21 July 2014

Dhuandhar falls, Bhedaghat - Jabalpur, MP

Still on a high from the Tiger Ramp Walk at Panna, we start for Jabalpur, stopping en route to have lunch at a roadside joint. The waiter goes through a pile of 50-60 white plastic plates to find few without stains for us. A waiter, who made me feel like a valued guest in his house rather than just a customer. I asked him if the curd would be sour, given the heat and he was like “Ji, pehle aapko taste karayenge” (will make you taste first). And the sample was a full bowl of curd :-)

A relaxed evening with dinner in the room over loads of gupshup.

IMG_8879 IMG_8881

IMG_8899Next morning we leave early for the Dhuandhar falls and Bhedaghat. It is at Bhedaghat that the River Narmada is known to be the most spectacular and it is here that it displays such magnificence through the beautiful Dhuandhar falls.

Bhedaghat is known for the Marble Rocks where the river flows gracefully for nearly 3 kms through towering layers of marble nearly 30mts high. These are the only of its kind in India. White, green, yellow and black – the marble has many hues and the sun plays along making the rocks glint and shine. We take the recommended boat ride to get a closer look at the ethereal Marble Rocks.  The guide starts his commentary in poetic style - he points out the various types of marble in a dramatic rhyming fashion making the usual jokes about Bollywood, women, wives and marriage. His favorite seemed to be Kareena Kapoor and her boots! He points out specific rock formations like Kareena’s boots , Hanthi ka Paon among others.

 

bheda1At one point there are a lot of undercurrents and the boatmen work hard and row in a way so that we cross the river where the undercurrents are the least. At that point, suddenly it seemed as the mountains on the two sides were closing in on each other and we would get engulfed in between – an optical illusion which was so surreal yet breathtaking!!!

So serene at Bhedaghat and then just around the corner we see the Narmada in an altogether other form –full throttle with the water gushing down with full force creating the smoky cascade – breathtaking nature's power. We hang around for some time, dipping our feet in the chilled water. It was a bit sad to see people offering to jump into the waterfall for Rs 10/ :-(

On the way back we pass by the Chausat Yogini Temple standing on a hillock. Even though we were quite tired and the150 odd steps leading to the shrine look quite steep the girls decide to climb up while the guys decide to hang around in the car and wait.

 

It’s a long way up but worth the climb. A 10th century ancient temple that is the abode of Goddess Durga along with 64 yoginis or shaktis considered to be the different forms of the Goddess. The 64 exquisitely carved shrines, each one depicting a unique posture are placed in a circular fashion around the main shrine where Shiva and Parvati are seen riding on Nandi. 

The place was very calm with lush greenery around and we stood in the open courtyard just gazing at the panoramic view of the River Narmada and the surrounding landscape.

Lunch at a friend’s restaurant where we are overfed and a visit to his office. Jabalpuri Special Paan, for which we created such a fuss were not so special after all. The Chocolate Paan was supposed to be good but sold out and so we missed it.

Evening some of our group want to go watch a movie to kill time. They zero in on Queen which 2 of us had seen quite recently so even though it was a good movie, we decide to watch something else. Not a good decision, considering I don’t even remember the name of the movie I ended up watching, forget the story!

21 June 2014

Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright at Panna, Madhya Pradesh

Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And What shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

Surprise, surprise, surprise - the 1st draft of the itinerary has no mention of ANY of the wildlife reserves in MP. Logic is simple – according to S, he is jinxed and because in all his wildlife travels, he has NEVER seen an animal, if we go to a wildlife reserve with him, forget a tiger, we won’t see any wildlife at all. My take was – we’ll leave him behind in the hotel. Bandhavgarh was our first choice and we tried to rework the iti around that. However, we were told that tiger sighting is probable only at one gate and there is a limit to the no of safaris from that gate and unfortunately at the time of our visit it was fully booked out…destiny or what, the iti when we set out from Bangalore had NO mention of any wildlife reserves.

