03.03.2012 - 11.04.2012
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With different languages, cuisines and history, we had a completely new India to discover in the north. With just over 6 weeks left, we started the month of March in Mumbai – which is not quite yet north India…
Mumbai, the setting of so many great Indian novels, immediately enchanted us. Iconic concrete tetrapods line Marine Drive under a blanket of smog. The India Gate and the Taj Hotel are sparkling symbols of Indian independence and grandeur. Across town, Chowpatty Beach offers a brief interlude from the traffic, although sadly, is polluted by ice cream wrappers and cigarette butts. The highrise apartments of Bollywood stars overshadow the corrugated tin roofs and blue tarpaulins of Dharavi slum, the second largest in Asia. In contrast to common perception, Dharavi slum is a highly organised jumble of specialized recycling and manufacturing operations, accounting for over USD 600M in revenue each year. After each full day of city sightseeing, we spent evenings indulging in the finest cuisine in the country, savouring complex Indian thali, Mughlai and Kashmiri cuisine, as well as top Western fare and desserts from the legendary Leopold’s.
Passing by the High Court and the University of Mumbai, we departed from the elegant Victoria Terminus for a brief visit to Ahmedabad. This architectural treasure trove of Muslim culture deserves more acclaim than it receives, with it’s key monuments all within walking distance in the city centre. Lacking the polish of other touristy cities, this has a decidedly more local feel with shops geared towards Indians. Gandhi’s Sabarmati’s Ashram is also just a few kilometres outside of town, and is well worth a visit to learn of his incredible life.
Reaching Rajasthan just in time for Holi, we found ourselves in the upbeat backpacker city of Udaipur. With it’s crumbling multi storey havelis, this tiny old city was the perfect setting for Holi. On the first night, we choked on excessive firework displays and the Holika bonfire from the heights of the main temple. The next morning was the world famous paint war. Spared no sympathy from locals, we were attacked by organic paint powders in violet, magenta, red, yellow and green! After a few hours of battle we were a cumulative scummy brown and found refuge in the rooftop bars with other foreigners. After Holi celebrations, we lingered another day and became acquainted with the city and it’s main Palace. Octopussy plays every night in restaurants, where the Lake Palace was the scene for the Bond movie. Hanging out with David from Canada was another great memory of ours in Udaipur, we love the open mindedness and kind nature of Canadians.
Moving on, we had a brief stay in Mt Abu and took the local (i.e. untranslated) bus tour. This small hill station has all the features of a carnival, with horse riding, paddle boating, softy ice cream and cobbed corn on the streets. The hidden highlight for us however, was the exquisite Jain temples. Intricately carved in transluscent white marble, these were unlike anything we had seen in India, or anywhere else. It was a shame that no photography was allowed. A short trek through Trevor’s Tank and an introduction to the Brahma Kumaris religious headquarters wrapped up our visit and we boarded the train to Jodhpur, the blue city.
Mehrangah Fort is a spectacular example of cultural restoration. Towering over the (literally) blue painted city of Jodhpur, views were spectacular and exhibits fascinating. We spent hours wandering through individually themed rooms before shopping at the local bazaar near the clock tower. The art deco City Palace (complete with vintage car collection) was our last stop before heading to the golden city, Jaisalmer.
The fort of the gold city differs from that of the blue city in the fact that residents still inhabit the golden fort. Winding our way through the lanes of golden sandstone, the ambience of the past Rajputs wasn’t quite captured as the hustle and bustle of Indian life had now taken over. Finding that all the great cities in Rajasthan have forts and palaces, it was not long until we found ourselves with traveller’s fatigue. Located just 100 km from Pakistan, we embarked on an overnight camel safari in the Jaisalmer desert. The company of Tiffany, Owen, Harry, Mimi, Charlie and Alfredo brought life to our Jaisalmer experience, with laughs and stories by the campfire.
We inadvertently spent too long in our next stop Pushkar, where the socially welcoming hostel Milkman anchored us for a week. We weren’t the only ones who had fallen under the spell of Pushkar, where all backpacker needs were served and everything was easy. We are ashamed to admit we did no sightseeing, but instead spent the week gossiping with loved ones online, shopping, going crazy on delicious food (Falafel Wala won us over in the kebab shop wars) and giggling on the rooftop with other backpackers. Catching up with our Jaisalmer safari friends was also a surprise, they had returned for a second time to Pushkar in just a few weeks.
Finally dragging ourselves away from Pushkar we made our way to Agra via Jaipur. A short walking tour of the pink city gave us a taste of Jaipur, but as we weren’t interested in shopping the streets quickly lost their appeal. Reaching Agra on the evening on March 29, we caught a late night glimpse of the Taj Mahal from our rooftop restaurant, and we couldn’t wait to visit the next day.
