A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Keep Smiling


Mumbai, Udaipur, Ranakpur, Jodhpur, Nagaur, Roopangarh, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Keoladeo, Fatehpur Sikri, Chambal, Agra, Mathura, Delhi, Shimla, McLeod Ganj, Pong and Amritsar

View Three travel bloggers go to Bhārata on Keep Smiling's travel map.

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Some know it as Hindustan - but Bhārata, the Sanskrit name of the country we know and love as India, sounds somehow more intriguing, doesn’t it? I think the map of our route may have given you a clue though!

Three travel bloggers?

It probably won’t get a mention in the Guinness Book of Records but, yes, three travel bloggers will be travelling together. A short explanation follows:

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.

James A. Michener

My wife really only rejects the food, spicy and otherwise. Indeed, her body rejected it so violently on her last visit to India that she vowed never to return! So, she’ll be staying at home - again.

Me? Well, I really enjoy the food (despite its occasional adverse effects) and I'm fascinated by the ways of life, the sights, the colours... So, here I go again - wifeless - on my umpteenth visit to India.

This time, I’ll be accompanied by my brother David and his lovely wife Janice, jointly known by their blogging name as the Grey haired nomads . They’ve been to loads of incredible places. Incredibly, however, they’ve never been to Incredible India!

The old adage says: ‘two’s company...’ and it may not be everyone’s cup of chai to travel in a threesome. However, it's possible that Janice and David's little friend Todd will be coming too (you’ll have to read their version of our wanderings to find out), so the crowd could safely become four. In any event, my big brother and I seem to have been more ‘in touch’ with one another in recent years than we ever were in our youth. Nowadays, thanks to advancing years and family reunions at Janice and David’s delightful home in the forest (where Janice is always the ‘hostess with the mostest’ and I’m often seen wielding the barbecue tongs), combined with occasional visits and frequent long chats on Skype, we all see one another much more frequently. We’ve discovered that we have many things in common and, as we’ll be living in each other's pockets for five weeks, that’s probably a good thing!

Where are we going?

Our travels will take us to hot and humid Mumbai, then onto the desert state of Rajasthan, where we’ll visit Udaipur, Ranakpur, Jodhpur, Nagaur, Roopangarh, Jaipur, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Keoladeo National Park (formerly known to birders as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary), Fatehpur Sikri and the National Chambal Sanctuary. We’ll stop at the Taj Mahal and Krishna’s birthplace of Mathura on the way to the cosmopolitan capital of Delhi, before heading further north to the chilly foothills of the Himalayas. Then, we’ll descend to Maharana Pratap Sagar - otherwise known as Pong (it’s a reservoir and we hope it doesn't!) - and to Amritsar, the spiritual centre of the Sikh religion.

I have to add that we're not backpacking, although it may seem like it to the 'nomads'. If you check out their past blogs, you'll observe that they frequently travel the world by motorhome, staying as long as it takes to see what's there. For this trip, they'll somehow have to fit their usual limitless wardrobe into a couple of suitcases!

How are we getting around and where are we staying?

For three of our five weeks, we'll be travelling by car, with a driver - they don't accept our pensioners' bus passes in these parts and, in any case, a private car's a more convenient, flexible and comfortable way to cover a lot of ground in a short time. There are a couple of internal flights, a train journey and a few long taxi rides too.

Throughout, we'll be staying in modest hotels or enjoying the company of 'real' people in homestays, India's equivalent of bed and breakfasts. We'll only be staying a couple of nights in most places and, so we don't have to waste valuable time hunting for accommodation, it's all been booked in advance.

What will we be doing?

You'll have to follow our blogs to discover that! Suffice to say, it’s a very full itinerary that’s been carefully planned and organised by us all over many months to combine a great mixture of culture, flora and fauna. We certainly won't "reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people".

We’ll experience some of the things that make this country so very 'foreign' to most Westerners – countless peoples, colourful costumes, endless myths and legends, incomprehensible languages, and extremes of wealth, poverty and climate.

We’ll see some of India’s remarkable architectural heritage – the white Jain temples at Ranakpur, the massive Meherangarh Fort at Jodhpur, the inimitable Taj Mahal at Agra, the Golden Temple at Amritsar... to name but a few fantastic buildings, large and small.

I'll introduce my fellow bloggers to some of the wonderful friends I've made here over the years. We'll even attend the wedding of the sister of one of them.

If we’re extremely lucky, we might glimpse elusive and endangered tigers, Gangetic gharials and freshwater dolphins.

We'll spot as many as possible of the country’s 1,250 species of birds, plus a few of its 410 species of mammals and a bunch of its 15,000 species of flowering plants - but hopefully not too many of its 200 species of snakes!

We'll probably be bitten by some of the countless species of insects. And, I’m certain that Janice and David will be so bitten by the ‘India bug’ that, like me, they'll want to return time and again.

Incredible people

Incredible animals

Incredible salesmen

...and incredible photo opportunities

Posted by Keep Smiling 14:34 Archived in India Tagged india Comments (5)


Asia » India » Maharashtra » Mumbai » Colaba 11 to 13 February 2013

sunny 28 °C
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When you've visited somewhere quite often, it becomes difficult to find anything very new to say about it, doesn't it?

I've been to the hot and humid city of Mumbai (Bombay) four or five times, most recently in 2009 (Mumbai's extremes) when it was a convenient place to meet my young Rajasthani friend on our way south to Kerala. This time, it was a convenient place to start a tour to the north with my travelling companions, the 'Grey haired nomads' - my elder brother David and his wife Janice, neither of whom had been here before. They like peaceful, wide open spaces and don't normally do cities, so I think they were a bit overwhelmed by it all. Well, this is one of the most heavily-populated metropolitan areas in the world with over 20.5 Million people crammed into it. To put this into perspective, that's more than the populations of London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Berlin and Vienna combined!

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The Gateway of India, Mumbai

It's also the commercial capital, a global financial hub and by far the wealthiest city in India. This you'd only realise by looking at some of the modern tower blocks, glass skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings, which loom above cramped and dilapidated dwellings that house the average Mumbaiker.

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Cricket on the Maidan Oval (one of dozens of casual games in progress) and at Dhobi Ghat, a huge open-air laundry where mountains of sheets and shirts are cleaned daily

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Inside the Taj Palace Hotel - a world not familiar to most Mumbaikers and statuettes at Bang Ganga, a man-made tank, holy because it is believed that the water came from the Ganges.

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A statue of Ganesh being painted in preparation for a festival worshipping this four-armed elephant god and memorial to Mahatma Ghandi inside the house where he lived and which is now a museum devoted to his life and work.

The three travel bloggers In the Hanging Gardens overlooking Mumbai's Chowpatty Beach. l to r: David, Janice, yours truly!

Look out of any five-star hotel window and you'll see families living in the streets or in makeshift shanty towns. Poor public-health facilities, limited educational opportunities and unemployment are all familiar scenes to the half of this city’s population which lives in a slum dwelling of some sort.

While I've included some pictures of the touristy things we've seen during our two days here, I'd like to say a bit about a place in central Mumbai called Dharavi. It's a place that most tourists don’t see – or possibly don’t want to believe actually exists. Perhaps they prefer to bury their heads in the sand, thinking that Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire was produced in a studio rather than on location.

Dharavi is the second-largest slum in the whole of Asia (it was once the first-largest, but has now been overtaken by Orangi Town in Karachi, Pakistan). Dharavi’s population of over a million live cheek by jowl on about one square mile of land that was once a mangrove swamp. It's right in the middle of the city and that means it's potentially threatened by development. Certainly, government rehousing schemes have been talked about for years but it's likely to be a good few more before they come to anywhere near fruition.

Meantime, I find it to be one of the most inspiring places I've ever been to anywhere in the world and firmly believe all visitors should see it first-hand if they’re to experience a balanced view of life here in Mumbai. Don’t attempt to visit it on your own though – it’s a rabbit warren of alleyways, open drains and tangled power lines. You’ll need to be accompanied by someone who knows their way around. I heartily recommend Reality Tours & Travel . I’ve been with them twice and they do a great job. A hefty percentage of their profits goes – by way of their registered charity Reality Gives - to support community projects in the slum, some of which you’ll be able to see in action. They’ll also combine the slums with a sightseeing tour of the city, if you wish.

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Photos by courtesy of Reality Tours & Travel

You’ll see the increasingly large recycling industry, processing waste from other parts of the city and even some from overseas. Much of it’s plastic in all shapes and forms, from old mineral-water bottles to computer casings, that’s ground into pieces, washed, melted down and coloured ready to be made into something new. There’s also a thriving industry that takes metal cooking oil containers, cleans them inside and out and sprays them with red oxide paint to be reprinted with another brand name and refilled. Cardboard boxes are recycled and small enterprises that might be everyone’s image of sweatshops print fabric or stitch it into garments for the home market. There’s a community of potters making containers for water and cooking pots and you’ll often encounter areas where poppadom (papad) are being dried in the sun over basketware frames. It’s a busy place.

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Photos by courtesy of Reality Tours & Travel

Yes, there are places where open sewers scent the air and rubbish sits in piles waiting never to be collected. Yes, you have to be careful where you put your feet. Yes, there’s a health and safety issue around every corner. However, you’ll see only happy faces - faces that are happy with their lot might be a better expression perhaps. Children making their way to school wear smart uniforms, the girls with their long black hair neatly plaited and tied with matching ribbons. All politely return your ‘hello’ greeting.

You certainly shouldn't take photographs yourself while in the slums (it’s not a tourist site and the people's poverty is not a sideshow!), so those above have been kindly supplied by Reality Tours & Travel. Some were taken by children living in Dharavi as part of a photography project run for them by Reality Tours.

If you’re in Mumbai and have half a day to spare, visit Dharavi. It’ll bring new meaning to your understanding of how the other half lives.

Posted by Keep Smiling 14:36 Archived in India Tagged india mumbai maharashtra dharavi Comments (2)

Udai Pour!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Udaipur 13 to 15 February 2013

all seasons in one day 28 °C
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Do you have some favourite places in the world?

I certainly have – and it’s a long list!

Near the very top of that list, however, is a city in India that’s like no other. It has a character you can’t quite put a finger on. It’s brash, it’s beautiful, it’s beguiling - much like many other big Indian cities really, but this one has lakes and mountains on top of some terrific and typically Rajasthani sights. It’s also a relatively clean and tidy place – fortunately, because one of my friends here is the senior officer responsible for the beautification of this ancient city, the wonderful lake city of Udaipur.


