Monthly Archives: March 2013

Tourism and Transcendence at the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Let’s start with some trivia: where in the world is the Taj Mahal? Many people’s first instinct is to say India. That would have been my response about a year ago, and while technically correct, it’s not very precise. It’s like saying that the Eiffel Tower is located in Western Europe or that the Statue of Liberty is located east of the Mississippi River.

Surprisingly, for the home of India’s most famous monument, the capital of one of the largest empires in history, and a modern urban center with over one and a half million residents, the city of Agra isn’t particularly well known abroad. At least, I had never heard of it before coming to India. To be honest, beyond the things I just mentioned, there’s not a lot to hear about Agra. I only spent one day in the city while traveling with my family, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay much longer. An abundance of major tourist attractions and a lack of independent urban identity make for a highly undesirable mixture. The tourist economy overpowers all else.

The Taj Mahal, seen from afar

The Taj Mahal, seen from afar

As a result, Agra has by far the most aggressive and persistent salesmen that I have ever encountered in India. On the roads around the county’s most iconic sight, a foreigner can’t take three steps without being stalked by a rickshaw driver, shopkeeper, or hawker advocating relentlessly for whatever good or service he hopes to provide. While many of these men speak excellent English, they inevitably fail to understand the word “no.”

Take, for example, the interactions my brother and I had with bicycle rickshaw operators as we walked to the Taj Mahal from the ticket office, which was inconveniently located a kilometer from the monument’s main gate.

“Rickshaw, sir?”

“No, thank you.”

“Taj Mahal gate. Very long way.”

“It’s fine. We’ll walk.”

“It is very far. You will be tired.”

We had woken up before dawn in order to arrive for sunrise, so we clearly didn’t mind being tired. “We’ll be fine.”

“Only fifty rupees. Cheap price.”

“We’d rather walk. Please go away.”

“Twenty rupees.”

“No.”

“Look, already it is sunrise time.”

“We’re fine. We don’t want a rickshaw.”

“Sunrise time is very important. I am information.”

There are many nouns I would associate with the rickshaw horde, but information isn’t one of them. Most of the operators will say whatever it takes for you to give them money, and they’ll keep talking long after you’ve lost the will to listen. One guy followed us the whole way to the gate, wasting legwork he could have saved for more receptive passengers. Another guy only left us alone when I offered him my complimentary foot covers, still unused, as payment. Yes, it was rude, but I was fed up.  How else could I convince him that I had absolutely no interest in what he was selling?

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The Taj Mahal looks almost pink at sunrise

Stasis proved deadly. When my family stopped to rest for a few minutes, the hawkers swarmed like vultures over a dying beast or like sharks around spilled blood. At the time, one of my family members came up with a different zoological analogy: “They’re like flies drawn to a fat turd.”

“Yes, that’s us,” I said. “Fresh and steaming.”

The worst of the harassment happens at Fatehpur Sikri, just outside of Agra, which was the short-lived capital of the Mughal Empire under Akbar. Now abandoned, it has become a hotspot for obnoxious sales tactics. At the parking lot, after I’d barely been in Fatehpur Sikri for two minutes, a man began to walk beside me. He tried to convince me to visit his shop “just to look,” because “looking is free, my friend.” I told him I wasn’t interested, but he kept it up. When I told him I was from the U.S., he began to praise President Obama, so in an attempt to take control of the conversation, I gave a thorough explanation of the Electoral College and its shortcomings as a democratic process. To the guy’s credit, he stuck it out through the whole lecture. Then he gave me his business card and asked when I would visit his shop. He eventually warned me to be careful of unwanted attention from the people near the monuments.

“Yes,” I told him, “It’s terrible when people follow you around and don’t leave you alone.”

He got the point and returned to his shop.

The Hall of Private Audience at Fatehpur Sikri

What the man hadn’t warned me was that the people near the monuments would be primarily children. Many offered their services as guides, including a few who looked no older than six. The children spoke excellent English and seemed very bright, too smart for their own good. They could have put their minds to use at school, but instead they were clamoring to give me a tour of a nearby mosque. It was heartbreaking. Saying no to a child is so much more difficult than saying no to a grown adult.

It’s a shame that these uncomfortable encounters often constitute the primary interactions between tourists and the people of India. What an odd filter through which to perceive a country. The men pushing miniature chess sets and marble elephants represent such a small subset of the Indian population, yet it’s possible to speak more to them than to anyone else. They seem almost a different species from my friends in Jodhpur. While there are plenty of cultural differences between Indians and Westerners, the differences between street vendors and the rest of India are far greater. In any culture, it’s a rare breed of person who can so readily dismiss rejection.

