Posted on November 23, 2013
The road trip that I did in August was not just a drive to and back from Jaipur. We had originally intended to get into the city. I was keen to shoot the Jantar Mantar, but we decided to leave that for another day. The traffic was bad, and the weather did not look upon us kindly. So, I suggested that we stop over only at the Amer Fort, and this made a lot of sense, as the fort is actually outside the city. The fort is 11 kilometers from the city, and covers an area of 4 square kilometers. It was close to 10 or 12 years since I had been to the fort, and I remember the first time that I went there. I was a young pup in the corporate world, and one of the founders of the global private equity firm that had bought our company was visiting India on holiday. The red carpet was rolled out, and we had to act the role of the proverbial slave and tour operator. I remember that we bought new sheets to put on the elephants, so that when the “royal” visitors went up to the fort, their trousers would not be impregnated with the germs of the previous tourists.
Elephants are still used to go up to the fort. Now, you can even drive up to a small parking lot near a side entrance. It is a bit of a shame actually, as the walk up is really nice. However, the parking lots at the road level have been taken up by mercenary taxi operators who are hand in glove with the local traffic wardens. And so, we drove up.
The fort is several hundred years old. It was built by Raja Man Singh. Raj Man Singh was a Kachwahas King, and this dynasty ruled Jaipr from 1137 to 1727 AD. The fort was expanded by Raja Man Singh’s sin, Raja Jai Singh I.
You enter the fort through the Suraj Pole, and there you are in what is called the Jaleb Chowk. The Jaleb Chowk is where the army assembled, and also houses a temple to Sila Devi the resident Goddess. The second courtyard was the Diwan E-Aam, or the courtyard for the receiving the general public. Aam Janta means the normal people. The room for receiving exclusive visitors is known as the Diwan E-Khaas. This is a model that has been used extensively by Mughal Emperors as well.
The Amer Fort is below the Jaigarh Fort. They are built on a hill called The Cheel Ka Teela, or The Hill of The Eagles. The two are connected by a subterranean tunnel. After you go through the Jaleb Chowk and the Diwan E-Am, you go to the third and fourth courtyards through the Ganesh Pole. What you have inside are the quarters of the King, and the quarters of the royal family – wives, concubines etc. The third courtyard has a Mughal style Garden, and the rather fantastic Sheesh Mahal. This is really wonderful.
You find your way up to the fort by a narrow winding path, and some of the architecture of the surrounding buildings is quite fascinating, actually. Yet, while the narrow roads were sufficient in the old days, it is tough to maneuver all the gas guzzling SUVs up and down the narrow paths. While the tourist department has done a decent enough job of trying to manage the traffic. Maybe, they should fix the parking at the road level, and encourage people to walk up. The fort has been restored somewhat from the time that I first went up, and you actually have dustbins all over the place. Yet people will chuck their bottles around the dustbins!
The way to get there from Delhi is to take the train. The roads are a complete disaster. Take the train, my friend!
Posted on November 19, 2013
Over the next weeks, I shall take a jog down memory lane, and shall relive some of the trips that I have made into Rajasthan.
Rajasthan is one of the tourist hot spots in India. It is on the western boundary of India, and has many old castles that are still intact. Several of these have been converted into hotels, and for those who have lots of money, or have an extended expense limit, they provide great staying experiences while traveling.
Rajasthan is, during the summer, literally a hot spot. Temperatures rise to levels of 46 degrees centigrade, and in some parts like Jaisalmer and Churu, can touch 50 degrees.
During the winter, it can be a hot spot in a different manner altogether. This is the tourist season, the rates go up, and can burn a hole in your pocket!
The drive from Delhi to Jaipur used to be a nice one. After hitting the highway, it would take you about 4 hours. And so, I fell into the Google Map Trap!
A few months back, I decided to go on a road trip with my friend. We thought we could do it in a day, in comfort.
What Google Maps did not factor in, was the huge number of flyovers on the way, flyovers that have been left unfinished, converting the road into a sort of highway nightmare! At one junction, I decided to give into vanity, and take my own picture.
We had all the obligatory disasters – potholes, driving off the road, guys driving on the wrong side and all that so I won’t go into all that. There is not one single McDonalds on this highway, but there is a Coffee Cafe Day, which allows you to have a coffee and move on.
It took us some five hours to reach, and then we decided to abandon the attempt to enter the city. Instead, we settled on going to the Amer Fort, which is on the outskirts of the city.
You can, these days, drive up almost to the top.
