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December 2009 - January 2010


Travel

The trip of a lifetime

by Gabi Otvos


A trip to the East brings to the fore the charm of a country as diverse as India

Ever since I read Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling at the age of nine or 10, I wanted to visit India. Much later, films like A Passage to India, or the superb TV series The Jewel in the Crown reinforced this childhood longing. Last but not least, Indian friends and colleagues in London gave me a glimpse of the country’s culture and customs, so different from the Europe with which I was familiar. Work, children, family commitments and a mortgage meant that it was not until March 1997 that I finally took the plunge. I booked a 15 day tour of Northern India, a tour which was aimed at tourists with an interest in architecture.


Timeless Varanasi

My wife and I decided to go a day early. So on a bright spring day, together with other members of our group who had the same idea, we boarded the plane to Delhi. No amount of anticipation could prepare us for the assault on our senses when we arrived: the colours, the light, the crowds, the exuberance of the gardens that surrounded our hotel. We took a “tuk-tuk” - a motorbike with two seats behind the driver and a roof. After a while we asked the driver to drop us on the Rajpath, near the government buildings. It is ironic that those impressive monuments to colonialism were put up at a time when independence was already a not too distant dream. After buying some sweets at a street fair and watching local families enjoy themselves, we walked towards the President’s Palace to have a “closer look”. After all, architecture was our special interest! Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by armed soldiers who wanted to know what we were up to. Politely, and not unreasonably, they told us to move away.

The tour proper started on the following day. We drove to the Red Fort through the crowded streets and markets of Old Delhi. Snake charmers and street vendors greeted us at the gates and then, inside the compound, we had our first taste of the magnificence of the Moghul legacy. The two day programme included Humayun’s Tomb, the Gandhi Memorial, the Qutb Minar – a tall Indo-Islamic tower surrounded by traditional Hindu architecture, and finally Delhi’s vast mosque - the Jama Masjid. We were asked to take our shoes off at the gates. Seeing them disappear in a sea of thousands of other shoes we were convinced that we would never see them again. Amazingly, it was not so, and they were efficiently handed back to us when we left.


Forecourt of Amber

Udaipur was our next stop – a city a few hundred miles to the south-west of Delhi, and we flew there. Our hotel overlooked Lake Pichola, one of the city’s two lakes. Few sights can be more beautiful than these calm, serene lakes fringed by distant purple hills. The gleaming white City Palace, once home to the local Maharana, is a rich and delicate masterpiece of Moghul architecture. The island of Jag Mandir with its elephant sculptures, the Lake Palace and the Garden of the Maids of Honour were other delights.


Varanasi

Our coach set off only too soon from romantic Udaipur towards Jodhpur, a city on the edge of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Whilst crossing the Aravalli Hills we came across an ancient Persian water wheel, powered by buffaloes and still in use. Otherwise these hills seemed uninhabited, a wooded oasis of peace and quiet. They were at their most beautiful at that time of the year. We were not surprised to be told much later that they are a favourite retreat for honeymooners. After a few hours of travelling, the intricate, distant outline of Ranakpur, Jain Temple appeared in the valley below us. Our coach parked rather incongruously amongst elephants and camels. We entered the richly carved, beautifully lit white marble interior of the temple. This was no longer Moghul but more traditionally Hindu, and no less beautiful for that. The journey from Ranakpur to Jodhpur took us through lively villages, bustling with people in brightly coloured saris and turbans. We even came across a wedding, and saw some of the guests arriving on tractors!

Jodhpur was memorable for its powerful Rajput fort, dominating the city from a high rocky outcrop. Whilst touring the ramparts we stumbled on a vulture’s nest on a ledge below - the poor bird was as terrified as we were. The palace courtyard within the fort, with its richly carved timber columns, windows and loggias, gave access to the private apartments – an explosion of gold, bright colours and opulence. The Maharajas no longer live there, but their legacy remains. In fact, our hotel in Jodhpur was the Umaid Bhavan, which the Maharaja had built for himself at the other end of town in the 1930s. Now he only lives in one of its wings. Our last stop in the city was the Jaswal Singh Memorial which impressed us with its wafer thin, translucent marble walls and lovely gardens. However, we remember it chiefly by a small lake in its vicinity, which had a sign “Crocodiles – No Swimming”.

The coach journey from Jodhpur to Jaipur was uneventful apart from the blazing heaps of red chillies in the centre of Ajmer. The pink city of Jaipur is part of the “golden triangle” which also includes Delhi and Agra. This is what tourists tend to visit when they do not have much time in India. Few people have not heard of the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), but not so many are familiar with Jantar Mantar, the 18th century astronomical observatory. Other sights abound in Jaipur: the Amber Fort (we had our first elephant ride to reach it), the Peacock Gate in the City Palace, the Persian Gardens below the fort and several havelis or city mansions. For my wife and I the highlight in Jaipur was personal: we had the privilege of visiting the family of a good friend of ours. We were received with garlands and treated to a delicious goat curry. What more could you ask for?


Umaid Bhawan, Jodhpur

The last stop for our coach was the city of Agra. Camel caravans carrying timber slowed us down on the way, but we still managed to spend a couple of rewarding hours in Fatehpur Sikri, a remarkable, harmonious, albeit deserted complex, built of red sandstone. The Moghul Emperor Akbar intended it to be his new capital, but the water supply dried up a few years after it was completed and it had to be abandoned. No one should miss seeing it though – it is a fascinating place. Agra has an impressive fort, but its jewel and glory is the 16th century Taj Mahal – a white marble monument to commemorate Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Its grace, harmony and sheer beauty are beyond description. A true World Heritage site, of which India is justly proud. Of course, we simply had to sit on that famous bench Princess Diana sat on during her lonely visit to the Taj.

India is a vast country, so we flew to Kajuraho a few hundred miles to the south-east of Agra. The ancient, medieval temple complex here is known for its so called “erotic sculptures”. Well… they are erotic, but they are much more than that. As the guide informed us, they are an acknowledgement and affirmation of the God given life force that dwells in all living things.

The last stop on our journey in India was the ancient city of Varanasi. Once again we flew there and our hotel, like all the others, was well appointed and comfortable. The weather was hot by then, and the outdoor pool was much appreciated. We got up at 3 am the following morning to walk down to the Ganges, the holy river of India. It was still dark when we arrived and small candles on leaves were floating downstream. Soon the glow of the rising sun lit up the ghats, steps and honey coloured buildings. All was bathed in a soft amber haze – a magical sight.


My wife at Taj

A few miles north of Varanasi is Sarnath, where Buddha came to teach after his enlightenment some 1500 years ago. It is now one of the holiest sites for his followers. The tall brick built “stupas” contain relics, and a steady stream of chanting, orange clad Buddhist monks people the site throughout the day.

All good things come to an end, and we boarded our plane to Delhi where we were going to catch our connecting flight to London. As we flew west across the vast fertile plain of the Ganges, I noticed a long line of white peaks on the horizon to my right. “Could it be the Himalayas some 150 miles away?” I asked the stewardess. “Surely not”, she said, “but I shall ask the captain”. She was back a few minutes later: “You were right, those mountains are the Himalayas.” Word and a sense of excitement spread in the plane. The stewardess had to ask people not to leave their seats!

“The trip of a lifetime” is a cliché, but a cliché can still be valid. In our case, it was.

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