Saturday, August 28

Monsoonal India


Monsoon rains sweep across India every year between June and September. This unique weather phenomenon is the result of interplay between three prominent geographic features; the vast deserts of northern India, the towering Himalayas and the warm Indian Ocean. As the hot Summer sun heats the nation's Thar desert and the surrounding land to scorching temperatures (i.e. an average temperature of 41C each day) the resulting low pressure draws varst streams moisture laden air in from the coast.

The air stream then splits in two as it sweeps around high ground in south-central India known as the Western Ghats. One stream passes over Mumbai and move on towards Delhi while the other heads east, flowing up the Bay of Bengal toward Kolkata. Both air streams eventually encounter the Himalaya range, whose great height forces them stall. As they rise in place over India they release large volumes of rain. Average rainfall rises swiftly from as little as 20 millimetres per month to more than 300 millimetres.

Incredibly, the arrival of the Monsoon is highly predictable. Every year it reaches the coast of the southern state of Kerala around June 1 and Mumbai approximately 10 days later. Delhi usually receives its first Monsoon weather by June 29. Within weeks the rest of India is soon covered by Monsoonal conditions. Despite more than half a dozen business trips to India I’ve never travelled during Monsoon season. Therefore, this month’s trip to India was a new experience even for me. Garry came with me on what was his inaugural visit to the sub-continent.


As expected, we saw plenty of rain, but fortunately good weather prevailed whenever we visited the country's most iconic locations. I put this down to good luck rather than good planning as this year’s monsoon has been particularly wet. With two weeks left to go Delhi has already reported its heaviest monsoon rainfall for more than a decade.

In fact,the last day I was in Delhi the Yamuna River rose above the level of storm water outlets along its banks and water swiftly innudated parts of the city. The morning papers were full of images of buses flooded up to their windscreen. However, throughout my time in Delhi, localised flooding was a common sight. Extensive construction work for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in October has resulted in poorly protected drains becoming clogged with earth and debris.


Over the next few days I’ll post other highlights from our time in India. Stay tuned for photos and stories about:
  • The staggering volumes of rain in Mumbai and the security paranoia enveloping its tourist hotels.

  • Our marble-clad rooftop room at the Taj Lake Palace hotel, a former Maharajah summer residence in Udaipur.
  • The beauty of the Taj Mahal and the red stone mystic of Fatehpur Sikri.
  • The towering red walls of Agra Fort.
  • Catching an express train in Delhi, trying the onboard meal and suffering acutely for days afterwards.
Check back regularly as I add live links to each of the bullet points above. Happy reading! And, "yes" that man really is carrying a load of red bricks on his head.

Still on the run


It’s difficult not to associate health risks with travel in India. The monsoon season is notorious for generating a noticeable increase in water-borne and gastrointestinal infections and food served on the Indian railway network has an equally dubious hygiene reputation. These cliché health warnings are easy to believe when you see the conditions many street vendors operate under. The photo above was snapped from the window of our car in Agra and sadly isn’t atypical of scenes witnessed all over India. However, despite studiously avoiding street food and watching what I drink, I’ve always returned from India with some form of bowel aliment. This latest trip has proved no exception.

This week Garry and I have both returned from India with bowel problems. Garry endured a couple of days of diarrhea while I’m now enjoying my fifth day of the same symptoms. I suspect a meal we ate on the train back from Agra on Tuesday evening is the culprit. As a seasoned traveler I’d pre-ordered the vegetarian meals for us as part of our First Class booking. These tend to less risky than meat dishes. However, on this occasion the main menu image include a diary product, a high risk food you’re often encouraged to avoid. The knowing nods that colleagues subsequently gave me in Delhi the following day were hardly reassuring.


While the food onboard may have been questionable, the reliability of our train journeys to and from Agra cannot be questioned. We departed Delhi on time at the ungodly hour of 6.25am and arrived in Agra two hours later, less then three minutes behind schedule. The air-conditioned Shatabdi express train proved just as reliable that evening, returning us to Delhi at 10.30pm, 195kms away, exactly on schedule.

