After all the fun with the bus to get to Agra (..see previous post) the train-journey onwards seemed almost dull it was so organized – our names were on the printed passenger list outside the carriage when it pulled in to the station, the train left on time and then arrived just the same in the tiny town Umaria 13 hours later. From here we hopped on a bus to even smaller Tala 30km away, closer to the Bandhavgarh national park that we wanted to get to. This bus got crazy packed along the way with people hanging out both doors and windows – Edel was sitting only some meter away from me but I couldn’t actually see her through the mass of people. I gave up my seat to an old man with a cane that was led to the bus, though spectacularly someone else tried to nick the seat in the seconds it took the old man to get there!
In Tala we checked in to a pretty basic guesthouse (squat toilet and bucket shower), and slept past midday in the 40-45 degree heat. The room had an interesting cooling system – a big box with a large fan, water and a pump inside, and lots of hay on the sides – as the water is pumped around and evaporates it cools the air (guess all the hay is there to make a bigger surface area to evaporate from). Pretty efficient, though doesn’t quite cool as much as real air-condition, and makes quite a lot of noise. The electricity to actually fire it up came and went very often during the day also. In the afternoon when it was cool enough to function again we went with a jeep into the national park – and saw our first wild tiger! This is becoming an increasingly difficult thing to do – there’s only about 1,000 tigers left in the whole country, down 99% from a century ago (..one million people for each tiger) – they are completely gone from many national parks set up specifically as tiger reserves, and might realistically be extinct in the wild within a decade. In India, like most countries today, natures survives just as tiny pockets, isolated islands in a sea of developed land and people – most of the reserves are only big enough to support a couple dozen of the larger predators, sentencing the species to a few humiliating decades of inbreeding before it is finally gone. In Bandhavgarh the chances are still pretty good to see a tiger though, with about 50 animals it has the highest tiger density of any of the parks, and this is the hottest time of the year so they come out from the forest to the water holes, which is where we saw our first one. And so did plenty others – there were dozens of jeeps there with Indian and foreign tourists – some serious ones with meter-long camera lenses worth more than the jeep they were sitting in. Once the tiger showed up they set up a rotation with the jeeps so that everyone got a chance to see it. We saw plenty other animals as well; spotted deer, sambar deer, wild pigs, langurs, peacocks, eagles and king fishers but the jeep driver mostly just dashed quickly from tiger-spot to tiger-spot. We had a different driver and a more relaxing experience when we went back to the park at 5am the next morning – and this time we had a really good tiger encounter. A big male came walking out from the forest towards the dirt-road we were driving on – the animal ignored us completely and walked only some 20 meters from the jeep and the road for about 5 minutes. I got some very nice photos, but for some of the time I just had to put down the camera and watch – felt real emotional to have this big incredibly beautiful animal walking so close. (I guess I was still happy that it hadn’t appeared half an hour earlier when we had to leave the jeep to fix a flat tire though…)
On the same trip we saw a second tiger, a female, sleeping in a cave, and we went back again twice more before leaving, both times seeing a different tiger couple. We had managed to arrive in Tala with almost no money, thinking it would have an ATM and be a bigger place than tiny Umaria, which was wrong by an order of magnitude. A nice english photographer named John who’d been traveling India for a year and had shared the jeep safaris with us gave me a lift on the back of his Enfield though, which saved us from having to wash dishes in Tala for a decade. From Tala we later got a jeep taxi to Khajuraho, which is famous for it’s fantastic temple ruins, and booked a bit nicer hotel to “splash out” after roughing it by the park. I also managed to poison myself with a pizza in the “Italian” restaurant across the road – it is never a good idea to order western dishes, anywhere, ever, they usually arrive looking like they’re been made by someone who’s only once seen a picture of the real thing. I shall stick more religiously to the rice and dahl or thalis from now on..
The temple ruins in Khajuraho are probably the finest we’ve seen anywhere, outside of Angkor. They date from between 1000-1200 AD, well preserved and restored, and are most famous for some spectacular erotic carvings. Some of the positions featured are actually so complicated they need two helper maidens just to support the couple! The British, of course, were extremely upset when they found them.. When discovering the ruins in the jungle in the 1800′s the explorer T.S.Burt complained in his report that “..the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing“! I imagine a carving featuring a man with a horse was among the ones found most upsetting… Apart from the most explicit carvings the decorations do remind quite a bit of Angkor, with beautiful Apsara dancers in stone everywhere. How did the subcontinent go from this to a place where holding hands or showing any kind of affection in public is frowned upon and taboo and you have to wear a murdering amount of clothes in the 45 degree heat? The British, certainly.
In the evening of the first day we went to see a “sound and light show” by the temples that told the story of their creation, both the mythological and the historical version, though the latter only slightly less made up as there were no slaves and everyone was delighted to work for the king on his glorious project. It was pretty good though, with some Indian classical music thrown in, and not quite as tacky as it sounds. Next day we went to see the western group of temples close to town, and in the evening got a tuktuk to the further away eastern and southern groups. Entrance to the far away ones is unfortunately free, which means many more people by the ruins hassling you to buy things or starting to explain the temples and show you around as your guide without you really having a choice…had run out of 10 rupee bills before we got to the last of the temples.. The tuktuk driver, Trilok, was very nice and invited us to his house afterwards for homemade crisps and chai with milk straight from the cow.
From Khajuraho we set course for the holy city of Varanasi before leaving India for Nepal.