India – Agra, without visiting the Taj Mahal

Oberoi AmarvilasThere is nowhere more welcoming in the world than the Oberoi Hotel in Agra. After our journey from Gwalior, and a long day’s sightseeing, it was just bliss to be taken to our room, with its wonderful view of the Taj Mahal; to sit on the balcony with some chilled white wine purloined from the minibar, and to observe the immaculate gardens, the inviting pool, and of course Shah Jahan’s immortal temple to love on the horizon. Oberoi gardensOnce we were thoroughly relaxed, we headed down to the bar for a Tanqueray 10 and tonic in the best setting you can imagine, before going for a meal. Every time we’ve been to this hotel before, I’d always failed to get into the Esphahan restaurant for dinner – it had always been fully booked. I wasn’t taking any chances this time, having booked it a couple of weeks before we left the UK. It was as sumptuous as I’d hoped.

AgraThis time in Agra, we thought we’d try something different. We’d agreed with our travel agent that we would do a different kind of tour – a walking tour of old Agra, seeing some well-known sights from different angles; getting to see some of the places that tourists don’t always visit. It was called C The 4 is For Your Eyes, and our guide for this half-day experience was Meghan.

Agra FortWe’d been to Agra Fort before but this time we started at the “back entrance” – the Army gate, built in 1080. It’s still formed from that familiar red stonework, but is a much less impressive and formal entrance, used only by the army. Nevertheless, you still get a good impression of the fort’s grandeur Dr. B.R. Ambedkarand size. From there we walked a little way to see a monument to the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He stands halfway up a spiral staircase, as if to portray his rise to success from a humble background.

Jami Masjid MosqueNext we took a bicycle rickshaw into the depths of the old city. The strength of these old men who carry portly westerners about is extraordinary! We ended up at the Jami Masjid Mosque, built in 1648 by Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara. It has a grand, imposing frontage, but once you walk inside it’s surprisingly plain; it’s primary reason is to act as the Friday Mosque, so it is designed to be able toMarket accommodate the largest number of worshippers as easily as possible. From there we headed into the market streets, where we saw a wide range of products on sale; primarily fabrics and clothes, but also sweets, flowers and jewellery. It was fun to just dawdle and learn from Meghan all about the fabrics, the sweets and so on.

money garlandsThere was a fascinating shop by Daresi Road that sold garlands made from rupee notes that are worn by a bridegroom for good luck – and for the fortune that they contain, of course. Naturally I had to try one on. They’re quite bulky, because they contain so many notes, that you would find it difficult to Mankameshwar Mandirdo much else whilst wearing one! We walked past Mankameshwar Mandir, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, but we didn’t go in – can’t quite remember why. I think it may simply have been too busy. We stopped off and had a delicious cup of marsala chai instead.

Mehtab BargOur bicycle rickshaw man was waiting for us and conveyed us out of the market area back on to the main streets and towards one final sight – the Taj Mahal – but from the other side of the River Yamuna. There’s a large garden, almost meadow area there, called the Mehtab Bagh, where you can wonder round freely and enjoy superb views of the Taj Mahal without having to wrestle with all the other tourists.

Taj MahalWe spent ages just idling around, taking in the views and the peace, and generally relaxing before Meghan finally called us and arranged for Mr Singh to collect us. It was a very enjoyable and different way of seeing the city and we’d definitely recommend it. Not that you should avoid the Taj Mahal if you haven’t properly visited it yet – it’s a must.

Where next? Mr Singh took us due south-west to visit the tigers of Ranthambhore.

India – Datia, Sonagiri and Gwalior

DatiaThe drive from Orchha to Gwalior takes a good five hours so Sachun had plans for breaking up the day with some more interesting sights en route. 30 miles north of Orchha is the town of Datia, with a population of around 100,000; and I confess I hadn’t heard of it. But at the centre of the town is the Birsingh Deo Palace.Birsingh Deo Palace Birsingh Deo was a Bundela Rajput chief and the ruler of the Kingdom of Orchha from 1605 to 1626. It was built in 1620, and, having been to the Jahangir Mahal in Orchha the previous day, the palace is exactly the same style and layout, although perhaps not quite as large, but certainly not in as good condition.

TerracesSachun called for a man from one of the local houses to open it up for us so we could have a look around. I don’t think the man was best pleased, and he hung around waiting for us to finish so that he could go back home. “Leave him a good tip”, suggested Sachun. We did. Comparisons are odious, and it’s not as breathtaking as the Jahangir Mahal, but it’s still a lot of fun and has the added benefit of being very rarely visited, so we didn’t bump into anyone Overlooks lakeelse as we wandered around, and there aren’t many places in India where you can say that. Despite the size of its population, Datia is a sleepy little place and all the streets are very narrow and steep. It took all Mr Singh’s driving skills to get us to the front gate of the palace. I wished I’d had one fewer course at dinner the previous night.

