Northern India 6

 

Friday 24th February – to Jaipur

About an hour west of Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, the remains of a magnificent city built by Emperor Akbar between 1571 and 1585. It was to be his capital for only 14 years after which he moved on to Lahore. Since then it has been plundered, but fortunately some of it has remained intact and us now well looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India. It is a vast site and we only had time to visit the Imperial Palace Complex but that was impressive enough. First we had to leave Agra – not an easy task thanks to the traffic.

Once at the site we had to park our coach and ride in very crowded natural gas buses a to the main entrance. The car park was full of hawkers, peddling a variety of gaudy items, but we battled through to the buses. Packed like sardines we drove a short distance through impressive gateways and past what looked like ancient shops to the ticket office. I was itching to get going, knowing there was a lot to see, so once the guide had got the tickets I begged mine from him and shot off on my own. I hate being escorted around when there are information boards and a very good booklet explaining the site.

The gameto be played is ‘dodge the Japanese’. They tend to move in gobbits, so once one clot has passed there is usually a calm, relatively empty period when you can photograph undisturbed before the next gobbit comes through. I know it is a cultural thing and one shouldn’t criticise, but why do they all want their picture in front if each piece of architecture, view, etc.?

The architecture is stunning. The whole place is built from red sandstone and in plies the carving is superb. Some rooms were beautifully painted as well and there is exquisite fretwork, particularly in the Zenana. The views are fantastic and it did not take much imagination to visualise what it must have been like when Akbar and his 5,000 women plus court officials were there. The gardens are beautiful and give the place an air if tranquility in spite of the number if visitors.

Probably the most spectacular building is the Panch Mahal, a 5 storey building open on all sides where the court would have sat to catch the evening breeze. It would have been surrounded by decorative screens to preserve their privacy, bug these were stolen when the city was abandoned.

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I could have stayed much longer, but we had to press on as it was a good 4 hours plus lunch until we reached Jaipur.Fatepuhr Sikri is a place to come back to.

Back on the coach and a long drive on a toll motorway towards Jaipur, in Rajasthan. Wheat and mustard are the main crops, the latter grown mainly for oil. The other remarkable thing are the mounds of dried cow pats which line the road in villages. These are arranged in towers about 5 feet high. Once in Rajasthan the shape changes to that of a small hut. These will provide fuel for cooking, although the land is so poor you’d think they were needed for fertiliser. The fact that crops are growing so abundantly suggests a widespread use of artificial fertilisers. Water is also scarce at this time of year and is pumped up from boreholes, mainly by electric pumps.

We stop for lunch still in Uttar Pradesh at a hotel which simulates the Murghal architecture. I order a mushroom curry , which turns out to be delicious and go for a walk while waiting for it to arrive. Walking along a motorway is not fun, although in India it us more exciting as brightly decorated tractors, carts and wagons pass by and you meet fellow walkers. I crossed the road, by now I gave no fear, and walk into the fields. Narrow paths lead me to a borehole. Acacia trees provide shade, women in bright saris wave and some brown birds fly into one of the trees and wait to be photographed. The traffic noise has faded and it is all very pleasant. I return reluctantly to the restaurant.

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Another couple of hours of driving and the landscape has changed dramatically. A range of hills appear and we pass through them. It turns out to be a line of pink rock no more than a few metres wide. Other similar narrow ranges appear. The land is yellow dust , but still with green fields in between. Brickworks appear, 10 tall chimneys in one go all puffing out black smoke. Then more hills with temples on top. We doze as the lunch digests, waking now and then to note the changes. At last we are on the outskirts of Jaipur and the traffic becomes greater and we slow.

Our hotel is beautiful and clearly quite old. The front is on a busy road, but at the back is a large grassy area. It us only 3 storeys high, but on the last 3 storeys there is an area open to the sky with a fountain in the middle. On the roof is a bar dispensing very reasonably priced alcohol. We sat there in the cool of the evening and sampled some G & Ts .

