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It was to Fatehpur I went after my brief stay in Ajmer. It was a long journey, for this was in an area north of Jaipur known as Shekhavati, famous for its havelis. My old Lonely Planet guide was enthusiastic about these, but they are still still largely unknown to tourists, and I had most places there to myself.

The havelis are houses of merchants of the 19th century who developed a practice of decorating them with colourful murals. These involve traditional subjects, history and myth, but also modern inventions such as trains and planes.

I had thought of staying in Fatehpur, which had a Tourist Corporation hotel, but having got there before four I was able to move on after seeing its principal attraction, the Goenka Haveli. This was locked and looked deserted, but knocking produced a family retainer who showed me round enthusiastically. The place was owned now by nearly fifty family members jointly, none of whom were in Fatehpur, so he looked after the place and let in people who wanted to see it. There was no charge and, though he must have been tipped, he seemed quite content to continue with what he seemed to see as a feudal obligation.

The step well that was supposed to be the other attraction of the town was full of rubbish, as my guidebook of thirty years ago had warned, and we were told it was now past restoration, as the book had warned several decades ago. So we went on then in what was still excellent light to Mandawa, the much smaller town that was supposed to have some of the best havelis in Shekawathi.

So it proved. As we entered the town a boy from whom we asked directions said he was a guide, and offered to show us round for a very moderate fee. Tourism had died during coronavirus he said, and was just coming back so he was as pleased to see me as I was to be guided around. He was a mine of information, and showed me the havelis I wanted to see, including the Bansidhar Newatia with the frescoes on its walls of a boy with a telephone and a glider. He also showed us the Harlalka well which was a particular attractive construction, and another one which the book had noted.

And best of all he took me to the Radhika haveli which was beautiful too, and was also a hotel and remarkably cheap. I had thought of staying in the palace in the town which is now a hotel and went to see it but, though it was a very attractive building with tasteful public rooms, staying there would have cost very much more.

The first seven pictures are of the Goenka Haveli, including its wonderful wooden carvings and a family group of the owners and also an area that has been restored. Then there is the step well in Mandawa, and the frescoes mentioned above after which I have three pictures of the splendour of the buildings, followed by the second step well.

Before I move on to the journey to Rajasthan however I should write a little bit about the field visits on my last day in Delhi. We saw two immensely useful projects Aide et Action South Asia conducts. One was a centre for the children of prostitutes working in one of their principal haunts, an area in north Delhi near the main railway station. The youngsters are taught basics there, but also given self confidence, because  without education and a sense of self worth the children were liable to slip into the same profession, the boys becoming pimps, which was often the case with their fathers, when these were known.

The children were a delightful lot, some full of confidence though a couple, who were prominent in the concert they put on for us, were very shy, suggesting the general diffidence our facilitators had to overcome.

The second was work in a leper colony and, after the children at the first project I show the parents we met at the colony, as well as the lively young teachers we spoke to in the office of the project partners.

The next morning I took a train from Delhi, the railway station of which I show next, for it is a magnificent colonial building. And I was overjoyed again to be travelling on an Indian train. I had much enjoyed these in younger days, but it was now nearly 20 years since I had been on one.

Having got to Jaipur I took the car the AeA office there had arranged for me to the fort city of Ajmer, which I had not seen previously. I had been booked into the state Tourist Development Corporation hotel, for I had found these cheap and serviceable in journeys in many Indian states, and though I got there late the staff were helpful and provided me with beer and dinner. Coffee next morning was prompt, allowing me to work on my computer in the lobby, the only place where internet worked.

I was on my way by nine, driving past the Ana Sagar, a massive lake that was built in the 12th century, and then going on to what I most wanted to see, the Adhai-din-kar-jhonpra. This was a Jain college which was converted into a mosque at the end of the 12th century. But the intricate carvings of the old college are still on view, and the great domed ceilings in the entrance hall.

From there I went to the city’s most famous shrine, the Dargah, the tomb of a 12th century Sufi saint. There are mosques there constructed by Akbar and Shaj Jehan, but they have been done up and the place was so crowded, so you could not see much of the place.

I had a quick glance at the outside of the Fort and the Museum there which was once Akbar’s palace, but the guidebook said they were nothing special and I wanted to get on for my next destination was well over five hours away. The pictures are of the Ana Sagar and the temple turned mosque, the Dargah and the fort.

After presenting on this blog an account of my visit to Georgia, which I had shown before on Facebook I will do the same for my visit last year to India, for the pictures are worth displaying in abundance.

