect on a tour of India day-by-day?
Indian Interlude is a first person account by Ian Swan, detailing his experiences and adventures each day during a six week journey through India, on a custom made journey designed by India Unbound, an India travel specialist based in Melbourne, Australia. Ian and his wife are repeat travellers to India, having travelled twice previously with India Unbound. We are delighted to feature their journey in this guest travel blog, as they explore some of the lesser-known, but no less incredible destinations of India.
Starting in Kolkata, their journey will take the following route, outlined on this map. The blog will be updated every couple of days throughout their journey.
Arriving in Kolkata in India
At some point in the future I’m going to take my own advice and stop overnight in Singapore instead of the ‘do it in one’ approach. Having locked my front door at 7:30 am, I close the door of our Kolkata room at the equivalent of 4:30 am the next morning. No sleep.
The flight to Singapore was just fine and we seemed to make time on the trip. Until we landed when we spent an eternity taxiing every inch of Changi airport. It was like driving around your local Westfield looking for a park in the week before Christmas!
A slightly too long layover was exacerbated by the flight to Kolkata being delayed by an hour due to the late arrival of our plane, and further delayed by the absence of two passengers whose luggage is in the hold. Finally we get underway with another interminable circuit of the airport. Kerry and I simultaneously turn and say, “We’re driving to Kolkata”.
Third trip to India and the sensory assault on arrival is undiminished. India smells. Kind of a tropical mould smell, mixed with smoke, incense, and, frankly, sewage. On our drive from the airport Kolkata reveals its traffic to be no better than Delhi or Mumbai. Lane markings mean nothing, indeed, a divided road means nothing, traffic lights are optional, indicating suggests an electrical fault. What does matter is a near-constant use of the horn, and flashing high-beam. I admit that even I closed my eyes more than once.
Notable sights on the trip …At night, Kolkata is a riot of colour, where too much excess is barely enough. Stray dogs aplenty, a handful of cows, cycle rickshaws and men pulling carts. Specifically we see at least 20 examples of groups of people transporting by any means, a new statue of Saraswati. And we see just as many newly minted roadside shrines for Saraswati. She is the Goddess of education/knowledge and music; and over the next few days there is a significant puja for Her.
Also many light poles in Kolkata have beaded blue and white lights spiralled around them from bottom to top. I have to say this is not unattractive.
Monday will be our first full day in Kolkata. The morning is given to a ‘highlights’ walking tour, and the afternoon is dedicated to photography.
Sightseeing in Kolkata
Monday, and our first full day in Kolkata. We’ve scheduled a guided walk in the morning, and a photography tour in the afternoon. We have the same guide for both, and the day is seamless.
What isn’t seamless is getting from place to place. For a walking tour we spend a lot of time in the car. Our first stop is to the Missionaries of Charity, where St Teresa is now a permanent resident. We’re not here to see the sick and dying, but rather the exhibition and tomb the building now holds. It is a suitably peaceful place, with the odd sight of Hindus paying reverence to a Catholic saint. Whether you regard Teresa as the Saint of the Gutters, or simply an Albanian dwarf (refer Christopher Hitchens); it’s patently clear she did remarkable work with the poor, and without reward. The exhibition includes her Nobel Prize certificate, treated no better than a multitude of newspaper clippings.
Then, onto a Jain temple complex. We’re visiting because of the amazing mirror work featured in one of the temples. As is often the case, no photographs inside however Roy and HG’s room of mirrors is put to shame. It’s truly glorious.
We see a second temple not far away, via yet another ‘pop-up’ Saraswati installation. Then we’re off to College Street, home to more bookshops than you can poke a stick at. However, the Saraswati puja is accompanied by a holiday, so many of the stalls are closed. Coffee at the India Coffee House which is absolutely buzzing.
Today’s holiday has been explained to us as a kind of Valentine‘s Day, where girls and young women have a degree more freedom than usual. Which is an understatement as the streets are full of young women, in pairs and groups, wearing their very best, each one of them looking fabulous.
We call in on the Park Street Cemetery that boasts some of the most elaborate memorials ever seen in a Christian burial place. It also boasts a huge number of young couples who are taking advantage of the holiday, and heading to a place where they can manage a cuddle and a kiss without disapproval.
We take a drive-through of several very grand “British” buildings from the time when Kolkata was the imperial capital of India, and the second city of the British Empire. Everything from the town hall, the GPO, and the High Court are built on a massive scale.
None more than the Victoria Memorial. This was simply teeming with young people and some family groups, and the queue for entrance tickets is, hands down, the longest line you’ve ever seen. Our guide, who has been leading walks for six years and more, was astonished, and had never seen anything like it before. The building operates as a museum – as a Monday getting in was never an option, however I doubt it would have been possible given the sheer number of visitors.
That was enough for the day, and we headed to our homestay.
Attending the horse races in Kolkata, India
Dances A Waltz
An easier day unfolds through Tuesday. The Royal Calcutta Turf Club is hosting its fourth meeting of the “winter” season, with the feature race ‘The Indian Champion Cup’ a Grade 1 race at set weights. The rest of the card includes a Grade 3 stakes race, and two other cups. A jacket, a tie and a small fee provides entree to the members’ enclosure. Whilst we planned and expected to go to the horse races in Kolkata under our own steam, our driver and our arrival contact come along for the day.
Races are on the half-hour, so we’re faced with a busy schedule of parade ring / mounting yard / investment strategy / back to the grandstand for the race. And repeat. The bookmakers’ ring is indeed a ring, undercover and it must be sweltering on the hot days. I count 22 bookies and the ring fairly heaves with punters close to race time.
Stories from the day. I’m at the parade ring prior to the third, and a local in a blue suit approaches me and asks what I like. I say “number 10”. “Not 2?” he replies. I say, no, number 10. Am I sure? Yes, but I am a visitor here, I may not be the best person to ask. Number 10 duly salutes. Prior to race six, the man in the blue suit puts his arm around me and asks what I like. I truly don’t know. This event features lightly raced 3 year olds, and I really haven’t come to grips with the racebook at all. I say it’s 1 or 2; he says it’s definitely 2. Neither make a place.
The get out stakes provides heartbreak. My money is on Fab Bullet who indeed reaches the line first. Much celebrating in my part of the stand. However, as we await the all clear the second placed jockey has lodged a protest, here called an objection. The stewards uphold the objection, relegate Fab Bullet to second, and my winnings with him.
Our homestay host is something of a foodie and we act on his recommendation for dinner at a slightly cutting edge Bengali restaurant. Kerry registers with Uber India to get us there, and we take our chances in a yellow Ambassador taxi for the trip home. Less than a street away from the homestay there is a celebration in full swing – we’re guessing a wedding. The band, who we’d heard rehearsing before we went to dinner, have the volume to 11 and a singer who owes more to Yoko Ono than Dido.
Travelling by Train in India
The Less One Knows
Wednesday morning we’re up early. Our driver is due at 7:00am to have us at Howrah railway station in good time for our 8:15 train to Gaya, where we should arrive a little before 3:00pm. In lieu of breakfast our homestay has provided “packing” – a packed breakfast for the train, and our local travel coordinator is determined we don’t go hungry and provides a bag of goodies including cake, fruits, and water.
Even at this hour, the streets of Kolkata are full of life; and we leave knowing there is so much more to see and do. Next time? What we don’t miss is a man, entirely naked, walking down the centre of Howrah bridge.
The train station transfer is, almost, as easy as it gets. There are angle car parks immediately next to the platform, and we park directly across from our carriage. There is a bit of waiting around to find out which berths are ours, and even then an Indian Railways official escorts another passenger, already occupying our cabin, to his allocated berth. (Such is train travel in India!) The train departs as scheduled.
The landscape on the journey offers a bit of everything. From the urban agglomeration of Kolkata to horticultural lands growing rice, canola, mustard, cauliflower and more besides. We see no farm machinery. Fields are being ploughed by bullocks; women thresh grain standing in a circle and beating the ground. We see multiple brick kilns, and industrial sites on a massive scale. There is open scrub and bush where cattle graze, and densely forested hills.
On arrival at Gaya station it is mere minutes before we are greeted. Manish, who is escorting us to our destination, Bodh Gaya, says he couldn’t see us. We joke with him that we expect to stand out in the crowd – we look like no one else here. We have two police inspections on the drive. Bodh Gaya is an alcohol free place, and recently someone was found flouting the rules, so currently everyone is being stopped.
For those who don’t know, Bodh Gaya was the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. For all the promise that might hold, the place is still India – with an over-burdened road network, and a litter problem.
Visiting Bodh Gaya in India
They Call You
So, a couple of observations about our hotel here in Bodh Gaya. The house slippers are thongs. They have a meditation / prayer room. And Gideons’ is replaced with ‘The Teaching of Buddha’ in both Japanese and English. There was a lovely interaction with the laundry man this morning. To avoid disputes, the number of laundry items is agreed before the laundry is accepted. Sadly, I speak none of his languages, and he, not much of mine. However, we share a number system, and so marked out the number of items with our fingers on the floor.
A quick word too, about our guide – a whip smart young man who has his Masters, is mulling over his PhD, and speaks half-a-dozen languages. And, for good measure, briefly took robes as a Buddhist monk.
Things to see in Bodh Gaya, India. The morning starts with a visit to the Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi Tree, the first of several UNESCO World Heritage sites to visit on this trip. The temple structure is wholly impressive, and much of it dates to the fourth century.
The queue to enter the complex is quite long, but fast moving. As is often the case, separate queues for men and women, and Kerry has barely a queue at all. Shoes off past the entry point. There are several sites of significance across the complex as Buddha spent around seven weeks in the vicinity at the time of his enlightenment.
We see maybe a handful of European faces amongst the thong of visitors who come primarily from Buddhist nations. And I suspect visiting monks outnumber everyone else combined.
The queue for the temple itself is very long, and we opt for other experiences first. Walking around the temple, people are variously meditating, praying, and prostrating. Some conduct prostrations as they circuit the temple. Whilst there are signs requesting silence here, these are defeated by the noise from just beyond the walking path. Through loudspeakers comes the sound of monks chanting, or discourses on Buddhism. As Kerry attests, it is possible to tune into one, and out of everything else.
It seems to us that in their own backyard, Indians don’t do ‘queueing’. Nor do they do personal space. So, in the queue for the inner sanctum of the Mahabodhi Temple, the young man behind me fairly leans, to the point of resting his chin on my shoulder. Later, an older (than me) woman, who is also shorter (than me) places her hands somewhere between my hips and my thighs and steers me as the queue inches forward.
Places to eat in Bodh Gaya. We take lunch at a restaurant run by a Canadian woman who is married to an Indian man. It’s fair to say that service and hygiene standards are set by the offshore partner. We have okay pizza, real coffee (!) and a very good dessert.
The afternoon is spent temple hopping. Here in Bodh Gaya a dozen or more nations have built Buddhist temples in their national style. A few we are unable to enter owing to construction works or teachings, others are an oasis of calm, and the Tibetan example is in full noise mode, with drums, trumpets and chanting by a temple full of monks and lamas – as we approached Kerry thought we might be interrupting their Zumba class.
Buddhist sights in India
Friday 26 January, 2018.
We’re located on the Gangetic plain which is prone to fog through the winter months. On both mornings the sun has been a deep red orb in the sky. The fog however, is more than fog, it comes with more than its share of smoke. Whatever the fabled London pea-souper was, I wonder that this is the local equivalent. Later in the morning, the sun looks more like the moon, as through the haze it appears a brilliant silver. The haze never leaves tho’. There are blue skies in India, but you have to look up, not out.
Today we leave Bodh Gaya around 8:00 am, headed for Patna to catch a plane. However we are going ‘the long way’ via Nalanda, to visit the ruins of a grand Buddhist University.
Active primarily between the 5th and 12th centuries, it was a residential, international university. At its peak, it housed some 10,000 students with around 2,000 staff. The earliest accounts of Nalanda appear in the Pali (Buddhist scripture) and it’s widely held that Buddha himself visited the area several times.
The archaeological site covers some 14 hectares and the ruins of several monasteries and temples are here. It is believed that the university site was larger still. The Turkish invaders sacked, destroyed and set fire to the place, with legend saying the library took fully six months to burn.
On the drive we see several small villages, where one-room earthen dwellings with thatched rooves are the mainstay. For India’s Republic Day, in every village school we see either the children staging a parade down the street, or a flag raising ceremony in front of the classroom.
