The Jalebi Express

A Father and Sons Indian Adventure


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(More) Messages from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Mcleod Ganj – 5th March 2015

Hot off the Mcleod Ganj Lama press…………Dad may be gone, but The Jalebi Express trundles on. This is today’s events, but there will be more from late January and February coming very soon, just need to add a few more fingers to type with! Full notebooks don’t make for an interesting blog (unfortunately). Take care, lee

Riding effortlessly on a large green turtle

Holed up in cosy cafe in Mcleod Ganj, decorated with prayer flags and embroideries of the Potala palace, monks slap tables and play with their mobile phones, the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is played quietly from a giant, flashing speaker.  I’m sipping a special teas, Tibetan in origin it has dried lychees, plums, goji berries and some unknown foreign fruits floating around in it.  More of a fruity soup than a tea really.  As the rain lashes down in the narrow streets and freshly snow capped peaks are cloaked by by a swirling silver mist, I am left a window from which to reflect on my times so far up here in the heart of the Tibetan community in exile.  An wonderfully homely and inspiring place.  Mcleod Ganj is a place that cannot help but capture and challenge your heart equally, when the reality of the situation here sinks…

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Images of Ellora Caves – Maharastra, India

If you enjoy these images, we have wrote a full article about our trip around the Ellora Caves – see here.  

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Jain temple complex

Jain temple complex

Dad sneaking around a guardian Lion

Dad sneaking around a guardian Lion

 

Jain tirthatakar (a great teacher)

Jain tirthankara (a great teacher)

 

One of the great halls in the Jain complex

One of the great halls in the Jain complex

Inside a large meditation hall

Inside a large meditation hall

 

 

 

Buddha inside the stunning main assembly hall

Buddha inside the stunning main assembly hall

Original paintings in the Hindu caves (1300 years old)

Original paintings in the Hindu caves (1300 years old)

Main Buddhist cave section

Main Buddhist cave section

Seated Buddha surrounded by deities

Seated Buddha surrounded by deities

Seated Buddha facing the setting sun

Seated Buddha facing the setting sun

Fearsome Durga

Fearsome Durga

The Marriage of Shiva and Parvati

The Marriage of Shiva and Parvati

Gods surround the inner sanctum of  large Hindu cave

Gods surround the inner sanctum of large Hindu cave

Dad with Ganesha

Dad with Ganesha

Beautiful carvings in the Hindu section

Beautiful carvings in the Hindu section

Dad beneath a huge guardian God

Dad beneath a huge guardian God

Inside the main Hindu hall

Inside one of the main Hindu halls

The Marriage of Shiva and Parvati

The Marriage of Shiva and Parvati

Goddess Tara

Goddess Tara

Dad wandering around the Jain section

Dad wandering around the Jain section

The main Kailasa Temple

The main Kailasa Temple

Outside a Hindu cave

Outside a Hindu cave

Beautiful carvings of Tirthankaras, Jain complex

Beautiful carvings of Tirthankaras, Jain complex

 

 


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The Epic Caves of Ellora – 23rd January 2015

The huge Kailasa Temple (from the hill behind and above)

The huge Kailasa Temple (from the hill behind and above)

Jalgaon is a lovely little old town. I say that not because it is quaint or in any way pleasing to the eye or snout, just that it is old fashioned and the people are distinctly different from more modern places in India.  Maharashtra is one of the wealthiest states in India, some 60% wealthier than most, and you can see the effects in the Jalgaon streets. Buildings are more modernised, shop fronts are flashier and there is a very random, incongruous shopping centre set in some wasteland with security checks as stringent as an international airport (they were very suspicious of my brown sugar sachets for example?!) Having said this, you can still see old practices being enacted in the streets, many small spotless roadside temples are reverently tended to and worshiped beside; street food stands are immaculately clean and buzzing with custom and delicacies, fresh milk is delivered in the city via colourful metal urns strapped to clapped out scooters.

We arrived here at dawn after a long and uncomfortably packed train from Ahmedabad (Gujarat) and the pace of life seemed slightly less frenetic. I buy a bottle of Bisleri water and a newspaper in a small shack/shop beside the station and the old man greets me with a warm and genuine “Namaste-ji” (unfortunately a rarity it seems nowadays in parts of India). I notice that there is a large black and white photo of a man who looks just like him hanging above the counter. The man is wearing a proud fez or topi as they style was called here in India. I am told his father died in 1956 and he was never seen without his proud topi. I wonder where the topi went? The way of the fez in Turkey I’d imagine. Have hats seen their day?  Are baseball caps the height of head wear design?  Where can I buy a fez?  Maybe I could start a fez revival in rural Wales, get the farmers wearing them?  All projections of a deliriously tired mind.

Beside carvings of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva - Hindu Caves, Ellora

Beside carvings of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva – Hindu Caves, Ellora

We are staying in the Hotel Plaza, a short walk from the train station. Its entrance is sheltered by an old Banyan tree, a wonderful place, an oasis of calm, all minimalist and whitewashed. It resembles an artists house in the Mediterranean and not a small guest house in the downtown area of a scruffy rural town. The rooms are decorated with tasteful contemporary paintings and sculptures and our host Chattrasen is truly a gentleman. He cannot do enough for us (see ‘The Explosive Buttocks’ post for his heroic behaviour). He is so precise and knowledgeable, very clear on what the hapless tourists needs are, ever impressing on us the importance of warm water and the fact that it is available 24 hours in his establishment, via buckets. Chattrasen is the master of the hand drawn map, miniature works of art in themselves, highly detailed and accurate to the metre.

We settle into a real home away from home and take up Chattrasen’s recommendation of the pure veg restaurant, Hotel Arya around the corner.  One of these frequent hotels in India which is actually a restaurant without rooms. We dine on many of our favourite Indian dishes, heavy on the palak (spinach) for me and piles of fresh, well ghee’d naan for Dad. Safe in the knowledge that our trip to the World Heritage Site, the Ellora Caves, in the morning will be a full on day of walking and scrambling up boulders.  We get stuck in and pack plenty of sustenance into our burgeoning bellies.
We have ordered a taxi, taken the only real option. The Ellora Caves are a four hour drive from Jalgaon and the bus option is so complex and tenuous that the comfort of a driver for the day seems like the wise way. Chattrasen, as usual, makes all the arrangements perfectly and at 7 am the next day we are greeted by our driver, Yogesh. A shy and diligent man who speaks no English. Chattrasen will not let us leave without today’s copy of the Times of India and a fresh chai, with a sharp clap of his hands, fresh steaming chai arrives from the neighbouring chaiwallah. Once slurped, Yogesh hops into the little white hatchback and lights a rose incense, prays to his glittering dashboard Ganesha and beeps his horn a bit (to get it warmed up I presume.)  We are off, along the semi-covered road, Ellora caves bound.

