Inching around India – Sanchi, Bhopal and the Ellora and Ajanta caves

Stopping over in Sanchi Stupa

Driving in rural India is a sensory assault.  Every driver and rider has their hand on the horn about 70% of the time.  Every cow has priority on the road (including large herds of sleeping ones), and it also is sensible to avoid hitting the dogs, monkeys, and bullocks as they can do quite a lot of damage to you and your vehicle. Indian drivers are also relatively laissez faire about their safety. My driver, Hara, picked me up after breakfast. All seemed well, not too bumpy and then I made the terrible mistake of looking at his eyes. His eyes were disconcertingly half closed and he kept slow blinking with his head slowly dipping towards his chin. Hmmmmm. It wouldn’t be the first time that I had a driver almost crash on me because he was tired, and often they have driven through the night from the destination to come and get you. I watched him for about ten minutes and we didn’t crash, and he was navigating around the many obstacles, so I figured his eyes were probably more open than they looked from my angle, so I resolved not to look at his eyes again until we got to Bhopal (and he only almost crashed twice, which isn’t bad for 8 hours).

It was an interesting drive – lots of mad overtaking, and driving through small Indian towns with 4-5 people on a motorbike, 8 people rammed into a tuktuk, and lovingly painted Indian trucks. We stopped at another filthy truck stop for a paneer paratha, chai and a limca. We made good time and arrived in Sanchi at 2.30.

Ashoka built the Sanchi Stupa. Abandoned in the 13th century, it was rediscovered in 1818. The Great Stupa is lovely, the core simply constructed but it is encircled by a wall with four incredible Torana gates that are apparently some of the best examples of Buddhist art in India. The site was relatively heaving with locals, and some ad agency had ruined the photos by putting G20 posters in front of all the toranas. However it was a lovely place to visit and I am glad we went. From Sanchi it was another 90 minutes to the bustling metropolis of Bhopal.

Hanging out in Bhopal – home of the Begums

Palatial digs – my favourite so far – love the Jehun Numa

Bhopal was a bit bonkers, a big city, quite sprawley but I was overjoyed to arrive at the wonderful Jehun Numa Palace – definitely the best place I have stayed, and absolutely the best value. At £100 a night, it’s a bargain – the rooms are lovely, there are five excellent restaurants. I had dinner at Under the Mango Tree – apparently the best restaurant in town – and had the small barbecue platter with raita and bread which was enormous and delicious. I also tried the Shahi Tukda which was like bread and butter pudding with a lots of cream but tastier. It’s wedding season so there was a bit of bridezilla action at the check in – and I was encouraged to dress up and go crash the wedding, but I didn’t think that was feasible given my backpacker wardrobe.

Wandering the old town of Bhopal

The hotel is in the hills – the fancier part of town – so I wandered the 3km over the the old part of Bhopal, across the bridge between the two big man made lakes. I popped into the old Gauhar Mahal palace – which was a pink spendour. The guard let me in and turned the fountain on for me. I then wandered through the old part of town which had lovely crumbling architecture. Two nice ladies stopped and ask if I was a tourist, and then asked if they could take a selfie with me – I took one too. I find it quite delightful that the ladies are fascinated with tourists (for the avoidance of doubt, I summarily ignore any man who talks to me, as no Indian woman would talk to a stranger).

After a couple of wrong turns, I found the big pink Taj ul Masjid – built by the third female ruler of Bhopal – Shah Jahan Begum. (There were four famous female Islamic rulers – the Begums of Bhopal who built the city in the 19th century). Shah Jahan wanted to build the biggest mosque in the world, and started in 1877. She died in 1901 and the mosque was eventually finished in the 1980s. There were lots of young men their learning the Quran…. but I didn’t seen any women even in the tiny womens section.

