Review: Delhi and Rajasthan
Ten days in Delhi and Rajasthan
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We were planning a holiday to Bhutan in 2009. We would need to fly from Delhi to Bhutan so we decide to take the chance to spent a few days in Delhi and see a very small part of India. We decided on rural Rajasthan and chose two bases – Mount Abu, a hill station and Narlai a small village near the ruins of Kumbhalgarh Fort and the carved marble temples of Ranakpur. Both had the advantage of being well off the usual western tourist route.
This is very much intended as a brief summary of our trip, as I have written detailed reviews on Silver Travel of the places mentioned.
We used Audley Travel in the UK to do all the bookings for us. We have used them for several long distance trips as they tailor make itineraries to our very precise requirements. They used Banyan Tours and Travel to make all the arrangements in India.
Distances in India are huge so we decided to use overnight trains for traveling between places. We booked AC1 accommodation. This is either two or four berth. Being 'Elderly Europeans' we were allocated a two berth compartment on most trains. Class 2 or 3 had curtains screening off the beds. There were ordinary coaches with seats only. You cannot reserve these and they are usually overcrowded with people in the corridors and hanging out of the doors.
Apparently they do build new coaches and have the largest coach building works in the world. We didn't see any on our journeys. We did travel in one coach which would have been state of the art about 1950 with formica everywhere. A small wardrobe and art deco light shades. (the toilets at the end of the coach were 1950s vintage too – reminiscent of BR toilets of that time with the same smell…)
Travelling by train is an eye opener. Trains are full and over flowing with passengers. Stations are busy with passengers, porters, hawkers and railway children who live on the platform and exist by scavenging and begging. There is always noise – announcements of train arrivals and departures. On long distance routes, time keeping can be poor and trains may be several hours late.
We were amazed by the number of people seen walking along the railway line. It seems to be a recognised route-way. The railway authorities try and discourage it but are fighting a losing battle. Many people are killed each day.
The contrast between the haves and the have nots in India is very marked. I don't think anything can prepare you for the number of people, the traffic, the squalor and the living conditions of many people, especially in the towns. Life in the countryside may be tough and basic but at least they have food. Begging was endemic. Everywhere we went we were approached by kids "Hello, dollar. Hello, money. Hello ball pen….." which could be intimidating. We soon learnt to avoid quiet areas with few people around as the kids could hoy a stone after you.
Litter is everywhere and many people were living surrounded by a sea of polythene etc. Pigs, cows and goats wandered freely in the streets scavenging for food. At night the cows would wait by the house door to be let in. Larger houses are built around a courtyard where the cows are kept during the night. In smaller shacks they are tethered outside (or even inside..)
The vast majority of Indians are charming people and very kind and keen to help. However there is a small percentage who are out to make money from unsuspecting tourists. Scams are abundant everywhere and changing all the time. As a tourist you need to be aware and prepared for these. Below are some of the more common ones. • Taxis around railway stations may tell you your hotel is closed/full or burnt down and want to take you to another one where they get a commission and you pay a premium rate. • Many taxis/cars don't have or refuse to use a meter. Overcharging is rife among less reputable drivers. Make sure you know what a fair price is and negotiate hard before getting into the taxi. If you are unhappy about the amount the driver is asking, check with your hotel when you arrive and ask them what a reasonable amount is, before you pay. Big hotels will help you with this and defuse potentially difficult situations. • You may encounter unofficial guides at tourist attractions who start to talk to you in a friendly way. If you ask questions you get their version of the guided tour. These can be of variable quality – some are excellent and worthy of a tip, others not – BUT you are still expected to tip. One even pursued us to the car in search of his tip. • Requests for contributions to a school or other worthy cause. Michael nearly got caught by this one in Lodi Gardens. He was approached by a very well dressed gentleman in a suit who pinned a flag on him and asked, "Where do you come from… Ah, England, my favourite country…" He then produced a clip board and asked for a contribution to a children's school. The clipboard had a list of names who had contributed 500r, 1000r, 1500r and upwards. At this point Michael realised he was being scammed and said he'd no money on him. It was all in the car… It worked. The gentleman reclaimed his flag and then went in search of another victim.
But all of these pale into insignificance when you look at the architecture – and that is what we went to see.
We were blown away by Indian architecture and history. The tourist guides just concentrate on the 'honey pot' sites but there are hundreds more sites which are equally as good. This presents problems as there isn't enough money to conserve every site and often difficult decisions need to be taken about prioritising spending.
We spent a very well worthwhile day going round Old Delhi with a guide and driver. We started off at Jama Masjid Mosque, the largest mosque in Delhi which can hold 25,000 worshippers. From there we spent a couple of hours walking round the maze of streets around Chandri Chowk (the main market area) and into areas well off the usual tourist beat. We were the only western faces. We finished off at the stunning Red Fort, which was the home and the capital of the Mughals until 1857 when they were exiled by the British. We loved the buzz, bustle and life of Old Delhi. This was a good day. We were lucky with both our guide and driver. Delhi traffic is frightening…
We hired a car and driver for two half days to see some of the sites of New Delhi – Safdarjang's Tomb, Lodhi Gardens, Humayuni's Tomb and Purana Qila. This saved any problems with taxis. We enjoyed all of these sites – each very different and apart from Humayuni's Tomb get few foreign tourists. This is a World Heritage Site and a very similar style of architecture to the Taj Mahal. It was surrounded by formal gardens and water courses which are the most complete gardens of their type left in India.
Purana Qila was close by and was the sixth city built in Delhi. It is a huge site surrounded by a massive red sandstone wall. Humayuni fell to his death down the library steps here. It gets few foreign tourists and it is sensible to stay in well frequented areas.
