DAY 8 (4/5): THE ABANDONED CAPITAL OF MUGHAL EMPIRE, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2018.12.01
Known as the “City of Victory” after Emperor Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat in 1573, Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585, until its abandonment in 1610 shortly after Akbar’s death. The abandoned Mughal capital makes a great side trip from Agra, where tourists from all over the world flocked to visit probably the most famous attraction in India, the Taj Mahal. Inscribed in UNESCO World Heritage in 1986, the red-sandstone capital is considered an Indo-Islamic architectural masterpiece. It is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in India.
It was almost 4pm when we arrived at the huge parking lot of Fatehpur Sikri. From there, we had to hop on a shuttle bus for a 5-minute ride to the main entrance of the historical site. The sun was already quite low. The red sandstone buildings were very photogenic under the late afternoon sun. However, our visit was quite rush as we only had a bit over an hour to appreciate the historical site.
With four distinctive chhatris on the top, the Diwan-i-khas or Hall of Private Audience was the first building that caught our eyes as we entered the complex.
Emperor Akbar’s Throne Pillar in the Diwan-i-khas contains motifs of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, aiming to incorporate all religions into one for his empire.
Tansen Musical Pond at the centre of Fatehpur Sikri was famous for the platform designated for the legendary musician Tansen.
The green pond provided a pleasant contrast to the red sandstone architecture.
Panorama of Tansen musician pond.
Surrounded by a verandah, the Turkish Sultana’s House is an highly ornate building. Both the interiors and exteriors are beautifully carved with motifs. The house is believed to be the residence of the Turkish Queen Sultana.
The Turkish Sultana’s House is full of intricate carved motifs.
Every single inch of the building is ornately carved.
With influences from Hindu and Muslim cultures, the buildings of Fatehpur Sikri showcase some of the best examples of Mughal architecture.
The well preserved Fatehpur Sikri looked like a large empty shell made with red sandstone.
The structural skeleton of the buildings looked neat and surreal.
Chhatris, the elevated, dome shaped pavilions, are commonly found in traditional Indian architecture. They serve mainly for decorative purpose.
Built in 1571, the Birbal’s House accommodated the two senior queens of Emperor Akbar.
Beyond the Birbal’s House, we reached the long colonnade of the Lower Haramsara.
The colonnade of the Lower Haramsara.
Many historians believe the Lower Haramsara was used as a stable for camels and horses.
Adjacent to the Lower Haramsara is the Jodha Bai Palace, the complex constructed for the Hindu queen. Hindu motifs such as lotus flowers and elephants could be found at the magnificent Jodha Bai Palace.
A pleasant courtyard can be found at the centre of Jodha Bai Palace. For security purpose, only one single guarded entrance was provided for the complex back in the old days.
We exited from the main entrance of Jodh Bai’s palace to find our way towards Jama Masjid, the famous Friday Mosque of Fatehpur Sikri.
Leaving peaceful Pushkar behind, we took an express train to the capital city of Rajasthan, Jaipur, where we would stay for two nights before moving on to Agra. Known as the Pink City due to its historical pink buildings, Jaipur is included in the travel itinerary of most foreign visitors as part of the Golden Triangle (the other two cities being Agra and Delhi). After checking in at our hotel, the first place we visited in the bustling city was the City Palace, the royal residence of the maharaja. The palace was built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1727 as he moved his capital to Jaipur from Amber. The complex contains beautiful buildings, courtyards, and museums. We spent half the afternoon in the complex until the palace closed for the day.
The Mubarak Mahal courtyard and the Mubarak Mahal were some of the first highlights of our tour. Completed in 1900, the Mubarak Mahal was built to receive foreign guests. It is now converted into a museum.
In complement with Mubarak Mahal, the Rajendra Pol Gate connected the Mubarak Mahal Courtyard with the Sarvato Bhadra Courtyard.
Getting closer to Rajendra Pol Gate, we were amazed by the fine details.
