We interupt these ramblings…

…for a real-time update! Now, as you may or may not realise, my blog entries are not contemporary with the visits they describe, indeed I am currently running about four months behind. And you might well have noticed that there has been a worryingly long break which may have led you to conclude that the bandits of the Bodh Gaya region had ensnared me.

Nowhere 2013 - the centrepiece of our camp, a house called Pervy Whims

Nowhere 2013 – the centrepiece of our camp, a house called Pervy Whims

But no, I have instead been having fun of a quite different kind. I returned from my five months in Asia in late June to spend ten days in London before setting off on the ferry to Bilbao en route for the Nowhere festival in Spain, where this year my volunteer contribution was to co-manage the ice sales.

Nowhere 2013 - interactive art

Nowhere 2013 – interactive art

After a fortnight away I then had a week’s turnaround at home (unpack, launder, repack) before flying the USA where I have been ever since. The first month was spent volunteering with the Flaming Lotus Girls, a San Francisco based art collective who create large metal fire-spouting installations for Burning Man and beyond. I had a wonderful time, working hard but learning a whole bunch of new skills, the most exciting being MIG welding, something I have always wanted to get to grips with.

me, welding (still from a video)

me, welding (still from a video)

Our piece, Xylophage, is a huge flaming metal tree stump, surrounded by mushrooms. Having helped build and send it to the desert, I followed it out to Burning Man with my usual theme camp, Quixote’s Cabaret Club and Bar, although this year we were more bar than cabaret.

part of Xylophage at Burning Man - incorporating some very messy welding of mine

part of Xylophage at Burning Man – incorporating some very messy welding of mine

I’m currently relaxing in San Francisco before returning to the UK to look for work – this is the end of my very extended gap year. But I will continue blogging the World Heritage Sites I have visited and who knows, by the time I get to the end of those, I may have visited a few more.

Burning Man 2013 - an act on our cabaret stage

Burning Man 2013 – an act on our cabaret stage

And now back to your scheduled progamming…

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Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya

After flying back from my side trip to Nepal, I had two more world heritage sites in India to visit before finally moving on eastwards. To get to this one from Delhi took two flights, a train, one night in a grim hotel (the cigarette ends in the bathroom drain were the pièce de résistance) and a tuk tuk ride through the countryside.

revolting hotel bathroom in Gaya

revolting hotel bathroom in Gaya

Bodh Gaya is held to be the site of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment and is a huge draw for pilgrims. I however stayed 11km away at Gaya, partly because that’s where the nearest railway station is located but mostly because it is not advised to do the journey between the two after dark. This is a less economically developed part of India, with a history of corruption and neglect by national government and a reputation for rural banditry.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

The focus of Bodh Gaya is the Mahabodhi Temple, a tall pyramidal brick structure that dates from the 5th or 6th century but which was extensively reconstructed in the nineteenth.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

Behind the temple is a sacred bodhi tree, the leaves from which worshippers pounce on when one falls to the ground. It is supposed to be a cutting of a tree in Sri Lanka that was itself a cutting from the original tree under which Buddha sat meditating.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya - a boy runs for a fallen bodhi leaf

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya – a boy runs for a fallen bodhi leaf

The temple’s grounds are not extensive nor as crowded as I expected, despite the presence of quite a few pilgrims who appeared to be sleeping and worshipping amongst the surrounding stupas.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya - pilgrims nesting amongst the stupas

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya – pilgrims nesting amongst the stupas

After I had wrung all the entertainment I could out of the temple and its associated religious souvenir stalls (and sampling the wares of a really fabulous lassi seller), my tuk tuk driver took me on a tour of the other Buddhist temples in town, each associated with a different country and built in the appropriate architectural style. There is also a massive modern Buddha statue, sitting in a little park by itself.

