En-route to Udaipur and the City Palace

The last city that we visited on this trip was Udaipur, or the lake city. The best part of this leg of the trip was the scenic drive from Jodhpur to Udaipur, through forested areas. We stopped at a durry weaver’s cottage to observe the weaving and decided to buy a small hand-woven carpet, though we had not planned to buy one or even heard of durry weaving before visiting that cottage.

Durry Weavers.JPG

We then stopped at a small restaurant for a light lunch of chappathis and Marwari vadi. We drove past breathtaking hills, past natural reserves, at one time the adivasi (indigenous people) settlement area. Our driver recommended us visiting a 15th century Jain temple in Ranakpur, even though it was not part of our itinerary. We agreed and found our first visit to a Jain temple fascinating. The religion is based on the three principles of non-violence, non-absolutism and non-possessiveness and has an emphasis on vegetarianism. There were some people walking about the temple, with pieces of white cloth tied over their mouth. I thought it was to maintain silence but I read that it was to prevent the killing of insects or other micro organisms unknowingly, while breathing. Yes, this religion is a tough one to practice because one needs to even watch carefully where they walk so they don’t harm an ant.

Jain temple.JPG
There were numerous picturesque villages along the way, which fired one’s imagination and I wish we had spent more time in some of those villages. At one point, our driver stopped the car and said, ‘old way of irrigation. you take picture’. I observed a bullock team walking around in circles, turning a wheel which in turn drew water out of a well.

Drawing water for irrigation.JPG
By the time we reached Hotel Rajdharshan in Udaipur, it was evening and we decided that we would prefer to go on a boat ride on Lake Pichola that evening and go on the guided tour the next day. The boat bookings was however full that evening so we ended up exploring the bazaar area around our hotel.

Lake Pichola.JPG

The next morning, we drove to the City Palace. We entered through the Sun door and came across a board hung at the entrance with the names of the different rulers of Udaipur and their reigning period. A line had been drawn under the name of the Maharana who had been responsible for building the palace. Maharana Udai Singh II is credited with beginning the construction of the palace in the 16th century and the expansion was continued over the centuries, through his successors.

entrance-to-palace
The city palace is considered the second biggest palace in India, after Mysore Palace.

thoran pol at Udaipur Palace.JPGThe Maharana of Udaipur, Maharana Bhupal Singh, was the first ruler to have handed over his property to the Indian Government at the time of Independence. He was actively involved in the politics of the time and one can visit the room where Nehru and others gathered at Udaipur palace to discuss political issues. Maharana Bhupal Singh became the first Chief of State of Rajasthan. Due to a spinal disorder, the Maharana was disabled from a young age and therefore had an elevator installed to enable him to move from his chambers to the public area. As the Mewars liked symmetry, another door was built alongside the elevator door, but which was a dummy.

Udaipur Palace.JPG
After the city palace tour, we visited Sahelion Ki Bari, an early 18th century summer garden for the royal women and had been built so that they would have a relaxing place away from the court.

Sahelion Ki Bar.JPG

It was soon time to check out of our hotel and take the flight to Delhi, for a final evening in the city at our own leisure.

This Golden Triangle trip, which gave my mother and I a first glimpse of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, still remains my best travel memory.

[Linking this post to Weekend Travel Inspiration]

An overnight stay in Jodhpur

Driving along the grand National Highway 8, connecting Delhi to Mumbai, we passed Ajmer on the way to Jodhpur. Ajmer is home to the shrine of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. Dev, our driver, mentioned that the city was also famous for its nearby marble market in Makrana. It was marble from this region that was used in the building of the Taj Mahal.

The sun was beating down on us as we moved further towards the Thar desert. The landscape being drier, though still without the sand dunes that would have been prevalent in Jaisalmer. We had difficulty keeping our eyes open and we were worried that our driver might also doze off. I was keen on not getting into a road traffic accident a second time and kept checking in the mirror to confirm Dev was awake as well. My mother was finding the heat very taxing for her eyes and I was wishing the car windows had been tinted or had some shades to provide some relief from the desert heat.

We stopped midway for a lunch of vegetable pilau and spinach and paneer curry under a tent. We eventually reached Jodhpur and were taken to Meharangarh fort.

Meharanngarh Fort.JPG
We met our Rajput guide at the entrance of the fort, which was built in 1459. It was a steep climb to enter the fort and by the time we came to what looked like the entrance, the guide told us that we were on the 15th floor of the fort. Gasping for breath, we were thankful for the guide’s lecture to give us a minute of rest. The guide paused by a plaque and pointed to the opposite side of the fort wall, where it looked as if someone had patched up a square hole in the wall of the fort. The guide said that at the time that the fort was built, the King had been adviced that if a man was buried alive in the foundation of the fort, the fort would withstand the test of time and onslaught of enemies. The King’s Meharan (palanquin-bearer) volunteered to be the sacrificial being and the patch was the last stone placed as he was buried alive. While the story of the sacrificed man is true, it is not clear whether the fort derived its name from the buried man or the Rajasthani word for sun, which the ruling clan was connected with. It was a ghastly tale of origin for such a magnificent fort that still stood strong and powerful.

