Saturday, 25 October 2014

Incredible India: Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

world-map delhi
Greetings!

Sorry for the late posting this week, I was at a choir concert last nght. This week I explore Jaipur, supposedly one of India’s great ancient cities. Built in the 18th century, it was India’s first planned city and is act more a new town than anything else. I’ve been to a few planned cities in my time and I have to say that very few seemed to have worked as a concept. In the UK we have Telford and Milton Keynes from the 20th century which are both singularly awful, but we also have Port Sunlight, a model workers’ village constructed by the Lever family in the early years of the 20th century. The principles behind it are laudable: proper living space for workers, green areas and vernacular architecture, but even so there is still something slightly artificial about it all.

But what of Jaipur. Well, planned it may have been but it was the most beautiful city that I visited in India. Anyway, have a read for yourself to see what I thought in some more detail.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
 

Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:


Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra – Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall



Jaipur

Having explored the places outside of the city the day before, it was now time to see exactly what the famous Pink City has to offer, so after a South Indian dosa brunch, I wandered off towards the Old City.

I entered by the New Gate and entered the tidiest and most beautiful of India's old cities. This is all due to the fact that every building within the city walls has to be painted a particular shade of pink. One might think that this is to do with some ancient Hindu superstition or in commemoration of some long ago battle, but in fact the pink is actually all rather recent: it is the traditional colour of hospitality and the Maharajah ordered the town to be painted in it to welcome the Prince of Wales, (later King Edward VII), in 1853. So, the pink is quite modern, but to be fair, the entire “ancient” city of Jaipur is not much older than its prevailing colour; work only commenced on building Maharajah Jai Singh II's new capital – the first planned city in India – in 1727.

After entering the gate, I turned right along the Bapu Bazaar browsing in the fabric shops and buying an Angry Birds bedspread for Tom before turning up the Johan Bazaar where jewellery and metalwork were the order of the day until I reached Badi Chaupar, the centre of the Old City. There I took a slight detour to have my photo taken in front of the incredible Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), the “extraordinary, fairy-tale, pink-sandstone, delicately honeycombed hive that rises a dizzying five storeys”,1 that is Jaipur's most famous landmark.

II043 Outside the Hawal Mahal

Returning to Badi Chaupur, I then headed along Tripolia Bazaar before veering off again to investigate Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh II's astronomical observatory. Now a World Heritage Site and looking like a weird Escher theme park, this was one of the most advanced observatories in the world when built, and is one of five built by the Maharajah. Wandering around the enormous instruments of star gazing, (Jai Singh II believed that bigger = more accurate), was fascinating except that, having run screaming from anything remotely approaching Mathematics after scraping through my GCSE aged sixteen, I hadn't a clue what any of them did, (beyond the sundial of course).

II044 Jantar Mantar: the speck on the hillside was the Hindu temple that I visited with a similar “watchtower”

Following Jantar Mantar I checked out the adjacent Chandra Mahal (City Palace) which was beautiful and impressive but my palace/fort fatigue was still strong so it, alas, left no lasting impression on me, although my next stop, the Hawa Mahal was more memorable, due to its unique layout and architecture and the fact that I fell into conversation with a young chap who was doing a survey for the National Tourist Board.2

Having seen the highlights of the Old City, I then headed down the Chaura Bazaar to the New Gate and into the newer districts, through the Ram Niwas Public Gardens to the British contribution to Jaipur's cultural landscape, the Albert Hall.

I liked the Albert Hall.3 I liked it because it was spectacular, because it had purpose and because the architecture was exquisite. But I also liked it because it was familiar. Not that it seemed so as I approached, an arrogant Anglo-Indian fantasia at the head of a broad boulevard – if there is a building in Britain that it resembles then it must be the Brighton Pavilion – but inside, yes, it was extremely familiar as, for all its turrets and crenelations, it was a very British building. It was a museum, an exposition of culture for the edification of the local populace. Yes, there was a touch of arrogance in such a paternalistic palace, but then much of the British Raj did smack of the arrogance of a race who believed God had chosen them to rule half the world, but arrogant though it may have been, the motives behind it were basically good. It was there to educate. I wandered through rooms of Chinese deities, Persian tiles, Egyptian mummies and Roman statuettes and realised that I could be in the Museum and Art Gallery of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool or a dozen other of Britain's great industrial cities. All date from the same period and all had the same agenda: to better and to enlighten the locals. The section entitled 'Industrial Arts' showcased the best of the local crafts just as Stoke-on-Trent's museum showcases pottery and Northampton's, shoes. But what I liked best was the series of murals depicting scenes from the literature of a dozen world cultures interspersed with those from India so that the good citizens of Jaipur could compare and contrast their own culture with the best of all the others.
 482405_10152605149010305_795696333_n A vintage car rally outside the Albert Hall

After the Albert Hall I continued walking along J. Nehru Marg. into a scruffier area of town, away from the tourists and full of students as the university was situated there. Also to be found was the eccentric SRC Museum of Indology, a chaotic yet glorious private collection of artefacts from Indian history filling a private house. As far away from the modern ideal of the interactive, experiential museum as you can imagine, I loved it for its messiness and personal touch. It was the perfect end to my Jaipur tour and to celebrate that I took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel before dining out at the famous Moti Mahal Restaurant on incredible North Indian cuisine. And then, shattered by it all, I retired to my room to watch cricket and then hockey on the TV. Indeed, Indian TV I was rather loving; normally foreign TV is totally inaccessible without the language but here it was cricket, cricket, cricket, from university games to Test, (India were thrashing Australia which of course augured well for the upcoming Ashes series4), although that wasn't all: when I was in Agra I'd found the Japanese cartoon hero Doraemon5 to be shown on no less that four channels at the same time. Oh well, it beats X-Factor!

