Mysterious Mitawali

The approach road to Mitawali temple, seen from the hill

Somewhere between Gwalior and the Chambal River, off National Highway 3, in the middle of nowhere, is the serene temple of Mitawali. Why do I say in the middle of nowhere? Because even 10 kilometers away, villagers give you blank looks when you ask about this place. We learnt to ask for Morena and Thekari, and drive slowly, keeping an eye out for the completely missable signs. Our attempt to find this place was not helped by the dense fog two winters ago, and the fact that the driver ignored the GPS and got lost inside an industrial area just outside Gwalior.

Eventually we saw an isolated hill with a flat structure on top. Preciousss, who was the only one who had bothered to look at the photos on the web was certain that we had found the place. We drove towards it, and found that we had to leave the tarred road at some point and go on to a dirt track. This track ends at the bottom of the hill. As you can see from the view above, the only road leading to the hill is a dirt track. At least the road was better than the reports we had read of it.

External view of the Mitawali temple

At the top is a strange temple: flat and round, unlike any temple we had seen before. There seems to be a family taking care of the structure. They keep it locked up and open the door for tourists. There is some speculation that the structure was copied in the architecture of the parliament building. There is no evidence for this, and it seems to be a traveller’s tale which joins up the circular shape of this temple with the only other famous Indian building which is circular. When you read that the temple originally had shikharas, the connection with the parliament does seem far-fetched.

The temple is almost bare of decorations, unlike most Indian temples. Around the middle of every major pillar on the outside is a small decorative carving (as you can see in the photo above). They are very nicely executed, but I did not see anything unique about them. The inside is also equally bare of carvings. Perhaps this started off as a reasonably normal-looking temple, but the interesting carvings were stolen over the centuries.

Internal view of the Mitawali temple

The inside looks even less like a temple. The outer circle contains cells: sixty four according to some; I’m afraid I did not count them. They look like bare cells of monks, but may (or may not) have contained idols earlier. Separated from this is an inner circle with what looks like a recognizable inner sanctum (garbhagriha) of a temple. The base of this inner circle is set with intersting carved stone grilles. Could they be meant for drainage? Since there is no other obvious drain, it seems likely.

According to an inscription found here, dated V.S. 1380 (A.D. 1323) the temple was constructed by Maharaja Devapala.
ASI Website

There was no ASI board at the site, so I do not even know how old the temples are (some sources say 9th century, others date it to the 14th century). Some members of the family which stays here claimed that the temple is a thousand years old, but then they also claimed that their family has been here since the temple was founded. The chances of both statements being correct are negligible.

[Note added: The 14th century dating is borne out by the ASI]

Fossil ferns on the stone steps on the climb

Wonderful as the temple is, a discovery on the climb up to it turned out to be as spectacular. The path has been carved into steps, faced with stone blocks which seem to be quarried from the surrounding stone. I saw lovely fossils in these stones. Many of the steps have patterns of ferns and branching leaves. You could be fooled for a moment into thinking that they have been carved there. But then a careful look is enough to convince you that they are really fossils.

Fossil ferns on the stone steps on the climb

There is no way to find out how old the steps are, although the workmanship and wear suggests a recent origin. If the stone was quarried in the same hill, a very likely supposition, unfortunately, then perhaps the hill is full of fossils. The exposed stone on the climb is clearly not igneous, consisting instead of almost perfectly horizontal strata. So perhaps the hill is full of fossils. There are so many mysteries about this place, and so little seems to be documented.

The general lawlessness around this area had allowed the nearby temples of Bateswar to be lost, until perhaps a decade ago. Is the family in residence in the Mitawali temple actually in legal residence, or have they occupied the place? Is this even a protected monument? If so, which part is protected?

[Note added: The ASI website suggests that this is a protected monument under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India]

The step well of Adalaj

Pigeon in a well

While in Ahmedabad on work, I find a gap of two hours between meetings. This is just long enough to make a quick trip to the closest step well. It is just past the middle of March, but the daytime temperature in Ahmedabad is already in the upper thirties. The sun is bright enough to burn out the delicate earth tones of the local architecture. My tired eyes catch only the splashes of Bougainvillea in bloom, and the bright shades of traditional clothes. As I descend into the step well, called a vav in Gujarati, there is a welcome cool gloom. The heat of the sun does not percolate far down.

