India has a lot to offer the intrepid explorer.
Our travels there took us through most of India’s regions, and from mountains to oceans, tropical rainforests to hot-desert plains. Every new province was like visiting a whole new country – different language; different culture; different history.
Although one thing remained unwaveringly constant, everywhere we went: the crowds.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
This is because, well, India is crowded. Over one billion people – 15% of the planet’s population – are packed into less than 3% of its land-mass. India is twice as densely populated as Europe, say, and for someone accustomed to the vast open spaces and minuscule, coast-hugging population of Australia, India can be almost frightening. It is hard to comprehend that the entire population of Australia would more or less fit into greater Calcutta, or that even if you multiplied Australia by fifty, it still doesn’t make one India.
In India even the smallest most insignificant village teems with human life. So in a place like this you would not naturally expect to find deserted cities and abandoned temples, would you?
Yet India is rich in these forgotten vestiges of long ago. They are everywhere, scattered throughout the countryside, often just a short drive from bustling, very much alive modern-day towns. Often deserted, frequently ramshackle, these ghostly reminders of a time long past would be more at home in an Indiana Jones film, or in the depths of the Amazon, or the Sahara. Indeed, more at home almost anywhere besides India.
Here are my favourites.
Ellora & Ajanta Caves
One fine day in 1819, a party of East India Company troops, about 400 kilometres northwest of Bombay, were engaging in that most colonial of activities: a spot of tiger hunting. They enlisted the help of a young scout from the local tribe, whose job it was to lead the hunters safely through the dense jungles.
At one point the hunters followed the scout up a steep embankment, where they found themselves looking out over a deep gorge, thick with vines and foliage and trees. There, apart from a spectacular view, one of the hunters noticed something what looked to be the entrance to a cave. In fact they had unknowingly stumbled onto the first of 28 man-made caves, spectacularly hewn by hand from the rocky cliffs. Which they soon found out were decorated with incredible carvings and murals that were still colourful and vivid, despite the passage of time.
An intensive restoration project began. Trees were cleared, rubble removed, crumbling walls reinforced. Finally, after years of work the Ajanta Caves, a part of yesterday’s India that had been abandoned for centuries, were reunited with the India of today.
Ajanta began life as a Buddhist colony, around the same time as Jesus was in nappies. Monks, attracted by the area’s serenity and isolation, created a monastery for themselves by chiseling hollows from the rock face. Here they prayed, meditated, lived and died. Then suddenly, in the 8th century, the caves were abandoned. No-one really knows why, but they remained unused and unknown for more than 1,000 years after that, until the British tiger-hunters came upon them.
In these caves Buddhist monks would sit cross-legged, in neat rows on the hard stone floor. They would place their sacred scripts on a raised stone platform, and meditate for hours on end. They would then retire to one of the tiny, dark cells carved into the walls of the main room – caves within a cave. Walking around our footsteps sounded very loud in the quiet of the caves, and I could almost hear the lingering sound of several hundred monks, chanting their daily prayers, all those centuries ago.
The best thing, for me at least, was that the Ajanta Caves had all the essential ingredients of a Hollywood explorer flick. Ingredient One: an ancient site in an exotic locale, abandoned to the jungle and long forgotten. Two: the accidental rediscovery of said site, by a party of tiger-hunters, no less! And capping it all off beautifully, Ingredient Three: a mystical curse that the original inhabitants of Ajanta cast on all those who might come after them.
So the story goes, a British artist spent 27 years copying Ajanta’s murals onto paper. Soon after, every one of these was burned in a fire that destroyed Crystal Palace in London. A replacement set of drawings were likewise turned to ash, this time by a fire that engulfed London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. And a third attempt to copy the Ajanta murals met with a similar fate: a Japanese archaeological expedition, whose members had meticulously copied all of the murals onto rice-paper, lost the lot in a freak earthquake.