Meharanngarh Fort2.JPG

Walking up the ramparts, we had a partial view of the city below and we saw the reason why it was also known as the blue city. Most houses were painted in dark blue as the high caste brahmins of Jodhpur liked painting their houses blue.

View of blue city from fort.JPG

We first visited the fort museum. In one section, there was a display of palanquins that had been used over time. The one that stood out was a more recent one specially made for the King’s mother, for her visit to England. Her palanquin was fashioned as a telephone booth. I can’t imagine how she could have been comfortable travelling in that booth though.

Grandmother's specially designed palanquin.JPG

The next section was the royal cradle museum, in the former women’s section of the palace, which had some of the cradles that had been used in the royal family. A more recent contraption was the electric cradle that was gifted, by the Department of Public Health, to the newborn Maharajah in 1948. The cradle was designed such that it would automatically swing, when it was switched on.

1948 electric cradle.JPG

It was also from this room that the married women, who still had living husbands, threw rose petals at the Maharajah and his retinue, when he left for or returned successfully from a war. Women whose husbands had passed away were considered inauspicious. Among the exhibits in this room, another interesting exhibit was a display of dumbbells, which the guide mentioned had been provided by the Maharajah to the royal women so that they could exercise and keep fit, despite being confined to their zenana. There was also a painting of the women exercising with the dumbbells.

Mehaangarh fort Women's section.JPG
We visited a couple of apartments open to the public: the Phool Mahal, or the entertainment hall of the Maharajah; the Maharajah’s apartment and the hall of public audience. The artist who had designed Phool Mahal had died midway and the King had left the hall unfinished as it was, in memory of the artist.

Hall of Public Audience_Fort.JPG

Inside palace.JPG

Meharangah fort King's bedroom.JPG

Doorway.JPG

From the fort, we saw a smaller monument a slight distance away, which we were told was Jaswant Thada or the crematorium of the royal family. As we left the fort, we saw at the entrance gateway, small hands imprinted into the wall. The guide said that they were the hands of the women who had committed sati and that sati originated in Rajasthan, during the Mughal invasion era. The practice was initiated to prevent the abuse of the women at the hands of invading armies, once their King had been killed. While the suicide practice had been initially a voluntary one, it soon became part of the culture, especially among the nobility, and women who had lost their husbands were expected to commit suicide. The practice was only banned in 1952. It was horrible to think of the women, who had placed their hands on the wall as a last imprint of their existence before burning themselves on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands.

View of Jaswant Thada.JPG

The tour operator had booked Mandore Guesthouse in Jodhpur, which had been one of the places I had specifically requested for during this tour. I was interested in Mandore guesthouse for two reasons: that it offered a traditional Rajasthani hut-style accommodation at a family-run guesthouse and secondly, because the guesthouse owners ran a  community volunteer programme in the nearby Bishnoi village.

Mandore, the former Marwar capital, is about half-an-hour away from the city area. Myth has it that it is the birthplace of Princess Mandodri, the wife of King Ravana of Sri Lanka, in the Ramayana. We visited the nearby Mandore gardens, where the cenotaphs of the Maharanis were. In front of the entrance to the garden, there were many stalls set up. It being the day after Eid, the festivities were still continuing in the neighbourhood. The gardens seemed a popular hang-out place for the locals as much as it was for the langurs.

Mandore Gardens.JPG

After our short walk in the gardens as we were not too keen to be wandering around the cenotaphs at dusk, we returned to the entrance area. We spotted a boy playing some lovely folk music on a traditional Rajasthani musical instrument. My mother was very much taken by the music and the string instrument so we asked the boy where we could get a similar instrument. The boy replied that the instrument was 500 rupees but he wouldn’t sell it, as it was his living. We weren’t able to make him understand that we were not trying to buy it from him but from the place he had it made or had bought from, so we gave up and returned to the guesthouse.

We were a little early as we had requested dinner at the guesthouse around 7-7.30p.m. so we decided to sit in the garden till it was ready. The proprietor of the guesthouse introduced himself and spoke to us about the village and his days growing up there. As a poor boy growing up in the village, he said he dreamt of speaking English and wearing trendy clothes and had to endure jokes made by his college mates, when he went there on a bicycle. He was proud of all he had achieved since then and especially of his initiative of giving back to his community. The idea for the guesthouse and tourism venture, he said, sprung from his strong feeling that the palaces and forts though a great testament to the past were not where life was and that India, the current, living India was found elsewhere among the rural communities. It was with this opinion that he had founded his tour company, which offered tours to rural villages. He added that he felt that tourism should be a two-way process, not just tourists coming and enjoying sites but contributing meaningfully to the communities they visit. He felt that his venture provided that by combining short volunteer programmes in surrounding villages, which enabled the voluntourist to experience village life first hand and get to know the residents. He said that to make it more attractive for the volunteer, he incorporated special interest themes, like learning puppet-making or henna designs or cooking into the volunteer programme, to enable a cultural learning as well.