Last year, I spent five days in the hotel next door to where we're staying this time and I now had great pleasure introducing the 'Grey haired nomads' to the colour, noise and smells of Lal Ghat, the Jagdish Temple, the City Palace and, of course, Lake Pichola.

Below: In and around Lal Ghat

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Below: Jagdish Temple

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Below: City Palace

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You’ve possibly already read last year’s blog, (A special occasion on the horizon), so I won’t repeat what I’ve previously said about this place. It’s a while though since I last took a boat ride on Lake Pichola – it’s a tourist ‘must’ at any time of day but particularly romantic as the sun drops below the horizon. The 1983 film "Octopussy", the sixth to star Roger Moore as James Bond, was partly filmed on the lake (Octopussy's Palace is the Lake Palace Hotel, shown near the top of this blog). Restaurants and some hotels have shown the film every night since!


The slow motion trip with everyone wrapped in obligatory lifejackets is tame though in comparison to James Bond’s high-speed chase around Octopussy’s lake palace. At sunset on the evening before Valentine’s Day, it was a fitting interlude to a hectic schedule that had barely begun.


The next three weeks would involve a series of two- and three-night stops, lots of sightseeing, bird-watching and wildlife spotting. We needed a comfortable car and an experienced, English-speaking driver. These were to be provided in the shape of a Toyota Innova ably driven by an amiable 37-year-old Rajput named Yadu, all organised through one of my good friends, Vijendra. He’s a travel agent and a French-speaking tour escort - but Vijendra's no longer working for the agency concerned, so no easy hyperlink for you here.

Our driver knew his way around the city and, on our second day, took us first to Sahelion Ki Bari (the Maidens’ Gardens) near the Fateh Sagar Lake, which occupied a pleasant hour or so. A tranquil mix of lawns, trees and fountains, it's a pleasant space originally created in the 18th century by Maharana Sangram Singh for the women attendants of a princess as part of her dowry. it was an ideal place for Janice and David, powerful binoculars at the ready, to spot their first set of colourful birds.


The Neemach Mata Temple then provided some exercise that was far too strenuous in the dry heat of the day, involving paved inclines and steps climbing almost a kilometre uphill. Many inspirational messages had been placed beside the path to ease aching limbs. With clanging of bells on the final ascent to the shrine, we were able to enjoy a welcome rest and misty views over the city’s lakes.

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We rounded off our busy daylight hours with the monument to Maharana Pratap on Moti Magri (Pearl Hill). Here, a bronze statue of Rajput hero Maharana Pratap riding on his favourite horse Chetak overlooks the Fatah Sagar Lake.

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This evening, we were honoured to have been invited to the marriage of Vijendra’s sister, Angena. In true British fashion, we arrived at the appointed hour, forgetting that Indian time is a lot later! Yadu took us to while away an hour in nearby Ahar at the Chhatris (that’s not a misspelling - chhatri is spelt with a double ‘h’ and translates as 'umbrella' or 'canopy'), a vast group of cenotaphs to past Maharajas dating back many centuries.

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In the warmth of what would be our ideal British summer evening, we returned to the glittering wedding venue in time to enjoy a marching bagpipe band, noisy drummers and arrival of well-dressed guests, many with gaudy turbans and some of them important dignitaries, friends of the groom’s father, a politician.


Then, amid much jubilation and jostling, the dashing groom, in turban with a flowing tail and traditional golden coat, appeared on his white horse. He dismounted and took to a cushioned stage, receiving there a religious greeting from the pandit and generous gifts from the bride’s parents.


Men and women are traditionally segregated at wedding ceremonies here, so Janice was whisked off to be seated beneath bright awnings with the sari-clad guests.


Here too, beside the ceremonial fire, bride and groom would sit through a lengthy ceremony while their guests ate, drank and chatted. In the nearby men’s area, David and I took a drink (or two) from thoughtfully-provided bottles of whisky, picked at food brought by uniformed waiters and sat in the open-air at a table of men curious to know what we, the only Europeans among a gathering of over 500, were doing here.

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Then, much like the aforementioned British summer evening, it started to drizzle. Trying to ignore the fact that we were getting wet, everyone continued to eat and drink.

The light rain became a shower, then a heavy shower, then a positive downpour!

Our shirts growing ever more soggy, we hurried to a covered area reserved for the political VIPs. Alas, their cover was only thin fabric and we continued to get almost as wet underneath it! So, emptying our umpteenth glass of whisky, we joined Janice beneath the somewhat better canopy in the ladies’ area, before saying polite farewells to our hosts and returning to the hotel.

It was a memorable end to our too-short stay in the lovely city of Udaipur.

Hotel Jaiwana Haveli, Lal Ghat
Comfortable, clean and friendly. Ideally located within easy walking distance of the Jagdish Temple and the City Palace, and within a few paces of a boat landing stage on Lake Pichola. Great views of Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace Hotel from some rooms and from the rooftop restaurant.

Posted by Keep Smiling 14:38 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan marriage Comments (4)

A 'garh' is a fort

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Kumbalgarh - 15 February 2013

sunny 30 °C
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In Rajasthan, if somewhere has a ‘pur’ in it, it’s a city – Jaipur is the city founded in 1727 by Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II, Udaipur is the city of Maharana Udai Singh II (1559), Jodhpur is the city of Rao Jodha (1459). Get the idea?

However, if a place has ‘garh’ in it, it has a fort – for example, Roopangarh’s fortress was built by Maharajah Roop Singh, who was from Kishangarh – the fortress city of the Jodhpur prince Kishan Singh.

It was Kumbalgarh to which our journey would take us today on our way from Udaipur to Ranakpur. I’d been here once before, with my wife some 16 years ago, and its immensity was every bit as dramatic today as it was then.


This fantastic, well-preserved and partly-restored fort, a truly formidable defensive structure in its day, was constructed in the 15th century by Maharana Kumbha - but you’d already guessed that, hadn’t you? He built it very well because most of it, including 36kms (over 22 miles) of massive walls that stretch away into the distance and rival those of the Great Wall of China, are still standing. It's a truly impressive sight.

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Our journey continued, through arid countryside of trees that had been pollarded to provide a source of animal feed, interspersed with only occasional fields of mustard and wheat. Those fields were irrigated by water from wells like the one we stumbled across on our way. Encouraged by children seated behind them, pairs of oxen walked interminably round and round and water gushed forth into channels, from where it was directed by little dams of stones or wood to appropriate fields. It was a typical rural scene in this desert state.

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Soon after – it may have been half an hour, it may have been more (I had already begun to lose track of hours and days), we reached our destination for the day: Ranakpur, a place where I always feel totally at home.

Posted by Keep Smiling 15:02 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan kumbalgarh Comments (3)

Home, sweet home

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Ranakpur & Gundoj - 15 to 17 February 2013

sunny 28 °C
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In 1997, on a tour of Rajasthan with my wife, we stopped for lunch at a hotel near the Jain temples at Ranakpur. There we met a boy named Lajpal. Little did I know then that this chance encounter would drastically change my knowledge and understanding of his fabulous country.

The first blog which featured this boy - now a married man and known to me by his familiar name of Pintu - was in 2005 (Life is like an ice-cream! explains all). I’ve returned to India several times since and, on each occasion, have been introduced to more and more of his family – so much so that it’s almost as if I’ve become an honorary member of it. They are all so kind, considerate and welcoming. Their thoughtfulness and generosity are humbling and often quite overwhelming.

The hotel at which we lunched in 1997 was the Maharani Bagh Orchard Retreat, a small, tranquil hotel in vast grounds that’s owned by the royal family of Jodhpur and managed by Pintu’s uncle Khuman. I’ve stayed here many times and included information in past blogs (most recently in The first ceremony - of many!), so I won’t wax lyrical here about how much I love this place. I always feel so at home here, enjoying the relaxing environment, birdsong, hundreds of mango trees, rustic charm and cheerful people.

I’m always warmly greeted by Bhaver and Pentes (the boys who bash a drum and cymbal to welcome everyone at the hotel entrance), Ganpath (the nightwatchman, who clicks his heels and salutes me whenever he first sees me), Chattar (the head cook, who taught me how to make masala chai in his kitchen on my last visit), the smartly-dressed waiters whose names I’ve never been able to remember and, of course, the man who's become a dear friend, Khuman.


So it was this time, although Khuman was initially only able to welcome us by telephone as he was many miles away attending a relative’s wedding. We were, however, quickly escorted by the head receptionist to our rooms in adjacent bungalows looking out onto the gardens and the bird-feeding station.

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Shortly after, I was able to introduce Janice and David to my young friend Pintu, about whom we’d spoken on so many occasions over the years. I think they were as pleased to meet him as he was delighted to meet them.

A walk through the Maharani Bagh’s gardens to its adjoining orchard and woodland followed. It’s one of the delights awaiting visitors. Janice and David were in their element with their powerful binoculars as we wandered for a few hours, spotting a wide variety of unfamiliar birds, only some of which were large enough for me to photograph. We saw a snake too and, fleetingly, a few deer – oh, and were surprised by a flock of sheep!

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Later, at the home of Pintu’s parents in nearby Sadri, we were greeted in traditional fashion, with flower garlands around our necks and tilaks between our eyes, by his mother Gajendra, his father Ranveer, sister Purnima and his charming but shy wife of almost a year, Rajshree. We enjoyed a special meal prepared and served by the ladies and were given some beautiful gifts specially chosen for us by Pintu; we will all treasure them as a memory of this happy occasion.

Front row l to r: Pintu's mother Gajendra, his wife Rajshree, his sister Purnima, and Janice. Back row l to r: Pintu, his father Ranveer, David, and me.

The following day, we spent an hour or two at the nearby Jain temples, with their remarkable white marble columns. Despite the number of visitors, there are always quiet corners here, as well as a hundred photo opportunities. Of course, this wasn’t my first visit to this wedding cake of a temple, but I couldn't resist taking dozens of new pictures.


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In the evening, we were all invited to join Khuman at the fire-pit outside his quarters in the hotel’s grounds. Here, beneath a star-studded sky, beside a blazing log fire, we met up with Pintu’s family again. This time, it included Khuman’s youngest son, Shibu, with his wife Devendra, to whose marriage last April I’d been invited, but was unable to attend. We had a very enjoyable evening, with drinks, snacks and lots of chat to start, followed late into the night by chicken and special spicy patties cooked to perfection in the hotel’s kitchen by Shibu and Devendra themselves. We were given some more unexpected gifts too; we’ll have to pack these very carefully to ensure they remain unharmed for the rest of our trip. As I said before, the generosity of this delightful family is out of this world.

