Before I left for India, I came up with a rough plan for the trip. This was the route I intended to follow:
This was what I actually did:
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.
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”.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
It took about two hours for Jabar, my chauffeur and guide for the day, to drive us out to Kumbhalgarh. On the way we passed through the Aravalli region, where the scenery reminded me of California: hills of red-brown rock and scree, scattered trees, green irrigated fields in the valley. We passed the Banas River, and stopped to see a cattle-powered water wheel in action.
This was all reasonably interesting, but only a teaser for the main show, Kumbhalgarh. I was worried that after covering most of Rajasthan, I might be all forted out and unable to appreciate it, but I needn’t have worried. Kumbhalgarh is absolutely stonking.