You can walk up
Or, go up on an elephant
What I did not expect, was to see an elephant, a stream of elephants, jostling for space on the narrow roads going towards Amer. The camels were topped with foreign tourists, smiling down smugly at us as we sat cowering in our car. It is important to realize that we were sitting in a monstrous SUV, and we were dwarfed!
But then, if you come to India, and can’t get on an elephant, then you cannot really claim to have lived, can you?
On the way back, it started to rain. The day was a cloudy one, which is what we could have expected, considering that we were halfway through the monsoons. We really hit a cloud burst, and the road was flooded in an instant. As we drove, the scenery through the front windscreen looked a bit like something out of a ghost film, especially if you convert the pictures into black and white.
But there was the sound of a ‘whoosh’, and my attention was taken away from the temporarily ghostly scenery to the incredible swell of water swooshing around the side window.
As we struggled to get back home, we did manage to find one more outlet of Coffee Cafe Day, and we stopped. My friend had a coffee and me, a delicate cup of tea.
When we were leaving the coffee shop, I was struck by the sight of this monkey with this pack of chips and wafers. The monkey was gobbling and wolfing down some of the stuff that we consider to be tasty, and know to be unhealthy. I have seen this sort of scene in other parts of India. In some cases, the monkeys grab what we have in our hands, in other cases, they pick up the packs that we leave behind as part of our human litter.
I have often wondered at this. We travel. We litter with gay abandon. Apart from the undeniable harm that we do to our environment, I also think that we have started to affect the diet of animals that live in close proximity to human beings. I am not sure how this will play out in the genetic make-up of humans and monkeys a few generations down the line, but the prognosis is not good.
We do need to become more responsible, as travelers and as citizens of this earth, else we will succeed gloriously in buggering the world for the generations that will follow up. They will not thank us.
Yet, sometimes, the struggle to drive can be good in strange ways.
There was a point on the highway where we were stuck. I think that this was close to the halfway point, and we were not sure if we would get back in time for dinner.
As I sat in the car looking around glumly, I noticed the sun peeping from behind the clouds.
The rays of the sun burst through in glory and joy, and the clouds and sky were reflected in brilliance on the stream by the roadside. The stream was full of dirty water, but it did not matter. At that point, the sun, the clouds, the sky and the water seemed to dance together in joyful unison. People strolled by, walked by, biked by completely oblivious of the celestial performance that was taking place almost in their backwaters, as it were.
The electric lines marred the scene somewhat, and messed up the scene photographically, but in the larger scheme of things, it did not matter.
What mattered was the glory of the sunset, that is all.
Finally, we were off. The clouds moved and shifted. The sun stubbornly refused to be covered completely by the clouds, creating an ethereal magic all of its own.
And then, it was over. Seven hours is what it took us, to drive the 200 kilometers back home. Google Maps had estimated a driving time of 3 hours, but then we in India know how to bend the rules!
Still, were it not for the shitty traffic, I might not have met Mr Monkey, or seen that wonderful sunset!
Small benefits indeed.
Posted on November 11, 2013
Finally, sadly, the day to leave arrived. We were sad, very sad. A few hours of driving in the hills before we descended into the heat of the plains, homeward bound. We drove past the route that we had taken up – Ramgarh, Bhowali, Bhimtal, Kathgodam, and we would be on the plains. Driving down, we stopped on the highway, looking over at Bhimtal. The little town and lake looked peaceful from the distance, as it sat there snugly in it’s valley. Little did we know that, as we descended, the traffic signs would direct us through the bumpiest possible section of the road, and as we bounced and jumped our way down the road, we cursed with some vim and vigor.
But, there was some joy to be had, before we descended into the pit of hell that was the section of Bhimtal that we had to drive through. Corn, yummy corn was to be had for a song, and as we stopped our car on a widely curved section of the road, we chose our bit, haggled a bit, and then chomped our way through some of the juiciest corn that money could buy!
I have to say, standing there on the highway, chomping that corn, waiting for it to be roasted, constituted some of what we call the simple pleasures of life.
The corn was good, and feeling pleased with ourselves, we continued our descent into the madness of Bhimtal’s rather shitty roads.
The pleasures of the hills soon passed into history.
More hell awaited us as we drove along the highway. Past Kathgodam, through Haldwani, Rudarpur and Moradabad.
Getting by in India has become more and more crazy on the highway, as drivers drive on the wrong side, with impunity. When you look at them, and try and explain that they are on the wrong side of the road, what you get is a glare, and a beer-laden voice asking you roughly if the road belonged to your mom or your pop and, if not then who the hell are you to question them?
