A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about people

Surprising art works … and then home

Gambia days eleven and twelve


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina Lodges sunrise

We had a later start for today’s final outing with Amadou, so there was time for some photos from the decking before breakfast, as we enjoyed our customary coffee. It was still not quite light – Venus was visible above the mangroves, a heron was silhouetted against the sunrise, and a Goliath Heron kept watch from the trees – probably the same one we had seen on other mornings.

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Heron at sunrise

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Jenny

And of course Jenny was there to keep us company!

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Dawn over Mandina Lodges

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Goliath Heron at sunrise

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Local woman by the river near Kubuneh

Kubuneh

I had read before leaving home about the Wide Open Walls art project and was keen to visit, so we asked Amadou if it would be possible to see some of the art and he proposed a visit to one of the villages involved, Kubuneh, about a half hour boat ride from Mandina Lodges.

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By the river in Kubuneh

We landed on a small beach where local women boil the oysters they have prised off the mangroves. Collecting these is a tough job, and one traditionally done by the women whom we saw frequently passing Mandina in their dug-out canoes or pirogues.

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Oyster shells on the small beach

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Local woman carrying oysters

The oysters have to be boiled for an hour to make them edible (you can’t eat these raw as you do the coastal ones, we were told). Some are eaten by the locals but most sold to restaurants. The discarded shells are picked clean by Hooded Vultures and Piapiacs (an African crow) before being smoked, ground to a powder and mixed with water to make a wash for the walls of buildings.

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Hooded vulture

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Hooded vultures

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Piapiac

The Wide Open Walls project

Some years ago, one of the owners of Makasutu and Mandina, Lawrence, who is a keen artist, decided to use art as a way of bringing some income to the local villages. He invited internationally known artists to stay at Mandina after the end of the tourist season, and to create street art in the most unlikely of settings, the small rural Gambian villages dotted around the area. The idea was that the works would function as a valid art installation in their own right and at the same time promote The Gambia as a tourist destination and thus benefit local communities. Progress has been slow, mainly because of the recession, but gradually the project, known as Wide Open Walls, has begun to create more and more interest. You can read more about it on the Mandina Lodges website: https://www.mandinalodges.com/makasutu-forest/wide-open-walls.

It was fascinating to see the works as they seemed at the same time both incongruous and totally in their right place. They are on public buildings, private houses, walls and even on the trees! And because quite a number of artists have been involved since the project began, there is a good chance everyone will find some that appeal.

As you can imagine, I took lots of photos. Here's a selection for you to enjoy - or scroll past, depending on your levels of enthusiasm for street art!

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Wide Open Walls

As I said, even some of the trees have been used by the artists as 'canvasses'.

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Faces on the trees, Kubuneh

Life in Kubuneh

Visiting Kubuneh didn’t just give us the opportunity to see the Wide Open Walls street art but also to see a rural Gambian village.
The village seemed still largely untouched by the extra attention it is starting to receive but there were some early seeds of the development of a tourist infrastructure – a part-built restaurant, a small craft stall under a baobab tree, signs promoting bird-watching trips. I hoped that this would benefit the local people but not spoil the special atmosphere here – from what I learned about Lawrence I thought it fair to say that was unlikely.

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Sign on a tree

Certainly overall the village was then (2014) still largely untouched by the presence of visitors, and although some small children called out a hello, in the vain hope of being given sweets (giving which is strongly discouraged by the authorities and tour companies), there was no sense of the commercialisation that we had experienced earlier in this trip, to some extent at least, at the former slave trade villages on the River Gambia.

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Children in Kubuneh

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Local people

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The village church

On our walk through the village we stopped to chat to a local woman whom Amadou knew. She was happy for us to take photos of her and her children (twin boys and a baby) and we gave the boys some postcards from home in return which they seemed to like (and much better for them than sweets!) This is one of the houses that has been painted through the Wide Open Walls project and the woman told me how much they like it.

