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India day two


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A day in Agra

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Taj Mahal seen from Agra Fort

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Itmad ud Daulah

Mention Agra – indeed, mention India – and most people will picture the Taj Mahal. And with good reason. It is a beautiful building with a beautiful, haunting story to tell. But Agra is so much more besides.

Agra’s fort is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a significant example of evolving Mughal architecture. The beautiful Itmad-ud-Daulah, sometimes called the “Baby Taj”, is a small jewel, especially when seen in the late afternoon light as we did. And not far away is the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, one of my favourites among the many places we visited on this trip.

We only spent a day here – long enough to see the main sights, but too little to feel I really got to know Agra. But I liked what I saw. After the mania that is Delhi, driving Agra’s relatively calm, but still fascinating, streets was a pleasure. Already we were starting to see another side of India, and one that I really liked.

Travelling to Agra

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Agra station

We came to Agra by train from Delhi, a journey of about two hours. It was an early start as the train left Delhi at 6.00 AM, while it was still more or less dark. But the sun was soon up and we enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside in the misty morning light. It is a flat landscape so there is nothing spectacular to see, but we found it interesting. Taking photos of the passing views wasn't really an option however, as the windows were both dirty and double glazed, making it hard to focus.

We travelled in a 2nd class air-conditioned coach. The ticket price includes a meal served to your seat by "Meals on Wheels" but as we had a packed breakfast provided by our Delhi hotel we skipped that. We were also given newspapers (English language) but we were too busy looking out of the window to bother with those either.

The fare was a little under 800 IR per person – about £8. The train arrived only a couple of minutes late in Agra where we had five minutes to get ourselves and our luggage off the train - no problem! We were met by a rep from the travel company and our driver Mehar who had driven down from Delhi, and we were soon on our way to our hotel.

That hotel was the ITC Mughal Hotel, which is probably one of the best hotels in Agra but didn’t fully live up to our initial positive impression. Our room (one of the standard Mughal rooms) was large and pleasant, with a king size bed, some seating, and all the usual facilities. The bathroom was also good and well equipped with towels, toiletries and a hair-dryer. I like the little touch of rose petals on the towels.

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The lobby and our bedroom

The hotel entrance and lobby are rather grand and the décor quite opulent. A shame then that the exterior is so ugly - reminiscent of an English council building perhaps. Of course when you are inside enjoying the facilities you are less aware of that. And the facilities are good - a good sized swimming pool, a spa (we had no time to visit either of these), a large restaurant serving buffet meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and another smarter restaurant, Peshwari, where we treated ourselves to dinner and a bar in the lobby.

The promised view of the Taj Mahal is less than impressive – to see it you must climb several flights of stairs to a small outside terrace from where that famous building can be glimpsed across the rooftops. It is a view, but not one worth choosing this hotel for!

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View of the Taj from the hotel's rooftop

We should have really liked this hotel, given its overall quality, but were left with the impression that with the exception of the Peshawri restaurant, it is a little soulless and a little too full of itself – a place that focuses on style more than substance.

Still, we were here to see the sights, and those did 100% live up to expectations!

The Taj Mahal

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Our itinerary had specified a sunset visit to the Taj Mahal but when we arrived in Agra our guide, Saurav, suggested going there straight away as the light would be nicer in the morning and the crowds a little less – especially since it was a Sunday and a popular day for Indians to visit. We took up his proposal so were there by about 9.00, but already it was very busy. But crowds or no crowds, it is still an amazing sight and one not to be missed. And besides, in the extensive gardens there are places you can escape the mass of people and enjoy the bird song while reflecting on this magical place.

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Shah Jahan's view from the fort

There is possibly no more famous building in the world, so before you visit you will have seen very many photos and think you know what to expect. I was prepared to be disappointed, just in case it didn’t live up to those expectations (I almost wrote, “in case it didn’t live up to the hype” but that’s perhaps a bit harsh). I even half-expected not to be impressed, but of course I was. There’s a reason why the Taj Mahal is so acclaimed after all – it is truly beautiful. And there is a beautiful, if sad, story behind it.

The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar who had built the great fort here in Agra, was a lover of great art and architecture, responsible for some of the Mughal Empire’s most lovely and enduring buildings. As was usual at that time, he had a number of wives, but his favourite among them was Mumtaz Mahal whom he had married more for love than political expedience.

He was grief-stricken when she died in childbirth in 1631, giving birth to their 14th child (as our guide told the story, he also felt guilty that he had expected too much of her in that respect). After a period of mourning in which he shut himself away from the world, he emerged inspired to build a tomb for her that would be a paradise on earth. The Taj Mahal is the result.

But the emperor was not left to mourn his beloved here. Soon after its completion, in 1658, he fell ill. His son Dara Shikoh took on the role of regent but was challenged and overthrown by another son, Aurangzeb. The latter declared Shah Jahan unfit to rule (according to our guide, basing this on his extravagance in spending so much on wonderful new buildings and patronising the arts) and had him put under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort.

There he was forced to live out his remaining years in a few small rooms, from which he could see, but never visit, the tomb of his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. My photo shows the only view he had.

Taj Mahal: the great gate and bazaars

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Jilaukhana with Darwaza-i rauza beyond

Arriving at the Taj Mahal you pass first through an outer forecourt, the Jilaukhana. On its northern side is the great gateway to the main tomb complex, while on the other three sides are the gates leading to the outside world. We entered through the eastern one of these. From here, and from the western gate, paths lined with colonnades that once held small shops, the bazaar, lead you to the centre of the courtyard. This area was a sort of buffer zone between the everyday world outside and the paradise Shah Jahan sought to create within. Here visitors would dismount from their horses or elephants and refresh themselves before entering the tomb. And if it seems incongruous to have a bazaar in paradise, the emperor was only thinking to satisfy every possible need of his beloved wife entombed there.

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Bazaars

Also in this courtyard are the small tombs of two of Shah Jahan’s other wives, and the sleeping quarters of the tomb attendants. From here you pass through the great gate or Darwaza-i rauza, from where you will get your first glimpse of the mausoleum itself. Our guide likened the gate to a woman’s veil, beautiful in its own right but hiding a much greater beauty within until the point when she chooses to lift it. Certainly if the gate were the only building here it would be considered worthy of our attention. It is built on a grand scale, from red sandstone and white marble, and ornamented with some of the pietra dura or parchinkari work which characterises Moghul architecture under Shah Jahan in general, and the Taj Mahal in particular. Inscriptions from the Koran run around the arches on both sides. These get slightly larger the higher on the gate they are placed, to reduce the appearance of skewing when viewed from below. One of the quotations reads:

"O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.”

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Details of Darwaza-i rauza

But for most visitors this gate is just a small interruption on their quest to see the tomb itself, and everyone funnels through the narrow space before pausing in wonder and, in this modern age, raising countless cameras and smart phones to capture the iconic view. It reminded me a little of the experience of visiting Petra and getting your first sight of the Treasury as you emerge from the Siq – you know it is there, and you know what it looks like from countless photos, but still it takes your breath away.

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View through Darwaza-i rauza

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On the steps by the gate

Immediately inside the gate on either side of you are galleried arcades raised on a few steps. These arcades were used during the rainy season to distribute alms to the poor, but nowadays offer shade to weary tourists and a gathering spot for guides waiting for their charges to finish their tour, as well as some great distance shots of the Taj itself as, standing here, you are raised a little above the heads of the throngs of visitors in the gardens below and can frame the tomb nicely in the arches of the arcade (the photo below was taken by our guide, Saurav, to show us his own favourite view).

