Published: August 6th 2007April 11th 2007
Due to a slight breakdown in communication my driver for the next three days, Mahaveed, was waiting for me at the Yatri Guest House at six am sharp. Three hours later, after getting up reasonably early considering my jet-lag and a leisurely breakfast, I was also ready to leave for a jaunt round India's Golden Triangle.
The trip started with a drive towards Agra and the Taj Mahal, a building I'd not been that bothered about seeing, to be honest. Mahaveed skillfully and patiently negotiated the car into the calm, leafy and, it seemed, well-moneyed southern suburbs of Delhi. According to Mahaveed, the mansions in this part of the city are the bastions of government officials, heads of business and diplomats, and that's exactly how it looked to me. I could almost smell the Ferrero Rocher. It couldn't be further removed from the chaos, dirt and vibrancy of Old Delhi.
Before leaving Delhi we stopped at Humayun's Tomb, which is an architectural grand-parent of the Taj Mahal. You can write what I know about Indian history in one sentence: Humayan was a Mughal Emperor. Another thing I now know is that the Mughals knew how to build beautiful monuments.
If Humayan's Tomb is the poppadom to the Taj Mahal's jalfrezi and garlic naan, then my appetite for seeing India's architectural behemoth had just been substantially whetted.
Back to the car and fifteen kilometres later we were through South Delhi's more industrial suburbs of factory centres, sheet-metal workers, welders and commuters crammed dangerously into the backs of auto-rickshaws. The road became quieter and the factories were replaced with farmland. TATA tractors carried incredibly large loads of animal feed dwarfing any other vehicle on the road. Brightly decorated TATA trucks haul new tractors to ease the burden of the many farmers of Uttar Pradesh.
The road from Delhi to Agra is being rebuilt to become a multi-lane highway. As a result there were many bottle necks, diversions and spine-crumbling, not to mention snooze-interrupting, speed ramps on the four hour drive. It still wasn't as bad as the drive along Worple Road, Wimbledon, during one of it's seemingly bi-weekly resurfacing sessions.
On arrival at Agra, after stopping at en route for another delicious vegetable thali, I visited Agra Fort. It's an impressive structure in its own right, but the enchanting view of the Taj Mahal, cheekily flirting with me
in the distance was what impressed me the most.
Uttar Pradesh, according to Mahaveed, has the highest road tax in India. However, the authorities seem to choose not to spend the money on the roads in Agra itself as they are full of bone-crunching, suspension busting holes. After Delhi, Agra seems dirty and polluted with little to brighten the dusty grind of the streets. Mahaveed, a Hindu, reckons there's a link between Agra's shabby appearance and the fact that its mostly Muslim population eat cows. I can't see it myself. It's probably more to do with the temperature here. Checking my probably not very accurate thermometre key-ring tells me it's 37 degrees centigrade at 5.30 pm. Counting only one Jimmy Riddle all day despite drinking four litres of water tells me it's too hot for sweeping and mending roads.
After looking at a couple of other options, I decided to stay at the Tourist's Rest Hotel in Agra. It's cheap, has a nice feel to it and a central garden where you can eat your vegetable thali. My only concern is that I'll be electrocuted during my shower as the wiring for the water heater is the absolutely
dodgiest I have ever seen. It looks as if I've done it.
After a delicious potato curry and a bit of a read I returned to my room and discovered that Mr and Mrs Mosquito had moved in to my ensuite bathroom along with 50 or so close relatives. It wasn't that spending all day with a Hindu had increased my respect for other living creatures that stopped me spending the rest of the night trying to kill the buggers, but rather the thought that this was the perfect excuse to use my new mosquito net. Having thrown the instructions away to save valuable rucksack real estate, I hadn't got a clue how to put it up, so I spent the night under a rather flat net hung over a light and door handle. I had to lie dead still in a slight v-shape to make sure I was covered. Perhaps it would have been easier to kill the mosquitos after all.