Since then, legend has it that there is an “Ajanta hex” which prevents anyone from taking the murals’ likeness away from the caves. True, there are no Tutankhamun-like mystery deaths and inexplicable illnesses. But in my personal fantasy world of lost cities and deserted temples, any hex will do…
After Ajanta was abandoned, the monks didn’t go far, moving 50km up the road, to Ellora. Here they recreated their previous digs (no pun intended), once more chiseling caves out of the hillsides. Not long after, Hindus also started using these new caves for their own religious purposes. They stuck with the basic idea, but upped the tempo somewhat, and over the next two hundred years created caves of a size that is staggering. Then in the 10th century Jains arrived as well, adding a few pretty spectacular caves of their own. The final result is a stunning “city of caves”, representing three belief systems and over five centuries of continuous toil.
The undisputed highlight of Ellora, though, is the Kailash Temple, the world’s largest man-made monolith. It is a single chunk of solid rock, chiselled and carved into a fully formed temple, and which has to be seen to be believed – forty metres high, spread over four level (so roughly the size of a three-story office block) but without a single join: no nails, no cement, no bolts or interlocking stones. Every single room, carving and statue is part of the one unbroken block of stone. It is, quite simply, extraordinary: without question one of the most mind-boggling feats of human creation I think I have ever seen.
Apart from a good hex legend, nothing stokes my imagination as much as the architectural legacies of deranged kings. I love places that reek of the indulgence, madness, and barely-concealed psychosis that prompted their construction in the first place. And the Daulatabad Fort, nowadays a thoroughly decrepit ruin, is very much such a place.
It all started in 1330, when the then ruler of the region decided that his entire court should be moved from Delhi to Daulatabad. The fact that the two towns were over 1,000 kilometres apart was a minor technicality, and he proceeded to force his entire population to march to Daulatabad – right in the middle of the Indian summer. Not surprisingly, thousands perished en-route, and as a result the relocation exercise proved less than successful. No point crying over spilt milk, though, and so the certifiably insane despot got his weary subjects to pack their bags, and marched them all back to Delhi.
He left behind a fantastic fort with a diabolical set of defences, which we took a guided tour of. Try to imagine that you are a rank and file soldier, part of an army sent to capture Daulatabad. Your first task would have been to get past the heavily fortified, solid iron doors, avoiding the gruesome two foot long elephant-killing spikes. After dismounting (or being dismounted when your elephant keeled over) you would find yourself funnelled into a narrow channel between two high, smooth walls. Now look up. Do you see those small holes cut high into the walls? Hello! You are about to be doused with boiling oil poured through them…
Still alive? OK, proceed to negotiate your way past the series of fortified walls, and wade through the crocodile-infested moat. If you make it, you will now be inside a labyrinth of pitch dark tunnels. Beware: there are small holes in the ceilings of the tunnels which you can’t see, but through which defending soldiers will shortly start poking sharp spears, directly into your head.
But wait, there’s more. Now the main tunnel forks in two, and in a little while the two branches will reunite. It is pitch black in here, so presumably when the tunnel divides you will split up from your buddies. When you bump into them again in a few minutes, you will probably mistake them for the enemy, and you will probably wind up slaughtering each other.
Finally, if you still refuse to get with the program and just die, the tunnel exits will be sealed and toxic fumes fanned in, gassing you and anyone else foolish enough to still be inside them. And honestly, if you really need to ask why this tunnel gassing idea was not the first line of defence, thereby avoiding the need for elephant spikes, hot oil, crocodiles and other dastardly devices, then you are clearly not cut out for evil-genius work.
The final touch of brilliance at Daulatabad is the exit chutes, spaced periodically throughout the tunnels. Dead bodies could be pushed out through them, falling directly into the moat below. That, you will recall, was filled with man-eating crocodiles. In other words, after a bloody battle the tunnels could be cleaned up and the crocs fed, in one go. You really do have to admire the thought that went into it all.
Given these defences it is hard to believe that Daulatabad was ever captured. But it was, time and again. Eventually in the late 16th century the fort fell to the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, a first-rate sadist who devoted the whole place to the single purpose of imprisoning and torturing one of his enemies. Legend has it that after more than a decade of daily suffering, the lone prisoner asked for a pot of curd. He ate it and his head promptly exploded, at least bringing his jail-time to a rather messy end.
