Magnificent Splendor

December 24, 2010
As we write this update, it is Christmas morning in Jaipur--the pink desert city of palaces, gem cutting, camel sightings, splendidly-decorated elephants, Christmas songs piped into the hotel lobby, and Muslim calls to worship echoing on the way to our room.  Since we last wrote, we have been to Kharjuraho, Agra, and across the countryside.  Wayne and I have both had a mild case of delhi belly, and Wayne developed India hives.  We met a wonderful Indian doctor who took care of that.  No worries, we are good and haven't missed a beat.  But, we digress. 
Back to the matter at hand.  OK: On with the tour: We flew from Varanasi to Khajuraho, the site of one of 28 UNESCO World Heritage sites in India. It has the largest group of medieval Hindu and Jain temples in one area (a beautiful park setting). These are famous for their erotic sculptures (although, there are thousands of scenes of everyday life and you really need a guide to point out the "risque" ones), and is considered to be one of the "seven wonders" of India. The carvings were fantastic - so lifelike, meticulous and each one was unique.
Then on to the Taj.  We left Kajuraho on the 22nd and drove across the countryside to pick up an authentic Indian train. We first drove to Orchha. There by the side of the Betwa river is a collection of temples, palaces and cenotaphs built by the Mughals from the 16th through 19th centuries. One of the highlights was seeing a number of vultures roosting on the roofs.  Then we went to Jhansi (an authentic train station, rats among the tracks and all--and as our readers know, Wendy is not a huge fan of rodents) to catch the train to Agra. There are three classes of cars on most trains. We were in class I (the only car of its type on our train) which was just like Amtrak - regular cushioned train sets, a bathroom in each car, and they come through and serve water and food (like on an airplane!) for no extra charge (we were advised to skip the food). The class II cars (we were told) are not quite as accommodating. We especially like the "Sleeper Cars" we saw which were crammed full of people. I guess you have to learn how to sleep standing up. Our train did not have any class III cars....our guides said that was a good thing, so I'll leave it to your imagination. One of the highlights was the announcements made on the train. Imagine the voice of a 5-year old British girl: "Welcome to Agra. It has been our great pleasure to have you with us. We wish you happiness as you continue your journey and sincerely hope to see you again soon."  Was the same message was piped into the other class cars? 

We have traveled extensively and certainly realize how lucky we are to have experienced and seen more awe-inspiring marvels than most. Sometimes we come across something that is just so splendid, so amazing, that we truly run out of adjectives.  Our first sighting of Lake Louise was like that. So did the Taj Mahal! It is not lit at night so our first viewing was through the mist in our room--when we woke up on the 23rd.  Even from 2 kilometers away it was breathtaking. Our tour there left the hotal at , and by then it was clear. Heavy security to get in. You walk up a brick pathway and turn to your right to go through the main gate (don't think "gate" like a fence, it is more like the India Gate or Arc de Triomphe). Because of the way it is laid out, you can't really see the Taj itself until you walk through. Then, there it is in beautiful magnificence. Yes, you've seen pictures many times, but the real thing is profoundly amazing!  And learning details about it from our guide only added to its glory. As you get close, you see that it is decorated with verses from the Koran and intertwining leaves and flowers. It is 400 years old; how can they look like new? Because they are not painted on, but all inlaid! Jade, lapis, turquoise...all set flawlessly into the white marble. The designers were very clever, too, in that the calligraphy that adorns many of the arches and entryways is actually bigger the higher up that it goes so that it looks like a uniform size from ground level. It took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete. This is the mausoleum to Shah Jahan's wife. He had planned to build a similar structure in black marble for himself, but his son said "No way! Too much of my inheritance!" and had his father locked in Agra Fort  (where he could view the Taj from across the river) for the remaining 8 years of his life. But don't feel too bad for him as he had 200 concubines to keep him company. 
So our next stop was the fort itself - a combination fort and palace. It is bigger than any fort or castle in Europe.  Most is made of red sandstone, but again, in the royal living quarters there is much marble and inlays of precious stones. Five great Mughal rulers lived here,  and the country was governed from here. It contained the largest state treasury and mint. It was visited by foreign ambassadors, travelers and dignitaries.
Some other things we have learned: The word "pur" indicates that a town is of Hindu origin (Jaipur, Udaipur); "bad" indicates a Muslim origin (Hyderabad). Begging is a full-time "profession" for many people. And yes, people are maimed (blinded, limbs cut off) and controlled by a beggar-master (as portrayed in Slumdog Millionairre). Furthermore, some women work as nannys for wealthy people and then drug the child and use it as a prop to beg all day returning home before the parents.
The population of India increases by about 25 million each year, which is roughly the population of Australia. India is truly a melting pot of religions and cultures. And, for many people, religion is the central point of their daily lives; religion is everywhere.
At this time, there are about 1,600 languages in use in the country.

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