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Taj Mahal: Charbagh gardens

While the setting and surroundings of the Taj Mahal are lovely, you can’t get away from the fact that everyone is here to see one thing – the exquisite tomb itself. This is set at some distance from the great gate, separated from it by gardens in the Persian charbagh style – that is, divided into four parts, and each of these again into four. The outer four squares on each side are planted with trees, while the inner four are lawns. The north-south axis is a long water tank that provides the classic reflection of the tomb building, while the other divisions are pathways. Most people follow the path along the water towards the tomb, being the most obvious and direct route, but Saurav advised that we walk along the path that parallels this on the left, and return by the right-hand equivalent. This has several advantages – you are away from the large proportion of the crowd, you have the shade of the trees (the sun was already very hot at about 9.30 AM), you get some interesting and different perspectives for your photos, and you arrive at the tomb at the point where you need to be to ascend the platform for entry.

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Water tank and gardens

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The main tomb and the mosque as seen from the gardens

The charbagh style of garden is intended to symbolise the four flowing Rivers of Paradise, which fits with Shah Jahan’s concept of building a paradise on earth in which his beloved would lie. Islamic texts describe paradise as a garden filled with trees, flowers and plants, and with four rivers springing from a single central source. Very often (as in the case of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi) the tomb would be placed at this central point. But here it is at one side, on the river’s bank, and furthermore, there is no east-west water tank. It is possible that Shah Jahan was signalling a move towards a more compromised secular version of the classic charbagh in which the imperative of design overtook that of adherence to religious belief and tradition. But it is also possible that he conceived of the river as that east-west axis, given that his design encompassed part of the north bank where he built a “Midnight Garden”. If the latter is seen as being part of the Taj Mahal’s charbagh garden, then the classic principles can be seen to be in place.

Taj Mahal: the tomb

And so we arrive at the tomb … This is what we have all come to see, and it doesn’t disappoint, although for me the most magical view of all was the distant one when it appeared to float and shimmer lace-like in the heat of the sun.

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Tourists entering the tomb, seen from the Darwaza-i rauza

It stands on a raised marble platform close to the river. At the four corners of the platform are identical minarets (symmetry is everything here). These are over 40 metres tall and are designed as working minarets, with a balcony at the top from which a muezzin can call the faithful to prayer. These are each topped by a canopy or chhatri which echoes those on the main structure. Interestingly the minarets are built to incline fractionally away from the platform on which they stand so that should they collapse they would fall away from the tomb and not damage it.

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The tomb, and detail of a minaret

And so to the tomb. To access it you must ascend to the platform on the left side as you look at it. The long queue will probably be of Indian tourists but your much more expensive ticket allows you to bypass this so join the shorter one. Before doing so you must put on the shoe covers that will be issued to you near the foot of the steps – I believe these are more to protect the marble than for any other reason.

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Roof detail

Once on the terrace you get your first close-up look at the structure. One thing that may strike you, as it did me, is the intricacy of the work. From a distance, as you emerge through the great gate, the building appears delicate, like the jewel box to which it is sometimes compared. Once you stand at its foot you get a true sense of its size, which, while not massive, is certainly greater than it appeared from afar (although the figures of other visitors in those distant views do give a clue as to the scale). It is 561 feet (171 metres high) and four storeys in total, although one of these is the basement, hidden within the terrace, where the actual graves of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan lie. Its layout is of a square, 180 feet (55 metres) wide, with the corners cut off to form an eight-sided structure.

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The figure eight is very significant and found a lot in Mughal architecture. Each side has at its centre a large pishtaq (vaulted archway) with two similarly-shaped balconies stacked one above the other on either side, and again on the chamfered corners. This design is repeated on all four sides of the building – that symmetry again. The marble dome that tops the structure is 115 feet (35 metres) high and about the same in width. The four chhatris, one in each corner, echo its shape as well as that of the ones that top the four minarets.

While the lines and style of this structure are heavily influenced by Persian Muslim tradition, the decoration owes much to Hindu culture, although in line with Islamic beliefs no animal or human figures are portrayed, and the calligraphy is all quotations from the Koran. The decorative elements fall into three main types – carved marble, the aforementioned calligraphy and inlay work known as pietra dura (from its origins in Italy) or parchinkari, sometimes written as two words, parch kari, the Indian term. The designs of the latter are figurative vines with flowers and leaves and the stones used for these inlays include semi-precious ones such as jade (imported from China) and turquoise (from Tibet). Altogether 28 different types of semi-precious and precious stones were used here or in the interior. The carvings on the panels near the base are also mostly floral and are highly polished, while more geometric designs are used elsewhere, e.g. in framing the pishak. The calligraphy is created with inlays of black marble or jasper and is very stylised. Like that on the great gate, the upper panels have a slightly larger script to reduce the effect of distance.

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Calligraphy and floral carving on the main tomb

The interior is divided into a network of chambers – a central one holding the memorial cenotaphs (the actual ones are as mentioned in a parallel chamber immediately below) and eight surrounding ones, linked by passages. The reason for this arrangement of actual burial chamber below a symbolic one is two-fold. It allows for the bodies to lie in a relatively plain space, as dictated by Muslim tradition, while their status is reflected above in a gloriously decorated one, and by placing the upper cenotaphs immediately above the lower ones, it also ensures that no one can walk directly above the bodies – also forbidden in Muslim tradition. This is the only place in the Taj Mahal where you will see the symmetry broken. Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph occupies the very centre of the chamber while her husband, Shah Jahan, lies to the west of her.

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Inside the tomb

The decorative elements of the Taj reach their pinnacle here. The inlay work is done with precious stones and is lit, albeit dimly, by the sunlight filtering through intricately carved window screens. For a small tip (our guide suggested 50 IR) unofficial attendants here will shine a torch on the stones, demonstrating the depth of their glowing colours. Officially no photography is allowed, but I saw that just about everyone was taking pictures and not being challenged so I followed suit with a quick shot – without flash, of course (although some were even using this, it seemed to me both disrespectful and a destroyer of atmosphere).

Pause for a moment here to remember the reason for all of this – the expression of one man’s love for his queen and his grief at her passing. Then, when you have seen your fill of all the richness, you emerge, blinking, into the hot sun on the river side of the platform base.

Taj Mahal: river terrace and other buildings

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As you emerge from your visit inside the chamber of the tomb you find yourself on the far side, where the platform overlooks the river Yamuna. Here we found welcome shade immediately beneath the tomb, as did many other visitors, and sat for a while on the cool marble. We also enjoyed the views of the river and on the far side some very down to earth scenes of daily life that contrasted a little oddly with the richness around us (later that day we were to find ourselves on that side of the river, observing the Taj Mahal from a different perspective).

From here you walk around the exterior and back to the front. On either side of the main tomb you see apparently identical mosques in red sandstone and marble, but appearances in this case are deceiving. Only the one to the left of the tomb, as you face it, was built as a mosque (a purpose it still serves today), while the one on the right, known as Jawab (meaning “answer”) was built purely to preserve the symmetry of the complex. It differs from the mosque only in two respects, neither visible from outside – it lacks a mihrab, the niche in a mosque's wall facing towards Mecca, and its floors have a geometric design rather than the mosque’s outlines of prayer rugs. It was formerly used as a guest house for important visitors to the Taj Mahal.

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The mosque

To descend from the terrace, you go back to your starting point at the front but head down the stairs leading to the left of the marble platform, where you can remove and throw away your shoe covers. From this point we followed the shady path on this side of the garden back towards the arcades by the great gate where Saurav was waiting for us, although we had enough time to relax for a while on a bench here and to take our final looks at this iconic building.

Did it live up to my expectations? Yes indeed. And was it among the finest sights we saw on this trip? Again, yes. But interestingly, when we returned to our starting point in Delhi at the end of this trip and were asked by Rajesh what we had most enjoyed or been impressed by, it was not the Taj Mahal I first thought of but instead of the less perfect buildings in Fatehpur Sikri, Bundi and Chittaurgarh. Maybe that says more about me though than about the Taj!