We pass through some larger settlements, one in particular has cornered the market in the pony as a work animal. This probably reflects that the State of Bihar is the poorest and least developed of India (and that’s saying something).
We also drive adjacent to a striking mountain range – which we are told the name of, but have no hope of remembering.
What we see of Patna doesn’t recommend itself. The airport terminal is tiny and crowded. My comparison is to say it is a regional airport with capital city traffic. Domestic flights are, by any measure, inexpensive in India. People only get into the airport with a flight ticket, and you only get in a set number of hours before your flight. We’re a little early, but perhaps the security officer takes pity on us and let’s us in anyway.
As mentioned, our observation is that the locals are no fans of queues. In the queue to get into the airport, the man behind fair and square pushes his luggage trolley into my legs. There are just two security officers, so I don’t have much choice about how far or fast I go. Our guide has accompanied us this far (all part of his assignment he says) and offers a few choice words in the local language.
On entry our checked luggage is x-rayed – I get questioned about a charger in my bag – and then the bags have security ties threaded through the zips. Whilst doing this, a staff member from the airline has offered to get our boarding passes for us, I give him my only proof of travel and see him head for the kiosk. He gets busy helping other passengers whilst we head towards check-in, he waves and indicates he’s on his way. He isn’t! From check-in, I go to find him and get my travel document back. At check-in we’re 10 kilos into excess baggage, however the check-in person, having witnessed the boarding pass adventure, offers his apology and does not charge for the excess weight.
The final security check, separate lines for men and women, is quite thorough, although not as bad as it was last time we were in India, and still under-resourced. Everyone stands on a box, everyone gets a pat down search, and everyone gets a very thorough ‘wanding’.
It doesn’t end there, with three more staff and security checking you boarding pass at the gate, and Kerry scores a random selection additional pat down and wand. Women are screened behind a curtain, not in public view. One last check and tear of the boarding pass at the foot of the stairs to the plane.
Our flight, just one hour, will have us in Lucknow around 9:30pm.
Kannauj – visiting India’s perfume capital
Saturday 27January. The King Was In
And the winner of India’s Tidy Town competition is Lucknow! Genuinely, we have not been in a cleaner or tidier place in India. Even more remarkable are some excellent arterial roads.
And we’re staying in a very nice hotel indeed, and Kerry has offered to spend the next five weeks here, before meeting me at Delhi airport for the flight home. The hotel is a bungalow built in 1936, and converted to a hotel around two years ago. There is a lot to like.
Our hit’n’run visit here is really to allow a day trip to a town called Kannauj. The former capital of a sixth century Hindu kingdom, Kannauj is now India’s perfume capital. Such is its reputation that it has a ‘sister city’ type relationship with Grasse in France; the only such relationship Grasse has entered. The local agent here has arranged a visit to one of the best manufacturers.
And the visit is an absolute treat. Apart from the discussion about perfumes, international markets, western fragrance and the Indian consumer, we discuss Australian domestic airfares, Rome, the South Africa versus India test match, Indian cinemas and Bollywood movies, the Australian accent, 4:00am shifts at a call centre, and one of the company partner’s upcoming wedding.
The government sponsors a fragrance and flavours development centre here, and the grandfather of the men we are talking to actually helped establish the centre. However they say it is of no use to them because it does not tell them anything they don’t already know.
In addition to all of that, we sniff our way through nearly one dozen pure oils. The concentration of fragrance, and the quality is just mind blowing. We also pay a visit to the manufacturing operation, where they are producing rose water to meet a large order. By comparison we make a very tiny purchase of attars, keeping in mind we have been sampling the pure oil.
Not the sort of day trip made by the average visitor on a tour of India, but we did promise some lesser-known destinations.
On arrival back in Lucknow we head to a market area to look at a particular hand stitched embroidery which is a long-held art in Lucknow, and continues to provide a livelihood for many in the city, particularly women.
We have dinner in the hotel and the food is faultless.
A couple of words regarding the drive today. About two and a half hours, the first 100 kilometres were on a fairly new 6 lane expressway which runs between Lucknow and Agra. The expressway has two sections which are officially designated as emergency landing strips for aircraft. One can only assume the reason for this build is military and strategic, not passenger aeroplanes.
Flying to Bhopal During a Tour of India
Yes We’re Going
A leisurely morning at the hotel. We take the chance to have a look around, find the pool which looks great although the water is cold, and the gym which is tiny with four pieces of equipment filling the room. One feature of the hotel is the use of old wooden printing blocks as handles on cupboards and for doors in public parts of the hotel. It’s a great look. Also, the front garden of the hotel is being set up for a child’s birthday party, and the parents seem to be sparing no expense.
Hotel security seems a little higher today. When we have entered by car, both the boot, and underneath the car have been inspected. The hotel shares a property boundary with India’s Home Minister, and somewhere in the neighbourhood the political party Congress have an office, both of these potential targets. Today men who enter the hotel are being ‘wanded’ and we seem to be randomly questioned (and more than once) for our room number on the way to and from breakfast.
I suspect it is a truism that travel in India presents its own set of challenges. Today provides one example of this. We’ve left our hotel in good time for a flight just after 14:00. Upon arrival at the airport we find the flight delayed until 16:00, which is not an Indian exclusive by any means. Standing in line to then be denied check-in probably is. We’re told to check-in from 14:00.
We keep track on the departures monitor, and check-in opens a fraction early, the plane itself now pushed back to 16:30. Of course, we are still 10 kilograms over the free baggage limit, and this time we have to pay. At an Indian airport it is not possible to pay excess charges at the check-in counter. One is directed to a small booth in another part of the terminal building, usually as far away as possible. All of the airlines have these small offices, and they have an open window to the outside for passengers to purchase flight tickets.
Having been escorted to the office, I am unable to pay the charge, because the person who can ‘take the money’ is not in. What the other 3 people are doing is unclear. There is no point in asking when the man I need will be back, and I am told simply to wait. I do, regrettably, get a little cross at this. Some time later, the man who is able to take payment appears, and I am waved into the office. I have a seat whilst he serves someone through the window outside of the terminal building. Both of my cards fail (although we all agree it must be the card reader) and I pay cash instead. Don’t think this is a quick process. To make the transaction requires (too) many keystrokes on his computer system, and the card transactions are on dial-up. Having paid, we return to the check-in counter and are issued our boarding passes. All up this has taken 45 minutes.
Given we have time aplenty in the airport, Kerry visits an airport shop which carries the Chikan embroidery we looked at yesterday afternoon; and manages to find a top to purchase. At the airport they have a Chikan motif on the external windows, and many women are wearing the distinctive stitching on their clothes. The domestic terminal seems a fairly recent build, with what we presume to be the original terminal now serving as the international terminal.
I have also upped my game in queue defence. Waiting to be called forward at security two others attempt to move past me. A firm arm modelled on the Dustin Martin fend-off, a stern “nai”, and a thumb in the direction of the back of the line is remarkably successful.
We land in Bhopal much later than originally planned. The terminal building has a very modern curved roof line, and outside the terminal is much calmer than most Indian airports. Although that might just be our time of arrival on a Sunday night.
We’ve moved from a 1930s bungalow to a 1930s palace, this one with much restoration. Unpacking, we can hear the Muslim call to prayer from our room.
We have three solid days of visits planned, so there will be no chance to re-charge our batteries in Bhopal.
Things to See in Bhopal, India
Climbing Up The
Bhopal may not have any ‘first order’ visitor attractions within its boundaries, but it’s a blast nonetheless. Many of the potential attractions are badly in need of restoration, and/or require a change of use so they can be opened to the public.
Known as the ‘City of Lakes’, Bhopal dates to the 11th century with a quick-ish rise followed by a similar fall in importance. The city re-emerged in the 1700s following some skull-duggery between a widowed queen seeking vengeance, and an Afghani mercenary soldier.
The area became a Princely State after an agreement with the British and uniquely was ruled by a succession of women between 1819 and 1926. Although the Royal Family were Muslim there was (and is) a majority Hindu population here. The partition of India affected Bhopal as much as any border State; the princess whose former palace we are staying in fled to Pakistan at that time, equally many Hindu refugees from Pakistan settled in the area.
Our guide for today’s excursion of sightseeing in Bhopal is a Masters graduate, history buff, and heritage activist. We visit the Taj Ul Masjid (roughly ‘crown of mosques’) one of the biggest in Asia, and which has 100 years between commencement and completion. It includes a madrassa (Islamic school) and a section of the main hall is reserved for women to offer prayer.
We also visit the Sadar Manzil that housed the public audience hall of one of the former queens; and the Shaukat Mahal that has a number of European design elements. The latter due to the French influence at court, via the ‘Bhopal Bourbons’.
It’s a long story, and slightly speculative, but there are descendants of the French royal house here in Bhopal. Our guide says he has met members of the family, and they have distinctly European facial features. He says there is proof enough bar a DNA test, however he feels the French are unlikely to authorise a test which would confirm a Muslim claim to the French throne.
During the morning we stop for refreshment at a street-side tea stall, where Kerry is the only woman, and we promptly get posed for ‘selfies’ with a number of the locals. On the hunt for a battery charger for Kerry’s camera we stop at a good bookstore – truth be told, the bookstores in India are fantastic, and books are so much cheaper here than at home (and you wonder why we have an excess baggage problem). (Great things to buy in India). No luck on the charger front, and we hope to rectify this tomorrow.
We finish around mid-afternoon and take a light and late lunch in the hotel cafe. This includes a to-die-for mango mousse.
Buddhist stupas of Sanchi, India
Thursday January 30, 2018
Seen Them Kicking
We’re headed for another World Heritage List site, and another site of Buddhist significance. This isn’t strictly by design or desire, it just is. Or, at least, one of us is headed there as Kerry feels unwell and opts out.
The drive is about 90 minutes, maybe a little less. There are a couple of photo opportunities along the way, not all of which I take. We pass the former Union Carbide plant, cause of such tragedy in 1984. I also see a very lively and well attended cattle market being held just on the outskirts of Bhopal. And along the way we cross the Tropic of Cancer. This is fertile country and there are crops of rice, wheat, mustard and lentils; orange groves and guava. Anything else I can’t pick!
At Sanchi in the third century BCE the Maryann dynasty ruler Ashoka was repentant of the carnage inflicted in a most recent war, and embraced Buddhism. Resulting in his building the Great Stupa, both a memorial and a reliquary. Other religious structures followed.
The conventional wisdom is that the site (eventually the location of multiple temples, monasteries and stupas) was deserted around the 12th century, and overgrown by forest until rediscovered by a British army officer in the early 1800s.
The Grand Stupa is a fine sight, although the clincher is the wall that encircles the Stupa with four entry gates known as toranas. These sandstone gates are splendidly carved, and if they are not some of the best Buddhist art in the country, I’ll be very surprised. The overall effect is stunning. The toranas are believed to date from 35 BCE. The southern gateway features back-to-back lions, and this image appears on each of India’s banknotes. The words here can’t possibly do justice to the art on display.
The site is really well maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, and the restoration work quite sensitive and respectful of the original structures. The ASI museum in Sanchi town was also worth the look.
Back in Bhopal the driver gets me to the camera store for Kerry’s replacement battery charger. It looks like it will work, we’ll know tomorrow. When I return from the camera store the driver was having tea at a stall in the shade. I went and joined him for one glass, and another.
He then delivers me to the Ckowk (market) near the mosque. I am searching for an artisanal jewellery known as ‘thappa’ – this is gold, beaten thin and then embossed with a motif – and ‘thussa’ which is braiding strands of gold for bangles or armbands. A rep from the local travel coordinator comes to lend a hand, but we have no luck from any of the jewellers we ask in the Chowk. It seems that me, and Conde Nast Traveller India are the only ones who know about this.
Back to the hotel to check on the patient, and dinner.
Things to see and do in Bhopal during a tour of India
And When My Mind
Another day in Bhopal, another listed Unesco World Heritage site. We’re both off to Bhimbetka. About 90 minutes drive south of Bhopal we’re seeing some rock shelters with some of the world’s oldest prehistoric paintings.
The geology here is that these hills and rocks were once underwater, and I’m guessing a glacial valley adjacent. The locals describe the hills as forested, although it is not dissimilar to the Australian bush in appearance.
The complete survey has around 700 shelters in the area, and 500 of them feature paintings. We’re seeing the just 15 or so of the open to the public / easily reached shelters. The paintings are in very good condition given their age, the earliest dated to 12,000 BCE and beyond. The archaeology suggests the shelters were in use by humans 100,000 years ago. The paintings offer a view of the evolution of humans, inclusive of the development of tools, domesticated animals and farming, and trade and communal dancing. Quite fabulous.
