~The Gol Gumbaz~

This immense dome constructed in the 17th century is visible for miles in all directions.  It was the first thing we saw on the horizon on our bus ride into town from Bidar.  The grounds are peaceful and kept clean by workers, and provided a nice place to relax after the acoustic experience of the Gol Gumbaz.  That’s right, acoustic.  Domes like this were designed for more than aesthetics, they provide the most incredible echo, delay, and reverb to anything you hear inside them.  The chamber at the top, called “the whispering gallery” accessible by a cramped and ancient 7 story stairwell in each corner of the building, boasts a peculiar acoustic phenomenon.  Sitting at opposite ends of the base of the dome you and your buddy can speak to eachother, 300 ft away, in the quietest whisper.  This is because the dome perfectly reflects all sound waves symmetrically across the interior so that nearly no sound is lost to someone sitting directly opposite you.  Very, very cool.  Simple stone producing something that we now manipulate through electronic signaling…. a perfect example of what I like to call “low-tech, high-tech”.  Something that is low-tech (stone dome) but produces a high-tech effect (massive reverb, echo and delay).

A word of advice on visiting: I would definitely recommend checking it out as early as you can get there (before 9 am latest), otherwise you will be sharing the space with flocks of young indian children on school field trips who are more interested creating big decibel levels than the intricacies of the smaller ones…  

But man, imagine the 17th century.  No microphones, no speakers, not even electricity. All you’ve got is the Gol Gumbaz and a fleet of devout muslim singers chanting what must have been the most heavenly sounds to grace a person’s ear drums to date.


Not Dead!

You may have noticed the abrupt lack posts somewhere in January and wondered… what happened? Is Ari still alive?

Well, the answers are 1. It’s complicated, and 2. Yes, still kicking.

The complications arose from a number of sources… the end of our trip involved seeing friends (and therefore less drive to go be anti-social and write a blog while I’m halfway around the world with my friends.), more contact with home (the date of re-arrival to my own motherland was fast approaching and I was making frequent calls home anyway), and finally and most unfortunately was illness.  Somewhere in the last week of our trip we managed to get Giardia… if you don’t already know what that is I envy you, and will spare you the details.  But I did lose about 5 pounds and a lot of drive to write about this trip.  

BUT, I’m feeling better and better as the days go by, re-acclimating myself to my own climate, habits, and ways.  So, to friends and family, look forward to some forthcoming words and pictures from your own personal Indian Adventurer.

Ari


~Bidar~

When we came here we were clearly the only people not from Bidar who had been there in quite a while.  For all its taboos and standards of conduct in public Indians are entirely unashamed to stare blankly, goggle-eyed, and gaping-mouthed.  Be it an elderly couple who looks at you like your martians to an entire bus packed to the gills with several heads poked out every window yelling “WHICH COUNTRY?!”, they stare and just keep on staring until you’re out of sight.  Maybe its all the taboos themselves which keeps people so in line that anything new is worth staring at… I couldn’t tell you.  But if you come to India at all and are not Indian, prepare to be gawked at on a regular basis. 

This place ended up being really special to us.  Nothing noteworthy in the guidebook.  No recommendations from friends.  We just ended up here because it was convenient to get to.  But the people we met there were so genuine, and so friendly, we just sort of fell in love.  Renting a bike or two is dirt cheap and Bidar is relatively flat, making for excellent rides.  And if you get lost there always seems to be a schoolboy to guide you back to a landmark eager to chat you up and ask you for some chocolate. 

Being an almost entirely Muslim city has its benefits too.  The mutton biryani was out of this world.  A big old pile of steaming rice sits in front of you, with tender morsels hidden within, but not a fork or spoon in sight.  You will understand quickly why though every restaurant may not have a toilet they do have a hand wash station.  I know, eating with your hands sounds kinda gross, or at least messy, but if you try it and give it at least a little effort, you’ll find it to be neither.  Scoop up a mouthful with your four fingers, bring it up to your bottom lip, then push all that tasty goodness right in using your thumb.  Okay, so it is kinda messy, but that’s what the hand-wash station is for.

Also, the chai here was bomb.


Bidar~


Mother India

After our time in Aurangabad/Ajanta/Ellora we decided we wanted to head south.  We heard a lot of good things about Karnataka and decided to make a whole series of stops there.  We picked a whole bunch of cities based on descriptions in our guidebooks.  Then we decided to go for it.  Simple right?

Well, sometimes mother India has plans for you regardless of yours.  After beginning to understand the complexity of the Indian railway system we found there was no existing route through all the cities we had scoped out (Bijapur, Badami, Belur, Bangalore, Mysore, Belur, & Gokarna), there was no way to find out ahead of time a bus schedule between cities if said bus even existed, and with a tight budget hiring a car was out of the question.  But we have only limited time here in India, so we had to get moving.  We picked Bidar first, not because it sounded the most fabulous (that would be Hampi and Gokarna), but because it was the easiest to get to. 

