I is for India – my favourite country in the entire world to visit – and here’s a few days we spent in Varanasi in November 2016. If I ask you what do you think of, when you think of India, it’s probably the Taj Mahal. But in Varanasi? It’s the Ganges and the Ghats. But first, did you know, just outside Varanasi is Sarnath?
Sarnath is famous for the being the first place where Buddha taught.
So it’s a very holy and revered site, with a super stupa at its heart.
And, unsurprisingly, a major place of learning.
But Varanasi itself centres on the Ganges.
All streets lead there!
Especially at night, when pilgrims, locals and tourists alike swarm to the river for the Aarti ceremony.
Important to reserve your seat early, but you may be sat next to a cow.
In the morning – very early – take in a leisurely boat ride along the Ghats to see life on the riverbank and to see the pilgrims bathing.
Death is as much part of life in Varanasi as anywhere else, but the city is well known for its riverside crematoria. The dead are cremated on the banks of the Ganges and it’s a major aspect of the city. Crematoria smoke frequently fills the sky.
And the wood for burning is piled high
Time for a wander around the old town
There’s also a highly respected university
But, like anywhere in India, all the best pictures are to be found on the street
And by the water
PS Watch the traffic. Some vehicles can be very large!
I don’t think that elephant indicated right.
Gotta love Indian roads
“Knock, knock. Excuse me, but do you have any apples?”
PPS. 1970s snack in the hotel!
If you’d like to find out more about our brilliant few days in Varanasi, here’s the link to the blog that I wrote at the time. Next blog – probably on Tuesday – will be back to the theatre trips, and memories of shows I saw from September 1979 to July 1980.
It’s about 140 miles from Chandigarh to Amritsar, driving through the heart of Punjab state. It was a fairly unremarkable journey, but slow, and tiring, and, by the time we got to Amritsar, too late to do any sightseeing. So we checked in to our hotel, the Hyatt. It’s very well located, but lacks the friendly sophistication of an Oberoi or a Taj. The décor is rooted firmly in the 1970s – all the colours of the rainbow are there, provided you like brown. The room was large and well appointed, although, over our couple of days there we noted that housekeeping was unpredictably erratic. Where the hotel excelled was in the restaurant; great food at a reasonable price.
Next door to our hotel was the Alpha One Shopping Mall, and, despite all our visits to India, we’d never actually taken a turn around one of their more opulent shopping malls. So to kill a couple of hours before dinner, we thought we’d go for a wander. There’s no doubt that it attracts the wealthy shopper; indeed, the tourist shopper too, being so close to the Hyatt and in a city which has plenty to attract tourists. Many international brands are represented; I bought a very smart pair of Levi Jeans – in a sort of khaki green – for half the price they would be in the UK. They are made in India; to a very high specification.
Among the quirkier things you can do in India, if you find the right place, is go to a bar. There are a couple in the Mall, and they look like the kind of place you wouldn’t take your granny. However, we ventured into one – the Fuelstop. I think they’ve modernised it a little from when we went there – which is definitely going to improve things. They were surprised to see an English couple walk in, but they were very welcoming. I had a pint of Kingfisher – you can’t go wrong with that, and it was fine. Mrs C had a gin and tonic – but the trouble was the tonic was warm, and positively disgusting, so we didn’t stay for a second round. Amusingly, they had a “Love Wins” poster on the wall – as you can see in the photo – and I couldn’t help but wonder if they realised what all their signs actually meant.
The next morning we threw open the blinds to reveal an enormous smog engulfing the city. Amritsar suffers badly from pollution; it’s one of those places where an acrid taste lingers at the back of your throat all day. We met our guide for the day, a softly spoken gentleman with the traditional Indian name of… John. We were to take a short drive into the city centre where we would get out and then walk the rest of the way. Only a few weeks before our arrival (this was in October 2017) the city bigwigs had decided to pedestrianise a large area of the city centre, much to the fury of the motorists and the delight of the rest of us. For an Indian cityscape, the buildings were surprisingly clean and attractive. There’s a grand statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that dominates the main street; he was Emperor of the Sikh Empire from 1801 to 1839 and his monument is 100% glory.
As you walk towards the Golden Temple, the buildings become more and more rose-pink; you might well think you had accidentally got off in Jaipur instead. As this is a holy city, certain standards and practices are enforced; for example, this is the only place in the world (I believe) to have a McDonalds Restaurant that is fully vegetarian.
Before heading directly for the Golden Temple, we first stopped off at a location that was pivotal in the Indian struggle for independence from Britain – the Jallianwala Bagh. This is a public garden, founded in 1951, notable for many reasons, certainly one of them being the numbers of local people who throng here to enjoy the views, absorb its history and enjoy picnics. But the Jallianwala Bagh has a very murky tale to tell. It was here that in 1919 Brigadier General Dyer famously opened fire on a peaceful gathering of Sikhs celebrating the Festival of Baisakhi. They’ll never know quite how many people were shot but estimates are in the region of 1,000 dead and 1,500 injured. When you enter the Jallianwala Bagh, you use the same alleyway that Dyer used to lead his men into the grounds; and the thought of it chills you to the bone.
There are several buildings that still bear the gunshot holes to the outside walls; there’s a gallery that displays pictures of the massacre; there’s another exhibition about Udham Singh, a survivor from that day, who went to London to assassinate General O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, who had approved Dyer’s actions. In the gardens, topiary gun-wielding soldiers form a strangely spooky sight. Inside there is a very tall monument – The Flame of Liberty – constructed in 1961; outside, a very beautiful memorial to the fallen, with the faces of men, women and children forever immortalised within a white flame. It’s a very moving sight; and as a Britisher you feel thoroughly ashamed – but what had the greatest impact for me was seeing how groups of families and friends were using the gardens for enjoyable, recreational purposes.
Continuing along the road towards the Golden Temple, the crowds begin to get thicker and more animated. Eventually the front wall of the complex looms up like a ghostly cake made of icing sugar. Crossing the marble entrance square, John went to secure our tickets whilst we removed our shoes and made sure our heads were covered with the complimentary orange scarves. He announced that there were probably going to be more than 200,000 visitors there that day and that we would be unlikely to be able to get inside the Golden Temple itself, as the queue was just astronomical. We agreed that we wouldn’t attempt to join the queue. The Temple never closes because there is always a crowd of people wanting to get in. As an indication of how busy it was, our driver, Mr Singh, joined the queue to get into the temple at 11.45pm later that night. It took him 45 minutes to queue, even at that late hour.
Once you cross the purifying water channel, you find yourself in an enormous square, with a red-carpet walkway going all the way round, as if you were just about to join some Broadway premiere. The walk takes you all around the central lake, and if you take the clockwise direction you soon come to one of the city’s highlights – the astonishing refectory and kitchens, that never close, and permanently welcome visitors of all faiths and all nations. The local people all devote some of their time to staffing the kitchens – cooking, serving, washing-up, and so on, and it’s a magnificent to see so many people working tirelessly, voluntarily, for the benefit of others. It’s extremely humbling.
