I arrived in Delhi on Christmas day with very few expectations as far as sightseeing was concerned. I knew the Taj Mahal in Agra would be a highlight but I had done no additional research because it was all taken care of by our tour operator, Namaste Tours. Consequently, Delhi proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the trip; I thought it was just our jumping off point, I didn’t know it would feature so many showstoppers, including three of India’s 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
When I saw the pics of Jama mosque, above, in the viewfinder of my new FujiFilm XF1 camera even I was taken aback. Delhi was foggy on our first morning and the mist lent the photos a strange, otherworldly quality.
Built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan — the man behind the Taj Mahal and so many of India’s other great monuments — the Jama Masjid was completed in 1656 and is still India’s largest mosque. I like the photo above because it gives a sense of the depth and scale of the place and I love the blue robes against the red standstone.
Next up was Humayun’s Tomb, above. Built by the wife of the second Mughal Emperor in 1562, the ediface was named a World Heritage site in 1993. The tomb is an architectural precursor to the Taj Mahal and while the building itself is impressive, I especially love the moody approach shot below, it feels so Arabian Nights.
There were other things to see in Delhi, including the amazing UNESCO site Qutb Minar and its monuments, below, but after such a big day I was feeling a little numb to the awe.
I shot the early morning pic of our hotel pool and pavillion, below, in Mandawa, a dusty, ghost town that’s trying to revive its fortunes by restoring its plethora of heavily frescoed havellis, which have become something of a tourist draw.
Next stop was Bikaner and Junagarh Fort, below, where we took in views of the town from the rooftop terraces.
We kept pushing west into Rajasthan’s Thar Desert for our next stop at Jaisalmer, home to another ancient fort and palace, this one stretching all the way back to 1156 AD.
Jaisalmer is called the “golden city” because most of the buildings are constructed of sandstone quarried locally. We stopped for a mid-morning chai tea break on a lovely terrace overlooking the town with views that suggested the middle ages as well as the Middle East.
It was also from Jaisalmer that we set out for our camel ride in the dunes stretching out to the Pakistan border. I can’t say I enjoyed the bladder-busting ride which was much too bumpy for my liking.
From Jaisalmer it was on to Jodhpur, the blue city, below.
There we toured an even more impressive fort palace as well as a royal crematorium lovingly constructed in white marble. I like the glint of sunlight coming through the trees.
The beautiful garden gave us a moment of tranquility before tackling the bustle in and around the mammoth fort.
Inside are any number of architectural vignettes like the trio of domes and arches below.
From Jodhpur we headead south to the Jain temples at Ranakpur (covered earlier) where I had a serendipitous Fuji moment that didn’t involve the temples. While trying to capture the colour of some naturalized flora and the nearby mountain range a parrot flew into the frame just as I clicked the shutter.
Then it was on to beautiful Udaipur, home of the Jag Mandir Palace, now a hotel and popular wedding venue in the middle of placid Lake Pichola. The grounds feature the beautiful lotus fountains below.
Our boat ride also gave us a good view of the city palace which has also been converted into a hotel as well as a museum. The Maharaja’s descendents still live in suites in an adjoining building.
The Sas Bahu temples have also been given their due here on styleNorth but I can’t not include this picture-perfect shot of one of the secondary shrines, the light was so bright and clear that morning.
Before we knew it we were back in the desert at a desolate hotel outside Pushkar on a wide, dry plateau surrounded by mountains. As much as we didn’t love the inn, the setting was supremely peaceful.
And although the Brahma temple disappointed, the town had other delights like a terrific street market where we bought some great souvenirs, and beautiful lakeside vistas like the one below. Naturally, there was a cow, in India there’s always a cow.
The postcard moments came fast and furious at our next stop, Jaipur, so editing has proven difficult.
An elephant ride up to the Amber Fort was good fun and lent a sense of pagentry to this enormous royal palace surrouned by imposing mountains and an 11-kilometre fortified wall that runs up and down the surrounding hills (see below in upper left).
The views are spectacular from inside the palace and the interior architecture is just as spellbinding. The white marble summer palace, below, is located across a garden courtyard from the winter palace . . .
. . . which is even more spectacular thanks to the riot of mirror inlay that captures and throws the light around.
After Jaipur it was off to Agra, home of the world-famous Taj Mahal and the last stop on our tour of Royal Rajasthan. Back up north the weather was cold with temperatures approaching zero overnight resulting in heavy morning fogs that were spoiling the Taj for thousands of tourists. Our hearts sank. Would the eighth wonder of the world be an anti-climax after all this incredible trekking?
En route to Agra we toured another UNESCO site, Mughal king Akbar’s abandoned city at Fatehpur Sikri (below) where our photos benefited from the eerie fog. The king ordered the court palace built in 1571 as a gesture to Sufis who assured him he would at last have a son. He did. Unfortunately the site was prone to drought and had to be abandoned less than 15 years after completion despite some ingenious plumbing engineering.
As we made our way on to Agra our hearts lifted; our guide recommended skipping lunch so we could get to the Taj and take advantage of what looked like a break in the fog.
The first glimpse you get of the Taj Mahal is through the gate above, which is splendid in and of itself. The center section is defined by formidable marble inlay sporting floral motifs and Arabic caligraphy. The characters get proportionately larger towards the top so that everything appears to be the same size from ground level. Amazing!
I marveled at the gate and then suddenly gasped as I caught my first sight of the Taj through the doorway. It’s a moment like no other — you think you’re prepared and yet still it takes your breath away. I was moved almost to tears at the sight of it, so impossibly beautiful, the setting so precisely calibrated to ensure I’d have exactly this reaction.
I don’t know how far the mausoleum is from the entry point but it’s a good long way giving you plenty of time to drink it in as you slowly approach and begin to comprehend the enormity of the structure. I gather that upon seeing it for the first time, former US President Bill Clinton declared that the world divides into two camps, those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who have not. I’m thrilled to have joined the ranks of those who have.
The Taj is the world’s most beautiful and profound expression of heartbreak. It took 20,000 workers 22 years to erect this tribute to Mumtaz Mahal; the favorite wife of Shah Jahan, she died giving birth to the couple’s 14th child. The king fell into a terrible depression and the only thing that kept him going was his desire to see this beautiful tribute completed. Both he and his wife are buried in a crypt beneath the public levels of the shrine.
Inside, the building is a bit of a letdown; it’s dark and a little smelly thanks to pigeons who fly in and out and do what pigeons do, all day long, six days a week (the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays). Ironically, Agra, home to the world’s most inspiring building, is one of India’s most squalid city’s. Filthy, from one end to the other it would be a complete miss were it not for the Taj.
I’ll wrap up this chronicle of my two-week Indian odyssey with some final impressions in the coming days. I’m back home in Toronto this morning and am paying the price for living 10 and a half hours in the future for the past fortnight. It will take a few days to distill the experience and I still have some stunning pictures left to share along with my thoughts and advice for anyone inspired enough to consider making tracks of their own to this astonishing country. The tourism ads call it Incredible India. It is.