Thursday, 4 January 2018

Agra, Mughals and the Taj Mahal

    The moment you see this monument, you fall in love with it all over again. 

Getting to Agra

It was time to keep once a decade date with Taj Mahal . As we speeded on the fabulous Yamuna expressway on a foggy Christmas morning  towards Agra, I had no clue how much we all would enjoy visiting the mughal era buildings and gardens. After all it was my fourth visit to the city.
Many people get off the expressway seeing the signs of Agra city and Taj Mahal. Agra authority has linked the expressway to another toll road and this takes you very near all the hotels and Taj Mahal, bypassing the crowded city so its best to carry on and you will reach the area around Jaypee hotel in no time.

2 days later I was back in my house in Gurgaon and in these two days we had visited Sikandra, Agra fort, Fatehpur Sikri, the famed market of Agra called the Sadar Bazaar for footwear shopping and last but not the least the magnificent Taj Mahal. Besides this we also attended what was the main priority for our visit – the wedding of my childhood friend’s daughter on the outskirts of Agra.

Sikandra- Akbar the Great's Masouleum

Sikandra is the place where Akbar the great is buried.  Earlier Sikandra could be seen as soon as we entered Agra coming from Delhi on Mathura road. We did visit Sikandra as soon as we reached Agra but now the Yamuna Expressway comes from a different direction so one had to drive a fair bit to get here. The empror had started building his burial place while he was alive but it was completed after his death by his son Jahangir. The four mammoth but beautiful gates located in north, South, East and West flank the lovely gardens and the building containing the tomb. The gardens have hundreds of deer  and they roam around freely as public is not allowed inside the gardens. As you admire the architecture and craftsmanship of the gates and buildings, what really fascinates you is the simplicity of the tomb itself and the room in which Akbar was buried. Its said that once the Mughal empire weakened, the enemies of mughals even dug the grave of Akbar.

Sikandra is a good place to start your tour as the gates of mausoleum show you what Mughal architecture was all about. It had influence of Persian, Hindu and christian architecture. The chattris, minarets, the inscription of holy Quran which are present in all mughal buildings are present here as well. You feel richness all around. At one time real jewels, stones, carpets and gold decorated all the buildings. They were looted by the enemies once the mughals became weak. 

Our hotel Radisson Blu was just a couple of km’s from Taj Mahal East gate. My energy level was still high as we reached the hotel through narrow roads and the Mall road after Sikandra visit, so took the family for a walk to the entrance of Taj Mahal soon after checking in. We had lunch somewhere at an ordinary place in between where the food was awful. I then stood in a queue and  bought the tickets to enter but as we reached the entry point of Taj, the queue to enter scared the hell out of me. I could not even see its end ! People were fighting and shouting and the cops were everywhere. I tore the tickets, picked up my car from the hotel and headed to the main market of Agra called the ‘Sadar Bazaar.’ It seemed pretty unfair that we would have to miss out on Taj Mahal during this trip. Frankly speaking I had no guts to stand in that unruly queue for many hours. 

Sadar Bazaar was in its elements. Being a christmas holiday, the market was packed. In some lanes it was difficult to even move. Everyone seemed pretty energised . Agra is known for leather industry and shoes. We picked up a bargain at a shop and bought some shoes. Moving towards the lane which specialises in 'chaat', I had my quota of Agra chaat. The famous place where Mama's frankies are sold was choc a bloc. It seemed that entire Agra city had converged to this market. Sadar bazaar was buzzing and chaotic. You could hear loud music and tuneless singing from an open air musical show interspersed with constant honking by cars. 

Throbbing Sadar Bazaar 

We had wanted to have dinner at the famed Amarvilas (An Oberoi hotels property located next to Taj Mahal) but were told that they were totally booked for that evening. I went up to the rooftop of Radisson Blu and their infinity pool looked quite tempting. But on December 25th, at the peak of winter I had no inclination to swim in ice cold water. From this rooftop you can clearly see the Taj Mahal during the day. But as it wasn't freezing cold, I had a drink on the terrace and then came down to the Indian restaurant for a nice mughlai meal. The food was good and it was a proper meal of fixed menu comprising of snacks, main mughlai course and dessert. Priced at Rs 850++ , I thought it was a good deal.

