ROMANCING THE STONE

I enjoyed sightseeing in medieval Orchha, but it didn’t grab me, at first, like other places have in India. While the sights didn’t get me in, other stuff about Orchha did.

Most of India’s historic cities were, at one time, capitals of kingdoms of old. Located on the banks of the river Betwa in Madhya Pradesh, Orchha was the power base of the Bundela kings in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The royal chhatris, or memorials, that contain the ashes of Bundela rulers passed, line the left bank of the river. Their reflection in the water is spectacular, day or night.

The royal chhatris.jpg

The fort complex dominates Orchha. The fort is built around a courtyard and comprises three palaces: the Raj Mahal, the Jahangir Mahal and the Sheesh Mahal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The last palace mentioned is now a heritage hotel. During our walk around the fort, we stopped there for a cold drink and to get some relief from the 45oC heat. Like most government-run places in India, the Sheesh Mahal is poorly maintained by surly and uncooperative staff. Kuldip’s description of the toilets left little to the imagination; I decided to hold on.

The colourful murals that remain on the walls and ceilings of the Raj Mahal are superb and worth seeing. The Raj Mahal is also the venue for the nightly sound and light show.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kuldip was sick that day and went back to the hotel shortly after we’d toured the fort. Maybe the condition of the lavatory at the Sheesh Mahal tipped him over the edge.

I continued in the heat visiting Orchha’s other sights including the Ram Raja and Chaturbhuj temples that have a legendary bond dating back to Madhukar Shah’s rule in the 16th century. The story goes that his queen, Ganesh Kunwari, a devotee of Lord Ram, walked to her idol’s birthplace to get a statue to install in a yet-to-be-built temple outside the fort. It was an eighteen-month round trip. When she arrived at Ahodhya, Ram appeared before her as a child and said he was happy to go to Orchha on condition that he stayed put when he got there. Apparently the queen walked back to Orchha carrying the child in her arms. As soon as she popped him down at home, baby Ram turned into a statue of Lord Ram. When they tried to move him to the Chaturbhuj temple that the queen built in his honour and as a place of worship, Ram wouldn’t budge. The queen should have taken him at his word.

The celebrated statue hasn’t moved since. Hence, the queen’s palace, located within the fort, became the Ram Raja temple where people still come to pay homage. The queen must have moved out, but for the life of me, I can’t find out where she went. Nowadays, the Chaturbhuj temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

While the friezes in the Lakshmi, or Lakshminarayana, temple aren’t as colourful as those in the Raj Mahal in the fort, they are plentiful and comprise the unexpected. For example, it’s the first time I have seen a mural portraying the conquest of India by the British. I refer to the one that illustrates the siege of the Jhansi fort by the forces of the British East India Company in March 1858.

The siege of the Jhansi fort, Lakshmi temple

The siege of the Jhansi fort, Lakshmi temple #2

There’s another scene where two British soldiers are sitting in medieval Mughal chairs. One holds a sword and bayonet; the other, a bottle of wine and an empty glass. Another wine bottle and a full glass appear in the background. A triumphant toast.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In Hinduism, a vahana is “a vehicle or the carrier of something immaterial or formless.” In other words, it is symbolic of what the God does. Most of the prominent Hindu gods and goddesses have one, and are rarely seen without it.

Shiva is one of the big six Hindu gods and the most complex. He’s both destroyer and restorer. He’s sensual, benevolent and avenging. His vahana, a white bull called Nandi, is symbolic of sexual vigour and fertility. Parvati, the “divine mother” is Shiva’s wife and a reincarnation of his first missus. Yes, it’s complicated. It gets even more so because Parvati, like most women, reinvents herself all the time. On the one hand, she can be soft and gentle, on the other, fierce and violent. The lion is her vehicle and quite right too.

This little story would be incomplete without mentioning their son, Ganesh, the chubby elephant-headed god. Without going into the gory details, Shiva came home one night and lopped a boy’s head off. At the time he did not know it was his son. When Shiva’s wife, Parvati, who was also the boy’s mother found out, she was furious and understandably so. Shiva had lost a lot of “Brownie” points so he sent someone to bring back the head of the first creature he found which he plonked onto Ganesh’s body and brought him back to life. Since then, Ganesh has been the god of “intellect and the remover of obstacles.” In addition to being a fixer, Ganesh is also considered gentle and wise. The mouse, or rat, which can chew its way through anything, is Ganesh’s constant companion symbolic of his ability to tear down all that stands in one’s way.

