THE CITY OF TAJ

THE CITY OF TAJ
This city needs no introduction. The heading of the article and featured image are self-sufficient to understand whom I am talking about. Being the capital of the Sultanate of Delhi for a while and the Mughal Empire, this city has witnessed several historic events including the establishment of the empire by Babur, construction of the Taj Mahal or the escape of Shivaji Maharaj. For years, until the British rule, Agra was one of the largest and most important cities in the Indian sub-continent. However, the origin of the city is much before the Sultanate of Delhi. It has been mentioned in the Mahabharata. The name Agra is derived from the Sanskrit word Agravena, meaning border of the forest.Both of the important monuments in Agra, the Agra Fort as well as the Taj Mahal are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Ibrahim Lodi, the last ruler of the Sultanate of Delhi ruled until 1526 when he was defeated by Babur in the battle of Panipat. Thus, the Mughal Empire was established with Agra as its capital until Akbar moved it to Fatehpur Sikri and brought it back to Agra in 1598. Fatehpur Sikri is about 36 km from Agra and has been described at THE ABANDONED CAPITAL.

The Agra Fort was built by a Rajput king, Raja Badal Singh. Sikander Lodi, the second last Sultan of Delhi built the mosques and palaces. The fort was constanly renovated by Akbar, as well as Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan built monuments out of white marble, and destroyed some of the previous ones for building his own.

As you enter the fort and turn right, you enter the main residential complex which includes the durbar hall, kitchen, etc. Moving further inside, you find the monuments built by Shah Jahan in white marble, for his daughters, his wives and himself. He also built the Meena Masjid, entirely from white marble. These marble monuments are studded with gems and stones brought from all over the world, from as far as Belgium, Iran, etc.

 

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The durbar hall

 

 

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One of the rooms in the fort

 

 

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Rooms built by Shah Jahan out of white marble

 

 

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A Masjid built by Shah Jahan: Notice the gems embedded in white marble

 

In the last years of Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb imprisoned him inside Agra Fort where he could see the Taj Mahal he built along the Yamuna river.

 

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Shah Jahan spent the last years of his life here after being imprisoned by Aurangzeb

 

 

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The Taj Mahal, as seen from the Agra Fort

 

In the siege of 1857, the British East India Company fired a cannon at the fort, which is still visible today.

 

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The spot where the cannon fired by British East India Company landed

 

The Diwan-i-aam was the hall of the public audience. When Aurangzeb invited Shivaji, it was this place he was made to stand, behind the mansabdars, i.e. the military commanders. Shivaji took this as an insult and offended Aurangazeb. Thus enraged, he ordered Shivaji to be put to house arrest. Realising this, Shivaji made up a plan and escaped Agra Fort hiding in a basket of sweets. The Diwan-i-aam is constructed in such a manner that the king’s view won’t be blocked, even if viewed from any angle. Thus, no pillar here obstructs the king’s view.

 

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The place where Aurangazeb used to sit in the Diwan-i-aam

 

 

 

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Front view of the Diwan-i-aam

 

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Corner view of the Diwan-i-aam: Notice that the king’s throne could still be seen and no pillar blocks the view

 

Notice the resemblance of the diwan-i-aam to the set used in the set of the TV serial Raja Shivchhatrapati:


Many squirrels are found at the Agra Fort as well as the Gwalior Fort and the Taj Mahal. I got the opportunity to click a good photograph of one of them who was searching for something in my camera’s bag.

 

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A squirrel at Agra Fort

 

 

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The Indian tricolour at the Agra Fort: This was also special because it was the Independence day when we visited

 

 

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A yellow coloured pond skater found in Agra

 

 

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A memorial of Shivaji outside the Agra Fort

 

Let’s move on to the Taj Mahal now. For those who aren’t familiar, it was built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s third wife, who died during the birth of her fourteenth child. The Taj Mahal was completed in the year 1643. It has three entrance gates – east, west, and south. The Taj is open on all days except Friday, with Friday being meant for Muslims to offer prayers in the mosque.

 

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The Taj Mahal

 

Map of the Taj Complex (mytravelname.com)

The entrance to the Taj is built from red stone and there are two mosques on either sides of the Taj. The Yamuna river flows just behind the Taj. The gardens in front of the Taj are known as Charbagh.

 

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The main entrance to the Taj Complex
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Sunset at Taj Mahal
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The Yamuna river and the Mehtab Bagh
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One of the mosques on the sides

 

Inside the main chamber, there are two tombs – one of Mumtaz and the other of Shah Jahan. Wait for a second, those tombs are just to deceive the visitors – they are fake! The real ones are in a lower chamber. The Taj Mahal complex also has an archaeological museum.

The area in and around the Taj is kept pollution free. Visitors’ vehicles are not allowed near the actual building. If you wish to enter from the East Gate, you need to park the vehicles at Shilpgram, about a kilometre from the gate. Golf cars and battery operated buses, manufactured by BHEL are the only public transport vehicles to transport tourists from Shilpgram to the East Gate.

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The e-rickshaw or golf car by Agra Development Authority near the East Gate, Taj Mahal

 

So as you might be wondering, there are dark sides to the Taj Mahal too. Let us talk about them one by one.

Littering due to shoe covers

Everyone is required to remove their footwear before entering the main mausoleum. Hence, shoe covers are provided at INR 10 at the ticket counter, so that one can proceed without removing their footwear. If you didn’t get what I meant to say, you can refer the image below. There are two people wearing those covers on their shoes. However, after leaving from the mausoleum, people take out those covers and thus, these covers often lie on the ground, which pollutes the land near such an important wonder of the world. This rubbish keeps on littering and accumulating and it seems that nobody is responsible for punishing such offenders or spreading awareness about their acts, although armed police officials are deployed everywhere.

 

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Littering due to shoe covers

 

Acid rains

Acid rains pose a danger to the Taj in today’s world. The refineries at nearby Mathura release hazardous gases like SO2 into the atmosphere which get mixed with water vapour and condense to form dilute acids. As the Taj is made up of marble (calcium carbonate – CaCO3), it reacts with this acid to form calcium sulphate and thus degrades the Taj. Indicators showing the current levels and permissible levels of such gases are installed in one of the corner minarets.

