Tea, Tigers, and the Taj Mahal
Going back to India was a very exciting experience for my sister and I. After traveling to so many new countries it was comforting to come back to India, a place where I was finally familiar with the exotic smells, sounds, dress, language, and culture. Two years ago, Justine and I studied abroad in India and Nepal. While there, we spent time doing research and familiarizing ourselves with the culture. It quite different traveling to India with family, staying in hotels, talking mostly to tour guides and street vendors, and seeing four different cities in a short amount of time. It makes me really appreciate the abroad experience, where we were able to do home stays with an Indian family and talk to locals daily while studying aspects of their culture.
During our short time there we were able to tour a popular triangle route in order to see the wonders of Old Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambhore, and Agra. Even though we didn’t do homestay visits or research projects, it is impossible to miss out on Indian culture while visiting. We explored the Old Delhi historic spice markets, bought kurtas (Indian shirts that many women are seen wearing), fed bananas to elephants, had a home-cooked meal with an Indian family, took a tiger safari, and saw the Taj Mahal at sunrise. We were also able to reconnect with some old friends when I got to catch up with my homestay brother and our family met up with our long time friend Ian. He welcomed us over to his apartment in Delhi for masala chai, games in the park, and best of all meeting his newborn son!
I can confidently say that we all learned a lot during those jam packed days of adventure. India may have been the biggest culture shock for everyone in comparison to the other countries that we have visited. As tourists, you don’t always get to see the ins and outs of each society and culture. We have been many places now, and India, with it’s pungent and distinct colors, smells, hectic traffic, and welcoming personality was thrust upon us and we embraced it; making it all the more memorable. (Juliette)
Here are some highlights from our experience:
Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve
Our family went to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve to see wild Tigers (and possibly leopards). We arrived at the hotel and we were greeted with nice warm towels. Next thing I knew, we were in this car that looks like a Jeep but the locals call it a Gypsy. We were zooming down the highway and weaving in and out of cars at 50 mph to go see the tigers! At one point, we came to a quick halt because a cow was crossing the road. Then I felt a big bump in the back of the Gypsy. I looked back and it was a huge truck that just hit our Gypsy! After about an hour of watching our driver and guide solving that incident, we finished our drive and arrived at the park. After hours of searching for a tiger, we finally found a leopard! All of a sudden our driver started up the Gypsy and drove away from the leopard that we had been looking at for about 25 minutes. I asked the driver ''Where are we going?” He responded, “A tiger has been spotted!” After a crazy five minute off-road drive we stopped and our guide pointed to a tiger that was about 20 yards away, walking like it was the king of the jungle. It was amazing!! Overall, the Ranthambhore tiger safaris were a fantastic experience, especially since only Jacob, Dad and I were the only ones in our family who were able to see a tiger.
In Agra we went to Fatehppur Sikri the Taj Mahal where we learned about the Mughal Empire. I learned about the Mughal Empire in school last year, so seeing the places that I learned about made me even more interested in this Empire and made me want to ask more questions in order to understand it better. I found the family tree of the Mughal Empire particularly interesting, so here is a quick synopsis of what each emperor did.
Babur - First Emperor of the Mughal Empire, takes over Sultan of Delhi and establishes Mughal Empire.
Humyan - Father of Akbar the Great
Akbar - (The Great) Builds his palace; The Fatehpur Sikri. Marries three wives of three different religions; Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. He expressed religious tolerance for the Indian people. He favored his Hindu wife, because she was the only one who had a child. This was revolutionary at the time, as Muslim Emperors did not have religious tolerance and often wanted to convert their people to Islam.
Jahangir - Was a drunkard and didn’t accomplish much.
Shah Jahan - Ends tradition of religious tolerance by destroying Hindu temples. Loves his wife Mumtaz Mahal dearly, and they have 14 children. She dies giving birth to her 14th child. Her dying wish is that he never marries again after her death and that he builds something for her to symbolize their love, which was the Taj Mahal. Several other architectural pieces in India were initiated by Shah Jahan and his team who designed the Taj Mahal. In his old age when he couldn't see well, he would sit in Fatehpur Sikri and look into a mirror that reflected an image of the Taj Mahal in the distance, causing him to weep in remembrance of his wife.
Auragnzeb - The youngest son of Shah Jahan plots against his brothers to become the next successor. Once in power, he imprisons his father and expresses no religious tolerance to the Indian people. He destroyed the Christian and Hindu places of worship that his great grandfather built for his wives, and because he was so intolerant and made many enemies, he eventually flees to Afghanistan. 80% of India is Hindu, so by persecuting Hindus and forcing them to convert, Auragnzeb was caused to feel like a stranger in his own Empire, which is why he returned to Afghanistan where his family originated from.
I found Akbar and Auragnzeb the most interesting Emperors. I believe that Akbar was so successful because he had religious tolerance. He even built a room in his palace where a meeting was held between different religious leaders in Agra so that he could learn about each religion. He encouraged them to find the commonalities between these seemingly different religions. He even created a new religion, combining elements of each religion he learned about. Aragnzeb had no religious tolerance, which I believe is the reason for the decline of the Mughal Empire.
