Agra & MP Adventures
03.04.2011 - 16.04.2011 35 °C
This be the Chronicles of the long road-trip taken with Kathleen, Sandra and Traudi. Starting of course in Agra. This is my 6th visit to the Taj Mahal, and still not tiring of looking at this lovely lady. I did however, take a page from my friend Christa’s book, and beg off a 4th visit to the lovely Fatephur Sikri and Agra Fort. So I let the girls go off with our guide, meeting up with them for a wonderful Mughal style lunch at Peshwari’s. Nice relaxing day for me!
The next morning began with a dawn visit to the Taj Mahal. My favourite time here is after the official tour. Just wandering around, watching the play of light off the semi-precious inlay and seeing the marble gradually become whiter and whiter as the sun’s intensity increases through the morning.
After visiting the Taj, we were making an overnight stop in Gwalior, to visit the ducky Fort and the extravagant palace. We were staying at the Taj’s hotel here, which was the guesthouse of the Palace itself. Incredibly luxurious, especially after we got a room upgrade – yay!!
Moving on to Orchha’s Bundelkhand Riverside hotel, with rooms and balconies facing the Betwa River. The place was fantastic: rooftop views of the river, countryside and Orchha’s temples and palaces. Since our balconies faced the east, we got up to watch the dawn crest over the hills and river.
Orchha was founded in 1531 and remained the capital of the powerful Bundelas Rajput kingdom till 1783. We had hoped to stay in the atmospheric palace complex itself, as we did in 2008, but it was fully booked. When we arrived to tour the ruins, we found it was booked to a Bollywood movie house, and a big production was filming in the palace – a Hollywood/BWood joint venture film, Singularity. The palace was all dressed up and coordination of a battle scene was being filmed on the ramparts. Will have to check out this movie. Apparently a time-travel type flick starring Josh Hartnett, Bipasha Basu and Abhay Deol.
Leaving Orchha we made the drive south to Khajuraho and the World Heritage Temples there. The girls were pretty excited about seeing them, especially since Kathleen tells us she really likes erotic art! Oh my!
We arrived there in the heat of the day, so was super-hot walking around. There is always something new here, even on a 3rd visit. The artistry in the figures carved on these fabulous Chandela temples, built from 950 to 1050 AD, is so stunning.
That evening we stayed with my friends at Ken River Lodge, which was a welcome retreat after cities and temples. We went out for the sunset paddle on the Ken River before gathering around to hear the latest and greatest gossip over a bottle, or two, or …
A really cool development here since my last trip – we could enter the park at 5am! Fantastic on the wildlife end, as we saw a civet cat and loads of night-jars flying everywhere; not so fantastic for the getting up at 4:30am! Yeesh, I love wildlife, but really!!!
Something to remember to tell people when I start bringing them on safaris – a sports-bra is very useful! I always forget, but am quickly reminded as we race around the rocky terrain and trails. One member of the group, who shall remain nameless, resorted to wearing two bras in an effort to protect the ‘girls’!
Spent a day visiting the park, and then a dawn boat-ride before grabbing a car to Bandhavgarh. The girls were wiped out by the super early morning the day before and decided to sleep in, so it was just me and Trigun out on the river. Came across a really anxious great thick-knee, which was understandable when we saw its two little chicks. They were absolutely still, no matter where we moved to around them. An effective defence mechanism I imagine. Took a few pics and then left to relieve the mama’s anxiety.
When we got back, Trigun took me out back to a cabin a short walk away. He had been quietly taking care of 4 Eurasian eagle owls, taken in after their parents were killed by villagers. Unfortunately the illegal trade in live owls and use in black magic have endangered many owls in India’s rural areas. Trigun had found these 4 when they were about 1 week old, becoming their surrogate mother and father, and bringing live prey for them to learn to hunt.
This day, the oldest was ready to be released. It was an incredible moment when he walked out with the fledgling in his arms. It stared intently at me, then hissed a warning as I tentatively touched its very soft feathers. Trigun put him up in a tree, where he looked at me, then off into the forest, before taking flight. A surprisingly emotional and beautiful moment. He would release the remaining 3 fledglings over the next three weeks as they got big enough.
