After another rest day in Leh we set out on our final road trip in Ladakh. There are two high altitude lakes within reach of Leh and we chose to visit Tso Moriri as it is less visited and reputedly more beautiful. Our visit to Tso Moriri Lake at 4,540 metres above sea level provided us with our best sunset, coldest night, and most remote experience of our trip along with heaps of great scenery.
We opted to travel in an anti-clockwise direction and started our journey travelling on the Manali Road which is the main road to the south and the rest of India. The road through to Manali was due to open soon but was still closed with snow covering some of the passes further south than we were travelling but the one we had to cross was cleared so we had the double advantage of virtually no traffic and clear roads. At times the snow banked up beside the road was more than two metres high. The top of the pass, Tanglangla Top, is not quite as high as the Khar-dung La Pass but still a very respectable 17,582 feet (5,359 metres). The guard hut, unattended at present, was festooned with prayer flags which are common on many peaks and rises.
Not long after the pass we ventured off the bitumen road on to a well formed gravel road.
With the melting of the snow the nomadic shepherds are returning with their flocks of long haired sheep, yaks and mohair goats. We passed several small nomadic villages, some occupied by the returning families, others still empty.
We passed close to Tso Kar, a large briny lake whose main attraction is for birdwatchers spotting elusive black-necked cranes. We are in luck and spot several of the birds although none are very close to us. Later we also see a mountain sheep which looks more like a cross between a goat and a buck and a very cute marmot poked his head out of a hole to check us out while we were stopped for another view.
The road becomes rougher with lots of corrugations and our driver decides to follow wheel tracks off the road to make the ride smoother. Its not a 4WD vehicle and before long Paul and I feel the car sticking and having difficulties. If we were driving we would have pulled back on the track and slowed for the corrugations but our driver decides to continue off road and soon the car lurches to a stop and we are stuck. With too little experience in these conditions our driver can’t get out but luckily vehicles coming in the other direction stop and with a lot of pushing and some digging and almost an hour’s delay we finally make it back onto the firm track.
During the afternoon the clouds were building and by the time we begin skirting the lake the sky is fully overcast and rain is falling on the other side of the lake. We stop in the village of Korzok for the night and we find a place for the night in a home-stay which includes dinner and breakfast. By then the temperature had plummeted and light snow was falling and we hurried out of the freezing wind. Later we watched a stunning sunset, but it was way too cold to venture outside and we were too busy enjoying the view to go to our room to collect a camera.
In the morning the sky was blue and the lake was bluer and we ventured a little further past the village to enjoy the views from a rise. Stunning.
The return journey was pretty but not as dramatic and by mid afternoon we were back in Leh for our final night.
14. Epic Road Trip to the Nubra and Shayok Valleys
After a day of rest to recover from our Indus Valley sight-seeing we set out on a four day trip across the Khar-dung La Pass to the neighbouring valleys of the Nubra and Shayok rivers. At 5,602 metres this pass is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable pass. As a comparison, Australia’s highest mountain is a measly 2,228 metres high. We made an early start but before we reached the top we were stopped at a checkpoint and sat for more than an hour while numerous other vehicles also arrived and waited. Light snow was falling and gradually other vehicles were allowed to continue but we still waited. We never worked out quite why we were delayed, several reasons were advanced but as our driver had limited English we were just glad to finally get moving. By now our early start to avoid the worst of the traffic had back-fired and there were streams of vehicles in front of us.
The snow thickened and the road which started as a good bitumen road deteriorated to one muddy lane so soon we were stuck in a traffic jam as oncoming vehicles caused everybody to move to the edge until they had passed. It was cold and what should have been a one hour trip up and over the pass turned into four hours but the view was worth it. Simply stunning.
The road snaked back down below the snow line and then we were back on bitumen and driving into the Nubra Valley.
As we were late and we still had a lot of distance to cover we made only a very short stop for lunch and saved our sight seeing in this valley for the return journey. We left the Nubra Valley behind and headed further west into the Shayok Valley which leads toward the border with Pakistan. Apart from patches of green around tiny villages, the towering mountains are stark and awe inspiring.