The Sarvato Bhadra Courtyard is dominated by the Sarvato Bhadra Pavilion in the middle, and the Clock Tower at the south side. The clock was a manifestation of European influence in the court during the Victorian era. It was made by Black and Murray & Co. of Calcutta.
The Sarvato Bhadra is open at four sides. It was used It was used as a reception hall for private guests and coronation rituals
With 1.6m tin height and a capacity of 4000 litres and weight of 340kg, the two sterling silver vessels, Gangajali (Ganges-water urns), were the world largest. They were made to take the water of Ganges for an England trip of Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II.
From Sarvato Bhadra Courtyard, we could enter Pritam Niwas Chowk, the final courtyard where visitors were granted access. The yellow Chandra Mahal, the residence of the maharaja, is the centre piece of Pritam Niwas Chowk.
The 7 floors of Chandra Mahal is off limit for visitors. In Pritam Niwas Chowk, we could only admire the exterior facade of the palace, as well as the beautiful four small gates (known as Ridhi Sidhi Pol).
One of the gates we liked was the Peacock Gate at the northeast. It represents the season of autumn and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
Motifs of peacock can be find even on the upper floor and roof structure.
Though the most magnificent features of the gate are the five peacocks at the lower level.
The vivid colours and three dimensional gestures of the peacocks were truly amazing.
Another gate we liked was the Rose Gate in the southwest. It represents the winter season and is dedicated to Goddess Devi.
The Rose Gate is heavily decorated with motifs of rose flower.
The Green Gate at northwest represents the spring season and is dedicated to Lord Ganesha. The Lotus Gate at southeast, on the other hand, represents the summer season and is dedicated to Lord Shiva-Parvati.
After checking out the four Ridhi Sidhi Pol, we returned to the beautiful Rajendra Pol Gate and Mubarak Mahal courtyard to visit the museum.
Looking beyond Rajendra Pol, the beautiful Mubarak Mahal stood silently as if bidding us farewell.
Although not completely open to the public, the City Palace offered us a glimpse of the former grandeur of the royal family of Rajasthan.
We returned to Pushkar Lake just before sunset, hoping to witness any form of religious ceremonies that might be performed. If we arrived two weeks earlier during the Pushkar Camel Fair, we would probably see large scale aarti and deepdan ceremonies by the ghats. At the ghats, the air was peaceful and a little cooler than earlier. We sat down on the steps to enjoy the sunset over the sacred lake.
Sunset was a great time to absorb the peaceful atmosphere of the ghats in Pushkar.
Maybe the presence of fish signify the improvement of water quality?
Deity worshiping might happen anywhere around the lake shore.
Buildings were covered in an orange glow as the sun set.
Nag Pahar (Snake Mountain) and Ratnagiri Hill were highly visible from Pushkar Lake.
Watching the sunset over Pushkar Lake was one of the loveliest moment in our journey.
Given the beauty of the sunset, the number of tourists lingering at the ghats were surprisingly few.
In just a blink of eye the sun sank beyond the buildings on the horizon.
Even the cow enjoyed the beauty of the sunset.
A small group of pilgrims and temple staff performed evening prayers at Varaha Ghat.
Candles were lit and flower petals were scattered into the water during the ceremony.
Although short, the prayer ceremony generated a spiritual ambience no words could fully describe.
The last pilgrim prayed to the twilight as all other worshipers returned into the temple.
Pilgrims and temple priests finishing their last bit of prayers at the ghat.
As light faded, we decided to call it a day.
We left Pushkar Lake from the entrance of mVaraha Ghat.
The market streets behind the ghats were much more lively than the waterfront.
On our way back to Inn Seventh Heaven, we passed by the old Rangji Temple.
At the hotel, we once again headed up to Sixth Sense, the hotel’s rooftop restaurant for a vegetarian meal.
To finish the night, we ordered a Rajasthan vegetarian thali.
