Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bhainsrorgarh – A Fort on a River of Glass

Guava fruit vendor
The drive from Bundi to our next destination, Fort Bhainsrorgarh was fairly uneventful (for India).  By the way, the word “garh” on the end of that word is seen a lot in the Hindi language; it means “fort”, so we were headed for the Bhainsror Fort to be exact.
Our guide Bhanwar Singh stopped at a roadside fruit stand for some fresh guava that looked like a greenish-yellow apple but tasted like a cross between an apple and a pear.  Bhanwar wanted to show us the fruits of the region, as we have rarely ever tasted guava (if at all), and certainly not on any regular basis.  The pretty young Hindu guava vendor who was sitting yoga-style on her roadside table alongside her produce sprinkled a pinch of a mix of salt and cayenne pepper on some of Frank’s guava slices – man did that make the guava come to life!!  Who could’a predicted guava as our new favorite fruit!
9th c. Baroli Temples
We also visited the Baroli Temples, an off-the-beaten-track site of 9th c. temples, similar to the ones at Khajuraho, but smaller with unusual carvings and elaborate altars.  The complex also included some impressive Shiva “lingams,” which are sculptures of the male sex appendage engaged with the female organ; it celebrates the joy of sexual union. 
Shiva "lingams,' symbolic of sexual union
Two  pillars stand a couple of football fields away from one of the temples, and we were told that at certain times of the year (perhaps during the solstices?), sunlight travels though the two pillars and illuminates the temple altar.  Anne is convinced that Hinduism is the last true remnant of paganism in the world.  No one knows when Hinduism began, and unlike other religions, Hinduism has no known founder -- and nothing much seems to have changed over the centuries.  As we were leaving, we each received a spot of yellow paste on our foreheads as a blessing  (Frank just “loves” that religious glop on his forehead!).
Bhainsrorgarh Fort and Hotel
Frank under the stone gazebo at Bhainsrorgarh
Our Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel is the most romantic spot yet.  This former Maharajah palace is perched at the end of a promontory on a cliff 200 ft. above the crocodile-infested Chambal River.  Our host, Rajveer, is a member of the royal family who owns and operates this place.  Our living quarters were huge with a bathroom as large as some of our recent hotel rooms.  And as soon as we were settled in, we had lunch on the roof under a stone gazebo.  We really felt like royalty as we enjoyed the views of the river and watched the green parrots flitting around the colorful palace gardens.
Lazing around on the porch outside our room
Of course, no hotel is perfect.  Every hotel that we stay at here in India seems to have at least one “lucky” gecko hanging out on the walls of our living quarters.  Here at the Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel, we have two in the bedroom and one in our bathroom.  One of these geckos is rather large, and looks like he could have been around for a while.  He loves to hang on the wall over our bed, picking off insects as they seek-out the lamp over the head of our bed. These big green carnivorous critters are of course harmless to humans and do devour a great quantities of insect life; for that we are grateful, and welcome their presence.  However, Anne is still leery of them, fearing that one will crawl into her suitcase some night, or worse yet, drop on her face while she’s sleeping and try to lick the saliva from her lips.  Haaaa!  Could you see it now?  The shrieks of fear from Anne who had been just kissed by a lucky gecko; we are not sure the gecko (or poor Frank lying at her side) could survive the retributions!
Evening along the Chambal River
Power outages daily are also an issue here – Frank counted 9 thru the evening and night, and those were just the ones he was awake for.  But Anne is totally charmed by the elegance of this old palace and the wonderful service.  For example, we were given our own table in a small private dining room at dinnertime.  The walls held carved niches displaying old teapots and other household items -- also old photographs of former Maharajahs, each one showing the proud hunter standing in front of a dead tiger or antelope with gun in hand and foot on the poor critter (not quite so charming!). 
 We lost power again just as we finished our meal.  Of course, Frank the former “Boy Scout” had his trusty flashlight handy, but the staff had already placed candles along the way back to our room.  This is very sweet, but the “servant mentality” here makes us feel uncomfortable – and sorry for the staff.  Even the owners refer to the men who work in their hotels as “boys!” These “boys” are like work slaves here, but they don’t seem to have that sense of being enslaved.  We don’t think they are being mistreated or anything. They all seem to be good natured about it, and just deal with it as a job they are lucky to have.  “Serving” other people seems to be the prime directive of each individual.  Frank secretly gets very unhappy when he’s not even allowed to pop the aluminum top on his beer or soda can here; the “boys” will bring an aluminum can over at dinner time, and they have it popped and poured into a glass before Frank can tell them “no, I want to do it myself!”  Guess Frank will have to re-learn how to pull the aluminum tabs off when he returns to the states. 

