I live in constant terror in India. It's not what you think. Despite the 2008 Mumbai Attack, the train wrecks in Bengal caused by Maoist rebels, or the continued threat of war with Pakistan, India seems safe. There have been armed security personnel at most major tourist attractions or popular places. It's also not the fear of contracting malaria, dengue fever, or rabies either. Chances of getting those in the cities is pretty low unless you are dumb enough to pet those wild dogs or monkeys.
I'm afraid of the constant tipping. Somebody holds a door open for you. Ten rupees. Wheels your luggage 15 feet. Ten rupees. Hands you a towel to wipe your hands at the sink. Ten rupees. Wipes your bottom after you poop. Ten rupees. Brings you a pillow on the overnight train. Ten rupees. Allows you to take their photo. Ten rupees. Watch my shoes while I visit a temple. Ten rupees. Okay, I made up the fourth one. I'm sure that's 20 rupees.
I am not adverse to tipping. It's the grease for the wheels of hospitality. However, the obsequious behavior to make a few bucks off of you is demoralizing. Waiters have literally hovered over us waiting for us to make any mistake so that they can provide "service". Really, I CAN pick up my own napkin. I've witnessed some hotel staffers undermining one another to do some menial task for the tip.
The expectation that every service warrants a gratuity is ridiculous. In Delhi, I asked the hotel front desk clerk to change my 100 rupee bill to tens so that I could tip my porter. To fulfill that simple request, he also wanted ten rupees for himself. I am tired of carrying a huge bulge of ten rupee bills in my pants that is necessary for the constant hemorrhaging of tips. It would probably be easier to just drop some money every ten feet I walk.
Therefore, I love the concept of centralized tipping at hotels. Its genius rivals that of the incandescent light bulb and the Snuggie. Instead of having to dole out tips to each individual, any gratuity is given at checkout and then distributed evenly amongst the staff. This allows guests to focus more on relaxing rather than tipping. Yes this is a "communist" method of doing things and theoretically some staffers may not pull their weight. Of course, those people can be fired. Starting at the Bundelkhand Riverside, many of the next several hotels we visited instituted this policy. Our stays there were much more enjoyable and much less stressful. Ironically, I ended up tipping much more at the hotels that used a centralized gratuity. A happier guest is a more generous guest.
The road to Agra from Orchha was not much better than the day before. It took about five hours to travel the 148 mile (238 km) distance, 30 miles/hr on a major highway! There were two sights that amazed us but didn't even make our driver blink. First, we saw a man lying down in one lane of the road literally rolling along the highway. Behind him were two other people pushing a large cart probably to warn the cars and trucks zooming by that he was down there. Our driver said that some Hindus will travel to a temple in this fashion to offer themselves to a god if they have an important wish they want granted. We were in the middle of nowhere, at least 40 miles from Agra. It's unbelievable that this man could be making such a long journey in this fashion.
The next oddity we passed was a fully naked man walking along the shoulder of the road. He was a Digambar Jain monk. The ascetics from this sect of Jainism prefer to follow the dress of Lord Mahavira, who established some of the tenets of this religion. They eschew clothing so that they can be "clothed by their environment." This sight further highlights the complexities of Indian society. On one hand you have women completely covered from head to toe with sari's or burkas. On the other hand, you have men walking around completely naked. Me personally, I prefer the roles to be reversed. Whether you believe in the different religions of India or not, you have to respect their dedication to their gods.
On arrival in Agra, we met our guide Sunil Gupta and made a quick stop at Priya's. Since it is an obvious tourist-herding restaurant, I had low expectations for the food. However, the navrati korma (mixed vegetables with cheese sauce) was actually very good. The lamb and peas was pretty good, too.
They had four stalls in the communal bathroom. With a large crowd of tourist, the men seemed to be herded to the squatters (first one in India so far) and the women appropriately to the seated commodes. As expected, the attendant wanted a tip. Ten rupees.
