Monday, 16 January 2012

PALACE ON WHEELS. RAJASTHAN - INDIA ( Part 1 )

4th - 11th Jan 2012

Palace on Wheels. Our carriage staff.
As fully anticipated the idiot auto-rickshaw driver managed to visit two incorrect and far apart places before he finally took some advice on how to find Safdarjung railway station. It was here we were to board the ‘Palace on Wheels’ train for a seven day tour of the major attractions in Rajasthan, the Land of Kings. This State is arguably the most photogenic, and probably the most touristy, of all the Indian States. It was originally a warlike place inhabited by Rajputs who were initially under control of the muslim Moghul empire ( Genghis Khan's descendants ) and later the Indian Hindu Maharajas. The Maharajas surnames are usually Singh. Singh is still a predominant Rajasthani name, rather like the name Jones in Wales, although that is where the similarity ends. Having said that, there are undoubtedly more Singhs living in Wales than there are Joneses in Rajasthan.They used to fight amongst themselves if no-one else was attacking them ( OK, that is another Welsh similarity ). The British arranged a mutually beneficial relationship with the Maharajas which left them substantial freedom to rule their own kingdoms provided they acknowledged overall British rule, and the British guaranteed to provide military security for the area, i.e. they stopped them fighting each other! It all worked very well, and many Maharajas became great Anglophiles. Maybe some still are.

Left: Waiting at Safdarjung station to embark. There were 95 passengers on this train which was divided into 12 ‘saloon’ carriages, two restaurant cars, a lounge bar car and a ‘spa’ car ( whatever that is ). The passengers were an eclectic mix of nationalities as well as several Indian tourists. I was allocated a cabin in 'Jodhpur' carriage. Similarly the other carriages all had place names from Rajasthan. There were four cabins in each carriage plus a small lounge area and a pantry. Each carriage had a 'carriage captain' and his assistant; effectively a butler and under-butler. Ours were called Rajesh and Rajendra and they were extremely smart and efficient. Nothing was too much trouble. Rajesh was the veritable 'Jeeves' of Rajasthan.

We were greeted with a flowery 'garland' slung over the neck and a 'tikka', the red dot, splodged onto your forehead. They attempted this at all our subsequent station, and off-train restaurant, arrivals and I, amongst others, managed to avoid it after a bit. You can have too much of a good thing! The band ( right) was there to entertain us while we waited. I'm sure that chap playing the bongo at the back is the same guy, Jagdesh, whom I photographed at the hotel in the previous blog ( Ex-AAC ). The other bongo player was off having a leak. 


To begin with we were given a conducted tour of the train and it's facilities. Left: The cabin ( bedroom ) which had plush carpets and a bathroom with a decent shower. The beds were really very comfortable. Morning 'wake-up' tea, or whatever you wanted, was delivered in suitably Jeeves-like manner in proper china, with biscuits. I'm sure Rajendra would happily have brought you a double brandy, or a bottle, or a barrel, if that's what you asked for. It was that sort of service!


Right: This is our carriage sitting-room where we were served tea, if in, and breakfast, and they did great bacon and eggs for breakfast. I never really got to grips with the Indian alternatives. 
This railway is 'wide-guage'. On the whole it was a remarkably smooth ride. Occasionally there was a bit of rocking and rolling on the faster stretches and the driver loved blowing his whistle. Probably to get cows off the line.



Left: One of the two dining cars ( called the Maharaja and Maharani respectively ). The food was delicious and there were choices of 'Continental', 'Chinese' or 'Indian', or all three, or any combination, or quantity, that took your fancy. After the first dinner I had more visions of the exploding Mr Creosote in the Monty Python film, 'The Meaning of Life'. The meals were all included in the initial fare. The cost of drinks was extra. Crisps and peanuts were thrown in free.



And, of course, the all important lounge bar. It had a TV at this end which received BBC 24 or CNN news, unless some 'erk' got to it first and was watching a 'movie'. After our initial tour of the train we were assembled here (in two sittings) and given a free drink and a quick briefing on what excitements the next week would hold.
I must say, the on-train service was impeccable in a very pleasant old fashioned 'Raj' style and with seemingly innumerable and attentive staff. We were waited on hand, foot and anything else 'sir'. Most impressive. I always felt rather underdressed for the whole occasion. Black Tie for dinner would not have been out of place!
There was also a 'spa' car in which, apparently, expensive massages and other treatments of various weird descriptions were administered and of which I felt no need. I think it was mostly aimed at the ladies.

