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.