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India is never short on ancient forts, palaces, towers, temples, monuments. Among its many heritage sites is this 12th century complex which includes this soaring 75-meter tower erected soon after the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu Kingdom. Come sunset, it glows as a lovely redstone and marble minaret. The complex is quite manageable to explore, and we picked a lovely time of the day to do it.

The 2nd tallest minaret in India, just a few kilometers south of Delhi.

The 2nd tallest minaret in India, just a few kilometers south of Delhi.

We found many local tourists within the complex.

We found many local tourists within the complex.

We visited the Qutab Minar complex on our last day in India, just hours before our departure. Glad we didn’t miss this site which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The minaret towers above some ruins much like The Forum in Rome, Italy. Built to honor the onset of Islamic rule in India, Qutub Minar is not without controversy. Sometimes called Qutab, after the first Islamic ruler, or Qutub which literally translates to “pole of justice”, the tower symbolizes “Islamic Justice”in this corner of the world.

It was a lovely time of day to visit Qutab Minar.

It was a lovely time of day to visit Qutab Minar.

Islamic calligraphy (verses from the Quran) and Hindu motifs combine in many of the monuments to be found here.

Islamic calligraphy (verses from the Quran) and Hindu motifs combine in many of the monuments to be found here.

Earthquakes. Wear and Tear. All these left the tower damaged and tilted slightly on one side. The first 3 storeys are made of red sandstone, the next 4th and 5th of marble. The many steps could be scaled before but a recent accident involving schoolchildren forced authorities caring for the monument to stop such uphill excursions. Access is not allowed now. The view from the top must be lovely, especially at sunset, when the adjacent red sandstone ruins within the complex glow as the sun fades from view.

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Spices of India. Masala. And I thought it was another spice. Rather, masala is a mix of ground spices. The very heart of Indian cuisine. And India is soooo rich in spices. Turmeric. Cumin. Pepper. Cardamom. Chilies. Fennel. Cinnamon. Caraway. Anise. Ginger. Coriander. And so much more.

Poori or Puri  Unleavened Bread. As puffy as it gets! With potato masala.

Poori or Puri Unleavened Bread. As puffy as it gets! With potato masala.

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Chole. Chickpeas is love <3

Chole. Chickpeas is love <3

I was quite prepared for the spicy cuisine. And I do like Indian food. One of my fav dishes is the ubiquitous Palak Paneer found on every buffet spread. That plus the dhal (lentils) and chole (chickpeas) paired with all types of flatbread. Naan, Poori, Chapati, Paratha of all types — onion, garlic, paneer, etc. And the chutneys!

Chutneys galore!

Chutneys galore!

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All that bread. Imagine all that ghee. A couple more weeks here and I couldn’t slide into my pants. Plus the rice. Biryani? Basmati? Carbo overload. And don’t forget the okra — short, tiny, and crunchy. Loaded with uric acid, if you aren’t careful. Yay!

They look like doughnuts but these breads must be filled with ghee!

They look like doughnuts but these breads must be filled with ghee!

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And how can you resist the curry? My fav is mutton curry, which I can’t get enough off. Rice or flatbread, the mutton curry is wiped clean off the plate or bowl. Soaking naan across the curry plate is yum! Just mind the spices. There were others, but I couldn’t get past a tasting portion without burning my tongue. Phew!

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Indian "fried rice" was such a hit with me!

Indian “fried rice” was such a hit with me!

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As for desserts, that uber-sweet, syrupy gulab balls should really push your sugar levels past the Diabetes 2 threshold. Tooooo much. I won’t mind not seeing them for a year. And the almonds? Freshly shelled and milky white not to be ignored. Other nuts like pistachio also found their way into some sinful desserts.

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On our last day, our guide shared this home recipe with us. I tried it…. and ended up with a spinach dip instead. (I’m hopeless)

Palek Paneer (Spinach + Cottage Cheese)

Boil spinach until wilted. Osterize to make purée. Set aside.

