Walking to Taragarh, Ajmer

Taragarh is a fort outside Ajmer. From its description in the Lonely Planet, it sounded like a lovely place for a stroll. I set off early in the morning, having learned a valuable lesson about not hiking to hill forts in the middle of the day. The start of the path was hard to find but once I reached the stone steps it was easy to follow. As was the trail of litter and broken sandals.

The route to the fort was fairly quiet early in the day, but there were various signs of civilization: a couple of restaurants, tarpaulins stretched across the path; remains of a pay-phone shack. Higher up I started to pass stalls selling what seemed to be Islamic items. Some of these stalls played DVDs on small TV screens, while others played sermons through speakers. As I climbed the sound of these sermons overlapped with one another.

I made a fast ascent, wanting to reach the fort before the sun rose over the mountainside. The stone stairway was like something from a novel and the fort itself was impressive, with a great view of Ajmer.

To enter the main part of the fort I had to remove my shoes, and I was offered a packet of religious items to buy (incense and lotus flowers, I think). I walked barefoot around the town for a while, but I had little idea what the fort’s significance was. Given the stalls on the way up and the prohibtion on footwear, it was a pilgrimage site of some significance. A friend later told me it was the resting place of a Sufi saint, but I don’t know any more than that.

It was strange to visit a holy site with no idea of what it meant to people. That aside, the climb to Taragarh was one of the most impressive walks I’ve made in my life. I sat and enjoyed the view for a bit, then walked back into Ajmer, none the wiser.

Path to Taragarh 

An arrow points the way

Gate house on the way to Taragarh

Stalls on the pathside

Taragarh Star Fort

No photographs of the Taj Mahal

This post contains no photographs of the Taj Mahal. I did take some, but the datacard was erased when an Internet cafe tried to copy the data to CD. But I'm not too upset about losing those images.

My friend Jen had warned me off staying in Agra overnight, saying there was little to see other than the Taj Mahal. It's easy to make a day-trip to Agra by train so I booked that. Agra has a bad reputation for touts, but it was less irritating that some of the towns that I visited. However at the station one group of autorickshaw drivers started arguing over who would speak to me first as I walked right past them.

Some people I spoke to before my holiday were underwhelmed by the monument. Others had described it as a highpoint of their trip. It reminded me of the Mona Lisa, which seems to receive similarly mixed responses. Either way, I couldn't visit India without seeing the Taj Mahal.

Sadly I found the Taj underwhelming. I'd seen its image so many times, in so many contexts, and for me the building didn't live up to that. The building was magnificent and beautiful but it didn't move me. I found other buildings, like the Amber Fort near Jodhpur, far more exciting. And it wasn't helped by all the people taking photographs.

Every visitor seemed to have a camera, and was looking for the perfect angle from which to photograph the Taj Mahal. It was as if they thought they might find some image nobody had seen before. I found myself compelled to do the same thing. The Taj Mahal didn't seem like a wonder of the world, it felt more like a photography contest. We were there to record an amazing building rather than to be amazed. It reminded me of a passage from Don Delillo's novel White Noise:

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
Another silence ensued.
"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?"

Standing in front of the Taj Mahal, I found myself thinking back to that passage. What did the Taj Mahal look like before it was photographed?

For me, the best views of the Taj Mahal were from outside the main complex. If you travel across the river, you can view the Taj Mahal from across the water (near the Mehtab Bagh). It's a less frantic location and the river makes a beautiful setting for the mausoleum.

The view from the Agra Fort is particularly striking. The mausoleum was built by the emporer Shah Jahan in memory of one of his wives, Mumtaz Mahal. The building work took around 21 years. Soon after work was complete, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son, Aurangazeb, and put under house arrest in the fort. It's possible to visit the rooms where Shah Jahan spent his last 8 years, and see the same distant view of the Taj Mahal that he was left with.

Coronation Park, Delhi

One of my favorite places in Delhi was Coronation Park. It's to the North of the city and a nightmare to get to (few autorickshaw drivers know where it is). The park is a fantastic monument to British hubris.

Coronation Park is where Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. Later it was the site of a Durbar held to commemorate the coronation of George Vth. There is a large obelisk in park which has the following inscription:
"Here on the 12th Day of December 1911, His Imperial Majesty King George V, Emperor of India accompanied by the Queen Empress in solemn Durbar announced in person to the Governors, Princes and Peoples of India his Coronation celebrated in England on the 22nd day of June 1911 and received from them their dutiful homage and allegiance."

