A Travellerspoint blog

November 2011

Ajanta

Monasteries and Mausoleums

sunny 36 °C
View Indian Caves and Temples Tour 2011 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The Ajanta Caves are 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments that date back to the 2nd century BC. Pretty old. They contain paintings and sculptures considered to be masterpieces of Buddhist religious art and are well worth the two hour drive from Aurangabad.

The caves and their temples were abandoned in the 6th century AD for the nearby Ellora (which we are visiting tomorrow) and lay undiscovered until a British officer and his hunting party stumbled upon the entrance to cave number nine in 1819. You can still see the name of the officer (John Smith) inscribed in pencil on the walls, complete with the date he found the caves.

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The 30 caves contain temples and monasteries and are thought to have been occupied by 200 monks in their heyday. They really are like something out of an Indiana Jones film – mysterious and exceptionally impressive. After yesterday's overload of religious deities, we decided not to take a guide today, but we did hire a 'facilitator', a man who was there to carry our bags up the many steps, look after our shoes when we entered the caves and give us a brief description of each of the monuments. He was well worth the money especially as he managed to help us bypass the 'Exit through the Shop'! I found the carvings and frescoes absolutely overwhelming, and quite humbling. The workmanship involved in such details is even more impressive when you consider they are over 2000 years old and have been carved our of the solid rock without the use of any modern equipment!

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Rural India is in stark contrast to Mumbai and I was eager to photograph an ox cart on the road back to Aurangabad. Every time we saw one David would should “bullocks” and I would lean out of the window and try to capture it with the camera on the move. Eventually I asked the driver to stop, and I got out to do the job properly! One of the more interesting sights along the road was a huge boiler drum being transported – unfortunately it was higher than the telegraph wires, so every time the lines crossed the road, the pole wallah had to get off and hold up the wires with a long stick. Health and safety? I think not.

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Bibi Ka Maqbara is known as the 'Poor Man's Taj' because it was originally planned to rival the Taj Mahal, but the funds didn't quite stretch to the same grandeur as the Taj. The name literally translates as 'Tomb of the Lady' and it was built by Aurangzeb's son Prince Azam Shah in the late 17th century as a loving tribute to his mother, Rabia Durrani.

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It seemed that this was THE place to come in the afternoon for local, and not so local, people. As the only westerners in the complex, we soon became popular photographic subjects. Every few minutes, groups of young lads or families with children would approach us and ask to have their photo taken with the two of us making it slow progress through the mausoleum.

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This afternoon we took an hour out of our busy sightseeing schedule to frolic in the enormous swimming pool, complete with a swim-through waterfall. The best part was that we had the pool entirely to ourselves.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:27 Archived in India Comments (1)

Elephanta Island

Cave one of five.

sunny 36 °C
View Indian Caves and Temples Tour 2011 on Grete Howard's travel map.

A short car ride through relatively empty streets (it is Saturday morning after all), took us to the Gateway of India which was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay in December 1911. One of the most recognisable landmarks of Mumbai, it is full of crowds day and night. The reason for our visit was twofold – first of all to see the Gateway, and secondly to catch a boat to Elephanta Island. Even at 09:00 the temperature was already heating up, unlike yesterday when the heat didn't really become oppressive until around 14:00. This doesn't bode well for the 120 steps to the caves on Elephanta Island.

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The boat trip was just long enough for a snooze, and to be honest there wasn't much to see en route unless you are into oil rigs and offshore cargo docks. One mad rush signals the landing of the boat on the island, and everyone scrambles to catch the little train that takes you from the end of the pier to the bottom of the steps. To my relief, the steps were not only covered from the unforgiving sun by a blue tarpauling, they were interspersed with longish stretches of gentle slopes, with shopping opportunities aplenty both sides of the path.

The island is uninhabited apart from a troupe of aggressive monkeys who are expert thieves (as the lady behind us found out when her bag of picnic stuff disappeared up a tree quicker than you could say sandwich). Later a stand-off between monkey and human occurred, with a lot of hissing and growling – mostly by the monkey. I'm not sure who was most frightened, me or the monkey, but the final score was Grete one, monkey nil.