In a pan, put veg or olive oil. Sauté cumin seed or put cumin powder; add finely chopped onions or onion purée. When browned, put garlic paste and bit of ginger paste. Put spinach; let boil. Add chili powder, salt to taste. Add cubed cottage cheese. Add tomato purée. Add little hot water to dilute.

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Thank you, Chikie, for some of the food photos


He is called by many titles, but one sticks out in my mind. The “King of Marvels”. Rightfully so. It would have been enough to say he founded Taj Mahal, to honor his beloved Mumtaz Mahal, his favorite wife. But there is more. Truly, his reign was marked by a golden era in arts and architecture in this exotic country. Incredible India, Incredible Shah Jahan! 

It sparkles under the sun. It glistens under a crescent moon.

It sparkles under the sun. It glistens under a crescent moon.

This is how the Taj Mahal looks when viewed from Agra Fort, just 2 kms away.

This is how the Taj Mahal looks when viewed from Agra Fort, just 2 kms away.

Besides Taj Mahal, give credit to Shah Jahan for a few more heritage sites. There’s Agra Fort, just a stone’s throw from the iconic Taj Mahal. It is also the place where Shah Jahan breathed his last. Right there in the Octagonal Tower of Agra Fort where he was imprisoned by one of his own sons following a war of succession. Sad. As cliché as it sounds, it’s where he viewed the “eternal teardrop on the cheek of time”. And while Taj Mahal sparkles, the Agra Fort is another marvel in its own right. 

Moti Masjid  (Pearl Mosque) inside Agra Fort

Hall of Private Audience (Diwan i Khas) inside Agra Fort

You get more than enough dose of those arches here. Lovely!

Diwan I Aam. Hall of Public Audience.

Once the capital of India before Shah Jahan moved it to Delhi, Agra is never short on monuments and forts. Most people just visit the Taj Mahal. Well, it is certainly worth seeing, and I perfectly understand if tourists spend more time there or wish to simply have their “moments” by not adding more sites to their list after seeing the Taj. But the Agra Fort sort of completes the journey to Agra. Shah Jahan is an absolute builder of marvels and his preference for buildings made of white marble shows in this addition to the red sandstone fort started by his grandfather. The Moti (meaning pearl) Masjid is a fine example of Mughal architecture.

The 16th century Mughal monument known as Agra Fort

The 16th century Mughal monument known as Agra Fort

Agra has lots to offer beside the Taj Mahal.

Agra has lots to offer beside the Taj Mahal.

There are more. But Shah Jahan’s final masterpiece is the Jama Masjid, touted as the largest mosque in India. Amidst the chaos of the bazaar just across it, this “Friday Mosque” can hold as many 25,000 devotees. Like many other temples, we left our footwear just outside the mosque to walk on tiles dating from the 17th century. Towering over Old Delhi, the mosque is an aberration in this otherwise chaotic world of rickshaws and narrow alleys. A ride in one of these rickshaws past many open-fronted stalls, many spilling into the alleys, breaks all tranquility gained from a few minutes inside the Mosque courtyard. Incredible!

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Free and communal serving of food may take its origin from Sufism but it is a long-held tradition and practice in Sikh Temples here in New Delhi and elsewhere. LANGAR is the name for the large community kitchen, where volunteers can be found peeling and chopping onions, making bread, cooking lentils, etc. The volunteers, called Sevadars, work in the Langars attached to all Sikh Temples (Gurudwara), to prepare vegetarian meals fed to pilgrims or visitors, WITHOUT DISCRIMINATION. Food sharing can extend to as many as 20,000 pilgrims as in this Sikh Temple in New Delhi, regardless of faith, class, and status in life.

This is the temple pool where pilgrims cleanse themselves.

This is the temple pool where pilgrims cleanse themselves.

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I almost missed this kitchen as my group left while I was literally “testing the waters” from the temple pool. By the time I looked up, they were gone. I knew I couldn’t leave without seeing how the kitchen works. More so, how the feeding of as many as 20,000 pilgrims is done. I am not sure how I lost them, but I would have thrown a tantrum if I missed this!

