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Indian Summer: The Temple of the Monkey God

Indian Summer: The Temple of the Monkey God

The previous instalment of this story is Indian Summer: The Pink City.

ln_2010_02_10_152-1873 We said goodbye to Jaipur the next morning over a glass of lassi, one of those delicious, refreshing surprises that India indiscriminately threw at us. Lassi is basically spiced yoghurt; it may be plain, sweetened or salted, and it’s definitely worth it to try all three. There might be tastier drinks to be had on a warm “winter” morning, but I’ve yet to encounter them. Our guide told us that every lassi vendor has his own recipe, often passed down through generations. It’s amazing to think that this simple, unassuming drink may have been around for as long as there was an Indian civilization.

Before we left, we took another walk through the Pink City and admired the Palace of the Winds. This palace is actually nothing more than a facade with numerous windows, lavishly decorated in the same Jaipur style. Its role was to allow the royal concubines to observe parades and city life without being seen. It is, if you wish, the world’s most expensive modesty veil.

And off we went, to Ranthambore. Or so we thought. Because Sunil, our faithful guide, had one more surprise in store for us. A few kilometres out of the city, in a valley flanked by granite walls, lays a temple of Hanuman, the Indian monkey god. A quiet, peaceful place, built of sandstone and inhabited not only by monks, but also by a tribe of friendly rhesus monkeys, this temple irradiates serenity.

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I wish I could convey to you the simple beauty and tranquillity of this place. It was so far away from the organised chaos of Delhi and Jaipur that it seemed to be another world entirely. And in some ways, it was. The monkeys here were used to people walking about, sometimes feeding them peanuts and small bananas. They were not aggressive in the least, although after my experience with the langurs of Amber Palace, I was understandably circumspect. Mostly they walked around, slept or played near the pool, near the centre of the temple complex. A passing monk told us that they were mainly present because of the water; it was the only source within a few square kilometres. At night, panthers would come and drink from the pool, he added. We had to take him at his word; much too soon we were back in the Ferrary-badged Mahindra-Suzuki, driving through the countryside, headed for Ranthambore.

There, we were told, we’d find tigers.

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Indian Summer: The road to Rajasthan

Indian Summer: The road to Rajasthan

ln_2010_02_08_152-1612The previous instalment of this story is Indian Summer: The Gate of Orient.

The day started at an impossible 5:30 AM Indian Standard Time. That’s 2:00 AM CET for us poor jetlagged tourists. We packed our backpacks, said goodbye to our sordid little hotel and set off into the sunrise, looking for grand new adventures.

Well, sort of set off, anyway. We went as far as the Main Bazaar street and started waiting, noticing in the meantime a hungry herd of holy cows rummaging through the garbage nearby. “Hope they’re not carnivorous”, I thought to myself, suddenly a little bit nervous. But I needn’t have worried; within five minutes, the white Mahindra-Suzuki with the Ferrari badge showed up, we threw our luggage in the trunk and our slightly bewildered selves in the backseat and off we went. Into the sunrise and all that.

Here’s some things I’ve learned first-hand about the handling and care of your bona-fide local guide. I share these for the benefit of those of you ending up in a strange, far-away country with nothing between you and the lions but this stalwart, brave local that decided to take your side for a while. You might ask him about his family, his wife and his newly-born daughter. You might take time and point out the similarities between your cultures. You might smile and invite him to sit down with you at your table. You might, in a nutshell, behave like a human being and not like a stuck-up rich tourist sahib. A little kindness goes a long way.

Oh, kindness, how rich thy rewards! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our Indian almost-nightmare was over. Instead we were driving on the highway with Sunil, still a little dizzy from the sudden time-zone change and suddenly very, very hungry. And as signs and portents go, ours was delicious. Yes, I’m talking about our tasty, tasty Indian breakfast, eaten on the side of the road. No idea what it was; Sunil ordered it for us, but it was the beginning of a beautiful day.

ln_2010_02_08_152-1627 ln_2010_02_08_152-1634Once in Rajasthan, our first serious stop was just before Jaipur, near a place called Amer. On the hills overlooking the town were some of the most impressive fortifications I’ve ever seen. These people must have taken war very seriously back in the day. They were built using herds of work elephants to ferry wood and stone from the valley below. The tradition of working elephants continues to this day, as you can see, and they’re not only used to walk tourists about or serve as canvas for naive painters. They are actually helping build houses, move merchandise around and they even occasionally appear in Bollywood movies. As they should; they’re magnificent beasts.

ln_2010_02_08_152-1660 The Amber Palace, near Jaipur, is a beautiful, haunting place. It was the seat of power for the maharajas, with a history stretching back over a thousand years. The mellow Indian climate has been kind to the old palace, as you can see. Its open marble halls and its walled garden look lovely, and the local tourists add plenty to its charm – especially the Indian women, with their bright, colourful saris. And there were monkeys! They might have been quite common for most of our fellow visitors, but for us, they were a source of never-ending fun. We must have spent at least a half an hour (combined) watching them run around the place in graceful leaps and bounds, or sit still and suddenly look very wise – indeed, such are the habits of Bandar-log, as Kipling told a bewildered ten-year old version of me from the pages of the Jungle Book. Which I suddenly recalled in vivid detail. They were black-faced langurs, quite wild and not altogether. One of them almost bit me – my fault, really, I was looking through the camera and got way too close. I’m starting to understand why wildlife photographers pack 300+mm zoom lens.

