Asia | India | Madhya Pradesh – Five Days of Cool Buildings
Time was getting kind of short, and practically everything that I’d specifically come to India to see was still unseen. Long trips have a tendency to get me sidetracked, but India is particularly good at it. This was the main reason Jill and I split up: I decided I had to go on a mission to see the great architectural masterpieces that had captured my imagination years before because it’ll be a long time before I get back.
Fatehpur Sikri was exactly as good as I’d hoped, and I had high expectations. The brief story of its history is that Akbar, one of the more tolerant and competent rulers in India’s long roster, decided to move his entire capital from Agra to a deserted hilltop 30km away in the 16th century, despite the fact that it would have to be built from scratch.
So he had a whole royal city built: palaces, courtyards, audience halls, pavilions, towers, defensive structures and a few more whimsical bits like a square platform in the center of a pool of scented water, and a discussion chamber with a throne on top of a column reached by spindly bridges. Not unlike the platform and catwalk structure where Luke and Annikin battle it out at the end of The Return of the Jedi.
It’s a place that has tremendous symmetry, and the sort of multi-level sense of pre-adolescent play that would’ve made me as an 11-year-old go ‘Oh this is so COOL! Let’s play hide and seek!’ Actually, even at 27, I was thinking that. No one wanted to play though.
Orchha was a stop along the way, a target of opportunity that became one of my favorite towns in India. Architecturally, there are better forts and temples in India, but the atmosphere of the town is hard to beat. My first night there I stopped into a shop to buy a pack of bidi. Not only did the shopkeeper quote me the true price right off the bat (two rupees), but when I didnt have exact change he told me to just take them and pay him tomorrow. This does not happen in India, just in Orchha.
It was a blissful two days, exploring the forts, which are a touch ruined but wide open to exploration, so you can climb to the very tops of the walls and laze in stone-screened watch rooms listening to your headphones as the sunset. Theres also a huge disused temple right off the main bazaar with five stories of walls honeycombed with staircases and skinny passage ways, letting climb right up to the top, and, if you like, up the side of the rooftop dome via some precarious-looking stone platforms to the lantern at its very peak. I wasnt too surprised to hear that Orchha is another favorite honeymoon spot for folks in the area.
The climax, though, was Khajuraho, a 1000-year-old Jain and Hindu sacred complex a four hour bus ride from anywhere, filled with the most perfectly proportioned temples in the nation. The temples are covered inside and out with deep cut reliefs of workers, gods, loving couples (many having sex in some pretty improbable poses), and heavenly honeys with improbable breasts called apsaras. Good fodder for sketching, but frustrating: Far away points-of-view work, because I could just draw the elegant shapes of the towers and entrance porticos, and close-ups of the sculptures work too, but anywhere in-between and Id have to summarize an entire wall of meticulous stone craft with a tangle of squiggles, and maybe a note next to it reading These squiggles represent some of the finest stone-carving in the history of the planet.
Well, there was good company in the form of a cool Israeli couple with a mini-disc player, a Danish-Korean couple from Copenhagen who took over the kitchen to make a special rice pudding for everyone for breakfast. The hotel owner let me do the same for Christmas Day breakfast, which made up surprisingly well for the lack of decorated trees or snow or caroling (I would have liked to, but apparently only Americans know most of the carols I learned growing up, and I was the only one in town).