"Impressionist effect" from the boat ride on the Chambal
The next morning, Frank was feeling a bit under the weather, so Anne took the recommended boat ride on the river by herself.  One of the staff led Anne down to the water’s edge where she met the two boatmen who would man the oars to propel the small wooden boat.  She had a momentary thought that she must be out of her mind, but then she hopped in the boat and they were off.  For the next hour, Anne felt as if she was floating into an Impressionist painting.  The lake perfectly reflected the palace and all the greenery along the shoreline – in fact, the reflections were so shimmery that she actually started to feel dizzy.  Crocodiles are supposed to inhabit these waters, and the boatmen did point out what they said was the head of a crocodile crossing to the other side of the river, but it was hard to see.  She also saw monkeys swinging through the trees, and when they neared an island in the middle of the river, about 50 large vampire bats went wild, screeching and soaring around overhead.  The boatmen returned her safe and sound, gladly accepted their tips, gave her a couple of “namastes” and disappeared back onto the river.

Children greet us in the village below the fort
Frank was feeling better, so we decided to walk through the small village on our own.  It was impossible to take a peaceful stroll because the town’s people acted as if two freaks from “albino city” had just rolled into town.  Little kids flocked around Frank like he was the Pied Piper of Bhainsrorgarh!  We stopped by a small grocery store to pick up a couple items, and when we turned around, a crowd of over 30 town people had gathered behind us just to see what we were up to.  Everyone was friendly enough, but it gets to be pretty draining when the whole town is gaping at us spooky white folks, and we were happy to escape back up the mountain to our isolated palace.

"Dung Designs"
Note: Dung has been dyed a variety of colors
Now we want to give you some straight talk on cow shit.  Frank proudly considers himself somewhat of an expert on this topic; since he grew up around a farm, he is no stranger to a cow patty and its many uses.  But even he has never seen cow dung raised to the peculiar reverence it receives here.  Raw, green, wet cow manure is smeared on the front step surface of each country house for good luck.  Maybe for more practical reasons, we think it might also give the home owners a place to wipe off his muddy shoes for more foot traction when entering the home; Bhanwar told us that it even keeps the mosquito population down.  And a carefully swept cow dung kitchen floor is a real point of pride in a home. 
If you look closely, you can see that this stone wall
has been entirely slathered with cow patties!
Cow dung is even a source of artistic expression.  Women create colorful patterns in their front yards.  Initially, Anne thought these were sand paintings, but of course, as we found out, they are “dung designs.”  We even observed cow excrement “fancifully” reshaped into more human-sized turds and decorated with little white flowers – pointed out proudly to us by a young man who acted as if he was showing us a sculpture by Rodin!  We guess that since the cow is a highly sacred animal in India, any cow “byproduct” is considered sacred, too.  Either that, or some here might have a little too much time on their hands.

"Poop sculptures" on someone's doorstep
If you use your imagination, you may see an elephant
with tail on the right, or a crocodile on the left front.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bundi – Rajasthan’s Hidden Gem

The trucks of India each have a
 colorful personality expressed in unique
 handpainted designs
We drove from Jaipur to Bundi via a highway, which may sound like an improvement, but don’t take that term too literally.  As the signs kept telling us, this highway is a “Work in Progress” -- a dusty, partially completed roadway with a road surface that vacillated between macadam, sand, and mud.  And to make matters worse, this road was filled with hundreds and hundreds of delivery trucks.  Not a pleasant  drive.  Even Rampal, our ace driver was getting a little rammy and almost took out a sacred cow – hate to think about the ramifications of that (in this world, not to mention the next)!

Make sure you "dip" those lites at night!

