The Daily Explorer

November 4, 2011

The Wonder of India – The Taj Mahal

Agra, India: November 2011

MOZZIE BYTE (Editor): A warm welcome to all our Daily Explorer readers. For those of you who are joining us for the first time, Ray has been travelling and living nomadically for almost six years since he left England in November 2005, visiting 21 different countries so far on his journey. We have been publishing exclusive news and stories about his experiences (you will find all of these in our Previous Issues archive). Our aim at The Daily Explorer is to create a great publication for you, so please keep sending us your comments and suggestions as to how we can improve what we are doing. You can use the comments box on this site, or email Ray (ray@thedailyexplorer.com), ‘Mozzie’ or any of our correspondents at mozzie@thedailyexplorer.com.

In our latest issue, we follow Ray to a country that he has been longing to explore for many years and one that is a target for many travellers and soul-seekers alike – India! You can find out how our global traveller adjusted to things after his arrival in Delhi and how he fared during his subsequent visits to Jaipur in Rajasthan and the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal in Agra.

In case you missed our last issue, we had an update from Singapore as our intrepid explorer was finalising preparations to enter the Asian business world on a part-time basis to coach managers and executives in the region. He went there to take part in a week-long training programme with the Singapore based company, Coach In A Box. We also looked back at Ray’s last few days in Berlin and found out what happened during his brief stopover in Chiang Mai as he returned to Asia. You can read it now at: From Sing-a-Berlin to Singapore

Above: In our last issue, our intrepid explorer was finalising preparations to enter the Asian business world and took part in a week-long training programme with the Singapore based company, Coach In A Box (Ray is standing in the centre). You can read all about it at: Sing-a-Berlin to Singapore

With rainfall levels reaching all time high’s, our global traveller certainly seemed to have left Thailand at the right time. “It is not unusual for there to be heavy rain at this time of year, as it is the ‘rainy’ season, but in the five or so years that I have been coming here I have not seen such consistently heavy downpours in Chiang Mai as I have now” he told me. “Just a couple of days before flying to Delhi, the Ping River had overflowed its banks and was causing plenty of disruption to the daily lives of locals and travellers alike. I saw many tourists staying down by the river who had been evacuated as their guest houses shipped more and more water. Close to the river, all residents and business owners were busily building sandbag barricades to defend themselves against the worst floods in years. And I believe the same is also true in Bangkok, which has been having an even harder time” said Ray.

About three years ago, whilst travelling through Australia from Adelaide to Darwin, our intrepid explorer met Patrick Schmid from Germany aboard the Ghan train from Alice Springs to Katherine. “We were sitting next to each other and I soon realised he did not have any food, so I offered him half of mine and we struck up a great conversation which has continued to this day” Ray told me. “When I was in Berlin earlier this year, I had hoped we might see each other but Patrick lives at the other end of the country in Munich so it didn’t happen. So when he told me he was going to be spending his vacation in Asia and visiting Chiang Mai, I was thrilled and timed my departure carefully so that I would definitely be there when he arrived. I have discovered one or two really amazing friends on my travels and he is definitely one of them” said our traveller.

Above: The Ping River in Chiang Mai recently – “The tops of the trees on the right are submerged in the water” observed Ray. “Normally, people can walk along the river bank under these trees and there are one or two coffee shops which are underwater” said our shocked traveller

Below: A view from the road beside the river reveals a small boat with outboard motor has been provided to transport local residents to and from their homes (left). Meanwhile, these buddhist monks do their best to protect themselves from floodwater entering their temple on the Tha Pae Road (right)

Above: Some of our readers may recall that Ray attended a seven day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at the Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Ayutthaya, Thailand. The area has also been severely affected by flooding and the University now serves as refugee center for flood victims in nearby area

Below: Fellow traveller Patrick Schmid is re-united with Ray in Chiang Mai. The two met each other three years ago on a train in the middle of the Australian outback – “I love the way these things unfold” said Ray. “Life continues to send me some really great people” he told me

According to our global traveller, arranging to go to India from Bangkok is quite straightforward. “You basically need to arrange a visa and book a flight” he told me. “In Chiang Mai, the Indian Consulate issue six month visa’s for British passport holders and unlike many government/immigration offices, the service they provide makes it effortless and quick. As far as flights are concerned, there are many budget airlines that offer direct flights between Bangkok and Delhi/Mumbai which means that if you plan ahead, you can pick up a relatively cheap seat, maybe as little as fifty or sixty pounds” he told me.