Hanging out in a well

The place is bustling. There are the expected few tourists with cameras. But there is an unexpected crowd of young people hanging around, chatting and taking group selfies. Also, there is a constant stream of Ahmedabadi visitors, going up and down the stairs in family groups. In the shade near the upper steps a middle-aged lady sits quietly, occasionally talking to younger people who climb up and down past her. On my last visit here, more than 15 years ago, the surroundings were crowded, and the well was empty. The busy neighbourhood has been cleared away. Around the step well is open space and a park. I expect a ticket booth and an entrance fee, but there is none. A little signboard outside gives the history of the well: it was ordered to be constructed in 1499 by Mohammad Begda for the use of Rani Roopbai, the wife of the local chieftain.

Step wells are found around India, but mainly in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The welcome relief from the heat and sun that I found would have been always been a draw. In the wet plains of eastern India, village ponds are social spaces: places to sit or meet. I imagine that in the past these wells would have served an equal, and perhaps bigger, social function. This seems to be the pattern being re-established here.

A riot of decorations

From outside one sees a low parapet with a single storied “tower” near one end. There are three entrances to the well: from the east, west and north. These three flights of stairs meet in a central landing which is a riot of decorations, as you can see in the photo above. Interestingly the decorations mix recognizable Islamic motifs such as vines and geometric shapes with Hindu motifs such as elephants on the base of pillars and lintels. Most openings in the roof have been covered over with iron grills. A caretaker told me that’s for protection and against pigeons, and to prevent people from falling.

From this first landing, stairs descend southwards for another four stories. Earlier I had walked all the way to the water. Now there is a barrier two stories above the level of the water. You can look down the first octagonal shaft at the iron grill covering the surface of the water. The second well-shaft is no longer accessible, nor are the side niches which I remember as being beautifully decorated with carved stone.


The garden around the well is a startling green in the middle of sun-baked roads. Mud squelches under my feet as I step on to the grass. Large quantities of water must be needed to keep the thick layer of grass so fresh. The little park is surrounded by trees which provide shade for the few lovers I see, each pair sitting close. A gardener tells me that there has been a lot of water in the well in the last couple of years. Maybe that is why the park is so fresh. Perhaps if I come in the middle of a dry spell of years the lawn will look more parched.

I walk the short path around the lawn wondering about the odd changes. I could quibble about the aesthetics of the ironwork, but overall I like the changes: more people, a nice green park. But what happened to the crowded settlement which I seem to remember? Could I be mistaken? Am I confusing this for some other well? Later I call The Family. She does not remember the surroundings of the well. I talk to my brother, he confirms that the place was crowded earlier.

I get back in my air-conditioned car. The driver is talking into his mobile. He finishes his dispute and we leave.

Reading or writing?

“I’m coming as the president of a friend,
and I’m coming as a sportsman.”
–George W. Bush,
on his trip to the Olympics in China,
Washington, D.C., July 30, 2008

A few minutes with Google translate convinced me that I could speak Pǔtōnghuà (Mandarin), but others might not understand it. The world needs more than the few weeks remaining before I leave for China to come to grips with my Mandarin. Pinyin, which is Chinese written out in Roman characters, is apparently not going to help in China.

Could writing hànzi (Chinese characters) be easier? Having once learnt how to tell exit from entry and the men’s from the ladies’, I know that this is about what I could learn. I’m not interested in reading newspapers, just figuring out signboards. I need to know just enough to write the basic numbers and some important stuff like “Do you know English?”

There’s a great page on the Forbes’ website which gives me a basic eight character vocabulary. Look at it, it is definitely a confidence booster. Until you realize that you need to learn a few thousand characters to read newspapers.

Chinese numerals

Numbers don’t seem hard. The above table comes from this page, which also tells you how to combine these symbols into composite numbers. The Chinese system for writing numbers is simple and intuitive. I should be able to recognize a printed number. This website shows how to write these characters.

