Taj Mahal 1
Taj in the mist..
February 6... It was an early morning again today as we were headed to see the Taj Mahal and wanted to be there as soon as it opened, which was sunrise or around 7am. We were in line to get in by about 6:15 and then it was a lot of waiting around. There have been some changes at the Taj since I visited in 2004, the primary one being related to security at the entrances. We were pretty much in corrals (separate male and female lines) while waiting, then had to pass through metal detectors and have all bags checked by x-ray (just like at the airport but the line moved a bit faster.) The other noticeable change from my previous visit was having to wear shoe covers up on main platform where the Taj sits – it totally makes sense as I’m sure they are trying to protect the marble and stone from further damage.
Sadly, it was not an optimal day for a sunrise visit – a heavy mist / fog lay over the entire site so the fabulous entrance and view of the Taj was obscured, which was disappointing. No bright sunny blue sky today. However,
it was atmospheric! The mist did eventually clear for about 15 minutes or so, around 8:30, but moved in again as we left the site.
In my opinion, (right or wrong), the Taj Mahal is the iconic image of India. It was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631 and took over 20 years to complete. It’s estimated that 20,000 people from India, Central Asia and Europe worked on the building during construction. The Taj is constructed of semi-translucent white marble, carved with flowers and adorned with pietra dura (marble inlay) made with thousands of semiprecious stones in a variety of floral and geometric patterns. Its symmetry of design is broken only by the addition of Shah Jahan’s tomb inside the main dome after his death in 1666.
There are four decorative 40m-high white minarets each corner of the platform as well as a red sandstone mosque to the west and an identical building to the east, the jawab, which was built purely to maintain the symmetry. In front of the Taj are Persian-style gardens and reflecting water pools with fountains. I think it’s one of
the most beautiful monuments I’ve ever visited.
After visiting the Taj Mahal, Helen and I said goodbye to our travel mates and headed to Agra Fort with Bhagi for a quick visit. Agra Fort was originally constructed in the mid-16th
century by Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Akbar. Its primary purpose was that of a fortress, but Shah Jahan made it one of his palaces, and, for the last eight years of the Shah’s life, it was his prison, as he was overthrown by one of his sons and imprisoned in Agra Fort. On a good day (not today), you can see the Taj Mahal.
I didn’t realize when I signed up for the 25 day tour that it was actually comprised of two separate trips, overlapping in Agra. Helen and I met our new leader (Tony) and travel mates around noon, as we settled in for a 4 hour bus ride to our first overnight stop, Madhogarh. Our hotel was an old fort that had been turned into a Heritage Hotel. It had lots of nooks, crannies and turrets overlooking the town and surrounding countryside.
February 7… So, they didn’t warn us about the 5:30am call to the
temple. It was startling to be woken out of a sound sleep by a blaring blast of tinny Hindi music that seemed as if it was right in our room! It lasted for about 30 minutes – nothing quiet or meditative about this prayer session!
After a three hour jeep ride, we arrived at the Amber Fort, a few kms outside of Jaipur. The fort (really more of a palace) was built in the late 1500s, early 1600s and is built from yellow and pink sandstone as well as lots of white marble. The highlight here for me was the Jai Mandir, or Hall of Victory. There were amazing inlay panels as well as thousands of mirrors used in a variety of designs and covering the ceilings. The Indians like their bling! After the Amber Fort, it was into Jaipur itself for lunch, then a walk through the old town and markets.
A very belated birthday wish to my friend Lorine!
February 8… It was a rare free day to spend checking out Jaipur. A few of us hired tuk-tuks for the day and headed off sightseeing. The first stop was City Palace, home of the royal
family since the city was founded in the early 18th
century. Members of the former royal family (they were stripped of any governing power in the years after Indian independence) still live in parts of the palace. In the private attendance hall, two huge silver containers (over 1.5 meters tall and easily that wide) are on display – one of the maharajas had them made to take water from the Ganges with him on a trip to England.
Next to the City Palace is the Jantar Mantar, also built by Jai Singh. Astronomy was a huge interest and the observatory built on this site contains measurement tools for calculating time, altitude and the constellations. We used a local guide here, otherwise the devices would have been a mystery.
