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'02 Sep: India at the Oberois
Oberoi Hotel chain extravaganza, Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur, Udaipur.
'02 Oct: India with the Majmudars
Bombay, Aurangabad-Fort Daulatabad etc etc and the Ellora Caves, Vadodara, Mount Abu, and family and friends.
'06 Meghan and Deval's Wedding
A Wedding! Congratulations to Meghan Majmudar-Sah and Deval Sah. Here's to a long and joyful life together!




Click HERE and all the pictures in this chapter will get big.

September 2002

Me, right off the plane. It was to be 26 hours elapsed time from leaving home (around noon on the 20th) to arriving at the hotel in Delhi (around 2am on the 22nd) and this was the top of the list, quickest routing, and I was Lucky to get it. India is very far away in so many ways.

I accepted, from the guidebooks, from the tour leaders and most clearly from Rupa, careful and specific instructions regarding appropriate attire for ladies in India. Basically, cover up. Cover your knees, cover your armpits, no see-through fabrics, no cleavage etc. So you're hot? Yeah, well, get over it.

The Oberoi in Delhi. This chain of luxury properties sponsored the tour because of Sandy's long standing relationship with their wonderful resort in Bali. It was all quite glorious. This was the only hotel style place - the others were first class deluxe luxury resorts. I couldn't speak more highly of the entire Oberoi experience. Amazing, really. I'll relate the specifics along the way.

The doorman in the inset.

A very common sight, being family transportation. You can fit five, six even if everyone is small.

I came to Delhi a day early so I could meet with my little sister's eldest son's wife's sister and her family. They are working with an NGO relief organization in Delhi where they operate a school for slum kids who do not attend school regularly.

Both their children were born in India and it looks like they'll be here for a while.

Their apartment is in East Delhi, 'across the river', where there are apparently some dicy neighborhoods. When I spoke to the hotel concierge about a taxi he wanted to make sure I had an exact address. Their street and for many streets around (the cab driver took us on a bit of a tour...) was clearly an improving area - safe, clean, families and cars and fresh paint.

In their living room we find high ceilings, ceiling fan and tile floor. I saw several homes of various styles, from newly built to more than 60 years old and these were features common to all of them.

They have a window air conditioner in one of the bedrooms, again, a common way to provide some cooling without breaking the bank because it is, basically, Always unimaginably hot and since electricity is so expensive you simply cannot expect to be cool, and everyone seems to appreciate being cool for the luxury it is.

I brought Elaine and her family a big bag of home-town treats from Betsy and her family including packages of taco mix and crispy Cheetos. Sean was especially delighted with his Japanese crackers.

The white wall in the foreground surrounds their courtyard. The game - Cricket!

There was a big tournament going on, India had just beat England and you could actually feel the JoyVibes, and since a cricket game runs about, oh, seven hours, a game was on every television most of the time. This was fabulous for me because while the women on the tour were shopping themselves blind I could look for the employee hangout. Inevitably there would be those absorbed in the game and happy enough to bring me up to date.

Sandy came with me to Elaine and Bobby's place. Bobby had to work that evening so we brought Elaine and the kids back to the hotel for a swim and a dinner of air conditioning and room service.

The man in this picture runs the Agra office of Mercury Tour and was with us for the whole trip. He was calm, competent, kind, and a constant blessing to Sandy.

The woman was our Delhi city guide and the absolute favorite of us all. She told us so many interesting anecdotes and seemed completely forthcoming with her personal story. She focused on women's history and current place in society and we couldn't get enough of her.

Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, in the place where he was cremated in 1948.

Many very large groups moved through while we were here all in a most respectful, almost meditative way.

On The Bus. Motifs to notice:

The traffic. Traffic in India should be included in the definition of chaos.

The shrine on the dashboard. Symbols of religious affiliation are so prevalent it is hard to imagine how long it will take or if it is even possible for government to become truly secular.

More on the bus.

Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India and the last great work of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, begun in 1644 with 5,000 workers and finished in 1658. Shah Jahan appears over and over in the whole 'golden triangle' of tourism, being Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. You'll be sick of him by the time you've read through this trip!

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Various Islamic rulers controlled all of this area from 1192 until 1719, the Mughal dynasties taking control from the Sultanates in 1526. For this reason I think, the Islamic architectural style dominates the grand, historic buildings but because of partition, Muslims are less than twenty percent of the current population.