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Mother and two of her children

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The twins with their postcards

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Amadou also took us to visit the local community-run school, which takes children from the ages of three to nine as these are considered too young to walk to the nearest government school 1.5 kilometres away. Unfortunately for us (but not presumably for the children!) the pupils had been given a day off in recognition of having won a sports competition the previous Friday, so we weren’t able to see and interact with any of them.

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The (almost deserted) village school

But we were able to meet the headmaster, Malik, who showed us the classrooms and told us a bit about the school. They are currently setting up a programme to give all the children a breakfast each morning, as many arrive without having eaten anything (or generally eat poorly at home), so we gave Malik a donation towards that as well as some pencils and crayons we had brought with us from home. He has a donations book which we were asked to complete and it was interesting to see how many others, from a variety of countries, had been here and done the same.

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Classrooms

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School motto

The writing on one of the blackboards tells a surprising story for a school whose pupils are relatively young, of a man accusing his son of being a bandit and asking the police to 'take him away'. His only crime seems to have been playing his music too loud and not reading his books!

There is also mention of the man beating one of his two wives before throwing her out, accusing her of stealing a chain in order to buy cannabis.

Last day at Mandina

The rest of the day passed in the by-now usual mix of swimming, relaxing and photographing the birds. Among the latter were a pretty Firefinch and some White-throated Bee-eaters who enjoyed darting down to the pool water in search of any insects floating there.

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View from my lounger!

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White-throated Bee-eater

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Firefinch

Another highlight was a Malachite Kingfisher on one of the posts of our decking. He didn’t hang around long enough for me to get a great photo but at least I got something!

A Giant Kingfisher paid us an even more fleeting visit but again I managed to get some sort of photo although his head was in shadow.

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Malachite Kingfisher

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Giant Kingfisher

Later we watched the local women on their way home after collecting oysters – some presumably heading to Kubuneh and the beach where we had photographed the discarded shells this morning.

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Local women collecting oysters

That night at dinner some excitement was caused by a Goliath Heron in the shallows right next to the restaurant – very difficult to photograph in the dark but of course I had to try!

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Goliath Heron at night

Time to go home

On our last morning there was time for a few more photos from the decking of our Floating Lodge.

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Last morning coffee

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Sunrise panorama

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View of the other Floating Lodges from our deck

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Jenny was there again, naturally!

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Lizard on a tree

Jenny tried to make it difficult for us to pack and leave but sadly we couldn’t linger as we had a plane to catch.

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Please don't go home!

Our transfer back to the airport near Banjul went smoothly, and we found the airport surprisingly well-organised, with only a short queue to check in and a reasonable one for customs and security. It helped that we had already filled in our departure card, but these are available at the airport if needed. Security was cursory by modern standards, with no request to screen electronic devices separately or to remove liquids for inspection.

The departure lounge had three duty free shops all selling much the same goods (mainly cigarettes and alcohol) plus one souvenir shop and a couple of bars. One of these, the Sky Bar, had very pro-active waiters who handed us a menu as soon as we entered the lounge and helped us find a space among the crowded seats. They sold snacks, cold and hot drinks, Julbrew and ice creams, all at reasonable prices, so we enjoyed a cold drink while waiting to board. The other bar was outside on a terrace with good views of the planes but very exposed to the hot African sun, so we gave that a miss.

The return flight was in a smaller and more cramped plane (it seemed that Monarch used smaller planes for their Tuesday flights than their Friday ones) but was similar in terms of service quality. We landed at Gatwick on a chilly February evening. The warmth of The Gambia already seemed a long way away …

Posted by ToonSarah 02:10 Archived in Gambia Tagged art people children birds lizards wildlife views hotel flight airport village river school africa cats street_art customs gambia Comments (32)

Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating

Day one India


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Delhi traffic

By any measure Delhi is an assault on the senses. The sound of car horns and auto-rickshaw bells fill the air; these vehicles weave endlessly in a manic dance; people ebb and flow between and all around them. The air is at times fragrant with the smells of spices; at other times choking with fumes. The heat beats down …

After a long overnight flight from London it really seemed as if we had landed on a different planet, not just a different continent. And I loved it! The energy, the colours, the constant buzz. And when we returned to Delhi at the end of our trip, and to the same hotel, it almost felt like coming home.
Delhi is India’s capital, its second largest city (by population) and had a rich history. At its heart is Old Delhi, founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and known originally as Shahjahanabad – the last of seven ancient cities in this immediate area. These include Qila Rai Pithora (the first to be recorded, in the 10th century AD), and Mehrauli, built by the first Muslim sultan, Qutubuddin, in the early part of the 13th century, whose Qutb Minar still stands and was one of the highlights of our brief visit.