Stolen diamonds

Some of the walls of the Taj and its marble plinth were studded with diamonds and gems, which were later stolen by local thieves during the decline of the Mughal Empire and owing to poor maintenance. The slots of these gems can still be seen.

Black Taj theory

There are theories that Shah Jahan wanted to build a Black Taj Mahal for himself after building the white ones for Mumtaz. Some black marble stones found at Mehtab Bagh, on the opposite side of Yamuna support this theory. However, modern excavations state that these stones were blackened white stones and not originally black, thus opposing the theory. Hence, no Black Taj exists as of now.

Tejo Mahalaya theory

Historian P. N. Oak, in his book Taj Mahal: The True Story, claims that the Taj Mahal was originally a Shiva temple, called Tejo Mahalaya, built in 1155 CE. He claims that it was built by the Rajput king Jai Singh I. Some of the lotus designs found inside the Taj and radiocarbon dating of a few stones also support this theory. It is believed that the word ‘Taj Mahal’ is a corruption of this word used by Shah Jahan.

There is a unique kind of soda which is found here, in North India, known as Goti soda, found in a codd-neck bottle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codd-neck_bottle). Its mouth is sealed with a marble instead of a cap. It is opened by pushing this marble inside the bottle. It was patented and named after British soft drink maker Hiram Codd.

 

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Goti soda near Taj Mahal

 

Reaching Agra

Agra (Taj Mahal) is about 220 km from New Delhi via the Yamuna Expressway, which has been now extended till Lucknow. The National Highway 46 connects Agra to Mumbai via Gwalior, Indore, Dhule, Nashik, etc. Agra also lies on the North South Corridor, i.e. the Srinagar Kanyakumari Highway, which was revamped as an almost freeway in the Golden Quadrilateral Project.

Agra has several important railway stations, such as Agra Cantt., Raja ki Mandi, Idgah Agra, Agra Fort, Yamuna Bridge, etc. Mathura, an important junction is also very close to Agra. There are several trains that ply between Agra and Delhi (including India’s fastest train – Gatimaan Express) and Agra and Bengaluru/Hyderabad/Vizag/Chennai (such as several Rajdhanis). In comparison, fewer trains ply between Agra and Mumbai. One of them and the fastest is the Nizamuddin LTT AC SF Express which runs once a week.

 

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Delhi Hazrat Nizamuddin – Mumbai LTT AC Superfast Express at LTT

 

As of today, Agra has a small military airport which is also used for public transport. Not many airlines operate here. However, a new greenfield airport, the Taj International Airport is proposed to be built at Jewar, about 146 km from Agra and has been granted an approval by the Union Government.

A few words on my hotel… Although till date I haven’t named my hotel, this time I specifically chose to name it – Orient Taj Hotels and Resorts, Fatehbad Road (https://www.makemytrip.com/hotels/orient_taj_hotels_and_resorts-details-agra.html). That’s because in about INR 9600 for two days for two rooms, you get a plethora of facilities such as a badminton/tennis court, indoor games, swimming pool, gym, complimentary breakfast, etc. It also has a huge lawn and paved walkways for walking and jogging. The hotel is designed in the Mughal architectural style and its buildings are named after several emperors and their wives of the Mughal dynasty. Therefore, I would definitely recommend this hotel for your visit to Agra. MakeMyTrip gives you a cheap deal for the same.

 

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A view of the hotel Orient Taj
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The reception lobby

 

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Interiors of a room

 

 

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Notice the Mughal styled architecture in the above images

 

At its peak, i.e. at the end of the 17th century, the Mughal empire constituted about 25% of the world’s GDP. Yes, almost quarter of the GDP of the world came from the Mughal empire alone! This is because it comprised of the modern-day territories of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. And of course, there were no other gigantic powers such as the USA then! The Mughals also had a great military strength, which they needed to crush frequent rebels in Afghanistan, by the tribes living there. Taliban wouldn’t have dared to come up in their presence. Probably the US military must learn a few lessons from them. Though the Mughals were incapable of defeating the Marathas, it was because of the inability of the successors of Aurangazeb and not the strength of their empire. If his successors would have been as able as him, an undivided India would probably still be under Mughal dominance; probably a somewhat softer version of Saudi Arabia in South Asia. Well, that would have positive as well as ill-effects, but the rise of fall of empires is regular. The Sultanate of Delhi rose, fell to the Mughals, the Mughals fell to the Marathas, who fell under the British East India Company, which was replaced by the British Raj, and finally the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. However, this cycle should now stop as we are quite a stable democracy. Although this often happens in the modern age in countries like Libya (2011), Iraq (2003), USSR (1991), Iran (1979), etc., it won’t happen with us and by God’s grace, must never happen. Do visit Agra to remember the Mughals and their glory, while respecting the sovereignty and integrity of the Republic of India. Several movies such as Taj Mahal (1963) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960) have also been made to spread awareness about their legacy. Presenting you a beautiful song from the movie Taj Mahal:

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THE ABANDONED CAPITAL

THE ABANDONED CAPITAL
In the 16th century CE, after Akbar emerged victorious against Chittor and Ranathambore, he shifted his capital from Agra to a new city to the south-west of Agra near Sikri. Sikri was then a small village and Akbar renamed it to Fatehpur Sikri, where Fatehpur means ‘victorious’. It was also built to honour the sufi saint Salim Chisti, whom Akbar greatly revered. However, it was abandoned later, in 1585 due to the exhaustion of a small lake which supplied drinking water to the city. Even today, the splendid monuments lie in complete isolation and resemble a medieval ghost town. The monuments now display the grandeur of the Mughal Empire during Akbar’s reign. Today, Fatehpur Sikri is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Fatehpur Sikri is about 36 kilometres from Agra Cantt. Railway station on Agra-Jaipur Road. There are two complexes here – Jodhabai complex and the Mosque complex located adjacent to each other.

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Agra Cantt. railway station to Fatehpur Sikri

All monuments here are made up of red stone. The Jodhabai complex has palaces and residences of the ministers, such as the Diwan-i-khas (hall of private audience), Birbal’s house, Panch Mahal, etc. Let me describe a few important ones here. The Jodhabai complex has an entry fee of INR 40 per adult and provides you with audio guides at INR 118 in English. This is much cheaper than the charges of human guides, which cost you around INR 450 per group.

