After experiencing the Golden Triangle of India with its cities of Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and the relics of the era of Maharajas, the next experience SmarTours had for us was traveling by train from Agra to Jhansi and then on to Khajuraho by bus. Our terrific director and tour guide, Arvind, told us we would be getting to the train station well before our train was scheduled to leave but that trains in India are not known to run on time and there might be a wait at the station. On arriving at the train station, he had us stay sitting in the bus while he checked on the status of our train to Jhansi, as he said seating in the station was next to none. As we waited in the train station parking lot our hearts went out to the hawkers and beggars that circulated around our bus. A group that included several mothers and their children were lying under blankets on the ground near our bus, having probably spent the night on the hard asphalt in preparation for a day of selling cheap trinkets or begging.
When we went into the station and out onto the platform beside the tracks, we found ourselves in a large crowd of waiting passengers that stretched all along the tracks. Vendors had small kiosks set up along the platform to sell food, newspapers and magazines. We were at first told the train was about 30 minutes late but later found out this was very optimistic as our train eventually arrived 2 hours late. Several trains arrived in the station during our wait, and we watched in amazement as the third class cars where literally crammed with passengers, to the point of those that could not get inside the car stood pressed together like sardines at the door to the car.
Once our train arrived, we found our first class car a lot like the commuter trains in the northeast of the US, except that the restrooms were outfitted with squat toilets that emptied directly onto the tracks. Our trip to Jhansi took a couple of hours, but we were told the trip by bus would have taken up to 12 hours on very rough roads. Once we got to Jhansi, we were met by a SmarTours bus and continued our trip to Khajuraho.
Along the way we stopped for a break at the palace complex build by the Bundela rulers in the 16th and 17th century. We walked along a street of colorful shops that brought us to an ancient, granite bridge, which crossed the Betwa River and led to the entrance of the fortress that surrounds the two palaces: Jehangir Mahal and Raj Mahal. These were built during the highpoint of medieval Islamic architecture, but emptiness of the deserted and unused buildings brought on an eerie feeling as I explored the rooms, passages and towers of a bygone era. While we looked around on our own, there were only a few other tourists who entered the complex and these were mostly Indian.
At one point I came upon three Indian women in beautiful saris seated in one of the palace’s courtyards, and I envisioned the grandeur the place must have possessed in the time of the ancient rulers. Finding my way through a labyrinth of passages and stairs, I climbed up the upper walls of the fortress and ascended a tower that gave me a wonderful view of the surrounding area. I could see a large ancient Hindu temple across the river, which appeared to standout in opposition to the impermanence of the Muslim rulers that built this complex.
Late in the evening we finally made it to Kajuraho and checked into the beautiful four star Chandala Taj Hotel, which was lovely and very clean. Our twin room had a modern bath, and SmarTours had ordered a free dinner buffet for us. Feeling pretty exhausted from the long day of travel we hit the bed right after supper, waking up the next morning to a beautiful sunny day and feeling refreshed and ready to go. Arvind had told us we would be visiting a temple area that morning, and our first thoughts were, “Oh, another Hindu temple. How could they be any different from the others we had seen and been to?”
A local guide met us on the bus and took us along with Arvind to the entrance to the temple area. When we walked through the gate, everyone gasped in awe at what spread out before us, an unbelievably wonderful and amazing area of 25 Hindu temples, which have only in this century been discovered beneath the jungle growth and restored as a World Heritage Site. This is one of the aspects of the India we had hope to see: pristine in its green park-like surroundings with trees and flowers and incredibly designed structures. The guide explained much about these temples, which were built in early 800 AD and are amazingly intricate in hand-carved stone designs.
They are the only ancient buildings discovered with a written history in Sanskrit telling about the times, the religion, and the way of life, and how these structures were built. Sanskrit is still the Hindu language, so the carved history can easily be read. Then, the entire history, which is told is words, is also in pictures carved into the elaborate stones with men and women and animals going about daily life on one level of the buildings. On another level is the picture story of the wars and the kings. Another level showed their ways of building and their ways of worship, and the gods were depicted plentifully. On most of the other levels were intricately carved stones vividly illustrating the gods and people enjoying the various positions of the Kama Sutra Art of Love, which is a thousands of years old parallel to the 20th century book The Joy of Sex. The guide was very funny in his monologue as he would point out various very pornographic scenes and explain them. Gods and goddesses can be distinguished from people by their size and their multiple arms. Humans are smaller and have only two arms.