The next day I was on my way to the Taj Mahal at six AM. To get to the entry gate I had to walk for about 15 minutes through a park full of very friendly
locals playing badminton, jogging and performing standing jumps on park benches.
I payed the entrance fee and walked towards the Taj Mahal. Suddenly, there it was, emerging from the early morning mist, catching the first rays of the cloud-burning sun, a beautful white gem, small and perfectly formed, framed by the archway of one of out-buildings of the complex.
The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore called it a "teardrop on the face of eternity", and I can see what he means. It's a truly sublime piece of architecture; the most beautiful building I've ever seen, possibly even the most beautiful man-made object I've ever seen. Inside the mausoleum which houses the ornate tombs of Emporer Shah Jahan and his second wife Mumtaz Mahal the acoustics are such that a cry from one of the guides glides round the ceiling with and almost infinite reverberation.
After a shower, thankfully without getting electrocuted, and starting my personal best attempt of three curries in one day with a traditional breakfast dish of curried potato pancake, Mahaveed and I set off for Fatehpur Sikri which according to me, is a quite a fancy old mosque and according to the guide book is
a "magnificent fortified ghost city". It had a lot to live up to after the Taj Mahal, especially as it was starting to get very hot, adversely effecting my concentration levels. After an hour or so looking round, wondering if I should just come home now I've seen the Taj, I headed back to the car for the five hour drive to Rajasthan and the city of Jaipur.
On the way, we stopped at the rather creepy-even-in-broad-daylight Monkey Temple. I was abandoned at the gate by Mahaveed who said he'd seen it before. I reckon he was just scared, and rightly so. I bought some monkey food to appease the monkey god on the way in and was led by a robed, mumbling and wildly gesticulating man who may have been a monk, into the temple of the monkey. A gang of vicious looking monkeys started walking towards me and I nervously reached for my bag of nuts (just to be clear, I mean the monkey food I bought at the entrance). As the monkeys got closer, the robed monk fella asked me if I would like to smoke some hash. There was noone else about, just me, the
monkeys and the hash-addled monk. Although by now I was beginning to have my doubts about his monk credentials. This was getting weird. We climbed the steps towards the highest section of the monkey temple,which clings to the side of a ravine in a hill and as we got higher the monkeys got bigger. Half way up a few more monks were enjoying a swim in an algae-filled swimming pool about five metres square. At the top was a monkey swimming pool with some massive monkeys taking a dip. There were a lot of them, they had big teeth and I couldn't tell what they were thinking, so I quickly gave them my nuts and was eager to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Smiling and waving at the monks in the pool I made my way to the bottom of the temple. The mumbling monk asked me if I wanted to see another temple. It felt as if he'd just asked me if I wanted to see his puppies, but, I thought, don't be daft, it'll be alright.
I was followed through several corridors in to a very small temple. Two other men had now
joined us and asked me to sit down. Something didn't seem right about the situation, it reminded me of an attempted robbery I experienced in a burial chamber under the pyramids of Giza. so I excused myself and got the hell out of there, back to the safety
of the car.
That night I stayed at the Rajastan Palace Hotel,owned by a relative of the local Maharaja and recommended by Mahaveed as he gets a complimentary room. That seemed fair enough and he bought me a beer to say thanks. My room had a fan that for once didn't look like it would fall on me in the night and was near the swimming pool. My ear was still playing up so I didn't go for a dip, although it would have been an excellent way of cooling down.
My vegetable thali that evening meant I'd not only had curry every day for five days, but also that I'd had three curries in one day. I was poised for an intestinal rebellion, but none came. My feet had swollen up but I think that was due to sitting in a car for several hours rather than them filling
up with curry.
The next morning, Friday 13th April, I decided against tempting fate with another curry overload and ate jam and toast for breakfast. Shortly afterwards, Mahaveed and I were bumping our way to the Pink City of Jaipur. Inside the pink walled city is the City Palace, home of the Maharaja. Given his address, I was hoping the Maharaja would be a kind of Larry Grayson character or would perhaps share his palace with Emu. Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet the man who is a polo chum of Prince Charles.