Diwan-i-khas

The Diwan-i-khas is the place where the cabinet meetings used to be conducted. It gives an appearance of a double storeyed structure from outside. It has a central pillar with intricate geometric floral designs. Some say that this hall was also used for the weighing ceremony of the emperor and princes on new year’s day.

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The central pillar of Diwan-i-khas
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The Diwan-i-khas

Panch Mahal

This is a five storied structure which every upper floor smaller in the area and the number of columns than its lower ones. No two columns here look the same. It is decorated with a royal chhatri on the top and it has 176 columns in all.

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Panch Mahal

Sunahara Makan (Maryam’s mansion)

This mansion was built for Hamida Banu Begum, Akbar’s mother, who was given the title ‘Maryam’ by Akbar. Elder women were given importance in the Mughal culture. It was profusely embellished with paintings, and is hence, also known as Sunahara Makan.

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Maryam’s mansion

Jodhabai’s Palace

This palace was built for Queen Jodha, the wife of Emperor Akbar.

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Jodhabai’s Palace

Diwan-i-aam

This was the hall of public audience. This is the place where the emperor and the courtiers used to interact with the common public and is hence, located at the boundary wall of the complex.

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The Diwan-i-aam

Apart from these, the Jodhabai complex has a mint, pond, the royal treasury, a board of pacchisi (a Mughal game like Ludo), a girls’ school, etc.

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Interior designs on the walls

The other complex – mosque complex houses the Jama Masjid, Buland Darwaza, tomb of Salim Chisti, etc. Entry to this complex is free of cost; however, it is too crowdy inside. The Buland Darwaza opens to the residential village of Fatehpur Sikri.

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Entrance to the mosque complex

While reaching Fatehpur Sikri from Agra, all vehicles are parked at the Gulistan parking and CNG buses take tourists to the Jodhabai and mosque complexes. They charge only INR 10 per person, which is pretty cheap.

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Black pigs at the Gulistan parking lot

After serving as the capital from 1571 to 1585, Akbar abandoned Fatehpur Sikri and moved the capital to Lahore for a brief period, before shifting it back to Agra in 1598. Despite being the capital for a very short period, Fatehpur Sikri witnessed great events such as the proclamation of Din-i-Ilahi, a religion founded by Akbar by merging the best parts of different religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, etc. Several ministers of Akbar, including Birbal were followers of this new religion. Not only did Akbar tolerate other faiths but he also encouraged constructive debates among them. All these discussions took place at the Ibadat Khana at Fatehpur Sikri. In today’s modern world, Akbar sets a true example of a secular leader in Islamic countries. Although Akbar is infamous for rampaging several regional kingdoms, it is also equally true that he was a man of principles and the ‘real’ king for his subjects. His life has been recorded in his official biography, the Akbarnama, composed by one of his navaratnas, Abul Fazl, as Akbar was himself illiterate. In the brief period of stay at Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar gave the true message of secularism to the world.

Abul Fazl presenting the Akbarnama to Akbar (Wikipedia)

This great Mughal Emperor was illiterate; he could neither read nor write. However, that had not stopped Akbar from cultivating the acquaintance of the most learned and cultural poets, authors, musicians and architects of the time – relying solely on his remarkable memory during conversations with them.

– Indu Sundaresan

THE CITY THAT FELL AND ROSE AGAIN

THE CITY THAT FELL AND ROSE AGAIN

An ancient folk tale talks about a king who was cured of leprosy when a sage offered him water from a sacred pond. To repay his deeds, the king constructed a massive wall atop a hill which has been revered for its strategic location since then. This fort, which later became a huge sprawling city with a population today, with a population of about Latvia or Gabon. This is Gwalior, the fourth largest city in Madhya Pradesh, India.Gwalior is not a prominent and is an often-underrated tourist destination. The city has fallen and risen to several kingdoms from the Chandelas, Tomards, Sultanate of Delhi, Mughals, Marathas and British East India Company, and was a stronghold of the Maratha clan of Shindes (Scindias). The city has everything to offer for history lovers. The most magnificent monument of the city, the Gwalior Fort, itself houses several monuments and buildings built during the ancient and medieval ages.

Map of the Gwalior Fort; source: Wikipedia

There are no historical pieces of evidence as to who built this fort; however, as per the legend, it was built by King Suraj Sen Pal in the 3rd century CE. The fort houses several monuments, of which the important ones are: –

  1. Chaturbhuj Temple
  2. Man Singh Palace
  3. Gujari Mahal
  4. Vikram Mahal and Karan Mahal
  5. Jahangir Mahal and Shah Jahan Mahal
  6. Jauhar Kund
  7. Suraj Kund
  8. Saas Bahu ka Mandir
  9. Teli ka Mandir

Chaturbhuj Temple

The Chaturbhuj Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu (also known as Chaturbhuj) and it is said that the first written evidence of the numeral zero is found here. It falls on the ascending walkway to the interiors of the fort.

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The Chaturbhuj Temple

Man Singh Palace

The fort’s north eastern entrance has a stunning stone gate after which you enter the fort’s palace complex. The most important and largest of these palaces is the Man Singh Palace or the Man Mandir Palace. It was built by the Tomar king Man Singh in 1508. It has a ground floor and the rest is underground. The palace interiors are carved with several architectural styles. In the underground floors, one can find the private amenities like the swimming pool. The king had nine wives, eight of which were Tomar and stayed at the Man Singh Palace and the eighth wife, a Gurjar, Mrignayani, lived at the Gujari Mahal as she demanded a separate private palace for herself. This was because she refused to obey the regulations of the Tomar clan, such as the pardah system, which was prevalent in Rajput dynasties.

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Architectural styles of the Man Singh Palace
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This pipe was used for internal communication in the palace. Whatever one speaks from one end could be heard from the other.

Gujari Mahal

Unlike the other buildings, the Gujari Mahal is located at the foot of the fort near the ‘Qila Gate’ and has been converted to an archaeological museum now. Not many are aware of this museum and hence, it has very low visitors. Most of the monuments at the museum belong to the ancient age and have been partly destroyed.

