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India: New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur

The frantic chaos that is India, assaults you as soon as you get off the plane.The airport is a seething mass of people and it seems like thousands of people have come to meet our flight. It’s a relief to see Roy’s tall frame towering over all the local people. Carol firmly fights off the beggars and entrepreneurs wanting to take control of our luggage and we are relieved to fall into the cool sanctuary of the car. We meet their friendly driver, Dharampal, who whisks us towards the outskirts of New Delhi to Carol and Roy’s spacious home in Pushpanjali Farms. Their house is wonderful, but the garden is incredible – rolling soft lawns, neat purple hedges and a substantial veggie garden. The staff are warm and welcoming. We meet Margaret, one-year old Trevor’s Aya; Gopal the house-keeper and Ram, the chef.

Carol shows us around her neighbourhood with a patient Dharampal, finding parking when it seems impossible and appearing miraculously to carry parcels when we have finished shopping. Santushti is a charming shopping area with elegant little shops that sell linen, silverware and clothing.

Our first evening is  atrip into the heart of Old Delhi. We get dropped in Chandni Chowk, which is a crazy busy shopping area frequented by locals. Dharampal rustles up some rickshaw bicycles for us. I was mortified to see the very skinny guy that was going to pedal Geoff and I around. He had to pedal hard to keep up with Carol and Roy’s guy. This was the most fascinating experience, because it took us right into the centre of the activity. We manoeuvred through traffic, cutting boldly in front of cars, bikes and buses. Just as our poor cyclist picked up some momentum, he would have to stop short as someone cut in front of him and then begin the exertion all over again. We seemed to narrowly miss pedestrians, other rickshaws and pedestrians. The market is a maze of narrow side streets packed with tiny stores that seem to mainly sell fabric and braid, but lots of other things too. 

Chandni Chowk is a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. It was all-invading and almost overwhelming, but completely exhilarating. We marvelled at the electrical wiring that defied all regulations. Literally thousands of cables feed off each other in a spaghetti-like mess, many dangling dangerously within reach of people. We saw people making cheese and yoghurt by pouring milk into large sieves. We passed busy barbers, restaurants, cows and dogs. The shops were staffed by men only and there seemed to be no women about at all. The pollution haze was quite intense.

Carol and Roy ensured a perfect evening for us by rounding off with dinner at HaveMore, an outstanding restaurant with delicious Indian dishes. We kicked off with a fresh lemon and soda drink called Nimbo-Pani, which was a perfect accompaniment to curry. My concern that I would find the curry too hot was completely unfounded and we had the most tender chicken tikka cooked on giant kebabs; palak paneer (cottage cheese and spinach); mint-flavoured roti and butter naan. We also had a lamb breyani and a butter chicken curry. We were in food heaven and over ate with relish.

Photo credit: justdial.com

Photo credit: timesofindia.indiatimes.com

Roy explained that it was customary to end a rich meal with something refreshing and that it would aid digestion. Outside the restaurant was a street cart selling paan. It can be a sweet or savoury snack and is a pop of flavourful and fragrant ingredients wrapped in a fresh green betel leaf. We thought that maybe there were some extra “herbs” included as we felt quite light-headed, considering we’d had no alcohol. I subsequently discovered that the betel nut is a stimulant and produces psycho-active effects. Well, we certainly slept really well! 😄

The next day was a hurricane of activity with Carol, while Roy was at work. We visited her remarkable tailor who is able to replicate anything for next to no cost. We chose cotton shirting for Geoff and some blouse material for me. Our next stop was the Khan market which is great for book shops and more fabric. Seriously, the choice of fabric was out of this world! Carol took us to a shop that crafts lovely boxes, picture frames and trays and we bought some lovely souvenirs. A bout of pashmina shopping followed and I loved the rich colours and the beautiful quality of the shawls. Lunch was a chicken lasagne, rustled up by Ram with home-made pasta and a fresh garden salad. Later Geoff and Roy played a punishing game of squash at the Radisson courts.

Dinner was another spoil. We ate at arguably the best restaurant in Delhi – Bhukara at the Sheraton Hotel. You can observe the chefs cooking the meat on huge skewers. The restaurant is quite authentic and requires you to eat with your fingers. we were given practical bibs to wear! We enjoyed the fish, chicken and stuffed potatoes as well as roti, naan and dahl. Dessert was a local ice-cream with vermicelli, known as Corfu. Not to my taste!

On the way home we stopped for drinks at a “happening” place at the Radisson and watched some Filipino girls singing while we played a few games of pool. It was Carol’s first time playing pool and she sunk 4 balls in quick succession! Roared home through the still busy streets with Roy’s new local Indian music playing -“Made in India”, that had us singing along and laughing hysterically.

Carol is an exceptional hostess and was determined that we experience life in New Delhi. She took us to Sharmla Farm, an antique furniture warhouse and wholesaler where stunning treasures can be found and then restored to their former glory. The array of exceptional brass and wooden pieces was inspiring. We briefly talked of hiring a container to get some of these unusual items back to South Africa!

