It can’t be said that traveling in India is easy, but there are grades of hardship. In the last week or so we have been following the well trodden, hence pretty easy, tourist trail through Rajasthan. It’s been fantastic and places like Jaisalmer, Udaipur and Jodhpur deserve to be well visited. However, we were ready to get off the beaten track again away from menus with Nutella and noodles and sights mobbed by coaches of day trippers with their loud voices and audio guides. We wanted to get back to the “real” India, to feel like we had earned our bed for the night!
So, from Agra and the magical Taj Mahal, possibly the most visited site in India, we decided to take the cheap second class train East to some less visited wonders. Though it was a bit of a scramble to elbow our way on we found a seat. It was hard and uncomfortable but I was squashed up against a delightful rubenesque Indian woman whose smile and demeanour made me fall in love immediately. Nita had even less English than my meagre Hindi, but we hit it off and cuddled up to one another her hand holding mine or resting on my knee for much of the journey. She bought crisps and fed me mouthfuls, we bought chai and we chewed and sipped and giggled. When we parted at Gwalior station we hugged and kissed like old friends.
We continued eating at a busy little stall just outside the station, refuelling on a spicy thali before a rough rickshaw ride through the city brought us to the base of Gwalior Fort. It was a steep climb up in the midday heat to the top of long, thin rocky outcrop upon which is perched this 8th century relic. Bastions, palaces, cupolas and domes form an impressive sight, but my favourite view was of what look like yellow ducks painted on the wall which forms the west side of the palace. It seemed more apt as a frieze in a child’s bedroom than decoration on a grand fort!
We raced back to the railway station for the next leg of our journey only to find our train was delayed by 2 hours. We chose the train as it was a shorter journey and on the whole we find trains more comfortable than crammed local buses, but they are not nearly as punctual. When it did arrive we had to push and bump our way through several carriages our rucksacks acting as unwieldy shields until we gatecrashed an air conditioned sleeper carriage . We weren’t supposed to be there, our tickets were for the cheap 2nd class seats, but it was cool and there were places to sit so we sat! A while later we were challenged by the ticket officer who wanted to charge us for the upgrade which would have amounted to £8 – not a fortune in the grand scheme of things, but four times as much as we had budgeted for! I played the dumb foreigner, apologised for my ignorance and gave him a dazzling smile. He tutted like a school master with a wayward pupil and moved on down the carriage!
We peered through the grimy, dusty windows as each station went by and finally saw the sign for Datia. It was not an auspicious start. The first two hotels we tried turned us away, full due to a wedding. It was dark by this time, we had no map, no idea where we were in the town, no clue as to whether there were other hotels or lodgings – it gave things a certain edge! However, perseverance and the eventual help from a friendly local got us to safety and comfort.
The following morning we set out on foot to find what we come here to see; an ancient palace that David had seen in a book about India which had piqued his interest – 30 years ago!
It was already hot at 9.30 and the streets were dry, dusty and busy. The usual cacophony of voices, engines, horns and the clanging and banging from roadside workshops accompanied us as we dodged the pot holes, bicycles and cows on our way in to town. We flagged down several rickshaws and squeezed in the one who’s driver nodded to our “palace?” question. We were dropped at the end of a narrow street and walked the final 100 metres to this splendid 7 storey palace. It was like looking up at some giant, layered, luxuriously decorated wedding cake. Arched windows, latticed stonework, perfectly rounded domes and delicate overhanging shades gave it both elegance and grandeur. Inside, these layers were supported on golden sandstone pillars, the ceilings decorated with faded paintings of peacocks, elephants and flowers. Shafts of light and the gentle breeze wove through the spaces creating yet more patterns and delight. I imagined the scent of water laced with sweet smelling flowers that would have been used to soak the cloth for the ceiling fan or punkah. The punkah wallah would have sat cross legged hour after hour rhythmically working the system of pulleys to gently move the fan, like birds wings, cooling and scenting the rooms.