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The Gujari Mahal, as seen from the upper fort

Vikram Mahal and Karn Mahal

The Vikram Mahal was built by Man Singh’s son Vikramaditya Tomar. Similarly, the Karn Mahal was built by Kirti Singh, also known as Karn Singh.

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Me standing before the Karn Mahal

Jahangir Mahal and Shah Jahan Mahal

Gwalior fell to the Mughal Empire after Akbar’s invasion. After this, the Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan built their own palaces here.

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Jahangir Fort, Gwalior Fort

Jauhar Kund

Jauhar was a practice in medieval times of killing oneself after the death of the husband due to invasion by Islamic forces. To prevent oneself from being subjugated as a sex slave, the wives of Rajputs used to jump in a pyre. The swimming pool used to be filled with sandalwood which was burnt and one by one, everyone used to jump in it. It is said that the Hindu practice of sati has evolved from jauhar. For more about jauhar, visit Jauhar, Wikipedia.

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The Jauhar Kund: Since it is not in use currently, it is not well maintained and has been infested with algae

Suraj Kund

This is a pond inside the fort, a few kilometres away from the palace complex. This is the pond where king Man Singh used to bathe every day. There is a small temple in its centre and today, the pond contains blooms of lotuses.

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Lotuses in the Suraj Kund
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The temple in the Suraj Kund

Saas Bahu ka Mandir

It was originally named as the Sahastrabahu Mandir and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Sahastrabahu means a thousand arms. Hence, it was meant for Lord Vishnu with a thousand arms. It was built in 1092 CE by King Mahipala of the Kachchhapaghata dynasty. There are two temples – one for the king’s wife and the other for the king’s daughter-in-law; hence the name ‘Sas Bahu’.

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The larger temple, or the Sas ka Mandir
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Sculptures inside the temple
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The smaller temple, or Bahu ka Mandir

Teli ka Mandir

The word ‘teli’ means an oil presser, i.e. one who extracts mineral oil. The temple was built around the 8th or 13th century and was originally dedicated to Lord Vishnu, but later converted to worship Shiva. Both, the Sas Bahu and Teli temples are non-functional today.

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The Teli ka Mandir: There was some refurbishing taking place at the left, which spoilt the view

Other monuments

The fort has several other monuments, including a few Jain temples, statues dedicated to Jain tirthankaras, a well known as the Assi Khamba ki Baori and other modern buildings such as a Gurudwara, the Scindia school, etc.

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The Assi Khamba ki Baori (eighty pillar well)

Apart from the monuments and buildings that the fort houses, it provides you an amazing view of the underlying city of Gwalior. Everything from the railway station, the Roop Singh Stadium, the different temples on the adjacent hills, etc. is visible. That is enough to realise the significance and strategic importance of this fort.

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View of the city

Suggestions and advices for tourists

As a friendly hand, I wish to provide some help while visiting this fort.

  1. While leaving for the fort, the cab/auto driver will ask you as to which gate should they drop you. There are two gates from which you can enter, one is the ‘Qila gate’ where you need to go walking on the hill fort and the other is the gate from which cars can enter. All 4 wheelers, including Ola cabs, can drop you atop the hill directly, charging INR 50 extra as the vehicle entry fee. However, if you enter from this gate, you won’t encounter the Chaturbhuj temple and Gujari Mahal. Instead, you can view the Jain statues.
  2. If you have the ability to climb the 104 metre hill, I would recommend to climb and go. If you enter from the Qila gate, some cab drivers would ask you for a tour from their cab at INR 450, which is non-bargainable. I don’t think it’s worth the cost; hence, able bodied people may climb the hill on foot. For just ascending or descending the hill by cab, they cost you INR 100; whereas the same can be availed on an Ola cab by paying just INR 50 extra.
  3. You would require a guide for exploring the Man Singh palace as it has no setup for audio guides and it is quite confusing inside. That’s the reason the locals call it as a ‘Bhool bhoolaiya mahal’.
  4. The same ticket is valid for the Man Singh Palace, Teli ka Mandir and Sas Bahu ka Mandir. The Vikram Mahal, Karn Mahal, Jahangir Mahal, etc. together have a separate ticket.
  5. Free wifi is provided on the fort.
  6. There is no good facility for lunch there so you should better carry your own food; there is only a single cafeteria but there isn’t any proper lunch available there either. The rest are small stalls where you’ll find only tea, chat, soft drinks, chips, etc.
  7. For transportation on the fort, you can avail the e-rickshaw facility which charges INR 40 per person. It takes you from the palace complex, lets you explore the Suraj Kund, Teli ka Mandir, Sas Bahu ka Mandir, Gurudwara and drops you back.

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The e-rickshaw at Gwalior Fort
  1. There is a light and sound show every evening at the fort complex.

Apart from the fort, there are a few other monuments in Gwalior, such as the Moti Mahal, Jai Vilas Palace, Sun temple, etc. However, due to time constraints, I could not visit them.

In 2010, Gwalior made history and came into the news once again. This time, it was not the fort but the Roop Singh Stadium, where Sachin Tendulkar scored 200 runs, not out of 147 balls. He became the first batsman in ODI cricket to score a double century.

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The Roop Singh Stadium where Sachin hit a double ton, as viewed from Gwalior Fort

Some of the highlights of this match:

Getting there

Gwalior is an important railway station on the Delhi-Chennai main line and several trains originating from Delhi and north and bound for South India, Odisha, Chhatisgarh or Maharashtra, such as the Taj Express or Bhopal Shatabdi halt here. From Mumbai, one can reach Gwalior by the Punjab Mail or similar trains. I took the Punjab Mail to reach there. It is one of the oldest trains of the Indian Railways, inaugurated in 1912. It was used for transporting British government officials from Bombay port to Delhi, the capital.

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Punjab Mail, which now runs between Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus Mumbai and Ferozepur Cantt.

Gwalior also has a small airport, known as Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia Air Terminal, with regular services to Indore, Delhi and Mumbai. With a population of more than 19 lakhs and in order to boost tourism, there is a need for upgrading the airport to schedule regular domestic services to major metro cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, etc. This is quite essential as more and more passengers are shifting to air travel in the recent years.

