‘India 101’… The Taj Mahal and to Dehli, part two

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It is a haunting image, Shah Jahan the great Mughul Emperor, peering out over the Yamuna River towards the Taj Mahal, year after lonely year. Imprisoned for eight long years by his own son in nearby Agra Fort, Shah Jahan gazed out to his own ethereal creation, a soaring mausoleum to immortalise his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. In helpless captivity, it is believed the Emperor’s last breath was taken while looking out to his exquisite monument.
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It was Valentine’s Day, 1989, when Bruce and I first ventured to the Taj Mahal. We had driven past the monument the day before. Young romantics that we were, we averted our eyes to save the first glimpse for that special occasion. Alighting from our cycle rickshaw, we paid a few rupees and quietly strolled into the grounds, walking directly into heart of the great edifice. It was so casual yet magical, breathtaking and yes, incredibly romantic.

Fast forward to the day of our second visit, we now join many thousands of people. Walking through the grand portal, we behold the luminous marble icon, a collective gasp issuing from onlookers, thrilled at this first glimpse, murmurs and exclamations of delight rippling the air; one of the seven wonders of the world is before us! There is no doubt, it is still as breathtakingly stunning as on our first visit.

Long lines of visitors patiently wind themselves around the perimeter and yet more stroll the grounds, serenity and solitude now firmly of the past – this time the experience is a shared one. Shared too with our family – and we’re all unanimous in our surprise at the sheer magnificence of the monument. As the visit turns into two hours maybe three, I realise that I’m surrounded by a sense of communal joy. We all wait patiently for a spot that affords that perfect backdrop for a photo. Cameras exchange and we take each other’s pictures. Snatches of many languages can be heard. Our ‘kids’ are asked to join group selfies… simply, there is a collective exuberance in the air.

“Are you happy to be back sweetheart,” my husband asks, squeezing my hand. I feel as if every pore of me is smiling – the answer is most definitely yes.

A mixture of Indian, Persian and Islamic influences, the Taj seems to have been transported from the heavens themselves and placed ever so gently on earth. Its construction however was indeed by mortal men – all 22,000 of them, aided by 1000 elephants. Masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans were requisitioned from the across the Mughal empire, Central Asia and Iran. The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653, after 22 years of construction.

IMG_2770Mumtaz had been Shah Jahan’s third wife and by all accounts his closest confidant. She died giving birth to their fourteenth child and during two years of mourning, the king shunned the court’s previously lavish lifestyle – of dancing girls and harems, of rich furnishings, jewels and grand processions.

His sons would battle for the empire they soon hoped to claim from their father, and, when Shah Jahan did not fully recover from an illness, he was declared incompetent to rule and placed under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb.

The house of his arrest was in fact Shah Jahan’s stately home, Agra Fort. We make our way there early the next morning. It’s a cold and misty start, two pashmina scarves attempt to keep me warm. And similar to the previous day, rickshaw drivers almost come to blows over who gets our fare. Tension levels in Agra can become a little elevated and, save for its spectacular monuments, it is not an attractive city – you visit the Taj, the fort, perhaps Fatehpur Sikri, and you leave. Many tourists choose to day-trip from Dehli.

Yet I feel the fort is an integral part of Shah Jahan’s story and a must-see. Once a red sandstone edifice from which the Mughul’s ruled from 1558, it was rebuilt to Shah Jahan’s own specifications after ascending to the throne in 1628 as the fifth Mughul Emperor. As with the Taj Mahal, his penchant for white marble is evident and the misty morning renders it even more ethereal, more translucent, more serene than I remember. It’s as if he commanded, ‘Let there be columns by the score, exquisite arches in abundance, vast quarters for my harem!” The effect is beautiful, almost mirage-like. So too is the ‘magic imagery’ that our tour guide encourages us to have fun with. Yet he becomes somber when relating Shah Jahan’s ‘fort arrest’.

On this morning, it is impossible to view the Taj just across the river from where the deposed Emperor languished. But I know it is out there hiding in the mist, and I envision the ruler on his fort balcony – counting his prayer beads, meditating, hoping and waiting for release, for the chance to visit Mumtaz Mahal’s grave just once more. He was laid to rest beside her at his death in 1666.

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Back on the streets, Agra has come alive as shopkeepers and vendors hope to entice the thousands upon thousands of tourists – with street food and tiny Taj replicas, with marble this and marble that. Or in my case, with a chess set. “We’re on the train today, let’s buy one!” I declare, this experienced traveller unknowingly about to encounter a classic North Indian scam.

