22 August 2009

Slaying the Taj Mahal

Arriving in New Delhi last Friday morning was a particularly pleasant experience. Luckily for us, Lord Krishna was celebrating his 5,237th birthday and this combined with India celebrating its 67th birthday kept the streets free of the much feared Delhi traffic. And what streets they were, wide English styled boulevards lined with trees, paved sidewalks and (relatively) free of litter. Things were going quite well until we pulled over to ask directions and a crazy drugged out beggar ran into our car, created a huge commotion that caused about thirty people to gather around the car (with us inside) and wasn't resolved until a cop and a few cool headed cows came by to sort things out.

PICT0025 Delhi has a pretty amazing mix of old Islamic architecture mixed with colonial British buildings and a crush of new construction in preparation for the commonwealth games in 2010. We saw some distinctly British government sites like the India gate and President's House (interesting note: India has a president) and then hit up the Ashkerdam temple. Ashkerdam seems to be dedicated to a person (rather than a god), but people still pray to him, so once again I am completely clueless about hinduism. But it is an impressive, gigantic complex with ornately carved exteriors, marble paths, 200 gold cow head water fountains and some crazy guy from Chicago who gave up all his possessions, moved out here, told us about the history then took us to chant and pour water over a golden statue of a boy. Totally, completely clueless. Following our confusing, but fun, temple experience we hit up the QBA restaurant for what will undoubtedly be my favorite and most authentic meal in India: jumbo Thai shrimp and a Mediterranean mezze (and not a small amount of Kingfisher).

PICT0030 While we really wanted to take an Indian train to the Taj, apparently we were not the only ones with this idea and you cannot reserve them the day before. So we hopped in Tata's finest, cheapest Indica and hit the road for Agra. While parts of the drive were the expected congested and chaotic roads, parts were absolutely beautiful with lush green rice paddies dotted with 20m tall chimneys for firing bricks. After a few hours (and a few monkeys at a toll booth doing tricks), we arrived at the Taj Mahal. It certainly is an amazing place, built in the lets say 1500s by an Islamic emperor (Shah Jahan) for his wife as a symbol of his undying love (ironically , it was his love, and the 14 children that came with it, that actually killed her). The palace houses the tombs of the emperor and his wife and is made out of marble inlaid with stones and the text of the entire Quarn (without being garish like so many things here), surrounded by gardens, symmetrical mosques and a giant red sandstone wall and is really pretty beautiful.

This seemed to be the general feeling amongst the 5,000 other people there that afternoon who stopped shoving each other just long enough to take a silly picture of them pulling the Taj up or ask Ashley to take a picture holding their baby (smartly, they did not ask me to do this). People will say that it is so beautiful you won't mind all the other tourists and I could not disagree more. So the next morning I got up 7:30pm eastern time (you do the math),walked back up as the sun was rising and was the fourth person to see the Taj that Sunday morning. The difference was striking, the entire place was incredibly calm and (for a moment at least) all the craziness of India melted away. Within thirty minutes it was crawling with tourists again but I was happy, grabbed a 10 cent cycle rickshaw back to the hotel for some breakfast and hit the road.

PICT0252 The drive back was a combination of whirlwind sightseeing and funny stories from our awesome driver, Surienda. While I'm not quite sold on his idea that India had monkey soldiers (with guns, grenades and ranks) during one of its wars with Pakistan, I am a strong believe in his three keys to driving in India: a good horn, good brakes and good luck. We hit up the Agra Fort (another Shah Jahan Joint), Akbar's Tomb, the Lotus Temple and then spent some time relaxing on the walls and gardens of Hanuyman's Tomb (still more of a palace) back in Delhi. From there it was a quick ride past the impressive embassy row and then a three hour flight back to home sweet home, Bengaluru.

Steve Gore

No comments: