Traditional vacations the way we know and treasure them are on pause. Neela here decided to take us on a virtual vacation on her recent road trip to Bihar.
Get ready and Lets Go
Sometimes the most scenic places you visit are the detours you take! We started our yearly road trips 4 years ago just to experience this. It took me four road trips (out of which one was in Europe) to muster the courage to venture into the far off hinterlands of my own country. It was an experience of a lifetime, which has motivated me to write about it. My Swiss friend couple who drove in a self-built caravan to India 14 years ago is my inspiration for all my road trips. If they could drive in so many foreign countries, why couldn’t I do it at least in my own country?
We had already done road trips through Gujrat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. With that experience we started planning for Buddha circuit in Bihar. The first challenge was reaching Bihar. That in itself would take 3 days of driving as we avoid driving after sundown. The first day was going to take us from Mumbai to Bhopal. All our friends, well-wishers, and relatives strongly opposed the idea of driving 758 km in a day. Not wanting to scare them off we decided to take a break in Dhule. Thus started our 12 day long road trip to the state in India when all the people we knew had cautioned/advised us against it.
Knowing your car is crucial for any road trip, knowing your co- drivers even more so. It is extremely important to trust and depend on co drivers in such trips. I had my friend Vrinda Lele with me, with whom I had done all the other road trips, whereas for Maitreyi Shriram it was her first road trip. We were to drive Honda BRV for the ease of drive and ground clearance, also for a simple reason that it was the only car available at the time. All of us knew the basics about the engine andccould change tires in case of a punctured tire. With a can of engine oil, and a good tool kit we were set to hit the road.
Our husbands, my daughter and son in law in their earnest efforts to ensure our safety gave us multiple advices. With a smile on our faces and concern on theirs they flagged us off on 16th Feb at 2p.m. In an uneventful first day we reached Dhule in the evening. The Google Map’s AI pronounces Dhule as Dhool. And that is what it is, a dusty town. We chose a hotel on the highway for an ease of exit on the next day and retired early after dinner. We were to start the next day at 7 a.m.
We couldn’t get breakfast at the hotel as we were starting too early. The road from Mumbai to Indore is dotted with small dhabas which apparently only the truck drivers use. We stopped at one such dhaba for our breakfast. It was quite early even for the workers there. Some were just getting up or having a bath, looking quite astonished at three women coming out of nowhere driving a car. We were served with delicious aloo paraths have ever eaten curd and pickle. We reached Bhopal driving 453 kms by 3.15 p.m.
In Bhopal we had stayed in our previous MP road trip in a beautiful property by the lake called Lago Villa. We chose to stay there this time as well. It is a very well-maintained Bungalow bang on the lake with a most pristine view of the lake. We had an evening to see whatever we chose in Bhopal. We chose an exhibition in Bharat Bhavan which displayed tribal art, pottery and paintings. Artists from around world had displayed their pieces here. There after we went to New Market for a chat at Manorama. People of Bhopal claim that they offer much tastier chat.
Starting early and retiring early has become a norm with our road trips. That way we really pack a lot of things in the day. So we got our breakfast packed from the cook in beautiful Lago Villa where we had stayed in Bhopal and started off around 7 in the morning. Khajuraho was a detour of sorts as we had missed this world heritage site when we did the MP road trip. We got really greedy and decided to do the rock shelters of Bhimbetka and Shiva temple of Bhojpur, the first being UNESCO world heritage site. Situated at the banks of beautiful Betwa river, the Shiva temple at Bhojpur built by Raja Bhoj, has the largest shivlinga in India. It’s an unfinished temple. At one point of time it had an unfinished dome open to the skies. When we reached there at 8 in the morning there was nobody in the vicinity. Just two days later this temple would have witnessed lacs of devotees on the occasion of Maha Shivratri. The size of the Shivalinga is overpowering. As it was very quiet in the morning, the temple had a very soothing effect on us.