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Parchinkari

Parchinkari or Parch kari is the term given in India to the technique known In Europe and elsewhere by its Italian name, pietra dura. This involves inlaying marble or another hard stone with small pieces of coloured stones (often semi-precious or even precious) to create a decorative pattern or picture. In India its use reached its zenith in the time of the Mughal Empire, especially under Shah Jahan, and it is seen at its very best as an art form in the Taj Mahal.

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Parchinkari detail on the main tomb

Because of this perhaps, the craft is still very much practised in Agra today, and there are a number of workshops in Agra where you can see parchinkari objects being made – and of course sold! We visited one of these after our visit to the Taj Mahal. Even if you don’t plan to buy (and we didn’t, as this work doesn’t really suit our style of décor) it is still worth a visit to one of these as you get a close-up look at the craftsmen and can really appreciate the painstaking work that goes into even a small piece of parchinkari – imagine then the work that went into the Taj Mahal! Every piece of stone has to be cut to a precise shape to fit the exact same shaped indentation on the base stone. Even a small flower can have twelve or more pieces – individual petals, stamen, stem etc. Once all the pieces of a design are in place the object is polished to a very high sheen, making the joins between them almost invisible.

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Shaping the stones

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Carving the indentations in the marble

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Flowers and leaves in separate pieces of stone

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Piecing together the flowers

My photos were taken in the workshop, in a special demonstration area set up for tourists to see the technique. Most of the pieces though are made in the workers’ homes as this is very much a cottage industry. While we were welcome to take photos here, it was not allowed in the shop display areas, for perhaps obvious reasons – although many designs are copied from or heavily influenced by those on the Taj Mahal, some are unique to each workshop and they are wary of having these imitated. Having said that, there is nothing to stop you photographing an object after you have bought it and sharing those images!

As you can imagine, the final products aren’t cheap. Prices depend not on the size of the object but the level of detail in the work, with even a small and fairly simple box costing several hundred rupees. But you get what you pay for, and you can be sure hours of work went into making it. If you see something that looks like parchinkari on a souvenir stall for just a few pounds/dollars, you can be equally sure that it’s an imitation, possibly just painted, or at best made with coloured glass rather than stone, and poorly inlaid.

Of course there is far more to Agra than the Taj Mahal, but that is for my next entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:45 Archived in India Tagged buildings india taj_mahal agra Comments (8)

See more than the Taj Mahal

India day two continued


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Akhbar’s fort

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As if it were not enough to have the marvellous Taj Mahal in your city, Agra has another UNESCO World Heritage site, Agra Fort. This is part defensive structure, part royal palace – indeed, a considerable part of it is still used by the Indian military. Visits therefore focus largely on the palace buildings.

This fort was built over a period of time by various Mughal emperors, although an earlier brick fort had also occupied this site. It was Akbar, the third emperor, who had that by-then ruined fort rebuilt in red sandstone when he made Agra his capital in 1558. Later his grandson, the fifth emperor Shah Jahan, added to and altered the fort. His preference (as we can see from his most famous architectural legacy the Taj Mahal) was for white marble over red sandstone, and so we have the sort of contrast seen in my photo above.

You enter through the Amar Singh Gate, also known as the Lahore Gate, as the Delhi Gate, the largest of the fort’s four gates, is off limits to tourists as it falls within the military area of the fort. But like the latter, the Amar Singh Gate is carefully designed to maximise the fort’s impregnability, with the twisting path making it difficult for the enemy’s elephants to charge and break through the gates.

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Fort walls and lamp above the gate

The first part of the fort you come to is a large garden area on one side of which is the Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience, one of Shah Jahan’s additions (Akbar and his successor Jahangir had received petitions and held audiences in wooden structures within the fort). Despite its appearance it isn’t built in his favourite white marble but of sandstone plastered with ground white shells to resemble it. It is open on three sides and divided into three aisles. On the rear, closed side is the marble chamber or jharokha from where Shah Jahan would address the people.

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Diwan-i-Aam

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Fort visitors in the garden

The main area of the fort that we focused on during our relatively brief visit was the Khas Mahal (private palace) and neighbouring pavilions. This is one of Shah Jahan’s additions, built as his private residence, and was also known as Aramgah-i-Mualla (the Exalted Place of Rest) or Aramgah-i-Muqaddas (the Holy Resting Apartment). It is a small palace suite, with three main chambers behind an open platform. The suite of rooms includes the private sleeping quarters, which consist of bedrooms for Shah Jahan and his queen linked by a central larger chamber. At its north-eastern corner is an octagonal tower, the Musamman Burj, beautifully decorated and with terraces at the back overlooking the river Yamuna.

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Inside the Khas Mahal, and view through the Musamman Burj to the terrace beyond

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Decorative details of the Khas Mahal complex

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Shah Jahan's only view of the Taj Mahal

There are great views from here of the Taj Mahal. No doubt the emperor chose this spot for his private rooms in part at least for that reason, a decision that was perhaps to haunt him. Towards the end of his life his son Aurangzeb declared his father unfit to rule, probably with little foundation, and had him put under house arrest. This small suite of rooms became his prison, apart from when he was allowed out to pray at the mosque in the fort. From here therefore he would be constantly reminded of the Taj Mahal where his beloved Mumtaz Mahal was buried, but could never visit it to mourn her as he had intended.

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The central chamber of the Khas Mahal is built from Shah Jahan’s preferred white marble and shows some of the same decorative touches as the Taj Mahal, including pietra dura or parchi kari flowers and vines, and carved marble friezes. The side rooms though are of red sandstone covered with white plaster made from ground shells, like the Diwan-i-Aam. They have colourful frescoes, traces of which remain, and golden roofs built in the curving bangla style which imitates the shape of Bengali thatched huts and is characteristic of 17th century Mughal architecture.

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Side pavilion roof detail

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The Khas Mahal overlooks a garden, Anguri Bagh, seen in my photo below. This is laid out in the charbagh style, i.e. divided into four, and within each section low red sandstone walls separate beds of ground cover plants. It is assumed that grapes once grew here, giving it its name (angur = grapes).

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Anguri Bagh, with the Khas Mahal on the left

Around the remaining sides of the garden courtyard are living quarters, thought to be those of the harem, some of which still have their original wooden doors.

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Itmad-ud-Daulah

At our guide Saurav’s suggestion we took a break after visiting the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, returning to our hotel (where we hadn’t been able to check in earlier) for a rest – very welcome after our 4.30 AM start to the day in Delhi! So it was late afternoon when we arrived at the Itmad-ud-Daulah, which proved to be a perfect time to see it, although at first I was concerned as the front was largely in shadow. This though was more than compensated for by the beautiful light on the remaining three sides and the relatively low numbers of other tourists, as I hope my photos will show.

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View of Itmad-ud-Daulah from the main gate, in shadow

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The main gate from the grounds

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View from the river

Often nick-named the "Baby Taj”, the Itmad-ud-Daulah was built between 1622 and 1628, commissioned by Noor Jahan, wife of Jahangir the fourth Mughal emperor, for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg. He was a Persian who had been given the title of Itimad-ud-Daulah (Pillar of the State) in return for his service at court – hence the tomb’s name. Mirza Ghiyas Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of Shah Jahan whose death inspired him to build the Taj Mahal.

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Corner minaret

The tomb marks the transition between the earlier Mughal architecture, which was primarily of red sandstone with marble decorations (for example Humayun's Tomb in Delhi) to its later phase introduced by Shah Jahan, the fifth emperor, which featured white marble with pietra dura inlay, as in the Taj Mahal. Compared with the latter this is an intimate building set in a charbagh style garden on the east bank of the Yamuna river. It is built from white Rajasthani marble inlayed with semi-precious stones including cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx and topaz to create geometrical designs, vases of flowers and more – inside and out. As well as being the first tomb in India to be built entirely from marble it is also one of the first buildings to blend Islamic and local Indian influences; largely Islamic in style, it omits the dome more usual in such buildings in favour of an Indic-looking kiosk with a roof ornamented with lotus flowers.