One of the most well-known sites in Jaipur is the Hawa Mahal, or Wind Palace. It was built near City Palace to allow the ladies of the royal household to see what was happening outside the Palace walls. It’s five stories of windows and lattices made from pink sandstone – very pretty.
Tony had picked up tickets for a Bollywood movie, Special 26, which had just been released so
that’s where a few of us headed in the late afternoon. I had to laugh at the premise – thieves absconding with money and valuables by impersonating officers of the Indian Tax Authority. It was good fun, the theatre was beautifully restored in Art Deco style and the crowds really got into the movie. Just like a live theatre presentation, they build in an intermission during which you can buy popcorn, samosas, chai – it’s an event! All for 100 rupees, or about CA$ 2. After dinner, Tony and I headed off the the pharmacy so I could get rabies shot #3 administered.
February 9… We departed Jaipur and headed to Sawai Madhopur, near the park gates of Ranthambore National Park. Ranthambore is the home of a large tiger population but we struck out again in the quest for a tiger sighting. My one criticism of this trip is about how Intrepid has arranged the tiger park visits – instead of arranging the mid-afternoon safaris, it would make much more sense to provide a couple of opportunities to see them at each park ie. one in the afternoon as well as one in the early morning.
A relatively short journey by car took us to the Rajasthani town of Bundi. A lot of the houses here are painted blue, which gives it a really nice atmosphere. The highlight was once again a palace, probably best known for the blue, turquoise and gold murals painted on the walls and ceilings. The palace was constructed in the early 17th
century. We took an interesting walk through the markets on the way to the palace – it was frightening to see how they carry out local dental work, right on the street with only the most primitive of tools and sanitation.
February 11… It was time for another train ride, this time on a local train travelling between Bundi and Bassi. There were no carriages except for second class, unreserved seating so it was an experience. The 2.5 hours went by quickly however, as we were clearly the novelty on the train and had lots of locals come by to check us out. Nothing like having the tables turned and being the object of having your photo taken by locals with their camera phones – strange.
Our destination was near Bijaipur, at a tented camp alongside a
small lake. It was very restful, with not much to do in the way of sightseeing so I spent the afternoon napping and starting to think about what I was going to do once the tour was over in less than a week.
February 12… It was a very short transfer this morning to the town of Bijaipur, only 20 or 25 kms away from the tented camp. This is a very agricultural area, so on the way we stopped to visit one of the small village houses as well as some of the fields. There were plots of poppy plants flowering – apparently the permits and restrictions around poppy cultivation are very strict and government regulated, given the plant is the source of heroin.
We stayed at another heritage property, this time an old castle, the origins of which date back to the 16th
century. The castle has been updated and is quite upmarket, yet retains much of its charm. Our room had a bathroom to die for – certainly the nicest one so far in India! I enjoyed my afternoon massage immensely and was pretty lazy for the rest of the day.
February 13… Off
to Udaipur today, a city built along the shores of Lake Pichola in the mid-1500s in the southwest of Rajasthan. After lunch, we headed off the City Palace, the largest of its kind in Rajasthan. It’s been very well restored and had some beautiful tile work. Drinks on a rooftop patio overlooking the lake was a pleasant way to end the afternoon and watching the movie “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in one of the restaurants after dinner was entertaining. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth a view, as it does give one a flavour for the scenery and chaos of Jaipur.
February 14… Well, it was a productive morning as I finally made some decisions as to where I’m headed next. I’ve decided to leave the group here in Udaipur instead of heading to Pushkar tomorrow. I am going to Gujarat, the state south and west of Rajasthan, in hopes of seeing Asiatic lions in Gir National Park. The tigers haven’t cooperated so I’m hoping for better luck with their some of their feline relatives.
In the evening, a few of us headed to a local cultural show. I thought it was an hour well spent,
as we were entertained with some local dances as well as a puppeteer. As the show ended, a thunderstorm blew through – this is the first rain I’ve had in India and it didn’t really last all that long. The group got together for dinner so it was a nice way to end the time I’ve spent with them.
February 15… Aside from getting up early to see the rest of the group off to the train station and getting rabies shot #4, it was a lazy day. I’m bored with temples, forts and castles and really tired of taking pictures (I never thought I would utter those words but it’s true!) so I’m taking a break.
Next up, the lions (I hope) at Sasan Gir.
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