SonagiriAfter an hour or so wandering around Datia, we got back in the car and drove another eleven miles to reach the extraordinary collection of Jain temples at Sonagiri. After walking beneath a welcoming archway you ascend a path and on the way there are 77 Jain temples of all shapes and sizes, built in the 9th and 10th centuries, and all in superbly maintained condition. They’re all painted white, elephantalthough some have some other coloured decoration, and each one bears a number in a circle, denoting which temple it is – the temples don’t otherwise have names. These are extremely holy in the Jain religion and I believe all Jains should visit here at least once. You have to walk barefoot throughout insidethe whole complex and on a hot day, which this was, you have to be very careful where you step because it’s easy to burn your feet. You can end up hopping from temple to temple which is hardly the dignified spirit that the complex deserves.

Sonagiri templesTemple No 57 is the most important and has an elephant outside, to welcome you in. It’s round, like an amphitheatre, and full of beautiful and delicate images of God. I didn’t discover until the end that you weren’t meant to take photos in there – sorry about that. At the top of the hill is a small square with a school and some memorials, where a young Indian family were taking a look around. Sonagiri boyThe boy was very keen to have his picture taken with me, and after his father snapped his shot, son and I bonded. I kept on turning corners and finding him there. The last photo I took at the top was of him looking back at me as we left. I gave him a wave, and he waved back.

Making sugarWe retraced our steps back down the hill, through the archway and back to the car for the onward journey to Gwalior. There was only one more stop to make before we got there – and that was at a roadside farm where they grew sugar cane and converted it into sugar – or, rather, jaggery. It’s fascinating to watch the process as they feed the huge stalks of sugar cane into a mill – it looks rather like an enormous old-fashioned food blender – and at the bottom out comes this juice and mixture that gets boiled up in huge pans over open fire and eventually cooled into blocks. It’s incredibly sweet, really delicious and is great for restoring an upset tummy.

Taj Usha Kiran Palace We snoozed the rest of the way to Gwalior but we woke up in time to enjoy the sight of the Hotel Taj Usha Kiran Palace coming into view. This is a sensationally beautiful place to stay, with a fabulous fountain outside that lights up at night, and so many beautiful courtyards scattered all over the hotel. We had a deluxe room, which totally spoiled us, and dined at the Silver Saloon, which was also jolly nice. The Bada Bar, which looks superb, was sadly closed when we there, but I’m sure it would be worth your while popping in for a gin and tonic.

Man MandirWe were only there for one night though, so the next morning we had to check out and leave our bags safely in Mr Singh’s boot before going off to explore Gwalior. We had said goodbye to Sachun the night before, so our guide for Gwalior, Pawan, met us at the hotel and took us into town. Gwalior is blessed with some stunning sights but none more than the amazing multi-storeyed Man Mandir Palace, Man Mandir duckswhich dominates the city and takes up the majority of the northern end of Gwalior Fort. It was built in 1508 by Raja Man Singh of the Tomar dynasty, and is decorated with blue, yellow and green tiles depicting parrots and peacocks, ducks, elephants, banana trees and crocodiles.

Sas BahuInside it’s in such good condition, it takes your breath away. At one time it was used as a prison, and the subterranean floors beneath the central courtyard were used as dungeons. There is so much ornate decoration, so many exquisite tiles, so many sudden surprise views to the valley below from unexpected balconies, that you wander around it with a silly grin on your face. Once you’ve explored the Man Mandir palace, there is also the Jain SculpturesGujari Mahal, built for the queen, which now houses an archaeological museum, and the Sas Bahu temples, 11th century Vishnu temples covered with brilliant carvings. At the foot of the fort, best seen from outside, are some very tall Jain sculptures lining the side of the road into the old town. You can appreciate their size best when you see people standing in the same photo!

Mohammed GhausAmongst the other must-see sights in Gwalior are the two Islamic tombs, one of Mohammed Ghaus, a Mughal nobleman, and one of Tansen, the famous singer. The lattice work in the windows is absolutely lattice workstunning and suggests true craftsmanship on behalf of those who created them. It’s worth spending some time here and just appreciating the glorious result of their hard work. We also visited the Jai Vilas Palace, Jai Vilas Palacebuilt in the late 19th century in the Italianate style for the Maharaja of Gwalior. The ex-royal family still live there, but part of the palace has been turned into a museum, showing some of the Maharaja’s toy trainmore eclectic interests. Bewitching chandeliers, elaborate vases, and, most fun of all, a toy train on the long dining table that was used to carry liqueurs around to all his dining guests. How the other half lived.

on the road againAfter that, our tour of Gwalior was done. It just remained for us to bid a quick goodbye to Pawan and to get into Mr Singh’s car for the 75 mile journey north to Agra. The Oberoi hotel in Agra, my favourite hotel in the whole wide world, was waiting for us.

India – Dhubela Museum and Orchha

BananasAfter breakfast, we had to tear ourselves away from the luxury that was the Hotel Lalit in Khajuraho; and it was a rift, I can tell you. But Sachun was very keen to get going, and he was right, because we had a lot to cover over the course of the day. The route to Orchha took us first through the town of Chhatarpur, which Sachun wanted to show us because it was where he was born and still lived. He waxed lyrical about it, but as far as I could make out, it was just another town.Chhatarpur Apologies to anyone proud of their relationship with Chhatarpur. We stopped for some bananas from a man with a banana stall, and I agree they were delicious. I’m sure Sachun could have made a case for the finest bananas in the world coming from Chhatarpur, but he stopped short. He pointed out the road where he lived. For an awful moment I thought we were going to have to take tea with his mum, but we continued on.

