Monday, February 11, 2013

Taj Mahal Magic

Sunday, January 19th - Jaipur to Agra

When I check out of the Mandawa Haveli Hotel, I ask if all of the bathrooms are as palatial as ours and I am politely informed that John and I were upgraded to a suite. Although the towels were not as plush as at the Trident Hotels, the vintage, two room suite gave us a sense of place and the sunken, scalloped shaped bathtub with ionic columns was fit for a Maharaja.  I settle our bill which is a reasonable 4500 Rupees for two dinners, internet and laundry.

Agra Traffic
Where is the bicycle?
Our driver arrives promptly at 8:30 A.M. for our 5 hour drive to Agra. Our departure is delayed 20 minutes as I search the street for an ATM to replenish our rupees.  Last night, I tried to coax two different ATM’s to spit out the requested money but either they were out of cash or didn’t like my card because I left empty handed. The first one that I try this morning is out of cash but happily the one across the street has a full belly and gives me 10,000 rupees; the equivalent of approximately $200.

The drive to Agra is along a new highway and there is a regard for traffic laws and free of livestock hazards. We stop once briefly for lime sodas and an overpriced plate of finger chips (French fries,) at a tourist hotel and restaurant along the highway. At 2:00 P.M. we reach the outskirts of Agra, maneuvering through congested streets with the usual mixture of livestock, humanity, cars, trucks, motorcycle and tut-tuts. There is a cacophony of horns and sputtering vehicles mixed with our driver’s mutterings and cell phone calls.

Bicycle Courrier
Bicycle Courrier
We arrive at the gated confines of another Trident hotel, a garden oasis in the heart of Agra and are welcomed with the expected fruity drinks. After the recording of our passports and the exchange of vouchers we are escorted to our room overlooking the pool and identical in its arrangement to our room at the Udaipur Trident hotel.  With an hour before our tour to Agra, John and I pass the time in the hotels lounge, playing rummy and sharing a plate of samosas.

Entrance gate to the Taj Mahal 
Our guide, “Sunny” arrives exactly at 3:30 and we are off to visit the Taj Mahal. He is young, self confident to a fault and wears trendy jeans and oversized sunglasses. For the first 10 minutes, John and I are minimally charmed by his cool fa├žade and practiced lines but by the time we arrive at the Taj Mahal, his mannerisms are already tiresome. There is no doubt that he is well informed but his affected pauses between recitations of facts, as if waiting for an applause, make me wish for a fast forward button. The monumental, red sandstone wall and entry gate, is impressive in itself, keeping the majestic elegance of the Taj Mahal a secret until one passes through. Sunny repeatedly talks metaphorically, of the bride, lifting her veil for her lover and waits for our approving nods and awed inhalations after each recitation of fact.

The Taj Mahal
John making friends

When we step through the gate I am genuinely delighted and impressed by the pristine beauty and symmetry of the “most beautiful building in the world.”  The late afternoon light is golden and the sky a flawless blue but John’s and my inhalations of awe do not satisfy Sunny and he continually prods us for superlatives. The fountains are dry which lessens the visual impact to some degree, but I have a good imagination and the long iconic reflecting pool is painted a aqua blue to maintain the illusion of water. There are throngs of tourists and it is impossible to take a photo without other tourists in view but we do the best we can and stroll in the direction of the palace.

Taj Mahal tourists
Putting on protective slippers

View of the Gate from the Taj Mahal 

A long line snakes around one side of the Taj Mahal and Sunny announces (drum rolls please,) that we have preferred tickets and do not have to wait in line. With a flourish, he passes us the required gauzy white shoe slippers so that the shoes of millions will not mar the marble floors and we are soon funneled into a circumambulation of the tombs within the small and dimly lit interior of the memorial palace. Photos are not allowed inside but we may take photos of the exterior and Sunny focuses obsessively on the multi color marble inlay and bas relieve carving along the exterior walls.  Admittedly, all is exquisite and the Taj Mahal is a spectacular architectural wonder, entitled to its World Wonder classification, but our guide is dulling its magic.

Detail of the Marble Carvings - Taj Mahal
Facade of the Taj Mahal

I soon surmise that this hype is to wet our appetites for a tour of a marble inlay workshop/factory following our visit here.   I tell Sunny that we do not want to go to this “workshop,” that I have been to similar workshops in Italy and in Egypt and understand the process and am simply not interested in visiting another.  John is in agreement but perhaps we should have conceded since John has never visited one of these marble inlay workshops. Sunny is disappointed but suggests plan B, a visit to Kohinoor Jewellers, an embroidery and jewelry gallery and museum.  Emphasizing the museum factor, he tells us of elaborate works of gold and gemstones and a world class tapestry gallery. Not ready to return to our hotel, we agree to this alternate plan and soon pull into the securely gated parking area in front of a large dark grey two story building.