Beyond the vibrant streets of souvenir shops, cafes, and guesthouses, 52 bathing ghats follow the sloping topography, descending down to the sacred water of Pushkar Lake. Throughout centuries, Hindu pilgrims came to bathe in the sacred water to cleanse their sins and skin diseases, and worship in one of the 500 temples dotted around the lake. Earliest record of the lake’s existence dated back to the 2nd century BC. Site modifications over generations, including a dam built across the headwaters of the Luni River in the 12th century, had transformed Pushkar Lake into today’s artificial appearance. In the Mughal era, religious activities had came to a brief halt and temples were destroyed. Since then, pilgrims had returned, and temples and ghats had been restored by local rulers.
Today, the government is making effort to improve the water quality of the lake, after pollution and deforestation reduced the water level and killed off most of the fish. Pushkar is still attracting large numbers of pilgrims, and so as foreign tourists who either come here for the colourful camel fair, or take a break in their Indian tour as they got fatigue of the noises and bustling activities in the cities. Visitors come to this vegetarian-only and car-free town for its spiritual ambience, or a chance encounter with an insightful guru, or a peaceful rooftop to chill out during sunset, or a few days of yoga classes, or an evening aarti ceremony at a historical ghat, or to simply do nothing and sort out their inner souls while meditating by the water.
It was only a short walk from Inn Seventh Heaven to Varah Ghat. We took off our shoes compulsorily and walked down the ghat towards the sacred lake.
It was a magical experience to walk from one ghat to another.
Each ghat is unique despite all leading to the waterfront of Pushkar Lake.
Pushkar Camel Fair, one of the largest livestock fair and cultural event in India that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, was over just a week or two ago. After the year’s biggest event, Pushkar looked a little sleepy when we arrived.
Rajasthani pilgrims in their vivid sarees walked by the sacred lake in the afternoon sun.
We had a good time wandering from one ghat to another along the lake’s north shore
No shoes were allowed at the ghats. It took us a while to get used to walking in barefoot along with the free roaming cows, dogs and pigeons.
Layers of balustrades, stepped plazas, terraces, and bathing pools provide a rich palette of textures to the scenery.
We decided to do nothing for the rest of the day other than strolling along the lakefront.
The shrine on a raised platform at the northwest end of the lake was painted in vivid orange and was visible from all over the lake.
Pigeons and more pigeons. Bird or animal feeding is considered a good deed to improve a person’s karma according to Hindu beliefs.
The ghats were photogenic under the afternoon sun.
Reflections of passing people on the bathing pools were beautiful.
Especially with the vivid colours of the local sarees.
Local Indians are curious and friendly and love to take pictures with foreign tourists.
It was a delight to see the free roaming cows around Pushkar Lake.
Pigeons were everywhere.
And so as some larger water birds.
Hotel Pushkar Palace has one of the best view in town.
We ended our first ghat walk in mid afternoon and decided to return for the sunset.
Every day, the mail express train Ranikhet Express covers 1,263km from Jaisalmer in the Thar Desert to Kathgodam in the foothills of the Himalayas. The express train was also our most convenient way to go from the Golden City of Jaisalmer to Ajmer, where we would transfer to the sacred city of Pushkar. Worrying that sleeper seats would sold out days before we arrived in India, we purchased our train tickets and seat reservations days before we departed for our journey. Like many fellow travelers, we had a hard time trying to register at the official Indian Railways website. We had no choice but to buy the tickets through an online agent. We chose 12go.asia after some online research. The ride on Ranikhet Express was our first train experience in India. We weren’t sure about the validity of our reservations until half an hour before the train departed, when our seat assignments finally appeared on the official website.
The 12-hour train journey was rather smooth. We met a local couple from Bangalore. They had just finished touring Rajasthan and were heading to Jaipur for their return flight down south. We four shared a First Class compartment for 12 hours until we got off at Ajmer. In the compartment, we locked the door, took off the lights, and wrapped ourselves in our own cocoon liners beneath sheets provided by the train. Not sure if it was the rumbling noise or the steady movement of the train, we felt a little sleepy and soon fell asleep.
