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INDIA & NEPAL

Our January 2003 holiday

CONTENTS

  • OVERVIEW

  • INDIA
  • NEPAL
  • CONCLUSION

  • OVERVIEW

    "This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations".

    Mark Twain in "Following the Equator" (1897)

    Following our visits to Egypt (1999), China (2000) and South America (2001), Roger & Vee chose the Indian sub-continent for our fourth trip outside our usual vistas of Europe and North America. Our holiday in India and Nepal took the number of countries visited by Roger to 33.

    Maybe it was not the best time to holiday in these countries. After all, the previous summer, the perennial clash between India and Pakistan over disputed Kashmir had become so dangerous that nuclear conflict was feared and the UK Foreign Office advised Britons to withdraw from the country. Meanwhile, over in Nepal, the Maoist insurrection, which commenced in 1996, has claimed almost 8,000 lives and incidents are no longer confined to the countryside with some explosions now in Kathmandu.

    However, in recent years, our trips have been becoming more and more ambitious. Furthermore, not knowing how Roger's vision problems will develop, we wanted to see the Indian sub-continent while we could. In any event, a week before we set off, a police raid in our home city of London found samples of the highly toxic poison ricin and, ten days after our return, 1,500 anti-terrorist police and troops were deployed at Heathrow Airport - so who is to say that India or Nepal is more dangerous than the UK?

    We prepared ourselves intellectually by looking at travel books and articles and reading about the history of India [for review click here] and prepared ourselves physically by having the necessary injections, taking malaria tablets (ugh!), and stocking up on enough medicines to open a small pharmacy. We had to pack carefully because we stayed in hotels in seven locations and we were visiting in the winter season. For the journey, Roger's reading material was - appropriately enough - Salman Rushdie's epic work "Midnight's Children" [for review click here].


    Roger with hotel staff member in Jaipur

    We travelled with the company Kuoni [click here] with whom we went to China. However, our group was very much smaller than the China trip - post September 11, the tourism market has fallen back world-wide and the collapse in the Indian sub-continent has been particularly severe. So, on the 'Golden Triangle' (Delhi-Jaipur-Agra) section of our trip, the group only numbered eight.

    Besides us, there were Brian & Sybil Thompson with their 23 year daughter Eleanor (a Scottish family who had just been to Calcutta for the wedding of their eldest daughter Carolyn), Mary McCooey from Ireland, Andreas Kyprianou from north London, and 74 year old Dennis Brough from Southport. Our guide throughout the 'Golden Triangle' section of the holiday was Hamid Shah, a man with 24 years experience with Kuoni and a charming individual who was determined to show us as much as possible of his country and to explain in detail the local customs and way of life. In a land which is overwhelmingly Hindu, it was interesting that he is a Muslim.

    On the Ganges extension and the Nepal extension, we were accompanied only by Dennis Brough. We made our own way from city to city and then had local guides to show us round.

    Finally by way of introduction, one usually thinks of the Indian sub-continent as unbearably hot. But, of course, it was winter for them too and a three-week spell of unusually chilly weather just before we arrived - the coldest for 30 years - had resulted in the death of over 900 people. So generally the weather was mild and pleasant but, in places like Delhi and Agra, the terrible pollution was very obvious from the morning smog.

    INDIA

    India is named after the River Indus which is now in Pakistan. It is not just a country, but a vast sub-continent the size of western Europe. From north to south and from east to west, it is almost 2,000 miles, making it the seventh largest country in the world in terms of geographical size. However, in terms of population, it is already the second largest country (after China) with over a billion citizens - one-seventh of the world's total population - and by 2020 it could be the largest.

    The national language is Hindi (written in the Devanagari script) which is spoken by 20% of the population and is the main language of the part of the country we visited, but there are 18 official languages and linguists have identified 1,652 languages written in 13 different alphabets. Fortunately 'nameste' means both 'hello' and 'goodbye' in both Hindi and Nepali and, in practice, English is a further national language.

    The traditional religion is Hinduism, which dates back to at least 1500 BC, and nearly 82% of the population are Hindus of one sort or another. Amazingly Hinduism venerates 330 million gods, but the three main ones are: Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer). While only 12% of Indians are Muslim, this still represents more than 80M people which gives India the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia.


    Vee & Roger with staff of the Samode Palace Hotel

    Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India has been the world's largest parliamentary democracy. It is a federation comprising 25 states and seven territories, each with its own assembly, government and chief minister. At the federal level, there is a lower house called the Lok Sabha (Council of the People) and an upper house called the Rajya Sabha (Council of State). For the first 40 years of its independence, India's politics was dominated by the Nehru/Gandhi family and the secular Congress Party, but increasingly the Hindu nationalist Bharatha Janata Party (BJP) is the major force. At the federal level, the present Government is a Hindu-nationalist coalition led by the BJP under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

    GDP growth is currently running at around 5% a year. Poor infrastructure, high interest rates and tariffs, plus widespread corruption have made India uncompetitive in manufacturing. However, the service sector is growing rapidly and there has been considerable growth in tele-working with India becoming something of a back office to America's front office.

    The Berlitz pocket guide to India states: "This land is a constant challenge to mind and body, a glorious shock to the system. It is no place for the faint-hearted. India is exhilarating, exhausting and infuriating".

    The time in India is 5 hours 30 minutes ahead of GMT. Five different calendars are in use and days of the week are named after planets. Indians have a flexible approach to time and somehow it comes as little surprise that the Hindi words for 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow' are the same ('kal').

    Links:
    Indian High Commission in London click here
    Welcome to India Tourism London click here
    Indian Ministry of Tourism click here
    Welcome to India click here
    India Today Group click here
    Indian Temples Portal click here
    Real Rajasthan click here
    Ian and Wendy's site click here

    DELHI

    At 10.15 am on a winter Wednesday, Roger and Vee took a cab to London's Heathrow airport to commence our trip. The first leg of the journey was a six and a half hour flight in a Boeing 777 to Dubai. Since Dubai is four hours ahead of London time, we landed at 1.15 am local time and then had to spend four and a half hours waiting for our connection. The second leg was a four and a half hour flight in an Airbus A320 to Delhi. Both flights were with Emirate Airways [click here].

    Since India is a further one and a half hours ahead of London, it was noon locally when we landed to be met by our Kuoni representative Hamid Shah and, as we boarded our mini-bus, a welcoming garland of flowers was placed around our necks. So the total flying time was 11 hours and, from our home in London to our hotel in Delhi, it took a total of 23 hours. Our hotel was the Hyatt Regency Hotel [click here]in New Delhi.

    That evening, we had our first taste of the country when four of us travelled to the south of the city for a performance of "Dances Of India". The hall was unheated and cold and the audience totalled a mere 10 people, but the seven dances were delightful, the music was exhilarating, and afterwards some of the performers were happy to be photographed with us.


    Roger & Vee with performers in
    the "Dances Of India"

    Friday and the tour really began with our local guide Mrs Kanchan Shaw. We set off in our minibus on a cool and foggy morning. We were told that Delhi has been populated for some 2,500 years and been the capital of seven empires over seven centuries. New Delhi - designed by the British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker - has been the capital of India since 1911 (previously it was Calcutta) and today the city is a huge, bustling metropolis of 14 million people (twice the size of London) with some 2.6 million vehicles. Everywhere, motorised rickshaws - yellow on top and green on the bottom - zoom and hoot their way in and out of the traffic.

    We made our way through the fascinating, narrow streets of Old Delhi, something which later in the day would have been impossible because the traffic becomes so dense. Our first destination was the Jama Masjid or Friday Mosque (Friday, of course, being the day of worship for Muslims). Immediately we left our minibus, we had an experience which was to haunt us absolutely everywhere we went in India and (to a slightly lesser extent) Nepal. We were assailed by hawkers with every kind of ware - postcards, souvenirs, religious objects, craft items - and beggars of every description - shrivelled old women, children carrying babies, people with missing limbs, others with appalling physical deformities. Sad as it sounds, we simply had to cut ourselves off from all this, otherwise we would have been unable to continue physically or emotionally.

    The mosque was built between 1644-1658 for the Emperor Shah Jahan and it is the largest in India (capable of accommodating some 20,000). Three sets of steep stone steps lead up to a courtyard of 100 square metres (over 1,000 square feet) enclosed by long colonnades with a pavilion at each corner. It overlooks the Lal Quila or Red Fort built in 1639 for the same emperor. Roger is a keen photographer and incredibly, while taking shots at the mosque, his camera developed a major fault! How could such a disaster occur on the very first day of our two and a half week tour?


