Shah Jahan

Travel Books: India

There’s a ton of literature surrounding India. Award-winning novels from Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children), also from Canadian authors, Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry.

I’d read a few novels set in India: White Tiger by Aravind Singh, and although never explicitly declared as India, the experience in How to get filthy rich in rising Asia, would still apply. (filed as a Travel book: Philippines).

I wanted to read a travelogue of India, someone’s personal experience wandering around. And, as usual, following my eBook catalogue through Toronto’s Library, I had a limited reach. Nevertheless, I found one I really liked by a Canadian author no less:

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I found he lays out India’s history very simply, and with an insight into the conflict between Muslims and Hindus, particulary when the country was divided by the Partition. Also he offers depth into the Mughal Empire and how it was hugely influential in creating India from Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal, Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi – plus how Delhi itself was borne out of one conqueror’s architectural ideas to the next. All in all, I found it a good reference for developing a working understanding of what I was seeing as we travelled in India. Worth a read if you plan to travel there.

Books on my list

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A journalist follows families in one of Mumbai’s biggest slums – finding examples of resilience along the way. Or that’s what the book blurb tells me. Meant to be good.

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Another Canadian author. Follows the civil war and government crackdown between the 70s and 80s in Bombay (now Mumbai). Won awards – and high praise.

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Another book on Mumbai. About the city’s many facets, and how it all interacts to make it the place where so many people concentrate their time to make a living from below in the slums to up high on the movie screens as part of Bollywood industry.

image One-time war journalist in Iraq, returns again and again to India over the course of 20 years and writes about its effects on him.

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Agra culture

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This is the view from the cheap seats.

It’s the main reason over 3 million tourists visit Agra every year. Though it was once the capital of India in the 17th Century, Agra now draws people in thanks to the Taj Mahal, which, at this point, has to qualify as one of the most recognizable monuments in the world. Everyone has seen images of it a million times in one form or another, which, of course won’t stop me from adding to the pile with more shots in a minute.

However, amazing as it may sound, there is more to Agra than the Taj Mahal. I’m not saying that the other stuff is better, but merely that it’s impressive in its own right, and without the Taj Mahal running things, would be a worthy trip to see on its own.

This is what I’m referring to:

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Agra Fort. It’s similar to the Red Fort we saw in Delhi inasmuch as it’s a fortified enclosure with palaces inside it.

However, next to 254 acres in the Red Fort, this one is a starter kit: measuring in at only 94 acres. So, we did our best to find room in this shoe closet to move around, roaming from one palace to another with 50 foot ceilings that it soon became hard to understand how an Emperor could live here.

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Interestingly, there’s evidence that the fort had been around since the 11th Century, and grew accordingly with each successive conqueror. Shah Jahan was the Mughal emperor who supersized much of the place, replacing palaces with white marble:

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A design touch which he also carried across the river to build “you know what” that on clearer days can be seen from Agra fort (you can sort of make out the contours in the clouds).

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Also, as legend has it, Shah Jahan could spot it from his internment at Agra Fort where he was imprisoned by his son who was vying for his crown. Though it’s been couched as a Robin Hood act by some tour guides, saying his son did this because Shah Jahan had bankrupted his Empire building the Taj Mahal, and his son wanted to rein him in. Whether for personal aggrandizement or benevolent rule or somewhere in between, je ne sais pas his motive. But there you go.

Anyhow, we toured around the grounds seeing more:

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And more

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And more buildings, each one a mansion in its own right.

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After leaving, as part of the deal with our driver, we agreed to stop at a carpet shop, where if we were to buy something, he’d receive commission. Buying a carpet was the last thing on both our minds, but thought it might be interesting enough to see how they’re made.

We were introduced to the operation, which is a slick tourist assembly line run by canny employees who bring tourists in, offer them a drink, and take the next hour trying to seduce them with words like “cashmere” “double knit” “handwoven” while unfurling carpets one after the other in front of us with bright colours and “authentic designs”.

Hahah, we thought. “I know your game”. And then, within two minutes, we’d fallen face-first under their spell.

Rose and I looked at each other and began rationalizing: “YEAH, that carpet would look good in the hallway” – “or if not we could put it downstairs”, essentially we began arguing against the idea of NOT leaving with something, because, after all: “It’s good quality”.

Not taking a second to think that I know absolutely nothing about carpets, and am repeating verbatim what our salesmen has just said.

Thankfully, after a small break in the proceedings, Rose and I came back to earth and broke the spell, realizing that we hadn’t lost our ability to think critically, and decided to leave the pretty things on the shelf.

The salesmen running the show were so convincing, if they ever wanted a change of career, I think they could be the best hostage negotiators India has ever seen.