The Hindu sensibility is intensely decorative including statues, carvings, paintings, friezes etc. depicting all manner of gods, men and beasts. In the Islamic world no such representations are allowed so the decorations tend to focus on shapes and geometric patterns.

I think, unconfirmed, that the fabrics are meant for women who are not appropriately covered.

We took a 45 minute pedi-cab ride through the unimaginably dense lanes of Old Delhi.

Remember Mister Toad's Wild Ride? It was like that, only this version would be an F ticket for sure.

With one hand I was gripping the seat of the pedi-cab in an intense effort to remain upright and with the other hand I held out the camera and snapped without even looking.

The guide allowed as how the fact that the electricity was ever on in Old Delhi was proof indeed that the gods were benevolent.

Buildings in general start out as one story then someone adds on top of the roof and some years later someone else will add another and then another and then at some point the whole mess will fall down and someone else will gather the bricks and bits of wood and start the process again.

Views in Old Delhi.

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A pedi-cab driver. Smiling seemed the natural state of faces.

Water.

A public toilet and bath.

India Gate, the All India War Memorial. I think of it as a monument the British built to themself, which is not precisely true but... The cupola used to hold a stature of King George V.

From Delhi we took a dawn train for the two hour ride to Agra.

A train station suitcase wallah.

We rode the train to the magnificent Amarvilas, the Oberoi hotel in Agra. A view from my room's patio. That is our pool and spa pavilion in the foreground and the Taj Mahal on the horizon.

From every room, every window framed a fabulous view of the Taj.

The pavilion from the previous picture and more details of the pool and spa.

The Oberoi people did a magnificent job of mirroring their designs to the landmarks of the area. (I didn't fully appreciate this until walking through the Taj.) I was ga-ga with every single floor in every single property. In the case of the Amarvilas, each floor was done up in intricate marble and sandstone in different shapes exactly appropriate to the site. It was all there - the arches and inlaid stones and total symmetry throughout.

And the Maintenance was Staggering. This was the oldest of the resorts we stayed in and every surface was gleaming clean, every line of grout was pure white, every door and window opened and closed with that satisfying thud of a perfect fit. Amazing.

The Taj Mahal.

That's our group in the front positioning themselves to take The Picture.

Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his favorite wife after she died during delivery of their 14th child. He began construction shortly after her death in the 1630s and work continued for more than 20 years. Exact numbers vary but somewhere around 20,000 laborors worked on the project including expert craftsmen from around the world.

And my guess is that this work was not organized based on the principles of the "'Please' And 'Thank You' School of Project Management".

The entrance gate.

The Taj Mahal is very popular with local people too.

There is a steep two tiered system for entrance fees to all the major attactions, Indian nationals and others, which can be as variant as 100 to 1. There are also often hefty camera fees. In some cases we gringos would pay 500 rupees while those who looked Indian would pay 5. It was consequently rather inexpensive for local people to enjoy their own town's attractions and foreign tourists, when 500 rupees is a bit more than ten bucks, you're gonna' pay, having come so far.

The main building of the Taj has four exactly symmetrical sides and this is one of them. What you see is white marble, carved and etched. Even the screen is marble. 'They' say it is the magic translucence of this marble that gives the Taj its legendary glow.

This was such a rare sight. Actually this might have been the one and only time I saw a man and a woman (and really, what we're seeing here is a boy and a girl...) touching, in public, in affection. I just didn't see it. Aren't they adorable?

A keystone, a lodestar, the very heartbeat of tourism is this: shopping.

I have come to accept the inevitable. Is that what makes a grownup? They try and cover it up by giving 'demonstrations' and showing you 'art galleries' and 'museums' but in fact every place a local tour director targets is meant as an opportunity to go shopping.

This was a demonstration of the techniques craftsmen used even back-then and still, to create the fabulous marble pieces inlayed with precious and semi-precious stones that is one of the wonders of the Taj. Many of these demonstrations, like this one, are really very interesting and informative and if you find the gorgeous boxes and tabletops an excellent buy, well, it just so happens they will be more than pleased to ship it direct to your home, tax free of course, and oh, you want something with more blue? Look here, we have a dozen...

Here's the big romantic clincher to the whole Taj story.

So old Shah Jahan is so heartbroken over the loss of his favorite wife he conceives of and orders constructed what guidebooks like to call 'the most beautiful monument to love ever made'. Then, shortly after its completion, his son Aurangzeb seizes power and imprisons him in the Agra Fort. The son's concession to the father is that he grants him rooms in the fort where even from his bed he can gaze upon the Taj and be comforted by his great love.