Back in Bhopal we are joined by our guide from Monday who plans to take us to a couple of museums for the afternoon. But first, tea. His first choice is closed, so we revisit the tea stall of Monday. It’s interesting that the tea stall has a staff member on traffic duty, trying to make it easy for people to cross the road to their stall. We buy tea for our driver, and this will often be delivered to the car, but instead he joins us at the tea stall. Bhopali tea is our new favourite. We had forgotten the wonderful taste of Indian honey.
Without anyone seeing, our car has a wheel clamped. (We admit, we are illegally parked). We only become aware when the large blue tow truck from the Bhopal Municipal Council turns up and starts reversing towards our car. Much clamour follows. The fine to release the car is 300 rupees, and we’re prepared to pay.
The State Museum is closed for a government holiday – we think we’ve seen a related parade earlier in the day.
We head for an arts centre, the Bharat Bavan, which is hosting the Bhopal Biennial of Indian Contemporary Art, and a fairly decent water colours exhibition which opened just a week ago. After that, we visit the Museum of Man, aka the Tribal Museum. There’s a substantial outdoor component to this, with tribal dwellings dotting the hillside, and a more conventional (yet modern) museum at the top of the hill. We limit our visit to this part, and Kerry buys a small artwork as a souvenir.
We wonder that Prime Minister Modi’s “clean India” campaign has taken root, because we have to report that Bhopal is fairly clean, as Lucknow before it.
A visit to Ujjain in rural India
Gonna Get You
On Thursday we bade farewell to Bhopal and took a drive to Ujjain. Four-lane highway, divided road, for most of the way; mind you we passed through three toll booths to help pay for it. When we left that road for something more common in India, and encountered road works, our driver told us that when we come back, this road too will be a four lane highway.
The hotel we’re staying in has two properties, the ‘Avenue’ and ‘Paradise’ on one parcel of land. We’re meant to be staying in the Avenue, but receive a complex and wholly confusing story regarding a wedding that is being held, so we’re staying in ‘Paradise’ initially before moving to the adjacent property for the end of our stay. There’s not a lot of English spoken on the reception desk, and our Hindi isn’t improving. The senior man on the desk doesn’t seem happy to have us at all. There is an Indian saying that “Guest is God” – he may need reminding.
After our recent luxurious stays, this hotel has us back on terra firma. Kerry likens it to shabby chic, minus the chic. The hotel restaurant has a wildly comic African safari decor; and adjacent to this is a bar or nightclub, at the entry is a bust of Michael Jackson, a wall full of cassette tapes, and a trumpet for a door handle. We daren’t look inside.
We have a guide organised for Friday morning to get us through the key sites. Ujjain is one of Hinduism’s seven most sacred cities, and is one of the four cities to host, each 12 years, the Kumbh Mela, which is a pilgrimage festival unlike any other, attracting tens of millions of people. Ujjain has a long history, recorded as early as 6BCE, and obviously it existed well before then.
We start near a temple which has two black towers with niches for candles or oil lamps, and which we’re told are lit each evening at 7:00pm. We make note to return. We take a walk along the Shipra River, which has ghats (steps) leading to the water. I’m open to the karmic benefit of bathing in these waters, as plenty of others are, however on closer inspection of the river I’m ruling it out. It is along these ghats that the beggars are out in force: young, old, male, female – there are no entrance hurdles. We haven’t been exposed to this intensive approach so far on this trip, and it does detract from the whole. And there is no let up for the rest of the morning.
Regrettably, our guide doesn’t have enough English for me or Kerry, so we’re missing a lot in the interpretation of what we’re seeing. We make the journey to a couple of other temples, in one young people are having a Sanskrit lesson and make a beautiful sound as they chant in unison; in another a small group of singers provide a devotional soundtrack to the visit.
At a third a just-married couple are receiving blessings, and they accept ours too. Their wedding album now includes photos of us with them and their parents. At this temple Ian finds himself pied piper / king of the kids as a group of half-a-dozen children decide he must be good for 20 rupees and persist at him the entire visit. The temple is dated to the 11th century, and is presided by Ganesha, and in this temple he will relieve worshippers of worldly worries and tensions. Perhaps the kids think we’ve be sent by Ganesha.
Another stop of the morning is an astrological observatory constructed during the early 1700s. Ujjain has been India’s Greenwich since the 4th century BCE. Daylight saving notwithstanding, the sun dials are still keeping time.
The ‘main’ temple here in Ujjain holds one of just 12 jyoti linga in the country. These are believed to be naturally occurring, and have natural shakti (energy) from within. It is enormously popular attracting 10,000 visitors a day, and with “live” footage of the lingam shown on a large screen outside the temple. We’ve paid an entrance fee, left our shoes in the shoe room, consigned everything else to a locker, (cameras included) and pass through airport scanners. The rote downstairs is being hosed clean, and our choice is socks off or socks soaked. We choose off. We walk down slippery steps, slippery ramps, more steps, and more ramps. The linga is subterranean – well lit of course – and the queue of devotees is quite something. The average punter cannot get into the inner sanctum but they will get a fair view. Someone behind us yells out, and almost everyone responds, it’s like a cheer squad at the football. On the outskirts of this, pandits/priests are dispensing advice to family groups.
It has been a challenging 24 hours in Ujjain, and we’re pleased to have a very good lunch at a Punjabi dhaba located in a hotel not too far from our own. A dhaba is a bit like an Australian roadhouse – this one is decidedly more upmarket than a truck stop in either country. Our driver suggests visiting the lit temple towers tonight, but we’ve had enough of India for today, and instead retreat to the hotel.
Things to see and do in Ujjain, India
Saturday 3 February, 2018
After breakfast our enforced building move is scheduled. The terra firma of the first building is replaced by the abyss of the second. We move from shabby chic to spartan. Bare walls, bare floor (lifting in places), a toilet cistern that is leaking in two places, and an ‘open’ bathroom without a shower recess meaning the floor is awash and slightly hazardous. Now, we have encountered all of this before in India, and in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t matter. However, we’ve scheduled Sunday as a rest day in our itinerary, and with Ujjain being short on suitable public space, that really means a day in and around the hotel. We think not, under the circumstances. We make a phone call to our travel contact in Delhi. We provide two options – a better hotel here, or an extra night in our next destination. The contact indicates that we won’t find a better hotel, and that Ujjain doesn’t see too many foreign visitors, and so doesn’t cater to them. He’ll see if he can get us an extra night at the next stop. He rings back later in the day to confirm our change of plan.
We spend the second half of the morning at the street markets around the Gopal Mandir we visited yesterday. Through the course of shops and stalls there isn’t much you can’t buy inside three streets and their laneways. There is a very noisy parade down one street, with reasonably jolly music blaring from the lead vehicle. We’re a little taken aback to see immediately behind the vehicle, a body wrapped in a shroud, carried aloft, with many followers showering the dead with flowers.
In the afternoon we look at a more modern shopping landscape, the shopping mall. With the exception of a couple of glitzy malls in Mumbai, our experience with Indian malls is quite gruesome. Typically they aren’t terribly clean or bright, they are unfinished, and usually have many vacant spaces, all of which conspire to an unappealing destination. Cosmos Mall holds the form. We visit another large shop ‘D Mart’ which, over three levels is small, low-rent version of a supermarket and a Big W. To get in, we’re obliged to have our own bag locked in the store’s branded bag, as well as an airport wand and scanner. Purchasing something in an Indian supermarket involves having your receipt and goods checked at the exit, with your receipt stamped for good measure.
In the evening we go back to the ghats to witness the evening artthi ceremony. We strike up a conversation with the youngest person preparing, and he is only too keen to talk to us, especially about the Indian u/19 cricket team beating Australia for the World Cup. Very generously he offers me a spot next to him for the artthi so I can get the best photos, but in deference to others in attendance I decline.
We’ve seen the equivalent ceremony in Varanasi on a previous tour of North India , but the experience here is so much nicer. It seems much more a community event, rather than the all-comers crowd in Varanasi. Further evidence of this comes at the end of the ceremony when an adjacent family group, bring us, cupped in their hands, some of the sacred river water. They tell us to drink it, and we certainly won’t be doing that. We do however take the blessing over our heads instead. All up, lovely.
Immediately after, we head back from the river to the first temple of yesterday, to see the towers of oil lamps lit. A very impressive sight indeed. A near constant clanging of the temple bells, plenty of people like us simply enjoying the towers, and easily an equal number taking darshan in the temple proper.
Ujjain has scored a couple of big goals late in the day that ease the frying pan/fire jolt of the early morning.
We should also report a handful of weddings underway across the city. In India these celebrations are accompanied by fireworks, brass bands, singers, highly decorated horses on which the groom arrives, huge guest numbers and all-but-pro film crews. Amazing.
Travelling to Mandu, India
Take You Away
So, after yesterday’s change of plan, today we are travelling to Mandu. We spend a little time in the hotel lobby prior to our departure and meet up with Krishna, who we had met briefly the night before. Krishna is one of the guests at the wedding celebrations being held here, and we had told him how smart he looked. Krishna is in class IV and attends an English medium school; if nothing else we are good practice. He sends his playmates away, preferring our company, and looks wholly apologetic as he is required to deliver tea to his family upstairs. Kerry predicts this will be the fastest tea delivery in India, and it is, Krishna is back with us in no time. Krishna gets ‘selfies’ with us both, walks us to our car and waves goodbye to us. For the first time, I think Kerry actually didn’t mind being called Aunty by any Indian younger than her.
The drive provides a sampling of the Indian road network; 4-lane highway, 6-lane ‘super corridor’, and heavily patched bone-shaking barely-wide-enough-for-one rural by-lane. We stop at a tourist spot of a monsoon waterfall, although at this time of year there is not even a trickle of water, but the gorge itself is a fine sight. Of course, a photo opportunity for us, means a photo opportunity for the locals. A class of girls have pressured their teacher to ask for our photo; a group shot is taken with every phone, and then most girls want an individual shot with their own phone.
In Mandu we’re staying in accommodation run by the State’s tourism department. We’re doing the same at the next few destinations as they are invariably the best option in less visited areas of India. This one is a bit like a caravan park – without the caravans – and where cabins are replaced with cottages.
There is also an influx of European faces here. A bus tour of older German / Austrian / Swiss travellers has arrived, promptly dubbed “the First Marigold Bus” by Kerry; along with a small family group of French.
We later manage a conversation with the young German tour leader, who has been escorting groups here, twice a year since 2012. He’s almost astonished to find other foreigners here.
Sights to visit in Mandu, India
Come on, come on
Monday 5 February, 2018
Today we explore Mandu. We start the day with a guide, Raju, who is a sharp dresser, with a fine voice.
Shaadiabad, literally ‘the city of joy’, can be traced as far back as the 5th century, although what we are primarily here to see was constructed mostly during the 1400s and 1500s. What is so remarkable is that so much of it still stands. In the city’s medieval heyday it was the largest fortified capital, certainly in Asia and probably beyond. The urban perimeters ran to 60 kilometres, with ‘suburbs’ 50 kilometres further still. Raju suggests a peak population of 9 million (of which we’re a little sceptical).
Raju takes us through three of the ticketed sights here, and later in the afternoon our driver delivers us to a number of other monuments, no less impressive.
Littered over the plateau here are the deserted remains of mosques, palaces, tombs, halls, all manner of buildings, and it is really something. For anyone with a second of interest in architecture, building design, ruins, or deserted settlements, Mandu in India is a must-see paradise.
Visiting the Buddhist Caves at Bagh, India
The Cause Of Every Star
Tuesday 6 February, 2018 is pretty much a travel day, in as much as we spend 8 hours in effect travelling 60 kilometres or so. Of course, we have gone the long way, and racked up more distance than that. It’s all in a good cause however. We are scheduled to visit the Buddhist caves at Bagh. The usual mix of road surfaces make up the journey, our driver even apologising at one point. We assured him this wasn’t necessary and that we had been on worse roads in our country and his.
Some additional crops we notice include cotton, corn and bananas, and the chick pea and potato harvest are in full swing. None of the harvest is mechanised in any way. For the chick peas there is a swarm of workers, mainly women, armed with a scythe. Just on that note, there is some construction work underway at the property in Mandu, preparing to pour the footings for new buildings. The only mechanical equipment on-site is a cement mixer. Everything else is being done manually.
