“India is a land of contradictions.”
So often said by our guide, Vivek. And so true.
In a land where the cow and the bull are sacred, India is the biggest exporter of beef in the world, only being beaten by Brazil. In 2017, India exported 1,850,000 metric tons. And the largest exporter of beef in India is a Jain – a follower of a religion that forbids harm being done to any living creature. It’s a land of contradictions.
We’re heading from Mumbai, the old Bombay, north to Rajasthan. Sixteen days will take us through to Udaipur, Ranakpur, Narlai, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Agra and then on to Delhi before returning home.
It’s the first time I’ve been to India and the first time I’ve been looked after as part of a group tour. A fear of being ill, an uncertainty about curry three times a day and a son who, pessimistically, told me, “You’ll be ill dad. You know you will. You’re always ill. Don’t try doing this on your own”, persuaded me to look for something with the word ‘escorted’ in it.
The problem was that I didn’t want to be on a coach with fifty-odd other people, each with their own foibles and idiosyncrasies – I’ve enough of my own, thank you very much. Nor, did I want to be in the back of a taxi for three weeks with a driver and a guide, either of whom convinced that I desperately needed to visit his brother’s shop or, even worse, drink chai with his auntie.
I’m really not that sociable.
So, after a lot of soul-searching and hunting around, I decided to sign up for Cox and King’s ‘Passage through Rajasthan’. The tickets duly arrived in a zipped wallet, posh enough for the diplomatic service and in a fetching navy blue – it’ll match the post-Brexit passports rather nicely. I tried a bit of ‘folder spotting’ at Heathrow, but failed miserably. It was all a bit of a mystery. Even more so as India is a closed currency so I hadn’t a rupee to my name as we set off.
India has a population of 1.3 billion. That’s a lot of noughts. It’s the second most populated country in the world and has a fifth of the world’s population. At 3.287 million km², it’s the fifth largest country on the planet and when you think that the USA is 9.834 million km², it gives you an idea of how crowded India can feel at times.
By the way, based on km2, the UK would fit into the country of India 13.5 times. 35% of the population of India speak English, which is more than the total English speaking population of the UK. Australia and the USA combined. It’s big numbers all the way!
Mumbai, itself, has a population of some 18,000,000 and sits alongside the Arabian Sea on the west coast.
But nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares you for the cacophony of car horns and people shouting, the vividness of colours and the desperate chasm that exists between those that have such a lot and those that have so very little.
Four of the main religions have their foundations in India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, of which the biggest proportion of the population (some 78%) are Hindu. These days, you can also add Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Islam to the mix.
We meet our compatriots for the next sixteen days. Fortunately, there are only five couples and our guide. It’s an ideal size. Couples from Cambridge, Bexley Heath, the Isle of Wight and from Brighton. We’re the only couple from ‘up North’ and I suppose that’s for the best. At least, I should be able to avoid a diplomatic incident. The other half maintains that she couldn’t imagine anything worse than a ‘coach-load of Mancs’. Sometimes, I wonder what I see I her……
Our guide is from Udaipur, Rajasthan. Vivek Paliwal is an independent specialist with a degree in computer application and a good deal of bonhomie. It’s strange but reassuring how quickly we move from him being a stranger to being a good friend.
The drive from the airport, with its mile after mile of paisley-patterned carpet, palm tree overpasses and green lawns, to the Trident Nariman Point Hotel on the edge of the Arabian Sea, takes you through shanty towns that are reminiscent of the outskirts of Cairo. People packed in huts and hovels like dusty sardines. There is plastic everywhere: bottles, packaging, wrapping and waste. It seems to go unseen. Amid the squalor, cattle graze, pigs snuffle and children squat. It’s first impressions, I know, and they only stay with you a short while.
The long sweep of the Corniche that is Marine Drive leaves the poverty and the endless green auto-rickshaws behind (for only in Thailand are they referred to as ‘tuk-tuks’) and you enter a different world of glamorous hotels, porters in immaculate tunics and starched turbans and the constant welcoming of the Añjali Mudra: palms pressed together, pointing upwards, slight bow and the uttering of Namaste – I bow to the divine in you. From seeming rather theatrical, at first, it becomes almost second nature in such a short time.
Although the Arabian Sea looks inviting, there’s no swimming or even paddling due to the presence of sting-rays, jelly fish and a fair amount of pollution drifting in from the open sewers of Mumbai. The tide brings in too much plastic waste as well, I’m sorry to say.
We’re only here overnight so the best we manage is a brief tour of the sights. It’s a city that deserves more time and warrants walking rather than peering out of the window of an air-conditioned bus. We pass the Gateway to India, erected to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911 and the Taj Hotel, Mumbai, which sported its colonial welcome of No Indians or Dogs for too many years. We move on to take in the Mumbai train station designed by F W Stevens, the Town Hall and the Crawford Market designed by John Kipling, father of Rudyard and where, I’m sure, it’s still selling exceedingly good cakes to this day.
However, always one for the bizarre, I’m drawn to two specific sights. The first is a large statue dedicated to the dabbawalas or tiffinwallahs, who are unique to Mumbai. In 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, started a lunch delivery service with a hundred men. Today, there are nearly 5,000 dabbawalas who every day deliver up to 200,000 lunch boxes in cylindrical aluminium cans. For a 30,000 rupee union initiation fee, each dabbawala is guaranteed a monthly income of 5,000 rupees and a job for life. Because of the low level of literacy, cans are coded for collection and destination points including building, floor and office. The interesting fact is that the error rate is as low as 1.9 per billion deliveries. Beat that Deliveroo!
