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Rajasthan, 2012

Updated: May 10, 2021

20 November to 4 December 2012

Why am I writing this? We have just come back from a spectacularly wonderful two weeks in Rajasthan, but maybe there are enough ecstatic descriptions of the Lake Palace in Udaipur to be getting on with. Why more? There are several reasons.

The first is that I’ve just been reading a note of a trip by friends to much the same places as we went to, which tells a very different story, with very different experiences from ours. They did all the bookings themselves, went to many places by train and stayed in pretty basic guesthouses. We had the benefit of doing it all through Original Travel and went to classy hotels. But the places we went to were often the same. They couldn’t get away from the filth, the poverty, and also the begging as well as the lying and deceptions. Happily we missed the latter. We saw friendliness at all levels – even if we couldn’t of course miss the poverty.

The second reason for putting things down on paper is failing memory. Already some of the experiences are merging in the mind. I managed to take over 600 photographs. Maybe it would be good to have a note of what they all are before they get lost in the mists of time.

And finally the great firm of Original Travel (I should perhaps disclose that my daughter works for them) have suggested that a doubtless edited (and much reduced) version might be put on a website. Original Travel certainly did a superb job. They (Miranda Boord is the India expert) did the planning and fixed up the delivery through their representatives, Banyan Tours, who also did a great job.

Background

We wanted to see Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, perhaps other places, as well as the Taj Mahal (even though it’s not in Rajasthan), but not Delhi or Bombay, which we had already been to. Most people seem to do it in the reverse direction to us, but we went to Bombay first and then made our way up to Delhi to fly back. (A little aside: I’m sticking to Bombay not Mumbai because some Indian friends encouraged me to do so, some years ago. Apparently the name-change was masterminded by the Hindu political party – some say the extremist Hindu party – the BJP, and in particular Bal Thackeray who happened to die the day before we arrived. Bombay was put out of action during the mourning ceremonies, but it didn’t seem to affect us.)

Another piece of background is the thorny question of luxury. We said to Miranda at the planning stage that we weren’t looking for luxury: we were wanting to see India. Actually, of course, it was nice to stay in luxury hotels, partly because of the alternative. But there is an important distinction, certainly in Rajasthan. There are the so-called “heritage” hotels, which are often palaces or former palaces of the local maharaja, converted into top quality hotels, but also modern luxury hotels, built in highly polished marble, with no historic or other connection with the locality. We definitely tried to go for the former.

And before we get on to the detail, I must say a word about Original Travel. The whole trip went perfectly. Travel in India can be difficult, as everyone knows. Friends who we met there, and who had used another firm, had had their little problems; we had none. Congratulations to Original Travel and, of course, to their excellent friends in India, Banyan Tours!

Udaipur

First stop was Udaipur. We got there after dark. (We’d arrived in Bombay, were taken to the luxurious Leela Hotel to recuperate, and transported to the domestic airport to board a propeller plane to Udaipur.) At Udaipur airport we were greeted by the elegant Govind Singh, who escorted us to the car to take us to the hotel in Udaipur. Govind was from Travel Plan, another travel company. At this stage we were baffled by the variety of companies involved. Banyan had already given us a folder with vouchers and information, but no mention of Original Travel. No one had explained about this. Obviously Original Travel has no-one on the ground in all the many countries that they cover: they have representatives. In India it’s Banyan. And Banyan subcontract to other firms and individuals. Actually, despite the confusion, it soon became clear that Banyan, and indeed their own subcontractors, were high quality people. We soon forgot about the potential confusion.

We were delivered to our hotel, the Fateh Prakash, (left) a part of the vast complex of buildings that comprise the palace of the Maharana of Udaipur. The palace is on the edge of the lake in the middle of which is the famous Lake Palace Hotel. The latter is a mystery. No one mentions it; despite the fact that it’s probably the most famous building in Rajasthan. Why? One reason (the one given) is that security has been vastly increased since the bombings in Bombay: you can’t go there unless you stay there. No casual visitors. It is also amazingly expensive, if you do want to stay there. So all you can do is look from afar – and take a boat trip to look at it slightly, but not much, nearer.