The 2nd day at Agra was busier than the first, if that is possible ! We got out of the hotel at 9 AM and had breakfast at Bikanerwala. This is at Fatehabad road opposite ITC Mughal. There are several restaurants on this road including KFC and Mc Donald's. At Bikanerwala you could eat South Indian, Poori Aaloo, Ras Malai or whatever.

The Agra Fort

Agra Fort looks tough and strong. It is a city within a city

Not too far from Fatehabad road is the famed Agra Fort. It was a 10 minute drive. The Mughals had shifted here during Akbar's regime from Fatehpur Sikri and stayed here for centuries. The place is huge and most of the fort is under Army now and not accessible. The construction is mammoth and designed to be protected from the enemies. The walls are imposing and the designs and workmanship is super fine.

Fine workmanship and design to have ample natural light. 
Beautiful wokmanship all around

If you have seen films like Mughal e Azam, you can imagine things happening here during mughal empire. You can imagine the elephants, the horses, the harems with hundreds of concubines, the punishments given by getting trampled under elephants or hands being cut for not bowing to the emperor. The Sheesh Mahal where the song 'Pyar kiya to darna kya...' was picturised. They all come alive as the guide narrates some stories which supplement what you have already heard and read.We paid Rs 700 to the guide and it was worth it as he gave us a round for an hour and took some nice snaps of ours at vantage points.

The palace of Jahangir. 

This is how the mughals lived. The rooms with fountains. The expensive stones were looted by the enemies once mughals became weak. 

Shah Jehan was imprisoned here and from his cell he had a great view of Taj Mahal. He was only allowed limited food while in prison. He died in captivity. 
The Diwan e Aam where a commoner could petition to the King. In the background is the royal mosque. 
The Agra fort once housed the famous peacock throne, the Kohinoor, stones and jewels. They were all looted once Mughal Empire became weak after Aurangzeb. Agra fort is a city within the city and has thousands of stories associated with it. Many stories have beeen told over generations but you have no doubts as you leave the fort that there would be too many hidden stories which will never be told.

We quickly came back to hotel and dressed up for the wedding we had to go to. The destination was an hour away and it was a lovely day for the afternoon wedding. The wedding was at a farm and Yamuna river flowed behind it. We spent good couple of hours there and had our lunch and met my friend and his family. The bride and groom looked hapy and looked nice and fresh under the winter sun. The temptation was to go back to the hotel after the wedding but instead I turned my car towards Rajasthan as just before the border is situated Fatehpur Sikri. This was and hour and a half from the wedding venue.

Buland Darwaza and dargah of Salim Chisti

The magnificent Buland Darwaza was built to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. It is an imposing structure standing tall on a hill and inside is the mosque and dargah of Salim Chisti. 

We were about to reach the imposing Buland Darwaza when a motor cyclist came next to my car while I was still in motion and asked for Rs 400 to get my car right near the structure at the top of the hill and get a guide for us. Though sceptical, I agreed as it was getting late, and followed him right from where the steps of  Buland Darwaza started.  This huge gate was built by Akbar to commemorate his victory in a battle over Gujarat in 1601. While Fathehpur which has Buland Darwaza and Salim Chisti dargah is a religious place which has Jama Masjid as well, the Sikri next door was Akbars palace and administrative block.  A guide took us inside and we could see the dargah of Salim Chisti. Apparently Akbar and Jodha were blessed by him and prince Salim, the heir to the throne was born.

Insde the Buland Darwaza. Four gates flank this area and in the white marble is the dargah of Salim Chishti. People tie thread here and it's said that your wish does come true if you do that. 