Our journey the next day, to the city of Jodhpur, would take us through the small town of Gundoj. This is where Khuman, who is a Thakur (a feudal lord), has his home - in a fort! We stopped briefly as I had to acquaint Janice and David with another important member of this charming family: Khuman's wife Sailesh.




Introductions over, tour of the fort and tea and biscuits kindly provided, photos taken, we then continued on our way...


Maharani Bagh Orchard Retreat, Ranakpur
Well-equipped and very comfortable bungalows full of rustic charm. A spacious bedroom, incorporating a sitting area with refrigerator, and a verandah with chairs and a view of the garden. No wi-fi, just lots of fresh air. Good buffet-style meals in a covered dining area within the gardens. Outstanding service from friendly staff. Pricey but worth every Rupee.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:09 Archived in India Tagged birds temples india rajasthan ranakpur gundoj Comments (1)

"I wanna tell you a story"

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Chotila ('The Bullet Temple') and Jodhpur - 17 to 19 February 2013

sunny 29 °C
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There was once a young man called Om Singh Rathore (known as Om Banna), who enjoyed nothing better than riding his Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ motorbike.

Alas, one day in 1991, near the village of Chotila some 50 kms from Jodhpur, he drove into a tree and was killed. The motorbike was taken to the local police station but, that night, it disappeared – and was found next morning back at the site of the accident. It was returned to the police station and chained up. Next morning, it was back again, beside the tree where Om Banna had met his end. The police tried several more times to prevent the bike from leaving their custody, but to no avail - next morning, it was always back where the accident happened.

News of this miracle quickly spread and a memorial temple was built near the tree where the fatal accident occurred. It’s become known as the Bullet Temple and is visited by hundreds every day. The motorbike is lavishly decorated with floral offerings and the tree itself is bedecked with coloured rope and bangles.


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You can choose whether to believe this story or not. I can only say that thousands of people here in India will attest to its truth.


An hour or so after our stop at the Bullet Temple, we reached our destination for the day: Jodhpur, the second largest city in Rajasthan. You’ll know from my previous blog that it was founded by Rao Jodha; he was a Rajput chief of the Rathore clan and his truly impressive fort dates back to 1459.

The city is known as the ‘Sun City’ because of the sunny weather it enjoys year-round. Don’t come here in July or August though as you can expect around five inches of rain in each month’s monsoon, as well as blistering temperatures.

I prefer to know Jodhpur by its other name, the ‘Blue City’ - a reference to the old-town houses at the foot of the towering hilltop Mehrangarh Fort, which are uniquely painted in a bright pale blue. (The name ‘Mehrangarh’ stems from the Sanskrit word for the Sun deity ‘Mihir’ and, as you know from the lesson in a previous blog, ‘garh’ is a fort – so Sun Fort).




Our arrival in the city started with something of a disappointment - the homestay which we'd booked many moons ago and reconfirmed only last week, was unable to accommodate us (the family previously occupying our two rooms had fallen ill and needed to stay for a few more days; the proprietors, Chandrashekar Singh and his wife Bhavna, found themselves in an awkward position and were clearly embarrassed by it - particularly as Chandrashekar was a longtime school chum of my very good friend Khuman!). We were, however, provided with excellent alternative accommodation at the Polo Heritage Hotel and the homestay owners kindly paid the difference in cost, so all was well. We still returned to the homestay one evening for an interesting cookery lesson from Bhavna and dinner with them both.



Legend has it that, to build the Mehrangarh Fort, a hermit – the only human living on the rocky hill - had to be moved from his cave and, in protest, he put a curse on Rao Jodha. To appease the hermit and to make sure the site remained propitious, Rao Jodha buried a man alive in the foundations; in return, he promised that the man’s family would always be cared for and his descendents still live today on the estate bequeathed to them.

Inside the massive walls of the fort, there are scars of bombardment by cannonballs and the handprints of the wives of Maharaja Man Singh who, in 1843, threw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre – called ‘sati’, a tradition banned by the then British rulers in 1829!


There are sellers of typical Rajasthani puppets and several beautiful palaces within the fort too, and the ramparts offer far-reaching views of the city from beside numerous well-preserved cannons.

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Mehrangarh Fort, seen from the Jaswant Thada

We also spent a while at the Jaswant Thada, a white marble memorial to Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, built at the end of the 19th century. It’s a traditional cremation ground of Jodhpur rulers and it encompasses gardens and a small lake.


Our next visit was to the newest of the Maharaja's palaces that we've seen so far: the Umaid Bhawan Palace. It's part luxury hotel, part museum, part home to Maharaja Gaj Singh II (who I met at the marriage of Khuman's eldest son Vinku in 2007 - It's a long way to go for a wedding!) and is one of the world's largest private residences. It’s named after Gaj Singh’s grandfather, Maharaja Umaid Singh, who philanthropically built it between 1929 and 1943 to provide employment to thousands of people during a time of famine. It has 347 rooms. Unlike when Pat and I visited the palace for a sundowner some 16 years ago, non-residents can now only see the exterior and the museum, but even this is quite an experience.


Our final port of call was the Clock Tower area of the city, with its wonderful Sardar Market surrounding the tower that was built by, you've guessed it: Maharaja Sardar Singh (1880-1911). It's a vivid example of 19th century town planning that failed to take into account the region's ceaseless increase in population!


We just love markets – they’re so full of colour, people, sights, sounds and unfamiliar scents – and this one was certainly no exception. We've tended to spend perhaps a little too much time lingering in them. We couldn't help it - they’re fascinating and there’s a new photograph on every corner. Talking of which, I think we’ll need to spend quite a while reducing the sheer quantity of pictures that we’ve taken!

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We had planned to stay at the Indrashan Homestay, a small and friendly guest house located a few miles from the old town centre.


In the event, we stayed at the Polo Heritage Hotel, a comfortable 24-room hotel set in large, well-maintained gardens, also away from the town centre but within easy reach of the main sights by car or tuk-tuk. Rooms are simply furnished, spacious, clean and quiet (apart from occasional barking dogs at night - a problem in most Indian cities). It has a swimming pool, Wi-Fi is available in some rooms and on the terraces and lawns near reception. Food and service were generally very good. As its name suggests, there are polo photographs and trophies scattered around the hotel's public areas.

At the suggestion of Khuman's youngest son Shibu, who kindly telephoned ahead and booked us a table, we ate one evening on the roof-top terrace of Pal Haveli .There we enjoyed a tasty and reasonably-priced dinner with a glorious view of the illuminated Mehrangarh Fort, Jaswant Thada, Umaid Bhawan Palace, and the nearby Clock Tower. I tried to stay there on a future trip, but it was full unfortunately.


"I wanna tell you a story" was the catchphrase of a well-known British entertainer, the late Max Bygraves . He was a comedian and musician - you may have heard him singing, among other tunes, 'You Need Hands', 'You're a Pink Toothbrush' and 'Tulips from Amsterdam'.

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:12 Archived in India Tagged india jodhpur rajasthan Comments (0)

Camels with the hump!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Nagaur » Roopangarh - 19 to 20 February 2013

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Camels are not cute. They're not even pretty. In fact, some might say they're downright ugly.

They're cantankerous.

They regurgitate their food and chew it with protruding teeth, sideways.

And they don't smell good either.


Nevertheless, we thought Nagaur, home at this time of year to the second-largest livestock fair in India, would be a good place to break our journey north from Jodhpur. So, our itinerary included a brief stop to see the camels, cows and horses and to find lunch before driving another few hours to our pre-booked night-stop at Roopangarh.

What we didn't know until we met Devendra at the Maharani Bagh in Ranakpur (see: 'Home, sweet home') was that her father, Karan Singh Bhati, was in charge of the Royal Tents - a fabulous tented hotel currently pitched, especially to cater for visitors to the fair, on the former polo ground inside Nagaur's Ahichattragarh Fort. The day after meeting her, Devendra phoned to say that she'd arranged for her father to meet us when we reached the fort and that he'd help us enjoy our visit. What a kind and thoughtful family they are.

So it was that, at the entrance to the vast fort, the guard was expecting 'Mr Mike' and we were all duly escorted to meet Devendra's dad, the convivial boss (so we now discovered) of both the hundred or so luxury Royal Tents and 33 deluxe Ranvas rooms that have been lovingly created from buildings which once formed the Ranis' (Queens') residences within the fort.

Karan promptly organised a member of his staff to give us a private tour of the historic fort, joining us later to show off the splendid accommodation and to host us for lunch in the beautiful Akbari Mahal. This was hospitality beyond our wildest dreams.

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The whole fort complex covers 35 acres and comprises four main palaces and dozens of smaller buildings surrounded by two massive fortification walls. It's owned by HH Maharaja Gaj Singh II (of Jodhpur), although it was only returned to his family by the state in the 1990s, when they decided they couldn't afford to maintain it any longer. For forty years before that, the government had housed its Border Security Force there. This spectacular Rajput-Mughal edifice dates back to the 12th century yet, while the BSF was there, delicately-painted walls were plastered over, glorious halls were partitioned into offices and unguarded parts of the fort fell victim to looters.

In 1998, His Highness urgently set about saving the fort, restoring and conserving before it fell into total ruin. Encouragement came from his friend HRH Prince Charles, a patron of the Maharaja's Mehrangarh Museum Trust. Charles visited the fort during his 2003 tour of India to see how the work they'd spoken about a few years before was now coming along. More than US$ 500,000 cash for the restoration project had come from the J Paul Getty Trust!

A great example of the Maharaja's business acumen, in 2002 this work won him a coveted Asia-Pacific heritage conservation award from UNESCO. Although much of the fort is now restored to near its former glory, conservators were still beavering away during our visit uncovering some of the treasures that lie beneath years of neglect.


After our tour and a most enjoyable lunch, Karan sent us off with one of his staff, smartly dressed in white coat, white trousers and bright-red turban, to the dusty fair ground on the outskirts of the town. Here, some 70,000 animals - camels, bullocks, cows and horses - are traded every year. Many of them were lavishly decorated with coloured nose rings, painted horns and clipped coats. Some of their owners too were dressed to please, with colourful turbans and manicured moustaches. Alongside, overloaded tractors carried feed for the animals and stalls sold everything you could ever need for your camel - bridles, saddles and gaudy garlands of all shapes and sizes.

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We spent an enjoyable hour or so admiring and photographing the assortment of animals and owners. Some of the camels had undergone transformation with elaborate designs clipped into the hair over their entire bodies; these must have taken many hours of work - scroll down to see photos of just some of these.


