Tuesday, 23 August 2011

An A-Z of India Part 2

F is for Forts.

Pretty much every town or city we went to had a stunning fort.  Either perched on a hilltop above the town, or in some cases right in the centre of the town, these stunning buildings dominate the landscape.  Most can be visited, and are popular with tourists and locals alike. 

Clockwise from top left: Jaigarh Fort near Jaipur, Amber Fort near Jaipur, Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer Fort, with Jaisalmer town all around.

Within the heavy fortifications you find lavishly decorated palaces where the Maharajas lived, in most cases right up until the Independence of India in 1947.  All the forts were incredible, although I have to admit that after 10 days or so, some of them began to seem remarkably similar (I remember the same feeling in Thailand, but of being 'templed out'!)

One of the quietest forts we visited, at Bikaner.  Quiet but beautiful.

Clearly these forts are an important source of revenue for the Rajasthani tourist board, but we began to get a little annoyed with the dramatically different pricing systems for Indian residents and tourists...  At Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur for example, we paid 300 rupees each to enter, plus 100 rupees per camera.  Indian residents paid 30 rupees.

F is also for Fatephur Sikri, the 'ghost city' built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar but suddenly abandoned around 1585.   We visited on our journey between Agra and Jaipur and it proved a very atmospheric and interesting way to break the drive.

G is for Golden Triangle.

The archetypal Indian experience, the 'Golden Triangle' covers the 3 major cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, and these were the first 3 places that we visited as part of our wider Rajasthani tour. 

Ironically, this was the least enjoyable section of the trip.  As I mentioned previously, Delhi didn't endear itself to us and Agra - Taj Mahal aside - was grotty.  Jaipur, the legendary 'Pink City' was also pretty grim, and not nearly as picturesque as we had imagined.  Perhaps the weather didn't help our impressions?  It was monsoon season and it rained in all 3 of these places while we were there.  Once we got further West into the desert areas it was sunnier and less humid, so generally more pleasant, plus the towns and cities were nicer.  If you're thinking of a trip to India, don't just settle on the Golden Triangle, head West.

H is for Hotels.

Hotels proved rather a headache for us on this trip...  We had arranged the trip through a travel company based in Delhi and asked them to provide a car and driver, plus book the hotels that we had carefully researched.  The car and driver part was fine, but despite telling us that he had definitely booked all of our hotels, at every place we arrived it became clear that Deepak (the agent at Truly India - name and shame!!!) had either booked us into totally different hotels than the ones we had requested, or not bothered to book at all!  Many was the time that we had to ask our poor driver to 'phone him, and tell him to ring the hotel and make the booking as we were standing in the lobby!

Sigh.  Despite this (which almost became amusing by the end of the trip, in a 'laugh or you'll cry' kind of way) we did end up staying in some beautiful properties.  Rajasthan is full of lovely historic havelis and palaces that have been converted into hotels, and also new-build hotels in a historic characterful style.  These were some of our best:

The Hari Mahal in Jaipur (we were in the historic part, not the modern block attached).

The Hotel Pleasant Haveli in Jaisalmer, a new hotel in an old style with an incredible roof-terrace/view!

 The Pal Haveli in Jodhpur, a historic hotel in the centre of the city.

The Kurabar Kothi in Udaipur.  We had one of the best rooms in the place with a lovely window-seat overlooking a stunning view of the city and lake below.

H is also for Hindustans, the wonderful antique-style cars that are still built in India today, a throwback to colonnial times.

I is for Inlay.

The Taj Mahal is beautifully decorated, inlaid with all manner of precious stones.  This is clearly a great skill, and we were taken by our Agra guide to an Inlay workshop to see the craft in action.  Of course the guide was on a huge commission, and whilst we were interested in seeing the artisans in action, we had no interest at all in purchasing anything...  We soon learnt that if you have a guide for a morning or day, this is all part of the package.  This was one of the reasons that we decided against taking guides after the first 3 cities, preferring to guide ourselves with our increasingly battered edition of The Rough Guide to Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra.

J is for Jaipur, Jaisalmur and Jodhpur.

Or the Pink City, the Golden City and the Blue City.  Although Jaipur wasn't nearly as lovely as I had imagined, it did have some gorgeous buildings, and the vast majority are painted a distinctive pinky colour.  We didn't spend a huge amount of time in the city itself as our day there was mainly taken up with an excursion to Amber Fort, 13km away, but we did spend an hour or so wandering around soaking up the atmosphere.

Good to see someone keeping the Pink City pink!

The Palace of the Winds was particularly stunning in the morning sunshine.

Jaisalmur on the other hand was stunning, our favourite place on the entire route.  In the far west of Rajasthan, a mere 100km from the Pakistani border, I think it's a place that many tourists might miss, but it is well worth the effort to get there.  The town has been built up around the incredible fort in the centre, a walled ancient city where about 2000 people still live, but which encloses a lavish palace along with hotels, shops, etc.  The fort is in danger of collapse due to the increased demands for water so tourists are urged to stay in the town outside - something we were happy to do as it meant that we got to look at the fort from our hotel!  Built entirely from the local gold-coloured stone this is a beautiful place, but we also found the people most friendly, the shopkeepers less aggressive in their hassling you as you walked by, and the atmosphere generally more pleasant.  It felt like I hoped India would feel.

Honey-coloured havelis, covered in amazing carvings.
 The view across Jaisalmur from the top of the fort.

Jodhpur fell somewhere between the previous two in our affections - it was certainly a more pleasant place than Jaipur in our eyes, but didn't quite live up to Jaisalmur.  In the oldest part of the city most of the houses are painted a distinctive blue colour - the colour blue originally indicated a high-class Brahmin residence, but later people thought that the indigo in the paint helped to repel insects and keep them cool  in Summer.  Whatever the reason, it lends a very attractive feel to the city.  We also enjoyed spending time people-watching in the large market that surrounds the clock tower in the centre of town. 

And of course - how could I fail to mention this?! - Jodhpur was where Rob had a pair of Jodhpurs tailor-made!  Not quite sure when he'll be wearing them...  but if anyone ever invites us to a Raj-themed fancy-dress party we'll be well prepared.

Part 3 coming soon...

1 comment:

At Anna's kitchen table said...

Well I'm shocked at the pricing system in Jodhpur! Well maybe shocked is too strong a word, I'm sure the same happens in Cyprus at some places.
Some great photos again Kate, I love The palace of the winds one especially!