I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

O'er the ramparts we watched

One last look at the Agra Fort. It looks a lot more like our concept of a fort from the outside.

Interior details

This hallway was one of my favorite things at the Agra Fort, and unfortunately these are two of the pictures that I didn't take. I cleaned them up but they were too underexposed to capture the details -- the way that squinch is entirely carved out of stone.

Agra Fort

A couple of pictures of the Agra Fort (like the Amber Fort in Jaipur, it's more of a palace than a stockade, though fortified with huge sandstone ramparts) and then I think I'm finally done with Agra.

These geometric gardens mimic the patterns in Indian carpets. The gardens at the Taj Mahal unfortunately were replaced by the English with something more to their taste, but I imagine there would have been a lot of this.

House arrest

This is the room at the Agra Fort where Shah Jahan spent the last eight years of his life, under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb. If you're going to be a prisoner, it might as well be in a palace.

And it does have a lovely view of the Taj Mahal.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Welcome to the working week

Lunchtime at a textile company in Jaipur.

One problem with taking any kind of tour is all of the shops they manage to include, where in addition to learning about traditional crafts you have the opportunity to spend large amounts of money. Not that there's any obligation, of course. It's all educational.

It's purely coincidental that several of my co-workers now own hand-printed textiles from Jaipur.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Indian morning

This is the early morning fog on the road to Agra. I'm throwing it in here because it's one of my favorite pictures from India and because it perfectly captures my mood on this otherwise gorgeous morning in New York.

Sunday bird blogging

A lovely long-tailed shrike in Keoladeo National Park.

I have to go into the office yet again today -- we cut over to some new servers last night and I have to do more testing -- so I'm starting to feel as though I will never manage to finish the India pictures.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saturday reflections

On the river behind the Taj Mahal -- the guy in the uniform must have been getting private ferry service across the river.

The mosque

This mosque sits on the west side of the Taj Mahal gardens, facing the side of the tomb. (Another building, similar in design, possibly used as a guesthouse, sits on the east side.) The Taj Mahal is closed to tourists on Fridays because of services at the mosque.

The Taj Mahal is so famous, and iconic, that it's not surprising that there are numerous myths about it (some of which my guide repeated as fact, like the story that Shah Jahan intended to build a second Taj Mahal in black stone on the other side of the river.) There are claims that this is actually a Hindu monument, built by the Hindu king Parmar Dev in the 12th century, rather than by Shah Jahan in the 17th, and there have been a couple of lawsuits in Indian courts making this argument.

But you just have to look at it -- this could be in Iran.

Me in Agra

I long ago gave up the need to have a lot of pictures of myself in front of various landscapes and landmarks; I know what I look like and so do my friends and family. It's not that I never want pictures of myself  -- before selfie was even a word, I used to take them occasionally when I traveled, by balancing my camera on some rock or piece of furniture and setting the timer. And I do use my phone once in a while -- I took a few selfies at Petra, after I'd finished the climb to the Monastery on foot and I was feeling rather proud of myself, for example. 

But I have at least fifty (unnecessary) pictures of myself in front of the Taj Mahal, and even more at the Agra Fort, because the guide kept grabbing my camera and taking them. I understand that most tourists probably ask him to take pictures, but I couldn't get him to understand that I didn't particularly want them. In the end I just smiled and posed.

At the Agra Fort, I think he was just trying to hurry me along, because sometimes when I'd say wait, I want a picture of that, he'd try to take it for me. So it became a kind of tug of war, and I didn't always win. I ended up with fewer photos than I might have had otherwise of the things I wanted to take pictures of, and so many pictures of myself that even my mother might have found it excessive.

Don't blame this one on me

This is the inside of the Taj Mahal. No photographs are allowed inside, and after berating other tourists who were breaking the rules, my guide took this picture on my phone.

He explained that photos were banned because they needed to keep the crowds moving, but we weren't blocking anyone. (A kind of dubious justification if you ask me, but he didn't.)

So the quality is what we deserved under the circumstances, but honestly you can't really see that much inside. It's sumptuously decorated, with elaborate carvings and inlaid semiprecious stones on the walls, beneath Persian arches and that massive dome. But it's dark and hot and very, very crowded, so you can appreciate the craftsmanship outside much better.

And of course, it is a tomb. Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves, so the sarcophagi behind those elaborate marble screens are empty; the actual graves of Shah Jahan and the wife he built the monument for, Mumtaz Mahal, are underground. (She died giving birth to their 14th child, and, honestly, who can blame her?) 

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Taj up close

Those petals on the top of the main dome are an inverted lotus flower, representing Hinduism. The crescent moon at the top is for Islam.

I know you already know what it looks like...

...but here it is again anyway, in a somewhat less claustrophobic mood.

The scaffolding around the minaret is for cleaning. I like it; it makes it more of a real place and not just a picture postcard (from back in the days when we actually sent postcards.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Great Gate detail

If you're thinking this looks an awful lot like a mosque, complete with calligraphic verses from the Koran, that's not a coincidence.

I probably knew that Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal, was Muslim, but I never really thought of the Taj as an Islamic landmark. But that's exactly what it is. The Mughals, who ruled India from the 16th to the 18th centuries, were a Central Asian people claiming descent from both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Though Shah Jahan himself was not all that tolerant of non-Muslims, the Mughal culture was a fusion of Hinduism and Islam, reflected in art and architecture.

