North India Tour – December 2017
Itinerary: (About 2 weeks)
- Delhi (2 days)
- Varanasi (3 days)
- Agra (1 day)
- Ranthambore National Park (2 days)
- Jaipur (2 days)
- Udaipur (2 days)
Day 1: Stop over in San Francisco.
We had not allowed ourselves to get very excited about our forthcoming trip and instead buried ourselves in the business of family life and the usual rush of activities that come with our jobs in the run up to Christmas. This resulted in leaving some of the preparations until the very last day or two before departing; including packing.
I had decided to invest in a couple of new suitcases, one bright orange and the second in Karen’s favorite shade of blue. When they arrived from Amazon we were very excited … these were our first new cases for about 10 years and they had those wonderful roller wheels, a new luxury for us! They looked huge, at least until we started to pack them with clothing for two weeks of traveling. For what had looked voluminous now looked to be sadly lacking, particularly in anticipation of the hoard of gifts and treasures we planned to bring back. No way was there room for a carved elephant! So, a last minute decision led me to head out to the local Ross store. I wanted to make sure we still had a bag that was quickly recognizable as it trundled its way around the airport carousel. Unfortunately, there was a limited choice and I found myself walking out with a case in a subdued color of blue but decorated with white flowers complemented with gold zippers and trim. I amused myself with the thoughts that Karen was going to hate this. So, I went home and re-packed her bags, loaded them into the car and set off with Jack to pick her up from work to head out to the airport.
We were only flying down to San Francisco then stopping overnight. Last year at this time the weather had been awful, and we’d had real problems bringing Laura (now Chloe) in and out of Bend, which is a long and painful story in itself, which I won’t go into here. So, my thought had been that if flights got delayed due to inclement weather we’d still have time to drive down to San Francisco. In practice I am not sure how this would have turned out, driving 700 miles in a blizzard, but it made me feel better to have a plan B.
Luckily, there was no need for alternatives and our flight was on time and by late afternoon we were checked into our hotel. We felt it would be a bit disappointing to spend the first night of such an exciting holiday stuck in our hotel, so we decided to head into downtown San Francisco and get a bite to eat. My first instinct had been to get the shuttle back to the airport and get BART to downtown, which turned out to be pricey and would have taken an eternity. Instead, after Karen chatted to one of the hotel’s doormen, we opted to take our first Uber ride. It worked out really well for us. As always Karen preferred to find out the life history of our driver rather than wallow in the back of the car contemplating one’s own navel (which is my preferred option). The driver turned out to be a Mongolian doctor who had come to the US on a student visa. He had come the US to study at UCSF and ended up working as a supervisor in the medical center. Sadly, the change in administration with Donald Trump becoming President, had changed the landscape for immigrant workers and this poor man had been told he could no longer continue in his role at medical center. Now he works as an Uber driver to earn money whilst he works out his future.
This fueled our passion about Dreamers and welcoming immigrants further.
Union Square in San Francisco was bustling, as this was the last weekend before Christmas. The enormous tree at the center of the square was dazzling with its thousands twinkling lights. By this time we were hungry, so our minds were focused on appeasing our bellies and not feasting our eyes on seasonal decorations. Since we had become vegan three months earlier the choices were more limited, but I had found an app for my phone called “Happy Cow” which not only lists vegan and vegetarian restaurants and stores but also has mapping and location services to help you get there. Not wanting to go far we found a fast food place, the Loving Hut (owned and run by a cult), inside a shopping mall. This was not haute cuisine, but it was fast and filled our bellies. Although now satiated we were cold and had turned out thoughts to tomorrow’s travel, so after a quick stop at Trader Joe’s to pick up some snacks for our journey we headed back to the hotel. After our earlier great Uber experience we decided to hail another ride back.
This time the car was full. The couple who shared our Uber ride were not chatty, so we filled the time talking to the driver. This time the driver was born and bred in San Francisco, nonetheless he still had an interesting story to tell and we easily filled the time during the 30 minutes back to the hotel.
Day 2 – Flight to Delhi.
Today, we were excited to start our journey to India for real, the only thing tempering our enthusiasm was the thought of spending nearly 16 hours on a plane. Everything went smoothly with checking, which is always nerve wracking when you are traveling on a visa.
I was curious to follow the route of our flight and had expected to be headed out west up and over the arctic. Therefore, I was surprised when we ended up over Idaho, crossing the Rockies, heading towards Canada. Our final journey took us over Canada and Greenland, north of Iceland and into Europe via Sweden and Norway. The last leg was across Russia and Pakistan … which was slightly concerning considering the fractious relationship between Pakistan and India.
I had never traveled on Air India before, so I had no idea what to expect. The aircraft itself was a Boeing 777, so relatively modern, but the inside was tired to say the least. Things didn’t work well. The seats had plenty of leg-room, which was good, but they were uncomfortable and lacked padding. Also, there were issues with seats reclining, the sinks in the toilets didn’t let the water drain and the entertainment system was crappy. Not only were there not many movies to watch, the system itself kept crashing and you had to go back to the beginning of the movie and fast forward. In some ways we were lucky with our entertainment system in that it worked, other peoples’ systems did not, to the point they could not even switch it off!
In addition to equipment malfunction, the overall service was not much to write home about. The air crew was surly and not very attentive. On a flight of this length they usually come around many times with water to help you keep hydrated, something that is recommended to prevent deep-vein thrombosis. I only remember seeing them a couple of times. Then there was the food. We took the vegan option, which came with butter and dairy creamer with our first meal. The food was also bland, some soggy veggies and plain rice. Very disappointing! It was interesting to see how more relaxed things were when it comes to inflight safety compared to US airlines. When the seat belts lights came on people continued to wander around without being assaulted by the air stewards, overhead lockers were left open and even we came into land people were up and down until a few minutes before landing.
Delhi airport was very much like any airport in the world, apart from the fact that there was about four times the number of porters you would see anywhere else. It was wonderful to come from the limited racial diversity of Oregon to somewhere that you actually feel foreign. We have missed that feeling. One thing we were not expecting was any sign of Christmas in a country so dominated by Hinduism, so we were totally surprised by the large Santa Claus standing beside the “Welcome to India” sign.
After being welcomed by our host we jumped into our car and set off for the hotel. Having been to India before I knew what the traffic and driving would be like, and despite the warning Karen was still shocked … almost to silence (and that is rare!). It was very interesting to see seven cars side by side on a road with three lanes. It was exciting to see all the cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws and motorbikes trying to squeeze into the smallest gaps. Karen winced every few minutes as she watched the death-defying antics of the motor cyclists, many not wearing helmets, talking on a cell phone and carrying passengers with huge packets of various shapes and sizes under each arm. The cacophony of horns did become a bit wearing after a while, especially as by now we were beginning to feel the effects of the long journey. As always it is interesting to see a new city, especially a metropolis of 20 million people. In the space of an hour you get to see the best and the worst, from Marks and Spencer’s and other upscale retail establishments to piles of rubbish, the squalor, the tumbled down buildings and emaciated young children tapping on your windows every time you stop at traffic lights.
Finally, we reached our hotel, the Manor, which is situated in a relatively calm private community. It was difficult to completely escape the hubbub of the world outside, as witnessed by the occasional the sound of train and truck horns that broke the peaceful silence. Our bodies believed it to be 3am in the morning, but the lack of a decent meal in the last 24 hours or so had left us feeling hungry. So, after a quick shower we went to the hotel’s restaurant for a quick bite to eat. The vegan options were limited so we shared an eggplant curry and a spinach dahl. For some reason there were a lot of tough, unidentified stalks in the eggplant curry; which almost caused Karen to die of choking on our very first night, which would have put a bit of a damper on the holiday! We decided that for the restof our time in India rather than live in a desert of vegan options we’d suspend our veganism but stick to a vegetarian diet … hoping our digestive systems would not go into to shock from the dairy food being lobbed in their direction.
The food was excellent, and the service was the antithesis of Air India’s, almost to the point of being overly intrusive.
The summary of the day is:
- Flying for 15 hours is horrible
- Don’t fly Air India
- Don’t ride a scooter in Delhi without excellent life insurance
- Appreciate, without prejudice, the diversity in India
- Eggplant curry is delicious but try not to swallow the stalks
Day 3 – New Delhi
Today was Christmas Day, which is not a major celebration in Hindu majority India, but it was still a public holiday.
Our tour operator, Audley, had set out a fairly leisurely schedule for the day with us not planned to set out on a tour until noon. So, we spent our morning getting settled in and having a civilized, mainly Indian breakfast.
Before setting out to India we had been worried about the pollution levels in Delhi, which has developed an unwanted reputation as one of the World’s most polluted cities. Earlier in November the pollution levels had reached very dangerous levels, due to the four million cars on Delhi’s roads, particulates from construction, coal fired power plants and farmers burning their crop stubble. Our concern had been serious enough for us to pack face masks. Luckily, the pollution levels had improved, but there was still a haze and you could smell and taste the air.
Our driver and the guide for our two days in Delhi, Zupaigh (I was not sure of the spelling), arrived to collect us. With the traffic delay, albeit lighter than usual due to the holidays, we still had plenty of time to chat about Indian culture and politics. Karen and I consider ourselves worldly, but we still love to discover more. It was fascinating to get a better understanding of the caste system, which is still deeply rooted in Hindu culture.
The first stop of our day was the Qutab Minar. Being a holiday, everything was crazier than usual, with people and cars everywhere. We were slowly getting used to how things worked but it was nonetheless amusing to watch the seething mass of humanity squeeze into such a tiny space. Fortunately, there is a rule that has foreign visitors paying ten times the entrance fee of Indian Nationals but this gets you priority entry. So, instead of queuing for 2 hours we walked straight in.
Qutab Minar is a minaret that forms part of the Qutab complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The minaret is a 73- metre (239.5 feet) tall tapering tower consisting of 5 storeys, with a 14.3 metre (47 feet) base diameter, that reduces to 2.7 metres (9 feet) at the peak. The base of first storey has alternate angular and circular flutings, the second one is round. The third storey of the Qutub Minar has angular flutings. The top storeys have totally different designs as they were added later. When viewed from above the Minar looks like a lotus flower, which is sacred in Indian culture.
The Minar is constructed from very durable and beautiful sandstone. The minaret itself is hollow and has a spiral staircase that takes you to the top, providing spectacular views across Delhi. Sadly, we couldn’t experience this view, which would have anyway been obscured by the smog, because the public are not allowed to climb the stairs. Before 1974, the general public was allowed access to the top of the Minar via the internal staircase. On 4 December 1981, the staircase lighting failed and between 300 to 400 visitors stampeded towards the exit. 45 were killed in the crush and many were injured; most of these were children. Subsequently, public access to the inside of the tower has been stopped.
The Qutab Minar was established along with Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque around 1192 by Qutab-us-din Aibak, first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. The mosque complex is one of the earliest that survives in the Indian subcontinent. The Minar’s ground storey was built over the ruins of the Lao Kot, the citadel of Dhillika .Aibak’s successor, lltutmish, added three more storeys. The Minar’s topmost storey was damaged by lightning in 1369 and was rebuilt by Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who added another storey. In 1505, an earthquake damaged Qutab Minar; it was repaired by Sikander Lodi. On 1 September 1803, a major earthquake caused serious damage. Major Robert Smith of the British Indian Army renovated the tower in 1828 and installed a pillared cupola over the fifth story, thus creating a sixth. The cupola was taken down in 1848, under instructions from The Viscount Hardinge, then Governor General of India. It was reinstalled at ground level to the east of Qutab Minar, where it remains. It is known as “Smith’s Folly”.