The guide was more interested in asking us to buy things so he could get commission than actual showing us around. He wanted us to buy an expensive sheet for dargah and then he wanted us to buy mementos. We did visit the dargah and took a full round but as sun was setting I needed to visit the Sikri part, which I consider to be beautiful and elegant. The guide refused to take us there though initial promise by negotiator on bike covered that part also. We quickly got the tickets and hired another guide. We just made it before the ticket windows closed and I was glad for it as I just didn't want to miss this part after driving all the way.

Sikri and Jodha's Palace

Akbar had 3 queens- a hindu, a muslim and a christian. He gave most prominence to the hindu wife Jodha who had given him a son. How partial he was towards Jodha is apparent when you enter the Sikri area as her palace is huge compared to those of other wive's. 

Like Royals, my wife and I sit in front of Diwan e Khaas. We are dressed this way as we were coming straight after attending a wedding. 

There are several buildings in the complex and you can find Birbal's palace, the royal kitchen, the palaces of the queens etc. 

The panch mahal with 176 pillars. For the Royalty it was nice place to sit and get entertained. The cool breeze would flow between the pillars. 

Imagine Tansen singing sitting here while the King, Queens and ministers listened to his magical voice. 

You feel very much part of history when you sit and watch the buildings which once housed names likes Akbar, Jodhabai, Birbal, Raja Todarmal, Faizi, Raja Mansingh, Abdul Fazal, Tansen etc etc.

Akbar left this palace as there was a water shortage here. He moved to Agra which was next to the river Yamuna. Most tourists do a day trip to Agra as their priority is Taj Mahal. They miss out on Fathehpur Sikri which is a good 90 minute drive one way. If you ever plan to visit Agra, make sure that you stay there overnight so this wonderful place can be visited by you.Don't just visit this place but  spend some time here.

A wonder called The TAJ MAHAL


'The Taj' by TN Murari is one of the finest books I have read about this era when Taj Mahal was built. It had a graphic description of life of the Mughal emperors and their wives and children. In this particular book the life of Arjumand Bano (Mumtaz Mahal) and Shah Jahan is traced from their childhood.
We had given up the idea to visit Taj Mahal as the long and unruly queues had scared us off. This was our third day in Agra now and the idea was to leave for Delhi. Yet the idea of being so near and yet so far did not appeal to me. There is a specially priced ticket which is sold for Rs 1000 to enter Taj Mahal. This is mainly for the foreigners but Indians can also buy this ticket and get into foreigners queue. You also get a preference to get into the crypt area with this ticket. Otherwise for Indians a meager Rs 40 is charged for tickets. Soon after waking up we decided to give Taj another try before leaving back for Delhi. We went for the special tickets and were inside within 30 minutes. We are frequent travelers abroad and are used to paying heavy amounts for entering museums and monuments which may not be even half as interesting as the monument which we were entering. As you walk in from the main gate which has direct view of Taj, the sight always stuns you. Taj stands there so majestically and shining that you are overawed by its beauty. You can just imagine how beautiful it must be looking on a full moon light.

The gate of Taj Mahal itself is so beautiful that you keep admiring it till you see the white marbled Taj. Then you forget the gate. I will not write about the minarets, the domes, the inscriptions and the architecture as enough has been written about it and any website will give you the details.

The main gate of Taj Mahal
The main gate is also a work of art

Instead of walking straight in following the fountains, I went left and walked through the corridor. From there I walked next to the periphery wall. From each place you could see the Taj in a different light and with different dimensions. The crypt area itself is so beautiful and it has replicas of the grave of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal who actually are buried deep inside the same area. Photography is not allowed in the crypt area and a couple of days after our visit there was a stampede in which several people were injured. The entry into the crypt area was prohibited for a few days but is open now. But soon there will be a lot of rules and restrictions.

The corridor has some interesting art displayed and leads upto the toilet. From there you can go to Taj walking along the  periphery wall. 
It was a foggy morning and Taj looked divine.

The sarai is on right side and similar structure is on the left side which is a mosque. Namaz is still carried out there. 

The Yamuna flows behind the Taj but has dried up considerably. 

