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.

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