Aurangabad to Bhopal

“I love the smell of methyl isocyanate in the morning. It smells like… massive industrial negligence and corporate murder covered up by successive corrupt governments.” – Colonel Kilgore, Apocalypse Now (modified, Tom Bell)

From Aurangabad, my next destination was Bhopal, state capital of Madhya Pradesh and scene of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster, in which a leak at a chemical plant exposed over half a million people to toxic gas, killing at least 3000 instantly and subjecting countless others to health problems which continue to the present day. I didn’t go there for industrial accident tourism, though I did consider visiting the Sambhavna Trust to find out more about the disaster and its lasting effects (unfortunately, due to the events below, I didn’t have time). I mainly wanted to use it as a base to visit Sanchi and Bhimbetka, both within day trip distance.

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Alasdair and Laura

I have two stalkers. They probably think I’m stalking them. I’ve bumped into them four times now in various locations around India.

I guess this sort of thing happens quite a bit when you’re travelling, as other travellers, even though they’re on their own itineraries, will be visiting the same places too.

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Ajanta Caves and the failure of Buddhism

Right. I attacked Sikhism when I was in Punjab, I’ve given Islam a kicking, and I’ve been patronisingly smirking at Hinduism throughout. I guess it’s time to talk about how badly Buddhism has let itself down.

Let’s have a brief summary of its history. Once upon a time, a man achieves enlightenment. He gains some followers and teaches them how to achieve it too. This man doesn’t talk about god. It doesn’t interest him. For him, the universe itself is god, and achieving enlightenment means realising your own oneness with the divine universe. The idea of there being a pantheon of deities is unenlightened thinking; praying to idols is a distraction from the higher aim.

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Khuldabad and the Valley of Saints

Khuldabad is a small town near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. The area is also known as the Valley of Saints, because of the significant number of onion-domed Sufi tombs dotting the landscape in and around the town. A dedicated tomb enthusiast could easily spend days here, visiting and exploring them all. I went primarily for one reason: to boost my Great Mughal tomb-spotting score up to the India-maximum of 4/6.

Here’s the scoresheet:

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Ellora Caves

The Ellora Caves are a World Heritage Site consisting of 34 cave temples carved into the bare rock of a hillside near Aurangabad. They date from three separate periods, from the 6th to 11th centuries CE, and are arranged in three groups, representing the dominant religion of each period.

Which means the good thing about the Ellora Caves is that they’re multi-genre. Just as you’re starting to get bored with Buddhist devotional sculpture, it switches to Hinduism, and then again to Jainism for the final act.

Cave 10 at Ellora, a Buddhist chapel with vaulted-effect ceiling and a massive Buddha in front of a stupa, surrounded by bodhisattvas

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Daulatabad Fort

The autorickshaw driver who’d taken me around Aurangabad to see that city’s underwhelming monuments offered to take me on a day trip to see Daulatabad Fort and Khuldabad, as well as Ellora Caves. The price was reasonable, and he seemed a pleasant enough chap – chatty, but not too pushy – so I accepted. Besides, it was a lot easier than trying to catch buses between all of the places.

I met Sulim at 0830 outside Ashish’s apartment. He’d turned up in a different autorickshaw from the one he’d had the previous day, a pimped-up model with padded pleather upholstery, a black/blue/yellow/purple paint job, and two Jaguar and two Chevrolet emblems attached to various places. On the way out of the estate he asked me if I liked music. Thinking he might put some classic Indian pop or Bollywood music on, I said yes. A few seconds later and thumping, screeching techno was blasting out of the massive stereo system at full volume. It was quite unpleasant, with my head right next to the speakers, and I don’t suppose the residents of the quiet estate enjoyed it much either. I told him to turn it off.

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Aurangabad: the underachieving city

My first impression of Aurangabad was the mob of autorickshaw drivers, clawing at the gate of the bus compound like zombies. In Bombay, the drivers were relatively civilised, letting you approach them when you needed a lift, and using the meter by default. But I’d moved on from that bubble of sanity and returned to real India now. There was no question of using a meter. The first quoted price for the journey to my couchsurfing host’s house was 350 rupees. Luckily, he’d already told me it should be 100, to 120 max. I laughed in the face of the first offer and walked away. The price quickly came down: 250… 200… At 150, I accepted. I’m not fussy about getting the same price an Indian would; I accept a little bit of overcharging as fair and natural. When it’s a matter of 30 rupees difference, it’s not worth the bother of keeping up the “I’m going to walk away and pretend I don’t really need you” charade any more.

Ashish was another CS host who had a separate apartment for couchsurfers, although unlike Pintu in Bikaner, this one wasn’t filled with drunk, shouting Indians every night. In fact, Ashish, who runs a technical translation agency, used it as an office during the day, and sometimes in the evening, so it was very quiet. It was an ideal little base for a few days.

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Elephanta Caves

Elephanta is an island in Bombay harbour, with a small set of Hindu and Buddhist cave temples. The caves are artificial, the temples cut from the rock around 500 – 800 CE, and the complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an hour’s boat trip from the Gateway of India, and a popular sightseeing excursion from Bombay.

I’d had mixed reports: Peter and Corinna in Jodhpur had said it wasn’t worth seeing, and Abby in Pushkar had said it was. That returned the verdict to neutral, and I’d already exhausted the things to see in the city, so I decided to go for it.

Entrance to the main cave at Elephanta

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Chat Harassment

As a Westerner (ie, white person) in India, one of the distinctive elements of the travel experience is the near-constant harassment by people trying to get your money. I’m not talking about begging. That happens, but not nearly as much as you expect. I’m talking about stall holders, shop keepers, rickshaw drivers, tourist guides and a hundred other varieties of touts, scammers and pedlars, bombarding your ears every second of the day.

A typical walk down the street will have you assaulted from every side by cries and shouts, all trying to get your attention, and persuade you to spend. After 24 hours in India you start ignoring it. It’s the only way you can ever reach your destination. Even someone who just seems to want a casual conversation has to be blanked and walked away from. It sounds harsh, but you quickly learn that the dreaded phrase, “Hello sir, from which country?” is not just a friendly inquiry. It means you’re now on the receiving end of Level 2 Chat Harassment.

Yes, that’s right. I’ve developed a three-level model for it.

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Bombay

For the purposes of this post, I will be following Christopher Hitchens‘ policy and refusing to accept Hindu extremist party Shiv Sena‘s etymologically spurious name change, and stubbornly continuing to call the city ‘Bombay‘.

Before I left Delhi, my friend Nidhi told me that there’s a big rivalry between the two cities, and I would have to choose which one I liked. It couldn’t be both. Within five minutes of arriving I could answer her question: Bombay. Definitely Bombay.

The Taj Hotel and Gateway to India, South Bombay

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