Also on today’s journey we see several small groups of people, each with several camels and a small goat herd, in a temporary pen. The driver tells us they are “gypsy people” who have come from the Kutch that is in the neighbouring state of Gujarat. (Of the states of India – The Kutch region is one of the best known for its colourful and intricate crafts and textiles. Textile and crafts enthusiasts often travel to Kutch and Gujuarat during a tour of India.)
As we enter Bagh, our driver says it is “world famous” for its block-printed fabrics. World famous seems a stretch, however we have read that the local craft certainly uses a particular technique. Our driver pulls up outside one such manufacturing facility and we’re welcomed and given a tour of the process. It’s very definitely hand crafted, and there isn’t anyone involved in the process who is having an easy time of it. It’s a labour intensive operation, and hard work. Kerry finds a few items that catch her eye and her money.
On to the caves at Bagh. Here, in a rocky outcrop mainly of sandstone, have been carved out, elaborately sculpted and painted a number of caves, presumably serving as monasteries, for the same basic floor plan we have seen elsewhere applies here. And all of this during the 5th to 7th century. These are not naturally occurring caves, they have been rock cut. Amazing. Amazing still is that we are the only visitors here and our driver says hardly any foreigners visit these caves. Well, they probably should. The on-site museum contains some really beautiful paintings that have been removed from the caves and preserved.
Back in the car we keep driving and stop around 4:00pm for a very late afternoon tea at a very busy intersection in a town, of which neither of us have the name. About an hour later we reach our destination of Maheshwar.
We’re staying in another of the State Government’s tourist facilities, and it’s not unlike the one we’ve just left. Nicer, probably, and with a location second to none. We’re on the banks of the Narmada River, one of the sacred rivers of India. Indeed, it is said that when the Ganges is feeling unclean, she disguises herself as a black cow and comes at night to bathe in the Narmarda. The town is, naturally, an important pilgrimage centre, and there has been a settlement here for a very long time. The town is mentioned by its original name in the Mahabharata, and the conventional wisdom is that the Mahabharata was composed around 1,000 BCE.
Things to see and do in Maheshwar in India
Hold Her Tight
Wednesday 7 February – Maheshwar
The similarities between the two tourism department properties continues to the toiletries and the tapware in the bathroom, to the restaurant menu – identical in both.
We are woken early by the sound of temple bells. They seem quite loud, but I’m imaging a couple of the temples I sighted upriver last night ringing their bells in unison and the sound moving down the water on a still morning. It is not until I open the curtains when we leave later in the morning that I see there is a temple right behind our room, no more than 20 metres away. No wonder the bells were loud.
Our plan ‘A’ continues to be using the services of a local guide first, partly as orientation, partly to ensure we cover the essentials, and then we can continue on our own. Our guide today is Sunel. We start the day at the fort. The fort was built during the 1500s, and local queen Ahilyabi added the palace and several temples during her reign.
Ahilyabi is almost revered here, her image used in many places around the town. She reigned in the late 1700s and seems to have completed ‘good works’ all over India. One of the practices she instituted was to have 111 Brahmin priests conduct a puja each morning, and to do it so often that effectively every member of the population was included. This practice continues today.
The palace courtyard doubles as a museum, and there is some weaponry and her palanquin on display and a couple of palace temples are richly adorned. We’re told that one of the Shiva linga is solid gold.
The fort now serves as a heritage hotel, and whilst re-shoeing ourselves after the temple we meet Erin, a Canadian who teaches in Taiwan, has done for 2 decades, and holidays in India every couple of years. He’s looking for the hotel, specifically he’s trying to book dinner here. We talk to him about his travels and ours, probably for a little too long, but there is some reward in being able to have a conversation with someone who speaks your only language with the same proficiency.
Leaving the fort we stop at the Rehwa Society, a craft cooperative that provides employment, education, housing and welfare for its women weavers. There is also a school adjacent that is run by the society. Kerry finds a couple of items to her liking.
Maheshwar saris are known for a unique weave, and all over town there are hand loom shops selling saris, scarves, shawls and fabric by the metre. There are other charitable trusts supporting women weavers.
We venture down to the riverside ghats of Maheshwar, and it is selfie-mania. Agreeing to the first person to ask prompts a queue of others, including entire families.
We do see a fair school of fish at the riverside, and then take a boat ride across the river and along the stretch we have just walked. Two passengers jump in for the journey across, and I’m certain they haven’t bought tickets. We’re charged 800 rupees for a trip that doesn’t last that long, and I’m fairly certain there will not be any change on offer either. The boatman thinks he has won lotto when he gets to keep what’s owing from our thousand. He’s probably also going to be on the lookout for more foreigners if they’re all like us.
After we disembark we visit another Shiva temple, this one getting a fresh coat of paint. The part already completed looks so much better. From there we walk a kind of loop, via another fabric retailer (a friend and neighbour of our guide) and back to our starting point.
After lunch at the hotel we take the car back to the main market and retail street in the town. Kerry finds a simple piece of jewellery for herself, an older man seems thrilled to stop us and give his English a run, and then we stop in a very narrow laneway to look at some framed prints on display. A cow takes up post at the exit and we are, temporarily, held hostage by the cow. We make our escape (with print under arm) for the remainder of our walk to the rendezvous point with our driver.
Selfie-mania aside, Maheshwar seems to be a quiet, pleasant town. There are neither bicycle nor auto-rickshaws here, we gather because it is so small there isn’t the demand.
A Visit to Omkareshwar Island
You Don’t Need No
On Thursday we take a trip to Omkareshwar, an island said to be shaped like the Hindu symbol Om. Here we get taken for a ride, literally and figuratively, on a boat over to the island, and for a short cruise along a section of the river Narmada. I regret to say that neither of us quite grasp our guide’s name or his English.
We visit a temple which houses another of the 12 important jyothi linga, and like Ujjain previously, this linga also has live coverage to a viewing public outside. Inside is a complete crush; it’s hot and humid despite the presence of fans and an air conditioner in the sanctum sanctorum. This isn’t much of a visitor experience, a sociologist or theologian might be rewarded, and the faithful certainly are.
We return across the river and see a shrine that is built around a stream that has a constant flow into the Narmada throughout the year. We’re told the source is in the forested hills and is a small pond or lake. We head for another temple but Kerry feels a little over-templed from the experience of the first and stays outside. This is not necessarily the lesser of evils as she is constantly harassed by hawkers selling beads, and various temple offerings. Inside, Ian gets to pour water over Shiva to a tuneful prayer.
Heading back to Maheshwar we take a lunch at a recently opened roadside restaurant. These businesses have a man with a whistle stepping onto the road to attract customers. Back in Maheshwar we can’t find tissues at what passes for the local supermarket, nor our antibiotic of choice at the pharmacy; however we do find another women’s weaving cooperative to support.
Friday morning after breakfast Kerry takes postcard duty in the hotel lobby, whilst Ian takes a look around our immediate surrounds. Several small shrines dot the path along the river, and the brightly painted temple behind the accommodation has the swingingest version of a Shiva mantra playing. I cannot locate the audio record function on my phone, so I hope the sadhu at the temple plays it often and I might be able to grab a sample later.
Friday is also our last day in Maheshwar, and conscious that we’ve been adding weight to the car, arrange to go to the local India Post office to send some of our purchases home. English is in short supply here, too. We think we are being told that our parcel will not be posted before the 13th of February, and we’re okay with that, as long as our goods can be packed and addressed today (that is, we can stop lugging them around).
This doesn’t seem possible either, and I make out that we are being told: Dhamnod, 13 kilometres away. I go to get our driver hoping he can translate/ explain. It seems that there is a new system being implemented and the local office here in Maheshwar isn’t working, but up the road in Dhamnod, it is. We carry our goods (in multiple bags) back to the car.
The driver asks if we would use a private courier, and we would. On previous visits we have often found the private ‘pack and send’ companies to be both more efficient and more friendly than India Post. We drive not too far to the place our driver knows, but the shop is not open. We opt for the trip up the road.
We had driven through this town on the way into Maheshwar, and today it is crazy busy. I doubt that Friday is market day, because every day seems to be market day, but the place is busy, and too many large vehicles are trying to go down too small streets. After a couple of stops to ask for directions we locate India Post. It is inconveniently located on a gated side street off the main road.
We load up with our bags and head into the office, and join the queue. Whilst waiting patiently our driver comes in and asks one of the staff about packing our goods to send home. The answer seems to be ‘fat chance’ and ‘wait until you get to Aurangabad’. Aurangabad is seven days, and several hundred kilometres, away. The message from our driver seems to be that small post offices don’t do parcels, however on the verandah at the Maheshwar office there were parcels. (Indian mail parcels are easily distinguished because the box is sewn into a white muslin cloth, which carry the address details, postage and so on). And on previous trips we’ve successfully sent parcels from smaller places than these. None of this matters, as clearly Aurangabad it is.
When we had first driven through Dhamnod we had noticed two new buildings on the way out of town. One a very imposing campus of the Delhi International School, the other a fabric and clothing store of unprecedented dimensions. The fact we hadn’t posted our goods was simply incentive to investigate. “Kanchan Fab” is very new, very clean, very bright, full of staff, and full of merchandise. Whilst all of the floor staff are wearing yellow polo shirts, Kerry is being escorted around the store by someone presumably more senior (he’s not wearing the shirt) and who, perhaps, presumes he has the best English. There is one staff member presenting with a tray of glasses of water (not something we’d risk) and another issues chocolates from a box. For all of this customer service, Kerry makes purchases which total less than AUD $2. However, we have also decided to purchase another bag or case to hold the items destined for a parcel in Aurangabad – and the store carries these so we take the opportunity to buy a kind-of wheeled duffle bag. Back at the car our driver thinks the extra bag is a good idea.
Returning to Maheshwar for lunch we head to Labboo’s Café, which we had noticed the other day at the entrance to the Fort. Indeed it is the original gate house of the Fort, today providing a gorgeous shaded courtyard and a handful of guest rooms for accommodation. Remarkably over the course of lunch there are 6 other “westerners” who turn up. This is more than we’ve encountered over three weeks, and all in one place, inside an hour.
The Next Best Thing
Saturday morning we leave Maheshwar for a three and one-half hour drive to Burhanpur. The road, just a two-lane highway, is handling a big volume of traffic, mainly trucks, along with buses, ox carts, cars, and the odd auto-rickshaw. And goats and cows. We raise this with the driver and the answer seems to be that if you want to reach any of the southern States from central India, you’ll be using this road. It shows. We pass a number of truck stops, and they all have upwards of a dozen trucks parked. The road does traverse the Satpura Range, so widening the road is not an entirely straightforward engineering project. The Satpura also separate the Deccan plateau south of here, from the north, or what was called Hindustan.
Along the way a variety of horticulture, fruit and vegetable markets, an animal market (mainly oxen from what we see) and a sugar refinery. The number of trucks and carts loaded to overflowing with sugar cane on the refinery property is more than we can count.
Burhanpur is then, predictably busy. The city is dry and dust-laden; and our hotel is on the main road. We’re a short dusty walk from a supermarket of sorts, from several ATMs, and a cinema. The accommodation is our third State tourism department venue, and the similarities continue, not only is the dining menu identical, the unavailable items are too. This property is however like a hotel, not a caravan park.
Unexplored places in India – Asigarh Fort and Sights to See at Burhanpur in India
There Comes A Time
Sunday morning presents a new experience with an Indian bathroom. With the hot water service ‘on’ we’re both certain we’re getting some kind of electrical shock from the taps. That can’t be good.
We leave the hotel around 9:30am to travel about 20 kilometres north to Asigarh Fort. On the drive out of the town, I’m pleased to see restoration work on the original city wall, which runs about 7 kilometres, and is a solid 7 foot wide. The wall does seem to have been indiscriminately punched through for the sake of shops and a road, so it’s pleasing to see some conservation effort underway.
I ask Wasim (today’s guide) about the prospect of widening the road. The answer appears to be that a widening has been promised for the past two years, the upside to this being the surveyors spotted at work on the roadside. A national road freight network is hardly helped by trucks speed limited to 40 kilometres an hour; nor by carts pulled by two oxen and passenger buses stopping irregularly.
Asigarh Fort is not the prime visitor experience of forts – Jodhpur in Rajasthan probably holds that title – but it is undeniably an impressive sight in a commanding location in the Satpura Range. The fort is atop a 260 metre high hill, and 700 metres above sea level. Haze notwithstanding there is an uninterrupted view as far as one can see in every direction.
