The road home

Our route to Delhi led us to a stop in Orchha. The medieval city seems to be frozen in time, its palaces and temples still retaining their original grandeur…located in the Northern state of Madhya Pradesh. A former capital of the mighty Bundela Rajput Kings. Established in the early 16th century and each of the area monuments were constructed over a period of time by successive Maharajas. Our train was behind schedule and we arrived just before dusk and raced to the Royal Chhatris on the outskirts of the town. We pulled up just before closing. I had another opportunity of greasing the palms of the attendant who was packing up his bicycle.

orchha wide.jpg
Royal Chhatris distant left, Jhansi Fort center left, Chaturbjhi Temple distant center 

With time limited we split off to take some photos, Chelle, as usual chatted up the only other visitors, a small group of Sikh tourists who as it turned out were from Toronto…small world. The fourteen memorials or Cenotaphs to glorify the contributions of the rulers of the mighty Bundelkhand dynasty, which are grouped along the Kanchana Ghat of the Betwa river.  Chhatris (canopy) are elevated domed shaped pavilions which are elements of Indian architecture. The word is used to refer to two different things. The usual and more widely understood meaning is of a memorial, usually very ornate. It is also used to refer to the small pavilions that mark the corners, roof of entrance of a major building. Both are on display in Orchha.

Royal Chhatris (Centaphs)

Our guesthouse had river views of Orchha Fort which was great when the sun rose and set. Located at the center of the city, the massive fort covers an area of 49 acres. It ranks amongst the best fortified areas in India. It goes by several names Jhangir Mahal, Orchha Palace, and Mahal-e-Jahangir Orchha. The fort was built in ind0-islamic styles and contains over 100 rooms and balconies. From the outside this palace is majestic with its rugged domed buildings, rusted to photographic perfection and the few small blue stones that still cling to the old walls, giving a glimpse of what is was like centuries before.

Orchha Fort from Jhansi Fort

A short distance from Jhangir Mahal is Chaturbhuj Temple. Built upon a massive stone platform and reached by a steep flight of steps, the temple was specially constructed to enshrine the image of Rama that remained in the Ram Raja Temple. Lotus emblems and other symbols of religious significance provide the delicate exterior ornamentation. Within the sanctum is chastely plain with high, vaulted walls emphasizing its deep sanctity.Like several other experiences around India we had a key holder attempted to sell entry to the hidden stairwell leading to the roof. We scrambled up on our own for a short time but had a deaf mute accomplice attempt to quicken our pace. Unfortunately I was trailing the Chelle and the young fellow. I moved through the tunnel too quickly in the dark and slammed my forehead on the arch. I inadvertently scared the young kid and he ran down the stairs. I found him later and tried to convey my apologies. Verbal communication was impossible but I shook his hand and gave hime a small tip.





Hit or miss

There were two areas in India that I had been looking forward to visiting. As a practicing Buddhist, that India contains three of the four main pilgrimage sites is exciting. Bodh Gaya is the location where it is said that Gautama Buddha obtained enlightenment. It is the most holy place in all the world for Buddhists. A sapling of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat is planted here (actually a sapling of a sapling of the original tree). The other site is in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught the Dharma and established a Sangha (community). I saw neither.

I’m just not that kind of Buddhist, or am I? The opportunity would have been lovely but I wasn’t attached to the outcome. Bodh Gaya turned out a challenge to travel to and from. Sarnath is outside Varanasi at a time when Chelle was suffering from a second intestinal illness. She was more disappointed then I was in the end. What I relished was the opportunity to see the places I never expected. Sanchi was one of those places. A small town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is the location of several Buddhist monuments dating from the 3rd century. Home to the Great Gupta Temples.


Great Stupa 1

Can a mound of dirt represent the Buddha, the path to Enlightenment, a mountain and the universe all at the same time? It can if it is a stupa. The stupa (Sanskrit for heap) is an important form of Buddhist architecture. It is generally considered to be a sepulchral monument—a place of burial or a receptacle for religious objects. At its simplest, a stupa is a dirt burial mound faced with stone. In Buddhism, the earliest stupas contained portions of the Buddha’s ashes, and as a result, the stupa began to be associated with the body of the Buddha.


