the taj mahal to fatehpur sikri to the pink city of jaipur

Saturday, March 12:   The Taj Mahal

After eating a breakfast of omelets in the sweltering merry-go-round restaurant in the Hotel Pushp Villa, we head to the long-awaited Taj Mahal.  We are dressed our part as Indian princesses for this special day, wearing our salwar kameez and flowing scarves.  Singh must drop us quite a way off, because there is a perimeter within which cars are not allowed.  Apparently the polluting cars are kept from getting too close to the Taj Mahal because of resulting discoloration. We wait in a slow-moving line to buy our tickets, which are 750 rupees for tourists, and then at the main gate of the Taj, we wait in another long women-only line to have our bags checked and our bodies scanned.

the red sandstone south gate to the Taj Mahal, inscribed with verses from the Quran

the red sandstone south gate to the Taj Mahal, inscribed with verses from the Quran

It is well-known that the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  She died giving birth to their 14th (!) child in 1631.  The emperor was so heartbroken by her death that his hair turned gray virtually overnight.  Construction of the Taj began that year and though the main building was completed in 8 years, the entire complex took 22 years.  Soon after it was finished, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb.  He was imprisoned in Agra Fort, across the river from the Taj, where for the remaining days of his life he could only gaze out the window longingly at his creation.  Shah Jahan died in 1666 and was buried beside Mumtaz in the mausoleum.

the fabulous Taj Mahal

the fabulous Taj Mahal

me with the Taj Mahal and its dried-up watercourses

me with the Taj Mahal and its dried-up watercourses

We enter through the south gate, which is a 30 meter high red sandstone gateway inscribed with verses from the Quran.  Once we pass through the gate, we can see the Taj Mahal, standing on a raised platform at the far end of the ornamental gardens, with the Yamuna River behind.  Because the river is behind and because it sits on a platform, its backdrop is simply the beautiful sky.  There are no unsightly buildings behind to detract from the vision.  Since we are here close to sunrise, the backdrop is brushstrokes of lavender, purple and coral.  It’s stunning.

my favorite picture, on the Princess Diana bench (??)

my favorite picture, on the Princess Diana bench (??)

The ornamental gardens are designed in the style of formal Persian gardens, a square divided by watercourses, with an ornamental marble plinth at its center.  Usually, in pictures, I have seen the Taj beautifully reflected in the watercourses.  However, today, there is no water at all in the watercourses.  Why that is, I have no idea, but it’s very irritating.  Why can’t the Indians keep anything properly maintained and running?  Our trip to India has shown Indian government at its worst.  The Taj Mahal is arguably the most beautiful building in the world and is the biggest tourist attraction in India.  You would think that because of this, the monument would be sparkling and spiffy ALL THE TIME!  However, on this day, it looks like a poorly maintained tourist attraction.  People always say the Taj Mahal NEVER disappoints.    It’s still beautiful, but these dried up watercourses definitely detract from the beauty.  Slightly, yes, it DOES disappoint.

the beautiful Taj Mahal

the beautiful Taj Mahal

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reflections

some of the great carvings inside the mausoleum

some of the great carvings inside the mausoleum

across the garden to the Taj Mahal

across the garden to the Taj Mahal

We spend quite a long time wandering around the grounds, watching the people, admiring the gardens, touching the semi-translucent white marble walls and the relief-carved flowers, and studying the beautiful patterns of inlaid semi precious stones.  The building is really so lovely, with its white minarets at each corner of the raised marble platform.  The vaulted arches on its facade are embellished with Quran quotations in inlaid jasper calligraphy.  The central bulbous dome is surrounded by four small domes.  Inside the central chamber,  light streams through finely cut marble screens.  We can’t view the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, as they are in a locked basement beneath the main chamber.

the relief carvings on the Taj are exquisite

the relief carvings on the Taj are exquisite

Standing on the river side of the Taj, we can see Agra Fort, where the sad Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son.  This fort was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565 and his grandson, Shah Jahan, made additions using his favorite material of white marble.  Intended to be a military structure, Shah Jahan transformed it into a palace.  Later it became his prison for eight years until his death, after his son seized power in 1658.

the backside of the Taj Mahal, looking out over the river toward Agra Fort

the backside of the Taj Mahal, looking out over the river toward Agra Fort

parting shot of the Taj Mahal

parting shot of the Taj Mahal

We spend quite a lot of time here just soaking up the magnificence of the Taj Mahal.  The TAJ MAHAL!! I can’t believe we are here seeing this.  It is lovely with its exquisite setting and its mournful story.  In a dream-state, we wander and sit on the benches, soak up the atmosphere and watch the hordes of Indian families and tourists against the backdrop of the world’s most beautiful building.

while driving out of Agra, these boys rode along beside us and tossed roses into our car

while driving out of Agra, these boys rode along beside us and tossed roses into our car

