Tips for Visiting the Golden Triangle in India

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When we discovered that the Taj Mahal is close to New Delhi which was our intended stopover on the way to Australia flying Air India, we immediately wanted to visit it but we had lots of questions:

  1. How long should our stopover be?

    The Taj Mahal reflected in the main canal

    The Taj Mahal reflected in the main canal

  2. Should we go it alone or find a tour operator?
  3. If we use a tour operator, who should we choose?
  4. What exactly should we visit?
  5. Did we need a visa? Can we apply for it on-line?
  6. What clothes will we need?
  7. What will the weather be like?
  8. What medication should we take?
  9. How much would it cost?

I have written 9 posts detailing our trip (see below) which we thoroughly enjoyed but I thought it might be useful to answer the above questions in a 10th post.

How long should you spend in the Golden Triangle?

We had a 24-hour stopover on the way to Australia during which we spent an afternoon visiting Old Delhi, spent the night in Delhi and left for the airport next morning.

On the return journey, we had a 5-night stopover. We arrived late afternoon, spent the night in Delhi, visited New Delhi in the morning, then spent two nights in Jaipur and one in Agra (next to the Taj Mahal) visiting the major sites in what is known as the Golden Triangle. We spent the last night in Delhi again before heading back to Paris next morning.

A sacred cow in the middle of the highway

A sacred cow in the middle of the highway

We couldn’t understand initially why it would take us 5 ½ hours to drive 270 km to Jaipur, 6 hours to drive 245 km from Jaipur to Agra and 4 hours to cover the 205 km from Agra to Delhi, but the answer is simple: despite the fact that there are motorways, the going is slow from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra because you share the road with vehicles of every shape and size, both motorized and unmotorized, not to mention the cows, donkeys and pedestrians who wander across the road whenever there is a village. The stretch from Agra to Delhi is shorter because there is a real motorway with no animals or pedestrians on it.

We found that the length of time we had chosen was perfect. We didn’t have to hurry everywhere and we had time to rest at the end of the day. The only thing we didn’t do is shop (we’re not shoppers) but there were plenty of occasions (and time) to do so had we wanted.

WARNING: THE TAJ MAHAL IS NOT OPEN ON FRIDAYS so you should schedule your visit accordingly, preferably avoiding the weekend there as well.

Should you go it alone or find a tour operator?

We had been told by several people that we should have a private organized tour. Considering our age (early sixties) and the fact that we do not like travelling in groups, the choice was between going it alone or finding a private organized tour. I had been to India before on my own for professional reasons and did not want the hassle of looking for hotels, restaurants and trains and finding our way about in general. Having seen the traffic in India, I did not even consider hiring a car.  Our choice of a private tour turned out to be excellent.

How do you find a tour operator?

We went onto Trip Advisor and I sent off requests to the three organizations at the top of the list, explaining what I wanted which included French guides for Jean Michel. I received a very friendly reply from Trinetra Tours with a suggested itinerary and price. I adjusted the itinerary to our needs and schedule and Trinetra sent us a new proposal. We had several exchanges during which my various questions were answered and our visas were processed. We then transferred half the amount to their account in India. We paid the balance on our arrival.

With Rajindar, our guide, in front of the water palace in Jaipur

With Rajindar, our guide, in front of the water palace in Jaipur

We were very satisfied with Trinetra both before and during the trip. We were assigned a general coordinator who met us at the airport and took us to our hotel in a car with an assigned driver who was very friendly and whose English, although not excellent, was more than adequate for us to communicate.

The guide joined us at the hotel and stayed with us for the rest of the day. The driver would stop just outside the place we were to visit and pick us up afterwards after receiving a call from the guide on his cellphone.

During the visit of the Golden Triangle, a local coordinator met us at each hotel and a new guide would join us when we reached each destination. We had the same delightful Himalayan driver, Rajender Negi, from beginning to end. He was extremely competent and I was never afraid in the Indian traffic. He was also very willing to share his vision of India with us and asked many questions about France and Australia.

The guide or the driver would choose our lunch venue which was not included in the price. Neither was the evening meal but there was always a restaurant at the hotel. We personally only had fruit at night time and something from the mini bar in our room.

Us perched on top of the elephant

Us perched on top of the elephant

The guide looked after buying tickets to the different monuments and we reimbursed him. He organized our elephant and rickshaw ride. He kept the beggars away and generally made our visit stress-free and enjoyable. We were not fully satisfied with the first guide in Delhi so asked for a different one on our return. He was much better. We also did not like the guide who took us to Fatehpur Sikri so asked for another guide for the Taj Mahal next day. He was replaced and the new guide was excellent. All the guides spoke good French and were knowledgeable. Our guide in Jaipur was outstanding.

I do not think that there would have been a problem with an English-speaking guide but we had specifically asked for a French guide and Trinetra did not have much experience in this field. The fact that we were able to phone and ask for another guide and that our request was immediately met is an important point in their favour.

The general coordinator accompanied us to the airport on both occasions and helped us with the formalities.

Bottled water was provided throughout the trip.

One of the common areas at Shahpura House Hotel

One of the common areas at Shahpura House Hotel

We opted for the hotels proposed in the initial itinerary provided by Trinetra but we could have chosen a higher category had we wished to do so (obviously with a price supplement). The hotel in New Delhi, Justa Residence Greater Kalesh, was not marvelous but it was clean and spacious and the beds were comfortable. The oversights on the first stopover were remedied on the second trip and we were even upgraded to a suite the third time. The breakfast was very good and the staff were friendly. It was just a little “worn out”. The hotel in Jaipur, Shahpura House, was really beautiful and we wouldn’t have missed it for anything. The Radisson Blue in Agra was well located, well-appointed and impersonal. The breakfast was outstanding.

What exactly should you visit?

Jean Michel studied his French guidebook and listed the sights that he thought we should see. We then compared them with the places on Trinetra’s itinerary and asked for a couple of additions. This is what we came up with:

Old Delhi:

Jamma Mosque, Chandni Chowk, Raj Ghat, a cycle rickshaw ride through the bazaar and Akshardham Temple (not on the itinerary but we were very impressed by it).

New Delhi:

Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar, the Embassy area, government buildings, India Gate and Connaught Place.

Jaipur:

Amber Fort and an elephant ride, Shiromani Temple, Palace of the Winds, City Palace, The Observatory and Govind Dev Ji temple.

Between Jaipur and Agra:

Fatehpur Sikri including the mosque

Agra:

The Moonlight Garden (which is closed at night!), the Taj Mahal at sunrise, Agra Fort and the Baby Taj (not on the initial itinerary but worth a visit).

Do you need a visa? Can you do apply for it on-line?

For some obscure reason, you need to get an Indian visa before you go to India even for a one-night stopover and you can only apply during the month preceding your visit. You also need a square passport photo. Each country has a website that you have to apply through. You can’t apply directly to the consulate. We found the whole visa experience quite stressful because I have two passports and we were entering India twice at an interval of less than 45 days. In the end, it all worked out but we had to go to Paris to put in our applications.

I suggest you read my post and apply on-line immediately after the one-month interval starts. The information on the website is not necessarily up-to-date.

The Indian Visa http://www.aussieinfrance.com/2016/02/the-indian-visa/

What clothes do you need?

I was worried about the modesty issue. In fact, there are no requirements for Hindu temples or for the Taj Mahal apart from normal decency. However, at the Jamma Mosque in New Delhi both men and women of European origin are obliged to wear a wrap-around skirt or a sort of hairdresser’s cape and remove their shoes. At the Taj Mahal, the ticket includes “overshoes”. At the Fatehpur Sikri mosque, women must wear long skirts. The best solution is to take a light wrap-around skirt in your bag and use it if necessary.

