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Monuments and sarees: a tour of North India


I am not so sure now, only a frothing sea of name boards, but I can’t home in on ours. Excitement is now nudging anxiety. We had cleared customs without much drama; the guy had eyeballed me for a minute, then the nod. Delhi airport was bustling even at this bewitching hour. We’ll be back in four hours to catch the domestic flight to Jaipur. It was a rushed tour, a break within a break. The royal circuit had teased me for a while. Delhi, Jaipur and Agra , the package was a steal. We had already mapped out a Sri Lankan return; the fragrance of North India was just too heady. So three days were carved out with all due diligence, first Colombo then overnight to Delhi was the deal. Then a pleasant glitch, the flight into Delhi got delayed by more than a day. The airline sympathized and offered a three star apology in Negombo, at Goldi Sands hotel, a coastal resort. Our man in Delhi was flexible and pushed back the itinerary. A tropical outburst spurned a fling with the sea, but the buffets made amends. It was a cruel selection, savory rices, meats, and all that seafood, all cooked Sri Lankan style, a food lover’s utopia. It was a hilarious setup; we were wining and dining just a few miles from my wife’s home. My Mother in Law was delighted; we had hopped on a Three Wheeler and paid her a lightening visit.

But those banquets have been digested and remembered, I still can’t see our name board. “ Perera, Perera, that’s us,” she gestures with glee. I can see it now; I am enthralled by my own surname. We breathe easy; we will not be marooned. “Hi Mr. Jude, welcome to India”, Surinder our agent, greets us with a warm smile. A genial Sikh gentleman with a firm grip, a man in command. He leads us to the car, it’s almost one am, Delhi is till up. I guess a modern metropolis cannot afford much shuteye. We speed through the streets; the traffic is generally light. Soon we are at out first stop, the Grand Sartaj. I am unable to check the lay out, its dark and I am deadbeat, and we will leave in the dark as well. We talk business in the hotel foyer, and Surinder departs leaving his best wishes. My dollars parted I hope the unfinished end of the business is as satisfactory, our tour. We are led to our room; our luggage had preceded us. We had decided on a light sandwich, too late for dinner and too early for breakfast. I take a casual look at the menu card; the Biriyanis alone straddle two pages. A quick call confirms that nothing is impossible at the kitchen. I would hate to hurt my conscience; with a desperate sigh my wife resigns to her fate. She later confessed that it was the best she’s had; now who was right. With the belly stuffed, our bodies crave a rest. But it’s too late for that with less than three hours left. We book a wake up call, but I have no worries, my wife carries a natural alarm. We are up before the call, pleasantly refreshed. Adventure can be a strange boost. Our conveyance arrives before time; suddenly I feel more courageous. The domestic wing is crawling with passengers, does this place ever slow down. Soon we are en route to Jaipur, taking in the moving landscape below. The bird’s eye view of an ornate building basking in the middle of a pretty lake; on descent to Jaipur is particularly moving. We are later introduced to this water palace, Jal Mahal.

