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A city frozen in time

Uzbekistan day two


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View of Khiva from the Ark

‘Think, in this battered Caravanserai
Whose doorways are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his pomp
Abode his hour or two, and went his way.’

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The old town of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is a city frozen in time. The sun-baked clay of its walls encircles a wealth of ancient buildings which, more than any other destination in Uzbekistan, preserve intact the images of the Silk Road.

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Khiva street scene

The city is truly ancient; an historic resting point for caravans since biblical times – there are stories of visits by Shem, son of Noah, and by Mohammed. One legend tells how the latter gave the city its name, when he drank from the well here and exclaimed ‘khiva’, meaning sweet water.

Khiva rose to prominence in the region during the 16th century and for several hundred years was seen as a place of lawlessness where brigands, slave traders, and later spies operated within the seclusion offered by the surrounding desert. One story I loved was that of Robert Jefferson, an eccentric Englishman (why is there always an eccentric Englishman?!) who in the late 19th century rode his bicycle from Catford in South London to Khiva, surviving en route an encounter with Kazakh witches and creating terror among local tribes who viewed his means of transport with horror and suspicion.

For me Khiva proved to be a wonderful place to start our exploration of the Silk Road as it enabled me to get a strong sense of its history and visualise its past. The downside though is that this very intactness, and the thoroughness of the restoration work, meant that it did feel more like a museum or film-set than a living city, lacking the ‘realness’ of Bukhara or Samarkand.

One plus for us was that at that time at least (summer of 2007) it was much less visited than either of these, and in the intense heat of July we found only a small group of French tourists and a few Uzbek family groups exploring the city at the same time as ourselves. It was easy therefore to find myself for a moment or two at least the only person in a sun-baked lane, and to visualise myself back in those days of caravans and sultans.

Getting to Khiva

Khiva is rather a long way from anywhere else on the tourist route in Uzbekistan – a full and dusty day’s drive from Bukhara, for instance. Most tourists do as we did, flying to Urgench from Tashkent and then driving the 35 kilometres to Khiva by bus or taxi.

Our flight on Uzbekistan Airlines left Tashkent’s domestic terminal at 7.00 AM, meaning an early start for the 6.00 AM check-in (no joke when we’d only arrived in the country just over 24 hours earlier and had only 3 hours sleep the previous night!) The one hour flight was in a Tupolev 154 plane, which was very noisy and smelled disconcertingly of petrol. Carry-on luggage was stowed in overhead racks rather than lockers (i.e. without any doors), but somewhat to my amazement stayed in place throughout the flight, including take-off and landing. A small breakfast was served (roll with cheese and apricot jam, a soft drink and pack of salted nuts). There were views of the desert from both sides of the plane but no spectacular scenery that would make one side better than another as far as I could see. The landing was smooth and we were quite impressed with our flight despite the plane’s appearance – until, that is, we got off and saw the fire-truck frantically spraying water into the under-carriage to prevent the overheated tyres from catching fire!

At the airport it was a relatively short drive by bus to Khiva, where we arrived still quite early in the morning – time to check into our hotel, dump our bags, and set out on a walking tour of the city. But first, a few words about our hotel as it was certainly the most interesting of those we stayed in on this trip. And I use the word ‘interesting’ advisedly!

Hotel Khiva Madrassah

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Entrance portal, Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah

I start my comments on our hotel with a disclaimer: we stayed here as I have said in 2007 and I have two friends who have stayed here more recently, one of whom had a great experience and the other who, while not enthusing about the hotel, found only minor shortcomings.

Somewhat controversially, the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah (built by Mohammed Amin Khan in the 1850s), just inside the west gate of the old city, has been converted during its restoration into a hotel, and this is where we stayed.

The controversy concerns whether this use of an ancient Madrassah as a hotel is appropriate. UNESCO say no, and that it should be restored to its original purity, but to be honest I can’t see that happening. Everywhere you go in Uzbekistan the madrassahs are in use for different purposes – museums, bazaars etc. Only a very few are still used as religious seminaries, their original role. For me, this use seems no less appropriate than others, and maybe closer to the spirit of the original than some others. After all, these hajiras, or cells, were designed to be slept in, and the restoration hasn’t resulted in major re-design or destruction of character.

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Our hajira

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The rather basic bathroom

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As for our stay here, I found plusses and minuses to this hotel. One obvious plus is the location, just inside the old city walls. There is a stunning entrance gate (see photo above) which, coupled with the adjoining Kalta Minor, makes this a dramatic and a romantic pace to stay. The thick walls of the cells mean they stay relatively cool in the baking heat of summer, without the need for air-conditioning. The downsides back in 2007, however, included rather primitive plumbing, chipped and grubby-looking tiles in the bathroom, and an erratic water supply: we could get almost nothing from our hot tap, though others in our group did better. This latter however was a downside I can live with in temperatures of almost 50 degrees! More of a concern for me was that the beds felt damp, possibly a natural side-effect of those same thick walls, or possibly simply due to poor airing after laundering.

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Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah - architectural details

Anyway, check-in completed it was time for that tour. This was sensibly divided into two segments, with a break during the hottest part of the day for lunch and a siesta – or at least that was the plan!

Kalta Minor

We started our walk right by the hotel, as the Kalta Minor is attached to the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah. The name means ‘short minaret’ but it was not intended to be a short minaret at all, quite the opposite. It is said that it was commissioned by the khan in 1852 to be the tallest in the Islamic world, but that when he found out that the architect had secretly agreed to build an even taller one for the emir of Bukhara, the khan had him killed by being thrown off the minaret and it was never finished.