The trucks of India are beyond gaudy!  They are hand painted all over the sides, front, and back with every color of the rainbow -- the hood of the truck is usually the most colorful, but even the gas tank is often painted with colorful flowers, geometric shapes, swastikas, etc.  Plus, windshields are decorated with tinsel, satiny curtains, and strands of garland making the truck look like it just ran over a Christmas tree!  And the mirrors almost always display a string of black pompons flapping in the wind.  These are supposed to act like Evil Eye charms to ward off accidents and other catastrophes (“black eyes” here in India, as opposed to the similar blue-eyed Greek evil eye charms).  Trucks also have the words “Blow Horn” painted in big letters on the back (a request to blow your horn before passing), and sometimes a strange warning to “use dippers after dark.”  We assume this is a request to use your high beam/low beam headlights; most of the time Indian drivers don’t even use their headlights until it really gets dark.  They must all have a death wish!
Beautiful Bundi
The hamlet of Bundi looks like a little piece of Rajasthani heaven with a manmade lake in front and a fairytale Maharajah palace cascading down the mountainside behind the town.  We are staying in another heritage property, the most authentic hotel in Bundi (which means plenty of ambience coupled with basic amenities).
Our newest guide is Bhanwar Singh who definitely ranks up there as one of our best.  He is a tall Bundi homeboy who knows every inch of this city, and he went out of his way to make sure we enjoyed our stay.  In fact, he dropped by the very first night just to introduce himself.  He also explained that we had arrived on celebration of Small Diwali (will these Indian festivals never end?) which explained the firecrackers we kept hearing.
Elephant entrance gate at Bundi Palace
The following day, it was another holiday, an Islamic holiday called Eid.  Bhanwar showed us the wonders of Bundi beginning with the palace – a magnificent (but neglected) 16th c. edifice, high on the hill behind our hotel.  The welcome gate was topped with wonderful stone elephant carvings.  For entertainment, the mahouts (elephant trainers) used to get the elephants drunk and stage elephant fights in the outer courtyard while the Maharajah watched from his elegant balcony above.
Bhanwar, our guide, shows us some magnificent Bundi artwork  
The real glory of this palace is the fabulous artwork, paintings that still sparkle even though most are in disrepair.  The brilliant blue colors, made from lapis lazuli, are especially striking.  One painting of the hunting lodge showed how animals would be lured to a pool of water in front of the lodge so that the women could shoot them!  Nice trap for the animals, huh?
Step wells were built deep, and used to gather
water during the monsoon season
We also visited two fascinating step wells, elaborate wells used to capture water during the monsoon season.  The zigzag pattern of the steps made the wells look like geometric designs similar to the pyramids of Egypt. 
Community dentist will pull your teeth or adjust
 your dentures right here on this busy street corner
Driving through the small market, we got a look at the local dentist manning his stand with a nice choice of dentures on display.  And a good selection of sunglasses as a sideline business!  His wares and “shop” were spread out on a blanket on a busy intersection, alongside other merchants selling flowers, spices, and other unrelated things.  We wondered who would have their teeth pulled or have their dentures adjusted right out on some busy, dusty open-air street with hundreds of motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and other vehicles just 10 or 15 feet away?  Life here is sooooooo so different.
The most charming aspect of Bundi is the small town atmosphere and the friendliness of the people.  This sweet spot is our favorite destination so far.  We get no hassle here, no one has their hand out for money – it is an unspoiled little gem out in the wilds of India. 
Anne's new look: a "peacock fingernail!"
Bundi is known for miniature painting, and Anne got a peacock painted on her fingernail.  It didn’t last long (washed off), but it was a very Bundi experience.
Our favorite night here was dinner at the Bundi Inn where we spent the evening with our guide Bhanwar, a Dutch couple named Jan and Petra, and the Inn’s owner, Kamel.  This was one of those priceless interactions that we always treasure when we travel – good fun making special connections with new and friendly people.
Bundi Palace after dark
One of our discussions had to do with the mystery of the cats.  Frank was curious about why we never see any cats here.  We got some evasive answers about how a cat was bad luck and people are very superstitious.  Apparently, dogs are good, but cats are bad.  Bhanwar said that a cat would never be kept as a pet.  And Kamel abruptly said, “We don’t kill cats!”  But we are not so sure, given Kamel’s defensive response.  The cat mystery continues…
Pottery maker in Thikarda shows us his wares
Bhanwar took us on an outing to the nearby village of Thikarda, known for its pottery.  This was another friendly village where we got to see the school children doing the “morning praise,” a call and response chanting that they do each day before starting their classes. 
Village schoolgirls chant "the morning praise"
We also met a very special farmer who welcomed us onto his farm saying it was an honor to have us visit.  He had a beautiful property that he was obviously proud of, with neatly planted plots of vegetables.  He gave us some fresh cauliflower right out of his garden that was so sinfully sweet; we all walked along thru the fields nibbling on this farmer’s magnificent produce. 
Typical brightly colored turban
We have been making some progress with our Hindi, and Frank has mastered a number of basic phrases.  The reaction to his speaking any Hindi at all is quite remarkable.  People are literally stunned.  Frank spoke a few words aloud in a restaurant, and a group of 6 Hindu people at the next table all whipped their heads around as tho their favorite Bollywood star had just arrived on scene.  They laughed as they called out, “You speak Hindi!”  A few even applauded.  Apparently, very few non-Hindus even attempt the language; it is a dying language, and we weren’t even sure we wanted to know how to speak it at first – since English is always an easier option.  But now, it has just enhanced the fun of being here in India.
Winding one's turban using 40 ft. of cloth
 can be exhausting!
We want to say a few words about turbans, since we found out some neat stuff about them.  We actually watched a demo of a turban winding, as you can see from the pix here.  Man, those things are long!!  Many Indians wear these long colorful ribbons of material on their heads here in India.  Why?  Well there are many reasons.  (1) Originally, the color was an indicator of the tribe to which an individual belonged.  But, that reason doesn’t exist anymore, since tribes no longer cavort as tribes did in the past.  The turban is somewhat of a throwback to those days, and sometimes the peasants of a particular region (or family) band together and wear similar colors.  (2) Some use the turban to signify religious preference; the sikhs wear turbans always.  Next, (3) turbans are devices to help keep the head cool from the 130-degree plus heat in the summer.  Just think, a wad of fluff up there can insulate the skull from the blistering heat that can otherwise fry the brain.  (4) Indians routinely carry stuff on their heads as they walk (pots filled with milk, large wok-like bowls, bunches of sticks sometimes 10 feet long, we’ve even seen ‘em carry loads of bricks, tools, luggage, cotton bales, etc.); if they shape that turban just right, it can be used as a cushion and balancing mechanism for all sorts of portable things on top the skull.  But, lastly, (5) we also learned that the turban is a strong rope that is sometimes 30 or 40 feet long; this can be a valuable tool for a resourceful Indian, who will tie a bucket to his long-reaching turban of “rope” and lower it down to dip some water from his well.   
Faces of India:
Our faithful driver, Rampal Yadob

