INDIA – DELHI & RAJASTHAN
Namaste India! Our route takes us from the capital of India – Delhi – into the beautiful state of Rajasthan. We cover approximately 1200 km in a journey from Delhi to Bundi, passing the mesmerising small town of Vrindavan, devoted to Lord Krishna, continuing to the gorgeous Taj Mahal and from there into the land of kings and Maharajas with the colourful cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Bundi. These places offer everything a traveller may wish to see in India – vast landscapes, fascinating religions, and magnificent forts and palaces.
“Yeh shehar nahi mehfil hai – It’s not a city, but a gathering…”
Delhi is the melting pot of all that we love and hate about India: the food, the markets, the history, the culture, the noise, the divine, the pomp and the poverty. New Delhi is the capital city of the subcontinent; the National Territory of Delhi, an enormous metropolitan region, is in fact a cluster of cities, a gathering of 22 million people, making it the fourth largest city in the world. For hundreds of years it served as the capital for kingdoms and empires, and many monuments and heritage sites pay tribute to its long history.
Delhi is in fact considered a 5,000 year-old city; its most prominent heritage is Islamic, but the British Empire can be traced in some architectural zones, mainly inspired by Edwin Lutyen (1869-1944). There is an area known as Lutyens’ Delhi, which is located in New Delhi, when Edwin Lutyen was the main architect in the 1920s and 1930s shaping Delhi under the rule of the British Empire. Lutyens laid out the administrative area of the city, at its heart we find Rashtrapati Bhavan, the largest presidential palace in the world, which is connected by the King’s Way with the most iconic landmark in town – India Gate.
Living in colonial India at the turn of the 19th-20th century was considered a prestigious undertaking, however, it was anything but a walk in the park due to the hot climate, diseases, and an adventurous 4-months journey by sea to even get there. Although India was considered the Jewel in the Crown of the Empire, it would not withstand the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, who, ironically, always cherished his British education and cared for good relations with the Viceroy until the end. The legacy of the British rule in India includes education, railway system, telecommunications, and the ever so popular ball games of which Cricket has become a national obsession.
The Red Fort is also known as Lal Qila, and prior to 1857, it was a mini-city with palaces, offices, workshops and halls of audience, where up to 3,000 people lived. The 17th century fort complex, which took 9 years to build, was constructed by Shah Jahan in the walled city of Old Delhi and served as the residence for the Mughal Emperors. In 1857, the last Emperor Bahadur Shah, was dethroned and exiled from here. It covers an area of 254.67 acres, enclosed within 2.4 kilometres of defence walls. The massive walls rise up to 33 metres. Shaped like an octagon, the use of marble, floral decorations, double domes, and other architectural art is exquisite. It is a synthesis of Persian, European, and Indian art, and encapsulates a long history of Indian art and history.
The Viceroy: RASHTRAPATI BHAVAN – The largest Presidential Palace in the World
Rashtrapati Bhawan was once known as the Governor-General’s House, a magnificent building designed by Edwin Lutyens between 1911-1916. The Governor-General of India, or Viceroy, was the head of the British Administration from 1858 to 1947 (India’s independence) and remained in office until India had adopted its republican constitution in 1950. Today, it is the residence of the President of India. The story goes that Lord Irwin constantly got lost in its 340 rooms (and fumed over it too). Everything about the building is big and grand – stairs, ceilings, ornaments and furniture to reinforce the importance of its occupant. Mahatma Gandhi, who highly respected Lord Irwin (see Gandhi-Irwin pact), famously and pragmatically suggested to him it should be turned into a hospital for the poor. Rashtrapati Bhawan is used to describe the President’s Estate as well as the beautiful Mughal Gardens. The entire complex displays a wondrous mix of architectural styles, ie the most magnificent Durbar Hall under the main dome, which showcases the best of Indian and British architectural elements, and the Mughal Gardens combine Mughal and British landscaping talent. The columns at the front entrance to the Durbar Hall have bells carved into their capitals, following the Lutyens’ reasoning that “the ringing of bells sound the end of an empire and stone bells never sound!” Despite this, the empire came to an end a brief 16 years later. The guard changing ceremony resembles the one at Buckingham Palace, uniforms and horses included.