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The Kalta Minor

Whatever the truth of this legend, the reality is that this is 26 metres of stunning architecture. Its walls are totally covered with amazing tilework in a shade of rich jade typical of the Khivan style but seen much less in other parts of the country, and with bands of other shades that serve merely to make the jade look even more vibrant. As the sun moved around during the day I noticed that the colours shifted, and at night it was wonderfully illuminated.

Khiva’s city walls

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The Western Gate

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Khiva's walls

From the Kalta Minor we headed back to the entrance to the city through which we had come on our arrival an hour or so beforehand, the West Gate or Father Gate, Ota Darvoza. The old city of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is surrounded by ochre-coloured walls of sun-baked clay which form an effective barrier between the present-day world outside and the magical recreation of the past within. These walls change in appearance with the light at different times of day, and look at their best in the early morning or evening, when the clay glows warmly. At times they reminded me of the classic seaside sandcastle!

The walls are 2.2 kilometres in length (so you can see that this old city is not very large), strengthened along that length by forty bastions. They are truly ancient, dating in places from the 5th century. There are four gates, one in the centre of each side; the western gate, Ota Darvoza (meaning Father Gate); the northern, Bakcha Darvoza; the eastern, Palvan Darvoza; and the southern Tash Darvoza (Stone Gate). The first of these, the Ota Darvoza, is where most tourists enter the city, and is the most heavily restored, having been more or less completely rebuilt forty years ago (after having previous been pulled down to allow motor traffic to enter the city, something not now permitted except in a small area to the south of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah).

I found it interesting to go outside this gate – it jolted me back into the modern world from the film set that is Ichan Kala, and reminded me what real life looks like! Outside the walls was also a good place from which to get a sense of their solidity and structure, although I was to get an even better view shortly from the Kukhna Ark (the photo alongside).

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Outside the walls

Near the gate is a huge statue of Al-Khorezmi. If you’ve always hated algebra, here’s the man to blame! Mukhammad ibn Musa Al-Khorezmi lived about 780-850 AD and was the chief mathematician in an academy of sciences in Baghdad, though he came originally from Khorezm province. He is credited with introducing a decimal-based numbering system in the Arab world, and his name, corrupted by western attempts at pronunciation, gave rise to our word ‘algorithm’. He also wrote what is thought to be possibly the first book introducing the notion of algebra, which he called ‘al-jabr’, an Arabic word which I have found variously translated as ‘filling in’, ‘restoration’ or ‘calculation’. He also excelled in astronomy, producing tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time, and geography, reworking Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography and correcting several major miscalculations such as the length of the Mediterranean Sea.

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Statue of Al-Khorezmi

Kukhna Ark

Back inside the gates and a short walk along the main street, Polvon Qori, we came to the impressive Kukhna (also spelled variously as Kunya or Kuhna) Ark or fortress. This was the original residence of the khan, first built on this site in the 12th century by one Ok Shaykh Bobo. It was rebuilt and expanded by Arang Khan in the 17th century, and at the end of the 18th century, Kunya Ark became a ‘city within a city’, separated from Ichan Kala by a high wall. It was restored in the early 19th century.

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Entrance gate, Kukhna Ark

Entering through the old gate with its intricately carved wooden door and twin towers decorated with turquoise tilework, we found ourselves in the main courtyard, with the khan’s summer mosque, and the old mint, now a museum.

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The summer mosque

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Exhibit in the mint, showing how coins were minted

Beyond the first courtyard is another with the beautiful blue iwan of the Kurinish Khana or Throne Room.

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The iwan
- right-hand photo taken by my friend Sue

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Iwan detail

Here the khan would hold his royal audience – on the iwan itself during the summer, and in a yurt set up in the centre of the courtyard in the winter. The decoration of this small space is wonderful, with delicate tilework and ganch (carving in alabaster). Behind the iwan is the room that would originally have housed the throne itself – the one in place today is a replica, as the original is now on display in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

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The replica throne

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The steep steps

In the north western corner of the Kurinish Khana is the entrance to the Ark’s watch tower. For a small additional fee you can climb its 33 steps for a view of the fortress and the city beyond. My photo at the top of this page was taken here, as was the one Chris took of me with a group of Uzbek tourists which I included on my Uzbekistan introduction page.

Be warned though – these are ‘Khivan’ steps, i.e. very tall and steep, and they are very badly lit, so this isn’t a climb for the infirm or nervous. It is worth doing however, though when we went up in the morning the sun was shining from the wrong direction to get the very best views of the city. We planned to return later, but unfortunately the heat got the better of us before we got around to it, and a rest in our hotel room seemed the better option for our remaining free time this afternoon.

Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah

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Window, Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah

Opposite the Kukhna Ark we visited the history museum in this large madrassah. Although I found some of the exhibits tired and frankly dull, it was worth a look for the old photos of Khiva and the camera with which they were taken, and some interesting traditional musical instruments. There are also items of pottery, armour and clothing.

Also on this large square is the city’s jail, or Zindan, with a gruesome display of instruments of torture which is supplemented by graphic images showing them in use. The excellent guidebook I read as background to this trip, ‘Uzbekistan: the Golden Road to Samarkand’ (written by Calum MacLeod & Bradley Mayhew, published by Odyssey) describes some of most unpleasant Khivan forms of justice in some detail, quoting from Arminius Vambery’s ‘Travels in Central Asia’ (1864):

‘To have cast a look upon a thickly-veiled lady sufficed for the offender to be executed by the Redjin according as religion directs. The man is hung and the woman is buried up to the breast in the earth near the gallows, and there stoned to death. As in Khiva there are no stones, they use kesek (hard balls of earth). At the third discharge the poor victim is completely covered with dust, and the body, dripping with blood, is horribly disfigured, and the death which ensues alone puts an end to her torture.’

Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah

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Zoroastrian symbol

Walking back along Polvon Qori we turned south roughly halfway along its length and found ourselves on a smaller and less frequented street which lead us past several madrassahs, a number of which were in use as workshops.

We spotted a number of unusually shaped tiles set in the wall of one madrassah, just by the entrance. Our guide pointed out that this is a Zoroastrian symbol; we saw several such reminders of this ancient religion on our travels and were told that its beliefs have had a strong influence on Uzbek architecture.

We were disappointed not to be able to visit the silk- weaving one, which by the time we arrived had closed for lunch, but we were luckier at the Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah, where a wood-carving school operates. The young boys here were using their school holidays to learn a craft and were mainly engaged in carving the traditional wooden Koran stands that you find in all the tourist souvenir shops here. It would be a good place to buy one of these if you’re looking for one, but we focused instead on getting some photos of the boys as they worked, all of whom were very happy to pose.

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Young woodcarvers, Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah

Lunch break

After visiting the wood-carving school we were free for a few hours to seek some lunch and a break in the shade. Along with some others from our group we headed to the Chaikhana Zarafshan, in a small madrassah near the Museum of Applied Arts, choosing it because it had been recommended by our guide as having good food and air-conditioning; in the July heat even the shade in Khiva had become too much to bear by midday and we needed to cool down somewhere. We weren’t disappointed – we found an attractive large room, friendly service, tasty food and very reasonable prices. We drank a cold beer each in addition to the green tea, shared a couple of salads, some non (bread) and a single shashlik.

After lunch it was officially siesta time – our tour would resume in a couple of hours when it would be a little less hot. The sensible thing to do would have been to retire to the relative cool of our hajira back at the Hotel Khiva Madrassah, or to remain in this cool spot with another beer. But our time in Khiva was so limited that Chris and I decided to brave the burning sun to have a bit of a look around on our own.

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On Polvan Qori, the main street

It proved to be a hot but rewarding hour. As we wandered through the sun-baked streets and lanes, I enjoyed picking out all the details to add variety and atmosphere to my photos. A carved door, an especially beautiful piece of tile work, a small window letting in a shaft of light – all these helped to paint a vivid picture of this gem of a city. And the tranquillity of the side streets in particular made it seem as if nothing has changed here for centuries.

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Sun-baked street in Khiva

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Carved door

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Hats for sale

Even more so did my images of the people add to the story I hoped my photos would tell. As was the case everywhere we went in Uzbekistan, most were very happy to have their pictures taken – friendly shopkeepers, smiling children and Uzbek families visiting the sights.

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Shop-keeper

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Young tourists happy to pose

In several spots in the old town we saw these ‘photo opportunities’, where tourists could dress up in traditional costume and pose in elaborate settings. It was far too hot though for us to want to put on layers of heavy clothing or thick furry hats, even if we’d wanted to pay for the privilege of looking a bit silly! There was also a place where you could be photographed with a camel (who was called Misha according to my guidebook) but I’m fond of camels and it didn’t seem to me that he was very happy with his lot so I kept away in order not to encourage this practice.

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Khivan photo opportunity (by Chris)

The Juma Mosque

We knew we were going to be visiting Khiva’s old Friday mosque later when our walking tour recommenced, but we had been told by our guide that if we wanted to, we could also visit alone this afternoon, and that if we gave her name at the entrance we could avoid paying an entrance fee as those looking after the mosque would know that our fee has been paid already. This proved to be the case, and I was very grateful for her advice, as it meant that we could soak up the special atmosphere of this unique building when it was almost empty (there was just one other visitor here) before later returning with the group to benefit from the guide’s expert knowledge and interpretation of what we were seeing.

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In the Juma Mosque

I found this a magical space, unlike any other building I saw in Uzbekistan (or have seen anywhere, though others in the group who’d travelled in Turkey said they’d visited similar mosques there). It is almost completely unadorned, apart from the small mihrab (niche) and central pool, but derives its special atmosphere from the forest of wooden pillars that support its roof. I use the word ‘forest’ with care, for that is exactly the sensation I had – of being in a small forest or wood, the light diffused and filtered by the trees, and the possibility of magic just around the corner. What must it have been like to have worshipped here in the days when it was the main Friday mosque of the city? And in fact there are trees, two of them, growing up through the building almost organically, as if it is slowly returning to the nature that provided the wood for all those other stately columns.

Leaving the mosque we went to see if the silk carpet weaving workshop had reopened but it hadn’t although we were able to get some photos in the courtyard outside.

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In the courtyard outside the carpet workshop

At this point the heat defeated us, and we returned to the hotel for a much-needed rest and cold drink.

Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum

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The Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum

When our tour resumed later in the afternoon, our first stop was here, the holiest spot in all of Khiva, the tomb of its patron saint known variously as Palvan Pir the wrestler saint, Pirar Vali the Persian poet, Mahmoud the furrier. This hero of local folklore died in 1325, and a small mausoleum was built on the site of his furrier shop which later grew to become the imposing and beautiful structure we can see here today.

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Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum: entrance to the mosque

We entered through a gate on the south side to find ourselves in a smallish courtyard with the main mosque on the far side. We were surrounded by colour – an intense blue that mimics the Khivan sky. We took off our shoes to enter the mosque – unlike many of the decommissioned mosques we visited on our travels in Uzbekistan, this is a holy place. There were several sarcophagi in the first room we came to but the tomb of Pakhlavan Mahmoud is in a separate room, beautifully decorated and protected by a screen.

