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Roving through Rajasthan and Agra
We had been walking up a long, wide avenue with arcades of shops on either side and a tide of wall-to-wall people in-between. Next, we passed through an ancient, massive gate, and suddenly it was there before us -- the Taj Mahal -- to me the most beautiful and romantic building in the whole world.
Never before have I been so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of a structure as to get goosebumps just looking at it. But, I guess there must be a first time for everything. It boggles the mind to think that, almost four hundred years ago, a Persian architect had designed such perfection, and built this as a mausoleum for a King grieving for his wife. That's India! This is a country of extremes where the beauty and symmetry of buildings like the Taj Mahal contrast with the utter chaos on the roads. The temples, forts, and palaces one sees are steeped in history, and the crowded streets are getting even more chaotic by the day, with forecasts predicting that the population will exceed that of China by the end of this millennium.
It was while flying on an Emirates aircraft that I became hooked on the idea of visiting Rajasthan and Agra. Emirates is a particularly fine airline that has won award after award. The flight entertainment also features some superb documentaries about their holiday destinations. Their Rajasthan documentary showed the magnificent Maharajah's palaces, the ancient forts, the splendid temples and the colorful people. Before the documentary had run five minutes, it had totally captivated me -- I just had to go. Rajasthan is synonymous to golden sand dunes, camels, and majestic forts and palaces.
We had started our tour at Jaipur, where our driver, Mr. Singh, was waiting for us as our train pulled into the station. First-time travelers to India like ourselves could be excused for thinking that the country's eight hundred million people belong to three families -- the Singhs in the North and North-West, the Guptas in Central India and the Patels in the South. Everybody who was anybody of the people we met on this trip seemed to either be of these names, or have close relatives in these clans. I had always thought that only the Sikhs were all called Singh, but it seems that in Rajasthan, too, everybody Singhs for their supper.
We stayed at the Rambagh Palace Hotel, so named because it had actually been the Maharajah's residential Palace. One gets the hint that it has the right clientele when, casually displayed in the hotel's jewelry shop, one sees photos of the Crown Princess of Japan on a previous visit, and Prince Charles and Princess Di shopping here in happier days. The rooms in the section of this Palace come hotel are well run, but it is the public areas such as the reception halls that really demonstrate the true opulence in which the Maharajahs lived before the end of the British Raj (rule).
Rajasthan is right on the border butting up against Pakistan. And, before the arrival of the British, only the strongest rulers survived in this area, spending a large part of their lives raising armies to fight their neighboring Moslem counterparts, and in the process taxing the daylights out of their subjects to fund these operations. When the British came, the Maharajahs kept their taxing powers but, as the Brits maintained the peace, did not need to spend the tax money on war. So they improved the lot of their subjects instead but still kept enough to build absolutely stunning palaces and public buildings. When India got its independence, the Maharajahs taxing powers transferred to the State, and consequently many of them depend on other sources for income.
Today's Maharajahs are still referred to as such by the Indian public although the official title has been abolished. Their elephants have been replaced by Rolls Royces and Mercedes, and as the former state functions and extreme opulence can no longer be afforded without the abilities to tax the area's population, many Maharajahs have turned parts of their palaces into luxury hotels. On this trip we would stay at a number of these -- and love every minute of the experience.
When the Mongols swept across Asia and into Europe to become the founding fathers of what is now Finland, Hungary, and Turkey, another branch of the Mongols pushed down into India. Their rulers became the Moghuls, or Mughals, a powerful Islamic dynasty that occupied and ruled Northern India from 1526. They eventually intermarried with the local Rajput nobles (named, if you haven't guessed it by now, Singh) and ruled, off and on, until the arrival of the British in the 1700's. A subsequent Maharajah, Jai Singh, established Jaipur and built a totally splendid city palace overlooking the town. We, like every other tourist to Jaipur, visited this city palace and were amazed at the opulence and splendor of the complex.
At the rate at which they are being tipped by tourists, I figure that the most unlikely new members of the financial aristocracy will be the red-turbaned, black-jacketed palace guards. They sport huge black mustaches and toothy smiles, and pose for pictures at the drop of a hat, naturally getting handsomely tipped for their trouble. Indian parliamentarians are currently in hot water for big time bribery. I bet that had they played their cards right and become palace guards, they'd have made just as much money without all that smear and hassle!