The Coronation Memorial may have been of symbolic importance to the British Raj, however, post Independence, this place is seen surrounded by dense population and it is used as a venue for important Municipal events and religious festivals. It features statues of all British Viceroys, incl. King George V. Even the statues of Lord Harding and Lord Willingdon are seen erected here to commemorate their significant contribution to the British Government during their rule in India.
RAJ GHAT – The Mahatma (=great soul)
On 31 January 1948, a fresh pyre had been built at the Raj Ghat of stone, brick and earth, eight feet square and two feet high. Mahatma Gandhi’s body lay on the pyre with his head to the north. Almost a million people had gathered and waited silently in the sun for the funeral procession to reach the cremation grounds, by the holy waters of the Jumna. When he died, Gandhi was what he had always been – a private citizen without wealth, title, official position, academic distinction, or scientific achievement. Yet the chiefs of ALL governments around the world, except the Soviets, paid homage to the thin man of 78 years.
Raj Ghat is the official memorial site to Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, the founding Father of India and leader in the struggle for independence against the British Empire. NB: Gandhi was in good relations with Lord Irwin and most of the British Empire. The site marks the spot of his cremation and remains an international place of pilgrimage until today.
PIGEON HANDLERS – the winged legacy of Old Delhi and the Mughals
British historian William Dalrymple was the first to write about the art of pigeon combat, Kabootarbazi, on the old, dilapidated rooftops of Old Delhi in his book City of Djinns. Traditional pigeon fanciers still make hundreds of pigeons fly above the rooftops of Old Delhi in the evenings; the art of pigeon racing is considered a royal legacy. Hundreds of men gather upon rooftops to send their birds flying. While there are thousands of pigeon handlers in Old Delhi, there are only a few Khalifas and Ustads, men who trained under earlier masters and consider pigeon handling a serious craft. Pigeon handling has been an Indian tradition since the 1500s, when they were used for communication purposes between the different kingdoms…flying hundreds of kilometres to pass on messages.
KATHPUTLI COLONY – Rajasthani Street Artists in Delhi
Tucked away between the New Delhi metro line and adjacent to a highway flyover, the entrance to Kathputli Colony is as inconspicuous as it gets. Behind it lies a hidden world of traditional Indian street art, home to magicians, sword swallowers, dancers, jugglers, and puppeteers, traditional performance art passed down through the generations. There isn’t a single child in Kathpuli that cannot play a drum. Most of the families are originally from Rajasthan and they have brought the array of colours with them – blue, red, yellow, pink – brightening up the smog brown template of Delhi. Everyone performs and they perform all the time, children re-enact Bollywood numbers without any prompting. There is never a dull moment in Kathputli.
Sulabh International Toilet Museum – inspired by the Delly Belly!?
It is not entirely clear what inspired this small, but highly amusing collection of toilets in the heart of Delhi, but since India’s capital is famous for the traveller’s Delhi belly, one should not miss out on the city’s international toilet museum that takes us into the world of sanitization, one of the important aspects that several regions in India still struggle with. The museum houses a collection of toilets that illustrate vividly the development from squatting to sitting, different cultural takes on doing your business, but most importantly the fact that toilets were invented in the Indu valley 4,500 years ago by the Harappa people – long before the Romans. The toilet museum was inspired by the Gandhi principle of everyone is equal and non-violent and direct action, and breaking the taboo of talking about personal hygiene and sanitization – Gandhi famously volunteered many times to clean toilets in the various places he resided in and saw it as a means to erase differences between people. Some of the special toilets in the museum: NASA toilet, a Japanese electronic toilet that silences flatulences, a Victorian toilet that is decorated like a coffee table chair.
Laughing Yoga – the hottest trend in Delhi
The laughter workout is currently considered the hottest workout in India… people from all walks of life come to the local parks to practice laughter under guidance of a laughter yoga teacher, and have reported marvellous health benefits – laughter is considered the highest state of meditation. It is a unique technique advised by Dr. Madan Kataria, and started in Mumbai in 1995 with only 5 participants. Laughter Yoga involves bizarre movements occasionally, but hardly anyone can remain serious when watching a group of people jumping around the park laughing their heads off for health benefits. Another brownie point: it’s for free.