What weather can you expect?

Our first visit was mid-February. It was warm in Delhi but not overwhelming and cooler in the morning. Our second visit was mid-March. We were very hot in the middle of the day especially in Jaipur and Agra. I only needed a long-sleeved shirt for our 6.30 am visit to the Taj Mahal. A hat is a must.

What medication should you take?

We asked our doctor for diarrhea tablets and antibiotics before we left. We did not take probiotics either before or during our trip. We always drank bottled water and cleaned our teeth with boiled water (all the hotels had electric jugs). We were strict vegetarians during our stay as we had been told that we were more likely to get sick from eating meat and chicken in particular. We always had curds or plain yoghurt at the end of the meal, which I had learnt to do on my previous trip to India. We only drank tea with water we had boiled ourselves. We didn’t have any digestive problems whatsoever.

Pinch of Spice, a typical Indian restaurant for tourists

Pinch of Spice, a typical Indian restaurant for tourists

Although we would have liked more “authentic” restaurants, we decided to accept the ones proposed by our guides and driver rather than run the risk of being sick. The tourist restaurants serve Indian food that is usually not too spicy and is especially prepared for Europeans. It is very reasonably priced (around 1200 rupees – 16 euro – for the two of us, including water) and the toilets are usually clean. You should always have your own tissues though.

How much will the trip cost?

We paid a total of 82,800 rupees for two people (1130 euro at the exchange rate in February 2016), broken down into 13 000 rupees for the first stay in Delhi and 69,800 rupees for the Golden Triangle. It included accommodation on a double occupancy basis,  a buffet breakfast, the rickshaw ride in Delhi and the elephant ride in Jaipur, all journeys in an air-conditioned car, bottled water during the day, local guides and dinner in an Indian home on the last evening which we decided to forego due to the distance we would have had to travel.

Tipping is a way of life in India and we were very pleased that Trinetra gave us guidelines on how much to tip the coordinators, drivers, guides, bellboys, etc. It made it much easier.

I hope these tips will help you to organize you visit to India. You’ll find more details in the posts below and I’ll be happy to answer any questions in the comments section.

Many thanks to Trinetra Tours for making our stay so enjoyable: http://www.trinetratoursindia.com; tours@trinetratoursindia.com.

They also run tours in Nepal, Bhutan, South America, Europe, Middle East, Sri Lanka, Africa and S.E.Asia – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar

My other posts on India:

The Indian Visa

Getting to Delhi and First Impressions

Delhi Delights 

The Elephant Ride 

More Delhi and the Road to Jaipur 

Jaipur – temples, elephants, forts and palaces 

The Road to Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and the Moonlight Gardens 

The Taj Mahal – Simply Majestic 

Agra Fort, a Marble Inlay Table and the Baby Taj 

Posted in Accommodation, India, Restaurants, Sightseeing, Travelling | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Agra Fort, a Marble Inlay Table and the Baby Taj

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It’s 9.15 am and we’ve finished our luxurious breakfast at the Radisson Blue still under the magic of our early morning visit to the Taj Mahal and are about to meet up with our guide, Vivek, to visit Agra Fort. After we get in the car and greet our driver Rajendar, Vivek suggests we stop off at a showroom called the Agra Marble Emporium to see how the inlay marble work on the TaJ Mahal is still made today by descendants of the original artisans. We don’t have to buy anything, he reassures us. Here we go again, I think.

The Taj Mahal reflected in the main canal

The Taj Mahal reflected in the main canal

A man called Raj greets us and sits us down in front of a small table. Two young artisans are working next to him, one with a hand-driven grinding wheel. Raj explains how the pattern is drawn on the marble, then etched out by hand.

01_etching

The tiny hand-ground inlay pieces are then inserted one by one – lapis lazuli for blue, tourmaline for red, crysophrase for green and mother-of-pearl for white. Once all the pieces are in place, they are taken out again then glued in after which they are sanded so that they are exactly flush with the marble.

The tiny inlay pieces of semi-precious stones

The tiny inlay pieces of semi-precious stones

Raj takes us into the showroom and I, the non-shopper, am overwhelmed. I love everything I see!  I could buy half the shop – except perhaps the elephants. Raj invites us to take a seat and starts showing us some little translucent marble inlay tables that are very reasonably priced, shipping included. I am becoming seriously interested when Jean Michel indicates that he wants to talk to me.

Old-style grinding wheel

Old-style grinding wheel

 

He then tells me that he has been wanting an marble inlay table for many years but in France, the price is prohibitive. He asks if I like the octagonal green marble table in the middle of the room. Well, yes, it so happens I do. After inquiring about the price, he tells me he would like to buy it. Wow! We discuss the matter with Raj and he has the table cleared. We then wonder about other shapes and sizes so he has some rectangular ones brought to the middle of the room, one of which was made by his father, he tells us.

The green table before it was cleared

The green table before it was cleared

In the end, we decide on a smaller diameter made-to-measure repliqua of the octagonal table because I am afraid it might be too big. While Jean Michel is negotiating the price, I take another look around the room. I’d like to take a small souvenir home to a friend. I am shown into another room with little marble inlay boxes and choose one. Raj comes in and asks me my favourite colour. He then gives me another box as a present.

Close-up of table which is difficult to photograph due to the lighting

Close-up of table which is difficult to photograph due to the lighting

We leave the showroom walking on air (so does Vivek!) and set off for Agra Fort. Our table should arrive in France in about three months’ time.

The walls of Agra Fort

The walls of Agra Fort

Agra Fort is actually a walled city today but was originally a fort. Do you remember Akbar, the Mughal emperor who built Fatehpur Sikri that we visited yesterday? Because of its central location, he made Agra his capital in 1558. Akbar had the fort rebuilt with his favourite red sandstone but it was not until the reign of his grandson, Shah Jahan, that it became what it is today.

As we know, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, had a penchant for white marble so he destroyed some of the earlier buildings in the fort and replaced them with inlaid marble.

Amar Singh Gate

Amar Singh Gate

The impressive double walls are 20 m high and 2.5 km in circumference and contain a labyrinth of buildings, many of which are still used by the military so are not open to the general public.

The sole entry point today is the Amar Singh Gate. It used to be guarded by a crocodile-infested moat. Today, there are only a few  monkeys.

Jahangir's Palace

Jahangir’s Palace

We start with the huge red sandstone building of Jahangir’s Palace, probably built by Akbar for his son Jahangir. Its beautiful galleries are intricately carved. A huge bowl in front of the palace called Hauz_i-Jehangir, carved out of a single block of stone, was used for bathing.

Dirwan-i-am (Hall of Public Audience)

Dirwan-i-am (Hall of Public Audiences)

Next is the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audiences, used by our friend Shah Jahan for domestic affairs. Inside is a throne room where the Emperor used to receive petitioners.

We walk up a small staircase into a large courtyard. On the left is the women’s mosque, Nagina Masjid or Gem Mosque, built by Shah Jahan in 1635.

Dirwan-e-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

Dirwan-e-Khas (Hall of Private Audience)

Vivek takes us across the courtyard to the Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audiences, which was reserved for VIPs and is much more elaborate.

The tower where Shah was imprisoned

The Muasamman Burj tower where Shah Jahan was imprisoned

Next we come to Muasamman Burj, the octogonal white-marble tower and palace where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight years until his death in 1666. He could see the Taj Mahal from his marble balcony. We can just make it out in the distance.

Sculpture details

Sculpture details in Jahangir’s Palace

Vivek points out the buffalo at the water’s edge and the washerwomen on the other side. I wonder whether the job is any easier with the Taj Mahal as a backdrop.

