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India

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


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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)

The Pink City

India day four continued


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In Jaipur

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Jaipur street scene, early morning

After a morning spent at nearby Amber Fort, our afternoon was devoted to a few of the sights in Jaipur itself. Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan state and its largest city, although after the hubbub of Delhi where we had been a few days earlier it seemed relatively small to us, and a fascinating bland of orderliness and activity. Cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, pedestrians and the odd cow weave amongst each other while the pink sandstone buildings add a touch of serenity as a backdrop to the chaos.

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Snake charmer near the Hawa Mahal

The city was founded in 1743 by Ram Singh’s ancestor Jai Singh II, the Raja of Amer. He clearly took the responsibility of founding a new city very seriously, studying several books on architecture and applying the principles of Vastu Shastra, a traditional Hindu system of architecture which among other things aims to achieve harmony between man-made structures and nature. Unusually for Indian cities the centre of Jaipur was built on a grid system, divided into six blocks. The palace and other state buildings were built in the central block, while the remainder held shops, homes and so on. You can still see this pattern if you look at a map of the city.

Jaipur is often known as the Pink City as many of the buildings in the centre are built of pink sandstone, and those that aren’t, are painted the same distinctive shade. This goes back to the time when the then Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne and later to rule as Edward VII, came here on a state visit and (for some reason) the ruler Sawai Ram Singh decided to paint the city in his honour. Since then it has been the law that all buildings in the old town must be so painted and along with the even grid pattern it makes for a very uniform appearance, which is somewhat at odds with the typical Indian chaotic activity on the streets.

Hawa Mahal

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Hawa Mahal

We had already had a glimpse of the city before heading to the Amber Fort that morning, as we stopped briefly by the Hawa Mahal. Of all the pink buildings in the Pink City, this must be the most photographed. It is a fantastical concoction of oriel and bay windows, coloured glass, carved screens in stone and wood, delicate pointed arches – all piled up in five ever-diminishing storeys. To photograph it at its best, with the warm glow of the sun, you must get here in the morning as it faces east and loses its rich colours once in shadow later in the day, which is why we had made a stop here.

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Hawa Mahal

The Hawa Mahal was built in 1799 as part of the City Palace to provide the ladies of the royal court with a series of rooms from where they could observe the life of the city while maintaining their strict purdah. The shape is designed to resemble the crown of Lord Krishna, the Hindu god, while the many small holes that pierce the screens are there to allow the cooling breezes to penetrate – hence its name which means “Palace of the Winds”.

We didn’t go inside but you can do so, and there’s a small museum inside which has some armour and miniature paintings I believe.

Jantar Mantar Observatory

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The large sundial

This was one of our favourite sights in Jaipur, and indeed, one of Chris’s favourites from the whole trip – he found it totally fascinating, as did I. For both of us it had a double appeal – not only the amazing science behind it but also the strangely modern beauty of its structures.

The observatory, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built for the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, founder of Jaipur, in 1738. He was a keen astrologer and this is the largest of five similar structures built in India in the 18th century to observe the heavens and measure its movements (the others are in New Delhi, Ujjan, Varanasi and Mathura). Its 19 instruments perform functions such as measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking major stars, determining the declinations of planets, and calculating celestial altitudes.

The observatory was used until around 1800 but fell into decline in the 19th century. It was restored under British rule in 1902 (but unfortunately with some changes to the materials employed) and again in 2006.

The small sundial here is accurate to within 20 seconds and the large one to an astounding two seconds, although you have to adjust from Jaipur time to Indian Standard Time to assess the accuracy of this – a notice nearby will tell you by how much to adjust. Two large marble bowls (one of which is shown below) crossed with copper wire indicate in which zodiac sign the sun currently sits.

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Marble bowl

Nearby a striking set of twelve instruments, one for each sign, pinpoints the precise day. Parents would have used these to set the basis for the drawing up of the astrological chart for their new-born child, to be used at key points in their life, especially in choosing a marriage partner. Indeed these things are still important for many Hindus, though they no longer use this observatory to calculate them.

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Zodiac instruments

If you are interested (and understand more about the science than I can claim to do), Wikipedia has a full list of all the instruments and their purpose: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jantar_Mantar_%28Jaipur%29. And a guide is useful at the site as they will explain to you the main functions. But whether interested in the science or not, this is a great place to come for photography, as the sculptural shapes of the various instruments cast their shadows and form interesting abstract patterns that change constantly as you move around the site.

Spice market

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In the spice market

For a slice of local colour (and scents) the spice market is wonderful. A narrow alleyway lined with small shops all selling the typical spices of India - turmeric, chillies, peppers, ginger, cardamom.

Our guide suggested a walk here when we said we were more interested in photography than shopping, and it was a great recommendation. Although all the shops sell very similar goods, he explained that locals all have their favourite vendor, and pointed out the one where he always shops.

