Travelling to understand : India (part I)

….first post on India….  Click on photos to enlarge/reduce….

The current India tourism board campaign is titled “Incredible India”; images of camels in the desert, yogi in the Himalaya and backwater boating are enticing people to travel a land often perceived as an unlikely tourist destination.

 After two trips throughout the country, my feelings for India are definitively converging on the proposed adagio, which for me also defines India in the most succinct and accurate way.

drawing by an elementary school child from Mathura

Drawing by a elementary school child from Mathura

I take a lot of photos with my Nikon digital camera when I travel; it is my way to ensure that amazing fleeting sights are recorded for my ‘deferred viewing’ later on, at home.  While reviewing and organizing the photo of India I got the idea of posting them in an after travel blog. The following notes are about my travel process, execution and experience, while the illustrations are some of the precious sights I locked on at the time.

Before organizing the trip I spent many hours reading historical notes on the subcontinent, the evolution of its different societies – beginning more than 9000 years ago – and the flourishing of a culture that brought to the world important languages, religions, sciences and arts. The history of the land is as complex as its landscape and the line between its factual and mythical events can be, at times, rather blurred.  Many ‘historical’ accounts appear to be often reinterpreted, like a large palimpsest often yielding new interpretations.

The initial effort spent in acquiring a less than detailed knowledge of the country history and culture provided me with a tenfold return in the appreciation of what I saw and experienced when travelling.

The uniqueness and diversity of the country defines, for most people visiting India, the first strong impression. I believe that a few countries on this planet offer an equivalent multifaceted experience when travelling. Even those elements that appears similar throughout the land, like bright colors, noisy traffic, wandering animals, etc., when hosted in different landscapes change, as if subject to a kaleidoscopic effect.

My first perception of India was that it is not a country for compressed travel; the intensity of every sight, the diversity of its people and lands can quickly cause a sort of sensorial saturation. The constant assault on all the senses is so strong – at times even violent – that the experience requires, for its enjoyment, adequate exposure.  Since there are no formulas for planning trips, heading for Varanasi, Kochi or Hampi should be planned based on the same criteria used to visit cities in Italy or England.  Visiting a monument, an institution, architectural or natural landmarks in India is often enriched by the geographical setting and by the presence of its people.  Any planned visit is usually characterized by an unexpected complex set of experiences.


Once a set of ‘visits’ have been decided upon, the planning and making of all arrangements for the trip are easily made by accessing the many excellent Indian travel websites.  Flights, trains, cars (with drivers!), hotels, etc. are quickly booked once the plan is defined and considerable travelling time is saved in this process. Local arrangements can also be made, if and when needed, but obviously the time required for them would have to be accounted.

The definition of an itinerary deserves one last consideration on planning a trip: since India is vast and varied and the number of interesting and noteworthy places to visit is seemingly endless, discernment should be exercised in scheduling visits (by researching the features and planning for adequate time) in order to truly enjoy the trip.

My approach to travel is based on two interests: visits to the architectural and artistic features (past and present) of an area and exposure to the life and customs of its people. I think ‘voyeurism’ is not an illegal activity when travelling in India…

The promise of a treasure trove of cultural wonders was, for me, the very long history of the Indian subcontinent, its links with that of other Asian countries as well as the relation of that civilization with the evolution of religious and artistic practices.

It is not a marginal fact that four religions shaped the region’s diverse culture. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism originated here, whereas Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam arrived in the 1st millennium CE.

Picture 452

Temple sculptures, Khajuraho

The summary of key Indian historical facts that follows provided the base for my trip planning.

India, a short history

The first Neolithic settlements appeared on the Indian subcontinent in Pakistan sites (Mehrgarh area, around 7000 BCE) and gradually developed (2500–1900 BCE) into the Indus Valley Civilisation, the first urban culture in South Asia, centred around cities such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.

During the period 2000–500 BCE many regions of the subcontinent transitioned to the Iron Age. The oldest scriptures of Hinduism (the Vedas) were composed during this period. The caste system, which created a hierarchy of priests, warriors, and free peasants, but which excluded indigenous peoples by labelling their occupations impure, arose during this period.

ashoka legacy

Ashoka legacy

By the 3rd century BCE, the important Mauryan Empire had emerged and had control of most of the subcontinent except the far south. King Ashoka, following the conquest, renounced militarism and became an advocate for Buddhism. The following (400-500 CE) Gupta Empire created a complex system of administration and taxation in the greater Ganges plain.  The Guptas also sponsored the renewal of Hinduism which was reflected in sculpture and architecture as well as in the study of classical Sanskrit literature, science, astronomy, medicine, and mathematics.

