Stepping out of the terminal in Delhi, the heat immediately strikes one; it is dry. What a change this is from the coastal Indian cities we have been visiting. The hotel representative was there to help us inside baggage claim and he directed us to our driver as we went out. He helped us all the way to the car, a nice touch. We came into terminal 3 that is less than two years old. It is expansive and impressive.
What a great driver we had to the hotel. He was warm and friendly and spoke with me for the 30-minute drive to Hilton New Delhi Janakpuri, one of the closer hotels to the airport. He joked that there were no monuments to be seen on the way, only the prison. He pointed it out to me when we drove by about 9:00. At one of the gates a crowd had gathered to either be let in for a visit or waiting for someone to be released.
We really hadn’t been through an Indian city at night. There was lots of activity. Immediately upon leaving the airport, you see small villages and the merchants with their goods for sale. Apparently the traffic is heavy until 9 pm and even after that there is lots of activity. Suddenly cows, push carts, bicycles, and tuk-tuks jockeyed with the cars, trucks, and buses for the roadway. We passed a pavillon and Boris asked if it was a fair, and the driver told us no, it was an Indian wedding.
That was the highlight of the evening. I saw the adorned horse the groom rode in on, the bands that herald the family’s arrival, and a beautifully decorated carriage. The “field” itself was covered in lights and colored banners and the music was infectious. I had seen these things in movies, but it was magical to see up close. Moments later, we passed another one; it was beautiful. Our driver told us that it was a “lucky” day and the many weddings were taking place that evening. When we arrived at the hotel the driver, sensing my enthusiasm, questioned gate security and informed me that there was also a wedding in the hotel that evening.
We were greeted outside the door and taken directly to the executive lounge for check-in. We had scored an upgrade. Well I say directly, but we rode up with some of the wedding guests and the hotel representative encouraged me to step out at the floor and take a look. It was a beautiful rooftop reception. She told me that as long as I dressed up I could just go and everyone would just think the other family invited me. I was not so sure I would blend in that easily.
Our room is on the 10th floor and after settling in, I heard what I thought was by now a familiar sound. I looked out the window and saw the bride’s family arriving for a 4th wedding at a reception hall across the street. I watching the dancing and the band and then saw the gathering of the groom’s family farther down the street. They had their own band and lighted escort. You guessed it. While Boris unpacked, I watched the groom’s family arrive with the groom on horseback. That was 4 weddings in one night, a great start to our trip to Delhi.
Today we have an early start due to the long ride to Agra-4 hours-and our attempt to beat the crowd. Arjun Sachdeva, our guide, and the driver were there early (5:40) to pick us up. Having just gotten out of the shower, Boris and I came downstairs about 5:55 am, still 5 minutes early. After grabbing our packed breakfast at reception, we were off.
Arjun is a wonderful guide and I questioned him non-stop for the first hour; Boris ate his breakfast. We were going the quickest way instead of the most scenic, but we still passed the foreign embassies, President’s home, and one of the four remaining forts in Delhi. When we hit the new highway, I noted that there were no lane markers. It wouldn’t have mattered; nobody acknowledges “lanes”. People freely cross the roads, animals roam around, and there was even someone herding water buffalo against the traffic. When we finally made it to the toll road, the lane makers finally appeared; they were still largely ignored.
Why the long drive to Agra? It is the home of the Taj Mahal. Enough said.
The drive in through Agra was eye opening. There was every kind of vehicle imaginable. People carried goods on their head, pulled goods in a cart on foot, pulled goods on a cart behind their bicycle, pulled goods on a cart behind their motorcycle, pulled a card with oxen, pulled a cart with water buffalo, pulled a cart with horses, drove goods on a tuk-tuk, ect. There were some cars and trucks too.
After passing the “Baby Taj”, we crossed a bridge to see herds of water buffalo grazing, playing in the water, and shading themselves with the bridge below. As we rounded a turn, the Agra fort came into view on the right and the Taj Mahal was on the left.
We were meeting our local guide at the East gate, typically used by foreign guests. Most domestic visitors enter from the West gate. The South gate, with no parking, is for local visitors. There is a distance to reach the entrance from parking so we rode in on a Tonga, a horse-drawn cart, What a lovely way to arrive. As expected, there is heavy security (and no cell service for that reason), but not a long wait so we were inside fairly quickly.
The various entrances merge in a central courtyard. On the north is the formal entrance gate to the Taj Mahal. It looks more like a palace and is made of red sandstone and white marble. It is beautiful in and of itself. Looking in from the center of the courtyard, you can see straight through the Main gate, past the fountains and platforms, to the exquisite tomb that is the Taj Mahal.
Our local guide told us about the history, construction, and materials of this wonder. He was also wonderful with the camera and took lots of pictures, suggesting multiple locations and poses. Once you step off the main gate, you can no longer use video camera. Except inside the tomb itself, you are able to use a still camera throughout the complex. The beautiful white marble is adorned with semi-precious stones that add to its luster. Paint would have faded, but the jewels still sparkle.
You must take your shoes off to enter the tomb or you can use the shoe covers purchased with your ticket. The tombs themselves are in a lower level with no ventilation, but have been reproduced on the ground floor of viewing. Wood stairs have been constructed over the marble stairs for easier access and preservation.
The tomb was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, his only wife to bear him children-14 in total. She died in childbirth at age 38. The first and second wives have small unadorned tombs outside the east and west gate. (At least the other wives got nice white marble domes on their tombs.) The third wife’s remains are in the center of the of The Taj Mahal mausoleum. Shah Jahan had intended to build a mirror black tomb (white for love; black for sadness) north of the river, but it was never completed. The foundation for the black Taj can be viewed on the north side. He is buried beside his wife in the Taj Mahal, the placement of his “casket” the only lack of symmetry in the whole complex.
While inside, a flashlight reveals the luminescence of some of the stones and the detail work on each pedal of the flowers. The lotus was her favorite. Through the latticework window panels, you can look through any opening and see a complete picture of the red sandstone guesthouse beside the Tomb. (You can also sneak a “framed” picture with your cell phone and a watchdog guide.) On one side of the Taj Mahal is the guesthouse; on the other side is a mosque. They are mirror images. On either side of the center fountain, there are identical music platforms.
After our viewing, we went to lunch at Indiana. Our guide suggested wonderful dishes to share and perhaps the best bread I have ever had. We then did a drive-by of the Agra Fort and made a stop at Etimad-ud-Daula’s Tomb, often called the “Baby Taj” and built 30 years before the earlier. The “jewel box” is clearly an inspiration for the Taj Mahal. After seeing the adornment of the Taj Mahal, the artwork at this Mughal mausoleum looks primitive. It is still a beautiful setting. Boris once again enjoyed his rock star status when several young women, calling him “Uncle”, asked to wear his hat and have their picture taken with him.
From the balcony of the waterside gate, I got a good view of the grazing and bathing water buffalo. We once again had the long drive back, but avoided the worst of the rush hour traffic and arrived at the hotel just at sunset. We experienced such beauty today.