Until India’s independence in 1947, Gwalior was a princely state under the Scindias. Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the current Chief Minister of Rajasthan is also from this royal family. Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia, a Member of Parliament and a Congress politician is the current titular king of Gwalior. However, there is an interesting story about their royal clan which I wish to share.

Jayajirao Scindia, the ruler of Gwalior from 1843 to 1886, was loyal to the British East India Company. He had initially promised help to Rani Laxmibai, the ruler of the state of Jhansi. However, when Laxmibai arrived at Gwalior, Jayajirao refused to protect her and betrayed his promise. Hence, Rani Laxmibai died at a tender age of 29 fighting against the British in the rebellion of 1857 a Gwalior. Her samadhi is situated at Phool Bagh in Gwalior. Because of this betrayal, the districts of Jhansi and Lalitpur refused to be a part of Madhya Pradesh and is hence seen as a protruding part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. To this day, some of the patriots of Jhansi still hate the citizens of Gwalior, to some extent. Because of this inclusion of Jhansi and Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh, the train crosses the MP/UP boundary several times while moving from Bhopal to Gwalior.

Samadhi of Rani Laxmibai (Image source: Aaj Tak)
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Gwalior and Jhansi; the protruding part of Uttar Pradesh

However, this story is more than a century old now and it should not be your reason to hate the Scindias or not visit Gwalior. As I mentioned, it is an underrated tourist destination and hence, you should definitely visit it if you have a keen interest in history. It is one of the few ancient cities in Central India existing since the 3rd century. I urge everyone, regardless of your nationality, to visit Gwalior. India also has an electronic visa system for foreign nationals. After exploring Gwalior, I visited Agra, the capital of the Great Mughal Empire, which I would talk about soon. See you all at Agra 🙂

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Me with my mom at Gwalior station, while leaving for Agra

THE FIRST AND THE ONLY HERITAGE CITY OF INDIA

THE FIRST AND THE ONLY HERITAGE CITY OF INDIA
If I would have visited this city before 9th of July, which was technically not possible because of my internship ending on 7th of July, this blog post would have carried a different heading. Yes, for people who read Indian news regularly [1], it is not a big deal to understand which city I’m talking about. And if you still haven’t understood, it is Ahmedabad or Amdavad (અમદાવાદ in Gujarati), the former capital of Gujarat.

If we take a quick glimpse at its history, it was founded by Emperor Ahmed Shah I [2] of the Sultanate of Gujarat. My visit to Ahmedabad comes after the end of my internship at Bengaluru, as a holiday break with my family. Our journey began with reaching Mumbai Central at 5:40 am at dawn to board the queen of the Western Railways – the Shatabdi Express departing at 6:25.

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The Mumbai Ahmedabad Shatabdi Express at Ahmedabad Railway Station

This was not our first visit there. We had already visited it in September 2012 and this year, it was more like a breakthrough holiday rather than a tourist trip. As we had already visited Sabarmati Riverfront, Ashram, Kite museum and the City Museum then, we straightaway headed to Kankaria Lake.

The Kankaria lake is a giant lake with fountains and a mini amusement park in the shape of the logo of the State Bank of India (SBI). Ironically, the logo was designed by Shekhar Kamat, an alumnus of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and it is said that it was inspired by the design of the lake [3]. There is also a mini train ride which goes around the circumference of this lake. However, it is not a good deal to visit this place in monsoon as it is infested with flies.

 

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The Kankaria Lake at evening time

Ahmedabad is especially known for its Gujarati cuisine, which is famous all over the world today because of Gujarati expatriate businessmen opening food chains in various countries such as the United States and those of Europe. There are various joints available for refreshments of which we visited the Lijjat Khaman House at Maninagar, near Kankaria lake which is well-known for its dhoklas and pakodas. Gujarat is also famous for its sweets, particularly the mohanthal[4].

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Lijjat Khaman House, Maninagar

A peculiarity of Ahmedabad that one may notice on its streets is the presence of numerous ice-cream parlours. While most of the Amul parlours in Mumbai have closed, and there are hardly any in Bengaluru, you’ll find an ice-cream parlour in Ahmedabad with the same rate of recurrence as that of a vada pav wala in Mumbai or a South Indian joint in Bengaluru. These dedicated ice-cream parlours not only offer you with ice-creams but also with milk and other dairy products. The price of Amul milk per litre in Ahmedabad is INR 40, whereas the same is 42 in Mumbai, owing to transportation costs and shopkeepers selling at 1 rupee higher for reasons not worth mentioning here. Also, how many flavours of Amul cups or candies have you tasted in Mumbai? At least in the retail stores in my area, the only available flavours are some commonly known ones like Vanilla, Strawberry, Butterscotch, etc. However, the abundance of flavours at ice-cream parlours in Ahmedabad would surely make you go crazy!

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Amul ice-cream and milk parlour, Paldi

Gujarati cuisine is incomplete without the Gujarati thali. Yes, the same pure vegetarian Gujarati thali with four to five different vegetables, rotlas, farsan, and papad! The Gopi dining hall at Ellis Bridge [5] is one of the restaurants where this thali is recommended.

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Gopi Dining Hall, Ellis Bridge
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Gopi’s Gujarati thali for INR 250

If you are planning to gift your wife/girlfriend/sister/mother a new saree or dress piece, Gujarat is the best place. Both Ahmedabad and Surat are prominently recognized as one of the best destinations to buy female attire at the cheapest rates. I gifted my mom two designer sarees and my grandmother a simple cotton saree in just under INR 3500; can you imagine that? The same types of sarees from Mumbai or Bengaluru would have individually cost the same as the total price! My mother also bought for herself four fashionable dresses with each at almost half the price than that at which it is sold in Mumbai. Theoretically, if you wish to buy a new dress, the total cost of your journey from Mumbai to Surat/Ahmedabad and back plus the cost of the dress would still be cheaper than its cost in Mumbai, if you are willing to compromise your time for the same!

As it is evident to find street dogs frequently on the roads in Mumbai, cows are a frequent sight here. After seeing numerous cows on the roads, one may have to actually think twice to determine who has a greater population – street dogs or cows?

