Friday, July 2, 2010

Last days in India: the Taj Mahal

Arriving back from Dharmasala to the sand-filled air of New Delhi, we decided to push through and pick up a train that same afternoon for Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. We spent a few hours roaming around Delhi, seeking refuge from the heat, and got back on a train for the very hot, non-air conditioned 3 hour train ride to Agra.

After settling into another winner of a hotel in the backpacker friendly neighborhood of Taj Ganj, boasting crap hotel rooms but only a few hundred feet from the Taj and affording amazing sunset views. We walked up to the roof-top restaurant of our guesthouse and were met with the magnificent Taj Mahal, a building considered by many to be the most beautiful in the world. Above the city hundreds of home-made paper kites, being flown from rooftops by young and old men alike, filled the skies in a display of mastery and tradition of this muslim city.

The Taj was built in 1632 by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum to his favorite wife, who died giving birth to her 14th child! He brought architects, material, and skilled labor from around the world, but in the end, he watched the building from the Agra fort, where he lived out his final days, imprisoned by his ambitious son.

The Taj is best toured early in the morning before the big tourist buses show up, when the heat of Agra is bearable (only about 100 degrees F) and most importantly, Agra’s famous light makes the Taj appear to glow from the inside. We walked through the gate and paid the entry fee which costs 38 times(!) as much for foreigners as for Indians, and were met by the classic view of the building, reflected in the long pool of water leading up to it. The building was built on a platform so it always appears with the sky behind it, designed to invoke the Koran’s description of heaven. We walked the grounds for several hours, taking in the building, the gardens and the mosque from various angles. We ventured inside to see the graves of the mausoleum’s inhabitants and gawked at the finely inlaid precious stones and bas-reliefs that decorate the structure. No detail was overlooked in its design, no expense spared: the marble was the finest in India, and its translucency is what gives the Taj its glowing look; the Koranic verses along the walls are written so that looking at them from the ground, the letters appear to be of the same size.

The temperatures continued to rise, but since we only had one day in Agra, we decided to push on and visit another attraction, the Agra Fort, about 2 km away along the Yamuna River. The walk took us through some neighborhoods and down by a burning ghat, so we got another chance to watch burning pyres and the ceremony which surrounds cremation in India. We arrived at the fort which was built in 1080 and later became the seat of Moghal power. It later became his prison when his son took over in a coup. Its huge, and interesting, but by non means as magnificent as the mausoleum we had visited that morning, though it does offer a beautiful river side perspective of the Taj.

At this point the temperatures were soaring to the point where it was impossible to sit outside. We found a restaurant, any restaurant, with some A/C and milked our way through a long lunch, dreading going out in the sun. We were reminded of the heat whenever we went to the restroom, which was outside. We made our way back to the hotel in the early afternoon, unable to do anything else in the searing heat, which only later did we find broke the thermometer at 48 degrees (118 deg F). Too hot to function, we finally got on our a/c train, and returned to Delhi, where we spent another couple of miserably hot days, in the 110 degree range tying up some loose ends, shopping, shipping things home in preparation to leave India. We even treated ourselves to a killer dinner at a high-end restaurant in one of the plush Delhi suburbs, dining on Punjabi lamb, tandoori fish and delicious chicken. We had been craving meat for 2 months and the meal was spectacular. We left the next morning for the airport where we boarded a plane that would take us to Bangkok, Thailand.

It’s hard to summarize our time in India. It is different from any other place in the world that we have ever been. And, like many people that spend real time in this country, we both loved it and hated it. Everything in India is hard: the streets, the cities, the transportation, the weather, the people, the hypocrisy, and the filth. The hotel rooms are filthy and hot and miserable, you have to squat to take a shit and wipe with your hands, the people pushy, obnoxious, loud and seemingly unaware that any of it could be offensive. The weather, especially in the summer, is unrelenting and suffocating, the air thick and dirty, the poverty inhuman, and the density of people overwhelming. You have to battle for everything, and a handshake is never a done deal because there’s always more to try to milk out of you. The rivers and country are polluted beyond belief and there is trash everywhere. On the other hand, you will never go hungry in India and the millions of homeless, poor and devoted all get fed somehow, all sleep somewhere, be it in the street or on a bench. They will step over their own mother, yet they will never steal.

The people are colorful, the traditions are old and the society has survived for almost 5000 years, built upon a common culture and religion that permeates everything. Everything is sanctified and worshiped, and peoples’ devotion and displays of devotion are beyond belief. And while they seem to have the capacity to suffer more than any other people we have encountered, they also seem to tolerate their situation, often just out of necessity. By the time we left, we were done with India: we were tired and over-heated and worn from the trials of navigating the place, yet, I think we will be back. We only began to scratch the surface of this country and its people and, with the right attitude and preparation, there are many more trips-worth of exploring to do. Namaste.

To see the pics from Agra and the Taj Mahal, click here.

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