Palaces upon a Plateau

Our first experience on the sleeper bus, but there was no alternative – the trains to Mumbai were all full. It was a relatively pleasant surprise. The Volvo bus was designed with beds instead of seats – two tiers of skinny flat bunks two across, either side of a very narrow aisle. My one concern was that there was no toilet – a twelve hour bus ride with no toilet? But three or four hours into the ride, the conductor came down the aisle yelling “Toilet! Toilet!” And the bus stopped by the roadside just long enough for the men to go on one side, the women on the other. Four hours later, at around 4 am, there was another stop, this time outside a dark restaurant, where a man was also serving glasses of hot tea.

Our stop in Mumbai was just long enough to have breakfast and buy Gerard a $4 pair of sunglasses before taking an eight hour train ride to our next destination. (his stolen Raybans we wanted to replace were more expensive in Mumbai than back in Boston). Mumbai is a city of contrasts. I took away two impressions: as we entered the city – the miles upon miles of slum dwellings I could see from the slit of a window on the two tier bus; and then leaving Mumbai – the Harijan family that boarded our train for a couple of stops. “Harijans” was the name given to the untouchables by Ghandi. A sweet, sad faced man with three children: the two ragged girls sank on to the seats and fell asleep in utter exhaustion; their little brother perched on the remaining seat edge between them in bewilderment. The ticket inspector tried to throw them off the train and then after the man’s pleading, moved them out to the corridor where the girls resumed their sleep on the floor, the little boy still emotionless, frozen between them. I wondered why they were on the move, where was their mother. In the despair of poverty, had she abandoned them? Or had she died? They were dependent upon the mercy of the ticket collector; I was moved by their helplessness.

We got down from the train in Khandwa, a nondescript town although it did have some military importance during the Raj. In fact, the guesthouse (the only suitable one in town) was an army barracks built in 1857. It’s now owned by a Rhada Soami family who have a spiritual practice the same as ours. We were all happy to meet each other.

This year we’ve had more problems booking trains than previously – hours spent at internet cafes trying to find trains with availability that fit our itinerary. In Khandwa we needed to book a train for Varanasi four days later. After observing us struggling for over an hour, a kind man trying to book his own train offered to help us. He works for GE in Hyderabad but had come home to Khandwa for the weekend to be with his wife and teenage daughter. He helped us find a train and then used his credit card to purchase the tickets when the Indian Rail site refused to accept our US Master Card. Without his help it would have been impossible for us to book. Then he insisted we come home with him on the back of his motorbike and meet the family. His wife and daughter were equally gracious, feeding us chai and sweets. He gave us his mobile number to call if we ever have a problem and even offered us his credit card! The trust Indians bestow on us often after a relatively brief meeting continues to be amazing.

Khandwa was a starting point for a trip to two more remote places of interest that involved a series of bus rides. Travel was slow – the crowded local buses moved leisurely from one small town to another. I had to curb my impatience…one bus crawled so slowly that trucks; bicycles…even cows were overtaking us! But no one else was impatient. Why was I in such a hurry? With or without a seat, wedged in beside each other, the local Indians just seemed to enjoy the bumpy ride through the countryside, accompanied by the high pitched singing of Hindu “filmy” music.

I felt as if I’d entered a Bollywood movie – the bus had plenty of colorful characters with the conductor, an agile young man, playing the lead – his long red scarf streaming behind him as he leaned into the wind from the open door of the bus, chanting the name of the next destination. Another bus actually had a TV planted on the wall behind the driver, and we watched a typical Bolllywood story of a boy courting a beautiful light skinned Indian girl and trying to win over her parents while making matters worse with each bumbling effort. This particular movie took him to Goa where he danced on the beach with barely clad girls. The passengers in this remote country area – from young boys to old crones- were all fixated on the screen.

