India: Mysore, Chennai, Pondicherry

In the most recent installment of our adventures, we were in the southern part of India, leaving Hampi.

We headed south to Mysore, where the main attraction is the Old Fort Palace, built in the 15th century but sadly burned in the late 1800s. However, it was rebuilt by 1912, blending Mughal, Hindu, Rajput, and Gothic styles. It’s quite a sight, and by some counts is India’s second-most visited attraction. On weekends and holidays, and during their month long Dashara festival, the palace is lit at night with over 100,000 light bulbs, and a sound and light show. It’s really beautiful and worth going to- and it only costs 50 rupees!

Mysore Palace

From Mysore we planned to go to Kerala, but we both started feeling pretty run down. Ultimately we decided to skip it, and start heading east. We passed through Bangalore (which actually has a pretty solid craft beer scene and a nice state library!) and then on to Yelagiri.

Yelagiri is a hill station halfway between Bangalore and Chennai, and was a quiet place to take a break for a couple of days in the cooler mountain air amid the eucalyptus trees. Our place had a sunny balcony overlooking a banana plantation and felt very rustic. We walked around the lake up there and ate as much jackfruit as we could. We even found a chocolate shop!

Jackfruits average about 25 pounds each!

From Yelagiri we took a train to Chennai, and arrived on a holiday- Pongal, a day in which South Indians celebrate the harvest and the northward journey of the sun. Colored rangolis and small palm trees dotted the pavements. We needed to get to the Consulate to pick up our new passport, but they were closed for two days (travel tip: don’t wash your passport in a washing machine mid-trip).

A rangoli celebrating Pongal

Happily, the next day, the Chennai Museum was open, so we visited and were impressed by the array of items in the six buildings. Traditional art, contemporary art, ancient bronzes, armor, folklore, religious items, even a hall of taxidermied mammals and reptiles- they’ve got it all. We also ran into a friend from our time in Northern India- a one in a billion chance! India might be a big country, but sometimes it’s a small world.

A 14th century bronze statue of Shiva

Finally the consulate re-opened and we picked up our new passport, then high-tailed it down to Pondicherry using our Ola app (it’s like Uber but India-specific). We enjoyed the unique French/Indian blend that is Pondicherry, which was originally colonized by the French East India Company in 1674. It remained part of French India up until 1954, and is now a union territory in India (not a state, like Tamil Nadu or Rajasthan). They favor such French specialties as real coffee, cheese, and coq-au-vin, but with plenty of biryani and idli at every other restaurant.

Scenes from Pondicherry

After a couple of days of walking the Promenade, eating gelato at the beach (it’s not French but it was good!), and resisting the temptation of street-stalls full of Old Navy factory reject clothes, we took a bus back to Chennai, went to the airport, and left India, our home of adventure for the past two months. We didn’t see it all but we sure tried!

Next up: a week in the Maldives!

India: The Golden Triangle

Map of major sites in Rajasthan India tour

So many forts! So many palaces! The area surrounding Delhi and Rajasthan is endlessly fascinating. Chris and I arrived by overnight train in Delhi from Varanasi on December 1, and quickly realized that a car-and-driver tour would be the best way to see all the sites around Rajasthan that we wanted to get to. Happily, the hotel I chose in the Paharganj area, Hindustan Backpacker Heaven, had a tour desk (India Someday), and within an hour we were booked, paid up, and ready to start.

Map of major sites in Rajasthan India tour

Delhi

We met our driver, Singh, and on our first day he drove us all around Delhi. Our first stop was the Jama Masjid (the Friday Mosque), India’s largest mosque- it holds 25,000. Built by the Muslim Mughal dynasty in 1644, it was and is sight to behold, sitting next to the Red Fort. Later in the day, we visited Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site, Humayun’s tomb, the Lodi Gardens, and India Gate. For such a busy city, Delhi has a surprising amount of land still set aside for parks and memorials.

Agra

The next day, we set off for Agra, stopping in at Agra Fort first. Built by Emperor Akbar in 1565, it is a twin to the one in Delhi. His grandson, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal, and his son Aurangzeb imprisoned his father for the last eight years of his life in the Agra Fort, only able to gaze across the river at the massive marble mausoleum of his beloved wife.

Inside Agra Fort

Early the next morning, we left our hotel to visit the Taj Mahal, watching the sun rise and light up the marble as the day brightened. It was an emotional moment for me, as I’ve wanted to see the Taj Mahal for many years now. It really felt like a “bucket list” item finally being achieved. Not just the marble building and the mosques, but the gardens and the water features inside the complex are amazing, and such a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Incomparable Taj Mahal

On our way out of Agra, we stopped at the third UNESCO site, Fatehpur Sikri. The Mughal dynasty kings were some amazing builders!