Getting out was made easier by the expertise of our guide and driver, and we were soon on our way to stop two, Humayun’s Tomb. On the journey we had more time to find out more about Delhi. One thing that I was particularly curious about was how the Delhi and the National Indian governments were going about tackling the crippling pollution that envelops the region every winter. To try and mitigate the air quality they have designated Delhi to become a green city and planted a lot of trees. Each tree is painted and numbered, and someone has to go around and count the trees and make sure no one has come along in the night and had away with one. Also, they have built some of the coal powered fire stations hundreds of kilometers from Delhi and transport the power back, which doesn’t sound hugely efficient. It might also explain the frequent power outages. We also got to discuss the caste system, which for those of us who are not Hindu is hard to fathom.
The system divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty), and is generally accepted to be more than 3,000 years old.
The four main castes are: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that these groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.
At the top of the hierarchy are the Brahmins who are mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma’s head. Then there are the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from Brahma’s arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet and did all the menial jobs.
The main castes are further divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on specific occupations.
Outside of this Hindu caste system are the achhoots – the Dalits or the Untouchables.
For centuries, caste dictated almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life, with each group occupying a specific place in this complex hierarchy.
Rural communities were long arranged on the basis of castes – the upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies, the water wells were not shared, Brahmins would not accept food or drink from the Shudras, and one could marry only within one’s caste.
When India gained independence in 1949 the new constitution banned discrimination on the basis of caste. In 1950, in an attempt to correct historical injustices and provide a level playing field to the traditionally disadvantaged, the authorities announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy.
With these lessons on history and culture the time soon passed, and we arrived at Humayon’s Tomb to see another throng of people. Just like at Qutab Minar, we were able jump the extremely long lines.
The tomb itself is set within a complex with extensive and lush gardens, amongst which are scattered several elaborate tombs. The largest structure is Humayan’s Tomb, a phenomenal structure which is believed to have been the template for the Taj Mahal. Humayun’s Tomb is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun which was commissioned by Humayun’s first wife and chief consort, Empress Bega Begum (also known as Haji Begum), in 1569- 70. It was designed by Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, a Persian architect chosen by her. The circumstances behind Humayan’s death were unusual. On 27 January 1556, Humayun, with his arms full of books, was descending the staircase from his library when the muezzin announced the Azaan (the call to prayer). It was his habit, wherever he heard the summons, to bow his knee in holy reverence. Trying to kneel, he caught his foot in his robe, tumbled down several steps and hit his temple on a rugged stone edge. He died three days later.
We were given time to walk around the tomb and admire the surrounding views, with the minarets of the other tombs peeking above the trees. Leaving the complex, we did a quick detour to see the octagonal Isa Khan Niyazi Tomb, which pre-dates Humayan’s Tomb by 15 years.
By this time, we were getting peckish, so we set off to find somewhere to grab a quick bite. We ended up a restaurant for a full sit-down meal. To my delight they had pickled onions within the pickle selection, which was very fitting for Christmas Day (a Hobbs family tradition). A mushroom tandoori and saag dahl later we were stuffed and shortly after we started to enter a food coma. We made a quick stop at a store to look for gifts, but this turned out to be disappointing and we left empty handed. By now we were totally exhausted and were grateful to be returned to our hotel for a snooze before dinner.
The summary of the day is:
- Delhi pollution is unbelievable – and we had missed the worst of it
- The early rulers of Delhi loved their tombs and monuments
- Curry for Christmas Day lunch is perfect
Day 4 – Old Delhi
The plan for our second day in India was to visit some of the sites of Old Delhi.
New Delhi is distinctive from Old Delhi and is the modern-day capital of India and one of Delhi city’s 11 districts. The foundation stone of New Delhi was laid by George V, Emperor of India during the Delhi Durban of 1911. It was designed by British architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert. The new capital was inaugurated on 13 February 1931, by Viceroy and Governor General of India Lord Irwin. The design of New Delhi is based on wide roads, elegant homes and large green spaces. In contrast Old Delhi and is made up of narrow, filthy streets and compact living spaces. It was founded as Shahjahanabad in 1638, when Shah Javan, the Mughal king at the time, decided to shift the Mughal capital from Agra.
We had discovered that the traffic in Delhi is crazy whatever time you are unlucky enough to find yourself traveling. It is surprising that anyone gets anywhere, but things kept moving, albeit chaotically! I am not sure why they bothered to paint the white lines on the road as nobody actually takes any notice of them! Somehow cars squeeze into the smallest of spaces, inching their way through, whilst the motorbikes and scooters, loaded with people, teeter and weave their way courageously in and out. We asked why, in the dusty atmosphere of Delhi, why so many cars are white, and we were told firstly, white reflects the heat, and secondly, everyone owns a can of white paint.
Today, we had hit rush hour, which for India is later than we are used to in Europe and America, with many private companies starting at 9:30am and government offices starting at 10:00am. Fortunately one of the nice things about the slow progress of our commute was that we were able to experience more of the mêlé of day-to-day Delhi street lift. Although it felt that all of Delhi’s multitudes had descended on the streets simultaneously in their cars, autorickshaws and scooters many do use public transport. The buses, looking tired and battle-worn, their shell pockmarked with a multitude of dinks, were packed with people. Also, Delhi has a metro system which continues to grow. On this very day the Prime-Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was opening a new metro line; the Magenta Line.
Even this was controversial as Mr Modi declined to invite Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who was not a member of his BGP (Bharatiya Janata Party) party. In fact, rail travel is a much bigger deal altogether in India than it is the USA.
Although the USA has much more track it carries far fewer passengers; Thirty million on Amtrack and about one billion commuter travelers. In comparison in India in 2015 eight billion people traveled on India’s trains! It is also the world’s eighth largest employer, with 1.3 million employees (the largest is the US department of defense with three million. Wow!). During this trip to Old Dehli we got to see some of the more unusual forms of transport, including an ornately decked wedding horse being returned, and an elephant crossing the road (definitely not something you would not see in Bend, Oregon).
Our first port of call was the Masjid-i Jahān-Numā (World-reflecting Mosque), commonly known as the Jama Masjid of Delhi. This great mosque of Old Delhi is the largest in India, with a courtyard capable of holding 25,000 devotees. It was begun in 1644 and ended up being the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. The highly decorative mosque has three great gates, four towers and two 40m high minarets and is constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marble. Before entering the mosque, we had to pay the 150 rupees to bring in our camera, remove our shoes and Karen had to dress in a rather fetching robe (if you see the pictures you note the heavy sarcasm in this statement!) The façade of the mosque is spectacular, but it is only a few tens of feet deep. We snapped away, getting the most of our 150 rupee camera fee, despite the air quality being poor – this only seemed to add to the atmospheric ambiance. Milling around the Mosque was interesting; it was yet another great opportunity to people watch – both the visitors and worshipers.
The next stop, the Red Fort, was the other side of Old Delhi and we had to decide our mode of transport. We were offered the chance to go by cycle rickshaw through the narrow streets. This was an opportunity not to be missed. As I climbed in I discovered that I was not ideally designed for the rickshaw of old Delhi, my head resting firmly on the roof. There was no seat belt or much of anything to hang on to, apart from each other, and having any part of your body hanging out was definitely a bad idea if you wanted to keep it attached to your body. Anyway, there was no time worry about such things as we headed off. The alleys were extremely narrow; probably six to eight feet wide and bustling with pedestrians, other rickshaws and motorbikes and scooters. This was not a ride for the faint hearted and was as much of a thrill ride as you would find at a Six Flags resort. It was truly exhilarating to speed (relatively) through the alleys dodging oncoming traffic, to the point Karen and I were in a state of nervous hysteria. Karen told me to take as many pictures as possible, which was not easy as we jerked from side to side. The engineer in me was particularly taken with spaghetti of power lines running across the tops of the alleys … if anything went wrong with one of those circuits I could not image how they would get fixed. Towards the end of our trip our guide Zupaigh pulled the rickshaws over to point out a couple of things.
The first thing was two co-located temples, one a stunning white marble Hindu Temple (much more on Hinduism later), Gauri Shankar Mandir, and the second Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, a Jainist Temple. Jainists form a small percentage of the religious makeup of India (0.4%), which is likely why I have never heard of them. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion. Followers of Jainism are called “Jains”, a word derived from the Sanskrit word jina (victor) and connoting the path of victory in crossing over life’s stream of rebirths through an ethical and spiritual lift. Jains trace their history through a succession of twenty-four victorious saviors and teachers known as Tirthankaras, the first who is believed to have lived millions of years ago, and twenty-fourth being the Mahavira around 500 BCE.
Coming back to why we stopped! The second thing to be pointed out was a small group of men standing outside a McDonalds in red turbans. These were not burger flippers or Ronald’s helpers, but were in fact a caste with a specific role in life. Their sole job was to clean people’s ears. No joke! A skill that is passed down from father to son – not sure what the prospects are for someone born into that caste!
A few hundred yards further down the road our journey ended at the entrance to Red Fort.
The Red Fort is a large complex in the center Old Delhi, and for 200 years, until 1857, was the main residence of the Mughal emperors. In addition to accommodating the emperors and their households, it was the ceremonial and political center of the Mughal state and the setting for events critically impacting the region. Sadly, the Red For today is not what it was once was. The fort was plundered of its artwork and jewels during Nadir Shah’s invasion of the Mughal Empire in 1747. Most of the fort’s precious marble structures were subsequently destroyed by the British following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The fort’s defensive walls were largely spared, and the fortress was subsequently used as a garrison. The Red Fort was also the site where the British put the last Mughal Emperor on trial before exiling him to Rangoon in 1858.
As we walked up to the entrance I was drawn to a couple of things, the first being the many stray dogs hanging around and secondly the ramshackle framework that was being used by the men working on the renovation of the walls. These were not the solid looking metal scaffolding that are used by workmen in the US and Europe but were instead were made from bamboo (which to be fair is very strong) and lashed with rope. I can only imagine what health and safety would say if you tried to suggest using this type of framework on a building site back home.
Feral dogs can be seen everywhere and seem to be tolerated, if not revered, by the locals, who feed them tidbits. It is a part of the culture to give scraps to the feral animals, because when you pass into the afterlife these kindnesses will be rewarded. Apparently, there are some 30 million feral dogs in India, which is all well and good, but 20,000 people die each year from rabies, which means that 35% of human deaths from rabies happen in India. Sounds like a problem! On the other hand, cats are thought to be unlucky, by some, so you don’t see so many of those around.
Security at the Red Fort was tight, evidenced by the many armed soldiers and armored vehicle on the approach to the entrance. The reason for this level of security is the fact the Red Fort is an active military base and reflects the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan – terrorist attacks in India are sadly too common. At the entrance two lines formed; one for men and one for women. The men have to climb on to a platform where you get to be frisked by a gruff soldier, whilst the ladies, to protect their modesty, get to stand behind a curtain, where they are frisked by an equally gruff female soldier. Once inside you get to appreciate the scale of the complex, with elegant gardens and numerous stately buildings. Sadly, many of the original structures were demolished by the British and replaced with barracks buildings. What remains of the original Mughal buildings are the imperial apartments, consisting of a row of pavilions connected by a water channel known as the “Stream of Paradise!” These buildings had been allowed to fall into a bad state of repair, but the government has stepped into refurbish them. Unfortunately, they are closed to visitors, so we could only stand and admire them from the outside.
