Back in January, Patt, my 7th grade pal, contacted me asking if she could visit us in Bangkok after her medical mission trip to Kolkata, India. At Kurt’s urging, I decided to meet Patt and her Kolkata group during March to tour New Delhi and Agra. After many, many emails and Facebook messages, all plans were in place.
I haven’t done much traveling on my own and going to India alone to meet someone I hadn’t seen in 40+ years was a bit scary. I left Bangkok (point A on map above) early Saturday morning, bound for New Delhi (point B). My flight arrived much earlier than Patt’s, so I spent time exploring the beautiful Shangri-La Hotel and reading by the pool; I then had a wonderful Indian supper on the Shangri-La’s terrace. Later that night, Patt arrived. We greeted each other with warm, maybe a little bit tentative, hugs and then talked non-stop into the wee hours.
Sunday morning came way too early. Our 12 member tour group headed out to do some New Delhi sightseeing.
The first thing that struck me was the number of people, the vehicles (tuk-tuks, taxis, cars), the roaming animals (cows, donkeys, horses, goats and monkeys), the noise, the trash, and the smells of the city streets.
Our first stop was Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi. The mosque was built in 1648 by Shah Jahan and was dedicated to his favorite daughter, Jahanara Begum. The huge rectangular courtyard can hold 25,000 worshipers. A closet at the north gate houses several relics including a copy of the Qur’an written on deer skin. The architecture is indeed impressive!
Our next stop was Raj Ghat, the Memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. The simple black marble platform marks the location of Gandhi’s cremation (January 31, 1948) and it was designed to reflect his simple life. An eternal light burns at one end. The epitaph “Hē Ram” (Oh, God) – the last words said to be uttered by Gandhi – is inscribed in the marble. A stone footpath leads through the park-like lawns and gardens to the memorial. Approximately 10,000 visitors arrive at the site each day. Dignitaries visiting India often stop at the memorial to pay respect to Gandhi.
Late in the afternoon we drove by the Baha’i House of Worship or “Lotus Temple”. The temple, completed in 1986, is a gathering place for people of all religions to worship without regard to denomination. Interestingly, the Baha’i scripture states that no pictures, statues or images may be displayed, and no pulpits or altars may be incorporated into the House of Worship. The temple, inspired by the lotus flower, has 27 free-standing marble “petals” arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides with nine doors opening to the central hall. The central hall holds 2,500 people.
After a great Indian supper at one of the local restaurants, we headed to the New Delhi Red Fort for a “sound and light show”. The highly rated 60 minute show consisted of red and green lights illuminating different areas of the fort while a moderator described Indian history linked to each building and mosque within the Red Fort. The story started with the rise of the Mughai empire and continued through India’s independence.
Very early on Monday morning, we boarded a train to Agra (point C) to tour the Taj Mahal, the Marble Factory, and the Agra Red Fort. The train station was a bevy of activity at 6:00 a.m.
Agra was very . . . interesting. Monkeys seem to have the run of the town and they are everywhere – walking on walls, climbing trees, begging in the streets. And if you get too close, look out – the monkey police are there watching and you will get scolded, not the monkeys. Notice the sign on the picture below: “Feeding Point” – yep, it’s for the monkeys.
The Taj Mahal is every bit as gorgeous as I imagined. It was amazing to walk thru the entrance arch and right in front of you is the Taj in all its glory. What a sight!
The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1648. This immense mausoleum of white marble was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife. It is the jewel of Muslim art in India and is a universally admired masterpiece of the World’s Heritage. The intricacy and detail throughout the building are just amazing. The well-manicured lawns and landscaping invite visitors to sit, relax, and enjoy the view.
Next stop: shopping at the Marble Factory. The Marble Factory is a cottage industry and items are produced and manufactured by hand for use around the world. Agra marble differs from other marbles in that it is non-porous and will not absorb liquid or particle material (a good thing in India). It’s also translucent allowing light to easily pass through thus giving the marble its luster. Craftsmen demonstrated polishing, shaping, and inlaying semi-precious stones into the marble. The pieces are then given a final polish and displayed for purchase. I purchased a small marble elephant for Kurt’s growing elephant collection and a beautiful vase for myself.
The Agra Red Fort is an UNESCO World Heritage monument that overlooks the Taj Mahal on the Yamuna River. The walk from our tour bus to the fort itself was a bit hazardous — loose cobblestones, trash, and lots and lots of people. Here, too, the monkeys seemed to be in control.
The Fort was built of red sandstone and the 2.5 km enclosure was once the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. The interior of the fort includes the emperor’s main sleeping area, surrounded on three sides by small rooms, one for each of his wives. In the center of the compound are gardens and a small vineyard. The fortress is comprised of the Jahangir Palace and Khas Mahal (both built by Shah Jahan), the Diwan-i-Khas or audience halls, and two mosques. As we walked through the grounds, I could imagine the active city life – marketers selling their wares required for everyday living, children playing, animals all around, servants cooking, and so on.
Tired, awed, and educated, we made our way back to the Agra Rail Station for the three-hour journey back to the hotel. All of us were worn out and I think a bit overloaded on so much history and information.
Tuesday was our final day in India and sleeping-in, a late breakfast, and shopping were on the agenda. Once we finally made it to the local market the sights were chaotic and fascinating. (We later found out the market was only 1/2 km from our hotel. A persistent tuk-tuk driver wanted us to visit the shops his friends and family owned. Patt and Tori, a young mission volunteer, were more persistent and dismissed the driver, then using a map, led us on foot to the market.) Locals and tourists crowded the streets. Everything you could possibly imagine and/or want was available, including souvenirs, tea, food, clothing, and leather goods. I couldn’t take pictures fast enough. I didn’t buy much at the market, but it sure was fun to watch Tori bargain with the merchants. What a pro!
We returned to the Shangri-La late in the afternoon, tired and ready for a bit of R&R. Although the rest of the medical mission group was leaving for the US that night, Patt and I had the evening to relax. We headed down to the spa for a much-needed massage, then off to dreamland. What a terrific trip!