Followers

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Day 162: Udaipur (09/07/2011)

“$2,000 per night, sir” said the man behind the reception desk.

“I’ve got $16 and some Rupees but I can give you my watch” I replied, hopefully.

“Sadly not sir. We accept Rupees, Dollars, Sterling and most major credit cards. Unfortunately we do not have facilities to receive wrist watches as a means of payment. It’s the bank sir. Regrettably, they can be most particular about this sort of thing” the clerk apologised.

“But it’s real Timex. Look at the quality of the workmanship” I tried one more time.

He shook his head and began shuffling some papers on the desk.

I turned my head slightly and cocked an eyebrow at the fellow. “Did I mention that I’m Roger Moore’s son? Look at my passport - my middle name is Roger too.” He paused for a moment.

Sensing victory, I added wryly “This watch is magnetic you know”.

He stopped shuffling his papers and looked at me. “That was a long time ago. We’ve all moved on. Rupees, Dollars, Sterling and most major credit cards, sir.”

And so it was that we came to stay with Rezwan at the $7 per night Mewargarh Palace and not the Lake Palace Hotel, famed for its cherished award for 1977 best actor in Octopussy.

Time was when a visit to Udaipur would include the statutory claims by everyone from the Palace guides to the ice cream sales man that they had a part in the Bond movie. Old timers still gather to watch the guff-meister jolly his way through this piece of celluloid tomfoollery but time has moved on and that generation is retired. Today’s wily tellers of tall tales are too young even to remember Udaipur’s Golden Bondage, preferring instead to talk up the reign of the Mewar Maharajas who were Udaipur’s own Bond villains from 754AD to the abdication of the incumbent in 2005; the longest unbroken dynasty in the history of humanity.

Even Roger didn’t cling on for that long.

Day 162: Clare's Post (09/07/2011)

It woz nice.

There woz a big lake and a palace thingy.

We rode ponies.

It woz fun but a bit scary.

The end.

Day 161: Chittor (08/07/2011)

When you are travelling, there are days when you rush frantically from place to place trying to see everything in the limited time allotted.

And then there are the really busy days.

A good proportion of people travelling from Pushkar go on to Udaipur which involves a three hour stop over at the train station in Ajmer. What can you do in three hours? Have a long lunch? Find an ATM? Catch up on some reading?

Or hop in a tuk-tuk, drive 15km from town, climb 500m and then spend the afternoon in a mad whirlwind of triumph and disaster, heroism and tragedy whilst travelling 14km around the walls and features of the largest fort ever constructed.

Chittorghar – for those of you who have been paying attention to previous fort related posts, meaning ‘Chittor at the top of the mountain’ – is a little off the beaten track but so worth a visit that Ajmer should market itself as close to the now diminutive hamlet of Chittor rather than the other way around.

Maresh wound the tuk-tuk through the series of hair-pin bends that snake up the mountain side, under the arches of one immense gate after another. Just the aspect of the approach through any number of concentric rings of defensive walls is an awesome sight. What lies within is so superb as to be really quite unbelievable.

What is better though, is the tale of Chittor that evokes the very best and worst of chivalry and honour. Its history is littered with great sieges and valiant survival, against all odds. The fort was defended to the last by successive leaders who, with all credit to their men, held out against vastly superior forces and when defeat was inevitable, rode out in full ceremonial dress to attack the besiegers in the certain knowledge that they would die but die honourably.

Such is the size of the fort that on one occasion, 36,000 women committed mass suicide rather than fall into the hands of the attackers when the city was about to fall and the men had ridden out to certain death. Within its walls it encloses huge forested areas where tigers and wild boar were hunted. It has 86 step wells, each probably holding upwards of 100,000 litres of drinking water. The population within the walls was estimated to have been 250,000. The walls are 50m high in places. The gates are beyond sensible counting.

In 1500, the most powerful Mughal Emperor, Akbar is said to have taken a romantic interest in Padmini, a beautiful princess of the ruling Chittor dynasty. Even with his own enormous army and those of his two allies, the siege was long and costly. Eventually Akbar breached Chittor’s defences and entered the fort. Such was the tenacity of the defenders that he held it for only two days before it was recaptured and Akbar was expelled.

What has survived the ravages of warfare is a sublime collection of temples, palaces and monuments that make Chittor unique in both scale and content.

We arrived as the skies were clouding over and within 20 minutes the monsoon unleashed its most ferocious onslaught to date and we were forced to hide in the remains of the ruined royal temple. In the darkness of one room we stood and watched as the rain lashed down. Behind us a previously invisible cow sighed at the intrusion and so we left her to her privacy and dashed across a rain drenched courtyard to join a motley group of gardeners and guides under an arched walkway, there being no tourists apart from us. Behind us the resident dogs congregated to watch the rain come down, some of them not old enough to have seen it before.

The ancient stone gutters did their work and hundreds of gallons of rain water gushed from outlets at regular intervals along the balustrades, before crashing onto the ancient paving stones below. Soaked monkeys reached down from the roofs into the horizontal fountains of water to drink or just to play or sat waiting for the weather to break so that the tourists would return to feeding them.

Time was always pressing us but we raced around the perimeter to see the ornate carved sandstone Jain temple miles from its nearest rival spectacle. We climbed one of the two ornately carved Victory towers, built in 1408 and consisting of 9 stories and 155 steps, mostly in semi-darkness and each one harassed by an unending line of savage and beautiful statues and reliefs depicting birth, life, sex and death. We paused at some stunning step wells, full of the usual emerald green water and descending gracefully to the water’s surface by a geometrically perfect line of 600 year old steps that could have been constructed yesterday.

At Padmini’s palace, the source of much of Chittor’s Troyesque troubles, we marvelled at her gardens and her isolated tower in the middle of a giant step well. All the while we wondered what she must have looked like in the flesh to enchant the most powerful man on the sub-continent into such a colossal and ultimately doomed adventure to possess her.

Reluctantly, we dragged ourselves away and returned with Maresh to the station to undertake the final leg of the journey to Udaipur.

Chittor was not just a pleasant diversion. It surpassed most of what we have seen in India.

Should more people see it?

Probably not, is the selfish answer.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Day 161: When Monkeys Go Bad (08/07/2011)

As the afternoon heat in Bundi subsided, Clare retired and I explored the back streets.

After the Bull Run in Pushkar, I was on the lookout and sure enough I was followed.

Every time I looked around, he expertly insinuated himself behind a lamp post or a copy of the Bundi Herald. He was adept at nipping between pot plants or into doorways. When I caught him in the open  he raised the collar of his trench coat and adjusted his dark glasses or looked skyward and whistled tunelessly while inspecting the guttering of a neighbouring property. But the net was closing.