But don't bother to feel too sorry for this guy because he fought against his own father's armies and when his father died he became emporor by killing all the other potential heirs.

Shah Jahan's view of the Taj Mahal from his imprisonment in the Agra Fort.

This is more of the fort. We arrived near sunset just before closing and were practically alone here. It is quite a huge place containing fortifications, palaces, etc. It was wonderful really to wander around.

I was quite taken with the designs and shapes of the Mughal buildings. Those arches and domes and colonnades are just so darn photogenic.

They used very little furniture but rather lived on piles of carpets and pillows, which I like. And because of the religious proscription against images you don't see a lot of goo-gahs but just patterns and the beauty of the materials make up the decoration.

The next morning we went back to the Taj to get a dawn experience. The intention from the previous day was to see the Taj at sunset but logistically it didn't work out. Since you need sunrise and sunset to get the best of that famous 'glow' and having come so far, and flexible hearty travelers that we were, we got ourselves up and went again.

Another view from inside of the main gate.

Included in the complex is a mosque and you can see it, the red building, in this picture. Since everything about the Taj Mahal is entirely symmetrical, there is another mirror of this building on the other side of the white marble mausoleum. Only one of the buildings can be used as a mosque however because only one of them can be facing in the correct direction, towards Mecca.

All the sides are symmetrical too. Above is looking towards the front steps and this one is one of the sides. See how the color changes based on the light that is cast upon the surface of the marble.

Looking down from the Taj. It seems every body of water will have these wide steps leading to it where people bathe, swim and socialize.

Another view of the gate.

One of the more elaborate dashboard shrines. And based on the total anarchy that is driving in India, I don't blame them.

See all those guys gathered around, many men deep even on to the road. They have gathered as they do all day long according to the guide, to eat food. Street food in India is omnipresent generating a lively local commerce and turning every public place into a social hall.

Whether admirable prudence or simple chicken-hearted-ness, I didn't join any of these crowds but I did look for the same kind of food in the ritzy posh hotel dining rooms we frequented, to try and snag a taste. Delicious as it was, somehow I'm sure it wasn't quite the same.

A back alley in a village driving from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri.

Speaking of traffic, I mentioned chaos and I mentioned anarchy but I have not yet mentioned camels. Yes. Camels. A Camel is the undisputed King of the Road. They take these huge purposeful strides and they don't get out of the way for Anything. Forget it, they will not be turned from their course. Every other conveyance on the road, of which there is every imaginable kind and some you could not imagine, will, respectfully, go around a camel.

I asked the bus driver if I could sit up in front with the workers (no Air-Con was the major downside) and following are more scenes from out the front window of the bus.

If you can fit, you can ride.

I would hold up my camera, wave out the window, the people would invariably smile and wave back and then I'd try and snap the pic to include the smile and the wave.

I've got dozens of pictures of people by the side of the road and in various vehicles smiling and waving at our tour bus. The first guide, the woman back in Delhi, said don't worry at all about taking pictures. She said that Indian people, especially the men, would be more likely to put themselves into your picture than move out of the way.

Gridlock. The cow wins.

Smiles and waves...

The next several pictures are from Fatehpur Sikri, the fabulous capital of the Mughal Empire begun in 1571 and entirely abandoned - completely emptied - fourteen years later in 1585. It has all just sat here, a magnificent ghost town ever since. The place sits on top of a huge ridge and is quite dramatic from every angle and approach.

The story is, no one knows why everyone split but the strongest speculation is that the water dried up and anyway the great Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar built it in a fevor of faith and then just got the itch to move on.

The Archeological Survey of India is credited with a lot of refurbisment work. What I have a hard time picturing is how these wonderful buildings remand uninhabited for so long.

Isn't that courtyard fab.

The mosque in Fatehpur Sikri. There was a lot of off-ing and on-ing of shoes during this tour as we visited so many mosques and temples. We rather got used to it except here, where we about had to call the paramedics. The open spaces were So huge and the stones were So hot.

It was my impression that the hawkers and beggars were at their most aggressive in the mosques that were in active use. Blistering feet made me more aggressive in return!

The guide who stayed with us for the whole trip, VK was what we called him, invited the whole tour(!) over to his house for tea and snacks. For some it was their only chance to see inside an Indian home and everyone was so delighted and impressed that VK would go so out of his way for us. This is Sandy and VK's mother.

