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Central India

Life is Short – Eat Your Dessert First

February 2018

India is one of my favourite destinations, having previously visited the north of the country in 2002 and the south in 2011, this visit encompassed the central belt of this wonderful country. India is replete with a multitude of exceptional visitor experiences; an engrossing history, cultural sites and events aplenty, endless photographic opportunities and friendly people that just love interacting with tourists, and not forgetting a world class cuisine to die for. India is a melting pot of religious diversity with Jews, Jains, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs living side by side constituting that recherché commodity that is unity in diversity.

India is a total assault on the senses from the moment you step off the plane; the hustle and bustle, the noise, the abject poverty you will undoubtedly encounter, inequality on an unprecedented scale and the begging and the squalor, these are all a challenge to your western sensibilities. Ultimately it’s a case of diving in head first and just accepting the country for what it is, then India will embrace you and proffer the holiday experience of a lifetime.

“Lead me from unreal to real from darkness to light and from death to immortality” – A quote from Mohandas Gandhi.

 

 

A Brief History

The earliest prehistoric sites in India date back to around 250,000 BC, with agricultural settlements beginning to appear around 7,000 BC. By 2,500 BC evidence of sophisticated urban settlements emerged featuring solid brick structures and a primitive road system. Around 1,500 BC the Aryans, a people who had migrated from Central Asia, settled in northwest India indulging in mixed pastoral and agrarian activities. The 6th century BC saw the rise of increased urban settlements in the north along with the nascent emergence of the Buddhist and Jain religious sects.

After overrunning the Persian Empire and sacking its capital Persepolis, Alexander the Great invaded Northwest India in 326 BC, but after a brief incursion was forced to retreat.

In 321 BC the Mauryan Dynasty founded India’s first major empire controlling vast swathes of the north of the country. Ashoka (269-232 BC) rose to become one of India’s greatest rulers, extending the Mauryan Empire to stretch at its zenith from the southwest of the country northwards through to Afghanistan. After Ashoka the Mauryan Empire rapidly declined with numerous invaders establishing successive dynasties. The next notable rulers to lay the foundations of a great empire were the Gupta Dynasty (320-500 AD). The Gupta period saw a great flourishing of culture; exquisite sculptures, elaborate temple architecture, poetry, drama and mathematics all found fertile ground during this period. Hinduism also came to prominence during this time.

The soft afternoon sunlight enhances the subtle colours in this photograph.

The Pallavas were a major dynasty who ruled the south of India from 275-550 AD. Their kingdom grew exceedingly wealthy on trade with Rome, exporting numerous luxury goods such as spices, silks, precious gems and exotic animals.

Between the 9th and 13th centuries the Chola Dynasty ruled an extensive empire that encompassed much of the south of India. Their rulers built magnificent temples and accumulated vast wealth based on economic exchange with China, Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia.

From the 11th century the unstable political situation in the region, along with tales of India’s fabulous wealth precipitated a wave of invasions by Muslim Turkic tribes. These incursions represented the beginnings of Islam’s influence which would impact on religion, art, culture and history across the Indian subcontinent. In 1398 Timur, better known to history as Tamarlane, unleashed a devastating invasion of northern India which accelerated the nominal atrophy of the Islamic dynasties in the region. The subsequent centuries saw this process rapidly increase culminating in the arrival of the Mughals. In 1526, Barbur a Central Asian prince marched into

northern India overthrowing the ruling dynasty and established the foundations of the Mughal Empire which would rule India for over 300 years. The rule of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1627-1658) produced the empires ultimate flowering of art and architecture, culminating in the construction of the Taj Mahal, a monument of ethereal beauty that represents the zenith of Mughal architectural prowess.

The 16th century saw the arrival in India of European traders, chief amongst them the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch and the English. By the early 17th century, with Moghul power on the decline, the British had become the dominant force and began to expand and consolidate their power. By the 19th century British control over India was complete with the country being the jewel in the crown of the vast British Empire, on which it was said that the sun never set.

