A morning in Fatehpur Sikri

As we went along the road to Fatehpur Sikri from Agra, our driver, Dev, pointed out the motorbikes passing us on either side. Most had women carrying a large bag on the rear seat. He said that the women were going to their parents’ home for the Bhai Dooj festival. This festival was celebrated in north India following Diwali and it was a festival where a married sister visited her brother on this day and gave him her blessings and gifts. There is an interesting folk story  about the origins of this festival. We asked Dev whether he and his sister were not celebrating the festival. He shrugged and replied, “here, people celebrate. now in modern cities, people don’t care.”

Visiting brothers.JPG

Till we reached Jaipur later that evening, we continued seeing brightly clad women on foot, motorbikes, mini-vans carrying bags and going with either their husband and/or children.

We reached the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri and our local guide was waiting for us at the entrance. We removed our shoes at the entrance as we were entering the mosque area, open to all public. This public area was teeming with people, both the local residents selling goods in tents set up around the courtyard as well as visiting tourists and pilgrims.

The guide told us that a very famous Sufi saint called Salim Chishti was said to have lived here in the 16th century. Emperor Akbar worried that he had no heir to the throne after several years of marriage, and hearing of the powers of the saint to grant wishes, visited him and sought his blessings. He had vowed that if he were granted his wish for a son, he would build his second capital in the area. His Hindu wife bore him a son, and one of the names he was given was Salim after the saint but was more commonly known by his other name, Jahangir. Akbar kept his promise and built the city of Fatehpur Sikri. He also had the tomb for the saint built in the mosque complex. The royal family lived for a few years in the city but abandoned it soon as water turned out to be a major problem, having to be transported all the way from Agra.

The tomb of Salim Chishti is now a famous pilgrimage point for people, irrespective of their faith. The guide said that Akbar had been personally involved in planning the tomb architecture and layout..

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Pilgrims and visitors to the tomb generally place a cloth offering over the cenotaph, sprinkle rose petals and tie threads for three wishes on the lattice windows overlooking the tomb.

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We got the cloth and bag of rose petals along with three red and yellow threads each and walked into the inner chamber. After placing our cloth over the cenotaph, the person who was taking care of the tomb said that we could place any donation, we felt like contributing for the mosque, near the cloth and it would be used for the welfare of the children of the area.

paying-respects

We then walked over to the lattice windows and tied our red and yellow threads. Our guide had mentioned earlier that we should not speak about the wishes we made until they were fulfilled. I can’t even remember now what wishes I made to know whether they were fulfilled or not.

Window of wishes.JPG

We walked out of the inner chamber and walked around the outer chamber. The guide pointed us to a half-door on the side of the tomb. He said that in the past, women had not been allowed to enter through the same front door as men as they were considered inferior to men. Women were allowed to visit the tomb of this saint but to differentiate their status, they had to come in through the side door. The purposefully built door ensured that the women had to bend to enter which ensured a humble poise. They were also only allowed to sit in the outer chamber and not allowed to enter the inner chamber during Akbar’s time. For all his secular views and broad mindedness on unity and equality, Akbar did not treat women in an equal and non-discriminatory manner.

Half-door for women.JPG

We walked out into the courtyard and took a short walk around. Adjoining the mosque and the sufi saint’s tomb was the palace complex. Akbar’s palace was interesting. There were three main houses within the palace: one for each of his three main wives – his Hindu wife, Christian wife and Muslim wife. One of Akbar’s policy in unifying India was to marry a princess of different states so that he would have that particular region’s allegiance. His three main recognized wives were privileged enough to have their own quarters as opposed to the mass harem quarters. His Hindu wife, who played an important role in Emperor Akbar’s life and politics, had her living quarters built in traditional Hindu architecture with places for lamps, worship and a traditional vegetarian kitchen etc. The Christian wife’s quarters had a chapel and lots of paintings. Each house though had some mark of all the religions to demonstrate that all religions was accepted, while giving special recognition to each wife’s particular religion.

A huge courtyard adjoining the harem was where the King entertained and was entertained or had important discussions regarding state issues. The legendary musician, Tansen, considered one of the nine jewels of Emperor Akbar’s court performed for the Emperor here, while his wives watched from their specially designed windows in their respective part of the harem. The platform where Tansen performed was surrounded by water, and was said to have been filled with jasmine and surrounded by lighted lamps during his performance.