When he initially started his community tourism concept, he said it had been difficult to sell the idea to major travel operators in Delhi. However, over the years, his venture had built its own name for the volunteering programmes and had even been mentioned in the previous year’s Lonely Planet guide (2005) and he had been invited to attend a conference organized by ILO and UNCDF on responsible tourism in Bangkok. Most of the people who visited the place, he said, were those who had been recommended the place by others who had come earlier.

Dinner was announced and he invited us over to the table that had been set up for us in the garden. His lovely daughter-in-law served us the home-cooked dinner which did not taste like the Rajasthani meals we had on the road or at the hotels, but very much Sri Lankan (rice with dhal, okra curry, potatoes, pappadam). The garden was lovely but full of mosquitoes and we were slightly worried with all the dengue news going about in India.

Finishing our dinner, we went back to our cottage. The accommodation was as described in the webpage, but the only drawback was that in the middle of the night, the a/c stopped working and it became extremely uncomfortable, as there was no window. The walls seemed to have absorbed the heat of the day and were releasing it in the night.

Room at Mandore Guesthouse.JPG

Despite the air conditioning system that stopped working and the uncomfortable, sleepless night, it was a lovely stay due to the wonderful hospitality of the family and their responsible tourism venture, which I enjoyed more than my visit to the fort.

[Linking this post to Weekend Travel Inspiration, City Tripping #66 and Faraway Files #21]

MummyTravels

Untold Morsels

Exploring Jaipur

As we entered the streets of Jaipur, our driver, who had a tendency to turn guide abruptly, announced, “Welcome to Jaipur, pink city. All buildings here are pink.” We were passing through the bazaar area, where buildings were every colour but pink.

After we checked in at our hotel and rested a bit, we decided to go out for a drive in the evening, as recommended by our Jaipur guide, to see the lights that had been put up for Diwali and visit Birla Mandir.

Post-Diwali lights in Jaipur.JPG

We drove past the Legislative Assembly and other Government buildings where the lights had not still been removed after the Diwali celebrations. The Birla Mandir looked pretty adorned in the Diwali lights. We prayed and went around the beautiful shrine for Krishna and Radha and received some sweet candy, as prasadham, from the priest.

Birla mandir.JPG

In the morning, we drove over to Amer Fort, the UNESCO world heritage site which was the former capital of the Kachchawa clan. The construction of the fort had been started in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, whose sister is said to have married Emperor Akbar and who himself was a Commanding General in the Emperor’s army. The fort construction was completed by Sawai Jai Singh I, who then decided to shift his capital and proceeded to build his new Jaipur in pink and relocated there in 1727.

Amer Fort.JPG

The Amer Fort was on top of a hill in the Aravalli range. It was very hot outside as we drove past the narrow, ancient streets, where life still continued in the form of odds and ends shops squeezed along the streets. The guide pointed out differences among the ruins we passed on our way up the hill. He said they were layers from different period of rule in the region. Some of the oldest ruins were considered to be the ruins of structures built more than 1000 years ago by an ancient tribal clan, Meena tribes, who had been considered to be descendants of Rama of the legendary epic Ramayana. They were driven out by the Kachchawa clan who were subsequently ousted by the Rajputs, who established their rule in Amber for 150 years, building and expanding Amer fort, before moving their capital to Jaipur.

Older ruins amongst recent ruins.JPGEntering the courtyard of the fort through the Chandrapol, or moon gate, we passed the elephant stand that has been in use since the ruling days of the Jaipur Maharajahs. The courtyard was also used as a training place for the Rajput armies and servants. Now, the elephants were used to bring in tourists into the courtyard and out through the Suraj pol, the sun gate. A girl approached us and asked if would like to have some henna done on our hands. The usual postcard sellers offered postcards for sale. A snake charmer sat languidly at the foot of the steps to the palace.

We walked up the steep incline and went through a narrow stairway, past a temple, and into a passage which led to a courtyard. This courtyard had the hall of public audience. Windows of the zenana overlooked this public courtyard, which allowed the royal ladies who were interested in the state happenings to listen to the ongoing political discourses or public grievances, without being seen.

AmerFort's hall of public audience.JPG

Through the beautiful Ganpathi Gate, we passed into a grand but small entertaining place, inlaid with beautiful mirror and marble work, for the royal dignitaries who were wined, dined and entertained there. After I took this shot of Ganpathi Gate, my film roll finished (it was in the days before I got my digital camera) and I realized that I had left my new film rolls behind in the bag in the car. So, I wasn’t able to take photos for the rest of our Amer Fort tour.

Ganpathi Gate.JPG

There were so many dark tunnels and narrow passages that we passed through. One odd aspect was that the floor was not even and paths not really made for walking as they had inlaid iron bars as if it was a medieval rail road. Perhaps, they had used trolleys to push things around. Going through one of these passages, we entered the private quarters of the Maharajah – his zenana. He had twelve main wives and each of his wives were given a separate set of identical rooms. The zenana was designed such that three rooms were on each side of the square courtyard, with a raised platform in the middle. The rooms for the numerous concubines, who did not have the same status as the Queens, were on the first floor.