I was curious to know what made Ray decide to make India the 21st country he has visited since becoming a nomad. “I took part in a fund-raising event in 2004 called Enduro India, in which a group of about 100 people ride 2,000 kilometres on Royal Enfield motorcycles across southern India to raise money for charity. It was an amazing experience and it opened my eyes to the country” he recalled. “I made a promise to myself that I would return to really explore the place properly when I had a decent chunk of time. Added to this, my girlfriend Silky was also going to be in India for a few weeks so I planned my trip in such a way that I would be able to spend some time with her whilst I was travelling around” explained our global nomad.

Above: Map of India, which is the seventh-largest country by geographical area and the second-most populous democracy in the world with over 1.2 billion people. Delhi, Jaipur and Agra are circled as these were the first three ports of call for our traveller as he started to explore this vast and charismatic country

Below: After several weeks apart, our traveller meets his girlfriend Silky in Pahar Ganj, Delhi – “We were both headed in different directions from here, so it was great to spend a couple of days together before we set off on our individual routes” recalled Ray. “She has lived in India and knows the country pretty well, which is very helpful to someone like me who is suddenly confronted with a culture that is so entirely different from what we are used to in the West” he added

Above: Silky introduces our first-time Delhi visitor to the market streets in Pahar Ganj – “Don’t be fooled by the picture” said Ray. “These streets were for the most part very crowded, noisy and absolutely filthy, with cows and goats loitering everywhere. The smell of rubbish was almost unbearable and the constant badgering by beggars for money was sufficient to try the patience of a saint” he added. “Not to mention my budget guesthouse in Pahar Ganj – they do not even put any toilet paper in the rooms! Having said all that, it is wonderful to experience somewhere so vibrant and raw. This is about as hard-core as budget travel gets, or so I thought” said our global explorer

According to Wikipedia, there were 1,210,193,422 residents reported in the 2011 provisional census, making India is the world’s second most populous country (China is the first). Its population grew at 1.76% per annum during the last decade, down from 2.13% per annum in the previous decade (1991–2001). Medical advances made in the last 50 years as well as increased agricultural productivity brought about by the “Green Revolution” have caused India’s population to grow rapidly and the country continues to face several public health-related challenges. According to the World Health Organization, 900,000 Indians die each year from drinking contaminated water or breathing polluted air. Traditional Indian society is defined by relatively strict social hierarchy. The Indian caste system embodies much of the social stratification and many of the social restrictions found in the Indian subcontinent. Social classes are defined by thousands of hereditary groups, often termed as jātis, or “castes”. Most Dalits (“Untouchables”) and members of other lower-caste communities continue to live in segregation and often face persecution and discrimination. Multi-generational patriarchal joint families have been the norm in India, though nuclear families are becoming common in urban areas. An overwhelming majority of Indians, with their consent, have their marriages arranged by their parents or other family members. Marriage is thought to be for life, and the divorce rate is extremely low. Child marriage is still a common practice, more so in rural India, with more than half of women in India marrying before the legal age of 18.

Delhi is the eighth largest metropolis in the world by population with 16,753,265 inhabitants in the territory at the 2011 census. Located on the banks of the River Yamuna, Delhi has been known to be continuously inhabited since at least the 6th century BC, though human habitation is believed to have existed since the second millennium BC. After the British East India Company had gained a foothold in North East India in the late 18th century, Calcutta became the capital of British held territories under Company rule (1774–1857) and remained so under the British Raj (1857–1920). The British had captured Delhi by 1857 and George V announced in 1911 that the capital of British controlled parts of India would move back to Delhi. A new capital city, New Delhi, was built to the south of the old city during the 1920s. When India gained independence from British rule in 1947, New Delhi was declared its capital and seat of government. Owing to the migration of people from across the country (mostly from the Northern and Eastern states of India), Delhi has grown to be a multicultural, cosmopolitan metropolis. Its rapid development and urbanisation, coupled with the relatively high average income of its population, has transformed Delhi into a major cultural, political, and commercial centre of India.

