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.

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.

Why India….yet again?

This year we had to renew our ten year visas and, like most things Indian, dealing with the Embassy’s service bureau ‘Cocks and Kings’, was not straight forward. Discussing the frustrating process of completing the online application with a friend who will join us this year, she said, “If you can’t navigate Cocks and Kings’ lack of a straight line from A to B, then it’s better that you don’t go at all.”

Just before we left, a friend from Boston attended her daughter’s wedding in India. On her return, she asked us how we could tolerate all the dirt, crowds and noise. Gerard gave an answer but didn’t give it a lot of thought. On our flight over, he tried to go into it more deeply, asking my thoughts. We agreed: the country is overcrowded, the air can be terribly polluted and trash is a constant problem, but still we’re drawn here.

A couple of days later in India, we passed a woman sitting on her bed looking out of the doorway from her very basic adobe, tiled-roof house. She gave us a warm smile as we passed. Not knowing what was behind the smile, we felt her readiness to greet strangers so warmly was due to a lack of fear. The less one has that can be stolen, the less there is to fear? Her smiling face brought into focus some of the less obvious reasons why we are still coming back to India.

Gerard commented, even though the subcontinent is racing headlong toward modernity, the old ways can still be seen and inspire, if one looks for them.”

Do we want to change places with the woman? Not really. Yet, her smile helps to explain what has been lost in our modern society and makes us want to reach back and catch hold of what might be worth saving of those old ways. Certainly, the big cities of India have become not so different from their western counterparts. But out in the country, along our way, we can still see the old ways intact. And this is one of the reasons why we return: to witness our lost history still alive to be seen, here and there, in India.

I asked Gerard for an example of these ‘old ways’? He replied, “Certainly one is, human contact. There’s a constant interplay with people even if it’s as simple as buying a cup of chai, soap to wash clothes, or negotiating with the rickshaw driver. Whole Foods decision to install self check-out, further emphasizes the depersonalization of our Western society. With most of India carrying smartphones, means it is happening here as well. Still, there is plenty of social activity on the street, in the market and in the chai shop.”

On the plane over, I saw a short video advertising ‘Exotic India’. And of course it is — the Rajput palaces, the camel fair in Pushkar, the Taj Mahal–but for me it’s more about Endearing than Exotic.

Another Festival in Vashisht

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Last year, we asked for an electric fire in the guest house. Now, we’re peeling off layers, wishing we hadn’t left our summer clothes in Delhi. The temperatures are unusually warm and the snow is rapidly melting, but still spectacularly beautiful here. Apple trees in bloom, wisteria, irises popping up everywhere. Kullu Valley is now much narrower than in Naggar, and the mountains higher. The craggy peaks seem to be within one’s reach.

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Compared with Naggar, Vashisht is a hustle and bustle of activity. Our timing was perfect to catch the religious festival again this year.  It was in full swing. Each village has its own god or goddess loosely translated into patron saint, but not really. During this festival, a few of the neighboring villages brought their deity to Vashisht to celebrate…we’re not sure what.

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Off and on, for the three days, one of the goddesses would be taken out and paraded through Vashisht, accompanied by horns and drums. In the evening there was line dancing (reminding us of the Berber dancing in the Atlas Mountains) and games including musical chairs and blind man’s bluff. (Did the British bring these games, or did they pick them up from here?) The last evening, the musicians played without a break for hours. I don’t know if the dancers were in a trance, but I think the musicians were.

The day after the festival the town returned its sleepy weekday routine. On the weekend, the Indian tourists will arrive in increasingly large numbers, now the temperatures are soaring well over 100F in Delhi.

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Our first walk out of town to a huge waterfall, we bumped into two women we kept running into in Naggar. They live in Vrindavan, where Krishna is said to have spent his childhood years. One is from the US, the other Leeds, England, and they’ve been in India for the past 17 years. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but when directly questioned, they’re Hari Krishna’s. We all thought it was a happy coincidence to meet each other again and they invited us to come to Vrindavan – one destination Gerard’s been contemplating for some time but for one reason or another, maybe because of the lack of accommodation, we haven’t included in our itinerary yet. They assured us of lodging and would be more than happy to show us all of the hidden temples that Vrindavan is known for. The two women had an aura of joy and contentment that was very obvious and we thoroughly enjoyed hearing their stories.