Our guide told us that, unlike in the Mughal rule, Rajput women had a slightly better status though the veiling culture existed here as well. Especially in the time of war, the Maharajah would have to consult his queens separately and get their permission for them to release armies from their respective birthplaces to support the King in his war. Thus, the Rajput Queens had some power and the marriages were more political marriages, as the more wives the King had, the more powerful was his combined army.

At the top of the fort, there was an open air dancing place, for performances during summer nights. Above the fort we were at, we saw another fort. Our guide explained that Amer Fort was divided into the Upper and Lower Fort. The Lower Fort was the main place of residence for the ruling family but in times of security threats, they removed themselves through secret passages to the Upper Fort, where they waited out the war. The entire fort was itself surrounded by walls that spread across the Aravalli range. Watch towers installed at different places transmitted danger signals by the lighting of fire and beating of drums.

We entered another section of the fort to the area of the summer and winter palaces. The summer palace was interesting. It had the natural version of an air conditioning system. The walls were thick and in between the walls, there were hollow places in some areas where pots of water were kept to cool the rooms. There were also stream channels where the water was allowed to flow through the walls and across parts of the room and into the gardens. The combined effect of the water behind the walls and the flowing water would have cooled the rooms.

Returning from Amer Fort and moving towards the City Palace, we passed a couple of interesting sites. One was Jal Mahal, the water palace used by the royals during the summer time. Now, it was a dilapidated palace amidst a stinking lake. The guide said that the government was considering a project to renovate the area. I just managed to take a quick photo from the road before fleeing the overpowering stench.

Jal Mahal.JPG

We also passed some nice monuments and when we inquired about them, the guide disparagingly replied, “Oh, they are just the cenotaphs of the queens.” I would have liked to have heard more about the queens.

At the city palace, we first went to Jantar Mantar, the first of the five observatories built by Sawai Jai Singh, who was also a keen astronomist. There were several instruments and one of the ones that stand out in my mind is the sun-dial clock, which uses the sun to calculate the time, by the shadow that a nail cast on the concave marble arc, which had been constructed based on Jaipur’s actual inclination towards the north pole. We calculated the time and found it to be precisely 10.47, which was the local Jaipur time. It was fun trying out calculations on the different instruments. It is advisable however to visit Jantar Mantar a bit earlier in the day as the place seemed to attract all the heat and focus it on the instruments which were outdoors. We felt we were in peril of getting a sun-stroke so decided to move indoors to the city palace museum.

City Palace Textile Museum.JPG

The museum basically showcased the clothes worn by different Maharajahs and Maharanis at different periods for different occasions (coronation, wedding, playing polo etc). Going out of the museum and entering through another gate, we came to the courtyard where the hall of public audience was located. It was a well-maintained hall with two famous pots at the entrance.

Hall of Public Audience_City Palace Jaipur.JPG

One of the Maharajahs had a habit of practicing yoga and praying with the water of Ganges river each morning and when he was invited for the wedding of King Edward VII, he had two huge pots made and taken with him to England. The pots were filled with the water of Ganges, which he deemed sufficient for the duration of his voyage. The pots made it into the Guinness book, for being the biggest pots and they now stand at either side of the entrance to the hall of public audience.

Pot from Guiness Book.JPG

Jaipur is a fascinating city, with a rich history, and certainly the place to go on one’s first visit to Rajasthan. There is an annual international literary festival held in Jaipur, which I hope to visit the next time I travel to that state.

 

Hawa Mahal.JPG

Have you visited Jaipur? What are your impressions of the fascinating city?

[Linking this post to Weekend Travel Inspiration and City Tripping #65]

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Wander Mum

A morning in Fatehpur Sikri

As we went along the road to Fatehpur Sikri from Agra, our driver, Dev, pointed out the motorbikes passing us on either side. Most had women carrying a large bag on the rear seat. He said that the women were going to their parents’ home for the Bhai Dooj festival. This festival was celebrated in north India following Diwali and it was a festival where a married sister visited her brother on this day and gave him her blessings and gifts. There is an interesting folk story  about the origins of this festival. We asked Dev whether he and his sister were not celebrating the festival. He shrugged and replied, “here, people celebrate. now in modern cities, people don’t care.”

Visiting brothers.JPG

Till we reached Jaipur later that evening, we continued seeing brightly clad women on foot, motorbikes, mini-vans carrying bags and going with either their husband and/or children.

We reached the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri and our local guide was waiting for us at the entrance. We removed our shoes at the entrance as we were entering the mosque area, open to all public. This public area was teeming with people, both the local residents selling goods in tents set up around the courtyard as well as visiting tourists and pilgrims.

The guide told us that a very famous Sufi saint called Salim Chishti was said to have lived here in the 16th century. Emperor Akbar worried that he had no heir to the throne after several years of marriage, and hearing of the powers of the saint to grant wishes, visited him and sought his blessings. He had vowed that if he were granted his wish for a son, he would build his second capital in the area. His Hindu wife bore him a son, and one of the names he was given was Salim after the saint but was more commonly known by his other name, Jahangir. Akbar kept his promise and built the city of Fatehpur Sikri. He also had the tomb for the saint built in the mosque complex. The royal family lived for a few years in the city but abandoned it soon as water turned out to be a major problem, having to be transported all the way from Agra.