    The Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque)
    in Old Delhi

    Our next stop should have been the National Museum on Janpath (Queensway) in New Delhi, but we encountered traffic chaos, occasioned by rehearsals for the Republic Day parades on 26 January. Around the India Gate at the end of Rajpath (Kingsway), there were soldiers, camels and tanks which was all very colourful but reduced traffic to a snail's pace.

    So, missing out the National Museum, we proceeded to the Gandhi Smriti Memorial Museum. This is located on Tees January Marg in the grand house previously owned by the industrialist B D Birla where Mahatma Gandhi always stayed on his visits to Delhi and where he was assassinated on 30 January 1948. Inside the museum are informative panels and models concerning the life of this charismatic leader of Indian nationalism. Outside in the garden, a set of concrete footprints mark his last steps before he was gunned down by a Hindu extremist, enraged by his support for the Muslims. [For a review of the film "Gandhi", click here.]

    The bad news was that it was at this museum that Roger was first beset by the diarrhoea (the notorius 'Delhi belly') which dogged him throughout the entire trip and the only lavatory was a squatting affair in an out-house. The good news was that, outside the museum, Roger found a kiosk where he was able to buy a new camera for 3,000 rupees (about £40).

    Next stop in Delhi was the first of many at places on the trip where we were invited - on occasions, even pressured - to buy locally-produced craft goods. This one was called the Cottage Industries Exposition and sold pure silk carpets made by 2,000 families in their homes in Kashmir where - because of the tensions with Pakistan - no tourists can visit.

    We were welcomed with Kashmiri tea which includes cardamom, cinnamon and saffron flavourings. Then we were given a very persuasive sales pitch, emphasising how all the products were hand-made and hand-knotted, how the best quality was 400 knots to the square inch, and how long-lasting and hard-wearing such carpets are. Roger and Vee were convinced and bought a beautiful 4 foot by 6 foot Shalimar design which will soon enhance our planned living room extension. [By the time we returned home, the carpet had been delivered by DHL. The dominant colours are shades of pastel pink, so it matches perfectly both our settees and our cat Honey.]

    Our final stop was the Essex Restaurant for some lunch and then, little more than 24 hours after arriving in Delhi, at 3.15 pm we left the capital for the real India.

    Link: City guide click here

    SAMODE

    Our destination was a tiny place called Samode, some 240 km (145 miles) south of Delhi and our route was what our guide Hamid called a motorway and we would call a dual carriageway. The driving was the craziest we have seen since Cairo (which is the worst in the world) and Hamid explained that, to drive in India, one needs"a good horn, good reflexes, good brakes, and good luck". In Britain, we use the horn rarely and usually in anger but, in India, it is deployed constantly and is regarded as a sign of good manners. Almost all the lorries - usually quite brightly decorated - have the message "Horn please" emblazoned on their rear because one is expected to sound a warning before overtaking on such narrow and crowded roads.

    It was a long journey but the views were just fascinating. The road was full of colourful lorries, impossibly loaded bicycles, and frequent camel carts (one carrying a consignment of computers seemed to epitomise the contrast that is modern India). By the roadside, there were crops of mustard, wheat and millet, and animals of every kind (dogs, pigs, goats, donkeys, oxen and humped-back cows). The women of Rajasthan are amazing - even when working in the fields, they wear beautifully-coloured saris - typically bright reds and purples - and on their heads they carry unbelievable burdens.


    Camel carts carry everything

    And, throughout it all, Hamid began to deliver an utterly fascinating series of insightful and informative oral essays on the life and culture of his beloved India - a practice which he adopted on every journey and which added immensely to our understanding of this complicated, but compelling, society. His first 'essay' was on the extended family system and he explained that usually three generations of an Indian family would live together. Once there were 26 members of his family - 14 of them children - living together in one location. Children are regarded as "the sweetest fruit of life" and parents are seen as "the roof of the family".

    After a refreshment stop at a place called Behror, we left the 'motorway' and proceeded in total darkness (rural India has no street lights) along ever-narrower lanes until we reached our destination at 8.50 pm, after a journey of five and a half hours. Nobody has heard of Samode, but we were here to stay in Samode Palace Hotel [click here] which is owned by the former local maharaj and which we thought was the kind of place that only existed in movies. As we walked into the front courtyard, a set of illuminations were switched on, which picked out the windows and arches. It was like being in a dream.


    Our first view of the
    Samode Palace Hotel

    Once inside, Hamid told us: "Some of the rooms are beautiful and some of the rooms are beautiful". By sheer chance, Roger and Vee were allocated the very best room of all: 209. It was utterly spectacular: a huge four-poster bed in a room containing a side table and television, a settee and coffee table, a huge cushioned area on which to recline, and even an ornamental fountain, with an enormous bathroom containing a sunken bath large enough for two, all set off with gorgeously-patterned curtains. After a late meal (which started with pumpkin ginger soup), Hamid showed us some of the best features of the palace including the hall or mirrors and the durbar or meeting room. It was just wonderful.

    Next morning (Saturday), we all went down to see Samode village and this was like going back in time several centuries. The 'roads' were basic stone and mud and the 'shops' were huddles in crumbling buildings. Cows and camels roamed freely. The basic form of transport in these parts is the camel cart and we all went for a fun ride on the carts out into the surrounding countryside. As the camels trotted down the country lanes, the bells on the camels' coatings jangled, and a blue sky and bright sun hung overhead, it was good to be alive.


    Vee & Roger on camel cart in Samode

    We were taken to Samode Bagh [click here], a beautiful set of gardens owned by the local maharaj. Amidst all kinds of trees from mango to tamerind, we saw many types of birds, including kingfisher, parakeet, and tree pie. As we sat on the lawns sipping tea or coffee, the temperature rose and it would have been easy to stay there forever - but Jaipur awaited.

    JAIPUR

    Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan ( 'jai' means victory and 'pur' means city). It was laid out in 1727 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II according to precise astrological precepts and is said to resemble a chess board in construction. In 1876, the walled city was painted for a visit by Britain's Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), since when it has been known as 'the pink city'. Even today, every 10 years, the walled part of the city is repainted. However, it is not really pink but red sandstone in colour. Today the walled city houses 1.3 million while the outer city hosts another 1.7 million.

    From Samode to Jaipur is an easy journey of about an hour and our base in Jaipur was the Rajputana Sheraton Hotel [click here]. After a quick lunch (Roger loved the key lime and almond cheesecake), Hamid took us out to gain a flavour of this vibrant city.

    We left the minibus just outside the walled city and wandered through a thriving vegetable market before entering the walled city itself from the west through the Chandpol (Moon Gate). It was like walking through the looking glass into a different world. As we strolled up the main thoroughfare of the pink city - Chandpol Street - we braved the deafening traffic, we observed the traders, shoppers and beggars, and we stared at the multifarious shops and stalls, items for sale laid out on blankets on the 'pavement', and plenty of wandering cows. Hamid correctly called it "a river of life". At a major traffic intersection, which represented a roundabout of sorts (Choti Chopad), he took us to the top of a building to marvel at it all - to see cows meandering without a care in the world through screaming, hooting traffic was a sight to behold.

    At this point, two by two we climbed aboard cycle rickshaws and were pedalled through the walled city and out the gate back to our minibus. This was such fun.


    Vee & Roger on
    a rickshaw ride in Jaipur

    As we were boarding the bus, another fantastic sight came into view: a wedding procession led by a band and guests with the groom, decked out like a maharaj, bringing up the rear on a white horse. Next stop was a large marble Hindu temple called the Birla Lakshmi Narayan Temple which is a very recent construction. Here we were just in time to observe the 6 pm ceremony of arti, which marks the setting of the sun, performed in front of representations of the god Vishnu and the goddess Lakshmi.

    We finished the day by spending the evening at a magnificent place called the Rambagh Palace Hotel. This was built in 1835 as a residence for the mahahaj of Jaipur and it is still utterly resplendent (the Maharaj Suite costs $775 a night) We had a cocktail in the famed Polo Bar before eating in a sumptuous restaurant where Roger managed to demolish two lots of date pancake and ice cream.

    We had another day (Sunday) in Jaipur and its surroundings and for this time our local guide was Vinod Kumar. It was a lovely warm day and Vinod told us that, in the summer months, Jaipur can experience temperatures of 45-50C. Our first stop was a beautiful building in the walled city called the Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds). In fact, it is only a façade rather than a complete building and it was constructed in 1799 to allow the women of the royal household to view processions and such like without revealing themselves to men. It is a five-story sandstone affair with projecting balconies and latticed windows (no less than 953 in all).