The Hindu history lesson leads me to my third favourite image on the walls of the Lakshmi temple; that of Shiva with the Ganges flowing from his topnot while Parvati and their two vehicles, Nadi and the lion, wait patiently for orders regarding their next port of call.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Hindus have a great sense of humour when it comes to their gods. For example, a friend of ours once said: “We have over three million Gods, so we Hindus can always find one that will let you do what you want.” During a trip to Chennai in Tamil Nadu in the south of India, I came across a comic effigy of Ganesh I couldn’t resist. It’s story time and he’s blissed out. It brings a smile to my face every time I look at it.

Every picture tells a story

Some might say that a visit to Dinman Hardaul’s Palace in Orchha is a waste of time. I, on the other hand, think it’s time well spent. Admittedly only parts of the external walls remain, and they look a little shabby. Once inside, it’s another story. It’s the story of a Bundela prince who became a god.

Dinman Hardaul was the brother of the 6th king of Orchha, Jhujhar Singh, and the queen treated him like a son. The 5th Mughal Emperor of India, Shah Jahan, wanted Dinman out of the way and convinced the Bundela ruler that his wife and brother were having an affair. Fuelled by jealousy, the king asked his wife to kill his brother to prove her innocence. When the queen told Hardaul what she had to do, he swallowed the poison, died and became a martyr and eventually a god. A while later, the king’s niece was getting married, and when his sister asked for his help, he told her to talk to Hardaul. Legend has it that Hardaul attended the wedding and served the guests. He remains in the hearts and minds of many of the local people who leave wedding invitations for him at his small temple in the gardens beside the old palace walls believing he will attend and give his blessing. It’s a romantic tale so it’s not surprising that many people get married near the Prince’s shrine. I was lucky to see a happy Hindu couple tie the knot while I was there. Hardaul devotees continue to believe he is still alive. If he was at the wedding in the garden that day, I didn’t see him. It was boiling at the time, so maybe he was out the back getting some ice.

Prince Hardaul's shrine

Prince Hardaul’s shrine

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The wedding

There’s a colourful market where the rooms of Hardaul’s home once stood and the gardens outside one of the remaining main entrances to the extinct palace, are a joy to behold. Apart from being one the many gate-crashers at the wedding, I relished wandering around the gardens where the locals come to chill out during Orchha’s hot summer months.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My romance with medieval Orchha continues with why the 10th king of Orchha, Indramani Sing, built the Rai Praveen Mahal in the late 16th century. Some of the greatest love stories have involved royalty; this one does too. Rai Praveen was a beautiful and talented artist. She specialised in singing, dancing and poetry and performed in the king’s court. Working for the King eventually became a labour of love for Rai Praveen, but because the king was already married, she became his courtesan and the love of his life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When word of the beautiful entertainer from Orchha reached the ruling Mughal emperor of the day, Akbar the Great, he wanted Rai Praveen for himself and summoned her to the imperial court. It wasn’t long before he sent her packing. One can’t be sure if Akbar was touched by her loyalty to her king or if she talked her way out of the harem. Nevertheless, Akbar did not have his way with her and sent Rai Praveen back to Orchha.

I’m happy to admit that I’m hooked on the idea of everlasting love. But that’s not why Rai Praveen’s house is my pick of the mahals in Orchha. It’s because it comprises all the features of Rajput-Mughal architecture in miniature. The summer house at the bottom of Rai Praveen’s formal garden and the bathroom in her basement are as enchanting as the murals of her and her king on the second level of the house. The view of the lush, well-maintained garden through the arched alcove from there is as captivating.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rai Praveen's bathroom

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When translated, Orchha means hidden. I thought it a silly name before I went there. When I arrived in ‘hidden’, it wasn’t love at first sight. It lacked an X, or wow, factor. I soon discovered that Orchha’s beauty is in its legendary past. All one needs to do is scratch the surface to discover the city’s hidden charms.

The best time to visit Orchha is the same as everywhere else in India: October to March.

If one is planning to tour the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, I recommend one go anti-clockwise starting in Orchha and ending in Lucknow.

 

 

KNICKERS TO NAT

If you are a WordPress blogger, please re-blog this post. It may assist needy women in remote areas of Nepal.

Further to my recent blog about the good work my nephew, Steve, and wife, Nat, are doing to help the needy in Nepal, they have set themselves another target.