The kitchens are at the farthest end of the complex away from the Golden Temple but you still have a superb view of this amazing sight. It literally shimmers in the sunlight, and with its extraordinarily colourful reflection in the water to complement it, it really takes your breath away. Nevertheless, turn away from it and enter the kitchens complex. You’ll find vast halls where people sit on the floor, eating and talking, sharing nourishment and each other’s company. On the way in, a man stood proudly before his oven of chapatis – there must have been literally thousands of them. A boy was helping to serve them out. Huge vats of spices and vast cauldrons of vegetables all simmer away, making what was already a hot environment even hotter. One man stirs the biggest dish of lentils you have ever seen in your life. Back in the main hall, women make and cook the chapatis on a large heated platform. Rows of men are found bringing back metal trays and plates that have now been finished with. There’s no sense that any of the jobs are more demeaning than any other – they all play an important part in providing the food for the pilgrims. It’s a great leveller.
Back on the walk around the lake, you’ll find men and boys strip down to take a dip in the holy water surrounding the temple; ladies don’t tend to. Family units play together; groups of young people take selfies and ask for photos with us. There’s an office where you can make a donation – above the door it proudly announces, “Please take a receipt of Holy Communion from here”. You skirt the other end of the lake where you cannot help but get physically caught up in the crowds queueing to get into the temple. You can admire the tree that still stands, where, apparently, Baba Budha camped as he was digging the holy tank and construction work way back in the 1500s. Above all, you get an insight into the lives of the huge crowds who live and work nearby and for whom this is part of their daily existence. The sights, the sounds, the colours, the smells; the air of excitement, and the sense of privilege, for it is indeed a privilege to be there. It’s an incredible sight.
After a short rest at the hotel we had one more major appointment – not in Amritsar itself, but 18 miles due west at the border with Pakistan. Ever since I first heard about the daily pomp and pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at the Wagah Border, I knew I just had to see it for myself. It’s a long procedure, with endless security measures and a lot of waiting around. But it’s worth it. Interestingly, as you’re perceived to be wealthy foreign tourists, you’re given a much better vantage point to view the ceremony from than if you were a local Indian resident. Also, there is no charge, which feels a little surprising when you see the administrative nightmare that this daily event causes.
Your car, driver and guide can only go so far towards the border; there comes a time when you have to get out and join the masses walking towards the gate that symbolises the Indian border (it’s not quite at the border, but it’s pretty close.) Your only instruction: keep left. You go through passport check after passport check. One wonders how many times they think you might somehow change your passport details every fifty yards or so. But you have to accept the high security, it’s to everyone’s advantage. Eventually you get to the border – and you really are right on the edge of the country. Take your seat and watch what happens. In front of you and to your left, you see all the people on the Indian side amassing, their Indian flags painted on their faces; whistle-happy Indian soldiers trying to marshal people into position and then make them stay there; loud, unintelligible public announcements on the public address system; and continued jeering to the people on your right, who are the crowd similarly amassing on the Pakistani side of the border, trying to outdo the Indians with their louder music blaring through speakers. There was a moment when a group of Pakistanis broke rank from where they were sitting and grabbed all the posh seats at the front of the terrace, only to be shouted away by angry sounding officials, to riotous laughter of ridicule from those on the Indian side. Mrs C was sitting on my left and so I was fractionally closer to Pakistan – and accordingly my iPhone decided to change time to Pakistani time, which confused me quite a bit – I went back in time by 30 minutes and she didn’t!
There’s no obvious starting point to the ceremony; groups of Indian women, with children, break onto the parade ground in front of us and start dancing and teasing with the Indian soldiers on guard, much to the delight of the man in the white suit who bellows at us all the time to cheer for India (hurrah!) They rush at the soldiers with their big Indian flags and do Bollywood-style dances, whilst the soldiers (lamely) fend them off and invite them back to their seats. It’s all part of the ceremony though; if anyone did anything really out of order, I’m sure they’d know about it. Next, Indian women soldiers start to march towards the border, to the enormous cheers of the crowd, and no Pakistani women soldiers to greet them.
Then out come the big guns, the Indian soldiers in their extraordinary puffed-up uniforms and extravagant headdresses, parading and posing as they go, rushing the border then performing a Ministry of Silly Walks routine at the gate with Pakistan, as Pakistani soldiers do precisely the same back to them. The marching is extremely fast and with extremely high kicks, as they assume ultra-heroic macho stances against each other. There’s some general thumbing of noses towards their opposition and then the flags are lowered, quite quickly as there’s neither time nor desire for solemnity during this operation. The Indian flag is folded up and taken into the office. There are a few more silly walks and then the Indian soldiers beat a retreat and the Pakistanis do the same.
It ends more with a whimper than a bang as everything just stops and everyone gets up. But it’s a fascinating experience; a mixture of pantomime with aggression, and plenty of balletic military pas de deux. If you get the chance to do it, I’d really recommend it!
It’s just a short hop from Shimla to Chandigarh; 65 miles and a couple of hours if you get caught in slow traffic. I was very interested to see Chandigarh because it sounds like India’s version of Milton Keynes; a new city built on a grid system, so totally unlike anything else in India. The cleanest city in India; the highest per capita income in India; and a union territory serving as the capital of two states – Haryana and Punjab.
Originally the master plan of designers Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki, work started on it in 1949 but a year later Nowicki was killed in a plane crash and Mayer lost heart and interest in the scheme. It was then handed over to the cult-status architect Le Corbusier to create a new design (although he took many of Mayer’s ideas without crediting him, apparently!) Work was completed by 1960. However, the fact has to be faced: as a tourist destination, it does leave something to be desired.
I beg your pardon, I never promised you a Rose Garden
We arrived in the city to be welcomed by our guide Rajinder, and our first port of call was the famous Rose Garden of Chandigarh. Now, I’m sure that during the rose season this is a feast for the eyes, with rows upon rows of roses catching your attention. Apparently, February is the time to go. In October it’s as dull as ditchwater.
The good news was that meant we could move quickly on to the main sight of Chandigarh, the Capitol Complex, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016. An amusing notice informs you of the set times you can visit: “Morning tours – 10am, 12pm, 3pm” – an interesting definition of the word morning there. Security is high and in addition to the airport style checks you have to bring your passport with you, which they look after whilst you’re on their grounds. The Complex provides its own guide to accompany you around the site, which creates an interesting powerplay when individual tourists also have their own guides. At one stage during the tour there were two other guides arguing furiously with the first guide about the accuracy of what he was talking about. Our Rajinder was the more laid-back kind of guy and just smiled at them all silently.
Law Courts Le Corbusier style
We were walked to the centre of the complex which houses the Law Courts. We were given time (far too much time if truth be told) to admire Le Corbusier’s modernistic architecture. If you’re a Le Corbusier Fan (as several people seemed to be) this represented all your dreams come true. If you’re like me, it resembled some coloured concrete slabs attached to what looked like the car park at the National Theatre in London. As our guide was giving us all the background information, an Indian lady approached and basically took over his spiel, droning on for ages about how her late husband was friends with the great man. This was absolute nectar to the LCFs who begged for more insights about his favourite blend of tea and which side he dressed. You could see the real guide getting more and more frustrated that his tour had been hijacked. The other guides chipped in with the occasional bon mot. Rajinder just smiled at them all silently.
