Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Taj Mahal - A Wonder of the Modern World

Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631. She was the favorite wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and her tomb the Taj Mahal is thought to have been built to reflect her beauty in its perfection of design. Mumtaz was the mother of 14 of Shah Jahan’s children which were all born during an 18 year period. Shah loved Mumtaz so much that she accompanied him on his military excursions which included defeating the Rajput chiefs. She died at the age of 38 shortly after giving birth to the 14th child while living in a military camp in Burhanpur.

Following Mumtaz’s death Shah entered a long period of mourning observing Islamic rituals for the dead but reducing his military activities and forsaking the symbols of status such as jewelry, perfume or music for two years. Six months after her death with the military campaign over Shah returned to Agra. Mumtaz’s body was brought home and a site selected for her tomb on the banks of the Yamuna. Twelve years later Shah was living an opulent life in Delhi which he was laying out as the new capital when he became ill. His three remaining sons realizing that the throne was soon to become available argued and conspired among themselves for succession. Victorious, Shah’s son Aurangzeb chased his brothers around the country to remove their threat to the throne and exiled his father to the luxurious apartments at the Agra Fort where Shah spent the next 8 years of his life gazing on the Taj Mahal while enjoying every luxury apart from freedom. 

The view Shah Jahan "enjoyed" of the mausoleum for 8 yrs. prior to  his death

The apartments where Shah Jahan was confined

The design and style of the Taj is typical Mughal but also drawn from earlier periods going back as far as the ninth century. Humayan’s Tomb 1565 in Delhi and the Baby Taj (Itimad-ud-Daulah’s tomb 1628) are just two tombs with features similar to those seen in the Taj. 41 million rupees, 500 kilos of gold, marble and precious stones as well as the labor of 20,000 workers were needed to complete the Taj over a 22 yr. period.

Symmetrical, exquisite, detailed and often thought of as feminine the Taj is not only a symbol of love but also of India. In 2007 it became one of the seven wonders of the modern world, thanks in part to the power of modern technology where cell phones were used in the campaign to vote. One of the quotes from our trip that has stuck with me is, "more cell phones than toilets" which helps to explain the power of 1.28 billion people coming together for a common cause.

Decorative elements include Pietra Dura (inlay with precious and semi-precious stones). The Mughals believed flowers were “symbols of the divine realm”. Shaded effects were created with tulips, lilies, iris, poppy and narcissus. Calligraphy of inlaid black marble on the white marble inscribe Koranic passages. Carved relief work create texture in contrast with the pietra dura giving color to the white marble. Other decorative elements include black slate, yellow, red and grey sandstone and hand carved marble screens.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Agra Tour – Great Riches and Extreme Poverty

On our first day in Agra having been wowed by the Taj Mahal from afar many of the group decided to wait until early the next morning to visit the great tomb when it would be bathed in early morning light. One of the group leaders suggested that hiring a cab driver for a guided tour was a good way to see the city. Ryan, Stuart and I followed up on this idea and hired a friendly driver named Kaka to show us the sights. Touring with a native guide – particularly if you buy him lunch – allows you to learn a lot about native culture and ideas. As a group we had been discussing the poverty we had observed and the ethics and dilemmas of giving money to beggars. Kaka felt that many of the young people had learned to beg rather than learning a skill and made it their way of life. He said that old and disabled people had no choice but to beg as their options were limited but that young people chose the begging lifestyle over work. He also observed that there are too many people on the planet which is easily observed when you walk through any Indian city. This is a viewpoint shared by many Europeans but not one I have ever heard expressed in the U.S.A. Kaka shared with us that Indians from the countryside come to the cities to find work as there was insufficient work in the countryside for them. 

At several evening meetings we discussed poverty, its causes and implications. We debated whether or not giving money to beggars helped them or made the problem worse. The discussions were emotional and intense and at the same time wonderful in the sharing of ideas as group members struggled to resolve what they were experiencing. Tolerance versus acceptance was one thing we pondered over during these discussions.  Poverty and beggars are a complicated conundrum that we observed first hand in India. As privileged westerns the disparities of Indian society were shocking, frightening and difficult for the intellect to process. 

During our Agra tour intellectually we pondered over population and poverty while touring and admiring incredible Mughal tombs and Forts. India is a dichotomy of contrasts; beautiful, shocking, diverse and complex.

The Agra Red Fort built by Akbar between 1565 and 1573 is made of red sandstone.
The fort is a contrast of styles from the fortifications of Akbar’s period to the elegance and beauty of the marble apartments built by Shah Jahan who is responsible for the Taj Mahal. This sprawling complex forms a crescent along the backs of the Yamuna.

The Baby Taj or China Tomb is the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah who was the Lord Treasurer of the Mughal Empire. The open pillared domes on the minarets are known as chhatri.

 The decorative elements of the Baby Taj are similar to those of the Taj Mahal with calligraphic panels, mosaic patterns, marble screens, painted floral patterns, and pietra dura (stone inlay).

A garden tomb the Baby Taj is thought to have been an inspiration for the Taj Mahal. The tomb surrounded by gardens and four red sandstone gates took six years to build and was completed in 1622. The Taj Mahal took 22 years to build and was finished in 1653.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Delhi to Agra on the Bhopal Shatabdi Express

In a country that appears to thrive on chaos the railway system is amazingly efficient and organized. Trains run on time, tickets can be purchased ahead of time online with reserved seats. Chai, snacks and meals are served on longer trips courtesy of the “Meals on Wheels” service. Commuter trains are a different story. They are packed with less than “standing room only”. Indians are crammed into these trains and just when you think no one else will fit in another person will hop on and literally be hanging on to a hand rail while his body is dangling out of the train.

