Tigers, Temples and Temperature
20.05.2010 - 29.05.2010 44 °C
John:.... Our trip from Varanasi on the overnight train to Katni was straight forward enough. The train pulled into a packed, sultry, baked toilet smelling Varanasi station the regulation 2 hours late. The electronic signs weren't working and the repetitious platform anouncements were either clearly articulated in Hindi or delivered in impenetrable machine gun English. We met a nice couple Jim and Mary also heading to the same place so we stayed together in that strange kind of comfort that can be gained from knowing that if we miss the train so will they.
On to the train and, at 23:30 now, straight onto our bunk beds; luggage secured with the piece of chain bought in Varanasi (thereby dispensing with the need to 'sleep' on the luggage for security). We were woken, in standard Indian fashion, to the sound of a man shouting (amicably enough) into his cell-phone..."ello....ello....ello". I dived into my book and headphones, enjoying the top bunk hiding place whilst Jackie grappled with bottom bunk conversation. I eventually joined in a very interesting discussion already underway about modern India, Hinduism, violence in India and the dreams of a young scientist who was making his way from Calcutta to Mumbai (Bombay), a scheduled train journey of 30 hours. He was part of a large family group and before long, after talking about our respective families, 15 year old twin girls dressed in vermillion and gold sarees were pulled out of the ladies' compartment by their father to practice their English and excellent manners with us.
We disembarked at Katni station and took a car for the remaing 5 hours of the journey. The scenes by now were very familiar as dry, dusty, rural, ageless India passed us by on each side. Our new driver, Arvi, would be with us for the next 5 days and he proved to be an excellent driver. We enjoyed the comfort and coolness of the car inside whilst the world baked outside....48 - 49 degrees (115 farenheit) and deadly stuff. Even local people said that this was very hot for them. Not just the countryside was tinder hot and highly combustable. Our experience in Varanasi had shown how tense life can be here, especially in the time leading up to the monsoon.
We arrived safe and sound at the slightly down at heel but perfectly adequate lodge next to the national park and tiger reserve. Our sole purpose in being here was to see tigers and to this end we had two half day safaaris booked. Our luck was in from the start. On the first safaari we entered the park in our open backed jeep with a driver and a guide. Even without tigers this was a special place, full of deer (tiger lunch), monkeys (tiger dessert), peacocks/peahens, a host of other brightly coloured birds and a varied landscape of giant sandstone cliffs, jungle, dry river beds, caves and so on.
We were about a third of the way into our safaari when an air of general excitement spread through the various guides. Our jeep joined the others and, before long, a very large female tiger together with nearly fully grown cub imperiously parted the tall yellow grass and stepped out, paused and slowly moved off across the open ground. The whole episode from start to finish lasted no more than five minutes but during that time every detail, every movement, every look was imprinted on the memory. So captivating was it that many people, including us, didn't even think to use our cameras.
I have long thought that the lion's claim to be King of the Jungle was based too much on a questionable haircut and good press. A worthy second certainly. For me the tiger is the king....ask 100 domestic cats if they would like to be reincarnated as a lion or a tiger and I can guarantee that tiger will be the unanimous answer.
The following day we had an even closer siting as our young, testosterone pumped jeep driver managed to hit two other cars in his haste to establish his credentials amongst the older drivers and get a good position (I had to be stern with him). Twenty metres from us the tigeress we had seen the day before leapt onto a low bridge, looked straight at us as she straightened up and slinked her way across the bridge and off out of sight again. Fleeting glimpses each one but what glimpses; powerful, large, beautiful, majestic, in charge and deadly....and not behind bars. Sadly poachers are still plying their trade, supplying tiger skins and body parts for the lucrative Chinese medicine market. India has lost one third of its tiger population in the last 8 years so even more lucky for us to have been granted an audience....twice. Without the tigers the National Park would just have been magnificent. The tigers took it to a different level.
From Bandhavgar we drove to the town of Kajuraho, some 5 hours across country. The attraction at Kajuraho is the UNESCO World Heritege listed temples. Perhaps best known for their erotic carvings ('The Karma Sutra carvings'), these remarkable feats of architecture, art and engineering hold so much more. Certainly there is a lot of eroticism in the carvings and portrayals of the nobility of the time reaching 'a higher plane' in a number of anatomically challenging positions. Some of those portrayed were thoughtful enough to involve their pets (although there is no record of anybody playing fast and loose with a tiger). In addition to the erotic carvings there are hundreds and hundreds of carvings denoting the gods and heavens. The figures are beautifully carved with keen insights into human nature, portrayed with humour and great skill, and the temples themselves constructed of masonary so carefully shaped that no mortar was needed to keep them together; just several perfectly placed keystones.
img=http://photos.travellerspoint.com/214739/90_DSCF7631.jpg caption=Stone carvings at Kajuraho]
We enjoyed the temples greatly but viewing anything or anywhere much after 10:00 and before 16:00 was an act of lunacy as the temperature peaked at 49 degrees. I found a copy of The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially having been here for a few weeks and recognising some of the references and details in the book. Another acclaimed book, The White Tiger, a sharply observed and darkly humorous critique on modern India was also voraciously consumed during the middle period of the day.
Our next destination was Orchha, another 4 hours west. As with Kajuraho we were here for just 2 nights but we could have stayed for longer. The town is littered with two enormous palaces and their associated buildings, still standing but no longer in use and all the furnishings long gone. The temples are a fusion of Moghal and Hindu architecture and built at a time of considerable religious tolerance. We were guided around the palace grounds by a lovely old man who has done his post-graduate studies on Orchha and its historic buildings. His book has been published but sadly for us only in Hindi. He now shows people around the sites for a mere 250 rupees, about $NZ8 for 2 hours of his knowledge. I wish I could remember his name but it is in the shaky memory section alongside many of the names and dates he so carefully supplied us with.
Ruins were dotted all over the town; giant Chatriss playing home to eagles and monkeys and disused temples now providing shelter for goats, pigs, dogs and the occasional person. The market place, in front of the large temple provides pilgrims with the opportunity to buy, amongst other things, brightly coloured powders to apply as 'bindi' (the distinctive red spot in the middle of the forehead) or other facial decoration.
The ruins, apart from the fact that they attract money spending toursits, seem to hold no interest at all for the people scratching a living here. Local people look slightly bemused that visitors should be so interested in these places. Buildings are used for as long as they have a use and after that their value seems limited other than to provide building materials for the next house or temple. Nobody is building any more palaces here.
We left Orchha for the railway station at Jhansi, taking the train to Agra. Arriving late, in regulation style, the train dropped us at Agra station where we met our next driver, Arif.
We discovered that travelling at this time of the year has its benefits. Because of the extreme heat tourist numbers are very low. Our hotel would normally have been way, way beyond our budget. The Grand Imperial was magnificent (and so was our travel agent who secured us a suite for such a low price). More on Agra in the next posting. Suffice to say, for now, The Taj Mahal is even more beautiful than we expected. Seeing the sunrise lighting the central dome is one of the images that will stay with us for a long long time to come. Our experience with so many of the famous places and things we have seen on this trip; Machu Piccu, Angkor Wat, tigers, elephants and now the Taj Mahal has been that they have surpassed the many representations of them...more on the Taj Mahal and Agra on the next posting. In the meantime I have put some of Jackie's great photos in the gallery. Enjoy
Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.