Washerwomen and buffalos along the river

Washerwomen and buffalos along the river

It’s getting hotter by the minute so we all agree that it’s time for lunch. Vivek takes us to Pinch of Spice, another typical Indian restaurant for foreigners. We opt for the buffet upstairs and stick with our usual vegetarian fare followed by yoghurt and instant coffee. Vivek offers to take somewhere else for a proper Italian espresso but when in Rome …

Pinch of Spice, a typical Indian restaurant for tourists

Pinch of Spice, a typical Indian restaurant for tourists

Outside, all the drivers are waiting for their sightseers, Rajendar among them. We still have the Baby Taj to visit before driving back to Delhi. But first, Vivek  explains, the Agra Marble Emporium wants us to go back again and check something. It turns out to be the height of the marble stand that will support the table. We promise to confirm once we get back home and can check our own tables.

The entrance to the tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah

The entrance to the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah

Vivek then tells us that Rajendar will take us to the Baby Taj as we’re running out of time and his assignment is up. That’s fine by us – it is an extra after all and we can visit it on our own with a guide book. When we buy our tickets, the vendor wants to keep them, but Jean Michel insists on having them back as he knows that since it’s a public building, the tickets will be “recycled”.

The white marble mausoleum

The white marble mausoleum

It’s not really called the Baby Taj of course, but the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah. Also a Mughal mausoleum, it is sometimes described as a “practice” for the Taj Mahal. Built in 1622 to 1628 (twenty years before the Taj Mahal was completed), it is considered to be a transition between the first phase of monumental Mughal architecture with its red sandstone and marble decorations – an example we’ve already seen is Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi – and the second phase, based on white marble and pietra dura inlay, exemplified by the Taj Mahal.

Pietra dura details inside

Pietra dura details inside

It was commissioned by Jahangir’s wife for her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, originally a Persian amir in exile. He was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal for whom the Taj Mahal was built.

There are only a handful of visitors so we are able to enjoy the visit practically undisturbed. There is the same type of inlay work as the Taj Mahal, often more complex, depicting cypress trees, wine bottles, cut fruit and bouquets in vases. It is also sadly in need of renovation.

Inlay work in more detail

Inlay work in more detail

There are several buildings, all on a symmetrical pattern. The first combines red sandstone and inlay work while the second, along the river front, is made of white marble. There are small domed buildings on each side, with gardens in the process of being refurbished.

The gate taken from the tomb

The gate taken from the tomb

We feel it is a fitting end to our visit of Agra.

The next few hours are spent with Rajendar on a “real” motorway to New Delhi, the only one we’ve seen so far. There are not many cars and we see our first accident, no doubt due to the fact that the cars can go faster than usual. Rajendar continues to ask questions about France, always beginning with “Madam. In the France …” By the end of the trip, I feel I have learnt quite a lot about India just answering his queries!

One of the many two-wheel vehicles transporting a maximum number of people

One of the many two-wheel vehicles transporting a maximum number of people

We reach New Delhi late afternoon and are soon amid the usual boisterous traffic with people obviously on their way home from work.

When we reach the Greater Kalesh hotel, we are greeted like old friends! After all, it’s the third time we’ve been here in six weeks. We have been upgraded to a suite, which is appreciated even though some of the furnishings are a little worse for wear. We’re also on the other side of the hotel, away from the traffic, so it’s very quiet. We appreciate the complimentary bowl of fruit which means we don’t have to go outside our room for dinner.

Our suite at the Greater Kalesh boutique hotel in New Delhi

Our suite at the Greater Kalesh boutique hotel in New Delhi

Next morning, we have a leisurely breakfast and Rajendar takes us to the airport. Our flight home to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is uneventful. We make our way to the hotel pick-up point to take the coach to the Meridien where our car is waiting for us in the underground car park. Two and a half hours later, we are back in Blois. It’s 11 pm and 7°C, but the house is well heated. We are glad to be home but very, very satisfied with our visit of the Golden Triangle in India which went very smoothly thanks to our tour organisation Trinetra Tours and, in particular, our driver Rajendar. And our marble inlay table will serve as a permanent reminder.

Posted in Architecture, Art, India, Restaurants, Travelling | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Learning a Language with a Home Exchange

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As you know, I am a keen home exchanger. We have just redeemed three home exchanges in Australia (Coff’s Harbour, Adelaide and Drysdale) and enjoyed hospitality in Melbourne with the home exchangers of French friends in Paris. Jean Michel, less of a linguist than I am, had been studying and practicing his English for a month or so before we left.

Irene and Paul, who kindly gave us hospitality in Melbourne

Irene and Paul, who kindly gave us hospitality in Melbourne

Although the basic aim of the trip was not to improve his English but to meet up with my friends and family and visit new places, I was able to observe his progress according to the different types of home exchange.

In Coff’s Harbour, we were in a resort and had very little contact with the people around us which offered little change of Jean Michel practicing his English. Although we had started speaking to each other in English before departure, we fell back into French in Australia.

In Adelaide, we were in a suburban setting which, once again, left little possibility of speaking English except to my nephew who came to see us in the evening.

Our beautiuful home exchange in Adelaide

Our beautiuful home exchange in Adelaide

Our third exchange in Drysdale, about an hour from Geelong, could have been the same except that we had Australian friends join us while we were there and our hosts were also in the vicinity as it was a non-simultaneous exchange. We invited them for an aperitif one evening and also participated in their wine pressing!

But it was Melbourne where we were generously invited to stay with the home exchangers of the Parisian friends who triggered off our first exchange with Drysdale nearly four years ago that offered a real opportunity for Jean Michel to improve his English. We had never experienced hospitality and I was a little worried about spending 3 days with people whom I had only met once.

We needn’t have worried! Irene and Paul were with us the first and third evenings and away the second. While they were there, they took us for walks and meals in Melbourne and we also met up with our Parisian friends’ son. The rest of the time they continued their own lives while we visited other parts of Melbourne.

WIth our home exchangers in Drysdale

WIth our home exchangers in Drysdale

I would say that hospitality provides the ideal opportunity to improve one’s language skills. If the hosts are able to offer accommodation where the guests have their own bedroom and bathroom as we did in Melbourne, I think it’s an ideal situation.

If hospitality is not a possibility, I would suggest that you choose a downtown area with lots of opportunities to interact with people. Choose a local café and go there every day so you can establish a relationship with the people who work there. Go to the local market or a small shop every day to buy fresh food and buy from the same vendors. Plan a trip to the hairdresser’s.

If your language skills are already sufficient to hold a proper conversation, check beforehand on the existence of local home exchange meet-ups. Join a Facebook home exchange group and try and find other people in the area. Let your host exchangers know that you would like to practice your languages skills beforehand. They will probably be happy to organize meetings with their friends.

At the market, you can easily talk to the vendors

At the market, you can easily talk to the vendors

For example, I sent out a Twitter message when we went to Barcelona on a home exchange to get some insiders’ information on the city. As a result, we met up with Roser who looks after blogs & testimonials on the Home Exchange website and a friend of hers in a local café and we talked about things to do and see in Barcelona. When we were at Irene and Paul’s we talked about some of our previous exchanges and they spoke of a swap with Barcelona. I couldn’t believe it – they exchanged with Roser!!!

Otherwise, choose activities that will allow you to talk to people such as visits to wineries and cheese makers. See if there is a local walking group you can join. Throughout France, for example, there is a meet-up group called “On Va Sortir” which exists in London and New York under the name of Urbeez and is a wonderful way to meet people during your stay. Membership is free of charge. Our local group, whom we came across by accident, meets up informally at the open-air coffee stand at our Saturday market.