“It is such a culture shock” acknowledged Ray after a couple of days in the city. “I don’t think I have ever been anywhere as crowded and the noise and pollution levels beggar belief. Poverty is everywhere – I have read that around 800,000,000 Indians (i.e. three quarters) live on less than $2 per day. Of course, it is a third world country and I guess this is what one should expect but if the rest of India is like this, it will be very challenging for me to function for any sustained period of time” he told me.

Above: First stop on Ray’s sightseeing list was the Red Fort, a 17th century complex constructed by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the walled city of Old Delhi (in present day Delhi) that served as the residence of the Mughal Emperors. It also served as the capital of the Mughals until 1857, when Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled by the British Indian government. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and is the location from which the Prime Minister of India addresses the nation on Independence Day

Below: The various pavillions inside the huge courtyard at the Red Fort (Photo: Wikipedia)

Above: The Red Fort showcases the very high level of early Indian art form and ornamental work (left). It is a synthesis of Persian, European and Indian art which resulted in the development of unique Shahjahani style which is very rich in form, expression and colour. Red Fort, Delhi is one of the important building complexes of India and it’s significance has transcended time and space. It is relevant as a symbol of architectural brilliance and power. Even before its notification as a monument of national importance in the year 1913, efforts were made to preserve and conserve the Red Fort, for posterity. Naturally, it draws many admirers from overseas as well as from within India, like the woman pictured (right)  (Photo’s: S Piehler)

Although India is predominantly populated by Hindu’s, around 10% are Muslims. So the second stop for our visitor was the Jama Masjid mosque. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, in the year 1644 CE and completed in the year 1658 AD, it is the largest and best-known mosque in India. “I was told that the courtyard of the mosque can hold up to twenty-five thousand worshippers” said our gobsmacked traveller. “The courtyard can be reached from the east, north and south by three flights of steps, all built of red sandstone. The northern gate of the mosque has 389 steps. The eastern gate of the mosque was the rural entrance and it has 774 steps. These steps used to house food stalls, shops and street entertainers. The mosque faces south and its roof is covered with eight domes with repeated stripes of purple and white marble. Two lofty minarets, 130 feet (41 metres) high and containing 130 steps, longitudinally striped with white marble and red sandstone, flank the domes on either side. The minarets are divided by three projecting galleries and are surmounted by open twelve-sided domed pavilions. On the back of the mosque, there are four small minarets crowned like those in the front.

Above: A panorama of the vast square showing the domes and minarets (Photo: Wikipedia)

Below: This is what it looks like when it is full (Photo: Wikipedia) – “I would have liked to have seen it like this but there was no service taking place when I visited” said Ray

Above: Our global traveller has a wander through the market outside the entrance to the Jama Masjid mosque (Photo: S Piehler)

Below: “One of the things that you notice in India is the multitude of colours everywhere you look” observed Ray (Photo’s: S Piehler)

 

Most people reading this journal will be familiar with the inspired phrase “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and some may also be aware that these prophetic words were spoken by Mahatma Gandhi, widely regarded as the founding father of modern India. “I have always been inspired by this great man” said Ray, “whose existence proved that great things can be achieved by one individual who speaks the truth. Another one of his quotes which I love and often refer to is “Even if I am in a minority of one, the truth is still the truth” Ray told me. “He was assassinated in Delhi in 1948 and the place where this tragic incident took place is now a shrine to his memory. I felt compelled to visit the site even though I suspected I would be a bit overcome with emotion. The older I get, the more I feel upset about the use of violence in society to accomplish desired outcomes and he was someone who was very particular about the use of non-violence in all of the protests he led” added Ray. “He also led by example and demonstrated that one person can make a difference”.