Exiting the Red Fort, we risked life and limb to reunite with our driver, to continue our journey, stopping next at a memorial to the great Mahatma Gandhi, which marks the spot where he was cremated shortly after his assignation on 30th January 1948.
Born and raised in a Hindu merchant caste family in coastal Gujarat and trained in law in London, Gandhi first employed nonviolent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, where the resident Indian communities struggled for civil rights. After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for various social causes and for achieving self-rule.
Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the 400 km (250 mi) Dandi Salt March in 1930, and later in calling for the British to Quit India 1942. He was imprisoned for many years, upon many occasions, in both South Africa and India. He lived modestly in a self-sufficient community.
Eventually, in August 1947, Britain granted independence, but the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. As many displaced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs made their way to new lands, religious violence broke out. Some Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating in agreeing the division of India. Among them, was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu Nationalist who assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948, firing three bullets into his chest. Godse was found guilty and executed the following year.
The monument itself is very simple; a black marble slab on a plinth, lovingly decorated with fresh flowers. Many Indians come to this site in reverence to Gandhi, and today was no exception. This was also our first experience of the locals wanting to take a selfie with us, in fact we ended up taking several just at this monument. This was very much a hit and run visit as we had a couple more photo opportunities stops to make before the end of the day.
Next was India Gate. Designed by Edwin Lutyens, India Gate is a memorial to 70,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who died in the period 1914–21 in the First World War and elsewhere in the Near and the Far East, and the Third Anglo- Afghan War. 13,300 servicemen’s names, including some soldiers and officers from the United Kingdom, are inscribed on the gate. The India Gate, even though a war memorial, evokes the architecture of the triumphal arch in the style of the Arc de Triomphe.
As it was still school holiday time the park area surrounding was full of people enjoying themselves, but we managed to run the gauntlet of small kids weaving around in giant remote controlled cars to take a few photos and hop back into the car and head to our final destination, the Presidential Palace.
Partially set aside as the Indian Prime Minister residence, the Presidential Palace is a truly enormous complex which faces India Gate in the distance along an elegant mall. ‘Enormous’ does not do justice to its size; it makes Buckingham Palace look like a 3 bed, semi-detached house and the White House a dolls house. The Palace is officially known as Rashtrapati Bhavan and was previously the home of the Viceroy of India (how he was allowed to have a larger pad than the Monarch is hard to fathom!). At the far west end is the 340 room, main building where the President gets to live. In total the Presidential estate extends to 320 acres including a number of large buildings and formal gardens.
By now we were exhausted and were glad to fight our way through the traffic back to the hotel and ready ourselves for our trip to Varanasi.
Lessons for the day:
- Cycle rickshaws are not for the faint hearted
- Don’t work for the local electricity company
- Still happy eating curry 3 times a day!
- Be prepared to be in selfies with complete strangers
Day 5 – Varanasi
We made an early start to get to the airport for our flight. The sun was yet to rise, and luckily, so had many of the residents of Delhi, making our journey to the airport less frenetic than the way in. The security was tight getting into the terminal building, but we were soon checked in, only to find our flight had been delayed (a common occurrence in India).
The flight was short, and we were soon in our car on the way to our hotel. The airport is around 35km from the centre of the city and the first part of the journey was relatively calm. They are in the process of constructing a new road from the city to the airport, which will be great when it is finished, but for now it was a cause for chaos (a taste of what was to come). Where buildings had been in the path of the road, they had simply knocked down the part that was in the way, leaving the rest of the building intact with people living in whatever had been left behind.
Amazing! As we had previously discovered there is no lane discipline in India, so when parts of the road ran out vehicles simply crossed to the other side and navigated their way through the oncoming traffic, using their horns to announce their presence. The basic rule seems to be if something bigger than you is coming in your direction get out of the way. All the lorries carried a painted sign – “Blow Horn, Please!”
By the time we reached the city the traffic in Varanasi was in full flow. We have never seen anything like it, in fact it impossible to describe the total madness with experiencing it for yourself. Somehow everything worked, and we reached our point of departure from the car. The last quarter of a mile to our hotel, Suryauday Haveli, had to be traversed on foot. Luckily, our tour guide had called forward and some porters were on hand to carry our bags.
Now for a bit of background to Varanasi!
Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest living cities, is rightly called the religious capital of India. Also known as Banaras or Benaras, this holy city is located in the southeastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. It rests on the left bank of the holy river Ganga (Ganges) and is one of the seven sacred spots for Hindus. Every devout Hindu wishes to visit the city at least once in a lifetime, take a holy dip at the Ghats of the Ganga (the famous steps leading down to the water), walk the pious Panchakosi road that bounds the city, and die here in old age. Many tourists come to Varanasi, but also many avoid it due to its reputation for being dirty and packed with people (all of which is true), preferring to stick to the golden triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). But it was one of the places I wanted to include on the tour precisely due to the reasons people miss coming – this is real India!
We had a warm welcome waiting for us. The service in hotels and restaurants (at least the ones we went to) was amazing; sometimes almost too much. For the first night we were given a suite, and after dropping our bags in the room we headed to the roof terrace. The Suryauday Haveli overlooks the river Ganges, and we had fabulous viewpoint to observe everything going on around us, both on and off the river. Below us was a Ghat, a series of steps that ran down to a small beach, with groups of people milling around. A small herd of water buffalo also seemed to live there, and occasionally got it in their mind to chase a person. The Ganges often floods during the monsoon season filling up the whole river basin (and parts of Varanasi), this being December the width of the river was more modest, but nonetheless inspiring due to its iconic status. We ordered some lunch and when it arrived we had to sit on guard to protect it from the local, marauding monkeys. We needn’t have worried too much, because as soon as they got too close a member of the hotel staff appeared from nowhere to chase them off with a big stick.
Refreshed, we decided to head out along the river, where it is possible to walk for four and half miles. Not long after leaving we came to one of the Ghats where the Hindus cremate their dead. Coming from a culture where putting your loved ones on what is essentially a bonfire (in fact some looked more like barbeques) it felt a very alien practice.
Just as we arrived we saw a group of men carrying a body on a stretcher down to the area where the cremations took place. We had not been there more than an hour or so and we were already being confronted with a dead body, which did make us feel a bit awkward. Although we were carrying our cameras, it didn’t seem appropriate to take pictures (the family were taking pictures as though it were a wedding), but nonetheless a tiny man approached us and told us to be respectful and not take any photos. He took us to one side and started to tell us about the ritual itself.
For the Hindus, Varanasi is very special, and many hope to spend their final days and hours in the city, so they can have their cremation by the Ganges and their ashes cast in the river. The cremations take place within hours of the person’s death. As we had observed the bodies are carried down to river, by an all-male wedding cortege (apparently women get too emotional), their bodies wrapped in white cloth, a simple garland around their necks and covered with a brightly covered drape. The bodies are washed in the water of the Ganges and are carried back and placed on the funeral pyre. The chief mourner, will be the older son in the case of the father or the youngest son in the case of the mother, if there are no sons, other rules apply. He has his head shaved and wears a simple white robe. They perform the rites of washing the body and setting the fire on the pyre. Everyone hangs around until the body is fully burnt, which can take three or four hours, at which time ashes are taken and cast into the Ganges along with a major bone which has not been consumed in the fire. In the case of a women this would be a hip bone and in the case of a man his sternum. After this there is then a process of mourning.
We learnt that there are groups of people who are considered to be already spiritually clean and therefore do not require to be cremated. This includes pregnant women, holy men, children under two, lepers and those who die of snake bites. Instead of cremation these people are weighted down and dropped into the Ganges. The cremations in Varanasi take place 24 hours a day, and total somewhere in the order of 200 each day.
Our new friend also explained that his family was a member of a caste, the Doms, that is responsible for maintaining the cremation grounds and the holy fire that was used to light the pyres. This fire has been maintained for thousands of years and it is only this fire that the Hindus believe can be used to light a pyre. The Doms make their living from death and cremation, charging families for their services. They are considered as Untouchables, but everyone, even the rich, wanting to use the cremation grounds and the sacred fire has to employ their services. From the cremation grounds by the river our “friend” took us up the street past the huge piles of wood provided to mourners, for a fee, to use on the pyres. There are different types of wood depending on what could be afforded, the most expensive being sandlewood, which provides a sweet smell (better for masking the smell of burning flesh). We were also shown a more traditional crematorium. From here we were led through some very narrow alleys. I was becoming a bit concerned about being mugged or killed, but eventually arrived at small house where we could hear the clacking of a loom. Varanasi is famous for the production of very fine silk cloth, and our informal guide took us into to see the loom at work (more on silk cloth production later). He then led us some narrow stairs into a room, with a mattress covered floor and shelves packed with silk scarves, bed linen, table clothes and pashminas. As from nowhere another man appeared; an enthusiastic sales man with good English. From that point on we were shown dozens of products of all shapes and sizes. Karen selected a few items, we paid our money and our “guide” took us back to our hotel. It was obvious to us by this stage that we had been taken for a ride, and had not heeded the warning about hawkers,but having said that we had learned some interesting facts about the Hindu culture and its links to the Ganges and Karen did get a couple of silk scarves.
Our evening plans were an official tour, consisting of a boat ride on the river Ganges, followed by dinner. We were met by our guide around dusk and taken down the Ghat below our hotel and onto our boat. This was not a motor powered boat, but instead was propelled by a young man with a set of oars that looked cobbled together with bits of drift wood, but they worked fine. We travelled down the river to the main cremation ground where about 15 cremations were in progress. We watched in fascination at the rituals. The ceremonies were at various stages, we saw one body being washed, another pyre being set and others in full flame. One cremation had completed it cycle and the chief mourner collected what looked like a hip bone, walked down to the river and cast it into the water.
By this stage it was dark, and we set off down the river to the main event of trip, the Aarti, a religious ceremony held nightly at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Before setting out on our trip we had bought some candles set in a cup of leaves from one of the small children hawking on the Ghat below the hotel. As we traveled towards the Aarti we lit these candles, tributes to family and friends struggling with illness, and set them afloat on the river. This was a truly profound spiritual moment.
The waters around Dashashwamedh Ghat were packed with boats full of tourists and pilgrims. The Ganga Aarti is a colourful ceremony that pays homage to the Lord Shiva. The Aarti is performed by seven young priests who are pursuing their Vedas and Upanishads. The priests stand on highly decorated dias and follow a highly choreographed ceremony involving mantra chants, conch blowing, incense and a seven-layered camphor lamp (something resembling an inverted chandelier with flames). The whole thing lasted 45 minutes and was fascinating to watch.
Equally fascinating was to watch the people and boats around us, it was somewhat chaotic as boats shuffled positions to get the best views, and at the same time young men leapt, risking life and limb, from boat to boat trying to sell trinkets to the passengers. When all was done the armada of vessels set off in every direction, through which our oarsmen skillfully navigated our safe passage back to the hotel.
