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Rajasthan: Land of Kings


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Jaisalmer

Picture India, and you are quite likely picturing Rajasthan. A land of ruined fortresses and long-abandoned palaces whose stones speak evocatively of past maharajas. A desert land where rural life is tough and little-changed over the centuries, yet vibrant and full of colour. A land whose people know how to celebrate and how to welcome strangers.

There is also an excellent tourist infrastructure, so it is an easy place to visit. Many of those old forts and palaces have been converted into hotels, ranging from the rather special to downright luxurious. The cuisine is varied and excellent, there is music and dance wherever you go and people are friendly and keen to engage with you. The distances between the major cities, though sometimes long, are easily covered by car or train, or on a tour, so you can see a lot in a couple of weeks, as we did.

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Jaisalmer and Chittaurgarh
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Udaipur and Ranakpur

Our trip to Rajasthan was a private tour with a driver, Mehar, who stayed with us throughout. In most of the cities we visited we also had a guide, but in some, where no sightseeing tour was included, we had what little assistance we needed from Mehar, as we did also on the road if we made sightseeing stops.

We originally planned on doing a group tour in India - not because we prefer travelling with a group (though we have enjoyed a few such tours in the past) but because my parents' frail health at that time made booking not too far in advance a priority and therefore organising a tailor-made tour somewhat harder. But when we contacted TransIndus about their "Rajasthan: Land of Kings" tour, which seemed to visit a good selection of major sights but also the off path places that interested us just as much, we were told that no one else had booked that tour for our chosen dates and that for an additional £125 per person we could do it as a private tour. We wouldn't have a guide to accompany us throughout, but would travel in a car between all the places on the route and have a guide in each. That seemed a good deal to us so we booked the tour and also a suggested extension to take in Ranthambore for (hopefully) some tiger-spotting. The places we visited included a couple outside Rajasthan, but I include them here for the sake of completeness:

Delhi part one and part two
Agra part one and part two
Fatehpur Sikri
Abhaneri
Amer (for the Amber Fort)
Jaipur
Khimsar
Khichan
Jaisalmer part one and part two
Dechu
Jodhpur
Narlai
Ranakpur
Udaipur
Chittaurgarh
Bundi
Ranthambore

A tribute to Mehar, our driver

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We first met Mehar in Delhi, where, along with our guide there, Rajesh, he met us at the airport on arrival and the next day drove us around the city, coping admirably with the challenges of the manic Delhi traffic. He then drove down to Agra, meeting us off the train there the next day and driving us on our sightseeing tour there too. But it was only on the following day, when the three of us set off together on the long drive to Jaipur without an accompanying guide, that we started to get to know him. We were to find that when a guide was with us Mehar largely kept quiet and focused only on driving, but that once alone with him he would become not only driver but also unofficial guide, telling us a lot about the places we were passing through and about the way of life in India. We also learned about him and his family - his village in the north, his wife and children, his life as a driver. In return he asked us about England - what it was like to drive there (very, very different from India, we said), houses, lifestyle.

Throughout our tour he looked after us very well; he drove safely (by Indian standards!), recommend good places for us to grab some lunch or a cold drink (none of which caused us any health problems) and was always willing to stop for photos when we asked, and to spot good photo opps even when we didn't - antelopes, camels, farming activity, etc. He also added a few additional sightseeing stops not on the TransIndus itinerary, such as the Demoiselle Cranes at Khichan.

Mehar is not an employee of the tour company but a freelance driver, and he also arranges and leads tours himself. He doesn't profess to be an expert guide to the historical sites, where he instead arranges local guiding or audio guides, but he has more than enough knowledge about the many destinations of interest to tourists to be able to both organise a tour and provide general guiding and information as you travel, based on our experience. If you'd like to cut out the middleman and book a tour in northern India directly with an excellent and experienced driver, you could do far worse than contact Mehar via his website: Raj India Tours

Our time with Mehar ended when he dropped us at the Tiger Den Resort in Ranthambore. We were sad to say goodbye to him, but very happy to see him again briefly when we bumped into him at the station in Delhi where he was picking up another couple of tourists who had been on the same train as ourselves. They will have had a safe transfer to their hotel, I am sure, but they weren't as fortunate as we were to have had the pleasure of travelling with and getting to know a great driver, Mehar Chand.

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With Mehar in Ranthambore

Rural Rajasthan

One reason for choosing the tour that we did was that it would take us to some of the smaller, less visited towns and villages of Rajasthan. We were interested not only in seeing the major sites such as the Amber Fort , and the famous cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, but also in seeing how people lived and meeting some of the locals. Driving between the cities with Mehar we were able to stop from time to time to take photos, and he was keen to help us see a variety of aspects of rural life in the state and quick to understand the photo opps we were interested in and to find them for us.

