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.
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.
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”.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.