Agra: Islamic Architecture’s Ultimate Showcase


At the Taj Mahal in January 2008

The bird sanctuary at Bharatpur did much to thrill and satisfy; but it was with irrepressible anticipation that we finally arrived at Agra Railway Station where a visit to the Taj Mahal would be the piece de resistance of our Indian interlude. Despite the fact that the Taj is one of the world’s most visited monuments and certainly the most popular in India, the city of Agra has remained unchanged—a pockmark on a truly beauteous visage. Development has only affected the quality of hotels serving wealthy tourists—each more ostentatious than the next, more sprawling that its neighbor. In terms of infrastructure, there has been no advancement in Agra at all and the lives of the common folks appear unaffected by the nation’s recent economic prosperity.


Still, the Taj apart, the city boasts some of the most significant Islamic buildings in India. The only pity is that some truly amazing examples of Islamic architectural genius, precursors of the Taj Mahal, remain neglected—such as Akbar’s Tomb at Sikhandra and Itmad-u-Daulah’s Mausoleum, the tomb build by Queen Nur Jehan for her father—both of which I fondly remember exploring as a child in the company of my parents whose enthusiasm for the treasures of their country inculcated in me an abiding love for its remnant monuments.


Red Fort

Introduction to Islamic Decorative Arts at The Red Fort:
Our forays into the achievements of Islamic architecture began at the soaring Red Fort, a counterpart of the one in Delhi built by Shah Jehan. In Agra, it is Akbar who must be credited for visualizing a structure that is awesome in its dimensions and exquisite in the delicacy of its surface decoration that features bas-relief in geometric and floral forms. A conglomeration of red and yellow sandstone and grey granite, not to mention marble and stucco, added successively over several decades by astute Moghul rulers eager to carve their own niche in history, has resulted in the massive shape and form of the fortress. A micocosmic world unto itself, such complexes reflect every nuance of Moghul cultural life—from the sophistication of learned poets and talented musicians to the provocation of countless harem ladies who brought feminine wiles to play upon masculine egos and eccentricities.


Florentine pietra dura design


Khas Mahal

All of these contradictory impulses are evident in the Khas Mahal (above right) , for instance, with its intricate Florentine pietra dura design (above left) that overlooks the banks of the Yamuna River upon which is very poignantly outlined the purity of the Taj Mahal’s curves and curlicues (below left).



A small room with a cupola at the top (above right) indicates the space in which Emperor Shah Jehan spent the last twenty years of life, after his imprisonment by his son Aurangzeb. The fort holds moving memories of the ruthlessness that embodied Moghul supremacy at the same time that preceding reigns were tempered by mercy. Walking through the spacious courtyards that segregate one fine building from the next, one is stuck by the grandeur of the period as seen, for instance, in the huge bathing tub that was used by the ladies-in-waiting, while scented with the fragrance of rose attar (below right). How decadent, you think, was that era! How refined and yet how prosaic!



(A few of the architectural nuances of the Red Fort)



Lunch at the Oberoi Grand Hotel:


That afternoon, we lunched at one of Agra’s most opulent hotels—the Oberoi Grand. Draped withthose ubiquitous mariegold garlands, we arrived at a banquet hall for a buffet luncheon that beggars description. Every conceivable cuisine from Indian to Chinese to Continental was ours for the sampling and the desserts, stretched across three tables, were sinfully decadent. Much as I longed to linger amidst this gourmet paradise, we had to get a quick move on as the treasures of the Taj Mahal awaited and we were aflame with anticipation.

Arrival at the Taj Mahal:


Thoughts of indulgence and excess—both among Moghul courtesans and modern-day tourists–continued to assault my mind as we arrived at the Taj Mahal. Despite the tightening of security that has altered the original entrance to the monument, there is a great and tangible thrill among one’s fellow-visitors as one enters the grand precincts of this structure. For every detail has been so carefully thought over in the planning and execution of this mausoleum that only genius could have so perfectly conceived of it.


Take, for instance, the towering main gate through which one enters which so completely conceals the mausoleum from view. Decorated with black onyx inlay in marble and featuring Koranic calligraphy (left), this entrance is truly spectacular. It might be a good idea to commission one of the professional photographers to take your picture because it is almost impossible to capture images of the Taj without a thousand people in the background. Indeed, one of the things that struck me immediately was the large number of tourists that flock to this monument and the fact that most of them are Indians representing every class and region of the country.


Then, suddenly, one has crossed the threshold and there, in all its stunning glory is the Taj. I remember gazing upon it for the first time in my life at age 13 and feeling my breath catch, quite literally, in my throat. I understood the meaning of the word ‘breathtaking’ in that very instant. In that respect, the effect of the Taj is similar to that of the Grand Canyon. Not all the pictures in the world can quite prepare the viewer for its impact that comes at you like a thunderbolt. It is indescribably sensational and the best way to take it in is to find a quiet spot, as I did, somewhere towards the side, far from the madding crowd, and to spend at least five minutes gazing in silence at the onion domes and the pencil-slim minarets. I let my eyes roam freely over the poetry in marble created by the combination of delicate floral tracery on the translucent walls with the contrasting red sandstone buildings that flank its sides and the gentle arches that lead one into the concealed treasures within and, believe me, in spite of myself, they filled with tears and clouded over. I have been moved to tears by movies and by exquisite pieces of classical Western music—but this is the first time in my memory that I was brought to tears merely by being in the presence of architectural beauty and magnificence.

But then maybe I was moved to tears for other reasons. This location is special for us–it was at the Taj Mahal, right there on the ‘Diana Bench’–long before it became known as the ‘Diana Bench’–that Llew proposed to me and slipped the engagement ring on my finger. Yes, as he put it so eloquently, “at the world’s best-known monument to everlasting love and devotion”, we made the commitment to marry. And so, I might have been tearing up because I cannot gaze upon this poem in marble and not recall that magical day, that enchanted moment, that second that hangs suspended in my consciousness, when we hitched our fortunes together for a lifetime. Naturally, we had to take pictures again on that same bench to commemorate our date with fate.


When you have feasted your eyes on the exterior of this building, built by Emperor Shah Jehan to commemorate the life of and his love for Mumtaz, his beloved wife who died while giving birth to his fourteenth child, start to make your way along the garden path towards the main entrance. Here, it is necessary to take off your footwear or wear cloth socks over your shoes. The actual graves of the emperor and his wife are in the ground for, in accordance, with Islamic tenets, man returns to His Maker in a tiny plot of earth that is completely unadorned. The tomb that replicates the position of the grave above the ground is ornate, covered with more pietra dura inlay and surrounded by lattices or jalis expertly carved from thick sheets of non-porous marble from the Makhrana quarries of Rajasthan.

Whereas on several past visits to the Taj, I have seen faint lamps light up the artistic detail within, on my last visit in January 2008, I found it almost pitch dark inside, making it impossible for the observant visitor to admire the elegance of the designs created by the inlaying of semi-precious stones such as malachite and carnelian, turquoise and moonstone, opal and rose quartz, in the marble channels cut into the panels. Nor can one appreciate the workmanship involved in etching out Koranic scripture upon the interior walls or take in the beauty of the bas-relief in its delicate and very faithful representations of pomegranate and jasmine, irises and lilies on the marble walls. There is so much to examine and exclaim over as one encircles the marble screens that enclose the tombs that I could have stayed there all day despite the near-darkness of the interior.