Finding myself cornered in a back street cul-de-sac, I feared the worst.

Just as he revealed himself and started to pick up speed in my direction, the door of a Jain temple opened and the attendant was surprised but delighted by the forcefulness of my desire to be shown round. The door closed momentarily before the clonk of horn on wood and by the time the tour was over El Toro had lost interest and wandered off to intimidate some other strawberry blonde.

Before we left Bundi, I tuk-tuked across town in the darkness to see the 84 pillar mausoleum to the maharajas that Lonely Planet advised should best be seen when lit up at night. Foolishly, with hindsight, I stopped at the ATM on the way, and loaded up with rupees before continuing with the journey.

The roads got narrower and darker, the further we went. There was a left and a right and tuk-tuk was stopping to talk to some shady characters in an unlit, potholed side lane. Oh God! How could I have been so stupid? A year’s salary in my camera bag and a month’s wages in my pocket. This was not looking good. But off we motored with a cheery wave to the would-be assailants and my heart lifted.

The lights were off at the monument and I struggled to take a picture in the almost complete darkness. Then there was a rustling in the distance and out of the gloom appeared one, then two, then five figures. Silently they approached, eased over the wall and in a moment surrounded me while tuk-tuk stood a few yards back. I whispered a dry throated greeting and tightened my grip on the SLR, expecting the usual pleasantries before the request to part with it came. Oh God! How could I have been so stupid? Again!

And then they were gone without a hint of menace and I breathed a sigh of relief, extracting my fingernails one by one from the hard plastic cover of the camera as the rictus of fear subsided.

And then it happened. Out of the darkness something hit me on the back of the head. Dazed and confused I fell to one knee just as a second blow came down on my temple. I felt a warm trickle behind my ear and  whirled to face my attacker, but in the darkness I was blind. A third blow on the shoulder and I flailed wildly at the invisible assailant.

Tuk-tuk was under attack as well and his anguished cries lead me to the relative safety of the back seat. Blows continued to rain down on the canvas hood of the auto as tuk-tuk fired it up and screeched away in a pall of smoking rubber.

It transpired that the monkeys in the trees had been throwing poo at us.

Frankly, I would rather have been robbed.

Day 160: Bundi Step Wells (07/07/2011)

After visiting the Bundi City Palace we headed further up the mountainside to the fort that looms over the valley. It is, of course abandoned and is falling evermore into disrepair. There are few visitors here and we were alone in both the palace and the fort. I say alone, but there was the ever present troop of Macaques and Langours, occupying different corners of the complex but sharing a single source of drinking water.

The fort is a massively fortified and made even more impressive by the rocky outcrop on which parts of its walls are built. The citadel stands alone on the summit like a squat, upturned coffee cup. The palace within the fort has an elegant series of gates, fearsomely equipped with dozens of large spikes to dissuade attacking elephants from ramming them open. A Mimosa tree grows in the courtyard under which it is easy it imagine soldiers shading themselves in the midday heat.

Most impressive are the step wells. Immaculate squares, constructed with vertical sides and narrow stone steps running down each wall, they collect the monsoon torrents, the steps making the water accessible for drinking and bathing regardless of the depth. The water at the bottom – for most are empty with deeply cracked beds – can only be described as British Racing Green. Frogs multiply and somehow fish have found their way into them despite the elevation of over 1,200m. Monkeys sit on the steps enjoying the shade of the walls and the cooling waters. Their young frolic in the edges and adults use the steps as a springboard from which to leap the improbable distances to the branches that overhang the wells.

As with the Hall of Audience in the palace, this is no longer a human realm. A vast fortune could be spent to refurbish the fort and the crumbling palace and a magnificent hotel it would make. But it would probably detract from the eerie atmosphere of decay and fading majesty that the buildings project today, which paradoxically is both its strongest suit and the cause of its ultimate but none too imminent demise.

Before the end of the day we walked through the vibrant fruit market to the Nagar-Sagar or Queen’s Tank. A staggering 46m deep, it descends in perfect geometric order, ten stories below ground and looking down into it from behind the barriers induces more than a little internal tightening. Sadly it is a receptacle for rubbish or worse, as so many of the town’s numerous step wells are but it is no less awe inspiring for this disrespect.

The next day, after breakfast, a large white cow appeared at the door and stood in the opening for ten minutes. This, apparently, is not unusual for Bundi. Some chase them away but most reinforce the routine by feeding them in return for good karma. Old Daisy happily wrapped her blue tongue around half a loaf of bread before enthusiastically taking it from Clare’s slightly nervous hand. When her ruminations were over, Mukesh gently pushed her back into the street and she wandered off to complete her breakfast rounds at the other havelis in the street.

The motorbike milkmen made their rounds all day, decanting milk from the giant brass containers that are chained to their rear pannier and crying that indecipherable call common to newspaper sellers and rag and bone men the world over..

After breakfast I experienced the first symptoms of an overheating brain. I proved spectacularly incapable of persuading the taxi driver that we did want to go where we said we wanted to go and not where he wanted to take us. I should have walked away sooner- and I have a vague recollection of Clare tugging at my shirt sleeve at one point – but by this time the red mist had descended. The incessant blaring of the high pressure air-horns favoured by Rajasthani drivers was making my ears ring and ratcheted up my brain temperature by degrees until my eyes were hard boiled. Eventually Clare led me away. Somewhere between the madness overwhelming me and the lifeless body of Mr Taxi falling limply to the floor, I regained my composure sufficiently to take my medicine and submit voluntarily to the strait jacket.

Opting instead for a tuk-tuk, the delightful Raj ferried us first to Kipling’s out of town retreat where he wrote some of ‘Kim’ and the denouement of ‘The Jungle Book’, inspired by the tigers that roamed the hills in those days.

After this we peeked over the wall at the magnificent cupola laden Sarg Bagh mausoleums where the ashes of twelve of Bundi’s maharajas are interred.We couldn't get in because the gate was locked. Raj explained that government officers employed to administer monuments have a two tier hierarchy all of their own. City monuments pay 135 rupees per day. In the country it is a measly 55 rupees.

Not enough, apparently, to get the key holder out of bed today.

Day 159: Premier Inn (06/07/2011)

Another Brahmin town in Rajasthan, Bundi, like Pushkar, is equally picturesque but more of a lake of blue rather than a pond.

Between 1870 and 1930 the family Mukesh held the reins of power in this once important place, providing four prime ministers to the court of the Maharaja, controlling, if not the power of the state, then certainly its day to day exercise.