The second ‘sight to behold’ is the Tower of Silence. This is a Dakhma, or a circular structure build by the Zoroastrians for excarnation – disposing of the dead by natural means. In Mumbai, this entailed placing the dead on the Dakhma and letting the vultures do the rest. By the start of this century, it was felt that it would be better to provide an alternative, more modern way of disposal and solar reflectors were installed, putting the vultures out of business, so to speak. Unfortunately, no-one realised that the solar reflectors only worked properly when it was sunny. Nature and pollution failed to achieve in days and weeks what the vultures could do in minutes. These days, many Zoroastrians are having to resort to more conventional burial procedures. Once again, progress seem to spoil what was a good and effective process. Not to mention making the Indian vulture redundant.
But, perhaps the most bizarre sight is the Mumbai Laundry or the Dhobi Ghat. This claims to be the biggest outdoor laundry in the world. The workers, or dhobis, some two hundred families, live on site and process laundry from hotels and hospitals. Everything is marked with a unique tag and washed and dried together. From the road, you look out over line after line of jeans, bed sheets, scrubs and towels. For eighteen to twenty hours each day, over seven thousand people flog, scrub, dye and bleach clothes in concrete wash pens, dry them on ropes, neatly press them and transport the garments to different parts of the city. The whole area has the aroma of washing powder and sun-dried laundry.
A final stop at the Chor Bazaar, or Thieves’ Market, brings the day to a close. It is said that when Queen Victoria came to India, a fair few personal items went missing at the docks, later to re-appear at the Chor Bazaar, giving it the reputation as a Thieves’ Market. Today, it is a busy, cramped shopping experience best undertaken if you’ve nothing worth losing to the little hands that are apparently out there to relieve you of purse, wallet or handbag.
India is one of the 25% of countries in the world that drives on the left. Well, that’s not strictly true. Actually, they tend to drive where they want. Most of the traffic seems to drive on the left, but it’s not uncommon to see traffic on your side of the road coming at you from the opposite direction. There may be two lanes marked out in white paint, but if there’s room for another three on the same side of the road, then so be it. Undertaking, overtaking – it doesn’t matter which. You need good brakes, a good horn and away you go. If you’re so inclined, you can seat four on your motorbike, eight in your auto rickshaw, eighteen in your jeep (with a fair few on the roof) and fifty-odd in the bus made for thirty. The first rule of getting about in India is – there are no rules. Well, there might be…and then again…..
On the way to the restaurant for dinner we pass the monument to the thirty guests and staff who died during the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. At that time the hotel was known as the Oberoi Trident and the black granite monument of remembrance gives food for thought. Certainly, all hotels and public places across India provide high-level security. Cars are searched by guards with dogs. Chassis searches by armed security guards with mirrors check for explosives. Bags are always X-rayed and guests patted down. Nothing is left to chance, and, unfortunately, so it has to be.
It costs £10,000 per annum for a hotel or restaurant to purchase a liquor licence and prices of alcohol in bars and restaurants are high to recoup this annual cost. Wine by the bottle is anywhere between £20 and £50 a bottle and local Kingfisher beer will cost between £3 and £5 a half litre. Food isn’t expensive but there seems to be so many taxes – service tax, goods tax, value-added tax, tax on the tax tax…
Saying that, the food is delicious and providing you are careful – don’t drink the water, don’t eat anything that has been washed, peel fruit, avoid salad and street food – you should be safe and not succumb. What is cooked is done so to high standards and is very tasty. Curries are fresh and cooked to order, so if you are a wimp and a cissy as I started out, you can order your food with all the heat and spice of an Angel Delight.
Dawn brings its usual mist to Mumbai. Next door at the Wankhede Stadium, the England Girls’ Cricket team are about to start the ICC Women’s Championship. We walk the promenade past chai sellers dispensing sweet black tea with condensed or pasteurised hot milk from thermos flasks. Dogs sleep in the shade of the banyan trees – each one tagged but most having outgrown their attractiveness. Couples walk arm in arm and professional photographers line up their customers for that perfect engagement shot with the Arabian Sea and the Mumbai skyline as an ideal backdrop.
For us, it’s departure time. We’re heading by plane north to Udaipur. The hotel is busy preparing for another wedding. Judging by the arrangements, this might be a small affair. Country weddings can generate a guest list of anywhere between 250 and 25,000 – fortunately, everyone contributes so it’s not an occasion to preempt bankruptcy.
The road between the airport and the centre of Udaipur can best be described as a ‘work in progress’. Progress is slow, by the way. Mile after mile of old dust, new tarmac and never the twain seem to meet. Along the roadside are small shops, many lit by single dim electric bulbs. It’s ironic that you pass a shop with a 10w bulb in the doorway and an advertising billboard for Philips Hue Smart bulbs over the shop front. Outside of the city, the whole of northern India seems content with small, dilapidated retail outlets. Vivek tells us that they had a national referendum whether to allow Walmart a footing in India and it was rejected. Even left to their own devices, there seems to be a total absence of anything you’d call a ‘supermarket’. Handcart fruit sellers invariably sell only one product: grapes, onions, papaya, watermelon. There seems to be endless stalls selling tea and crisps, tyres, water carriers….
