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Water, Water, Nowhere, and Not A Drop to Drink

Traveling to Jaipur via Fatehpur Sikri

semi-overcast 78 °F

We had a very hearty breakfast at the hotel. We ordered from the menu, and helped ourselves to the buffet table stacked with various pastries, fruit, cereal, cold meats, and...pickled vegetables. The whole spread was delicious, especially the mango yogurt shot (although the glass was too small to get the spoon inside).

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(Left) Breakfast dining area with buffet (Right) Mango yogurt shot.

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(Left) Eggs Benedict (Right) omelette with cripsy bacon

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Extras from the buffet

We took another dip in the heated pool, relaxed some more, and sadly said our farewell to the Amarvilas. One bonus of staying in a fancy hotel is that they don't skimp on the bottled water. We were heading west into the desert and knew water would be more scarce and seldomly complimentary. So we smuggled about 6 one-liter bottles of water into our luggage.

Before we headed out of town, we wanted to make a detour for some shopping. Agra is known for four special items: leather goods from camel or water buffalo skin, a dark semi-precious stone called the 'Black Star of India,' marble carvings inlaid with gemstones, and Kashmiri rugs. You may ask 'Why Agra for Kashmiri goods?'. Simple. Who wants to get blown up for a carpet? Since Kashmir is a disputed region between India and Pakistan, many of the artisans have fled the violence and ended up in Agra since special financial considerations are given there.

Unfortunately, the wife wanted the two big ticket items--the inlaid marble and the carpets. We first stopped at a place called U.P. Handicrafts Palace. First, they demonstrated the technique of transforming the small slivers of semi-precious stones into masterpieces of art in white marble. As expected, their gallery was next. They had three floors containing huge tables, end pieces, and jewelry boxes decorated in this fashion. We decided upon something more manageable--a small decorative plate. The one we purchased actually has better detail work than that of the Taj Mahal. When we finished haggling on the price, Sherri used the ancient Chinese bargaining phrase to seal the deal. "How about throwing in a little gift...something for my daughter." So they added a small ivory elephant with basic inlaid work. While the plate was more than we were planning to spend, we just told ourselves that we cannot get this quality of artistry anywhere else in the world.

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(Left) Our new plate (Right) A little "gift"

The next shop was called the Oriental Heritage which specialized in Kashmiri carpets and textiles. We were hoping to find a small rug that could replace the one we bought off of EBay years ago when we were still in residency. We first got the obligatory demonstration on how these rugs are constructed. Depending on the size and quality, it can take about four months of monotonous knotting. They first showed us a good-sized Pashmina wool carpet which was much less expensive than anything we could get back in the U.S. We picked out a beautiful blue and red one and were ready to pay. Then they dropped the bomb on us. Silk rugs. 'Just to look'. They began showing us some small ones. If you have never seen nor felt one, you have lived a life bereft of beauty. They are gorgeous and extremely soft. The first one was great and still within our range. We gave each other that silent look of 'how about two rugs?' Hook. Line. And Sinker. They were then ready to reel us in with the really good stuff. They showed us a large 'silk on silk on silk' carpet with unparalleled detail and beauty. It was 12k! Still a deal in the U.S, but way out of our league. We eventually settled for one of similar quality but much, much smaller size. Nobody will step on it. It will be a tapestry. After some serious haggling, we purchased the items which will be shipped back home for free. On the way out, my wife added salt to the wounds by purchasing a fully knitted (not embroidered) Pashmina shawl. I have to admit, it is leagues beyond the usual Pashmina's we have seen so far.

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(Left) Artisan knotting a rug. I bet he only "works" when there are tourist around. (Right) $12k Silk rug. Ouch!

Now at this point, you have to be thinking that we are the biggest schmucks for going to the touristy stores with the driver and guide. After all, they are getting a whopping 5% commission that really is coming out of our wallet. You better believe that shopkeeper isn't paying it. It's no big deal for little knickknacks, but for big ticket items, the costs add up. Unfortunately, there are really very few options. You can try leaving the guide and driver behind, but that can lead to an awkward relationship with them. If you go it alone, you may still have a problem actually finding a decent store. It's not like you are going to the mall. There are thousands of small shops of varying quality and reputation. You can go with the guidebook recommendations, but finding those stores can be difficult because India's streets are so poorly marked and nondescript. All of this store searching takes time. Unfortunately, most people like us don't have the time as we are on a tight schedule to see as much of the country as we can in two weeks. So unless you know exactly what you want and where to get it, then you will likely be paying the 5% commission.