But then in Khajuraho, our hotel person recommended a visit to Panna national park early next morning, just about an hours drive from Khajuraho and on our way to Jabalpur. And so we are up really early next morning for our safari. Would we see a tiger or would S’s jinx prove true?

As we start for the safari, our guide keeps giving us info on the no of tigers and how many sightings in the last 2 weeks, the chance, the luck etc. I gauged he was under pressure to show us a tiger…so much so that he missed showing us so many beautiful birds that were flitting about. Finally, I told him…tiger is fine, it is a chance we may see but we are also interested in Birds and those are a sure shot. Why don’t you show us the birds and other wildlife…the smile on his face said it all! And so while the other entire safari jeeps went to the tiger viewpoint (as I called it), we were busy going to another part of the national park – more grassy, with more birds where we managed to see so many birds and two crocodiles . I have seen crocodiles many times but never, never a moving one. In Bannerghata national park, when we went for the nature walk, we saw a crocodile in the morning and on our return nearly 2.5 hrs later, he was still there – not having moved an inch!!! We saw one just lying around as usual at the edge of the water body and then …a movement in the water - finally saw a croc that was swimming and what a huge one…according to the guide he was 10ft…my friends thought he was exaggerating. I don’t care – it was swimming and was HUGE!

The Tigress Emerging from the forest and walking towards River Ken

We then moved to the tiger observation point – a small raised hillock with a building where the tracking jeep and devices are kept. The Ken River flowing below and the forest across the river…some 10 safari jeeps had been waiting there for a tiger sighting for nearly an hour since 7:30 AM.          As we wait, we see them leave one by one, bored and tired of waiting. Finally only 2 jeeps left, one in which a foreigner took a nap and ours. In 10 mins that also left and then as if she was waiting for everyone to leave, the tigress came out of the forest, walked slowly to the river edge, very gracefully looked left, looked right and then settled down in the water.

Several minutes later, she walked out of the water and literally did a RAMP WALK for us along the river edge. Now I know why they are called ROYAL. What a majestic animal. A great 12-15 min sighting, leaving us all totally wowed and me on a high for the rest of the trip.

S’s arguments that if we go with him, we won’t see thing were negated. The way he would go – where, where every time we saw something makes me wonder – jinx or a case of just looking in the wrong direction :-)

18 May 2014

Dilli and Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh)

Casual conversation over drinks and dinner…loads of destinations discussed which I thought would be forgotten by morning...I didn’t really expect these travels to materialize so was surprised to see an email the next morn – “Getting the the hell out”. Some emails exchanged, some recce done, some silence...but then the poke from S. We finally did get out…to a destination that was never really considered initially. No regrets there though…it was a wonderful choice.

Madhya Pradesh, the heart of Incredible India. Really??? If I look at the map, it seems more like the stomach :-). Return tickets booked before the itinerary is finalized…awesome way to get us all committed to the trip.

Parantha wali gali key paranthas Considerable reworking of the itinerary …nowhere close to what was suggested at the first instance and Day 1 we are on Delhi Metro for a gastronomic adventure in the Parantha wali gali of Chandni Chowk. Delhi sure welcomed us…what beautiful weather so, so unlike Delhi. Shop after shop selling the famous deep fried paranthas…we finally select one with some empty tables and am amazed at the variety – from the usual gobhi, dal, mooli, matar, paneer, pudina parantha to the very unusual papad, banana, cashew nut, rabdi , Kurchan and nimbu paranthas. My favorite – the Khurchan /karela parantha.

Unfortunately, the famous Ghantewala Jalebi Shop was closed and we had to make do with chat and jalebi from haldirams. After the experience of changing lines at the Central Secretariat station on the Metro, where there was no need to walk…one was just swept away by the crowd, we decided to just take autos to a nice hotel and chill there till our night train to Khajuraho.