We also saw a sugar shop with sugar in all sorts of shapes, including sugar glasses. Wives buy and fill these with water, making sweet water to offer to their husbands for the Karwa Chauth Hindu festival on 30th October. On this day married women pray that their husband will have a long life, prosperity and good health.

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Sugar glasses

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Women shopping for sugar

Nearby flowers sellers were stringing garlands for the many festivals around this time of year, as they were everywhere we went on this trip. On a colourful journey this was one of the most colourful spots of all.

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Flower garlands

Block printing

One of the most traditional crafts in the Jaipur area is block printing on cotton or silk, and you are likely to be offered an opportunity to see craftsmen at work. Of course this is also an opportunity for them to persuade you to buy (I succumbed - see below), but even if you don't want to buy it is worth going to see the work that goes into these textiles, and perhaps to have a go yourself!

We went to the Shree Carpet and Textile Mahal where we were first shown the technique by a father and son working together on a design. The colours are all natural – turmeric for yellow, spinach for green, saffron for orange and so on. They work as a team, so the father was doing the first colour and the son following behind to do the next, carefully aligning his block with the first print. We were told that the minimum number of colours (and therefore blocks) used in a pattern is four, and there can be up to nine.

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Father and son at work

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Printing the first colour, and one of the carved blocks

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"Our" handiwork

The father then showed us some different blocks and invited us to have a go. To be honest he did most of the work – inking the block and placing it on the fabric. I then hit it to make the print, but not hard enough, so he did that too! When Chris's turn came, he was able to hit harder so at least he could do that part of the operation. Normally fabrics are then dried for four days in the sun, which is when the vivid colours appear, but as there was no time for that the man dipped our piece of fabric in a vinegar solution which speeds the colour fixing process. He then blotted it dry and we left it with him while shopping. By the time we came out of the shop our handiwork was more or less dry and we could take it away as a souvenir of our visit.

Of course, we understood that along with the demonstration would come some pressure to buy – pressure which we planned to resist (although at the back of my mind I thought I might maybe buy a cushion cover if I saw something in suitable colours that I liked). The fact that we bought something rather larger, a fabric throw big enough to cover a double bed or make into a duvet, is, I assure you, not because of especially high-pressured selling (which we are pretty good at resisting) but because we were impressed both by the goods on offer and the reasonable prices. Having seen for ourselves the block printing process we could appreciate the work that went into making these items and we were confident too that we were buying a genuine hand-made piece. You can soon check this if you are in any doubt, as machine-printed fabrics appear perfect while those printed with this technique, using the small hand-held blocks, show the staggers and uneven lines where one block meets the next. You can see this clearly on the right-hand side of the border of our throw in this photo.

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Our purchase

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Musicians at Shahpura House

On this, our second evening in Jaipur, we again ate at the rooftop restaurant of Shahpura House, welcomed by the same friendly waiter who had served us the evening before. We enjoyed a shared starter of chicken kebab with mint chutney, a very tasty potato dish with cumin, and a Rajasthani speciality of chicken in a spicy tomato and yoghurt sauce. Prices are very reasonable, especially when you factor in the live show - traditional Rajasthani musicians and dancers. And you can linger after dinner over a drink and watch more of the show, which on some evenings also includes traditional puppets. We were to see several of these “cultural shows” during our time in Rajasthan, but as our first this one was especially memorable.

Posted by ToonSarah 13:50 Archived in India Tagged buildings india jaipur rajasthan crafts Comments (2)

Into the Thar Desert

India day five


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Onwards to Khimsar

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Friendly locals

Leaving Jaipur we headed west, deep into Rajasthan. Now we were truly in the desert state. The first part of the journey was on a good multi-lane toll road, less interesting for us than the rural roads. After a while though we left this and took a fairly rough road that wound through small villages and into the Thar Desert. In places there was construction work that meant we had to leave the road altogether, at times driving directly over the desert sand! As we passed through the villages some locals would wave to us, and in one these two guys spotted my camera and indicated I should take their photo - so I did!

The most notable sight on the journey was our first Indian antelope, a Nilgai, which Mehar spotted, stopping for us to take photos from the car, but other than that we didn't stop until we reached Khimsar – a journey time of about six hours, although it would have been less without the road works. As always we had enjoyed watching life beside the road, but this was among the less interesting of the several drives we had in India.

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Nilgai

Khimsar

Around a 450 year old fort on the edge of the Thar Desert a small town has grown up, consisting of little more than a market, some shops and a bus station. These serve the surrounding rural community and those who work in the fort, which is today is both home to the Thakurs, former rulers of the Kingdom of Khimsar, who built it, and also a heritage hotel. Confusingly the town is also sometimes referred to as Khinvsar or Khinwsar, but the fort always (as far as I can ascertain) as Khimsar.

