Saturday, March 19, 2011

Alwar, Rajasthan and Agra, UP - March 15, 16

The Taj in the morning.  Meh.

After a short night’s stay back in Delhi, we load up and bus to the small town of Alwar.  We are certainly back in India.  Here, we are treated and looked at as if they have not seen foreigners for a long time.  Emma, Joseph and I found a dingy little hole of a restaurant across they street while the rest ate lunch at the hotel Natraj (ratty in a mothball rather than a greasy way) and we had incredible food and awesome service which we were sure to rub in when we got back.  Emma and I walked down the street and she tried on jeans while I talked to the 4 employees of this empty clothing store about the World Cup of cricket, which I am officially pretending to be interested in.  
Indian couple flirting on the street near Rishikesh.  Classic. 

            Later, the group meets and we go to the city palace built by the Maharaja Vinay Singh in the 18th century – basically the only big tourist site in town.  But it is really impressive and the museum which we didn’t even know about upon arrival, turned out to be a major highlight for many of us.  The Maharaja was a great patron of the arts during a time when many of them were fleeing Delhi during the ferocious rule of Aurangzeb.  So he ended up with a vast collection which is heralded by tour books as holding some of the best artifacts in India.  I can’t say they would be too wrong.  They had loads of weapons, illuminated texts (mostly Korans in Arabic, Persian and Hindi), paintings, clothing of the Shah, the most beautiful chess sets I have ever seen (wish I could have taken pictures at least for Don – one board was ivory with intricate inlays on the dark squares and the pieces were detailed war figures) and the most amazing thing was a 200 ft illuminated scroll with pictures and devanagari script, depicting the Mahabharata.  It was just so beautiful and even though it was almost totally left rolled up, it was still impressive – that isn’t a short story!  Beside the palace was the Sagar – the bathing pool named Moosi Rani Ki Chhatri – one of the most picturesque places I have been.  It was captivating and conjured up for me the immediate images of the high period of the Raj in India that I find so inspiring.  

behind my back from previous photo

i love the fact that the rooms of this temple complex are in use:  currently as law and gov't administration offices!

After that we visited a beautiful Jain temple, but the man who was supposed to meet us and give us a talk and tour did not show up.  So, we talked to the people there and enjoyed it briefly in silence.  Funniest thing:  before the entering the temple we have to take off all leather, wash hands and feet via faucets covered in cloth to avoid killing small insects etc., and minutes after sitting down in the Jain temple, Emma comes up to me and shows me this mosquito she squished in her bloody hand.
            “It was just my natural reaction, man. So much for ahimsa, eh?”
Gates to Jain temple: note the proper use of the swastika, prevalent in India much to the shock of ignorant Westerners
             For dinner we ate at a cruddy South Indian place where most of us had thali, and the washroom smelled so potently of mothballs that you had to hold your breath for the entire time.  For some reason, this area of India has a thing for mothballs – they are in every sink and ever corner of every washroom and toilet.  Yuck.

Top-notch shady restaurant in Bharatpur

The next day, off again for the short drive to Bharatpur in the heart of Rajasthan.  This hotel, the Falcon, is much nicer and owner is charming.  Again, for lunch Emma, Joseph and I took a rickshaw to the market area and found a place for lunch that, anywhere else or at any other time, I would be terrified of.  The food, of course, was cheap and delicious.  I am learning to look for these places, and just go up and see what is hot and fresh.  Back at the hotel, we met with the group to revise our plans since we found out that the Taj Mahal is not open on Fridays any more.  For dinner, we ate at the hotel and this time it turns out to be the best meal I have had in India since eating at the Ali’s place at Hamdard.  That particular meal was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life – and no surprise that it was not at an Indian restaurant but by a wealthy family and their personal chef. 
            So we decided to leave Bharatpur at 5:30am on the 17th so that we could drive the hour or so to Agra and get to see the Taj Mahal in the morning light.  Apparently, it takes on different hues at different times of the day, and the camera crew are excited to capture some of this.  Well, we do get there early, and what can I say?  Of course, it is beautiful.  I was not terribly moved by it emotionally, though.  But it was a delightful place to spend the morning.  I didn’t know about the 2 identical mosques that are on either side of the Taj, and they were very interesting.  The whole thing is an experiment in symmetry, it seems – everything is mirrored and it is the same from every direction.  It is interesting how humans see such great beauty in the simplicity of geometry.    
View of Western facing (used) Mosque

Gate to the Taj

The inner chamber of the mausoleum was wickedly crowded and uncomfortable, just frothing with people even at 8 am – so I got out real quick.   A glimpse was enough from the inside, and I was content to sit in the shade on this 30 degree-plus day, listen to some calm music, and look up every once in a while to contemplate this wonder of the world.  
Guess who at guess where

