Sunday, December 6, 2015

Mistakes (long weekend)

Buteshwar, near Padawali

To spare your children a few days of Delhi’s toxic air, arrange to take them to a small city called Gwalior (though saying it ‘Gwalior’ just mystifies Indians – in Hindi it’s pronounced ‘Gvaaliyar’, approximately), on the very south of the Indo-Gangetic plain, in the foothills of India’s central range.

Then discover the day before you travel that the air there is as bad as Delhi’s, on account of the unaccountability of certain industries in and around the city.

'What's smog dad?'

Oh joy. We went anyway. Took the train, the good seats, leaving Delhi at 6am, arriving in Gwalior at 930am (plus a little lateness).

The Delhi smog seemed to last the whole way there, through city and country alike. Perhaps it thinned a little, perhaps it was the strength of the sun, slowly evaporating the water component in the cloud. Perhaps it was just a good day….

Whatever, no doubt as we approached Gwalior, it thickened, and coloured. Especially as the train travelled through several square kilometres of petro-chemical industries. One factory, perhaps a tyre manufacture, was belching out black smoke into the morning air, not out any chimney, but out every orifice, out doors, windows, the gap between the top of its corrugated iron walls and the corrugated iron roofing, black smoke curling, licking, belching and gushing.

Though it only licked and curled and cursed so far into the air, incredibly thick for the first fifty to a hundred metres above the plain, and dramatically clearer (if not actually clear) above that, as if some barrier pushed the smog back towards the ground. This was good for us: our hotel lay on higher ground, and the air there seemed at least not so thick and oppressive.

And as we cleared the industrial hinterland, and moved closer into the centre of the city, the air whitened, perhaps even thinned a little. So much so, that by the time we alighted, we weren’t even noticing it. Perhaps it was even less worse than our part of town in Delhi at that time of day.

Since our hotel was far from the centre of town, immediately south of where we were at the station, we exited to the north side of the tracks, away from the station. A good choice – we were only beset by dozens of willing tuktuk drivers, none of whom had even heard of our hotel. Of course, my pronunciation of badly transliterated words (see example above) probably contributed . At least the boys found it funny. Eventually we headed north, four of us and our bags in the back of a single tuktuk that went directly, with only one stop to ask for directions, to our remote destination, two kilometres by air and eight by road from the station, for a total price of around two dollars (made three by a happy and relieved traveller).

Even better, our ‘non-hotel’ hotel – Neemrana Deo Bagh – esteemed itself by letting us check in straight away, even if it was not yet 10.30 in the morning. Apart from the rules, they really had no reason not to – the hotel was way quiet, the room was ready. And I needed a rest, after getting to bed late, starting again at 5am, and struggling through the stresses of moving 3 kids through unknown parts of the developing world with luggage, laptops, food and footballs. And so I slept an hour and the boys ran off the morning’s cooped-upness.

For the afternoon, we headed to Gwalior fort, the most famous historical site in the region, a fort, palace and temple complex built on a rock plateau several hundred metres above the plain, several hundred metres wide and more than two kilometres long.
We were impressed by the giant buddhas, carved deep into the rock, hundreds of them cut into the cliffs beside the path through the gully we climbed up to the plateau. I assume they’re buddhas, though pretty much everything we saw on top of the plateau was hindu. Why do hindu stonemasons have a fascination for carving women with balloon-shaped breasts and tiny waists (and why are muslim conquerors equally intent on smashing their faces off?).

Over a period of 30 years, from the late 15th to early 16th centuries, the local big guy, Man Singh, built a palace inside the fort, for his eight (ultimately nine) wives. It’s a wonderful building, though not as wonderful as it must once have been, as it became a fortress in the nineteenth century (and almost all of its once stone-grilled windows were bricked in, for example), and attacked by the British. A tiled exterior was re-applied late in the nineteenth century, but most of the colour that came with that has since fallen away.