There was nothing else left for us to do except eat another tasty Indian meal. We dined in the hotel courtyard where the hotel had organized a group of musicians to play traditional Indian music. It was good, apart from the instrument that occasionally made the sound of a distressed mosquito. Karen, as is her want, went up to the band members to find out more about their craft and ended up singing some scales with them. Our waiter noticed Karen’s interest and said he could get hold of CDs of their music, we tried to ignore his offer and finished our meal and headed off to our room.
Day 6 – Varanasi (Day Two)
Still struggling with jet-lag we woke up early, so Karen decided to do the yoga class on the roof of the hotel. As is turned out it was a just her and the yogi, but it was a unique experience to be able to do yoga with the sun rising over the Ganges!
Today was organized into three different tours and was heavily focused on a deep dive into Hindu culture. Our guide collected us and took us a few steps down the road to the door step of a temple. There are somewhere in the order of 23,000 temples in Varanasi, so if you stop anywhere you are likely to be on a door step of a temple. After a short introduction we headed down the streets passing several more temples. Walking around Varanasi you start to appreciate the density of this city of 1.2M people. The streets are narrow and are challenging to navigate as you have to avoid piles of rubbish, cows and dogs (and their excrement) and crazy scooter drivers. Surprisingly, you don’t see too many people!
Anyway, back to Hinduism. Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, according to many scholars, with roots and customs dating back more than 4,000 years. It is the world’s third largest religion; numbering about 1.15 billion, or 15-16% of the global population, with 90% living in India. There are said to be 33 million gods in Hinduism symbolizing one abstract Supreme Being, but there are ten main Hindu deities that are more commonly celebrated.
- BRAHMA – The first deity of the Hindu trinity, Lord Brahma is considered to be the god of Creation.
- VISHNU – The second deity of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu is the Preserver (of life).
- SHIVA – The final deity of the Hindu trinity is Shiva, also known as the Destroyer.
- GANESHA – One of the most prevalent and best-known deities is Ganesha, easily recognized by his elephant head.
- HANUMAN – Another easily distinguishable god is Hanuman, the deity depicted as a monkey.
- KRISHNA – Lord Krishna is one of the most powerful incarnations. He is kept very near to many Hindus’ hearts, as he is not only viewed as a hero and leader but also as a teacher and a friend.
- KALI – Perhaps one of the fiercest deities is Kali, also known as the Dark Mother. Kali is known for her tongue protruding from her mouth, her garland of skulls, and her skirt of bones.
- RAMA – Rama is the model of reason and virtue and is often considered to be the ideal man due to his compassion, courage, devotion and adherence to dharma.
- SARASWATI – Saraswati is the goddess of learning, music, art and wisdom.
- DURGA – The goddess Durga is an important representation of the Divine Mother, also known as ‘the Invincible’. She is said to protect mankind from evil and misery, and does so as the destructive force of jealousy, prejudice, hatred and ego.
There are some additional key things to know about Hinduism:
- Hinduism embraces many religious ideas. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as a “way of life” or a “family of religions,” as opposed to a single, organized religion.
- Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic, which means they worship a single deity, known as “Brahman,” but still recognize other gods and goddesses. Followers believe there are multiple paths to reaching their god.
- Hindus believe in the doctrines of samsara (the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation) and karma (the universal law of cause and effect).
- One of the key thoughts of Hinduism is “atman,” or the belief in soul. This philosophy holds that living creatures have a soul, and they’re all part of the supreme soul. The goal is to achieve “moksha,” or salvation, which ends the cycle of rebirths to become part of the absolute soul.
- One fundamental principle of the religion is the idea that people’s actions and thoughts directly determine their current life and future lives.
- Hindus strive to achieve dharma, which is a code of living that emphasizes good conduct and morality.
- The Om and Swastika are symbols of Hinduism. The Swastika, which represents good luck, later became associated with evil when Germany’s Nazi Party made it their symbol in 1920.
- Hindus revere all living creatures and consider the cow a sacred animal.
- Food is an important part of life for Hindus. Most don’t eat beef or pork, and many are vegetarians.
- Hinduism is closely related to other Indian religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.
Now back to our tour. From the center of Varanasi old town we headed to Banaras Hindu University, which was established in 1916 by Madan Mohan Malaviya. More specifically we were heading to the New Vishwanath Temple, located in the centre of the campus. The temple itself was spectacularly large and is an oasis in the chaotic centre of Varanasi. After leaving our shoes at the shoe parking place we headed into the temple itself, which like many Hindu temples was lavishly decorated. The halls were filled with the sounds of chanting, which we thought were recorded, but it turned out to be a live group of musicians. Our guide took us through several rooms and gave us more insight to the Hindu faith, including some rooms with shrines.
From the Hindu University we crossed town to the Sankat Mochan Hanuman (the god depicted as a monkey) Temple. Here the security was far greater than we had seen anywhere else in Varanasi, and this was due to a bombing at the temple in March 2006 which resulted in the death of 10 pilgrims, with another 40 people being injured.
We then headed back towards our hotel, and were dropped off a short distance away,
allowing us to take a walk through the streets and visit more sites. First stop was a school for Brahman priests, who were deep into their studies when we arrived. Finally, we visited the Shri Jagannath Ji Mandir Nrusinh Bhagwan Temple, set within a small compound. The shrine had a very simple wooden structure, and pays homage to the (the symbols representing this deity are very curious), who is believed to be “Lord of the Universe” and is considered a form of Vishnu. Within the grounds live several families and devotees, who serve and maintain the temple, and live a very simple life.
Not long after our return to the hotel we were picked up by the guide for our next tour (it was the same person who had taken us on the boat ride the night before). This was to be a break from the Hindu culture lessons for the day, as we were heading to the Muslim districts of Varanasi where the main silk cloth production takes place. This area is very different to those that border the river Ganges; it has the same narrow streets, but the extreme poverty of the area was soon apparent and was especially evident amongst the children. All around us we could hear the clicketyclack of looms, sounding like an approaching army of giant crickets. We followed the guide as he darted through the narrow passage ways, avoiding numerous human and animal obstacles en route, finally ending up at a single room shop where a man was diligently working on a decorative ceremonial turban. From here we sped through more alleys and into workshop of a weaver. The room was small, dark and filled with the sounds of working looms. How people could bear this is difficult to fathom, as there is obviously no health and safety inspectors to insist on protection for the workers hearing. It was hot as well, but this was December and a cool day at that. I can’t imagine what it would be like on a hot summer’s day when the outside temperatures reach 45oC. Having seen how the stuff is produced our guide took us to a sales room with another slick tongued salesman. Luckily, the experience of the previous day prepared us for what was to come, but we did end up leaving with a few items (I count this as a lucky escape as Karen had her eyes on quite a number of items).
By now we were getting hungry, so as soon as we got to the hotel we headed for the roof top terrace and ordered ourselves some food in preparation for the last tour of the day. What a view!
The evening tour was into the bazaars of the old city. As we passed through the narrow streets we were regaled by a multitude of colours, sounds and smells; it was a total sensory overload. There were a multitude of small shops selling saris and cloth on bolts which were stacked from floor to ceiling. It is hard to believe that all these stores selling the same goods can survive. We did wonder how you decide which of these many stores to shop in, realizing it is probably a matter of wandering and checking in on each and then going back to the one that best fitted your needs. This would be my idea of hell! Amongst the fabric vendors were shops selling religious paraphernalia and food (which we had been warned about eating). We saw the occasional artisan, including a man who was working on an intricate metal panel relief design, which he was labouriously creating by hitting the panel with a metal punch and hammer.
After the tour we returned to our hotel room to get ready for dinner. As we prepared there was a knock on the door.
It was the creepy waiter from the night before, who invited himself in and discretely pulled out some CDs from the musicians who played in the evenings at the hotel. Being British we were too polite to tell him to piss off, so we ended up with some more souvenirs of our trip … in this case not ones we wanted. Just a warning that if you go to a charity store in Bend, Oregon don’t be surprised to find a copy of traditional Indian music from a band based in Varanasi!
Day 7 – Varanasi (Day Three)
When we rose this morning and looked out of the window all we could see was a thick blanket of fog; our view of the Ganges, only a hundred feet or so away, had disappeared overnight. The plan for the morning was another boat ride on the Ganges to view the morning rituals of the devotees and pilgrims who come down daily to the river to wash in the holy waters. The prospect for this did not look great! So, after breakfast we were surprised to see our tour guide.
We had thought the trip might get cancelled. Anyway, we headed down the river, where Karen managed to find a very slimy patch (probably a patty from a passing water buffalo moistened by the mist) to slip in and crash to the ground. It was not a great day for being wet and stinky on a boat (although the general smelly atmosphere would have covered the evidence of the fall) – so she popped back the room to change. Take 2! We went down to the dock again, being careful this time where we were treading, and boarded our little rowing boat. Casting off down the river, we travelled close to the shore as the fog still persisted! Through the gloom we could just make out people on the Ghats bathing in the water. Although the weather was not ideal it certainly added to the atmospheric drama of the experience. After we had gone half a mile or so, the guide ordered our oarsman to take us ashore, so we continue the rest of the tour on foot.
We climbed up the steps of a Ghat (there were a lot of them) and continued through a narrow, covered passage way, passing by several holy men sitting cross legged and obviously meditating, and then out on to the narrow streets. A short time later we found ourselves in the same bazaar area we had visited the night before, which was already bustling with people. Our guide pointed out the many heavily armed soldiers hanging around the narrow streets; these are now a constant presence due to the terror attacks a few years back. The reason we were here was to see the mosque and the golden temple (a Hindu temple), which are hard to see in this district, where the buildings are densely packed. What is amazing is that Hindus and Muslims coexist as neighbours in such close quarters! We could have waited for hours in the lines to get in to the compounds for these temples, and on this dismal day it was hard to say how much we would actually see. Instead our guide took us in to a small shop selling various religious items, where we were offered a nice cup of hot masala chai tea. Subtly, one at a time, the owner took us to the back of the store and asked us to climb on a ramshackle box and look out of a small window. From here you could see both the mosque and the golden temple, but as we suspected there was not much to see on this foggy day. After the excitement of this experience (note the sarcasm) we were taken to a crossroad in the alleys, where the guide pointed out a small shop called Blue Lassi, which apparently is mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. Lassi is a desert dish (but is also great for breakfast) that is made from blending yoghurt, water and spices. To make it all the more yummy, you can add in fruit. Whilst we had been discouraged from eating street food our guide assured us it was safe to eat, so we ordered a couple of different flavours and sat down and waited. The lassi was being prepared by a sallow looking gentleman in a bowl on the side of the street. It didn’t feel very hygienic – but when in Rome! As we waited we got talking to a group of three young western looking people, who from their raggedy appearance had obviously been traveling from sometime, which made it difficult to tell where they were from. As it turned out they were from Portland, Oregon and knew Bend fairly well – it is a small world, but I will not harp on too long about this as it gets Karen going on her deep beliefs in the six degrees of freedom mumbo-jumbo. Soon our lassi was ready, and it was delicious. This was just the beginning of our love affair with lassi during our stay in India!
Nourished, we headed back to our hotel. The fog had still not lifted and our next scheduled tour was a photographic tour of Varanasi, which seemed a bit pointless as there was not much sign of an improvement in the weather. So, we decided to cancel the tour and hang out in our hotel and rest a little.
