India (Jaipur, Taj Mahal & Varanasi)

My Taj Mahal moment came on the viewing platform at the opposite end of the reflecting pool that provides glimpses of an upside-down Taj shimmering in the water. Staring at this magnificent marble wonder, hearing all of the foreign languages from people drawn here from around the world, feeling the buzz that made me feel I was in the presence of a rock star––it hit me how grateful I was for this once-in-a-lifetime moment to be in the Taj’s presence. A tear filled my eye.

But I quickly regained my composure and resumed my visit to the world’s most beautiful tomb. The Taj Mahal lives up to the hype. It’s home city, Agra, is a dump. The dichotomy is jarring, yet in some ways it captures the essence of India. The country is dynamic and dusty, captivating and complex, teeming and timeless. Despite its rapid modernization and rising global economic clout, India remains an intense, in-your-face cultural experience that’s radically different from anything in the West.

I visited northern India for about two weeks in the autumn season, when the monsoons were gone (at least in the north) and the days were cooler (a tolerable dry heat in the 80s and low-90s). My plane flew into Delhi, and after a day of sight seeing in the congested national capital, I went a couple of hours south to the state of Rajasthan, a place that hews to traditional ways where turban-wearing men rode on camels along the side of the highway and women in brightly-colored saris worked in farm fields dotted with large barley stacks.

When my bus pulled into the state capital, Jaipur, its old quarter, called the Pink City, radiated a roseate glow from the late-afternoon sun that bathed its ochre buildings. Built almost three centuries ago, this city of roughly 2.5 million people is just a kid compared to many Indian cities.

Jaipur is a place of human theater where walking the streets and interacting with the locals is like diving into the mosh pit of Indian life. Every street and alley in the old quarter bustles with commerce. Touts, or hucksters can be a nuisance, and I was occasionally approached by child beggars looking for food or pens. The aroma of curry, cloves, cardamom, and ginger wafts from the food stalls. Cows roam the streets without a care, and I spotted a woman in a bright-red, embroidered sari with a broom in hand as she leaned out a window to shoo away monkeys scampering about on a nearby ledge.

As I stopped to look at a small Hindu shrine under a sidewalk tree, a man approached me. “How do you like my city,” he said in very good English. He was slightly-built with a closely-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and a fading yellow dot on his forehead. He said he was a priest at a nearby temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, one of the religion’s most important deities. And as we chatted about the different incarnations of Vishnu and their role in Hinduism’s panoply of gods, he suggested we talk over chai tea at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant across the street.

The tea, served with milk, was sweet and tasted a bit like weak hot chocolate. Out front, a man tended to a large black pot of lentil stew, or daal. I bought two bowls of lentils and accompanying chapati flat bread for my companion and I. The bread was a good chaser for the comfortably spicy stew.

Before parting, he handed me a business card with two names on it––his own, Ramashankar Maharishi, and an enterprise called Art And Business Training Center where, he said, he taught music. “If you like, I can give you a sitar lesson,” he said. He also offered to take me back to his temple to smoke marijuana. For various reasons, I thought that not a good idea, so I politely declined and we parted ways.

 

AWESOME ARCHITECTURE
Rajasthan has its share of elaborate palaces, forts and temples, and one of Jaipur’s signature attractions––the massive Amber Fort––is an earthtone sandstone structure regally perched on a rocky ridge seven miles outside of town. Built around the turn of the 17th century, it served as the capital of the powerful Kachchwaha Rajput clan until Jaipur was built in 1727.

The stark exterior blends in with the parched hill it sits upon, but the intricately painted interior is a sumptuous feast of delicate designs and patterns reflecting both Hindu and Muslim influences.

A steady stream of elephants ferry passengers up the winding stone path to the fort entrance during the morning hours before the sun gets too hot for them to work. The elephants, some with psychedelically-painted trunks, provide a gently swaying ride and an occasional water spray from their snouts as they carry two passengers apiece to the top before returning down the same path with an empty load.