We return to the Pushp Villa where Singh is waiting to drive us on the next leg of our trip.  We are heading to Jaipur today, and on the way we will stop at Fatehpur Sikri.  We load up our stuff and get on the road.  On our way out of Agra, as we crawl out of the town, five boys squeezed onto one motorcycle ride along beside us and surprisingly throw a bunch of roses into the car.  Sweet!

in the car on the way to faehpur sikri, with roses from bicycling boys

in the car on the way to faehpur sikri, with roses from bicycling boys

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri is a fortified ancient city about 40 km west of Agra, and the drive takes us a little over an hour.  It was the short-term capital of the Mughal empire between 1571-1585, while Emperor Akbar was the head honcho.  Emperor Akbar came here to consult the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne.  When his prophecy came true, the Emperor built his capital here, with a mosque and three palaces for each of his favorite wives:  one a Christian, one a Muslim and one a Hindu. Because of water shortages in the area, the capital was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death.

Jayne and The Palace of Jodh Bai, Akbar's Hindu wife...

Jayne and The Palace of Jodh Bai, Akbar’s Hindu wife…

Singh has to drop us some distance from the city, where we must take a bus.  On the bus are really obnoxious guys trying to sell us tacky trinkets.  They won’t take no for an answer and keep hounding everyone who is captive on the bus until someone buys something.  This place is one of the most annoying because of these persistent salesmen.  When we get off the bus, more boys swarm around us trying to convince us to hire them as guides.  We wave them all off.

Inside the gates, the palace walls are a rich red sandstone, set off by emerald-green grass and colorful flower gardens.  The first palace is the largest, that of Jodh Bai, Akbar’s Hindu wife who is said to have been his favorite.  It boasts traditional Indian columns, Islamic cupolas and turquoise-blue Persian roof tiles and is set around a huge courtyard.

Inside the Palace of Jodh Bai, Akbar's Hindu wife

Inside the Palace of Jodh Bai, Akbar’s Hindu wife

Near the Hindu wife’s palace is the Christian wife’s palace, used by Akbar’s wife Mariam, who gave birth to Jehangir here in 1569.  It contains elements of different religions, reflecting Akbar’s tolerance for other religions. The domed ceiling is Islamic in style and holds remnants of a painting of the Hindu god Shiva.

As we head north from an Ornamental Pool, we come to the most intricately carved, tiny but elegant Rumi Sultana, the palace built for Akbar’s Turkish Muslim wife.  Though I’m not crazy about a man who feels the need to have three wives, Jayne and I have to admire someone who makes sure he marries women of different faiths, putting each wife on equal footing.

the Hall of Private Audiences, or Diwan-i-Khas, with its stone central column and bridges

the Hall of Private Audiences, or Diwan-i-Khas, with its stone central column and bridges

The Diwan-i-Am, or the Hall of Public Audiences, is a large courtyard which is now a garden.  Here Akbar dispensed justice through public executions, with elephants trampling convicted criminals to death.  At the northern end of the garden is the Hall of Private Audiences, or Diwan-i-Khas.  Its interior is dominated by a beautifully carved central column.  At the top is a flat-top plinth, where Akbar stood to debate with scholars in the four corners of the room, connected by narrow stone bridges.

On one corner of the Ladies Garden is the Panch Mahal, a pavilion with five stories that decrease in size until the top one which is the size of a tiny kiosk.  The entire setting is lovely with the gardens and the red sandstone pavilion.

Me, the Ladies Garden and the Panch Mahal

Me, the Ladies Garden and the Panch Mahal

Next to the entire complex is the Caravanserai, a vast courtyard surrounded by rooms looking like an old-fashioned motel. In these rooms, visiting merchants stayed.

After walking through this, we come upon Jama Masjid, an immense mosque of Persian and Indian design.  In the courtyard of the mosque is the white-marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti, which we enter through a door made of ebony.  Brightly colored flower murals and a canopy of mother-of-pearl shell enclose the interior. Inside everyone is filing past a marble altar and piling up colorful scarves on it.  I don’t really know what this is for, possibly couples wishing for children, since the saint prophesied about Akbar’s son in that long past century.  Childless women do in fact visit this tomb today to tie threads to the marble screens, in hopes of conceiving a child.

the white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti

the white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti

After taking the bus back to meet Singh in the parking lot, we are accosted once again by myriads of touts trying to lure us into a bazaar which is quite nice.  We would have wandered through there anyway, so it is irritating to have to fend off these annoying men and boys.  After exploring the bazaar, we walk to meet Singh, where we are accosted by more young boys begging us to give them our tickets to Fatehpur Sikri.  Later Singh tells us these boys try to resell the tickets to make money for themselves.

pilgrims traipse by and place scarves on the central altar of the saint's tomb... possibly in hopes of conceiving a child??

pilgrims traipse by and place scarves on the central altar of the saint’s tomb… possibly in hopes of conceiving a child??