The train station in Delhi was just as I last remember it. Thousands upon thousands of people flowing continually along battered pedestrian footbridges, noisly crowding platforms and just generally loitering. No matter what the hour the assault of sights, sounds and smells always bring the colourful character of India to life.

Friday, August 27

The Red Fort of Agra


The Red Fort of Agram, or Lal Qila, was once home to Mughal emperors of India. It sits on the west bank of the Yamuna River less than two kilometers from the Taj Mahal. Its construction began in 1156 and continued in several phases until 1605. By the time of its completion the fort had been transformed into something closer to a walled city than a simple fortress. At least four Mughal emperors governed their empire from here including Akbar, the founder of Fatehpur Sikri, and Shahjahan, the man who commissioned the Taj Mahal.


Perhaps the Fort’s most noteworthy moment in history involved the imprisonment of Shahjahan. The emperor was held hostage until his death by his son Aurangzeb following the completion of the Taj Mahal. At the time Shahjahan had commissioned a black marble version of the Taj Mahal on the river bank opposite the white marble original. This was to be his tomb upon death. However, his son was horrified by the expense of the first Taj Mahal. He feared his father would drain the empire’s coffers financing another of his romantic follies and so he had him imprisoned.


Shahjahan spent the remainder of his life living in a small white marble palace called Musamman Burj located on the edge of Agra Fort. The palace offered an unobstructed view of Taj Mahal either adding to the imprisoned emperor’s anguish, or perhaps offering some degree of daily solace. Today, from Taj Mahal’s forecourt, you can still clearly distinguish his prison. Its white marble façade stands in stark contrast to the red stone walls of the surrounding Fort. From the same vantage point you can also see the incomplete red brick foundations of the black marble Taj Mahal on the opposing bank of the Yamuna River.


The walls of the fort have two gates, the Delhi Gate and the Amar Singh Gate. Most visitors enter through the Amar Singh Gate. It’s a dramatic entrance, via a small drawbridge that straddles an impressively deep and imposing moat. Inside, are numerous buildings and courtyards of note. I particularly love the imposing Diwan-i-Am, or Hall of Public Audience. This dramatically pillared marble pavilion sits on the edge of equally elegant garden courtyard. On the day we visited its charm was briefly enhanced by the presence of a single horse and carriage. It’s easy to why the Victorian author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was moved to incorporate the Fort in his Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Sign of the Four.

Thursday, August 26

15 years to build, 14 to abandon


Fatehpur Sikri has to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited in India. This red sandstone complex, located 37 kilometres from the city of Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. It took thousands of workers almost 15 years to build but was abandoned 14 years later by Emperor Akbar as the growing population overwhelmed local water supplies. Almost overnight Fatehpur Sikri became an empty ghost town.

Four hundred years later it remains a vast and empty place. I’ve visited Fatehpur Sikri twice. On both occasions its spotlessly clean courtyards and palaces hosted less than a dozen visitors. It's a surreal experience as the silent, open spaces stand in stark contrast to the noisy, dusty, cluttered cacophony that exists beyond its walls. Daily life in India is never quite so peaceful and calm.


Most visitors enter through the Diwan-i-Am, a multi-chambered pavilion encircling a rectangular courtyard. It was here that the Mughal ruler met the public and heard their grievances. From here one moves to an even larger courtyard where the Diwan-i-Khas, or Hall of Private Audience stands. This building was once the place where the royal gold, diamonds and other expensive articles were stored. Inside is also contains a raised platform that rests on an ornately carved central pillar from which Akbar would observe proceedings.


Perhaps the most memorable structure is Panch Mahal. This five-storied wind tower was built to provide its royal residence with a cool, breezy venue during the hot summer months. Each floor is proportionately smaller than the last and is supported by fewer and fewer pillars. The bottom floor has 176 intricately carved columns; the second floor has 84 pillars; the third 56; the fourth 12 and the top floor crowned by a simple cupola held aloft by four pillars.


