LOOK, LOOK, LOOK AT THAT PEACOCK! the cry filled up our car,
which was hurtling down the road. Hurtling down wouldn’t be the right
description for a car going at 40 km per hour but when you share a road with
cyclists, pedestrians, two-wheelers and bullock carts then even 25 mph feels
We were driving through the roads of Rajasthan and our four
year old son, Chanthen, had seen his first live peacock and was entranced, his
eyes opened wide taking in the entire display of the peacock’s magnificent tail
We were on our second leg of an Odyssey through Northern
India that took many days to plan. We were visiting India after a long time.
Though I was born in India and have briefly lived there, I have spent more years
in the USA. My husband, on the other hand, has lived in India longer than I but
our kids have visited it only once in their young lives. So for our family it
was a journey to get reconnected with our roots in India. We wanted to explore
and understand it.
Many travelers from the west have gone on the exploration to
India in heavily laden caravans winding their way through snow filled valleys of
Hindu Kush and deserts of Middle East or in over flowing ships rounding the Cape
of Good Hope and braving the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
Okay, so we had it easier than the likes of Ibn Battuta,
Vasco Da Gama and Father António de Andrade. But we still had to plan.
Internet To The Rescue
Months before going, I talked to friends to find out what we
could expect this time around in India. Unlike the medieval pioneers, we decided
to use a professional trip planner and found a travel agent in New Delhi. Our
emails flew back and forth – mine with questions and hers with the answers and
suggestions. Ain’t internet great? Our requirements were simple yet needed to be
flexible so that once in India we could add or subtract time and places from our
itinerary as we made further plans to see few friends.
Top of the list of places to see was the Taj Mahal. When we
were growing up my father used to tell us stories of Emperor Shah Jahan and his
wife Arjumand Banu Begum, also known as Mumtaj Mahal, during our walks at night.
My sister and I would hold his hand on either side of him, my mother would walk
ahead of us and he would dramatically describe how the Emperor found his wife in
a Meena Bazzar while shopping for silk, how he took her everywhere including
battles, how she died giving birth to their 14th child, and how he scoured the
earth to find white marble to build the Taj Mahal.
After hearing this story for the umpteenth time with more
embellishments my mother would turn around and ask my father if he was actually
present while Shah Jahan courted Mumtaj and my father would stop telling the
story and say, "You tell the story". My sister and I would then scold our mom
for interrupting and would implore our father to continue.
The story was indelibly etched in my memory and I had to
visit the Taj to see what my father was describing. Other places that we wanted
to see were Old Delhi and Jaipur. Our kids wanted to visit my husband’s college
town and see where he was molded and he wanted to visit a friend in Shimla. Our
travel agent suggested, in travel agent speak, the Golden Triangle as Delhi,
Jaipur and Agra make a perfect triangle on the map of India. The golden part,
perhaps, comes from the Thar Desert, the smart Alec in me told.
As Promised And Then Some More
"How come this pillar doesn’t get rusted", our twelve year
old son, Caythar, was curious to know when he saw the seven meter high, six ton
heavy pillar built by Kumara Gupta I in the fifth century. We were in the Qutab
Complex where the 98% wrought iron metallurgical curiosity has withstood
corrosion for the last sixteen centuries.
Only a day before, we had landed in New Delhi and were met by
a friendly and professional agent, who had arranged for a taxi for us. Our four
year old son quickly made friends with the driver, calling him driver kaka or
driver uncle, who turned out to be quite knowledgeable to act as the unofficial
guide for us. His friendliness and the air-conditioned taxi, that we had
insisted upon, were much appreciated during our two and half days of sight
seeing in Old and New Delhi in the middle of India’s hot summer.
First stop was Lal Quila, the Red Fort, located at the
eastern edge of Shahjahanabad, the walled city of Delhi built by Shah Jahan from
1638 to 1649. There, standing in a vast courtyard, impressed by the magnificence
of Mughal Empire’s power and pomp, Chhaya, our fourteen old daughter, remarked,
"Wow, those Mughal Emperors really knew how to show off".
On the other end of the courtyard, shooting every intricately
carved column with his digital camera and dripping wet with sweat wearing a
baseball cap and dark sunglasses Shirish, my husband, was a sight on that
glaringly bright sunny July day, though we had come to do the sight seeing of
some other sorts.
The Red Fort, named due to red sandstone walls along its
eight sides, was built by Shah Jahan when he moved his capital to Delhi from
Agra in 1637. Going through its towering gate, still glorious after all these
years was like meandering across an entire strip mall as vendors occupied every
available space selling all sorts of souvenirs. The vendors offered their wares
but didn’t pester if you looked away, and we did completing our stay at the
first stop of our itinerary.