If one thinks of the stupa as a circle or wheel, the unmoving center symbolizes Enlightenment. Many stupas are placed on a square base, and the four sides represent the four cardinal directions. Each side often has a gate in the center, which allows entry from any side. Each gate also represents the four great life events of the Buddha: East (Buddha’s birth), South (enlightenment), West (first Dharma lesson), and North (nirvana). One can’t enter a stupa as it is solid object. It is a meditational practice one would circumambulate the structure. 

Sunga balustrade & staircase Great Stupa 1

The two pillars on each gateway support three crossbeams. The images on these pillars and crossbeams give us great insight into ancient beliefs and customs. The relief sculpture depicts the events of the Buddha’s life, legends of his previous births, and other scenes important to early Buddhism. Stupas are permanent reminders of the Buddha and his teachings almost 2,500 years after his death.



Forwards and backwards

Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard once declared that life could only be understood backwards; but had to be lived forwards. A great motivation for me to travel, especially to a country such as India, is the opportunity to step back in time and touch the past. The conservation and preservation conducted by the Archaelogical Society of India (ASI) is instrumental to maintaining the legacy of the country’s cultural heritage. Multiple branches throughout the governmental organization cover a broad range of specialties. It is easy to get lost in the Afghan architectural wonders and the vast grounds of Jahaz Mahal, the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, or the elegance of the Buddhist caves in Ajanta. These monuments across India are a testament to the continued resiliency of Indian people throughout human history. There is significant work to be done.

Jaipur Jantar Mantar

Extreme elements around the world are threatening our collective cultural heritage. Among the human tragedy in Syria is the entirety of that country’s heritage sites damaged or destroyed in their ongoing civil war. Sadly, not a singularity. Mausoleums in Timbuktu to the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus in Iraq and the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. The importance of supporting organizations that monitor theses sites, that promote conservation and hopefully in the near future reclaim some of these monuments and renew efforts to restore what has been destroyed. However, this is not simply a second or third world problem. The people (particularly in the West) who deny the science of climate change or promote increased fossil fuel production and utilization threaten destruction not experienced in millennia. There is much we can learn from the cooperation and collaboration of nations united in preserving our cultural legacy.

While exploring the temple ruins outside Siem Reap in Cambodia, Chelle and I were surprised to discover representatives of ASI working on a restoration project at Ta Phrom. One of many temples destroyed during the civil war in Cambodia or taken over by nature. Luckily the Archeological Society of India isn’t alone in their endeavors.

The UN has a specialized organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The group has a variety of programs and objectives but it’s  international cooperation agreements to secure cultural and heritage areas around the globe through its World Heritage Sites. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. Sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance. Their dedication in protection and preservation is admirable. Passing on to future generations the irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration is awesome and worthy of support.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) Mumbai

I have given much thought to the impact that India has had on me collectively. It is a visceral response.  I am just beginning to understand the profound nature of my time here. Chelle had a very sad experience today. While exploring the Jain sculptures in Gwalior she discovered a dying dog hidden under a statue. She dug through our bag and pulled out a few morsels of food. As I comforted her she questioned the futility of her actions. My response was simple…comfort and compassion to a life that knew little of either. The intensity of her feelings have been demonstrated throughout our time here whether it was dealing with scourge of poverty or feral animals. For me there has to be more.

I am determined to contribute in some manner after I have returned home. I may return in the not too distant future volunteering on a medical team with Projects Abroad. It may mean financial donations to Amma, or Magic Bus. Contributions to ASI or some other NGO conservation/preservation group. Perhaps becoming a member of the Sierra Club back home. To get on a plane and head back to the US just to plan the next adventure is impossible without first contemplating what comes next to improve my world. Globally, within our community or both.