We drove the next hour to Fatehpur Sikri, the fort built by Akbar the Great. Apparently, he wanted to move his capital closer to a Sufi saint, Salim Chishti, who had predicted the birth of his son and heir. He then spent the next several years building this giant fortress-palace only to abandon it 14 years later because of lack of ample water supply. Slight oversight.

Prior to arriving there, we had a lengthy chat with our guide Sunil Gupta who had just been married one month earlier. Like most Indians, he had an arranged marriage. Originally, he was set to marry his wife only one month after first meeting her! While this is completely alien to us, it seems pretty much the norm here in India. Sunil said it is probably a good setup for him, because he is too busy working 7 days a week. He wouldn't have time to meet or date women anyway. He showed us a few of his wedding pictures including the special outfits the brides and grooms wear. Just like Western cultures, Indians also spend a fortune on an outfit that they may just wear only once. He was so interesting to converse with that, the next thing we knew, we were at our next destination.

Unlike the Taj Mahal or the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri is much less crowded. Despite the lack of popularity, it still maintains the same level of grandeur as the other sites.

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The and courtyard and pavillion of the Diwan-i-Aam where public meetings were held. As you can see, only a very few tourists are in sight

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The Diwan-i-Khas, a building used for private audiences with Emperor Akbar. The central Lotus Throne Pillar supported his throne.

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The Ankh Michali is thought to have been the treasury building. It is relatively plain with the exception of mythical beasts at the entryway which guarded the valuables.

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This hop-scotch like grid is actually a life-sized parcheesi board where ladies of the court played the game.

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The Panch Mahal is a breezy multistoryed pavillion where the women of the court would lounge and watch the games.

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The Anoop Talao is the pool where the emperor's favorite musician performed.

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The Khwabgah is the private quarters of Emperor Akbar. (Left) There is an elaborate ventillation system to keep him cool in the hot summer nights. (Right) The bed is elevated off the floor and accessible by a removable ramp. This would limit access from potential assassins.

The palace had separate areas for his three wives.

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His Christian wife Maryam from Goa had the least intricate chambers. Some of the paintings with Christian motifs can still be seen, albeit barely. Once known as the Golden Facade, the fresco's are now in pretty rough shape.

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His Muslim wife had the smallest quarters. However, it has the most intrically-carved walls. In the past, the pillars were plastered with diamonds.

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Akbar's Rajput wife Jodha Bai, his favorite, had, by far, the largest complex which is decorated with Hindu architecture.

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If they had to drink this water, it is no wonder the Mughals went back to Agra.

With the smaller crowds, Fatehpur Sikri is a more relaxing place to visit. It was worth the hourlong stop, especially since it is on the way to our next destination. We said our goodbyes to Sunil who really did a great job as our guide. In contrast to the previous two days, the road to Jaipur was smooth and fast. We arrived much earlier than we had expected.

We checked into our hotel Jas Vilas located outside the old city. It's a former havelli converted to a ~15 bedroom hotel about 10 years ago. Now it would be unfair to compare this to the Amarvilas which is in a completely different price range. The bed was comfortable, the bathroom was clean, and the TV had English channels. On CNN, we sadly watched the aftermath from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a beautiful country that we had just visited 2 years ago.

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Everybody is cozy here, even this pigeon roosting above the door to our room.

Jas Vilas is a good example that you don't have to pay exorbitant prices to get great service. The staff is mainly non-English speaking Nepalese, but we rarely interacted with them. Instead, most guest interactions were with a polite local man and one fairly-understandable Nepali. We even conversed with the owner and some of his family. If we had any problems, they were taken care of quickly and affably. We had the Indian buffet dinner there that night. The food was fine. I noticed most of the other guests were eating more Western fare such as pizzas and fries.

Jas Vilas has a nice dining area adjacent to the pool. There are beautiful flower beds and ornate walls in the this courtyard.

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(Left) Al fresco dining area. (Right) Decorative walls around the pool.

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A reminder of the hotel name, in case you forget.

Some might argue that the tile work for the swimming pool is a little over-the-top, but I think that it is tastefully done. I bet if Emperor Akbar had a crystal blue pool with 'Fatephur Sikri' spelled out in tiles, he would have never moved his capital back to Agra.

Posted by evilnoah 31.03.2011 15:51 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur agra fatehpur jasvilas

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