Visiting Fatehpur Sikri’s Sufi saint

Forty-three kilometres from Agra lies Fatehpur Sikri, the once-capital of Emperor Akbar’s Mughal Empire.  He moulded the city into his capital and lived there for about thirteen years before being forced to move out due to lack of a sustainable drinking water supply.   The impressive, colossal edifice that is called ‘Buland Darwaza’ or ‘Gate of Magnificence’ was the entrance to his capital city.  It’s a steep climb up uneven steps, but its worth it for the interesting prize encompassed within its inner courtyard.

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Apart from the unimpressive views of a generally uninteresting sprawl of houses, buildings and cars that stretch into the barren dirt, there’s not much to appreciate once you get to the top.   Maybe it’s just me, but I found the entrance a little smaller and less impressive than it seemed from the bottom of the staircase.  Don’t get me wrong. The gateway is still a muscular hulk of a thing.

However, I was more interested in the tomb of Salim Chisti.  Akbar built the glowing white marble mausoleum to house the body of this Sufi saint.  The story goes that Akbar approached the saint asking him to bless him and pray that he would have a son.  After the birth of three sons, Akbar’s ties to the saint got much closer and he held the saint in so much esteem that after his death, he built this tomb in his honour.  It is considered to be one of the best existing examples of sixteenth-century Mughal architecture.  When you go up close, you can see why.  The intricate curves of the glowing marble are mesmerising and the internal panels of jaliwork run along the edges of the area of the structure, showing haunting patterns of evening light across the marble floors.

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Truth is, I hadn’t heard of the myth surrounding Salim Chisti’s tomb until someone mentioned it to me.  The story goes that thanks to Akbar’s wish being granted, Chisti’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage by infertile couples.  In order to have their wish granted, they’d have to tie a piece of thread around the filigree marble of the tomb.  After someone did this once and had a child after, it because an established practice that spread across the country.  The myth has evolved into a grant-any-wish situation for anyone who ties a thread around the cutwork marble wall that separates the inner tomb from the person viewing it.  The lady I met who told me the story was actually on her way to the tomb to remove three threads that she had tied around the tomb twenty years ago.  Although she didn’t tell me what they were, she said all her wishes came true and she was fulfilling a long over-due promise to herself to untie the threads to thank Chisti for granting her favours.

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And yes, I made a wish and tied a thread too.  Hasn’t come true yet, but maybe…one day.

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What was disappointing to see, however, were the filthy grounds and hallways running around the tomb.  Besides pigeon shit and feathers everywhere, there were bits of chip packets, juice packs, crumpled bits of paper scattered here and there.  Walking around the tomb, there were some lovely details in the walls and hallways worth noting.

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I didn’t have time to visit the rest of Akbar’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri.  I did come back and do that on another trip.  But, that’s for another blog!

#fatehpursikri #agra #salimchisti #mughalarchitecture #mughaltomb #emperorakbar

 

Visited in 2013

 

 

Silver and Blue in #Jodhpur

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Muscular Mehangarh fort looks down protectively over Jodhpur from a height.

I visited Jodhpur in Rajasthan for a work trip twice.  Both times we were driven out of the city by our colleagues, into the Thar desert to meet desert village communities that were struggling to survive in agricultural lands with barely a drop of water to share between them. Drought in these lands has a different meaning altogether. They rely on water tankers, reservoir tanks and wells. We’d worked with communities to identify shared spaces where we had built water reservoirs and rainwater harvesting structures so that they could collect water for their daily needs. While my work trip was engrossing and very engaging, especially meeting the communities and getting to learn about the vulnerabilities they face, my colleagues and I managed to carve out a free day over the weekend to take in the blue city.

My sight-seeing priority was to visit Mehangarh fort, built around 1460. The steep incline leading to its entrance is worth the climb if only to see the best views of Jodhpur’s blue-walled city from across the impressive walls of the structure.  There are lots of entrance gates to the fort, each with its own unique historic moment and the story behind it, but Loha Pol was probably the most disturbing one I encountered.  It supposedly has the handprints of all the royal widows who have committed ‘sati’ that is the Hindu ritual of wives burning themselves on the funeral pyre with their dead husbands.  On closer examination, the hand imprints, though of varying sizes, look a little too uniform to be original.  Perhaps the imprint once made was further worked on and embellished to appear more clearly as evidence that the widow had indeed committed ‘sati.’  The thought that these were palm prints of real people made me shiver.  But a love for the ironic struck me: I wondered whether they all had lifelines that reflected their unnatural deaths.  Unfortunately the palm prints on the wall weren’t defined enough to reveal this.

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Handprints of ‘sati’ royal wives at Loha Pol (gate)

My favourite room of all the interiors was the extravagant and elaborately decorated zenana where royal wives and court women played cards, discussed their love lives and delved into political intrigue.