The Fateh Prakesh has its curiosities. You get led down endless corridors, largely made of gleaming white marble, with no one in sight. The room (probably like the others) is lavish in an old-world style and has a superb view of the Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of the lake. But there are no public sitting rooms. You are either in your room, or in the restaurant, or out in the town. (Actually, it later transpires that there is another building, very grand, with portraits of assorted maharanas.)

Another aside. We talk about maharajas (and maharanas – see below). Of course they are no such thing in these egalitarian days, having been stripped of their titles and powers (and property) by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. But they still retain much prestige and, apparently, the affection and respect of the locals. They also retain substantial property. The one in Udaipur has a special status and is referred to as a maharana, not a maharaja, because of the fact that Udaipur never surrendered to the Mughals. The current maharana is a man in his late 60s, sporting an enormous white beard, and owning (and driving) a large collection of vintage motorcars. He is held in much affection by his (non) subjects. One of the TV channels in the (his) hotel has a rolling programme about Udaipur, with an extensive interview with him. He would not be drawn on any criticism of the circumstances of his reduced powers and property, but maintains that he is a proud citizen of the democratic country that is now India. He must agree with the Sicilian aristocrat Lampedusa that one must accept change to ensure that things remain the same.

The Maharana’s hotel and the whole palace complex is a sprawling jumble of buildings that I certainly never quite worked out. We were led round by perhaps the best guide we came across, Bodhendra Singh (left). He comes from a family of Rajput landowners who were stripped of most of their land and property in the 1970s and now have to find other ways of earning a living – like guiding foreigners. He was charming and full of information. Of course, there was no pressure to go to shops and buy carpets. But we did actually want to; and he made it very clear, in an apologetic way, that he would get a rake-off.

The museum is part of the palace. There were crowds of tourists, mainly Indian, but also groups of French and Germans; not many Brits. Narrow corridors, low doorways, wonderful courtyards and intricately decorated rooms. The most amazing – and curious – is the Crystal Room, a bizarre collection of crystal objects, including large pieces of furniture (beds, tables, chairs) all made of elaborately constructed crystal. They were made in Birmingham to the order (and design, to some extent) of the then Maharana by the long-since defunct firm of Ostler & Co. The Maharana died young, before it had all been completed. His successor had it all put into storage. Only recently has it been unveiled and put on display.

When we were there, the whole palace and hotel were over-run by preparations for a mega-wedding, massively extravagant, taking place over a period of a few days. A member of the Maharana’s extended family perhaps? No – the daughter of a rich businessman who made his money by supplying the ink for the local banknotes. It was rumoured to be costing millions. How many I forget, partly because of the typically Indian way of referring to money. Another diversion: Indians seem rarely to talk about millions. They talk about lakhs (100,000) and crores (10 million). So a million will be 10 lakhs and a billion 100 crores. When you start trying to convert an amount into sterling, it all becomes tricky (even though the rupee/sterling exchange is easy – roughly 100 rupees to the pound). So the wedding was costing, according to the rumour machine, 10 crores, or was it 100 crores, or even 1,000 crores? More than you’d want to spend, anyway, unless you’re a rich Indian . . .

Lunch on both our days in Udaipur at a lovely restaurant, the Raaj Bagh (Royal Garden in Hindi) with its tables under tents on a grass lawn going down to the side of the lake. The food was maybe the best we had anywhere. All for about £10 for the two of us. Amazing! The businessman could save a few crores by switching the venue.

We saw one temple. People talk about being templed-out in India – seen one, seen them all. That kind of thing. Not us really. Maybe our guides correctly identified our temple capacity. This one was the Jagdish Temple, quite well-known, dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu the preserver (as opposed to Shiva the destroyer and Brahma the creator). Beautiful and amazingly well-preserved carvings on the outside; inside a group of colourfully clad women sitting on the ground performing a musical ritual, with us and other tourists wandering around. No one seemed to mind.