After this episode, Daulatabad was abandoned for good, buildings fell into decay, home to no-one besides small animals and birds. Since then it has remained largely untouched, a comprehensive ruin that attracts a few straggling tourists each day. It is a macabre and gruesome place, and I loved it.
Fatephur Sikri, unlike most other Indian ghost-towns, has no collapsed walls or piles of moulding stone; no buildings overrun with weeds; no opportunities for my oft-fantasized about Indiana Jones-style adventure, wading through knee-deep grass on approach to a long-lost city.
No, here the abandoned streets and courtyards are so perfectly preserved it can seem like the entire population of the place has just stepped outside for a moment, popped up the road to visit someone, or maybe nipped down to the local store for a quart of milk. You half expect that any minute now they will all be back, and the streets will once more be filled with merchants and pedestrians, children and animals.
Fatephur Sikri was built about five hundred years ago by Akhbar, a famous Moghul emperor. He had intended for it to be the joint capital for his empire, along with Agra. It was only after the mammoth construction project for Fatephur Sikri completed that Akhbar figured out there was one serious problem with the whole place: no water. Oops. Akhbar moved his court back to Agra, and ever since, the town has had no permanent residents, unless you count the lizards.
The abandoned palace complex is wonderful, made up of a series of eerily quiet courtyards, and poetically names rooms. Akhbar’s bedroom is known as the House of Dreams; a spacious courtyard is the Abode of Fortune; the main stateroom is the Palace of the Winds; and the multi-layered tower that looks a lot like a hopelessly lost Chinese pagoda is the Panch Maha.
There is also the rather more directly named Woman’s Quarters, where Akhbar housed his enormous harem. Here the stone carvings, lattice screens and decorative motifs were extraordinarily skilful, fabulously preserved by the numbing heat and dry climate. On one wall there are many strange-looking carvings, which our guide said were ear-rings. Apparently Akhbar’s many wives were forbidden from leaving the palace compound, not even to go shopping. Instead, popular earring designs were carved onto a wall. The wives would study the “catalogue”, point to the earrings they liked, and a servant would go out to buy them at the nearby market.
He may have kept his wives under lock and key, but when it came to religion Akhbar was an open-minded kind of guy. Although he was a devout Muslim, in Akhbar’s court leaders of all religions – Islamic imams, Hindu and Jain holy men, Priests from Goa – were always honoured guests. Akhbar also instructed that his palace at Fatephur Sikri should incorporate different religious motifs in its design. Thus in some parts of the palace traditional Hindu and Muslim symbols sit side-by-side, on the same piece of stone; other bits that are clearly of Chinese origin, and there are Jain, Persian, Turkish, Zoroastrian, Christian, and even Jewish influences, as well.
The Hall of Private Audience was where Akhbar got on with the business of running an empire. Right in the centre of this room stands a sturdy elaborately decorated stone column, about five metres high, on top of which Akhbar’s throne was perched. Radiating out from the throne are four brides, each culminating in a small balcony, so there is one in each of the four corners of the room. It is like a large “X”, with the throne in the centre, has been suspended above the Hall.
When considering important decisions, Akhbar would seat folks with different viewpoints in each of the corner balconies. He would hop onto his thrown, and from this central position would chair a spirited debate on the issue. Members of the royal court would mill about on the floor below, listen to the discourse above, and indicate their views by moving towards the balcony of the speaker who they considered most persuasive.
Using this unique decision making tool, Akhbar implemented policies that were light years ahead of his time. He abolished taxes that had previously been levied on Hindus making pilgrimages, and he did away with many discriminatory rules that applied only to non-Muslim citizens of the empire. When a group of Muslim clerics, feeling threatened by all this equality (whatever will this madman think of next?) tried to stage an uprising, Akhbar turned on his own religious leaders, mercilessly crushed their revolt. The ideal of equality was far more important to Akhbar than partisan religious loyalties.
Akhbar offers an example of enlightened leadership and religious tolerance, which even some of our present day leaders would be well advised to study. For a silent ghost-town, Fatephur Sikri has important things to say.