But eventually, like Adela Quested in A Passage to India, I found the crowds and the noise and the dimness quite claustrophobic and it was with great relief that I made my way towards the back of the Taj to look upon the almost-dry basin of the Yamuna River and to admire the minarets up close. Any way you look at it, literally, the Taj enchants and it might be best to arrive there early in the morning, long before the crush of human bodies spoils the solemnity of the mood in which the mausoleum was conceived and constructed.

Good Bye to All That—Last Night on the Palace on Wheels:
After visiting a modern handicrafts workshop in Agra where the craftsmanship of centuries is still continued in the marble inlay work and carvings that abound in the Taj, we made our way back to the Palace on Wheels to enjoy our very last dinner on board.
Bon Voyage!


Udaipur: A Rajput Treasure



Seated at Lake Pichola with the famous Lake Palace Hotel in the background

Udaipur is a very pretty city, perhaps the prettiest in Rajasthan. Compared to many of the places we visited, this city is neat as a pin and strikingly clean. Perhaps its tiny population has something to do with it—I believe that the guide told us that there were merely three hundred thousand people in Udaipur. In a country that is bursting at the seams, this figure is indeed miniscule.

In  A Courtesan’s Garden:

Driving around the city, you realize quickly enough that it is constructed around a series of man-made lakes. In a region that is characterized by achingly dry days and proximity to the desert, it is small wonder that wealthy maharanas (warrior kings) through the decades created lakes to reflect the cloudless blue skies and to allow for the pleasures of bathing and boating.



And if there are lakes, can gardens be far behind? All those courtly ladies needed some place where they could frolic in privacy and gardens like the Saheliyon Ki Bari (above) were designed and executed for exactly that purpose. Here, the ladies of the court could meet frequently, concealed behind the high walls and verdant hedges of the landscape and escape into a world of wild fantasy composed of marble elephants that spout water through their trunks and lyrical fountains that sport musical trickles. A combination of trees and flowers add to the enchanted atmosphere and I could hardly tear myself away from what I found to be a completely Indian landscape design, different from any of the Moghul gardens we had seen and not in the slightest bit influenced by English garden design.

City Palace on the Banks of Lake Pichola:



(Outside the resplendent City Palace)



Interior Rooms of Udaipur’s City Palace


Sheesh Mahal


Later that afternoon, we arrived at the gorgeous City Palace on the banks of beautiful Lake Pichola. Here, we spent a lovely morning taking in the glories of the Rajput monarchy. Once again, we found ourselves traipsing through room after room that offered a combination of stunning decorative delights that left us enchanted. Rising into the skies like the white tiers on a wedding cake, the City Palace is really a combination of many smaller palaces built or added to by 22 different maharanas between the 16th and the 20th centuries.


The tiled mosaic work, especially those of the dancing peacocks in the Mor Chowk or Peacock Court (left), were especially striking here as were the dazzling red and silver glass decoration of the Kanch Burj.  Many of these palaces, such as the Fateh Prakash Palace, have now been converted into deluxe hotels.


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(Llew in the main painted courtyard of the Palace–above–and the City of Udaipur seen through a window in the City Palace–right)

We felt privileged to have lunch in it, later that day. Seated in the grand banquet hall of the Fateh Prakash Palace Hotel (below) where liveried wait staff provided drinks as we made selections from the sumptuous buffet, we could not wait for the romantic boat-ride across Lake Pichola that would follow very shortly.



Before we made our way to the pier from which we boarded our boats, we stopped to admire the magnificent Crystal Museum on the top storey that contained some of the most incredible items I have ever seen in my life. As someone who has had a long fondness for crystal and glass, I found the collection imported by Maharana Sajjan Singh from England in 1877 jaw-droppingly fantastic for it featured crystal furniture such I have never seen before—tables and chairs, desks and dressers and even a crystal bed! We’ve all heard about Indian maharajas who commissioned French companies like Baccarat to make them chandeliers for their palaces that were so heavy that entire ceilings fell with their weight. Well, this collection must be seen to be believed—it comprises ruby red glass, emerald-green glass, sapphire-blue glass—indeed jewels could not have appeared more spectacular.

Boat Ride Across the Lake:

With my mind quite reeling from the impact of the crystal museum, I made my way down to the Pier to board the boat that took us across the lake to the ‘ghats’ alongside the temples where we watched devout Hindus perform their ritual ablutions before the boat made a curve towards the island on which stands the tiny but very lovely Jag Mandir Palace (below) on its own little island.

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It made the perfect perch from which to look upon the quiet serenity of the mountains located right before our eyes—reminiscent of those in the many miniature paintings featuring tiger hunts that we had seen earlier that afternoon in the palace. Eight stone elephants stood solemn guard as we alighted on the island which made the perfect landing on which to indulge in a soothing cuppa. In front of us, the City Palace spread itself out in the anemic sunshine and watercraft left foaming trails in their wake as they skimmed over the glassy lake. There are few moments that will remain as indelible in my memory as this one: of sipping a soft drink right in the middle of Lake Pichola while taking in the sight of a commanding mountain scape upon whose peaks, no doubt, those elusive tigers once freely stomped.

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Our guide Kishan Das, a character if ever we met one, regaled us with every possible story from those comprising Bollywood trivia to the Hollywood locales used by Roger Moore and his ilke in the James Bond film Octopussy to the stirring tales of ancient courtly lords and ladies whose customs appeared charmingly archaic. Though we were disappointed that we could not visit the famed Lake Palace Hotel (now belonging to the Taj chain), we did sail right past its piers, taking a good look at its ornamental marble landing and the balconied rooms that look out over the city’s most famous lake.

(To continue your travels with us on The Palace on Wheels, please click on the Bharatpur link).

Bon Voyage!

Ranthambor: India’s Renowned Tiger Preserve



On early morning safari in pursuit of the elusive tiger)



The next dawn saw us at a railhead called Sawai Madopur, base for an excursion into Ranthambor National Park, one of the few preserves of the Indian Tiger. We were woken up at the crack of dawn and herded into special vehicles called ‘cankers’ (left), similar to the open-roofed Landrovers used on safari in Africa. Though we were warned about the steep drop in temperatures in the midst of the Thar Desert at night and had dressed accordingly, we were still taken aback by the chill of the air in that uncertain hour between midnight and daybreak. Though tucked in the warm folds of blankets provided thoughtfully by the personnel of the Palace on Wheels, we were, nonetheless, frigid as we made the hour long ride to the entrance of the National Park (below left).


The main objective of this early morning expedition was to catch a glimpse of the elusive Indian tiger, an almost-extinct species, thanks to the rampant hunting and poaching that has taken place over the last two centuries. This majestic striped cat once roamed freely over the Indian plains seeking out its favorite food—the Indian sambha or antelope—and trying to remain concealed behind the grey vegetation that clothes the Aravalli Hills, its natural habitat. Despite the fact that an experienced tracker attempted to pursue the creature, we did not see a sign of a tiger that morning. We had to remain content with frequent glimpses of langurs (black-faced Indian monkeys), jackals and cheetal (Indian spotted deer), peacocks and peahens and twin owls.