Christine and I went for a walk, dodging the drains, the broken paving stones and the traffic. Within 5 yards of our hotel, people were preparing their evening meal on the pavement prior to getting their bedding unrolled for the night. One little girl ran up and grabbed my leg, only to be told off by her mother. We got to a junction and suddenly there were police everywhere. Today us an important Hindu festival celebrating Shiva, so there were crowds going to the local temples. A policeman told me we could not go through the barrier. We took two paces to the side and another policeman opened the barrier and allowed us through. We walked against the crowd who were coming down from the temple in the fort in the hill above us. At the entrance we were stopped again. “The temple is closed. It closed at 5. I am sorry . ” “We’ll come back tomorrow to go to the fort.” “The fort and temple will only open again in a year’s time, I’m sorry”

So that was that. We wandered down the street and watched the comings and goings of devotees at two other temples. Then we saw a street performer. A young girl was balanced, kneeling on a slack rope about 5 foot off the ground with some pits balanced on her head. We watched and took photographs and then coughed up a few rupees.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed a drink at the rooftop bar as the sun went down. A good end to the day!

Saturday 25th February

Another early start. We began at the Hawa Mahal or ‘Palace of Winds’ which was built in 1799. It is 5 storeys high but only 1 room deep and was designed for members of the harem to observe the street life in the city without being seen themselves. This was a quick picture grab and on to the Amber Fort.

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The car / coach park was very busy, but the fort on the hill above looked amazing. Indeed all three forts on the skyline were impressive. We got into jeeps which then took us via back roads up into the fort complex. Many tourists choose to arrive by elephant, but I was glad we didn’t. The poor animals looked far from happy.

Once in the fort we climbed the great staircase into the main entrance which twists up into yet another courtyard. I went off on my own at this point and had a great time exploring the palace which is a wonder of Murghal design. Unfortunately there were lots of others doing the same, particularly parties of Americans and Japanese, all of whom seem to speak at volume 11, so any chance of quiet reflection was nil. Still they didn’t get into the corridors and roof walks that required more effort, so I found some peace there. The Hammams or baths were quite something as were the latrines. Again the fort had a complex water system fed from great underground tanks.

The Jas Mandir , the audience hall, is stunning with its ceiling and walls of mirror pieces which reflect the light. The gardens are also beautifully kept and the views are breath-taking. I got a bit lost in all the corridors and began to wonder if I’d be late back at the meeting place, but all was well. We took the jeeps back down the mountain.

At the foot of the hill is The Water Palace, a palace set in a lake which was artificially created by a dam at the end of the valley. At present it is privately owned by Mr Mittel, who bribed the Rajasthan government to sell it to him. there is a case before the Supreme Court which he is likely to lose and it will be once again returned to the nation!

Lunch was in a pleasant, small restaurant called The Grand Peacock. I had a bizarre dish of fruit cocktail and peas in a tomato and cashew nut sauce. It was delicious!

A short drive through the old city brought us to Jantar Mantar, one of 5 observatories built by Sawah Jai Singh between 1728 and 1734. This was the largest of the 5 and is certainly very impressive. Here there is an enormous sundial, a device to calculate the azimuths of heavenly bodies and means of locating accurately the positions of the signs of the zodiac. Hindus believe greatly in astrology and this observatory was designed both for astrological and astronomical purposes. We wandered around, reading the explanations and helping each other to understand them. The Japanese, who had arrived in force, photographed themselves in front of all the instruments. I know it us a cultural thing, but it us infuriating!

A short walk from there brought us to the more recent royal palace which had been built at the turn of the C20th and was now a museum. There was an exhibition of beautiful textiles in the guesthouse and an exhibition if armour but not much else to see. Part of it was a gigantic shop selling local crafts – we have been here before! In the last courtyard was a travelling puppet show which was very entertaining.

We were all tired by the time we got back to the hotel . Tomorrow we leave for Delhi at 7.00, so an early night is called for.

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