19 November 2005

Northern India

November 2005

I travelled with Exodus on their 'Highlights of Northern India' trip.

Friday/Saturday 4-5 November

Arrived in the early hours of the morning at Delhi International Airport after an uneventful eight hour flight from LHR. Rushed off the plane to get to the front of the passport queue but still waited 45 minutes to clear immigration in what was a surprisingly small area for an airport serving a city of 13.2 million people.
Met by the Exodus agent and taken to the Connaught Hotel in the centre of the city. A very entertaining journey! Trucks are not allowed in the Delhi area except between 2100 and 0600 to reduce congestion. Accordingly, all of Delhi’s ring roads are clogged by trucks at night, with little lane discipline exhibited by anybody. Indian driving style is to drive as hard as you dare, leaning on the horn until the vehicle in front yields. No hassle, it’s just the way they do things here.
Comfortable but short night’s sleep (3 ½ hours), awaking to a very hazy sun breaking through the noxious air pollution that pervades Delhi. After breakfast I met Mohan and Ravi Tickoo of KVT, Exodus’ main agents in India before the rest of the group arrived from the Siddarth Hotel about 7kms away (one hour’s drive though!). Then a five to six hour drive to Jaipur, 270kms SW of Delhi and known as the ‘Pink City’.
We passed quite quickly through the suburbs of Delhi, following the wide boulevards of British designed New Delhi, and paralleling miles of new road/flyover construction. Shame they don’t realise that more road capacity = more cars! Smells: exhaust fumes and sulphur dioxide. Sounds: the rumble of the bus engine but overwhelmed by the constant blaring of horns (ours and everybody else’s). Sights: organised chaos!

Proud people, elegantly dressed women in brightly coloured saris (orange and pink seem to be the colours of the season right now), ragamuffin kids begging at intersections, a snake charmer with bedraggled looking cobra, camels and carts taking up the inside lane of the dual carriageway sections, monkeys and kites.
Unbelievable poverty, stoically endured, people living in open ridge tents next to the busy roads, women hunched over tending the crops, men sitting on their haunches or fixing yet another truck.
Buses laden with brightly clothed people, the distinctive white turbans of Rajastani men, shepherds herding goats, and cows grazing randomly everywhere. Dust, increasingly hot sunshine and generally flat plains of sand and clay, punctuated by stands of pampas grass, with occasional sandstone hills in the distance. All in all, an assault on the senses, but with no doubt, much more to come.

Gate to the Pink City of Jaipur
Lunch was taken midway between Delhi and Jaipur, some opting for chips and Coke (!), others going for good vegetable samosas, noodles and our guide Bushan selecting what looked like the best dish, a vegetarian thali.

First night in Jaipur
We had an imposing hotel for the night, 2kms outside of the centre of Jaipur, the Narain Nirwas Palace at Kanota Bagh on Narain Singh Road. Very traditional rooms, but interesting, comfy and with good showers. Had a few beers on the terrace, assaulted by a few mozzies, followed by an excellent dinner in an ornate high ceilinged room. I enjoyed Kair Sangri with chappatis. Kair is a small round desert fruit which grows on a prickly shrub. Excellent!
Then early to bed, with rhythmic local music in the background, punctuated later in the night by peacocks calling each other (at about 0330!).

Sunday 6 November

Breakfast, then on to the bus, joined by a local guide, at 0800. Into Jaipur, first stop to view the Albert Hall (a museum), then through the city gates and immediately into the geometrically planned city of pink painted buildings. They have remained pink since 1876, when Maharaja Ram Singh had the entire city painted pink, traditionally the colour of hospitality, to welcome the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).
Photo stop at the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds, constructed in 1799 to enable the ladies of the royal household to watch the life and processions of the city. It is only one room deep.

Jaipur traffic!
Jaipur, the 'Pink City'
Palace of the Winds, Jaipur
Then out of the north gate, passing the Jal Mahal, a water palace situated in the middle of the artificially created expanse of Man Sagar, a lake much overdue for some cleaning!

Jal Mahal, near Jaipur
We followed the Amber Road for a few more kilometres, then parked up and walked up to the Amber Fort, built from red sandstone and white marble, first stopping to take a view of it across the Maota Lake where wild pigs wandered and the tourist elephants bathed. A five minute walk up the steps takes you past numerous beggars and hawkers to the fort, giving splendid views all around. We entered via the Sun Gate into the main courtyard Jaleb Chowk, with elephants carrying tourists up the hill doing a final circuit of the square before decamping their burden. There was a lot to see, including the Hall of Mirrors and Ganesh Pol, decorated with mosaics and sculptures.

Approaching the Amber Fort, elephants bathing in Maota Lake
Amber Fort

Hall of Mirrors, Amber Fort
Great views of the surrounding fortified hills and down to Maota Lake. We visited the ‘zenana’, rooms for the many wives of the Maharajah that could be visited in secrecy.
Then back to Jaipur with a photo stop at the Jal Mahal in more favourable light, before visiting a carpet factory. Impressive silk carpets, handmade by outworkers in the surrounding villages, then finished/burnt in Jaipur, before taking a well earned lunch in an open restaurant complete with an Indian violinist. Good tikka.

