When people asked Gandhi how they could make sense of India, he told them to study her villages. And it’s true that India’s rural villages are its beating heart but I think the best place to start is in Varanasi. It’s the spiritual heart of India and you can’t make sense of India without understanding that religion for most Indians is like an invisible filament right at the core of their lives. It’s ineradicable.
Varanasi is India distilled and darkly intense. A city of some 2,000 Shiva temples and countless shrines, its spiritual life is played out all day, every day, all night, every night. Also known as Kashi, the City of Light, it’s one of the oldest living cities in the world. It runs along the side of the Ganges where the Varuna and Assi rivers meet. When unenlightened Westerners see the Ganges they see merely a filthy river (“nobody ever gets sick drinking Ganges water,” swears our guide, though none of us dares put that to the test), but when a Hindu looks at the Ganges he sees Ganga, the goddess who brings the divine waters down from the Himalayas, the river that Nehru described as “the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her radical memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats”.
All good Hindus try to make at least one pilgrimage to Varanasi in their lifetime and it’s the most auspicious place for them to die, for then they are more likely to attain moksha, which releases their soul from the cycle of death and reincarnation into nirvana. If they have the misfortune to die elsewhere, the next best thing is to be cremated on the banks of the river and have their ashes scattered on the water. Death, we learn on the banks of the Ganges, is not something to be dreaded but to be embraced with a sense of anticipation in the knowledge that life, in a deep sense, is eternal. As for the pilgrims, they come hoping that bathing in the holy waters will wash away their sins.
The Hindu religion is wonderfully rich and flexible, filled with a trillion thrilling myths and legends and furnished with a simple trinity at the top and a pantheon of some 330m gods. Don’t try to make sense of it – just go with the flow. Get a guide (ask Greaves Travel for the wonderful Dr Shailesh Tripathi, who has a PhD in archaeology and is the favourite guide of George Clooney and many other stars). Go down to one of the 84 ghats (the steps leading to the river) in the early dawn and go out on one of the boats that are always at the ready. See the sun rise over the water and watch as pilgrims, holy men and the local people come to pay homage to their gods, to wash, to pray, to die, to cremate those they loved. Hear the city wake to the sound of hymns. Light some candles and push them out into the river, sending them way past all the ghats and down to the Sunderbans.
Do it again at dusk, when hundreds of Hindus (thousands during festivals) make their way to the river to wait for the priests to hold the evening ceremonies. See the fires lit at the cremation points all along the river, listen to the cymbals and the temple bells, the beat of the drums and the chants of the prayers. See the crowds absorbed in their private worlds of devotion, doing what Indians have been doing in those self-same spots for hundreds of years. It’s a humbling experience, much like India itself, and the scene is as extraordinary as a film set, magical, beautiful, contradictory, challenging. You’d need a heart of stone not to be moved.
By day you should wander (with the good Dr Tripathi) through the tangled lanes and alleyways where merchants sell dubious wares outside sacred temples, where the fruit wallahs and women in coloured saris weave their way between shaded havelis. Here you’ll find holy men next to touts and tricksters, cow dung piled high beside sweet-smelling garlands, hooting cars and rickshaws jostling pilgrims and tourists, beggars and bulls. Take time off with the erudite Professor Rana P B Singh (another Greaves Travel treasure), who will take you on a walking tour of Assi Ghat and the surrounding sacred places, and then you’ll have something of the measure of the place. If you can, take a picnic to Sarnath, 10km away, where Buddha preached his first message of enlightenment some 25 centuries ago. Sit among the cluster of ruins and temples and ponder life’s mysteries.
Now, where to stay. It matters because India is an intense, exhausting experience and a bit of real comfort is what the Western tourist soon begins to crave. Until now the best place to stay has been The Beatles’ old retreat, the Hotel Ganges View, but the Taj Hotel Group has just opened a jewel of a hotel, Nadesar Palace, which offers serious, old-fashioned luxury. Once the private residence of the Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh, these days it has just 10 glorious rooms and suites. It’s airy and spacious and outside are gardens with jasmine and mango orchards, peacocks strutting across lawns and a little Shiva temple (“People can be relocated,” said Nasim, our guide, whose great-great-grandfather worked for the Mahajara, “but the gods cannot so easily be moved”). One day soon you’ll be able to board the hotel’s private boat at the bottom of the garden and sail all the way down to the ghats on the Ganges. For now make it your dharma (destiny) to take in the tranquillity, eat in the garden, swim in the pool, be soothed in the spa and be spoiled rotten by its ever-willing cooks and butlers.
Varanasi is right on the border of Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s hidden secrets. It’s a large, landlocked state that is relatively unexplored because the places most of us would want to see – the great wildlife reserves of Panna, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, the temples and carvings of Khajuraho, the fort at Gwalior, Orchha’s palaces and temples – are scattered about and used to involve long, bumpy rides to get to. Just recently the infrastructure has been vastly improved, the roads are better and, best of all, Greaves Travel has just bought a private plane, a twin-engine turbo-prop Super King Air B200, which can whisk you from Varanasi to Khujuraho and any other destination you fancy, whether Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. This means that Madhya Pradesh can now be explored with great ease and in comfort.
