(I have posted letters about my trip to India in 1991; but I appear not to have written about the last part of the trip, which took me to Jaipur, Agra and back to Delhi. I shall write it now, referring back to my diary. Let’s see how good my memory really is! Although, of course, I could just make it up, with the help of Lonely Planet.)
I was put up in a hotel at the airport; the Centaur. It was ghastly. I caught my early morning flight down to Jaipur – even then, I felt bad about flying, but it made sense to fly, had I made my connection.
I stayed in a cheap hotel in Jaipur called the Evergreen – full of travellers; if I was by myself, it made sense to be somewhere relatively sociable. I went out and explored the city. I loved Jaipur: it was completely different to Darjeeling. Elephants and camels walked through the streets and there were crowing peacocks in the gardens. It was busy; people talked at me wherever I went. A guy who introduced himself as Ricki got shirty because I didn’t want to stop and have a conversation – he was, like so many others, trying to improve his English; but I was trying to explore.
I got lost in the Condola Bazaar (which I can’t find on my map of Jaipur; I may have meant Chandpol Bazaar) and asked the way to the Wind Palace – the Hawa Mahal. This was a beautiful building – just a pink façade behind which the women of the court could watch what was going on in the street below without being seen. I spent a long while in the sun trying to photograph the building – shopkeepers opposite the building invited me into their first storey shops so I could have a better view. They must have been bored of tourists – but then I’ll bet many of them bought things, too. Either way, they were very friendly – I think the people of Jaipur were justly proud of their city, and wanted people to see it in a good light. I meant to go back to the shop to buy something, but I don’t think I did. The façade was in shadow, though, since the Hawa Mahal faces east.
I then went to the City Palace – a beautifully ornate building – more like a palace complex. The theme was of peacocks – there were some wonderfully decorative doors. It was a wonderful place to wander and explore – which took some time. The sun grew very hot A car parked in the palace compound had the number plate DNA 1784.
Opposite the Palace was the Jantar Mantar – the Jaipur Observatory. Very similar to the Janpath Observatory in Delhi, I preferred the Jaipur Observatory: it was peaceful, whereas in the structures in Delhi were in the centre of the bustling city. I wandered and climbed around the instruments – sundials and stardials and things I don’t understand. I found the instruments very beautiful – lots of curves and abstract shapes, shadows and doorways. It was fascinating.
I had been adopted by a rickshaw driver: they did that, since it was easier for them to get tourists to hire them for half the day than to tout business in the streets. And frankly, tourists didn’t stand a chance. This guy said he was an “Indian helicopter pilot” – a kitsch name for a rickshaw!
I rose early the next morning and took a rickshaw to see the Hawa Mahal in early sunlight from the east. It was gorgeous in the early light I strolled along Johari Bazaar, the main thoroughfare. A broad street, it was crowded with camels.
After breakfast back at the hotel, I went back into town and caught a bus to Amber, a few miles north of Jaipur. It was a local bus, and the locals were surprised to see a tourist on it. (There wasn’t anything behind this; I just preferred taking the local bus. I usually try to take public transport when I visit somewhere – it gives you a good feel for a new place.) It was a long walk up the hill from the road beside the lake, and a steady stream of people walking up. Some people took rides in cars from the bottom.
There were elephants in the courtyard, and children selling carpets.
Like all the palaces I saw, it was exquisitely decorated. Lots of pillars and open halls. Truly beautiful.
Leaving the palace, I was hijacked by the carpetsellers. They showed me where they made the carpets, and the carpets themselves. They were beautiful – rich colours and intricate designs. Against me better judgement and after I had made a superficial effort at bargaining, I ended up buying one. There was a lot of paperwork to fill out so they could send it to me – I didn’t want to carry it around – and they made me sign the back of the carpet so that I would know it was the same carpet. They said that there was a special arrangement so that I wouldn’t have to pay import duty. (It took four or five months to arrive in Edinburgh; and I had to pay import duty. I still have the carpet – as well as a couple of others. It is still beautiful!)
