Jaipur is known as the pink city, painted to welcome the visiting Prince of Wales in the 1800’s. ‘Pink’ is misleading, as the city is more of a terracotta or salmon pink colour, and the buildings are only painted in the old city which is crumbling to bits, with many upper levels being abandoned due to lack of maintenance and adequate sanitation. The capital of Rajasthan has over 3.5 million residents and industry is booming: tourism, finance, communications, in addition to an impressive and well-maintained university complex.
We had a chill out day here, desperately needed as I’d been on the move for weeks with nary a day off and was exhausted, and Caro wanted to do some shopping. The following day we headed to Amber fort, in the Jaipur hills, with its very own Great Wall. The fort looks more impressive from the outside: what we saw of the structure itself is really only a catacomb of corridors and rooms stretching off in every direction all of which are whitewashed and nondescript, however the scenery from the parapets is magnificent. The fort wall snakes up the hills, for all intents mirroring the Great Wall in China on a much smaller scale, and watchtowers dot the horizon. We missed several parts of the fort, we just didn’t have the time to do it properly, but it’s worth visiting for the views alone.
Then it was a mad rush into Jaipur old city to go to the astrological gardens, called Jantar Mantar, next to the city palace. We debated doing the city palace and decided we didn’t have time, and we’d seen enough palaces already! Jantar Mantar is a must-see however. It reminded me of a Giorgio de Chirico painting. It’s an observatory containing a collection of 14 architectural astronomical instruments, built in the 1700’s by Maharaja Jai Singh II, and the precise science behind them – using sun and shadow – is incredible. The Samrat Yantra is the tallest structure at 27m high, its face is angled at 27 degrees (the latitude of Jaipur), its shadow carefully plotted to tell the time of day.. The devices measure time, predict eclipses and monsoons, and track the location of stars as the earth orbits around the sun, amongst other things. There are 12 sculptures depicting the star signs. I loved this place. It’s modeled on an observatory in Delhi – Jai Singh II built 5 in all with Delhi being the first - and I’m going to try to visit this one tomorrow.
After a quick stop lunch, it was off through some pretty countryside to the home of the Tiger (attempt no 2): Ranthambore National Park. And it’s here our luck began to run out.
Ranthambore is a dirty and noisy town right on the borders of a lovely national park, and one of the few places in India where you have a 25% chance of seeing tigers. In fact several people in our hotel saw them. We did not. We did 4 safaris – mind you 3 of them were on trails where we would never have spotted a thing according to local guides – and it’s 10% tracking and 90% luck.
Despite this immense disappointment, Ranthambore is home to Samba deer (tiger’s favourite dinner), spotted deer, blue antelope, peacocks, mongoose, langurs, leopards (not a chance in hell of seeing one of those), crocodiles, several species of bird and bears (we didn’t see those either). We got a bit blasé about the deer and peacocks, although the mongoose are rare and we saw 2 very briefly. We also saw several tiger paw prints, all fresh and indicating that they were around, they just always seemed to be hanging out on other trails! The park is divided into 6 sectors. Tigers are spotted in sectors 2-4 normally. We got 1, 5 and 6 twice.
We also had to get up at sparrowfart (ie bloody early – 5am) to go and get assigned to a canter (open aired vehicle with 15 seats) and trail. This means competing with local touts who work for agencies and hotels in the area, all clustered around a single window at the park’s office yelling at the poor guy within who divvies out the paperwork. It’s good old Indian efficiency at its best: sod forming an orderly queue and waiting your turn, all yell and shout and butt in, and if you can cough and spit up phlegm whilst you do it all the better. People did help us get served though – the best way to do it is muscle your way up to the window and then shove both arms though the opening so that no-one else can get a look in.
Anyway it was all futile in the end as we didn’t even get a whiff of black and orange striped kitty cats except on someone else’s camera display.
So we said goodbye to Rajasthan, and went off to Agra in our rented car to see the Taj Mahal. It's also where we said goodbye to Four Wheel Drive India.
The Taj is stunning. There is no other word for it. Standing in front of it, on a beautiful sunny day, is indescribable. There’s some tough security to get in and out, the guards confiscating food so that the grounds aren’t covered in litter (an effective method - it's the cleanest place I've seen here!) The white marble glitters in the sun amidst beautiful green gardens. Built to house the body of his third wife, Mumtaz, by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (she died whilst popping out kid no. 14… hmmmmmm….), it was completed in 1653, and combines Persian, Indian and Islamic architectural styles.
Jahan wrote the following about the Taj:
Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator's glory.
The outside is huge: Inside the tiny tomb of Mumtaz Mahal lies next to the larger tomb of Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan was usurped by his son Aurangzeb just after the Taj’s completion, and exiled to Agra Fort where he remained under house arrest until he died in 1666. Apparently, and this is in the Lonely Planet so I have no idea if it’s really true, the son was worried about all the spending Daddy was doing on expensive monuments for dead wives – Jahan had other monuments in mind – so locked him up. In reality it’s because the old emperor grew sick, and wanted to hand the throne over to his son Dara. After a lengthy struggle for power Dara was usurped by Aurangzeb.
The Taj Mahal complex also contains the mausoleums of Shah Jahan's other wives, a larger tomb for Mumtaz's favorite servant, and a mosque.
Agra is a dump, and apart from seeing the Fort and the Taj Mahal, there’s little to do here. Most tourists bus in from Delhi for the day. Our plan was to stay one night and go to Varanasi by overnight train on Sat 12 March. Sadly, our run of bad luck continued. We’d been waitlisted for tickets for sleeper berths – only 5 & 6 in the list though so we thought we had a good chance of getting on. The weekend trains are notoriously busy however and it was not to be. We had to revise our plans and stayed overnight again in Agra and headed to Delhi two days ago, treating ourselves to a little luxury by staying in a nice hotel in Connaught Place. Luckily trains/flights have been almost fully refunded so we aren’t out of pocket, but it would have been nice to have taken a sunset boat trip down the Ganges, and seen a burning body or two (although we’ve heard the govt pay to get the bodies burned, but people now pocket the money and just chuck the bodies in the river). But one has to move on from disappointment I guess.
The train trip here was interesting, and thank god it was my last in India. We got general class tickets. Last time we bought general class we sat in a ladies carriage, on a proper seat. When we saw general class on this particular train – crammed into a luggage carriage with tons of other people – we nearly balked. The conductor offered to upgrade us for a ridiculous amount of money, some of which would no doubt have gone in his pocket, so we braved it out – more on principle than the cost. Perched on our packs, we sat amongst some lovely people who did their best to make us comfortable despite cramped conditions. Once again we had to just hope that we’d get out at the right station as nobody spoke very good English in our carriage and we couldn’t really see the station signs from where we were sitting. It was a long, tiring and grubby journey, if not a little humbling.