A couple of hours later, miraculously, the sun came out. We decided to go out and walk down the river front toward the main funeral Ghat, which was a couple of miles downriver. By the time we set-off the weather was fabulous, and we got some great photographs of people washing their bed linen in the river and drying them on the steep banks of the Ghats, holy men and their disciples chewing the fat and various scenes of people and animals going about their daily business. Before long we had reached our destination. As expected there were several cremations in various stages of progress. We walked amongst the huge stacks of wood and little shops selling everything you need for a Hindu funeral. Amongst all this humanity, the animals of Varanasi carve out a little slice of life for themselves. Things don’t always work out for these creatures, and one example presented itself to us in the form of the tinniest, scrappiest little puppy we had ever seen. It had got lost from its family, but Karen came to the rescue, picking up the puppy and reuniting it with a mummy and group of puppies, who seemed to be thriving better (we assumed this was its family, if not hopefully it would be adopted!) As providence would have it we were about to rescue another lost soul, this time in the form of an elderly, well spoken English lady from Devon. She was with her travel partner, also an elderly English lady, and seemed overwhelmed by all that was going on around her with the cremations taking place.
We did our second good deed for the day and guided them back to a place along the river they recognized and could navigate their way back to their hotel from.
We returned to hotel for some afternoon vittles and a rest, with a plan to return to see the Aarti in the evening. This time from the shore!
The walk to site to Aarti was only a short stroll from our hotel and we arrived in plenty of time to get a prime place on the steps of the Ghat. Once settled in, we spent our time people watching. Viewing the Aarti close up was a very different experience to watching from a boat on the river. This was a more intimate experience and we were able to observe more of the detail and intricacies of the ceremony. The procedural sequences were well rehearsed, with the four priests (one who remarkably looked like Jon Snow – a.k.a Kit Harington – from the “Game of Thrones” TV series) synchronously moving through the various phases – it was truly mesmerizing, and the forty-five minutes passed by so quickly. Afterward there was nothing to do except to return to our hotel and prepare for the journey to our next destination, Agra.
When we reached the top of the steps of the Ghat just below our hotel, we noticed marks on the side of the wall recording the height that flood water had reached over the years. Amazingly, over 100ft above our heads was the mark for the catastrophic flood of 1978. Very scary!
Lessons learnt at Varanasi:
- Never try and drive in Varanasi unless you are crazy
- Always look down while you are walking as you’ll never know what you are stepping in
- Don’t stop and talk to locals at the main tourist areas – they want to sell you something
- Don’t wash, drink or clean your teeth in the Ganges
- Cow dung and water makes a slippery hazard
- Lassi is very tasty
Day 8 – Agra
Today, we were off to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. We woke to yet another pea-soup of a fog, which suggested that our flight from Varanasi to Agra would be problematic. After another exciting journey through the chaotic Varanasi traffic, our prediction of a delay turned out to be true. That said they are used to smog and fog in this part of the world so the delay was not horrendous and it was not too long before we were on our way.
One of the nice things about flying in India is that they have not yet caught on to all the cost saving measures that the airlines in the United States have imposed, such as charging for snacks on the flight.
The flight was short, and we were soon landing in Agra. The airport in Agra is actually an air force base and there are limited flights in and out, in fact our flight from Varanasi was only one of two that happen each week. So, not being a commercial airport, the facilities at the Agra airport were very basic but due to its lack visitor traffic we were soon out.
We were met by a tour company representative and our driver PK, who was to be our constant companion for the rest of our stay in India. As we traveled we discussed how our time in Agra was to be spent. The plan had been to tour the Taj Mahal at day break the next day, but there was concern that it could be very foggy, as it had been that day, so the plan changed and it was decided we’d go straight to the Taj there and then.
It was still the holidays in India so the whole area around the Taj was super busy with international and domestic tourists. Somehow, we managed to meet up with the guide who was going to take us around the Taj. We waited while he disappeared off to get the entry tickets. The wait was quite long even though he was in the line for international visitors, with the jacked-up price, fast-pass tickets. Eventually he returned and we joined the lines to get in, again in the fast track lane, but there was a security check where everyone came together so it still took a while to get into the complex.
The Taj Mahal (meaning Crown of the Palace) is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna river. It was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631, to be built in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess who died (probably of exhaustion) giving birth to their 14th child. Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632. The imperial court documenting Shah Jahan’s grief after the death of Mumtaz Mahal illustrated the love story held as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. The principal mausoleum was completed in 1643 and the surrounding buildings and garden were finished about five years later. The remains of the princess were transferred from their temporary setting to the Taj Mahal on its completion. Myth has it that Shah Jahan planned to build another mausoleum in black marble similar to the Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the river (there are some workings that purport to be the start of the construction) but the work was never completed as he was deposed by his dastardly son and ran out of money.
The entrance gate leading to the Taj Mahal is impressive in its own right, and as you pass through its impressive arch you get your first sighting of the Taj. It is truly a majestic building of a colossal scale; pictures do not it justice. Having been recently cleaned it was stunning and shimmered in the hazy sunlight. The crowds were enormous, and as we walked down the avenue towards the Taj you could see hundreds of people milling around the balcony surrounding the Taj like an invading army of ants. There were plenty of photoshoot opportunities but with the volume of visitors none were quite as impressive as the iconic photos that were taken when Princess Diana visited many years prior to our visit, when they closed the grounds to visitors and she had the whole place to herself!
On reaching the base of the Taj we were able to once again jump the line to get to up to the balcony level, but it was still a crush. The soldiers on duty tried their best to keep order but the crowds were overwhelming. Once on the spacious balcony area things opened up and we were able to enjoy the splendor of the Taj. Sadly, the entrance to mausoleum had been closed due to the number of visitors but we were able to walk around the outside and enjoy the amazing craftsmanship that went into construction of this Wonder of the World. To the east and west are two more impressive identical structures; to the west in the direction of Mecca is a large mosque, reflecting the strong Islamic beliefs of the Mughal rulers. To the left the mosque’s sister building is a faux structure that was built purely for symmetry. Getting down from the balcony was even worse than getting up, and it is easy to see how a simple event could cause a mad panic, leading to people dying in the proceeding crush.
As we left the Taj behind we passed by a long, snaking line of domestic visitors, numbering thousands, waiting to get to the Taj. The likelihood of them all getting in before the close at sunset was very slim.
From the Taj we were taken to our accommodation for the evening, not a hotel this time but a homestay. This was not your typical Blackpool bed and breakfast, it was a large building set in very exotic gardens; the building’s design was very quirky, definitely eclectic and tricky to describe or classify. Our room was up three floors at the very top. We did a very quick turnaround and headed out to a local restaurant called a “Touch of Spice” which turned out to be wonderful – even after a week of eating Indian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner we were yet to get bored.
Returning to the homestay we found a group of people sitting around the fire pit, so we grabbed a beer and joined them. There was a couple from South London who were visiting India with their three children ranging from a teenage daughter to two sons in their twenties. The daughter apparently had hated every minute of the trip and the sons were enjoying themselves greatly! The dad was a fireman, so we shared some stories of wild fires in the western United States before moving on to our hatred of President Donald Trump and the state of affairs in the US and Europe. It was a good end to the day and we headed off to bed feeling nourished spiritually and nutritionally.
Unfortunately, the bed was rubbish, so we didn’t get the rejuvenating night’s sleep we had hoped for.
Day 9 – Agra to Ranthambore
We rose knowing today was going to be a long, but fun filled day as we transferred from the busy settings of Indian cities to rural Rajasthan for our tiger safari at Ranthambore National Park. Breakfast was served at the homestay, but it was disappointing compared to the yummy breakfasts we had been served previously. That said we had a chance to talk to a French couple who had traveled to India to attend a wedding and were tacking on a few days to do some touristy things.
The decision to do the Taj Mahal the previous day was a good one as a thick fog had once again descended. The plans for the day had a lot of variety built in as we travelled to Ranthambore.
The first of these was to visit a local village to get a sense of Indian village life. We drove out into the countryside and through some small towns, past a truck stop and after which we pulled to the side of the road next to some fields.
Not for the first time on this trip a thought crossed my mind that we might get dragged out of the car and get shot! Anyway, there was a nice young man waiting for us who was to be our guide. We were taken across the fields where freshly planted crops were sprouting and came across a family busily working on preparing food in a basic lean-to attached to their house, which was currently undergoing some building work. It was quite chilly in the morning fog, so they were warming themselves by a small fire. Further on we came into the main part of the village. As it was Sunday the children were not at school so they were entertaining themselves playing badminton (no mobile phones or TV for these kids) and they seemed to be full of joy with beaming smiles on their faces. All through our journey through India we would experience young children, who despite the poverty and squalor they were living in, seemed to be happy. As we strolled through the village we passed small shops selling their wares and people going about their daily business. It was somewhat surreal as our presence was largely ignored (apart from the small children) despite being total aliens in these surroundings. Our guide took us to a very ancient mosque in the village which apparently served Muslim communities from all around the area. He proudly pointed out two public toilets (there were no sewage services to any of the houses) which served the 500 or so people living in the village. Having public toilets in a village is such a rarity still in India. For our final stop we were taken into a small building that showed the work that NGOs were doing in this village, with a strong focus on health care education. Having spent much of our time so far in big cities and visiting tourist areas it was really a great privilege and experience to spend time in a village and see how most of India’s population live.
We met back up with PK and our guide to take us onwards to visit the fort at Fateh Sikri. The journey took about 90 minutes, and by the time we reached there the fog had finally began to clear and the sun had peeped its head from behind the misty shroud. To access the fort we had to take a bus from the parking area. Unfortunately, we had to run the gauntlet of hawkers who, like sirens tempting passing unsuspecting mariners, tried to lure us into the gift shops adjacent to the car park. There was one very persistent man who we fobbed off saying we’d look on the way back, hoping he would not remember us.
The ancient city of Fateh Sikri was founded by Emperor Akbar as the capital of Mughal Empire in 1571. Akbar’s son Jahangir was born at the village of Sikri in 1569 and that year Akbar constructed a religious compound to commemorate Sheikh Salim who had predicted the birth. After Jahangir’s second birthday, he began the construction of a walled city and imperial palace here. The city came to be known as Fatehpur Sikri, the “City of Victory”, after Akbar’s victorious Gujarat campaign in 1573.
The Imperial complex was abandoned in 1585, shortly after its completion, due to the exhaustion of the small, spring-fed lake that supplied the city with water, and its proximity to Rajputana, with whom the Mughal Empire was often at war. The capital was shifted to Lahore so that Akbar could have a base in the less stable part of the empire, before moving back to Agra in 1598. Because the palace area has been in nearly continuous use over the centuries, much of the imperial complex which spread over nearly two mile long and one mile wide area is largely intact. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the city which, after it was abandoned in 1610, has fallen into a state of ruin.
The fort, a listed UNESCO World Heritage site, is a wonderful complex of buildings, constructed from local red sandstone, sitting on a rocky ridge with excellent views of the surrounding areas. The complex has several sections starting with the public spaces where the Mughal emperor and his consorts would meet with the local people and then progressing into to private spaces when the royal family lived.
The most impressive of the buildings are set around the palaces of the royal family. The Buland Darwaza or the loft gateway at Fatehpur Sikri was built by the great Mughal emperor, Akbar in 1601. Akbar built the Buland Darwaza to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. The Buland Darwaza, approached by 42 steps is 53.63m high and 35 meters wide and is the highest gateway in the world. The most striking of all the buildings at Fateh Sikri is the Panch Mahal, a five storey building that provided shelter to the royal ladies and mistresses. The top story of the building offers a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
All too soon it was time to return to the car and continue our journey to catch the train to Ranthambore. Departing the bus, we rushed to get to our car but our hope that the hawker we met on the way in would forget us was dashed as he clearly remembered our promise, so Karen felt obliged to at least look in his shop. After perusing for ten minutes nothing really caught our eye so we left and carried on our journey.
