Monday, December 1, 2014

10 Things to see in Delhi that are not in Lonely Planet

The largely forgotten tomb of Roshanara, world's away from the better known parts of Delhi.

For the second half of this list, please go to: 10 more things to see in Delhi that are not in Lonely Planet

First off, let me say that I am in no way trying to disparage Lonely Planet. I would be a massive hypocrite if I did. I have found their titles incredibly useful over my years travelling in India. I think I've all but memorized large sections of text from several of their guidebooks (particularly their 2011 edition of Rajasthan, Delhi, and Agra). In short, having a Lonely Planet can really make travelling easier.

That being said, no guidebook, no matter how well-researched, is truly comprehensive. For example, the two most recent editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks dealing with Delhi, the one mentioned above and their 2013 pan-Indian title, both devote nearly 50 pages to the city, and yet vast swathes of Delhi's history, landscape, and cultural heritage are left out. 

This isn't the staff at Lonely Planet being derelict in their duty (except in those few instances where their information is incorrect, which I'll get to in my next post). Rather, it's a symptom of Delhi's long and exceedingly complex history. The city's unique position as the capitol of (as I figure it) eight different kingdoms and empires over the course of the last 1500 years has left Delhi with an almost mind-boggling assortment of historical sites. Including all of these in a single volume would require a book at least as large as the entire Lonely Planet India title. Every single tomb, mosque, and obscure complex of ruins can't have an entry...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Looking out through the entrance of the Guda Mandap, or Sanctum Sanctorum, of the Modhera Sun Temple.

The Sun Temple of Modhera is, like Rani ki Vav, one of the few remaining architectural splendors left behind by the 10th to 13th century Solanki Dynasty of Gujarat. I made a brief visit here while in transit between Patan and Ahmadabad, spending only around two and half hours in the area (and much of that time was consumed having tea at the Modhera bus stand with a shady though not entirely disagreeable member of the town council trying and not succeeding to hustle me out of  my Swiss army knife...he seemed to be hoping that plying me with free Chai would have the same effect as free alcohol. Anyway.) The stop-off made for a long day of travelling, but it was more than worth it. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Rani ki Vav

Rani ki vav, arguably the world's most impressive stepwell. 

Simply put, Rani ki vav, or "The Queen's Stepwell," in the little northern Gujarati town of Patan, is one of the foremost man made wonders of India. The stepwell is generally thought to have been built by Queen Udayamati of the Solanki dynasty as a memorial for her deceased husband, Bhimadeva I, in the late 11th century. At the time, the Solankis ruled over much of what we now refer to as the state of Gujarat, and their reign is often viewed as a golden age in the history of the region. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Agra 7: Itimad-ud-Daulah's Tomb and Chini ka Rauza

The top of the fantastic tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, in the very first direct sunlight of the day.

Along the east bank of the Yamuna, across from the Taj, Agra Fort, and the Old City, are the remnants of a long series of Mughal gardens and tomb enclosures. I had hoped, on my last morning in Agra, to take a long walk along the entire riverfront and see most of these, though I wound up pressed for time and was forced to only visit a couple of the highlights: The spectacular tomb of Itimad-Ud-Daulah, and the interesting and unique Chini ka Rauza, or China Tomb.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Agra 6: The Old City

A late 19th or early 20th century courtyard, somewhere deep in Agra's fascinating old city.

As odd as it may sound, there is a vast and deeply historical part of Agra, India's most heavily touristed city, which is almost entirely ignored by outsiders. This is The Old City, the bustling, incredibly intense, impenetrable seeming region of Agra north of the Red Fort and west of the Yamuna. Here, beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, were the great mansions of the Mughal elite and the business communities which profited from the Mughal court's ridiculous expenditures (which apparently largely drove the economy of the entire empire.) 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Agra 5: Not Getting to Firoz Khan's Tomb

Hot action and glamour. Bizarre poster for some American Z grade western that was being shown dubbed into Hindi at local cinema halls in Agra. Don't ask me how the distributors got their hands on this undoubtedly classic film.

South of Agra, on the road that leads towards Gwalior, is the tomb of Firoz Khan, and I have never been there. My abortive attempt at visiting the tomb, quite unexpectedly, turned into the most genuine adventure I had during my time in Agra, and while I wound up with absolutely no nice pictures from my strange misadventure, it was still very much experience worth having. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Agra 4: Sikandra

Truly excellent carvings on the side of one of the false gateways to the tomb of the Mughal emperor Akbar. The carvings say a great deal about the man, as they show that he did not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, which forbids any sort of art depicting humans or animals. It's rather a shame that by Shah-Jahan's time the Mughals had shifted away from incorporating carvings of living things other than plants into their buildings. The quality of the craftsmanship here is extremely high, as it is throughout Akbar's tomb complex. It's interesting to speculate where Akbar's style of architecture would have gone had it outlived him.