1A described in Lonely Planet India, p.111
2I told him that I liked India, would like to return, but the recent increase of visa fees from £40 to £80 was putting me off.
3Or 'Central Museum' to give it its current, official title.
4Which England won 3-0. We won't mention the return series after that though...
5Doraemon is as well-known across Asia as Mickey Mouse is in the West. I have a particular affection for him as his designer came from Toyama-ken, the same county that I worked in whilst living in Japan.
































Tuesday, 21 October 2014

V-log 9: East to West Berlin

Greetings!

I've been busy writing up my trip to Berlin, Poznan and Lodz last year and piecing together the videos that I made. here's the first offering, a remarkable ten minute train journey across the city. I say remarkable because when my dad did the same journey in the 1970s, it took hours and involved lots of passport checks. Even if we think nothing changes, visiting places like Berlin remind us that some things really have done.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt




Check out all my V-logs!

V-log 1: So Uncle Travelling Matt, how many countries have you visited…?

V-log 2: Llangelynin

V-log 3: A Tour Around Schouwen-Duiveland

V-log 4: Draycott-en-le-Moors

V-log 5: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log 6: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

V-log 7: Crowland, Lincolnshire

V-log 8: Repton, Derbyshire

Friday, 17 October 2014

Incredible India: Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

world-map delhi
Greetings!

This week’s posting is a little earlier as I’m off this evening for a weekend of learning with my trade union. As part of the GFTU they run some excellent courses for members. This one is about ‘Understanding the Economic Crisis’ (I wish I did), whilst the last covered ‘International Solidarity’. A weekend immersed in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and other Latin American states has made me think seriously about future plans to visit the region. Watch this space… comrades.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:


Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra – Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

map_india_northwest 5

Jaipur

It was dark when we rolled into Jaipur's main station. I took a tuk-tuk through the busy streets to my prearranged hotel, 'Stephels Guesthouse' (500 rupees p/n) and then headed straight to an internet café before it closed to upload some videos and engage in a conversation with Nina, a former colleague of mine which was most fitting since, although Pakistani, she is a descendent of Rajputs, the noble class of Rajasthan.
'Stephels Guesthouse' was unlike the other establishments that I'd stayed in so far in India in that it was aimed at the backpacker market rather than local business travellers or the package tourist trade. As such, it had a somewhat different ambience, being more than just a collection of rooms and instead centred around a small garden where one could sit and order beers. Having not had a drink since leaving Britain's fair shores, I decided to take up the opportunity and indulge in a bottle or two whilst reading 'Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction' in an attempt to try and comprehend something of India's majority faith.

My path to enlightenment that evening however, was to be barred, for JP, the hotel's proprietor, unable to bear seeing one of his customers drinking all alone, came and joined me and a few beers later was pouring out his entire life story. It transpired that my host for the night had been born into a poor Hindu family, made even poorer by the fact that his father had died when he was seven. But JP was – according to JP – a hard-working chap who so impressed his Muslim boss that the latter formerly adopted him and thus now he was running said adoptive father's Jaipur hotel, (he'd been working in the Chandigarh and Agra establishments before), being paid the princely sum of one million rupees per month for his efforts.1

JP's story might sound strange to our Western ears but out in India and it is not so weird. When I lived out in the Far East it was quite common for promising young men to be adopted by their bosses, (it is the case with the boss of Sony in Japan I believe), and not seen as unnatural, particularly if the boy in question has no father. In societies where corporate culture and loyalty are strong, then this is far more understandable than it would be in Europe with its strong individualism, although any reader of Dickens or our other famous novelists of the 19th century will realise that it was not so bizarre a concept to our Victorian forefathers. But for me, a fiery trade unionist who enjoys nothing more than bringing a substandard supposed superior to book, then such absolute subjection to your employer is nothing short of heresy.

But to be fair, in the case of JP at least, it does seem to work. He literally lived his job, sleeping on the floor like a common servant, 'Stephels Hostel' occupying his every waking minute and thought, and doubtless a few of his dreams as well. He may be spectacularly paid by Indian standards, but he also put up with far more than I could even imagine, let alone endure.

Which is probably why my salary has never been described using the word “spectacular”.

But as the night progressed we moved on from the mundane topic of work and onto the very essence of who JP was. He was not married but had once fallen in love with a “crazy Korean girl” who had been staying in the Agra hostel and had returned to India to see him. But his real love in life, the romance that brought him to tears, was not one of his own but instead love on the silver screen; Rose and Jack, meeting, falling in love and then dying on the 'Titanic'. “I have watched it twenty-two times,” he told me, eyes welling up as he played 'My Heart Will Go On' on his mobile phone.

Copious quantities of beer and heartfelt outpourings from a man in love with Kate Winslet do not make for an early start the next morning and it was around 11 o' clock before I was off. JP sorted me out a tuk-tuk who would take me around the sights beyond Jaipur, the idea being that I concentrate on the Pink City itself the next day.

