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.
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
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.
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.
The Ellora Cavesare 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
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.
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.
Another day trip from Udaipur was to Chittaurgarh Fort. It’s also called ‘Chittorgarh’ or just ‘Chittor’, but despite what Wikipedia has decided, ‘Chittaurgarh’ is the correct transliteration.
It was always going to be a long day, catching the 0600 train there in order to have time to see it and return to Udaipur for my overnight bus to Bombay. I just hoped that I hadn’t finally reached Fort Saturation Point and it would be a disappointing waste of energy.
Again, there was no need to worry. Chittaurgarh is great. Just look at this awesome picture, taken from a vantage point I didn’t bother going to.
I reached Haridwar on Tuesday afternoon, after passing the elephant gauntlet, and found my couchsurfing contact, Rohit. He owns and runs an English language school to the south of the city, which he also teaches at, along with his friend Sachin. Their hosting arrangements were basically the school premises, which although not exactly residential, provided basic facilities and a roof over my head. Rohit and Sachin were also both incredibly helpful when it came to finding solutions to the various bike problems I was suffering, so I can’t complain at all.