Central India Tour: Ancient Wonders and Living Culture of Central India with Varanasi

with Carol and Martin Noval
13 October to 3 November 2018


A cultural heritage tour, at Dusshera Festival time, to the great sites and little-visited wonders of Central India and sacred Varanasi on the Ganges River

Delhi – Gwalior – Bateshwar – Bhopal – Bhimbetka – Sanchi – Udayagiri – Gyraspur – Chanderi – Deogarh  – Orchha – Khajuraho – Varanasi – Delhi

“I can't thank you enough for introducing me to India in such a profound way. I loved traveling with you and am plotting my return.” Belinda J.

Central India has fascinated us since the late '90s when we explored it by bicycle on a three-week trip discovering out-of-the-way ancient architectural and sculptural wonders in timeless rural India. Join us in the joyous festival harvest season as we explore medieval towns and traditional Hindu villages set in beautiful forested countryside, and some of India’s most ancient and wondrous extant temples and monuments, three of them UNESCO World Heritage sites; illustrated in virtually every book on Indian art and archaeology, they are seldom visited by tourists.

Gwalior, our first stop, in the highly traditional Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, meaning middle or central state, was the capital of one of the Indian princely states. Visit the eighth-century Gwalior Fort, one of the earliest and most evocative of Indian fort-palaces; it inspired the Rajput kings in their fort and palace building. Filled with palaces and ancient temples, Hindu and Jain – marvels of medieval architecture – there are massive rock cut images of the Jain Tirthankaras on the way up the escarpment on which the fort was built. The first Mughal Emperor Babur described the fort as "the pearl in the necklace of the forts of Hind." The Jai Vilas Palace Museum has one of the world’s largest crystal chandeliers and extraordinary memorabilia of the royal dynasty that ruled this region. The palace was built in 1874 as an attempt to bring the Palace of Versailles to Gwalior.

Not far from Gwalior, an incredible recent archaeological discovery brought back to life the exquisitely carved temple complex of Bateshwar. Hundreds of small temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu were built from the 8th to the 10th centuries filling the bottom of a small wooded valley, presided over by an outstanding statue of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, covered in orange paste and beautifully decorated, still venerated by local villagers.

Bhopal, cultured capital of Madhya Pradesh, built on seven hills and around three lakes, is our base for visiting Bhimbetka and the gigantic Bhojpur Temple built by Raja Bhoj in the tenth century.-The enlightened Parmar ruler Raja Bhoj also built massive water projects that served the region well. Legend has it that he created Bhopal’s Upper Lake. Bhopal is also home to a tribal culture museum where people from the different tribal groups of Madhya Pradesh have created astounding displays of their traditional art and culture.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bhimbetka is a wondrous site of recently discovered prehistoric paintings in sprawling caves set in teak-forested rocky cliffs. Dating from 10,000 BC, the quality and freshness of the art is truly breathtaking. Here caves and overhangs became shelters and the flat surfaces of these formations became prehistoric man’s magnificent canvas.

Sanchi Gateway by Jane Faulkner

Dusshera, the victorious culmination of the nine nights of battle between the goddess Durga and the demon Mahisasura, is a struggle that defines both the ethics of rulers and the spiritual quest. We will see processions of devotees accompanying brilliantly decorated images of the goddess.

The second-century BC Buddhist monastic complex at Sanchi, also a UNESCO World Heritage Monument, is famed for its great stupa and its gateways covered in remarkably well-preserved, lifelike stone sculpture, illustrating events of the Buddha’s lives: here stone breathes life. The entire region around Sanchi is a wonder- and myth-filled world of still-living ancient India:

Visit a powerful goddess temple on a hillside overlooking the gentle fields of tenth-century Gyraspur. Udayagiri is a hamlet with an ancient cave complex and an amazing gigantic stone tableau featuring the god Vishnu’s boar avatar saving the earth goddess who dangles precariously from his tusk, a fifth-century masterpiece of Gupta dynasty art. In a small village near the ancient town of Vidisha (once home to the ivory carvers who sculpted Sanchi in the second century BC) stands a Garuda pillar erected in 150 AD by Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador who converted to Hinduism, and is now a sacred spot often visited by sadhus, wandering holy men.

Explore Chanderi, another medieval town completely walled with massive gateways, once an entrepôt on the old east to west caravan routes. The medieval buildings of golden sandstone are still lived in and the bazaar is full of life. On a hill in the center of town is a golden fort with an evocative palace, and we’ll visit a goddess temple carved into the living rock of a hillside overlooking the town.The town is also home to a renowned and thriving handloom cotton-silk sari cottage industry as Chanderi saris and cloth are known throughout India for their lightness and beauty. We tour the town with an old friend; from a weaving family, he has a passion for Chanderi's architectural wonders, history and living culture.

Deogarh, a tribal village set in teak forests on a cliff high above the Narmada River, one of India’s most sacred rivers, is home to one of the oldest freestanding temples in India. A fifth-century masterpiece, this little jewel has remarkably well preserved, nearly life-size sculptural panels – wonders of artistic creation – depicting an archetypal journey to spiritual enlightenment.

Surrounded by forested countryside, Orchha, deserted medieval capital of the Bundela kingdom has monumental "Escheresque" palaces, temples and nobles' mansions on a fortified river isle, and a charming village ambience. In Orchha we explore the Maharaja’s palace with its vibrant colorful folk murals painted in natural colors.

The extraordinary Jehangiri Mahal, a palace built for the one-night stay of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, and the town’s important temple to the Hindu god Rama, which attracts local people from the surrounding villages; here Rama is worshipped as a righteous king. We stay in the royal guesthouse, on the island, right between the Raja’s palace and the Jehangiri Mahal.

Khajuraho, another UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to a complex of 11th- and 12th-century temples that are architectural masterpieces. Their design and extensive sculptural decoration, both erotic and spiritual, is the highest expression of Indian aesthetic sensibility.

Varanasi, India’s most sacred city, is a microcosm of the entire subcontinent of India. Here we join pilgrims from all over the country in witnessing and being part of ancient rituals and a timeless way of life, while boating on the River Ganges, riding in bicycle rickshaws, and walking the city’s age-old lanes. We go boating at sunrise when much of the population of the city comes to the river to bathe, and at sunset when the city glows ethereally.

From Varanasi we fly back to Delhi, have a farewell dinner and connect you with your international flight out of India. Many flights leave close to or after midnight; if you have a later flight we can arrange a hotel room in or near the airport for you.

The cost of our Central India trip is $7200 per person in double occupancy (add $1350 for single supplement): all accommodation (all rooms with attached bath), meals (B, L, D), snacks and mineral water, entrance fees, road travel by deluxe a/c cars and a/c mini-bus, two short day journeys by deluxe a/c train, two domestic flights (Khajuraho-Varanasi, Varanasi-Delhi), all airport transfers. Group size 8-10 members. Carol and Martin will guide you throughout the trip.

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