Somehow, though, the Taj Mahal manages to transcend the ugly mess that surrounds it. Domes and towers of white marble rise with impossible grace against a clear blue sky, intensely familiar yet still sublimely astounding. Photographs cannot capture the scale and splendor of the monument. It fully earns its status as one of the world’s most exquisite manmade structures and one of India’s most prized attractions.

The Arabic inscriptions get larger as they go up the arch, so form the bottom, they all look like they're the same size.

The Urdu inscriptions get larger as they go up the arch, so from the bottom, they all look like they’re the same size.

If only the Taj could stand on it own, away from the clutter and hassle of Agra. But of course, wherever it stands, it will draw tourists, and the tourists will draw people eager to take money from the tourists, and the whole jumble will form again. It’s inevitable. Transcendent beauty rarely escapes tourist attention, and every onlooker diminishes the charm, bringing an otherworldly place closer to the mundane concerns of worldly life. In the case of the Taj Mahal, there’s no getting around it. All you can do is admire what’s in front of you, along with hundreds of other tourists, and ignore the voice constantly asking if you’d like a ride in his bicycle rickshaw.

Soltoff family at India's most famous monument

The Soltoff family at India’s most famous monument

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Nine Forts in Nine Days

Mehrangarh

Most foreigners who visit Rajasthan don’t come on employment visas. They come as tourists, eager to see the state’s renowned forts and palaces. Because I’m one of the few foreigners actually working here, I don’t have much time for typical Rajasthan tour, which involves traveling from place to place and viewing monuments ad nauseum. Most of the trips that I’ve written about on this blog have been weekend excursions to a single city. However, all of that changed recently when my parents and brother came to visit. They were complete, 100-percent tourists, and for a couple weeks, I was a tourist with them. For me, “tourist” sometimes seems like a dirty word; it brings up images of clueless, camera-clad white people in culturally inappropriate clothing who wander around with no idea what’s going on. A tourist is the last thing I want to be. But sometimes I am one, and there’s no avoiding it without staying home.

The best way to describe what it’s like to go sightseeing in Rajasthan is to share one simple fact: during my family’s visit, we visited a fort every day for nine straight days. These nine forts represent a variety of different styles, displaying the rich and colorful history of Rajasthan. I should note that the first three are in Delhi and Agra, which aren’t part Rajasthan but are often included in the same itinerary.

Day One: Old Fort, Delhi

The main thing you need to know about Old Fort is right there in the name. It’s really old. According to rumors, there have been fortifications on the site for over 5000 years, and archaeological excavations have unearthed artifacts dating back to 1000 BCE.  Most of the fort’s current structures were built in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Humayun, and by Sher Khan, who defeated Humayun in 1540 and founded the short-lived Sur Dynasty. The fort is laid out in the typical Mughal style, with high, straight walls around smaller sandstone and marble buildings on a grassy lawn. The interior feels more like a park than a military installation, and it would make a nice picnic spot.

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Qila-i-Kuna Mosque in Delhi’s Old Fort

Day Two: Red Fort, Delhi

Delhi does a good job of labeling its forts by their most prominent characteristics. A wall of red sandstone surrounds Red Fort, which is Old Delhi’s most distinguishing landmark. It was constructed in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who is best known for commissioning the Taj Mahal in honor of his late wife. The fort was the centerpiece of his new capital, an incarnation of Delhi that he humbly called Shahjahanbad. Red Fort is better preserved than Old Fort and generally better looking. Shah Jahan’s reign is often considered the pinnacle of Mughal architecture.  The fort has ornately carved marble buildings, and a four-sectioned symmetrical garden (known as a charbagh) with shade and fountains.

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They call it Red Fort for a reason.

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A pillar with colorful stones inlaid in marble

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A symmetrical four-sectioned garden, known as a charbagh

Day Three: Agra Fort, Agra

Agra Fort is so similar to Red Fort that a taxi driver once tried to convince us it wasn’t worth seeing. It has the same sort of red sandstone wall around symmetrical marble and sandstone structures. However, Agra Fort has a distinct advantage—a stunning view of the Taj Mahal. Often this view distracts from the fort itself. Agra Fort existed throughout the Mughal era, but it was renovated by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century and then again by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. After Shah Jahan’s son imprisoned him in the fort, the former emperor was kept in a tower where he could spend every day gazing at the Taj Mahal, which was not only his most famous accomplishment but also the tomb of his beloved wife.

