Most of us Westerners when we think of India imagine a relatively homogenous nation-state, like the US or England for example, divided into political units like provinces maybe, but populated by a single people. This impression would be particularly deceptive in the case of India, not just because India is a very populous, recently independent country. For modern India is a relatively young amalgamation of many local dynasties, small and large, evolving over 5,000 years of recorded history, a fact reflected in the number of ‘dialects’ still spoken- something like 1600 of them. At independence, there were 972 local ‘rajs’, or local fiefdoms, some of which continued to exercise powers like taxation up to 1970.
A traveler will probably encounter only a couple of these languages, like the dominant Hindi or a regional one like Bengali. However, the diverse roots of Indian civilization are most evident in the enormous variety of historical sites- the forts, the palaces, the temples. While the great majority of these sites date back only a few hundred years, particularly to the ‘renaissance’ of Indian culture in the Mughal period, archeologists trace the first signs of this civilization back as far as 3000 BC, to the growth in the Indus valley of agricultural settlements and the earliest appearance of writing in the fundamental texts of Hinduism.
The traveler will also notice that much of this history is generated by invaders- from the Indus valley, from Persia, from Central Asia, Mongolia, even from Afghanistan and most recently Britain. The invaders carried with them new ways of warfare, like tactical use of horses and elephants, new art forms, new architectural designs, new religions, new forms of governance, all contributing to the enormous diversity of modern India.
In our modest way we set out in Sotiri, our Dragoman truck, to sample first hand the living history of one of the major foundations of human civilization.
Our entry into India at Nautanwa was not auspicious. The Nepalese border guards did not stamp our exit permit correctly, so our drivers James and Ali had to walk back across the border to try to get Sotiri released. Meanwhile our new party of travelers cooled our heels- or tried to, in the heat- in the modest hut of the Indian border guards, on the dusty, disheveled and uninviting main road. However, the guards where quite gracious, offering tea and shelter over the three hours it took to get our truck back. Turned out after the Nepalese delay the Indian side insisted on inspecting every cranny on the truck and a sample of our luggage. We looked like drug runners…
“We” were a motley group of thirteen. Doug and I from the Nepal trip, our drivers Ali and James of course, plus the newcomers: two late-twentyish English girls, Polly? and? from the London area; the “booze brothers”- Steve, a Canadian from Vancouver, and Mike, a London cabbie of Irish extraction; Pete the Australian house renovator and antiquarian; Greg, the American from Seattle, a tech nut, active in Democratic politics (woe is he!); Archie, the just-graduated Midlands boy; the just-graduated Austrian environmentalist Ariane? and her Mom?.
“We” at brunch with Agra host family later in trip
Finally we got on the road as the sun set and traveled 2 hours or so in the dark. Not fun on lousy roads. We arrived in Gorakhipur, a non-descript town only known recently for a prison riot, after 8, everything closed except Pizza Hut, massive political event blocking the main street in front of our hotel- the ‘President’. The hotel itself was prison- like: dark halls, big door locks, small cells. I expect the eponymous president was assassinated after building the place…
Up before 5 once again to head for Varanasi. After about an hour on not-so-bad pavement the truck stopped dead in mid road. We had to get out and push it ( remarkably easy) off to the side in front of a couple of ramshackle huts, typically populated by a bunch of indolent men.
Our driver mechanics set to work, first thinking we got corrupt fuel at the last filling. Finally they figured out they filled the wrong tank so we had run the other one dry.
Ali at work underneath
We needed some fuel to restart the complex diesel engine so we sent Ali, our driver mechanic off on the back of a local’s motorbike with a jerry can.
Ali to the rescue
Eventually she returned, with fuel and a motorbike driver anxious to get paid- Ali did not have enough cash at the gas station, so we took up a collection. We had attracted a huge crowd of men and passing schoolboys in this dusty village. A great story for years probably.
We lost two hours, which we could not make up on bad roads: good between villages but non- existent within them, literally rutted dirt tracks. Our route passed across the rich plains and many rivers of the Ganges basin. But instead of reaching Varanasi in mid afternoon we got to the hotel, the Surya, after dark again, after more than 12 hours on the road.
However our suffering was rewarded- the Surya was a palace in the Westerner enclave ($69 Cdn. on the web!), fine rooms, excellent restaurant, good drinks in the central square (though I never got to taste the ‘sex on the beach’ that Doug substituted for my mojito)- a pool even.
