In exiting the aircraft at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, it didn’t take long to understand that layers of activity took place consecutively here; and no one layer particularly cared very much about what was going on in the next. There is always movement here; a sign in the main entrance hall read, “This is a work in progress.”
Swarms of people moved about like armies of marching ants, simply avoiding workers who were building the new and fixing the old. This work in progress was a fitting welcome to a developing, moving, and buzzing India.
Even a strikingly beautiful young Hindi woman didn’t put a dent in the activity here. Out of nowhere a young woman in a bright yellow sari suddenly sat squarely on her luggage in the middle of the busy airport traffic among honking horns, corn vendors, and taxi drivers. She began to talk emphatically on her cell phone, indifferent to the clouds of people around her who, without a thought, simply rerouted their own paths to avoid her.
In the mêlée, I finally found my driver. I was a guest of the then Indian Minister of Tourism, whom I had met at an international event in Colombia. “You must visit my country,” she said. Before long, I was on my way on a tour of the “Golden Triangle” of Agra, Delhi, and Jaipur.
I commented to the driver in New Delhi on the vibrant atmosphere, to which he jovially said, “A good horn, good brakes, and good luck are all you need in India to get by.” It made sense, I thought, as we sped off through the dusty, noisy streets to my first place of recluse.
The colorful streets
On this trip I was ready to enjoy the quirky, noisy, and colorful streets of India. But the counter-balance here was a series of plush hotels and stately resorts to which you can easily escape and pamper yourself. It’s all a part of the duality of contemporary India.
It also takes a cultural immersion of sorts before you start to understand a history that most westerners are little equipped to understand. India’s rich collection of dynasties, kingdoms, and religions existed far from European, let alone the North American glare. India and its history have to be learned as you begin to fathom the complexities that brought about the grand palaces, forts, and temples that mark the landscapes here.
My first real stop was a short flight from Delhi to Agra, a city on the Yamuna River in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. This was the capital of the grand Mughal Empire – responsible for much of this region’s architectural grandeur and the rulers of these territories from 1526 to 1657.
Navigating here was a challenge. It is not unusual for cars to venture into the oncoming lanes, elephants to wander the streets, or for monkeys to congregate in parks – and all of this without anyone taking particular notice.
The Taj Mahal
An early morning adventure brought me to the Taj Mahal, completed in 1648 and the most emblematic of India’s tourist sites. Standing at the Taj Mahal is almost a spiritual experience. This monument – as glorious as the finely carved inlaid the marble is – is best known for its beautiful story. This greatest example of Mughal architecture was constructed with no other purpose than to honor the love of a man for his wife. Mughal ruler Shah Jahan promised his dying wife Mumtaz Mahal to construct a grand ode to their love. Hence the world was gifted the Taj Mahal – a real symbol of the power of love and dedication.
In Agra, we also visited the stately Agra Fort and the beautifully constructed but abandoned sixteenth century city of Fatehpur Sikri. The crafted stone-carved buildings here were used for a mere fifteen years.
In Agra, I stayed at the beautiful Jaypee Palace resort. This self-contained complex includes ponds and pagodas, gazebos, and landscaped gardens. The vast beauty of this complex is designed to reflect the style and tastes of the Mughal dynasty, and the hotel is situated not far from the famed Taj Mahal – but far away from the urban clutter and sounds of the streets.
After a harrowing evening drive, we arrived in the neighboring state of Rajasthan and its capital, Jaipur. The Chokhi Dhani is an ethnographic resort and theme park representing the interior of Rajasthan culture. Ideal for families, the village is spread out over some twenty-two acres. At night, performances for kids, restaurants, puppet shows, and traditional dances entertain and even educate visitors. Accommodations are clean but sparse – little huts basically – decorated with local arts and crafts that represent the traditional lifestyle of the Rajasthan people.
Meaning “Palace of Winds,” the landmark building of Jaipur was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh. Dedicated to Lord Krishna, the building is shaped like a makut, or crown, which adorns the deity Krishna’s head. The construction has over 900 niches, and not so long ago ladies of the court watched festivities on the street below without being observed themselves.
A blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture
Also in Jaipur is the Amber Fort; built in red sandstone and white marble, it is a complex with numerous apartments, living quarters, and public and private audience halls. The Amber Fort reflects a blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture. Built in the 16th century, the fort sprawls a hillside.
After last-minute shopping of beautiful Rajasthan textiles, I flew to the capital, New Delhi. Here I stayed at the stately and classical Ashok Hotel, located in the capital’s diplomatic quarter. Labeled the “grandest of them all,” this vast complex includes a variety of thematic restaurants all under one roof. You can dine in Indian, Chinese, modern, and classical-style restaurants. The exclusive sixth floor even has its separate private dining facility, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson just happened to be staying a few doors away during my visit.
The Red Fort
The constructions of Mughal leader Shah Jahan is also on proud display in New Delhi in the form of the Red Fort, begun in 1638, and which took a decade to complete. This two-kilometer-long structure stands some eighteen to thirty-three meters high.
My last port of call in India was as appropriate a place as you can imagine. It was the very place where Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi – who spearheaded the movement of non-violence – was assassinated on January 30, 1948. Here at The Birla House, a permanent memorial, I paid my reverence to a man affectionately known here as “Bapu.” Inscribed in the simple room where he spent his last hours are his own words, “My life is my message.” A message of peace and social justice that resonates today as it has and will.