Having seen so many palaces, I decided to stay in one – just for one night, I stayed in the Bissau Palace, a minor palace which had become a hotel. (A lot of palaces have become hotels in Rajastan.) I walked there mid-morning. The Bissau Palace is to the west of – just outside – the old walls. I walked through the city and out of the Chandpol gate. It was very busy – crowded; a market clustered around the gate. Pedestrians, rickshaws, cars, buses and lorries jostled for position to get through the gate. A dead dog lay in the gutter.
At the hotel, I sat and drank coffee in the shade of the garden, reading and watching myna birds, starlings and striped squirrels (they looked just like chipmunks to me – perhaps they were) play. It was very peaceful and relaxing after the bustle of the city, just yards away.
After lunch in town, I went for a long walk through the city, ending up in Ram Niwas Gardens. I sat and read. A Sikh sat next to me and we started talking. He explained what Sikhs believed and how it related to Hinduism. (I can barely remember any of that now!) He also talked about Indian politics and what it was like to be a Sikh in India – Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by Sikhs, bringing them into the intermittent religious conflicts that have dogged India since partition. It was rather refreshing to have a proper conversation rather answering random questions that people shout out as one passed in the street.
The hotel was lovely: it was indeed a palace.
At some point, I had ventured to the railway station to book my train to Agra and thence back to Delhi. It was the first time I had navigated the bureaucracy behind buying train tickets – all the different forms and windows and options (a dizzying array of choices – three classes; then standard carriages, air-cooled carriages and air-conditioned; and lots of other things, too).
The train left at 6.10am and went straight to Agra. The place I had planned to stay at was full, and I ended up at a fairly non-descript, modern hotel, Hotel Safari. I wandered out with the intention to walk and explore, but a rickshaw driver once again hijacked me; he stuck like a limpet. He took me first to the Red Fort, and I wandered around for a long while. There were gorgeous views of the Taj Mahal across the river. [But I didn’t take any pictures. Which makes me think this was from the next time I went to Agra, perhaps.]
Then he took me to his cousin’s workshop, making inlaid-marble ornaments (the same craft that was used to decorate the Taj Mahal). I didn’t want to go, but he took me there anyway. And whilst I tried not to buy anything, I ended up buying a small pillbox, which I gave to someone as a Christmas present.
After kidnapping me, he took me back to the hotel. He waited for me in the evening, and took me to the Taj Mahal. It was peaceful in the evening – they raise the prices so that only western tourists tend to go. It was quite the most beautiful building I have ever seen. This isn’t hyperbole; indeed, I think I understate the case. I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, having read and seen so much about it. My expectations didn’t come close. It was gorgeous. I spent a long time just sitting and looking at it. It made my heart sing. It was so beautiful, I decided to go back the next morning, to see it by the light of dawn, too.
Again, it was stunning. I went inside this time. The large entrance arch is gilded by exquisite writing from the qur’an – all the decoration is carefully inlaid stone. Apparently, the builders thought the building so beautiful that they made some deliberate mistakes in the Arabic around the arch – because only God could create perfection.
It really isn’t possible to do the Taj Mahal justice; the words just aren’t enough.
Aside from the Taj and the Red Fort, though, I didn’t feel Agra had a lot going for it. It was a busy city, spread out over a large area (walking wasn’t really on). It lacked the charm of Jaipur, and having seen the Taj for a second time, I left to return to Delhi.
I stayed once more at the Ashok Yatri Niwas; it would have been wrong not to. I have just googled “Ashok Yatri Niwas”; apparently it was the centre of a financial scandal. When I stayed there, it was owned by the Government – a lot of the economy seemed to be run by the Government (a bit like Britain!); then it was bought by the Moral Trading and Investment Company, who were sued by other investors. Perhaps not so moral.
In Delhi, I went back to some of the places we had been to at the start of the trip. I walked down Chandni Chowk; I went back to the Jama Mashid; I explored the Main Bazaar, finding it without trouble, a short walk down Chelmsford Road (since renamed Qutab Road) from Connaught Place. (I have no idea where the rickshaw driver had taken Gerry and myself when we were looking for it before, but it was nowhere near the station we asked for!) I went to Nizamuddin’s tomb.
It was good to explore by myself – it seemed a long, long time since I had first visited Delhi, although it was less than two weeks before. Then, I had found the city overwhelming; now, it seemed like I took it in my stride.
I even managed to get the plane back…