Sculpture of a woman wringing her hair dry         Whattaay train it was…at night I kept wondering, so many stations…morning I realized it was one of those polite trains…giving way to all the other trains.

The one thing that started in Khajuraho and stayed with us all along was the hospitality of the people of MP. Always ready to help.

After a quick freshen up, we are ready to explore Khajuraho on that hot, hot day. A UNESCO world heritage site Khajuraho is believed to have had over 75 temples of which about 22 remain today. The sculptured temples are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Jain deities but are more famous or rather world renowned for the sexually explicit carvings both inside and outside the temples because of which they are sometime also called as the Kamasutra temples.

Chaturbhuj Temple         nine feet long statue of a four-handed Vishnu
According to their location, the temples are divided into three sections or zones - western, eastern and southern. We decide to start with the Eastern and Southern Group of Temples first and then post lunch move to the Western group. After a bit of a joy ride we reached the 1st of the temples, the Chaturbhuj temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Standing lonely on a high platform, this is the only temple that faces west. We are also told that this is the ONLY temple in Khajuraho devoid of any erotic carvings or sculptures and gets its name from the exquisite nine feet long statue of a four-handed Vishnu (Chatur – four and bhuja or bhujay – arms).
 
Vamana Temple Jain Temples
Vamana Temple IMG_8822
Next was the Vamana temple – with a really chubby statue of the Vamana/dwarf incarnation of Vishnu followed by the Javari temple, named so after the millet crop growing in the surrounding fields. While the main statue in the Javeri temple was headless, the entrance had a beautiful arch with Makaras. At the entrance gate were sculptures depicting Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and the nava-grahas. Finally we visited the Jain temples outside which local vendors tried to sell interesting key chains to our group. It was Khajuraho so I guess I don’t need to spell out what the key chains must have been like…but the killer was –yeh lock bhi ho jate hain ;-)

Lunch and some rest and we move to the Western group of temples. Here we got a good guide- quite knowledgeable and quite an entertainer –the way he would relate some of the stuff to the current lifestyle was quite humorous. And of course all those sexist jokes which one could expect as we looked around at the sculptures around each temple depicting couples in courtship, marriage, meditation, sex etc.

 Kandariya Mahadev Temple Varaha Mandap
The Western group was more organized with a boundary wall surrounding the temples within a large rectangular complex - starting with the Varaha Mandap we move on to the Lakshmana Temple - unique for its four subsidiary shrines at the four corners of a rectangular platform. Each of these shrines is like a mini temple. And finally the Kandariya Mahadev Temple – the largest and most magnificent temple in Khajuraho
 

As we finish the tour of the temples, we see parakeets coming from all corners - we hang around and watch as there are these 2 particular trees where all converge for the night…in an hours’ time the trees are full and one cannot see even a bit of empty space …

A light and sound show in the temple complex which left much to be desired – the highlight of the show was the drizzle and the lovely weather :-) . At the end of it we are ready for dinner and to call it a day as we have an early morning start to Panna Wildlife Sanctuary the next day.

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A day very well spent and its really impossible not to be amazed at the craftsmanship and intricate architecture of these temples built as early as 950 A.D.

10 January 2013

Machu Picchu - The City in the Clouds

This was a trip that I had been planning for a few years and I was a bit apprehensive - would it be everything that I had hoped and imagined it would be, would it be the highlight of all my travels – pretty difficult considering all the amazing places I have been too including many on this trip itself.

Anyways, the day that I had been waiting for finally arrived as I found myself heading to Machu Picchu! We had an early start that morning as there was a 20 mins drive from our hotel to the train station in Ollantaytambo and we needed to arrive at the station 30 minutes before the departure time. As we waited for all to board the bus, I noticed these mountain peaks amidst cloud cover and this one snow covered peak stood out with the sun light falling on it – a very hypnotic sight. Was this just the start of a spiritual journey?