Now we were heading into Rajasthan for the first time during our trip, our destination being the city of Bharatpur where we would catch our train for the two-hour journey to Ranthambore. On reaching Bharatpur we were met by the local representative of the tour company who told us that our train was running at least a couple of hours late.
He gave us a couple of options, one of which was to visit the close-by Keoladeo National Park.
Keoladeo National Park is a man-made and man-managed wetland which protects Bharatpur from the frequent floods, provides grazing grounds for village cattle, and in earlier times was used as a waterfowl hunting ground. Unfortunately, there had been several years of drought, but due to the importance of the park water had been allowed to flow to the park from the local supply.
The 30km2 park is a mosaic of dry grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetlands providing habitats to 366 bird species, 379 floral species, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes, 5 species of lizards, 7 amphibian species, 7 turtle species, and a variety of other invertebrates.
Every year thousands of migratory waterfowl come to this park for wintering and breeding and we were lucky enough to be visiting during the prime time. The sanctuary is one of the richest bird areas in the world and is known for nesting of resident birds and visiting migratory birds including water birds. According to founder of the World Wildlife Fund Peter Scott, Keoladeo National Park is one of the world’s best bird areas.
As our time was limited we hired a guide and a horse drawn cart to take to the best viewing areas of the park. The long causeway that runs like a spine through Keoladeo is several miles long, so walking was not an option. Our guide was fantastic, and we made frequent stops along the way to see the wildlife and take some photos. For us the most exciting birds for us were the brightly coloured kingfishers, of which there were quite a few to see; this was a delight as I had never seen one in the wild before! We got to see two of the five types of kingfisher that are found in the park; the larger white throated kingfisher and the smaller common kingfisher (which are also found in the UK but are rare).
This unplanned visit to Keoladeo was wonderful and we were really glad to have had the chance to go there during the winter season when all the migratory birds were in residence. For once were pleased that our train was running late!
When we got back to the car our guide said that the train had made up some of its lost time, so it was now a bit of a rush to get to the station. We need not have worried, because like most things in this country time is a loosely bounded variable. One sad thing was experienced whilst waiting on the platform was a man begging with no legs.
Rather than sitting still he was dragging himself around and going up to anyone who looked like a tourist. We had got hardened to the begging and followed the advice we had been given by several of our guides not to make eye contact. But with this man it was really hard!
Eventually our train did arrive. We had reserved seats which was great because this was a holiday (it was New Year’s Eve) and the train was packed. There was no space in the overhead rack for our large suitcases. After a bit of shuffling and tugging I got one bag up, the second had to sit in the aisle. This was India so no one, including the frequently passing train inspectors, seemed to care that we were blocking the exit in case of emergency.
Our carriage was near the front of train, so we were in one of the better classes. I had envisioned that we’d be sharing our carriage with goats and chickens, but none of that here; the carriage was full of middle class Indians on their way home or to visit friends and family. A little disappointing! The journey was long, but we filled the time with people watching. For me the most interesting sight was the constant flow of people wandering through the carriage selling food and drinks; from bags of biscuits and crisps to hot chai tea and soup. Literally every five minutes someone would pass selling something.
Three hours later than planned we reached our destination. It was now past 10pm and we were worried that there would be nothing for us to eat at the resort we were staying at. We had not eaten anything on the train apart from a packet of biscuits we had bought from a vendor. Luckily, the tour company representative had kept the resort up to date with the progress of our travel, so when we arrived some twenty minutes later the restaurant was still open.
Our bags were taken from us and we went straight in for the kill on some thali and naan bread. It had been a long day but everything felt much better the other side of a thali!
We were shown to our accommodation for the next three nights – a luxurious tent. The setting was delightful, and the ambiance was further enhanced by a spectacular full moon. This was not so much camping as it was extreme ‘glamping’. The tent was huge, with a fantastic king-sized bed and it was tastefully decorated and lit, creating a spa-like feel. The same went for the bathroom, which had an enormous shower. We both felt we could live somewhere like this permanently. After doing our ablutions we climbed into bed and were very happy to find that the night staff had furnished our bed with his and hers hot water bottles – there are still some nice leftovers from British colonialism!
Things learnt today:
- Don’t show any interest whatsoever – including eye contact – with the street vendors because once they have seen a chink in your armour you are doomed.
- Being late doesn’t necessarily mean a disaster – it can sometimes lead to a good result.
- Trains in India are entertaining (but we’d still like to try a travel a lower class of service to see what that’s like!)
- Camping can be fun and comfortable, and you can’t beat hot water bottles.
Day 8 – Ranthambore
We woke to a rather chilly morning, but we felt very snug in our tent. We were setting out early on our first tiger safari of the day, so there was no time for breakfast, but there was coffee waiting at the reception area. Before we departed the hotel kindly provided us with some important provisions: A sandwich, some water, a blanket and a hot water bottle. Morning temperatures in Rajasthan can be cold in January, especially when you are traveling around in the back of an open top truck!
Our naturalist guide was a lady, rarer in the park than the tigers themselves … indeed she was the only one of her kind! The drive to the entrance of Ranthambore National Park was quite short, but once we reached the gates we were confronted by a large crowd of people who were walking along the same road that we were traveling. They were heading up a steep road towards Ranthambore Fort. It was January 1st and a National holiday, and these were Hindu devotees on their way to pay respect to the gods whose shrines were within the walls of the fort. Luckily, our route veered off and we were soon in the relative calm of a scrub like jungle, bumping up and down on rough tracks in search of tigers. It should be said at this point that finding tigers in a huge tract of land such as Ranthambore is not easy. For one thing they are mostly solitary animals, so there is usually just one to find (unless there is a female with cubs) and their territories are large (a tigress may have a territory of 20km2 and a male’s territory can be up to 60km2 to 100km2) and they are well camouflaged in the long grass!
After a short-time the cold was setting in, despite having a blanket and hot water bottle. It was a pleasant surprise when pulling over to eat our sandwiches our guide pulled out a flask of hot chocolate and some cake to share with us. She had made these home comforts for us!
We got to see a lot of deer and antelope, which was not necessarily good as they seemed to be happy munching on grass and bushes; if there were tigers around they would have been long gone. There were also some alligators sitting near a dried-up waterhole. A couple of hours later we still had not seen a tiger and it was time to head back to the hotel. It was disappointing not to have had a sighting of a tiger, but we were still having a good time just being on safari. As we were on the way to the entrance one of our fellow passengers spotted a stripy creature moving in the bush not too far from us. Sadly, not a tiger, but it was a pair of mating hyenas. Yes, animal porn! To some this might be a lesser experience than seeing a tiger, but our guide was tremendously excited. Hyenas are nocturnal animals, so to see them during the day is extremely rare. There are only a small number of hyenas in the park, and when we showed the naturalist back at the resort the pictures she was also very excited and asked Karen to send her some of the pictures to put on their website.
We were tired and hungry when we got back to the resort, so it was a treat to use the fabulous shower in our tent and take some breakfast. As we were in such an exotic location and due our bodies being bashed and bumped on the safaris we decided to book ourselves in for a couples’ massage in the evening.
In the afternoon we had a second safari lined up. We were traveling with the same English family we had met in the morning, minus the mum who was not feeling so well, and a young local man who just enjoyed coming to the park to take photos of tigers. He shared some of his photos with us during the journey (he also has a website where he posts the pictures to). The sector of park we covered on this safari took us over mountainous ridges into a lush valley with more water, including a large wetland area. If we thought the morning’s trek had been bumpy, this was even more so. The evening’s massage loomed large in our minds! There was again plenty to see in terms of antelopes, deer and more alligators. For a second time we were to be disappointed with the tiger viewing opportunities, so there was nothing more to be done than head back to the resort for a shower, dinner and a massage. There was still a final safari trip tomorrow to finally break our tiger duck!
Day 9 – Ranthambore and travel to Jaipur
Today our old friend the fog was back in town. It didn’t look very hopeful for spotting tigers, but nonetheless we followed the previous day’s routine, except we put on as many layers of clothes as we could comfortably manage without resembling the Michelin man. Even with these clothes on and the blankets and hot water bottles, it was still cold.
Our journey today took us to another sector of the park. Ranthambore National Park is vast, covering approximately 110 square miles, and is home to 60 or so tigers. There are no fences or walls around the park to contain the tigers, they are truly wild. Indeed, during our stay at the resort fresh tiger paw prints were found not too far from the tents and cabins! The drive was about 30 minutes, taking us through a local town, which again presented us with further evidence of the harsh life led by those living in rural India. By the time we entered the park the fog had lifted, and we were feeling a little warmer, but still grateful for the extra layers of clothing we had decided to wear. This section of the park felt like it had previously been a used as a residence as there were many signs of man’s occupation. The tall grasses and scrub gave way to a more rugged landscape and soon we had climbed high above the valley floor and were treated to spectacular views across mountainous terrain. The trail was bumpy, but it made it all the more fun to be jiggled and tossed as we worked our way up and over the hill. On the other side we ran to the boundary of the park and the perimeter wall. Here there was a quarry with a watering hole, apparently a popular haunt for the tigers … but not today. A short distance from the quarry we entered a lightly wooded area where we came to relatively close quarters with a sloth bear, which are quite large. For most people this was exciting but having got up to within a few feet of grizzly bears in the US it was not quite as thrilling for me! It was now getting towards time to return back to the resort and we had yet to see even a glimpse of a tiger – disappointing yes, but we had still enjoyed our time in Ranthambore.
Once we got back to the resort we just about had enough time for a shower, pack away our things and get a quick bite to eat.
The drive to Jaipur was going to take to four or five hours, taking us deep in to the heart of rural Rajasthan passing through many small villages. PK was a careful driver but there is were still a few occasions where we found ourselves headed directly towards another vehicle, but after a week in the country we were starting to feel a bit more relaxed in these life-threatening situations. It did not feel too long before we found ourselves heading into the vibrant capital of Rajasthan, with its population of around 3½ million. Our hotel was situated in to old city, which took us a further 45 minutes to reach. As we passed through the gate that took us beyond the wall that surrounds the old city it was clear to see why Jaipur is known as the “Pink City”, with the walls of every building painted in a terracotta pink colour. The traffic came to a standstill and we soon discovered why as a procession approached us led by a very enthusiastic band. We were very excited to see an elephant in the parade decorated in bright cloth and paint. This was only the second elephant we had seen! At the rear of the procession was a float on which sat, cross-legged, a very stately looking Hari Krishna holy man, who was apparently very famous. Once the procession passed the traffic cleared quickly and we soon reached our hotel for the next two nights, the Dera Mandawa.