Although built for her father, a number of Noor Jahan's other relatives are also interred in the tomb. Her father and mother lie side by side in the central chamber, where the asymmetrical arrangement of the cenotaphs (mother in the centre, father to one side) also presages the Taj Mahal. The cenotaphs in the side chambers are those of the remaining family members buried here.

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Inside the tomb

There is a lovely story told about Noor Jahan and her father. Mirza Giyas Beg was a poor merchant living in Persia who moved to India with his pregnant wife and three children in search of a better life. On the way they were attacked by robbers who stole all they had. It was around that time that his wife gave birth to a girl. They did not have enough money to feed their new born baby, Mehrunnisa, and took the tough decision that they must abandon her. Before they could do so they found a caravan travelling to India, which they joined. They ended up at the court of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, who made Giyas Beg a diwan – a treasurer. He did well in this role and his status at court grew, serving both Akhbar and his son and successor Jahangir, leading to the award of that title of Itmad-ud-Daula – “Pillar of the State”. The daughter grew up to become the wife of Jahangir and took a new name, Noor Jahan: the Light of the World.

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I have read that the gardens that surround the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula were planted with flowers, but when we visited they were being dug up and replanted. However we didn’t mind too much because when we went round to the rear side of the mausoleum, facing the river, we saw that there were lots of macaque monkeys in the garden, whose antics gave us lots of pleasure.

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These are Rhesus Macaques, common throughout India. They are brown or grey, with a medium length tail (usually a little over 20 cm) and a pink face. They live in large troops (up to 200 in number) and their native habitats are grasslands and mountains, but they have become very comfortable living alongside humans and are increasingly moving into urban areas, as we saw. And while we may find them cute and fun to watch, for the locals they pose something of a problem, stealing food and other items too. No doubt here they pick up plenty of scraps dropped by visitors and may also have been searching for seeds etc. thrown up as the gardeners worked. They were also grabbing a drink from a leaky hose, although the one in my second photo, who had mistaken some dropped tissues for food, may have bitten off more than he could chew!

While the Taj Mahal may be your main object in coming to Agra, do make time to visit this tomb too. As well as contributing to your understanding of the Taj’s architecture, it has a quiet beauty of its own and a rather special atmosphere.

Mehtab Bagh: another side of the Taj Mahal

If you cross the Yamuna river to the site where legend has it that Shah Jahan planned to build his own black marble mausoleum to face the Taj Mahal across the water, you can get an alternative view of Agra's most famous sight. To enter this area costs 100 IR per person (you can apparently get similar but slightly less good views for free a little down the road). We came here late afternoon, when the sinking sun gave the marble a warm glow. Note though that proper sunsets here are rare as moisture rising from the river as the air cools slightly causes the sun to disappear into the haze before it reaches the point of sinking. Nevertheless it is worth coming here to see the Taj Mahal in a different light.

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Taj Mahal at sunset

You can also see the remains of the old city walls here, and will probably also get some good people shots, if these interest you, as the local women herd their goats homewards after a day's grazing.

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Around Mehtab Bagh

Saurav told us that Shah Jahan planned to build a mirror image of the Taj Mahal but in black marble on the other side of the Yamuna to be his own tomb, but was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb before it could be built. I have since read though that this story is probably just a myth, based on the discovery of blackened marble ruins across the river in the Moonlight Garden, Mehtab Bagh. Excavations carried out in the 1990s found these to be merely discoloured white stones that had turned black. I loved the story of the black mausoleum though when Saurav told it to us, and the picture it conjured up, so I’m loath to let it go completely!

Local people in Agra

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As everywhere we went on this trip, I enjoyed taking photos of people here in Agra - for the most part, candid photos of locals shot on the street or of Indian tourists visiting the same famous sites as ourselves. Unlike many countries we have visited, I found everywhere in India that even if people spotted my camera they seemed happy to let me continue to snap away, only occasionally indicating that I should refrain from taking their photo. Of course, with a long zoom I often went undetected, and some of these photos were taken from the car when passing through residential parts of the city.

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Dinner at Peshawri

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Murgh Makai Kabab and naan bread
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Kulfi and rice pudding

We were quite tired on the evening of our day in Agra, having been up since 4.30 AM to catch the train from Delhi, so we decided to eat in the hotel and to treat ourselves to dinner in Peshawri, the more upmarket Indian restaurant (as opposed to the multi-cuisine buffet restaurant). The food in Peshawri is all based around the tandoor oven, so there are a lot of kebab dishes and grills. We asked the waiter for advice and he recommended some dishes for us to share, including their "signature" dish, Murgh Makai Kabab - chicken pieces flavoured (I think marinated) in cream cheese, vinegar, green chilli and coriander before being grilled in the tandoor. This was absolutely delicious - succulent chicken pieces with a wonderful smoky flavour from the oven. There were six large pieces - plenty for the two of us to share. With these we had another recommended dish, Dal Bukahara, which was also very good, and some tandoori naan bread. We shared a large Kingfisher beer, and later had desserts - kulfi for Chris and a cardamom and pistachio flavoured Basmatii rice pudding for me - again, delicious.

This isn't a cheap option by Indian standards, although we could easily pay more for a less good meal at home in London - in fact it was by some way the most we paid on this trip, but it was worth the splurge and made for a lovely evening to cap our time in Agra.

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Peshawri restaurant in the ITC Moghul Hotel

Posted by ToonSarah 16:04 Archived in India Tagged buildings india fort taj_mahal agra Comments (2)

Too brief a reign

India day three


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Fatehpur Sikri

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There is something about a tale of a deserted city that tugs at the imagination. Here the third Mughal emperor Akbar built a new capital, the walled city of Fatehpur Sikri, over a period of fifteen years, only to abandon it soon after its completion due to a lack of water at the site.

Much of what remains is in ruins, but Akbar’s palace and some other buildings still stand – testament to Akbar’s ambition and his love of architecture, and the arts.

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Here among the remnants of Akbar’s glory you can still discover riches – the colours (deep red sandstone and blue sky, dotted with the bright saris of visitors), the ornately detailed carvings, the sense of a world that existed only briefly and is long gone.

Legend tells that Akbar, wanting an heir, made a pilgrimage to a renowned Sufi saint, Sheik Salim Chisti, to ask for his blessing. When a son was born to him, out of gratitude Akbar named him after the saint and built a new ceremonial capital to commemorate his birth, located on the ridge (Sikri) where the saint lived in a cavern.

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View from the palace walls

This may or may not be true; it is certainly the case that Akbar decided to shift his capital from Agra to Fatehpur in part as a result of military victories and it’s also possible that these victories were the reason that he wanted to honour the saint. Whatever the reason, he will have believed that he had chosen an excellent strategic site, on this ridge that dominates the surrounding countryside. Work started in 1571, and it took the team of masons and stone-carvers fifteen years to complete the series of buildings here: sumptuous palaces, formal courtyards and gardens, pools, harems, tombs, a great mosque and a number of practical buildings such as bazaars, stables, workshops etc. All were contained within a five mile long wall, and in total covered an area nearly two miles long and one mile wide. In designing the city Akbar drew on Persian and local Indian influences, making this the first great example of Mughal architecture.

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Jodha Bai's Palace

But very soon after the work was completed, it was realized that there was a lack of an adequate water supply here, and the new capital was abandoned. Much of it fell into ruins; however the imperial palace complex still stands, along with a few other structures and parts of the wall.

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Ruins of the Mint

We visited Fatehpur Sikri as a stop on the road between Agra and Jaipur, as many people do, spending the best part of the morning here. On this page I want to describe some of the most important buildings here and/or the ones that I most loved.

