Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Taj Mahal and the train to Agra

We found India to be a load of contrasts. The cities were jammed with traffic, three of four across in a two lane road, and in the country we would pass a lonely ox cart or camel. We only visited a very small part, the country is as big as Europe and has part of the Himalayas, schorching desert, tropical jungle and beautiful coastlines. There are something like seventeen different languages and the clothes are as varied. Yes, you see the sari just about everwhere, but in Rajasthan the women wear colorful full skirts with a tunic blouse and a long scarf often over the head and used to keep the sun and dust out. The men in the north wear dhoti which is a length of white fabric wraped like a loose loin cloth and frequently a turban, neither of which were so visable in the cities.
We were not inundated with beggars as I had been led to believe. Yes, there were a few, but they didn't harrass us any more than they did the locals, and were usually located outside the temples.
In all we were welcomed with friendly smiles and waves.
India was considered to be the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire. The Taj Mahal is therefore the jewel in the crown of India.
We had been told that travel by train would not be very comfortable unless we took the Palace on Wheels. We looked into it. It is the Indian equivalent of the Orient Express and looks fabulous. It is fabulous…. fabulously expensive; way over our budget.
However, travel by train did have an appeal as the roads were becoming clogged with traffic and the drive uncomfortable. We decided to take the best available seats from Jaipor to Agra. We made our reservation and had assigned seats.
We were in an air-conditioned carriage in an area with four seats aside. There was an isle down the carrage with single seats on the other side. We were with a charming Indian family who were escorting their son's new Vietnamese bride and her elderly father to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The old man didn’t speak a word of English and was rather out of it. I gave him a packet of my seeds. The family attempted to translate and tell him what they were but he knew before they did. He gave me a knowing smile, almost a wink, and tucked them into an inside pocket.
The picture below is of the less expensive carriage with comfortable reclining seats and air-conditioning. The windows have curtains and note the backpacks and suitcases in the racks.

The next picture is of the cheapest carriage on the express train. There might not have been confirmed seats as there were plenty of folks standing. Note that much of the luggage consits of boxes and bundles. There are masss of fans as there is no air-conditioning. The windows have exterior shutters to keep the out sun, and the view, and there are also blinds.

Although we were anxious to see the Taj Mahal we were obliged to visit the fort in Agra first. Also we wanted to be at the Taj for sunset.
Although I had to admit that I had seen all the forts and palaces I need to see for a while this was a treat. This shot shows the details looking up at the eves of carved sandstone.

The Fifth great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan ruled this part of India in the seventeen century and this was his fort palace. It had been built two hundred years earlier but he moved into what had been the delicately decorated women’s quarters on the western side. When his favorite and beloved wife died in childbirth while delivering their fourteenth child he promised to build her a splendid monument. He could watch the construction of the Taj from his rooms and when his son had him imprisoned there he could mourn her from a distance.

From here you get the full picture of the Taj Mahal complex which includes the mosque to the East of the Taj and the Guest House on the West. The mosque is still very much in use which is why access to the Taj area is closed on Fridays except for Muslims going to prayer. The Guest House currently houses the military.
At last it was time to visit the Taj. We had to abandon our internal combustion car 2 km from entrance, as was required to protect the white marble from pollution, and took the special propane driven bus most of the rest of the way and then had to walk. Unfortunately the government was not very thorough in cleaning up the pollution and we had to cross a stinking open sewer on the way.
The mausoleum is hidden from view behind a red sandstone wall; it is said, to emphasize the partition between heaven and earth.

The gate to the Taj Mahal.

Everyone has heard of the Taj Mahal and how beautiful it is. I have seen so many pictures and read so many laudatory descriptions that they had become trite. It can't be that nice.
I don't think there are words to truly describe this magnificent structure and no picture can do it justice.
We had chosen to see it at sunset. So had about twenty thousand other tourists. I don’t think I am exagerating.
This was our first view of the Taj over the heads of the other visitors.

Through the arch of the gate it opens out into gardens with pools. There were continual groups of visitors posing for their pictures and there was even a conductor (unofficial and working for tips) to make sure they moved on from the classic Photo Opps.

We were are asked to remove our shoes as is customary in all religious buildings (and give some small change in order to retrieve them), then we weaved between visitors and made our way into the mausoleum.

It was packed. Cameras were flashing all over the place in spite of the sign outside requesting no photography and to prove that there was a good echo everyone was calling out. There was a severe lack of reverence.

