Three Weeks in Delhi, Agra & Rajasthan with Explore
23.01.2010 - 13.02.2011
As it was Independence Day shortly, parts of the city were closed and being prepared for the occasion. Also there was a lot of work in preparation for the Commonwealth Games. We started with a tour of New Delhi in our bus and then visited Humayun’s Tomb. This is Delhi’s first Mughal mausoleum, which is one of Delhi’s finest historic sites and which gave us a foretaste of the splendours to come on our trip. It is built of red sandstone with marble inlay and houses the remains of the second Mughal emperor along with those of his senior wife. It stands in the middle of a Persian-style quartered or charbagh garden and can be seen as a prototype for the Taj Mahal, especially in terms of its octagonal shape, its dome and high central arch.
The next day we had a short journey to Old Delhi in the metro (this wass being extended for the Commonwealth Games), followed by a rickshaw ride to the Jami Masjid mosque through the seething Chandni Chowk streets with their amazing tangle of dodgy overhead electrical cables. The mosque itself wasn’t particularly remarkable. A bus ride then took us to the Qutb Minar Complex, which is situated above the 11th century foundations of the first city of Delhi and contains the first monuments of Muslim India. The tapering and fluted Qutb Minar tower is just over 72m high with intricate carvings and inscribed verses of the Koran and was once considered a wonder of the East. It was also a minaret. Started in 1202, it celebrated the advent of Muslim power in Delhi. Beside the tower are the ruins of India’s first mosque, constructed using the remains of 27 Hindu and Jain temples. A strange iron pillar stands in the precincts of the mosque, with 4th century Sanskrit inscriptions and it was once topped with the Hindu bird god Garuda. It is rust-free and made of 98% pure iron, a purity not equalled again until 15 centuries later! However its origins are uncertain. After Qutb Minar we drove to Agra.
Agra and the Taj Mahal
The intention had been to visit the Taj Mahal around 6:00 the next morning, in order to see it at sunrise at its most alluring. However fog was forecast, so we had a lie-in instead and arrived much later. When we did get there the fog was still so thick that we couldn’t see anything at all. And then gradually it lifted, presenting us with a magical picture of the Taj seeming to float in the atmosphere. As has often been said, no pictures can replicate the reality of being there and the ethereal quality of this spectacular monument, especially in such conditions. The poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as a “teardrop on the face of eternity”. Situated in its surroundings, it was intended as both a tomb garden and a replica of heaven, complete with the Rivers of Paradise and the central Pool of Abundance. The tomb itself is a reproduction of God’s throne and the Emperor Shah Jahan’s remains are within, showing just how high an opinion he had of himself.
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan to house the body of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 after the birth of her fourteenth child. The grief-stricken emperor set out to create an unsurpassed monument to her memory. Built by a workforce of over 20,000 men from all over Asia, it took twenty years to complete, with marble from Makrana and inlaid with semi-precious stones, such as onyx, jade, amethyst and crystal from many different countries (pietra dura inlay). Makrana marble was expressly reserved for Mughal emperors and the amount used here is staggering, as the Taj is solid marble throughout. Its height can only be truly appreciated with people standing under the enormous central arch, dwarfed by its proportions. And it has a luminous quality, still relatively undiminished by pollution and the passage of time. Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb and imprisoned in Agra Fort, where legend says that he finished his days gazing wistfully at the tomb of his beloved wife. However scholarship maintains that this romantic image is wrong and that he really spent his last days in orgies of sex and drug taking.
After leaving the Taj we drove to Agra Fort. The Mughal emperor Akbar built the walls and gates on the remains of Rajput fortifications between 1565 and 1573. Shah Jahan, his grandson, had the principal buildings erected, whilst Aurangzeb was responsible for the ramparts, which stretch over two kilometres. This was the first of a number of fortified palaces that we saw on the tour and include highly decorated apartments within the forbidding defensive structure. Unlike earlier Mughal buildings Agra Fort incorporates a mixture of Islamic and Hindu motifs and design elements, reflecting the tolerant acceptance of rival faiths and cultures during Akbar’s reign.
In the afternoon we visited the Itimad-ud-Daulah (or Baby Taj) instead. This is the tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, Emperor Jahangir’s father-in-law and an important member of Akbar’s court. It was built by his daughter and was the first Mughal building in Agra that was faced entirely in marble with the lavish use of pietra dura. Again the mausoleum is located at the centre of a charbagh garden against the backdrop of the Yamuna River. It is less elegantly proportioned than the Taj, but the superlative quality of the intricate pietra dura work over virtually the whole structure makes up for this.
