Saturday, January 26: Ailsa’s travel theme for this week is Walls (See Where’s my backpack?).
Here are some walls from South Asia.
Saturday, January 26: Ailsa’s travel theme for this week is Walls (See Where’s my backpack?).
Here are some walls from South Asia.
Sunday, March 13: We have a fabulous breakfast in our 3rd favorite hotel in India and then take pictures of its stained glass windows, painted peacock doors, flower-painted and bejeweled ceilings, and gold-foiled arches and columns. Since this is our last day with Singh, we take pictures with him in front of his little car. We admittedly have become fond of Singh during these last 7 days, and we are sad that today we will part ways. He has grown on us, despite the early-on debacles. We will miss him dearly. Little do we know that we will no longer have such a companionable, happy-go-lucky driver for the duration of our trip.
We must check out of our room, because late tonight, at midnight, we are scheduled to take an overnight train to Jaisalmer. We leave our belongings in a spare room at the hotel and then Singh takes us to the lovely Amber (also known as Amer) Fort, 11 km north of Jaipur. This honey-hued fort palace was the ancient capital of Jaipur state.
Maharaja Man Singh began building the Amber Fort in 1592. It is known for its artistic style, blending both Hindu and Mughal elements. The fort with its large ramparts, series of gates and cobbled paths, overlooks the Maota Lake. We climb up the fort from the road and on the way pass by caravans of brightly painted and decked-0ut elephants coming down the hill. For long moments I am transported back to a time of majestic trade caravans and maharajas. It’s quite a romantic place, one of my favorite spots in India.
We enter through the Sun Gate into Jaleb Chowk, which is the first main courtyard. This was the place where armies would hold victory parades with their war bounty on their return from battles; these were witnessed by royal family women through the latticed windows.
Once we reach the main open area of the fort, I decide to go up the main stairway through a beautiful gate painted with gold, coral, blue and green flower vases. This is one of my favorite gates with its gorgeous but faded paintings. I have to pay extra to go into this portion of the fort, and Jayne decides she would rather hang out below than to pay yet another fee. I go up to explore on my own. I am not disappointed.
I enter a third courtyard through the Ganesh Pol or Ganesh Gate, which is embellished with mosaics and sculptures. Inside this gate is where the private quarters of the Maharaja, his family and attendants were built. The courtyard has two buildings, one opposite the other, separated by a Mughal-designed garden. The building to the left of the entrance gate is called the Jai Mandir, which is exquisitely inlaid with glass panels and multi-mirrored ceilings. Also known as Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), the mirror mosaics and colored glasses were “glittering jewel boxes in flickering candle light.”
I am swept along with the hordes of tourists into another past and romantic century where chivalry was honored. When I finish exploring the maharaja’s chambers and the fancy gardens and beautiful architecture, I head back down where I find Jayne engrossed in a conversation with a cute young Indian guy. She is glowing and basking in the attention.
Sadly, we have to leave this place. We go back down to the parking lot where we meet Singh. We make a brief stop at Jal Mahal, a small palace set in the middle of Man Sagar Lake.
He then takes us to the Gatore Ki Chhatriyan , a site of the royal cenotaphs. It is such a beautiful and serene spot (rare in India), surrounded by a small village. The monuments inside are intricately carved and the whole spot is quite elegant. Small open air pavilions or gazebos are arranged in an artful pattern. Each gazebo has exquisitely delicate columns holding up white domes. The marble cenotaph of Maharaja Jai Singh II is quite impressive. Gatore Ki Chhatriyan was a royal crematorium site for Jaipur’s magnificent rulers. A cenotaph was constructed in recognition of each of the more famous maharajas cremated there. The royal cenotaph is known as “Chhatris” (umbrella-shaped memorial). The cenotaphs are engraved with magnificent Rajasthani carvings. Peaceful and soothing, it is one of my favorite spots in Jaipur.
Again, at this place, I go in alone as Jayne doesn’t feel like paying another entrance fee of 30 rupees. When I come out, she is busy talking with two Brazilians who are traveling around India selling jewelry. They comment on my havaianas flip-flops, which I bought in Korea but unbeknownst to me originated in Brazil! What a globalized world we live in!
Finally, Singh drives us back into Jaipur to see the fabulous Pink City. Singh drops us off at the City Palace gate. We hug him goodbye as this is the last time we will see him. He is heading back tonight to spend one night at home with his family, and then he has a three week tour with some girls from Australia. He says he is worried now because he has finally gotten used to our accents and now will have to get used to the Australian accent. We say our goodbyes and he is off. Suddenly, we feel a little lost.