A few hours to the east by bus, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, lies Agra, once the capital of the Mughal empire that represented the apogee of Muslim culture and influence in India. The Mughals were ethnic Turks from Central Asia who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent and whose empire reached its zenith from the mid-16th century until the early 18th century. Modern Agra––a sprawling, dirty city plagued by grinding poverty––is a different story.

“Indians come to the Taj Mahal for only one or two days because Agra is very boring,” said my guide, Amit. “You want to leave Agra as soon as you can.”

Perhaps, but those one or two days are worth the trip to visit impressive Mughal monuments. Among the highlights is the imposing red sandstone Agra Fort, a structure begun in the 16th century by the great Mughal ruler Akbar and completed by his grandson, Shah Jahan. It was the citadel from which the Mughals ruled, but from a legacy––and tourist––perspective it will always be second banana to the Taj Mahal that shares the left bank of the Yamuna River about a mile downriver from the fort.

The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a monument to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 after giving birth to her 14th child. It took roughly 20,000 workers about 20 years to craft the tomb from Indian marble and semi-precious stones imported from across Asia.

The Taj Mahal’s hues vary with the changing light spectrum as the sun travels across the sky. On this particular morning, the Taj glistened a bright white as the mid-morning sun burned off the haze. The Taj complex is all about symmetry––the building sits on a raised platform surrounded by four minarets on each corner, overlooking a garden divided into four quadrants by waterways in a pattern said to resemble the Koranic version of paradise.

Up close, the Taj’s exterior is an ornately-detailed canvas of Persian-influenced Islamic art. Colorful, meticulously cut stones form vining floral mosaics of roses and other flowers accompanied by fruit and grape bunches. Squiggly calligraphic inscriptions of Koranic verses in black lettering––describing Judgement Day––frame the arches and add to the intricateness.

Before entering the tomb’s interior, visitors must take off their shoes and leave them in a common area. That, or as I did, slip on booties over my shoes that my guide provided. After coming in from the bright sunlight it took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the dark mausoleum. When they did, I saw an octagonal sanctum richly decorated in the same motif as the exterior, including a marble screen that surrounds the cenotaph of Mumtaz, whose grave is perfectly aligned with both the tomb’s main entrance and with the Taj complex’s main entrance to the south of that.

Next to her, the seemingly out-of-place cenotaph of Shah Jahan is the only object in the entire Taj complex that lacks symmetry.

The Taj Mahal has been around more than 360 years, but experts say pollution threatens the monument’s marble exterior. And it’s feared that falling underground water levels caused by increased water demand could destabilize its foundation. Previous efforts to mitigate pollution-caused problems haven’t done enough to protect the Taj, according to the Indian government. One can only hope that India and the city of Agra can join forces and do what it takes to ensure this incredible building lasts for at least another 360 years.

 

OLDER THAN OLD
As magnificent as the Taj Mahal is, the daily pageantry of Varanasi is, in many ways, even more impressive. Located further east in Uttar Pradesh, this ancient Hindu city along the banks of the Ganges River dates from the sixth century B.C. and is thought to be one of the world’s oldest living cities.

It ancientness was neatly summed up by Mark Twain, who during his visit to India in 1896 as part of his worldwide tour described the city as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

Hindus believe that a person who dies in Varanasi or has their cremated ashes scattered there along the Ganges attains moksha, or liberation from the cycle of reincarnation, and achieves union with God. As such, some people come to Varanasi (also known as Benaras or Kashi) to die. Others come here after they die. On the way from and to the airport, I saw numerous vehicles coming into the city with bodies wrapped in colorful textiles and tied to the hood on their way to the cremation ghats along the Ganges River.

It is the city’s stone steps, or ghats along the river’s west bank, that draw pilgrims and tourists to this sacred place.

Every morning at dawn, thousands of pilgrims and city residents make their way down to the ghats. On this morning, a large orange sun rose over the seemingly uninhabited eastern riverbank, whose emptiness was a stark juxtaposition to the opposite side where a sea of humanity dressed in colorful saris and robes descended upon the Ganges to wash their bodies, souls, clothes and utensils. People prayed, waded in the water and drank from the river with cupped hands.