Tansen's court.JPG

Legend has it that fellow musicians jealous of his skill and favour that he had found in Emperor Akbar’s court tried to oust him by asking the Emperor to make him sing the Deepak Raga, which if properly sung was thought to cause all things to burn, including the singer. Tansen is said to have sung it after asking another singer to sing the raga that evoked rains simultaneously.

Across the musician’s court, the Panch Mahal or the five storey place was built for the Emperor’s pleasure where he could enjoy the moonlight and evening air. The Panchmahal opened onto a huge ludo board carved on the floor.

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Across this game board square was located the secret chamber. The chamber, where Akbar gathered his top ministers for secret, urgent consultations on state emergencies. He would sit in the middle and his ministers in each of the corners built around the center like a wheel. I can’t imagine how the consultation could have been secretive, if they had to shout out to each other across the respective corners they sat in.

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There was also a hall for private audience known as the Diwan-i-Khas, especially where representatives of different religious faiths met with the Emperor to discuss their concerns.

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This section led into the more public area, the hall of public audience and the courtyard where the public waited to meet the Emperor and state their grievances and where public hearings were held. The guide mentioned that an elephant was usually kept waiting at these hearings as the worst offenders were sentenced to trampling by an elephant.

Fatehpur Sikri Public hearing.JPG

As we walked out of the public hearing area and towards our car, children selling knick knacks surrounded us. I always feel sad when I come across kids selling stuff at tourist sites. While I did not want to encourage child labour, we were unable to resist the plea of the kids so ended up buying a few things, hoping that the money would go towards their food.

What is the most interesting local festival that you have come across in your travels? How do you react when coming across child vendors at tourist sites?

[I am linking this post to Faraway Files #6 and Weekend Travel Inspiration]

Oregon Girl Around the World
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Highlights of Agra

Entering Agra district, we first visited Sikandara, the mausoleum of Emperor Akbar. The mausoleum was a beautiful red sandstone structure in the middle of a well-maintained lawn, which had deers roaming around the park. Emperor Akbar had started the building of his own mausoleum but it was completed by his son, Jahangir, after his death. We walked into the tomb, after removing our shoes at the entrance. It was a dark passage and we followed some other tourists going inside. The passage became darker and darker as we went further inside and we were a bit uncomfortable. We reached the inner tomb and it was pitch-dark. As we turned to leave, a loud voice within the tomb cried out ‘Allahu Akbar’. Though I reasoned out that there must be a recorded voice activated by someone stepping over some particular stone or touching a wall, the unearthly voice did startle us for a moment.

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Leaving the tomb, we walked around the premises. Emperor Akbar was renowned for his generosity and his fair-minded principles. Perhaps because of that or not, there was an atmosphere of calm and peace in the place.

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After checking in at our hotel, the local guide arranged by our tour operator arrived to take us to Agra Fort. Started by Emperor Akbar, the construction of the fort was completed by his grandson Shah Jahan. We walked through a doorway into the courtyard, where the Emperor used to hear the public’s grievances.

Agra Fort_Hall of public audience.JPG

We walked inside and entered the royal apartments, where according to our guide, nearly 5000 women had once resided in tiny cramped rooms. Though the living quarters were tiny, they opened onto a nice courtyard with a fountain in the middle. The courtyard had been used for growing grapes for wine. And, the dancers performed in front of the fountain, while Shah Jahan watched from his rooms at one end. Shah Jahan’s rooms had a lovely view of River Yamuna and the Taj Mahal.

Palace for eldest daughter.JPG

It was also in these rooms that he had been placed under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb, during the last eight years of his life. As his health was failing, he had been cared for by his eldest and favourite daughter, Jahanara. On either side of his rooms were the identical apartments of his eldest and youngest daughters and the guide pointed out that Jahanara’s apartment had been built in marble, which was her parents’ favourite choice of building material. After her father’s death, Jahanara moved to Delhi and is credited with the design of Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest markets in Old Delhi.