The group did a rather intense 'interview' of every member of the family and it came out that VK's brother was exporting beaded purses. Oh! cried out the tour group of ladies-who-shop, Show Us! Show Us! So VK's brother brought out pile after pile after pile. He got a very nice haul from our visit and the ladies got some wonderful beaded purses and a great story to go with them.

Our last evening in Agra, the entrance to the Amarvilas.

The hotel's dinner music, the first time really to hear live music, not even on the streets. Every hour or two I noted about one thing or another, humm, that's surprising.

On the road to Jaipur. People living in a camp by the side of the road.

I'm going to use this camp as an example to tell a story about how, in my experience from three short weeks in India, which doesn't count for a hoot, anyway, in my experience, life in general was much cleaner and much more tidy than I could have imagined considering the number of life forms that teem and roil together everywhere. The main impediment in the enviroment was dust, and that's another story.

Between the boy and the woman you can see the back of a cow. All kinds of animals wander everywhere quite freely and not once did cow crap ooze up into my toes. It was quite impressive.

Smiling and waving. If you can fit, you can ride. We've got a theme going here.

Smiling and waving. Cows always have the right of way. Animals in general, actually. More than once I heard an Indian person say something along the lines of 'people can't seem to get it right, how can we expect more of the animals'.

Life on the bus. We really had luxurious accommodations. It was a nice enough bus, yes, air conditioned and all, but what made it extra nice was that everyone could have a window, you could stretch out if you wanted, you could sit with someone for a while and then sit with someone else or no one at all. That's luxurious!

We are driving from Agra to Jaipur.

A few days before there had been a terrorist bombing at a temple in Gujarat and today a strong political group had called for a country-wide one day work stoppage in protest. Consequently the day's plan for ShoppingShopping needed some adjustment. From what you could see on the street the shops were closed but the guides scrambled and found places like the one below where the bus would approach a building, gates would open and we would enter a protected courtyard and be greeted by dozens of eager salesmen.

This was another one of those 'demonstrations' cum shopping opportunities.

Here they showed hand block printing techniques and also rug making, starting from a hank of wool all the way through to the finished carpet. Again I really did enjoy the demonstration and felt one very little pin prick pang of guilt for never buying one darn thing.

The Rajvilas, another awesome resort.

I didn't get close enough to swear these babies are real.

We are in the state of Rajasthan, home of the Rajputs who ruled here for 1,000 years before falling to the Mughals.

Jaipur, the Pink City, founded in 1727, is the capital of Rajasthan. By 1727 the Mughal power was on the wane and the Rajput Marharaja thought it might be a good time to reestablish his position.

Red sandstone is the building material here but in 1876 the then Maharaja had the entire city painted pink, the traditional color of hospitality, to welcome the Prince of Wales. The 'powers that be' have kept the original buildings pink ever since.

This facade is called Hawa Mahal or The Palace of the Winds and it was meant for the ladies of the royal household. They could sit within these windows and watch the life of the city without being seen.

We were now off to visit the Amer Fort (also called Amber Fort). Forts usually sit on top of hills and this one's was High. We actually Rode Elephants(!) up (and took jeeps back down...). The ride up took more than 45 minutes. I rode on a elephant. It was cool. It was cool enough after about 5 minutes. Actually, it wasn't cool, it was pouring sweat hot and these elephants where in no big hurry and their ambling pace generated not a whiff of breese.

The forts I've been touring are really a huge complex of buildings and more like a medieval walled city than a cowboy western fort.

Stained glass, inlaid glass and stone and a pounded metal ceiling.

More of the intricate decorations.

A gate to one of the palaces in the fort complex. Since many of these buildings were added even into the 1900s, the designs are an interesting amalgamation of many styles.

Can you believe this?

The fuzz in the picture is dust and exhaust. Pedestrians cross the street in a daze of hopeful trust that since they have behaved well in life their righteous karma will lead to a safe result.

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My Left Foot.

It was National Tourist Day and the equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce was putting on a show up at the fort. We felt lucky to have happened upon this celebration but it brought in sharp, and in a way uncomfortable, focus how the virtual disappearance of Western tourists was impacting the economy in the areas so dependent on tourism.

The people who were putting on the Tourist Day event invited us to enjoy the demonstrations in the lavishly decorated pavilion.

This man is wrapping a turban. He did the whole process in about a minute.

Previously we had lunch at a hotel associated with The Turban Museum. The Turban Museum was just this guy who collected turbans. He put them all in a long hall on shelves with sticky labels. The collector himself gave us a tour and presented a folding demonstration. The style of folding with both bold and subtle differences shows geographic area, religion, class, employment; you can know a lot about the wearer if you know what's what.