This is how it goes here.  You want something, but you can’t get it for whatever reason (lack of infrastructure, prohibitive cost, inconvenience), but just at that moment India offers you something else, and you take it, reluctantly, because its not exactly what you wanted.  But often you’ll find that what you get is better even than what you imagined you wanted.  And so mother India provides in her crazy, and seemingly random way. 


The Ellora Caves

Created just after Ajanta, these caves came as the popularity of Hinduism took off and that of Buddhism began to fall.  Being older, the craftsmen who created these caves had more experience to build off of everything is on a more grandiose scale.  The very first cave you come to is a gigantic temple carved out of a single monstrous piece of basalt (how a geologist would build a temple, if any of them were religious).  The entire thing was carved out from the top down.  The weight of stone removed was equal to about 300,000 tonnes!  To the right and to the left are about fifteen more caves totaling about 33.  To see them all takes a whole day and make sure to bring lots of water and sunglasses.  It’s very hot even in winter.  Here it is the caves themselves and the structures and carvings that are the showcase, not paintings.  Since stone survives much better over a couple thousand years than paint, today these caves attract a greater number of tourists and are regarded as more “interesting”.  If you can only see one or the other, see Ellora. 

It is literally unbelievable that people made these without electricity.  You feel proud to be human when you see them.  Also, any picture you take cannot do justice to this place.  It’s all three dimensional and its the spacial relationships that are the most interesting.  Also, the sheer scale of the caves is just beyond the scope of any lens.  Though there is no harm in trying…. Enjoy:


Ellora Caves~

Slightly older than Ajanta these caves are also at least slightly more magnificent.


The Ajanta Caves

Getting to the caves takes a long two and half hour bus ride from Aurangabad, but its worth it.  When you get there you are greeted by a small swarm of touts trying to sell you little gifts and Indian artifacts, this is annoying, but still worth it.  Then you must take one of the “green” buses to get onto the site.  All the difficulty of getting there washes away as you stroll around the cave complex.  Trying to imagine the scale of work necessary to carve out the giant structures is difficult, as they had nothing more than axes and wood (which they jammed into cracks and then soaked in water so that the swelling wood would break up the rock further) to do it.  The paintings are in a pretty bad state compared to anything modern, but it is there antiquity that is so remarkable, not the images they depict.  Most are over two thousand years old, the paint they was colored using natural products like flowers and colored minerals, mixed with a natural glue and water and then dried using sunlight which they reflected into the caves using pools of water.  The Buddhists were remarkable Macgyvers.  Flash photography is not allowed but you may bring a torch (Indian word for a flashlight) to help you see the paintings.  And really, the paintings themselves are remarkable.  You just have to use your imagination a little to fill in the gaps that have been destroyed by decay.  Ornate geometric ceiling patterns, beautiful portraits of ancient royalty, and many, many, paintings of the Buddha cover all surfaces apart from the ground.  This would have been such a remarkable and beautiful place to pray and be a Buddhist in 200 AD.  In fact the caves correspond with a time when Buddhism was flourishing in India. 

Older than old, more ancient than antiquity, the Ajanta caves are one of the great creations of mankind.  Not to be missed.


Ajanta Caves~

The caves themselves were impressive.  But what was really impressive is that these paintings were all done by Buddhists 2200 years ago, six generations before Christ.


King and Queen for a week

Omkareshwar is a small, mostly rural city set deep in Madhya Pradesh’s countryside along the bank of the Om river.  The city got its name “OMkareshwar” because the Om river splits and then rejoins itself to create an island in the shape of the “Om” symbol of Hinduism, and that island is the major part of the city of Omkareshwar. The city is a bit off of the main tourist jaunt, but is becoming increasingly popular as people discover how peaceful and unique it is (we certainly did).  On of its most welcoming aspects (an also a difficult one) is it’s remoteness.  (peace and quiet seem to be a rarity in India).  It is only reachable by bus from either Indore (the larger and more easily accesible) and Kandwa, but well worth the effort if you do make it here.

I’ve already elaborated on Maharaja’s guesthouse room #1 as being the place to stay, but I wanted to say a bit about the city itself.  Cheap thalis abound next to the bridge (conveniently located if you stay at Maharaja’s) all serving up spicy dhal and mixed veg along with bati, an Indian fried wheat biscuit.  We fell in love with the bati here only to find out that it is actually a specialty of Rajastan (somehow we completely missed it there).  Overall, Omkareshwar is a somewhat sleepy little town with not a whole lot to do apart from gazing at pilgrims performing puja and taking scenic walks around the island.  But the scenery is really quite amazing and I’ve simply never seen anything else quite like it.  The river carves through a massive section of rippled sandstone creating tall cliffs on either side of the river.  The rippled sandstone is textbook in its nearly perfect s curves, and really quite a beautiful almost purple color. 

We spent a week here relaxing and chatting up the Maharaja and loved it.  With all the cheap food, huge room, stone courtyard with a view, and royal company we felt like a regular Maharaja and Maharani. If you’re tired of the usual hustle-and-bustle of most touristic cities in India, give Omkareshwar a try.