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Our base here was the comfortable Suryaa Hotel, located in the New Friends Colony area of the city, not far from the Lotus Temple. We stayed here for the first few nights of our tour with Transindus, and again on our last night, and were impressed with their choice. The large marble lobby gave us a good first impression, which extended to our comfortable fourth floor room with a good-sized bed, lots of space, efficient A/C, a flat screen TV, bottled water, tea and coffee-making stuff, mini-bar, safe and plenty of storage. The bathroom had a bath with shower over, a good selection of toiletries and a hairdryer. All the staff we encountered or had dealings with were welcoming, helpful and courteous.

The hotel has a number of places to eat and drink – a buffet restaurant and bar downstairs, and an upmarket pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar on the top floor, plus a coffee shop in the lobby where we enjoyed a coffee and cake soon after arriving. The choice at breakfast is amazing - cereals, pastries, exotic juices, fruits, eggs cooked to order, ditto pancakes and waffles, all the regular hot items (bacon, sausage, tomatoes etc.) plus Indian dahls and curries and even Japanese miso soup, and loads more.

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Our room, and breakfast buffet

The hotel has a pool which we didn’t use but could see from our bedroom window – it looked a good size for a city hotel pool and seemed well kept. There’s also a gym and spa but I didn’t see those so can’t comment.

Even if you don't visit the top floor restaurant or bar it's worth going up there for the views, though it was very hazy when we did so. You don't see many famous sights (the aforementioned Lotus Temple is the main one) but you do get a good look at the circling eagles. A barman told us that these nest on the roof of the hotel, as do owls which can be seen here at night. We didn't get around to eating here but did have a nice dinner one evening in the downstairs bar (murgh malai kebab and tandoori vegetable platter) where the friendly barman let us have the Happy Hour "two for one" deal on our beers despite having arrived in the bar some 15 minutes after the offer period.

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From the hotel roof

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Veda

On arriving in Delhi we learned that dinner on the first night of our tour was included in the cost so that evening we met up with our guide, Rajesh, and driver, Mehar, to go to Connaught Place for a meal at Veda, one of a small (I think) chain of restaurants in India. Well, it may be a chain, but we were certainly impressed by the food here, as well as by the somewhat exotic décor - dark, rich reds, lots of gilt mirrors and ornate light fittings, plus a hammered metal ceiling reflecting the candles on the tables.

The website describes the cuisine as “a contemporary interpretation of classic Indian cooking”. We had a set meal and everything was delicious. The first course was two vegetable appetisers - fried spinach leaves topped with tiny noodles and cheese (a Veda speciality), and cauliflowers fritters. Then two meat appetisers - small pieces of mutton kebab and chicken tikka. The main event was a selection of dishes served with rice and chappattis. There was a chicken curry cooked with spring onion, a lamb curry, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) in a spicy tomato sauce, a black lentil dahl and another Veda special, crispy fried strips of okra (a sort of fusion of that classic Indian ingredient with the Chinese way of serving seaweed). Finally there was kulfi, the rich Indian ice cream. As I said, everything was delicious, but if I had to pick favourites it would be the cauliflower fritters, the fried okra and the paneer - all excellent.

Exploring the city

Although we only had a day in which to see something of Delhi we managed to pack in a fair amount, thanks in part to our excellent guide Rajesh and star driver Mehar.

Jama Masjid

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Steps up to the mosque

We started our explorations at the massive Jama Masjid mosque. This is one of the largest (some sources, and our guide, say the largest) mosques in India. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (most famous for another building, the Taj Mahal) between 1644 and 1656. It is said to have taken 5,000 workers and cost a million rupees to build, which must have been a huge sum in those days. It is certainly on an impressively grand scale. The huge courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. Its surrounding walls are pierced by three great gates (most visitors enter through the north gate) and on the west side is the main mosque structure, built of red sandstone and white marble, with three white marble domes and two 40 metre high minarets.

