Travel Tuesday: India
Writing and photography by Truce Jack
Over the winter break, my family and I took an adventure of a lifetime, and spent three weeks exploring India. It was hard to imagine what we'd encounter, beyond great food, historical sites and crowded streets. The country surprised us constantly.
We started our journey with a tour of Old and New Delhi, which boasts spectacular monuments and holy sites. The city of New Delhi was designed in the typically British colonial style, with tree-lined avenues and colonial bungalows.
Our first sightseeing stop was Laxminarayan, a modern Sikh temple. At the temple, nearly 50,000 people (no matter their socio-economic background) are provided with a free meal, three times a day, and seven days a week. Amazingly, the operation is all run by volunteers. It was a stunning example of selfless giving. We then visited the Red Fort, which was the palace for Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's new capital, Shahjahanabad, when he moved from Agra to bring prestige to his reign. Its wall is an impressive 2.4 kilometres long, and varies in height from 18 to 37 metres. At 72.5 metres, the Baby Taj (as it is often called, or Humayun’s tomb), is an example of the Mughal architectural style dating from 1268-1287 AD. The building is a World Heritage Site and the first example of this type of Mughal architecture in India. This style of mausoleum is similar to the Taj Mahal in Agra.
On to Varanasi, considered by some to be the holiest city in India. We boarded a boat on the River Ganges, where large crowds filed into bankside temples that were illuminated in the early morning light. People come to Varanasi from all over the country to bathe in the Ganges River, which is believed to be holy and can absolve one's misdoings.
In the evening, we glided down the Ganges on a wooden boat to observe the aarti ceremony, a Hindu ritual where light is offered to the deities. Each lamp’s wick is soaked in ghee (purified butter) and lit, whilst songs of praise are sung in front of the deities. Almost all the Hindu worship rituals involve the ceremony of aarti. Perhaps the first mention of the ceremony of aarti in India can be found in the Rigveda, which is considered to be the earliest collection of sacred Sanskrit books. The aarti ceremony is an absolutely wonderful sight from the Ganges River.
Next on our journey was the city of Agra and the world renowned Taj Mahal. Its stunning architectural beauty is beyond description, particularly at dawn and dusk. It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his dear wife, the Empress consort, Mumtaz Mahal. We also visited the Agra Fort, which is another architectural marvel constructed from red sandstone and marble. This great monument, dominating a bend in the river Yamuna two kilometres northwest of the Taj Mahal, was constructed by the Mughals during 1565-1571.
Jaipur is nicknamed “the pink city”; this is especially noticeable at the city palace. Since the first half of the 18th century, the palace has been the abode of the rulers of Rajasthan. The sprawling expanse of the palace is an example of the perfect harmony characteristic of Rajput and Mughal architecture. Part of the palace has been converted into a museum (which is currently open to the public) while the Chandra Mahal still remains the home of today’s maharaja. The Jaipur Observatory is described on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list as "an expression of the astronomical skills and cosmological concepts of the court of a scholarly prince at the end of the Mughal period". Within it, the Jantar Mantar is a collection of massive astronomical instruments, built of local stone and marble. Built in 1799, the whimsical Hawa Mahal (the “Palace of Winds”) which adjoins the palace has become quite the Jaipur icon, with its ornate facade in pale pink, tiered baroque architecture and ornate overhanging balconies. These were designed so that the mysterious veiled ladies of the King’s harem could look down upon the colourful and bustling bazaars below, while remaining hidden.
Mumbai is the size of New York City, and is home to 25 million people. We started with a cruise through Mumbai Harbour to the rock-cut cave temples on Elephanta Island. In 1987, the caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple complexes consist of main chambers, courtyards and smaller shrines. These magnificent caves contain beautiful reliefs, sculptures, and a 6.1 metre large monolith of Trimurti Sadashiva (a three-faced statue of the Hindu god Shiva). Definitely worth a visit is the Gateway to India, which was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary.
We then headed south to Cochin, where we were being the guests of a family who owned a spice plantation. After a home-grown lunch, we wove our way through acres of tamarind, cinnamon and cardamom trees, and then we reached the edge of a valley and looked onto the forests below. The spice plantations in Kerala are captivating and definitely worth a visit, especially to appreciate so many of the spices that we use on a daily basis without much thought about how much effort they take to produce.
Madurai & Chennai
Madurai is one of the great towns populated by numerous temples in South India. The Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple is a historic Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and his consort, Goddess Parvathi. The temple is architecturally stunning and was nominated as one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World for its architectural importance
The Venkateswara Temple at Tirumala is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and attracts one of the largest number of Hindus in the world. In the city of Chennai, the town of Malappuram is known for its temples and monuments built by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries. Strewn along the coast are some outstanding examples of hand-carved temples, which depict scenes from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The landmark here is the Shore Temple, which is a World Heritage Site.