Haveli Braj Bujanjhee was the home of those premiers and was built in the 1750’s in a strangely Jacobean style with roughly hewn stone arches and a pleasant courtyard. The walls are festooned with memorabilia from the family’s illustrious history, with intimate portraits of the ruling Maharajas at play, intermingling with business-like formals of the family forebears. We stayed for three nights and the grandson of the last prime minister hosted us impeccably but with a diffidence that suggests the family has lost the cut throat skills required to weather palace intrigue.

Built in a valley, Bundi is a fairy-tale town where the dawn and dusk are heralded by the lilac hues of the blue buildings. The mountain air wraps the whole scene in a haze that is thankfully as a result of a heat inversion rather than pollution. But not enough modernity has seeped passed the topographical barriers to obscure the way things were. Throw up a few canvas awnings and banish the internal combustion engine and Bundi would more than resemble the monochrome pictures of its late 19th century forebear hanging on the walls of the PM’s vestibule.

Rising above the east of the town is the imposing face of the City Palace. Implacable, even after all these years, the royal living quarters perch ten stories above the town atop a monolithic slab of sandstone. Behind this, the palace cascades down the steep hillside in a riot of cupolas, pavilions and balconies. In the shadow of the retreat, the original houses are constructed like offcuts from the main, exhibiting their own exquisite detail of elaborate palisades, windows and balustrades. The prime minister’s house is the closest to the wall, hinting at its power by mere proximity to the throne.

Inside the palace which has been abandoned by the royal family and leased to a private company, the bare grandeur of 500 years of opulence remains. The Elephant Gate arches majestically under the tusks of two enormous, carved pachyderms. But the decay is symbolised by the giant bee hive, at least 5 feet long, that hangs menacingly from the underside of the arch. The man on the gate says that they swarm occasionally at which time he has to retreat to a safe distance. From time to time, someone comes to harvest the honey but otherwise the bees are left to their own devices.

Inside the courtyard is neat but worn. Grass grows through the brick flooring and unsurprisingly the fountain no longer works. In the upper balconies is the Hall of Audience is the Maharaja’s Marble seat. It was a gift from Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal and illustrates the incestuous nature of the relationships and alliances that bound the Raj together in the face of successive invaders, both foreign and domestic. A lone macaque sat on the throne gazing down into the courtyard below. As I approached he leapt at me and I retreated hastily.

This was his territory and visitors were not welcome.

To the right of the Elephant Gate lay a mysterious doorway from which heavily turbaned men bustled in and out. Venturing through it, I was hit by the ammonia stench of bat guano. The corridor widened into a hallway with rooms to the right and left. The bats had taken up residence on the right. To the left was the Maharaja’s records store. Stretching back over 600 years were the bundled sheaves of papers recording taxes, property ownership, administration of civil and criminal justice and countless other aspects of Bundi’s day to day fief.

The men I had seen were town’s folk seeking details of a boundary from the 1930’s. A man on a precarious homemade ladder was dropping great tomes of papers from the bowing shelves. They struck the stone floor with a resounding thump, releasing clouds of dust into the shafts of light entering by the single window high on the far wall.

We inspected the papers together, which were perfectly written in close columns and tabulation. Sadly, the conditions were destroying them slowly and the paper was fragile and did not take kindly to its rough treatment. One day, enterprising anthropologists will index and collate this gold mine of information.

Until then the bats would probably look after them better than the records clerk.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Day 158: Bull Run (05/07/2011)

We rose early to visit Sivistri’s temple at the top of the peak on the outskirts of town.

Braving families of sleepy wild boar that roam the streets and sewers, the barely awake dogs and the fearsome chipmunks that populate every turn, we climbed and climbed in the air that was cool at 5am but Gas Mark five by 7am. The temple was lack lustre and the story of its consecration probably explains why. Synth heavy tunes more in keeping with Ministry of Sound’s CafĂ© Del Mar Volume III fired up as we were leaving but not until after the furious five minute beating of Sivistri’s drum had echoed from the hill top.

We stopped for a ‘magic pinch’ at the bottom. Not, as you might at first think, a nipple tweak from a passing shaman, but a cup of chai tea made from a masala or mixture of a dozen different herbs and spices, concocted for us by Sandeep over his patented blow torch. The story of Brahma’s connection with Pushkar (see Day 156) is thanks to Sandeep who entertained us for over an hour and two glasses of chai while our pulses returned to respectable double digits and our shirts dried in the now blazing morning sun.

Sivistri’s temple shares a characteristic with most of Rajasthan’s temples, palaces and forts. Low parapets on every viewing platform, hall of audience and Imperial pagoda must have spelled doom for many an inattentive tourist but also for the victims of countless jealous wives and scheming siblings. Presumably, despite the long and honourable tradition of carpet making in these regions, the Maharajas opted to encase everything in gleaming marble rather than more comfortable woven fabrics; not for any aesthetic reason but because it was just easier to mop up the blood.

Local history is replete with tales of rivals for succession, stabbing, strangling and poisoning each other. Perhaps the choice of blood red sand stone for many of the buildings around here was just a convenient ploy to disguise the crimes that could later be attributed to misfortune.

Later in the day as we meandered further into the bazaar, the much anticipated but rarely seen event occurred. Cows and bulls wander freely in their hundreds in Pushkar as elsewhere. Universally docile, the most one can expect to see is the occasional locking of horns between the adolescents. Not so today.

Having inconveniently left my bull fighting costume at base camp, I was entirely unprepared to be chased down the street, not once but twice, by the same middle aged malcontent, preceded by sixteen inches of pointy horns. The first time, I didn’t see him coming until his bulk loomed into my peripheral vision and I instinctively pushed Clare into his path and nipped behind a lamp post. Entirely disinterested in her fleshy parts, he followed me round in an elegant figure of eight before a quick thinking local whacked him on the nose with a stick – entirely as an expression of divine reverence, of course – and he relented.

Fore-warned being for-armed, I kept a close eye on him. Sure enough his inexplicable vendetta was not sated and as soon as I ventured out from behind the protective enclosure of the lamp post and a pair of wheeled stalls, he was rampaging after me down the street. What was clearly a case of mistaken identity, escalated to a dash for survival as he gathered momentum and I scratched around for something to express my divine reverence with.

Luck being the reward for a prepared mind, I spied a shop selling Pushkar’s traditional china-ware. Relieving myself of my red check shirt and flinging into the doorway, El Toro lumbered after it and the rest, as they say, is entirely made up.

