I have been in India for nearly two weeks and I can honestly say that this trip has been a nice sampler of what India has to offer. I have seen Muslim Mosques, Buddhist, Jain, Singh, and Hindu temples, tigers, peacocks, monkeys, opulence, poverty, smiles, leers, injustices, and great kindnesses. All this after two weeks. When my friend described India as challenging I thought it was a strange adjective to use. At the time, I further inquired what he meant and was told that he couldn’t put his finger on it, but just that it was “challenging”. I think I understand now, inasmuch as a person could feign understanding of a country after only a couple of weeks.
I don’t think it would be fair for me to paint too vivid a picture using only my weak understanding of India, but if asked, I think “challenging” is the perfect word. There have been times in this two weeks where I was absolutely blown away and awed by India, but during the same two weeks I have seen rudenesses and filth that made me want to get on a plane immediately. So I would encourage everyone that has the opportunity to visit India to do so with an open heart and mind and no preconceived expectations. I suspect that every person has a very different journey through India depending on what baggage they are bringing – and I am not referring to the baggage with your clothes in it…
Regardless of who you are, India has a lot to love, but just like any of our human loved ones, it is not perfect and you have to take the good with the bad. For me, the good far outweighed the bad! I am so glad that I came on this leg of my trip!
So let’s get down to business! I left off last time in the fantastic town of Chanderi where the sights were equally matched by the wonderful people. It is a tough act to follow, but I think that Orchha was a good town to transition into after Chanderi! We took a private car and arrived at our next accomodation – a tent! Having done a fair amount of camping in my life, I would hardly call anything with a proper porch and AC a “tent”, but it was a very different experience!
We set out for our city orientation late in the day and visited the Chatturbuj Mandir. It is a Vishnu temple that was built as a shrine to the Hindu god Rama. The Rama statue that was intended to be moved there was never installed. Legend says that it could not physically be moved from it’s place in the palace, so the palace was converted to a temple. It gave us a nice viewpoint from which to view the city as it sits higher than most other structures in the small town. We took a quick walk over to a restaurant at the base of the palace and were told that we would be visiting the palace and fort complex the following day.
After dinner we took a short walk over to Ram Raja Mandir which was built as a palace and later converted into a temple like I mentioned above. There we were invited in to watch a Hindu puja (prayer) ceremony. It was surreal and beautiful to listen to the devotees chanting and hoping for a blessing from the high priest as he splashed holy water on the crowd of people flowing past him. No cameras allowed, sorry!
The next morning we took a walk over to the palace. The palace had two distinct architectural structures. The first area was obviously very old and covered with beautiful paintings and carvings. When we made the short walk over to the second area we were told that it was only ever used for one night after spending 22 years building it. It was built to commemorate the visit from Emperor Jehangir by Raja Bir Singh Deo. After only one night he told Emperor Jehangir that he could stay there anytime, effictively giving it to him. Neither of them ever returned to Orchha and the palace was left vacant because custom is that if something is given to another person, it will always be theirs, no matter what! It it a really beautiful palace and we all climbed to the top for the beautiful views of the outside area and the area inside the castle. We were told that recently a Hollywood film called Singularity was filmed in part in this palace last year, so I can’t wait to see that!
That night we went to a local family home where we received an authentic and delicious cooking lesson! I learned about the differences between winter and summer spices, how to properly use garam masala, and how to make the most amazing chai tea! That is one thing I will miss when I leave India is the chai! It is so delicious! Anyway, we had a nice vegetarian meal. If I were to become a vegetarian, Indian food is where it’s at! I walked away eager to try some of the new things I learned. Indian food night – here we come!!
We woke up the next morning and took a car over to Alipura. The highlight in Alipura for me was the accomodation. We stayed in a palace that has been converted into a guesthouse. It is still run by the original royal family so the walls were covered with memorabilia from the early 1900s showing the Singh princes and royal families. I lucked out and got the best room! It overlooked the courtyard, has a raised platform for the bed, and a nice patio off of the seating area. It was pretty plush!!