Chandni Chowk – street food capital of India
Chandni Chowk translates to ‘moonlit square or market’ and was originally designed by Shah Janan. It is now a busy commercial centre, located in central north Old Delhi and one of the most popular and busiest markets in the city. It is the best place to find Indian delicacies, chat with locals and with travellers and learn about Indian food in general, what to eat and what not to eat and why… one side alley in Chandni Chowk is dedicated to ‘Paranthas’, a flat kind of Indian bread that comes with every meal and can be filled, fried, and twisted; most of the shops in this alley are family owned and they have been making Paranthas for centuries.
The journey from Delhi to Rajasthan can be a straight flight or train ride from Delhi to Jaipur or a beautiful and bumpy bus ride along the border of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, which has magnificent stops to offer to explore the religious diversity of the country and some of the most famous pilgrim sites as well as the country’s most iconic landmark – the Taj Mahal.
Half way between Delhi and Agra lies Vrindavan, in the Mathura District, just ten kilometres from Mathura, the actual birthplace of Krishna. Situated along the Yamuna River, Vrindavan (also Brindavan – forest of fragrant basil) is a sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus; hundreds of temples are scattered all over the little town in honour of the deity Krishna. Daily rituals of worshipping and religious celebrations can be easily observed; especially the evening aarti is a good opportunity to witness the joyful celebration of Lord Krishna and can be observed in almost any temple. The village became an important pilgrim centre in the 16th century, when Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from Bengal (a Vaishnava saint) revived the Krishna cult there. Since that time, widows have been encouraged to settle here in ashrams endowed by wealthy Hindu merchants (why? follow up here…).
Lord Krishna was born and raised in the nearby Mathura forest; he was born into a traditional cowherd’s family who he loved dearly and entertained with his flute (family and cows), one often finds Krishna depicted as a child with flute and cow (see below). Lord Krishna is regarded as the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and considered the divine embodiment of love and divine joy. Celebrations of worshippers tend to be especially amazing, joyful, loud and vibrant. The cows of Krishna still have the run of the streets, and stalls outside temples sell elaborate flower garlands and milk sweets called pedas, which were Krishna’s favourites.
Vrindavan is now famous for the sight of ‘the White Widows’, about 20,000 are said to roam about this little town now (total population estimated at 56,000 currently), and their sight reminds us of the consequences of the cast system in India. According to some, if not most, Hindu traditions, upper-caste widows may not remarry after their husband’s death; many are abandoned by their families. Widows are expected to mourn their husband’s death for the rest of their lives and lose any status in society. Vrindavan has become their focal point to try and escape this ‘social death’, as numerous ashrams and NGOs have started to absorb the widows and provide food and shelter, trying to prevent them from begging on the streets or being drawn into prostitution.
HOLY COW! Gaushala + Gopashtami
The cow is the sacred animal in India, it is revered and considered sacred; people give respect to this animal in the same way they would give respect to their mother. All cow products are highly respected and popular in the local cuisine. A Gaushala is a cow shelter – gau = cow, shala = shelter – that can be found anywhere in India, particularly though in Vrindavan due to the strong connection with Lord Krishna, who was born into a cowherd’s family. In Vrindavan, one can observe people touching the feet of cows to receive a blessing; on the occasion of Gopashtami (10 November) cows are particularly styled, decorated and celebrated.
PILGRIM’S WALK at Goverdhan Hill
Goverdhan Hill lies just outside the small town of Vrindavan. A celebration known as Goverdhan Puja is celebrated the day after Diwali and refers to the legend of the battle between Krishna and Indra: Indra, deity of thunder and rein, wanted to flood the village, but Krishna lifted the hill under which all cattle and devotees had found refuge. Since then, Krishna devotees and pilgrims travel to this hill on a daily basis to offer their devotion to Lord Krishna, at certain spots around the hill food and milk are offered as blessings, people walk and worship, sing and pray.