We weave in and out of motorbikes, cattle, pigs, lorries, bicycles, buses, pedestrians and blaring horns to let us know where people are. It’s bedlam but captivating and wonderfully different.
Finally, we reach the Trident Udaipur Hotel on the edge of this city of lakes. Even with a population of half a million, the countryside and views are stunning. The hotel is situated amid tropical gardens on the banks of the Pichola Lake and once belonged to one of the many Maharajas who ruled the area. Kipling decided that this would be the birthplace of Bagheera, the black panther of the Jungle Book stories and the setting of the hills and the lakes makes it seem ever more to be the truth; especially at sunset as we take a boat across the lake to watch women washing clothes on the steps leading down to the waters.
After breakfast, we visit the Jadish Temple. There has been continual worship here since 1651. We remove shoes, as usual, and walk the cool marble. The quality of stone carving is stunning. It is intricate, brilliantly white and highly stylised. It’s the largest Hindu temple in Udaipur. It’s difficult to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into these carvings with the minimum of tools and the maximum of skill.
I talk to Vivek, our guide about karma. In his faith, there is a good deal of positivism. People are brought up to be glad for what they have. Things could always be worse, he explains. I tell him I find it hard to understand this when there is a beggar on the doorstep of the temple who has no legs and only one hand and is pushing himself along on a wheeled tray. Viv explains that no-one goes hungry in India. It might have its problems but lack of food is not one of them. Everyone who is in need receives three meals a day at the temple and no-one would refuse to feed someone who knocked at their door. However, he accepts that it is difficult not to give to beggars, but in doing so, the delicate balance is being lost. Too many of life’s unfortunates now see begging from Western tourists as a viable alternative. Some women borrow or even steal babies to use as an incentive for tourists to give more. I remember reading an article in the paper a few years ago about a scandal where doctors were offering to amputate limbs to give beggars a better chance of a ‘career’. The link can be found here.
It’s difficult. I see a man who has only one leg and this is deformed. He wears his sandals on his hands and moves crab-like across the street. ‘Things could be worse’ seems like a cruel line from the Python ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch.
“Ohhhh we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us.”
But, I mustn’t judge. I can only observe, consider and try to understand.
The Udaipur Palace is now the City Museum. Started in 1553, it was built over the next 400 years by the Mewar dynasty. It’s built on top of a hill and commands a panoramic view of the whole of Udaipur. It’s a thing of beauty. Actually, that’s an easily over-used term over here. Superlatives are the order of the day. There is so much to see that is beautiful, stunning, incredibly pretty, captivating, staggeringly beautiful – and in such marked contrast with the other side of life in India. But everywhere you go, you cannot help but be moved and touched by people’s kindnesses, their curiosity, their warmth and welcoming smiles, waves and nameste. A lovely people in a beautiful country.
On the way for a traditional Thali lunch, we stop at a workshop that specialises in miniature painting. It reminds me of a visit to a Dali exhibition in St. Petersburg, Florida some years ago, when I marvelled at the quality of his closeup and technically fine work. Or maybe the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder? Either way, the work of the Indian artist was every bit as fine, delicate and intricate. He paints on crushed camel bone, silk and paper with inks made from natural dyes. In an art form dating back to the 17th century, colours are created using minerals, vegetables, precious stones, indigo, conch shells, pure gold and silver.
By now, I’d decided that, come hell or high water, I am going to prove my son wrong. Not only do I intend to survive the next two weeks without resorting to the Tracker bars and Belvita biscuits which are now crumbs in the bottom of my suitcase, I am going to my damnedest to develop a taste for Indian food. It’s not three times a day, after all….only twice!
We arrive at a Thali restaurant for lunch. The word ‘thali’ describes a round aluminium platter with indentations for various dishes. Think of a cross between school dinners and the Shawshank Redemption. Into the various indentations go the components of a Thali meal, the six different flavours of sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on one single plate. We have pickles, buttermilk and chickpea raita, lentil soup, poppadom, naan and chapatis, Bombay potatoes, spiced cabbage, buttered French beans, rice and a sweet dessert.
All vegetarian of course. There are many restaurants that advertise themselves as veg. restaurant or non-veg. restaurant. Mind you, the letters ‘E’ and ‘A’ seem to be interchangeable and many sign-writers mix them up to their hearts’ content. If you run out of capacity on your digital camera, you can always go out and buy a mamary card. Alternatively, why not have lunch at a vag. restaurant? They specialise in vag by the way……I had long moments waiting in the doorways of fabric shops during which I conjured up the most political incorrect menus for the vag restaurant…..
Later that night we eat at Restaurant Ambrai, a beautiful lakeside restaurant reached after a hurtling, breakneck, rickshaw ride down dark, smokey streets full of families laughing, eating, falling in love and growing old together. By the light of the stars and twinkling fairy lights, we eat rich tomato soup, hot and spicy, goat and chicken curries with naan bread and rice with sweetmeats to finish.
Ranakpur & Narlai
To cover Rajasthan on such an itinerary, you have to accept that there will be many days when the journey between places will be long. Looking out of the window can be as fulfilling as looking around the sites for which the area is famous. To be honest, what you see along the way is the real India and is so stimulating, it would be criminal to close the curtains and drift off to sleep, not matter how tempting it might feel. The sights and sounds of people living cannot, should not, be missed. Distances might not be far in terms of kilometres, but journeys are inevitably slow due to the traffic, the state of the roads and the thousands and thousands of ‘sleeping policemen’ that have been built into the tarmac.