Some of the few remaining, original paintings in Ellora - Jain Caves

Some of the few remaining, original paintings in Ellora – Jain Caves

The road is rough going and we can’t seem to pick up any real momentum until we disappear down the next cavernous pot hole. There are over 112 million people living in Maharashtra and most of them seem to be spread out alongside this road. You rarely escape the thin layer of ‘civilisation’ that clings to this fading, yet essential, transport artery.  This makes for interesting back seat viewing as the shops, tailors, food markets and hordes of people pass by.  The driving in India follows a certain code, the biggest lumps rule. The same rules seem to apply in many spheres of society. Lumbering old trucks come first, followed by people carriers and cars, then motorised and bicycle rickshaws; everything else is expendable and shown complete indifference. This means that we hug the wrong side of the road for most of the journey, horn blaring and only pull over when something bigger comes our way (or a family of water buffalo are sleeping in the road). When the tangle of buildings finally recede, the countryside is green and fecund. There are many farms growing food, mainly cauliflowers and cabbage from what we can see. We pass a JCB factory whose main advertisement reads “Live Your JCB Dream!” The truck in front is emblazoned with the standard notice “HORN PLEASE!” Indians have a way with the English language; another car advert reads “…blahblah…., the car that believes it has something to prove”(?!)  We stop to buy bananas from a fruit vendour whose sign reads ‘Fruitage’ beside a small shed offering ‘Occult Palmistry’.

After four hours of backseat battering the landscape suddenly becomes hilly and we dip down into the Ellora Valley, the first undulations we’ve come across thus far.  We take in a quick glimpses of the caves as they arch around the valley, the Buddhist section pokes out of the thick tree line where monkeys are busy humping each other. As we approach the gates a youth launches himself at the car from a trinket stand, clinging on like a jovial limpet. His name is ‘Anis’ and he sports a pencil moustache.  Anis will become a good friend and trusted ally. We were going to book a guide, but one landed on our bonnet instead!  Anis has a winning smile and is a difficult man to say no to, he joins us for a cup of lemon tea and some fresh chapattis with spiced chickpeas before we attempt the circumnavigation of these colossal, labyrinthine caves.
The Ellora Caves where painstakingly chipped out of this 2km escarpment of rock by hand, using only hammer and chisel, over a period of five generations. The workers were normally monks, first came the Hindus, followed by Jains, and finally, Buddhists.  The caves consist of temples, monasteries and chapels, along with spaces for all sorts of other purposes.  Most of the structures are embellished with incredibly detailed sculptures and frescoes and many are entered via elaborate courtyards or gateways.  There are 34 caves in total, ranging from the 6th – 10th century.  The most impressive of these is surely the central Kailasa Temple, boasting the largest monolithic sculpture in the world, carved over 150 year period by 7,000 labourers. The Ellora site represents the resurgence of Hinduism under the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta dynasties along with the ensuing resurgence in Jainism and latterly Buddhism.  The site embodies Indian ancient belief in religious tolerance and also highlights the heavy influence of Tantra in the three main religions of the time (Jainism and Buddhism are after all, off shoots of Hinduism).  This means plenty of sensually realised flesh on show and carnal acts in full effect.

Indiana Watson exploring yet another giant, elaborate cave

Indiana Watson exploring yet another giant, elaborate cave

Anis has been a guide for ten years and is a highly cheery fellow, constantly verging on the hyperactive. A Muslim but lover of all people and faiths, he worships in the small, secluded Ganesha temple in the site and does his 4am exercises routine in one of the massive cave systems come a morning. He is always ‘very good happy’ when asked and has 4 brothers and 2 sisters. His favourite food is buffalo steaks and his family run a little precious stone polishing business in Ellora town. There seems to be no end of things to do in Ellora and surround, sights to see, and I make a point to return here for a longer look on my next visit (I do this in most places in India though!) Anis and his family will surely be the main attraction, although the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s mausoleum is close by and dates back to the 7th century. There are a profusion of very old temples and mosques; Shridi Sai Baba (one of India’s most popular saints) lived close by and even the British got in on the act, building a small settlement on the hillside overlooking the valley, probably a good spot for a G & T and a gossip.

We cross the manicured lawns of the entrance area and see the mighty main Kailasa (Shiva) temple rise above us, we take a sharp left, we will return here later on for an ogle. Anis is taking us up and over the dark rock face to visit a small cluster of caves that tourists rarely see. The air is already dry and hot and Dad and I are both feeling a little jaded by all the travel shenanigans of the past week; sometimes a good night’s sleep is just not enough, you need a few days taking it easy and mainly horizontal (hammocks help). Today is going to be a challenge of endurance under the unforgiving, open sun.

The Ellora caves were hand hewn and for hundreds of years hermits, monks and slaves used chisels and hammers to burrow down into the cliff face and bring to life the most dramatic visions of divine deities and ornate imagery. Some of these structures are astoundingly over 30-40 metres in height! The sheer scale of some of the cave systems are breathtaking; giant, wrath-like guardians rise above temple entrances and elaborate scenes of Gods copulating, marrying, warring and at leisure are festooned upon each available wall and nook. Similarities between the Great Pyramids or Angkhor Wat are easy to come by. The whole place is a treasure trove of antiquities artisanal glory and is a seething mass of artistic reverence. I have to keep reminding myself that this was not built, the colossal monoliths were not erected, but carved, from top to bottom, using small chisels and thousands of pairs of hands, potentially millions of hours of focused care and attention.  Amazingly, they still stand, thousands of years later, perfectly square and pointing up towards the heavens.

Shiva Lingham

Shiva Lingham

These caves were built by generations of families, who lived and died carving them for religious reasons or due to the fact that a feudal system dominated their existence. The rock face is a strong message of the inclusive nature of India’s long history; no religion shared the complex at the same time, but they tolerated the nearby iconography and embellished the mass worship site in their own unique way. Actually, there are many similarities in the design and construction of the differing faiths, sometimes it would take an expert to differentiate between them. Generally, the Hindu temples and caves are the most ornate and elaborate, the Jains are exquisitely rendered from the rock in incredible detail, but not quite as extensive or grand; the Buddhist section is more functional, where the space itself seems to be the main draw, the large meditation halls evoke a deep sense of inner peace.

The caves are almost all redundant now, tourist attractions and archaeological sites only. However, India being India, many of the Shiva linghams are still venerated and covered with small piles of turmeric coloured flowers and fresh red vermillion tikkas.  Incense burns to heighten the sense of worship within each sacred space; these may be grand halls or simple caves in isolated areas, all treated with unswerving devotion. To top it all off each lingham has a beautifully realised lotus flower carved into the roof above it. There are hundreds of these throughout Ellora. Come monsoon time, gangs of Sadhus (wandering holy men) frequent the upper cave systems and live there for months on end. In fact, these are the caves we find ourselves in first after a steep climb and boulder hop.

The modest interiors are still daubed with a mixture of spices and crushed rock to brighten them up a little, bright orange and red is the colour scheme and it is certainly eye catching. The Ganesha cave is particularly impressive, with a depiction of a larger than life Ganesha sat, all plump and jovial, eating piles of his favourite sweet treat, Gulab Jamun (they are Dads favourite as well). I still have no idea why an elephants head makes a half person seem jovial, but Ganesha always looks happy and makes me feel the same way.
There are many small pools carved into the rock floors, these were used to crush the abundance of rock varieties into powder, which was then mixed with water and oils and used to paint the walls and ceilings. Onyx, Amethyst, Turquoise, Basalt (Black), Moon Stone, Crystals and Sun Stone were all ground down and used in one form or another to adorn the caves with remarkable spectrum’s of colour. The caves in this upper area have been used since time immemorial for intense meditation practice.  Some caves are designed so that the meditator sits in shallow hole all evening and only breaks their meditation when the sun shines through a small, circular opening in the ceiling, the warmth on their brow gently disrupts their unswerving contemplation and they then venture outside to bathe in the roaring rapids, just beside the cave entrances. Refreshing I’m sure!