When I first visited the park it was Republic Day. Dozens of cricket games were played in the space around the obelisk. I couldn't work out where one game ended and another began, but the players all knew where the boundaries were. I returned on my last day in India to take some photographs and found the area deserted. I saw only one other person, a man snoozing below a tree.

Near the obelisk is an overgrown garden containing nineteen plinths. This was intended as a place to place the statues of British royalty and officials left over from the British Raj. Most striking is a 15m tall statue of George V (shown in the photograph directly below). This statue used to stand at India Gate.

The empty plinths are particularly striking, begging the question of what happened to the missing statues. Apparently some were stolen or vandalised, and others were never moved.





The eroded statue below is Lord Handinge, Viceroy of India between 1910 and 1916.


Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

I spent most of my holiday in India touring Rajasthan. Each of the desert towns has its own individual atmosphere. I loved the empty landscapes, the architecture and sitting on rooftop restaurants while dusk fell. Jaisal Italy, an Italian restaurant in Jaisalmer, was one of my favourite places, because it had an amazing view of the fort.

Jaisalmer has a busy tourist industry. Everyone wants to sell visitors camel safaris, and the first few people I spoke to pressured me and made me feel like an idiot. I was going off the idea of camel trekking until I visited Trotter's. Or, to give the company its full name, Trotters Independent Travels. The company is run by a local man called Del-boy. I figured I can't go wrong with a company themed around Only Fools and Horses – and, if I did, it would be a good story.

We set off into the Thar Desert by jeep just before dawn. We stopped at a small camp where a goatherd made tea while we waited for the camels. After a brief breakfast we mounted the camels and set off into the desert. The second photo below shows the camel I was riding, which was called Johnnie Walker.


Riding a camel seems easy, if a little painful on the behind. You also get a good view of the landscape. We trekked to Khaba fort, which stands above a deserted town. Travelling by camel is slow and relaxing. The landscape unfolds gradually as you pass through it. There's little to think about so you can unwind and let the day happen.



After visiting Khaba, we found a shady tree to stop for lunch, which was cooked over a fire. We lounged around under the tree for the hottest part of the day, reading and relaxing while fending off the black goats that wanted to eat our food. The meals we ate on the tour were excellent. Afterwards the plates were cleaned by scouring with sand. The camels were hobbled and allowed to go foraging.



The desert was beautiful. We saw very few people, but there were little signs of civilisation, such as flocks of sheep or wells. The paths took us over what looked like ploughed fields. During the rainy season people from the nearby villages would do their best to grow crops while they could. Later on we passed a blocky stone building that we learned was a dormitory used when people were farming.


In the later afternoon we came to a series of sand-dunes where we would make our camp for the night. We watched the sun-set over the dunes, where we were found by a beer-seller. The boy travelled between the tourist camps in the evening, selling bottles of Kingfisher. Best of all, they were cold! 



As it grew darker, there was little light nearby. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, the guides' mobile phones seemed to work perfectly. It's amazing: you can't get on signal with Orange on Brighton's Upper Western Road, but there's perfect signal in the depths of the desert. 

Since there was so little light pollution the stars were easy to see. I couldn't believe how many there were and spent some time lying on the dune looking at the sky. While it was beautiful being in the desert, it wasn't easy to get to sleep. Every so often I would be woken up by a wild dog curling up next to me, and I would have to persuade it to move on. The sand wasn't the most comfortable bed I've ever
had, but the scenery made up for that. I woke up around dawn, my bedding surrounded by beetle tracks.



After two days of camel trekking I felt quite sore, but it was well worth the discomfort. After a week back in England, I miss the desert.



Holi Day Photo

Holi is the Indian festival of colour. This spring festival is celebrated by people flinging coloured dyes and water at one another. This year Holi fell on March 1st, while I was staying at the Durag Niwas guesthouse in Jodhpur.