There we are – another contradiction that makes India unique. They measure out distances in kilometres but set speed limits in miles per hour.
Our first stop is the Jain Temple at Ranakpur, dedicated to Tirthankara Rishabhanatha and built by a local business man, Dharna Shah, back in the 15th century, after a divine vision. It’s beautiful, of course. Intricately carved out of light-coloured marble, it’s the second largest religious building in India after the Taj Mahal. It’s set at the bottom of a valley reached by a winding, precipitous road and is a place of reverence for Jains from all over the world.
From there, it’s a relatively short drive to Narlai, deep into leopard country. Situated at the foot of Elephant Hill, the Rawla Narlai Hotel is an old 17th century fortress, a gift by Maharaj Ajit Singh to his younger brother, the then reigning monarch of Jodhpur.
The hotel describes itself as a ‘paradisiacal property in the desert countryside, …one such treasure chest that enhances the lustre of the heritage coterie.’ And who am I to argue?
Huge timber doors secured with stout padlocks reveal traditional bedrooms with ceiling fans and soft bed linens. It’s a little paradise.
We go for a walk around the village in the company of one of the hotel staff, dressed in his traditional shepherd’s clothes and sporting a crimson turban. Without exception, men, women and children greet us. They bow, shake hands, wave. Everybody is so very friendly. Little children want to ‘high-five’ you. They tell you their names and ask about yours. Are you married? Do you have children? What are their names? Do you have a job? I tell them I used to be a teacher. They stand open-mouthed (I’d like to think it was in awe rather than disbelief) and repeat ‘teacher’. The profession could do with a touch of this reverence back in the UK!
Every house in the village has received a grant for an outside toilet. There’s clearly no room to build it indoors but most have managed a breeze block add-on to the front of their property. Most seem to have also found an additional front door to fit. It’s a pity that the plumbing is such that the untreated waste comes right out of a pipe at the side and into the main gutter. In the dry this smells to high heaven. In the wet season, it must overflow and run down the street. At the bottom of the hill where the slope has disappeared, the waste gathers into a grey stinking pool with all the tell-tale signs of the nature of the contents. Fortunately, this is food from the gods for the sus scrofa cristatus or native Indian pig, a particularly wiry creature that thrives extremely well on kitchen and human waste alike all washed down with laundry water and whatever else it can get its snout into.
Nothing is wasted. Indians might not eat beef but dead cows and bulls, water buffalo, pigs, dogs and cats are all processed when their time comes and hides are sold on or used. Carcasses are burnt in municipal facilities. It’s not an uncommon sight to see a dog making an impromptu, alfresco meal out of one of his companions – head buried into the stomach finishing off what must have been a last meal.
All the cows that wander the streets, and there are many, are the property of someone. The cows wander out after being milked and forage where they can. Grass sellers are in most towns and people will buy grass for the animals as a religious offering. Once it’s time to be milked, the cows wander off home or are rounded up by someone with a suitably long stick. Water buffaloes are still beasts of burden as are oxen and are still viable alternatives to tractors.
A little girl in a bright blue dress tells me her name is ‘Dimple’ It suits her so well. She’s bright eyed and laughs. Suddenly, out of a house set amid the squalor of dust, pigs, goats and cows come two girls, probably around thirteen years old. Their hair is carefully combed back and in a pony tails. They are made up using kohl under the eyes and this accentuates their beauty.
‘Take my picture’ one asks. I offer to take one of her and her friend but she wants one of her on her own.
‘Show me’, she says. She’s pleased with the result and I’m somewhat taken aback. She is stunningly pretty. Perhaps I’ve no right, but I can’t help but think that she needs to get out of this dusty town before it’s too late and preferably in the right direction. She has a face made for Bollywood. I hope her parents realise her potential before she is married off as an economic necessity.
Further down the street a little girl in a school uniform shows me her school ID badge. Her brother stands next to her. He has no shoes, old trousers and a cardigan. But, what he does have is a shiny, spotlessly clean school tie. We give them cheap disposable pens and they are thrilled. Absolutely thrilled. I wish I’d brought a thousand.
Every house we pass, the ladies sit in the doorway. Red, blue, yellow and golden sarees, facial jewels, earrings and bangles. They all acknowledge with a smile, a namaste and a wave. Today, the average life expectancy for a man in India is 65 and for woman is 69. It’s easy to mistake some of the ladies ‘of a certain age’ as being a good deal older than they probably are. They are very dark and weathered and show signs of the hard lives they have led. Many have poor teeth, if they have teeth at all. Some of them look as though they were sitting like this when Ghandi drove past! Yet every village has a hospital within reach and medical care, at the most, a car drive away. What is essential is dealt with free at the point of need. People are encouraged to visit hospital to be vaccinated – if necessary, they receive funding from the government as an incentive. Contraception is encouraged and supported through funding and resource.
It’s the same with education. Schooling is encouraged but not mandatory. Pupils who attend school are provided with meals, uniforms and books. Schools run shift systems to fit in around the family needs. Child labour is banned but families who work the land or have businesses often get around this by using the excuse that children are ‘helping out’. Of course, if you have the resources, then private education is open to you. Some of the top Indian private schools are prohibitively expensive. With a national average salary being in the region of £15,000, some school fees are double this per annum. This is education for the few, not the many.
