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Kebabs of Delhi

February 23, 2012 2 comments

On arrival in Delhi, and finding time around the hectic schedule of my cousin’s wedding, I asked friends in Delhi and on the medium of Facebook – where to find good kebabs.

In London, kebabs are usually found in Turkish take aways, resemble an elephant’s foot and are consumed at the end of a heavy night of drinking and forgotten about the next morning (or sometimes remains of it are found at the bottom of the toilet bowl after a regurgitation session in the middle of the night). That’s not to say that all Turkish kebabs are bad. Just most.

In many Asian areas, particularly around East London, you can come across a good Pakistani kebab house where you can taste the best tikkas and kebabs in the country.

But there is nothing quite like a morsel of a good kebab in Delhi. The wedding turned out to mostly have vegetarian food and it gave me a good excuse to step out with a friend and try some of the kebab places recommended by friends in Delhi.

We arrived in Khan Market for the famous Khan Chacha’s. This place started out as a street stall around 40 years ago. It soon became a sensation and would see queues of people waiting patiently for a plate of Seekh kebabs. Today there is a two floor fast food style restaurant at the same place. Though my friend ordered chicken kebabs, I wanted to try what the place is famous for – Seekh Kebab. These are hollow sausages made of minced mutton and a large number of spices, shaped around a barbecue skewer and cooked in a hot tandoor. Along with it I ordered a Roomali Roti, a soft and wafer thin bread which is as large as a big scarf (hence the name which translates as handkerchief roti). Traditionally, you would roll the kebab along with some pickled sliced red onion and green chutney into the roti and eat it like a roll. I wanted to try the kebab on it’s own first and was dismayed by how it looked – bright red (obviously colour was used) and dry. It was also cold to the touch and when I tasted some, I was very disappointed. The roomily roti on the other hand was soft, warm and lovely and with the help of large spoonfuls of chutney I managed to disguise the taste of the kebab. My friend’s chicken kebab was much better.

Later that day, my friend invited me back to her house where her husband had cooked a meal of mutton curry and ordered seekh kebabs from a local tandoor in Jungpura. The curry was sensational as only a home cooked curry made by a true Delhite can be – soft boneless pieces of mutton cooked slowly for hours in a thick spicy hot gravy made with lots of minced ginger and garlic. The seekh kebabs were ten times better than at Chacha’s so the day was saved by a local unassuming tandoor.

On our last day in Delhi, my cousin (who was also returning to the US the next day) and I decided to go to Noida Sector 18 for a round of gol gappe. These are puffed balls made out of flour which are filled with boiled potato, chick peas and a spiced water and eaten whole. On our way to our favourite gol gappe stall, we passed a restaurant called the Kebab Factory. I looked at my cousin, she cocked an eye brow and without a word, we walked into the place. We ordered, seekh kebab and tandoori chicken. Both were freshly prepared in the tandoor and went down a treat!

However before all of this, and on just day two of my arrival in Delhi, my friend and I found ourselves in Defence Colony market and seeing there was a tandoor set up outside the bar called Moet’s, we decided to order a Malai Tikka. This is a chicken kebab that’s marinated in delicate spices like cardamom and nutmeg and laced with cream, butter and yoghurt. The result is a tender mouth-watering piece of meat which melts in the mouth. The green chilli and garlic notes come at the end of the mouthful like fireworks. The plate of this Malai Tikka arrived on a styrofoam plate accompanied with a mint and coriander chutney and wedges of lemon. This was placed on the bonnet of the car and we devoured the lot within a minute. It was quite possibly the best kebab I’ve ever tasted!

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Categories: Food, India Tags: , , ,

A Delhi Market

February 16, 2012 2 comments

Having only recently returned from an almost a year long trip around S America and Asia, I came back to Delhi this week to attend my cousin Hina’s wedding. Coming to Delhi is always a pleasure, with the sights, sounds and especially tastes to behold.

My cousin Disha and me

As is the case, the wedding attracted a number of long-lost relatives from around the world. This time around I met a cousin, Disha, who I hadn’t seen for a number of years after she moved to Michigan, US. We hit it off immediately and spent an excellent time together.

Indian weddings are not only a drawn out affair, but also generally quite badly organised from the outset. The upshot of that is that there is a hive of activity just before the wedding week starts. I arrived at the start of this and with Disha, was sent out to a number of errands. One of these was to a bustling market in Delhi called Lajpat Nagar.