You can’t take a bad picture of this building. It seems to glow in the sunlight. When you get close you can pick out the details of inlayed stone that form flowers and scriptures.
We wandered around the edges taking hundreds of shots, trying to find a new angle. We photographed little green parrots, walked back over the stinking river and through the swarm of venders selling souvenirs and then back to our hotel to a quiet evening.
We had planned to see the Taj at sunrise as well as sunset, but after the crowds in the evening I nearly didn’t return.
Then I said to John, “I’m going to go straight up to the Taj and not meandering taking pictures. I want to get inside when it is not so crowded.”
When I arrived inside the mausileam there were two other couples whispering with their guides. They left, and for a whole glorious minute I was completely alone. The gently cooing pidgins mumbled at the dawn. One moved on the overhead cable that supported the cut-metal lamps overhead and the beams of light danced like a disco light on the white marble tombs. The embossed gems glowed. It was magical.
As others entered I left to witnes the sun rising.
The Taj Mahal blushing under the kiss of the rising sun.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jaipur, India

Jaipur was one of my favorite places in India and quite a surprise.
The Hawa Mahal is also called the Palace of Winds. The lattice windows are carved in stone and would have permitted the breezes to enter. It was built in 1799 so that the royal ladies could watch the processions passing by. However beautiful, it was in fact little more than one of the glorified prisons built for the wives and concubines of the Raj.

We visited the Pink Palace. Have you noticed how so much is this country is defined by color? If you were there you would understand. Vibrant color is everywhere from the sky to the rocks and the houses and especially in the clothes.
So here we were in the Pink Palace. I would have described the color more as a peach tone but it probably glowed in the evening sun. We were there early in the morning.You can ride an elephant up the long ramp if you are prepared for the long wait with the tour groups. The elephants are very well cared for and are only permitted to make five trips up the ramp to the Palace and they don’t work after nine in the morning when the pavement becomes uncomfortably hot for their feet. They used to be allowed to make ten trips but there was an unfortunate incident when one swiped a tour guide with his trunk and then stomped on him, killing him. Unfortunately elephants are dangerous creatures that appear to be charming and some people forget their unpredictability. An unhappy elephant with hot feet is not one that I want to be around. Never-the-less plenty of visitors waited and had rides up the hill and no doubt had their pictures taken. It did make a colorful procession especially as some of the handlers had painted their animals.

Here is the palace, overshadowed by the fort on the horizon. You can see the parade of elephants making their way up the ramp to the castle entrance. Unglamorously we drove around the back and made our entrance from there.

Where ever we went there was a splash of color, even in the palace.
There was also maintenance work being done just about everywhere we went. I took this picture because of the colors in the doorway without noticing the working women on the far right. They are carrying sand and rocks out of the Palace in tin bowls on their heads.

Below is an attempt to create a cool place to live without air conditioning. This isn’t actually marble but plaster made to look like marble. I think they ground shells into the plaster.

Other rooms and spacious areas were decorated with silver and mother of pearl and fine glass from and tiles from Europe.

This picture gives a feeling for the courtyards within the palace.

In Rajasthan if there was a palace a lake or reservoir would be created nearby and on the lake there would inevitably be gazebos or a summer palace. This was to take advantage of any cool breeze that might come across the water. This palace was in disrepair we heard that it was going to be made into a hotel.

We continually came across camel carts.
The picture below give you a glimpse of life on the roads in the city of Jaipur. Notice the little statue of the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha on the dashboard with a design drawn next to it in red powder, and the sparkly tinsel around the reverse mirror for good luck. There is a tanker on the right side that could be carrying water of gasoline, and as this is a two way road you can just see a tuc-tuc coming towards us to his right. Because the English introduced rules of the road they are meant to drive on the left in India. There are two pedi-cabs, motor scooters and bicycles going our way, and an elephant has just crossed in front of us.

A little later I noticed this motor scooter carrying a family of six. The good news is that the traffic doesn't to move very fast.

We paused in this restaurant for lunch, and although I do like to eat where the locals eat it was very refreshing to get into the air-conditioning. The picture is included so you can see the chairs. The peacock is the National bird of India but these chairs were something else! They had the unpleasant look of sitting of a snake.

A little more history: Jai Singh ruled this area at the beginning of the seventeenth century. He loved the sciences and had the city laid out mathematically. He had Ptolemy and Euclid translated into Sanskrit and took great interest in astronomy. He had the most amazing structures built to tell the time and forecast the movement of the stars. They look like magnificent works of art but each has a purpose and is still accurate today. The long ladder to nowhere actually is pointing up to the North Star.
These shapes tell people more knowledgeable than I about the stars and planets. I would have very much liked to have been there at night to have some of it explained but the Jantar Mantar Observatory closes at dusk.

In the evening we returned to the Bazaar which is one of the major streets we had driven through a couple of times. The city was laid out back in the early seventeen hundreds to a Hindu design. There are little shops all along under the overhang.

There were ready made outfits, usually for children, and so much fabric for saris or other outfits.

We wondered down some of the side streets that were packed on each side with little shops. I purchased a little picture of Ganesha and the shopkeeper framed for me and charged .35 cents. Here is another friendly cow and the two men to the right…. well, they are doing their in thing a place designed for it.

I could have had any amount of body art done in any color. Henna wears off in a couple of weeks

We didn’t try these goodies but they looked tasty.

It was at about this time John asked me if I was going to take pictures of every shop we came to. I simply said “Yes.”

Who would have thought there could have been so many different turbans?

I was having a ball. I love color and I was drowning in it.
Some of the little stalls were cluttered while others were more selective about their merchandise. A rat skuttled along the perimiter of the establishment below.