Fatephur Sikri and Keoladeo National Park

After two nights in Agra we checked out of the hotel and headed by bus towards Bharatpur. It was another very wet day and when we arrived at our first stop at Fatephur Sikri it was chucking it down! Built in 1571 by Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, Fatephur Sikri was the Mughal capital for 14 years. An example of a Mughal walled city with defined private and public areas and imposing gateways, its architecture, a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, reflects Akbars secular vision as well as his style of governance. The site was abandoned in 1585 probably due to a lack of water and many of its treasures were plundered. However other than missing treasures it’s very well preserved and is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The building material is mainly red sandstone quarried from the rocky outcrop on which it’s situated. In it’s day, Fatephur Sikri shared it’s imperial duties as a capital city with Agra. During a crisis, the court, harem and treasury could be removed to Agra, only 26 miles away, less than a day’s march. It’s certainly an impressive place and very well preserved.

The 5 story pavilion on the right is called the Panch Mahal and overlooks the Pachisi Court where the ladies of the harem played a ludo-like game

The 5 story pavilion on the right is called the Panch Mahal and overlooks the Pachisi Court where the ladies of the harem played a ludo-like game

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The gate to the mosque known as the Buland Darwaza. It's 54m high

The gate to the mosque known as the Buland Darwaza. It’s 54m high

After leaving Fatephur Sikri we drove to our hotel near Bharatpur reaching it at lunchtime. It was a grand new hotel in the country. We were welcomed by drums. My room was large but cold and I was glad to be offered a portable heater.

The entrance of our hotel

The entrance of our hotel

Hotel courtyard

Hotel courtyard

After lunching at the hotel we drove the short distance to Keoladeo National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Keoladeo is regarded as one of the world’s most important bird sanctuaries. This once arid scrubland was first developed by the Bharatpur rulers in the mid 18th century by diverting the waters of a nearby irrigation reserve to create a private duck reserve. Extravagant shooting parties for viceroys and other royal guests were held here and horrifying numbers of birds were shot in a single day. Today the park covers 29 sq km of wetlands and attracts a wide variety of migrant and water birds who fly in each winter from places as distant as Siberia.

On arrival, Yash procured for us bicycle rickshaws with a driver and an expert guide. Thankfully it had stopped raining and we spent a fantastic couple of hours being driven around this bird paradise. I noted around 40 different bird species including the common and white throated kingfisher, the snake bird and loads of juvenile painted storks. As well as birds we saw deer, monkeys (macaque), golden jackal, wild boar and baby pythons. I did regret at this point not having a better camera as my 10x zoom did not really do justice to most of the wildlife.

White throated kingfisher

White throated kingfisher

This painted stork is around 3 months old

This painted stork is around 3 months old

A baby python

A baby python

The snake bird - so named because of the shape of its neck

The snake bird – so named because of the shape of its neck

Tor-Bjorn and I in our rickshaw

Tor-Bjorn and I in our rickshaw

After dinner in the hotel we were treated to Indian music and a puppet show by a man with an incredibly long moustache.

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Check out the size of this 'tache! He was a real character and made the puppets on display and managed to sell some to members of the group.

Check out the size of this ‘tache! He was a real character and made the puppets on display and managed to sell some to members of the group.

It had been a great day and I was loving the tour. We had done so much already but were only half way through.

Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

We were visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise so this meant an early start. The bus left the hotel at 6.30am and by 7 we were in the queue waiting for the outside gates to open. At 7am the huge external gate ( one of 3) was swung open and we made our way inside. Security was high and this involved airport style security and the most in depth search of my rucksack since The Gabba in Brisbane!

The forecast for the day was not great but at 7am it was dry but murky. We soon got our first view of the Taj Mahal. Wow! It’s incredibly impressive even in foggy conditions. It’s hard to think there is a more beautiful building anywhere else in the world.

The Taj Mahal was constructed between 1631 and 1654 by a workforce of 22,000. It was built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Arjumand Bano Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz had already borne the emperor FOURTEEN children when she died in childbirth. The Taj Mahal must be the ultimate symbol of love.