Still, I have to say that despite the disappointment of not having caught sight of a tiger, I was thrilled at the thought of having traversed the virgin miles of the Rajasthani bush for, were it not for this specific aim, I would never have set foot on this wild and rugged terrain, never seen for myself the gay abandon of protected Indian creatures or known what it felt like to awaken to the sounds of wild birds such as raucous parrots and spotted owls. For these reasons alone, the tiger safari was, for me, at least, an amazing experience and, the cold notwithstanding, I returned to the train fully exhilarated.

(To continue traveling with us on The Palace on Wheels, please click on the Chittorgarh link).

Bon Voyage!

Jodhpur: Reminiscent of Rajasthan’s Famed Blue Pottery



At the pool of the Umaid Bhavan Palace that overlooks Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort



The Indigo City of Jodhpur lies slumbering in the winter sunshine

If Jaipur is named The Pink City, Jodhpur–in my memories of twenty-two years ago–was the Blue City—so-named because the walls of this settlement are coated over with indigo paint to keep away pesky mosquitoes. The end result is that the city appears like one of the landscapes on the famous Blue Pottery made in this region of Rajasthan, especially when viewed from the heights of the Mehrangarh Fort that dominates the town and seems to watch closely over it with an insistent eye.

The Magic of Mehrangarh:


Mehrangarh towers above the visitor’s head (left), a collage of steeply rising yellow walls, ornamental balconies and buildings, latticed railings and carved doors that conceal sumptuously decorated royal rooms. One rises to the ramparts of the fort in a high speed elevator that belies the age of the building in which it operates. Once I alighted at the landing, the sheer ingenuity of the architectural accomplishments astonished me—below lay a maze of narrow streets shored up by sturdy stone walls while in the distance, the Blue City sparkled in the watery sunlight. From the red sandstone ramparts, the faint outline of the royal cenotaphs at Jaswant Thadda on the banks of a greenish lake lay closely visible.


A ramble around the fort’s precincts took us to what seemed like secret enclaves concealed behind bamboo screens or ‘chics’.



The Takat Mahal is exuberantly painted and gilded

Room after room revealed itself as a dazzling muddle of mirror-worked walls and stained glass windows. Of these rooms, two stand out and demand attention: The Takat Mahal with its exuberantly painted walls and wooden beamed ceiling which was reportedly the room in which the maharaja frolicked with his innumerable concubines and the Moti Mahal or Pearl Palace where the stained glass on the windows was imported from Europe. In this Hall of Public Audience that is liberally decorated with gold leaf and strategically placed mirrors, fat bolsters, upholstered in silk, provide the visitor with an idea of how the room might have been used by its erstwhile royal occupants.  In the zenana where the ladies lived, hidden away from the envious eyes of the rest of the world, large iron rings revealed the presence of billowing silk tents once erected on festive occasions and also to provide shade in the summer months. In what seemed like a honeycomb of little rooms, guides pointed out the living quarters of the ladies of the harem, bringing a romantic twist to our fertile imaginations.


Mehrangarh Fort houses a superb museum with marvelous remnants of the accoutrements that made privileged lives special—howdahs in solid sterling silver (above left), carved wooden cradles that once rocked royal babies (above right), richly gilded palanquins that once sheltered coy concubines and courtesans, jeweled swords and gem-encrusted scabbards, and a lovely clutch of miniature paintings beautifully displayed. Alas, I had only a little while to gaze upon these treasures for the attractions of the next room made insistent demands.

Thanks to the labors of an NGO, the Mehrangarh Fort has a world-class museum shop that stocks everything from silk paintings and postcards to jewelry studded with precious gems and cheap cotton scarves and we contributed to its success by our many purchases.


Just a few kilometers away, we visited Jawant Thada, a spire-like temple of remembrance to those members of the royal family who were cremated in its environs. A series of beautifully carved marble cenotaphs are silent monuments to their once-privileged existence. As we walked, bare-footed, on the cool marble floors within, admiring the intricately-carved walls and the many altars with their curious niches, there was a great deal about Hindu cremation and mourning ritual that we could not comprehend. But we were glad to be in the quiet company of royal ancestry that had once held sway over these ancient princedoms.

An Art Deco Hotel in the Desert:



But Jodhpur has one more glittering attraction to offer the moneyed tourist—the splendor of the Umaid Bhavan Palace Hotel where Palace on Wheels passengers were treated to a splendid buffet luncheon. The dream-child of Maharaja Umaid Singh who in 1929 decided to create an Art Déco masterpiece to provide employment for his famine-stricken subjects, the gigantic dimensions of this sandstone edifice will quite take your breath away long before you have even set foot on its red-carpeted floors.



If the other genuine palaces of Rajasthan do not stir your senses, this one certainly will—its grand central dome projects upwards flanked by four minaret-like towers that combine modernist aesthetics with the Islamic lines of the Taj Mahal. Inside, in the grand reception area, carved balconies in several tiers lead the eyes upwards to the interior of the dome. Along the balconies are housed rooms that are now part of the luxury hotel.


If the buffet meal we were served is anything to go by (left), this hotel lives up to the dreams of its creator and continues to preserve memories of an opulent era.
In the beautiful sprawling gardens, we lost ourselves in the ambience of an older world. By the swimming pool, where the distant fort seemed to be mirrored in the still waters, I wanted to curl up and meditate quietly on the countless ways in which Rajasthan seduces the traveler.

(To continue to travel with us on our tour with the Palace on Wheels, please click on the Ranthambor link.)
Bon Voyage!

Jaisalmer: Jewel of the Thar Desert

Surveying a Stop on the Fabled Grand Silk Route


On the Ramparts of Jaisalmer Fort overlooking the town


In my early twenties, I had left a piece of my heart in Jaisalmer, for like the unknown carvers who, down the ages had etched lacey patterns on yellow sandstone havelis, so too the town had etched its lasting presence upon my consciousness. When I did arrive in Jaisalmer, after more than twenty years, I found that little had changed. Time hadn’t entirely stood still; but it had limped into the twenty-first century, still carrying vestiges of its medieval past in its wake.



Jaisalmer Fort (above right) seems to rise out of the golden sands of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert like a mirage—suddenly and quite inexplicably. Mile after endless mile of shrubby plains and near-desert ambience give way to a hulking fortress that overlooks a thriving town. The townsfolk still seem untouched by the magical pull of their city that sits on the ancient Silk Route from China and Mongolia to Mesopotamia and Persia. Indeed across the barren landscape of yellow sand dunes and undulating winds, caravanserais laden with the merchandise of past ages such as carpets and opium, spices and teas, crossed from one curve of the globe to the next. Marauding bandits helped themselves liberally to the spoils of such trade, swelling their coffers in the bargain and spending their ill-gotten wealth on the hiring of skilled craftsmen for the creation of exquisitely carved havelis or courtyard homes that stand today as silent symbols of a time when labor was cheap and plentiful and aesthetic sensibilities ran unleashed upon a bewitched prosperous people.


