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We took a road trip around The Golden Triangle during the Diwali holiday break to see some of India’s most famous sights. Our first day brought us to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort and then on to Jaipur for the night.
I’m not a very good tourist. Most traditional tourist destinations don’t pull me. When I think of vacation, I picture myself beached on a chaise lounge with a drink in my hand and a cool, refreshing pool just a short stumble away. But there is one place that has captured my mind since I was a kid – one place that I always wanted to see in person. But I never thought I would. It always seemed too far when I was a kid, and as an adult, there were too many tropical places I’d rather have seen first.
And then we found ourselves living in India, just a hop, skip and a jump from my childhood wonder.
The Taj Mahal.
I think it is the most beautiful man-made structure in the world. When I was younger, I thought it was a palace. I imagined what it must be like to live in it. Oh, some day, if I work hard enough, maybe I could buy it and move in! That would be so rad!
But it’s not a palace.
The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emporer Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It took 21 years to complete the mausoleum, the mosque, guest houses and gardens. Its cost in current dollars is estimated to be almost $900 million dollars. Its value is immeasurable.
I can’t help but wonder what the other six wives thought of the mausoleum. I’m guessing they weren’t too thrilled. The jealousy must have been palpable.
When Shah Jahan finally ascended to the great palace in the sky at the ripe age of 74, his earthly remains were interred next to his beloved Mumtaz in the Taj Mahal, and there the two remain to this day, entombed on a lower level of the structure, well away from prying tourist eyes.
The Taj Mahal sits in Agra, a city about 4 hours by car from Gurgaon. Along with Jaipur and New Delhi (essentially where we were living and working), the three cities form The Golden Triangle – a tourist’s delight, and a must-do for those visiting India.
We knew we wanted to make the journey to Agra and Jaipur – in fact, Handan had already been to the Taj with her coworkers before Barish and I arrived in India – but we needed enough time to do it. Our opportunity arrived with the Diwali holiday in India. We planned the trip around a long weekend, and set about the logistics. I planned the trip and booked a hotel for two nights in Jaipur. Handan secured a driver through a local coworker at her office. Our plan was to leave early on Saturday, see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, then drive to Jaipur, sleep, see Amer Fort and Jal Mahal, sleep, shop in Jaipur and then return to Gurgaon.
Saturday arrived, and Handan, Barish and I, with bags in tow, met our driver outside our hotel. I got in the front seat as he loaded our bags in the trunk. In typical woman fashion, Handan forgot something in the room and had to run back. I placed my phone in the middle console, thinking that Handan would call from the room when she couldn’t find whatever it was she was looking for. Sure enough, the phone rang. Our curious driver picked up my phone and looked at the name displayed on screen.
“Bah Bess.” He said, and looked at me.
“Bah Bess?” I said.
“Bah Bess!” He repeated, pleased with his mastery of the English language.
Who the hell was Bah Bess? Some Indian chick? How’d she get my number? I snatched my phone and glanced at the screen.
Handan found what she was looking for and joined Barish in the back seat.
For the first time since arriving in India, we were leaving the confines of a major city. The buildings, the traffic, the people – everything receded after a while. We were on a lonely road through the Indian countryside, passing small villages and farms. I had grown so used to the congestion, that I assumed it was everywhere. India has 1/3 the land area of the United States, but 5 times the population. In other words, it would be like 4.5 billion people living in America instead of 300 million. I was shocked to see so much farmland. But of course, it must be that way. A country like India must feed its own, and thus needs a lot of arable land to sustain such a population.
At last we arrived at the Taj Mahal parking lot – a cacophonous and riotously busy place full of tour buses, cars, tuk-tuks, throngs of yammering people, camels and scheming locals looking to cash in on the daily tourist bonanza.
We walked from the parking lot into the forecourt, the far side of which held the Great Gate.
That massive and majestic structure is just the front gate! Now go look at your own front door or gate and feel your inadequacy.
Some local color…
My babes striking a noble pose. Note that the pics of Handan in the outfit below are from her first trip. I’ve sprinkled a few in with our family trip.
Okay, we were about to enter the Great Gate. Remember what I told you about not being a good tourist. I’m not easily “wowed” or floored by earthly things, no matter how majestic. I appreciate their beauty, but I take everything in stride. Call it ennui, or say that i’m jaded – there’s something about my personality that doesn’t let me get all gushy and excited about stuff.
Then I entered the Great Gate, and my taciturn facade crumbled under the weight of what I saw.
We approached the gate in the blinding and scorching Indian sun, but when we crossed its threshold, we were thrust into darkness. There were no windows – only the arches behind and ahead. This darkness framed the exit arch and focused all attention on it. And there, perfectly framed within the arch, was the Taj Mahal, a full 1/4 mile (400 meters) in the distance. Photographs cannot adequately capture what the eye sees and the brain interprets. At once, I was struck by the sheer massive size of the Taj Mahal, and I was keenly aware of its distance.