Dinner (at the recommendation of Bodhendra) at the 1559 restaurant. It was good but maybe not so good as our favourite lunch place (near by). It’s named after the year in which Maharana Udai, retreating from Mughal advances, founded the city of Udaipur. We sat outside, needing our jumpers and the portable log fire that was wheeled up to the table.

Another aside: on the subject of weather and temperatures. Rajasthan in November can be cold. You definitely need jumpers and even coats in the evening and to some extent in the morning. Obviously it gets warm by midday, but not excessively so. In the wild animal reserve (see below), for the early morning drive you need coats and blankets – anything you can lay your hands on (our hotel supplied hot water bottles!).

To Rawla Narlai

We now get to know the driver, Madan. Madan had been a rather silent presence at the wheel, while Bodhendra was holding forth on all subjects from maharajas and mughals to restaurants and extravagant weddings. But after we’d said our sad farewells to Bodhendra, Madan came into his own and became positively loquacious, initially hard to understand but in time less so. The deal is that Madan stays with us from Udaipur to Ranthambore, some 10 days. He became a good friend. And one got to admire his driving.

Traffic on Indian roads has its own unique characteristics, which we had many hours to study. Madan explained the basic rules, which are similar to those in England: they drive on the left; the slow lane is (in theory) on the far left; the fast lane on the right. So far so good. But the catch is that practice and theory part company in a fairly dramatic way. Trucks and buses mostly trundle along in the “fast” lane, occasionally in the middle lane, almost never in the slow lane. Tractors, mopeds, cyclists, bullock carts and very slow vehicles of all sorts tend to follow the rules and largely (but by no means reliably) stick to the slow lane. Cows obviously don’t follow the rules at all and are liable to be encountered singly or in groups anywhere they please, often crossing the highway at their own deliberate pace. Running into a cow is, quite rightly, avoided at all costs, cows of course being sacred in Hindu religions. The result of all this is that cars, like ours, dart around in all available lanes, normally overtaking on the left (undertaking, as we would say), but often having also to weave around a bullock cart making its slow progress in the slow lane. This is the system on dual carriageways, which most of the main roads we took were. Non-dual carriageways were another story, in general too hairy to contemplate. Traffic in towns is different again; maybe we’ll revert to that when we get to the towns, particularly Agra . . .

Another potential hazard is monkeys. On the route from Udaipur we came across a major gathering of Langur monkeys with their jet black faces and wide staring eyes surrounded by light grey fur. We managed to count up to about 50 and then came across yet more. They were sitting on the road, beside the road, on the trees, ever ready to jump on the cars if they spotted the possibility of food. We (perhaps unwisely) threw out a banana. The car was instantly covered in monkeys. They’d have come into the car had we not shut the window in time. In the event all they did was damage the side mirror. Great fun to watch, but aggressive as well.

There was one stop – to see the fortress of Kumbalgargh. It’s a hilltop fort of vast size with a massive wall round it, 3 meters wide and running to 36 km in length – rather like the Great Wall of China, even if it is a few thousand miles shorter and doubtless not visible from space. We admired a small but perfectly formed Jain (or possibly Hindu) temple, declined to climb up to the hilltop palace, or to walk around the 36 km of wall. More monkeys, of course.

On to Rawla Narlai

This was the big discovery of the trip – although it had been strongly recommended by Miranda at the time of planning. Narlai is no more than a village. Rawla Narlai was a hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Jodhpur and is still owned by the family. It’s been very tastefully converted into a hotel with ultra-luxurious rooms, without in any way destroying the peaceful nature of the place. We were welcomed by Ed Parry-Smith, a young Englishman (ex-Eton), on work experience for a few months before going to Freshfields as a trainee solicitor. He performed a very useful role. He was leaving a week or so after our visit and was helping to train his successor (whose level of English will be a challenge). We met his parents, the father, Philip being a vet and his mother, Amanda, having been a lawyer, although some time ago.