This is the right side of Taj Mahal outside the crypt area. The workmanship is really breathtaking. 

Whatever had to be done in Agra, we did that including buying a box of over sweet 'petha' and over salty' daal-moth.' Don't really know when the next visit will be but Devicka and I did get a picture clicked in front of the monument of love.

Rohin Arora
Twitter : @arorarohin

Friday, 18 August 2017

Cricket fun in Sri Lanka

Pallekele Stadium looks so green and nice. 

It is just a three hour plus flight to Colombo from Delhi. As a policy the Sri lankan Airlines does not serve whisky (my favoured drink) to economy class passengers. I had learnt this 10 years ago on my last travel on this airline. Last week this fact was mentioned with disappointment to my dear friend who happened to be travelling in the business class in the same flight as me. He was gracious enough to pull some strings so I could have a comfortable flight over much of India .

My wife Devicka and I were on our way to watch the India Vs Sri Lanka test match at Pallekle . This may sound a bit weird as I haven’t watched a test match on ground in last 5 years. Why would we fly thousands of mile for watching just a couple of days of test match ?  Obviously there is a story behind it and it is actually a simple story.

My dear friend Murali Kartik invited me to Sri Lanka to watch the match and he added certain temptations to this invite. He was covering the series as a commentator and would be in Sri Lanka for around 2 months. The temptations Kartik gave me were not working and I wasn't convinced enough to book my air tickets so he finally gave me an offer that I could not refuse. The offer was so tremendous that I even convinced Devicka to accompany me even though she is always a reluctant traveler.

Actually Devicka has an old school  friend in Negombo (Near Colombo Airport) whom we last met around 10 years ago during our trip to Sri Lanka. Much has happened in her life so Devicka was very keen to meet her.  The weekend I planned for the trip also happened to be an extended one due to some holidays. Things were working out well as it was important for Devicka to look forward to the trip as much as I was doing for it to be a success.


Negombo fishing boats

Negombo is a coastal town near the Bandaranaike Airport and it is around 40 kms from Colombo. We reached our small hotel late at night and it was in the morning as the curtains were undrawn that it became apparent that we were close to the Negombo Lagoon and the fishing centre. The place was bustling with activity. On the other side of town are some lovely hotels on the beach but on this trip there was no time for the beach.

In the few hours we were in Negombo we walked to the fishing village, met Manisha and family by visiting their heritage house, drove around the Lagoon and the coast and had a hearty lunch before proceeding towards Kandy.

Devicka with her Sri Lankan school friend Manisha at Negombo

It was lovely meeting Manisha and her family . Her teenage son  happened to be a die hard cricket fan and was pretty disappointed as India had already won two test matches and as we sat in their house, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul were walloping the SL bowlers.


Lake city of Kandy

The roads have become crowded in Sri Lanka and traffic is also pretty bad. It took us 3 hours to get to our hotel in Kandy.  I had tried to book us in the same hotel as the commentary team but that hotel was full on the required dates. Luckily we had found a small boutique hotel called Clove Villa right opposite the Mahaweli Reach hotel . Clove Villa turned out to be very nice and homely place. Charlie was in charge there and he did a good job of serving great food. Mahaweli is the main river in this area and also known as Mahaweli Ganga. Clove Villa had nice rooms, homely atmosphere and a small pool. I plunged myself into the pool for an hour to get relaxed  and then read a book .

Thatched roofs and greenery

As the day 1 of the third cricket match ended, the commentary team reached the hotel late in evening and Kartik asked us to come over to his room. He had a promise to keep !

Mahawale Reach hotel  was nice hotel with good gardens and a nice pool. Normally the cricket teams stayed here but this time the Indian cricket team was staying somewhere else. We sat in Kartiks room and chatted with another prominent commentator Harsha Bhogale when there was a knock at the door. In walked  Sunny Gavaskar – my childhood hero and one of the greatest batsman that world has seen. The next few hours were spent in the company of this soft spoken legend. Kartik had more than kept his promise.

