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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 (10)

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 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)

The golden city and its fort

India day seven


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A morning in (and around) Jaisalmer Fort

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Jaisalmer Fort from Gadisar Lake

Deep in the Thar Desert in the far west of Rajasthan is a golden city. A fairy tale fort sits on a ridge overlooking the town, still home to many families whose houses cluster within its sheltering walls.

This was possibly my favourite of the larger cities we visited in Rajasthan. I loved its remoteness, its border-town mentality, and the beauty of its golden architecture. And I enjoyed the personal stories of life (and death) here shared with us by our guide Gaurav, who lives in the fort.

We saw so much here, and I took so many photos, that I am splitting our day, focusing here on Jaisalmer Fort itself, and in my next entry on the city that has grown up around it.

Jaisalmer Fort

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View from the fort

This is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan, one of the largest in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and almost unique in India in being still inhabited (most sources, and our guide, claim that it is unique in this respect, but Chittaurgargh, which we were to visit later in our trip, also retains its village).

The fort was built by the Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal in 1156 AD, hence its name. It sits on the top of Trikuta Hill, dominating the city and the surrounding area. Built in the local honey-coloured sandstone it resembles a giant sandcastle!

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There is only one way into the fort, through a series of gates on the eastern side. After passing through the first of these you cross a large open space, where we saw a young girl perched on a frame under the ramparts. Seeing us approach she stood up and we could see that she was a tightrope walker. Balancing traditional pots on her head she walked the rope, deliberately swaying it from side to side. She did several tricks too, all the time watched by her anxious father below. Our guide explained that her mother before her had done the same. She had obviously taught her daughter well as she was very impressive. We were told 50 IR was an appropriate tip but felt she deserved more, and she was very grateful for the 100 we gave her, saying that it would bring us good karma. That may or may not be true, but it certainly brought us good photos! I also made a little video of her in action. I understand that she is here most days so you should have a good chance of seeing her.

From here you follow a path that twists and climbs past several more gates, of which the most ornate is the Suraj Pol or Sun Gate (look for the bats roosting in its shade). Once through the Suraj Pol the road turns back on itself as it climbs, passing beneath the Ganesh Pol and Hawa Pol (Gate of the Wind). The twists in the road enable it to climb steeply and also made the fort easier to defend – or rather, harder to attack.

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At Suraj Pol

Eventually you reach the square at the heart of the fort, the Dashera Chowk. From here a maze of narrow alleys weave through the fort, lined with old houses, many of them in beautifully carved stone. Many are still family homes, and only Brahmin families can live here, with the houses being passed down from father to son.

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Details of fort buildings

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Other houses have been turned into restaurants or hotels and this is causing some problems as the large amount of water they use drains away down through the sandstone and is causing damage to the historic structure. Most of the restaurants offer roof-top views and almost all claim to be the best. We later stopped for a cold drink at one and the view was certainly very good. Was it the best? I cannot say!

Gaurav explained that when he was growing up in Jaisalmer it was quite a poor city, with a lot of unemployment. This is a desert region where people struggle to grow many crops and there are few industries. But when tourists started to discover the city, things changed, and today they are the main source of income for most locals – working in hotels or restaurants, or as guides, or running desert tours etc. Perhaps that explains why they promote these services with such enthusiasm. Occasionally though this approach misfires. While I am sure we would all enjoy a “Lovely Jubble Camel Safari”, a “Bloody Good View” or maybe a stay in “Hotel Paradise”, I am not so sure about “Child Beer” or “Killa Corner”.

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Jaisalmer Fort signs

Our guide Gaurav lives here in the fort (he pointed out his own house as we passed) and naturally knows it really well. We spent quite a lot of the morning here, wandering the streets and taking photos. He took us down a number of back streets less often visited by tourists where often we were the only people apart from the residents – many of whom called out a greeting to Gaurav, and to us, as we passed.

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Locals

I was very much struck by the number and variety of lovely old doors here – some ornately carved, others painted in bright or more subtle colours. In the fort especially we saw that even newly built or restored houses followed the traditional styles and often had a particularly elaborate door even if the rest of the building was relatively plain. But it was the older ones that were the most photogenic to my eyes, having much more character. Here are a few of my favourite door photos, including one example of a more modern door so you can see the efforts people go to in order to keep up the levels of ornamentation – the residents here clearly take a lot of pride in the history and traditions of their city.

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Old doors

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Modern door

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This was a great opportunity to take loads of photos of all the little details that I love so much and which help to paint a picture of life in this rather unusual town within the fort. Gaurav explained much of what we were seeing – the “seven chillies and one lemon” hung outside many of the houses for luck, the Hindu swastika (also lucky), the paintings of Ganesh.