My driver was a chirpy young Muslim chap who was delighted when I informed him that I was planning to visit Ajmer after Jaipur, and that I liked Qawali music2 very point. At this point he put on a tape of said Sufi singing and turned the volume up on his tuk-tuk's impressive sound system so that everyone knew we were coming as we careered through the picturesque streets of the Pink City. It truly was a great ride; the most aesthetically pleasing of all the cities that I'd visited so far in India although the image that most sticks in my mind is of a Muslim girl who we passed, whose top half was veiled as befits a modest lady, but whose legs were squeezed into a rather lewd pair of skin tight trousers that I'm not sure the Prophet would have approved of!

Our first stop was the Royal Gaitor (Cenotaph of the Maharajahs) on the very edge of town in a dip in the hills beneath the Tiger Fort. They were architecturally impressive monuments of finely-carved stone with a peaceful, tranquil ambience but just as interesting, if far less artistically remarkable was an ancient Shiva temple with a lingam.

II034 At the Royal Gaitor

Thanks to 'Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction', I was now aware of what a lingam is. A smooth, cylindrical stone, it represents Shiva, one of the principal Hindu deities, a representative of the Supreme God, part of the Trimurti – the Hindu Trinity – and partner of Shakti/Parvati, the Divine Female. The symbol itself is very ancient, possibly a relic of the pre-Hindu Indian religion and is thought by many to be phallic, (it is often found next to the yoni, the female symbol). Such aniconism – representing the Divine with symbols, not statues – is rare in Hinduism with its thousands of idols and many scholars believe that it became popular after Hindu culture met that of Islam which also shuns representations of both Divine and human forms.

I mentioned earlier that, as part of my preparations for the trip, I'd watched a number of Bollywood films and foremost amongst them was 'Jodhaa Akbar' which I've already discussed. Now however, it was time to clock up a few of the filming locations around Jaipur.

The first, which was reached via a rather pleasant mountain drive, Qawali music still blaring out as we swerved round hairpin bends, was Jaigarh Fort. A seat of the Maharajahs of Jaipur, (to whom there is a museum inside), this fort was noticeably barer and more austere than its counterpart in Agra, but the fortifications and location were impressive and I wandered around interested for a good hour or so, (some of it with an unasked for soldier guide who insisted on giving a rather unintelligible commentary not dissimilar to the one that I'd received at Fatepur Sikhri), notable stops en route being the Charbagh Garden from which there were incredible views down the valley to the more famous Amber Fort, the Jaivana Cannon which claims to be the biggest in the world and a puppet play.

II035 Amber Fort from Jaigarh Fort

After the Jaigarh Fort it was onto the Nahargarh Fort (commonly known as the Tiger Fort) at the other end of the mountain ridge. On the way we saw a rather strange temple with what looked like an observatory attached and so I asked Mr. Qawali to pause awhile so that I could find out more as I wondered if it was perhaps in some way connected with the Jantar Mantar, Maharajah Jai Singh's incredible astronomical observatory in the centre of Jaipur.

Upon visiting I found that the temple was dedicated to Krishna, in my opinion the most accessible of the Hindu deities and the bearded Brahmin presiding blessed me and tied a sacred thread around my wrist. As for any astronomical connections though, I never learnt one way or the other, although when I visited Jantar Mantar the following day, the temple was clearly visible and seemed to be in line with some of the instruments there.3

II036 With the Brahmin priest at the Charan Mandir

We continued onto the Nahargarh Fort, outside of which is a terrace which commands incredible views across the city of Jaipur. Whilst photographing them I fell into conversation with a businessman from Delhi who was visiting with his family, and attracted the attentions of some kids who wanted their photos taking. What struck me as whilst they were all very forward and modern, just behind them stood a girl in traditional Rajasthani costume, silent and unmoving, her whole face hidden by an orange veil.

II037
II038 Rajasthani youth, both bold and shy

The Nahargarh Fort was quite different to the Jaigarh Fort even though both dated from the 18th century and were connected with the Maharajahs of Jaipur. Whilst the latter was very much a fortress, this was far more a palace, set around a rectangular courtyard. In fact, for some reason that I can't quite place, it reminded me strongly of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, but unlike the Ottoman edifice, Nahargarh Fort was rather dilapidated in parts including several dark rooms absolutely full of sleeping bats.

II039
II040 Inside the Tiger Fort: Top: Me; Bottom: Bats

Having sampled the two hilltop forts, we then headed down the mountain to the most famous fort of them all: Amber. This was Jodhaa's home in 'Jodhaa Akbar' and I remembered the scene when Akbar rode up the steep road to its main gate on an elephant as I laboured up the same road on foot.

Amber Fort truly is spectacular. Many years before I ever clasped eyes on the delectable Aishwarya Rai in 'Jodhaa Akbar', I watched the even more scrumptious Indira Vama cavort in 'Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love'4 in a Rajput palace. That was probably the first time that I ever thought that India might be a place worth visiting and walking into Amber I realised that this was another ambition that I had fulfilled for I recognised this as the location for that film as well.

Learning from my Agra Fort experience, I took an audio guide and wandered around the fort/palace freely, taking in the sumptuous settings and spectacular views over the lake below, my only regret being that I didn't have either Aishwarya or Indira to enjoy them with. However, even with the greatest of all the Rajput forts to entertain and scantily-clad Bollywood beauties to daydream about, my feet were now tired and the tragic fact was that, this being my third fort of the day and with Agra Fort only two days before, I had seen as much palatial glory as a man can take in and so when I eventually emerged I was glad. Once again, India was proving to be too in-credible and I just wasn't managing to appreciate fully its wonders.