I ask Vivek whether he feels India is a ‘safe country’? He replies that he believes that 95% of the population are decent and honourable people. However, he says, remember that with a population of 1.3 billion, 5% accounts for a lot of people. It’s a sobering thought.
It’s blissfully pleasant having breakfast in the open air. The monkeys come down from the mountain and sit on the high walls of the hotel until one of the younger members of staff scampers off precipitously in their direction waving a long stick. Even the monkey-waving stick is beautifully adorned with silver straps and decorations. We sit drinking good coffee and eating eggs from the almost obligatory ‘egg station’ that you find at all hotels. The eggs have rich yellow yolks and taste lovely and fresh despite what we read about battery farming of hens and low standards of animal care in India. Another contradiction, I suppose.
It’s time to climb Elephant Hill. It’s a long steep climb in the heat but from the top you can see the whole ‘village’ that is so small it only has a population of 20,000! The locals have erected a large white stone elephant at the top and there are small temples and retreats for the hermits who spend time here. The view is panoramic and it’s good to go high to make sense of your bearings and the geography.
Indian palm squirrels scamper all over the top of the rise. They are very tame and you can walk to within a few inches of them before they dash off in search of tasty morsels. They look more like chipmunks than squirrels and they are absolutely everywhere.
Late in the afternoon, we head out in a jeep in search of leopards. Although we’re at quite a distance, binoculars and the zoom of the camera pick them out sitting in a cave and, later on, climbing the rocks to take in the sunset. Their ‘restaurant’ is at the foot of the escarpment. A collection of pelvic bones, ribs, femurs and skulls is all that is left of previous kills. The leopards venture down to Narlai in search of goats, dogs or whatever else they can find. Locals are compensated generously for losses in order to protect the leopards and this seems to be a harmonious arrangement that works in favour of all parties. I want to bring a femur home to add to the ‘road kill’ collection in the downstairs bathroom. Such a look of horror from everyone around me…..and a sharp word (and elbow) from Mrs H. when we get back to the hotel.
That evening, we are treated to what is known as a Stepwell dinner. We assemble at dusk and are adorned in bright red turbans. Not the neat, well-starched and ironed of the Sikh style; more of a loose baggy length of fabric wrapped round the head. A small lady with hands like claws massages shoulders while we wait for the oxen cart; which, while it sounds romantic, is in fact a bone-jarring ride. A local yogi meets us at the edge of the well, to perform a blessing. He’s thin to the point of being emaciated, skin the colour (and texture) of well-polished leather and dressed only in a thong and something they pop your onions into if you are in Waitrose. It’s all part of the experience.
Stepwells originated in India. They are wells or ponds in which the water is reached by descending a set of steps to the water level. They may be multi-storied with a bullock turning a water wheel to raise the well water to the first or second floor. Ours is lit by a thousand oil lamps and candles; it’s an ethereal experience. We sit on low divans and eat a thali of mutton, chicken, bread, pickles and curries, followed by carrot and coconut dessert. A sitar player serenades us with his repertoire and wood smoke drifts across from the open fire on which the chapattis are cooked. Above us the stars shine from a velvet black sky and we are as far away from home as we could possibly be.
Fortunately, it’s a jeep that transfers us back to the hotel. If it had been the ox cart, I might have been in traction for the duration!
There seem to be a lot of early starts on this holiday…….
Early next morning we head north from Narlai to Khambli Ghat, a local railway halt. This is an old one metre gauge railway that still transports locals across Rajasthan. It’s extremely slow but it’s easier than the roads and cheap enough to keep in business. We’re catching it from Khambli Ghat to Phulad, some one and a half hours and through countryside that inspired Kipling to write ‘A man who would be king’.
Waiting in the dust by the old Station Master’s office, I catch sight of myself in the glass of the waiting room window. I’m beginning to look scruffy enough to be a traveller. I might not have yellow trousers and a red jacket and I might not be carrying a battered copy of Bradshaws but I’m obviously intriguing enough to interest the locals. Little groups of children and teenagers assemble for photographs and selfies. It’s something to do while we wait for the train. The adults who are less impressionable sit in the dust and wait patiently. Those who must risk instant asphyxiation in the public toilets, strategically positioned as far down the platform as is possible and behind a stout brick wall. It’s rough in there, believe me.
Eventually, the train pulls slowly in. The carriages are rusty and worn and the seats are hard benches. Each carriage seats six with a luggage rack that could easily be used for extra seating or even as a bed. Fortunately, the train isn’t busy and we share a carriage with a lady in a red saree and flip-flop socks. She uses her green hand-grip bag as a pillow and curls up on the bench to sleep.
We set off. Through deep cuttings, across bridges and through fertile countryside. As we slow down, northern plains grey langur monkeys come out of the trees and jump up, holding on to the bars across the train windows and little black, leathery hands, stretch in begging for bits of food.
As usual, we are a source of curiosity for everyone. Inside the train, people keep popping in wanting their photographs taken with the videshiyon, the foreigners. Outside, workers in the fields stop, look up and wave. I’m developing a Mrs. Windsor regal wave. I always wondered how she managed it so easily. It’s all in the wrist and it’s all in the practise.
