Heading down the tarmac

Our first days in Orchha were carefree, enjoying the peaceful and friendly atmosphere. Then things began to change. The news filtered in slowly how serious the virus was in Europe. A German couple who we’d planned to share a car and driver with to visit Bundi in Rajasthan decided to cancel. The state authorities were making it difficult for tourists to enter. All the while, fewer and fewer tourists, foreign and Indian, were coming to Orchha.

Marion and Jorgen, concerned about their aging mothers, felt compelled to return to Germany early. We still wanted to go up to HP and wait it out in the mountains until May 2nd.

When we learned that not only was the palace no longer open to tourists but even the temple doors were closed to pilgrims and local worshippers, the writing was on the wall. It was painfully evident that we had grossly underestimated the seriousness of this disease. Suddenly, cars were driving around town, warning people over loudspeakers about Coronavirus. In India, the virus is considered a disease of foreigners or Indians who had been outside the country. Now, a few of the locals looked at us as if we were the virus walking down their street. It was time to leave.

Before we booked our railway tickets to Delhi, we made the time to visit my favorite place on the edge of town – a brook bordered by wheat fields and distant monuments. The only sounds were the trickle of water and birdsong and a cow munching grass. A moment of peace.

Back in town, the streets seemed quieter than usual, the traffic less. Hotels and restaurants were almost empty. How long can they stay open with no tourists or pilgrims? We said goodbye to our Kashmiri friends who were considering closing their jewelry shop early and heading back home.

Around the temple, closed but still lit up at night, we saw the poor and homeless sitting on the ground, still being fed by a few kind souls.

Sadly, we returned to an eerily quiet Delhi but with the good fortune of having family, Ravi and Swarn, in Gurgaon who were brave enough to host us for three days. We tried to keep our distance, staying mostly in our room, but by the end of our stay they were sitting and eating with us. Meanwhile, Marion and Jorgen were not so lucky, staying in a hotel in Paharagunj, Delhi where shops and restaurants were already closed and there was nothing to eat.

As soon as we arrived, our host said we should take the first available flight home. I was still attached to the idea of taking a bus and escaping to HP. Gerard took seriously the advice and easi;y convinced me we should go as soon as possible. We didn’t want to wear out our welcome. Unable to reach the online booking agency or airline to cancel our existing flight, we spent all afternoon trying to find a new flight home. Finally, Emirates via Dubai, with an eight hour layover was our best option. Landing in Newark we’d go through customs and screening, before flying up to Boston.

Wanting a walk, I persuaded Gerard to visit the nearby malls – one was closed, the other was almost empty, shopkeepers standing around idle. The few people out and about were mostly wearing masks. With news of the virus spreading, Modi was dominating the airwaves, talking firmly about restrictions including shutting down the metro in Delhi. That evening, we learned that Himachal Pradesh was not allowing tourists to enter any more. Without knowing it, we’d made the right decision. As of now there’s been no confirmed virus cases in less populated HP and maybe, with the shut down, it can stay that way. On the morning news, it was announced starting May 22nd, there will be no more international flights. Our flight was scheduled for the afternoon of the 21st. A narrow escape.

I was relieved to finally leave for the airport, well ahead of time. With long lines of equally anxious passengers, all wearing masks, we entered the fray. After hours of hanging around, as the plane went down the tarmac, Gerard counted over 50 planes lined up idle. A fellow passenger told us that Emirates was suspending all operations world wide starting now. We could be on their last international flight. During our layover in Dubai, we were amused to see groups of Asian passengers covered from head to toe like Hazmat workers…maybe they were the smart ones. We arrived in Newark to find our flight to Boston canceled but had no problem rebooking on one four hours later. There was no real screening…none in Newark or Boston…So now it’s up to us to self isolate for two weeks and take our temperatures daily. Our house sitters kindly shopped for us before they vacated and a good neighbor promises to leave food on the doorstep.

.