The tomb of Salim Chishti is now a famous pilgrimage point for people, irrespective of their faith. The guide said that Akbar had been personally involved in planning the tomb architecture and layout..

Fatehpur Sikri.jpg

Pilgrims and visitors to the tomb generally place a cloth offering over the cenotaph, sprinkle rose petals and tie threads for three wishes on the lattice windows overlooking the tomb.

Salim Chisti shrine.jpg

We got the cloth and bag of rose petals along with three red and yellow threads each and walked into the inner chamber. After placing our cloth over the cenotaph, the person who was taking care of the tomb said that we could place any donation, we felt like contributing for the mosque, near the cloth and it would be used for the welfare of the children of the area.

paying-respects

We then walked over to the lattice windows and tied our red and yellow threads. Our guide had mentioned earlier that we should not speak about the wishes we made until they were fulfilled. I can’t even remember now what wishes I made to know whether they were fulfilled or not.

Window of wishes.JPG

We walked out of the inner chamber and walked around the outer chamber. The guide pointed us to a half-door on the side of the tomb. He said that in the past, women had not been allowed to enter through the same front door as men as they were considered inferior to men. Women were allowed to visit the tomb of this saint but to differentiate their status, they had to come in through the side door. The purposefully built door ensured that the women had to bend to enter which ensured a humble poise. They were also only allowed to sit in the outer chamber and not allowed to enter the inner chamber during Akbar’s time. For all his secular views and broad mindedness on unity and equality, Akbar did not treat women in an equal and non-discriminatory manner.

Half-door for women.JPG

We walked out into the courtyard and took a short walk around. Adjoining the mosque and the sufi saint’s tomb was the palace complex. Akbar’s palace was interesting. There were three main houses within the palace: one for each of his three main wives – his Hindu wife, Christian wife and Muslim wife. One of Akbar’s policy in unifying India was to marry a princess of different states so that he would have that particular region’s allegiance. His three main recognized wives were privileged enough to have their own quarters as opposed to the mass harem quarters. His Hindu wife, who played an important role in Emperor Akbar’s life and politics, had her living quarters built in traditional Hindu architecture with places for lamps, worship and a traditional vegetarian kitchen etc. The Christian wife’s quarters had a chapel and lots of paintings. Each house though had some mark of all the religions to demonstrate that all religions was accepted, while giving special recognition to each wife’s particular religion.

A huge courtyard adjoining the harem was where the King entertained and was entertained or had important discussions regarding state issues. The legendary musician, Tansen, considered one of the nine jewels of Emperor Akbar’s court performed for the Emperor here, while his wives watched from their specially designed windows in their respective part of the harem. The platform where Tansen performed was surrounded by water, and was said to have been filled with jasmine and surrounded by lighted lamps during his performance.

Tansen's court.JPG

Legend has it that fellow musicians jealous of his skill and favour that he had found in Emperor Akbar’s court tried to oust him by asking the Emperor to make him sing the Deepak Raga, which if properly sung was thought to cause all things to burn, including the singer. Tansen is said to have sung it after asking another singer to sing the raga that evoked rains simultaneously.

Across the musician’s court, the Panch Mahal or the five storey place was built for the Emperor’s pleasure where he could enjoy the moonlight and evening air. The Panchmahal opened onto a huge ludo board carved on the floor.

Panchmahal_Fatehpur Sikri.JPG

Across this game board square was located the secret chamber. The chamber, where Akbar gathered his top ministers for secret, urgent consultations on state emergencies. He would sit in the middle and his ministers in each of the corners built around the center like a wheel. I can’t imagine how the consultation could have been secretive, if they had to shout out to each other across the respective corners they sat in.

Chamber for secret.JPG

There was also a hall for private audience known as the Diwan-i-Khas, especially where representatives of different religious faiths met with the Emperor to discuss their concerns.

Fatehpur Sikri 2.jpg

This section led into the more public area, the hall of public audience and the courtyard where the public waited to meet the Emperor and state their grievances and where public hearings were held. The guide mentioned that an elephant was usually kept waiting at these hearings as the worst offenders were sentenced to trampling by an elephant.

Fatehpur Sikri Public hearing.JPG

As we walked out of the public hearing area and towards our car, children selling knick knacks surrounded us. I always feel sad when I come across kids selling stuff at tourist sites. While I did not want to encourage child labour, we were unable to resist the plea of the kids so ended up buying a few things, hoping that the money would go towards their food.

What is the most interesting local festival that you have come across in your travels? How do you react when coming across child vendors at tourist sites?

[I am linking this post to Faraway Files #6 and Weekend Travel Inspiration]

Oregon Girl Around the World
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Highlights of Agra

Entering Agra district, we first visited Sikandara, the mausoleum of Emperor Akbar. The mausoleum was a beautiful red sandstone structure in the middle of a well-maintained lawn, which had deers roaming around the park. Emperor Akbar had started the building of his own mausoleum but it was completed by his son, Jahangir, after his death. We walked into the tomb, after removing our shoes at the entrance. It was a dark passage and we followed some other tourists going inside. The passage became darker and darker as we went further inside and we were a bit uncomfortable. We reached the inner tomb and it was pitch-dark. As we turned to leave, a loud voice within the tomb cried out ‘Allahu Akbar’. Though I reasoned out that there must be a recorded voice activated by someone stepping over some particular stone or touching a wall, the unearthly voice did startle us for a moment.