We also met Rana Sahib, a cousin of the royal owner of the hotel, who tended to sit somewhat regally in the courtyard drinking his tea. He said that he was our host and underlined by his presence the rather feudal nature of the place and its relationship to the village and inhabitants.

Rawla Narlai is a nice place to relax, but there were various outings. We were taken round the village by the delightful Lala, in his red turban (left). This involved going into houses, watching people make shoes, sewing beads onto material, making bread, looking after babies and preparing for weddings. It was plainly a wedding season, with much music and dancing. Everyone was amazingly welcoming and mostly quite relaxed about having their photographs taken. Lala kept saying that they didn’t expect money, which seemed to be right, although whatever was offered was needless to say gratefully received.

In the evening we were taken (by royal jeep) to have supper at a nearby “step well” - not an animal I’d come across before. It’s essentially a large reservoir with steps going down into it. It was still about half full; apparently fuller than usual at this time because of the unusually heavy, and very welcome, monsoon a few months ago. For the evening, they had lit candles on the steps and we (about eight of us) sat around a log fire (wearing our wooly jumpers – see above). Eventually food, in the shape of thalis, emerged from somewhere behind the trees.

There was one expedition that I did alone, with Madan of course. That was to Ranakpur to see the Jain temple. If you want to limit your exposure to temples, this is the one to go for: all in white marble, supported by 1,440 beautifully carved columns. A peaceful place, despite the crowds. Many more monkeys.

The final outing took the form of the only real physical exercise of the entire two weeks. Narlai sits at the foot of a kind of mini-Ayers Rock. Madan, Philip and I climbed up to the top, to pay our respects to a large elephant statue that crowns it. It involved 760 steps and took us about 30 minutes, possibly a world record for old age pensioners, although actually not nearly as exhausting as it appears that it might be when looked at from the ground.

On the way to Jodhpur

We stopped at yet another royal lodge, called Rohet Garh. Delicious lunch on the verdant courtyard. Not as attractive as Rawla Narlai, partly because the welcome from the staff was muted.

Jodhpur

We stayed at another splendid old palace, called Raas, lavishly converted into a luxury hotel, situated under, and with an amazing view of, the massive Meherangarh Fort that overlooks and dominates the whole city.

Our first experience was not enhanced by loud and frankly intrusive music and chanting, apparently emanating at high amplification from a mosque (or from around it) situated between the fort and the hotel. We had in fact been warned of the 5.45 am call to prayer and offered complimentary earplugs, but not of continuous “music”, which someone now warned us would last for some days. Fortunately it didn’t; it calmed down as the evening progressed. Jodhpur has a higher proportion of Moslems than other cities in Rajasthan (20% as against 10%, in broad terms). The reason goes back to the days of partition in 1947 when the then Maharaja encouraged his Moslem subjects to stay and not to emigrate to Pakistan. Jodhpur was, and probably still is, a tolerant community – although I felt that this tolerance must be put under some strain by the (to me, aggressively) loud and amplified celebrations and calls to prayer. End of rant!

Our guide in Jodhpur was Kahn Singh (left), another elegant Rajput, with good English although not quite so good as Bodhendra’s.


Our tour of Jodhpur took in two monuments: the fort and also a monument to one of the Maharajas, the Jaswant Thanda. The latter is a stunning white marble temple (maybe not really a temple) set on a hill near the fort.


The Meherangarh Fort is built on an enormous rock, housing in its day a few thousand people, completely impregnable. The exterior has much beautiful carving on its distinctive brown stone. Inside are various exhibits from earlier times, including swords, howdahs, palanquins, and a series of very beautiful paintings done (doubtless with squirrel-hair brushes) on ricepaper in the traditional Rajput style.