We wandered through the myriad of corridors, up and down tight, twisting stairways marvelling at 400 years of history. The icing on the cake were the beautiful, colourful paintings and tiles. Some had survived on the outside walls and in the cloister like corridors, but the most spectacular were in one of the lower rooms where they had been protected from the bright sunlight and 400 monsoon seasons. An original heavy, thick wooden door padlocked and seemingly an effective deterrent, was magically removed from its hinges with a bit of back-sheesh to one of the wardens. It revealed a light and airy rectangular room with a domed ceiling, walls and recesses covered in these extraordinary paintings. So many we had seen elsewhere had either faded from the onslaught of the weather or had been scratched off or ruined by graffiti. It was wonderful to get a true sense of what these palaces might have looked like in their prime when both interior and exterior walls would have been plastered and brightly painted.
After this success we were buoyed up and decided to adventure further to seek out Sonagiri. We’d seen this row of 84 Jain temples in a brochure weeks back. It took some time and work to travel the 15 kms, but it was worth it. We began with half an hour on a local bus, standing in the crush of hot bodies in the central aisle. The low roof easily accommodated the Indians but David’s height meant he had his knees bent and head bowed, in an uncomfortable effort to protect himself. I managed to stand upright in the claustrophobic, airless pocket I was wedged in to, admiring the patience and acceptance everyone was exhibiting and practising this for myself. We were relieved when it was over and we dropped from the bus to the open road, stretching out our cramped muscles and re-oxygenising our blood. We were still a good 5kms from the temples so we began walking sure there would be a rickshaw along in a moment. There are always rickshaws in India keen to pick up a fare – rickshaws everywhere on every road …… except this one! It was a hot walk but any discomfort was easily borne as we became absorbed with the sights around us. Small rustic farmers huts, made from mud and dung with roofs of sticks and plastic sheeting. Their cattle and goats grazed along the verges. We walked alongside women coming back from the fields with bundles of wood on their heads and looked across fields of green wheat and yellow mustard towards the temples in the hazy distance. Eventually, with just a kilometre or so to go we hitched a lift on the back of a motorbike. David and I and our day packs slotting in behind our generous driver.
The temple complex was almost deserted. It had a surreal feeling, like some used and forgotten Disney film set. We slowly made our way up the hill past every one of the 84 temples, each one different though all painted a uniform white. The bare soles of our soft western feet feeling every hot paver and piece of grit. The view from the top was impressive – one way looking back down the path we had come, the string of white temples with their domes topped with elaborate finials looked like freshly whisked meringues tumbling down the hillside. The other way we saw the wedding cake palace perched in splendour on its rocky outcrop. With all this sweet confectionary on our minds and after such effort to get here we refreshed ourselves with chai and biscuits before re-tracing our journey back to Datia town.
We joined another full to bursting bus after more walking and hitching, but it was unable to take us to the centre of town due to a police cordon and a raft of people mingling in the street. they were all here for a Jain festival. The streets were lined with sweet stalls – sugar and milk, spices and nuts, all blended together in various ways, shaped and decorated and stacked in high pyramids. There were also wheeled carts with makeshift stoves over which vast cauldrons of oil spat and bubbled as pakora mixtures were dropped in to cook. These were next door to basket after basket of various flower heads, some loose, some threaded on to string waiting to be used as gifts to the gods. David gifted one of these garlands to me (his goddess!) and there was much amusement as he ceremoniously placed it over my head and I posed for photographs. They felt luxuriously cool and damp against my hot neck and the smell of the fresh flowers, particularly the roses, was a welcome respite against the fume laden, dusty, dryness of the atmosphere. Feeling weary, but full of contentment and wonderful images we stopped for chai as an excuse to linger and remain a while longer. A dignified older gentleman came and joined us, shook us by the hand and said “Welcome to India”. We felt very welcomed indeed.