A scenic ride and we were there, all queued up and I wished I have a nice window seat on the Peru Rail…luckily I do and so worth it –one and a half hour of stunning views of the Peruvian Andes and Andean scenery. The train ride from Ollantaytambo is geographically diverse, and runs along the canyon floor with views of the majestic mountains and glimpses of ancient ruins. We travel along the thunderous and roaring Urubamba River...someone comments – that would be nice for river rafting. I am hydrophobic but why is it that every time I see rapids I want to go river rafting. And once I am on the raft…I enjoy it but also curse myself and promise myself that this will be the last time I will ever go river rafting. But then…there never is a last time as I find myself in a raft somewhere else…sometime later. Luckily there is no river rafting here!

We cross several small colorful villages and are also pointed out the starting points of the 4 days /3 nights and the 3 days/2 nights Inca trails…which is another thing I wish I could have done but know that I don’t have the stamina for it. Maybe someday I can do the shorter one day hike at the end of the Inca Trail. We reach our destination at Aguas Calientes from where a 20 minutes dusty bus ride completes our journey to the Inca site of Machu Picchu. The ride itself is spectacular as the narrow track winds its way through a series of 18 switchbacks up the mountainside. But also very, very scary at times - with almost vertical drops plunging down into the Vilcanota Valley below, whenever a bus came from the other direction my heart missed a beat! Noticed splashes of pink and orange flowers on the mountain side – later came to know these are the orchids or Wiñay Wayna.

The Citadel of Machu-Picchu often referred to as The Lost City of the Incas is one of the most renowned examples of Inca architecture. Surrounded on three sides by the rapids of the Urubamba River, Machu Picchu (meaning old mountain) sits on a ridge at the foot of a hill called Huayna Picchu (meaning young mountain). There is another mountain called Wayna Picchu right in front of Machu Picchu. Many people climb this peak for stunning views of the site from above.

Experts differ on the purpose of Machu Picchu. Some say it was the domain of female priests, the Virgins of the Sun, but remains found on site are of both genders. Some of the female remains show the women had given birth. Others speculate that the Inca Pachacuti built it as monument to his own greatness, possibly as a summer or royal retreat. Perhaps the city was an agricultural outpost, given the number of terraces, water channels and irrigation canals. Or perhaps an observatory, the summer home of the Inca rulers, or a combination of all?
Constructed around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire, it was abandoned just over 100 years later in 1572. It is believed that the inhabitants were wiped out by smallpox before the Spanish invaders arrived in the area. Hiram Bingham, a lecturer at Yale University has been credited with "re-discovering" Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911. He was led up to Machu Picchu by a local 11 year old Quechua boy named Pablito Alvarez. Left untended, Machu Picchu would quickly become lost again, covered with rampant rain forest vegetation.

Watch Tower / Guard's Hut
Our first stop is the Watch Tower or Control gate which consists of a building with three walls and windows. From this place, one can see the urban and agricultural sectors as well as the surroundings and is an ideal spot for picture taking. The lush cloud forest, the brilliant green grass across the ruins, the massive yet immaculate structure of the ruins - spellbinding! Adding to all this, the mystery surrounding the site so that as I stood and looked down across at the site, I was left totally mesmerized.

Funerary Stone
We pass the upper cemetery with the ritual stones. In every Inca city, the dead were buried on the outskirts of the town, which is where the archaeologists found human remains. In the upper part, they also found sculpted stones that belong to the area, which indicated the Incas used the stones to make offerings to their gods. On this same piece of ground lies a granite boulder sculpted with steps – the Funerary Stone. It is a curiously carved that some historians believe was used as a sacrificial altar, given that the Incas were prone to sacrificing llamas. Bingham himself believed that it may have been used as a mortuary slab where the deceased were laid out in the sun before mummification. In the Upper Cemetery just above this rock, he found a significant number of skeletons. But the most striking feature is that it is pierced with a ring, the purpose of which is unknown. In the upper part one can see a body-shaped spot as if people had been placed on their backs.