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Entry is free but there is a fee of 300 IR per camera to take photos and you'll be charged for every camera you are carrying, including smartphones, even if you don't plan to use them all. All visitors, including non-Muslims, are allowed inside as well as out, and photos can be taken everywhere, but the mosque is closed to non-Muslims at prayer time. And don’t even consider a visit here if you aren’t able to climb steps, as the mosque sits on an elevated sandstone platform and there are 39 steps up to the northern gate. You must leave your shoes at this main entrance so wear socks you don't mind getting grubby or borrow a pair of the slippers available. Women in trousers or with short sleeves are also asked to put on a gown.

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Tourists in slippers, and me in my gown (with Rajesh)

Once inside, take your time to wander round the courtyard, which is a buzz of both tourist and worshipper activity. We were advised not to photograph Muslim women but told that otherwise no one would mind, and in fact that seemed to extend to some of the women too. Bowls are set out to feed the many pigeons, and the seed they spill is carefully swept up. Locals and tourists mill around and it could be any city square, until you approach the prayer hall where a more respectful and devout atmosphere prevails. Even here though, a man sitting reading the Koran in one corner saw my camera and beckoned me over with a “welcome to take photos” gesture. So do pay that camera fee, as you will surely get some memorable shots here.

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Chandni Chowk

The mosque lies in Old Delhi, surrounded by the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk market. The name Chandni Chowk is used for a specific street in Old Delhi, but also for the maze of alleys that surround it. This is the market place for Old Delhi, dating back to the 17th century when it was, so it is said, designed by the daughter of Shah Jahan with a canal (long since covered over) running the length of the street which reflected the moonlight. But if the mention of moonlight suggests peace and tranquillity, think again. Today’s Chandni Chowk is a complete assault on the senses – narrow lanes strung with electric cables, a cacophony of sound from horns (as everywhere in Delhi), a riot of colour, the scents of perfumes and spices in the air. On the pavements are people washing, cooking, cutting hair. Each narrow alleyway is lined with small shops specialising in certain goods - wedding saris in one, fruit and vegetables in another. Nai Sarak specialises in text books and calendars, Chawri in paper and stationery and Dariba Kalan in jewellery.

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We took a cycle rickshaw ride which is possibly the best way to see the madness close-up but without being totally sucked into it. Our driver pointed out some of the more interesting goods on sale, a small Jain temple tucked in an alleyway, even at one point monkeys (macaques) on a roof above us. Make sure you hold on to your possessions as you ride, and keep arms and hands inside the frame of the rickshaw - it's a bumpy ride and your driver will squeeze through the narrowest of spaces. Despite the bumps however, and the need to hang on, I did manage to shoot a few snippets of video that I hope give just a little flavour of the experience.

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Presidential Palace complex

From Old Delhi we drove to the Presidential Palace, where we stopped briefly to admire the architecture and the views (very hazy) all the way down the Rajpath (the King’s Way) to the India Gate two kilometres away.

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Presidential Palace

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The palace is the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose original plans were for a classically European building (he had little respect for the local architectural traditions which he once dismissed as “Moghul tosh”). Fortunately he was over-ruled and added features such as Rajasthani-inspired sandstone window grilles (known as jaalis), statues of elephants and cobras. He also lost an argument about the placing of the Palace, which he had intended to sit at the edge of Raisina Hill, and had to move it back to accommodate the buildings that now flank it on either side. This means it is not visible from the foot of the hill – something he considered a fault but which I felt gave the building an interesting element of surprise as you crest the hill and see the scale of the complex of buildings that greet you.

