I am a latecomer to travel & blogging and have a wide ranging interest which will hopefully be displayed in this journal. Always looking for the quirky as you will see!
Message
  • Day17

    The Golden Finale

    March 10, 2020 in India ⋅ 🌙 7 °C

    We began our final day with a demonstration. No, not of the floral variety, but a ‘how to tie a turban’ dem from Jessie. Tony was volunteered and ended up with a very chic scarlet turban for our daytime temple visit. Between 5 and 7 metres of cotton fabric are used in every turban and to tie one is something of an art form. I had no idea there were so many versions, but I now know how individual a turban can be and some aficionados use considerably more fabric. It is mainly a male head dress, but some women also choose to wear it. Jessie was sporting a natty orange version today, as this is a celebratory colour for Sikhs and today is the Indian ‘Holi’ Colour Festival. As you may have noticed from last nights photographs of the little boys, it is customary to throw powdered paint at people in celebration. I had been warned to take something ‘disposable’ to wear in case of disaster! As a result this morning’s visit to the Golden Temple was particularly special and ultra busy. Everyone was out in their best clothes and there were some fabulous outfits on show. Indians are not frightened of colour and wear it with aplomb. We followed our route of last night and by day the contrast between the surrounding streets and the immediate Temple vicinity was even more marked. At least the rats had gone to bed! It seems incredible that the Temple is kept in such an immaculate state and yet all around people live in filth, throw rubbish everywhere and seem oblivious to the fact that they are existing in a health and hygiene nightmare. There seems to be little desire to clean anything up and it wouldn’t take much. They must have a very strong immune system. If you ask anyone about it the response is always ‘This is India’ with a shrug of the shoulders. The words convenient excuse come to mind? Sudhir, our guide feels that education is the key and it will gradually improve, but it could be generations.
    By daylight the Golden Temple sparkled in the sun and there were people massed everywhere. The scene was a glorious riot of colour. Jessie took us on a tour of the kitchen, where up to
    100,000 meals were to be served today, all prepared and served by volunteers. This is double the normal because of the Holi Festival. It is a very slick and organised system and no one is refused sustenance. There are four enormous halls where the people sit in rows on the floor and are served rice, chapati, dhal, a vegetable dish and water. A small amount only on a stainless steel divided platter. It dawned on me that this is less of a meal and more of a communion, which Jessie confirmed. We moved on to the kitchens, where the making of chapatis was in full swing. The dough is produced by a massive machine and volunteers shape and roll them out. This was our chance to get involved and so we did! I sat with one of my group on my right and two Indian ladies to my left. We all knew how to handle a rolling pin regardless of creed or nationality and I was pleased to have made a contribution. The chapatis were cooked over a huge griddle before heading out to feed the ‘five thousand’. Then there was the washing up! Oh my God, the racket, as the platters crashed against one another in the two 200ft long water troughs and thence into racks. Men washed up in one trough and women in the other. I was slightly concerned at how often the water was changed, but as we were not eating, let it pass!
    We slowly made our way out of the kitchens, past people industriously chopping garlic, onions and multiple vegetables, into the sunlight to walk around the sacred pool one last time. To our amazement all age groups wanted to have their photographs taken with us and it was a slow but friendly path to the exit gate. On our way back to collect our shoes we came across three young guys covered head to toe in Holi powder paint. We laughed with them and took a photo, at which point Lesley and I were ‘attacked’; Lesley coming off a little worse than me, but it wasn’t disastrous, just fun. It has been a real honour to have visited the Golden Temple another of India’s world class monuments and a fitting finale.
    Our day concluded with a visit to the Summer Palace of the last Maharajah of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh (all Sikhs have Singh in their surname). This is the man who paid for the 24 carat gold coating of the Golden Temple and the original owner of the Koihnoor diamond. The enormous diamond was originally set in the bejewelled Peacock Throne made for Shah Jahan in 1628, before being pillaged to Persia and passing through countless hands before being secured by the Maharajah as a spoil of war. There is some controversy here as to how it then came into the hands of Queen Victoria, but it is at least displayed for all to see in the Imperial Crown. . The summer palace and garden need a considerable amount of restoration, which is now being undertaken. Local lads were playing cricket on a dirt pitch - no wonder they can handle spin. You will see this everywhere and cricket is undoubtedly the national game. On our way back to the coach we came across an Indian version of a pop up lolly shop, if you can call it that and stopped to watch. A large block of ice is shaved on very sharp embedded blade, moulded into the lolly shape and then natural flavourings of lime, lemon and orange poured over it in syrup form. Ingenious and the equivalent of 20pence.