Pilgrimages are common practice in all world religions; in Hinduism it is customary but not mandatory to go on pilgrimages but most journeys take pilgrims to locations of legendary events (such as the Goverdhan Hill), and often these are considered sacred mountains, rivers and lakes (more so than monuments or cities).
The Taj Mahal has been described as ‘the teardrop on the face of eternity’; it is undoubtedly one of the most splendid monuments on earth, the zenith of Mughal architecture. Overlooking the Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal stands at the northern end of a vast walled garden. Its architectural layout is the Islamic theme of ‘paradise’; it is above all a monument to romantic love. Shah Jahan built it to enshrine the body of his favourite wife Arjumand Bann Begum, better known as Mumtaz
Rajasthan is probably the best-known state in India and for some it is the very essence of the country. With its royal palaces and impressive forts, vast deserts and vibrant colours that are known across India, it is a natural place to start exploring India. It is known as The Land of Kings and it is also the largest state in the Republic of India, although the greatest part of is the Thar Desert, which is part of the Great Indian Desert – dry and inhospitable. The Aravalli Range crosses the state from southwest to northeast and offers remarkably different scenery with green hills and lakes to the dry and yellow stretches of vast open desert land. With a population of 66.7 million people, the state came into existence following the Independence in 1947 when 19 smaller states where grouped together, which explains much of the diversity of its citizens and different tribes, the main languages are Hindi and Rajasthani; the economy relies on agricultural goods, copper and zinc mines, quarries for sandstone and marble, as well as gems and tourism.
JAIPUR & SURROUNDINGS
Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, rarely disappoints the first-time visitor. Camels wait at traffic lights with auto-rickshaws and fancy cars. The ancient forts provide a stunning backdrop and a testimony to an era of royalty and splendour. The old city is a fascinating place to visit and wander around with its colourful bazaars and artisan’s quarters. Jaipur is known as the pink city, as in 1876 Maharaja Ram Singh had the entire old city painted to welcome the Prince of Wales. It is a wonderful combination of the old and the new side by side, the medieval alongside the modern, and at the heart of it in the centre the myriad-windowed pink Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds.
Jaipur is one of the largest ornament-making centres in India and generations of highly skilled jewellers can be found here that cater for every taste. Jewellery is an integral part of Rajasthani culture, all tribes and locals like to wear different ornaments and enjoy decorating camels, elephants and horses as well. The oldest jeweller in Jaipur is called ‘The Gem Palace’ and takes the visitor back in time to the rule of the Maharajas where opulence was the rule of life. Some of the greatest diamonds have been mined in India (especially in Sri Lanka), and Jaipur is famous for its semi-precious stones (coloured gem stones), coloured and cut here to look like the real deal.
Gemstones – There are many shops offering bargain prices, but more likely than not, they ain’t the real deal and it’s a hard bargain! Johaari Bazaar and Chameliwala Market are also destinations to check for gemstones, and due to the many gem scams that have been reported in the last years, a gemstone-testing lab has been set up to get their gems checked and authenticated.
Indians have an obsession with gold and the country remains the world’s largest consumer for gold (about 20%), as it is historically and culturally tied to wealth and prosperity. India has only three major working gold mines despite its huge appetite for it; one estimates that it has 20,000 tons gold reserve spread out over several states (Rajasthan is NOT one of them). Especially in the states with the gold mines, dust washers – people sweeping the streets/back alleys to find flecks of gold – can be found, although there are few in Jaipur at this time.
HERITAGE HOTELS IN RAJASTHAN
Due to the heritage of kings and emperors, Rajasthan is famous for heritage hotels – palace turned hostels and hotels that cater for the budget as well as the upmarket traveller. Most heritage hotels house little museums with artefacts of the old times, old photographs of the families that inhabited the palaces and mansions, and frequently, the descendants of royal families run these family properties with anything from 10 to 100 rooms.
