Shoulders still complaining about last night’s impromptu bhangra party, we departed Agra bright and early on New Year’s Day. The roads were quieter than I’d expected – perhaps everybody else had had a little too much daaru (booze) the night before.
We reached our first stop of the day, Fatehpur Sikri, after just an hour on the road. In India, that feels like a quick drive into the next town. But we soon discovered we’d be trading our relatively rickety bus for an even dodgier one, which would take us the few kilometres up the track to the main entrance.
Whatever would we do without Manu and his yellow gilet? I’d probably still be lost in Delhi.
Fatehpur Sikri has a very eerie feel to it. The abandoned Mughal complex almost looks brand new – its red sandstone walls, delicate carvings and beautifully landscaped gardens barely look as if time has touched them at all. And yet this vast palace is nearly 500 years old. Built in the 1570s to commemorate Emperor Akbar’s conquering of Gujarat, it was quickly made the capital of the Mughal Empire. But the walled city was abandoned the very next decade, as he went off to do some more conquering in Punjab. By the 1610s, it was a ghost town.
A couple of hundred years later, the British arrived, and took a liking to the place . The grandeur of the place must have chimed with their lust for power, while the lack of people in it made it A) easier to steal and B) a more appealing prospect, since we Brits do not like talking to people. The Marquess of Hastings ordered a massive restoration project in 1815, which explains why it looks so fresh and clean.
You enter Fatehpur Sikri via the Jantar Darbar, a public courtyard once used for displays. There’s also a random stone slab that trespasses on the grass, which had so many ‘keep off the grass’ signs that the greenery seemed to hold as much status as the Mughals themselves. Hopefully the grass didn’t abuse its power like they did, for this stone slab was used for a particularly grisly form of execution. The condemned person was pinned down upon it, then trampled by elephants. In the words of Hot Fuzz – nasty way to go.
Our tour guide met us here, giving Mohammed a quick once over to see if my NRI (non-resident Indian) friend would be game for his desi jokes. Bond established, we crossed the threshold, and were greeted with a breathtaking courtyard. This Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience, a la Delhi) was the centrepiece.
Here, Akbar met with his ministers and advisors in utmost spectacle. The building has two storeys, but the top floor is more a mezzanine, where the Emperor would literally sit above his politicians. They, meanwhile, would have to be content with the floor seats. But, they did have something to look at should the meetings get boring – the whole building is supported by a gorgeous pillar, which features intricate decorations, including Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jain, and even Zoroastrian symbols.
As I poured my hands over this beautifully carved column, our guide struck up a conversation with Mohammed in Hindi/Urdu. I don’t know much of the language, but I do know if I hear the words ‘gora’, ‘gori’ or ‘gore’, I should furrow my brow in indignation, as it means someone’s having a laugh at the expense of white people. Understood – centuries of colonial oppression does make us a fair target.
“What is the meaning of this?”, I quizzed my friend, feigning deep offence. Mohammed rolled his eyes. “He’s just saying he likes to have a joke around with the foreigners – you know, tell them wild historical stories that aren’t necessarily true. It’s harmless”. I chuckled, but now I’m wondering whether the elephant story I just told you is a complete lie. Probably not, right? Sounds like the sort of thing the Mughals did.
Strolling across the vast courtyard, we came to an ornamental pool of water, topped by four narrow pathways leading to a central platform. As well as being a source of hydration, it may also have been a source of entertainment, as dancing shows and fake fights were held on the stage. My mind wandered, thinking Akbar sat on his throne and watched the 16th century version of Total Wipeout.
In the background, you can see the Panch Mahal, a unique five-tiered pavilion that rather resembles a wedding cake.
There are three separate palaces here, for each of Akbar’s three wives. The Muslim wife, of Central Asian origin, certainly got the raw end of the deal – her palace is a small, 3-room pavilion that faces onto the Total Wipeout pool. It might have been beautifully decorated, but it was still only a few rooms, in a place that’s not exactly short of space.
The Christian wife had slightly better suited accommodation, but Akbar’s Hindu wife Jodha Bai had the best of the lot. Her house had a grand entrance befitting her revered position, was totally separate from the Emperor’s quarters (nighttime booty calls were thus more inconvenient for him), and most importantly was close to the palace kitchen. As she was vegetarian, this was key to maintaining her religious beliefs.
Barbs and I strolled around, taking in the serene atmosphere and elaborate construction. It’s currently undergoing restoration, which means future generations should be able to enjoy the palaces just as we did. And boy did we enjoy them.
Too white to come out in photos. I see why they call me a gori.
Fatehpur Sikri is vast, so we didn’t get to see all of it, especially as we were a bit pushed for time. Before we knew it, we were back on the rickety old bus. Mohammed, feeling a little unwell (and possibly tired from all that dancing yesterday) opted to sit up front, so I got a chance to chat to the other people on the tour/stare out of the window for long periods of time. We passed through the city of Bharatpur, which I didn’t think looked like much, but turns out it actually has a very cool, moated fort in the centre of town.
It also seemed to be a local gathering place, with hundreds of wedding halls and big groups of friends talking to one another. I recall seeing a group of blokes hanging around in a car park, who with their motorbikes and leather jackets, might have been the Indian chapter of Hells Angels.