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We certainly learnt a lot about these strange animals too:

They're really Dromedaries (they have one hump). A camel with two humps is called a Bactrian. A camel with no humps is called Humphrey (oh dear, that sounds like one of my brother David's jokes!).
They can smell water from 30 kms away.

They can drink 200 litres (44 gallons/53 US gallons) of water in three minutes, yet their urine still comes out as a thick syrup!

Their eyes have a nictating membrane (a transparent third eyelid to help brush away sand particles).

They can live for up to 50 years, they mate in a sitting position, and they can run at speeds of up to 65 kms per hour (40mph) - not necessarily in that order.

Oh, and they are most certainly cantankerous and smelly!


What had started life as a brief detour had become much more - a visit to a restoration miracle, a royal lunch, and a guided tour of a fascinating fair - all thanks to the kindness of Karan and his thoughtful daughter.

We could easily have lingered longer, but we still had a long drive to our night-stop, and another impressive fort, in Roopangarh...


We didn't actually stay at Nagaur, but continued to Roopangarh for the night. However, if there was ever an opportunity in the future, we'd have no hesitation in splurging at the amazing Royal Tents (Double: Rs14,500 - about £175 or US$265 - per night including all meals, plus taxes - at the time of our visit).

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They're cool, comfortable, very well-equipped, and the food and service are of the highest standard. The delightful Ranvas might be even better (suites from Rs12,000 to Rs18,000 - about £145 to £220 or US$220 to US$330 - per night with breakfast, plus taxes) for characterful, spacious and extremely comfortable accommodation with absolutely superb standards of everything.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:50 Archived in India Tagged india camels rajasthan nagaur Comments (0)

A marbleous place!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Makrana » Roopangarh 19 to 20 February 2013

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What do you think the White House, St Paul's Cathedral, Sydney Opera House and the Taj Mahal might have in common?

The whiteness of the buildings is, of course, your big clue - and not only because they've used white marble in their construction. Uniquely, they've all used white marble taken from the quarries at Makrana in northern Rajasthan.

And it was to Makrana that our journey would now take us on this hot and sunny afternoon. We'd just had an excellent lunch, a fascinating tour of the fort at Nagaur and an hour or so admiring the Camels with the hump!, so we dozed awhile in the comfort of our air-conditioned Toyota Innova as Yadu ably drove, occasionally along roads seldom frequented by motor vehicles - yet alone tourists, for the next two hours. It seemed longer. And we were running late. So, we didn't actually stop at Makrana, but we did drive slowly past some of the quarries and mile after mile of marble dealerships displaying their wares.

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Marble, as you know, comes in a variety of colours - white with grey bits, white with brown bits, white with swirls, white with straight lines, white with all manner of patterns and, of course, the very finest pure, pristine white. Here, its colours depend on which of the 400 quarries in the Makrana area it comes from. Millions of tonnes of it come out of the ground hereabouts every year. Some 40,000 labourers work in the quarries and another 60,000 in the surrounding villages depend on it for their livelihood. It's believed to be the oldest marble in the world. It's certainly the very best quality and the shiny plain white, now available in declining quantities, is much sought after by architects all around the world - so it's very big business. Cut and cleaned, it sells for anything from 30 to 2,000 Rupees per square foot - that's £0.36p to £24 (US$0.55cents to US$37 or €0.45cents to €29) per square foot (plus shipping!). I've no idea what it costs in metric sizes - suffice to say: the bigger the piece and the whiter it is, the bigger the bill.

It was another hour southwards before we reached the town of Roopangarh. The sun was going down as we drove, with difficulty, through its main street, ultra-narrow in places where shops and houses encroached onto the grubby roadway, making it necessary for Yadu to brake hard or back up if even a motorbike came towards us.

The road lead only to the Fort named after the town (or should that be the other way around - see A 'garh' is a fort). There, Yadu's driving skills were put to the test by a winding entrance gate designed to thwart attackers on elephant-back. Several three-point turns later, we unloaded our bags at the foot of the steps up to the imposing palace, for this was where we were to spend the night. With hindsight, perhaps we should have planned to stay longer here. It was to prove one of many highlights of our tour so far.


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The fort and the palace inside it were originally built by Maharaja Roop Singh in the 17th century on a strategic hilltop controlling the trade route to Sambhar Salt Lake (to which we'd be travelling tomorrow). In 1999, the present maharaja opened it as a hotel, leaving the interior and exterior little changed. Let's be clear about one thing - the fort has been renovated, not restored, so it retains its ancient space and character, warts and all!

It has 20 rooms, some of which are former royal suites with antique furniture and colourful traditional furnishings - like the two vast rooms we were given. They appeared sparsely furnished, not surprising really as each was the size of a soccer pitch with a ceiling so incredibly high that you'd need scaffolding just to do the dusting. There was a terrace at the front to catch the sunrise and another one at the back for sunset. In one wall of each was a window looking down onto the hotel's restaurant, for the rooms were once the maharanis' domains and they'd have used the windows to peer down onto what was then the Durbar Hall to see what the maharaja and his chums were up to.


In the courtyard, we enjoyed a rest on wicker chairs drawn up around a fire pit before an enjoyable evening meal. Nearby was a tennis court, sometimes used for cricket too, and a terrace where noisy peacocks roamed in the early morning sun.



One of the friendly staff proudly showed us the Queen's Suite - a huge, ornate room with an equally huge bathroom, a gallery above and a staircase to a private roof terrace. Maybe we'll book that next time.

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Early next morning, we ventured forth into the town just as the little shops started to open their doors. A few people sat outside reading newspapers, pigs scavenged among yesterday's detritus, and motorcyclists sped through the empty main street on their way to who knows where.


The shopkeeper with his display of sweets and snacks, initially unsmiling and curious, was happy to have his photograph taken - as were the barber with his first customer of the day at his open-fronted shop, the lady selling nothing but bangles, and the elderly gent with ragged red turban and grey whiskers. A lad, smartly dressed in his Modern Public School uniform, politely asked, in impeccable English, for his photo to be taken. It seems likely that few tourists spend time wandering around the town interacting with the local people, for they were so genuinely pleased to stop whatever they were doing to spend a moment talking and laughing with us.

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We would have liked another hour or two here, but Sambhar Salt Lake and its promise of exotic and abundant bird-life awaited us, as did Jaipur, Rajasthan's crowded capital city.


The former palace and fortress - Roopangarh Fort - is an interesting place to spend a night (or preferably two). We only scratched the surface of what there is to see within its walls and the surrounding town. The service is friendly and it's really great value for money - a double room will only set you back Rs.3600 plus taxes - around £51 (US$ 78/€61) a night. Breakfast is another Rs.250 + tax (£3.20/US$4.90/€3.80) per person and dinner is Rs.400 + tax (£5.10/US$7.70/€6) each. It's a bargain for somewhere so full of character.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:24 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan makrana roopangarh Comments (0)

Sambhar's sodium sea

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Sambhar Lake - 20 February 2013

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I didn't spend 35 years in the travel industry to plan a five-week tour of an interesting country that only includes things every other tourist goes there to see, did I?

That's why, when I realised that our journey from Roopangarh to Jaipur would pass within a few miles of the largest salt lake in India and that this was also home to some prolific bird-life, I knew I had to take the 'Grey haired nomads' and their binoculars to see it. Anyway, I was curious to find out how the powdery white stuff I sprinkle on my fish and chips was produced.

So it was that we wound our way along dusty roads, passing occasional herds of goats on the way to their day's grazing, and through villages with little owls dozing in ancient trees, northwards towards Sambhar Lake.


Less than an hour after leaving Roopangarh, we reached the edge of this vast saline wetland surrounded by hills of the Aravali range and occupying an area of some 200 square kilometres (apparently, it fluctuates between 190 and 230 square kilometres depending on the season - it's at its largest during the monsoon of course). The lake, a shimmering, distant, land-locked sea, is divided by a five kilometre stone dam and, when the concentration of salt in the water on its western side reaches the desired level, brownish, algae-rich brine is released into evaporation ponds on the eastern side. There it crystallizes and is extracted for processing. This valuable commodity has been exploited commercially throughout the past thousand years. Not surprisingly, therefore, 'Sambhar' actually translates as 'salt'.

In the late-19th century, the maharajas of Jaipur and Jodhpur, who then jointly owned the lake, leased it to the ruling British. They improved the technology and built a narrow-gauge railway to ease transport of the raw material to processing plants. Upon independence in 1947, everything was returned to the Indian government and little seems to have changed since that very day.


None of us, including our driver, had ever been here before but enquiries lead us to the premises of the state-owned Salt Iodization and Processed Salt Plant near Sambhar town's railway station. Here, a lady manager kindly volunteered to give us a guided tour of what was clearly once a state-of the-art processing plant but whose boilers and conveyors were now rusting away, doubtless soon to be overtaken by private concerns that had invested in modern machinery. Almost everything here, from the washing of the raw, pinkish-brown slabs of salt crystals to the weighing and bagging of the finished, iodized, white product was done by hand. I'm glad we saw it before all this disappears for ever.

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The area around the lake is officially recognised as a wetland of international importance. Algae and bacteria growing in the lake support an ecology that sustains migrating waterfowl and it's become a key wintering area for flamingos and other birds. Although we did see a flock of flamingos in flight, they waded far out in the centre of the vast, shallow lake and we had to content ourselves with closer views of more familiar birds, like Brahminy Starlings, Pied Kingfishers, Pintail ducks, Redshanks, Red-wattled Lapwings and Night Herons. It was, however, good practice for this novice wildlife photographer!

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We still had a hundred kilometres to go before reaching our destination for the day, so, joining the Expressway, we continued eastwards to the capital of Rajasthan, the Pink City of Jaipur.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:30 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan sambhar Comments (1)

The Pink City

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 20 to 22 February 2013

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How many times have I been to this overcrowded, over-touristy city? How many times have I said I really don't need to go again?

Too many times perhaps!

You either love or hate its buzz, its teeming hoards, its chaotic traffic. Me? I love it. I always find new things to see and do here.

Of course, the Grey haired nomads had never been here before, so they had to pack everything into the inadequate day and a half that our hectic itinerary allowed. We needed a plan. I'd been to all the interesting places before, so I knew what there was to see - but didn't know the order in which to fit it into so little time. That's where the superior knowledge of our driver came in handy. Although he currently lives 400 kilometres away in Udaipur, Yadu is a native of this city and knows the place backwards.

So, if you're on a tight schedule in Jaipur, you could do worse than follow in our footsteps. Here's what you do:

In an afternoon - Jantar Mantar and the City Palace in the Old City. Then on a full day - Hawa Mahal, Amber Fort, Jaigarh, Nahargarh and the Jal Mahal.

