zondag 15 december 2013

Bhopal, Buddhists & Beyond

Though definitely not a major tourist destination - I've only met a handful of foreigners, and most of them at Sanchi - Bhopal proved to be a welcome stop in travelling from Gwalior in the east and Indore further west. Being the capital of Madhya Pradesh getting there & getting away proved easy enough, and there was enough to see to keep me occupied for two days.

Not unlike many other cities in India, Bhopal is divided between a buzzing old city made up of endless narrow bazaars and a more modern part with broad avenues and shops selling international brands. Especially the former is a magnificent place to wander around, even if you don't intent to buy anything; there's so much going on, just being there is enough to enjoy yourself.

When you're sick of the crowds then Bhopal's old city also offers some formidable sights, most impressive of those being the Taj-ul-Masjid mosque; built by one of Bhopal female rulers. It's huge, one of the biggest mosques in India and in building style quite similar to the Jama Masjid in Delhi. Due to financial difficulties it took almost hundred years for construction to finish, but it wasn't for nothing as the mosque is still being used for prayers and as a school, while at the same time being open to all kinds of visitors. Totally lost track of time there.

A (minor) disadvantage of staying just three days in one place, is that you have to constantly have to find your way around in a new town. Sometimes you just don't have the time to study a map and orient yourself on where you are and get from there to wherever you wanna go. That's how I paid 35 rupees to get dropped on, which was basically, the other side of the street. It was a busy street so I might have been killed if I'd crossed it on foot and it did help me to find the place faster, but still I felt a bit stupid. Though only for 30 rupees, I've been had.

I've been a fan of the Indian Coffee House since my days in Shimla, and I'm truly going to miss this place once I get back. They have decent coffee and very affordable prices for dosa's and a number of other South Indian snacks which make both a good breakfast and a solid lunch. The staff isn't always too bright though. Maybe good to know if you want to be sure they get your order correctly: here it's not jam toast, but toast jam. Some waiters don't know the first one, but do respond to the latter. Makes total sense.

At temples, museums or other sites for which you have to pay an entree fee, as a foreigner you generally pay at least 10 times the rate that Indians pay. That's not really a major problem for obvious reasons; if you're able to pay a ticket to India you must be rich and why should Indians pay so much to see their heritage? Paying 10 times the rate is normal and it's perfectly reasonable; 20 times is alright, but it's getting less reasonable; paying 25 times the rate of Indians however is really pushing it. It's not that you have put some extra bills on the counter, it's about the principle. If the government is allowed to overcharge foreigners like that, it doesn't set the best example for the rest of society?

Of course I paid up, I didn't make the trip from Bhopal to Sanchi to see the Buddhist monuments there just to be stopped by my principles. That's just silly. I would've missed a really interesting and relaxed place as well.

So far I've rarely hired a guide as I prefer exploring sights on my own and in my own tempo. Yet at Sanchi, with its Buddhist monuments, I was curious as to the story behind these odd domes so when this guide approached it seemed a good idea to hire him. Though initially I had no real problem understanding him, things became less easy when he started telling the stories behind the Stupa's. As I mentioned in the previous entry, the Indian accent can greatly hinder understanding especially if the other person keeps on talking while you're trying to interpret the previous sentence. One advantage of this guy was that he was repeating the essentials again and again:
'A... the great, his mind change, he became Buddhist. Buddha died, five hundred B.C.'
He tried so hard though and was really friendly, smiling the entire time and trying to answer my questions as far as he understood them. Although I liked this fellow, I think next time I'll take the audio tour again...

As a foreigner you're beyond interesting to many Indians. Generally they satisfy their curiosity by just staring, at other times they come up to you to ask you where you're from and maybe your name and profession, some may even take a picture. Then there are also those that ambush you.

I was just strolling around at the stupa's in Sanchi, when I saw this Indian family of about thirty people coming is my direction. It started with a simple, plain and ordinary exchange of 'namaste', followed by the usual 'where you from sir?'. No sooner had I answered this question by one of the gents in the company, when the whole family began to gather around me, quickly blocking any escape route. They were quite friendly though; laughing, joking and talking all at the same time. After answering all possible questions about my education, my wife, children and how I liked India, it was picture time. And not just one picture, oh no. We took God knows how many group shots with different camera's, followed by dozens and dozens of pictures with one or several family members together in constant changing set ups.