I thanked the 33 billion gods Hindu gods individually on the spot before re-joining Clare, once her fit of giggles had passed and the crowds that gathered to watch the spectacle had dispersed. Only a short way up the road, we were confronted with an even larger crowd coming toward us. At the head of it was Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood legend and only a new pair of sunglasses away from the divine himself. Here to take the waters, he had witnessed the bull debacle and, over chai, asked me to star alongside him in his next production. Demurring that my Hindi was a little rusty, I declined, much to his disappointment and we parted friends.

Amitabh made a significant donation to the Brahmin temple as is customary but today of all days, perhaps his largesse was a little less appreciated. The temple officials were digging up the floor as he pushed the thick wad into the collection box, searching for hidden treasure.

The reason is that today’s papers reported the discovery of twenty previously forgotten subteranean chambers in a Keralan temple in South India. Six had so far been opened and inventoried, revealing a horde of gold and jewels hidden from the rapacious grasp of the East India Company, three hundred years ago.

The value so far, I hear you ask?

A cool $22 billion and counting.

Day 157: Climbing Everest (04/07/2011)

The train from Jaipur to Ajmer was uneventful. To make up for this though, we had a white knuckle ride from Ajmer to Pushkar, over the mountains and through a rock strewn pass. As we descended, pink Bougainvillea lined the road side and monkeys sat in the shade to escape the midday sun.

The taxi eventually became wedged between two buildings and is probably still there, disappearing slowly under a deepening pile of donk droppings.

The driver refused to admit defeat as the streets of Pushkar narrowed to the point that the marginally obese had to think twice about their route. We walked the last half mile up to the snow-capped peaks of an increasingly steep incline where we found our guest house, fittingly named Everest.

I am not normally one to boast about my mountaineering exploits but strictly speaking, on this occassion it is entirely true that we reached the summit of Everest without oxygen, gasping for breath in the Pushkar Death Zone.

“You are at home” was the mantra of Bunty and his father, an entrepreneur, hotelier and teacher. True to their word, they were extremely hospitable, even to the point that our room was fitted with buttons to activate the ‘Red Light’ and the ‘Disco Light’. At least that is what the switches said but I never had the courage to flick them for fear of offending our clearly devout Brahmin hosts with acts of lewdness that would inevitably follow.

Pushkar is a Brahmin town of 10,000, built around a sacred lake. Brahmin devotees paint their houses blue and the view from a distance is like an explosion in a powder blue paint factory. At sunset the blues merge with the pinks to create a sea of lilac, accentuated by the dusk of purples.

We wandered the bazaar. As usual the streets were thronged with cows and calves. Turbans the colours of high-lighter pens crowded the chai stalls and the wearers engaged in animated chatter between the hoots of scooters and the barking dogs. Pushkar has, until now held the line against cars and particularly, aggressive auto-rickshaws that make life for the two or four legged pedestrian a daily lottery.

Pappu, a peripatetic sitar player held an impromptu street performance for us (and for 50 rupees) and spent the rest of our time there, seeking an opportunity to reprise his role.

We circled the sacred lake, walking between ghats which are small steps descending to the water, used for ritual bathing - and washing if the temple staff are turning a blind eye. The year before last, the lake dried out completely after three years of failed rains and children played cricket on the lake bed. What the religious significance of this is taken to be is not clear as the lake was summoned by the staff of Brahma, the creator of the world in the Hindu faith, and the patron of the town.

Street cooking is everywhere. Chappati and dosa cook on hotplates. Every imaginable batter based consumable bubbles away in giant woks, inherited from the time of the Maharajas and blackened after two hundred years over the same flame.

As motor vehicles are notably absent, donkeys take up the slack and Pushkar favours to smallest breed you will ever see. The pygmy donks totter about the streets in packs of five or six, struggling under the weight of a shopping bag or two of gravel, tomatoes or whatever the cargo of the day is.

At the end of our explorations we retired back to the top of Everest.

Thankfully there was no need for mittens on this ascent.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Day 156: Never Marry A Cow (03/07/2011)

Hindu legend relates that shortly after the formation of the earth, The Creator (Brahma), The Sustainer (Vishnu) and The Destroyer (Shiva) met for lunch at critically acclaimed bistro on the eastern fringes of the Ocean of Milk. Brahma and Shiva complained, over a delicious starter of vegetable tart, that since creation, there had been little for them to do and they were a bit bored, while Vishnu was busy with the labours of sustaining creation.
 
But Brahma had a another gripe. Vishnu and Shiva had bagged fantastic digs with great mountain top views of creation while Brahma had a bad back because he had been sleeping on Lakshmi’s couch for a hundred thousand years.

As the courgette lattice arrived, Brahma said he wanted a great pad too as all his possessions were still in storage since the turmoil of creation and he was sure that the Cosmos had lost his holiday photos from the boy’s weekend in Nirvana.

The main course was great but Shiva thought it needed a bit more seasoning.

“That’s Shiva. Always so down on things” said Vishnu. “But if Brahma wants a pad, he should have one”. They all agreed that there was plenty of space, despite all the temples that Shiva and Vishnu’s adherents had built already.

Dessert was a mouth-watering, light chocolate soufflé served with ballettes of clotted vanilla creme-anglais and as they downed spoons and sipped coffee, they were all pleased that it had been a productive meeting. Vishnu was happy with his lot. Shiva got the green light for the occasional opening of his third eye, just to let off some steam. Brahma and Vishnu agreed that the odd earthquake and eruption was a small price to pay if it kept Shiva happy. Brahma left satisfied too, having already drawn up the plans for his new loft style apartment.

Time passed and then Shiva checked his diary. Could it really be that long since the three had last caught up over lunch?

He cast a message bearing lotus petal into the churning Ocean of Milk and before long they were dining in a shady little courtyard eatery that Ganesh had raved about. Vishnu and Shiva were delighted with things since their last meeting but Brahma had a face like thunder .

At first he wouldn’t be drawn but Vishnu persevered. What was the problem that the Lord of Creation couldn’t handle? It all came out over a pleasant mezze followed by aubergine casserole and pears in a red wine jus.

“Women!” growled Brahma.

He related how he had planned a trip to the world of man to commune with his devotees regarding their temple building plans. His wife, Sivistri was getting ready to go but they were going to be late. Brahma had nipped ahead and Sivistri promised she would not be far behind.

But Khali, the old trouble maker, had put a fly in the ointment when Brahma was gone. Whispering in Sivistri’s ear, he had persuaded her that she shouldn’t have to run to the beck and call of Brahma’s devotees.

