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DAY 9 (2/4): AGRA FORT, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2018.12.02

Similar to the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, the Agra Fort has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List since the 1980s, making it one of the three must-see attractions in Agra.  Known as the Red Fort of Agra, the Agra Fort served as the royal residence of the early Mughal emperors until 1638 when the capital was moved to Delhi.  It was constructed during the golden age of the Mughal Empire under two prolific builders: Emperor Akbar the Great and his grandson Shah Jahan.  While Akbar is well known for founding the short lived capital Fatehpur Sikri, Shah Jahan is perhaps best known for erecting the most perfect Mughal architecture ever, the Taj Mahal.  On the ruins of an earlier fort, Akbar rebuilt the Agra Fort with red sandstone.  Akbar’s Agra Fort was completed in 1573 but was later transformed by Shah Jahan into its current mix of red sandstone and white marble buildings.

After visiting the Taj, we dropped by Joney’s Place, the local eatery where we had dinner the night before for breakfast.  We had a few hours to spare before our walking tour at 2:30pm.  Agra Fort was the obvious choice for us.  An auto rickshaw brought us to the busy fort entrance in no time.  Just like the Red Fort in Delhi, Agra Fort was very popular with local tourists.

IMG_2458Despite served as the royal residence, the Agra Fort appeared like a heavily fortified complex from its exterior.

IMG_2472Inside Agra Fort, Diwan-i-am was the main audience hall in the complex.

IMG_2478Built between 1631 to 1640, the 201′ by 67′ Diwan-i-am was the hall where Emperor Shah Jehan addressed the general public and his guests.

DSC_2780Constructed by Shah Jahan in 1637, the Anguri Bagh (Grape Garden) was used as a vineyard to make wine for the emperor.

DSC_2787Stone colonnade flanked three sides of the Anguri Bagh.

DSC_2852Khas Mahal was built by Shah Jahan for his daughter Jahanara and Roshanara.

DSC_2807Adjacent to the Khas Mahal, covered verandahs and the marble terraces offered visitors a fantastic view of the Yamuna River.

DSC_2870The Musamman Burj is one of the most splendidly crafted buildings in the complex.

DSC_2902 While Akbar built his buildings with sandstone, his grandson Shah Jahan preferred white marble just like another of his other project, the Taj Mahal.

IMG_2556Musamman Burj, an octagonal tower with great views of the Yamuna River, was built by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal.

IMG_2533Together with his daughter Jahanara Begum, It was here that Shah Jahan spent his last few years as a captive of his son Aurangzeb.

IMG_2507From here, Shah Jahan spent his final moments on his death bed facing the Taj Mahal, the tomb of his beloved wife.

IMG_2546Tourists love to take pictures against the beautiful marble lattice work.  This woman didn’t even notice the approach monkey as she posed for photo.

IMG_2563Known as the Gem Mosque, the Nagina Masjid is a small marble mosque built by Shah Jahan.

DSC_2820Built by Emperor Akbar, the Jahangiri Mahal Palace was the primary zenana to house his Rajput wives.  Compared to his grandson Shah Jahan’s buildings, Akbar’s buildings were mainly built with red sandstone.

DSC_2822Jahangiri Mahal Palace is one of the oldest surviving building in Agra Fort and also the largest part in the compound.

DSC_2836A beautiful dome ceiling at the Jahangiri Mahal Palace.

DSC_2904Only 30 out of 500 buildings of the Jahangir Mahal Palace survive to the present.  Many had been destroyed by Shah Jahan and later the British.

IMG_2590After the visit, we returned to the main entrance and hopped on an auto rickshaw to return our hotel.

 

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DAY 9 (1/4): CROWN OF THE PALACES, Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2018.12.02

On the banks of Yamuna River stands one of the world’s most recognizable man-made wonders that has captivated the imagination of people for generations.  Its perfectly proportioned domes, minarets, white marble facades with spectacular stone inlays, represent the utmost architectural beauty and splendid craftsmanship of the Mughal civilization.  The complex immortalizes the eternal love of Emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628 – 1658) towards Mumtaz Mahal, whose marvelous tomb complex has become the most famous national icon of India.  This tomb complex is of course the magnificent Taj Mahal, which literally translates as Crown of the Palaces.  The Taj Mahal stands out as the single most important monument that draws travelers from all over the world to India.  Not a mosque or a palace, the Taj Mahal is indeed the final resting place for Queen Mumtaz Mahal and Emperor Shah Jahan.

