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

sunny 30 °C
View Three travel bloggers go to Bhārata on Keep Smiling's travel map.

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').

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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!

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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.

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Accommodation:
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)

Agravation

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

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

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.

Perfect!

*****

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.

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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

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

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A camel bus

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

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Beautiful architecture and beautiful people!

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

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

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A view from inside Agra Fort

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

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

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

*****

Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula

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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.

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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.

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

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A wall decoration inside the tomb.

*****

Mehtab Bagh

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

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

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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!

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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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!

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

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Brothers

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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.

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Pietra dura on this jewel of Muslim art.

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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.

*****

Accommodation:
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

sunny 30 °C
View Three travel bloggers go to Bhārata on Keep Smiling's travel map.

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.

*****

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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!

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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.

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The entrance to the 'birthplace of Krishna'.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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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