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jaipur – The Pink City

Just one of the stranger occurences - open urinals
 right on the main drags in towns
We drove from Agra to Jaipur, a fairly boring ride, but on the way, our driver, Rampal, was always on the lookout for photo opportunities for Frank: camels, elephants, monkeys, a bus with as many people sitting on the top of the bus as were inside it, and other unusual things that you don’t see here in America. 
The groom and two of his buddies trot down the center
 of a busy highway on the way to his wedding
Jaipur is another large city with lots of traffic and the usual mayhem.  But we did see an odd sight:  three men riding white horses decorated with the most ornate and colorful saddles – riding right in the middle of all the city traffic.  Rampal explained that they were headed for a wedding.  Apparently in India, the groom makes quite a splash by riding to the ceremony on a fancy white horse!
The following day, our Jaipur guide, Amid, gave us the full sightseeing tour.  It is easy to see why Jaipur is called The Pink City – everything within the old city walls is pink.  Most of the pink color comes from the local building material, reddish pink sandstone, but even storefronts and metal garage doors are painted pink.
The Palace of the WInd
First stop was the Hawa Mahal, aka the Palace of the Wind, a graceful 5-story structure with 152 windows.  The sole purpose of this building was so that the royal ladies could observe the action on the main street from behind stone “screens” without being seen.   The building looks like a giant peacock with a rippled roofline and protruding balconies that look like “feathers.”  Once again, the peacock, the national bird of India, integrates itself into the action.

Frank and Anne head for the Amber Fort on "Bowwan," the elephant

On to the Amber Fort, a terrific site up on a mountain overlooking the modern city where we made a grand entrance on a gentle elephant named “Bowwan.”  Of course, the elephant ride was ridiculously touristy, but too much fun to resist.  Up to the top of the mountain we rode, nauseously rocking with every ungainly step that Bowwan strode. 
Anne checks out the Winter Bedroom
Inside, the fort/palace, a beautiful courtyard led to one of the prettiest rooms we have ever seen, the Maharajah’s Winter Bedroom.  Every inch of the inner room and the pillared pavilion surrounding it was covered with convex mirrors and small polished silver devices – a sparkling sight.  Amid explained that the floors would have been covered with colorful carpets and that lamps in the wall niches would cast reflections around the room, resulting in a dazzling effect like a kaleidoscope.  On the practical side, the mirrors were supposed to reflect the heat of the lamps to keep the Maharajah warm during the cold season.    
We also saw the “wheel chair” used by the Maharani at festival time.  Apparently, her best gowns were so heavy with gold thread and semi-precious stones that she couldn’t even walk under their weight, so she had to be pushed along specially built ramps in her rolling chair.   Another part of the palace was specifically designed by a Maharajah who had 12 wives.  His large courtyard held 12 identical apartments to house each of the women and included hidden passageways allowing him to secretly visit any wife of his choosing without the other women getting jealous.  What a guy!
Shopping in the handicrafts store
We made the inevitable stop at a handicrafts shop, but actually had a good time.  Shopping here in India is quite an experience.  They have shelves and shelves of all kinds of textiles.  If you show the slightest interest, things start flying off the shelves:  scarves, tablecloths, bedspreads.  One after another is spread dramatically before you, usually flipped up into the air so that it floats back to the counter.  “We have many colors.  If you like one, why not two or four or six?”  These guys are remarkably tenacious.  Frank bargained hard, so at least we didn’t feel as ripped off as usual.  Unlike the Chinese who love to haggle and make it a game, many of the Indians act peeved when they give in to our price -- which only means they are mad because they couldn’t get the usual 5 or 10 times the true price!
Frank standing in front of the world's largest sundial
Our last stop of the day was at an astronomical observatory called Jantar Mantar with an open air assortment of astronomical instruments including the world’s largest sundial.  Frank was fascinated by the scientific instruments, but disappointed that so many of the instruments were related to astrology.  Astrology plays a major part in arranged marriages in India, so plotting horoscopes correctly was a big deal.  (Today it is done via computers.)
The bizarre Nehru Bazaar
The following day was a “freebie day” (i.e., no tour guide) so we chose to devote it to shopping and massage.  Unlike the typical tourists, we wanted to visit the bizarre bazaars.  Our driver Rampal seemed quite hesitant about taking us but eventually dropped us off at the somewhat daunting Nehru Bazaar, with an expression on his face like he might never see us again.  The bazaar was rough and dirty, and we were the only white faces around, but everyone was friendly, and we had a blast.
Anne had scoped out a recommended Thai massage place called Ziva Spa.  The masseuses were all Indians (Thai-trained, the manager assured us) but the place was spotless with all the amenities: soft lighting, soothing music, and nice “pajamas” to wear.  Neither one of us could believe it when our hour of massage was over.  What a nice respite from the craziness outside.
Women sell gold marigolds everywhere for "good luck."
Let’s take a minute to talk about what we have been drinking.  (India can definitely drive you to drink LOL!)  Frank’s favorite beverage is Kingfisher, the only beer we’ve seen here in India.  He especially likes the hard-to-find “Kingfisher Strong” variety, which sports an 8% alcohol level kick.  But India also offers a wonderful assortment of fruit juices including mango, papaya and guava.  Iced tea and real lemonade are also good, but Anne’s favorite cold drink is something called a “lassi,” a liquid yogurt drink available in many flavors like coconut and banana -- very refreshing and good for digestion too.  Another favorite of Anne’s is Masala Chai, a hot tea made from spices like cinnamon and cardamom mixed with milk and sugar – like an adult version of hot chocolate.
The Indian Swastika -- symbol of eternity
The swastika symbol is a frequent sight here in India.  You’ll see it in architectural design, in paintings, and they are even painted all over trucks and tuk-tuks that you see riding down the road.  Of course, the swastika is a design used in the past by many cultures, and if you ask the Indians about it, they assure you that it is not the same swastika used during WWII, but a reverse twist on Hitler’s infamous emblem.  In Indian culture, this reverse swastika has always meant infinity or eternity.
More faces of India:
Cobra charmer at the Amber Fort