One of the last things that we did in India is one of the first things that many people think of when they hear the word India, that is the Taj Mahal. The Taj was built by the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, as a tomb for his wife. The Taj Mahal couldn't look more different than a tomb; it looks like a bright and joyful palace. If you look at it’s original name Mumtaz Mahal and translate it, you realize that even though it is a tomb it really is a palace as well. Mumtaz Mahal translated means “beautiful crown palace”. It's so beautiful in fact that it is one of the seven wonders of the world. The Taj is made out of white marble that has enough crystals in it to let light pass through. This special marble had to be carried over 230 miles to get to the Taj. The designs on it are are not painted, they are inlaid with onyx and semi precious stones including jasper, lapis-lazuli, turqouise and jade.
Did you know that it was going to have a twin? Shah Jahan was planning on building one just like it, but in black for himself, just across the Yamuna River. Unfortunately only the base was ever finished because Shah Jahan was put in jail by his son who didn’t have the same passion for architecture. Shah Jahan is currently buried next to his wife, which is the only asymmetrical part of the Taj Mahal. All sides on the Taj are the exact same, only the scenery gives away which side is the 'front' and which side is the ‘back'. Overall I enjoyed seeing the Taj because of how much I like architecture. Over his life Shah Jahan built many other great pieces and even lent his work force to other rulers. It is unfortunate that his own grave was never finished, we can only guess how great the black and the white palaces would have looked on either side of the Yamuna River.
Parivaar is the word for family in Hindi, if you didn't know. With India's population increasing by an estimated 1 million per year (according to the latest world census reports) and an ever decrease in space and resources, the concept of family takes on a whole new meaning for this vibrant culture. Our family of seven learned quickly to squeeze elbows, stay close to each other while walking through narrow streets and adapt ourselves to waiting patiently for just about everything. Hospitality, resilience and humility are three qualities that come to mind when I reflect on the numerous individuals we met while traveling through Delhi, Jaipur, Rathambore and Agra.
We spent hours traveling by van through these cities and were able to observe village after village filled with women at work in the fields, men manning street-front businesses, older gentlemen showering with a hose by the road, and thousands of children playing everywhere among cattle, dogs and wild pigs. I was struck by the heightened sense of community, collaboration where everyone is trying to survive in an environment lacking every western human comfort. Everyone seems to be directly invested in everyone's business, it seemed. We saw many wedding processions taking over streets due with their numerous attendees. Family businesses passed down from generations and manned by every family member was the norm. We found ourselves charmed by the generous and welcoming greetings everywhere. From the dance studio manager who hosted us as we were led into Bollywood dance lessons, to Dr. Tahir, a dentist, who was our tour guide in Jaipur and comforted our Luke when he became tearful after seeing working elephants, and took all of us to feed the elephants bananas, to a sweet family who graciously hosted us in their home for dinner one evening.
One of our family's biggest highlight was our last day in India, where we visited the home of a dear friend of ours, Ian Anand Forber-Pratt, who moved back to his birth country a few years ago and welcomed us to his home with open arms. A deep love for family is the best way to describe Ian! Not only because he devotes his calling to defending the rights of children in India, but because his world was turned around when he met his beautiful wife Nargis. We were greeted at the door by Nargis' 4 sisters, brother, mother, father, grand-father who were all catering to the latest family arrival, Ian's 4 week old son Zaine. Granted they are not all living together under one roof, but many of them do spend days in Ian's home visiting and caring for each other week after week. I was especially touched by Nargis' tender relationship with her mother and sisters. There was joy and affection pouring through this home.
India has taught me so much about what it means to be a parivaar! Everyone we met left an impression on me and I hope to take these qualities with me as we continue our journey to South Africa and beyond.
India: Then & Now
Being in India has allowed me to reflect on the month-long abroad I was on during college. During this abroad I was interacting with lots of locals (with much help from our translators) and doing research on India’s education system. Because we were on an official school abroad we were still doing homework and learning from our abroad leaders; but because they knew India like the back of their hand, we had a phenomenal time. This kind of intense immersion into a country with a constant education along the way was, in my experience, the best way to learn about another country and culture.
Because we are travelling to such a vast number of countries within our sixth month trip, it is quite difficult to learn in-depth about the places we are so fortunate to visit. Our family isn’t filled with experts on all world cultures, so for the most part we are learning along the way :) In addition, because we are so busy with activities, I don’t feel that we have the opportunity to engage with as many local people and learn about their stories quite as much as I did on the abroad - this was also a part of all of the research I did while I was there.
I wish leading up to the trip, I researched more of both the locations and cultures. Life was busy at home with work and day-to-day life, but I really should have done a better job of researching more about these countries ahead of time, and to research the activities that we were going to do. Although it is not completely detrimental to this trip, I think it could have helped me feel more knowledgeable and confident once arriving in each location.
Being constantly on the go and absorbing lots of information is fabulous, but I am excited to have some down time back in the U.S. to reflect and reorganize when we head back out into the world again. Now we are on our last leg of the first part of our sixth month journey. It is crazy to think that we only have 2 flights left before coming home! Next up we are involved in the Simunye project with a large group of students and adults from the Principia (where the children all go to school). It will definitely add some variety to have some new people to interact with besides our family!!!