The afternoon took us to Jantar Mantar, an observatory begun by Jai Singh in 1728, which recorded time, movement of the earth vs. the stars, and then defined astrological solutions. Clever stuff, more for the mathematicians amongst us, but the biggest sundial in the world, just 2 seconds out, couldn’t fail to impress. A very busy place to visit on a Sunday.

Jantar Mantar
The last stop of the day was the City Palace in the centre of the old city. We went first to the Mubarak Mahal and a tour of the Maharajah Souvai Mansingh II Museum containing a collection of royal costumes, etc. Then on to the Anand Mahal Sileg Khana (armoury) to see daggers, huge swords and large guns. Lastly a quick visit to the Diwan-I-Am, the art gallery hung with fine carpets, tiny scriptures and fine miniature paintings.

Jaipur street scene
City Palace, Jaipur 

Dinner in Jaipur with a rather touristy local dance show at the Indiana Restaurant. Beautiful ladies and good drumming but too much like a cabaret.

Monday 7 November

Up at 0540 for one hour’s yoga. Bushan joined four of us, with a brisk run through many different asanas. Invigorating though.
Breakfast, then on to the bus by 0800 for a four to five hour drive from Jaipur to Ranthambore. Usual chaos on the roads, but after 45 minutes we reached the countryside and had two hours on much rougher roads. Rural India is poor! Many nomadic tents (land workers, mainly).

Local Porsche!
A stop for Chai, another for a leg stretch enabling us to get some great photos of local people in a small farming village. Camels, pigs, goats and cows everywhere. Main crops here are mustard oil (used for cooking), millet, wheat, lentils and potatoes. Hot sun but plenty of water in the lakes still due the heavy monsoon this year (normally July to September).

Friendly villagers en route to Ranthambore

Arrived at our hotel in Ranthambore at 1215 with garlands of marigolds presented to us on arrival and received somewhat embarrassingly. Tea followed by a buffet lunch, then started the game drive in open truck at about 1430.
Ranthambore National Park entrance was 15 minutes up the road and was not too busy inside. We spent three hours in relatively thick bush and saw plenty of chital (spotted deer) and sambar, India’s largest deer. Crocs were seen in rivers and on lakes shores, and there were loads of peacocks, an immature serpent eagle, flocks of green cockateels, and the very large webs of the Common Indian Spider. But, no tiger seen, not surprising at this time of the day.

Ranthambore National Park

Crocodile in Ranthambore
Back to base by 1745 with dinner at 1900. This was a more basic lodge (Ankur Resort), but was perfectly adequate albeit noisy at night with the close proximity to the railway where trains sounded their horns as they passed through Saral Madhgur Junction. The hotel had big gardens and a swimming pool.

Tuesday 8 November

Up at 0545 and tea before setting off for game drive at 0630. Quickly into the park, our guide ensuring that we were ahead of the rest of the pack. We moved quickly to see if we could get a tiger sighting, so there was no time for leisurely game viewing. Then the guide spotted trucks converging on the other side of a lake so we made a quick dash over to see two tigers in long grass about 250m away. Not a great sighting but the best we were going to get. The rest of the time spent in the park concentrated on seeing the elusive tigers in their respective territories, but we only saw a tigress’ paw print (guide said about two hours old) on the sandy track. Very bumpy, rough tracks for a couple of hours through stunning gorges in between sandstone cliffs and the impressive Ranthambore Fort high above us on some sections.

Safari in Ranthambore...not an exclusive experience!
Spot two tigers...

We left the park at 0940, returning to the hotel for breakfast, a freshen up and quick visit to an internet café next door, then on to the bus for an 1130 departure. There followed a long drive north to Dousa – chaotic but fascinating. Rural India has many people! Many irrigation schemes were being operated as we drove past.
We stopped briefly at a school, causing much excitement and some control problems for the one teacher (with about a hundred kids in her charge). We also stopped in a small town and were quickly surrounded by very inquisitive people, before turning east on to the main Jaipur/Agra road. A quick food stop then darkness set in as we passed a large area dedicated to brick making with the resultant decline in air quality as we approached Agra. The road on this section was awful, having been damaged by the heavy monsoon this year, but despite this local drivers insisting on driving as fast as possible, with many near misses as a result.

As we entered Agra we saw two street celebrations celebrating weddings: very jolly!
We finally reached the Mansingh Palace Hotel at 2030 and quickly headed for the bar before a good dinner. A very comfortable hotel.

Wednesday 9 November

Another early start, this time at 0545 for a 0615 bus trip to see sunrise at the Taj Mahal. We watched the sun rise from our position by the west gate, then walked down to see inside this outstanding mausoleum built between 1631 and 1653. Absolutely stunning.

West Gate to the Taj Mahal
Took many pictures inside and out. Shah Jahan built this memorial for his second and most beautiful wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child (!). Fantastic inlaid marble work and with the extra benefit of light effects as the sun rises during the day and illuminates through the translucent marble. Security was very strict, with no mobiles or tripods allowed. Hawkers were not particularly bothersome.

