Tag: History/Culture

The Taj

After a quick stopover in Delhi, we headed east to Agra. The town of Agra is not much to write home about however, it happens to be the home of India’s (and one of the world’s) most visited monuments – the Taj Mahal. As you may or may not know, the Taj was built by Mugal emperor Shah Jahan in honor of his beloved 3rd wife who died in childbirth bearing their 14th child. In essence, it is a monument of love. In actuality, it is a burial tomb. Shortly after completion of this work of art, the emperor was overthrown by one of his sons and locked away in the nearby Red Fort where he could only catch glimpses of his impressive Mahal from a prison cell for the rest of his life. Upon his death, the evil son was at least courteous enough to bury him within the Taj Mahal too so that the two lovebirds could be united once again.

The Taj

A reflection of Sarah and the Taj

Enough of that history lesson, I’ll let the pics speak for themselves but let me say that this Wonder of the World lives up to its hype. It is incredibly impressive, bigger in person than we were imagining and a work of art from any perspective. What we didn’t know until our visit is that the Taj is perfectly symmetrical. It looks the exact same on all four sides. The minarets and the buildings to its right and left are the same as well. Also note that the Taj is built up on a platform, which allows for an impressive photograph. The Emperor was really thinking ahead on that one as nothing in the background disrupts the monument’s perfect silhouette against the sky. And last but not least, the time of day makes a big difference in what color the Taj will appear to be. We arrived at sunrise when it was glowing orangey-pink. By the time we left a couple hours later, it was glowing bright white. We have many of the same pictures from only a couple of hours apart and the contrast is striking. Okay, okay, I’m done now. Enjoy!

Relaxing at the Taj Mahal

Side shot of the Taj

Intricate stone inlays

Some hilarious photography happens here. The guy on the left is posing as though he's holding the Taj, the people on the right are being posed by a guide, and the guy in the middle is just happy to be there

The quintessential tourist Taj photo

India – Pakistan Border Closing Ceremony

Yep, that’s right. EVERYDAY at the sole India-Pakistan land border crossing, an amazing ceremony of sorts occurs. The word ceremony suggests something subdued and official however, this presentation was anything but. The closest thing I can equate this spectacle to is a sporting event. There are so many people and so much energy and such ridiculous competitive antics that it was nothing short of spectacular.

As mentioned in my cricket post, India and Pakistan are bitter enemies, and this border closing event is an opportunity to literally shut the door in the face of the other every night. The evening we went to watch this thing was just a couple short weeks after India won the World Cup of Cricket (a HUGE deal which included beating Pakistan in the semi-finals) so I think we experienced a particularly patriotic crowd. I am not going to do this ceremony the justice it deserves but I will mention some of my favorite parts and see if I can’t paint a picture.

Whistle-happy guard seating us in the VIP section

Thousands gather to witness the ceremony nightly

Just as in a sporting event, there were bleachers filled with thousands of excited Indians, waving flags on one side of the border and hundreds of Pakistanis doing the same on their side of the border. The Indians won in overall attendance hands-down.

Ted and I were quickly directed to the VIP section which, for some reason, all the foreigners are assigned to sit. We sat in a section of bleachers with great seats that we shared with hundreds of our Indian VIP friends.

Before the actual ceremony began, there was a whole production to create excitement and drum up intense national pride. This is achieved by a master of ceremonies, if you will, who is dressed in a white, nylon-y track suit, who uses his microphone to lead cheers, encourage flag waving and organize the festivities.

The MC/cheerleader struts his stuff

What festivities, you may ask? Well, young women and children take turns carrying a rather large Indian flag and running up to the border gate with it, waving it toward the sad, sorry Pakistanis and then running back. This is in front of a crowd of people who shout and cheer them on.

Two of dozens of women and girls running the flag to the border and back

There is also dance music blaring that leads to a large, informal dance party in the middle of the street. Think Bollywood movie dancing – hands twisting and pumping; heads bobbing and bobbling. It was amazing. Meanwhile music and such was happening on the Pakistani side as well but it was nothing in comparison and we really couldn’t see what was going on over there that well.

Impromptu Dance Party

Just when Ted and I though it couldn’t get any better – the ceremony began. The emcee’s job now becomes quite important as he introduces the very serious soldiers who will be partaking in this evening’s festivities. Out they come with the most high-kicking, elaborate, and dramatic marches we have ever witnessed.

Killer hats!

Gotta look closely, but check out this guy's kick!

Once lined up, for no reason we could determine whatsoever, a soldier from the Indian side and a soldier from the Pakistani side had a yell-off. That is, they each yelled into a microphone on their respective sides of the border to see who could yell longer. They did this about 5 times and each time the Pakistani guy won. The Pakistanis were very excited about this, but it is the only thing they had going for them as far as we could tell. The Indians were having much more fun.