Coronavirus, but not in Orchha

Our original plan was to stay in Orchha only a week and then move on the southern Rajasthan. But the state government of Rajasthan has gone crazy about coronavirus so we’re staying put until we go to the mountains. Not a hardship, it’s an easy place to be at this time of the year, the weather is perfect cool nights and warm days and pollution is relatively low. German friends, Marion and Jorgen, have arrived from Gokarna and we’re enjoying showing them around for the first time.

The historic town of Orchha and surrounding countryside has barely changed since we first visited in 2010. Each year we are surprised at the lack in growth of tourists. Tour groups still arrive here not even for the day and are hustled through the main palace, shunted back on the bus, and gone before the dust settles. This year, there are less but still a few.

Sitting on the banks of river Betwa, Orchha was once the capital of the Bundela Rajput kingdom, one of the largest and most powerful in Central India.

Outside the main complex, the landscape is scattered with crumbling remains of residences, gardens, and chhatris (elaborate tombs for the dynasty). Many are in amazingly good condition, in part because Orchha seldom witnessed ferocious battles. The town reached its peak in the early 1880s and then fell into decline after Indian independence when it lost its city-state status.

However, change is in the air. Namaste Orchha, a three day conference/festival aimed at stimulating tourism, was winding up the day we arrived. More significantly, there’s a clean up campaign – similar to Varanasi. The open sewers running each side of the street are being closed up. The main road through town widened and resurfaced meaning the traffic just goes faster. The fronts of buildings beside the road that extended too far have been demolished and the exposed remaining interior of the vacated building is painted cream white! They’re continually upgrading in and around the palace, the major sites are illuminated at night and the fountain in front of the temple is spouting water for the first time.

Until now we’ve not mentioned Coronavirus to avoid feeding the media-driven paranoia. There are so many viruses in India that a reminder to wash your hands and not touch your face is good common sense. Western tourists are at an all time low, and, each day, India Times provides a news update on the spread of the virus. In a place as large and disorganized as India, you question the degree to which any estimate can be accurate. When we step out on the street, life is as normal in Orchha and we forget about the virus – or we almost do. Fortunately, we are in a small town with only a small tourist influx on a normal basis. But now that is changing. Everyone is talking about it and some are booking flights home early. India has become caught up in the global wave of hysteria.

Friends, Premgit and Sandhya, wrote with a horror story of arriving in a town in the Punjab where the Sikh festival of Urs was being celebrated. First, the hotel told them their reservation was canceled; they finally managed to get a room and settled in. The next morning, six fierce Sikh policemen barged into their room and told them they had to get out. There was no discussion – they had to go the train station and wait for twelve hours for a train to Delhi, where they booked a new flight back to the UK a couple of weeks earlier than planned. The tourist areas of Rajasthan are also in high alert. Tourists are being stopped at train stations and told to go to a local hospital and get a medical certificate before they’re allowed to stay. India Times published a photo of a hospital in Jaipur showed a long line of tourists waiting to to be certified. And just today, we read that India is in lockdown as regards flights in and out of the country. We have now canceled our next destination, Bundi, in Rajasthan, and are staying longer here in Orchha. We do not anticipate a problem in being in HP in the mountains where we plan to spend the month of April. First we must return to Delhi first to pick up our warm clothes from the family and catch the bus to Rewalsar.

We’re making a concerted effort not to get caught up in this over reaction. We can and firmly believe that whatever happens is supposed to happen. Both of us feel perfectly healthy. In this bizarre time, we wish everybody all the very best.

Khajuraho: Temples in a Garden

For years, we’ve passed by Khajuraho but never stopped. Too many tourists and touts. Uschi, a friend of ours in Varanasi, who organizes tours to the major sites including Khajuraho, strongly encouraged us to visit. She recommended us seeing the temples in their beautiful setting. We booked an expensive, by our standards, hotel for the occasion.