It turns out that you specify a month by writing a number between 1 and 12 and following it with the symbol for month: 月 (meaning moon, pronounced yuè). The first month is January. Days of the week are written by first writing 星期 (pronounced xīngqí) followed by the numbers 1 to 6 (Monday to Saturday). I rest on Sunday.

A tool called Skritter teaches you how to write various characters, and the rules for writing hanxi in general. It’s a great tool actually.

A quick weekend dash

Lonavala is not “real nature”. It is bungalows with gardens, but that is enough of a change from Mumbai that you might want to dash there now and then during busy times. Locked up old bungalows with imposing gates and no fences were common some years back. They are slowly giving way to weekend fortresses with high walls and closed gates which shut off concrete aprons. But there are few of these as yet. So the colourful birds and insects are still there. Bulbuls still scream in the trees, and purple sunbirds glitter in gardens.

Purple sunbird

We made a quick weekend dash to Lonavala with friends: just an evening and a morning really. The air is already beginning to get warm. It was not too crowded, you could go out to eat without having to wait for a really long time. What do you do in Lonavala? You wind down the tempo of life. You go for a long walk, debate where to eat, decide on one place and then go somewhere else. Then you go for other long walks. You laugh at the kilometer of shop frontages along the highway, all announcing that they are the original Maganlal Chikki shop. We went in once to the crowded market outside the railway station to the usual pilgrimage: Cooper’s Fudge. Not that we are really that fond of fudge, but is it really a trip to Lonavala if you have not been insulted or snubbed by the irascible Parsi owner of this institution? We spent half an hour looking for a place with an old fashioned espresso machine which can serve up frothed milk with a dash of instant coffee which they call espresso. The pace of life really is that slow.

Isn’t China like India?

Email to one of my hosts:

The hotels you suggest seem very nice. My wife will be with me for two weeks or so and during this time it would be nice if we had access to a little kitchen. If it not possible, then we will, of course, be very happy to choose one of the hotels.

Instant reply:

I will contact the program manager about your question. I’ll get back to you soon.

Several days later my host wrote back:

I have asked the staff and they told me there are no nearby hotels which have rooms with kitchen. I am sorry for that so you have to choose from the list.

I replied:

Thanks for trying. I’ve now marked my choice of hotels.

Instant reply:

Thank you for your information. There are really apartments with kitchen, but they are poorly equipped and mainly for junior people in China, not for senior foreigners like you.

Why didn’t he say this before? Why did he say it now?

I totally understood. This conversation was not lost in translation. South of the Himalayas we do things the same way. I love travelling in Asia because of these sudden cultural resonances. Sometimes you are in a country where you cannot speak the language, you are a little overwhelmed, and then there will be a conversation like this, which makes you feel you are home.

We are now looking forward to the trip even more. Of course, still with a little anxiety because neither The Family nor I know the language at all.

A cat that catches the mouse

As part of my education on China I’m trying to read something other than history and travel books. There is a lot of modern literature, and there are movies. And there is also interesting journalism. Several years back I’d read a book Pallavi Aiyar about her time as China bureau chief for the Chennai newspaper “The Hindu”. I must read it again.

Two books which I read recently talk of China from completely different perspectives, but are strangely similar. The first is “China Road”, a book by a reporter, Rob Gifford, who travels from Shanghai to Korgaz (a border crossing to Kazakhstan) a large part of it along the old silk route. The style is the modern western travel book: a little bit of a drifter, a little of the old orientalist adventurer, and very much the commentator from the first world. The second book is “China in Ten Words”, written by Yu Hua, a Chinese author still living in China. Again, this is a familiar voice, of an older person growing up within a culture which has changed unrecognizably within a lifetime: commenting on the changes and trying to identify the constants in the culture.