We added Galtaji on our day of departure because it was on the way to our next stop at Ranthambore, and you could include it too if you find the time. Now read on...

The 'Pink City'

First, a word about Jaipur's trademark name.

What they call 'pink' is more like a dirty salmon, orange-red or terracotta colour and you'll really only see it in the Old City.


Why is the colour there? Well, apparently, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (started when soldiers were ordered, contrary to their religious beliefs, to bite off paper - greased with unholy beef and pork fat! - from their rifle cartridges), the then Maharaja, Ram Singh, sided with the ruling British Raj. When the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII of Britain, visited Jaipur in 1876, Ram Singh decided to welcome him by reducing the sun's glare on buildings and monuments by having them painted in this strange colour. And the colour's stuck ever since - although it's now somewhat more grubby than it was then!

Jantar Mantar

If you thought an observatory was a place for observing the heavens from beneath a big metal dome, think again. Nearly three hundred years ago, when Jai Singh II built Jaipur ('pur'=city, Jai=his name: see 'A 'garh' is a fort'), he added these immense instruments. Then, as now, many events in this land of devout religious beliefs were based on auspicious astronomical signs and times, so it was something of a necessity. He'd already had one such observatory built in Delhi, but this one in his new capital city had to be far larger.


More than just a random collection of sculptures, it's actually made up of fourteen devices that track terrestrial or celestial events, measuring and predicting as the earth orbits the sun. The first photo above is of the the largest of these contraptions, the Samrat Yantra - 'Supreme Instrument'. It's 90 feet (27 metres) high and is really just a great big sundial - in fact, it's the biggest sundial in the world! Its shadow visibly moves at around a hand's width every minute and, despite some subsidence over the years, it's still said to be accurate to within two seconds. That's almost as good as my Rolex watch (if only...!).

Tip: buy a 'composite entry ticket' here - as a foreign visitor it'll cost 300 Rupees (£3.65/US5.50/€4.30 as at Feb 2013); it's valid for two days and includes entry fees for Nahargarh and Amber as well (although it doesn't include the cost of the elephant ride at the latter). If you have the time and inclination, it'll also get you inside the Hawa Mahal.

The City Palace

This is probably one of the most visited palaces in Rajasthan so, inevitably, it attracts all the things you hate - insistent hawkers flogging postcards, little hands reaching out for a hand-out, uniformed attendants demanding tips for photos... you know the stuff! So here are a couple of useful Hindi phrases:

I don't want it/I don't need it: 'Nahi chahiye' (say it something like: 'Nie_ee chai_eeaa')

Go away/Keep your distance or words to that effect!: 'Dur rahiye!' (say: 'Door rye_he_aa!')


Jaipur's royal family was once one of the richest in India and nowhere confirms this more than the huge complex of palace buildings, gardens and courtyards found within these ancient walls. There's a museum, a shop disguised as an art gallery and displays of old royal costumes and weapons. The Peacock Gate is exquisite and, in the Diwan-i-Khas (the audience hall), you'll find the two largest sterling silver urns in the world, each weighing 340kgs (750lbs) and 1.6 metres (5 ft 3ins) high. They were specially made by the pious Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II to carry water from the River Ganges to drink during his trip to England for the coronation of Edward VII in 1901, thus avoiding the religious sin of consuming English water.


The royal family still lives here, above the museum in the graceful Chandra Mahal (Moon Palace). The present Maharaja, Padmanabh Singh, succeeded to the throne two years ago on the death of his grandfather - whose full name, incidentally, was: His Highness, First Amongst the Rajas of India, Lord of Princes, Great Prince over Princes, Lieutenant-General Sir Sawai Man Singhji Bahadur the Second, Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India, Grand Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire, Maharaja of Jaipur. He was also a flamboyant polo-playing friend of HRH Prince Charles. Padmanabh Singh inherited his grandfather's estimated £400Million fortune but, inevitably, this is being hotly contested by other family members. Meantime, the new ruler can only control the City Palace, though this probably provides more than ample income to pay his private school fees - Padmanabh Singh, you see, is only 15 years of age!

So, that's your first afternoon taken care of.


Very early next morning, drive first to:

Hawa Mahal

You'll have probably passed the Hawa Mahal (The Palace of the Winds) the previous afternoon on your way to or from Jantar Mantar and the City Palace but it faces east so, if you want to photograph it at its best, you have to stop there in the morning.


This is one of the city's most recognisable buildings. Built in 1799 overlooking the main road in Jaipur's Old City, its five floors contain row after row of tiny windows with intricate lattice work; these were designed so that women of the royal household could observe the goings-on below without themselves being seen. A cooling breeze once flowed through these openings, giving the palace its name. Alas, 'Palace of the Winds' is now a misnomer as, at the end of the 19th century, these 950 or so openings were covered in glass imported from Belgium!

We didn't venture inside this time, but from a previous visit I know that behind the famous façade is just a maze of corridors connecting the windows, from which you can view tourists alighting momentarily from their cabs and coaches to 'Ooh', 'Aah' and point their cameras, before jumping back on board and moving on.

Amber Fort


I said you needed to be outside the Hawa Mahal very early in the morning. You still have a half-hour drive up the Jaipur to Delhi highway to join a queue for elephants to take you up to Amber Fort. It was 9.15a.m. by the time we reached the line. We should have been there by eight o'clock to stand any chance of being near the front - take a look at the picture of where we were!


Anyhow, our lateness did serve the useful purpose of getting to know others in the line. There were three of us. Each elephant carries two people, you want to take photos of each other during the ride, and you have to pay Rs900 (£11/US$17/€13) per elephant. We were fortunate to meet three others travelling together, a lady from Massachusetts and two young ladies from China, who were only too happy to join forces to share three pachyderms.

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The uncomfortable, lurching ride on the cobblestone path to the top of the hill is an experience some may not want to repeat. It's a controversial thing too. Some still say the joyrides should be stopped, that they're cruel, that the elephants work for too long in the hot sun and that they damage their feet walking on the hard stone terrain. Well, the elephants used to work here all day - they now finish by around 11.00a.m. (another reason for getting here early).

When I first took a ride some years ago, they carried four passengers up and down - but that's been reduced to a maximum of two people and they're no longer allowed to bring passengers back down. I have to say that the animals always look well cared for and many of them proudly sport colourful designs that must have taken hours to create.

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Anyway, without the tourist trips, there would be no work for the elephants these days, so they'd be redundant and could be abandoned or starved to death. So, until such time as someone comes up with a workable retirement plan, maybe they need your support. Alternatively, you could walk, take your own car or hire a jeep, which is what I shall be doing in future.


Once at the top, you'll discover some great views to the Maota Lake and Gardens below, and stunning palaces, pavilions and gardens, some of which date back to the 16th century and all of which are in an excellent state of preservation.

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A 325-metre long passageway was excavated between Amber Fort and the better-defended Jaigarh Fort on the Hill of Eagles immediately above. Probably designed as a royal escape route in the event of attack, you could escape on board a battery-operated golf cart (which we didn't see but believe are now in operation). Or, like us, you could arrange for your driver to wait in the car park and drive you up to Jaigarh!


The impressive Jaigarh (Jai's Fort), flanked by gateways and watchtowers and surrounded by huge battlements with inside walkways, was built in 1726.


Its claim to fame is the Jai Ban, the world's largest cannon on wheels. This was made in the fort's own foundry - indeed, it's so big that it couldn't possibly have been made somewhere else and pulled up the hill! It weighs 50 tonnes (49 UK Tons/55 US Tons) and has a barrel with a diameter of 11 inches (28 cms). It's more than 20 feet (6 metres) long and is said to have a range of about 22 miles (35 kms).


Much like today's nuclear deterrents, this cannon was never fired in anger, and neither was the fort ever captured. Consequently, Jaigarh has remained intact and is reckoned to be one of the best-preserved military structures of medieval India.

Then, continue to:


Nahargarh (a fort named after Nahar Singh, whose spirit was said to be destroying work during its construction) is perched high on the rugged Aravali Hills overlooking Jaipur. Although much of the fort is in ruins, it does offer some spectacular views over the city.

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On your way back towards your hotel, pass by the:

Jal Mahal


This is a pleasure palace built by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh in 1799. You can't visit it because it's in the middle of a man-made lake called Man Sagar (named after Raja Man Singh, who ordered its original construction in around 1610, of course!). I nearly did get there once when the lake almost dried up after a particularly poor monsoon.

The view of the now partly-restored palace with its backdrop of distant hills is certainly worth a brief stop though. While you're here, you might be lucky, as I have been on two occasions in recent years, to see one of the Amber Fort's elephants walking home with its mahout. Now that's not something you see every day in your home town, is it?

Be aware that, in the mornings, you'd be in the company of coachloads of tourists. It's a hotspot on the way to Amber (so it's wise to visit here on the way back from Amber!). There are numerous sellers of tat seated along the pedestrian walkway waiting to part you from your cash!



So, there you have it - a concentrated day and a half, very full of interesting and fun things. You might still have time to drive out to the Monkey Temple, Galtaji - see my next blog!



Accommodation *:
On almost all of my visits to Jaipur over the years, I've stayed at the Umaid Bhawan Heritage Hotel in the Bani Park residential area of the city. Bedrooms are opulently decorated in traditional Rajasthani style, air-conditioned, and have cable television and free WiFi.

There's a rooftop restaurant with an excellent and reasonably-priced menu. Occasional entertainment (music, women dancing while balancing pots on their heads, and the like) is also provided here.


It's a budget-priced hotel with bags of style (Doubles from Rs1800 + tax including breakfast - £24/US$36/€28 up to to Royal Suites at Rs4500 + tax - £59/US$89/€69 as at Feb 2013. These prices are usually a bit lower for pre-paid online bookings).


*Since writing this, my new favourite hotel in Jaipur is the Khandela Haveli - a fabulous conversion of a mansion into one of the best heritage hotels I've ever stayed at.


Posted by Keep Smiling 07:05 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan Comments (0)

Hooray, we heard a tiger roar!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Galtaji » Ranthambhore National Park - 22 to 25 February 2013

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Warning! This blog contains negative comments!

But first, here are some positive ones:

We'd had a great time in The Pink City, but were now on our way to ten days of tranquil wildlife safaris and bird-watching, starting with the well-known tiger reserve of Ranthambore (that's the negative bit, which comes later).

On the way, we called in at the Monkey Temple, Galtaji, about 10 kilometres from Jaipur on the road towards Agra.

