18.03.2015 - 21.03.2015 35 °C
Despite protestations from the guesthouse owner in Orchha, we decided to take the slow 3rd class pack ‘m all in as tight as you can train to Khajuraho. Supposedly, the train takes about four hours but that’s if it arrives on time.
One of my goals in India is to capture a photo that includes a monkey, a cow, a goat, a dog and a person doing their ablutions all in one shot. A shot such as this would perfectly sum up India and at the Orchha train station waiting for the Khajuraho train to turn up I nearly got my wish. Monkeys swung from the trees and flew across the train tracks, a herd of cows waited patiently for the train and one decided to stand in the middle of the tracks, a pack of three dogs hovered close by and men dressed only in loin cloths were washing themselves at the well about 10 metres from all the animals. Foolishly, I’d packed my camera so I couldn’t capture the quintessence of India that day. Still it made for an entertaining wait for the train.
Being the only tourists/foreigners yet again, we eagerly walked down the long platform to board the train which had a planned stop of exactly 1 minute 30 seconds. Fortunately, one man told us to move to the back carriage because the train split in two. Thank God he realized Khajuraho must have been our destination or who knows where we might have ended up!
To our despair, the carriages were really jam packed with people some even sitting on the floor as well as curling up into tight balls on top of the luggage racks. For once being a foreigner in India helped and a very kind family shuffled over to let us perch on the end of their bench. That made five people squished in a row on a one and a half metre bench with women on one side and men on the other.
We’ve travelled in filthy trains before but this one lowered the bar even further. There was dark, grimy water sloshing around our feet, people ate their breakfast and dropped anything unwanted as well as spat out peanut kernels all over the floor and seats. As usual I retreated into my Bose noise cancelling headphone bubble with sunglasses on and my sarong wrapped tightly around me to block it all out.
Despite the ick, we arrived in Khajuraho and we were very eager to rush out and view all the temples. Our hotel was practically empty, a phenomenon we’ve found since the beginning of March and the archaeological site was pretty vacant too. Since we were here for three days, we decided to chill out and look around rather than rush off to the temples.
Our great find was Raja’s Café. It served a fabulous range of food at very reasonable prices and it was located opposite the entrance to the temples, which meant great people watching. Needless to say, we were there for nearly every breakfast and dinner.
The temples here contain the most exquisite carvings I have ever, ever seen. Yes – they are not for the prudish but the relief carvings covering the temples are far superior to what I’ve seen anywhere in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Central America. Each temple is covered with sculptures that are totally dynamic. They all seem to move and twirl away from the temples and the detail of each is extraordinary. The braiding on the hair of women is evident as is the beading and embroidery of the saris that cling to their bodies.
Mostly, the images are very sexual and quite frankly x-rated but it isn’t really that which draws the crowds. The skill of the carvers and the stories told through the moving sculptures is what really stands out. Carvings of women twisting to take a thorn from their feet or washing their hair depict daily life clearly. Favourite sculptures included images of women applying makeup and giant elephants lifting enemy soldiers and crushing them with their trunks or stomping on them.
Another joy in Khajuraho was hiring a bike and cycling to all the temple ruins scattered in the countryside. Once again, we loved cycling through villages and examining ruins at a leisurely pace. As usual, we were lured into a school by a student who proudly showed us around and then explained all the donations the school had received. We never move around with more than a couple of hundred rupees on us so it was a bit embarrassing handing over a pathetic donation of about $2 but it was all we had at hand.
In just three days, we took well over 200 photos so the sample in the blog is very small! Getting from Khajuraho to Varanasi is a real pain in the butt so we decided to splurge and jump on a plane. From peaceful Khajuraho to the mayhem of Varanasi, India is one extreme to the next!
Varanasi has huge expectations to live up to. Known as the City of Life and one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities, pilgrims flock here to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters of the Ganges and cremate their loved ones. It is without doubt a confronting, unrelenting place but after nearly three months in India, it wasn’t too manic. Bizarrely, it all felt quite normal.
There was no way we were going to even dip a toe in the Ganges due to the pollution and dead goodness knows what in the river (devout Hindus place their dead babies into the Ganges rather than cremate them so it isn’t unusual to spot them floating down the river but fortunately that was a sight we were saved from) but it was fascinating walking from one end of the Ghats to the other. Every single thing and being is washed in the Ganges. We saw people cleansing away their sins, washing being slapped against the steps, goats being washed, dogs being washed, cows slurping from the greasy surface water and holy men chanting in small groups clustered near the water’s edge.
Not for the faint-hearted, Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning ghat and is the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. We expected to see maybe one cremation but upon arriving at the ghat, there were at least five bodies in various stages of the cremation progress. Each body is wrapped in white muslin and placed on a bamboo stretcher before being placed on a stack of wood that has been carefully calculated to burn a particular way. Apparently, sandalwood is the best and most expensive wood option. You can see from one photo the piles of wood and the scales used to weigh the precise measure for each cremation.
Obviously, we didn’t take any photos of the cremations out of respect but we did sit there watching for about 25 minutes until I couldn’t watch anymore. I was mesmerized by one body which just didn’t seem to burn. The flames licked the cremation litter but the body stayed unsinged which made me feel sick to the stomach. We got up and walked around five bodies burning furiously and then promptly got lost in Varanasi’s medieval lanes.
We only stayed in Varanasi for two days and that really is enough unless you are a cremation junkie or you have a lot of sins to wash away. The only major city left for us to see in all its magnificence is Kolkata but before we go there, we have the Sikkim state and Western Bengal to explore.