Bodh Gaya - big Buddha

Bodh Gaya – big Buddha

On the ride back to Gaya, I noticed many  walls covered in these, which I worked out are drying patties made with animal dung, used as fuel.

on the road between Bodh Gaya and Gaya - dung fuel cakes drying in the sun

on the road between Bodh Gaya and Gaya – dung fuel cakes drying in the sun

For the Lego model, there was little choice but to build the whole Mahabodhi Temple (here’s another view of it).

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

So here is a very tiny scale model showing a side that conveniently doesn’t include the entry structures.

Lego Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

Lego Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya

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Paragliding in Pokarah

With neither the fitness or equipment for trekking, the standard traveller activity in Nepal, I thought I should find another way to enjoy the Himalayas whilst I was there. So I took a bus to the small lake-side town of Pokarah, where a lot of treks start, and spent a pleasant couple of days relaxing within sight of snow-capped peaks.

looking over the lake at Pokarah

looking over the lake at Pokarah

Well, mostly relaxing. I did also do a tandem paraglide off the top of a short mountain, attached to a delightful Polish man.

paragliding over Pokarah

paragliding over Pokarah

The flight was beautiful and calm (so long as I didn’t think about the strength of the two carabiners between me and plummeting doom) until shortly before the end, when he announced it was time for some acrobatics. I spent the next few minutes with my eyes closed, screaming. Until I watch the video he took (my travelling computer doesn’t have the software) I’ll have no idea what was actually happening. All I know is that I had to spend twenty minutes sitting on the grass after we landed, getting over my nausea. Next time it’s offered, I think I’ll politely decline the exciting bit at the end!

paragliding over Pokarah

paragliding over Pokarah

Apart from that, I went for a boat trip on the lake, mooched through the souvenir shops and drank cocktails in a water side bar with a cat snuggled up to me. Then I took a bus back to Kathmandu, spent a day there arranging my onward travels and flew back to India.

cocktail bar cat in Pokarah

cocktail bar cat in Pokarah

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Kathmandu Valley

I had planned to take the overland route from India to Nepal, but with train tickets so hard to get and the World Heritage Site close to the border (one of two cultural ones in Nepal) sounding quite dull, I decided to fly to Kathmandu instead. Not that this option was without its concerns.

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Kathmandu Durbar Square

The airport was voted one of the world’s worst not so long ago, with the process for visas on arrival being slow and tortuous. Either things have improved or I caught them on a good day, because it was all remarkably smooth. I didn’t even have to snatch my luggage from the hands of a small boy touting for portering fees, as I’d been warned happens.

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Kathmandu Durbar Square

This WHS comprises seven sites in and around the city of Kathmandu, comprising three palaces with their associated Durbar Squares and temples plus four religious sites (two Hindu and two Buddhist). I managed to see two palace areas and one site for each religion.

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Kathmandu Durbar Square

The whole site is listed by UNESCO for being a showcase for the architecture and cultural heritage of the Newars, the indigenous inhabitants of the valley, whose artistic achievements are seen as being at their height between 1500 and 1800.

Kathmandu Durbar Square - decorative woodwork, a peacock window

Kathmandu Durbar Square – decorative woodwork, a peacock window

In the centre of Kathmandu itself is the Basantapur Durbar Square, with a complex group of palaces, mansions, courtyards and temples,  all wonderfully decorated and surrounded by colourful market traders.

Kathmandu Durbar Square - decorative woodwork

Kathmandu Durbar Square – decorative woodwork

Most of the buildings are red brick, with carved natural wood embellishments, widely overhanging tiled roofs and distinctive lattice windows that have extended horizontal members top and bottom. If all the trekking gear shops in town were not enough of a clue, this architecture shouts “Nepal”.

the top of the stupa at Swayambhu

the top of the stupa at Swayambhu

On a hill west of the city, the stupa at Swayambhu is the oldest Buddhist monument in the country and is an important place of pilgrimage. It comes complete with an awful lot of stalls purveying so many religious statues and knick-knacks that I really wished I could buy, if only they’d fit in my luggage. I settled for a fabulous solar-powered gilt plastic prayer wheel of the kind I’d seen on car dashboards. Its acquisition made me ridiculously happy.

my solar powered prayer wheel

my solar powered prayer wheel

Pashupati, the Hindu site I went to on the other side of town, seemed initially to just be a temple that as a non-believer I could only look at from the outside. Then I found the much larger area behind it, accessed on the same ticket, along the banks of a sacred river. Here there are shrines, temples and ghats, both bathing and crematory.