            At noon, we took a bus the short drive to Fatepur-Sikri, the incredible palace built by Emperor Akbar – grandfather of Shah Jehan.  This gorgeous place is an important site for people like Dr. Bryant, as it is one of the earliest recorded places in which Interreligious dialogue truly took place.  Akbar built here because his favourite sufi saint lived in Sikri, but he became open to all religions and is famous for having Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Jain leaders together to debate and discuss the glory of God.  He also had wives from all these religions – but that is not surprising perhaps, seeing as he had more than 150, officially speaking.  The mosque for the palace is equally if not more impressive.  It boasts the largest entrance arch in the world and houses the white mausoleum of Akbar’s aforesaid favourite sufi saint, whose shrine is still vivid and visited and supposedly bringing ongoing fulfillment of wishes to all those who tie strings to its screen windows and offer blessings.  

door of pure ebony
Gorgeous screen of Sufi's tomb - you can see out but not in.  Really! This means the women don't have to be veiled while in prayer there.
Mosque at Fatepur

 The touts were severely bad in this place though, and a few members of the group lose their cool a couple of times.  I had it in Varanasi, and Emma and I cannot believe the way some of these people get sucked in to the scores of people trying to sell you things.  We have learned, unfortunately perhaps, to not make eye contact, keep on walking, or to very clearly, and in Hindi, say No.  It amazes me when some of these Westerners are approached and they say things like, “Yes, that is beautiful, but I am really not interested in buying anything right now, thank you.”   They don’t understand that the only words that they guy understands are yes, beautiful, and buy.  So, they get absolutely mauled by touts.  I have a hard time being patient with this sometimes, especially when we have to wait on them.  At any rate, most of us had a wonderful time at the palace, and we hired a couple good guides both at the palace and at the mosque who taught us a bit about the places, which always helps and doesn’t always happen – even if you did hire someone to do precisely that. 
Akbar's Palace - this swimming pool would have been filled with rose water

            Otherwise, I am adjusting to being in a group.  I feel like this is a very different mode of being from which I am used to, and if nothing else is teaching me about how capable I am of living closely with others – something I have rarely been good with.  Also, none of them know about my blog and therefore are not reading it – so yes it is safe for me to write about the group freely. 
The fact that I am still in India is completely bizarre – it seems like I have been here for a year and it is hard to imagine that back at my home there is snow on the ground and people are not eating curry for three meals a day.  I am adjusting to life here in a strange sort of way.  I am sick of travel and of being a tourist and I wish I could just settle a bit and enjoy India for a while.  But, that is what I am looking forward to in Kashmir.  There is just a few days left with the group and this organized trip, so I will just try to enjoy it for what it is worth.  I have discovered that I don’t really like to travel, per se.  I enjoy being in these places, and I enjoy the experience of India, but having to bother with getting to and from places, and all the logistics involved with hotels and trains and rickshaws is very trying.  But I suppose this is nothing new.  Also, I think that I probably have seen enough of the ‘sights’ of India.  Honestly, I really have no need for any more fantastic tourist places.  People are so caught up with seeing things, just binging with their eyes, that they are not fully present and do not experience where they really are.  I am much more impressed and moved by a simple moment of insight and harmony than I am by the sight of the Taj Mahal, and I would much rather invest my time and energy cultivating that as well.  Again, nothing terribly new here for me, but sometimes we have to re-learn things we have already known before.  I can certainly say that I have ‘done’ the tourist thing in India to be sure – and if ever I would return here it would in a very different vein.  It would be to arrive, go somewhere like an ashram or quiet, inspiring place, and just stay put for as long as I had.  And, I believe this goes for just about anywhere.  
Famous 'living' Parcheesi board at Akbar's palace.  He never lost.  go figure. 

            It has been a blessed and wonderful trip thus far, and I am grateful daily for the immense abundance and wealth that is this life.  Kashmir is only a week away now, and I am looking forward to it more than ever!

1 comment:

  1. i totally agree with ur views on taj mahal...i happened to visit it only last yr and frankly i failed to establish any sort of connection either...the only thing that kept coming to my mind was the amount of labor, the cost, the stress and the distress of people living around it back then...millions of people died building the great wall of china but that was in the interest of the nation...the taj is about a hopeless romantic who was in a hurry and had no original ideas to conceive it (the designs imbibed or replicated from the humayun's tomb of delhi) and in the process almost emptying the coffers of the kingdom...what a waste of mankind