You approach along a wide avenue, Rajpath (the King’s Way), which links the palace to the India Gate two kilometres away. Either side of this avenue are the north and south buildings of the Secretariat, designed by Herbert Baker. It was these structures that caused Lutyen’s design for the plateau to be modified and the palace moved back from the edge. Today they house various government offices and ministries including Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Since 1950, when the first President of a now independent India took up residence here, it was renamed as the President’s Palace or Rashtrapati Bhavan. In area this was the largest residence of a Head of State in the world until the Presidential Complex of Turkey was opened on 29th October 2014. It has 340 rooms spread over four floors and covers 200,000 square feet (19,000 square metres).

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Dominion Column

Like the Palace, Baker’s designs for the Secretariat buildings include Indian elements and are made from the same cream and red sandstone. The columns in front of these are known as Dominion Columns and were gifts from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. At the time it was expected that India would, like these countries, soon become a British Dominion, but instead it was to win independence within 18 years from the date of the buildings’ completion.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the museum inside the palace, this made an interesting photo stop, and came with a bonus. Although Chris has never owned or ridden a motorbike himself, his father was great biker and Chris has inherited something of his affection for the great makes such as BSA and Royal Enfield – the latter being originally a British company but made in India since the 1950s and exclusively there since 1971. He was very happy when the owner of a classic Royal Enfield bike, parked in front of the Presidential Palace, let him pose with it for some photos – and no, this wasn’t a “pose in return for payment” staged photo opp! We were also interested to learn that the beautiful ornamental iron gates in front of the palace were copied by Lutyens from some he saw in Chiswick, very near our London home.

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India Gate

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At the opposite end of the Rajpath to the Presidential Palace, and two kilometres away, is the India Gate. This was built in the 1920s as a war memorial to commemorate the soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In all, more than 13,300 names are inscribed on the gate. Like the Presidential Palace it was designed by Edwin Lutyens (who also designed London’s Cenotaph and 65 other war memorials in Europe on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission which also commissioned this) and has the appearance more of a victory or triumphal arch than a memorial.

The gate is 42 metres in height and has a shallow bowl at the top which was intended to be filled with burning oil on anniversaries although this is rarely done. Near the top on each side is inscribed “INDIA” and beneath that, all in capitals,

“TO THE DEAD OF THE INDIAN ARMIES WHO FELL HONOURED IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA EAST AFRICA GALLIPOLI AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NEAR AND THE FAR-EAST AND IN SACRED MEMORY ALSO OF THOSE WHOSE NAMES ARE RECORDED AND WHO FELL IN INDIA OR THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER AND DURING THE THIRD AFGHAN WAR”

Beneath the arch (added in 1971) is a small black marble plinth with a rifle capped by a war helmet, and bounded by four eternal flames, which serves as India’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In my photos you can also see the canopy that stands some 150 metres further east, which was also designed by Lutyens and once covered a statue of George V in his coronation robes. This was moved in the 1960s to Coronation Park. The canopy has since stood empty, although there was talk at one point of installing a statue here of Mahatma Gandhi. This never happened, and it seems to me unlikely now that in will, given the ambivalent attitude that we were told now prevails in India towards the once universally acclaimed hero.

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By day and by night

Raj Ghat

After our brief photo stop at the India Gate, we drove to Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, which serves as a permanent memorial to him. A black marble plinth marks the actual spot of the cremation, at one end of which burns an eternal flame. It is set in peaceful gardens with paths that allow visitors to walk past and pay their respects, although when we were there the peace was somewhat disrupted by the several groups of boisterous schoolchildren visiting the site. Several other memorials to prominent figures are located nearby, including former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but we only visited this one.

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Indian visitor, and souvenir stall

We were somewhat surprised to learn from our guide that Gandhi is not so much respected among Indians these days. Many feel that his policy of non-violence was too restrained and they admire more active revolutionaries such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. But from what I observed, many more Indians than foreigners seemed to be visiting this shrine and doing so with great respect, so it seems opinion may be divided on this, as on so many political matters.