And girls doing their own mendi.

And another snake charmer.

Here's an overview of the shopping arcades in Jaipur.

And here we are, inside. Us and the cows.

The cows just moised around everywhere and seemed to do and go and be, in the most easy going mien, like they were entitled to be adored. The thing is, according to Everyone, you must Stay Away. According to everyone they kick and bite and you Must Not touch them.

So I obeyed.

The words on the back of these trucks, and versions of this expression are, in English, on every single truck:

1 Blow Horn
2 Horn Please

One of the guidebooks expressed it thus - in India they use horns instead of brakes.

This is a two-lane road. One truck is passing another. See that oncoming bus? I forget which of these vehicles ended up in the dirt but this is one of the reasons, I'm sure, that the dust is everywhere so thick in the air.

Our arrival in Udaipur where the bus dropped us off at a dock and the hotel sent perfect little boats over to take us across the lake.

I'm going to copy this rap from the Lonely Planet guide:

'Another facet of Rajasthan, far from being surrounded by desert, Udaipur is situated in the lap of the thickly wooded Aravali Hills. Founded in 1568 by Maharana Udai Singh II following the final sacking of Chittorgarh by the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, Udaipur rivals any of the world famous creations of the Mughals with its Rajput love of the whimsical and its superbly crafted elegance.'

I did try and absorb as much history as my softened brain could manage but I did not look up Chittorgarh...

This property, the Udaivilas, had been open only a few months and I spent the entire two nights walking around agape at how the Oberoi could do this. How could they make it so perfect? Either there are financial considerations going on here that we can't know or they are losing money hand over fist.

Those steps again, leading to every body of water. You can see some people there and also look at the middle of the three large arches. That's an elephant. I have no idea what he was doing but there was not a tourist in sight.

The next few shots are from the Jag Mandir Palace located on a small island in the lake.

Back at the hotel.

The next day Sandy and I came back to enjoy the hotel while the others were shopping. While we were swimming it started to rain big warm blops so we settled on these cushions, under this wonderful cupola, and luxuriated like the Maharani we were meant to be.

Good night, and good morning!

I got up at dawn with the hope of getting this exact picture. Cool huh.

On the drive into town for our city tour we passed At Least fifty women dressed in this way and all snaking along the road together. From the bus window it looked quite amazing.

The guide told us they had just come from a funeral burning and were going to the lake to purify themselves. They were all dressed in these brightly colored saris and every one of them had, uncharacteristically for women on the road, covered their faces.

Following are scenes in the City Palace. The buildings face the lake on one side and extend into the city on the other. The palace buildings, begun around 1600 and added to by various maharajas, are the largest palace complex in Rajasthan.

Gigantic stone elephants are featured prominently throughout Udaipur. I will not subject you to them all.

When a tour group gathers. We are so a-mur-i-cn.

Such neat buildings.

Here we are. Sandy and I, having a private tour of the Maharaja's Hunting Lodge, built in the mid 1800s, and preserved within the Udaivilas property. The older man has been the caretaker here for 60 years(!) and the younger man is one of the staff of the hotel. The portrait is of the Maharaja who built the place.

The color in the building was soooo beautiful.

Sandy in the Maharaja's hunting lodge.

The Obero chain: I am going to take this opportunity to go Totally Off on the most remarkable, unforgettable, completely Fan-TA-stic staff recruitment, development and service delivery EVER. How they managed to pay for it, I have no idea. There were five staff for every guest and every staff member could do absolutely anything. And not once did a staff member hand off to anyone else. You could ask anyone for anything and that very person would handle it with the most gentle grace imaginable. This was true in every one of the Oberois. We were all Blown Away.

We actually met THE Mr Oberoi here, and his heir-apparent son, but since they were smoking cigars and stinking up the whole place, like really stinky sickening let-me-outta-here stinky, I didn't tell him that he was clearly a flat-out magician.

Another corner in the hunting lodge.

The Oberois have their own Hotel School and they told us they have 5,000 applicants for every 5 positions. They said it takes all year just to interview for the next year's class. I believe this because every single person we met was perfect.

The last evening of the tour, a view of sunset over the hills. The rest of the group were to go on to Shimla but I got up, again at dawn, to go to the airport for the flight to Bombay where Rupa would meet me and I would begin Phase Two.
Click HERE and all the pictures in this chapter will get big.


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