Itinerary: Delhi – Mandawa – Fatehpour – Bikaner – Deshnok – Jaisalmer – Jodhpur – Ranakpur – Udaipur – Pushkar – Jaipur – Fatehpur Sikri – Agra – Varanasi
Our seven-hour flight to India departs around noon on a Saturday in November. After bridging a time difference of four and a half hours, we land at 11:45 p.m. local time at Indira Ghandi International Airport, just outside the Indian capital Delhi. Fortunately, our luggage also came with us and the passport and visa check go smoothly. Once outside, the contact person of the travel organization approaches us and a bit later our driver also arrives. This going to be the first time that I wille be traveling by a car with a driver. Usually I drive a rental car myself, but in India it is normal be driven. Plus you really don’t want to drive yourself considering the traffic here (see below). Mr. Singh is going to drive us in a white Toyota Etios (soon we discover that eighty percent of the cars in India is white).
It is well past midnight, but the roads around the airport are still quite busy. Our first ‘prejudice’ is already being confirmed: Traffic here is chaotic and every driver is constantly honking. There is really only one traffic rule in India: ‘there are no rules’. As long as you don’t hit a cow, because those are sacred. Indians don’t drive very fast or recklessly, but they just drive everywhere without keeping lanes and trying to be the first to get through. Exhausting.
It is a half hour drive to our hotel in Karol Bagh, a district in the north of Delhi. In the middle of the night and with closed shutters, garbage and stray dogs on the street, the area looks a bit like a deprived neighbourhood. The next day it will turn out not that bad: when the shutters are open and there is life on the street, it is a very normal neighborhood (by Indian standards, that is.) Hotel Perfekt is per… well, simple and clean. The bed is only 1.80m long and even though I am not very tall, my feet stick out. And the mattress is hard, but so will all beds in India. Because we want to go and see Delhi tomorrow and there is a lot to see in the city, we want to get up early in the morning. So we’re going to sleep soon. It is 2:30 a.m. when we turn off the light.
After four hours of sleep, the alarm goes off. After having breakfast in the breakfast room, where clearly no effort has been made to create any atmosphere, and our driver has arrived half an hour late, we are dropped off at the Red Fort (Lal Qila), in the part of Delhi called ‘Old Delhi’. That name is a bit misleading. Delhi (now 15 million inhabitants) grew out of seven smaller cities and fortifications, built over the centuries by ever new rulers. These rulers were part of the so-called Mughal dynasty, descendants of the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan. The part called ‘Old Delhi’ was built in the 17th century by the third generation of Mughal rulers, Shah Jahan, and was then called Shahjahanabad. Originally the city was completely walled by an eight kilometer long city wall with several city gates. The walls are gone and four of the gates are still standing.
The Red Fort, which was thus part of Shahjahanabad, owes its name to its red sandstone walls. It is an imposing fortress, built between 1638 and 1648. Within the walls you will find old reception halls, private quarters, hammams (baths) and gardens. The buildings are still there, but the once rich decoration with carpets and curtains has of course disappeared, as have many of the wall and ceiling paintings. However, some of the paintings have been preserved and together with the colonnades and arches, partly in marble, they give a good impression of the once richly decorated buildings. While we view the old buildings, we are in turn being watched by the Indian visitors. We are regularly photographed by Indians and even asked a few times to pose with them.
After admiring the Red Fort, we walk down the streets of ‘Old Delhi’ to the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque). Old Delhi is a maze of small streets, each overcrowded with vendors selling everything from food and clothing to mattresses and car parts, interspersed with pedestrians, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, taxis, cows and the occasional goat. Anyone who has a horn uses it permanently, making it a cacophony of sounds. You constantly have to be careful not to run into other pedestrians or be run over by a rickshaw. It’s overwhelming, chaotic and noisy, but if you go along with it, there’s nothing to worry about and as much as everyone is competing for every free inch, it’s going amazingly well.
The Jama Masjid is a bit higher than the rest of Old Delhi. Via a staircase and a large gate, where you have to leave your shoes, you enter a huge courtyard, which is said to accommodate 25,000 people. There are tall minarets on the four corners, there is a small bath in the middle where visitors can wash, but the main attraction is the facade of the huge mosque with its large marble domes to the right of the courtyard. An impressive building.
At the end of the morning we have dinner at Karim, a restaurant in one of the side streets near the Jama Masjid. At half past one, Mr. Singh comes to take us to the Humayan Mausoleum. That is half an hour later than we had agreed. After we’ve kindly made that clear, Mr. Singh won’t be late again during the rest of this trip.
Humayan was the son of the founder of the Mughal dynasty (Babur). His mausoleum was built in the sixteenth century by order of his widow. It is a fine example of Mughal architecture, which served as an example for the later Taj Mahal in Agra. Amid gardens is a building with large domes, within which is the tomb of Humayan. The building is much more impressive from the outside than from the inside. Our next stop is Gandhi Smriti. This is the house where the ‘founder of the nation’, Mahatma Gandhi, lived for the last years of his life and where he was assassinated on January 30, 1948. The house is now turned into a museum in honor of this legend, whose struggle for truth and nonviolence still inspires many today.
