A whirlwind week in India

Friday, June 01, 2018
Hyderabad, Telangana, India
Hello again. Please accept my apologies for the long gap in my entries. These past days have been extremely busy, much more than usual. In addition, my lovely wife is traveling with me, so it’s much more tempting to talk with her in the evening that write!
That said, I will attempt to get caught up several days at a time.
Monday, we started out fairly early from Moradabad for the six hour drive to Agra, another capital of the Mughal Empire. The countryside was dry and flat. About halfway along the trip we saw several wild nilgai, Asia’s largest antelope. It’s considered a cow, therefore sacred to Hindus, so it may not be hunted. I learned that there is a nilgai population in Texas (a few were turned loose from the King Ranch), of all places, so I’m going to do a little research.
On arrival we drove to Akbar’s tomb. The third Mughal Emperor, His full name was Abu'l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (not hard to see why he’s often called simply Akbar) although you will also see him called Akbar the Great. And since Akbar means the greater or greatest (think of all the terrorists shouting Allah Akbar before the slaughter of innocent people) this roughly translates as “The Greatest the Greatest.” Cassius Clay had nothing on him….
Akbar was a notable Emperor: a talented general (who effectively used gunpowder and elephants among other innovations), a canny governor who attached subjugated rulers to himself by his magnanimity, and the rewarding of talent, hard work, and loyalty irrespective of religious affiliation. He treated Hindus as well as his fellow Muslims, and was tolerant toward Zoroastrianism and even Christianity (Jesuits were allowed to preach freely, at least for a while). He even tried to invent a synchronistic religion that would combine all the greater religions of the time, though it did not outlast his death.
The Emperor united a huge kingdom, extending from modern Afghanistan and Iran to the far south of India.
Akbar has a magnificent mausoleum built for himself and his family. His religious tolerance and blending are visible in the imagery on the walls. The tomb is truly magnificent, though he is almost alone in it. Only two other members of his family are buried there, others found different final resting places.
The Akbar’s tomb we drove to the Fort of Agra, even more interesting to me than the Red Fort at Delhi, because there is more left inside. From the fort one can see the Taj Mahal in the distance. One sad story is that of the most beautiful prison in the world.
Shah Jahan, Akbar’s grandson was a great emperor who fell madly in love with his third, and favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. She died in childbirth in 1631 at age 37, when Shar Jahan set about building her a magnificent mausoleum which became the Taj Mahal, finished in 1653. Five years later Shah Jahan fell so seriously ill that it was assumed he would die. This set off a war among for the succession. When Shah Jahan recovered, his victorious son had him imprisoned for the rest of his life, in an apartment in the Fort where he had a view of the Taj Mahal, thus, the most beautiful prison in the world.
Dave Baker had thoughtfully booked us into a hotel for the night that had a view of the Taj Mahal which we appreciated until sunset; the monument is not lit at night.
Tuesday morning we were up very early to check out and load the vehicle, so we could enter the grounds of the Taj Mahal as they opened. Many other tourists had the same idea of course, but this is low season because of the extreme heat, so the crowd was not overwhelming. So much has been written about the Taj Mahal and the views are so iconic that I won’t write much other than to say it is overwhelmingly beautiful. Architectural perfection is apparent on every side. One has a sense of the surreal walking through a place so well known, and yet so exotic.
We walked all around the grounds, and took photos from many angles. To enter the central area of the structure we had to put slippers over our shoes in order to protect the marble. The only asymmetrical element of the whole complex is the tomb of Shah Jahan, buried next to the perfectly centered tomb of Mumtaz Mahal. There is no greater monument in the world to the passionate love of a man for his wife.
Sometimes to visit iconic places is anticlimactic; expectations are so high that reality cannot deliver. But the Taj Mahal is no such a place. We came away absolutely impressed; it is sublime.
Regaining the vehicle we drove to another of Akbar’s huge building projects, the city of Fatehpur Sikri, built to be his new capital which is was for only 15 years before being abandoned, apparently due to water procurement problems. Apparently he didn’t effectively count the cost.
This city is impressive for its scale and the openness of its courtyards. We entered through the Hall of Public Audience, where the Emperor would give justice. An iron ring set in the ground showed where an elephant was kept for cases of capital punishment. Apparently the king’s favorite war elephant was trained to dismember and crush any object of his master’s dislike. Death by elephant would be, I believe, a very effective deterrent to crime; no doubt unforgettable once seen.
Akbar’s different wives (Muslim, Christian and Hindu) each had their own apartments separate from each other, his Hindu wife must have been the favorite; hers were by far larger and more opulent than the others.
From Fatehpur Sikri, we drove four and half hours to Jaipur, the capital of the State of Rajasthan, where we checked in to a hotel on the Man Sagar Lake. This artificial lake was created by damming a river in 1610 (!), and is the setting for the beautiful and famous Jal Mahal palace which appears to float on the water. It comes straight from an Indian fairy tale or the 1001 nights.