The paved road that exists most of the way up the hill is a twisting, turning, barely one vehicle wide, sheer plummet to the left challenge. There are fewer than a handful of places to pull over and allow a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction to get past. By the time we reach the car parking area at the top, Kerry is feeling a little light headed and remains behind, whilst Wasim and I explore the fort.
There has been a fort of some sort in this location since the 11th century, although what stands here now dates mostly to the 15th. Much of it ruined, the mosque and Hindu temple inside the fort still stand, as does a later store (I think) built by the British. Interestingly the mosque includes inscriptions in Arabic, Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit. Also British is a cemetery, mostly overgrown. I don’t enter due to the vegetation, and a suspicion that none of the inscriptions will be legible. It offers pause for thought.
Meanwhile in the car park Kerry has been woken by tapping at the car window amid cries of “Aunty, Aunty” from a group of school children. A lengthy photo session ensues, with a promise that I am already inside the fort. The children scream in unison when they see me. As they take position for their photos, they knock me over (as far as a sitting-height wall) and they think this is hilarious.
We return to the hotel for lunch. The dining room has been cleared for a stand-up buffet, which is being held after a seminar being conducted in the meeting room across the lobby. The staff find a table and two chairs for us to have lunch, and have us out in time for the seminar crowd.
Kerry chooses the hotel for the afternoon, whilst I go to the Ichccha Devi temple about 20 kilometres south of Burhanpur. The temple is atop a hill, it’s a long way with hundreds of steps. Judging by the crowd control barriers the temple surely overflows with pilgrims at festival time. Ichccha Devi is the fullfiller of wishes. I contribute to the temple coffers and get the priest’s blessing, the priest gets a photo with me. Wasim and I stop for a sugar cane juice amid the stalls in the market below the temple.
We stop again for tea on the way back to Burhanpur. Here I notice a great innovation. How do you get your takeaway masala chai home safely when you ride a two wheeler? You have the tea in a plastic bag, like a goldfish from the pet store, and four plastic cups in a carrier bag, and away you go.
We skip the final sight of the day, which is primarily a water feature. It seems there isn’t sufficient water to provide the feature. More sights tomorrow.
Monday 12 February, 2018
Things to See and do in Burhanpur, India
No Matter Where You Roam
Make no mistake, Burhanpur has first order visitor attractions – what it doesn’t have is first order access to and maintenance of said attractions. We start the day at Shahi Qila, which the Archaeological Survey of India badge as “The Palace In The Fort”. Constructed in the second-half of the 1400s, it has, by some creative counting, 7 storeys, 3 of which are underground. Based on the evidence today, those three are simply built into the lay of the land, rather than being strictly underground. No matter, as the condition of the decorative fresco paintwork on some of the interior here is the best we’ve seen across all of India.
Next stop, the Jama Masjid in the city centre, mostly identical to the mosque at Asigarh Fort yesterday. Arches and columns means no ceiling. We also are treated to a viewing of a very long, 1001 beads long, Islamic mala of some historical significance (and apologies for not knowing what Muslims call their ‘rosary beads’, I’m using the Hindu word).
Then onto the Dargarh-e-Hakimi which is a major pilgrimage destination for Dawoodi Bohra Muslims. As best as we can explain it, the tomb of a Muslim Saint is here, along with several others, who if not saints are clearly revered. From the entry gate there is a wide tree lined avenue with gardens either side, and beyond the gardens fine looking buildings providing accommodation, a dining hall, and offices. At the end of the avenue, an expanse of white marble on which the white marble tombs and another building are sited. It’s gorgeous. The interior of the tombs are too, the white marble complemented by gold inscriptions and glass chandeliers. Later, whilst we sit near the garden, two women, wholly fluent in English and on pilgrimage from Bangalore, come to talk. Afterwards we spend a little time in the nearby market.
Then, as proof positive no one is the average traveller, we visit a cotton mill. Cotton is a key industry for Burhanpur. In our working lives we’ve made our share of factory visits, and even know some sensible questions to ask. This unit employs 200, runs 2 shifts, 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. They don’t export any of their product as it is not export quality, and 50% of their market is in Kolkata. The recently introduced GST is a killer to them and the middle class. The demonetisation of 18 or so months ago was literally a killer, and the positives are yet to reveal themselves. Modi is well-regarded as PM, but is moving too fast. The production manager (Tariq) who is showing us around is an Engineering graduate who is in the business his father started. One brother is a pediatrician, the other a dentist. If taking time out of his day for two people who will have no effect on his business isn’t enough, he invites us over the laneway where he has a residence. It’s an oasis from the factory. We’re staying for tea, and if his wife was home we’d be getting lunch, or invited back for dinner. Masala chai from scratch isn’t a quick affair, and we have a long and engaging conversation about all things India and Australia. What our guide had intended as a 20 minute stop takes an hour.
After a late lunch at the hotel, it is on to our final ‘official’ visit. We’re off to Ahukhana, which was a walled 5 acre ‘forest’ complete with animals as game. Mumtaz, the queen, was no fan of the hunt and instead had a well-appointed room and a ‘pleasure palace’ located in the park. Mumtaz died delivering her 14th child. Her husband, Shah Jahan, wanted a building as bright as a diamond for her resting place. The plentiful groundwater near the park rendered the location unworkable, and instead the Taj Mahal was built in Agra. Mumtaz was laid to rest three times, here in Burhanpur, six months or so later in Agra, and later again in the Taj Mahal. (To see the Taj Mahal in Agra – you need to take a private tour to the Golden Triangle in India which included the Taj Mahal.)
Tasting some Indian street food and snacks
We actually end the day with a walk along a few lanes of the city chowk. Here Wasim has us sampling Burhanpur jalebi. Jalebi is an Indian sweet, and we have two variations to eat. Wasim insists that Burhanpur jalebi is served all over India. We also have a salty milk based dish; we don’t grasp the name of this one, that said, it’s unlikely we’ll be looking for it on a menu anytime soon. Kerry has another jalebi to defeat the taste of the milk dish.
Tomorrow, we’re on the move again.
Travelling to Ajanta Caves in India
I Don’t Know Why You Say
Tuesday 13 February, 2018
A European face walks into the Burhanpur dining room at breakfast. We hear him talking to the staff in English, but we can’t place the accent. As we finish our breakfast we go over to say hello and introduce ourselves. Marcus is from Sweden, and he’s 28 years old. And, ladies, he’s single. He’s also riding a bicycle from Goa in India to Kathmandu in Nepal. Marcus targets 100 kilometres per day, although today is an easy day of just eighty. With no experience of any of this Marcus secured some in-kind sponsorship from Trek (his bike) and Goretex (clothing) and is blogging his trip (12 months film studies in California put to good use). We’re the first westerners he has seen in 2 weeks, and he’s glad we came to talk.
We’re headed south this morning to the town of Ajanta, and its World Heritage listed site. The trip takes around 3 hours, inclusive of a masala chai stop, on some pretty ordinary road surfaces, including roads that are barely under construction. We’ve crossed a State border this morning, and our driver didn’t have to wait long for a section of bad road to say “welcome to Maharashtra”. The border checkpoints are very expansive places – we’re not stopped on either side, but all of the trucks entering Madyha Pradesh are in the queue for inspection.
This is also where we farewell our driver. Israr picked us up from Bhopal airport 16 days ago, and has been interpreter, negotiator, masala chai finder, and friend since. Entirely personable, always happy, Israr has had friends in every town we’ve visited. The car has been immaculate every morning, and his driving skill unquestioned. We’ll miss him.
In Ajanta we’re staying in our fourth and final State tourism department accommodation. (Tips for staying in India state tourism department accommodation.) New State means new menu. Also, this property is the “cottages as caravans” park variety. Dormitory and non air-conditioned rooms to the left, air conditioning to the right.
Sightseeing in Ajanta
Just Believe In Me
Wednesday 14 February, 2018
The joy of a working hot shower is diminished as we’ve anticipated our guide to arrive at the accommodation at 10:00, however the driver is telling us 11:15, maybe later. We’ve come a long way and with plenty of time to explore a very significant site and our visiting time is being dissolved by a tardy guide.
We attempt to discuss with our driver whether the guide can simply meet us at the caves instead, so we can make some kind of start, but language fails us again.
Ajanta plays host to 30 hand hewn, rock cut caves dating back to 200BCE and comprising Buddhist shrines and monasteries, sculptures and murals which earn the caves a place on the World Heritage list. And, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the caves lay overgrown and forgotten for one thousand years and more, until a British army officer out on a hunt ‘rediscovered’ them in 1819.
At 11:30 the guide (Ram) arrives, with a tacit acknowledgement through wishing us “a very late good morning”. Happily we’re staying within two throws of a stone of the caves and we’re there in not much time at all. We get rushed through the entrance without any chance to explore, and then rush through the grandly-named ‘shopping plaza’. From there a short walk to a bus stop and a bone-rattling ride to the entrance to the caves.
The entrance has another booking office, a restaurant, and an area of shaded lawn. There are, a little surprisingly to me, a large number of visitors from the Buddhist nations. Ram expresses concern about the increase in their numbers, saying that they are loud and this will keep away Europeans and Americans. I think he could look much closer to home for loud tourists.
Also at the entrance, the opportunity to be carried up and down the escarpment by four men whilst sitting in a chair. Kerry says yes. And whilst these caves are in no way active temples or monasteries it will be a day of shoes off, shoes on.
There is some added security between here and the caves, I have my bag inspected and get ‘wanded’ however I’m certain I saw a woman being carried in a chair proceed unhindered.
Finally we make the first cave. Ram clearly knows his stuff; he certainly knows the art on the walls. I might like a bit more on the sculptures myself. There is limited lighting inside the caves, no flash photography, and I have yet to see a tripod get past an ASI gate. Ram has a torch to highlight particular points of interest, and soon a family group with no guide fall in. (The signage implies you can’t byo torch either). For that matter, the signage says no more than 40 visitors at a time, and 15 minutes per cave, and I don’t see those being enforced. Their tagging along doesn’t bother us, but Ram encourages them to leave us a cave later.
Talking to Ram later, he holds Masters degrees in Archaeology and in Art/History. He speaks Japanese and English, in addition to a handful of Indian languages. He’s had a professional interest in the caves for 40 years. He also ensures we don’t pay over the odds for a souvenir book; and coaches Kerry on the spiel she should expect on the way down from the chair carriers. Add to this that he has been leading us into the caves by the exit line, and had the shuttle bus stop at a more convenient place on our departure (avoiding the shopping plaza) makes me sure he’s quite well connected.
No doubt we’ve had a thorough exposure to the ‘best of Ajanta’. My preference might have been ‘the complete Ajanta’.
It does not suffice to say the whole site is spectacular in every way. The sculptures, the carvings, and the paintings big and small are exceptional by any criteria. Factor in their age, and the need to create the cave in the first place, and the whole thing is incredible.
Visiting Aurangabad in a private tour of India
Some Word Today – Thursday 15 February, 2018
We leave Fardapur around 10:00am, headed for Aurangabad. The journey is largely unremarkable – we’re not easily impressed! At first glance, Aurangabad seems a mostly unappealing Indian city, still we’re not here for the city, but for near-ish attractions.
On arrival, the hotel looks like an escape from the world it inhabits. Boom gate, mirror under the car security check, grandly attired door security man, bag x-ray machine and airport scanner all before one reaches the door. The view on entry is from an elevated position across the lower-level lobby lounge through huge windows to the pool, with the hotel rooms in a curve beyond. Again Kerry offers to see out the rest of our holiday in one place. It seems to have a lot going for it. And, said in recognition of the difficult recruitment challenge such a hotel presents, every staff member uses English as a first option.
With just one excursion scheduled this afternoon, we figure today is also the day to get our parcel packed and sent, having been foiled by India Post in Maheshwar and in Dhamnod. Between the driver, and the hotel staff and me, there is some confused discussion about where the India Post office is, and when to go there. Upshot, we can get to the post office before, or more likely after, today’s sightseeing in Aurangabad.
Kerry is a little unwell, so it’s me, the driver, and in a return appearance, Ram, our guide from yesterday. First stop, the Bibi-Ka-Maqbara. Not unfairly it is known as the poor man’s Taj Mahal. This dates to 1679 and is a mausoleum for the wife of Aurangzeb (who renamed this city after himself). The usual story is that the son commissioned the building, however alternate sources suggest that a) he was a stepson and b) far too young to be commissioning buildings at the time. Aurangzeb himself is buried elsewhere in a very simple tomb open to the elements. He apparently wanted a grave that was paid for only with his own money, made from sewing Muslim prayer caps.