Just seven kilometres before the border we stopped at the village of Turtuk. By now we had passed the western limit of Ladakhi-Buddhist culture and were in an area which is culturally and linguistically Muslim Balti. In fact Turtuk used to part of Pakistan until the 1971 war and the towering mountains to the west are across the current border. The growing season here is short and we arrived when the new growth of the buckwheat grass was vibrant. The main part of the village is set on a plateau above the river and water from a permanent stream which tumbles down from the mountains is diverted through channels which flow alongside path ways and underneath cool rooms which are used as refrigerators. Everywhere you go in the village you hear the sound of running water and coming directly from the mountains it is safe and delicious to drink.
We found a guest house to stay for two nights, a lovely room but as with all the places here the bed was rock hard. Hot water was available for bucket washes and the lovely people who owned the house also had a small restaurant next door. The food is very different to the rest of India and even very different to the rest of Ladakh. The Buckwheat pancakes with walnut sauce were delicious and unlike anything we have tried before. After the long drive it was nice to spend the next day just wandering around the village and along the paths at the edge of the fields.
From the end of the plateau the view back over the village was vibrant green and in the other direction we saw stark arid mountains.
The next morning we only had a short drive so we made a late start (after early morning photos by Paul of course) and we retraced our road to Hunder. Hunder village is Nubra’s top attraction for Indian visitors, who settle into relatively comfy guesthouses and tent camps, and then spend the late afternoon riding Bactrian camels through a series of sand dunes. We found the sand dunes to be less than impressive but the setting with the soaring mountains made up for them. We had no desire to ride the camels and the tented camp we were tentatively booked into was in the centre of the old village with no views so we were very happy to find a slightly more luxurious camp with a fantastic outlook and the owner was happy to match the rate for the luxury tent and included a buffet dinner and breakfast. They even sent somebody into town to get us some cold beers to drink as we sat outside our tent and watched the sun set over the magnificent scene. Far more comfortable than sitting on the back of a camel!
After a great night’s rest in our tent, on the most comfortable bed we had in our entire trip, we began our return journey to Leh. Just above the next village of Diskit is the very impressive Diskit Gompa (buddhist place of learning) and a gigantic (32m) statue of Buddha.
By late morning we were ready to make our return journey back through the Nubra Valley and over the pass to Leh. Once again we encountered stunning scenery but while the snow was still thick it wasn’t actually snowing as we travelled and we also managed to avoid the traffic jams we encountered on our previous journey. Before too long we were back at the top of the pass looking down to the green patch which is the city of Leh, 2,200 metres below and roughly 30km away by road.
After the heat of Rajasthan we retreated to a much cooler climate in the state of Ladakh nestled in the Himalaya Range. Even in summer the snow tops the mountains and roads over the passes are only open for a few months of the year. In the two weeks we spent in Ladakh we based ourselves in the provincial capital Leh in the heart of the Indus Valley. We spent a couple of days in town when we first arrived to acclimatise to the altitude and the lower oxygen levels. We then took a series of road trips through some of the amazing country-side in Ladakh with another two single days in Leh between trips to rest and enjoy wandering around the picturesque town.
13. The Indus Valley, Wonderful Temples and Monasteries
For our first road trips in Ladakh we stayed within the Indus Valley as we didn’t want to tackle the very high mountain passes to neighbouring valleys until we were confident we had fully adjusted to the altitude. There are temples all over India but there is a concentration of very scenic Buddhist temples and monasteries along the Indus Valley.
On a one day trip to the south east we travelled along the river to the monasteries at Shey, Thiksey, Matho, Chemry and Hemis. The monasteries crown rocky outcrops and prayer flags flutter in the mountain breeze. Prayer wheels spun clockwise release merit making mantras. All were impressive and at Chemrey, being off the main road, we could enjoy it in peace as we were the only visitors, Hemis providing the best tourist experience and Matho the best picture postcard view across the river as we approached it.
The next day we set off on a two day trip west from Leh with an overnight stop in Lamaruyu before we returned to Leh. For most of the trip we travelled right next to the Indus River. The landscape was stunning; pockets of green irrigated land with lush trees and fields around the occasional villages in an otherwise dry and barren landscape and all surrounded by snow capped mountains.