Safdarjang's Tomb is popular with Indians but gets few foreign tourists. There has been little money to maintain the building and surroundings. This is a shame as it was one of the last Mughal tombs to be built and is a beautiful building.
Lodhi Gardens are a short drive from Safdarjang's Tomb. They were laid out in 1936 with fountains, ponds, streams, flowering trees and shrubs and flowers. It is popular with locals and courting couples in the evenings. It contains several tombs and mosques from the 15-16thC which predate the Mughals. This is a nice place to wander.
From Delhi we caught the overnight train to Abu Road, the station for Mount Abu. Here we were met by the driver who was to take us round Rajasthan. The relationship with the guide or driver is critical to the success of a holiday. We fell on our feet with Bhawani, who was a charming person. Once he worked out the kind of things we liked to do and see extra stops were added to the itinerary.
He took us into a small rural school. There were 79 children in five classes. It was a long low building with very basic classrooms beside a rough playing area. We went into one class with 12 small girls sitting cross legged on mats on the floor. Each had a well used exercise book and pencil. There was a blackboard but no sign of any other resources in the room. It was dark as the only light was through a small window. The teacher had no English. As we left he put out his hand asking for money. There were a lot of children running round the village and not in school. Schooling is given low priority in rural areas as the children are needed for labour.
Mount Abu, which is Rajasthan's only hill resort. Many princes and rulers had summer houses at Mount Abu and some are now heritage hotels. This is popular with Indian Honeymooners buy sees few western tourists. We stopped in the Palace Hotel, which was a 19thC building and originally the summer palace of the Maharajas of Bikaner. It had the feel of faded grandeur and Britain back in the 1930s with the tennis court and tea served under the trees.
In the grounds was a small private boarding school for boys. We went for a walk one evening and as soon as the boys saw us we were surrounded by about 20 of them. They wanted to know where we came from, our names, what currency we used…Michael showed him $1 and $5 dollar notes and also £5, £10 and £20. There were amazed whistles when he said the £20 was worth 1400 rupees. That was great wealth. As soon as they found out I used to be a teacher, I was shown all their exercise books. These were beautifully laid out and very neat. Different coloured ink was used for questions and answers. The science was very old fashioned – flower structure, yeast, ferns, plant anatomy and very detailed information on soil profiles. Physics covered sound and light but there were no diagrams or indication of any practical work. We were struck by their keenness to learn in conditions where they didn't have computers and all the 'must have technology' which our kids seem unable to learn without.
People visit Mount Abu for the Dilwara Jain Temples which are renowned for their beautiful marble carvings. As it is a sacred pilgrimage place of the Jains and no photographs were allowed inside. Small books of pictures can be bought for a few rupees from vendors outside the temples.
We also visited Achalgar, a small settlement near Mount Abu with the 15thC Achleshaw Mahadev Temple dedicated to Shiva. The central building was surrounded by a wall with small shrines round the edge and the remains of an 8thC temple were being restored.
After Mount Abu we drove to Narlai. We dropped back down to the plain and picked up a newly opened dual carriageway. This cut through towns and settlements and any buildings on the line of the road had been demolished. The concept of a dual carriageway is alien to the locals. People and cows were walking along the road, there were people selling from the central reservation, traffic going the wrong way, including a bus and then a bullock cart with person holding an umbrella.
Narlai is described as a village but was much bigger than we expected. It is a Hindu and Jain religious centre with many old temples. It is overlooked by a huge granite outcrop with caves and temples and the marble statue of an elephant on the top. We stopped at Fort Rawla Hotel. This was a 17thC fortress which was later a hunting lodge belonging to Maharaja Umaid Singhji of Jodhpur. It has been restored as a heritage hotel.
We had a full day visit to Kumbhalgarth Fort which was built in the 15thC on an impressive site in top of the Aravalli Hills. It had a population of 30,000 and was self sufficient in food and water. It was surrounded by a massive walls, 36km long. The citadel at the top of the hill was approached through 7 different gateways. There were over 360 temples. Many still survive and are beautifully carved. There are still small villages inside the fort with people farming. It really made you realise just how great a civilisation there had been in India which made what we were building at the time look insignificant.
We also went to Ranakpur from Narlai, to visit the Jain temples. Again these were beautifully carved marble and you are allowed to take photographs in the temples but not of the gods. This was a well worthwhile visit.
After Narlai we drove to Udaipur where we would catch the overnight train back to Delhi. We drove through a major marble quarrying area and for miles the road was lined with small businesses selling marble tiles cut into all sizes and shapes. Lorries were thundering along the road with huge blocks of marble from the quarries. There was even a camel pulling a slab of marble on a cart and camels by the road waiting for work. There were huge great machines for cutting the marble and piles of chipings everywhere. We now understood why marble is such a common building stone rather than an expensive luxury.
We enjoyed our stay in Rajasthan. It gave us chance to see some of rural India, how people lived and the problems facing them. It had been a poor monsoon that year and there were concerns about lack of water. Many of the lakes had little water in them. Few houses have a water supply and wells were beginning to run dry. People were having to walk further for water for every day essential use.
One of the things I will always remember are the languar monkeys which have pale grey fur with black faces and very long tails. They were everywhere in the Aravalli Hills. They would sit beside the roads waiting for cars to stop in the hope of food. If you did stop they were all over the car, climbing on the bonnet and peering in through the windows.
As well as writing separate reviews for Silver Travel Adviser of all the places mentioned, I also wrote a longer review which can be read here: http://www.slowtrav.com/tr/tripreport.asp?tripid=1791
Our pictures of Delhi can be seen here.
Our pictures of Rajasthan are here.
Website for Audley Travel; www.audleytravel.com/
Website for Banyan Tours and Travel: www.banyantours.com/HOME.aspx?tt
13 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.