Having coffee on a Saturday at the market with members of On Va Sortir

Having coffee on a Saturday at the market with members of On Va Sortir

Don’t forget to visit the local library where you can read the local paper and magazines. Remember – you can’t speak a language if you don’t know enough words and you need to spend at least an hour a day widening your vocabulary by reading, watching television or listening to the radio. In France, the France Info radio station is perfect because it repeats the same news and items of interest throughout the day. If you don’t understand the first time, you will the third time round!

If you prepare your home exchange with these various points in mind, I’m sure that you will get the most out of your stay language-wise. My dream is to spend a couple of months in Italy after I retire so that I can have a proper conversation in Italian but even two weeks would make a difference!

Posted in Accommodation, French language, Home exchange | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Friday’s French – Va te faire cuire un œuf ! and other eggy expressions

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You’d wonder why “go cook yourself an egg” would have the meaning of “get stuffed” or more politely “go jump”, wouldn’t you? I googled it and am not convinced by any of the explanations.

Oeufs à la coque en hiver

Oeufs à la coque en hiver

You can insult someone by calling them an egg: Quel œuf ce type as in “What a blockhead”. In this case, I guess it refers to a person’s egg-shaped head. An egghead, as we understand it in English, however, is an intello! Quite a different concept.

Very boringly, everyone seems to put their eggs in the same basket –  mettre ses œufs dans le même panier Now, I wonder which came first, the chicken or the egg ? or as the French say, c’est l’œuf et la poule.

And what do you think the English equivalent is of Il est à peine sorti de l’œuf  i.e. he’s only just come out of the egg?

We can have our eggs scrambled (brouillés), soft-boiled (à la coque or mollet), hard-boiled (durs), fried (sur le plat or au plat) or poached (pochés). An egg-flip is a lait de poule (literally hen’s milk which sounds a bit odd). Who would have guessed that one ?

Surprisingly, an egg-timer is minuteur or sablier (hour-glass – from sable = sand) with no reference to eggs at all.

However œufs de lump are lump-fish roe (useful, that one) and œufs en chocolat or de Pâques are chocolate or Easter eggs (now, that’s better).

Un blanc d’œuf is an egg white and un jaune d’œuf is a yolk. Nothing fancy there. Les blancs battus en neige are stiffly-beaten egg whites (neige = snow).

Just one more – our very colourful expression “to egg on”  comes out in French as pousser à or inciter à.

Do you have any more eggy expressions in English or in French ? And if you have a good explanation for the origin of “va te faire cuire un oeuf“, I’d love to hear it!

Posted in French language | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Friday’s French – gens de voyage, Roms, gitans, Romanichels, Tsiganes, bohémiens, Manouches, gypsies

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Before I left Australia, gypsies for me were only characters in novels but in France, I learned that they were present in large numbers, lived in caravans (often large and expensive) and travelled around the country following seasonal work such as fruit picking, and mostly parked on otherwise vacant land on the outskirts of town. They were synonymous with begging and theft. I also heard them called nomades and forains, from foire (fair) as many were fairground people.

Sign pointing to an "aire d'accueil des gens du voyage"

Sign pointing to an “aire d’accueil des gens du voyage”

In 1969, a law was passed introducing a legal category called gens du voyage (travellers) concerning “the exercise of travelling economic activities and regulations applicable to persons in France without fixed abode”, often used in administrative circles and in the media to designate Roms, the now more politically correct term for Romanichels, Tsiganes, Manouches, gitans, etc., even though most of them are sedentary.

The law introduced a so-called livret de circulation and “home municipality”. The livret de circulation was a compulsory booklet for all persons over the age of 16, whether of French or foreign nationality, without a fixed place of abode for at least six months of the year. The livret was absolished in June 2015.

Another law was passed in 1990 making it compulsory for towns with more than 5,000 inhabitants to provide designated parking areas (aire d’accueil) for gens du voyage, which of course created complex situations for municipalities just below the limit. The rules are now defined by the law of 5th July, 2000.

In March 2003, the so-called domestic safety law increased penalties for the illegal occupation of land by gens du voyage to six months’ imprisonment and 3,750 euro fine, possible confiscation of vehicles and suspension of driving licences.

In 2005, the taxe d’habitation, a local tax paid by all French residents, was extended to people living in mobile land vehicles.

Roms are obviously a very touchy subject. My aim here is simply to present the vocabulary not to make a comment on their lifestyle.

In France they were originally referred to as bohémiens from Bohemia in today’s Czech Republic though it  is difficult to know why. The term has been used since the 15th century.

Gitan (originally gitain which first appeared in the 17th century) is the traditional word that corresponds to our gypsy. It comes from the Spanish gitano derived from Egiptano (Egyptian) because it was believed that the Spanish gypsies came from Egypt which is also the origin of the word gypsy. In fact, it would seem they came from India.

Romanichel, a derogatory term, actually comes from an erroneous transcription in 1828 of a German Tzigane word which literally means Tzigane people. The first part romani is derived from Rom meaning “man, husband”. The Tziganes are from Hungary.

The term manouche is a slang term that appeared around 1900 and was taken from the Tzigane manuch, man.

However, the French Tziganes claim that they are different from the Roms, who are no longer nomads, and their languages are different. The Roms, however, are migrants who want to move to countries with better economies where they can continue to live sedentary lives.

This post was inspired by the fact that several camps of gens du voyage have suddenly appeared in our area with the coming of spring.

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The Taj Mahal – Simply Majestic

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Today’s the day. We’re going to visit the Taj Mahal. It’s 6 am and we’re walking across the foyer of the Radisson Blue to meet our new French-speaking guide. I’m relieved that yesterday’s unsatisfactory guide is being replaced. From the corner of my eye I see a man standing alone and wonder if it’s him. “Oh dear”, says Jean Michel at that moment, “We’re out of luck, it’s the same guide as yesterday.” “I don’t believe it!”, I reply. “I’m very surprised to see you here,” I say when he reaches us. “We were not happy with your services yesterday and asked for another guide. We were told we would get one.” He looks taken aback. Jean Michel explains that his attitude was unprofessional and he failed to show us two important sights at Fatehpur Sikri.

The house of Birbal, Akbar's favourite minister, that we didn't get to visit at Fatehpur Sikri

The house of Birbal, Akbar’s favourite minister, that we didn’t get to visit at Fatehpur Sikri

“I have three children,” he pleads, “you have to give me another chance.” I’m shocked at his tactics. “I’m self-employed, too”, I answer. “If I don’t satisfy my customers, they don’t give me any more work. I’m sorry.” We move towards the entrance in search of our driver, Rajendar. The man I noticed earlier is now outside and I hear him speak to the guide in Hindi. Jean Michel gets into the car and the guide starts to follow. I address the second man in French and ask if he’s our new guide. He says he is so I briefly explain what has happened. I tell yesterday’s guide that he is not to come with us and ask the new guide to join us. He had not been told he is replacing someone else.

The main Gateway and entrance to the Taj Mahal

The Main Gateway and entrance to the Taj Mahal

We get in the car. Vik introduces himself and asks the usual get-to-know-you questions. We can already tell that he’s our sort of guide. He speaks good French, is easy to understand and obviously enjoys his job. Within a few minutes we’re in the Taj Mahal parking lot. Vik tells us to join our respective body-search queues and goes to get the tickets. At 6.30, the queues start moving. We all meet up inside and start walking towards the gate leading to the Taj Mahal.

The iconic photo in front of the Taj Mahal

The iconic photo in front of the Taj Mahal

As we walk through the gate, the magic starts to work. Although I was disappointed yesterday, I’m not today. To my astonishment tears come to my eyes. The Taj Mahal is absolutely majestic. Despite the many visitors milling around us, I feel as though we are there alone! Vik offers to take our photo then takes us to one side where it’s less crowded.