Diwan-Aam: the Hall of Public Audience

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Entering through a large gate we found ourselves in the grassy courtyard of the Diwan-i-Aam, where the emperor would appear to his subjects. We didn’t linger long here, heading instead to the emperor’s private quarters beyond, where many of the most stunning buildings are to be found.

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Garden seen from the Diwan-i-Aam

Diwan-i-Khas: the Hall of Private Audience

This is one of the best-known buildings at Fatehpur Sikri. From the outside it is relatively plain, albeit attractive – a neat two-storied square, with a jaali edged balcony running around the upper one, and a chhatri on each of the four corners of the roof.

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Diwan-i-Khas

Inside though you find something rather unique and special – a central pillar, beautifully carved with geometric and floral designs. This has 36 serpentine brackets which support a circular platform at the upper storey level. This platform is connected with walkways to the four corners of the building, which also has an inner balcony level with the one outside. All the walkways are finished with the same jaalis, the ornate carved stone screens seen everywhere in Mughal architecture.

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Exterior detail

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Interior details - platform and brackets

This platform provided a place for Akbar to give private audiences (although some argue that the building is too small for that purpose). Our guide Saurav told us that in the past it was permitted to ascend the stairs and walk on to the platform, but it is now sealed off out of concerns that it cannot take the weight of so many visitors. In any case, it is from below that this structure really shows its full glory.

The treasury and astrologer’s kiosk

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Near to the Diwan-i-Khas is another lovely building, with three rooms and ornately carved pillars, walls and arches. This was used as the treasury for the palace. It’s a great spot for photography as the arched walkways frame views of the complex and create interesting perspectives. It is sometimes called Ankh Michauli or Blind Man’s Bluff house, from a theory that the ladies, and possibly Akbar himself, used to play hide-and-seek and other games among its many pillars.

The treasury’s most ornate feature is a small kiosk, just three metres square, at the south west corner which is popularly referred to as the astrologer’s kiosk or seat. It is said that a great Indian Yogi used to sit here and Akbar consult him about big political decisions, but this explanation of the small building is largely discredited in favour of the more prosaic but likely use of it as a spot from which the chief treasurer could monitor the work of his subordinates in the next-door treasury. The more elaborate carving here would lend weight to the theory that it was used by the top dog! This includes elaborate torana arches above the four openings which are influenced by the Jain style of architecture. The kiosk is topped by a chhatri.

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Carving in the astrologer's kiosk

On the eastern side of the treasury building (the right hand as you face it) you can get good views of the Elephant Minar and the surrounding countryside, as well as some stretches of the old boundary wall. It was here that we encountered the man below and tipped him in exchange for a couple of photos.

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Anup Talao

In the heart of the complex is this pool, Anup Talao. It is divided into four by walkways which connect to a central platform. This has a raised area where musicians would have played to entertain the emperor, whose personal rooms were in the building behind, the Khas Mahal (visible in the left-hand photo).

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Also nearby is the Panch Mahal, seen in the background of the right-hand photo and below. This is a five-floored pillared pavilion with each floor supported only by columns and decreasing as you go upwards. The ground floor has 84 columns, the first has 56, the second has 20, the third has twelve and the top storey has just four. Originally there would have been jaali screens between the pillars to provide privacy. This structure offered cool breezes shaded from the hot sun so it is also sometimes known as the Badgir, meaning wind tower.

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Panch Mahal - upper two floors

From here the wives of the emperor could enjoy the musical performances on the platform below. It is said that at times during these performances the pool that surrounded the musicians would be filled with gold, silver and copper coins to reflect the sun – it must have been a blinding sight. Even today the reflections it provides make for lovely photos of it and the surrounding buildings.

Turkish Sultana’s House

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As an emperor, of course Akbar chose his wives for strategic political reasons. He was famed for his religious tolerance and was happy to marry women of Muslim, Hindu and Christian faiths if it would strengthen his empire. As our guide Saurav told it, he had three particularly favoured ones, for whom he built individual bedroom quarters here: one he said was a Hindu princess from Amber, Harkha Bai (said to be his favourite – we will come to her later); one a Muslim from Turkey; and one Portuguese. My subsequent research suggests that Saurav rather over-simplified what appears to be considerable confusion regarding the use of some of these buildings – perhaps understandably. This one he called the Muslim wife’s bedroom but it is usually referred to as the Turkish Sultana House, having been built, it is said, for Akbar’s first wife, Istamboli Begum, who was Turkish.

However the most prominent Muslim wife was Ruqaiya Sultan Begum who like Akbar was a member of the Timurid dynasty – a granddaughter of Barber, the first Mughal emperor. She was the most senior of the wives in terms of her birth, and highly educated (unlike Akbar himself). She had no children but remained in his high regard, and was given responsibility for the upbringing of one of his grandsons, Khurram, who was to grow up and become an emperor in his own right – Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal. So it might also have been her to whom Saurav referred when describing the user of this room. However, some sources say that it is fairly unlikely that this was the bedroom of a queen, Turkish or otherwise, as it is located outside the harem near the more public area of the Anup Talao. It is maybe more likely that Ruqaiya and the other Muslim wives used it as a summer house, although even for that purpose it is rather public. But whatever the truth of its former use, its decorative elements make this an unmissable sight and one of my favourite spots in Fatehpur Sikri.

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Roof of the Turkish Sultana's House

This room is only small, although surrounded by an extensive portico, but it is richly carved. Detailed panels carry images of vines, lotus flowers, trees, even birds and small animals – the latter demonstrating Akbar’s tolerant interpretation of his Muslim religion, but since defaced (literally) as you can see in the photo below. Pillars and ceiling too are carved – in fact, it is hard to find a surface that isn’t! Take some time to study them – they will repay your efforts.

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Details of carvings

Mariam’s House

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As I said above, according to Saurav one of Akbar’s wives was Portuguese and this he told us was her house. I have to say that my limited research has thrown up no mention of a Portuguese wife, but he certainly made alliances with that nation, and he is known to have married Christian women, so this may well be true.

What I do understand from my at times contradictory research findings is that this little house is probably named for Akbar’s mother, Maryam Makani, and had been built for her rather than for any of his wives. But that could be completely wrong!

This is another attractive building, although somehow I seem to have omitted to photograph the exterior. This could be in part because I was so taken with this unexpected detail – a somewhat faded fresco of a girl playing a flute. Given that Akbar was a Muslim (although for a period of his life he tried to found a new universal religion) it is all the more surprising to find a depiction of a human figure anywhere in his palace, even in a room used by a Christian wife. Another sign of his famed religious tolerance, it seems.

Jodha Bai’s Palace

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Entrance to Jodha Bai's Palace

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Niche in Jodha Bai's Palace

Saurav described this to us as the Hindu wife’s bedroom, or rather, two bedrooms – one for summer, one for winter. My research suggests however that it was probably the main harem, used by many of the wives. The name Jodha Bai often attached to it poses something of a puzzle, since no one seems to know which of his wives this refers to, if any. Some sources do say this was the Hindu Harka Bai, but the majority seem to agree that that Jodha Bai was in fact the wife of his son Jahangir. There is more consistency around another name often given to Harka Bai, Mariam-uz-Zamani. This is in fact a title bestowed on her after her marriage and means “Mary of the Age”. Confusingly Akbar’s mother had a similar title, Mariam Makani (“equal in rank to Mary”), and from what I can ascertain it is probably after the latter that Mariam’s house was named.

What is certain is that Harkha Bai came from Amber (near modern-day Jaipur), the daughter of the ruler there, Raja Bharmal. Her marriage to Akbar was a strategic alliance that brought together two powerful families – one Hindu, one Muslim. There had been such marriages in the past, but the acceptance of her family at court by Akbar was a new departure, marking his more tolerant attitude to other faiths. She is widely thought to have been his favourite wife, perhaps because she gave him the first son he had prayed for, who was to grow up to become the next emperor, Jahangir. He allowed her to continue to practice her Hindu faith, and even joined in some rituals with her

The two bedrooms of this palace open off a courtyard. The entrance to this is built in the Islamic style but the rooms also have many Hindu features. Again we are seeing that blend of Islamic and local styles that was to characterise Mughal architecture. There is also a small Hindu shrine here. Some parts of the roof still show their blue glazed tiles, imported from what is now Pakistan.