Shani TempleI’m being unfair, because Sachun’s local knowledge was excellent and he took us to a few places off the beaten track that I expect few tourists get to see. About ten miles north west of Chhatarpur, on the road to Nowgong, we stopped off at a lake. Mr Singh took the car a short way down towards a causeway that led to a little island on which perched the Shani Temple. We walked towards it as far as we could without getting our feet wet. As we got closer, I could see that a priest on the island had decided to wade out to greet us. Would we like to cross the water to see the temple? Not really, to be honest. CausewayWe were happy enough seeing it from afar. The priest seemed a little disgruntled, having got wet for nothing. It is, however, an extremely picturesque location. There were a group of boys wandering down the causeway too. Sachun suggested we had a chat with them, although he thought they would probably be quite embarrassed and tongue-tied. As expected, they were supremely polite, but got very animated when we mentioned cricket.

Hridayashah PalaceWe got back to the car and then just a mile or two later we arrived at a village that Sachun called Mahusanian, but in maps appears to be called Mau-Sahaniya. It’s just on the other side of the National Highway 75. It’s a sleepy little place that leads to another lake, but just before you reach it you find the remains (and I use the word wisely) of the Hridayashah Palace. It was originally built in 1733 for the eldest son of Maharaja Chhatrasal, and work is underway to restore it to some of its former glory. It might take some time – the workmen we saw there were definitely operating at an unhurried pace.

Dhubela MuseumJust a little beyond the palace, you reach yet another lake; a couple of guys had parked up their motorbikes and were having a bit of a wash and a splash, as you do. Adjacent to the lake is the austerely named Maharaja Chhatrasal Interpretation Center. This is nothing to do with language skills, but a museum, which our travel agents referred to as Dhubela Museum. It contains the Maharaja’s cenotaph; and many other interesting artefacts of days gone by. It was opened in 1955 by none other than Prime Minister Nehru. It’s a good displayHall of mirrors of locally found carvings, Jain statues, pillar inscriptions, Nandi bulls and yet more erotic sculptures, a la Khajuraho. There’s a collection of weapons and instruments of torture; and, totally unexpectedly and out of place, a hall of mirrors like you used to get at the funfair that distort your image, making you short and fat, or long and tall, and all other combinations in between. I guess the Maharaja had a sense of humour after all.

Amar MahalAnother drive, and 66 miles later we arrived at Orchha. We checked into our hotel, the Amar Mahal, which our travel agent said was the best they could provide in the town but it “was only 3-star”. You only have to look at the homepage of their website to understand that 3-star can encompass a whole new world of luxury. We were booked into a Luxury Deluxe Room, that offered us more comfort than you could imagine. It’s true – the wifi was patchy, and the restaurant was a little… agricultural in its service, but it was such a splendid setting that you could forgive them anything. Although, I have to say – at breakfast, they offered the most disgusting croissants I have ever had the misfortune to leave on a plate. Don’t go anywhere near them. view from our hotel room doorThere’s a shop outside with an A-board in front of it that genuinely reads: “Ladakhi handicrafts, Tibetan jewellery, Pashmina Yak wool, shawl’s and scarf’s (sic), Cashmere pullovers – visit for more junk”. Well you can’t say fairer than that. We did indeed visit, and Mrs Chrisparkle came away with three more scarves, because she really doesn’t have enough scarves (there are drawers and drawers of the damn things at home.) Always room for more scarves.

Jahangir Mahal PalaceOrchha is a charming town, attractively positioned on a rocky island, enclosed by a loop of the Betwa river. Its main sight is the extravagant Jahangir Mahal Palace, built by the Bundela king Bir Singh Deo, and named after the Mughal emperor Jahangir who overnighted there. It’s right in the centre of the old fortified town and dominates the view. The decorations, including the glazed tilework, are stillInside the palace in outstanding condition, and it’s a very beautiful, as well as intimidatingly grand, palace. Wandering around, there are so many little archways, and tiny rooms and nooks and crannies where you can get lost thinking about how it would have looked almost 300 years ago. One side overlooks the river, and gives you stunning natural views all around.Arches It’s noticeable that there are many wild vultures all around, perched at the top of domes, on window ledges, and so on – a little more interesting than the pigeons we’d have in the UK. The vultures are encouraged, as vulture conservation is very important in this area.

River roadOutside the old town, we dropped down to the road level and where it crosses the river. The road, from one side of the river to the other, is extremely perilous and you really wouldn’t want to cross it at night. Even walking across by day was scary, especially if you had to move to the sides to let a car or, even worse, a bus go past. It was getting late too – and by the time we’d walked across the river and back again, Orchha by nightand headed towards the town centre, the lights were coming on and Orchha was moving into night mode. That meant lots of activity at the temple, and Sachun encouraged us to stay out – or go back to the hotel and come out again – to witness what I understood to be some kind of “extreme worship” at this one particular temple. It sounded genuinely fascinating, but we were too tired. A return to the Amar Mahal was a must.