Up before 5 yet again to sift through the empty streets and lanes of old Varanasi in tuk-tuks (motorized rick-shahs) in order to take a boat trip at sunrise down the Ganges, past all the bathers, gurus and rhesus monkeys.
Varanasi- formerly Kashi, then Benares- is reputedly the starting point for the spread of Buddhism; Buddha apparently delivered his first sermon at nearby Sarnath in 528 BC. One of oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it has been repeatedly conquered, sacked and rebuilt. Now it is one of Hinduism’s 7 holy sites. Millions of pilgrims come to bathe on the ghats (stairs) lining the edge of the sacred Ganges, some to die and be cremated, an end seen as particularly auspicious in liberating the soul from the life-death-rebirth cycle. For an hour or two we cruised among the masses, all of us in one rowboat with a ragged boatman in charge. No cremations, only one dead body in the water.
On the way back through the maze of alleys we stopped at a silk factory, viewing the ragged weavers operating archaic looms in small dark caves, then adjourning to a small room lined with hundreds of silk samples. We sat in awe as the owner displayed hundreds of amazingly beautiful sashes, shawls, saris, bed covers, what have you. I was tempted by the lovely colours and patterns in the bed spreads- but too big to carry home for the dog to lie on, so with great difficulty I selected four sashes for the women folk at home and had them dispatched by mail (they did arrive, to great acclaim).
I think we grabbed a bite on the street as we visited the really interesting ‘Mother India’ museum- a unique topological map of India in plaster, probably 10 or 12 meters square. Impressive for us geomorphology fans. Easy to see how the Indian subcontinent, a fragment broken off ancient Gonwanda 90 million years ago, zoomed across the early sea to smash into early Central Asia and push up the Himalayas. Who knew?
Spent a few hours in the fine pool, in between abortive attempts to cash lousy travelers cheques. Banks and ATMs in hotel area open erratically, manned by shady looking characters. I finally managed a sub-par exchange of a couple of hundred bucks. Fortunately James once again agreed to wait for the payment of my share of the ‘kitty’. More pleasantly I initiated what would become something of a pattern for the rest of the trip: I followed the example of Pete, the intrepid traveler, and ate in a roadside ‘café’ (a few chairs and a tandoori-type cooker). Simple, very cheap, and satisfying.
But our hotel was the end of luxury for a while. Up before 5, need I mention, to head with a boxed-breakfast for Panna National park, to camp and cook for two nights.
More really bad roads of course, so we bounced along for 15 hours, arriving at the Treehous Resort on the edge of the park long after dark. Worth the trip. Really in a tree, the dining hall. Excellent buffet dinner, veggies and some lamb as I recall.
In view of our hard day on the road, James decided we would stay in the resort accommodations instead of camping. A blessing. Our rooms were off in the dark bush, not far from the river, apparently crocodile-friendly. Simple but comfortable enough.
By this point I was suffering a horribly congestive cold that made sleeping difficult and noisy with frequent throat clearings, so I spared room-mate Doug by spending the nights on the chair cushions in the ante-room. A bit exciting as I did not know what creatures the loosely-closed room might harbour. And late at night some wild howling began somewhere distant, creeping ever closer for about an hour.
Apart from the food and handsome environment, the highlight of the Treehouse stay was our safari by jeep through the adjacent Panna National Park, a tiger reserve, three of us plus a honeymooning couple from Spain in one of the two jeeps. The guides were really competent, telling us about the flora and fauna before us, stopping the jeep regularly to point out birds or animals which we could not detect. We did not get to see the tigers- there are apparently 30 or so, re-seeded in a conservation effort closely monitored night-and-day, via radio-collars, by park staff. However, we did see two varieties of deer, a lot of colourful birds, and a fine sunset. Great learning experience.
Panna National Park
Khajuraho and Orchha
The pieces-de resistance in this segment of the trip were Khajuraho and Occha.
“Khajuraho was once the capital of the Chandellas of Jejakabhukti, , a small Rajput kingdom, between the10th-13th Centuries CE. Rajput kingdoms were small local dynasties that dominated political life across northern and central India between the 6th Century BCE and the 20th Century CE. The Chandellas of Jejakabhukti ruled over much of the modern-day region of Bundelkhand, and built the magnificent Hindu and Jain temples in Khajuraho in around 1000 AD. Considered to be “one of the seven wonders of India”, the temples are in three geographic groups – western, eastern and southern. Because they were built in quite a remote and inaccessible location, the western group of temples have been almost perfectly preserved. Set in peaceful, well-kept gardens, the temples are magnificently decorated and covered in some very graphic carvings depicting all sorts of erotic acts!” (Dragoman notes).