I don't see a lot of Hindu influence here, but there are lotus motifs all over the Taj Mahal, acknowledging the Hindu sacred flower.

The Great Gate

This is the entrance to the gardens; the Taj Mahal is at the far end on the banks of the Yamuna river. It's the only marble building in the complex -- the others, like this, were built of sandstone.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Not only do most of the visitors have to stand in a ridiculously long line, they do so while wearing these protective covers over their shoes.

Which means that you have to walk very carefully so you don't slip on the marble.

With regard to the previous post

I preferred that dreamy vision of the Taj Mahal in the distance, because this was the experience up close -- somewhat less romantic.

In fairness, once you were through this gate, the grounds are large and it's much less crowded. Until you actually go inside, that is. One perk of spending so much money on this tour was that it included a VIP ticket to the Taj, which meant a shorter line going through the metal detectors, and a much, much, MUCH shorter line going into the monument. The non-VIP line wrapped most of the way around the building; I had to shuffle up one staircase and I was in.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Taj Mahal

This was the best view -- seen from the Agra Fort, late in the afternoon, when the city haze turned the famous domes into something out of a dream.

The Road To Agra

I had other things to do this weekend and so never managed to tackle Agra. My pictures are almost all of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, but I'm not sure I could have managed to capture the chaos of the streets of Agra with a mere camera anyway.

Each of my guides, when hearing my itinerary, wanted to know why I was going to Bharatpur one day, then driving all the way back to Jaipur, only to drive back to Agra the next day. It would have made more sense to stay in Agra and then go to Bharatpur -- less than an hour away -- from there.

And if I'd had more time to plan, I probably would have done that. But I didn't intend to go to Agra at all in the beginning; I planned my days around Jaipur. I booked the Agra trip right before I left because it seemed silly to go all the way to India and miss the Taj Mahal. It was $400 for the one day trip to Agra and back from Jaipur, and I wasn't looking forward to all of those hours in a car, but who knows if I'll ever get back to India? So I gritted my teeth and booked it.

And I'm so glad I did. The hair-raising drive back in the rain may have taken years off my life, but I loved the view of India I got from the highways and rest stops. And now I never have to go back to Agra, and that's a good thing, too. If I had been staying there, I think I would have hated it, and it would have colored how I felt about India. It was too much, in every possible way.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Streets of Jaipur

So much of my time in India was spent driving somewhere that a lot of what I saw of Indian life took place on the street or along the highway, and the pictures I could take were shot through dirty windows while speeding down a highway. Some of them came out, most of them didn't. Some of them aren't great but are interesting enough to post anyway, because when I see them I smile and remember, Yeah, that's what it was like.

Faces of India

Speaking of not so great pictures...

The sun was behind this monkey so I couldn't get a great shot, but I happened to be taking a picture of it when that huge bird -- I'm assuming it's a kite as there were a lot of those around Jaipur -- swooped into the frame.

With better light and a longer lens it would have been an amazing picture, but in photography as in life sometimes we get what we get.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday bird blogging

This white-throated kingfisher at Keoladeo National Park was way back in the underbrush, so this is a terrible photograph, but those colors demand to be shared anyway.

We stopped at Chand Baori on our way back from the bird sanctuary, so logically this is actually the next batch of pictures to sort through. But I'll probably save most of the bird pictures for later in the year when I'm stuck photographing the same old robins and blue jays in New York, and do the rest of my Indian trip instead.

Plus I have to go into the office today, which sucks on so many levels, so I won't have time to work on photos.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Chand Baori carvings and reliefs

More of the architecture close up

Plus parrots.

The good seats

The stairs surround the well on three sides; the fourth wall is this temple.

The small chambers on either side of the pillars were the royal lounges, so they could enjoy the cool air without having to mix with the riffraff.

The steps

Chand Baori is more than 100 feet deep and has 3500 steps. It was built in the 9th century, which is astounding to me -- I can't believe I'd never heard of it before I went there. (I knew vaguely about stepwells because I'd seen some photo essays on them.) 

Even with the aid (presumably) of elephants, it's an amazing feat of engineering. After more than a thousand years, the stones are all still perfectly symmetrical.


There were once more than 3000 stepwells in Northern India. The silty soil doesn't hold water, so they provided a way to store the water from the annual monsoons. People gathered to get drinking water, to bathe, and also to find some refuge from the heat of the summer -- in the largest stepwells, like this one, Chand Baori, east of Jaipur, the temperature down by the water would be much cooler than up at ground level.

Of course, once you'd carried a few pails of water up all those steps, you weren't likely to feel all that refreshed.

Saturday reflections

One of the giant silver urns in the City Palace in Jaipur.

Kesar Kyari Bagh

This garden, in the lake below the Amber Fort, was originally built to grow saffron for the maharajahs.

Friday, February 17, 2017

More monkeys

More fun than a balcony of monkeys

I'd seen a few monkeys by the City Palace downtown, but they clearly loved the Amber Fort. They stayed high up on the walls and balconies and seemed to mostly ignore the tourists. Almost as if they owned the place.

Practical decoration

These screens are each carved from a single piece of marble. They provided both privacy for the inhabitants of the palace, and ventilation during the hot summer months.

And I love how that window in the center appears to be a painting hung on the wall.

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