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Maharajahs and Tigers

After our holiday in Sri Lanka in 2004, Fran and I had fallen in love with the small section of the Indian subcontinent that we had visited. The terrible images of the Boxing Day tsunami reignited our interest and so we decided, at short notice, to travel back to the same part of the world and put some tourist rupees back into India. Once again, we chose a tour from The Travel Collection, entitled "Maharajahs and Tigers".

Click any image for a closer look.

A poor start.

Our flight to Delhi took off on time from London Gatwick. Not long into the flight, a bang, shudder and a brief blink of the cabin lights brought a few raised eyebrows, but nothing seemed amiss until the pilot announced that a computer fault had caused the crew to shut-down and restart one of the engines. We would be returning to Gatwick for repairs. A couple of hours later, we were on our way again and had a trouble-free flight to DEL. At the rather uninspiring arrivals hall, we met our representatives and the 43 people on the tour split into two groups for the remainder of the trip. Our smaller group of 15 people was joined by our guide, driver and driver's assistant - the reason for the latter would become clear when we saw the way that people drive in India!

From Delhi, we had a four-hour coach journey to our hotel for the week, the Sariska Palace in the Sariska Nature Reserve in Rajasthan. It's very easy to forget how different driving in Asia can be - cows, oxen, camels, bicycles, tractors, dogs, pigs, cars, buses, trucks and even elephants all share the same space. Everyone is going somewhere in a hurry, but no-one actually gets anywhere very quickly. Every few hundred yards on Indian roads, there are road humps to slow traffic down and, with few modern vehicles outside of the major cities, progress is hampered by the need for drivers to double-declutch several times when changing gears. The vehicles themselves are not particularly speedy and night-time driving relies on exceptional driving skills to negotiate all manner of unlit users of the road. It's also interesting to see that few rules of the road are actually obeyed by anyone, but an unusual (to our minds, at least) signalling system has developed. When trying to overtake the vehicle in front during daylight hours, the faster vehicle sounds its horn; the slower vehicle then uses its indicators to tell the vehicle behind which side to pass on. When cutting back in front (and when turning left), the driver's assistant uses his arm to let the other vehicles know where he is going. If turning left or right, a vehicle indicates left or right, as expected. This means that a vehicle indicating right is either turning right (so please don't pass) or not turning right (please pass). Nope, we don't know how it works either, but it does...

By the way, driving at night in India is not for those of a nervous disposition. We'll leave it to you to find out why if you ever visit!

The journey to Rajasthan reminded us how lucky we are to have money to spare for such holidays. A large proportion of the Indian population (now estimated to be the population of the UK plus a billion more) live below the poverty line in conditions that, at first, seem to be from the dark ages. However, whilst there is much poverty, our Western perception of the situation is largely influenced by "culture shock". It soon becomes clear that the same concerns that we have (work, money, family, health, education, etc.) are shared by the Indian population. As with the roads, what seems to be an extremely disorganised, chaotic way of living is probably more organised and disciplined than many other nations. Indeed, the current fashion for the "nanny state" to control all aspects of our lives is in stark contrast to India's loose government control; popular ideals of respect for elders, family, fellow human beings and (most) animals produce a self-disciplining society. Of course, there are exceptions and the big test will probably come when increasing Westernisation, liberalisation and wealth, especially in the larger cities, introduces new ideas and threatens to create a larger gulf between the "haves and have-nots". 

Sariska.

Arriving at the Sariska Palace Hotel after dark, we were delighted to find that the hotel and rooms matched our pre-holiday expectations. Other visitors had said that the hotel, once a hunting lodge for the Maharajahs of Alwar, had a "faded elegance" and so it proved. A little tatty around the edges it maybe, but the hotel is situated in a beautiful valley, far from any major towns, and offers peace and quiet and, above all, easy access to the Tiger Reserve further down the Sariska Valley.

 
Our hotel room Isolation Breakfast
balcony
The back lawn  

Tiger country.

