20th – 26th January 2014
Week 22 sees Graham and Prunella (now in their fifteenth year of marriage) fulfil a long held, romantic dream to stand together before The Jewel of India – the Taj Mahal.
The Taj was comissioned in 1631 by the then Emporer Shah Jahan to house the body of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. Construction began in 1632 and continued until 1653.
We almost got here in 2009 to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary.
The plan was in place but an ultrasound revealed that Prunella was not just getting a little plump as she had suspected but we were in fact joyously three months pregnant with our third son Felix.
We had been hoping for a third but had not expected such resounding success. So all India plans were put on hold … until now.
Emperor Shah Jahan himself described the Taj in these words:
Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator’s glory.
So it was that on Day 148 of our travels we walked through Taj Ganj for our date with the Taj. We went early to avoid the crowds. We walked to the nearby South Gate, a grand structure in it’s own right, and got our first feel of the beautifully carved red sandstone. The mammoth gates opening to reveal what mysteries?
We were the only ones at the ticket counter, paid the huge tourist ticket price, which includes free water and shoe covers and stood looking into the complex. The whole area was completely shrouded in a heavy fog. So thick that we could not see anything a few metres from us. It was a mix of mystery and disappointment. Would this be our only view of the Taj?
The fog gave a cool, surreal atmosphere. We slowly approached via the famous long walk, as garden and fountains revealed themselves. Prunella was aware of walking in her mother’s footsteps.
Suddenly, as if in a dream, the Taj herself appeared out of the shroud. As always it was a mixture of awe and wonder that struck us. The pure symmetry, detail and proportions. The marble shaped and lovingly crafted into soaring arches and majestic domes. The carved flowers with petals that curved and leaves that folded over. She showed herself to us in parts as we walked in the mist unable to see all. The Taj teased and seduced us…
The life-like luster of the stone. The sheer beauty. The magic of finally being here – together.
We spent many hours admiring this wonder of the world. We ventured into the inner sanctum and goggled at the intricate stones that created the delicate in-laid flowers decorating the Jali screen. Graham counted the parts in one tiny flower and got to over forty precious stones.
The two lonely centotaphs representing a story of both love and tragedy. Now forever told and remembered due to this epic expression of both. As the hours passed, so did the mist. The boys played and laughed across the marbled floors, as we slowly encircled the Taj.
Very slowly time revealed the mausoleum in all it’s glory – the sunlight made it softly glow. We had finally seen the Taj Mahal as it was meant to be seen. Designed not only as a magical structure itself but to be the centerpiece of the buildings and gardens that surround it.
These surrounds were all amazing in their own right. The whole original complex is about three acres and contains many structures. We sat on the benches, watched the squirrels and birds at play and saw the fountains trickle. We watched workers still labouring to restore and clean – just as the original workers had done in the 17th century. We watched the now growing hordes of tourists take happy snaps. We visted a small display of information boards about all of India’s great historical monuments. We were amazed and reminded of all the many wonders of India.
It would take a while to sink in but at last we had seen their most treasured wonder – The Taj Mahal.
Prunella and the boys then headed back to the hotel for a long rest. Graham went on a solo adventure and used his Taj ticket for same day, free entry to Agra Fort.
Soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb and put under house arrest here. From this prison he could gaze at the Taj from a distance. On Shah Jahan’s death, Aurangzeb buried him in the mausoleum next to his wife.
After a late rooftop lunch we headed to out with our couchsurfing host Aman. He and his friend took us for a walk to the local park. We avoided the touts selling horse and camel rides, instead the boys ate icecreams in the sunshine. To Felix’s dismay the last licks had to be quickly thrown away when a troop of bold macaque monkeys passed. They would not normally attack people but may grapple for food.
This was soon forgotten as we reached the playground and the boys climbed and scrambled with the local children. We talked to Aman and other locals about life in India and life in Australia. So different in context and culture and yet common in universal hopes and dreams. His greatest hope of finding companionship and love – the preoccupation of most teenagers.
Man on a Horse
This morning we checked out of the Saniya Palace Hotel and caught an auto to stow most of our bags at Agra Fort station cloak room. Soon forms were filled, locks bought, bags arranged and numbers chalked on each bag. Then after a long wait due to a sudden downpour of rain, we headed back to Agra Cantt.
