15th – 24th September
Taj, touts and tourists
En-route to the palaces of Rajasthan we make a short but obligatory detour south to Agra, one of India’s most charmless industrial cities but home to the Taj Mahal, that most famous of all monuments in India.
Having collected Charles Walker from the airport, an old mate who has joined us for a few weeks from London, the three of us arrive in Agra beholding the lowest of expectations. Happily, although Agra is indeed congested, stinking, largely unattractive and scourged by hordes of irritating touts, it’s not a whole lot worse (touts excepted) than most other mid-sized Indian cities we have passed through.
After battling the traffic for an hour or so round Agra’s own Red Fort (typically impressive red sandstone Mughal extravaganza) we arrive at the car park outside the Taj Mahal’s traffic free zone, and fight our way through the battalions of cycle-wallahs, camel-wallahs, pony and trap-wallahs and electric tram-wallahs, all attempting to convince us to use any other mode of transport barring our own two feet to walk the final kilometre or so to the Taj itself. They receive short shrift, as do the equally nauseating gimcrack sellers and government approved guides.
The irritations are worthwhile, though. The Taj Mahal does indeed transcend its seedy surroundings and objectionable profiteers. Once through the magnificent red sandstone gatehouse, the mausoleum appears before us in all its pristine, pearlescent and symmetrical grandeur. It is larger than we thought, more beautiful, and more ornate – as we approach, the extraordinary detail of its Koranic inscriptions and precious stone inlays become clearer and more beautiful. The marble is seemingly in immaculate condition, despite its age and the rigours of life in modern industrial India. It is well worth the comparatively exorbitant foreigner’s entrance fee.
History and hassle
The following day we leave Agra immediately following a dawn inspection of the Taj. There is a peaceful vantage point across the banks of the River Jumna, currently in post-monsoon full flow and ferrying the combined and assorted detritus of Agra and Delhi on its meandering path to the Indian Ocean.
It is a relief to leave behind India’s most touristy destination, but not for long. We stop briefly at Fatepur Sikri, a huge, abandoned Mughal city some 30km west of Agra. We are flagged down as we approach the entrance; approached by a handful of locals helpfully informing us we cannot proceed any further without a ticket to enter the complex.
For all of India’s abundance of fascinating history, architectural delights and intriguing culture, it remains a perpetually aggravating country to enjoy at ease. Outside of the peaceful and relatively unpopulated mountain regions of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, every monument, ruin, relic or other item of interest is encircled by touts, offering services you don’t require, goods you don’t want and friendly help that always comes at a price. We find it increasingly difficult not to be cynical when approached by seemingly friendly or helpful strangers; a disappointment after the motiveless and spontaneous hospitality and kindness we received throughout Central Asia and Pakistan. It’s not just the friendly ones: en-route to Jaipur, entering the Hindu holy town of Pushkar, a couple of likely lads loitering at the outskirts of town try to halt our entry with a rolling police barrier, demanding an ‘entry tax’ before we proceed. Our stock standard response throughout India to these demands, “show us a receipt and we’ll pay you” meets a stony silence, so Nina determinedly hops out, moves the barrier herself and we drive through, surrounded by a bunch of arm-waving, protesting locals. Nice work…
That said, India is certainly not alone in this affliction and mercifully, away from the more touristy areas, people are generally as friendly and genuine as those we’ve met anywhere else.
We explore Fatepur Sikri’s interesting and grandiose relics then depart hastily, avoiding the avaricious parking attendants and car wash-wallahs. Next stop is the relatively tranquil town of Bharatphur, home to one of India’s premier bird sanctuaries amidst a rare patch of unspoilt countryside amongst India’s perpetual sprawl of humanity.
In fairness, even the national parks here are encroached by civilization: during our evening tour through the Keoladeo National Park our guide tells us the locals from nearby villages still graze their cattle and buffalo here; much of the area is used as a latrine (unfortunately, it shows in places) and the park is engaged in a constant battle to stop further encroachment (it’s only a measly 29 square km anyway!). However the birds are happily plentiful, even though this year numbers are down due to a bad monsoon. For those twitchers who may be interested, we spot (amongst others) indian roller birds, pond herons and jays, blue tailed and little green bee-eaters, jungle babblers, lesser golden woodpeckers, woolly necked storks, black drongoes and hoopoes.
We arrive in Jaipur in time for lunch the following day and, following a few leads and recommendations, end up booking into a very pleasant and quiet guesthouse run by the affable Mr Tikku and his family. On our first evening we enjoy Mr Tikku’s company over a G&T in his garden. His family are proud Kashmiri Hindus, driven out of Kashmir to Rajasthan 250 years ago by the Muslim majority population. He and his wife are both managers at the local branch of the Bank of Baroda whilst their children help to run the guesthouse (i.e. the ground floor of their large family home). They are in many respects a typical middle class Indian family.
Conversation turns to politics and Charlie asks Mr Tikku his view on the ongoing Indo-Pakistan issue. “The only solution to the problem in Pakistan is to invade them and totally destroy them. They are just pigs and terrorists, there is no point trying us trying to negotiate with them. We must completely destroy them; only then we will have peace.” This seems an extraordinarily harsh and narrow minded point of view, especially from a seemingly well-educated and relatively wealthy individual. But although by far the most extreme opinion we have heard on Pakistan, he is certainly not alone. Mr Tikku continues: “Mark my words, in ten years Pakistan will not exist. We shall destroy them or they will destroy themselves.”