JODHPUR & SURROUNDINGS
The district of Jodhpur was known as the ancient kingdom of Marwar, the largest kingdom in Rajputana and the third largest of the Indian kingdoms, after Kashmir and Hyderabad. The city of Jodhpur stands at the edge of the Thar desert and is the largest city in Rajasthan after Jaipur. It’s dominated by a massive fort built in 1459, which sits on a rocky ridge rising in the middle of town. Jodhpur is commonly known as the blue city, as all houses in the old city below the fort are painted blue, to distinguish them as those of Brahmins (=priests).
The Meherangarh Fort is still run by the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who owns this majestic fort sprawled across the 125m high hill. It is said to be the most impressive fort in fort-studded Rajasthan. A winding road leads to the entrance from the city and offers stunning views of the city below. The fort has seven gates, a number of courtyards and palaces, which offer the most fascinating collections of artefacts in Rajasthan.
The city of Jodhpur boasts no less than three colourful bazaars, the Kapra, Mochi and Sardar bazaar, which are particularly well known for great clothes shopping. The Rajasthan people show a distinct preference for bright costumes, and wear beautiful ornaments. The preferred colours are bright red, dazzling yellow, lively green, and bright orange, highlighted by a lavish use of sparkling gold and silver zari. The turbans reflect a person’s caste and region in the way it is tied, coloured and styled.
Jodhpurs are tight-fitting trousers that reach to the ankle, where they end in a snug cuff and usually worn for horse-riding, however, the traditional Jodhpuri suits are worn to special occasions such as weddings and formal gatherings. Jodhpurs originate from an Indian trouser called the Churidar, and are especially popular in Northern India. A son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Sir Pratab Singh, made the pants popular in England at the end of the 19th century when he came to play polo. Over the years, a particular style of Jodhpur pants for women developed as well.
The famous puppet-makers of Jodhpur – Tales from the Old Days
The string puppets of Rajasthan are known as Kathputhlis (NB: link to Kathputli Colony in Delhi) in the local slang, and Jodhpur and Jaipur are the main centres for this particular piece of Indian craftsmanship. The puppets are about two feet high with a wooden head, enormous noses, and large eyes. The body is made of colourful and bright pieces of cloth, honouring the traditional regional costumes, and their themes revolve around Rajasthani historical tales or local legends. The Bhatt community usually performs with their puppets at night in and around Jodhpur. Some characters are a must – the court dancer, the snake charmer, or the stunt horse rider..
Bishnoi Villages – the eco-warriors of the desert
Southeast of Jodhpur, accessible only by jeep, heavy-duty rickshaw or on foot a dirt road, one finds the local tribe known as the Bishnois. They are known for their conservationist philosophies, modern-day eco-warriors, who cherish every drop of water and every bit of food nature offers in a habitat as inhospitable, yet beautiful, as the Thar desert, which stretches over the greater part of Rajasthan. The Bishnoi cult was established in the late 15th century by Guru Jambhoji, who outlined 29 conservation principles for living in harmony with nature (Bishnoi translates to 29), and they have maintained their old way of life ever since. The Bishnoi diligently care for animals, trees and the environment, a rare occurrence in rapidly modernising India. The Bishnoi are the ultimate vegetarians in a state that is famous for its vegetarian food; since there was little available for local people, they learned to make the most of what they did have (see local dishes with millet). One of their primary rules is that no tree can be cut down. They are also famously known for their local tea & opium ceremonies, which they perform religiously in the afternoons.
Out of the 29 principles, 10 principles are dedicated to personal hygiene and health, 9 for good human virtues /values / ethics, 6 for protection and compassion for living beings, and 4 for spiritual/religious life. Even after more than 520 years, these principles remain the foundation of living in Bishnoi villages [http://www.bishnoism.com].
- Tees Din Sutak – observe 30 days of impurity after birth and keep mother & child away from household activities
- Panch Rituvanti Niyaro – women are not allowed to participate in household activities during menstrual period
- Sairo Karo Sinan – daily morning bath [water conservation?]