    We drove out of the walled city through the Zorawar Sigh Pol gate on the north side for a trip to the Amber fort (see below). Following this exciting visit, we returned to Jaipur where we called into a jewellery showroom where fortunately Vee resisted the encouragement to buy emeralds. After lunch at the Holiday Inn Hotel, we saw some more of Jaipur in the course of a sunny afternoon.

    First, we went to the Jantar Mantar Observatory which was built by Jai Singh in 1728 and restored in 1901. It is a strange place that at first looks like an open air exhibition of modern sculptures but, in fact, each construction has a specific purpose - explained to us by our local guide - such as measuring the positions of altitudes and azimuths and calculating eclipses. The most striking edifice is the largest sundial in the world - it stands 27 metres high and casts a shadow which moves at up to four metres an hour.

    Opposite the observatory is the City Palace, our last port of call. This complex was started by Jai Singh in the early 18th century but the most recent additions date from the early 20th century, so it is a blend of Mughal and Rajasthani architecture. The maharaj of Jaipur was the second richest in India (after that of Hydrabad), so that the buildings and contents are dazzling. The son of the last maharaj still lives there with his family and we saw some of his grand-children playing in one of the courtyards. Some of the highlights of the complex are the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience), the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) and the exquisite Peacock Gate in the Chandra Mahal courtyard.


    The Peacock Gate
    in Jaipur's City Palace

    As we left the City Palace, our local guide persuaded one of the palace guards to untie his bright red turban to show us how long it was. It stretched out to 10 metres and it was fascinating to see how cleverly he wound it around his head to restore its original shape and purpose.

    Link: Royal family of Jaipur click here

    Before we left Jaipur on the Monday morning, we had a further shopping stop, this time at the Jaipur Mahal textile factory. Some 3,000 families sell their work through this co-operative and we were shown the process of using between three and seven wooden blocks to build up intricate and multi-coloured patterns on carpets and clothing. Roger and Vee savoured the masala tea - cadoman, cinnamon and ginger - and made a few purchases - a couple of silk ties and a pashmina shawl - before talking to the factory manager, a charming man called Bablu Sharma who - before we even reached London again - had e-mailed us to begin our cyber friendship.

    AMBER

    It was during our Sunday in Jaipur that we went out to see the old Rajasthani capital of Amber which is located some 11 km (7 miles) north-east of Jaipur. From 1037, this was the ancient capital of the Rajputs until the capital moved down to Jaipur in 1727. The fort itself was begun in 1592 by Maharaj Man Singh.

    Entry to the fort is up a long, steep incline and, like all tourists, we took the easy - and the exciting - way up which was by elephant - a wonderful, wonderful experience. All the elephants are beautifully decorated with face paintings and adorned with brightly-coloured cloths. They are mounted from the top of a special stone platform and carry four at a time in addition to the handler.



    Roger & Vee riding an elephant
    up to the Amber Fort

    Lumbering and swaying on this friendly beast up to the fort on a bright, sunny day with great views of the plains below was a real thrill. Vee established a particular rapport with our elephant, delivering the cash tip to the end of the elephant's trunk for it to pass up to the handler and then giving it a banana and stroking the length of its face and trunk until it closed its eyes in pleasure.


    Vee stroking 'her' elephant
    at the Amber Fort

    The Amber fort cum palace is a treasure. Like all such palaces, it has a Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) and a Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), but this complex features many other marvels including the Ganesh Pol (gate dedicated to the elephant-headed god of good fortune) and plus living apartments which, in this case, accommodated the maharaj's 12 wives and 97 ladies in waiting.

    The most magnificent structure, however, is the opulent Sheesh Mahal (Glass Palace) which was built by Mirza Raja Jaisingh in 1639. It features thousands of small convex mirrors and an incredible seven and a half million pieces of green, orange and purple glass.


    The dazzling ceiling of
    the Glass Palace

    There are grand views from the top of the fort and one should be able to look down on a large moat. However, following four successive poor monsoons in the region, when we were there it had totally dried up.

    On the way back from the fort, we stopped to view the Jal Mahal (Water Palace). This building normally presents a stunning sight as it is surrounded by a lake but, as a result of the poor monsoons, the lake has totally dried up and the palace seemed to be deposited in a dust bowl. More serious for the local populace, the drought is so severe that, during the time of our visit, Jaipur was restricted to two hours of water a day.

    As we stopped to view the palace, an enterprising Indian youth rushed up to us and performed a trick whereby he appeared to levitate his body under a black cloth - with the minimum of props, it was very well done and was one more memorable moment.

    FATEHPUR SIKRI

    After the pleasures of Jaipur, it was time to leave the 'pink city' and head for the third leg of the 'Golden Triangle', Agra. On Monday, we left Jaipur at 11.20 am and eventually reached Agra at 7.20 pm, but this eight hour, 235 km (140 miles) journey was broken by several stops.

    Leaving Jaipur, we drove past shanty towns where people eke out a miserable existence, the 'mechanics city' where vehicles of all kinds are repaired and revived, and abandoned homes of former maharajas which the state cannot afford to maintain. The west of Rajasthan is home to the Great Thar Desert, which is why there are so many camels in the region, but the east of the province is in the plains of the mighty Ganges so, as we travelled east, the land became greener and more fertile and the mode of transporting goods switched from the camel to the ox.

    A brief stop was to view the stone carvers of Sikandra. This is such unbelievably painstaking work that it is hard to imagine that men spend all day crouched down chiselling away to create such ornate patterns, but labour is so cheap in rural India that such fine craftwork still continues. Another stop was at Mahuwa to have lunch in the sun on the lawn of a motel.

    Meanwhile there were more fascinating things to see. One of these was the dark brown, flat, circular objects that adorned most of the area of many of the roofs. These consist of cow dung mixed - by hand, naturally - with straw to create fuel for the kitchen (nothing goes to waste in rural India). Also there were more fascinating things to hear. Our guide Hamid Shah continued to regale us with detailed descriptions of Indian life, most memorably on this journey the intricacies of the system of arranged marriages.

    The main stop was to visit Fatehpur Sikri which is only 37 km (23 miles) short of Agra. The word Fatehpur means City of Victory. It served as the capital of the Moghul empire from 1571 to 1585. At this time, the emperor was Akbar who came to power at the tender age of 13 but proved to be the greatest Mughal of them all. He was noted for his religious tolerance and deliberately took Muslim, Hindu and Christian wives (he could have had a fourth wife if he wanted, but then he did have 800 concubines as well). The mystic Shaikh Salim Chishti was credited with bringing Akbar an heir which is why the city was named after the holy man.


    View of the 'lost' city
    of Fatehpur Sikri

    However, water was a major problem in these parts and, after a mere 14 years, the capital was moved to Agra, while Fatehpur Sikri became - and remains - a ghost town. Indeed, when we were there, the only other tourists were a group from South Korea. In a sense, Fatehpur Sikri is to India what Machu Picchu is to Peru, a city that was overgrown and 'lost' until rediscovered by white explorers. In the case of Fatehpur Sikri, it was Lord Curzon who came across this architectural marvel which we can now all enjoy. As well as the usual Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) and Diwan-i -Khas (Hall of Private Audience), there is a five-storey palace called the Panch Mahal and many other fine buildings.


    Roger & Vee at Fatehpur Sikri

    On the final stretch of the journey to Agra, we came across no less than eight weddings, since the astrological calendar suggested that it was a favourable time for such events. Each wedding party was preceded by a raucous band, which was followed by dancing family and guests and a contraption of flashing neon lights, which in turn was followed by the groom, dressed like a maharaj, riding a white horse and carrying a favourite nephew.

    AGRA

    Agra is believed to have been founded on the site of an ancient Hindu kingdom which was utterly destroyed by the Afghan Mahmud of Ghazni in about 1022. Raja Badal Singh built a fort on the site in 1475, but the place did not really come into its own until 1501, when Sultan Sikander Lodi built his capital here. During our time in the city, we stayed at the Mughal Sheraton Hotel: [click here].

    Agra is not just home to the famous Taj Mahal but to 2M people - including our local guide Prakash Gupta - and, at the time we were there, it was beset by heavy pollution and regular power cuts and the weather had been so cold that schools had been closed all month. Indeed on the Tuesday morning when we planned to view the Taj, it was so cold and so foggy that it was decided to postpone matters until the afternoon and make the first call the Agra Fort instead.

    Construction of the fort was begun by the Emperor Akbar in 1565, but it continued to be developed as a military structure and was later upgraded to a palace. Today only a quarter of the site - the palace part - is accessible to tourists, with the remainder being occupied by the army as a barracks.

