India of my heart

on
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The Water Palace, outside Jaipur

There are some destinations that mark your life. I have always thought that this phrase is exaggerated, until I found myself in India’s Golden Triangle – by Maria Th. Massoura

by Maria Th. Massoura

Johari market, Jaipur. I am standing in the middle of the road trying to get across. A bike passes very close in front of me, a small van loaded with a dozen guys seems to be coming just against me while, on the opposite pavement, a white cow with a hump is staring at me and I am sure that she laughs at me as I am not able to face this “ confuzio “. Around me and everywhere, the horns sound continuously and there people everywhere. I take a brave decision. I hide myself behind an Indian who wants to cross the road and manages with much luck, to get across without a bloodshed by making many manoeuvres.

But let’s take things from the beginning. Early in summer, I decided that I wanted to live something totally different from my daily routine. The suggestion of friends for a trip to India could not come at a better time. We would follow the route of the ” Golden Triangle”. We would start from the capital, Delhi, go to the city of Agra where the Taj Mahaj is and then we would reach Jaipur, in the heart of Rajasthan.

I put the music from the film “Slumdog Millionnaire” in my ipod and the travel book “Sacred India: Nine lives, nine stories” by William Dalrymple in my backpack. People have told me that India is the land of extreme contrasts. I would see much wealth and, at the same time, a lot of poverty. The landscapes would be shocking and the culture breathtaking. But nothing has prepared me for what I would live in the next seven days.

DELHI

Arriving in Delhi and on the way to the hotel, I see images through the window of my bus that look unrealistic. Everything is at an exaggerating from. People everywhere, dozens of rickshaws in the streets – tricycles with seats – small taxis with green/yellow colour cabins– lots of cars, much noise from horns, a lot of fuss.

Suddenly, in front of me, I see a large area with slums. Eventually, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was not a Hollywood exaggeration, I think.

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The chaotic streets of Delhi

At the hotel, they welcome us with a wreath made of marigolds and they paint a red stroke on the women’s forehead.

On the next day, the trip to India begins with a visit to Raj Ghat Park. In the middle of the park there is a large black marble slab. On top of it, there is a flame which has been lit up since 1948. It is the date when the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was cremated.

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Fresh marigolds are placed everyday on Gandhi’s tomb

The next stop, Chandni Chowk, the market of old Delhi, is very near. It is worth renting a rickshaw to pass through the narrow streets. Merchants sell gold jewellery, perfumes, even auto spare parts. Among the stores, we see hangars where there are huge pans on the floor in which they cook curry. I take many photos. At that time I realize that my everyday life for the next seven days will be full of images, colours, scents and sensations.

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India, a country in colour

We get off the rickshaw, climb some huge stairs and arrive at Jama Masjid. This imposing mosque, built with red stone between 1656 and 1672, is India’s largest and the third largest one in the world. The size is huge. Think that the inner courtyard can accommodate up to 25,000 people. Walking inside, I notice Indians dressed in white reading religious books or simply lying down on the black and white marble floor.

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The magnificent Jama Masjid mosque
I see a totally different picture in New Delhi. The scene seems to have sprung from the Colonialism. Large buildings, most of them governmental ones, fountains, beautiful gardens, clean streets.

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New Delhi is so much different from the Old Delhi
We arrive at India Gate, a tribute to the Indian soldiers who were killed during the First World War. There are many people around, tourists and locals posing for photos, vendors selling figurines, small kites, while I find a woman who paints my right hand with henna.

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Thousands of people visit the India Gate daily
AGRA

On the same day we leave the city and make our way to Agra. The province offers other images. The scenery is lush after the monsoon period. I can see vast areas with trees and plantations. Looking outside, I see a woman with a bright orange Sari in the distance walking and balancing on the head a large basket. This daily scene seems very cinematic.

We arrive in Agra, an ordinary Indian city, which attracts a lot of people since hundreds of them visit it daily to see the Taj Mahal, the “diamond in the Crown of India”.

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Taj Mahal’s magic cannot be described in words

The King Shah Jahān built it in 1632 when his third wife Mumtaz Mahal died in their 14th child’s birth. His sadness was expressed on this building made from white stone and gems while they say that the dome resembles an inverted tear. I go through the main entrance, I pass by the buildings with the distinctive red stone, I climb the stairs and then I find myself there. In the distance, there it is. The Taj Mahal. I feel that I have been in a postcard. I have no words to express my feelings.

It is worth being there one night with a full moon. The silver moonlight falls on the precious stones that adorn the building and illuminate it in a magical way, in the same way as Mumtaz Mahal did to Shah Jahān’s life.

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Locals and travellers visit daily India’s most emblematic building
This love story continues, with a sad end at Agra Fort. The building was the base of the Mongol maharajas. Impressive, with Hindi and Muslim elements inscribed on the walls. The view from the balconies overlooking the river Yamuna is breathtaking. In the background, the white Taj Mahal mixes above with the greyish sky. This was the view that the King Shah Jahān was experiencing from the window for seven years when he was imprisoned by his son in a small luxury apartment in the fortress until he died.