When China was going through the Cultural Revolution, India was not doing too well either. There was a shortage of food in both countries, but middle-class Indians generally thought they were better off. Now, two generations later, the question that the middle class asks is how we can do as well as China. There are hard facts behind this. In 1980 the average per capita income of a person in China was 30% less than in India; in 2013 it was 350% more. There is a throwaway discussion in Gifford’s book which says that the legitimacy of the Chinese political system depends on continuing improvements in people’s lifestyles, whereas India’s democratic system only means that non-functional governments get removed in an election, even if the alternative is no better. This is an explanation which I have read from Pallavi Aiyar too, so I wonder whether this is folk wisdom among foreign journaists in China.


India and China seem to have arrived at roughly similar circumstances in two completely different ways. In fact, many of the stories in these two books seem like they could have come from India. Yu Hua uses four words to anchor his discussion of modern China: disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle. These are words that the Indian press could very well use to describe aspects of today’s India.

Did the cultural revolution destroy the old China? This is never stated, but implied in both books. I wonder. I was once taken to dinner by my Chinese colleagues at a restaurant built to impress. It was a space built like a hangar to hold a couple of Dreamliners. I saw two wedding dinners in progress. We were led deep into this space and into a private room for our banquet. Sometime during the dinner I asked one of my hosts about the calligraphy carved into one of the walls. There was consultation between several people before the words were translated. I was told that this was not easy to read because the characters were in an older style. It was a classical poem copied out by Mao Zedong.

A cat that catches the mouse is a good cat, no matter whether it is black or white. (Deng Xiaoping)

The Cultural Revolution certainly changed China enough that today’s nation could emerge. In some sense it was a fast track to modernity, but at the expense of one lost generation. The Indian experiment is certainly not on any kind of a fast track, but who knows where it will lead in a couple of generations? Will the Indians of the 2050s look back on the past four generations as lost? The answer may well determine the staying power of Bollywood: going by Kishore Kumar’s songs or the remakes of Amitabh Bachchan movies, the generations of the 1960s and 70s were not lost.

Goa after christmas

Sao Jacinto

I spent the end of last year in Goa and returned home on the eve of the new year. Unlike my previous trips, I stayed entirely to the south of the Zuari. When most people visit Goa at the end of the year, they want to be shuffling in the madness of Sunburn or crowding some other beach in north Goa. If you are sure that you are not a sardine, you could try to head south of the Zuari. It has beaches, and it has more.

On my last evening in Goa I went with some friends to eat in a popular fish restaurant on the south bank of Zuari estuary, near the island of Sao Jacinto. The eatery is one of the places which runs more on the freshness of the fish than on the skills of the cook. The crabs are enormous and sweet, and the less the cook does with it, the better. After selecting one you have time to drink many shots of the wonderful local cashew feni (I like mine on the rocks, with ginger and lime squeezed into it) while munching on the superb Goan sausages. Unless you are careful you can be full before the crabs arrive. Many of the more popular restaurants will have a crooner who manages to make the angriest rock sound mellow. That’s one thing that Goa has in common with the north east of India.

Fisherman's house

After dinner we walked over the causeway to the charming island of Sao Jacinto. I’ve only been there at night, so I can’t tell you whether it looks charming in daytime. Late in evening, when most of the fishermen on the village have gone to sleep, it is quiet place with a serene charm. The causeway takes you to the church square, from where you can start your walk through deserted village roads. On this occassion, after Christmas and before the new year, all the houses were lit up with fairy lights, coloured porch lights, and illuminated stars.

Fresh prawns in Vasco

Earlier in the evening I’d driven out to Vasco on a borrowed scooter to buy a load of cashews to take home. Goa is as non-urban as a continuously inhabited stretch of beaches can be. Even the town of Vasco looks pretty spread out until you get to the old Portuguese center. I spent a fruitless ten minutes looking for Bebinca. Apparently tourists had bought all the stock, and the factory was closed for the rest of the year. I got my cashews, bought various things at the two bakeries I passed, and then wandered into the fish market. The fisherwoman put us down for cheap tourists, interested only in gawking at the fish they have been eating in restaurants. She was right, we were not there to buy any fish. The moment my camera came out, she stopped talking to us and started chatting in Konkani with the owner of the next stall.

