Archive for January, 2010

Offstation: the temples of Khajuraho

January 31, 2010

One of two dancing Ganeshes

Martin wanted to entitle this blog ‘eroticaville’. Alison wasn’t so sure. So lets get the important information up front – the Khajuraho temples are famous for their carvings, particularly the erotic-themed ones. No one is sure why the carvings are how they are. Were the stone masons having a laugh when they thought no one was looking? Was it to amuse the gods so the temples would be protected from the vagaries of the weather and marauders? Is it to celebrate the wedding of Shiva and Parvati? All are possible but no one is sure.

The temples were built by the Chandella dynasty between the 10th and 12th centuries AD, but are not mentioned much in the surviving records. However this may be a mistake because no one is quite sure what the temples should be called. Khajuraho is the name of the neighbouring village, so it may not be the correct name for the temple complex. Apparently there used to be 100s of temples, but now there seven survivors in the main Western Group, plus smaller Eastern and Southern Groups.

An elephant with a sense of humour

The temples are Hindu and were largely hidden in jungle for centuries, plus their location (away from the main north-south route through India) protected them from Muslim invaders. And spectacular is not an exaggeration for what remains. Carved from sandstone, some of the images seem to move. It’s not often you see buildings that give the impression of being ‘alive’, and the detail of dress, make up, tools and musical instruments is stunning. Not all the carvings are erotic – many convey everyday scenes and include workmen, musicians, and animals, as well as the more usual collection of gods and goddesses.

Seven horses pulling the chariot of the sun god Surya

Comparisons are oddious, so they say, but comparing Khajuraho to the Taj Mahal, the latter feels contrived and joyless. Khajuraho is warm, funny, and you see different things every time you look. Our interpretation of the meaning behind the temples would be that they’re a big thank you to the gods for making life so good. And if you’re going to visit, make sure you have time for the Parsvanath. It is in the Eastern group rather than the main Western complex, however it’s probably older than the Western group and contains some of the best carving.

By the way, can anyone shed light on this? One of the repeating motifs on the temples is the nine planets. Now we know Indians were ahead of the game in astronomy – they understood that the earth revolved around the sun, and measured the diameter of the earth, before Galileo. However Martin thinks that western atronomers didn’t know about the nineth planet (pluto) until the 20th century. If he’s right, how did the Chandella’s know there were nine?

Camels on the plinth for the Lakshmana temple


Off station: an earlier than planned journey to Khajuraho

January 28, 2010

Well, it didn’t look better the next morning. The village at the park gates is a miserable little place. We were given a further two reasons for no elephant safaris (all elephants sick, and some rule about not allowing the elephants in when the tigers have cubs).

The prices for jeep safaris were outrageous for India – put it like this the bill for a family of four would top £100 once you’d factored in entry tickets, jeep hire and the obligatory guide. And what was on offer – a drive round one of four routes, with the undoubted reality that if a tiger did condescent to put it’s head above foliage, it would be descended on by all jeeps in the park.

Not our idea of a good way to spend an afternoon, so we took advantage of the money saved and the time, and hired a car and driver to take us to Khajuraho. It was an eventful drive. The roads were bad most of the way and the driver showed considerably more confidence in his steering and brakes than we would have dared. There wasn’t much traffic on the roads, fortunately, but as a consequence the pedestrians and animals showed scant understanding of how much damage a car could do if it hit them. Some dogs seeminly deliberately lay down in the middle of the road and we had to go round them.

We did see a spectacular accident – well, the aftermath of one. At least two, maybe three, lorries were involved, all with broken front axels. Their bonnets were dug down into a crater and a temporary road had been put in place to get everyone round the problem.

It was still cold. The cows and goats were sort of woolly and some had been dressed in blankets. We wonder how they get on when the temperature regularly gets into the 100s. The humans looked odd in long socks and sandals. Our driver made a game attempt to take out a jaywalking jackal, but the latter was too savvy and scooted to safety. We guess he didn’t go for people, undersized youths on over-sized bikes, dogs , cows, goats etc. because that wouldn’t have been any fun.

After a few false attempts to find the Khajuraho Road (we could have told him that they were not right) he stopped outside another National Park entrance and we found out that the wrong turns had been made because he was taking the opportunity to look up a friend, who he hadn’t seen for a couple of years. He found his friend but didn’t hold up the journey for more than 30 minutes.

