36 Hours in India
What do you get when you combine the cheapest flights and two ambitious travelers?
Just enough time to see one of the Wonders of the World.
"So, how long is your stay in India?"
"Just one day."
What followed then was a double-take and an incredulous version of "seriously?" from every person we struck up even a casual conversation with in India. You see, when I think back to everything I thought I'd see in the year or so that I've been planning this trip around the world, I'd always allotted at least a month to see India. Attempting to see a healthy variety of jungles, cities, and cultural sites is an extremely daunting task. India is massive, and there's so much history and modernity crammed into every nook of the country. A few months into our travels, we found that we were taking more time to see a country or city in depth than rushing through an itinerary with the aim of checking off as many boxes as possible. It became clear that we just would not have enough time to do everything, and given the amount of time needed to see India properly the trip had to be postponed for another time.
But then a window started to crack open. While researching flights from Kathmandu to Cape Town, I found that the cheapest and most time-efficient way to get to South Africa was through India and would give us a 36-hour layover in New Delhi. The Taj Mahal was high on our list and Agra is a short train ride from Delhi. In a way, the extreme brevity of our trip to India was an acknowledgement that there's way too much to India to possibly see, so we weren't even going to try to boil the ocean! We approached this trip with the intention of giving just one place it's due: The Taj, I tried to explain my bizarre rationale but I doubt anyone thought I was anything other than a lunatic.
Although India has more transit resources available online than most Asian countries we've visited, it was nonetheless challenging to try to book transit to Agra. We'd heard the Indian immigration process can take hours and we didn't want to book a bus or a train ahead of time in case we couldn't make it. Our plan was to catch a bus to Agra, a 4-hour drive or 2-hour train away, and spend the night so we could maximize our morning at the Taj. Yet when we clear custom, there were no buses to be found leaving from the airport so we determined our best chance was to see if we could catch a train. Thankfully, Delhi had recently invested in an extremely nice metro from the airport right to the city's central bus station, but when we got there we were told we'd have to see if tickets were available at the office downtown. Even though it's not high season for tourism since it's getting to be about 100*, every bus and train to Agra was completely full. Our only choice if we wanted to get to Agra in our short window of time was to hire a private car for the trip. It's a long-winded tale, I know, but that's how we started on the road to Agra!
The road trip was pleasant; somehow, we avoided any of the infamously debilitating Delhi traffic. Coming from Kathmandu, where the roads are in inconceivably deplorable conditions and lack lane divisions, traffic lights, or at some points proper pavement, Delhi was a dream. We must have avoided any slum areas because the Delhi I saw from the cab window was clean, orderly, developed, and (gasp) not crowded at all. Once we got on the highway, I could have easily been driving across Texas. The land was hot, flat, and sparse save for a few billboards and roadside restaurants. We got to Agra in just 3 1/2 hours.
Coming off the clean and orderly freeway, you're confronted with shocking poverty. People and animals wander the dusty street lined with tin shacks and piles of rubbish. Sleek and expensive hotels pop up from the destitution like invasive species. The juxtaposition between the two extremes, the Agra catering to wealthy tourists and the Agra of ordinary Indian people, was unsettling to say the least. Indian concept restaurants hire security guards to swat away children trying to sell you trinkets, and although you feel guilty turning down a desperate child your dollars perpetuate their little industry and discourage them from going to school. In fact, there were a lot of kids forced to work or beg instead of attending school, a sad sight for me. Contrary to the gritty way Dain and I usually travel, we were kept in an ivory tower of private drivers and lavish hotel rooms separated from the street by a long driveway and a security barrier. We literally looked down at the rest of the city from a white-marble infinity pool.
After a long day of travel, our driver took us to an incredible Punjabi restaurant where we tried out some new dishes. We had to pry ourselves away from beloved palak paneer and aloo gobi but found new loves to add to our repertoire: Paneer Labrador and Dal Bukhara. So creamy, rich, spicy, tangy, and absolutely delectable. In addition, we were spoiled with masala-spiced peanuts and a tray of typical meal-enders like sugared licorice and candied fruit.
Dain nixed plans to wake up to watch the sun rise, so we set off towards the Taj around 7am. The weather was clear and beautiful, hot but not an uncomfortable heat. The forecast called for 117* but thankfully rains earlier in the week kept the temperature at a comparatively mild 90*. We entered the compound through one of the red sandstone gates adorned with 22 domes, each representing a year it took to complete building. If you think twenty-two years is impressive, it's all the more knowing that 20,000 craftsmen worked round the clock to build such an intricate place. Our guide taught us the meaning of Taj Mahal, which translates to "Crown of the Palace," named for the emperor's favorite wife Mahal during Mongolian rule. When she was on her deathbed, she made the emperor promise to take care of her children, never remarry, and to build her a mausoleum in her hometown of Agra. The emperor made good on his promise and the Taj Mahal was finished in 1658.
Interestingly, the emperor had plans to build his own identical mausoleum made out of black onyx across the river but his youngest son didn't want him to waste any more of his fortune on such opulent and wasteful projects. He had his father jailed for eight years until he died in prison! Instead, he was buried in a coffin right next to his wife.
We walked through the gate and stared down a reflecting pool leading straight to the white marble masterpiece that is the Taj Mahal. The main domed building, the mausoleum, is eighty meters tall and capped with a twenty-meter bronze statue depicting the symbol of Islam. It's flanked on either side by identical red sandstone buildings, one a guesthouse for the royal family and the other a mosque that's still active today. Every Friday, the Taj Mahal is closed so Muslims can conduct services; roughly 20% of India's population is Muslim. The guesthouse was previously adorned with rich rugs and tapestries and lavish furniture, which was whisked off to London during British occupation. The artifacts remain in a British museum to this day.
The level of detail and craftsmanship put into the buildings is breathtaking. Every colorful motif worked into the marble is hand-carved from semi-precious stones. Each individual lotus flower is comprised of sixty-four pieces of stone, and every marble decoration was done by carving a single continuous piece of marble. Every detail was accounted for, including the red gemstones adorning the structure that cause the normally white Taj Mahal to glow iridescent pink during sunrise and sunset. One could spend an hour marveling at these little details alone.
After the tour, we had time for a quick traditional breakfast of roti and curry before packing up and starting our long car ride back to New Delhi. A few people asked if all the hassle and money spent on such a short experience was worth it, and I'd have to answer with an unequivocal yes. Think of the time constraints as challenge proposed and you've given yourself a chance for adventure. Seeing another country, much less one of the Wonders of the World, is never something I'd regret. One thing's for sure- on my next trip to India, I'll make sure to stay a little longer.