Sikandara2.JPG

Leaving the tomb, we walked around the premises. Emperor Akbar was renowned for his generosity and his fair-minded principles. Perhaps because of that or not, there was an atmosphere of calm and peace in the place.

Sikandara3.JPG

After checking in at our hotel, the local guide arranged by our tour operator arrived to take us to Agra Fort. Started by Emperor Akbar, the construction of the fort was completed by his grandson Shah Jahan. We walked through a doorway into the courtyard, where the Emperor used to hear the public’s grievances.

Agra Fort_Hall of public audience.JPG

We walked inside and entered the royal apartments, where according to our guide, nearly 5000 women had once resided in tiny cramped rooms. Though the living quarters were tiny, they opened onto a nice courtyard with a fountain in the middle. The courtyard had been used for growing grapes for wine. And, the dancers performed in front of the fountain, while Shah Jahan watched from his rooms at one end. Shah Jahan’s rooms had a lovely view of River Yamuna and the Taj Mahal.

Palace for eldest daughter.JPG

It was also in these rooms that he had been placed under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb, during the last eight years of his life. As his health was failing, he had been cared for by his eldest and favourite daughter, Jahanara. On either side of his rooms were the identical apartments of his eldest and youngest daughters and the guide pointed out that Jahanara’s apartment had been built in marble, which was her parents’ favourite choice of building material. After her father’s death, Jahanara moved to Delhi and is credited with the design of Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest markets in Old Delhi.

Inside the royal apartment_Agra fort.JPG

We walked into the next section of the fort, which is one of the earliest surviving buildings from Emperor Akbar’s time and was the zenana for his wives. It is called Jahangir Mahal perhaps because Akbar’s son, Jahangir, also chose it as his residence without building a new set of apartments as his son, Shah Jahan, did later. Jahangir Mahal was built in red sandstone, the material of choice of Emperor Akbar. The royal apartments opened onto a courtyard with a pool in the middle. There were two sets of identical apartments on either side. One side had windows, while the other didn’t. They were supposed to be the summer and winter palaces respectively. For such a huge fort, it was amazing that the living quarters were so cramped.

Jehangir's part in Agra fort.JPG

After our visit to Agra Fort, we drove to the Taj Mahal. As the Taj Mahal was a considerable distance away from the parking area, the guide arranged for a horse-cart/ tonga to take us closer. My mother especially enjoyed this tonga ride and it seems to be her favourite memory of our visit to Agra.

Passing the security gates, we entered the Taj through the Eastern Gate into a courtyard where the four gates faced each other. Each entrance was for a specific purpose in the old days, one for the Emperor and royal dignitaries, the other for public etc.

Northern Gate to Taj Mahal.JPG

As I approached the Northern Gate, my anticipation of a treat increased but our way was blocked by men with photo albums trying to get us to buy a photo package with them. With difficulty, we extracted ourselves and entered the gate feeling harassed. And, there we were at the famous spot where the Taj has been photographed a countless times and I had expected it to be the best highlight of our trip. It was an underwhelming moment as the crowds were quite distracting.

The famous shot2.JPG

As we walked closer to the lovely marble structure, I started seeing the beauty of it. The longer you looked at some face of Taj Mahal, the more appealing you were going to find it. Unfortunately, the rain clouds started gathering above and it was very windy.

One of the faces of the Taj.JPG

We hurried into the tomb, after wearing our shoe covers, so that we would escape the rains. Following a long queue, we walked inside the tomb which was quite dark. The guide pointed out the difference in designs of the resting places of Arjumand Banu Begum and Shah Jahan. We came out of the tomb and walked along its outer perimeter and came to the face overlooking river Yamuna. The guide pointed out the ruins of the foundations that had been laid by Shah Jahan, for his own mausoleum – the Black Taj, across the river. He had intended that his mausoleum face that of his wife’s in perfect symmetry down to the fountains. However, his son Aurangzeb refused to build it for him and instead buried him alongside his wife. While this act is considered somewhat dishonorable of his son, I think it is perfect that the couple celebrated for their love for each other be buried next to each other. We sat for a few minutes resting on the steps and then decided to turn back. The rain started pouring so we rushed back to our car.

Taj.jpg

I think I would have loved my experience of Taj Mahal more, had I visited it earlier in the day before it became crowded as we had done with Sikandara.

Is Taj Mahal on your travel wish list? If you have visited it, what was your experience of the Taj?

[I am linking this post to Faraway Files #5Wanderful Wednesday and Weekend Travel Inspiration]

Untold Morsels

Wanderful Wednesday

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En-route to Agra

My mother and I left Delhi after breakfast. We passed by roads waking up to a fresh day. Barbers shaving heads of clients on chairs set up under trees, street food sellers cooking up breakfast on their mobile carts, locals eating by the cart before rushing off to attend to their day’s work.