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Roof with traces of blue glazing

Elephant Minar

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Although we only got a distant view of it, I was fascinated by this, the Elephant Minar (also often referred to as the Hiran Minar because Jehangir, Akbar’s son and successor, converted the polo ground around the tower into a sanctuary for antelopes – hiran). It is said to have been built to commemorate Akbar's favourite elephant. This elephant was even given the role of judge – an accused person would be brought to the elephant who would either spare him (meaning he was innocent) or trample him to death.

You can see the unusual decoration of protruding elephant tusks (made of stone – not real one!) on the left hand side in my photo. There are many more of these than you can see here however, as they extend more or less down the full length of the tower. The tower is thought to have been the first in a series of mile posts, rather than an active minaret. I have also read that from the top of the tower, the ladies of the court used to watch sports on the lake, wild beast fights, and army manoeuvres on the plains. Apparently you used to be able to climb the tower for a great view of the ruins of Fatehpur Sikri but I believe this is no longer possible.

After spending a few hours here we said goodbye to Saurav, who had been our guide not only today but also yesterday in Agra, and with Mehar drove west towards Jaipur …

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Saurav at Fatehpur Sikri

Posted by ToonSarah 03:51 Archived in India Tagged buildings ruins india palace fatehpur_sikri Comments (5)

The road to Jaipur

India day three continued


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On the road

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Encounters on the road

Leaving Fatehpur Sikri (see previous entry) behind us we headed west to Jaipur, driven by the ever-reliable Mehar and stopping en route to see the Chand Baori step well in Abhaneri and the nearby Hindu temple.

Abhaneri: “Well” worth the detour

Abhaneri is a small rural Rajasthani village that lies just north of the main road that leads west to Jaipur, famous for its ancient step well and an interesting Hindu temple. The village dates back to the 9th century A.D. and was originally called “Abha Nagri” – the “City of Brightness”. Legend has it that Goddess Harshat Mata, to whom the temple is dedicated, in a joyous mood spread brightness all over the village. The name has since been corrupted to Abhaneri.

Our main purpose in stopping here was to see the ancient step well, which is considered is one of the oldest, largest and most impressive of these huge tanks which dot the Indian desert landscape.

However, I actually found the temple the more interesting of the two sights there, especially as the worshippers there welcomed us and allowed us to take photos.

Chand Baori step well

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Step well

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The traditional solution in this part of India to the challenge of the scarcity of water was to construct these impressive step wells. These were huge tanks designed to harvest and store what rain water there was. Chand Baori is one of the oldest, largest and most impressive of these. It takes its name from the local ruler who built it at some time between 800 and 900 A.D., King Chanda of the Nikhumba Dynasty.

The well is 20 metres deep and with 13 levels. On three sides flights of steps lead down these levels to the water at the base. The air here is five or six degrees cooler than at the surface, so as well as providing the local people with water Chand Baori also served as a community gathering place during the intense heat of summer. On the fourth side, the north, is a multi-storied corridor and two projecting balconies with shrines to Hindu gods, including Ganesh.

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Carving detail

We also spotted a small shrine in one of the small buildings on this side at the top, used by guides and the security guard. These buildings are later additions, although I haven’t been able to find out their exact date. The main structure of the well has been restored, hence its fairly solid and new appearance.

Despite its large scale construction and functional purpose, the stone is beautifully carved in places, and the geometric patterns made by the steps rather pleasing – indeed, it reminded me rather of a painting by Escher.

There is no admission fee as such but if you accept the services of one of the guides who will hurry over to greet you then of course you should tip, and in any case the guy looking after the site, who will ask you to write in the visitors' book, will expect some rupees for his trouble. We tipped him, and wrote a few words, but passed on the guide as Mehar had already given us an outline of the well's history. Also, as we had already spent quite a long while at Fatehpur Sikri and still had nearly 100 miles to drive to Jaipur, we didn’t want to take the time needed to go down to the bottom. OK, I have to admit too that the thought of climbing up again in 38 degree heat didn’t much appeal to me either!

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The small shrine at the step well

Harshat Mata Temple

The Hashat Mata Temple was built by the same King Chanda responsible for the step well. It is no coincidence that they lie side by side, as the faithful could go to the step well to wash before coming to pray here. The temple was however destroyed in the late 10th century by Mahmud Ghazni, founder of the Ghaznavid Empire and the first ruler in history to assume the title of "Sultan”, who invaded this region around that time. Despite this destruction many of the temple’s carvings remain, though some are damaged or lie scattered on the ground around the platform on which it stands. The temple is, I gather, slowly being restored which explains why some carvings have now been reinstated and also why I spotted white painted numbers next to some of them, presumably to aid the restoration team in placing them correctly.

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Temple carving

The temple is named for the goddess Harshat Mata, who seems to be something of a patron saint for the village. She is considered to be the goddess of joy and happiness, always cheerful, and she imparts her joy and happiness to the whole village – hence the name “City of Brightness”.

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Although some locals were worshipping here at the time of our visit, they welcomed us with a smile when we climbed the steps and didn't mind us watching from a respectful distance nor taking photos. I also shot a piece of short video, mainly to capture the chanting.

The carvings in particular are beautiful and repay close inspection, and the atmosphere with the chanting and smell of incense on the air added to the experience of our visit. I was very pleased we had wandered over from the step well to check this out.

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Temple carvings

Returning to the car after our explorations, and glad of its effective air conditioning, we set off westwards. Altogether it was a long drive of about six hours from Agra to Jaipur, but even apart from the sights at Fatehpur Sikri and Abhaneri, it was an interesting one. This is after all India where life is lived by the roadside and is colourful, frenetic and intriguing.

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On the road to Jaipur

Among the things that caught our eyes were a herd of camels waiting patiently to cross the busy road, bullocks dozing in the shade, a holy man walking his holy cow, beautifully decorated trucks, school children coming out of school, stalls selling all sorts of goods and people queuing to buy. And a continuous stream of vehicles all driven as if only they had any real right to be on the road and only they had a destination so important that they must go first in every situation!

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Camel herd ...

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... and herder

I found this and all our road journeys through Rajasthan fascinating, but I was to hear a story that evening that showed that not everyone agreed with me. A woman staying at our hotel described how she had met another lady a couple of days earlier in Agra, who had just arrived by car from Delhi. So horrified was she at this experience that she had declared that she was never travelling on an Indian road again and demanded that her tour company arrange rail tickets for the rest of her stay as an alternative. It wasn’t known whether the company had agreed to her request or not, but if so I reckon she missed out on a lot. While I enjoyed our train journeys in India, as giving a different view of the passing landscape, travelling by road has the big advantage that you can stop when you see something of interest (as we did when we saw this camel herd). And I even came to enjoy the manic driving and to trust that maybe most of the drivers did, as Mehar claimed, know not only what they were doing but also, importantly, what others were doing too.

We arrived in Jaipur in the late afternoon and checked into the hotel that was to be our base for the next two nights, Shahpura House.

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Shahpura House: hallway and one of the lounges

I had slightly mixed feelings about this small heritage hotel in a quiet Jaipur suburb. It has many great attributes. The public rooms are stunning, as you can see from my photos, exuding a great sense of history. The staff are charming and friendly, eager to please. There is a nice swimming pool, where I enjoyed a dip after a hot day's sightseeing, and a spa which I didn't use. One of its biggest charms is the lovely rooftop restaurant where we ate tasty curries on both evenings, with traditional Rajasthani music and dancing.