According to Wikipedia, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known in India as “Bapu”, first employed non-violent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, in the resident Indian community’s struggle for civil rights. After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers in protesting excessive land-tax and discrimination. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, increasing economic self-reliance, but above all for achieving Swaraj—the independence of India from foreign domination. Gandhi famously led Indians in protesting the British-imposed salt tax with the 400 kilometre (250 mile) Dandi Salt March in 1930, and later in calling for the British to quit India in 1942. He was imprisoned for many years, on many occasions, in both South Africa and India. “I have watched Richard Attenborough’s film about his life again since I arrived in India and it is a wonderful depiction of this epic story. I highly recommend it to our readers” said Ray, who singled out this inspirational speech given by Gandhi to generate the (non-violent) support he wanted to have India become free from British rule (below):

Above: Gandhi (2nd October 1869 – 30th January 1948) – “He strove to practice non-violence and truth in all situations, and advocated that others do the same. He lived modestly in a self-sufficient residential community and wore the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, woven with yarn he had hand spun on a charkha. He ate simple vegetarian food, and also undertook long fasts as means of both self-purification and social protest” said our traveller

Below: The Gandhi Smriti, formerly known as Birla House or Birla Bhavan, is a museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, situated on Tees January Road, in New Delhi. It is the location where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life and was assassinated on January 30, 1948

Above: The Gandhi Smriti was originally the house of the Indian business tycoons, the Birlas. It now houses the Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum established in 1995 (left). Gandhi was shot while he was walking to a platform from which he was to address a prayer meeting – “You can re-trace his steps along the red path (right) until you reach the platform where his assassin, Nathuram Godse shot and killed him. Godse and his co-conspirator Narayan Apte were later tried and convicted; they were executed on 15 November 1949. Gandhi’s memorial bears the epigraph “Hē Ram”, which may be translated as “Oh God”. These are widely believed to be Gandhi’s last words after he was shot, though the veracity of this statement has been disputed

Below: Gandhi was universally admired by people all over the world, including Albert Einstein

Above: Our global nomad walks the last few steps along the path to the exact spot where Gandhi was killed – “It was very moving indeed to stand in this spot and try to imagine what it might have felt like to be here that day and see such a great man be lost forever” he recalled. After the shooting, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the nation through radio and said: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives. There is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country” (Photo: S Piehler)

About four hours by bus from Delhi is the city of Jaipur (see map above). “It is located in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan” explained Ray “and it gave me my first taste of travel within the country, which went pretty well until we reached the outskirts of the city” he recalled. “About eight kilometres away from the bus station – the final destination – a guy got on the bus and told me that we had arrived at the bus station and that I should get off. I checked with the (not very helpful and non-english speaking) driver and he nodded, so he went with me to the back of the bus to offload my luggage. When I told them both the guest house I was looking for, they told me I would have to take a ride in their taxi for an additional 150 rupees – more than the cost of the journey from Delhi! My intuition told me immediately that I was being scammed so I quickly grabbed my luggage and ran to get back on the bus before the driver could depart. It seemed obvious that the two men had arranged to rendezvous at this place and that they would split the proceeds of their scam. This type of thing is routine for travelling in India and is something (I am told) you just have to get used to. People are generally very poor and see tourists as an opportunity to prosper. They will lie to you about all manner of things to get a few rupees from you – I can understand it but it is none-the-less bloody annoying and quite frustrating at first” admitted our streetwise traveller. “Another example – at the bus station are ‘pre-paid’ tuk-tuks which you can hire to take you where you want to go. In my case, 30 rupees was the fare to my guest house. Later that day, when attempting to take one the other way, from my guest house to the bus station, the touts outside were all telling me the fare was 100 rupees! You have to have your wits about you and try not to be impolite whilst letting them know you can see you are being overcharged” recalled Ray. “Usually, a bargain can be struck which is acceptable, as I started to discover after a week or so”.

Above: The city of Jaipur, as seen from the 14th floor of the OM restaurant in the city centre. Jaipur is also popularly known as the Pink City and is the capital of Rajasthan. Founded on 18 November 1727 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, the ruler of Amber, the city today has a population of more than 3.1 million

Below: Panoramic view of the city from the surrounding hills (Photo: Wikipedia)

 

Above: Although the present city has expanded from outside its walls, the original planning was within the walls. The gates (left) used to be closed at sunset and opened at sunrise. Almost all Northern Indian towns of that period presented a chaotic picture of narrow twisting lanes, a confusion of run-down forts, temples, palaces, and temporary shacks that bore no resemblance at all to the principles set out in Hindu architectural manuals which call for strict geometric planning. Today, there are plenty of options available to budget travellers for getting around (right)