Sikandra is an area about 10km West of the Taj Mahal. It's assumed that the name comes from Sikander Lodi of the Delhi Sultanate, who moved his capitol from Delhi to Agra in the 16th century. Why his name was applied to this particular patch of ground, is unclear, as his stronghold was most probably at the location of today's Agra Fort, while there are no Lodi era remains in the immediate vicinity (though the dates of some of the buildings in the area are a matter of controversy).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Agra 3: Roman Catholic Cemetery

The rather splendid late Mughal style tomb of John Hessing, the most prominent mausoleum in Agra's 460 year old Roman Catholic cemetery. The information available about Hessing is vague and often contradictory, but from what I've been able to find, it seems that he was once a soldier in the Dutch East India Company army who fought the British in Ceylon during the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. After the British victory, they took possession of the Holland's territories in India, but Hessing decided to stay in the subcontinent and  find employment as a professional soldier. He entered the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and then moved on to serve with the Marathas, fighting as an officer in their army against both other Indian armies and those of the British East India company. In 1799 he assumed command of Agra Fort and held it until his death. The tomb was commissioned by his wife Anne and their family. It is usually said that, like the Taj Mahal, the Tomb of John Hessing was built out of grief at the loss of a loved one. For this reason, and also because Anne Hessing was apparently inspired by the Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the Tomb of John Hessing is frequently referred to as the Red Taj. This is rather unfair, as it makes it sound as though Hessing's Tomb is little more than a cheap imitation of the Taj, when in fact it is very much its own mausoleum. The architecture is similar in certain respects, but the design of the tomb is, in the final analysis, just not that much like the Taj.  The building itself, which betrays hardly any European architectural influences, is considered one of the finest European tombs in India. In style, the mausoleum is entirely Mughal, despite the fact that Hessing was a Christian.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Agra 2: Agra Fort

Red sandstone carvings in the Jehangiri Mahal of Agra Fort. 

Because of its proximity to the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort is the second most visited historical site in Agra. The fort is one of the most extensive, and also most intact, collections of Mughal architecture in India. The Delhi Red Fort is similarly spectacular, and may have at one point been just as impressive as the fortified city in Agra, but unfortunately time has not been kind to the fortress in Delhi, which, due to the British clearance of large parts of the compound after their crushing of the Sepoy uprising, is little more than a hollow shell of itself. Nearby Fatehpur Sikri, the short lived capital city of Akbar, also contains a large concentration of the greatest buildings of the Mughal period, but they were all built within a relatively short period of time and all reflect the Indo-Islamic architectural tastes of Akbar's reign. Agra Fort on the other hand contains a mixture of buildings in both the Akbari style and in the later, more austere, style of Shah Jahan. Thus it is perhaps the only place in the world where one can see the very different architectural styles of the Mughal empire's two most prominent builders literally side by side.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Agra 1: The Taj Mahal

The Taj at dawn. Now there's a picture I bet you've never seen before. Actually, this is maybe the world's single most iconic image, but since the entire tomb complex is oriented around creating this very composition, you mustn't blame me for taking a cliched snap. 

This is the first post in a series I'm going to do on a very intense week long trip I took to Agra in October of 2013. My two main purposes in re-visiting Agra were to go to the places I had not been to before (and there were many), and also to conduct reconnaissance for trips I'm planning to lead. I had been to the Taj Mahal no less than three times previously, yet this was the first time that I had the chance to see it at dawn, so that's where I'll start. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Meghalaya Monsoon Itinerary

Crossing the Nongthymmai living root root bridge, the longest of all (known) living root bridges, in the monsoon season of 2011. Believe it or not, the whole span is made of rubber tree roots that were trained across that stream over the course of a few decades by local Khasi villagers, making it one of the world's most striking examples of biological architecture. During this trip, we'll be staying in a small village about 45 minutes from here, in a little visited corner of northeast India that's simply abounding in fantastic things to see. 


Here's some information on an itinerary I'm going to be running twice during this year's monsoon season in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. Meghalaya receives more rainfall than any other place on the planet, and is home to centuries old living root bridges and one of India's friendliest and most interesting tribal communities: the Khasis. It's a place of stunning beauty, of four thousand foot deep, mist filled canyons, where there's literally a waterfall around every corner, and where the average day's walk involves crossing raging, monsoon-swelled torrents over suspension bridges not much wider than your foot that are strung across rocky chasms......

Sunday, January 26, 2014

An Unknown Living Root Bridge

Tyndrong Bridge 

[Note: All of the spellings of Khasi villages below are merely my idea of how they should be spelled...I don't pretend to have a system, and many of these names I've never seen in writing. I have encountered the spelling "Tynrong" for "Tyndrong" a few times, and that does seem to be the more common version. However, I think for practical purposes, "Tyndrong" is a more useful English rendering of the word, as whenever I've heard it pronounced it definitely contains a rolled "D" sound between the "N" and "R" sounds, and if you were asking directions from some random Khasi in the middle of the jungle, I think you would be more likely to be understood with "Tyndrong" than "Tynrong."]  

A few months back, I decided to go exploring in the rugged jungle canyonlands west of the Khasi village of Nongriat, in a part of the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya which has seen almost nothing in the way of tourism. While on this expedition I discovered, quite accidentally, a living root bridge which I am now reasonably certain was previously unknown to the outside world. It runs across a stream just below the village of Tyndrong, which is about three hours of moderately difficult hiking from the world famous Double Decker living root bridge of Nongriat. Living root bridges are exceptional given that they are among the only forms of architecture that are grown rather than built. Given that there are less than twenty known examples in the world (which are all in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, except for one in Indonesia), finding a new one is no small thing. However, I think that what stumbling upon a new living root bridge primarily indicates is that there are probably many more out there which are unknown to the outside world. There would seem to be a great deal more exploring to be done in the canyonlands of Meghalaya. Of course, saying that the bridge was "undiscovered" would not be true. Locals use it everyday, and presumably have for the past few hundred years. But what is notable is that no word of Tyndrong Bridge had reached people just a few 
villages over.