Nevertheless, it’s impressive. The king had eight wives, none of whom gave him an heir. Ultimately, he made a local milkmaid his ninth wife, and she gave him an heir…. Eight duds in a row, and finally one that works…  you might wonder. 

A big part of being king was not letting anyone see the wives – all  public parts of the building include a screened off area, from behind which the wives could watch all the goings-on without being observed themselves. Deep inside the palace, replete with complicated ventilation and communication systems, are many eight-sided rooms – a room designed to hold eight swings (in a later historical period, it was used to hold executions, hangings, a different kind of swinging) for the queens, another room with an eight sided pool, the whole room carved directly into the rock of the plateau, as is much of the interior of the palace. It’s all dark (not a lot of photos) and cool – the place to get away from the oppressive heat of the Indian summer. Access to the innermost private parts is gained only through long, low doorways, that require a normal sized person to bend over a long way. Standing inside the doorway, female guards would hold raised great swords with which they would decapitate any invader trying to reach the inner sanctum, as their bent heads emerged from the tunnel, their necks exposed.

Outside, and the biggest thing is the elephant thing, a big thing indeed. Exit the palace to the remains of a special platform from which the king could mount his elephants directly, and on the way out, a long series of elephant-sized doors, and an ‘elephant path’ leading down from the palace to the plain.

For an alternative exit, try the ‘secret escape tunnel’, which despite its being several hundred years old by the 19th century, was actually and effectively used by a local queen, who after joining the Indian revolution was besieged at Gwalior by the British. She escaped through the tunnel and continued to undermine the colonialists for several years before eventually falling in battle.

The fort also includes an archaeological museum (there’s a second one at the bottom of the elephant path, just inside the last but one elephant gate), a large and small temple adjacent to each other and very well preserved, that the kids used as climbing frames, some other less well preserved relics, a school (which we didn’t visit), and terrific, if smoggy, views.

Two nights in a row, in Gwalior, we set out for places to eat that we found highly recommended online. Couldn’t find either of them…. I suspect that Lonely Planet failed to properly vet the work of the researcher they hired, and then everyone else just ripped off Lonely Planet, without even bothering to go to Gwalior.


Our second day, the boys just wanted to kick back and do nothing but play with a soccer ball and on the computer, and read books. They deserved a day off, they don’t get a lot of them, and that was a large part of the motivation behind going to Gwalior in the first place. And the grounds of the hotel, expansive, ornamental, include several temples and other historical/monumental things, plus orchards and market gardens, and a big grassed open space. The property presumably still belongs to one of the grand local families – there’s a large private house within the compound as well.

Spot the difference
And the hotel management weren’t at all worried about the boys kicking balls around the garden – mostly I guess because there weren’t really any other guests there to get upset anyway.

The part of the hotel that we stayed in didn’t look that old, but was in fact the original 15th century building. The bathroom in our room, we were told, was once the only bathroom on the property (it’s been renovated, but still has a sunken bath, stone ceiling, etc).

Spot the difference
Most of the hotel, the bit you see in the promotional photos, was ‘restored’ to look older on the outside, and it does, looks great.

I headed out at one point in the morning, with the ten year old in tow, to get a few supplies to augment the remains of the lunch the cook at home had made for us for the day before, but really mostly to just have a look around the neighbourhood.

At the level crossing of a decrepit but occasionally still working narrow gauge railway, we examined an ancient (and non-functioning) system of railway switches, great metal levers, locks and lines, grimed to a halt. We talked about the way the old railway switches must have worked, the communication problems and the priority of the switchman’s decisions over those of the engine driver. About how to accommodate trains travelling in opposite directions on the same line. About the muscles the switchmen needed to move all that metal. 

We stopped to watch a very simple and underpowered jigsaw cutting pieces of thin building materials to pencil-drawn designs. A small electric motor attached by belt to a crankshaft agitated an overly large attachment that culminated in pincers which held taut a stretch of blade. We talked about the origins of ‘jigsaw puzzles’.