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Life is tough in many parts of this largely desert state. Families do manage to grow some crops but it is hard work, especially as many have to work without modern machinery. We saw them ploughing their fields with oxen or buffalo, irrigating those same fields with an ox-driven waterwheel, cutting and threshing by hand, transporting the crops on a camel cart. But wherever we stopped to take photos we got smiles and waves. People were sometimes amused by our interest but never offended by it. Where we got especially good photos we offered a few rupees in thanks, which were usually received with a smile but on at least one occasion politely refused (though Mehar persuaded the lady to accept). We got some great photos and they got something which we hoped was of use to them in return.

The faces of Rajasthan

Wherever I travel I like to indulge my enthusiasm for street photography, shooting candid pictures of the local people. Unlike many places we have visited, I found everywhere in Rajasthan 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. And many were happy, even keen, to pose for photos, like the woman in traditional dress in my main photo here whom we met in Narlai. In fact all of these photos were taken with the subject’s permission apart from the third, which was snatched on the streets of Jodhpur.

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We were also often approached with requests to appear in other people’s photos. We posed with young school boys in Chittaurgargh, a family in Jaipur, another family in a restaurant car park (see photo below - they all piled out of their minibus to pose with me!), fellow tourists in the Sahelion Ki Bari gardens in Udaipur and at Fatehpur Sikri. Mehar joked that we were becoming more famous than a Bollywood star!

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I hope this entry has whetted appetites for what will follow as I describe our journey through Rajasthan: Land of Kings ...

Posted by ToonSarah 09:47 Archived in India Tagged india tour rajasthan Comments (7)

A more tranquil side to Delhi

India day one continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

On a long day out exploring Delhi with our guide Rajesh and driver Mehar we had already visited the heart of Old Delhi, around the Jama Masjid and the chaotic streets of the Chandni Chowk market, seen the grand architecture of Lutyens' New Delhi, and paid tribute to Gandhi at the Raj Ghat. Now it was time to see a slightly more tranquil side to the city.

Humayun's Tomb

Our next stop was at one of the highlights of the tour for me, Humayun's Tomb. This, the tomb of the second Mughal emperor, is a must-see sight for a number of reasons. It was the first great example of Mughal architecture in India, the first garden tomb, and the first building to use red sandstone on such a scale. Commissioned by Humayun’s first wife, Hamida Begum, fourteen years after his death in 1556, a hundred years later it would inspire the design of the best-known of such tombs, the Taj Mahal itself. Architecturally it forms a bridge between the mausoleum of the Mughals’ ancestor Timur in Samarkand, the Gur Emir and the Taj Mahal. Unsurprisingly it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993).

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Humayun's Tomb

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You enter on the west side where a small museum (which we didn’t visit) tells the story of the tomb and its restoration, partly funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Among other things, this restoration work removed many intrusive shop stalls etc. from the surroundings and recreated the garden setting of the tomb – a garden designed on the lines of a Persian-style charbagh with quadrilateral form. As you approach the main tomb look to your right where you will see an even older structure, the 1547 tomb complex of Isa Khan Niyazi, an Afghan noble who fought against the Mughals.

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Tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi

Humayun’s Tomb itself stands on a massive platform about seven metres high, dominating its surroundings. It is built from red sandstone, with white marble decoration and a white marble dome. It is 47 metres high and 91 metres wide. Like the garden which surrounds it, it was inspired by Persian architecture and is an early classic of the Mughal style which blends the Islamic elements of the homelands of the foreign dynasties that ruled India from the 12th century with local features, mainly originating from the Rajasthan region. Thus Islamic arches are in-filled with carved sandstone lattices or jaalis, and the Persian-influenced main dome surrounded by small chuttris – the elevated domed pavilions seen on so many Hindu and Mughal buildings and as free-standing structures in cenotaphs at cremation sites.

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You ascend to the platform up a flight of steps under the central arch, and from there can enter the tomb on its south side. The main central chamber contains one cenotaph, that of Humayan himself – although, in accordance with standard Indo-Islamic practice, his body lies on a duplicate cenotaph in a lower chamber, precisely aligned with this one but sealed off from public view. Both are on a north-south axis, with his head to the north and turned to face Mecca which from India lies to the west. The raised cenotaph in this chamber allows those paying their respects to focus on the point of his burial and ensures that no one walks directly above him. We were to see the same burial style in several other places, most notably the Taj Mahal. And as there, the chamber is ornamented with delicate pietra dura work – a technique in which marble is inlayed with coloured, often precious or semi-precious, stones. Another feature echoed in the later Taj Mahal is the network of smaller chambers that surrounds this central one, containing the burial places of a number of other members of the royal family and nobility, including that of Humayun’s widow herself, Hamida Begum. These chambers, like the main one, have eight sides and themselves have even smaller chambers opening off them. As you explore you have a sense of being in something of a rabbit warren, and yet you are drawn to circumnavigate the main chamber from which all others radiate. Also buried on this site, although not in the main tomb building, is Humayun’s favourite barber - in fact, there are over 100 graves in this complex.