    And so, inevitably we headed back to the hotel to commence the big pack up for the long journey home. It is hard to sum up the last two and a half weeks in mere words. Our group have been friendly and great fun and we have enjoyed sharing this experience together. The organisation has been faultless. India is a culture shock to the westerner and you need to observe, accept and not judge its centuries old traditions. It is a land of immense contrasts in every respect, with an ethos all of its own. Ninety five percent of marriages are still arranged, the caste system is still all encompassing and as a western woman it is hard to handle the inequality between the sexes. A woman still cannot attend her husband’s funeral. The senses are assaulted on every level. It is colourful, challenging, full of beauty, artistry, squalor and at times overwhelming. I can honestly say, this trip has been a risk worth taking: we have stayed well and loved every minute of it. I am so grateful to have had the chance to have just touched the surface of this fascinating country. There is seriously nowhere like India! Thank you Lesley for coming with me. Something so beautiful is always better shared.
    Read more

  • Explore, what other travelers do in:
  • Day16

    Amritsar and the Golden Temple

    March 9, 2020 in India ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    Here we are after two and half glorious weeks in India at our final port of call, Amritsar. Our day started early, yet again, and we caught the 5.30 am train from Chandigarh to Amritsar, which is a 4 hr journey. Drinks and snacks are constantly offered, from tea and coffee, cold omelettes, vegetable patties, biscuits and crisps. Note that British Rail cannot manage a drinks trolly! I have to say I avoided everything bar the crisps, as they were outside my ‘safe’ category, but they were available. We alighted on to a heaving platform at Amritsar and slowly made our way out of the station accompanied by a couple of cows strolling along amidst the crowd. No one took a blind bit of notice, even when one of them anointed the platform in their honour!
    The evening saw us depart for the evening ceremony at the Golden Temple. Amritsar is the centre of The Sikh religion which is approximately 500 years old and believes in equality between genders, kindness and charity to all and welcomes everyone, regardless of religion, to their holy temple. We travelled as far as possible by coach and then by mad rickshaw, to within walking distance. The streets are dark and thronged with people, particularly bearing in mind it is the Holi Festival tomorrow, so all Sikhs that can, wish to worship at the temple. It is unsurprisingly an enormous complex and you enter the inner sanctum through a arched gateway, barefoot and modestly covered, including the head for both men and women, via a shallow foot bath.The archway is deep and stepped and when you arrive at the top of the steps there before you glitters the 24 carat golden temple in its sacred pool. It is a quite unbelievable sight, especially lit up at night. ‘Jessie’ our guide (name too long and complicated to pronounce!) explained all that was going to happen and some of us stood in the holy water, whilst taking in the sight of the faithful at worship, some prostrate, others immersing themselves in the pool. There were beautifully decorated prayer rooms all around the waters edge, where elders were reading aloud from the holy scripture and the white marble that is everywhere underfoot is cool to the feet. On Jessies’s instruction we headed to the temple itself, to witness the parade of the original holy scripture (Sri-Gur Granth Sahib) to its place of rest for the night, (it is a four poster bed!) amidst much chanting and veneration. The temple itself is even more beautiful in reality than from photographs, the interior heavily decorated with gold and painted surfaces, golden doors, jewel coloured carpets and stunning chandeliers, over two floors. Again, to our surprise, we were allowed full access. The Sikh religion is certainly inclusive. To our amazement, once the Holy Book was put to bed for the night, out came the Brasso! I should explain that there are brass vessels, railings and handrails everywhere and volunteers set to with a will to clean any brass in sight. This is apparently a nightly task, as is the brushing and beating of the carpets. By the time we came to exit the temple complex and reclaim our shoes, pilgrims were bedding down for the night, in alcoves and anywhere they could find, directly on to the marble floor with a thin blanket covering. This is perfectly acceptable and they must be a hardy breed, as it cannot be comfortable. We returned to our hotel elated at having witnessed such a ceremony and with the prospect of more to come tomorrow.
    Today was Lesley’s birthday and it was certainly a day with a difference. We had a glass of something sparkling ( not the best in truth) and had our photograph taken to mark the occasion
    (again not the best, but at our age when is it !?).
    Read more

  • Day15

    The Milton Keynes of India!