Carol arranged a tour guide from the British Embassy to show us around. Nigel Hankins had lived in India for 55 years. He was so knowledgeable, pointing out many of the interesting sights (enormous fruit bats, known as flying fox) and notable buildings, such as the Presidential Palace and the old British government buildings designed by Herbert Baker; as well as the Grand Imperial Hotel in Janpath Road. We visited Mahatma Gandhi’s last home, which is now a shrine in his memory. We traced his last steps to the point where he was shot at the age of 78 in 1948. 

Two days before his assassination, Gandhi is said to have made this statement:
“If I’m to die by the bullet of a mad man, I must do so smiling. God must be in my heart and on my lips. And if anything happens, you are not to shed a single tear.”

We also visited “Bangla Sahib”, a Sikh temple. We had to cover our hair and enter with bare feet after walking through a pool of cleansing water. The beliefs here lie somewhere between the Hindu and Islamic religions. They have no caste system and the poor can come and get a free meal too.

The Caste system
The origins of the caste system in India and Nepal are shrouded, but it seems to have originated more than two thousand years ago. Under this system, which is associated with Hinduism, people were categorized by their occupations.
Although originally caste depended upon a person’s work, it soon became hereditary. Each person was born into a unalterable social status.

Carol and Roy told us how on first moving into their home they noted that despite employing a large number of staff (including people to tend the garden and clean the pool etc.) the toilets were not being attended to. When this was raised with Gopal, the housekeeper, he explained that they had not employed anyone of the lowest caste to look after the lavatories and would need to. 

Advertising for matrimony is a fascinating phenomenon that is prevalent in Indian culture.  Many people still opt for arranged marriages. We were amazed when Roy showed us the adverts in the local press, in the “Matrimonials” section. Although we fell about laughing at the descriptions describing themselves and their requirements as “slim; fair-skinned, educated etc.) we also found it quite disturbing that highly educated, urban Indians would still choose brides and grooms on the basis of caste, creed and even skin colour. I guess western society is not really that different if you think about it, it’s just that we are not used to seeing people’s prejudiced played out so blatantly for the world to see!

Nigel took us to the old Maiden Hotel for lunch. It was built in the 1900’s and was delightfully Victorian in style. The loo was so tiny that I had to leave the door ajar in order to sit down!

Next on the agenda was a walking tour of Old Delhi markets. Nigel had us marching briskly through the traffic and not turning a hair at some of the close shaves we experienced. At one point we were nearly gutted by the horns of an ox as it manoeuvred its load down a winding street. Traffic jams involve people, animals and vehicles and no-one loses their cool.

We walked throught the wholesale markets and Nigel pointed out the base products from which many chemicals are made e.g. resin and wax and lacquer from the lac bettle. We saw Vicks in its solid form. He showed us glucose being poured from huge drums. Spices of every kind are prevalent in the many shops. Again there are no women about and Carol and I draw stares from the men making us feel uncomfortable. Feeling filthy and invaded by the smells and the squalor, we were relieved when the tour came to an end and Dharampal appeared to rescue us.

One of the obvious highlights for a trip to India is a visit to the iconic Taj Mahal. Carol had booked first class tickets for us to take the train to Agra. We were up at 4h30 in the morning and were driven to Delhi station. Even at that hour of the morning it was a crazy place. Multiple platforms and so many people going in all directions. It was chilly and I was glad of the pashmina I had bought on our shopping spree. It’s exactly two hours to Agra. Neither of us were feeling too well and we tried to get some sleep on the train. We got accosted by all and sundry as we diembarked and we decided to take a tuk-tuk into town. Bobby introduced himself and made a compelling case to be our taxi driver and guide. He produced some sort of ‘license’ and offered us a bargain of 400 rupees for a full day of his services. Having been burnt by touts in Egypt and Thailand we were sceptical but didn’t really have much choice. We were also feeling fairly fragile.

We wanted to change money and were feeling tired from the early start, but Bobby explained that the bureau was not yet open and convinced us that it was a good idea to firstly visit the Red Fort. We were a touch disappointed, we’d come a long way to see the Taj and it seemed that we would not be able to do that just yet.

The Red Fort was very interesting however. It was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when the capital was shifted from Agra to Delhi. The Agra fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is about 2.5 km northwest of its more famous sister monument, the Taj Mahal. In the distance we could see the silhouette of the famous monument – so near, yet so far!

Bobby was waiting for us at the agreed time and place and explained the importance of visiting the “Baby Taj”, something that I’d never heard of, but according to Bobby was a must see! The Baby Taj aka the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah is a Mughal mausoleum. Often described as a “jewel box”,  it is often regarded as a draft of the Taj Mahal as they are extremely similar in structure and design.

On the way to the Baby Taj we passed a funeral procession. It was startling to see the body shrouded in a plain white sheet and being carried aloft by the crowd on a stretcher towards the river. The body is washed by the family in the river and it is left to dry while they build a pyre. The body is then cremated on top of the pyre in full view of everyone. A sobering experience.