The manager 1st Gate Home Fusion Hotel arranged us free transport to the railway station. We arrived at the station about half an hour before departure.
Our online seat numbers finally came out when we arrived at the station. We were a little excited as it was our first time to take the train in India.
The train seemed infinite at both ends. But first we had to find our 1A car. We met a young local couple who were looking for the same car as ours (it turned out that they were sharing the same compartment with us). It took us a while to find the right car.
At about 12:30am, we finally settled at our compartment. It was a First Class 1A car, with four beds in each compartment. We took up the beds at one side, and the young local couple took up the opposite side.
The train car was neat and quiet. We were ready to get some rest during the 12-hour train ride.
The Ranikhet Express ran at an average speed of 42km/h. The journey was rather smooth and we arrived at our destination Ajmer Junction in approximately 12 hours since we left Jaisalmer.
We had some sleep during the night. In the morning, a young hawker came to our compartment to offer breakfast. We asked for two cups of chai tea to start our day.
We arrived at Ajmer Junction 15 minutes later than scheduled. Our “12-hour roommate” bid us farewell before heading back into the train, while we looked for the station exit.
Outside of Ajmer Station, we met the driver from our hotel in Pushkar. Soon we embarked on our half hour journey from Ajmer to Pushkar, the thousand-year-old sacred city for Hindu pilgrims.
13km separated Ajmer with the peaceful sacred city of Pushkar.
We left Ajmer and entered Pushkar Valley in the Aravalli Mountains. Before leaving Ajmer, our eyes were caught by a group of people carried religious or ceremonial tools heading uphill.
In early afternoon, we finally arrived at Inn Seventh Heaven.
Inn Seventh Heaven centers around a refreshing courtyard.
Our spacious room at Inn Seventh Heaven turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Outside the window, a festive ceremony was taking place across the street.
After settling in, we walked up to the rooftop terrace of Inn Seventh Heaven.
Relaxing seating were provided all over the common areas of the hotel.
On the top floor, a spiral staircase led us to the rooftop restaurant.
A rooftop restaurant in the midst of the sacred Pushkar was the perfect place to chill out and do nothing.
As no meat was allowed in Pushkar, we had a hearty vegetarian lunch before heading out to the sacred lake.
Our second day in Jaisalmer began with flagging down a tuk tuk in front of First Gate Home Fusion Hotel to Gadsisar Sagar or Gadsisar Lake, an artificial lake that supplied water to Jaisalmer for centuries. Just like many places in the desert state of Rajasthan, maintaining water supply has been an essential aspect for the city’s survival. The peaceful artificial lake was constructed at around 1400 by the Maharaja of Jaisalmer Maharwal Gadsi Singh. As the years progressed, the lake had also become a place of pilgrimage, and venue for religious festivals and leisure boating. Temples and shrines mushroomed around the lake, and so as religious statues and the beautiful Tilon Ki Pol (Gate of Tilon) for ceremonial purposes. Today the lake has become a popular destination for anyone who wants to get away from the noisy streets inside the city walls of Jaisalmer. In winter, visitors may find themselves with surprise sighting of migratory birds (along with the lake’s more permanent residents: pigeons, dogs, and the large catfish).
A passageway connects Gadsisar Sagar with the main road. We arrived early in the morning when souvenir stall owners were busy setting up their stalls along the passageway.
Built by Tilon, a famous courtesan, the grand gate Tilon-Ki-Pol is the main gate of Gadsisar Sagar. The maharaja refused Tilon’s proposal of the construction, but Tilon built the gate while the maharaja was away. She put a Krishna temple atop the gate so that the maharaja could not tear it down.
The sky was a little grey despite it was out of the monsoon season. We were delighted with the overcast weather as there was hardly any shading trees along the waterfront.
A group of locals were taking professional photos by the waterfront.
Boating is possible at Gadsisar Sagar. During our visit, we saw one boat occupied by a group of local visitors in the lake.
The chattris (and their reflections) by the shore provided a photogenic setting to the lake.
We decided to walk along the shore for a bit.