It would be absurd if we made two visits to India without seeing the Taj Mahal even once.  Fitting Agra into our Rajasthan itinerary and completing the Golden Triangle was easy with the frequent train services between Agra, Jaipur and Delhi.  In Agra, we purposely picked a guesthouse at Taj Ganj, the district right next to the Taj Mahal.  Though not many good hotel options were available in the area, staying at Taj Ganj placed us just a few minutes of walk away from one of the gates of Taj Mahal.  Hoping to experience the golden sunrise at the Taj, queuing at the gate about half an hour before sunrise is a common practice for both foreign and local visitors.

Before the trip, we were a little worry about the restoration work and scaffolding conditions of the Taj.  Since 2016, scaffolding were up at different parts of the Taj for a major cleaning work to restore the original white colour of the marble.  The process had been painstakingly slow.  By October 2018, the cleaning was almost over except the main dome.  It would be a woeful view if the central dome was covered in scaffolding.  Luckily, the authority had decided to delay the cleaning process until the end of the tourist high season, meaning that the Taj would be scaffolding free from November 2018 to April 2019.

DSC_2485After purchasing the tickets at the gate, we queued in the foreign visitor line for about 20 minutes before going through the security check and arriving at the Jilaukhana Forecourt in front of the Great Gate.

DSC_2603Beyond the Great Gate, we arrived at the starting point of the Water Channel.  The channels symbolize the four rivers in the Paradise mentioned in the Koran.  A tint of orange gradually lighted up the east side of the minarets and domes.

DSC_2609We slowly walked to the central pool and platform at the centre of the Charbagh Garden.

DSC_2624From the Central Pool, the majestic Taj Mahal looked beautiful and poetic under the early morning sun.  No tourist brochure or travel literature could do justice on conveying the true beauty of the marble architecture.  We were grateful for not seeing any scaffolding on the Taj, and could see clearly all the major components of the iconic building: four minarets, five domes and an octagonal central structure.

DSC_2648_01It was a little hazy looking back to the Great Gate.

DSC_2655It was a huge relief to see the Taj scaffolding free.  We slowly walked towards the main tomb structure to pay a brief visit of the interior.

DSC_2681No photography was allowed inside the tomb, where the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan were on display.  Their actual resting place is off limit to the public below the main deck.

DSC_2682After touring the interior, we stayed on the marble platform to check out the minarets and marble facades.

IMG_2336To the west of the Taj stands a beautiful mosque.

DSC_2713To the east, an identical building was used as a guesthouse.

IMG_2339To the north, Yamuna River provides a peaceful backdrop to the Taj.

IMG_2367From the marble platform, we could admire the details of marble carving on the Taj.

DSC_2684Standing face to face to the exterior marble walls, we were overwhelmed by the marble relief and stone inlay.

DSC_2724From the grandeur of the minarets to the splendid carvings and stone inlay of the marble walls, Taj Mahal is truly an amazing man-made wonder.

DSC_2689The sun get higher as time passed, and so as the number of visitors.

IMG_2393We circled the Taj to examine its beautiful marble walls before heading back down to the Charbagh Garden.

DSC_2744Back in the Charbagh garden, we could once again admire the overview of the Taj Mahal,

IMG_2432Back at the Central Pool, we took a few more shots of the classic view of the Taj once again.

IMG_2444Visitors continued to pour in from the Great Gate as we were about to leave the Taj Mahal complex.

DSC_2752We passed by the Khawasspuras (tomb attendant living quarter) one last time before exiting the Great Gate.

 


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.

DSC_2384With 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.

DSC_2391Emperor 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.

IMG_2039Tansen Musical Pond at the centre of Fatehpur Sikri was famous for the platform designated for the legendary musician Tansen.

IMG_2058The green pond provided a pleasant contrast to the red sandstone architecture.

IMG_3328Panorama of Tansen musician pond.

IMG_2046Surrounded 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.

IMG_2042The Turkish Sultana’s House is full of intricate carved motifs.

