11.12.2014 - 05.02.2015 16 °C
Stepping into Royal Gems and Arts, Santi Choudary's shop which occupies a portion of his ancestral haveli (mansion), we have no idea that we'll be spending the better part of the day viewing a priceless collection of family jewels. The shop itself is magnificent. Every inch of wall is either intricately painted or covered in mirror work and accessorized with paintings of family members dressed in full regalia.
When I mention that my mother has just seen an exhibition of Rajasthani jewels at the Metropolitan Museum in NY, Mr. Choudary tells me that he was there for the opening as a few pieces, originally from his collection, are in the show. And thus begins a presentation of exquisite jewels, centuries old. Turban brooches, bracelets, sword casings, necklaces, rings, are brought out one at a time, each with an elaborate box shaped according to the piece. One, I swear is THE holy grail, encrusted with diamonds, emeralds and rubies.
Although we are free to touch, we hesitate to handle such extraordinary pieces. With genuine Indian hospitality, tea is served, and as the hours go by, nuts, sandwiches, fresh pomegranate, cakes, more tea... The experience is remarkable.
The Keoladeo Ghana Wildlife Sanctuary is located in Bharatpur. Cars and jeeps are not allowed inside the park, but bicycle rickshaws make for a lovely visit.
A 45 minute cramped bus gets us to Deeg to visit the 18th century summer palace of the rulers of Bharatpur.
Some of the interiors are accessible and it's easy to imagine the royal family living here. The grounds are beautifully maintained with various pavilions and a large tank (man-made lake).
The City Palace in Alwar has been converted into government offices.
Under a covered recess in the main courtyard, a group of guys have set up a badminton net. They play for about an hour, then suddenly, as if someone yelled "fire", they swiftly dismantle the court and ride off on their motorbikes.
About 20 minutes away, we try to visit the Vijay Mandir (palace) but it is no longer open to the public as it now houses a school and orphanage. We hike all the way around the (somewhat dried) lake and climb up a hill to get the view we've seen pictures of.
Every once in awhile, we come across a really special place. In the south it was the Chettinad region. Here in northern Rajasthan it is the Shekawati region. Like their contemporaries in the south, wealthy merchants built havelis, palaces and forts in towns like Churu, Fatehpur, Nawalgarh and Mandawa to showcase their wealth. The signature of a Shekawati haveli is the frescos painted on the inside AND outside walls.
We spend a few nights in Mandawa where several havelis and castles have been converted into hotels. While the Mandawa Castle is most famous and luxurious, we choose the Mandawa Haveli, a smaller, charming property. All rooms, on 3 floors, open onto the central courtyard and the walls are beautifully painted.
Daytime temps are perfect, but it's really cold at night and there's no such thing as central heating. The manager brings us a small electric heater which heats the space directly in front of the grill, neither to the left, nor the right. The bathroom on the other side of the room, with its smooth stone floor is especially cold despite steaming hot water. There are 2 types of bathrooms in India, Wet and Dry. Among other nuances, Dry infers that the shower is separate and therefore the floor in the rest of the room stays dry. Dry bathrooms are not yet in the mainstream but newer constructions are incorporating the idea. In 97% of the places we stay, even some of the nicer hotels, as soon as you take a shower the entire floor gets wet. It's almost bearable during the hot summer, but here it's cold and the minute even the hottest water hits the floor, it freezes! Wet bathrooms are up there on my list of things I dislike the most in India.
New Years Eve festivities begin with afternoon tea on the rooftop terrace. As night falls, a local ensemble accompanies a couple of traditional dancers. Small campfires, strategically placed throughout the property make it possible to enjoy the outdoor festivities. It's magical, though we wonder about residual damage to the frescoes. A feast is served throughout the evening, fireworks block out the stars at midnight, and the best part is that it all takes place in front of our room.
We head back to Delhi for a few days on our way to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.
Agra is in full scale preparations for the visit of President Obama scheduled in 2 days. There are huge billboards welcoming him, traffic has been diverted, the police presence has quadrupled and... it's raining.
We check-in to a dump and shiver through the night. The next day, the sun shines brightly for our visit. There is perhaps no other place in the country with greater contrast between clean and dirty. The (auto) rickshaw ride through streets of Agra is shocking. How is it possible that the home to one of the top 3 tourist attractions in the world can be so filthy? And don't get me started on the touts trying to sell you everything, practically fighting with each other to grab your attention. Agra is by no means representative of India, though it should be given the importance of its tourist attractions. You just feel like running. But once you get through security, everything melts away in front of the pristine beauty of the Taj. Unfortunately, Obama changes his itinerary and Agra gets dropped. It's a real shame as this important visit might have kindled a renaissance for the city which has suffered from declining tourism.
We board the bus to Mathura the next day in pouring rain thinking how lucky we were at the Taj Mahal! About an hour into the ride, as I peer in between too many people standing in the aisle, I notice that the bus has no windshield wipers...
Everything is uglier in the rain. We have a hard time finding a hotel, supposedly because of Obama's visit. In order to accept foreigners, Indian hotels are required to submit an inordinate amount of paperwork to the police. True, security is beefed up these days, but sometimes, they just can't be bothered and you can tell.