Another most impressive legacy of Jai Singh was the building of the Jantar Mantar Observatory. In a square located right in the middle of the city are some quite amazing constructions. Jai Singh II was a keen astronomer and, in 1728, commissioned a whole gaggle of structures with which he could measure the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. There is even a sundial that is accurate to within one-fifth of a minute.
As part of the city tour we visited a factory outlet that gave a demonstration of textile block printing. This technique, which uses wooden blocks that have a pattern cut into them and are pressed down much as one would use a rubber stamp, is still used in India today. For every roll claimed to be hand-printed, I estimate there must be some thousand machine-printed rolls being palmed-off to tourists who think they are buying the real thing. Never mind, it's still very nice fabric. In fact, India has one of the richest histories when it comes to textiles, and some of the 400-year-old sari fabrics one sees in museums are just as breathtakingly beautiful as some of the finest made with today's modern technology.
We also went to a carpet shop that was hard to resist. I've always been a carpet-o-holic, and my favorites are the double-knotted silk-on-silk carpets produced in Turkey and known as Herekes. Kashmir and the region around Rajasthan produce similar fine carpets at a fraction of the price. A 9 x 6 foot, pure silk with a mind-boggling 2100 knots per square inch density costs around US $6,000.00 at some of the finest and most reliable stores here. If you are in the market for two of these, going to India instead of buying at home will pay all expenses on a deluxe trip. The downside, of course, is that the carpet industry is notorious for using child labor -- nimble fingers and good eyesight are a hallmark of the young, and the kids who work in carpet factories don't get much playtime! When the world's handmade carpet industry is finally stopped from using child labor, you can expect carpet prices to rocket. But don't hold your breath.
The next morning we set off for Mandawa, a mid-sized town on the edge of the desert that straddles the border between India and Pakistan. The drive there was memorable rather than enjoyable, and warrants a comment on Indian roads. We were in the hands of Abercrombie and Kent, a travel company for which we have an enormous respect, and the competence of Mr. Singh, our driver, was yet another example that this was warranted.
I personally would not drive in India at any price. The roads are the width of two cars, with some gravel on the side. But only the center strip, roughly about the width of a truck, is really useable, and even then contains potholes that will disassemble your spinal cord faster than any surgeon yet born. So everybody wants to use that center section, and only move over on to the side at the very last moment in the classic moves that would be classed as "playing chicken" anywhere else. This is bad enough for the nervous system of the passenger, I'd hate to think of what it does to the driver. As an added bonus, most trucks seem to drive on only two classes of tires -- bald without tread, and down to the fabric! No wonder that we saw three that had smashed and turned over within a twenty-minute period. To add extra spice, Indian truck drivers who have a breakdown (if you don't pass one of these every ten minutes you suspect that the road leads to nowhere) simply pick up rocks, lay them in a line outside their truck which is left right in the middle of the road, and then climb under the truck to do their repairs. That means that the Kamikaze traffic has to go around these and at the same time also avoid hitting the pedestrians, bicycles, motor bikes, trishaws, feral pigs, donkey carts, camel wagons, bullock carts, trucks, buses, and other cars that form a never-ending stream along India's roads. With training like this, our Mr. Singh would be a natural for the next Grand Prix or Indy 500.
Eventually we reach Mandawa. Passing through the arch of the town gate took us through a 200-year timewarp.
The ancient silk road that connected with China started in the northern mountains of the latter and passed, in the shadow of the Himalayas, along India's northern borders, then veered slightly down through Rajasthan, Pakistan, Persia and Iraq to reach the Mediterranean along the Turkish coast.