IMG_3305Every single inch of the building is ornately carved.

IMG_2049With influences from Hindu and Muslim cultures, the buildings of Fatehpur Sikri showcase some of the best examples of Mughal architecture.

IMG_2056The well preserved Fatehpur Sikri looked like a large empty shell made with red sandstone.

IMG_2060The structural skeleton of the buildings looked neat and surreal.

DSC_2415Chhatris, the elevated, dome shaped pavilions, are commonly found in traditional Indian architecture.  They serve mainly for decorative purpose.

DSC_2425Built in 1571, the Birbal’s House accommodated the two senior queens of Emperor Akbar.

IMG_2064Beyond the Birbal’s House, we reached the long colonnade of the Lower Haramsara.

DSC_2422The colonnade of the Lower Haramsara.

DSC_2423Many historians believe the Lower Haramsara was used as a stable for camels and horses.

DSC_2430Adjacent 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.

DSC_2433A 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.

IMG_2075We exited from the main entrance of Jodh Bai’s palace to find our way towards Jama Masjid, the famous Friday Mosque of Fatehpur Sikri.


DAY 7 (4/4): PALACE OF WINDS, Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, 2018.11.30

Standing at the edge of the City Palace of Jaipur, the Hawa Mahal was part of the women’s chambers of the former royal palace.  Built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, the sandstone facade with a honeycomb of latticed bay windows is the most recognizable building in Jaipur.  The splendid facade is actually the back side of the palace building, where royal ladies were able to watch the activities and occasional festival events on the street through one of the 953 small windows.  Today, the five-storey palace building is open to visitors.  With narrow stairways and passageways and shallow rooms, the top three floors can get a little crowded during the tourist high season.

All tourists in Jaipur would take pictures of the famous facade from the main street, while not every one would actually visit the building interior.  We were curious to experience how it might feel to peek back at the main street through one the small windows, and thus decided to pay a brief visit of the palace.  Finding the entrance of Hawa Mahal required a bit of research.  Entered through a retail side street, we arrived at a back lane where the real entrance and ticket office of Hawa Mahal were located.

DSC_1796The splendid facade of Hawa Mahal is the most recognizable building in Jaipur.

IMG_0880To enter the building, visitors must find their way into the back alleyway where the main entrance is located.

IMG_0881Through a series of doors and gateways, we arrived at the primary courtyard of Hawa Mahal.

DSC_2129A feature water fountain dominated the primary courtyard of Hawa Mahal.

DSC_2132We had little interest on the water feature.  Instead, our primary aim was to check out the small windows and the views from the top two levels of the palace.

DSC_2135We walked up a level at a time.  Colourful stained glass windows were everywhere, providing a pleasant visual effects for the interiors.

DSC_2141While many small windows were locked up, some were opened for visitors to check out the street views.

DSC_2148It wasn’t difficult for visitors to imagine the elusive lives of the royal ladies behind the small windows.

DSC_2152The ramp tower led us to the top floor.  From the top floor, we could enjoy the view back into the royal palace.

DSC_2165The pink facade of Hawa Mahal matches perfectly with shops across the street.

DSC_2168There was another courtyard complex connected to the Hawa Mahal on the ground level.

IMG_0905Looking straight down the iconic facade was a little frightening.

IMG_0906Across the street, restaurant patios lined up on the roof and top terraces for anyone who might have the time and mood to sit down with a drink, and take in views of the romantic sunset and iconic facade.

IMG_0921Stairs and hallways on the top floors were really narrow.

IMG_0929By the time we reached the top level it was almost sunset time.

DSC_2179Before leaving Hawa Mahal, we found our way to check out a corner pavilion at the terrace level.

IMG_0980We stopped by a rooftop cafe across the street to enjoy the sunset scenery of the iconic Hawa Mahal.

IMG_1002Before the sun disappeared below the horizon, flood lights at the base of Hawa Mahal were turned on for the night view.  We bid farewell to Hawa Mahal and returned to the Peacock Restaurant for our final dinner in Jaipur.