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Agra – Home of the Most Beautiful Building in the World

Waiting for the train
We caught a late afternoon express train for Agra.  This train experience was much better than our overnight trip but still pretty rough around the edges.  Unbelievably, they kept plying us with food during the relatively short trip (2 ½ hours): snacks, sandwiches, hot tea etc.  Most of which we didn’t eat – if you think U.S. train/plane food is bad, wow!! You are in for a real treat here.....
Train stations in India are real horror shows, with overcrowded platforms of travelers, beggars, and people lying around sleeping on the concrete floors (or are they dead?).  Luckily, we had a handler to make sure we got on the right train in all this mess.  We consider ourselves “train experts” in any other part of the world but wouldn’t attempt it on our own here.  We actually met a couple from Idaho at the train station named Bill and Bobbie, who also had a handler to get them oriented.  It’s always fun to commiserate with fellow Americans about the trials and tribulations of traveling in India (although we would have to say that we seem to be handling it much better than most).
The incredible Taj!
We arrived about 8:30 p.m. in the city of Agra – after dark and too late to see anything, although we did get a distant first glimpse of the Taj Mahal from our hotel balcony.  Yes, this is the city where the grandest building in the world resides (in our humble opinion).  Our hotel room looked terrific, but as always in India, things are not what they appear to be.  The seemingly modern shower with its touchpad controls looked like a dream until we stepped in and realized that the water temperature fluctuated wildly on its own from scalding to lukewarm, and the water was a disgusting yellow/green color.  Such are the realities of travel here.
Monika shows us the gorgeous inlays of
the Taj Mahal