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The tomb

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In the Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum

Another room on the west side of the courtyard was intended to hold the tomb of one of the khans, Isfandyer, but he was assassinated outside the city walls so by local law couldn’t be buried within them. His son suffered a similar fate, so only his mother lies here out of the three for whom it was originally constructed. The room was in a poor state of repair, so we couldn’t enter, but peering in gave me a sense of what the restorers of Khiva (and elsewhere in the country) had rescued for us to appreciate today. I wonder if this room too has since been restored?

From outside the complex, especially from the street that skirts its eastern edge, we could see the large number of small tombs scattered around it. People believed that to be buried close to a holy man was to buried closer to heaven, so many holy sites are surrounded in this way (the Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, which we were to visit a few days later, is another good example).

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The Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum, surrounded by other tombs

Islam Khodja Minaret & Madrassah

Almost everywhere we went in Khiva we could see the tall slim Islam Khodja minaret, its more subtle bands of colour and elegant shape the perfect foil for the squat and spectacularly coloured Kalta Minor. At nearly 45 metres, and dating from 1910, this is by far the youngest, as well as the tallest, of the city’s three minarets, and affords a wonderful view for those who have the stamina to climb it. I regret to say that, in 45 degrees of heat, I was not among them!

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The Islam Khodja Minaret

The madrassah that bears the same name was home then (it has since moved I believe) to the Museum of Applied Arts, which I found to be the most interesting by far of Khiva’s small museums. The route led us from one small hajira to the next to see a diverse collection of costume (some of them with really stunning embroidery work), ceramics, wood carving etc.

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Mosaics in the Applied Arts Museum

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Colourful shop near the Applied Arts Museum

Juma Mosque: group visit

As expected, our tour took in the Juma Mosque which we had already visited earlier in the afternoon, but I was happy to have the chance to return to this magical space and learn more about it.

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In the Juma Mosque

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Column details

We were told that while the mosque was built in the late 18th century (rebuilding the 10th century one which stood on this site), some of its 213 columns are truly ancient. The four oldest were taken from an earlier building in Kath (the one-time capital of Khorezm) in the 10th century, and another seventeen are only 100 years younger. On the other hand, a few are very new, replacing older ones during the restoration process in the latter half of the 20th century. And in accordance with Islamic beliefs, the carving on each is different – only God should be allowed the perfection of symmetry.

Tash Hauli Palace

Towards the eastern end of the old town lies the Tash Hauli, or Stone, Palace, the final stop on our walk through the past. We entered through the imposing stone gatehouse to visit the impressive reception courtyard, the Ishrat Hauli, its walls covered with beautiful blue and white tile work, and a raised platform at its centre for the yurt that would have sheltered the khan and his royal guests in winter months. This courtyard is apparently now used for occasional musical performances and we saw some of the performers relaxing there and posing for photos.

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In the Ishrat Hauli

To see the even more impressive harem courtyard it was necessary to leave the palace and re-enter on the far side as the secret corridor linking it to the main complex (to be used only by the khan) was currently closed off. This harem court, lying somnolent in the hot sun, is redolent of past intrigue and a very different world. Standing at its centre I tried to imagine what life must have been like for these women: sheltered totally from the world, given all the basic necessities of life apart from one – the freedom to leave. And of course, there only to ‘serve’ the khan. In the oppressive heat of a July afternoon it was easy to feel as they must have done, enclosed and stifled.

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The harem court

The rooms to our right as we entered the courtyard (on its the northern side) are those that would have been occupied by these women (or more likely girls), while the more luxurious ones on the left were for the khan’s four legal wives. There would also have been a couple of servants here to look after the girls: an old woman and a eunuch. We climbed the short flight of stairs to the balcony of the girls’ quarter to get a closer look at the beautifully decorated ceilings of the rooms and a bird’s eye view of the courtyard.

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Colourful ceiling

This was as I said our last visit of the afternoon, and after it we walked back to the hotel to cool off over a soft drink in the courtyard with some others from our group, before getting ready for dinner.

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The 'bar' in the Hotel Khiva Madrassah

Mizorboshi B&B restaurant

There aren’t (or at least weren’t back then) a lot of restaurants in Khiva, but it was possible by booking in advance to arrange to have dinner at one of the several homes in the old city which provided bed & breakfast. Most of our group adopted our guide Marat’s suggestion to do this at the Mizorboshi B&B and we had a very pleasant evening here.

We ate in the courtyard of this old house, still a little hot even at 7.00 pm but generally a relaxing place to sit, and were well served by the son and daughter of the family. We started with non and a good variety of salads – as well as the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber, and eggplant, there were slices of fried courgette and a juicy beetroot dish. These were followed by a plate of mixed stuffed vegetables – cabbage, courgette and green pepper, each filled with the standard mutton and onion mix (though the one vegetarian in our group was catered for with a suitable alternative). As one of our number had a birthday that day, the family provided a cake, complete with candles, for our dessert.

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Table set for dinner

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Stuffed vegetables

We had a rather nice encounter after the meal too. The teenage son who’d served us at dinner came running after us when we left. We thought maybe we hadn’t paid enough for our meal, but no – he had overheard us talking about football and was keen to spend some time chatting to us about his favourite European teams and practising his English (which was already very good). The conversation finished with an exchange of email addresses so we could continue the football chat after our return home!

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The Kalta Minor at night

We then continued our walk back to the hotel, finding that strolling the streets after dark in an atmosphere so redolent of past wonders was a special pleasure, making our overnight stay here far more rewarding than visiting on a day trip from nearby Urgench, even if it did mean sleeping on slight damp mattresses!