There is nothing you can’t buy at the Lajpat Nagar market. Indeed, much of wedding shopping from dresses to flowers to ceremonial paraphernalia is bought here. Shops, stalls and walking vendors compete for space and customers. Street food is dotted around so buyers aren’t left hungry or thirsty.

Of the most interesting things I was offered as I walked through the streets with Disha were:

1. A Washing Machine Cover – In India, washing machines are now popular and Dhobis are unfortunately going out of business. As there isn’t a dedicated space for a washing machine in the home, these are often placed in the sitting or bed rooms. In order to disguise an ugly thing, the Indians devised a pretty embroidered cover which sits at the top and converts the top of the washing machine into a useful table!

2. Narra – A long flat rope used for tying the tops of Indian trousers (pyjamas) and petticoats to your waist.

I didn’t have a need for either of the above but it did make me smile!

Categories: India, Shopping Tags: , , ,

The best food in the world?

September 6, 2011 6 comments

I admit I am probably a little biased given I was born in the capital, but surely everyone agrees? Delhi features a plethora of cuisines but the one which is true to Delhi is extraordinary. Having travelled in many countries on all the continents, my (very personal) opinion is that it is the best!

As the capital, Delhi has attracted migrants from around the country and the fifth, sixth and older generations have not only brought their own food but influenced the local cuisine. Being a cosmopolitan city, Delhi boasts some of the best restaurants in the country. World cuisines are featured in many hotels and restaurants and are amongst the best you can eat in India.

Chinese is a very popular cuisine, whatever the political relationship between the two countries. On more than half of the menus in Delhi you are likely to encounter Chinese options. This time around I saw even street vendors selling chow mein noodles in Connaught Place. Closely related in terms of taste is the recent entrance of momos -a steamed or fried dim sum filled with meat or vegetables and a Tibetan import – which seems really rather popular amongst the youth. I tried one and though pleasant, it couldn’t beat the delicious dim sum in London’s China Town.

Aloo Tikki - Spicy Potato Cakes

Greater Delhi is roughly the size of South Wales and far more densely populated. It has at least half a dozen different centres of town and everywhere, including in the local neighbourhood market, you will find Punjabi cuisine. Punjab, lying in the North of the country, has a similar flavour in cuisine to Delhi and indeed is often seen by outsiders as the cuisine of Delhi. The chicken or mutton is portioned into large pieces on the bone, then marinated with delicate spices such as cardamom, clove and cinnamon whipped into the local yoghurt called curd before barbecuing in a clay oven – the tandoor. Tandoori food is accompanied with a side of onion and chilli garnish called laccha along with a mint chutney. A popular chain of restaurants called Pind Balluchi (or Park Balluchi in Haus Khas area) has been doing good Punjabi food with a flair for picking reasonably busy shopping areas and decorating the interior of the restaurants in scenes of Punjab village life.

For Vegetarians there are many options within the Punjabi cuisine. Cholle Bhature is a dish of spiced chick pea curry served with a deep fried bread made with self raising flour kneaded with yoghurt. Sarson ka Saag – a puree made with mustard leaves is a typical farmer’s lunch eaten with thick corn bread dripping in purified butter. Punjabi food is traditionally served with a glass of lassi, a sweet yoghurt drink much like Yop. Much of the cuisine tends to be ‘heavy’ in terms of fat and carbohydrates. No wonder then, when you look at the history of work within Punjab – hardworking farmers and soldiers.

South Indian cuisine is another popular food in Delhi. Though Kerala’s cuisine varies from Tamilnadu’s – both are southern Indian states – both are flavoured with a heavy use of coconut, rice and fish. Whilst Delhi is land-locked and several hours by air away from coast; the south with hundreds of miles of coastline is gifted by nature to produce tonnes of rice and fish. Of all the southern food, in Delhi the most popular by far is the mighty Dosa – a large thin and crispy rice flour pancake. Mashed potato delicately spiced with onions, Nigella and mustard seeds is folded inside this giant pancake and it’s served with a delicious bowl of sambhar – a soup of lentils and vegetables – and a small bowl of coconut chutney freshly grated and mixed with chillies.