Feet, arms, legs, face washed with water from this pool.

Feet, arms, legs, face washed with water from this pool.

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The Sikh Temple in New Delhi

The Sikh Temple in New Delhi

No one is allowed entry unless you take off your shoes or sandals and wrap something around your head. You also pass a square tub to wash your feet upon entry. Inside, both pilgrims and visitors mingle —- the only tell-tale signs distinguishing one from the other being that the pilgrims come here to worship while the visitors itch to snap a photo with their cams. Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside the temple.

Sikh men wrap turbans around their uncut hair.

Sikh men wrap turbans around their uncut hair.

He caught me snapping a photo. Perdon.

He caught me snapping a photo. Perdon.

The volunteers peeling onions.

The volunteers peeling onions.

It is curious how food is prepared and fed to as many as 20,000 pilgrims and visitors. We met many volunteers, each obviously knowing what to do in that huge community kitchen. A system is in place. Although I found the lighting quite dim, the kitchen was kept clean and well-ventilated. Each volunteer busy with their assigned tasks. Huge baskets of naan and chapati. Large tubs of lentils or dahl. All served to people without regard for race, creed, faith and stature in life. Food is shared with whomever comes.

Ready for distribution

Ready for distribution

No rich or poor, pilgrim or not. Everyone is given a free meal.

No rich or poor, pilgrim or not. Everyone is given a free meal.

Breadmaking 101.

Breadmaking 101.

I wish there was time to line up, sit crosslegged and join the others to be fed on silver trays. I like the idea of sitting there with so many others, waiting for this man to drop bread on your silver tray, and another coming to scoop some lentils for each of them. I’ve seen it on TV and in some documentary, and would have relished being there and actually experiencing it.

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Pilgrims and visitors wait for their portions.

Pilgrims and visitors wait for their portions.

SIKHISM. much has been written and said about this religious sect. One of many tracing its roots here in India. Amazing how this exotic country has encouraged so many life philosophies and faiths. There may be a whole world of difference between Sikhism and Hinduism, or for that matter, other religions. But what sticks uppermost in my mind is the Sikh belief in equality. No caste system for this faith. All beings created equal. Now, that speaks volumes, don’t you agree?

Bread served hot!

Bread served hot!

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Having visited a Sikh temple, I am now inclined to pick up a book on Sikhism. You bet I am intrigued. I am curious how it began — amidst all the other religions dominating India — and how magnificent temples and community kitchens like this are funded. I am curious about their other beliefs. Did it just branch out as another protestant sect from Hinduism? Is the “equality” philosophy the “breaking point” ? Curious. Curious.

Feeding is so systematic , like "clockwork".

Feeding is so systematic , like “clockwork”.

Volunteer bread makers.

Volunteer bread makers.

A large tub of lentils!

A large tub of lentils!

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He was 14 at the time. The grandson of Akbar the Great, famous for his empire marked by war victories, grand fortress palaces, flourishing arts and culture,  and a royal  harem   consort of 300+ wives and concubines. Then named Prince Khurram, he was the 5th Mughal Emperor of India, likewise destined for greatness and touted as a favorite of his grandfather Akbar. She was known then as Arjumand Banu Begam, a Muslim Persian Princess, hawking glass and silk beads in Meena Bazaar.  It was LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT. Yet the wedding took place only after 5 years and 2 wives.  

Photo Credit: Ernie Albano

Photo Credit: Ernie Albano

Five years later and after 2 wives. But she was his greatest love. His favorite. So she was renamed Mumtaz Mahal meaning “Jewel of the Palace”. Yet she was hardly at the Palace, accompanying the Emperor, then bearing the name “Shah Jahan” — meaning “King of the World” — in his military adventures while bearing his 14 children. Such devotion. Such love. I could almost hear the royal “gossip” about this great love affair.