Eventually freed from her clutches (along with the guide we just abandoned her while she was still talking at us – sounds rude, but honestly there are limits) we walked up past the Open Hand sculpture, which stands as Chandigarh’s emblem, and very impressive it is too, even if it does look more like a dove of peace than an open hand. There are a few buildings either side of the huge walkway to admire – if that’s your sort of thing – before you reach the Legislative Assembly building. This houses the state debating chambers for both Punjab and Haryana. Security is even tighter here so no cameras allowed – which also means no phones. Can we take our bottle of water in? Yes, said Rajinder. Yes, said the official guide. No, said security at the Legislative Assembly reception. Rajinder smiled at them all silently.
The guide takes you into the debating chamber for Punjab; apparently the Haryana one is identical but less plush, from which I deduce that Punjabis pay a higher Council Tax than Haryanvis. It’s an impressive sight, with brightly coloured seats and a ceiling that looks like a lava lamp has exploded. On one wall is a grand portrait of Gandhi, positioned so that at one particular moment every day the outside sunlight shines directly into his eyes. However, there was no consensus among the guides as to what exact time that might be.
The view the guards didn’t want you to see
After having been refused permission to enter the Haryana chamber several times (they really want to keep it private, it must be a dump) we returned outside, equipped with our phones and water bottles. A right turn takes you towards the Government Buildings, which the guides insisted we could photograph but which caused consternation amongst the Sikh guards who blew several fuses at a bunch of hapless tourists. One furious Sikh gentleman almost came to blows with the guide, remonstrating in no uncertain terms that there was to be no photography whatsoever. I can’t speak Punjabi, but his message was pretty clear. Another Sikh officer watched from the sidelines, laughing ecstatically at what he obviously took to be the funniest thing since the Congress Party promised to deal with corruption. Rajinder smiled at them all silently.
We said our various goodbyes to all the extra guides and returned to the car. There was one more stop on Rajinder’s whirlwind tour of Chandigarh – a visit to the University. Indian universities can be very interesting places to visit; I remember how we were challenged – pleasantly but firmly – on our visit to Allahabad University. However, the university at Chandigarh is quite a dull affair; dark redbrick bland office blocks lined by grass on long straight roads without an ounce of soul. Would we like to walk around? Nah, just take us to the hotel. Thanks Rajinder.
Beware of the livestock
We had treated ourselves to two nights at the new Oberoi Sukhvilas in Chandigarh – actually it’s about half an hour outside the city heading northwest. We had a standard room reserved, which I’m sure would have been lovely, but…. Would we like to upgrade to a Royal Tent? Would we Buffalo. However, first we had to navigate the three hotel geese. They did not like me one bit. Every time I tried to walk somewhere it seemed they tried to block my path. Even the gentleman who escorted us to our quarters had a run in with them.
The tents were identical to those at the Oberoi in Ranthambhore, but with two added delights: an automatic toilet, that raised and lowered the seat in accordance with movement sensors; and (best of all) a private pool. Oh My Giddy Aunt, that was pure heaven. Our second day had been planned as a rest day, and we spent the entire time round the pool. We couldn’t bring ourselves to move to the restaurant for lunch, so room service brought us Lamb and Chicken Tikkas and a bottle of Chablis which we enjoyed in the sunshine. My toes are curling with pleasure at the memory.
Shanu in the bar
The Chandigarh Oberoi is a delight; the tents are quite some distance from the main reception, so you call for a buggy to transport you round the grounds – this is particularly important at night. Breakfast was in a special restaurant close to our tent, where we enjoyed a superb choice of food and immaculate service from Rishahb; dinner was in the main restaurant where our every culinary wish was met by Shruti and her team; cocktails were generously created by the entertaining Shanu in the bar. He asked if he could design cocktails for us, based on whichever spirits and extra touches we liked. Mine involved gin, rosemary and a blowtorch. We named it Forest Fire. And people ask why we keep going back to India….
The journey from Haridwar to Shimla is about 180 miles, but it’s such a slow one. Our route took us via Dendrahen which was just a mass of roadworks that took ages to negotiate. We stopped off at a little café for a rest and a cup of tea thinking we’d broken the back of the journey, but little did I know how the rest of the journey would be a mass of twists and turns as we progressed from the Lower to the Middle Himalayas. This was the first time in decades that I’d felt terrible motion sickness in the car. It was excruciating. All I could do was shut my eyes and try not to see the horizon.
Somehow we managed to reach Shimla without my throwing up, but it was a close thing. Our hotel for the first two days in Shimla was the Oberoi Cecil, a stately pile in the centre of the town and perfectly located for sightseeing. Unfortunately our journey took such a long time – a good ten hours – that we were hardly in a position to enjoy its bounteous pleasures when we got there. But we tried our hardest anyway. Mrs Chrisparkle had to attend a phone business conference as soon as we arrived so I supported her in the only way I knew – I picked up a book and went to the bar and had a bottle of Kingfisher. Later we enjoyed dinner in their restaurant, a very grand and regal affair with a marvellous atmosphere of Raj decadence. Looking back, however, both Mrs C and I agree that, overall, this is the least impressive of all the Oberoi hotels we’ve been to. Don’t get me wrong, that means it’s only superb. The bar shut unnecessarily early, and, whilst it was a thoroughly enjoyable stay, it just lacked the touch of Oberoi magic that you find in their other properties. Yes, I’m being incredibly picky.
The next day we awoke rested and ready for a day’s sightseeing. Our guide was a very funny and knowledgeable chap by the name of Dinashkumar. First he took us a little way out of town to visit the Jakhu Hill Temple, with its huge statue of the monkey god, Hanuman, who keeps a watchful eye over the town below. It’s not surprising that this temple is dedicated to Hanuman as the area is totally overrun by monkeys, and you have to be very careful not to encourage them because they’re devious little buggers. Dinashkumar equipped us both with what he called a monkey-stick; it had the dual purpose of scaring them (or indeed pushing them) away if they got too close, and also acting as a walking stick to climb the path to the temple. The views are magnificent; this was the first time we’d seen mountainous India, with its fresh air (indeed the lack of oxygen did have a literally breathtaking effect on our respiration), lack of crowds and (relatively) cold temperature. We looked inside the temple and Dinashkumar was very keen that we should have the full Jakhu experience, so he paid for us both to be blessed. It always makes me laugh that a blessing is a financial transaction in India. Hanuman keeps a lovely garden up in the hills above Shimla, and it’s very well worth taking fifteen or twenty minutes to slowly do the rounds and get all the great views.
Back in the car, we descended back to town. A perfect spot for a morning refreshment – indeed, lunch if you fancied it (we didn’t – but I have a great recommendation for you later) – we took a pause at Clarke’s Hotel, the easily forgotten third Oberoi in Shimla. Built in 1898, in mock Tudorbethan style, it sits grandly at one end of the town’s famous Mall Road. We had a reviving pot of Earl Grey tea, and a very pleasant chat with the welcoming manager, Pooja. Her husband, Amardeep, is the manager of the Cecil, so together she said they are known locally as the Oberoi Mafia. The hotel seems like a great place to experience Oberoi service without paying Oberoi prices.
After a welcome rest, we walked up Mall Road, past a range of small shops – some of them barely one person wide. It has a very relaxing and stressless atmosphere; rather quaint and bijou, a little like how one would expect an Indian Polperro to look like. We had the statutory stop in a pashmina scarf shop; they were promoting a Diwali sale – baby pashmina scarves at two for the price of one. I’ve no idea to what extent it was a genuine sale, but the scarves are very attractive, soft and warm (although, be warned, when you get them home, they moult like crazy!) Dinashkumar pointed out the interesting central sights at a meeting place – the wonderfully named Scandal Point. The scandal in question was the abduction of an English lady by the Maharajah of Patiala in 1892. One thing we did realise as we wandered around – there are so many Brits! Its place in the history of the British Raj in India means it’s enormously appealing to the more intrepid British tourist. Sadly, Shimla is choked with traffic, but nevertheless it’s still absolutely charming, and definitely worth the trek there.
We were just too late to visit Christ Church (it closes for lunch) so we thought we’d take the same dining opportunity as the vicar. On Dinashkumar’s recommendation, we went to the Ashiana Restaurant in the centre of the town. It’s located in what was an old British Victorian bandstand. We sat in the outside garden, had superb food, friendly service and a much-needed Thunderbolt beer. On the other side of the street is The Ridge, which consists of a beautiful viewpoint, with a statue of Indira Gandhi, and it’s also the site of Christ Church, a neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1857, with a chancel window designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father Lockwood. In a rather sweet cross-fertilisation of faiths, you have to take your shoes off to enter the church; I don’t know of any other Christian church where that’s a requirement.
Many of the shops are recognisable from home: Levis, Benetton, Wrangler – even Domino’s Pizza. I bought a thick warm shirt in BlackBerry, which I’ve washed a few times now and I’m very pleased with it; it’s a brand and a shop you can trust. After slowly wandering through the Mall Road area, we headed back towards the Cecil. I made a schoolboy error where the road passes the Army Headquarters. There’s a noble looking sculpture outside of four brave Indian soldiers with a flag, which I photographed, then turned around to photograph the entrance to the Army HQ just as a means of identifying where I was. Of course, I was instantly hollered at in no small measure and refused permission to photograph. Daft of me, I know the rules. I just forgot. We reached the Cecil in time for a nice afternoon nap, followed by drinks, dinner and more drinks. The highlight of the meal was a dessert of gluten-free vanilla and choc chip muffins. It may sound like a simple pleasure, but it was heaven to the coeliac in the family.
The next morning we checked out of the Cecil, although we were still staying in the Shimla region for another two nights. Our first port of call was the Viceregal Lodge, built in 1888 in Jacobethan style for the Viceroy Lord Dufferin. Getting in to the building is something of a bureaucratic challenge, with set visiting times, set queuing locations (which you have to guess at), no photos permitted anywhere, quite a lot of barking custodians – and the first few rooms you walk around are pretty dull. But it comes into its own with its amazing sweeping staircase and it’s actually quite an interesting place to visit. The gardens are also worth your time – very beautiful and immaculately kept.
Once we’d left the Viceroy Lodge it was no more than a half hour’s drive to our next hotel – the majestic Wildflower Hall in the mountains above Shimla at Mashobra. On arrival we had the disappointing (I jest) news that our Premier Valley View Room had been upgraded to a Deluxe Suite. It’s like having your own apartment overlooking the Himalayas, easily big enough to be your permanent home provided you don’t want to cook and are prepared to do without most of your unnecessary nicknacks. It was one of those places that made your toes curl with pleasure. The building was originally Lord Kitchener’s Himalayan hideaway (although there’s not much there now that he would recognise) and it has an amazing jacuzzi that looks for all the world that you’re at the edge of civilisation and with one false step you could fall into the valley below. Mind you, with that view, what a way to go! There’s a very comfortable bar (The Cavalry Bar) where Rajat will prepare your pre-prandial gin and tonic, and a glorious restaurant (eat outside during the day, inside at night) where our favourite waiter Sachin made us very welcome and gave immaculate service.
The highlight of our next day was the treat of a genuine walk (trek, hike, if you like, but it was really a walk) in the Middle Himalayas. The Oberoi provides their own naturalist guide, Rohini, to make sure you stay safe and on the beaten track, even though it feels like the most glorious adventure. The path we took was once part of an old silk route from Tibet. Rohini pointed out the local plant life, including the four main trees of the area, the Spruce, the Himalayan cedar, the Blue pine and the Green oak. We saw wild garlic, Daphne, Baby’s Breath, and many other fascinating wild flora. We heard a bell tinkling at one point, and discovered a lone pony, lost in the woods. It was slightly disappointing to discover he wasn’t wild; there’s a pony farm nearby and he’d obviously not followed the signposts home.
Our walk covered just short of 3 miles and took about 2 hours 15 minutes, giving us maximum opportunities to take it all in at a very comfortable, holiday-like, pace. Even though the temperatures were no more than about 7 degrees centigrade, because the sun was so strong it didn’t feel cold at all; and sitting outside later, in a short-sleeved shirt, felt like the height of decadence. The Wildflower Hall is perfect for a relaxing break; we loved it and would go back without a moment’s hesitation.
Just like our 2016 trip, our 2017 trip to India (October 18th – November 1st) started in Gurgaon, so that Mrs Chrisparkle could go to her company’s office there and catch up with all her Indian staff. Once again I had to fend for myself by the pool and the lunchtime buffet. As in the previous year, we stayed at the Oberoi; no grand upgrade this time like last time, but I’m never going to complain at any of the rooms at that hotel. Our Premier Room had a wonderful view of the front pool and was immensely comfortable as always. Our evening was spent relaxing in the Piano Bar; we decided we didn’t need a massive meal that night so we overdosed on their bar snacks and that was more than enough for us! The evening coincided with Diwali, but we were too tired to join any Delhi celebrations; and in fact we were surprised that the hotel itself was so quiet. But it’s always impressive to see the beautiful decorations that they place around the hotel to celebrate the festival.
It’s a good six hour drive, even without breaks, from Gurgaon to Haridwar, and to get to our hotel – the Aalia on the Ganges – you have to drive into Haridwar then out the other side and come back down the east bank of the river. When you come off that main road, you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Driving through farming villages with narrow roads (although in surprisingly good condition) you realise this is genuine Indian countryside, not teeming with people. Eventually our driver Mr Singh found the hotel, and we checked into our River Suite room. It was a comfortable room, with a door leading to a passageway, where the main wardrobes were kept, and then another door to our bathroom. We spent the next two days playing enjoyable games of “chase the gecko” who clung to the bathroom window for dear life.
The only problem with the room was that the aircon was a) extremely noisy and b) extremely cold. We decided to turn it off the first night but were gasping for breath a few hours later because it was so warm! You pay your money and you take your choice. The benefits of this hotel are not inconsiderable. You can walk down close to the banks of the Ganges and sit under canopies to watch the world go by. There are lots of sports too – but that’s not really our thing. There’s a pleasant, if understocked, bar – the usual problem in India of plenty of gin but no tonic; and the restaurant was extremely good value with delicious food. But it’s very quiet. After you’ve had dinner there’s absolutely nothing to do apart from go to bed.