II041
Outside the Amber Fort

On the way back we stopped off to photograph the stunning – but inaccessible – Lake Palace and then to visit some obligatory tourist emporiums – I bought Tom a set of India pyjamas – before depositing me back at Stephels.

And that was that for the day except that, well, I'm afraid I have a rather embarrassing confession to make: that night I dined at McDonald’s. Yes indeed, in the heart of foodie heaven, I went straight to the bottom of the pile. And my excuse? Well, it was late and most of the other places were shut. But do you know what was worse? Well, I'm sorry to say it but I really enjoyed my McPaneer burger meal.

II042
The Lake Palace


1According to JP. However, as that is around £13,000 per month, I suspect that there is a degree of exaggeration or perhaps misunderstanding here. 1,000,000 a year maybe, although that would still be an exceptional wage by Indian standards.

2Sufi devotional music
3Further research has taught me that this temple is called the Charan (Foot) Mandir and is sacred because there's a naturally-occuring footprint of Krishna there. As for the observatory, it's merely labelled as an 'observation tower' and no connections to Jantar Mantar are mentioned although I still suspect that the two are somehow related.
4N.B. This is not the X-rated film of the same name. It is ten times better than that one. Not that I've seen the other of course... well... maybe...








































Tuesday, 14 October 2014

V-log 8: Repton, Derbyshire

world-map llangelynin
Greetings!

We haven’t had a V-log for a very long time and so here’s one from the archives, filmed about a year back when I was doing some research on my book on holy sites in the English Midlands. I’m afraid the video didn’t turn out quite as I hoped; my camera’s not the best and down in the crypt it’s all a bit too dark to capture the mystery of beauty of the place. To help though, here's a photo from someone better equipped (and more able...) than I.


Even this though, if I am to be truly honest, does not do full justice to the place. So, there’s only one thing for it; after letting this V-log inspire you, pay Repton a visit for yourself!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


 
Check out all my V-logs!

V-log 1: So Uncle Travelling Matt, how many countries have you visited…?

V-log 2: Llangelynin

V-log 3: A Tour Around Schouwen-Duiveland

V-log 4: Draycott-en-le-Moors

V-log 5: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log 6: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island

V-log 7: Crowland, Lincolnshire

V-log 8: Repton, Derbyshire















Friday, 10 October 2014

Incredible India: Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

world-map delhi
Greetings!
 
Over the past few weeks nothing has been in the news more than ISIS, IS, ISIL or whatever else they want to call them this week. To be honest, even by Middle Eastern standards, what we’re hearing is pretty horrific: beheadings, genocide of non-Muslims, forced FGM for women, women not allowed to walk the streets unveiled, mass rapes, tortures, the list goes on. Now of course, how many of these stories are corroborated remains to be seen, I suspect some, like many of those pertaining to North Korea, are made up. But then again, like North Korea, there’s more than enough there to suggest that something very, very nasty is going on.
 
Which brings us to the question of why: why would any regime behave like that? It’s not an easy one to answer but sadly, human beings have always veered between the nice and the nasty and in Iraq and Syria at the moment, the latter is winning. But is this problem one intrinsically of Islam as some media commentators would have us believe; is Islam fundamentally an evil religion that encourages such barbarity?
 
I am not a Muslim and there are many things within the faith that I seriously take issue with. Nonetheless, having travelled widely in the Muslim World and befriended many Muslims, I believe firmly that Islam is not intrinsically evil or flawed. It may not be perfect, (despite what the Prophet is reported to have said on his last sermon), but there is a lot of good there.
 
So, what’s happening with ISIS then? To me, of all the places that I’ve visited and read about, this most reminds me of Pol Pot’s Kampuchea (Cambodia). Think about it; a region ravaged by wars started by others, peasant fighters backed up by foreign money and arms embarking on some totally nilhistic killing spree at the behest of some ideology. Yet the Khmer Rouge were supposedly Communist and Atheist. Pol Pot however, was as close to classical Marxism as ISIS are to the Quran. Trauma can do some terrible things to people’s perceptions. Nonetheless, the example of Kampuchea is not all doom and gloom. That regime collapsed after only half a decade and the Vietnamese had literally to walk in and accept surrendering Cambodians, worn out by the misery and murder. So, perhaps ISIS will be short-lived too?
 
But what can prevent such terrible distortion of Islamic values in the future? The West is not the answer, but instead Muslims must look within themselves and their faith. And the happy fact is that there is a long and beautiful tradition of tolerance and spirituality there. And they could do a lot worse than head towards the place that we visit in today’s extract of ‘Incredible India’, for the Chisti Sufis are as Muslim as any ISIS brigand but as pure an example of tolerant and beautiful spirituality as can be found anywhere on the globe. Such as they are the hope that the Muslim world needs so very much…? 
   
Keep travelling!
 
Uncle Travelling Matt


 
Links to other parts of the the travelogue:





map_india_northwest 4

Fatepur Sikhri

The following day at ten my pre-arranged taxi picked me up to take me to another of Akbar's legacies: the abandoned city of Fatepur Sikhri. As I mentioned earlier, the greatest of all the Mughal emperors was also a devoted followers of the Chisti Sufis. One one occasion the Great Mughal walked forty kilometres from Agra to the village of Sikhri to consult Shaikh Salim Chisti who predicted the birth of an heir to the throne. When that prediction came true, Akbar decided to move his entire capital to the holy man's village and so constructed a brand-new city with a mosque and three palaces, one for each of his wives – one a Hindu, one a Muslim and the other a Christian. That city was an Indo-Islamic masterpiece but it was not Akbar's most inspired move. The area may have been sacred but it also suffered from water shortages and the new city was abandoned soon after its founder's death.