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One of the side chambers

When you exit the main structure take the time to stroll around the platform, which provides a bird’s eye view of the gardens and their symmetry. This is also a good vantage point for views over this part of Delhi – look out for a Sikh and a Buddhist temple as a visible sign of the multiplicity of faiths here.

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View from Humayun's Tomb

Qutb Minar

I think however that my favourite of the sights we visited in Delhi was the Qutb Minar, perhaps because we arrived here in the late afternoon when the sun was at the perfect height for photography, making the stones glow and picking out all the details of the carvings.

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Qutb Minar

This is the tallest brick minaret in the world, at 73 metres, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993). It is five storeys high, and tapers from a 15 m diameter at the base to just 2.5 m at the top. The first three storeys are constructed with red sandstone bricks while the top two also incorporate some white marble. The different styles reflect the fact that it was built over a period of time. It was started by the first Muslim ruler of India, Qutab-ud-din Aibak, in 1200 AD, but he only managed to complete the bottom level. His son-in-law who succeeded him, Iltutmush, added three more storeys in 1220, but the topmost of these was destroyed by lightening in 1369, so the then-ruler Firoz Shah Tughlak replaced this with two new ones in red sandstone and white marble.

In 1803 it was badly damaged again, this time by earthquake, and restored by Robert Smith of the British Indian Army in 1828. For some reason he decided it would look better with a cupola on the top, so he added one, but this was removed some twenty years or so later under instructions from Lord Hardinge, then Governor General of India, and it now sits in the grounds.

The minaret is surrounded by a number of other buildings, all partially ruined, most notably the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the first mosque to be built in India in 1192. It was built by reusing stones from Hindu temples so you will see many defaced carvings of faces and animals, because of the Muslim prohibition on portraying living things.

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Also nearby is a famous iron pillar, seven metres in height. This is older even than the minaret, dating from the early part of the 5th century AD. It has stood on this site since 1233 but there is a lot of debate, and no firm agreement, on its original location. It is notable for its lack of corrosion. Tradition holds that you will have good fortune if you can stand with your back to the pillar and make your hands meet behind it, but it is nowadays impossible to test that superstition as years of wear and tear have led the authorities to build a low fence around it. Wikipedia has a detailed description and exploration of the various theories that have been expounded relating to its construction and original location: Iron pillar of Delhi

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Iron pillar and Qutb Minar

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Opposite the Qutb Minar you will see the base of another minaret which our guide told us was to have been twice the height, but this was never finished. I haven’t however found any reference to this in my online research – maybe someone else can shed some light? I did though find some theorising that Qutb Minar could be older than is usually stated, pre-dating Islam in India: http://www.qutubminar.org/. As this is founded on the use of stones with Hindu images, which can be explained by the reuse of the temples, this seems dubious at best but I note it here for interest.

This was the first place on our trip when we encountered what was to become a regular occurrence - local people (in this case a group of young tourists) asking us to pose for photos with them. We were always happy to oblige on these occasions, and sometimes, as here, made sure we got a photo too. It seems likely that there are now photos of us all over Rajasthan and elsewhere in India!

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With young tourists at the Qutb Minar

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Other tourists

Life lived on the streets

Delhi was our first stop of a tour spent mostly in Rajasthan, and our first chance to observe daily life which, even in this bustling metropolis, is lived much more on the street than we are used to in the UK. Partly this is a factor of the climate, and partly one of culture. On the whole, it seems that Indian people don't have the reservations and need for privacy that we Brits are famed for. Everywhere we went, we found that people were quite open in showing their curiosity about us, which made it easier for us to do the same in return. Here, as everywhere, I enjoyed taking lots of candid street photos as well as others for which people were happy to pose.

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Traffic in Delhi

As we were driven around the city by our fantastic driver Mehar I was continually fascinated to watch all the activity and the skill of those who, for the most part, avoided what seemed to me to be inevitable accidents. There are few rules, and those that exist are ignored. It is definitely a case of "every man for himself" - and yes, the vast majority of drivers are men. At every junction or roundabout the vehicle that goes first is not the one with the right of way (an alien concept here it seems) but the one with the most confident or aggressive driver. To misquote another proverb, he who hesitates may not be lost, but he will definitely still be sitting at that junction at nightfall. Signs do exhort drivers to be more courteous and careful – giving way to pedestrians and “no honking”! But these are ignored, and as everyone knows this and is playing by the same “rules” it seems not to cause anything but fairly minor scrapes and bumps.