A short bit downriver, smoke drifted up from the cremation ghats that were ablaze with burning bodies the night before. Cows and goats nibbled on the remnants of marigold garlands that were heaped on the bodies before they were burned. Life and death are in constant motion in Varanasi.

The Ganges has been called one of the world’s most polluted rivers. Industrial and agricultural runoff are major sources of befoulment. At Varanasi, the problem is exacerbated by the ashes dumped into the river at the cremation ghats, along with leftover bones that don’t get incinerated during cremations.

Yet it is from the river that people get the best vantage point of the daily rituals along the ghats. Boatmen-for-hire paddle tourists in wooden boats to view this riverside spectacle. I was warned not to let dirty Ganges water touch my skin, and I kept that in mind as the boat I was on rowed out among the other boats that ferried camera-carrying passengers. The folks on the ghats paid little heed to the onlookers taking pictures of them like a bunch of paparazzi.

I, too, was swept up in the photo frenzy. But back onshore, I sensed it’s easy to miss the sacred aura and weighty history of Varanasi when viewed mainly through a camera lens. If I ever get back to Varanasi in this lifetime, I might leave the camera in the hotel––at least just for a little while––and let the scene wash over me at a slower, deeper pace.

And I hope there will be a next time because my time in Varanasi was too brief. My itinerary was structured in such a way that I had less than 24 hours in this amazing city––inbound during the afternoon; outbound late the next morning.

But that way-too-short visit left a powerful impression on me. It wasn’t just the morning boat ride to witness the human theater that happens daily along the city’s ghats. Nor was it the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony along the Dashashwamedh Ghat, a big production number involving young men in saffron-colored robes, music, clanging bells, burning incense and singing prayers.

I was also struck by the city’s raw energy and intensity. My hotel was a roughly 20- to 30-minute ride both to and from the ghats via bicycle rickshaw, and I marveled at the city’s throbbing activity: bright lights at night; endless commerce in the small shops lining the streets and along certain sections in the middle of the road with goods that included flowers, fruits and veggies, nuts, tandoori chicken, spices, eggs, luggage, linens and more; numerous grubby-looking restaurants and grungy, oily vehicle parts outlets; a steady flow of traffic (automobiles, scooters, motorized tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws, bicyclists, pedestrians); nasally sounding honking horns from motorbikes and ringing bells from rickshaws; advertising banners hanging over the streets; a spaghetti jumble of overhead phone and electrical wires.

It was like Times Square times five in terms of the ceaseless activity, and maybe Ben Hur times five as vehicles of all sorts jockeyed for position within the main traffic lanes––during stretches when traffic came to a crawl, wheels sometimes bumped both in front and behind the rickshaws I rode in as vehicles tried to squeeze into any available openings. It was a rush! That said, I wouldn’t want to experience it on a daily basis.

I awoke very early the morning I was there and left the hotel at 5:00 in order to get to the Dashashwamedh Ghat by dawn, which is main ghat along the river and a gathering point for tourists who want to hire a boat ride. Even at that early hour, Varanasi was surprisingly energetic––it wasn’t shaking off the sleepies; rather, it was already in go-go mode even if it hadn’t yet reached full gear.

The section of Dashashwamedh Ghat Road leading directly to the ghat was jammed with Hindu pilgrims, beggars, tourists and people trying to sell stuff to tourists. This ritual along the ghats goes on every single morning, and presumably has been for centuries, if not millennia. It is quite fantastic.

One final note about Varanasi, and it speaks to the coexistence of modern India and its ancient past. My one night there was spent at the Radisson Hotel Varanasi, which along with my hotel in Agra, the Jaypee Palace Hotel, had the best restaurants I sampled in India. It was every bit the comfortable and modern hotel experience I’d expect in the West, but it had cattle guards placed at the road entrances to keep wandering cows from moseying onto the property. In some ways, it seemed a perfect metaphor for India.

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