Vasco town center

The central square of Vasco is a noisy and crowded place. If you dodge a lane of traffic to stand under the trees in the middle of the oblong “square” you can forget the bustle and look at the layout. It is decidedly not Indian. It is not hard to imagine that if the surrounding buildings were spruced up and painted, and the hoardings and signboards removed, the whole area could look like a charming European plaza, only with more sun and warmth. Some time in the future I hope people put an end to the blight of multistoried shops which has begun to take over, and put the emphasis back on the remaining street-level shops. That can only happen if tourists were willing to take some time off from beach-shacks and come for a coffee, or a drink and a meal in town. The local economy is not strong enough to make the turn-around on its own.

Deciding without knowing

Eventually it always comes down to this: you decide without sufficient knowledge. The Family and I have six days in China before my meetings start. What should we see?

Since my work is in Beijing, we will have many days and weekends to explore the region around the capital, so we can leave it out of the plan for the crucial six days. Xi’an is an easy weekend hop away from Beijing, so we can leave that out of our plan as well.

We pare away the exotic Gansu, with its silk route connections and the incredible landform of Zangye. Since it is not the core of China, as we imagine it, we will visit it on a future trip. The silk route used to terminate in the old capital city of Chang’an which is modern Xi’an (as I realize in a brief “duh” moment), so we will touch that bit of history.

We subject ourselves to the tyranny of maps and flight schedules. The south, Guangzhou, Guilin, and the Li river are also sacrificed. One day we will add this to a trip through Hong Kong, but that day is not today.

Mongolia and its sea of grass has been a dream destination for me. One day The Family and I will take a train to Ulan Bator and then drive out on a road trip without roads, into a landscape without trees. Are there birds in Mongolia? That dream allows us to let Inner Mongolia and other northern parts of China slip out of this trip.

Shanghai, Ma'anshan, Huangshan

We are left with Shanghai and Anhui province. I tell myself that city people like us can handle Shanghai in a couple of days (even though we have zero Putonghua), then spend a lazy couple of days walking around Xihu in Hangzhou and visiting tea gardens and still have a two days left over for other things.

The Family and I were keen on visiting Huangshan in May, the season of azaleas. Manon also recommended this in an earlier comment on a different post. I look at the details. It seems that the bus trip from Hangzhou to Tunxi would take three and a half hours, and then you would have to get to Huangshan: not too far away, but the hours start to mount. A cable car up and down, and the bus back would eat up the rest of the day. Is it worth the dash? Or should one spend the night on the mountain and watch the sunrise before coming down. The area also has a couple of reputedly beautiful villages (Xidi and Hongcun where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was shot), which we could try to squeeze in. The bus from Tunxi takes 1 hour to Xidi and another half hour to Hongcun. Perhaps Huangshan, Xidi/Hongcun can be done in a couple of days, but a large part of it will be on buses. We discussed this with one of my Chinese colleagues, The Prosperous, who said it could be complicated if you only speak English.

Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,
Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.
Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,
Birds are far off, people too are few.
(Li Bai)

What else can one do in two days? Ma’anshan, where Li Bai died, is not so far from Shanghai. But it is in the middle of the mining area. Wikipedia says the town “is not as polluted as other major Chinese steelmaking cities”. But I’m not so sure that 14 centuries after Li Bai drowned trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the the river, the Yangtze will be the quiet place he wrote about. We will give this a pass for now.

Other options are the villages of Zhujiajiao, Suzhou, Wuzhen, Nanxun. The pictures we see and the descriptions we read are nice. Perhaps we don’t need to plan in greater detail.

Maybe we don’t need to plan in greater detail. We will touch Shanghai and Hangzhou, and do as much travelling around parts of Anhui and Jiangsu as seems possible.

Reading about China

Of course we know about China from the TV and newpapers. But we also grow up reading about the Opium Wars, the Rape of Nanjing, the Long March, the invasion of Tibet, the India-China war, and the Beijing Olympics. Beyond that?