We passengers were divided into four groups, or teams, to fit into four buses for the daily tours. Amazingly, these same buses followed the train and met us at the various morning start-points. They must have driven like hell through the nights. I was in 'Green Group'. There were also yellow, blue and red groups. We were issued with our relevant coloured badges and didn't mix with the other groups much.
Left: Our Green Group 'manager' was a chap called Bombur Singh ( or something close ). He always welcomed us onto the bus in the morning. He spoke rapidly in English in a flat monotone but, sadly, much of it was unintelligible. The only words we regularly understood were when he mentioned "break for caffee, tea, biscuits and cookies". This became a standing joke. When he tried to explain what we were going to do, it usually caused more confusion than enlightenment. He constantly wore a sort of panic stricken look as if expecting to lose control or worse, lose entirely one of us passengers. He was unintentionally very amusing 'a la John Cleese' mode and even slightly similar in appearance.
It had all the makings of a fairly luxurious and well organised jaunt through Rajasthan. It was, perhaps, a little too organised for some people's liking but the organisers, especially Mr Singh, were terrified that some renegade tourist might show a bit too much independence and get lost and miss the bus or worse, the train. We were kept on a tight rein.

Day 1. Jaipur. The Pink City. It transpired that most of the cities in Rajasthan have been allotted 'colours', and often for sound reason. 
As became the norm, we were welcomed off the train by musicians, and ladies who draped garlands around our necks and plonked a dot of red gunge on our foreheads ( hope it wasn't cow dung ), a tikka. There was often an armed police presence too! Not sure where the danger was coming from and it was possibly just for effect.







The day began with a visit to the Prince Albert Museum ( left ). An elaborate building built in 1876 outside the old town. It was quite interesting. There were thousands of pigeons around the place.










Then through the ancient moghul gate into the old town where the buildings are indeed of a uniform pinkish colour. All buildings are required, by law, to be kept this colour. This 'facade' ( right ), called the Hawa Mahal, in the main street, was constructed by a previous Maharaja to allow his women to sit behind the beautifully carved grille windows and watch what was going on in the town below without being seen themselves. As you are no doubt aware, in olden times ( and maybe even now in some traditional Muslim and Hindu places like the east-end of London ) women were not allowed to be seen in public, or even in private by anyone other than their direct families. Purdah!

Another previous Maharaja, 1728 vintage, was inventive and fascinated in the sciences, particularly astronomy. He was well ahead of his time. He built an amazing observatory called the Jantar Mantar which houses a collection of outsize astronomic instruments which measure all sorts of things astronomical. This one ( left ) calculates the position of stars. The whole collection resembled a vast array of 'modern art'! I was expecting to meet the magnificent xylophone playing astronomer Sir Patrick Moore with his trousers up to his chin ( is he still around? ), but didn't.


Right: Green Group having the workings of these 'instruments' explained by our guide of the day. Our guides were local to the areas we visited and were particularly good; they spoke excellent English and were clearly very highly educated and expert on their subjects. I suspect that the Palace on Wheels ( POW ) gets the pick of the bunch. At one point it was explained to us that to get to be a tourist guide in India is highly competitive. One chap said that there were 135,000 applicants for his 'course', of which 350 were selected for training and he was 7th in the final order of merit.
Left: A giant sundial. The largest in the world. It is accurate to 3 seconds. You can see the shade-mark falling on a very detailed and precise scale. Lots of pigeons were lined up on the central wall. It obviously doubles as a prestigious and popular pigeon social gathering place.




Nearby is the City Palace where the Jaipur Maharajas moved to when living in the fort above the city became impracticable. The present day Maharaja of Jaipur and his family still live here, in part of it. The pic ( right ) is of their private quarters. The status and independence of Maharajas, together with a government provided income, was initially guaranteed when the British left in 1947. However, in 1971?, Indira Ghandi's government passed a bill in Parliament that did away with the titles, income and any power they might have held. Most accepted this philosophically and moved into other income generating businesses. Although technically without any title or position, many of the present day Maharajas are still accorded the same respect and titles in their local 'kingdoms' and continue to live in the original palaces. I suspect they do good things for their 'people' who quite probably enjoy having a Maharaja about the place to look after them in preference to what they perceive as thoroughly corrupt and self-serving politicians in the State and New Delhi.   

One previous Maharaja periodically went on 'sporting' ( grouse shooting, salmon fishing and polo ) visits to Britain accompanied by a large retinue of family, staff and servants. Being a devout Hindu he always took with him his personal supply of 'holy water' from the Ganges or other similar rancid drain. This water was contained in two enormous pure silver vessels; the biggest silver vessels in the world, by far I suspect. One of these is pictured ( left ) with a very shifty looking guard. They are about 8ft high. 
Before return to India, the holy water having been used up, they were reputedly refilled with the finest Scotch single-malt whisky. I wonder how they got them through customs? I suspect Maharajas could 'pull a few strings' in those days. Imagine trying to get those things through the security obsessed, no liquids more that 125ml, jobsworths at Heathrow nowadays. And think of the excess baggage weight charges!