With so much to see on our packed day out in Delhi it makes sense to continue in a second entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 10:13 Archived in India Tagged buildings people mosque market city tomb delhi street_photography Comments (7)

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 (8)

Into the Thar Desert

India day five


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Onwards to Khimsar

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Friendly locals

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

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

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Nilgai

Khimsar

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

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Khimsar Fort

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

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

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Local people, Khimsar

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

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Local cafe

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Market scene

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More of the locals

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

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Statue and temple, Khimsar

Khimsar Fort

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

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

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View from the hotel

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

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Pool with our block beyond

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Our bedroom

Traditional Thar Desert musicians

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Musicians in front of the ruins

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

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

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Musicians

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

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

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

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

Posted by ToonSarah 11:27 Archived in India Tagged people india hotel fort village dance music rajasthan khimsar Comments (12)

Of cranes and camels

India day six


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The road to Jaisalmer

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Flowers at breakfast

Today was another long but fascinating day on the road in Rajasthan, starting from Khimsar Fort hotel where we experienced a uniquely Indian twist on the buffet breakfast. Food was indeed set out on long counters for us to help ourselves, as you might expect, but somehow the staff were too keen to be helpful to have really grasped the buffet ideology and they kept bringing us things – a second glass of juice, toast, bananas … The room itself was lovely, with sunlight flooding in through tinted windows and portraits of generations of the family staring down at us as we ate. Had we not been excited to see what lay ahead for us on the road we would have been somewhat reluctant to leave this magnificent hotel.

Our drive to Jaisalmer from Khimsar, with the ever-helpful Mehar, took about five hours (not including stops). The road took us through small villages and across the Thar Desert landscape. Some may find this dry flat landscape dull, but I have always loved deserts and I enjoyed this drive a lot. And we made some particularly interesting stops en route too.

A warm welcome

As we drove through the Thar Desert towards Jaisalmer I asked Mehar if he thought it would be possible to stop to photograph some of the small round grass-thatched houses that we saw either side of the road.

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A desert home

I had in mind a few shots from distance with the zoom, if he felt that would not be resented. But when he spotted a suitable home and stopped the car he suggested that we walk over to it. Would they mind, we asked - not at all, he replied.

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The welcoming committee

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The family

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Our hostess

So we strolled among the succulents and a few low-growing gourds to be welcomed by two children near the entrance (it was festival time and there was no school). Their mother came out to join them and when Mehar asked if we could take photos, agreed willingly - and not just of the house, we could photograph her and the children too. An older brother came over to join us, then children from another nearby house came running. We were causing quite a stir!

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The neighbours arrive

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Decoration on the ground
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The family shrine

Mehar explained how the hut outside the wall was for the cows, while inside there was a large sleeping hut, a slightly smaller cooking hut, and two little ones to store grain. The family also own a nearby stone house, which has electricity, but prefer to use that only when the weather is cold and during the rainy season. The rest of the time these grass-roofed houses are cooler and they are happy there.

On leaving we offered the mother some rupees in thanks, so she might buy some things for the children perhaps, but she didn't want to take it, saying she was simply happy that we had visited. Mehar persuaded her though, helped by her small daughter who took the notes willingly!

Most of the children then followed us to the car, insisted on posing for more photos there, and then waved us off. Mehar had never stopped at this place before, so this was far from an everyday occurrence for them, and I do feel they enjoyed it as much as we did - it certainly didn't feel at all voyeuristic as some of those contrived "visit a village home" tourist experiences can do.

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The family

The cranes of Khichan

On the road between Khimsar to Jaisalmer we passed through Khichan, a rural village that would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that it has become the wintering place of choice for a huge number of Demoiselle cranes. Mehar suggested a stop here on our drive from Khimsar to Jaisalmer, and always up for seeing as much as possible on our sometimes long drives between the various cities we visited, of course we said yes. He said there would be lots of birds so I imagined a nature reserve of some sort, but this is something rather different.

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Demoiselle crane in flight

On arriving in the village he turned off the main road for just a short distance. He parked up and we paid the small fee (10 IR per person, plus 20 IR for the car) and walked up a short slope to the edge of the lake. There on the far side was a large flock of the cranes. The noise was considerable and it was fascinating to watch them as they were continually on the move – some taking briefly to the air before landing again on or near the water, others wading and drinking or feeding.

