November 29, 2010

Jaipur City Tour


Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, is the capital and largest city in Rajasthan. The original old city was meant to hold a few thousand people and now holds over 1 million while the entire city of Jaipur holds over 3.2 million people. In 1853 the Prince of Wales visited the city and to honor him the city painted all of the buildings pink a symbolic gesture of welcome. There are many sights to see in the city and I would suggest at least two days to take them all in. I was with the tour group On the Go Tours during my visit to Jaipur as part of my Golden Triangle tour. I have never been a fan of group tours, but since I was traveling alone I decided to go with them for safety reasons. I wasn’t thrilled by the experience in New Delhi or Agra, but in Jaipur I was downright upset over the touring experience. There is so much to see in Jaipur and we only had one day to take it all in. For a good list of all the city sites with a brief description I suggest checking out this website here.
Instead of trying to see as many sights as possible we wasted a lot of time in the city going to bad demonstrations of jewelry and handicraft making and then were brought to a showroom to buy expensive items. For anyone who has traveled with a tour group you have probably experienced this before. Even just walking in some bazaars in places like Istanbul, Athens, or Venice you can experience the run through. You are taken on a tour where you watch how the products are made then ushered into the back where they promise the “best deal in town” and show you many pricey items you most likely don’t want, but your tour guide gets a nice little kick back for taking you there. Now if you do want to buy $50,000 necklaces, marble tables, or a silk rug it is actually a good deal because it can be fun to learn how these things are made and because of the top notch quality of the items the prices are very competitive. However, if you are not looking to make a big purchase all you are left with is small trinkets that you could buy knock offs of on the street of lesser quality materials for much cheaper prices. If I have plenty of time in a city I don’t mind going to one of these places, but on a very rushed tour of 3 different cities On the Go Tours brought us to 3 different workshops- marble in Agra and handicrafts and jewelry in Jaipur. I had asked if we had time to go to the Monkey Temple in Jaipur and was told absolutely not because we were on a tight schedule. However, we did have time to waste two hours shopping at these warehouses where almost no one bought anything.
After the morning wasted at the factories we did get in a little sightseeing starting at the Hawa Mahal, also known as the Palace of Winds. The palace was built in 1799 and is a beautiful example of traditional Rajput architecture. The facade is pink with delicately carved windows- 953 of them. The building is actually little more than a façade and is actually only one room deep on the inside. Women of the royal household would sit inside and watch everyday life pass them by through the windows.
After the Hawa Mahal we drove a little outside of the city to the beautiful Amber Fort. The palace was built under the reign of Raja Man Singh in 1592. The fort is very beautiful with amazing detail mosaic, lattice, and marble inlay work. The palace is also famous for the elephant rides, which you can take from the bottom of the palace up to the top. Elephant tourism has a long complicated history in the East and is notorious for the mistreatment of the animals. The Elephant Village where the Mahouts (the elephants caretakers) live with the elephants was just redone in May in the attempts to have more humane conditions for the animals. This Elephant Village is actually where I was planning to volunteer for two weeks, but after witnessing the still very poor conditions of the elephants I chose to leave early. The elephants are beautiful to see and it is exciting and fun to ride them. The Mahouts are extremely poor and struggling so I am not encouraging a blanket ban on riding the elephants, but it is important to be aware of the reality of the situation. If you see a mahout using a bull hook speak up about it or refuse to tip. As I have said many times before in this blog money is power and every time you spend it or withhold it you are voting to change the system.
After the Amber Fort I visited Jantar Mantar an observatory built in 1728 by Savaii Singh. The observatory is one of five that he built all around India and houses 13 different instruments to calculate the movements of the celestial bodies many of which are still considered be top of the line in accuracy. It is fun to walk around and see the different instruments, which are all very large and beautiful.

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Located right next door to Jantar Mantar is the Jaipur City Palace. The city palace was built around the same time as the observatory in 1729. Parts of it are open to the public and parts are closed as members of the royal family still live there today and they were actually there the day I visited which was evident by the raised flag of the tallest tower. The palace itself is very beautiful and there is a museum, which you can walk through to learn more about the history. However, the museum was very crowded and not air conditioned so I zipped through it very quickly.
A fun thing to do at the palace is visit the artisans’ bazaar set up inside a large hall. The maharajas of India are famous for supporting the arts throughout history and the modern royal family carries on the tradition by letting a select group of talented artisans display work for sale there. This includes everything from handicrafts to jewelry and scarves to paintings. You can see demonstrated here the ancient art of miniature painting, which is not actually tiny paintings, but extremely detailed paintings created using a brush with one single strand of hair. It is an ancient and hard to learn talent that is incredibly beautiful when well mastered. The artist at the palace creates miniature paintings on regular canvases and for a more unique souvenir he paints on old court documents from the maharaja’s court in Jaipur from the 1920’s-40’s. Each document has various court cases written on it in Hindi and the official maharaja’s stamp on the top.

