There’s something about living in a different country long-term – as one day folds into the next, you forget the other life (lives?) you lead half way around the world. It seems my Indian life is unremarkably ordinary. It couldn’t possibly justify a blog post…but seeing one of the 7 wonders of the world is maybe something to worth deliberating over.
The Golden Triangle: the nearly equilateral triangle formed between Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur in India’s north-west. Its roads are well traversed by local tourists, dusty backpackers, and bus-loads of pre-packaged tour-goers alike. This is the version of India you see on the front of your Lonely Planet. I wouldn’t place the triangle as #1 on my travel list, but my mom was visiting myself and family friends in Delhi, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to make the iconic trek. In addition to staying with Neil and Ayesha’s extended family, we had the chance to meet some of my friends along the journey – AKFC fellows, a friend from AKRSPI, and one all the way from Ahmedabad!
November is a lovely time of year in North India as cool winds blow down from the Himalayas providing respite from the muggy monsoons. Unfortunately, November is not a lovely time of year in Delhi. Winter always carries with it pollution. A city of 14 million, Delhi is the worst hit due to compounding factors: car dependence, poor waste disposal, and seasonal crop burning in surrounding agricultural states, to name a few. Something about the winter weather and the humidity levels traps particulate matter (PM) as well as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxides in the air, giving the city and eerie, yellowish post-apocalyptic glow. PM levels above 50 are irritable, and above 400 can cause irreversible lung damage and health problems. Pollution is serious stuff. This year for the first time ever Delhi graced international headlines for weeks as the usually PM scale of 0-500 was broken – Delhi hit almost 1000 PM. And yet, daily life more or less continued. Schools were closed and the streets *looked* empty, but that was mostly because you couldn’t see 3 metres in front of you. Autowallas still tumbled along, and I was hard-pressed to find anyone with a face mask besides a few foreigners. We were lucky enough to have an indoor space with an air purifier, unlike the majority of Delhi’s population. Long-term, environmental urban planning is needed for smart cities !!!
Smog aside, we escaped the first evening in Delhi to a beautiful concert with Anoushka Shankar. She composed the live score to a famous 1928 Indian black and white silent film, Shiraz. Shiraz tells the myth and story of how the Taj Mahal was built. I didn’t know whether to watch the film, or Anoushka and her sitar. It was a mesmerizing, and the whole audience was on the edge of their seats, breathing quietly in sync, as to not miss a beat of music. What was so special about Shiraz is that it was shot all on-set in Agra…and the next day we were walking through the same archways to the Taj.
Despite its hype and clichéd Instagram posts, the Taj Mahal is truly an architectural feat of astounding grace. It easily was the highlight of the trip for me, and a great opportunity to nerd out on architectural mysteries. We had a guide for our time in Agra, and having the technicalities and history behind such an impressive monument, delivered to you as you stood in front of it, was pretty convenient.
The Taj Mahal is the tomb of the beautiful Mumtaz – built as a heaven on earth. The gardens surrounding the Taj used to be sunken by 10 feet so that as you walked by, you could pick fruits from all the trees, as if you were strolling in heaven. The structure is also filled with optical allusions. The Qur’anic calligraphy in black marble which welcomes you to the Taj becomes larger as it continues up the gates, so that from your vantage point standing below, the writing all looks the same size. They even incorporated some long-term risk-reduction planning – all four minarets face two degrees outwards from the main dome of the Taj so that in the event of an earthquake, they would collapse outwards and never break the dome.
Still, if anyone is going to build a massive marble tomb for me I’ll take I’timad-ud-Daulah any day. Colloquially known as the ‘Baby Taj’, this lesser known monument in Agra on the banks of the river was equally mesmerizing. Something about our timing was perfect – after a late lunch, we sleepy strolled into the grounds of I’timad-ud-Daulah in the heavy fullness of late afternoon sun. There’s even a word for the golden hour before sunset; North Indians refer to this as godhulibela, ‘dusk’, or more specifically ‘cow-dust time’. Everything on the grounds of I’timad-ud-Daulah was washed in the richest, golden glow of an Indian sun, just before it falls.
The marble inlay at the Baby Taj was much more exquisite – the colours of the embedded gems were blues, greens, reds, yellows, all forming the most intricate patterns, either hiding in perfectly symmetrical shadows, or boldly on display in the heat of the sun. Amazingly, the entire site was blissfully empty. In the rush to see the Taj, it seems many people skip over the rest of Agra. Agra may be small, but there’s a lot to see. In fact, I probably saw the most when Neil and I braved an early morning run in the mist, and ended up in some interesting alleyways a world away from all the hotels and tour busses. Everyone on the streets was quite concerned for us and pointed us in four different directions before we made it out of the maze!
Out of all three cities I enjoyed Agra the most. Yes, it was touristy, but it wasn’t in-your-face the way Jaipur is. It has sleepy hidden corners that tour-goers gloss over, and endless stories which are equally true/untrue that I couldn’t help wondering about as we roamed the city.