Well, Sariska certainly used to be tiger country. The hotel walls still show photographs of tiger hunts from days gone by and it seems incredible now that tigers and other wild animals were slaughtered for entertainment. The Maharajahs also trapped and shot tigers by using live (tethered) bait in the centre of the Palace's tiger trap (the oval shape in the middle of the picture to the right). When the hungry tigers ventured towards the bait, they would be trapped by the water in the tiger trap and then shot. Hunting tigers in the reserve was banned in the 1950s, but continued into the 1970s when conservation of the tigers became a priority. Sadly, no tigers had been seen in the 866 km2 of the Sariska reserve for several months; it is believed that most of the 22 tigers spotted during the most recent survey have been killed by poachers. A full survey will take place in May 2005, when the true picture should become clear.

During the seven days at Sariska, our itinerary included three game drives into the reserve (two late afternoon and one early morning) in open-topped 4-wheel drive vehicles. For obvious reasons, the reserve is closed during the hours of darkness and, judging by the blood-curdling sounds we heard during the night, you'd have to be very brave to venture into the dark anyway. Being so isolated, the reserve is absolutely pitch black during the night - as we discovered during the many brief power outages at the hotel. During the day, the reserve is a magical place; there is much death and danger around, yet when the alarm calls fade away, peace and quiet, broken by occasional bird cries, is the order of the day. There is plenty of food, both in terms of prey and vegetation, for animals large and small, and the park rangers fill some of the watering holes in the dry season, so that the wildlife balance of the reserve is maintained.

On the three game drives into the dry-deciduous and thorn forests of the reserve, we saw mongoose, jackals, "bambi" spotted deer, sambar deer, nilgai antelope, hyena, monkeys, a crocodile and wild boar. We didn't see any leopards, but some people in another group did, and we saw a hyena dragging the remains of a leopard kill into the undergrowth. A large number of peacocks, partridge and other birds provide food for some of the carnivores, and we saw a variety of owls, eagles, storks, waders and other birds during our visits. Our old digital camera isn't quite up to the task of wildlife photography (and the animals are, of course, well camouflaged), so you need to be pretty skilful and patient to get really good photographs. Here's a few of the snaps that came out OK:


Sambar

Nilgai

 

Treepie Grey langurs Wild boar
Sambar Storks Spotted deer Jackal

A Day Trip to Jaipur.

Not too far from the Sariska Palace is the city of Jaipur - at least as the crow flies. Time-wise, it was an early start to travel at Indian pace to the "Pink City". Arriving at around 10:30AM, our first stop was the Amber Fort, where we joined the queue to take a ride on an elephant to the entrance of the fort up the hill above us. Established in the 70s, it is now tradition to reach the fort by riding on one of the 90 elephants earning a living (and plenty of bananas) by carrying tourists to the entrance gate at the top of the hill. Our elephant (No. 101) was fresh that morning and her mahout sped up the hill, overtaking all the other elephants on the way.

The Amber Fort is a bit of a mixture of architectural styles and consists of buildings from different periods. Home to (and built or extended by) Man Singh, and Jai Singh I and II, the Maharajahs quarters and those of his Maharinas, are reasonably well preserved, particularly the ceilings of the main quarters. These ceilings are architecturally significant and many of the techniques used in their construction are taught, copied and preserved to this day. The personal rooms of the Maharajah overlook extensive water gardens, and many of the rooms have sophisticated water and air circulation to reduce the heat in mid-summer. Overall, the Amber Fort is a massive construction, extending over a wide area; the boundary walls are somewhat reminiscent of the Great Wall of China, as they line the surrounding hills to protect the region from invaders.

From the Amber Fort, we travelled to the Pink City itself. Our first stop was Jai Singh's Astronomical Observatory, which was completed in 1734 and is a remarkable collection of astronomical and timekeeping constructions - even including a sundial accurate to 2 seconds (below centre).