Once the yell-off concluded, the soldiers took turns doing their elaborate marches to the border (this is being mirrored by Pakistani soldiers on the other side). Finally the head honchos from each country march fabulously up to one another, stopping just inches apart, exchange a brief but hardy handshake, lower the flag, and turn around and close the border gate behind them.

Lowering of the flag, at exactly the same speed, so as not to let your country's flag come down first

So concludes the border closing ceremony for another night. Just when you think that everyone will start filing out of their seats and head home, the music blasts back up and the dance party resumes. As we make our way back to the rickshaw, we noticed that the emcee was shaking hands and signing autographs. Are you kidding me? This was just too hilarious! As I type this I am again laughing out loud. You seriously could not make this stuff up. Ten out of ten!

There IS Such a Thing as a Free Lunch!

Sikh pilgrims from across the globe converge on the Golden Temple at a rate of thousands per day. For many, this is the trip of a lifetime. For others, it’s an annual visit. For all, it is a welcoming experience of unparalleled hospitality.

Every visitor to the Golden Temple, Sikh or not, is invited to free meals, served throughout the day, to up to 40,000 people daily. At first I was hesitant to accept – after all, I’m not a believer of their religion, and the complimentary food program was not designed for free-loading backpackers. But after being encouraged by a number of Indians to join in, I left a donation and gave it a go.

What an experience. The Golden Temple meal program might just be the most efficient restaurant on the planet. Hundreds of people are led into a large room and sat in rows on the floor. As others continue to file in, the first row is handed a plate, bowl, and cup, followed quickly by men with large ladles and buckets full of curries, dal, and rice. The chipati lady is close behind, followed by a little girl pouring water into everyone’s cup. The eating commences immediately, and Indians eat fast. No need for silverware, it’s all scoop and push with your fingers. Within minutes, the servers are back around for 2nd servings, though its hardly necessary after the heaping portions given on the first round. Within 15 minutes of walking in the door, over 250 people have been fed, and the room is nearly empty, save the cleanup crew, who come in with large mops to clean up the mess that accumulated on the ground (particularly around my plate – eating rice and curry with your fingers is rather messy for the inexperienced).

Serving hundreds - bucket-style

One of the most orderly endeavors we witnessed in all of India

The food, prepared in the biggest pots I’ve ever seen in my life, is surprisingly tasty, and most certainly filling. The people around stare at me as they eat, but with big warm smiles, and my neighbors practice their English and invite me to their home. While seemingly out of place as the only white guy in this huge room of Sikh pilgrims, I feel completely welcome at the meal, happy to have enjoyed what will surely be one of the most unique eating experiences of my life.

The kitchen - wood in the center for cooking, huge pots boiling curries in the back, and a chapati lady on the left

Lots of meals means lots of dishes, and lots of people to wash them

Giving Indians a 2nd Chance

Arriving in the north after 2 weeks in Rajasthan, I needed to take a step back to re-evaluate my interactions with the people around me. It really disappoints me to say that my overall impression of Indian people was pretty low through Rajasthan. A severe lack of authenticity and genuineness. These outrageously persistent, annoyingly intrusive people have put me not only on the defensive, but on the antagonistic approach going into every new conversation. How is this person going to attempt to take my money? Will he be frank and pushy, or beat around the bush a bit before laying his pitch on hard. They have no qualms about creating super awkward and uncomfortable moments – in fact, this discomfort generally helps their cause, as many people will just pay up to get out of the situation. To some extent, I can understand the competition in this country, and the need to be aggressive just to get by. But, I really dislike who it makes me – a hardened personality that ignores nearly everyone who addresses me, often times pushing people out of my way who stand in front, and really just assuming the worst of anyone who talks to me. That really sucks.

So, now it’s time to take a step back, and give the people of this country a 2nd chance (or perhaps give myself a 2nd chance to be the friendly and trusting traveler I like to be). I’m really hoping that the people troubles we ran into are concentrated in Rajasthan, the country’s biggest tourist area. I’m hoping that now we’re up north, things will be a bit different, more relaxed, more inviting, more genuine. So far, that’s exactly what we’ve found.


Jaisalmer, is known on the traveler circuit for 3 things – camel safaris, the fort, and Havelis. Havelis are private mansions, generally with open courtyards and very intricate stonework and carvings. Elaborate homes of Jaisalmer’s rich merchants, the Havelis here have very impressive sandstone frescoes depicting gods, goddesses, animals, and other Hindu symbolism.


Haveli frescoes


The interiors are also impressively decorated, bursting with color and bling.

Flashy interiors

Colorful and ornate

If we had to pick one thing that consistently blew us away in Rajasthan, it would be the architecture. Forts, city palaces, and Havelis are some of the world’s most impressive structures, and the history surrounding the empires that constructed and destroyed them is fascinating.