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Blue-eyed Shah Jahan and Lovely Mumtaz Mahal. Theirs is the best, hauntingly heart-rending love story of all time. The 15th century Pearl Mosque in Agra bears a grand exterior that glistens, sparkles, and glows as the sun passes overhead. It must look magical under a crescent moon. But for now, we stand in awe just viewing it, nearly dancing in sunlight and shade, dazzlingly white.

You ride this rickshaw on your way to Taj Mahal.

You ride this rickshaw on your way to Taj Mahal.

The "Teardrop" hides behind this fort-like gate.

The “Teardrop” hides behind this fort-like gate.

Shah Jahan’s reign is the Golden Era for Mughal art and architecture. Yet he is undoubtedly made most famous by this single feat — the builder of Taj Mahal to honor his favorite wife. The story goes that Shah Jahan was so heartbroken that he mourned Mumtaz’ death so bad that his hair all turned gray overnight when he emerged from mourning in one of the royal rooms. The Pearl Mosque is now an Indian icon and no visit to India is ever complete without visiting this royal tomb.

A glimpse of the royal tomb as one enters the gate.

A glimpse of the royal tomb as one enters the gate.

Jimi Hendrix was here!

Jimi Hendrix was here!

Truly, the Taj Mahal remains unsurpassed in its beauty. Shining marble with inlaid precious stones that glows under the glare of the sun as much as it glistens when darkness sets in. You feel Shah Jahn’s love and devotion just looking at it. Heartbroken, yet he lived and had a long reign till he fell seriously ill that it triggered a war of succession among his sons. The nearby Agra Fort is from where Shah Jahan, in his last days, viewed his Taj Mahal across the river. Deposed and imprisoned by his own son for the rest of his life. He intended to build a Black Mosque as his resting place, but he was destined to lie side by side with his beloved Mumtaz inside this magnificent royal tomb instead. A teardrop on the face of eternity. A monument to love.

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(Don’t you just love this selfie photo by Ernie Albano? Thanks, Ernie!)

Ranakpur’s Jain Temple


Ranakpur is some 5 hours drive from the blue city of Johdpur. The 15th century temple in the Aravali Valley hardly invited my attention for 2 reasons. First, I knew zilch about Jainism. Second, I have the beginnings of temple and fortress-fatigue by now. It didn’t help that the roads leading to Raknapur was such a rugged landscape, no lush forests nor vegetation, and our long trip was marked only by an occasional strange rock formation here and there. IMG_6743-0.JPG IMG_6749-1.JPG Out of the mud, cow dung and rubbish littering Johdpur’s narrow alleys into Aravali Valley past processions of holy cows and goats meandering along the major roads, we came face to face with monkeys guarding the temple gates. I confess monkeys scare me out of my wits but these monkeys were quiet, oblivious to our presence and obviously uninterested in humans. The nearly peaceful demeanor must have something to do with the tenets of Jainism which invokes that all living things have divine souls. IMG_6772.JPG IMG_6784.JPG This belief kept the Jains inside their homes by sunset, wont to linger outside in the dark where they may accidentally step on bugs and other tiny insects. You bet you won’t see a Jain swat a fly or shoo shoo a flying beetle. The idea drives me insane but such is their faith which commands respect and yes, admiration. IMG_6801.JPG IMG_6815.JPG Jainism is one of 3 ancient Indian religious traditions along with Buddhism and Hinduism. It promotes not only non-violence to living creatures but also non- possessiveness or absence of wordly attachments. Some Jains believe monks should be naked, completely renouncing all passions and bodily instincts and senses. A tough order, if you ask me. Yet for all its non-material attachments, I do find their temple an architectural wonder in marble. What with the corbelled ceiling and ornately designed arches as well as all 1,444 pillars — no 2 pillars are the same —intricately decorated. IMG_6783.JPG IMG_6819.JPG It may not have spread across oceans outside India, but there remain Jain communities within this incredible nation. Naked Jains? We spotted one. And frankly, it’s easier for me to understand that than letting tiny bugs bite them young babies. I won’t, can’t aspire to be a Jain. Non-violence yes, but I think I’d still instinctively hit a mosquito within swatting distance. 😔 IMG_6837.JPG IMG_6825.JPG IMG_6838.JPG


Sourced from the Net. The entire Fort with its MANY palaces.