We arrived in Khajuraho after 5½ hours and hurtling down an empty dual-carriageway, crossing a brand new railway line with its brand new station and wondered why so small a place had its own airport. With relief we dispensed with the driver without being shanghai’d to a hotel of his choice. He was a bit surprised when we took off as if we knew where we were heading… and we knew just where we were heading. We had a map, which was accurate and the hotel was only two minutes walk from where we told him to drop us.

Offstation: The long road to Bandhavgarh

January 27, 2010

A uninvited guest - one of the local cows decides it's warmer in than out at our hotel in Tala

One lasting impression of Pachmarhi, before we move on to Bandhavgarh National (Tiger) Park 400 kilometres north east, are the clapped out jeeps laden with village commuters or pilgrims that thrash up and down the bumpy roads with plentiful horning. A cup of hot chai before boarding the bus to Pipariya Station warmed us through for the first leg of what turned out to be an arduous journey.

We caught the Kolkatta Mail (Bombay to Kolkatta) and managed to get seats allocated to us despite our tickets only being ‘wait listed’. The station master told us the wrong departure platform and a brief M. Hulot’s Holiday moment ensued as everyone ran from one platform to the other. The train itself was signboarded Bombay to Howrah and it took Martin a few minutes to recall that the terminus station in Kolkatta is called Howrah. In the UK it would be like signboarding a train from London to Edinburgh ‘London to Waverley’.

Our carriage was full of Buddhist monks travelling Bodhgaya, the place where all was revealed to Siddhartha, the Buddha. During the four hour trip a cleaner arrived and sprayed some deodorant all over us. He was rapidly followed by a man with a clip board asking passengers to sign a form without filling it in. On inspection it was a questionnaire about the cleanliness of the train. I guess this small team spent many happy hours ticking the ‘excellent’ box. We think it does indicate that some effort is being made to look after these long distance trains. However with the windows open all the time we do arrive at most destinations covered in grime.

We arrived safetly at Katni, only to be ‘mobbed’ by rickshaw drivers wanting to take us the remaining 90km to the Park. No wishing to endure several hours in open vehicles in the cold (it was wet and misty too), we opted to stick to plan A and travelled by cycle rickshaw to the bus stand.

In all our travels in India, we’ve never seen a more rickety, disorganised bus stand. We know MP is poor but all vehicles looked like they were only vaguely glued together (fetch the araldite). And it was not possible to work out what was going where, when. More chai – for which read more thinking time – and we reverted to plan B – share a rickshaw.

What a journey. Three hours on the worst roads we’ve seen anywhere, pot holes? More like pot chasms. The driver did a good job but it was still well after dark when we arrived, very cold, at the Park. The journey was brightened by the sight of deer grazing in the dark by the roadside (tiger dinner, we thought) and the sight of other people trying to travel on the road at night on bicycles. At least we weren’t reduced to pedal power.

We’d like to say that arrival at the village near the Park – Tala – made it all worthwhile. We’d like to say this but can’t. Tala was wet, very cold, and as soon as we’d agreed to stay at a hotel we were promptly pressed hard for which safari we wanted to go on. And they all sounded very expensive. What about an elephant ride? No elephant rides! Apparently because there are none at this time of year, which sounded odd to us as the Australian couple we’d met in Pachmarhi had been on an elephant safari a few days previously at another park.

Ho hum, it would all look better in the morning.

A tale of monkeys and guava

January 26, 2010

A red-faced monkey - and so he should be!

We nearly forgot to tell you about getting ‘mugged’ – twice- by the monkeys in Pachmarhi. First we witnessed someone else getting ‘mugged’. A woman was sat in a parked car and she had a bag of guava (a fruit) on the dashboard. As she reached for one of the fruits, an enterprising monkey dashed across the road, leapt up to the open window of the car, snatched the fruit from the woman’s hand and made off with it.

Very funny we thought, until we were walking back from the Jatashankar temple later that day. As we approached our hotel, something caught Alison’s eye. A monkey was emerging through the bars from a window where the glass had been left open. It took only a few moments to realise it was our window, and to remember that we’d purchased some guava during the bus journey up to Pachmarhi. Emphasis on the past tense, because when we got back to the room most of the fruit had gone. We couldn’t work out how the monkeys were getting in as there were bars on the windows even though the glass was open. Then we realised the babies were small enough to sneak through, and they’d been sent in to retrieve the fruit.

