Incredible India — the North


by Ian McGary, Mountain View, CA

Travel ads use the words “Incredible India” to entice potential travelers to come to this exciting country. My husband, Chuck, and I made our journey in November ’04, and we indeed found India to be incredible.

The old flanks the new, tradition vies with innovation, and palaces stand next to piles of rubbish. Our eyes were firmly fixed on the wonders of India, however, and although we did see the less appealing side of the country, we accepted it as part of what makes India incredible.

Delhi

During our month-long visit, we sampled both the north and the south. We used the services of Barbara Sansone at Spirit of India (Mill Valley, CA; phone 888/367-6147 or visit www.spirit-of-india.com). The first two weeks were part of an organized tour, “Art, Architecture & Cultural Highlights of North India.”

As it turned out, our tour group consisted of one other couple and us. Since there were only four of us, we did not have an escort accompany us throughout the tour (six are required for this service), but we did have guides and drivers at each stop who accompanied us to the sites on our itinerary.

In northern India, Mughal architecture is preeminent. Muslims first invaded the area in the eighth century and were well established by the 12th. They erected magnificent mosques, palaces, forts and tombs.

In Delhi we visited the Quwwat-al-Islam (Might of Islam), a mosque built in the 12th century on the site of a former Hindu shrine. As seems customary throughout the world, holy sites remain holy sites and are revered by conquering peoples. Just as Christian churches and cathedrals were built over the sites of pagan temples, so too mosques were built on the sites of Hindu temples.

India’s oldest mosque, Quwwat-al-Islam, is a ruin now, but a visit later to the largest active mosque in India, the 17th-century Jama Masjid, confirmed the strength of Islam today. Its enormous courtyard can hold 25,000 worshipers at Friday prayer sessions. The mosque stands in one of the most congested parts of Old Delhi and is a social and commercial center. It was constructed under the rule of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the sultan who also built the Taj Mahal.

Other sites in Delhi on our itinerary included the soaring Qutb Minar (238 feet), a former minaret, and Humayun’s Tomb (built in the 1560s), the first great example of a Mughal garden tomb and a precursor to the Taj Mahal.

Another stop was the immense Red Fort, an imperial citadel that is a complex of palaces, audience halls and mosques. Visitors should try to imagine what it would have been like to have visited the fort as it was during Mughal rule, with elegantly decorated elephants in procession, the sound of drums, cymbals and horns, and court members dressed in brightly colored silk and gold garments — all approaching the 60-pillared pavilion where the emperor sat under a lavishly carved white marble canopy. The entire fort complex was obviously built to display the wealth and power of the reigning dynasty.

Traffic report

We found the traffic in Delhi horrific! Somehow our driver managed to weave his way through the city, avoiding collisions with motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, motorscooters, buses, cattle, goats and pedestrians. Driving in India is definitely a learned skill. People drive defensively at all times rather than follow prescribed rules, but it works.

Using the vehicle’s horn seems to be a requirement in India. Trucks have signs on the back that say, “Blow horn, please.” Blowing the horn indicates that the driver wants to pass, but horns seem to be used at any time, for any move or any suspected danger.

Khajuraho

From Delhi we flew to Khajuraho to see the magnificent Hindu temples of the Chandella rulers of the 10th and 11th centuries. Most Hindu temples in the north were destroyed by the invading Mughals, but since these were built in a remote area and were covered with vegetation, they were saved from the ravages of the Islamic onslaught. They have been cleaned in recent years, which was especially appreciated by one of our fellow travelers who had visited India 40 years ago and saw temples that were black with soot and soil. Today the creamy sandstone temples and shrines are set in a landscaped garden where brightly colored flowering plants show them off to great advantage.

At Khajuraho, we noticed the contrast between Muslim and Hindu traditions in architecture. The Muslim religion forbids as idolatrous any hint of human imagery and therefore decorates its buildings with elaborate and elegant geometric, calligraphic and vegetative designs. The Hindu tradition, however, welcomes the use of human and animal forms and lavishly decorates its temples with them.

Relief sculptures of the famous “loving couples,” which always seem to amuse Westerners, can be seen on most of the temples here. The Hindu’s religious celebration of life and love in all its many forms seemed foreign to us — at least to this extent.

Agra

Agra is understandably the highlight of any trip to northern India. The magnificent Agra Fort, with its complex of audience halls, mosques and living quarters — some in marble with pietra dura decoration — are particularly stunning.

We later saw the pietra dura process demonstrated by artisans in a nearby shop. Inlays of precious and semiprecious stones, which are ground and shaped into paper-thin pieces, are placed onto a marble base, usually in the shape of flowers, a motif derived from Persian art.