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This was, for seven years, the view from Shah Jahan’s cell
At the hotel, an Indian in a white costume dress is sitting in the lobby. He invites us to read our palm and tell us about the future. This area is famous for it. I choose not to do it. The only thing I have for sure in the future is that the next day I will be in Jaipur.

The only stop the next day is at Fatehpur Sikri, the “Abandoned City”. A city built by the Mongols Maharajas in the late 16th century which was abandoned a few years later when there was no water. This is the reason why it became known as the ghost town. Walking among the beautiful buildings, the Sultana’s House and Jodhabai’s Palace, and standing in the middle of the huge yard, I close my eyes trying to imagine how it would be with people inside. Romantic stories and myths taking place in the corridors come to my mind.

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Fatehpur Sikri, the Abandoned City

JAIPUR

The highlight of this trip for many people may be the Taj Mahal but I would like very much to see Jaipur city, the “Pink City” as it is known and the capital of one of the most beautiful areas – and the greatest- in India, Rajasthan.

Amber Fort is the first stop, just before Jaipur. This is the most impressive of all the forts in India that I’ve seen. Getting on an elephant with an elaborated painted trunk, I make my way upwards. In front of me, many gardens and hills.

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The view from the Amber Fort is spectacular

The elephant takes me to the central courtyard. There, time seems to have stopped. A guy with a turban plays a musical instrument which looks like something between the flute and the lyre. At the corner, another one “hypnotizes” a cobra with his music while a very old woman is sitting cross-legged on a bench. Suraj Pol gate, Shila Devi Temple and Sheesh Mahal are all painted thoroughly by hand and they make the Amber Fort resemble like a big jewel.

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Like a fairy tale

On our way back, we stop in front of the really impressive Jal Mahal or, due to its location, the “Water Palace” as it is in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake. As I drink coconut milk from a street buggy I watch a group of women dressed in yellow and orange saris, to get water from the Lake and mix it with flour.

Local women mixing flour with water in front of Jal Mahal

Getting back to the city, we pass through narrow gateways and find ourselves in the heart of Jaipur. The scenery is now familiar. Bargaining in small shops, streets filled with people, carriages with fresh fruits and vegetables at the side. A guy melts sugar cane and makes juice, while cows move among people.

We cross a street and enter the Palace, where the descendants of Sawai Man Singh, the Maharaja that he built it, still live there. The inner courtyard, “dressed” with red stone, is gorgeous while the flag of Rajasthan is on Chandra Mahal Palace, implying that the Royal family is inside.

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The Palace’s keeper and I
After coming out, we go next to Jantar Mantar, a construction that shows the intelligence of the Indians. It is the largest observatory in the world, full of instruments that were once used to calculate the exact time of eclipses.

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Jantar Mantar is truly impressive
However, if there is something from Jaipur that it will remain deeply engraved in my memory, is the moment I saw Hawa Mahal, the “Palace of Winds”. A five-storey palace, with 953 windows built in such a way that it resembles the Crown of God Krishna.

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At awe if front of the Palace of the Winds

MANDAWA AND THE WAY BACK

The «Golden Triangle» ends after passing from Mandawa, a traditional village of Rajasthan, and after staying at an impressive Palace. We leave our luggage and have a walk in the village. We meet some locals while young smiling children follow us for candy bars. I peep into rooms with tailors (the area has many of them since the Silk Road passed through this area), I get into a temple while suddenly a peacock on top of a building catches my attention.

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Show with Rajasthan’s traditional puppets

The more impressive the buildings are and the more you are excited with the temples and the pilgrims who walk for miles to go to a festival to honor God Ganesha, the more you like their everyday routine. The people are warm, calm, with the most beautiful smiles and the warmest eyes.

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Time has stopped in Mandawa village
On the last day in Delhi, we visit Lotus Temple, a temple which resembles a lotus. Everybody can go and pray there no matter what his religion is.

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The most impressive lotus I have ever seen

This is what I keep from India. It is a country that doesn’t try to impress you. Neither should you try to like it. India is just what it is : Real. A country that gives you the option to choose. And this is what I did.

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Getting in line for chocolates!

POST IT

From the bazaars it is worth buying:

  • Handmade blue stoneware and Jooti, embroidered shoes, from Jaipur
  • Traditional puppets from the province of Rajasthan
  • Carpets and hand painted fabrics
  • Decorative items made from white stone and gems from Agra
  • Darjeeling and Assam varieties of tea in teabags
  • Garam Massala powder for the food

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The art of batique
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The art of carpet making
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A night in Rajasthan’s markets
Published in TASTE magazine in September 2011. I travelled to India in August 2011.

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