As it happened, the journey to Fatepur Sikhri turned out to be just as interesting as the city itself. For my driver was a chatty fellow indeed. We begun with me asking about some strange structures that I'd noticed by the roadside every so often. These were like stubby obelisks, rounded on top, and several metres high. They were obviously of great antiquity and I wondered if they had a religious purpose or perhaps marked the final resting places of notable locals, but upon asking my companion revealed that they were in fact Mughal distance markers on the old royal road, one every 2.5km. We stopped by one so that I could photograph it as brightly-painted lorries thundered by whilst the house adjacent was burning cow dung cakes as fuel, the ones waiting to be used piled up neatly against the wall.

II030 Mughal milepost

After delving into the past we moved onto more contemporary issues. He explained to me that Tata trucks and cars – by far the most numerous on the roads – were all manufactured in Gujarat. His vehicle though was a Toyota which he declared to be “good but expensive and even more expensive to repair.”

Moving onto politics, he explained to me that the BJP is the party for “people who want India to progress” as the Congress are corrupt and they only win because “they bribe uneducated and low-caste peoples during elections”. He then went on to express the opinion that Manmohan Singh is only a “doll Prime Minister”, that Sonia Gandhi still pulls the strings and that the Gandhi family still control everything.1

I asked about the communists as an alternative as they seem to have done very well in Kerala and he agreed that they do an excellent job for in that state literacy is around 90% whereas in Uttar Pradesh, (the state in which Agra is located and also the most populous and influential state in India), it is 40%. “And the same reasons are why the road to Fatepur Sikhri is only half-finished after all this time” he declared as we bumped and rattled along said narrow and in need of repair highway.

Having breached one of the two great taboos of polite conversation, we naturally drifted onto the other for in India both religion and politics never seem to be far away. My driver, (who was a Hindu), declared that Sikhs are successful because they work hard but they don't care if they make a profit “by foul or fair”. I wondered if this was symptomatic of a low-level Hindu prejudice against Sikhs – in the train from Amritsar to Delhi the young lady whom I had talked to had declared that “their turbans make them too hot” (i.e. quick-tempered and mercurial) and if such prejudices do exist then the atrocities following the assassination of Indira Gandhi become a little more comprehensible though no less justifiable, moving onto other groups, he told me that the Jains work hard and are very moral and fair whilst the Muslims are at the bottom of the pile and the Hindus just above them. The Christians are generally rich and successful though some of their converts are low-caste converts who change their faith for money and then after one or two years move area and convert again. Such conversion he viewed as morally wrong but, surprisingly, he believed that converting for a paid education was fine. Nonetheless, the stressed that religious conversion was a career for some but then added the stern reminder that God sees all.

Switching back to his favourite subject, he then bemoaned the slow rate of progress in Rajasthan just as in Uttar Pradesh, (because Congress were in control there too). “And about Pakistan, Gandhi was wrong there, for it was good that they split for they would have held us back even more.” But what about Kashmir then? “There should be a referendum: Pakistan, India or independence? We don't want Kashmir anyway, there's nothing there but the thing is that the politicians don't want to sort it out.” I must admit that here I had some empathy, for substitute the word 'Kashmir' for 'Northern Ireland' and he could have been talking about my own country.

But what of my own country and people? “Oh, it was very good under the British! Look at how India is now and think how much better it could have been if India was still British. But with our politicians what can we do?” I asked if a solution may be in separate parties for separate religions but he did not think so despite the fact that his hated Congress draws its support from across religious and caste barriers.

I did not need to ask of course, which party my driver voted for, for he reiterated several times that the BJP was the party for educated people and then stressed that the key to progress is education. He was typical of the burgeoning Indian middle-class: he owned his taxi and had only two children – a son and a daughter with the latter doing better at school – and he did not want more.

Finally our conversation turned to the many pigs that I had seen kept in pens by roadside houses. I'd wondered that, since I'd not seen any pork on a single menu since entering India, then why on earth people kept them and what they did with them. He explained that whilst a few (low-caste) Hindus will eat pig meat, most will not as pigs eat human excrement and so the majority of the pigs are fed scraps and bred for their meat but this is sold mostly for export.

I arrived at Fatepur Sikhri a much wiser man and dined in the pre-paid restaurant which looked alright until a mouse darted across the floor in front of me. That brought fears of future vomitings, no doubt intensified by my earlier Amritsar experience but as it turned out, those fears proved to be groundless. Vermin-infested my restaurant may have been, but the food tasted fine and it was not disease-ridden enough to affect my cast-iron constitution.

Thank God.

At the café I was introduced to the man who was to be my guide. Now since I'd not asked for a guide, nor did I particularly want one then I was not overly impressed by this development, but upon reflection he did look something of a character and my lengthy chat with the driver had taught me that maybe I should try talking with the locals a bit more, so I reluctantly agreed and we piled into a tuk-tuk to get to the ancient city itself, cars not being allowed apparently.