A tour of the Maharajah's palace was followed by a scary trishaw (a bicycle rickshaw) ride through the streets of Jaipur. Having witnessed the mayhem that exists on the roads in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh from the safety of our coach, Fran and I were subjected to the full experience "at street level". I would say that it is an experience not to be missed - pretty much like a wild ride at a theme park. Fran would have you believe that we were going to come to a sticky end! After a visit to a hand-made carpet co-operative (and the consumption of a bottle of Rajasthan rum, as their honoured guests), the journey back to the Sariska Palace allowed our guide to show the thirteen of us on the coach some more Rajasthan hospitality. Two of our group were missing with "Delhi Belly", so the rest of us consumed 3 further bottles of rum and cola - the state drink of Rajasthan. Naturally, all consumption was for medicinal purposes to ward off sickness, so we really were under doctor's orders. Honestly.

The Taj Mahal


Two days later, our second day trip began ridiculously early, as we had a six-hour drive to Agra for our visit to the Taj Mahal. For the first time since we had arrived in India, the weather was baking hot (around 32oC in Agra). We had had several night-time thunderstorms, which were unusual for the time of year and, as well as killing 11 people by lightning strike the previous day, they threatened to cause significant damage to the mustard crops ready for harvesting. Fortunately, the storms were short lived - within a few hours of the sunshine's return, the countryside showed no sign of any water whatsoever. In Agra, we had two main sights to see - the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. Setting aside the bench where Princess Diana posed (sigh), the Taj is a fabulous monument built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, the Empress Mumtaz Mahal. The story of their marriage and his love for her, especially after her death in childbirth, is well known, and it is an astonishing building that everyone should make an effort to see at least once in their lifetime. Sadly, access to some areas of the monument is now restricted, caused by vandalism and defacement of the semi-precious stones embedded in the white marble of the mausoleum. It's also disappointing (though understandable) that the most beautiful marble inlay work lies in the darkness inside the Taj, where no natural light will ever allow the full effect to be observed.

After incarceration by his own son Aurangzib, Shah Jahan was held prisoner in his room at the Agra Fort (interior, left) - on the same side of the river as the Taj Mahal, but with a clear view of it, thanks to the bend in the river. From his balcony (right) Shah Jahan would look at the monument to his wife and, unknown to him, look at his final resting place, as he was buried there by his son (against his wishes) after his death in 1666. The Agra Fort (again built by Shah Jahan) is a much more aesthetically pleasing fort/palace than the Amber Fort at Jaipur. It was used as a British military barracks for many years, and is an extremely popular place to visit when in Agra. Once again, our journey back involved the state drink of Rajasthan, and we were happy (but tired) when we reached the sanctuary of the Sariska Palace Hotel after a long, but worthwhile day out.

Our final day in India allowed us time to take a bird-watching walk up the river in the Sariska valley just before sunset. There is still evidence of flood damage caused by a dam bursting in very recent times, but the diversity of bird and animal life alongside this river sometimes exceeds that of the main nature reserve itself. Our guide was an absolute natural, able to identify animal tracks and droppings, as well as every possible species of bird (and even their sex). He could also charm birds from the trees, allowing us to get a close look at a Brown Fish Owl (below).

Our final early morning (awake at 3:30AM!) heralded the start of our journey home. Because we had to take some of our party to the airport for a flight earlier than ours, our tour representatives added a quick two-hour tour of Delhi to our itinerary, where we were able to see some of the Lutyens buildings and spend an hour at the poignant National Gandhi Museum, where the life, works and personal possessions of Mahatma Gandhi are showcased. Finally reaching Delhi airport and navigating our way through the stringent security controls, we knew that our brief holiday had been action-packed, exciting and peaceful in turns, eye-opening, sometimes jaw-dropping and extremely tiring but enjoyable. Of course, we still had to have the first part of our flight to Bahrain struck by lightning when leaving Delhi, and then a medical emergency for another passenger on board the flight from Bahrain to London, but we just can't wait for the next big adventure....

Our Tour Group in Rajasthan.


Take care, and best wishes!

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