Stretched out on the charpoy waiting for the moon to rise as the star-lit night sky stared back at me, I stole a moment to recap how beautifully the past week had panned out.
I was in a tiny village some 250 kilometres away from Indore city. An NGO I had been acquainted with since 2012 (more details as the post continues) has been doing some wonderful work with the tribals along the Madhya Pradesh – Gujarat border ensuring access to education for children and mobilising communities especially women into self-help groups. I happened to be in the state and was happy to make that detour (only if having me over wasn’t going to be a bother for them).
As it turned out, I was welcome and warmly received.
I was a little lost in these thoughts but I was brought back to the present by a persistent itching sensation that began with my feet. It then progressed to my legs, stomach, neck and would continue the loop again with my feet.
Nostalgia and the romancing the night sky were not for me because in addition to the itching, I began coughing with the insides of my rib cage reverberated not so happily. We had to move indoors.
A restless sleepless and muggy night later it was discovered that of the three people I was the one the bugs had chosen (hence the itching) and a dormant chest congestion thought it ideal to make an appearance on that same night (hence the reverberating rib cage). It, of course, completely threw our plans off for the next day and no further villages could be explored.
I was charpoy bound for 24 hours.
I love the familiarity that comes with returning back to a state a second time. I was here in Madhya Pradesh in November 2014 exploring Orchha, Khajuraho, Pranpur and Chanderi. I was stoked enough to want to plan another visit to explore the other parts of the state - which happened sooner than I had imagined. So I here I was, back in the state in September 2015
Pit-stop #1: Lap of history
September 2015 saw me hopping on a train to one of the more famous historic places in not just Madhya Pradesh but also India – Gwalior.
I was delighted with my find when I looked up homestays there. SambhajiVilas is a family run heritage homestay of the Angres who have been living there through the generations since the late 18th century. This I would later realise is a rather modest description for a beautifully maintained mansion in the older part of Gwalior city. For the uninitiated, the Angres are the direct descendants of Kanhoji Angre, the first admiral of the Maratha navy.
|Such palatial providence, I say | Photo: Sambhaji Vilas, Gwalior|
|Inside out | Photo: Sambhaji Vilas, Gwalior|
|The great outdoors | Photo: Sambhaji Vilas, Gwalior|
Ensconced away from the din of the streets and walled within the comfort of trees and tendrils I was in good company of the natural world. I had a luxuriously large room that left very little to be desired. The quiet environs suited me so well that it made getting to the Gwalior Fort a task. In hindsight, I was glad I took the trouble.
Currently not in as good a condition as it could have been maintained in, The Man Singh Palace within the premises of the Gwalior Fort however entices you with secrets of its own. Known as one of the very few Hindu palaces that stand today, I was happy I gave in and walked through the domed archways with a guide who paused and pointed out to the remnants and the stories they bore.
This was the place when the Mughals arrived, they seized and converted it into a prison. Aurangzeb is said to have murdered his own brother, Murad, here. The very beams that had loops so curtains could be drawn to grant each queen her privacy were the ones that chained prisoners in the decades that followed. But for all its gore, it is a fascinating monument built with great attention to detail.
The mechanisms for communication were through hollow structures built into walls that allowed the voice to echo between the storeys. There was thought put in designing ventilation to allow the cooler air in and let the warm air out because we’re talking about a time when there was no electricity. For the king’s guests there was a designated pedestal-like seating arrangement which was a couple of feet higher than the king’s own as a sign of respect. To me this seemed like an endless list attesting to the brilliance of the minds that once walked these lands.
|Being regaled | Photo: Man Singh Palace, Gwalior Fort|
|Intricate work embedding Hindu motifs | | Photo: Man Singh Palace, Gwalior Fort|
|Old city of Gwalior | | Photo: Man Singh Palace, Gwalior Fort|
|Jaina Tirthankaras en route towards the Man Singh Palace | Photo: Gwalior|
My next stop was yet another exquisite man-made structure – the Jai Vilas Palace. This to me was opulence in its true manifestation. The palace was constructed by Maharaja Jayaji Rao Scindia in 1874 at a cost of Rs. 1 crore occupying an area of 12,40,771 square feet! I walked through many of the rooms that can be accessed by common folk with my jaw dropped in amazement!
