Sunday, June 8, 2008

India: Delhi Triangle, Jaipur

After a long flight we land at Delhi Airport. Ralph then has to go through the rigmarole of getting a customs note for his video camera - and we get our first taste of the Indian paranoia about video cameras. They don't ask if you are carrying a gun, drugs or a bomb. Oh no. But "Have you got a video camera?" If the answer is yes, they want to see it, check its number, then write all the details down in the back of your passport. Then write it all down again on a form in duplicate.

Getting through passport control and customs was quite something! Having already filled in a form on the plane with passport details, reason for visit, where from, by what flight, how long you intend to stay, and where, and so on and on... well, all those details are checked against your passport, written down, and studiously pondered upon. By the time they had checked the whole plane, it seemed to have taken hours. (worse then getting into China or Israel).

We reckon it was all planned; to delay you with bureaucracy, so that when you go to retrieve your luggage - which isn't there, you won't realize how long it has taken to arrive. We think they are unloading the cases two at a time, on a sack barrow!

We were welcomed by the rep from Pettitt's, the company we had booked with. "Welcome to India", he said and put garlands of flowers round our necks.

The drive to the hotel was 'interesting'. The driver went through every red light we came to. Some were flashing, some weren't, but it didn't seem to make any difference.

We cashed some money. The exchange rate in April 2003 was 69.25 rupees to the pound.

We went on a shopping trip into New Delhi. What a hairy trip that was!! It makes driving in Nairobi look like a model of disciplined restraint!! But it was fun, and we certainly got the flavour and feel of India.

We bought a couple of books by Jim Corbett - "My India" and "The Man-eating Leopard." Anyone interested in Indian or African hunters, particulaly hunters after man-eating big cats, will find Jim Corbett very readable and exciting.

The next morning we went to explore Delhi. Our first stop was to Gandhi's memorial. We walked all around the outside then we took off our shoes and walked down to the cenotaph. There is a continuous procession of people coming and going. A lot of them were throwing rose petals on the memorial.

We then went on to the Red Fort. This was not a building at all, but a whole walled city. Entering the Red Fort, Ralph was told he couldn't use his video camera. This was the first time - but it certainly wasn't the last! - that he would be told this during the three weeks we were in India.

We entered through the Lahore Gate which is the main gate to the fort. It takes its name from the fact that it faces towards Lahore, now in Pakistan. You find yourself in a vaulted arcade, now given over to small shops. This was once the Meena Bazaar, the shopping centre for ladies of the court.

The Red Fort was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (A.D. 1628-58) as a Royal residence. The Red Fort has a perimeter of 2.41 km. An oblong octagon on plan, the Fort has two principal gates along its western and southern sides respectively. Outside the ramparts runs a moat, originally connected with the River Yamuna. The palaces lie along the eastern (river) side of the fort.

The Red Fort dates from the very peak of Moghul power. When the emperor rode out on elephant back into the streets of old Delhi it was a display of pomp and power at its most magnificent.

The 'Hall of Public Audiences' was where the emperor would sit to hear disputes from his subjects. 'The Hall of Private Audiences' was the luxurious chamber where the emperor would hold private meetings.

The Hall of Private Audience is where the original Peacock Throne used to be until it was stolen by the Persians. Running right through this area was a system of shallow artificial waterways - something, apparently, that the old Moghuls were very partial to. There is no water in them now, but the bottoms of the channels were cleverly tiled in such a way as to give the impression of running water. You could imagine how effective this must have been when there actually was water running there.

We then drove through Old Delhi. The roads were very congested, so many people, narrow streets and markets. We went to the Jami Masjid Mosque. The great mosque of old Delhi is both the largest mosque in India and the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan. Started in 1644 it was not completed until 1658. The Mosque has a capacity of 25,000 people.

We went on to visit a big Hindu temple, all built of marble. There was a young couple sitting in a corner, obviously arguing. Our guide told us the girl was saying she was unhappy living with her mother-in-law - she wanted a place of her own. Apparently it is the custom for a young wife to go and live in the house of her husband's parents, and to obey her mother-in-law in all things. I don't think I would have made a good Indian wife!

After lunch we visited Hyumayun's tomb. Apparently the Taj Mahal was modelled on this building. We watched a snake charmer here who had three small cobras dancing. They seemed to strike at him without causing any discomfort. I kept my distance. One of the snakes escaped but was soon hauled back. I was asked if I would like to touch the snake. I politely declined. Any time they looked like they might be heading in my direction I backed off. Snakes are the one creature I am really scared of.

We were told that for driving in Delhi, you need four good things- good horn, good vision, good brakes, and good luck!

We then went to see the Qutab Minar. The Qutab Minar itself is a soaring tower of victory which was built in 1193, immediately after the defeat of the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. It reaches 73 metres high and tapers from a 15-metre diameter base to just 2.5 metres at the top. There is an iron pillar here, 1500 years old, which doesn't rust, and nobody quite knows why. If you clasp it with your hands behind your back, you can make a wish. Ralph said he already has everything he could wish for, so I had a wish for both of us.