Fatepur Sikhri was impressive. The ruins extend for several kilometres but the most impressive part is where we were dropped off at the gateway to the immense Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) in which the tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti – Akbar's spiritual advisor – is housed. Now I've been in a few mosques in my time but this one has to rate as being up there with the best of them. A gigantic courtyard, entering through the magnificent Buband Darwaza with the Tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti to the left of the main prayer hall whilst around the sides were elegant galleries.

II031 The Tomb of Shaikh Salim Chisti

Indeed, there was only one drawback to it all and that was my guide. Whilst initially interesting – he looked as old as the hills but said that he was sixty-one, although he did say that he had two wives which perhaps explained it as one aged me quite enough. No, the problem was that eccentric and quirky though he may have been, he was also extremely annoying. He said that he came from a long line of guides and from what I could gather, they had one spiel which was passed down from father to son and he had learned by rote about fifty years ago and by now the recording was so corrupted that it made little sense at all and so all I managed to garner from it was a headache.

Which wouldn't have been so bad if he'd been a recording that I could turn down, switch off or just ignore, but he was not. If I ever visibly stopped listening to his droning then he'd poke me with his finger and start all over again. Still, there was at least one advantage to having him there: whenever a tout came near he shouted at them and scared them away by waving his walking stick.

II032 My guide

Annoying guide aside though, I enjoyed the visit. The mosque was incredible, as too were the views from the back out across the countryside. But best of all was the Shaikh's tomb. Like the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin, it was a rose-scented oasis of piety which even pushy guides respect. A Sufi of the Chisti Order, Salim Chisti had a reputation as a miracle worker which is why Akbar went out to his desert hermitage to ask for a son. He promptly got his wish and to this day the tomb is visited by women wanting babies.

There were lots visiting when I came, although they seemed to be more foreign tourists than pilgrims. Nonetheless, that didn't spoil it too much, although I would have loved the place to myself as I imagine it would have a similar atmosphere to Demir Baba, the Sufi shrine that I visited in Bulgaria.2 Busy or not, I sat awhile and contemplated. It was good.

And after doing that I'd seen what I wanted to see of Fatepur Sikhri. True, there were the ruins of Akbar's palace to check out where old Jodhaa had her own mini-palace next to those of his other two favourite wives, (who, strangely, were not mentioned in the film), but to tell the truth, I couldn't really be bothered, not straight after devouring the opulence of Agra Fort and not with the prospect of an annoying monologue from my stick-wielding guide to accompany it. You see, I was now beginning to realise the problem with travelling around India. The national tourist office advertises its country with the slogan 'Incredible India', obviously insinuating that India is “incredible” in terms of it being “very good”. But to me, the term should be looked at a little more carefully. Something that is “credible” is something that is “believable” and thus by adding the prefix “in-” it becomes “something that you cannot believe to be true”. And so it is with India for it is impossible to believe that one country could have so many world-class attractions. Anywhere else in the world that I've been to and Fatepur Sikhri would be the highlight of the country; there it is an afterthought to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. And does that equate to the “very good” meaning of “incredible”? Well, it's not bad of course, but it's not really good either for after seeing so many world-class monuments you become blasé and cease to appreciate them.

Agra

Our political and religious conversation continued all the way back to Agra before ending finally, after a couple of stops en route at the railway station this time not Agra Cantonment (where I'd arrived), but instead Agra Fort situated at the back of the spectacular fort that I'd visited the previous day.

The world has many railway stations and quite a few of them are great railway stations. Agra Fort however, is even better than that, it is spectacular, it is memorable, it is the kind of railway station that you should take a train from.

It is also British.

Opened in 1874, Agra Fort is one of the oldest railway stations in India and, apart from the fact that an ancient bazaar was levelled to make way for it, it represents everything that was good about the Raj.

If Fatepur Sikhri showed you what was good about the Mughals; a blend of Persian with local architectural styles, then Agra Fort Railway Station is the same with the British, the terminal buildings having a hint of Huddersfield and a dash of Delhi. But it's inside under the overall roof, (all the best stations have one), that the real triumph becomes apparent. The place is busy, well-used, useful by all stratum of Indian society. Yes, the Mughals may have built great tombs, forts and palaces, but what impact did they have on the life of the common man beyond creating an extra tax burden? Ok, so I'm not so naïve as to believe that the British were just being nice when they built railways across the length and breadth of India, of course their main goal was to make money, but they did have what they believed to be a civilising mission as well, “the White Man's Burden” they termed it, racist perhaps today but well-intentioned back then and this was the result.

But Matt, I hear you say, that goes for all railway stations! What makes this one so special? Well, as the train pulls out of the beautiful Victorian terminal and you rest your eyes on the magnificent Jama Mosque and Agra Fort next-door, well, then that is what train travel is all about!

II033 Agra Fort Railway Station

Not that the rest of the journey was as spectacular as that. The outskirts of Agra were the same slums I'd viewed around Delhi – piles of rubbish, lads playing cricket on a concrete yard, jerry-built housing and marauding cows – but soon the city was gone and the Shatabdi Express was powering through the Uttar Pradesh countryside, as perfectly flat and lush as all that I'd seen so far in India and, alas, also as dull. I tried a conversation with the couple opposite but they apologised and said that they didn't speak English. I would have believed them too if only he were not reading an English-language newspaper! Whatever, I retreated to my books and finished Paulo Coelho's mediocre offering 'Aleph' which I'd started on the Delhi-Agra train from Hell.