Below: Ray visited the City Palace, which was the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the head of the Kachwaha Rajput clan. The Chandra Mahal palace now houses a museum but the greatest part of it is still a royal residence. The palace complex, which is located northeast of the centre of the grid patterned Jaipur city, incorporates an impressive and vast array of courtyards, gardens and buildings. The palace was built between 1729 and 1732, initially by Sawai Jai Singh II, the ruler of Amber. He planned and built the outer walls, and later additions were made by successive rulers right up to the 20th century

Above: Adjacent to the City Palace (you can see it in the background) is the Jantar Mantar, a collection of architectural astronomical instruments, built by Maharaja (King) Jai Singh II at his then new capital of Jaipur between 1727 and 1734. The observatory consists of fourteen major geometric devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking stars’ location as the earth orbits around the sun, ascertaining the declinations of planets, and determining the celestial altitudes and related ephemerides. Each is a fixed and ‘focused’ tool. The Samrat Yantra, the largest instrument, is 90 feet (27 metres) high, its shadow carefully plotted to tell the time of day. Its face is angled at 27 degrees, the latitude of Jaipur. The Hindu chhatri (small cupola) on top is used as a platform for announcing eclipses and the arrival of monsoons

Below: This piece forms part of a giant sundial. Built from local stone and marble, each instrument carries an astronomical scale, generally marked on the marble inner lining. Bronze tablets, all extraordinarily accurate, were also employed. Thoroughly restored in 1901, the Jantar Mantar was declared a national monument in 1948. An excursion through Jai Singh’s Jantar is a unique experience of walking through solid geometry and encountering a collective astronomical system designed to probe the heavens – “It felt quite surreal, like something out of Alice in Wonderland” observed our traveller

Above: Our traveller was also getting acquainted with the various forms of retailing in India, starting with this street vendor blocking the traffic….

Below: …. when he soon discovered a couple of interesting shops. First of all, a tailor called Raymond (left) – “The poster in the window reads “When you are on top of the world, it shows” and I have to say that some days, it is true!” Meanwhile, anyone in India pursuing a spiritual path of enlightenment might want to try buying their fashion items at Vasari (right)

From Jaipur, it was on to Agra, which gave our intrepid explorer his first experience of the Indian Railway network – I asked him to tell me what it was like. “Well Mozzie, my first journey was due to take about four and a half hours and in any other country, I guess it would be quite straightforward – but not in India. The first challenge I faced was where to go to board my train when arriving at the station. There are literally thousands of people milling around and virtually none speak english. Some are there to travel, others sleep there or beg for money. Others, like rickshaw drivers or porters just want to hassle you for business. It is extremely crowded, dusty and hot” said Ray. “Eventually, someone directed me to a tourist information office where I was able to find out which one of the twenty or so platforms my train would be leaving from. So far, so good. Climbing over bodies to get to the platform, I realised the next challenge was to work out where to stand, as the platforms are very long indeed and if you enter the train in the wrong carriage, it could take you literally hours to get to your seat, which will definitely be occupied when you get there. And that’s because there is (apparently) no limit to the number of people who are allowed to board these trains. In this instance, I was lucky that I booked a ticket in advance, as I was guaranteed a seat! The standard class ticket only cost 87 rupees (about $1.80 US), which is cheap by western standards, yet it is prohibitively expensive to most Indians who want to travel by train. Consequently, most people stand and they take every inch of available space until the roof is the only option! Within 20 minutes, after the first two stops, the carriages were heaving – there were five of us sitting on my bench designed for three and it was literally impossible to leave the seat whilst the train was moving!” recalled Ray. “As I was the only foreigner in the entire carriage, I drew a lot of attention and felt hundreds of eyes on me for most of the journey. The person sitting next to me spoke English so I was able to get a conversation going, which meant I was able to find out about how things in general in India are working for most of the people there. Unfortunately, the train was severely delayed which meant I arrived in Agra close to midnight, hoping that I would be able to easily find the guest house I had booked a couple of days earlier” he added.