Pashupati temple

Pashupati temple

I got chatting to a young guide (we went for tea later and he told me about his German girlfriend) and he assured me that it was fine to watch the various cremations that were taking place in front of us and that is was not regarded as a private event.

Pashupati - the cremation ghat

Pashupati – the cremation ghat

After a day with no transport due to a general strike (I spent most of the time reading in a lovely walled garden), I rounded off my visit with a trip out to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, a small town 13km from Kathmandu.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

The whole area is much more open and less chaotic than in Kathmandu, but sadly this is because many of its buildings were lost in a 1934 earthquake, so whilst what remains is a great place to visit, it probably doesn’t give the full flavour of the past.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

I chose a building from this square for my Lego model.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

I was quite unable to manage a model with four equally spaced columns though, so you only get three.

Lego Kathmandu Valley

Lego Kathmandu Valley

And here’s your bonus ‘goats playing on a car bonnet’ picture, also taken in Bhaktapur. You can see the whole sequence of photos on Cute Overload.

goats on a car in Bhaktapur

goats on a car in Bhaktapur

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Khajuraho Group of Monuments

These are a group of Hindu (mainly) and Jain temples in a small town eight and a half hours by train from Agra. Well, that’s what the timetable said. We arrived two and a half hours late and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my pre-booked hotel had sent a taxi to fetch me. The tuk-tuk driver I’d just negotiated a price with was less pleased.

Khajuraho

Khajuraho

I suspect that despite the huge appeal of these monuments to tourists (which I’ll get to in a moment), this is usually a fairly peaceful town. I however had managed to arrive on the eve of a large Hindu festival, the Maha Shivratri, celebrating the marriage of the god Shiva to Parvati. Khajuraho is a popular location for this celebration and large numbers of devotees descend on the place to make offerings at one particular temple and, it seems, go on fun fair rides.

Khajuraho

Khajuraho

The next morning, I somehow failed to find the entrance to the main monument park in the centre of town and instead got directed with the pilgrims round the back of some buildings and into a holding pen for people queuing up to perform their puja (offering ritual). They were all clutching small metal pots of water, most with some greenery in it, and pushing up against metal gates (which it later transpired opened outwards)  guarded by bamboo stave wielding policemen.

Khajuraho - architectural detail

Khajuraho – architectural detail

 

I soon realised that I did not want to be there, particularly with remembered news stories of people trampled to death in similar circumstances rolling round my mind. But with the crowd crushing in behind me it was impossible to get out. So I had to carry on queuing, and fighting not to get knocked over every time the crowd pushed forward or was beaten back again by the police.

Khajuraho - worshippers queuing up the steps of the temple

Khajuraho – worshippers queuing up the steps of the temple

Finally, the gates were opened (after much unwilling shuffling backwards by the people at the front) and I got in, only to join another, albeit less pushy, queue. Eventually, after an hour, I got into the tiny temple compound and managed to bypass the queue up the steps to the sanctuary and escape. And then I found the correct entrance to the monuments next door. Phew!

Khajuraho

Khajuraho

After that brief side adventure, the main group of monuments was a delight to visit, set in beautifully kept grounds, with wide paths, lawns and English signage. And why are these temples so popular? Because they are the ones with the famous erotic sculptures. You know the ones.

Khajuraho - sculpture

Khajuraho – sculpture

Built between 950 and 1050AD, only twenty-two temples remain of the eighty-five known to have been built in what was then a capital of the Chandela dynasty, a central Indian clan.