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Interior chamber room – Takhat vilas

The museum inside the fort has got an interesting collection of fine and applied arts. The rulers of the area had close links with the Mughals, so you’ll also find objects that once belonged to them here. There’s an interesting collection of palanquins, folios from medieval manuscripts and various other objects d’art of significant beauty and value. After visiting the fort, I wanted to buy myself some silver jewellery.  Rajasthan is known for particular silver craftsmanship and designs.  I bought a chain, two stone pendants and a bracelet all in silver, all of which I treasure to this day.

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Traditional silver jewellery design – snake weave bracelet

Next time, if I’m lucky enough to return, I plan to visit the second most popular attraction in Jodhpur: Umaid Bhavan Palace.

If you’re interested in reading more about Rajasthan, read about my visit to Jaipur.

Visited in 2007, 2009

Romance of #thepinkcity #jaipur in #rajasthan

For two years I’d wanted to attend the #JaipurLiteraryFestival. Ironically, when I lived in Delhi, I was so busy with my job that I couldn’t make the time to go there. Only after I moved back to Goa I was able to have the mind space to plan a trip there. My Jaipur visit was part of a long-held dream of wanting to visit the Pink city anyway. So, it made sense to couple my visit with a literary-festival-author-talk binge. I’d been to Jodhpur years before, but again, for work. And everyone knows a work visit isn’t quite the same as a holiday visit. There’s a different kind of focus.

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At Jaipur Lit fest 2015

I booked a room with a heater (it was a cold, windy January in the Rajasthan desert at the time) in an old haveli that was kept together by a few family members and some strutting peacocks. They were all over the place, the peacocks, that is.

The literary festival itself was fun, though packed full of people. I managed to get a seat to most events I wanted to attend and learned about a few new authors that sounded interesting. I listened to Jeet Thayil interview Will Self, heard Hanif Kureishi talk about his writing, watched a fascinating presentation by Simon Singh about the show The Simpsons and where all the mathematical principles presented in the show come from (the show’s writers are all Ivy League graduates in Maths), heard ex-president Abdul Kalam speak to a packed audience that almost caused a stampede. I saw travel writer, Mark Tully, and Welsh novelist, Sarah Waters, strolling around the grounds and attended the launch of Granta’s ‘India’ edition, presented by Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan books.

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Simon Singh’s presentation on Maths in The Simpsons at JLF

I took two days out to rent a cab for a tour of the city and saw these gorgeous highlights, in photo form below:

Hawa Mahal (the palace of winds): 

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Amber Fort:

Exterior views –

Interior views –

Jaipur city Palace:

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If you have time to only see one thing in Jaipur, its the Four Seasons doors at the City palace.  Pay the entry fee and wander deep into the palace till you find the courtyard with the four doors.  You’ve got to get close-up to each one to spot the unique detailing and vibrant colouring of each one, that tells a story of its own.  These photos below barely do it justice.

Blue Pottery:  

Ok, I openly admit that I have a fetish for Blue (and Iznik) pottery.  I spent a couple of hours at the place below buying soapfishes, coaster tiles, bowls and toothbrush holders.

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The Albert Hall museum (state museum of Rajasthan): 

They had a LOT of beautiful objects that I whisked past due to limited time, including an armoury with medieval weapons and lots of interesting earthenware.  There was a floor of fascinating folios from a version of The Panchatantra that I loved.

And I spent an entire afternoon at the Anokhi showroom, buying ethnic wear in print block patterns (yes, yes, another thing I have a fetish for!) and stocking up on their gorgeous blank diaries.

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Block print pattern journals from Anokhi

Visited Jaipur in Jan 2015

#Coconut Naan on #Palolem beach

Yes, I live in Goa but I have no sensible reason why it has taken me this long to visit Palolem beach. I visited in January 2017 thanks to a friend dropping by Goa from abroad, and him wanting to hire a cab to check out the beach for a day. It was a lo-ong ride from Benaulim to Palolem, even with a taxi driver who drove like he was a Grand Prix racer. We got there by 11am with a plan to just find a café/restaurant, plant ourselves and chill. beach access full of desperate entrepreneurs desperate for business. ‘Do you want dolphin watching?’ asked one. ‘Boatman?’ asked another at my elbow until I said No firmly enough for him to get the point.   Everyone needed business now that money flow was improving too slowly after the country’s recklessness of demonetisation.

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Colourful cabanas among the coconut trees

Right away, as I started to walk the slight curve of the shoreline, past the line of restaurants and colourful cabanas lining the sandy beach edge, I fell in love with the beach’s unique features. The sand was different here – flatter close to the edge, even though it wasn’t wet and fluffier the further it got away from the water’s edge. It was a different texture and colour too, to Benaulim beach sand; less coarse, almost flakier and more golden. In the distance, I could see a lump of rock, rising out of the water, forming a nice little cove to hide behind if you were in the water swimming or in a kayak. That was another thing, you could hire kayaks and go out onto the water for a short jaunt. We strolled through the sand until we found a restaurant called ‘Blue’ with cover that opened onto the beach but was still deep enough in the shade to keep us cool.