I wandered back across town – being careful to pay attention. I’d had a few near misses on the way up (not helped by listening to music as I strolled). There was not much of a footpath and it was very much a case of pedestrian beware. I weaved through a bunch of narrow alleys – figuring they would be quieter (possibly but still a game of dodge). I found my way to the Jama Masjid, a small but lovely mosque. The nice man sweeping the floor told me I couldn’t take photos, but then offered me a cup of tea. Another visitor proudly told me the mosque was built by a lady. Very sweet. While there are a few westerners in my hotel (all wedding guests), I didn’t see any tourists in town, as I guess Bhopal isn’t really a tourist destination. The people were are pretty friendly and chatty and it was a lovely place to stroll around

Getting tribal at the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum

The best rated attraction in Bhopal is the Tribal Musuem. It was created by 1500 Adivasis (tribes people) using only material from their villages, and the museum is dedicated to the 10 million tribal people from Madhya. I was pleasantly surprised. While the lighting was odd (dark and mystical), it felt more like an art spectacle than a museum. The sculptures and the houses were lovely and it was all very peaceful (silence was mandatory as part of entry :-)). The photos don’t really do it justice

Sucked in to the State Museum

And because it was right next door, I foolishly also went to the highly recommended Bhopal state museum. I am not someone who enjoys exhibits of coins, stamps, textiles, or miniature paintings. The sculptures were ok, but I have seen better at the temples. Note to self, don’t go to museums unless they are weird and wonderful

I was on a late train out of Bhopal, so had treated myself to an extra night in the hotel so I could nap before the train. I had a lovely late lunch of a tempura chicken burger in the cafe and listened to all the wedding guests around me gossiping about the bride and groom.

I had thought of going to the Remember Bhopal exhibit, but didn’t think I could stomach it. I don’t think anyone of my generation hears the name Bhopal without remembering the Union Carbide disaster that killed over 25,000 people. Appallingly it took a full five years for compensation to be paid to the Indian government. Worse, little of that money reached the victims. And it took a full 30 years for the areas most impacted by chemical leak to get piped safe water – 30 bloody years. Union Carbide ostensibly ceased operations after the disaster, but a recent investigation by Al Jazeera has confirmed that the were back in business in India in less than 3 years selling through a bunch of dummy front companies. More here for those who didn’t grow up in the 70s/80s.

On the Night train…. (always have guns and roses in my head for these rides)

It turns out I was very happy to have taken an extra night at the hotel as the train was late.  I ended up leaving about an hour before the IRCTC website said the train was due (and 30 mins after it was supposed to have departed) – it is quite fabulous now that you can track the train, you couldn’t do that in the olden days :-).  

Leaving that early did turn out to still be a mistake, as the Gods of rail made the train even later.   It ended up leaving 3.5 hours late at 2am – and any traveller in India will tell you that late nights in rail stations are not the best places to hang out.  I found a dodgy ‘upper class’ waiting room which was pretty grubby and you had to pay by the hour (10pence/10 rupees) but at least there was a seat.  I was surrounded by men in their socks doing one of the things I most despise – listening to tick-tok videos on their phones without headphones – there is a special damn place in hell for those people.    

I did work out that I could claw back some time from my next day, as the train actually did a loop past my eventual destination at Ajanta caves, so if I got off the train four hours early at a town north of the caves and paid £20 for a one hour car ride, I would catch up the time.   That worked out to be an excellent plan.

Boarding was fun – the characters on Indian rail are always amusing.  The prior train was a busy one and there was a bit of a squash with everyone trying to get on and off.  When our train eventually arrived, I was allocated a cabin with a girl and her dad.  Our first class AC cabin was filthy with used sheets.  They were not happy, and I didn’t really care.  I just stripped the bed, blew up my pillow, put my ear plugs in and my buff over my eyes and tried to go to sleep.  They went a bit postal on the attendant who did return with clean sheets but shrugged his shoulders when he was asked to clean the floor (clearly not his aisle, as someone else eventually came and did it 6 hours later).  

I didn’t sleep much (the lovely young lady snored :-)).  Which was probably just as well, as in spite of the conductor promising to wake me before Jalgaon, I never saw him again.  I checked the updates on yaktri and irctc at about 4am and set my alarm for 7.30 so I wouldn’t miss my stop.  We eventually chugged in at 8.40 – a full 4 hours and 20 mins later than the scheduled arrival time.  I popped into see the nice man at the Hotel plaza who had organised a ride for me to Ajanta, and he gave me a chai.  And then I had excellent meduwara (savoury donuts) with sambal and coconut chutney for breakfast at the Arya restaurant.   None of the staff spoke English so a kindly customer did all my translating.  When I tried to buy him breakfast to say thank you, it turns out he had already paid for mine.   The hospitality here from normal Indians is really wonderful. 