At my request, the tour operator had agreed to make a detour on the way to Agra so that we could visit Mathura and Vrindavan. Both places are revered among Hindus as the place of birth of Lord Krishna and the place where he grew up. Passing Radhapuram, we came across lots of cows lazily sitting along the sides of the road. My mother was highly pleased as Krishna was said to have grown among cow herders, according to myth.

We were approaching Vrindavan when Dev, our driver, warned us to keep our doors locked. The road was blocked and we saw a small tax booth. Dev lowered his window to pay the toll fee. Immediately, people swarmed the window and started offering us their services as guide around Vrindavan. Dev responded saying that we did not understand Hindi but they switched to broken English. It was frightening, especially, when some of the more aggressive ones tried to open the doors of the car on both sides. They refused to open the gates without taking one of their guides with us. Finally, Dev shouted back at them and asked whether they were going to accept the toll fee or not and one of them accepted the money and returned a ticket and another opened the gate for us to pass. As we passed through, we saw that one of the local guides was following us on his motorbike.

Vrindavan was awash with temples for Lord Krishna and almost every place was called Krishna something and local residents seemed to depend on Krishna tourism for their living. Before stopping at a temple, which Dev referred to as the main Krishna temple, we discussed a strategy to avoid the hordes of aggressive guides and vendors swarming the place. We would be dropped right at the entrance so that we could go directly into the temple and we agreed we would be at the entrance in exactly fifteen minutes so that Dev could pick us up at the entrance again.

Entrance to Krishna temple.JPG

The ISKCON temple was a lovely place but rather crowded that day since there was a special puja – the Govardhan puja for Krishna taking place. We queued to go in to the temple shrine area and passed a courtyard, where a section had been cordoned off and offerings of sweets shaped in lovely designs adorned the middle. We saw kids hanging around the edges of the cordoned off area, looking longingly at the sweets, which would probably be given them at the end of the puja as prasadham.

Vrindavan.jpg

We could not stand long in one place as there was a massive crowd making their way in and the area where people could sit was already packed so we had to keep moving with the queue and leave the puja area. We saw our driver waiting for us and quickly got into the car. At the gates which led out of Vrindavan, we were again stopped by the local guide on the motorbike, who demanded our driver to give him his name and mobile number. Our driver confidently gave his name and number, to our surprise. The local was satisfied and let us pass through. We asked Dev why he had done that and wouldn’t he be troubled thereafter by that particular guide. He smiled and replied, ‘Correct name, wrong number. He is happy, so no harm.’

Next, we went to Mathura city, to the place where Krishna was said to have been born. An ancient temple, Sri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple, is said to have been built over the prison cell where Krishna was born. However, the temple was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt several times. We were disappointed when we saw the long queue snaking its way around the temple. There must have been over thousand in the queue. We decided we did not want to stand in the queue in the blistering heat and instead would drive around the temple before continuing to Agra.

While we did not visit the oldest Krishna temple in Vrindavan nor the temple at the supposed place of Krishna’s birth in Mathura, my mother was still happy that we visited the area of so many Hindu religious stories as well as folklore. Even though the toll booth harassment at Vrindavan was not pleasant and somewhat scary.

Have you had experiences of being harassed when visiting a famous tourist or pilgrimage site? 

To be continued in Agra

[I am linking this post to Wanderful Wednesday and Weekend Travel Inspiration]
Wanderful Wednesday

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Special Six: Memories of Delhi

It was ten years ago that I first visited Delhi. The trip was a celebration of sorts for having survived a very stressful year. I had convinced my mother, who had also had an equally stressful year albeit for different reasons, to accompany me. Perhaps because this was the first multi-day holiday trip that my mother and I were taking without any other family members and perhaps because it really felt like we were celebrating overcoming adversity, this trip remains my favourite travel memory. We enjoyed doing all the touristy things that the first time visitor to north India, on a package tour, would do on their travel around the Golden Triangle. This is the first of a series of posts on my Golden Triangle trip memories, starting with my favourite six from our time in Delhi.

  1. Staying at Hotel Broadway

The tour operator had booked us at Hotel Broadway situated on a dusty and tired looking road close to Delhi gate. The hotel did not look promising on the outside but the room that we checked into turned out to be a delight. Room number 46, was decorated by Paris-based artist Catherine Lévy, and was such a fun, eclectic and quirky room to be in. A blue sofa with red and yellow birds stitched on it was placed at one end of the room, with a low table from a nursery serving as the coffee table. I enjoyed writing in my travel journal each morning at the writing desk, which was a table generally found in canteens, and sitting in a revolving chair that was probably from a barber’s shop. The small radio fitted into the wall above the writing desk had strobe lights fitted on. I also liked the bedside lamps, which were an optician’s rectangular eye testing lamps, with the alphabets on its screens. The bathroom had a travel theme and it was covered with blue tiles and each tile with a picture of a different place from around the world. My favourite though was the ceiling fan, which would measure your luck each time you switched off the fan. We loved staying in this room and were disappointed when we were not given the same room at the end of our tour as well.