Watching the light change on the side façade

Watching the light change on the east façade

We walk down to the Taj Mahal then up the steps and across the entrance so that we are on the right side facing the east façade (all the façades are identical). There is NO ONE. Vik sits us down so we can watch the changing light on the building and tells us the story of the Taj Mahal. Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (who reigned from 1628 to 1658), it was built to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Before she died giving birth to their 14th child, she asked him to build a mausoleum that would show how much he loved her.

The side pavilion opposite the side façade

The east pavilion

It was essentially completed eleven years later but other phases of the project continued for another ten years. The cost was colossal and some 20,000 artisans were employed. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”.

The mosque on the left and river on the right

Part of the mosque on the left and river on the right

We then walk behind the Taj Mahal alongside the river and over to the other side where we can admire the second of the two perfectly symmetrical buildings  on each side, a mosque.

The mosque

The mosque

As we approach the Taj Mahal from the main façade, we are given overshoes. There do not appear to be any clothing restrictions. I have purposely worn loose cotton above-the-ankle trousers and a long-sleeved shirt over a short-sleeved blouse just in case.

Some of the beautiful inlay work on the Taj Mahal

Some of the beautiful inlay work on the Taj Mahal

Before we go into the building itself, we admire the beautiful gemstone inlay work on the white marble façade. Vik explains the colours: the red is tourmaline, the green jade, the black onyx and the blue lapis lazuli. There is also mother-of-pearl.

Onyx and marble pillar

Onyx and marble pillar

Inside, we see Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb and more extraordinary inlay work (no photos allowed). The octagonal inner chamber is designed so it can be entered from each side, although only the door facing the garden to the south is used. The 25-metre interior walls are surmounted by a “false” interior dome decorated with a sun motif. There are eight arches at ground level while four central upper arches form balconies or viewing areas. Each exterior window has an intricate screen cut from marble while each chamber wall is highly decorated with bas-reliefs, intricate lapidary inlay and calligraphy panels which reflect, in miniature detail, the design elements seen on the exterior of the complex.

Finely sculpted marble

Finely sculpted marble

As we come out, we take off our overshoes and put them in a bin then start to walk back towards the entrance gate. Vik continues his story of Shah Jahan. He was known as the “Just Emperor”. Working long hours, he kept an eye on every detail of the administration of his Empire. He made the roads safe for travelers, severely punishing looters and robbers. He developed agriculture and improved trade with foreign countries. People became rich and State revenue increased. He made Delhi his capital.

Looking back towards the main entrance

Looking back towards the main entrance

But he never did get over his wife’s death and the construction of the Taj Mahal eventually left the kingdom in financial ruin. He is said to have gone crazy in his old age although the official version is illness. His third son Auranzeb needed to move quickly if he were to become Mughal Emperor – his eldest brother had become regent, and would thus automatically become emperor when Shah Jahan died, having consolidated his power and position as regent. In 1658, Aurangzeb raised an army, marched on Agra, and defeated the regent. He then declared Shah Jahan incompetent and put him under house arrest in the Octagonal Tower in Agra Fort (a beautiful addition that he himself had constructed) which has a direct view of the Taj Mahal. He died there in 1666 leaving the world with one of its most beloved monuments.

The Taj Mahal reflected in the main canal

The Taj Mahal reflected in the main canal

I finally find a spot where I can take a front view of the Taj Mahal reflected in the water. I have to wait my turn because there are lots of other people having their photos taken or taking selfies in exactly the same spot.

Reluctantly, we leave but it’s time to go back to the Radisson Blue for breakfast before visiting Agra Fort.

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The Road to Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and the Moonlight Gardens

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After a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Jaipur, we’re on our way to Agra which is the last point in the Golden Triangle. It is 8 am. Ragendar tries to find an ATM but they seem very scarce. He’s says not to worry, that he’ll lend us any money we need before we get to Agra. The road is a bit better than Delhi-Jaipur and takes us through somewhat desolate countryside with occasional crops of cereals and potatoes interspersed with roadside villages.

The somewhat desolate countryside btween Jaipur and Agra

The somewhat desolate countryside btween Jaipur and Agra

As he drives, Rajendar tells me about some of his many occupations. Compared with a lot of the Indians we meet, his view of life is very modern. He lives with his wife and daughter in Delhi and not with his mother in her village. He tells us about the charity work he does with a group of friends from his village for a month each summer. They go around to the surrounding villages to try and convince poorer families not to put themselves into huge debt in order to finance their daughters’ weddings.

Halfway to Agra, we stop for a break at Motel Gangaur, which suddenly appears out of nowhere. It also has a restaurant and very large souvenir shop. We wander around a bit but don’t see anything of any interest. While we are waiting outside for Rajendar to finish his cigarette, we see several tourist buses pull up as well as other chauffered cars. We have no confirmation but imagine that the chauffeurs and guides who stop here receive a commission on any purchases.

The Motel Ganghur where we have our coffee break

The Motel Ganghur where we have our coffee break

We go past fields and fields of bricks and brickworks with tall chimney stacks. Rajendar continues to talk about traditional Indian life. With the problem of dowries, the population is becoming so lopsided that routine ultrasound scans are now forbidden during pregnancy. When there are several women living in the same house with their respective husbands and their mother, intimacy becomes a challenge. Often the women sleep in one room with the children and the men in another. A third “nuptial” room is then occupied in turn by the different couples. Rajendar adds that, when it’s “his” turn the man doesn’t work that day!

Brick factories and stocks on the road to Agra

Brick factories and stocks on the road to Agra

At midday, we arrive at out first destination for the day, Fatehpur Sikri. Our French-speaking guide is waiting for us. I dislike him on sight. He speaks incorrect French with a very strong accent and generally looks disdainful and totally uninterested in what he is doing. He doesn’t ask any of the usual “get-to-know-you” questions we are now used to. We leave the car and take a crowded bus to the red sandstone complex. It’s excessively hot.

Anup Taleo platform

Anup Taleo platform

The guide gives us a minimum amount of information each time then waits in the shade while we visit the different buildings. Built in 1571, the carefully-planned walled city of Fatehpur Sikri was the political capital of the Mughal Empire during the reign of Akbar from 1571 to 1585 after whose death it was abandoned, mainly due to lack of water.

Panch Mahal

Panch Mahal, a five-storey building for the women of the court

It includes royal palaces, a harem, courts, a mosque, private quarters and other utility buildings which reflect the importance of Akbar, son of Humayun, whose tomb we saw in Delhi, changed the course of Indian history. During his rule, the Mughal empire tripled in size and wealth. He created a powerful military system and instituted effective political and social reforms.

Diwan I-Kas

Diwan I-Khas

One of the most interesting buildings is the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) with its magnificent sculpted stone pillar which flares to create a flat-topped plinth linked to the four corners of the room by narrow stone bridges. It is believed that Akbar used the plinth to debate with scholars and ministers who stood at the ends of the four bridges.

Central pillar of Diwan-I-Khas

Central pillar of Diwan-I-Khas

Akbar is said to have had 5,000 wives. Mariam-uz-Zamani Begum was chief Rajput wife and empress of the Mughal Empire. He also had a Muslim wife and a Christian wife called Mariam from Goa but some say that she and Mariam-uz-Zamani are one and the same person. In any case, they all had different palaces. Most of them have open areas enclosed by curtains and matting depending on the season.

Inside one of the palaces

Inside one of the beautifully sculpted palaces

Akbar used to sleep on a platform surrounded by water as a sort of natural air-conditioning. I can understand why if today is anything to judge by! It also prevented anyone stabbing him to death during the night.

Akbar's stone bed

Akbar’s stone bed

 

We wander around the various buildings indicated by our guide. We learn later that he didn’t show us Birbal’s House, one of the highlights of the complex.