If you visit Delhi today, you will find many restaurants specialising in Western cuisines. Italian food is very popular here. But you will find British pub style food, French, Greek and Mexican too. Disappointingly though not surprisingly there are a large number of American chains such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC which have shoved their way into the neighbourhood food markets to get in on the increasing size (yes, both population and waist lines) of the middle class of Delhi. But as they say, where there is demand, there is supply. Alarmingly, I read an article in the local newspaper about the decline in exercise, the increase in the purchase of personal laptops and subsequently an increase in the reported cases of obesity amongst the under 18s in Delhi.

Gol Gappe - Edible water bombs!

Some would argue that Mughlai cuisine, the food of the royal Mughal courts is the true cuisine of Delhi and it’s true to the extent that it’s very popular in Delhi; that this city has influenced the cuisine more than any other, and that the best Mughlai restaurants in the world can be found here. The rich butter curries of meat, naan bread, use of nuts and dried fruits shares it’s origins in Afghanistan and Iran.

Moti Mahal is a restaurant featured in Paul Merton’s recent series exploring India. I have known about this restaurant since I was a child. It was heralded as the best Mughlai kitchen and I had been wanting to go back their since I was a child. This time I got the opportunity. Not far from the backpacker’s district of Pahar Gunj, an unassuming little entrance opens onto a courtyard and before you know, you will be invited in and sat at one of the tables, galley style. The open air restaurant features a small stage on which an ensemble of musicians and a singer sit legs folded. A harmonium, a sitar and a tabla play with the ghazal singer. The harmony is matched in the food which is served – finely sliced ginger, grated garlic, fresh coriander and chopped chillies lend flavour as well as mouth-watering aroma to the food.

Kulche - stuffed bread cooked in a tandoor

To start, we ordered a seekh kebab – chopped mutton mixed with spices and shaped lengthways with the skewer in the centre. Seekh Kebabs are traditionally eaten with a Roomali Roti, which requires some skill to prepare and as this was available on the menu, we ordered it. Through the window in the kitchen I spied a chef making it. Roomali Roti is a bread rolled out so thinly by throwing it up in the air that it would make the pizza throwers of Naples blush. The roti is so large that it is cooked on a huge wok which sits on the fire upside down. The thin roti needs less than 10 seconds to cook on each side and is folded like a handkerchief (the Hindi word Roomali) before being served. You tear a piece of this roti, add a seekh kebab, ,mint chutney and freshly chopped onions with a squeeze of lemon and roll the whole thing up like a sausage roll and you’ll have one of the most delectable tasting mouthful of food in the world!

Only one cuisine in my eyes wins the accolade of true Delhi food -the street food. It’s cheap, it’s tasty and it’s what the masses eat everyday. My true purpose of visiting Delhi was the quest of sampling the best of what the street vendors have to offer.

The Delhi Metro now goes to Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar. In between these stations you will find the densest crowds of people going about their daily tasks of lifting heavy boxes, pushing hand-carts, calling out to the crowd to sell their wares, shoving, pushing, walking, running, eating. All in good nature.

The first food vendor I came past, by luck, was the the food I had been dreaming about for a long time! Pateela Matar. These are peas very similar to mushy peas of England and are boiled and kept in a very large pateela, a brass pot sat on a low heat. When he gets an order, the vendor takes a ladleful of

Fresh Lime Soda

the boiled peas onto a leaf (shaped into a bowl), adds fresh ingredients –  lime juice, chopped onion, chopped tomato, grated ginger, sliced green chillies, chaat masala and tosses it all up. This bowl of deliciousness is served up with a dry flat bread called a kulcha. Rickshaw wallahs, hand cart pullers, shop attendants, children after school, and tourists alike crowd around the pateela to get a taste of this incredibly fresh and tasty food. You can eat a bowl of matar and two  kulchas for Rs 10 or 15 pence of the British money.

The best thing about street food in Delhi is that none is so filling that you can’t stop by at the next vendor and drool!

Having licked clean my leaf of all the peas, I walked further along to find a man selling something that is hardly ever seen outside the square kilometre of old Delhi. A true local food – kulle. These are large potatoes boiled and sliced in half lengthways. Some of the flesh is then scooped out to make room for the peas mixed with masala and lime to be filled in. Again, very fresh tasting food which I highly recommend you seek out when in this area.