Anyway, the Bibi is smaller, ‘badly’ proportioned, and uses much cheaper marble than the Taj. The gardens are dry and the water features empty. And it cost a mere fraction to build. All of this shows in any comparison.
I should add that this visit really demanded the wide-angle camera lens, but mine is casting a flaw on the image, so has been retired until I have it examined (and fixed hopefully) at home.
Next stop, the Panchakki. This is a water mill built in the 17th century. Water was channeled by aqueduct the better part of six kilometres from a nearby hill, with the final section in earthen pipe. The water drives a flywheel that turns a mill which was used to grind food grain to feed the community. And it still works. I also get a description of a cistern system built into the pillars of the city gates, but I don’t have enough engineering to quite get it.
Also at this location is the resting place of a Sufi Saint, Baba Shah Musafir. I’m provided a warm welcome into this space, and receive the Saint’s blessing. I’m feeling I should have contributed more to the community’s good works.
Then on to India Post. Ram has suggested we go to the head post office in Aurangabad as he thinks it unlikely the smaller offices will handle parcels. For the various improvements and evidence of progress we’ve seen in India on this trip, none seem to have reached India Post. Ram goes above and beyond to lend a hand. Walking to the front of the queue, ignoring everyone else and getting the staff to answer your question isn’t my strong point, but is pretty much SOP for the locals.
We’re told parcels are handled at the side of the building. There we are told it is further inside, there we are told to return to the front counter. Ram says something about Indian bureaucrats. The original staff member now concedes they will do parcels, but not packing. For this, we will need to go across the street to a roadside stall, which offers this service (along with stationery, lollies, and a whole lot of other merchandise in a space smaller than your average walk-in robe).
The right-sized box is found, our goods crammed in tight, the box taped shut before being measured for its muslin wrap. This is cut, sewn, and then hand stitched. The seams are periodically sealed with wax. The shop also carries the customs declaration form, four copies of which I need to complete. Back to India Post. We go behind the counter and further back to the business post section staff that weighs the parcel. Back to the counter where the only staff member serving has a small group of customers in front of her, and us behind. More bureaucracy and a postage fee almost equivalent to the value of the contents, and we’re done. An hour and a half and counting. And I had someone talking the local language.
A private tour of lesser-known parts of India with a stop in Aurangabad
Trying To Save Paper – Friday 16 February, 2018
We’re fairly active travellers, and travel is always a balancing act between budget, time, things to see, do, and experience; and rest days. Every now and then the stars align and you wish you had more time somewhere just to enjoy the hotel. Like this one.
So, Aurangabad is a burgeoning place. It’s regarded as the fourth city of the State, and Ram who has lived here most of his adult life has seen it grow from a population of 45,000, forty years ago, to 1.7 million today. Manufacturing, particularly beverages, auto-rickshaws, and pharmaceuticals seem big; and there’s a strong agricultural sector in the hinterland. There are a couple of the nicer Indian chain stores here, suggested a middle class that has money to spend.
Today we’re off to see Lonar Crater. The third-largest crater in the world, formed 50,000 years ago when a 2 million tonne meteorite crashed into Earth, leaving a dent 150-metres deep and with a diameter of almost 2 kilometres. This merely accentuates the ‘loss’ of the wide-angle camera lens.
There are many temples, most ruined, around the crater floor, and near the rim one temple from which flows a perennial stream of (we’re told) pure, potable water. I’m not taking the risk to find out.
We take a long walk, first down some very steep steps, and then some loose surface path, and then rocky path, and bare earth path through ‘forest’ (which I’m prepared to call dense bush) which is hot and steamy until we reach the sand and the waters edge. The walk back up proves more challenging with plenty of rest stops for us. One of these rest stops proves especially challenging for the young member of a family group. He is in Class 5 at an English medium school, and his parents are determined he should lead the conversation with us. I think we end up doing most of the talking. All of this captured on video on his Dad’s phone.
On the way back to Aurangabad we talk all manner of things with Ram our guide. As I suspected earlier he is very well connected. He is from the Brahmin community (in this case ‘community’ is code for caste) and the attendance at his son’s arranged marriage to a very accomplished and attractive young woman (whose father is a politician and long-time friend) numbered 7,000. This year he will be arranging the marriage of his own (accomplished and attractive) daughter.
Drinking chai in India
We also stop for masala chai at a roadside stall run by our driver’s brother-in-law. Photo opportunities ensue. This includes posing with the owner and manager, and shots incorporating the stall’s name. These photographs will be in frames and on display before we leave Aurangabad. I think we also have the option to buy a stake in the tea stall. It was very good chai, but perhaps not enough to get us over the line.
Night falls whilst we’re still on rural roads and this highlights the challenges of driving in India. In no particular order, two wheelers with no lights, animals with no lights, auto-rickshaws (painted black) with no lights. Pedestrians with no lights. Vehicles with high beam and apparently nothing else. Our personal favourite, the roadside breakdown in which there are no hazard lights, no reflective safety triangles but there are a few large rocks placed around the immediate vicinity. To be honest, conditions aren’t that much better when we reach the urban roads.
A private tour of India including Ellora Caves
Resting Our Head
Saturday 17 February – Aurangabad.
Not always does the reality match travel plans, and Aurangabad, as much as we like it, is adding to the evidence on this score. There hasn’t been any advance certainty around our driver these past few days, and last night as we returned to the hotel we were told that Saturday would reveal a new driver and guide, with a start time of 9:00am. Waiting in the lobby, 9:15 comes and goes and I place a call to our travel coordinator in Delhi. His calls to me fail to connect, so he texts to advise 9:30 as the starting time, and the driver is on his way.
At somewhere near 10:00am, the same driver from the past two days arrives at the hotel. We get to the car and he says ‘guide not coming today’. Thinking he means Ram, I say that I know this and ask about our guide for today. But there is no guide for today. I’m headed for the Ellora Caves, yet another World Heritage listed site, and I figure I can manage getting around the site on my own. On the drive there are numerous phone calls to and from the driver, none of which I understand of course.
At the major visitor attractions there are usually a swathe of market stalls, a swarm of hawkers, and a salvo of would-be guides. Lots of ‘just look, just look’, ‘I won’t spoil your day, remember me when you come back’, ‘I know your guide I will take you to him’. Somehow along the journey the driver has located someone he knows to act as my guide at Ellora. There is clearly (even to me) a call back to head office to clear this, and we’re off.
Anis is, I’m guessing, not an official guide. He sets an absolutely cracking pace and we start at a cave he says the old guides miss, but he is young (33) so we go. It’s as good a start as any. In his favour I find him much easier to understand than some guides this trip, he has all the basic facts and figures at his fingertips, and makes very good suggestions about photographic spots.
Sightseeing at Ellora Caves, India. The focus at Ellora is much more sculptures and carvings than murals as in Ajanta, in fact I don’t see a mural at all. Here, Buddhist rock cut caves date from 200 BCE, Hindu caves from 500 CE and Jain caves from 800 CE. Awe inspiring and spectacular – after which superlatives are meaningless.
Of course, at the end of this Anis needs me to complete a testimonial in his book, which I’m entirely happy to do. And naturally this takes place in his cousin’s handicrafts store. In due course I am delivered back to the car. As with Ajanta, I feel I have the real highlights here, but I might have preferred a more complete experience. I have to take some of the responsibility for this, a resolution in my favour just seems too difficult.
Another disappointment is missing a visit to Daulatabad, an 11th century fort perched on a hill, and once called Devgiri (Hill of Gods). The Sultan of Delhi renamed it, and depending on which story takes your fancy, moved the capital and its population from Delhi to here. Insufficient water supply meant the population was marched back to Delhi. From the road it looks magnificent, with at least three defensive lines on the hillside. But a fort really deserves the interpretation of someone knowledgeable, and whilst some Indian attractions run to audio guides and pamphlet maps, not Daulatabad.
Whilst I’m doing this, Kerry has thought better of another cave site, and instead arranges the hotel car to take her on a highly selective shopping excursion. This also reflects Aurangabad as our last ‘big city’ stop providing retail quality we won’t see elsewhere. Shopping in India – things to buy.
First stop on the day’s shopping agenda is the Paithani silk weaving centre. They specialise in hand woven Himroo material – a traditional Aurangabad speciality made from cotton, silk & silver threads. Kerry is shown traditional weaving looms at the front of the shop although most of today’s Himroo shawls & saris are mass-produced using power looms. Much time is spent viewing an array of beautifully handcrafted items – refreshingly offered assistance without the usual insistence to see and buy more. It appears easier on this trip to access quality local handcrafts as an alternative to cheaper items mass produced for the tourist market – let’s chalk it up to experience and a bonus in visiting places a little off the usual tourist trails.
Next stop is the Prozone shopping mall and the opportunity to visit some retail favourites. World of Titan is owned by the Tata group and offers a broad range of women’s and men’s watches – some of the more flamboyant designs would only work in a sub-continental context and would certainly attract attention if worn at home.
FabIndia has stores throughout India and offers clothing choices that do not scream ‘I’ve been to India’ upon your return. Shopping is broken up with a coffee at Cafe Coffee Day – a nation wide chain similar to Hudson’s Coffee targeting a younger demographic but not offering a quality coffee experience. There may be a growing coffee culture in India but the coffee is generally pretty terrible. Consequently we are already wondering how we will manage without our daily hits of masala chai upon our return.
The next shop on the list is Tanishq – another branch of the Tata empire – offering high-end quality jewellery. Most of the jewellery is 22 and 24 carat gold and the sumptuous displays of wedding jewellery have to be seen to be believed. There are beautiful heavy necklaces that indicate one’s marital status, matched with dangling earrings and bracelets. Over the top and expensive by Australian standards but gold is seen as an investment and an essential part of the wedding occasion, which itself can span 3 to 5 days. Australian weddings do seem a little lacklustre in comparison.
Kerry is seeking a quality piece of jewellery for herself – to remind her of India, to celebrate retirement, and a looming significant birthday (yes, really). There is a limited amount of platinum jewellery on offer but there is a delicate ring that catches her eye and falls within her budget. For some reason, the purchase cannot be finalised without sighting a passport and it is arranged to have the ring put aside and to return later with the requested proof of identity.
The trip back to the hotel is punctuated with the obligatory visit to a handicrafts shop endorsed by the driver – everyone seems to have a link to a business, either through family or a financial arrangement. Back at the hotel, the rigours of a busy shopping day are alleviated by a massage – waiting until Ian returns from the caves.
In the evening we make the return shopping trip. We don’t understand the passport requirement but we have experienced this on our previous trips. We also revisit the shopping mall, which due to the presence of many international/ western brands is in very good condition. Bonus surprise: Barnesy singing ‘River Deep Mountain High’ on the store background music.
Late Sunday afternoon we’re flying to Delhi in order to take a flight north on Monday morning. Overnight will be spent in the airport transit hotel. We’ve taken this option of convenience over price on our previous trips. We recall a plush and comfortable stay, and heavy-handed, repetitive and redundant security measures. We’re hopeful the latter has changed.
Monday, 19 February, 2018
Private Tour to Dharmsala in India
Show Me Round
Flying into Gaggal Airport early this afternoon I was more excited than Big Kev (RIP). The view from the plane was just fantastic for those us with no exposure to mountains and snow. We can’t believe how close the mountains appear (or are). Later we are told this is the Dhauladhar range, with the nearest peak a mere 4,800 metres.
We have travelled to the north of India, a State called Himachal Pradesh. Readers may have heard of Dharamsala; we’re actually in McLeod Ganj which is a little further north, a little higher up (at 2,000 metres) and home to the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan Government-in-exile) and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We can see his place from our balcony.
And what a place we are staying in – it’s lovely. The hotel is one of three run by an institute that has a mission of preserving Tibetan culture. It is decorated in traditional Tibetan style, our room has murals on every wall. There are just 11 rooms, and the appliqué fabrics, hand made rugs and the wooden furniture have all been made by workers through the institute.
We’ve taken a short stroll along the market (although here, Monday is closed day, but many stalls and shops are trading). It’s all very calm and peaceful and quiet. The air is clean, there isn’t so much haze around, and the hillsides have proper forests on them. Oak, pines, rhododendrons at this altitude, although we noticed eucalypts on the drive from the airport. If there is a jackpot to be struck in travel in India, this may be it.
