India is huge and magnificent and will remain etched in your mind forever. The new and the old. The elegant and the grotesque. The great and the small. But it can turn into a wash of exotic and bewildering icons carved into every nook and cranny of massive structures. It can be appear opaque and incomprehensible and as foreign as it actually is. However, with a little background information, it can also be a historical gem, a broad sub-continent full of great vestiges of divine inspiration.
From my travel journal:
January 1991. Sunrise at the Taj Mahal. The morning chill keeps a blanketing mist hanging in the air. The sounds of Agra press in from beyond the walls surrounding this immortal stone shrine. They were gentle at first: birds, dogs and whispers. Now the people have arrived, striding like predators moving in toward the best perches from which to kill.
The Taj: a delicately dabbled, mistily maculate blanket of white hovering just in front of the morning dew. Its curves and recesses, which should give it depth, body, mass, make it only flatter, shallower, lighter. The engulfing fog, formerly just faint wisps, bathes the background and gives the building its lift and lightness. Like a delicate push from an amorphous mass to a morphous monument. White against white; light versus light. Mist or Mahal: few care which flight lifts higher. It's an ancient equal battle for pure-color dominance, an age-old fight for white.
India is a land of extreme contrasts unlike any other place I have been. The desperation of utter poverty propped up alongside the effusion of boundless wealth. The long-term stability of stone covered by the man-made fragility of crumbling plaster. The patient determination of a sculptor compared to that of a quick-fix repairman. Everywhere you turn there is evidence of glorious accomplishment mixed in with a harsh dose of the simple subsistence reality in which most people live. The 17th-century, riverside Taj Mahal is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Mughal architectural design; but how many people take the time to look off the polished pristine terrace at the wood lean-tos built in the banks of the Yamuna River? Which is the real India? Both are.
As the morning colors find purchase, the mist settles more thickly. The show begins from the top, playing across the marble roof. A band of pink stripes the sky behind only the central dome. More and more light strikes from the right and casts volume across the curved surface of the cusped bulb. Silhouetted against the hue, stark and backlit, is the Muslim sun slung over a crescent moon. The band of color slowly consumes the whole of the upper reaches. The faint umber shadow gives way to playful pink and orange stretching toward the base.An elderly pilgrim with badly bowed legs and a light wrap hobbles forward. Head cotton-covered and eyes clear, he bobs forward like a pawn before a castle, a pupil before its university, a pauper before wealth unimaginable. And yet, this is a citadel that he can access. It was built not for isolation, not as a fortress; it is a memorial, an ever-lasting tribute to love. This is splendor from crushed hands and a very heavy heart. This is ephemera mastered in stone, taught to endure.
India is a holy land. Hinduism, one of the world's great and oldest religions, began in the realm that is today India. Buddhism was borne forth in 500 BC from the town of Bodhgaya after the Buddha (once a Hindu named Siddhartha Guatama) achieved enlightenment under a Bo tree whose offshoots still grow in the same spot. Sikhism, which intended to bring together the best of Hinduism and Islam, and Jainism, as old as Buddhism and revering all forms of life, were both introduced in India. Islam, although imported, also flourished on this soil.
These religions still coexist within the democratic system of modern India. And yet, much of the society is divided into broad categories, most strikingly those defined by religion. This should come as no surprise. India's long and rich history is principally a back-and-forth battle involving different groups of Hindus and Muslims. Traces some as fabulously glorious as the Taj Mahal, others no more than heaps of battered masonry still fill the landscape. They are reminders that even though civilizations rise and fall, and people pass on, some things should and do endure.
The color has dipped below the balcony. The fog is dissipating. Depth grows. Light fills the right of the grounds. All four towers glow to the sunward. It is day. It is dawn. Peace. The morning symphony's tonic has been struck. Now, the architectural blossom opens. Radiant and clear, unforgettable, soft behind the lingering foggy pane of unpolished evening soot but soon to be cleansed by the burn of the sun. Flaring and filling. Slowly unmasked. Balance. Harmony. A memory with love-torn edges, a love of memory-rent beauty. The past in the present. It is hard not to think of love.
Let us take a quick walk through some of the glory of India's past. Great leaders helmed great movements, great dynasties, and great empires. They left behind as many marvels as they razed to make place for their dreams.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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