All too soon, the journey is at an end and we rejoin our coach and head for Jodhpur. Our driver, Mr Singh Snr. has been waiting patiently by the side of the road for the train to arrive. His assistant, Mr Singh Jnr., has been replenishing stocks of cold Kingfisher beer for his extremely-valued little ‘business on the side’. The strangest part of the enterprise is when we stop at a cross-roads and there’s a little man on a motorbike with a huge block of ice for the coolbox. How it happens is a mystery. But I’m glad it does.
The Ajit Bhawan Hotel is stunningly beautiful and another owned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. It’s set in magnificent grounds and feels opulent. You feel a thousand miles from anywhere until a low flying jet breaks the silence and you remember that you’re not actually very far from the India-Pakistan border and there’s been any ‘incident’ overnight and a pilot in the IAF is missing. The bed gently shakes as the plane hits the sound barrier and you realise that nowhere is genuinely ‘safe’ anymore.
I dress and go for breakfast. The breakfast room is an oasis of calm. Waiters gently glide across the floor and we’re serenaded by a gentle morning raga on sitar and tabla.
Behind me sits a gentleman in a cream linen suit. He’s clearly British and he’s reading the Times of India. It’s still produced in broadsheet format, as well.
One of the more elderly waiters approaches him.
“Is everything to your liking, sir?”
“Yes, apart from this damn music! An Englishman reads at breakfast. He doesn’t want to listen to this foreign stuff.”
I desperately fight the temptation to turn around and flick what’s left of my scrambled egg at his pomposity. It’s not only football supporters who seem determined to embarrass us abroad. Will we never learn?
We head for Mehrangarh Fort. It’s one of the largest in India. Built in 1459 by Rao Jodha, it houses a superb collection of elephant howdahs and palanquins. The narrow pathways and entrances were originally built as a form of protection. Ninety degree corners made it difficult for elephants to break into a charge. Gates were fitted with spikes to deter the elephants from head butting their way in. Slopes were installed so that soldiers could be mowed down by large stone boulders. All very well and good when there’s a war on. However, it’s not too long in the past since 2008, when a human stampede at the temple within the walls cost the lives of 249 people with a further 400 injured.
Today, it’s peaceful, thankfully, and we stop off to listen to Nawab Khan who holds demonstrations here in the art of classical raga. It’s amazingly serene and it’s easy to understand why meditation and yoga have had such an impact on civilisations across the world.
It’s quite a contrast, as well, with the hurly-burly of downtown Jodhpur – the Blue City. Houses are traditionally painted blue to help mitigate the blazing heat of the summer sun. There’s also a theory that they were painted blue on the orders of Rao Jodha as a a mark of respect to the Brahmin caste. Yet another theory is that the blue comes from copper sulphate, added to the paint to deter termites. Well, wherever in lies the truth, the fact is that the city is certainly beautiful.
We soon reach Sadar Market and the old Clock Tower, the Ghanta Ghar, built by Maharaja Sardar Singh in the 19th century. From here we head for Maharani Textiles, an outlet of a Jodhpur factory that produces scarves, pasminas, bed linen and throws for the top fashion houses in Europe: Donna Karan, Liberty, Hermes, Enzo, Moschino and Anthropolgy, to name but a few. The cashmere, silk and vicuña goods fetch up to €3000 in Paris but here, in Jodhpur, the same can be yours for as little as £150.
On the way to Bikaner, some five hours and two hundred kilometres north west, we pass the Karni Mata temple. It’s commonly referred to as the Rat Temple on account of there being 25,000 black rats or kabobs that live and breed within its walls. It would have been tempting to go in except for the fact that I’d have had to take my shoes off and it’s surprising how quickly the temptation left me when I gave it a second thought. (A second thought? Where did the first one go?)
Apparently, thousands of devotees come here from across India to worship and to that their respect to ratus ratus . Incidentally, it’s considered to be a ‘high honour’ to eat the temple food if it has already been nibbled at by one of the rats.
Yes, well….. swiftly moving on……
….to Junagarh Fort, home of Ganga Singh, Knight Commander of the Star of India, member of the Imperial War Cabinet and one of the representatives of the British Empire at the Versailles Peace Conference. It’s rat free and full of treasures and situated just outside the desert town of Bikaner, founded back in 1488.
Bikaner was once an important staging post on the great caravan trade routes. For us, it’s also home for the night at the Narendra Bhawen hotel. Yet another beautiful hotel with Art Deco furnishings and an infinity pool. The whole hotel is decorated with owner, Narendra Singhji’s souvenirs from his travels and photographs of an earlier and certainly more genteel time. By the way, we’re ‘bugled’ in by a smart man in a green military uniform. And, why not?
On the way to Japiur we pass hoardings advertising ‘Innerwear – we sell vests and drawers’ – all so beautifully decadent and terribly, terribly English.
At Fatehpur, we stop at the haveli, 19th century grand mansions built by the wealthy merchants of the area. In competition to outdo each other, they brought in the top artists and designers from Europe and spent lavishly on the houses to create the absolute epitome of grand living. Their frescoes showed the viewer the best in European transport, art and culture. Sadly, today, they are largely deserted. Their owners live away in Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai and the houses remain largely uncared for, usually with a live-in caretaker. The frescoes are gradually fading and the houses are slipping into decline.
We book into Shahpura House in residential Jaipur. Luxurious but understated, it’s a peaceful retreat in an otherwise hectic schedule.
The Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, is built in red and pink sandstone and contributes admirably to the epithet of Jaipur as the ‘Pink City’. There is so much wealth here. What is surprising is that, although India is now a constitutional republic, the royal families are still living in the country and quite visible. Back in Narlai, I bumped into one of the Maharaja’s relatives in the corridor of the hotel. He was tall with a moustache and wearing a black suit. At his feet lay three women, prostrate. They were kissing his shoes. I felt tremendously embarrassed. And in a country where the gap between those that have so much and those that have so little is more of a chasm, there is still a love and a reverence for the very rich and the very fortunate.
Perhaps this survives because the overall Empress of India was a foreigner? The heads of the Federal States were the Maharajas – India’s own. There was never the thought or the inclination to put them up against a wall and shoot them as happened so often in Europe or in Russia.
Jaipur is rich in sights. It’s the capital of Rajasthan and was founded as recently as 1727 by Jai Singh II. From the Hawa Mahal we move on to the Royal City Palace and the Jantar Mantar, an equinoctial sundial, consisting of a gigantic triangular gnomon with the hypotenuse parallel to the Earth‘s axis.
I bet you’re thinking, ‘he’s cut and pasted that from the internet’. Well, you’re right. The science and maths of the whole place went ‘whoosh’ over my head, but the actual building and the site was something to behold.
I was on safer ground at the Amer Fort. In truth, it did involve dodging a man sitting cross-legged on the street playing a tune to a rather large black cobra that had woken up in a basket and looked as though it was in search of a meal. The fort receives 5000 visitors a day and yet it never feels crowded. It’s built of red sandstone and marble and sits high on a hill overlooking the plains below. It’s stunningly attractive. The parade ground and the paths along the outer walls allow visitors to ride in howdahs on the backs of elephants. The long road up to the fort used to be completed on the back of elephants but PETA and other international pressure groups have been successful in limiting the use of elephants to the palace grounds. These days, jeeps have replaced elephants to convey visitors from the main car parks below.
The tourist business is on the up in India. Back in 2015, 8.9 million International tourists visited the country but this has risen by 15% by 2017. The Times of India reports a steady increase in both domestic and international visitors.
It was time to move on again. The long drive from Jaipur to Ranthambore National Park passes through seemingly endless villages and towns full of businesses, plantations and small farms. Tractors regularly pass loaded down with grass and hay for animal feed. The large canvas sack in which the grass is packed is as high and as wide as you could imagine. Bamboo ladders are strapped on the back and the tractor sets off. The driver cannot have a clue what is behind or to the side. He simply heads forward until he reaches wherever he is going. They are a nightmare to pass.
I cant recall ever visiting a country where so many people have gone out of their way to wave at you as you pass. Wherever we go, we are treated as friends. People stop to smile, shake your hand, greet you and ask how you are. Vivek, our guide, explains that this is part of their religion. A visitor is a guest and should be treated as such. We have much to learn from these ways. It’s certainly given me food for thought.
At a roadside store I buy a tee-shirt. I explain that I’m a size large. The assistant, almost a caricature, shakes his head from side to side and says ‘Oh dearie me, no sir” and passes the XL, the XXL and the XXXL stock. He proceeds to rummage in the pile until he reappears with a size 4XXXL. ‘This will fit sir, I think?’ He’s right. Damn…..it looks as though the diet is imminent.
Finally, we arrive at Ranthambore National Park and the brand-new Swai Villas. They’ve only been open for four days and it’s all very smart and new. We’re greeted by a young manager, resplendent in suit and cravat. I haven’t seen one of those in a while. The cravat, I mean. Graciously, we are escorted to our room.
There are a lot of staff here; and not a lot for them to do. I ring room service to order a beer. ‘I’m sorry sir, we do not operate a room service.’
I wander over to the main building. A man opens the door for me and shuts it behind me. I wander into the gents. A man opens the door for me, smiles and directs me to a cubicle. He opens the cubicle door and lowers the lid of the toilet for me. He closes the door. As I finish, he opens the door and directs me to the tap. He turns the taps on and hands me the soap dispenser. He turns the tap off and hands me a towel. He waits for the towel and then puts it into the bin. He opens the door and bids me goodbye.
I muse on the fact that there was only one task I was left to complete on my own and I dare say that, had I asked…..no, that’s enough of that.
I’ve still not found the bar. I ask for directions.
‘I am the barman, sir, but we do not have a bar.’
I ask for two beers and explain that I want to take them back to my room.
‘Certainly sir. I will bring them straightaway’.
Hang on? Hold your horses? This is a hotel that does not have room service but will deliver drinks to your room if you ask for them when you’re not in your room?
This is India, after all. I begin to wonder whether the new hotel and the necessity of an alcohol licence have not yet caught up with each other and this is making the best of a temporary situation. Still, I have my beer and the man who brings it takes the tops off the bottle and pours it into the glass before putting it down on the coffee table.
I muse on the fact that there is only one task I am left to complete on my own and I dare say that, had I asked…..no, that’s enough of that.
The hotel rooms are beautiful, if quirky. I quite like the outdoor shower that is on the other side of a glass wall in the lounge. There is a privacy curtain, although, for some reason, this is operated from the lounge side rather than being in the shower. Strangely too, there is a glass shower stall in the bathroom next to a separate glass toilet cubicle. It’s a little daunting being in the glass toilet cubicle. I start laughing. It’s as though I’ve been put in there so I can’t hear the questions or see the other contestants. Now, what was the name of that quiz show?