But as we passed from Uttar Pradesh and into Rajasthan, the landscape slowly began to change, becoming more arid and then, shock horror, the first hills of the trip loomed. Barely hillocks I admit, but nonetheless, something at last to divert the eye. As we drifted through the towns and villages, I therefore did keep one eye on the passing landscape whilst the other I turned to a different activity: a short story that I had had in the back of my mind for years. Was a railway ramble through Rajasthan just what was needed to prize it out and give it life?3


1BJP = Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian Peoples' Party). Formed in 1980 this is a Hindu nationalist party that has formed several coalition governments. In 2014 just over a year after my trip, they achieved a majority in the Indian parliament and formed a government. Congress = Indian National Congress. The oldest party in India, it was the force that fought for independence from Britain and included such luminaries as Gandhi and Nehru in its ranks. Traditionally the most powerful and influential party in India, it has gained a reputation for cronyism and corruption. When I visited the Prime Minister was the Congress' Manmohan Singh (a Sikh) but Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, Indira's son, was seen as the real power behind the throne.
See my travelogue 'Balkania'.
The short answer is, no. Over a year on and it still sits there half-written.





















































Friday, 3 October 2014

Incredible India: Part 6: Agra – Akbar’s Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

world-map delhi
Greetings!
 
This week’s offering takes us to what is arguably the most famous building on earth: the Taj Mahal. Sights so mega-famous like this present us with a quandary: they rarely live up to expectations and so we come away disappointed, but then it is silly to go to somewhere like Egypt and not check out the Pyramids.
 
The Taj Mahal did not disappoint but at the same time, it was hardly my India highlight either. That said, it is an incredibly beautiful building and so I would recommend going to it – and the Pyramids and Great Wall of China and Angkor Watt and Big Ben – since, well, it’s a unique witness to mankind’s architectural achievements.
 
Only make sure that you visit some other sights as well.
 
Keep travelling!
 
Uncle Travelling Matt
 

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk 

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan 

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra - Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort




map_india_northwest 3


Agra

There is only one reason why the vast majority of tourists come to Agra and that is India's – and one of the world's – biggest drawcards: the Taj Mahal. Like Angkor Wat, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids and Macchu Picchu, the Taj is simply too good to miss and so miss it I would not. However, such Wonders of the World deserve both time and good conditions in which to fully appreciate them; a spare hour at the fag end of a rainy day did not constitute either and so I opted to leave the Taj for the morrow and instead to check out one of Agra's lesser sights: Emperor Akbar's Tomb.

One of my main preparations prior to this trip had been to head out to Handsworth in Birmingham, an area where many Sikhs live, and purchase a few choice Bollywood DVDs to put me in the mood. And one of those films that I bought was Ashutash Gavariker's 2008 historical epic 'Jodhaa Akbar' which recounts the story of the Muslim Mughal Emperor Akbar's marriage to the Hindu Rajput Princess Jodhaa. Now, I admit that I largely bought it because it stars the delectable Aishwarya Rai as Jodhaa for she is a lady who can make even a Nicholas Cage film watchable, but after sitting through only half an hour or so I realised that it had far more going for it than just her, for in addition to sumptuous costumes, stunning locations, the captivating Aishwarya and some exquisitely beautiful music, it also had a cracking storyline in which Emperor Akbar stood centre stage.

II026

Akbar was the third Mughal Emperor, ruling from 1556 until his death in 1605. For the first six years of his reign he ruled through a regent, Bairam Khan, due to his young age. During that period the Mughal gains in India under Akbar's father, Humayon, were consolidated, but after his full ascension to the throne, Akbar extended his territories considerably, trebling the size of the empire that he reigned over. It is not however, for his conquests that Akbar is best remembered, but instead more for the manner of his rule. Instead of imposing an Islamic state on all his peoples, he was conciliatory towards local rulers and customs and inquisitive and tolerant of other faiths. At his court at Fatepur Sikhri he built a chamber named the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship) where he invited those of other faiths to explain their beliefs and debate with one another. He entertained Portuguese Jesuit Priests, (he also had the New Testament translated), Jain masters, a variety of Hindu holy men, (he even allowed Brahmin priests to tie sacred threads around his wrists), as well as numerous Muslim clerics from all shades of Islam. It is also recorded that he met the Third Guru, Guru Amar Das, at his home in Goindwal and was so impressed by the nascent Sikh faith that he presented the land upon which the Golden Temple would later be built to Amar Das' daughter Bhani as a wedding gift when she married Ram Das who would later become the Fourth Guru.

Despite all of this tough, Akbar never thought about converting and remained strong in his own Islamic beliefs, being a steadfast devotee of the Chisti Sufis such as Hazrat Nizamuddin whose dargah I'd visited that very morning. This all made sense to me as a man inquisitive and tolerant of all faiths but in love with his own, (well, the less bigoted versions of it), and so I felt it only right to make his mausoleum the next port-of-all on my Indian odyssey.

That mausoleum was a drive of several kilometres out of town. My driver was chatty and pointed out the sights en route, the most notable being the magnificent St. John's College, one of the earliest colonial educational institutions in India, established in the 1850s and its building a fine Anglo-Indian Mughal-cum-Gothic fantasy.