On the main balcony at Patwon Ki Haveli

Hidden Havelis, Crumbling Fortresses, Placid Lakes:


To see the remnants of such artistry, one needs only to stroll through the narrow streets of the walled town to tour such stone concoctions as the Patwon Ki Haweli (above), home of a prominent merchant and Nathmal Ki Haweli where the ornmanetal jharokas or balconies display particularly fine carvings. Indeed, like all visitors, I gasped at the minute attention to detail that brought lace-like delicacy to stone columns and canopies, doorways and walls, screens and balconies. They seem to stand like the piped frosting on a tiered wedding cake, mirroring the delicacy and fragility of such fairy-tale confections. A few of them are open to the public and converted today into small commercial establishments to prevent them from falling under the hotelier’s control. Though I winced at the unabashed commercialism of these homes-turned-shops, I could not but admire the determination to preserve them as homes—the sort of zeal that has converted country estates in Great Britain into deluxe hotels and turned their gardens into upscale shops.

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Once inside the vast complex of Jaisalmer Fort, it was the twin carved sandstone Jain Temples (ab0ve) that stunned me. Built in the 16th and 17th centuries by the town’s wealthy traders, the temples exert such an attraction that I found it impossible to tear myself away from the precincts of this sacred space that has remained unchanged in centuries.


Posing for pictures along the heights of the fort’s ramparts, we looked down upon the city of Jaisalmer, snoozing quietly in the pale sunshine. Shades of yellow as far as eye could see–tints of sunflowers and corncobs, hues of honey and buttercups–bedazzled as the famous ‘sonar patthar’ or golden stones of Jaisalmer gleamed beneath us.


I was grateful that the guide took us to Gadisagar Lake (left)  first thing in the morning when the cenotaphs of the many royal ladies who once bathed upon the ghats or steps that border the placid lake created a quiet sense of contemplation in that post-dawn light. Here, the spirit of Jaisalmer whispers quietly for it presents the quintessential vista—a combination of lake and umbrella-domed cenotaph, sandstone carvings upon shallow steps and the story of courtesan named Thelia who defied the powers-that-be by building a brazen gateway leading to the lake that later she converted into a temple by placing upon it the statue of her favorite god.

In Camel Saddles Toward the Sam Sand Dunes:


When the sun sank low on the horizon entering into the troubled reaches of next- door Pakistan, we made our way to the Sam Sand Dunes on camel back (left). To get to the dunes, we rode in a bus on a stark desert road punctuated only occasionally by low growing shrubbery. Camels waited patiently to take their impatient passengers on the half hour amble towards the crescent shaped dunes that lay faintly outlined against the pearl-streaked horizon. A thimble of tea and a couple of biscuits consumed in the midst of the Thar Desert seem almost an incongruity today, but we were treated to just such a cuppa surrounded by the flapping white tents that form part of the romance of the camel safaris offered by astute tour operators.

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Before settling down on the sand dunes at Sam (left) to see the sun disappear over the salmon-tinged horizon, I did my good deed for the day, exchanging, as a favor for a local vendor, a dollar that he had received as payment from an American tourist and giving him forty handsome rupees instead. The sight of the smile that enlightened his face was worth its weight in gold—the poor lad had no idea just how many Indian rupees he ought to have received and the sheer trust with which he put the money in my hand and received Indian currency in exchange taught me a lesson or two about the refreshing lack of guile in our mostly corrupt world. It was little acts of kindness performed quite spontaneously, in this fashion, that remain engraved in my memory; for the pleasure I received in return from the gratitude that was writ large upon innocent faces warms, even today, the cockles of my heart. Now I know why I left my heart in Jaisalmer twenty years ago.

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That evening, we were treated to a cultural fest (above) at Fort Rajwada, a new temple to commercialism situated in what seemed like the heart of the desert. There, under the stars, we danced with agile Rajasthani women who abandoned the strictures of purdah to give us a tutorial on the art of shaking one’s head without moving one’s neck while keeping time to rustic folk music produced by earthy drums and stringed instruments. We were invited to join the gyrating women in a circle that exploded with the sounds of clapping and foot stomping and drum beats as drinks were sipped and appetizers circulated. An hour later, we sat at long tables to enjoy a buffet dinner that included Rajasthani specialties.
It had been a long day but the combination of experiences—sights, sounds, tastes, smells—had made it flash by in a blur. Jaisalmer is being gradually discovered by the Western tourist and the town is gearing up to enjoy its new-found celebrity. Were Mick Jagger, whom I had met in Jaisalmer twenty years ago, a visitor in the town today, he might not find himself so easily able to blend in with the local turban-sporting populace.

(To continue to follow us on our journey with the Palace on Wheels, please click on the Jodhpur link).

Bon Voyage!

Jaipur: Savoring the Splendors of Rajput India


On the street outside the Hawa Mahal in the Pink City of Jaipur

When we awoke the next morning, we were in Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, state of kings. Breakfast was served a la carte in our little saloon before we were whisked off in our own air-conditioned buses for a day of royal sight seeing. Upon arrival at each rail head, no matter now nondescript, Palace on Wheels passengers are treated to boisterous welcomes that include elephants, horses, camels and the like and those ubiquitous marigold garlands that, once the novelty had worn, began to feel like millstones around our necks.

Our first stop, past the well-planned streets of the Pink City of Jaipur whose walls blushed in the soft light of dawn, was the Hawa Mahal, an elaborately conceived lattice structure that allowed the ladies of the court to participate in the pomp and pageantry of festivals on the streets below while remaining concealed themselves, in accordance with the customs of purdah—a practice they borrowed from their Islamic counterparts in neighboring Delhi.

Ascending on Elephants to Amber:



When we had taken pictures of the Hawa Mahal’s intriguing façade, we drove on towards the legendary fort of Amber that sits majestically atop a yellow mountain, its ramparts stretching expansively like a giant’s arms to embrace its length. The biggest attraction of this fort, one of many in a good state of preservation in Rajasthan, is the need to ascend to its central courtyards on elephant back. Gaily caparisoned in clothing of red and navy blue, the elephants line the path neatly towards the boarding stand where in howdahs–wooden seats that cushion riders–tourists sway precariously as the mahout–or driver–directs the pachyderm towards its lofty destination. I tried hard to ignore the frequent goading with a sharp spike that the poor creature had to endure frequently as he ambled ever higher. Acrobatic photographers find unbelievably crafty angles from which to click pictures of each passenger, assuring us of masterful celluloid results by the time we returned to our waiting vehicles.

Confluence of Islamic and Rajput Design:



Amber Fort is reached through a massive courtyard (above right) where the elephant ‘taxis’ are herded. From here, one climbs a series of steep stairs and enters the main courtyard where the ornate Ganesh Pol (or Ganesh Gate, above left), minutely decorated with frescoes, stands at the entrance of an intricate complex of buildings.


Inside, architectural interest centers around the Sheesh Mahal or Hall or Mirrors, a white stucco building whose walls and ceilings are covered by shards of mirrors and decorated with paintings of wine decanters. As in the case of the Moghul Diwan-E-Am (Hall of Public Audience) and Diwan-E-Khas (Hall for Special Visitors), here too, the elaboration of the buildings is solely dependant on their defined functions. The Rajput rulers derived a great deal of their customs of statesmanship from their far more powerful neighbors, the Moghul emperors, and traditions deriving from the Islamic courts are clearly evident in their own forms of protocol. As we found our way through the gardens, designed in Oriental style in imitation of Persian rugs, and inspected the ingenious techniques of sluicing water through channels cut expertly in the marble flooring to enable natural air-conditioning, we saw many similarities with the most famous monuments of Delhi and Agra.