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Khimsar Fort

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We spent one night here as a break on the long drive between Jaipur and Jaisalmer. There are no sights as such in Khimsar, unless you consider the magnificent fort, but as we wanted to see something of ordinary daily life in the region this suited us perfectly.

Arriving quite late in the afternoon we decided to resist the temptation of the rather lovely swimming pool in favour of a stroll around the village with our cameras. We found that most people were friendly and didn't mind those cameras in the slightest – indeed, many asked us to take their photo. This shopkeeper and his son were among these, and he gave us his address so we could send the pictures (which we have since done). A couple of women did shake their heads, no, so we respected this of course.

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Local people, Khimsar

The main street is lined with small shops and is also a bus terminal, so there is plenty of activity. Cows and goats wander freely, men gossip or play cards in the shade, women pick through vegetables to select the best for the evening meal. Several small boys, and not so small ones, posed on motorbikes or scooters - one teenage lad rushing from a shop to do so as we passed. The bus sounded its horn multiple times to signal departure, but there was always one more person to squeeze in first.

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Local cafe

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Market scene

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More of the locals

Near the entrance to the fort is a small temple and a couple of statues. One of these, near the fort, is I think of a former Maharaja. But as I said, a walk here isn't about finding the historical sights but those of daily life as it unfolds here in this Thar Desert village.

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Statue and temple, Khimsar

Khimsar Fort

We spent the night in this rather stunning heritage hotel, the first of a number that we stayed in on this trip and although not my favourite (that honour goes to Narlai), it was probably the grandest and certainly the largest. Quite apart from the photo opps to be had on its doorstep when wandering around the town, the hotel itself provides plenty – beautiful flowers, lovely old architecture and views of the surrounding countryside from the ramparts.

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This is a historic fort now converted to a hotel, although the owner (a descendant of the Thakurs of Khimsar who once ruled this region and were themselves descendants of Rao Jodhaji, founder of Jodhpur) still lives in one wing. Construction of the fort was started in 1523 but apparently the family only lived here from the 18th century onwards (I don’t know what they did with it prior to that!) It is a large sprawling complex of buildings built in beautiful honey-coloured sandstone. The grounds are quite extensive and include a lovely looking pool. There is also a spa, tennis court and small gym. Entertainment in the form of traditional musicians and dancers, and a puppet show is laid on in the evenings. For car enthusiasts, there is a collection of vintage cars on display in the royal garage.

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View from the hotel

We had one of the standard rooms but it was nevertheless very large and comfortable. It was located towards the back of the main building on the upper floor, and we had a small staircase in our room that led to a door out on to a roof terrace – perfect for star gazing, although it was a rather hazy night.

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Pool with our block beyond

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Our bedroom

Traditional Thar Desert musicians

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Musicians in front of the ruins

When we arrived at Khimsar Fort we were told that local musicians would perform below the ruins of Fateh Mahal that evening. There is a story attached to these ruins. They are named after Fateh Pir Baba, a Sufi saint who blessed the ruling family. When he died, he was buried here next to the fort walls. At that time a residence was being built just next to the spot chosen for his tomb. The ruling chief died during the construction and people said that this showed that the saint's spirit was not in peace. Work was halted and the building was left incomplete.

A small performance area has been created here, with a semi-circular seating area. We went along as directed and found a group of five here. One of the musicians tried to teach us to play his traditional castanet-like instruments, but we couldn't get the hang of the grip, so left him to it! We certainly weren't going to emulate the girl who danced on knife blades (even if these weren't sharp – we had no way of knowing) and on nails!

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Musicians

The performance was quite short but we enjoyed it and I loved the colourful costumes too. I made a short video which I think gives a good flavour not only of the performance but also of Chris’s reaction when the knives were brought out!

After the show finished we went for dinner. With very little available in the village we decided to eat in the hotel, as I imagine most guests do. As far as we could gather (the staff have quite limited English compared with other hotels we stayed in) it's possible to get an a la carte meal in the restaurant, but in the dry winter months most people, including us, opt for the buffet served up on the ramparts. While buffets are not my preferred option, the setting made up for that – a lovely view of the fort itself, a pleasant breeze after the afternoon's heat, and music drifting up from the village.

We stayed on a while after dinner enjoying the setting and another beer. To be honest the setting was the best thing about this meal, as the food was really just ordinary. They have something of a captive market – as I said, few visitors are likely to venture into the village to eat (it's very much just a local village with no tourist facilities, even of the most basic nature). Still, the location was lovely, the service friendly (our waiter kept bringing more poppadums to go with our post-dinner beers!), and the price very reasonable, so we were pretty happy with our evening.

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And after dinner, a stroll around the ramparts back to our comfortable room, to rest before another long drive tomorrow.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:27 Archived in India Tagged people india hotel fort village dance music rajasthan khimsar Comments (9)

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