When I think of India, the most unlikely images haunt through my head. Deities, gods, rituals, superstition, colours, flavours, poverty, karma, castes and lots and lots of people, to mention only a few. And what's so unusual about all these things is, is that I'm not able to understand them all in the way they are meant to be. Even after I've been travelling around in the northern parts of India — Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — for three weeks there're still some of those subjects of which I don't know their exact meaning. I think it takes a least one whole year travelling through India to understand the Indian habbits and culture.
These three weeks have allowed me to get to know more about the people and to understand a little part of their way of life. When I decided to go to India I knew that it would ask for some precaution and exertion. As I say so, I don't only mean to be physically prepared for the trip but maybe even more mentally. I've lost 5 kilo in 23 days. And not because there's no good food in India. On the contrary, the Indian kitchen has a very rich assortment of delicious and tasty food, but most of it is vegetarian. And then the heat. Never in my life I've sweat so much. The heat is exhausting. Therefore I drank liters of mineral water and cold drinks every day. The rush and the unusual pressure. A lot of the Indian people live on the street. They are poor, but they don't look unhappy. You have to be strong to face the filthiness, the poverty, the primitivism, the beggars, the stir and the heavy traffic. And traffic is very dangerous. I closed my eyes twice thinking that would be the end of my life. They drive like crazy. If you think you can manage all that, I'm sure you're gonna have a wonderful, unforgettable time in India because India is one of the most richly rewarding regions of the world to visit. Its openness and friendliness make it increasingly rare among major travel destinations. And one thing's for sure; it will change your life!
Saturday, September 26, 6:00 am. Three friends and I are on our way to Schiphol, Amsterdam. We have to drive two hours from where we live in Belgium. The direct flight with KLM from Amsterdam to New-Delhi takes about 8 hours. Towards evening, our time, we enter the Indian atmosphere. India lays in a different time zone so we have to reset our watches. It's three and a half hour later. Now it's suddenly midnight when the plane starts to descend. The enormous amount of small lights let me presume that New-Delhi must be a very large city. As far as I can see nothing but white and orange street-lamps and head-lights of driving cars. I don't think I've ever seen such a big city before in my life, and certainly not from out of the sky. Delhi has been the site of continuous habitation for thousands of years and the capital of India therefore is also country's fastest growing city with a population estimated at close to 12 million.
The next morning we start the day with a cold shower and a small breakfast. Then we take a typical Hindustan Ambassador cab for a tour in DELHI. Because it's sunday there's almost no traffic on the broad boulevards. Delhi is however not all city. The sheer amount of greenery rivals that of other major world capitals. There are many spacious gardens, tree-lined and with beautiful parks where many boys play cricket, the national sport number one. We drive to the India gate, a war memorial which commemorates more than 70,000 Indian soldiers who died in WW1. The inscription mentions that a lot of the Indian soldiers died in France and Flanders. Little boys with monkeys try to amuse the tourists. Indian people make family pictures in front of this huge arc de triomphe. We move on to the most interesting and preserved tomb in Delhi, the Humayun's Tomb. This octagonal mausoleum, with lofty arches and pillared kiosks, is the best example of the early Mughal style. It looks like the Taj Mahal in Agra, but it's much smaller and simpler. It's made of red sandstone with some white marble to highlight the lines of the building. Here also is the first standard example in India of the garden tomb concept, the char bagh. The large garden is divided into quadrants with lots of trees, water channels and fountains. Only there's no water in the channels now. There're a lot of young couples sitting in the shadow of the big trees in this garden of love. This is certainly the place for a romantic sunday afternoon! It's very hot and I'm already wet to the skin. A few blocks away - my orientation isn't that good so far - we stop at a famous Hindu temple, the Laksmi Narayan Mandir. This temple is built in Orissan style with tall curved towers and dedicated to Laksmi, the goddess of well-being. Within the temple a few men are making music on tam tams and some kind of accordion that looks like a little organ. The music is reposeful and for us, Western people, it maybe sounds a little bit monotonous, but someone tells me that Indian music knows even more musical notes then ours. There're a lot of paintings on the walls of the temple. They show gods and particular scenes from the Hindu history. It looks a bit like the holy crusade in our churches. And because there're a lot of people who can't read in India the paintings must make the story understandable.
