I didn’t expect much from Indore. The city doesn’t seem to get a lot of love from the Rough Guide authors, nor from reviewers on TripAdvisor. So I just thought of Indore as a large Indian city marred by traffic, noise and pollution.
Being a major hub within the Indian railway system, you pretty much have to pass through Indore to get to other places in Madhya Pradesh. Because our railway journey from Haridwar to Indore was a long overnight haul, we decided we’d spend two nights in Indore to recover before making the bus journey to Maheshwar. As it turns out, we’re glad we did.
Yes, Indore is large, and yes, there’s plenty of traffic, along with the attendant horn honking and bad air. But the streets of inner Indore are highly rewarding for anyone who loves to walk and look, a fascinating mix of colorful clothing and jewelry shops, small vegetable markets, temples and mosques, and traditional buildings in varying states of decay.
As we walked through the narrow, tightly-packed streets of Indore’s central old city, we could see that we were moving from one distinct neighborhood to another, the people of each neighborhood bound together by religion and social affiliation.
Kanch Mandir and Sarafa Bazaar
For our first walk, we decided to head for Sarafa Bazaar and the Kanch Mandir. Sarafa Bazaar is known for jewelry shops and food, a destination for foodies eager to sample a wide range of local specialties. The Kanch Mandir, located at one end of Sarafa Bazaar, is a Jain temple known for its interior decorations fashioned from glass.
We reached the Kanch Mandir after passing several beautiful mosques and Hindu temples tucked into rows of busy shops – kitchen supplies, motorcycles, shoes, groceries, you name it. From the outside, the Kanch Mandir certainly looks large and important, but the face it turns to the street is fairly plain and unimposing, at least compared to its interior. We shed our shoes, walked upstairs into the entry – and stopped.
We were stunned by our first impression. All around us were murals, portraits of saints and gurus, magnificent patterned borders and ceiling decorations, and every bit of it made of glass. Even the floors that gleamed up at us were made of glass.
You would think the inside of such a temple would be so brilliant, you’d need sunglasses just to stand in the space. But it’s not like that at all. The effect is curiously like a darkened cave with light reflecting off millions of tiny wet surfaces. As you move around, these reflections flicker, like stars winking at you from the nighttime sky.
I walked up to one elaborate mural depicting seven levels of heaven and seven levels of hell, with the earth in between, and stared at the surface up close. Each tiny piece of glass in this elaborate mosaic appeared to be curved, and while every piece was certainly reflective, you could also see through them. It was as if you were looking through the glass surface and into a deep, dark forest beyond the temple walls.
We left the Kanch Mandir and wandered out to admire jewelry and search for the famed food shops of Sarafa Bazaar. I think we missed out on most of these because we were visiting in the daytime. I read – but kind of ignored – that the food scene happens in the evening. There’s a story behind the food scene in Sarafa Bazaar: apparently at some point the jewelers in the district began allowing food vendors to set up right in front of the jewelry stores in the evenings to provide security. The idea was that with all the customers, noise and bustle, burglars would not have the opportunity to break in.
Whatever Sarafa Bazaar is like at night, we were surprised by an odd dearth of restaurants. Most cities we visit have at least a couple of streets filled with restaurants, and usually you can find places to eat in any shopping area that appeals to ladies. But we walked up and down, and saw nothing but sweets and fried snacks. Yes, it’s certainly food, but we don’t feel like we can make a meal of samosas, pani puri, chaat, ice cream and milk sweets. We couldn’t even find anything we recognized as an ordinary chai shop. Ultimately, we did find one restaurant that served thali – the traditional lunch or dinner made up of small bowls of dal, vegetables, raita or curd, along with rice and bread – but I had to ask Mr. Google to help us locate it.
After the Kanch Mandir, our wanderings brought us to several different temples we could now recognize as Jain. We entered one street – it was the street where we found the thali restaurant – and found a long row of beautiful historic houses, several stories tall and boasting elaborately decorated fronts. Among these we spotted a large and particularly beautiful Jain temple with white-and-gold pillars supporting a wide front porch. We climbed the stairs and went in to look around.
Just like the glass temple, we were surprised by what we found inside. There was a large central atrium with light streaming in from above, surrounded by white-and-gold pillars. This space was bright, and as the sun broke through the morning’s cloud cover, it gleamed so strongly on the white marble floor that I had to avoid looking at these patches – I was getting those annoying, almost painful retinal imprints masking my vision.