Detail of sculptures in the Koranic school for women

Detail of sculptures in the Koranic school for women

As we leave, Jean Michel mentions the mosque but our guide discourages us: I am not dressed adequately, the ground is hot and we’ll have to take off our shoes. I have everything I need in the car which is now too far away. A pity he didn’t mention it earlier. Jean Michel insists on at least seeing the outside, which we do not regret. The amazing structure of Buland Darwaza or the “Gate of Magnificence” was built in 1601 by Akbar to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. The Buland Darwaza is the highest gateway in the world (53.63 m high) and an astounding example of Mughal architecture.

Buland Darwaza, the 54 m high entrance to the Fatehpur Sikri complex

Buland Darwaza, the 54 m high entrance to the Fatehpur Sikri complex

Unfortunately, we do not get to see the tomb of Salim Chisti with its ornate wooden canopy encrusted with mother-of-pearl mosaic and stone latticework windows.

As we walk back to the parking lot, the guide flags down a bus that is so full that a man is hanging halfway out the open doorway. I refuse to get in despite the guide’s muttered “it’ll be an experience – it only takes 2 minutes”. Well, in my experience, if a bus ride only takes two minutes, then it can only be a 10-minute walk. That doesn’t seem to be the case so he stops and pays for a tuk-tuk which is probably the same price as the bus anyway.

The walls of the mosque from the road

The walls of the mosque from the road

Rajendar is waiting for us in the parking lot. By now it’s nearly 2 pm and our guide gives us the choice of eating at a nearby wayside restaurant or waiting until Agra, another 38 km away which in India, as we’ve seen, means about an hour. We opt for a meal nearby and ten minutes later we find ourselves in a self-service restaurant called Ganpati Resorts. Inside, the temperature is reasonable but the buffet is outside in the sun where the temperature is at least 40°C. Also, there are flies buzzing around our table which is just inside the door.

G Resort, which looks fine from the outside

Ganpati Resorts, which looks fine from the outside

It’s the worst meal we’ve had yet – very spicy – and I have to ask at least 3 times to get naan and yoghurt. There is no soap in the toilet either. The guide pays as we still haven’t found an ATM. We refuse to give a tip.

Arrival at Agra

Arrival at Agra

We are now expecting to go to our hotel, the Radisson Blue, so I am surprised when, at about 3.30 pm, we stop outside the Moonlight Gardens (Mehtabh Bagh) which we are supposed to visit after a little R&R. It’s still suffocatingly hot and I am getting increasingly annoyed with the guide. When I ask why we are so early, he says that the gardens close at 5 pm and we will miss them otherwise.

The hoses have been on and the ground is soaked. I am quietly looking for a way around the puddles when Jean Michel realises the problem and suggests another path. The guide rudely asks what the matter is. We can see the Taj Mahal in the distance on the other side of the Yamuna River. I have to say I am disappointed. Where is the buzz you’re supposed to get? I move away from the guide as far as I can so that he won’t upset me any further.

The soaked grounds in Makbati Gardens

The soaked grounds in Makbati Gardens

The Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, had identified a site from the crescent-shaped, grass-covered floodplain across the Yamuna River as an ideal location for viewing the Taj Mahal. It was then created as “a moonlit pleasure garden called Mehtab Bagh.” White plaster walkways, airy pavilions, pools and fountains were also created as part of the garden, with fruit trees and narcissus. The garden was designed as an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex.

It is said that Shah Jahan wanted to build a black marble mausoleum for himself here, as a twin to the Taj Mahal, but his project never came to fruition. Frequent floods and villagers extracting building materials nearly ruined the garden. Any remaining structures fell in ruins and by the 1990s, the garden’s existence was almost forgotten. It was little more than an enormous mound of sand, covered with wild vegetation and alluvial silt.

The Taj Mahal from the other side of the river

The Taj Mahal from the other side of the river

I find the best vantage point to take a photo and hope that our dawn viewing of the Taj Mahal next day will be more satisfactory.

We join Rajendar in the car and the guide gets out about 10 minutes later having fixed a RdV with us in the hotel foyer at 6 am next morning. After he leaves, Rajendar asks me what sort of guide he is. I don’t like to be too critical but say that I’m going to ask our coordinator at the hotel to find us a replacement for the next day. He advises me to phone our overall coordinator for Trinetra Tours in Delhi, Shiva, and picks up his smartphone. When he can’t get Shiva, he phones Praveen, one of the marketing directors. I briefly explain that we are not happy with our guide who is not communicating satisfactorily with us, does not speak good French and obviously has no interest in his job. I am relieved when Praveen immediately says he will send a different guide next morning.

Our spacious room at the Radisson Blue

Our spacious room at the Radisson Blue

The Radisson Blue is on the other side of the river, very close to the Taj Mahal, it turns out. We are greeted by our coordinator who takes us to reception and we are soon relaxing in our large air-conditioned bedroom with no wish to go anywhere for the rest of the day. We are perfectly happy with our usual bananas and tea though we do decide to make an exception and try the Indian wine, which turns out to be an uninteresting chenin blanc. At least we won’t go home without having tasted the local wine.

We go to bed early in preparation for the morrow.

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Jaipur – temples, elephants, forts and palaces

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We are up bright and early at our beautiful Shahpura House Heritage Hotel in Jaipur so we can have breakfast and be ready to leave at 8 am because today is a big day – my first elephant ride! Our excellent Himalayan driver, Rajendar  Negi from Trinetra Tours, is waiting for us with our new French-speaking guide, Praveen Agraval, our best guide so far. A native of Jaipur, his French is excellent and he is obviously very experienced. and knowledgeable about his city.

Mawal, the Palace of Breezes (sometimes called the Palace of Winds) in Jaipur

Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Breezes (sometimes called the Palace of Winds) in Jaipur

We start with a photo shoot of Hawa Mahal, or the “Palace of Breezes” so named because it was built so that the women of the royal household could observe street festivals without being seen from the outside. Made of the ubiquitous red and pink sandstone of Jaipur, it is on the edge of City Palace. Praveen helps us to cross the street, telling us to keep to his left so that he is screening us from the traffic so that he will get hit first – there is no other way to do it!

Our next destination is the Hindu temple of Govinda Dev Ji devoted to Lord Krishna. Praveen asks us to go quickly through Tripolia Bazaar so don’t miss prayer time. We leave our shoes and follow the massive crowd. I stand with the women in front, a full head above the others, while Jean Michel stands with the men behind. There is music and singing and much joyous jostling.

03_colour_holi

As the prayer ends and people start to leave, a woman in front of me turns round and says “Happy holi” and smears pink powder on my forehead and cheeks. Holi, we learn from Praveen, is a two-day spring festival of colours or sharing love held held at full moon in late February/early March. This year it starts on 23rd March just a couple of days away.

The Amber Fort in Jaipur

The Amber Fort in Jaipur

We drive out of town 11 kilometers to Amber Fort also called Amer Palace, located up on a hill and ruled from 1550 to 1614 by Raja Man Singh I. With its extensive ramparts and many gates, it overlooks Maota Lake, the main source of water for the palace. Made of sandstone and marble, it is laid out on four levels, each with its own courtyard.

The elephants lined up to take their passengers up the hill to the Amber Fort

The elephants lined up to take their passengers up the hill to the Amber Fort. You can just see the mounting platform on the left.

The cobbled path up to the fort has become a major tourist attraction because the main way up is by elephant. Praveen goes to get our tickets while we stand in line. A staircase takes us up to a platform so that we are on the same level as the elephants. A bar is lifted so that we can slide backwards onto the elephant then lowered so that we won’t fall off.