    Entering over the drawbridge and through the Amar Sigh Gate, one is immediately entranced by the amusing antics of the plentiful monkeys, before taking in the architectural delights which include the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences) and the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences), both built by Shah Jahan, and the Jehangir Mahal, the palace believed to have been built by the Emperor Akbar for his son. There are some attractive gardens too and, in one, we were captivated by a beautiful hoopoe bird with prominent crest.


    View at the Agra Fort

    After returning to our hotel for a buffet lunch, at 2 pm we set off to see the Taj Mahal ('taj' means crown and 'mahal' means palace) and, by now, the sky was clear and blue so we had a magnificent afternoon. We had to leave our coach at a special parking point and take an electric vehicle the last stage, since they are trying to cut down the pollution in the immediate area of the palace. Entrance to the grounds is through an imposing red sandstone gateway, beautifully inlaid with black and white marble calligraphy, and the first view of the Taj through the archway is a stirring memory.

    It took 20,000 craftsmen almost 22 years (1632-1654) to construct this memorial for the Emperor Shah Jahan in honour of his third and favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, the niece of Nur Jahan, who lived from 1594-1630 and died giving birth to her 14th child. Constructed from miraculously white marble from the Rajasthan quarries of Makrana, it is said to have cost three million rupees, the equivalent of about $60M today. The building faces south, so that the sun is always on it, and sunrise and sunset are apparently particularly spectacular times to see what is probably the most famous and most beautiful building in the world.



    Two great shots of the Taj Mahal
    by fellow traveller Brian Thompson

    It is often the case that, when one sees a building familiar from photographs, it looks smaller than one imagined but, in the case of the Taj, it was larger than one had thought. In fact, it is just over 74 metres high. It houses the Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal in the centre and to the left the Cenotaph of Shah Jahan, both in white marble and embellished with pietra dura inlay, surrounded by an exquisite perforated screen inlaid with some 43 semi-precious stones. The Taj is, in fact a complex of buildings with mosques on either side (only the one on the left is for real because the other one faces the wrong direction for Mecca) and the well-known gardens and watercourse in the front.

    Apparently some 3.5M people visit the Taj each year and everyone in Britain remembers the occasion when Princess Diana was photographed on her visit sitting alone on a white stone bench in front of the mausoleum. All the Indians call this "the Princess Diana bench" and, of course, Roger and Vee had to have their photograph taken here by the hotel's official photographer (just as well because the camera bought in Delhi packed up at this point and none of our pictures of the Taj came out!). Amazingly there was some scaffolding on the front of the mausoleum when we were there, but it did not really show on the pictures and it did not detract from our truly memorable two and a half hour visit.


    Vee and Roger sitting on the Princess Diana seat
    in front of the beautiful Taj Mahal

    It was almost an anti-climax to have to visit another craft showroom. This one was called the Oswal Emporium and specialised in marble inlay work. There was a large, beautifully inlaid elephant which was going for £9,000!

    Back at the hotel, it was time to say our farewells, because the 'Golden Triangle' (Delhi-Jaipur-Agra) section of our trip was over and next day our guide Hamid Shah was returning to Delhi with all of the group except Roger & Vee and Dennis Brough. We had a last meal together and Roger made an amusing little speech of thanks on behalf of the group. [Unbelievably, back home, Roger found that, when his brother Ralph made the same trip with Kuoni four years earlier, their guide was Hamid and Ralph made the speech of thanks!]

    KHAJURAHO

    Tuesday morning and Roger & Vee - together with Dennis - were off on the Ganges extension and the Nepal extension when we were travelling unaccompanied, armed only with vouchers and instructions from Hamid. We were up at 6 am to catch an 8 am train from Agra station. In fact, it was just over half an hour late, but seemingly that was rather good, because the previous day the same train had been two hours late.

    Our initial destination was the major railway hub of Jhansi which is about 200 km due south of Agra. The train ride took two and a half hours and was smooth if unexciting. In spite of the strip lighting on the ceiling, the carriage was dark, but the bangra music over the speaker system was fun. The view outside would obviously have been more interesting, but the windows were covered in filth and condensation. At least there was a choice of toilet - either western style (with bowl) or Indian style (squatting).

    Pushing our way through the station beggars, we left Jhansi railway station and met a local driver with his Hindustani Motors Contessa Classic car. Jhansi to Khajuraho was another 190 km along a bumpy, single-lane road. As so often, the journey was almost as interesting as the destination.

    There were few cars, but lots of brightly-coloured Tata-manufactured lorries (all emblazoned with "Horn please" signs), school buses, jeeps, tractors, scooters and bicycles (usually over-burdened with vegetables and other produce), all hooting away. There were no camel carts here, but numerous oxen wagons, the occasional goat herder with his flock, cows everywhere, and regular ranks of women carrying huge loads on their heads.

    We had one stop so that the men could disappear behind their chosen tree and another stop to have a sandwich lunch at a place called Nowgon. It was almost 4 pm when we reached our accommodation in Khajuraho, Chandela Hotel, after a journey of three and a half hours.

    It was a very quiet evening at the hotel because there seemed to be virtually no guests. Sitting alone in the hotel restaurant, Roger & Vee, together with Dennis Brough, took the opportunity to relax and have a good meal. Roger had something called the Maharaj's Choice which consisted of 10 items attractively laid out on a circular plate with various sections like a painter's palette. He enjoyed the Indian food, but maybe it did not enjoy him so much because, next morning, his recurrent diarrhoea was particularly severe and he was only able to leave the hotel as a result of both Immodium tablets and steely determination.

    Today Khajuraho is a sleepy village of around 10,000 people, but a millennium ago it was the capital of the Chandela Rajput Kingdom, a dynasty that lasted five centuries (9th-14th century) before it fell victim to the Mughal onslaught. The most creative period of this kingdom was the century from 950-1050 when a collection of stunning temples was constructed. It is believed that there were once a total of 85 temples, but today only 25 survive.

    Nobody knows why this isolated location was chosen for the capital and, after the 14th century, the whole area was covered by forest. It was only in 1838 that the place was rediscovered by a British army engineer called Captain T S Burt and only in 1923 that the area was properly excavated.

    The temples have an unusual overall structure with many ascending towers and the Indo-Aryan style is called Nagara. There are three groups. The western group comprises the largest and most impressive temples; the eastern group consists of a smaller group of more recent temples; and a southern group represents only a few ruins. We spent most of our time at the western group, but paid a shorter visit to the eastern group.


    One of the western group
    of temples at Khajuraho

    At 8.30 am on Thursday morning, we met local guide Ashwani Chaubey for our tiny group of three. The weather was beautiful and there were very few other tourists, so we were able to savour the splendour of it all. There are 10 major temples in the western group and we concentrated on the Varaha Temple (900-925) dedicated to Vishnu's incarnation as a boar, the Lakshmana Temple (930-950) with its four subsidiary shrines, the Parvati Temple (950-1000) with its image of the goddess Ganga riding on the back of a crocodile, the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (1025-1050) with a spire of 31 metres and no less than 226 statues inside and 646 outside, the Devi Jagadamba Temple (1000) finally dedicated to the black goddess Kali, and the Chitragupta Temple (early 11th century) dedicated to the sun god Surya.

    Khajuraho's temples are festooned with sculptures and statues of various types including the aspara (a celestial maiden), the surasundari (an aspara in dancing mode) and the sardula (a mythical beast, part lion, part some other animal). However, the temples are most famous for their erotic carvings - technically called mithuna - which cannot fail to be the most memorable.

    Every form of sexual activity and every combination of characters are depicted here in very naturalistic form. There are even instances of men fornicating with horses. All the breasts are amazingly firm and all the men capable of brilliant athleticism. One of the most striking images is of a man lying down and penetrating one women while manually pleasuring two others! There are frequent depictions of sexual positions '69' and '77' (if you do not know what these involve, e-mail Roger for a full description). In the circumstances, it comes - if will forgive the pun - as little surprise to recall that the "Kama Sutra" ('Kama' is the Hindu goddess of love and 'sutra' is a list of rules) features no less than 529 sexual positions.


    What are that man and woman doing?


    What is that man doing to that horse?

    After such an erotic onslaught, we recovered our composure by visiting the Kandariya Art & Culture Craft Centre where Vee bought some lovely inlaid marble boxes. Then we went on to see the eastern group of temples which are in fact Jain temples. We looked particularly at the Shantinath Temple, the Parsvanath Temple (954) and the Adinath Temple (11th century).

    We were due to fly out of Khajuraho at 1.30 pm, but we had some information which indicated a delay of an hour or two, so we used the extra time to walk around the old village.

