There is nothing I like about Indore. In fact I hate it just the way I hated Cuttack on a recent visit. It is a bustling commercial city that’s mostly crowded and congested. Shopfronts crowd next to each other. Open drains in many streets ensure a constant stench everywhere you walk. Old houses on the first and second storeys stand balanced precariously with their projected balconies of paint-stripped wood.
It happens sometimes that I see very little of the better parts of a city because I stay close to the bus station or the railway station for the sake of convenience. Such places around old stations are usually the reason why a bad impression is formed until relieved by a visit to a tourist spot. Unfortunately in Indore, the areas of Rajwada and Chhatri Bagh were just as bad. They did not change my impression of Indore.
After nearly four weeks on the road, it does feel pointless to travel on a shoestring budget. It takes a lot of effort to find beauty in India when scenes of poverty, chaotic traffic, uncivilized behaviour and heaps of garbage are what you see most of the time. Now it makes a lot of sense why few Western tourists take the backpacker mode. Even the average middle class domestic tourist prefers driving around in private vehicles, isolating himself from the general crowd and stepping out to the streets only when there is a real need. Nonetheless, I am experiencing India to the full in a whole different way though at a cost.
One of the poignant scenes of poverty happened yesterday at dinner at Ujjain. A couple walked into a restaurant with two kids aged four and one and half. The woman ordered a thali meal cost Rs. 30. This meal comes with unlimited number of rotis and rice. The four year old boy ate some rotis from her plate. This did not bother the waiter. The little girl had a roti and a paapad. The man did not have his dinner. One meal was all he could afford.
In another scene in Bhopal, a tonga-wallah offers rides to children in his horse drawn tonga at the Museum of Man. A troupe of Assamese artists had arrived that afternoon for a performance in the evening. Two of the Assamese kids wanted a ride. The price was three rupees per head. The boys looked at the horses and the tonga with interest. It was al they could do. Their fathers agonized over the service they could not afford.
These are two minor examples in a country where millions sleep on the streets, have barely one meal a day and find happiness in little things they have. There are many cases of wandering lunatics, the only reason they have lost their minds is poverty and the daily struggle to live another day.
I visited some ordinary buildings at Indore. The old palace is survived by an entrance gateway and corridors on a few levels. Acroos the courtyard is a pillared hall. Pillars seem to bear Corinthian capitals but the decorative motifs are Indian. Similar example of Indo-European art is on the facade of Kanch Mandir, a Jain temple studded with mirrors on the inside. It is a unique temple. Walls, floors, ceilings, pillars and arches are covered with a patchwork of pieces of mirrors in many colours. The surfaces are moulded in three dimensions. This with the reflective surfaces of mirros creates form and wholeness to the figures and stories displayed in framed panels. It is not a temple I liked. Men and women will admire themselves in the mirrors, touch their mascara or comb their hair, not the sort of thing you normally do in a temple. A lane nearb has a row of Jain temples with interesting facades.
Chhatri Bagh was somewhat difficult to find.
‘Is this the road to Chhatri Bagh?’ I asked a man sitting by the road.
‘You are in Chhatri Bagh. Where exactly do you want to go?’ he asked.
‘I am looking for chhatris of kings and queens,’ said referring to cenotaphs of the Holkar dynasy. It appears that in the past this area was a park filled with royal cenotaphs. Today it is a locality where people live. The actual park has been whittled away to just enough space so as to preserve them.
I was shown the way but with the many turns and narrow lanes I still could not locate it. I asked another man who walked in a hurry.
‘Speak in pure language,’ he shouted back in village Hindi. I wasn’t even sure if it was Hindi. I barely understood him. What is pure language I wondered. With his help I finally found the chhatris.
The visit to Chhatri Bagh could have been better. I was a little late in the evening to visit it. It was told to come back the next morning. I couldn’t convince myself to stay in Indore any longer than necessary. I looked at the tops of these chhatris from outside the fort-like walls. They are executed in different forms – dome on lotus motif, dome with semi-circular arches, shikara in rekha nagara style. I was allowed entry to another chhatri complex some distance away. The ceilings have lotus motifs. Pillared bays present perspectives of graceful cusped arches. Walls contain stone reliefs with many scenes taken from Krishna Leela. The Holkar kings and queens had good taste for art. I did not fully appreciate the chhatris. I was short of time. The chhatris stand in wild surrounding of uncut grass and shrubs. Families live in each of the two complexes. They are the caretakers and they take their job seriously but the monuments need better attention and preservation. I also noted an interesting stepwell in one of the complexes.
The only other useful work I did at Indore was to have a haircut at a road side stall. The fellow was just opening up the place. It was a nice way to shake off a tout who had been following me from the bus station. He was trying to get me into his auto-richshaw. Haircut was only Rs. 20 but he charged five more to trim my moustache. I have never heard of such extras. He also managed to somehow slash my right ear with the blade.