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There are seven caves in total on the island, although some are still unfinished. The caves contain some amazing Hindu religious carvings, including an enormous statue of the three headed Sadhashiva, representing Shiva as the Destroyer, Creator and Preserver of the Universe. They date from the 9th century and are now protected by UNESCO which is just as well, as bored Portuguese soldiers used to use the ancient carvings as target practice when they were stationed on the island, causing unforgivable damage. I have to confess that some of the mythological tales Serene was explaining to us went whoosh over my head.

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Back in the city we headed to the famous and infamous Leopold café. Famous because it has been a Mumbai institution since 1871, and infamous because it was targeted by the terrorists during their bombing of Mumbai in 2008. Fortunately the atrocities appear not to have put the patrons off, as the café was full to bursting; it is said that everyone who visits Mumbai ends up here at some stage during their stay.

On reading the complimentary paper in the hotel room yesterday morning, we had a little bit of a flap on as the headline stated that 130 pilots had walked out on the beleaguered Kingfisher Airlines after they cancelled 36% of their flights. Gulp. Our onward flight is – you guessed it – with Kingfisher! Reception kindly checked on the flight for us and it all appeared OK. Phew. Later in the day we had a text from Sabu (of Icon India tours who arranged our whole trip) to say the flight times had changed and was now an hour earlier. No problem, and later we managed to check in on line using my new dongle! We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, but almost ended up boarding the wrong flight as we were too busy chatting to some new found friends who were travelling to Ahmedabad rather than Aurangabad. We just heard the 'bad bit at the end, and joined the queue. Wrong bad.

Indian bureaucracy is alive and well in the airports too, or is it just a job creation scheme? They thoroughly check your tickets and passport before you are even allowed to enter the terminal building, then again at check in obviously. At security your boarding card is checked and duly stamped (woman and men enter different areas), and the officers at the X-ray stamp the airline luggage labels for each and every item of hand luggage. At the gate your boarding card is scanned and before you get on the transfer bus they ensure your labels are correctly stamped. If not, you go back with your carry-on to the security area while everyone else waits on the, as happened to a Canadian lady on the flight. Boarding cards are again checked before you enter the plane.

Indians may be good at red tape, but they also excel at hospitality – greeting us at reception in the Aurangabad hotel with the words: “Miss Grete?” before we even opened our mouths.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:41 Archived in India Comments (0)

Mumbai meddling.

Building blocks of bureaucracy.

sunny 35 °C
View Indian Caves and Temples Tour 2011 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As we parted company with the driver last night, he asked us what time we wanted to start today. We should have known that if we said 09:00, in India time that would mean 09:45. Serena (our local guide) took us all around the sights of Mumbai, starting with St Thomas Cathedral. St Thomas was the first apostle to India. The cathedral was begun in 1676, but after the death of the governor who started the project, it was abandoned and neglected for 40 years. In 1710, the East India Company chaplain adopted the church and it was finally opened as the first Anglican church in Mumbai, on Christmas Day in 1718. The cathedral was given the essential cannon-ball-proof roof and was originally divided into sections for different classes of society, including one for 'inferior women'. The interior looks much the same today as it did in the 18th century, whitewashed and furnished with polished brass, wood and stained glass windows. The walls are lined with ornate memorials to British parishioners, many of whom died young of disease or in battle. The church is currently under renovation, but you can still see the splendour of the building and all it represents.

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A lot of the day was spent sitting in traffic jams, carrying out drive-by shootings (photographically speaking) of such historic and architecturally rich buildings such as the University Campus, Mumbai Big Ben, the Railway Station and Town Hall.

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The island of Bombay which was a Portuguese possession became part of the dowry of the Portuguese princess Infanta Catherine of Braganza on her marriage to Charles II of England under the Anglo-Portuguese treaty of 1661. In 1668 King Charles transferred it to the East India Company for a loan of £50,000 at 6% interest. That would have been an awful lot of money in those days, and shows you how rich and powerful the East India Company was.