In addition to the 500 sanitary wear, or hygiene, kits that We All Rotate has distributed to marginalized women in remote parts of Nepal, they now plan to provide an additional 400 comprising two extra items.

Currently, each kit comprises a handmade drawstring bag that contains ten re-usable flannel liners, two cotton shields, some soap and two snap-lock storage bags. It usually takes about two months to make 100 kits. This time, however, Nat and her Australia-based team, plan to compile the kits in record-breaking time.

Over the next few weeks, while Nat and her volunteers sew madly away, they hope donations come rolling in of new face washers and comfy knickers of any size and colour to include in kits.

Please try to help if you can by sending a pair of new knickers and a face washer to Mrs Natalie Beatty, 11 Montril Court, Highton, Victoria, Australia 3216. If you would prefer to bestow funds for Nat to buy them on your behalf, please click on the attached link for how to donate; www.facebook.com/weallrotate

Nat at work on her new project to further assist women in remote areas of Nepal

Nat hard at work on her new project to further help marginalised women in the remote areas of Nepal.

 

 

MAKE LOVE NOT WAR

  Between the famous ‘Temple of Love’ at Agra, and the infamous temples of Khajuraho (Kajar-raa-ho) and Kama Sutra, the Indians have everything covered from kissing to copulation. So it comes as no surprise that India is one of the … Continue reading

A MAN ON A MISSION

If you are a WordPress blogger, please re-blog this post. If you do, you might improve the lives of some needy Nepalese people.

Kuldip and I have just farewelled my nephew, Steve, after a 5-day visit. We packed a lot in over that time, including an introduction to ‘our’ Chandigarh. We also took him to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple, the place of pilgrimage for Sikhs the world over. The changing of the guard ceremony at the Indian/Pakistani border, 30 kilometres from Amritsar, was also on the itinerary.

Steve was trekking in Nepal when the earthquake stuck a little over 12-months ago, and although he was booked to fly home to Australia shortly after that, he stayed on for a month to help with the clean up. Over that time, he arranged A$6,000 of aid including food, blankets, mattresses and tarpaulins to the needy. It was the beginning of his We All Rotate aid organisation.

Since then he and his wife Natalie, or Nat, have worked to raise funds to build a school in a place outside Kathmandu called Thakani Sindhulpalchowk. Although the little village is only 60 kilometres away from the Nepali capital, the roads are so damaged it takes around five hours to get there. Before the earthquake the village comprised 139 homes; all were lost leaving the 700-strong community homeless. The school, which provided education for 300 children from Thakani Sindhulpalchowk and its surrounding areas, was also levelled.

The school Steve is trying to build urgently requires additional funding. The field reports are done, and Steve has architects and engineers on board who have started engaging with the community to get the school built as soon as possible.

In addition to being dedicated to rebuilding Thakani Sindhulpalchowk’s school, We All Rotate, in the last six months, has provided re-usable sanitary wear to around 500 disadvantaged women in rural areas of Nepal. Nat and her team of volunteers sew each sanitary kit that comprises ten fabric pads plus other essentials that last up to two years. It takes around two months to make 100 kits. Although Steve’s Nepalese volunteers show women how to use it, each kit also includes an instruction manual.

Steve is passionate about helping the Nepalese rebuild. He is, therefore, in the process of registering a not-for-profit company to manage contributions. Charity status will follow.

When Steve is on the ground in Nepal doing what he does so well, Nat stays in Australia to ensure all runs smoothly from home base. I unreservedly guarantee Steve and Nat’s honesty and integrity. I know that 100 percent of donations (past, present and future) are spent to help Nepal’s needy of which there are many.

Should you with wish to donate or know more about Steve and Nat and their non-for-profit organisation, please click on this link; www.facebook.com/weallrotate

 

Some of the Thakani Sindhulpalchowk village people in front of their makeshift homes

Some Thakani Sindhulpalchowk village people in front of their makeshift homes.

 

Thakani Sindhulpalchowk's children at the site for the new school

Thakani Sindhulpalchowk’s children at the site for the new school.

The girls enjoy a giggle at one of Binita's sanitary wear how-to classes

The girls share a giggle at a sanitary wear demonstration in a remote area of Nepal.

(L-R) A Nepalese %22We All Rotate%22 volunteer, Binita, with Steve and women from a rural village clasping their newly gifted sanitary kits

(L-R) One of Steve’s We All Rotate volunteers, Binita, and Steve with Nepalese women clutching their new sanitary wear kits.