As I walked further, I saw other childhood favourites. Among them was fruit chaat – freshly cut chopped seasonal mixed fruits tossed with a black chaat masala and lime juice – delicious and healthy; mooli – long white radish split in the middle and sprinkled with lime and black salt; and everyone’s favourite gol gappe, a thin pastry in the shape of a flying saucer which you tap on the top of to make a cavity in which you fill a small spoonful of potatoes, chick peas and spicy sauce and put in your mouth whole – like water bombs – it’s an explosion of flavour!

To the brim, full of food, I made my final stop at the Lime Soda man to help digest the day’s bounty before climbing into an auto rickshaw to be taken home happy and content with life!

Punjab – turbans and tandoori naans

August 29, 2011 1 comment

A Sikh holy man

The large state nestling between the dizzy mountains of Kashmir and the home counties of the capital of the country is known for turban wearing affable people, mass agriculture, textiles and the tandoor. It’s home to the largest population of Sikhs as well as the world’s most

important Sikh temple – the Golden Temple.

The majority of the state lies between the western city of Amritsar, the closest major city to Pakistan; and the easterly Chandigarh, the modern planned metropolis and capital of the twin states of Punjab and Haryana. The in between cities of Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Ambala are themselves big cities. But it’s Amritsar and Chandigarh which tend to swallow up the swathes of internal as well as external tourists. And for good reason.

Amritsar attracts pilgrims and tourists from all across the world. Over the last century, thousands of Sikh families left their native Punjab in droves and found homes in English speaking countries across the world. Toronto boasts the largest Sikh community outside of Punjab and India. Back in Punjab, a large number of tourists are NRI – Indians living abroad – but you see a good smattering of Western tourists as well.

An illustration of the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh

Amritsar feels like a well-to-do city with good hotels, restaurants and plenty of sites to see. A visit to the Golden Temple is a must and one morning we set off with our trusted tuk-tuk driver to see it. A half kilometre before the temple you pass Jalianwala Bagh. Having studied some Indian history I remembered it for the massacre that took place in 1919 and stopped to take a look. One April at a beautiful spring morning a number of peaceful protesters gathered at this park in the centre of Amritsar asking for the Independence of the nation. 50 British soldiers opened fire and subsequently killed a very large number of these people. The bullet holes have not been filled in, nor the deep water well  – into which many people jumped to flee from the shower of bullets and subsequently died.

The Golden Temple

A few minutes away from Jalianwala Bagh, a stately looking white building stands out for it’s size, architecture style and colour. This is a grand surround for the Golden Temple and keeps the suspense going for a little longer. Before entering the pristine white building, you must take your shoes off and store them in a large building called the shoe house which is like a very large cloak room except it has thousands of cubby holes. Everyone, including men, must cover their head before entering.

Just outside the white building, at the bottom of the steps is along shallow moat in which a stream water is flowing. It’s purpose is to remove any bit of dirt on your feet before you enter the holy ground. Stepping through the cool water in the heat of the midday sun is every bit as pleasant as climbing the marble steps up to the porticoed entrance. As you climb up The Golden Temple inside looks like it’s rising out of the water. The lake around it called Amrit Sarovar – literally the Lake of Elixir – is where the city gets it’s name. The vast area all built of white marble looks like a picture and with the golden dome made of real gold almost floating on the green water of the lake is a sight to behold. Even with a thousand people moving around the complex, you feel the peace emanate from every corner.

Indo-Pak Border ceremony

About 25 ams west of Amritsar is a land border entry between India and Pakistan. Called Wagah Border it lies mid distance between Amritsar in India and Lahore in Pakistan. The border features on many a tourist’s destination list not to cross over into another country but to watch the closing of the border ceremony at sundown. IN fact it has become so popular that both sides have introduced amphitheatre like seating to cater for the visitors who come every day. The day we went, there were approximately 3,000 visitors on the Indian side. Because it was Ramadan, or perhaps because it is not as popular in Pakistan, their side had around 200 people separated by gender.

Separated by a gate and a few soldiers on each side carrying weapons, the Indians and the Pakistanis can clearly see each other and wave. Large speakers blare out patriotic songs on each side and people wave flags. On the Indian side, women queued to be able to run with the Indian flag all the way up to the border and back again. This competitiveness continued when the soldiers on each side started to march. This wasn’t the usual marching. It was toe touching forehead, with a hell of a lot of attitude and aggression kind of marching. A little later, there was a competition between which soldier can sing a note the longest on each side of the border.