We spent about an hour in the explanatory lecture and then were free for another hour to explore the many temples to various gods and goddesses, each with different but similar themes displayed in intricate carvings as well as undecorated stones extending on up to complete the pyramids which were about 15 stories high and topped with a rounded pinnacle stone. The most overwhelmingly amazing thing is the discovery made when one of the pyramids had to be taken apart to be restored… Each pyramid is put together by interlocking blocks like a huge set of Leggos hooked together with the cap stone at the top being actually screwed in to hold it all together through wind, rain, fire, and earthquake for all these centuries! This was the most amazing historical site we have seen in all our travels and beautifully restored, with most of it the original stones. Of course, we had to buy a deck of Kama Sutra cards from the hawkers outside the gate.
Next we drove a short distance around Khajuraho to visited a Jain Temple, all white with simple domes. Jainism is the belief that all life is Spirit and therefore sacred, even insects. The Jains always walk, usually sweeping the ground in front of them so as not to harm an insect, and have no transportation; therefore, Janism is unique to India since it cannot be transported to other countries. It is a new religion in the last 130 years, which believes absolutely in total non-violence. Jain monks eat only vegetables but never a root vegetable because they might hurt an underground worm or insect in digging it.
Before we moved on to our hotel, we visited a lovely jewelry showroom, which is government sponsored and where everything is guaranteed. This town is very near the precious stone mines of India, and the jewelry here was exquisite and expensive, along with many other lovely Indian items for sale. SmarTours found before we arrived in Khajuraho that the Hotel Taj Chandela had been totally reserved for a wedding that was to take place the second night SmarTours had tried to book our reservations, so Arvind had arranged for us to stay the second night at the 6 star LaLit Temple View Hotel and had our luggage transferred to this hotel while we toured the temple areas. We had our afternoon free to shop, go for an ayurvedic massage treatment, or enjoy the beautiful swimming pool and grounds of the hotel.
After supper we went to a theater presentation of the various ancient dances that have been practiced through the ages by various groups throughout the area. One dancer performed classical dances of India, each movement being very exacting and similar to what we had seen in classical Japanese and Chinese dance, with the movement, gestures and positions of hands and arms and legs becoming symbolic.
The following morning about half the tour group got up very early and went out four to a jeep to Panna National Park, which is located just a short distance from Khajuraho on the Ken River. We arrived before sunrise and were met by guides that rode along in each vehicle to give us information about the wildlife and vegetation throughout the park. At one time the park was a habitat of a many Bengal tigers, but the number had declined to the point that tigers were seldom seen. As we began to travel around the park, the sun rose over the eastern horizon casting a golden tint to the foliage. We did see a number of Indian antelope and deer along with large groups of monkeys and numerous unusual birds. We ate breakfast at a picnic area along the Ken River and left the park after about a two-hour tour.
On our way back to Khajuraho and our hotel we were taken to a typical farming village in the countryside and visited the home of a farm family. We were able to view the way of life in a rural village in India. Like all the places we had visited in India, the lack of adequate water sources was evident. Wherever we passed a stream of water or a well with a hand pump, men, women, and children were congregated to bath, wash clothes and cooking utensils, and fill containers for use at home. Farm animals were also seen drinking and wading alongside the people in the streams.
The home we visited was a small, two-room structure with a covered porch and dirt floor in which one room was used to store feed and grain for people and livestock and was the place where the family slept and stored their few possessions on a crude shelf and wall hangers. The porch area of the house had a small fireplace where meals were prepared. The children from the family and neighborhood surrounded us with smiling faces and outstretched palms, and as we handed out ten rupee notes, which amounted to about 5 cents US, one would have believed we were giving away hundreds.
Our jeep drivers took us back to the hotel, and unlike the villagers we had just visited, we took warm showers, put on clean clothes and went down to eat a filling meal before heading for the Khajuraho airport and flying on to the present day spiritual center of the Hindu religion: Varanasi and the Ganges River. Please sign up free at the top of the page for our next issues.