Of course, given how close we were to handing over our credit card, and seeing the next group of tourists coming in the door as we left, wide-eyed as we were, it was clear they already make a happy living doing the opposite: convincing tourists to pull the trigger.

And speaking of doing that, here finally is the start of the main event, which started out okay under cover:

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But soon became a downpour with water piling all over the place.

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Nobody is allowed to wear shoes inside the Taj Mahal, and people line them up at some stairs on the way up. Now, however, all these shoes were underwater, and we didn’t want to add ours to the list of the drowned. So a soaked entrepreneur, seeing an opportunity, came up to a group of us with fabric shoes that mob hitmen wear in the movies.

Done. We suited up and made our way in, where up close the design in marble and the calligraphy was really amazing:

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I expected to be a bit jaded by the whole thing, wondering how it could possibly live up to its huge reputation, but despite the crowds, and the gushing rivers of rain: it did. I thought it was amazing to see.

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The scale of it is huge, like most things we’d already seen. Many of which had been built by Shah Jahan who commissioned the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his third wife, where, unplanned to him at the time, he was also interred after his death.

Apparently it took 22 years to finish, and was once more sparkly than it is now, having been plundered of jewels encrusted in its side by the British in the 19th century. But the nuance was lost on me: even with cloudy skies the white marble surface had a glow:

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At the entrance there was a huge scrum of people, pushing and shoving to get their photo in front of the fountains, leading up to the Taj Mahal. Apart from our best attempts at selfies, we asked someone if they could take a photo of us, and this is how it turned out:

image Maybe I should have been more clear?: “That big massive ball on top. Could you include that too?

In any case, we had a last look:

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And dragged our waterlogged selves back to our guesthouse:

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After quickly drying off, we lined up with monkeys at the train station to catch our next ride.

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This time an easy one: six hours to Jaipur. Popularly known as the “Pink City”, it would be better known to us as “Can we go now?”.

Days in Delhi

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British comic Eddie Izzard, performing for an American audience in San Francisco, once made the quip:

“I grew up in Europe, where the History comes from.”

In the U.S., where heritage status means something isn’t much older than 240 years, he’s got a point.

However, it’s also more than reasonable that Canadian comic Russell Peters or American comic Aziz Ansari, who are both first generation North Americans from Indian parents, could perform to a European audience by saying:

“My family is originally from India, where the History is older than all the grandparents that you can name by heart.”

(ignore that it’s unlikely either comic would do this, because History isn’t a burning topic in their stand-up)

Some studies have found evidence of humans in India from 75,000 years ago, while India is also considered to have had the first civilization in Southeast Asia starting around 3000BC, a few millenia later than Europe who got a jump on planting things around 7000BC.

Of course, starting points in History aren’t necessarily clean cut – does it start when there’s a sign of civilization (villages), someone has used a tool to kill an animal or maybe when someone’s been eaten by an animal because the poor bastard hasn’t learned to make a tool yet?

I have no idea, and I’m not about to root around to find it. That’s an entirely different debate that belongs in a symposium with scholars confidently striding across stage with great pronouncements while the other scholars in the audience furrow their brow, preparing their rebuttal.

In this forum of a lowly blog, however, I will say this: India is very old. And India is very big. It’s current population estimates are around 1.28 billion people. It’s so old and so big, that Rose and I were both frankly a bit intimidated to visit. All the other countries we’d visited had big populations, and had historical ruins. But none before India had both in such massive quantities.

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We’d spoken with people about their experience in India, and it seemed to be polarized: “You’ll either love it or hate it”, most people would say. “It’s Heaven and Hell.”, a woman who we met in Malaysia had said, “It shows all of humanity”. Those that loved India also made sure to add plenty of disclaimers: “You just have to go with it. Don’t fight it or you’ll have a bad time.”

With that advice, Rose and I landed in Delhi – which, to appreciate India’s long history seemed a good place to start. I’d read that Delhi was an amalgam of over 10 cities, which had each been built over the course of 1000+ years according to the taste of each new ruler. As a new dynasty claimed the city, he imposed his design on it, sometimes building off the existing structure of a past ruler or razing it and starting fresh.

11 different “rulers” have had a shot at designing Delhi over time, including the British who were the last to have a kick at the can. Their bid is now referred to as “New Delhi”, which was inaugurated in 1931 and contains India’s parliament and other government buildings.

Before arriving, Rose and I had seen images and videos of crowds, moving around the streets, and honking their way to find room. Now 20 minutes into our ride, firmly ensconced in New Delhi, we were beginning to wonder: “Where are all the crowds?”. There were sidewalks, people were using them, and roads were largely devoted to cars, not people.

But our guesthouse was in Old Delhi, where we’d soon find out, to borrow from Eddie Izzard’s riff: “Is where the Crowd is from”.