Sideways to somewhere

I’ve already covered the “you can’t get there from here” theme in an earlier post. As most folks should know, India is a vast country and we were required to revisit the connect-the-dots game again. Our next destination was to be Mandu. Approximately 384 km North of Aurangabad as the crow flies. However, traveling around India rarely involves a direct route and this would be no different. Our travel day involved catching a late night sleeper bus in one of the most chaotic scenes imaginable. Middle of nowhere on the edge of town, essentially a bus bazaar of at least twelve large caravans coming and going every which way.

Motorcycles and tuk tuks dropping off scores of travelers. Exhaust fumes mixed with road side kitchen smoke. Horns, so many obnoxious horns. Chelle furiously trying find a “quiet” spot to talk to the bus company in an attempt to figure out where we were supposed to be. I went to a rival travel shop to gain some valuable intel about the process unfolding. At one point Chelle is standing beside me, still on the phone gesticulating wildly in no particular direction. A guy on a motorcycle pulls up from behind us – the fellow on the other end of the conversation. My Wonder Woman/Fixer/Logistical magician does it again.

Off the beaten path to be sure but a big draw for Chelle was some unique arboreal residents of the area. Certainly not the only attraction to check out. The city of Mandu is adorned with spell-binding Afghan architecture surrounded by baobab trees, which are native to Africa. It is located in the Malwa region of western Madhya Pradesh state, in central India. It required an all night bus ride to Indore, followed by a smaller local bus to Dhar and transfer to a third bus. We capped the adventure off with a 2km walk (with full pack) to the guesthouse from town center. The view of the valley from the place was exceptional but the actual accommodations were not, so we hiked back into town.

The fortress town of Mandu lies on a rocky outcrop about 100 km (62 mi) from Indore is celebrated for its fine architecture. It was an important military outpost and its military past can be gauged by the circuit of the battlemented wall, which is nearly 37 km (23 mi) and is punctuated by 12 gateways. The walls enclose a large number of palaces, mosques, Jain temples of 14th century and other ruins. The oldest mosque – Jami Masjid (or great mosque) dates from 1405; it is a notable example of Pashtun architecture.

Jami Masjid

In Mandu, temperatures can often soar to 45° Celsius in summer. That’s perhaps why the Afghan architect who built the Jahaz Mahal combined conservation of water through rain water harvesting with the beauty and delicacy of Islamic architecture. The 120 meter long Jahaz Mahal complex is studded with many water structures. The twin lakes of Kapur Talab and Munj Talab abutting the palace not only stored water but helped cool its surroundings. In addition, the many baolis or step wells on the premises helped store water for drinking while the beautifully constructed pools on the roof and ground floor of the palace offered the royalty a way to relax and cool during summer months. Incredibly, these pools were fed by rain water carried by swirling channels designed to look like intertwining vines.

Jahaz Mahal

The historical legacy in Mandu is expansive stretching the length of this small town. Somewhat at the mercy of our driver who left Jahaz Mahal for last that morning. He felt that viewing Roopmati’s Pavilion at dawn was ideal. We arrived shortly after 6am and bribed the guard to let us in ahead of the official opening. It was a treat to have the place to ourselves but in hindsight we would have chosen Jahaz Mahal due in large part from a time crunch and missing a big swath of the complex. Roomati’s Pavilion, a large sandstone structure originally built as an army observation post. For tourists the spot possesses stunning views of the area…for medieval troops strategic high ground.

Roomati’s Pavalion

We could have been in Mandu for several days but alas time is what we are running out of on this journey. Our side trips continued on to just as challenging locations to access. Next was Sanchi and on Christmas Day we are in Gwalior for two days before our final stop in Delhi. With my hit and miss wifi issues I may still be blogging about our India trip after returning home. Stay tuned, more to follow.

Just around the corner

As stated several times in previous posts the principle reasons for visiting India was to learn about the culture, step back in time to discover India’s rich history and to interact with the people of this vast country. Chelle did the lions share of planning, before and throughout the trip and has done a magnificent job in the logistics. I continue to be surprised by some of the side trips she uncovered.

