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Friday July 12, 2024
Travel Diary:
An Odyssey Through The Golden Triangle
Vol: 1 Num: 2    Spring 2006
They wanted to get reconnected to their homeland and a well organized trip through The Golden Triangle of Northern India. They did just that and then some more.

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 like hurtling.

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 feathers.

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.

Neema Nene is a freelance writer based in Manassas, Virginia.


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