After dinner in an air conditioned restaurant on Connaught Place - the food was very good (rice with mushrooms, bamboo and chicken) but it was too cold inside the restaurant - we take a auto-rickshaw to Old-Delhi. Up to now, the stir and the noise in Delhi exceed my expectations. I thought it would be much worse but than again it's sunday. The only Asian reference I have is my experience in Rangoon, the capital of Myanmar. The heat was even more exhausting so I couldn't bear so much over there. Here in Delhi there're also lots of cycle-rickshaws and many many little shops. There are also many red spots on the street too, because some men are chewing on something red and after a while they spit it out. It's not so common here as in Myanmar. The few temples I've seen here are certainly not comparable with those in Rangoon. I liked those Buddhist temples much more than these Hindu temples. The women's dresses are much more colourful (red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, blue, etc.) and the people are as friendly as in Myanmar. I guess the Asian people are almost always smiling, even if they are poor. In contradistinction to the well-known lungi the men wear in Myanmar, most of the Indian men just wear trousers. If man wears a lungi or a short, it means that he's poor. So therefore you can better leave your shorts at home if you're planning to go to India.
Delhi is the perfect gateway to Northern India. Early in the morning we set direction to Jaipur by buss. We enter Rajasthan, the land of kings or land of the Thousand and One Nights. This warrior race has written its past on the land in the form of forts and palaces, and fortress-palaces around which the principal cities have slowly grown. The country is very green en fertile. The roads that cut these plane areas, covered with trees and rice-fields, are often in poor - sometimes terrible - condition and progress extremely slow because they're also crowded with heavy lorry traffic. Vehicles drive on the left - in theory! So, don't think to much about the way the Indians drive and pass. Here and there you see a truck upside down on or beside the road so it's better to concentrate on the country because it's a good way of seeing the landscape and village life. We stop several times in little villages. The local people are very friendly and curious. An old man start to talk to me in English. He tells me about his family and a factory where he has worked. At school, the children are sitting outside underneath a big tree. When they see me they spontaneously start to wave. The women wear vividly colouredsaris, a red tikka on their forehead and lots of jewellery on their fingers, wrists, ankles, toes and in their ears and noses. Most of them also have a red spot on their forehead, that symbolises the third eye. In some of the villages the women veil themselves when they see a man because married women are not allowed to look at other men anymore. Just before dark we arrive at the Sariska Tiger Reserve. We spend the night at Tiger Den and the next morning, at 6:00 am, we go on jeep safari. We see many peacocks, langur monkeys and colourful birds, a few antilopes and deers and some wild boars but not even one tiger! It's a bit disappointing.
After breakfast we drive on to Jaipur. The road is better than yesterday. Overloaded trucks drive in the middle of the road. On the back of each lorry are the words "BLOWN HORN" painted. You can imagine what kinda concert that is. On our way to Jaipur we see a lot of accidents. No wonder if you see ghostriders in front of you all the time and if every vehicle is in a frenzied race to try and pass the one in front. Many roads are single track. The result is disastrous. Pedestrians, cattle and a wide range of animals roam at will. This is of course particularly dangerous when driving after dark especially as even other vehicles often carry no lights... When we almost reach AMBER, it starts to rain heavy. And just when we got off the buss to visit the impressive Amber Palace we get another heavy shower. We are almost wet to the skin when we reach the main gate on the hill top. Above the Palace stands the gigantic bulk of Jaigarh. A fort which walls, bastions, gateways and watchtowers are a testimony of the power of the former Jaipur rulers. The Jaigarh Fort now offers visitors a glimpse into a lifestyle and an age that can only be gathered from imaginative fiction. Be sure you enter the Shish Mahal faced with mirrors, seen to full effect when lit by a match. You can see silver doors and colourfully painted walls with mosaic decoration. If I may believe what's written in the books, this is one of the most beautiful examples of Mughal architecture. And if you ask me, I think it's amazing. Many of these forts are to be found a little removed from urban centres, overlooking villages where life goes on as it did hundreds of years ago; where elephants are often the only means of transportation; and where, if you want fresh drinking water you may go and draw it from the well. A walk through this little village is surprisingly fun; the old elephants quarters, a small market, rickshaws, men with turbans, overloaded busses and Hindustan Ambassadors. Beautiful scenes!