Halfway through a fourteen hour-long bus ride, bored beyond belief, I was paging through our guidebook. There I noticed a short entry for a place called Orchha, which was described as being a deserted palace and fort of the medieval era. “Ask to be dropped at the Orchha turning off the main road, from where you’ll have to hail another bus or rickshaw for the last 7km”, was the guidebook’s advice.
On the spur of the moment we decided to go there. I pushed my way to the front of the bus and told the driver that our plans had changed, and we would now be disembarking at the Orchha turnoff. He looked at me as if I had gone completely insane. Fifteen minutes later he pulled over and said that this was the place. We collected our bags, and before we had time to set them down again the bus was gone, in its wake a cloud of swirling sand and small stones.
Surveying our surroundings, we began to panic. Perhaps we ought to have thought a bit more about our hurried decision to get off the bus. The road junction was in the middle of no-where, with nothing but parched, dusty ground to keep us company. It was also very, very hot, there was no shade, and we could not see any vehicles anywhere, let alone any signs of human life. Which was kind of ironic: in India, it is impossible to go thirty seconds without almost being run over by all manner of motorised contraptions, and now, the one time we needed one, they were conspicuously absent.
So we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally after more than an hour a vehicle appeared on the horizon. We were overjoyed, and even better, it was some sort of shared taxi. The driver made the four occupants of the already crowded back seat squash up, and we climbed in. In the squeeze our bags had to be placed on the laps of the other passengers as well, who became quite grumpy as a result. Although frankly, by this stage we were so delighted to have been rescued we didn’t really care what they thought. As the old saying goes, it is far better to be the most unpopular boy in a taxi than to be vulture food.
Orchha is situated alongside a river, and we had to cross an old stone bridge to reach the main gate of the fort. From there we walked up a steep cobbled laneway, overgrown with weeds, before coming to an open-air courtyard. Across it was the Sheesh Mahal Palace Hotel.
We went in to see if we could get a room for the night. The manager told us that the suite was available (as was every other room) and for the grand sum of $22, we took it. It comprised two rooms, a private dining terrace, and a huge solid granite bathtub which was easily big enough to host a party in. Plantation shutters, cool white walls, white cane furniture and a marble floor made for a minimalist vibe you’d normally expect to see at hotels featured in Vogue. We congratulated ourselves on having stumbled upon yet another of India’s hidden gems.
Another unexpected surprise was in store for us later. Heading out to do some exploring, the manager asked if we would be interested in the “Walkman tour”: a small audio-cassette player, available for rent, with a pre-recorded tape to guide us through Orchha. He looked marginally offended when I laughed out loud at this typically Indian absurdity. I mean, come on – at the Taj Mahal the idea of an audio-tour facility is borderline science fiction. But here In Orchha, a place that would be lucky to see two visitors a week, I was able to roam the ruined palaces, a shiny Sony Walkman clipped to my belts, earphones snugly in place, while an English-speaking narrator guided me expertly from one building to the next.
I must say though, audio-tour or not, the Orchha complex was superb. It is totally deserted, a feast of faded murals and creeping vines and weed-choked pathways. We saw several beautiful palaces, graveyards, cenotaphs, fortifications and stately haveli (houses that used to belong to wealthy merchants). All were abandoned around two centuries ago, when the population of Orchha fled from a peasant uprising.
We were the only people there that day, and the silence was so total as to be almost scary, punctuated only by the caws of circling birds. I felt just like an explorer in a bygone time, when the world was still full of undiscovered places, when there were adventures to be had, and when there were heroes to have them.
Unlike the robust heroes of yesteryear, however, I suddenly took ill, and so we had to cut our ramblings short. Without warning a wave of nausea washed over me, and I started running a high fever. My legs buckled, and it was all I could do to stumble back to the hotel. The manager advice was not exactly good news – “the nearest pharmacy is in Jhansi, about one hour away in a taxi” – and so I had to make do with a rather puritanical bowl of plain white rice, followed by a dunk in an ice-cold bath.
When we left Orchha the next morning I was feeling utterly wretched, not to mention far less enamoured with the romance of yesteryear’s India. Give me aspirin, a steaming helping of my grandma’s chicken soup, and a good video, any day.
