sculpture Archive


Of Mayan Imaginings

The Mayans are one of those great mystic ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians and the Khmers of Angkor Wat, they suffered a demise so sudden […]

The Mayans are one of those great mystic ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians and the Khmers of Angkor Wat, they suffered a demise so sudden and mysterious that their culture remains an enigma. In the process they left behind a marvelous array of cryptic archaeological legacies across Central America – ruined cities, brutal sacrificial legends, alphabets, calendars and exotic predictions for the future. Half forgotten and shrouded in jungle, today they continue to confound, fire and inspire the imaginations of all manner of historians, travellers and conspiracy theorists.

Doomsday stone - the Mayan Calendar

The single biggest mystery with the Mayans of course was their sudden disappearance. At the very peak of their arts, architecture and civilization known as the classic period, their greatest cities such as Tikal, Palenque & Copan were suddenly abandoned around 900 AD and the entire civilization structure collapsed. While the entire area remains populated by their descendants to this day and mass migrations North fuelled development of later cities, largely they are but pale imitations of their former cultural heights – a deserting diaspora bereft of much of their knowledge and skill. By the time the Spanish rocked up in the 15th century to Yucatan in Mexico, many of the cities themselves had fused culturally with the Toltecs and Aztecs, the dominant Mexican tribes from the North. The cycles of repeated bad luck and tragedy manifested brutally as massive rituals of human sacrifice.

In what is a major echo of our own time perhaps, historians can now attribute the collapse of these great cities to a perfect storm of 3 factors. 1) Massive overpopulation as the cities reached their zenith 2) Complete environmental collapse from over-farming around the area of the cities themselves and 3) a long, extended drought that in effect lasted the better part of a century. In many ways the secrets and lessons of the Mayans lie not with their more famed futuristic astrological predictions, but with the manner in which they disappeared. You don’t have to think too far ahead to see that overpopulation, environmental collapse and severe water shortages are all that await us in the next 50 years.

Temple Cornice at Chichen Itza

Apart from human sacrifice and the disappearing act though, the Mayans are probably best known for their advanced writing, mathematics, incredibly accurate astronomy and time measurement. In an historic context, their calendars, perfected at the height of their classic civilization (250-900 AD), were the most accurate on earth right up until the late Renaissance period in Europe in the 17th century, almost a thousand years later. Famously, the Mayans broke the world’s time into 5126-year periods, the final epoche calendar cycle, or b’ak’tun calculated by the Mayans, ends in December 2012. Many of today’s apocalyptic dooms-dayers credit the end of the world with this key date and given the state of society today its’ easy to play along, but  there are other interpretations more reassuring. These read the importance of 2012 as not an end date in itself, but heralding the start of a new epoch of spiritual transformation and renewal – a new and final B’ak’tun that completes the cycle, one the Mayans never really had a chance to envision properly. We can certainly wish! Honestly speaking though, any civilization that didn’t see their own demise is hard to take too seriously in the prophecy stakes.

A stela from Copan

Back to us though, our Mayan adventures started in Southern Mexico with the people themselves. Then wound through the ruins of the great classic cities in Mexico to the most recent ones of the Northern Yucatan, diving into the great jungle cities and Mayan peoples of Guatemala, before finally finishing South in Honduras. A journey that yielded no magic answers on the question of 2012 and the fate of the world, but did provide for some fantastic locations, experiences and contemplations which I have summarized by location below:

The Modern Mayan Tribes

San Cristobel is a small, colonial town in the state of Chiapas. The cobblestone streets are a warren of lovely shops, café’s, restaurants, hostels and markets. It is a perfect blend of bohemian, colonial lifestyle in the heart of Mayan country and has trapped many a traveller. Not much of a danger for us in the height of winter though – the place is too bloody cold to sit still for long, but it is the villages that surround San Cristabel that enthral.