We also ran into for the second time an American our age, who has lived outside of the US for over 20 years. He’s also followed a spiritual path for more than 40 years and we found we have a lot in common. Peter now spends the winter in Auroville (the natural farming community associated with Sri Aurobindo) outside Pondicherry and comes to Vashisht for the summer.  Gerard was impressed that he’s able to live reasonably well in India on his social security check!

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One early morning, Peter led us on a new walk over to a neighboring village on the other side of the Beas river.

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Every twist and turn walking down the path, there’s a new vista. These mountains seem to be in constant flux without ever losing their presence. As Paul Brunton says in A Hermit in the Himalayas, “The fascination of finding nature in her wildest and grandest form never ceases. As an ancient Sanskrit poet says, ‘In a hundred ages of gods I cannot tell you of all the glories of the Himalayas.’ Whatever one says about it, will never be an exaggeration.”

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Crossing the Beas on a rickety footbridge, we reached the old wooden houses, with decoratively painted doors.

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Down the river valley, through apple orchards, we came to Old Manali, which we had considered as an alternative to Vashisht. But after seeing the chillum smoking, chilled out crowd and all of the cheap knick-knack shops, Vashisht seems the best alternative.

Like our previous two destinations in Himachal Pradesh, this year has been a repeat of the last. It’s often said that you can never return, and with that in mind both of us had some reservation. But fortunately, in this case, we could return. Each stay was a continuation and expansion of the year before. Not to mention meeting up with old acquaintances, each village had more to reveal to us. This past month in HP has been a highlight of our four months in India and even though we’ve missed early spring in Boston, springtime in the Himalayas is also a beautiful season. Tomorrow, we will have to reluctantly pack our bags and return to Delhi with a final farewell to our family there.

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Heat and Dust in Orchha

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Orchha, in Madhya Pradesh, is a good place to relax after spending more than three weeks in the city. This is our third visit here and we still find the small town with its country walks refreshing.

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The surrounding area is littered with the vestiges of a Rajput kingdom that began in the 16th C, reaching its peak in the mid-1800s.

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The last Maharaja died in 1930, after which the kingdom went into decline.

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What is most attractive to us is not only the palace/fort in remarkably good condition or the two temples in town but also the crumbling remains scattered around the countryside of a once thriving kingdom.

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On this visit, we arrived late in the season, very few tourists and hot during the day — reaching 110F (43C) in the heat of the day. Consequently our strolls out into the country are done early.

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One morning we visited a meadow that we spent a lot of time in a few years ago. Even though the brook had diminished to a trickle, it was still a bucolic spot with goats and cattle wandering peacefully and dogs playing in and out of the stream.

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Another morning, when we mentioned to the guesthouse manager that we were going to walk up to see the huge baobab tree next to Laxmi Temple, he asked if we’d seen the other, one km away. A second one?? He said, “Come, I’ll take you on my motorbike.” And this one was even bigger. Pictures fail to convey their enormity.

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There is only a handful of these trees in India, supposedly brought from Africa beginning as far back as 5,000 years ago. They can live as long as 1,500 to 2,000 years. The ones we saw, there’s no way of knowing how old they are, but they are ancient.

Our last morning here we walk out early around the back of the palace and down to the Betwa River. A stray dog attaches himself to us as our guide. Beside a small plot of wheat already half cut into golden sheaves, sits a simple hut, old cooking pots on the threshold, a satellite dish atop a broken monument, the ultimate in recycling.

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Aimlessly wandering into a gift shop we got into conversation with a father and son, transplants from Delhi. Like on many other occasions, we were cautiously quizzed on our feelings for Donald Trump. A lot of Indians are better informed about American politics than vice versa. Of course changes in the immigration policy is pertinent to them. And for us, it’s hard to know what to say other than we’re not looking forward to returning to the U.S. and facing the reality.

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We retreat back to the relative coolness of our room and listen to some cool Miles Davis from the 50s. Gerard is reading his autobiography, which he picked up at the used book stall in Mumbai. He hesitated all of this time because of the continuous swearing. Come to find out, he says, it’s the best thing yet he’s read about Miles.