India – Khajuraho

KhajurahoThe flight from Varanasi to Khajuraho takes barely an hour and it was shortly before 2pm that we emerged from the airport with our bags packed in the back of the car by our regular driver Mr Singh, and were met by our new guide, Sachun. the sight that greets youSachun was a younger man, ambitious, well-fed; but without the usual carefree attitude that would normally accompany his age. He took excellent care of us, but sometimes you wondered precisely how accurate some of his facts were.

elephantsKhajuraho is a strange place. An entire resort has grown up, with airport, shops, and a large number of hotels, just because of this extraordinary complex of temples that have stayed remarkably intact over a thousand years. Hidden in dense forest for 700 years or more, they were rediscovered by Captain T S Burt of the Bengalmenage a quatre Engineers in 1838, and were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1986. 25 temples have been brought back to life; but local tradition has it that originally there were 85 temples, so ongoing excavations continue in the hope of finding more and more.

more elephantsThere was no point checking in to the hotel, we drove straight to the main sight – the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. When you first see it, it takes your breath away, as it’s so huge, so intricate and so perfect. Visitors flock to beautiful carvingsKhajuraho to see the amazing sculpture work on the walls of the temples and when you finally get to see them, they do not disappoint. It may be the erotic sculptures that are the most famous – and when you look at them you realise quite how uninhibited life must have been in India a thousand years ago – big horsebut they all tell a story, make you laugh, bring wonderment, cause admiration. If you had the time, and weren’t concerned about getting sunstroke, you could stand outside these buildings for days just admiring the carvings.

a bit intimateTake a look at these photographs, they explain what you can see here much better than words can. Observe the clothing which depicts people of higher standing, or the voluminous breasts of some of even more intimatethe women; the musicians, the warriors, the lovers, the animals, the servants, the gods. There are a few instances where men get so carried away with their sexual prowess that they get it on with animals – poor horselook away if you don’t want to see a horse surprised from behind. There’s a brilliant carving that depicts that – and an onlooker has to hide their eyes through embarrassment (or horror).

golden raysAs the sun starts to fall a little lower in the sky, the golden rays make the outside surface of the temples even more beautiful. There’s a true richness to the warmth of the colour that really creates a stunning effect. The temples certainly have a different an armylook about them at different times of the day. The majority of the main sights are in the Western group of temples but we were also taken to the Eastern group, where the Jain Parsvanatha Temple is considered one of the most remarkable.

stunningTime defeated us, and we didn’t get a chance to see the Southern group of temples. Instead we drove to our hotel, the Lalit Temple View. It’s a beautiful, elegant, smart but friendly place, with a very attractive bar – the Mahua – and an excellent restaurant, with superb service. Our room was a Luxury Suite; it had a comfortable living room, a lovely bedroom and a really fantastic bathroom. We were made to feel welcome, and special, and it’s a hotel I’d go back to in an instant. The perfect place to while away a relaxing evening and to remember the extraordinary sights of the day.

India – Varanasi

Rush hour in VaranasiThe next morning we were back on the road for the relatively short journey to Varanasi; once more we were with our guide Sapan, with whom we got on famously, and our skilful driver Mr Ashish, who smiled a lot. The journey was uneventful apart from some friendly encounters with a few elephants. I was pleased to get the picture ofDo you have any apples, perchance?the elephant in the rear view windscreen – it suggested a lazier type of rush hour – but when another just sidled up to have a chat with Mr Ashish, it was too good an opportunity to miss, and the happy elephant enjoyed a few apples through the window whilst we snapped away with our cameras.

Sarnath - Wheel of lawTo make the best use of time in our next two days, when we were on the outskirts of Varanasi we started off by visiting Sarnath. This is a very sacred and significant site in Buddhism, for this was where the Buddha gave his first sermon after gaining enlightenment. An attractive path leads up to an impressive gateway which opens up to the complex as a whole. The highlight is the fifth century Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath - Dhamekh Stupawhich dominates the skyline – its position is meant to be where the Buddha gave his sermons. You can also see the Wheel of Law, and many people spent a long time there reading the translations and literally spinning the wheels. Buddhist monks sat on the grass with their learned books; we didn’t do that, but instead enjoyed close inspections of the carvings on the stupa. It’s a serene, spiritual place; there were many visitors but even so it felt quiet and sacred.

bar snacksVaranasi itself is a vibrant, hectic, haphazard sort of place; full of shops that opened all day and night – or so it seemed to me – as you wandered down to the Ghats and back. We stayed at the Taj Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi, which was comfortable without being exceedingly grand. The Princep Bar is quite small but makes a pleasant port of call en route to the restaurant, to which you can gain access through a door at the back of the bar. Firmly entrenched in the 1970s, their bar snacks include cheese, pineapple and glacé cherries on a stick, the like of which haven’t been seen since Abigail’s Party. We stayed in an executive suite which was functional and a good size. We had a nice bedroom and a slightly austere living room. There was nothing about this hotel that made you feel really special, like some Indian hotels do. But we had absolutely no complaints.

