And it’s out: EXPERIENCE AGRA AND AROUND ON THE ROAD
Experiences and excerpts from ‘Experience Agra and Around On The Road’ written and photographed by me, published by the Times of India.
Red too seemed visibly buoyant as we swayed to the simoom that swept the NH2 and lurched from a sweltering Delhi towards a scorching Agra. August last year was not any better from the summer of 2012 which was the hottest in decades, September was bound to get only worse with the rains – or whatever Delhi gets of it – and with me headed deeper into tropical areas, riverbank cities and desert towns. One night in ‘Chhatri country’ Orchha by the River Betwa I remember being bitten awake in the middle of the night by rowdy mosquitoes but going back to sleep in the drowsy hope that they would drown and die on my sweat-drenched skin. My seesawing enthusiasm, the nadir being the umpteen meetings to be undergone before actually hitting the road, goes on an up-upswing when I begin moving, which as RL Stevenson says, is ‘the biggest affair of travel’. It peaks when I am behind the wheel.
The Kos Minar waving me off from Delhi suburbia more or less defined my trip by anchoring it – a momentous journey along India’s heartland – much more than in the cartographical sense – in the amazing abundance of archaeological and historical marvels, cultural kaleidoscopes and traditional icons, religiosities and curiosities, sought as well as satiated.
‘A road tripping guide around central India with Agra as the nodal point,’ went the brief at its most expansive. Shorter the instruction, wider the interpretation. The places around Agra eventually expanded to include Jaipur, Alwar, Bharatpur and Sariska in addition to the original list of Vrindavan, Mathura, Chambal, Orchha and Gwalior. I wouldn’t have minded adding more, like say Khajuraho, but for bummers like deadlines. The inclusion was however good thinking by the editors as the Golden Triangle is held holier than the Trinity by trip planners and entrenched among travellers and I decided to proceed along the ‘relatively well-behaved’ NH11 to Jaipur. Detours were taken along state highways to include birding hotspot Bharatpur, an under-explored gem Alwar and the fascinating monsoon places of Deeg. As promised in the beginning of the book the routes have been mixed up for sheer driving pleasure as well as for the amazing variety accorded in terms of vista – giving you not just national highways but ghat roads as well (as you head to Bateshwar in Chambal), taking you along not just the defined contours of a map but placing you alongside ravines and crumbling riversides. ‘A tribute to the traveller and the petrol head, many a time happily one and the same.’
Agra. And around.
Agra is the starting point for the drives being almost at the centre of the different destinations covered. Then, more than proximities, what counted was the possibilities. ‘A city juxtaposed between a heritage marvel and a hobbler towards modernity. The perfect curtain-raiser for the towns and cities that follow.’ ‘Experience Agra’ takes you through many places you don’t find in a regular traveller guide on Agra: the Mankameshwar Temple, Buriya Ka Taal, Kabutar Wale Baba, the Red Taj (which seems to be gradually obliterated even from native memory) and the Nalbandh Chauraha for those looking for succulent Mughal-era food at roadside prices – being by the road only. A none-too-covert attempt to take the traveller out of the touristy Fatehabad Road; Agra is a ‘minimum three-day destination’ as the travel brochures will tell you but a traffic hellhole as they don’t.
Agra to Vrindavan and Mathura
Agra to Chambal and Bateshwar
Agra to Orchha (via Dholpur, Datia and Gwalior)
Agra to Jaipur (via Fatehpur Sikri, Bharatpur, Deeg, Alwar, Sariska and Bhangarh)
People, places, etc.
Though India has been synonymous with the Taj Mahal for as long as we can remember thankfully the awe and admiration surrounding this edifice to undying love is still intact. This has much to do with our own late embracing of the joys of the open road. Since the operationalising of the National Highways in 1995 over 70,000 kilometres of road has been added taking us closer to the picturesquely diverse terrains and cultures and traditions. The lure endures in its multi-sensory appeal: the place, the people, their customs and quirks, foods and beliefs, fears and hopes. Not to mention our own adventures on the road. I will always remember the Chinese businesswoman Cathy, all dolled up in mirror-work ghagra choli at the Itimad-Ud-Daula who smiled me into my first outing in modelling photography; her pouts and pirouettes around the tomb sending Mirza Baig – the guy inside – stirring. Tina, an intrepid traveller from the UK, whom I was destined to meet again and again. Kaalu, the boy guide from Gwalior, who was priceless in my hunt for the missing gharanas of Gwalior. The emergency laundry I did by a roadside hand pump in Datia to the directions of a swelling crowd as I forgot my luggage at the previous hotel. We might be late bloomers when it comes to road travel but we are now hitting the road with a vengeance bent on making up for lost time. ‘Fuel prices be damned.’
While history lends perspective, grapevine yields light on the future. The forest guides at Sariska will grudgingly concur that it’s been a while – quite a while, really – since somebody spotted a tiger at the national park. Give it some time, Sansar Chand died only this year, one even added seriously. While the missing numbers does take off some sheen, the park is not shorn of its natural beauty – which can be explored via alternate treks, off the beaten path, through scenic hill hamlets which I designed – and tested too – with the locals. The guidebook has the details with contact numbers. Goes to say the thrust has been equally on newer destinations and landmarks as novel ways of experiencing existing ones. Debunking the ‘haunted’ myth of the Bhangarh Fort in no way makes this ‘Acropolis of India’ any less imposing, mysterious, even. The inaccessibility of the Ater Fort only serves to make it all the more irresistible. A hot air balloon ride over Jaipur gives you the kind of view the city builders would have traded for all the bullions in their treasury. Join the jig during the sandhya aarti at the ISKCON in Vrindavan for a truly transporting experience…
Trust me, you are in for a ride here.