Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Fatehpur Sikri - The Enchanting Ghost City Of India

I have always been in awe of Akbar (even before he was portrayed by Hrithik Roshan in Jodhaa Akbar), so visiting Fatehpur Sikri was something I was really looking forward to during our trip. This magnificent fortified city was founded by Emperor Akbar and served as the capital of Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585.

As the story goes, Akbar was a follower of Salim Chishti, a Sufi saint who used to live in a village of Sikri. It is in this village, Salim predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne, so when the prophecy came true Akbar built his new capital here. The city was called Fatehpur Sikri or "the city of victory" as it was built after his military victories over Chittor and Ranthambore. Now, what's so phenomenal about this trip was that we got to see both sides of the coin. By Chittor, I mean the Rajputs of Mewar- Udaipur! When we were in Udaipur we heard their side of the story and agony of Mughal Empire and 5 days later we are in the city built in honor of the same war! Talk about coming back to full circle :)

The palace complex is predominantly made up of red sandstone except for the tomb of Salim Chishti which is made of white marble. The main tomb building is enclosed by delicate marble screens on all sides and has beautiful intricate carvings. It is believed that tying sacred thread on the marble screen in dargah can make your wishes come true (which we somehow we ended up tying- at a very high price too!).

Tomb of Salim Chishti

Intricate work on marble in the Tomb

But the main attraction of complex remains Buland Darwaza or the "Gate of Magnificence" built to commemorate Akbar's victory over Gujarat. It is the main entrance to the palace at Fatehpur Sikri and stands at a staggering height of 176 ft. It is the highest gateway in the world !

Buland Darwaza

Then there is Jama Masjid, which was perhaps one of the first buildings to be constructed in this complex and looks splendid.

Jama Masjid in Fatehpur Sikri

There are many other buildings which reflect on the splendid way he ruled his empire. For example, Ibadat Khana or "House of Worship" was the place where spiritual leaders of different religions gathered to conduct discussions on the teachings of their respective religions. Built as a debate house, Akbar encouraged Hindus, Roman Catholics, Zoroastrians, Jains and even atheists to participate.

Some of the other important buildings like Khwabgah (Akbar's residence), Panch Mahal, a five-storey palace, Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), Ankh Michauli are surrounded by a stunning ornamental pool- Anup Talao.

Anup Talao, Photo: Sandeepachetan

Khwabgah or the "House of Dreams" as the name suggests, is the most beautiful building of the royal complex and was conceived for the emperor's personal use. It has a separate room for the emperor to hold secret official meetings with his nobles, Kutub Khana or a personal library with a number of books and official documents, a small bathroom and the bedroom of Akbar. The double-storeyed red sandstone building is one of the most well planned buildings of Fatehpur Sikri. His library supposedly had about 25,000 manuscripts written in Sanskrit, Hindustani, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri, staffed by many scholars, translators, artists, calligraphers, scribes, bookbinders and readers (and Akbar didn't know to read/write!). He was read to everyday and had a remarkable memory.

The Palace of his beloved Rajput wife (Jodha Bai/Heer Kunwari) whom he gave the title "Mariam-uz-Zamani" Begum (Mary of the Age). Jodha remained Hindu throughout her life and their marriage influenced Akbar a lot towards embracing Hindu culture. In fact, he was the first Mughal Emperor who was accepted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. During his reign, the nature of the state changed to a secular and liberal one, with emphasis on cultural integration. He also introduced several far-sighted social reforms, including prohibiting sati, legalizing widow remarriage and raising the age of marriage.

Courtyard of Jodha Bai's palace, Photo: Nadir Hashmi

Next was Birbal's House, now who can forget the famous Akbar-Birbal stories! Birbal was an advisor in the court of Akbar and was among his "Navrathna" or nine jewels (group of nine extraordinary people).

Birbal's House, Photo: Walwyn

Another interesting site is "Anarkali Darwaja" - a door through which Anarkali fled to Lahore after Akbar gave her death sentence for her implicit relationship with Prince Salim (Jahangir). Quite a controversy if you ask me!