Guests at AartiAfter we checked in, on our first evening Sapan walked us down to the Ghats to experience the famous Aarti ceremony. This ceremony takes place every evening at Dashashwamedh Ghat, and people take their seats early to witness it. Many people watch it from a boat out on the water, but Sapan had secured us a roof terrace over a shop, and we soon realised we had a very privileged position. Hawkers sell drinks and food, well-to-do locals have their servants bring chairs for them to sitAarti in full swing on which they position halfway down the steps to the Ghat. India being India, of course, the grand locals still had to contend with the occasional cow that came and sat down right in front of them. When the ceremony finally got underway, there were six platforms, jutting out into the water under flickering lights, where novice priests sang mantras, blew conch horns, rang bells, and lit incense and flaming torches. Aarti with fireIt’s a fascinating sight, and I would imagine if it was your religion you would be able to understand all kinds of finer points about what the priests were doing. After it was all over, everyone made their way back up the steps and along that major shopping road to the city centre. We returned to the Taj Gateway for dinner and I enjoyed the most scrummy Vegetarian Thali.

Morning boat rideWe couldn’t stay up late because we had an early morning start for a boat trip along the Ghats to see what the locals got up to at the crack of dawn. We returned back to the same Dashashwamedh Ghat, now much less busy than it had been the night before; Sapan established on which boat the three of us would venture, and it was a question of hopping from boat to boat to boat to boat before finally settling on le bateau juste. It was remarkably chilly first thing in the morning, so wrapped up in our fleeces, Ghatswe were rowed down the river and watched as the morning worshippers came to wash themselves in the holy Ganges. Past Munshi Ghat, Rana Mahal Ghat, Chousati Ghat, Babua Pandey Ghat, Raja Ghat, Mansarowar Ghat; individually the Ghats are not particularly attractive, but the cumulative effect of seeing them all is fascinating, and of course seeing how alive they are with people, even at ridiculous o’clock in the morning.

Keda GhatAt the red lined steps of Keda Ghat, we turned around and retraced our steps. Sunrise was taking hold of Varanasi and absolutely stunning it was too – you couldn’t decide which direction to look in, as each was more beautiful than the last. We went past Dashashwamedh Ghat again and continued in the opposite direction until we reached the funeral pyres of Manikarnika Ghat.Manikarnika Ghat We were a little alarmed at the prospect of visiting this Ghat, but there’s really no need. For the locals, death is very much part of life and, although it’s an honour for a family member to be involved in preparing the body for cremation, and to take it down to the Ghat and actually burn it, it’s also a very commonplace sight. Bodies are cremated here on a continuous basis – Boatswainit’s almost a conveyor belt of the dead. There is no smell, and you simply observe the final journey on earth of the dead from a respectful distance; you are not allowed to take photos too close. A remarkably peaceful and strangely unshocking experience.

Old VaranasiIt was at this point that we disembarked our boat and accompanied Sapan on a walking tour of old Varanasi town. We explored extremely narrow lanes where you have to dodge not only other pedestrians but also plenty of motorbikes, a considerable number of cows – and you have to be careful, obviously, what you step into. Hindu temples, mosques, a school;Narrow lanes deceptively spacious townhouses, elegant front doors, intricate shrines; they’re all there. It’s hard to linger and take photographs because if you stop, someone else is bound to walk/drive/moo straight into you. The overwhelming assault on the senses is typical of why I love India so much.

UniversityBack inside the comfort of our car, it was time for a quick drive to visit the Benares Hindu University, another highly regarded establishment. I was fascinated to see endless hoardings encouraging the students not to engage in ragging. In the United Kingdom we think of Rag Week as being a bit of fun (and somewhat outdated). TempleIn India, and particularly at this university, they have taken the practice a little further and some students have been killed because of stupid and dangerous pranks; or have taken their own lives due to bullying. The University is also the home to the Shree Vishwanath Temple. It’s very beautiful, very crowded, and you’re not allowed to take photographs.

Bharat Mata TempleOur final stop-off was at the Bharat Mata Temple. This was constructed in 1936 and has one of those wonderful Indian signs outside welcoming you in painful English: “Relevent (sic) visitors are requested with folded hands to take off their shoes down below the stair outside the temple in deefrance (sic) to the founder’s holy sentiments only there after take trouble to enter the same”. However, once you get inside you find virtually all holy sentiments have been removed to create an homage to Mother India. The centre contains a fascinating relief map of the country, and it’s fun spotting where you are and where you’ve been. The brainchild of Shiv Prasad Gupta, and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, it’s certainly a Hindu temple with a difference.

Shopping streetsAnd that concluded our two days in Varanasi, and our five days being looked after by Sapan – who was fantastic. We saw Mr Ashish one more time, the next day, as he drove us to Varanasi airport for the next stage of our adventure – the flight to Khajuraho.

India – Allahabad

Allahabad - view from our hotel roofIt’s only about 3 and a half hours to drive from Lucknow to Allahabad, still in the company of Sapan and Mr Ashish, and other than a tricky bit of negotiating the level crossing a little before the town of Kunda, all went well. On arrival in this amazing city, we checked into our hotel, the Kanha Shyam. Our travel agents had advised us that hotels in Allahabad were on the sparse and spartan side, and that the Kanha Shyam was the best they could offer. We had a Chamber Room – it was on the top floor and bizarrely had a door that opened out onto the hotel roof – not a roof terrace, but the actual roof itself. It didn’t feel entirely secure, but I’m sure we weren’t in any danger, and it did offer rather spectacular views of the city! The hotel itself had a very enjoyable and atmospheric bar – the Celebrity Bar – which was monopolised by a rather rotund and garrulous gentleman who smelled of whisky and treated everyone in the bar as his long-lost friend. For dinner, we originally tried the Jannat restaurant but it felt uncomfortable being the only diners and having about twenty surly looking waiters hovering around you. We felt much more at home in the Patio lobby café, and whilst there wasn’t a huge selection of meals on offer, they were very good quality.