A RIPE OLD AGE

Varanasi. Where does one begin? Archaeologists believe it’s been around since the 11th or 12th-century BC. Hindus, on the other hand, say Lord Shiva created it 20 centuries earlier.

Regardless of how and when Varanasi came to be, Kuldip reckons it hasn’t been cleaned since day one. And, by the look of it, he’s right. There’s crap everywhere, literally. Kuldip and I went in May when it was 45oC each day; the heat, cow dung, litter and cooking and people smells spawned a pungent brew. The closer one is to the Ganges or Ganga, the worse it gets. Nevertheless, unlike Kuldip, I enjoyed the place, warts and all.

To arrive in Varanasi, dead or alive, is on the bucket list of every practising Hindu. It’s where the living bathe in the Ganges to wash away their sins and the dead come to be cremated. Hindus believe in reincarnation. That’s why they won’t kill anything for it might be someone’s dear departed. However, Hindus cremated on the west bank of the Ganges in Varanasi, circumvent the reincarnation process. (Hindus call it Moksha and explain it as a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.) In other words, it’s an express elevator to heaven. Luckily Kuldip’s not Hindu because he wouldn’t be seen dead in Varanasi again.

Varanasi is overwhelming in many ways especially regarding numbers. Around 3.5 million people live there. That’s nearly 2,500 people per square kilometre. We went in the low season, and the place was packed. I can’t image what Varanasi is like at peak time when an extra 2.5 million people, give or take a few thousand, descend upon the city. When one adds the untold number of stray dogs and transportation of all types, Varanasi must be bulging at the seams from October to March. Then, there is the countless number of sacred cows.

Regardless of whether one is Hindu or not, killing cattle in India is a big no no and illegal in some states. Therefore, when a cow or bull has outlived its usefulness, its owner has no option but to dump it on the side of the road to fend for itself. I’m not suggesting that people like doing it, but the last thing most of them need is another mouth to feed. That’s why where are so many strays on the streets in India.

Lahori Tola is the oldest and most congested part of Varanasi. It’s right behind the ghats (stairs that lead to the river). While Kuldip couldn’t stand the place, I had a good time exploring its tiny lanes where vendors sell tourist tatt and all sorts of interesting stuff. It’s a good idea in the old part of town to stand with your back against the wall to let a cow or bull or group of them squeeze past. It’s also wise to keep one eye on the ground while walking around. Furthermore, it’s not unusual in Lahori Tola to see cowsheds jammed in between shops and houses. No prizes for guessing how one knows when there’s a barn nearby.

Many people have written about what it’s like to witness the beginning and the end of a day on the Ganges, or Ganga, in Varanasi. As you will see from the photos that follow, we did all the touristy things too.

Although Varanasi is the seat of India’s current Prime Minister, it’s behind the eight ball regarding urban development. Long-term improvement is one thing, but surely Narendra Modi can use his influence to get his electorate cleaned up, and quickly. Lucknow’s administration got their city ship-shape in no time. Maybe Modi should get on the blower to find out how they did it.

Varanasi is, to my mind, the best and worst of India and the epitome of life and death itself.

Could Varanasi become squeaky clean and clinical? Not a chance. No one wants it to be, but it’s one of India’s tourist hot spots and should leave a better impression.

Note: We stayed at the Rivatas Hotel it’s in a good location and great value for money. Check out my review on TripAdvisor for more info.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Another day begins on the Ganges

Solar power at sunrise

Solar powered sunrise

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Awash with sunlight

Golden girls

Golden girls

Clothes maketh the man

Clothes maketh the man

Holy water

Holy water

Still waters run deep

Still waters run deep

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fun and games on the Ganges

 

The Nishadraj Ghat where boatmen and fishermen drop anchor

Caught one! Pic taken at the Nishadraj Ghat where boatmen and fishermen drop anchor.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Manikarnika Ghat is one of the oldest and holiest and the more important of the two cremation ghats

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

More Dead wood for the main cremation ghat

A tight squeeze in Lahori Tola

Another tight squeeze in Lahori Tola

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The nightly Aarti ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat

 

WOW LUCKNOW

Kuldip and I were taken completely by surprise recently when we visited Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. It’s the cleanest and the prettiest city I’ve seen in India. I can’t believe that there’s hardly any litter on the streets of Lucknow and it’s nearby villages; that’s saying something for incredibly dirty India.