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On leaving the palace, we found one more treat on the way. On the river bed outside the walls – now dried up for the season – there was a camera crew, filming what we took for a grand Bollywood production. Our guide soon corrected our misguided view. “If this was Bollywood movie, there would be thousand people here.” He smiled. “You twice lucky, once because you see movie shoot and once because afterwards we can go.” Indeed.

ln_2010_02_08_152-1719And so we entered Jaipur. We were bone-tired, but happy; our guide lived up to all our expectations. He had just one more thing in store for us, before he took us to the hotel – a really nice place, set up in an old colonial British mansion. That was the summer palace of the Rajasthan maharajas, built on an island in the middle of a lake, and appearing for all intents and purposes to be floating. From shocking, India has become beautiful.

This was just the first day of Rajasthan, and I realize now I’ve yet to talk to you about Sunil’s Promise and all the other things I promised in the first instalment. But fear not, they’re on the way. For the next day we visited Jaipur, Pink City, the seat of kings and home of monkey gods.

Indian Summer: The Gate of Orient

Indian Summer: The Gate of Orient

india India is an incredible, beautiful, shocking, cringe-inducing, awe-inspiring rollercoaster of a country.

And that’s putting it mildly.

We arrived on a Sunday morning – around 4 AM – after a long, tiring flight with one stop in Istanbul. After the unexpectedly harsh European winter and the claustrophobic, air-conditioned airplane cabins and airport lounges, India welcomed us with a mild night-time breeze that got me down to short-sleeves in no seconds flat. The officials were polite and efficient, the backpack was neither lost in translation nor “examined” by more-or-less official hands, the hotel driver was actually waiting there with our names spelled correctly on a piece of cardboard… All is well in India, no need to fret or bother, right, fellow-me-lad?

But my well-manicured English, carefully pressed and polished for the occasion, went by and large virtually unobserved. The first shock of the day: our driver did not actually speak English. Only a few unglued, disparate words, enough to let us know where the car is located and yes, isn’t the weather nice for this time of year? My attempt to strike a conversation was met with a simple explanation. I’m sorry sir, my English no good. No education. And a big apologetic smile, the sadness behind it almost invisible under the harsh lights of the petrol station.


ln_2010_02_07_152-1551 Judging by European standards, the hotel was a dump. A polished, marble-floored, dirty dump, with a mathematically-challenged receptionist – his sums were always rounded to the next hundred rupees – and an insolent, well-meaning bellboy who doubled as a deft salesman of toilet paper. I know this because he presented the opportunity not 2 minutes after we settled in our room. And what a room that was! Dirty floors, damp sheets, crumbling bathroom walls… Granted, I was not expected the Hilton, given the €10 we were paying per night. “I’m just going to pretend I’m in a very large tent, after a week’s mountain journey”, I told my companion and proceeded to crush in one of the hard beds. In less than 5 minutes I was sleeping like a baby.

ln_2010_02_07_152-1543 Our hotel was situated in Connaught Place, the busy, dusty, noisy, smelly centre of Old Delhi and very close to the railway station. It turned out we shouldn’t have bothered. Thanks to my poor understanding of the subtleties of Indian railway transport, it turned out we didn’t actually book a ticket in advance. Only the option to get a ticket, should 7 of the lucky passengers already on the train would change their minds at the last minute. Fat chance, said the helpful railway employee. Better check with the travel agency. So we did.

ln_2010_02_07_152-1542 Moving from place to place in Delhi is actually very easy and very cheap, provided you are able to negotiate worth a damn and you don’t mind travelling in suicidal traffic on rickshaws that look like they wouldn’t survive a head-on collision with an oversized pillow. But Indians are great fatalists, and the sooner you get on with the programme, the better. In the end I just resigned myself to an early, gruesome end and started to enjoy the view. And unforgettable views is something in which India particularly excels.

Funnily enough, that was exactly what the travel agent told us after he sold us a one week tour of Rajasthan, including lodging at heritage hotels (breakfast included), transportation (our own car and driver) and a safari in Ranthambore National Park, where we would get to see real, live tigers. Or not, as it turned out. But that was yet to come. Meanwhile, we would get a little tour of Delhi from Sunil, our newly acquired guide. Something we were cautiously looking forward to.

We shouldn’t have worried. Both Sunil’s competence and his grasp of the English language were a class above everything we’ve experienced so far on Indian soil. He took us to see the Red Fort, a 17th century fortification complex in the centre of Old Delhi. He took us to a great little restaurant on the fringe of Connaught Place, where we had our very first contact with authentic Indian food – an altogether pleasant experience. Finally, he took us to our dump of a hotel, leaving us with an appointment for early next day and a promise of great things to come.

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But I’ll tell you more about Sunil’s Promise, how I didn’t get to see a tiger twice in a row and the Mustachios of Rajasthan in the next episode.