Wandering the stunning Ajanta caves

I arrived at Ajanta after a bumpy hour long taxi ride, and was instantly switched back into harassing India.  I wasn’t the only one being harassed to be fair, all the middle class Indians get equally harassed by tour guides, touts and vendors.  I was quite tired, having probably had three hours sleep, and a practical man made a good proposition.  ‘Ma’am I am not a guide, but I can make sure you go to the right places and no-one will bother you’.  That felt worthy of the $10 he was asking for his time – he kept the touts off me and actually more than earned his money by taking us on a short cut and then reversing the order we visited the caves in to avoid a horde of school kids – so i had most of the caves to myself. 

Ajanta has an amazing complex of cave temples that were built over 800 years up to 600AD.  They were abandoned in 1300s. And then rediscovered by a Bristish hunting party in 1819 according to the lonely planet (I am always sceptical about these claims as am pretty sure the locals always knew they were there).  There are 28 caves set on a steep river side, and they are all different with fantastic buddha sculptures and frescos.  The paintings are gorgeous but not well preserved.    It was a lovely two hours of wandering and the setting was bliss. I suspect it is even more lush in the wet season when the trees are all green.

I met my driver for the next few days – Mr Eshwar – at the carpark and we headed to Ellora. By this time I was knackered. We stopped at an excellent veg dhaba for a thali lunch and then arrived at Ellora at around 4pm. It was heaving with tourists wrapping up for the day. I checked into the grubby Hotel Kailas, and my dreams of a shower were dashed as there was no hot water. The room was pretty grubby, the wifi non existent and given we were quite remote, none of my 3 sims worked. I wandered around for an hour trying to get any bars on any network, and only managed to do so standing in the garden outside the office getting bitten by mosquitoes. Very annoyingly I had to send very shamefaced apologies to a board meeting I was supposed to be joining, as I didn’t think it would work standing in the garden with my phone in the air for 2.5 hours from 9pm-11.30pm. Oh well. I had dinner at the guesthouse (not recommended, super greasy) and had an early night.

Dawn at the Ellora caves

Ellora has a reputation for being heaving with visitors so I had meant to go at 6am for an early start. But I really was knackered and wanted coffee, so waited for the restaurant to open at 7am to caffeinate before heading over. The ticket office had a 100 person long queue and crowds of people taking selfies, so I was regretting my sleep in. I bought my ticket on my phone to avoid the queue, and then was delighted to figure out that most of the tourists were still in the ticket office area taking selfies and hardly anyone had gone in.

The hindu section – a tribute to Kailash

I wandered quickly around the main temple of Kailas and then snuck past the scaffolding to get a view down into the temple (I went up there three times during my visit to see how it changed with the sunlight, and each time I was the only person up there – shame, as it was the best view in the whole site). Kailash was dug out of the slope by 7000 labourers over 150 years and is apparently the world’s largest monolithic sculpture (twice the size of the parthenon and 1.5x higher). It was a beautiful temple meant to represent the wonderful Mt Kailash in Tibet where Shiva lives (I have been trying to get to Mt Kailash for years to do a kora, but that is another story). By the time I descended the main cave was overrun with school kids and delighted tourists (by the way, foreign tourists pay 15x the entry fee to get in (600 rupees of £6 versus 40 rupees or 40pence). That seems fair to me – I don’t pay taxes in India, and if the fee was the same high price for everyone the locals wouldn’t be able to enjoy their heritage. Figuring I would get a head start on the hordes I headed south to the buddhist section

Zenning quietly down to the buddhist caves

Caves 1-12 (all conveniently numbered on the footpath) were nice, and quiet, but not a patch on the caves at Ajanta (which were all buddhist caves, unlike here where there is a mix). They were also bigger than normal buddhist temples, ostensibly as they were trying to compete with their larger hindu neighbours. Cave 10 was the nicest, a chaitya, with lovely carved ribs. I had these caves entirely to myself, but did pass a few people trickling up slowly at around 8am – including a sweet family who asked for a selfie with me.

Reverting to hinduism…

Strolling back past the Kailas, I took the rarely visited path past caves 17-29. Cave 29 was a surprise highlight of the day with some extraordinary rock carvings. I highly recommend it, and again, I had all of these temples entirely to myself, there was noone on the path.

