It’s a rather grand sounding blog title to describe our wanderings this week through some impressive religious ruins in Central India. India is a hugely spiritual place for several religions and we’ve covered a lot of them – Buddhism at Ajanta caves; Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism at Ellora caves; and an ancient Islamic city at Mandu.
But let’s start with some more practical points, we’ve been driving through rural India now for several weeks. We stocked up with provisions in Varanasi but our stores have run low. Shopping in the small towns has taken some adjusting to. It is usually Steve who does the shopping while the girls do school. Being highly organised he likes to shop once a week with a strict list of items for meals he has planned in advance (as much as I tease him about his tendencies, it works for him and we all enjoy the fruits of his labours). It’s not that there isn’t food in these towns but as most people are almost completely self-sufficient small scale farmers the range in the shops and stalls is rather limited. It has been like one of those TV shows where they arrive with a bag of random foods and the chief has to create a meal with it. “Can we make a week’s meals out of a cauliflower, potatoes, onions, peas, bananas, tomatoes, eggs and lots of crisps?” he asked after his foraging trip into a village near one of the tiger parks. We tried lots of other towns on the road but they all had virtually the same things. As an avid carnivore he felt this diet was definitely lacking – cows are sacred; sheep rare; goat needs a lot of cooking; and having seen what pigs eat here on the side of the road even he is not keen on eating them. That leaves chickens which can be brought “fresh, fresh” (i.e. live) on the side of the road on the edges of towns. As most people don’t have fridges they take them home alive but the sellers will deal with them for you if you ask. They’ve been delicious but personally I’d prefer them all packaged and tidy like in Tescos.
Ajanta Caves have one of the prettiest locations in the whole of India, situated in a horseshoe bend on the remote Waghore River. We had spent the previous night 4kms away in the carpark at the main entrance, so rose early and hiked through quiet forest and fields. It was blissfully quiet and so wonderful to starch our legs after so long sitting in the truck. We arrived at the caves just as the first shuttle bus pulled up divulging scores of noisy school kids. As a former teacher, I’m used to loud school trips but Indian kids even impress me with their volume. If they are rich enough to have a phone, they are also very keen on selfies with foreigners, which gets a bit tiring after a while. We sneaked passed the group while they were being lined up by their teachers and climbed up to the start of the 29 caves. They were cut out of the rock between 2nd Century B.C. to the 6th Century A.D. by devout Buddhists as a place of meditation. To protect the exquisite tempera paintings, the lights were on low which made them even more atmospheric. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness we could make out the beautiful carved pillars, mandalas, figures and at the end in an antechamber was a seated statue of Buddha. As the kids caught us up, we slid out. The caves were a mixture of prayer halls, monasteries and monk’s cells, wonderfully carved out of the solid rock and silently atmospheric. We were pleased we kept ahead of the crowds, as we climbed to the lookout on the opposite bank of the river we could see hordes of people arriving to admire the caves. It’s impressive that so many people are keen to see their cultural heritage, many countries would love to have their population so interested in the past.
It was just a couple of hours drive from Ajanta to another set of caves, Ellora. As Ajanta’s time passed Ellora rose from600-1000 A.D. It wasn’t just the Buddhists that were busy here but the Hindus and the Jains too, showing impressive religious tolerance as they are side by side. We were completely blown away by the Hindu Kailasa Temple, the biggest monolithic structure in the world. It’s hard to believe that this huge temple complex was carved from one piece of solid rock over 150 years by 7000 labourers. It’s solid structure was softened by delicate carvings. Climbing up to its surrounding galleries you got a real sense of the the amazing engineering that took place 1300 years ago, as you could see the jagged rock above morph into the smooth contoured lines of the temple below. Huge monasteries, temples and stunning statues were contained in the 33 other caves. I couldn’t really think of them as “caves”, even though they are contained within a rock face because they are all such unique man-made buildings with no rough surfaces or the smell of bat guano.
Heading northwards towards Udipur in Rajasthan, a 3 day drive, Steve picked out a spot about half-way along to have a break from our now usual petrol station night parking places during our long drives. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. I think it has some ruins and it’s only a few kilometres off the highway,” so we took the narrow winding road to Mandu through villages away from the dual-carriageway. What a good call, it turned out that Mandu was a delightful set of Afghan ruinsfrom the 15th Century. Scattered on the top of an escarpment and set amongst several villages. Pink sandstone mosques, madrassas and palaces glowed enticingly in the lateafternoon sun as we wandered into the main village to take a look. We were the only visitors and we could enjoy them at leisure while the girls made up stories about what it might be like there when it was in its heyday.
The next morning, it was the same story as we had the immaculately manicured Royal Enclave ruins to almost ourselves. No one comes to India looking for solitude, in a country of 1.2 billion people it can be hard to find a quiet spot sometimes, but it made a nice change. The ruins were extensive and full of gorgeously designed bathing pools with layers of steps for the palace’s harem. We could picture the place lit up by flickering oil lamps and billowing curtains full of the emperor’s 1500 wives, straight out of 101 Arabian Nights. As we wandered back to our parking spot in a hotel’s grounds, people smiled and said ‘Namaste,” as we passed by. The friendly food stall owner, where we had bought chapatis the night before (we were trying to substitute them for tortillas so we could have Mexican….yes, you guessed it….chicken) waved us over too see what was bubbling in the pot. It was just that sort of place, relaxed and friendly. “Let’s just stay another night, it may be a while till we find another place so tranquil,” I suggested.
It was several kilometres south to one of the main draws of the ruins, Rupmati’s Pavilion, which comes with a tragic romantic story, made famous by local folk songs. It wasn’t quite as relaxed as that morning with lots of school groups and other visitors but it was beautiful. By now the girls and Steve, were out right refusing the selfie takers but I was happy to join the families or teenage girls for a quick snap until it got to the point that I couldn’t really look around because of so many photo requests.
In a couple of months we want to do a big trek in Nepal, so we took the long walk back through villages to help us get fit. It was lovely in the late afternoon strolling through the very rural farming villages, people smiled and waved as we passed by. Mandu was an unexpected gem and definitely worth stopping for a couple of nights. As we left we could see that the ruins were scattered far and wide across the top of the escarpment, we even had to squeeze the truck through several ancient city gates on the main road down.
It was exciting as we drove northwards when we started to see camels trains and men with ridiculously big bright turbans and twirly moustaches herding sheep along the motorway, it could only mean one thing….we were getting closer to Rajasthan.