It was thanks to another tourist that I was able to escape. When this French girl showed up - and after some new group shots with not one but two foreigners - she became their next victim and with some effort they let me go. It still took a lot of handshakes and a number of last-minute pictures before I was completely free though...

Indians are a strange people; sometimes terribly annoying, sometimes incredibly friendly, and sometimes they manage to make an odd mix out of it, leaving you semi-flabbergasted...

The same mosque at the beginning of the blog, but now partly obscured by a tree!

Classes in the mosque. I can imagine a more boring and less inspiring classroom. 

The Buddhist stupa's at Sanchi: simple domes (inverted lotus if I'm not mistaken) with magnificent arcs.
Below, the main Stupa, Stupa no. 1 to friends.

See the lions below the lowest horizontal beams? They are the origin India's of coat of arms.

One of the few imagines on site of Buddha as we know him. Most of the work on these stupa's predates the depiction as Buddha 'directly' (as a person), at Sanchi he is generally depicted by proxy as a tree, animal or as 'just there'. 

Close by the Main Stupa stood this half-collapsed/half rebuilt structure, once one of the main temples on the premises

The second Buddha figure, dated centuries after the temples was built.

The not-main Stupa or Stupa no. 2 (fascinating names no?). Try and spot Buddha on the close ups!

Stupa no. 3 or 'The Outcast'. Poor fella was built a little walk from his more spectacular brother and sister, yet it too was worth the while.

Also at the Stupa site: Greek pillars. Or at least pillars inspired by Greekish design.

Bhopal was also home to one of the most interesting museums I've been to in India. Some highlights:

The resemblance with my face when I wake up in the morning is striking..

This is... Eh... Damn... One of the millions and millions of Gods in Hinduism. 

Another one.

This little fella is considered to be one of the highlights. Selling miniature carpets before it was cool and stuff.

vrijdag 13 december 2013

Of Yellow Ducks And The Grandeur Of Gwalior

While in India trains can be late by 23 hours and 30 minutes, it is still by far the easiest way to travel in the country for those who do not hire a car & driver. The decent 2/3AC and CC classes make travelling even fairly comfortable by Indian standards. Sure, because of the sealed windows you're pretty much trapped in case of fire or any other kind of emergency, but just look at the traffic and you know that travel in India cannot be 100% safe. YOLO!

This will probably get worse in Rajasthan, but even in Madhya Pradesh it seems they built a fort or at least a temple on every hill they could find. Some look quite spectacular from a distance, but as they are not on the tourist trail, they'll probably be neglected and falling apart as no one takes a real interest in preservation. Better enjoy them as long as they still are part of the scenery.

Always, always ask at least three people for directions, coach numbers on trains or basically anything for anything that has one right and dozens of wrong answers. Somehow the first one is generally wrong, while the second and third person provide you with matching information, which is - again - generally right.

Even after several weeks of exposure to Indians speaking English, I still have a lot of issues with the Indian accent. Since most Indians learn the language either at a later age or just by listening, you can't really blame them as non-native speakers that the sentences are often grammatically incorrect. Also, grammatical errors - other than being terribly annoying - usually do not hinder communication too much. However, if you combine the personalized grammatica with Hindi influenced pronunciation, understanding Indian English can become a bit tricky. When someone wants to ask you whether you need a guide, but regarding the crucial word they leave out the G and sort of merge the u and i (making it sound something like 'uajd'), it's not so easy to give an answer. Generally I choose the safe option of just declining anything they offer.

The most pressing question that Indians have when they see a foreigner is where are you from. It's an obsession, even more important than taking a picture. Random people just come up to you, get as close as 10 cm, stand there staring at you for a few seconds, ask 'which is your country sirrr?' and - after your answer - just walk away. I've had a hard time trying to find an explanation for why they do this..

Gwalior has sidewalks, but unlike Nancy's boots, they are not made for walking. Sidewalks can be used as an extension of your showroom, you can park your bike/bicycle/part of your riksha there, it's seen as good place to have a nap or a heated debate, an alternative trashcan, you can have your ears cleaned,  get shaved, beg for money, have some chai and do a million other things. Generally they're just too crowded to be used for walking; I guess that would be too ordinary!