The next day we left Agra and drove to Fatehpur Sikri, the deserted city and former imperial capital of Akbar, who moved there from Agra in 1569. It took sixteen years to build and was abandoned fourteen years later. It is a completely preserved ghost city, partly owing to the restoration work of British archaeologists. It owes its creation to the prophecy of a Muslim saint, Sheikh Salim Chishti, who had predicted the birth of Akbar’s son Jahangir. Inspired by the fulfilment of this prophecy, Akbar built the new city on the site of the saint’s retreat. It fuses Hindu and Muslim architectural traditions, again reflecting Akbar’s religious and cultural tolerance. He had around five thousand women housed in the royal harem, including his three hundred wives. The other women were concubines, dancing girls and slaves, all guarded by a legion of eunuchs. One of the courtyards is a giant pachisi board (a game similar to ludo). Akbar apparently was a fanatical player and used slave girls in colourful costumes as live pieces. All players had to play sixteen rounds and this could take up to three months!
Bharatpur and the Keoladeo National Park
After Fatehpur Sikri we drove to Bharatpur (where we spent the night) and visited the Keoladeo National Park. Rickshaws took us round for a couple of hours and we saw a representative selection of birds. These included jungle babbler, rufous treepies, red-vented bulbul, crested serpent eagle, spotted owlets, white-throated kingfisher, black-shouldered kite, shikra, oriental magpie robin, black-headed ibis and spoonbill. We also caught sight of a jackal. The following day we moved on to Karauli through the now familiar colourful and fascinating village scenes. We had to wait for a train at one level crossing and traffic thronged both carriageways on each side of the track; somehow this chaos resolved itself, when the gates opened.
Our hotel had been the Maharaja’s guesthouse, the Bhanwar Vilas Palace, and was suitably splendid with a stuffed tiger in the entrance hall, a magnificent dining-hall, outhouses full of paraphernalia reminiscent of the Raj and a stable of his horses in the grounds.
Karauli is an erstwhile princely state. According to legend the ruling family are descendants of Lord Krishna and occupy the topmost rank among the Yaduvanshi Rajputs. In the afternoon we visited the City Palace, travelling there by camel-cart. We were definitely the centre of attention as we rolled by, with everyone waving and children running after us. These flat carts are normally used to carry timber and were not at all comfortable, but the ride was definitely unforgettable. The palace dates from the 14th century, although it is now a museum, and the decorations are spectacular.
We stayed there for sunset, which we watched from the rooftop of the palace, with a monkey perched on one of the curved domes. After the palace we attended a short service in the nearby Madan Mohanji Hindu temple. This was an amazing experience, with incense, women chanting and dancing and worshippers crowding forward to throw food into the shrine, all to the accompaniment of loud gongs and bells.
The next day we drove to Jaipur for two nights. Jaipur was only established in 1727, when the Kachchwaha ruler Jai Singh II moved the capital there from Amber. It was the Rajput’s first city to occupy a strategic commercial position on the plains, rather than a military position on a defensible hilltop, and quickly led to prosperity. It is also unusual in being based on a grid plan, designed after the ancient Hindu architectural treatises, the Vastu Shashtras, whereby the entire layout can be read as a kind of mandala. It became the state capital of Rajasthan in 1956. At its heart lies Jai Singh’s original capital, popularly known as the ‘pink city’, owing to the roseate hue of the buildings, intended as a camouflage for the poor-quality materials of the construction.
The Palace of the Winds and Amber Palace
The following day started by stopping off briefly to see the five-storey Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), which was built in 1799 to allow the women of the court to watch street processions, whilst still remaining in strict purdah. It is hardly more than a façade, but its 593 screened windows and balconies and intricate design give it an imposing presence. We continued to the impressive Amber Palace, 11km north of Jaipur, which has a superb and dramatic position perched high on a narrow rocky ridge, fortified by natural hills and high ramparts. The ascent up to the entrance can be made on an elephant and we saw a whole line of elephants ready and waiting. However we decided to walk up for the exercise and watched others being carried up. The architectural style is Rajput, but with Mughal input. The surrounding hills have a line of walls snaking over them, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China.