But before that we needed a night-cap, and found one in the 'bar' in the courtyard of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah / hotel which was totally in keeping with the special night-time atmosphere here. There was no menu; instead the choice of drinks was set out on a low wall (soft drinks, beer, wine or vodka - see photo above taken earlier in the day) and were retrieved from the cool of the room below by a willing ‘bar tender’. We sat then in the cool of this pretty courtyard, surrounded by the old stones and cells of the madrassah, with the stars overhead and little in the way of noise or bustle to disturb our tranquillity.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:09 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque restaurant history hotel fort flight palace city museum crafts uzbekistan khiva street_photography Comments (8)

The beauty of the spirit

Uzbekistan day four


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A traditional saying tells us that:
‘Samarkand is the beauty of the earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit’
and another that:
‘In all other parts of the globe light descends upon the earth, from holy Bukhara it ascends’

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

Certainly, this is where Uzbekistan really came to life for me. In the ancient streets of Bukhara history weaves itself effortlessly around the present-day lives of its people. Here you get a real sense of continuity – the world of the Silk Road caravans isn’t preserved in the aspic of Khiva, nor tucked into islands among the modern-day bustle of Samarkand, but is an ever-present backdrop to daily life. To walk these streets, duck through the low arches of the caravanserai and trading domes, sit for a while over green tea by the pool of Lyab-i-Huaz; this is what people of this city have done for centuries.

We had a very full day here, sightseeing mainly with our group but also exploring a little bit on our own. I would have welcomed a second day, in order to go back to some of the most interesting sights and also simply to wander the streets or sit for a while in a Lyab-i-Hauz chaikhana to absorb the special atmosphere which for me was one of the main highlights of Bukhara.

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The breakfast room at the Hotel Mosque Baland

Our day started with breakfast which was served in the same lovely room where we had enjoyed tea and cake the previous evening. Unfortunately, I was suffering a little with ‘Uzbek tummy’, although not as badly as some travelling companions had done or were doing. I was very careful about what I ate and felt well enough to go out on the tour. In fact, my stomach settled pretty quickly once we were out and about, and I snacked on some bread saved from breakfast an hour or so later!

Ismael Samani Mausoleum

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The Ishmail Somani Mausoleum from Pioneer Park

The first stop on our tour was at this striking small mausoleum set in a park to the west of the old town – striking because of its simplicity and perfect symmetry. Built at the beginning of the tenth century, it is the first known example of the use of fired bricks in Central Asia. And these bricks are used to stunning advantage, to produce eighteen different types of decorative effect. The patterns of light and shade thus created are the building’s only adornment – there is no sign here of the rich colourful tile-work seen elsewhere in the country.

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The Ismael Samani Mausoleum

The design of the mausoleum is strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism, a religion which was practiced in this part of the world before the days of Islam, and also by the mathematical discoveries of al-Khorezmi, whose story is told in my Khiva entry. Its almost two-metre thick walls form a 10.8 metre cube with identical sides, topped by a small dome. The cube is considered to symbolise the earth, and the dome heaven.

The mausoleum was built originally for Ismail Samani’s father but was used also for Samani himself and thus bears his name. A legend tells that he ruled for more than 40 years even after his death, and that even after his death he would still come to the aid of his people when they needed justice. They would come to his mausoleum, pray and put their statements on his tomb. The next day they would receive the answer and their problems would be solved. It seems some people must still believe this legend, because I saw several notes left on the tomb with a small sum of money.

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Inside the Ishmail Somani Mausoleum

Pioneer Park

The Ismael Samani Mausoleum lies in a small park, which we were told was the Pioneer Park but which present-day maps name as Samonids Recreation Park. We had a little time to wander around here. It was still quite early in the day, but it struck me that this is a good place to come if you want to see Bukharans at play.

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Boating in Pioneer Park

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The lake with city walls beyond

There were some slightly scruffy looking children’s fairground rides, which I thought unlikely to have passed a health and safety examination here in the UK! Beyond these was the lake, popular with families and couples already out enjoying the peddle boats, and beyond that we saw a short stretch of the old city walls of Bukhara, dating from the 16th century and now in a poor state of repair though they once stood 10 metres high and 5 metres thick. We were told that the reason for their dilapidated state was that the clay of which they were built was much prized for the medicinal qualities of some of the chemicals it contains.

Bolo Hauz

From the Pioneer Park we drove the short distance to Bolo Hauz, after which our tour would be on foot for the rest of the morning.

Bolo Hauz, the ‘mosque near the pool’, is Bukhara’s Friday mosque and is again being used as such after the years of Soviet rule when it served as a workers’ club and a warehouse, having been restored to its former (1712) glory.

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

The exterior is adorned with a beautiful 12 metre high iwan, one of the highest in Central Asia. The shape of this echoes that of the mosque in the Ark which we were headed to after this, and was designed to form a beautiful reflection in the pool opposite, though on our visit this was sadly too murky to produce the desired effect. The colours are vibrant, and the many wooden pillars are all different, as is usual in Islamic architecture – only God is allowed the perfection that would be created by making them all alike.

The interior is relatively simple, as is usual in Suni mosques, with only the mihrab showing rich colours. Incidentally, the upper part of this mihrab is original. I loved the relative simplicity of the cobweb-like design on the ceiling.

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Inside Bolo Hauz Mosque

I was surprised, but pleased, to find that in Uzbekistan there seem to be no restrictions on entering practising mosques, providing you show respect and remove your shoes. Unlike in other Muslim countries there is no requirement to be especially modest in your dress, and in most places photography is allowed. In return for this welcome, we left a small donation – the state here recognises Islam and allows its practice but doesn’t support it financially, so tourist contributions are important.