Lunching in the Precincts of a Palace:
The ardent walker and shopper will find much to entice on the streets of Jaipur where colorful traditional clothing and jewelry designed from the semi-precious stones for which the area is so famous, abound, especially at Johari Bazaar.





We were directed, however, to the Raj Palace Hotel, one of the many grand mansions that dot the resplendent Jaipur landscape. In manicured lawns overlooked by the white-washed walls of an unostentatious building, we settled down to sip drinks and nibble lunch. I made sure that my visit to this almost unknown palace did not exclude a ramble around its more significant rooms—and I was not disappointed. The spectacular Banquet Hall (right) was hung with humongous crystal chandeliers that were far more breathtaking than the ones in the City Palace that I saw later that same afternoon. Now converted into a deluxe hotel and serving a scrumptious lunch to Palace On Wheels passengers, Raj Palace’s glamor cannot, of course, eclipse that of its more famous cousins—the Rambagh Palace and the Jai Mahal Palace (now both hotels in the Taj chain), but it makes a neat substitute for those who lack the time to explore the more fanciful versions of royal Rajput lifestyle.

Palace on Wheels passengers are not informed about this but my trusty guide book revealed to me that this lovely gem of an 18th century palace occupies a special place in the history of Jaipur. It was built in 1739 for Sawai Jai Singh’s favorite queen Chandra Kumari Ranawatji and was used as a summer resort by the ladies of her court. In 1821, it became the official residence of the British Resident of Jaipur, the official posted in the court of every royal prince to keep a watchful eye over his activities and to ensure that the Prince toed the line in accordance with his status as a lesser minion. My guide book also informed me that it entered the most glamorous phase of its existence when Man Singh II and his gorgeous wife, the legendary Gayatri Devi, moved in from Rambagh Palace in 1956 and began entertaining the Who’s Who of the contemporary celebrity world including Prince Philip and Jackie Kennedy.

Time permitting, you can do what I did on a previous visit to Jaipur, and make reservations for lunch or dinner at the Rambagh or the Jai Mahal Palace, then sit down to savor not just the food but the ambience of the monarchical corridors in which some of India’s richest and most famous once tiptoed.

Astronomical Genius of a Visionary and his Revered Abode:



Later, that afternoon, we arrived at Jantar Mantar, Maharaja Jai Sing II’s hobby horse. A dedicated astronomer, he spent a large portion of his life in scientific pursuit, attempting to make sense of the secrets whispered to humankind by the confluence of the stars and the planets. His ingeniously designed contraptions, many embedded deep in the earth or towering upwards towards the skies, are not just architectural curiosities but fully functional. Well-informed guides can explain the objective of each one of the structures, but too little time is ever really spent on this site for visitors to understand the full impact of the genius of this far-sighted intellectual.

Jaipur’s wealth is more fully evident across the street in Jai Singh’s abode at the City Palace (above left) where the erstwhile royal family is still in residence. Visitors are welcomed into parts of the complex whose beautifully maintained grounds and buildings give only the merest glimpse into the fabled wealth of India’s royal families before the arrival of the British under the eagle eye of their pleasure-seeking Residents. In the museum upstairs are royal clothing, footwear, headgear and jewelry, arms and armor, gigantic crystal chandeliers that drip from the ceiling shedding pools of soft light on ancient Persian carpets underfoot, huge portraiture of forbidding rajas and lesser mortals and, my own favorite, loads of exquisite Rajasthani miniature paintings, some done with paintbrushes so fine that all they comprised were a single human hair!


Of special interest in the grounds are the two enormous sterling silver water urns (left) that were specially designed by the erstwhile Maharaja Madho Singh II for the transportation of his personal supply of Ganges water while he voyaged to England and back. Since photographing them is such an obsession for most tourists, they are kept gleaming and well guarded by sentries whose post allows them to pocket a few rupees each time their visages are captured on celluloid.

There is much more to see and do in Jaipur and much will depend on the amount of time and the depths of your pocket. Suffice it to say that in this Mecca of tourist exploration, there is little to leave the ardent globetrotter disappointed. Whether it is history or culture you crave, trinkets or antiques you wish to acquire, tales of chivalry and grandeur to make you shiver or forts, temples and palaces to stir your imagination, you will find it here in Jaipur.

(To read more about our Palace on Wheels tour, please click on the Jaisalmer link).

Bon V0yage!

Goa: Timeless Relic of Portuguese Presence in India


The Almeida Family at the Taj Holiday Village in Goa where we spent a few unforgettable days in January 2008

After three days in Bombay, our senses dizzy with the assault of impressions left upon it by the bustling metropolis, we badly needed a break and boarded a Kingfisher Airlines flight to idyllic Goa. Throughout the hour-long flight, as we floated above India’s western coast, pristine beaches were easily visible from out the window. When the plane did make its sharp descent into Goa’s green and verdant arms, I could have sworn I was alighting in Hawaii. Since Chriselle could join Llew and me on this leg of our Indian travels in January 2008, it meant the bonus of a short family holiday and we intended to extract every sweet ounce of our unexpected togetherness.

Creature Comforts in Five-Star Environs:



The long drive from Dabolim airport, across the Zuari River with its manganese-laden barges, and the Mandovi River with its twin bridges, brought us finally to Sinquerim Beach where we made our temporary home at the lovely Taj Holiday Village (above left and right), a beach resort that I have loved for years and to which I have frequently returned. Individual villas, many directly facing the sea, blanketed by lush tropical vegetation and riotously colored bougainvilla, are comfortably air-conditioned and equipped with thoughtful hammocks in private front gardens–the last word in personal pampering. I particularly loved the delectable chocolates and salted cashew nuts left in our room by caring personnel and the fragrant Lemon-Glycerine and Aloe-Neem soaps found in the bathroom—it is small touches like these that linger in my memory as visions of one hotel room blur into the next.

The kidney shaped pool, I discovered, was a better place in which to soak, despite that fact that the mighty Arabian Sea lay only steps from our front door. Indeed, I found the crashing waves overwhelming, even at low tide, and the drag from the undertow caused me painful knee abrasion on the gritty shoreline. However, we did enjoy the jacuzzi at the adjoining Fort Aguada Beach Resort where the luxurious spa is located. As for the restaurants, the Banyan Café that specializes in pan-Pacific cuisine, served us one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my entire life—a Thai feast that offered a sampler of the sweet, sour, salt, spicy combinations that are the most appealing aspects of this unique cuisine. For all these reasons, even had we never left the resort, we would have had the time of our lives in Goa.

Pausing amidst Passionate Jesuit Ardor:


As it turned out, we did venture far beyond the reaches of Sinquerim Beach, taking a sight-seeing tour to Old Goa which is one of my favorite parts of the city. Old Goa, or ‘Velha’ was the religious base of the Portuguese while the state remained an imperialist colony and in the clutches of Jesuit proselytizers. Though Panjim was built, in imitation of Lisbon, as its administrative capital and still retains vestiges of its Mediterranean ambience, it is at Old Goa, in the environs of the colossal Se Cathedral (the largest in India–above left) and at the Basilica of Bom Jesu that the full zeal of Jesuit passion in South India is visible. In these gorgeous Baroque churches, crammed with ancient statuary, sterling silver caskets—one of which is similar to the concealed coffin that holds the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier—and intricate artistry on towering altars, one can appreciate the vigor with which Christianity arrived and was established in India. What I most love about this area of Goa is the quiet serenity of the sprawling grounds in which the two mammoth churches are located and despite the crowds that mill around, the essential peacefulness of the area is never affected.