Cricket World Cup

As you know, we Americans don’t really give a damn about the game of cricket, but for Indians it is the national game and a borderline obsession. Everyone loves cricket and this national infatuation was multiplied a 1000 fold during our stay because India (along with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) were hosting the Cricket World Cup 2011. Similar to the World Cup of soccer/rugby, it only happens every four years and it is of huge importance for national pride to compete well.

The night we got back from our camel safari, India was playing Pakistan in the semi-finals of the tournament. This was no ordinary game. India and Pakistan pretty much hate each other and the competition was symbolic of much more than a sporting match. In fact, India’s Prime Minister had invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister to come to India to watch the game together and the newspapers referenced this gathering as a notable sign of diplomacy! Every Indian we talked to told us that it was much more important to beat Pakistan than it would be to win the whole tournament. These guys weren’t joking around.

Though Ted and I didn’t watch the whole game (because we didn’t really care and we don’t understand it no matter how many people try to teach us the rules), we were able to guess how India was doing based on the number of fireworks that were exploding in the night sky. Though Pakistan started strongly, the Indians were the ultimate victors and the country celebrated with pride. We were only in tiny old Jaisalmer on western edge of the country however, from what we saw and heard in our little town, I can confidently say that the whole country was ecstatic.

India went on to play Sri Lanka in the finals and managed to win the whole tournament. As you might imagine, Indians were celebrating for days. It was quite a treat to be in India when the country both hosted and won the world championship of their much loved national game. Kids and dads took to the fields for impromptu games, the newspapers couldn’t get enough of it, the fireworks continued, and the players were all instant celebrities. Overly excited India got even a little more so.

Industry Bloggin’

In my latest post for World Nomads, I talk about how Jaisalmer’s famous fort is being loved to death by locals and travelers alike.  Check it out here, or copied below:

How Tourism Conquered India’s Oldest Fort

Jaisalmer Fort, situated along the Thar desert in western Rajasthan, is one of India’s most impressive  historical monuments.  The Fort, built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisala, rises out of Trikuta Hill and is surrounded by golden sandstone walls dotted with 99 bastions that radiate in the desert sunlight.  Jaisalmer Fort is a living museum – claimed by some to be the oldest still-inhabited citadel in the world – with a palace, temples, hundreds of havelis, and over 1/4 of the old city’s population – about 2500 people.  The Fort is also one of the world’s most endangered monuments.

Jaisalmer Fort, from a distance

Bastions lining the Fort's outer walls

Jaisalmer Fort is being destroyed, and the primary culprit is tourism.  One of the most popular attractions in Rajasthan, the Fort has endured an explosion of hotels and restaurants along its narrow cobbled paths.  These water-intensive businesses require the Fort’s aging water system to pump 120 liters of water per person through its pipes – over 12 times its intended capacity.  Exacerbated by poor building practices and overcrowding, these drainage issues are causing the Fort to literally sink into the hill, collapsing buildings, walls, and bastions in the process.  Since 1993, over 250 historic buildings have fully or partially collapsed, including 3 of the 12-century bastions.

Jaisalmer Fort is falling down

As a result of tourism’s negative impact, nearly all guidebooks covering Jaisalmer strongly advise against staying within the Fort’s walls, and some ask that travelers do not eat at the Fort restaurants either.  But not all residents feel this boycotting approach is good for the local industry.  Not surprisingly, all of the business owners I spoke with within the Fort adamantly protested against the guidebook advice, claiming that the Fort’s condition is most certainly stable, and without tourism, their livelihoods are in jeopardy.  Outside the Fort’s walls, opinions were mixed – some agreeing that tourism should be controlled within, others more sympathetic to the struggling hotels inside the Fort.

As a responsible traveler, you have to make a choice – support the struggling local businesses who desperately need your rupees for survival, or support the ban on staying within the Fort’s walls to help curb deterioration.  I chose to stay outside the Fort, but after meeting a few locals impacted by the ban, I’m not sure what the most “responsible” choice really is.

For more information on saving Jaisalmer Fort, check out the very impressive accomplishments of the charity, Jaisalmer in Jeopardy.

Getting Pitched in India

Throughout India, everyone is trying to sell you something, all the time. You literally can’t walk 10 ft without someone pitching you a ride in their rickshaw, a look in their shop, a stay at their hotel, a booking on their trips, or a plain and simple ask for money. This is just part of the intensity of India, and while it gets old, you really can’t fault them for it – with over 1 billion people in the country, it’s a cut-throat competitive market for survival. At least these people are motivated and enterprising.

So, let’s say you take the bait, you’re interested in buying some of Rajasthan’s beautiful textiles or art, and you’ve allowed yourself to be pulled into a nice-looking shop. Here is some typical dialogue:

Welcome to my shop! You will not be disappointed! We have the best textiles in all of Rajasthan. Richard Gere and Tom Cruise, whenever they come to India, they come shop in my store. And I export to many stores in Paris, Rome, and New York. I even supply to many famous fashion designers – Armani, Burberry, and Versace!