The man who had shown us around was keen to pose for us, as was the imam outside as we left.

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In Bolo Hauz Mosque

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Imam outside Bolo Hauz Mosque

The Ark

The Ark or fortress of Bukhara lies immediately east of Bolo Hauz. There has been a fortress on this site for as long as the city of Bukhara has existed, though the one we see now dates largely from the 16th century. It was considerably destroyed in 1920 – at first when attacked during the conquest of Bukhara by the Red Army, under Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze, and then by fire, burned either by the attacking forces or by the retreating emir. Today, therefore, it consists of a mixture of old elements from various periods and other parts that have been restored fairly recently. At its height it would have housed the emir, his family and servants, and over 3,000 other inhabitants in its palace, harem, treasury, barracks, dungeon and slave quarters.

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Entrance to the Ark

We ascended a stone ramp, which climbs from the empty expanse of the Registan square, and entered through the western gateway, which dates from 1742. From here the dolom, a winding passageway tall enough to allow a man on horseback to enter without dismounting, leads past a row of prison cells and torture chambers, and today’s inevitable tourist souvenir stalls. Climbing up here I found it easy, despite these modern-day trappings, to imagine how hard this fortress would have been to attack, and how this sombre entrance might have struck terror in those who had reason to fear the emir’s power.

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The mosque in the Ark

We emerged by the Ark’s only remaining mosque built at the end 18th century. Although partly ruined, the pillars of rare sycamore are impressive and its shape echoes that of the Bolo Hauz Mosque opposite. It now houses an interesting display of calligraphy. In Tashkent we had seen the ancient Koran displayed in the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, so I was pleased to find here its replica which (unlike the original) can be photographed. On my Tashkent page you can read the story of how Chris came to photograph the original!

A little further into the complex we came to the Throne Room, the kurinesh khana. This is largely ruined, due to the 1920 fire, but you can still see the iwan where coronations took place and the remnants of the impressive tilework on the gate.

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The throne room

A number of museums are to be found in the different buildings that still stand within the Ark, including a good local history museum and a very unremarkable (unless you like moth-eaten stuffed animals!) natural history one. In the main courtyard were stables for the horses – apparently when the horses and their stalls were washed down each day the dirty water was swept down the slope of the courtyard and down into the prison cells directly below. Also off this courtyard is the viewing platform that the women of the emir’s court would use to look out over the Registan below without themselves being seen.

And why would they want to look out over the Registan? This once-great square which surrounded the Ark was the heart and soul of Bukhara. pokes led out from the Registan to the four corners of the globe and a seething mass of hawkers, barbers, beggars, butchers, bakers, dervishes and courtiers thronged the bustling square.

In this vast square, under the emir’s reign, tortures and executions would be carried out, and, under the Soviets, mass rallies took place. In those earlier days of executions and flogging the Registan would have looked more like that in Samarkand, surrounded by madrassahs and mosques. All these were cleared away by the Soviets to create the wide-open space we see now, where until 1992 a statue of Lenin took pride of place.

My guidebook described the present-day Registan as ‘leafy’ and an ‘island of green’ but what we saw was anything but – an empty paved expanse baking in the hot sun and crossed swiftly by women shaded by colourful parasols and tourists eager to reach the shade of the Ark’s great gateway.

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The walls of the Ark from the Registan

This is a place though in which to pause and remember all those who were tortured and executed – the dark side to Bukhara’s beauty. The British pair of Connolly and Stoddart for instance, whose lack of deference (as exhibited by not dismounting in his presence and offering too few expensive gifts) offended the emir. After years of suffering in the nearby gaol, the Zindan, they were finally beheaded in this square, but not before they had been forced to dig their own graves.

Up to this point on our tour I had been suffering a little with the after-effects of my earlier attack of ‘Uzbek tummy’ which maybe explains why I took fewer photos than I would normally do. But as I started to feel better I also started to feel hungry, and as we stood in the shade of the Ark listening to our guide I ate the bread salvaged from breakfast. Revitalised by this I started to take in my surroundings more thoroughly and the spell of Bukhara captivated me.

Just as well, as we had a lot more to see, starting with the nearby Poi Kalon complex

Poi Kalon

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Poi Kalon complex

In terms of scale at least, the Poi Kalon complex is probably the most impressive of Bukhara’s sights. A great Friday mosque and working madrassah face each other across the square, both dwarfed, in height at least, by the elegant 48 metre high minaret.

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The Kalon Minaret

This has stood here since 1127, having survived an onslaught on the city by Ghengis Khan (who was so awed by the minaret he spared it from destruction), attack by a Soviet shell in 1920 and an earthquake in 1976. One reason for its durability is the care that went into its construction: its foundations go down to a depth of 13 metres and the architect devised a special mortar mixed from camel’s milk, egg yolk and bull’s blood!

In addition to its main purpose, namely the call to Friday prayer at the great Kalon Mosque, the minaret has served as a lookout tower in times of war and as a beacon – a ‘lighthouse’ for those ships of the desert, the camel trains. Its darkest purpose though was to serve as a ‘Tower of Death’, when the city’s worst criminals would be led up the 105 steps to the top, tied up in a sack and thrown to their deaths – a form of punishment that persisted here until the mid 19th century and, like the tortures that took place in the Registan square, a graphic reminder that Bukhara, for all its charm, has been for much of its existence a desperate place.