    March 8, 2020 in India ⋅ ☀️ 13 °C

    Hari drove us back down to Chandigarh with his usual panache. We were now able to see the road and the surrounding countryside, which time and weather had denied us on our way up to Shimla. There are large sections of road undergoing reconstruction as I explained before. It was a real pickle, in part no road to speak of at all, traffic everywhere, dogs, pigs, cows and people and a policemen with a whistle attempting to direct operations! At one point, to our horror, a car came hurtling towards us going the the wrong way down the supposed road. Our driver deftly avoided the problem with an explosive ‘idiot’, but to be fair it isn’t the only time such a occurrence has happened! Only in India- this is not the place for a fly drive, unless one has cast iron nerves and lightning reflexes. Even on arriving In Chandigarh, where the roads are wide, tree lined avenues, the chaos remained. I would say the main roads were probably at least three lanes, but nothing is marked and the traffic is just a free for all. I found ‘eyes wide shut’ to be a useful aid!
    Chandigarh is a new city, built as the capital of the Punjab, when the existing capital Lahore was annexed to Pakistan. Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister after independence, commissioned the city to be purpose built along modern lines. After a couple of false starts the Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier was appointed. He was famous during the post war period as part of the ‘brutalist’ group of architects responsible for the clean, modern, concrete lines of the 50s & 60s. Hence our guide’s likening Chandigarh to an Indian Milton Keynes. There are roundabouts galore and the city is built along a grid system and divided into sectors. No building is more than three storeys high and there is lots of green space, with walks, outdoor gyms etc and each sector has its own market. It was a new way of looking at communal living and certainly it would seem to have been a great success and adapted to the Indian way of life.
    Our first port of call was The Chandigarh Rose Garden. It covers some 40 acres, has 32,000 plants and 825 species of rose. It was busy with people out enjoying the green space and roses, which were just coming into bloom. It was good to wander having been in a car for the last three hours or so.
    Our final stop of the day was exceptional. You may remember Monty Don stopping here on his ‘80 Gardens around the World’ whistle stop tour. It is a Rock Garden created by Nek Chand, which he calls a Fantasy and I wouldn’t disagree. In the early 1950s he was seconded to Chandigarh to work on the city project. A huge dump site of discarded materials existed where the garden now stands. From 1957 to 1975 Nek would secretly spend his spare time in the evenings and nights creating sculptures from the leftovers and hiding them amongst the foliage. He created over 2000! They are now displayed to tremendous effect in the garden. In 1975 his secret life was discovered and the powers that be were initially not pleased and Nek was banned from the site. It was only later that the authorities realised what they had in the man and his creations and asked him to build a garden here.
    Nek created a ‘rock’ garden for Chandigarh, the like of which you will have never seen in your life.
    We had a first class young guide to show us around and explain the thoughts behind what we were seeing. The garden is created entirely out of recycled building materials, from concrete to coloured wires to plug sockets. A narrow path for the visitor to follow, weaves in and out of incredible features. Jaws dropped, I can assure you. The planting is almost entirely natural and minimal and redefines what a garden can be and my photos will give you a taste of what I mean. All I can say is we were totally bowled over and I declare Nek Chand to be a genius!
    Read more

  • Day15

    The Toy Train

    March 8, 2020 in India ⋅ ☀️ 7 °C

    Our prayers have been answered! The day dawned bright and clear, with scarcely a cloud in sight.
    Once luggage and breakfast had been dealt with, everyone rushed outside with their cameras to capture the views that had proved so elusive yesterday. Here at last were the snow covered peaks of the Lower Himalaya that we had come to see. The views were indeed worth the journey required to get here. We departed Shimla in style from the World Heritage Shimla Station, on the world famous Toy Train. This was the brain child of the then Viceroy, Lord Curzon who felt it would be an immense logistical bonus to link his Summer Capital with the plains of Delhi and so the construction of the narrow gauge Khalkha-Shimla Railway began in January 1891. The plans had been laid as far back as 1847, but had stalled until Lord Curzon’s intervention. As you can imagine this was a hugely difficult line to build, due to its length (95.5 kms) altitude and terrain. The climate of course did not help. The line passes through 102 tunnels, 988 bridges,, including a spectacular gallery bridge No 541 near Kanoh and 917 curves, some as steep as 48 degrees. This is a masterpiece of Victorian engineering - yet another! They did, of course, have plentiful labour available, but also the vision and drive to complete the task. It was opened for passengers on November 9th 1903 by Lord Curzon himself.
    Shimla Station sits at 6811 ft above sea level and is a beautiful, small, still largely Victorian building. The Indian Railway is as far as I can see a well run, staffed and efficient organisation, much as our own railway would have been originally. Generations of families still continue to work for Indian Railways and their dedication makes the difference. The Diesel engine and the couplings were being carefully checked over as we arrived on the platform to board. Originally, the train would have been pulled by a steam locomotive and occasionally still is, but only for more important types than us (Michael Portillo and his film crew for example!). However, we pulled out of the station on time, watched by the monkeys sitting on the iron railings. They had been very entertaining.
    So began what has to be the most stunning rail journey of my life. The scenery has to be seen to be believed, with towering mountains, deep valleys, and verdant forests of pine and rhododendron, just coming into bloom. We were plunged into tunnels and emerged into bright sunlight and the ever spectacular landscape all around us. The train stops at little stations with intriguing names such as Summerhill and TaraDevi. Along the platform comes the ‘tea boy’ with paper cups tucked in his top pocket and his pre made large kettle of tea. You can buy a cup through the window for 10 rupees (about 8p). As you descend to the plains the countryside becomes noticeably drier, the pines and rhododendrons disappear to be replaced by warmer climate loving varieties and the odd cactus. What was a surprise was the constant high level of population in a landscape I would have expected to be largely devoid of people. Farming is the main occupation and here it is hay making time. I could see farmers high on the steepest of slopes wielding a scythe. The mountainsides looked almost patchwork in effect as they were clearly cut one way and then another according to the terrain. As we neared Kandaghat our destination, we passed over the Kanoh bridge and then the train curves away to the left enabling you to crane your neck out of a window and see the incredible viaduct you have just passed over. It is almost Roman in its construction and elegance, being constructed entirely in stone.
    Finally, we reluctantly disembarked at Kandaghat to meet up with our drivers once more. We walked down a long ramp to the road below to await the convoy of 10 white Toyotas, who had made the journey from Shimla by road as we were on the train. They appeared round the bend, only to be stopped in their tracks by a large cow, who settled in the middle of the road and until she decided to move nothing could be done. According to Hari, if you are unfortunate enough to hit one, it is an instant jail sentence. To quote him “ This is India and everything is possible!”.
    Read more