We’ve already seen a lot on this first day in India, but we’re not done yet. Mr. Singh takes us past the India Gate, a triumphal arch like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, built in the early twentieth century to honor all Indian soldiers killed in a series of wars. Many ‘Delhiwallahs’ (as residents of Delhi are called) spend their Sunday afternoons here with their families. The India Gate stands at the eastern end of the Rajpath (King’s Road), a long, wide boulevard that runs from east to west. This is ‘New Delhi’, built and constructed in the early twentieth century by the British, after they decided to make Delhi the capital of India, instead of what was then Calcutta (now Kolkata). ‘New Delhi’ was built south of ‘Old Delhi’ (Sjahjahanabad) and is completely different from the old part of the city. This part of the city is very spacious, with large British colonial-style buildings, wide roads, large roundabouts and expensive houses for ministers and top officials. Maybe it’s meant to radiate ‘grandeur’, but I find it especially lacking in atmosphere.
At the western end of the Rajpath is the Presidential Palace (Rashtrapari Bhavan), distant behind a large fence, and slightly beyond the Parliament Building, Sansad Bhawan. Our last stop today is the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, a large white marble Sikh temple with a large golden dome on top. The temple is in operation, but you can also visit it as a non-Sikh (albeit without shoes and with a strange orange headscarf on (real Sikhs wear a real turban of course). Next to the temple is a large pond with (according to the sikhs) holy water. It is a special place to visit as a non-sikh. After the sikh temple we have seen enough for today. We go back to the hotel and have dinner in a restaurant two blocks from the hotel. We are tired, but satisfied: we have seen a lot today. Tomorrow we will leave Delhi.
The next day is a travel day. At half past nine we leave Delhi, on our way to the state of Rajasthan. The first hour goes through the suburbs of Delhi, on wide highways, flanked by modern office buildings, where call centers of Western companies are located and provide employment. The large office buildings contrast with the small, shabby-looking shops directly next to the road. The rest of the journey is mainly on eighty-kilometer roads. In addition to passenger cars, there are pick-ups loaded with people, camel carts, donkey carts and cows and goats walking along and on the road. The landscape is not really interesting: fairly dry farmland with some trees here and there. Every now and then we pass through a village and the picture is always the same: a busy street with shops, fruit and vegetable stalls, rickshaws, pedestrians, cars that try to find their way honking loudly and stray cows (along the road, in the middle of the road, on curb stones…
There are only a few restaurants along the route, so the ‘garden restaurant’ where we stop is also visited by buses full of other tourists. Around 4 p.m. we arrive in Mandawa, in the Shekawati region. It is a busy, touristy town, which is worth visiting because of the large number of old painted merchant houses (havelis). West of the Sonthaliya gate is the ‘main bazaar’, a busy street that is too narrow for buses, but where the local bus drivers try to squeeze in two at a time anyway. Chasing aside pedestrians and cows by loud honking. Many women here (and all over Rajasthan) wear colorful robes with face veils, as opposed to the youngest generation of women and men, who dress in western style. We walk along some of the most beautiful havelis in Mandawa: the Naveti haveli, the Dev Dutt Goenka haveli and the Goenka Double haveli, all with beautiful murals.
Tonight we have dinner on the roof terrace of restaurant Monica, a quiet place, away from the busy bazaar, where you can eat delicious food while it slowly gets dark. We obviously eat local food, i.e. curries of all shapes and sizes, with naan, chapati or rice. Most Hindus are vegetarian so you will find a wide choice of vegetarian dishes everywhere, in addition to dishes with chicken or lamb. Waiters usually ask if you want your food ‘spicy’, to which we always answer ‘medium spicy’ and that is always good. Gastrointestinal problems (the infamous ‘Delhi belly’) have fortunately not occurred so far.
The ‘culture shock’ that you are warned about before a trip to India is also not too bad for us. The image of many people is that India is very dirty and filthy, but if you’ve been to non-Western countries more often and you adjust a bit to it, it’s not that bad. Yes, there is garbage on the streets everywhere, there is smog in the big cities, there are animals on the streets and here and there there is a urine smell, but we do not recognize the ‘horror stories’ you sometimes hear. The hustle and bustle is sometimes overwhelming and yes, you are in a completely different world than ours, but the ‘shock’ is not too bad.
After the alarm has gone off, we discover an undefined living thing in the bathroom, it will be the only one we encounter in our hotel rooms this trip. After taking a shower the power goes out. Power outages are common in India. A few weeks before our trip, all of northern India (an area the size of western Europe) was without power for days. This power failure comes just in time (since the boiler is now also off). You don’t have to come here for a good breakfast. Some toast, suspiciously red jam, tea or nescafe and sometimes juice or a banana, that’s about it.
We leave Mandawa in a westerly direction. After a half hour drive we arrive in Fatehpur, a small town with a busy main street. Again the same picture: roaming cows, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, buses and pedestrians competing for the limited space, fruit and vegetable stalls, too many barber shops for such a small town (usually open, so you are practically being shaved outside), there’s a lot to see. I thought I would occasionally see a cow on the street in India, but in reality you stumble over them literally everywhere: in shopping streets, on the main road, on traffic islands, intersections and roundabouts, between market stalls. And they don’t move over, so traffic has to maneuver around the animals all the time.
We visit a few havelis that are also richly decorated with murals of elephants, soldiers, women and even an early automobile. Most havelis are in poor condition, whole pieces of plaster are loose or have completely disappeared. Some of the murals have faded, others have been restored (or maybe painted over).