We’re hungry so we go immediately to the Palace Cafe, where we eat another fabulous Indian lunch: Dal Palak, yellow lentils cooked with shredded spinach and Indian spices; Tandoori Naan; Bharwan Aloo, scooped potato stuffed with cashew nuts, cottage cheese, raisins and green herbs soaked in tandoor; Kingfisher beers and lemon rice. It’s expensive but delicious and we are able to relax in the lovely cafe and listen to a bright-red costumed and turbaned guy playing an interesting oboe-like instrument.
The modern-day city of Jaipur, known as the City of Victory, is the gateway to the desert state of Rajasthan. The Jaipur City Palace consists of a vast complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings, a blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. The outer wall was built by Jai Singh, but other additions date from as recent as the early 20th century. After eating lunch we wander through the Maharaja Sawai Mansingh II Museum, which holds a collection of royal costumes and shawls, including Kashmiri pashmina (wool shawls).
We take pictures in a beautiful coral-hued pavilion with curlicue and floral white trim and then just wander around the palace until we are hot and tired. Sadly, somehow in all our explorations in Jaipur, we miss one of the most famous buildings, the Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh. It is a 5-storied semi-octagonal monument that looks like a honeycomb. It’s funny, when you are traveling in such a place as India, you see so many beautiful forts and palaces and monuments that you sometimes get burned out from it all. There are things you miss just because you’re too tired and too stressed from trying to do and see everything. This is the hard thing about travel, deciding what is just too much and what is not enough.
After exploring the Palace, we have a lot of time to kill before our train leaves at midnight. We no longer have Singh waiting for us. We wander out and get into a rickshaw with the cutest Indian guy who has a very proper British accent. We think we want to go to shop at the bazaars, but of course this rickshaw driver wants to take us to the shops where he will get a kickback. We don’t want that and just want to wander by ourselves through a bazaar. He shows us a book where all his customers have written amazing things about him. He also keeps saying “Your wish is my command!” in a very British and very chipper tone. But eventually he gets fed up with us because we don’t want to go where he wants to take us or to buy anything at the shops where he has connections. He finally just insists that we get out at some random street corner, where he almost refuses to take my 50 rupee note because it has a lacy hole in it. After much argument, he takes it just out of sheer desperation to get rid of us!
Later we find another rickshaw driver to whom we make an extremely low offer (all right, admittedly we are being cheap but we’re tired of being nickeled and dimed to death!) Our hotel is a little hard to find, so the poor guy drives around and around in circles desperately trying to find it. We end up giving him more than we originally agreed, thus rewarding him for his incompetence!!
Back at the hotel, we call another massage place where they send a car to pick us up. This is the Charak Ayurveda Clinic and Research Centre in Bani Park, Jaipur. We both have what is called the Ayurvedic massage with oil and hard rubbing and a head massage for 1,000 rupees. We realize we have spent lots of money on massages on this trip!! But it’s a nice way to relax after a long day of sightseeing.
We are pretty greasy after this massage, but we no longer have a room and are unable to shower. We go to the rooftop of our lovely hotel, where we split a Kingfisher and a cauliflower tandoori dish and watch a lame puppet show. The puppeteer is a very skinny but cute Indian guy wearing balloon-like pants. He looks like a puppet himself. He asks me if I am a “fashion designer!” I have no idea where that question comes from! Then he tries to give us one of his puppets as a gifts, but we refuse knowing that we just cannot add anything else to our baggage. Also, as we know, with the acceptance of a gift such as this will come some obligation, to buy something else, perhaps.
Later, we sit in the hotel lobby for hours waiting for midnight to arrive. We are sitting on these burgundy damask couches and I am reading White Tiger, which Jayne has finished and has passed on to me. The book is by Indian author Aravind Adiga and was first published in 2008; it won the Man Booker Prize in the same year. I can’t decide if it will be rude to lie down on the couch, but I am tired and feel like being in a reclining position. So I recline and hold the book over my head to read. Jayne and I start cracking up laughing over the inappropriateness of this, and I laugh so hard that I fart!! So embarrassing! By this time we are totally giddy.
Finally, at 11 pm, we get a rickshaw to the train station. This is a surreal and kind of scary experience. Signs are few and far between and there are 4 platforms; to get from platform to platform, we must climb steps to a bridge above. We are lugging our heavy suitcases and it’s a pain in the ass! We run back and forth on the platform, looking for the A1 coach, which is first class (we think, or we hope!). There seems no rhyme or reason to how the cars are lined up and we run back and forth in desperation, afraid of missing this train. Finally we find our car and lug our suitcase on board. We find our four-bunk compartment, separated from the aisle only by a curtain. The train is filthy! A couple is already ensconced in the top bunks, so we take the bottom. The girl is from America and the guy from Finland; they just happened to meet randomly on their travels. We all chat for a while and then settle in for the 12 hour train ride to Jaisalmer. Pure misery.