Along the way we passed abundant military bases. This area is close to disputed territory with Pakistan and also provides the opportunity to train troops at high altitude so they can operate anywhere. Apart from banning photography in their areas there was no impact on our travels but we could not escape their presence for more than a short while. Colourful trucks use the winding road as it the only road linking Ladakh to Jammu and Kashmir. We passed the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers, a good place for kayaking apparently. It was great to be able to ask the driver to stop whenever we wanted to enjoy the views or take photographs.
We took a side road to the Likir monastery where we admired the gleaming, gold-painted 20th century Maitreya statue, the ancient well-used prayer wheels and the extensive views over the valley below.
In Lamaruyu a picturesque monastery tops an eroded hill and the landscape is pitted and aptly named the ‘moonland’. We had magnificent views from our room in the nearby guesthouse.
On our return trip we called into a couple of monasteries including the 11th century Choskhor Temple Complex in Alchi. Each temple in the complex is small and unobtrusive from outside but their design and millennium-old murals are rare archetypes of Ladakh’s Indo-Tibetan Buddhist art. The interiors of the temples were darkened and quite small but the artwork was magnificent; but unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photographs.
One of the ways we like to get a feel for a place is to travel through the country which is also a good way to chat with the local people. We wanted to mix up how we moved around and sample as many different modes of travel as possible.
There is a very good train system in India, with a very extensive and heavily used rail network. The on line booking system looked simple but proved to be far more complicated than it looked and we had to rely on guest-house managers or travel agents to help with arrangements or we visited the railway station a couple of days before our travel to book our tickets. We travelled in both air-conditioned and non air-conditioned trains … no guesses for which was our preference. While didn’t sample the cheapest of the classes we found the sleeper carriages with either two or three levels of bunk beds were reasonably good to sleep on, well sort of, and during the day they converted into seats so we could watch the country side through the grubby windows.
If trains didn’t run between our stops we could generally find a private bus company which offered coaches with reserved seats and usually some air-conditioning. The one time when this wasn’t possible we spent five very hot and crowded hours on a non air-conditioned government bus trip travelling between Mount Abu and Jodphur. We held our seats for the trip but as we moved from one small town to the next the numbers on the bus varied greatly from most passengers having seats to probably twice as many crammed in as there were seats available.
On a couple of occasions there were no convenient trains or buses and rather than make a huge detour or catch a train in the middle of the night we simply hired a car and driver. More expensive but far, far cheaper than it would be in Australia and far more convenient and comfortable.
Within cities we of course walked when distances were not too great but otherwise we would catch auto-rickshaws (much like a tuk-tuk in Southeast Asia) for shorter distances or taxis or Uber for trips to and from airports or further afield.
Our water-based trips included sunrise and sunset boat trips on the Ganges in Varanasi….
and on Dal Lake in Kashmir we travelled in ‘shikaras’, a gondola-like boat.
We avoided a few of the ‘touristy’ modes of travel including elephant rides, horse drawn carriages and camel rides.
India is a large country and on several occasions overland travel would have taken far too long so we took advantage of reasonably cheap internal flights. There are quite a few carriers so competition on most routes is strong and fares cheap. The only disadvantage was the need to arrive at the airport two to three hours ahead of the flight but at least we could get cheap food while we were waiting.
Without a doubt the best travel experiences we had was flying from Delhi to Leh, the capital of the state of Ladakh in the far north of India and then taking several road trips within the state. The road to Leh from Manali in the south is only open for three months of the year and we were too early to make that trip so the plane was the only option left to us and it was fantastic. The views as we crossed the snow-clad Himalayas were absolutely sublime and the views of the broad, brown Indus Valley as we approached the airport were magnificent.
Once in Leh we took a couple of days to adjust to the altitude. Leh is over 3,500 metres (more than 11,500 feet) above sea level so altitude sickness is a definite factor. Luckily, apart from some mild effects including headaches and dizziness shortly after we arrived, we did not suffer significantly but rest and lots of water are important for the first day or so. While we were waiting to adjust we had time to take in the scenery including the snow capped mountains all around and the well laid out town preparing for the upcoming tourist season.