Today the minaret has been restored (the aforementioned Soviet shell had clipped one corner) and stands almost as a symbol of the city. It is decorated quite simply but beautifully in bands of patterned brickwork. Near the top a ring of turquoise tiles is thought to be probably the first use of coloured majolica tilework in the region. It is possible to climb the tower on payment of a small fee inside the mosque, and I rather regret that we didn’t have time to do this (like so many other things in Bukhara), although the heat would have made it a daunting climb perhaps.

Kalon Mosque

This is the largest mosque in Uzbekistan, and the second largest in central Asia with a capacity in its huge courtyard for up to 12,000 worshippers. Unlike its minaret, the 8th century original was destroyed by Ghengis Khan on his invasion of Bukhara in 1219, when he stood on this spot to order that the pages of the Quran be trampled beneath the feet of his horses and the whole of Bukhara (with the exception only of the Kalon Minar) be destroyed.

This present-day building then dates ‘only’ from 1514. When completed it could hold 10,000 worshippers, the entire male population of the city at the time. Although it is a working mosque, visitors are welcome, for a small charge (and an additional fee if you wish to take photos which you will!)

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Entrance to the Poi Kalon courtyard

We entered through the magnificent portal, passed through a cool lobby area and emerged into the bright light and heat of the huge central courtyard.

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The courtyard

On the four sides of the courtyard are colonnades of arches and in the centre of each a further portal allows entry to the cool stone interior with its rows of stone columns and vaulted ceilings that reminded us of a western cathedral. As in Khiva’s mosque, a sense of tranquillity and isolation from the bustle of the city pervades these walls.

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In the mosque
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Looking out from the colonnades

Back in the courtyard, our guide pointed out the central octagonal pavilion, a 19th century addition designed to improve the acoustics and amplify the voice of the Imam as he delivers his Friday sermon.

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Octagonal pavilion, with entrance to courtyard beyond

Above the mihrab in the western section is the beautiful turquoise dome, the Kok Gumbaz. An inscription around its base reads ‘Immortality belongs to Allah’.

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The dome of the mosque

Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

Immediately opposite the Kalon Mosque, and with it and its minaret forming the complex known collectively as Poi Kalon or ‘Pedestal of the Great’, lies a madrassah. This was then (2007), and is still as far as I know, one of only three working madrassah in the country – a religious seminary in a country only just rediscovering its Islamic roots after years of Soviet secularism.

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Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

The building dates from the mid 16th century and has been in use for most of that time, only closing from 1925-1946 under the Soviets, who in the later part of their rule reopened it as a concession to the region. Today roughly 125 students live and study here, so the madrassah is firmly closed to tourists. You are however permitted to step just inside the impressive portal and may catch a glimpse of the working life of the seminary as we did; my photo shows students in the courtyard who appeared to be taking time off from their studies to clean rugs spread out on the paving stones.

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Peeking into Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

But even if this peek inside is denied you, the madrassah repays your visit with its beautiful façade (best seen in the late afternoon so my morning photo doesn’t really do it justice) and the rich jade of its twin domes.

Carpet weaving shop

Crossing the road from the Poi Kalon complex we visited this UNESCO-sponsored carpet weaving shop. Although we weren’t interested in buying, I found this a worthwhile visit. We were welcomed with green tea and given an explanation of the techniques used in creating the beautiful silk carpets and also the traditional suzanni made and sold here. We were told how a girl would include different motifs in the design of her embroideries to give prospective suitors an indication of her character, such as a snake for cleverness.

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Carpet weaver

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Weaving technique

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Silks for carpet making

No one minded us taking photos, and as a bonus there were clean toilets for visitors’ use – not something to be taken for granted in Uzbekistan!

Ulug Beg Madrassah

Bukhara has two sets of what are known as kosh madrassah, a facing pair of madrassahs (kosh means double). The pair we visited was that on the northern edge of the old town (the other is in the west near the Ismael Samani Mausoleum) where they face each other across Khodja Nurobod Street.

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

On the north side of the street is the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the older of the two by over 200 years. It is a Sunni madrassah (unlike its Shia companion) and was built in 1417, one of three in the country to be commissioned by Ulug Beg (the others are at the Registan in Samarkand and in Gijduvan to the east of Bukhara). The rich blue of its tilework, although incomplete, includes a scattering of stars to reflect the ruler’s passion for astronomy, and a beautiful twisted rope design framing the arch.

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At the Ulug Beg Madrassah

Inside, in the mosque to the right of the entrance, is a small museum devoted to the story of restoration work in Bukhara. I was interested to see some old photos showing the Kalon Minaret before restoration, with its top damaged by the Soviet shell, as well as several good examples of original tilework.

Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah on the south side of the road is the newer Abdul Aziz Madrassah (built in 1652). Unfortunately (perhaps because of the poor light) I don’t appear to have taken any photos of its exterior, which is unrestored but shows clearly the use of different colours in addition to the usual blues and greens, such as yellows introduced to this region by the Iranians.

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Ceiling of the mosque in Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Another departure from the usual practice is the use of floral motifs, especially in the mosque, as my photo of its ceiling shows. This is a Shia madrassah and the ban on images of living creatures was not so strictly observed as it would usually be in a Sunni building. This mosque, on the right-hand side as you enter, is the chief attraction here as its decoration is quite breath-taking, but you can also visit a first floor room on the far right-hand side of the courtyard which shows more intricate floral patterns and the traditional Uzbek niche decorations.