Khajuraho has made me sceptical of people coming up to you and just starting a casual conversation. While in Gwalior those that want to 'help' you will also have some kind of hidden agenda, they are not nearly as annoying. Plus, unlike in Khajuraho, there are a lot of ordinary, non-tourism related people here, just living their lives. In Gwalior you can wander around the stalls and stores without anyone paying particular attention. People are too busy buying food, having conversation or just waiting for something or someone.

After arriving in a hotel in India, the first thing they usually ask you is to fill in a form (name, address, where you came from/go next, how long you stay in India, etc.) and give your passport, in order for them to make a copy. Due to government regulations all hotels, guesthouses and even homestays have to register who's staying, when and in which room. Since I've rarely stayed in one place for more than three days I've become accustomed to it and have regarded as a simple formality for checking in. There are however, people who take it very seriously.

Imagine hearing a knock on your door at 10:30 P.m., while you're lying on your bed watching a match between West Ham and Tottenham. Opening the door there is this big guy in his khaki police uniform, with his personal ass kisser or 'assistant' next to him and behind him the hotel boy looking semi-nervous over the khaki covered shoulder. If it wasn't for the fact that at the time I had no idea why a police officer was knocking on my door, it would've been pretty comical. The officer neither introduced himself nor stated why he was at my door, but just started asking whether I was this person, came from this place, what my reasons for coming here were, etc. At first it seemed best just to answer, but after the initial surprise at having this
comical trio show up at this late hour, making sure that this guy was genuine and this wasn't anything serious became preconditions for continuing this 'conversation'. His initial answer was just a "I'm a police officer" and only after insisting he mumbled something about this being a routine check whether the hotel had its papers in order and I had filled in the form truthfully. We were making progress.

Sometimes after a long trip I haven't always taken that much care filling in these forms. Luckily I had this time this khaki Batman and his Robin (whose ridiculous smile reminded more of the Joker) would probably have made a big fuss out of it as he was already pretty annoyed that I didn't wrote down my full name but only first and last.

After this sharp observation and eliminating the threat to national security by having me write down my full name, they considered the situation to be under control and left. I mean no disrespect to the Indian police force, but this was just a silly display of 'power' by somebody who probably would have spend his time better out on the streets, making sure people where safe and stuff.

So what's the Yellow Duck part about? Well, like a lot of forts this one is built upon a hill, looking huge and fairly impressive. It's even been referred as 'the pearl among fortresses in India', a title that has been not been bestowed on just any fort. However, unlike other forts I've seen so far (and it's been more than a few), inside the gates this one houses a remarkable palace that is - amongst others - decorated with a frieze of cheerful almost childish yellow ducks. Really not what you're expecting after you just finished a steep climb, with this impressive fort towering above you. Imagine fighting for weeks, finally capturing the fort and just after entering the gates all battered and bruised, you look up and you see this row of yellow ducks welcoming you as their new master. That would be pretty 'what the fu... eh duck'.

However, unlike some of the other mosaic tiles, those of the ducks are still fairly intact. These are though guys who'll probably outlive me and be a reminder for future generations that there's no accounting for taste.

While a lot of forts are perched up on a hill, the climb to Gwalior fort was really one of the steepest. Having the fort emerging above you was a very rewarding sight though!

Surrounding the fort was the city of Gwalior, spreading out in all directions.

The Man Mandir palace, built by Man Singh Tomar, with its infamous yellow ducks, is the first thing you see after you enter the fort. There once were mosaics of crocodiles and elephants as well, but they were disturbing the ducks so people brought them down. Fiar enough!

Some pictures from inside the Palace; no ducks just some beauiful carvings.

Maybe not really what Man Singh Tomar had in mind, but these are the Palace's current inhabitants:

 Just outside the inner walls of the fort on the way down on the western side, there are these amazing Jain rock sculptures. These immense statues are over  550 years old and while their faces were once cut off by a Islamic invader, later they have been (partially) restored.

Not that far away from the Man Mandir palace there was a Sikh temple, as beautiful and elegant as any of the Sikh buildings I've seen so far.

The Teli ka Mandir. Or in ordinary English: a temple.

An Indian wedding procession in the streets: lights, dancing and a lot of loud music!