Yash had arranged for a specialist guide to explain the history of the Taj. One of our first photo stops was at “Diana’s seat” by the Lotus Pool. The seat is so named due to the iconic photo of Princess Diana taken on her visit to the Taj Mahal in 1992. She was on an official state visit to India with Prince Charles but visited alone as at the time her marriage was collapsing. As it turned out the rest of the group, and I, had our photos taken on the wrong seat. Hey ho!

Me on the wrong "Diana seat"

Me on the wrong “Diana seat”

The iconic photo of Princess Diana taken in 1992

The iconic photo of Princess Diana taken in 1992

We then moved onto the Taj itself and entered after covering our shoes. Like the Baby Taj yesterday it’s perfectly symmetrical. We saw the tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan. Mumtaz’s cenotaph is right in the centre of the tomb chamber with Shah Jahan’s to one side. This is due to his grave being moved there after his death when the Taj had already been completed.

We has plenty of time for taking photos. Unfortunately the sun didn’t come out and it stayed murky.

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One of the 4 minarets. They are 40m high

One of the 4 minarets. They are 40m high

A recessed arch known as a Pishtaq

A recessed arch known as a Pishtaq

After finishing at The Taj we had a coffee nearby and then headed back to the bus. On the way we passed a number of souvenir sellers. After detailed negotiations I managed to secure a very tasteful item – a Taj Mahal glitter dome! – at the bargain price of 100 rupees (£1).

After getting back on the bus we headed back to the hotel which gave an opportunity for breakfast. Whilst back at the hotel the heavens opened and there was thunder in the air. We were lucky to have seen the Taj whilst it was dry.

Despite the weather we headed back out at 10.30 to visit Agra Fort. The walled city of the Agra Fort was first taken over by the Mughals, led by Akbar the Great, in the late 16th century. Akbar liked to build with red sandstone often inlaid with white marble and other intricate decorations. It was during the reign of Shah Jahan, Akbars grandson and the builder of the Taj Mahal, that the fort took on its current state. Shah Jahan preferred buildings of white marble, often inlaid with gold or other semi precious gems, and he destroyed some earlier buildings to build others in his own style. At the end of his life Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the fort by his son, Aurangzeb. It is believed that Shah Jahan died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with an excellent view of the Taj Mahal. The Taj of course is where his favourite wife Mumtaz’s body lays on the other side of the River Yumana from the Fort. The Fort is also the site of one of the most important battles of the Indian rebellion of 1857, which caused the end of the British East India Company’s rule in India, leading to a century of direct rule of India by Britain. The Fort is a really fascinating place and our guide really brought things to life for us with stories such as Shah Jahan and Mumtaz having fishing competitions together in the fishing lake. He always let her win! There was also a harem of beautiful ladies within the Fort in the days of Akbar the Great and Shah Jahan. The rain stopped towards the end of our visit but despite this the Taj Mahal was barely visible across the river.

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Grave of John Russell Colvin who was the governor of the a North West province of India who died at Agra Fort in 1857

Grave of John Russell Colvin who was the governor of the a North West province of India and died at Agra Fort in 1857

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We headed back to the hotel for lunch and I really enjoyed my choice of mixed vegetable korma. In fact I began to order mixed vegetable curries for lunch each day in India following this.

We had free time in the afternoon which I used to catch up with sleep. The journey from Thailand to India and the early morning had caught up with me.

In the evening we headed out to the Dasaprakash South Indian restaurant and a totally different style of food. Check out the Dosa that I had. A Dosa is a type of fermented crepe cooked with rice batter and black lentils. Mine was a little bit different to the norm as it contained wheat, onions and potatoes. Very tasty!

My Dosa

My Dosa

After the meal we headed back to the hotel. Yash invited us back to his room for a party. Most of the group went along. Room parties were to be a theme for the rest of the week.

Delhi to Agra

Day 2 of my Indian adventure started with a quick breakfast of coffee and toast. We checked out of our Delhi hotel and awaited our transport. It consisted of a 20 seater bus with driver and helper. With bags loaded into the bus – I remembered to tip this time! – we set off into old Delhi.

