Holidays are always the same in the sense that the normal flow of time is disturbed. Have we been in India two months or just two days? Certainly the early part of the tour with its emphasis on history, palaces, tombs and forts seems both a long time ago and somewhat merged. We have to check our itinerary to remind ourselves where such and such a place was and we are grateful that our phones know where we were when we snapped this or that monument. Spending too much time with our least favourite fellow travellers turn minutes into eternities. And being too long in a group with an imposed central itinerary and not quite enough 'us' time has a wearing effect and we needed to escape sometimes.
The grand and red rock palaces were mostly denuded and it was hard to imagine court life in the cavernous often mostly open-air chambers. At Fatehpur Sikri in the dessert between Agra and Jaipur the beautiful red fort was abandoned only 14 years after it was completed presumably because of a lack of water so it was no wonder it didn't look much lived in. The white marble tomb within its walls has stunningly intricately carved panels, columns and roof supports, and was for us a star attraction.
At Jodpur we visited Jantar Mantar an 18th century observatory. But so thrillingly and unusually constructed are the various stone instruments that they look like 21st century sculptures. Jodpur is known as the blue city as it's old part has many blue painted buildings, so decorated to deter mosquitos.
Occasionally in some sites there might be a few rooms with colour faded low beds and even lower sofas with impossibly deep cushions, or ornate silver thrones. When we visited Jaisalmer Fort, constructed in the 12th century with rich golden sandstone, and still a living fort with thousands of inhabitants, (though of course with no invaders to repel) it all made much more sense. That a thriving community lived within the protection of the King upstairs in the palace penthouse suite with the best views seemed perfectly reasonable.
Heading south we visited Ranakpur, as we head towards Udaipur (Incidentally the 'pur' part of city names simply means 'city') Here a very special Jain temple had 1,444 columns each a unique carving. The outside domes had an almost Art Deco look and could easily have been the inspiration for the Chrysler Building in New York. The Jains are a very small but powerful group, often the owners of big business. They have a strictly no harm policy towards living things. They won't for example celebrate Diwali using the explosive crackers for fear of killing micro-organisms, and wear face cloths when out to avoid accidentally swallowing insects.
Our own accommodations have been royal at times too and we have stayed in palaces and forts of magical splendor. In Agra Jean had upgraded us to the royal suite much to the amusement of our co-travellers and we were addressed as your royal highnesses for days. Our room with marble screens to rival Fatehpur Sikri had its own roof top terrace and views over the city. The rooms have been, by and large, extremely good. Even so we grumble that there are no hair dryers, sink plugs or more than three hangers in the wardrobe and a chest of drawers is an impossible dream. All the places we stay have immense charm either by virtue of their heritage, modern design, facilities or location. Many hotels are owned by the royal families, some still have residual family living in a private wing.
We stayed for a night deep in the desert and took a camel ride. We had a beautiful tent hung with hand-blocked linings and a huge bathroom with running if cool water. With about 25 other guests we ate our starters in a semicircle in front a low stage while musicians and dancers entertained us. Later following a gentle path up a dune lit with dozens of kerosene lamps we dined under canvas.
One night we left the group to have dinner at a step well. (Another of Jean's welcome upgrades) These deep, geometric rectangular wells have stone steps and terraces and look like a kind of inverted ziggurat or an Aztec pyramid. We were carried by two bullocks pulling a cart over the lumpy track followed all the way by a charming lady cow clearly hoping for a little 2 on 1 action. The well was completely lined with clay pot lamps and with six other diners we sat on sofas to eat a delicious thali. Below our eye line a lone singer with a strong melodious voice and a simple string instrument sang, we assumed, Hindi folk songs. Like the desert night it was deeply moving and a very different aspect of India.
Jean has turned native and is eating Indian food three times a day. Tony too has had a fruit epiphany and following a purchase of tiny but scrumptious bananas is eating two or three a day, a fruit that normally does not feature. With perhaps one or two exceptions the food has been very, very good. At the hotel ITC Mughal in Agra we had a delicious meal one night but the following, after the hotel had called our guide to steer us towards a buffet it was a disaster. We followed a group of French diners and had what was essentially their leftovers. The following morning Colin (he of the smart arse group) led the charge on the hotel management and we paid a mere fraction. Though later we realized we were arguing over a few pounds, the number of rupees making it seem a big deal, though the principle was sound. And of course it's a veggie heaven with vegetable dishes outnumbering the meat ones three to one.
We spent Diwali just outside Jaiselmer, staying in an a desert hotel with uncannily verdant grounds. All evening very modest fireworks were seen in the distance. A slightly grander display was hosted by the hotel but we had expected the festival to be much more exuberantly celebrated, but for us it was very much business as usual. Bar the odd meagre string of lights I don't think we'd have realised there was a festival. Later we learned that the big cities would have been very different.
We have seen a fair chunk of Rajastan from large cities to villages and from deserts to the cooler hills. Some cities were much better built and obviously wealthier especially those where the Jain population live.
The mildly aggressive and persistent sellers and hustlers of the large cities was gone once we stayed in the desert or hill towns. A simply no or three sufficed and no one followed us for a hundred yards with increasing pleas and decreasing prices.
Our eyes are constantly filled with many both extraordinary or beautifully ordinary things. In New Delhi in one area a huge group of men waited around to be hired for the day, or not. Sometimes the scrubby drab farmlands were brightened by sudden groups of sari clad women working together. A mess of power cables hanging chaotically from disparate poles and supports might have been an art installation.
We were surprised to see so many India tourists and our guide told us that this is a relatively new thing and bringing much benefit as the indigenous population spent rather than saved its money. India is clearly changing and doing so very fast. It was very evident that the Indian tourists, nearly always in western style clothes were showing signs of western style expanding waistlines.
Amar told us an Indian joke that embraces much, we imagine of the nations hopes and aspirations:
Hell is an American wife, Indian money and Chinese food Heaven is an Indian wife, American money and Italian food
We have had our final group meal and said our sad or glad farewells. Tomorrow we leave for Mumbai and soon after Cochin as we make our way south towards Kerala.
Jaipur The 'Pink City'
The Mirrored Palace at Jaipur
A tangle of power cables
Our desert tent
Our camel and his friend
Sunrise in our desert retreat
Hotel in Narlai
Astounding step well
Incredible Jain temple at Ranakpur
Unique columns in Jain temple
Road safety Indian style
Beautiful colours everywhere
Hill top hotel in Udaipur
Shrine to Royal Enfield
Elephant rides up to the Amber Fort