The early years of the 20th century saw the emergence of the Indian National Movement, fronted by the charismatic Mohandas Gandhi, who led a campaign of non-violent resistance to British rule and a demand for Indian independence. On 15th August 1947 the era of British rule ended with the partition of the country and the two new nations of India and Pakistan were born. The early years of independence were troubled, with political assassinations and wars with belligerent neighbours, events that presented huge challenges to the world largest democracy.  By the turn of the 21st century India had made enormous strides in conquering the endemic poverty and illiteracy that had plagued its past. Today modern India has an industrial base that has elevated the country’s economy to compete with the world’s major players, and in the field of information technology India is an acclaimed world leader in software development.

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The Journey

 

An overnight flight from London to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the start of this wonderful adventure. Mumbai has a population of 20 million people and is India’s largest and most populous city. As well as being India’s commercial and financial capital, Mumbai is also home to the world’s largest cinema industry, known internationally as Bollywood. The city presents extraordinary shocking contrasts, where millionaires live in exclusive high rise apartments in antithesis and adjacent to the squalor of slums and shantytowns that cascade down like gushing rivers between the multitude of expensive high rise towers.

The city orientation tour commences with an introduction to some of the worst traffic congestion imaginable, a journey of 5 or 6 kilometres takes over an hour and the taxi driver assures us that today the traffic was quite good. The first stop is the Gateway of India which is Mumbai’s most famous landmark. Designed by the Scottish architect George Wittet in the Indo-Saracenic style, this triumphal arch was completed in 1924 to commemorate the visit of King George V, and ironically was the exit point for British troops after India gained independence in 1947. A short distance away is the stately red domed Taj Mahal Hotel, built in 1903, its splendid Moorish architecture, plus exclusive retail outlets catering for its exclusive clientele, make this one of Asia’s grandest hotels. The hotel was the target of a terrorist attack in 2008 in which 167 people were killed attracting worldwide notoriety.

 

The shantytown area of Dharavi became world renown when it featured as a location in the film Slumdog Millionaire, and has become a must visit destination for any visitor to Mumbai. Around 1 million people live within a 4 square kilometre area, almost every house is a thriving business, waste recyclers, textile machinists, metalworkers are among the multitude of people all eeking out a living in the cramped and squalid conditions.

 

The Prince of Wales Museum, built in 1905, is Mumbai’s most prestigious museum, it serves as a repository of rare sculptures and art from across the Indian subcontinent. Enchanting Nepalese bronze Buddha statues, exquisite Mughal miniature art works and intricately carved temple friezes are among the prized exhibits on display. Located in the wealthy suburb of Malabar Hill are the Towers of Silence. These tall cylindrical stone towers are where the followers of the Zoroastrian religion deposit the bodies of their dead, to be picked clean by vultures, this they believe is the most environmentally friendly method of disposing of the corpses.

 

The undoubted highlight of today’s tour is the visit to the magnificent Victoria Terminus (now renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST for short!). Designed by Frederick William Stevens and completed in 1888, it was named to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. This impressive example of Victorian Gothic architecture is embellished with extravagant domes, spires, stone carvings and sculptures, and is the headquarters of the Indian Central Railway. The Terminus handles over 1,000 trains and over 2 million passengers a day, and in 2004 it was given a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.

 

The city of Aurangabad is located a 7 hour train journey northeast of Mumbai. Train travel in India is always an incredible experience in itself. The stations are always a heaving mass of humanity, people sitting down eating a meal, reading or sleeping on every available space - this situation is replicated also on the train -  having your own personal space is not a concept that applies in India. Aurangabad has a population of 1.5 million people, the city is a hub for the assembly of vehicles for Audi and Skoda. Traffic in the city, like in India generally, just seems to flow organically around people, animals and other vehicles, missing each other by the width of a cigarette paper. If there are actually any rules of the road no one seems to pay much attention to them. Like much of India the region has a large agricultural base growing onions, lentils, cotton, rice as well as mangoes, papaya and grapes.