You have to get up early if you’re going to see tigers! We’re up and about by 5.30 a.m. on a cold March morning. The seats in the jeep are wet with the morning dew and the camel-coloured blankets are welcome, if not particularly effective as camouflage.
The bone-shaking ride into the national park is bearable and we see langurs and rhesus macaque monkeys. We see Samba and spotted deer, crocodiles, giant Egyptian vultures, wild boar and bird after bird after bird. There are orange birds, green birds, black birds and even some called drongos, which Australian tourists must find a hoot.
But no tigers.
We’re told that they’ve been around and we spot a huge paw print. We’re told that there are two somewhere in the undergrowth with a kill. We’re told that the deer that has just run off has been ‘spooked’ by a tiger.
It’s small comfort indeed. Wet bottom, sore shoulders and a rumbling stomach. But no tiger. I can’t help but be disappointed.
I need a bit of R & R and decide to spend the afternoon lazing by the pool and thinking about what could have been had we seen tigers. YouTube is full of clips by people who have seen them not half a mile from where I am lying. Punishing myself will do no good. Time to pack and move on.
At Fatehpur Sikri, we stop at the deserted city which was the centre of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century and built by Emperor Akbar. By 1601 it was abandoned and remained so ever since. It’s a massive red sandstone construction and much of it was hidden under desert sands for centuries.
Entering Agra is a shock to the senses. It’s a racket of car horns and shouting. Home to over one and a half million people, it’s not what you would call an attractive place, but it is a major centre for tourists for three reasons. One is Fatehpur Sikri, the others, Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal.
We book into the Courtyard by Marriott. We’re back to modern and corporate and I’m missing the beauty of heritage hotels. It’s very convenient and everything is to a good standard, but it lacks something. It lacks personality and charm.
In the afternoon we visit Agra Fort. It was the main residence of the Mughal dynasty until 1638 when the capital moved from Agra to Delhi. It’s a huge edifice. I’d first heard of it when I read ‘The Sign of Four’ by Arthur Conan Doyle and it doesn’t disappoint. Not at all. It’s a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s not really a fort, more of a walled city.
Very, very early the following morning we queue to enter the Taj Mahal. Even by 6.40 when the gates open there are queues and it’s busy. The gates open in time for the sunrise, so as the year lengthens, the times change.
There are no words to describe the majesty and the beauty of the Taj Mahal. From every angle, at every change of the light the view is incredibly beautiful.
It is built out of brick and faced in ivory-white marble. Erected in 1643, it is a mausoleum to house the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of Shah Jahan. It’s a jewel of Muslim art and, undeniably and universally, one of the most admired masterpieces of world heritage.
We book into the LaLit hotel, Delhi. Modern, soul-less and, to be honest, not a patch on any of the hotels that we’ve stayed in to date. Our room on the 7th floor is heavy with cigarette smoke and I go down to reception to sort it out.
Look, I’m a tad asthmatic and I can’t stay there.
I’m sorry sir, let me see what we can do to help…..Would you like a room with two queens?
Now under normal circumstances, I’m pretty broadminded and, well…any port in a storm, so to speak. But I’ve a long flight tomorrow and I need my sleep.
One room, two beds, sir?
Oh, I see………
We end our travels in Delhi. The recent incident between Pakistan and India means that Pakistan air space is closed and we must fly south to Mumbai before turning west and heading back to London. Eleven hours of flight time means an early night and a fond farewell to our companions after one last meal together.
Mr Singh, both senior and junior have left to pick up new duties and we’re sorry to say goodbye and farewell to our guide, Vivek. He’s become a good friend in such a short time. Two of our group are staying an extra night in Delhi and another couple are heading south to Goa for a restful beach extension and to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
But, for six of us, it’s time to transfer to the airport and go home.
If truth be told, I dreaded coming to India. I had visions of filth, poverty, constant pestering and irritations. I dreaded being ill. I’d packed for pre-illness, illness and post-illness recovery. The back of the suitcase was like a veritable Timothy Whites – with matching expiry dates. Immodium, dioralytes, toilet seat covers, tissues (wet and dry), compostable rubbish bags for ‘bush stops’, paracetamol and Antinell (not available in the UK but in the Middle East they are ideal – ready-mix in capsule form. Guaranteed – take one and you never need go again!); you name it, I’d packed it. The only thing that was missing were incontinence pants and, fortunately, my companion from Brighton had packed those!
And we never needed any of it. I’d picked up a cold and a cough but that’s nothing new; but in the plumbing department, everything was as it should be.
On top of that, I’ve developed a taste for curry. I graduated from Angel Delight strength early on and moved through mastering kormas and on to the next stage. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to chance my arm at a vindaloo, mind. Someday, I’m going to try Chicken Tarka Masala. It’s meant to be like Tikka but this is a little ‘otter. Mind you, if it kills me it won’t be because of food-poisoning. It’ll be a heart attack on account of the dodgy Tikka.
Moving on, swiftly…
…and honestly, what I hadn’t bargained on – what I’d never dreamed of was a country where the welcome would be so warm. Where people would be so pleased to see you, so engaging. Where the sights, sounds, colours and light would bombard you with their intensity and vibrancy.
Our history in India is not without shame. It is to the credit of the Indian people that their magnanimity is so great.
Mark Twain said of India: ‘India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and constructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.’
I’ll be back…….
…and finally some images from India