Bikaner and Deshnok
After Fatehpur it is another three hours drive to Bikaner. Especially considering the sixties miles per hour that Mr. Singh consistently maintains today. At 3 p.m. we arrive in Bikaner. Mr. Singh knows a restaurant where we can have lunch. Even if you don’t do much on such a travel day, after the meager breakfast, a good lunch is welcome. The Basant Vihar Palace, our hotel, is a large pink building that looks stylish, but unfortunately is a bit outside the center of Bikaner. The hotel contrasts with the tented camp of a nomad family, which is located between the hotel and the road.
After checking in, we head to Deshnok, thirty kilometers south of Bikaner. Here is the Karni Mata temple. According to a legend, members of the Charan caste reincarnate in the form of rats, after which they reincarnate again as Charan. The rats are therefore considered to be sacred and run freely everywhere throughout the temple. The temple is visited daily by Indians who come to honor Karniji (who invented the story of the rats). We mainly come to see it because a temple full of stray rats is such a bizarre idea. Very weird.
On the way back we stop at the National Research Center on Camels, where the camels have just been fed. It feels a bit zoo-like, while in Rajasthan we will encounter camels everywhere. We have dinner at our hotel tonight, which is very common in India. Only tonight we are the only guests in the oversized dining room. When we have finished eating, Mr. Singh invites us to come outside for a while. Today is Diwali, the Hindu holiday. Colorful lighting is everywhere, people exchange presents and sweets and in the evening fireworks are set off everywhere. Mr. Singh, because we are his guests, would like to take a moment to celebrate Diwali with us. There are also other drivers and tour leaders. They have decorated their cars with garlands of flowers. We are also given a wreath of flowers, after which Mr. Singh wants to take a picture with us. He’s totally happy. Very nice that he invited us to celebrate Diwali.
After the first really good breakfast (buffet) we are dropped off at the Junagarh Fort in the center of Bikaner. The fort is closed today, so we can only have a look at the outside of the fort. It was built at the end of the sixteenth century and surrounded by an impressive wall. Strangely enough, a (lower) red wall was built around it much later, so that the original wall is largely hidden from view when you walk around the fort. After a tour around the fortress we walk down a long straight street to the old town of Bikaner. Here too we are amazed by life on the street. More than in Delhi and Mandawa we are approached everywhere (“hello!”), stared at and invited for a ride in a tuk-tuk. We are also almost the only tourists here…
Through the Kote Gate we walk into the old town. The bazaars of the old town are not as idyllic as you might expect: they are in fact ordinary streets with small shops. There are streets where they only sell metal pans, pots and buckets, and streets with only shoe shops. Here too you walk in the midst of a cacophony of sound (read: honking). On the southwest side of the old city is the Bhandreshwar Temple, a Jain temple built in the late fifteenth century, with a striking white tower. It is very busy, there is a large amount of visitors’ shoes in front of the entrance to the temple and loud music is played.
We also walk along a few beautiful havelis. It’s easy to get lost in the streets of the old town. Yet we reach the Kote Gate again without too many detours. We walk back to the fortress. Opposite is restaurant Gallops, where we eat in the shade, cool down and rest our feet. It is over thirty degrees and we’ve been walking in the old town for three hours. Back at the hotel we relax the rest of the afternoon in the hotel garden.
After breakfast we leave Bikaner, on our way to our next destination: Jaisalmer, about 230 kilometers away. On the eighty-kilometer roads (there are no highways in Rajasthan) that is a drive of more than four hours. It takes us a little longer, because we are going to have lunch at a restaurant along the road and because we have to stop twice for a railway crossing. The barriers here do not close when a train arrives, but when the train is supposed to be there. It is therefore possible that you (like us today) have to wait ten minutes because the train is delayed. Other than that it is a long, boring ride in an increasingly drier landscape. We drive in western Rajasthan, about fifty kilometers from the border with Pakistan.
After arriving at our hotel in Jaisalmer, we freshen up and then leave for Khuhri, a small village in the Thar Desert, about 45 minutes south of Jaisalmer. Here we are going to make a real camel trip. Well, a little trip. We mount two camels that are already waiting for us. They swing up. It is not really comfortable on a camel, but it is always fun and special to ride in the desert on the back of such an animal. The Thar Desert is (at least here) a gray, stony desert, with some low vegetation here and there and a small part with sand dunes. In half an hour we trudge there on our camels. You can watch the sun set from the sand dunes. It’s not really a spectacular sunset, but still nice, even though we are not the only tourists here.
After we get back we are offered food with traditional music and dance. Unfortunately the first part only consists of music and dance, the food takes a long time to arrive. The music doesn’t really appeal to us and we are hungry. After dinner we pay quickly and have ourselves taken back to the hotel. Dead tired, but the camel ride was a fun experience.
The next day we have the entire day to visit Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is located in western Rajasthan and was founded in the 12th century. It’s not a big city, but the streets are never straight, so it’s easy to get lost. Those streets are all full of souvenir shops, Jaisalmer is one of the most visited places in Rajasthan. Despite those souvenir shops, Jaisalmer is more atmospheric than Bikaner.