 


DAY 7 (2/4): JAIGARH FORT, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, 2018.11.30

At the exit of Amber Fort, we asked a local visitor for directions to the Jaigarh Fort, the mighty fortress overlooking the Amber Fort atop the Cheel ka Teela (Hill of Eagles) of the Aravalli Range.  Built by Jai Singh II in 1726, the main function of Jaigarh Fort was to protect the Amber Fort.  Many visitors make the effort up to Jaigarh to check out Jaivana, the super large cannon cast in 1720 by Sawai Raja Jai Singh II of Jaipur.  We opted for its supreme views of Amber Fort and Maota Lake.  The local visitor advised us to return into Amber Fort and search for the “Tunnel”, a sub-terrain passage below Amber Fort connecting to the trail of Jaigarh Fort.  We reentered Amber Fort and descended into the “Tunnel”.  The “Tunnel” was dark but full of curious tourists.  There were no signage to confirm the destination but we were told that it would eventually lead us to Jaigarh Fort.  After several minutes in the dark, the “Tunnel” opened to an outdoor archway passage going uphill.

DSC_1985The “Tunnel” exited to an archway passage between Amber and Jaigarh Fort.  The passage was concealed below grade probably for defensive purpose.

DSC_1988The archway passage eventually merged with an uphill path leading to Jaigarh Fort.

DSC_1989Not that many tourists were around on the path.  The path was quite exposed.  We were a little hot despite it was winter.

DSC_1993After ten minutes of ascending, Jaigarh Fort was right ahead of us.

IMG_2924Looking down, we could see the winding path that brought us up to the fort.

DSC_1996After walking through a tunnel, archway passage, and uphill path, we finally reached Jaigarh Fort, the defense citadel for Amber.

IMG_2932Compared with Amber Fort, Jaigarh was relatively bare and empty.

DSC_2005Most of the interior spaces were off limit for visitors.  We wandered around the courtyards before reaching the back gardens.

DSC_2008Despite all furniture were gone, we could still imagine what the spaces would be like when filled with generals and military personnel.

IMG_0762At various lookouts, we could truly appreciate the defensive structure and ramparts that extended way beyond the fort.

DSC_2017As an defensive complex, the back garden of Jaigarh Fort was surprisingly elegant.

DSC_2029We walked on the rampart walls around the garden to enjoy the surrounding landscape.

IMG_2952From the wall, we could also see the Amber Fort down below.

DSC_2023We could also see a number of temples in the town of Amber down below.

DSC_2025From distance, the protective ramparts surrounding Amber seemed like a small version of China’s Great Wall.

IMG_0786Delicate latticeworks seemed to exist everywhere no matter where visited in Rajasthan.

DSC_2053At the other end of Jaigarh Fort, we finally found Jaivana, the large 18th-century cannon cast by Sawai Raja Jai Singh II of Jaipur.  After a test-fire in 1720, the cannon had never fired twice.

 


DAY 7 (1/4): AMBER FORT, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, 2018.11.30

Getting up early was the key to beat the crowds.  Our goal was to reach Amber Fort (or Amer Fort) before 8:30am.  From our hotel in Jaipur, we had no problem flagging down an auto-rickshaw to cover the 10+ km to the valley of Kalikho Hills.  The trip took roughly half an hour.  At 8:15am, the majestic Amber Fort bathed in the morning glow came in sight while our auto-rickshaw approached Maota Lake.  After getting off, we had the option of walking uphill to the fort or riding one of the 103 elephants to approach the hill fort in the maharaja’s way.  Dozens of Indian elephants carrying foreign tourists on crimson howdahs zigzagged their way up to the arrival courtyard is a common sight at Amber Fort every morning.   Yet, recently complaints filed in court had exposed the ill treatment of the elephants.  We decided not to support the elephant owner.  Walking uphill to the main gate Suraj Pol was a causal 15-minute walk.  At the arrival courtyard Jalebi Chowk, we were soon overwhelmed by the enormous scale and exquisite details of the architecture.  First built in 1592 by Man Singh I on earlier fort structures, the citadel was further expanded by Jai Singh I in the 17th century.  The fort and its palace complex remained as the political centre of the region until 1727, when the capital was moved to Jaipur.

DSC_1810We get off the auto rickshaw right by Maota Lake, the main source of water for the Amber Fort.  The fort and its reflection glowed under the morning sunlight.