The next stop was going to be Jaipur, the Pink City, after a
detour to Pilani, Rajasthan where my husband studied.
Hidden Palace And Hidden Treasure
Thapak! The waster splashed on me and our dinner table. We
were having a candle light dinner at 11:00 PM by the poolside and our family was
diving in and out of the pool. What a delight! We would take a dip and sit down
for one course and then go swimming again until the next course. Three waiters
were serving delicious food and providing us with dry towels in between courses.
Just that morning we had arrived at Jaipur, known for its
salmon colored buildings, and were pleasantly surprised. We were driving along a
busy highway and suddenly stopped in front of a huge doorway. Entering through
it we left the traffic and the noise behind and walked into a peaceful courtyard
of one of the most beautiful hotels I had ever seen. No wonder we were treated
like royalty, since the hotel was an actual palace called the Alsisar Haveli.
From one water tank to another. Nahaar Garh Fort with its 200
degree view of Jaipur is the site of the famous showdown between two powerful
ladies in India in the 70’s, Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India and
Gayatri Devi, the Maharani of Jaipur. Gayatri Devi was the one who came out
empty handed, in this case without 16 trucks of treasure worth millions of
dollars, which were hidden in the water tanks of Nahaar Garh and impounded by
the Gandhi Government.
We, however, got to ride the current treasure, the camel.
Taking off on a camel is pretty hilarious and hazardous. Riding it feels like
that one will fall over the head of the camel only to be jerked backwards. So
hold on tight when the beast is getting up!
Taj, Oh Taj!
You can see it but can’t touch it! It was a full moon night
and I was standing across the gardens, but watching from a distance the dreamy
white marble of the Taj accentuated by the moonlight was still worth it. What my
father used to tell came to mind as I drank in the loveliness of the Taj despite
the tight security, which kept us away from it in the night.
The fifth Mughal Emperor built a mausoleum for his second
wife, nicknamed Mumtaj Mahal, which in Persian means beloved ornament of the
palace, in the seventeenth century and it is still enchanting the hearts of
countless people every year. We were no exception.
We saw it again in daylight. Lit by the Sun or the Moon, the
Taj looks very magical standing on the banks of the river Yamuna, which
otherwise serves as a wide moat defending the Great Red Fort of Agra, the center
of the Mughal Empire until the capital was moved to Delhi in 1637. It is
identical from all sides and it took master craftsmen, a fleet of 1,000
elephants, and 20,000 workers 22 years to complete it by 1653 at a cost of Rs.
32 million, in an era when 1 gram of gold was sold for about Rs. 1.3. In today’s
money, the cost of building it could be more than $500 million, though
estimating cost based upon the value of gold in two different economic times may
not be accurate.
It looked a lot smaller than what my imagination had built
over the years but its majesty still awed me. Now, I could check off one item on
my ‘must see before I die list’. There were more things to do on the third leg
of our The Golden Triangle tour, however.
The Heat Exhaustion
Sooner or later the July heat and dry desert of Rajasthan had
to strike and the casualties were my husband and daughter, the first born. The
remaining troops, my two sons and I, braved on to Fatehpur Sikri, where Emperor
Akbar lived with his many queens.
The third Mughal ruler, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, had
effectively used the marriage diplomacy to extend his influence to make peace
amongst his subjects by marrying women of Muslim, Hindu and Christian faith.
Legend has it that at one time Akbar the Great had over 300
wives and concubines. Since he governed for nearly 50 years, it means that on an
average he acquired 6 wives a year or there was a wedding in the palace once
every two months. Or something like that!
With so many wives, naturally, the Emperor could play a game,
sort of like Parcheesi, in his courtyard where his wives would stand in the
appointed squares until told to move. Actually, the inside story is that the
ladies preferred to play hide and seek especially since the lady that the
Emperor happened to catch would become that night’s Queen.
As I stood in front of the massive Buland Darwaza, the Gate
of Magnificence, built by Akbar to commemorate his conquest of Gujarat, I
remembered and relived all those folklores of Akbar and Bribal, his brainy
advisor, and couldn’t help savoring the gratifying nostalgia.
Our Odyssey through the golden triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra was winding
down and Fatehpur Sikri with its grand buildings of the
Diwan-i-Am, the Diwan-i-Khas, Joda Bai’s Palace and Sheikh Salim Chisti’s
Dargah was the perfect exclamation point.