“Take your time” he said reassuringly. “Brahma will wait for you”. And, persuaded by his wily words, she sat down for some more henna tattoos and to think again about her outfit as she was sure that the iridescent cloud mantle she had chosen made her bum look big.

“Eons passed. Literally” said Brahma. “I just started to get impatient. It didn’t even take me that long to create the world. After all, what was keeping her? How could it take one person so long to get dressed and get out of the house?” Vishnu and Shiva both knew that Brahma had never really forgiven Sivistri for making him late for the big pow-wow at Garuda’s place.

“And then this pretty girl comes along and she’s making eyes at me and we get chatting” continued Brahma. “One thing led to another and it just kind of happened” his voice trailing off into silence.

“And?” prompted Vishnu.

“And we got married” sighed Brahma, putting his head in his hands and pushing back his divine hair. Vishnu patted him gently on the shoulder. This wasn’t so difficult after all.

“That’s not so bad” he said in a low voice. “We all have more than one wife. So what’s the problem?”

Brahma seemed to have shrunk to half his former size and he paused long enough for Vishnu to realise that there was more.

“I turned her into a cow” Brahma whispered. “And then Sivistri turns up and it all kicks off - lightning, fireballs, the works”.

Shiva and Vishnu sat in silence. This was bad; very bad indeed.

“And to make matters worse” added Brahma in an exasperated tone, “Sivistri goes off in a huff and puts the kybosh on my temple plans. She’s limited me to one! You guys have thousands and I get one! I’m the Lord of All Creation and I get one temple. How can I see to All Creation with one temple? It can’t be done”.

Shiva looked at Vishnu and shrugged imperceptibly; neither wanted to interfere. They knew Sivistri and they were steering well clear. Brahma had to sort this one out himself.

“I’ve got an idea” said Shiva after a few moments. “If you can only have one temple, make it big and put in somewhere pretty”.

“Is that the best you can come up with?” barked Brahma.

“I destroy things. I don’t do marriage guidance!” Shiva said sulkily. “Ask Vishnu”.

Brahma turned to The Sustainer who was silent for some time.

“If you can’t build temples then maybe you could get your followers to do something different” suggested Vishnu. He paused and thought for a moment. “Krishna has a good thing going with that blue thing he does and he looks good with a flute” he added. “Get your lot to paint their houses blue and bang a bell or something at dawn and dusk. That’ll be far better than a load of temples and it’ll free them up to devote more time to you rather than brick laying and plastering. Plus, if they worship at home, it takes the pressure off you. No crowds to please and none of these prophets raising expectations. I had some consultants in from Babylon a while back and they suggested outsourcing the whole thing – miracles, sacrifices, personal appearances – the lot. Sivistri can’t stop you doing that.

Brahma was the winner and as he realised it, his features lifted. Whole towns of blue houses, all in worship of me he thought. “Great plan Vish!” he said brightly.

And lo, Brahma’s gaze fell on Pushkar, a tiny mountain town in Rajasthan. Striking the ground with his staff, water welled up and a holy lake was formed. Here he directed his flock to erect the only true Brahmin temple in the world, with a bathing ghat leading to the sacred waters, for ritual cleansing. His followers duly painted their houses an attractive shade of powder blue and forsaking alcohol, meat and cigarettes, banished Sivistri to a mountain top temple on the outskirts of the town. There, her few adherents have to struggle up 700 steps to make their offering to her.

The other winner is the cow which remains sacred to Hindus.

And the lesson we can learn from this unfortunate episode?

Never marry a cow.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Day 155: The Amber Fort (02/07/2011)

Today was all about the Amber Fort.

An 11km tuk-tuk ride out of Jaipur, the fort sits imposingly above the town of the same name. The defences are high and bristle with crenellations and the gate is still impressively stout. If you did not know better, you would think that the fort was named after the attractive honey colour of the walls and towers, but not so.

Outer walls snake along the hill top ridges, enclosing the fort in a valley that can only be entered at one end or the other. Amber town sits at one end of the gorge, notably, outside the fort gates. When the fort was built in 1592 for the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, Amber was a small settlement a day’s journey from Jaipur. Now it has spread to a moderate size but from the battlements it still glows Jaipur pink and Brahmin blue in the morning sun and the modern buildings are lost in the picturesque haze that hangs over the far end of the valley.

Until the 1980’s the 300 year old tradition of slaughtering a goat daily at the fort continued. The reason is lost in the mists of time.

Above it is the Jaigarh fort (Jai being the builder and Garh meaning ‘the top of the hill/mountain’, the latter being a permanent feature when discussing the names of Rajasthan fort locations). It has the distinction of being one of the few forts that was never taken; an impressive fact bearing in mind the seemingly never-ending series of wars that produced the need for the forts in the first place. Lonely Planet, perhaps patronisingly in light of its pedigree, calls it ‘whimsically-hatted’ when referring to its towers. It still houses the largest wheeled cannon ever made. If the apocalypse comes, this is the type of place you want to be stock piling your tins and bullets.

As you stand, looking down on the giant water tank that fills with mountain run-off during the monsoon, you momentarily catch a glance of the enormous war machine, unchanged from the days of anger. So well preserved is it that it doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to hear the sound of clashing steel and the cries of the wounded or smell the jasmine that once perfumed the sensuously named Hall of Pleasure.

Back in Jaipur, we were drawn irresistibly back to Ganesh. The experience was as good as we remembered. A cricket match in the dusty lot beneath the restaurant entertained us as we ate. A powerful hay-maker propelled the ball over the wall and into the remains of our half eaten special. Ganesh was reluctant to give the ball back but all was salvaged and the game continued as the chef joined us to smoke hash and eat pickled chillies in his break from the kitchen.

Perhaps the euphoria as we paid the bill wasn’t the final cover drive that sealed the match.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Day 154: Jaipur (01/07/2011)

Somebody once observed that you cannot defy the laws of physics.

So the simple equation of not much sleep and a soporific train compartment rocking gently to and fro soon induced Clare to nod off. Agra receded into the distance and the pink city of Jaipur was still three hours hence. Time enough for her momentary doze to evolve into a full blown case of dribbly-head-wobbling as she dipped and reared like a slow motion head-banger.

Catching the first available auto-rickshaw from the station to Viniyak Guest House, we were greeted by Razwen, a pleasant and helpful soul in a sea of tourist traps. The painters were in and the hallways had the smell of school after the long summer break; disinfectant and white spirit.