The next morning, we were totally psyched to visit the world famous Taj Mahal with our new Agra guide, Monika Sharma -- she was our first female guide here in India, and by far our best guide yet.  Monika was everything we like in a guide: knowledgeable, smart, curious, enthusiastic, energetic, and just so much fun.  She showed us the sights, but also taught Frank lots of helpful Hindi words, and told Anne all about Hindu weddings (which tend to last for 15 days).  What a wealth of information she provided.   We wanted to pack her up and bring her home with us!
The Taj Mahal is simply the most beautiful building we have ever seen.  We wondered how it could possibly live up to the hype, but the Taj was better than we ever dreamed.  We arrived about 8:30 a.m. when the lighting was ideal, and it wasn’t overly crowded.  It is impossible to describe the glimmering white marble and the wondrous reflection in the mirror pool in front of the building.  You have all seen the pictures, but they do not begin to capture the grace and elegance of this place when you see it in person.
Up close, the Taj was a revelation with the most beautiful floral designs created with inlays of precious and semi-precious stones.  The marble itself sparkles from the crystals embedded in it, and the semi-precious stones glittered in the sun like so many diamonds.  The Taj Mahal was created by Shah Jehan as a memorial mausoleum to his favorite wife, Mumtaz, who had died giving birth to their 14th child.  The couple is buried side by side in the basement, but replicas of their caskets are on display in the rotunda located in the center of the memorial at ground level.  This room has a sacred feeling to it much like a cathedral.  One of the many things that make the Taj so pleasing is the perfect symmetry of every aspect of the complex.  Only one thing lacks symmetry:  Shah Jehan’s tomb is not quite identical to Mumtaz’s tomb – it’s bigger!
Reflection pool showing the symetry of the Taj
Oddly enough, the Taj Mahal is built over a large well, an engineering design which helps makes this beautiful palace earthquake resistant.  If an earthquake occurs, the Taj foundation will “float” on the waters of the well, and the destructive shaking forces transferred to the structure are minimized by the damping action of the water. This also means that the river immediately behind it is an advantage and actually part of the anti-earthquake design, since it keeps the well beneath the structure always automatically filled with fluid, protecting the Taj for eternity – or until the river runs dry.  The details of the unusual foundation were discovered by the British when they tried to move the Taj.  Yes, the Brits in a fit of arrogance during their tenure here, tried to uproot the Taj and move it back to merry old England!  Anyway, happily for all, their plans failed, and the Taj remains just where it was always meant to be.

At the "Baby Taj"

Agra has two other places of interest as well: the “Baby Taj” and the Agra Fort.  The “Baby Taj” is older than the Taj and was probably the inspiration for it.  As its name implies, it is a mausoleum similar to the Taj, but on a smaller scale.  Both buildings were created by Persian workers and many of the walls and ceilings look like Persian carpets, only they were formed with marble and semi-precious stones instead of cloth.  Designed by a woman (Mumtaz’s aunt), this building has a delicacy that feels very feminine.  The marble inlay is gorgeous here as well, especially the Tiger’s Eye stones.

Red sandstone walls of the  Agra Fort

The Agra Fort is a huge place made of red sandstone that is part palace and part military installation.  Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj, was imprisoned here by his 3rd son (after a “little misunderstanding” over the issue of succession to the throne) for 8 years before Jehan died.  Shah Jehan could gaze at his beloved Taj Mahal across the river, but he never entered it again during his lifetime.  However, don’t feel too sorry for Shah Jehan -- his prison was a fabulous suite of rooms with plenty of inlaid gems, an intricately carved fountain, and a wonderful pillared balcony.  Also, his seeming altruism and bereavement in building the Taj for his lovely wife Mumtaz nearly bankrupted the kingdom, and he probably deserved  imprisonment for his blind waste of treasury coffers.  Another interesting fact: beneath this fort lies a network of tunnels that are said to lead all the way to Delhi!
 As we were walking around taking in the sights, we heard a voice call out, “There’s Frank and Anne!”  We were momentarily stunned -- nobody knows us here.  Turns out, it was the couple from Idaho who we had met in the train station.  Quite a coincidence to bump into two familiar faces in these crowds of tourists!
Thirsty Monkey at the Agra Fort!
That night we ate dinner on the hotel’s rooftop terrace.  We noticed a rifle hanging on the side of the building (which was a bit alarming).  Suddenly, while everyone was eating at the terrace tables, a big old monkey jumped down from one of the trees and scared the living scheiss out of all; a hotel waiter grabbed the rifle and shot the monkey!  Actually, he only scared him away, but we were pretty impressed that the hotel staff goes to extreme lengths to keep its patrons safe!  You never know what’s going to happen next around here.
We left Agra after just two nights, but Monika came with us to a nearby place called “Fathepur Sikri.”  Our ace guide Monika was her usually chatty self, telling us all about her brother who recently had a “love marriage” (instead of an arranged marriage that is still very common here in India).   Monika told us that if she cannot find the right guy for herself for a marriage, she will let her parents arrange a marriage for her because, as she said, “then they will be responsible for the choice, not me!”
The 5-story pyramidal-shaped entertainment complex
 at Fathepur Sikri
Fathepur Sikri is an ancient fortified city built by the famous Mogul ruler named Akbar.  Akbar was a pretty bright and open-minded guy – he was a big fan of religious tolerance and proved the point by marrying three women: a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian.  Each wife had her own designated area in the palace, and the architecture of each area was a mix of these 3 religions.  The Hindu wife even had her own Hindu Temple, and a kitchen that never saw a piece of meat.
Anne checks our Akbar's giant stone platform bed
Akbar had a lot of toys: a gigantic stone platform bed that required an 8 foot ladder to reach (and a lot of cushions to make it comfortable!).  He created a life-size game board (similar to chess) in the stone floor of the open courtyard – and reputedly using his harem girls as game pieces!  Akbar also had a favorite “execution elephant” who crushed those found guilty of serious crimes.  The condemned person’s only hope of a pardon was to appeal directly to the elephant – Akbar trusted the elephant’s judgment, and if his elephant hesitated to crush a person, they were free to go.

