Northern India Tour

24 October 2019 – Northern India Tour

As planned, we departed the lush, green, humid environment of Kochi in the state of Kerala for a ten day tour of North India on 15 October. We booked this travel through Santa Monica Holidays, a short walk from the ferry across to Ernakulum. We paid 169,000 Indian Rupees, or $ 3,150 CDN for this 10 day trip. The destinations to be covered were the well travelled Golden Triangle route: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur.

On the first day, we were met by our private car, driver and tour guide (Rishabh) at New Delhi Airport. In the afternoon, we visited Rashtrapati Bhavan (the official home of the President of India), Parliament House & India Gate and then overnighted at the Hotel Rockland CR Park. India has a Prime Minister, currently Modi, who is the leader of the majority party. India also has a President, who is elected by the members of Parliament. The President doesn’t have to be from the same ruling party, but often is. This is the President’s Palace. In terms of surface area, it is the largest offered to a head of state anywhere in the world. On site are the Mughal Gardens, which are unfortunately only open to the public in February every year.

We also stopped by several of the Ministries, including this one, the Ministry of Defence. 

I couldn’t help but notice this brightly coloured auto-rickshaw, or tuk-tuk parked at the curb. Our guide told us that many of the elected members of parliament shuttle back and forth using these government tuk-tuks. This one is powered by CNG, like most tuk-tuks in Delhi. Since the pollution is so bad, all petrol and diesel tuk-tuks are banned in Delhi. 

Our initial impressions of Delhi are quite favourable. Single use plastics are banned. There are plenty of garbage or rubbish cans to be seen, and although it is a very crowded city with a population of 22 million, it looks very clean and tidy, particularly in comparison with Kochi.

On day two, at 0530, Diane wanted to get up, have a shower and wash her hair. There was no hot water. I said “be patient”. At 0600, I tested the system myself, to ensure she hadn’t overlooked a switch to turn on the heater or something. There was clearly no hot water. I called the Reception and asked WTF? They quickly apologized for the lack of hot water and said “the” boiler hadn’t been turned on yet. Its a cost savings measure you see. So, they said “we’ll turn it on, and you’ll have hot water in 10 minutes”. Diane had a shower at 0630 in mildly warm water. I had a shower at 0700, with hot water. Given that the hotel breakfast starts at 0700, I suppose that’s the time to look for hot water, at least in the Hotel Rockland CR Park Delhi. 

After the hotel breakfast, we had a full day of Delhi “private guide” sightseeing starting with  Qutub Minar, an excellent example of Muslim Afghan Architecture. The Minar is a 72.5m high victory tower, the construction of which began in the final year of the twelfth century by Qutubuddin Aibak and was later completed by his successor. It has been given World Heritage Site status and is renowned as the tallest and oldest minaret in the world. 

This Hindu red sandstone carving (made centuries before the Muslims made Qutub Minor) is an example of hundreds – and has stood the test of time extremely well. 

We next stopped at Bahai Temple, situated atop the Kalkaji Hill – also known as “The Lotus Temple” due to its distinctive lotus shaped design in Marble. It was built in 1987 by the followers of Bahai faith. The temple signifies the purity and equality of all religions.  We found it quite sterile inside, devoid of any feeling of worship. The grounds and the temple itself were free entrance and simply a wonder to behold. 

Our next stop was lunch, and much to our amazement, in a city of over 22 million people and thousands of tourists, the guy eating at the table next to us was at the same hotel, the same breakfast buffet 10 km away, 6 hours earlier! It was obviously a popular place to bring tourists. Of special interest to me though, was not the lunch, but the snake charmer and his handler hawking outside. This was a first for me, and I couldn’t resist taking a few photos. 

Diane didn’t seem to mind, and even stroked this cobra’s back.

Later in the afternoon, we spent a very worthwhile 5.5 hours at the Akshardham Temple. It is a very modern Hindu house of worship, and a spiritual and cultural campus dedicated to devotion, learning and harmony. This was our first view, and only photographic possibility since all cameras, cell phones etc have been banned inside the structure – for security reasons. 

Timeless Hindu spiritual messages, vibrant devotional traditions and ancient architecture are echoed in its art and architecture. The mandir is a humble tribute to Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781- 1830) with avatars, devas and great sages of Hinduism. The traditionally-styled complex was inaugurated on 6 November 2005 with the blessings of HH Pramukh Swami Maharaj and through the devoted efforts of thousands of skilled artisans and volunteers. These photos are courtesy of Google Images, but are definitely indicative of what we saw. 

The sound, water and light show in the early evening was simply spectacular, a showcase for modern Indian technology and special effects. 

