Brett Gallagher July 5 2011 10:01:34 AM
I recently had the opportunity to visit a number of my extended in-law relations who live in India. I can say that, while some stereotypes may occasionally be true (yes, even in the biggest cities, I saw the manic flow of traffic come to a standstill while everyone waited for some cows to wander out of the road), the country holds much that is sure to delight, and even to surprise.
India was due to host the Commonwealth Games, and Delhi, as the site of the then-upcoming event, was particularly in the grip of this national obsession. Preparations were running right up to the last minute, and it seemed you couldn't go two blocks without something either being dug up or built up. For added effect, there was the specter of sectarian violence hanging over the city and country as everyone awaited a High Court decision on competing land claims in an inter-faith dispute regarding a holy site in the city of Ayodhya. I am happy to report that no violence was reported following the issuing of the verdict a few days after our arrival.
We had a couple of days to ourselves to see some of the tourist highlights up north in Delhi and Agra before joining the rest of our group down south for a whirlwind tour of the state of Tamil Nadu. Despite the obstacles posed by construction and a very heavy security presence, we made the best of it. We started with the Red Fort in Old Delhi. The Mughals' administrative center, as well as their royal family's palatial residence, the complex is a collection of public audience halls, gardens, and living quarters, all in marble and red sandstone, and all richly decorated with intricate carving and inlay work. Making our way out of Old Delhi (through streets usually described as 'narrow,' 'teeming,' and even 'claustrophobic' in guide-book speak), we took a quick look at the Jama Masjid, India?s largest mosque, built by Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame). Some tourists had been injured in a shooting there two weeks earlier, so we didn?t linger for too long.
Being a bit nerdy, we managed a visit to the Jantar Mantar, a eighteenth-century open-air astronomical observatory complex composed of a building-sized sundial and associated structures. After this, our route took us deeper into the greener, more open expanses of New Delhi. This area, which today doesn't feel as much like a separate city as it does just another part of the sprawling metropolis of greater Delhi, is home to foreign embassies and to the ministries and departments that do the day-to-day work of keeping the Indian government humming along.
For the tourist, sights include:
· the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the Presidential Palace, a mix of Western Classical and Indian design elements originally built in the early 20th century by the British that, at over 200,000 ft2, is reportedly the largest official residence of a head of state anywhere in the world),
· the India Gate (another re-purposed British holdover, this is a large arch originally intended as a memorial to those members of the British Indian Army who died for the British Empire; after independence, the statue of George V was replaced with the Indian Army's tomb of the unknown soldier and an eternal flame),
· the Raj Ghat, a black marble slab (that also has an eternal flame) marking the spot of Gandhi?s cremation.
· Humayun's Tomb, the first garden tomb complex in India. Built in the mix of red sandstone and white marble that would become so popular with the Mughals and containing so many of the design elements that would come to define their architectural style, this is a template of sorts that would lead eventually to the Taj Mahal. Unlike the Taj Mahal, supposedly built b y a husband in memory of his wife, this tomb and garden complex was c ommissioned by Humayun?s widow in his memory.
The next day, we made the three-and-a-half-hour road trip to Agra to see the famous Taj Mahal. On the way, we stopped to take a look at Akbar's Tomb, another sandstone and marble garden tomb complex nearby. As it was built right between Humayun's Tomb and the Taj Mahal (chronologically speaking), you can see the growth and progress of the Mughal architectural style. While the other tomb complexes are set in gardens in the midst of their respective cities, this is the only one that is situated more or less outside of town. Even deep within the grounds of the others, the noise of the city (or of our fellow tourists) never managed to completely fade away, but here at Akbar's Tomb, we had the place to ourselves. Since, it was still fairly early in the morning, we were able to see the deer that live on the grounds frolicking, and to hear the birds chattering away, before the heat of the day drove them into hiding.
The Taj Mahal is beautiful, there's no denying that. It's one of the few things I've seen in my life that essentially succeeds in living up to the hype. We didn't manage to time our visit for very early or very late in the day (apparently, the white marble seems almost luminescent at dawn and dusk), but the size and majesty of the place, the fine detail of the inlay work that covers the building, and the expansive gardens don't seem to have lost much in the harsh light of midday. I know I said that the Taj Mahal lives up to the hype, but personally, for what it's worth, I think I preferred Humayun's and Akbar's (much under-hyped) tombs. The TM is beautiful, the very crowning achievement of a whole school and style of architecture, but I usually prefer a band's first couple of albums, the ones they make before all the lineup changes and stints in rehab, before they start using lots of orchestras and children's choirs.
After Delhi, our journey took us to Madurai, where we made a visit to the recently restored Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple. Located in the heart of the city and surrounded by a wall broken up by 14 elaborately sculpted gopurams (gateway towers, the tallest being 170 feet high), this temple complex is so old that facts about its earliest origins are difficult to separate from myth. The winding cluster of halls, passages, and shrines is an interesting and sometimes awkward mix of an active place of worship and a museum, with priests and worshippers having to navigate around and through groups of tourists fiddling with their flashes to try to get that perfect shot.
Most of the rest of the visit after this point was spent hanging out with and getting to know my wife's extended family in a few dusty towns and villages that hold little for the casual tourist. Many of you reading this, should you decide to go to India as tourists, may not have the opportunity to take advantage of Indian hospitality, or to have a gaggle of aunties clamoring to stuff you to the point of bursting with 'home food.' If the chance does present itself, however, I would advise you to take advantage of it. Hospitality is very much prized as a virtue, and people pride themselves on being able to dazzle and over-stuff a visitor. This, together with such traditional home- and family-oriented ideals such as having children, is part of a whole group of qualities that Indian English calls 'homely.' Imagine my confusion when, while thumbing through the personals ads in the paper over breakfast, I saw how many prospective brides prided themselves on how 'homely' they were, how many prospective grooms were looking for a 'homely' girl, and how many parents (in this still very traditional society, many parents place the personals ads and screen respondents o n behalf of their children) were t rumpeting how 'homely' their daughters are. It seems that Global English has gone way beyo nd just England and America being 'separated by a common language,' as someone once said.
Our last stop was Kanyakumari, all the way down at the very bottom. This is the point where three seas (the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean) meet. Like so many other places of note in India, it has deep significance due to the role it plays in Hindu religious tales. For me, it was a nice day at the beach, with a ferry ride out to the large Alcatraz-style rocks offshore to visit a memorial to a legendary Tamil poet, and the coolest, breeziest day I experienced while in India.
Written by Will Maris
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