|Grandeur | Photo: Jai Vilas Palace, Gwalior|
|The Scindia Museum | Photo: Jai Vilas Palace, Gwalior|
|An attempt to visualise what it's like to stand and stare out of a palace | Photo: Jai Vilas Palace, Gwalior|
|If this isn't opulence, please tell me what is | Photo: Jai Vilas Palace, Gwalior|
Two days and a Shatabdi later I was in another of India’s lake cities – Bhopal. I must admit here that the primary reason for this stop over was my single minded intent of visiting the Sanchi Stupa. Sanchi - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - is famous in the world for stupas, monolithic Ashokan pillar, temples, monasteries and sculptural wealth. Its foundations were laid by Emperor Ashoka and it has since stood as a remarkable specimen of Buddhist art and architecture (where ‘since’ = the early Mauryan period i.e. third century BC to twelfth century AD). Stupas have been inscribed with symbols of Lord Buddha and Buddhism.
What I was left with after not realising how I’d spent over two hours getting lost in its beauty was just how serene and calm it was. It was invigorating. As with many such monuments, this too was nothing less than a herculean feat of carving and erecting structures (sometimes even transported across kilometres) in an era that didn't boast of any of the technology we claim today. But look at what they can be boastful of in spite of it all!
|Beauty of a different kind | Photo: Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi|
|A different view | Photo: Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi|
|Zen | Photo: Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi|
I did not spend time immersing myself in the city of Bhopal. And that could also be because I found myself a homestay - Jheelum Homestay - overlooking Bhojtal, the oldest man-made lake in India created by Raja Bhoj in the 11th century by constructing an earthen dam across the Kolans River. May be it was the proximity to a water body that fuelled my creativity, for it was in those two days that I found myself typing away getting more writing done than I’d had in a while! And in a world of serendipitous occurrences, it was during our conversations that my hosts and I learnt we were governed by a mere two degrees of separation – they were parents of an acquaintance!
|Home sweet home | Photo: Jheelum Homestay, Bhopal|
Pit-stop #3: Going beneath the surface
It was another train ride from Bhopal that brought me to Indore where I was to meet the team from Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra – the non-profit with whom I spent the last leg of my time in Madhya Pradesh. It was decided that we would spend very little time in Indore and so after an 8 hour drive we reached Kakrana around midnight. We were staying over at a residential school that is built and run for tribal children. At day break along with birds chirping, I was awakened by children getting about their day.
|Morning with the kids at school. It's song and rhyme time | Photo: Kakrana, Indore|
|It's amusing watching them just as much as they are amused by you | Photo: Kakrana, Indore|
After breakfast we made our way to the first village - Umrali - that afternoon. And then another later that evening.
|Women's group meetings | Photo: Umrali, Indore|
For many of them just the idea of speaking up within their own little clique went anything from ‘revolting’ to ‘peculiar’. And for the ones who were ‘brave’ to speak, their voices struggled to mention anything beyond their children or the household. One never heard them talk about themselves; as an idea that seemed rather alien to them. When asked whether they had aches and pains, they would giggle as if suggesting that it wasn’t a topic that merited any talking.
I carry back these memories with me. Right now they seem like nothing more than pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Something tells me each of these experiences beginning from Gwalior to Indore have a message for me. The dots will connect. But for now, I leave them as words on a page.
You can click on the slideshow below to catch some of the glimpses into the people I met!
The day after I was charpoy bound I embarked to make a return journey back home – and that was nothing short of an adventure in itself. It comprised of jumping on to a 4x4 that was followed by hitching a ride on a tempo, hauling a bus, another 4x4 and finally two separate bus rides that brought me to Vadodara railway station. I halted the night at Apsara Hotel, a cheap and safe place to spend the night if you aren’t particularly fussy.
In the last leg of my travels around Madhya Pradesh, I decided to spend some time with an NGO - Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra - who work in and around Indore with women and children. I've been acquainted with their work since 2012 but it wasn't until two weeks ago that I saw it as it has been. This video is nothing but a slideshow of the faces I captured through my lens. It's a first for me. It's something I'm not comfortable with. But these faces say a lot - through their smiles, their eyes, their wrinkles. I have had an immense opportunity of just listening in to them even though I didn't speak the same language. Let me know if any of these stand out for you!