On a day tour from San Cristobel we visited 2 of them – San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan, both home to the still fiercely independent Mayan tribes the Tzotzil and Tzeltal. Now to be honest, I didn’t really know that the Mayan people still existed at all. I had naively assumed that they had all died out long ago and were now the stuff of legend, but they still occupy extensive parts of Mexico and Belize and actually make up the majority of the population in Guatemala. Many of the more remote tribes such as those around San Cristobel still hold tightly to many aspects of their culture such as the traditional Mayan calendars and methods of counting and have done so continuously in the face of hundreds of years of ‘civilizing’ forces. Being able to witness this firsthand was an experience that resonated particularly strongly with me. Too often in our travels, we have encountered cultures quickly being over-run and trashed by globalization and that even greater cultural destroyer – Christian missionaries. It’s nice to see some still able to fight.

Mayan women from San Lorenzo

In San Lorenzo, the towns’ spiritual elders stand out the front of the local church with telltale grey and red hats demonstrating their various ranks, the elders wearing a unique kind of sandal. They stand there taking turns to chant, dance and administer the towns’ finances, a process that covers the better part of a 24 hour period every Sunday. The local women in the town all congregate in the square, opposite the church to sell their fruit and vegetables and brightly coloured woollen fabrics at the market. They all wear the same blue/purple woollen shawls with pink floral designs beautifully embroidered. Each Mayan village or tribe wears a different, distinctive colour combination like this to demonstrate where they are from – the same applies in much of Guatemala. There is no individuality here – their identity is all about the community, tribe or group and everything is managed collectively, hence the elders gathered at the church. The town also prohibits outside police, buses or taxi operators so everything is controlled and administered by the community itself – by the people for the people, necessary to protect themselves culturally from outside forces. It could not make a starker contrast with our own western imperative to set ourselves apart.

A special Mayan church

The next town, San Juan was even more striking. Here the locals wore a kind of black haired skirt and jacket, with a white variation to differentiate the spiritual leaders. We spent some time in a spiritual leaders’ house and learnt how they give up a year of their life for the honour of the role, paying for all the ceremonial dues, incense and other daily requirements out of their own personal savings. They spend several years of savings in fulfilling this role, but in doing so ensure their place of honour within the society.

The community concept here also ensures that there is almost no crime. If there is, criminals are publicly shamed and humiliated – we walked passed the cages where this occurs, but they are all empty. Seemingly minor transgressions from the community are dealt with harshly here. If you marry without family blessings, you are expelled from the town and community; with an even more severe excommunication for anyone that converts to Christianity. Changing religion or taking on obligations that prioritize things over the tribe, means you can no longer function in the community and are forced to leave. It is a harsh rule, but a necessary one to survive the constant cultural purges that the missionaries in particular bring. It is a lesson and solution that has been refined constantly over many centuries. San Cristobel itself is home to many generations of former village members thus removed, we are informed appreciatively by our guide, he is himself one.

View from the Sun Temple in Palenque

Perhaps the most striking experience of the community here though was a visit to the local church. This was a former catholic church reprised by the Mayan community after expelling the priests from the town over some major ideological conflict. Now, with no meddling priests in place, it is open 24 hours a day and the villagers are able to visit with their own respective shaman, midwife or spiritual healer in order to conduct their own special rituals as needed. The floor of the church itself is covered in pine needles and statues of catholic saints line the walls in old glass boxes. Throughout the church villagers sit on the floor, burning candles in front of themselves (both the colour and number of the candles is important), but also facing various directions toward the relevant saint that embody the values that they might be looking for some help with. Some of the villages have bottles of coca cola or soft drink next to them – these are used in special rituals to ‘burp out’ evil spirits. (Apparently coke worked a lot better than the corn syrup they used to do this with, so they happily switched over). Elsewhere there is a chicken trussed up on the floor, next to a small family, a husband, wife and child seated together with their local shaman. The chicken will soon have its neck broken as part of another sacrificial ritual, perhaps an offering for another child, perhaps for a harvest, it is hard to tell and impolite to ask.

Waterfall in the Palenque ruins

The hybrid nature of the rituals is uniquely fascinating as they integrate useful bits of the external world that happens to work in nicely with their own ideas. Equally impressive is the apparent indifference the towns’ people show to our presence here. They are confident enough in their own rituals and culture that they can open it up this way. While we are not permitted to photograph anything, we can watch and they are happy for the small contributions we make in return financially to their community. Living under the shadows of an encroaching modern world, they know what we are about fairly intimately and have still chosen their own path – they accept that they have their way and we have ours and leave it at that. They do wonder though why we can’t simply respect them the same way. They constantly have to repel missionaries. The strength of conviction to do this is quite enviable and it really is a delicate balance this cultures survival treads. I wish them all the very best!