We took a sleeper train and arrived early in the morning. The hotel was two km. outside town, sitting in quiet countryside, the rooms white, clean and spacious (especially after our shoebox-sized room in Varanasi) and all with balconies overlooking a garden of palm and banana trees. After resting in luxury, we walked into town. A complex of six temples sits peacefully among manicured gardens, in an area cordoned off from traffic. The best time to visit is late afternoon when the sandstone temples look their best in the soft sunlight.

While waiting, we ate in a rooftop restaurant beneath a gigantic tree adorned with flowering vines. The cafe looked straight out on the temple complex and its lush manicured gardens. Sitting in such idyllic surroundings, leaves gently blowing in the breeze, we agreed that we’ve never been in a place quite like this in India.

Khajuraho’s Hindu and Jain temples were built around 1100 AD commissioned by the Rajput rulers of Chandela Dynasty. After the downfall of the Chandelas in the 13th century, the abandoned temples suffered some desecration by the Mogul conquerors but were protected by their remote location in dense forests. In 19th Century, a British surveyor rediscovered and excavated the site. We spent an absorbing two hours in the main temple complex.

Khajuraho is well known for the erotic sculptures that adorn the temple exteriors. However, only a few of the thousands of the exquisitely carved figures are erotic. Hardly worth a trip if that was your focus! Most depict idealized femininity and the men pale in comparison.

Various legends try to explain the sculptures. The most appealing to me was the story of beautiful Hemvati who was seduced by the Moon God while bathing in the moonlight in a pool in Benares. After conceiving a child, she cursed the God and ran into the forest to raise her illegitimate son alone. However, the Moon God promised her their son would grow up to become a great king. His word came true: the child was the first king in the Chandela dynasty. After Hemvati passed away, she appeared to her son in a dream, asking him to construct temples that would depict human passions.

The next day, we hired a rickshaw driver, hungry for our business with the obvious dearth of tourists to take us out of town.

We passed through a village to find another seven temples which we would never have found on our own. Driving down country lanes, it was money well spent.

An isolated temple amongst the lush wheat fields had a miraculous statue of Lord Shiva.

Our third day, we returned to our favorite restaurant under the tree and spent the afternoon sipping tea and looking again at the beautiful temples.

The guide books say you only need one day in Khajuraho but we’re glad we decided to spend longer in this picture perfect setting. Even the temperature cooperated: cool nights and warm clear days. We’re so glad we took Uschi’s advice!

Bansuri and Ayurveda

One night, we attended a very special event, a private ‘bansuri’ (bamboo flute) recital. Even though they were students, the intimate atmosphere made up for any possible lack of technique. For a minute, we thought we thought we’d entered Satyajit Ray’s film about musicians (the Bengali film producer from the ’50s). The music was not amplified, making it possible to hear the nuances of the tabla normally missed. But in my case, any hopes of being able to hear a flute were dashed because the bansuri played in the lower register.

Unable to participate in many conversations that Gerard has can leave me feeling on the periphery. Only if I’m in a quiet environment and speaking to a woman can I fully participate. When the frustration mounts, I’ve found the forty minute walk up the river to Assi Ghat is a tonic.

After so many years of walking the ghat, I still marvel at what a unique place Varanasi is. Growing up in Totnes on the River Dart, walking along the Charles River and many others, I feel my whole life I’ve been refreshed by rivers, but none that compare to the Ganges.

Last week, Sandhya and Premgit, an English couple we met four years ago here. He’s a photographer working with only black and white film and focusing on religious rituals in India. His wife, Sandhya, has a chronic respiratory condition and finds help here from an ayurvedic doctor. She persuaded me to join her. The doctor took my pulse, inspected my tongue, then prescribed some pills and four sessions of Sirodhara, a therapy to reduce stress. While lying on my back, for an hour, his assistant “gently” drizzled warm oil on to my forehead, from a brass vessel hanging overhead. All I know is, it was quite euphoric, incredibly relaxing and gave me a good night’s sleep afterwards. Problematic was trying to shampoo all the oil out of my hair!