Finding the Jains

The final temples which you can visit are the small but perfectly formed detailed Jain temples – caves 30-34. These were a lovely bush stroll along from Cave 29. The buddha carvings (with lotus flowers) were different here as they were built later. These were a pleasure to wander around completely alone apart from the odd bat dive bombing my head. As I was heading back down the road to the main temple, four electric carts full of tourists came by in the paid shuttle bus……, I am glad I walked the 15 minutes and had the place to myself.

I did one final tour of the main Kailas temple (including to the closed off view point to see the different light) and took some photos (with permission) of some stunningly dressed touring ladies. And the I headed to out to get some breakfast. After my disappointing dinner, I was glad that google directed me to the excellent Garakipati for an excellent dosa and sambal with the best coconut chutney so far. Mr Eshwar came to get me to whisk me away to the delights of the fancy Vivanta hotel in Aurangabad where I was thrilled with my first shower in 3 days.

Next stop the Great state of Karnataka – Bijapur, Aihole, Badami, Pattadakal and the legendary Hampi. Namaste!

Aurangabad, 8 December 2022

Additional info

Across all heritage sites you can buy your tickets online or on the phone to avoid the queue from the Indian Archeological Site at

Bhopal – Ola works well (Indian uber but better), the hotel Jehun Numa is incredible and great value with delicious food.

Jalgaon – highly recommend the Plaza Hotel and the restaurant arya.

Ellora – I would not recommend the Hotel Kailas (dirty and poor food and no hot water), but it is the best of the bad bunch if you don’t want to get up an hour earlier in Aurangabad to drive to the site.

Indian rail tickets – the easiest place to buy them is unless you have an Indian debit card. Then you can track your ticket using the PNR number, and track your train times and status, on and on

Idling in India – Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Khajuraho

It has been 27 years since I backpacked around the mighty democracy of India.  It was my first foray into the third world and while it was tough as hell (food poisoning, groping, filthy hotels, corrupt officials, crazy road accidents and witnessing horrendous poverty) it was also mind bendingly fantastic.  India kickstarted my enduring desire to be on the road with a tiny backpack and a sense of adventure.    While I have been back several times for work, this will be my first time returning as a backpacker criss-crossing the country in rickshaws and overnight trains.    I am between jobs so have planned a number of adventures over the next four months – covering all the parts of India that I have been longing to see.  The December edition will be focussed on visiting the loveliest Unesco sites that I missed on my first big trip.  First up the Bodhi tree….

Bodhgaya – where Buddha found enlightenment

Bihar is considered the most lawless and corrupt state in India and it is definitely the poorest.  Tourists are typically discouraged from coming here apart from the small town of Bodhgaya which is a mecca for Buddhist Pilgrims – as it is the location of where Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree which is now next to the magnificent Mahabodhi Temple. 

Prostrating, chanting and marigolds at the Mahabodhi

The temple grounds are a wonderful example of religion in action.  Like the holy mosques of Karbala and Najaf, the Mahabodhi temple is an active place of worship.  Monks bring their own offcuts of linoleum, gloves and pillows for energetic hours of prostration.  More zen monks bring pop up mesh tents so they can calmly meditate without being bothered by the mosquitos.  Groups of pilgrims from around the world gather in groups and chant ….their voices merging into one as I circumnavigate the temple.  The colours are wonderful, the spiky pink lotus blossoms and the bright orange marigolds blending with the bountiful pilgrims offerings of packaged goods and the air is heavy with peppery incense.  Cell phones are not allowed within the temple, although you can bring a camera if you have one (I didn’t).  But that made it a much nicer experience, everyone was worshipping, chanting, prostrating or meditating and I was just soaking up the atmosphere.  The tree is pretty unprepossessing, and I read in the guidebook that the original was actually poisoned by Ashoka’s wife, but luckily a sapling which had been sent to Sri lanka was recovered and replanted.     

Round the (buddhist) world in less than two hours

After a lovely few hours soaking up the atmosphere, I meandered around town and visited the other monasteries – each of which represents a different country and their branch of Buddhism, Thai, Japanese, Bhutanese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Chinese – it was fascinating to compare the simplicity versus ostentatiousness of the different temples.  The pilgrims were being bused from place to place (in spite of the town being small and walkable) and would swarm a temple en mass, taking photos and then stopping for a short prayer session before swarming off. 