In the late afternoon we arrive at JAIPUR, popularly known as the Pink City. The pink colour was used at the time of making to create an impression of red sandstone buildings of Mughal cities. We will spend the next three nights in a former Maharadja palace, Na Niwas Palace Hotel (Kanota Bagh, Narain Singh Rd). It's beautifully restored and it has a pleasant courtyard, a large garden with swimming pool and huge, well decorated rooms furnished with antiques, full of character. All the rooms are still cooled by electric, ceiling paddle fans. All the personal were traditional clothes. The drawing-room has nice painted walls and portraits of former Maharadjas. Dinner is served in a cosy dining-room with coloured glazed windows. They serve excellent Indian food and the dessert delicious. It's pudding with banana and grapes. We just can't get enough! We end the day on the outside porch of the palace lighted up with Chinese lanterns. It's a reposeful and very pleasant evening. This palace reminds me of the legendary British colonial Strand Hotel in Rangoon, except this isn't so chic and expensive.
The next morning we go to Mahavaton Ka Mohalla by auto-rickshaw. Most places of interest are mainly located within the walled city. So we enter this residential quarter of handicraftsmen and mahouts, elephant-drivers, through an impressive gateway. The city is best explored on foot and the adventurous visitor willing to go into the inner lanes can discover a whole new world not visible to the tourist-in-a-hurry. We saunter through the narrow streets and alleys. Soon, we notice that the children are very excited when they see us. They are all very enthousiastic and pretty soon we are followed by a couple of dozen little boys and girls. Even young girls and women are curious and peep from behind small windows or from the rooftop. When we see them they run away or hide. Everywhere we look we see people. We're the centre of interest. It's like all the windows, the doors and the terraces have become eyes.
In the afternoon we go to the Raj Mandir Cinema by auto-rickshaw. Just around the corner we go eet at Surya Mahal, near Niro's restaurant (Mirza Ismail Rd). It's a small, cheap restaurant but they serve delicious Indian dishes. Masala Dosa, a rice pancake filled with potatoes and vegetables is recommendable. Going to the movies is very popular in India, but that's probably because Mumbai - Bollywood - is the world's second largest film maker after Hong Kong. The movie is a big farcical comedy, a persiflage on the American movie industry. It's a combination of the best American action scenes - done over again in Indian style -, a musical and a romantic love story. And this goes on for about three hours. The dialogues are in Hindi but the more rough language, like "All men are bastards", "Fuck you" or "I love you", is in English. And the crowd goes mad!
At sunrise I take a dive into the swimming pool in the garden of Narain Niwas. The water has a nice temperature and the sun comes up from behind the trees. Refreshing. After breakfast we take a rickshaw to the old city. We walk from the Hawa Mahal, possibly Jaipur's most famous pink building, to the City Palace complex, one of the most important landmarks with its numerous outbuildings, courtyards, impressive gateways and temples. The Pritam Niwas Chowk - House of the beloved - courtyard has a beautiful Peacock Gate, several extremely attractive doors, rich and vivid in their peacock blue, aquamarine, amber and other colours and a excellent view upon the Chandra Mahal, a seven-storeyed Maharadja residence.