Inside the royal apartment_Agra fort.JPG

We walked into the next section of the fort, which is one of the earliest surviving buildings from Emperor Akbar’s time and was the zenana for his wives. It is called Jahangir Mahal perhaps because Akbar’s son, Jahangir, also chose it as his residence without building a new set of apartments as his son, Shah Jahan, did later. Jahangir Mahal was built in red sandstone, the material of choice of Emperor Akbar. The royal apartments opened onto a courtyard with a pool in the middle. There were two sets of identical apartments on either side. One side had windows, while the other didn’t. They were supposed to be the summer and winter palaces respectively. For such a huge fort, it was amazing that the living quarters were so cramped.

Jehangir's part in Agra fort.JPG

After our visit to Agra Fort, we drove to the Taj Mahal. As the Taj Mahal was a considerable distance away from the parking area, the guide arranged for a horse-cart/ tonga to take us closer. My mother especially enjoyed this tonga ride and it seems to be her favourite memory of our visit to Agra.

Passing the security gates, we entered the Taj through the Eastern Gate into a courtyard where the four gates faced each other. Each entrance was for a specific purpose in the old days, one for the Emperor and royal dignitaries, the other for public etc.

Northern Gate to Taj Mahal.JPG

As I approached the Northern Gate, my anticipation of a treat increased but our way was blocked by men with photo albums trying to get us to buy a photo package with them. With difficulty, we extracted ourselves and entered the gate feeling harassed. And, there we were at the famous spot where the Taj has been photographed a countless times and I had expected it to be the best highlight of our trip. It was an underwhelming moment as the crowds were quite distracting.

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As we walked closer to the lovely marble structure, I started seeing the beauty of it. The longer you looked at some face of Taj Mahal, the more appealing you were going to find it. Unfortunately, the rain clouds started gathering above and it was very windy.

One of the faces of the Taj.JPG

We hurried into the tomb, after wearing our shoe covers, so that we would escape the rains. Following a long queue, we walked inside the tomb which was quite dark. The guide pointed out the difference in designs of the resting places of Arjumand Banu Begum and Shah Jahan. We came out of the tomb and walked along its outer perimeter and came to the face overlooking river Yamuna. The guide pointed out the ruins of the foundations that had been laid by Shah Jahan, for his own mausoleum – the Black Taj, across the river. He had intended that his mausoleum face that of his wife’s in perfect symmetry down to the fountains. However, his son Aurangzeb refused to build it for him and instead buried him alongside his wife. While this act is considered somewhat dishonorable of his son, I think it is perfect that the couple celebrated for their love for each other be buried next to each other. We sat for a few minutes resting on the steps and then decided to turn back. The rain started pouring so we rushed back to our car.

Taj.jpg

I think I would have loved my experience of Taj Mahal more, had I visited it earlier in the day before it became crowded as we had done with Sikandara.

Is Taj Mahal on your travel wish list? If you have visited it, what was your experience of the Taj?

[I am linking this post to Faraway Files #5Wanderful Wednesday and Weekend Travel Inspiration]

Untold Morsels

Wanderful Wednesday

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En-route to Agra

My mother and I left Delhi after breakfast. We passed by roads waking up to a fresh day. Barbers shaving heads of clients on chairs set up under trees, street food sellers cooking up breakfast on their mobile carts, locals eating by the cart before rushing off to attend to their day’s work.

At my request, the tour operator had agreed to make a detour on the way to Agra so that we could visit Mathura and Vrindavan. Both places are revered among Hindus as the place of birth of Lord Krishna and the place where he grew up. Passing Radhapuram, we came across lots of cows lazily sitting along the sides of the road. My mother was highly pleased as Krishna was said to have grown among cow herders, according to myth.

We were approaching Vrindavan when Dev, our driver, warned us to keep our doors locked. The road was blocked and we saw a small tax booth. Dev lowered his window to pay the toll fee. Immediately, people swarmed the window and started offering us their services as guide around Vrindavan. Dev responded saying that we did not understand Hindi but they switched to broken English. It was frightening, especially, when some of the more aggressive ones tried to open the doors of the car on both sides. They refused to open the gates without taking one of their guides with us. Finally, Dev shouted back at them and asked whether they were going to accept the toll fee or not and one of them accepted the money and returned a ticket and another opened the gate for us to pass. As we passed through, we saw that one of the local guides was following us on his motorbike.