We’ll be moving on soon. God willing, we’ll be back next year and hope not to see further destruction in our favorite city. A reassuring reminder: we’re told that throughout history, Varanasi has been destroyed and rebuilt a total of four times with Modi the cause of the fifth. On a lighter note, he managed to move the cows from the lanes of Varanasi, while the British Raj could not. But there’s still a few around!

Nothing stays the same – even in Ancient Varanasi

Over our eleven years visiting Varanasi we’ve talked about change…slow, subtle changes in the ancient city and its people. Changes also that may be merely our own shifting perception. But this year, change is tangible and undeniable. At first impression the lanes and ghats were less crowded and cleaner. Tourism is down. Hotel managers and restaurant owners tell us business has declined by as much as 60%.

In addition to people, there’s far less cows and stray dogs in the lanes, meaning they’re cleaner. When we asked friends, they told us the animals were rounded up last fall and hauled out of the city. It’s part of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘clean up Varanasi’ campaign. Maybe the next initiative will include eliminating the speeding motorcycles with their ear-piercing horns, in the narrow lanes? The disappearance of the water buffalo on the ghat is also obvious. We’re told that most of them were owned by the Moslems.

There have been repairs made on the ghat, the first time in our memory. But most unsettling is the destruction around the Golden Temple; 340 buildings have already been torn down. Modi wants to clear space around the temple and make a corridor leading to the Burning Ghat. From our perspective the scheme is flawed from the start. Why take the oldest living city in the world and tear it apart? The lanes are now blocked from one end of the old city to the river by the bulldozing.

With Narenda Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister, he appears in his actions to be emboldened and particularly toward minorities. Gerard has asked numerous people for their opinion of not only the destruction around the Golden Temple, but Modi’s policies in general. The vast majority support the Prime Minister, and think it’s time to take a hard line on the troublemakers, namely, the Moslems. We have no idea if this is the national sentiment, but it appears to be here in Varanasi, Modi’s adopted city. Some of Central Government’s tactics in this, the largest democracy in the world, we find disturbing.

The day we arrived, we went over to visit our friend Santosh, who runs a restaurant and met up with our long time French friends there. I was just in time to accompany Santosh and family on a customary afternoon walk. Along the ghat there were frequent stops for chai, pizza and other treats, even though the food in his restaurant is the best in town! A few days later, we took an early morning walk up the ghat and back through the old city – or what’s left of it. Santosh treated us to a traditional winter drink – bright yellow and fragrant, the sweetened milk is whipped into a frothy concoction and served in clay pots

Our time here coincided with Shivratri (Shiva’s birthday) and Dhrupad Mela, a classical Indian music festival which goes into the early morning hours. Gerard attended all three nights but didn’t make it beyond midnight. I joined him twice and even though I couldn’t hear all the music, enjoyed the ambience.

On the last night, rain was forecast. Sure enough, the music had hardly begun when a sudden downpour caused everyone to move toward the stage and into the center away from the leaking edges of the tent. The sound system and lights sputtered but the musicians continued playing without interruption. Fortunately the tent held up better than a few years earlier, when a similar downpour drove away all but the most dedicated in the audience.

Again, we’ve met up with old friends and made a few new ones. Peter who we first met in HP visited with his partner Veronique for a few days. Tired of traveling, Peter has now settled in Auroville.

A surprise meeting was with Darcy, introduced to us by mutual friends from back home. Darcy came to Varanasi to practice yoga with a group. She lives just outside Boston and we enjoyed making the new connection.

Darcy finding us at Dhrupad Mela

Gerard enjoys sitting in the foyer of our hotel to chat with Sanjiv, a friend since he first became hotel manager nine years ago (we’ve been coming here longer). While there, he invariably meets other guests including an interesting young woman from Serbia coming here alone to practice her photography. Tomorrow, our friends Sandhya and Premgit, from the edge of Dartmoor, are arriving.