 

The spectacular Ajanta Cave complex is situated a 6 hour drive northeast of Aurangabad. The caves are located within an impressive horseshoe shaped escarpment overlooking a narrow river gorge. The 30 extraordinary rock-cut caves contain beautiful wall and ceiling paintings, friezes, sculptures, Buddha images and votive deity shrines. The caves fall into two groups, the earliest group of caves date back to 2nd century BC, and the later ones to the 5th century AD. The caves were originally inhabited by monks, artists and craftsmen who used them as shrines. The humidity levels inside the caves are exceptionally high, and with thousands of visitors each day, condensation and water ingress are taking their toll on the plasterwork and paintings. This is a similar problem faced by the Egyptian authorities with regards the Pharaonic tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

 

The elegantly proportioned Bibi Ka Maqbara mausoleum in Aurangabad was commissioned in 1660 by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the memory of his first wife Diras Banu Begum, it is a replica of the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra. This is no coincidence as Bibi Ka Maqbara was designed by the son of the architect of the Taj Mahal, which is the mausoleum of Aurangzeb’s mother. The building was constructed in white marble and stucco, ostensibly on a smaller scale - without any of the expanse of detailed workmanship exhibited in the Taj - due to budgetary constraints imposed by Aurangzeb. None the less this fantastic building standing on a raised platform and set in the middle of a large Mughal garden is a paradigm of aesthetic elegance, making it a delight to photograph.

Perched on a granite outcrop a few miles outside Aurangabad is the formidable Daulatabad Fortress. This 12th century fortress was ingeniously designed to perplex any perspective invader; with four concentric solid perimeter walls, pitch black passages, blind alleys and a moat inhabited by hungry crocodiles, this labyrinthine edifice would have been a formidable task for any prospective assailant. The fort ramparts offer exceptional panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Situated 30km outside Aurangabad, the Ellora Cave complex of 34 caves is the premier example of rock-cut architecture in India. Hewn from a 2 kilometre long escarpment, the caves date from between the 7th and 9th century and are representative of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain artistic and architectural styles. Whereas the caves at Ajanta are renowned primarily for their spectacular artwork, Ellora’s standout feature is its architecture. The undoubted highlight of the complex is the magnificent Kailasanatha Temple dating to the 8th century. This mammoth monument spanning 84 metres by 47 metres was carved directly out of a huge rocky cliff face, it is the largest rock-cut temple in the world. This egregious structure is embellished with massive sculptural panels, obelisks and life-size elephant sculptures, the temple was meant to depict Mount Kailasa, the sacred abode of the Hindu god Lord Shiva.

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One of the real highlights of this trip is the overnight train journey from Aurangabad to Hyderabad, the atmosphere on an overnight sleeper train is always quite magical. Arriving in Hyderabad 10 hours later and rather bleary eyed, it’s a quick breakfast of samosas and a nice cup of tea and straight into the city orientation tour. Hyderabad is the fifth largest city in India with a population of 7 million. The city has a large film industry called Dollywood that rivals that in Mumbai, it is also a major centre for the pharmaceutical and IT industries. Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook are among the companies that have a large office presence here, hence the city has earned the epithet Cyberbad.  Hyderabad like many of India’s larger cities has an emerging affluent young middle class that have adopted western fashions, drink alcohol, smoke and are upwardly economically mobile. In the smaller urban conurbations and villages people are still just as socially constrained as ever, and economic opportunity has failed to percolate down to this lower strata of Indian society.

Situated on a vast boulder-strewn plateau Galconda Fort is one of the most magnificent fortress complexes in India. Originally built as a mud fort in the 12th century, it was rebuilt in stone in the 16th century as a fortified city enclosing grand palaces, mosques and ornate gardens that originally encompassed an area of 40 square kilometres. The forts importance ceased abruptly in 1687 when it was overrun by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Today the fort constitutes a sprawling partially ruined complex consisting eight gateways, four drawbridges, a number of royal apartments, halls, temples and mosques surrounded by a 10 kilometre long outer wall. In the past diamonds were mined nearby, and the fortress-city became wealthy as the market hub for the trade in these precious stones, attracting merchants from all over the world. Over the years the region has produced some of the world’s most famous diamonds, including the illustrious Koh-i-Noor diamond which is now part of the British Crown Jewels.

 

With its wonderful cuisine any journey around India is invariably a gastronomic adventure; curry for breakfast, curry for lunch and curry for dinner. Lunch today was in an exceedingly plush restaurant overlooking the Hussain Sagar Lake, a quite magnificent setting. The food on the menu bares no resemblance to the fair you will have experienced back home from your local takeaway.