Old City Entrance
From here we split into two groups. My group had a steep walk up before we started our walk through the citadel. Machu Picchu was built according to its natural surroundings, with its constructions following the natural curves and dips and rises in the land and is divided into two sectors: extensive agriculture terraces and urban landscapes, which contain the main square, temples, palaces and residential terraces.

We entered through the old city gate entrance into Machu Picchu. After crossing the threshold into the ruins of Machu Picchu, I am totally mesmerized by the scale and beauty of the place. There are four squares located in different levels. Embedded steps interconnect these. In these squares social and religious activities took place.

The window lines up
perfectly with the guard tower
Doors are a common sight in Machu Picchu and especially in this sector. They vary in texture, size and architectural style that set them apart from each other, although all have the same trapezoid shape. Some only have one doorjamb and lintel, and some have two. Some doors are simple and others have different security mechanisms such as stone rings, central trunks and other mechanisms which served to tie together beams to make the doors more secure.

The stones all lined up to the angular trapezoid-shaped doorways and windows. At one particular place there was a window and if one looks through the window, it lines up perfectly with the guard tower at the top of the ruins. The Incas apparently were really big on windows lining up with things!!!

Many buildings have a triangular shape that mimics the shape of the mountain behind it.

There are many ceremonial temples and sites at Machu Pichhu. But the Temple of the Sun, used to honor and celebrate Inti, the Sun, and an important Incan deity is considered the most important.
Temple of the Sun
Formed by a series of buildings dominating the whole citadel, the temple has a semicircular shape and is located on top of a solid rock with a natural curve 34.4-ft long. It is composed of highly polished polyhedrons. There are two trapezoidal windows in this building with protruding knobs at every comer, and on the north side there is a carefully-sculpted door with bored holes in the doorjamb. When the sun of the winter solstice in June enters through the central window, it falls directly on the large ceremonial stone. The round building protects the stone. It is best observed from the side, descending the stone staircase in the main plaza.
Royal Tomb
Beside the Temple of the Sun is a two-storey building known as the Palace of the Princess, also sometimes referred to as the Temple of Pachamama. There are tall niches for offerings and the base of the rock forms a kind of cave that is called the Royal Tomb even though no human remains were found here.

The hillside, above the Temple of the Sun is believed to be an Agricultural Zone. To prevent erosion at the sides of the plateau, terraces were constructed, each shored up with stone walls, which were also reinforced with soil. The agricultural terraces were watered from natural sources and were separated from other sectors by a wide staircase.
We cross a tall stairway along which runs a succession of sixteen artificial waterfalls. Most of these fountains are carefully carved out of polygonal blocks and surrounded by drainage canals gutted out of the same stone. The water comes from a source located in the heights of the Machu Picchu Mountain and was canalized during the Inca era.

In the royal sector where Pachacuti may have stayed alongside other members of the nobility, the buildings are particularly large with massive rock lintels weighing as much as three tons, characteristic of imperial Inca architecture. The Temple of Three Windows, together with the Principal Temple close to it and the Intihuatana, make up what Bingham called the Sacred Plaza. The Temple of the Three Windows has a rectangular shape and gets its name from the fact that its main face has three windows and two blind bays. Bingham believed that the three windows framing the distant mountains represented the three mythological caves from which the Ayar brothers, children of the sun, stepped into the world. The walls are made of great polygonal blocks assembled in the fashion of the pieces of a puzzle. Together with the Main temple, this is the most impressive architecture in all of Machu Picchu- the enormous polyhedrons have been carved and joined with millimetric precision.
Temple of Three Windows
Principal or Main Temple
To the back of the Main temple is what is called the Priest's House, or the House of Niches. This construction was unfinished.
Intihuatana  Stone
Another famous feature of the site is a carved natural stone known as Intihuatana Stone- hitching post of the sun which is believed to have been designed as an astronomic clock or calendar by the Incas. This stone is one of many ritual stones in South America. It was believed that when destroyed, these ritual stones lose the godliness as the gods departed. This stone at Machu Picchu remains intact and many believe it is still sacred. This could be where all the energy in Machu Pichu comes from – since it is one of the major vortices or high energy spots on the Earth – I believe it is at No 2. It is believed that if you place your hands above the stone, the energy will pass onto you. Many in our group felt rejuvenated…but honestly, I didn't feel anything as such at the Intihuatana stone itself, though the Machu Pichhu as whole has a great positivity about it, leaving you feeling energized.