UniversityOur exploration of the city began at the university. Established in 1887, it is the fourth oldest in India and has a very good reputation. Only a small area is open to the public, but we had a good walk around and met a number of the students who were all fascinated to talk to us, including several older men – I don’t think they get many western tourists in Allahabad. There’s something rather Italianate about the architecture, with its warm colours and elegant arches – the clock tower is more campanile than casbah. Outside the university gates, you are definitely in familiar Indian territory: areas of waste land by the side of the road used for dumping rubbish and, amongst the mess, playing cricket.

RiverBut the main emphasis of Allahabad is on the river. You’re merrily driving along typical Indian inner-city roads when suddenly the vista opens and your car is leading you down to the water’s edge. The city is sited on the confluence of two holy rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna (and a third, invisible, river, the Saraswati, for good measure.) It’s a focal point both for people from the local area and from all over India, to come and get washed in the river to cleanse their sins. It was relatively quiet on the day we were there – a November Monday – so I think on a busy day it would be somewhat hectic!

On the sandSapan led us on a walk out off the road and on to the sand, although plenty of people just drove their cars across the sand and park as close to the water as possible. Various family units had set up camp, with windbreaks and places to sit, as well as several stalls selling the usual offerings you would make to a God – garlands, and such like – as well as food and drink for the pilgrims. A word of warning: a lady came forward waving a garland at Mrs Chrisparkle, who nodded in approval – by which she meant, yes, that’s a pretty garland – but the lady assumed it meant she was going to buy it. When Mrs C subsequently declined it, the lady got pretty narked. We walked on in a hurry, no harm done, although Sapan cut himself a little chuckle at her schoolgirl error.

BoatsFollowing the water’s edge, we walked for about a quarter of an hour, observing the people and thinking how extremely rickety the boats looked. Eventually Sapan spoke to one of the boatmen and a deal was struck. We clambered on board and my weight made the whole thing seem alarmingly sensitive to movement and avoirdupois. The boatman insisted I sat in one particular position, to keep the balance, and then Sapan and Mrs C had to fill in the spaces around me. Once we were settled, off we went, out into the flowing current of the Yamuna, to its junction with the Ganges.

Our rowerIt wasn’t exactly a serene journey – it was too exciting to be serene. There were so many boats, many of them packed to the rafters with pilgrims, nipping about in all different directions, that you had to keep your wits about you in case of an accidental collision. But our man was very experienced, and we were perfectly safe as he rowed us laboriously to the holiest part of the water’s edge. He got close enough to the shore for us not to get too wet as we disembarked. Obviously Sapan had paid him enough to secure the round trip, so he waited whilst we wandered over to all the people washing in the Ganges.

PilgrimsThis was a truly humbling experience. We were the only western tourists there – most tourists only go to Varanasi, as indeed we would the next day. So our presence was quickly noted by everyone, but we felt so welcome and completely at ease as we met and shook hands with so many people, took their photos, posed for photos with them, and just enjoyed each others’ company. It was noticeable that they were nearly all big family groups on a day out: grandparents, parents, children, babies, everyone mucking in together to access the healing waters of the Ganges. People everywhereThere were stretches there where the water was very shallow, so men and boys would walk out quite a long way and form little clusters of people at sea, so that they resembled little islands off the coast. With their colourful clothes, the flags on the boats stretching high into the sky and the myriad of people everywhere, this was a moving and extraordinary sight that I think will stay with me forever.

CathedralOur rower had waited patiently and took us back the same way near to where we had parked the car. We had completely lost track of time and when we did get back I was very surprised to see that sunlight was fading fast. We had a brief walk around the parts of Allahabad Fort that you can get into – it was built by Akbar in 1583 and is mainly notable for a pillar that we didn’t see. Back in the city we took a quick trip to All Saints’ Cathedral, built in 1877 for the British population at the time; allegedly it’s the oldest Christian church in Asia. It’s a grand, serious old building; sadly not open when we were there, but we did have the pleasure of meeting the vicar, who had taught our guide Sapan when he was a boy. He was an avuncular old chap, one of those elderly Indian men who love everything about England. Although we couldn’t go in, he did show us his enormous key ring for the church – he had just finished locking up – and it weighed a ton. He was clearly stronger than he looked.

Allahabad - view from near the universityAnd that was our brief trip to Allahabad. Not many sights, but that time spent on the Ganges was absolutely magic and was probably the highlight of the entire holiday. Back at the Kanha Shyam, we were just left to have a lively evening at the Celebrity bar, trying to hide from the garrulous and drunk old gentleman. We largely succeeded, although he did say something about going to his place for breakfast in the morning. I’m sure his wife wasn’t too disappointed when we didn’t turn up.