To complete our triangular holiday, we took a night train to Jaipur. Similar to the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan as a whole gets a lot of attention from foreigners. After an amazing time in Udaipur in August, I was excited to go back to Rajasthan. But I’ll be honest, Jaipur was my least favourite. I’m pretty sure it’s only included in the Golden Triangle for geographical convenience. If you have the time, I would recommend Udaipur, Jodphur, and Kumbalgarh over Jaipur. The trifecta of palaces, forts, and hills isn’t hard to come by in Rajasthan, so why not get off the beaten track?
Jaipur has a certain aggressive desperation that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. As an outsider, vendors, drivers, or guides immediately yell or harass you with outrageous prices, blocking your path on the sidewalk, grabbing your arms. Seeing an aggressive salesperson, I immediately ignore them, eyes straight ahead, maybe tossing a sideways ‘nay, nay’ as I pass. The stereotypical assumption both myself, and the vendor, make about one another leads to a sort of disrespect and uninterested nonchalance. There’s no exchange, and no real interaction. To me, this is upsetting. Exchanges between people, friends, vendors, and strangers alike, have been quintessential to living in Gujarat in a beautifully subtle way.
My mom and I set out to do everything that we could within the Pink City on foot, and on our all-access composite ticket pass (student discounts made it totally worth it). It was a nice change to walk everywhere, and the Pink City actually has covered walkways, if you can brave the vendors. The old part of the city is perfectly geometrical and orderly, but that doesn’t mean the life that occupies the streets is orderly by any means! We spent the most time at Hawa Mahal, or Wind Palace, and Albert Hall. Turns out both of these structures are a) smaller than expected b) nicer from the outside than on the inside. Do your research folks! Luckily, our expectations were low, and a rooftop coffee looking over at Hawa Mahal was a pleasurable rest stop that was good enough for us.
On day two, we drove to the nearby town of Amer to see Jaipur’s #1 attraction: Amber/Amer Fort. Built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, Amber Fort was primarily the residence of the Rajput Maharajas. Prior to this, Raja Alan Singh ruled over Amer. Legend has it that Alan Singh one day took in a child and raised him like his own in his kingdom. One day he sent this son to Delhi on his behalf, but his son betrayed him, returning with a small army of Rajputs and bloodily taking over Amer. Construction of the ultimate Rajput chilling quarters, or Amer/Amber Fort began.
Like most Rajasthani palaces and forts, Amber Fort is graced with intricate gateways, carvings and paintings of peacocks, elephants, archways, and jaali lattices. After Kumbalgarh, the grandiose size of Amer fort’s walls seemed unremarkable in comparison. Still, I appreciate how Hindu and Muslim architectural elements blend easily with one another. As we slowly funneled through, the grounds became less congested. The further you move along, the more the level of disrepair and aging you can see as you sneak through abandoned bed chambers and hallways. I felt like I was intruding on something private as I escaped from our group to explore a bit. I always wonder how many feet before me have walked that same stairwell, or hallways. My favourite room of Amber was the impressive ‘Sheesh Mahal’ or glass palace. Meticulously patterns shards of glass curve in convex shape, so that when a candle shines on any piece, the light fractures into many glittering pieces (the camera just doesn’t do justice).
Our time traversing the Golden Triangle was made up a hundreds of flecks of light like the Seesh Mahal: intensely bright, usually overwhelming, and much too short to give historical cities justice. Each new city fractured moments of light and laughter into many pieces. There are too many cups of coffee and chai to count, and too many experiences to put in one blog. Seeing three cities in six days is going to be fragmented and hectic no matter what. Obviously, it’s going to be different than the slow friendships and routines of living in India. But the excitement and brightness of a holiday is welcoming change of routine, especially when surrounded by family.
Some Travel Tips:
-If you do plan to visit Delhi during the winter, check PM forecasting, and buy a proper mask online or from a specialty store
-Download Uber and/or Ola. I know Uber isn’t the greatest of companies but sometimes no rickshaw will take you, or will demand outrageous amounts, which isn’t possible through app-based riding.
-Travel by train, especially when leaving Delhi to escape the notoriously bad traffic. It’s fast and convenient.
-Spend more than one day in Agra. There IS a lot to see besides the Taj: Agra fort, the gardens facing the back of the Taj, the Baby Taj
-Be prepared to spend up to 20 times more on your tickets as a foreigner. Online the Taj website said 500 rs. but it was updated to 1000rs. when we went
-No motor vehicles are allowed within a certain vicinity of the Taj to prevent pollution. You can take an electric vehicle, but really it’s an easy walk. Make sure you go to the correct ticketing gate – autos may try and rip you off here
-Bring a student card for Jaipur, there’s some hefty discounts
-Check out some of the other forts in Amer/Jaipur besides Amer Fort. I found them less crowded and equally interesting
-Be careful buying ‘authentic’ handicrafts. If it seems too cheap, or looks exactly like something you saw three shops down the road, it probably is.