Ceiling fan.JPG

2. The ‘do rupiah’ kahani/ story

My mother and I discovered that the Delhi gate bazaar was just next door on our first evening in the city and we decided to explore the maze of tiny crowded and colourful streets filled with bright-coloured clothes, sweet shops filled with fly-ridden sweets, food carts selling pani puri, odds and ends shops selling gifts and souvenirs etc. My mother asked me if I had any small change and I gave her the ten rupee note that I had on me.

When I gave her the ten rupee note, she was like a child with her first ten rupee note at her first carnival. She happily bought an incense stick box and a packet of chips and was left with a 2 rupee coin, which she was determined to spend at the bazaar. We were walking further down the bazaar, when we saw an apple cart and she decided to spend her 2 rupee coin buying an apple. The apple-seller said that one apple was 3 rupees and she said ‘nahi, do rupees’. She was looking at an apple, when she suddenly started rooting through the apples on one corner of the cart. I was getting a bit worried and embarrassed because the cart owner started grumbling about it. She finally exclaimed gleefully as she picked up her two rupee coin, which I then realized had fallen into the cart.

I have always marveled at my mother’s ability to tap into her inner child and experience the moment with a child’s carefree and happy attitude. Especially even amidst painful life experiences. Being of a more serious disposition, I didn’t always appreciate this attitude especially during my teen years. However, I have learnt to value and treasure such moments with my mother.

3. Visit to Raj Ghat

During our first morning in Delhi, the guide who was a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, discussed the suggested itinerary for the day with us and asked if we had specific places we wanted to visit. I expressed an interest in paying our respects at Raj Ghat so that is where we went first.

Gandhi's Samadhi.JPG

Flower seller.JPG

We bought some marigold flowers from the flower seller at the entrance and walked through the peaceful park to the memorial. The place where Mahatma Gandhi had been cremated, on 31st January 1948 on the banks of Yamuna river, had a marble platform and a burning lamp at one end.

As we drove away from Raj Ghat, I noticed the road was lined with memorials of cremation places of other Indian leaders like the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.

4. A quick glimpse of India Gate

Having watched the republic day parades of India on TV, while living in Madras for a couple of years as a child, I had to stop by India Gate on our drive around Delhi.

Designed by Edwin Lutyens, India Gate is a war memorial to the 82,000 Indian soldiers who died during the first world war. The canopy behind India Gate once had the statue of King George V, but was subsequently removed.

IndiaGate.JPG

From India Gate, one could see Rashtrapati Bhawan, the President’s house, and the Parliament House. We were told that both the President’s palace and India Gate were built in perfect alignment and that they were of the same height of 42.5m. The Parliament house were two identical buildings on either side of the road leading to the President’s palace. I liked the symmetry of Lutyens’ design of the administrative centre of New Delhi.

5. Lotus Temple, the Baha’i house of worship

The Lotus temple was a pleasant surprise to my mother and I. What we liked most about the temple, considered the mother temple of those of Baha’i faith, was that not only was it open to people of all faiths, who were free to read scriptures of any faith within the temple, it was forbidden to have any sermons or ritualistic ceremonies within the temple. Everyone was asked to be silent within the temple premises. It made a huge impression on me.

Lotus temple.JPG

Lotus temple with Amma.jpg

6. Exploring Qutb Minar

Of all the ancient monuments and buildings we visited in Delhi on this trip, the one that made the most impression on me was the aesthetically pleasing Qutb Minar. It was simply a beautiful masterpiece. The Qutb Minar was built upon the ruins of the old city, with the foundation laid by Qutb al-din-Aibak, the founder of the Delhi sultanate in the 13th century. However, it was only completed by his successor after his death.

Alai Gate and Qutb Minar and Mosque.JPG

Alai Gate and Qutb Minar.JPG

Qutb Minar and the Alai Darwaza gate

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Above the doorway.JPG

Ala-ud-din Khilji started the construction of the Alai Minar in early 14th century, as he wanted to build a monument that rivalled Qutb Minar. However, he died before the first storey was completed and work on the monument was discontinued.

Alai Minar.JPG

Alai Minar

The iron pillar with its Sanskrit inscriptions was brought from its original place to the site during the building of the Qutb Minar complex. Some of the translations indicate that the pillar was raised for Vishnu to celebrate the victory of a King in the 4th century.

The ancient pillar.JPG

Iron pillar

The UNESCO heritage site is impressive and it was interesting to see features of the older city peeping out of this ancient monument complex.

Qutb Minar pillars.jpg

Since that first visit to Delhi, I have visited a few times and explored the city more. While several of my Indian friends seem to prefer other Indian cities over Delhi, I continue to find the city fascinating.

I would highly recommend reading Khuswant Singh’s Delhi for those who have visited or are interested in visiting Delhi.

Have you visited Delhi? Which experience do you treasure most from your first visit to the capital of India?

[I am linking this post to Wanderful WednesdayFaraway Files #4Weekend Travel Inspiration and The Weekly Postcard]
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Untold Morsels
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 Travel Notes & Beyond