Little inlaid boxes and vases are made today for tourists. They make perfect gifts or keepsakes of a visit to India. I admire my little purchase each day.

The day before we went to the Taj Mahal, we visited the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah. This tomb dates to slightly before the Taj and is important because it is the first example in Mughal architecture of a building faced entirely in white marble. It is lavishly decorated in pietra dura ornament, preparing us for the even greater refinement of colored stone and floral reliefs that we would see the next day at the Taj.

Our visit to the Taj Mahal was planned for sunrise. It was hard to get up so early in the morning — and it was very cool that early — but it was worth the effort. Although we were hardly alone there, we did miss the vast crowds that came later. To see and photograph this spectacular building, as the morning light changed minute by minute, is an experience we will never forget.

Jaipur

We continued to Jaipur and Udaipur in Rajasthan. Rajasthan means “land of the kings,” and the wealth and opulence of the Rajput kings still lingers in their splendid princely palaces. The most elegant and richly decorated palace that we saw in Rajasthan was the Amber Fort and Palace in Jaipur. Amber was the ancient capital of Jaipur.

Dating from the 17th century, the palace sits on the crest of a hill, and tourists take elephant rides from the base of the hill up to the courtyard.

Particularly lovely was the Hall of Private Audience, with small mirrors embedded into geometric shapes in the ceiling. In candlelight, it appears to be a starlit sky.

The City Palace was a close second in magnificence. The former maharaja of Jaipur still resides on the top floors of the palace. Several of the palace buildings are now museums — displaying royal costumes and textiles, a collection of weapons and rare Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings.

The outdoor astrological observatory, built in the 18th century, should not be missed. The 16 instruments, in addition to serving their intended purposes, are giant sculptures set in a peaceful garden.

The City Palace adjoins the Wind Palace, a place where female members of the royal household could sit and see but not be seen. The top three of the five floors are just a room deep and were designed as a window to the outside world for the royal women who led cloistered lives in the closed courtyards and apartments behind. From there they could watch the world go by on the streets below and have a grandstand view of royal parades and other ceremonies.

We almost felt like royalty ourselves, as our lodgings in Jaipur were in the Samode Haveli. Built as a city residence for a prime minister of the royal court, it is now a lovely hotel.

Udaipur

From Jaipur we flew to Udaipur. Our domestic flights were all taken on Jet Airways, as they offer senior discounts.

Security was thorough in India. Our checked bags were x-rayed upon arrival at the airport. If there were questions about their contents, attendants had passengers open the bags to be inspected before they were loaded onto the plane. Carry-on luggage was x-rayed before boarding, and passengers were hand-scanned (the women behind a curtain with female attendants) before leaving the terminal to board the plane. On some flights we were scanned and our carry-on luggage checked again on the tarmac at the bottom of the staircase just before boarding.

We took five flights in North India and three more in South India. The flights were pleasant and the flight attendants were gracious and helpful. We were even given hot meals on 40-minute flights!

The Samode Haveli was just a prelude to the gorgeous Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur. Formerly the maharana of Udaipur’s summer residence, the palace-hotel sits on a small island in the middle of Lake Pichola and is lavishly decorated with multicolor mosaics, mirror work and inlaid tiles. There are gardens, lily ponds, courtyards and fountains.

Access to the hotel from the mainland is by boat, however Udaipur had been suffering from a drought and although it could still be reached by boat from some parts of the lake, it could also be reached via a bumpy road — normally the bottom of the lake — which is the route we took to unload our luggage.

The hotel faces the City Palace across the lake. The palace is resplendent with courtyards, wall murals and lavish, mirror-decorated rooms. Some rooms have multipaneled windows in an assortment of jewel-like colored glass that embellishes the room with a richness appropriate for Rajput royalty.

Ranakpur

We drove over another of India’s potholed roads to a complex of Jain temples at Ranakpur. It took almost two hours to travel about 50 miles. This was typical of most of our driving experiences in India. The roads are in varying states of disintegration and must be driven very slowly to keep passengers from being bounced out of the car windows (no seat belts).

Although protocol dictates that drivers stay on the left side of the road (a result of Britain’s influence), all drivers prefer the middle of the road, where the pavement is smoothest. This causes some problems when vehicles going in opposite directions meet nose to nose, both drivers giving in a little and rolling to the sloping shoulder in order to pass one another.