  • Day14

    Shimla

    March 7, 2020 in India ⋅ ❄️ 4 °C

    The prediction was correct and there was a three hour delay on our flight to Chandigarh yesterday morning, which of course threw all the timings out. Lunch became high tea and our journey in a fleet of cars to Shimla had to be undertaken after dark. ‘Hari’ was our driver. A lovely young chap with pretensions to Formula One. He would be a shoe in. It rained hard for the full three and a half hours, but the pace never slackened, overtaking was commonplace, blind corner or not, as the road twisted and turned its way upward into the Himalayan foothills. I had been disappointed that we couldn’t enjoy the views, but before we had reached half way, I was relieved I couldn’t see the sheer drops, that I suspect were there from the twinkling lights below! We arrived here at the Oberon Cecil at 9.15pm and Hari was delighted to be the first car here and fifteen minutes ahead of schedule.
    We became further aware of our geographical location this morning when it snowed during breakfast! It was freezing. The snow turned to rain and the mist and cloud rolled in and out, obscuring the fabulous views for which Shimla is famous.
    The town is perched high on the mountainside and the air has that undoubted alpine quality, clean and crisp. It was the summer capital of The British Raj from May to October during its rule in India. It would take 45 days to make the perilous journey by horse, mule, cart and carriage from Calcutta staying at staging posts on the way. With the Viceroy and his officials, their families and the attending army would come all the paperwork necessary to run the Indian sub-continent. The East India company found this strategic village as it was then, in the 1830s, by assisting the local Maharajah to fight off the Nepalese. They realised what a superb trading position this was and gradually inveigled the Maharajah to grant them land to set up a Trading Post. It’s proximity to the Silk Route was a huge incentive and advantage. The British followed on and built their summer residences here over the next decade. I have been looking forward to exploring the old town I had read so much about. It is not what I expected. A Scottish architect by the name of Henry Irving designed the main buildings and our first visit was to The Viceroy’s Lodge. I did not expect grim and dour Scottish Baronial architecture, both in and out. This is repeated in all the major buildings, including the Town Hall and the Gaiety Theatre, the latter having welcomed some incredibly famous stars over the last 150 years. Our tour of the former Viceroy’s Lodge proved very interesting however, and gave a strong flavour of how life was lived out here in strict Victorian times. The meetings leading up to India’s independence after the Second World War were held in the library and a solution eventually found, which resulted in partition and the formation of the Muslim state of Pakistan. This is still a contentious issue today, together with the status of Kashmir. We saw documentIon, photographs and the room in which the treaty was signed before being formalised in Delhi. The building became the summer home of the Indian President after independence and is now a research college for post graduate students.
    The Mall is the Main Street and the buildings reflect mock Tudor frontages. There is a bandstand and both a Presbyterian and Anglican Church. At the end of the Mall is Scandal Point, so named after the young couple who met here secretly. The Viceroy at the time was Lord Curzon and his daughter Alexandra fell in love with the local Maharajah and he with her. Marrying was of course out of the question, on both sides at that time and their only option was to elope, hence the scandal. Sadly, it did not end happily. They were found and separated; Alexandra was sent back to England in disgrace and never married. The Maharajah was presented with a suitable bride, but apparently never forgot the love of his life.
    The British are famous for creating a home from home wherever they find themselves and on thinking about it, Queen Victoria had purchased Balmoral around this time and all thing Scottish and Baronial were very fashionable. It seems to me that the British establishment set out to create a Scottish Highland retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas, complete with names such as Craig Dhu and the like . It is quite extraordinary.
    Unfortunately, the weather did not improve during the day and we were glad to retire to the warmth of the Oberoi Cecil. Tomorrow we are due to leave on the Toy Train back to Chandigarh. It is apparently a hard ride, but worth it for the views. I can only hope the weather clears a little so some of the journey is visible. I have purchased a set of thermals. It is amazing what you can find in unexpected places!