Saturday, March 12: The Taj Mahal
After eating a breakfast of omelets in the sweltering merry-go-round restaurant in the Hotel Pushp Villa, we head to the long-awaited Taj Mahal. We are dressed our part as Indian princesses for this special day, wearing our salwar kameez and flowing scarves. Singh must drop us quite a way off, because there is a perimeter within which cars are not allowed. Apparently the polluting cars are kept from getting too close to the Taj Mahal because of resulting discoloration. We wait in a slow-moving line to buy our tickets, which are 750 rupees for tourists, and then at the main gate of the Taj, we wait in another long women-only line to have our bags checked and our bodies scanned.
It is well-known that the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She died giving birth to their 14th (!) child in 1631. The emperor was so heartbroken by her death that his hair turned gray virtually overnight. Construction of the Taj began that year and though the main building was completed in 8 years, the entire complex took 22 years. Soon after it was finished, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb. He was imprisoned in Agra Fort, across the river from the Taj, where for the remaining days of his life he could only gaze out the window longingly at his creation. Shah Jahan died in 1666 and was buried beside Mumtaz in the mausoleum.
We enter through the south gate, which is a 30 meter high red sandstone gateway inscribed with verses from the Quran. Once we pass through the gate, we can see the Taj Mahal, standing on a raised platform at the far end of the ornamental gardens, with the Yamuna River behind. Because the river is behind and because it sits on a platform, its backdrop is simply the beautiful sky. There are no unsightly buildings behind to detract from the vision. Since we are here close to sunrise, the backdrop is brushstrokes of lavender, purple and coral. It’s stunning.
The ornamental gardens are designed in the style of formal Persian gardens, a square divided by watercourses, with an ornamental marble plinth at its center. Usually, in pictures, I have seen the Taj beautifully reflected in the watercourses. However, today, there is no water at all in the watercourses. Why that is, I have no idea, but it’s very irritating. Why can’t the Indians keep anything properly maintained and running? Our trip to India has shown Indian government at its worst. The Taj Mahal is arguably the most beautiful building in the world and is the biggest tourist attraction in India. You would think that because of this, the monument would be sparkling and spiffy ALL THE TIME! However, on this day, it looks like a poorly maintained tourist attraction. People always say the Taj Mahal NEVER disappoints. It’s still beautiful, but these dried up watercourses definitely detract from the beauty. Slightly, yes, it DOES disappoint.
We spend quite a long time wandering around the grounds, watching the people, admiring the gardens, touching the semi-translucent white marble walls and the relief-carved flowers, and studying the beautiful patterns of inlaid semi precious stones. The building is really so lovely, with its white minarets at each corner of the raised marble platform. The vaulted arches on its facade are embellished with Quran quotations in inlaid jasper calligraphy. The central bulbous dome is surrounded by four small domes. Inside the central chamber, light streams through finely cut marble screens. We can’t view the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, as they are in a locked basement beneath the main chamber.
Standing on the river side of the Taj, we can see Agra Fort, where the sad Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son. This fort was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565 and his grandson, Shah Jahan, made additions using his favorite material of white marble. Intended to be a military structure, Shah Jahan transformed it into a palace. Later it became his prison for eight years until his death, after his son seized power in 1658.
We spend quite a lot of time here just soaking up the magnificence of the Taj Mahal. The TAJ MAHAL!! I can’t believe we are here seeing this. It is lovely with its exquisite setting and its mournful story. In a dream-state, we wander and sit on the benches, soak up the atmosphere and watch the hordes of Indian families and tourists against the backdrop of the world’s most beautiful building.
We return to the Pushp Villa where Singh is waiting to drive us on the next leg of our trip. We are heading to Jaipur today, and on the way we will stop at Fatehpur Sikri. We load up our stuff and get on the road. On our way out of Agra, as we crawl out of the town, five boys squeezed onto one motorcycle ride along beside us and surprisingly throw a bunch of roses into the car. Sweet!
Fatehpur Sikri is a fortified ancient city about 40 km west of Agra, and the drive takes us a little over an hour. It was the short-term capital of the Mughal empire between 1571-1585, while Emperor Akbar was the head honcho. Emperor Akbar came here to consult the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne. When his prophecy came true, the Emperor built his capital here, with a mosque and three palaces for each of his favorite wives: one a Christian, one a Muslim and one a Hindu. Because of water shortages in the area, the capital was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death.