- Sheel, Santosh and Suchi Piyaro – maintain good character, purity and cleanliness
- Dwi-Kal Sandhya Karo – pray twice a day (morning & evening)
- Sanjh Aarti Gun Gao – sing hymn of praise to God in the evening
- Hom Hit, Chit, Preet Su Hoy – offer oblation in the holy fire, with feelings of welfare, devotion and love
- Pani, Indhan, Dudh Ne Lije Chhan – use filtered water, milk and firewood to make them bacteria/insects free
- Bani Ne Lije Chhan – think before you speak (speak carefully)
- Ekshma Hirde Dharo – Practice forgiveness from the heart
- Daya Hirde Dharo – Be compassionate
- Chori Barjiyo – stealing or using someone else’s things is prohibited
- Ninda Barjiyo – condemnation/criticism is prohibited
- Jhuth Barjiyo – telling lies is prohibited
- Bad Na Karno Koy – don’t engage in unnecessary controversy
- Amawas Vart Rakhno – observe the fast on the last day of the dark half of the month
- Bhajan Vishnu Batayo Joy – worship and recite name of Vishnu in joy
- Jeev Daya Palani – be compassionate to all living beings
- Runkh Lila Nahi Ghave – do not cut green trees
- Ajar Jare Jeevat Mare – Control / win over AJARS (anger, lust , pride…)
- Kare Rasoi Hath Su – eat home cooked food (pure food)
- Amar Rakhave That – provide shelters for abandoned animals so they can complete their life in dignity
- Bail Badhiya Na Karave – do not castrate bulls
- Amal Su Dur Hi Bhage – don’t consume or trade in opium
- Tamakhu Su Dur Hi Bhage – don’t smoke / use tobacco & its products
- Bhang Su Dur Hi Bhage – don’t consume or deal in narcotics
- Madh Su Dur Hi Bhage – don’t drink or deal alcohol
- Mans Su Dur Hi Bhage – don’t eat meat or other non-vegetarian food
- Leel Na Lave Ang – don’t use violet blue colour extracted from green indigo plant [why?]
Bishnois sacrificing their lives for trees:
Bishnois are known to seek living in complete harmony with their environment, and have gone as far as to martyr themselves for the cause of protecting trees and wild life. In the old days, they would appeal to the rulers/kings of Rajasthan for banning tree cutting and hunting, but frequently their faith was tested. Interestingly, this otherwise peaceful tribe is fiercely aggressive about their pacifism. The greatest heroes are men and women who gave up their lives saving trees and animals. From the first fight with the Rajput in 1543 for saving the life of male goats, to as recent as the year 2000, when a 35-year-old Bishnoi sacrificed his life when chasing poachers, Bishnois have given their lives again and again for the sake of preserving nature (sometimes individuals, sometimes groups of people).
Bundi in the Hadoti region is a real slice of Indian past, off the beaten tourist track. Located only 39 km north-west of Kota in the southeast of Rajasthan, it’s a picturesque and captivating little town, and part of its appeal lies in the few tourists finding their way here. Set in a narrow encircling gorge, it has remained relatively isolated and independent, and the Chambal River even offers opportunities for water adventures. Bundi’s palace alone justifies a visit, a splendid piece of Rajput architecture. Rudyard Kipling, born in Bombay of British India in 1865, who became one of the world’s most praised short story writers and children’s book author (ie The Jungle Book), found inspiration for his novel Kim here after staying in the Sukh Mahal for a few days in the late 19thcentury. He is quoted to have said ‘The Taragarh Fort must have been built by angels not by human beings’. Bundi is further known for its world-famous and sacred Chitrashala paintings.
The town fully comes to life during the 3-day Bundi Utsav festival, held this year from 20-22 November, a cultural festival complete with traditional music, folk dance, kabaddi, horse riding and camel races, fireworks and a moustache as well as a turban-tying competition that bring the streets alive and draws locals from surrounding villages. The Tourism Board estimated that 90% of the region attends the festivities, plus the odd 1000 tourists that find their way here who are generously invited to participate in moustache and turban tying competitions. On the second evening of the festival, the palace is lit with millions of lights for a small festival of light and in the early mornings, women float lighted diyas (lamps prepared by flour dough) into the river and pray and chant, with the temple and hills providing a stunning backdrop.