Our first overnight stop was in Omkeshwar, so called because it sits on an Om shaped island in the Namada river. It is one of the five sites that host the Kumbha Mela every twelve years. The town was preparing for Shiva’s birthday the next day and pilgrims were arriving to take a sacred dip at one of the bathing ghats. Omkeshwar isVaranasi on a much smaller scale. One restaurant alone catered to the few western tourists that pass through. Set in a pretty garden beside the river, it is run by the Nepalese. Our waiter had been hanging around westerners so long he behaved and dressed in a way that would be more at home on Malibu beach. He moved trancelike until a monkey appeared in the garden. Leaping into action he chased the monkey brandishing a stick and yelling. Then he returned to his languid state until the next monkey arrived.

The next day we set off for Mandu , a small town up in the mountains– a trip that involved another three bus rides. We’ve traveled on buses with goats, but this was the first time our cases rode at the back of the bus in a luggage compartment with two goats!

Mandu today attracts Indian tourists but very few westerners. It is the best example of Afghan architecture in India. In the town and surrounding countryside are palaces and tombs built in the 1400s and early 1500s. Two of the most interesting places were inspired by passion for women. One was a palace Hoshang Shah built for his large harem of reportedly 15,000! It was reminiscent of a ship’s bridge – using a little imagination – sitting between two large tanks of water. Hoshang’s tomb nearby is the oldest marble building in India. The other remarkable site was a pavilion on a high plateau outside of town built by another Shah called Baz Bahadur to lure a beautiful renowned singer, Rupmati, from the plains below. The story had an unhappy ending. Emperor Akbar, lured by the tales of Rupmati’s beauty marched on the fort and the Shah fled, leaving his lover to poison herself.

But most fascinating was a mosque built over a Shiva temple, and now once again a functioning Hindu place of worship. Remarkably, the Hindus had not destroyed but repurposed the site – Islamic writing praising Allah is still evident on the walls. It was Shiva’s birthday, and the little temple was abuzz with activity. Pilgrims had flocked there to make offerings and receive blessings.

Another distinguishing feature of Mandu is the beobal tree, imported from Africa via Afghanistan. This is the only place in India where you can see the ancient tree. Huge and hollow inside, the branches are bare until just before the monsoon when the appearance of leaves signify the rain’s imminent arrival. The countryside is flat – dry leafed trees are scattered around mature wheat fields, golden in the sunlight. Farmers are harvesting, bundling and threshing the wheat.

At times the countryside is so dry it reminds us of the edge of the Moroccan desert south of the Atlas Mountains. Huge herds of goats pass through town. We even see camel trains – people from Rajasthan 400kms away; the migrant workers in red turbans, their wives in red and gold saris, with their rope beds strapped to the top of the camels. We rented bicycles and rode out through the countryside to more remote sites. The bikes were decidedly tinny and with no gears, the ride slow and bumpy. As we bicycled around the little hamlets people were generally friendly smiling and waving at us.

We picked a pleasant hotel made up of single room cottages built around a large lawn where we ate our meals and overlooking a valley with a good view of the sunrise. Again there were very few westerners – Susie and Cedric an upper crust couple in their seventies from Norfolk, acted as if they were left over from the Raj. They were traveling with a driver they affectionately called “Mommy”, and a good supply of Indian beer. Their trip had begun with skiing in Kashmir with their daughter married to a Dutch diplomat stationed in Delhi.

We traveled to Mandu in a semi circle, and now had to complete the circle returning to Khandwa to catch the train to Varanasi. Getting back from Mandu was no easier than going there. Strictly off the beaten track it involved a series of buses, with the guide book providing little to no help on the route. So we had to go by faith in the bus drivers’ advice with no idea if we were going in the right direction or not, and if we would indeed find a connecting bus at the destination they instructed. But they were more than helpful – leading us around to the correct bus, even saving us seats, and storing our bags – all done without asking for hand out. Madhya Pradesh does not get a lot of foreign tourists and they have not yet been jaded by us! Six hours later we arrived back in Khandwa.

Going to Mandu invoked one of Gerard’s favorite expressions: “What man has done, man can do”. If I complained about the arduousness of the travel, or the lack of conveniences, Gerard would quote, “What man has done, Mandu!”

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