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Evenings at the rooftop restaurant

However there was an air of amateurism about the place that became a little wearing after a while. Service was painfully slow, with two different bar men coming back three times to double check our drinks order and/or room number, for instance, and an afternoon sandwich ordered by the pool taking almost an hour to arrive. Wifi was free, but available only in the lobby and lounge, and even there frustratingly slow.

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Our room was lovely – large, and simply but attractively furnished, with a seating area with wardrobe and mini bar, and sleeping area beyond (twin beds with pretty pink throws). The bathroom had a walk-in shower with rain shower head, and was provided with plenty of toiletries and thick towels. We had an in-room safe, air conditioning and fans, and state-of-the-art light controls. The beds were on the firm side, which I prefer and found comfortable, but the noisy A/C (or heat of the room if that was turned off) meant that I didn't sleep as well here as elsewhere. And even had we wanted to, sleeping in was not an option - the staff were going about their work by 6.00 AM and this is an echoey building.

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The main downside to our stay, apart from the aforementioned erratic service, was that our room was in a wing that was still being restored and it was a bit disconcerting to have to access the room via a staircase with an unfinished banister, and walk along a corridor with an unfinished floor and blocked off corners, to the background noise of hammering and sawing. Several times I had to step over tools left on the floor or over trailing cables. There was a lot of dust from the marble polishing which found its way into our room, making the floor permanently dusty. And although the room once reached was as I have said lovely, and clearly newly decorated, we couldn't help but conclude that they really shouldn't have opened the wing up for use before finishing the building work. The air of unfinished business extended into the room too. Some of the sockets didn't work and on the second day we had no hot water morning or evening. Worse, there was an exposed dangling electric cable in the bathroom right next to the shower, which looked decidedly unsafe, and although they did offer to tape it when we mentioned our concern they never did, and we just got used to avoiding it.

On the whole though I was glad we stayed here as it was a wonderful building to experience. But anyone else booking a room would be advised to check that it’s not in an unfinished wing, as further expansion seemed to be planned, and to go prepared to put up with haphazard, albeit charming, service.

Shahpura House was our home for the next couple of days as we explored Jaipur and nearby Amber Fort, to be described in my next couple of entries ...

Posted by ToonSarah 14:37 Archived in India Tagged temple india jaipur rajasthan Comments (2)

Hilltop citadel

India day four


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The Amber Fort

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Amber Fort from Maota Lake

This is what a fort should look like, perhaps – high on a hill, dominating the surrounding countryside, large and apparently impregnable. But climb the hill and pass through those fortified gates, and you find yourself in another world – a world of elegant and sumptuous palace architecture, mirrored halls and pretty gardens.

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Gardener in the fort

Amber or Amer Fort (in any case, the “b” is not pronounced) is situated about 11 kilometres from Jaipur and usually visited from there. There has been a fort here since the 10th century AD but most of the current buildings date from the 17th.

We came to Amer on the morning of our day spent in and around Jaipur, and spent several hours exploring the various courtyards and beautiful buildings here – with more time in our schedule we could easily have spent longer! As well as the wonderful decorative features, I loved the views from the fort of Maota Lake at the foot of the hill and the surrounding landscape.

The fort was established in what was the Kachwaha capital by the then king, Man Singh I, in 1529, on the site of an earlier 10th / 11th century fort. It was added to significantly in the early 17th century by his grandson Jai Singh I who was an army general during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (he who built the Taj Mahal – I fancied I saw his influence in places here, if only in the use of white marble). In 1727 the Kachwahas shifted their capital to Jaipur but continued to maintain the fort, partly because it is home to an important temple, the Shila Devi Temple.

The name "amber" derives not from the colour of the sandstone, as I had assumed prior to visiting, but from the goddess Amba Mata (Mother Earth) who was worshiped by local tribes here long before the fort was built.

Your first view of the fort will probably be, as ours was, from the far side of Maota Lake. It is worth stopping here for some time as it’s the perfect spot from which to take some photos. As well as Amer Fort you can see the neighbouring Jaigarh Fort, part of the same defensive complex. The lake is also a good place for bird-watching it seems – I spotted several stilts, egrets and herons.

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Fortified hilltop

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Stilt and egret

It was very busy when we were here, not only with tourists but also groups of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Saraswati Puja festival at the temple in the fort. Their colourful flags and clothing added to the charm of the scene and really got our camera shutter fingers busy!

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Pilgrims by Maota Lake

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Elephant or jeep?

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The most popular way to visit the fort is by ascending the hill on an elephant, but we were here at the time of the major Hindu festival, Saraswati Puja, and the elephants had been given a holiday. We were to see why when we arrived in the fort and saw the courtyard they normally occupy, Jaleb Chowk, taken over by the pilgrims. From a conversation overheard at our Jaipur hotel I gather that tourists who were disappointed by the lack of elephant rides at this time could choose to do one somewhere else nearby – although I guess that it wouldn’t be the same as arriving in a fort by this means. And in any case, there has been some criticism by animal welfare groups of the way in which elephants are kept and used here (poor housing conditions and abuse of the animals). Our tour company TransIndus doesn’t recommend tourists riding them to the fort and, much as I love the romantic idea, I would have followed their advice even had the option been open to us. As it was, it was a choice of a long hot uphill walk or a jeep. You can guess which I chose – especially as the jeep had been prepaid and included in our tour cost.

It’s quite a bumpy ride as you rattle upwards through the narrow streets of the small town of Amer that lies in the shadow of the fort, but an interesting one as you get glimpses of local life in passing. Don’t hope to take many photos though, as it’s more or less impossible to hold a camera still!

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View of the fort's walls from where we caught the jeep

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Musician by arrival area

Taking the jeep meant that we arrived at a different gate from those walking – the Moon Gate (Chand Pol) rather than the Sun Gate (Suraj Pol, where the elephants when operating also arrive). But both gates lead to the same point, the Jaleb Chowk.

Jaleb Chowk

This large courtyard, the first of a series we will pass through, was the fort’s parade ground. I have seen the name translated variously as ““the quadrangle where horses and elephants are tethered” and “a place for soldiers to assemble”, but in practice both were true even if only one (I believe the latter) is an accurate translation. Here the Maharaja would inspect his troops and here those same troops would, on returning from battle, display their war loot. The women of the palace could look down on these scenes from the screened windows above.

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Jaleb Chowk

Today it is usually the place where the elephants that bring tourists to the fort are tethered, but as I have explained, when we visited the courtyard had been taken over by the many groups of pilgrims visiting the temple that lies just off one corner of Jaleb Chowk, to mark the festival of Saraswati Puja. So for us it was a different, but very colourful scene.

There are two gates opening on to Jaleb Chowk – on the eastern side the Sun Gate or Suraj Pol, and on the west the Moon Gate, Chand Pol. Stately processions would have entered the fort only through the Suraj Pol. In my photo above, taken from the next level, the Sun Gate is on the right and the Moon Gate on the left. You can see the many temporary canopies erected to shield pilgrims from the sun as they waited their turn to go into the Sila Devi temple. This lies in the south west corner (bottom left of my photo and out of shot). This is where the Maharajas used to offer animal sacrifices (usually a buffalo) until that practice was stopped here, I think in the 1980s (if I remember our guide’s talk accurately). Today’s pilgrims bring offerings of food instead. We weren’t able to go inside the temple because of the festival but I believe it is usually possible.

In the photo below you can see the Sun Gate more clearly, and pilgrims gathering nearby, probably having just completed the walk up to the fort. On the distant hills you can see the old walls that still surround Amber and Jaigarh Forts, and just a corner of the latter in the top left.