Hidden behind a wall, sheltering it from the chaos of the surrounding city, the Dera Mandawa is a peaceful oasis. It has a wonderful courtyard with lots of welcoming nooks with comfy seating; we felt at peace as soon we entered. We were greeted by the owner, a tall stately gentleman with a fabulous moustache, looking as if he had stepped straight from the set of a BBC period drama on the British Raj. His English was immaculate, a result of being taught in a boarding school with teachers from dear old blighty. Our conversation could have gone on for many hours, but we had to get ready for our evening tour of the bazaar. On entering our room, we were stunned! It was huge with an enormous bed at its center. There was a large window seat with a long cushion covered in silk and above the bed was a balcony overlooking the whole room. It seemed a shame that we were only staying for two nights with a busy schedule – there would be no chance to take the opportunity of this most romantic of rooms!
After a quick turn-around we set out to meet up with our guide for the evening. PK dropped us off outside the ‘Palace of Winds’ where we met up with a clean-cut young man, who was going to take us around the bazaars of Jaipur. We were really looking forward to this tour! Before setting out to the bazaar our guide gave us some history to the Wind Palace and Jaipur.
Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state, was founded in 1727 by Maharaja Jai Singh II who ruled Jaipur State from 1699 – 1744. Initially his capital was Amber, some 11 km from Jaipur. He felt the need to shift his capital city as its population increased beyond the resources around Amber, especially the scarcity of water. Jaipur was the first planned city of India and the Maharaja took great interest in its design. He consulted several books on architecture and architects before deciding on the layout of Jaipur. The Maharaja created free housing to encourage traders and business people to move to the city. In 1876, when the Prince of Wales visited Jaipur, the whole city was painted pink to welcome him and after that Jaipur was referred to as the ‘Pink City’. The paint is renewed on a strict cycle to keep it looking fresh.
Hawa Mahal (‘Palace of Winds’ or ‘Palace of the Breeze’) is a five storey structure made from pink and red sandstone. It was built in 1799 by the Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh to allow the female members of the royal family to watch the processions and events happening in the streets below without being observed by the common folk. It is a very shallow building with many rooms that have ornately latticed windows through which the ladies could observe what was going on outside.
From the ‘Palace of Winds’ we stepped through the tight alleys into the bazaar. There were hundreds of tiny shops selling a multitude of brightly coloured garments and trinklets. The sights, sounds and smells were overwhelming.
During our visit to India we had been discouraged from eating the street food but on this occasion our guide took us to a handful of food stands where we were able to try the delicious savory and sweet dishes on offer. We passed by a small shop selling pickles and tried their gooseberry pickle – scrumptious! The bazaar was extensive, with specific areas set-aside for specialist retailers. The most lavish of these were the shops selling products for weddings; saris, turbans and every possible accoutrement needed for the Hindu nuptials. The Hindu wedding is often a lavish five-day affair that will cost the bride’s family two or three times more than a typical western style wedding.
Two hours later our tour was done and as we had given PK, our driver, the night off we had to make our own way (with help from our guide)back to the hotel and our chosen mode of transport was the tuk-tuk. As our guide went to hail a tuk-tuk (I don’t think there is an Uber for tuk-tuks) Karen noticed a man lying in the middle of the very busy road; cars, buses and motorbikes weaving their way around him. It was almost as if he was invisible! Sadly, India has a large problem with substance abuse, and in this case the man had apparently passed out from drink. There was no way Karen was going to leave him, so the guide, myself and a couple of passing men lifted the man and deposited him to the relative safety of the pavement. We made sure to use lashing of hand sanitizer when we were done. So, having done our good deed for the day we took the short tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel. For dinner we decided to eat at the hotel and chose a thali – which turned out to be delicious. Once again, we had a chance to talk to the owner who regaled us with more stories of his personal history and explained the history behind the family portraits that lined the walls of the dining room.
We had a busy schedule planned for the next day, so we were soon headed off back to our delightful room.
Lessons for the day:
- Tigers are very elusive so if you go on safari to see them don’t raise your expectations too high – just enjoy the experience!
- Driving in India is very different from the USA and Europe (for the most part … Italy could be an exception) so try and relax and not panic when another vehicle is headed your way.
- Street food is delicious – but buyer beware! The pickles are especially good!
Day 10 – Jaipur
At breakfast we got talking to the other guests in the hotel. It is always fun to share stories of traveling and from back home. Such chats give Karen a chance to harp on her two favourite subjects; her hatred of President Donald Trump and the virtues of Marmite. Sadly, they had no Marmite on offer to try the “hate it or love it” test, but the hotel owner told us about a similar spread that is very popular in India – which again they didn’t have in, but he would get for it us to try the next day. So, very kind!
After breakfast we were met by our guide for the day. He was a short, sharply dressed man who was obviously very particular about how he appeared. Our first stop was back at the ‘Palace of Winds’ to get some those iconic photographs. This required us to take our lives into our hands and cross the street in rush hour. Traversing the roads in an Indian city during the peak traffic hours, or pretty much any time of day, is not for the faint hearted. It essentially requires you to look into the eyes of the driver of the oncoming vehicle and watch for any hint of hesitation. As soon as you see the hesitation you simply leap in front of them and pray that they take pity on you and stop. Luckily this seems to work, and no one gets annoyed when you do this and somehow it all seems to work and not as many people end up dying as you might expect (about 16.6 people die in road fatalities per 100,000 of population). Anyway, we got our photos and with great relief returned to the other side to meet back up with PK and our car.
Next up was the Amber (or Amer) Fort located in the town of Amer (or Amber), 11km from Jaipur high up in the hills.
This was the original capital city of Maharaj Jai Singh II. The approach to the fort takes you through the a gate in the imposing wall that surrounds the city of Amer, which stretches for miles around the area, snaking as it follows the undulations of the hills, like some mini-me version of the Great Wall of China.
As we approached the Fort we were stunned by its beauty, sitting on a hill above the man-made lake and gardens. Even from the outside the scale of the Fort complex is very impressive. We stopped briefly to snap some photos, although conditions were not great with the lingering fog. Close by our stopping place was an opportunistic snake charmer, who, for a few rupees would charm his cobra from its basket and let you take a picture of him and his serpent companion. Karen, ever curious went over to check it out and get a sneaky snap shot on the sly. She obviously caught the cobra’s eye, or perhaps it was trained to bite people who didn’t pay up, but it suddenly darted in her direction. You will never have seen a nearly 60 year old woman with two replacement hips move so quickly or squeal so loudly. It was quite impressive really! From where we were we had a few options to get to the Fort.
- We could walk, which would have added time and meant there could be longer queues at the top)
- We could pay for a ride on an elephant up to the Fort, but we were having time with elephants later!
- We could take the car to the entrance
So, not wanting to spend the extra money or time on option 1 and 2, we took the car ride through the old town and up the winding route up to the Fort Entrance.
Amer Fort (or Palace), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built around 1592 and is constructed mainly of red sandstone and marble. The Palace is divided into four main sections each with its own entry gate and courtyard. The main entry point is through the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate), where the elephant rides enter, which leads to the first main courtyard. This was the place where armies would hold victory parades with war bounty on their return from battles, which were witnessed by the Royal family’s women folk, who could peer unseen through the latticed windows.
We climbed to the second courtyard up a set of stairs, passing through another impressive gate. This section was where the royal family would hold its public audiences. The main feature of this area is the Diwan-i-Aam or the Public Audience Hall. The roof of the Diwan-i-Aam is supported by double column supports, over which are classic scalloped Islamic style arches. It really was very beautiful.
The entrance to the next courtyard took us through the spectacularly decorated gate, the Ganesh Pol. This third courtyard is where the private quarters of the Maharaja, his family and attendants were located. The courtyard has two buildings, one opposite to the other, separated by a Murgal style garden. The building to the left of the entrance gate is called the Jai Mandir (or Sheesh Mahal, the mirror palace), which is exquisitely embellished with glass inlaid panels and multi-mirrored ceilings. It was truly one of the most beautiful buildings we had even seen! It would have been wonderful to be there at night and have lit candles inside the palace and watch the shimmering reflections from the thousands of mirrors covering the walls and ceiling. We had to settle for a cute photo shoot opportunity our guide pointed out, getting a picture of the two of us framed in one of the larger mirrors. Of course, having discovered this, Karen felt obligated to point out this photo opportunity to all the other tourists in a 40 foot radius!
The second building in this courtyard is known as the Sukh Niwas or Sukh Mahal (Hall of Pleasure). This hall is approached through a sandalwood door with marble inlay work with perforations. A piped water supply flows through an open channel that runs through this building which provided some air-conditioning for those hot summer days.
The exit to the fourth courtyard is through the Lion Gate, which leads the private quarters of the royal family. This courtyard is where the Zenana (Royal family women, including concubines or mistresses) lived. This courtyard has many chambers where the queens resided. The king would visit the women at night, passing along a common corridor to these rooms, selecting the queen or concubine of his choice, without the others knowing who! At the centre of the courtyard is covered structure where the wives and concubines could hang out in their spare time (of which I am sure they had a lot!)
This concluded our tour, which had taken about 90 minutes. Next on the schedule was a return to Jaipur to visit more of the sites of the city.
Firstly, we stopped at Jantar Mantar, a monument which houses a collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments. Built by the Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh II, and completed in 1734, it features the world’s largest stone sundial, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The instruments are constructed from masonry, stone and brass and were built using astronomy and instrument design principles outlined in ancient Hindu Sanskrit texts. The instruments allow the observation of astronomical positions with the naked eye; the scale of the structures was very impressive. As well as instruments of various sizes (and accuracy) for telling time there were a number set aside for astrology, which is very important in Hindu culture, especially when it comes births and marriage.
A short distance from the Jantar Mantar is the City Palace complex, which includes the Chandra Mahal and Mubarak Mahal palaces and other buildings.
The Chandra Mahal palace now houses a museum, but the greater part of it is still a royal residence.
Mubarak Mahal, meaning the ‘Auspicious Palace’, was built with a fusion of the Islamic, Rajput and European architectural styles in the late 19th century by Maharaja Madho Singh II as a reception centre. Today, it is a museum with exhibits of textiles and carpets from the royal family’s collection. Our guide was particularly enthusiastic about the display of the voluminous clothes worn by Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh I, who was a mind-boggling seven feet tall, 4 feet wide and weighed 550lb and had 108 wives (most probably died from being crushed or suffocated!)
From the Mubarak Mahal we passed through another gate into the courtyard of the Chandra Mahal, at the centre of which is the Diwan-i-Aam, the Hall of Public Audience, a marble floored chamber located between the armoury and the art gallery. On display are two huge sterling silver vessels 5.2 feet high and each with capacity of 4000 litres and weighing 750lb.They are made from 14,000 melted silver coins and are from a single cast and hold the Guinness World record for the world’s largest sterling silver vessels. This inner courtyard provides access to the Chandra Mahal. There are four small gates that are adorned with themes representing the four seasons and Hindu gods. The gates are the Northeast Peacock Gate representing autumn and dedicated to Lord Vishnu; the Southeast Lotus Gate for the summer season and dedicated to Lord Shiva-Parvati; the Northwest Green Gate, also called the Leheriya (meaning: “waves”) gate, in green colour dedicated to spring and Lord Ganesha, and lastly, the Rose Gate with repeated flower patterns representing winter season and dedicated to Goddess Devi.
At the far end of the Chandra Mahal is seven storey building which is primarily used by the Royal Family as its primary residence.