The police seem more scared by these crazy goons than they should be, but then, when the policeman takes off his uniform and goes home, he is just an ordinary dude. And anyway, the way the paunchy cops totter along the highway, they really cannot do too much to these alcohol-fumed voices that simply jar on their delicate nerves!
Driving on the Indian highways is such sweet pleasure indeed!
Finally, we reached Gajraula. We had stopped there on the way out, for breakfast. There is a Haldiram outlet there as well, if you like oily Indian food, but McDonald’s offers lots of free coffee in the morning. In the afternoons, you are back to the normal fare, but they do have clean toilets, which is a boon if you are traveling with your family.
Now, in my younger days, we would always top at a dhaba. If the dhaba was surrounded by trucks, you knew you were onto a good thing. The measure was The Truck Index.
These days, as people have become a wee bit richer, they no longer want to sit on a coir bed, eating food, and pissing in the fields. So, the McDonaldisation of the Indian Highway is a phenomenon that is slowly but surely growing.
The dhabas, more and more of them, will pass into the dusty heap of history, but not in my lifetime.
There is time to photograph them yet!
And then, we were home! Yeah, it felt good to be home. And, I took a decision during that trip, a life changing decision for my future! That was cool!
Posted on November 5, 2013
Nainital, in Uttarakhand, is a place after my own heart. I lived here for five years as a kid, in school, and the town is, in many ways, my spiritual home. Now, school had it’s share of good memories and bad. Lousy food, lots of canings in the first years, then the bonding with my school mates, the afternoons in the sun on Sundays and Thursday afternoons, sports, long picnic walks, and crazy Irish Missionary Brothers all crowd my brain, as does the memory of the wife of one of our gym teachers – she of the wonderful, long legs.
Walks along Naini Lake on Saturday evenings, looking at the girls from the girls convent, through the corner of our eyes, inter-school football, cricket and hockey matches at the Flats.
The occasional boat rides, the Sports Day in May, a day of “Sunshine Holiday”, after a month of no sun, living in the mist and the fog, bringing back memories of George Harrison and “Here Comes The Sun”. Wednesday evenings, and Amin Sayani and Binaca Geet Mala. Snow in March and again in November.
Crappy football shoes, with nails sprouting into our heels.
Walks along the Mall on Saturday evenings, with nary a car to be seen.
What a freaking change those days represent to today.
Alka Hotel was there then, as was Sherwani Lodge. But now, restaurants and hotels have sprouted along the Mall, and not one serves tea. You have to stand there in the rain at a dhaba, drinking chai!
These were the last years of the glory of Indian Hockey, when we managed to scrape a bronze at the Munich Olympics, when India had a sports mania outside of cricket, and a crazy, mediocre, over paid bunch of white flanneled Indian jokers.
The Flats have been overtaken by cars, and converted into a parking lot, and smog fills the air of the beautiful hill station. Nainital does feature in Hindu mythology. It is considered to be a holy spot, a Shakti Peeth, one of the 64 places where the parts of the Goddess Sati fell to earth. Her eye is said to have fallen here, which is why it gets the name Naini Tal. In the Manas Khand of the Skand Puranas, the lake is referred to as the Tr-Rishi-Sarovar, or the Lake of the Three Rishis. The three Rishis, finding no water here, dug a hole, and filled it with water from the Mansarovar Lake.
Yet, sadly, today’s tourists do not pause to stand and wonder at the beauty of the place. When I was there, I stood, and in my mind’s eye, I saw the Nainital of my youth, sans the ugly cars and black smoke, and it was beautiful.
The best hotel in Nainital today, in my opinion, is the Manu Maharani.
An old hotel that I did visit, was the Sherwani Lodge, owned by the Sherwani family. Salim was in my class, but I have not seen him since. Life is like that.
At the far end of the lake, is the Cheena Peak, as we used to call it. I remember climbing up the slope one Sunday afternoon, and that was scary, because my classmates above me sent the loose stones hurtling down past me at great speed. If you want to learn about gravitational acceleration, and friction, this is one great way to do so!
My school, St Joseph’s, celebrated it’s 125th Anniversary in October this year. Good old Sem.
I climbed up the path to Sem, and was dismayed to find that the path was now hogged by raving lunatics behind steering wheels!
But, what the hell. I must insert the Gate of my old school.
The moss on the walls is still there.
Some things, at least, don’t change.
Moss, old friend, as long as you stay, there is hope in the world!
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