Going through the city we encountered a hoarde of children beggng for money or candy. They were not doing this because the needed it, they were doing it because other tourists had given them money and who doesn’t like free money or candy?! It was a shocking contrast after Chanderi.
Not much to see for sights in Alipura, but the market was busy and crowded. After walking with my guard up (John had someone reach into his pockets, but nothing was taken thank goodness), we were thankful to return to the palace for some cocktails on the roof to watch the sunset.
Right outside the palace door there was a small hindu temple that had several paintings on the outside. Most of them were illustrating the day to day life of the people – plowing fields, herding animals, etc. But some of them were pretty explicit and taken from the Kama Sutra. Unfortunately, I have to keep my blog G rated, so no pictures will be posted of that. Tee hee!
The next morning we hopped back in our taxi to take a trip to nearby Khajuraho. It is famous for it’s many temples that were built between 950-1050 AD by the Chandela Rajput kings. They were lost to the vegetation until they were rediscovered by a British man passing through the city in 1838. After some restoration, they achieved UNESCO World Heritage Status. In the late 1980s the temple areas were surrounded by beautiful gardens.
What struck me first about these temples was their resemblance to the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I had been told that there was a strong Indian influence in Cambodia, but wow, the resemblance in the carving styles and shapes of the temples was remarkable.
What the temples are really known for, however, is the erotic Kama Sutra carvings on the outside of the temples. They only make up about 5-10% of the total carvings, but some of them were quite explicit, and a few I am pretty sure are illegal. Sorry – no pictures of that stuff on a public blog. We took a short walk around the gardens and headed back to our hotel for the night.
And now for something completely different! We drove several hours to get to Bandhavgarh National Park. We were all excited to get to the park and explore after checking into our jungle lodge. They told us not to expect to see a tiger because they are not seen every day, but we were still hopeful knowing that this park has a relative abundance of tigers when compared to other national parks.
So we piled in the jeep and set out to explore. While our guide waited to hear about a tiger sighting we saw many other types of wildlife including beautiful birds, monkeys, spotted deer, peacocks, and government owned “tiger lookout” elephants. But unfortunately, no tigers! We had driven around the park for close to three hours and we were starting to lose the sun so we left the park area to head back to the resort.
Right as we pulled out of the park there was a tiger across the street! All of the jeeps in the area flocked to catch a glimpse and we all strained to zoom our cameras close enough to get a decent picture! While my picture came out a bit grainy, I was able to get one. It was a truly remarkable experience to see a tiger in the wild and I was elated to have experienced that!
It also brought up another thought when we realized that there aren’t any fences around the reserve to keep the tigers in the area. We were told that they roam freely, but stay close because of the protection from poachers. What I thought was a bit morbid was the fact that there is a system of compensation if one of the villagers in the areas adjacent to the park are…ahem…eaten by a tiger. If they are eaten inside the park – no money, but if the tiger ventures out and your loved one gets eaten there – you get a payday. I am hoping it is a rare occurrence, but it obviously happens frequently enough for them to have a system…
We took another safari early the next morning starting at about 5:45 AM when the sun was just coming up. The drive around the park was beautiful but no tigers. I felt lucky to have seen one at all, so I left there feeling pretty good about my visit.
That night we boarded the dreaded overnight train to Varanasi. Ugh…overnight trains…the bane of my existence on this adventure so far. Indian trains are hands down the worst out of the three countries in which I have taken sleeper trains. Instead of the standard two bunks per wall in Thailand and Vietnam, in India they have three. There isn’t enough space to sit upright, let alone get comfortable. Even if you could get comfortable, who can sleep when you can actually see the filth on the floor and an occasional cockroach goes running by…ugh…longest 9 hours of my life.
