Sunday, August 31, 2008

For three months....................

Hi folks,

I am off on a trip for three months, to my old home where the internet connection may not be up to the usual levels of quick connection for three months my posts may be few and ..........maybe not at all..........hope to "find " you when I return.


Rajasthan- to Jaipur! the Pink City!

If we hadn't made this long stop at Ajmer (see post below) we might have reached Jaipur by evening, we now touched Jaipur at around 10:00 p. m. This means we drove the Jaipur Highway in the dark; somehow here, unlike on the Pune Mumbai roads, there are not many trucks, so your stress levels are on low, and the drive uneventful. You know you are approaching any major city, in India, with more lanes, and tall street lights dotting the highway on the city outskirts.

Most cities have used the vast land available along the highway to build housing complexes; those with an "older" look, are drab monotonous cheap construction with small windows and black or grey exterior, where clerks and junior government pen-pushers return home each evening on their scooters and motor-bikes. And, just across the fence of a typical cluster of old blocks, a group of row houses or modern cottages, set in parks and gardens signal the residents are the new middle class with new mini or sedan cars parked alongside garden patches.

Jaipur is capital of Rajasthan state and one time capital of the Kachhwaha kingdom of Jaipur. The city was founded by Maharaja Jai Singh the II, in 1727, hence named Jaipur; it is famous as the Pink City, most houses and structures in the "old" city are washed in cream and pink colours.

Unlike Mumbai or Delhi, all "inner" cities have no night life, streets are deserted, pollution hanging like translucent rings from street lights, stray dogs, and the usual cluster of sleeping people huddled close to stay north India, nights can be cold, at least cold for these poor whose nutrition levels are not conducive to keeping warm. (In winter, the usual pollution from CO2 emission is made worse by the poor burning old tyres and any other inflammable stuff to keep warm.)

If you get a hotel room facing the street, you are sure to loose sleep pretty early..... with the usual honking by the first rickshaws piled with children to school, and ringing bells by oxen or camels pulling carts with the usual fare (in India) of water carted in a wooden drum strapped on the cart, or carrying local goods to shops putting up their noisy shutters. (and the usual crop of city transport buses tearing down the street, their loud engines noisy from low maintenance and rough driving.) (Later in the day, a room over the local street can provide the best education-just watching the crowds.)

The Pink City, in a vast area around the sprawling City Palace, was planned along the old Indian Vedic plan, wide roads running east to west cut by others running north to south; if these are wide roads you won't find that easy to see, the traffic, even opposite the Palace and Hawa Mahal is so thick and chaotic-cars, scooters, buses, trucks, carts and cycles............a cyclist lost his balance and fell before our car.......and the dust and pollution overwhelming. (This is the usual evening "office rush hour," do your touring in the mid-morning and afternoon when the streets are relatively "deserted." ) Hire a cycle rickshaw to tour some old alleys around the City Palace.

Inspite of this awesome confusion on the streets, if you chance to enter one of the shops, just across Hawa Mahal/City Palace, looking for ethnic clothes, sarees, or trinkets, the calm atmosphere inside will surprise. Some shop owners or staff offer tea!

Jaipur has perhaps the highest number of heritage hotels, palaces converted by erstwhile royals and their nobles, after they lost their privileges- (same situation all across Rajasthan and other states.) see this link for details of hotels in J..........I have no links whatsoever with these commercial sites.........none.

The City Palace :
several enclosed courtyards adjacent to one after the other, each with an exquisite or imposing structure in the center or running along its sides, the City palace has one multi storey ed central palace, the residence of the royal family, the Chandra Mahal. The outer courtyard structures serve as museums, a great attraction, the two silver vessels exhibited there, largest of its kind, used by a previous Maharaja to carry Ganges water to England, the rulers of the Raj but nevertheless aliens!

Jantar Mantar, an observatory with sun dials and other massive measuring structures, situate next to the palace, is a fascinating place, Maharaja Jai Singh's passion for astronomy evident.

Nahargarh Fort, crowning the hills west of the city, easily visible from Jantar Mantar, has the world's largest canon, fired only once.

Amber Fort and palace, further up from Nahargarh, served as the capital of royal Jaipur known then as Dhundar, and is famous for the elephant ride up to the fort gates- some beautiful palaces within.

Jaipur can be quite a handful, a stay of three days to cover touring and shopping, the gem stones jewellery shopping a favorite.