Caves — but not as many as we thought

Our carefree month at the beach ended with a momentary downturn: the night before we left Gokarna Gerard came down with what must have been food poisoning. Alone, I said goodbye to our friends at breakfast the next morning and we set off for the short train ride to Madgaon. Gerard slept the remainder of the day away while I found a pure veg restaurant with remarkably good masala chai. We’d decided to fly to make the long trip to Aurangabad less arduous. However, this is India. The trains rarely run on schedule; why would we think domestic flights would be any different? Two short flights on twin engine props, but a long tedious day of delayed connecting flights and more time sitting in airports than on planes.

Aurangabad was named after the infamous Mogul Emperor, Aurangzeb, one of whose cruelest act was to imprison his father, Shah Jahan, in full sight of the Taj Mahal he (Jahan) had built in honor of his wife. In captivity, Jahan was forced daily to look out on his creation. Another busy Indian city, the only reason for coming here was because of its proximity to the caves of Ellora and Ajanta. Nine years ago, we were so impressed, we decided to make another visit this year.

Our first day, Gerard had recuperated enough to visit nearby Ellora. We shared a taxi with a jovial Frenchman, our age, who spoke virtually no English. The taxi dropped us at the caves early in the morning and waited until the evening to bring us back. Once again, we were awestruck at the long line of caves carved into the cliff.

Over 600 years, between the 5th and 11th Cs AD, both Hindus and Buddhists carved a total of 34 caves out of the rock face. Sitting close to one another, they illustrate the religious harmony that existed in ancient India. One wishes that was still true today.

Most impressive is a massive complex: Kailasha is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. It’s said to have taken ten generations to complete and includes a large pillared hall, antechambers, and gigantic sculptures of Hindu deities. Wall panels depict Hindu mythologies: in particular, the two major epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Though the stone sculptures and decorations have worn away over the centuries, they are still impressive.

Most of the Buddhist caves are multi-story monasteries with massive carved Buddhas. The largest is the three-story ‘Vishvakarma or ‘Carpenter’s Cave’ so-called because the rock has been given a finish that looks like wooden beams.

You enter a facade decorated with meditating monks, then up a flight of steps to a cathedral-like prayer hall. Its vaulted roof is carved with wooden like ribs. At the far end, a colossal fifteen-foot Buddha sitting in preaching pose took my breath away. The Buddha’s presence was tangible.

Either side are Bodhisattvas and Buddhist goddesses seated on lotus thrones. Seeing all this antiquity in its original location can’t compare to visiting a museum assembled with similar artifacts. Here, you are immersed in what was a great period in history. As we looked at these ancient works of art, the term ‘carved in stone’ came to mind, but even stone is subject to decay.

The following day, we were looking forward to returning to Ajanta where the design and decoration of the Buddhist caves are even more amazing than that of Ellora. Normally, a three-hour bus ride away from the city, we were warned that the road is torn up under reconstruction and the ride could be now close to five hours. Gerard, still not fully recovered, the thought of the bumpy ride on a crowded local bus would be too much. So reluctantly, we canceled our plans, reassuring ourselves that, God willing, we can return next year to visit Ajanta. when the new road should be completed.

What to do instead? Aurangabad offers little of historic interest, except a mini Taj Mahal built in 1660.

Commissioned by Aurangzeb in memory of his own wife, the Bibi Ka Maqbara, is smaller and much less imposing than the Taj Mahal, but still bears some resemblance with its once formal gardens and waterways. No surprise, the same architect was commissioned to design both.

Our next stop had less impact except for its surroundings. The Soneri Mahal sits on the outskirts of the city. The ‘palace’ was decorated in gold giving its present name; Soneri meaning cloth of gold. Today, it is a cream-painted nondescript looking building with a mediocre museum of pottery, sculptures and kitchen utensils. But sitting in open countryside, against a backdrop of hills it was a pleasant place for a short visit. Away from the hubbub, we immediately felt refreshed by the tranquility.

The following day, we took our last domestic flight to Varanasi on time and with no problem. From now on, we’re back to traveling via trains and buses.