We get back in the car for the long drive to Jaipur.  We are surprised to find a multi-lane limited use highway, much like what we have in America.  This is the best highway we have encountered in India and it is nearly a smooth and relaxing ride to Jaipur.  Along the way, we stop at tourist shop for a bathroom and snack break.  Inside we explore the tourist shop and suddenly I am face to face with two girls I recognize!! We all stop in our tracks and stare at each other.  They say, Oh my gosh!  Do you remember us?  We were all on the same trip to China in September.  They remind me their names are Jen and Jenni, and though I don’t recall their names, I do remember their faces.  We had all taken a tour to Beijing from Korea in September during the Chuseok holiday.  What a shock, to meet these girls at a highway rest stop in India!  What a strange and tiny world it is.

the slick bar, Reds, in Jaipur

the slick bar, Reds, in Jaipur

our snacks of cauliflower and corncakes at Reds

our snacks of cauliflower and corncakes at Reds

When we arrive in Jaipur, Singh drops us at our hotel, Nahargarh Haveli.  This hotel sits on a nondescript side street where the road is mostly torn up for construction.  However, inside we find a lovely hotel, with stained glass windows and lovely painted ceilings.  Our rooms is perfectly nice.  What a surprise.  We ask Singh if he will drive us to Reds, a slick bar overlooking the Raj Mandir cinema.  We relax on red leather couches in the ultra-modern bar and drink beers and eat snacks of cauliflower and corn cakes with sauces.  We love this place!  Feeling pretty good after several beers, we head back to the room to read and sleep for an early morning exploring the Pink City.

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jim corbett tiger reserve: habitat for….chickens.

Friday, March 11:  Jayne and I climb into the jeep at 6 a.m. for our tiger “safari” at Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve.  It’s freezing and the jeep, like most jeeps,  is open to the elements.  As soon as we start riding over the bumpy roads, the morning air drives through us like thousands of metal knives.  Brrrr.  We are definitely not prepared for this.

me in our jeep for the tiger "safari"

me in our jeep for the tiger “safari”

Our “guide” stops and picks up a friend on the way to the reserve.   We bump along about a half-hour through mango groves, teak forest and eucalyptus groves, listening to the chit-chat of the “guide” and his friend.  The guide is not much of a guide as he really doesn’t speak much to us.  At one point he discusses the large numbers of chickens we see along the way, acting as if they are some endangered species.  He goes on and on about them and we are laughing and making fun.  Yep, we’ve seen chickens before, we tell him, rolling our eyes.

"safari" girls

“safari” girls

We pass another jeep with three dudes in it.  They all have professional-looking cameras with huge telephoto lenses.  One of the guys has a black silky ponytail.  They are intently snapping pictures of the brush along the road, and we peer into the thickets where they are aiming.  We’re looking for what ever spirits they have seen.  We see nothing, no trace of movement, nada.  We drive by peacocks and deer.  Again, our “guide,” taking a moment’s break from his continual prattle with his friend, points out the deer.  Then he starts going into a long description about these rare creatures.  We can’t hear him over the drone of the engine and his accent is bad.  It’s a strain to understand him.  Besides, we have no interest in hearing about deer.  We brush him off: Thanks but we see deer at home!  You don’t need to point out every deer!  He can’t understand why we aren’t totally bowled over.

map of Corbett Tiger Reserve

map of Corbett Tiger Reserve

All of a sudden, around a bend, we come to a jumble of jeeps stopped in the middle of the dirt road.  As we drive up, everyone shushes us.  “Tiger! Tiger!” they tell us in loud whispers.  We stop on the fringe of the other jeeps and everyone is standing up looking around.  We ask our guide, “Where is it?”  We can tell he can’t see the “tiger” himself, but he peers through his binoculars in the direction of some brush into which everyone else is staring.  We see nothing. “See, it’s a flash of orange,” he points out.  “He’s lying there.”  We peer and peer into the bush, but we see nothing.  After quite a long time, at least a half hour, with absolutely nothing happening, we decide to drive on.  Jayne decides it was just a “pretend” tiger sighting.  Something to get the tourists all riled up, to make them think they are getting something for their money.

me, our "guide" and his friend ~ no tip for them

me, our “guide” and his friend ~ no tip for them

the dirt roads through Corbett

the dirt roads through Corbett

We drive on.  We make a stop at the “Banyan tree house,” where we climb to the top and look at the monsoon river, which at this time of year is just a dry rock bed.  We go on our way again, passing trees whose branches are filled with chattering monkeys.  We end up at a kind of resting spot for tourists, where we see monkeys hanging out and posing for pictures.  Someone has given one of the monkeys a Bourbon Creme, a kind of cookie, and he’s munching happily on this.  I try to take a picture of one and he hisses at me and climbs up a tree.