Mathura, is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna over 3000 years ago. In a small room at the Kesava Deo temple, lies the stone slab on which Krishna was born. Twice a day, the room fills with devotees who wait anxiously for the curtain to be opened. I jostle for position in the front row and count down 8 interminable minutes with the large ticking clock on the wall wondering what's behind the thick velvet curtain that has the crowd in such a frenzy of anticipation. As the only pale face, standing a head over everyone, people smile and stare. One man says to me, "This is the birthplace of my god; I'm so happy." It's touching. As the clock strikes the hour, a man jumps up to opens the curtain, and a collective breath is released, revealing a small stone slab surrounded by a variety of silver objects, flowers and incense. The emotion is palpable, well for them anyway.
Mathura also draws massive numbers of pilgrims who come to bathe at the ghats (steps leading to the river) on the Jamuna river.
Vrindavan is the town where Krishna grew up and home to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, aka Hare Krishna. Founder, Swami Prabhupada, is buried here in a beautiful setting. The temple is more like a village and includes a hotel, restaurants, souvenir shops and of course membership services. In the main hall, dozens of people sit in groups chanting the familiar Hare Krishna, Maha Mantra.
Vrindavan has many temples dedicated to Krishna. The most amusing is the Prem Mandir from the entrance gate to the main temple. As the sun sets, the temple lights up with a rainbow of colored lights, shifting hues seamlessly.
Firozabad is famous for 2 things; lights and bangles. With fierce competition from the Chinese, whose lighting shops share the real estate on the main road, every type of light imaginable from mass market fixtures to top quality reproductions and made to order pieces, is manufactured here for worldwide export. We visit a few manufacturing facilities including one particularly reputable firm whose A-list clients include luxury hotels and palaces. Most impressive are the traditional, manual techniques of glass blowing, polishing and engraving used.
In addition to the usual mayhem in the streets, men pulling carts loaded with colorful glass bangles weave their way through traffic. Considering that ALL Indian women wear bangles everyday and change them to match their outfits, this is seriously big business. I'm often asked why I'm not wearing bangles. Indian women just don't get that you cannot travel wearing a sari and covered with jewelry. Even the poorest women don armfuls of bangles, ankle bracelets, toe rings, and gold.
Another one of these cities off the classic tourist track, but well worth a visit is Gwalior. The 19th century Jai Vilas Palace, home to the Scindia family claims to have 2 of the biggest chandeliers in the world. In any case, to be sure the ceiling could hold each 3.5 ton piece, 10 elephants were hoisted onto the roof to test the structure! Today the chandeliers use bulbs, but originally, each held 250 candles. The chandeliers are only turned on for special occasions as they are a big strain on the palace's electrical grid, but we are in the right place at the right time. The palace is hosting a group from the Maharaja's Express (luxury tourist train) and for the duration of their tour the chandeliers are lit. The walls, covered in gold leaf, shimmer.
It's a hike up to Gwalior Fort on a switchback road but the payoff is 360° views and pretty paintings inside and out on the various palaces and temples. Certainly the most peculiar is the row of yellow ducks (and other animals) painted on the exterior of the Man Singh Palace.
Carved into rock walls along another road on the way down are gigantic figures representing the 24 Jain divinities. One stands 17 meters tall.
At breakfast, scrambled eggs require a long wait, but fried (sunny side up) eggs are available right away. We don't even bother to try and understand that logic, we have a bus to catch!
There are hardly any tourists in Lucknow, yet there are enough historical sites to fill 2 days. And, given the time, what better, ecological, way to visit than by cycle rickshaw, I used to feel bad about someone lugging us around, but I'm over it. We pass through the Rumi (Roomi) Darwaza a copy of a gate in Istanbul from the Byzantine era, to reach the Bara Imambara and Chota Imambara mausoleums dedicated to Shia Muslim saints.
Khajuraho is famous for its erotic temples dating as far back as 950 AD. Classified by UNESCO, the temples have been carefully refurbished and the grounds are impeccable. The site is a major tourist attraction which implies the peripheral touts and souvenir shops, but nothing too unbearable. Besides, touristy spots do have some positive aspects including other food options, better wifi connections and real cappuccinos. The Siddhartha Hotel is a comfortable budget option in the perfect location across the street from the main group of temples. The street is only open to pedestrians and meals are served on the roof-deck overlooking the temples.
The train to Orchha is epic.
What we don't know is that on this and every full moon, thousands of Hindus flock to the town to honor Lord Rama at the temple in the center of town. Someone motions to us that we have arrived. Wondering why we can't see the station, or even the platform, we gather our bags and head to the exit. It turns out there is no platform because the train is longer than the station! It's a 2 foot drop to the ground and then a slow shuffle with people jostling and elbowing ahead along the side of the train. On the road the scene is incredible. Shared rickshaws are frantically squeezing people in and rushing off while empty ones come screeching back for the next load.
It's 10 rupees (5 cents) per person and they manage to stuff 12-15 people in a rickshaw designed for 4 max... Being the big spenders that we are, we wait until the crowd thins and then pay the full 2 bucks for a private ride into town. Finding a hotel room is equally trying, but we land a room at the brand new, Heritage Guest House. It's laughable, but the manager and his assistant are extremely kind and do everything to make us comfortable.
By the next evening the town is completely deserted.
We're making our way (back) to Jodhpur for a royal wedding. To break up the long bus rides, we stop in Kota to visit the beautiful palace that sits inside the expansive fort. It's got the de rigueur palace fittings: elaborately mirrored halls, stuffed tigers and colorful wall paintings.
Next up, the Jodhpuri wedding, I promise!