India's Amber Fort

India's Amber Fort

Jaipur Airport storms our appreciation with disarming ease. A sunny cluster of quaint red and pink buildings, it could even pass for some holiday bungalows. The pink would set the theme for the rest of the city. A few formalities and we are out. This time there is no wait; I knew what I was looking for. Ashok our driver, an elderly gentleman, with a grey moustache and a ready smile, greets us with a soft “Namaskar”, his palms gently pressed against each other. He has a paternal touch that feels so safe. Soon we are cruising through a maze of pink and pink, pink city I have been warned. It is a novel concept that stands out. Soon the car slows down next to an entrance to a building, in a street that has shop fronts right through. Hotel Fort Chander Gupt, we have arrived. Looks as always can be deceiving; we are led via a spacious foyer to an expansive hall bedecked with rich tapestries and exotic carpets. Soon we are tucking into a glorious meal of Naan, Dosai, sambol and igli on a sun blest open terrace. Mid meal; word arrives that our guide is in the foyer, Amber Fort and some saree shopping awaits us. Raju is a portly gentleman, with a well-manicured moustache and a jolly smile. Pink buildings and a pink wall keep us company along the way, there are restrictions on applying different colors to most of these buildings Raju explains, they are fiercely proud of their heritage. Amber fort earns a gasp, rearing on a hill it is an imposing citadel. I can see grandly attired elephants plodding along a giant causeway carrying their light loads. I so badly wanted the same entry, but my wife was not one to lurch. The sun beats down hard and October was supposed to be mild. But that’s soon forgotten as we journey through courtyard after courtyard, battlement after battlement, each step reminding us that we are on imperial property. The higher we go open balconies offer commanding views of the surrounding countryside; the Maharajahs sure knew how to pick their spot. The surrounding hills reveal a fortified wall around the palace; it still looks impenetrable. But the mirror palace blows us away; light from candle or sun is harvested to create dazzling optical illusions. It’s hard to draw away from the marble flower frescoes. While descending; Raju leads us to a courtyard where an animated audience seems to be in session. A snake charmer is in his element exciting a couple of deadly customers with his flute. Their hoods all spread out they are hypnotized by the sweet music and give us their best. On the way back a pink structure simply yells out for my attention. We stop in front of several stories of stunning latticed worked windows, Palace of Wind or Hawa Mahal, Raju introduces us. We return to base pleasantly exhausted. I am ready to recover my lost sleep, my wife recoils with shock. There is no getting away, sarees dance in her eyes, promises must be kept. Raju smiles with infinite wisdom. A quick lunch of Naan, Parata and hot curry and we are back in the pink. Raju first leads us to the fifth floor of some clothing emporium, a single price tag witnessed through the glass panel sends us packing to the car, what was he thinking. Surely there are better places to do business; I reaffirm our requirements. I can sense the light bulbs exploding in his mind. We get off near a corridor of shops hugging the pavement. Sarees block the view; my wife’s look confirms that we have it the mark. Manipuris, Kanchipurams, Silks, Kashmirs, terms from the past, terms from the present. My mother, aunt, and now my wife have had long standing love affairs with sarees. For them draping a saree is a labor of love, a sacred ritual. The haggling begins in earnest, two parties from two different countries engage in familiar commerce. She will not be out done, we come out with several purchases. They have both won. Raju smiles again, he has done this round many times before. We dine on yet another fabulous biriyani on the open terrace, a small dance troupe is strutting their stuff for our pleasure. Skyrockets streak across the air space above us, Diwali, the festival of lights is just around the bend. The pillows are soft and our submission is complete. The Taj Mahal beautifies my dreams. Tomorrow we leave for Agra by road; Fatehpur Sihkri will entertain us on the way.

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri

The car speeds along under good auspices, open expanses widen around us, desert country dressed in earthy hues of red and brown. We make a welcome stop next to a herd of camels and their keepers. It’s a long ride, but Ashok points out Fatehpur Sikri at last. A bespectacled young guy with an academic mien shakes hands with us. Vijay looks in his twenties with a kindly disposition. “Have you had your lunch sir, and how about Madame” he lives up to his looks. He takes us through another sprawling complex of buildings, graced with more ornate courtyards, terraces, archways, and royal gardens. The gardens are in full bloom and woo my wife; this is a splendid example of Mughal architecture. More intricate artwork fetes the eyes. It is a special day for us; our wedding anniversary is set amid imperial grandeur. We arrive at Agra and our next watering hole, the Ganga Ratan hotel. My wife inveigles her way in to another evening of saree hunting, and more bargains are made. A flurry of groping hands bother us on the roads, they speak good English, but strangely don’t understand the word “No.” Just ignore, Vijay imparts his wisdom. It is a charm. Vijay is a paragon of patience, I part with the heftiest tip of our tour, he deserves it. We hit the sack early; The Taj experience is near at hand. It’s a long queue; Vijay has already bought the tickets. Soon we are streaming through the gates, my heart is gyrating fast. Then it blossoms in to view, the one and only, the Taj Mahal. There is a palpable hush all around us; awe is in the air and naturally. This is a sweet sight. I can remember the little replica that adorned our cabinet at home in Kelaniya, my father had bought it on one of his many business trips to Agra. Soon we are slipping in to our protective footwear, the nerves helping us to lose our balance. The grand white domed tomb and the four minarets that stand guard claim our adulation. I must be hallucinating; the four pillars seem all at a slight incline away from the tomb, to protect the center in case of collapse; our man elaborates, Vijay is telepathic too. There is an air of mourning as we file past the caskets of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, not the real ones I am told, they are preserved further down. But it feels no less poignant and haunting, we are belittled by the aura of immortal love. Precious and semi precious stones masquerade as paints on the stunning mosaics that trail the eye. With a heavy heart we return to the light. A translucent glow radiates from the white marbled dome to the wide blue above, or is it my imagination. We collect our thoughts by the soft flowing waters of the ancient Yamuna as it glides past us. We still have four full weeks left with parents, family, and friends in Sri Lanka prior to Melbourne, now that’s a delicious problem to have.

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