View of the palace gardens from astride the elephant

View of the palace gardens from astride the elephant

I am pleased there are two of us because the elephant sways from side to side and it’s a bit scary. It’s hard to keep my iPhone steady so I take the video that I have published in my previous post. The ride takes about 20 minutes. We have to move over towards the edge of the ramparts to let the descending elephants go past which is somewhat nerve-wracking. From time to time, Jean Michel is told to sit back for better balance.

Main courtyard at Amber Fort

Main courtyard at Amber Fort

It’s a relief to get up to the top of the hill and into main courtyard where Praveen soon joins us, having walked up from the other side. The palace consists of the Hall of Public Audience, the Hall of Private Audience, the Mirror Palace and the Sukh Niwas where a cool climate is artificially created by winds that blow over a water cascade within the palace.

Removing our shoes in front of the temple

Removing our shoes in front of the temple

At the entrance to the palace there is a temple dedicated to Sila Devi, a goddess of the Chaitanya cult, and given to Raja Man Singh when he defeated the Raja of Jessore (now Bangladesh) in 1604.  We remove our shoes, hand over our camera and enter. We are just in time for a ceremony in which the statue of Ganesh, the elephant, is covered with garlands of flowers and a gong is struck very loudly for ten mind-boggling minutes. I am surprised that the babe in arms next to me makes no protest, but I guess he’s used to it!

Inside planted couryard at Amber Fort

Inside planted couryard at Amber Fort

The palace is extensive with many different areas and fine details, the most beautiful of which is the Mirror Palace.

The Palace of Mirrors, Amber Fort, Jaipur

The Palace of Mirrors, Amber Fort, Jaipur

We learn more about Praveen. He has two grown-up children. His daughter is a French teacher and recently spent a year as an assistant English teacher in Rouen during which time her parents went to visit her for three weeks. His son has taken over his grandfather’s pottery business.

Hands-on printing

Hands-on printing

By now, the sun is at its zenith and amazingly hot. Praveen suggests we stop off at a fabric store to see the traditional printing process. He assures us that we don’t need to buy anything. After demonstrating the process during which I am asked to perform a couple of basic tasks, the vendor takes us down to the showroom. I nearly buy a tablecloth but unfortunately he doesn’t have the colour and pattern I want in the right size. Nearly all of patterns include elephants which I don’t really want.

The Grand Peacock restaurant

The Grand Peacock restaurant

We then go to the Grand Peacock restaurant at Jorawar Singh Gate for lunch. We choose our usual dal, sweet and sour pumpkin, jeera rice, naan and plain curds. It’s the best meal we’ve had so far and only costs 1000 rupees (13 euro).

Some of the many astronomical instruments at Jantar Mantar

Some of the many astronomical instruments at Jantar Mantar

Our next stop is Jantar Mantar, a fascinating collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments built by the Rajput king, Sawai Jai Singh and completed in 1738. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it has the world’s largest stone sundial.

The largest sundial in the world at Jantar Mantar, Jaipur

The largest sundial in the world at Jantar Mantar, Jaipur

Each time Praveen explains one of the instruments, he takes us into the shade because the temperature is well over 30°C. However, the full sun is perfect for observing the sundials and other masonry, stone and brass instruments built using the astronomy and instrument design principles of ancient Hindu Sanskrit texts. One of the sundials is accurate to within 2 seconds.

The City Palace with the two flags flying to show that the Maharajah is in reisdence

The City Palace with the two flags flying to show that the Maharajah is in reisdence

We move on to the City Palace next door, built between 1729 and 1732 by Sawai Jai Singh II, the ruler of Amber, who planned and built the outer walls. Later additions were made by subsequent rulers up until the 20th century.

Public audience room at the City Palace in Jaipur

Public audience room at the City Palace in Jaipur

It includes the Chandra Mahal and Mubarek Mahal palaces in addition to a large number of courtyards, gardens and other buildings, and isthe seat of the Maharajah of Jaipur. Praveen explains that when the two flags are present on the Mubaret Mahal, which is still a royal residence, it means the Maharajah is present.

Close-up of one of the four entrances in the City Palace

Close-up of one of the four entrances in the first photo of the City Palace above

We visit the museum in the Chandra Mahal palace, which mainly includes clothing and weapons such as swords and guns.

Typical street scene as we leave the City Palace

Typical street scene as we leave the City Palace

By now, we’ve reached saturation point and have no desire to go shopping in the bazaar, no doubt to Praveen’s relief, as he nods off in the car on the way back to our beautiful Shapura House Hotel.

Musicians and dancer at Shahpura House Hotel

Musicians and dancer at Shahpura House Hotel seen from our terrace

We take a shower and have a welcome cup of tea and a couple of bananas that Rajendar has stopped off to buy for us. We then relax until the nightly live show in the restaurant below starts up again. This time we take a look from our balcony. There are two musicians and a dancer. The restaurant is mainly occupied by groups who are not necessarily staying in our hotel. Not exactly our scene so we have a gin and tonic next to the pool before retiring early as we have another early start tomorrow which includes a long drive to Agra and a visit to the Red Fort.

Our guide: Praveen Agrawal, praveenagrawaltourguide@yahoo.com, member of the World Federation of Tour Guide Associations

Shahpura House Hotel http://www.shahpura.com/

Trinetra Tours http://www.trinetratoursindia.com/

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More Delhi and the Road to Jaipur

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We arrive in Delhi at 7 pm, one and a half hours late due to an electrical problem on our plane which kept us sitting on the tarmac in Melbourne but I sent a quick email to Trinetra Tours to let them know and our coordinator is waiting for us. When we arrive at the hotel – Justa Residence – we have a shower and go straight to bed so we can be ready for an 8 am start next morning. The irksome things I complained about a month ago at the same hotel have been fixed up. We have been given a different room which has two tea cups (and not one), complimentary biscuits and fruit, a bathmat and correct drainage in the shower.

Our room at Justa Residence Hotel

Our room at Justa Residence Hotel

Our chauffeur for the next four days, Rajender Negi, arrives a half an hour late at 8.30 am, along with our French guide, Singh. They were held up by a road accident in which a truck was lying across the road. Considering the traffic here I’m surprised there are not more accidents! However, they had phoned the hotel to tell us they would be late so we weren’t worried.

Humayan's tomb

Humayan’s tomb made of red sandstone and marble

The first stop is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor, Humayun, commissioned by his son Akbar in 1569-70. The site is quite majestic and we practically have it to ourselves. It was the first garden-tomb in India and also the first structure to use red sandstone on such a large scale.

The tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi currently being restored

The tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi currently being restored

The tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been extensively restored. In addition to the main tomb, there are several smaller monuments, one of which, the tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi, was built twenty years earlier. It is wonderful to think that such a large garden exists right in the middle of Delhi.

A tuk-tuk in front of the presidential palace

A tuk-tuk in front of the presidential palace

Our next stop is the presidential palace built in 1929 and other government buildings. Yet another side to Delhi that we didn’t see the first time. It also provides the occasion for Singh to explain more about the country’s government bodies. Although I have a little trouble understanding him initially, his French is quite good and he is a willing and knowledgeable communicator, unlike our French guide the first time round.

Qtub Minar

Qtub Minar

The 72-metre Qtub Minar is next on the list and surprises us by both its size and beauty. Like Humayon’s tomb, there are also several other monuments. Our guide points out the original pillars from the Hindu temple which was partly destroyed to turn it into a Muslim site.

Pillars from the original Hindu temple at Qtub Minar. Depictions of animals in particular have been removed.

Pillars from the original Hindu temple at Qtub Minar. Depictions of animals in particular have been removed.

More tourists have arrived and everyone is taking photos of themselves, family and friends. I move out of the way for an Indian man to snap his wife and Singh tells me that they want me in the photo. I am surprised. We then have a group photo and they are delighted.