The Pleasures of Panjim and Rustic Routes:


Panjim, equally, offers the pleasures of random rambles past double-storeyed wooden structures whose balconies are enclosed by wrought-iron railings. Ugly commercial activity on the lower floor had destroyed much of the gentle reminders of an age long past; but if one is looking to snatch some of the bucolic quality of life in Goa, one must reach out into unknown villages in the interior, far from the tourist buzz. Here, white-washed churches, constructed in the Portuguese style, pop from out of the midst of emerald-green rice fields (right) .


Water buffalo wallow in algae-slick ponds, cashew and coconut groves whisper in the faint breezes that carry with them the fragrance of queen of the night. Cicadas can still be heard singing plaintively on quiet evenings and despite the construction frenzy that has engulfed Goa in its recent discovery as a winter resort by moneyed Europeans looking for second homes, the state still retains much of the charm and serenity that had always endeared it to me.

Though hard to imagine, it is easy to get lost in the quiet pace of a Goan bazaar. Staring at strings of spicy sausages hanging from the rafters or at rows of Port wine bottles in a neighboring liquor store—one rather amusedly named Almeida Wine Stores–see right– alas no relation—one loses the feeling of being grounded in reality.

So get away from the beaten path in Goa and ramble in the old enclaves where once guitars twanged seductively and carafes of wine were downed in joyful celebration.
When three days later, we prepared to board another Kingfisher Airlines flight to Delhi, I was actually sorry to leave the peaceful paradise behind—a place where the names of beaches such as Calangute and Vagator, Baga and Colva, roll mellifluously off the tongue evoking days of wine and seafood dinners (see below) savored under the stars along the sands where the salty tang of Arabian Sea air stimulated the appetite for more.


)To continue your armchair travels with us on our January 2008 trip, please click the Delhi link).

Bon Voyage!

Delhi: Ancient Capital of Kings and Colonizers


Outside the Red Fort in Delhi

There really are two Delhis—Old Delhi, at least a millennium old, studded with the tattered architectural remnants of at least seven ‘sultanates’ and New Delhi, the colonial city of Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, characterized by sandstone solidity and Indo-Sarasenic motifs. If you try, like we did, to visit the scattered monuments of old Delhi at dawn, long before tourist hordes have laid claim to the footprints of history, you will be enchanted and transported to a long-gone epoch when valiant Moghul troops clamored along mud trails and left behind evidence of their lasting enthusiasm for the rugged plains of India.

Strolling In the Footprints of History:



At the Mehrauli Complex that marks the location of the famous Qutub Minar (above left), the towering minaret that reaches out to the skies, I was charmed by the coalescence of three religions—Hindu, Jain and Islam as evidenced in the motifs on the granite and sandstone carvings. The eternal mystery of the iron pillar that has refused to rust will bedazzle as will the arches and columns, corridors and canopies that mark the existence of a once-flourishing society (above right). Almost magical, as is the Roman Forum when devoid of visitors, I could have stayed in this complex all day.


But other parts of Old Delhi beckoned—as at the hunkering Red Fort whose ramparts have seen centuries worth of historic happenings from the establishment of his capital by Moghul Emperor Shah Jehan in the 1600s to the arrival of their majesties George V and consort Queen Mary at the opening of the Delhi Darbar in 1911. Once inside the complex, now thoroughly equipped with security machinery including friskers who inspect each visitor for concealed arms, there is much to be learned about Islamic architecture and royal lifestyle within its precincts.


As I crossed the alleyway crammed with jewelry and clothing stores that line the old Meena Bazaar, I could almost hear the tinkle of anklets that once adorned beautiful courtesans of the harem who vied with each other to purchase the most enticing merchandise. Once inside the vast environs of the fortress, we gazed with wonder upon the main features of Islamic decorative arts that would find their fullest fruition in the majesty of the Taj Mahal in Agra. Still, the first-time visitor has an amazing introduction to marble carvings of flowers and vines, pietra dura inlay inspired by Renaissance Florence featuring semi-precious stones encrusted in non-porous marble and lace-like lattices that permit the circulation of air and allow residents to remain concealed while looking upon the passing scenes of daily life outside. In the two main buildings—the Diwan-E-Am (House of Commons, if you like) and the Diwan-E-Khas (House of Lords, for private audience with the Emperor–above left) one can see every element of Islamic design as manifested on the Indian sub-continent(below left), not to mention that tiny gem—the Moti Masjid or Pearl Mosque (below right) built for the exclusive use of the emperor himself.




Just across the street in the busy narrow alleyways of Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest parts of Delhi in continuous use by its residents, lies the Juma Masjid, the world’s third-largest mosque, capable of accommodating 20,000 worshipers. Unlike the world’s other great mosques such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul which is entirely enclosed, the Juma Masjid is open to the skies, its holy mihraab covered with Koranic calligraphy. As we circulated at noon through the amazingly spacious dimensions of this mosque, we felt the full weight of Indian Islam settle upon us for the sounds of the muezzin’s calls wafted around our shoulders and little boys in white skull caps prepared for afternoon namaaz. Outside on the frenzied streets, cycle-rickshaws took fascinated visitors around the maze-like tangle of allies and gullies where homes, shops, restaurants and offices sat cheek by jowl.

Lingering Amidst Edwardian Designs:


Lutyens’ New Delhi is visible, sedate and coy, behind towering evergreen yew hedges where his white-washed, squat bungalows peep shyly. His Edwardian vision for a grand capital is evident at India Gate (left) and along the promenade that extends all the way up the hill to Rashtrapati Bhavan, once the Viceroy’s Residence, now home of India’s President. Here, pink and yellow sandstone form a complex labyrinth of stolidly impressive buildings that once proclaimed the power of the mighty British Raj but currently house indigenous Indian government offices and ministerial residences. A drive past the buildings offered us a closer look as traffic flowed freely around the rotaries that brought order to Delhi’s habitual chaos.

Other samples of modern Delhi’s vibrant social life are glimpsed at Connaught Circus, the magnificent interlocking series of crescent-shaped buildings where today everything from suiting and clothing to handicrafts and handbags might be purchased. Meanwhile, on the outskirts, in the new residential ‘colonies’ that mushroomed after Independence to accommodate new settlers from areas of Sind and Pakistani Punjab, one sees the complexities of North Indian lifestyle and culture in flashy new cars and designer boutiques.

Embarking upon the Rail Journey of a Lifetime:



We stayed at The Claridges in Delhi, a hotel that must not be mistaken for having any kind of association with its posh, more revered namesake in London. Front Office services left a lot to be desired in this five-star hotel, though the meals we had at Pickwick’s, the restaurant on the ground floor, were outstanding. We didn’t stay there too long, however, making our move the next evening to Safdarjung Railway Station where we boarded the famous Palace on Wheels train in the midst of a great amount of welcome fanfare that included folk music, red powder tikkas on our puzzled foreheads, marigold garlands, tie and dye dupattas for the ladies and turbans for the gentlemen and an introduction to the two men who would be our personal valets throughout the trip (above right) .


Ours were Anil and Mahaveer  (left) who escorted us to our cabin in the Udaipur saloon.