Lots of Friends and Longer walks

Our friend Odella, arrived four days ago, fresh from NYC. She didn’t take long to adjust. Tall and poised, she towers over the short South Indians. Finding her own way around and uninhibited in asking people what they were eating, where she could find a good cup of coffee, is there a good yoga class etc. she quickly showed her independence. She’s been to India a couple of times before but not traveled extensively. Our connection with her is through Lewis, her husband and old friend ours. A jazz musician and professor at Rutgers University, we only see them when Lewis gets a music gig in Boston.

Our German friends, Marion and Jorgen, love to walk and persuaded us to visit the neighboring beach, Kudle. A pleasant walk through the jungle. The beach is picturesque and reminded Gerard of Greece in the late ’60s.

A few days later, we were enticed to take a more adventurous hike to Half Moon Beach and beyond. It was more strenuous but a beautiful walk through the jungle. Half Moon Beach is only accessible by foot, keeping it an unspoiled and secluded cove. Hot and sweaty we dove immediately in the water, followed by chai at a single chai shop.

Moving on to the second destination, Paradise Beach, was nothing short of treacherous. Climbing over the jagged rocks along the water’s edge made Gerard nervous. I focused on where I placed each foot, I made it without incident. Good for the attention! Paradise Beach did not live up to its name – a scruffy beach with coarse sand, a hangout of modern-day, young hippies. Exhausted from our rock climbing we collapsed on the sand and were soon joined by stray dogs.

The long walk was not finished; we still had to get to the neighboring town through more jungle and rice paddies to catch the next bus to Gorkana. On the ride back, Marion asked, if we had known what the route had in store, would we have agreed to come. Gerard admitted he wouldn’t have minded missing the climb over the rocks to Paradise Beach, but loved Half Moon Beach.

After such a long and treacherous hike we should have known better, but we agreed to hike with them again, down to the end of the beach and take a bus back.

For the first time since we arrived in Gokarna, the sun was hidden behind clouds. The few beach huts and restaurants dwindled until all we could see at the edge of the beach was palm trees and tropical undergrowth. Passing fishermen preparing their boats, we suddenly came across a beautiful young Indian bride being photographed. No sign of the groom!

The beach was a good 6 km long and then we had to weave our way through lanes and beside fields to the bus stop – another couple of km.

A week ago, our Swiss friend, ‘six meter ‘ Peter and his Polish wife, arrived from Goa to visit us for three days. Peter is a professional violinist and has spent the winters in a rented house in Agonda for many years, practicing most of the day and performing at night gigs up and down the coast of Goa. He decided not to bring his violin to Gokarna but is clearly lost without it. At breakfast, his restless fingers repetitively drum the table. We’ll see him again in August when he attends a summer course at Berkeley.

A couple from Australia that we met in Darjeeling seven years ago are back in India, traveling for a year. Last night, they caught up with us here in Gokarna before we move on. We hope to see them again in the mountains.

One of the many things we find attractive about Gokarna is, there’s a significant older population here. Generally, they are people who’ve been traveling for decades, so we have a lot in common. We can spend too much time reminiscing what the world was like back in the ’60s, but it’s still more interesting than talking about Trump and Modi. The oldest we’ve met is an 86 year old woman from Scotland who is staying on the ground floor of our guesthouse. She’s beautiful and walks to the beach each day with a stick. Young and old, there’s always interesting people to meet: a young Frenchman using only analog camera equipment; a young girl who illustrates her own postcards and on hearing that I was from Totnes in Devon, leapt up and hugged me (her family live there); and Bernard from Geneva who likes Miles Davis!

As mentioned before, Gokarna is a temple town. This weekend is one of many Hindu festivals. Which one? Who could keep track? The town is swarming with men wearing white cotton lungis and carrying offerings to the temple. One night leading up to the festival there was chanting, first by women, then by men, all night long. The din vibrates in my head. making hearing even harder. But if it wasn’t for the temples, the town would be overrun by beachgoers.