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Jaleb Chowk and Suraj Pol

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Suraj Pol

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Pilgrims and pilgrim flag

On the south side of the courtyard is a wide staircase leading up through the Singh Pol (Lion Gate) to the next part of the palace.
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Singh Pol from the far side

Diwan-i-Am

The second courtyard of the fort is dominated by the Hall of Public Audience or Diwan-i-Am. As the name suggests, this was where the Maharajah would meet the people, respond to petitions and settle disputes. It was also the place where certain festivities were celebrated – victory in battle, the birthday of the Maharajah and more. It was constructed in the early 17th century, built from red sandstone and marble, and modelled on similar halls in Mughal palaces. It combines Mughal and Raiput styles, with decorative elements such as elephant trunk brackets and vines. The roof is supported by sandstone columns on the outer edges and marble ones within.

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Diwan-i-Am

You can get some great views from here of the Saffron Garden or Kesar Kyaari on Maota Lake below. It is named for the saffron flowers that used to be planted here.

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View of Maota Lake and Kesar Kyaari

While we were here there was some minor restoration work going on and it was interesting to watch the men working to clean the carvings and bring them back to their best.

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Taking a break from restoration work

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Restoring the Diwan-i-Am

Next to the Diwan-I-Am is the Sattais Katcheri, where scribes would sit to receive and record revenue brought to the Maharaja. I have read that both this and the Diwan-i-Am are frequented by monkeys but there were none here when we visited, perhaps because of the restoration work in progress.

From this courtyard the fort’s best known gate leads to a third.

Ganesh Pol

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Ganesh Pol

The Ganesh Pol, or Elephant Gate, connects the second and third courtyards, and is the most richly decorated of all the gates here – a riot of colour, both frescoes and mosaics, with flowers, vines, flower vases and intricate geometric designs. The design of a large central arch flanked by two smaller ones on each side, one above the other, shows the influence of Mughal architecture here (the Taj Mahal has the same arrangement, for instance) and has led to speculation that it was made by Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, rather than his father, Jai Singh I.

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Ganesh

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Ganesh Pol decorations

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In the Suhag Mandir

Above the main arch is a fresco depicting Ganesh, the Hindu god, with the customary mouse at his feet and on either side a slender cypress tree. Unusually Ganesh is here shown in profile rather than the more usual face forward pose. Walking beneath him you must make two right-angled turns through the gate – a design intended to impede invading armies.

From the lattice-screened walkway above the gate, known as the Suhag Mandir, the ladies could look down on the activity in and around the Diwan-I-Am. Also from here the maharani would await the maharaja’s return from battle and sprinkle scented water and flowers down on him in welcome and gratitude for his safe homecoming.

After passing through the gate you will be able to climb to the Suhag Mandir yourself to enjoy the same views the ladies in purdah would have had, and to get good views too of the next courtyard.

Aram Bagh and Sukh Mandir

Passing through the Ganesh Pol you come to the third courtyard, the heart of the private part of the palace where the maharaja held court. Unlike the earlier ones, which are paved, this has a garden laid out in the traditional Mughal charbagh style, divided into symmetrical quarters. In the centre is a star-shaped pool. You can get a good view from above by ascending the stairs above the Ganesh Pol to the Suhag Mandir, which gives you an opportunity to really appreciate the symmetry of this style of garden.

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Aram Bagh and sweeper

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Sukh Mandir details

To your right as you look from the gate is the Sukh Mandir, known as the “pleasure palace” or “temple of contentment”. This was where a maharaja would relax, no doubt with his maharani (queen) and some of the women of the harem. It is clearly designed for such relaxation. A channel running through it carries water which flows out into the pool of the Aram Bagh, helping to keep the marble rooms cool. The doors are of sandalwood and ivory, and the walls are decorated in a more subtle, restful style than the ornate rooms elsewhere – quite a contrast to the Jai Mandir which lies on the opposite side of the gardens.

Jai Mandir and Sheesh Mahal

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Sheesh Mahal

Opposite the Sukh Mandir on the other side of the Aram Bagh (that is, your left as you pass through the Ganesh Pol) is possibly the most sumptuous building within the fort and also its most famous. The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is divided into three sections – the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) on the ground floor at the front, the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) behind this, and the Jas Mandir (Hall of Glory) on the upper floor – although some sources refer to the whole of the lower part as the Sheesh Mahal. Certainly its decorations merit that. Ceilings and walls are studded with thousands of small pieces of glass and mirrors, reflecting light and a multitude of images and colours.

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Sheesh Mahal

One explanation for the decoration that I read is that the queen was not allowed to sleep in the open air although she loved to see the stars shining. So the king ordered his architects to design a room where she could do that, as the candlelight reflected from all the mirrors was said to resemble a thousand stars. I think this explanation is unlikely however, as the queen would have slept in the women’s quarters around the fourth courtyard, the Zenana. It was probably the maharaja himself therefore who liked to sleep under the stars!

Around the outside of the Jai Mandir are marble panels carved with exotic flowers and little insects. Some of the flowers are said to imitate other insects and animals such as a hooded cobra (look at the leaf near the bottom right of the first photo below).

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Jai Mandir: details of carvings

The Zenana

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Our guide

The final courtyard in the complex is the Zenana. This is the oldest part of the fort, built at the end of the 16th century during the reign of Raja Man Singh I. It originally formed the main palace but was later converted into the Zenana or "women's quarters" to house his twelve wives and concubines. Each queen/maharani and concubine had her individual suite of rooms here so the maharaja could visit one without the others knowing. In the centre of the courtyard is a covered pavilion, the Baradari, which formed the gathering place for the women. Here they would gossip and no doubt try to assert their own status within the ranks based on wealth, looks and the frequency of the maharaja’s visits!

Unfortunately I had a small problem with my camera here, which jammed – I think the heat got to it, as it did a couple of times on this trip. It sorted itself after turning off and waiting a while, but by then we were on our way out of the fort. The heat must have got to me too, as stupidly I didn’t think to take any photos on my phone! So at this point I run out of images …

We also ran out of energy around here too, and decided to head back to the city for refreshments and to see some of the sights there. On the way though, we made one further stop, to see the Jal Mahal.

Jal Mahal: the Lake Palace

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Jal Mahal

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We stopped briefly for photos here on our way back into town from the Amber Fort. The Jal Mahal sits in the south west corner of Man Sagar Lake, a man-made lake created in the 16th century when a dam was built across the Darbhawati River to address water shortage problems in Amer. The palace itself is thought to have been used for Maharajah picnics and duck hunting parties, but no one seems quite sure. It is partly sunk, with four floors hidden under water (when the lake is full), and has been neglected for over 200 years, but our guide told us there are now plans to restore it and open it as a hotel. If done well (and the Indians do these things very well) it will be an amazing place to stay!

The lake too has been badly neglected in the past, with pollution caused by untreated sewage and a build-up of silt on the lake bed. In recent years a number of bodies, including tourism and government organisations, have worked together to address this and the lake has been considerably cleaned up. A sign of this is the gradual return of bird life, although not in the numbers and variety (yet) that they once were. Nevertheless just from the roadside I spotted a number of egrets, Chinese cormorants, a brown heron and a few moorhens.

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Egret, heron and cormorants

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We were here in the morning when unfortunately the light is not at its best for photographs – I imagine it could be wonderful in the late afternoon or at sunset. However we did have an interesting encounter here which made the stop more memorable. On the terrace overlooking the lake we met an enterprising young lad offering to show us some magic. We decided to invest a few rupees in his performance and he performed some sleight of hand tricks with coins, cups and small stones. At times it was easy to spot him palming the objects, but at other times he surprised us, making the coins "pass through Chris's head" from ear to ear, pass from his ear to my nose, and even from my ear to fall from Chris's "private parts"!! It was entertaining to hear his patter and well worth the 50 rupees our guide suggested we give him. If you want to see him and enjoy one of his tricks, check out my little video.

After this we headed back into the city, and our explorations there will form the subject of my next entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 00:46 Archived in India Tagged people history india fort jaipur rajasthan amber_fort Comments (6)

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