The next morning, Mr Singh drove us in to Haridwar, where we picked up our guide for the day, Satish, and we drove on to Rishikesh. It’s only 20 miles but the route is hilly and full of all kinds of traffic so it took a good hour and a half to get there. I’d always wanted to see Rishikesh, ever since I discovered it was where the Beatles met their guru. It’s a holy city – they all are when they’re on the Ganges – and you quickly realise it’s a magnet for tourists. Not only from the West, but also from all over India. As a result, it has quite a relaxed vibe to it, and is one of those rare places in India, where the locals don’t stare with fascination at a Caucasian face. There’s far too many of those everywhere.
Satish took us for a brief walk through the town, down to the first of two major pedestrian bridges that span the Ganges. This is the Laxman Bridge, built in 1929, when I sense there was less pedestrian traffic than today. It’s only six feet wide so you have to have your wits about you when crossing – and indeed pausing to take photographs, as the views are irresistible. At the other side, it’s a 2 kilometre walk to the other bridge, the Ram bridge (1986, bigger than the Laxman Bridge, but even narrower), in order to make a full circuit.
Rishikesh is charming; full of funny Indian signs, little shops, bathing places; and the main sight along this route is the Parmarth Niketan Ashram founded in 1942. It’s like a cross between an Oxbridge college (Indian style) and a small village. Full of people, gardens, study rooms; there are photographs on the walls of the Pope (understandable), Prince Charles and Camilla (also understandable) and Keith Vaz (perhaps a little surprising.) Alas we did not get to see the Beatles Ashram. Satish assured us that it has been left to wrack and ruin, and I’ve seen pictures of it since we were there and he’s right.
After a very brief visit, it was time to return to Haridwar, for a short tour of the town and to spend the evening watching the Aarti ceremony. Our first stop was at a beautiful Jain Temple, Shri Chintamani Parshwnath Jain Shwetambar Mandir, to give it its full name. It was only built in the 1990s, and has all the intricacy and elegance that you would expect. It’s notable for its lovely circular inlaid floor. We also visited the Bhuma Niketan Ashram; which has all the appearance of a modern temple, and when you go inside, it’s like you’ve discovered its Disneyland equivalent. There are some steps up and a path that goes underneath the surface of the main temple frontage, and shows you scenes from Hindu scriptures in what I can only describe as Disney format. It’s quite incredible!
Satish then took us back into the centre of Haridwar, where we strolled around for an hour just taking in the street scenes – all the usual shops and mini-industries, market stalls and cows. We stopped at the Hotel Chotiwala – it’s a café really – for some tea and rest. It’s useful that there is a glass frontage separating the diners from the outside scene, as we spent our time there being stared at by monkeys thumping on the windows for attention. It was then just for us to wander round, observe all the pilgrims washing away their sins in the Ganges, and to get a good spot to watch the evening ceremony. One of the more amusing things about being in an area where people bathe in the Ganges, is their care to look decent whilst doing so. As we were wandering around, among the more unexpected items of litter in the area were discarded empty boxes of fresh underpants!
Last year we witnessed the Aarti ceremony in Varanasi, and for scale and sheer showbiz, that one comes top of the game. The ceremony in Haridwar is much smaller; it all takes place on one side of the river bank, and is, as always, an excuse for family outings, picnics, and a general celebration, as well as a holy experience – although you get the feeling that the ceremony itself is nothing like as holy an experience as simply dipping into the Ganges. Eleven priests were involved; a lot of preliminary introductions which finalised in a series of chants to which the crowd replied, and, as it got darker, the priests performed with fire, and the crowd joined in with the tinkling of bells. It’s quite a moving experience, and despite the inevitable discomfort of finding somewhere lumpy to sit for several hours, the time flies by.
And that more or less was our Haridwar and Rishikesh experience. We returned to the Aalia for drinks, dinner and sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a very long and very tiring drive up into the Himalayas.
This was the third time we’d been to Jaipur. The first was way back in 2006 on our first trip to India, when we crammed the Golden Triangle into six days of sheer excitement. The second was a fleeting drive through with Professor and Mrs Plum when we were both in India at the same time, in November 2015. That’s the thing about Jaipur, it gives great value for money. You only have to drive into the town and – bingo – you get an instant “pink hit”, with all the beautiful coloured buildings, the like of which you’re not going to find anywhere else in the world. It’s such a vibrant, lively place, and it’s a pleasure to spend any time there. We thought we’d reacquaint ourselves with the big sights on a full day’s sightseeing on our second day. But for this first afternoon, we decided to try something completely different – a Bazaar, Crafts and Cuisine Walk through the old town that our travel agent arranged through Virasat Experiences.
But first – check in to the Oberoi in Jaipur. We stayed here in 2006 and it’s still a lovely hotel, although, to be super-critical, there are just one or two areas where it’s beginning to show its age. That’s inevitable, of course; the Oberoi in Delhi was closed at the time while it received a facelift to bring it back to the immaculate condition we’ve enjoyed there before. Maybe it’s time for the same to happen to the Rajvilas. We stayed in a Premier Room, with its amazing bath that appears to be open to the garden; we remembered from last time there’s no point having a bath unless you start running the water about two hours beforehand, because it’s so deep! We dined at the Surya Mahal on the first night but had the extra special treatment at the Raj Mahal on our last night. Absolutely stunning venue, superb food and service, and it was a real wrench to get up and leave our table at the end of the evening because we’d had such a lovely time. Our waiter Rakesh was absolutely the best.
Enough food and drink memories, let’s get back to old Jaipur, and Pratik, our guide, who was a fun kinda guy who knew exactly when to be formal and polite and when to risk mixing it with a little matey banter. His itinerary was designed to show the heart of the people of the city; their way of life, their trades, their shops, their craftsmanship; and not to be afraid of trying a little to eat and drink on the way. So we spent the majority of our time in the old market area of Jaipur, around Tripolia Bazar Road. We saw the men who sold the big steel trunks – presumably very heavy but no airline is going to damage those in a hurry. We saw all the brassware, and the trinkets; we saw shrines, we saw the stores where they create the most elaborate wedding invitations (it’s de rigeuer for your invitations to be as sassy as possible in India).
We went inside an old haveli; we saw jewellers, and shoemakers, and dressmakers; we watched as a number of all-female parties bundled themselves into these tiny stores for one of them to try on wedding dresses and for the others to coo in approval. I tried some lassi (Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen) and it was absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t bother with the betel leaf. We pretty much took a look at every trade on offer and it was all fascinating. Pratik was both very knowledgeable and very humorous in his descriptions and the few hours we spent together passed extremely quickly.
Next day – and the final full day of our trip. We started off, like most tourists would, visiting the Amber Fort. It takes about forty minutes to drive there from the Rajvilas, and when you get near it looms out at you from the top of the horizon, like the God of Forts, as it’s so impressive and huge. You’ve got two choices for reaching the top – take a landrover like our guide Seema (dull) or ascend by elephant (touristy). You have to do the elephant thing really. There’s absolutely no dignity to it whatsoever as you fall back into your howdah, legs flailing about in the sunlight, more moron than Maharaja.