Jaguar King Stella, Yaxchilan

Our first ruin stop if you will was the great ancient city of Palenque – at its peak one of the greatest Mayan cities of the classic period before being abandoned in 900 AD. It was not rediscovered until the late 1770’s. The great temple of the inscriptions and the Palace here make a commanding sight – it’s hard to conceive of the sight of all these huge buildings around the central square at their height, painted red. The square around the temples of the Cross, Sun and Foliated Cross further atop the hill overlooking the great Palace and surrounded by encroaching jungle, casts a spell over the surrounding countryside and resonates with a sacred energy. It was easy to linger for hours here. Further south as you wander around the surrounding city, waterfalls and streams work their way quite spectacularly through the ruins of old courts and houses. In the museum, the great tomb of the King Pakal is on display, which was found buried beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions. The funerary details and inscriptions on the tombstone are simply amazing and one of the great finds of the Mayan kingdom – effectively its own Tutenkhamen.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak

Sacrificial temple square, Yaxchilan

These Mayan ruins sit on the Guatemalan border some 3 hours or so from Palenque. 10 years ago you could only access these by plane, but now you can travel an hour or so by boat up the river (past crocodiles on the bank) to the jungle site itself with the assistance of a local Mayan guide. The easiest way to get there is to sign up for a day tour from Palenque, but you also have the option of continuing on a multi-day tour to Tikal in Guatemala from here. Renown mostly for the important revelations deduced from the various carvings & inscriptions found here, these sights were magical to me more for their location and isolation. Bonampak is a small site, but there are a series of rooms recently uncovered in the small acropolis that are covered with murals and original paintings in great condition, depicting detailed scenes of war, torture and decapitation unlike those found anywhere else. At Yaxchilan, the spell caste by the sound of Howler monkeys in the trees all around the site is unforgettable. Like the distant throng of a horror movie in full force they enshroud the place in a mystique that is more Jurassic park than archaeological wonder. The ruins themselves though are still impressive with lots of ornate facades still clinging to the various temples and houses; extensive steps grafted into the mountainside leading to fine temple on top and another sacrificial temple located off some distance through the jungle. Sprinkled throughout are standing stellas or sculptures with Mayan inscriptions. With very few other tourists around it’s a special place to explore.


An Uxmal serpent at night

Located a few hours from the thriving city of Merida in the Yucatan, this was another classic era city. Featuring several great pyramids, palaces and other intact structures with many ornate carvings built into the temple walls and squares, this site was quite impressive once too. It is hard to get too though if you want to stay late in the evening (ie there are no buses), so we joined a tour that enabled us to explore the site during the afternoon and then stay for a “sound and light” show set within the grounds after dark. While the music, story and headset translation was pretty amateur and lame. The sight of the lights and lasers pouring over distinct features of the architecture and lighting up embedded forms in the carvings on the temples, such as those of the large serpent God Quetzalcoatl, was particularly memorable and intimate. Dark, shadowy, devoid of people, key buildings pleasantly illuminated – the night experience was a nice take to have on a Mayan site, fertile ground for the imagination.

Chichen Itza

The Great' Castle Pyramid' of Chichen Itza

Rated a modern wonder of the world, this was by far the most touristed of all the sites we visited. Located in the heart of Yucaten it is easy access for a day trip from most beach and resort tourists. The site itself is quite extensive and has many compelling features. The great Castle Pyramid is its signature and a stunning example of Mayan architecture with all the tricks. If you clap in the vicinity of the pyramid, a gap in its design creates an echo that mimics the call of the sacred Quetzal bird, something common to many pyramids we visited but still impressive. On one side though, two serpentine Quetzalcoatl railings are designed in such a way as to catch the light on the Spring or Autumn equinox respectively, these light up square by square so as to appear to be moving. Hard to imagine how crowded it would get here on those days, but the astronomical and archaeological precision of it still leave architects in awe. Amongst the ruins, decapitated sculls and other gruesome carvings abound; there is a sacrificial cenotes (water filled open cave) where bodies where disposed of and also the largest ball-court in MesoAmerica, with many intact sculptures and inscriptions (Ball-courts are common to all Maya, Aztec, Toltec, Olmec and Zapotecan sites). Throughout the site though, there are literally craft and Mayan souvenir stands everywhere you walk and thousands of tourists on guided package tours clamouring for photos. Fantastic as it is, its hard to appreciate when you are part of a seething, surging photo mass. We probably didn’t spend as much time here as we would of otherwise.