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Founded by Shah Jahan (he who also built the Taj Mahal), a Mughal Emperor in 1638, Old Delhi contained a massive Red Fort, a popular mosque and a huge open market called Chandi Chowk, among many other things.

But, for us, one of the most noticeable things was people. Yes, this is where the crowds came. And, as a later Indian would say to us while touring around: “This is the REAL Delhi!”.

This point became quite clear when, in our cab about to cross from New Delhi into Old Delhi, a young girl, maybe 6 years old knocked on the window asking for money. That wasn’t the real part: apart from New Zealand and Australia, every other country we visited had major poverty.

It’s a condition of visiting a developing country, which didn’t make it any easier to accept or feel okay about: but, after travelling for the time we did, it wasn’t something to be surprised by.

However, this young girl put that to test. After knocking for a while, I smiled at her and said “No money” – which we were told from our driver was wise, because if we were to open the window, the car would quickly be surrounded by other people looking for money, and it could be a problem.

Instead, I put my finger on the glass and began tracing it left and right, and the girl joined in: matching my finger up and down across the glass.

We did this for a few seconds, and I smiled, while she laughed. Then the girl took a step back from the car, and with a newly mature look in her eye pointed at Rose. I looked over at Rose who was looking over at us at this point then looked back at the girl who, now having got our attention, pointed to Rose and I then made an “O” with one hand and stuck her index finger in and out of it, while leering at us. She then turned around, seemingly disinterested and wandered off, straight faced, back to hustle for more money.

“Shit”, I looked over at Rose, surprised.

In our travels, I tried to cultivate a perspective that was accepting of everything I saw as “the way things are”, and to be non-judgmental about it. I was an observer, I told myself, watching things around me. And it was fine, and it served me well. But after seeing the little girl, I felt a crack in my perspective.

I could tell she was wise, well beyond her years, and had seen things most North American children hadn’t, and was living hand to mouth without any sentimentality. And while orphans have been romanticized in the West from Oliver Twist to Annie, this undercut the entire pretence.

We were only visiting for a night and day, so I can’t say what the “REAL Delhi” is with any authority, but looking back I got the sense that this is what the guy, who I’d meet the following day, was getting at.

Rose and I were both exhausted by this point too. Nevertheless, we still had to eat. So, we moved through the huge crowds, and wandered down some side alleyways until we spotted a place to eat. After a big plate of food for a small price, we checked into our guesthouse and called it a night.

Day 2- Delhi  (Aka: where the photographs start)

We’d only planned to spend a day in Delhi, mainly because we heard how crazy the crowds were, not surprising given the population is estimated at 25 million. However, we also wanted to see some of its monuments, museums and other spots, which, after assessing crowds and traffic we realized could only be done in a day with the help of a driver.

Luckily Rose and I met another backpacker at our guesthouse who was in the same boat: he had one day in Delhi, wanted to see the sites, but still felt too jet lagged to negotiate every single ride across town from one spot to the next. We split the fare for a drive and set off.

There’s a ton of things to see in Delhi, so we had to be selective, and decided on a decent cross section where we could see a mixture of temples and monuments.

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Our first stop was Laxmi Narayan – a Hindu temple devoted to the goddess of wealth, that kindly didn’t charge anyone to visit, and seemed more interested in promoting its wealth than accumulating it from visitors.

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We weren’t allowed to bring in cameras, but the grounds were neat, including this funhouse, carnival piece, which actually had a prayer room inside it:

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Next we went to a Sikh temple – Gurudwara Bangla Sahib.

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From roaming the streets the night before, people were constantly trying to get our attention, and so when a lady at the temple beckoned us to follow her into an office, I thought it was another hustle. But Rose entertained her for a brief moment, which turned about to be a smart idea, because she then asked us if we wanted to see the kitchen:

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As part of their faith, Sikhs provide free meals to anyone who visits their temple. A big-hearted gesture, clearly, but also a big undertaking. The lady explained that the temple serves up to 100,000 people a week ( I think that’s right), which they accomplish by running an industrial sized food production facility. Behind us were three-foot high, bubbling cauldrons of lentils, which we all took turns stirring, on which I couldn’t help saying: “I’ll get you my pretty!”.

Plus, on the other side was a chapati rolling machine that was shooting out, flat round white discs at the rate of a skeet shooting machine. It was amazing. People then took them, threw them on the grill, and once they were cooked, tossed them into baskets that looked like they once belonged to a hot air balloon.