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The cranes of Khichan

But why are they here in such numbers? Well, this is a village with a significant population of Jains, who value all living things. In the 1970s a married couple here were given the job of feeding the pigeons, something that Jains do all over India (as, from what I observed, do many Hindus). As winter approached some demoiselle cranes started to join the pigeons and eat the grain that this couple were spreading on the ground. During the course of that first winter about 100 cranes came, and the next winter 150. But the local dogs started to hunt the cranes, so the couple asked the village assembly to make land available to create a safe feeding place for the cranes. This was agreed as the people here loved the cranes because of their vegetarianism and monogamy. Other villagers helped to build a fenced-in chugga ghar (bird feeding home) and local traders donated grain. From this small beginning a major migration has grown up, with thousands of cranes visiting the village every winter.

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There are tiny frogs too!

Feeding them has become a major initiative for the locals. There are now a number of feeding houses where the cranes congregate each morning for breakfast, before moving on to spend their day by the lakes on the edge of town, such as the one we visited. At night they leave to roost in the fields around the village, before returning the next morning to feed again. It’s possible if you are here early enough to watch the feeding, but if you come later as we did you can visit the cranes by the lakes. The small fee you pay goes towards buying the vast amounts of grain needed.

It’s not a bad idea to bring binoculars if you have them as the cranes congregate on the far side of the lake. We let Mehar have a look through ours, which he enjoyed, and some of the local village boys who were hanging around also had a go and seemed to find the new perspective on their avian visitors rather fun!

Other sights along the road that day included several of the colourful lorries I never tired of photographing (and one of these was possibly the best of the trip, featuring a vibrant Taj Mahal!), several antelopes, a group of camels crossing the road, and a stop at a level crossing for the Brikaner to Jaisalmer train to pass.

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Antelope

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Colourful trucks

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Passing train

Fort Rajwada, a beautiful heritage hotel

Jaisalmer is known as the "Golden City" because of the sandstone with which it is built, which glows gold in the sunlight, and arriving at Fort Rajwada in the late afternoon we could see that golden glow on the ornate entrance gate as well as on the building itself.

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Hotel gate

As everywhere, we were given a friendly welcome, with a cold drink, cooling towels and a garland of artificial flowers. We were then shown to our room, which was lovely, as was the building overall. The pool looked tempting, but we decided to leave that for the following day and instead made use of the hotel wifi to catch up on messages (the hotel offers a small amount of free wifi, after which you have to pay for a package according to the amount you want, although slightly annoyingly you can't use and then pay for what you had, but instead have to say in advance what you want).

At about 5.00 pm there was a knock on our bedroom door. Opening it I found a couple of men with a cleaning trolley offering "evening service". They insisted on closing our curtains for us and switching on the lights – both tasks we could have done easily for ourselves had we wanted to. As it was, with more than an hour of daylight left, we immediately reopened the curtains as soon as they had left, and switched off the unnecessary lights! It was helpful though to have our supplies of bottled water topped up and that alone was maybe worth the tip they so obviously anticipated.

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Flaming tomatoes!

We could have had a barbecue dinner by the pool here, but it was rather a warm evening we decided to eat in the air conditioned restaurant, Sonal, where you can choose between a buffet and a la carte meal – and naturally chose the latter as I’m not fond of buffets. I like to be served at table rather than scramble for access to the food among sometimes over-eager diners, and I also question the hygiene aspects when food can have been siting there for some time. This proved be a good decision – the food was all delicious and was brought to the table in rather spectacular style, with small tea lights burning inside the delicately carved tomatoes that ornamented each main dish. We returned the following evening and were equally happy with our meals and the service. Perhaps our tip on the first evening had been on the generous side, or maybe the waiting staff appreciated guests who chose from the a la carte menu – either way the head waiter welcomed us back with a broad smile and insisted we move from the table near the door where we had been seated to one he considered much better on the far side of the room!

Overall Fort Rajwada made an excellent base for our explorations in Jaisalmer – explorations which will follow in my next entry …

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Our room, and the pool

Posted by ToonSarah 09:35 Archived in India Tagged people birds desert india hotel rajasthan jaisalmer khichan Comments (11)

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