After three days in Delhi, we set off on our tour. We’d managed to find a company which had put together a one-week itinerary, taking in some of the major sights of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and the ‘golden triangle’ of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. We were picked up from the Lalit at 7:30am for the first stage – a four-hour drive to Agra to see that little-known sight, the Taj Mahal.
“In India, the cow he is sacred,” said Prakesh, our endlessly cheerful driver, gesturing to the one blocking the other side of the road. “Nobody people is touching him, nobody people is eating him.”
Our tour includes a guide in each location who shows us round the sights, and in Agra this was the obsequious Dinesh, who referred to me as “your highness” and offered us grave commiserations on our failure to produce a son. The Taj itself, the intricate white marble tomb built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife, is arresting on first glance, and stays that way. It’s built with a meticulous symmetry, every aspect laid out to create a flawless mirror image, from the mosque building on each side to the perfect reflection of the Taj in the water in front of it. Mothers carrying kohled and veiled babies asked us for photos; however, one toddler was so unnerved by my strange foreign features that she clonked me solidly on the head and then burst into tears. After a few hours of mid-afternoon sunshine, we were sweaty and drained, and Dinesh’s oiliness was beginning to wear on my nerves. We circled the red-sandstone Agra Fort quickly by car, before Dinesh, claiming to show us how the intricate inlaid marble of the Taj was done, hustled us to one of the inevitable “showrooms” where you are plied with tea and pressured into buying an inlaid marble tabletop. We declined politely, but thus began the first of several arguments with Dinesh on our lack of interest in questionable shopping emporiums, which continued until we left for Jaipur the next day.
On the drive to Jaipur, after a stop at a jewellery showroom Dinesh claimed was a “private museum”, we stopped at the ancient fortified city of Fatehpur Sikri, where the Sufi saint Shaihk Salim Chishti predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal emperor Akbar. The red sandstone walls of the city contain a huge mosque and the white marble tomb of the saint, surrounded with carved marble screens where childless women still tie red and gold threads for wishes. After several more hours in the car, relieved to be rid of Dinesh, we arrived in our rather soulless business hotel in the New City area of Jaipur. I ate gulab jamum, sweet dumplings with rosewater syrup, hoping the next day would improve.
It did. We got up early to reach the Amber Palace, perched spectacularly on a hill above an artificial lake created by the maharajah Jai Singh. Progress up the hill is by elephant, which we quickly regretted; our seat was rocky and uncomfortable and our elephant apparently keen on proceeding as fast as possible. As we reached the unloading point, under the sign saying NO TIPPING, our elephant driver turned to us and made the ‘baksheesh’ gesture, one finger rubbing against thumb. The palace itself, though, is an intricate and beautiful creation, with carved and painted screens and a stunning view of the gardens on the lake. We followed this with a visit to one of Jai Singh’s other creations – the Jantar Mantar, or observatory, where he built an enormous sundial which is accurate to within 20 seconds and a series of instruments to track the movements of the sun and stars. Our new guide might have seemed to others abrupt, but to us he was perfect, briefly describing each sight and then absenting himself while we explored and took photos. Jaipur is the ‘pink city’, its Old Town well-preserved and all painted in a uniform orange-pink hue, and with the maharajah’s old palaces and their intricate screenwork visible everywhere. While quieter than Agra, like everywhere in India, it buzzes with scooters and bikes, many of them ridden by women with helmets perched on top of their bejewelled saris, sitting daintily side-saddle. Everywhere, the saris are in the flaming red-gold-orange colours that seem so characteristic of Rajasthan.
After two nights and one day in Jaipur, our next destination was the Sufi mosque in Ajmer, one of the most important Sufi sites and locations of Muslim pilgrimage in the world. I wrapped my purple Delhi scarf around my head, and Loz bought a handkerchief in the bazaar for ten rupees to cover his head. We were handed over to one of the Sufi guides, tall, solemn, and green-eyed Ajmal, who guided us around with flawless English and graceful movements, telling us about his art and his long-ago visit to London. The central saint’s tomb is a pushing, shoving throng of pilgrims making offerings of blankets and heaped petals. We sheltered in a corner and watched: “Always, people panic,” said Ajmal calmly. “There is all the time in the world.”
Our final destination for the day, however, was the sacred Hindu town of Pushkar, a few kilometres away, site of the only temple to the Hindu god Brahma. For a change, we would explore the town on foot and at sunset, and our guide, Mahmoud, picked us up at five o’clock. Pushkar is also a major pilgrimage site and something of a hippy town, with a relaxed vibe and an absence of the hawkers that haunt most of the other monuments. Mahmoud guided us around the temple and the town, telling us the story of how Brahma’s wife cursed him to have only one temple on earth because of his impatience and faithlessness. Monkeys picked through the sweets left as shrine offerings as we stepped over the stones engraved as memorials to the dead in English, Arabic, and Hindi.
“It will take a few more visits, I think,” said Ajmal before we left him, “before you really understand Indian culture.”
Lastly, we went down to the bathing ghats on the lake, where pilgrims take their holy dip at sunset or dawn. The sun was just setting and the evening ‘fire ceremony’ had begun, with a group of men chanting quietly as a lit torch was held aloft and a bell rang. Mahmoud filled both our hands with flowers from the lakeshore to cast onto the water as the ceremony finished, and groups of Indians gathered silently around us with their hands folded. As the sun went down, the bell stopped ringing, and I stood there in the moment of silence, clutching a handful of damp flowers, watching pink and gold petals float in the still water. The men began chanting again, joyfully, rising to a crescendo, and quite unexpectedly, I started to cry.