After a late breakfast we took a circuitous route to the City Palace. Dancing lessons were underway in the central courtyard to the accompaniment of a squeezebox that filled the space with a haunting reprise that echoed off the walls. You can see too many palaces and after a while the shine wears off them a bit. Lovely gates, ornate plasterwork and fascinating stories are all well and good, but opulence must have been as tedious for the Maharajas as it can be for the tourists who see too much of it. The highlight is the 500kg of silver beaten into two giant amphorae to ship Ganges water to London with Maharaja Madho Singh for the coronation of George V. They are the largest silver items in the world and their aura is mesmerising.

More inspiring was the Hawa Mahal next door that is commonly known as the Palace of the Winds but more accurately described as a five storey harem. Maharaja Sawaj Pratap Singh erected it in 1799 to house his extensive collection of wives and significant others, out of sight of the great unwashed. Tiny doors open in the walls and the courtyards have filigreed lattices that enabled the occupants to look out onto the seething city scape without being observed themselves.

One door down is the Iswari Minar, a seven story minaret. You can climb to Jaipur’s highest point by way of a helter-skelter constructed in concrete as there are no steps. The city has 2.3 million people but as with much of Rajasthan, it is low rise and the Minar can be seen from some way off. Criminals were hung from the Minar’s roof as an example to others. Maharaja Iswari hung himself rather than face the approaching armies of the Maratha and 21 wives immolated themselves on his pyre, but these are happier days for the tower that is said to pierce heaven. The driver who collected us from the station earlier in the day was also the attendant at the Minar gate. We smiled the unspoken acknowledgement of a shared coincidence of outlandish proportions and went on our way for lunch.

Ganesh restaurant is next to Mr Big Shoe, left of Chandpol Gate, if you wanted to go. It is impossible to find but great if you do. Dinner is cooked on a charcoal bed. The temperature is controlled by an office fan that sits under the charcoals, driving them to white heat. Naan clings to the inside of the giant pottery tandoori and massalla, the secret ingredient is ladled into the mix in the final seconds of frying. Try the Ganesh Special with Honey Naan and Kasmiri rice. You will not be disappointed.

In the afternoon, we whizzed around the Tripolia Bazaar, fending off enthusiastic attempts to sell us everything from cutlery to air-conditioning units, before tuk-tuking home. Bollywood came to town as the driver became disenchanted with a life on the tarmac and opted for a high speed, adrenalin fuelled race down the pavements and colonnades of the quarter. Pedestrians dived for cover. Improbably positioned stalls selling fruit and veg exploded as he ripped the tuk-tuk through them. The obligatory pane of glass, carried by two hapless glaziers, appeared in the way, necessitating first the spectacular hand-brake turn and then the two wheel manoeuvre through the impossibly narrow back street.

Home in time for ginger tea, it only remained for us to observe that Scotty was talking through his arse.



Day 153: Agra Fatehpur Sikri (30/06/2011)

Fatehpur Sikri is 40km from Agra but in some ways it is much, much further away.

Tiring of the bustle of Agra, in 1571 Shah Akbar resolved to move his capital here, overlooking the small detail, that while he could transport his administration and erect an architectural masterpiece, even he could not bring the River Yuman with him. And so it was, after a relatively short span of years, that his gift to the people of the small village, was abandoned in 1585 when barely out of its wrapping paper. What remains, nearly 450 years after it was built is a perfectly preserved monument to the importance of water, or perhaps the lack of it.

Ironically, as soon as we climbed down from the Agra to Fatehpur Sikri bus, the heavens opened and the rain fell in stair-rods. The fort city’s aquatic problems were probably intermittent as the wells and water tanks were full as we trudged up the hillside through the winding medieval streets to the main gate.

Small children cried out the customary ‘allo’ from darkened doorways and having attracted a guide cum voyeur, we arrived at the steeply stepped platform that serves as the open forecourt to the gate. The rain hammered down on us, bouncing back up from the stone base. Luckily we had raincoats but all these managed to do was to redirect the torrents of water from our shirts to our trousers. The electricals thankfully stayed dry under the makeshift capes.

As we passed the final, ornate red sandstone water tank, we were suddenly thrust into the world of Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. Fierce, bearded men sheltered alongside colourful sari clad women. Ragged children skittered too and fro in the downpour. Dogs and goats found corners to curl up in as the population of the gate-side tented bazaar joined the few tourists under the arch for protection from the monsoon. A fierce wind blew through the opening and we all turned our backs to the wall of water that came with it. The ancient stone guttering did what is has been doing during the last 450 monsoons and great waterfalls fell from above, smashing into the flagstones and delighting the whooping and dancing children who frolicked under the stream.

And then, as quickly as it arrived, the rain was gone and the sun began the clear up operation with its usual zeal. The temperature rose from a chilly, windy 15C to a humid, stagnant 35C in sixty seconds, as the hot stonework repulsed the standing water and the stifling status quo re-asserted itself. Our guide held himself out as a student of the Quran at the Madrassa within the walls of the fort and offered to show us around for free in order to practise his English. Lonely Planet was wise to the gambit years ago, and sure enough it was not long before we were being shown jewellery and carved trinkets that appeared miraculously from doorways a few paces ahead of us. The sell was not hard but it was insistent and so with a straight face, I held our new friend to his word and reminded him of his assurances at the outset. To sweeten his departure, I made a small financial gesture and he while he didn’t leave, he withdrew to a suitable distance, sufficient to enable him to return from time to time, in order to test our resolve with further offers of goods and services.

To boot, we attracted an unshakeable platoon of youngsters in the early stages of honing their pitches. Unsophisticated openings and clumsy closes marked them as some way from the apex of Madrassa’s skilful art. Despite periodic sweeps, we could never rid ourselves of all of them. The presence of one signalled the opportunity for half a dozen more to join us. The rag-tag band of apprentices followed us, mostly in curious silence, but occasionally with half constructed versions of the questions that in later life will enable them to draw the unwary tourist, first into conversation and later into negotiations.

The fort encloses a white filigree marble mosque, a graveyard sunken into the flagstones and a school. A sheltered colonnade winds around the perimeter of the complex. The Shah built separate palaces for his Christian, Hindu and favourite Turkish Muslim wife. A large walled garden is now home to macaques and chipmunks. The water tanks both inside and outside the 30m walls, are filled with water the colour of emeralds and children jump into them from vertigo inducing heights and swim between them down tunnels that are submerged in the rainy season.

