Thursday, 28 August 2008

27 August 2008: Taj Mahal

Squeezing past a cow – which blocked the exit to our hotel – and passing two camels, we arrived at the Taj Mahal at 6am, hoping to see it in the famous pink shade of the rising sun. The sunrise wasn't that good, but even then the Taj took our breath away with its serene beauty and calm.

Emperor Shah Jahan had the monument built as a memorial to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. He aimed for perfection and achieved it. The Taj is an architectural masterpiece, reflecting the depth of Shah Jahan's feelings: his eternal love for Mumtaz and the deep sadness he felt at her death. The Taj Mahal is a truly magical place.

Our lunchtime café provided a great vantage point from where we could watch the world go by. One man was wheeling a vegetable cart through the streets lined with open sewers. A vegetable fell off, only to be picked up off the street and place back on the cart. A little later, another grocery seller had placed his cart full of colourful produce on a street corner. Three metres to the right, a holy Hindu bull shaded from the searing heat. The grocer went into a nearby café, only to come rushing out as the holy bull stole an apple. With a plank of wood, the grocer tapped the bull. It dropped the apple, turned and slowly walked away. The grocer picked up the apple from the street and replaced it on the cart.

Later on, we also visited Agra Fort which is a mighty construction on the banks of the Yamuna river, further along from Taj Mahal. The fort's moat used to be infested with crocodiles. Emperor Shah Jahan was also imprisoned in the fort until his death.

The contradictions of India are summed up by the photo below, taken just 100m from the Taj Mahal. The dog is cooling off in the open sewer. Jen wanted to take him home – once he'd had a bath!

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

26 August 2008: Jai Vilas Palace

Jai Vilas Palace is the ancestral home of the Scindias who are the wealthiest family of India. The head of the family is the Maharaja of Gwalior. The palace was stunning for its sheer extravagance. There were sepia tinged photos of hunting parties with rows of dead tigers laid out for display. Some of these tigers ended up in the trophy cabinet of the palace's museum.

Room after room was full of exquisite antique furniture, ancient sculptures from around India and sheer decadence (not all very tasteful mind – the pool side bar had a late seventies retro feel about it). The highlights of the palace were photos of the Maharaja meeting heads of state including Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussain; the silver brandy and cigar train (with track) and the royal court hall. The hall is said to contain the world's largest chandeliers. The strength of the roof was apparently tested using eight elephants.

After the museum, we luncheoned in five-star luxury at the Usha Kiran Palace (although neither of us was dressed for the occasion).

This afternoon we caught the train to Agra. Whilst waiting on platform two, we got chatting to a 30-year-old gentleman. He asked us how long we had been married (ten years of course), and he announced that he had been married for just ten days. He then revealed that he was rather frustrated in the bedroom department – his new wife was not obliging – and tried to seek our advice on the matter! On the same subject, we were on a computer in the internet café today. The search history of previous users was rather interesting, e.g. Bollywood babes and cheerleaders – plus some verbs and adjectives.

This evening we ate at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Taj Mahal. An early start tomorrow morning to get there for the sunrise at 6am. Even with an overcast sky, the Taj looked more magical than we had imagined.

Read the Gwalior Fort posting.

25 August 2008: Gwalior Fort

Gwalior Fort protects a 3km-long plateau, 100m above the main city. The fort has a bloody history, with neighbouring moguls and even the British controlling it at various point in time. The east side of the fort has the impressive Gwalior Gate and the turrets of the Man Singh Palace. Further north, the ruins of seven palaces adorn the cliff top with great views of the city and the plains.

Approaching from the west gate, the sole ticket office is conveniently located one mile away at the east gate. We found this out as we tried to visit numerous buildings at the southern end of the fort, and were turned back by the officious guards. No amount of pleading or the fact that we were on our way to the ticket office would persuade them to let us in.

Once we'd bought our tickets and entered the grounds, we came across a tank of water in one of the ruins. Here, the Rajput women of the harem committed ritual mass suicide in order to avoid being raped by the advancing armies of Iltutmish, the Slave King of Delhi.

During the day we met some lovely children who were keen to get their picture taken. They studied themselves in the photo afterwards. We explored the numerous buildings, ramparts and ruins which make up the fort in the sweltering heat. It was around 36 degrees with high humidity, so please excuse the sweat marks in the photos! Anything less than trousers feels inappropriate here. Nobody wears shorts or vest tops.

Not quite as much staring today, although one young lad stalked us for a while, attempting to peek out from behind rocks so that we wouldn't notice. Unfortunately we did. He wasn't even embarrassed by what he was doing.

The day finished very pleasantly with a fine meal at the Landmark Hotel. We felt like VIPs with a security entourage, as the number of waiters outnumbered guests by four to one. Not sure why there was an armed guard outside, or why the hotel had a sign saying 'No guns or ammunation' (their spelling not ours).

Read the Bhopal to Gwalior posting.

24 August 2008: Bhopal to Gwalior

Train travel is one of the highlights of India. To date, we've travelled in the AC Chair Car and 2AC in the sleeper (it has four foldaway beds on two tiers per compartment in an air-conditioned carriage). The trains are clean, comfortable and fast, with both western and asian style toilets. A light snack was delivered to us in AC Chair Car, and bedding is supplied in 2AC.

Close to Gwalior, our train passed an unattractive town called 'Sithouli'. Needless to say, the name made us both smile. We had more laughs in the restaurant Blue Fox tonight, as the menu offered 'light snakes' (light snacks), 'basmati rice coked with mutton' (cooked with), and 'deserts' (desserts).

We bought the Hindustan Times to read on the train. Intriguingly, we found a section called 'Matrimonials'. But instead of being about who's married who, the section was full of text adverts (no photos attached) from families looking for love for their children– or an arranged marriage rather. The bride and groom candidates in the ads are allegedly beautiful, slim, over-educated and come from reputable families. Everyone has a large monthly income. The paper has a big disclaimer telling readers to make 'appropriate thorough enquiries before acting upon any advertisement'.

Hotel room rates seem to have gone up in most towns – India does have 12 percent inflation – and we're constantly spending more than we expected. At the moment, we're staying in yet another expensive deluxe room. We have no hot water on tap (you order a bucket which, if it comes, takes a minimum of 30 minutes). There's no towels, no toilet paper and the western style toilet squirts water horizontally when you try to flush it. On the plus side there's no shortage of switches. We counted 16 switches to operate seven appliances (AC unit, two fans, three lights and a TV). There's even a switch in the shower if it all gets too much. So far we've been using the bucket instead.