In the heart of the city is the Jaisalmer Fort, built of yellow sandstone, also in the 12h century and surrounded by imposing walls with bastions. You enter the fort through four gates: Akhai Pol, Surai Pol, Ganesh Pol and Hawa Pol. The fortress is still inhabited by about two thousand people and is therefore really part of the city. It is also just as busy. On the north side of the main square, Main Chowk, is the Palace of the Maharawals, as the rulers (maharajas) of Jaisalmer were called here. The outside of the palace is elaborately decorated with sculptures. When visiting the palace you walk down narrow corridors (obviously not made for Westerners), over narrow stairs and through the rooms where the maharawals and their wives lived, including a sleeping room with original Delft blue tiles.
After the palace, we walk down the narrow streets of the fortress to the Jain Temple, a complex built between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, with walls, ceilings and pillars full of meticulous carving. Down even more streets we eventually return to where we started. We have lunch in a restaurant just outside the fort. Restaurant Saffron is located in an old haveli, on the roof terrace you are away from the bustle on the street.
Outside the fort you will find (with a little searching) a few beautiful havelis. The Nathmalji-ki haveli and the Pawa haveli were built in the 19th century by order of wealthy merchants. These havelis are also elaborately decorated on the outside with sculptures that you also see in the Jaisalmer Fort (and in contrast to the havelis in Shekawati, which were mainly painted). Since most tourists here come from India itself, we westerners are an attraction ourselves again. Several times we are asked to take pictures with Indians. At 4 p.m. we let Mr. Singh take us back to the hotel. This hotel has a swimming pool, which is unfortunately too cold to take a dip in. But it is still wonderful to relax for a few hours on a bed by the pool.
Indian society is strictly classified according to a hierarchical system: varnas (better known to us as castes). Everyone belongs to one of the four varnas: that of the priests and teachers, that of the rulers and warriors, that of the merchants and administrators, or that of the slaves. Below them are the Dalits, or outcastes. Within the varnas you have the jatis, the ‘subcastes’. For example, within the merchants’ caste you have sub-castes for vegetable merchants, jewelry merchants, et cetera. For the Indians, the jati is their actual caste, to which caste you belong determines your social contacts, your work, who you marry, et cetera. Hindus believe that the caste you are born into is the result of your past lives. By living well, you can reach a higher caste in the next life. Although discrimination is officially banned in India, the caste system still determines a person’s life.
We leave Jaisalmer and drive 5.5 hours to Jodhpur. Again, you don’t have to come to Rajasthan for the environment or nature. Along the way we stop for lunch at a restaurant along the road. Our hotel in Jodhpur, Kuchaman haveli, is located in an old haveli, just inside the walls of the old city. We want to save the sightseeing for tomorrow and use the internet for a while, but the computer in the lobby doesn’t work and wifi is out (“Hey, this is India”, Mr. Singh would say). Instead we go to the roof terrace, where the restaurant is also located. While monkeys are having fun on the roofs of the surrounding houses (funny, monkeys in the middle of the city), we relax for a while and order some food as the sky over Jodhpur slowly turns purple.
Just like every day so far, the weathernext day is beautiful and well above thirty degrees. The great thing about our centrally located hotel is that you can walk straight into the city. We are immediately awake when we find ourselves walking between the honking buses again. Compared to previous cities, Jodhpur is a lot dirtier. There is more garbage on the street and you have to watch out for the cow shit even more. It’s just a short walk to Sardar Market, the main market square, bordered on the north and south by an old gate. In the center is an English-looking bell tower. From here it is a twenty minute walk to Meherangarh Fort. This is an impressive fortress, built on a high rock, towering high above the city. It is quite a climb, but at the top you have a beautiful view over the city. Many houses in Jodhpur are painted blue, which is why it is called the ‘blue city’.
You pass no less than seven defensive gates before you get to the living quarters of the fortress. The fortress was originally built in the fifteenth century, later parts and gates were added. The buildings inside the fortress are just as impressive as the outside. Courtyards with carved facades, arches and columns and windows and shutters with lattice work. Some parts are furnished as museums, with weapons, palanquins and paintings, others are still furnished as in the time of the Maharajas, such as the Phool Mahal, with richly decorated walls and ceilings, and the Moti Mahal, one of the reception rooms.
After visiting the fortress we walk to the Jaswant Thanda, a white marble building, built in the late 19th century in honor of Jaswant Singh II. The building serves as a temple. Then we walk back down the steep streets. We’ve been walking for 5.5 hours and it is very hot, so the rest of the afternoon we relax. For dinner I choose something different tonight. This first week in India we ate curries with naan bread twice a day. Always tasty and different every time, but I’m starting to get a little tired of it. From now on I will alternate a bit more with rice dishes.
Ranakpur and Udaipur
For the past week the landscape has been nothing but flat and dry, but today that changes as the day progresses. As we go further south, the landscape becomes more hilly and there is more vegetation. Ranakpur is located in the middle of the Aravalli hills. A welcome change. Ranakpur is ninety kilometers north of Udaipur and is known for the large Jain temple that was built here in the fifteenth century. It is a huge marble temple, the roof of which rests on 1440 pillars. Everything, the walls, the pillars, the ceilings, the domes, everything is sculpted. It’s unbelievable how much work has this must have been, you can’t take your eyes from it. It’s the most impressive temple we have seen in India so far.