As there are limited buses and we wanted to be able to leave the main roads, visit the numerous Buddhist monasteries and other sites as well as stop for photos along the way, we arranged for a car and driver to take us on a series of road trips with days of rest between the trips, our ‘Leh’ days. Our roads took us through magnificent valleys with towering mountains on either side and over incredibly high snow clad mountain passes to the neighbouring valleys.
On these rest days we explored the town, browsed in the shops, sampled the restaurants, and rested after the short walks. Lots of hills and steps and not as much oxygen as we are used to taxed the lungs and provided good workouts.
Sprawled across the ridge above the blue city of Jodhpur, the mighty Merangarh Fort imposes itself upon the city from almost every tangled street or alley. We have a great view from the rooftop of our guest house and in the early morning our view includes people sleeping on their flat roof tops to escape the stifling heat and watching an early riser completing her morning exercises.
The fort appears to grow out of the basalt rock it was chiselled from and its 10 kilometre long wall includes battlements up to 36 metres high. We try to beat the heat by climbing the side of the hill as early as possible. Unfortunately we can’t enter even the outer walls until the official opening time so we have plenty of time to admire the fort towering above us before we can escape to the shade created by the thick walls. There are several sharp turns along the entrance route, obviously designed to slow attackers and provide plenty of opportunities for defence.
While entrance to the fort is free there is an entry fee for admittance to the fort museum and it includes an audio guide which helps bring alive the history of the place and tells stories about the people who inhabited it. Splendidly outfitted guards direct us through the rooms adorned with art works, weapons and household items as well as rooms filled with mirrors and luxurious fittings.
It is the buildings themselves though which provide the finest details of the workmanship with stone-lattice work so finely carved that it often looks more like sandalwood than sandstone.
The city sprawls below the fort and many of the buildings in the old city are painted Brahmin-blue. The colour used to be restricted to those of the Brahmin caste but can be used by anybody now. It reputedly helps deter insects. After several hours of wandering through the fort we descend to the city, the descent is much easier than the climb up, in search of a good cup of coffee.
We find it in a pleasant coffee shop beside a magnificent step well. unusually, the water is quite clear and consequently it is popular with the young lads for swimming and even supports a decent number of fish.
11. Living Fort Experience
Surrounded by desert in the far west of Rajasthan, not far from the border with Pakistan, the golden fort of Jaisalmer rises from the sandy plains. Unlike most other forts, Jaisalmer is a living urban centre with about 3,000 people living within its walls along with a palace, temples, numerous shops and other businesses. In the cooler season it attracts plenty of tourists who come to visit the city and to ride camels into the desert. In the middle of summer we see very few other tourists, in fact once the one other western couple, who caught the same train with us from Jodphur, depart to find their hotel we see no other tourists at all.
We stayed in a small luxury hotel within the walls of the fort which offered cheap rates for the off season. We had booked a standard room but the manager offered us our choice of rooms and we upgrade to an enchanting room which has a window and window seat built into the side of the fort. Up one level of stairs is an open area with fantastic views across the city and along the walls and we enjoy our breakfasts and evening sundowners there as well as a light dinner on two evenings. Its far too hot during the day but it is a wonderful place to watch the sunset and to enjoy a meal.
We had thought of taking a camel ride in the desert one afternoon and possibly camping out overnight but the 40 degree plus heat lingers well into the night so we spend our time relaxing in our air-conditioned room or exploring the fort and the surrounding old city in the early morning and evening. 99 bastions encircle the fort and there are four massive gates to pass through on the zig-zagging route to the upper section. The Fort Palace is elegant and well worth the hour or two it takes to explore.
The old city surrounding the fort has narrow winding streets and as well as the colourful displays of fruit and vegetables, fabrics and embroideries, there are some magnificent havelis. Some of these are enjoying a new lease of life being renovated for use as luxury apartments. Its good to know the old skills of hand-carving of sandstone into the intricate filigree patterns is continuing.
