Entries in India (15)
Driving in India is not for the faint-hearted. I've driven on lower quality roads in Australia and more packed streets in Europe, but the roads of India are unique. To say that the road has mixed vehicles is an enormous understatement. At any given time there are trucks, cars and motorbikes zipping at high speed down the highways, while tractors and enormous wheat-laden transporters slowly clunk along. But on the same roads there are camel-drawn carts, boys riding horses, random cows standing and chewing cud, a flock of goats crossing by or maybe an antelope running across, a group of a hundred pilgrims walking to a temple or the occasional elephant. Might is right on the Indian road, with the give-way laws essentially being for the smaller vehicle to try to avoid being hit by the larger. Our guide in Agra told us that the cows directed traffic; if so they leave somewhat to be desired.
Our driver may have been the most aggressive on the road, forcing himself between high-speed trucks with centimetres to spare and hitting the occasional motorbike, but by no means was he alone in the chaotic high-risk process of weaving through the unusual traffic of Indian roads. We saw at least one fatal accident, where a truck had tipped over turning a corner and ploughed into the small stalls that line the road, and several other occasions of buses run off roads or tractors having their loads tipped onto the road. Perhaps it is not surprising that 13 people die every hour on Indian roads, with 150,000 fatalities a year. And with more and more Indians buying cars, the road toll will probably continue to rise by 8% a year.
Even normal pharmacies stocked large shelves full of junk like this:
It makes me especially angry when fake medicines sit on a shelf next to real medicines, picking up credibility by association. A pharmacist is meant to be a medical professional providing a service, when they sell fake drugs they show themselves to be unconcerned about the welfare of their customers, and concerned only with their wallet.
Today we are in Jaipur, the Pink City.
We visited Jantar Mantar, an observatory complex built by command of the Maharaja Jai Singh II between 1727 and 1734. I had expected a squat tower with a domed roof, with perhaps some complex iron instruments inside, but rather it was an enormous outdoor complex, looking surprisingly modern. The builders came up with some very creative ways to turn a sundial into a high precision instrument, include the Samrat Yantra (The Supreme Instrument), which at 27m tall is the world's largest sundial, and is capable of a resolution of 2 seconds.
After seeing Jantar Mantar we went to the City Palace. The palace complex showed just how decadent the Maharaja lifestyle was, and indeed, continues to be, as they still live in the palace today. Due to their support for the British during the Sepoy Rebellion, the Maharajas of Rajasthan were in a unique place to negotiate with the government of India at independence, and essentially the new government had to bribe the Maharajas with an annual payoff for perpetuity. This allowed the already decadent Maharajas freedom to indulge in every fancy while ignoring their people, leaving Rajasthan desperately poor and uneducated. It wasn't until 1970 that Indira Gandhi finally stopped subsidising the ultra-wealthy.
My favourite part of the City Palace was seeing the enormous gold-threaded pajamas of Maharaja Sawai Madhosingh I (ruled 1751-1768). At 250kg and with a waist nearly 4m in circumference, these were some impressive pajamas. Even a pair that he wore when he was two years old showed a staggering waistline, indicating that he must have had some type of genetic mutation resulting in his weight, rather than being from a corpulent lifestyle. Trivia point: Madhosingh I was known as "the healthiest Raja", which I'm guessing was either a title he insisted on to rebutt the obvious, or was given to him as a euphemism for obese: "well, your a healthy looking boy, aren't you?"
The black coal kohl under the baby's eyes is an Indian tradition to ward off the evil eye
For the last two days we have been in Ranthambhore, one of the original Project Tiger reserves.
We have been staying in Khem villas, which I could not speak more highly of. It is a luxury tent eco-resort, owned by the family of Fateh Singh Rathore, who was single-handedly responsible for turning Ranthambhore into a Tiger Park. The family has been the driver of enormous social and environmental change in the region, building schools and hospitals to help the local people, while reducing the impact on the environment by sponsoring birth control (note: in this regard at least, rural India is more progressive than the Republican party in America), growing seedlings for tree planting for wood harvesting, improving the cattle stock by funding intercrossing with high yield breeds and creating low-tech alternatives to wood burning (harvesting the methane of cow dung for gas-powered stoves). The camp has all the allure of camping, with none of the inconveniences, and staying would have been a delight even without the safaris.
The morning safari in Ranthambhore was, quite simply, one of my top travel moments. We took a jeep through the dry forest hills of Ranthambhore in search of tigers, and even though we were unlucky not to see any tigers, we saw an abundance of wildlife. One of the oddities for me was seeing mixed herds of spotted deer and peacocks grazing the dry forest, on the alert for tigers. Surely no animal looks more out of place in its native habitat than the peacock. The peacock just looks like an artificial absurdity, bred to wander the lush green lawns in front of decadent palaces. But these are not artificially selected animals, bred to extremes like breeds of dog. On the dry arid plains they graze, their psychedelic blue feathers and enormous tail a triumph of sexual selection over natural selection (and indeed, just common sense). I wonder what evolutionary advantage peacocks have that they are able to overcome their self-induced disadvantages against competitor species? Why haven't they been rendered extinct by competition with a similar species capable of camouflage and proper flight?
Spotted deer buck
Scenic view over tiger habitat
Spotted deer family
Sambar on the move, the favourite prey of the tiger due to their large size and poor vision
Rufous Treepie, a very friendly bird that delighted by its investigations of jeeps and hats for any crumbs of food
Baby spotted deer, also known as "Tiger chocolate"
Little green bee-eaters
Juvenile crocodile basking by the lake
Hunting for Tigers
Black-faced langur with infant
For all the glory of the Taj Mahal, the highlight of my visit to India so far must have been bird-watching in Keoladeo National Park. Once a private hunting reserve of the Maharaja (with the shooting records of visitors still inscribed on a trophy wall), Keoladeo is the best place in India to see birds, with a spectacular density of local and migratory birds, and habitats ranging from dry woodland to wetlands. Everywhere we looked we saw scores of birds of dozens of different species, from tiny rare wrens and bee-eaters to hidden owls, countless waterfowl and the large charismatic storks, herons and eagles. We also saw many blue bull antelope, several sambar deer and two cheeky little mongooses. It was a wildlife experience second only to the Galapagos Islands.
Peahen in flight at dawn
The Peacock wakes up with the sun
Indian gray mongoose
Nilgai (blue bull antelope) foal
Indian Pond Heron
Painted stork in flight
A nilgai grazing in the wetlands
A flock of spoonbills
Collared scops owl
Painted stork chicks
Indian pond heron
Intermediate egret (yellow-billed egret)
A clutch of painted stork chicks
Shahanshah Akbar-e-Azam, third Mughal Emperor of India, 1542-1605
A positive aspect of Shahanshah Akbar-e-Azam: When he built his capital at Fatehpur Sikri he incorporated religious tolerance into the city, deliberately using themes from Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Catholicism and Zoroastrianism into the buildings, and respecting the teachings of each religion (tough, considering each has direct contradictions within it, let alone between them). It is probably safe to assume he still hated atheists though.
A negative aspect of Shahanshah Akbar-e-Azam: After slave labourers spent 12 years working in a near-desert to build this icon of religious tolerance (1571-1583), Akbar only spent two years living in it, moving the capital in 1585, after finally realising you can't have a major city in a near-desert.
Lydia's new hobby: taking photos of families after they have taken a photo of us.
Overheard at Sikri: "Look at that man holding a baby! If he was Indian he would never be allowed to touch a baby with his hands" (translated from Hindi by our guide)