The Bhopal Shatabdi Express runs from Delhi to Agra in less than three hours and was our first experience of Indian Railways. Our train to Agra was scheduled to depart at 6:00 a.m. The Cabana is a 15 minute walk or a short rickshaw ride to the Main Delhi train station. In small groups we made our way through the quiet streets. At the station it was a different story. People coming and going; sleeping on the platform and bringing supplies to the train on large hand carts. The train heads out of Delhi through areas of extreme poverty. Slums, huge festering garbage piles, small children playing in the filth of the trash that they also use as toilets. Among all of this poverty many of the houses have satellite dishes for TVs. Having read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katharine Boo while in India I have a better understanding of slum culture, the lack of hope that so many people have, and the structure within the slums. However this does not make what we saw from the train and the continuing pressures of over-population any easier to accept.

Leaving the slums behind the train goes out into flat country. There are very few trees; man has literally taken them out of the landscape. Rice fields predominate and in other areas cattle and water buffalo graze in fields with rough grass and small shrubs. Arrival in Agra threw us back into the crush of humanity as we tried to make our way out of the train station while being bombarded with requests for taxi and rickshaw. We all had luggage to deal with so paired up to ride rickshaws to the Siddhartha Hotel.

After checking into our rooms Professor Bushoven with a glimmer in his eye said, “follow me,” which of course we did. He led us up to the roof top where we got our first glimpse of the world famous Taj Mahal. It is indeed breathtaking and incredible that we were so close to it. Later that evening on the roof at sunset we watched how the color of the marble changed as the light faded. Around 9:00 p.m. the Muslim call to prayer began starting over to our left. In the course of the next 30 minutes or so the call echoed from different parts of the city seemingly surrounding us with the call. Difficult to describe the atmosphere on the roof with the Taj as our back drop – very memorable evening. 

The Taj Mahal as viewed from the roof top of the Siddhartha Hotel

A closer look
This home is across the Yamuna river from the Taj Mahal. The wealth/poverty contrast is stark.

Pigs and feral dogs feeding on a small trash pile

Laundry on the banks of the Yamuna just down the river from the Taj.

Beating saris clean

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Rain and a Bonus Day!

There is nothing like the smell of wet dog with morning Chai! This morning as I do most mornings I waited for the first glimmer of daylight to appear, put on my sneakers and headed out the door with Abby my large yellow dog for our morning walk. It was drizzling a little so I did take a second to grab a light jacket. We usually walk for an hour around the lake so Abby can run and chase squirrels and I get some exercise and also use the time to let my subconscious work on projects and problems. This morning it was warm and the rain did not bother us until we got to the dam and the drizzle became a downpour. We continued and had a great walk, but it reminded me of the last time I saw heavy rain which was in India on one of our bonus days in Delhi.

Our plane home was cancelled so the group had two bonus days in Delhi. On the last day which happened to be Indian Independence day a group of us gathered on the rooftop of Sams to drink chai and pass the time until our late evening flight.  All around the city Indians were celebrating. Indians fly small kites and there were probably 200 kites flying over Delhi from our vantage point. The rain came and went but did not discourage the residents from enjoying their day. With each torrential downpour Indians embraced the water standing out on the rooftops and relishing the refreshing water. At the beginning of the day I had witnessed a young man who literally took a shower in his shorts in the rain – right there on the rooftop across from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant. We shun the rain but in India it is embraced as a blessing.

Rooftop Showers!

Typical Delhi Rooftops

Flying Kites on Independence Day


A common rooftop scene in the rain


Kites flying on Independence Day over Delhi

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Lodi Gardens

Lodi Gardens are located in residential Delhi and a favorite location for joggers, yoga enthusiasts, families and couples looking for some green space within the confines of this crazy city. Architecturally, the tombs and mosque in the gardens are a wonderful representation of India itself.

Designs from the Lodi and Sayyid dynasties (15th century) can still be seen along with a mosque built in 1494. Arabic script resides next to lotus flowers and elephants which are Hindu symbols. Intricate detail is the hallmark of the Lodi and Sayyid dynasties including the original mosaic blue tile from the 15th century that can still be seen today.

The gardens are well cared for by multiple workers who use push mowers and manual labor to mow, plough, prune, plant and weed the gardens. As in other tropical countries ficus is trained into hedge rows and banyan trees grow throughout. Parrots, parakeets and other exotic birds call the garden home and in true Hindu tradition are fed along with the crows and pigeons – all living things being considered sacred. 

Bara Gumbad (big dome) and Sheesh Gumbad (glazed dome) are the tombs of unknown Lodi Emperors 
Arabic script is just part of the hand carved detail

This photo shows the sandstone detail of the Lodi tomb
The octagonal tomb of Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517)
Another view of Sikandar Lodi's tomb.

Butters and Vinnie playing on some of the exercise equipment that is provided in Lodi Gardens
We passed India Gate on our way to lunch after the Lodi Gardens. India gate is a memorial to the British and Indian soldiers who died in WW I and for those killed in the third Afghan war.