As we drive on, we come across a group of monkeys along the road (photo stop 1) and a little further on a group of bats that are all hanging in a tree (photo stop 2). By the end of the afternoon we arrive at our destination for today: Udaipur. The car cannot enter the old town in the afternoon, so for the last part we change into a tuk-tuk. We get a room in a different hotel than intended, but Mr. Singh rightly speaks of an ‘upgrade’. We are right on Lake Pichola (the first significant body of water we see on this trip) and our room has a view over the lake, the Lake Palace and the setting sun. ‘A room with a view’! I don’t think we’re going to get any better this trip.
Founded in the 16th century by Udai Singh II, Udaipur is beautifully situated on Lake Pichola, with the Aravelli Hills in the background. In the lake are two islands: Jag Niwas, a white marble palace built in the seventeenth century that now serves as a hotel, and Jag Mandir, from the same century. On the banks of the lake there are several ghats (laundry places), where residents of Udaipur wash themselves, do the laundry, but also throw away garbage, which makes you wonder how on earth you get your laundry clean. Udaipur is a lot cleaner than Jodhpur (by Indian standards) and very touristy, but certainly no less worth it.
The next day, after having breakfast on the roof terrace of the hotel with a view of the lake, we walk towards the City Palace. First we pass the Jagdish temple, a seventeenth century Hindu temple, much smaller than the temples we have seen in recent days, but just as decorated. The City Palace, built of yellow sandstone, is the largest palace complex in Rajasthan and consists of eleven different palaces (mahals) built over a period of three hundred years. There are courtyards between the palaces and everything is connected via narrow covered corridors (up stairs, down stairs), making the whole look like a maze. We pass through several palaces with names like Badi Mahal (garden palace) and Moti Mahal (pearl palace). Again many decorated facades, windows, gates and views over Udaipur. Some areas are decorated with paintings of heroic maharajas during battles, receiving foreign guests or hunting tigers. It is very busy in the complex, where we spend more than two hours.
After the City Palace we walk across the pedestrian bridge to the peninsula on the north side of the lake (opposite our hotel). Restaurant Ambrai is located at the tip of the peninsula, where you have a view from your table on the terrace over the lake, the City Palace (left), the Lake Palace (middle) and a ghat (right). Beautiful weather, delicious food and a great view, that’s what we enjoy and we take our time here. At the end of the afternoon we go back to our hotel, where we relax on the roof terrace again and enjoy the view and some Indian snacks.
Today we travel from Udaipur to Pushkar, which takes almost all day. Not only because of the average speed (still eighty and sixty kilometer roads), but also because we end up in a traffic jam just before Ajmer (twenty kilometers before Pushkar). Apparently something went wrong with a viaduct under construction: a crane has toppled and fallen down from the viaduct under construction ending up meters below. There is a long traffic jam with mainly trucks, but mr. Singh skillfully maneuvers our car past the waiting trucks and with a half hour delay we can continue. Then mr. Singh takes a wrong turn near Pushkar, so we arrive a little later. No problem, we don’t have any plans for today. It’s not really mr. Singh’s lucky day today anyway, because on the way he also hit a sheep. Two little sheep suddenly ran across the road and the car hit the second. Mr. Singh only stopped after a kilometer to check for damage to avoid arguing with the poor sheep’s owner…
It is the time of the annual Pushkar festival. Hindus come from far and wide to Pushkar to honor the god Brahma. The largest camel market in the world also takes place during the same period. And that’s why we’re here! After checking in at the (depressing) Ram Kuti guesthouse, we walk to Pushkar Lake, which is the heart of the small town. Here we (and many other tourists) watch the sunset. When the sun has set, small oil lamps are placed on all sides of the lake, illuminating all the docks and ghats along the lake. Unfortunately, the idyllic of this is somewhat negated by the fluorescent lighting on many surrounding buildings. We get a perfect spot on the terrace of the Sunset Café, where we order something to eat and drink. Without alcohol, because Pushkar is a sacred place for Hindus, so meat, eggs and alcohol are not available here.
The camel market (Unt Mela) takes place just outside Pushkar. During an entire week, thousands of traders from all over Rajasthan with as many camels gather here. It’s an amazing sight: thousands of camels, standing, lying, eating, sleeping, interspersed with traders eating or negotiating at their tents. Large camels, small camels, dark brown camels, beige camels, camels with colorful decorations, camels with mischievous faces, we walk there for more than two hours
in between (and take way too many pictures). Unforgettable.
Because of the Pushkar festival, Pushkar is busy with visitors, western tourists but especially many Indians from all over the country who come to Pushkar for the lake. They do this all year round, but especially in the five days before the full moon in November. By bathing in the lake at one of the 52 ghats, the Hindus wash away all their sins. Many women wear colorful robes. For Westerners and cameras, the ghats are actually off limits, so we view it from a distance (a zoom lens comes in very handy here). The rest of the afternoon we take it easy, stroll along the many souvenir shops and have a drink in the quiet garden of the Om Shiva restaurant, a wonderfully cool place (with wifi). Tonight we have dinner on the roof terrace of Sixth Sense.