The woman allowed us to flip a few chapatis as well, and have a sample: which were pretty tasty. After pretending to be part of the kitchen staff, we set off for our next spot, a museum devoted to the man who is attributed to have said: “be the change you wish to see in the world”, but in fact it was this:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Doesn’t quite fit on a T-shirt. So, undoubtedly a copywriter got his or her hands on it to make it ready for sale to roll-out across anything with a flat surface, tattoos included. Given that, who’s to know if these were also his actual words or edited for consumption (seen on the wall):image

The museum was also the place where Gandhi lived the last six months of his life, before he was assassinated on the same grounds. An event, which is commemorated by a pagoda at the scene of where he was shot, along with his footsteps there.

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Not quite sure the footsteps were necessary – since we know where the spot was where he was killed. It reminds me of a cartoon when a character is invisible but has given away his position after stepping in paint.

We then toured some more around this spot, including a room that had his likeness, meditating, in front of his likeness, which I suppose is helpful for people who forget what museum they’re in.

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Our next stop on the whirlwind was India Gate, which was built to commemorate the 90,000 Indians that died in World War I:

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Nearby, now in New Delhi was Indian Parliament and the home of the Indian president called, Rashtrapi Bavan (I know these names are probably unnecessary to the story, but I looked them up, so they stay).

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One of the highlights of the day was our next stop at Humayun’s tomb. He was a Mughal emperor after Shah Jahan, and after his death, his wife completed this ode to his greatness in 1570.

I thought it was a pretty impressive structure, which UNESCO had also long ago determined, and anointed it with their: “Oh we really like what you’ve done here” stamp of approval:

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We toured around here for a bit, which took time, considering the tomb is essentially a mansion with other buildings within it.

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The architecture was interesting, borrowing from Persian style, which Rose patiently stood in front of while I snapped:

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The scale of the Tomb, India Gate and the Sikh Temple are immense. But our next stop would take the crown:

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The Red Fort, part of Old Delhi, built by Shah Jahan is a huge complex with walls that feel like they go on forever – 2.1kms in total – which contain a group of palaces within grounds of 250 acres, each the size of the tomb we last saw.

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We wandered around for a long time, seeing more palaces with intricate artwork:

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It was also here that we were first asked to pose in a photo with complete strangers. Or, more accurately, I was asked to pose in a photo. Two guys came up to us, motioned me in to the shot, where I smiled, not knowing what the hell was going on, and they walked off, seemingly happy about things.

I later spoke to people about this, and they explained that it was a way for Indians to establish some prestige, whereby they could show off a photo with me (a white guy) in it and say to their friends or someone they just met: “Oh this guy? Well, he’s my friend from America/Europe/Australia etc.”.

It was odd, and would happen a few times in our time in India.

We ended the day by taking a bicycle rickshaw farther into Old Delhi to visit Jama Masjid, an old mosque. The bike trip was bananas. We spoke with one bike guide, which then attracted three other bike guides who began arguing about the price, offering better than the original guy.

We eventually carried on with the first guy, and he pushed us slowly but surely through the market streets where we got to the steps of the mosque (no cameras allowed inside):

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And kicked off our shoes, and ran inside before the afternoon call to prayer, managing only to take a shot of the outside:

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Next, it was time to take part in an Indian institution: train travel.

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As a first-timer, booking a train is notoriously complex. There are, I think, eight different classes of train in all. And, when you book one, if you aren’t given a spot immediately, you are tossed into a waiting class system, which has as many levels as Dante’s Inferno.

Lucky for us on this trip we managed to secure two spots on the Sleeper class, which means two bunks up top for overnight travel.

Guidebooks suggested this class was only for “the most adventurous”, and I was leery of what we were getting into – especially once we had settled into our seats and I noticed Rose appeared to be the only female on the train car. There had been a lot of stories before we arrived in Delhi of women being abused and mistreated by men, which set me a bit on edge and I felt like I didn’t want to go to the bathroom on board, leaving Rose on her own.

It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution – we chatted with two brothers who shared the lower bunks of the car:

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And they insisted we visit his town on the way home, writing out his address and name. It turned out the biggest menace was the weather. Still in the North, temperatures were around 8 degrees, and the Sleeper car was at the mercy of the elements with no insulation or temperature control.

At this point, of course, we didn’t know that:

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But in the morning on the train, there are vendors who walk up and down consistently for 15 minutes carrying steaming canisters of tea, shouting “Chai. Chu-chu – Chai”, which were sweet words for our cold ears and bleary eyes after little sleep.

Lack of sleep, however, proved fortuitous, because in our next stop – Varanasi – we’d experience a combination of wildly incoherent things that nobody seemed to bat an eyelash at. Considering that, showing up with a skewed perspective from lack of sleep, might be the best way to be introduced to the place.

It was a nice thought. But, as it turned out, it really didn’t make a difference.

Next stop, the holy city of Varanasi, India.