Of Temples and Palaces: Khajuraho, Orchha, Gwalior

Trip Start Oct 09, 2008
Trip End Jan 16, 2009

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Flag of India  , Madhya Pradesh,
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Of Temples and Palaces: Khajuraho, Orchha, Gwalior

We took our first night train from Varanasi to Satna, an utterly unenjoyable experience as first we had to shoo someone out of one of our simple bunks and then Gine was stared at by a few of the male-only travellers in our 8-birth second-class sleeper compartment while I was bitten to death by the mozzies. From now on we've chosen to up our expenses for train travel to go in air condidtion carriages for the longer journeys. Relentless staring by the way is something most western women complain about. Even if you tell someone not to stare they will continue. It's a form of curiosity with no concept of a comfort limit. From Satna then we took a tight bus designed for short-legged people to Khajuraho where we handed over our letter of recommendation from our well connected Mr Kahn to get a good price at the Surya Hotel.

Khajuraho is famous for it's intricately carved Jain and Hindu temples, created by the long forgotten local Chandela dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries A.D., a time when the famous Hindu (and later Buddhist) Angkor temples in Cambodia were created. And both temple complexes compare in their structure and the style of carvings. At Kahajuraho the carvings are more elaborate and much deeper, almost standing free of the rocks they were carved from. The motives are Gods, and divine females with very imposing and gravity-defying busts, dancing, seductively contorting themselves or quite openly engulfed in the joyful pleasures of the Kamautra. And as sex sells this (small) part of sculpted art is the main drawing factor for tourists. Altogether the highly artistic sculptures are stunning and surprisingly well preserved. I am certain very few, if any, artisans nowadays, even with modern tools, would have the skills to produce such original work.

The next day we took the bus to Orcha that's somewhat off the tourist track and hosted our first Mughal Palace and a couple of temples to boot. "The Mughals" is a general term given to the islamic insurgents from Persia/Afghanistan in the first few hundred years of the islamic expansion. They conquered vast pasrts of northern India and installed their kings or "Maharajas" here. The most famous was Akbar, other celebrated moghuls we've come across so far were Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) and his son Aurangzheb who deposed him.

Now the fort in Orcha is a 3-level imposing structure of sandstone overlooking a wide river valley. It is stripped bare on the insides, but fun to climb around, especially as its spires are a nesting ground for large vultures, and a perch for Indian rollers and parakeets. 

The Laxmi temple is built in the form of a bird (in Hindu mythology, the half-man, half-bird garuda is the riding animal of Vishnu, Laxmi's consort). It's quite intersting for its well preserved wall and ceiling paintings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, but also Muslim motives and caricature-esque drawings of the British.   

There's a further temple looming over the entire town. It's a solid structure, also stripped-bare in its cathedral-like vast interior. But for a baksheesh the warden will lever out one of the locked doors and allow you to climb up to the rooftops with stunning (especially sunset) views over the temple-strewn jungel landscape, the fort and the town below. A scene that is only topped by the majestic vultures soaring past at eye level.

We probably had our best shower on the whole trip in Orcha and met two lovely travellers, Rod from England and Mary from Canada who were there to document the progress of a German-funded school for lower caste children. Although India is becoming increasingly modern it is far from abolishing it's 4-tier caste system. With your social status fixed from birth, certain jobs still restricted to specific casts and certainly marriages not crossing caste boundries it all remains very archaic in a way. Then the castes may be one of the few structures helping to avert utter chaos within the Indian society. Anyway, in the lower, untouchable, caste few children have access to education and this particular free school tries to help the parents economically so they can free up the children from the family business to at least learn to read, write and count. Child labour is rife in India and few family businesses will not also use their children to chip in. We've ween children at weaving looms. So although there are strict laws banning child labour in India they, like most other laws governing society, are not enforced.

Orcha was certainly a beautiful stop with the only downside the 900% hike in admission fees for tourists in the last year, yet it looks like the money is at least being invested in conservation work.

The next day we took the train to Madhya Pradesh's capital, Gwalior, to visit the majestic and expansive hilltop fort towering above the sprawling city below. The way up leads past huge Jain sculptures (basically standing naked men), desecrated by the Muslim invaders who chopped off heads and testicles. Our first stop on top was our first ever Sikh temple, dedicated to the sixth Sikh guru and a thoroughly pleasant experience. We had to wash our hands and feet and wear an orange headband. We had a nice talk with a Sikh who was in the army and got invited to have lunch in the Gurdwara, the large temple complex also housing a communal kitchen and accomodation for pilgrims. The accomodation and food is generally free for a donation. We savoured the hospitality by our turban-clad and impressivly bearded cheerful hosts before we moved on to visit a few ruined temples. 

There are several ruined palaces within the fort one of which is well preserved: The Man Singh Mahal. Built in the late 16th century it's a quirky palace inside and out, with some remnants of it's formerly fully tiled exterior showing tigers and elephants, but also a ring of blue and yellow ducks! On the inside we marvelled at the small passages the ladies could wander through to observe the activities of the males at court, at the well engineered lighting and air-conditioning systems that illuminated and ventilated the 2 subterranean levels of the palace, one of which allegedly bore swings for the many queens and another one held a pool. The two levels were able to communicate through one of the world's first intercoms: 2 tubes dangling from the walls.

In the evening we visited the Scindia Museum a Maharaja clan that remains one of the most influential families in the country with its members firmly rooted in ministerial posts (another befitingly oppulent price hike here). It's a lavishly decorated huge white square complex with an indoor pool, a display of coaches (and a BMW Isetta), weapons, hunting trophies, dining silver and ebony furniture. The rooms are vast affairs with the stateliest dining room housing 3 lines of long banquet tables, the middle of which has a silver "brandy train" running atop it. The most exuberant room is the large dance hall that could well stand in Versailles: extending under a high roughly oval ceiling it's illuminated by two 3.5 tonne chandeliers. Some guys have it all!

Next stop was to be Agra, capital of Uttar Pradesh and home to one of the seven wonders of the world.

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