The next morning we drive from Pushkar to Jaipur in 2.5 hours, a relatively short drive. We stay in the elaborately painted Bissau Palace hotel. Checking in is excruciatingly slow and we don’t get the key to the room yet, because check in is possible from noon and it is only 11:50. Sigh…
We have lunch first and at 1 p.m. we are taken by mr. Singh to the Amber Fort (also called Amer Fort), 11 kilometers north of Jaipur. The region was ruled from Amer between 1037 and 1728, until Maharaja Jai Singh founded the city of Jaipur. This fortress is again beautifully situated, high on top of the rocks and has imposing walls, entrance gates and large courtyards. The Singh Pol (Lion Gate) leads to the palace where the Maharajas and their retinue lived and the various reception areas. Mosaics, floral motifs and striking, kitschy mirrored ceilings everywhere (especially in the Sheesh Mahal, the private space of the maharaja and his wife). It is a beautiful palace, yet different from what we have seen before and mainly visited by Indian tourists.
At 4 p.m. we are back in the hotel and we lie down on a bed by the pool. Because there are also a few tour groups staying at the hotel, the restaurant only serves a buffet tonight. Much more expensive than the normal menu. We don’t feel like that, but the manager of the restaurant knows how to make it right: we can eat ‘á la carte’, at the normal price, as long as we choose from the dishes that are also in the buffet. In other words, the same food, but at a lower price. Clever thinking. In addition, the food is delicious.
To get straight to the point: Jaipur stinks, literally. So far it wasn’t too bad, sure there’s garbage everywhere and in some places it doesn’t smell too fresh (especially in public toilets, where the sun is on all day), but in Jaipur there is a urine smell or another unpleasant odor in more places. In addition, Jaipur is a very busy and chaotic city. It is the capital of Rajasthan and by far the largest city in this Indian state.
You would think you would get used to the honking of cars, tuk-tuks and mopeds at some point, but again we notice the noise here. The center of Jaipur is one big traffic jam all day long, with everyone honking loudly and because of that everything is stuck. While the camel carts, horse carts and you as a pedestrian try to find your way in between. Jaipur has wide straight roads with major intersections. You cross the road at the risk of your own life. Just right between all the traffic. Fortunately, we always manage to make it to the other side unscathed. In the bustle of the city we are constantly approached by rickshaw drivers who offer a city tour (“very cheap!”) and sellers who want to sell you colorful fabrics (“come look at my shop pleeease!”).
Jaipur is called the ‘pink city’. The old town, founded in 1727, is surrounded by a salmon pink city wall with several gates and all buildings within the city walls are salmon pink. There are small shops everywhere, often no larger than a few square meters. On one block they specialize in pots and pans, a little further on jewelry or fabrics. In between, vegetables and snacks are sold on the street. Traders with handcarts walk to and fro.
First we visit the Iswari Minar, a kind of minaret-without-mosque, built in the eighteenth century and 42 meters high. At the top you have a beautiful view over Jaipur. In the center of the pink city is the City Palace. The palace was built by Maharaja Jai Singh after he moved the center of the state from Amer to Jaipur. Part of the palace is still inhabited by the descendants of the Maharaja. The complex consists of a walled area with courtyards, reception halls and living quarters. Everything was painted salmon pink of course. One of the courtyards has four ornate gates (one for each season), one of which is decorated with peacocks. From here you also have a view of the Chandra Mahal, the residence of the maharaja and the part that is still inhabited.
Following the City Palace we walk along the Hawa Mahal (1799). It looks like the facade of a palace, but there is only a one room deep building behind it. The facade is intended to allow the women of the court to watch the processions in the street from behind shutters without being seen themselves. This is again a striking pink building. From here we walk down the busy streets and bazaars out of the old city. For a restaurant you have to be in the (relatively) new and just as hectic part of the city. We have lunch at restaurant Natraj, after which we walk back to our hotel and relax on the veranda in front of our hotel room.
During the following night for some reason there is loud drumming all night… So we don’t really sleep undisturbed. The next day the stretch from Jaipur to Agra is scheduled. The last long car ride of this trip. On the way we visit Fatehpur Sikri. This palace complex was built in the second half of the sixteenth century by the Mughal ruler Akbar to replace the Red Fort in Delhi. After the completion, however, Akbar was busy with military affairs in the Lahore region and after returning he went back to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri was left deserted.
The complex is a mixture of Hindu and Muslim architecture and unlike most palaces and cities (which are built north-south according to Hindu tradition), the buildings in Fatehpur Sikri are built towards Mecca. The complex roughly consists of two parts: mardana (the men’s part) and zenana (the women’s part). Maybe you are thinking: “No, not another palace complex!”, but Fatehpur Sikri is very different from the palaces of the Maharajas in Rajasthan. It is built in red sandstone, with colonnades with elaborate columns and facades and several courtyards with private quarters, including for Akbar’s wives. Akbar ‘collected’ women: his harem was said to consist of more than 5,000 women…
Outside the walls of the beautiful palace complex is the Jama Masjid, which was built shortly before the palace complex was built. Behind the imposing main gate (Buland Darwaza) is a huge square (where the crowds from outside don’t come), surrounded by colonnades, in the same mixed architectural style as the palaces, a large prayer hall and a number of tombs of Muslim saints. This complex, built in red sandstone, is also very beautiful. At the end of the afternoon we arrive at our hotel in Agra. The hotel is one kilometer from the Taj Mahal, which we will visit the next morning. We have dinner in restaurant Only, which is not far from our hotel, along a busy, dark road where you would not expect a restaurant (or pedestrians like us).