I went towards the end of July, for a meeting in Delhi, though first I spent a night with my old friend Christine whose wonderful hospitality I had not enjoyed for three years, given the restrictions of recent times.

After a night with her and Himmat her husband, who produced a fantastic dinner of barbecued goat, I was dropped off the following afternoon at the Lutyens House which we had been booked into for the days of the meeting.

As its name indicates, it is in the heart of Lutyens Delhi, a private home converted into a beautiful guest house, with a new wing across a beautiful garden from the old house where we would have breakfast.

On my first morning there I walked, after coffee in the verdant garden, to the Lodi Garden nearby. I had last been there when I was staying at the India International Centre, and had much enjoyed going in there to see its beautiful 16th century tomb. And it was delightful to walk in the garden, though I had to share it with hordes of middle aged walkers. On the way back I was vastly amused to see a group of them engaging in calisthenics or yoga, a very different sight from the splendour of the old tomb.

Our meetings that day were at the Habitat Centre, which I cannot recall having been in earlier. It was part of the institutionalization of intellectual gatherings that had been a feature of the early years of independence, the best example of which is the India International Centre.

Next morning, after early coffee, I walked to the other monument in the vicinity, the 18th century Safdarjung Tomb. The place was not yet open but a security guard let me in, and I had that lovely garden practically to myself, except for the workers who stayed in, who were just getting up.  

The first two pictures are of the garden of the Lutyens House, looking from the terrace of the new wing to the old house, and on the swing in the side garden for my coffee. Then there are four of the Lodhi tomb, including its entrance and the remarkable ceiling.

There follow the Safdarjung tomb, first in all its glory, and then details, including of the gatehouse and its glorious ceiling.

It was a joy to be back in the heart of Delhi, where there were monuments all around one, into which you could drop in so casually to feast eyes and heart on the grandeur of its longstanding civilizations.

But at the title of this series indicates, it was new sights too that I craved, and so after another day of meetings in Delhi I set off, on the 30th of July, for Jaipur in Rajasthan.

The high Caucasus and a long evening

After that bi-coloured river we began to climb, up and up, getting after several hairpin bends to Gudauri, famed as a ski resort, with heaps of hotels on the peaks. Alex suggested we look at a Friendship Monument on a cliff, a relic of Soviet days, but we declined the suggestion and went on to Kazbeghi, the last town before the Russian border.

It is now called Stepantsminda but that is generally ignored. High on a hill above it is the Holy Trinity church, but that can only be approached along a rugged road on which Alex could not take his car. He said Datsuns could be hired for the journey at what I heard as 18 lari, which seemed very reasonable, and I persuaded Vasantha too to come after Alex assured us there was no climbing to be done. In fact it was 80 but given the difficulties of the road I could hardly complain when we got back to town and I had to pay, myself since Vasantha rightly said he had wanted none of this.

He had in fact stayed in the car while Alex and I went up to the church, brilliantly situated with glorious views to the mountains all around, and the valleys between them and its own peak. The church itself was interesting but more so was the bell tower, with carvings of what seemed to be dinosaurs, which one of the priests obligingly showed me when I could not discern it.

Alex then recommended an Indian restaurant but we decided not to eat and instead drove swiftly back to Tbilisi. Back at the hotel I had to repack, to include the carpets in my luggage, and then we set off to find something to eat. There was a bit of a wander to find a place that had Georgian food, and as I went on ahead, with Vasantha trundling my suitcase behind me, I heard him call for help and turned to find him surrounded by a host of gypsy children. I shouted, and others at a café got up and they rushed away but he was quite startled, and very thankful that he had had no money on him for it was clear they would have picked his pockets while his hands were held.

He was still unsettled when we finally found a place, where I could have a last glass of wine. We had decided on two dishes, to share them, but the repertoire of the place was limited so we both ordered khachapuri imeruli, the pie with melted cheese which he had thought delicious when we had it in Kutaisi. But that was a mistake for the pies were enormous, and as before I got parcels of the halves of each we could not eat.

I then cashed dollars to give him enough for a taxi next day, and spent what was left on cheese and salami, before taking the metro to the bus station, to get back to the airport the way I had come. It was still early so I did not worry too much about Vasantha having to face gypsies on the short walk to the hotel, for now his hands were unencumbered.

