Monthly Archives: May 2011

Some sightseeing

Ever took a Indian overnight bus racing without speed limits for 15 consecutive hours through a mountainous countryside to get out in one of the most lousy, shabby and dirty places you have ever seen? Aurangabad is all of this, but also a good hub to explore the world-heritage listed caves and temples of Ajanta and Ellora in northern Maharashtra, around 400 km northeast of Mumbai.

The 29 Buddhist rock-cut caves at Ajanta are rich in fresco-type paintings and sculptures and date from between the 1st century BC and the 7th century AD. They consist of two types: Caityas (sanctuaries) and Viharas (monasteries). Carved into hillside rock, they were discovered in 1819 by a British hunting party.

Only 80 km from Ajanta are the impressive 34 caves and temples at Ellora, also crafted by hand, with hammer and chisel. They are a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religious art demonstrating the religious harmony prevalent during this period of Indian history, and date from between the 6th and 11th centuries AD.

On our way to the extraordinary architecture of Ellora, our rikshaw wallah took us to the magnificent hilltop fortress of Daulatabad, which briefly served as a capital in the 14th century, before Mohammed Tughlaq changed his mind and marched thousands back to Delhi.

Posted in India, South India | Leave a comment

Mumbai – Gateway to a different India

Before arriving in Mumbai, former Bombay, we were slightly intimidated by all those stories about crowds and annoyances, chaotic traffic, and mountains of garbage. What we found instead is a comparably modern, dynamic, safe and lively city. In the center, there is far less dirt than for instance in Chennai, and traffic is flowing remarkably well for one of the five biggest cities in the world. Mumbai is the economic heart of India, generating 33% of all Indian income tax and the undisputed trade gateway, accounting for 40% of Indian foreign trade. On the other hand, Mumbai has also some of the biggest slums in the world.

For the first time in India, we had the pleasure to just walk around a city, as there are some sidewalks! The capital of the state of Maharashtra offers a large variety of quarters. We walked through Colaba with its many hotels, Victorian churches and Government buildings to the famous Gateway of India monument and found “Shantaram’s” Café Leopold.

We roamed through the busy street market district noth of old Victoria Terminus, the bourgeois neighbourhood close to Chowpatty Beach, skyscrapers with sea view for the very well off on Malabar Hill and Juhu Beach, and suburbs like Bandra for the young middle class, where a pitcher of beer costs as much as in New York.

Mumbai is in several aspects different from the rest of India, especially from the rural areas. Cost of living as well as wages are particularly high. There is a variety of restaurants and art galleries, and Mumbai’s Bollywood is the biggest movie engine in the world. Even if there were the usual primitive stares by men, women seemed to dress in a bit more casual style.

We were fascinated by the economic efficiency of Mumbai’s inhabitants, for instance in the slums which generate hundreds of millions of dollars with waste recycling. There is frantic washing near the Mahalaxmi station at the Dhobi Ghats, where a big part of Mumbai’s laundry is processed in the open. The famous “Dhaba-wallahs” deliver lunch parcels collected from all over the city to hundreds of thousands of office personnel every day. Rarely any of the home-cooked meals (less than one mistake in every 6 million deliveries) ever misses its recipient thanks to a colour-coded system mark on the top of the tiffin boxes, a ingenious logistic system which was even admired by billionaire Richard Branson and Prince Charles.

All in all we liked Mumbai a lot, even if we would not like to live there. 25 million people is just too many!

Posted in India, South India | Leave a comment


For the last 200 years, people have been sailing to Kerala in search of spices, sandalwood and ivory. Today, beside being one of the most progressive, literate and highly educated states in India, Kerala also impresses with its beautiful coast and its Backwaters. They are a complex network of lakes, rivers and canals, where people live on narrow stretches of land only a few metres wide.

We spent two relaxing days at the accomodating Bamboostix resort, swimming amidst floating plants, having an Indian barbecue and taking a canoe trip along the coastal lagoons through rice fields, mango trees and coconut palms.

Travelling further north, we went to see Kochi, one of India’s largest ports situated on a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas. It is home to 500-year-old Portuguese houses, has a historic Jewish quarter and boasts Chinese-style fishing nets that are typical for this city.

An evening at the Kathakali dance theatre completed our stay in Kochi. This major dance form originating from Kerala was originally performed only in royal palaces. It contains mime, drama, music, acting and is exclusively danced by men. The stories are mainly taken from Hindu mythology telling of epic battles of gods and demons. We learned that to become a Kathakali artist, students are taught drums (chenda), singing, acting and make-up for 8-10 years.

Posted in India, South India | Leave a comment

A train to the beach

As you might have guessed from the former post, travelling through India is not only a vacation. This is why we’re happy to hang out at Varkala beach for a few days. Before getting here we passed through Trivandrum, not finding a hotel room. Going from Kanyakumari, the southern tip of India where the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean meet, to Trivandrum we had our first train experience, and it was … special. We knew that there are seven different classes, but could not make a reservation and just got on with a second class ticket. We were very lucky to get on the train at its departure station and found comfortable seating. But at every single stop, the crowd on the train at least doubled. So when we had arrived at our stop after two hours, people were fighting, pushing and shoving so hard to get on the train, that we barely got off – but we made it.

Posted in India, South India | Leave a comment

Stone temples, stench and stares

Famous for its stonemasons, rock carvings and temples dedicated either to Shiva or Vishnu, the pleasant small Mahabalipuram is situated some 50 km south of Chennai. The little village wakes up every day to the hammering sound of working sculptors chipping away pieces of granite, as stone carving is still very much a living craft here.

A walk between the different temples, the sunset seen from a lighthouse and the mythical story of the River Ganges carved onto a 30m long rock were some of the highlights of this place. Amidst the temples, we liked the natural, nearly round stone called Krishna’s Butter Ball, which apparently the Hindu deity himself dropped while eating butter ;-) The pallava kings tried to move the boulder with elephants, but were not able to do that.

India is a kaleidoscope of many diverse religions and beliefs with hundreds of temples, mosques, churches and shrines. It is for sure a spiritual blend, and making money with sacred cities and places of worship seems to be quite normal here. To be quite honest, we were not impressed by the Five Rathas and the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram, although the oldest stone temple in India has been given World Heritage listing (that explains the healthy entrance fee) and is the most photographed monument in southern India.

At our next stop in Pondycherry, a former French colony founded in the 18th century, we were hoping to experience some French culture, food and language by the sea. However, Pondy, as the Indians call it, was nearly as Indian as anywhere else.

There was the usual amazing variety of smells that lies in the air, reaching from the stench of garbage, fouling remains of food, excrement, mixed with the nice aroma of freshly cut jasmine flowers, herbs and vegetables sold on a marketplace and the sweet perfume Indian people apply.

While struggling through the heat in Pondy’s noisy traffic with the continuous senseless horn-honking, it was nearly impossible for us to melt into the crowd. The unrelenting stares, mostly at the blond hair and fair skin, reminded us constantly of our being different.

Shopkeepers, beggars and rikshaw drivers permanently approached us trying to make some money. All this makes India not an easy country to travel, but we are still keen to find out more and see the south-western part, especially the state of Kerala, and the north.

Posted in India, South India | Leave a comment