Khajuraho - sculpture

Khajuraho – sculpture

The architecture is, according to UNESCO, “highly original” and is constructed of un-mortared sandstone blocks, many of great size. The exteriors are densly covered in excellent carvings, some of which, on one or two temples in particular, depict what a TV announcer might call scenes of a sexual nature. The UNESCO listing is more circumspect, referring to “scenes of amusements of which not the least known are the scenes, susceptible to various interpretations, sacred or profane”.*

Khajuraho - sculpture

Khajuraho – sculpture

What that convoluted sentence refers to is the variation in opinion as to what the naughty carvings actually mean. They could be a depiction of tantric sex and the cosmic joining of male and female energy; they may have been intended to be educational and some could just be part of the depiction of everyday life, along with other mundane subjects pictured. Quite how the man shagging a horse fits into any of these theories though, I can’t say.

Khajuraho - sculpture

Khajuraho – sculpture

I was not going to attempt a Lego depiction of tantric (or otherwise) sex,  so that left a temple for my model. After wrestling for some hours trying to build this:

Khajuraho

Khajuraho

I finally had to admit I didn’t have enough parts and moved my viewpoint 90° round to the left and built the end view of the towering structure over the temple sanctuary, a view similar to this.

Khajuraho

Khajuraho

It might look like a simple model, but it was remarkably tricky to build.

Lego Khajuraho

Lego Khajuraho

* Actually, it does mention sex later, but I just love that sentence so much I had to share it.

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Fatehpur Sikri

A 40km day trip by bus from Agra, Fatehpur Sikri was  a short-lived late sixteenth century capital of the Mughal empire. It was built by Emperor Akbar on a site foretold to be the birthplace of his son.

Fatehpur Sikri - Jama Masjid entrance

Fatehpur Sikri – Jama Masjid entrance

What is visible today are a primarily the fortified city wall and a hill-top group of buildings including a palace, a caravanserai, audience halls and a huge mosque (one of the largest in India) that could accommodate 10,000 worshippers. These days the latter seems to be full of people aggressively trying to sell you cheap necklaces.

Fatehpur Sikri - Jama Masjid

Fatehpur Sikri – Jama Masjid

If you can escape the hawkers’ clutches long enough, you can admire a fabulous white marble tomb of a Sufi saint, Salim Chishti, in the centre of the courtyard, which is the object of a great deal of worshipful attention, including the leaving of offerings.

Fatehpur Sikri - Jama Masjid - Salim Chishti's tomb

Fatehpur Sikri – Jama Masjid – Salim Chishti’s tomb

Fatehpur Sikri was completed in 1573 but abandoned only twelve years later when Akbar moved his capital to Lahore, to be nearer the action as he fought off marauding Afghan tribes. Despite its short life it was still impressive enough for an English traveller in 1585 to describe it as larger and more populous than London (which is hard to  credit for such a recently built city, so I rather suspect hyperbole).

Fatehpur Sikri - caravanserai

Fatehpur Sikri – caravanserai

The palace included a number of enclosed areas for the women of the court, including a garden.Screened walkways and corridors connected these locations together and also allowed the women to access the Panch Mahal, a five storey building, now only pillars and floors (which diminish at each level), but once fitted with pierced stone screens. This was a pleasure palace for the Emperor and overlooks the main open area of the palace, allowing the women to view the goings on below and enjoy cool breezes.

Fatehpur Sikri - Panch Mahal

Fatehpur Sikri – Panch Mahal

Nearby, a small pavilion by a pond is gorgeously decorated all over with delicate stone carving. It is called the Turkish Sultana’s House, but is both too small and outside the female areas for that to have been the case.

Fatehpur Sikri - carving on the Turkish Sultana's House

Fatehpur Sikri – carving on the Turkish Sultana’s House

A particularly interesting building is the Diwan-i-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience.