By this time, it was getting late in the day and we still had one more visit to make. Our final destination was Elefantastic, which was located back towards to Amer, and we had to be there by 3pm. Going anywhere in India is very often problematic but it was not too long before we reached the village where Elefantastic was located. This village was where all the elephant farms are located. We met the representative of Elefantastic on his moped and followed him through the backstreets, along some sketchy roads. Eventually we arrived at our destination and there was a small group of waiting elephants with their mahouts. The farm itself was very rustic but the elephants seemed happy and well treated, and we were told that the farm is more of a sanctuary than a farm for breeding elephants for tourist rides, although local regulations mean they have to provide some elephants for the tourists.
After a shortbriefing we were introduced to “our” elephant, Sampa, and her mahout. For the next hour and half we got to feed Sampa sugar cane branches at the same time stroking and rubbing around his ears and face. She seemed to be very happy tucking into the sugar cane, her powerful jaws making short work of the tough branches – indeed it appeared Sampa could have spent the rest of the day contentedly eating there but we had other plan in store!
The second part of our visit was to paint her. Elephants in India are commonly used for ceremonies and for these events they are decorated with garlands and other drapery, in addition to which they are painted. So, it was now our opportunity to try our hands at elephant painting. On the positive side elephants are a large canvas and in Sampa’s case a largely stationary target. On the downside, their hide is most definitely not a smooth canvas, so getting to a high level of detail was challenging – well that is our excuse. Anyway, we dived into the task with gusto and attempted to come up with some designs that worked. Karen took it one step further and painted Sampa’s toenails (I am not quite sure what they are called on an elephant!). Our neighbours were painting a date on their elephant. They had just become engaged! After we were done it was time to wash the paint off. In the summer you can spray the elephants down, but this being winter we had to use scrubbing power to wash off the paint.
We soon had a clean, fresh looking elephant. For the last part of this tour we got to ride Sampa. There was no nice, comfortable saddle for us. They simply tossed a blanket over her and tied it on with rope, which was our only method of hanging on. We climbed some stairs and scrambled aboard. From the ground Sampa did not seem that tall, but on her back it felt a lot higher! So off we went. Karen was a lot more comfortable riding Sampa than I was: my knuckles were white with the strain of gripping onto the rope. We left the compound and went out into the open ground. By this time the sun was going down and this added greatly to the amazing ambience. The ride went on for around 30 minutes and I could feel an uncomfortable tension building in my thigh muscles from the strain of gripping to the elephant. It was a welcome relief to climb down, albeit with a somewhat wobbly gait. What a fabulous experience. We sadly had to say goodbye to our new four-legged, trunked friend and return to the hotel.
It had been a long but rewarding day and it would have been nice just to chill out at the hotel, but PK, our driver had made reservations at a local restaurant, the Spice Court. When we got to the restaurant it was not the most atmospheric of places, which was disappointing, and we felt cold due to the fact we were very tired. One of the features of the restaurant is that it has performances of traditional dance, but these were outside, and we were not up to venture out, which is unusual for us. Sadly, the food wasn’t the best we had tried during our stay either and it wasn’t long before we called PK to rescue us and take us back to the hotel.
Day 11 – Jaipur to Udaipur
Sadly, we were leaving Jaipur today. After an admittedly small sample of destinations in India I feel it would be a challenging place to live, but of all the places we visited Jaipur could be one city where we could make it work. We still have fantasies of the lifestyle of Jaipur life that is portrayed in the “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” films, but as always, the reality of life is more complex than what is presented on the silver screen! Anyway, it was time to satisfy more immediate needs, such as filling bellies. Our wonderful host was at breakfast to greet us again, and as promised he had sourced the “Marmite” like spread that his grandmother said had marvelous properties which promoted health and longevity.
Chyawanprash, had a consistency very like Marmite, but tasted much sweeter and was not unpleasant. With a little persuasion all the guests in the dining room got to taste it, and their reaction, much like Marmite, was mixed. Anyway, I am sure it will be available on Amazon back in the US so we might just get a tub to try it again.
Before leaving Jaipur, PK our driver promised to take us to a warehouse in a less touristy part of the city to see if we could find some bargains. Jaipur is famous for its fabrics and textiles and this was likely to be our last opportunity to buy some souvenirs to take back home.
Once we arrived at the factory-warehouse we were whisked upstairs and seated. Over the course of the next 45 minutes or so we were shown a huge array of textiles; from bedspreads to table placements. The choices were mindboggling but eventually we settled on an ornately decorated bedspread, some table mats and a few other items. As always, the enthusiastic salesman was keen to thrust more on us but we were limited on what we could physically take home (the answer to which of course was they could ship!). By this stage of our trip we had got pretty good at saying no.
Soon, we were off on our 5 hour journey to Udaipur. As we left the factory-warehouse I was starting to feel unwell, perhaps the effect of having spent so much money on a bed spread or a reaction to the Chyawanprash. The further we went the worst I started to feel! I closed my eyes and tried to sleep it off. After a couple of hours, we pulled off the road to get something to eat, and I was by now feeling very, very sick. Food was the last thing I wanted (Karen will tell you this is totally out of character for me!) and all wanted was to spend time in the restroom, and if you have experienced restrooms in India you get a sense of my desperation. The rest of the trip to Udaipur was very much a blur, all I can remember is passing dozens of roadside businesses selling marble. Eventually we arrived at our hotel, Fateh Garh. This was the most luxurious place we had stayed in India, but I was in no state to appreciate it. I was extremely happy to get to our room, which was in the corner of the hotel and offered spectacular views from two sides across the hills. The sun was starting to set and the vista was truly amazing! I would have loved to spend longer appreciating the surrounding landscape, but I had to beat a retreat to the bathroom. I would get to know the surrounds of this room over the next 48 hours. Sadly, I was not much company for Karen in this state, so she had to go down to dinner on her own. It turned out there was a Hindu wedding taking place in the hotel. Indeed, we were the only guests in the hotel who were not part of the wedding the party! The bride and groom lived in the United States and had had their civil wedding there but had come to India to have a religious celebration with all their family present. Karen was invited to join them but felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea of gatecrashing. I think if I had been not so incapacitated we may well have become temporary family members!
Memories of Jaipur:
- Don’t get too close to the snake charmers and their cobras!
- Elephants love having their faces rubbed, but they could do with some lotion to help with their rough skin.
- Indian pickles are wonderful (hopefully that was not what upset my tummy)
- On that note Delhi belly is horrible – really be careful what you eat
- Leave more room in your suitcase for souvenirs
- Marmite is better than any of its pretenders (e.g. Chyawanprash and Vegemite)
Day 12 – Udaipur
Next day I was feeling no better and had spent the better part of the night commuting from the bed to bathroom to commune with my maker on the big, white porcelain telephone. The thought of Indian food made my stomach churn. In fact the thought of any food made me feel nauseous.
We had a day tour planned, which I was in no state to join, so Karen went by herself. I don’t remember much of that day, but Karen had a wonderful time visiting the sites of Udaipur in near perfect weather. From the pictures she and the guide took it looked wonderful, so we will just have to come back again!
Day 13 – Udaipur to Delhi and home
Today was our departure day, and luckily, I had started to feel better. We were scheduled for another morning tour of Udaipur but I thought I wouldn’t risk leaving the comfort of my hotel room and its lovely bathroom. A sign of my improving health was that I was hungry again, although my appetite for Indian food had yet to come back, so I stuck to fruit and toast. By the time Karen returned at lunchtime I was much better, had packed my bags and was ready to go.
The airport was only a short distance from the hotel, so we were soon in line waiting to check in. Our journey back took us first to Delhi and then to Singapore, with a short layover before 14 hour flight back to San Francisco.
The internal flight to Delhi had been booked by the tour company and I had booked the flights to and from Delhi myself. The lady at the check-in desk tried to check us in all the way through to the US, but had some issues doing this. She believed this was due to one ticket being booked as MARK HOBBS and KAREN HOBBS and the other booked as HOBBS, MARK and HOBBS, KAREN. So after twenty minutes she gave up and told us to collect our bags in Delhi and check-in again when we were there. We should probably have guessed at this point something was wrong!
Our flight to Delhi went without incident so, as instructed, we collected our bags and went to the check-in desk. The gentleman on the desk was helpful but he again had trouble booking us all the way through to San Francisco. The flight to Singapore was on Air India, but the second leg was a Singapore Airlines flight with which Air India had a code share. Again, we had no boarding pass for our next flight, and were instructed to go the Singapore Airlines desk when we got there. By this time we were hungry (I had couple of days of missed meals to catch up on) so we went and found the food court to get some nourishment.
The flight Singapore was ONLY five hours long, which feels like a lifetime on Air India. Luckily the entertainment system on this aircraft worked which helped pass the time and take our minds off the forgettable inflight food and the tasteless décor. By the time we got to Singapore we were exhausted yet looking forward to being on a different airline despite the prospect of a 14 hour flight. So, we went off to find the Singapore Airlines transfer desk. We were greeted by a somewhat officious lady, our impressions of her manner most likely exaggerated by our tiredness, who told us we did not exist in their system and indeed the flight itself did not exist. She also told us that there was no code share with Air India. Well, we were not very happy as she told us there was nothing she could do and that we needed to go and talk to Air India. So, off we went. It took some time for us to get served and when we did they seemed to be as confused as we were and said they had to get hold of the local Air India manager who was at that time assisting on a departing flight. So, we waited.
Eventually, Mrs. Kumar, the local Air India manager turned up and was very apologetic. She gave us passes for the lounge, so we could freshen up and get some refreshments whilst she went to find us a flight. From this point it was a waiting game as we were now on standby. Unfortunately, we were traveling back at the end of the holiday season, so things were busy, busy. Some seven hours later we were still in the lounge waiting and it was becoming obvious that we were not going to get out of Singapore that day, and Mrs. Kumar admitted defeat. So, Air India booked us into a hotel close to the business district and shipped us off in a taxi. Karen had spent some time in Singapore when she was younger when her father was stationed there with the Royal Air Force, so she was curious to see the Singapore of today. It is fair to say it is very different!
We were put up in a five-star hotel, which was very nice. After a quick change we headed out and followed the riverside walk down towards the harbor. With Singapore located pretty much on the equator the weather is largely the same all year – hot and humid, and it wasn’t long before we were hot and sticky. After walking for two or three miles we decided to head back to the hotel for dinner, which was being paid for by Air India. On reaching the hotel we had a nice surprise, Mrs. Kumar had managed to get us two seats on a United Airlines flight to San Francisco the next morning. We were happy bunnies (at least happier than we had been a couple of hours earlier). Instead of reporting to the airport at 7am – as instructed – we would actually be flying home! Hurrah!
Day 14 – Singapore to Home (unplanned extra day!)
The journey home was uneventful but very long. Some twenty hours after leaving Singapore we arrived in Redmond, Oregon where we were met by our friend Nan. She had kindly offered to pick us up at the airport.
We had really loved our trip to India. It was everything we had expected and more. Having only scraped the surface of this huge country we are already plotting our return to hopefully do a more in-depth exploration.
A couple of days after getting home I started to get pains in my right calf so I headed off to urgent care where I was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which is a common condition developed during long distance travel. So, I was prescribed three months of blood thinners to break up the clot.
The advice of doctors to avoid DVT is to get up regularly, move around and do some exercises to encourage blood flow. Stupidly, I had ignored this advice and had only got up once during the fourteen hour flight from Singapore.
Karen tried her best to make me get up regularly during the flight, but I had ignored her too. The positive thing from her perspective was that me developing DVT provided her with one of those rare “I told you so moments”, which she can use against me for years to come!