Anne and tour guide Monika examine the beautiful art work 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Orchha – Land of the Maharajahs

Dedicated to Harold Gross (01/21/1927 - 11/05/2011) 

Water buffalos rule the roads
Another thing about India:  no one likes to give you bad news (so they lie a lot, or leave out main parts of the story).  We were told that the drive from our town of Khajuraho to Orchha would be about 4 hours, but in actuality, the ride took 7 grueling hours (with two stops).  The distance was only 180 km (about 115 miles), but the roads were the worst we have seen yet.  For most of the way, we drove on a single lane road that both directions of traffic had to share.  When 2 cars were coming at each other, one or both often had to give way by pulling over to the ditch side of the road. 
Overloaded tuk-tuk with people hanging on the back
Tuk-tuks, cars, people, and every conceivable bicycle contraption was attempting to use the road surface, often so pockmarked and potholed that it was almost undriveable.  For those of you who ski, the road was the equivalent of a ski trail full of moguls!  Every once in a while, we hit a relatively smooth stretch of macadam, but for the most part we bumped along at 10 miles an hour, dodging every obstacle on the road (including cows, goats and water buffalo), veering around treacherous road craters, and playing a constant game of chicken with oncoming traffic as every vehicle vied for the “best” section of roadway.
Camels are part of the workforce here in India
The situation would be confounding to all but the most intrepid; one broken car axle or tie rod would leave us stranded for days.  Needless to say, it was a long, bumpy, dusty day, but the sights along the way kept us fully entertained.  Never a dull moment with cows and goats all over the roads, tuk-tuks filled to overflowing (the legal limit is 4 people but we saw overloaded tuk-tuks with a dozen or more passengers including young guys hanging on the back and sides), delivery trucks painted with the most colorful designs (almost like circus cars), motorcycles carrying as many as 4 passengers at a time, and buses of Diwali revelers blaring the loudest and strangest sing-songy horns we ever heard.  And that was just the activity ON the road.  Our journey took us through tiny villages and larger towns all teeming with people wandering around the markets, getting haircuts on stools in dusty parking lots, good old village boys drinking at the local cafĂ©, etc.  We even saw our first elephant – “parked” in front of a school.  We never get tired of all this fascinating action that you’d never see back home.  
Local milkman makes deliveries of water buffalo milk
We made two stops along the way: one stop to stretch our legs at a so-so museum of Hindu statues and a second stop to eat lunch.  Both the museum and the restaurant were located in palaces formerly owned by Maharajahs.  These Maharajahs lived like kings, reigning over large tracts of land out here in the countryside.  The architecture of these palaces is wonderful with lots of arches, fancy balconies, and minaret-like turrets.  On the surrounding hillsides, we could see the ruins of forts and hunting lodges that were once part of one Maharajah’s huge estate.  Descendants of the Maharajah still own (and sometimes live in) these palaces often operating them as hotels.  But they have no real power anymore and no political influence (unless elected to a specific political post).
The Bundelkhand Riverside Resort where we stayed
We arrived in Orchha (at last!) and rolled down a long unpaved lane to the Bundelkhand Riverside Resort Hotel located along the scenic and sacred Betwa River -- a refreshingly tranquil walled estate with gardens and colorful flowers everywhere.  In keeping with the Maharajah theme of this part of the trip, our hotel was once owned by another Maharajah.  We have a huge room, actually a bedroom and sitting room, all furnished with antiques.  The bathroom has more than a few quirks, but the ambience is well worth some minor inconvenience.
Maharajah Palaces of Orchha

Sunset over the chattries
 (cremation sites of the Maharajahs)