Sourced from the Net. The entire Fort with its MANY palaces.

Another day, another palace. I can get used to this. Before this visit, I have only heard of the Taj Mahal, Amber Fort and Udaipur’s Taj Lake Palace. Yet our iti included meal stops in former palaces or royal manors, and each city — pink (Jaipur), white (Udaipur) or blue (Johdpur) — has its own top attraction in the form of another fortress or palace. For sure, the monarchs of that time didn’t scrimp on their extravagant residences. 

The Fort, perched atop a hill, enclosed by the Blue City of Johdpur.

The Fort, perched atop a hill, enclosed by the Blue City of Johdpur.

Photo Credit: Ernie Albano

Photo Credit: Ernie Albano

From a distance, Mehrangharh Fort reminded me of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. BUT with the addition of imposing thick walls enclosing not one or two, but several palaces high above the blue city of Johdpur. Its sheer size renders it one of the largest forts in India, right atop a rocky hill known as the mountain of birds. We climbed up through a winding path passing several gates, mindful of many birds flying above us. In Sanskrit, Mehrangarh means “Sun Fort”. Inside, one finds the Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), Phool Mahal (Flower Palace), Sheesha Mahal (Mirror Palace) and a few more. You may have guessed “Mahal” means Palace. Like “Pur” means city (Jaipur, Johdpur, Udaipur) while “Than” (as in Rajasthan) means place.

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My friend Emy on uphill climb towards one of the formidable Gates.

My friend Emy on uphill climb towards one of the formidable Gates.

It is not surprising to hear that the Fort is haunted. After all, a man was burned alive in its foundation as a sort of offering. Past the gate are markings of small handprints — the self-immolation marks of royal widows who threw themselves on the funeral pyres of their maharajas. What a way to die!

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From latticed windows, the wives and concubines watch goings-on in the palaces’ courtyards. One palace has a ceiling made of gold filigree and mirrors. Another has stained glasses which look marvelous in the glow of the afternoon sun. Only shows off the wealth and power of Marwar’s rulers of that period. Museum pieces include many paintings and other art pieces — a glimpse into royal hobbies and interests. And how about those polo outfits which found their way into today’s fashion? Johdpur’s they’re called — those riding pants with many folds and looking loose on your hips but tight from the knees down.

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Have I mentioned that the place is haunted? There must be lots of stories to tell.

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“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.” – Samuel Johnson

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The Man and His Camel

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The Many Bright Colors of Indian Fabrics

India is a progressive country, yielding so many young billionaires like it’s in fashion! I saw the riches, glamour and the princely pleasures of the majaranas and maharajas in their past echoing into their current life situation, as well as the poverty and chaos to be found in the rural villages and narrow alleys of the cities.

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Diwali “flowers” Sold Along Major Streets

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A Bullock Cart Ride Across A Rural Village near Bijay Niwas

Twilight Zone it seemed as one is transported from the comforts of a former royal manor to a rural village where cow dung is held sacred. Or being whizzed through narrow alleys past stalls selling nearly anything from candied sweets to multi-colored grains and spices, to fabrics glowing with gemstones to carpets sold as cost overruns and rejects from fashionable name stores in Paris and Milan. Truly, a sensory overload and I have not even begun to describe our actual experience.

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Street Photography

Parasols In Lovely Colors

Parasols In Lovely Colors

Photographers would have a blast capturing human interest shots here. Indian women are so beautiful, so exotic-looking, especially with their colorful sarees. The wide-eyed children with curly locks aren’t camera-shy and would even prod you to photograph them. What’s best is many locals love having their photos with tourists like us. Many times I evaded the cam thinking I’m photobombing —- only for the locals to ask me to stay put and pose with them. Incredible Indians!

