The Taj Mahal – It ‘ain’t’ just another monument.

Tree at the Taj
Tree at the Taj

There is only one picture that captures the essence of the Taj Mahal. A forelorn Princess Diana sitting in front of the flowing fountains pondering her life gave us all a glimpse into her vulnerability. As the folklore goes, the picture was taken during the time that she and Charles were falling on troubled waters, and later that year they split.

The Taj creates a ‘feeling’ inside you. It makes you feel a bit more ‘exposed’, like someone is peering deep within. It is all that life is: love, despair, hope and tragedy, joy and madness. The fact that a man made building can create such a lasting memory is a testament to its power. I was moved by the sheer size of the monument, a tribute to the Shah’s dead wife. It is so big and so unusual in its stature that they say astronauts can pinpoint it from space. The words that come to mind are majestic, grande, immense, incredible and crowded!

Taj Mahal Pool
Taj Mahal Pool

Yes, apparently, I was not the only person that wanted to see the Taj Mahal on that given Tuesday. Everyday there are tens of thousands of visitors to the Taj. Its probably the single biggest ‘tourist attaction’ in the World. And, what is odd about this fact is that this beautiful, magical tomb is in Agra, one of the dumpiest towns I’ve visited in all of India.

Details of the Taj
Details of the Taj

For a town receiving millions of visitors per year, Agra has no supporting infrastructure. There is only one extremely narrow and small road leading through Agra to the Taj to support all the tour busses, cars, taxis and local movers for all. There are few hotel choices within the mid range and the prices are jacked up. The food choices in the restaurants are minimal with food prices unusually high. It is also dangerous to venture out too far at night due to a high crime rate in Agra itself. So, this begs the question, with all the millions of dollars coming from visits to the Taj Mahal, where is the money going? My personal opinion is that there are a lot of political pockets being lined with Taj rupees. It is well known that India’s politicians live like their preceding kings. There is a long history of bribery and kick backs which has continued to plague their political system. However, this is still no reason not to protect, nurture and support the greatest tourist attraction in India. The Taj is a ‘must see’ on the list of things to do in India. Though, if you go, I would recommend staying out of Agra and going to the Taj as a day trip. This way you’ll have the experience without the headache.

Sepia Taj
Sepia Taj

It is well worth the trip to see, feel and sense the love and anguish in the walls of the Taj Mahal. Just don’t expect to be the only one there to see its majesty, as the Taj is never lonely for company.

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Munnar is Tea Heaven if you can stomach the drive.

Mel & the Tea
Mel & the Tea

Munnar is a hill station nestled in the Western Ghats of Southern India! Magnificent Views of jungle, then mountains, and the tea plantations cover the topography. It is a spectacle to see such varieties of green in this magical place also known for all the spices we have grown to love in the gorgeous and zesty South Indian food!

Tea Lady hard at work
Tea Lady hard at work

The only drawback to this area is getting there. From Cochin, a main city hub in Kerela, it’s a winding, narrow, heroic drive that makes your stomach feel like its on a 5 hour roller coaster. Add to this the honkers, tour busses, and the m any traffic slow downs, and you have one heck of a ride to get to the top of this World. If you have travelled the road to Hana in Maui, you will be able to relate to the potential barf feel of such a car trip to Munnar. That being said, if you are of strong fortitude, and love the fresh air and scenery of mountainous regions, you will love The area of Munnar.

Scenic View Munnar
Scenic View Munnar

One of the non-touristy and memorable things we did in this area, was to hire a guide to take us trekking beyond the tea plantations. We made an arrangement with Jayshungar, a wonderful guide who loves nature and is an advocate for a more environmentally sensitive India. He helped to shake the cobwebs in the brain from such a long car journey.

Munnar Tea Pickers
Munnar Tea Pickers

Making the equivalent of about $8.00 a week, the ‘tea ladies’ work picking tea leaves for up to 12 hours per day. Their charisma and smiles seemed to tell the story of so many Indians. Hard working and very proud of their daily accomplishments, they were happy to share. It is this sense of satisfaction in life, whether false or not, that seems to be such a part of the Indian character. These Tea Ladies, with their broad smiles will be a lasting memory of my Munnar trip!

Varanasi – A spiritual slap to the senses!

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All I can say about Varanasi is summed up with the acronym O.M.G.  It is one of those places that cannot be described and must be experienced.  This seems to be the same comment I am making about India as a whole.  However, Varanasi is all the good, the bad and the ugly within one city.  Varanasi is the birth place of Shiva, the destroyer in Hindu mythology.   Varanasi is the oldest living city in the World, 3500 years old. There are 3 million people within this massively crowded, polluted and congested city.  Many Hindus come from all over India to die in this eclectic and eccentric town.  Why? One reason, to be burned and cremated along the holy Ganga river and ascend to a higher level of being.

As our guide Raj mentioned, people come to this holy city for earning, learning and burning!  The Ghats are the heartbeat of Varansi, also known as Banaras or Kashi.     The 84 Ghats are a grouping of steps that provide an entrance to the river Ganga.  There are different ghats for different activities at different times of the day.  In the morning you will see people purifying themselves with a dunk at one Ghat. While another Ghat you will see the Dhobi wallas, beating the laundry. Another Ghat is  used for Aarti, a holy Hindu ceremony to either bless the coming of a new day, or to bless the River Ganga.  And there are two Ghats devoted to cremation.  This Ghats are  life force of Varanasi and well worth a walk as well as a boat ride with a local.  Walking along the Ghats is as if you have hit the super charge button and zoomed into a past World.  Many of the rituals of each Ghat have been going on for many, many years.

Of course, this is not for the feint of heart.  Even getting to the Ghats can be a challenge as you navigate with caution.  Getting to the Ghats provided the most interesting of all traffic congested rides of my life.  The ideal mode of transport is a bicycle rickshaw, as it is quicker and easier to move through the congestion.  The only problem, is the noise and air pollution.  If you are  claustrophobe do not come to Varansi!  But, if you want an adventure, then do not hesitate.  It’s worth it!

There is so much to write about this city, but the main thing that makes Varanasi different is the burning ritual.  To see and experience the ritualistic creation of cremation on such a visceral level is something I will never forget.  It was not a sad feeling, nor disheartening to experience this.  It was simple, paying homage to the end of a life.  Hindus believe that this ritual is a sacred rite of passage to a better afterlife.  I walked through two burning Ghats with the utmost of respect in my heart.  It seems to be a simple and justified concept that allows closure.  Of all the things I’ve experienced, this will be one that I will remember with fondness, not sadness.  I understood it.  As my friend Vikesh said, Death is simply a part of Life.  Hindus do not shy away from it, as westerners do. They embrace it as a fact of life, without all the baggage.  We are born. We live. We die.   No matter what your inclination or religion, you will be affected by this city.  Varanasi is a place you must experience.  It is a must do on the list of things one must do in India.   Image