From there we moved on to an automobile workshop, and examined stripped-back cars, motors, discs and cylinders.

Then the find of the morning – a dirty little workshop that milled local wheat into flour, and pressed local mustard seed into oil, staffed by happy little men happy to demonstrate their devices at work. The mill was straightforward – wheat in the top, whizzing around in the middle, flour out the bottom into a hessian tube, then bagged. 

The press though, was something else. Mustard oil is the oil of preference for cooking in India, even though it’s of lesser quality than, for example, canola oil – the two plants look very similar in the paddock, why don’t they switch from mustard to canola? The World Bank guy preferred telling me it was a bit of a mystery, rather than explaining to me exactly why – though perhaps it had something to do with the trade in mustard oil to east Africa, something his office is facilitating. Anyway.

Seed goes in a drum at the top, and slowly cascades down into the press – which looks a lot like a typical home kitchen cold press machine, crossed with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with the engine covers ripped away. Oily stuff seeps out the bottom and through a series of grills. The refuse is screwed out the end of the machine into a bucket, destined to become animal feed. From the sump under the machine, the semi processed oil is then pumped up again, into another machine, where it’s filtered and filtered, until it emerges as drops of clear, golden oil that run into a 44 gallon drum, from whence it is pumped on demand into take-away containers.

All the prices, for all the goods and services the shop provides, are written in chalk on a blackboard out front the size of a broadsheet. Gwalior is not entirely disassociated from its rural past.

Our last stop – we spent a few minutes watching trade at a street front liquor store, observing and discussing the shady and unfortunate characters buying liquors mid-morning, the role and demeanour of the purveyor of those liquors, the effect its consumption must have on lives and livelihoods, and so on.

Then back to the hotel for lunch and laziness. Not too hard to enforce - the surroundings helped too.

In the evening, we ended up eating, not where we intended of course, but at Sabt restaurant (which I suspect will reliably be in the Landmark Hotel forever). I had tasty Indian food, the boys said the milkshakes and fried chicken and chips were good too. Though they may be acculturating – they were happy to rip off my naan and dip it in the sauce. All very clean and upmarket, the interior surroundings, unlike the exterior surroundings.

In Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii, she describes how the footpaths of the ancient city were raised well above the road surface, to prevent vehicles from mounting the curb, to lift pedestrians from the muck tossed into the road, and to create a waterway that could easily be flushed of accumulated muck. Looking around Gwalior, I saw a lot of the same thing.

Beard also describes how vendors would encroach upon the footpath, often placing rocks into the road so pedestrians could walk around their convenient little landgrabs. That happens in Gwalior too, though on one occasion we encountered a Gwalorian who’d set his desk and swivel chair up on the footpath but neglected to put the rocks (or more typically in Gwalior, a metal walkway) in the road. I looked at the muck, a very big step down, and thought, fuck it, the kids don’t need to walk in that, and so walked straight into his legs, between desk and chair, which then conveniently twisted away with the swivel. He was unimpressed, as was his shop assistant, emerging loudly from inside. But before he could even express his displeasure, he was pushed aside again, and again, and again, by a series of unsympathetic humans of decreasing stature. By the time he was pushed aside by an eight year old, he had little choice but to laugh. Everyone else was. Ancient Roman history, comes to Gwalior.

We checked out of the hotel late on our last day in Gwalior. The train back to Delhi wasn’t scheduled till 745pm, so I arranged for a taxi to take us out some 30km into the country, to a series of forts and temples. The drive took 90+ minutes!

We visited three sites, all of archaeological significance, all badly secured, all but one badly maintained, and all but one ripe for pilfering, the exception having already been completely pilfered. We visited a massive temple complex at Buteshwar near Padawali, a temple become fort adjacent to Padawali village, and the nearby Chausath Yogini temple.

None of these places are well documented. Much information is contradictory. I’m unlikely to resolve either of those issues, but …

The site at Buteshwar has been unearthed largely in the last couple of decades. And claims suggest as many as 1500 ‘temples’, from a few large to for the most part tiny in size, were once erected there. Most claim the temples were built between the 6th and 9th centuries, though some claims go back as early as 2nd century, others as late as 12th.