(For more information on the Palace on Wheels Tour, please click on the Jaipur link).

Bon Voyage!

Chittorgarh: Final Outpost of Rajput Honor



Outside Queen Padmini’s Palace

The disappointment of not seeing tigers was dissipated by our arrival in stirring Chittorgarh, a part of Rajasthan that I had never before visited. Here, the main attraction is the incredible fort that stretches out as far as the eye can see along a rocky promontory reached along a snaking mountain path that opens up at seven intervals through ‘Pols’ or Gates, each of which is studded with metal goads to deter charging elephants. Merely imagining the warfare that might have smeared the walls with the blood of courageous soldiers, kept me deeply reflective during the long drive up to the fort’s ramparts.


Once the driver expertly negotiated those narrow gates and entered the fort’s expanse, there was so much to discover. As Rajasthan’s mightiest fort, it had been the target of successive invaders from 1303 when Sultan Allaudin Khilji had marched his troops in, to 1535 when Bahadur Shah of Gujarat had made a bid for the territory, to the final assault upon it by mighty Moghul Emperor Akbar who in 1567 was finally able to capture it and vanquish the brave Rajput rulers.


In a brilliant sound and light show that we witnessed along the walls and ramparts of the fort, we heard the stirring stories of ‘jawhar’, a conspiracy to commit mass-suicide by the honorable women of the court, by jumping into a bonfire, because they would rather give up their lives than be violated by the marauders. I could not help wondering why these women did not choose a more painless way to die—but then, where would be the sting of Death in so pyrrhic a sacrifice?


Chittorgarh is too massive to discover on one afternoon or indeed even in a month. Its many corners are studded with Hindu temples, one of which honors the royal lady Meera Bai, a poetess and spiritualist and great devoteee of Lord Krishna whose poems and songs are the stuff of legend inasmuch as the tales of courtly heroism and chivalry hark back to a long-dead epoch. The most visited of monuments in this complex is the Vijay Stambh or Victory Tower (left), a monument that rises nine stories into the sky and features an intricate array of carved figures. Just a few feet away is the breathtaking Kalika Mata Temple, also covered with stone carvings featuring a stunning array of fat and lovable elephants and Indian deities portrayed as courtesans in various poses of dance and seductive entertainment (see below). When I had encircled the temple and paid respects inside to the goddess to whom it is dedicated, I made my way down to the Gaumukh Resevoir, source of a natural spring, named for Nandi, the Bull or ‘Gau’ whose sculpture guards the entrance.



Another attraction at this complex is Padmini’s Palace, a small and rather modest two-story structure in white marble (below right) that commemorates the chastity and honor of Queen Padmini upon whom Allaudin Khilji had lustful designs. Because her husband, the Rajput chieftain, would not give her up to the more powerful Khilji, she devised a way by which she could be seen by him indirectly–through a mirror hung on a wall—thus preserving her modesty and her honor. Such tales of men and women who went to their deaths painted with the bright colors of honor and nobility abound in stirring Chittorgarh, a town that is visited only on the daytrip circuit by tourists from nearby Udaipur.


Perhaps that would explain why its people seem to be untouched by the swift march of time. I met the cutest children selling postcards who completely stole my heart away long before their bright and dazzling smiles reached out to me in wordless ways and their total lack of guile pulled at my heart strings. Of these, I will never forget 12 year old Udailal, from whom I purchased postcards and who persuaded me to request members of our party to buy postcards from him. A Grade VIII student during the week, he sells postcards for pocket money on the weekends. His industry and his enterprise were admirable in one so young and so determined to make a success of his life. In his spotless blue shirt, perfectly pressed and in the neatness with which his hair was oiled and combed, I saw a level of grooming that proclaimed high self-esteem and I felt transported to the fifties, to a time when kids were completely mannerly and lovable and a true pleasure to talk to. The future of India, I realized, lies in the hands of these children and if their fortitude and hard work and sense of dignity that comes from such simple labor is any indication, I am convinced that only bright days lie ahead for the country of my birth. It was brushes with such ordinary folks as these that made me realize how essential it is for the sensitive traveler to look beyond the beggars and the crippled in order to find positive signals of the strides that India has recently made and to know that this trend can only continue into the future.


Another fleeting moment that stays with me in Chittorgarh was the naked gratitude I spied upon the face of our tour guide when I offered him a cup of coffee during one of our tea breaks. “Here”, I said to him, completely spontaneously, “why don’t you have this? I think you require this much more than I do”. He looked at me as a smile of unabashed delight spread all over his face while he reached out and took the proffered cup from my hands. I know that it is sights like these that will stay with me long after I have filed away the photographs of temples and forts and mosques and palaces.


Back on the Palace on Wheels, the twinkling lights on the fortress of Chittorgarh receded into the distance as the train slowly ate up the miles towards Udaipur, stately residence of kings and their consorts.

A lovely overveiw of the architectural marvels of Chittorgarh

A lovely overveiw of the architectural marvels of Chittorgarh

(To continues your travels with us on the Palace on Wheels, please click on the Udaipur link).

Bon Voyage!

Bombay: Stirring Remnants of a Colonial Past


The Almeida Family at Bombay’s most distinguished landmark–The Gateway of India

Bombay seemed to sparkle softly in the clear light of a winter’s afternoon when I arrived there in late December 2007 at the start of what would prove to be one of the most exciting months in my memory. Brisk temperatures and a complete lack of humidity peeled away the polluted haze that usually accompanies the weary traveler on a ride into the city from the distant suburb of Andheri where the international airport is located. Habitual traffic snarls along the Western suburbs undid the speed acquired on the newly-minted flyovers of which the city is proud, but by the time we arrived at the waterfront at Apollo Bunder to occupy rooms at the Taj Mahal Hotel, we were well and truly ready to crash.

We lay bathed in golden light at dawn as the sun swept over the Arabian Sea and gilded the granite edifice of the Gateway  of India (right). In the hushed air-conditioned seclusion of our room, we floated miles away from the urban chaos. Later, fuelled by an incredible breakfast buffet, we strolled outside the Taj amidst the rubble left behind by cable installation on the tarred roads as eager vendors attempted, somewhat inexplicably, to sell us colossal balloons. At the Wellington Fountain, near the Regal Cinema, traffic moved far more smoothly than I remembered. Our forays into the National Gallery of Contemporary Art in the former C.J. Hall permitted us to admire the architectural handiwork of Rohit Khosla of Delhi who has transformed the Victorian space quite ingeniously into a modern art gallery featuring the work of India’s most significant living artists.

Fort Area on Foot:

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But it was on a walking tour of the former colonial area of Fort that I fell on love all over again with the city of my birth. Armed with Fiona Fernandez’ book entitled, Ten Heritage Walks of Mumbai, I embarked on my round of re-discovery, starting at the fabulous Indo-Saracenic Prince of Wales Museum guarded by palm tree sentinels. Crossing the street to the quadrangle of Elphinstone College, my own proud alma mater, my heart skipped a beat as memories of carefree college-days came flooding back. Having been recognized as a heritage building, it has been spruced up considerably and looks far more spiffy that I can ever remember it being during my own dust-ridden student years within its hallowed walls. Still, the fact that the college counts among its alumni some of the city’s best-known industrialists, patriots, lawyers and statesmen is reason enough to excuse the lack of routine maintenance.