    Somehow we found ourselves in a tiny, privately-run school called Bharat Bhusan Awasthi. The main classroom was about half the size of a British living room - there were no desks or chairs or equipment of any kind and no carpeting on the floor, so the dozen or so children of around nine or ten years old sat on the stone floor in front of a small blackboard on one of the walls. Up some open stone steps, there was an upper floor of similar size where a couple of girls did a traditional dance to music from a cassette player. It was a humbling experience to see how the teachers there are doing so much with so little and we contributed some money and crayons to help out a little.

    Back at the hotel, it was apparent that the problem with the flight was something more than a short delay. In fact, for reasons which were never made clear, the airline had simply cancelled its one flight out that day, so we were stranded in Khajuraho, a place which "The Lonely Planet Guide To North India" describes as "on the way from nowhere to nowhere". We considered travelling on to Varanasi by road, but we were advised that the roads are so bad and so much of the journey would be in the dark that it would take around 12 hours.

    Our local Kuoni guide Baseem Khan offered us an afternoon trip which Roger and Dennis accepted but Vee declined. So two of us went off in a jeep for almost three hours to visit a place called the Ken Gharial Sanctuary which houses an alligator farm and the Ranah Falls. However, Roger and Dennis could not distinguish any alligators even with binoculars (although our driver and guide claimed to see them with normal eyesight) and the falls were pretty pitiful outside of the monsoon season. However, we did see lots of monkeys and antelope and even came across a mosquito (we moved fast - no need to put our anti-malaria tablets to the test!). Also, once more, the journey itself was a joy because the countryside and the villages were so fascinating.

    Since we had an unscheduled night in Khajuraho, we spent an hour that evening attending a son-et-lumière at the western group of temples. Under a canopy of stars far brighter and much more numerous than one can ever see in London, we were told something of the history of the temples in a display than stirred the emotions as one contemplated the memories contained in those ancient stones.

    Next morning (Friday), we were offered another trip outside the village, but we all decided to spend some time sitting around the hotel's outdoor pool relaxing and reading in warm weather. Today the flight was taking place, although inevitably it was delayed - in the event, by almost three hours. So we drove to the tiny airport where security was intense with suitcases x-rayed, bags searched twice, and bodies frisked twice. The airline was Jet Airways [click here], the aircraft was a Boeing 737, and the flight from Khajuraho to Varanasi - when it did eventually take place, almost 27 hours after we should have been on it - lasted a mere half an hour.

    VARANASI

    Varansi is one of the world's most ancient cities (some 3,000 years old). The American author Mark Twain once wrote that it was "older than history, older even than tradition, and looks twice as old as all of them put together".

    The name comes from the Varuna and the Asi, tributaries of the great Ganges river. It is the ancient name of the city, recently readopted, and, until a couple of years ago, the place was known as Benares. Another name for the city is Kashi (the City of Light). This is the religious centre of Hinduism, it is regarded as an auspicious place for a Hindu to die, and it has attracted pilgrims from all over Hindu world for over 2,500 years. On a typical day, some 60,000 pilgrims convene on the 100 ghats (steps leading down to the Ganges).

    At the airport, we were met by the local Kuoni representative Avinash Singh who took us by minibus straight to our accommodation in the city, the Taj Ganges Hotel: [click here] where our local guide Vinod Chandra was waiting for us. The hotel was in a state of high excitement because of the impending arrival of a famous film star whose father had just died. He was bringing the ashes of his father from Mumbai (Bombay) to Varanasi in order to cast them into the waters of the holy Ganges river. Of course, none of us had heard of this man, but apparently he is mega in India - a huge Bollywood movie star who hosts the local equivalent of the television show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". His name was Amitabh Bacchan [click here].

    We had lost a day from our intended time in Varansi because of the cancelled flight from Khajuraho and it was now already 6.15 pm and dark, so we decided to waste no time, did not even go to our rooms, but immediately set off on a quick tour of some of the famous ghats. A minibus took us so far and then we had to walk. There was a cacophony of bell-ringing, horn-hooting, and shouting and a teeming multitude of people in narrow streets that were even more crushing and chaotic than we had experienced in Jaipur, but we felt excited not threatened.

    Our destination was the Dasaswamedh Ghat, so called because by tradition Brahma sacrificed medh (ten) das (horses) aswa (here). It is one of the most important and busiest ghats and, as we approached it, we could heard the sounds of the sun-setting ceremony of arti - bells were rung, cymbals were clashed, horns were sounded and fires burned in a brightly-illuminated performance. It was both magical and mystical.

    Roger & Vee, accompanied by Dennis and our guide, took a small boat out onto the Ganges and the owner rowed us out though the inky and eerie blackness northwards to another famous ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat - one of the oldest and most sacred in Varansi. This is the main burning ghat and one of the most auspiciuous places that a Hindu can be cremated.

    Here bodies in shrouds are carried between bamboo sticks and dipped in the holy waters of the river before being placed on a tall pyre of thick logs which are then set on fire. The bodies are then consumed by the flames until the ashes and remaining body parts are flung into the waters and drift down the river. We saw about a dozen funeral pyres in progress from a remarkably close position in an experience never to be forgotten.

    We were rowed back to our original point of departure and, by now, the ceremony of arti was over and the Dasaswamedh Ghat was virtually blacked out. We stumbled through streets with stalls lit only by candles or bare bulbs or spluttering generators, before taking a rickshaw back to our minibus and the bus back to the hotel where there was even more commotion over the arrival of Amitabh Bacchan and his father's ashes.

    Next morning (Saturday), our little group of three was up at 5.45 am in order to leave the hotel at 6.30 am to revisit the ghats and observe the early morning routines on the banks of the Ganges. At this time of day, the streets were almost deserted but, as a result of the actor's ceremony for his deceased father later in the morning, bamboo barricades had been erected, banners with poems been strung up, and troops were much in evidence.

    As last night, we took a small rowing boat from Dasaswamedh Ghat. This time, we started by rowing south and observed the traditional morning ceremonies of men bathing in the dirty and cold waters of the holy Ganges in a homage to the rising sun called puja . There was heavy mist, so we could see little, but it was all terribly atmospheric.


    Can't see much? Neither could we
    on this misty morning boat ride

    We then turned around and rowed northwards to the Manikarnika Ghat where we had been the night before. More pyres were burning and, in the murky light, it was easier to see the logs piled up in boats ready for the day's cremations. A dead boar floated by our boat, but this was not as bad as the experience of another British group which that morning observed a human body in the water (sometimes families cannot afford the wood for the cremations).

    When we disembarked from our boat, we encountered the most persistent and aggressive hawkers of the entire tour. It had all started the night before as we walked to the Dasaswamedh Ghat. Young children attempted to sell us all kinds of things and, when we ignored them, pleaded "Tomorrow?" Of course, we said "Yes, tomorrow", relieved to be rid of them and convinced that there was no way that, in a city of over 3 million, we would see them again or they would recognise us in a crowd.

    However, no sooner were we back in the area at 7 am this morning than there they were again, obviously well aware of the routines of foreign visitors, reminding us "You said tomorrow". We tried everything. "Later" we said. "Later no good" was the reply. "Maybe later" we insisted. "Maybe no good" was the inevitable response. Then they tried to appeal to the British sense of honour: "You promise. You promise. You my friend. You remember me. No other boy".

    Ignoring all these entreaties, we boarded our boats, thankful to have lost them (although other hawkers appeared on the river itself in boats laiden with goods and souvenirs). But - you guessed it - when we disembarked further up the river, there they were again: "You promise. You promise" they insisted. Roger firmly responded: "Me say later. You say promise". Accepting defeat, the hawker despondently conceded: "You very clever".

    We had left our boat at a point which enabled us to walk through a district of the city known as Old Benares. This is an area of narrow alley ways,, thronging with food sellers and shopping establishments, something like a Middle Eastern bazaar. However, the tiny stone passage ways are shared with lots of cows who regularly defecate. To be honest, it is a squalid and filthy quarter, but it does have atmosphere and even a certain charm.

    The alley ways are home to the Vishwanath Temple or Golden Temple - the most sacred in Varansi. It is dedicated to Vishveswara which is Shiva as the lord of the universe (well, you probably knew that). The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore and the 800 kg of gold plating on the towers - which gives the temple its popular name - was provided some 50 years later by Maharaj Ranjit Singh of Lahore (so now you know).

    We returned to our hotel to have a quick breakfast and collect our cases. By now, the ashes of the actor's father had arrived and were displayed in two large urns on a large, covered platform. The place was bristling with security guards and a fleet of 30 white cars awaited the funeral party. Clearly the lives of the rich and the poor in India are very, very different.