The next morning we get up early : the alarm goes off at 5 a.m.. We want to be at the Taj Mahal early to avoid the worst crowds. It’s just getting light and it’s still pretty quiet on the street. It turns out we are not the only ones who got up early. There is already a line of people waiting at the entrance of the Taj Mahal. We buy a ticket and join the separate rows for men and women. Food and drinks are not allowed inside, but as a visitor you do receive a bottle of water and covers for your shoes. We stand in line for more than half an hour before the gates open (when we walk out again later, the line has become twice as long).
Past the entrance you come to a courtyard, with the main gate that leads you to the second courtyard (charbagh), where on the north side the Taj Mahal stands. The world-famous building was commissioned by Shah Jahan as a tribute to his favorite wife, Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. Construction began in 1632 and lasted until 1653. The 55-metre-high building is built entirely of marble and stands on a marble elevation. The building is perfectly symmetrical, with four minarets at the four corners and a huge onion-shaped dome. Up close you can see that the marble is decorated with mainly floral motifs. Quranic texts are placed around the entrance gates on the four sides of the building.
We have already seen many palaces in India, but the Taj Mahal is the ultimate monument. There are many visitors, but because the courtyard is large, it is not too busy and you have every opportunity to take pictures. As the sun continues to rise and poke through the morning mist, the light on the Taj Mahal changes. Inside the building are the tombs of Mumtaz (Taj is a short version of her name) and her husband Shah Jahan. But the building is especially impressive from the outside. Very nice to see in real life.
When we get back to the hotel we are really hungry. Before our visit to the Taj Mahal, we had a quick bite, but luckily we are allowed to sit down a second time. At the beginning of the afternoon we are dropped off by mr. Singh at the Agra Fort. Mughal ruler Akbar had the fort built in the sixteenth century and his grandson Shah Jahan completed it later. Like the Red Fort in Delhi, the Agra Fort is built of red sandstone, although Shah Jahan later added some marble buildings as well. Here again audience halls with carved arches and pillars, shutters and colonnades. Monkeys walk here and there. In some rooms you can still see that the walls and ceilings were painted in the past, in other buildings the decorations have been restored. Although it is certainly not the first fort we visit in India, this one is also beautiful to see.
After the Agra Fort we walk along the Jama Masjid (1648). To get there, we have to pass through a part of the old town where it is very busy. There are too many people here and tuk-tuks on too few square meters. We have to go down a tunnel under the railway, but everyone wants that and preferably at the same time. We almost get stuck, it’s so busy, but in the end we manage to reach the other side. Although it has the same name, Agra’s Jama Masjid is not as beautiful as the one in Fatehpur Sikri yesterday. In a corner of the courtyard a number of teachers are teaching children. They all have a stick, with which the boys get a lot of blows on their hands. Apparently assuming they learn from that. Sad to see. We have arranged with mr. Singh that he will come and collect us at the fort at 6 p.m., but we are there much earlier. So we just sit on the curb for a while and watch people passing by. Tonight we will have dinner at restaurant Only again, after all we liked it yesterday.
The next day we take it easy. We sleep in, have an extensive breakfast (hotel Amar has by far the best breakfast of this trip) and 10 a.m. we are picked up. The great Mughal ruler Akbar also has a mausoleum in Sikandra, a suburb of Agra. On the way there, mr. Singh takes a roundabout against the direction of travel (not entirely unusual in India). A man on a motorbike reacts angrily and is then yelled at by mr. Singh, who apparently doesn’t like being called names, even though the man on the motorbike is a policeman… At Akbar’s mausoleum it’s a kind of the same picture: a large entrance gate, behind it a tight landscaped garden, with in the middle a large building, the mausoleum, with a richly decorated gate with Quranic texts and inside painted ceilings. However, the corridor to the room where the tomb is located and that room itself are completely bare. Except for the tomb itself there is nothing at all.
After two and a half weeks we are starting to get tired of the heavy traffic and the honking. After our visit to Sikandra we therefore return to the hotel, where we spend the afternoon in the garden under a parasol in the shade (normally you might grab a terrace, but they don’t have one here). Early evening we are picked up by mr. Singh and taken to the train station in Tundla, a half hour drive from Agra. At the station we say goodbye to mr. Singh. He drove us safely around northern India for eighteen days, provided us with all kinds of advice and was pleasant company. We thank him very much and say goodbye.
Two guys arranged by mr. Singh take us and our luggage to the correct platform and also guide us into the train and the right compartment. The train is ‘just’ twenty minutes late. We share our four-seater compartment with an elderly couple from the United States. The train surprises us in a positive way: the trains are old, but they have spacious compartments, which you can close off with a door, with two beds one above the other, neatly equipped with clean bed linen and towels. At 10 p.m. we turn off the light, hoping to get some sleep tonight.
We sleep reasonably well, although we do wake up regularly. With only half an hour delay we arrive at the station of Varanasi (called Benares by many Indians). Despite the early hour, it is very busy at and around the station. We look for a tuk-tuk to take us to the hotel. Not difficult: once outside, the tuk-tuk-wallahs will come to you automatically. For a hundred rupees we are taken to the old town. Part of the center is closed for the Dev Deepawali festival, which is held during the full moon in November (next night). That’s why it was so busy at the station: There are tens of thousands of Hindus in Varanasi to wash off their sins in the Ganges (Ganga) exactly at full moon.
