India, India, India. It has taken me so long to write about India. However, it is in no way because India was a dreadful experience but rather the contrary. I must say that the six days we spent in India was no where near enough time to even begin to understand the surface of this intricate country. Most people have one of two experiences in India: they either love it wholeheartedly, they embrace all the colors, the lights, the people and the beauty while others dislike it immensely because of the smells, the horrific sites of the poverty and the poor sanitary conditions. I had neither.
Constanza and I signed up for a Semester at Sea three-day trip in order for us to easily get to see the Taj Mahal. Therefore, as soon as the ship docked in Cochin (a.k.a Kochi) in Southern India, we headed straight to the airport for a flight bound to Delhi. When we got to Delhi we didn’t get a moment to rest we automatically hopped onto a 4-hour bus ride to Agra. On the way we stopped at a local restaurant, whose name I have forgotten but it seemed to be a popular restaurant. I will just say one thing about Indian food since most people generally like it. I have never been a fan personally, I have always thought it was too filling and the spices were too heavy. However, my experience with Indian food in India has completely changed my mind. There has not been a single meal I have not adored in India. When we got to our very classy hotel, it was really late at night so we headed to bed since we had to get up early the next day to see the Taj Mahal! Our guide, a man by the name of Sameer was the highlight of the next three-days. Not only was his poor decision-making abilities a thrill for all of us as we would vote on something and he would then convince us otherwise but return to our original choice in the end, but he said quotes and phrases that made us all think. I want to mention a few of them throughout because this man was truly a notable one.
We got to the Taj Mahal the next morning very early and were welcomed as was the millions of other people who have seen it to one of the most breathtaking sites. It was in no way, shape or form anything less than what I expected in fact the greenery around it far preceded any of my expectations. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum and not a religious site of any sort contrary to popular belief. It was by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his third (and favorite) wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Moghuls came to India shortly after the Ottomans and are an offshoot of Genghis Khan from Mongolia. Inside this intricate masterpiece lay the two bodies of the Shah and his wife. To the left of the Taj is a guesthouse and to the right is a mosque but not anything like a current day mosque. I went in curiously to see what it was like. It is all open air and simple with the common Muslim symbol seen on prayer mats all pointing toward Mecca. With the Taj Mahal behind me and Mecca in front of me I leaned down and prayed. I prayed for the future of all my new friends, including those we made in country. I prayed for the future of the impoverished nations we had visited and the citizens who suffer from hunger, thirst and malnutrition. Most of all I prayed for India to be able to upkeep the rest of the country the way they have this incredible structure.
The Taj-Mahal got me thinking about love, as it is a structure made by a husband for the love of his life. So many women were saying they wished their husbands could make them something like this, as it is a very flashy representation of someone’s love. I wonder if I would want this done for me? I wonder if at the time it was just an excuse by the Shah to showcase his wealth rather than his love. These days’ money and love seem to be intertwined. The importance of gift giving is no longer about the value of the gift but also the cost of the gift. It seems everything sweet a person can do for their loved one consists of some expensive endeavor. Can there be deep love without any money being spent realistically not idealistically?
We left the Taj Mahal and headed to the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s lost ghost city, Fatehpur Sirki and then continued to the Agra Fort. At the Fatehpur Sirki the guide explained to us a lot about Sufism, a sect of Islam that we are taught very little about as it is banned in Saudi Arabia. All I had known about Sufism was that it encouraged questioning your faith. Quite simply put, the more you question God, I was told, the closer you get to God. Sameer taught me that it was a blend of Islam and Hinduism. All the music festivals the hold are merely expressions of their faith to God and their form of meditation. Similar to the way praying five times a day, or sitting quietly in your room in an attempt to reach Nirvana, music was their way of clearing their minds and purifying their souls. I loved knowing that Sunnism and Shiasm, the only two sect of Islam we are ever really taught, are not the only forms of Islam. Although I am against Sectarianism and the more sects of a religion is formed, the more disagreement within religion there is, I smiled to myself knowing that there are people out there reading our Holy Book and taking a completely different turn to it. I will later on dedicate an entire blog piece on Islam and my personal journey to it so stay tuned. The Agra Fort was an interesting mix of Hindu and Islamic architecture within the city walls. It made sense for Sufism to arise in this part of the world as the two religions are so intricately related here.