Mighty Durga

Mighty Durga

Unfortunately, we are far away from monsoon time and the rapids have dried up (along with the Sadhus), leaving what looks like an abstract sculptors workshop in the river bed. Smoothed rocks protrude like fat rock fingers in a psychedelic dream, seemingly dripping towards the skies. There is something special about this place. When the life giving rains come and parched India rejoices, this powerful section of rapids feed the majestic waterfall, 20 metres downstream, that cascades between the Hindu and Jain sections, adding to the awe-inspiring spectacle. Tragically, a young couple committed suicide here last year, they were not allowed to marry and decided to throw themselves off the top. The waterfall is now off limits to all.

All of the caves in Ellora exhibit the tiny markings of individual chisel blows, some stretching back as far as 1800 years. It is these humble, singular etchings that I find most emotive. The millions of hammer blows and working hours that it would take to complete such a project is a feat almost unfathomable. The ambition to complete such projects could only have come about by men who believed themselves ‘God Kings’ or rulers who were utterly consumed with devotion, guided by ‘otherworldy’ forces and no doubt larger than life male egos.  Societies sole aim and focus seemed to have been appeasing the Gods, recreating human interpretations of a divine realm out of earth and minerals. These kings proposals of edifices that would marvel and in some way encompass their deities was a tall order indeed and must have taken up the energies of thousands of worthy souls.

Dad infront of the worlds largest monolith (carved by hand using hammer and chisel)

Dad infront of the worlds largest monolith (carved by hand using hammer and chisel)

Anis is a wealth of knowledge and his enthusiasm for the caves is over whelming, it’s difficult for Dad and I to keep up with his constant stream of facts and anecdotes (most being lost in the translation, Dad and I generally laughing at the wrong bits). In the Hindu section, there are majestic carvings of the three headed Hindu triptych; the main Gods of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahman. There are also many carvings of giant elephants, incredibly detailed panels and pillars, exquisite floral mandalas, the pantheon of Goddess’s; Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati are ever present along with Surya (the sun god) riding blazing chariots, seemingly leaping out of the rock face. There are a whole host of local gods and demons on show, some with fangs or animal heads (sometimes both).  There is such a profusion of Gods that many are difficult to distinguish bar the interesting, solitary carving of Goddess Kali (the fearsome destroyer manifestation of the divine feminine) depicted as an emaciated old crone, performing one of her myriad austerities.

Emaciated Goddess Kali

Emaciated Goddess Kali with Ganesha

The Ellora Caves are named after the King Elapuram, who ruled around 1400 years ago, but is actually known as ‘Werul’ in Maharashtra where the first language is Marathi. There still remains patches of painted roofs and walls dotted around the site, vibrantly coloured with complex patterns.  To imagine the whole site painted elaborately is utterly mind boggling. The hardy monks and workers toiled for 24 hours a day and we are shown some of the sleeping quarters and kitchens where the labourers would have taken their scant leisure time. Maybe it was a work of pure devotion and love for the workers also? I read recently about the builders of the great pyramids of Giza and how well they were treated with schools, hospitals and good wages. I hope these many thousands of labourers had a sympathetic and humane king, a decent quality of life away from all that chiselling.

The monks/ workers built themselves many places of worship, one giant oblong cavern has been carved in such a way that there is a reverberating harmonic resonance when the eternal sound of ‘Om’ is spoken. It carries to every corner of the room and rings out with perfect clarity. Most of these lesser visited caves have been taken over by bats and piles of their droppings are tell tale signs of their presence. The workers here even had toilets with running water. Water tanks were carved high in the cliffs and valves and gutters used to channel water throughout the site, systems that still function today.

Seductive depiction of Goddess Tara

Seductive depiction of Goddess Tara

There is a constant stream of the sexual energy running throughout the carvings of Ellora, ancient Tantric influences are obvious and are usually metaphors for a divine union, a balancing of yin and yang etc.  Tantra imbues an uninhibited vitality for physicality and represents a celebration of the human form, of the beauty within the essential and universal attraction between male and female, opposing energies, an unabashed orgy of procreation which seems to be so distant from modern Indian sensibilities.  Romance and passion in India is generally exclusively celebrated on a Bollywood screen and the reality for most couples is still an arranged marriage.  I read somewhere that the Brahmins were responsible for the shift away from Tantric worship, heavily influenced by the prudish Christian missionaries from Portugal and latterly Britain. The subsequent Victorian British invasion will not have helped when many tribal communities were forced to cover up, women used to go about topless after all and this just was not cricket!  What, what!  Tantra was forced into the isolated high Himalayas, becoming a cult and was eventually embraced by Tibetan Buddhism, who’s most famous sages were Tantric aesthetics. Tantric worship is now making a resurgence within India, especially in West Bengal. The bizarre and confused morality of the modern Bollywood movie must be held somewhat accountable for India’s current approach to sexuality. If a societies ethics and behaviour are heavily influenced by the directors of Bollywood (or Holywood for that matter) then I can see why things become so dysfunctional. I know this is a big problem from my male Indian friends and their views of Western women especially. I’m no Freudian but if sex is repressed, it manifests if odd, unnatural ways.  I wonder what the layman in the 7th century would have made of all this holy nooky?  We can only imagine how ethically different he was from us today.  All this potent sexual imagery in Ellora is astounding in its flowing sensuality, sultry cocked hips, supple limbs and more than ample bosoms. Heavenly bodies are contorted into all sorts of back breaking amorous positions. It is obvious that the Gods were all accomplished yogis to behave in such a malleable fashion.

Shiva and Parvati's Marriage surrounded by all sorts of Gods and Divine Creatures

Shiva and Parvati’s Marriage surrounded by all sorts of Gods and Divine Creatures

We take a water break under a massive neem tree and Anis laughs at the two ‘old men’.  He is still bright as a button and refuses water or chikku (jaggery peanut brittle) as if it would make him soft and weak (like us no doubt). We take in a few more of the dramatic Hindu caves with carved frescos of Shiva and Parvati’s wedding day; incredibly detailed and life like (for a vision of some Godlike plain of existence, where some people have many heads and many look like demons or animals. Think of an Eastern Narnia.) The Gods are guarded by two ferocious depictions of lions, which sit outside the hall as guardians and protectors. These lions can be seen guarding many of the larger caves and temples. If you see a lion, you know it’s going to be good! We also see many Nataraj-ji, a powerful, cosmic symbol where a flaming Shiva is dancing the world into existence whilst balanced on a small dwarf (embodying desire and human frailties). Many parallels have been made between this symbol and our current understanding of the universe from a sub atomic or quantum level.  Reality is a dance!  An infinite song!  This is quickly followed by the awesome Das Avatara (vivid representations of the ten incarnations of Vishnu). We also witness the mighty Goddess Yamuna, one of India’s most holy rivers, riding on a large green turtle….and the other main river Goddess, Ganga, riding on her consort, Makara, a mythical sea creature.

