Monday my driver and I started out bright and early, 5:30am to go to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal! The journey took about five and a half hours. Have I mentioned that India traffic is absolutely insane? There are no traffic signals, no lanes, and no rules. Everyone just weaves in and out of traffic, even into oncoming lanes, blaring their horn. And no seat belts! But by this time, I was used to it. I slept just fine in the front seat beside the driver. Fortunately he didn`t have to slam on the breaks very often.
A new guide met us at the road leading to the Taj. He was really good and told more stories. Everyone knows, of course, that the Taj Mahal is a symbol of love built in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. (OK, so I stole that straight off of Wikipedia, but at least I site my sources.)
It`s not a palace like some people think, but a mausoleum, housing the queens remains along with the king. She was his favorite (among the three that he just HAD to have, because, of course that was the minimum requirement for a king in that day) because she followed him everywhere, from the grandest palaces to the bloodiest battlefields, in sickness and health, poverty and wealth and all that jazz. They say that after she passed the entire court mourned for a whole year. She died in childbirth to their fourteenth child at the age of thirty-nine, and on her deathbed she made the Sultan promise her three things.
1.) He would take care of her children.
2.) He would never remarry.
3.) He would build her a mausoleum so great none could ever rival it in all the history of the world.
He kept all three promises.
The mausoleum is built in the middle of nowhere and nothing has ever been allowed to be built around it, just so it stands out that much more. It`s designed after the Quoranic vision of heaven, with eight rivers and lovely gardens and huge, carved slabs of black marble citing the queen`s favorite Quoranic verses are inlaid within the pure white marble of the overall structure.
Come on, Laura, pictures speak louder than words! Ok, Ok, here you go:
Here`s the whole set up:
And here`s an interesting optical illusion:
It looks small, huh? Guess again! I was standing over a half mile away from it. Here`s a close look:
And a closer one. See those tiney, tiny little people? Not the two just under the shadow, the ones just under the windows. They look smaller than ants. That`s how big it is:
How was this massive monument constructed? By 20,000 workers over the course of twenty-two years. There are lots of conflicting stories. Some people will tell you the Sultan had the workmen`s hands cut off or the eyes gouged out later so they could never build another like it and they found out about it so they created a flaw and all that. But there were over 20,000 skilled workmen on this project, not exactly low class, so you`d think there would be some official mention of that somewhere if it happened. No, according to the guide, this particular Sultan was a very good man, and one reason for carrying out with his wife`s request was actually a very practical one. The region was experiencing a severe drought and hence an economic depression, so a lot of people were out of work, especially artisans. And of course the 20,000 workers had to be fed and clothed by other workers so it produced a huge boost in the economy, sort of like the public works projects of the Depression. The king of Agra actually gave the Sultan the marble for free because he was very far-seeing and saw what this monument would bring in a lot of money from tourism, or in those days, religious pilgrimages.
Another legend claims one of his other wives demanded to have a Taj Mahal built for her too, and the king finally relented, but he wanted it done in black marble. His wife found out and prayed that it would never be completed. Sure enough, the next day the king was captured by his own son. There he spent his last days in the upper tower of his palace, overlooking the Taj Mahal, and was eventually buried there beside his beloved queen. But another legend claims he intended to have the black Taj Mahal built for himself, directly across from the white, but his son locked him up so he could never put such a burden on the people, in a time when black marble was very rare and precious. Either way you look at it, his son was a usurper, and the generations to come squandered the prosperity that their forefather had worked so hard to earn, and their kingdom fell into ruin.
By the way, a third legend goes that his last and final wife said she didn`t need anything but his love, but he wasn`t willing to give her that, so he built her the red sandstone mosque beside the Taj Mahal.
The Taj itself is really something to see, the outside so pure and simple, perfectly symmetrical, but also grand and beautiful, with just a touch of color in the white. I can definitely see why it’s one of the “eight ancient wonders of the world.” I`ve seen two of them now, the Taj and the Great Wall of China. And it`s not just the beautiful outside that took my breath away. The inner, detailed designs are really something to see, especially the sculpted marble and inlaid jewels. There`s quite a bit of cornelian used in the Taj, so at sunrise and sunset, the Taj appears to glow yellow or orange. I didn`t get to see that, but what I did see was absolutely amazing. You couldn`t take picture inside, but here`s a picture I took of a workshop nearby, where “descendents of the workmen” still practice the old art of jewel inlay.
