Sunday 6th December
Agra to Jaipur
Sunrise was a subtle event today. The misty grey sky just became pale pink and then light. We went for a run around the hotel grounds - mist (actually a sulphurous smog...) hanging over the dew-covered grass and over the fish ponds, vegetable gardens and swimming pool. From beyond our hotel walls and gardens we could hear the haunting call to prayer echoing from the city mosques. The noise of traffic and car horns gradually increased and we could hear the sound of Asian music blaring from the car radios in the vehicles passing nearby. Once the mist had dispersed, the swimming pool once again made a good vantage point from where we could view the early morning world. In light of the demure dress code there was an art to slipping quickly in and out of the pool unnoticed, and this was particularly challenging due to the location of the pool in the centre of the main courtyard, surrounded on four sides by restaurant, bar, reception and garden area. Once in the pool however we could feel invisible and it made a good vantage point from where to observe the early morning comings and goings of the hotel. Despite the early hour the staff were out sweeping, raking, wiping, mopping and straightening the already spotless public areas. We only had to glance their way or pass nearby to elicit a beaming smile, a bow and a 'good morning sir ma'am'. Tour guides were arriving in reception to meet their parties, English tourists in full safari outfits spoke loudly and slowly to the waiting staff in the restaurant, oriental tourists photographed each other in odd poses against bizarre backdrops. French tourists read English newspapers, dressed in chic, newly purchased shalwar kameez outfits looking enviably just the part. Indian tourists tucked into bizarre looking platefuls of spicy Indian food for breakfast whilst their children rampaged unchecked around the dining room.
A stunning malachite green kingfisher appeared on top of an earthenware lamp next to the pool, dived into the clear blue water for what it presumably thought was a fish, and returned to its perch disappointed!
We showered, packed, breakfasted and hopped into our waiting car at 9 o'clock as planned. Our driver was in fine form today. He chatted merrily about his philosophy for driving in India. "Good brakes, good horn and good luck!"
He indicates his Ganesh idol as his token of luck for our journey.
I had assumed he was from Delhi, and had learnt his driving skills there, but no. He comes from a small village in the Himalayas, where his family lives. He comes to Delhi and Agra to work every day for six months, and only returns home twice a year via a 15 hour bus ride. He lives in drivers' guest houses wherever he is driving.
Today's first stop was Fatepur Sikri - The Abandoned City. This city was built by Akbar the Great - the Murgal emperor with three wives from three different religions. Despite having three wives, he had no children until arriving in Fatepur when his Hindu wife became pregnant. Taking this as a good omen he built a city and houses for each of his wives according to their beliefs and preferences. The Hindu had first choice and chose the dome and balcony, the Muslim chose water pots and lotus flower carvings and the Christian lady had the remaining, smallest house. To avoid jealousy between the wives, each month he spent one week with each wife and the fourth week with his 300 concubines!
Although impressive the city was abandoned after 12 years as there was no freshwater. The local water was salty. When the city was built he had known this and had built 52 huge tanks to collect rainwater. That worked well in the rainy season but soon became impractical when, for example, you consider that one elephant needs 200 litres of fresh water a day. He kept many elephants! The people moved to Agra Fort and the city was abandoned.
The whole city was built from red sandstone and there was a lot of beautiful carving, filigree work and decorative paint. The vegetable dyes have faded over the centuries but could still be seen in places.
Our guide was a bit of a wide boy and full of little asides to complement the history lesson. His theories about concubine contraceptive practices were very descriptive and colourful and not to be repeated here!! He was very keen on his photography and was endlessly entertained by taking our cameras and creating a variety of corny posed shots 'King and Hindu wife' etc.... We complied and posed like puppets.
At one corner of the city was a mosque and next to this the priest's house where we were invited to make a donation to the poor. This involved buying a piece of gaudy silk fabric and some string and flowers from one of the many vendors. We would then enter the priests house, place a small plastic basket on our heads and place our offering along with some cash on a small platform. Having done this we could then lace and tie our string to a section of the filigree inside the house and make a wish. The donations would be distributed to the poor each evening by the priest and his wife.
This was just too much like hocus pocus for us and we couldn't imagine that the poor people of Agra really benefitted that much from all those flowers and bits of silk.
Back outside we were continually pestered by hawkers trying to sell us 'best price' necklaces and bangles, and by Indian people wanting to take our photograph. Not just one quick snap but dozens, posing within their family groups. We said yes once and heartily regretted it as we were then deluged with requests and people tugging at our elbows. This had been happening throughout the trip but particularly so here, probably because there were very few western tourists compared to at the bigger monuments.
We visited the ministerial building where the King held parliament. We saw the ring where an elephant was kept handy by - ready to trample to death any miscreants!
After leaving the main city we visited a filigree workshop, a local craftsman producing some very delicate and lovely pieces from the local red sandstone.
Back in the car we set off for our five hour drive to Jaipur.
We stopped after a couple of hours for a break, managed to resist the offered curry and stuck with cold beer and a bag of cashews. After a few days of Indian cuisine there has been an alarming tightening of waistbands! After a long drive we finally entered the outskirts of Jaipur. It's a huge city with a population of around 6 million people. We arrived uneventfully at the Samode Haveli Hotel in Old Jaipur. We sat in the lovely front courtyard to check in and out local host gave us some local information and then we moved in and unpacked. The hotel is 200 years old and is a rambling collection of small courtyards, archways and rooms opening off the courtyards, separated by screens and drapes. Our room on the second floor had its floor covered in patterned tiles, three archways and columns between the bedroom and living area,and a second external door to a small courtyard / balcony overlooking the restaurant and surrounding hills. We unpacked and had a cup of chai latte outside on our courtyard sofa. Overhead dozens of brightly coloured tissue paper kites swooped and twirled, making a lovely rustling noise as they danced. The sounds of Jaipur were then added to by the call to prayer echoing eerily from all the nearby mosques.
The gym was in an unusual position over the bar by the pool in a sort of glass room on a balcony. It had great views, a ceiling fan and air conditioning and kept us happily entertained for half an hour or so, before a refreshing evening swim and relaxing jacuzzi - another beautiful outdoor pool in the gardens next to the bar.
Dinner was served outdoors on the veranda, and was excellent curry as would be expected. The menu differed from Delhi and Agra as there was mainly mutton and vegetable curry and a large choice of different types of bread.
After supper we had a chance to have a good chat with Elmgrove, Mike and Chris on Facetime and made a few plans for Christmas (only 11 more sleeps left before we head back home and just 19 more sleeps until the Big Day!)