Now, all of this is likely a lie, as every shop you pass seems to claim Richard Gere’s patronage (why Richard Gere?!?), though we did see a NYTimes article about one of the shops supplying famous boutique stores in NYC.

All store owners start with 3 questions, and they are always the same questions. At first, they may just seem interested in who you are, but each question is really providing them insight into your buying power and naivete:

Where are you from? This gauges whether you are likely to have money. You say America, they see $$

Where are you staying? A more detailed assessment of your financial situation, and what you’re willing to pay for in India, which can be a huge range (rooms from $5 to $500)

How long have you been here? This question determines 2 things: are you going to buy something today, and are you aware of Indian pricing and haggling. If you say, “I’ve been here for a week, and I head home tomorrow,” you’re prime bait – you want to buy souvenirs, and you likely aren’t aware of the true market value of what he’s selling. If you say, “I’ve been in India for 6 months,” that’s bad news, as you likely have seen these products around the country, have learned how to haggle, and know how to call bullshit when they attempt to put a fast one over you. Needless to say, we claimed to have been in the country for way longer than we actually had.

Now that the store owner has a general feel for what you’re willing to spend, it’s time to lay it on thick. And it is a hell of a presentation. Generally you’re taken to a separate room, where an air conditioner is running at full blast. Two or three assistants will unroll, unfold, and properly present to you every color, fabric, and style they have in stock, while the lead salesman describes the origin, material quality, and patterns of each item in the showcase. As soon as you expresses the slightest interest in a particular piece (ie, you touch it or look at it for more than 2 seconds), the presentation is modified to focus on those particular styles. There is no dead space in the conversation – every moment is filled with BS about the amazing quality of the material, craftsmanship, or beauty of the products. These guys act as though they are your best friends, and all they want to do is give you a great deal.

That is, until you say no. And once you say no (and they have accepted that no, so really after you say it about 10 times), it is amazing how quickly their attitude changes. The air conditioner gets shut off, and their smiles have turned to scowls. Suddenly, you’re made to feel guilty for not purchasing, for wasting their valuable time (this is despite the fact that we very specifically would tell them upon entering the shop that we’re not interested in buying anything today, just browsing). Indian salespeople are not scared to make you feel awkward and uncomfortable, and this guilt trip might just make you feel bad enough to change your mind.

Because of situations like this, I didn’t particularly love buying things in India. But that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable for some. We had some pretty significant limitations – we didn’t have space to carry things, we didn’t have a lot of money to spend on souvenirs, and neither one of us particularly likes to barter. But for people with more room and money, and for those that like to haggle, you can get some amazing things at incredible prices.

Fantastic Fort

From Udaipur we headed to Jodphur, known for the impressive Mehrangarh Fort perched on a 400 ft cliff overlooking the city. Calling the Fort merely impressive is a huge understatement – this Fort is incredible. Built in the 1500s by Rao Jodha to house and protect the Maharaja and his family, the Fort was used as recently as 1952 for a modern-day coronation of the living Maharaja, Gaj Singh.  Aged 4 at the day of his coronation, it was this young Maharaja’s foresight, money, and dedication that created the Mehrangarh Museum Trust that is dedicated to preserving and caring for this important part of India’s history.

Meherangarh Fort

The Palace within the Fort

The inside was just as impressive as the outside

The halls within

Neither Ted nor I are history-buffs or museum people in general, but we were hands-down blown away by what we saw and learned. Surprisingly, it was a well-produced and informative audio tour (included in the price of our tickets) which led us from the exterior walls of the fort, through courtyards, into the palaces’ opulent rooms and finally to the tops of the walls where dozens of cannons now sit idle after providing hundreds of years of protection. Some highlights of the day include:

  • Palanquin

    Learning that fort had never been breached or conquered in its 500 year history.

  • Seeing examples of palanquin which were used by the royal family when traveling by elephant.
  • Learning about the intricacies of the window panes that allowed the women of the palace who were observing Islamic purda to see out into the courtyards but did not allow men to see in.
  • Hearing a story about the 21 wives of one Maharaja that threw themselves on to his burning funeral pyre after his death in battle.
  • Seeing extravagant royal baby bassinets and learning the importance placed on astrology for determining that baby’s destiny – everything from their name to their future spouse.

Oh and the stories go on. This fort was by the far our favorite of the sites we visited in Rajasthan. Whether looking up at the fort from town as it towers above you or standing on top of the fort’s walls looking down over Jodphur’s iconic blue buildings, you can’t help but feel its importance to the people of Jodphur, both historically as a great protector and presently as a source of pride and income for their city.

Views from within the Fort

Hookah Man

Views of Jodhpur from the Fort

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