On day three, our driver took us to Agra (250km/3hrs 30mins) on the best highway we have seen in India. Imagine – a speed limit of 100km/hr!  We spent the early part of the afternoon visiting Agra Fort with our tour guide Iqbal exploring this unique Indo – Islamic architecture. 

The Taj Mahal calls to us in the distance.

Then, we proceeded to visit Taj Mahal, the extravagant white mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan, in the memory of his third an favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal complex is believed to have been completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 32 million rupees, which in 2015 would be approximately 52.8 billion rupees (U.S. $827 million). The construction project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects led by the court architect. This is a mausoleum, not a palace. Nobody every lived at Taj Mahal. Photography inside was prohibited. We overnighted at the Hotel Crystal Sarovar Premiere Agra, a really nice 5 star hotel.

On day four, we drove to Jaipur (240km/4hrs), visiting the town of Fatehpur Sikri along the way.  Fatehpur Sikri served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585 and contained both a walled city and imperial palace. The city came to be known as 

Fatehpur Sikri, the “City of Victory”, after Akbar’s victorious Gujarat campaign in 1573. 

Jaipur is the present day capital of India’s Rajasthan state. The Old City is called the “Pink City” for its trademark building colour.  We stayed overnight stay at Hotel Marigold and toured the next day with our guide Ramesh.  

Driving into the city, we passed a heavily congested area where  hundreds of “day workers”, appearing to be mostly men, congregate. These men are contracted out by the day to do all kinds of work. They work for 500 rupees ($10 CDN) per day, and are paid on a daily basis. This, we came to realize, is a common theme throughout Northern India. This van was full of day workers heading out for their work.

Our first stop on day five was at the Palace Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 – the Palace of Winds. Made with the red and pink sandstone, the palace sits on the edge of the City Palace, and extends to the Zenana, or women’s chambers. Back in the day, Rajput royal ladies were not to be seen by strangers or appear in any public area. The construction of Hawa Mahal allowed the royal ladies to enjoy looking out to every day street scenes and royal processions on the street without being seen.

Then, we spent several hours at Amer Fort, which dates back to 967 CE. Many of the ancient structures of the medieval period have been either destroyed or replaced. However, the 16th-century Fort and the palace complex within it built by the Rajput Maharajas are very well preserved.

We enjoyed an Elephant Ride uphill to reach atop of the palace. Normally we wouldn’t bother with such a tourist activity, but it was part of the package and made the steep uphill climb quite tolerable. 

Inside, there is a lot to see, and you could probably spent a week here. 

We also saw the Hall of Victory or Jag Mandir, and in particular, the famed Sheesh Mahal – a room with all the four walls and ceiling completely embedded with glittering mirror pieces, which were specially imported from Belgium. 

Down the hill, we stopped at the road side to take a photo of the Lake Palace. This lake is currently only about 2 feet deep, but fills during the rainy season. 

Later, we continued with a tour of the Maharaja’s City Palace, part of it is now converted into a museum. We also visited the Jantar Mantar, the largest stone and marble crafted observatory in the world, having 17 large instruments; many of them are still in working condition. Here is a photo of a working sundial, crafted in marble.

This is the same model, but of a much larger scale to give a higher accuracy. It is reported to be the largest working sundial in the world. 

Many men in the state of Rajasthan wear a turban or Pagri, not to be confused with the Dastar worn by Sikh men. Some of the older, traditional looking men appear to wear their turban on a daily basis. Our guide doesn’t wear one, except for special occasions like weddings and cultural events. He showed us his wedding photos on his phone. He also told us he has two at home, one which is “pre-tied”, or ready to wear, and the other that has to be tied in place. That one is composed of a 9 metre long length of cloth, and about 1/3 of a metre in width. We also learned that many Hindu women in this area cover their face, but not for religious regions, as an ancient custom. They basically just pull part of their sari over their head. This is not our guide.

In the evening, we went to Chokhi Dhani for a cultural experience and true Rajasthani dinner (included in the tour).  We cheated though, and opted to pay more and sit at a table and chairs, rather than on the floor. 

Its now the end of day five, mid-way through our tour, and personally – I’m starting to feel the effects of: a busy itinerary, crowds (mostly Indian, not too many foreigners yet), aggressive street hawkers and an increasing number of beggars, that is the most worrisome. Oh well – soldier on!

On day six, we left Jaipur and drove to Jodhpur (via Ajmer Pushkar) (285km/4-5hrs).  There are more than 400 hundred temples in Pushkar with the main attraction being the temple of Lord Brahma, the only temple in India dedicated to Brahma – and the only “temple” we visited in Pushkar. It was crowded, and very underwhelming. 

