Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bhandardara and Aurangabad

We left on a whim for Igatpuri on Saturday morning. It had been a while since we went on a long drive, and it was my wife's birthday on Monday, so...

The road to Igatpuri is the crowded National Highway leading to Nasik. As soon as we left Mumbai, it started to rain. Thankfully, due to the rains, the traffic was low. And the condition of the road was not as bad as I feared. Unfortunately, because of the rains, and the low lying clouds, most of the mountain and valley views that Igatpuri is famous for, was invisible to us.

At Igtapuri, we visited the Dhammapuri meditation centre. We could only visit the reception area, but it was extremely peaceful. Again, possibly due to the rains, we were the first visitors that day.
From Igatpuri, we proceeded to Nasik. On the way, we saw the road that leads to Bhandardara, and as my wife was keen to see that place, we took that road. The first kilometre of the road was horrible, and almost forced me to turn back. But after that, the road improved considerably, and was a beauty to drive on.

Bhandardara itself was a beautiful place, with a lake nestled between lush green mountains, with waterfalls cascading down them. The MTDC resort, located at the top of a hill, overlooking the hill, was where we stopped for lunch. Before that, we had checked out all the places to stay, not finding any. So, we just had our lunch, and proceeded to Shirdi.

On the way, we decided to check out Randha falls, the third highest in India. Unfortunately, due to the heavy rains, we could not reach the falls! After having tea almost at the edge of the flooded river, we continued to Shirdi.
The drive was not without adventure. One of the bridges on the route was flooded, so we had to take a diversion through narrow village roads. As is to be expected, these roads were not very good. Luckily, the diversion was not very long, and we were soon back on the highway.

We reached Shirdi at around 7 PM, after having driven for 270 kms. We stayed at a decent looking resort. The rains affected us even here, as we did not get fresh linen! We turned in early, and awoke early for darshan of Sai Baba. Being a Sunday, there was a long queue of pilgrims, and it took more than an hour for us to get darshan. After a relaxed breakfast back at the resort, we left Shirdi at around 10, headed for Aurangabad.

This section of the drive was easily the best of the journey. The road was good, passed through green fields, and thankfully, the rain kept off. We made great time to Aurangabad, where we had made bookings at the Taj Residency. Unfortunately, there were no directions to the Taj, and it took us a good 45 minutes to finally locate it!

After refreshing at the Taj, we immediately headed to Ellora caves, 29 kms from Aurangabad. We had a quick lunch at a restaurant at the base of the hills, and then started our exploration of the caves with the awesome Kailashnath temple.

There are no words to describe the temple. I was awestruck when I first saw this monument many years before, and I had the same feeling this time around as well. The highlight is to view the monument from the top of the cliff around. It is a sheer drop of more than a 100 feet, and it is amazing that the authorities have not barricaded it. Sitting on top of the cliff, and seeing this amazingly detailed monument carved out of solid rock more than a 1000 years ago, is an amazingly spiritual experience. To me, this is the most amazing monument in all of India, easily surpassing even the more famous Taj Mahal.

We then proceeded to the Buddhist section of the caves, which had some wonderful sculptures of the Buddha. The final halt was at the Jain section, which also amazed us with the intricate carvings typical of Jain temples.
We then proceeded to Khuldabad, and visited Aurangzebs' tomb. It is a simple monument, very unlike the reputation he had as an emperor (the last Mughal emperor of India). Our last halt was at the nearby Grishneshwar temple, one of the 12 jyotirlingas.

We turned in after a Mexican dinner at the Taj.

The next day was my wifes' birthday, and we spent the first half of the day lazing at the hotel. After checking out, we visited Bibi ka Maqbara. It being a Monday, there were not many tourists, and we could check out the monument leisurely. We then proceeded to Aurangabad caves, one of the oldest in the country. There are 2 sets of caves here, more than a km apart. Some of the carvings here outshone even those at Ellora. It is really a shame that most visitors bypass these caves on their way to the more famous ones at Ajantha and Ellora.

It was past 3 PM by the time we finished viewing these caves. We then headed back to Mumbai via Ahmednagar and Pune. The drive was uneventful, except for the last stretch after we got off the Expressway. we reached home past 1:30 AM, after driving over 400 kms.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Lucknow & Shahjahanpur

I finally got a chance to visit Lucknow, due to work commitments. I reached Lucknow in the morning, and checked into the Taj Residency Hotel at 10:30. Fearing the summer heat, I stayed indoors till 5:30 PM. I then found an auto rickshaw driver to show me some of the sights of the city of Nawabs.

My tour started with the Gomti river, which we crossed on our way to La Martiniere college. It was one of the most enthralling monuments I have seen in India, with it's curved facade, statues on the roof, and location overlooking the Gomti river. Right in front of the main building, and on the river bed, is a very tall tower, whose reason for existence I am as yet unable to fathom!

The tour then continued to the most famous monument of Lucknow - The Bada Imambara. Unfortunately, it was past the closing time, so I could not enter the monument, and see the famous mazes of corridors. I had to be satisfied with a view from the outside. It looked like any other Indian Mughal monument, but I am sure a more detailed look would have shown me the individualities of the monument.

The next place was the Residency, which played a role in the 1857 mutiny. It now contains ruins of the place, amidst well maintained lawns.

The last stop was shopping for the famous Lucknowi chikan.

The next day I traveled to Shahjahanpur, 180 kms and 4 hours by road from Lucknow. The drive, alond the highway to Delhi was very pleasant. I was surprised by the amount of greenery visible all around, even though it was the peak of summer. It was definitely what I expected - the hot, dusty North Indian plains. The road, being a National Highway, was very well maintained. At one point, I read that I was on the Grand Trunk road, and suddenly got very excited. The GT Road is one of the oldest and longest of Indias' highways, but it was only for a short stretch that I saw the road called the GT Road. It was a bit of a mystery for me, because it just felt like a long, straight road to me, so why was only one stretch of the road called the GT Road?

The other image that stuck with me was the sheer variety of traffic on the National Highway - bullock and horse carts, cycle, pedestrians, all competed with the buses, trucks, 2 wheelers and 4 wheelers for a piece of the 2 lane highway. I can now feel a little of the culture shock that Westerners would be experiencing when in India!

I came back to Lucknow the same day, and was back in Mumbai the next day.