In fact Khajuraho was lost to the jungle for about three hundred years, before being rediscovered by a British officer in 1838. Of the 15 temples surviving out of about 85 originally created, we focused our attention on a couple of temples in the ‘Western group’, Lakshmana, built over 20 years, from about 934 AD, and Kandariya-Mahadev, built between 1025 and 1050 AD, representing the peak of Chandellan architecture. Both feature a wide variety of imaginative sexual activities, with human as well as animal pairings. The quality of the carvings, in a yellow sandstone imported from quarries in Panna, 30 kilometers away, and the examples of classical Indo-Aryan architecture are extraordinary . An extremely beautiful but hard to fathom legacy…
Lakshmana temple was built between 934 and 954 AD by Yasoverman, a sixth generation rajput in the Chandella dynasty, who by conquest greatly expanded the Chandella domain in Central India, eventually declaring his kingdom independent from the broader Prathihara empire.
The qualities of the Khajuraho temples that make them so aesthetically powerful are on one hand the effective integration of sculpture and architecture, and on the other, the dynamism of the sculptures themselves- the figures, particularly the erotic ones, appear to be in motion (Stella Kramrisch, art critic). These features are best preserved in the Lakshmana temple.
Kandariya-Mahadev temple was built circa 1025-50 by Vidyadhara, a powerful rajput during the most prosperous period of the Chandella dynasty. It is the largest of the temples, perhaps the finest, among the extant temples. Its soaring graded roofs represent the sacred mythical mountain Kailash in the Himalayas.
From a technical point of view, Kandariya-Mahadev temple exhibits the best sculpture and architecture among the extant Khajuraho temples. It is the tallest, over 30 metres, resembling a mountain of masonry. Its 800 figures display a variety of lively, even violent postures. The erotic sculptures reveal a mastery of the rendering of female contours.
The last of the Chandella rulers, Parmardidev, was defeated in battle in 1182 by Prithviraj Chauhan, the powerful leader of the Delhi Rajput. Thereafter, Khajuraho fell into obscurity, and the temples disappeared into the jungle.
The name of this small town 170 km west of Khajuraho literally means ‘hidden’; indeed it is not often visited by tourists despite its historically interesting sites.
This is another rajput capital, built much later than Khajuraho in the medieval era by the Bundel Rajput Rudrapratap. The Bundel dynasty, (‘bundela’= shedder of blood) originating in the 11 century, moved its capital to Orchha in 1531 and ruled much of Central India from there until 1783, though from the early 17th century the Bundels served as vassals of the Mughal invaders.
The Bundel legacy is a massive fort containing several palaces, temples; and a series of large cenotaphs. Within the fort, the Jahangir Mahal was built by Bir Singh Deo, Rudrapratap’s successor, in the early 1600s to mark the visit of Jahangir, the son of the second Mughal Emperor Akbar.
The 70m square palace, 5 stories capped with domes, houses 8 pavilions rich with hanging balconies, trellis work, and window overlooking the Betwa river. The architecture is a mix of traditional Hindu and Mughal styles, and has some remarkable innovations like a water-based cooling system.
This palace displays the finest examples of the Bundela school of painting.
Raj Mahal, a second palace in the fort complex, built between 1554 and 1591, contains royal chambers with walls lined with murals depicting Hindu mythology. Several other prominent palaces and temples lie within the fort.
We camped for the first time, in Orchha on the banks of the Betwa, a beautiful site where we were able to swim in the reputedly crocodile-free river. My sub-group cooked up some sub-par ratatouille. A night we sat around a campfire in the light of a full moon. It was here that we inaugurated a new practice: getting the tuk-tuk drivers to forage for some beer, more than some, a lot. Later, when most of us had dropped off, the ‘booze brother’ found their way to a nearby club where apparently they managed to join the band for a short gig…
The banks of the Betwa are festooned with a series of 15 Chhatris or cenotaphs dedicated to Bundel rulers. When we arrived at our campsite, a Bollywood film crew was working on a epic at the nearest one. Apparently the script did not call for scruffy western extras, especially one swimming in his disposable underwear.
Incidentally, Orchha is bounded by rocky hills, the remains of an ancient mountain chain, the Vindhya Range, named after the goddess Vindhyavasini, running right across India, dividing the country into northern and southern halves. We followed this range throughout our long trip across Northern India- which we continued, in our next segment, toward Agra.
On the road to Agra…