The monasteries close for lunch – so I headed back to my hotel which had a pretty good restaurant – for lime soda, dahl makhani, naan and masala chai.  Then I headed back out to see the Tempur temple, walking there and being overtaken by tuktuks full of pilgrims.  The safety scaffolding was quite something – they were literally balancing on a single bamboo pole and painting at the same time.  I passed by the chinese temple and had a family of Indian ladies ask me for a photo – so i got one of us too.  A bunch of guys then asked, so I scarpered.  I then wandered back to the main temple which was more lively.  It turns out the international chanting festival starts tomorrow so every country was setting up tents in the gardens, and lots of them had bought mattresses.    It was lively but very zen and friendly.  I wandered around town watching buddhist monks haggle with stall holders over prayerbeads and scarfs and then retired for dinner (thali – more curry!) and a few zoom meetings.

Varanasi – Ghats and the holy Ganges

There is a flight from Gaya to Varanasi but not every day. So, I booked a car from an online agency with variable reviews to pick me up early and make the 5.5 hour drive. Surprisingly the driver arrived almost on time for a 6am departure. The smog, even at dawn, was really thick, and I still haven’t seen the sky properly since I left London. Laxman was a decent driver, just as well as the seat belts didn’t work in the back, but like all Indian drivers he had his hand on the horn about 70% of the time. We stopped half way at a truly filthy truck stop and had a most excellent cheese paratha, potato curry and masala chai for breakfast. It was delicious and I crossed my fingers it wouldn’t have any unpleasant consequences.

Living it up in the Brijrama Palace

We arrived in the mad hustle and bustle of Varanasi just before lunch. The very fancy hotel I was staying in had sent a boat to pick me up from Assi Ghat as you can’t drive to the hotel, and their other guests apparently won’t walk (I would have but I didn’t want to say no to a free boat trip). Luxury is nice, I got a lovely sweet and salty ginger tea on my private boat and enjoyed the view.

I had treated myself to the fanciest hotel in Varanasi – the Brijrama Palace – also one of the oldest buildings in Varanasi. The security guard at the ghat level elevator entry was keeping out the riffraff (apparently you can’t even come in to the bar unless you agree to a minimum spend :-)). They had a room free early so I had a shower and two coffees and then went for a stroll along the ghats.

Gambolling along the ghats

There is no place more full of life than Varanasi – as a foreigner it takes a moment to recognise that most of the people on the ghats are Indian tourists, who are getting just as much hassle for henna and boat tours as the westerners. The westerners do stand out – mostly idiots wearing shorts and t-shirts – two items of clothing you don’t see anyone over the age of four wear here. But fortunately I only saw about 50 westerners over the two days. I am dressed sensibly, and have noticed this time in India that very few people (apart from young girls begging) are actually bothering me. I have decided it is because I am now ancient and therefore deserving of respect, versus when I was 21 and here getting harassed last time.

Varanasi/Benares is one of the holiest places in Hinduism as you can wash away your sins in the sacred waters of the holy river ganges. Manikarnika ghat on the river is the most auspicious place for Hindus to be cremated and the ceremonies run 24/7 on the river bed. You can watch but obviously be respectful and don’t take any photos (you wouldnt want some random person showing up at your relative’s funeral and taking photos). I had a lovely wander to the north end of the ghats past Manikarnika – I did try to visit the Vishwanath temple but you aren’t allowed in with a cell phone and it was all a bit of a faff so instead I made friends with some young students who were keen to take a selfie (i felt ancient ‘oh ma’am you are so sweeeeet).

Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh

After a shower and a nap, I adjourned to the third floor for high tea (think masala chai, samosas and cookies rather than tea and scones) and chatted to the Indian couple at the next table as we watched the sun go down through the smog. We then headed downstairs for a sunset boat trip along the river (‘free’ from the hotel). The boat was full and I was the only westerner with about 30 older Indian couples who were all lovely.