November 27, 2010

Driving the Golden Triangle: Fatehpur Sikri and Rural Villages

When traveling the Golden Triangle the leg between Agra and Jaipur can be very long and tiring. It is almost a whole day of driving. The scenery is interesting as you pass many small villages and get a peek into everyday rural Indian life like plowing the fields or tending to the water buffalo. There are interesting stops you can make along the way to break up the journey like the UNESCO World Heritage Site Fatehpur Sikri. The palace was constructed by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1570 and was his capital for 15 years and then was abandoned due to an utter lack of water supply. The site is now a ghost town with nothing but small villages around it for miles. The palace is very beautiful and worth spending an hour or so stretching your legs and exploring. It usually doesn’t have too many tourists and it is fun to walk around and imagine that it’s your kingdom. I know I am not alone in the princess living in a beautiful palace fantasy!
I also recommend stopping in one of the rural villages and walking around a bit. Many of the villagers are not used to seeing white people and they may come running to see you, which feels a bit strange, but it is an interesting experience to have. Some members of my tour group brought pens and coloring books for the children and I brought candy. We had lunch at a house renovated into a hotel (although I don’t think anyone was staying there) and then we walked through the village. The kids all came running to see us and we started giving out the presents and at first it was really sweet and they were very excited and thankful, but then as more started to come they became nervous and competitive about everyone getting the pens and candies and started attacking each other and then us. The man giving out the pens had to jump on top of a large stone to avoid getting attacked, but the children scrambled up it. When he ran out of pens the children turned to me to try and get more candy. They started scratching my arms- actually breaking skin in multiple places. When one girl tried to bite my arm I finally dropped the bag on the ground out of fear and they all piled on top of it kicking, screaming and punching each other for the sweets. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in my entire life. Our guide explained to us that they rarely get western visitors and it is even rarer that they bring gifts. He told us that the pens we gave the children may be the only pens they have their entire lives and they will keep them forever, even when they run out of ink and tell their friends that a nice American gave it to them.
When the scuffle ended the children morphed back into adorable children- much like gremlins turning vicious and then sweet again- and walked with us back to our bus constantly saying “hello pen” because those were the only two words they knew. We nicknamed the village the Hello Pen village. It was a crazy experience, that I am not keen to repeat again, but it was amazing to really realize the extent of the poverty in these villages that a child will actually bite another human over a pen or small candy. The ones who walked us back to our bus all stood there waiting for us to give them more, but we didn’t have any more with us to give. I actually still had a dozen or so candies in my purse, but was too frightened to give them out. Charity should always be about helping someone else feel good and making yourself feel good for doing it should always be secondary, but this experience was just horrible. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if you want to help these children out I suggest donating to larger charities like UNICEF who are well equipped to handle these situations and can make a real difference in these children’s lives. If you do want to bring gifts- never bring money and always try and bring enough little things for all the kids. I also suggest speaking with a village elder and asking for help handing the gifts out so both you and the children remain safe.

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November 25, 2010

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is spectacular to see in person. I actually went twice because I wanted to make sure I had the right opportunity to photograph it. I went once at sunset and once at sunrise and the difference in the crowd was amazing. I went first at sunset and was bombarded by people everywhere. Most of the tourists visiting were Indians not foreigners and because I was by myself I guess I seemed very approachable and many people came up to me to ask to take their picture with me and to ask me about America. They didn’t speak much English, but it was fun to try and talk with them. I particularly loved a group of older women from Rajasthan who were all wearing bright red and were making a pilgrimage to the mausoleum. It was a very funny experience, and not one I was expecting at one of the touristiest spots on the earth! The next morning at sunrise (around 6:30am) the grounds were very empty and I was able to walk around and really experience more of the Taj. However, by 8am it was very crowded again like the night before.
The building itself is just stunning. It seems pretty small when you look at it from far away, but as you get closer it becomes bigger and bigger until it is a massive piece of marble looming in front of you. The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. The building is now considered by many to be the ultimate symbol of eternal love. Shah Jahan planned to build a second mausoleum across the river, but his son imprisoned him before he could complete it. The Taj is identical on all four sides and it is interesting to walk around it and see the way the marble reacts to the light hitting it differently.
While viewing the Taj Mahal in all of its opulent glory I could not stop thinking of the extreme polarity of wealth in modern day India and seeing this building shows that it has always been that way. The 1.2 billion dollar house in Mumbai might as well stand next to the Taj Mahal because they both seem to show the same thing- the sheer unadulterated spending of the rich and the utter lack of care for the poor. While beggars are not allowed inside the Taj Mahal the poverty is still evident in the many starving dogs that you can see lying around the grounds.
Overall the experience is beautiful and a definite must see when visiting India. I recommend getting up early and going as soon as it opens at sunrise for a chance to have a more intimate moment with a beautiful place with the added bonus of having beautiful light for taking pictures and beating the midday heat.