In Rajasthan the Silk Road passed through Mandawa, whose merchants became rich through trade and by catering for the needs of the never ending strings of caravan travelers. In the process they built themselves lavish houses in a classic Indian style known as Havelis, which were beautifully decorated with external as well as internal frescoes. But all good things come to an end, and with the advent of Britain developing the Port of Bombay and the opening of the Suez Canal, the Silk Route died a natural death. The rich merchants moved to Bombay, the Havelis now became run-down and often abandoned and, with the constraints of the desert climate and no other commercial opportunities, most of the population moved out. Now tourism is slowly starting to revive Mandawa and the Maharajah's castle, a comparatively modest establishment that makes up in charm what it lacks in luxury. Rooms were relatively clean, the management was helpful and friendly, and in the evening an outdoor dinner, accompanied by music and a parade of colorfully theatrical Indian hotel employees gave a lot of extra ambiance to the establishment.
Bikaner was our next destination and after another drive through the countryside which took us back to greener pastures and away from the desert we arrived at that city.
Lallgarh Palace, our next overnight stop is, to quote one Indian publication, "A 10-star property with two-star service." Once again, the building was a Maharajah's Palace of truly splendid standard and proportion. The 42 rooms have been let out to the Welcome Group, an associate of ITT-Sheraton Hotels, and one can only say that it is a great pity that (obviously) no Sheraton executive has been near the place for years. They should look at it -- and weep. It's sacrilege to have such a wonderful building with rooms that have so much unrealized potential. Our room, though spacious, had neither TV nor telephone and was dirty with stained furniture, a mediocre bathroom, and an old, rickety, brass bed with a wooden board topped by a three-inch thick mattress which needed a fakir-like mentality to allow one to sleep. Our meals (one couldn't call it cuisine) were safe, but of a standard one could expect in the canteen of a lesser factory cafeteria. Yet, the public rooms were spacious and had enormous potential. As in the other palaces the high walls were studded with tiger and leopard skins. To demonstrate his prowess as a hunter, the Rajah even had an African rhino head mounted on the wall. One cannot help feeling sorry that such random slaughter of India's animals now leaves the families of big cats virtually extinct -- small wonder when one room alone of the ones I saw had eight leopard skins mounted on the walls. Fortunately, the Indian Government is currently doing its best to reverse the trend and in the only National Park where the Indian lions still survive, their numbers (which had gone down to around thirty in the 1950's) have now built up to a claimed 304.
Bikaner Fort was founded by Rao Bikaji in 1488, and as we passed through the gate I noticed a lot of what looked like hand prints carved into the sandstone by its side. "Yes," said our guide:
these are Suttee hand prints. When a Maharajah or one of the aristocracy died or was killed in battle, his widow had no further role to play in society. So the honorable thing to do was for her to take a bath, dress in her best, dip her hand in henna at this gate, and leave a handprint which was afterwards cut around by stonemasons to make it permanent. Then she would walk to her husband's funeral pyre, take his body on her lap, and the fire would be lit.
So entrenched was this ritual in Indian culture that, although banned by the Indian government, there was a recorded case of this as recently as 1988.
The large, hilltop fort is a splendid pink sandstone building with lacy carvings around doors and windows, the latter so that women can look out without themselves being seen. The Maharajah Ganga Singh the 21st was very close to the British Establishment. In World War I he not only won the Victoria Cross, but was the only Asian to be invited to attend the Treaty of Versailles. In one of the ballrooms of the Fort (which has now been made into a museum) is a World War I biplane, one of two given to the Maharajah. The biplanes are the only two surviving models of this type in the world. The museum is utterly fascinating and gives a clear picture of the lifestyle of the Maharajahs at a time when they were at their peak of power. Subsequently, we visited the Bazaar around the Kote Gate, to watch the real-life day-to-day activity of the local population. Cows were allowed to roam anywhere. We returned to our hotel as the next day's drive was to be fairly lengthy.