    PS. We have come across several of these signs on our travels ‘The English Wine Shop’ and been perplexed, as we don’t produce much wine, let alone enough to export to India in bulk. Hari explained today, that it is a euphemism for a whiskey shop, which is very popular here. No doubt a hang over from the days of the Raj.
    Read more

  • Day12

    Delhi

    March 5, 2020 in India ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Nowhere showcases the vast contrast that India represents more than its capital Delhi. Kolkata (Calcutta) was India’s capital city during the years of British rule, until King George V and Queen Mary visited and the Delhi Durbar was held in their honour. Every Maharajah in the country attended and the King/Emperor announced that the capital city was to be Delhi in the future. It is regarded as one of the best ever kept secrets in India, as it came as a complete surprise. All I can say is it would not happen today!! The British then set about creating New Delhi as a suitable seat of power for the sub-continent and invited the young architect Edwin Lutyens, together with Herbert Baker to design the new city. There are wide tree lined avenues and grand governmental buildings, including the seat of Parliament and the Viceroy’s residence of some 360 rooms, now the Presidential Estate. The architecture is a clever blend of Imperial with Indian influences and the whole effect is impressive and yet familiar to the British eye. The Presidential garden is open to the public for one month of the year and we were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. It is very parks and gardens, with lots of water, but an amazing riot of colour in true Indian style. There are wonderful roses, stocks, freesias, sweet peas, giant dahlias, hollyhocks, violas, tulips, antirrhinum, in fact all sorts of ‘English’ flowers that were astounding to see in an Indian setting, plus beautiful sub-continental counterparts, all of huge proportions!. It is the best garden we have seen thus far, but then perhaps it should be!
    A pilgrimage to Raj Ghat, Mahatma Ghandi’s cremation site was de rigeur. It is movingly and simply marked with a low table of black marble, flowers and the eternal flame, surrounded by immaculate lawns and gardens. Obviously, it is a place of supreme importance to Indian citizens and there were many paying their respects to the Father of the Nation.
    Old Delhi is not so comfortable to the western eye, but must be seen to appreciate the vast differences both across the country and this city of 22 million. We took a rickshaw ride through the alleys and could only pity the wiry ‘driver’ entrusted with pedalling Lesley and I through the area. It is dark, filthy and teeming with people, dogs, scooters and the occasional cow! In short it is a city within a city, with a life of its own. Amazingly, normal life of a sort is lived amongst these backstreets. Electrical cables are festooned like garlands overhead and the sky only just visible through them. There are shops of every description; fruit and vegetable carts, street food being cooked and eaten, flower sellers and the beautiful sari shops set amidst the grime and squalor. People appear cheerful despite the wretched conditions and I suspect would not take the prospect of change easily. I sense a deep tradition throughout India and an equally deep resistance to ‘improvement’.
    Lunch was taken in an atmospheric Indian ‘Bazaar’ restaurant in the old quarter. It boasted a four poster bed converted into a table and chairs, a vintage car and a collectible juke box to name but a few decorative features!
    The afternoon saw us visit Hunnaman’s tomb, a precursor to the Taj Mahal built some hundred years earlier. It is an impressive piece of Mughal architecture, without coming close to the Taj of course, but you can see the origin of design.
    The day finished with a visit to the Sunder Nursery close by. This is in fact a garden of some 30 acres, which had fallen into disrepair. A huge amount of restoration has been undertaken, largely financed by The Aga Khan Foundation. There is still work to do, but it is looking beautiful and a great green space for the population to enjoy, which they clearly do.
    As you can tell this was a long day, but it did give us an overview of this complex and fascinating city and it is fair to say everyone was tired on finally returning to our hotel around 6pm, but it is amazing what a restorative G&T can do! It was time to pack up once more and be ready to move on. Some friends are heading home at the end of a spectacular two weeks, but some of us are heading to the summer capital of the British Raj, Shimla. Tomorrow will be a long travelling day and we expect delays due to a storm of biblical proportions during the evening. We have witnessed a touch of the Monsoon according to Sudhir our guide. I will be back in touch from Shimla.
    Read more