Lassi - yoghurt drink is the speciality of Punjab

I found the whole experience strange and also a little sad. In the end, we have more in common than not. The Indians and Pakistanis have a similar culture, eat the same food, wear similar clothes, speak similar language. At the border there was a feeling of oneupmanship which came across as childish. Either way, it was fun to watch the ceremony and soldiers make a fool of themselves!

But Amritsar is also about food. We ate some of the best Tandoori food in Amritsar including Amritsari fish which is a local river fish marinated in delicate spices and cooked in the tandoor. It was fleshy and soft and melted in the mouth. We drank the best lassi (yoghurt and sugar drink) topped with a spoonful of real cream and we even tried some street food. Amritsar is famous for it’s cholle kulche – Spiced chick peas served with a bread which is stuffed with potato and cooked in a tandoor.

Not wanting to leave the great food, we ended up staying four nights in Amritsar but managed to tear ourselves away and onto Chandigarh via Ambala, a small city where we spent an unremarkable night.

Chandigarhis a paradox in my eyes in terms of it’s purpose as a tourist destination. As a child I had heard much about the city, mainly good things. It’s a modern, clean, planned city which is famous for two things – architecture and being the only city which serves as a capital for two

Strange sculptures at Rock Garden

separate states due to it’s location on the border of each. In terms of architecture, unless you are interested in a planned city or the French architect Le Corbusier, then you are probably here to see Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. It’s a large outdoor space, maze like, which is covered in broken glass, broken tiles and anything else broken he could find. The materials are used in an interesting way to create a fantastical space. A fun way to spend a couple of hours but not life-changing. Although we spent three nights here, enjoyed food and walked around a little, I personally found the city lacking in any soul. Perhaps planed cities are like that because they don;t evolve.

Sure it’s a great place to raise your kids with: excellent schools and academic institutions around; clean spaces and strangely devoid of any poverty and I saw no beggars anywhere which is odd for an Indian city; dotted with gardens and all streets lined with trees etc but it feels no different to say Milton Keynes.

All in all, we had a great time exploring Punjab, talking to the friendly locals, eating some fabulous food and seeing the very different aspects of the state reflected in it’s different cities.

The Great Escape – survival on the non-existant roads of Ladakh

August 16, 2011 5 comments

The Leh – Srinagar road was our last venture in Ladakh so we could cross into the neighbouring Kashmir. We hired a 4×4 which came with a driver to take us to Srinagar – we were told a 13 hour drive in good conditions. We said goodbye to Leh and left at 7am to start the journey. The

The confluence of two rivers near Nimmo

first couple of hours of the journey were really not too bad and we passed some beautiful monasteries; a magnetic hill where if left in neutral the car is pulled magically towards the hill; a confluence of two rivers meeting; and a few villages at altitude.

After two hours the road became quite rough and steadily became worse. Our driver at this point decided to tell us that of the 400 kms to Srinagar, more than half of way is unpaved and in bad condition with work going to restore and widen the snaking mountain roads. We settled in to look at the passing scenery which was gorgeous and the time passed quickly. For lunch we stopped at Kargil and sampled some local cuisine – Rista – mutton meat balls cooked in a rich yoghurt gravy. It was tasty and filling and prepared us for the rest of the six hour journey to Kashmir.

Look carefully and you can see the line of lorries parked up on the road in the centre of the photo

The trouble started almost immediately after leaving Kargil, when we climbed a mountain and at a pass, turned a corner to be met by a most arresting but frightening sight. Our driver had told us that the road coming up was the most dangerous in our entire journey. The mountain we could see ahead of us had the snaking road visible all the way down to the valley floor. What a beautiful sight I would have thought in any other circumstance but here and now the entire road had lorries parked back to back all the way down. There must have been six dozen lorries. The first lorry closest to us as we

turned the corner however was broken down at a narrow point where not even a car could pass.

Our driver said it was fortunate we had stopped here. I looked at him quizzically, for him to explain that if we reversed just a quarter of a kilometre, we will find a road

A broken down lorry at our alternate route!

which leads even further up the mountain and though not finished it was only a little more dangerous than the road blocked by the lorries. Two things he said struck me immediately:

1. reversing a quarter of a kilometre on a narrow winding road thousands of metres high on a mountain

2. the road we will have to take is only a little bit more dangerous than what he told us was the most dangerous road of our journey

The toss up was between spending the night on the mountain in the freezing cold or trying to get out. The driver chose the latter option and we found ourselves with our necks craned hurtling backwards on the smidgen he called a road for a few minutes before taking a steep road up the mountain. This came to an abrupt halt as others at the bottom of the valley had found the alternative route just before us and rounding another corner we found a lorry at the edge of a very narrow dirt track. Yes, it was broken down. At this stage we felt a Horses at the valley floorslight grip of panic. In desperation, our driver took off on foot towards the lorry to help push it but that wasn’t going to be easy. He returned with a road worker who explained to us that there was another dirt track just up from where we were and it was only used by road workers to bring materials up.