The main plaza at Tikal

Though it was one of the last remaining occupied Mayan sites, there is nothing exceptional about this ruin at all, except that it is located on a cliff, right above a beautiful sandy beach, next to about a million beach resorts. Strangely this makes it the most popular Mayan ruin of all,. The place is literally covered in both Iguanas (which were actually pretty interesting) and half-naked tourists (definitely not interesting), there to swim at the beautiful beach onsite and all trying to get a ruin shot, nicely contrasted with the beautiful azure, waters and white sand. The ruins are boring though, really not much there at all, but still, its very easy to visit. The ruin shot was simply too hard for us to get though – way too many strange bums in the way.


Getting cloud level at Tikal

The most impressive city by far in terms of its scale and location, it is too big to describe in detail and its marvel is the scale of the city and overall design. Located deep in the jungle, Tikal is one of those sites lost until the mid 1800’s and the jungle is constantly fighting reclaim it. The complex is huge, at its height it extended some 30km and housed 100,000 people, less than 1% of which has even been excavated today (there are some 4000 structures in the central city alone). As you walk around on the thin paths through the jungle linking the main excavated plaza’s, you pass many heavily forested little hills that you start to appreciate are really other temple pyramids completely reclaimed by the jungle and waiting one day to be restored. At the main sites you can climb some of the steep sided, towering pyramids, (the highest some 61 metres high) and poke your head above the clouds and forest canopy where you can perceive other distant structures and start to comprehend the amazing scale and alignment of the various temple complexes.

Great stairway of Copan

Tikal was also magic for the wildlife on display here, this is proper jungle and as you wander around you can spot numerous birds including flocks of Tucans and Macaus. We  also saw a giant tarantulas, numerous peacocks and other odd animals, all appeared quite tame and immune to the typical compulsive fear of the hunted. We did the trip in a tour from Flores, a very pleasant former Mayan city built in the middle of a lake and arrived at sunrise to explore Tikal in the misty early morning light and the main structures in the clearer sunlight of mid-morning. However, you can also stay at one of the inns right outside the site itself, which would give you flexibility to  visit later in the evening when you could have the place largely to yourself. The place is so big, it could easily occupy several days of exploration so this would probably be a great option.


Artists image of the temple /stairway, Copan

Probably my favourite of all the Mayan sights we visited to be honest. Located right outside the town of Copan just over the border from Guatemala in Honduras, it is an easy walk away and simple to explore. At the entrance a squadron of giant pet macaws make for a lot of interactive photo opportunities. But it is the sculptures and artwork on display that dazzle, by far the most intricate and beautiful of all the sites we visited. The engravings on the giant stella’s occupying the main square and the incredible staircase of inscriptions were really the highlights and left you in awe of what the Mayans had achieved and somehow lost all in one go. Every square on a step of the stairway is a beautifully engraved Mayan character all put together to tell some tale or prediction that I confess to having forgotten. Viewed together as the detail of all the characters rises up the hillside to the temple top, you can start to conceive of the awe and reverence that Mayans must have held for this place.   It is quite a compact ruin, although it was a huge city once, it remains largely un-excavated so comfortable to walk around and you can explore with ease the various plaza’s and temples. There are also several underground tours you can do that explore some of the excavations and secret locations beneath the city. None of which were given a positive wrap in our research so we skipped them, but certainly would have offered a different view of things. In all it was an inspiring way to finish.


India – The Sights

It appears that detailed, timely blog postings on our adventures has proven to be a most elusive skill so far in our travels. So… in […]

It appears that detailed, timely blog postings on our adventures has proven to be a most elusive skill so far in our travels. So… in order to keep things moving and regular (and also break up the tedium of introspective contemplations), I thought bundling a lazy, slightly irreverent, but mostly expedient take on the “Incredible India” sights into a single post might be worth a go.