the "Banyan" tree house

the “Banyan” tree house

the view of the "moonsoon" river from the Banyan tree house

the view of the “moonsoon” river from the Banyan tree house

 

views on the "safari"

views on the “safari”

safari views

safari views

more safari views (notice there are no tigers in sight!)

more safari views (notice there are no tigers in sight!)

monkeys in the trees

monkeys in the trees

more safari views

more safari views

playful, and mean, monkeys

playful, and mean, monkeys

mischievous monkey

mischievous monkey

another monkey

another monkey

On the way back to the hotel we decide that this “safari” was a total farce and our guide didn’t actually “guide,”  thus we will not give a tip.  We jump out at our hotel, barely saying goodbye, and go eat a breakfast of an omelet, coffee, toast and some yellow rice.  Then we are back in our car again for our trip to Agra.

rural landscape after leaving the reserve

rural landscape after leaving the reserve

a farm along the way

a farm along the way

On the way, we pass a guy with an elephant who sells rides to tourists.  We ask if we can just pose sitting on the elephant, and he agrees, for a fee of course.  After our pictures with our elephant friend, we are on our way.  It is around 11 a.m.

the elephant handler and me

the elephant handler and me

"riding" an elephant ~ only a photo shoot

“riding” an elephant ~ only a photo shoot

Another long day of driving.  We pass a wedding party south of Aligarh, all dressed in their finery, marching down the street in single file.  The groom rides a horse all decked out and women in bright saris walk along beside him.  Singh comments, “Tonight this man’s life is finished.”

We make a stop at a roadside snack stand where we buy Lay’s India Magic Masala Chips and a bottle of Sprite.  We are not allowed to take the bottle with us as it must be returned.  So we sit on a covered platform along the side of the road and drink and eat.

I grow to hate potatoes on this day as we get stuck behind literally scores of huge trucks carrying potatoes to put in cold storage.  We can’t believe the numbers of these trucks, lined up along the roads, blocking our passage.  They slow our trip considerably. We pass an overturned truck of potatoes.  Another potato truck has a flat tire and to change it, people have stacked up tall columns of bricks which look very unstable.  It’s like an exaggerated Jenga game. We pass a bus  stuck in a ditch, its passengers sitting inside silently at an unnatural angle.  Other rickety buses are packed with grimy people, hanging out of windows and doors and sitting on the roofs.

We pass fields of green with yellow flowers and women in colorful saris working in these fields.  I don’t know what the crops are. We ask Singh and he goes into a long diatribe which we  can’t understand.

Everywhere women in saris walk with bowls of cow dung paddies on their heads.  Horns on Indian vehicles make every sound imaginable from “Oooooaaawwwwoooo” to “balabla balabla” musical tunes to “squeeeeaaaallll”  and “eeeeeekkkkk” to “beep beep beep.”

The towns we pass along the way are clogged nightmares, where traffic tangles into muddles with no discernible rhyme or reason.  Each town is a chaotic knot of filthy people, cows, animals, carts, auto rickshaws, and anything else imaginable.  They swarm all around our car, pressing hands and faces against the windows, begging for money.  We are totally surrounded and can only inch along.  There is no clear path in any direction.  We encounter this in every town along the way to Agra.  Along the sides of the road are hovels with disgusting fat men covered in red betel juice, snoozing on their sides with bellies hanging out of their shirts.

On this day, I know what one billion people feels like.  And it hits me hard that India does not have the infrastructure or the will to take care of 1 billion people.  It’s horribly sad and upsetting that so many people are living in such squalor and disarray.

Finally, at 8 p.m., we arrive in Agra.  We have spent another 9 hours on Indian roads and we survived.  I don’t know how we did it.  Frankly, I don’t know how anyone survives these roads.  All I can say is that Singh must be a good driver if we have made it safely through this mess.

dinner at Lakshmi Vilas in Agra

dinner at Lakshmi Vilas in Agra

Singh wants us to go to his recommended restaurant, but we have a look at it and decide we don’t want to eat there.  We have picked the Lakshmi Vilas out of the Lonely Planet and we insist that he take us there.  It’s a vegetarian restaurant and our dinner is excellent.  We have Idli, which is lentils and rice ground to paste and steamed in an oven with sambhar coconut chutney; Vada, or lentils ground to a paste and deep-fried, also served with sambhar and chutney.  We have Mysore Masala, or Dosai, which is a rice pancake made in butter served with sambhar and coconut chutney, and mixed vegetable uttapam, or thick rice pancakes.  All this topped off with fresh lime soda, an Indian specialty.

After dinner, we finally check in at the Hotel Pushp Villa.  We are entirely too tired to think about what a dive it is.

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