A walk through narrow lanes and even a squeeze through a child size communal door brought us to the lane way where wedding festivities were taking place. There the groom sat in full bridal regalia atop a white horse. He was surrounded by brightly dressed saris, children and all the members of his community. We proceeded, chatting to guests, down to the local temple where prayers were said and photos taken. It was a touching, happy, fairytale occasion. At one point Prunella even helped the groom put on his shoe.
Then back into cars for the unexpected long drive to Muthera. When Aman said he was taking us to a wedding, we had no idea it would be so far away. But crammed into a car for many hours with his many friends – we just went with the flow.
Night had fallen as we arrived to firstly visit the most famous of the Temples at Muthera. According to Hindu scripture this was the birthplace of Lord Krishna and therefore the temple here is one of the most holy in India. Muthera is also knows as Brij Bhoomi. It is an important Hindu pilgrim place and one of the seven sacred cities. The main pilgrim center in Muthera is the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple. This is where we were headed.
We stumbled through the wet and narrow lanes, stopping briefly at the place were 2000 widows live and pray to Krishna. Then bought the necessary flower garlands, washed our hands and delved into the sanctum. We are told that whilst here we must foremost think of our parent’s love. We listened to a little scripture, walked three times around a sacred ling-um whilst chanting and onwards to the shrine itself. We layed our garlands at the base of the holy statues and made our donation before heading back into the night. A tranquil and enlightening excursion into the religion of our host.
Then back to the huge wedding centre where we are given a room for the night. Again in the distance, the groom was on a horse. Graham joined in some mad dancing with the men in front, as the procession came towards the venue. Workers carried a large string of chandeliers plus mobile generator to light the way. All is noise and movement and chaos. People push and pull at Graham as he fights to try and take photos and dance in the tightly packed crowd.
We are in the thick of it – a wedding – Indian style. More food than you can imagine. Huge buffets of all things savoury and sweet, great vats of warm spiced milk and chai. Not a shred of meat or a drop of alcohol to been seen.
Downstairs is the place where the groom now sits prince-like, awaiting his bride. He must not join in the festivities but watch from the sidelines as guests come to pay respects. We take turns watching our now sleeping children and gyrating with wild teenagers on the dance floor, also waiting.
Suddenly she is there in all her glory. Now comes the personal culmination of thousands of years of deep spirituality and tradition. She instills the colour drenched beauty that only befits an Indian bride. Dripping with copious jewellery, flowers, henna and her saried entourage. She keeps her demure eyes down, as per tradition and is led slowly in a meandering route to the groom. He takes her hand for the first time and leads her up the small stairs. There they exchange garlands with each family taking turns to lift the betrothed so that it is not too easy to complete the ritual.
With prayers being said it is done. They are married. We are honoured to be there in that very moment and content to be in the background. It is their day and only theirs. A blessed union which we ourselves believe is sacred and lifelong.
Things do not stop there. The party goes on – all night. A restless, loud one for us. The feasting, the throbbing music, the fireworks, the ensuing gossip and wrangles, the weary joy. Four am finds sleeping guests, a colossal cleanup in action and us stumbling into an auto to be reunited with our luggage and kindly helped onto our train to Ajmer.
We are grateful to Aman and his family for letting us be part of this special time. We are but outsiders – knowingly ignorant of the many traditions and spiritual significances that have taken place. Yet somewhere in the manic mayhem that is an Indian wedding is a glimpse of magic and the mix of love. The love of God, of tradition, of community, of family and the hope of finding one true love – we all share.
We took the train to Agmer train station then stood on a cramped public bus for the one hour ride to Pushkar. Juggling children and bags we walked down the street fending off touts. By now we were all tired and it did not take long for disagreement to ensue. Prunella sat with the bags unwilling to continue and sent the children to a nearby fruit juice stall. Graham set forth to investigate accommodation.
On his return we thought we would try a hotel just a few steps from us. It turned out to be our haven in Pushkar – the Hotel Om.
The Hotel Om is a family run, quiet whitewashed block building. It would have been just at home in the Mediterranean as here in Pushkar. The hotel has many levels and is built around two central courtyards. There is a rooftop for sunny views and a tranquil restaurant set near the pool.