It's an eight-hour drive from Jaipur to the second city of Rajastan, JODHPUR. At 5:00 pm we arrive at Madho Niwas Hotel (New Airport Rd). There've a cosy garden and simple rooms with an electric ceiling fan. After some refreshment we go to Govind Restaurant opposite to the GPO (General Post Office) and the railway station. Govind has a nice rooftop restaurant from where you have a beautiful sight on the impressive Meherahgarh Fort built on a 122m sandstone bluff. It's a place where tourists meet and greet. The food is very good and cheap. At night we play cards in the garden of our hotel. It's been a exhausting day.
The rest of the day we walk through the old city and the bazar. The people are very friendly and the childern start shouting so that we always are the centre of interest. When I enter a school the schoolmaster invites us with much enthousiasm (photo). He guides us through all the class-rooms. All the little boys and girls wear light-blue chemises and sit on the floor with their big satchels beside them. In a class-room upstairs, all the children like their photograph to be taken, so that a female school-teacher has to call for order after a while! In another class-room the children learn how to do sums in multiplication, so I write 3 x 3 = on a the big dark-green black-board and ask the little boy to come to the front and write down the solution with a white chalk. He is very shy and hesitates for one moment but he got it right! I guess he probably hasn't been nine yet. I congratulate him and say goodbye. A few blocks away I enter a courtyard where women are washing their clothes. When the little children see me the fences are down. And suddenly a beautiful, slim young girl appears and greets me in English. She wears loose-fitting red trousers and a red silk dress over it. We have a little conversation but I don't remember her name. She's sixteen years old and I never forget her lovely smile.
The next stop on our tour is PUSHKAR, a peaceful lakeside village on the edge of the desert. Around 5:00 pm we arrive at the Pushkar Palace Hotel near India's most sacred lake. It is believed to mark the spot where a lotus thrown by Brahma, landed. Pushkar has become a pilgrim's place. All around the lake, ghats (steps) lead down to the water to enable pilgrims to bathe. You can hear noisy religious celebrations the whole night long in this once so famous hippy town so you may need your ear plugs here. For about Rs. 100 you can have an delicious dinner in the hotel. At night we sit in the cosy garden with a view over the lake and the many ghats.
The next day I have a long lie. After breakfast in the garden I decide to go shopping. In Pushkar, you can buy lots of souvenirs like for example beautiful handcraft paper with nice Indian motifs, postcards, hippy clothes and many music tapes or cd's. There's also a little internet shop fromwhere you can send or receive e-mails. You pay only Rs. 3 per minute to prepare your e-mails! So if you can type fast this is the cheapest way to communicate with your friends at home. In the evening all the e-mails will be send together. If you wish to receive a reply the next day you pay about Rs. 25 per incoming e-mail. I've contacted my friends and family at home and it did work perfect. And it's much cheaper than sending a fax or to phone home. An excellent service!
At six o'clock in the morning we leave the pilgrim's village Pushkar and head for Agra, city of the world famous Taj Mahal. On the way we stop for breakfast and in the afternoon we arrive at FATEPHUR SIKRI, 40 km of Agra. Fatephur Sikri is a testimony to the remarkable character of the greatest Mughal emperor, Akbar. The Royal Palace houses different cloisters, kiosks and pavilions with beautiful jali screens and even gardens. Akbar was always receptive to new ideas and developed eclectic beliefs. The decorative techniques and metaphysical labels are incorporated into the palace. The architecture style is clearly Mughal, which seems a kind of mixture of Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu designs. The palace has become a real ghost town abandoned and untouched during centuries but it's a relief after a long, fatiguing bus ride. The heat is incredible. I can't recall sweating as much as I did in India. Lucky for us there's lots of shadow in the palace. Behind the Royal Palace stands the sacred section, the magnificent Jami Masjid. Shoes must be left at the enormous King's Gate before entering one of the largest mosque in India. Inside is a vast marble courtyard surrounded with pillared aisles. They've put mats on the floor because the white marble is to hot to walk over barefooted. The tombs and the mihrab are a stunning piece of craftmanship. When we leave, the porch is packed with aggressive salesmen. Getting angry at them for tugging your shirt, and asking for your attention and asking an outrageous price for some junk you don't really want, makes no use. They simply don't understand that. They are investing their precious time in you, so why get angry? Ignoring them is best ways to handle it, and any tourist in India will learn in time. By then it'll be a lot easier to select the items you want to take home.