Vrindavan was awash with temples for Lord Krishna and almost every place was called Krishna something and local residents seemed to depend on Krishna tourism for their living. Before stopping at a temple, which Dev referred to as the main Krishna temple, we discussed a strategy to avoid the hordes of aggressive guides and vendors swarming the place. We would be dropped right at the entrance so that we could go directly into the temple and we agreed we would be at the entrance in exactly fifteen minutes so that Dev could pick us up at the entrance again.

Entrance to Krishna temple.JPG

The ISKCON temple was a lovely place but rather crowded that day since there was a special puja – the Govardhan puja for Krishna taking place. We queued to go in to the temple shrine area and passed a courtyard, where a section had been cordoned off and offerings of sweets shaped in lovely designs adorned the middle. We saw kids hanging around the edges of the cordoned off area, looking longingly at the sweets, which would probably be given them at the end of the puja as prasadham.

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We could not stand long in one place as there was a massive crowd making their way in and the area where people could sit was already packed so we had to keep moving with the queue and leave the puja area. We saw our driver waiting for us and quickly got into the car. At the gates which led out of Vrindavan, we were again stopped by the local guide on the motorbike, who demanded our driver to give him his name and mobile number. Our driver confidently gave his name and number, to our surprise. The local was satisfied and let us pass through. We asked Dev why he had done that and wouldn’t he be troubled thereafter by that particular guide. He smiled and replied, ‘Correct name, wrong number. He is happy, so no harm.’

Next, we went to Mathura city, to the place where Krishna was said to have been born. An ancient temple, Sri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple, is said to have been built over the prison cell where Krishna was born. However, the temple was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt several times. We were disappointed when we saw the long queue snaking its way around the temple. There must have been over thousand in the queue. We decided we did not want to stand in the queue in the blistering heat and instead would drive around the temple before continuing to Agra.

While we did not visit the oldest Krishna temple in Vrindavan nor the temple at the supposed place of Krishna’s birth in Mathura, my mother was still happy that we visited the area of so many Hindu religious stories as well as folklore. Even though the toll booth harassment at Vrindavan was not pleasant and somewhat scary.

Have you had experiences of being harassed when visiting a famous tourist or pilgrimage site? 

To be continued in Agra

[I am linking this post to Wanderful Wednesday and Weekend Travel Inspiration]
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Special Six: Memories of Delhi

It was ten years ago that I first visited Delhi. The trip was a celebration of sorts for having survived a very stressful year. I had convinced my mother, who had also had an equally stressful year albeit for different reasons, to accompany me. Perhaps because this was the first multi-day holiday trip that my mother and I were taking without any other family members and perhaps because it really felt like we were celebrating overcoming adversity, this trip remains my favourite travel memory. We enjoyed doing all the touristy things that the first time visitor to north India, on a package tour, would do on their travel around the Golden Triangle. This is the first of a series of posts on my Golden Triangle trip memories, starting with my favourite six from our time in Delhi.

  1. Staying at Hotel Broadway

The tour operator had booked us at Hotel Broadway situated on a dusty and tired looking road close to Delhi gate. The hotel did not look promising on the outside but the room that we checked into turned out to be a delight. Room number 46, was decorated by Paris-based artist Catherine Lévy, and was such a fun, eclectic and quirky room to be in. A blue sofa with red and yellow birds stitched on it was placed at one end of the room, with a low table from a nursery serving as the coffee table. I enjoyed writing in my travel journal each morning at the writing desk, which was a table generally found in canteens, and sitting in a revolving chair that was probably from a barber’s shop. The small radio fitted into the wall above the writing desk had strobe lights fitted on. I also liked the bedside lamps, which were an optician’s rectangular eye testing lamps, with the alphabets on its screens. The bathroom had a travel theme and it was covered with blue tiles and each tile with a picture of a different place from around the world. My favourite though was the ceiling fan, which would measure your luck each time you switched off the fan. We loved staying in this room and were disappointed when we were not given the same room at the end of our tour as well.

Ceiling fan.JPG

2. The ‘do rupiah’ kahani/ story

My mother and I discovered that the Delhi gate bazaar was just next door on our first evening in the city and we decided to explore the maze of tiny crowded and colourful streets filled with bright-coloured clothes, sweet shops filled with fly-ridden sweets, food carts selling pani puri, odds and ends shops selling gifts and souvenirs etc. My mother asked me if I had any small change and I gave her the ten rupee note that I had on me.