Sunny Bhai had been more than a hero to me. During the days he was playing cricket I was quite obsessed with him. I had read his book 'Sunny Days' 6-7 times and did not miss any innings if it was being telecast. While friends in College had posters of fancy cars, pop artists and soccer stars on the walls- my wall adorned a poster of Sunny Gavaskar with Bish Bedi ! 

This picture would soon adorn a wall in my house

The Test Match

Pallekele was around 40 minutes drive from Kandy. It was in Baskaran’s tuk tuk (3 wheeler) that we were transported to this lovely ground. We had great hospitality seats and it was a fantastic day of cricket from India’s point of view.  Hardik Pandya produced a sensational century and then Shami demonstrated a great spell of fast bowling. By the end of the day Sri Lanka was already following on and looking in dire straits.  

Baskaran had come to receive us and his tuk tuk with VIP parking sticker was parked amongst the top end cars in parking lot. The security had tried to bully him by saying that this sticker was not valid on tuk tuk but Baskaran was a fiery little fellow. He wanted them to show such rule in writing, so they relented and he had his way. He took us all over the Kandy town; around the lake; on some hills and to shopping areas.Having worked in Qatar in company of Indians- he knew Hindi pretty well and tried to speak with us in Hindi whenever he would get a chance. 

We have been to Kandy before so didn't need to spend time visting temples and other touristy places. The changes are apparent in this town also as in my mind I had this image of a quiet lake city. Now this city has also become crowded and polluted with honking cars and large population on roads. The area around the bus stand is the worst. 

At the end of it all Devicka was dead tired but I had another evening to spend with Sunny Bhai and Kartik. Being an avid follower of cricket since childhood it was a dream come true to be in such kind of company. Talking to Harsha, Kartik and Sunny Bhai about cricket and listening to them gave a different kind of high. The hangover will remain for a long long time.

Happy in the company of idol. 

Kartik also introduced me to Amalie, the head of Sony Sri Lanka. They were waiting for midnight to usher in her birthday and I become part of the celebrations. Amalie was kind enough to offer me another day of hospitality at the stadium the next day but as the match had become one sided,  I declined the offer and decided to travel to Colombo the next day to spend a few hours before our flight.

We already had an evening train ticket but as train tickets were cheap, we booked for an earlier train so more time could be spent in Colombo. In any case there was nothing much to do in Kandy. Baskaran had helped us procure the tickets and then saw us off.  He was one interesting character and we enjoyed his company throughout. Though it was a first class compartment, it wasn’t too impressive and the train really did shake and jolt a lot. It shook so much that reading a book was difficult. The lush green countryside was soothing  to the eyes  as the train hurtled through the scenic villages of Sri Lanka. 


In Colombo we spent most of the time at the famous shop Odel. It has become fancier each successive time we have been there. It is quite large with different sections and one can easily spend a few hours there. They sell clothes, souvenirs, tea, jewellery and loads of other stuff. We also visited another famous shop nearby called ‘Paradise Road.’ We didn’t buy anything at Odel or Paradise road but just spent time roaming around and then having coffee. In the complex they have made a lovely area with stalls, bar and restaurants and I did grab a beer before we  left for the Airport. The Airport has become pretty accessible from Colombo as a new swanky highway has been built. The challenge was to reach highway as Colombo is also flooded with cars now. In spite of all this it just took an hour to get from Odel to Airport. 

Odel Promenade for food and drinks. 

This was a short trip without a visit to the famed beaches of Sri lanka or the tea gardens of Nuwara Eliya. But thanks to Kartik-it will remain a memorable trip for us always. 

I love this picture of Kartik with Sunny Bhai

Monday, 24 July 2017

Goodbye Japan- Last day visit to a Japanese garden and Soka University

Tea House at Japanese Garden

I had first heard of a Japanese Garden during a trip to Sydney many years ago. In many cities that I have traveled since then, I have been told about the presence of Japanese Gardens. It was in Victoria, Canada that I actually experienced one at the famous Butchart gardens as we spent a few hours there. That particular Japanese garden created in 1906 was the first of its kind in that part of the world. 