From Bundi we travelled south to Udaipur. The city sits beside the picturesque Lake Pichola with the wooded Arayalli Hills stretching away in every direction. The old town has countless narrow and crooked streets with beautiful old havelis or hotels, ancient bazaars and a grand City Palace which is the largest in Rajasthan.
While we loved wandering up and down the streets and exploring everything we came across from the palace to the spice market, our favourite spot was sitting in the restaurant of a grand old haveli, which is now an upmarket hotel, as the day drew to an end and the sun set behind the hills opposite. Our view included the shimmering lake, a grand palace on an island in front of us, the illuminated City Palace behind us and numerous other buildings displaying the Rajput architecture around us and on the opposite shore. A crisp beer with complimentary pappadums helped ease the heat out of the day.
Mornings were just as beautiful by the lake side.
The City Palace is a massive 244m long and is a conglomeration of structures including 11 smaller palaces all topped by balconies, towers and cupolas towering over the lake. The main part is open as the City Palace Museum, with rooms extravagantly decorated with mirrors, tiles and paintings, and housing a large and varied collection of artefacts. Liveried guards usher you through a defined route to ensure you visit all of the rooms and courtyards.
As usual we thoroughly enjoyed just wandering through the streets past colourful shop displays and friendly people until we eventually made our way to the spice market.
And then of course it was back to our favourite hotel for sunset drinks and this time we stayed for dinner as well.
9. Colourful Rural Festival.
On the plane trip from Bengaluru to Goa the airline magazine listed the Mount Abu Summer Festival in the upcoming events. The dates were during our time in Rajasthan so we decided to include it in our itinerary. Mount Abu is Rajasthan’s only hill station and is not far from the border with Gujarat, the state just south of Rajasthan. As an added bonus for us the temperatures there are considerably cooler than the scorching temperatures in most of Rajasthan.
The festival is a celebration of tribal life and culture and is attended by many people from small communities dressed in traditional costumes as well as tourists from Indian cities and towns who come to enjoy the festival and the cooler weather.
Tribal costumes were mainly worn by the women and there were marked differences in garments between tribes.
The guys scrubbed up well and were quite happy to be in our photos.
And some of the turbans were particularly impressive.
We took plenty of photos but there were probably just as many taken of us. So many people wanted to take selfies with us and it seemed unreasonable to say no but it sure became tiresome for people like us who normally try to avoid being in photos. When we wanted a break we found an upstairs bar where we could rest with a cool drink and avoid the selfies and photos taken of us, well most of them anyway.
After the grandeur of the city of Jaipur and the surrounding forts our next stop was the far more humble town of Bundi which is a five hour bus trip to the south.
6. Friendliest Town
Bundi attracts far fewer tourists than anywhere else we visited, especially during the summer season. Possibly for this reason, or just because it is a small rural town, the welcome we received from the locals was invariably warm and friendly. We stayed in a small guest house, really a private home with a couple of rooms made available for guests and we were the only visitors. In fact we saw only one other western couple during our time in Bundi. There are a few attractions in town which we visited including a crumbling palace on the hillside above the town which was described by Rudyard Kipling as ‘the work of goblins rather than of men’. It provided great views over the town and although large sections of the palace are closed up and left to the bats. The rooms that are open hold a series of fabulous, although fading turquoise-and-gold murals that are the palace’s chief treasure.
Bundi has a number of step wells, most having very little water due to declining ground water levels and unfortunately plenty of rubbish, but one worth visiting is the Queen’s step well which is 46m deep. We also visited a pretty lake 2 km north of town which has a small summer palace where Rudyard Kipling once stayed and wrote part of Kim.
The most enjoyable part of our stay however was just wandering around the streets and narrow alleys in the old town. Many of the buildings are painted Brahmin-blue and we saw many old temples. Numerous cows are to be seen scattered through the streets and lanes enjoying their privileged status. We received many welcoming smiles and greetings and often people were keen to have a chat and share a chai. Children were particularly keen to have their photos taken and to then see themselves on the screen.