Our first stop was Jama Masjid (the great mosque) built in 1656 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It took 5,000 workmen six years to build and is the largest mosque in India. The huge square courtyard can accommodate up to 20,000 for occasions such as Friday prayers. It was a foggy day in Delhi so we declined the opportunity to climb the minaret. This is supposed to give great views of the city but with the fog there wouldn’t have been much to see. We removed shoes whilst entering the mosque. This to be a common theme over the next few days and it was common for our shoes to be “minded” by someone in exchange for a tip.

In the courtyard of the biggest Mosque in India

In the courtyard of the biggest Mosque in India

The Jama Masjid

The Jama Masjid

After leaving the mosque we walked through the streets of Old Delhi heading for Chandni Chowk one of India’s most vibrant centres of commerce and religious activity. It was early in the morning and many shops had not yet opened. The usual opening time is 10am. I paused at a stall where an Indian gentleman had just ordered breakfast. We stood aghast at a street where electrical cables hung above us in a chaotic spaghetti of danger.

Breakfast in Old Delhi

Breakfast in Old Delhi

Check out the electrical cables!

Check out the electrical cables!

Having reached Chandni Chowk we visited a Sikh temple. The Sikh holy site of Gurdwara SisGanj stands at the site where the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded in 1675 on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for refusing to accept Islam. To enter the temple we had to remove shoes and socks and wear headscarves. We sat in silence for a few minutes watching Sikhs at worship.

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Inside the Sikh temple

We watched lunch preparations underway in the temple kitchens. Some of the girls helped with making chapatis. Apparently lunch is provided free to the worshippers within the temple.

Now that's a big pan!

Now that’s a big pan!

Making chapatis

Making chapatis

After leaving the temple we retraced our steps back to the Jama Masjid where the bus was waiting. Many of the shops which were shut when we passed earlier were now trading. There were lots of jewelry shops with no doubt many bargains to be had.

It was now time to leave Delhi as we had a 5 hour journey ahead of us to reach Agra which is around 210km south of Delhi. It was a good journey with most of the road being a relatively new toll motorway. We passed a number of new residential and office developments in the Noida area. One of the places we passed was the Indian Formula 1 circuit at Buddh. Much of the scenery along the way was agricultural. North India is very green at this time of year. There were many workers out in the fields and little sign of mechanisation.

Having made good time to reach Agra we visited the Itmad-Ud-Daulash tomb which is also known as the Baby Taj. It was built by Empress Noor Jahan, the beloved wife of Prince Saleem’or Jahangir, in the memory of her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who was the Prime-Minister of the Mughal Court. The Baby Taj was started in 1622 and took 6 years to build. It is if particular interest as it is a forerunner of the Taj Mahal and many of the designs within it are also present within the Taj. The tomb is a combination of white marble, coloured mosaic, stone inlay and lattice work. I found it absolutely captivating and loved the symmetry of the design. It was a wonderful way to spend time at the end of a long journey. Compared to the fog (or smog?) in Delhi it was clear in Agra.

The baby Taj

The baby Taj

Sandstone entrance gate at the Baby Taj

Sandstone entrance gate at the Baby Taj

Me at the Baby Taj

Me at the Baby Taj

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After leaving the Baby Taj we headed for our hotel. We got stuck in a traffic jam on the way. Traffic coming on the opposite direction moved onto our side of the road to try and avoid the gridlock. It was absolutely fascinating watching from the bus. Tuk tuks rammed full with an improbable number of people. I saw a family of five (mum, dad and 3 kids) on a motor bike! The young girls on our bus got plenty of attention from a number of the Indian guys stuck in the traffic jam. Eventually the traffic started to move and we got to our hotel.

Family on a motorbike. Mum head away behind Dad for this shot

Family on a motorbike. Mum hid away behind Dad for this shot

A very full Tuk Tuk

A very full Tuk Tuk

In the evening we went out to a local restaurant and enjoyed a meal sat outside. There were a number of Indian weddings going on in Agra. It’s peak season for weddings there. We saw a wedding procession go past involving a marching band and the groom.

After getting back to the hotel I had a drink in the bar but then retired to my room. Tomorrow was an early start and I was going to see the Taj Mahal!