Many of the temples we had visited were Jain. This sect does not believe in killing anything at all, so much so that they wear a gauze around their mouth and cover their eyes so that there is no risk of an insect being accidentally killed. 30 km/19 miles out of Bikaner we came to Deshnok village where a temple has been erected to pay homage to Karni Mata. There, we found another, stranger temple for which I have never seen an equivalent. The Bikaner dynasty worshipped the goddess Durge who, it is said, occasionally visits the earth by turning herself into a rat. Consequently, locals consider the rat holy and will not kill any in case Durge happened to be using it as a vehicle to arrive at earth. I went to visit this temple, where swarms of relatively large black rats are fed delicacies and scorn anything else offered to them
Then, off again in our trusty Ambassador car which was holding together remarkably well. As the latter half of this drive was through very intensely planted areas, perhaps this is a good time to comment about Indian agriculture. India is an enigma in very many ways. You will see people so poor that you will be embarrassed to be better off. Yet, there are now over ten million Indians earning more than US $200.00 a week, a figure undreamed of thirty years ago. The car, television, refrigeration, and appliance industries are booming. India's national saloon car, the Ambassador, is basically a version of the old Morris Oxford which was popular on Britain's roads in the 1960's. New models, that are right up with current trends, are in the building stage (though I suspect that, unless roads are improved, these will self-destruct in months if not weeks!). But the real success story of India is its agriculture. I've rarely seen better crops in much richer countries with the same rainfall constraints. Agriculture is one area where the Indians have got it right already.
Late that afternoon we arrived at the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur. This is another Maharajah's palace turned into a hotel, but one that is so splendid that it is almost impossible to describe to anyone who had not seen it. Rajasthan is subject to some very nasty droughts, and at the height of the Maharajah's powers it was the ruling custom to distribute money to those not able to work in agriculture and related fields. In 1920 a particularly bad drought commenced and after three years of accepting charity the people of the area asked the Maharajah to give them work instead of handouts. A whole series of dams and irrigation works were commenced but the drought continued and Maharajah Umaid Singh went to London to commission a foremost architect with Indian experience to build a new Palace. Plans were finished in 1929, the site was chosen by court astrologers and for fifteen years, 3000 people worked around the clock to build a palace the likes of which had never been seen before. In 1943 Umaid Singh moved into his new 347 room palace which matched Washington DC's White House in splendor. A double dome soared 185 feet into the sky and there were billiard rooms, ballrooms, and banquet halls as well as libraries with Burmese teak paneling, rotundas, marble floors, and indoor swimming pools. Art Deco furniture to be custom-made in Britain was ordered, but war had broken out and the ship with the furniture was torpedoed, so the Maharajah arranged for local furniture makers to duplicate the order. Today, almost 100 rooms of this palace have been converted into a hotel. It is extremely difficult to get accommodation in this hotel as canny French and Italian tour companies book blocks of rooms many months ahead. But, if you're planning to go to India, to stay at this hotel is worth the whole trip. Don't miss it.
We go to Jodhpur market and see a microcosm of Indian life. Farmers are selling their vegetables; women bring bangles they have just made at home; barbers "set up shop" by placing a chair on the pavement and opening a small suitcase of their tools of trade; and a dentist (replete with his street equipment: one chair, one card table, a hand-written advertising sign, and a boxful of hand-drills, pliers, syringes, and other instruments) is just giving a turbaned Sikh a shot of local anesthetic.
Amid all this, I am constantly reminded of the people's friendliness as little children come up to me with "Hello! How are you? What is your name? Good-bye!" which seems to be the total English repertoire of most Indian eight-year-olds.
Then it's time to return to Jaipur where the Rambagh Palace again awaits us. We overnight here in preparation for the finale -- an overnight trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Setting off the next morning, we again brave the Indian roads, reaching Agra a few hours later. Although our hotel is called the Taj Palace, it is a newer structure and a purpose-built hotel in modern Indian style. There are two world-class hotel chains in India -- Taj Hotels and the Oberoi chain. Consequently, they are fully aware of international standards, and staying at either of these groups ensures that you will be well looked after. Our destination is the Taj Mahal which, until then, we had only seen in pictures.
I could not help thinking about the romance of the King who loved his favorite wife so much that when, after seventeen years of marriage, she died while giving birth to her fourteenth child, King Shah Jahan was heartbroken. Mumtaz Mahal (chosen one of the Palace) as his wife was called, had been his advisor and main confidant.