Jaipur

We spent the next two days in Jaipur. We visited the Hindu monkey temple, Gal Bagh. The monkeys there are very tame and quite friendly, and used to being hand-fed by tourists. I was only a little bit scared of getting rabies.

Deah at the Monkey Temple

Jaipur is famous for its Amber Fort, set high on a ridge, and we walked up the curving paths next to huge elephants carrying tourists, seated in the howdahs. Named for the Hindu goddess Amba (not the yellow color of the fort), the royal city is a blend of the cultures of the Muslim Rajput rulers and the Hindu population.

The morning elephant procession up to the Amber Fort

The next day we spent exploring the City Palace, which houses an excellent museum of textiles of the court, armaments, the two largest silver objects in the world (!), and a surprising array of photographs of the court from the 1860s, taken by the Maharajah himself.

Inside the City Palace

Pushkar

For just one night, we stopped in the small lake-town of Pushkar, which means “lotus flower”. There, one of the few temples dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma sits atop a hill. Brahma, angered by the deaths of his children, once threw a lotus flower at a demon, killing him. Where the lotus flower landed, this lake came into being.

Udaipur

Udaipur is sometimes called “the Venice of India”, because it is situated on three lakes, and you can take water taxis to different locations. However, while we were there, all the water taxis- as well as all the five star hotels and rental cars- were completely booked out, due to a massive, high-powered wedding taking place. While we were there, Hillary Clinton arrived, as did John Kerry, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Priyanka Chopra, Nick Jonas, and more. We didn’t get to see the palace, but we also didn’t mind taking a little break and just wandering around the artists’ alleyways. I bought a silk skirt and was severely tempted by some of the jewelry there.

The fort at Udaipur

Ranakpur

I am happy that we arranged to have Singh drive us around, because we got to see some out-of-the-way locations like the huge Jain temple at Ranakpur. Built in 1492, it is truly a work of art. The intricate carving is just beautiful, and it was interesting to hear about the teachings of the Jains, and share a lunch with them as well (they don’t eat animal products or vegetables that grow in the ground, but the lunch was still very tasty!).

Jain Temple

Jodhpur

Yes, this is where the riding pants come from! It is also home to Mehranghar Fort, built in 1459- which Rudyard Kipling once described as “the work of angels and giants”. The fort sits on a massive ridge and overlooks the “Blue City”, where Brahmin families could paint their homes in shades of blue (it was thought to repel insects as well). Jodhpur is known for its spices, which I would love to buy, but I can’t have my backpack smelling like turmeric for the next year! We stayed in a beautiful old haveli (a heritage home that was once a nobleman’s mansion) just outside the fort walls.

The fort above the “Blue City”

Jaisalmer

Heading into the Thar desert, we came to Jaisalmer- not very far from the Pakistan border. Here the massive fort really looks like a sandcastle rising up out of the sand. When the sun hits the sandstone, it turns it a deep yellow color, earning this city the nickname “Golden City”. Unlike India’s other forts, this one is still a working fort, in that regular people still live within it, in addition to shops, temples, hotels, and cafes.

India
Jaisalmer Castle

One of the best things to do in Jaisalmer is head out to the desert for a camel safari. We rode our camels out to huge sand dunes and watched the sun set. Then we had a delicious dinner, and watched some dancing set to music using castañas and a harmonium. We slept in a very fancy tent that night, and woke up at 2 am to go out and look at the Geminids Meteor shower. With no light pollution out in the desert, the brilliant stars and the Milky Way were clear and bright.

Bikaner

On the way to Bikaner, we stopped at a cow care center. In addition to treating cows with blindness, cancer, and other diseases, they also treat cows who need surgery due to car accidents. Because cows in India are considered sacred (living embodiments of the Earth Mother goddess), most are not fenced in (and Hindus do not eat beef). While this leads to a peaceful peripatetic life for the cow, it also leads to some pretty serious car accidents, piles of cow poop in every city (except Calcutta, which does not allow free-range cows), and cows eating all kinds of trash such as plastic and paper- which can be fatal for the cow.

The Cows of India

Mandawa

Leaving Bikaner, we first visited the Karni Mata rat temple. According to a Hindu legend, the god Karni Mata was promised that all his sons would be reincarnated as rats, and so they are revered at this temple.

Karni Mata Temple

In the town of Mandawa, we walked through the quiet backstreets, gazing at the old havelis in various states of disrepair. Some are being gutted and torn down, their fixtures sold to tourists and to other haveli owners, who are renovating their family mansions and turning them into guest houses.

Finally we arrived back in Delhi, and said goodbye to our wonderful driver Singh. Next we’ll head further north in India and explore there a bit.

Rajasthan tour costs:

Visa: ($100 for 2 month e-visa)

Transport to: $40 Overnight train to Delhi

Daily costs: approximately $120 per day for two people