This really is in no particular order or actually a Top 10! But it should give you the quick skinny (plus some snaps) on the touristy, but nevertheless stunning stuff that we have checked out along out merry way around India. I will keep adding to this and updating it as we go, so be sure to check back!

1) The Bodhi Tree – Bodhgaya

Monks jostling near the tree

The spot where Buddha reached enlightenment is marked by a beautiful park, monolith, many monasteries and a huge tree that is a direct cutting from the original Bodhi tree. The park vibrates with a magical, spiritual energy and peace, as thousands of monks from all countries (in all colours) meditate, chant, relentlessly protraste themselves on special boards or circumambulate the site and its prayer wheels – all simply amazing to behold. Of course there is precious little space under the tree for a conservatively dressed Australian, even with the peaceful application of the elbows; all the good spots are well staked out by the many Tibetan, Bhutanese, Thai or Nepali’s who have trained for decades to get up at 4am; all keen to have another stab at seeking enlightenment and some divine inspiration. While we were there an international Thervada Chanting Conference was taking place (Lots of Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Korean monks) plus thousands of Tibetans were in town (including the 17th Karmapa) so the place was jumping.  Outside the park though, Bodhgaya is classic India – poor, dusty, loud, confusing with hundreds of beggars lined up to prey on the Buddhist’s karmic conscience.

2) The Erotic Temples – Khajuraho

stacks of statues!

Built around the 11th -14th century, the stone carvings on these temples are simply amazing in their intricacy though not nearly as erotic as every tourist brochure would have you believe – but then India is very conservative these days. The said scenes, when you can find them amongst the thousands of detailed sculptures, represent various states of undress, a few interesting positions and some rather more bestial explorations with horses and elephants. Set in 3 locations around the small town, the temples make a pleasant days viewing and feature a ‘sound and light’ historical show at night which is actually worth checking out. Right outside the park though (and everywhere else actually) touts outnumber the tourists 10 to 1 and do really test the patience. Endless in-your-face demands to buy sex keyrings, books on karma sutra or enter discussion on the servicing of multiple wives and girlfriends abound in English, Japanese and a dozen other attempted languages. The Indians seem to think that any tourist checking out this sight has to be as debauched, kinky and sex obsessed as the average Indian male’s secret imagination and fantasies – which is a pretty tall ask believe me – be warned.

3) Tiger Safari – Bandhavgarh National Park

Tracking tigers

Bit out of the way this one, but definitely worth it. With the highest density of Tigers in India, this is the best place to see one in the wild of anywhere, so we splurged a bit to have a couple of cracks. Initially we tried to do the safari on an elephant back’s – but the bull (male) phant was horny, the female was on heat and the other elephant was knocked up – so we were humbly reduced to a jeep. Our first safari at sunrise accompanied by a guide, roamed the misty dirt tracks & waterholes in the jungle looking for tiger prints (there were many) and listening for monkey & bird alarm calls (constantly) that tell you a Tiger is near. 4 hours later we gave up, though we did see stacks of deer, eagles, vultures, monkeys, wild boar and other stuff. No-one else saw a tiger that morning either which was strangely satisfying. Doubling down, we went back in the afternoon for a sunset session and got immediately lucky. Within 15 minutes, the jungle went wild with monkey calls and we tore up the dirt track to discover a huge, 2 year old tiger lying happily on the track. Completely ignoring the mad, camera totting jeep creatures around him – he then proceeded to walk along the road for 20 minutes with us snapping wildly behind, stopping for an occasional roar, stretch or snooze. In total we got an hour of wild tiger face (& photo) time which is pretty much unheard of!