The Birla Temple in Hyderabad is a modern building completed in 1976, constructed using 2000 tons of pure white marble and designed in the South Indian architectural style, the temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Vishnu. This glistening white structure took almost a decade to complete and sits atop an 85 metre hillock, giving a commanding view of the surrounding area. Not being on the regular tourist trail, Birla Temple is frequented mainly by domestic patrons and as such is a place for worship, solace and spirituality.

 

Leaving Hyderabad it’s a fairly long drive to the city of Bidar. Occupying a promontory and surrounded by double rings of defensive walls and a moat, Bidar Fort is the city’s premier attraction. Built in 1428, the fort encloses a vast area with buildings in various states of repair, restoration work is being undertaken to many of the structures, no doubt with the hope of encouraging increased foreign tourist footfall to the site.

Located 3 kilometres northeast of Bidar are the Bahmani Tombs, constructed in the Indo-Islamic architectural style and dating from the 15th and 16th century, they represent the final resting place of the Bahmani Sultans. The site contains 12 tombs, huge structures with graceful arches, niches and lofty domes; the tombs are variously decorated with beautiful paintings, coloured tile mosaics, Persian poetry and inscribed with quotes from the Quran. The most visually impressive tomb is that of Humayun Shah, it was struck by lightning causing two of its walls and most of the dome to collapse resulting in the shattered tomb looking like a cross section cut model of a tomb. Like many of the sites visited on this trip, the Bahmani Tombs are well off the regular tourist trail and visited mostly by locals, thus making for a more enjoyable visit and an enhanced photographic experience.

 

On the journey to Gulbarga an incident occurred that highlights the endemic problem of corruption and bribery that permeates India. Our bus was stopped by a policeman and the driver told he was wearing the wrong colour shirt appropriate to the vehicle he was driving. On checking the drivers documents, the policeman then pocketed the documents and a long argument ensued for 30 minutes. Our tour guide then suggested that we drive the bus with our group of foreign tourists down to the police station to address the matter with the station supervisor. At that point the policeman backed down and returned the drivers documents in exchange for a 2000 Rupee bribe, this scenario was of course his intended intention all along.

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The fortified city of Bijapur is home to a plethora of magnificent cultural attractions. The city’s most celebrated building is handsomely proportioned Gol Gombaz, the monumental tomb of the Sultan of Bijapur Muhammad Adil Shah. The building was completed in 1656 in the Indo-Islamic architectural style, and is surmounted by the largest dome in the world after St Peter’s in Rome. The monuments single internal chamber, unencumbered by any visible columns or supports, covers an area of 1,700 square metres and sits atop a basement tomb containing the remains of the sultan and his immediate family. Externally the four corners of Gol Gombaz are each graced with a seven story tall minaret, these minarets give access to the buildings sonic wonder, the whispering gallery. A balcony rings around the interior of the dome where any sound is amplified around the cavernous interior space, echoing back and forth innumerable times. Standing on the balcony a dizzying 33 metres above the main chamber, the effect is truly mesmerizing. Blessed with elegant symmetrical architectural proportions and bathed in soft sunlight Gol Gombaz is truly photographic heaven.

The grandiose Jami Masjid mosque was begun by Ali Adil Shah in 1576 but never completed. The marble floor of the cavernous prayer hall can accommodate over 2,000 worshippers during Friday prayers. Situated close by is the Ibrahim Rauza Mausoleum, one of the finest Islamic buildings in India. Constructed in 1627, this elegant building is embellished with superb calligraphic and geometric designs and delicate carvings, it contains the tomb of Ibrahim Adil Shah ll and his Queen Taj Saltana. The tomb and an equally impressive mosque are set within an elegant walled garden facing each other across an ornamental pond.

The historic town of Badami and the surrounding area is home to three magnificent temple complexes; the Badami Cave Temples, the Pattadakal Temples and the Aihole Temples. At Badami the oldest temples date to the 6th century, those at Pattadakal date to the 8th century, and the earliest temples at Aihole also to the 6th century. At all three sites the majority of the temples are constructed in the South Indian style, with the temple towers rising in a stepped pyramidal formation. The greater number are dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva, two of the vast pantheon of 330 million Hindu gods and goddesses. The standout temple amongst the many magnificently ornate structures is the Durga Temple at Aihole, it is also the most unusual due to its apsidal sanctuary surrounded by an open colonnade. Many of the temples are decorated with elaborate erotic sculptures depicting sensual couples in the act of lovemaking. These sculptures were designed to be educational, as when they were originally confected there was very little information available about sex, and many newly married couples would visit the temples to gain insights into such intimate matters. All three temple complexes were wonderfully preserved and located in beautifully manicured sites; once again it was mainly local families visiting making photography of the temples and of people a most rewarding experience.