Right: This solemn looking, if colourful, gent was sitting somewhere outside the palace. Of course loads of people, like me, took his photo. Equally of course, he expected money for his 'efforts'. It became painfully obvious that this dressing up in colourful quasi-religious costume and warpaint was a bit of a money spinning scam ( you know, like the 'living statues' on such streets as Las Ramblas in Barcelona, or those dreadful Rob Roy look-alike lousy 'pipers' outside Edinburgh Castle at the time of the Festival ) and was apparent at all the sites we visited. It involves little effort for a bloody good return. He is probably another owner of a second home on the Cote d'Azure and drives a Ferrari.  Probably has a private jet too. I might try this someday.





We were then whisked off to the Amber Fort which overlooks the city. It was the home of the Moghuls and subsequently Maharajas and well fortified by at least two concentric walls with lots of watch-towers. ( as per left ). I stupidly forgot to take a photo of the imposing fort on it's hill before going up there. Probably because Mr Bombur Singh was frantically trying to get us all aboard a column of gayly painted and decorated 'Happy Christmas' elephants for the 15 minute elephant ride to the top.


Hold very tight please, ting ting. More difficult than you think taking a photo of some of our Green Group from a swaying elephant's back. Sitting sideways on those elephant seats was not that comfortable. It felt as if you would slip over backwards or forwards. I expect Mr Singh was running along behind to pick up any fallers.






Left: The great elephant train arrived without mishap at the top where we were treated to rather a good buffet lunch. More ethnic musicians, garlands and razzmatazz.










Right: The old moghul buildings within the fort were impressive and beautifully maintained. Immaculate carvings and mirror inlays and gardens etc. etc. There were tons of photos taken, but this is a typical example; the 'audience' room in the centre. Elsewhere a most elaborate quadrangle housed 12 apartments for the king's wives. They ( the ladies) had no interconnecting doors, but the king ( moghul emperor, or whatever ) had access by secluded passageway to all. None of them knew which wife was being visited. They got things sorted in those days.


We returned to the city in 'jeeps'. Then taken on what was advertised as a shopping opportunity. I thought this would mean we could wander around the local shops and buy things, or not, at our leisure. No way. It soon became apparent that these 'shopping opportunities' were pre-arranged 'group' visits to a particular 'favoured' ( i.e. POW got a large back-hander ) local manufacturer of some goods or other and miles away from the main city shops, so little chance to escape. In this instance it was first to a large jewellery shop, and then a fabric and carpet place. This, for me, was a complete waste of time. The stuff on sale was vastly expensive and I had absolutely no interest in buying anything anyway. The venues put on spectacular and well rehearsed sales routines, especially the carpet place which dramatically flung open rolls of beautiful silk and pashmena wool carpets, accompanied by marvellously slick patter, costing up to $15,000 ( post and package included of course ) each. The bigger ones took, we were told, up to 3 years to complete. I wondered, and queried, how much the local women who slaved away to make these magnificent rugs got paid. As expected, no answer was forthcoming.The only plus was that they served drinks, including by now much needed beer, to keep us happy. It was a captive audience subjected to an intense sales pitch. Quite surprisingly in my opinion, several people were happily spending a fortune buying up the goods which were probably grossly overpriced and which, until then, they did not know they either needed or wanted. They undoubtedly had much more money than sense. Not my problem really but, for me, these almost enforced 'sales' pitches became one of the irritating drawbacks of the otherwise excellent daily tours. I broached the subject with Mr Singh, who just managed to look even more panic stricken. He had his instructions no doubt. I suppose he thought I would go and do my own thing in future. He was right!

We eventually escaped the 'shopping' and back to the train for wash, drinks and dinner. En-route, or maybe it was before, we passed this rather glamorous 'regal summerhouse' on the lake ( left ). It was a summer retreat for the Maharaja and his family when they wanted a bit of peace and quiet and a cool breeze. I don't suppose they were troubled by rising damp? I wonder what happened when there was a big monsoon rain. The butler handed out life-jackets I presume. It is now unoccupied and kept purely as an ornament. Not to be confused with the Lake Palace at Udaipur.


I am now sitting around waiting for a visa application to be processed. As such I have a bit of time on my hands and also free wifi, so will probably bang-on at length about the Rajasthan trip. As previously said, I'm doing this primarily for my own benefit and as a personal log, so no apologies if it bores you rigid. It keeps me amused and off the streets at night. Good Heavens, it's nearly 1.00am and I've only got through Day 1 of the Palace on Wheels Grand Tour. Lots more to put up with yet I'm afraid!

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