Beggars can’t be choosers. Slightly relieved and worried about the ever darkening sky, we headed off to where the road worker pointed and were met by the steepest zig zag of a dirt track we had ever seen. If you could even call it a track. It was exactly as wide as our 4×4 and at the hairpin bends, the driver had to use the entire extent of the steering column to turn whilst we gaped down into the depths of the valley open-mouthed.

After seven such hairpin bends we came to a narrow paved road which led us out of the mountains and down to the valley floor. After another hour we saw a village and stopped there and bought our driver a well earned cup of tea and onion bhajis. The rest of the journey was unremarkable and we counted our blessings for having avoided a disaster!

On the roof of India – Ladakh

August 14, 2011 2 comments

Leh

I dreamed of going to Ladakh since I was a child. Even the sound of the word ‘Ladakh’ evokes images of monasteries, snow peaks, fabrics of geometrical designs and yaks milk. Oh and tall mountains, and hence the roof of the world. Ladakh.

All of those images must have been instilled in my head with visits to the annual All India Exhibition in Delhi where people from all Indian states are invited to display local products, customs, foods, dances etc.

Since moving to England, I have rarely visited India for tourism purposes. This time however, along with Mr W, I was adamant to see some of the hidden India and the places of my childhood dream. So, it was decided, the state of Jammu & Kashmir had to feature.

Our vehicle

From Delhi it is an easy hour and a half flight to Leh, the capital of Ladakh – the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. All the available flights leave in the small hours of the morning.

Just as the plane starts to negotiate the peaks of the Himalayas, the sun broke from the horizon and an eerie orange glow lit up the mighty snow covered peaks, which seem to be level with the plane. It was an awesome sight!

The Leh airport is just outside the city. The first thing you’ll notice is the chill. Glad to have left the heat of the monsoon behind in Delhi and within half an hour of landing, having picked up our luggage from the carousel, we got into a pre-paid taxi and arrived at our hotel shattered from having woken up so early to catch the flight. The carpet and the thick heavy duvets on the bed at our hotel helped us to fall into a deep slumber till the call of the muezzin awoke us. We had arrived in the holy month of Ramadan.

Leh, the capital of Ladakh is at 11,500 ft up in the foothills of the Himalayas surrounded by snow covered peaks even in the midst of summer. Only three roads lead out from Leh and we went out on each to explore the area.

Our accommodation at the lake

The Pangong Tso lake was our first trip, just off the Leh to Manali road. A six hour bone-rattling ride on the Royal Enfield through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery brought us to this shimmering lake at more than 14,000 ft above sea level. It’s a surreal place and after the ride on the difficult roads we found ourselves is a stuation where we needed to spend the night there and lo and behold the only life we found there was a campsite with 12 gorgeous luxury tents overlooking the lake where. The views were spectacular, we were a furlong (well, a little more than one) away from the Chinese border and we decided to stay. W were given a delicious meal of simple food for dinner cooked by the resident chef.

Returning from Pangong Tso, we stopped at the third highest mountain pass and gratefully received a cup of hot chai from the Army station. It was bewildering to see snow fall on us in the month of August but we reminded ourselves of the height we stood at.

Highest motorable mountain pass in the worldAfter the trip, returning to Leh, we spent a couple of days recovering from the colds and aches of our trip before hiring a brand new Royal Enfield. Another road out of Leh is through the Nubra Valley to Diskit via Khardung La – the highest motorable mountain pass in the world. We were told this road was in a much better condition than the previous one to the lake so we looked forward to the easier ride. Unfortunately we found that 75% of the road to Khardung Village was not only unpaved but in quite a bad shape with boulders. If we thought the previous ride was bone-rattling, this was much worse. The scenery was beautiful but we turned back after three hours of riding, and rode the same way back to Leh.