The next day was perhaps one of the most inspiring days of my Semester at Sea voyage. We went to a Sikh Temple in the morning and learned about a religion that not many get to understand a lot. The people we see wearing turbans roaming the street in the United States or elsewhere are commonly mistaken to be Muslims and after September 11 have been targeted continuously. Nevertheless, Sikhism is completely separate from Islam and was actually formed by a group of people who were escaping the spread of Islam in India. When the Ottomans invaded India in the 14th century, they attempted to get as many Islamic converts as possible, Sameer explained. Therefore, most of the Muslims in India are actually of Hindu origins. However, a group of very devout Sikhs ran into the forests in an attempt to hold on to their religion. In the jungle they started to make daggers in order to defend themselves, and for this reason, at Sikh ceremonies they hold daggers alongside them (to show solidarity with those who fought to keep their religion). Furthermore, they could not cut their hair while they were out in the jungle and thus have developed a tradition of never cutting their hair. Hence, the reason they were turbans to keep their long hair from getting in the way of their daily affairs. Sikh means learning because they believe life is a learning process. Their religion is based on service and doing well to others regardless of class, religion or gender. Therefore, at every Sikh temple there is a soup kitchen run by devout Sikhs who give their time to making food to distribute to whomever comes. In addition, a doctor usually comes into the kitchen everyday listening to the community’s problems and providing herbal remedies for them. This particular temple even had a free hospital that had Islamic, Hindu, Sikh and even Christian patients. They help as many people as they can. Amazing isn’t it?
Next, we visited the Lotus Temple of the Baha’i religion. The first time I had heard about the Baha’i religion was when a friend of mine first year told me she was Baha’i and I was so confused as to what she meant. When I asked her she simply told me that she prayed in all religions and believed in the Creator above all else. It seemed so vague to me but something about it always fascinated me. After my visit to the temple, I was ready to convert, as it was exactly what I believed (of course Islam does not contradict Baha’ism at all which is why I didn’t). Baha’ism essentially is an ideology that simply believes in the rights of all humans to attain education, health care and live a life free of discrimination. It advocates unity in this world of disunity under a Creator that some call God, other call Allah or whatever it may be. The actual Lotus Temple was simply mind-blowing. You could feel the positive energy radiating along all the greenery around it and emanating from the structure itself. However, when you walk into the temple you can watch them pray. They prayed in every single religion I could possible think of. They read from the Torah, the Bible, the Qur’an and many, many more! When we left I asked to see their library, which housed their religious book in every single language even indigenous ones that as few as 300 people spoke! I fell in love at once and bought their book to read more about. Such a simple way of looking at things; eliminate all of the unnecessary things added to the religious structure these days and simply believe in God in any way you want, while believing in a set of core values.
Finally, we headed back to Kochi where my mind was simply numb. I felt as though I had taken in so much information I could not take in anymore. All the information, sites, smells and colors I had just seen overwhelmed me. A group of us checked into the … by Taj and simply spent 3 days in Kochi laying by the pool, dolphin watching, shopping and partying. This may seem like such a waste in a country like India but you reach a point after travelling for so long where you feel like your mind has shut down and does not want to process anymore. I lasted a whole week feeling like that and that is why it has taken me so long to write down anything about India. By the time I was ready to process again we were already in Mauritius, it was midterms and my mind went of to different places.
Sameer shared with us very interesting perspectives on India. Besides its corruption, which many people know about, they breed some of the most intelligent minds. More than 1700 people compete for one sear in Indian Universities! That is the reason why so many Indians leave India to study at universities abroad. No matter how smart you are if you aren’t a genius essentially you are more likely than not to get rejected from universities in India.
India has so many religions, all of which breed such positive images and thoughts. It even has religions so many haven’t heard of such as Jennyism, which is the second biggest religion in India and is an offshoot of Hinduism. Their core belief is essentially: live to let live. They also had an infamous leader, Gandhi that led one of the most peaceful movements on earth. It is hard to reconcile that with what is happening between India and Pakistan, such a bloody and negative conflict. When I brought it up with Sameer, he explained it to us very peacefully saying he wanted it to stop like most people in India did but it has such big roots in history to be solved so easily. I thought of my prayer I made at the Taj Mahal the day before. India taught me so much about ways of praying and core values, so now I pray they become leading examples of that which they have taught me in their own land. I pray for that conflict to resolve itself and for no more blood to be shed. 1948 was surely a year that caused so many problems in this world; it’s disheartening to know that they still haven’t been resolved. From the quarrels between India and Pakistan to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, why can’t our world live for the future and not the past?
- Ratan Tata visits Taj Mahal, describes it as ”incomparable” (news.in.msn.com)
- Best Places to Explore in India (indi-eye.com)
- famous buildings that you MUST see 09. Taj Mahal, India (architectbd.wordpress.com)
- Friday Fly Away – Agra (iamsheglobal.com)
- Things to know before visiting the Taj Mahal (shallysg.wordpress.com)
- Same Day Agra Tour is short and amazing tour of india (samedayagratravel.wordpress.com)
- India travel (travelwellbeing.wordpress.com)
- ONGC adopts Taj Mahal under Tourism Ministry’s ‘Clean India campaign’ (thehindu.com)
- Delhi Agra Jaipur Tours – Time to Explore the Beauty of Incredible India (sunildaytours2012.wordpress.com)