It would be easy to stay in the “golden triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan. The circuit has a good spectrum of the country’s different landscapes. That we have visited so many other terrific locations is a testament to her time and attention to detail. Her cartography degree has been put to great use here whether it was planning a route from Jodhpur to Mount Aboo or just getting us back to our guesthouse after a day out touring. For me it really has been about the little jems not expected.

Aurangabad is 400 km (248 mi) east of Mumbai. It is a tourist hub mainly due to the city’s proximity to the Buddhist caves in Ajanta and Ellora, which are 100 km (60 mi) away. A two hour drive by car. Within the city are twelve Buddhist shrines cut out of basalt (volcanic) rock during the 6th and 7th century. The carvings and religious iconography represent the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) and Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) Buddhist lineages. On the road to the Aurangabad caves is the Bibi Ka Maqbara or as it’s known locally “the mini Taj Mahal” and was designed and erected by the son of the man who designed the original Taj in Agra. The air quality was considerably better around here than Agra. No haze to hide the enormous monument…the Taj in Agra was almost impossible to view.

We took a car to see Ajanta due mainly to the earlier time required to catch a bus. We reached the site before 11am but the glare of the sun was already influencing the photographic opportunities. Coupled with that issue was the prohibition on the use of a flash inside the caves. The Indian Conservation Society has done a decent job of erecting some lights, which accounts for some unusual shadowing at times. On the day we visited there were only two western couples with the majority Indian tourists and school children as well as two Buddhist monks.

The Hinayana sect which started the caves are located in the rear section of the complex. Mainly containing smaller chaityas or worship halls with barrel vaulted roofs. As Hinayana school of Buddhism was overtaken by Mahayana the architectural styles are of the caves changed. Viharas, lavish monastery halls where the monks lived and worshipped were built. The statues of The Buddha also became more prominent, which included long dangling ear lobes and short curls to distinguish the Buddha from lesser divinities. In its zenith Ajanta sheltered over 200 monks in addition to a community of laborers, sculptors and painters. For unknown reasons by the 8th century the complex lay dereserted and abandoned.

The preceding photo depicts the Buddha’s death and ascension to Nirvana. The lower statues depict the satanic Mara sisters attempting to corrupt the Buddha while a devilish figure in the top left (riding an elephant) looks down. The imagery, iconography, paintings and sculptures were, for a history buff and a Buddhist, fascinating. The work done by the Indian government is extremely valuable to maintaining the enduring historical legacy of India.

Gateway to India

Mumbai, previously known as Bombay is in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The skyline when viewed from the air or the port stretches for miles. Easy to imagine with a population of more than 20 million. Toronto, LA, and NYC together could fit within the confines of this urban expanse. The financial hub of India and a booming port possessing a naturally deep water harbor with a distance of 150 square miles that opens to the south Arabian Sea. The port is also home to a large naval base.

INS Viraat aircraft carrier


Port of Mumbai

The dichotomy of India is clearly evident in Mumbai. As one of the wealthiest cities and possessing the most expensive real estate prices in the world surpassing both Manhattan and Tokyo. It is also home to one of the biggest slum communities. If you want to know and experience diversity, visit Mumbai. This city also has its very own language that is the Bambaiiya Hindi. Known to be a city filled with warm and friendly people which was our experience whether on a walk about or just sitting in the lobby of our guesthouse. We were also just around the corner from Crawford Market which had the usual varieties of fruits and vegetables in addition to a multitude of clothing and fabrics. An oddity for us was the various dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils, fish and farm animals for sale.

Crawford Market

Chelle picked our lodging for its proximity to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, but still referred by many by it’s former British name – Victoria Terminus or simply VT. The Bombay train station is a UNESCO world heritage site and for good reason, it is architecturally gorgeous and while we there it was lite up in preparation for the Christmas season. We had an epic walk our second day deep into Mumbai and across to the waterfront.