Next, with our guide Vinod we visited Pushkar Lake or Pushkar Sarovar, a sacred lake of the Hindus. The Hindu scriptures describe it as “Tirtha-Raj” – the king of pilgrimage sites related to a water-body and related to the mythology of the creator-god Brahma, whose most prominent temple stands in Pushkar. Pushkar Lake finds mention on coins as early as the 4th century BC. To get to the lake, we had to walk down some small roads through a market area, and I was stunned to see cows just wandering around like “the Queen of Sheba”. They crap and piss everywhere and its a challenge not to step in it.

At the waters edge, you can see pilgrims bathing in the holy water of Pushkar Lake. To get down to the water, you have to remove your shoes. 

The cows also move their way down to the waters edge, to drink, and maybe bath. They don’t remove their “shoes”, and they continue to crap and piss whenever they need to. It seems quite unsanitary to me, but the Hindus insist its not unclean.

Lastly, we visited the Ajmer-e-Sharief Dargah Mosque, also in Pushkar. This place is regarded as one of the holiest places in Islam and one of the most sacred pilgrim sites by people of all religions. Sadly, we found it a bitter disappointment compared to other large and beautiful mosques, it was also over-run with tourists, pilgrims and gift shops. 

Finally we drove to Jodhpur, arriving at the Hotel Kothi Heritage at 8:15pm. It was a long, tiring day – and to finish it up with two hours of driving in the dark on poor roads with hundreds of unlit trucks and cows wandering all over – was simply dangerous. In future, we will just cut short any tours that threaten to postpone our arrival time after sunset.

Along the road, many times we noticed piles of cow dung patties: cow dung mixed with hay and dried in the sun. They are made mainly by women in rural areas and used to fuel fires primarily for cooking — and have long been available in India’s villages.

On day seven, we enjoyed the Jodhpur city tour with our guide Vinod. Established in 1459 by Rao Jodha, Jodhpur is the second largest city in Rajasthan and used to be a major stop on the silk route (camels caravans). Our first stop was Jaswant Thada, nicknamed the “Taj Mahal of Jodhpur”.  It was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh of Jodhpur State in 1899 in memory of his father, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, and serves as the cremation ground for the royal family of Marwar.

The city landscape is dominated by the arresting Mehrangarh Fort, here seen in the distance from Jaswant Thada. 

Inside the fort, Diane poses with one of the security guards. He is wearing one of the large moustaches commonly found in the Rajasthan state. 

This is a photo from inside the Fort, looking down at the “Blue City”. Whereas Jaipur is known as the “pink city”, Jodhpur has become known as the “Blue City” because many of the houses are painted blue in the old area of the city.  It’s also said that as it’s called the “Sun City” because the weather remains bright and sunny all around the year, and to keep the houses cool, the colour blue is favoured on the houses

This is one of the rooms where the royal family held court.

Jodhpur is known for its stunning palaces, massive forts and beautiful temples. Its rich cultural heritage also reflects in handicrafts, folk dances, music and fairs and annual festivals. Finally, we went to Umaid Bhawan Palace, the last great palace to be built in India. Built between 1928 and 1943, the Palace is a magnificent piece of Rajasthan’s heritage, and a symbol of new Jodhpur. Home of the erstwhile Jodhpur royal family and currently the world’s sixth-largest private residence, the palace has one thing in common with the iconic Taj Mahal at Agra—the palm court marble used in its construction. Some years ago, the royal family split the Palace in three sections, one is a museum (which we visited), the second a Taj Hotel, and the third remaining section for their home. Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra had their three-day wedding festivities at Jodhpur’s Royal Umaid Bhawan Palace in December 2018. They exchanged wedding vows as per both Christian and Hindu rituals in two separate ceremonies. If you want to stay in the hotel, rooms start at about $11,000 CDN per night. 

On day eight, we left Jodhpur and drove to Udaipur (total 350km/7hrs)by way of Ranakpur (100KM/2hrs by drive from our hotel). Along the way, we encountered many flocks of goats, and here is just one example.

We have been seeing camels alongside the road for days and I finally got a good photo of some. These are not tourist camels, but used by the locals for pulling carts and other work. The state of Rajasthan is quite dry and arid and a suitable environment for camels. We have seen camel leather products in the market as well. These were part of a herd of about 30 camels being moved along by the handler. 

