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Exotic, exuberant India

Holy cow
Unlike in Delhi, cows are allowed to roam freely through Agra and much of India. They are considered holy by the Hindu religion, so they are not harmed but left to wander where they will. Although I had heard this before, it still seemed strange to see cattle meandering through the city as I made my way to the first Agra stop.

“We are now heading to the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah,” said Bahal on my tour of Agra. “People say the tomb looks like a wedding cheesecake. You’ll see why. You can also see why it is the build-up to the Taj Mahal. It is sometimes called the baby Taj.”

I could easily draw the connection with the cheesecake from the white marble color and basic shape of the tomb. A central dome and four minarets mimic part of the Taj Mahal’s shape, but the differences lie in the smaller size and the number of intricate, colorful designs covering the symmetrical exterior. These detailed patterns — created with precious stones inlaid in marble — have survived the centuries.

As I walked around admiring the tomb from different angles, I saw a monkey crawling along the top of the tomb’s surrounding sandstone gate. Hustling after the animal, hoping for a picture, I discovered not one, but about 15 monkeys sitting in the shade of a stone canopy. At first I feared they would take flight, but the wild monkeys gazed at me, unconcerned, as I snapped photos.

I ended the evening gazing out at the surrounding landscape from the ancient Agra Fort. Built to house emperors as early as Akbar the Great in 1565, the fort provided a serene location to view Agra and the distant shape of the Taj Mahal.

Teardrop in time

The Taj Mahal’s history begins with a love story. As our guide related the tale of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s wish to memorialize his wife with a white marble tomb, I watched the daybreak’s sunlight brighten the glowing mausoleum.

It seemed unreal to stand and observe the gorgeous monument with my own eyes. No photograph I had ever seen had done it justice. The delicate beauty of the Taj Mahal has to be felt and absorbed.

As I walked slowly toward the grand tomb, the colorful precious stones cut into the white marble sparkled in the sunlight for a dazzling effect. The darker interior chamber tomb held only an overhead lamp for light. Echoes from visitors’ voices reverberated musically as I remembered the devotion that inspired this remarkable structure.

The next day after traveling to Jaipur, I climbed onto an elephant on my way up to the Amber Fort. Only a few lumbering steps later, I decided that elephant was my new favorite mode of travel. I sat back and soaked in the scenic view while I gently rocked as if in a boat on calm waters.

The elephant did all the hard work, walking up the steep hill to the sandstone fort that once protected the Rajput maharajas. The ancient citadel blends both Hindu and Mughal elements, since the Hindu Rajputs managed to stay in power with the help of many Mughal treaties.

Inside the fort’s thick ramparts, the Rajput maharajas’ palace still looks quite glamorous, with stone latticed screens, mirror mosaics and marble frescos. During the palace’s heyday, the maharaja’s many queens lived hidden in screened apartments overlooking the courtyard.

“The majority of marriages for the Rajput maharajas were just for political reasons,” said Bahal. “These women’s lives were not on a bed of rose petals. It was more like royal house arrest.”

Later that evening as I was reflecting on my day, I heard the joyful music of a wedding procession outside my hotel window. I hurried outside to see a band, dancing wedding guests and a soon-to-be groom on a white horse.

As I watched, one girl ran over to me to ask if I would like to dance. I said yes and was ushered into a sea of lavishly dressed ladies dancing to the music. Everyone welcomed me with hellos and smiles.

While dancing, I felt a connection with the jubilant group. We had more in common than I had previously thought. The Indian people’s exterior traditions may be vastly different than mine, but we share the same human emotions that make us not so distant after all. That lesson alone was a worthwhile reward for my brief sojourn in India.

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