Jaipur City Palace
We then returned to Jaipur and in the afternoon visited the magnificent City Palace with its spectacular and ornate doors and gateways. The Pritam Niwas Chowk, known as the Peacock Courtyard with ornate peacock decoration around one of the doorways, is especially noteworthy. Retainers in full livery guard each hall, emphasising the continuing and living royal presence. In the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) there is a fine collection of miniature paintings from the Mughal and Jaipur schools.
In the Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audience there are two large silver gangajalis or urns, which are the largest crafted silver objects in the world, each over 1.5m high with a capacity of 8182 litres. In 1901 Madho Singh II went to London to attend the coronation of Edward VII. As he didn’t trust the water in Britain, these urns were filled with water from the Ganges and taken with him!
The Jantar Mantar
After that we visited the Jantar Mantar, an observatory containing eighteen huge stone astronomical devices made between 1728 and 1734 for Jai Singh, many of them his own invention. It is one of five observatories he created across north India, as he had a fanatical interest in astronomy and astrology. These devices were designed using Greek and Arabic brass instruments as models, to identify the positions and movements of stars and planets and to tell the time with almost perfect accuracy. Their size and shape give the area the appearance of a weird sculpture park. One of the devices was used to calculate auspicious days for marriage.
Havellis in Mandawa, Nawalgarh & Lakshmangarh
The next day we travelled to Mandawa with its profusion of colourful painted havelis (merchant houses), the painting dating mostly from the early 19th century and covering both the inner and outer walls. Some of the houses and decoration are quite dilapidated, but this doesn’t detract from their charm and interest.
After spending the night in Mandawa we drove to Nawalgarh, which has an even greater display of decorated havelis. The most magnificent is the Ramnath A. Poddar Haveli Museum, restored to its original glory with vivid murals. One of the most charming murals show Krishna playing his flute, with women musicians around and two benign-looking cows in the centre. There are also more modern topics, such as steam trains. The Moraka Haveli includes friezes showing scenes from the Ramayana. We then visited Lakshmangarh to see more havelis and a grand but somewhat run-down temple, before driving to Bikaner, where we spent two nights.
The next day started with a visit to a miniature painter’s workshop where we watched through magnifying glasses, as the beautiful and intricate work was demonstrated with brushes made of hairs from the tail of the palm squirrel. We then visited Junagarh Fort, which was built between 1587 and 1593 and embellished later with additional palatial suites, temples and courtyards. In one room a huge fan (punkah) still hangs from the ceiling and a punkah-wallah, hidden behind the scenes, would work the fan by means of strings. The grandest room in the palace has stunning red and gold filigree painting, with a red satin throne in a niche, which is surmounted by an arc of glass and mirrors like a big jewelled tiara.
The following day we set out through the Thar Desert for Jaisalmer, stopping on the way at the village of Ramdeora (or Ramdevra) to see the Hindu temple. The village is named after Baba Ramdev, a Rajput saint who undertook samadhi (conscious exit from the mortal body) in 1458. He had miraculous powers and his fame reached far and wide. He is also regarded as an incarnation of Lord Krishna.
Jaisalmer was founded by Rawal Jaisal of the Bhati clan in 1156, to replace the less easily defensible capital at Lodurva. Wars with other states and the Muslim sultans of Delhi followed. In 1298 the forces of the sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji overcame the fort after a seven-year siege and the male survivors (except two infant princes who were smuggled out) burned everything and rode out to death in battle, whilst the women committed johar (self immolation) by jumping into fires from the walls. The Bhatis did manage to regain Jaisalmer, but there was another siege in 1326 with another act of johar. One of the princes previously smuggled out negotiated the return of his kingdom as a vassal state of Delhi and it remained in Bhati hands from then on. In 1570 the ruler (known here as the maharawal) married one of his daughters to Akbar’s son, thus cementing an alliance. The position of Jaisalmer on the route between Delhi and Central Asia meant that it prospered on the proceeds of the silk, opium and spice trade, but its wealth declined over the years. We spent two nights in Jaisalmer initially and the first day started with a walk through the narrow streets and imposing havelis with their intricately carved facades.
We then went to the huge yellow sandstone fort. The fort also encloses a number of temples and we visited the Jain temples. Built between the 12th and 15th centuries in sandstone, they have incredibly ornate interiors with statues of deities all around.
We also went to the peaceful Gadi Sagar Tank Reservoir, built in 1367 and flanked by sandstone ghats (steps leading down to the water) and temples. The fish there are fed regularly and we saw a seething mass of them half out of the water competing for the food.
