The surviving temples have some of the most skillful carvings we’ve seen on this trip so far.
Another appealing factor of Khajuraho is that it is a small town, deep in rural India and far from a main road. The surrounding villages are probably more representative of the way people live away from the grim cities.
The surrounding scenery is nice as well.
Like water buffalo the world over, these local ones love hanging out submerged in ponds and mud-pools.
Here are some more views of the Khajuraho temples.
We admire the lotus-carved ceiling in a temple that features Shiva in the form of a boar.
We take the train to Bhopal. Our first stop is Bhopal’s incredible Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum.
(We weren’t even aware that there were tribal people in this state. Of course, there’s a lot we don’t know about the country.
This is unlike any other museum we’ve seen in India. In fact, it’s unique. Often, museums about tribal people are not much more than dusty cases of bows and arrows, with a few woven baskets and fishnets.
This museum is different. Built in 2013, it explains the lifestyle and world view of the tribes using a riot of artistic exuberance.
The displays kind of… explode all around you.
Any of the exhibits here would be a hit at any museum in London or New York.
Bhopal itself a large and rather gritty city.
We hire a car and driver one afternoon and visit Sanchi.
Sanchi was built by King Ashoka to house some Buddhist relics.
The gates tell, among other things, tales from the life of Buddha.
We visit the abandoned site of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. The deadly accident that takes place here in 1984 – long before many people were born, including 75% of Indians – is what places Bhopal on the map for much of the world.
This is what the plant looked like in 1984.
This is the main gate today. It’s not officially open to the public.
Being at ground zero of the world’s worst industrial accident is chilling.
An overgrown forest now stands where offices and administrative buildings once covered the grounds. We’re told to ‘be careful of snakes’.
Every now and then, a dead cow floats by. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere.
Normally, the riverfront serves as a landmark (watermark?) by which to navigate the labyrinth of Varanasi lanes – you just follow the shoreline.
Because the water is so high at this time of year, we hire a guide to walk us through the alleys of old Varanasi. Otherwise we’d never find our way in the maze.
The laneways are constantly thronged with chanting people carrying the deceased down to the river for cremation.
This is one of the cremation ghats. Bodies are washed in the Ganges, then cremated, then the ashes are thrown in the river. This is a good thing if you’re a Hindu. It means immediate moksha.
Selling firewood for the cremation ghats is big business.
Strolling through town, we come across a school, where we take a rest in the entrance-way.
As mentioned, we hire a guide to walk us though the labyrinth of lanes in old Varanasi. When we go out on our own, we are lost within minutes.
This kid is leading his brick-laden mules through a part of town that is being razed (on dubious authority) and reclaimed by Indian real estate speculators. Look for an extremely ugly concrete hotel here in the near future.
It doesn’t take much space to run a business here. This paan-seller manages with a square metre or so.
Paan is the source of the solid encrustations of red spit that you see everywhere in India. It must be addictive, because men are always rolling it around in their palms, then stuffing it into their mouths. We seldom take a tuk-tuk ride where the driver doesn’t have to stop and buy some more from the ubiquitous paan shops.
In this temple, kids prepare plants that are sacred to Shiva.
We visit nearby Sarnath. This is where Buddha is supposed to have given his first sermon after his enlightenment.
His actual enlightenment took place beneath a tree in Bhodgaya, a few hundred kilometres from here.
We head down to the bathing ghats. There are many, many religious items for sale.
Bathing in the Ganges is a means of purification. Just look out for the dead cows.
We fly from the Andamans to Calcutta. It’s not as ghastly as we first fear. Considering that from 1772 to 1911, Calcutta was the capital of British India, it has a distinctive character. Some tree-lined streets, some interesting neighbourhoods.
We visit the nearby Indian Museum, a beautiful building that dates from 1875. Like most Indian museums, it’s sadly in need of upkeep.
The most stunning exhibit is the Bharhut Gallery. This features 2,000-year-old carved stone gates from an ancient Buddhist complex in Madhya Pradesh state. (Virtually nothing is left at the site today.) Photography is prohibited, and the photos on the website don’t do them justice, but the carved and polished sandstone pieces are some of the most beautiful objects we’ve seen in India so far.
We like the fossil room, it’s wonderfully Victorian. Dusty wooden cabinets everywhere.
There are hundreds of schoolkids around. These girls insist on a group shot with Maria, because she’s so exotic.
While walking in town, we are caught in a torrential downpour. We take cover in a shop that sells fountain pens.
We then duck into a place for a samosa and a chai. These flavourful little beauties cost 30 cents each – Canadian! – served in a terra cotta container. Eat your hearts out, Starbucks patrons.