Uttar Pradesh, formerly the province of Awadh, was ruled by the Persian Oudh dynasty for over 150 years from the early 18th century. In 1755, the fourth Nawab, Asif-ud-daula, moved the kingdom’s capital from Faizabad to Lucknow and founded this thriving city. He was the greatest builder of all the Nawabi rulers. Without Asif-ud-daula, Lucknow wouldn’t have the great Rajput and Moghul-inspired skyline it has today. My favourite places in the old Nawabi city are the Bara Imambara (Lucknow’s biggest draw card) and the extraordinary La Martiniere College.

The vast Bara Imambara complex comprises four primary structures plus two impressive gateways leading to the main prayer hall, the Bara Imambara. The other components are the Asfi Mosque and the Bhool Bhulaiya or Labyrinth. A stepped well, called the Shahi Baoli, was built early on to provide water. Legend has it that when the British invaded Lucknow, a senior Nawabi administration officer committed suicide by jumping into the well clutching the keys to the treasury. As I peered into the murky depths, I wondered if the keys were still down there.

The founder of the La Martiniere College was a French soldier from humble beginnings who arrived in India in 1752 and never left. Labelled an adventurer by many, and an entrepreneur by some, Major General Claude Martin’s curriculum vitae is an interesting read. He was a self-made man with many talents.

Shortly after the city was founded, Martin worked for Asif-ud-daula as superintendent of the arsenal. It was here that Martin made his fortune. The two men had much in common, including a love of architecture, and quickly became friends. In addition to working with the Nawab on some of his major projects, Martin’s most notable creation is his stately home, Constantia, which, upon his death, became the first hall of the La Martinere College.

It’s the mixture of building styles in that make Constantia extraordinary. The combination of Italian Palladian, Ottoman and Moghul and Rajput architecture is like India itself; it’s chaotic but the chaos works. It is often called a “wedding-cake in brick, a Gothic castle and a baroque folly.” The splash of an English Wedgewood effect on the ground floor is the icing on Martin’s curious cake. What is within the framework of the building that comprises four large octagonal towers, also makes this mansion an absolute marvel. In addition to being a lavish home with a sizeable chapel, Constantia was also a fortress complete with cannon and arsenal.

Construction of the six-storey building began in 1795. Sadly, Martin died aged sixty-five in September 1800, two years before it’s completion. Since Martin is laid to rest in the mausoleum he built for himself in the basement; Constantia is also known as the “finest and largest example of a European funerary monument in the subcontinent.”

Kuldip and I have seen some excellent examples of Hindu and Islamic architecture in other Indian kingdoms past. In addition to wanting to see more of it in Lucknow, we also went there to sample it’s legendary Awadhi cuisine, which also didn’t disappoint. True to its word, Lucknow is a gourmet’s paradise. For example, the melt-in-your-mouth Kakori Seekh Kebabs made from minced lamb, called mutton in India, are sensational. The story is that a chef who worked for a toothless Nawab created them. These kebabs are soft food at it’s best.

The local department of tourism works hard to generate awareness of Lucknow and its sightseeing treasures. Since it’s off the tourist track, though, their efforts are lost. The locals we came into contact with, including the front office staff at our 4-star hotel and our taxi driver, didn’t have a clue about the places of historical interest that we wanted to see.

Weatherwise, October to March is the best time to visit. We went there in summer in May. As forecast, the mercury hit 45 degrees celsius every day resulting in Kuldip getting hotter under the collar than usual in our non-tourist taxi.

Even though Lucknow is a bit remote, do yourself a favour; veer off the tourist track and go there. If you do, I recommend you hire a registered guide to take you around. It will save a lot of time and angst.

 

Us at the Bara Imambara

Us at the Bara Imambara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The mighty Asfi Mosque inside the Bara Imambara complex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the imposing gates to the Bara Imambara taken from the terrace above the Labyrinth

A shot of one of the Bara Imambara’s imposing gates taken from the Labyrinth’s roof-top terrace.

 

Martin's extraordinary Constantina

Martin’s extraordinary 6-story Constantia.

 

Some of the Wedgewood-esque touches

Some of the English Wedgewood effect included in Martin’s design.

 

A part of Constantia's sizable chapel

An impressive section of Constantia’s sizeable chapel.

 

Remnants of Constantia's arsenal

Remnants of Constantia’s arsenal.

 

 

 

 

 

HIGH SPIRITS

  A few weeks ago, Kuldip and I were invited to accompany some Chandigarh-based friends on a five-day road trip to the headquarters of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. We were riding high when we left, high into the … Continue reading