Your Heffalump-wallah (there must be a technical term for the man who leads your elephant) occasionally shouts instructions at you, which often include parting with cash for some reason, but it’s very hard to hear and we just play the Stupid English Tourist. It can get you everywhere, that act. After a not very comfortable but rather funny twenty minutes or so, your elephant sidles up to a kind of docking station where you have to jump off rapido, thereby losing any final vestiges of dignity you might still have had left. Then it’s down some steps, avoiding eye contact to prevent requests for bakshish from hangers-on who did absolutely nothing to deserve it, and you’re in the main square at the entrance to the fort.
Once you get inside the complex you’re greeted by the amazing Diwan-i-Aam, the space for public audience, and the Sattais Katcheri, a beautiful space dominated by dozens of pillars and arches, where the scribes would write the revenue records. From the arches at the side you have a stunning view of the Maotha Lake down below, with the endless lines of elephants trudging up and down. Go through another gateway and you reach the pleasure garden, the Aram Bagh, and on the left, maybe the fort’s most eye-catching sight, the Sheesh Mahal, made up of thousands and thousands of tiny mirrors, glittering across the ceilings and walls. It’s a truly awe-inspiring construction.
There’s an area inside where we couldn’t go – but could look through a gap – and Seema told us the man sitting inside working on restoring the pieces of glass comes from a long line of people who have done the same work for generations; he’s now continuing the restoration and also teaching others how to do it. It’s very important for the long-term future of the palace! Elsewhere at the fort you can find a collection of weapons, beautiful inlaid balconies, secret views through star-shaped windows, and many other stunning aspects. It’s a glorious place to wander around at your own pace and just drink in the artistry and the history.
On the way back into Jaipur, we made the customary stop to look at the Jal Mahal Palace in the middle of the freshwater Man Sagar Lake. The palace was restored in 2008 and now looks stunning and triumphant, a serene island in the middle of all that water. It’s a popular viewpoint and is always crowded with ice-cream and trinket sellers, but it’s really worth taking the time to enjoy the view.
Jaipur is very famous for its jewellery, and it is almost compulsory to take time to visit a factory shop. When Professor and Mrs Plum came in 2015, we witnessed her purchasing a beautiful ruby ring, with which she is still very pleased. Mrs C is surprisingly uninterested in expensive jewellery (phew!) but nevertheless you never know when you’re going to see Absolutely The Perfect Item That You Cannot Refuse. So we trooped around this factory, and were treated to a description of the process that takes a rough gem and makes it into a beautiful item of jewellery. Interesting terminology; the man described one process as taking the unfinished item and giving it a “blow job”. I think he meant cooling it down. But I’m not entirely sure.
One more major sight to see – and one we remembered fondly from our 2006 visit – the Jantar Mantar. Only in India could you find a place with such a singalong name. And it’s a memorable and extraordinary place. The largest and best preserved observatory built by Sawai Jai Singh II between 1728 and 1734, it has sixteen instruments which can still be used for forecasting summer heat and the monsoon conditions. One of them is made up of twelve pieces, each one representing a sign of the zodiac, which is used by astrologers to draw up horoscopes; and it is traditional for people to have a photograph taken next to their zodiac sign. I did the touristy thing, and posed next to Taurus; Mrs C pooh-poohed the idea when I suggested she stood next to Sagittarius. Honestly; typical Sagittarian! Although there are other Jantar Mantars in India, there’s nowhere quite like this. It’s like an astronomical theme park, and it’s enormous fun to check the sundials and measure the angles of the stars. Fantastic!
And that was the end of our final day in Jaipur. The next morning we drove back to Delhi, where Mr Singh had arranged for us to have a massage in a place he recommended. It was very good – we both opted for an Indian Head Massage combined with back and shoulders. As is always the case with me, I fell asleep during the massage, so relaxed did I feel. However, I was rudely awakened at the end when the man who had been pummelling me decided to wash my hair in the most boiling water you can imagine. I felt like my scalp was on fire. They obviously breed them tough in Delhi.
One more night in Gurgaon before being transferred back to the airport for the flight home – another fantastic trip to India ticked off the list. Next year we’d be back again!
There is nowhere more welcoming in the world than the Oberoi Hotel in Agra. After our journey from Gwalior, and a long day’s sightseeing, it was just bliss to be taken to our room, with its wonderful view of the Taj Mahal; to sit on the balcony with some chilled white wine purloined from the minibar, and to observe the immaculate gardens, the inviting pool, and of course Shah Jahan’s immortal temple to love on the horizon. Once we were thoroughly relaxed, we headed down to the bar for a Tanqueray 10 and tonic in the best setting you can imagine, before going for a meal. Every time we’ve been to this hotel before, I’d always failed to get into the Esphahan restaurant for dinner – it had always been fully booked. I wasn’t taking any chances this time, having booked it a couple of weeks before we left the UK. It was as sumptuous as I’d hoped.
This time in Agra, we thought we’d try something different. We’d agreed with our travel agent that we would do a different kind of tour – a walking tour of old Agra, seeing some well-known sights from different angles; getting to see some of the places that tourists don’t always visit. It was called C The 4 is For Your Eyes, and our guide for this half-day experience was Meghan.
We’d been to Agra Fort before but this time we started at the “back entrance” – the Army gate, built in 1080. It’s still formed from that familiar red stonework, but is a much less impressive and formal entrance, used only by the army. Nevertheless, you still get a good impression of the fort’s grandeur and size. From there we walked a little way to see a monument to the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He stands halfway up a spiral staircase, as if to portray his rise to success from a humble background.
Next we took a bicycle rickshaw into the depths of the old city. The strength of these old men who carry portly westerners about is extraordinary! We ended up at the Jami Masjid Mosque, built in 1648 by Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara. It has a grand, imposing frontage, but once you walk inside it’s surprisingly plain; it’s primary reason is to act as the Friday Mosque, so it is designed to be able to accommodate the largest number of worshippers as easily as possible. From there we headed into the market streets, where we saw a wide range of products on sale; primarily fabrics and clothes, but also sweets, flowers and jewellery. It was fun to just dawdle and learn from Meghan all about the fabrics, the sweets and so on.
There was a fascinating shop by Daresi Road that sold garlands made from rupee notes that are worn by a bridegroom for good luck – and for the fortune that they contain, of course. Naturally I had to try one on. They’re quite bulky, because they contain so many notes, that you would find it difficult to do much else whilst wearing one! We walked past Mankameshwar Mandir, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, but we didn’t go in – can’t quite remember why. I think it may simply have been too busy. We stopped off and had a delicious cup of marsala chai instead.
Our bicycle rickshaw man was waiting for us and conveyed us out of the market area back on to the main streets and towards one final sight – the Taj Mahal – but from the other side of the River Yamuna. There’s a large garden, almost meadow area there, called the Mehtab Bagh, where you can wonder round freely and enjoy superb views of the Taj Mahal without having to wrestle with all the other tourists.