Fatehpur Sikri - Diwan-i-Khas

Fatehpur Sikri – Diwan-i-Khas

Inside it has a central pillar, supporting a circular platform at first floor level which is connected by a walkway to each corner of the building.

Fatehpur Sikri - Diwan-i-Khas interior

Fatehpur Sikri – Diwan-i-Khas interior

Sadly one building that no longer exists is the Hall of Worship, where Akbar would invite learned men from other religions to debate with Muslim scholars. His religious tolerance also included appointing court members of other religions. The palace includes the house of his favourite advisor (the Grand Vizier, such a marvellous title), Birbal, who was a Hindu.

Fatehpur Sikri - Birbal's house

Fatehpur Sikri – Birbal’s house

For the Lego model, I went with the Diwan-i-Khas. Ideally it would be slightly wider or lower, but there’s only so much room for manoeuvre on proportions at this scale.

Lego Fatehpur Sikri

Lego Fatehpur Sikri

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Taj Mahal

And so, at last, we reach India’s most famous monument, star of cheesy tourist adverts and symbol of romantic love (with a  side-order of polygamy).

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

I was both looking forward to visiting and dreadfully worried that I would be disappointed, unable to enjoy the place’s undoubted beauty amidst the massed ranks of milling tourists and tightly timetabled coach parties. At least the crowds are wonderfully colourful, as they usually are in India.

the Taj Mahal makes a great backdrop for colourful saris

the Taj Mahal makes a great backdrop for colourful saris

The Taj Mahal is was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-seventeenth century as a mausoleum to his much-loved third and principal wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child.

Taj Mahal - garden central water channel

Taj Mahal – garden central water channel

It sits on the river, fronted by a large walled garden that is quartered by paths and water courses in the standard Mughal style, based on Persian gardens intended to invoke a vision of Paradise. But here the layout is unusual and differs from Humayun’s Tomb, for instance, by siting the mausoleum to one side rather than in the centre of the garden.

Taj Mahal - pavilion overlooking the river

Taj Mahal – pavilion overlooking the river

India is not taking any chances with its iconic monument and entry to the site involves serious security checks including bag searches (food, drink and a wide range of electronic devices are prohibited). The entrance is approached by four different queue lines: for Indians and foreigners, men and women separately.

Taj Mahal - gateway into garden

Taj Mahal – gateway into garden

Having declined to get up in time to see the place at dawn I nevertheless got there before the queues were very long, indeed foreign women seemed to be in the minority so I got in quick. My guide-book recommended staying all day to see the building under varying light effects, but the half litre bottle of water that is included with the foreigners’ ticket won’t really keep you going that long, so I stayed around four hours.

Taj Mahal viewed through its gardens

Taj Mahal viewed through its gardens

I am delighted to report that despite the high visitor numbers, the gardens are so large (and the regimented groups march up and down the centre paths only) that you can find a bench to yourself and sit and enjoy the experience, gazing upon the white marble edifice and reminding yourself that you in fact really at the Taj Mahal. It is very lovely too.

Taj Mahal - detail

Taj Mahal – detail

Close up, there is some fabulous inlay work and carving although the best work is inside where photography is prohibited. Artisans were brought from all over the empire, which reached as far as Iran, to work on its construction. The semi-precious stones for the inlay work came from even further afield.

Taj Mahal - carving and inlay detail

Taj Mahal – carving and inlay detail

In addition to the tomb itself, there are a number of subsidiary buildings, including a number of other tombs and two mirror image buildings that flank the Taj Mahal itself, by the river. One is mosque and the other is thought to have been a guesthouse. The latter could not also be a used as mosque as it faces the wrong way, but was necessary for architectural balance.

Taj Mahal - the flanking 'guesthouse'

Taj Mahal – the flanking ‘guesthouse’

Lego themselves sell a fabulously large and expensive kit to build the Taj Mahal and it has been tackled by many other builders before me. My interpretation is necessarily a modest affair, but I think it works reasonably well.

Lego Taj Mahal

Lego Taj Mahal

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