An Indian family at Minar. I find the little boy's black eyes very worrying.

An Indian family at Minar. I find the little boy’s black eyes very worrying.

 

 

 

In the middle of the complex is a 7 metre high column called the Iron Pillar weighing 6,000 kg and thought to have been originally erected in Udayagiri by one of the Gupta monarchs in about 400 CE and transported to its current location in 1233 CE. Its surprising corrosion resistance is due to an even layer of crystalline iron hydrogen phosphate forming on the high phosphorus content iron, which serves to protect it from the effects of the local Delhi climate.

The iron pillar at Qtub Minar

The iron pillar at Qtub Minar

It is now nearly 11 am and Singh takes his leave as we are close to a metro stop and he lives quite a long way away. He has asked us the usual questions about our family situation, children, where we live, etc. and told us about himself. He lives in a village near Jaipur with his wife, two small children (2 and 4) and his mother. As a tourist guide, he only works for 6 months a year, mainly in Delhi, where he shares a flat with other male friends during the season. The rest of the time, he lives in the village and doesn’t work. He is the only breadwinner.

The unfinished minar at Qtub Minar

The unfinished Alai Minar at Qtub Minar designed by Alauddin Khilji to be twice as high as the first but abandoned after his death in 1316

 

We give him the prescribed tip and off he goes. Now, our driver, Rajender, takes over and asks all the same questions again in English. He comes from Himalaya, as most drivers do, he explains. Because they have a hard life as children, walking 10 km to and from school and carrying heavy loads, they have strong heads and are able to deal with the horrendous traffic. I didn’t think Delhi was very busy the first time but it seems as though the traffic has increased tenfold! Fortunately, Rajender is a good driver.

A sacred cow in the middle of the highway

A sacred cow in the middle of the highway

We set off for Jaipur, which is 5 ½ hours away, which seems very strange as there is a new 2 x 3 lane toll road and the distance is only 270 km. We soon discover why. Although trucks are not theoretically supposed to be in the fast lane, they invariably hug the middle of the road, moving into the middle lane if they are forced to do so. They often have a sign saying Blow Horn written on them, sometimes Please blow horn and even No horn. Rajinder says it’s because they listen to loud music so will only move over if you blow the horn.

A typical "blow horn" truck

A typical “blow horn” truck

He weaves his way in and out the traffic, which includes every imaginable vehicle, both large and small – cars, buses, tractors, bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, family scooters (older child in front, father, younger child, mother sitting side-saddle), camel and horse-drawn carts and sacred cows which have a special affinity with the middle of the road. We don’t see a single accident, which is really quite extraordinary. We don’t see any women drivers either. If I don’t watch the traffic, I’m not afraid, which is also amazing especially as we often see traffic coming in the wrong direction, but since no one can go very fast, I feel quite safe! I should mention that we have seen a number trucks nose-down in the gutter.

The "family scooter" - you can just see the second child peeking out behind his father

The “family scooter” – you can just see the second child peeking out behind his father

On the way to Jaipur, we go past Cyber City, an enormous complex in Gurgaon, linked to the Delhi metro system. Now we see the skyscrapers we didn’t see in Delhi. They house international companies such as IBM, Samsung, American Express, Deloitte and Google. Residential complexes, often gated, follow one another and we see many advertisements for “green” apartment buildings and public schools which are actually private, saying things such as “if you love your child, send them to our school”.

Our roadside restaurant

Our roadside restaurant, the Moti Mahal, in Behror

At 1.30 pm, we have covered half the distance to Jaipur, so Rajender suggests we stop for lunch at the Moti Mahal Restaurant in Behror. When we get inside we see it’s a tourist restaurant but at least it’s not a cocktail bar. We choose dal (lentils), a mixed vegetable dish, naan (that delicious oven-baked leavened flat bread), rice and curds. The meal is tasty and not too spicy and only costs 1200 rupees (16 euro) including a bottle of water. We realise that we won’t be having any local experience restaurants but decide it’s just as well – less hassle and no gut problems!

The Water Palace in Jaipur

Jal Mahal, the Water Palace, in Jaipur

As we approach Jaipur two hours later, we see Amber Fort with its 9 kilometers of ramparts. Rajender then points out the Jal Mahal (meaning “Water Palace”) in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake. It is in total contrast with anything we have seen up until now. I ask to stop for a photo but Rajender tells me it’s scheduled for the next day. I insist, explaining that the light will be no good in the morning. He pulls over with good grace and we clamber over the low stone wall. He gets a nearby vendor to take a photo of the three of us together to put on Facebook!

With Rajindar, our guide, in front of the water palace in Jaipur

With Rajendar, our guide, in front of the water palace in Jaipur

We continue on to our hotel and are delighted with our first glimpse of Jaipur despite the incredibly dense traffic. The capital of Rajasthan, which currently has a population of over 6 million people, was founded on 18th November 1727 by Maharaja Jai Singh II, the ruler of Amer (Amber) after whom the city is named. He was something of a town planner and consulted several books on architecture and architects while planning the city’s layout. It took four years to complete the major roads, offices and palaces. The city was divided into nine blocks, two of which contained the state buildings and palaces, with the remaining seven allotted to the public. Huge ramparts were built, with access provided by seven fortified gates.

Typical pink sandstone architecture of Jaipur

Typical pink sandstone architecture of Jaipur

During the rule of Sawai Ram Singh, Jaipur was painted pink to welcome Prince Edward VII and Queen Victoria and it became known as the Pink City of India. We love the result but the traffic is so chaotic that it’s difficult to take any decent photos. A video proves to be the answer.

We arrive at Shahpura House Hotel at 5.30 and it is every bit as lovely as the photos on its website. I later try to understand its history, but to no avail. All I can tell you is that the current owner is Maharaj Surendra Singh, a descendant of the royal family of Shahpura, and that the fusion of historical influences has been preserved in the décor and design: Indo-Saracenic architecture, opulent Mughal interiors, European furniture, and Rajasthani fabrics and design.

One of the common areas at Shahpura House Hotel

One of the common areas at Shahpura House Hotel

After a refreshing shower, we have a tonic water and crisps on the terrace in front of our bedroom then escape from the mosquitos into our beautifully furnished air-conditioned room. Even the live Indian music in the outdoor restaurant on the terrace below cannot kept us awake once we go to bed.

Our bedroom at Shahpura House Hotel

Our bedroom at Shahpura House Hotel

Posted in Architecture, India, Restaurants, Sightseeing | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

The Elephant Ride

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elephant

 

We have been in India for two full days and have done so much and seen so many wonderful places that I am exhausted by the end of the day and incapable of writing a blog post. But I had to post this photo of my first (and last!) elephant ride, at Amber Fort in Jaipur.

Ours was a fairly small elephant so Jean Michel had to sit back as far as he could for balance, which explains why his feet are sticking out in front of him. The elephant swayed from side to side, which is a bit unnerving when you’re not used to it. Jean Michel said it was like being at sea. Sometimes the elephant went quite close to the side of the stone wall so I would pull my feet back although the driver reassured me that I didn’t have to worry.

elephant_trail

Taking photos was difficult as well as there was a considerable risk of dropping my iPhone. The first photo was taken with Jean Michel’s camera by one of the many young Indians running alongside the elephants to offer their photographic services. It was easier to take a video than photos, though it’s a little wobbly! The second photo is taken from the Amber Fort showing the elephants winding their way up the hill. The last photo is our very personable elephant driver whose name I asked but now can’t remember.

elephant_driver

It was a memorable experience but I don’t really think I need to do it again. I should also add that I was very pleased that I was not alone. I am not very good with heights and an elephant is very very big!

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Posted in India | Tagged | 10 Comments