A life of luxury
We spend a day exploring the architectural delights of Jaipur, including the colourful and opulent City Palace (still home to the erstwhile Maharaja), a monument to the wealth and taste of the Kachchwaha Maharaja’s 400 year-old dynasty. It is home to, amongst other treasures, two solid and bulbous silver vases, each around 5 feet tall and four feet wide: the two largest pure silver objects in the world.
Polo is still highly popular in Rajasthan, and in the late afternoon we drive to the Jaipur Polo Ground to watch the evening’s match between the Bhim Knights and Rajastan Polo Club. Although these days it is not perhaps the social draw it once was, a sizeable and affluent crowd adorns the old-school club house and grandstand, and very polite applause greets each patch of good play, of which there are many: the standard is surprisingly good and there are moments of brilliance from Lokinder Singh, Rajasthan’s 4-goal local hero on the pitch.
Continuing our insight into the ways of the Maharajas, after the polo we enjoy a drink in the nearby Rambagh Palace Hotel, another old palace of the Maharajas and now run as a luxury hotel. It is by far and away the smartest and most luxurious and spectacular hotel the three of us have ever seen; rooms start at $800 per night and our round of drinks costs us more than our night’s accommodation…
Heading west from Jaipur lies Jodhpur, home to the Marwar dynasty of Maharajas and also the most strategically positioned and impregnable fortified palace in Rajasthan, the Meherangarh Fort. Situated atop a sheer sandstone outcrop, the fort has never been taken by force during its 500 year history. Aside from exploring its vast citadel and the rambling backstreets of the ‘Blue City’ we don’t do an awful lot here. We have been recommended the ‘Devi Bhawan’ hotel by a local connection here – wonderfully, the place has rambling mature gardens and a swimming pool – and naturally we take full advantage.
Celebrating so much luxury, the three of us make unexpectedly strong highway into our G&T reserves on our roof terrace before supper; later we manage to drink the restaurant out of beer. Charles takes it a step further and tries to drink them out of whisky, a decision he regrets in the morning. Happily, we spend two nights here and our second evening is conducted with a little more decorum.
Our final principle stop in Rajasthan is Udaipur, four hours drive from Jodhpur with a brief stop at the extraordinary Jain temple in Ranakpur on the way.
The Octopussy filmset
We manage (much to Charles’ delight) to continue our good run of luck with hotels in Udaipur, finding a more than comfortable (yet reasonably priced) heritage hotel on the shores of Lake Pichola, complete with swimming pool on the roof. We immediately book in for two nights and spend the remainder of the afternoon enjoying our unfettered view of Udaipur’s finest architecture from our rooftop pool, including the Lake Palace – a remarkable white palace built on in the middle of Lake Pichola, now famous primarily as the backdrop for a number of scenes from Octopussy. It is also another startlingly unaffordable luxury hotel.
On our first night here the G&T stocks take another battering; this time Charlie stumbles off to bed with the drunk prize. The following day we spend trawling the city’s lavish and considerable palaces, although we are, by now, approaching ‘Maharaja’s Palace fatigue’ and by early afternoon the rooftop pool is calling…
Gujurat and Daman – an unwelcome reminder
On September 23rd we leave Rajasthan and head south towards Gujurat, hoping to spend a couple of pleasant nights around the beaches of south east Gujurat and northern Maharastra before reaching Mumbai, the world’s largest urban sprawl.
Unfortunately, things don’t quite work out as planned. The relatively unspoilt and rolling tropical scenery of southern Rajastan disappears almost as soon as we cross into Gujurat. The coastal highway from here to Mumbai (some 500km) is lined almost continuously with heavily polluted and ugly industrial towns – Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Vapi (apparently one of the 10 most polluted cities in the world) – the list goes on.
We drive eight hours south from Udaipur without finding so much as a place to stop for lunch. Eventually, we decide to call it a night at Daman – an ex-Portuguese colonial town on the coast, home to a few pretty remnants of Portuguese architecture, a handful of poor quality restaurants and hotels, and dozens upon dozens of seedy bars full of drunken Gujuratis. Daman is a separate state from surrounding Gujurat. Gujurat is a dry state, Daman is not – hence the town has become little more than a glorified binge-drinking centre for the alcohol starved yet degenerate Gujurati working class.
We stay in the most appealing hotel in town, an old Portuguese mansion, complete with charming carved wooden stairways and a well kept terracotta tile roof. Alas, whilst Hotel Marina is aesthetically pleasing, its owners are a little corrupt and it takes a very heated argument with them in the morning to ensure we are not relieved of more money than we had agreed for the room tariff.
Our evening meal in Daman is a moderate affair in the town’s best restaurant – Goan prawn curry and the local speciality, pomfret stuffed with prawns. Sounds delicious, the reality is a little more disappointing. Avoiding the drunks, we wander home for an early night, keen to get back to our air-conditioning to escape the humidity, squalor and pervasive smell of rotting fish that wafts through the town.
Unsurprisingly, the following morning we drive directly to Mumbai, without deviation.