We arrived in New Delhi after 1:00 am in a smoke haze both inside and outside of the airport. It was a completely different definition of “smog” from any I had experienced before. In fact it was much more like being in the middle of a grassfire.
By the time we reached our hotel it was well after 3:00 am. We were greeted in our room with hot chocolate and a beautiful “Happy Anniversary!” cake which we were too tired to eat so we drank the chocolate and collapsed into bed. We did not have the heart to tell the butler it wasn’t our anniversary which was a good thing since he left the cake and we ended up eating a slice for breakfast, which we had missed by hours.
We had a free day in New Delhi so after the heaviest of the smog cleared in the afternoon we walked in the Lodi Gardens and visited the Qunar excavations. After a very late lunch, at which we totally risked “Delhi Belly” by drinking every delicious juice drink our waiters tempted us with and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, we collapsed back into bed early. Well, I think George probably had another piece of cake in place of dinner before he rested!
The next day we were up early to meet our tour director and the rest of our tour group. There were only 13 of us from the United States, Canada, and Ireland. Nice for all of us tourists but our director indicated the world had stopped coming to India’s door at the end of 2016 and things had gotten worse in 2017. You’re really missing out fellow tourists! India is one of the most colorful, friendliest places I’ve been to in a long time.
Our schedule for the day was totally interrupted by a celebration for Mahatma Gandhi. Traffic was at a standstill with colorful, fully armed military members stationed on every block. We got exactly nowhere in our big, bulky bus. We finally landed at the memorial and home of Indira Gandhi. It was very busy also but we managed a self guided group tour, if there is such a thing. It was fascinating to learn about Indira, her work, and her family life. It was nice to see all the extended families who had come to view the residence and memorial. Indian history can almost seem like it is nonexistent and for a variety of reasons it is hard to decipher. Trying to peel back the layers of history is difficult but rewarding.
We left early on our tour bus for the long journey through some prime agricultural lands to Agra. The early wheat crops were looking good after the winter rains. I have to confess, I trained in agriculture as did the gentleman from Ireland. It is highly unusual that you would find two such simpatico people on a tour like this. And we probably bored some of our fellow passengers with our consistent questioning of India’s agricultural practices. It kept our tour director busy on his cell phone googling statistics during the ride.
We finally arrived at our destination. Agra Fort, with its mosques, gardens, and beautiful marble rooms and, of course, the perennially jaw dropping, bucket list Taj Mahal; which we saw at both sunset and sunrise. The Taj Mahal is an incredible monument to Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of the ruler, Shah Jahan, who died giving birth to their 14th child. Some 20,000 craftsmen built her mausoleum full of marble carvings inlaid with precious and semiprecious stones. Absolutely incredible artistry
Onward to the state of Rajasthan and Jaipur, founded in the 18th century as a planned grid city by Maharaja Jai Singh II. Even though hereditary titles have been phased out in India, the Singh family still lives in the palace and are intricately involved in India’s politics.
One of my favorite sites on the trip was Jantar Mantar. An observatory without telescopes, the court astronomers used the dozens of extremely accurate yantras to measure celestial phenomena like eclipses and star positions and the time of day. The Hawa Mahal palace, still used by the Singh family, was also filled with beautiful old jewelry, ceramics, costumes, textiles and carpets. Which is precisely what the pink city of Jaipur is known for today. Enough said about potential colorful shopping adventures.
We flew early, way too early to Kolkata to begin our journey up the Ganges. Full of historic British architecture, old palaces, tenements, modern office buildings, art, great wealth and abysmal poverty Kolkata offers an endless variety of colorful sights, noisy sounds, and packed in humanity. And, of course, Mother Teresa, who lived and worked in the heart of it all. Mother Teresa’s work continues on today and is a wonderful place of retreat and inspiration amidst all the hullabaloo of life in Kolkata. And then we set sail. Incredibly peaceful.
While Kalna was once a busy trade port today it is most known for the beautiful Hindu temples built by the maharajas of Bardhamman in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since the temples are quite far from the river we had the opportunity to take a trishaw through the streets of the old town. Whizzing around corners and past obstacles we hit more than a few ruts and potholes leaving my trishaw partner, Lesley, wondering whether her Canadian health insurance would cover her should she happen to be ejected. Luckily we didn’t need to find out.
