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
Across all heritage sites you can buy your tickets online or on the phone to avoid the queue from the Indian Archeological Site at https://asi.payumoney.com/
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 12goasia.com 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 https://www.indianrail.gov.in/enquiry/PNR/PnrEnquiry.html?locale=en and on https://enquiry.indianrail.gov.in/ntes/index.html