The King mourned for two years, becoming almost a recluse, denying himself uniforms, state occasions, music, and banquets. Subsequently, he commissioned the Taj Mahal, gave the running of the State over to his sons, and devoted himself to the construction of the magnificent mausoleum. Fortunately this has been maintained, undamaged, through the ages, and is as splendid today as it was on its completion. The building was constructed of brick, then clad with white Indian marble. His widow's grave was located seven feet below ground level as prescribed by Islamic law, but to show the position to visitors, a replica grave was built, directly above the actual location, but on the ground floor of the Taj Mahal.
There is a sad, ironic sequel to this story that few people know about. Once the running of the state was handed to the children, Shah Jahan's number three son, as evil as he was ambitious, wanted to be the king. To do so, he murdered his two older brothers and installed himself in the position. When his father showed his shock and horror, Shah Jahan was put under house arrest where he languished until his death. The new king showed no remorse at the death of his father, but a more affectionate daughter had the father buried in the Taj Mahal, his grave just a few feet away from Mumtaz Mahal's.
In the evening, we took the Shatabdi Express, one of India's most modern high-speed trains, back to Delhi, from where we prepared to fly home. We had only discovered a small corner of India but seen enough to want to go back again one day when, hopefully, the political troubles in Kashmir will have died down and we can experience another quite different aspect of India.
Don't be put off by the "Nervous Nellies," with the usual negative tales about India -- friends who had been there and got food poisoning, newspaper stories of epidemics, and all the tales of gloom and doom that one so often hears about a destination that's a little off the beaten track. Fortunately, I was not deterred and we have returned last weekend without a single bout of Delhi Belly, or any bad experience indeed. Mind you, that's not to say that you won't "hit the wall" with these things if you are not careful! The trick is to follow these simple rules:
Only drink bottled water (carbonated, to make sure that it's not tap water refilled in the kitchen)
Eat only cooked food.
Only eat at safe, reliable places and totally avoid salads, street stall food, or anything that looks in the slightest bit suspicious.
Make sure that you've been to your doctor and obtained the right inoculations and preventative medications, like the correct malaria pills (various areas of the world have different strains of malaria and require the appropriate medication).
Select the season very carefully (going to India in the monsoon or in the summer heat is a definite no-no).
Make absolutely sure that you book with a totally reliable travel organization that has its own local people on the ground at your destination. I invariably look for the ones I know and trust. Abercrombie and Kent, Special Expeditions, Tauk Tours and Maupintour are just some that fit into this category in various destinations.
Air India flies to Delhi from New York and Toronto, with London stopovers possible. They use modern, comfortable 747's, some equipped with phones and fax. From California, there are many trans-Pacific alternatives also.
Go with a good operator or, if you are planning an individual trip, make sure that you give all hotels a firm booking with your credit card number and request a guaranteed room, with confirmation by fax from the hotel as well as your travel agent. Even the best Indian hotels tend to overbook, so a guaranteed, pre-paid room and a confirming fax from the hotel itself are quite essential. These safeguards are not necessary if you go with operators like the ones mentioned above. The same applies to rail tickets. The better Indian trains are often booked out two or more weeks ahead.
Best Time To Go:
For most people October to March, when the weather is cooler, will be most pleasant. The rest of the year is either monsoon or you are likely to strike century-plus temperatures that most people find unpleasant.
What to Take:
A wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, a wad of single US $ notes for tipping, comfortable loose cotton clothes with no short, mini or see-through garments for women. Bring a reasonable amount of film with you as this is much more expensive in India.
400 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10022
Phone: (212) 417-1379
Fax: (212) 838 9533.
Phone: (416) 865 1030
Taj Hotel Group
230 Park Avenue, Suite 466
New York NY 10169
Phone (800) 458-8825
Phone: (212) 972-6830
Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel
Phone: (91) 291.33316
Fax: (91) 291.35373
Lallgarh Palace Hotel
Phone: (91) 151.523.963
Fax: (91) 151.522.253
Rambagh Palace Hotel
Phone: (91) 141.381.919
Fax: (91) 141.381.098
Taj View Hotel
Taj Ganj, Fatehbad Road
Phone: (91) 562.361.171
Fax: (91) 562.361.179
Mandawa Castle Hotel
Phone: (91) 159.289.528
Fax: (91) 159.286.571.0
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.