The Taj Mahal, Rajasthan and Gujarat

The happiest of people don’t necessarily have the best of everything; they just make the most of everything that comes along their way.  –  Karen S. Magee

The story of the Taj Mahal is also the story of great love, it is the story of a shattered family, the story of inconsolable grief and a story about power and influence. Rabindranath Tagore described the gem as “a teardrop on the cheek of Eternity”, Rudyard Kipling as “the embodiment of all things pure”, while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes”.

In 1631 Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of Shah Jahan gave birth to his 14th child. Mumtaz died in childbirth and her death left the emperor heartbroken that his hair – so is said – has turned grey virtually overnight. Shortly after the big loss, the mogul decides to built his wife a memorial. It will become one of the most famous monuments in history.

Construction of the Taj began the following year and, although the main building is thought to have been built in eight years, the whole complex was not completed until 1653. In total, some 20,000 people from India and Central Asia worked on the building. Specialists were brought in from as far away as Europe to produce the exquisite marble screens and pietra dura (marble inlay work) made with thousands of semiprecious stones.

Not long after the marble mausoleum shone in all its beauty, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb and imprisoned in Agra Fort where, for the rest of his life, he would only gaze out at his creation through the window of a prison cell. Only after his death in 1666, the Shah would be close again to his beloved wife. He was buried beneath the Taj Mahal next to the thomb of Mumtaz.

If one watches sunrise from the east side of the Taj, one can observe how the incorporated gems light up like small fires within the walls. The artwork of white marble changes its color until the sun has risen high.

The Taj Mahal is widely considered as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Every year millions of tourists pass through the gates of the city to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of the “Crown of Palaces”. Only few leave disappointed. It’s a truly a magnificent monument.

From Agra I went to Sawai Madhopur, a small town near the Ranthambhore National Park. I had already made an attempt to catch sight of a tiger in Nepal but the so called “safari” appeared more to be a drive through the forest. Hence, I thought , I’ll try again in India.

At 5:00 a.m. and long before sunrise I was at the ticket office. Gosh! This was India as it lives. There was no system at all. About two dozen of Indian tour guides wrestled here for the first places at the ticket counter and started squabbling with each other. There was no queue and no order to line up, only a wild crowd. A young Indian approached me and started talking. I must admit that I wasn’t really interested in an early morning “sales pitch” and responded a bit offhand. But the guy seemed well educated and just didn’t stop talking … It turned out that he was the only tourist next to me, who embarked upon the adventure to organize his safari on his own rather than to book the tour via one of the many local hotels. His name was Pranjal and this morning marked the beginning of a new friendship. When I asked him when the tickets are going to be sold, he just said that everything important has already happened. Oh great. How the heck would we now get our safari tickets?

I can’t really explain what we were supposed to do but after talking directly to one of the bored guys behind the glass window, we somehow managed to end up on one of those lists and at 7:30a.m. we had occupied two seats in the back of a jeep. It was a cold morning and as I found out later, chances to get to see a tigers at this time of the year are actually not very good. However,  sometimes you just have to be lucky and it became the day when I spotted my first tiger in the wild.

Around noon, I said goodbye to Pranjal and went on to Jaipur. The traffic in Jaipur was chaotic as it is in all major cities of India. One can hardly imagine the density of traffic if one hasn’t personally experienced it. Yet, a country with 1.3 billion people and a strong tendency to self-determination on the road should give you an idea. When it comes to city traffic you are simply surrounded by forward pressing Indians with hardly an inch between you and the next six guys around you.

In general you could say that everyone feels disadvantaged at any time and since the “other” road-users are still driving when the lights have turned green for you, you just pay them back when your traffic light switched to red. You just keep going. Incredible effective. The crossings were often clogged with wild honking cars, trucks and buses.