Above: It may not look very far on the map, but the journey from Jaipur to Agra crosses a state border and took about five and a half hours in a jam-packed, hugely overcrowded rickety train with bench seats and metal bars across open windows, like a cattle-truck!

Below: This is what the inside of Ray’s carriage looked like 15 minutes before departure from the station at Jaipur. Within 20 minutes of leaving, he tells me that it would have been impossible to take this photograph, as there were literally hundreds of people squashed into every available inch of space!

Unfortunately for our traveller, not everything worked according to plan as he arrived at Agra station. “I was able to establish that my guest house was quite close to the Taj Mahal, about 10-15 minutes by tuk-tuk from the station. Having gone through the annoying ritual of getting the price agreed, starting with the driver asking 150 rupees and eventually agreeing to accept 50, I made my way with him to my accommodation feeling exhausted from the long, uncomfortable journey and the hassling over getting a ride” recalled our global explorer. “I have to say, I had been warned about the touts in Agra and their relentless, aggressive pursuit of extracting money from tourists, but had chosen to give them the benefit of the doubt, thinking they could not all be as bad as people had made out. How wrong I was! As my tuk-tuk driver stopped at my hotel, he stayed there as I went to check in, almost as if he knew that something wasn’t quite right.

“Ray Martin – I have a reservation” I said to the guy at the desk. “We let your room go – you never showed up when you said” came the totally insensitive, uncaring reply. “I guess you can imagine that was the match which lit the fuse and I lost it at this point. Appeals that the train delays were outside of my control bounced off like water off a ducks back. Here I was in Agra, no clue as to exactly where because it was pitch black as I left the station as it was past midnight, with no place to sleep and no contingency. To make matters worse, one of the wheels on my holdall containing 22 kilos of luggage had broken which meant I could not wheel it along the street and would have to carry it instead. The tuk-tuk driver who witnessed all this just sat and smirked as he sensed another business opportunity to make some money from me by helping me find an alternative place. I was not very happy” said Ray.

Needless to say, our inventive traveller eventually managed to find somewhere to sleep and recover from the ordeal of his journey. “I have been doing this a long time, nearly six years now so things like this do happen from time to time and it’s not the end of the world” he said philosophically. “And anyway, I reminded myself that the whole reason I was in this place was to see one of the Wonders of the World. So from the moment I woke up the next morning, I kept my mental attention on that idea and decided to make the most of my limited time in Agra” he explained. So I asked Ray how was the Taj Mahal for him? Was it how had imagined or expected? “Yeah – it is incredible” was his answer. “It’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but you really have to be there” he told me. “Part of the thrill of visiting the Taj Mahal is the continuous suspense in the build-up before you set your eyes on it and the ultimate relief after the revelation. I have chosen these four pictures for our readers to see if I can explain what I mean” he told me.

1. “It is early morning, about 7.30am and the sun has risen. As you enter the West Gate and walk towards the centre, you get a glimpse of the Taj Mahal rising above the red surrounding wall of the compound. There is a magical energy and you cannot wait to get through the inner gate to see it in all of its glory”…..

2. “You are standing outside the inner gate and you peer through – you can see the Taj Mahal through the arch and it seems to be much closer than it actually is. You sense the excitement as you move your way towards the inner gate”….

3. “You are halfway through the inner gate and you are starting to see more and more of the entire structure. You get your first sighting of the whole building with its four minarets from ground level and your perspective changes. You can see it is actually much further away than it first appeared and considerably larger. Like a thirsty man walking through a desert spotting an oasis, you cannot hold yourself back and you want to get through the inner gate as fast as you can” …..

4. “You are now fully in the presence of one of the Wonders of the World. You are left utterly speechless as you remain still and take in the magnificent structure in front of you” said our traveller. “You see? It is virtually impossible to convey how spectacular this place really is – it is somewhere that will stay in my memory for years to come” he confirmed

In case you didn’t know, the Taj Mahal has a story that has been melting the hearts of millions of listeners since the time the Taj has been visible. It is a story that although it ended back in 1631, it continues to live on in the form of Taj and is considered a living example of eternal love. It’s the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, two people from the course of history who set an example for the people living in present and the future to come. An English poet, Sir Edwin Arnold best describes it as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones”. The story that follows next will prove why the statement is true.