The entrance to one of the larger caves

The entrance to one of the larger caves

We then trundle northwards into the Jain section where things are smaller, but exceptionally detailed. The Jain’s seemed to start many of their projects but not quite finish them, the Hindus obviously used up many of the best seams of rock in the centre of the cliff and the Jains were doing their best with what was leftover.  How they would discover the quality and integrity of these seams is cloaked in the dust of history, as is most of the facts about this site. Good guesswork is enough and all we have to go on.

The Jain’s embraced nudity and all of their main Gods and saints are depicted naked. The bejewelled loin cloths of the Hindus are long gone. In fact, the Jain’s rarely wore clothing at that time. Anis informed us in an animated fashion that in; September “clothes”, December “totally naked”.  I would pay hard earned money to be a fly on the wall of a gentrified British expedition here in the Victorian ages. Lots of vigourous hand fan waving, reddened cheeks and “well I never’s”. This is classed as worship! This is deeply divine imagery! These are our bodies depicted in all their glory!!!!  You don’t see many penises’s festooned upon the walls of Westminster Abbey that’s for sure.  A nude religion sounds more honest and wholesome. Less repression, nowhere to hide things.

A large Jain Temple

A large Jain Temple

Jainism branched off Hinduism around the time of Buddhism, there are many similarities (best to read here for more detailed info). The Jain faith is based around non-violence to humans or nature and more than most of the faiths, seems to apply that in everyday life. For this reason alone, I am drawn to this complex system of worship with all its semi-divine avatars and rituals (no garlic and onion are consumed by Jains). Nuns are revered as the holiest of holy, their Gods wish to be reincarnated as a nun. Jain nuns go through incredible austerities (read here for more information.)  Many of the Jain cave networks are carved deep into the rock, several layers of ornate rooms lead to internal courtyards and vast halls of worship, supported by giant pillars. The Indra Sabha really stands out with its handsome images of tirthankars (great teachers) surrounded by flocks of heavenly deities, angel like they swirl about, woven intricately into the tendrils of dangling flowers.  In many of these places we are wandering alone as Anis is basking under a mango tree outside. I hear Dad humming the tune to Indian Jones and I know exactly what he means. Our energies are now fading but Anis drags us on, literally at times.

A Jain Tirthankar (great teacher)

A Jain Tirthankar (great teacher)

The Ellora caves are cut out of one of the only hills in the region, the Deccan Plateau is fairly flat and I ponder as to why three faiths chose to focus such devotion in this small area. Five of India’s most holy Shiva temples are also located in this part of Maharashtra, there must be something in the air here?! Whatever it is, these cannot be mere coincidences. The overall effect, the connection of a historic site, is always interfered with when many tourists are snapping and chuntering around the place. Ellora is no different, but we arrived early and therefore miss most of the massing hordes. We also chose a backward loop, which meant we were seeing the biggest sights, clustered around the centre, after most of the bus loads of tourists had left. We were left alone on many occasions in the caves and this lead to moments of calm and contemplation. A deeper sense of what we were witnessing ensued, time to think and let the imagination take control. The knowledge that so much focused worship had been carried out in a relatively small area can only affect the overall energy and ‘feel’ of a place; feelings lodged somewhere within intuition, the type of feelings that brought about this vast swathe of awesome religiosity. A snaking monument to the heavens. The feeling persists in Ellora that us humans, collectively, are capable of magnificence and must behold and adore the unknowable to energise and beautify the known, bring about an age of deepening faith in ourselves and each other.

The interior of one of the Jain Cave Systems

The interior of one of the Jain Cave Systems

We rouse Yogesh from his umpteenth nap of the day and take the short ride to the Buddhist section of caves, built mainly in the 9th century.  The stillness in many of the Buddhist caves is palpable, deeply profound and the larger meditation halls or chaitryas (assembly halls), where hundreds of monks would have sat in raised rows for centuries, were very powerful spaces indeed. I sat for short moments and drifted away, in peace and appreciation, in romance and reverie.  I wander around many viharas (monasteries) and witness some incredible images of Avalokitesvara (the Bodhisattva of infinite compassion) with his consort, the Goddess Tara.  There are many outwards facing imposing Buddha’s, quite crudely carved and interestingly sitting without crossed legs or hands in any particular mudra.  Many of these Buddhas sit facing the now setting sun, turning all that it touches amber and deep gold.

Approaching the Buddhist Cave Section

Approaching the Buddhist Cave Section

The most majestic of the caves in the Buddhist complex must be the main chaitreya. A giant depiction of Buddha sits at the back of the hall (legs uncrossed), illuminated via a decorative window, blissfully beatific as ever, with precision ridges carved into the roof above his head. There is a terrace that stretches out around the room with ornate colonnades, the roof is decorated with yet more amorous couples and the entire room has excellent acoustics and was formerly lined with carved wooden panels. This is one of the most impressive pieces of Buddhist architecture that I have ever seen, much more affecting than giant golden Buddha’s and Stuppa’s that you find in Buddhist countries further East. This is hewn from rock and therefore conducts and resonates the deep power of the earth. The earth’s intelligence and consciousness is present and deeply rooted in the face of this Buddha and the walls of this immaculate creation.

The spectacular main Buddhist Chaitreya

The spectacular main Buddhist Chaitreya

I have been fortunate to visit some of the world’s most majestic ancient sites and Ellora is undoubtedly one of them. Maybe not in sheer area, but in detail and technique, very few can compare. I see ancient Egypt, Cambodia, Thailand, Guatemala and even Turkey in the craftsmanship here and wonder who influenced who and the inevitable bragging rights involved (they were rich and powerful men after all!)  How much did distant and disparate civilizations influenced each other and exactly how word got around?  The temporal race to  stretch the bounds of the human imagination so far towards the heavens that they actually scarred the earth with a truly divine vision. Many devote and holy people will say that it is a waste of time, I would agree, but what a sublime spectacle!  An ancient visitor, fed from birth by fantastical myths and legends, used to the artistry of nature and not the hands and minds of men, will surely have been astounded to visit a sight like this. A more innocent mind, not so bogged down with material rationality, Cartesian concepts and misguided scientific based thought, must have been awestruck by these images of marvellous Gods and Goddess and presumed the hand of divinity manifest was at work.  Incarnate here on earth.  A form of pure inspiration and bliss will no doubt have ensued. A form of rapturous bliss higher than any drug can summon. This kind of artwork would have surely sparked the imagination into overdrive and given colour and form to the myths and tales communicated in spoken word and metaphor; driven cultures to higher states of artistry, permeating all facets of ancient society.  Ellora represents the finest dawning of creativity manifest in form, stretching from the earliest times of humanities consciousness to this current day.  We can never recreate the beauty and intricacy of a blossoming rose, or a wild flower meadow in spring, but in the frescoes of Ellora, we came close.