The Thar Desert
The next two days were spent on camel safari with our own camel driver in the Thar Desert, which is unlike other deserts, in that it has more vegetation (scrub and trees). We stopped for lunch by some trees and three vultures descended, eyeing us with interest from the treetops. We even saw two of them mating, which was perhaps a good sign, as they are an endangered species. We reached our destination by early evening after a day’s riding. There was a reservoir, where the camels could drink, and camp had been set up for us nearby. The Pakastani border is quite close and the Indian military had a large bank of lights in the vicinity. However the night sky appeared unpolluted and the stars seemed very bright. Afte a night’s sleep under canvas we set off again the following morning on our camels back to Jaisalmer.
The only other event that day was a visit to the sunset point and crematorium. It has temple-like sandstone buildings, which had a golden glow in the evening sun. We spent the night at our hotel in Jaisalmer again, before setting off for Jodhpur. En route we pulled up in a village to see a small wedding group, including the bride and groom in their finery. The groom wore a magnificent red turban and an ornate sword. We also stopped at Osian to visit the resplendent Mahavira Jain Temple, with its silver filigree arched entrance and exterior adorned with carvings, some quite erotic.
Jodhpur is called the ‘blue city’ after the colour-wash of its old town houses, which originally denoted high-caste Brahmin residences. It was once the centre of Marwar, the largest princely state of Rajputana. In 1459 the Rathore chief Rao Jodha moved his capital from Mandor to this massive steep-sided escarpment and named it Jodhpur after himself. The fort proved virtually impregnable and the city amassed great wealth. Akbar did manage to take the city in 1561, but allowed Marwar its independence in return for an alliance with it. When India gained independence, Maharaja Hanuwant Singh attended the ceremony wearing a black turban, explaining that his family’s long reign had ended, so he was in mourning. Nonetheless the family still retain much of their wealth and a lot of influence and respect.
We started our tour of Jodhpur with a brief stop at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, the Maharaja’s residence, to see it from the outside. It is an enormous Indo-Saracenic (Raj-era architecture combining Muslim, Hindu and western elements) building commissioned in 1929 as a famine relief project. It kept tree thousand workers employed for sixteen years, used a hundred wagon-loads of marble and half a million donkey-loads of soil for the gardens. The furniture and fittings originally ordered from London were sunk by a U-boat on the way over and the palace ended up with its fabulous Art Deco interiors, courtesy of Stephen Norblin, a Polish refugee.
We then visited the imposing Meherangarh Fort, which dominates the city. It houses a collection of howdahs (elephant seats) and palanquins, plus some fine miniature paintings. The most magnificent of the royal apartments has jewel-like stained-glass windows, a gold filigree ceiling and a beautiful carpet with blue peacock motifs. It was used as a pleasure hall for music, dancing and poetry. And we watched a video about the work and aspirations of the current maharaja. We also went to the Temple of Chamunda, which is inside the fort and dedicated to Jodhpur’s patron goddess, an incarnation of Durga. During the 1956 war 300 Pakistani bombs fell on the city, but only the jail was damaged and no one was hurt. This good fortune was ascribed to the goddess’s intervention and she is even credited with appearing as a kite to intercept a bomb heading for the fort.
Bishnoi Villages and Ranakpur Jain Temples
The next day we left Jodhpur and drove through the Bishnoi villages. The Bishnois are a religious sect, whose origins date to a drought in 1485, when a guru formulated 29 rules for living in harmony with nature. The Bishnois are so-called after the Marwari word for 29. We stopped in one village to visit a pottery works and a carpet weaver. In another village we saw a shrine dedicated to a motorbike, or at least to a man who had been killed whilst riding it. The bike was there behind the shrine bedecked in flowers.
We continued and later in the afternoon reached Ranakpur, famous for its spectacular Jain temples. The temples are located in a wooded valley deep in the Aravalli hills and date back to the 15th century. The carvings depict scenes from the lives of Jain saints at the time. The Adinath temple was built on a measurement system based on the number 72, the age at which Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, achieved nirvana. It is 72 yards square and held up by 1440 (72 x 20) individually carved pillars. Inside there are 72 elaborately carved shrines and a 72-inch tall image of the main deity, the four-faced Adinath, which is encased in the central sanctum. The exterior is impressive, but the carvings in the interior are amazing, especially as each pillar is different. Particularly appealing are the steps, which have a monster’s head on each side representing evil, so that worshippers could trample evil underfoot. There is an enormous brass bell hanging in front of the central sanctum.