We arrived in the chaotic tiger-chasing Bandhavgarh Park, and the wonderful Treehouse Hideaway. Our rooms were built up into the trees on the edge of the park itself. We could hear the alarm calls of the chitals and sambar from our rooms, which was rather eerie. You could imagine the tigers prowling right next to the walk as we navigated through the dark to our treehouses.
Also had a fabulous thunder and lightning storm on our first night. Some incredible light shows and a wetting down of the dust that was very welcome. Had some lovely sightings racing around the forest, when we got the word that a tiger had been spotted, so we raced to the area. Got there to manage a brief sighting of one of the 3 Mirchani cubs, way way way in the distance. I didn’t see, but the 3 girls did and they were very excited to catch a glimpse of the elusive tiger. These cubs are close to 2 years old so quite large, and about to head out away from their mother.
At the end of the drive, we again heard about a sighting and Bhanu raced back, super speed, to the area. This time, another male cub had just killed a pretty big Sambar and was struggling to drag it into the brush to feed quietly and away from the gawking tourists. A pretty good sighting, if brief, so elation was high all around. Last moments, last drive, and the luck was with us!
Next was a drive to Umaria to catch the overnight train to Bhopal, and an early morning visit the World Heritage site of Bhimbetka. These prehistoric caves, set in the craggy, dry hills south of Bhopal contain paintings of the peoples who have lived there through many ages. Some 1000 caves have been discovered to date, but only 15 are accessible. They cover a period dating from 10,000 BCE to medieval times, some paintings overlapping others of different eras. Wonderful place, but we really would have liked to spend more time wandering through the area without guides. Next time!
Bhopal itself was a surprisingly lovely city, with loads of gardens and a large central lake. The city is largely Muslim and was about to celebrate a festival so preparations were taking place for the evening’s festivities. We saw the biggest chapatti I’ve ever seen being made and were invited to come back for dinner. Our tres early start the next day decided us against it though.
Next morning, on the way to Maheshwar and the finale of our trip at Ahiliya Fort, we stopped to see Sanchi, another World Heritage site. Sanchi is a major Buddhist site, founded by the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. Ashoka was the first Emperor to unite most of India. More than any other until Akbar and the Mughals of the 15th century. After walking through the slaughter of a battlefield in what is now Orissa, Ashoka was so disturbed, he converted to Buddhism. He wrote the first charter of rights for animals and children and became a peaceful and remarkably enlightened ruler given his bloody beginnings. His emblem was adopted by the newly formed India as a sign of peace and goodwill. After Hinduism absorbed Buddhism the site slowly lost importance, until it was rediscovered by (you guessed it) the British in 1818.
Ashoka built the main stupa on the site, which was later enlarged. The stupa is built over relics of Buddha and is a major Buddhist pilgrimage site. The fabulously carved 4 gateways surrounding the stupa were erected around 35 BC. As we walked the site, we were followed by beautiful chanting from a group of pilgrims.
Below the main Stupa are the remains of a monastery and dating from a later period. Was wonderful to walk into the cells and imagine the monks living there so many years ago.
Leaving Sanchi we took the long drive down to Maheshwar and Ahiliya Fort, sitting high over the sacred Narmada River. When we arrived, the city was packed! Streams of people coming to the ghats on a traveling pilgrimage. First in were mostly the women, with bundles (their suitcases) on their heads. They were setting up along the ghats, laying down their blankets and getting ready for the evening meal. The men came along later.
Beautiful prayers were called out throughout the evening and lighted candles (dias) set out on the water. Dancing and singing all along the river by some, while neighbours lay down to catch a nap. Then, by 5am, everyone was gone! Moving on to the next holy stop on the pilgrimage. As Kathleen pointed out, only in India could that many people gather as a regular occurrence without a problem. She was relating it to the now cancelled Swiftshore celebrations in Victoria. She’s right. Every once and a while you might hear of crowd problems in India, but when you consider over 100 days of the year is a festival somewhere in India, you realize how little you hear of problems.
The next day we were off to Mandu, a hilltop fort known as the City of Joy with excellent examples of Afghan architecture. It was founded in the 10th century and remained important, passing through several ruling hands till the 15th century when the capital shifted.
Back at the wonderful Ahiliya fort, and partaking of some massages and relaxing in the pool before heading back to Delhi and then off to say bye to the girls as they sadly left to go back to Canada.
Seen on the road… sign for Vacational Training. Now that’s a school I could get into. Surely I qualify for professorship by now?