The face of Buddha - Main Chaitreya

The face of Buddha – Main Chaitreya

Saying goodbye to Anis was like wishing a good friend a fond farewell.  We down one more fortifying lime soda, Anis gives us his collection of business card and other promotional paraphernalia and we stock up on the essential masala peanuts (travel snack extraordinaire).  Drained and exhausted of adjectives and superlatives, Dad and I miraculously snooze for most of the journey home, whilst being thrown around the back seat like drunken rag dolls.  Within no time at all we are back in our minimalist Euro-centric room, a million miles from the exotic Tantric splendour of Ellora.  We visit a little hole-in-the wall, local family restaurant where there are at least fifteen women cooking in the kitchen, which is normally a very good sign.  Thali’s all round with the accompanying endless supplies of toasted chapattis and streams of steaming daal, we feed until our stomachs surrender.  All for the sultanly sum of 70 pence each.

Dad with Anis overlooking the main Hindu Kailasa Temple

Dad with Anis overlooking the main Hindu Kailasa Temple

Before sleep, I have a quick look through the photographs taken in the caves and can hardly believe what we have seen today.  The sheer magnitude and profusion, the vibrancy and intricacy.  A reoccurring question rings around in my head: in 1600 years time, what will people think of our generations achievements?  What memorials to beauty and human endeavour will we leave for them to marvel at?  How have we allowed money and commodities to take control and marginalise our inherent aesthetic sense?  Where are the modern monuments to beauty and mystery that inspire and tantalise our senses?  Buildings that are not simply taller than the last (the Babel’s Tower syndrome) but edifices that highlight the artistry and sophistication of a culture?  A cold shiver runs through me that buildings like the Shard in London or the generic monstrosities of material excess that sprout up in places like Dubai are actually fair representations of where we are at in that regard.  For a glorious day, this final thought is a sobering end point.  Thank Krishna that the next time I’m trapped in a concrete Tesco’s Supermarket on a industrial estate in Britain,  I can conjure the images of the goddess Tara or Shiva-ji dancing in my mind.

A pair of frazzled Jalebi's above the Kailasa Temple

A pair of frazzled Jalebi’s above the Kailasa Temple

More photographs will follow on the ‘Photographs of Ellora Caves – 23rd January 2015’ post 


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‘The Explosive Buttocks’ of Jalgaon – January 24th 2015

Dad heading to Jalgaon on his favourite lower bunk position (namely, with a chai nearby)

Dad heading to Jalgaon on his favourite lower bunk position (namely, with a chai nearby)

India has a habit of being challenging.  That is one of the major attractions, less of an idle cruise and more of an intense assault course; for body, mind and spirit.  Today was challenging on all these levels.

We have both been suffering with our stomachs after a dodgy thali in a little family restaurant.  The place was very homely, a Bhawan, which means good, abundant food and cheap.  I’ve never had a problem in one before.  The food was delicious with endless ladles of daal, sabji, pickles, papad, chapatti, rajma, and plates of spinach.  We were well pleased with the feed and wandered back through the streets of Jalgaon for a nice nights sleep.  We were ready for it after a long day wandering around the stunning Ellora Caves (see our post for more cave action).  In the room we both felt very shaky and Dad especially had a high fever and some serious shakes.  It is worrying to see Dad in such a state, he had a very hot brow.  We managed to get to sleep but it wasn’t long until the fireworks started in earnest.  It was a rough night and by the morning, we were both feeling drained.  Dad was so weak he could hardly get out of bed or raise his head to sip water.  I talked with the amazingly helpful hotel owner, Chattrasen and he organised a doctor’s visit.  Warning us that the doctor is a good man, but is of course, a business man!  His words of advice, repeated more than once, were; “Don’t let him hospitalise you!”  Obviously this doctor had a track record of hospitalisations.  I left with a wallet stuffed full of rupees, hoping he wouldn’t clean me out.  Health is priceless and this doctor seemed well aware of his ability to exploit the situation.

I had conflicted feelings about taking Dad to a regular doctor, I was already treating our bellies with homeopathy and ayurvedic remedies, which I always carry around India.  They have worked for me in the past, but Dad seemed seriously ill.  That morning, it looked grim and Dad has no qualms heading into the chemical land of allopathy.  Chattrasen organised a rickshaw to take us the short distance to the doctor’s surgery, in fact, it was a mini hospital.  Dr Rasoi seemed a slippery customer to me, smooth, haughty and aloof.  What can you do in such a situation?  He holds all the cards.  I sometimes get this feeling when I visit a mechanic and he gives me a complex explanation of how ill my car is and how many complex procedures it will take to get it back up and running.  I want to believe that it’s all necessary, but sometimes I just don’t.

Delicious Indian Dinner

Delicious North Indian Dinner (not the culprit)

Dr Rasoi gave Dad all the routine checks, pulse, weight, a quick listen with a stethoscope and asked graphic questions in a routine fashion like “any blood in your stools?”, “any loss of consciousness whilst passing stools?”  Stools!  You can see why that never caught on in common parlance.  He prescribed Dad a whole page full of medicines and wrote me a small bill on a scrap of paper that he pushed surreptitiously across the table to me.  It felt slightly illicit, like I should handover the money in a brown paper bag.  Not exactly a safe place for recuperation and healing.  That was it.  Relatively painless (apart from our shared desire to erupt in a horrific mess any minute).  Dr Rasoi muttered a dismissive “You’ll be better in a few hours” which seemed highly optimistic, but did tickle a little optimism and certainly reassure Dad.  The doctors touch!  We jumped back into the kindly rickshaw drivers cab, his hair dyed red with henna, his eyes circled with khol (giving the look of Gary Numan era eyeliner).  Chattrasen is waiting in the doorway when we return and would like a full review of the doctors performance, he is a deeply religious man, a devotee of the Elephant god Ganesha and his who team of helpers are religious and completely virtuous.  I dare say they are like ‘old fashioned’ Indians.  But my first visit here was only 7 years ago so I cannot really tell.  They are wonderful people and cannot do enough to help, highly trustworthy and jolly.  The perfect gang to have around when your faculties seem to be collapsing all around you.

Smooth morning arrival at Jalgaon Station

Smooth morning arrival at Jalgaon Station

We picked up the various tin sheets of chemical drugs, all the colours of the rainbow, some sachets of powder and our potion concoction was complete.  Back in the room, Dad was relieved and seemed to get better after the first dose of antibiotics and ‘intestinal culture rectifiers’(?!)  For the rest of the day Dad slept and I kept us topped up with water, dehydration sachets and toilet roll.  We were supposed to be visiting the world heritage site of Ajanta Caves, one of the world’s finest examples of medieval cave paintings in the world.  That would have to wait until next time.  Our plans were thrown up in the air and I was busy researching alternatives to our initial plans.  We had planned two ten hour plus train journeys in the next few days.  Dad was definitely not up to those, especially in the lowest class, which can sometimes feel like the hysteria of India is sat squarely on your chest (and the toilets are generally something that looks like the insides of a body function based nightmare).  I know this is the ‘Jalebi Express’ and all, rail based, but I researched flights to Goa and cut our time in Mumbai from 5 nights to one.  Recuperation in a friends flat in a small village near Arjuna beach seemed like a better idea than the ridiculously overpriced and average, hotels of Mumbai.

I ate a few bananas to keep me going and Dad starved his belly of reasons to revolt.  Chattrasen knocked on the door every few hours, checking how we were.  At times, we felt as if we were in a convalescence home, not a hotel, such was the care of Chattrasen and his serene, elderly father Laxshmi Cant.  We were in the best place to be ill. I have only ever had a serious stomach complaint once in India (and collectively I have spent nearly two years here in the past four).  The whole ‘Delhi Belly’ thing should never put you off visiting India, it is generally easily resolved and not necessarily going to happen (see our best ways to avoid ‘Delhi Belly’ post – coming soon.)