We come across the Tipu Sultan Mosque. We’ve been fans of Tipu Sultan for a long time.
I remember being mesmerized by Tipu’s Tiger the first time I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in – well, let’s not mention the year. Then when Maria went to southern India for business a few years ago, we followed a sort of Tipu circuit – on rented bicycles – visiting Seringapatam, Tipu’s summer palace, and Tipu’s tomb.
We wonder why this mosque is in Calcutta, far from Tipu’s usual stomping grounds in Mysore. All is revealed here.
He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. We’ve never read any of his stuff, but writer’s/artist’s houses are usually worth a visit. Interesting man. Interesting house.
We arrive in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. Officially, it’s the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We come here because we like islands.
We are here for nearly two weeks. Because it is monsoon season, it rains most of the time. Like, 80 per cent of the time. And not in occasional sprinkles, as we see elsewhere in India – the rain comes down in cataclysmic deluges. In gushing inundations. In cascading torrents. In cats and dogs and tigers. You get the idea.
But it’s all good. We have no illusions that we can expect anything else when traveling at this time of the year. It’s very relaxing. Especially because we are essentially cut off from the world: no internet or phone service.
The Andamans were in the news recently when a would-be American missionary was killed by the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island.
These islands are the home of many different tribal people, most of whom are now ‘assimilated’ to Indian rule to difference degrees.
One of our first stops is the Cellular Jail. A main reason for the British taking over the Andamans was as a warehouse for Indian political prisoners, beginning from the time of the Indian Mutiny. It’s an unusually solemn place for Indian visitors.
The prison gives many details of savage atrocities supposedly committed by the British. There is a suspicious shortage of documentation for this, outside of the usual stories of cruel hardship common to all contemporary prisons. For example, the linked Wikipedia article says this:
‘It is estimated that of the total 80,000 political prisoners the British Raj held at the Kalapani, a very few survived. ‘
Does this imply that, say, 79,937 political prisoners died in captivity? Proof, please. And not to indulge in ‘whatabout-ism‘, but modern-day India is not exactly known for the Scandinavian mildness of its prisons.
Port Blair from above.
‘Well, there we were stuck in Port Blair, Where boats break and children stare…‘ – Jack Johnson, Holes to Heaven
This song is the only one in existence that I know of that mentions Port Blair. It’s a sort of hapax legomenon of popular music. (I believe the term came into use from Homeric studies, where a hapax legomenon is a word that is only used once in the body of Homer’s work.) I mention echidna as another one in an earlier blog entry.
On Havelock Island, which they say has some of the most beautiful beaches in Asia in the proper season, we venture further afield on the rare occasions that it is not raining.
This is our Robinson Crusoe-style hut that we live in for a week. It is VERY open to the elements. Maria surprises a small snake in our room one day.
On a morning when it’s not raining, we head for Radhanagar Beach on the west side of the island.
‘Wading’ is more accurate – very few people in India know how to swim.
Our waterlogged week is up. We wait for the ferry back to Port Blair.
On another day in Port Blair, we take a boat to nearby Ross Island.
This is where the original British settlement in the Andamans was located. These days, it’s like Angkor Wat, except the jungle is reclaiming Victorian English structures rather than Khmer ruins.
It was abandoned after an earthquake and the administrative centre moved to Port Blair.
Sight or Insight of the Day
Indians really hate the British. As reported, the chief tourist attraction in Port Blair is the cellular jail. Because it held political prisoners of India’s independence movement, it is a shrine-like destination for people from all over India.
Never mind that millions of South Asians took the first opportunity to move to the UK – the official line of the modern Government of India is that living under British Rule was no different than life under the brutal occupation of, say, Nazi Germany. Every museum we’ve been to makes this abundantly clear.
It’s understandable that India would be happy to see the backs of the British and to become maître chez eux. But to equate the rule of the British with the extermination campaigns of genocidal monsters is not true. And because it’s not true, it does a disservice to history as a science and a discipline, as opposed to history as the propagation of feel-good stories for the simple-minded. (A notable recent trend in the West is ‘history as the propagation of feel-bad stories for the simple-minded’.)
It seems ironic that the Moghul Era and centuries leading up to it – when marauders from central Asia swept into the subcontinent, imposing a foreign religion, burning cities, and razing temples – is often considered as the ‘Golden Age’ of India. While the railway-building, archeology-inclined British are officially reviled. (Even though they introduced cricket, a national obsession.)
It’s also ironic that with this attitude, India celebrates as one of the greatest heroes of her independence struggle Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a man who in fact did spend his time in the company of actual genocidal monsters. Like Heinrich Himmler.
And here is Netaji Bose at the far right with his fellow-quislings flanking General Tojo.