But of course all this traffic results in many problems for the city. The roads are so congested that to get anywhere takes ages. And worse, the pollution is terrible. When we visited in 2015 we were told that Delhi had overtaken Beijing to become the world's most polluted city - a dubious honour to say the least. The authorities are trying to tackle the problem. The Metro, which is already used by a million people a day, is being extended to encourage more to leave the car at home - but meanwhile it seems that the extension works are themselves adding to the traffic problems on the roads. Diesel cars over ten years old are banned, and all auto-rickshaws must run on clean energy (CNG). And they are considering introducing a congestion charge as in London. But for now the roads remain a frustrating but constantly fascinating spectacle, where mini dramas are played out every minute.

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To get just a brief taste of the experience watch my short video, shot from the car.

Train journeys to and from Delhi

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After two nights in Delhi we left on an early morning train to Agra from New Delhi Railway Station, one of five main stations in the city. The journey took about two hours. It was dark when we left Delhi at 6.00 AM, but the sun was soon up and we enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside in the misty morning light. It is a flat landscape so there is nothing spectacular to see, but we found it interesting. Taking photos of the passing views wasn't really an option however, as the windows were both dirty and double glazed, making it hard to focus. However I did manage to shoot another short video.

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

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Meals on Wheels team waits to board the train at Delhi

The train arrived only a couple of minutes late in Agra where we had five minutes to get ourselves and our luggage off the train - no problem! We were met by a rep from the travel company and our driver Mehar who had driven down from Delhi, and we were soon on our way to our hotel...

Two weeks after we had left Delhi for Agra we returned by the same means, a train, although this time arriving at Hazrat Nizamuddin station. Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.

For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.

I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.

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Seen from the train

When we arrived in Delhi we were pleased to find that our “meet and greet” rep was our guide from our previous stay at the start of the trip, Rajesh. And although we were at first a little disappointed that Mehar wasn’t to be our driver for this final transfer, imagine how pleased we were, and he also, when his car pulled up outside the station as we stood waiting for ours! He was there to meet another English couple who had travelled on our train, and hurried over to say hello and ask about our time in Ranthambore. It was lovely to see him one last time, before our car arrived and we headed to our hotel for our last night in Delhi.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:14 Archived in India Tagged buildings traffic india city delhi Comments (6)

Start with the Taj Mahal

India day two


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A day in Agra

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Taj Mahal seen from Agra Fort

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Itmad ud Daulah

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

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

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

Travelling to Agra

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Agra station

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

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

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

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

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The lobby and our bedroom

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

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

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View of the Taj from the hotel's rooftop

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

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

The Taj Mahal

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

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Shah Jahan's view from the fort

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

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

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

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

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

Taj Mahal: the great gate and bazaars

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Jilaukhana with Darwaza-i rauza beyond

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

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Bazaars

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

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

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Details of Darwaza-i rauza

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

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View through Darwaza-i rauza

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On the steps by the gate

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

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Taj Mahal: Charbagh gardens

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

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Water tank and gardens

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The main tomb and the mosque as seen from the gardens

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

Taj Mahal: the tomb

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

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

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

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The tomb, and detail of a minaret

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

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Roof detail

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

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

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

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Calligraphy and floral carving on the main tomb

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

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Inside the tomb

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

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

Taj Mahal: river terrace and other buildings

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

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

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The mosque

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

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

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Parchinkari

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

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Parchinkari detail on the main tomb

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

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Shaping the stones

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Carving the indentations in the marble

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Flowers and leaves in separate pieces of stone

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Piecing together the flowers

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

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

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

Posted by ToonSarah 06:45 Archived in India Tagged buildings india taj_mahal agra Comments (10)

See more than the Taj Mahal

India day two continued


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)

Too brief a reign

India day three


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Fatehpur Sikri

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

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

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

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

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View from the palace walls

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

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Jodha Bai's Palace

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

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Ruins of the Mint

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

Diwan-Aam: the Hall of Public Audience

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

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Garden seen from the Diwan-i-Aam

Diwan-i-Khas: the Hall of Private Audience

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

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Diwan-i-Khas

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

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Exterior detail

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Interior details - platform and brackets

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

The treasury and astrologer’s kiosk

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

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

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Carving in the astrologer's kiosk

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

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Anup Talao

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

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

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Panch Mahal - upper two floors

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

Turkish Sultana’s House

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

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

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Roof of the Turkish Sultana's House

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

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Details of carvings

Mariam’s House

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

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

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

Jodha Bai’s Palace

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Entrance to Jodha Bai's Palace

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Niche in Jodha Bai's Palace

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

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

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

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Roof with traces of blue glazing

Elephant Minar

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

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

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

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Saurav at Fatehpur Sikri

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

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