The bus was waiting when I looked for it in the courtyard outside the metro station, and I got to the airport very early for what was a 3 am flight. That allowed me to pack the kachapuri into my suitcase and the stuff I had bought in Vasantha’s bag, both of which I put in the hold so I had only my typewriter to carry. And with check in opening a bit early, I was able to relax in the Qatar lounge, and gorge on aubergines stuffed with walnuts, a delightful snack to conclude my Georgian experiences.

The pictures are of the views from the hill and the Holy Trinity church atop it, including of the strange sculpted dinosaurs.

The opera and a drive north

We set off early for the opera, walking down the main Rustavelli road where Vasantha did some shopping and we had a quick snack in a café. It was nice after that to sit outside the beautiful opera building, watching the audience turn up for what was the premiere of a new production of ‘Manon Lescaut’, though Vasantha worried about being let in since everyone else had jackets or long-sleeved shirts. But of course there was no problem and we found our seats to be extremely good, at the very front of the top circle, but that was not too high.

I love the opera, the rousing and romantic music, and though there were some changes which were confusing – the opening being a wedding – it was a simple plot to follow. Vasantha did not find it so easy, not least because he thought Manon, who was large, was the mother of the bride, and was astonished when I told him that that was the heroine.

The singing was glorious, and though again there were quirks later on, the prostitutes with whom she was deported being depicted by statues which were the centrepiece of the second act, everything was clear enough, and delightfully sung. But Vasantha thought the heroine was very silly, and declared as we left that he did not think much of opera.

He took his test when we were back at the metro station, though he was told he would only get the results late the following night. I was up early next morning, for coffee as I worked on my computer in the dining room, before anyone else was up, and then after breakfast I finished my packing since I thought it best to take my suitcase, and a small bag of Vasantha’s which he wanted me to take home, in case we were late getting back.

Alex turned up at 10 as arranged, and we set off for the high Caucasus mountains in the north, along what was described as the Georgian military highway. There were lots of interesting stops on the way, beginning with a viewpoint for the beautiful Zhinvali Reservoir, where I found a couple of beautiful carpets at very good prices and Vasantha picked up two shawls.

Then it was the Ananuri fortress with a couple of beautiful churches, replete with stone carving and interesting frescoes. The next stop was one not in the guidebooks, but I was glad Alex recommended it, the confluence of two branches of the Aragvi river, one black and one white. They ran together for a while before mingling, reminding me of the confluence of the blue-black Rio Negro and the brown Rio Simoes to make up the Amazon at Manaos.

The pictures are of the opera, and then one of the split level room we had in our delightful hotel. Then there are the stunning views as we drove up, above the reservoir and then at the fortress, with its churches, and then on to see the confluence, with the two different colours easily discerned.

Davit Gareja

I was up early again next morning, though it was to find the terrace occupied by two couples who seem to have been there all night, and were listening to loud music. But they were pleasant enough, and my two cups of coffee came up one after the other, and this morning the sunrise over the hills was quite special.

I went down early enough to pack, and then we were served breakfast well on time, as good a meal as on the previous day. And then, after a last cup of tea on my balcony, we were off with George on the long drive down to Davit Gareja, reaching after a couple of hours a very different sort of countryside to the verdant forest elsewhere. These were grassy undulating hills, with a profusion of flowers.

Access to the first monastery there, Lavra, was easy, up a short path to a decorated gateway, through which you  came to intricate stairways going down two stories to a courtyard with a range of caves which monks had occupied in the 6th century. But the other monastery, Udabno, was some way up the hill, and Vasantha decided that was not for him.

After a strenuous climb I came across a couple of soldiers, who conveyed that they were there because the border with Azerbaijan was at the crest of the hill. They seemed wary of my going further, but in the end let me proceed to a celebrated spring, which was however inside a cave occupied by a monk. He would not let anyone in, but he did fill water bottles, very essential for I had finished the tea with which I had filled mine in the morning.

Then I walked back to get into the monastery which I could see spread out below me, but it turned out there was no way in. I gathered from one of the soldiers that to get there one had to go higher, and then down, and this was forbidden. He gave me a sweet as consolation.

Lots of other visitors also came up and were also disappointed. One suggested that there was a way in round the hill from Lavra, but when I went back and asked George to check he drew a blank and with Vasantha worrying about his PCR we set off for Tbilisi.

In fact we were back well before 3 pm, dropped back at our original hotel which George found with the help of a friend from his university days whom he picked up in the city. There Vasantha contacted Alex who said he could get the text down at a van near the metro, so he set off to investigate while I rested my poor aching feet. But he was advised to do the text late at night, given that he was only leaving a couple of days later.

