For a long time, I struggled with how to write this entry. That is the primary reason why it will be the fifth and final blog about our honeymoon in India and Nepal. Previously, my opinion was simple: I hated visiting India. However, upon further reflection, I realized that wasn’t entirely true. I didn’t hate it. The trip just wasn’t relaxing (in any way) or as enjoyable as other vacations I’d taken up to that point. The single adjective I’d use to describe the way I felt during my stay is overwhelming.
Going to India is quite an eye-opening experience, but it is stressful. It is one of the poorest countries and that poverty drives its citizens to do everything they can fathom to earn a living (albeit not always a very honest one), and even worse, forces them to sleep on sidewalks under tarps (you actually pass through their living rooms and kitchens as you walk).
It is one of the dirtiest countries and that filth keeps visitors on edge whether it be from the threat of contracting malaria or dengue fever from one of the thousands of mosquitoes or some food borne illness or parasite, obtained by drinking contaminated water (Some very dishonest people will actually reuse uncrushed water bottles, filling them up with tap water and resealing the lid to sell as ‘spring’ water).
Additionally, tourists are prey to scammers and touts; unscrupulous men who drive motorized rickshaws or work in forgery ‘Tourist Information Centers’ and do their best to pry extra rupees from your wallet for their services and advice.
For example, you head to the train station to purchase a ticket to another city. While on the way, your driver explains that the station is closed due to some unknown festival or holiday and tickets cannot be bought there. However – lucky you – the driver knows a guy who can help and offers to take you there for a few extra measly rupees. You agree and find yourself on the other side of a desk from a well-dressed man who authorizes the purchase of deluxe tickets for you and your party. Sure, the tickets are a bit pricier, but he assures you they’re worth it; foreigners don’t want the third class, cramped conditions of a regular ticket.
He smiles as he takes your money off your hands. You smile as you leave, thank your driver and even tip him a bit extra. But the next morning, when you arrive at the train station to board, you learn the hard way that your tickets are indeed for third class and you’re crammed in with all the other Indians who cannot afford a deluxe ticket. The ‘Tourist Information Center’ pocketed the profits from their scam and only bought you standard tickets.
The guidebooks all warn about these scams, and the educated traveler knows prior to arrival, but knowing and experiencing are two different beasts. It still makes for one intense holiday. However, in spite of the poverty, filth, and scams, there are quite a few hidden gems to see if you choose to visit this vast nation. One such gem is the food. Don’t worry, this won’t be a food blog, but I’d be remiss if it wasn’t mentioned. Americans typically either love or hate Indian food. I fall into the former category and thanks to the inexpensive and wonderfully prepared dishes, Jen and I were able to sample a great variety of sauces and spices our palettes had never tried before. Truly delectable!
India is famous for one very unique and exquisite Diamond in the Rough (as was put by the Cave of Wonders in Disney’s Aladdin) and that diamond doesn’t disappoint. Do not go to the Subcontinent and miss an opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal. The sheer beauty and magnificence of this building and the surrounding gardens and grounds exceeded every single one of my expectations and I found myself relaxed for the first (and only) time during the Indian leg of our honeymoon. In that regard, the Taj Mahal was more enjoyable than the Great Pyramids during our trip to Cairo, Egypt last year.
Located approximately three hours southeast of Delhi, the city of Agra is just outside the province of Rajasthan, and one point on the ‘Golden Triangle’ – India’s major draw for tourists. Rajasthan translates to ‘Land of Kings’ due to its long, turbulent history of cross-cultural conquering. The entire region, including the capital city of Delhi, is littered with temples, palaces, tombs, forts, and ancient bazaars – all of which sprang up during various centuries throughout the past five thousand years.
I will resist the urge to risk potentially boring my readers with a history lesson, but suffice it to say the Taj Mahal was completed in 1653 (almost 20 years after initial construction began) by Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife (who died while giving birth to his 14th child – perhaps he should have stopped at 13). Unfortunately, he didn’t stick around to enjoy it much as he was overthrown by his son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned in the less-famous Agra Fort, located across the Yamuna River (where he was only able to view his masterpiece of white marble from a considerable distance). When Shah Jahan passed away (only 8 years later), Aurangzeb was kind enough to bury his father inside the Taj Mahal.
Agra itself is a city in the loosest sense of the word, filled with dusty and winding streets, squatty and flat-roofed mud and brick huts, and people bathing, living, eating, and defecating alongside animals (all doing the same) and piles upon piles of garbage. Around and inside the Kinari Bazaar, busy shopkeepers shout in Hindi, wild monkeys steal your snacks right from your grasp, and pickpockets weave in and out of tightly packed crowds. It certainly makes you feel a bit like Indiana Jones – and all you wanted to do was buy your wife a souvenir saree!
And in this setting you’ll find the Taj Mahal, situated on the far edge between the city and the river. Its glorious marble dome and minarets rise up from the soot and grime like angels reaching up to the heavens themselves. Contrary to popular rumors, the Taj Mahal is not sinking, nor is it a Hindu temple, and Shah Jahan had no plans to build a black ‘mirror image’ Taj on the opposite side of the Yamuna. Rudyard Kipling called it the ‘embodiment of all things pure’, and it has also been described as a teardrop on the face of eternity.
These poetic statements of praise are not exaggerations. The Taj Mahal is an architectural work of art, as are the surrounding gardens. One might spend hours strolling around the grounds, meandering through the tree-lined walkways or perhaps snuggled on a bench with a loved one. Regardless of how visits are typically spent, few (if any) leave disappointed. Outside the gated walls, you can find impeccable views of the Taj Mahal from various rooftop cafes scattered around the Taj Ganj neighborhood. Or, if you’re brave enough, a look from the southern banks of the river, where for a small fee, a boat hand will row you out for a great photo-op, particularly at sunset.
The world’s most beautiful building became a World Heritage Site in 1983 and for the past 30 years has become a major source of income for Agra (tourism), and it looks as pristine today as when it was first constructed. The photographs speak for themselves, but they do not do it justice. As I said earlier, you cannot miss the Taj Mahal on any trip to any part of the Subcontinent; it is India’s one and only Diamond in the Rough.
Until Next Time…