Outside of the city, though, it was a completely different vibe. The dusty roads conclusively proved we were in Rajasthan. It’s a desert state, and the people here make incredible use of the limited natural resources. Hundreds and hundreds of cowpats were lined up in the winter sun, which didn’t make sense to my untrained Western eye until they led to a roadside hut made of dried cowpat. Might be a smelly place to wait, but it certainly keeps the sun off your skin.
By this point, we were all pretty peckish, so we stopped for lunch at a heritage hotel in the village of Abhaneri. It was a lovely place – the hotel’s magnolia pavilions looked out over a lovely lawn, and we sat on the veranda, rotis appearing beside us whenever it looked like we were running out. I craved something sweet for afters, though. I remembered we’d bought some mithai sweets from Agra for everyone to celebrate the dawn of 2020.
Waking Mohammed up from a post-lunch snooze, I panicked. “The malai!” (meaning milk, not sweets) “We forgot the malai!” Barbs narrowed his eyes and shook his head. “What malai? What are you talking about?” Despite realising this was probably the wrong time to ask him, I continued nonetheless. “The malai, you know, we got it yesterday. It’s going to go off if we don’t hand it out”. Suddenly, the penny dropped. My poor Hindi knowledge had failed me once again, and here I was yapping about dishing out milk to the group. “Oh, the mithai. Let’s give that out”. Barbs and I cracked open the box and shared our colourful, tasty, rich sweets with our new pals.
Despite the fact Abhaneri is a tiny village, there’s quite a bit to do. Its most famous landmark is the Chand Baori, a 9th century stepwell that extends 30 metres into the ground. The square hole is filled with 3,500 symmetrical steps, which all lead to a green pool of water at the bottom. In a place where water is so scarce, you have to really dig down to reach the water table, and that’s exactly what Chand Baori’s builders did.
Perhaps you saw it in the Dark Knight Rises, when Batman was held prisoner in it.
On the right hand side of the picture is a Mughal haveli (multi-storey palace), which was added on by the royals as a shaded residence to retreat to when Rajasthan became too hot to handle. There’s also allegedly a secret passageway in one of the arches, which leads to the local fort – providing a handy escape route when the invaders came knocking.
You’d just have to be careful not to fall into the water in your rush to escape.
The weather had hotted up enough for us to – shock horror – leave our coats on the bus.
The entire complex has an arched walkway enveloping it, where finely detailed reliefs from the ancient temple next door are on display. These make for fascinating viewing, and they offer up a glimpse into the very visual world of Hindu scripture.
This, I think, is a representation of the Hindu trinity – Brahma, Visnu, and Shiva.
They need to be kept here, because the 9th century Harshad Mata Temple next door is very exposed and open to the elements. That causes all sorts of problems – as well as the dust storms, heat and the sun, there’s the odd bit of rain, which can wreak havoc on gorgeous carvings like this.
Amazingly, the temple remains largely intact. You can wander its many levels, peeling back layers of Indian history as you go. But the object that attracts the most attention? That would be the stone depictions of scenes from the kama sutra, that age-old book of sexy times. As soon as Manu told us we could see it brought to life in glorious detail, we made a beeline for it. I’m not really sure what I expected to find – I definitely saw some saucy boob-touching going on, but that’s the most graphic I could find. Either that or the other scenes were so weird, wacky and wonderful that I didn’t understand what was going on.
In the hope of getting my mind out of the gutter, I took my boots off and headed up the steps to the main temple, where a sacred ceremony was going on. I was keen to observe, but I didn’t go inside and take part, because I’m not religious and didn’t want to get entangled in an ethical debate about cultural appropriation with myself.
Besides, I’d spotted some cool souvenirs at the market, and wanted a go at haggling. We were all nervous, but I figured there was strength in numbers, so headed over to a stall with a nice American lady from the group. Let the bartering begin.
This small, metal elephant was 900 rupees (£9) in the main tourist shops, but this guy was selling it for 200 (£2). I should have stopped there – that’s already a bargain. But my greedy ass wanted it for even less, as Barbs had told me that people would see my pasty face and try to rip me off.
Apparently, the tactic is go with a quarter or a third of what the seller is saying, then meet somewhere in the middle. I went in with an offer of 50 rupees, and even he was horrified. “Miss, I am poor, I live in a village. You are rich”. He had a point. I hung my head a little, but I was in this now. I was willing to go up to 100 rupees, but I made the mistake of walkig away before he really had a chance to lower his price. Then, I was too ashamed to go back. So I guess nobody won!
The sun set over Abhaneri as we continued on to Jaipur. Manu came to join us at the back of the coach, and a man as chatty and open-hearted as him was bound to spark a deep conversation. Mohammed and I, our adopted Korean parents and Manu talked about everything from Indian politics to what to do about ageing parents. It was quite refreshing, really – a sign that the small talk we started the tour off with was gradually evolving into a more meaningful connection.
While the roads of Rajasthan had been empty, Jaipur was full of life. The Pink City glittered with lights, and buzzed with the sound of motorbikes all around. I could tell we were in for something special in Rajasthan’s famous capital.