Akbar's Tomb was remarkable. Anywhere else and it would be the star attraction in the district if not the entire country but in a city that houses the Taj Mahal then it is never going to be that well-known. I appreciated it fully though, since it was the first such mausoleum that I had visited, (after visiting several more they all began to look alike), and because of the man who was buried there. Sat in the vast, dark and dank chamber I felt a sense of awe similar to that which one feels at a saint's tomb, whilst outside I admired the structure in dark brown stone and marvelled at the echoes that the building produced, (demonstrated to me by a “guide” for a tip), and was thankful for the shelter that it provided as the rain increased. As the drops descended in torrents outside, I fell into conversation with some schoolchildren on a class trip who all wanted their photos taken with this weird Westerner whilst I hoped that the downpour would ease as we chatted. But it did not and so in the end I made a run for it and ordered my taxi to take me to a good restaurant which he did although the paneer curry that I ordered was both a tad too cheesy and expensive. And then, by 17:00, I was in bed, shattered by a lack of sleep the night before, a train journey from hell and the tiring after effects of my food poisoning. Besides, I needed to be fresh for the next morning. After all, it's not everyday that you are scheduled to visit the most famous building on earth...

II027 With schoolkids outside Akbar's Tomb


What can I write about the Taj Mahal that has not been written already? “A teardrop on the cheek of eternity”; “The embodiment of all things pure” and a thousand other tributes to the building that made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes”; the ultimate monument to love. No, I cannot do better than that and so I won't even try.

And it was beautiful. World famous sites, familiar from the pages of childhood atlases, often disappoint first hand but the Taj does not. Although similar in layout to Akbar's Tomb, it is in a total different league and that is not just one of scale. The Taj is architecturally perfect, (and up-kept to a higher standard than any other building that I visited in India), and its construction out of white marble makes it doubly unique in an area where everything else is built out of red sandstone.

The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1653 at the orders of Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor as a monument to his beloved third wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth. Over twenty thousand labourers worked on it with specialists being brought in from as far away as Europe. It remains to this day the pinnacle of man's architectural brilliance.

Yet despite all that, there was something lacking. It was beautiful, it was incredible, and yet it was also somehow empty. Compared to the Golden Temple or even the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, it paled into insignificance. To some people the whole 'Monument to Love' thing resonates, yet for me it does not, (that must be what divorce does to you, eh?). The emperor who is buried there beside his beloved wife, (his tomb is the only non-symmetrical element in the entire ensemble), was no more than a tyrant who secured his throne by executing all male relatives who stood in his way and who is most famous for constructing a vast monument which strained the resources of his empire and served no useful purpose. Akbar's Tomb may have been humbler, but the man whose remains that it housed was far, far greater.

II028A teardrop on the cheek of humanity”

After seeing the main sight, it was now time to explore the rest of what Agra has to offer and so it was off to Attraction No. 2, world-class in its own right, the Agra Fort with a stop off in Shah Jahan Park en route.

Agra Fort, one of the finest Mughal forts in India, was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565 but was added to as the years progressed with Shah Jahan transforming it from a military structure into a palace. I spent a happy few hours wandering around inside its red sandstone confines, enjoying a detailed commentary through a walkman with headphones that I had rented out. Normally I don't go for such things, I certainly hadn't bothered at the Taj, but it was worth it this time for it helped me to piece together not only what I saw in the fort but also what I had seen at the Taj, Akbar's Tomb and during the film 'Jodhaa Akbar'. Agra Fort is a gorgeous and fascinating complex containing such oddities as a multi-storey well and a gigantic cooking pot but perversely, although I got more from it than I had the Taj, the highlight of it all was in fact looking out from the windows of the harem to the Taj Mahal shimmering in the distance on the silvery banks of the Yamuna.

II029 The Taj Mahal from Agra Fort





Sightseeing done, (or at least as much as I could cope with for the day), I then moved onto more mundane matters, namely the purchasing of souvenirs and gifts for friends and, after my Delhi to Agra unreserved ticket experience from Hell, train tickets. My tuk-tuk driver took me to some touristy shops where I bought the mandatory mini Taj models and Indian jewellery before then dropping me at a travel agents where I spent a good hour or so organising all my future train tickets to Jaipur, then Ajmer, then back to Delhi. Yes, it was more expensive than buying them at the station, but it felt good to have them all guaranteed and safe in my hand as I walked out. Now I could relax without any concerns as to my itinerary.

Perhaps because I was feeling so thankful, (but more because it was a Sunday), I asked my driver to find me a church and the one that he located happened to have a Mass just about to start so I headed in. St. Mary's RC was an old colonial building that looked extremely European but was attended only by Indians. Still, the service was in my native tongue with some smatterings of Hindi and the theme of the sermon, temptation. Not particularly piously, I spent most of my time pulling monster faces at a rather cheeky-looking little lad on the pew in front of me, but I did pick up some of the priest's message, namely that some people were trying to cheat the Church – and thus God – by putting 10 rupee notes in the collection plate that were actually two halves of different notes sellotaped together and thus totally worthless, and that it was time to cough up for the annual cemetery tax, a whopping 75 rupees (£1) per person.

That evening, after recovering from the day's exertions, I took a stroll out to the Kinari Bazaar where I bought some toys for my son, checked the internet, uploaded some videos onto YouTube and dined on some excellent South Indian dosa at a street eatery called 'MAMA VEG WANT2EAT'. As I was doing so I realised that the last vestiges of my illness had now completely disappeared, as too had my culture shock. Delhi with its bazaars, chaos and poverty, had overwhelmed me, so too had Amritsar beyond the confines of the Golden Temple, yet here in Agra where it was all much the same, I was no longer bothered. I was beginning to get used to India.

In fact more than that, I was beginning to enjoy it.