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On many of the old houses in Jaisalmer, both inside the fort and in the lower town, I noticed these colourful paintings of the god Ganesh, and asked Gaurav about them. He explained that it is the custom here to paint an announcement of a significant family event on the wall of the house, and a painting of Ganesh announces a wedding. The couple's names are given, and the date of the wedding. This is by way of open invitation – anyone can come along, regardless of if they know the families involved or not. With possibly several thousand to feed, as well as a dowry to find, marrying off your daughter can be an expensive business - and Gaurav told us that he has four!

Once the wedding is over the Ganesh painting remains until gradually with time it fades. Some may see these adornments on the walls of such historic buildings as defacing them, but houses, however old, are meant to be lived in and these customs are part of life here – proof, if needed, that Jaisalmer Fort is not a museum but a living town.

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Jain temples

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There are seven Jain temples within the small area of the fort, of which we visited two – Chandraprabhu (dating from 1452) and Rishabanatha (1479). These sit side by side on a small square in the south west part of the fort. You pay a small fee (in 2015 this was 200 IR plus an additional 50 IR for photography) which covers entry to both, and must leave your shoes, leather belts and bags, water bottles and any other food or drink outside. A man outside has the job of keeping an eye on your things. Note that a sign outside asks women not to enter at certain times of the month.

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Security guard at the temples

Inside the first, Chandraprabhu, Gaurav led us up to the balcony level and told us something about Jainism and its belief system. At its heart is respect for the welfare of every being in the universe and for the health of the universe itself. Jains believe that animals and plants, as much as human beings, contain living souls that should be equally valued and treated with respect and compassion. Unsurprisingly, Jains are strict vegetarians and live in a way that minimises their use of the world's resources – they were “green” long before most of the rest of the world realised the necessity of conservation. They believe in reincarnation and that the final reward for those who follow the religion’s tenets is an eventual escape from the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth to live for ever in a state of eternal bliss.

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In Chandraprabhu temple

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In Rishabanatha temple

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Monk in Chandraprabhu

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In Rishabanatha temple

There are no gods in Jainism – the faithful pray to 24 idols who represent the Tirthankaras – people who have achieved that liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and now show the path to others. The idols look to the uninitiated a little like Buddha, but you can recognise a Jain idol as it always sits with legs crossed and hands folded while the Buddha may be seen in a wide variety of poses. Jains follow three guiding principles, known as the “three jewels”: right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. The latter means following the five mahavratas or vows, of which the most important is non-violence and the others non-attachment to possessions, not lying, not stealing, and sexual restraint. There are two major sects: the Digambara (meaning "sky clad" – i.e. naked) sect and the Svetambara (meaning "white clad") sect.

Photography is permitted, even encouraged. We were to find when we visited the great Jain temple at Ranakpur later in our trip that there, photos of the idol are strictly prohibited, but that certainly isn’t the case here in Jaisalmer – in fact, a monk (or so I assumed he was) in the first temple suggested we took a photo (and of course make a donation in return). Of the two temples you can go into, the right hand one Rishabanatha, which was the second we visited, is better lit and therefore easier to photograph.

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In Rishabanatha temple

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Idol in Chandraprabhu temple

Laxmi Narayan Temple

We also saw a couple of Hindu temples in the fort and went into one, the Laxmi Narayan Temple, dedicated to Vishnu. Unlike the Jain temples, here there is no fee, but photography inside the building is strictly forbidden although you can take pictures in the courtyard outside.

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Outside Laxmi Narayan Temple

As the name suggests this temple is dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, but also to her husband Lord Vishnu – known as the preserver in the holy trinity of Hindu gods. It was built in 1494 but apart from that fact I have not been able to find out much about it.

Inside the temple people were bringing offerings of food to the priest or Brahmin. This food is later distributed to the poor. They ring a bell on entering, which shuts off the outside noise. Most of those we saw, including our guide, touched certain points on the different shrines inside, and a few were chanting. We felt somewhat privileged to have been invited inside but also slightly awkward, as this was no tourist sight but a genuine place of worship.

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View of the city from fort restaurant

From here we made our way to one of the restaurants at the edge of the fort (one of so many offering us "the best view") where we relaxed for a while over a cold drink, chatting more to Gaurav and planning the afternoon's activities.

But these are for another entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 02:05 Archived in India Tagged buildings people temple india fort rajasthan Comments (2)

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