Thursday, June 9, 2011

India Caprice, Part 7

I’m now on the train north from Miami, FL to Charleston, SC.  As the train passes through the Florida countryside, I appreciate how green - and relatively clean - my country is.  I am glad to be back, if not quite home yet.  We’re stopped at Ft Lauderdale and I just settled myself in the Club Car with a cup of coffee and a bottle of orange juice.  And now I want to integrate my many contradictory impressions and experiences of India.  I also want to continue the sequential narrative of the trip.

Very deep step well, steps carved into the stone walls
Continuing the trip narrative, we spent most of the ninth day in India on a bus going overland from the camp to Agra.  On the way, we stopped at a couple of very interesting places; one was an extremely deep step well, built during the 8th century, with hundreds of steps criss-crossing its four sides.  The rajah's palace was carved into the upper part of one of the sides.  Apparently, the well was available for use by all of the local villagers.  Behind locked screens were remnants of the Hindu carvings and statuary that had graced the site, otherwise largely destroyed by the invading Muslims.  Indeed, it seems that the Muslim invaders, beginning in the 12th century with Afghani invaders, and on through the 18th century, with the Mughuls, tended to destroy the Hindu art and architecture in their path, considering it idolatrous.  Thus, Hindu India lost much of its artistic heritage.  A few exceptions remain, such as Chandelas (which we saw later) survived because the structures were out of the main invasion pathways or else much farther south, where the Muslim invaders didn't penetrate.

Palace arches surrounding the step well

The other interesting place we visited was the fort owned by the family of our guide, Ghophal Singh.  He and his brother are renovating it in the hopes of turning it into a tourist hotel and restaurant.  We had afternoon tea there.  He and his family own the territory around the fort and the village of Saipur. They lease most of the land out to tenant farmers.

Palace/fort owned by our guide's family

Fields around the palace/fort. Women workers in the distance

On day ten, we awoke early to view the Taj Mahal (pronounced “Mahel”) in the morning.  It is certainly an impressive structure, white marble veneer over stone, flanked by two red sandstone structures:  one a working mosque, the other a mirror-image copy constructed simply to provide symmetry.  We went through the “copy” building first, then across a large patio (overlooking the Jamuna River, shrouded in fog) to the main mausoleum.  My basic impression was that a lot of resources were squandered on a tomb.  Shah Jahan was apparently deeply in love with Mumtaz Mahal, by whom he had all his children – 14 altogether, of whom only 6 survived.  She died giving birth to the last one, no doubt completely worn out.  Inside is a replica (cenotaph) of her jewel-encrusted coffin next to a larger one for the Shah, placed there after his death by his eldest daughter.  He had been held under house arrest by his son, Aurangzeb, who confined him to the Agra Fort as mentally incompetent (which he probably was).

Taj Mahal in the distance

That afternoon, we visited the Agra Fort, a huge structure built largely of red sandstone.  Apparently, much of it is still in use by the Indian army and thus not open to tourists.  But the palace part of it, constructed of both sandstone and marble, was open to tourists.  We saw the place (palace) where Shah Jahan was held in house-arrest,  the general living quarters, and the harem areas and gardens.  Later, we went to an establishment that did marble-inlay work, and I bought four items:  a small, square “table top” (about 1 ½ foot wide), two plates, and a soap dish.

The Red Fort

Baboons greet us at the door of the Red Fort
In the evening, we had dinner at a restaurant (South Indian food), then went to a musical production, “Taj with Love,” a bollywood-like production of the story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, complete with cinematic backdrops, steam and smoke and mirrors and dancing girls and dancing lights and a strutting Mughal emperor and a pathetic Mughal princess/queen.  It was fun, although I had to wear the mask, again; I could hardly breathe for the incense smoke and woody smell.  Apparently they make Indian incense using cow dung, which may be part of the reason it bothers my lungs so much.


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