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Khajjuraho - Orchha - Varanasi

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Fall Break

Khajuraho, India

Last week our program gave us a break from classes and took us down to Central India to Orchha and Khajuraho for the weekend. We took a train from Delhi to Jhansi, where we then took a coach-bus from Jhansi, through Orchha, down to Khajuraho. There we spent 2 nights and 2 and a half days exploring beautiful Khajuraho – which is most famous for it being the birthplace of the Kamasutra.

In Khajuraho we saw these insanely impressive temples that were built around the 1st century AD, which the most intricate carvings all around the inside and outside. We had a guided tour in and around the Laxman and Kandaria Mahadev temples, from which I learned a lot about the representations of the Hindu deities and the significance of the erotic carvings in the architecture. We also got to see some really impressive Jain temples. Our time was spaced out, so we were able to enjoy afternoons lounging by the hotel pool and hang out at the bar with our tour director, Pulinji, who organized and accompanied us on our trips to Mussoorie and Agra and Jaipur.

We also got to go on this awesome jeep safari ride through the rural old villages of
Khajuraho, away from the newer, more touristy section of the town. They took us out to the jungle where we did a 1 km hike through the woods to this clearing where there were these huge canyons formed by inactive volcanoes.

We were scheduled to go back to Delhi on Monday around lunch time, and everyone had the rest of the week off from classes to do independent travel. Many of the other students went down south to Kerala, and some went up north to Nepal, but I had made arrangements to meet up with a friend of a friend I met here in India and stay in his hometown of Orchha and wound up having a really great time travelling around with him.

I was able to have our tour bus drop me off back in Orchha, since it was on the way to Jhansi where everyone else would get the train back to Delhi. It was there that my friend, Raj, came and picked me up and drove me and my luggage further into town on the back of his motorcycle. He got me set up at a really nice guesthouse where I left my stuff, and the next 2 days I spent getting to know him and his friends in town.

Orchha is this beautiful small town in Central India that has one little main market bazaar in the middle of the town outside the main temple, and all these huge palaces, ancient temples, tombs and cenotaphs scattered around the edges. Raj took me on a personal tour of the sights and we climbed way up inside the deserted crevaces of some of the palaces which had spectacular views of the town.

My favorite part of Orchha, however, was getting to know Raj and his friends. I spent a lot of time just hanging out with the locals at their shops, at the temple, or just having chai and pakoras out on the main street. I got to meet Raj’s family, went swimming in the river, went to temple services at night, and got to know lots of local gossip. It was so fascinating to be welcomed into this world of people, and by the end of my very short stay I started feeling like a local myself. About an hour before I left I was sitting down at Raj’s friend’s food stall and this guy sitting next to me introduced himself. When I told him my name he said, “Oh, you’re the student from Delhi!”

After Orchha, I had decided to travel East to the city of Varanasi, and I convinced Raj to come with me since he’s Indian and speaks fluent Hindi, I didn’t want to travel alone, and also because he hasn’t travelled much outside his home town and I figured I could do him this favor. We took a direct overnight train from Jhansi to Varanasi in non-AC Sleeper class which I will NEVER AGAIN do in my life. It took us about 14 hours in that crowded, unair-conditioned train, to reach Varanasi (which is also called Banaras).

I had always gotten the impression from people who have been, that Varanasi/Banaras was this incredibly holy city, known as the place where Lord Shiva resides, situated along the Ganges. My first impression was that it was extremely congested, crude, and dirtier even than Delhi. We pushed our way through the rickshaw drivers who rip off tourists to get their cut of commission and eventually made our way to a decently priced guesthouse with survive-able conditions that overlooked the Ganges. Our view, however, was obstructed by this large factory-looking building that actually turned out to be the main crematorium in the city.

[Without going too much into Hindu mythology, let me simply explain that the Ganges is the holiest of holy rivers and people travel to Varanasi from all over the country, quite simply, to die. It is believed that once you die, if your ashes or remains are thrown into the Mother Ganges, your life will be erased of sin and your soul with go directly to Nirvana.]

I was mortified to discover that people who cannot afford to have a typical burial celebration, donate the bodies of their beloved deceased to this crematorium, which I was told burns about 150 bodies per day, where the body is burned and this creates electricity for the town. I never got used to the fact that the smell and smoke emanating from that building was that of burning bodies, but was eventually able to just accept it. It’s economical at the very least, although that’s not to say there weren’t frequent power outages.

Raj wound up being a great travel companion and was always optimistic and never awkward or uncomfortable. Through him I got to know and trust our hotel manager, Kailash, who set us up with a rickshaw that took us up North to Sarnath on our second day there. Sarnath is most famous for being the birthplace of Buddhism, and even though I didn’t get to see it with Raj, since tourists and Indian nationals I guess aren’t allowed to tour together since they’re charged separate rates everywhere, I really enjoyed seeing all the temples and landscapes.

When we got back that night, Kailash got us a great rate on a boat-ride on the Ganges where we got to see all the Ghats, which Varanasi is also famous for. From my understanding, a “ghat” is just a series of steps leading to a body of water. In Varanasi, there are dozens of beautiful Ghats which line the holy river that have been built and named after famous people throughout India’s history. Everyday at sunrise and sunset there are these Arti (fire) ceremonies where people pay homage to the Mother Ganges. Some are more elaborate than others, but the guy who took us out on the boat took us to see the biggest ceremony at the main ghat. It was so beautiful and elaborate and really made me appreciate the city a bit more.

Our last day in Banaras, we got up at the crack of dawn to see the sun rise over the river. It was absolutely stunning. Raj got to bathe in the river, which was really meaningful for him as a devout Hindu. Despite the fact that everyone kept telling me it was the cleanest, purest healing water in the world, I simply refused after seeing the trash, muck, and dead cattle floating in it. Call it cultural ignorance but there was just no way I was about to soak myself in that water, even though dozens and dozens of locals were out there at 6am performing ritual baths and doing their laundry on the banks of the ghats.

Later on we toured the huge Hindu University and got to walk around its museum. We did some last minute shopping, and Kailash saw us off to the railway station where I caught a 5pm train back to Delhi, and Raj got a train back to Jhansi where he’d then get a bus to Orchha. I had such a great time with Raj, especially in Orchha at his hometown, but I was ready at that point to go back to Delhi and get some rest. This time, I rode the train in AC class, but unfortunately my experience hardly improved. My train was an hour late arriving, which is normal, but what was supposed to be a 12-14 hour overnight train didn’t arrive in Delhi until 2:30pm Sunday afternoon – about 21.5 hours after departing from Varanasi. When we finally got to the station I practically ran off the train, I was so glad to be on solid ground.

So that’s the short version of my September break. Classes are starting to pick up, I just had a midterm in my Social Stratification class at JNU. I’m starting to have to think about what I’ll be doing for my final projects, but in the meantime there is so much more of Delhi I have yet to explore. Tomorrow starts another week of classes, so I’m going to finish up some reading and head to bed.


permalink written by  Indiestani on September 28, 2008 from Khajuraho, India
from the travel blog: Khajjuraho - Orchha - Varanasi
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Indiestani Indiestani
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For the next 4 and a half months I will be taking classes and studying in New Delhi, India, learning Hindi, and experiencing authentic Indian culture.

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