I’ve spent the past ten days in a stupour of stupas, a tempest of temples!
From Varanasi I took an overnight train to Khajuraho, home to world heritage listed temples. Bleary-eyed and unable to check in at the hotel, I wandered through the Western Group of temples, which are over 1000 years old, in the dawn light. Those that remain are wonderfully preserved – featuring cavorting nymphs, countless elephants, mythical creatures and a lot of sexy poses. Handstand position, anyone? The artistry of the work makes the scenes come to life. The masons have somehow imbued so much movement and vibrancy into the stone. It is an interesting contrast to have such ancient carvings showing super-graphic poses in a country which now edits kisses out of TV and movies (although anything that shortens the length of Twilight- Breaking Dawn Part 2 has my vote.) The tour buses were just arriving as I finished looking at the temples – great timing!
After a siesta I hit the Jain temples in the afternoon, which may not have had quite as fine carvings, but their atmosphere benefited from being quite devoid of tourists.
From Khajuraho I took a very very slow local train across to Orccha. Actually, perhaps the train was not so slow in itself, it just stopped so frequently and for such a long time at stations, up to 45 minutes at one station. My ticket cost 27 rupees for the 178 kilometre journey – that’s about 50 cents. It took just on 6 hours. It was quite an experience to travel cattle class on the Indian rails, within an “aircooled” carriage (it, there were no windows, only bars and holes) that eventually became jam-packed. Eventually, there were about 12 people sitting across the benches meant for 8, plus several kids sitting on the luggage racks above our heads (occasionally dropping peanut shells on us) and everyone who got on later sitting in any and every patch of floor that they could find. Luckily, two lovely German girls and I got on at the first stop so we staked out prime positions next to the windows. Getting off the train with my enormous rolling suitcase initially seemed impossible – there was no way I could pirouette through the carriage without stepping on people, as well as haul my 20+ kilos of crap through without taking a few heads on the way. But the kindness of Indian strangers won through, and two guys conveyed my bag through the minefield and onto the platform. Phew! We had made it!
Orccha is lauded in that traveller’s bible, the Lonely Planet, as being a laid-back haven for tourists, with some great carvings and hassle-free. Perhaps this was the case 20 years ago, but these days, there were plenty of touts and children screaming “Chocolate”, “Ten Rupees”, etc. Also, there was busload after busload of tour groups arriving – the place is well and truly on the tourist map, but doesn’t seem to have a “big draw’ to justify it. The ruins there were far less interesting than what I had seen in Rajasthan and elsewhere. Luckily, I had fun rambling around with my new German friends instead!
From Orccha, I struck out on my own to Bhopal – this time on the super high end Shatabdi train – which served a three course meal, including ice-cream for lunch! Yum! Bhopal itself has a fascinating history – quite apart from the Union Carbide disaster of the 1980s. It’s population is now 40% Muslim and is the site of India’s largest mosque. It was also ruled by female Muslim leaders for about 100 years during the 19th and 20th Centuries. I took a look at the mosque and then tried to make my way through the old city bazaar to “soak up the atmosphere”, as a good tourist should. Sadly, given the absence of Googlemaps on my iPhone, my usual complete inability to find any place that I am looking for returned, and I found myself wandering through the chemical market instead… and then hitting the hospital district. The universe seemed to be reminding me of the Bhopal disaster even as I attempted to exercise consumerist instincts.
But the real reason to come to Bhopal was to use it as a base to visit Sanchi, and then to keep moving. Sanchi was about an hour’s drive away and is home to some of India’s oldest Buddhist monuments. Although the Buddha never came as far as Sanchi, Emperor Ashoka erected a stupa or domed building to house Buddhist religious relics. Four torans or gateways surround the main stupa, and these were erected over 2 thousand years ago. The gateways have been re-assembled and are breathtaking.
Some of the carvings shown on the gateways are so iconic that they appear on Indian bank-notes. There are two more stupas, ruins of monasteries and other buildings at Sanchi, all on a hilltop surrounded by beautifully maintained gardens. It is a wonderful place for introspection, both two thousand years ago and today.
Sanchi was a real highlight of my travels, but more fabulous old bits of rock were to come…
Apologies for the quality of the photos – they’re from my iPhone!