After our visit to the Baby Taj, Bobby made a few annoying suggestions about how we should proceed with our day. He made a strong case that the best time of the day to see the Taj Mahal, would be at sunset and that he could show us some interesting things in the meantime. It made sense, but we asked to be taken to a hotel for lunch, which did not fit his grand plan for us and he managed to squeeze in a visit to local marble crafters where they inlay precious stones in the manner that we would see at the Taj. There was lots of showmanship and hospitality and then an exhausting hard-sell routine. We escaped unscathed but hugely pissed off with Bobby.

The Triton hotel was just what we needed, peace and quiet and a lovely buffet lunch. A suspiciously reformed Bobby picked us up at three, full of justification that he had our best interests at heart and that there was “no obligation” to buy things. Before we could blink he had ushered us into a jewellery store. Geoff lost his cool and demanded that Bobby drive us directly to the Taj Mahal. It was already after 4pm and the golden hour was already starting to appear. Security at the Taj was intense and it took some time before we were actually inside the property.

 

The Taj Mahal is an immense mausoleum of white marble, built between 1631 and 1648 by order of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife. The Taj Mahal is the jewel of Muslim art in India and …one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage. It’s hard to describe how breath-takingly beautiful this place is. There was a sense of unreality to finally be standing right there. Unsurprisingly, there were lots of tourists, mainly Indians. The marble work is simply exquisite. Such fine craftmanship.

Viewing the Taj from the gardens was the best. As the sun began to set the colours of the building change from white to creamy gold, to pink. A sleazy looking guy beckoned to Geoff to follow him and showed him all the best places to shoot from. They managed to cover off half the property before it was too dark to take pictures. We sat and admired this beautiful monument to beauty and love until dusk.

Bobby was waiting patiently to take us to the station. Because our train was only due to leave at 20h20, he suggested we go back to the jewellery store (with no obligations) to keep warm instead of waiting on the platform. He was as good as his word and we chatted to his friends and enjoyed being entertained by a elderly kitaar player.
When we finally parted ways with Bobby, there was still a freezing cold wait at Agra train station as the train was delayed. The waiting rooms for men and women were separate too. Such a relief to eventually board the train.
Delhi railway station was still a crazy throng of people even at 11pm. It seemed like millions of people were swarming out of multiple platforms and we despaired that we would never find Dharampal. We eventually called Carol, who phoned Dharampal, who rescued us shortly afterwards. What a relief after being a bit over-tired and not feeling too well.

Carol met us at the door. She was distraught to have to give us the sad news that my parents had emailed her to say that Uncle Kevin had taken our beautiful German Shepherd, Loupe to the vet the previous day and he had died while he was there. We were heart-broken and wondered if the fact that we had felt so ill all day in Agra had been in sympathy with our dying baby. We cried ourselves to sleep after talking about Loupe into the early hours.

We woke up feeling hollow and deeply sad. It helped that Roy and Carol had arranged for us all travel to Jaipur for the weekend and it kept our minds off our heart-break. Dharampal drove us to Jaipur, which is about 230 km from New Delhi, although it takes about 4 hours to get there.

Photo credit: www.jaipurcityguide.org

The city of Jaipur has peachy coloured walls that stretch around the full perimeter – even over the hills. For this reason Jaipur is known as “The Pink City”. You enter through the  city gates. Jaipur is not only the capital but also the heart of Rajasthan. What struck us most is how colourful everything is. The people dress in more colourful fabrics than the people of New Delhi. The ladies’ saris are in cerise, canary yellow, oranges and bright turquoise. It was so lovely to see!

Roy and Carol had booked us into the imposing Rambagh Palace. 
Impressive with its manicured gardens and beautiful Indian architecture, the luxurious Rambagh Palace was the former residence of the Maharajah of Jaipur. The palace remained the home of Jaipur’s royalty until 1957. The charm of the hotel is in the elegance of the gardens, the spaciousness as well as the peaceful tranquility all around.Once we’d settled in after changing rooms and being upgraded to suites, we settled on the verandah for sandwiches and drinks and admired the scenic surroundings while being serenaded by a musician.

After lunch we did some shopping and bought some arts and crafts, some colourful bangles, shoes and a few shirts for Geoff and Roy. Later we relaxed in the hotel until we met up for drinks in the Polo Bar and and enjoyed a lovely dinner.

The Amber Fort just outside of Jaipur is one of the most visited forts in India. It was constructed in 1592 on the remains of an 11th century fort. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is made from sandstone and marble. The plan was to take an elephant ride from the car park to the fort. When we arrived the elephant jockey’s were on strike and when we saw how badly the poor elephants were being treated we left immediately.

Instead we went to the Triton Hotel for drinks and bought some pashminas. We also visited some interesting crafts shops and bought two wooden musician ornaments to use as bookends. Roy and Geoff had us in stitches as they negotiated with the carpet dealer although they didn’t end up buying anything!

We flew back to Delhi excited for our next adventure – Christmas in Nepal!

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