I have one more overnight train in India and another in Thailand left on my trip. The one in India will take me from Varanasi (where I am now) back to Delhi. After a 13 hour (13 freaking hours!!!) I have to go straight to the airport to catch a four hour flight back to Bangkok. I bet I will sleep good that night…
Anyway, enough complaining, I know your sympathy levels for me are pretty low these days. Varanasi is known as one of the worlds oldest living cities with a history going back to 1400 BC!! What makes the city especially sacred to Hindus is the Ganges river. It normally follows a southeastern course, but in Varanasi it takes a turn and flows north through the city. That northerly movement is considered particularly auspicious. In fact, Buddha gave his first sermon just outside of the city. To die in Varanasi is said to give you an instant passport to heaven and a release from the cycle of reincarnation. Consider it a spiritual “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
We started our journey a little weary from the train ride, so we rested at our hotel until the afternoon where we took a tuk tuk to the Ganges river and walked along the ghats. A ghat is a series of stairs leading up to the river. The first ghat we came to was a solemn one. It is one of the many cremation ghats. According to the Hindu religion a body should be cremated after death. Since Varanasi is an auspicious place to die, many elderly and ill people flock here to finally go to rest at a local ashram. Almost immediately after death the bodies are cleansed in the river, covered in white cloth and placed atop a cremation pyre on the shore. After the body is fully burned, the ashes are spread in the river. For those that are not fortunate enough to go to rest here in Varanasi they are locally cremated and their ashes are brought to Varanasi to be spread on the Ganges. We quietly watched as families gathered around the pyres and said prayers for the deceased. For obvious reasons we did not take pictures of the solemn event.
We continued our walk along the Ganges and saw many holy men, tourists, and hindus relaxing or praying by the river. The shores were full of people bathing, doing laundry, and praying. I spoke with our guide about the feelings towards tourism because I was feeling a little like an intruder. He told me that it is a holy place for many religions so all are welcome. He said that many foreign tourists come to Varanasi on spiritual journeys and stay for six months or more.
At sundown a huge crowd began to gather near a certain ghat. We were told that we were going to go out on a boat to participate in a flower ceremony and watch the nightly rituals on the river. We fought our way through the crowd to get to our boat and sailed away from the crowded shore. After we were a sufficient distance to create a certain peaceful atmosphere our boat host began to light candles and hand them to us.
It is common to give offerings to the river while making wishes and so we gently placed them on the river with our most sacred of wishes. As the candles floated behind our boat it created a very peaceful and beautiful scene aganist the backdrop of the ceremony starting on the shore.
We rowed back over to the shore to watch the ceremony. It started much like previous Hindu ceremonies with bells and horns and came to a crescendo with singing, chanting, and clapping. The crowds were mixed. Hindus made up the majority of the crowd on the shore and the rest in the boats were mostly foreigners. I sat soaking up the electric atmosphere and took a minute to appreciate how blessed I truly am to be on this great journey. We rowed down the river a bit and then walked over to a restaurant for dinner and a tuk tuk ride back to the hotel.
The next morning was an early one! We met up in the lobby at 5:15 so we could watch the sunrise over the river on another boat tour. Riding down the river in the morning light was like riding down a completely different river from the night before. The colors were vibrant, and there was activity everywhere.
A lot of people were sitting on the shore meditating, bathing, or doing laundry. Occasionally you would see a lone figure doing yoga poses and soaking up the morning sunlight. The ghats shone in the orange sunlight and we all snapped up pictures and videos trying to capture the unique atmosphere. I enjoyed the peaceful start to the day and then took a tuk tuk ride back to the hotel.
That afternoon we decided to catch a Bollywood film called Agent Vinod. When we first had the discussion about going to see a Bollywood film I had envisioned lots of vibrant costumes, singing and dancing. Despite the fact that this film had very little of any of that, it was a great action film about an Indian James Bond style agent trying to thwart a nuclear bomb from being detonated in Delhi. It was interesting to see how much you could ascertain about the plot of a movie without it being in English. It was technically in Hindi, but there was actually quite a bit of English in it. I think the common language you hear people speaking is called “Hinglish” and is really part Hindi and part English. It reminds me a lot of the “Spanglish” you hear at home. Regardless I was entertained throughout the movie! It is a big part of modern Indian culture that I felt was a nice addition to the trip.
Tonight we take one last overnight sleeper train here in India and then I go straight to the airport to catch a flight back to Bangkok. From there I will making my way through Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia over the next 30 days.
I hope you all have a great week and I will write again soon!