Saturday, 7 April 2012

Jal Mahal

Jal Mahal Palace, Jaipur by dusk

Although it has been more than 6 months since I updated my blog, this post from Jaipur covers our experience from the very same day as my last post: 27th February 2010.

The Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) which was the star of my last post is definitely the most famous of Jaipur's landsmarks, but another of the elements has its own landmark her: Jal Mahal or Palace of Water.

You cannot actually visit the Jal Mahal - at least not at the time of our visit - but its scenic location in the middle of a lake on the highway to Delhi, makes it an extremely popular photo stop for most visitors. And justifiably so: It i a very attractive sight, particularly as darkness falls and the palace becomes beautifully lit.

A picture taken a few hours earlier than the one above. It is attractive even in daylight.
We were lucky enough to visit the Jal Mahal during a full moon, adding even more to the atmosphere

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Palace of the Winds

Small front section of the Palace of the Winds, Jaipur

First off, a small apology for the inactivity of the blog. I have no intention of stopping my blogging, but a couple of big changes have happened in our lives, which have prevented me from blogging for a while. The biggest of these is that we have moved from India! More about that later, now back to our adventures in Incredible India:

In a pleasant February month in 2010 we decided to bring our 6-month old boy Valdemar and his nannies on a trip outside Delhi. We wanted somewhere close and since Nitoli had never been to Jaipur before we chose the famous "pink city". Besides we could make it fit with Jaipur's annual Elephant Festival.

Single window section of the Palace of the Winds with coloured glass seen from the inside

I had a visited Jaipur two times earlier (see here, and here) and as with many other tourists my impression was not the very best. I found the place to be over crowded, ill maintained and the local economy way too tourism dependent for its own good. However, third time turned out to be the charm, as this would turn out to be my best visit by far - although not due to the disappointing elephant festival.

The classic from view of Hawa Mahal, adourning thousands of tourist brochures. Here photographed bathed in the warm sunlight of the early morning hours

We started at the city's undisputed landmark, "Hawa Mahal" or "Palace of the Winds" in English. This iconic structure was built to allow the local Maharaja's wives and concubines to be entertained by observing street life, without themselves being subject to the gleary stares of local men. The many small windows would secure this and secure maximum discretion.

More from Jaipur coming soon...

Less famous backside view of the Palace.

Tourists on top of the tall thin palace building

Jaipur is surrounded by hills, which can be clearly seen from the top of the Hawa Mahal.

The other nanny, Sosang
Valdemar's nanny Likok inside the Palace

Valdemar and mommy in the courtyard of the palace

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Massive Stepwell of Abhaneri

Chand Baori Stepwell, Abhaneri Village, Rajasthan

The stepwell is a peculiar architectural phenomenon, which is unique to the Indian Subcontinent, where the hot and dry climate creates a need for shaded water reservoirs - especially in the and around the desert landscape of Northwest India.

So far, the deepest, biggest and most amazing stepwell I have seen is 9th century "Chand Baori" located in the small village of Abhaneri a few kilometres of the Jaipur-Agra highway. It is absolutely massive and I think the picture above really doesn't convey the full scale of it.  We stopped there on the way back from Ranthambore to Gurgaon and that was definitely a good call.

Many stepwells feature simple designs as they are basically just - as the name suggest - a series of steps leading down to a water source. But a few of them are much more elaborate than this suggesting that apart from the practicalities of providing water they also played a ceremonial and recreational role within the local community. This particular stepwell at Abhaneri has a small palatial complex built into its design, making it one of the more impressive archaeological sights in India.

Until recently Chand Baori could not even be found in guide books, but these days it has started appearing on the tourist radar, although still not attracting anything near the throngs of tourists the masses you see in nearby Agra and Jaipur. This is however, bound to be just a matter of time, since the stepwell is ideally located as a road stop when travelling in India's Golden Triangle. It won't be long before the visitors roll in by the bus load.

Abhaneri is also home to a few stone temple ruins, including some with erotic motifs, which is not something you see that often in these parts.

Chand Baori is undergoing restauration efforts - probably in
expectation it's coming increased importance on the tourist circuit

My travel companions inside one of the palatial pavilions facing onto the well

One of the nearby temples, which is being painstakingly restored from scattered piles of of old rubble, stones and sculptures

One of the erotically themed reliefs. I believe these were quite common in India in the old days, but few survived the more prudish invaders that overran India over the years. Perhaps this one survived by being already ruined at that time?