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The markets here extend way over the main roads, sometimes spilling right in front of temple gates or along fortress walls. Camel and donkey carts, along with the occasional elephant, compete with rickshaws and tuktuks for attention. Haggling is an art, as ancient as the forts and palaces. I didn’t observe any zoning system, finding mansions side by side with shanties. There is absolutely no pretense to hide the bad, the ugly, the dirty. The stark and naked truth either shocks or charms you. Either way it hits you, India is truly incredible to the core.

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Sari-Saring Saree Sa Diwali


The eve of the Diwali Festival fell on October 23 this 2014. This is like New Year’s Eve across India where a festival of lights, fireworks and gifts of sweets is celebrated nationwide. It is a 5 day festival where homes and buildings are festooned with lights and people get busy days or weeks before, cleaning their premises and hanging those lights. People also buy new clothes to wear and the nightsky get all lit up by fireworks, much like welcoming the new year.

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Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word deepavali which means “row of lights”. It is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains alike in the tradition of welcoming home Rama and Sita based on the Sanskrit epic Ramayana (Hindu), or the release and homecoming of Guru Hargobind (who was imprisoned by a Mughal emperor) in the Sikh tradition. Among Jains, Diwali celebrates the attainment of enlightenment of Lord Mahavira who laid down the tenets of the Jain religion as practiced today.

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However it is celebrated and regardless of faith, the festival is marked by fireworks, gifts of dry fruits or sweets, acts of charity, lighting of oil lamps and prayers to deities. Here, the celebration of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance assume universal appeal. We were lucky to celebrate this lights festival with locals in Jaipur’s Diggi Palace.

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It was a perfect excuse for us to buy and don our sarees. What a chore to choose from all those lovely, vibrant colors! And what an even bigger chore to wear them. I did mine in a jiffy but felt uncomfortable the entire night, worrying I’d leave so many yards of gossamer fabric like a heap on the floor. It took us too long — along with the picture-taking — to leave our hotel for the dinner-show cum fireworks display in Diggi Palace. We caught the last few numbers of the cultural performance while enjoying dinner under the night sky.

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Today, many cities elsewhere in the world observe Diwali Festival. Diwali decorations adorn homes and buildings especially in areas where there are Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities. We were only too happy we celebrated it while we were in Jaipur.

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On caparisoned elephants who marked the path with giant mounds of “ellie dung”, we made our way up through the 7 kilometer-fortress walls passing the Sun Gate till the courtyard of Amber Fort. Swaying left to right then back, I dared not use my monopad for some selfie shots for fear I’d drop it in that noble beast’s mound. Yay!

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Most everyone seems to be having a great time. Giggling as they “slide” while the ellie sways, on this square space atop the beast that seats 2 people. I had a good look on the beast’s painted face and felt guilty. I bet these animals didn’t relish all these facepainting. Nor did they enjoy going back and forth through the serpentine cobbled pathways and ramparts ferrying camera-toting tourists from all corners of the world

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High up on a hill, this 17th century fortress palace in terracotta looks impenetrable. Absolutely a top attraction of Jaipur although it is situated in Amer a town some 11 kilometers from Jaipur, the Pink City. Inside, there are halls with ornamented pillars, doors made of sandalwood and ivory, beautiful mosaic work in glass.

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The story goes that the beloved queen loves starwatching so much that the King had the Sheesh Mahal built. This top attraction and many visitors’ favorite has walls and ceilings carved with beautiful flowers made of pure glass. Thus, a singular light — like from a candle — is reflected around the Hall like thousands of stars.

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Wow, you can say the Mughal Emperor Akbar knew how to live once you get here. But then of course, what do you expect from this great man with over 300 wives? Nearly one for each night of the year! But I do wonder about the lives led by the wives and concubines. What occupies their minds? How do they spend their time in this royal fortress- residence? I bet there’s a book to read about this. Curious, Curious!

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Some photos on this spread were grabbed from the albums of Maricel and Chit. Thank you, dear friends.

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