Tombs and Temples and wonderful sights to see
Of course, what we really wanted to see on this tour of the real India were the tombs and temples, the splendour of the architecture and carvings celebrating the kings and gods. And we certainly weren’t disappointed.
The first visit was to Birlar Temple and Charminar right in the centre of Hyderabad, built to celebrate the end of the plague in 1591, a popular tourist attraction with people queueing up to climb the stone steps up to the top. You can see Golconda Fort from the city centre, so we picked up the local guide next morning for our tour of this impressive structure. I loved the notion of great wooden gates with huge rounded metal spikes at around 12-15 foot height ‘o repel elephants’. Oh yes, and the moat where crocodiles would repel foot soldiers – naturally.
Nearby are the Qutb Shahi tombs, an excellent example of the basic structure of tombs and mausoleums and superb craftsmanship. Lots of restoration work going on but you can still see how the tombs are constructed – many of the mausoleums we visited were built up to 100 years before the Taj Mahal. The Tombs of the Bahamani Kings were beautiful with exceptional carvings that tell a story of gods and the trials they endured – art lovers could spend days just studying the tombs in this region of India!
Bidar Fort is again a splendid fortified structure, this time with a winding path up to the top plus 168 shallow steps, each marked with orange and yellow stripe at the edge to show you are being led to a Hindu Temple.
At the Ibrahim Rosa mausoleum, Bijapur, we were given privileged access to the temple as a special treat, though still watched over by the guards of course. There is a great example of the ‘walking tree’ here – a banyan tree that puts down aerial roots so that it appears to travel over long distances over time.
A highlight of the trip has to be Gol Gumbaz and the whispering dome. A beautifully proportioned building, it has an impressive unsupported dome and as you enter, there is a particular spot to stand on and clap your hands – a brilliant echo! We then climbed one of the tall corner towers up into the gallery around the dome itself. This is a steep, uneven set of stone steps within a very narrow spiral, elbows rubbing against the walls sometimes and the tallest of us having to stoop for most of the way up.
“Just whisper then listen” the guide told us. Wow is appropriate at this point – the quietest whisper echoed clearly around the dome. He then went to the other side of the gallery, rustling a piece of paper against the wall of the dome. Pure magic – we could hear it loud and clear. What an incredible feat of engineering.
Every time we moved to the next visitor site, we were overawed by the beauty of it all. The cave temples at Badami are carved out of the rock face, decorative carvings on the walls and pillars depicting stories of Vishnu, Krishna and the Hindu gods. The excellent guide explained the stories and the symbolism to look out for so that you can recognize the characters. There is a further beautifully-carved temple above the main one, apparently a practice run! Many people wanted photographs with us, including these two giggly little girls who thought our names were extremely funny for some reason.
These cave temples are part of the Bhuthanatheshwar Temple Complex, a perfect spot to see the sunset, so we sat in the calm of the smaller buildings waiting patiently to see the glow of the setting sun across the lake. There were a few people around including several young women on the steps at the edge of the lake washing clothes and utensils in the traditional way, chatting amongst themselves even though it looked very arduous. A lovely time of the day, we wandered through the tiny back streets, nodding a smiling hello to the families sat on their doorsteps in the fading light.
Another well-known visitor site to witness the sunset is at Hampi. It does involve a bit of a climb to the temple, then a scramble over smooth boulders to find the best spot to see the land below lit by the golden-red rays of the setting sun. An extra attraction was the monkey gods – two men in exotic brightly-coloured costumes, clearly attracted to Andy in particular!
The final leg of the journey is to Goa by local (6.15am) train, in this case an hour late but a surprisingly comfortable journey, wide seats with sleeper bunks above if you want them. Our packed breakfast from the hotel was “interesting” with cold chips, a boiled egg, 2 small bananas and juice. The chai wallers come along the train regularly offering sweetened milky tea or coffee. We had clear views from the windows, and even better view by hanging out of the doorway to capture a photo of the front of the train as we rounded a bend! All the train stations are busy with people dragging cases, bags and each other to keep to a tenuous timetable, but still an exciting experience.
Our local guide here was bubbly and very upbeat, giving us a potted history of the region on our way to the old town and our hotel. She did note it is more expensive to live in Goa, but the quality of life is much better. The bars are open until late, and tourism is a major industry, but gambling is illegal so she said we may see a big boat on the river which is classed as an “off-shore” casino.
The old town is an interesting mix of Indian and Portuguese style, architecture and food. The hotel, Panjim Inn, is ideally situated near the main centre with shops, street sellers and lots of eating places to sample. Our visit to one of the main beaches of Goa was a bit disappointing, very busy and touristy so not the wide expanses of beach we were all expecting, but we managed to enjoy a very nice meal and drink watching the sun set across the sea.
As the Explore India outline states, this is an opportunity to experience the real India outside the usual Golden Triangle. It inevitably covers a lot of ground, and every day brings you to a new sight and experience. It is tiring sometimes but never boring, and always lives up to its promise of being memorable, whether you want to explore the food, art and architecture, history and/or culture of this incredibly diverse region.