Nomadic clans of Muslim from Central Asia, using horse cavalry, repeatedly overran the north-western plains beginning from the 10th century and lead to the establishment of the Islamic Delhi Sultanate in 1206. The sultanate controlled much of north, made many forays into the south but largely left the majority of the non-Muslim subject population to its own laws and customs.

In the early 16th century, northern India fell to the mobility and firepower of a new generation of Central Asian warriors. The new Mughal Empire, under Babur, balanced and pacified the local societies through new administrative practices leading to more systematic, centralised and uniform rule. The Mughals, especially under Akbar,



united their realms through loyalty to an emperor who had near-divine status.

From the 16th century a number of European trading companies had established coastal commercial outposts and by the 17th century the English East India Company had been established. The Company’s control of the seas and more advanced military training led it to increasingly flex its military muscle and to gain control over the Bengal region by 1765 and to annex or subdue most of India by the 1820s. The appointment in 1848 of Lord Dalhousie as Governor General of the East India Company set the stage for changes essential to a modern state however, disaffection with the Company also grew during this time and set off the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Although the rebellion was suppressed by 1858, it led to the dissolution of the East India Company and to the direct administration of India by the British government.

After World War I a new period began in India; it was marked by British reforms but also repressive legislation and by more calls for self-rule as well as by the beginnings of a non-violent movement of non-cooperation of which M. K. Gandhi would become the leader. During the 1930s the Indian National Congress won victories in the national elections but the 40s were beset with crises: the Congress’s final push for non-cooperation and an upsurge of Muslim nationalism. All that was capped by the advent of independence in 1947 but tempered by the bloody partition of the subcontinent into two states: India and Pakistan.  India’s image as an independent nindian-flagation was completed in 1950 when its constitution put in place a secular and democratic republic.




Key historical places in the North:  Sanchi, Mathura, Khajuraho, Delhi, Agra, Fakepur Sikri, Orchha, Udaipur Jaipur and Varanasi

My first thirty day trip focussed on getting acquainted with the country by following an historical chronological path.


The neatly preserved archeological site of Sanchi (near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh) is that of an early Buddhist center which remained occupied until the 12th CE.  The area hosts several well preserved stupas, temples and monasteries. The ‘Great Stupa’ is the oldest (3rd century BCE) stone structure in India and was originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great. The site is located in a little populated area, on a gentle, rounded hill whose shape recalls that of the stupas. Sanchi is a grand and important world monument.

Sanchi stupa, Northen Gate (detail)

Sanchi stupa, Northen Gate (detail)


Picture 336

The Great Sanchi Stupa (3d century BCE) with Ashoka’s pillar (laws)


Picture 332

Sanchi Stupa Northen Gate detail


This little obscure site of religious tourism, a short train ride south of Delhi, proved worthy of all my expectations.

The town, reputed to be birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna, is located on the Yamuna river. Mathura was ruled by the Maurya Empire from the 4th to 2nd c. BCE and then by the Sunga dynasty (until the 73 BCE).  Mathuran art – famous for the redstone sculptures- and culture reached its zenith under the Kushan dynasty, patrons of Buddhism, ruling from the 1st to the 3d c. CE.

The small historical holy town extend itself for about two miles along the west riverside, the very important archeological museum displays many “Mathura school” sculptures.

Picture 206A narrow street in Mathura

Picture 190Pilgrim boat on the Yamuna

Picture 215Playing an old board game at the ghat.


Khajuraho (in Madhya Pradesh) was the cultural capital of Chandel Rajputs, a Hindu dynasty that ruled this part of India from the 10th to the 12th century. The sacred area complex was enclosed by a wall and hosted, originally, over 80 Hindu temples, of which only 25 now stand in a reasonable state of preservation, scattered over an area of about 20 square kilometres. The Khajuraho temples, built from 950 to 1150, were erected using sandstone elements joined without mortar.

Although world famous for the temple wall erotic representations, it is the temple architecture and their dissemination in the landscape that constitute the true splendor of Khajuraho.

The initial reaction of the visitor is of surprise and amazement at the temple decorations is later replaced by a sense of wonder at the temple complex architectural features. The sight brings about visions of life thousand years ago, when hedonistic portraitures – on temple walls! –  were the background of a past social reality whose characteristics cannot be comprehended today. The magic of Khajuraho still haunts the visitor long after departing from the site.

I went to Khajuraho by air (a few flights a day, but very convenient) to avoid a long car drive from Jansi.

Picture 479One of the temples in the UNESCO World Heritage site Khajuraho.

Picture 477A women with mirror.

Picture 460Love scenes on the side of a temple.

Khajuraho. High reliefs on base of temple.Khajuraho. High reliefs at the base of a temple.





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