We assed by some ghats and decks in front of temples.
No matter how far we went, the chattris near the entrance were often the focal point.
The scenery was peaceful and poetic if we could ignore the trash along the bank.
Apart from pigeons, we also saw a few other kinds of birds at the waterfront.
Just like anywhere else, the dominant type of birds that can live along with humans is always the pigeons.
As time went by, more visitors arrived at the Tilon-Ki-Pol, but hardly any would venture far beyond the entrance area.
Dogs are not uncommon in India, and some of them tend to follow people for a bit.
There are a number of Hindu temples along the shore. They are frequented by local pilgrims.
Where there is Hindu temples there would be “holy men” around.
Upon leaving Gadsisar Sagar and Tilon-Ki-Pol, a street musician caught our attention. He asked us our name and used one of our names in his singing performance.
Known as the Golden Fort due to its yellow sandstone, the Jaisalmer Fort is also famous as a living fort with its 2000 inhabitants still reside within its walls today. With 99 bastions along its fortress wall, a series of Jain temples and a splendid palace for the Rajput royal family, Jaisalmer Fort alone is already a worthy reason on its own for travelers to venture 776km west of Delhi into the Thar Desert. We had two full days in Jaisalmer, and planned to spend the entire first day at the fort. In the fort, there are attractions, restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and a series of narrow lanes that would keep us busy for hours.
Some visitors would choose to stay the night at the fort. We decided not to do so due to the vulnerability of the ancient structure in coping with the negative impact caused by mass tourism. Studies in recent years discover that Jaisalmer Fort is in fact in danger of crumbling from inside. Many suggest the poor water supply and sewage systems hastily installed in the past 30 years and the water leakage from these systems into the fort foundation is the main threat for the fort, a sandstone structure that has withstood sandstorms and earthquakes for over 1000 years. Built as a desert structure in 1156 by King Rawal Jaisal, the structure of Jaisalmer Fort is particularly sensitive to water. The increase of regional rain in recent years and number of tourists staying inside the fort have made the matter worse.
It was only a 5 minute walk from our hotel to the main gate of the fort. From the parking lot, we could see part of the fort palace and the entry watch tower.
Beyond the watch tower we gradually moved uphill through a series of gates into the interior of the fort.
A series of four main gates: Akshya Pol, Ganesh Pol, Suraj Pol, and Hawa Pol formed the entry procession and defense network for Jaisalmer Fort.
Tourism has given the fort a second life in the modern time.
Through the last gate Hawa Pol (Gate of Wind), we would soon arrive at Dussehra Chowk, the main square in the fort.
Cow at Hawa Pol Gate.
Dussehra Chowk, the main square of Jaisalmer Fort, is flanked by exquisite buildings. This square was also the main arrival point for camel caravans back in the medieval times.
The most imposing structure at Dussehra Chowk is undoubtedly the royal palace.
Passing by the entrance to the palace, we decided to first visit the Jain temples (with limited opening hours) in the morning and left the palace for the afternoon.
We spent the entire day at the fort. As the day went by, more and more visitors arrived at the Dussehra Chowk.
From Jain temples to the palace, we spent much of the day wandering around the narrow lanes in the fort.
Around 2000 inhabitants still reside in the fort today, despite some buildings have been converted into hotels, cafes and souvenir shops.
Further away from the main attractions, we encountered a more domestic side of the fort.
Hindu images and touristic ornaments appear here and there in the small lanes in the fort.
Henna is popular among tourists coming to Rajasthan.
Lakshminath Temple is a famous Hindu temple in the fort.
After visiting the Jain Temples and royal palace, we went up to one of the 99 bastions. One Western tourist was playing a guitar, while several others sat along the edge of the fortification to enjoy the view of Jaisalmer.
From the bastion, we could see our hotel First Gate Home Fusion, including the rooftop restaurant and the balcony of our room.
After a long day of touring, we walked back down the same route where we came up in the morning.
The imposing view of the palace from the parking lot would stayed long in our memories.