After 3 days in Agra, a brief stopover in Delhi left us with just a few hours to explore Humayun’s Tomb, thought to be an architectural precursor to the Taj Mahal. This “dormitory of royal tombs”, built near the tomb of Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin, is as glorious in its presence and detail as the Taj Mahal, but is constructed with shimmering red sandstone and marble. Proving her racial ambiguity, Rina sneakily managed to enter with a local ticket, spending just 10 rupees (20 cents) for entry instead of 250 rupees for foreigners.
Agra and Fatehpur Sikri – A showcase of Royal Mughal legacy
The Taj Mahal occurs as a dream like vision as you pass through the South Gate. With symmetry a fundamental factor in Mughal architecture, the Taj Mahal can be appreciated from all angles and this simply adds to it’s heavenly presence. With the fountains switched off, the perfect reflection can be captured for early morning visitors. Furthermore, Arabic scriptures, floral and polygonal motifs, made from marble and semi precious stone inlay merit careful attention. It receives more than 2 million visitors annually and although is considered an obvious destination for travellers, this does not detract from its magnificence and significance as an architectural feat and deserving of the title of “Wonder of the World”.
We spent just an afternoon in Fatehpur Sikri, once the capital of the Mughal empire and today an active Islamic centre focused around the Jama Masjid. Wandering around the peaceful plaza left us out of time to enter the palace grounds, where Aurangzeb built monuments of each monotheistic religion for his three wives. Unfortunately, we also didn’t cover other major sights of Agra (including Agra Fort), so we will have to visit again on our next trip to India. We found this to be the case after 3 months here, there is just so much to see that perhaps we may not unveil all the subcontinent’s secrets in a lifetime.
Amritsar – The Pool of Nectar
Delhi is a place that quickly becomes trying, so we hopped on another sleeper train north. Amritsar possesses an air of tranquility unlike any other we have seen in India. Of course, there still exists the calamity of the typical Indian city centre – the ear piercing honking, chaotic cycle and auto rickshaws, bikes and cars; plus there’s the odious visual and olfactory blend of animal (and human) sewage, household garbage and blood red paan expectorate to contend with. To be more specific, the Golden Temple Complex is a pocket of tranquility in Amritsar. We were fortunate enough to secure free lodging within the complex itself. Nestled amongst the communal canteen, drinking stations and shoe storage, hidden behind a door signed “NO ADMISSION” is a little hideout for a dozen tourists. Whilst there are more comfortable paying guest rooms on offer, nothing beats this invisibility in plain sight. Awaking in the morning, peeking out to the left we see pilgrims gathered in the quadrant, to the right, the Golden Temple beckons us to prayer.
The temple is beautiful inside as well as out. Having now visited plenty of places of worship in southeast Asia and India, we appreciate the assiduity with which this temple has been constructed and preserved. Truly deserving of its name, the temple sparkles from the 750+ kilos of gold it contains. It has been the stage of many historical events, arguably galvanizing the revolt that led to Mrs Gandhi’s assassination when it was attacked by the Indian government in the1980s. The Jallianwala Bagh is also nearby, scene of the 1919 peaceful demonstration against the Rowlatt Act which resulted in the unlawful deaths of hundreds of Sikh civilians, and ultimately Mahatma Gandhi’s refusal to co-operate with the British.
The Sikhs open policy with foreigners has been heart warming, we have had no restrictions on how much (or little) we could participate in the religious program. Having accessed all the floors and rooms of the temple, we were also able to observe prayers in the evening. Circling the marble platform surrounding the “pool of nectar” (where Amritsar derives its name) are pilgrims ornately dressed in traditional costume, with swords in addition to vibrant turbans. All visitors to the temple must also keep their heads covered, with free headscarves for those unprepared.
The most exciting part has been mealtimes in the communal kitchen. Eating on the floor with pilgrims (also at no charge) was a wonderful experience; we were left with a sense of belonging and equality. For lunch and dinner, everyone lined up for a silver plate, drinking bowl and spoon, before sitting on the floor in long rows to be ladled 2 curries, rice and chapatti. After 500 pilgrims in the hall were finished, used dishes were systematically cleaned by volunteers at the washing station. The joyous clanking of dinnerware being scrubbed clean was a delight to hear as you washed your hands on the way out. This 15 minute process would then begin again for the next 500 pilgrims, and would continue all day.
Despite the language barrier, the Sikhs were generous and helpful, guiding us in appropriate customs as we circled the complex. Many were happy to volunteer for photographs and the rainbow of turbans and saris was delightful to the eye. From day to night the Golden Temple took upon a different glow, adding to its divinity.
The Border Closing Ceremony
Just an hour outside of Amritsar, the Indo-Pak Border Closing Ceremony takes place in the late afternoon each day. This flamboyant and at times comical show, which ends with the labelled gates between India and Pakistan opening and closing, felt more like a sporting match between two friendly teams than an official military ceremony. Observing from the Foreigners Gallery in the grandstands (after several security pat downs), we watched competing nation hosts (ours in a white tracksuit) extracting patriotic cheers from the crowds. After much dancing and crowd participation, the formalities went underway and as soldiers marched to meet each other, respective flags are brought down and folded, before the gates are closed and crowds dispersed.