Wednesday morning we were up early so we could ride an elephant up the ramp to the Amer or Amber Fort, overlooking the town of Amer about 5 miles from the center of Jaipur. We climbed on the howdah on the elephants back, but it was not well balanced. Our legs were supposed to dangle off one side of the pachyderm, but that left us tilting at an uncomfortable angle, the mahout told us to move this way and that, which left us in rather uncomfortable positions. Still I’ve always found it great fun to ride an elephant, the slow back and forth swaying makes me dream of bygone eras.
It is another storybook fortified palace, yellow in color which has lead people to calling in the Amber Fort, when the name should properly be Amer. The Palace was the seat of the Rajput Maharajas, powerful rulers in this part of India. It contains four levels each with a courtyard and each most opulent. Dave hired a guide he knew to take us through. The climb was steep at times, and the guide in his mid-70s, but he was used to doing the climb every day and was in pretty good shape.
The Maharajahs, whether Mughal or not, were fixated on their harems and keeping their wives and concubines compliant and under control. This palace was set up in such a way that the Maharajah could access the apartments of each member of his harem without being seen by the others. So no wife knew where he was except the one with whom he chose to spend the night. His wives and concubines could never meet each other in private, only in group settings where their conversations could be (and were) monitored. Plots and assassinations were always a risk. Uneasy is the head that wears the crown, even when he has every creature comfort available.
Above the Amer Palace was a connected fortress, more forbidding and difficult of access, the Jaigarh Fort. The two are considered part of the same complex since they are connected by a subterranean passage. The higher fort was considered a fallback position in case the more comfortable lower palace fell.
Several things struck us at Jaigarh: the largest canon ever on wheels, (we were told I have not verified this), and the long snaking walls around the lower complex which evoke the Great Wall of China in a much smaller version. The scale of the fortifications attest to the wealth and power of the Maharajahs in Rajasthan.
In the afternoon we took a tour of the city palace, a modern seat of the Maharajahs constructed in the early 1700s, most of it still a functioning palace, because there still is a Maharajah, though the establishment of democracy in India has greatly impacted his wealth (he can’t collect taxes from his region any longer). The displays and the views from the rooftops were certainly worth the visit. From the top of the Chandra Mahal part of the place we observed rain clouds sweeping in, and in the course of time a great rainstorm split the skies.
We finished the day with a fantastic Indian dinner at the Rambagh palace hotel, a stunningly beautiful palace which has had to be leased out as a hotel to allow the current Maharajah to maintain ownership. Nobles in various countries must do such things to keep palaces in the family. Before starting the trip, Marjolaine had read A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur, who had lived in this palace, so the visit and dinner was especially interesting to her.
Thursday we drove five and a half hours back to Delhi, through the same parched, overheated landscapes. We stopped briefly in town to pick up some books Dave and I had left to be bound in leather (this can be done incredibly inexpensively in India, a half leather binding added to a book costs less than 10 dollars, and the classic even regal look is worth the cost. I have a particular love for leather bound books and have part of a shelf-full at home.
Then we drove to the Delhi airport where we checked in for our 19:45 flight to Hyderabad, where we landed an hour later. We checked into a city-center hotel where we would spend two nights.
Friday we visited the famous Golkonda Fort, the seat of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, a Persian line of kings that conquered and ruled this region in the 15 and 1600s in part to control its diamond mines. Some of the largest diamonds in the world came from this region including the Koh-i-Noor (part of the British Crown Jewels) the Hope Diamond (now in Washington’s National Museum of Natural History), the Nassak Diamond (last sold in 1970 to an American Trucking Executive) and the Noor-ul-Ain (part of the Iranian crown jewels).
The fort was impressive for its location, the climb was rather steep, especially in the 90s F heat. We then drove to the tombs of the Qutb Shahi dynasty a mile or so away and toured the final resting places of this royal family that finally had to submit to the Mughal Empire.
After a shower and a change of clothes we headed to the Taj Falaknuma Hotel, another palace leased out as a hotel. The Maharaja of Hyderabad was once the wealthiest man in the world, and his palace left little doubt about his affluence. He receive his personal friends King George V and Queen Mary in 1911 when they had come to India for the Delhi Durbar, honoring the English King as Emperor of India. The palace was fascinating, though I’m not sure I’d fancy staying at the hotel during the hot season, most of the public rooms cannot be air conditioned, because the venting would cause irreparable harm to the walls and ceilings.
The guided tour of the palace and the walk through the gardens was transportation to another era. As a history buff (or nerd, depending on one’s point of view), this was fantastic. Dinner was a delight and the whole day wills remain extremely memorable.


Roxanna Yost

I have missed your travel blogs! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your travels, they are very interesting. Safe travels!

Alex P

Great post! Don't blame you if you have better options at night than to write about your trip, however this last post was a real eye opener and makes me want to jump on a plane to explore India too! Very envious. Take care.