Again we kick off our day at 6:00 am. After a bit of haggling we struck a bargain with the rickshaw driver. For Rs. 100 he will brind us to the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and the Baby Taj (photo). At the entrance of the Taj Mahal you can buy a combined ticket (Rs. 105 - I received an email in November 2000 telling me the fee has gone up to Rs. 600) allowing entry into three other main sites. We're about the first to enter the Taj Mahal, regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world. A first glimpse through the massive red sandstone gateway is breathtaking. Because of the misty morning it's difficult to discern the white marble of the Taj Mahal from the light-gray tint of the sky that surrounds it. And then we stand right in front of a marvelous monument. The only thing that separates us from the Taj is a long, small watercourse, spitefully without water. The poet Tagore once described the Taj as "a tear on the face of eternity", a building to echo the cry "I have not forgotten, I have not forgotten, O beloved". When the sun rises, the enduring monument to love starts to clear up its fulfilling beauty. After his wife died, the Mughal emperor became more and more involved with another love, architecture, resolving to build her the most magnificent memorial on earth. This white pearl is supported by four minarets at each corner of the plinth and flanked by two identical red sandstone buildings. The exterior ornamentation is calligraphy (verses of the Koran), beautifully carved panels in bas relief and superb inlay work. I espescially like the precious stones for the inlay; f.e. red carnelian, brown jasper, green jade and blue lapis lazuli. When you move over the surface within the tomb by placing a flashlight you can see how luminescent the marble is and the intricity of the inlay work. The red carnelian glows like a human heart, as a sign of passionate love. This is incredible beautiful. The Taj Mahal had been photographed so many times that it was almost impossible for me to come out with something stunning so I decided to shoot some asymmetric, slanting parts.
The next morning we go with a Hindustan Ambassador to MATHURA, one of the most sacred cities of Hinduism. It is near 50 km from Agra and we drive about two hours. In India, you don't wanna know how far it is from one place to another but how long it takes to get there! For Vaishnavites Mathura is perhaps the supremely sacred city of India, being the reputed birthplace of Krishna, the most human aspect of Vishnu. Its religious association draws thousands of pilgrims. We visit some kind of home for widows. Two rooms filled with hundreds of women sitting on th ground praying. Their husbands died and they don't have children. Nobody takes care of them anymore. This is the first time I feel bad and even a little depressed. Standing back on the street is a relief. The Yamuna river and its ghats are the focal point for the pilgrims. Many people are begging for money and there are monkeys everywhere. Although Mathura is a sacred city, for me it is more a beggary place. We take a boat ride along the river and the bathing ghats. People wash their clothes and themselves in the water, they swim in it and even drink from it. Furthermore, the Yamuna river is one the most polluted rivers of India. I don't enjoy the boat ride because the boatsman and a little boy work theirselves into a sweat while pulling away against the stream. If you have plenty of time you can go back to Agra by boat but I don't think about it one more minute.
Back at the hotel we do the same as yesterday afternoon; swimming and playing cards. In the evening we go to Only restaurant, a few minutes walk from the hotel. It has a pleasant atmosphere with live music and they serve good food.
