I am writing this from the top balcony of the Ravla Hotel in Khempur. Or to use its alter ego, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Bill Nighy sat here, as did Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Ray Whinstone. But more about this in the next epistle.
We arrived in Agra five hours late. I still had this massive cold and I began to wonder, not for the first time, why some injury or medicinal calamity always seems to happen when I’m on holidays and not at work. In the line of duty I’ve sat on the back of a four metre crocodile, had a cigarette shot out of my mouth by the late Larry Delhunty, been charged by a Black Rhino, been shot at on the Thai Burmese border and was nearly stabbed in the Brixton riots. (I owe my life to a small portly person-aka Warren Evans). I’ve managed to emerge from all these incidents without a scratch. However while on holidays I’ve fallen from a small walkway in Sandakan in Borneo and broken two ribs and managed to break another couple while in a taxi in Nepal. I’ve also come within inches of calamity while carrying bags down stairs leading to the Metro in Paris. This time its a lingering chest infection type cold that has managed to resist more vitamin C and lemon tea than I’ve taken in my entire sixty six years. Never mind. We’re still enjoying ourselves and as my long suffering wife says, “if you’re that ill you’d stop smoking completely!” She has a point.
Agra of course is home to the Taj Mahal. Needless to say we’re in a state of high anticipation. It’s just a short walk from our hotel and we have a guide which means we can avoid some of the crowds. They say the best time to see the Taj is at dawn or dusk. The only trouble is that on this dawn you can’t see it because of the fog. It’s very very foggy. Gradually however the sun makes a determined effort to break through and this architectural masterpiece begins to reveal itself. It is truly magnificent, without a doubt one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.
It’s aptly called “a dream in marble” and was built in loving memory of the then Empress of India Arjumand Bano Begum, the wife of the Emperor Shah Jahan. ( He also built that huge mosque near the Red Fort In Delhi.)
By all accounts he worshipped her and they had fourteen children.Before she died he promised her that he would build a lasting monument to their love on the banks of the Yamuna River. Building began in 1631 and was finally finished in 1648. I could wax lyrical for pages on the architectural wonders of the Taj Mahal complex and its gardens but I won’t. Go and see it for yourselves. It will remain with you forever.
Unlike some of the other Mughal Emperors, it appears that Shah Jahan was a pretty decent sort of a bloke. Sadly for him one of his sons was a right tosser and not exactly sparkling with filial devotion. He decided to imprison his father for the last eight years of his life because he wouldn’t agree to a more fundamental enforcement of the Muslim religion. (Sound familiar?)
Apart from the Taj, Agra has another place worth visiting. Agra Fort. The walls are made of red sand stone and were originally surrounded by two moats, one of which was filled with crocodiles to deter the enemy, which I guess it did. The fort was built by Akbar the Great. Building started in 1565 and it was completed eight years later. Five thousand concubines lived here so obviously there was no lack of frivolity and their rooms are still there today. From the bedrooms they could gaze down on the ministerial meetings in the open pillared building below.
On the way to Jaipur there’s another stop to make.Akbar the Great was also responsible for this architectural marvel, Fatehpur Sikri. He built this city to celebrate a string of victories and it is said by experts to represent a perfect blend of Hindu and Muslim cultures. There’s a giant chessboard etched into an area on one the massive courtyards and the great man supposedly used the concubines as chess pieces. Somehow the “bishop” being represented by a sultry damsel in a wispy sari is difficult to comprehend. For the ladies sake I hope the games didn’t last days like some of the championships these days.
Ramesh, our champion driver, manages to get us to Jaipur in one piece. It’s a toll highway and the road is good but living obstacles are everywhere. Cattle, goats and dogs can be seen snoozing on the median strip and of course if they decide to rouse themselves and stretch their legs they head into the path of trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles. Incredibly we’ve seen no road kill since we’ve arrived.
St Cecile, (as she’s know by my friends), has excelled yet again. While the Agra hotel was functional but unremarkable, our residence for the next two nights was magnificent. Called the Ikaki Niwas which means “one of its kind residence”, its the private home of Jadeo (JD) Singh Rathore and his wife Devika Singh. The family is descendant of the Narnot Clan who ruled the States of Bikaner and Jodphur prior to independence. In the house shrine I see a stuffed rat and I understand the Bikaner connection. I did a story on the Rat Temple in Bikaner back in the 90’s. The 20,000 rats who live there are believed to be the descendants of the Goddess Karni Mata.
Anyway the 30 year old family home now doubles as a “home stay” and is absolutely magnificent. Our rooms are spacious and the furnishings tastefully expensive. Meals are taken in a beautiful courtyard setting and the food is vegetarian and very tasty. Luckily for me JD’s father and mother also live here and his father just happens to be a Doctor. After initially diagnosing me with an “allergy?” he finally prescribes some antibiotics to get rid of the chest infection. Phil and I head to the chemist. He’s been instructed buy some antiseptic baby wipes and of course I’m after my medicine. His baby wipes cost twice as much as my pills.
Jaipur is known as The Pink City and is a magnificent showcase of Rajasthani culture and heritage. On offer as well as the bazaar in the old city.
Before the City Palace was built the rulers resided in the Amber Fort which can also be accessed by elephant. I won’t go into too much detail but rest assured both the Fort and the Palace are worth a look. As is the bazaar.
There are textiles galore at the bazaar but get yourself set for some serious bargaining and this can be hard work. The stall holders are persistent at best and downright annoying at worst. When you ask a price outside you soon find out that price has tripled when you get inside. Frustrating but colourful.
The next morning Phil and I set off for our customary walk. We walk for about 3 kilometres before deciding to turn back. He’s going back the way we came and I decide to take a short cut. We have a bet who’ll get back first.
Two hours later I’m hopelessly lost before stumbling on a local school which I recognise. The only problem is I’ve forgotten the name of our “hotel”. Good one Beatty. A guy on a motorbike, who’s just dropped his elder child at the school takes pity on me and offers me a lift. I perch on the back and his three year old son sits on his lap. After 20 minutes of dodging cows, goats and dogs he’s forced to give up. Not knowing the name hasn’t helped.
I eventually arrive back at Ikaki Niwas in time for a very late breakfast. I’d lost the bet.
Our next stop will take us deep into the countryside of Rajasthan and will be another truly wonderful surprise.
We’re on the way to Udaipur but along the way we’ll make two stops. One of them will be an old country hunting lodge and the other became the set of two very successful movies.
Would you like to visit this magnificent country?
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