Intihuatana Hill
Intihuatana is a hill whose sides have been arranged into terraces, giving it the shape of a great pyramid with a polygonal base. It is reached via a stairway behind the Main Temple. At the top, surrounded by elite buildings, is the Intihuatana stone which is arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. It is carved so precisely that the four corners point directly north, south, east, and west. The Intihuatana Stone indicated both solstices and the two equinoxes, as during those times it would line up with geographic features in the landscape surrounding Machu Picchu. Also, at a certain angle, you can see that the stone is carved to look like the shape of the Huayna Picchu, the sacred peak rising beyond the ruins.

As explained by the tour guide, on the June 21 this stone casts a shadow onto a circle marked on a nearby stone to mark the winter solstice. The mark made by the Incas many centuries ago is still visible.
Calculating the angle of the Sun
He poured some water and it formed a circle!!!  And the shadow on it would help calculate the angle of the sun. The Incas believed the stone held the sun in its place along its annual path in the sky. On March 21 and again on September 21, the sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows whereas on June 21 the stone casts the longest shadow on its southern side and on December 21 a much shorter one on its northern side.
The Sun Clock was undamaged for centuries until a photo shoot for a beer commercial. What the ancient Spaniards looking for Machu Picchu were unable to do, modern man did!!!!

Sacred Rock
A giant flat stone erected upon a great pedestal called the Sacred Rock is a polished monolith 3 meters in height and with a base of 7 meters, whose shape reminds one of a feline. From another angle, it takes the shape of the mountain Putucusi that looms behind it. The small square in front of it may have been where poetry and music recitals took place.

Another stop is at the Condor Temple. The shape and position of 2 large rocks here create the shape of a Condor. Each represents one of the condor’s wings spread in flight. The Condor’s head and beak are carved into the ground below the wing formations. It represented fertility, and also, with the movement of it’s’ wings, the gathering of clouds to produce rain.

Condor Temple
The tour guide told us that this was a temple but I have now read that this may just be a sanitized version for the tourists. If you look closely between the wings of the condor is a chamber with grooves cut in the stone to secure manacles and many experts including Bingham this was the walkway behind where a torturer may have walked to whip the prisoners' backs, and a scary looking pit to let the blood of prisoners drain. Clearly the condor was a symbol of cruel justice!!!

We hang around for some more time before a late lunch at the adjoining restaurant and our journey back. The return train journey was quite interesting.
I was in the last seat and was just relaxing, savoring the whole experience when suddenly a devilish creature pounced on me…some of us, including me let out a shriek before I break out into giggles…it’s just the attendant of the train all dressed up in a colorful costume and a horrendous mask. Soon we are used to him and enjoy shaking a leg with him. This is followed by a fashion show of alpaca products…the lady attendant modeling encourages us to join her in the cat walk. Lovely stuff but very expensive.

We enjoy some shopping at Ollantaytambo and then take our bus all the way back to Cusco. It had been an interesting though very tiring day. But this wasn’t the end as we went for dinner at a local restaurant in Cusco where local dancers and a musical band entertain us. It’s quite late by the time we finish and bid farewell to Romeo, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

The natural surroundings and the mystical atmosphere make this place unique, enigmatic and unforgettable.