Shah Jahan, initially named Prince Khurram, was born in the year 1592. He was the son of Jehangir, the fourth Mughal emperor of India and the grandson of Akbar the Great. In 1607 when strolling down the Meena Bazaar, accompanied by a string of fawning courtiers, Shah Jahan caught a glimpse of a girl hawking silk and glass beads. It was love at first sight and the girl was Mumtaz Mahal, who was known as Arjumand Banu Begum at that time. At that time, he was 14 years old and she, a Muslim Persian princess, was 15. After meeting her, Shah Jahan went back to his father and declared that he wanted to marry her. The match got solemnized after five years i.e., in the year 1612.

It was in the year 1628 that Shah Jahan became the Emperor and entrusted Arjumand Banu with the royal seal. He also bestowed her with the title of Mumtaz Mahal, meaning the “Jewel of the Palace”. Though Shah Jahan had other wives, Mumtaz Mahal was his favorite and accompanied him everywhere, even on military campaigns. In the year 1631, when Mumtaz Mahal was giving birth to their 14th child, she died due to some complications. While Mumtaz was on her deathbed, Shah Jahan promised her that he would never remarry and will build the richest mausoleum over her grave.

It is said that Shah Jahan was so heartbroken after her death that he ordered the court into mourning for two years. Sometime after her death, Shah Jahan undertook the task of erecting the world’s most beautiful monument in the memory of his beloved. It took 22 years and the labor of 22,000 workers to construct the monument. When Shah Jahan died in 1666, his body was placed in a tomb next to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal. This magnificent monument came to be known as “Taj Mahal” and now counts amongst the Seven Wonders of the World.

Above: “I did it all for love” might have been how Shah Jahan would have described his magnificent marble creation (left). Our global explorer seems to have got considerably bigger since leaving Jaipur as he attempts to lift the Taj Mahal up and take it with him to Rishikesh (right)

Above: The interior chamber of the Taj Mahal steps far beyond traditional decorative elements. The inner chamber is an octagon with the design allowing for entry from each face, although only the door facing the garden to the south is used. The interior walls are about 25 metres (82 feet) high and are topped by a “false” interior dome decorated with a sun motif. Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves. Hence, the bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were put in a relatively plain crypt beneath the inner chamber with their faces turned right and towards Mecca. Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph is placed at the precise center of the inner chamber on a rectangular marble base of 1.5 metres by 2.5 metres. Both the base and casket are elaborately inlaid with precious and semi precious gems. Calligraphic inscriptions on the casket identify and praise Mumtaz. On the lid of the casket is a raised rectangular lozenge meant to suggest a writing tablet. Shah Jahan’s cenotaph is beside Mumtaz’s to the western side, and is the only visible asymmetric element in the entire complex. His cenotaph is bigger than his wife’s, but reflects the same elements: a larger casket on a slightly taller base, again decorated with astonishing precision with lapidary and calligraphy that identifies him. On the lid of this casket is a traditional sculpture of a small pen box

Below: The Taj Mahal sits on the bank of the River Yamuna. In the distance is the Agra Fort and legend has it that Shah Jahan would stare from the windows in the fort across to the Taj Mahal and mourn the loss of Mumtaz. In 1983, the Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Above: Whilst the Taj Mahal may be beautiful, sadly the rest of Agra is not – “It is by far the filthiest, smelliest and most unpleasant place that I have visited since arriving in India” said Ray, who sent us these photographs, both of which were taken less than five minutes walk away from the Taj Mahal. “I ended up staying in a guest house very close to the square in the photograph above” he told me. “The touts are extremely aggressive here. For any readers who may be visiting India in future, I would highly recommend you consider a day trip excursion from Delhi, as there are many and they are all very good value. It means you can get the best of Agra without all the aggro” added Ray

Below: According to Ray, Agra is definitely a ‘lame horse’ city, just like this poor creature which he found tied up in the local market up the road from his guest house

