So…where did we get to? Day four of our trip saw us travel to Fatehpur Sikri (Agra), the now-deserted former capital of the Mughals. “The City of Victory” was built in the 16th century by Emperor Akbar. Despite remaining the capital of the Mughal Empire for only ten years, it is home to one of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid. The ornate walled city features many complex monuments and temples and is particularly intriguing because Akbar created three palaces within (each recognising a different faith); one for each of his favourite wives, a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian. I really enjoyed our time at Fatehpur Sikri and thought the perfectly manicured gardens and tranquil water features set amongst the magnificent red sandstone walls made it really special.
Our group divided into two and the kids of the group headed off with our guide Yash, to Keoladeo National Park to cycle around and take in the spectacular wildlife. The man-made wetlands cover 29 sq. km and are home to over 230 species of birds, an abundance of flora and other animals. I have to admit, I wasn’t initially convinced about bird watching. I thought this kind of activity was reserved for the oldies, but with Yash’s enthusiastic insistence I took a leap of faith and I’m glad that I did. It was a really fun way to spend the afternoon racing along the tracks, waiting to prey on the animals with the eager eye of our lenses. Tiff and I were lucky enough to see a rare Sambar leap out of the water. It was an extraordinary sight to see.
The next day we had a very early start as we made our way to Abhaneri Village to get a feel for rural life in Rajasthan. It was really nice to observe a traditional Indian village. Lean bullocks dragged heavy loads behind them, whilst men squatted out of the scolding sunshine in huts on dirt floors with straw roofs overhead, tending to their pottery. The group made donations of packets of crisps to the curious children who wanted to come and play with us.
We then headed for Chand Baori, also known as the Stepwell of Abhaneri. Built during the 8th and 9th centuries, the beautiful baori (stepwell) is made of 3,500 narrow steps that descend 64 feet to the bottom of a well. The exquisite geometric structure was engineered to provide year-long water supply to the arid villages of Rajasthan. The precise geometrical pattern of the baori creates the optical illusion of a magical maze, as light and shadow are cast against the ancient stone.
I had become obsessed with the idea of seeing a tiger in the wild, so Yash surprised us with a visit to Ranthambore National Park on our way to Jaipur with the hope that we would cast our eyes on the elusive native Diurnal Tiger. The 392 sq. km park was once famed as the hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur. Today Ranthambore National Park is a major wildlife tourist attraction that entices wildlife lovers from all over the world. As we all piled into our safari bus, I strained to see the tigers hiding beyond the camouflage of the green and gold foliage but came up short. We saw lots of verities of deer, but I’m afraid to say nothing more exciting than that.
After the longest day of our trip, we finally arrived in the Pink City of Jaipur at about 10 pm. As you enter the city, you are warmly greeted by large pink arches. All of the buildings in the city are proudly splashed in pink. Yash explained to us that pink is the colour of hospitality, and so it was ordered by Maharaja Ram Singh of Jaipur in 1876, when the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria visited India on a tour, to paint the whole city pink to welcome their guests. Legend has it that Prince Albert exclaimed Jaipur to be a “Pink City”, and hence the name has stuck since.
The next morning, we woke to explore the Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal). The picturesque palace is unique in design and stands five-storeys high with an exterior that looks very much like a honeycomb of a beehive. With 953 windows each featuring intricate detail, the palace is made entirely of red and pink sandstone. Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh designed the palace to provide privacy to royal ladies so that they could observe everyday life without being seen by the public. At first glance the palace appears vast, however, as you round the corner you suddenly realise that it is a façade and is actually almost one dimensional.
In the afternoon we then made our way to the infamous Amber Fort. Greeted by snake charmers on the banks of the Maotha Lake hypnotizing serpents from their baskets to the tune of their pungi, I knew that we were in for a very special treat. Cream tiled parapets line a rugged ridge of the Aravalli Hills, overlooking the lake below. The fortress and former capital was built in the 16th century from pale yellow and pink sandstone, and white marble, and is divided into four main sections, each with its own courtyard. It is a labyrinth of hundreds of now empty chambers, dungeons, servant’s quarters, halls of private and public audience, and enchanting enclosed gardens.
Tourists are offered elephant rides as they enter the Fort through the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate). Yash advised against this, telling us that elephants aren’t treated well and the rides can feel like a tourist parade rather than a genuine experience. Needless to say, we did not participate.
One of the most memorable places in the walled city (and there are so many to choose from!), is the Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory), known for its multi-mirrored ceiling. Carved marble panels around the hall are delicate and quirky in detail and depict cartoon-like imagery.
Deep within the fort, I stumbled across a palm reader. In broken heart recovery mode, I was lured in by his promises to tell me about my future and hoped he would predict a happily ever awaiting me. I am mildly superstitious so I won’t tell you exactly what the fortune teller told me but I will say this, apparently, the future was bright 🙂
As dusk fell, we made our way back to the vibrant city of Jaipur to immerse ourselves in the electric buzz of the city. We wound our way through the busy streets and market stalls towards a where the rickshaws gathered. Our driver didn’t speak English, and I’m afraid to say that we didn’t speak his language, however, he was super thoughtful and pointed out points of interest to us as we rode through the bustling city back to our hotel.
That night Tiff, Yash and I headed towards the bright lights of the iconic Raj Mandir Cinema, synonymous with Bollywood. Shri Mehtab Chandra Golcha dreamed up the elegant cinema that would make people feel as though they were royal guests of a palace. He would then entertain them like royal guests with flamboyant all-singing and all-dancing Bollywood films. Settling into our seats with large tubs of popcorn we laughed, cried and gasped our way through the film with the other guests.
As my trip was drawing to an end, I climbed on-board our bus to crawl along the final 260 km stretch of road back to Delhi which was overpopulated with cars, bikes, pedestrians, trucks, bullocks and carts; all musically tooting away at their horns for reasons still unknown to me. I took a moment to take in the chaos of my surroundings. I’d seen so many things in this wonderful country in such a short amount of time, and the small part I had seen was only the tip of the iceberg of the incredible offerings India.
I had found the trip challenging in many ways and it was a trip of many firsts for me. It was the first time I had travelled solo without the creature comforts I had taken for granted back home, I had experienced ever-present poverty which I found confronting and felt weak for being unable to help, and it was the first time that I had really put myself back out there after a very difficult break up. I was grateful to have made the journey to see for myself how almost a sixth of the world’s population really lives and had been revitalised and inspired by these people to look adversity in the face and accept that you cannot change everything and sometimes in life you just need to be flexible and embrace a “go with the flow” attitude.
India really is an extraordinary country of remarkable diversity. With its ancient monuments and traditions, scenic landscapes and majestic wildlife; through to its flavoursome cuisine and generous and friendly people, India has something for everyone and promises to awaken your senses and warm your soul.
The next day I flew out of Delhi back to resume my life in London. With the imprint of Incredible India now emblazoned in my heart and mind, there for me to call upon whenever I may need, I had come to believe that everything was going to be ok…and it was.
Until next time, safe travels.
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