More sinisterly, we were shown the handprints, made in 1843 and preserved on the wall of the gate, of the widows of one of the Maharajas, as they left to commit Suti on the funeral pyre of their late husband. This was the last mass Suti to have taken place, we were told. The British of course did their best to stop it, although we never ruled in Rajasthan. Mark Tully, in his book No Full Stops in India tells a gruesome story that indicates that the practice hasn’t entirely died out to this day.

We took a walk through the bazaar, if that’s the right word, and were led into what seemed to be the leading shop/warehouse for fabrics of all kinds. Reader, we were persuaded (having denied all intention of buying anything) to buy some delightful material as a “throw”. They showed us endless magazine articles with photographs of Prince Charles and others who had been similarly persuaded.

On our second evening in Jodhpur, we went with friends to an extravagantly constructed hotel, the Umaid Bhawan Palace, for dinner (we were told) on the roof, but actually on the terrace. It’s a magnificent, completely over-the-top place, where the Maharaja lives in a separate wing. Highlights include an indoor swimming pool of great luxury (and exotic aroma) and lavatories with (in the case of the male version) mildly erotic photographs from the 1920s.

On our second day in Jodhpur, we went to some Bishnu villages, where we saw a potter making his pots, a farmer smoking his hookah (and drinking a concoction from poppies grown by him – illegally, but apparently no one worries), his daughter milking a cow, and at another village a weaver making a dhuri – showing us pictures of Prince Charles (again), Richard Gere and others admiring his wares. Interestingly, all these villages were immaculately clean – even though of course the villagers were living amongst animals and heating was largely done by burning cow dung. In complete contrast to the filth in the towns and cities.

Jaipur

Our hotel in Jaipur was (of course) another former palace, the Samode Haveli, where a current Maharaja (not of Jaipur, but of some lesser place) lives, with his dogs, which get walked around the garden by a functionary. It’s a delightful, calm place, right in the middle of Jaipur with its seething multitudes (4 million of them). Our room is vast, in an old style, with ancient photographs of assorted maharajas on the walls.

A trivial note about these luxurious heritage hotels: nowhere to put your clothes. What do these tourists do with the contents of their large suitcases? In many of the hotel rooms there are no drawers at all, and precious little hanging space. People just live out of their suitcases, I guess. And definitely nowhere to hang a towel. But that’s because no up-market traveller would dream of using a towel twice. Also, wifi connections are shaky. In some of the hotels, one is told it’s available, but normally it doesn’t work, or only works intermittently.

Jaipur is the “pink city”. Some say that this is because Prince Albert (later Edward VII) visited in 1876 and liked it. The Rough Guide is brave enough to admit that this is probably nonsense.

Our guide is Thakur Ummed Singh, the most aristocratic of them all (Thakur means Lord or perhaps just Sir). Ummed is a relation of the Maharaja (his grandfather’s sister married a previous Maharaja) and this shows in the somewhat curious, and delightful way that the other guides and all the functionaries at the palace greet him in a deferential kind of way. It seems to mean that we get a modest amount of special treatment. He is a charming man. We buy a picture book with a whole section devoted to pictures of his daughter’s wedding; and another with a picture of him having a chat to President Clinton. We feel in good company. He is also, as one might expect, a first class guide.

The palace in Jaipur is a museum and extends over many acres. In a part of it the current Maharaja lives, although he is only 14 years old. We learn about the royal family of Jaipur. The previous Maharaja, who only died last year, was known as “Bubbles”, so called by his nanny confronted by the champagne celebrations that followed his birth – no male heir had been born in living memory. His predecessor, the last actual ruling Maharaja before they were all technically stripped of their titles, died as a result of a polo accident in Cirencester. His wife was the celebrated beauty, Gayatri Devi of Cooch Behar, who died recently at an advanced age.