An outdoor laundry may seem like an unlikely tourist attraction, but the rows and rows of similar coloured cloths hanging to dry above washing vats is a photographer's delight. Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghats are known as the world's largest outdoor laundry, with 200 dhobi families working together, collecting dirty laundry, washing it (removing stubborn stains in boiling vats of caustic soda), drying it on long, brightly coloured lines and using heavy wood-burning irons for pressing.

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One of the highlight for me today was the fascinating Ghandi Museum. Mani Bavan is a modest two storey building, but is famous as a result of Gandhi spending 17 years here from 1917 to 1934. The building belonged to his friend, and in 1955 it was declared a memorial to Gandhiji. It has now been turned into a museum, highlighting the various stages of this great man's life with miniature dioramas and period photographs.

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After lunch we took our shoes off to visit the most beautiful Jain temple in town. Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain Temple is not a name that exactly flows off the tongue, but it is said to be the most beautiful Jain Temple in Mumbai. The peace-loving Jains (they take great pains to avoid killing even tiny insects) believe in self-restraint and aestheticism, but they plough large sums of money into the construction and maintenance of their places of worship. They also do a fair amount of charity work, and as we were leaving, we saw a long queue of people waiting for some kind of medical treatment from the temple.

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The Hanging Gardens of Mumbai bear no resemblance to their namesake in Babylon, they are just pleasant terraced gardens, created on top of the town's water tank. A Fire Temple and Zoroastrian Towers of Silence are located nearby (Mumbai has the world's largest Parsee population), where the bodies of the deceased are placed to be picked clean by vultures as is their tradition. In order to prevent the city's water reservoir from being polluted by the bones and remains of the recently departed, a cover was built and gardens created.
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In order to be able to easily update this blog on a regular basis, I decided to buy a dongle in Mumbai. After trying at least four shops, we finally found a store that sold the Tata Photon Plus, which came recommended and did indeed seem like a good bet. Actually purchasing one was going to prove rather difficult and full of Indian bureaucracy at its best. I expected to be able to pop in the shop, part with my money, have a short explanation of what to do, and walk out again. Oh no. There is a form to fill in. Fair enough. At this stage, however, you need your passport and visa, which of course were back in the hotel safe. Having retrieved these, we return to the store to pick up our purchase. Oh no. You need to give them a photocopy of the documents. In colour. The security guy on the door is beginning to know us by now. Ten minutes later, with some very good photocopies of the ID, we go back to see the same attractive sales assistant and start completing the form. Two lines later, she asks for my passport photo. What passport photo? “Anything else you need” we ask before we go off again, this time to find someone who can do us some instant pictures. Our question is met by the typical Indian head wiggle, which we took to mean no. By now I am beginning to think this is not an electronics store, but more likely a job creation scheme. Form duly completed, photocopies of the passport and visa, and a passport photo attached to the form – surely that dongle is mine now? Not quite. Fortunately I knew the answer to the next question (what's the address and telephone number of your hotel), but was initially stumped by the following request: “name and details of your contact in Mumbai”. What contact? The day was saved by me remembering the business card Serena had given me earlier in the day. I hope she doesn't mind being our 'representative'. Hopefully she will never know...

Another 3/4 hour goes by while the sales assistant makes several phone calls (often on two phones at the same time), a lot of consulting her colleagues and even more head wiggling. There is a problem with activating the phone. Oh. She also seems to be serving at least three other people at the same time, and the chap next to her is also trying to sort our activation out at the same time as serving a couple of other people. Talk about multi-tasking! All is well that ends well, and after four visits to the store and nearly an hour of form filling, head wiggling and phone calls, I am the proud owner of a dongle. It had better be worth it!

After the obligatory visit to the cottage industries craft shop, our last stop of the day is to sock up on medicines, most of which are only available on a private prescription in the UK. £20 of Indian tablets and creams would easily have set us back £150 in the UK. One of the beauties of staying in a hotel next to the city's main hospital.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:26 Archived in India Comments (0)

Mumbai fish and Bombay duck

Where life isn't always a picnic

sunny 36 °C
View Indian Caves and Temples Tour 2011 on Grete Howard's travel map.