Our second ‘mugging’ was even more of a surprise. There we were, eating dinner outside the hotel in the evening. We saw a monkey come and sit on a neighbouring table where the people had left, but didn’t give it much thought. Surely they wouldn’t approach a table with people still sitting at it. Don’t you believe it. Barely could we compute that he was coming our way than a monkey sprinted across the restaurant, grabbed Alison’s plate of butter roti (flat breads) and ran off with them, plate and all. If we hadn’t seen it, we wouldn’t believe it.

Off station: Up the Chauragarh – how many steps?

January 24, 2010

Martin, with tridents and Shiva temple, at the top of the Chauragarh

Day two in Pachmarhi and the main event – a walk up the yatra trail to the Shiva temple at the top of the Chauragarh mountain. Not everyone’s cup of tea, we’re sure, but we like to feel we’ve earned the large thali meals they serve at our hotel.

The Chauragarh is billed as one of central India’s ‘classic hikes’. A 23 km round trip to the summit of a sacred mountain. Every year thousands of Hindu pilgrims complete the climb, many of them carrying tridents (the symbol of Shiva). According to the Rough Guide the first 8 km could be completed on a bicycle from Pachmarhi. We took the bus to the main trailhead instead, and were very glad we did. Sometimes I wonder if the Rough Guide researchers have heard things are possible but not done them. The first 8 km involves a steep descent into one valley, and a climb out of it, before the final very steep dive downward to the start of the main climb. We’re not sure we would have managed to cycle it on our UK bikes, complete with gears and comfortable saddles. The prospect of trying it on the average non-geared Indian bone-shaker does not appeal.

And while on the subject of physical exercise, here’s an interesting conundrum. Can anyone explain why some of our Indian clients complain bitterly about a gentle five minute walk up a slight hill to our clinic, yet when there’s a temple at the top they’ll undertake a strenuous two hour climb? Often in unsuitable shoes, judging by those pilgrims we observed? Their gods clearly move in mysterious ways.

More tridents and a stunning view

The climb is steep, mostly steps, and we wouldn’t like to try it during the main mela – not least because some of the railings near the top are broken and it’s a long straight drop down! However the effort is rewarded by lovely views, lots of tridents, and a friendly priest.

On the journey down we found ourselves in company with a couple from Australia. Nothing unusual, except the man had an English accent you could hear from five talukas away. We’re sure cultural anthropologists would have something to say about this, as the only time he’d lived in the UK was when he’d been at university (Cambridge). He’d been brought up and largely educated in Africa, because his parents were in the diplomatic service. Indeed he was in India following in the footsteps of his grandmother, who’d been stationed in Pachmarhi with her husband during the Raj. Just goes to show you cannot eradicate the background even if you don’t live in the country.

Alison and those steps - it's easier on the way down

Off station: on to Pachmarhi

January 23, 2010

The Jatashankar- a Shiva temple at the bottom of a ravine in Pachmarhi

After a comfortable night in Itarsi, despite the bedroom clock that went both forwards and backwards, the next morning saw us taking two buses on to Pachmarhi, after inspecting a shop that sold only mine detectors. We were not able to establish why there was so great a demand in for detecting mines in Itarsi.

Well it should have been two buses, but it turned out to be three owing to a little confusion at Hoshanabad. The bus which we thought was going on to Piparia stopped, everyone got off, so we did too as we understood it had broken down. We decamped to another bus, going in the opposite (but in the end the correct) direction, then at some point before we departed our original bus swept past us fully loaded. Ho hum, we got there in the end.

Pachmarhi is a hill station. It was the summer capital for the Raj when the area was known as Central

A Raj-era bungalow

Provinces. It’s charming. The modern Indian town is a bit ordinary but the Raj area across the lotus-filled lake is wooded and rather English in terms of landscape, as well as buildings. We visited the Anglican church and the Catholic one – the latter not without a little excitement. It’s located in the middle of an army cantonment. So the visit involved persuading the sentries that we weren’t Al-Quaeda, and could safely be allowed to pass. We were chauffer driven up to the church just in case, however they did let us walk back. The whole cantonment was immaculate, making us wonder if the army should be put in charge of other things in India. Then again, that way lies dictatorship.