Unfortunately, the hotels kitchen was not far enough away and we had a pretty much constant stream of wonder food smells, although as you can imagine, we were interpreting them very differently.  Dad slept fitfully for most of the day and at one stage in the afternoon, seemed to be getting worse.  The belly bug seemed to compound the dry cough Dad had been suffering from and he also suffers from chronic back pain.  All of these symptoms and ailments seemed to be accentuated in an unpleasant cocktail of suffering. It was worrying to see my Dad so ill.  He’s normally such a trooper.  I felt helpless and could only trust in the chemicals to kick in soon.  At moments like that, only adopting a positive stance can pull you through, appreciating the good in the worst situations.  In India, surrounded by poverty and misfortune, you develop a very acute sense of appreciation, even with dickey tummies.

I knew Dad was on the mend when we both woke up at around 6pm and after grunting and groaning for a while, joked that ‘The Explosive Buttocks’ would have made a great name for a punk band.  A game we have played since Dad became semi-obsessed with the name a family members 80’s heavy rock band (they were massive in Germany and the Netherlands) the ‘Snarling Horses’, which Dad always referred to as ‘Twisted Guts’.  Which would have also been a good name for this post.

Dad decided that he was fit enough to take the Mumbai train in the morning and it was a huge relief to see him up and about, his face was brighter and his spirits raised.  In fact, seeing Dad smile again and cracking funnies has been the highlight of the trip so far.  I have been amazed at how well Dad has handled all the trails and travails of Indian travel, it’s not easy, even for a hardcore backpacker veteran.  Indian can get on top of you and in two weeks, Dad is rolling with it all, all the rough edges and stress, he is handling like a seasoned Indian wanderer.  Even this severe bought of fever and diarrhea, he has come out of it very quickly and raring to go again (if still a little green around the gills.)  I pack up and we talk about or revised plans and get excited all over again about what’s in store.  The Jalebi Express rocks on with our first set of bottom bumps navigated.

The morning after, getting some fresh(ish) air outside the brilliant Hotel Plaza

The morning after, getting some fresh(ish) air outside the brilliant Hotel Plaza


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The Worlds Best Thali, Our Friend Kabir and Inglorious Ahmedabad – 21st January 2015

On the train platform, leaving Ahmedabad

On the train platform, leaving Ahmedabad

After taking the resolute Janbhoomi Express over night from Jodphur, which runs all the way from Jammu Kashmir some 40 plus hours away, we arrive in Ahmedabad, the capital and largest city of Gujarat State.  This will be a stopover point for one short night as we head to Jalgaon, a small town beside the world heritage site, Ellora Caves.

Ahmedabad is a bustling, economic hub with very little else to say about it really.  Gujarat is an interesting state and seldom visited by tourists and their capital city will not have them flocking this way in a hurry.

Dad and I slept well in the rocking rail cabin, it was fairly quiet and on the top bunk, I rarely have trouble getting a proper rest.  We met a great gang of folk during the night, sharing many tales of cultural difference, cricket and family.  I enjoy reading on trains, or writing, Dad is more inclined to make his way up and down the train, instigating chats with the entire carriage.  We are never short of friends on the ‘Jalebi Express’.  One of the young lads, Kabir, is a wonderful man.  His English is patchy, but he is constantly buying us treats and nibbles, hot chai’s or offering some form of home made delicacy.  He is taking good care of us and wears his hand knitted hat at a jaunty angle.

We disembark into the bright lights of another big Indian city (there seem an endless amount of these), the station has the usual heady urine fragrance that this time borders on passion fruit.  Our welcome party consists of what appears to be a featherweight, Greco roman wrestling match on the platform.  Two small men are tussling, pulling each others hair and almost knocking a heavy metal ladder onto Dad.  People stand and ambivalently watch.  Both men are beaming smiles, but are really going for each other, flip flops are flying all over the place and at one stage, one man spills a chai on the floor in a yelp of pure excitement.  Its like a restrained school yard scrap and eventually somebody steps in a prises them apart.  The older man just smiles vacantly, puffing his cheek a little, the younger chap seems mortified that his hair style is wrecked and seeks the nearest mirror/ pane of glass to whip it back into shape.

The station is already busy, there is the usual carpet of people strooned out in and around the main ticket hall, neatly wrapped from head to toe in blankets, sleeping on the cold tiled floor.  Many will be waiting for connections, some may do this every night.  Long distance train travel in India is the only way to get around for many and a journey can take days to complete.  Judging by the people we meet, most will either be heading to distant outposts for employment or returning to their family for a visit.

The trees in the station car park are alive with bickering boisterous parakeets, flocks of them have taken over every branch and they all seem to be bickering and uneasy.  We head out towards the sea of black and yellow rickshaws, ‘the rickshaw mafia’ is in good attendance and voice this morning and they are good to us, a pleasant man who sits in a cross legged position when driving, whisks us off to Hotel Good Night with minimal fuss and a decent price.

It’s touching 5am and the grubby streets are being swept, dust plumes into the air, small chai shops are the only signs of life, clusters of angular men with towels wrapped around their heads sip the spicy beverage with gusto, a creamy elixir for the masses, clinging to the small cups for warmth.  From this journey, it appears that Ahmedabad is in a state of terminal decay, concrete crumbles and overhead wires begin to form obese tangles that threaten pedestrians.  Many people are sleeping rough along the street sides and piles of rubbish for obstacles in the road.  Having said that, Indian cities always look better in the day when they are alive and buzzing.

Hotel Good Night is a slightly better than standard affair with quite a pleasant little reception area.  We are reliably informed at reception that this is a 1.5 star hotel, which is not completely reassuring.  Many Indian towns and cities that are not especially geared for tourism will have more expensive rooms but be of poorer quality.  One stand out feature of our room is a large clock, proudly mounted above the flat screen TV, which ticks like a booming tabla.   We also seem to have inherited a young man who hangs around our room wearing a neat chocolate coloured uniform.  He tends to stare plaintively towards us, when we arrived he tried to show us how the TV worked, but it does not work and after that he seemed to become redundant.   He still rings our bell occasionally (which sounds like a cuckoo) and immediately enters the room barking things like ’soap!’, ‘change’ or ‘mineral water!’  One of these times, due to shock more than anything, we order a bottle of mineral water, which he duly delivered warm and for three times the price as usual.  More of a hindrance than a service this bloke.