Today we enter Madhya Pradesh - the heart of India -, one of the country's least visited regions. It is difficult to understand why because in addition to some of India's most beautiful rural scenery it contains sites of outstanding historical interest and many forests. We are on our way to visit the magnificent palaces of Orchha and the exotic temples of Khajuraho. Soon we notice that this is a completely unspoilt area which we can visit without any kind of pressures. At lunch time we stop at the W of the Gwalior Fort. This hill fort of GWALIOR once was the key to control of the central provinces. We don't have much time so we decide not to lunch and to visit some temples within the complex. Above the Urwahi Gate, on both sides of the road, are many Jain sculptures hewn out of the red sandstone rocks, some up to 20 m tall. It reminds me of the fantastic rock-cut forgotten city of Petra. Inside the fort we first walk to the Sas Bahu Mandirs, "Mother and Daughter-in-law" pair of temples. They still preserve fine carvings, like for example a frieze of elephants and a few erotic scenes. These are the most interesting temples I've seen on this trip so far. Because we are short of time we move straight on the Man Mandir Palace. It's the most impressive building in the fort. The exterior walls of the palace are richly ornamented with parapets, cupolas and blue, green and yellow tilework with patterns of elephants, ducks and dancing figures. It's also possible to go two storeys underground. These places were used as refuge from hot weather or as dungeons. Nowadays this is the perfect home for a swarm of bats! We leave the fort through the Alamgiri Gate. It's a long way down.
In the afternoon we stop once more in the first town of significance on our road to Orchha. It's called DATIA. With hardly a tourist in sight it is certainly well worth visiting! Datia has several palaces and we visit the one near the edge of town. It blends Mughal and Rajput styles beautifully. Built on an uneven rocky ridge, the Govind Mandir palace has five storeys ornamented with cornices, balconies and oriel windows. In the central courtyard is a seperate five-storey structure topped by a principal dome. The inner tower is connected with the surrounding outer square of the palace by four double-storey flying bridges, completing this unusual architectural marvel. This well preserved yet deserted monument has become my favourite. From the highest level we have a fine look over the lake, some water buffaloes and the other palaces. The environment is extremely beautiful. The sun descends and the sandstone transforms into warm colours. I wish we could stay here the whole night long, but we have to move on to Orchha.
Sunday, October 11, 5:30 AM. I wake up in picturesque ORCHHA, a small village in the middle of nowhere, abandoned and somewhat neglected, set on an island on a bend in the Betwa river. This is supposed to be a beautiful day. On this day the Hindi symbol "AUM" will have a very special meaning for me. It not only looks like our number 30, it also means "good luck"! My friends wish me a happy birthday and we start our day with a walk beside the river. On one side of the river the men are washing themselves and the boys are playing and swimming, on the other side the women are also washing and cleaning their clothes. We move on to the village. A 1 km paved path links the centre of Orchha with the Lakshminarayan Temple. From the rooftop of this temple, we see the sun rise from behind the palace on the other side of town. Within the temple there are excellent murals on the walls and ceiling of the four galeries. They portray Hindu deities, scenes from the epics, historical events as well as giving an insight into domestic pleasures of royalty. Around eight, we sit and enjoy the peaceful silence on a bench on the courtyard in front of the Ram Raja Temple. A holy man - almost naked, with long black hair and a painted face - is walking circles around the temple. There's a ceremony going on within this pink house of God. We buy cold mineral water - it's very hot - and some small bronze statues - as souvenirs - in the small bazar (photo), which is nothing more than a few narrow streets, before we enter the Chaturbhuj Temple, a few steps from the Ram Raja Temple courtyard. We climb up one of the corner staircases - steep and uneven - which lead up, by stages, to the very top of the temple. On the third level we decide to access the tiny balconies which provide privilegd seating and a good view over the centre of the village. Two little boys have followed us. As we sit to play cards we give them some Rupees to get us some cold drinks. A few minutes later they return with five cold Pepsi Cola. Of course they can keep the change. This is the first day I win most of the games. But then of course, my friends probably let me win today! At noon, we're on the move again. Orchha contains three palaces, each built by succeeding Maharadjas, surrounded with many temples. We enter the medieval fort palace, the Raj Mahal. The palace has plain outer walls, surmounted by chhattris (umbrella shaped dome or pavillion). Through the many hidden staircases we can climb up to the top. The view across the palaces with their chhattris and ornamented battlements, elevated above the surrounding wooded countryside, is enchanting. Orchha is a largely untouched island in peace and calm. All around, the forest is encroaching on the numerous tombs and monuments. The royal chambers of this palace have some fine murals from Hindu mythology on ceilings and walls which are strong and vivid. The Raj Mahal is amazingly beautiful. Because it's my birthday I make a reservation in the Sheesh Mahal inside the fort. I would be fun to have a table on the rooftop terrace this evening. It will be arranged. We spend the rest of the afternoon walking around in the beautiful countryside, hunting for souvenirs and playing cards in the shadow of a ruined temple.