Taj Mahal at dusk
We are escorted up a few stairs and enter a formal foyer where we are greeted by a slight and impeccably dressed man of near 70.  Along the walls of the hallway leading away from the foyer are a number of 4’ x 6’ stunning embroidered bird tapestries, illuminated and enclosed behind glass. Peacocks and parrots and intricate floral bouquets shimmer vibrantly and we study the detailed and three dimensional silk embroidery pieces with respect and awe. Our polished and gracious host explains the process and tells us that each of the works was created by hand and the master artist, Padmashri Shams, passed away in 1999.  When he asks if we would like to visit the gallery of masterpieces, John and I enthusiastically agree and we enter a vast darkened theater.  The double doors close behind us and as our eyes adjust to the dim light within, I can make out, a half dozen or more, immense frames along the walls. There are no seats within this theatre and our host carries a remote control. With the push of a button, soft music surrounds us and with another point and click the shade on one of the frames begins to rise. Peacocks even more stunning than the ones in the hallways come to life behind the glass. As a well rehearsed performer, with perfected voice control and command of his audience, our host talks about the artist, explains the process and wets our appetite for the 6 more tabloids to come.  John is mesmerized and I envy his ability to simply enjoy this moment.  I too am amazed by the work but even more so by the presentation and I have no doubt that after an hour of this man’s attention, and the expenses involved to orchestrate this performance art, that we will be funneled into a gift shop and heavily pressured to buy. There are 7 tabloids and our host unveils each one in due time and each unveiling is more impressive than the last.  The 4th art piece is a floor to ceiling embroidered tapestry of Jesus with a golden lamb carried upon his shoulders and a flock of three dimensional and glowing lambs at his feet. For a moment, I wonder if this presentation is motivated in the sharing of the Gospel but our host focuses on the technique and non secular reasons for the artist’s choice of subject and there is no mention of theology.  In due time, the remote control activates exhibit #5, our favorite. This tapestry is in the center of the room that is presented as a table top display. It is approximately 7 feet square and is an intricately embroidered chess board in play, with a surrounding 8” border of every conceivable animal and bird in minute detail. We continue around the room to the final piece, a lush bouquet of flowers that the artist created as a gift to his wife on their anniversary.  We are within the theatre for nearly an hour and blessedly, Sunny remains quiet and allows our gallery guide to do his magic.  Our host asks us what our favorite of the pieces is and John and I unanimously vote for the chessboard with the animal border.

During the presentation, our guide tactfully inquires about us, knows that I am an artist and a jeweler and that John is a student and from our “frumpy tourist,” dress, presumably surmises that fashion is not high on my chart.  Before entering the theatre, down the hallway, I saw a gallery of embroidered purses and shawls and I loathe the thought of being funneled through there.  When we leave the theatre, our host asks us if we would like to visit the jewelry gallery upstairs and we accept his invitation and glide up a long escalator to the second floor. The vast upstairs gallery glitters with jewelry cases and he leads us to a bank of cases displaying silver earrings and bracelets set with semi precious gems. Both John’s and my eyes dart around the showroom searching for more interesting jewelry. It takes him only a few seconds to realize our disinterest in the low end commercial jewelry before he escorts us across the room to admire the high end designer pieces. He reaches below the counter and pulls out a very large worn moss green and gold velvet box.  Within is a stunning ruby neckpiece fit for a princess and he urges me to try it on but I decline, feeling shabbily dressed in a two day dirty shirt, crumpled jeans and a less than stylish Patagonian jacket.  John loves exquisite stones and well designed jewelry and points out pieces and refers to gemstones that most 20 year old men would be clueless about.  John asks me a random question about a stone and breathes the phrase “Tucson Gem and Mineral Show” into his question.  Our host’s eyes appraise us with new light and he asks of we would like to meet his niece the designer of some of the jewelry that we are admiring.  A stylishly dressed woman in her mid 30’s appears momentarily and greets us both warmly and warily.  Although we exchange polite greetings, I don’t know what this introduction is gaining either of us.  She knows I am a jeweler and is likely feeling protective of her companies designs and although I carry my fold out business card, I resist passing it to her, not wanting to leave even a few of my jewelry design images behind in a jewelry manufacturing studio.  We talk briefly about our experiences at the Tucson Gem and Mineral show and she mentions her brother has just graduated from the GIA (Gemological Institute of America) in Carlsbad. She lifts her cell phone and a moment later an impeccably suited man in his early 20’s appears beside her. We exchange more polite handshakes and John tells them that he has toured the GIA campus in Carlsbad and that he is considering going there after he finishes at S.F.S.U.  As a precaution, when I travel abroad, I wear little or no jewelry and they ask me where my shop is located and I explain that my jewelry sales are mostly online and at weekend fairs and festivals. She asks the address of my web site and writes it down and I am again tempted to reach into my purse and hand them a card to validate myself, but do not. We thank them for their time, compliment them on their elegant designs and make our exit as gracefully as possible. We have been within this gallery complex for close to 1 ½ hours and have not seen a single other customer, but when we step onto the down escalator, I see our original host gliding up and a trail of some 25 tourists following behind. I smile inwardly, hoping that he has more success with them than he has had with us.

Before dropping us at our hotel, Sunny passes us an evaluation form to fill out. Each of our guides has requested that we fill out these reviews, explaining that they are required by the company and each time, I feel that I cannot be truthful because our answers are not confidential. I find it interesting when I ask him the name of the Jewelry and Embroidery gallery that we just visited and he cautions me not to mention that we visited there, lest he get into trouble. I check excellent in each of the boxes and hand the review sheet back to Sunny.

We are resigned to dinner at the hotel and remembering the affordable mojitos that we enjoyed at the Trident Hotel in Udaiper, we sit in the lounge and order two without referring to the menu. The drinks that arrive are disappointedly small and accompanied by a dish of potato chips and nuts but the bill is disappointedly large. The lesson learned tonight is that although the Trident Hotels may look the same, their bar and restaurant prices are not. After carefully examining the a la carte menu we opt for the buffet dinner which although pricy, is excellent and opulent and we consume large amounts of salad and raw vegetables, a luxury that we have been missing.

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