4) Agra– Taj Mahal, Baby Taj, Agra Fort, Fatephur Sikri

The Taj Mahal

India’s number 1 destination and rightly so – Agra is jam packed with incredibly history and architectural wonders and worthy of at least a couple of days exploration. It is also full of pushy Indian tourists, egotistical guards, dodgy guesthouses, annoying rickshaw drivers, postcard sellers and squirrels! The Taj is amazing – everyone should see it at some point and a million better minds than mine have described its splendours eloquently; what they don’t tell you though is that  its very expensive; ridiculously crowded (trying to get a clear shot is impossible next to a thousand other Indians with no sense of personal space all trying to do the same); oh and the security guards are arseholes. They had the audacity to confiscate Megumi’s finger puppet P-chan, banning him from entry. Apparently soft toys constitute both a significant religious and terrorist threat (the line of crying babies was more than 50m long). After our own angry confrontation and a lot of Indian hand and head waving – we left in disgust. To balance this experience though, we did happily discover the somewhat secret Baby Taj (Itimad-ud-Daulah) – a smaller, earlier constructed, similar completely marble tomb – that while not as stupendous it is just as fascinating architecturally, much cheaper, was all to ourselves and happily not intimidated by the presence of finger puppets. The Agra Fort is also a stunning complex and steeped in interesting architecture, politics and history, though most recently invaded by squirrels it is well worth the visit, if only just to comprehend the palatial harems of the great Mughals. A short bus-ride out of Agra is also the fort town of Fatephur Sikri- an equally magnificent fort, mosque and ranging red marble conquest, that fully warrants a days adventuring.

5) Delhi – Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb & Old Delhi Markets

Humayun's Tomb

Delhi was quite the surprise – green, full of parks and possibly the most unpolluted city we visited in India. It teems with ancient ruins and innumerable testaments to the Moghul era and other age’s past littered across the Delhi landscape, seemingly so integrated into the Delhi urbanity that they are easily overlooked. We spent plenty of time exploring and still really only scratched the surface. The red fort is the major attraction and though impressive from the outside, inside it is a very poor cousin to the forts of Agra, Fatephur Sikri and Rajasthan, hardly worth the entrance fee.  Much more compelling was Humayun’s Tomb, an early predecessor to the Taj Mahal  and set amongst an amazing park like complex of different tombs, sculptures and gardens very well preserved.  We didn’t make the largest mosque in India,the Jama Masdjid, but did wander the nearby ancient market complex’s and labrynths’ of old Delhi. An endlessly fascinating maze of thematic markets – spices, fruits, fabrics, wedding jewellery, sweets – you name it, there is a mind numbingly complex, bustling, dedicated market to suit all tastes here. An endless insight into India’s true inner workings and a real orgy for the senses – though you would require several days to come close to getting your head around what’s what and what’s really going on.

6) Jaipur – The Amber Fort, Hawa Mahal & the pink city

Hawa Mahal - A palace for the ladies

Jaipur was a bit dissapointing to be honest, though perhaps its a view tarnished a tad by a sordid dose of Delhi Belly. The city is indeed pink and the fort and key monuments are contained within large square, well organized streets each with specialized markets and wares largely unchanged in centuries. The Hawa Mahal was definitely a highlight – the palace where the Maharaja kept his wives and harem, all cleverly designed so that they could see out but the public could not see in. The palace itself is quite amazing with all the wealthy trims of the Rajasthani elite and the surrounding hills and lakes are all scenically peppered with other forts, summer palaces. Most interesting perhaps was the Maharaja’s astrological centre, full of large complex astrological sun dials and other such toys, the envy of all star gazing obsessives everywhere. The Rajasthani food is also amazing and markets abound with Rajasthans famous jewelry and threads, but all this is offset by a big city vibe and the constant harassment from touts, shopkeepers and most of the locals you meet. Constantly on the defensive, its not a friendly or comfortable place and a day is more than enough for the sites, 2 or 3 due to illness is definite overkill and not worth the resulting sacrifices to our Rajasthan tour!

7) Jodhpur – Mehrangarh Fort & the blue city

Jodhpur & the blue city

The city really is blue and dominated by the amazing fort that sits on the hill in the centre of town. The fort is a perfectly preserved vision of the Maharaja’s of Rajasthan lifestyle and impregnable military might and an easy way to fill in a day. We stayed in a beautiful, 500 year old haveli under the fort walls and were completely enchanted by the town itself. The blue buildings represent bramin (Hindu caste elite) houses and the town is a labyrinth of tiny, winding back alleys and shops that are fascinating to wander. The place does not feel like it has changed that much in the last 3 or 400 years. The people costume up nicely with plenty of fat, Rajasthani mustaches to savour and are generally quite friendly, approachable and proud; though the dogs do seem to be particularly viscous – carry a stick! Its also a great place to sample the many delights of the Rajasthani diet.