A little further down the road to Delhi: A colourful assembly

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Ranthambore Birds

A pair of Spotted Owlets, Ranthambore

As with any trip to a national park, part of the fun in Ranthambore (at least for a nature lover/geek like me) is to see how many different species of birds you can spot or even capture on camera.

On this trip we had lots of good sightings including a couple of species I haven't seen before. This post has a small selection of some of the best sightings/pictures.

Juvenile Crested Serpent Eagle in the canyon through which you enter Ranthambore

Grey Francolin

Male Bluethroat

Male Plum-Headed Parakeet

Grey Heron

A handsome male White-Naped Woodpecker

Nearby we found his companion: Female White-Naped Woodpecker

Black-Tailed Godwit

Rufous Treepie - a very bold bird which will eat from tourists' hands

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Queen's Subjects and her Realm

Crocodile, Ranthambore National Park. The lakes of Ranthambore are filled with crocs

Ranthambore attracts throngs of visitors each year, all hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the world's few remaining tigers living in the wild. And this is understandable for it is a truly electrifying event to see the regal creature up close in its natural habitat. I wrote in my last post about our amazing meeting with the Queen of the Lakes.

That being said, there is more to Ranthambore than it's royalty - the tigers rule a beautiful realm with many other amazing creatures as their subjects. They are of course not benevolent rulers as most of the non-flying inhabitants of the park live in fear of the tigers. But whereas we rightly deplore such systems of governance in human society, there is drama, beauty and poetry to be found in the ever-intense battle for survival, which in Ranthambore unfolds itself for the very eyes of the tourists on a daily basis.

Ranthambore is a beautiful park entered through a dramatic narrow gorge, which helps in giving a total sense of isolation from the nearby human settlements in and around the town of Sawai Madhopur. The park is dominated cliffs, lakes and adjacent meadows and finally a dry bush-like forest. The narrow gorge which today acts as a fairy tale entry gate to the park once served as an easily defended road to the mighty Ranthambore fort. The area was densely populated by humans, resulting in historical fort and palace ruins being dotted around the park, furthering the sense of regal grandeur and mystique, which can be found in the air here.

I hope the pictures in this post manage to convey a sense of the atmosphere of the park and why I consider it to be one of the greatest attractions that India has to offer. The only real drawback are the crowds of tourists, but it's no wonder that other people have discovered the attraction of roaring Ranthambore.

The dusty road out of the park - past a grand lake and Ranthambore fort at its spectacular hilltop location

Sambar dear enjoying the shallow waters in front of the ruins of an abandoned palace

Sambar mother with her baby

The golden glow of the late afternoon sun lighting up the colourful leaves of the trees of one of Ranthambore's many dirt roads

Langurs blending in perfectly with the surroundings

In several places you pass under defensive gates of old ramparts in the process of being eaten by the jungle

An old Maharaja's hunting pavillion (possibly used as late as 1970 when the last royal hunt took place here)

Chinkara, also known as Indian gazelle

View of Ranthambore from the ramparts of the massive fort in the middle of the park

Massive Structure inside Ranthambore Fort. Allegedly this is where the Princesses' swimming pool was

Cliffs of Ranthambore's canyons

Emily, James - two of my co-travellers - and myself descending a slope to get a closer view of a couple of crocodiles (Photo: Lone Aagaard Østerbøg)

Our little group visiting Ranthambore together. From the left: Myself, Joanne, Lone, Emily and James

Saturday, 7 May 2011

An Audience with the Queen in Ranthambore

Tigress T17 looking straight at me as she walks towards our canter in Ranthambore

In February 2010 I went with a group of friends to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan and we were lucky enough to have an audience with the local Queen. Not a human queen of course, but a tigress known locally as the Queen of the Lakes or to the local park rangers and conservationists as T-17.

I visited Ranthambore once earlier in 2005 and at the end of our fourth and very last safari we saw two cubs and finally their mother: legendary tigress Machli who become world famous and was the first pronounced Queen of the Lakes.

As it so happens T-17 is the daughter of Machli and younger sister to the two cubs we saw in 2005. At some point she deposed her mother and took over her territory, making her the new Queen.

Natural born killer stalking her prey - less than an hour after this picture her hunt would prove succesful

My best close-up of the tigress. A truly royal creature.