When you leave the pink city, Jaipur, you take memories of a hill topped with a fort, a complex of palaces quite different from the Udaipur lake palaces, but beautiful buildings nevertheless, of chaotic traffic, a huge fort with elephants clambering up with their load of tourists, and of well crafted gems.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Journey to Rajasthan- Ajmer and Jaipur!

Pics: Lake Pichola with the Lake Palace on the left and City Palace(5 structures in sight) on the right; pic 2: ramparts of Chittorgarh Fort; pic.3: the tomb of Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer.

Something about Udaipur is different; no place in India has this romance in the air..........a lake (Pichola) in front of you, a palace floating on the blue waters, the wind forming small waves.........and a group of majestic palaces on the lake shore behind; and beyond, looking north, a series of ghats (steps rising from the waters) leading up to clusters of closely built houses. On the far western banks of the lake, hills, with no obvious sign of any human presence, rise just a short distance from the lake shore, form a majestic silhouette on that horizon. On the north western far side of the lake, one of the hills has a palace, the Monsoon Palace, perched on the peak, illuminated at night and a series of steps going up, also lit up at night.......I learnt later that hotels, strung along the lake front north of, and opposite the palace complex, command a superb 360 degree view of this beautiful apparition.

I should have done better than rely on my guide to book me into a hotel in the new part of the city but where he got a better commission ..........modest hotels along the shores of Pichola lake don't need to give out commissions...........their rooms, facing the lake, must be getting tourists throughout the year...........please do not rely on guides!

We were not happy to leave Udaipur, a few more evenings on the lake front.... sigh............but budget and time demanded we move on.

Driving for a few hours north west brought us to the great fort of Chittorgarh.........with a great ring of some seven walls, one time capital of Mewar, before the capital was shifted to Udaipur. Unfortunately, on account of morning fog and pollution, we could not view the fort as we approached, the whole huge complex, spread over several acres of the hill top, vaguely visible.......a ghostly apparition!

Chittorgarh fort has a checkered history. It is the site of numerous jauhars, self immolation by womenfolk, and saka, men going into battle against overwhelming odds, certain of no return, fighting to the last man. The rulers of Mewar (later Udaipur) took on a belligerent attitude with the invading muslims, so each conquering horde, and dynasty (at Delhi) or from central Asia had to deal with this Chittorgarh witnessed several victories, and several defeats.........and women falling into a burning pyre rather than fall into the hands of the muslims......and men, donning saffron clothes, storming out from the gates, knowing there is no return, killing every man they could before being overcome and slaughtered............"Ala-ud-din Khilji, Sultan of Delhi, sent a marauding army across India at the turn of the 13th century; this army, commanded by Malik Kafur, soundly defeated the Guhilot rulers of Mewar in 1303. The impending fall of Chittorgarh, the main bastion of the Guhilots, occasioned the famous Jauhar of 1303, when the womenfolk then resident within that fort collectively committed suicide rather than risk personal dishonour at the hands of the victorious invading army. The brave men wore saffron turban as a mark of performing saka, of running into battle with no hope of coming back. The injured and surviving Guhilot menfolk and their retainers are said to have subsequently took refuge in the nearby hills."

After a long drive from Chittorgarh, we arrived at Ajmer, around 4.30 in the evening; Ayub, our driver, a muslim, requested, we stroll around the town center, whilst he went a kilometer down a winding narrow road to the walled enclosure where the great saint of Ajmer, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti is buried. I learnt later that that day was his "urs"-his birth anniversary.

When Ayub never turned up, two hours of waiting for him, we decided to go down the same narrow road.............and the experience will remain with me for the rest of my life.

As we walked down the "alley," the number of pilgrims was so thick, that, literary, you rubbed shoulders with people all around you, most of them staring at us..........we, a bewildered group, in "western" touring clothes, aliens here.

Something told me this was big........something unique, so we ventured further to the gate of the "dargah"-(enclosure/burial spot of a saint,) the gate an imposing structure in Islamic style. A huge cluster of poor people, some with physical handicaps, lining both sides of the gates. A scene out of a biblical movie!

The entrance was strewn with footwear-shoes, slippers ET all, that went out across the gate for a hundred feet (in the east, footwear is left out before entering a sacred place), dissuading us from going further..............a man, in a long black fez (Islamic cap) appeared from now where and assured us he would take us in.............the man was of some importance here, because the crowd, pushing into the gates, made way for us.

The pious man showed us the main sections of the great enclosure, particularly impressive were two huge cooking vessels, six feet deep, used for cooking rice and lentils- food for thousands of pilgrims.