When I gave her the ten rupee note, she was like a child with her first ten rupee note at her first carnival. She happily bought an incense stick box and a packet of chips and was left with a 2 rupee coin, which she was determined to spend at the bazaar. We were walking further down the bazaar, when we saw an apple cart and she decided to spend her 2 rupee coin buying an apple. The apple-seller said that one apple was 3 rupees and she said ‘nahi, do rupees’. She was looking at an apple, when she suddenly started rooting through the apples on one corner of the cart. I was getting a bit worried and embarrassed because the cart owner started grumbling about it. She finally exclaimed gleefully as she picked up her two rupee coin, which I then realized had fallen into the cart.

I have always marveled at my mother’s ability to tap into her inner child and experience the moment with a child’s carefree and happy attitude. Especially even amidst painful life experiences. Being of a more serious disposition, I didn’t always appreciate this attitude especially during my teen years. However, I have learnt to value and treasure such moments with my mother.

3. Visit to Raj Ghat

During our first morning in Delhi, the guide who was a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, discussed the suggested itinerary for the day with us and asked if we had specific places we wanted to visit. I expressed an interest in paying our respects at Raj Ghat so that is where we went first.

Gandhi's Samadhi.JPG

Flower seller.JPG

We bought some marigold flowers from the flower seller at the entrance and walked through the peaceful park to the memorial. The place where Mahatma Gandhi had been cremated, on 31st January 1948 on the banks of Yamuna river, had a marble platform and a burning lamp at one end.

As we drove away from Raj Ghat, I noticed the road was lined with memorials of cremation places of other Indian leaders like the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.

4. A quick glimpse of India Gate

Having watched the republic day parades of India on TV, while living in Madras for a couple of years as a child, I had to stop by India Gate on our drive around Delhi.

Designed by Edwin Lutyens, India Gate is a war memorial to the 82,000 Indian soldiers who died during the first world war. The canopy behind India Gate once had the statue of King George V, but was subsequently removed.

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From India Gate, one could see Rashtrapati Bhawan, the President’s house, and the Parliament House. We were told that both the President’s palace and India Gate were built in perfect alignment and that they were of the same height of 42.5m. The Parliament house were two identical buildings on either side of the road leading to the President’s palace. I liked the symmetry of Lutyens’ design of the administrative centre of New Delhi.

5. Lotus Temple, the Baha’i house of worship

The Lotus temple was a pleasant surprise to my mother and I. What we liked most about the temple, considered the mother temple of those of Baha’i faith, was that not only was it open to people of all faiths, who were free to read scriptures of any faith within the temple, it was forbidden to have any sermons or ritualistic ceremonies within the temple. Everyone was asked to be silent within the temple premises. It made a huge impression on me.

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6. Exploring Qutb Minar

Of all the ancient monuments and buildings we visited in Delhi on this trip, the one that made the most impression on me was the aesthetically pleasing Qutb Minar. It was simply a beautiful masterpiece. The Qutb Minar was built upon the ruins of the old city, with the foundation laid by Qutb al-din-Aibak, the founder of the Delhi sultanate in the 13th century. However, it was only completed by his successor after his death.

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Alai Gate and Qutb Minar.JPG

Qutb Minar and the Alai Darwaza gate

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Ala-ud-din Khilji started the construction of the Alai Minar in early 14th century, as he wanted to build a monument that rivalled Qutb Minar. However, he died before the first storey was completed and work on the monument was discontinued.

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Alai Minar

The iron pillar with its Sanskrit inscriptions was brought from its original place to the site during the building of the Qutb Minar complex. Some of the translations indicate that the pillar was raised for Vishnu to celebrate the victory of a King in the 4th century.

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Iron pillar

The UNESCO heritage site is impressive and it was interesting to see features of the older city peeping out of this ancient monument complex.

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Since that first visit to Delhi, I have visited a few times and explored the city more. While several of my Indian friends seem to prefer other Indian cities over Delhi, I continue to find the city fascinating.

I would highly recommend reading Khuswant Singh’s Delhi for those who have visited or are interested in visiting Delhi.

Have you visited Delhi? Which experience do you treasure most from your first visit to the capital of India?

[I am linking this post to Wanderful WednesdayFaraway Files #4Weekend Travel Inspiration and The Weekly Postcard]
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Untold Morsels
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 Travel Notes & Beyond