2005 - India

 

1st 14th April 2005

Impressions:

Much that is typical of other parts of Asia and other countries -workshops, traffic chaos (but better than Vietnam and less bikes and motorbikes) signs of greater prosperity with many newish but battered cars, markets, dirty scruffy, unfinished road works, piles of bare earth neither landscaped nor built on, crowds of people. 

 

Saturday 2nd April

Arrived 11.30 and got to hotel  1.30, leaving again at  2.30 without time for lunch.  We were unable to get sun cream in the hotel and no time to buy - we had forgotten to get at airport.

This afternoon New  Delhi.  An impression of great space with wide tree-lined roads.  Lutyens had designed this with Baker over a 20 year period from 1911. 

Delhi has had 8 old cities, dating over many centuries and from different invaders, each leaving their mark and destroying the work of their predecessors.  Forts, temples, city walls remain in a state of arrested decay in parts but definitely well cared for.

 

Sunday 3rd April

Old Delhi tour taking in the Red Fort, India's largest mosque, more of New Delhi with the Parliament,  President's palace, India Gate and more beautiful tree lined roads (4.5m trees were planted when
Britain developed this area - lots Of green spaces and parks - a total contrast to the narrow crowded streets of Old Delhi, with its endless street traders, crowds, animals and  noise (all so reminiscent of s.e. Asia, Morocco and Egypt.

Delhi is multicultural with Hinduism and Islam as the main religions but also Christian and Buddhist.  Our glamorous guide Pridi from the north of India told us that the current president is Moslem and the last was of the 4th caste, an untouchable- much is changing, she says.  But an outsiders view is that white, black or Chinese etc are almost absent - we attracted some interest at times - Jill thinks it was because of the glamorous hairstyle and proficiency in English of our guide (probably in her mid 30s.

Then a carpet co-operative (read "sales"!!).  A very interesting talk for nearly half an hour with sandwiches and green tea with cinnamon and cardamom preceded the allocated salesman and the usual Lovett purchase of the unanticipated and (really) unnecessary carpet - but then we have supported the work of a family in Kashmir, perhaps for a year apparently made by his father and his uncle.

Now 4 hours on a fairly major road to Agra through a long procession of workshops, traders and considerable traffic punctuated by the fertile open country of the plain (Ganges?) with numerous brickworks.

We arrived at Agra at about 7 and had a very good Chinese meal (!) in the Asian restaurant. 

Agra was the capital of the Mughal Emperors in the 16 and 17 centuries.

 

Monday 4th April

5.00 a.m.!!!!  Wake up/call (for those asleep) so that we could arrive at the Taj Mahal in time for sun-up at 6.10.

We had come with slightly muted expectations following Keren's comments from a few years ago when she  had been disappointed as it was built-up nearby.  Unlike the pyramids and Niagara Falls where the proximity of urban development was both a surprise and detraction. there was nothing significant in the way of development in the direction from which we approached.

The slightly rose tint of the eastern sun lit the side of the dome and the white marble edifice looked like a n extremely extravagant cake at the end of a long avenue and canal. Soon the reflection of the sun became more yellow and eventually white.  The Taj Mahal we found exceeded expectations and was truly awe inspiring.  Started in 1631 it took 20,000 craftsmen (+ other workers) 22 years to build.  The huge amount of inscriptions (from the Koran) and the geometric patterns and floral designs are not painted on but made from precious stones formed into the appropriate shapes and then let into incisions made in the exceptionally hard marble.  We took numerous photos and were accompanied by a photographer who took more - for later sale to us.

We ran the gauntlet of hawkers, a selection of whose goods were allowed onto the coach and bought - including by us (bangles).

We returned to the Sheraton for delightfully leisurely breakfast at 8.30 am before leaving again  at 10 am this time for the Baby Taj.  More properly Itimad-ud-Daulah, this pre-dates the Taj Mahal by a few years being started in 1621 and finished 7 years later.  Perhaps it provided the inspiration for the later monument since it has numerous features that seem to have been enlarged upon in the Taj Mahal.  However, much of the decoration had been painted and gilded and was latter plundered or just plain destroyed by people burning hay in the structure.  In consequence of such activities the ceilings gave only hints of the beauty of the original. 