The main domed structure (picture above) that housed the saint's tomb was so thick and jammed with pilgrims, we were literary picked up by this surging tide of people and deposited inside for a few seconds, and with equal ferocity "thrown" out!!! What has left an enduring impression in my mind is the intensity of religious fervour I saw, the poorest of the poor, more often with some handicap, sightless or lame, moving up the alley.

We went back to the car park, a kilometer away, picking our way through the poor folk lining the street, found Ayub waiting impatiently(!!!), piled into our car .............and our drive to Jaipur with some worries we would arrive there well after 10.00 p. m.

Journey to Rajasthan-Udaipur!

First pics.-road to Udaipur; views of Udaipur palaces; last two pics Ranakpur temple.

We are in Mount Abu, and seen the Dilwara temples twice; don't reach there before 12 noon, this is a complex of Jain temples where daily worship requires that the complex is opened to the public around noon time. Cameras are not allowed, be particular that your camera details are noted with brand details and some model number etc. as some friends of mine ran into problems, and stress, when the wrong camera was handed back to them on leaving; some amount of argument and angry words were necessary to get their own camera!!

Some amount of relief on leaving Mount Abu on the third day, early morning, tired of eating out in restaurants in the market, the same fare of Rajasthani or Gujarati thalis. After the second and third time you begin to suspect the choices in the thali are just a little variation on the previous meal selection.

The drive down to the plains, winding along steep and dangerous curves, stopped at a broad curve in the road, behind another vehicle whose occupants were out feeding monkeys! I looked for some bananas we had packed, and offered these to our swinging denizens- they were quite gentle and did not grab the fruits.

On the approaches to Udaipur, the flat plain, dotted with bushes, cacti and bare trees, gave way to hills also dotted with bush and thorny trees, the road winding through gaps in the hills.

It seems the new sentinels of Indian cities, of considerable tourist interest, are the local city guides; they are there, waiting, at every road junction that leads into the city. With an identity card hanging loosely from their shirt collar, they will flag down your vehicle, wave the plastic wrapped card, and offer to be your guide. If you agree, they will hop into the front seat next to the driver and start off by suggesting the hotel you should stay in.

We stayed in Udaipur for three days, picking the second day to visit Ranakpur temple, these Jain temples, like the Dilwara temples (see post below) are marvellous work of intricate marble work, very beautiful.

Evening of the first day we went off to view lake Pichola, with the awesome complex of the
City Palace on its bank and the dreamlike Lake Palace floating in the lake; the view of the hills on the far side of the lake, facing west, is at its best at sunset. Glad we went there the first day, the experience so awesome and beautiful, so returning here for a second and third time a must!

The City Palace is a huge complex of old and new structures, some older buildings serve as museums, the edifice and the interior rooms preserved in the old rajput styles. The newer buildings serve as hotels and private residences of the royal families, and there is a huge garage within the southern wing that houses the superb collection of Rolls and other vintage cars!!! we managed to get in and view those magnificent machines..........lucky maharajas!

The Lake Palace, a one time palace for romantic seclusion for the Maharajas, now a hotel, is out of bounds unless you have checked in as passenger; so us common folk managed to get to the jetty to view this dream- (the jetty also out of bounds, because it is actually part of the private entrance to the City Palace hotels- the entrance to the older museum wings is on the northern side of the palaces.)

see my post here for more details and pictures......
and second link.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Journey to Rajasthan- to Mount Abu

Pics of Gandhinagar, last pic, an artist's profile of Diamond Tower proposed to be built here. Bottom pics: views of mount Abu, and Dilwara temples, Mount Abu.

I would think travelling by car, everyday, almost, and in a rental with a driver you are just beginning to know, can be hectic, very. Our chap, I mean our driver, Ayub, was a quiet soft spoken guy who, I would learn later, preferred remaining with the car in the car park, rather than come along to view the sights..........and I had to plead with him to at least look over the Taj, when we reached there later in our journey..........but this man would not budge, the car park was his favorite place. I am very sure Ayub was aware of insurance cover on cars, so maybe he had some understanding with his boss, the rental owner, never to let the car out of his sight.

And, somewhere after Udvada, Ayub began to drive an average 70 kph, and my request to speed up had no response. Sometimes later, during one of his sojourns in a car park, he explained he drove slowly because long distances stressed him out and driving at moderate speeds balanced out the stress. I did not argue, after all our safety was in his hands, and a stressed driver is the last thing I wanted.