7. Most authentic Indian meal
The one western couple we saw while we were in Bundi had already spent a week in the town and gave us some tips on places to visit. They highly recommended a small restaurant near the fort, Jays cafe. We called into Jays mid-morning after several hours exploring the fort. It was too hot to eat but we needed a cool drink. The cafe is run by Jay and his sister Rinku, both in their early 20’s, with their Mum working in the kitchen with Rinku. They welcomed us warmly and ushered us up some steep stairs, past their mother who was sitting in the kitchen and nodded to us as we went by. The sitting area at the top of the house was sheltered and caught a little breeze which was helped along by an air cooler directed toward us. We were brought a traditional lassi each which included cardamom pods, saffron and other unidentified flavours, yum, our new favourite. We chatted with Jay and Rinku while we were enjoying our drink and promised to come back in the evening for a thali, a set meal which includes a number of dishes on a round platter. When we tried to pay our bill for our lassi we were told to wait and it would be included in the evening account.
We returned late afternoon and although they are not licenced they had bought and cooled some beers which we had requested and we enjoyed them with some pappadams before the feast began. When we were ready for our meal dish after dish came out to the table. If we finished more than half of a dish it was replenished until finally we had to ask them to stop. We were served a wide variety of vegetarian dishes and they were all absolutely delightful with everything very fresh and cooked especially for us. We were so busy enjoying the food we didn’t take any photos but finally remembered to take one at the end with Rinku.
After our time in Southern India we farewelled Sean and Vandana and the other guests in Goa and took a plane back to the north of India to the state of Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings – a realm of maharajas, majestic forts and lavish palaces. By now we were in the Indian summer period and we knew the temperatures throughout the state would be very high, especially in the desert regions in the east, but there was lots to see so whenever possible we took advantage of accommodation with air-conditioned rooms and swimming pools and headed out to sightsee in the mornings and late afternoons with siestas in the middle of the day. Our first destination in Rajasthan was the capital, Jaipur. Our guest house there ticked every requirement, in fact it was probably the nicest of our whole time in India.
The image at the top of this post is Hawa Mahal (the Wind Palace) which was constructed so that the Maharanis could watch the parade of returning armies from positions behind the intricately carved screens.
4. Grandest city and most colourful markets.
The Old City (often referred to as the Pink City) is partially encircled by a grand wall punctuated at intervals by large gateways. Wide avenues divide the city into neat rectangles, each specialising in certain crafts and there are small and large bazaars and markets scattered throughout, both along the avenues and down the maze of narrow alleys. It would take days to explore the city properly. The wall and all the buildings lining the broad avenues are built of pink sandstone with intricate carvings adorning many of the grand buildings.
We love markets and visit them any opportunity we find even if we have no intention of buying anything. We wandered through local vegetable markets down side streets in the old pink city and admired the freshness and colour of the produce.
The best colour of all though was to be found at the early morning wholesale flower market.
5. A Tale of Two Forts
There are three forts surrounding Jaipur and we visited two of these. Amber Fort is honey-hued and is situated in the rocky hills 11 km north of Jaipur. It is huge and sprawls along a ridge with a grand entry wide enough for elephants. It is built of pale yellow and pink sandstone and white marble with four sections, each with a large courtyard.
The entry is into the Main Courtyard where returning armies would display their war booty to the populace. The second courtyard contains the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience), which has a double row of columns, each topped by a capital in the shape of an elephant, and latticed galleries above. The maharaja’s apartments are located around the third courtyard, entered through the fabulous Ganesh Pol, decorated with beautiful frescoed arches. The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is noted for its inlaid panels and multi-mirrored ceiling. Opposite the Jai Mandir is the Sukh Niwas (Hall of Pleasure). The zenana (secluded women’s quarters) surrounds the fourth courtyard. The rooms were designed so that the maharaja could embark on his nocturnal visits to his wives’ and concubines’ respective chambers without the others knowing, as the chambers are independent but open onto a common corridor.
The second fort we visited was Nahargarh, (Tiger Fort). It overlooks the city from the end of a ridge but the direct route includes walking up a steep winding 2km path so we opted to drive via a circuitous route which commenced from the Amber Fort area. The views from Nahargarh fort are glorious and while not as grand as the Amber Fort there are some great design features and ornamentation.