Victoria Terminus Railway Station

We visited the Gateway to India, a mammoth archway that greeted Queen Victoria on her arrival in 1911. Adjoining the waterfront was another famous Mumbai monument – The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. A luxury hotel where a cup of masala tea costs Rs450 ($7 USD) I instead opted for the Rs175 ($2.60) bottle of Himalayan water. It must be stated that a cup of chai anywhere else in the city would cost between 10 – 40 Rupee and water about 25 Rupee…


Gateway to India (right), Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (left)

We left Mumbai on Friday night, another opportunity to experiment with a sleeper bus heading to Aurangabad. We met a nice young lad on the bus heading home from a pilgrimage. Part of a larger group staying throughout the city and I had met another family from the same Muslim community in the lobby of our guesthouse earlier in the day. Waseem wanted to know all about our India trip and he talked about his trips to the US. It was as much about his interest in us as it was an opportunity to practice his English skills.

Mumbai was a short stay for us but as usual the people we encountered were helpful and generous. Chelle still copes with the unwelcome stares of many men here. However, she has had celebrity status in many areas we have visited that hopefully make up for some of the troubles. The following picture is one of several from earlier today outside the Mini Taj Mahal in Aurangabad. Her hat and sunglasses were also a big hit!

Due South

The tranquil city of Kochi has been drawing spice traders and explorers to the region for more than 600 years. A blend of Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. In no other spot around India would you find giant cantilevered fishing nets from China (from the age of Kublai Khan), a 400 year old synagogue, an ancient mosque and colonial British infrastructure. A signature event for tourists is an opportunity to watch the Kathakali.

Chinese fishing nets

An artistic dance prominent in southern India utilizing elaborate masks, bold costumes and a unique form of mime, which dramatizes Hindu literature. It reminded me of opera…theater in a foreign language where something is happening but I don’t seem to understand. That being said it was fascinating, colorful and just long enough to bear the uncomfortable chairs. The picture is more out of focus than I would usually include in a post but the best that could be achieved without a tripod or more steady hands.

Kathakali performance

We checked out the waterfront and perused some merchant stalls. I thought I had finally found an Indian shirt I liked but unfortunately it was a slim fit. We continued on until we happened upon a lovely Tibetan store. Just our second haul of small trinkets for gifts. A conveniently located ATM across the street and a dash into a fabric store where I did find two very comfortable shirts, one which was tailored while we waited. Another benefit was the shop accepting cashless payment – more on that later.

We continued our tour around the city as we headed for Jew Town. The oldest community of Jewish peoples in India dating back to King Solomon. When Israel was created after WWII a majority of the community emigrated leaving behind most of their belongings (furniture etc). A bustling port village with an aroma of bold Indian spice vendors, and antique/curio shops. The Paradesi Synagogue still maintains a small congregation but it is mainly a tourist mecca.

We took a backwater river tour about an hour from the Fort Kochi area. The company “Ethnic Voyages” was an excellent choice. This is in the top five experiences that we have had during our trip. Chelle spoke with our guide Aishi at length. Not just about the backwater flowers or geography but Indian culture, her family, commerce and even American and Indian politics. It was a very informative tour. I chimed in two or three times but mainly took some photos. Our riverboat had two oarsmen, forward and aft. The guy in the stern was in charge of steering the boat. Both used two distinct bamboo oars. A twenty five foot pole for deep water and an eighteen footer for closer to shore. This is the traditional method for plying the lake and small rivers inland from the Arabian Sea. We saw a couple of ferries but the predominant boat traffic was this method or canoes with small outboard motors.


We toured a unique home weaving operation using coconuts. The husk is opened and the fibrous threads are removed and piled in mounds to dry. The threads are collected in a waist pouch of the woman operating a loom type of device. As she walked backwards the crank spun the threads together into long fibers creating small ropes. The loops of rope are then left out in the sun to dry. It was used in the boating industry to lash bamboo. We also toured the spice operation and introduced to different spices like cardamom in plant form. A first for me to taste a nutmeg leaf.  Our guide discussed the process from plant to completed spice. Then it was time for an authentic Keralan lunch, which was served on a banana leaf  plate.