Sunday, 31 January 2016

Agra and the Taj Mahal

So we made our early morning deadline (own up - you thought we would never make it!) and boarded the Bhopal Shatabdi express to Agra. This is Hazel's photo - I was intent on keeping up with the guide who had set off at the same breakneck speed as Harry yesterday, with both of our large cases in tow.

In the first class carriage there is acres of leg room, and breakfast is provided. Our hotel had also provided breakfast ...

Looks exciting but actually not very inspiring - sliced bread sandwiches with an Indian version of Sandwich spread, the obligatory tomato ketchup, fruit and cake. The tea was courtesy of Meals on Wheels, the railway company caterers. 

Breakfast #2 from the train was more interesting - we avoided the cornflakes which came with boiled milk, and opted for 'South Indian Food' - a kind of rice cake with coconut sauce and chutney, probably the third thing on the vegetarian menu above. Don't you just love all the detail on that menu? And a little handful of sweetened fennel seed as a digestive - we're quite getting to like all the variations of this  we've been offered.

Arriving in Agra at 8am we were met by our driver for the day and taken to our hotel. Here we were collected by our guide ready to start the day's itinerary.

The Taj Mahal has got to be top of every tourist's list of things to see in northern India, and it was first on ours too. To prevent discolouration of the white marble by pollution no cars are allowed near, only electric vehicles and pedestrians. 

Here's the park-and-ride ...

but we chose to walk. 

As we did, our guide explained the history of the place: a mausoleum built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz who died in childbirth at the age of 39 - her 14th child! He brought in craftsmen from all over the Mughal empire. His plan was ultimately to build a matching tomb of black onyx for himself on the opposite river bank, but he was dissuaded (somewhat forcefully) by his son (who put him in jail) as a poor use of public money.

There are 11 cupolas over this entrance and an identical 11 at the back, representing the 22 years it took to build the Taj Mahal.

The buildings surrounding the Taj Mahal itself are all of local red sandstone, all intricately carved and decorated. From the point where we are standing you can see the arches of the identical entrance buildings to the east and the west. 

The inscription round he arch is a verse from the Quran, which continues in the mausoleum itself. Black onyx inlaid into the marble. The horizontal above the door is deeper than the sides are wide so that the perspective makes everything look the same size. 

Stop and look up - another intricate pattern ...

It was interesting to see Indians from all walks of life, often dressed in their best clothes, visiting their heritage monuments. As non-Indians, we were well and truly outnumbered, and in demand for souvenir photos with random people!

Through the gate to the first glimpse of the Taj itself ...

And the full reveal ... you can appreciate the sheer scale of it from the size of the hoards of  visitors.

Work is being done to clean the white marble with a kind of mud pack, hence the scaffolding. This is a rickety affair, given the height of the minarets (40metres). Look carefully and you'll spot the worker sitting precariously on his plank seat.

They are also repainting the lakes in front of the Taj. The technique involved filling pots with paint and slinging the contents into the empty lake. Note the blue legs!

Couldn't resist these ...

The Taj Mahal and its surroundings are all about symmetry.

There are numbered triangulation points in the marble pavement and if you stand on one you will see exactly the same thing in both directions.

The view from this circle in both directions :

The carved designs on the walls are also symmetrical. The marble has been inlaid with precious stones - lapis lazuli, malachite, mother of pearl, carborundum, jasper - and the work is incredibly detailed.

These pillars give the illusion of being six sided stars in cross section, but if you look closely you'll see they only have three faces

Everywhere you turn there is opulence and skilled craftsmanship. But there's also beauty in the simple lines, such as these cloisters on the way back to the gate ...

and the views through ...

and the makers' marks

More in part 2.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Horn Please!

According to our driver, there are three things you need to be able to drive in India: A good horn, good brakes and good luck! I would add that you also need nerves of steel (even to be a passenger!). This charm takes care of the good luck. For the rest you have to hope you have a good driver with a good car!

Despite the fact that there is an official driving test (pretty much like ours it seems) no-one obeys any rules or road signs, and it seems that the most important qualifications are to be quick witted and fearless. And Ganesh on your dashboard helps too.

Major roads are divided into two or three lanes each side of the central reservation with a white line much like ours, but this line is treated as something to drive along rather than as a separator. And if there's the slightest hint of a gap someone will try to fill it so traffic ends up five or six vehicles abreast.

The guy on the motorbike overtook this truck just as it passed us!

Cars, small trucks, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, bikes, tractors and trailers, horses, ox-carts, sacred cows, people and dogs all vie for space in an almighty free-for-all. 

Often there will be an ox cart or someone pushing a hand cart going in the wrong direction on a dual carriageway lane. 

Most small vehicles are loaded to the hilt ...

This rickshaw has two extra people in the driver's (single) seat. We saw a six seater minibus with probably six people in the front seat,15 inside and a further 6 standing outside on the back bumper, driving at speed through rush hour traffic. 

