10/22/2004:  1600  Back in New Delhi

Our drive from Rishikesh to Delhi was casual by Indian driving standards.  We were able to view the gradual change in the country side from rural agricultural to oppressive big city.  They were cutting and burning sugar cane today so the sky was a continual gray to brownish haze.  Every form of vehicle was transporting the cane to the presses.  There were the usual over loaded trucks, but there were also ox carts with loads of cane that seemed more appropriate for a freight train. Some of the stock was being moved by horses, bicycles or on the back of humans (almost all women).

The majority of the sugar cane was being transported to factories, but a good deal of the crop was being moved to smaller family or community operations along the road side.  The small vendors used hand cranks to crush the juice from the stalk.  Once the stalk was freed of its valuable content the empty stalk and leaves were burned right at the camp site.  The result of this sugar cane waste disposal process was massive air pollution.  NASA satellite images from space can actually see the hundreds of fires and a massive smoke cloud over Northwest India.









Actual satellite image of Northwest India.  Each red dot is a fire and the gray cloud spreading southeast is smoke.







The other remarkable thing we encountered on the way back to Delhi was obesity.  We had seen exactly one overweight person since leaving Delhi over two weeks ago, and that was one of the woman working the road crew after Auli.  She represented something less than 0.01% of the populations we uncounted may truly have been a case of genetic obesity (just like 60% of the American population).

About 20 km outside of Delhi our driver decided we would enjoy a real treat so he took us to a western style food court.  This was as close to a mega-mall food court as you can find in India.  The food was ok, but the real story was the large number of fat Indians.  Apparently it is a sign of affluence and prestige to be fat in India.  Well dressed affluent Indians drive from the city to the food court so that they can get such delicacies as French fries (still considered a vegetarian dish).  There is even an exclusive resort called the Eating Resort.  There must have a dozen signs as we approached Delhi advertising the vacation of a life time at the Eating Resort where you can just lay around and eat.  They could have just as easily called the resort something like…Little America.



10/23/2004:  2230


Today got up at 4:30 AM and caught the 6 AM “fast train” from Delhi to Agra.  We met a tour guide at the train station in Agra and spent the day with him touring the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and some of the artisan shops and galleries in Agra.

The Taj and its surrounding grounds and the structures are a monument not only to Shah Jehan, who built it as a permanent resting place for his wife the mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal, but also to the artistic, mathematical, engineering and architectural genius of the 1600th century Muslims.













Shah Jehan







The story goes that in 1612, Arjumand Banu Begam, better known by her other name , Mumtaz Mahal, was married to Shah Jehan (then Prince Khurram), the fifth mughal emperor. This was Shah’s second marriage, but his first true love.  They became inseparable companions on all his journeys and military expeditions. She also was his inspiration to perform many generous acts toward and for the common man and the needy.  This kindness was later returned in spades by the subjects of the kingdom in the form of labor in the building of the Taj. 






Mumtaz Mahal







Mumtaz bore the king fourteen children, and died in childbed in 1630 (only three years after his accession to the throne). Powered by the grief of loosing his true love, Shah Jehan decided to create a monument to immortalize his beloved wife. 22,000 subjects of Shah Jehan, as well as many imported artist, master craftsman, architects and engineers, labored for twenty-two years, 24 hours per day, to complete the Taj Mahal.. 

The Taj was built on the shores of the river Yamuna in Agra, the capital of mughal monarchs. According to our guide, Shah Jehan never finished his planned project, which included in addition to the Taj Mahal, a marble bridge that spanned the Yamana River and connected Taj #1to a smaller size duplicate Taj (mini-me Taj) on the other side of the river that was to be made out of pure onyx.


It was not sanity or death that stopped this project, but rather his imprisonment by his son Aurangzeb in Fort Agra where he spent the last seven years of his life.







View through one of the entry chambers on the west side of the Taj Mahal










The kings imprisonment in the gilded cage of Fort Agra was not a family feud power play by Aurangzeb, but a fiscally responsible move by a son who wanted to keep the kingdom solvent (according to our guide).  Having remodeled the upstairs of our house last year I fully understand Aurangzeb’s concerns.

The king spent the last seven years of his life living in one room made of marble, inlaid with precious stones,  painted in 23 carat gold and equipped with a balcony that looked directly across the Yamana River at the Taj Mahal. 








King Shah Jehan’s prison balcony









He never saw his dream completed and in seven years he never left his room to set foot in the monument he had created.  Even with out the marble bridge and the onyx mini-me Taj, the original still qualified as one of the wonders of the world. 






Visitors to Fort Agra take in the view of the Taj (distant building to the right of central pillar) from King Jehan’s balcony












A truly fascinating aspect of the 300+ year reign of the Mughal dynasty was the transition in Muslim attitudes during this time.  From 1535 through the reign of Shah Jehan, the Muslim rulers were renowned for there advancements and contributions in the arts as well as their promotion of religious tolerance and social support for all of their subjects.

While  Aurangzeb may have been fiscally responsible when it came to the arts he also marked the beginning of the decline of Muslim rule in India.  He was a stern puritan, or what would be called today a fundalmentalist, and a religious bigot who sought to impose orthodox Islam on all of India. He dismissed Hindus from public service, reimposed tax on them, and destroyed their temples. Aurangzeb spent the latter half of the reign trying to conquer southern India. His wars against the Hindus ironically created a dedicated and powerful enemy, exhausted the kingdoms resources and led to their eventual loss of power.  As we all know the Muslims eventually fled to Pakistan and the mid-east and apparently didn’t learned much from their adventure in India. The lesson of Aurangzeb should also not be lost on our own government.