We left Ahmedabad early morning, driving north alongside the Shahibaug suburb, I am not very sure, but we were on the road that led to Gandhinagar , the modern capital of Gujarat state . Gujarat is home of Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy of non violence was adopted by Martin Luther King and others, a beacon of freedom values in the twentieth century.

Gujarat is also home to some of the shrewdest business men you can ever come across, here, in my new home, Auckland, most dairies are run by these intrepid people.

Just north of Ahmedabad, the broad boulevards of Gandhinagar are impressive, you realise how Indian ingenuity is second to none.........when they want to do a job well they sure do it. The pictures of this modern city here speak for.................

A modern motorway runs roughly west to east through Gandhinagar, somewhere down the road a sign tells you to take a left turn, and drive north to Rajasthan, with the miles distance of
Mount Abu .

Some hours drive and we were at the Rajasthan border; in 2000, a very decrepit gate and structure where you pay the toll tax to enter. Its hard to imagine we had miles of driving and several days of exploring this fantastic region.........Rajasthan - Raja meaning Princes, sthan meaning region/ of princes!

Mount Abu, Rajasthan's only hill station, a few kilometers north of this state's border, is situate in the Aravalli hills that run through Rajasthan from south west to north east regions of the state. Here, the magnificent Dilwara Temples, interiors in marble with carved filigree work, with the exterior plain stone facade giving no clue of the stupendous interior work, is a must see.

Driving through the semi arid southern regions of Rajasthan, with some hills made up of, or covered with huge pieces of stones, some unique work of the wind, one comes across the hills of Mount Abu of a sudden; the climb transports you to views of forests and valleys below, with signs warning motorists to stop and allow wild life, like bears, to cross the road to avoid panicking the animal! Sudden sharp turns are only safely negotiable by honking approaching vehicles from the opposite direction.

Mount Abu, on a wide but uneven plateau, is, surprisingly, a large town with numerous hotels, to also cash in on the huge number of vacationers from Ahmedabad to the south, the only hill resort for that region. The town center is a noisy place, crammed with vehicles that have to inch their way through the crowd of pedestrians, both machines and humans having little space on the narrow road and getting "bumped" or "nudged" a commonly accepted........ whatever! More restaurants than shops line this road offering Rajasthani and Gujarati cuisine, snacks, icecreams and fast food.

The temples , (above pictures) some distance north of town are approached through a narrow winding road with a car park, opposite the enclosing walls of the complex, an open field- and we found our car coated with dust when we returned...........a grim reminder that things in India can be breathtaking one moment and unbearable the next. Here is a nice link for Mt Abu.

We stayed two nights in Mt Abu, because besides the Dilwara temples, there are other sights, the Shikhar peak (don't let the guides muzzle you that Pakistan is visible from the top), then there is Gaumukh, an all year spring, from the rocks, to be reached by climbing down 600 steps- don't venture there late evening because on the climb back you might encounter a bear or boar!

Next ...................Udaipur!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Journey to Rajasthan. second stop-Ahmedabad.

Pics: Baroda Palace, Baroda University, Baroda Makarpura Palace, now an Airforce Training Center; view from the Highway, street scenes in towns on the way,
last two pics-Ahmedabad, new, and old-the swaying minarets.

From Udvada to Ahmedabad.

On a cool crisp morning, with ozone breeze from the gathering high tide on the beaches of Udvada (see post below-Rajasthan, journey to! A personal experience!) with a breakfast of fried eggs, (excuse the cholesterol bit), with spicy minced mutton and hot chappatis (unleavened bread), washed down with a hot cup of tea, all after a quick hot shower, we were off on the second leg of our journey, Udvada to Ahmedabad. (one note of caution-if you ask the hotel staff for a very early breakfast, before 7 a. m., they will offer packed egg omelet sandwiches, the main kitchen staff comes in an hour later.)

We, my family and I, piled into the rental, my travel bug further boosted by noting the car was cleaned, washed and spruced up. Somehow a clean car feels more comfortable.

As was expected of me, I put my driver's morning mood up, by asking him whether his stay in the hotel staff rooms was satisfactory and how well did the food go down with him!

The short 8 kilometer drive inland, from Udvada (beach) town to Udvada railway station is not conducive to chatting, as each of us wanted to put away memories, in our minds, of this beautiful real country drive, with its farmland, huge growth of trees between farms, mango orchards, cacti plant property fences, quaint flat roofed houses. Its also the only time you can drive with the car windows down as there is no pollution, just a little dust kicked up on the narrow country road.