As lamentable as the obfuscations are the depths of ignorance from which foreigners approach Chinese

For several years I have been trying to read through John Keay’s history of China, a magisterial book from which the quote above has been taken. I guess that by the time I work my way through it my ignorance will not be quite as deep. All I can remember now are two facts: first, that the terracotta armies of the first emperor in Xian were forgotten by the time the three kingdoms were at war, and next, that the beginning of the Ming dynasty is closer to us than it was to the time of the three kingdoms. The article on China in Wikipedia is substantially shorter, and may be enough to prepare me for the trip.

There are many guides on the web, and I Google and scan them. But I’m happy to be old-fashioned enough to want to read a book. After browsing reviews on Amazon I settle for the Lonely Planet’s massive tome on China. I plan to read it on my Kindle, and find that it is very nicely cross linked. The maps don’t seem very readable on my Kindle, so maybe I’ll have to print out a few before leaving.

Go and ask this river
Running to the east,
If I can travel further
Than a friend’s love.
(Li Bai)

A large number of books I see on Amazon are on conflicts between India and China, past and future. I agree with a Chinese friend, The Striver, that the best that aam aadmi like us could do to prevent conflict is to visit each others’ countries. It could be a beginning. Getting back to books, I should read Red Sorghum. The Family was reading it a couple of years back when Mo Yan won a Nobel prize. A decade back we saw quite a few Chinese movies, I should try to find some. Also poetry: in a gathering of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, all quoting Chinese classical poetry, I feel I’m missing something.

I’m a little jittery about the language. On my first visit to China I had learnt the numbers with a lot of effort. They have slipped away now. On a layover in Hong Kong I’d managed to pick up a little phrase book by Lonely Planet which had phrases in English, Pinyin and Chinese characters. This had turned out to be really useful. I found it lying between my French and German dictionaries.

That’s a lot of ignorance, but no obfuscation, I hope.

Preparing the mind

The first thing I need to check about China is the exchange rate. These days using a quick conversion of INR 10 to RMB 1 is good. This resonates strangely well with the idea one hears now and then: that a new-rupee which is worth INR 10 would be useful (for example, new-rupee coins might become feasible).

Numbeo has a great idea; it puts together the current cost of lots of different things. Interestingly the cost of one kilo of rice is RMB 6.60. Basic mobile tariffs are RMB 0.50 for one minute of voice call. Rice, tomatoes, beer, apples (and yes, even oranges) are priced similar to India; mobile rates, bus tickets, wine and bottled water cost a little more. It seems that China is a little costlier than India. [But see Manon’s cautionary comment below].

Hard beds on chinese trains

How should one travel in China? Google knows all. It directs me to Beijing Travel‘s website, from which I find that one can fly from Beijing to Xian in 2 hours. The flights cost around RMB 750 in the early morning or evening, but climb to RMB 1000 or above during the day. The fast train takes about 5 hours and a 2nd class seat costs RMB 516. If we plan to get away to Xian on a weekend, then flying seems to be the better option. I should cross check this.

Manon has a wonderful blog post about the nitty-gritty of travel by train in China (it is good to know that you need to arrive early to check in your baggage). There are slow night trains, which seem to be roughly like Indian trains in speed. The interiors look like Indian trains as well. I do want to travel by train at least once. With my time constraints, it looks like I can only do the Shanghai-Hangzhou stretch by train. The web site of China train guide informs me that it takes about 2 hours by the slower K train and half as long by the G or D trains. The prices are about RMB 25 (K train), RMB 50 (D train) and RMB 75 (G train).

Beijing-Shanghai bullet train: 2nd class seats

Bejing to Shanghai by bullet train may take about 5 hours zuǒyòu (I’m proud of my first word in Chinese: it means approximately), and costs RMB 555 by 2nd class seater. The price gradation is steep: 1st class seaters on the same stretch cost RMB 933, and you need to pay RMB 1748 for “Business class”! Then there are sleeper trains which take 15 hours and cost RMB 150 zuǒyòu. The “hard sleeper” interiors look like Indian 3-tier coaches. The equivalent of Indian 2-tier coaches are called “soft sleeper”. I guess the names also have something to do with the padding. Beijing-Shanghai flights seem to be comparatively cheaper, ranging from RMB 350 to 800. Flying always seems to be an option.