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
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.
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
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”.
“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.
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.