    We had one last place to visit before we left India: Sarnath which is a hamlet 10 km (6 miles) north-east of Varansi. Very few Europeans will have heard of Sarnath but, for Buddhists, it is one of the four holiest places on earth. This is where the one-time noble man Siddhartha Gautama - better known as Buddha - gave his first sermon around 500 BC and the location was at the height of its importance early in the 5th century.


    Statue of Buddha at Sarnath

    The 34 metre high Dhamekh Stupa dominates the site and is believed to be the place where Buddha preached his famous sermon of the four noble truths [for more information click here]. Nearby is the Archaeological Museum, where the main attraction is the capital from the mighty stone pillar of Ashoka (ruler in the 3rd century BC and Buddha's most famous convert). The capital carries the Ashokan symbol of four back-to-back lions which is today the state emblem of modern India.

    Our 10 days in wonderful India was at an end. It was time to move on to fascinating Nepal.

    NEPAL

    Nepal is a relatively small country sandwiched between India and Tibet. It has a fairly rectangular shape, roughly 550 miles (885 kilometres) long by 100 miles (160 kilometres) wide, and it is equivalent in size to Austria and Switzerland combined. More than a quarter of the land area is over 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). Indeed Nepal has eight of the world's 8,000 metre (26,250 feet) mountains either within it or on its borders and eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. They are all located in the Himalayas (Abode of the Gods).

    Nepal's population is around 22 M, comprising 61 ethnic groups. Nepali functions as the national language (like Hindi, written in the Devanagari script) and this is spoken by about 50% of the population, but there are 11 other languages in common use and some 70 languages in use overall. 'Namaste' - accompanied by hands in a prayer-like position - serves as both 'hello' and 'goodbye' plus other purposes (it means literally "I salute the god in you"). Officially 86% of the population is Hindu, but Hinduism and Buddhism rather overlap.


    Vee with Kathmandu shopkeeper
    Puja and her children

    In 1814, Nepal and Britain fought a war concluded by the treaty of Segauli in 1816. In 1846, the country was taken over by an army officer called Jung Bahadur Rana whose family ran the country despotically for the next 104 years. In the earthquake of 1934, 20,000 were killed and many historic buildings destroyed or damaged.

    Nepal was only opened to foreigners in 1951, following the overthrow of the Rana regime. In April 1990, riots for more democracy forced the lifting of a ban on political parties and the institution of a new constitution providing for multi-party elections. In June 2001, Crown prince Dipendra allegedly massacred the king, queen and direct heirs to the throne before killing himself. His brother became King Gyanendra and currently appoints all the government ministers (the Prime Minister at the time was Lokendra Bahadur Chand).

    Since February 1996, there has been an insurgency by Maoist rebels which has now claimed almost 8,000 lives, including more than 6,000 rebels and more than 850 policemen. Most of the deaths have been in the past year, usually in remote rural areas in the west of the country. However, most recently bombs have been let off in Kathmandu.

    The day after our arrival in Kathmandu, the chief of police, his bodyguard and his wife were killed while on an early morning walk on the outskirts of the capital, but no organisation claimed responsibility. Then, three days later, the Maoists declared a ceasefire, so hopefully the security situation will now stabilise.

    Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and in 2000 gross domestic product per person was a mere $240. More than 90% of the population consists of subsistence farmers operating outside the cash economy, so one can only guess at the true rate of unemployment and under-employment but it is very high. Tourism used to attract almost half a million visitors a year and generate £100M and 200,000 jobs. However, in 2002, tourist numbers fell by 27% to just over 400,000 and the numbers from the UK and USA declined by more than 40%.

    Nepalese time is strangely just 15 minutes ahead of Indian time which makes it 5 hours 45 minutes ahead of GMT. The people have a fatalistic approach to events and a favourite phrase is "Abo ke garne" which loosely translates as "What can we do".

    Links:
    Welcome Nepal click here
    London Embassy of Nepal click here
    Nepal News click here
    Politics in Nepal click here

    KATHMANDU

    The flight from Varanasi in India to Kathmandu in Nepal - carried out in an Airbus A320 of Indian Airlines [click here]- took a little short of two hours and, for most of the journey, we could see Himalayas below us. Tribhuvan airport at Kathmandu (named after the former king) is a surprisingly modern affair, funded no doubt by the stiff airport tax of 1,100 Nepalese rupees (almost £10) from each departing passenger. However, as a result of the Maoist insurrection, armoured cars and sand-bagged check-points guarded the approach roads and soldiers with rifles covered all gates and doors.

    Kathmandu itself was founded in the 12th century during the reign of the Malla kings (when it was known as Kantipur) and today it is a capital of some 500,000 people. It is situated in the Kathmandu valley at a height of 1,350 metres (4,423 feet) - not as high as La Paz in Bolivia, which we have visited, but a lot higher than most capitals. Much of the city looks like any other in the developing world, but sections are a throw-back to the Middle Ages. Traffic is pretty chaotic by European standards, but quite disciplined by the standards of India.

    Unlike India where we never spent more than two nights at the same hotel, for Kathmandu the entire time - a total of seven nights - was spent at the same place: Hotel de l'Annapurna. We made frequent use of the hotel's "Coffee Bar" which was in fact a restaurant where Roger's favourite dessert was a local variant of banana split called 'munchy crunchy banana'.

    We became well-known to the friendly staff, especially a most personable young man called Santosh Thapa. This was the kind of place where more affluent locals would eat too. So, one evening, we met Kurian and Karuna James, with their four-month old son Ivan, who were there celebrating her birthday with some family and friends and they invited us to share the birthday cake. On another occasion, we met American Margo Renner with her Icelandic son Andri Runölfsson and her American friend Joyce Miller. Margo and Andri live on a tiny island in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman) group which only has a population of 4,300 but has broadband Internet and its own web site [click here].

    It was probably just as well that we were not travelling around so much during our time in Nepal because, by this stage of the trip, the diarrhoea that had dogged Roger all the way became particularly severe. It was clear the Imodium tablets were not sufficient and he had to accept something called amoebicide offered by the hotel and suffer helpings of bitter-tasting yohurt. This took days to work but, by the time we left Kathmandu, Roger's stomach had finally settled down after two weeks of serious 'Delhi belly'.

    Throughout our time in Kathmandu, we were looked after by the local Kuoni guide Karna Bahadur Rana (known as K B, for short), an engaging young man who insisted on calling us "sir and madam". He was brought up a Hindu but converted to Buddhism, so he was extremely knowledgeable on the traditions of both religions.

    On our first morning in the city (Sunday), he gave us an orientation tour and, on subsequent days, we explored on our own.

    The heart of old Kathmandu is Durbar Square. In Nepali, 'durbar' means palace and, in Kathmandu as well as Patan and Bhaktapur, there are durbar squares in front of old palaces. In fact, in the case of Kathmandu's Durbar Square, we are talking of three loosely linked squares full of fascinating old buildings, many of them temples. The whole area is a World Heritage Site and, like the squares in Patan and Bhaktapur, makes a modest entry charge to locals and a stiffer one to foreigners (in the case of Bhaktapur, 750 rupees which is more than £6). However, with 26 major buildings to study, the area is like a living museum.


    Vee & Roger with holy men
    in Kathmandu's Durbar Square

    The full name of the old palace is the Hanuman Dhoka Durbar - 'hanuman' is the monkey god and his statute marks the 'dhoka' (entrance) to the palace. On each side of the palace gate are stone lions, one ridden by Shiva and the other by his wife Parvati. The palace was originally founded in the Licchavi period dating back to 300 AD, but most of the present buildings were constructed by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century. In fact, the king no longer lives in the Hanuman Dhoka, as a century ago a New Royal Palace was built at the top of the road where our hotel was located.

    The Kasthamandap (House of Wood) is the building that gave Kathmandu its name and it is probably the oldest building in the valley being constructed around the 12 th century. Originally it was a community centre, but later it was converted to a temple dedicated to Gorakhnath.

    Of the many temples in the square, the tallest and most magnificent (but it is not open to the public) is the Taleju Temple. Taleju Bhawani was originally a goddess from the south of India, but she became the titular deity of the Malla kings in the 14th century and this temple was built in 1564 by Mahendra Malla. It stands on a 12-stage plinth and reaches over 35 metres high.

    The temple which attracts the most attention - because it is such a great vantage point for people-watching - is the Maju Deval. The temple dates from 1690 and it has a nine-stage platform and a triple roof with erotic carvings on the struts. We enjoyed sitting on the upper steps and observing all the activity below.