For our first taste of India we spent two months there, nowhere near enough time to thoroughly explore the country but enough to provide us with plenty of fabulous experiences and sights and to encourage us to return at another time to explore further. We have tried to put together our top ten highlights but inevitably we went way past that mark. Following are some of our favourites memories from our visit in the order of our travel. Part One covers the beginning of our trip from our first destinations in Varanasi and Agra and then our visit to southern India to attend a very special wedding.
1. Most spiritual experience.
It’s no wonder we found our best spiritual experience in Varanasi, which is after all known as India’s holiest city. Spirituality pervades the whole area of the old town where we stayed and wandered around but the events which inspired us the most were attending the Ganga Aarti (river ceremony on the Ganges) which is conducted every evening at Dashawamedh Ghat, amongst others, and taking a dawn boat trip along the Ganges River.
2. Most awesome monument.
Ok we’ve all seen innumerable photos and it gets crowded with tourists but there is no going past the beauty and amazing accomplishment of the Taj Mahal. The symmetry, the fine detail, the beautiful materials used and the story behind the construction all contribute to create the whole experience. Along the river the Agra Fort was also very impressive and we would recommend it as well.
3. The Best of our Best in India
The primary reason we travelled to India was to attend the wedding of Paul’s son Sean to Vandana which was held in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru (Bangalore). It was great to be present at the joyful affair of the union of two such very special people vowing to spend their lives together and it was also fabulous to get an insight into the different traditions and rituals of an Indian wedding.
Indian weddings follow a different time-table to those we are used to. Different parts of the wedding involving different rituals and traditions take place over several days and the wedding ceremony itself is preceded by a reception where guests have the opportunity to greet the couple and to give them their best wishes, a meal is served and there is dancing. After a break the actual ceremony then commenced at 2.00am, the time found to be most auspicious for Vandana and Sean based on their dates of birth. The ceremony is conducted under a ‘mandap’, a temporary structure constructed for the purpose and a fire burns in the centre of the mandap. The couple circle the fire seven times with their clothing tied together and the bride offers rice to the fire on each circuit. Other rituals and traditions which take place before the ceremony include the adornment of the bride’s hands and feet with henna, the exchange of floral garlands between the couple, and the placing of a necklace of black and gold beads on the bride by the groom.
Following the wedding we spent a few days in Goa with the bride and groom and several other guests who had travelled from overseas to attend the wedding.
Afterwards we then flew back to northern India to continue our new adventure.
Poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal as ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity’; Rudyard Kipling as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’; while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’. I’m sure all of us have seen countless photos of it but it is still an amazing place to visit and the opportunity to see it brought us to Agra. As well as the Taj, the Mughal empire left behind a very impressive fort and several other mausoleums and tombs.
To reach here we caught an overnight train from Varanasi.. It was due to leave at 5.20pm and arrive in Agra at 6.20am so we were concerned we would be arriving far to early to check into our hotel so we investigated the nearest place we could get a good coffee and fill in some time. India Rail made sure that wasn’t a problem though, the train was about three hours late leaving and then took an extra couple of hours on the journey so by the time we arrived and got a tuk tuk to our hotel it was time to check in and immediately head out for lunch … and coffee!
We had a distant and partly obstructed view of the Taj from the train and because we stayed in the Taj Ganj area right next to the Taj we caught glimpses of the top of the Taj from the streets around the area but our first good view of it was from a rooftop restaurant just before sunset. Fantastic outlook, pleasant sitting area with potted plants all around, interesting and friendly people at the surrounding tables to chat with, the sound of the call to prayers as the sun set, tasty food – pretty perfect overall so we lashed out and had our first beers since we arrived in India to mark the occasion. Even the monkey who came to see if there was any food he could steal kept his distance and didn’t bother us.
The next morning we left the hotel just after 5.00am so we could have a coffee and still be inside in time to catch the early light. Once through the ticket gate we walked through the forecourt to a very ornate 30m high red sandstone gateway.