The bazaar that has grown around the main gate is a riot of colour and noise. Oil fizzes with pastries and poppadum’s. The red and yellow henna powders that Hindus mark their foreheads with, sit in elegant and improbably steep sided piles on brass trays. Scooters hurtle down the narrow crowded lanes, hooting at ear splitting proximity, rather than slowing at all. Cows meander, goats forage for discarded vegetables, pigs root in the open sewers, children run freely and business is transacted at a hundred different wheeled trollies that line the awning covered avenues.

The standard ploy is to advise of a last bus that doesn’t exist. That way there is money to be made in offering a taxi and accommodation. We fell for the scam, and with a South Korean couple whose concern was starting to crinkle their inscrutable features a little, we made for the intersection of the Agra to Jaipur road, out of town, where the buses had to pass.
A boy with two dancing monkeys on a leash tried in vain to entertain us as we failed at successive turns to hail a bus, then a taxi and finally an open backed van, already full of produce and producers. Finally, a ramshackle pantechnicon pulled over and, full to the brim with Agra commuters, the four of us squeezed onto the driver’s bed. The rain fell again and the roof let it in. The wily conductor, if that is indeed what he was, bargained hard and was reluctant to hand over the change after we had negotiated 30 rupees each for the journey.

Two police officers added to the crush around the driver’s seat at the first stop. Soon both they and the driver and conductor we pulling deeply on a potent hash cigarette that filled the driver’s compartment with and heady cloud of narcotic smoke. Cows ambled across busy junctions. The bus altered course to pass within a horn’s breadth but did not slow. A herd of horses panicked into the road, and obviously sensing their tendencies, the driver braked hard and swerved to avoid them. Camels and donkeys stood in silent submission to their hobbles and loads as the rain soaked them. Villages passed and countless hash induced over taking manoeuvres appeared to concern no one but us and soon we too acquiesced to the inevitability of it all.

We arrived back in Agra with the feeling that we had travelled much further than the 80km journey.

Day 152: Taj Mahal (29/06/2011)

It is hard to write about the Taj Mahal as so many people have done it before and everyone has a preconception.

‘A tear drop on the face of eternity’ said Rabindranath Tagore, India’s greatest poet.          

‘Everything that is pure’ wrote Kipling.

Mughal Emperor, Shah Jaman erected the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum to the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, only to be overthrown by his son Aurangzeb, who imprisoned him in the Agra Fort across the river Yuman, from where his only view was of the exquisite structure.

The story is well known and while it may be hard to feel too much sympathy for one potentate unseated by another, particularly as Jaman unseated his father, the sheer epic scale of the dazzling white marble edifice has to rank as the greatest building ever constructed, both in terms of its heart stopping beauty and its gigantic scale.

Rising at 5am, we walked the short distance from the Maya guesthouse, turned right at the roundabout and headed for the main gate. Yesterday we had tried the same thing in the afternoon but, confronted with a queue of 10,000 or more, patrolled by aggressive hawkers and battalions of pickpockets, we choked, turned and ran for the exit. It stands as amongst the best decisions we have made.

We stood for 30 agonizing seconds as the gate man put his things in order for the day, and then with his nod, slipped through the first and second red sandstone gates and to the third where we stood, mesmerized. We were the first people to cast their gaze on the Taj Mahal on the 356th anniversary of Shah Jaman’s death in the fort, six years after the mausoleum was completed.

The magnificent, white Taj is framed beautifully by the blood red arch of the main gate and from the symmetrical red sandstone archways of the identical mosques that flank it.

The multitudes soon followed, but for a precious few minutes, as the darkness lifted from blue to purple to the creamy light of the Rajasthan dawn, we were alone with the iconic marble lady. The view is ubiquitous, from a thousand Indian curry houses to every ‘500 things to see before you die’ book.

Even having seen its progenitor at Humayan’s tomb in Dehli, the Taj Mahal defies hyperbole. It is perfectly preserved and brilliantly white. Inlaid with flowers and extracts from the Quoran by a Florentine artisan, the distance shots that we all know, do not do it justice. The huge dome is a geometric wonder. The four minarets, designed to be slightly off vertical so that they would fall away from the dome in the event of an earthquake, stand like giant chess pieces; sentinels for nearly four centuries, watching over the remains of Mumtaz, in a powerful demonstration of genuine grief. What Shah Jaman must have thought, surveying his creation from captivity, we can only guess. Paradoxically, I hope his grief gave him some comfort from the betrayal of his son.

A squall passed through, leaving pools of water on the marble platform. Macaque monkeys, knelt to drink from them, in a strange mimicry of Muslims at prayer. They prowled the marble expanses, climbed the buttresses from the river bank and raided the litter bins although food is strictly banned from the complex. An adolescent jumped from the parapet, onto my back. I shook him off and he, and a crowd of his compatriots sauntered off to harass a group of colourfully veiled women bustling around one of the western minarets.

All is not beauty, though.

Ponies pull decrepit carts for tourists, some lame, others hobbled, all exhibiting pronounced ribs and protruding hips. Camels are grey with dust and lacking the hump that holds their reserves. Infant children sit in the roadside filth, monkey’s steal food from stalls, rubbish accumulates and dung lays thick on the roadway.

Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal is viewed by many as an undesirable place to stay for the night, a home for scams and scammers, rude tuk-tuk drivers and fraudulent gem shops.

But, all this aside, once within the walled cloisters of the mausoleum, outlandish and enigmatic beauty is the memory that remains with you.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Day 151: Bold, Old Delhi (28/06/2011)

Delhi is hot and humid in the monsoon and we roamed the Old City in search of relief.

Purana Qila is a walled complex of what were once mosques, libraries and palaces. Built by the Afghan Emperor, Sher Shah during his brief conquest between 1538 and 1545, he promptly lost control again to Humayan, who he had defeated. Ironically, Shah should have been grateful for his eviction. Humayan slipped on the steps of his re-acquired library, and sustaining a head injury, soon died.

The red sandstone structures stand in parkland, like a disparate herd of grazing giants. They have wonderful detail and inlaid white marble that catches the light. Perfectly preserved despite war and the predations of local people scavenging for building materials, they illustrate several things. They were sufficiently well built to withstand the ages and they were locally respected even when abandoned. There is little of the European and Mediterranean tendency for incoming potentates to deface or demolish a predecessor’s works, mainly because Indian conquerors seem to lack the narcissistic desire to emblazon every structure with their credentials.

Later, as the afternoon monsoon rains deluged onto the marble courtyard, we were taken under the wing of a temple official at the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. Delhi’s largest Sikh temple is an unostentatious marble box, topped by a bushel of golden onion domes. Doffing shoes and donning orange head scarves, we entered the temple and sat absorbing the musical expression of Sikh worship. The Ten Gurus wrote in a musical medium of divine worship, devoid of icons and affectation. The result is an atmosphere in the temple more akin to a bustling community centre than a temple as we might know it, where ragamuffins sit comfortably on the carpeted floor alongside the more well-heeled.