    Another fascinating building in the square is the Kumari Bahal (House of the Living Goddess). The building, which houses a three-story courtyard with carved wooden balconies, was constructed in 1757 by Jaya Prakash Malla. It houses the young girl (called the kumari) who at the time is the town's living goddess. The kumari is selected from a particular caste of Newari gold and silversmiths and must meet 32 strict physical requirements as well as having the appropriate horoscope and passing various tests. By tradition, she is aged between four years old and puberty and serves as the living goddess until her first period or any other serious accidental loss of blood, following which she reverts to being a normal mortal.


    Postcard of the current kumari

    Since the square is a magnet for tourists, it is also frequented by hawkers and beggars (although it has to be said that the Nepalese variety are not as aggressive as those in India). The most frequent offers for sale were ornamental daggers (imagine boarding an aircraft with one of those!) and a multi-purpose ointment called 'tiger balm'. The begging in Nepal was often more subtle than that in India. Frequently a young boy with some English would claim that he wished to be a doctor and ask for money for books, but K B warned us that it was a scam.

    There are plenty of little shops too and we befriended one owner, a beautiful young woman called Puja (the name means worship) together with her two young children, Susmita (aged 5) and Kajol (2). Her shop is called "Big Bell Handicraft" because it is positioned close to the Great Bell erected by Rana Bahudur Shah in 1797. Sadly, because of the lack of tourists, we were her first customers in four days. She had a wonderful stock of brightly-coloured and intricately-designed cloths and covers, but we could only buy a lovely blue table cloth.

    Outside of the Durbar Square, most tourists - not that there were many there during our visit - head for a district of the city called Thamel which has accommodation and shops aimed at the trekker and the visitor. However, this area had no interest for us. Instead the place we really loved was the Makhan Tole ('makhan' means butter and 'tole' means street), a long shopping street stretching north-east from the Durbar Square. This was once the main street in Kathmandu and it was the start of the route to Tibet. It was only pathed in the 1960s, but it so pot-holed that, when it rains (as it did on our first visit), the road turns to messy mud and huge puddles.

    We just found it so captivating: variegated spices, garlic and incense exciting the nose, bells, hooters, shouting, conversation and Nepali music assailing the ears, vegetables, fruits, cloths and garlands providing a kaleidoscope of colour for the eyes, bicycles, rickshaws, and scooters coming from the front and behind, Aladdin's caves of tiny shops with a plethora of brass and silverware goods, and men swallowing loudly and spitting forcefully. There were not as many cows as there would have been in a similar street in India (usually they were restricted to the squares and intersections) but, around every corner and through every arch, there would be some sort of temple or shrine.

    The main north-south road in Kathmandu is called Kantipath. Running along part of its length on the east side is a large recreational area callled Tundhikhel where people gather and wander and even play cricket. Just north of this area is the Rani Pokhari (Queen's Pond). A Shiva temple is located in the middle of a man-made, rectangular lake and linked to dry land by a stone causeway. The structure was built by King Pratap Malla in 1667 to console his queen over the death of their son. This attractive location could be a much better-known tourist attraction, but the causeway is accessible on only one day of each year.


    The Rani Pokhari or Queen's Pond

    Finally, we should mention the Tri Devi Temples. These are located on a busy road called Tridevi Marg around the corner from our hotel. The temples and courtyard are a quiet haven from the bustling traffic. 'Tri' means three and 'devi' means goddesses and the temples are in honour of the goddesses Dakshinkali, Mankamna and Jawalamai. Roger befriended two young girls who were sitting on the courtyard's stones sketching one of the temples. Sushma (aged 13) and her sister Shrishti (11) were the daughters of the caretaker and, squatting beside them, was their aged grandfather reading his holy book. We gave them coloured crayons and took their photograph [later we sent them a copy].

    NEAR KATHMANDU

    In the course of our time in Kathmandu, we visited a number of shrines in the immediate vicinity of the city.

    First, Swayambhunath (bit of a mouthful, that).

    This is situated on a hill just 2 km west of Kathmandu. The site could be around 2,000 years old and certainly by the 13th century it was an important Buddhist centre. There are two ways to reach the top of the hill - 365 stone steps lined with sculptures of animals and birds or a road to a car park (we took the latter). Either way, one immediately comes across the monkeys which proliferate the area and give much amusement to the visitors.

    The central feature of Swayambhunath - in the middle of all the shrines, temples and shops - is the great stupa (the classic hemispherical Buddhist religious structure). Following destruction of an earlier structure by lightning in 1907, the present stupa dates from 1909-1911. It is topped by a gold-coloured square block with the watchful eyes of Buddha staring out in each direction. Between and above each pair of eyes is a third 'eye' which symbolises Buddha's clairvoyant powers. Below each pair of eyes is what looks like a nose in the form of a question mark but is in fact the Nepali number ek (one) which symbolises unity.


    Roger & Vee in front of the
    stupa at Swayambhunath

    Lines leading from the stupa's spire support colourful prayer flags which carry mantras and each wave of the breeze carries the words away. Then, at the base of the stupa, there is a continuous series of prayer wheels which pilgrims - always walking in a clock-wise direction - spin as they pass by. Each prayer wheel carries the sacred mantra "Om mani padme hum". The monkeys and the pigeons, the flags and the wheels, the bells and the candles all made for a very atmospheric location and on a clear day (it was overcast when we were there) there are apparently splendid views of Kathmandu.

    Second, Pashupatinath (another tongue-twister).

    This is to be found just 5 km east of Kathmandu. Located on the banks of the Bagmati River, the golden-roofed Pashupatinath Temple (Pashupati is Shiva as the lord of the animals) is the most important Hindu temple in Nepal and one of the most important Shiva temples on the Indian sub-continent. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple, but we could look down on it from the terraces on the opposite side of the river.

    Pashupatinath is known as 'Little Varansi' because, like the Indian city by the Ganges, it is located by a holy river and it is a popular place for public cremations. South of the bridge are seven cremation ghats for the common people (six were in use when we were there), while north of the bridge are two reserved for dignitaries (one was in use when we were there, possibly for the cremation of the assassinated police chief). The flames and smoke from the burning pyres, the wailing of the bereaved women, and the smell of the burning bodies all made for a sombre and moving experience.


    Smoke rises from a public ceremation
    at Pashupatinath

    On our side of the river (the east), our guide R B pointed the 11 stone chaityas which are small stupas. He explained that each chaitya contained a lingram which is phallic symbol that represents Shiva's creative powers. Roger embarrassed poor R B by pretending not to understand the English word phallus and asking for more elucidation

    Third, Bodhnath (or Boudha).

    This is situated close by Pashupatinath, so just 6 km east of Kathmandu. This is home to the largest stupa in Nepal and one of the largest in the world. As at Swayambhunath, there were the prayer flags and the prayer wheels and the devotees.

    In fact, Bodnath has always been particularly associated with Tibetan Buddhism and it is the religious centre of Nepal's substantial Tibetan community, attracting the name 'Little Tibet'. All around the stupa and the side streets are shops selling Tibetan crafts and food. We arrived at the stupa in late afternoon when, even if there were any tourists, they would have gone and the place is filled with devotees circumambulating in a clockwise direction, spinning the prayer wheels, fingering prayer beads, and chanting mantras.

    PATAN

    Patan is situated just on the other side of the Bagmati River from Kathmandu and it is the second largest town in the valley. It is often referred to as Lalitpur which means City of Beauty. Patan has a long Buddhist history said to go back over 2,000 years, but the great building boom took place under the Mallas in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

    Like Kathmandu, the pride of the architectural treasure is to be found in the Durbar Square, the location taking its name from the Royal Palace which forms the whole of the eastern side of the square. Parts of the palace were built in the 14th century, but most of it dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, predating those of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.


    Vee in Patan's Durbar Square

    One of the most prominent temples in the square is the stone Krishna Mandir. Records indicate that this was completed in 1637. The temple is dedicated to Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, so the god's vehicle - the man-bird Garuda - kneels with folded arms on top of a column facing the temple. Either side of the Krishna Mandir are the Jagannarayan Temple, a two-storey brick structure which is reputed to be the oldest temple in the square (it dates from 1565), and the Bhimsen Temple, a three-storey brick building dedicated to the god of trade and business.

    Outside of the Durbar Square, there are countless other temples and shrines. Just north of the square is the Kwa Bahal or Golden Temple, a Buddhist monastery which is said to have been founded in the 12th century although records 'only' go back to 1409. Inside an inner courtyard is a small, but richly-decorated, temple crowned with a golden roof and frequented by sacred tortoises and sacred rats. Just north of the Golden Temple, there is the Kumbeshwar Temple, one of the valley's three five-storey temples and the oldest in Patan (it dates from 1392). The temple platform has two ponds whose water is said to come from the holy lake at Gosainkund.

