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Published: February 28th 2019
India, Days 7/8, Tuesday / Wednesday
Having had to swim our way out of our Agra hotel, our coach trip today was very much through rural India.
We headed for the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, to the west of Agra.
Another World Heritage site, it was founded in 1569, next to a lake, but then abandoned only 16 years later when the lake, and so water supply, dried up.
The main fortress / palace is pretty intact, though we did pass through some outer walls a good 2-3 kms from the main buildings and there were many ruins in the area between wall and palace.
The complex is an intact example of Akbar's imperial court. Among the many noteworthy buildings in the complex is the 5 storey Panch Mahal, probably a pleasure pavilion for the ladies of the harem. In the centre of the courtyard is the Pachisi Board, marked by flagstones. Here the emperor played a game like backgammon, but with dancing girls as game pieces. He never lost! And he got to choose which 'piece' to reward himself with!
Perhaps the finest structure is the lotus shaped carved central pillar of the
Dirwan-i-khas - Hall of Private Audience.
We were also shown where in the public audience courtyard was a tie-ring for an elephant. If the emperor ordered someone's execution it was delivered by crushing the unfortunate's head under the elephant's foot.
Whilst we are on punishments - we had been told earlier in the trip of one that consisted of putting a miscreant inside a cow, whose innards had been removed, and the hide being sewn up; person and hide then left to bake in the 40+ heat, whereby the hide shrinks to leather, slowly crushing and suffocating the culprit 😱
The rest of the day was spent travelling, allbeit not too far in kms, to the town of Karauli along some of the roughest 'main' roads imaginable. We think for the coach driver it is a case of ploughing on regardless and expecting all others will avoid him. We had chosen to sit at the rear of the coach that morning - more room to recline seat and easier to move side to side for photos - which also meant that we were spared the worse of the horrors of oncoming traffic.
The villages we passed
through were very rural india. Still lots of cattle wandering about, but now joined by pigs and boar just snortling amongst the piles of roadside rubbish, and buffalo. Women tending crops in fields - rarely men - dressed in their saris. Roadside village industry and commerce.
The hotel, Bhanwar Vilas Palace, is a colonial-style, 'art deco' (their description ) building, built in 1938, and owned by the rulers of Karauli. In its time it must have been very grand indeed, and there are many examples of English influence within - brown wood furniture, display cases filled with English porcelain figures, and faded photographs on the walls of owners and wealthy visitors, many shown with their hunting kill.
Karauli was founded in 1348 as a holy town, heavily fortified over the years by its rulers. Famous for the pale red sandstone wall which surrounds it, sandstone trade is very big in the town still with cart loads being moved by camel (of which more later).
Legend has it that the ruling family were descendants - 80 generations or more - of Lord Krishna, one of the most loved gods of Hindu mythology.
Unfortunately we arrived too late, just
at sunset, to do much other than settle in to the hotel, and its included evening meal.
Wednesday we had a tour of the estate. The hotel is, as far as possible, self sufficient. A mini farm effectively, all operated on organic principles. Cows, essentially for milk, vegetables, grain crops, all used in the hotel's kitchen. And we bet this has been operating this way since way before 'farm to fork' traceability became fashionable in trendy restaurants back home.
Abi then walked us into town. The intention had been just to visit the market - in reality the main shopping streets with their many small units - but he had learnt that there was a temporary, occasional animal market that day so we headed there first.
Turned out it was mostly a camel market, occupying an open area of ground on the edge of town, just outside the old town gate. Clearly a multiday event, some vendors and families were 'camped' - a loose term in these circumstances - alongside their animals. We were also mobbed by young children from those families begging for money, pens or sweets. They followed us until deciding they were not going
to be lucky or that they had strayed too far from the market.
As you find here the 'market' was small shop units selling all manner of goods: bamboo ladders, homemade wooden household items eg chapati rollers - Pip bought 1 - and lassi beaters, basket wares, shoes, flip-flops, replacement toe dividers for flip-flops, batteries, stainless steel cooking pots and plates - sold by weight - and foodstuffs of all kinds, some recognisable some not. We asked about pyramidical piles of white crystals and were told it was just sugar.
A speciality of the town is hand-made bangles made from coloured tree resin and we watched for several minutes as 3 young lads were making these. Quite a few ladies of the group bought some, but they were a bit too bright & sparkly for Pip.
It is, though, a wretchedly poor place with filth and animals everywhere. And for the first time seen here lots of flies on the street food. Heaven knows where they have been before - heads up, look out for our Shit Blog special coming shortly!
A fascinating experience never the less.
Pip got seriously flattered on the way back.
We are quite used to children, youths and adults saying 'hello' to us as we pass by - leaning over balconies, running from side streets... But this went to a whole new level today. As Pip was passing three youths - late teenage? - in addition to the usual 'Hellos' one of the lads leant over in Pip's direction, looked her in the eye, and in a pitch perfect Leslie Phillips impression said " Well. ..... Hellloo!'
Pip looked quite overcome 💖
Hotel, lunch and some R & R before our next adventure. ...... a ride on a camel cart. What great fun that was ... for the locals. We had seen not a single use of camel-drawn carts for moving people about at all during the day. They are transport for goods - grain sacks, slabs of sandstone, machinery. ... not people. What fun the locals had looking at us as we dozen 'whiteys' passed by on these. Pip reckoned it must have felt the same as medieval prisoners being paraded by cart through the masses in England before their execution back in the day. And it's such an uncomfortable ride, especially with the poor roads and
the 'speed' bumps which nearly threw us off the cart as we passed over. 'Where's the Tena Lady when you need them?' Pip asked at one stage on the return journey later that afternoon.
The journey was to Karauli Palace, official residence of the Karauli royal family from 14th C until 1938 when it was abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. It is now, very slowly indeed, being restored by local craftsmen, but it will be a very long job.
In its original splendor it must have been a magnificent sight. Walls inside and out decorated with painted frescos and patterns. It is a maze and warren inside. You could play a great game of hide and seek. One room in particular was covered with small tiles - 1 cm square ish - of imported Belgium glass which must have reflected the candle light wonderfully.
Now inhabited by monkeys who we guess must 'reclaim' it every evening when the visitors and guardians leave.
There was then a short walk to the Madan Mohanji Temple for their daily evening prayer service. Quite a sight. There were several hundred inside - inside being a flimsy covered outdoor
square with buildings on all 4 sides. At the 'front' behind a barrier were three deities and someone was wafting a bundle of candles in front. As he moved from the middle deity to the left hand the crowd all moved across with him. And then back to the middle again. This mass chanting and devotion went on for 10 minutes or so and then the curtains were drawn closed in front of the figures. After some water blessing thrown onto the crowd most then started to move out, except the women.
Eventually there were around 200 of them sat at the rear, but with a respectful gap in the middle, in line with the central deity. They proceeded to play small drums and finger cymbals and chant songs. Some of our ladies sat and joined in, and it was still going on when we left. No photos allowed inside regrettably. Quite an experience.
On the way back to the hotel, again by camel cart, the final embarrasment was passing a large group of German tourists, who were sharing the hotel with us. They stopped taking pictures of the local street scenes to take photos of us
atop the cart.
Oh the indignity of it all.
Tomorrow - tiger hunt.
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