India – Lucknow

Greetings, gentle reader. It’s been four years since I last wrote a travel blog – the most recent trip that I wrote about was our visit to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in March 2014 – if you’d like to read more, please just click on the Travel tab at the top of the page. Since then, we’ve been lucky to visit India quite a few times and I had planned to write a series of posts about all our visits there over the last four years. However, I reckon that could just be a bit too much for you, and I don’t want to bore you with excessive detail! So instead, I have written up our trips from 2016 and 2017 in a series of 13 (unlucky!) blog posts that I hope might stir your interest to visit that fascinating country. So here goes with the first one. And remember…

Please click on the photographs to get a better view!

Oberoi GurgaonOur 2016 trip to India (November 17th – December 3rd) started in Gurgaon, which may seem an odd place to launch a trip, but Mrs Chrisparkle has some colleagues there and so popped round once or twice to make sure everyone was ok. It was left to me to lounge by the pool and tackle the lunchtime buffet single-handed. It was a tough job, but I think I came to grips with it. We were staying at the Oberoi; there was an expensive looking wedding going on which meant they unfortunately had to upgrade us to one of their Premier Suites. The Rack Rate is 400,000 rupees per night; at the time, the equivalent to about £4,770 per night. Gosh. No wonder we thought it was nice. We had one more night there at the end of our holiday – sadly we didn’t get the same upgrade. But the Premier Room was most pleasant too; and there’s nothing more toe-curlingly pleasurable than experiencing Oberoi hospitality.

LucknowWe had to get up at hideous o’clock in order to get the car to Delhi airport, then go through the rigmarole of a) getting into the airport (security requires that you show your documents to the policeman or soldier at the entrance to the airport and they scrutinise every page extremely slowly), and b) checking in, only to be told you have to go somewhere else to pay the 500 rupees for excess baggage – baggage allowances on Indian domestic flights are notoriously skinflint. Still, it’s a quick flight, and we were met at Lucknow airport by our smiling guide Sapan and our even more smiling driver Mr Ashish, then taken to the Vivanta by Taj Gomti Nagar to check in. It’s a really smart and elegant hotel and I would say we enjoyed it more than any other Vivanta by Taj hotel we’ve tried. We had a Deluxe Delight room with Garden view and it was very comfortable and well appointed. We were there for two nights and dined at the Oudhyana both evenings, where we were really well looked after by Shubham, Arun and Najeev. The Saqi bar is one of those noisy, glamorous and really naughty-feeling Indian bars that they do so well.

La Martiniere CollegeAfter a brief pause, Sapan collected us and took us for our afternoon trip visiting some of the sites towards the outskirts of the city. First up was a visit to La Martinière College, built by Major General Claude Martin – his tomb lies in the basement – in the style of an extravagant Gothic French chateau. When he died, his will stipulated that it should become a school for boys, and thus the college was founded in 1845. There’s a serene elegance to the whole place, even when you bump into groups of extremely well-behaved and privileged boys, who have that air of well-educated confidence when comfortably enjoying each other’s company, but remain shy and reserved if you approach them individually. Sapan suggested we spoke to one of the boys – we did; he was, as you would expect, supremely polite but also overwhelmed with tongue-tied embarrassment.

Clever ladsOutside there are Olympic-type figures set in the gardens encouraging sporting prowess; inside, the library has the air of a gentleman’s club. On the steps leading up to the entrance, alumni have written their names in the concrete as indelible proof that they studied there. One hopes Messrs Rigby, Attwell, Route and Nooruddin put their excellent education to good use. An award ceremony was taking place that day, and silver cups were proudly displayed on a table at the foot of the steps to the entrance, celebrating achievement in athletics, hockey, swimming and other sports. There were lots of proud looking mothers too. It was a charming insight into a particular Indian lifestyle that the average tourist rarely encounters, and we really enjoyed the experience.

DilkushaFrom there we visited the Dilkusha Palace and Gardens. It was constructed by the British Major Gore Ouseley for his friend the Nawab Saadat Ali Khan II. Legend has it that when the Nawab saw it in all its glory once it had been constructed, he said “Dil khush hua”, which means “my heart is pleased” – hence the name Dilkusha. I’m not sure how pleased he’d be today, as it suffered greatly during the siege of Lucknow, although it still offers a real idea of how splendid it must once have been, and its gardens are beautifully maintained throughout. There’s a rather stark grave to Lieutenant Charles Keith Dashwood, who died, November 22nd 1857, aged 19. Not as a result of the siege of Lucknow, bizarrely, as this fascinating account relates.

Dilkusha - plus musiciansWe were having a leisurely walk around the grounds when a young man approached us – extremely polite, and wanting to try out his English, which was not half bad. Would we come and meet his friends and hear him sing and play his guitar, he asked. You can never be quite sure what you’re walking into under such circumstances, but he seemed genuine and Sapan didn’t seem over-concerned, so we did it. There were about eight young guys, all pretty high on weed to be honest, but relaxed as a consequence. Our chap picked up his guitar and started to sing Adele’s Chasing Pavements. He clearly didn’t know all the words and made up some similarly sounding sounds at times, which he knew was rubbish, and it made us all laugh. For about three minutes, Mrs C and I became hippies. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and left them to strum away and smoke some more weird stuff.