The next were the Bhimbetka rock shelters. The owner of the Lago Villa had warned us of the bad road to these shelters. Yet we followed the road that Google maps showed as the shortest way. This was the first bad road we ever encountered in MP. These rock shelters in Raisen district of MP have paintings from Paliolithic to Medieval period. It gives you goose bumps to witness the proof of cognitive development of mankind from 10000 years old. The pictures are as varied as figures of animals, to hunting from the horse back to dancing human figures. Being a UNESCO world heritage site, it is maintained very well. However, taking a guide to show you around is a good idea, especially if one has less time at hand, as we did.
Having wrapped up two important sites we started off for Khajuraho around 10.30. So far, we had driven on all good roads. Things were about to change. There is a lot of road construction going on in this sector. As Khajuraho has an airport not many choose to come by road here. While speeding at 110 kms/hr. on one of the good roads, I encountered the scariest incidence of my life. We were two cars traveling at that speed with me in the process of over taking the other. About a 5-year-old child from behind a truck parked on the right-hand side of the road shot like a bullet to cross the road without paying heed to the traffic. I braked with all my might in an effort to avoid the collision. For a few seconds I was one with the car in an effort to stop it from the speed of 110 to 0. The car stopped in time to let the child pass through unharmed. My motherly instinct took over and I screamed at the group of people standing by, who had left the child unattended. They were all the labourers working on the roads. Seeing that the child was unharmed, we didn’t want to stay there for too long. I moved the car ahead with weak knees and my legs shook for the next 10 minutes thinking of what would have happened had the car not stopped in time.
We reached Khajuraho travelling 454 kms from Bhopal, trying to make our way through really bad roads and diversions. The last patch from Chattarpur to Khajuraho tested our patience. We reached Khajuraho travelling just by sundown and retired in one of the heritage hotels called Syna Heritage. The room was big and comfortable and the dinner hot and tasty. The next day was to rise with the promise of most beautiful monuments we had waited for so long to witness.
It was our mistake during the planning stage of the trip that we did not refer the Hindu calendar or the dates for any other event. 20th Feb was the dance festival in Khajuraho and 21st was going to be Maha Shivratri. We were going to miss the dance festival by a day. Refusing to be disappointed by this we decided to make the most of the day in Khajuraho. We did not need to start early that day, so we had a leisurely breakfast and stepped out at 9am.
We decided to do only the western group of temples and Jain temples along with the light and sound show in the evening. Luckily, we found a good guide and set off to see the western group. The temples are as magnificent as everyone had said they would be. The number, the detailing and the proportions of the sculptures and the architectural symmetry of the temples is mind blowing. These must have been really intelligent, hardworking and rich people to have built these elaborate sculptures and structures. The percentage of erotic sculptures that Khajuraho is famous for the world over, is not even 5% of the total statues and are depicted as just one more part of living. I had found such sculptures in small numbers in many other temples such as sun temple of Modhera and in Gwalior fort. Khajuraho has some shops which sell clothes made of very high-quality cotton. We obviously splurged as good cotton is hard to find and we ate the best daal baati for lunch in a marwadi restaurant. As for the show, I have seen better light and sound shows than Khajuraho!
The next day we were back to our early start and left the hotel at 8 a.m. The drive through Panna Tiger reserve is very scenic. We had left the four lane roads far behind, but the two-lane roads were smooth, and the traffic was really less. The pit stops for women is always a problem on such trips. But Reliance and Essar petrol pumps never disappointed us. We were now entering an unchartered territory and stopped to ask for the road to Varanasi and the condition of the road. In forest Police shack we met a young lady officer and an old man. Though the woman was very surprised to see three female ‘lonely’ travelers she guided us well and told us “ab itni dur aaye ho to Varanasi pohoch hi jaoge” . We chose to go via Prayagraj (Allahabad) as we wanted to see the Triveni Sangam. I was very excited to see the Ganga for the first time. On reaching there all of us realized the expanse of these rivers. It was nothing like standing on a bridge from where one could see the entire river. We could not go inside in a boat to see the actual Sangam but had to make do by watching from the banks of Yamuna. We reached Varanasi by 4pm after having travelled 400 kms.