The rain abated and we gazed up at the orange flag pole that towers over the temple to advertise the location, and strolled amiably amongst the bathing devotees at the giant water tank behind the temple. A white heron perched on the low wall around the tank, watching and waiting for the resident carp to surface. Sikhism is a friendly and welcoming faith but it has a severe aspect. The temple is guarded by spear bearers who exercise authority in an old fashioned way. They are the very picture of the 16th century Afghan warrior, with thick grey beards, huge, intricate blue turbans and rough buttoned tunics. The spears are very real weapons and Sikhs carry a ceremonial knife and scabbard. A young miscreant who was misbehaving in the tank received swift and rough justice as the guard cuffed him about the ear, first for the offence, and then harder for the backchat that followed.

Outside, shopping touts offer free rick-shaw rides in the hope of enticing you to one of a thousand different shopping opportunities. The commission that they receive for the introduction has corrupted the natural order of things. Tourists are cash rich, sacred cows, to be treated as a valued commodity and a captive resource in equal measure. There is never a rick-shaw journey or a stroll through the streets that is not accompanied by the hard sell of commission driven drivers. What proportion of their income is derived from commission rather than fares is anybody’s guess, but the stall holders and shopkeepers are in resentful thrall to them and the commission that they pay is a curse that is both self-perpetuating and ultimately a fruitless addition to the price paid by the tourist shopper.

In suburbia the Qutb Mina towers over the residential scene. A free standing minaret and tower of victory, it is a 72m tower of epic proportions. Exquisitely carved in red, golden and white sandstone and marble, it rises  five giant stories into the sky and is surrounded by a complex of arches and corridors and a superlative domed mosque. Built from 1193 onwards it represents the height of Afghan arcitecture at a time when they are regarded as capable of so little. It has survived wars, successive empires and earthquakes and stands like a sandstone version of an Apollo rocket. Like the Afghans, it is waiting to launch.

Rounding off a hot, busy day, we visited the head injured Humayum’s Tomb which is said to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Once again in red sandstone with white marble inlay, the similarities are immediately apparent. From the square block base rises a massive and breath-taking dome. Photographs from the mid-19th century show a haunting monochrome landscape, dominated by the tomb. The gardens were re-instated by the British and the Aga Khan has recently attended to the full refurbishment of the buildings, gardens and decorative watercourses.

You cannot fail but to marvel at Delhi's heritage in a way that leaves Mumbai looking distinctly - something.

New, perhaps?

Day 150: Red Fought (27/06/2011)

Mumbai may be bigger but Delhi surpasses it in terms of sheer wilful chaos and historical wonder.

Following an excellent Indigo flight we were bustled into a sandwich delivery van and hurled headlong into the Delhi traffic. After another exemplary illustration in the art of improbable collision avoidance, I shook our driver’s remaining hand, called him a lunatic and gave him 100 rupees on top of the fare for getting us to the Wood Castle guest house, both alive and in one piece, which to be fair to him, were not actually stipulated requirements at the outset.

Wood Castle gleamed with yet more freshly laid white marble. In the basement resided the relaxation room and descending the staircase from the heat of the small foyer was like easing into a swimming pool. The cold air conditioned atmosphere had nowhere to go and pooled like water that lapped around our ankles and knees as we took our first steps down into it.

Striking out into the Delhi midday sun, we began to wilt by the first corner but once on the new Commonwealth Games inspired metro, the air-con did more than enough to compensate for the crush of Indians that use it. With 8.5 million passenger movements a day, and a chronic traffic congestion problem, you cannot begin to imagine how the city functioned before the metro.

If Mumbai is the rational, empirical, colonial son, then Delhi is the family's mad uncle. A shaman rattling bones and waving feathers but carrying a silver tipped walking stick and wearing a battered top hat.

Nowhere is the madness more apparent than Chandni Chowk, meaning Moonlight Place on account of the canal that used to run down it. It is a shopping street where anything is for sale. To walk down its roadside colonnades is to be relentlessly engaged in turn, by the casual, the persuasive, the aggressive and the desperate. Stallholders and shoppers of every strata of Delhi society operate in this maelstrom of colour and sound. At regular intervals, the hiss of a gas burner heralds a street food stall. Huge woks of oil fizz with frying samosas and dumplings. Rice is piled high and a pinch of spice accompanies every hand held meal, wrapped in a chapatti.

Eschewing the tantalising but bacteriologically hyper-active street food, we sat down to a 90 rupee, all you can eat Thali at Andhra Bhawan canteen. Technically it is the Andhra Bank’s works canteen but all are welcome and they serve thousands of meals a day. Four plate re-fills later, we squeezed out of the surprisingly narrow doorway and into the afternoon heat to inspect the second greatest work of Shah Jaman, the architect of the Taj Mahal.

The Red Fort, named after its sandstone, the colour of dried blood, dominates the eastern end of Chandni Chowk. Built on an epic scale, its walls are 70 feet high and its gates still seem impregnable to all but the heaviest artillery. It was the scene of the fall of the Mughal Empire, when in 1857 the Indian Mutiny came within a hair’s breadth of expelling the British. The spark was allegedly set by a British officer’s insistence that the Hindu troops bite off a percussion cap on bullets that had been greased with cow fat. The Muslim troops believed it was pig fat. Each group were incensed and British military intransigence triggered revolt.

Whether by design or accident, the rebellion coalesced around an old and unwilling Mughal Emperor, Badar Shah, and drew in 80% of the native regiments. The British were outgunned and outnumbered. A must read on the subject is William Dalrymple’s account, ‘The Last Mughal’. The British were in no position to quell the uprising until internecine squabbles between Hindu and Muslim soldiers divided the movement and the fort was retaken.

In some dilapidation, even by the time of the uprising, the walls of the fort accommodated what had become imperial slums where the numerous and impoverished descendants of the Mughal line lived. The once mighty Mughal empire was in terminal decline and would have fallen in any event, to rival forces from the Punjab or Rajasthan, if not the British.

The moat is empty and the palace gardens are dominated by former British garrison barracks but the mosques, bath houses and palaces remain in reasonable enough order to give an impression of the opulence of the Mughals at the peak of their powers.

One can only imagine the path that history would have taken, had the Indian’s been capable of overcoming their own bitter religious differences, at any time before the Mutiny of 1857 or for that matter, the Partition of 1947.