I felt deeply honored the minute our publisher called me to his office in New York and picked me to represent the company at the forthcoming conference about writers and illustrators for children’s books to be held in New Delhi, India that summer of 2012. I was handed a visa and plane ticket for two, I brought my wife who is a cookbook writer to accompany me on my ten day tour of India. We were both excited as we boarded that 18 hour Air India Limited flight from Chicago to Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, located in the capital of India. We were totally captivated by the charms of this seventh largest country in the world.
Our first three days were spent exploring New Delhi. After fulfilling our obligations at the conference we enjoyed the rest of our day to tour the capital city. We were amazed by the overwhelming design of the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib; it is a white marble Sikh Temple located along Connaught Place in the heart of Delhi. My wife was asked to wear a head scarf while we dip our hands to the pond which is said to have healing qualities. Inside we listen to the melodious live chants of verses read from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs. A volunteer handed us warm Indian food which we ate in the dining area. We get to admire the antiquity and serenity inside the Qutab Minar, a sandstone minaret with a beautiful stone flower and iron pillars. Then we visit the Humayun’s Tomb, where the body of Mughal Emperor Humayun is buried. It is well maintained and has a wide garden inside. We got more enchanted by the relaxing nature at the Lodi Gardens. I took pictures of mini trees at The National Bonsai Park also found within the garden. After here, we head to the Swaminarayan Akshardham; it is a breathtaking museum with moving statues, lovely grounds and mystical temples. We stayed until night to view the fountain show and fireworks around its 22 acre garden.
It was Republic Day in New Delhi while we were there, and we saw a splendid procession on its streets. India became a republic in 1950. Independence from Britain is celebrated every August 15. We also passed by the Akshardham Mandir. The light and sound show was very informative, while the huge paintings were simply remarkable. Before going back to our hotel, my wife and I marveled at the glory of India at the ISKCON Temple. Hare Krishna! This temple was so beautiful and extraordinary. We bought souvenirs at the nearby Khan Market, and also tried Jalebi, a sticky orange colored Indian candy made out of twisted strands of batter deep fried in pans of hot oil.
After three days in Delhi, we rode a rickshaw to get to the Northern Part of India, in Varanasi (Benares). From there we took an early boat ride from the Assi Ghat to reach the Ganges River (Ganga), on this river Hindus gather at dawn to bathe in the holy waters. Hinduism has shaped Indian society since ancient times. Its sacred scriptures are believed to date back over four thousand years. Our boat also passed by the Dasasawamedh Ghat, where we watch the chanting rituals and the Ganga Aarti performed along the riverbanks. We were able to see a cremation ceremony at the Banaras Ghats, and at the Manikarnika Ghats, while beggars keep jostling in to get to our boat and ask money from every tourist they see. After witnessing the events at the river, my wife and I attended an early morning tabla and yoga lessons at the Yoga Education Training Society. It was fun to stretch and feel energized after the exercises. Then we wandered into the pleasant and quiet grounds of Sarnath, a Buddhist temple with an imposing stupa. This attraction has more interesting archaeological ruins and a small museum. There were murals about the life of the Buddha, very interesting! My wife bought nice scarves and shawls at The Bed, located along the riverbanks and owned by a hospitable couple. I bought colored Indian pants.
The highlight of our tour to India was a visit to the Taj Mahal, near the city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh Region. It is a tomb built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of the Muslim ruler Shah Jahan. The tomb was constructed from gleaming white marble. It took twenty years to build and was finally completed in 1653. It has delicate marble lattices with distinctive Islamic features. Truly an architectural declaration of the King’s undying love, an impressive piece of monument! After here we head to the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah near the Yamuna River. It is a tomb made of marble, stone inlays and intricate mosaics. We had a good poignant view of the Taj Mahal from the Agra Fort. It is where the late King Jahan spent his final days overlooking his monument of love. The palace holds a historical value and a mystical beauty because of its surroundings. There were 16 rooms in this palace, I like the Musamman Burj with its heavy inlay work and the Sheesh Mahal with its mirror inlays. The Khas Mahal also has its own distinctive design and I admire the craftsmen who made such meticulous details in blue and gold colors. From here we head to the Panch Mahal, it is a three part complex especially made for the three wives of the Mughal King Akbar. Before the day ends we passed by the Mahtab Bagh to have a much better glimpse of the Taj Mahal and the beautiful sunset, it was breath taking!
From Agra, we took a nineteen hour train ride to get to Kolkata (Calcutta). Pedal rickshaws, streetcars, and people jostle for space in Calcutta. Truly this is the most crowded city in India. I noticed that poor people struggle to survive on the streets of Calcutta. A rickshaw brought us to the Mother House, where Mother Theresa started her missionaries for the poor. We also checked out the Shishu Bhavan, her home for the abandoned children. I saw how simple her life was when we visited her room, so austere and speaks of so much humility. After offering flowers, prayers on her tomb and visiting her little museum, we pass by the office and made a donation to her cause. Later in the afternoon we visited the Belur Math Shrine, it is a complex of temples and shrines dedicated to the Ramakhrishna teachings. After here we watch a game of cricket between India versus Pakistan at the Eden Gardens. We got more amused at the ancient artifacts and paintings we discovered at the Marble Palace. There was a mini zoo and a simple garden inside it. After the game we checked out the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum. I learned here that most of India is now becoming a major industrial center as it continues to make great progress in science, technology, and industry.
Then we toured and prayed at the St. Paul’s Cathedral, it is quiet even if it’s located at the heart of the city. I bought unusual books and magazines on the College Street. Across here stands the Presidency University and the Calcutta University. At the Howrah Bridge we found a flower market where traders and buyers haggle over the prices. We enjoyed the nightlife of India at Park Street; once darkness sets it becomes vibrant and lively. It is full of restaurants, gift shops and showrooms. I passed by a pottery where a man shapes clay on the wheel, other traditional crafts include metalwork, weaving and fabric printing. Some of their items are exported abroad. To end our day, we settled for a good coffee and a spicy Indian meal at the Coffee House.
After our trip I had a better understanding of my faith, I learned that undying love can build monuments. I also realized that many of India’s villages have not changed much in centuries. India is a very vast country, and it is almost impossible to tour all of it at a single go. I hope I’ll be visiting India again, soon enough to explore the many places that left unvisited in this visit. I am optimistic about the bright future ahead for India. Namaste’!