DSC_1820We gave up the idea of riding the elephants and walked uphill on the same path as the elephants.

DSC_1827Many tourists preferred to take the exotic elephant ride to reach the fort.

DSC_1865Amber Fort is situated in a valley of Kalikho Hills, 11km northeast of Jaipur.

DSC_1896The progression of elephants making their way up and down the fort has become a common scene at Amber everyday.

DSC_1846We entered through Suraj Pol Gate into Jalebi Chowk, the arrival courtyard of Amber Fort.

IMG_2817We got our admission tickets at Jalebi Chowk and headed up a grand stair to the Singh Pol (Lion Gate).  Through the gate we entered into the first palace courtyard that was dominated by Diwan-i-aam or Hall of Public Audience.

IMG_0671Built in 1639, the elegant Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience is an open pavilion that served as an audience hall.

IMG_2845The Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience is a beautiful piece of Rajput architecture.

DSC_1872From the courtyard of Diwan-i-Aam, we entered the inner palace through the beautiful Ganesh Pol Gate.

DSC_1903The three storey Ganesh Pol was built in 1640.  It marks the main gateway into the inner palace.

IMG_0692Beyond Ganesh Pol lies the Aram Bagh or Pleasure Garden.  The garden is flanked one end by the  Sukh Niwas or Hall of Pleasure and the other by Sheesh Mahal or the Mirror Hall at lower level and Jas Mandir or Hall of Private Audience at upper.

IMG_2856The Sukh Niwas or Hall of Pleasure marble rooms of Sukh Mahal were cooled by water channeled in the walls and floor.

IMG_2921Across the courtyard from Sukh Niwas stands the Sheesh Mahal or Mirror Hall.

IMG_0709The Sheesh Mahal or Mirror Hall was the private chambers of the maharaja and his queen.  Small pieces of mirrors and glasses filled the ceiling and walls.  The space was particularly atmospheric at night under candle light.

DSC_1922The last courtyard we came to was Man Singh I Palace Square, where the Zenana once lived.  This is the oldest part of the palace.  The Baradari pavilion in the middle was the meeting place of the royal ladies.

IMG_2900From the Suhag Mandir at the upper level of Ganesh Pol, royal ladies could look out into the Diwan-i-Aam or Hall of Public Audience.

IMG_0706A cleaning staff at Man Singh I Palace Square.

DSC_1935The Baradari pavilion at the centre of Man Singh I Palace Square.

IMG_0640From Amber Fort, we entered a tunnel and path that was supposed leading to the ramparts of Jaigarh Fort further uphill.

 


DAY 6 (2/3): GRANDEUR OF THE MAHARAJA, City Palace, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, 2018.11.29

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.

DSC_1712The 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.

IMG_0433In complement with Mubarak Mahal, the Rajendra Pol Gate connected the Mubarak Mahal Courtyard with the Sarvato Bhadra Courtyard.

DSC_1720Getting closer to Rajendra Pol Gate, we were amazed by the fine details.

IMG_0442The 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.

IMG_2616The Sarvato Bhadra is open at four sides.  It was used It was used as a reception hall for private guests and coronation rituals

IMG_0454 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.

DSC_1724From 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.

DSC_1741The 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).

DSC_1733One of the gates we liked was the Peacock Gate at the northeast.  It represents the season of autumn and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

DSC_1755Motifs of peacock can be find even on the upper floor and roof structure.

DSC_1735Though the most magnificent features of the gate are the five peacocks at the lower level.

DSC_1748The vivid colours and three dimensional gestures of the peacocks were truly amazing.

DSC_1744Another gate we liked was the Rose Gate in the southwest.  It represents the winter season and is dedicated to Goddess Devi.

DSC_1747The Rose Gate is heavily decorated with motifs of rose flower.

DSC_1753The 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.

DSC_1764After checking out the four Ridhi Sidhi Pol, we returned to the beautiful Rajendra Pol Gate and Mubarak Mahal courtyard  to visit the museum.

IMG_0480Looking beyond Rajendra Pol, the beautiful Mubarak Mahal stood silently as if bidding us farewell.

IMG_2627Although not completely open to the public, the City Palace offered us a glimpse of the former grandeur of the royal family of Rajasthan.