It’s north again up to Uttar Pradesh (UP): Hindi heartland of India and home to some of its most famous sites including the Taj Mahal and the bathing ghats on the Ganges at Varanasi.
Coming from Jaipur our first stop is Agra. Although I’ve been to the Taj Mahal quite a few times, I’d never pass up another chance to be humbled by its magnificence, and besides Rich has only visited once before and is very keen to go again. Unlike so many world famous sites which, in the flesh so to speak, are a little disappointing the Taj truly and utterly lives up to its hype. Perfect from afar and close up the graceful proportions and exquisite inlay work must surely touch even the most well travelled – if you can see past the crowds that is…
3 million people visit the Taj every year and it feels like they’re all right there with us as we queue up for entry. Ideally we would have come at sunrise when it is quieter but the weather is lousy – really foggy with seriously reduced visibility. These conditions have also forced us to be a bit more creative with our photography as the classic shots are not going to happen. So we do little exploring and find a path down to the Yamuna River and this little collection of Shiva Linga and Durga statues. And if you can ignore the barbwire fence and ubiquitous rubbish in the middle distance it doesn’t make too bad a snap (see right).
Our next stop turns out to be our favourite in UP, although technically it’s just over the border in Madhya Pradesh. In Orchha we get some great weather and it’s a lovely small and relatively relaxed place. With a large palace, temples and pavilions scattered over a small island in the incredibly clean Betwa River, Orchha is a fabulous place for walking and exploring and it feels like we uncover more and more of it day by day during our extended stay here.
One thing I really love here is that every temple and monument seems to have steps up to a roof which opens up a wealth of potential photo viewpoints. Now some of these steps and the vantage points they lead to are precarious to say the least and ‘Health and Safety’ are quite clearly dirty words in Orchha. There are more opportunities for us to plunge to our deaths here that you can shake a tripod at. It puts me in mind of an episode a few years ago while watching a football match at a friend’s house with him and his young son. The little boy seemed quite concerned about how all the people would get out of the stadium to which my friend muttered ‘Oh God, my son’s going to be a Health and Safety inspector when we grows up’ – a profession that said friend has very short shrift for! Well father would be chuckling and kiddy appalled by the lack of railings and other safety measures here (see image above left, which is a VERY tame example by the way!).
Leaving Orchha we kiss good bye to peace and quiet – it’s cities from now on and in India there is no such thing as noise pollution…Next up is Lucknow, a place that I’ve meant to visit on previous occasions but for some reason it just hasn’t happened. There’s some family history here – my Granddad was based in Lucknow for a while during his time with the British army in India. I’m sure the Lucknow of today would be barely recognisable to him but the monuments are no doubt the same; Lucknow has a reputation as a city of culture and boasts a wealth of wonderful Islamic buildings. While here we also do a really interesting guided Heritage Walk through the old Chowk area of the city (see image below right).
Lucknow is also supposedly famous for its Kebabs with one particular restaurant being touted as selling the ‘best mutton Kebab in the world’. Perhaps we went to the wrong place but as Rich succinctly put it their Kebabs wouldn’t be the best in Walthamstow, let alone the world! It isn’t the first time we’ve been faithlessly betrayed by the ‘Where to Eat’ section in Lonely Planet, and the number one prize must go to an establishment recommended by LP in Islamabad (where we were heading after a month of extremely slim food pickings in Iran) – a certain ‘Luna Caprese’, where the menu included Tomato and Mozzarella Salad. Suffice to say that my salad there nearly made me cry and they wouldn’t have been tears of joy. To be honest the very name still sends a wave of disappointment through me and OK, in fairness we did build it up too much but the name for goodness sake…can we really be blamed! In comparison we’d only been looking forward to these kebabs for around 72 hours so we were able to (fairly) magnanimously let it go…
Last stop: Varanasi. This is the business end of the craziness in India and it came through in trumps this time – the funeral pyres were extra grizzly, the throngs of people extra thick and the noise levels hitting previously unattained heights! Although fascinating it’s not a place to linger in my opinion, both for mental and physical health reasons and I did see a few (presumably) long stay backpackers here who looked pretty fried in the head… Fascinating but extremely challenging would be my description. It didn’t help that it took us 5 hours to find somewhere to stay, which turned out to be right next to a stack of festival loud speakers, and that it rained pretty much the whole time we were here. Hey – I guess that all just adds to that ‘Dark Ages’ feel that Varansi does SO well. I have often wondered if Indians are deaf – this would be the only logical explanation for their tolerance for the constant din. But the answer to this nagging question of noise tolerance came to me as I lay sleepless at around 2AM on the overnight train to Delhi. During a momentary lull, when the two shouting women took a moment to catch their breath, the snorers rolled onto their sides, the train horn stopped blaring and the mobile phone DJs were browsing through their devices for the next Bollywood sound tracks to treat us to, a baby started wailing. The poor mite was of course horribly upset by the silence which I now realize Indians have a racially ingrained deep dread of…
This above picture is of Orchha and was taken from one of the previously mentioned precipitous viewpoints: the roof of the camel stables next to the palace, to be precise.
I’ve never really tried my hand much at stitching images – where you take a set of 3 or 4 (or more) images and merge them in image editing software to create a panorama. You could of course just take the same view through a wide angle lens then crop out the top and bottom to create the same panoramic shape but the pixels lost will lead to severe loss of picture quality. But Photoshop does an AMAZING job at stitching so long as you give it a hand. Firstly it’s important to take the set of images at the same exposure to ensure a smooth transition from one image to the next. Meter for the brightest image so as not to blow the highlights then set the aperture and shutter speed in manual mode. I took these 4 pictures at f/11 1 with a shutter speed of ⁄ 20 secs, set in manual. Second, you need to have a good amount of overlap between images to give Photoshop plenty to work with when aligning images and remember to include plenty of sky as a fair bit of the top and bottom will be lost when the final crop is done. And last, my lens is subject to some vignetting so I always use the ‘Lens Profile Correction’ function in Adobe Camera Raw to reduce the darkening at the corners of the images. Stitching (or Photomerge as it’s called in Photoshop) is great fun to do and I’ll be trying it a lot more in the future!