This morning, I have a long lie-in. I take breakfast under a big tree in the garden of the hotel. Around 10:00 am our bus leaves. Today we're off to Khajuraho. It's a short trip but because of the bad condition of the road it takes about six hours. In India, you don't calculate distances in kilometers but in time! There's only one traffic lane and they apply the law of the strongest. If a big truck approaches from the opposite direction our bus has to clear the road, so we zigzag along the road all the time. Walking beside the road a group a barefooted women, in brightly coloured saris, carry the most incredible burden on their heads while little children tug at mother's skirts. Carts pulled by camels are improbable high heap up. The landscape is very green with rocky and forested crags, little lakes, rice-fields and picturesque villages.
We kick off the day at 6 o'clock in the morning. We jump on our bicycles and cycle to the entrance of the Western Group. The ticket office just opens when we arrive so we're the first to enter. The entrance fee is only Rs. 5. The temples are in a peaceful setting of a beautiful park with lots of different flowers. The first temple to visit is the Lakshmana Temple. The exterior is richly carved. The platform has friezes of hunting and battle scenes with soldiers, elephants and horses as well as scenes from daily life including the erotic. I don't think that the temple fatigue is likely to set in quickly because it's amazingly impressive! The temple is tall, raised on a high platform with an ambulatory path around the pyramidal tower. There are carvings everywhere you look and each one is different. The rising sun colours the stones warm-hearted red. The basement again has bands of carvings - friezes showing animals, soldiers, acrobats, musicans, dancers, gods and goddesses, sensual lovers and deities. As we walk through the garden, we notice that it is well kept. The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple and the Jagadambi Temple are both on the same platform. The first one is the largest and tallest of the Khajuraho temples. There are nearly 900 statues of gods, goddesses and erotic groupings carved in stones of different colours. The erotic scenes appeal to one's imagination and indicate that sexual behaviour often go hand in hand with a certain amount of acrobatics! The postures are not always as ordinary or obvious. They disarm sexual frankness and candour, without any trace of guilt. The sculpters weren't so prudish during the 11th century, I guess. The erotic scenes also have very much in common with the famous Kama Sutra - the classical love manual, a watershed in the rich tradition of Indian erotica. It says to the world: "Happiness and sexual equality belong to every human being". In reality, the temples have a very indirect association with the Kama Sutra because the book is written long after the temples were built in the 11th century. But the temples really live up to their reputation, creating a photographer's paradise to shoot a lot of details. Who says Khajuraho is not synonymous with erotic sculpture?
