07 August 2014

Sanchi – Madhya Pradesh

We take an overnight train from Jabalpur to Bhopal where S has managed to get us a great deal at the Noor us Sabah palace, now a WelcomHeritage Hotel. "Noor Us Sabah" meaning "The Light of Dawn" was built in the 1920s' by H.H. Hamid Ullah Khan for his eldest daughter Abida Sultan and through a variety of events has now got the Nawab of Pataudi’s name associated with it.

Noor us Sabah palace Horse Carriage at the entrance of Noor us Sabah palace

The hotel is located on the top of a small hillock and from our balcony on the 1st floor the view is amazing!!! The Vindhya ranges, the Upper Lake of Bhopal, the city of Bhopal and of course the peacocks in the gardens! The hotel itself is very grand with its high dome like ceilings and arches, historic photographs all over the place, a library with really old books, a palanquin and a horse carriage strategically placed.

Sanchi Stupa        Breakfast, freshen up and we leave for our tryst with history @Sanchi.

Sanchi for me was...well a bitter sweet experience. So serene, calm and clean...maybe because there were hardly any people there. At a world renowned heritage sight I would have expected more interest! The funny thing is - in all my travels to heritage sites in India, I have found myself thinking –  what the hell, the whole of India wants to visit xxx when I am here and the pushing and jostling would irritate the hell out of me...and now when we had a site to our self and I mean that literally, I found it odd!!!

When I see a picture/statue of Buddha or think of Buddhism the first word that comes to my mind is CALM and that is what one felt that day in Sanchi...a gentle breeze on a hot, hot afternoon, lush green landscape and silence all around. Automatically I remember something from my school days -"Buddham Sharnam Gachhami."

Sanchi, the oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence and a major Buddhist center in India is on a hill overlooking the plains. Stupas are always built on a hill - so that their beneficial influence can radiate in all the four directions. The dome represents the universe. Sanchi is not directly connected with events in the life of Buddha but is more of a reliquary mound built by Emperor Asoka for putting the divided ashes of Buddha in an order to spread Buddhism in India.

The Gates Waterworks

The dome is covered by a masonry exterior and has a squareish platform (harmika) on top that in turn encloses a royal parasol (chattra) atop a mast (yasti). The dome is on an elevated platform with stairs leading clockwise from the ground level up to a circular walkway, where the worshipper circumambulates the dome. The whole stupa is enclosed by a railing (vedika) and elaborate gates (torana) are built in front of each of the four cardinal points. There are exquisite carvings on the doorways and railings with sculpted scenes from the life of Buddha and Jataka stories of his previous incarnations. Another oxymoron - austere grandeur is what describes the Stupa best!

Stories from Buddhas life       Jataka Tales

We walk around looking at the other smaller Stupas, a monolithic Ashokan pillar, the water system, the temples and what they call a small zoo – really??? A few rabbits, a few birds make a zoo!

geetu and me Lunch at a restaurant at the base of the hillock and we head back to the hotel for some respite from the scorching sun. Some plan for a swim in the inviting pool and some just head to the spa. I was pretty excited – a college hostel mate is planning to visit me with her daughters later that evening. We met after 20years – friendships from school and college are so amazing. No matter how many decades one is meeting after, it’s so easy to just pick up the threads and continue from there as if all those years had never happened. How time flew I don’t know. And we both felt, it was not enuff and that there was a need for us to meet again the next day.

I cannot even imagine where I would be today were it not for that handful of friends who have given me a heart full of joy. Let's face it; friends make life a lot more fun.

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.

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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.