AmbedkarOur final port of call for this first afternoon was something extremely different. Right in the middle of the city is a vast modern park, known locally as Ambedkar Memorial Park, but with the official title of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal. At first sight, it looks like one of those vast memorials to something Soviet from a former age, or maybe a huge religious shrine to some cult deity. In fact, it is the modern equivalent of a hybrid of the two. It was created, planned and masterminded by Ms Mayawati, the Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh and opened in 2008.

Ambedkar 1It’s breathtaking in many ways, and we had enormous fun exploring it, taking photos, and getting the general vibe of the place. It was sunset, the perfect time to see it. But the most breathtaking aspect to it is the realisation that it is one enormous ego-trip by the Chief Minister. It is a shrine to herself. 60-odd elephants line the route to the gallery where her good works are displayed, like something out of North Korea. She appears everywhere, in statues clutching her horrible handbag, dwarfing more minor figures such as, for instance, Lord Buddha. She appears in tableaux leading parliaments, or healing the sick. The place expects silent admiration for her, but the visitors treat it as an enormous playground, with a hilarious lack of respect for her pomposity and self-aggrandisement. It’s genuinely one of the funniest places we’ve ever visited. Self-aggrandisementAnd the site itself throws a subtle side-twist in that you can see that much of this beautiful and enormous civic architecture is actually constructed out of really poor materials, so, for example, the elephants are losing their trunks with surprising rapidity and no one cares to replace or renovate anything on the site. Because, in the ultimate moment of hubris, having constructed this gigantic monument to herself, Ms Mayawati lost her seat in parliament. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. But it’s a great place and I don’t think we’ll ever forget our time there. And that was quite enough for day one. We retreated to the – not safety, but danger – of the Saqi bar before indulging in a splendid feast at the Oudhyana.

ResidencyNext morning saw us up bright and reasonably early to take in perhaps the most historically significant sight in Lucknow – the Residency. You’ve heard of the famous Siege of Lucknow – well, this is where it took place. Over five months in 1857, the British held on to this fortified enclave whilst it was attacked by rebellious sepoys. Estimates of the numbers of dead range from two to three thousand. Today, as you walk around, you can get a feel for both the grandeur of its original state – it was the home of all the top ranking British officials – and the horror of the consequent siege. Sad, part-destroyed, brick built walls mark out what would once have been splendid housing, whilst the open areas still offer a lovely green space with tall palm trees,Residency graveyard so it is a popular area for local people to come and walk, have picnics and so on. There is a small museum, where they are very strict with their no-photo rule, you have to check your camera and phones in with a little man in a hut before approaching the building. Inside there are some fascinating old photos and mementos. You can also visit the graveyard of St Mary’s Church within the compound, and see the names of those who were lost in the siege. It’s tranquil, and quite beautiful; and you really feel you’re at the heart of a most significant historical event.

Chattar ManzilSapan took us on a short detour to see the once beautiful Chattar Manzil, the Umbrella Palace built between 1798 and 1814. This fine building has now dilapidated into disrepair. From 1950 it was the home to the Central Drug Research Institute, but they recently left and now all you’ll find here are a few security staff. It’s in a prime location so it shouldn’t be like this for long.

Bara ImambaraThe next major sight we saw was the Bara Imambara. An Imambara is a congregation hall for Shia commemoration ceremonies, and Bara means “Great” – so you get the picture. This is an amazing place and you can spend hours here. First you have the beautiful Imambara hall itself, with its ostentatious ceiling, eye-catching lamps and stunning green walls – enjoy the photograph as I was told off for taking it. Apparently it is the largest structure in the world not to use pillars, beams or concrete walls. There is a stepwell to the side with inward-facing balconies and steps deep down into the earth. On the upper levels it also boasts the entertaining bhul-bhulaiya, or labyrinth, where tourists, families and illicit lovers like to run and hide. LabyrinthSeemingly endless corridors take you from one part of the building to another, with many a sheer-edge drop out of a window at the top of the building. You wouldn’t want to do it after too many bottles of Kingfisher. 489 identical doorways mean you can easily get lost, but there are some great photo opportunities to relish as you do so. The site also houses an extravagant Asafi Mosque, and outside you can see the Rumi Darwaza, or west-facing entrance to the Imambara; looking completely different from the outside than it does on the inside.

Clock TowerWe walked on up Napier Road to view the Chota Imambara, and then doubled-back on ourselves to walk past the Husainabad Clock Tower, erected in 1887 to welcome Sir George Cooper, the first lieutenant governor. It’s situated in a wide open dusty area, designed for local boys to hone their cricketing skills. There’s also a rather foreboding art gallery, worth popping in, because Indian paintings always have that “just different” look. Unfortunately, you can’t take photos. One last place to visit on our way back to the hotel – the tombs of the fifth Nawab, Saadat Ali Khan, and his wife, Khurshid Zadi. Unfortunately, they were Good shotclosed when we got there so we just had a stroll around the attractive park and took a few selfies.

And that was our visit to Lucknow! Grand, friendly, funny, welcoming and oozing history from every pore. Another night to spend in the Vivanta by Taj, and the next day we would be back on the road, for the four-hour, south-easterly drive to the sacred city of Allahabad.