One feature of the museum/palace is the observatory constructed in the 18th century by the founder of the city, Jai Singh, who was fascinated by astronomy, as well as astrology, which was doubtless part of the same thing in those far off times. It consists largely of massive sundials, which tell the time accurately, subject to an adjustment to deal with the difference (15 minutes) between Indian Standard Time (IST) and real time in Jaipur.

The other major sight at Jaipur (actually on a hill some miles outside Jaipur) is the Amber Fort; so-called one would assume because of its golden, amberish colour, but we are told that it’s a corruption of a Hindi word for “high up”. (I feel readers should know that.) It’s impressive and, in one of the open courtyards, a group of beautifully painted elephants trundle around with tourists on their backs. Ummed thought that such a thing was well beneath our dignity. I wasn’t so sure, but we dutifully admired them from the ground.

We had a minor disappointment on the dining front in Jaipur. At the combined recommendation of Ummed and the driver Madan, we went to a dismal place where the food was pretty basic and we were the only customers. Then a group of musicians started making sounds that could have been appealing in an ethnic sort of way, but were deafening. They were joined by a tiny but attractive dancer who did the well-known routine of dancing with a series of pots on her head. She was keen that I should join the dancing – which I’m afraid I did (without the pots), partly to relieve the boredom. We made our excuses and left.

Ranthambore and Tigers

Now for something completely different – tigers – and the Ranthambore National Park. Ranthambore is one of the largest and best wild life parks in Northern India. The first thing you’re told is not to set your hopes too high of seeing a tiger. But nevertheless, we made the expedition (quite a long drive with not much to see on the way). And we were lucky . . .

We were staying at the Sherbagh tented camp (below), a wonderful place on the edge of the Park. Don’t be deceived by the word “tented”. Yes, one is in a tent, but it’s fully equipped with a comfortable bed and excellent bathroom. The place also has great reception areas and fantastic food, cooked by a top class Sikh chef.

Sherbagh (Tiger Garden in Hindi, incidentally) is run by an English-public-school educated manager, called Yousef, who is very well informed about the wild life in the Park and particularly the tigers, which he is closely involved in monitoring. The population had recently declined alarmingly into single figures, presumably because of poaching. The poaching seems to be under control now. There are now over 50 tigers in the whole park. The current edition of the Rough Guide says there are 35. Progress is being made.

We went on four drives. The system is tricky. The park is run on bureaucratic lines, with the worthy objective of limiting the number of vehicles that go in. But the bureaucracy is pretty tiresome. The park doesn’t open till 7.00 am, which is early, but of course it means that it’s well after dawn before you can be properly in the park – and dawn is when you can best see nocturnal creatures like tigers. The other good time is dusk, but the park closes at 5.00pm. There are six or seven routes that the vehicles use and these are allotted “by computer” on the day, so you don’t know in advance where you’re going and you can’t control whether it’s the same route you went on before. Here Yousef is a valuable man. He seemed to be able to work the system a bit. We certainly were lucky in that we went on four different routes.

The vehicles come in two varieties. There are the open jeeps (known as Gypsys), each seating about six (maximum), plus the driver and guide. There are also open top buses that take about 20, known as Canters (see right). Happily we were on Gypsys – Canters didn’t look much fun.

We went on a drive almost as soon as we got there, during the afternoon. And next day we went on two more, morning and afternoon. Plenty of monkeys, as well as deer – small Spotted and larger Sambar. A crocodile, at some distance. Birds. But no tigers. Of course, people are right: you shouldn’t go just to see tigers. It’s a beautiful park, with lakes, high cliffs, rich vegetation, and a multitude of other things to see, but somehow . . . You also hear that November/December, after the monsoon, is not the best time as the vegetation makes it more difficult to see the animals. Better in May/June, but then of course it’s almost unbearably hot. By the end of the third drive, we’d resigned ourselves to not seeing tigers.