Taj Mahal...the majesty of this site speaks for itself
Back to the hotel for breakfast, then drive to Agra Fort nearby, a huge red sandstone fort and palace built on the banks of the Yamuna River by Emperor Akbar in 1565 (the grandfather of Shah Jahan). Much to see but the highlights were the white marble tower where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son, Takhti-I-Jehangir, a huge black soapstone throne which was damaged by British cannon balls, and the harem quarters.

Agra Fort
Then some lunch in Agra – excellent curry again! The afternoon visit was to Fatehpur Singri, about 40kms west of Agra on difficult roads. This was a short-lived capital city of the Mughal Empire between 1571 and 1585 but was then abandoned just after the death of the creator Akbar due to water shortages. We viewed the 57m high ‘Victory Gate’, then toured the fort and palace. A liberal man and great diplomat, Akbar had Hindu, Christian (a Portuguese from Goa) and Muslim wives.

Fatehpur Singri

Back to the hotel for 1830 and had dinner nearby, entertained throughout by a sitar and Indian drum duo, before a one hour drive to the railway station east of Agra. The station was busy and the tracks were teeming with rats, and after a long tired wait, the train for Varanasi eventually pulled in 35 minutes late. A sleeper train, partly affected by cockroaches, so quickly to sleep around midnight…a long day!

Thursday 10 November

Arrival in Varanasi
Awoke around 0600 ready for disembarkation at 0800. We had a 45 minute coach ride, crossing the mighty River Ganges, to the Hotel Surya, with breakfast in the garden then free time until lunch at 1230. A couple of the group were unwell, so this free time was greatly appreciated. 
After lunch we set off with local guide Ongen (very knowledgeable), firstly to the Archaeological Museum at Sarnath containing Buddhist icons as this area is the site where Buddha is said to have spent four rainy seasons and, importantly, delivered his First Sermon. There were some amazing sculptures of the Buddha from 5th and 6th century AD, plus the famous Lion Head sculpture which is now the Indian national symbol (printed on the corner of their bank notes). Then we went on to visit the Buddhist temples of Sarnath, including a view of the inner temple and the imposing Dhammeka Stupa built by the Emperor Asoka. There were many pilgrims visiting this area, including followers from Cambodia. Gold leaf is rubbed on the side of the monuments as a mark of respect. 

The Deer Park, Sarnath

Dhammeka Stupa, site of the Buddha's First Sermon 

We visited the main Buddhist temple donated by Mrs Simon Hewaritane of Ceylon in 1932 and the ‘Grandson of the Old Tree’ (a descendent of the tree under which Buddha meditated and received Enlightenment). On the way back into Varanasi we visited the silk weavers in the alleyways of the Muslin area before a visit to the silk factory shop.

'Grandson of the Old Tree', Sarnath

Muslim quarter, Varanasi
Silk weaving, Varanasi
Varanasi is the Holy City established by Asoka and sits on the confluence of the Ganges, Varuna and Asi rivers. It has 2000 temples, five universities and, as the City of Renunciation, is home to many saddhus. It is a religious obligation of Hindus to visit Varanasi at least once in their lifetime (like Mecca for Muslims).
The final visit of the day was made by rickshaw – hectic, fascinating, amusing (saw cow walk into shop) and spiritual. We visited the ghat (steps) on the Ganges River to watch evening prayers for the Hindus. Much bell ringing, incense, merriment. Very jolly. Back to hotel, meal, collapse into bed. Do have a look at these videos on YouTube: 'Cow Goes Shopping' and 'Varanasi by Rickshaw'.

Evening ceremony on the ghats above the Ganges at Varanasi
Friday 11 November

0500 alarm call. 0530 we set off to see the Hindus abluting in the River Ganges. Groups of people by the ghats say prayers with a priest, then bathe, meditate and read Hindu scriptures. Separate ghats were in use by Sri Lankans and people from S India. We had a boat trip on the Ganges as the sun rose. Magical. We could see several of the ghats and the cremation area also. Note people drink this water!!

Sunrise over the Ganges at Varanasi

Receiving a blessing, Varanasi
Preparing to bathe in the Ganges

The Ghats at Varanasi, a holy place for Hindus
Notable was the height of the river during the monsoon season…it can be up to 40 feet higher than the current level!
We left the boat and walked up through bazaars to see the Golden temple (built on the site of a mosque); heavy security presence as seen as a Muslim target.

Varanasi street scenes 

Back to the hotel for breakfast then pack for home.
Varanasi airport is about 40 minutes from the hotel and took afternoon flight on Jet Airways to Delhi. A quick tour of New Delhi, visited a show of Indian regional dancing with Ravi Tickoo, our tour operator in India, before heading to the International terminal for the 0325 flight. Uneventful trip home on BA with flatbeds.


India is a full-on experience but has much to commend it. The sights in the town and country are absorbing and you have to admire just how well people get on with the business of life in spite of the appalling conditions many of them live in. Many ‘goose bump’ moments, especially seeing the Taj Mahal at dawn and seeing the Buddhist icons in Sarnath.

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