Personally, I’m quite fond of the long, bone-shaking rides. As you trundle through the villages, you come upon scenes that seem of almost biblical antiquity – bright sari-clad women working the fields, men ploughing with oxen, stick-thin sadhus carrying tiny bundles of all their worldly possessions. You see bright-eyed children on their way to school, dentists laying out their fearsome tools, piles of fruit and vegetables, of spices, of cheap T-shirts in the markets, and you begin to get a feel for the rhythm of rural life. As dusk settles you see the cows swaying among the rickshaws and bicycles, little roadside stalls lit up with fairy lights or lanterns, the sellers of masala chai and chapattis. But I’m aware that this is a slightly esoteric taste and for those who are short of time, the private plane frees the traveller from the tyranny of air schedules and means that none of Madhya Pradesh’s jewels is ever more than an hour away. And if you were to make up a party of six, it works out to be surprisingly inexpensive.
Khajuraho, a short flight from Varanasi, is a must. It’s just a small village but it is home to one of the great wonders of the world. Its glorious Hindu temples are thought to be some 1,100 years old, built by the great Chandela kings. Though they are renowned for their eroticism, it is their exquisite beauty that is the more remarkable. Of the original 85 temples 22 remain, the most beautiful of which are clustered near the entrance gate. They were first “rediscovered” almost buried in the jungle by T S Burt, a young British officer of the Bengal Engineers, in February 1838. He found them “most beautifully and exquisitely carved… but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing”. Most Indians do not see it that way. This is a nation, after all, that has whole festivals devoted to worshipping Shiva’s Lingam (male organ). As our guide explained, the carvings celebrate the cosmos, which is the house of God and in it is contained all things, including physical love, the rite of creation. They’re an awesome sight and not to be missed.
From Khajaraho it is an hour by road to Panna, one of Madhya Pradesh’s best-known wildlife reserves. India’s reserves are green, cool, beautiful and wonderfully refreshing after the press and heat of Varanasi but, if you have been on an African safari, you must change your mind-set and realise that an Indian wildlife experience is entirely different. Each of the three reserves we stayed in – Panna, Bandhavgarh and Kanha – was stunning, each different, each a real delight. One goes there for the natural world, for the variety of trees, the meadows of silver-spiked cockscombs, to breathe in the wonderful air, for the long-billed vultures, the peregrine falcons, the painted sandgrouse, for the chital (spotted deer), monkeys, gaur, and for the suppressed sense of excitement that the mere possibility of coming upon a tiger lends to every outing.
Tigers are even harder to see than when I first went to Bandhavgarh seven years or so ago. The tiger is even more endangered; in the whole of Panna there is said to be just one male tiger (for whom two females have recently been translocated). In Kanha there are 60-70, in Bandhavgarh about 60.
I loved being in the parks. I loved the crisp, early-morning air, the gentle dusks with the sun falling behind the trees like a great big orange, the huge and varied trees like vast green canopies. The birds (in some ways very similar to but also thrillingly different from the ones I’m used to in Africa) were a real treat, the ever-present birdsong an enchantment. But we saw just one tiger, lying on a kill under a tree, and that for just two minutes as we perched up on an elephant while a queue of tourists waited to view it.
What is new since I last went to Bandhavgarh is the infrastructure. I loved the sweet and simple little lodge I stayed in then but the Taj Hotel Group has since joined forces with the great African safari specialist &Beyond (which used to be CC Africa) and opened three seriously gorgeous lodges in each of the three parks. Each is different and has the sort of aesthetic punch that &Beyond has such expertise in producing. Each tent or villa has vast, brilliantly decorated rooms, swanky bathrooms, power showers, views, lavish and beautifully presented Indian food and – best and most important – terrific guides and naturalists who bring the wonders of the Indian forest alive. They are Indians who know and love their own forests, who can tell you about every anthill, every butterfly, bird or spider, and it’s these real experts that make all the difference in the world.
These are just some of the splendours that Madhya Pradesh has to offer. Elsewhere, there is Orchha, a fortified and now deserted medieval town whose romantic ruins and tumbledown palaces are architectural jewels. And there’s Gwalior, which has some of India’s most amazing hilltop forts. In the town of Maheshwar there’s the wildly romantic Ahilya Fort on the banks of the Narmada river. It has just 12 rooms and two tents and is owned and run by Richard Holkar, whose official title is Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, and whose mother was American and whose father was the last Maharaja of Indore. Stay there and almost everything is included – from riverside lunchtime picnics in the countryside among tumbling ruins, to exquisite candlelit dinners.
If you haven’t yet explored Madhya Pradesh, it has never been easier to do so – and, take it from me, you certainly won’t be disappointed.