That`s not painted! They show me how they did it. First they have to draw the design they want on paper, then cut the stones, then carve the marble, then put in some sticky stuff, then lay the jewels in the marble, then polish it. With five people working, it takes a whole day to create one of those panels the guy is holding. Here`s some of the craftsmen at work:
After that, I had a really nice lunch lamb kabob lunch at a local restaurant. Here`s what that looked like, all unexpectedly fancy on the plate (sometimes I feel soooo spoiled).
There were a surprising amount of Japanese around the Taj area, especially in that restaurant. I chatted with a few of them, small families and mother-daughter pairs mostly. Their guides were Indian but spoke Japanese. It`s good to see them getting out; there`s a stereotype that Japanese never travel outside of Japan and when they do, they only visit Japanese spots, like little Tokyo in New York and California or in the very least, they`ll go only with a Japanese guide and only eat at the local sushi bar. Ha, now that I think about it, Agra did have quite a few sushi bars, more than it had “Western” restaurants like McDonalds, now that I think about it. So I guess it`s still there if they want it.
After that we were planning to see Agra fort, but the driver said we didn`t have time if I wanted to catch my flight. At least we got to see it at a distance, and he told me tales of the various ancient security systems, such as wild animals, bobby traps and what not. Might utilize that in one of my books!
I wish I could have seen it for myself, but my driver turned out being absolutely right. It took us six hours to get to Deli through that crazy traffic! We enjoyed chatting about all kinds of things from Indian politics to his own crazy antics as a child. Once when he got in trouble for skipping school to see movies far too many times, the principle asked to see his father, so he paid a man to play the role! He ended up getting caught but nothing bad really happened to him.
What`s interesting, actually India did have a really great recycle system in place with color-coded barrels, but in 2009, some Islamic Pakistani terrorists in New Deli put bombs in the cans and fourteen blue up, killing many people. How stupid! The government had no choice but to remove the bins. Talk about ruining a good thing for everyone; how the heck are you helping your cause by pulling a stunt like that? Secondly, they don`t know who they`re killing, maybe some of their own people! Taking hostages or targeting specific buildings I can understand from a logistics standpoint, that`s leverage, but blowing up random people? Where are they even getting this idea? It`s not in the Quran. Anyone who would do that must be criminally insane.
Now I understand why everywhere we went, be it a shopping mall or public space, we were patted down and wanded by the police. (It`s very convenient that over 10% of India`s military is female. The military spends a lot of their time and resources on check points like that, and there`s always a female officer to pat down the women.) And on my visa application, I had to say whether I`d ever been to Pakistan, or if any of my family was from Pakistan. I know the history and politics behind that conflict, but I still don`t get it. What are they actually trying to accomplish?
When we arrived at the airport and I got through everything, I ended up still having two hours to spare, but I didn`t begrudge my driver that. If there were an accident it would have taken a lot longer, and it would have been awful if I missed my flight! No refunds. I would definitely recommend that tour company. India Holiday Mantra. Very professional, very cheap, very flexible.
And that, my friends, was my most amazing, spectacular, awesome trip to India!
Prayer Requests for this Week: Definitely, definitely pray for the Dalits in India and the discrimination they still suffer. Pray for development in India`s rural villages and that the government will take responsibility for helping the large portion of their citizens that don`t even have their basic needs met. Pray for the work of ARV, longitude, and other NGOs working in India. On a more personal note, please continue to pray for my Thursday night English and Evangelism class that is so low on numbers right now. For the last few weeks we`ve had only three students show up. Pastor Toshi is going to do some more advertising soon and hopefully that will increase interest. But, praise God, now all three of those members have accepted Jesus and want to get baptized! Now we just need to expand outwards…
More good news: My brother Tony got a job at an architecture firm in our home town! My other friends who were looking for jobs also found them. Prayer works!
I personally need prayers for guidance. Not just in terms of what to do for work when I return to the States, but aspects of my writing career, evangelism efforts, relationships, a lot of stuff. I`ve been re-evaluating a lot of the dreams I had as a child, such as publishing my books and making comic books and even having my own TV series based on my sci-fi universe. I was really disappointed to see how little I`ve come down that road in the eight years since I started. Not because I`m not writing or submitting. Because nobody`s taking. I need a new strategy other than just submitting to one book publisher or agent every week (most want exclusive submissions so I can`t do anymore than that) and getting fifty-two rejection letters by the end of the year. I know what I want, I just don`t know how to get it.
Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
Laura (L.J. Popp)