Twenty years ago, in June 1990, I was lucky enough to travel to northern India with a group of girls and staff from my school. I forget the reason for the trip, besides being a geography tour. I don’t remember what it was about geography that we were there to study. Perhaps it was simply to offer a first-hand view of third-world survival. In any case, it certainly provided contrast to the experience of a typical 16 year old student at a private girls high school. I dug out the travel journal and old photos but who knew the writings of a teenager would be full of inane detail and little about the culture and surroundings in which she found herself? Not me. So instead, I draw from faded memory and these poorly composed photos.
When I think back on my time in India, I remember an overwhelming sense of irritation with the oppressive heat, the flies, bovine traffic jams, and the adults and children who would descend on us, begging for loose change. Instead of being moved by the abject poverty, I was bothered by it. Would I feel differently if I went back now? Even the most mature travellers can find themselves irritated with India. With such a large populace, there’s a lack of personal space. Then there’s the pollution, the traffic congestion, the Delhi belly. Did I mention the oppressive heat? But the lots-older and a little wiser me, would be able to look past the mayhem to feel some compassion. These kids would be nearing their 30s now and I find myself wondering what they’re doing and if they survived their poverty-stricken childhoods.
To step out of the melee into Agra’s grand architecture of the Taj Mahal was warm relief. I won’t say “cool”, because it was a 40-degrees day and the white marble building wasn’t the chilled oasis I expected.
Though unmoved by it at the time, the story behind the Taj Mahal is one of great love. In 1631, Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved third wife of the Mughal emporer Shah Jahan, died while giving birth to their fourteenth child. One year later he commissioned the construction of this massive marble mausoleum in memory of her. Struck by the immense structure, I wondered if they employed legions of elephants to drag tonnes of marble into place.
The interior of the Taj Mahal is beautiful, featuring intricate marble carvings and inlays of precious and semi-precious stones. And, as every tourism icon needs a shop, we were treated to a demonstration of marble inlay work. The finished product really is stunning in detail and workmanship. I only wish I’d bought one of these gorgeous little elephants, instead of just taking an out-of-focus photo.
From Agra, we moved on to Jaipur. The “pink city” represents what I love most about India—the colour. Jaipur is in the state of Rajasthan in the northwest, bordering Pakistan. The city was built in the early 1700s and was originally the home of Indian royalty but it wasn’t until 1853, when the Prince of Wales (then Edward VII) visited Jaipur, that the entire city was painted pink. It’s also home to the famous City Palace. It covers a huge area and contains a number of palaces within the complex, some parts of which have been turned into museums and galleries. It was boring, but I did enjoy the decorative Peacock Gate.
That same day, we visited Amber Fort (pronounced Amer Fort). Arriving in time for a 30-second drenching, we rode elephants to and from the fort, which is built into a barren hillside. This is probably, still, one of the more inspiring sites in northern India. The significance of such a structure, at around 400 years old, was missed at the time, but isn’t lost on me now. Inside the Amber Fort is the Sheesh Mahal, or Palace of Mirrors. It is stunning with thousands of tiny mirrors forming masses of mosaics. With it’s plain red and white sandstone exterior, I never expected the intricate carvings, murals and ornate designs inside.
There are numerous other palaces scattered throughout the city of Jaipur. The Rambagh Palace became a world-class hotel and we were lucky enough to stay there for a night or two. It was well appointed 20 years ago—impressive with its marble floors—so it’s no wonder that it’s now the favoured accommodation of sports and film stars. There was a palm reader on the grounds of the hotel and my friend, Rebecca, and I decided to have a reading.
The palmist was an elderly man, with long hair and probably a long beard, as well. My friend took extensive notes and it’s interesting to read over them, now. Quite a few of the points were true at the time and many others were warnings—avoid alcohol, express inner feelings boldly, don’t drive fast, think over decisions twice or risk making mistakes, try to control expenses. And a few are yet to happen. Apparently, at 41 years old I will relocate to another country and it will be the best time of my life. Perhaps, I’ll come back to update this story in four years time. ;)
I’ll post the second half of “Get it India…1990 Style”, featuring the Himalayas, in a few days.