This is not a very well-trodden tourist site like most other places hereabouts. You'll be asked to make a tiny donation if you plan to use a camera and, for a few Rupees, you can buy some peanuts to feed the monkeys from the man at the entrance; he'll put them into little bags that he makes from old newspapers. You might find a snake charmer somewhere around too, but that's about it. It's a refreshing change to come across a place of worship without crowds or overt commercialism.

It's actually a slightly down-at-heel complex of ancient shrines and temples, with holy pools of water (known as kunds), around which small gangs of rhesus macaques play and swim - yes, swim. The main temple has shrines to a saint who spent his life here in meditation and prayer (Rishi Galav, after whom Galtaji is named) and to Lord Hanuman, the ape-like humanoid Hindu deity. A steep path beside a large kund fed by waters flowing from the mouth of a marble cow's head, where pilgrims and monkeys alike come to bathe, takes you to another temple atop the highest hill.

It's a pleasant place to spend a while. And the monkeys are friendly.

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Then, it was back on the road southwards to Sawai Madhopur and the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.

Now, I don't want you to get the idea that we didn't enjoy our visit to Ranthambore, but let's just say that with better accommodation, better conditions for tourism and better luck it could have been, well, better...

As our base for the next three nights, we'd chosen what we thought was a 'homestay', partly because we like to spend time with local people and to support their economy, and partly because the website said it was run by a naturalist who's consulted by documentary film-makers about wildlife in the reserve. It transpired that this expert actually lives in a big house miles away, the 'homestay' is a very average guesthouse run by a manager, and said expert, having promised to be our guide one afternoon, decided instead to take some Indian visitors he called 'VIPs'. So much for 'Guest is God', the maxim at most places we stayed elsewhere in India.

Poor tourism conditions, however, were a big area of concern. We booked our three half-day safaris 90 days in advance on the Internet; we were among the very first to do so, on the very first day that bookings opened. The park authority's computer lets you choose between safaris by Gypsy (an open-air jeep for six passengers sharing two bench seats) or Canter (an open-air truck with bench seats for 20). On the day, it allocates which of the eight zones within the park you'll visit. It obviously then ignores how early or late you made your bookings because it allocated us two of the notoriously worst zones for our first two safaris! You're supposed to present yourself at the booking office an hour or so before the 6.30 morning departure or 2.30 afternoon one. In practice, for an extra Rs.100 (£1.20/US$1.90/€1.50) per person per safari, one of the staff at our guesthouse went there during the night and queued on our behalf. Then, our chosen form of transport came to pick us up.

Each safari is scheduled to be for 3½ hours but, by the time you've picked up and dropped off other passengers at their hotels - all of which are a long way from the park entrance - you can kiss goodbye to about an hour of that.

Once in the park, you'll discover that the tracks are potholes with occasional rocks, that your vehicle's shock absorbers need replacing, and that you're one of at least 378 people (90 in jeeps and 288 in canters) who are bouncing around looking for tigers or anything else that moves - most of which have been scared off by the vehicle ahead of you! It's more like a circus arena than a conservation area.


You'll also discover that there are very few tigers in the 275 square kilometres that make up the core of the reserve's total of 1,334 sq km. No-one seems to know precisely how many tigers there are; some say 50, some say 40, I think they're all guessing. Only a few individuals are regularly seen and, anyway, an adult tiger needs a territory of around 20 sq km (8 sq miles), so you don't need a calculator to realise that your chances of actually spotting one among the brown, boulder-strewn scrub are very low indeed. We did see a tiger's pug mark one day and we did hear a roar somewhere in the distance the next. People in a canter ahead of us claimed to have seen one running across the track just minutes before we arrived. Yadu, our driver, on his way to a temple outside the park in the evening, saw one. Perhaps we just needed better luck!

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Fortunately, although it's the one animal that people hope against hope to see, the tiger is not the only attraction at Ranthambore. We saw deer of several species, plus monkeys, crocodiles, turtles and birds of many kinds on our three safaris in the park. I'm not a wildlife cameraman, so you'll have to excuse the variable quality of photographs which follow.

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It was our final afternoon that was to be a real highlight of our visit, when just the three of us went with Vipul Jain, an amiable and extremely knowledgeable naturalist (who replaced the 'expert' to whom I previously referred) on a birdwatching sortie to a reservoir on the outskirts of Sawai Madhopur. Here were flocks of Flamingos, Geese and Pelicans, Black-headed Ibis, colourful Indian Rollers, an Osprey diving to catch fish, Sparrows attacking themselves in our jeep's wing-mirrors, and wading birds aplenty. And not another tourist anywhere to be seen!

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We were also treated to smiling women working in the fields alongside the lake and an informal visit to a neighbouring village, where adults and children alike delighted us with their friendly welcome and constant requests for pictures to be taken.



It was proof, if proof was needed, that Rathambore's not only about tigers.

Accommodation: (No hyperlink provided as I do not recommend staying there!)
We stayed at Tiger Home. It has two floors with a total of eight double rooms with bathroom and air-conditioning, all rather basic and plain. One floor seems to be permanently occupied by documentary film-makers and their computer equipment. Meals, included in the daily rate of Rs.3,000 (about £36/US$55/€42) per double room or Rs.2,000 (about £24/US$36.50/€28) per single room, are taken at a table on each of the two floors. They were basic curry cuisine. There's no lounge or outside space and WiFi is intermittent.

Posted by Keep Smiling 15:23 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india rajasthan ranthambore galtaji Comments (0)

A Birder Paradise in Rajasthan?

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Abnaheri » Keoladeo National Park - 25 to 28 February 2013

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Okay, I know it's a corny title and I'm aware that a 'Bird of Paradise' doesn't exist here in Rajasthan*, but a man and his blog have to start somewhere!

Today, we were making the long journey from a disappointing Ranthambore Tiger Reserve to the Keoladeo National Park and the promise of a paradise for birds and birders alike.

However, unlike the Grey haired nomads, who have binoculars which cost a king's ransom and who put them to good use at the drop of a floppy beige hat, I'm not a birder. Until I came on this holiday, I didn't know a Purple Swamphen from a White-eared Bulbul - but, as the nomads will tell you, I was keen to learn and to take pictures of them, providing they posed nicely!

*The Asian Paradise-Flycatcher doesn't count!


The journey from Ranthambore northeastwards to Bharatpur, across-country on notoriously poor roads, could take anything up to six hours. Instead, we opted to drive due north for three hours on a half-decent road with only a few small towns along the way. We would also make a stop to see an ancient step-well - and to buy a few tasty guavas from a roadside seller - before continuing east on a national highway for two hours to our eventual destination.


The step-well to which I refer was in the village of Abnaheri, just ten minutes off the main Jaipur to Agra road near Bamanpura. It's worth making the detour if you're passing that way. Tourists doing whistle-stop Golden Triangle tours (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) with the more-enlightened coach operators sometimes make a brief cultural stop here (and the loos are not too bad either). Today, we had the place more or less to ourselves.

If you've never seen a step-well (called a 'baori' in these parts), I should explain that it's more like a deep pond or reservoir, usually storing rain water rather than ground water. The water's reached by descending flights of steps, which makes it relatively accessible, and the whole thing is easy to maintain and manage too. A baori often serves other purposes - a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies, for example. Remnants of stone carvings, some retrieved from the walls of the baori and some from the ruined and even more ancient Harshat Mata Temple close by, confirm this and are now stored under cover in buildings around the perimeter. At the bottom of the well, the air is several degrees cooler than at the top, making it an ideal place for locals to gather during periods of intense heat.

This particular step-well, called Chand Baori, was built during the 9th century and it's the deepest and largest one I've seen in my travels around India. The mind boggles as to how it could have been constructed by hand all those years ago. A sign near the entrance says it's 19.5 metres (64 feet) deep, although I've read somewhere that it's much deeper; whatever, it's a long way down 13 storeys and 3,500 narrow steps to the unpleasant green weed at the bottom. Chand Baori's clearly no longer in use, but I imagine it would have been darn hard work carrying water back up all those steps!

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Next stop was Keoladeo National Park, formerly known to birders worldwide as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and formally known as the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (Keoladeo is another name for Lord Shiva and is the name by which he's worshipped at an old temple in the park, and ghana is a local word for the thick forest once supported by the area).

To help understand how the park gained its enviable reputation as one of the finest bird sanctuaries in the world you need to know a bit about its history. Initially, a natural depression was flooded after a dyke was constructed by the ruler of the princely state of Bharatpur in the mid-18th century. The area became home to huge numbers of waterfowl and later a hunting ground for the maharajahs, then for large duck shoots during the time of the British Raj. The last big shoot was held in 1964, although the maharajah retained shooting rights until 1972. It was eventually designated as a bird sanctuary in 1976, became a protected site in 1981 and was declared a national park a year later, when grazing within its boundaries was banned. It's now enclosed by a high boundary fence to minimise the possibility of encroachment. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

These wetlands are not entirely natural, so remain dependent on monsoons and a regulated water supply, mainly pumped in from a reservoir outside the park boundary. There's a system of dykes and sluices, some now powered by solar panels, to provide areas of varying water depths and, as the park is strategically located in the middle of the Central Asian migratory flyway, it attracts large congregations of birds of all kinds during the winter months. We looked forward to making acquaintance with at least some of them during our three-night stay.

We stayed at an excellent small hotel, one of several grouped together just minutes by cycle rickshaw from the park's entrance. Yes, I said 'cycle rickshaw'. You see, while you can take a car just a mile or so into the park, you then have to choose whether to walk, hire a bicycle, or take a cycle rickshaw with seats for two. You can arrange for one of the rickshaws to come to your hotel and transport you around the park for a few hours, or for a whole day, if you wish. The rickshaw wallahs displaying a yellow plate are authorised to double up as guides and have a good knowledge of the birds and mammals and of their whereabouts. The two we employed had been doing the job for more than 20 years, but still only charged Rs.100 (£1.25/US$2/€1.50) an hour.

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The best locations are through the dry scrub area to the verdant shallow lakes, about an hour's rickshaw ride from the entrance on rough but bearable tracks. If you'll excuse the pun, for the best bird-watching opportunities you have to be an early bird. The park opens at sunrise. Entry costs non-Indians Rs.400 (£5/US$8/€6) per visit. If you want a naturalist to guide you, as we did on our first day, this can be arranged through your hotel and will cost about Rs.1500 (£18/US$28/€21) for the whole day - a very worthwhile extra.


We saw only a fraction of the hundreds of species of birds and mammals which call Keoladeo home. Although we still saw absolutely loads, we were able to photograph only some of them, like bulbuls, owls, ducks, storks, monitor lizards and monkeys. Enough words - take a look at the pictures that follow. The very small birds that true birders call LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) refused to pose nicely!