Above: Before leaving Agra, our global explorer took the opportunity to visit the fabulous and enriching fort. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is about 2.5 kilometres north-west of its more famous sister monument, the Taj Mahal. Agra fort can be more accurately described as a walled city. At the end of his life, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb in the fort. It is rumored that Shah Jahan died in Musamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with a view of the Taj Mahal. The fort was also the site of a battle during the Indian rebellion of 1857, which caused the end of the British East India Company’s rule in India, and led to a century of direct rule of India by Britain

Below: Unlike his grandfather, Shah Jahan tended to have buildings made from white marble, often inlaid with gold or semi-precious gems. He destroyed some of the earlier buildings inside the fort in order to make his own

Above: As he leaves Agra, Ray takes one last look at the magnificent Taj Mahal, through a window in the fort – “My most treasured pictures are the one’s which are etched into my mind” he told me. “I am very happy to have come here and seen this wonderful creation”

Editors Note: India certainly looks and sounds like a fascinating country. Ray will also be visiting Rishikesh, Amritsar and Dharamsala where he will be attending three days of teachings with the Dalai Lama. We will have news and pictures from his trip in our next issue. Our aim at The Daily Explorer is to create a great publication for you, so please keep sending us your comments and suggestions as to how we can improve what we are doing. You can use the comments box on this site, or email Ray (ray@thedailyexplorer.com), ‘Mozzie’ or any of our correspondents at mozzie@thedailyexplorer.com. We will keep you posted!

MOZZIE BYTE

Above: On behalf of everyone at The Daily Explorer, we would like to congratulate one of our most dedicated readers – Ray’s mum – who celebrated her 75th birthday recently. “I am very lucky to know her and wish her good health and long life” said our global explorer, pictured here with Hetty during his visit to London earlier this year

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4 Comments »

  1. Oh Ray, your travels took me back to some of the places I visited ten years ago. I remember arriving at the station in Agra very early in the morning after a night on the train from Varanasi where I had spent three amazing spiritual weeks… I was SO excited to be visiting the Taj Mahal which I had dreamt about for years. Oh dear! My dream ‘shattered’ as I learnt the Taj would be closed until the following day for ‘cleaning’ so I jumped on a Rickshaw which took me to a friendly guest house. I remember feeling exhausted by the heat and dust so I rested for a while in my room wondering what to do as my onward journey was already booked for that evening and the trains were all packed like yours was! So I decided to wander around Agra ‘alone’ where I was hassled by relentless street vendors who were asking stupid prices for a ‘postcard’… I started off being very polite but they pushed me too far and as I refused to buy one of their packs of cards they shouted at me to f…k off! I couldn’t believe my ears and walked on as fast as I could until I was practically dragged into a smart shop selling beautiful paisley shawls at crazy prices… twice the price of the most expensive shop in London… but the air-con was refreshing and the well dressed smooth talking vendor battered me into buying a shawl! I told him I only had a £20 note left at the end of my trip, so as I left the store, he chased after me grabbing my £20 note and throwing the shawl at me! I never did get to see the Taj… but I won the shawl! I’m NOT sure I could face that brain bashing again. My brain hurts just thinking about my experiences but something pulls me back, just one more time… (and somehow you do acclimatise?) Ahhh… INDIA is something else! I loved reading about your time and look forward to more from this journey in your life! Thank you for sharing it! Love from another enthusiastic traveller! Susie X

    Comment by Susie Moberly — November 4, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

  2. Hi Ray, or should I say Coach In A Box!? Another great blog which stirred many memories of India, especially the Taj Mahal. Sorry, I missed you in Thailand.

    All the best, Howard

    Comment by Howard Carter — November 4, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

  3. This takes me back 21 years almost exactly. I see not much has changed. Every chapter and verse I can say happened to me as well, the feelings of frustration, the massive culture shock, Gandhi’s assasination, the whole thing. It’s heartening for me to read that even you after years of travelling and a great deal of progress in your life found this as hard as me all those years ago.
    Namaste, Anthony

    Comment by Anthony Guyon — November 6, 2011 @ 8:17 pm

  4. What an odyssey you have had so far in India. You are very brave and curious. Wonderful historical descriptions, I always learn something. Be safe! With so much love, Charlie xx

    Comment by charlotte fuerer — November 8, 2011 @ 5:20 pm


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