Singh has to drop us some distance from the city, where we must take a bus. On the bus are really obnoxious guys trying to sell us tacky trinkets. They won’t take no for an answer and keep hounding everyone who is captive on the bus until someone buys something. This place is one of the most annoying because of these persistent salesmen. When we get off the bus, more boys swarm around us trying to convince us to hire them as guides. We wave them all off.
Inside the gates, the palace walls are a rich red sandstone, set off by emerald-green grass and colorful flower gardens. The first palace is the largest, that of Jodh Bai, Akbar’s Hindu wife who is said to have been his favorite. It boasts traditional Indian columns, Islamic cupolas and turquoise-blue Persian roof tiles and is set around a huge courtyard.
Near the Hindu wife’s palace is the Christian wife’s palace, used by Akbar’s wife Mariam, who gave birth to Jehangir here in 1569. It contains elements of different religions, reflecting Akbar’s tolerance for other religions. The domed ceiling is Islamic in style and holds remnants of a painting of the Hindu god Shiva.
As we head north from an Ornamental Pool, we come to the most intricately carved, tiny but elegant Rumi Sultana, the palace built for Akbar’s Turkish Muslim wife. Though I’m not crazy about a man who feels the need to have three wives, Jayne and I have to admire someone who makes sure he marries women of different faiths, putting each wife on equal footing.
The Diwan-i-Am, or the Hall of Public Audiences, is a large courtyard which is now a garden. Here Akbar dispensed justice through public executions, with elephants trampling convicted criminals to death. At the northern end of the garden is the Hall of Private Audiences, or Diwan-i-Khas. Its interior is dominated by a beautifully carved central column. At the top is a flat-top plinth, where Akbar stood to debate with scholars in the four corners of the room, connected by narrow stone bridges.
On one corner of the Ladies Garden is the Panch Mahal, a pavilion with five stories that decrease in size until the top one which is the size of a tiny kiosk. The entire setting is lovely with the gardens and the red sandstone pavilion.
Next to the entire complex is the Caravanserai, a vast courtyard surrounded by rooms looking like an old-fashioned motel. In these rooms, visiting merchants stayed.
After walking through this, we come upon Jama Masjid, an immense mosque of Persian and Indian design. In the courtyard of the mosque is the white-marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti, which we enter through a door made of ebony. Brightly colored flower murals and a canopy of mother-of-pearl shell enclose the interior. Inside everyone is filing past a marble altar and piling up colorful scarves on it. I don’t really know what this is for, possibly couples wishing for children, since the saint prophesied about Akbar’s son in that long past century. Childless women do in fact visit this tomb today to tie threads to the marble screens, in hopes of conceiving a child.
After taking the bus back to meet Singh in the parking lot, we are accosted once again by myriads of touts trying to lure us into a bazaar which is quite nice. We would have wandered through there anyway, so it is irritating to have to fend off these annoying men and boys. After exploring the bazaar, we walk to meet Singh, where we are accosted by more young boys begging us to give them our tickets to Fatehpur Sikri. Later Singh tells us these boys try to resell the tickets to make money for themselves.
We get back in the car for the long drive to Jaipur. We are surprised to find a multi-lane limited use highway, much like what we have in America. This is the best highway we have encountered in India and it is nearly a smooth and relaxing ride to Jaipur. Along the way, we stop at tourist shop for a bathroom and snack break. Inside we explore the tourist shop and suddenly I am face to face with two girls I recognize!! We all stop in our tracks and stare at each other. They say, Oh my gosh! Do you remember us? We were all on the same trip to China in September. They remind me their names are Jen and Jenni, and though I don’t recall their names, I do remember their faces. We had all taken a tour to Beijing from Korea in September during the Chuseok holiday. What a shock, to meet these girls at a highway rest stop in India! What a strange and tiny world it is.
When we arrive in Jaipur, Singh drops us at our hotel, Nahargarh Haveli. This hotel sits on a nondescript side street where the road is mostly torn up for construction. However, inside we find a lovely hotel, with stained glass windows and lovely painted ceilings. Our rooms is perfectly nice. What a surprise. We ask Singh if he will drive us to Reds, a slick bar overlooking the Raj Mandir cinema. We relax on red leather couches in the ultra-modern bar and drink beers and eat snacks of cauliflower and corn cakes with sauces. We love this place! Feeling pretty good after several beers, we head back to the room to read and sleep for an early morning exploring the Pink City.
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