As well as Christian churches we walked to a Shiva temple – the Jatashankar – located in the bottom of a rather sinister ravine. Pachmarhi is the venue for a major Shiva yatra – pilgrimage – and this is one of the sites on the route. Sinister because you drop down into a cave from which there was so much incense burning that the pall of smoke created a rather uneasy atmosphere.

It’s quite a walk down and we didn’t do too much more on the first day because our main aim in going to Pachmarhi was to complete the main Shiva yatra walk – the Chauragarh mountain – of which more in the next blog.

The Anglican Church at Pachmarhi

Off station: on the road to Itarsi

January 22, 2010

Very important - a room for the night

Yes, yes, we know we’ve kept you waiting for blogs on our Xmas/New Year trip. But we’ve been a bit busy. See previous blog.

Anyway, off we set in the direction of Madhya Pradesh (MP) – the very centre of India. It’s a little visited state, with most tourists travelling north of it on the Delhi, Agra, Varanasi route, or heading straight through and on south to Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. That’s a shame, because it’s beautiful.

First stop, the much loved (by us) Goa Express. Not the most comfortable journey we’ve ever had on it, but that’s our fault for travelling on Boxing Day. To say the journey was a little cramped is understating things. When Alison looked down from her top bunk during the night, not only were some of the bunks on the opposite side occupied by two people but there were at least four sleeping between berths on the floor. And two people were sat on Martin’s berth below (in addition to him lying down).

It was also a little cold, a portent of things to come. On the subject of temperature, we travelled opposite a family returning to Amritsar, which is up near the Pakistan border and home to the Sikh Golden Temple. For reasons we couldn’t fathom, the temperature in the carriage was not right for them. So the fan went on, off, on, off with intriguing regularity. Plus they wanted us to close our windows just when we were enjoying the cool.

Someone not travelling with us was Hari Enfield. MP is a big state and our original plan had been to put Hari on the train with us, offload him at Itarsi Junction and ride him around. However some preliminary research and a visit to Margao station to ask their advice soon convinced us that we’d lose him on the way. We’d get off at Itarsi and he wouldn’t . So rather than risk him taking a round India tour on his own, and probably getting damaged in the process, we’ve decided to save him for a journey when we’re getting off at a Terminus station.

We arrived at Itarsi Junction after 26 hours a travel, and checked in to the Executive Suite at the Meghdoot Hotel (all of 800/-RS – about £10). During the evening we learned and practiced what was to become the key Hindi phrase of the holiday – ek balti garam pani (a bucket of hot water).

The view from the Executive Suite.

Beware the bureaucrats

January 21, 2010

WIP at all times with the bureaucrats - completer finishers not

A poll conducted in 2009 concluded that Indian bureaucrats are the worst to work with in Asia. The report commented on the experience of dealing with them as ‘slow and painful’.

We know just what they mean. Heaven knows how this country functions because no one, and we mean no one, can be relied upon for accurate, transparent information.

Our latest experience is a case in point. It’s come to our attention (more by luck than judgement) that we need to obtain some licences and NOCs (no objections certificates) before we can take over our planned new clinic. We’ve asked after said documents in the past but always been assured we didn’t need them – see second paragraph above.

Anyway, we do. So, where to begin? The origin of one NOC is fairly straightforward – Margao Municipal Council (MMC). Well, it’s simple to understand where the certificate is issued from. Getting is may be another matter. But we’ll leave that discussion for another day as we haven’t tried to get said certificate yet.
In two days, Martin has accomplished the heroic task of visiting just about every Government department, in two towns, in search of ‘the needful’. You know the funny thing (in retrospect) that whatever department you visit, they think you should be talking to them and tell you that others are not the right places. If we didn’t pay attention we’d have finished up paying sales tax on coconut oil just because Martin uses it for massage.

But we digress. For once, the FRO (Foreigners’ Registration Office – a branch of the Goa police) has come to the rescue – now there’s a phrase you don’t hear very often. They condescended to give us a list of the documents they require for registration; a list which includes at least four licences which we have no need for (food and drugs, excise, etc). However we do now know we need a licence from the labour department, one from the health department, and the aforementioned NOC from the MMC.

So, that’s simple then. Further blogs will no doubt document how un-simple the task turns out to be. In the meantime, off to renew Hari Enfield’s insurance. Four hours later ……