We spent ages just idling around, taking in the views and the peace, and generally relaxing before Meghan finally called us and arranged for Mr Singh to collect us. It was a very enjoyable and different way of seeing the city and we’d definitely recommend it. Not that you should avoid the Taj Mahal if you haven’t properly visited it yet – it’s a must.
Where next? Mr Singh took us due south-west to visit the tigers of Ranthambhore.
The drive from Orchha to Gwalior takes a good five hours so Sachun had plans for breaking up the day with some more interesting sights en route. 30 miles north of Orchha is the town of Datia, with a population of around 100,000; and I confess I hadn’t heard of it. But at the centre of the town is the Birsingh Deo Palace. Birsingh Deo was a Bundela Rajput chief and the ruler of the Kingdom of Orchha from 1605 to 1626. It was built in 1620, and, having been to the Jahangir Mahal in Orchha the previous day, the palace is exactly the same style and layout, although perhaps not quite as large, but certainly not in as good condition.
Sachun called for a man from one of the local houses to open it up for us so we could have a look around. I don’t think the man was best pleased, and he hung around waiting for us to finish so that he could go back home. “Leave him a good tip”, suggested Sachun. We did. Comparisons are odious, and it’s not as breathtaking as the Jahangir Mahal, but it’s still a lot of fun and has the added benefit of being very rarely visited, so we didn’t bump into anyone else as we wandered around, and there aren’t many places in India where you can say that. Despite the size of its population, Datia is a sleepy little place and all the streets are very narrow and steep. It took all Mr Singh’s driving skills to get us to the front gate of the palace. I wished I’d had one fewer course at dinner the previous night.
After an hour or so wandering around Datia, we got back in the car and drove another eleven miles to reach the extraordinary collection of Jain temples at Sonagiri. After walking beneath a welcoming archway you ascend a path and on the way there are 77 Jain temples of all shapes and sizes, built in the 9th and 10th centuries, and all in superbly maintained condition. They’re all painted white, although some have some other coloured decoration, and each one bears a number in a circle, denoting which temple it is – the temples don’t otherwise have names. These are extremely holy in the Jain religion and I believe all Jains should visit here at least once. You have to walk barefoot throughout the whole complex and on a hot day, which this was, you have to be very careful where you step because it’s easy to burn your feet. You can end up hopping from temple to temple which is hardly the dignified spirit that the complex deserves.
Temple No 57 is the most important and has an elephant outside, to welcome you in. It’s round, like an amphitheatre, and full of beautiful and delicate images of God. I didn’t discover until the end that you weren’t meant to take photos in there – sorry about that. At the top of the hill is a small square with a school and some memorials, where a young Indian family were taking a look around. The boy was very keen to have his picture taken with me, and after his father snapped his shot, son and I bonded. I kept on turning corners and finding him there. The last photo I took at the top was of him looking back at me as we left. I gave him a wave, and he waved back.
We retraced our steps back down the hill, through the archway and back to the car for the onward journey to Gwalior. There was only one more stop to make before we got there – and that was at a roadside farm where they grew sugar cane and converted it into sugar – or, rather, jaggery. It’s fascinating to watch the process as they feed the huge stalks of sugar cane into a mill – it looks rather like an enormous old-fashioned food blender – and at the bottom out comes this juice and mixture that gets boiled up in huge pans over open fire and eventually cooled into blocks. It’s incredibly sweet, really delicious and is great for restoring an upset tummy.
We snoozed the rest of the way to Gwalior but we woke up in time to enjoy the sight of the Hotel Taj Usha Kiran Palace coming into view. This is a sensationally beautiful place to stay, with a fabulous fountain outside that lights up at night, and so many beautiful courtyards scattered all over the hotel. We had a deluxe room, which totally spoiled us, and dined at the Silver Saloon, which was also jolly nice. The Bada Bar, which looks superb, was sadly closed when we there, but I’m sure it would be worth your while popping in for a gin and tonic.
We were only there for one night though, so the next morning we had to check out and leave our bags safely in Mr Singh’s boot before going off to explore Gwalior. We had said goodbye to Sachun the night before, so our guide for Gwalior, Pawan, met us at the hotel and took us into town. Gwalior is blessed with some stunning sights but none more than the amazing multi-storeyed Man Mandir Palace, which dominates the city and takes up the majority of the northern end of Gwalior Fort. It was built in 1508 by Raja Man Singh of the Tomar dynasty, and is decorated with blue, yellow and green tiles depicting parrots and peacocks, ducks, elephants, banana trees and crocodiles.
Inside it’s in such good condition, it takes your breath away. At one time it was used as a prison, and the subterranean floors beneath the central courtyard were used as dungeons. There is so much ornate decoration, so many exquisite tiles, so many sudden surprise views to the valley below from unexpected balconies, that you wander around it with a silly grin on your face. Once you’ve explored the Man Mandir palace, there is also the Gujari Mahal, built for the queen, which now houses an archaeological museum, and the Sas Bahu temples, 11th century Vishnu temples covered with brilliant carvings. At the foot of the fort, best seen from outside, are some very tall Jain sculptures lining the side of the road into the old town. You can appreciate their size best when you see people standing in the same photo!
Amongst the other must-see sights in Gwalior are the two Islamic tombs, one of Mohammed Ghaus, a Mughal nobleman, and one of Tansen, the famous singer. The lattice work in the windows is absolutely stunning and suggests true craftsmanship on behalf of those who created them. It’s worth spending some time here and just appreciating the glorious result of their hard work. We also visited the Jai Vilas Palace, built in the late 19th century in the Italianate style for the Maharaja of Gwalior. The ex-royal family still live there, but part of the palace has been turned into a museum, showing some of the Maharaja’s more eclectic interests. Bewitching chandeliers, elaborate vases, and, most fun of all, a toy train on the long dining table that was used to carry liqueurs around to all his dining guests. How the other half lived.
After that, our tour of Gwalior was done. It just remained for us to bid a quick goodbye to Pawan and to get into Mr Singh’s car for the 75 mile journey north to Agra. The Oberoi hotel in Agra, my favourite hotel in the whole wide world, was waiting for us.
After breakfast, we had to tear ourselves away from the luxury that was the Hotel Lalit in Khajuraho; and it was a rift, I can tell you. But Sachun was very keen to get going, and he was right, because we had a lot to cover over the course of the day. The route to Orchha took us first through the town of Chhatarpur, which Sachun wanted to show us because it was where he was born and still lived. He waxed lyrical about it, but as far as I could make out, it was just another town. Apologies to anyone proud of their relationship with Chhatarpur. We stopped for some bananas from a man with a banana stall, and I agree they were delicious. I’m sure Sachun could have made a case for the finest bananas in the world coming from Chhatarpur, but he stopped short. He pointed out the road where he lived. For an awful moment I thought we were going to have to take tea with his mum, but we continued on.