We ended the day at a high class handicraft emporium. There was beautiful carved work in sandalwood here. We bought a little elephant god - Ganesh - carved in sandalwood. Ganesh is a kind god, and brings good fortune and prosperity. It was a cheeky little elephant. Ganesh has to have a big tummy, the bigger the better.

We saw a lot of markets in old Delhi. There is a fish market, meat market, fruit market, vegetable market, clothes market, chicken market, goat market, spare car parts market, tyre market. All the markets are separate, unlike the markets we are used to at home. We wondered if this was how Smithfield, Covent Garden, Billingsgate and so on, originally started out? Our guide told us that "If you have anything stolen in New Delhi in the morning, you will be able to buy it back in Old Delhi in the afternoon."

As we drove back to our hotel, it was rush hour. There were hundreds of scooters, ox carts, horse-drawn carts, cows, cars and bicycles. And so many people.

We wondered what it would be like to learn to drive in Delhi. We wouldn't last five minutes, we would be far too polite. Entering a roundabout, there is no question of giving way to the right. It's just a case of keeping going and hoping someone gives way. Overtaking is done either on the right or the left. Continuous high speed filtering - if there's a gap ahead, and your vehicle is narrow enough to go into it, into it you go. And, of course, as you go up alongside another vehicle, you sound your horn! Somehow it works, and the traffic certainly keeps moving. No heavy lorries are allowed into Delhi during the hours of daylight. London could do with that one. I still can't work out the traffic lights. Sometimes you stopped at a red light; sometimes you didn't. Anyway, to drive in Delhi would take more courage than I have.

The following morning we visited the Railway Museum. The car that took us to the museum was a rather old-fashioned Morris Oxford. All the taxis and staff cars, and quite a lot of private cars, seem to be mid-1950's Morris Oxfords. We recalled that a good few years ago India had bought up one of the Austin/Morris production lines, second-hand, lock, stock and barrel. And here it is, still going strong and obviously doing a bomb, turning out brand new "thirty-five year old" Morris Oxfords. Here they are called Hindustan Ambassadors.

We wandered around, looking at old engines, and in one corner found an old friend. A Garratt. Just as we were leaving the museum, a whole gang of locals arrived, pushing a real vintage fire engine - trying to bump start it. After a few coughs and splutters and a couple of bangs, the engine actually started to chug. We all cheered. After a minute or so, with a final mighty bang!! the engine died. We reckoned "died" might be the operative word; that last explosion sounded pretty well terminal.

This afternoon we are joining the 'Palace on Wheels' which will be our home for the next week.

We arrived at Delhi Cantt Station and were shown to a special entrance, where the red carpet was out. Literally. All the staff were very smartly dressed in uniform and we were given garlands, and packs of welcoming information. On the way to find our carriage we went past two great steam engines on the front of the train that were huffing and puffing out steam, they looked and sounded wonderful. The leading one was the "Desert Queen." Both of them were well decked out, with lions and peacocks painted on their sides.

Ours is the "Bikaner" saloon. It is the oldest on the train - built in 1897. Our cabin is great. There is a large lower bunk, almost a small double bed, and a rather narrow, small upper bunk. A wardrobe, and plenty of space below the lower bunk to slide the case and bags underneath. There are plenty of hooks to hang jackets and things on, we reckon we can manage OK with this, for a week. We are sharing a bathroom and loo with another English couple.

We puffed our way out of Delhi station and sat back to watch the passing scene. Umish escorted us to the restaurant car (needless to say we were stopped at a convenient station at the time - this not a corridor train!). After dinner the train stopped again and Umish was waiting for us to take us back to our saloon.

We waited at this station for about 15 minutes which gave us time to walk along the train and count the coaches. There are 21 coaches in all. The inside of the engine looked impressive, with all the shining brass dials and levers. Once the second sitting was seated the train started off again.

We had a rather unsettled night. The track was distinctly bumpy, and part of the character of these old coaches is that they are not as well sprung as modern rolling stock. Umish brought us coffee at 6.30am. Now, trying to drink coffee on the top bunk, while the train was gaily bouncing along was, I discovered, not difficult; it was impossible. I ended up managing to drink about a quarter of it, spilling the rest in the saucer.

We arrived at Jaipur at 8.15am. What a welcome we had to start our local tour. There was a huge banner saying "Jaipur Welcomes Palace on Wheels." We were given garlands of flowers. There were two elephants, one on each side of the station entrance, all dressed in silk finery, with their liveried mahouts looking very smart. As we passed between them they raised their trunks in greeting. I loved it. There was also a three-man band, playing their hearts out. Our transport for the day was a comfortable coach

Jaipur is the capital city of the state of Rajasthan and is popularly known as the 'pink city' from the pink-coloured sandstone with which the buildings in its old, walled city are constructed.

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