We were finally deposited intact at the Naba Kailish, two concentric circles of temples dedicated to Shiva. The 108 temples were a painter’s dream come true in the early morning hazy light. The inner circle is made up of 34 white temples symbolizing pure thought; the outer circle 74 temples symbolize the everyday world. We headed over to the Pratapeshwar Temple next. This temple was built in 1849 and is known for it’s intricate terra cotta carvings depicting myths and rituals as well as scenes of everyday life. Lalji is the oldest temple in the complex, dating to 1739. The three storied structure, which you wend your way counterclockwise around on a narrow path which widens out, is topped with 25 different pinnacles.
We headed back to town the same way we came and were dropped off to take a walk through Kalna’s colorful and busy local food market before hiking down to the ship. Everyone in the market was eager to show us how wonderful their products were. They were definitely top notch and the equal of anything we would find back home.
Artisans have been making ornamental brass objects in Matiari for over a century. It is a skill passed down from generation to generation, using the same ancient techniques and materials. Scrap metal is melted in the village foundry and pressed, then it goes on to individual craftsmen who specialize in one part of the process. One will cut the metal, someone else shapes it and another will etch a pattern onto the surface and polish it. Truly beautiful workmanship for which the entire village is proud. The one downside is that the years of brass making has polluted their fresh water supply making it unfit to drink. Fresh water is pumped in to the town for three hours during the day.
MURSHIDABAD AND BARANAGAR
Murshidabad was the Capitol of Bengal and an important administrative center for the British during the mid 19th Century. Best known for the Hazarduari Palace which has 114 rooms and 1,000 doors, the architect was Colonel Duncan Macleod of the Bengal Corps. The Palace is now a museum but no one seems to know yet what Macleod was thinking when he put a thousand doors into the structure, 900 real and 100 false ones.
Baranagar is home to beautiful brick temples built by Rani (Queen) Bhavni of Natore who spent the last years of her life here. The terra cotta carvings are stunning and considered some of the best preserved and well tended in Bengal. One of the highlights of our trip came in this rural village where we were spontaneously invited into the local school for their recognition day events. All the students and their family members were dressed up and participating in numerous cultural reading , music and poetry activities. They seemed as delighted to have visitors as we were delighted in being invited to the festival. As a fitting ending to our day the men on our trip were encouraged to take part in that most manly of male activities, cricket. Enough said.
CHANDENAGOR AND MAYAPUR
As the boat turned around to head back to Kolkata we had the opportunity to stop at the old French trading post in Chandenagor which had been established in 1673. The post became a permanent French settlement in 1688. It played a significant role during the Carnatic Wars which the British and the French fought over possessions in South India. The town stayed with the French until 1952 when it was returned to India.
Our final stop was at Mayapur, the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Born in 1486 AD, Sri Chaitanya is considered to be a reincarnation of Lord Krishna and his birthplace became the home of Krishna Consciousness Movement, also known as ISKCON. There is a massive new Vedic Planetarium temple being built here. In fact it’s blue domes can be seen from miles away on the river. Once complete it will rival the size of the Vatican and be the tallest Hindu temple in the world. Millions of Hare Krishna devotees come from all over the world to study and learn and it is quite lively. Pretty sure I once ran into our temple tour guide at the San Francisco airport back in the days of orange robes and “offerings”. Yeah. He was that old and so am I.
I must admit I was sad to leave India. There is so much more I want to see and learn about this country which is a continent unto itself in most respects. The culture is changing fast as India emerges as a growing economic force in the world. While the people looked well nourished and healthy in the areas we visited, I understand that is not necessarily true in the central regions of India. And, as in the United States, Europe, and all over nowadays there is a growing economic disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest who struggle to make a better life for themselves and their families.
And yes, arranged marriages are still done, however it is becoming much more acceptable to marry outside your caste. And while the caste system supposedly no longer exists most of the people of India told us they could identify your caste by your last name “ pretty much”. Nevertheless, there is a growing true middle class in India which is making progress and it will be interesting to watch what happens here in the coming years.