 

 

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A street cow at Naranpura

 

Our trip concluded with an Air India flight from Ahmedabad to Mumbai in the evening. The Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport is a grand majestic airport with two terminals, just as that of CSIA Mumbai; with terminal 1 meant for domestic flights and terminal 2 for all international and domestic flights from Air India. It has several boarding gates, more than required; however, I found the airport to be somewhat mismanaged which was the reason for our flight departing one hour late. Also, surprisingly, this was the only airport where I found pigeons entering the terminal building.

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Pigeons inside Terminal 2, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport

They enter the building from gaps in the wall of the building facing the taxiway, yet this was still ok. The fact that made me heavily annoyed was that of Air India serving just a cheese bread with Real fruit juice at 9 pm in the night! Who wouldn’t like to have these extremely healthy plain slices of bread at dinner time when they’re expecting a tummy full dinner?

An interesting aspect of this trip was my brother’s commitment to his school homework which was truly appreciable. He was doing his homework on the train as well as in the hotel since it was to be submitted on the coming Monday.

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My brother doing his homework in the Shatabdi Express

We had planned to visit many places, such as the Akshardham temple at Gandhinagar but unfortunately, couldn’t because of the shortage of time. Nevertheless, there would surely be many more occasions of visiting the city; especially after the bullet train project is complete. In the monsoon season, I found the city infested with too many flies. Every sweets shop and restaurant uses an ultraviolet fly trap such as the one shown below:

The primary reason for this infestation is garbage and dirt. In fact, I found the city to be as dirtier as clean it was in 2012; maybe it’s showing a reverse result of the Swaccha Bharat Abhiyan in Narendra Modi’s own state!

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A balloon advertising for Swaccha Bharat Abhiyan at Kankaria Lake; however, it shows very little to no effect on the city!
BRTS bus stop (courtesy: Flickr)

No worries, every city falls in some or the other aspect. Nevertheless, Ahmedabad has shown the world the use of BRTS bus corridor [6] and is the only heritage city in India declared by UNESCO. The Union government has also planned celebrations on this occasion [7]. The city is already old enough, and one of the fastest growing cities. A new international cricket stadium is also being built on its outskirts. I’m already curious to know the venue of the final at the 2023 cricket world cup.

ચાલો જોઈએ!

References:

  1. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/ahmedabad-becomes-indias-first-world-heritage-city-unesco-site-indians-first-4742234/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmad_Shah_I
  3. https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-story-behind-State-Bank-of-India-logo
  4. http://food.ndtv.com/recipe-mohanthal-442322
  5. https://www.zomato.com/ahmedabad/gopi-dining-hall-ellis-bridge
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmedabad_BRTS
  7. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/ahmedabad-to-turn-i-am-davad-to-celebrate-world-heritage-city-tag/articleshow/59689658.cms

THE PRIDE OF THE MARATHAS

THE PRIDE OF THE MARATHAS

The Maratha Empire certainly had a profound impact on the history of India. When we talk about great names in the uprising of 1857, we can’t forget to mention Rani Laxmibai, Tatya Tope and Peshwa Nanasaheb – all from the Maratha empire – who fought until their last breath to save the falling throne under Bajirao II. Maratha empire in the 18th century gained fame by capturing the largest area from the Mughals and hence became one of the strongest opposition to the Mughals in Central India, all thanks to great Peshwas like Bajirao I. However, when we talk about this great Maratha empire, we can’t stop mentioning its founder – Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj who is well revered in Maharashtra even today, with one of the largest airports and railway stations in India named after him. Likewise, how could we forget Pune – the primary place residence of Shivaji Maharaj in his childhood?I had visited Pune many times earlier, but those visits were insignificant as they mostly involved coming back on the same day. Nevertheless, this time I managed to visit some of the most spectacular tourist spots that Pune is known for.

If you wish to visit Pune from Mumbai/Gujarat, I recommend traveling by train. Although a train journey from Mumbai takes longer than by cab or a deluxe Shivneri bus, you can experience the Bhor ghats – which were built in the 19th century to connect the interior Maharashtra with a strategically important port of Mumbai.

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The Mumbai CST bound Pragati express passes as we watch it inside the Pune bound Deccan express

Pune is famous for the Dagdusheth Halwai Ganesh temple. It was built by Dagdusheth Halwai (who gained this surname because of his business as a sweet seller). Wikipedia explains his story of building the temple as follows: –

Dagadusheth Halwai (Dagadusheth Gadve) was Lingayat trader and Sweet maker (Halwai in Marathi). He originally came from Karnataka and settled in Pune. After he gained fame as a Halwai, that became his surname. His original Halwai shop still exists under the name Kaka Halwai near Datta Mandir in Pune.

Mr. Dagdusheth Halwai was a successful sweetmeat seller and a rich businessman. In late 1800s, he lost his son in a plague epidemic. This caused Dagdusheth and his wife to go into deep depression. To heal themselves, their Guru, Shri Madhavnath Maharaj recommended building a Ganesh temple. This was completed in 1893.

Lokmanya Tilak, the Indian Nationalist leader and a contemporary of Dagdusheth, was a close friend of him. Tilak saw his dedication and the construction of the temple and it was here that the idea of celebrating public Ganesh festival struck him. It proved to be an epoch making event in Indian history.

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Dagdusheth Halwai Ganesh Mandir

We do not miss the darshan of this temple whenever we visit Pune. This temple has become a sort of an unofficial kuladaivat for our family now. And yes, one would easily get startled by the wealth used in the construction of the temple. The temple was built in 1893, even older than the Mysore palace, though it doesn’t seem to be! Photography inside the temple is not allowed, so this is the only photo of the Lord that one can click (from outside).

Pune is famous for its Puneri misal and Puneri milkshake called as ‘Mastani’. The name is derived from the second de facto wife of Peshwa Bajirao, Mastani. It’s a blend of ice cream and milkshake, though it’s costly – even if you have it from a small shop on a small street!

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The ‘mastani’ is at the centre – surrounded by two glasses of milkshakes

Pune is also famous for its legendary sweets chain – the Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale. One can also say that as Haldiram’s is to Nagpur, Chitale is to Pune; though the former has a nationwide presence. The ‘bhakarwadi’ is a unique delicacy here – though I don’t adore that much.