Behind was the wide river - a lesson itself in life in India.  The centre of the bed is cultivated until the river swells with the monsoon rains in July.  Water buffalo are in the water, roaming on the banks  and sheltering from the heat (35c) under a large pipe running parallel to the river but well above it.  Spread out in the distance - white sheets and other washing.  A fishing boat.

We returned to the hotel for a welcome break at 11.30.  As usual the journey provided a splendid picture of the diversity of India.  The amazing traffic chaos at intersections where the is a pot pourri of animal crafts, pedestrians, bicycles, motor bikes and assorted cars (not a huge number but plentiful) and numerous commercial vehicles from the ubiquitous tuk-tuks to large lorries.  All this adjacent to a partially constructed flyover under which the poor live in tents.  Dung cakes are piled up.  Litter is everywhere.  Women in beautiful saris hold folds of this across their mouths and noses to exclude some of the dust that is blown around by the traffic. Traffic police stand idly by watching the mayhem.  At the roadside, workshops, traders, roadside barbers - "teeming millions" indeed.  

We spent some time at the open air swimming pool, then lunch and a sit in the garden.  The hotel has 35 acres apparently.

At 4.00 p.m. we set off again to Agra Fort, a huge sandstone structure built from the 1580s and containing not only several palaces of the moghul emperors but also a still a large contingent of the Indian army who occupy 3/4 of the fort. It is enormous! 

One palace formed a prison for Shah Jahan, the Moghul ruler who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb and memorial for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631, at age 39, following the birth of her 14th child.   Parts of this palace contained elements of decoration very similar to "Baby Taj."

The Taj Mahal itself is seen across the river. 

We returned at around 5 and had an Indian meal at the hotel. We were accompanied by two of the older couples on the trip - one nearing retirement and the husband of the other who had served in India in 1946.  Both couples live in the north - Preston and Skipton.  

 

Tuesday 5th April

7.00 a.m. wake up for 8.30 departure for 8 hour trip to Jaipur.  The problem is the road - long, straight about the width of the B road to Cranleigh but initially the road had great groups of pedestrians on a 200 km pilgrimage to honour Mother .....  Add to this a desire not to lose speed, a mixture of animal carts, tractors, and a willingness to overtake where there was no room  and you have the recipe for an exciting ride.

After an hour (25m) we stopped at  Fatehpur Sikri a deserted city built in 1571-1585 and occupied for just 14 years till they left as a water shortage.  It was a royal city built as the Mughal capital to replace Agra.

On the long road journey to Jaipur we saw endless small wheat fields mostly hand harvested but with some varying degrees of mechanisation in a  few.  Big changes are coming and one can see huge areas in the future will become home to huge combine harvesters.  There were many small mud or brick dwellings with thatched roofs, endless roadside shack cafes, periodic small towns or villages with the usual stalls, workshops and traffic chaos.

Rajastan is 45% desert.  People wear very bright clothes and men wear turbans (not for religious reasons but for protection from the sun - up to 50c for a month in summer.

There are1m camels in  India of which 90% are in Rajastan.  A good camel costs 150.

This area supplied the marble for the Taj Mahal 150 miles away and with no river transport to assist!

 

Wednesday 6th April

6.45 am wake-up call.

Leaving at 8.30 we travelled about 15 km to a hilltop palace of Amber Fort.  This is one of a number of buildings, the first of which was built in the 11th c.  The main buildings date from 1621-1667 and were constructed by Jai Singh.  Jaipur itself was built by jai Singh ll in 1727 when Amber Fort was abandoned as a capital because of lack of water. 

The Fort comprises 2 large courtyards one containing a temple, and various other rooms.  One of these has a colonnade of 27 pillars where scribes sat to record revenue petitions.

The other is the more private quarters where the harem lived and where is sited the Hall of Private Audience.  This has an elaborate ceiling of alabaster with glass inlay which would have reflected candles -  to resemble the night sky.  Outside is a geometrically shaped garden with a pool and fountain in the centre.  The walls of the surrounding rooms originally had inlaid precious stones in designs of varying shaped vases.  It is extremely elegant.

