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Incredible India!

Group shot at Taj Mahal – backrow: Andrew, Kate, Green frontrow: Catherine, Max, Dan, Anna and Isabelle.

‘Incredible India’ is how India advertises itself and it definitely lives up to the slogan. Other adjectives that would be appropriate include crazy, chaotic, colourful and contrasting, but on with the story….

Andrew’s high school friend, Aditya Shrivastava, had announced his engagement to an Indian girl in the later part of last year and invited everyone to attend the wedding ceremony in Patna, India. We accepted the invite and Aditya put in a massive amount of work helping us to organise a tour prior to the wedding as well as hotel and cars, thanks again Aditya! And so it was that we found ourselves in Delhi on Saturday 20th January with Catherine and Green, Dan and Anna and their two children Max, aged 2 and Isabelle aged 10 months.

And how did we spend our first day in Delhi, well shopping is basically the answer to that one! We did manage a few tourist spots in the morning, including the spectacular Qutb Minar, an amazing Mughal tower, as well as the Lotus temple, which we felt bore a striking resemblance to the Sydney Opera House. (FYI: For photos of everything discussed in this entry head to our flickr accounts (Andrew’s and Kate’s) – I can’t be bothered linking each reference!) But after a great lunch, the second of many curries, yes there was curry for breakfast, we headed off to the shops where the girls purchased salwar kameezs and the men kurta pajamas for the wedding ceremony in Patna. And what fabulous outfits they were! We caught up with Aditya’s sisters, Anveeta and Prani, for dinner and ate Indian’s alternative cuisine, Chinese. It never ceases to amaze how widespread Chinese food is, thanks to the willingness of the Chinese to travel and cook.

Sunday saw the start of the tour proper with a 5.30am transfer to Delhi station for a train ride to Agra, home of India’s most famous monument, the Taj Mahal. In the book, Holy Cow, author Sarah MacDonald notes that early morning is not the best time to travel through India due to the ’21 bum salute’ which greets you. There were definitely more than 21 bums on display, and often far more than just bums, but each individual showed amazing balance, often propped on the railway track itself, if with an obvious lack of fibre in their diet.

Whilst Agra itself is not a city to write home about, its tourist drawcards certainly are. We visited Agra fort, those Mughal’s certainly knew a thing or two about building, and rose again pre-dawn to view the Taj Mahal. Built by emperor Shah Jahan to honour his favourite wife who died giving birth to their 14th child it really is a remarkable building, and stunning in the dawn light. Later in the day we convinced our drivers and guide to take us to the park on the other side of the river to view the Taj from the opposite direction. Interestingly the park is built around the foundations of the never-completed black Taj, which emperor Shah Jahan was building for himself. He was ousted by his son and imprisoned in Agra fort where he died without completing the twin tomb. Another highlight of Agra was the ‘baby Taj’ or Itimad-ud-Daulah that was built prior to the Taj Mahal and is constructed of similar marble work with beautiful inlaid stone artwork.

On the drive from Agra to Jaipur we stopped off at Fatehpur Sikri, a World Heritage site and fortified ghost city. Built by Akbar the Great (3 wives and 800-1000 concubines depending on the guide telling the story), Fatehpur Sikri had to be abandoned soon after Akbar’s death due to severe water shortages. The palace itself is spectacular with its red sandstone walls and pavilions and the nearby Darhah Mosque is also fabulous. In the forecourt of the mosque is the superb white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti, with some of the most amazing white marble lattice screens. We were taken-in by our local guide who convinced us to buy outrageously priced cloth and string from his mate to make a wish at the tomb. Fingers crossed that the wishes come true and the cloth did indeed go to local charity, our bus guide told us all off for falling for the local guide’s scheme!

And then it was on to Jaipur. Once you get over the chaos Indian road journeys give you a good insight into the Indian psyche. Lane markings are ignored and it’s every bus, car, motor bike, ox cart, bicycle and truck for itself. The horn is used to let fellow road users know where you are and is sounded at very frequent intervals. Bikes and motorcycles weave their way through the traffic and pedestrians just walk purposefully out into the middle of it all. This all happens at quite slow speed, pretty essential given the massive potholes and road works that litter the roads, not to mention the traffic’s behaviour. But even through all the chaos everyone knows what’s expected of them and it all comes together in the end – just like pretty much everything else in India.

Jaipur was definitely a highlight of the trip. A wonderful town with a great vibe. We visited the Amber fort, complete with elephant ride as well as the City Palace and Jantar Mantar an observatory set-up in 1728 to allow accurate measurement of planetary and solar movement, very important in terms of accurate astrology readings. We also went to the Raj Mandir cinema to see a Bollywood film. All in Hindi it told a tale of an engagement and wedding, with the expected almost tragic ending. Our tour guide, Mahib, came along with us and really enjoyed the film, and explained a few plot twists at interval that we’d missed, and sobbed loudly at the end, along with basically everyone else in the theatre.

We flew to Patna on Republic Day, the 26th of January, which of course is also Australia Day (and our sister-in-law’s birthday). The wedding had three main events, plus lots of additional ceremonies and rituals. At the sangeet on the Friday night, sort of like a family talent show, the Australian contingent completed an impromptu dance item, which certainly broke the ice, even if we were all muttering how much easier it would have been after a glass or two of wine! The wedding was vegetarian and almost completely dry, with a glass of champagne available at the western reception on the last evening. It was very special to be able to attend and I think we all felt very lucky to be there and share in the celebrations with Aditya and his bride, Deepti. The actual wedding ceremony took four hours, apparently complicated by disagreements amongst the four priests presiding over the nuptials. The wedding guests past the time snacking on the buffet, chatting, catching up with family (there were about 250 guests) and generally ignoring the actual ceremony itself, well apart for the garland ceremony. This was followed by dinner and then the next evening the western reception was held. It followed a more traditional Australian format with speeches, a cake and a dance floor, which apparently scandalised some of the older guests but everyone else had a great night. Deepti’s dress was particularly amazing, heavily embroidered and jewelled. We didn’t see much of Patna, basically because there’s not a lot to see but we did make it to the grain silo (see photo on Flickr to appreciate this!) and also we drove over the Ganges.

And then it was back to Delhi to see the sites we’d missed out on the first time around. There was a bit more shopping, at the government bazaar, a 6-storey department store with practically everything and without touts, beggars or haggling. And we spent a disappointing afternoon at the National Museum (almost AUD$30 for our entry and our cameras and pretty mediocre displays – could this be a case of, yet again, the British nicking off with practically everything bar the monuments they couldn’t carry?). We also took a cycle rickshaw through the narrow streets of Old Delhi with its bazaars and markets, and went to Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India for a view across Delhi from one of its minarets. We also braved Nizam-ud-Din’s shrine, unfortunately arriving at sunset, just before prayers at the near-by mosque. Certainly off the beaten track and just a little bit scary! We also caught up with Aditya and Deepti for dinner at their very posh hotel, a bit of a contrast to our guest house, although we were certainly safe at our place, surrounded as we were by the Indian army, navy and airforce! On our last day we explored Humayun’s tomb, another World Heritage site, and visited Gandhi’s memorial museum, established in the house where he spent the last 144 days of his life and including the spot on which he was assassinated, and finally visited Raj Ghat to view the black marble platform that marks the spot where he was cremated.

So what an experience, what a holiday, how privileged we feel to have been at Aditya’s wedding celebrations. India truly is incredible. A land of a billion people with different, interlocking cultures who are all so proud to be and identify as Indians. Great food, so many types of curry and naan (which we over-ordered at every meal!). India is a land of contrasts from dreadful air pollution to fabulous green parks, from extreme poverty to extreme wealth, Bollywood dancers who gyrate but don’t kiss on the lips and a place with a fabulous past but with an eye very definitely fixed on the future. Certainly we’d recommend it should you be considering a trip!

Posted by Kate on Feb 04 2007 under Scott News

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