Next day, we made a visit to Lal Mahal, the palace where Shivaji Maharaj lived in his childhood. Technically, it is a small bungalow painted red. Since it was under renovation then, we weren’t allowed to venture inside.

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The old Lal Mahal amidst the heart of the city

The Shaniwar Wada is also located at a walkable distance from the Lal Mahal. ‘Shaniwar’ means Saturday in Marathi and Hindi and guess what, we made a visit to Shaniwar Wada on a Saturday itself! The Shaniwar Wada is said to be a haunted place and as per the reports of a night watchman, cries of a former murdered Prince ‘काका, मला वाचवा’ (‘Uncle, please save me!’) are heard on full Moon days.

It was formerly a huge palace but only its stone base is remaining today. Excerpts from Wikipedia –

The Shaniwar Wada was originally the seven storied capital building of the Peshwas of the Maratha Empire. It was supposed to be made entirely of stone but after the completion of the base floor or the first story, the people of Satara (the national capital) complained to the Siva(King) saying that a stone monument can be sanctioned and built only by the Siva(King) himself and not the Peshwas. Following this, an official letter was written to the Peshwas stating that the remaining building had to be made of brick and not stone. The Wada was then completed and upon being attacked by the British Artillery 90 years later, all the top six stories collapsed leaving only the stone base, which was immune to the British artillery. Hence only the stone base of the Shaniwar Wada remains and can be seen even today in the older parts of Pune.

Also, On February 27, 1828, a great fire started inside the palace complex. The conflagration raged for seven days and hence, only the heavy granite ramparts, strong teak gateways and deep foundations and ruins of the buildings within the fort survived.

Had the remaining monument being built from stone, we would have been able to see it in entirety today, just like the several magnificent forts of Rajasthan and Gwalior!

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The Shaniwar Wada entrance
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The interior ruins

The Shaniwar Wada also hosts a high-flying national tricolor which is probably the highest in Pune.

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The national flag at Shaniwar Wada

Pune is a must visit city for people keen to know about the Maratha legacy and culture. Today, it is also an emerging IT hub, and it’s keeping its pace with top cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad. The Mumbai – Pune urban agglomeration is also rapidly developing and there is a huge demand for property buyers in places like Khopoli and Lonavala, which are close to Mumbai and Pune both. Since the formation of the state of Maharashtra, Pune has been consistent on its status as a secondary million-plus city in Maharashtra, and guess what, Maharashtra is the only state in India to have two cities in the list of 10 most populated cities in India (List of cities in India by population), two cities classified in the X category as per the HRA classification (Classification of Indian cities) and two cities with franchises in the Indian Premier League. And what would you say when you see that Pune and Mumbai are the two teams competing in the IPL final? I’m writing this article before the start of the final match; let’s see who wins!

जय हिंद! जय महाराष्ट्र!

जय भवानी, जय शिवाजी!

A TOUR IN THE ORANGE CITY

A TOUR IN THE ORANGE CITY

Frustrated with the ongoing non-stop and everlasting series of assignments, tutorials, labs and exams in our college, I decided to take a break; though it was pre-decided in December, in the days of Technovanza. The orange city, the geographical centre of India, as it was referred to, by the British, the tiger capital of India, the second capital of Maharashtra, the city of our Hon’ble CM Mr. Devendra Fadnavis – this city can be called by several such names! Nagpur has been talked about in the history for various incidents whose effects can be seen in today’s modern world. Initially, when I asked my Nagpurian friends about tourism in the city, they all gave pessimistic replies as if Nagpur was a dead city. However, honestly speaking, it’s a place worth to visit for a 2-3-day picnic if you want to go moderately away from Mumbai and yet experience city life.

I reached Nagpur by the fastest train 12289 Mumbai – Nagpur Duronto, which arrived at 7 am, 20 minutes prior to its scheduled time, and the hotel’s check-in time was 12 pm, and hence we decided to stay at the station till then. Nagpur is an important junction where trains going from south to north and east to west meet. The Nagpur -Sewagram railway line is a common line for trains on both these routes. Hence, a train arrives at Nagpur station after every 10 minutes or so, thus spending time there is not a big deal. I was lucky to see many long-distance trains, the photos of some of which are shown below, which also includes the Nizamuddin (Delhi) – Bangalore Rajdhani which arrives at Nagpur at 10 am.

 

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A rail map of the Nagpur – Sewagram section of the Central railway

 

 

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Approaching Nagpur

 

 

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12289 Mumbai – Nagpur Duronto Express at platform 8, Nagpur

 

 

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A goods train filled with coal at Nagpur station

 

 

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Bangalore bound Rajdhani express

 

My hotel was on the North South highway corridor of India (NH-47) which is locally known as Wardha road or Nagpur – Chandrapur Road. The construction of the Nagpur metro railway is in full swing on this road, leaving only two lanes per side for road traffic.

 

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Nagpur metro rail construction on NH 47 (Wardha Road)

 

If you are fond of old railways, the Narrow-Gauge rail museum maintained by the South East Central Railway is worth visiting. It contains locomotives, coaches, equipments and other special tools required for maintaining its narrow gauge line from Nagpur to Jabalpur in M.P. This railway line would soon be converted to broad gauge under the Project Unigauge of the Indian railways and hence, the museum would serve its purpose of preserving the colonial era narrow gauge rail technology.

 

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A diesel narrow gauge engine at the museum

 

Something you can’t miss if you’re in Nagpur is Haldiram’s. They sell sweets of different Nagpuri flavours and some of them, such as Mava Jalebi and orange barfi are available only at Nagpur. Also, some of the Haldiram’s outlets also comprise of a restaurant which is famous for its chaat, ice-creams and drinks.

 

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Haldiram’s Orange barfi

 

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Haldiram’s mava jalebi

 

 

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‘Fruit temptation’ ice-cream at Haldiram’s, Sitabuldi

 

Nagpur has been historically known for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and his followers’ conversion to Buddhism at Deekshabhoomi, which was the largest public conversion in the world. Deekshabhoomi also holds a record for having the largest hollow Buddhist stupa in the world. It was my first visit to a Buddhist temple, and I also found East Asians there (don’t call them Chinese); but moreover, what I found, which is uncommon in Hindu temples is silence – no bells, no gossips!