Every tour of Fatehpur Sikri ends with a visit to the local mosque, the only structure currently in active use. This grand building is said to be modeled on the mosque at Mecca. Visitors are often greeted by local goats loitering on the steep entrance steps. I’ve never been able to work out why these animals are there and what it is about the stairs that most appeals. Inside the mosque opens up to a broad courtyard where a white marble shire can be found in stark contrast to the red sandstone construction everywhere else.


This shire is the tomb of Salim Chishti, a local guru or sufi saint, who predicted that Akbar would have another son. His prophecy came to pass. The child was named Salim in the guru’s honour and went on to rule the Mughal Empire as Emperor Jahangir. The miracle of his birth reputedly motivated Akbar to build Fatehpur Sikri, despite the area’s dire water shortage. Four centuries later is remains a truly remarkable place to visit.

Wednesday, August 25

The Taj Mahal


History tells us that Shah Jahan loved his third wife, Arjumand Bano Begum (also known as Mumtaz Mahal or the ‘chosen one’), more than any other. Sadly, after twenty years of marriage she died in labour while giving birth to their 14th child. We know this because Shah Jahan went on to construct one of history’s most stunning Islamic tombs in which to intern her body and immortalize her memory. The white marble monument was completed in 1653 after taking more than 20,000 worker and a thousand elephants 22 years to build.

His monument to love still stands today. We know it as the Taj Mahal. On Tuesday, Garry and I caught an express train from Delhi for the day to see it for ourselves. This was Garry’s first visit, my second. I first saw this majestic complex in 2002. It was a truly magic experience – one of those rare occasions when an iconic location more than lives up to its postcard billing in real life. I’m pleased to say it continues to leave you in awe even after a second encounter. We were also blessed by fine, albeit very humid, weather despite departing Delhi hours earlier during an early morning monsoonal downpour.


The magic of the Taj Mahal unfolds from the moment you enter the grounds. Gone in seconds are the dirty, noisy roads of Agra filled with hustling street hawkers and beggars. Instead, you’re greeted by green lawns, neat symmetrical red stone walls, even pathways and dramatic entrance gates topped with glowing white cupolas. The contrast couldn’t be starker. From the tranquil outer courtyard visitors then pass through the main red stone gate into the central grounds. It’s here that you experience your first glimpse of the dazzling white marble Taj Mahal framed by a dark, silhouetted gateway.


The Taj Mahal really is as white and majestic as every photo suggests. The main white marble mausoleum, or Rauza, stands at the end of a long, narrow water feature and really does take your breath away. The exact science used to design the building only adds to its stunning first impression. For example, its four 162.5 feet minarets have been carefully shortened to emphasize the scale of the central spherical dome. This dome, 58 feet in diameter and 213 feet in height, is in turn bordered with four subsidiary domed chambers also scaled to focus the eye.


The octagonal Rauza sits on a raised, square platform clad in white marble. Access is gained via a set of covered stairs. Visitors are only permitted to enter after they don paper shoes designed to protect the marble expanse from ugly black scuff marks. As you draw closer it becomes clear that the mausoleum is not pure white but in fact is covered by ornate inlaid precious stones that form intricate Islamic patterns. Its main doorway is adorned by dramatic Koran verses inlaid using black oynx. These ornate decorations are unbelievably even more stunning inside. The craftsmanship involved in the creation of this monument is truly breath taking.


We spent an enjoyable couple of hours exploring the monument and gardens. Most visitors are surprised to discover there’s more to the Taj Mahal than the Rauza. The complex consists of another three stunning buildings set among verdant gardens. These buildings include Darwaza, the red stone main gateway; Masjid a red stone mosque and it’s symmetrically complimentary companion building, Naggar Khana, also known as the rest house. I was particularly fascinated to see workers on scaffolding carefully cleaning the white marble dome of the Masjid. Our guide told us the Indian marble used to build the Taj Mahal isn’t porous and thus it rarely stains. He told us these workers were cleaning the dome using nothing more than soapy water.