It seems obligatory to have at least three people on a motorbike, often a sleeping child squashed between the driver and a woman in a sari sitting sidesaddle on the back (how do they stay on?). Although there is a 200 rupee fine for each extra person over two, and for each person not wearing a helmet, it seems that it would be impossible to enforce it. When not loaded with people they are also a good way of carrying goods - the milkman above is relatively conservative with his load; we have see six foot blinds being carried vertically by the pillion passenger, huge bundles of straw, poles and wood twice the length of the bike . . . The list is endless.

Hand carts and bike trailers seem to be the order of the day for the majority of traders 

All loaded to the hilt - often needing extra helpers to push. But some are carefully loaded - it's almost an art form for these trailers in the quarry towns.

No-one uses indicators - some auto-rickshaws and small trucks don't even have any. The horn is used constantly as an indicator-substitute, or to say  'coming through', 'watch out', 'move over', 'get out of the way' etc. so there is a constant cacophony.

Turning right involves forcing your way at speed into the oncoming traffic, everyone ignores roundabouts, the central reservation is often used as a footpath and if you want to cross the road you take your life in your hands. That doesn't stop hoards of people and assorted livestock from doing just that though! In smaller towns and villages animals think it's fine to sleep in the middle of the road - people generally drive around them, or just honk their horn till they move.

Sacred cows (along with oxen, buffalo and dogs) wander at will through the streets, are fed and protected by everyone, and have right of way on the roads. If one becomes sick there is apparently a dedicated veterinary service for them.

We saw these buffalo in Agra, wandering nonchalantly down the middle of the road at about 4pm. Our guide said they were going home - apparently they take themselves from the farmer's house to water every morning and walk back every evening, totally unaccompanied.

All sorts of commercial vehicles have hand-painted signs and decoration; the blue tanker is a water tanker, below a band for hire.

The one saving grace is that lorries aren't allowed into Delhi until after 8pm. All those that we've seen are hand painted with all sorts of patterns as well  name of the business and the inevitable request to use 'horn please'. 

Apparently, there is so much traffic on the roads in Delhi that a rule was introduced last year whereby you can only drive your car on certain days, depending on whether the number plate ends with an even or odd number. Public transport vehicles have to use environmentally friendly fuel and there are bus lanes (usually full of pedestrians and aminals).

Out of the city toll roads are the way to go, but only to be found on major routes. Having experienced a 'single road' yesterday on the way from Pushkar to Jodphur, with random and vicious sleeping policemen, little surface in places and cobbles in others I don't think I'm going to complain about potholes on Hampshire roads again!

Aren't we glad we had a driver to negotiate all of this!

Welcome to India!

Namaste 🙏🏻

We arrived safely following an (very) early morning stopover in Dubai so very little sleep on the plane. The sunrise through the plane window was compensation though - the second line is the reflection in the wing. 

Hand art on the ground and at check-in in Indira Ghandi airport, Delhi.

We hit the ground running and after a hair-raising drive (more later!) to our hotel launched straight into a walking tour of Old Delhi and Chandni Chowk - the huge market area where each street is dedicated to different items. Shops range from tiny to quite large emporiums, but business is always conducted from the floor. 

It was already dark and our guide Harry was anxious to show us everything so after being dropped off in the middle of a busy road (cars four abreast all jostling for position, and just enough room to open the doors) we set off at a pace through the narrow streets, built that way for shade and to keep things cool.

First there was Silver Street, where this roti seller had set up his stall ...

then the bridal market. It's coming up to wedding season in India, and this is big business. Shop after shop selling saris ...

Opulent braids and gold-work ...

Wedding favours made from Rupee notes ...

Silk threads and beads ...

More saris - this time a large wholesale business, packing saris into huge bundles for shipping, stitched closed and loaded onto a handcart three deep (2meters tall) to launch into the manic streets.

And one single shop (maybe there were more that were already closed for the night?) for the groom!

Occasional vegetable sellers set up shop wherever they can find a space - given that the street cleaners are on strike this seems a risky strategy.

And those streets, teeming with every sort of non- motorised vehicle and mopeds - easy to get boxed in by rickshaws.

Great wiring!

A street where wealthy Jain merchants lived - faded grandeur.

Next the food market - those white blocks are paneer (curd cheese).

All sorts of nuts, dates, figs (hanging in strings).

Packed up for wholesale - coming in or going out - who knows?  Everyone is an entrepreneur. 

All interspersed with temples of every faith - this one is an important Sikh temple, but we also saw a Jain temple, a Hindu Monkey God temple, a Catholic church, the biggest Mosque in ?India - with numbered gates like a football stadium, and tiny street temples. Delhi is home to 20 million people and religion is part of everyday life - we saw men praying outside their closed shops and by the side of the road. But very few women out - anywhere.

On and on through busy streets trying to keep up with Harry and still stop for photos; trying not to get run over and not get lost. We noticed little bundles of chilis hanging above shop doorways; these are to ward off evil spirits and are renewed weekly on Saturdays. 


Finally the fireworks market. Only one shop open by now - these are Catherine wheels.

And of course, the street of bike shops especially  for Mike - not like any you've ever seen before!


And then we were picked up by our driver to return to the hotel. The streets were as busy as ever but we made it so now we've eaten (surreally, at the hotel's Chinese/Thai restaurant) we have to go to bed - a 4am wake-up tomorrow so we don't miss the 6am fast train to Agra.