After passing through the gate we entered the ornamental garden with the Taj on a raised marble platform at the other end of watercourse and we stayed there taking the classic photos until after the sun had risen above the layer of smog.
We made our way through the gardens toward the Taj, stopping for more photos looking back toward the gateway.
The central Taj structure is made of semi-translucent white marble, carved with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semi-precious stones in beautiful patterns. 40m-high white minarets grace each corner of the platform.
The four identical faces of the Taj feature impressive vaulted arches embellished with pietra dura scroll-work and quotations from the Quran in a style of calligraphy using inlaid jasper. The whole structure is topped off by four small domes surrounding the famous bulbous central dome.
Inside the Mausoleum are two elaborate false tombs surrounded by an exquisite perforated marble screen inlaid with dozens of different types of semiprecious stones. The real tombs are in a locked basement room below the main chamber and cannot be viewed. The marble screen was carved from a single piece of marble and more finely cut marble screens admit light into the chamber. No photography is allowed inside the mausoleum.
The red-sand-stone mosque to the west is an important gathering place for Agra’s Muslims. The building, and the interiors, are intricately decorated.
It was also a great place for photos and a couple of photographers posed models in the archway with the Taj providing a magnificent backdrop.
After several hours being wowed by our visit to this amazing place we were weary, hot and hungry so found a place to eat and retreated to the air-conditioning to recover.
Later we took a walk through the side streets and lanes. We only had to walk a very short distance and we changed worlds. Instead of restaurants and travel agents the streets were lined with stalls selling homewares or hardware or bolts of beautiful materials. Fruit and vegetable vendors pushed the carts to convenient locations and kept a wary eye out for monkeys waiting to grab a mango from their display. A goat peered out from an upstairs window and a cow rested by the side of the road. Street food was hot and enticing and although we had recently eaten we had to sample a snack along the way, delicious.
We had another early start next morning and left the hotel at 5.30 am and took a tuk tuk to the Agra Fort. The fort was primarily built as a military structure beginning in 1565 but it was later transformed into a palace. Now a large part of the huge structure is used by the military but there was still plenty of palatial marble and red sandstone buildings to wander through with well laid out courtyards and reception areas between them. The walls are twenty metres high and 2.5km in circumference. One side ran by the river and the others were protected by a crocodile infested moat.
As soon as we arrived we hurried to the eastern side of the fort so we could watch the sun rise behind the Taj Mahal. Even though it was after the actual time of sunrise, the smog hid the sun and while we were waiting for the sun to make its appearance we watched a nesting Black Kite and its chick and some lovely tree parrots.
The sun stayed hidden behind the low layer of clouds and smog so we enjoyed the view across the fields and the river before beginning our exploration of the buildings.
Khas Mahal is the most beautiful building in the fort and was built by Shah Jahan during 1631-1640 AD. There are open terraces and a hall, flanked by a pavilion on either side. The structure is erected on an elevated platform paved with marble. The palace included curtain walls, elegant tanks, fountains and a waterfall surrounded by living apartments with courts and verandahs.
The interiors of the palace are adorned with gold work, mural paintings, ornamental designs and floral designs.
The projecting tower to the east of the Khas Mahal is known as the Octagonal Tower (Musamman Burj). The tower is open at five sides and makes an excellent balcony for a view of the riverside and the Taj Mahal. It was originally made of red sandstone and used by emperors Akbar and Jahangir. Shah Jahan got it changed to white marble.
Next to Khas Mahal is Jehangir’s Palace, this is made of red sand-stone. Although some of the interiors are not maintained the exteriors have delicate carvings and inlaid white stones.
Two courtyards are surrounded by terraces in front of numerous smaller rooms.
Diwan-i-Am, (Hall of Public Audiences) was used for domestic government business. Beyond it, in an area not open to the public, is Moti Masjid, the Pearl Mosque.
It may not be as famous but Agra Fort is also a great monument and we easily spent several hours wandering around and would have been happy to spend longer except for the heat.
Now it Is onward to Bengaluru, not to see any of India’s amazing temples or forts, but to experience a different side of India, an Indian wedding.