Anarkali Darwaza

All in all the place is a treat for an outsider! With so many captivating stories and soulful live Sufi music playing in the background I couldn't help but loose myself in the glorious Mughal period.

But I think the inscriptions in the archway of Buland Darwaza sums it all up perfectly,

"The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses on it. He who hopes for an hour may hope for eternity. The world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen".

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Taj Mahal- A Tear on the Cheek of Time

You think you know all about the Taj Mahal, but the real thing still takes away your breath.

All my life I had heard so much about this monument that I thought the place was over-publicized, like that same song which played over and over again starts annoying you. So when I finally got the chance to see it in person I had mixed emotions. And to be honest the massive crowd one encounters in front of Taj is hardly a turn on. But if you are to remove all those disturbances(people randomly clicking and non-stop bantering to say the least), the place is haunting. And I don't mean in scary way, but something so capturing that it touches your very soul.

As per the legend Mumtaz Mahal asked for some promises from Shah Jahan before she died giving birth to their child. She was said to have asked the Emperor to build a monument that would reflect their love to the world and stand as a memorial showcasing their life. So that explains why he went all out making something so spectacular that could maybe remotely portray the way he felt about his marriage with her.

This mesmerizing monument stands on the banks of Yamuna and is a mix of architectural marvel and scientific research. The tomb laid out in rectangular shape can be approached through an immense gateway with huge arch that stands tall and erect, as though guarding something precious. And this is where I first laid my eyes on Taj Mahal, as if the veil had been lifted from the face of a beautiful woman.

The Taj is an experience of its own kind, while on the one hand its sheer size and magnanimity takes you off guard, on the other it's exquisite work and craftsmanship brings the elegance. As famously said, it is a romance celebrated in marble and glorified with precious and semi-precious stone!

But it's true beauty is not just in it's physical appearance but the story it carries with it. Just like a good song needs both lyrics and music, Taj Mahal's charm lies in the love it stands for. We were lucky enough to be one of the last few to leave the premises at the evening and that's when it was at it's best. As the last ray of light made it's way from the tomb, a sudden melancholy surrounded me. Without the maddening crowd and loud laughter's of tourists, the place becomes what's it's supposed to be - a place to mourn.

You know one thing you would notice undoubtedly, is the perfect symmetry of the place. In fact, the only visible asymmetric element in the entire complex is the tombstone of Shah Jahan next to Mumtaz Mahal. As per legends, Shah Jahan wanted to build his tomb on the other side of Yamuna as an exact replica of Taj Mahal but in black marble(to show his mourning), and to this day you can see the foundation laid for 'Black Taj'. But his dream was cut short by his son Aurangzeb, who imprisoned him for life.

Of course, Taj Mahal has lost it's previous glory with hundreds of years of attack and looting, not to mention new age pollution, but it still looked charming to me. By the way, guess what they are using to remove yellowness of the marble? Multani Mitti!! Apparently it not only works wonderfully on skin but on marble too.

There are too many discrepancies regarding how many wives he had or in what order but few things remain constant. Prince Khurram(later Shah Jahan) was engaged to Arjumand Banu Begum (later Mumtaz) when they were 15 and 14 respectively. They would, however, have to wait five years before they were married in 1612 AD, on a date selected by the court astrologers as most conducive to ensuring a happy marriage. After their wedding celebrations, Khurram "finding her in appearance and character elect among all the women of the time", gave her the title 'Mumtaz Mahal' Begum (Chosen One of the Palace). Mumtaz Mahal had a deep and loving marriage with Shah Jahan. Even during her lifetime, poets would extol her beauty, grace, and compassion. She was Shah Jahan's trusted companion, travelling with him all over the Mughal Empire. His trust in her was so great that he even gave her his imperial seal and they had great respect for each other.