The third and final road out of Leh leads to Srinagar, a 15 hour drive through the regions of Ladakh, Kargil into the beautiful Kashmir, which will be our next stop!

A window to the Pink City

August 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Above the rooftop of Hawa Mahal

This is not my first time to Jaipur, but it is the first time in the main for the purpose of tourism. Luckily, we were able to combine this with a visit to the family.

I left Delhi by train one mid-afternoon and boarded a summer special express train to Jaipur with Mr W in tow. We love trains and though this was only a five hour journey, we managed to book a sleeper class train to rest a little when it got dark outside and we could’t see any sights. As seems to be the way when booking online with the Indian Railway Reservation, the system allocated us tickets which were a few seats apart. The conductor on the train however soon moved people around – without us asking – and got us seats facing each other with a berth above. We whiled away the hours looking outside the window and then unfolding the berths to get a little sleep using the fresh linen and pillows provided. An hour before Jaipur, a chai wallah duly woke us up with a sweet milky tea to rub our eyes and get ready to disembark. Around dinner time we reached Jaipur and checked ourselves into our hotel in a leafy part of town near Paanch Butti.

Through the lattice window at Hawa Mahal

Next day, we decided to explore the old city of Jaipur called Pink City for the colour of stone and rendering used on all the buildings. The Pink City is made up of a dozen noisy, busy streets and intersections reminiscent of Old Delhi. Unlike Old Delhi however, there is some semblance of order in the chaos and you can walk around the kilometre square more easily. Also unlike Old Delhi, Jaipur, perhaps because of a heritage order has all it’s buildings and shops look identical from the outside – so you can easily get lost and not place yourself in the labyrinth of streets until you step out and find yourself on the exact opposite end of the walled city to where you entered.

Looking through an internal window at Amer Fort

By chance, we happened to come upon Hawa Mahal which is in the centre of the PInk City and a famous palace. Hawa Mahal literally means The Palace of Winds, probably named so because it is more an airy space than a palace. Using the same pink stone that the rest of the old city is made of, the palace was designed to be used by the Maharajas and their wives to escape the heat of the city and spy at the goings on of their people through the latticework windows which make up most of the wall space of the palace.

What struck me about Hawa Mahal and Amer Fort which I’ll come to in a moment is the sheer number of windows in the architecture. For some reason in my head I have a notion which says windows make a structure weak. So how then were the architects of this palace able to design more windows than wall space without it all toppling over? The palace has very few staircases. Instead you walk around a sloping Ecsheresque corridor which wraps around a central column to reach the next floor. At each floor you see more of the Pink city which itself doesn’t have any tall buildings except the the palace itself. At he higher floors you begin to see the outside limits of the city and the hill with a fort on the eastern limits. We spent a pleasant hour and a half wandering around and taking pictures of the windows and latticework of this rather charming palace.

The next day we woke early to haggle with a tuk-tuk driver to take us and bring back from Amer Fort, around 22 kilometres outside the city. The fort is larger than any I have been to and sprawled over a couple of

Amer Fort

hills. From the highest point you can see the walls going away from the fort in each direction where soldiers would have kept a watchful eye from their vantage point on anyone coming up the hill. The architecture is not only impressive in terms of keeping the enemy out but also beautiful. The moat and outside walls of the fort belie a charming interior where the Maharajahs, Ranis, their families and courtiers would have lived, dined and enjoyed entertainment.

The most famous landmark within the walls of Amer Fort is the Sheesh Mahal or The Palace of Glass. This isn’t constructed out of glass so much as has different coloured glass embedded into it’s walls to give it a reflective finish. It must have taken an age and scores of slashed hands to have completed this beautiful structure. Whilst we were there, work was going on to renovate the areas of the walls which needed attention.

Like the Hawa Mahal the fort features hundreds of windows looking out of the fort but also within the fort into the dozens of courtyards. Sitting at one of these windows I understood their purpose. These weren’t just to look out of but to get a break from the oppressive heat of the desert. The architect designed the windows exactly at places where breezes will come through the various windows of a room to gather momentum and feel like a cool wind. So this must be the purpose of the hundreds of windows at the Hawa Mahal in the Pink City also.

They say your eyes are the window to your soul. Certainly this is the case for the architecture of Jaipur. Without the intricate latticework windows through which the royals saw their city at the palace and the fort, the buildings themselves won’t have a soul.

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