At Ranakpur, the splendid marble temple interiors are eloquently ornamented, completely carved with fine, lace-like foliate scrollwork and geometric patterns. The domes are made of concentric bands of carving, and the brackets connecting the base of the dome with the top are covered with figures of deities.

Jains are one of the more austere religious sects who believe in nonviolence toward all living beings. They are strict vegetarians, and the more orthodox believers cover their mouths to avoid inadvertently swallowing living organisms.

When entering a Jain temple, visitors must leave not only their shoes but anything they have with them that is made of leather. Men remove their belts, and women leave leather handbags at the door.

The outside of Jain temples are apt to be relatively plain, but the interiors are a rapture of embellishment.

Mumbai

Mumbai (Bombay) was our next stop. The heat and humidity there were the worst that we experienced, probably because, originally, Mumbai was seven swampy islands; these are now joined into a narrow peninsula and harbor in the Arabian Sea.

It is a city of striking contrasts — skyscrapers, Victorian buildings, traditional bazaars, Bollywood’s movieland, the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat (the municipal laundry where some 5,000 men use rows of open-air troughs to beat the dirt out of thousands of soiled clothes brought from all over the city), modern shopping malls and sprawling slums.

The British influence can be seen in many buildings in Mumbai. The Gateway of India arch, built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, was the first sight to greet travelers to Indian shores during the heyday of the British Raj. Also in Mumbai is the Indo-Saracenic Prince of Wales Museum and the Victorian Gothic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly the Victoria railway station).

On our second day in Mumbai, we boarded a boat at the Gateway of India for the hour-long ride to Elephanta Island. Sharing our ride with Indian families heading for the same spectacular cave temples, we were no longer just American tourists but, on this day, part of the Indian community.

The sculptures at Elephanta date to around the sixth century and are dedicated to Shiva. After telling us the Hindu stories that the cave reliefs depicted, our excellent guide also explained their underlying moral messages. Hindu symbolism is often lost on those of us not familiar with the religion, as we are easily bogged down in just trying to remember the complicated legends and the plethora of gods that comprise the Hindu pantheon. However, the principles are the same as those taught by other religions: love, faith and honor.

Ajanta and Ellora caves

From Mumbai, we took a short flight to Aurangabad to see the cave art at Ajanta and Ellora. At Ajanta, 30 Buddhist caves, dating from 200 B.C. to A.D. 650, are cut into the steep façade of a horseshoe-shaped rock gorge on the Waghore River. They are of two types: chaityas (prayer halls) and viharas (monasteries).

The site was overgrown and forgotten until 1819 when a British hunting party stumbled upon it. The caves’ isolation preserved the remarkable paintings and sculptures, making it possible for visitors to enjoy them today.

Caves were a natural choice for religious centers. They are cool in the hot summers and dry during the monsoons, not to mention durable, being protected by the mountainside. The Buddhists were the first to use them as such, and Hindus later followed the practice.

Ellora has Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religious centers that were built between the seventh and 10th centuries. The most remarkable temple complex at Ellora is the Hindu Kailashanatha Temple. It was intended to re-create Shiva’s mountain home in the Himalayas, Mt. Kailash, but instead of being built on the top of a hill, its buildings are subterranean.

The carvers began at the top of a cliff and worked their way down. Tons of rock were removed, resulting in temples and shrines that were “released” from the rock floor. All are magnificently carved with religious stories in relief and life-sized elephants carved in the round.

Cause for celebration

By coincidence, we were in Aurangabad on the national holiday of Diwali. There was a festive mood throughout the town, and vendors were selling sweets and trinkets along the streets. Based on the Hindu epic “Ramayana,” Diwali celebrates the return of the god Rama from exile after having triumphed over the demon Ravana, representing the victory of good over evil.

Also called the Festival of Lights — lights to help Rama find his way home — the Diwali celebrations include oil lamps illuminating each home. Firecrackers are set off and gifts are exchanged. (Merchants suggested gifts of gold jewelry.)

We saw displays of floral designs in brightly colored rice powder, embellished with small oil lamps, made by local people. Some of these could be seen on our hotel lobby floor and even on the floor of the airport waiting room.

We flew back to Mumbai that evening, marking the end of our North India tour. From the airplane we looked down on hundreds of lights, all over the city, twinkling in the darkness. The sound of countless firecrackers could be heard booming in the sky. It rather reminded me of Christmas and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.

On the airplane, attendants gave each passenger a little gift, a small metal statuette of Lakshmi in a pretty silk mesh bag. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity and is revered at the time of Diwali. We felt very fortunate to be in India at the time of this joyous celebration.

Jump to part two: Incredible India — The South