We rest in the room for a while, wondering what the best way is to blockade the door to deter our over zealous youth.  We decide on taking a tentative explore of the big city, a bit of breakfast is in order.  Ahmedabad is alive and kicking and the streets are a tangled stream of traffic and smog.  Next door to our hotel is the five star, MG Hotel, we decide that we a wander around there will at least be calm.  It is a relatively small, classically designed luxury hotel. There are modern flashes here and there, but generally the building is in keeping with the Victorian era, when it was first built.  Dad decides on a massage and we book one for later, we take in the lotus pool, which has a nice name but is actually a very small pool and we have a quick look at the menu in the restaurant, which takes up the space between the two main buildings.  It looks over priced.  We head over the road to a little south Indian eatery and order two dosa and some piping hot tea.  Dosa is a semi-fermented pancake normally eaten in South India for breakfast, it is made from lentil and rice flour and is best stuffed with a spicy mashed potato mix with plenty  of onion and chilli.  This is always accompanied by coconut chutney and sambar (a thin vegetable stew, heavily flavoured with tamarind).  We have a look at the map and realise that we are in the heart of the old town, although no building we have yet seen looks older.  There are many dilapidated buildings, but that is probably due to climate and neglect as much as ancient construction techniques.  We give up on Ahmedabad and head back to the hotel for another, much needed, lie down.

Skipping over the broken pavements, in a city of 20 million people, we bump into our mate Kabir.  He beams a very warm smile and tells us that he lives just above and we are invited for lunch with his family.  We make our way down a small dark alley and then up a even smaller and darker sequence of stairs, leading us up into the heart of a concrete tower block.  There are people living in each little space, all with shared bathrooms on one of the middle floors.  We are lead by the excitable Kabir into a small room with a linoleum covered floor, 4 metres by 6 metres in size, where his extended family live.  There is a tiny terrace, but apart from that, this was the living space for them all, 5 adults and a little one.  We are greeted by his wonderful grandmother, who has beaming eyes and a radiant, toothless smile.  Kabir’s sister has the same wonderful energy and gracious mannerisms, they both seem suitably shocked and baffled as to who we are and what we are doing up here.  The ladies are taking care of Kabir’s niece, a beautiful little two year old, who is shy at first, but is soon squeezing our fingers and staring inquisitively at us with huge round, watery eyes.  Kabir’s asks the ladies to prepare tea and we sit on the one single bed, the room is tidy and houses a small fridge and desk.  Otherwise, life is lived on the floor.  Kabir’s brother is called, Abdullah, this is a Muslim family so no ‘Namastes’ here, Dad and I are offered “Salam Alaikums’ instead.  Kabir has just returned from West Bengal, the other side of India and has brought the family gifts, all wrapped in sparkly paper.  The little girl is tearing at her presents, one of them being a pink bear onesy, which is admittedly, very cute.  She also gets a flashing pencil sharpener and a multi-coloured plastic gun and proceeds to pretend to shoot us all and the room full of adults all feign life threatening gun shot wounds to please the child.  The grandmother especially puts on a great sudden death show, clutching her heart, rolling her eyes and sinking to the floor like a well trained thespian in the throes of a dramatic, blood soaked finale.

Abdullah speaks decent English and is working in a call centre.  They cold call England and America, trying to sell some insurance package or another.  He mentions that the English are more polite than the Americans, who generally hurl abuse down the phone at him.  In that respect, Americans are probably more honest than the Brits. Dad suffers from Indian based cold callers, who plague him every afternoon with nonsense calls, it is interesting to be having tea with one of them at this end.

Abdullah is very inquisitive about Britain, mainly in a material sense.  How much we all earn and how the benefit system works.  The British welfare system is famous throughout India, the concept of getting money for just being a citizen of a country is very odd for them.  Abdullah, like the vast majority of Indians, is a very hard worker.  The norm is a six day week and commuting to and from work can be a part time job in itself.  Today is Sunday, so we are lucky to meet him.  Sundays are invariably always spent with the family.  Wages are low and even though Abdullah has a reasonable job, the family just scrapes by, that is they have just enough to feed themselves and put a roof over their heads.  While we are chatting, Kabir is rolling around on the floor, playing with the gorgeous little girl who is now fully transformed into a bright pink little bear.

Kabir is a very different story to his brother and is a sensitive soul who has followed his heart, not a pay check, into the world of NGO work.  He is regional advisor working with abused children and this work takes him all over India, alot of travel, that keeps him away from his family which for most Indians, is a huge tear.  He has one short weeks holiday and will spend four (nearly five) days of it on trains, to and from his workplace in Calcutta.  He seems elated to be back with his loving family.  The grandmother is doting on us, bring us water and making sure that we have enough cushions, I am offered green tea as Kabir remembers that I do not drink milk (from my constant lack of enthusiasm for Indian rail chai’s).  We are invited for lunch, and the ladies begin to busy themselves, but we are full of dosa and politely decline, beginning to make movements towards the door.  We’d like to leave the family in peace and enjoy their precious time together.

We slip our shoes back on and bid them all a fond farewell.  We walk back past the MG Hotel, only one hundred metres down the road and ponder the effects on wealth upon our lifestyles.  How money ‘makes the world go round’ but can never bring us true happiness.  It can never make us virtuous or kind, peaceful or free and can certainly not build strong and fruitful relationships with others, the web of interactions which really keep the world spinning in harmony; the kindness and sense of community that keeps our one big (dysfunctional) family together.  A suite costs 150 pounds in the MG Hotel with all the luxury trimming imaginable, but we’d much rather spend our time with Kabir, his family and their little pink bear.  Meeting such open hearted people and experiencing their genuine kindness are travel memories to truly cherish.

We spend the rest of the day sleeping in the hotel (maybe we didn’t get such a good rest on the train after all!) and then take up a restaurant tip-off.  We flag down a rickshaw and head across the river to the ‘Gopi Dining Rooms’.  The people in Ahmedabad are very friendly and after asking in a few pharmacies, snack stands and flower vendours we rock up at the restaurant.  The waiters are all wearing navy blue uniforms and Turbans, Rajasthani style.  There are a few Rajasthani specialities on the pared down menu, but the real highlight here is the sumptuous Gujarati Thali.  We are presented with a vast array of delicacies all served in tiny metal bowls.  The full range of flavour and texture is take care off with vibrant colours and many surprises along the way.  Our waiter, with a proud swirling mustache, which has taken over the majority of his face, seems keen on feeding us until we buckle beneath the table.  He is piling it on, normally when we are distracted.  I have never eaten so much.  I have been defeated by my mustachioed foe who smiles sympathetically and rubs my back with a mischievous look in his eyes.  He’s obviously seen this exasperated, bloated look before.  Moustache 1 – Bloated Tourist 0.  As we are leaving we are shown a copy of time magazine where last year the Gopi Dining Hall was voted one of the worlds best restaurants, by Fergus Henderson, the owner of St Johns back in good old Blighty.  I actually went to this restaurant for my 30th birthday, back in the times when eating somethings shin and sinew appealed to me.  Thoughts of these deluded episodes in my life make me feel even greener around the gills.  I need some fresh air, but streetside Ahmedabad, that seems like a tall order.

Gujarati food is one of India’s finest (I seem to say that in each state we visit).  Milder on spice than most of the other North Indian states with a strange predilection for sugar.  Most of the dishes are either subtly or highly sweetened, so much so that we think the daal is a dessert!

We waddle back to the hotel and take our fifth nap of the day, this time anticipating our 4 am alarm clock and another full day on the train, heading to Maharashtra, not exactly refreshed but certainly well fed.  For those who think travelling is an easy game for body and mind, they’d be wrong.  It is a rich and fascinating life, but you have to earn the amazing experiences, they cannot be bought or ordered via room service.