But, as I say, we were lucky - on the fourth drive. After much driving around, on our allotted route, we heard – or more precisely our lovely guide Balbir (or Bablu) heard – the warning sounds made by the deer when they sense the presence of a tiger. We aimed in the direction of the sounds and waited patiently. We listened for noises in the dense undergrowth. Balbir could obviously hear things we couldn’t. He persuaded us to be patient – and quiet. Then a vehicle some 100 yards ahead flashed its headlights. That was the sign. We drove towards it and there, on our right, on open rocky ground was an enormous and beautiful tigress dragging the carcass of a small Sambar deer she had killed some 15-30 minutes before. She dragged it for a few yards, then stopped, panting, looking around, apparently completely oblivious of us and of a rapidly increasing number of vehicles that had emerged from nowhere. She seemed to be posing for photographs, which was exactly what she was doing.

We then learnt about her. She is Tiger number 17 or T17, about 6-7 years old and has two cubs, born earlier in the year. They call her Sundari, Hindi for beautiful. Balbir thinks that the cubs are higher up the hill. Sundari is dragging the kill somewhere where she can hide it for a short time till she can bring the cubs down to get their breakfast.

So, this was a fine conclusion to our visit. You mustn’t set your hopes too high. There are plenty of other things to enjoy. But actually, people do come to Ranthambore to see a tiger. Sorry.

I should have mentioned the leopards and the sloth bears. Very rare and difficult to see. The leopards tend to stay up in the hills and on the cliffs, partly to keep away from the tigers. And the sloth bears (unlike Kipling’s version, Baloo, and certainly unlike Walt Disney’s) are excessively shy and retiring.

Train to Agra

We took our first train ride from what the Rough Guide impolitely calls the rather grubby town of Sawai Madhopur, which is very near Sherbagh.

We were first class, with a numbered seat. It all looked slightly alarming, partly because our compartment had four bunks rather than seats and our “seat” number seemed to be on one of the upper bunks. But it turned out that there were only two others in the compartment, so all was well. They were Belgian, he an orthodontist going to Delhi to give a lecture, she his wife.

I tried to go along to other carriages to check out what second and third class were like, but didn’t get past the loo, which put me right off further researches.

Fatehpur Sikri

We left the train at Bharatpur, some half an hour late, were met by a new driver and guide, who took us to Fatehpur Sikri, the palace built by Akbar some 400 years ago and deserted a few years later. It was all a bit too late in the evening and we weren’t entirely in the mood for Mughal emperors.

Agra

We were then driven to our unbelievably luxurious hotel in Agra, the Amarvilas, with its views, from every room, of the Taj Mahal. Agra is a sizeable city with many millions of inhabitants, not just the home of the Taj. And this shows in the traffic conditions, which were easily the most dire of anywhere we went.

Next day, of course, we saw the Taj Mahal. Our itinerary suggested a viewing at sunrise, but we were told not to bother. At this time of year, it’s misty until at least 8.00 am. This turned out to be dead right. So we went at a more civilized time, but early enough to avoid the worst of the crowds. And what can one usefully say? It has to be the most beautiful building in the world. And enough words have already been written, in prose and doubtless poetry, and in many languages, to justify me lazily failing to add to them. Except to record, what again everyone truthfully says, that it never fails to overwhelm when actually seen, despite all the photographs.

One point can be made, perhaps in conclusion. I find myself always fascinated to know more about the role of the British in India generally, and the extent to which our influence survives, particularly in the preservation of historic buildings. Frankly, it’s hard to find much evidence on the ground. But our influence was substantial in Agra. Lord Curzon, when he was Viceroy, took particular pains to ensure the preservation of the buildings at Agra, which he believed to “possess the most beautiful body of architectural remains in the world”. He also praised the work of Sir John Strachey for his “really noble work of renovation and repair at Agra”. And one record of the latter can still be seen in the palace at the Agra Fort, namely a marble slab erected by Lord Lytton in 1880.

Nehru said that “after every other viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India”. It is good to be helping to fulfill Nehru’s prophecy.

Tony Herbert

9 December 2012


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