We had no intention of going for a darshan of Kashi Vishweshwar, expecting a large number of devotees as it was a day prior to Maha Shivratri. But the destiny had something else planned for us. The hotel clerk could not find our reservation details and we stood there arguing with him almost for half an hour. In the meantime, we tried to find out ways to go to the ghat. We were planning for a boat ride so that we could watch ganga aarti from the opposite bank. Just then the lady at the counter told us, “my husband works for the accounts department of the Mandir Trust and he will help you with the darshan”. We were not sure yet about what we wanted. Nevertheless, we called the man. He told us to call him again after reaching gate no 4. The small lanes of Varanasi near the temple were packed with lacs of people. It took us 30 min to walk 500 meters to reach gate no 4. By then we had lost all the hope of entering the temple. As a last try we did call the man again. He sent his assistant to guide us. The assistant took us inside the temple through very tight security in less than 5 minutes and we entered the Sanctum Sanctorum and touched the Shivlinga!
If this is not fate, what is?
The day we started from Varanasi for Patna was the day of Mahashivratri. Varanasi was overflowing with people. Previous night we had seen thousands of young men wearing ‘alta’ on their feet, going towards the temple shouting at top of their voice. We needed to get out of Varanasi as soon as possible. We started at 7 in the morning hoping to reach Patna early so that we could spend half a day seeing the city. There was work going on all along the road. The markets had yet to open and roads were not too crowded. There was a 2 km long line of trucks on the other side of the road near the toll gate. We just thanked our stars that we were not on that road.
At a town named Mohaniya we took a left turn for Patna. It was a two-lane road now. After going ahead on the road for about an hour we saw 4 to 5 trucks ahead of us standing in a line without honking or trying to overtake. Such a discipline was definitely an alarming sight in Bihar. There was another private vehicle trying to take a U turn and a group of rowdy boys trying to stop the car from turning. We rolled the window down and asked the passerby as to what was wrong. “murder ho gaya, ek ne teen logonko thok diya” he said. We laughed at his wrong usage of words. He had probably meant to say accident ho gaya. There was another man standing on the far side of the road. He told us not to wait there and that he was ready to show us another way. The moment our car tried to make a U turn a gang of 50 boys came running towards us. “Koi gadi naahi chodenge yahase” they said. Looking into the car they realized that there were three women in the car and allowed us to pass. We were glad it was an all-women’s trip. We made our way through the smallest road in the fields barely enough for a car to pass and made a detour to join the highway again. Only then did it dawn upon us that it was really a murder we had witnessed and that the man had indeed used a correct word. That was a phenomenal welcome into the state of Bihar!
Very soon we reached our first traffic jam while crossing the railway tracks. There are hardly any bridges on any of the railway crossings in UP or Bihar. We were learning to drive on the wrong side of the road and take the car as far ahead as possible. Through the commotion we somehow reached the gate. We were on the railway tracks when the gates started closing in on us. With the trains waiting on both the side, the gates almost closed. We were in two minds whether to jump out of the car and run or to hope for the police to realize the mistake. Within half a minute the police realized that we were stuck on the tracks and opened the gate for us to pass. That was the longest half a minute of my life!
We reached Patna travelling just 253 kms and a lifetime of experience. We had no energy to drive through the dusty city of car horns , traffic chaos, and flyovers. We hired a car and drove around in Patna, saw Ganga Ghat and visited Khadi Mall. It’s a very well stocked mall. We picked up good Madhubani paintings and dupattas. The driver knew just the right place for us to eat the famous Litti Chokha. The roadside joint was packed with people and the food was tasty. We returned to our hotel planning to hire the same car for our visit to Vaishali the next day.
Vaishali is quiet town with lot of Temples from countries like Japan, Myanmar Thailand where the monks from those countries come to pray. We also saw a bus full of people from Maharashtra on a pilgrimage to all places sacred to Buddhists. The archeological museum in Vaishali is small but lot of artifacts including gold coins from Gupta period are displayed. We also found a display showing evolution of Devnagri Script which was very interesting. We returned from Vaishali in timefor late Lunch. The new Museum in Patna has a great café which serves only Bihari food. The museum is very modern and well made, comparable to any museum in the west. It’s a must visit when in Patna.
We retired early as the next day we were to leave for Nalanda, the place for which we had planned this entire journey!
Guys hold on, it doesn’t end here. Beautiful Nalanda, Patna, Bhod gaya and several other places coming for you all soon.
Connect with Neela: firstname.lastname@example.org