 

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Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur

 

There’s much more to visit there, such as the ancient Shiva temple at Ramtek and Dragon Palace temple at Kamptee, both outside the city, Sitabuldi fort, Maharajabagh Zoo, various lakes, tiger sanctuaries and the recently commenced mine tours organized by the Maharashtra Tourist Development Corporation, at two mines near Nagpur. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit these places as we were supposed to leave the next day, because of my brother’s scholarship exam, whose date was informed too late by the State board, else we would have stayed there for an extra day as well.

Linguistically, I didn’t find many locals speaking Marathi among themselves; most of them prefer Hindi, just as in Mumbai, though Nagpur is a part of Maharashtra. The reason is because Nagpur was a part of the Central Provinces & Berar province in British India which was re-organised to Madhya Pradesh and a part of the province was ceded to Maharashtra. You would not find many people walking there, especially after sunset and roads get too lonely, except in the market areas. Rickshaw-wallas charge you heftily, almost ₹ 70 for a distance of 2-3 km, so I would instead prefer Ola or Uber cabs, which are available easily and you can also avail the discount with their coupons. I also found Nagpur comparatively cleaner than Mumbai. I do recommend a visit to this great city; hoping to visit other cities in Vidarbha too!

 

EXPLORING INDIA WITH INDIAN RAILWAYS

EXPLORING INDIA WITH INDIAN RAILWAYS

I am an ardent fan of Indian Railways; I am not praising myself, but I can name various railway stations, railway lines and trains in the country. I’m always of the opinion that India can be explored at its best with the Indian Railways, that’s because a journey with the train isn’t simply a journey between your source and destination. It’s a journey where you dissolve yourself into the different intermediate stations, railway facilities, and the stuffs around the tracks, such as the fields, the trees, the forests, the power plants, the rivers, canals, bridges, fly-overs, subways, railway crossings, villages, cities, people,… this is just an inexhaustible list indescribable in words.

Most of the people reading this article would be having a native place far away from Mumbai, and hence travelling to your native place from Mumbai wouldn’t be a special event for you; however, as I do not have any such, I feel unlucky as well as lucky – unlucky because I do not get to travel by trains to that extent as you all do and lucky because I get to travel to any destination I like. It’s like that I can make any city my destination for 3 to 4 days.

I’ve travelled to different cities in India by rail, including Pune (the most often), Kolhapur, Lonavala, Ahmedabad, Indore, Jaipur, Delhi, Vadodara, Shegaon, Akola, Mussoorie (Dehradun), Nainital (Kathgodam), Bengaluru and Mysuru. I’ve also travelled to some by flights, such as Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad and Port Blair. Although these rail journeys took a lot of time, I was fascinated by them much more than the flight journeys. The flight journeys in the economy class were uncomfortable and expensive; also, once we take-off, what we see is nothing but clouds. Some airlines do offer videos and music on-board; however whenever I sat in the flight, my mind always wanted the flight to land as soon as possible, just to get rid of that journey and I never genuinely watched or listened to any of those.

Whenever one plans outing, he/she thinks about different places that can be visited. However, in my case, it’s different. I think about different trains that I can get on-board and then visit those places; as an example, I had visited Delhi many times by plane; however, just to get on board the Delhi Mumbai Duronto Express, I visited it again in 2014. Many a times, I am excited about getting on-board a train more than actually visiting the city.

That was all about my passion about railways in general. I would now describe the journeys in the Udyan, Shatabdi and Sharavathi expresses I was recently into. Although I usually do not like clicking pics while travelling, this time I clicked snaps of various intermediate stations where the trains halted as well as passed by, the forests, the farms around and interesting picturesque locations. With a DSLR in hand, who wouldn’t want to make such use of it?

En route from Bengaluru to Mysuru and Hassan to Ranibennur, you’ll find countless commercial plantations of coconut, betel nut and banana. You’ll also find a number of wind power plants across the entire Karnataka. Hence, using such raw data, one gets to know the ecology, geology and the economy of a region. I’ve posted a few images of the interesting sites I saw.

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Coconut plantations seen between Bengaluru and Mysuru
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Betel nut plantations between Hassan and Arsikere in southern Karnataka
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Banana plantations between Arsikere and Hubli in central Karnataka
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Wind power plants – don’t miss out these while travelling from Mysuru to Mumbai! They’re seen on the hills across the entire Karnataka.
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Have you seen this before? A car parked on the platform of Chikjajur station, Karnataka
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Rocks in the Kaveri river bed (downstream river beyond Krishnarajasagara dam)
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A perfectly timed photograph as the train cruised through Srirangapattana – the capital of the Kingdom of Mysore during the reign of Tipu Sultan
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The motorman’s cabin of a DMU standing in a yard in Bengaluru
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A bird resting on the station board of Gangapur Road, Karnataka
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The CST bound Chennai Mail passes by as we watch sitting in the CST – KSR Bengaluru Udyan Express 
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The forests of northern Karnataka

 

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Rocky mountains, somewhere between Hassan and Hubli
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Farmers tirelessly working in northern Karnataka

Who gets to see all this in a plane?

You would definitely need to carry all the luggage along with you unlike a flight where you check in some baggage and carry the rest along with you. However, we four persons carried a total of 11 bags from Mysuru to Mumbai, carrying them in hand along the various foot-over bridges, platforms and trains; and hence, you actually do not need any coolie if you’re capable enough.

This was not intended to provoke a railways v/s airways war; it was just to share my personal experiences about travelling by trains. I also like to track my train using GPS on my I-Pad and measure its speed using a speed tracker app. With this, I get to know how far is the train from the next station and what’s its speed so that I can keep the camera ready!

If you are an non-Indian planning to visit India, Indian Railways also offers you luxury trains, designated as one of the best in the world, taking a tour of different destinations. Additionally, IRCTC itself organises various packaged tours by trains; although I’ve never been to any of them. Special trains are also commissioned to different destinations in the rush hours. The railways has built special lines to hill stations and it runs narrow gauge services on them. Hence, the Indian Railways has played a huge role in enhancing tourism in the country!