I'd been forewarned about Holi and bought some new clothes. I joined in the celebrations at the hotel after they'd been underway for a while. Everyone was delighted by the appearance of a new victim. I'd spent weeks avoiding Indian tap water but I was led to a large barrel of water, where I was invited to dunk myself. Then my wet face and arms were smeared with coloured dyes. The guests danced with the folk from the Durag Niwas, while being sprayed with hoses and dyes. There was even a photographer from a local paper who turned up, but I've no idea if the pictures ever appeared anywhere. Another part of Holi appears to be ripping people's clothes, which is why the image below shows me with a torn T-shirt.


The Durag-Niwas guesthouse was one of the best places I stayed in India. It was friendly, had great food, and a courtyard that was perfect for lazing around and reading. It was a much-needed sanctuary after a run of dodgy hotels and I was quite sorry to leave.

Back home

I'm currently in Derbyshire after my two month holiday in India. I had an amazing time, visiting Delhi, Kahjuraho, Varanasi, Chandigarh and Darjeeling, as well as touring Rajasthan. It's going to take me a while to sort through the photos but in the meantime here's me in the Thar desert near Jaisalmer:


Letter One: From Delhi

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Transcript follows:



24th January 2010

I’m settling down now for my 4th night in Dehli & thought I should make a start on a letter home.  Hopefully my handwriting will be legible enough.  I will try to be neat.

I left England on the 20th, and should have landed the same day, but I arrived in Amsterdam to learn my connection was delayed by 11 hours.  At first I was alarmed, but then I realised it gave me an afternoon in Amsterdam, which was unexpected but fun.

I finally landed in Delhi midmorning.  I reached the hotel without problem & then tried to find water and money.  That was a little stressful, as I kept being followed by touts, suggesting I visit the “official” tourist office.  I ignored one, who finally told me I was rude & should go back to my own country.  Once I’d found water and rupees, I felt a lot happier.  I visited a bookshop in Connaught Place, where I had a calming browse.  I also picked up some books to replace those I’d read on the flight.  One of the things I’ve been enjoying is having time to read.

Once money & water were sorted out, everything seemed less daunting.  I found a cafe that did coffee & cake near the Metro, which is great to visit on the way back from an outing.  I’m feeling a little settled now – I’m so glad that I finally got myself organised & booked this trip.

One of the most remarkable things about Delhi is the traffic.  It sounds cacophonous, but it’s actually quite well organised.  The roads don’t seem to have lanes, so drivers use their horns to announce their presence to other road users.  People don’t try predicting other driver’s actions, like at home, but keep a careful watch on what is happening.  For the first few minutes I was alarmed at driving in Delhi, but realised there were very few dented cars – so I just relax and trust the driver.  The narrow streets are busy, with cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, and even elephants, but the drivers are less aggressive than many of the cyclists on Brighton seafront.

I’ve spent the first four days walking around the city.  I’ve walked through many different areas, enjoying the contrast between different districts.  Walking around New Delhi is fairly peaceful compared to the markets & tourist attractions.  I have been taking auto-rickshaws, although I’m usually ripped off – it’s quite a strange imitation, when someone cheats you for 10p on a 60p journey.  You know you’ve been overcharged, and it’s easy to forget how small the sums involved are.  My favourite transport method is the Metro – it’s cheap and mostly peaceful.  At rush-hour it is properly packed though – I missed a stop once because I couldn’t move from where I was stood.

I’ve not done many tourist sites yet – I’ll be back in Delhi later in the trip.  My favourite site so far was the Jantar-Muntar, a series of astronomical instruments the size of buildings.  They’re well worth googling.  It was amazing to wander through these monuments, figuring out how they worked.  There are five such sites in India, & I’ll be near two of the others later in my trip.

I’ve also been running a few times, but the pollution is bard on my tender lungs.  My target time in the marathon is going to be upped, I fear, as I’ve not been able to manage any significant distance.

The runs themselves have been magical though.  The last two days I’ve taken auto-rickshaws to Lodi Gardens before dawn.  The city looks different again in the early hours.  Then 4 miles or so around the park, whose tombs look stunning as they emerge from the mist.

I’m staying in Delhi a few more days before an overnight train ride to Udaipur.  So far I’m loving the trip.  Delhi may be frantic, but I’ve not spoken to anyone British for days, which is quite relaxing.  Being without a mobile is good, although I sometimes think it’s vibrating in my pocket – a technological phantom limb.

I will write more after I reach Udaipur.


[I will try to scan better quality images, but for the sake of speed added these for the present. Ed.]