Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bhainsrorgarh – A Fort on a River of Glass

Guava fruit vendor
The drive from Bundi to our next destination, Fort Bhainsrorgarh was fairly uneventful (for India).  By the way, the word “garh” on the end of that word is seen a lot in the Hindi language; it means “fort”, so we were headed for the Bhainsror Fort to be exact.
Our guide Bhanwar Singh stopped at a roadside fruit stand for some fresh guava that looked like a greenish-yellow apple but tasted like a cross between an apple and a pear.  Bhanwar wanted to show us the fruits of the region, as we have rarely ever tasted guava (if at all), and certainly not on any regular basis.  The pretty young Hindu guava vendor who was sitting yoga-style on her roadside table alongside her produce sprinkled a pinch of a mix of salt and cayenne pepper on some of Frank’s guava slices – man did that make the guava come to life!!  Who could’a predicted guava as our new favorite fruit!
9th c. Baroli Temples
We also visited the Baroli Temples, an off-the-beaten-track site of 9th c. temples, similar to the ones at Khajuraho, but smaller with unusual carvings and elaborate altars.  The complex also included some impressive Shiva “lingams,” which are sculptures of the male sex appendage engaged with the female organ; it celebrates the joy of sexual union. 
Shiva "lingams,' symbolic of sexual union
Two  pillars stand a couple of football fields away from one of the temples, and we were told that at certain times of the year (perhaps during the solstices?), sunlight travels though the two pillars and illuminates the temple altar.  Anne is convinced that Hinduism is the last true remnant of paganism in the world.  No one knows when Hinduism began, and unlike other religions, Hinduism has no known founder -- and nothing much seems to have changed over the centuries.  As we were leaving, we each received a spot of yellow paste on our foreheads as a blessing  (Frank just “loves” that religious glop on his forehead!).
Bhainsrorgarh Fort and Hotel
Frank under the stone gazebo at Bhainsrorgarh
Our Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel is the most romantic spot yet.  This former Maharajah palace is perched at the end of a promontory on a cliff 200 ft. above the crocodile-infested Chambal River.  Our host, Rajveer, is a member of the royal family who owns and operates this place.  Our living quarters were huge with a bathroom as large as some of our recent hotel rooms.  And as soon as we were settled in, we had lunch on the roof under a stone gazebo.  We really felt like royalty as we enjoyed the views of the river and watched the green parrots flitting around the colorful palace gardens.
Lazing around on the porch outside our room
Of course, no hotel is perfect.  Every hotel that we stay at here in India seems to have at least one “lucky” gecko hanging out on the walls of our living quarters.  Here at the Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel, we have two in the bedroom and one in our bathroom.  One of these geckos is rather large, and looks like he could have been around for a while.  He loves to hang on the wall over our bed, picking off insects as they seek-out the lamp over the head of our bed. These big green carnivorous critters are of course harmless to humans and do devour a great quantities of insect life; for that we are grateful, and welcome their presence.  However, Anne is still leery of them, fearing that one will crawl into her suitcase some night, or worse yet, drop on her face while she’s sleeping and try to lick the saliva from her lips.  Haaaa!  Could you see it now?  The shrieks of fear from Anne who had been just kissed by a lucky gecko; we are not sure the gecko (or poor Frank lying at her side) could survive the retributions!
Evening along the Chambal River
Power outages daily are also an issue here – Frank counted 9 thru the evening and night, and those were just the ones he was awake for.  But Anne is totally charmed by the elegance of this old palace and the wonderful service.  For example, we were given our own table in a small private dining room at dinnertime.  The walls held carved niches displaying old teapots and other household items -- also old photographs of former Maharajahs, each one showing the proud hunter standing in front of a dead tiger or antelope with gun in hand and foot on the poor critter (not quite so charming!). 
 We lost power again just as we finished our meal.  Of course, Frank the former “Boy Scout” had his trusty flashlight handy, but the staff had already placed candles along the way back to our room.  This is very sweet, but the “servant mentality” here makes us feel uncomfortable – and sorry for the staff.  Even the owners refer to the men who work in their hotels as “boys!” These “boys” are like work slaves here, but they don’t seem to have that sense of being enslaved.  We don’t think they are being mistreated or anything. They all seem to be good natured about it, and just deal with it as a job they are lucky to have.  “Serving” other people seems to be the prime directive of each individual.  Frank secretly gets very unhappy when he’s not even allowed to pop the aluminum top on his beer or soda can here; the “boys” will bring an aluminum can over at dinner time, and they have it popped and poured into a glass before Frank can tell them “no, I want to do it myself!”  Guess Frank will have to re-learn how to pull the aluminum tabs off when he returns to the states. 

"Impressionist effect" from the boat ride on the Chambal
The next morning, Frank was feeling a bit under the weather, so Anne took the recommended boat ride on the river by herself.  One of the staff led Anne down to the water’s edge where she met the two boatmen who would man the oars to propel the small wooden boat.  She had a momentary thought that she must be out of her mind, but then she hopped in the boat and they were off.  For the next hour, Anne felt as if she was floating into an Impressionist painting.  The lake perfectly reflected the palace and all the greenery along the shoreline – in fact, the reflections were so shimmery that she actually started to feel dizzy.  Crocodiles are supposed to inhabit these waters, and the boatmen did point out what they said was the head of a crocodile crossing to the other side of the river, but it was hard to see.  She also saw monkeys swinging through the trees, and when they neared an island in the middle of the river, about 50 large vampire bats went wild, screeching and soaring around overhead.  The boatmen returned her safe and sound, gladly accepted their tips, gave her a couple of “namastes” and disappeared back onto the river.

Children greet us in the village below the fort
Frank was feeling better, so we decided to walk through the small village on our own.  It was impossible to take a peaceful stroll because the town’s people acted as if two freaks from “albino city” had just rolled into town.  Little kids flocked around Frank like he was the Pied Piper of Bhainsrorgarh!  We stopped by a small grocery store to pick up a couple items, and when we turned around, a crowd of over 30 town people had gathered behind us just to see what we were up to.  Everyone was friendly enough, but it gets to be pretty draining when the whole town is gaping at us spooky white folks, and we were happy to escape back up the mountain to our isolated palace.

"Dung Designs"
Note: Dung has been dyed a variety of colors
Now we want to give you some straight talk on cow shit.  Frank proudly considers himself somewhat of an expert on this topic; since he grew up around a farm, he is no stranger to a cow patty and its many uses.  But even he has never seen cow dung raised to the peculiar reverence it receives here.  Raw, green, wet cow manure is smeared on the front step surface of each country house for good luck.  Maybe for more practical reasons, we think it might also give the home owners a place to wipe off his muddy shoes for more foot traction when entering the home; Bhanwar told us that it even keeps the mosquito population down.  And a carefully swept cow dung kitchen floor is a real point of pride in a home. 
If you look closely, you can see that this stone wall
has been entirely slathered with cow patties!
Cow dung is even a source of artistic expression.  Women create colorful patterns in their front yards.  Initially, Anne thought these were sand paintings, but of course, as we found out, they are “dung designs.”  We even observed cow excrement “fancifully” reshaped into more human-sized turds and decorated with little white flowers – pointed out proudly to us by a young man who acted as if he was showing us a sculpture by Rodin!  We guess that since the cow is a highly sacred animal in India, any cow “byproduct” is considered sacred, too.  Either that, or some here might have a little too much time on their hands.

"Poop sculptures" on someone's doorstep
If you use your imagination, you may see an elephant
with tail on the right, or a crocodile on the left front.

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