Khajuraho is a dusty, blistering hot, dead-end town. Study any map of India and you will see that it more or less sits at the geographic centre of India. It is thus pure Indian Logic that dictates this place, right in the middle of the country, should also be one of the most difficult spots to get to on the whole sub-continent, shielded from the outside world by a mountain range and harsh, unforgiving flood-plains. The Indian authorities have also done their part, conspiring to ensure that getting there by any form overland transport is a real pain. For those stupid or impecunious enough to try (there is a flight option), I can report the journey involves three train and bus connections, none of which are timed to coincide.
Yet in spite of these difficulties, tourists by their thousands pour in every day. If nothing else proving that which every advertising executive on Madison Avenue knows to be true: Sex Sells.
You see, Khajuraho’s claim to fame is a smallish complex of deserted temples just outside of town, built around 1,000 years ago. These ancient temples are known world-wide for one thing and one thing only: the explicit depictions of sex on some of its carvings. It seems tourists to India are fascinated with the idea of an ancient people, many centuries ago, choosing to decorate their temples with images of other people having sex. Certainly if it weren’t for the erotica, I doubt anyone besides the flies would ever bother with the place.
In the event, we were totally underwhelmed. The saucy bits are massively over-hyped, and make up only a tiny percentage of the temple decorations as a whole. Mostly the carvings are your average scenes of Hindu deities doing whatever it is that Hindu deities do: sitting, praying, eating, or working. Which were absolutely fine examples of the stonemason’s art, but were also totally, infuriatingly clean. Not exactly what you want to see after spending two days on a crowded bus on the promise of a mother-lode of ancient dirty pictures.
To be fair, we did get to see a life-size mural of acrobatic love-making, another showing a few improbable group scenes, and some carvings of the most incredible oral action imaginable. The temple guides of course knew the score, and hardly bothered to show us anything of the temples themselves, instead leading us directly from one dirty carving to the next.
Our one-hour tour concluded at what you might call Khajuraho’s money-shot: a sidewall running along the base platform of one of the temples, where a rectangular, twenty metre long stone frieze is given over entirely to a series of highly explicit images. Finally, here was the good old porn we had come to see, of the kind that would make even Hugh Hefner blush.
However, I will refrain from going into the gory detail. Suffice it to say that the carvings on that stone panel reminded me of a joke I once heard: “kinky is when you use a feather; perverted is when you use the whole chicken”. Take for example one particularly famous carving at Khajuraho of a man, standing proudly, showing off his sizeable and very erect penis. That’s the feather. Step back though and you see the complete carving, which is actually a picture of this upright fellow, fucking a horse. That’s the whole chicken.
Perhaps I am being a bit too judgmental, and it was not all as hard-core as that. TS Burt was the British officer who in 1838 stumbled upon the vine-covered ruins of Khajuraho, almost a millennium after being abandoned. Burt’s prurient English upbringing allowed him to keep a stiff upper lip about what he saw, and he described Khajuraho as:
“Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing”.
Exploring and adventuring in all of these long forgotten places in India, I was constantly awed by the skill of the ancient architects and designers. They were able to conceive of, and then create, structures we would struggle to replicate even today, and notwithstanding that the building of many of these places took a very, very long time. The Kailash temple, for example, required more than a century to carve from the hillside, and that was only a small part of an overall building program that spanned 1,000 years.
In times gone by people would devote their energies to projects that they had no expectation of seeing completed in their lifetime. Great cathedrals in Europe; great temples in India; great monuments the world over – these were all built with an eye to the future and the coming generations; with an eye to us. And as such, they were made to be durable, enduring, and monumental.
Can the same be said for the “great” constructions of our age? I am not so sure. In centuries from now, I doubt that too many people will gaze on the ruins of Beijing Airport, or Wembley Stadium, or Dubai’s skyscrapers, with quite the same degree of awe we have for the Great Wall of China, or the Duomo in Florence, or the Taj Mahal.
In touring India’s abandoned cities and palaces and forts, I just couldn’t help wondering who was more advanced: the India of yesterday, or the India of today. I guess the same could be said for all of us.
The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time – Udaipur – James Bond City.