One cold coffee later and out came my laptop so that I could scratch my itch to get some long overdue writing done. My friend donned his bathing suit and disappeared into the water for a couple of hours. Before he melted into the Arabian Sea, he mentioned that when he’d visited Palolem before, he’d noticed that the beach was split into informal enclaves. To the left of the beach entrance was where the Russians hung out. Menus were in Russian; so were signboards. To the right, where we were sitting at that moment, was the British and Israeli part of the beach. After my friend left for his swim, a few families sat down a short distance away, occasionally looking up from their phone screens to discuss what they’d like to order from the menu. They were speaking a language I couldn’t comprehend and I realized that they were speaking Hebrew. I turned to the back of the menu and there it was, staring me in the face – the entire menu translated into Hebrew.

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And what a fabulous menu it was – Indian, Continental and Chinese staples were there, but I spotted the occasional oddity that I’d never seen before on any shack or restaurant menu in the Benaulim area. Coconut naan bread jumped out at me. I’d never heard of it before, let alone tried it. I ordered a plate along with a rum and coke. A hot steaming platter of over-fresh naan sprinkled with shredded coconut arrived. As I chewed the doughy bread, shots of coconut flavor overtook the gentle heat of fluffy carbs and made my tongue ecstatic. I ordered another bread basket when my friend returned to the table and got him to try some. He ordered a third one! We basically spent a couple of hours filling up on fresh coconut naan bread and drinks until our stomachs rebelled against the lack of protein and veg in our system. We ordered a few other menu items which turned out to be less impressive and it was sunset all too quickly. We had a couple of sundowners to celebrate a wonderful day out and the joy of being alive and on a beach, sharing the pleasure of each other’s company.

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Coconut naan

Stepping out in Ahmedabad

At the end of 2016 I had to do a couple of short trips to Ahmedabad for some personal work and while I was there, decided to cross a couple of items off my perenially growing travel bucket-list: Sabarmati Ashram and the Adalaj stepwell.

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Gandhiji’s wooden sandals and Eyewear in a glass display at Sabarmati Ashram

Sabarmati Ashram: The Ashram is an open air, free entry museum along the Sabarmati river with nothing but a few bare essentials that belonged to Gandhi on display – his spectacles, a walking stick, some chappals and a spinning chakra.  That’s about it.  You get to walk around his house and courtyard and get a sense of where and how he lived.  The open air museum just built next to it is a nice structure full of opinionated propagandist writing about Gandhi posed in the form of leading questions – with the answers provided.  I’ve never before seen such a blatant display of biased historical information that is looking to preserve its established hero in formaldehyde.  Oh well, at least I’ve been there now.

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The Adalaj stepwell entrance

Adalaj stepwell: This was my first visit to a stepwell anywhere in India and I didn’t regret it for one moment.   I took a cab there to the village of Adalaj, about 30minutes by Uber just outside the main city centre, and back. It didn’t take more than an hour to walk around the fantastic structure full of ornate details painstakingly carved into every pillar and post.  It was around the time of the Diwali holidays so there was quite a mob of people milling around in the late afternoon.  Go in the early morning when I suppose its quieter.  The stepwell’s beauty lies in its carved details as well as the slightly asymmetrical architecture that cuts deep into the earth’s bowels.

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At the top of the stepwell stairs

Monumental love in #agra

I first visited Agra on a family holiday when I was 7 years old and too young to appreciate it.  On a work trip to Agra in 2013, the conference hosts planned a trip to Agra and I got to re-visit the place with a fresh perspective and adult eyes.  I could finally appreciate the intricate marble carvings and the ornate enameled work. That time the Diana bench wasn’t there because she hadn’t yet visited with Prince Charles and made that infamously iconic photo of her sitting alone, head bent, on the bench in front of the Taj Mahal.  It’s one of the biggest tourist attractions there – that bench.

Take a heritage walk in Hauz Khas village

Visitors to Delhi won’t have any idea about the existence of Hauz Khas village and the historic 14th and 15th century buildings that dot the place unless they live in South Delhi.  Go here one evening and you’ll see students and musicians sprawled across the building’s crumbling balconies and walkways, locals strolling around the man-made water tank and pigeons roosting in every nook and cranny of these ancient protected ruins.  Drop in for chai or coffee at one of the charming cafes in the village, after your walk.  I was lucky that I lived just across Deer Park in Safdarjung Enclave and got the chance to pop into this lovely space quite often.

(Photos from 2013)