It wasn’t long before Prunella and the boys attempted a swim. The breathlessly chilly waters meant that only Prunella had a short freezing plunge. Still it was a warm pleasant day and all enjoyed a quiet rest before setting out at twilight through the bazaar, to gaze upon the holy lake. Hindu legend says that the ancient lake Sarovar appeared miraculously, when a lotus fell from the hands of Lord Brahma and dropped into this valley. Pushkar in Sanskipt means blue lotus flower.
We enjoyed dinner at the Sunset Hotel gazing over this sacred lake as the sun fell. Dinner included the Tibetan dumplings (Momo’s) and a few delights from the attached German Bakery.
Real Porridge. Real Coffee.
Breakfast found us at the Om Shiva. A lovely garden restaurant with room for hide and seek. We would be back again before our stay was through. We discovered their fantastic porridge with bananas and honey. Plus Graham was relieved to finally find some good black coffee.
Thus fortified we set off for a walk around the lake. We took our shoes off to walk across the holy bridge. (Whilst travelling we try hard to respect the culture and religion of others. Something which is sadly overlooked by many travellers). We stopped at a barber shop and all our boys had an Indian head massage, complete with peppermint oil and vibrating hand machine. Graham had a cut-throat razor shave – an affordably regular treat in India.
Then wandering back through the Bazar we stopped at the famous falafel stalls for a late lunch. They are truly delicious and a welcome break from Indian fare. More exploring led us to dinner at the roof top of the Enigma Hotel – great views. There we had our first glimpse of the famous Brahman temple that we would visit tomorrow. Then back to our digs for blogging until the boys slept then a quiet jug of hot chocolate for two.
The next day we visited the red spired Temple of Lord Brahma. This included descending into a short, dark underground shrine which the boys found mysterious and fun. There are many stories explaining the curse of Lord Brahma and explaining Pushkar has his only temple Brahma. Here is one of them from wikipedia.
According to legend, Brahma was in search of a place for Mahayagna and he found this place suitable. After a long time, Brahma came to known that a demon, Vajranash, was killing people here so the Lord intoned a mantra on a lotus flower and killed the demon. During this process the parts of flower fell on three places which were later known as Jyaistha, Madhya and Kanistha Pushkar. After this Brahma performed a yagna to protect this place from demons. The consort of Brahma, Saraswati, were needed to offer Ahuti for the yagna but she was not there that time so Gayatri, a Gurjar girl, was married to brahma and performned yagna. This act made first wife of Brahma, Saraswati, angry and she cursed Brahma saying that he would be worshiped in Pushkar only
Our time in Pushkar was a quiet, warm, peaceful one. The boys designed and drew some Henna art. They searched for pet tortoises in the Hotel garden. We took a short camel cart into the desert with Lucas at the helm, ate indian sweets and watched the sunset over the glistening lake.
Henna has been used since antiquity to dye skin, hair, and fingernails, as well as fabrics including silk, wool, and leather. Since it is difficult to form intricate patterns from coarse crushed leaves, henna is commonly traded as a powder made by drying, milling and sifting the leaves. The dry powder is mixed with lemon juice, strong tea, or other mildly acidic liquids to make a preparation with toothpaste-like consistency, which can be used to make finely detailed body art. Here in Northern India, there is a fashion of “Bridal Mehndi”. Women gather before the wedding for a Henna ceremony. Some believe the longer the henna stays on the bride’s hand the longer it is believed that her in-laws will treat her well. If the henna fades out quickly, it’s a sign that she will not be happily married. Wikipedia
Day 153 – Udaipur
Again off the night train and to the hotel recommended by our CS host Poonam – The Hotel Royal Palace. After a rest we head across the famous pedestrian bridge through the winding lanes to visit Poonam’s friend Kamlesh. He lives in a lovely apartment and after some chai, proceeds to cook us a lovely simple meal. Prunella and the boys enjoy helping by shelling peas. Graham returns the next day for meditation class and dinner out with just the boys. Then we are all back again the following day for more home cooked dinner. We were touched by the hospitality of Kamlesh, his willingness to share his home and his personal dedication to his charity work.
Whilst in Udaipur the boys also had a very impromptu chapatti cooking class, mainly led by a girl just a bit older than themselves at the Black Pepper restaurant. Fun for all. On January 26th – our Australia Day, we headed to the National Stadium for the Indian Republic Day celebrations. There we saw school children, military pomp and sari clad dancers. We enjoyed sitting with local families and joining in this national celebration. Later that night our hotel owner set off a huge box of fireworks from the roof.
Happy Australia and India Day!