Ghanerao and Kumbalgarh
We then drove on to Ghanerao, our overnight destination. Ghanerao is a charming and secluded little town and our hotel used to be the Maharaja’s palace! It is somewhat dilapidated with decidedly dodgy electrics, but it was an experience staying there. Our room was huge and included decorated alcoves with stained glass in the windows. The bathroom suite was very basic and it seemed that the waste pipe from the basin emptied straight out over the courtyard.
However instead of the peaceful night away from the hustle and bustle that we had expected, we had to contend with constant chanting and drumming from the nearby temple until 4.00am. Apparently it was a Hindu auspicious night! The following morning we set off for Udaipur, our final destination in Rajasthan. The sole visit that day was to Kumbalgarh, an imposing 15th century fort and the most formidable one of the 32 constructed by Rana Kumbha of Chittaurgarh. It lies 1100m above sea level and is protected by a series of seven thick ramparts with commanding views over the surrounding countryside and hills. Only Akbar managed to besiege it successfully by poisoning the water supply. The palace itself crowns the summit of the fort and includes a set of wall paintings depicting elephants charging about with various other animals in their trunks.
On the journey from Kumbalgarh we stopped at a roadside water wheel operated by two cows, with a woman tending water buffalo waiting for their turn to drink the water raised from the well. Soon after that we stopped to see cane sugar being produced by the side of the road, with steaming vats boiling over an improvised furnace.
We had two nights in Udaipur and found it a delightful place spread around the shores of Lake Pichola, with its sequence of turreted and balconied palaces and havelis. Our hotel was on the other side of the lake, looking out over the city. Udai Singh II established Udaipur in the mid 16th century, moving the capital from Chittaurgarh. He came from the Sisodia family, rulers of the state of Mewar. It is considered the foremost of the Rajput dynasties and has the longest lineage, the present Maharana being the seventy-sixth in an unbroken line. His personal wealth and income from tourism support the Maharana of Mewar Trust, which subsidizes local hospitals, educational institutions and environmental projects.
Jagdish Hindu Temple and City Palace
Our first visit in Udaipur was to see the intricate Jagdish Hindu temple, whose outer walls are covered with carvings of Vishnu, dancing apsaras (nymphs) and scenes from the life of Krishna, not to mention lines of horses and elephants. A service was taking place with the usual chanting and dancing and we stayed a short time; the service had started at 4.30am and would finish at about midday!
We then moved on to the City Palace, which is an enormous building with ornate turrets and cupolas. The entrance is via a massive three-arched and equally ornate gateway into a huge courtyard. Elephants used to line up here for inspection before battle, but cars have now taken their place! The façade at the lower levels is windowless, but highly decorated windows almost seem to sprout from the upper levels. It is the largest royal complex in Rajasthan and comprises eleven different mahals (palaces) constructed over the three hundred years that followed the foundation of Udaipur in1559. The interior is full of intricate and colourful designs and pictures, probably more so than any other building we saw, except for the havelis. It also has a fine collection of miniature paintings.
Pratap Singh, who reigned from 1572 to 1597, was the last of the Rajput rulers to hold out against the Mughals. In 1576 he fought a short but inconclusive battle with the far superior Mughal army. Pratap Singh himself was in danger of being overcome by the Mughals, but was saved by his legendary steed Chetak, who bore him to safety before succumbing to his wounds. In the palace there is a model of Pratap Singh with Chetak, who has a false elephant’s trunk on his nose. This was common practice in warfare at the time, as armies used elephants wielding swords with their trunks. The aim was to make the elephants think that the horses were baby elephants and therefore protect them from attack.
In the afternoon there was a major procession through the city streets in honour of Shiva. This was very colourful and included camels, horses, carts, floats, vehicles and even a mobile generator. There were men in orange turbans, a guru and a representation of Shiva of course. Also Father Christmas made an appearance, but we never discovered why!
Our final memories of Udaipur were of colourfully dressed women doing their washing on the ghats opposite, as this was the end of our trip.
There was so much to take in as India is an amazing country: the sights, sounds and smells; the culture, history and religion; the friendliness of Indians; the school children; the temples and the worship; the Taj Mahal; the teeming city life with its traffic; swarms of wheeling black kites; village life; beautiful saris; the camel carts; the forts, palaces and painted havelis; the desert and camel trek.
The food was very good throughout and the hotels mostly of a high standard. We were fortunate to have a tour leader with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian culture, history and religion, who also looked after us very well. This was a phenomenal and highly recommendable trip.