Around the atrium, the spaces were darker and easier on the eyes. I roamed, admiring elaborate painted murals. The one below seems to depictpeople worshipping in a temple, with heavenly beings in boat-like vehicles looking on from the skies above.
We spent about half an hour in this temple, then wandered out to the street and looked again at the historic buildings. It finally struck us what we were seeing: a Jain district, with each street centered around its own temple. Some of the temples were large and important, like the Kanch Mandir and the white-and-gold temple; others were smaller and more modest. There were some beautiful old buildings in the street with the white-and-gold temple; a lady waved to me from her balcony as I took photos.
We realized also that the jewelry business is traditional for Jains, whose religion enjoins its people from any livelihood that can do harm to living creatures. I also realized then why the meal we had at the thali restaurant had seemed so unusual: It included no potatoes, carrots, onions or garlic. It was a Jain meal, and Jains do not eat root vegetables.
During our travels in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Sudan, we’d grown used to seeing that mosques are usually surrounded by businesses selling prettier things – perfumes, sweets, books and other things fit to be near a house of God. And of course, around Hindu temples here in India you can always find similar businesses, shops selling sweets, flowers, puja supplies and the kinds of scarves and shawls people wear to temples. But this was the first time we’d actually taken note of a Jain neighborhood, and what that looks like – the architectural style, the types of businesses people own. The experience added a new layer (or at least the beginnings of one) to our understanding of India’s rich mix of cultures.
Indore’s parks and monuments
One thing that makes even the busiest city bearable is parks. We’ve had the unfortunate experience of walking through cities that seem to have no parks at all, and that means you get no moments of respite from honking horns, the endless stream of motorcycles passing you much too closely, and having to watch every minute for traffic coming the wrong way.
Indore has plenty of parks, and some beautiful temples providing leafy retreats from the noise of the street. We went into one park that’s a big circle at the center of busy traffic, just in front of the Rajwada Palace, a local monument that was unfortunately closed for renovations. The park, called Rajwada Chowk, is lovely, filled with royal palms and other huge mature trees, plus plenty of benches.
There was a statue of a sari-clad woman where we chose to sit and rest. Being the eager Hindi students we are, we worked out who the statue depicted: Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, a much-loved and much-revered Hindu ruler during the 18th century.
Ahilyabai is still an important figure here in Madhya Pradesh, and we found more monuments to her in the form of Hindu temples, on the other side of the river from Mahatma Gandhi Road. These monuments are also in a calm, peaceful little park with old trees, called Chhatri Bagh. (A “chhatri” is a cenotaph, and “bagh” means garden, so it’s a memorial garden to Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, with the temples serving as memorials to her.)
We went in twice over a couple of days, and I’d always find a few men sleeping in the shade of one of the monuments, hidden from view at the back. The temples themselves – there are two in one monument, one in the other – were locked up each time we visited Chhatri Bagh, so we couldn’t go inside. But the monuments are beautiful in themselves.
Besides parks, there are a lot of temples in Indore that provide respite from the noise of the street. One was a huge old Krishna temple, the first I’ve seen in a long time. Its stonework reminded me of temples in the south, and there was a lot of restoration being done on the temple and the building surrounding it.
We weren’t the only one enjoying the quiet of the temple. A few people came in while we were visiting, some to pray and some just to hang out and relax.
We found people in Indore incredibly friendly. Someone would just walk up to us on the street and engage in conversation – the kind of event that makes me wish I knew a lot more Hindi than I do now. And of course, there were the mom and daughter who got into our rickshaw and chatted excitedly with me until they got out. (Alan moved up front with the driver to accommodate the two ladies.)
Music: another surprise
Our second night in Indore, we were blessed with an unexpected treat: an evening of beautiful music. I have no idea what was going on, whether it was a wedding, a religious occasion or a concert, but around 8:00 it started up – a series of songs accompanied by drumming and instruments. The songs started off melodic and gentle and filled with longing, and over the course of a couple of hours, built up to faster tempos with more drumming.
I couldn’t hear well enough to recognize any words, but I think it was qawwali music – a type of Islamic devotional music that often mixes longing for one’s beloved with longing for the Beloved, the divine presence. (If you’ve ever listened to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you’ve heard qawwali.) The music felt like Indore’s final special gift to us, another wonderful surprise in a surprisingly wonderful city.