In stark contrast to the bureaucracy surrounding the visa process, immigration in Mumbai was a breeze. Another stamp in the passport, another tourist arrives, another addition to the ever-growing arrivals-form mountain. I wonder what really happens to all those forms – they sure don't read them properly, as I know mine was completed incorrectly but nothing was mentioned.

The airport is full of warning signs about not accepting the offers from touts for taxi rides, cheap hotels or shopping, so we were very pleased to be greeted by a driver with a cheeky smile and a sign bearing the word: Mrs Grete. I didn't, however, actually see any touts, so maybe the campaign has worked and the warning signs have put them out of business.

Mumbai is an onslaught on all your senses – the first thing that hits you is the heat as you emerge from the airconditoned cocoon of the airport. Then the noise, the bustle, the pollution, the poverty, the never-ending traffic. Life in Mumbai appears to be lived on the streets, right down to the family of five who had spread out their blanket and were enjoying a luscious picnic with their tiffin boxes and bundles of bread. Not on the pavement, not on the grass verge, but on the streetside of the parked cars.

Having met through a travel website (Virtual Tourist), Aadil and I have been virtual friends for a number of years, before today finally meeting up in Mumbai, where Aadil lives and works. Heading out to a restaurant for something to eat, Aadil insisted we stayed well back on the pavement while he hailed a cab – with tourists in tow, the price of the taxi immediately trebles.

The Indian coast is known for its seafood, and as we are travelling inland next, Mumbai seemed to be the best place to try some of the delights of the ocean. Guided by Aadil, we ordered the local king fish, prawn biriyani and Bombay Duck – which isn't duck at all of course, it's a long, thin fish called bombil. We surprised the waiter by asking if we could have it spicy – apparently 99% of tourist want their food very mild when they order. David got quite excited at the prospect of some draught beer, so we were rather amused to be served two cans of Kingfisher Draught. Oh well, it was welcome all the same.
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After a long flight, a night without much sleep, the delights of the common cold, the heat of the city and a couple of beers, it was time to head for an early night.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:05 Archived in India Comments (1)

It's almost time.....

I'm ready for India; is India ready for me?

This is it! Having finally received David's passport and visa back (after a lot of very confused an annoying emails - it seems the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing in the consulate!) we are now set to go. We've checked in on line, George (the travelling lizard mascot) is packed and I still have room in my bag for anything I might want to buy in India.

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Can someone please explain to us this concept of travelling light?

Posted by Grete Howard 03:55 Comments (1)

A sign of things to come?

Bureaucratic frustrations.

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The English taught the Indians well when it comes to bureaucracy - shame they had to be such good pupils.

Four weeks ago we sent off both passports and visa applications after having battled endlessly with the online application forms. To say they were not user friendly is an understatement - any website that needs 17 pages of instructions on how to complete a two-page form obviously needs a little redesign. Unable to process our payments, we had to sign out and back in again just to pay for the privilege of another sticky label in our passports.

The process proudly claimed to be trackable on line, but every time we tried to see what stage the process was at, it came back as 'application not found'. Thanks to the Post Office tracking system, we knew the passports had been received and signed for, so we weren't overly worried.

Two weeks go by and we receive an email to say that I, as a Norwegian citizen living in the UK, need to pay an extra £10. I had half expected that, as I was unable to prove that I have been living in this country for the last 37 years - bank statements, mobile phone bills and pension letters are not acceptable proof, it has to be a utility bill. Unfortunately, all household bills are in David's name only. We provided them with a mobile number and details of when it would be convenient for them to call and collect the payment (any time) as requested.

After another week goes by without hearing anything from them I send off a chasing email, and within an hour they have phoned and taken the payment.

A few days later David gets a call to say his passport is ready, but he needs to pay for the postage. As we provided them with a stamped addressed envelope with enough postage to cover both passports, they agree to keep hold of David's passport until mine is ready. When that will be they don't know.

With just over a week to go, I am getting a little jittery and chase them again. Today I received my passport in the post, in the stamped addressed envelope we provided. Without David's passport!

I wonder if the embassy practises this kind of incompetence just to get us used to the way things are done in India?

Visa

Visa

Posted by Grete Howard 02:03 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

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