June 21, 2013

Visiting the Taj!


After a flight back to Delhi Wednesday evening, I left the India Habitat Centre at 5:30 in the morning for a day trip to Agra (4 hrs drive away). It would certainly have been a shame to spend a month here and not see the Taj Mahal...and I have to say, it certainly lives up to- and actually for me, exceeds- the hype. Perhaps because of the setting (the Yamuna River is "behind" the Taj, so you see nothing but sky behind it), it is probably the most compelling piece of architecture I've seen. It's just gorgeous, in a way other buildings stop at grand, impressive, intricately wrought, graceful...the Taj was all that and then some. I had the urge to sit and just look at it, in a way I have only ever wanted to look at, or really contemplate, nature before. It made 8 hrs on bumpy roads swerving around traffic and braking abruptly then accelerating just as abruptly (normal) and 5 hrs walking around in 100 degree heat with serious humidity more than worth it. My guide told me a great deal of the history, much of which, I'm afraid, didn't stick...but I loved his use of the word "captivated" to literally mean "made a captive"; as in, "Shah Jahan (who built the Taj) was captivated by his son, and he sat in this room (in Agra Fort) looking out over the river to the Taj." For an embarrassingly long amount of time, I wondered (to myself, fortunately) why a ruler obsessed by a beloved would (therefore) spend hours staring at his wife's tomb...before realizing he had actually been deposed and imprisoned by that son. It's fun (for nerds like me) to be reminded of the literal meanings of words and the evolution thereof...  
The Yamuna river was high and flowing fast; not in flood here, though it has been causing signficant problems in the vicinity of Delhi. This is in addition to the severe flooding in rugged Uttarakhand; where the crisis was not so much the event itself, but is the 50,000 pilgrims (Badrinath temple, on the Alaknanda River, is one of the 4 most sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites in India; there is also a good deal of tourism in the area for trekking, rafting, etc., as well as additional temples; for a sense of scale, 550,000 visitors came to Kedarnath temple in 2012.) are still stranded and running out of food. Helicopters are apparently running but currently unequal to the scope of the task.
In Agra; I had some time after seeing the Taj and the Fort (I allowed myself to be suckered into spending a lot for a gorgeous piece of inlaid marble "made in the style of the Taj inlay work by 18th generation descendants of the very same artisans who worked on the Taj itself, the glue is a family secret recipe unknown to science, etc....". Well, regardless of the veracity of those assertions, it's beautiful, I couldn't make it myself for hundreds of times the price, and it lets me bring home a bunch of rocks even though I didn't travel for geological research! I subsequently refused additional "handicraft exhibition" stops and was way too hot to consider eating anything...so we were running ahead of schedule.). We therefore visited the "Baby Taj", the Itimad ad-Daulah. It was so quiet and peaceful after the more crowded sites, and a pleasure to stroll around. My guide had told me that it was the "baby" because it was smaller, and it was also "lesser" because the inlay work was done not with semi-precious tones, like the Taj, but just with "other" stones. Lesser, indeed! They used a gorgeous iron-cemented fossiliferous limestone and a very cool small pebble conglomerate for a lot of their larger pieces. How they cut those very heterogeneous rocks into thin, regular, precise shapes without them breaking along the lines of the included fossils or pebbles I do not know. I got very excited. My guide was having none of this. Me: "look, this is full of fossils!" Silence. "Ancient sea creatures preserved in the rock! See all their shells!" "Yes." "Like oysters, shellfish...each one of these!" "Yes, this is other stone. Not semi-precious."  After all these years, I still can't truly understand in my heart why so many people can't seem to get even a little excited about rocks...!  

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