The tuk-tuk cannot get all the way to the hotel, so we have to walk the last part. The closer we get to the river, the busier it gets: a huge crowd makes their way to the ghats along the river – and it’s not even 5:30 a.m.. We take a bit of a gamble with the crowds and eventually see a sign with the name of our hotel. Just a few more narrow streets and we are there. The Rashmi guesthouse is located directly on the river and from the roof terrace you have a great view over the Ganges and the ghats on the bank below.
It’s still early and our room isn’t available yet, so we drop off our luggage and have breakfast first. At this early hour, the hotel still looks a bit desolate and the restaurant on the roof terrace is still deserted. But once the staff has arrived, we are sitting outside having breakfast, overlooking the river, but still a little stuffy from our night on the train. After breakfast we decide to go for a walk. Below our hotel is the Manmandir ghat and from there you can walk from one ghat to another (there are about eighty in Varanasi). The ghats are very busy, entire families have come to the Ganges to wash in this holy river for Hindus.
Varanasi is not exactly clean either: there is cow shit and waste everywhere and you regularly smell a urine smell, all in the same place where people ‘cleanse’ themselves in the river. Orange flowers and small oil lamps are sold everywhere (which are placed near or in the river as an offering), the inevitable cows and a single goat walking in between. The most bizarre ghat is the Manikarnika ghat. This is especially intended for cremations. It is a somewhat macabre-looking ghat: blackened buildings and large piles of wood, which are used to make the pyres. Almost continuously down the narrow streets of the old city of Varanasi, portables carrying deceased Hindus are brought in, which are dipped in the Ganges and then burned on the bank. There is just a cremation in progress when we walk by. It is forbidden to photograph such a ceremony and I have a fight with an Indian who realizes that I have not completely obeyed that rule. Quickly we move on.
The ghats are connected by stairs to the somewhat higher streets of the old city. It is a maze of streets where you can easily lose your orientation. They are too narrow for cars and tuk-tuks, so you will mainly find pedestrians and (obviously loud honking) mopeds. Finally we come back to the main road, which ends at the Dasaswamedh ghat. Afterwards, the hotel’s roof terrace is a great place to have lunch and enjoy the view over the Ganges. In the early evening, when the sun goes down, thousands of Indians again gather along the ghats and in boats on the water. The Dasaswamedh ghat is especially busy: A celebratory ceremony is being performed here tonight in the context of dev Deepawali. Small oil lamps have been placed everywhere on the steps of the ghats (just like in Pushkar), which gives the banks of the Ganges a fairytale atmosphere. Hindus float small trays of oil lamps on the river and there are fireworks. As in all of India, everyone just his own thing, which results in just released oil lamps being sailed over by boats the next minute, but the whole thing has a special ambiance. The Dev Deepawali festival will be on the front pages of the newspapers the next day.
The next day we get up early. A boat trip on the Ganges is most enjoyable when the sun has just risen and Indians come to the banks of the river to perform morning rituals and wash themselves. We only have to walk down the stairs to the ghat at our hotel and a boatman is already approaching us. “Boat?” A private one-hour rowing boat trip costs 500 rupee per person, but after some haggling we pay 600 rupee for the two of us. The male rows us along the ghats of Varanasi for an hour. It is less crowded along the banks than yesterday. We partly sail along the ghats where we already walked yesterday, but everything looks different from the water. The sun has just risen and it is therefore a wonderfully quiet boat trip.
Back at the hotel we first have breakfast, before we walk along the ghats for a while. In the afternoon we relax for a while on the roof terrace of the hotel (in the sun, but thanks to a cooling breeze it is manageable). Early in the evening we are picked up and transferred to Varanasi airport for our flight to Delhi, where we will spend one last day, before flying back to the Netherlands.
From here on, our journey goes a little differently than planned. Food and hygiene wise everything has gone well for three weeks and neither of us have suffered from a ‘Delhi belly’. But on the penultimate day I get sick after all. On the flight from Varanasi to Delhi I don’t feel well and it gets worse quickly. At the airport we are picked up by mr. Singh. We are surprised to see him again. I also feel very sick in the car and in the hotel. I remain nauseous despite repeated vomiting and will remain so for 36 hours. The whole next day I lie in bed. I can hardly move anymore. What caused it is a mystery to us (we ate the same things the whole time), but it’s clear that some kind of bacteria has gotten to me. We will no longer see the last sights in Delhi. Too bad, but I’d rather be sick now, on the last day, than earlier during the journey and then miss other beautiful things.
In the evening mr. Singh takes us to Delhi airport. If I stay this sick, it’s going to be a very nasty flight. But when we board the plane after a few hours of waiting at the airport, I slowly start to feel a little better. On the plane I eat something for the first time and I sleep for a few hours. When we land in the Netherlands the next morning, I am doing well again. I am still very tired, but not as sick as the day before.
So the end of our journey to India is slightly different than planned, but otherwise it has been a wonderful trip. We have seen a lot, been overwhelmed by the noise and chaos, had delicious meals and three weeks of beautiful weather. In short: a very successful trip!