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Lesser-floating Flipflops - probably a male and a female, but certainly not a pair!

One bird, a rare Rubythroat (Luscinia pectoralis), usually found only in the foothills of the Himalayas and apparently blown off course, proved particularly elusive - see the picture of the nomads peering into the bushes on our first morning in the park. Next morning, while I had a lie-in, they hired mountain-bikes and ventured into the park alone, twitcher-like.


One of the park wardens played a recording of the Rubythroat's mating call in the area where it had last been spotted - and hey presto...! Alas, it was only a fleeting glance and they failed to get photographic evidence!




We thoroughly recommend The Birder's Inn, conveniently located close to the park entrance in pleasant gardens.

It has 24 simply-furnished, well-equipped rooms, all with shower & wc (some have a bath tub too). There are overhead fans and air-conditioning for when it gets warmer than it was during our stay.

There's Wi-Fi in a few of the rooms and in the lobby.

The restaurant serves good Indian food and the service is outstanding.

We paid per night, including all meals: Rs.4,000 plus taxes (£51/US$79/€61) for a standard double and Rs.2750 plus tax (£36/US$55/€42) for a standard single room.

As the name suggests, the hotel is very familiar with the needs of birders. The manager very ably arranged our rickshaw transport and birding guide - he was particularly caring and attentive and even upgraded the nomads to the honeymoon suite without extra charge!

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:19 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india rajasthan bharatpur keoladeo abnaheri Comments (0)

Into the unknown

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Fatehpur Sikri » National Chambal Sanctuary - 28 February to 3 March 2013

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A week into our wildlife adventure and we still had another three days to go. What I'd hoped would be a leisurely ten days had so far turned out to be anything but!

It had been a hive of activity, involving chilly early mornings and hot, sunny days in the open-air, with much hurtling around in jeeps or bumping along on cycle rickshaws. It had been exhausting, educational and exhilarating in almost equal quantities. Okay, I did get one lazy morning - but, boy, did I need it!

Although a veteran of many places on our itinerary, the last two animal sanctuaries, Ranthambore ('Hooray, we heard a tiger roar!') and Keoladeo ('A Birder Paradise in Rajasthan?'), were entirely new to me. While I won't hurry back to the first of these, the latter was fantastic!

Now, we were off to a third, the National Chambal Sanctuary, about 125 kilometres to the east of Keoladeo. It's little known to travel bloggers. In all probability, mine - the one you're now reading - is one of very few to have 'National Chambal Sanctuary' as its location!


But first a sentence or ten about a well-known place through which we had to pass on the way - Fatehpur Sikri.

In the second half of the 16th century, the capital of the Mughal empire was right here on the Sikri ridge. It was originally called Fatehabad (Fateh, an Arabic or Persian word referring to military 'victories') and later Fatehpur ('pur', as you'll know if you've read one of my previous blogs, meaning 'city').


Built by the Emperor Akbar, this massive city was 'considerably larger than London and more populous' according to Ralph Fitch, an English traveller who passed this way in 1585. It comprised palaces and public buildings, harems, and residences for the court, the army, royal servants and a huge population.

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There were mosques too, the largest of which, the Jama Masjid (not to be confused with one of the same name in Delhi), was designed to accommodate 10,000 faithful and, according to the dedicatory inscription, deserved no less respect than Mecca itself.

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Here too was the late-16th Century tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti, who foretold the birth of Akbar's son. That son was named Prince Salim after the saint. He later succeeded Akbar to the throne of the Mughal Empire in his imperial name of Jahangir. It's a superb piece of Mughal architecture with particularly fine jali (perforated marble screens) enclosing the entire shrine.


The city's architecture is impressive and, perhaps more importantly, it's perfectly preserved for, although completed in 1573, it was only lived in for a dozen or so years before being abandoned. It was a bit like the thousand-piece jigsaw you bought at a charity shop. You had a place to put it and you had a picture of what it would look like. You spent ages putting it together and started to enjoy it. Then, just as it was more or less finished, you discovered there was one tiny piece missing! In this case, the Emperor's capital without a future was beautifully built in the right place to govern an empire - but there wasn't enough water to sustain the Emperor or his thousands of subjects!

Akbar's loss is our gain. It's a wonderful example of a city preserved in time.


And so we continued, along the way passing overloaded taxis, halting momentarily to photograph them for posterity. If they'd been in the UK, the Health & Safety Executive would have had kittens!

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Although very familiar with the area, our driver encountered unexpected roadworks and lost his way, taking a wrong turn somewhere on the Agra ring-road. The sun had dipped below the horizon by the time we arrived at our destination, the National Chambal Sanctuary.

The Chambal River is part of the Gangetic drainage system and a tributary of the Yamuna (the river which runs beside the Taj Mahal). The sanctuary, in existence since 1979, is situated near where the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh meet, and is co-administered by all three states. It covers a large area where the river cuts through ravines and hills to create a long and narrow eco-reserve, about 450 kilometres long and two to six kilometres wide.

It was established primarily to protect critically-endangered small crocodiles called Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) and it now supports the largest population of this creature in the wild.


It's one of the cleanest rivers in India, one of very few places where you might be lucky enough to see the rare Ganges River Dolphin and the endangered Red Crowned Roof Turtle, and the only place where Indian Skimmers are known to nest in large numbers. It certainly is a very special place.

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High on our list of things to do was a boat ride on the Chambal River. Now this wasn't to be any old boat ride. We needed a guide and he came in the shape of Gajendra Dagar, a young naturalist provided to us by our hotel. He proved to be a brilliant spotter, extremely knowledgeable and very pleasant to be with.

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In the space of a few hours, he found us several of the long-snouted Gharials (pictured above), Mugger (also called Marsh) Crocodiles (pictured below), some turtles and an array of spectacular and rare birds. There was also a Jungle Cat somewhere just above the river bank, although I would have needed better eyesight or binoculars to see it. Alas, there were no sightings of freshwater dolphins or the endangered turtle.

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In the grounds of our hotel and among adjoining farmland, we were introduced to a wide variety of smaller birds and some owls.

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Returning from an excursion to nearby temples, we encountered a pair of mongoose moving fast through the undergrowth just outside the hotel entrance. That night, in the gardens, by torchlight, Janice had a glimpse of a palm civet (a small tree-dwelling wild cat - similar to those that, in Indonesia, are responsible for Kopi Luwak, coffee made from the part-digested beans found in its droppings, yummy!).


In the mornings, I was woken at some unearthly hour by a colony of Fruit Bats, some with their stretchy black wings wrapped tightly around themselves, others showing their ginger, fox-like faces. As the sun set on the previous evening, these giant, web-winged mammals had swirled around like dragons before leaving their roost in the tall tree overhanging my bungalow. You simply would not believe the amount of noise involved when they returned after their night's feeding foray and emptied themselves onto my roof!


A downside to staying for a few days amid this truly wondrous area is the lack of good accommodation. Perhaps you could stay in Agra, about 70 kilometres away, and visit it on a day trip or book a room at one of the government Forest Rest Houses or Public Works Department Inspection Bungalows at Bah, Chakkar Nagar or Pinahat. Failing that, you'd have little option but to stay where we did, at what's called Chambal Safari Lodge. The name suggests that, like others elsewhere in the world (I'm thinking East Africa, Australia, Thailand even), this might be a smart, lodge-style hotel close to all the action. Wrong! This one's a former farm with fields and arid scrub around it and the journey to or from the river sanctuary, through small towns with narrow streets, markets and traffic could take three-quarters of an hour each way. It's run (not very well) by an Indian couple, who usually live in south-west London and who, although well-meaning and pleasant, seemed lacking in good hotel management skills. There's no competition in the vicinity, so it's grossly over-priced too. A pity really.

Perhaps one of the few compensations we found here was the nightly gathering with a glass of something around the fire-pit, swapping stories with other guests of what they did or didn't see that day. Oh, and for some maybe, a highlight might have been recognising a pungent 'weed' growing alongside a path to the cottages!

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We enjoyed visiting a neighbouring village, where we met welcoming, smiling people eager to show us how they lived, where they cooked, where they slept. This was a true rural community of subsistence farmers living in tiny home-made houses of mud and brick. Many had a buffalo or two tied up outside to provide the family with nutritious milk and cheese, as well as fuel handmade from the copious dung. Villagers congregated around a communal standpipe to fill plastic containers with water. Girls in smart blue and white uniforms, their hair neatly-tied in loops, made their way to school. Boys bunked off school to play cricket on dusty, bare ground at the edge of the village. Dogs languished in the shade and bright-eyed small children proudly carried puppies to show us. It was a charming interlude which gave us a glimpse of a life that's lead by so many in this land and so seldom seen by visitors from the developed world.

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A short drive from the 'lodge' brought us to a remarkable complex of ancient white temples and shrines grouped along one bank of the Yamuna River at Bateshwar.

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This important spiritual and cultural centre contains more than a hundred edifices to the glory of the Hindu deity Shiva, the 'auspicious one', the Supreme God. Inside some, bare-footed worshippers and visitors alike had to step with care as many large bees littered the floor, attracted by flowers and sweetmeats offered to the 'lingam' semblance of the deity.

Brave youngsters swimming in the fast-flowing river, a sari-clad woman washing her clothes, priests and monkeys, bells ringing out, little stalls selling all manner of food and temple offerings, a hijra (a eunuch) in conversation with sadhus (ascetics/holy men) and the smouldering remains of a cremation on the river bank visited by a wandering dog all reminded us that this was very much a living place. A colourful, fascinating, busy, living place.


We spent three nights at Chambal Safari Lodge. No hyperlink to this hotel as I do not recommend it.

I can do no better than refer you to my TripAdvisor review, an extract from which reads: (quote) ‘Great for birds’ (unquote) That's all I wrote in the hotel's guest book. I resisted the temptation to add: ‘Not so great for humans’.

We spent Rs.5,500 plus taxes (about £75/US$115/€87) per night per double bungalow (all paid in advance) and another Rs.1500 + taxes (about £22/US$33/€25) per person per night for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a price tag that was more than hefty by Indian standards, we expected better things all round - it was two-star accommodation, food and service at five-star prices. And where, I wonder, was the friendly, welcoming atmosphere?

Posted by Keep Smiling 06:08 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india uttar_pradesh fatehpur_sikri chambal Comments (0)


Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Agra - 3 to 4 March 2013

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Agra - grubby, overcrowded, totally tourist-oriented, 'want postcards?', 'need taxi sir?', hassle, hassle...

