India: Part 2

INDIA – part two

On the day before our visit to the Taj Mahal, we got several viewings of it at a distance. Magical! Surrounded by heat haze, it was like something out of an Arthurian legend.

We were ferried to the collection point by our coach, leaving us half a mile to cover on foot. For some reason best known to him, a middle-aged Indian chap decided that I was in need of a wheelchair and he followed me relentlessly (much to the mirth of our party) indicating that I should park my derriere on his mobile apparatus. In the end I had to get really cross. I mean, there were far less fit males in our company than me!

Close up, the TM is absolutely magnificent. For me it was the highlight of the holiday – a place I’ve always wanted to experience. And it’s just as impressive on the inside. Queueing for entry was horrible though. Men and women separated, so I lost sight of Abby for a while. We were lined up in a tubular steel maze and it resembled going to a football match. Rowdy youths were queue jumping and one of our party, an old soldier, was getting increasingly fraught. He told me he suffered with PTSD and I did my best to calm him by making fun of the chaos. It worked a bit!

Inside the Taj I was a bit apprehensive. The building was commissioned in the 17th century by Shah Jahan, a Moghul emperor, who was devastated by his wife’s death (Mumtaz Mahal). One of his sons’ (Aurangzeb) thought he was being too extravagant, obliterated his brothers and sister (rivals to the throne) and imprisoned dad whilst respecting his wish to see the monument completed from his prison cell. It’s a story worth reading in full, many points of similarity with King Lear, including the nursing of the failing old king by a daughter who was rejected by the others.

Gilly gave us an interesting account of the building’s background but if William Dalrymple is to be believed, it was a sanitised version. Mumtaz Muhal may have been the love of Shah Jahan’s life (he had three wives in all) but he wasn’t above jumping into bed with his daughter, which was not uncommon for Moghul royalty!

Incest, the game from Hasbro that the whole family can play!

There had been hints from our guide that IS were showing an interest in moving into India and I could see several weaknesses that would enable that. A Moslem woman could easily have outwitted security and got into the Taj Mahal. Let’s face it, as a Moslem monument dedicated to a person rather than Mohammed, it was ripe for an IS demolition job. The hundreds of people packed into the inside of the mausoleum would have been prime targets for a people massacre and India has managed a few of those this century.

Rendezvousing with the coach after our hour at the Taj was the most uncomfortable experience thus far of the holiday, being subject to constant aggressive harassment from beggars and pedlars. One young girl, 19 or so, kept thrusting her baby into my face and pointing at his face, at the centre of which was a cleft palate. Ignoring her was impossible without feeling heartless. Gilly took the initiative, picked out the best of those hawking their wares and held their goods up from the front of the bus, indicating if he thought we were being asked a fair price. That worked well.

On to Fatepuhr Sikri – yet another Moghul fort – but generously spaced out and devoid of crowds. The emperor had a built a palace for each of his three wives – Persian (favourite and much larger), Moslem and Hindu. Gilly introduced us to the concept of Hijras and their importance to the court. He made them synonymous with eunuchs but I’m not sure that’s correct. Aren’t they hermaphrodites? Again Dalrymple tracked down today’s Hijra groups in Delhi. A tiny but fascinating sector of Delhi society.

We took lunch at an outside venue that reminded me of The Far Pavilions. It might well have been English countryside, then it was back on board the coach for a 300 mile ride to the national park at Rathnambore, the part of the holiday that Abby had been most looking forward to. Tigers!

It was 80 degrees and the sun was beating down but Gilly said that it was against the law to draw the coach’s curtains in certain states (and Rajasthan was one of them) since the gang rape and murder of an Indian woman about three years ago which preceded a number of copycat crimes.

We passed through rural villages which were steeped in poverty. Children, clad in dirty inadequate clothes, waved at the rich Europeans passing through in their coach and there was not a sad face in sight. The road was a constant mess of potholes with frequent emergency stops for cattle in the road.

The Hotel Rathnambore was worth waiting for – delivered straight from the days of the Raj, an oasis of luxury in a desert of deprivation. We were travel-weary and not at all cheered by the news that we must be at our collection point by 5.30 next morning for the jungle safari.

It was Gilly’s one goof up of the holiday. He had not organised the paperwork properly for the safari and it meant we didn’t actually depart until 6.15 thus missing the best time to catch sight of our tiger as it returned to its lair from a night of hunting. We did catch a glimpse of a tiger (about a hundred yards away – see pic)  along with crocodiles, impala, sambars, rare birds and different breeds of monkey.

We had a jungle stopover at a small shanty and I sought a private place in the jungle for a leek. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a toilet bowl standing alone in a clearing. Where? How? Why? Of course, I had to pee into it.

I couldn’t face the sunset safari or at least my damaged back couldn’t. I asked Gilly if I would be okay if I went for a walk round the village instead. He said I would be fine as long as I kept an eye on the wayward traffic, (there are no pavements, of course). However, I did find ‘The English Wineshop’ and a Swedish massage parlour. Globalisation pops up in the most unlikely settings.

They never saw the tiger again, so I made the right choice. After my promenade I watched the cricket between England and India, sponsored by Tata and Sky. Corporations rule the world. The coverage was so frenetic that it was impossible to discern match play from replay and the rerun adverts outweighed the cricket for actual broadcasting time.

After dinner, we got wind of a Hindu engagement party across the road from the hotel so along with Howard & Hazel, Pat & Dave, we ventured out to watch what goes on. The hotel security were most concerned about our safety and insisted we walked no more than a couple of hundred yards. I could see nothing to be worried about.

The next day was Jaipur – the pink city. After breakfast I stood by the roadside and watched the school bus, a tiny van with 12 kiddies in it, and numerous families packed on their scooters (no exaggeration, four on a scooter was commonplace) and an armada of tractors and camel-pulled carts.

Jaipur and the return to Delhi will make up part 3 of my narrative.

FROM L to R and Top to Bottom

A tiger like the one we saw, the Taj Mahal from afar, in the TM complex, a camel cart at Rathnambore, a Hindu engagement party.


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© Alan Combes, 2019. All Rights Reserved

Alan Combes