Japanese cities are full of gardens. If you look at a tourist guide and look for places to visit, the names of several gardens would pop up in each city. Even each shrine we had visited had boasted of  lovely gardens. These gardens are beautifully maintained and offer you a lot of serenity. It was on the last day of our Japan trip that I got a chance to spend a couple of hours at Shinjuku Gyoen national garden. The family had decided to go for some last minute shopping and I took off for the gardens which were about twenty minutes walk away. Set on 144 acres it blends French formal garden, English landscape garden and Japanese traditional garden. 

Certain elements have to be the integral part of  a Japanese Garden : 

These gardens are right in the middle of bustling Shinjuku area. Bridges are an integral part of Japanese gardens.

Water : It contributes to the expression of nature and symbolizes renewal, calm, wonder and continuity in the hereafter.

Stones : Stones are a symbol of duration . The stones are laid out in accordance with strict rules, depending on their shapes and sizes; they often are twinned by pairs.

Lantern: With the advent of the tea ceremony, the lantern became a leading element in the layout of a Japanese garden.

Bridges: Bridges are privileged sites in a Japanese garden, where one can linger and take in the beauty of the landscape and enjoy the lovely breeze.

Plants: The Japanese show a natural ability to interpret the charm of plants and flowers in order to express their joys and pains. 

Some images clicked by me are for you to enjoy these lovely gardens :

Love this colour

The Japanese love their plants and they love photography. Don't know what exactly caught their interest here. 

School children are given exposure to everyday life by frequent visits to museums, shrines and gardens
They must be mighty pleased to be out in open

It was all so beautiful that one could have spent an entire day here
I could spend limited time here as we had to travel to airport to catch our flight. The evening before our departure and on the same day that we arrived from Osaka we visited Soka University of Japan. Soka University is also a prominent University in USA. In Japan they have many international students and amongst them are our family members. 

Soka University

Our visit to this premier institution of japan happened as my cousin Tushita and nephew Shaurav are students here. We had been to Universities in UK and USA but thought that it would be nice to visit a university here as culture is totally different. With close relatives studying here, we saw it as an opportunity to visit Soka university on the outskirts of Tokyo. 

The instructions by Tushita were very clear – Take Chuo line from Shinjuku as JR pass is valid on that and get off at Hachioji station. From there take a bus to just outside the University. By now we had become pros as far as Japan transportation system was concerned. Just an hour before boarding the train from Shinjuku, we had arrived by Shinkansen from Osaka. Distances become irrelevant when you have such fast and efficient transport system.

At the University with Tushita
The surprise came when we were shown a statue of Rabindranath Tagore right in the middle of campus. This great man had rightly been honoured by a great University in a faraway land. 

As we got our picture clicked there and moved on a young boy came running to us. He apologized for spoiling our picture as they were playing in the background and offered to click another one. We assured him that their being in the background actually enhanced the quality of the snap !

Rabindranath Tagore has written Indian national Anthem. It was thrilling to see a statue of the Nobel laureate here. 

An auditorium with a capacity of 4000. Principal of my ex school La Martiniere Lucknow has a dream of this capacity auditorium in the campus. 

This is a famous pond in the campus where the students come and relax and meditate.
 As the University is set amongst the forests of Tama foothills, you can see a lot of greenery from a vantage point from one one of the buildings. There are hills and greenery all around. Lovely setting for a University to be in. During the cherry blossom season the flowers bloom all over the University making it into a very picturesque location. It was surprising to hear that on a clear day Mt Fujiyama is visible from here.

Soka University is located amongst the verdant forests of Tama foothills. 

Nice cafeteria. It had become a bit chilly that evening so it was a good idea to have a nice cup of coffee here. 

A special round of the library was given to us as Tushita worked here part time. 
Saying bye to our Japanese family members studying at Soka University. 
This ends my marathon series of blogs on Japan visit. Hope you enjoyed reading them and they were knowledgeable.

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