  • Day11

    The Taj Mahal

    March 4, 2020 in India ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Yet again, the alarm went off at 5o’clock for the obligatory visit to the Taj Mahal at sunrise and for once I get it. To come all this way and not see the eighth wonder of the world at the optimum time seems churlish. Perhaps I should explain a little about how this great mausoleum came into being, before going into raptures over its magnificence. In 1630 the Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite wife died in childbirth at 39 years old and so desolate was he at her death, that he decided to build a tomb worthy of her memory, on the opposite bank of the river Yamuna facing the Agra Fort palace. This incredible feat involved bringing white marble from over 200 miles away and in total took one hundred thousand men twenty two years to construct. The mausoleum is set in a Paradise Garden, which is always rectangular and divided into four sections. Four ‘rivers’ which are usually rills/channels divide the Garden into four sections that represent the essentials of life; water, honey, milk and wine. Water, flowering plants, grass and trees are present in a variety of designs and it is no different in this case.
    Shah Jahan designed the site in the Persian style of architecture, where balance and symmetry are supreme and this is one of reasons why the Taj Mahal is so pleasing to the eye. Everything is
    perfectly balanced right to left and the perspective is so clever. All has been cleverly considered. Pre sunrise the building seems almost ethereal floating in the early morning mist.
    You enter by the West Gate, which is a mix of sandstone and marble and a small foretaste of what is to come. Walking through the gate you are suddenly face to face with the Taj Mahal itself and it is breathtaking, stopping you in your tracks. As we were early, it was not too busy, but you still run the gauntlet of the ‘selfi’ snappers, who for some reason seem to think that they have a greater right than anyone else to pout and pose in prime positions- enough said, or I could be on a crusade! Approaching the mausoleum, you are struck by the peace of the scene and as you climb the steps to the entrance terrace you have the first opportunity to view the detail of the building itself. The white marble is stunningly decorated with carved cartouches of flowers, as we have seen before, and inlaid semi precious stone creating flower garlands within the marble. The artistry is mind blowing. To the left is a mosque built in the style of the west gate and to the right is an identical building, which serves no purpose, but to create the desired symmetry. Visitors are required to cover their shoes with paper ‘galoshes’ to protect the interior and understandably no photography is permitted. The interior is simple and yet not. It is octagonal in shape and the walls display a carved frieze of flowers, with large niches set into the walls, whilst above us soars a glorious white marble dome. A marble lace fretwork trellis surrounds the tomb. There are two arched openings perfectly aligned East and West as are all the entrances on the site. Again, there are stunning inlaid flowers on the surround and the tiny tomb itself. Shah Jahan’s wife was obviously petite in stature. Then appears the surprise. To the left, alongside her casket is a much larger version. Here lies the Shah himself, which was apparently not originally the plan. Obviously, it messes with the symmetry, but I guess we’ll forgive him, if he will forgive himself!
    On returning to the outside, although cloudy, the sun is now up. The colours are sharper and clearer and the water glistens pure turquoise. I gather if you see the sun rise without the cloud cover, the effect on the building is even more startling.
    I find it hard to put into words the effect this incredible mausoleum creates. It has to be the most magnificent and romantic gesture ever made by a loving husband to his wife. The feeling builds as you approach the Taj itself, but it is when inside that you really understand what this is all about.
    There is a spiritual quality here that enfolds you as you enter the door. You can almost touch it and the Taj Mahal is undoubtedly a much deserved wonder of the world.
    So what happened to the Emperor Shah Jahan following the death of his wife. Well, one can imagine that this building project consumed him for the next twenty two years and of course he had a country, court and family to occupy him. Succession is the normal situation i.e. the crown goes to the eldest son of the first wife. In Shah Jahan’s case this did not prove straightforward. The eldest son was a poet and there was concern as to his ability to hold the empire together, the second son had no interest in ruling, but was happy to remain a general in the army. The third son, Orensay, was a different creature completely. A strong army general and leader, he and others were concerned as to the state of the empire, should either of the other two brothers succeed their father. A deputation approached the Emperor with the idea of Orensay being declared his heir. Shah Jahan was sympathetic, but determined to stick with tradition. Orensay took matters into his own hands and in classical despot style, killed his brothers and imprisoned his father in the Palace under house arrest, wresting power for himself. Shah Jahan lived out the rest of his days, unable to visit his wife’s tomb and only able to view it from the terrace of the palace, from across the river Yamuna. At least his son allowed him to rest in peace, alongside his beloved wife.
    Read more