And the good news started yesterday when we left Aurangabad. Air India was willing and able to check our luggage all the way through so we didn’t have to contend with it in Delhi. And, although we were within baggage limits yesterday, technically we’re not today because we’re on a smaller propeller driven plane – either way, we avoided the excess baggage charges. On the mention of the propeller plane, we were driven in a bus across the tarmac to board our aircraft, which was parked next to a jet. A Chinese woman sitting next to Kerry couldn’t believe it when we drove around the jet to a much smaller aircraft. Hand over her mouth, a look of fear in her eyes, and the words “too small, too small”.
Kerry delved into history to revive her hockey defence skills whilst holding her position in the security queue at Delhi airport. Also, Terminal 3 at DEL has the best (window) shopping around. The transit hotel was not the trial of previous visits, although the Indian authorities could learn an awful lot from Singapore on this front.
And finally, it’s cool here. Shirt sleeves have been more than enough so far on our trip. I even managed a swim in a hotel pool. But there was a chill in the late afternoon air today, and that jumper at the bottom of the suitcase will be seeing some service shortly. I think the staff plan to put hot water bottles in beds might be a hint. (Information about India’s regional climate and tips for the weather in India.)
Things to See and Do in Dharmsala India
Twenty Years’ Privilege
Tuesday 20 February, 2018 .
Our first full day in McLeod Ganj starts with a walk across the road and down the street to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We see his temple and the monks’ quarters, and we see the gates of his residence. We also see the fortunate people who are leaving, having just enjoyed a personal audience. Our guide today, Arvind, has met HH twice. Arvind has written a book on the birds of the Kangra Valley, and HH being something of a bird fancier himself, wrote the foreword.
We then take the car down to Dharamsala. Here we see the buildings of the Tibetan Government (and Parliament) in-exile. We also visit the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, which has a fabulous museum display upstairs. A minor quibble, but I wish the curators had dated all of the exhibits. We then drove further to a temple and Monastery of the Gyoto Monks.
I should point out here that there are not too many old buildings in Dharamsala, most having been ruined by an earthquake in 1905. And all of the ‘Tibetan buildings’ have really been constructed since HH fled here to escape the Chinese.
We then visited the Norbulingka Institute and witnessed the work in the art studios there, weaving, wood carving and painting, metal work for statues and more. Including what the Institute calls a ‘doll museum’ but these are no mere playthings; these are models depicting many aspects of regional Tibetan culture. There was a temple (of course) and we also stayed for lunch.
After that, a visit to a church (St John in the Wilderness) and finally back to McLeod Ganj where we see some more artisans at work, and a couple of retailers linked to support Tibetan children and workers.
McLeod Ganj is mostly peaceful and quiet, and we can’t take our eyes of those mountains and that snow. Arvind also treks, and he says the mountains are less than 600 m.
Shopping in Dharamsala in India
Illumine Your Consciousness
Wednesday is a rest day of sorts. Kerry feels less than 100%, so stays at the hotel. Ian does some local exploring. Back to the Dalai Lama’s ‘complex’ where the Tibetan museum is located – this mainly tells the story of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and its effect on the culture and the people. It’s very moving. The museum also holds regular documentary screenings for less than a nominal charge. New (to me) streets were walked down, although given the location most streets are actually walked up.
On Thursday we find a great local taxi driver – we have his number if you find yourself this way soon. After some minor gift shopping we take the India Post two-step. We go down to Dharamsala because this is where we had the post office pointed out to us. None of the made post boxes are suitable, so of course we need packing, which they’re not owning up to. They tell us the nearby market, Kotwila bazaar, will have many places for this. The taxi driver, Ashok, who had suggested we get packing in McLeod Ganj in the first place, doesn’t know of a packing service except those in MG. Back we go, find a stall that offers a packing service, conveniently located next to the sub-post office in MG, and start the process. The post office request passports (locked in our hotel) so Ashok provides his details as some kind of guarantor, and runs to his house to get his own proof of identity.
After all of this, we go back to Dharamsala to take in a film, at Dharamsala’s only multiplex, (2 screens) which opened about 18 months ago. We’re seeing a film in Hindi, without the benefit of English sub-titles. We see ‘Pad Man’ a film based on the factual story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a machine which makes cheap sanitary pads, and who has made the machines available throughout India. A village that has a machine sees extra employment, women can purchase sanitary products at less than half the price of branded items, or barter produce. In the schools 23% of girls drop out of education once they start menstruating, although that is probably linked to toilet access as well. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality – and still less than 20% of Indian women use a safe option. So, very important work, and the average punter won’t be watching a documentary but they will watch a rom-com-drama. Much of this was filmed in western Madhya Pradesh, where we ourselves had spent 10 or so days just recently. Lots of ‘we were there’: ‘we’ve been on that bridge’ and ‘that’s the school’ from us. Four stars and three tissues from your reviewers.
Also, something new at the Indian cinema since our last visit, patrons are asked to stand, and do, for the national anthem prior to the feature presentation. Whilst Indian films also screen a copy of the censorship board’s certificate in their lead-in, we noticed each of the advertisements doing so too.
The cinema is based in a shopping centre, where the street level entrance has us on level 4, the cinema is on level 0; with 1 and 2 given to parking. Level 3 is food and drink which we don’t look at; 4 and 5 are both retail which we do. Kerry leaves with a new pair of shoes. Ashok collects us after the film for the journey back to McLeod Ganj.
We’re looking for a couple of early evening retail kills. The stall that Kerry needs has closed for the day, we now rely on hope that the woman who runs the stall has it open on Fridays, whilst Ian buys two new beanies he doesn’t need. I certainly don’t need to be in India to know that I have too many ‘things’, yet India has things I don’t have.
Friday is our last day in McLeod Ganj. We satisfy the retail urge from the previous evening, and more besides. McLeod Ganj has been a great place to stay, and if you fancied day hikes/treks, or even 2-3 kilometre village-to-village walks, then more time here would be a good choice. Have we mentioned the mountain views? And of course, it serves as a base for day long excursions to places of interest throughout the Kangra Valley.
Staff at reception told us that our luck was ‘in’ and we’re able to checkout mid-afternoon instead of late morning. We’ve allowed 4 hours for the 2 and a half hour drive to Pathankott, from where we take the train overnight, south to the River Ganges, and the final week of this Indian Interlude.
Things to do in Rishikesh
One Direction Takes You Years
On Friday afternoon we were driven about three hours, inclusive of chai stop, from McLeod Ganj to Pathankot Cantonment railway station for our journey south. This whole journey is through some of the loveliest countryside you would wish to see. Arvind who was our contact during our itinerary in McLeod Ganj came with us, and came prepared, providing us a bag of goodies and essentials for the trip.
We’re on the platform by 7:00pm for a train that’s due at 8:30pm. There is a metal roof over the platform inhabited by hundreds of Indian Mynah birds and it is for that reason the noisiest railway platform ever. We decamp to the waiting room where it is much quieter. I need to register our presence in the waiting room. We insist that Arvind and the driver go home, no point waiting around with us.
I keep an eye on the train information board, as we have no hope of understanding the station announcements. The train is delayed, but not by much. This doesn’t alleviate the scurry when it arrives. Indian trains are very long indeed, and it would be sheer chance to find yourself standing at the arrival point for your carriage. We know which carriage we need, but no idea where in the configuration of the train it will be.
The electronic signboard with this information is showing a train that was scheduled at 3:40pm so that doesn’t help. There are other electric signs along the length of the platform that show the carriage number due to halt at that point on the platform. I head towards the front of the train but that isn’t it; I start toward the far end of the platform and then see the train configuration displayed on the overpass to the platform. This is the right direction, but it’s a long way to go. When the train arrives it pulls up well short so we scramble to the door of our carriage. I am still uncertain and ask a local if there is another carriage of 2A (our class of travel) he says not, and on we get.
Now to find our berths. Some of the curtained bays have illuminated numbers adjacent, some not. I’m having trouble finding our bay, when a helpful local comes to my aid. Through all of this Kerry is standing guard with our luggage at the end of the carriage between the door and the toilets.
Our bay (not just our berths) has been colonised by a group of Indian women (Desi Aunties) who don’t make a fuss when we arrive, Kerry sits, and I start pushing our luggage under the lower berth. They take themselves and their luggage to the bay next door. They have the lights on, talk loudly and endlessly until about 12:30am, which is well past the railways official bedtime.
Over previous trips we’ve managed a few overnight train journeys in India, but this probably ranks as the least comfortable and the one that delivers least sleep. During the night passengers variously leave or join the train at train stations which are unfathomably populated in the early hours. Kerry is woken by a woman looking for her own berth, and I dislodge the curtain rod that is providing privacy for the four passengers in our bay. No one seems to mind, except me for damaging property – at the time I think I’ve broken the rod completely.
We’re awake before six, to ensure we are positioned and fully loaded at the door to get down at Haridwar at 6:45am. The Desi Aunties provide us each with a paper cup of chai, and Kerry starts forgiving their late night chatter.
On the platform our arrival contact is with us before I have all the bags out of the train. We take a porter to carry our bags, who promptly puts both suitcases on his head and the duffel bag on his arm and leads the way. The escalator is inop, and we have to walk up it, and then down fixed stairs to the car park and our car. Through this there are any number of offers of taxis or tuk-tuks.
Our contact has introduced himself as ‘Hasish’ (seriously) whilst the driver is Narendra (as in the Indian PM) and we’ll be seeing more of them over the next few days. We’re being driven to Rishikesh. We check-in and head straight for sleep to make up what we didn’t get overnight.
We’re up in time for lunch after which Kerry gets more sleep, and I have a key visit to make.
The Beatles in India
So, for those with no concern for the cultural and social effects of pop music and its history …
Fifty years and five days ago, a moderately successful dance-combo from Liverpool, England, turned up here in Rishikesh to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Church halls and community centres haven’t been the same since, and the ashram became a pilgrimage destination for fans from across the globe.
The ashram abuts a national park, and on my previous visits has been overgrown and well visited by elephants. The State Government has (for years) been talking about making a museum of the place given the money-spinner it is. They have, and I’m a tiny bit concerned about what has taken place in the name of preservation. I think I’m glad I saw it in 2012 and 2014, before the Forest Department got to work.
There is signage indicating that an exhibition of the photographs taken by Paul Satzman of the Beatles (and Donovan, and Mike Love, and the Farrow sisters, and …) in Rishikesh is on here in the ashram but I see no such exhibition. (There is supposedly a documentary in the works, which will be released later this year). Maybe the exhibition will be in place later next week when the International Yoga Festival commences. As we drove in from Haridwar this morning there was one billboard advertising the festival and the 50th anniversary of The Beatles visit to India. Read more about yoga in India.
Coincidentally, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is also making the trip from McLeod Ganj to Rishikesh to speak at the festival. I bet he’s not taking the Hemkunt Express.
During the walk to and from the ashram I notice some filming taking place at the ghats and on the path above. Also, a bull head-butted me in the thigh – it hurts!
Things to see and do in Rishikesh
I Was Dreaming More Or Less
Sunday 25 February, 2018. Happy Birthday George! We love you, and we miss you.
This is our third time visiting Rishikesh. And we’re doing something we’ve not done previously, and that is have a guide and take an excursion. Today our first stop is Vasishtha’s Gufa (cave). Vasishtha is one of 7 great Vedic /Hindu sages and as a character appears in many religious texts. Pre-history is always tough to date, however he is credited as author of an early Rig Veda, circa 1700 BCE. You can throw in that a copper cast of a head matching Vasishta’s description has been dated to 3500 BCE. In addition he is described as the human son of God Brahma. Let’s just agree on very old, and very important. The cave we visit is either a winter residence for he and Arundhati (his wife, who has a cave named for her closer to the river) or a place they were serving penance. Legend has it that he was planning to take his own life in the Ganges, but the Ganges started flowing upstream to prevent this. The cave is pretty comfortable as these things go, and visitors are able to meditate in the cave. Under your own steam, and with time in hand, I’d recommend it.
This is upstream from Rishikesh in more mountainous territory. The scenery on the trip is again lovely, forested hillsides with glimpses of the Ganges on the valley floor way below. It’s a very quiet, peaceful, beautiful place during our visit. As we’re leaving we are stopped by a man who lives in Haridwar (where we arrived) and whose family comes from a village not too far away. They family left the village 4 or 5 generations ago, but he still visits occasionally. He wants to know where we’re from, and a little about our trip. We then spend quite some time discussing religious belief and rural economic development.