I’m being unfair, because Sachun’s local knowledge was excellent and he took us to a few places off the beaten track that I expect few tourists get to see. About ten miles north west of Chhatarpur, on the road to Nowgong, we stopped off at a lake. Mr Singh took the car a short way down towards a causeway that led to a little island on which perched the Shani Temple. We walked towards it as far as we could without getting our feet wet. As we got closer, I could see that a priest on the island had decided to wade out to greet us. Would we like to cross the water to see the temple? Not really, to be honest. We were happy enough seeing it from afar. The priest seemed a little disgruntled, having got wet for nothing. It is, however, an extremely picturesque location. There were a group of boys wandering down the causeway too. Sachun suggested we had a chat with them, although he thought they would probably be quite embarrassed and tongue-tied. As expected, they were supremely polite, but got very animated when we mentioned cricket.
We got back to the car and then just a mile or two later we arrived at a village that Sachun called Mahusanian, but in maps appears to be called Mau-Sahaniya. It’s just on the other side of the National Highway 75. It’s a sleepy little place that leads to another lake, but just before you reach it you find the remains (and I use the word wisely) of the Hridayashah Palace. It was originally built in 1733 for the eldest son of Maharaja Chhatrasal, and work is underway to restore it to some of its former glory. It might take some time – the workmen we saw there were definitely operating at an unhurried pace.
Just a little beyond the palace, you reach yet another lake; a couple of guys had parked up their motorbikes and were having a bit of a wash and a splash, as you do. Adjacent to the lake is the austerely named Maharaja Chhatrasal Interpretation Center. This is nothing to do with language skills, but a museum, which our travel agents referred to as Dhubela Museum. It contains the Maharaja’s cenotaph; and many other interesting artefacts of days gone by. It was opened in 1955 by none other than Prime Minister Nehru. It’s a good display of locally found carvings, Jain statues, pillar inscriptions, Nandi bulls and yet more erotic sculptures, a la Khajuraho. There’s a collection of weapons and instruments of torture; and, totally unexpectedly and out of place, a hall of mirrors like you used to get at the funfair that distort your image, making you short and fat, or long and tall, and all other combinations in between. I guess the Maharaja had a sense of humour after all.
Another drive, and 66 miles later we arrived at Orchha. We checked into our hotel, the Amar Mahal, which our travel agent said was the best they could provide in the town but it “was only 3-star”. You only have to look at the homepage of their website to understand that 3-star can encompass a whole new world of luxury. We were booked into a Luxury Deluxe Room, that offered us more comfort than you could imagine. It’s true – the wifi was patchy, and the restaurant was a little… agricultural in its service, but it was such a splendid setting that you could forgive them anything. Although, I have to say – at breakfast, they offered the most disgusting croissants I have ever had the misfortune to leave on a plate. Don’t go anywhere near them. There’s a shop outside with an A-board in front of it that genuinely reads: “Ladakhi handicrafts, Tibetan jewellery, Pashmina Yak wool, shawl’s and scarf’s (sic), Cashmere pullovers – visit for more junk”. Well you can’t say fairer than that. We did indeed visit, and Mrs Chrisparkle came away with three more scarves, because she really doesn’t have enough scarves (there are drawers and drawers of the damn things at home.) Always room for more scarves.
Orchha is a charming town, attractively positioned on a rocky island, enclosed by a loop of the Betwa river. Its main sight is the extravagant Jahangir Mahal Palace, built by the Bundela king Bir Singh Deo, and named after the Mughal emperor Jahangir who overnighted there. It’s right in the centre of the old fortified town and dominates the view. The decorations, including the glazed tilework, are still in outstanding condition, and it’s a very beautiful, as well as intimidatingly grand, palace. Wandering around, there are so many little archways, and tiny rooms and nooks and crannies where you can get lost thinking about how it would have looked almost 300 years ago. One side overlooks the river, and gives you stunning natural views all around. It’s noticeable that there are many wild vultures all around, perched at the top of domes, on window ledges, and so on – a little more interesting than the pigeons we’d have in the UK. The vultures are encouraged, as vulture conservation is very important in this area.
Outside the old town, we dropped down to the road level and where it crosses the river. The road, from one side of the river to the other, is extremely perilous and you really wouldn’t want to cross it at night. Even walking across by day was scary, especially if you had to move to the sides to let a car or, even worse, a bus go past. It was getting late too – and by the time we’d walked across the river and back again, and headed towards the town centre, the lights were coming on and Orchha was moving into night mode. That meant lots of activity at the temple, and Sachun encouraged us to stay out – or go back to the hotel and come out again – to witness what I understood to be some kind of “extreme worship” at this one particular temple. It sounded genuinely fascinating, but we were too tired. A return to the Amar Mahal was a must.
The flight from Varanasi to Khajuraho takes barely an hour and it was shortly before 2pm that we emerged from the airport with our bags packed in the back of the car by our regular driver Mr Singh, and were met by our new guide, Sachun. Sachun was a younger man, ambitious, well-fed; but without the usual carefree attitude that would normally accompany his age. He took excellent care of us, but sometimes you wondered precisely how accurate some of his facts were.
Khajuraho is a strange place. An entire resort has grown up, with airport, shops, and a large number of hotels, just because of this extraordinary complex of temples that have stayed remarkably intact over a thousand years. Hidden in dense forest for 700 years or more, they were rediscovered by Captain T S Burt of the Bengal Engineers in 1838, and were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1986. 25 temples have been brought back to life; but local tradition has it that originally there were 85 temples, so ongoing excavations continue in the hope of finding more and more.
There was no point checking in to the hotel, we drove straight to the main sight – the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. When you first see it, it takes your breath away, as it’s so huge, so intricate and so perfect. Visitors flock to Khajuraho to see the amazing sculpture work on the walls of the temples and when you finally get to see them, they do not disappoint. It may be the erotic sculptures that are the most famous – and when you look at them you realise quite how uninhibited life must have been in India a thousand years ago – but they all tell a story, make you laugh, bring wonderment, cause admiration. If you had the time, and weren’t concerned about getting sunstroke, you could stand outside these buildings for days just admiring the carvings.
Take a look at these photographs, they explain what you can see here much better than words can. Observe the clothing which depicts people of higher standing, or the voluminous breasts of some of the women; the musicians, the warriors, the lovers, the animals, the servants, the gods. There are a few instances where men get so carried away with their sexual prowess that they get it on with animals – look away if you don’t want to see a horse surprised from behind. There’s a brilliant carving that depicts that – and an onlooker has to hide their eyes through embarrassment (or horror).
As the sun starts to fall a little lower in the sky, the golden rays make the outside surface of the temples even more beautiful. There’s a true richness to the warmth of the colour that really creates a stunning effect. The temples certainly have a different look about them at different times of the day. The majority of the main sights are in the Western group of temples but we were also taken to the Eastern group, where the Jain Parsvanatha Temple is considered one of the most remarkable.
Time defeated us, and we didn’t get a chance to see the Southern group of temples. Instead we drove to our hotel, the Lalit Temple View. It’s a beautiful, elegant, smart but friendly place, with a very attractive bar – the Mahua – and an excellent restaurant, with superb service. Our room was a Luxury Suite; it had a comfortable living room, a lovely bedroom and a really fantastic bathroom. We were made to feel welcome, and special, and it’s a hotel I’d go back to in an instant. The perfect place to while away a relaxing evening and to remember the extraordinary sights of the day.