  • Day10

    Road to Agra

    March 3, 2020 in India ⋅ ☀️ 22 °C

    Yet another bright (?!) and early start. The canters delivered us to the local railway station at Sawai
    Madhopur Jn - rather apt we thought. The enormous train arrived on time (British Rail eat your heart out) , our reserved seats were ready and waiting and I’m tapping away to you seated in comfort, lots of leg room with the Rajasthan countryside flicking past at a rate of knots. We ate our packed breakfast on the way and I think of Michael Portillo and his various Indian train journeys! After two and a half hours we arrived at Bharatpur our destination and were met by our driver and the coach, who had departed the night before with our luggage to make the train journey easier. Incidentally ‘pur’ means city. We travelled for about an hour to Fatehpur Sikri another world heritage site. Here we hit traffic. There had been a Sufi Muslim festival further north and coach loads of pilgrims were returning to Delhi and were of the same mind as us, stopping off at Fatehpur Sikri. You have never seen anything like it. Dozens of coaches loaded to the gunnels with people and luggage, clothes hanging over and out of the windows. There were cooking pots, brilliantly coloured toy horses, children’s bikes and toys, bags of presumably more clothes, all precariously resting in the shallow luggage rack on top and amongst it all more people, with not a seat belt in sight!
    When we eventually made it to Fatehpur Sikri we found an ancient city built entirely of local red sandstone and in an amazing state of preservation. The Mogul Emperor Akbar 111 built this city in the 1570s. He considered this a lucky site, as it was here that it was predicted that he would be blessed with a long awaited son and he was. Akbar spent nine years building the city and only held court there for twelve years before abandoning it for Agra, due to a lack of water. There was no evidence of a lack of water today, as the gardens were immaculate, full of brightly coloured flowers and you could have played bowls on the lawns. It was a huge and complex city, beautifully carved on many surfaces and apparently painted and hung with lavish textiles everywhere. One can only imagine the hustle and bustle of the court in its heyday. The Emperor himself was Muslim, but designed the buildings in a mix of Mogul and Hindu architecture and regularly held public audiences with the Hindu population, as he wished to appear a benevolent potentate.
    After lunch our destination was Agra, with the plan to visit the Agra Fort another Mogul palace complex built over 90 years from 1565 by the the same Emperor and his successors.
    It is all world heritage sites today! This is an equally spectacular building on a similar scale. There are a lot of similarities to the Amber Fort at Jaipur, as it was modelled on the Agra Fort. The details are quite incredible. Again water effects were centre stage; water being hauled from the nearby river by a system of water wheels, men and buffalo 24 hours a day.! The water was held in a huge reservoir high in the roof, before being released by little by little to feed all the rills, pools and fountains. Unfortunately, this is not recoverable, but it is clear what a fantastic effect all this water would have had. The palace ceilings were originally intricately painted and the pattern then given to the carpet makers and an identical carpet made for the floor in each room . This was the ultimate in interior design here in the 1600s. Richly embroidered fabrics covered doorways and were hung about the walls. Can you imagine how opulent it would all have been?
    After an exhausting day we have finally arrived at our Agra hotel and I finally have a decent internet connection, hence I can upload the latest postings. If I am out of touch for a few days this will be the reason why!

    One interesting coincidence today at the Agra Fort. We were waiting to enter and I glanced left and there was a friend from my Flower Club. I knew she was coming to India around the same time, but how about same time, same place ?! The old adage ‘it is a small world’ fits!!
    Read more

  • Day8

    Ranthambhore National Park

    March 1, 2020 in India ⋅ ☀️ 27 °C

    We arrived at Sawai Villas, our hotel for the next two nights, after a four hour journey from Jaipur.
    It was an interesting drive out into the countryside of Rajasthan. The hinterland surrounding Jaipur is surprisingly green and clearly very fertile. Small farms abound and three main crops of wheat, potatoes and guava are grown. Parts of the state are desert, but not here. The population appear in better health and there is evidence of much new building, which is encouraging. There are plenty of ruins also!
    Our hotel is less than a year old and fabulous. We were greeted with sitar music, a garland each and a floor petal picture of welcome in the foyer. The rooms are beautiful and boast an indoor and outdoor shower, all arranged in blocks around a glorious landscaped pool.
    Lunch was accompanied by lychee and lemongrass tea (delicious) and Lesley has set off to visit the old Rathnambhore fort set high above the park, dating from the 9th century and another world heritage site. Sadly, I have had to miss out, as I know the operated knee will not cope with the 300 steps up and down. I await her return with bated breath and will pass on her thoughts and here they are: there were indeed 300 steps, lots of very inquisitive Langur monkeys, temples, ruined palaces and fabulous views of the surrounding park.
    The 5 o’clock rising this morning was unwelcome, but normal for this kind of activity and we were off on our first game drive of the day just after six, before the sun was up. We were driven in ‘canters’ large open top shake, rattle and roll conveyances that afford a good view but minimal comfort! The morning drive was on route 4 out of 5 different routes. Your route is prescribed by the park authorities, and it was up hill and down dale, through the forest and around a beautiful lake. Initially all was very quiet- can’t say I’m surprised, even the animals had more sense than to be up. As the morning progressed so did the variety of wildlife. Crocodiles appeared to bask on the lake shore, deer, both Spotted and Sambhar, large antelope ‘Bluebul’, mongoose and the bird life was prodigious; too many to mention. We were back at the hotel in time for a late breakfast, a few hours rest, lunch and then off again, this time on route 3. This was a stunning landscape and the romantic side of India, as you would imagine it, in your dreams. There were classically beautiful ruins scattered along the route, often sited by one of the many picturesque lakes, crags rise above you and when you stop the silence and peace is absolute, only broken by the sound of the birds and wildlife. This is Kipling’s India; an experience to be savoured and a reminder that this entire area was once the hunting estate of the Maharajah of Jaipur. Deer were everywhere, langurs cavorting around in family groups and peacocks with their mournful cry. A hare appeared out of nowhere, a solitary wild boar snuffling about at the waters edge and more glorious birds. Lesley and I were in our element. Of course the major reason people throng to Ranthambhore is the prospect of seeing its most famous resident and top predator. There are some 45 tigers in the park, plus cubs and we realised that the chances of seeing one would be slim. They are elusive creatures, but our guide did say that we were travelling through the territory of a mother and two cubs. At the very end of the drive we passed a park jeep who told Surinder that a tiger was in the forest a short distance ahead. Our driver put his foot down and if there had been a roof on our vehicle, heads would have hit it! We arrived at the resting place of the tiger together with the world and his wife and initially it was difficult to pick her out amongst the bush, but there she sat staring at us, less than 15ft away. It was a quite unbelievable moment and one I shall never forget. She was incredibly well camouflaged, her stripes blending in with the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees. The attendant crowd watched in awe. I can only liken it to an audience with a Maharajah in full jewelled regalia. Eventually, she yawned in boredom, stood up and with a flick of her tail stalked off into the thick bush, clearly tired of this mass of excited humans. Photographs came out with only a degree of clarity. The best in our group was from a lady who had bought a new 1Phone with its updated camera. Lesley and I count ourselves as unbelievably fortunate to be able to see a wild tiger in all her majesty and our visit to Ranthambhore was complete.
    Read more