    At one of the temples, we observed a traditional ceremony involving lots of young women and a holy man. The women lit candles and chanted mantras to ensure that they obtained suitable husbands - a kind of celestial dating agency. Of course, one can only take in so much history and architecture at once and anyway it was raining, so we decided to stop for cup of tea in a local café. A cup cost a mere 10 rupees but, since the place had just opened, we were given a discount to take it down to 8 rupees. At about seven pence, it was the cheapest cup of tea ever purchased anywhere in the world by Roger and Vee.

    BHAKTAPUR

    Bhaktapur is situated just 16 k (10 miles) east of Kathmandu and it is the third largest town in the valley. It is also known as Bhadgaon or Khwopa or the City of Devotees. Bhaktapur was founded in the 12th century by King Anand Dev Malla and became the capital of the whole valley during the 14th-16th centuries, but much of the town's great architecture dates from the end of the 17th century which was during the rule of King Bhupatindra Malla. In the 1970s, Germany donated funds to clean up the town, but it is still a place that time seems to have forgotten.

    We started our walking tour on the east side of town at the Potters Square where potters sit cross-legged and hand-spin wheels as they shape clay into vessels of all kinds. Next we went on to Tachupal Tole which was probably the original central square of Bhaktapur. At the heart of the square stands the Dattatraya Temple, a three-storey structure that dates back to 1427. Another interesting square is Taumadhi Tole. This houses the Nyatapola Temple which, at five storeys and 30 metres, is the highest temple in the whole valley, as well as being one of the best examples of traditional temple architecture by the local Newari people.

    As in Kathmandu, however, the heart of Bhaktapur is the Durbar Square which is much larger and more spacious than the one in the capital because the disastrous earthquake of 1934 destroyed so many of the temples in the square. As well as the Royal Palace, there is still an abundance of architectural richness with lots of temples and samples of erotic carvings, notably in the case of the 17th century Pashupatinath Temple. The square is also home to the single most important work of art in the whole valley, the magnificent Golden Gate or Sun Dhoka which is the entrance to the 55 Window Palace. Both were built by King Bhupatindra Malla but were not completed until 1754.


    Statue and boy at Bhaktapur

    It was in Bhaktapur that we were most aware of the collapse of tourism in Nepal. The place is awash with craft and souvenir shops, but there were simply no other tourists which made us an obvious target for all the beggars and hawkers. However, for the locals - it is a living museum - life goes on. It was fascinating to see how bicycles are turned into mobile shops with wide panniers for fruit and vegetables and make-shift scales for weighing.

    NAGARKOT

    On the Monday of our week in Kathmandu, Roger's diarrhoea became more acute than ever and he had to spend a morning in bed. Vee decided to join Dennis Brough on a four-hour round trip out to a place called Nagarkot, some 30 km outside Kathmandu. Nagarkot - in reality, little more than a small cluster of guest houses - is situated on a ridge on the eastern rim of the valley. It was once the retreat of the Nepalese Maharajas and then became the most popular sunrise/sunset mountain viewing spot in the 1970s.

    In a morning mist, they left Kathmandu with the minibus negotiating the rush-hour traffic at a very slow pace. The traffic thinned out as they left the city and headed into the country. The minibus climbed high up into the surrounding hills and eventually reached the Club Himalaya where they had refreshments served on the patio. The Club is a very upmarket hotel catering for tourists. On a clear day, it would provide first class views of the Himalayas but, as usual, low cloud hung over the area and they could not see very far. However, after the hustle and bustle of the city, it was wonderful to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the hills.

    There were some very basic houses forming hamlets and the amenities were really poor. The locals had created terracing for their crops, while cattle and goats were grazing on the sparse vegetation. Vee and Dennis came to a hamlet where the women were preparing the meal for the family. Outside one of the homes, a mother had her baby lying upside down on her lap and was massaging it all over with oils. The baby seemed to be very contented.

    At another group of houses, some elderly women were sitting in the morning sunshine and an old man strolled up to them. Nearby some rice wine was being prepared. It became apparent that the old man had the task of sampling the wine as, when Vee had her photograph taken with him, the smell of alcohol was very strong! No wonder he seemed so jolly!


    A happy villager in Nagarkot

    The journey down seemed to be more treacherous than they had realised when they had ascended. The tracks were narrow and at many points there were vehicles just scraping past them heading back up the hills. All in all, it had turned out to be a most enjoyable excursion into the hills surrounding Kathmandu.

    MOUNT EVEREST

    No, we did not see Mount Everest - but we certainly tried.

    Mount Everest is now officially specified as 8,850 m (29,035 ft) high, making it the tallest mountain in the world. It is named after the British explorer Sir George Everest who mapped it in 1852 and it was first climbed by an expedition led by the British mountaineer Edmund Hilary exactly 50 years ago in 1953. However, the Nepalese call the mountain Sagarmatha (honouring the demon-slaying King Sagar of Hindu legend), while the Tibetans call it Chomolungma and the Chinese Qomolangma (both meaning roughly Mother Goddess of the World).

    On our first day in Nepal, we booked a mountain flight with Buddha Air [click here] which uses Beech Craft executive jets with each passenger having a window seat (cost about £80 a head). We decided to make our flight on Tuesday morning, a couple of days after our arrival with several more days to spare if there was a problem. So we were up at 5.30 am and left the hotel at 6.30 am but, at the airport, we found that all flights were grounded because of adverse weather. We waited in the domestic departure lounge, a cold, bleak hanger-like affair with poor lighting and even poorer facilities. After four hours, we were told that the mountain flights would not be taking place that day.

    The following morning (Wednesday), we tried again. We rose at 5 am and were ready at 6 am. At 7 am, we were advised that flights might be possible and taken to the airport again. Once more we waited in that freezing lounge and this time we even managed to board a Beech Craft, but the weather worsened, rain came down, and again the mountain flights were cancelled. So, after another wasted three hours, it was back to the hotel.

    At this point, Roger and Vee gave up the attempt to see Mount Everest, but the ever-hopeful Dennis decided to make one more attempt. On Thursday morning, his aircraft actually took off, but it soon returned because the weather was so inclement and he saw nothing. Indeed, for the remainder of our time in Nepal, there were no mountain flights. But no holiday can include everything - and we had seen and experienced so, so much.


    Postcard view of what we had hoped to see

    CONCLUSION

    After 10 days in India and 6 days in Nepal, Roger and Vee returned home, courtesy of Qatar Airways. The flight from Kathmandu to Dohar was in an Airbus A300 and took five hours. Then the final leg from Dohar to London was on an Airbus A330 and took a little over seven hours. At home, we discovered that two days earlier the south-east of England had been brought to a halt by snow blizzards and there was still some snow in our back garden. But our bodies were still on an aircraft above the Arabian desert and our minds were still in the bustling streets of the Indian sub-continent.

    It had been a challenging trip: Roger was beset with stomach problems the whole way, two cameras failed on us, beggars, hawkers and abject poverty were constantly surrounding us, and a flight was mysteriously cancelled. But one expects visits to developing countries to present the odd problem and we still enjoyed ourselves immensely.


    Sunset at the
    Birla Lakshmi Narayan Temple
    in Jaipur

    Compared to industrialised nations like the UK, the countries of the Indian sub-continent offer a totally different experience of both life and death.

    In India and Nepal, homes are small and basic, so real life is on the streets. Here everything happens - not just buying, selling, trading, begging, cooking, eating, washing clothes, cleaning bodies, but also playing games, reading palms, praying, sleeping, haircutting, shaving, celebrating weddings and even, on occasions, spitting and urinating. We saw it all.

    In India, people share the streets with cows and all manner of other animals plus inevitably their droppings or - as Hamid Shah put it - their offerings. In Nepal, citizens share the streets with soldiers, sandbags and armoured vehicles. Everywhere the tumultuous action, the incessant noise, the brilliant colours, the variegated smells, the awful pollution - all combine to create a veritable assault on the senses which can be initially disconcerting but soon becomes utterly exhilarating.

    The western and eastern attitudes to death are so very different too. In the west, funerals are very private, family affairs - the body is 'hidden' in an anonymous casket, the ceremony is 'hidden' in a church or crematorium, and the actual cremation is 'hidden' behind curtains. But, in India and Nepal, death is in a sense a part of life - the body is covered only by a simple shroud, the cremation is in the most open and public of locations, and the general populous is able to share the grief and the hope. For Christians, death is the end of life on earth but, for Hindus, death is an avenue to another incarnation on this earth. In the west, we mourn in black while, in the east, the colour is white.

    So much of our trip was like turning the pages of the "National Geographic" magazine. It was all so very, very different and the images will live with us forever.

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