Tuesday, August 24

Udaipur


Everyone associates the Taj Mahal with India. Its iconic image adorns almost every advertisement and website promoting the sub-continent. Everyone eventually visits it when they come to India. I first saw the Taj Mahal in 2002. Therefore, having seen it, I was keen to spend our only weekend in India visiting a location new to both Garry and I. This resulted in us visiting Udaipur, home of another iconic Indian building, the dazzling white marble Taj Lake Palace. This former royal summer palace sits on an island in the middle of Lake Pichola. From a distance it appears to float on the water’s surface, despite its foundations being firmly anchored into the lake bed.

The Lake Palace was built in 1743-1746 for Jagat Singh II, the Maharana of Udaipur. It occupies a four-acre island directly opposite the family’s grand City Palace, on the shores of Lake Pichola. Over time the Lake Palace fell into disrepair as the damp lake environment took its toll. It was converted into a luxury hotel in the late-1960s and today anyone with enough spare change can experience the life of an Indian royal. Garry searched the internet for days before securing a price we could stomach. He eventually found a deal that included breakfast, dinner and a room upgrade.


Access to the island palace is gained via small elegantly canopied boats. A short ten minute ride transports guests from an ornate reception jetty to the hotel’s broad marble veranda. As we entered the hotel lobby an employee hidden from view showered us in fragrant rose petals. We were clearly in for a weekend of unadulterated luxury.


The experience only got better when we shown our room, located at the top of narrow marble stairway. We discovered that our room took up most of the top floor of small wing overlooking the lake, and was one of only two rooms offering a private balcony. And what a balcony it was! Imagine if you can an expanse of white marble at least six metres wide by four metres deep, offering an uninterrupted 180 degree lake view. We couldn’t believe our luck.


The hotel itself was a heavenly oasis offering comfortable areas for lounging, spectacular gardens and postcard-perfect water features. We ate breakfast both mornings next to marble-framed windows through which the jumbled Udaipur skyline unfolded. The entire experience made it hard to leave the premise. However, we made four brief excursions in Udaipur.

We ventured ashore on our first day for an early evening walk through the main street of the old city. It was classic India; cows in the middle of the road, hooking horns, street hawkers and colourful sights around every turn. We eventually reached the temple of Jagannath Rai, known more commonly as Jagdish Temple.


It’s a remarkable structure, largely unaltered since its completion in 1651 for Maharana Jagat Singh the First. Built on raised terrace, this Hindu temple can only be reached by climbing a series of impossibly steep stairs. As you enter its battered gates you’re confronted by layered, soaring spires – or shikhars – the tallest of which rises more than 25 metres. Every visible surface of the temple’s spires and walls have been carved with images of Hindu folklore including elephants, horsemen, musicians and dancers.


Later in evening we joined a hotel sponsored boat tour around Lake Pichola. The highlight of our tour was undoubted a visit to Jag Mandir, another ornate island palace we could from the balcony of our room. This three-story building was completed by Maharana Jagat Singh the First in 1652. It was here that Prince Khuman Singh, later known as Emperor Shahjahan, sought refuse from his father emperor Jahangir. He’s best known for commissioning construction of the Taj Mahal. Today the island is used for weddings and other private functions.


Its most famous feature is a dramatic row of life-sized elephants that greet you upon arrival. Each animal has been carved from a single block of marble. We spent almost half an hour on the island, touring its palace rooms and gardens. As we wandered, daylight began to fade, and the venue was soon lit by dazzling spotlights. Upon returning to the Lake Palace we then entertained by a troupe of local dancers and musicians.


Our final day in Udaipur involved two excursions; a cable-car ride up Machhala Magra (or Fish Hill) and, a tour of the expansive City Palace. The cable car ride was excellent decision. From the summit of the hill the entire city unfold before us and the unique setting of our hotel could be fully appreciated. Udaipur is often called the City of Lakes. From this vantage point the name seemed most appropriate as at least four separate bodies of water could be seen.


The City Palace was equally impressive. The Palace sits on a bluff overlooking the city. It’s actually three palaces; the first is a museum, the second a hotel and the third remains a private residence for the former royal family. Incredibly, the royal family lived in the entire complex until the mid-1970s. We spent almost two hours wandering through the rooms, corridors and courtyards of the oldest palace before it was time to head for the airport.