Our second visit for the day is to the Kunjapuri Temple. This is located atop a hill at 1500 metres, and is reached by a staircase of some 350 steps. Kerry isn’t taking the steps. The temple is important because it is where a part of Sati’s body (Shiva’s first wife) fell to earth. I’m told the statue in the temple is 7th century, and whilst I make it to the door, I really cannot see the statue because it is covered with various pieces of fabric left as an offering. I don’t enter because the pandit is very busy conducting pujas for one family group, followed by a couple, and I think I’ll just be taking up unnecessary space. I do get to see the usual offering made (everything a woman could need) and the ‘sacrifice’ of a coconut, which all the pilgrims make.
Again, spectacular views at this altitude, to several Himalayan peaks, which at the right time would be covered in snow. There are also great views of the Ganges, Rishikesh, Dehradun (the State capital) and the local airport.
Back to our hotel by late afternoon, with plans for more sightseeing tomorrow.
Aarti ceremony on the Ganges in India
Looking To See
Monday is an easy morning in the hotel, arranging laundry and re-arranging day bags. Hashish joins us around 1:00pm and we take the water taxi across the Ganges to the area known as Swargashram (Heavenly Abode). Ordinarily, the water taxi won’t move unless it is full (and then some) of passengers. But there is a very large tour group of locals on the other bank – who are easy to spot because they are each wearing a very bright orange cap – so for our trip over there are seats to spare in the boat.
We walk through the grounds of one ashram that provides free accommodation and board to over 50s. The finances of this aren’t entirely clear. The ashram accepts no donations from visitors and has member/benefactors who provide support. Again we’re struck by the immediate change in environment from outside, by passing the walls of the ashram. The ashram started in the late 1940s with just a handful of rooms, and now has 700.
We have lunch in a chain restaurant, and we’re hungrier than we thought. A very full water taxi back across the river from where we take the car into Rishikesh bazaar. This is a sizeable market serving the local population. There are more fabric and sari stores than you could wave a stick at. And many stalls are well stocked with coloured powders, and large water guns in readiness for the Holi celebrations, which will take place on Friday. Ian needs a new watchstrap, and Kerry has spotted a watch store, which solves that problem, and also has a watch he fails to resist. Kerry also succeeds in getting directions to a toilet amidst the bazaar.
At 5:30 we meet Hashish at Triveni Ghat, a particularly sacred bathing place for Hindus. We’re not here to bathe, but to take in the Aarti ceremony in Rishikesh. It proves bigger than Ujjain, smaller than Varanasi, and more genuine than the one held upstream. Prior to the Aarti proper, some families/couples have arranged for a short prayer ritual conducted by the pandits who will perform the Aarti. There is a group providing music and voice, and a whole chorus providing hand claps. At the end of the fire ceremony, handfuls of flower petals are distributed to lucky attendees, us included. Mantras are recited by everyone who knows them, us not included, and when these are finished we’re invited to offer our flower petals to the river and make a wish. A petitionary prayer no less. After that, the regular members of the congregation play and sing bahjans (devotional songs). It’s all very nice.
Been Away So Long
Tuesday 27 February, 2018.
A quick geographical explanation may be helpful here. We’re on the Ganges. There is the main town of Rishikesh. Upstream from there are two suspension bridges. The first and longer of the two is called Ram Jhula (Jhula being the suspension bridge) and further upstream Laxman Jhula. Ram (or Rama) is one of the Hindu deities, and Laxman his brother. Our hotel is in Muni Ki Reti, upstream from the town and an easy walk to Ram Jhula. India has many, many options for some R’n’R at the end of your trip, and we certainly recommend the Kerala houseboat option. However, we’ve chosen Rishikesh on our last two visits; it’s more relaxed than the cities, being on the Ganges is appealing, the scenery is lovely, and there’s plenty here to keep you occupied. Bonus points for logistical ease if flying out of India from Delhi.
The hotel we are staying in has been well occupied since we arrived. This morning at breakfast there is just us; and the buffet choices of the past few mornings replaced by a fixed menu. No matter, there is no chance of going hungry.
A third person arrives as we’re finishing – and she’s from Australia. We have a lengthy chat, our countrywoman is here to attend teachings being given by her guru of the past 15 years or so, however she is an annual Rishikesh veteran of 30 years standing. (We’re not using her name here, it is quite distinctive and we’re preserving her privacy). The guru is in residence at an ashram in Lakshman Jhula which is, as it happens, our destination for today. We have an invitation to attend the guru’s morning satsang but it won’t be for us today. (Satsang means ‘in the company of truth’. Generally the Guru will give a short discourse, followed by questions from the group. Singing a few songs at the end isn’t out of the question usually).
Our day starts with a fruitless visit to the local Catholic Church – fruitless because it is not open, and noone magically appears with the keys. Our transport has cost us 50 rupees, however the absence of change means we pay 100. Onwards by foot I’m a little surprised by how much the retail landscape has changed – it’s been four years and there is a lot I don’t recognise, unlike Swargashram which seemed largely unchanged.
And the people on the street have changed too. There were always plenty of foreigners in this area, most of whom seemed in for the long haul, and all very spiritually focused. The foreigner crowd, today at least, seems younger, and still here for the long haul; but the yoga seems to be about the mat, not the mind.
We meet a Canadian woman, Debra, in a store, her first time in India, recently retired and travelling solo in India as a woman. We give her some advice about Agra as her next stop, and she tells us that she has ‘rescued’ a puppy from the street and is taking her back to Canada. We share our lunch table with another Rishikesh veteran, Marianne from somewhere near Cologne in Germany. Like the Australian at breakfast, Marianne is attending classes given by her Guru – coincidentally the same lineage, but a different Guru. Marianne has been staying with a local family each year for the past 13, having met a younger woman from the family as a masseuse on earlier trips.
And the reverse of the trip that cost 50 rupees this morning cannot be bought for less than 200 this afternoon.
On Wednesday we make the short walk to Ram Jhula, and over the bridge to Swargashram. Already delegates to the International Yoga Festival are appearing on the street, with their newly obtained tote bag as part of their registration. Two joyous moments for local traders. One hawker is selling a sort of stamp set, but we are without cash until we find an ATM, and I tell him we will be back. When we return he’s gobsmacked and brings my hands to his forehead as a blessing. Similarly, Kerry buys some small knickknacks from a jewellery store known from a previous visit. Kerry has kept the shop’s business card since 2014 and the owners are touched (I think) that a) we still have the card, and b) we have returned and purchased more merchandise from them.
We also take a walk along the riverfront, there has been plenty of work done here with new paving, lots of benches to sit and watch the river, and several open “gazebos”. It is just two kilometres to Laxman Jhula from here on this side of the river, but we’re not planning to find out how far the new paving extends. There is a trio playing as Ian walks down to the sand, and I put as much money in their collection tin as the locals I’ve observed – this is rather less than the amount they were suggesting I contribute.
Holi Festival in India
Blessed with excellent wifi on Wednesday night we’ve been able to check-in for our international flights, and bite the bullet on pre-paid excess baggage for the domestic flight to Delhi.
Thursday is a grab bag of a day. Kerry plans to linger on hotel duty after we arrange some final laundry. Ian meanwhile heads back into Rishikesh town to visit the Raghunath Temple and Rishikund, a small stepwell of sorts outside the temple. Supposedly the waters are warm, but I don’t bother to find out, they look none too inviting. The best part about the temple is me being the only visitor. There are two main shrines here, and I take darshan at both, and the priest blesses me at both. One shrine is for Rama and his consort Sita; the other – and most unusually to me – is of Naryana (a form of Vishnu; but also in some texts the creator of the universe) and Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth, Fortune and Prosperity; and Vishnu’s consort).
At Triveni Ghat, Holi preparations are in full swing. In fact, in some parts of Rishikesh people are already sporting the colours of Holi. There is a bonfire lit the night before Holi (which is tomorrow), and the feeble collection of flammable material we saw here earlier in the week has grown impressively. The legend of Holika involves a burning fire and the triumph of faith, devotion and good, over evil. Holi also heralds the end of winter and the coming of spring. Women, barefoot, are circling the (unlit) bonfire with cotton or string, others are making edible offerings, others still are pouring milk onto the bonfire. Drummers are keeping a fairly paced rhythm, and a man is making regular announcements over a public address system. Later, some family groups do play Holi amongst themselves, at odds with the ‘Sunday best’ clothes sported by some making the offerings.
My half share of an auto-rickshaw to Triveni Ghat was 10 rupees. My price to return? One hundred. Back at Ram Jhula the auto drivers have cleared a space in their parking lot, cranked up the sound and are in full party mode.
Kerry and I have lunch at the hotel, after which I head off for my traditional Rishikesh dip in the Ganges. The river is flowing very strongly, and the water is freezing. At the beach or a pool one could be confident about what lies beneath, dive in and get it over with. Much warmer under water than half-in-half-out. But I have no such confidence here, and really need to submerge where I stand.
Early in the evening Kerry and I head back to Swargashram. The bonfire built at Triveni Ghat (and other places) has replicas here, and it has been a long time since we had a bonfire. We have dinner at a restaurant which opened for business just yesterday and then take a position on the ghats near one of the bonfires. As per Triveni Ghat, women are making offerings at the bonfire, and walking around it, encasing it in string and thread. There’s a small stage in place, still being readied, we understand none of the announcements being made, and I doubt anyone could give us a start time in any case. There is music over the public address and some of the audience are up and dancing. And there is some real talent on display.
Around 7:30 a female dancer in costume takes the stage and mimes and dances to a couple of songs. Then a male dancer dressed as Shiva joins her (thus identifying the woman as Parvati). Shiva is often presented with a very healthy head of hair, dreadlocks piled high. Our Shiva has a small flamethrower built into his hairpiece – it’s fantastic! A few more songs and although we have neither the culture nor the language it’s all good fun. I should say these songs are not twee folk melodies, but up-to-the-minute crafted Indian pop. Towards the end of the performance an older woman (she must be ninety if she’s a day) is helped down the steps and moves to the front of the stage. She may not have the footwork any longer, but her arms and hands are doing the right things to the delight of the crowd, and Shiva and Parvati.
We’re none the wiser listening to the announcements after the performance, but the placing of several huge bags of coloured powder near the stage, and the fact that we’ll never know what time the bonfire is lit, signal home time for us.
We have contemplated getting outside on Friday morning to witness the Holi festivities. But it isn’t all bhang and skittles. We’ve seen some touching and playful examples on Thursday night; yet Hashish has warned us that all the men will be drunk on Friday morning (Rishikesh, as a holy place, is a dry town), and in the newspapers there are police warnings about chemical and metallic colours being used. The district administration have a dozen more ambulances on standby, and the health department has a crackdown on adulterated food and milk. All of that aside, there are 24 hours between now and the chance of a shower and clean clothes in Singapore – so we’re going to play it safe.
On Holi, our hotel has a small plate of coloured powder on the reception desk, and very tasty sweets on offer too. People who have been outside during the morning enter the hotel in various states of coloured dishevelment. There is one group of three foreigners in the lobby, and their guide for the afternoon arrives coloured from head to toe. Our driver arrives a little before two for our trip to the airport. It’s about half an hour, and everyone we see on the street has splashes of colour, and we don’t regret our decision to play safe. It’s also a holiday (and the colour throwing typically ends at midday) – we really notice that the commercial outskirts of Rishikesh has shutters down on every business, and one’s Bollywood action hero of choice could spray their machine gun fire and not hit a soul. In India.
At Dehradun Airport (known as Jolly Grant) most of the airline and airport staff are sporting carefully applied colour – independent workers (snack bar and book stall staff) have clearly being playing Holi before turning up to work. Some potential passengers are dry-drenched in colour, and we start hoping we’re not sitting next to them on the plane. At Delhi airport, our observations are multiplied manifold. Singapore Airlines are greeting passengers in the check-in queue (us) with Holi greetings, sweets, and a special tilaka on our foreheads.
Flights home are uneventful, and may your God bless transit hotels. The art of sleeping on an aeroplane is something we are yet to master (or afford) so we do 20+ hours awake from Rishikesh to Singapore, and then sleep for six, before getting another couple of hours later in the day. Back on Australian soil, our driver from the airport is an Indian, and a defence veteran of 16 years in Indian special operations. He doesn’t give away too much of his six years peacekeeping in Somalia, but he does have some recommendations about where in India I should go next time ….
That concludes Indian Interlude, a travel blog from one of our clients on a tour of India in coming days. Their tour has taken them to some of the lesser-known places to visit in India. India’s Hidden Heart is one of our suggested itineraries which will also reveal to you some of the lesser known, but no less fascinating, part of India.