India - Delhi, Agra, Jaipur (April 4 - 10, 2004)
Sidney and I traveled to India at the end of the Easter week, from April 8 to 12. I organized the tour package that included the flight to Delhi, car and driver, and guides and hotels in New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. These three cities are in the northwest of India, in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajistan, and form the Golden Triangle. There reigned the Mughal dynasty who constructed walled cities and forts in red granite, temples, palaces, mosques in white and black marble encrusted in semiprecious stones. Agra and Jaipur are surrounded by the Arawali Mountains from which they took the materials and mined the jewels for treasures like the Peacock Throne and Shah Jahan's Kohinoor Diamond.
Delhi is divided in Old Delhi and New Delhi. In Old Delhi are the remains of seven medieval cities, the most famous of which is the Red Fort on the bank of the Jamuna River, with the Palace of Mirrors where the Prime Minister raises the flag on the Day of Independence.
Opposite it is the Chandni Chowk market with bazaars of spices and Meena Bazaar. Sidney and I walked around there the afternoon we arrived, to the Red Fort but we didn't go in to see it. We took a taxi to Connaught Place, a little more modern place with a round plaza surrounded by three circular streets, the innermost with portals and columns to the second floor of the buildings, and stores, all kinds of bazaars, cafes and restaurants at street level. We were pleased to find The Embassy, a restaurant with air conditioning and ice cream to refresh us, where we also had fruit and our first cup of tea in India. We continued walking and shopping, passing the time until dinner. At the Cafe 100 we had tikka chicken, lassi (yoghurt milkshake) and Kingfisher beer. We had to look for a secure taxi to get to our hotel, scared in the night in that strange area but we arrived safely. I found Fashion TV, a channel of pure fashion shows and the lives of models; Sidney read his eternal book.
Friday, April 9 ... the car, driver and guide picked us up after breakfast and took us to see the Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India, constructed in red granite by the Shah Jahan. With domes and towers, inside it's carved marble with scalloped windows, arches and columns.
It was my first experience in a mosque; they made us take off our shoes and the sun-heated stone burned under our feet. We climbed one of the towers, overlooking the whole of Old Delhi.
On our way to this mosque we passed a Catholic church. I asked the driver to stop and we entered it; the plce was deserted and the dirt floor was in the midst of renovation. This was very significant because without planning it, I realized that it was my mother's birthday, as well as Good Friday!
Later we went to see carpets and how they are made, and got the whole explanation about one-knot, double-knot, wool and silk. As a result I couldn't resist the temptation to buy one to be sent directly back to Canada. We had lunch in a typical restaurant of dhabas, vegetable curries, rice, garlic nan, a lassi of fruit and thin yoghurt, lamb in another curry and red pickled onions. Then we went to India Gate, similar to the Arc de Triumphe in the Ghandi Boulevard (Champs Elysees) with the Palace of Government, ministries and Ghandi's Tomb. At 4pm we set off in the car to the city of Agra, for four and a half hours seeing rural life, our first camels and elephants along the way. Of course the cows walk everywhere. Old Delhi is as filthy as here in Dhaka.
We arrived in Agra at 8:30 in the evening, to the hotel, dinner and bed. The city of Agra is famous for having been the capital of the monarchy but more than anything for the Taj Mahal, the monument that Shah Jahan ("King of the World") constructed in honour and memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. Construction went on for 22 years, built by architects from Persia and artesans from Afghanistan, India, etc. It's entirely of translucent white marble brought 30 kilometers from quarries in the Arawali mountains. After passing through the first portal and the gardens on each side with a pond along their length, you get to the second portal which frames the Taj Mahal in the distance as though suspended in the clouds. We went there at dawn to see it in the first light of the morning. It's a marvel, immense and all marble, its cupolas tipped with gold.
The walls and inside the rotunda are inlaid with all kinds of semi-precious stones minutely detailing figures of jars with flowers, in the technique called pietra dura. Lapis lazuli, agate, cornelia, turquoise, indian jade, mother or pearl, coral, sodalite, malachite, jasper and garnet form the petals of the flowers.
The windows are screens carved entirely in marble in honey-comb form. The story is that Mumtaz, born in Iran of a very wealthy family, met the Shah while shopping for silk in the Meena Bazaar when she came to buy saris. They say she died in the south of India giving birth to their 14th child, in 1631. Now her tomb is in the centre of the Taj.
Shah Jahan became seriously ill and during his sickness their sons fought over the succession to his throne. Their 4th son, Aurangzeb, prevailed and imprisoned his father in the Jasmine Tower of the Red Fort at Agra, within sight of the Taj Mahal, until he died there in 1666 and was buried beside his wife.
From there we went to Fatehpur Shikri, the Ghost City which is a walled town with palace, temples and houses but for lack of water or God knows what the place, which served as the seat of the monarch Shah Jahan also, was abandoned. Here we were in one of the immense patios outside and really in the afternoon sun we felt like our brains were cooking, the air hot as being in an oven. Water and a/c were the only hope. Again, we left for another four hour drive to the Pink City.
Jaipur is called the Pink City because the Maharaja Ram Singh ordered the city to be painted pink to receive the Prince of Wales in 1876. In the morning the guide took us to the Amber Fort which we could see from the hotel high in the Arawali Hills. We climbed on an elephant with a seat for six, just Sidney and I, 15 minutes up to the main gate. I was enchanted; there were more than 20 elephants with red, green and blue mantels and painted faces/heads, and the mahouts wore white jackets with bright red turbans, so gorgeous, out of a story-book. The main buildings inside were a temple carved in marble as part of the summer quarters of the Maharaja, with a vaulted roof incrusted with belgian crystal in the shapes of flowers that let the light through, jars of flowers formed with concave mirrors, and windows with scalloped arches carved in thousands of shapes letting in the light and letting you see out.
The City Palace in Jaipur ... in 1902 when Maharaja Madho Singh II went to England for King Edward's coronation, he had two enormous solid silver urns made to carry enough sacred Ganges water with him to bathe every day for four months. The urns measure five feet high and are considered to be the largest silver objects in the world.
On our way home to Dhaka ...