Wednesday, November 17, 2010

India Travelogue #5

On Tuesday, the 9th, we got up early and ate breakfast at the hotel before going to the train station in our comfy tourist bus. Sadly the driver and helper were leaving us now. As we got out in the train parking area, a little boy got a hold on Warren's foot and by the time he could protest, the kids was polishing his boots. He asked for 100 rupees, Warren gave him 10, and we all went into the station. This train was a better, faster train than the last one, and we were served tea and coffee too. The terrain was changing to being greener from more vegetation. And we went through an area that was full of ravines, where Mayur said outlaws used to hide. We arrived at a town called Jhansi, where we got off the train and there were 2 cars waiting for us there to drive us to Orchha.
On the way, we stopped at a community development project which is partially supported by Intrepid, called Taragram. They use the small pieces of cotton from a shirt factory which normally would be thrown away to make paper. The women who work here are village women who are very happy to have a chance to make some money for their families. They sort the scraps and a machine cuts them all up, then they are soaked and agitated for a long time until they make a pulp. This is spread into sheets, dried on the lawns, and eventually pressed smooth, cut with a big machine, and made into a variety of products such as university degrees, notebooks, coasters, etc. Intrepid gets all the business cards for leaders here. Profits go towards the training and education of rural and tribal women.
We then drove to Orchha, a medieval town on the banks of the Betwa River, founded in 1531. The fortified cluster of dwellings, temples and shrines is a legacy in stone. It is a fairly small town but there was a lot going on. This was a special festival time for the Hindus and lots of them had come from their villages to be here for this event because there is a special temple here for Lord Rama. There were big carts being towed behind tractors and they were jam packed with people. All along the river people were gathering and bathing and filling little metal vases with water. They take the water to the temple and pour it over the statue of Lord Rama.
We went to the Orchha Resort, which is a beautiful hotel and located right on the banks of the river. The grounds were ample and well kept, with even huge air conditioned tents on the lawn to the side of the hotel for overflow crowds. Mayur told us that usually the groups don't stay here because it is so expensive, but their usual hotel was overbooked. We all went to the restaurant for lunch and then were driven to the old Palace Complex for a tour. Most of the buildings were very old and not in use anymore. The painted frescoes on the ceilings in some of the halls and rooms were from the 16th century and were still in decent shape. Of course, they were mostly about the Hindu gods and goddesses so the guide, and Mayur, explained a lot of that to us. Then we had some free time to climb to the top of one of the palaces and the views were amazing. The air pollution wasn't as bad there so we could actually see some of the countryside. Mayur gave us some free time to walk around in the market but we were being badgered by beggars and vendors, and there wasn't anything we wanted, so we just waited until the others returned.
The late afternoon/evening activity was a cooking class which had been arranged in the home of a middle-class woman named Vandana. She lives in a stucco building with her husband and their 2 small daughters, where there is one bedroom, one living room, and a small kitchen. Chairs had been set up in the living room for us and she sat on a small stool near the floor and in front of the kitchen door with a propane 2 burner stove in front of her. She gave us a printout of the recipes for the things that were going to be prepared, and she explained everything as she did it. Her sister-in-law was in the kitchen, handing her foods and spices which had already been prepped. First she made masala chai tea which we hadn't tried yet, and which was delicious. Then she told us that she used about half the amount of sugar that would normally be used for Indian people. She continued with some other dishes and within a few minutes the power went off. Luckily we had been told to bring a flashlight for the tour of the temples in the afternoon and so lots of our group still had one with them and they shone the beams on her as she proceeded. She also lit some candles. Apparently the power situation is often iffy, because we had noticed in Delhi that all the stores on the main street near our hotel had a big generator in front. Later in the trip we experienced power failures on a regular basis at some of the hotels and they always had a generator. Vandana also offered everyone cold water because she has a nice big refrigerator, something that I'm sure is not a regular fixture in a lot of the homes we have been seeing.
Once Vandana had prepared most of the food, we moved our chairs so we were all sitting around the big kind-sized bed in the bedroom where her husband had placed a big tablecloth on the bed and we used it as a table. Actually, the entrance to the house was in this bedroom too. The meal was served on big metal plates with separated areas, like a cafeteria tray. In a restaurant this kind of meal is called a thali. The food was very good and we all enjoyed it because she had toned down the spiciness. While we were eating, it started to rain quite heavily. Before entering any home, you always remove your shoes. Now our shoes were out there in the entry area on the dirt, possibly getting soaked. Oh well, we continued on. Vandana also is an artist who paints designs on women's hands and feet with henna and she offered this service to our group. Eva and Sandrina wanted to do it. She started on Eva and we all watched but then it became obvious that the process was going to take a while, so some of us went back to the hotel in one of the cars. Someone had moved our shoes, so they weren't wet, but we got our sox muddy when we had to walk outside to put our shoes on.