The pictures are of that fabulous sunrise, and then the very pleasant drive to Davit Gareja, and then many of that exotic setting, including from high above of the monastery I could not enter.

Another evening in Telavi

Last on our list in that tour round Telavi was the Nekrevi Monastery, another set of churches piled together this time on an outcrop, with the remains too of a Bishop’s Palace. The quarters of the monks seem to have been tucked away discreetly under an overhang, and I had to rush to see the rest for the car stopped down below and the bus that took us up gave us just half an hour to wander. Vasantha had as usual given up by this stage and remained at the bottom of the outcrop.

I was tired then but it seemed silly to miss out on what the area was famous for, so we went to a winery, though Vasantha of course would not go on the tour and I cut it short to save my aching legs. But I did buy a couple of bottles, which were well wrapped up to be brought home. And then on the way back we had a drive through the historic parts of Telavi.

We had decided to get back to Tbilisi the next day, for Vasantha wanted to get a PCR test since he was going on to India. He wanted Alex to take him for this, but I persuaded him that he could ask to be picked up after 4 and since our only commitment otherwise was the opera in the evening I thought I should try to get also to what seemed a fascinating pair of monasteries in the south, near the Azerbaijani border.

I thought too it would be nice to avoid the hassle of buses and get a car back via the monasteries, so I asked George the driver what his charge would be. It was not too high, and since we had not spent very much – the whole trip cost us just over $1500 altogether, including the opera and the carpets / scarves we bought that day – I asked him to pick us up next morning. When we got back the hotel agreed to give us an even earlier breakfast, so we arranged for 9 am.

George recommended to us a restaurant very near the hotel, which provided good food, and wine, at substantially less than the hotel restaurant. And though the view was not quite as good, it had a raised area where we found a table. Vasantha had pork adjakuri which was not quite as nice as what I had had in Kutaisi, but my own different stew, veal chanakhi I think it was called, was quite delicious. Unfortunately there were hardly any Georgian sweets on the desert and the one Vasantha selected proved quite boring.

There are four pictures of the monastery, and then three of the visit to the winery, with its massive vats and two of the quaint sights of old Telavi Then there are two pictures of the dogs of Telavi, in the old town and outside the restaurant, with a picture of the restaurant in between.

A tour round Telavi

Our first stop was the Chavchavadze house, originally built early in the 19th century after Alexander Chavchavadze had fought for the Russians against Napoleon. But his son David was bankrupted when he had to pay a ransom to a Muslim leader in the Caucasus – and I recalled then that Chechnya which was part of Russia was in fact north of Georgia – who held him to exchange for that leader’s son whom the Russians had taken hostage. He was released as was David, but since he was left with little the house passed to the Russian royal family.

It has been beautifully restored, and the gardens which were laid out in the 19th century look luscious now, seen at perhaps the nicest time of the year for their burgeoning greenery. And I was delighted by the old pictures, and also the plethora of pianos the house contained.

From there we moved far back into history, first to the old Dzveli Shuamata churches, the earliest built in the 5th century and the other two, also of striking shapes, over the next two hundred years. The new Akhali Shuamata church was much later, part of a convent founded in the 16th century. It is now a convent again, and we were let in by a nun, who was most helpful and pointed out the tomb there of Alexander Chavchavadze.

Then through beautiful countryside, with avenues of verdant green meeting over the road, we went on to the Ikalto Monastery, a lesser version of the Gelati monastery, with here too a principal church and two smaller ones. But they were all on a lesser scale and the academy building was still roofless. It was a delightful place however to wander around, and to check out the details of the churches, including of the earliest 6th century Trinity church.

From there it was to the Alaverdi Cathedral in the centre of a still active monastery with flourishing fruit trees and vines. The 11th century structure is still grand and imposing the the building had had to be restored – and rescued from restoration, so that the original frescoes re-emerged, including a striking St. George overcoming a dragon.

Vasantha gave up when we went to the next site, the 15th century Gremi fortress. Though the city was sacked by the Persians early in the 17th century, the citadel remains, with a church and a fascinating tower palace, barely more than a single room on each of three stories, a public room with picture displays with a little washroom on the ground floor, with what may have been a drawing room above and then a little bedroom on top. Down below the steps to the citadel was another museum with lots of objects of no great interest found in the ongoing excavations.  

The pictures are four of the Chavchavadze house and its gardens and then four of the two Shuamati churches, then four of the monastery and two of the cathedral, with its verdant gardens, and then finally four of the interior of the Gremi fortress with views from its tower.

Rajiva Wijesinha


February 2023
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