We rode up to the burning ghats and then came back to Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony where offerings are made to the Goddess River Ganges. It was quite a spectacle, well over a hundred boats pushed their way along side the main ghat. there were two ceremonies going on – and the loudspeakers competed with each other. There were hundreds of people in the boats, 99% of them Indian tourists. Chai, puja and flower wallahs jumped from boat to boat selling their wares. The ceremony was amazing – lots of fire and chanting – everyone on my boat sang along for the main bits of the chant.

It was really lovely to be surrounded by super excited devout Hindus – I am pretty pretty sure I was the only atheist on the boat – the offering man came round and got a lot of tips for his blessings. It was very zen and a lovely way to spend the evening – in spite of the bonkers crowds it was lovely.   I am remembering why I loved India – it’s mad and calm all at the same time.

I had a quiet dinner in the hotel – aloo chat, roti and malai paneer and then watched a Kathak performance in the lobby. I then headed to my room for my evening’s calls (the time zone works in my favour here)

A morning dunk in the Ganges

I didn’t sleep well – jet lag and the old stone building echoed some annoying guests who were talking outside my room late. I stumbled out of bed around 6, had a coffee, and then headed back to Dashashwamedh to watch pilgrims do puja and dunk themselves in the Ganges. The hassle from the touts was relatively light, the smells largely sweet and the joy and happiness of the pilgrims was magical. The ladies contort themselves trying to get dressed and undressed into clothes to dunk in. The men strip down to fairly skimpy underpants and sometimes do stretches. I sat on the side of the ghat and enjoyed the atmosphere. (I had dunked myself in the holy Ganges last time I was here, and I feel like once will do)

I wandered back for breakfast – chole battura, puris, and kulcha…… I am fully embracing the local food as I think most of the western food they make isn’t’ great. So far I have avoided meat, and the hotel was vegetarian (given the proximity to the holy river), and the food is still delicious.

After breakfast and a shower I drank tea on the terrace until time to depart. I shared a boat with two incredibly impressive high court judges from NZ to the taxi dock and then headed to the airport. It is nice having more money than the last time I backpacked, as getting to Khajuraho back then would have involved a 12 hour train, this time it involved a 55 minute flight in the front row. I was out of the airport 3 minutes after the plane door opened…..

Kama Sutra in Khajuraho

After checking in at the Radisson I went for a stroll and was immediately hounded by several ‘kind’ men on motorbikes who thought it was their ‘duty to give me a lift as a visitor to their country and then I could just pay them a little something for petrol’. They were bloody persistent, so I put my headphones on and sang to myself loudly (and out of tune, as I can’t sing) and they eventually left me alone. I was saving the temples for the morning, so I just wandered around town, checked out some ruins and then had an exceptional Thali and lemon soda at the Badri Seth Marwari Bhoj which was a super busy family restaurant for local tourists. It was the best food I had eaten in India so far, and I rounded it out by buying some barfi, kulfi and rasmalai to take home (super sweet fudge and cottage cheese pudding) and had an early night.

The light was lovely on my main tourist day. After a great breakfast of Chole Battura (puris and chickpea curry) and lots of chai, I wandered up to the Western Group of temples. It was still early so it wasn’t too mad, but I did get 14 offers for a guide or a kama sutra book before i made it to the ticket office. Things have modernised in India, and also probably as a way to reduce theft and corruption, so the tickets had to be bought online. I was lucky I had an Indian mobile, but it did take three goes on different cards before it worked.

The Western Group of Temples

Khajuraho is famous for its erotic stone carvings on their temples. 85 temples were originally built in the area by the Chandela dynasty. The best are in the ticketed Western enclosure and feature lots of heavenly nymphs and heroines and couples and threesomes in erotic (albeit occasionally improbable) poses.

First up the Lakshmana Temple, AD954 which is probably the best preserved of the temples, and had the only carving of a man entertaining himself with a horse (yes it is in the photos). I didn’t notice it at first, but I heard the guide of a large group of local tourists say ‘bestiality’ loudly so I went to take a look. The security guard at this temple tried very hard to show me all the best places to take ‘kama sutra’ pictures, so I put my headphones back in. It was pretty fascinating, and the carvings

Then the Kandariya Mahadev and `Devi Jagadamba temples– the Kandariya had the 872 statues and these were the biggest in the region. The most amusing has a headstand post (yes also in the photos below). It was quite fascinating watching the giggles of the elderly Indian tourists as they looked at the carvings