Although we were not the first canter to spot T-17, we had an excellent guide and driver who managed to navigate the traffic and get us close to the tiger for three separate sightings as we followed her across the park stalking deer. As you can see in the pictures T17 is wearing a collar tracker, but this is only used for scientific and protective purposes. She is in every sense a completely wild animal, and the collar is not used by the tourist guides to track her. So managing to get so close to a wild tiger was a truly majestic experience, just as it was back in 2005. This time we only saw one tiger, but we got much closer and had much more time with her, so overall it may still have been a better sighting.

The tiger - being used to the crowds - takes hardly any notice of the crowds as she lies on the road silently observing a herd of deer not far away.
Our audience with the queen ended in with a bang: As we were parked on the lakeside we could hear T17 catching a sambar deer on the other side of the lake. She had not made a kill for a several days earlier so this was an important catch for her. According to the guide this was her first kill in several days, so she must have been very hungry.

Ranthambore is a fantastic park for watching tigers in the wild, although you should hurry up and go - there is talk of shutting down all tourist visits to the park. However, the park has more things to offer than just tigers. Apart from many other animal and bird species it is also home to some fantastic scenery and interesting ruins. I will return to these things in my next few posts.

Nervous deer drinking water by a lake deep inside T-17's territory
Myself and T17 (Picture by: Lone Aagaard Østerbøg)

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Guwahati's Golden Langurs

Golden Langurs, Guwahati

I never thought of Guwahati as much more than a crowded, concrete-dominated transport hub, which has nothing much to offer the visitor except for a few moderately interesting temples. But this perception was at least partially shattered when I found out about a well kept "secret" about some amazing inhabitants of Guwahati. The city is home to a small troop of Golden Langurs, an endangered and very rare species.

My previous perception of Guwahati: Cluttered, ugly, disorganized concrete sprawl

The Golden Langur's primary habitat is a small area on the border of Indian and Bhutan where only few humans live, so it is truly a surprise to find any of them in the middle of a dense urban centre like Guwahati. Perhaps around a dozen individuals have managed to hang on to existence on a small island in the Brahmaputra river, surrounded by Guwahati city on both the opposing banks. Peacock Island, as it is named, is also home to an old temple, which attracts worshippers throughout the day. The monkeys have probably survived partially due to feeding by pilgrims, but even so they remain wild animals too this day. Fortunately they have undisturbed nights as all humans leave on the last ferry around 17.00 in the afternoon.

The approach to Peacock Island ferry

Ferry worker

Peacock Island is tiny - but big enough to sustain its Golden Langurs

After learning about this rare primate species I was excited to spend half a day in Guwahati waiting for our flight back to Delhi. This gave me a chance to head to Peacock Island to look for the monkeys. But after searching the fairly small island for about 30 minutes I was unable to find them anywhere, and a Dutch couple who had heard my tales of the monkeys became convinced that they were not there and gave up the search. But suddenly on my third circling of the island I heard some noises and followed it to discover the flock in an almost perfect position to be photographed!

This individual clearly demonstres why the species is described as Golden

A younger individual, which is just starting to acquire its golden fur

Another young monkey jumping from tree to tree

I spent a good half hour with the Golden Langurs and while doing so attracted lots of locals, who were curious to find out why I was so fascinated with a little group of monkeys - not knowing that they were looking at a very special and endangered species. The Golden Langur looks fairly similar to the common langur which is very common in India. But as the name suggests it is clearly distinguished by the golden colour of the fur found in the mature adults.

After bidding the monkeys farewell I made my way back to the mainland and went for a walk through Old Guwahati, which provided another pleasant contrast to the dirty and the crowded bazaars of central Guwahati. It consists of several leafy neighbourhoods with a variety of parks, temples, ponds, lakes and quiet streets sprinkled out over the area. I ended up at the Dighalipukhuri water tank opposite Assam State Museum and was amused to find the locals walking on water in a big water and air tight plastic bubble. So of course I had to try it also! Overall, it was by far my best day in Guwahati so far.

Scenic Urra Tara temple next to one of Old Guwahati's pleasant ponds

Busy, but leafed and broad street in Old Guwahati

A couple of locals trying out walking on water

Your's truly in the bubble - not actually walking in the bubble since it is almost impossible to stay upright