8) Hampi – Rocks, ruins and relaxation

Rocks, Ruins & Rice Paddies

Hampi takes you by surprise. Nestled inland to the South, it is easily accessible from Goa and acts as a perfect relaxation and recovery haven for travellers. Set on 2 sides of a river, it is a holy city, one side an active mecca for Indians, while the other side, accessible by a single small rowing boat, is a relaxing collection of cheap backpacker friendly, huts. The surrounding area is literally littered with the ancient ruins of temples and magnificent sculptured palaces from ages past, all set against stunning stone covered hills and rice paddies that form the most amazing backdrop that we encountered in India. You can happily spend weeks here in a  traveller bubble, with little agenda other than relaxation and meeting other like minded folk. There is plenty of yoga, a large lake and river to swim in for the hot days, casual movie nights and endless adventures further afield to explore the many ruins and temples on motorbike or check out some of the best rock climbing in India. The highlight for mine, was the Hanuman (Monkey god) temple at the top of a mountain. The temple is occupied by a bunch of sadhu’s seemingly glued to their chillum’s, but its all about the stunning views of the landscapes in all directions. Highly recommend it if you get the chance, a hard place to leave!

9) Ellora – Buddhist, Hindi & Jain cave temples

Buddhist cave auditorium

Ellora and the somewhat adjacent Ajanta were probably the highlight of all the stunning ancient sights that we visited in India.  Ellora is located about 30 or 40 minutes out of Aurangubad and incorporates a vast network of caves literally carved out of the cliff-faces in the 1st to the 8th century. There are more than 40 cave temples in total and each represents a kind of time capsule of India’s various religions of the time divided into 3 major sections – sets of buddhist, hindu and Jain temples. The detail of these temples is completely amazing, some of the temples are massive and represent hundreds of years of chipping away at rock faces to create the space, let alone craft the thousands of intricate statues contained within each. The buddhist temples were a lot more minimal, focused on monasteries, prayer & education halls and music / meditation chambers. While the hindu temples were of a grand scale with thousands of intricate sculptures and temples designs dedicated to the major deities. Unfortunately our temple tour was cut short at the magnificent Kailash temple (the largest and most stunning) when someone’s flash set of a swarm of bee’s. I was stung at least 20 times on the head and arms as I was fleeing the temple and enveloped in a swarm of bee’s that chased me some 200 metres outside the complex. They only desisted when I buried myself in a pile of smoking leaves, the guards pointed me at. As helpful as they were the guards seemed quite relaxed and content to get the whole thing on video; it seems this is nothing unusual at this time of year – be warned. Even with a swollen face and savagely stung pride though, the bewildering wonder at human achievement was only marginally subdued and we didn’t even get to the Jain temples, with supposedly the best sculptural detail. Another time perhaps!

10) Ajanta – Buddhist cave temples and frescoes

Buddhist circlework

Located a couple of hours out of Aurangubad, Ajanta was re-discovered by an Englishmen a few centuries ago while hunting a tiger. The tiger they were tracking disappeared into a cave somewhere out of sight and on further investigation, plus some backing from the local Maharaja, they discovered this set of 26 odd caves completely buried and overtaken by the bush. Each of the caves, like Ellora, were hand carved into the mountainside between the 1st and 5th century and while similarly full of scultptures, due to being largely hidden from the world for 1500 years or so, Ajanta contains walls covered with some of the most amazing frescoes and paintings from that time still largely intact. All of the caves here are Buddhist monasteries and temples, some with adjoining meditation rooms, while others are unfinished and therefore still show how the temples were made (by hammer and chisel). An archeologists absolute wet dream, the paintings and buddhist sculptures here leave you speechless and very much in awe of the skill and dedication of the ancient Indian devotee’s and how alive buddhism must have been. An absolute must see for mine.

More pics coming when I actually score some free bandwidth and a day off!