A view of the Taj Mahal from Red Fort

A view of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

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A garden inside the fort walls

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The Taj Mahal, as seen from Agra Fort

Day Four: Amer Fort, Jaipur

Amer Fort serves as an effective transition from Mughal to Rajput architecture. Of all of the Rajput rulers, those from what is now Jaipur shared the closest alliance with the Mughals, and that connection heavily influenced their style of building. Constructed in the 16th century by Maharaja Man Singh I, who was so close to Emperor Akbar that he commanded the Mughal Army, the fort has many Mughal features, such as large, open courtyards and pillared halls of private and public audience. Many tourists, especially foreigners, choose to ride elephants up the zigzagging path to the fort’s main entrance.

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Amer Fort

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Elephants wait at the bottom the hill.

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A painted elephant takes tourists up the path to the fort.

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Monkeys on top of Amer Fort

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More monkeys

Day Five: Taragarh, Bundi

Bundi is one of India’s hidden gems, especially compared to the bustling Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. For most of the time my family and I spent at Taragarh, which sits on a hill above the city, we were the only people up there. The lack of tourist traffic correlates with a lack of upkeep, but the fort’s decaying nature adds to the excitement of exploring it. Troops of rhesus macaques wander through the overgrown, dilapidated buildings and drink from the mostly dried-up step wells. Because there are so few people, the monkeys aren’t very aggressive and don’t normally harass you for food, but just to be safe, a stand at the bottom of the hill provides sticks for fending them off. Unlike the other forts we visited, Taragarh has no informative placards, so I’m not sure when or why it was built. A visit to the fort is more of an adventure than an educational experience. And the view from the top is spectacular.

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Abandoned buildings at Taragarh

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A dried up step well

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A monkey runs along the ramparts.

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Looking wistful

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Someone get this monkey some Prozac.

Day Six: Chittorgarh, Chittorgarh

Chittorgarh, the largest fort in India, occupies an entire plateau above a flat plain. It’s so large that it comprises its own city, and over 4,000 people live within the original walls. Built in the 7th century, it eventually became the capital of Mewar kingdom. The fort was taken three times in its history, and each time, the inhabitants carried out the gruesome Rajput tradition of jauhar, in which the men rode into battles that they had no hope of winning while the women and children burned themselves to death in order to avoid dishonor at the hands of the enemy. After the last defeat, brought on by the Mughal Emperor Akbar and Maharaja Man Singh I of Amer, Chittorgarh was abandoned, and the capital of the Mewar kingdom eventually shifted to Udaipur. Even though the fort is primarily known for defeat, its predominant landmark is called Vijay Stambha, the Tower of Victory. It’s an intricately carved column built by Maharana Kumbha of Mewar. Visitors can climb to the top for a scenic view of the city and the countryside below.

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The Tower of Victory

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Temples at Chittorgarh

Day Seven: Sajjangarh, Udaipur

Sajjangarh, also known as the monsoon palace, was the fortified mountain retreat of the rulers of Mewar, built by Maharana Sajjan Singh in the 19th century. Even though it wasn’t used explicitly for military purposes, its name has the suffix “garh,” so I’ll still count it as a fort. The structure is mostly empty these days, but it provides an excellent view of Udaipur’s lakes and mountains. It also gets points for serving as the lair of a Bond villain in the movie Octopussy.

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Sajjangarh

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Monkeys near Sajjangarh, with a view over Lake Pichola

Day Eight: Kumbhalgarh, Rajsamand

The ancient Mewar kindgdom had a thing for hilltop forts with striking views. Built by Maharana Kumbha in the 15th century, Kumbhalgarh sits on a remote peak in the Aravali Range. Its 36-kilometer outer wall, which snakes over the nearby hills, is supposedly the world’s second largest fortification, after the Great Wall of China. The fort area contains hundreds of temples and a lot of rugged terrain for exploring.

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Kumbhalgarh

Day Nine: Mehrangarh, Jodhpur

A trip to Rajasthan can easily lead to fort fatigue, but Mehrangarh is an instant cure. It towers over the blue houses of Jodhpur’s old city, emerging grandly and seamlessly from the earth below. Hands down, it’s the best fort I’ve seen in India, although living in Jodhpur might make me a bit biased. At least TIME Magazine agrees with me. They named it Asia’s Best Fortress in 2007. Within its imposing exterior, Mehrangarh contains well-preserved interior palaces with intricate stone latticework, and the fort museum is clear and organized, a rarity in India.  Built by Jodhpur’s namesake Rao Jodha in 1459 and improved by subsequent Maharajas, the stronghold has never been forcibly overcome.

Bringing my family there made for a suitable end to our trip. For the last several months, Mehrangarh has been a constant presence in my life. Every building in Jodhpur has an accessible rooftop, and every rooftop has a view of the fort. It forms a constant backdrop for my experiences, both my outings as a tourist and, more frequently, my daily pursuits as a working resident.

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Mehrangarh

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Ful Mahal (Flower Palace)

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Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace)

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Mehrangarh at sunset

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