On Wednesday, the 10th, we had a very nice buffet breakfast at the hotel with lots of choices that made those of us who are getting tired of India food very happy. Before breakfast Elaine and I had walked out to the swimming pool area and climbed the steps on the back wall which overlooked the river. There was lots of activity on the bridge that was several hundred meters away, and also on some rocky areas just down from our hotel. An Israeli man was there taking pictures and told us we had just missed seeing a procession of women who had come to the big rock below the wall and gone out on it to do their ritual bathing and to get the water to take to the temple. We decided to try looking again after breakfast and managed to take lots of pictures of all the people doing their bathing on this rocky projection into the river.
Mayur wanted us to see the temple and he explained a lot of what this festival was all about while we were standing in the front vestibule of it. Again we had to remove our shoes and leave them with a shoe minder. We left our sox on and almost immediately regretted it because the courtyard was full of muddy water from all the rain in the night. There were so many people there that we couldn't really get into the main part of the temple to see the statue of the god or the ceremony, so we left after his explanations. Whenever he gathers us around him and talks to us, there are always people who gather around us and try to listen and also stare at us. Mayur just says something to them in Hindi and they move away.
It was time to head for Khajuraho in the cars and it took over 4 hours to get there. The distance wasn't so much but the roads weren't that good. It is always interesting to drive through the villages because there is so much life out on the streets. There are little stalls selling things, guys repairing cars and bicycles or trucks, men giving haircuts, people preparing food, carts full of vegetables and fruits, carts hauling big propane tanks, carts and bicycles stacked high with goods to be delivered, cars, trucks, rickshaws and mopeds weaving in and out, and people walking everywhere. The roads weren't that good between towns either.
About halfway we all stopped at a restaurant for a toilet stop and refreshments. Some other people were there and when we struck up a conversation with them we were totally blown away when we realized it was Axel and Stella. He is German and she is Romanian and we had spent Christmas with them in 2000 in Baja, California when we were camping with our German friends Wolfie and Ilona. Axel and Stella were just traveling with a car and a driver in the opposite direction we were going, and had also stopped there for a break. We had a nice visit with them for about 15 minutes and then we had to move on. They have a condo in Thailand in Phuket and also a sailboat there, and they have urged us to visit them there during the winter when they stay there. The rest of the time they are traveling.
We arrived in Khajuraho and checked into the Ramada Hotel, It is a flashy place but after a short time of staying there it was pretty obvious that it is not being well maintained. A lot of the amenities didn't work. We left right away to go to the home of a local artist where Mayur had arranged for his wife to cook lunch for us. The artist, Dilip Singh, greeted us and got us seated and we saw a bit of his work and heard his story while the food was being prepared. His father was from Rajasthan and relocated here when there were too many artists there due to increased tourism, Now his son is an artist too. We got to see the kitchen where the wife was cooking and the lunch she prepared was really delicious. Afterwards he gave each of us a small piece of silk with an elephant painted on it which was painted by his 9 year old apprentice. It was beautifully done. Of course, we were urged to visit his studio and shop during our time in his city, and he showed us where it was.
Khajuraho is a city famous for the temples which were built between 950 and 1050AD by the Chandela Raiput kings. In 1838 they were rediscovered by the British and following restoration this site is now on the UNESCO world heritage list. These temples are famed for their erotic sculptures, although they account for less than 10% of the total carvings. The carvings are all over the outside of the temples, which rise several hundred feet, and there are currently 22 temples which have survived. The temples are in several areas of town and we went to the western ones. The grounds are beautifully kept. Here the temples are a superb example of Chandela art and architecture, in sandstone, depicting scenes of everyday life of the people and courts of the 10th and 11th centuries. They include gods, goddesses, warriors, animals and people, sometimes enagaged in acts of love. From the exterior, the temples are a series of towers each higher than the other. Our local guide took us to some of the more interesting carvings and tried to interpret what was going on in each panel. It would have been easy to spend an entire day here, looking at all of the temples and carvings, but we left after 2 hours.
That evening we all went to the Kandariya Dance Show. It was held in a theater and was a performance showcasing an array of cultural dances from 7 different regions of India. They were accompanied by 2 drum players, a keyboard player, and a woman singer who also played some bells and other percussion instruments. The makeup and costuming were very elaborate and colorful, and the dancers were athletic and enthusiastic. We all enjoyed it. Usually these dances are performed at festivals and also religious gatherings in the temples because most of them are about Lord Shiva or other Gods. When it was over, we went out to eat at an Italian Restaurant where we had pizza and beer – a nice change from Indian food but certainly not up to the standards of pizza at home!

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