Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh

I don’t understand India. I don’t think I ever will. (I’m not even sure that’s a possible thing to do.) But in the same way that you never really feel like an adult, you just get better at faking it, now that I’ve been in India for a couple of months, I’m able to talk to in-country noobz and come across like an old hand.

In Orchha, I got chatting to a German tourist who’d been in India for just a few days. I had breakfast with him, but he had to rush off to a pre-arranged meeting with a local man who’d aggressively befriended him in the way that any traveller in India will be familiar with. He was still trying to work out whether this apparent hospitality was genuine, or whether the entire forced relationship was ultimately aimed at financial gain. He asked me, “so what’s the deal? Is there always a catch? Are Indians always after money, either directly or indirectly?”

My answer was, emphatically, no. A great many people are after money, and I’ve done a lot of complaining about the grinding chore of dealing with them, but I’ve also encountered genuine, selfless hospitality and generosity in many places. The ratio at which you encounter the two depends on where you are: in more touristic places like the cities of Rajasthan, people’s motivations will tend towards the commercial, and somewhere like Khajuraho or Orchha, which are small settlements on the edge of hugely popular tourist sites, it will approach 100%. Conversely, it’s been in places that no tourist has ever heard of – Milak, Bhujiya Ghat, Dhuri – in which I’ve been overwhelmed by generosity and kindness.

Thinking about this reminded me that all of those places were in the first month of the trip, and since I’ve been backpacking, I’ve been taking trains and buses from tourist spot to tourist spot, and haven’t experienced anything like it since. So when SK, my host in Gwalior, asked if I’d like to spend a couple of days visiting his brother’s family in Sultanpur, a small city utterly devoid of any significance, I jumped at the offer.

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Mathura

I try to maintain a healthy attitude to guidebooks. I certainly don’t go for the hardcore traveller’s “I never use them” approach. They have many uses, and do tell you which places are specifically interesting and which aren’t. By ignoring them you end up wasting a lot of time in the less interesting places when there’s something unique and incredible around the corner. On the other hand, I don’t want to be a slave to them, as some of the best experiences are off-piste on crazy, unpredictable journeys.

The other reason I stopped in Agra, as well as visiting Fatehpur Sikri, was for another day trip, to nearby Mathura. I’d heard from several sources, including Peter Hopkirk‘s book Quest for Kim, that it had a hidden gem of a museum, rarely visited but containing a wealth of ancient sculpture. It’s also mythologically the birthplace of Krishna, eighth incarnation of Vishnu, and has a major temple marking the site.

I wasn’t put off by the fact that Mathura wasn’t mentioned at all in the Rough Guide. Perhaps I should have been.

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Fatehpur Sikri

Agra is a stinking cesspit of a city that no human being should ever have to endure… and none ever would, if it hadn’t had the undeserved luck of containing the Taj Mahal.

It does have some other nice monuments too, which is why people say Agra’s beautiful, but if a dog ate a few gemstones and did a poo, you wouldn’t call the poo beautiful.

A pig eating from a pile of unutterable filth in an open sewer, at a food market in Fatehpur Sikri, Agra

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Jhansi and Gwalior

It’s impossible to write about my visits to the cities of Jhansi and Gwalior without first explaining the historical reasons why I would be interested in them. The first part of what follows is therefore a brief-ish and opinionated summary of what Wikipedia, that bastion of neutrality, calls the “Indian Rebellion of 1857“, but is traditionally known in British historiography as the Indian Mutiny. Feel free to skip it if you just want to read about me wandering around some forts.

Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, one of the leaders of the 1857 Indian Mutiny

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Orchha

I’d never heard of Orchha before I arrived in India, but people kept raving about it, and it was described as a “must see”. Since it fitted nicely into the route from Khajuraho to Jhansi and Gwalior, I decided to stop off and see what all the fuss was about.

Selfie from Jahangir Mahal, showing Raj Mahal in the background and Chaturbhuj Temple in the far distance, Orchha

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Khajuraho

Anyone who’s been following this blog recently could be forgiven for thinking that I’ve become obsessed with sexy statuary. I’ve certainly been talking about it a lot. Each time I’ve mentioned it, it’s been in the context of making a point about religious hypocrisy, or a joke, but taken as a whole, it does look a little repetitive. But I’m only writing about what I’m seeing. The temples of India, and especially the major sights of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, are really quite pornographic. And we haven’t even got to the best stuff yet. Ellora and Ajanta were just foreplay; Khajuraho is the money shot.

Detail, Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho

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Understanding India for geeks

I had a sudden epiphany last night and realised the best way to explain India to 30-something computer-gaming geeks.

You know that massive empire you acquired by military conquest in Civilization 3? And then converted to democracy, thinking it’d become an economic powerhouse? But you couldn’t achieve anything useful because every city was mired in 90% corruption? And the only reason you weren’t facing all-out revolt was because you had temples everywhere, keeping the populace distracted enough to stay quiet?

That’s what India’s like in real life.

Bhimbetka rock shelters

The second day trip from Bhopal, and my last Indian cave experience (on this trip at least) was to the rock shelters at Bhimbetka.

Yet another World Heritage Site (I’m racking them up), Bhimbetka is a group of… well, not caves precisely, more like big rocks with overhanging bits. And painted on the sheltered undersides is one of the most impressive and important collections of prehistoric art in the world.

Giant hairy crab menacing antelope, cave art at Bhimbetka rock shelters

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India: the impossibility of change

It sounds like pessimistic conclusion. It is. But it’s born of bitter experience. Every day I spend in India teaches me afresh how difficult – and often impossible – it is to achieve change here.

It’s not because of a lack of desire for change. Perversely, it’s because everyone wants it, that it’s so hard to get. Because no-one’s willing to reach into their pockets and hand it over.

Oh yeah, sorry, I’m not talking about enacting major social and political change. Forget that! I’m just talking about trying to squeeze a few 100 rupee notes out of a goddam shopkeeper.

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The Great Stupa at Sanchi

I’ve left Maharashtra. I’m (almost) done with caves. But I haven’t quite finished with Buddhism yet.

Sanchi is a small village in Madhya Pradesh, near (ie, in Indian terms, a two hour bus journey from) Bhopal. On a small hill just above the village are the Great Stupa and other monuments, a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest and most important Buddhist artefacts in the world. Or, as an entirely serious, but questionably translated, information plaque put it, the “numero uno among a string of Buddhist sites”.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh

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