The view seems to distort scale and perspective, and it made me feel tiny and insignificant. For the first time in my life, a place had given me goose bumps. My mind went blank with the enormity and perfection of that one single moment in the Great Gate. It is a feeling I won’t ever forget, and it is far more valuable and precious to me than anything that came later that day.
The Great Gate was designed by an architectural genius – that much is obvious. It is more than just an entry to the gardens. The Great Gate serves to separate the visitor from light and noise and everything mundane and ugly in the world. It then cleanses the senses with darkness and silence before allowing the visitor to cross into a perfect world of precise symmetry and unparalleled beauty.
As I continued towards the exit arch, the Taj Mahal revealed itself fully. If there is one place on Earth that everyone should visit, one sight that everyone should see and experience, it is the Taj Mahal framed in the arch of the Great Gate. A man created this place for his beloved wife. Human minds designed it. Human hands carved and built it. Our species is capable of so much more than we can imagine. The Taj Mahal is proof.
Once through the gate, the Taj Mahal takes its rightful place on the open Earth. It is still incredible and breathtaking and all the other adjectives, but it just loses a little something when it is removed from the forced isolation of the Great Gate.
We gathered and took the obligatory tourist photos.
The next photo is from Handan’s first trip. They were there at mid-day, whereas we visited in the afternoon. Notice the difference in lighting on the Taj.
We strolled up the gardens towards the mausoleum. The scale of the building is incredible. It is massive.
Even little Barish wanted to take some pictures.
My babes and some grody-looking dude.
Everyone must wear little shoe covers to protect the beauty of the marble.
The mosque off to one of the sides.
A look back at the Grand Gate from the mausoleum.
The Taj Mahal is a jewel surrounded by filth.
Once we had our fill of this number one wonder of the modern world, we made our way back to the Great Gate and left the Taj Mahal behind.
Instead of walking back, we bought a camel ride to the parking lot. More to the point, we bought a camel ride for me, while Handan and Barish sat in the carriage that the camel pulled. It was one of the most uncomfortable rides I’d ever endured. The scrawny camel’s hump and the rickety wooden “saddle” wreaked havoc on my fat white butt. Handan took pics, but they’re better left unseen. Instead, I’ll show a picture of Handan riding that same bony jerk during her first trip. She makes it look easy and fun!
We reunited with our driver and headed to our next destination.
Also known as Red Fort, Agra Fort is where the Mughal emperors lived.
It is a stunning walled city of red sandstone that stands in stark contrast to the pure white marble of the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal was situated so Shah Jahan could look out at his beloved Mumtaz from Agra Fort.
We wandered the walled city and snapped a few photos.
The architectural detail is stunning.
The afternoon was getting on, and we still had a five hour drive ahead of us. We said goodbye to Jahan and Mumtaz in their riverside repose and headed west towards Jaipur.
The Road to Jaipur
We stopped for food at roadside restaurant. I probably didn’t eat, knowing what horrors might await my stomach and bowels. This picture most likely shows me digging for a granola bar in our luggage. Barish had no such problems. He gobbled everything in sight with no worries at all. I was jealous.
We reached Jaipur with the last remaining light of the day, but we still had to find our hotel. I had booked us two nights at the Tree of Life Resort, which apparently sat smack dab in the middle of nowhere. We passed Jaipur and headed north.
Then we got lost. Our driver couldn’t find the turn. To be fair, every turn off of the “highway” looked like it might end in oblivion. The roads were unpaved and unmarked. Finally after a few turnabouts and cutbacks and this-ways and that-ways, he stopped and asked for directions. He finally found the turnoff, and we left the highway, just as the last daylight slid behind the hills in front of us.
I figured we were almost there. How far could dinky roads like the one we were on go? The answer is far. They can go very far. We climbed up and up, switching this way and that. I didn’t realize there were mountains here! Well, big hills, but still. Up and up we went until we crested the summit. The air was clear and the land faintly lit from the last dying filaments of light. It was beautiful. We passed small farms and villas. This was not India – not the India I knew. This felt like the hills of Tuscany.
Onward we drove, and full dark enveloped our small car. The road turned from dirt-covered asphalt to full, rutted dirt. The farms and villas receded.
Where in the hell were we?
Then the thought: who is our driver, anyway?
Then: is it time to worry?
He wasn’t a big guy – I could probably take him, but what if he brought us to his den of thieves?
I kept an eye cocked on him as the other tried to see through the dark.
After an eternity on the horrid road, we turned a corner, and there it was – The Tree of Life Resort.
We pulled into the courtyard, and our driver – not a hardened, kidnapping criminal after all – removed our bags from the trunk.
“Where will you stay?” I said to him.
He pointed, “Over there is place for me.”
“Okay. Goodnight. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
The bellhops had already gathered our bags. We turned back towards the hotel and stepped into paradise.
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