As I sat there, absorbing all the beauty and sadness of Taj Mahal, I couldn't help but think about all those funny whatsapp forwards we get about how Shah Jahan had so many wives and how Mumtaz died giving birth to his 14th child. Back then even I doubted the love which was glorified, but somehow after my visit to Taj that has changed. I think I understand better what they shared. In those days, it was common to marry for political reasons, so it doesn't matter how many wives he had or which number she stood. What matters is, she always remained 'the Chosen One', his Mumtaz Mahal. And as for the number of kids, hope people know that only 7 of those 13 kids survived beyond childhood. In those days, it was common and in fact advisable to have more kids especially if you are from royal family for various reasons. And even today a woman risks her life while delivering even if it's her first child, that doesn't mean the couple don't love each other enough! No matter what anyone says, the fact remains that this monument will always echo their love till eternity.

They say that the Taj Mahal has life of it's own. It's mood varies from dawn to dusk. It looks milky white in the soft light that characterizes early morning, while the afternoon sun makes it glisten bright and dazzling in the overhead sunlight, almost looking like a jewel against the opaque blue of the skyline. But I guess what I will be looking forward is to see it in full-moon night..when it shines like a pearl, standing tall as the testament to an eternal love.

"The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time."
                     - Rabindranath Tagore

Monday, 21 December 2015

Udaipur - City Of Lakes

Sunset at Lake Pichola

This beautiful city, tucked away in the arms of Aravalli hills and endowed with bountiful lakes is the capital of the Kingdom of Mewar(Rajput clan). The place is in simple words "breathtakingly beautiful".

It's a perfect concoction of nature and man. One often get's confused whether to admire the scenic beauty or the beautiful palaces standing proudly within it. And the history of Udaipur is nothing less than the tales of 'Amar Chitra Katha'! Only this is one had a grandeur unparalleled to anything else.

City Palace
View of Palace at night
The city is flourishing around lakes, especially Lake Pichola which is the tourist hub. Standing on the east bank of the lake is a massive series of palaces built at different times from 1559. The main entrance leads to a series of courtyards, terraces, corridors and gardens. The palace now houses a museum with many antique articles, paintings, decorative furniture and utensils from the royal era.

But living an extravagant life, they didn't stick to just one palace but 3 , one for each season - summer, winter and monsoon! Lake Palace which served as royal summer palace is situated over an island in Lake Pichola and is built of white marble. Although, now the palace is under 'Taj Hotels Resorts'.

Lake Palace aka Royal Summer Palace
Monsoon Palace, also known as Sajjan Garh Palace, was built on Bansdara peak of the Aravalli hill range and offers a spectacular panoramic view of entire Udaipur. Apparently, because of it's location the palace acts as astronomical centre to keep track of clouds and during monsoon period is surround by clouds making us common man only sit and wonder what a charming view it would have been in its glorious days!

Monsoon Palace ,Photo:Ryan 

View of the city from Monsoon Palace

Back view from Monsoon Palace
After lot of inner conflicts, I am bound to mention a small glitch in this otherwise paradise. Rajasthan in general is famous for it's hospitality and Udaipur being one of the pioneering tourist destination,we expected the best. Unfortunately, we felt the place was slightly biased when it came to tourists. They give upper hand to outsiders(whites to be specific), at some of the hotels/shops. Hopefully, things would improve with course of time and the place would become even more magical to all alike.

This pic is not from Udaipur but he is here because I like him!
During our visit to City Palace we hired a guide and he was every bit entertaining. He told us lot of anecdotes about Rajputana lifestyle and culture and I still think he was bluffing half the time! At one point we were told that women had to follow ghoongat system(covering the head/face with sari) because lot of times, attack on these kingdoms were to capture their beautiful queens. Of course at that time I thought it was ridiculous, but later when I saw some of the pictures of these queens, I had to agree, they looked stunning! Anyone would fall for their beauty :D

One of the picturesque place - Saheliyon ki Bari is the garden with fountains and kiosks, a lotus pool and marble elephants. It was laid for a group of forty-eight young women attendants who accompanied a princess to Udaipur as part of her dowry!