We had arrived by elephant, having left the coach at the foot of the hill.  We shared this ride with Annie and her mother Mary - both of whom were somewhat larger than us and probably contributed to our rather slow progress up the hill during which we were overtaken by many other elephants.  As at the Taj Mahal, a photographer attached himself to us and took several pictures of our journey - and, to be fair, they were very good.

Our descent was by jeep which was far less spectacular if just a tiny bit more comfortable.  Having regained the coach, we stopped almost immediately to photograph the Jal Mahal (water palace) in a man-made lake.  This was built in the mid eighteenth century but is currently empty pending possible future use as a restaurant.

We could not miss a shopping trip.  This took the form of the usual fairly quick demonstration (this time of gem cutting and polishing) followed by the real business of seeking to sell the products to the tourists.  We resisted all advances and joined the first contingent of returners to the hotel.

After lunch, we had an entirely restful afternoon and evening reading, swimming and eating.  We had thought to use the internet in the hotel but despite India's technological advances this remained "down" throughout the evening.  However, walking in the grounds in the evening we had a "first" seeing a peacock high in a tree.

 

Thursday 7th April

6.45 a.m. wake up and 8.30 departure to a photo-stop at the Palace of the Winds - this is just a facade used to provide screening for the women to watch great parades. Crossing the road was the usual exciting adventure, although we decided it was less so than Vietnam,

The Observatory (Jantar Mantar)  dating from Jai Singh's reign in 1728-1734 was our next stop.  Jai Singh earned himself the nickname of Newton of the East as he constructed several huge, but very accurate sundials and astrological clocks.  We climbed the unusually steep steps of one, only to find first that it was much harder to come down and second that it made our legs like jelly and certain muscles very painful!

Then the City Palace. This comprises both a museum and also where the current Maharajah lives.  The building has been home to the rulers of Jaipur since the mid 18th c. having vacated the Amber Fort.  We saw little more than the museum which displayed costumes of the Maharajahs, carpets, photos and manuscripts.

We moved on to a workshop to see block printing of textiles before the inevitable hard sell.  Lunch at the Holiday Inn - not a bad buffet but not outstanding.  An afternoon by the pool preceded a visit to a neighbouring shop to use the internet.  This proved incredibly cheap until we saw how slowly it operated, taking 10 minutes to get into Jill's Tiscali account.

We again had the buffet in the hotel and this worked well.  To date we have largely avoided the Indian food and also eaten vegetarian as being safer than the meat.

As a finale we visited the hotel shops which we had avoided previously as there seemed lines of traders waiting to pounce.  In fact there was no hard sell and in consequence, we bought something!  As well as cushion covers for our recently re-curtained living room, Jill bought the autobiography of a Maharani, describing princely life in its transition to the current era. 

 

Friday 8th April

This was largely a day of travel as we made our way back to Delhi  by road.  Approximately 50 km from Jaipur we took a single track road to a small village called Samode which clustered around a rather splendid 17th century palace, now converted to a hotel.  This would equate to our country house hotels, taking only a limited number of guests and for a suitable price giving them the impression of being landed gentry.  Some of the public rooms had the most amazing decoration, including considerable use of small mirror tiles and beautifully painted murals.  The village itself, situated in the desert, also had some extremely elaborate architecture but a great air of decay.  The narrow street could scarcely accommodate our small coach let alone cope with any vehicle passing in the opposite direction.

Probably much of the remainder of the journey included sights we had seen before but provided the odd moment of interest such as when we crossed the central reservation of the 4 lane road and travelled quarter of a mile against the traffic in order to reach our lunch stop. Although India is building some good new dual carriageways, until they adopt some traffic rules and seek to separate fast moving traffic from camel carts, cyclists and pedestrians etc, journeys will continue to be hair-raising!

There is a high tech, call centre suburb, about 25 km from Delhi where high rise buildings and elaborate commercial properties and shopping malls predominate.  Here there is also much more evidence of private ownership of cars.

Adrian was not well on the journey and our guide stopped at a town en route to purchase 4 single tablets to ease his sickness.   When we arrived at the Marriott in Delhi, we did not leave our room until the following morning.

