Truly memorable... The heart of India

| January 27, 2009

India Tour consultant Agomoni Ghosh tells the story of her trip through the heart of India.

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When I was asked to choose a region in India I wanted to visit I didn’t have to think twice. It had to be the heart of India, an exciting contrast of destinations – the legendary cities of Ujjain & Sanchi, the fort in Gwalior which saw many fierce battles to the legends of love in the city of joy, Mandu, the list was endless.

The route decided was to start from the west, Mumbai - Aurangabad (Central Deccan plateau) visiting the caves at Ajanta & Ellora and move towards the heartland (the Malwa plateau) Maheshwar, Mandu, Bhopal, Gwalior and end in Delhi for the flight back to London.

It all started with a direct flight (9 hours) with Jet Airways from London Heathrow to Mumbai and a connecting flight to Aurangabad, my hub while I explored the historical sites of Ajanta & Ellora.

My first day. As I was travelling in May I was advised to start early so that we could see more while it was cool (30°C). We began the three-hour drive from Aurangabad to Ajanta at 6:00am. The moment I stepped out of our air conditioned Toyota Innova, I felt as if I had stepped into a pre heated oven! My guide said the temperature was approximately 40°C and all I wanted to do was hop back into the car. But what I saw from a distance caught my attention; I was standing at the viewing point and had a birds eye view of the caves.  The caves are in a wooded and rugged horseshoe-shaped ravine in the middle of no where. From a distance I could see a huge elephant carved on one of the facades. We braved the sun and made our way to the caves – a short ride in a eco friendly bus ride as cars are not allowed, followed by climb up to the caves. Remember : comfortable walking shoes. When we walked into the first cave I instantly knew it was worth the visit.

The monastic complex of Ajanta consists of several viharas (monastic halls of residence) and chaitya-grihas (stupa monument halls) cut into the mountain. The rock cut cave monuments date from the second century BC, and contain paintings and sculpture considered to be masterpieces of both "Buddhist religious art" and "universal pictorial art". The paintings are partly faded but you still imagine how spectacular they would have looked before.

Our guide explained how each of the caves were built. First a cave wall was chiseled, leaving a rough surface. Then two coats of mud plaster mixed with rock dust and vegetable fibers were applied, followed by a thin wash of dried lime. Several painters would work on a scene at the same time, outlining a design. Using five basic colors, they would fill in the design. Red and yellow were created from ochre, black from soot, white from lime and gypsum, and green from a local mineral. Occasionally blue from lapis lazuli was added.

On our second day we visited Ellora. The caves are actually structures excavated out of the face of he Charanandri hills. Built between 05th & 10th century the complex comprises if Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cave temples. The most amazing was the Kailasanatha Temple. It is a massive multi-storyed temple carved out of a single rock. This temple was the epitome of Dravidian art.

Under the shadow of Ajanta and Ellora is Aurangabad. The town is home to a poor remake of the Taj Mahal, called Bibi ka Maqbara. Apart from monuments the area is famous for Himroo silk and Paithani sarees. I of course made full use of my (husbands) credit card !

After 2 days in Aurangabad vsiting Ajanta and Ellora, we set out on our road journey towards the Malwa plateau. Our first stop : Maheshwar.

Located on the banks of the river Narmada, it is the most fascinating destination I have ever been to. We stayed at Ahilya Fort, where the staff were excellent - it felt like a home from home. The rooms are spacious with four-poster beds and a sitting area that opens to a shared balcony. When I walked into my room I realised, there was neither a TV nor a telephone in the room,  it was so peaceful. Ahilya Fort was the capital of one of India's celebrated women rulers-Ahilya Bai Holkar. Her fortress has been converted into a guest residence of discrete charm, where guests can appreciate surroundings, which have not changed since Ahilya Bai.

It was lovely to be at the banks of the river early morning; I could see the sleepy village slowly waking up to another day. Women in colourful sarees, austere holy men, playful children all making there way to the river and the temples on the ghats. The fragrance of the fresh flowers offered to the gods, the sound of bells at the temple, the chanting of the priests, it was like a world away from the 21st century. During the day the ghats are full of people, many boats on the river, boatmen offering to take you for a boat ride children playing cricket near the temples! Come evening the air was filled with the fragrant smoke of burning incense, the chimes of the temple bells and the river was lit with many small lamps and worshipers gathering to pray together. For a moment life looked very simple.

The highlight at Maheshwar was the food served at Ahilya Fort. A lovely fresh breakfast, an array of Indian dishes for lunch and dinner (not the oily curry) followed by the most delicious deserts. Not to miss is the ‘aam ras’ (mango pulp garnished lightly with and of course a mid morning snack and evening tea and this and that …

From Maheshwar we made a day return trip to the Mandu – a fortress town famous for its architecture. The city is situated at an elevation of 633 metres and extends for 8 miles along the crest of the Vindhyan Range. The circuit of the battlement wall is nearly 37 km (23 miles), enclosing a large number of palaces, mosques and other buildings. The oldest mosque dates from 1405; the finest is the Jama Masjid or great mosque, a notable example of Pashtun architecture.

From Maheshwar we continued to Bhopal via Indore (overnight stop) covering a distance. Enroute we visited the holy city of Ujjain. After the experience of connecting to my spiritual self at Maheshwar I was ready to miss out on a few temples at Ujjain and move forward to Bhopal the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Bhopal was built on the site of an 11th century city, 'Bhojapal', founded by the legendary king, Raja Bhoja. The existing city was developed by Dost Mohammed (1708-1740) one of Emperor Aurangazeb's Afghan governors. The old city with its crowded market places, fine old mosques and palaces is a contrast to the new city with broad avenues, high rise offices and exquisitely laid out parks and gardens. The city is famous for silver jewellery, exquisitely fashioned bead-work, embroidered and sequined velvet. Again the credit card had to come out!

Approximately 45 km south of Bhopal, we found our way to the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka. The shelters exhibit the earliest traces of human life in India; its Stone Age rock paintings are approximately 9,000 years old.

As I moved further away from the heartland towards the north, my last stop in the state of Madhya Pradesh was Gwalior. We travelled by train from Bhopal to Gwalior ( Shatabdi Express). A comfortable journey and in a few hours we were being drive to Usha Kiran Palace (our hotel in Gwalior). A 120-year-old palace which is now a hotel, it is a superb place to stay. Once in my room I didn’t want to go out !!!  We spent the evening at the Gwalior Fort. They organise a Sound & Light show which is very interesting. Dinner at Usha Kiran Palace was the best I have ever had.
Our stay at Gwalior was very short so the next morning we did a quick sightseeing tour of the fort and then spent some time in the museum. I would have liked to stay there for at least another day.

On our way to Delhi the capital we did an overnight stop at Agra to view the beautiful Taj Mahal at sunrise and sunset. All too soon I found myself on the Jet Airways flight back to London Heathrow dreaming about the hidden treasures of central India… in the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin.

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