Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Moghul love story and some mind-blowing architecture

***This is one of several posts about our amazing Christmas vacation to visit my parents in South Asia. It was our first time over there and it was suuuuuch a cross-cultural experience. So far I have posted about
- what it was like to walk the streets and sight-see,
- our harrowing adventures on an overnight train trip,
- an incredible village wedding, staying in a crumbling beach shack,
- and some thoughts and reactions to being in a conservative Muslim country. ***

Our grueling 24-hour train ride ended in the cultural capital of this country, and it was definitely the scenic highlight of the trip. I think it will stay on my list of "coolest things I've ever seen in my life" list.

The difference between this city and the city that we were in the week before was really striking. The streets were wide, trash was picked up, there were monuments, flowers.... a simple appreciation for beauty never stood out so much to me before! We stayed on the grounds of an old Christian college that the Brits set up in the 1930's, and it was just beautiful. During the week we saw both women and men out on the grounds playing tennis and cricket. The city really bloomed under the Moghul emperors, and I soon learned that the Moghuls left beauty wherever they went.

After a peaceful night's sleep, we entered the "old city" and were immediately approached by a man from the tourism bureau who offered to give us a guided tour. He was a truly fantastic guide who had taught himself English and was really knowledgeable and comfortable even for us Western women to interact with.

These are the elephant gates that are the entrance to the palace groungs. They look like the feet of an elephant, eh? They were built in the 1500's and really were made to accomadate a ruler's parade of elephants. Sounds like Aladin to me! There were also massive steps for the elephants and a huuuuge well for them to drink out of.

What was far more impressive to me then the old fort was the old Moghul palace. You know the gorgeous Taj Mahal and how it was built by Shah Jahan for his wife when she died? Well, this old palace was built by by him for his wife to live in. I tell you what, this man must have been in LOVE. Shah Jahan put out so much stunning architecture, all for her... it was incredible. See the photo below? Those frieze windows are all built out of solid pieces of marble. They have survived as solid pieces of marble since the 1500's.

It was just incredible - the detail that was everywhere you looked. It was built so that gutters would catch rain water and creat natural fountains throughout the whole palace. In places where the water would cascade down, there were spaces hollowed out behind the fountain so that a candle could be lit and create the effect of a cascade of light. All of it is open rooms surrounding big, beautiful courtyards with mosaic tiles and fountains. EVERYTHING is beautiful and feminine. The king's quarters? A single small room. :) Such a gentleman.

There were beautiful bath rooms that would have a large bath area on one side and a big fire place on the other for the queen to dry her hair. There is also natural air-conditioning built into the palace - it was originally next to a river, and the lower floor had huge windows that led into long tunnels that led underneath the entire palace, cooling the floor of the whole place.
This next photo is out of the palace and into other Moghul structures. Much of what is left was marred by Shiek invasions, but it is still dazzling.

The next photo shows a room of white marble that is simply covered in complex mirror work. The guide painted the picture of the palace at night with no electricity - to the right of those pillars is the beautiful courtyard complete with fountains, but when the queen entered this room with candles, it would reflect endlessly on all of the little mirrors, andthe mental picture of that glittering sight takes my breath away. I wish you all could see this place - my photos don't do it any justice.

Here we are with our guide. Picture him telling you this (which I just stole from Wikipedia):

"After their wedding celebrations, Khurram (Shah Jahan) "finding her in appearance and character elect among all the women of the time", gave her the title 'Mumtaz Mahal' Begum (Chosen One of the Palace). According to the official court chronicler, "The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favour which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other."
Mumtaz Mahal had a very deep and loving marriage with Shah Jahan. Even during her lifetime, poets would extol her beauty, gracefulness and compassion. Mumtaz Mahal was Shah Jahan's trusted companion, travelling with him all over the Mughal Empire.Despite her frequent pregnancies, Mumtaz travelled with Shah Jahan's entourage throughout his earlier military campaigns and the subsequent rebellion against his father. She was his constant companion and trusted confidant and their relationship was intense. Indeed, the court historians go to unheard lengths to document the intimate and erotic relationship the couple enjoyed. In their nineteen years of marriage, they had thirteen children together, seven of whom died at birth or at a very young age."
(my brothers, taking a break from the sight-seeing, looking snazzy in their local get-up)
We bribed a guard (which our official government guide advised us to do) so that we could go downstairs into the tunnels underneath the fort. It was so funny - our guide asked my dad if he would "donate extra money" and give it to a guard standing in front of a door, and then the guide did his best to convince the guard he'd been given a sufficient bribe. The ensuing conversation included our guide patting the guard on the stomach and telling him he already clearly had plenty to eat and didn't need more money, and then later pleading with him that they had to make a good impression on these guests. In any case, we got in. These dark halls were dusty and empty, and certainly gave our tour a feeling of mystery. Our only light was from our cell-phones. We had to take a photo in order to get a fleeting glimpse of this massive model of the Koran that was sitting in a corner.

After our underground tour, we emerged to see this stunningly beautiful mosque - the second largest in the world.

We checked our shoes outside the gate and went inside - something we were all uncomfortable about, but our guide led us on so we just followed. We didn't want to offend anyone!


In the courtyard we were very quiet and us girls kept our eyes down and our head scarves far forward. It was a relief to go around to one of the private hallways and have our guide show us the incredible acoustics here. This spot threw your voice in a super weird way, and you could also stand in a corner and whisper into the wall, and a person across the room facing the other corner could hear you clear as a bell when the person standing next to you couldn't. Weird stuff!

Once we completed our tour of the area (which also included the beautiful tomb of the poet that first dreamed up the idea of this country), we hit up a roof-top restaurant right outside of the fort that had a STUNNING view and fantastic food. One odd thing - the bathroom door was made of the same material shower doors are often made out of - slightly fuzzy glass, so that it can be seen through but not clearly. It was so weird, because here we were in an extremely modest country and the bathroom door is translucent and looks out into a dining room! We stood lookout for each other. :)




Jaimie said...

Beautiful buildings. You know, I wish I could visit those countries, but I never could. It would just constantly annoy me how covered up the women have to be and the men can just free-foot it everywhere because they lack vaginas.

I won't say I never could. I will have to learn some enormous humility first though.

This Heavenly Life said...

What an amazing trip! I've been fascinated by your stories this week, but this post with all the beautiful architecture is just mind-blowing. So beautiful. That picture of you and your husband above the mosque in the background is fantastic. So cool.