 


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An Evening of Santoor (Indian Classical Music), Jodphur – 20th January 2015

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Ayam and his Sarangi

We met Nawab Khan whilst visiting the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, the behemoth of a Rajput castle that overlooks the ancient city. Nawab invited us to a brief session of musical therapy, it had been a frenetic day of sight seeing and stimulus and to sit and listen to Nawab’s soothing words and the glorious sounding Santoor, things melted away and we both left refreshed and fully charged.

The Santoor is a stringed instrument with roots in Kashmir and Persia, it actually has over seventy strings and looks alot like a rectangular harp but played on the lap, horizontally, with two light wooden mallets.  It is an incredibly sensitive instrument and difficult to master and even to tune!

Nawab had given us his card and invited us to a private concert in his home where his son and nephew would also play for us, both 12 years of age.  We bought the CD he has released with his brothers and vow to make it for a show, even if it means stopping en route to the train station.  Later that day we arrange a rickshaw to visit Nawab, I love Indian classical music and to see a Santoor played with such skill is rare in India.

Nawab lives on the outskirts of Jodphur, our rickshaw driver had no clue where and was guided by Nawabs father via mobile phone towards our destination. A small, proud boy on an over-sized mountain bike flagged us down, after much random circling of residential roads, and confidently guided us to a small modern house where Nawab’s father was waiting. Rickshaw drivers in India are not exactly like black cab drivers in London, who must memorize the London street map before being able to drive a taxi. Generally they use landmarks and then ask locals. Landmarks are of more use than street names when navigating India.

Dad with the band

Dad with the band

Nawabs father is a top tabla player, they come from a long lineage of musicians and it seems that all the men of the family are specialists at one classical instrument or another. We meet a very nice French chap named Lionel who is sponsoring Nawab on a tour around France. Trying to promote such a tour is a challenge as only the most famous of Indian musicians attract an audience. Lionel is a passionate fan of Indian classical music and attends many of India’s top musical festivals like January’s Saptak in Ahmedabad, the Dover Lane Festival in Calcutta and the Sufi Music Festival in Jodphur where 3000 people gather from all over India. This inspires me to return next year for a pure musical sojourn.

We are led upstairs into a roomy space where several cushions are arranged on the floor. A couple of French ladies arrive and the green shirted lad enters the room and starts to tune his Sarangi, which is a 38 stringed instrument, played using three main strings (traditionally made of gut). It’s like a box violin mixed with a sitar, played with a bow. This Sarangi has been in the family for over one hundred years, the older the instrument the better the sound, which has something to do with the wood. The young lad is named Ayam Khan and he tells us that raja’s (the traditional arrangement of classical Indian songs) have three main stages; alap, mudekee and jahla, all improvised around a central melody, the first being one instrument, then the table joins slowly and then things pick up to a massive crescendo towards the end.

Nawab Khan and his family in full flow

Nawab Khan and his family in full flow

They begin with the Kirwani (the parrot voice raja) using the Indian pentatonic scale which is based around five notes. Ayam starts slowly, the Sarangi is notoriously difficult to tune, as is the Santoor with its many strings.  Nawab sits next door using a phone app to get it into order. Ayam has been playing for two years only and is already a virtuous. He practices five times a week and tonight, is accompanied by Abdul Sattar, Nawabs father, on tabla. Ayam builds up very slowly and when the table kicks in, begins to play flourishes of fantastic scales, his bow and fingers moving in a unified blur. It looks exhausting but the overall effect is spellbinding. The raja ebbs and flows for around twenty minutes after which Nawab enters the room carrying the Santoor. Nawab is joined by his twelve year old son Naved, who has heard all the commotion upstairs and would like to take part. He is a highly skilled tabla player ‘very sharp’ with the exacting rhythm, he is also a good Sarangi player and can’t make his mind up about which one to pursue.

The family settle down, four members strong and begin to tune and adjust. Nawab explains that the next raja will be the Malkauns raja and this is normally played at dusk. The rishis and seers who created Indian classical music mimicked nature for alot of the sounds and each raja evokes very particular emotions and sentiments. Rajas are musical mirrors for the internal and external phenomenon that occurs at different points of the day, there are rajas to assuage and stimulate any emotion. Then begins a sublime twenty minutes of ancient music, a family joined in harmony, each one playing the instruments with great sensitivity building to a rapturous finale. Naved has ‘got the moves’ as Dad said and bashed and manipulates the tabla with great dexterity and brilliant timing.

When the raja ends its as if we experienced the highs and lows of human experience, the tranquility and rage inherent within us all, the duality of existence. Nobody stirs for a few minutes and then Nawab mentions that our rickshaw is here. We are late for our train and must scoot. We take a couple of quick photos to remember this supremely talented family by, especially the kids who are sure to grow into wonderful musicians, maintaining the richness of India’s musical culture which I think is so important to the future of the country. India has so much cultural richness to lose; the lineages of music, art and dance stretch back into prehistory and there seems to be a huge decrease in relevance. Children are pushed into profession that pay, like engineering, medicines, etc where money and prestige is the prime motivator. I have no idea why the arts is not generally valued in India any more, but I am heartened to meet Nawab and his family. A small clan of musical magicians living on the fringes of the city.

During the warm up

During the warm up


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The Birds of Bikaner, Rajasthan – 19th January 2015

Here’s a ‘best of’ selection of the birds we saw on a desert safari with Jitu.  From the biggest, to the smallest, we saw a hatful of winged wonders and some very rare sightings.

A young red winged lapwing

A young Red Winged Lapwing

Silver Backed Shrike

Southern Grey Shrike – kills bees by impaling them on thorns 

Red Breasted Bulbull - beautiful song

Red Breasted Bulbull – beautiful song

Steppe Eagle

Steppe Eagle

Farmer and White Igret

Farmer and White Igret

Common Babbler - bird mafia, very aggressive little guy

Indian Roller – aka the bird mafia, very aggressive little guy

Cinereous (Black) Vulture - the largest vulture in the world

Cinereous (Black) Vulture – the largest vulture in the world and the Egyptian Vulture

Spotted Asian Owlet

Spotted Asian Owlet

Frankolin - like a little grouse

Grey Frankolins – like a little grouse

White Tailed Eagle

White Tailed Eagle – very rare

Laggar Falcon

Laggar Falcon

Yellow Eyed Pigeons - very rare

Yellow Eyed Pigeons – very rare, Bikaner is one of the last place you can see these.

Griffin Vultures

Griffin Vultures

One more of the mighty Cinerious Vulture (the largest bird I've ever seen)

One more of the mighty Cinereous Vulture (the largest bird I’ve ever seen)

Steppe Eagle

Steppe Eagle

Long Legged Buzzard

Tawny Eagle

Cinereous Vulture landing on a tree

Cinereous Vulture landing on a tree

Black Ibis

Black Ibis

The carcass ground - the reason for the density of raptors and vultures

The carcass ground – the reason for the density of raptors and vultures.  Dead animals are collected by the untouchable class and piled high.

The Desert Gerbil - fast food for the birds

The Desert Gerbil – fast food for the birds

We also spotted:

Black Drango, Common Dove, Black Kite, Red Start, Cattle Igret, Pie Wagtail, Common Myna, Indian Roller, Silverbill, Common Buzzard,