The real king and queen sitting on Shah Jehan and Mumtaz’s royal onyx and marble throne.  Fort Agra









In addition to getting some culture we also did a little shopping.  One of our most memorable stops was at the marble shop.  Like the Kashmir Cottage Industry store, the good Indian artisan stores and galleries include a look at how the art was and is being created.  Today there are 1,100 working artisans who are direct descendents of the original craftsmen who created the marble inlay unique to the Taj Mahal.  Not only do they continue in there ancestors craft, but they use the same techniques, tools and materials developed by the original artists.  All of their work is still done by hand without the assistance of any power tools.  They use only two hand held tools and a small manually spun stone grinding wheel to create and inlay intricate works that may contain thousands of individual pieces.  One of the hand help instruments (not a PDA) is pointed at the end and the other is a chisel like tool that has about a 5mm cutting edge.  The templates for their designs come from the minds of men who have worked at the same craft for twelve generations.

The workers at the shop we went to work 8 hours days, but can only work for one hour at a time due to the mental and physical fatigue associated with their exacting craft.  Once a design is created the men on the grinders form the individual pieces that will be inlaid in to the marble surface. These pieces are made of precious and semiprecious stone and all have to be exactly 2.5 mm thick.  A single flower may contain 100-150 separate pieces and an entire table top may have thousand of pieces of stone.



Inlay craftsman working at the Akbar Gallery





I tried using the fine point etching tool to etch a single line on a piece of marble, but only managed to create an uneven scratch that barely broke the surface.  The head etcher, on the right side of the picture above, used the same tool to make elaborate designs in the marble that were exactly 2.5 mm in depth and perfectly fit the newly cut pieces of precious stone.  The hand that held the instrument was permanently deformed, but perfectly altered to hold the small metal instruments.  I think I’ll stick to my day job.


Our guide finished the day in Agra by taking us to a near private showing of  The Great Master Shams whose work has been designated a national treasure in India.  His embroidery creations hang in the White House and the National Museum in Washington,  the Buckingham Palace  and in the private collections of two presidents.  Even with the opportunity to hang out at some pretty lofty addresses, his finest work is displayed at the Kohinoor Gallery in Agra. 

The curator, who is a master jeweler in his own right, brought us in to a darkened room and began to tell the story of Shams.  As the story progressed he would illuminate areas of the wall and a curtain would lift revealing the artists works one at a time.  Each masterpiece had a story, and each one was more spectacular than the last.  Shams had started all of his works at roughly the same time and each one took years to decades to complete.   The three dimensional nature of the works was created not with stuffing, but with thousands of repeated stitches, one on top of the other.  Even the borders and frames were embroidered and incorporated numerous precious stones.




This is an 8 ft X 10 ft embroidery.  Everything on the work is created from individual stitches of thread.  I couldn’t fit the border in the picture, but it was a floral pattern with sown in emeralds, rubies, sapphires and amethyst.







After the showing we were taken to the jewelry display.  The curator showed us this massive gold, emerald and diamond necklace, bracelet, ring and earring set that had been created for a past Indian Royal.  The princess who the piece was created for thought the piece too gaudy and returned it for something more practical. He then showed us an article in a 1985 issue of National Geographic that talked about the Moghal Dynasty and the fine crafts and jewelry that were created in this area of India.  The article included a visit to the very gallery we were now standing in and had pictures of the very set of jewelry that was displayed in the glass case in front of us as well as a picture of the largest uncut emerald on the planet.  The emerald also sat in the case in front of us.  This display would have been impressive enough, but the curator was not done.  He pointed out that Christie Auction house in London had offered to auction the jewelry set off 15 years ago and provided a $10 million reserve at the time.  He then brought out the jewelry set and insisted Mo try it on, which she did.  In spite of some tough negotiating the curator informed us that it was not for sale for any price.



Not a very good picture, but my hand gives you an idea of the size of the pendent.  The green stone in the middle is an emerald carved in the form of an opening lotus blossom.  All the white stones are diamonds.  The setting is 24 carat gold and the chain is made up of about 300 emeralds strung on three gold cords and separated by lines of three Persian Gulf pearls every couple of inches.






After our visit to the Kohinoor we had a couple of hours before heading to the train station.  We had been warned not to go to the train station early, because one, the train is never early, and two, you will be mobbed by beggars and untouchables.  We heeded the advice and opted for a small restaurant that the guide had recommended.  We entered the restaurant past a seven foot guy dressed like something I would imagine from the Arabian Nights.  We had our usual black tea and decided to try one of their specialties, bread.  It was, with out question, the best bread I have ever eaten.

We ended up getting to the station early enough to witness one of the more bizarre scenes on the planet, but not early enough to become a part of it.  Beggars, Brahmins and bottled water, oh no.  As hard as it was to look at, it was as harder to look away.  It was near 11 PM and many young children wandered or crawled along the docks begging for food or trying to sell what ever they may have found on or around the trains.  If you made eye contact you were guaranteed the undivided attention of one of the children for as long as it took to convince them they were no longer visible.  As difficult as it was ignore them, if you gave in to the temptation to give them something you would never escape. 

One child of about 8 years old caught our attention because of his severe back deformity.  He had a prominent hunch back and walked with a limp.  He passed our spot and headed for a public drinking fountain.  As he pulled up to the fountain he quickly looked around and then pulled about ten empty Dasani Water bottles from the back of his shirt, filled them from the public water faucet, stuck them back in his shirt, and headed toward the crowd of tourists further up the landing near the train.  As we got off the train in Delhi the conductor instructed everyone on the train to either destroy or remove their water bottles when they detrained and not to throw the bottles in the trash.


10/24/2004: 1800

Will be meeting the heads of Ibex Expeditions, Mandip and Anita, in a little while in the lobby of the Park Hotel.  After this we will be off to the airport for the long ride home.


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