The highlight of our time here was our tour of the palaces of Orchha with our latest guide, Hemant Singh.  Hemant gave us a fun tour, and playfully called us Maharajah and Maharani.  But all kidding aside, these Maharajahs and Maharanis sure knew how to enjoy a rich regal lifestyle on the backs of the people.  They were king and queen on a small regional scale.  When the royal pair would make a grand entrance into their palace, servants would lean out of an opening high above the main arch to drop flower petals over their heads.  Then, the Maharani would spend her day being gently pushed on a swing while the Maharajah went out hunting tigers.  The palaces are a fascinating mix of Islamic and Hindu architecture because during this time period, the two religions coexisted quite comfortably.   
Frank leads the local kids in a rousing rendition
of "The ABC Song!"
Anne gets her palm and arm "tattooed" Hindu style!
The following day, Hemant took us to a small government village where the homes and the public school have been provided by the government in an attempt to improve the lot of the poor rural people.  We visited a school here, and got a warm welcome from the friendly young students.  We also got a really close-up look at village life: cow patties drying in the sun (used as fuel for cooking), and we even got to watch a guy hosing down his water buffalo!  Later, we took a stroll through Orchha’s market for some good souvenir shopping.  Anne even got her palm and arm stamped with various designs (hopefully, the vendor was telling the truth when he said it would wash off!)
Villager hoses down his happy water buffalo
One of the many things we find hard to understand here is customer service.  In general, the hotel staff mean well (or maybe just mean to get a good tip), but they can really drive us crazy.  We know that we are constantly being observed, and lots of times, they follow us around (or as Frank often says, “they track us like a bad fart!”). 
Cow dung patties drying in the sun (used as fuel for cooking)
Sometimes, with our guides, it is hard to pin down details like the daily schedule (which keeps changing).  They can even be a bit dishonest or vague, or language-challenged at a convenient time.  For example, the day we were scheduled to visit the small village, our guide Hemant arrived late and announced, “We have problem.  No car for you today.”  This was “interesting” since we had discussed this just the day before, and our itinerary clearly stated that we had a car at our disposal today.  So, we pulled out our master schedule (the revered “programme”) to show Hemant.  He made a few calls and guess what?  “Car is coming!”
"The Saylorsburg Slugger" knocks one out of the courtyard!
While we were waiting for that car, talk of a game of cricket began circulating.  Frank had never played cricket before, but a cricket bat and ball suddenly materialized and Hemant invited Frank out into the quadrangle for some cricket playing!  Frank, the “Saylorsburg Slugger” did himself proud, hitting one pitch after another.  He even hit one so far “out of the park” that it disappeared into the vegetation.  No problem, one of the staff quickly found another ball.  By the way, the staff (and a group of Indian guests) loved watching Frank, the white-faced foreigner play cricket – he became quite the star of the Bundelkhand Hotel that day, and “the boys” who work here talked about the cricket match for the rest of our stay.
Elephant saunters down Main Street in Orchha
The animals of India are a study in overpopulation by themselves, and could be a good thesis for some animal husbandry grad student to explore.  We are never sure which animals are considered the “sacred” ones, and which are not. Certainly, everyone knows that the cows are sacred for sure, as they could be somebody’s brother reincarnated; but how about goats?  Or pigeons?  Or even flies?
There are lots of pigeons everywhere, and nobody seems to get fussed-up with the daily mess they make; in fact, many locals feed these birds, so we assume they must be sacred too.  Dogs wander around everywhere, seemingly belonging to no one in particular.  Nobody seems to be trimming the dog population, or even discussing it as a problem.  They just lay sleeping in the dirt on the side of the road, or walk around aimlessly thru traffic, in parks, or in vendor areas.  They never seem to beg passersby for a handout, and we never saw them threaten anyone.  We were told to avoid them by some of our guides, as many of them are rabid.  Same with the monkeys, which seem to be everywhere too. 
Goat herds clog the roads
Nobody seems to be doing anything about rampant rabies, tho.  Shouldn’t you destroy rabid animals?  Maybe they’re all sacred too, and aren’t allowed to be destroyed.  We just don’t know.  Interestingly, we never see any cats.  In other countries such as in Europe, cats run stray everywhere, but cats don’t seem to exist in this part of the world, or, if they do, we haven’t seen them.  We don’t think the Indians eat cats, as we’ve never heard talk of such, and we’ve never seen them on any menu.  Frank has a theory that the monkeys may prey on the cats because they are furry and look like “little monkeys”; this may threaten the monkeys somehow, which are much larger than any cat, and cause them to attack the cats(?). 
Pedestrians on the back roads
Oxen, cows, water buffalo, camels, elephants, monkeys, goats, pigs, dogs, chickens, et al roam the streets at will, strutting down main highways and mingling with pedestrians, and the all too frenetic traffic.  Imagine rounding a bend on a high speed highway, and encountering a herd of 20 water buffalo, each animal weighing 2000 pounds or so, slowly ambling down the center of the highway right in the direct path of your vehicle.  Drivers don’t seem to panic; they just make a high-speed skirt around them and keep on zooming. 
Everything in India gets carried on the head
Occasionally, we see a wild peacock (national bird of India), and also cobras being “charmed” out of their shallow woven bamboo baskets by some dude sitting yoga-style on a blanket, sporting a turban, and blowing on a flute.  Wild birds include the colorful kingfisher with its brilliant iridescent turquoise feathers, bright green parrots, and some red bird that we don’t know the name of.  We’ll try to get some answers to our questions on the “sacredness” of the animals if we come across anyone who can explain it.
We had a late check out on our last day, so we decided to indulge in a special Indian treat: the “ayurvedic head massage”.  Frank and Anne were each shown to separate hotel rooms where our masseuses were waiting for us.  (Masseuses here in India are always assigned this way: a woman for women and a man for men – to avoid any man/woman “problems.”)  The head massage was quite a workout for our skulls and heavy on good smelling Indian oils.  The final oil had a strong peppermint scent, leaving us thoroughly mentholated (& anxious for a good shower)!

Some of the faces of India: