Taking on the Taj Mahal

20 November 2013
Written by Diana Kenny | Images by Diana Kenny
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Through her words and images, Diana Kenny takes us on an exploratory tour of north and southern India - an experience she shared with 12 other intrepid women 


On October 17 this year, my friend Trisha and I set off on a trip around India.  It had been a long while in the planning, starting off as an abandoned trip to Melbourne before being re-birthed as a condensed tour of southern India with Trisha's stipulation that "if I'm going to India I want to see the Taj Mahal".

A quick Google search revealed the ideal tour; departing from New Zealand, a small group of 13, covering northern and southern India and all women!  What could be better?

Leaving from Christchurch we caught up with the rest of the group in Singapore and from there proceeded to New Delhi.  

Our beautiful accommodation at the Colonel’s Retreat, New Delhi, set the standard for this tour - everywhere we stayed was wonderful and often a welcome haven.

From the first morning we were right into it, starting with Old Delhi and the Jama Masjid, the largest Mosque in India. From there we descended the steps to confront the “Rickshaw Disaster”, so named by our guide because another tour group had commandeered our rickshaws.

This ride was to be our true introduction to India, the India we had come to see - noise, chaos, people, heat, dirt and dust. It was a cosmos within itself, what little movement could be gained was achieved by blatant disregard for any road rules, tooting loudly on any implement that would make a noise and what to us, sitting in the back, seemed like foolhardy moves and in the middle, up a lamp-post, was a warning that you were on CCTV.

Old Delhi was the centre of the Empire for over 500 years and it showed. New Delhi was another side of India – wide streets and government buildings, the Presidential Palace and the War Memorial, but it is the architecture of old India that amazes.  

Humayun’s tomb was built for the second Mughal Emperor by his wife in 157. It is the first of the garden tombs in India and had a great influence on future mausoleums, including the Taj Mahal.  The quiet beauty of the tomb and the surrounding gardens were very peaceful. 

This we found to be true throughout India; the historic places are beautifully kept with gardeners using what to us are very primitive methods.  Women in saris cut the lawn with small hand shears and weed in colourful groups. Hawkers are not permitted inside these areas but you are fair game once outside.

From Dehli we flew to Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges.  The drive into Varanasi from the airport was surreal; every possible living thing in India seemed to be on that road - buses, cars, motorbikes, bikes, rickshaws, tut-tuts, horse carts, goats, cows, dogs, people walking carrying loads, pulling loads.  Again like the rickshaw ride in Old Dehli it seemed impossible that anything could possibly get anywhere, but it had a rhythm of its own and we got there.

A night-time visit to the Ganges started by coach, changed to rickshaw, (our rider, sensing we were enjoying ourselves, tried to beat the others) and continued through narrow alleys shared by cows and motorbike riders and by narrow I mean narrow! We finished in a large dinghy as we were rowed out to observe evening prayers and witness cremations taking place.

In the morning we retraced the journey to view the bathing ghats.  A few of us had the uneasy feeling that we were intruding on private moments but the bathers were gracious and welcoming.  Throughout India, people were curious about where we were from and everyone knew our cricketers by name. I’d not realised what valuable ambassadors the Black Caps are for New Zealand.  

The locals loved having their photo taken with us and once I realised I could take great photos with my very new iPad, they were interested in seeing the instant results.  We were hassled by hawkers but they were not threatening, just persistent. Early on I stopped walking and came out with a very loud ‘no’ to one teenage boy; he disappeared and I felt like a bully.  We soon learned how to handle ourselves and by the time we got to Jaipur and the wonderful markets, a pair of sunglasses and a blank look were order of the day.

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Our lovely Indian guide Poonam built up our expectation of the Taj Mahal very cleverly.  First we were taken to the Agra Fort where Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal was imprisoned by his third son.  I must say that was in very beautiful surroundings but opposite the Taj, which he could see in the distance.  From there to a sunset viewing with high tea, the only trouble being the Indian version of ‘high tea’ did not compare to the English version with the only connection being that we drunk tea on a high hill, however the view was beautiful with the sun setting on the Taj Mahal. Next morning we were up at 5am to be first in the queue to enter the grounds of the Taj Mahal for sunrise.  We were definitely first and our guide instructed us to go slowly once we entered to allow ourselves time to enjoy and embrace the moment and beauty of the Taj once it came into view.  For myself, it was an unexpectedly poignant moment and I still get tears in my eyes thinking about it.

Onwards we went to Jaipur, the Pink City, surely one of India’s most colourful. Great markets, tut-tuts, great shopping, wonderful warm people and an elephant ride to the top of the hill and the Amber Fort. Just when we thought we had seen it all, there it was, the fortifications stretching over all the surrounding hills, the mirror mosaics, the carvings and the framed views for miles.

From Jaipur we headed south by plane to Kochi.  Kochi is surrounded by water; we saw the famous cantilevered Chinese fishing nets and some of us had a go at pulling them up.  The catches seem very small and the nets are set all along the river but the markets were colourful and the fish dishes we had we scrumptious.  The south, we were informed by our guide, is mainly Christian; the Portuguese first converted the population to Catholicism, then the Dutch to Protestantism and the English to Anglicism.  There are many churches and shrines to Christianity but one of the most touching we visited was a beautiful Jewish synagogue with a congregation of nine. The bus drivers like to emblazon the name of their particular deity on the top of their bus and it was startling to see Jesus, St Thomas, St Basil and other saints all up there along with Hindu gods.

Into tea country, the tea plantations of Munnar stretch for miles and give the hills an unexpected beauty with their orderly rows.  We visited a spice plantation where all the spices were planted conveniently in an area of about half an acre, giving our guide and us, ease of access as he explained their mysteries to us.  In the evening we went to a Kathakali cultural performance. Kathakali is a stylised classical Indian dance-drama noted for the attractive make-up of characters, elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements. The two actors began by demonstrating their art on stage, one by getting into his elaborate costume and the other by using his facial muscles to signify different emotions. The piece from the Mahabharata usually takes 3 hours to perform – we were treated to the short version.

Back on the coach to Kumarakom one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes to celebrate Diwali with fireworks.  Because the main population is Christian the celebration was rather subdued compared to what I imagine happens in the North where, when we were there, we saw the decorations being put up in preparation.

I can thoroughly recommend a night on a houseboat, the peaceful method of travel through the back waters of Kerala had us all entranced.  The beautiful meals, the sudden downpour from the tail of the monsoon always about 6.00 pm, just having nothing to do but talk or read was very seductive.

The end of the journey was in Kovalam, a stay of three days in a spectacular resort on the beach. We managed to swim in the Arabian Sea, watch the fishermen haul in their nets, catch up with some last-minute shopping, have pedicures, manicures, facials and massages and eat a lot of beautiful food.  All in all we were well prepared for the travel home – I think!


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