Walking over past the Civil Courts towards the outer borderlines of the campus of Bombay University, I admired the Indo-Gothic facades, the spiral stairways, the tall pillar of the Rajabai Tower within whose walls lie concealed the library with its miles of stacks over which I had once poured as a doctoral student and the handsome columns of the Convocation Hall where once, in graduation cap and gown, I had been part of the procession that comprised Commencement Exercises . This time round, I proudly posed with Llew (see above), delighted to introduce him to the oft-frequented pathways of my happy youth.


The Bombay High Court and the Central Telegraph Office that lie along the periphery of the Oval Maidan echo architectural elements and bring the walker to the famous Flora Fountain, the heart of the old Fort. All along the road leading eventually to the embrace of the Old Lady of Bori Bunder, the Victoria Terminus (above left), the eye is thrilled by the variations in architectural design  of India that characterize the buildings of the late nineteenth century. It is difficult, however, to truly admire their details as one is too busy watching one’s step to avoid tripping over pot holes and recently dug up sidewalks. Still, the adventurous local historian in me could not but be swept by a sense of exhilaration as I traversed those stony pathways, taking at will a by lane here or an alley there only to find myself in a Victorian park or abreast of a perfect crescent or gazing upon the walls of a Parsi agiary at one step and the solid masculinity of the old Reserve Bank of India where I had once worked or the Neo-Classical columns of the Town Hall (below right) on the other. I cannot recommend enough that visitors to Bombay abandon the indignities of public transport to traverse randomly on foot over these historic colonial realms.




Bombay on Wheels:
Bombay also promises the soft breezes of the Arabian Sea at Marine Drive where the Art Deco buildings imitate those of Miami’s South Beach. Alongside the gigantic concrete ‘tetrapods’, built to combat the fury of the ocean’s crashing waves, these buildings form the jewels in the Queens Necklace that glitter at night as endless traffic snakes its way up into the wooded reaches of Malabar Hill. It is worth exploring this part of downtown Bombay from the well-brushed sands of Chowpatty Beach, site of once-significant protests against crippling colonial policies, to the leafy serenity of Laburnum Road at Gowalia Tank, site of Mani Bhavan, a grand and lovely wooden mansion where Mahatma Gandhi made his home during his infrequent visits to the city. Converted quite movingly into a Gandhi Museum, this is one of my favorite museums in the world, modest though it might appear to the well-traveled visitor. The vignettes from Gandhi’s life, captured on the top floor in miniature are superbly done and the simple room, cordoned off to visitors, in which Gandhi spent his time, furnished only with his meager possessions– low desk, sandals, walking stick, eye glasses, etc. is deeply moving, particularly to those who are well-informed about the policies and personal beliefs of the Mahatma, his austerity and his renunciation of all comforts and luxuries.

On Malabar Hill, the Parsee Tower of Silence, last resting place of the religion’s devotees, which cannot be visited but merely skirted, brings visitors a lesson on the unique beliefs and practices of this tiny but very significant Indian ethnic minority who have contributed so enormously to the cultural and economic life of the community. It is also on Malabar Hill that a Jain Temple is an oft-visited site–its marble carvings and sterling silver doors fascinate the first-time visitor. Atop a resevoir that provides the city with its water supply, sits a revered garden whose curiosities include an Old Lady’s Shoe (from the Mother Goose Rhyme) and a Floral Clock. These were the sites I visited often as a child on a weekend evening’s outing in the company of my parents and brothers and visiting them today always brings a lump of nostalgia to my throat.

Further down the tree-lined street, where the Peddar Road Flyover emerges, take a detour towards the left to drive along Warden Road to see the apartments that comprise some of the world’s most exorbitant real estate. At the end of this road, at Haji Ali, stands a Muslim mausoleum in the middle of the sea, its marble façade lapped gently by the grey and murky waves that engulf its walkway completely at high tide. The drive along the city’s Golf Club and Turf Club take one into its greener reaches to bring into focus the world’s largest outdoor laundromat at Mahalaxmi Railway Station where the city’washermen or ‘dhobis’ launder the clothes and linens of the populace in a completely unique fashion.

Carven Craftsmanship in Elephanta’s Caves:
Amazingly, only a short boat ride away from the Gateway of India, at Elephanta Island, are perfectly preserved Hindu rock-cut monolithic cave temples, a trip to which offers two things: an unusual view of the city from the Bay in noisy ‘launches’ that imitate the voyages of British administrators to and from the colony, and the opportunity to marvel at the industry and artistry of devoted carvers who created exquisite religious panels between the fifth and seventh centuries to appease their vast pantheon of gods.


Of these, Shiva as Trimurti (right) is the best known but every single one of the panels tells its own quiet story—reams of Hindu mythology are faithfully reproduced upon their granite walls as also the long saga of wanton destruction perpetrated upon these temples by fanatic Portuguese missionaries in their zeal to spread the Christian faith in newly-colonized India.

As a bonus, one can find humor and comedic performances in the antics of brazen monkeys, one of whom actually snatched a bottle of Limca from a startled tourist, twisted the screw top open and drank thirstily off its contents, right before my disbelieving eyes.


Named by the Portuguese for a stone elephant that once guarded entry on to the island, there is now a modern mini-railway line (left) that takes visitors from the boat’s dock to the rock-hewn steps—lined by the distractions of stalls selling clothing, jewelry and cheap handicrafts—where palanquins hoisted up by sturdy bearers allow one to be transported in comfort.

‘Mumbai’ in Motion:
 Recently re-named ‘Mumbai’, the city, like the country, is obviously in motion. It has often been described in guidebooks as India’s most prosperous city and indeed this is evident in the many gold and diamond jewelry ‘showrooms’, gourmet restaurants and vibrant nightclubs that have sprouted in recent years to fulfill the desires of the nouveau riche. But there is the other Bombay—the Bombay that is dearer to my heart—a Bombay of gracious old buildings whose paint is peeling hopelessly away and stripping it of its collective memory in the bargain. A Bombay of timeless peanut-vendors and juice-pressers who tempt local residents with small treats on a routine day. A Bombay of wily urchins and crafty salesmen, stoic policemen and crude taxi-drivers, of jaded long-distance commuters and street side booksellers. This is the Bombay that continues to survive in the midst of the flashy new money, the current awareness of heritage preservation, the celebrity chefs whose TV programs are raking them millions of rupees in multi-cuisine restaurants and the number-crunchers on the Bombay Stock Exchange, where fortunes are made each passing day as the Sensex index rises. This is not the Bombay of my growing years, but its newly-fashioned global avatar.


Who would ever fathom that in this seething city of eighteen million people, we would actually bump into friends, also visiting India from the United States and Australia, at Bombay’s most distinguishable monument The Gateway of India (left)? Amidst hugs and squeals, we posed for pictures taken by an obliging passer-by, and remembered our salad days in this nostalgia-ridden city (see picture above left).

Indeed, much has changed and though I travel to the city if not twice then at least once a year, I am still unable to keep abreast of its rapid alteration. But no matter how changed its complexion, the eternal heartbeat of Bombay is what I carry with me in my consciousness wherever I may travel or choose to live.

This is the Bombay that I invite you to discover for yourself on your own adventurers in the city.

(To continue your journey with us through the route we took in January 2008, please click on the Goa link).

Bon Voyage!