 

This amazing journey in India involved a packed itinerary of endless long days touring in 30 degrees plus temperatures, in addition to carrying around a bag of heavy photographic equipment, this was a supreme test of endurance – a classic case of when I get home I will definitely need a holiday to get over the holiday.

 

From Badami it’s a 3 hour drive to the town of Hospet, the base for exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi, my reason for ultimately choosing to embark on this particular trip. The complex at Hampi was the capital city of three generations of Hindu rulers for more than 200 years, most of the city’s monuments were constructed between 1336 and 1570. Hampi’s temple ruins are spread across a vast 41.5 square kilometre site, with bus journeys being required between the various complexes. This sprawling site contains more than 1,600 structures including, forts, royal apartments, temples, shrines, pillared halls, memorial structures and many other notable remains. The site is dedicated to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Among the multitude of exquisite monuments there are several unusual structures. The Elephant Stables consist of eleven square chambers with arched openings and fluted domes, the intricate design and attention to detail indicate the importance that was attached to the royal elephants of the empire. Located close by is the Lotus Mahal, this two story bijou pavilion constructed in the Hindu mandala design with lobed arches, vaults and domes is a paradigm of geometric regularity. The Manmatha Tank was part of the city’s extensive water infrastructure, this large symmetrical stepped tank is constructed from granite, having an area of 22 square metres and a depth of 7 metres and was used by the royal household for ceremonial purposes. The grandest of all the religious monuments at Hampi is the Vitthala Temple, its most acclaimed showpiece is the famous Stone Chariot. The beauty of the chariot lies in the fact that it appears to look like one solid structure, in actuality it was built using individual slabs of granite whose linkages have been hidden through clever artistic design. This unique structure is a magnet for having your photograph taken in front of, and has become the iconic symbol of the architecture of Hampi.

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The final stop on this wonderful trip was the former Portuguese colony of Goa. Getting there involved an exhausting train journey of 350 kilometres taking a numbing 10 hours, that’s an average speed of 35 km/hour, Usain Bolt can run faster than that! The Portuguese arrived in Goa in`1510, establishing a small enclave that became their entrepot for the next 400 years. Still today Goa displays Portuguese influence in its cuisine, culture, religion and architecture that gives Goa a very distinctive air, markedly different than from the rest of India. Goa’s economy is based on tourism and it has the highest per capita income in India; it is one of the country’s most popular holiday destinations for the sun, sea and sand brigade, blessed with idyllic beaches along its Arabian Sea coastline.

 

Old Goa was the one time capital city of this former Portuguese colony. Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, churches proliferate in Old Goa ranging in style from sober Renaissance to exuberant Baroque. One of Goa’s most important religious monuments is the Basilica de Bom Jesus, it is revered by Roman Catholics worldwide as it contains the mortal remains of Goa’s patron saint Francis Xavier. Built by the Jesuits in 1594, this grand Baroque structure constructed from red stone is one of the oldest churches in India. Far more atmospheric and photogenic is the Church and Monastery of St Augustine, the 46 metre high laterite belfry tower dominating the remains of what was once India’s largest church. Constructed by the Augustinian Order in 1512, this Gothic-style church was abandoned to the elements in 1835 and now lies in splendid ruination.

 

An Overview

 

India as a travel destination is never going to disappoint. For a photography junkie like myself India is a target rich environment, with its magnificent architecture and incredibly friendly people, there are never ending photographic opportunities for a snap-happy foreigner. The poverty, squalor and inequality – a tsunami of sensory overload - are an inescapable part of this journey, but once you immerse yourself in the India experience you will discover that the country has a wealth of visitor attractions to offer the discerning traveller. If you have visited India previously the chances are that its allure will undoubtedly seduce you to return; if you have never visited then take the plunge, it is a journey that will never fail to disappoint.