The palace is quite interesting with exhibitions of maharaja costume through the ages and so on. My favourite section was the armoury museum with "Welcome" spelt out in daggers on one of the walls. There were some fantastic weapons on display including a sword that turns into a knife once you've stabbed someone so you can chop away at their innards; a kind of medieval precursor to the modern day Swiss Army knife.
Round the corner from the City Palace is the incredible Jantar Mantar. Enormous geometric structures built in 1728 by astronomy buff Jai Singh, the Sir Patrick Moore of his day, launch
into the sky. I had the feeling of walking into an Esher painting.
In the steadily building heat of the day, I struggled to find the entrance of Hawa Mahal, the honeycombed edifice that allowed the royal ladies a view of the bustling Siredeori Bazaar. The entrance is round the back of the building and you have to fight your way through taxi and rickshaw touts, pavement market stalls and crowds of people milling around trying to board buses in order to get to it. It's well worth the effort as the inside of Hawa Mahal is an island of calm with a cooling breeze blowing through its ornately carved shutters.
Following lunch we drove to Nagaraha Fort, or Tiger Fort as it's also known. Built in 1868 but now no longer inhabited, the fort looks down on Jaipur from a ridge. From here I could take in for the first time the full extent of Jaipur's urban enormous urban sprawl. It's an amazing sight, especially as the sun sets, casting its orange glow through the evening haze over the now twinkling city lights that find their mirror image in the stars of the darkening sky. I don't
know how it happens, but you can even hear conversations from the city below as you sip a cold beer on the restaurant terrace on the highest point of the hill, a few hundred yards from the abandonded fort.
We drove back through the bustling city street bazaars that come alive as the temperature drops. I would have liked to have stopped for a mooch round, but on reflection decided that a cool beer by the Rajasthan Palace Pool would do me the world of good.
The drive back to Delhi had been a long one on the incredibly straight and well maintained road from Jaipur with a stop at the beautiful Amber Fort.
Construction of the fort was started in 1592 by Maharaja Man Singh and includes a maze-like section called the zenana which was used to house a harem. I ignored the guide-book's recommendation to hire a guide and it didn't take me long to get myself completely lost. Amber Fort is another architectural marvel and I spent a good while investigating its miriad of chambers and halls. By the time I got back to the car I was suffering from monument over-load and looking
forward to getting into Nepal and places of natural beauty.
Further along the road back to the Yatri we stopped for lunch at Mahaveed's mother-in-law's house in a rural Rajasthani village. I wasn't sure what to expect; perhaps a very poor village of malnourished children, rabies infected dogs and a subsequent bout of gastro enteritus. Although there are many farms in Rajasthan the lack of rain in the area makes farming a difficult proposition and many farms have to be sold or are left fallow until the funds can be raised to drill a bore hole from which the land can be irrigated.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a very happy, vibrant and healthy family with Osmond-esque teeth and a friendly pet dog. I got the impression that they'd not seen a westerner before as a group of smiling children were soon gathered round the doorway to the small house, watching me eat a dahl soup and chapatti.
Eventually back at the Yatri Guest House in Delhi on Saturday 14th of April I was overwhelmed by the luxury of the place. My room is spotless with a couple of interesting prints of Delhi on the
You leave your sandals at the door and the green cloth allows you to walk round without burning the soles of your feet.
You leave your sandals at the door and the green cloth allows you to walk round without burning the soles of your feet.walls. The ceiling fan is quiet and the electric lights are powerful enough brighten the space at night. The bed is made with freshly laundered sheets and a colourful duvet.There is even a desk, a chair and a wardrobe. The bathroom shines white and the water-heater appears to have been installed by a professional electrician. Even the electric shock that shot up my arm as I turned off the bathroom light after a shower failed to dim my enthusiasm and sense of well-being.
I went to sleep with my mind full of the colourful images, friendly people and beautiful bulidings that I'd seen. The last three days had been an excellent introduction into the delights of India. What an incredible country! I'm looking forward to coming back after my trip to Nepal.
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