Days 80-83, March 26-29:
The early morning sun shone delicately through a thin haze that was reminiscent of the veil of an exotic dancer. I took it as a good omen. We were riding on an express train from Delhi to Agra – our destination: India’s iconic Taj Mahal. The Taj had been on our wish list for years, so when we saw that this New Wonder of the Modern World was combined with the Pink City of Jaipur on a three-night overland package available during our Grand World Voyage, we booked it in a heartbeat.
The overland excursion started with two short connecting flights to Mumbai and Delhi from our first port of call in India, Mangalore. We arrived at Delhi in time to check into our hotel, appropriately the Hotel Taj Mahal, and to enjoy an included welcome drink and dinner. Delhi, the capital of India, encompasses Old Delhi, the capital of Muslim India between the 17th and 19th centuries, and has many mosques, monuments and forts. New Delhi, the newer part of the city, is the imperial city created by the British in the early 20th century and we drove, on our way to our hotel, through some of its wide avenues in a strict layout, past colonial buildings, international embassies, gardens and parks.
After an early wake up call the next day (4:15 a.m.!) and breakfast at our hotel, Humberto, Duffy (our bear that went around the world) and I were transferred along with the rest of our group of 28 participants to the railway station. Even at 5:30 a.m., the traffic was horrendous (there are 1.2 billion people in India, and everyone seems to have a car or motorcycle – and honk their horns incessantly). At the train station we caught the Shatbdi Express train for Agra, a small village transformed by two Mughal emperors into the second capital of the Mughal Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a tourism magnet because of the Taj.
Cows, sacred to the Hindu faith, were plentiful all about. Lying at the heart of Agra, the Taj Mahal is also its soul. Built in the 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan, it is a white marble memorial to his beloved wife, Muntaz Mahal. It took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete and was designed and planned by Persian architect Ustad Isa.
“It is so pristine, you won’t believe it’s 400 years old,” said one of our local guides who goes by the name of “V.” “It seems to float at the horizon.”
After passing security – very strict – we entered the complex of the Taj Mahal, and we saw it framed by an arch. A chorus of “wows” arose from our group at the sight of this ethereal, whiter-than-white monument, a symphony of columns and domes in perfect symmetry in a crystalline-like marble quarried at Makrana, 450 kilometers away. Closer to it, one can admire its delicate inlay work – among the best known by mankind. When it was built, it cost 40-50 million rupies, V. said.
Its luminosity reminded me of the mysterious, also luminous quality of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa’s smile, captivating and breathtaking. We just drank it all in, along with its gardens, reflecting pool and fountains and the incessant flow of humanity, clad in various garbs, that made its way to and from the monument.
We also visited the 16th century Agra Fort, built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Made of red sandstone, it has vast halls and houses the beautiful Pearl Mosque.
After lunch – all our meals were included in the overland program – we visited a handicrafts market where we took in a demonstration of marble inlay work as it was practiced at the time the Taj was built, a type of work that continues, though as a dying art, through today. We then set out on a five-hour drive through the countryside. I did not mind the drive: we were crisscrossing India and seeing how people live there. We saw farms where camels were being used as beasts of burden. We saw sacred cows, markets, the milkmen – dressed in white robes and turbans delivering large containers of fresh milk – and people going about their business. Presently, we got to Jaipur and checked into our hotel there, the Taj Rambagh Palace, an unbelievable property, formerly a royal residence now turned into a luxury hotel.
Hotel guards on horseback welcomed us and as we climbed the grand staircase to the lobby, a shower of rose petals fell upon us. At the lobby, traditionally clad staff greeted us with an “aarti” or welcoming ceremony. We were each given the “tika” – a red dot on our forehead – and a garland of jasmine blooms. Each participant was accommodated in an elegant suite decorated in fine woods, damask upholstery, and with views of an interior courtyard where a flutist played typical music. I must say I felt like a “maharini” (queen) and Humberto felt like a maharajah or king (Duffy too!).
Jaipur traces its origins to the 18th century and Jay Singh II, who ascended the throne in 1699. Called the “Pink City” because of its extensive use of local pink plastered stone, it has massive forts and exquisite temples, palaces and gardens. Our favorite sight was the Palace of the Winds, a five-story pink structure with fine trellises, elaborate balconies, and 953 niches and windows. Another highlight was the Amber Fort (sometimes called Amer Fort), a classic Rajasthani fort palace dating back to the 16th century in Mughal and Hindu styles. It has an ingenous water-cooled air system that also provided floral scents, and exquisite workmanship including the use of inlaid silver-backed glass on arched walls.
Other points of interest on our overland excursion included a visit to the 17th century Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur which is still in use today and tells time to the minute, and the City Palace in Jaipur, which covers a large area of the walled city and houses a temple.
The following morning we took a flight to Mumbai, where we got a panoramic tour of this bustling port city including its famous “outdoor laundry,” where laundry for hotels, hospitals and other establishments is hand-washed and hung to dry in the sun, before re-boarding the Amsterdam – keeping on a prominent, high shelf of our minds the images of the luminous wonder of the Taj Mahal and the Pink City of Jaipur.
Freelance travel writer Georgina Cruz and her husband Humberto are currently sailing on Amsterdam’s 112-day Grand World Voyage and will be sending in cruise diaries throughout their time on board. She has logged 174 voyages to all seven continents and visited more than 100 countries.