Calcutta’s airport is renamed after Netaji. (We like its previous name – Dum Dum Airport.)
Point of interest: it’s not as if by gaining independence, India has escaped the shackles of misrule. A frankly incredible 43 per cent of Indian Members of Parliament have been charged with serious crimes. So in a final irony, the once-globe-straddling British can now scarcely govern their own small island. While the citizens of India are ruled by people who routinely rape, rob, and murder them with impunity.
We fly from Kochi back to Delhi to take care of some business. Our Air India flight has a female pilot. (For why this seems unusual, see below.) Our landing in Delhi is the smoothest we’ve ever experienced in hundreds of touchdowns. Just sayin’.
We need a break from India. So we fly to Singapore for a week.
We love Singapore. We’ve been here before on this trip. Twice. We could live here in a heartbeat.
It’s like Toronto, except with tropical weather, a superb metro system, and a nearby ocean. And no drug addicts, panhandlers, or homeless people. Come to think of it, it’s not like Toronto at all.
(People are often impressed by Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan, dynamic city-state. When we were there, we often found ourselves looking at each other and stating ‘Meh. It’s no Singapore’. Especially now that it’s obvious how vulnerable HK is to being crushed under the Chinese jackboot.)
We make another attempt at having a Singapore Sling in Raffles Hotel. (Last time we were here, it was closed for renovations.)
No luck: when we get to the Long Bar, there is a lengthy queue of tourists with the same plan. We abandon the idea.
Among the many pleasant aspects of being in Singapore is that there are a lot of women around everywhere you go.
Strange for a non-Muslim-majority country, there seems to be a huge preponderance of men around in India compared to women. An extremely non-objective, anecdotal observation: whenever I look up from my usual oblivious reverie in India, about 80 to 85 per cent of the people around are males. This makes for a too-many-dicks-on-the-dance-floor scenario. It’s kind of depressing.
Don’t be fooled by ‘Singapore’ in the title – we are in fact in Khajuraho in north-central India at the moment.
Maria gifts me three days in a five-star hotel here. We are treated to a sumptuous al fresco birthday dinner.
Where does the time go? I feel like I just got here. In the world, that is.
When we were in Melbourne, my friend Philip produced an old photo from his archives. It’s 1980. In Pemberton, West Australia, a group of young fellow travelers rent bicycles on a sunny afternoon and visit a waterfall in the forest. The world is a good place. A Zen moment is captured on film.
(And yes, they had colour film ‘in those days’. It’s black & white for artistic reasons.)
We’ve seen VOC outposts all around Asia, as well as their buildings in different cities in the Netherlands.
This mural is a pretty good statement about the plight of the poor fish in the Arabian Sea.
We visit the Paradesi synagogue. Photography is prohibited inside, but you can use the wikipedia link for interior views.
Sight or Insight of the Day
The media in India is full of news about India’s second moonshot, the Chandrayaan-2 mission. It’s not going well.
I cannot for the life of me imagine why a country where you can’t drink water out of the tap wastes its time, money, and resources looking for ‘possible water sources’ on the moon. To impress the world with its technical prowess? The world – not to mention the citizens of India – would be a lot more impressed if India could miraculously join the limited club of nations in which the tap water doesn’t kill you.
So, Goa first. We know it’s rainy season, but we go anyway.
Goa, in case you don’t know, is a former Portuguese territory that used to be famous as a hippy Mecca back in the day. It has grown by leaps and bounds into an all-round sun destination for everyone, including Russian drug dealers and their baggage of violence and mayhem.
There is none of that here during the monsoon season. In Palolem, far in the south of Goa, there is the air of a closed-down fairground. 90% of places are closed for the season, covered with vinyl tarps. The sea is dangerously rough. It rains a lot.
It’s a peaceful change from urban India. We’re happy to sit on our veranda and watch the rain come down in blessed silence. We get to do some exercise.
One day, we hire our driver, Dominic – he picked us up from the airport – for an excursion to the town of Old Goa.
The state of Goa grows a lot of rice, which thrives at this time of year.
We see several billboards similar to this in Margao. Because ‘Anybody born before 19th December 1961 in Goa, and up to the third generation, are eligible to become a Portuguese citizen.‘ This is a change from most cities that advertise – falsely, in most cases – easy access to citizenship of the UK, Canada, and Australia for one billion, three hundred and twenty-four million, one hundred and seventy-one thousand, three hundred and fifty-four Indians.
There are still a few well-preserved Portuguese-style buildings in Goa.
…and lots of churches, of course.
We depart on an overnight train from Margao (known as ‘Madgaon’ locally) to Kochi in Kerala State. We hire Dominic one last time to drive us into town.