It’s best to get in, see the sights and get out – as quickly as you can.

Arrive around midday. In the afternoon, visit Agra Fort for a distant view of the Taj Mahal down by the Yamuna River, then the glorious ‘Baby Taj ’ (the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah), before taking in the sunset view of the Taj Mahal from across the river at Mehtab Bagh. If you still have any energy, complete your day with the Sound & Light performance back at the Red Fort.

Before dawn next day, enjoy the highlight of your visit by joining the queue at the Taj Mahal to see the sun rise over this fabulous monument. It's the best time of day and you'll be able to spend a couple of hours there before it gets too crowded. Just make sure it's not a Friday - the mosque is in constant use and the Taj is closed.

Return to your hotel for a late breakfast, pack your bags and move on.



I don't need to give you the low-down on what there is to see here. There are more than enough websites and guidebooks extolling the virtues of Agra and its unique and remarkable monuments.

So, instead, click on the website links above or, better still, take a look at my photos. They all have captions and I've tried to say a few words about each of them. You'll only find a few pictures of the Taj Mahal here, however - I've visited this place many times and, regardless of the camera, the lens or the angle, the classic shots of that iconic building always tend to look the same as those on everyone else's blogs.

The Taj Mahal reflected in one of the pools.
The white marble came from Makrana in Rajasthan and the red sandstone from Fatehpur Sikri.
Precious stones were brought from far-flung places in Tibet, China, Sri Lanka, Persia and Afghanistan.


Agra Fort

Take a picture please... It's a strange phenomenon in India - strangers ask to have their photo taken with you, on your camera!

A camel bus

Lovers viewing a lover's monument. The view of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort - as Shah Jahan might have seen it.

Beautiful architecture and beautiful people!

A beautiful screen (a 'jali') carved from a single piece of white marble.

The powerful 16th century Mughal fortress encompasses multiple palaces
and architectural wonders, like the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience).

A view from inside Agra Fort

The outside of the red sandstone fort is illuminated at night.

The history of the fort is captured in the hour-long performance -
but you may not stay awake all the way through it!

Returning to our homestay after the Sound & Light performance,
we encountered this noisy band accompanying a wedding procession.


Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula

The Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula was the very first in India made entirely from marble (1622-1628AD).
This is a mausoleum, the tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg (later called Itimad-ud-Daulah or
'the pillar of the state'), a minister in the court of Shah Jahan.

Often described as a 'jewel box', it's called the 'Baby Tāj' as it was to later influence the style of the Taj Mahal itself.

The tombs of Mirza Ghiyas Beg (Itimad-ud-Daulah) and his wife Asmat Begum.

A wall decoration inside the tomb.


Mehtab Bagh

Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bag.
To my mind, this is the best view of the monument - from across the Yamuna River as sunset approaches.

A nomadic way of life. The 'Grey haired nomads' rest for a cuppa before braving the Mehtab Bagh.

Mehtab Bagh - translation: 'The Moonlight Garden'. Shah Jahan identified this site as an ideal
location for viewing the Taj by moonlight from across the Yamuna River. We went just before sunset!

The dome of the Taj Mahal, with birds swirling around it, viewed near sunset from Mehtab Bagh.

Buildings close to the Taj Mahal on the opposite bank of the Yamuna River shone brightly as the sun set.

The 'Grey haired nomads' strive to capture the changing light.


Taj Mahal (as if you didn't know!)

Cameras at the ready for the classic 'Ooh! Aah!' shot of the Taj Mahal from just inside the entrance.

A 'Grey haired nomad' at the Taj Mahal.
The other half of the 'Grey haired nomads' was taking her own pictures away from the crowd!

The 'Grey haired nomads', not as young as they used to be,
continue to photograph the Taj from a seated position!


Calligraphy from the Qur'an (Koran) on the front of the building.
Higher panels are written in slightly larger script to
reduce the skewing effect when viewed from below.

Pietra dura on this jewel of Muslim art.

The white marble came from Makrana
(visited on our way to Roopangarh - see my blog: 'A marbleous place')

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Colour among the whiteness.


Working on the maxim of: 'I came, I saw, I conquered - and got the hell out of the place', my advice is not to empty your wallet on accommodation in Agra. You didn’t come here to spend your time in a hotel room, did you?

Of course, if you're a luxury freak, by all means take a room at the Oberoi Amarvilas; including taxes but no breakfast, a night here will set you back around Rs.46,000 (about £555/US$850/€645*)! We preferred to stay at N.Homestay, where a double room (albeit minus the luxury but including breakfast) cost only Rs.1,500 (about £18/US$27.50/€21.50*. And that's for two people! What’s not to like about that?

The people who run it, Shiron and his mother are delightful - they’re informal, friendly, speak excellent English, and are very helpful. It's not a hotel, it's a 'homestay' ('bed and breakfast') and rooms have minimal furnishings, but they’re spacious and clean. They each have a private bathroom with shower and wc, and there's free WiFi too. Breakfast in a slightly gloomy dining room is nothing to write home about, but it’s certainly more than adequate. The location, in a quiet road within easy reach of the main sights by taxi or tuk tuk, is good. Also, within walking distance you'll find a Pizza Hut and other eateries with familiar Western names (delivery to N.Homestay is fine) or the lady of the house will cook an Indian veg or non-veg lunch or dinner for you, with prior notice, at a maximum cost of around Rs.350 (£4.25/US$6.50/€5*) each.

*Rates as at February 2013

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:59 Archived in India Tagged india taj_mahal agra uttar_pradesh Comments (0)

Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi

Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Mathura - 4 March 2013

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To the south-east of Agra, in the city of Allahabad, a mass protest had begun about pollution of the Yamuna River.

For years, industrial waste and sewage has been discharged into this river, the largest tributary of the sacred Ganges, from drains on the outskirts of Delhi far away to the north. It has become officially 'dead' by the time it runs beside the Taj Mahal in Agra. Now the masses were heading up to Delhi on foot to voice their concerns to parliament and doubtless to Delhi's Chief Minister herself, the appropriately-named Mrs Sheila Dikshit.

By 'masses' I do mean masses! What had started off as 10,000 farmers, sadhus, union activists and members of religious and social groups had already swelled to many times that number. Yesterday morning, they blocked the Agra-Delhi highway with parked trucks and started marching the 60 kilometres from Agra to Mathura. They would be joined by Krishna devotees from Vrindavan, just outside Mathura, and it was thought there could be more than 100,000 people in the march when it eventually reaches the capital.

We too were heading for Delhi and planned to visit spiritual Mathura on the way. We had to hope that the marchers reached Mathura before us.


On the road to Mathura. Unusual sights: A cow being lead along the road - not left to
its own devices, and a tuk tuk taxi with only ten people in it - there are usually at least a dozen!

Faces on the back of a bus. Most Indian women aren't the Western lookalikes seen in advertisements.

Fortune smiled on us and we reached Mathura without any problems - just the usual hazards of ambling cows on narrow roads and an occasional lorry coming towards us in our lane on dual carriageways! The protesters had already been, slept and continued their journey, taking the AH1, the old Asian Highway, towards Delhi.

Mathura is the legendary 'birthplace of Lord Krishna' (which translates as 'Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi') and it's a major pilgrimage site. Krishna is the handsome Hindu deity usually shown with blue skin, a yellow dhoti and a peacock feather crown, sometimes standing with one leg bent in front of the other playing a flute. He's often accompanied by cows and a bevy of milkmaids. As the eighth avatar of Vishnu, the Supreme God, he's extremely important.

The entrance to the 'birthplace of Krishna'.

Photography isn't allowed inside the temple complex. This is a statue of Krishna on top of the entrance gate.

Most people, at some time or another, will have encountered the Hare Krishna Movement - more properly known as The International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON for short. They're a cheerful group of people with cleanliness, mercy, austerity and truthfulness as their principles. The Beatles met them on a visit to India in the late-1960s and the hit 'My Sweet Lord' duly followed in 1970 (in the days when songs weren't songs unless they were at least four minutes long!).

You may have heard the mantra 'Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare'. I certainly have. It, or at least the words 'Hare Krishna', featured in quite a few tracks, not only by members of The Beatles, but numerous other singers throughout the 70s. I've sometimes heard it when calling in for a vegetarian lunch at Bhaktivedanta Manor, ISKCON's UK headquarters, after shopping at Costco's warehouse in rural Hertfordshire. This stately pile and the surrounding farmland was donated to them by the late George Harrison, himself a Krishna devotee, who famously once said: "All religions are branches of one big tree. It doesn't matter what you call Him just as long as you call". Incidentally, if you've ever wondered about holy cows, karma and reincarnation, you'll find answers on the Bhaktivedanta website.

Krishna spent his childhood at Vrindavan, mentioned earlier in this blog, and there you'll find the Krishna Balaram Mandir, better known as the ISKCON Temple. Uniquely among the thousands of Vrindavan's temples it's well equipped to deal with accommodation and meals for foreign visitors and consequently attracts Hare Krishna pilgrims from all over the world. The Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna... mantra has been sung loudly there continuously, 24 hours a day, non-stop, for many years!

Only three-up! Father wearing a crash helmet driving the motorbike, mum sitting side-saddle
on the back with just a scarf on her head, daughter in the middle with no protection whatsoever.

However, I digress...

Krishna was born in an underground prison. Like most Hindu legends, it's far too complicated for me to even begin to explain what his parents were doing in prison and how Krishna subsequently rose to fame. Sorry.

Anyhow, it's believed that the first temple was constructed here, on the site of that prison, almost 5,000 years ago. In the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi complex, next to the vaguely-interesting Kesava Deo Temple, is a small, solid-brick room rather like a dark, ornately-decorated prison cell. This is revered as the actual birthplace. It has similarities to the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, believed to be the 'birthplace of Jesus Christ'. It's certainly as glitzy, crowded and claustrophobic - as is the nearby market with its colourful pottery stalls and barrowloads of fruit.


The clay pipe being shown to us by our driver Yadu was for smoking ganja (aka marijuana, pot, cannabis, weed).
He was only showing it to us, not buying it!

Krishna, it is said, was fond of milk and milk-based sweets. Perhaps as a result, Mathura has become known for sweet, gooey, brown, cardamom-flavoured, caramelised milk specialities called 'pedas'. They're too sweet even for me and, not to put too fine a point on it, I think they look a bit like camel droppings (see picture). Yadu, our driver, bought a huge bag of them for his kids!

Pedas - see what I mean about camel droppings?

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:15 Archived in India Tagged india uttar_pradesh mathura Comments (1)

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