The next stop was the Agra Fort, the main palace of the majority of the Great Mughal emperors. The fort is immense. The British under the Raj used it for barracks for their troops. Even now, half of the fort is inaccessible because the Indian army still uses it as a military base. It would be a shame if this heritage site were destroyed because India is keeping it as a legitimate military target for the Pakistani Air Force. Although the Agra Fort had undergone some modifications by the colonial British, the exteriors are still very well-preserved (except for the moat which is a bit dried up.
The intricate carvings in the red sandstone walls have lasted the test of time.
Unfortunately, the paintings on the interior walls and ceilings have faded badly with poor upkeep. Last century, a visit by King George did prompt them to restore one tiny section of the ceiling, gold paint and all.
Restored on the bottom right
The living quarters for Shah Jehan's two daughters reveal his prejudices towards his children. His elder and favorite daughter, Jahanara, had quarters constructed of white marble walls with intricately carved designs.
His younger daughter, Roshanara, had quarters constructed of white plaster topped with a brass (not gold!) roof. Needless to say, her loyalty towards her father was not very strong.
Eventually, Roshanara assisted her third brother Aurangzeb in overthrowing Shah Jahan. After killing his remaining brothers (and rivals), Aurangzeb imprisoned his father in a small section of the Agra Fort until the elder's death eight years later. Shah Jahan could only view the Taj Mahal, which he built for his late wife, miles away.
Although it was a "prison," Shah Jahan's section is still the most immaculate area in Agra fort. The walls are white marble with jeweled inlaid decor. Sadly, this part of the Fort is gated off from visitors as thieves have already pried several of the semi-precious stones from the walls.
Prior to coming to India, we watched a big-budgeted Bollywood film called Jodhaa Akbar, about the marriage between the third Mughal emperor Akbar the Great and his Hindu Rajput wife Jodhaa. The film team reconstructed the Agra Fort (and the Amer Fort in Jaipur which we will be seeing soon) as it would have looked at the time of the Mughal Dynasty. I wish that the caretakers of the Agra Fort would do the same thing to some of the rooms. As it stands now, the site looks like several cold, ornate stone walls and floors. By adding the carpets, tapestries, and furniture that would have adorned the palace centuries ago, visitors would be able to visualize it as the opulant and leisurious royal home that it used to be.
We finished the tour of the Agra Fort in the main courtyard. At the multi-columned Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences), the Mughal emperors held council with his advisors. Amid the colorful gardens frolicked several groups of monkeys.
Not wanting to "waste" the remainder of the day on such trivial matters as seeing centuries-old mosques, tombs, and palaces, we headed to our hotel, the Oberoi Amarvilas. There are some hotels which provide lodging at your destination. Other hotels like the Amarvilas ARE the destination. Consistently ranked as one of the best hotels in Asia, let alone the world (currently #5 by Travel+Leisure Magazine), the Amarvilas epitomizes service, amenities, and beauty with a matching price tag. The staff was very helpful and friendly without being obtrusive. Our room (427) was spacious and elegant with a wonderful view of the pool and garden below. We did regret not ponying up more for a balcony room so that we could privately enjoy watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal.
View of the Taj Mahal from our Hotel Room
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing absolutely nothing useful--lounging and swimming at the heated "infinity" pool and relaxing on the terrace with a cup of chai masala and cookies while traditional musicians and dancers performed on the well-kept grounds.
We dined at the hotel's Estephan restaurant. Reservations were recommended although the place was not crowded. We did see some guests turned away without reservations. A musician playing the sitar set the mood for the restaurant.
While we decided upon our orders, papadum with three relishes (mint, peppers, and tamarind?) were brought to the table. Then we were started off with a tomato consomme.
The tandoori prawn starter was excellent. Less so were the quail curry (although impressively de-boned and stuffed) and the not-so-spicy, "spicy" Kerala shrimp curry. Dal and naan were also served with our dinners.
Overall, our stay at the Amarvilas was extremely relaxing and stress-free. After all, they did have centralized tipping.