We also passed through dozens of villages and of course hundreds of cows just wandering around. I’ve come to realize that most, if not all, of these cows are “owned” by individuals who “feed” and milk them – in the countryside, the villages and the cities. I have also learned that some municipalities have introduced laws to fine the owners when they don’t treat their cows well. Cows are supposed to be sacred in India. If you don’t permit your children to wander the streets or play on the highway, why do they permit the cows to? Apparently, if you hit a cow with your car, in addition to the damage to your car and risk to your life – you also face a 1,000 rupee fine. I think there is a way to keep cows sacred in India, but yet reduce the hazards to people as well. Make the owners responsible for the health and well being of their livestock. Here is a typical cow having breakfast at the edge of the road just outside of town, and I’m not kidding.

We also passed through dozens of villages where people had no water in their homes, but had to use the community water pump and carry water in jugs. It is unlikely that these people had toilets either since we also saw quite a few chemical or portable toilet cabins setup.

Our mid-day stop was both a rest stop (for another expensive tourist priced lunch) and an opportunity to visit the Ranakpur Temple, one of the largest and most important temples of Jain culture – built in the 15th century in impeccably white marble. 

As with all tourist attractions in Northern India, there is a sizeable disparity in the entrance fee for foreigners versus Indians. At Taj Mahal, for example, the entrance fee for foreigners was 1200 rupees, but only 40 rupees for locals, a factor of 30X more. Today, when entering the Ranakpur Jain Temple, we paid an entrance fee, a fee for an obligatory audio guide and also a fee to carry our mobile phones / cameras. However, at the point of entrance, it was pointed out to us that we had only paid 100 rupees ($2 CDN) each for a mobile phone, but Diane was carrying her iPad mini, and all “tablets” were assessed at 300 rupees ($6 CDN). This was “our tipping point”, especially when we see that there was one guy selling tickets and about six policing the entry point. Dozens of locals were entering alongside of us, and they paid a pittance to enter (which I have no problem with) and nothing for their electronic devices. After a minute of “discussing” this with the aggressive entry staff, we decided to abort our visit. We risked another late day of travel on rough and dangerous roads and there was potential for more night time driving so we just decided to give this temple “a miss”. It just wasn’t that important to us. We are beginning to show signs of “tourist fatigue”: too many crappy high-priced meals, and too many people wanting a tip for their services. On day one, we asked for the price of a glass of wine in the hotel restaurant and it was 600 rupees ($12 CDN) – double what we would pay at a Canadian restaurant. When we know that we can buy a pretty good bottle of Indian white wine in the local store for 800 rupees, we know that we’re being gouged. The end result is – no wine purchase. We stayed two nights at the Hotel Amantra Comfort – Udaipur.

On day nine, with our guide Bhopal, we enjoyed a city tour of Udaipur, known as the City of Lakes and the Venice of the East. First, we visited the City Palace Fateh Prakash. 

Inside the palace, we saw rooms with mirrored walls and ivory doors, stained glass windows, beautiful marble balconies and a peacock courtyard. 

From the top of the palace, we had a great view of the surrounding lake, which to my surprise was the cleanest fresh water we have come across in all of India so far. The white structure in the foreground is a hotel, part of the Taj chain.

This is the edge of the Lake Summer Palace, that we took a boat ride to get to. 

We had a quick look at the Jagdish Hindu Temple built by Maharana Jagat Singh and dedicated to Lord Vishnu & Gulab Bagh.

The thousands of intricate stone (granite) carvings were amazing to see up close. 

Inside the temple, there were about 20 Hindu people singing and chanting, part of a warm-up for the start of the Diwali festival. 

Then we had a quick visit to the Bhartiya Lok Kala Museum – a museum of folk and art that displays a rich collection of folk dresses, ornaments, puppets, masks and dolls. We learned that there are still wandering groups of Indians who specialize in various folk art and dance, and move around (mostly in the rural areas) from village to village throughout the year, following a nomadic way of life. 

Finally, we visited the lovely Sahelion-ki-Bari (Queen’s resort for their friends) gardens. These gardens are situated below the level of the lake, so the fountains are hydraulically powered by gravity – and have been doing so for 350 years. 

On day ten, 24 October, we made our way to the Udaipur Airport to catch our flight for our return to Kochi, via Bangalore. After ten days of touring, we are both quite tired and eager to return home to our own bed and way of life. For someone who wants to bypass the tour agency “middle-man”, you might consider contacting the young man who was our personal driver for the ten day tour,  Mr Sunil Yadav, mobile number +91 86906 96695 and email address sunilyadavbehror02@gmail.com. We were very impressed with Sunil and next week, he will be acquiring his own new car that will be available for guided tours. His spoken and written English is very good, and he assures me that he is able to line up attractions and guides, as long as tourists take care of their own flights and hotel bookings.

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