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Detail of frieze in a first floor room, Abdul Aziz Madrassah

The trading domes

More than any other sight or historical building, it was seeing and learning about the trading domes that brought ancient Bukhara to life for me. At the height of its powers as a centre of trade, Bukhara had five great bazaars or toks. These vaulted stone buildings straddled the intersections of the various trading routes that converged on the city. Their great arched entrances were high enough to allow a laden pack camel to enter, and each was devoted to a particular trade.

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The Tok-i-Zargaron

The Tok-i-Zargaron, or Jewellers’ Trading Dome, is the largest and most northerly of the three that remain. The building dates from 1570 and was the centre for the trade in gold and other precious metals, gems and coral. Nowadays, like the other two bazaars to the south, it houses a number of stalls selling tourist souvenirs; nevertheless it isn’t difficult to imagine it in the days when merchants haggled here and deals were struck, while camels and donkeys waited patiently as their heavy bundles were unloaded.

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The domes of the Tok-i-Zargaron

Seen from a distance you can appreciate the complexity of the arrangement of domes that makes up this building, with the large central one surrounded by many smaller ones, as though they had been breeding!

Among the souvenir stalls we found a wonderful stall selling spices and herbs. The smell that wafted towards us as we approached was truly enticing, and the display a photographer’s, and cook’s, delight! We were offered what the owner, Mirfayz, described as ‘magic tea’ to taste, and it was so delicious we bought some – two large bags in fact. The tea was made from six spices: cardamom, cloves, oregano, star anise, mint, and cinnamon. When brewing it himself Mirfayz told us that he always adds a little saffron, as he had to ours. What a wonderful, reviving drink in that heat!

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Saffron at the Silk Road Spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron

To the south of the Tok-i-Zargaron lies the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon or Cap Makers’ Bazaar. This is of a more complex construction than the others as it straddles not a simple crossroads but a meeting of five routes. Its irregular corners and arches once sheltered stalls displaying the various styles of headgear favoured here – gold-embroidered hats, colourful skull caps, fur hats for the cold desert winters. Now like its neighbours to the north and south it houses craft and souvenir stalls.

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In the the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon

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Scissors shaped like a stork

There are also several blacksmiths’ workshops and stalls, selling the traditional Bukharan scissors in the shape of a stork. Not all are of the quality of those sold in the Museum of the Blacksmith’s Art, just to the south of the bazaar, but the prices are lower and haggling encouraged, so we returned later to buy a pair as a gift for Chris’s father who had set up a sort of mini-museum displaying various objects we had bought him or acquired on our travels. After my in-laws died these scissors were one of the objects we kept from their house and they now hang in our kitchen among many other souvenirs from all over the world.

Just north of the entrance to the bazaar was a smithy. The blacksmith was working outside on his anvil and happy to pose for photos.

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The blacksmith

The Tok-i-Sarrafon or Money Changers’ Bazaar, is the smallest and most southerly of the remaining great trading domes. We didn’t visit this on our tour, but Chris and I had seen and photographed it the previous evening without realising its significance. As the name suggests, this bazaar was home to the Punjabi money-changers, whose activities were critical to the trade of Bukhara. Here traders from many lands would exchange their money for the bronze pul, silver tenge and gold tilla that made up the currency in use here. Also here would have been the stalls of the money-lenders, no doubt no less essential to Bukhara’s success as a centre of trade.

Magok-i-Attari Mosque

Walking towards Lyab-i-Hauz we passed the Magok-i-Attari Mosque, which I had also photographed last night. There has been a place of worship on this site for 2,000 years. Today’s mosque was built in the 12th century on top of a Zoroastrian temple, which in turn had been built on a Buddhist monastery and that on a heathen shrine.

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Magok-i-Attari Mosque

My photo shows the main southern portal, rich in elaborate brickwork but with touches too of other decorative styles – carved turquoise tiles still cling to the arch and either side are panels of ornate ganch. This portal, still used as the main entrance, dates back to the original 12th century building, while the eastern façade was added in the 16th century and the two small domes restored in the 20th following their collapse in an earthquake a century earlier. Nowadays the mosque serves as a carpet museum, which we didn’t have time to visit unfortunately.

By the time we reached the pool it was lunch-time. It had been a long morning and we were ready for a break, as no doubt are you! So I will continue this tour on a separate page, after lunch ...

Posted by ToonSarah 18:11 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque history fort market shopping city spices crafts bukhara Comments (16)

See more than the Taj Mahal

India day two continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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)

Hilltop citadel

India day four


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The Amber Fort

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Amber Fort from Maota Lake

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

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Gardener in the fort

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

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

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

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

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

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Fortified hilltop

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Stilt and egret

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

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Pilgrims by Maota Lake

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Elephant or jeep?

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

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

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

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Musician by arrival area

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

Jaleb Chowk

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

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Jaleb Chowk

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

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

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

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Jaleb Chowk and Suraj Pol

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Suraj Pol

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Pilgrims and pilgrim flag

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

Diwan-i-Am

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

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Diwan-i-Am

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

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View of Maota Lake and Kesar Kyaari

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

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Taking a break from restoration work

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Restoring the Diwan-i-Am

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

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

Ganesh Pol

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Ganesh Pol

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

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Ganesh

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Ganesh Pol decorations

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In the Suhag Mandir

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

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

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

Aram Bagh and Sukh Mandir

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

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Aram Bagh and sweeper

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Sukh Mandir details

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

Jai Mandir and Sheesh Mahal

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Sheesh Mahal

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

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Sheesh Mahal

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

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

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Jai Mandir: details of carvings

The Zenana

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Our guide

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

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

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

Jal Mahal: the Lake Palace

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Jal Mahal

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

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

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Egret, heron and cormorants

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

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

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

Into the Thar Desert

India day five


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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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