  • Day7

    The Amber Fort

    February 29, 2020 in India ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    It was an early start this morning as Sudhir, our local guide, wanted to beat the crowds to the Amber Fort. You can see the outline of the building perched on the mountain top, high above the Pink City, but it is not until you get up there that the sheer scale of the ancient city is apparent.
    This was the original capital of the Maharajas of Jaipur until the court outgrew the site and
    Sawai Jai Singh 11 decided to built a new city in 1727 on the plain and Jaipur was born.
    The coach could only take us so far and we disembarked to the sound of a snake charmer’s call and there was a cobra transfixed in its basket. Thankfully, it scarcely moved! Here we could view the palace complex over the lake, sitting on its mountain top. It is surrounded by a sixteen kilometre wall for protection, which together with the water and sheer cliffs would have proven pretty effective I should think. Transport for the final section is by jeep and at one time used to be by elephant, but not any longer. Health and safety has apparently reared its head even here, which is hard to believe.
    We rocketed up the final narrow track, hanging on for dear life, to arrive at the Amber Fort. Through the main gate is a huge courtyard and elephants were here giving rides to those who would do so. We progressed up the steps to the upper courtyard and the Palace itself. Before entering the palace we explored the Hall of Public Audience, where the Maharajah met his subjects and officials to deal with any problems that had arisen. The facade of the Palace itself is beautifully decorated with hand painting and we progressed through to the inner courtyard where sits the Hall of Private Audience where visiting ambassadors and high ranking officials and friends were received. This is one of the major attractions of the Fort. It is known as Sheesh Mahal or Glass Palace and is constructed of white marble. The walls and ceilings are covered with intricate patterns inset with glass, appearing silvery from a distance. There are superb cartouche carvings of plants at intervals and the whole effect is spellbinding. The Maharajah had up to twelve wives at any one time, clearly a busy fellow; each wife having her own apartment in the wives quarter. They could only view the outside world in the form of the courtyard through the latticed wall high up on the upper walkway and numbers 1,2 and 3 wives were expected to be at their allotted windows to welcome their husband home at the appropriate time!!
    The view of the surrounding lake from this high up was glorious, as was the inner courtyard garden that we could now look down upon. It was very similar to an English knot garden, with the addition of fountains and running water, alas no longer working.
    We departed for our lunch stop as the crowds were beginning to build and we forgave Sudhir’s insistence on an early start. The hotel we stopped at for lunch was opposite another beautiful lake on the outskirts of Jaipur and we had a very good view of the now abandoned summer palace, sitting in the middle of the lake. One can only imagine what it must have been like in it’s heyday.
    The afternoon was devoted to shopping of one sort and another; block printed fabrics, stunning carpets and jewellery. For a group of mainly ladies this was a popular and interesting couple of hours. The techniques involved with all three were demonstrated and fascinating.
    And so we have come to the end of our first week in Jaipur and we move on tomorrow to Ranthambhore National Park. A total contrast, but it will be good to see the rural side of Rajasthan.
    Read more

Join us:

FindPenguins for iOSFindPenguins for Android