It takes place in front of a shop and a fellow has interested me in a small chess set. I negotiate and we agree on 500 rupees (about 10 dollars), I only have a Rs. 2000 note and hand it to him. I watch him go into the shop with my money. He comes out followed by two other men with 1500 rupees in his hand.

“Give me the 2000, here’s your change,” the shopkeeper demands.

“No, I already gave you a 2000 note,” I protest.

“No, no note. Now you give me 2000,” he insists.

I check my wallet. Yes, I have already given him the 2000. Unbelieveably, the two men who followed the shopkeeper out, are also now insisting that I had not yet handed over the 2000, despite not being witness to the initial transaction.

“I absolutely gave you 2000 rupees. Come on, I live in India. I know what you’re trying to do here,” I say furiously.

One of my sons confirms that I’ve already given the money, but by this time a crowd has gathered. We argue but he doesn’t back down. Finally, grabbing the 1500 rupees from his hand, I practically throw his chess set back at him.

“You’re a thief! I don’t want your goods and you should feel ashamed of yourself for taking advantage of people.” The crowd looks on bemused and the man has made another easy 500 rupees. It is not a lot of money, it’s the principle, but it isn’t worth causing a scene. Besides, it is life in India… always a contrast of the beautiful and the wanting, the gentle soul and the manipulative, of reconciling our privilege against those working so hard to feed their families. I’m upset with myself, but the nearby street food wallahs soon help me forget my wounded pride. They are endlessly pleasant and when their hard work and long days are rewarded with compliments about their food, they are pleased and proud. Our middle son has become a bit of a street-food connoisseur and brings smiles to their faces as he partakes in the local offerings.

Making our way to the train station the next morning, the busy platform is welcoming as we’re greeted repeatedly by local travellers. We’re anxious to board the train and make the four and a half-hour trip to Delhi. We’re on the ‘slow train’ and due to fog it’s seven hours late, yes seven! We’ve been tracking its arrival into Agra since the morning. No, surely not ideal on New Year’s Eve.

The train pulls into New Dehli just in time for us to check into our hotel and to then celebrate. We reminisce about the trip’s experiences, the highs and lows, the laughs and the precious moments we’ll always cherish. But then the night isn’t only about India, it’s about family and the adventure that seven of us were able to experience together. It was magical all those years ago but to retrace those footsteps with our family… well, I’m so pleased I broke that ‘rule’ and returned!

Delhi is still to be explored, but with Andrew and Ayla having returned back to university in Canada, and one of us in bed with a serious bout of ‘Dehli belly’, the last fews days of our India 101 feels like a gentle footnote.

We briefly visit the Red Fort, yet the crowds on New Year’s day prevent us from entering its expansive grounds and even though it’s currently wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, its early 17th Century walls are impressive. Shah Jahan, feeling that the streets of Agra were not wide enough for grand processions, had sent his royal engineers to find a suitable site for a new city. Long a capital of empires, Dehli was chosen and with its strong Hindu traditions, the muslim Mughals felt they could reinforce their legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the people. In 1639 the vast plan for the Red Fort was begun, its extensive palace buildings were a small city within itself, where the emperor’s court lived in great luxury. A vibrant culture and commerce rejuvenated the ancient city, and with a population of 600,000, (greater than Paris at the time), its grand intellectual and cultural history is well recounted.

We find ourselves in the renowned bazaar area of Chandni Chowk, just outside the walls of the great fort. Designed by Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, Jahanara, it once boasted precisely 1560 shops. It radiates along a broad street and in that time, a central canal led to the square and reflected the moonlight, the chandni. Prominent residents enjoyed the evening air on caparisoned elephants passing through the bustling bazaars stuffed with spices, rich textiles, jewels, gold and silver.

Today the narrow streets are choked and hectic, noisy and alive – old Dehli in the truest sense. The air is pungent as mounds of spice sacks are laboriously hauled through the streets or piled precariously on bikes. We pass through the silver souk, the saree souk, the book and the stationary street, the spice and dried fruit bazaar, the ironmongers row, the purveyors of brass pots and cauldrons. Nothing seems changed since our visit in 1989, in fact if anything, it looks more aged as the buildings stand in various stages of decay and faded glory.

At Lodhi gardens however, the 15th Century monuments are still resplendent and echo the once great Lodhi empire. Perhaps their demise at the hands of the Mughals encapsulates our India 101 trip. Empires have come and gone, those before the Lodhis and those after the Mughals. Even as the East India Company morphed into the British Raj, ousting the Mughals, it too was destined to ultimately fall. From Varanasi, to Agra, to Dehli, the rich storied past is still here to embrace. On more trying days you must draw upon your resilience, but mostly, you are simply humbled and exhilarated to behold it all.

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