 

Saturday 9th April

Arising at 3.00 a.m. we had to be ready at 4.00 a.m. to leave for Delhi domestic airport to catch our flight at 6.00 a.m. to Coimbatore via Mombai.  At Coimbatore a bearded, brown Derek greeted us with a taxi which had come from Ooty.  We re-traced his route, initially along the plain and then for mile after mile of narrow and busy road, complete with hair pin bends, to arrive at Ooty 3 hours later.  En route we saw our first monkeys and experienced more of the crazy Indian traffic where overtaking where unable to see is the norm, accompanied by endless horn sounding.

Ooty is a crowded town high in the Nilgiri mountains and was once a Victorian hill station enjoyed by the ruling classes for their summer retreats.  The glory has faded as the buildings have multiplied and now the overall impression is of a multitude of people buying and selling from numerous small shops and stalls.

We entered the gateway to the Botanical Gardens which once formed part of the grounds of Hebron School and via which access is still gained.  A long winding drive brought us to a low building which fronted a complex of less grand buildings scattered through the wooded hill side.  The taxi driver departed having charged 12.00 for the seven hour return trip.

Mary greeted us in their flat, comprising living room, study, bedroom, small kitchen and bathroom.  We were then shown to a flat a short distance away which we were to occupy in the absence of a teaching couple and their children during Half Term. 

After a short attempt at sleeping, we walked down to the town with our hosts and purchased a number of small gifts (candle sticks), a scarf for Jill and a baseball cap, belt and brown trainers for Adie.  He had been forced to abandon his hat the day before, having been sick in it!

We returned to the school for a quick change of clothes and then left with Mary, Derek and their friends Stuart & Liz from Australia to enjoy a meal at Sullivan Court hotel - taking two tuk-tuks (autos) for the journey.  The meal was an Indian buffet which Adrian did not feel like eating and Jill was too tired to do justice to.

We then walked down into the town where Mary and we caught an auto back whilst the others walked.

 

Sunday 10th April

We breakfasted at Mary & Derek's before leaving for a brisk walk to a tiny church meeting in an upstairs room in the centre of town.  Clearly the Tamil congregation and the general area was very poor but the worship was extremely lively and enthusiastic and we were treated almost as guests of honour.  One of two of the men spoke English and a few choruses were sung that we recognised - introduced in our honour.

We lunched in a restaurant that had recently opened but had been recommended by other staff at Hebron and certainly proved quite satisfactory.  Whereas in the hotels we had chosen a variety of dishes, all food in this part of our holiday was decidedly Indian and extremely spicy.

We took a leisurely walk back with Jill and Mary stopping en route to buy salwars for Jill from a converted Hindu, now a Christian, who proved extremely friendly and helpful.  In turn, he asked us to source some goggles for his son who is a trainee jockey.  He said that he should be able to get Jill's jacket, brought to India at Mary's suggestion, copied in raw silk - so we promised to call back in the evening with the jacket and to collect the salwars.

Meanwhile Derek showed Adrian the extensive buildings and grounds of the school and the water purification system etc. 

Mary and Derek had planned that we should take a taxi to the top of the highest mountain in Southern India at Dopp   .  The aim was to walk back but even when we were little more than half way there, rain started and became absolutely torrential by the time we reached a car park near the top.  Undaunted, Mary led us a few hundred yards to the summit where we could see ..... nothing!  More sensible people sheltered whilst Jill took our group photo, a decision she was later to regret when the digital camera stopped working for several hours.

We headed back to the taxi, buying a hat for Adrian for 80 pence on the way!

We ate an evening meal at Hebron in the school dining hall before a walk around the botanical gardens.  Derek and Adrian returned to the flat where they chatted for some two hours while Jill and Mary went on a spending spree.  They were introduced to the taylor who advised what sort of silk would be needed.  The shop keeper then hailed an auto and took them to the silk shop some three quarters of a mile away.  Jill ordered two saris as well as the jacket in peacock blue raw silk, leaving her own one as a pattern.

Mary and Jill walked back through the dark and deserted streets and joined the men for further chats in their flat before bed time.

 

Monday 11th April

We believed that a taxi had been booked for 9.00 a.m. to take us to a jungle hotel down on the plains about an hour's journey away.  In the event, it arrived at 8.00 and we had to leave hurriedly, keeping the driver waiting for some 10 minutes. 

We took a road out of Ooty that we had not travelled on previously and which had some 36 hair pin bends as it wove its way down the hillside to the plain.  The scenery on either side was spectacular and the driver, atypically excellent and patient - rendering it a marvellous experience.

We passed several groups of Jains, a Hindu sect dressed in white and walking to Bangalore.

Eventually we arrived and were shown to our cottages in the jungle after coffee and toast on the veranda.  An hour's walk before lunch took us in the heat of the day up nearby Bear Mountain where we spotted amazingly vivid blue butterflies before returning for an excellent lunch at 1.30 p.m.

Having made up the diary, we had some tea and pastries and set out on a more serious walk.  Rain threatened (and for a while delivered!) whilst thunder rumbled round and lightning flashed,  We headed up towards the mountains and soon saw bison in the distance.  We heard some Langhur monkeys (a larger grey  type of which we had seen a group of 6 or so as we had travelled to our jungle retreat).  These were warning of the presence of a leopard our guide told us.  The two monkeys were high in the trees looking away from us - but we never saw what they did.  We saw lots of elephant droppings, and a hollow made by a wild boar but little else. Again we heard sounds - this time of a wild boar and also of a leopard - but again no sightings.  As we returned we found an elephant's skull and leg bone.

The solitude, peace and beauty of the scenery have formed such a welcome change to all the noise and crowds we have had during our time in India.

Unfortunately, as this entry is being made, Jill has taken over the baton of the bad stomach as Adrian is beginning to feel normal after more than 3 days of it.  Fortunately she was soon better and the problem did not affect our enjoyment of the jungle.

 

 Tuesday 12th April

On the Tuesday morning we had more success with our jeep ride starting at 5.30 a.m.  We saw a wild bore, spotted and samba deer, Langhur monkeys, wild peacocks and smaller creatures such as chipmunks.  After breakfast we returned to Ooty via the beautiful twisting road - the most considerate Indian driver we had ever had.

Once we had deposited our luggage at the flat, we went for a walk up the hills behind the school, past a Toda village (where we took several pictures) and then through woodland with lovely views over Ooty.

Back to the school for lunch, after which we went shopping for scarves and Jill also bought a gold necklace at a shop recommended by the Silk Shop owner.  We both then caught an auto to the Sari Shop and received a warm welcome from the Tailor and the Shopkeeper who were ready with the saris and jacket that had been copied from Jill's own.  We then walked back to the school to join Mary and Derek.

For a special farewell meal, we visited King's Cliff - a Scottish country house built about 1870.  Mary and Jill wore their saris - helped by Usha an Indian lady who works at    Hebron.  The house had been bought complete with contents from the previous private owner just 2 years ago and now operates as a hotel and restaurant.  We were treated quite regally with our own panelled room with specially lit wood fire.  There we enjoyed our pre dinner drinks and took photographs of each other.

The meal was extremely good (Jill and Adrian choosing Chinese in preference to Indian) and yet the bill for all four of us came to little over 16.00.

The following morning we set off for the airport by taxi at 9.00 a.m. and arrived well ahead of schedule at 11.30.  The journey was interrupted by a call from Mary reminding us that Adrian had the keys to the borrowed flat in his pocket!  These were returned via the taxi driver.

The road seemed far more interesting and beautiful than our previous experience of it.  The placid driver and the reduced volume of traffic enabled us to enjoy very beautiful scenery and the hairpin bends by which we descended the mountains.

The flights to Delhi seemed inordinately long and we arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel at around 8.30 p.m.  This was the best hotel at which we have stayed this holiday and we were on the seventeenth floor with magnificent views.

We enjoyed a reasonably priced Thai meal on the 28th floor!

 

 Wednesday 13th April

On our final day, we left the hotel at 10.00 a.m. travelling through New Delhi on wide dual carriageways lined by fine buildings including Government House.  The whole journey to the airport was very impressive and proved a stark contrast to all our previous experience of Indian transport.

We consider this to have been one of our best holidays, providing such a wide spectrum of insights into this diverse country with its contrasting life styles and scenery.  We found the people pretty well universally friendly with the possible exception of the administrative staff at hotels - may be the western influence has already made its mark!