On our way back, we follow a small path into nature until we find a place to relax in the shadow of a big tree. As we stop a few Indian men come out of nowhere. They just keep standing there staring at us, so we decide to move on again. I guess you can almost never be alone in this country. After we change some money in the local bank in Khajuraho we cycle to the Vamama Temple, one of the Eastern Group. The walls are adorned with sensuous sura-sundaris (celestial nymphs) but erotic sculptures are not prominent. There are lots of little children on the platform so the women among us are willing to play and dance with them as shown onto the carvings. I start a conversation with a 19 years old boy who wants to become a guide. He perfectly speaks English and maintains that he also speaks Italian, Spanish, French and even Japanese. He's trying to get a scholarship to go to Paris after a few years to finish his study in Indian history. He tells me a lot about the culture of the temples in this area and he offers me to be our guide in his village nearby. Before we enter the village we first visit the Javari Temple with its tall, slender sikhara. It has a highly decorated doorway and finely sculpted figures on the walls. I especially like this temple because it stands lonely on open land. The boy shows me the different gods and goddesses and several erotic scenes from which you can conclude that women wanted more from men by seducing them. On the other side of the temple it is the other way around; men seducing women. After the boy has shown us his village we move on to the rest of the Eastern Group, three Jain temples standing within an enclosure wall. I find them less interesting so I cycle down a path off the road to the southern Duladeo Temple. This temple also stands on open land. It isn't a very interesting temple but the setting is attractive at sunset. So I have to wait a little bit longer. In the mainwhile I write my dairy. It's a beautiful way to end this day overflown with Indian culture.
Exactly at 5 o'clock in the morning we leave for a long and exhausting trip to India's most sacred city, VARANASI. The first part of the road is pretty good but then it only get worse. The bus shakes from the left to the right, up and down, so mind your head! On our way we stop at a dhaba, a small hut beside the road where truck-drivers stop to rest on the with ropes made beds and to drink tea. Most of the time these beds stand in the open air around the hut. The countryside we drive through is very beautiful and green. Many tints colour the landscape. There are many rice-fields and now and then we see a farm near the road. The yellow ochre colour of the loam houses and dry straw form a beautiful pattern with all the various greens.
Varanasi - or Banaras - is one of the holiest cities in India, and lies on the banks of the Ganga River. Very early in the morning, at 5:00 am, we take a auto-rickshaw to the Desaswamedh Ghat to see the activities going on at the ghats. The busy street leading to the ghat is so crowded that it is almost impossible for vehicles to go through the waves of human wall. Finally we get down on foot to reach the holy river. The ghats are covered with all kinds of parasols and high sticks with baskets wherein little lights burn. The view of the river is fantastic, especially during the early hours. Small little boats and the row of buildings along the bank disappear into the misty distance as they follow the curve of this holy river. Men and women, the olds and the youngs, all come to bath in the holy river before the day breaks. Bathing here is regarded as being almost as meritorious as making the sacrifice. It has become somewhat of a tradition to take a boat ride along the river and the bathing ghats for the sunrise. It is a very pleasant way to start the day. Men tend to wear loincloths while most women bathe discretely still wearing their saris. Other people are praying, immersing themselves into the dirty water, or offering water to the sun while leaf-boat lamps are floated down the river. Again others are washing their clothes... And the rowers work theirselves into a sweat while pulling away against the stream.
In the late afternoon we go to Assi Ghat for a boat ride to Ramnagar, across the river. It's only a few kilometers away from Varanasi but it takes more than an hour to get there. It's a hell of a job for the rowers because it's a battle against the stream. They almost sweat theirselves to death. It's a lot easier on the way back. We get off at a burning ghat. I won't get into details of what I saw back there...
I return to Delhi by train. It takes about 15 hours but they pass fast if you sleep. Good luck, you'll have a wonderful time! Be patient and don't mind the heat. Eat vegetarian, it's safer. India is a fascinating experience, that as soon as you get home, you will want to return!
This is a non-profit web page. All the establishments mentioned in this travelogue are places I've been to and which I would like to recommend to people who like to travel around in the northern part of India. I hope you'll enjoy your visit as much as I have!
I would especially like to thank my dear friends — Sophie, Maarten and Cecile — who joined me on this trip.
Travelogue and photographs by Joël Neelen © November1998. All Rights Reserved.
| Index ||
| Algeria, Tassili n'Ajjer | Greece, the Dodecanese | Greece, the Cyclades | Morocco, the Massif Sirwa | Morocco, the High Atlas |
| Cuba | India | Egypt | Yemen | Jordan | Myanmar | Peru | Turkey | Barcelona |