I still hadn’t absorbed the Indian way of driving in my bloodstream and when the traffic was once running a little smoother, I stopped simply on principle at a red light. Without doubt did I know that my behavior would not win the hearts of all my Indian friends driving behind. But so be it. You can’t be everybody’s darling. My actions caused some loud honking and the traffic started flowing left and right past me. I repeated the whole procedure exactly one more time … The problem is that one becomes an unexpected obstacle itself. So you are not necessarily doing yourself a favor by following rules set forth in codes of law that no one in India strictly enforces. And by no means did I like the idea of getting shoot straight over an intersection by a careless truck driver who didn’t watch out for someone who is surprisingly following some rules. It wasn’t my job to enforce the law. It’s a huge problem in India but it needs to be solved by others. From now on I did my best to blend in and to adapt to my environment wherever possible. The unwritten rules are simple: You drive wherever is space.

Two days later I met Pranjal again in Pushkar. It’s a small but important place of pilgrimage for Hindus. The town surrounds a holy lake and although – as often in such places – religious motives were mixed with commercial interests, it was still an oasis of tranquility with colorful streets and terrific views over the lake.

Who would have thought that I would share a room with an Indian guy I only knew for a couple of hours … I know, it’s hard to believe … but you know what, there was nothing missing next morning 😉 … Pranjal and I spent some good time in Pushkar and before we parted ways next day, I gave him a “lift” to the train station in Ajmer. Unfortunately, it was him who got pick pocketed on that particular day. Right before he boarded the train, someone pulled unnoticed the BlackBerry out of his pants. I heard only three days later from him again.

Rajasthan with its many forts and palaces is one of the most beautiful regions of India. From Pushgar I traveled to Jodpur and then further into the desert to Jaisalmer. Near Jaisalmer, I went on a two-day trip into the desert. The night was spent in the open air and I enjoyed the luxury of being away from all the hustle and bustle of the streets and the everyday life of the cities. The camel driver turned out to be a good cook and prepared a simple but tasty meal in the darkness. While gazing into the magnificent starry sky, I fell asleep in the sand of the desert.

Two days later I left the desert and started travelling south to Gujarat. Just before I reached Bhuj, the low beam stopped working again. It was already bulb number four that broke on my journey. To find a suitable light bulb in India can be a real challenge. I asked in half a dozen shops, in car and motorcycle dealerships. Eventually, the guys from Chevrolet in Bhuj surprised me. Unfortunately, I have to say that people in many places tried to rip me off and this doesn’t refer only to light bulbs, but the team at the Chevrolet dealership in Bhuj welcomed me with unparalleled hospitality and helpfulness. They even insisted that I accept the light bulb as a gift and gave me a second one as a spare bulb. While the team took care of my bike, giving it a decent wash, I was invited to a hot cup of sweet chai.

The northern area of Bhuj is called the “Great Rann of Kutch” and may well be described as a geographic phenomenon. Spectacular to look at is the “White Desert”. A large salt lake. During the dry season, the Ranns are vast expanses of hard, dried mud but in the monsoon, they’re flooded first by seawater, then by fresh river water.

When I saw the white glittering surface from a distance, it was agreed in an instant that I have to take the bike on the lake. Of course did I notice that all cars were parked at the edge of the “White Desert”. I could guess why … but hey there, good photos are rarely for “free” … and on some days the best shots require a good portion of hard work. The pictures might speak for themselves … and how I got off the lake, is another story. November was the first month in which the lake begins to dry out and beneath the thin salt layer was still a lot of mud, slippery as soap. My heavy loaded GS dug itself deeper and deeper into the mud and it took more than a man to get the bike back on solid ground.

Still, Gujarat has more to offer. Mandvi is an hour down the road from Bhuj and is a busy little place with an amazing shipbuilding yard. Hundreds of men construct, by hand, these wooden beauties. Further south you will find a tiny ex-Portuguese island called Diu. The little town is situated at the coast of the Arabian Sea. It’s a nice place to linger around with it’s clean, uncrowded streets and little traffic.

But it was time to start my long way back to Delhi. I stopped for or a few nights in Udaipur and then plunged back into the hustle and air polluted atmosphere of the capital. There were only few days left to Christmas and I had a promise to keep …

Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in the Hindu universe, Calcutta and the life’s work of Mother Teresa, Bangalore with its techno-parks and the tropical south of India would have to wait until January …