Since its emergence, a lot of work has been put in to re-assemble the 3D jigsaw puzzle from the rocks dug from the earth. It’s good to see the work in progress and to imagine that it may someday be restored completely. Because it is so old, and buried so long ago, the balloon-breasted babes still have their faces – all the figures still have their faces. And because the local rock was virtually the only material available and so used at the site, near total reconstruction is possible – no missing wood or paint. Though jewels that perhaps once adorned the most sacred temple walls have been long ago lifted.

It’s impressive, in a brute force kind of way. Most of the mini-temples are almost exactly the same, with the same building design, the same iconography, repeated over and over again, and each temple set the same distance apart. I could imagine an ancient villager, having spent his surplus hours chiselling out the images of three deities on a small tile cut from rock, handing it over the local lord or priest, and taking another rock tile and chiselling exactly the same images again, and again, and again, until he died, at which time any surviving children he might have had would in turn be indentured to take up the chisel and spend any time they had surplus to subsistence engaged in exactly the same activity.

The ruin of another large temple, together with a reconstructed entrance, sits atop a small hill, inside a fort, overlooking Padawali. The stonework in the entrance shows more variety than the multi-temple site – including some very sexually explicit and adventurous rockwork, illustrating some positions I’m the first to admit I’ve never accomplished. No work seems underway to restore the original temple, though many of its individual pieces have been raised and displayed.

The fort around was constructed in the 19th century, long after the temple, dating from probably around the 12th. Most impressive are a pair of giant stone lions, raised and restored, to either side of the fort’s lower gate. The kids had a ball racing and chasing each other through the various levels, along the ramparts, up and down the narrow low-roofed internal stairways.

Our final stop, Chausath Yogini temple. A circular construct again on a small hill jutting up from the plain, overlooking a small and undistinguished village. The temple is perhaps the most famous of the circular temples, with multiple claimants suggesting its design inspired the parliament building in Delhi (why, because they’re both circular …). The site hasn’t been well looked after – all the statues, originally 64 of them, one for each small enclave facing inward from the outer wall, are long gone, mostly taken away by private collectors (stolen by colonialists), some removed and preserved by the republic. All that’s left are the walls and columns, a few carvings here and there, and some nice sea-plant fossils within the stone. And some overly zealous guardians of the faith, enforcing the usual thing about where the gods respect your right to footwear or not.

Set aside historical reasons, it’s easy to see why temples were built in this area – it’s where the stone is….. For kilometre after kilometre in every direction, the ground surface has been destroyed by minimal and small-scale technology used to remove easily accessible sandstone building blocks, 

then dragged away by tractor, or cut to small pieces, for tabletops, rock carvings, etc. It’s a disaster area. A small amount of research suggests the extent to which the pillage is controlled by murderous criminal groups with close and obvious political ties.

The archaeologists at Padawali fort assert the ceaseless detonations to break up the surface rock into manageable pieces are accelerating the deterioration of historical sites. Quite possibly, the lack of attention given the sites by authorities is linked to political/business/criminal interests seeking to maximise their profits.

And then there’s the air. Even out here, the air is filled with smog – no doubt augmented with dust from rampant and unregulated sandstone mining. Sad people, sad villages, emerge from the smog then disappear again. The landscape, the tension, is post-apocalyptic, like the north America described in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The whole of India laid waste to such a state of destitution is not beyond the imagination – people eking out their subsistence in a ‘nasty, brutish and short’ life.

As the day draws to a close, we head back to the railway station. The train, almost a half hour late, is comfortable, clean. Dinner is served, eventually the kids fall asleep, waking at midnight to meet their mother on the platform back in Delhi.

1 comment:

  1. great observations, thanks for the detail..eyes on the wondrous history and mysteries of the other worlds...keep wrting and getting that rich detail down..