Saheliyon ki bari, Photo: Daniel Mennerich
Below picture is their version of postal service. Also, as part of dowry a princess brings 25-30 pigeons which she uses to send messages/letters to her parents place.

Below is the original metal armour of Chetak, the faithful horse of Maharana Pratap. During the battle of Haldighati fought against Man Singh I(Commander of the imperial Mughal Army), Pratap's forces were decisively outnumbered. So Pratap charged straight towards Man Singh, who was directing the battle seated on an elephant. Chetak reared high in the air and planted his hooves on the forehead of Man Singh's elephant. And during the chaos of attack received a fatal would on one of his legs. But Chetak died only after he took Pratap safely out of the battlefield, running a distance of about 3- 5 kilometres including jumping across 21 feet wide river(on 3 legs!). Now it makes sense why the name the Bajaj Chetak...

Armour of Chetak

Intricate artwork inside City Palace
When talking about Udaipur one cannot miss out on traditional rajasthani cuisine. The food reflects a lot on their lifestyle and the availability of ingredients in the region. To decrease the use of water in this desert state they use a lot of milk and milk products to cook. We tried everything from the traditional veg thali to exotic laal maans curry! Traditionally, it was made with wild game meat, such as boar or deer and used to be favourite among royalties. Of course, nowadays no exotic animal is used, just a mutton curry prepared in a sauce of curd and hot spices such as red chillies.

Traditional rajasthani thalli, Photo: com4tablynumb

laal maas, photo: com4tablynumb
Udaipur has so many flavors, just like spices, unique on their own but together they blend so well and create something even magnificent. No matter where I live, the impression Udaipur has etched in my heart would remain with me.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Chasing India on Wheels

5300 km. 10 states.18 days. 2 people. 1 unforgettable journey.

When I met my husband for the first time he asked me if I liked travelling, to which I promptly replied 'Yes'. Of course, back then I didn't know it would mean travelling all over India in car! Original target being attending a friend's wedding in Noida, the 2 day plan somehow metamorphosed into an 18-day road trip touching few of the most ravishing places in India.

The first day is always a bit over enthusiastic coupled with a tangy anxiety. Mostly because we are flooded with all kind of information which the so called "media" provides, most of which are hardly assuring to an outsider. Like I had my own preconceived notion about how people lived in villages or small towns. And I was taken aback by how little I knew about some of these places.

You can read an entire book and still be clueless about the reality until you see it for yourself. And travelling does that to you. Even if you are not the kind who enjoys it, I would highly recommend at least a small trip once in a year. There is something very soothing about travelling. I could just zone out and be at complete peace, it's almost therapeutic.

Our journey took us to following places - Karnataka, Maharashtra, Daman, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. It would be a crime if I clubbed all these wonderful places into one article. So for now, I would just like to mention few things which overwhelmed me throughout this trip.

To begin with, it's the unconditional love we got from friends, friends of friends, relatives of friends and some total strangers! I never expected people (especially as current India is portrayed) to be so giving and welcoming. Many a times, we found better service in road side dhabas than in star hotels. And contrary to popular misconception, Indian Highways are in excellent conditions (at least in the states we visited- give or take few bad patches). Of course, some of the places are more travel friendly than others, but in general the hospitality you receive from locals are praiseworthy. And last but not the least, you just can't miss out the sheer beauty our country has to offer. As I said earlier, I can write a sonnet about all the mesmerizing things we saw and felt but it would still be an understatement.

From luscious farms to barren lands, abundant dense forests to charming valleys, lingering rivers to harsh deserts and everything which lives on it with harmony and balance including us Indians, is what makes this nation extraordinary.

I have always enjoyed travelling but now I realize that I enjoy travelling within India even more than I would have thought a few weeks back.

P.S - I would be writing a detailed description about few of the places in consecutive blog posts.