You know you have left the country road behind when you emerge (or merge) into the highway to Ahmedabad some 500 kilometers north, at Udvada Station; the highway was, in parts, here at the junction, with half the road blocked by dumpers, trucks jammed the rest of the motor able road.

Its not a easy feeling to sit amidst huge trucks on either side, with these monsters wanting right of way, and "angry" drivers, perched high up in their cabins, looking down ominously at us poor underlings in our small cars. You inch your way, a few meters, in first gear, keeping your windows up to avoid breathing air thick with fumes and dust.

Here, water and cold drinks (cold? nope,) stashed in a large thermos container comes handy, because it is plain unwise to stop at restaurants you pass, every few kilometers. Leaving the choked traffic is easy..........but try and get back on the highway, every truck driver will make it his life's mission to prevent your inroad into his fiefdom.

At the bypass bordering Navsari, a large town with an ugly flyover trailing inwards into town, the highway is in a complete stage, both sides with two/three lanes; the traffic clears with trucks, except for a few renegades, hugging the inner left lanes, and cars having a clear way.

You now have the opportunity to look out of the raised windows and see the country go past you..........more farmland, houses set in clusters, trees and shrubs, and wasteland cutting the landscape, several river crossings over dried river beds. (I have realised later these dry rivers are not an indication of the lack of water, rather these rivers are dammed upriver, that form lakes for storage of water for irrigation!)

The drive was rather uneventful until we came, of a sudden, to a screeching stop, with a huge traffic pile up before Bharuch. An accident on the bridge, a few kilometers ahead, has stopped all traffic.

And, surprise of surprise, a few good souls, locals, went from one car to the next, advicing we leave the highway, motor through Bharuch town, across another older bridge, and then catch up with the great road after the town's end the other side! That gave us the chance to look at Bharuch............not much except for some fine old homes (in need of repair), enclosed in garden walls, with the usual open water well with a low circular stone fence circling its "mouth." A few "high rise" blocks of 4 or 5 levels, that certified the architects unfit; the market has the usual crop of shops with the usual clutter of cycles, rickshaws, old cars hugging the road corners. My family, in Mumbai now for several generations, trace Bharuch as their original home I looked out with some nostalgia with no clue which of the several old houses may have been home to my great great great.............

We went past Baroda, now Vadodara, the bypass some distance from the town, sorry we could not stop to take in the great palace of the erstwhile rulers of Baroda princely state. At that time I had no clue it is a magnificent building, so my advise to anybody touring this region, please stop and look at this huge structure with its domes and turrets rising high from the green lawns.

We had had lunch at a restaurant, (on the highway before it bypassed Baroda)-vegetable Gujrati fare, delicious but oily, reminding us of we had taken our antacid and delhi-belly, here highway-belly, medicines.

It was around 5 p.m. in the evening, we arrived at the suburbs of Ahmedabad, with the noticeable increase in local traffic, the local rickshaws, as everywhere else, claiming the road, brazenly going through the gaps in traffic, significantly showing us outsiders are welcome, only after we give them right of way...........or a mouthful of quick words giving newcomers driving lessons.

Ahmedabad (Amdavad in local Guj.) is divided into the old city, east of the river Sabarmati, and a new city west of the river crossing. The highway that goes on to Rajasthan is on the eastern periphery of the old town.

The old city is home to some 70 cotton mills that let Ahmedabad claim itself Manchester of the East; the pride of modern Ahmedabad is the new Mahatma Gandhi road, running parallel to the river, with office blocks, cinema theatres, hotels lining the wide road.

Local city guides are always on the lookout for incoming tourist rentals, the car registration gives them the instant clue the car is from another place. They flag down the incoming vehicle, waving their identity badge strung around the neck, offer their services with the first statement "saar, I show you a good very clean hotel, very good." Their commission from the hotel now assured, they climb in next to the driver and commence bargaining for the next day city sightseeing.

We checked into a hotel that occupied a few upper floors above an office block(!!!), the offices fully deserted (it was 6:30 p.m.) and our lift climbed up to the hotel "entrance"level. The hotel room was rather cluttered with some garish furniture, but thankfully the air conditioner worked. After unpacking, a quick shower, we went looking for a place to eat...........and found the broad sidewalk pavements occupied by the poor immigrants to the city, preparing to sleep the night, not an unusual sight in India.

As I hit my pillow, I had a sense of exhilaration that next morning/afternoon I will enter Rajasthan, its superb palaces and forts, crowded town alleys, and the flashing coloured turbans and Rajasthani clothes, and the sense of history, all waiting to be explored!!!