India Revisited: Agra

We bade farewell to Jaipur and drove to Agra with an en route stop at Fatehpur Sikri, a fine example of a walled Mughal city with defined private and public areas. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I was so surprised by how much the process of accessing the site had changed (not necessarily for the good…) and how crowded it had become. It used to be you could drive right up to the entrance and there was hardly ever anyone there. Now there is a huge parking lot where you have to switch into battery operated buses into which they pack people like sardines and unexpectedly, it was here that we encountered the most aggressive and offensive hawkers of the whole trip. Built by Emperor Akbar in the late 1500’s, it is interesting to see the palaces of his three wives and various architectural details reflecting their divergent faiths: one was Islamic from Turkey, one Christian and one Hindu. Negendra, our guide, cherry-picked the highlights for us and we continued our journey.

We arrived in Agra, former capital of the Mughal Empire at its pinnacle of glory in the 16th and 17th centuries, a little road-weary and more than ready for what turned out to be a very late (but delicious) lunch at the stunning Oberoi Amarvilas. With just 102 rooms, and every single one features a full-on view of the Taj Mahal, there is no doubt that this Moorish and Mughal inspired property is the preferred address in Agra. A few bottles of Kingfisher beer and some Sula helped erase the last memories of the drive and the pesky hawkers. The very solicitous Food and Beverage Director, Deep, took charge and supplemented the wide variety of offerings on the buffet with some extra goodies like tandoori prawns, fresh garlic naan and a sweet, sticky donut-like confection for dessert that even I, who never eats sweets, had to admit it was well worth the calories! We settled into our rooms which were looking every bit as fresh and lovely as they did the first time I stayed here in 2003. Of particular note were the accents of turquoise color and a spectacular rug on the floor which I photographed as a note to self for future home-decorating ideas.

Tonight was our farewell dinner — it was hard to believe how fast these few weeks had flown by! We were fortunate in being joined this evening by Shantum Seth, renowned Buddhist scholar, teacher and guide to the sites associated with the Buddha. We started our evening with a short meditation followed by the opportunity to reflect upon the trip and to share our impressions with one another. It was a thoughtful and calming start to the evening and I loved hearing everyone’s impressions of the trip. We traveled to our dinner venue in golf carts with the silhouette of the Taj Mahal still visible on this moonless evening. We had a festive arrival with a long, marigold- strewn carpet and rose-petals galore into our outdoor venue situated on a small hillock overlooking Taj, which is not lit at night. We were entertained by a Bollywood flash-mob and encouraged to join the fun which Margaret and I did with great enthusiasm.

Saving the best for last, we awoke early to be at the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Built by Shah Jahan for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, upon her death in 1631, it is arguably one of the most famous buildings in the world, a testament to love and the iconic symbol of India itself. It took over 20,000 workers and craftsmen 12 years to build this mausoleum with its exquisite gardens and reflecting pools. It is widely believed that the Taj Mahal was designed to represent an earthly replica of the house of paradise. Its white marble walls are a showcase for the refined, artistic aesthetic that reached its peak during Shah Jahan’s rule. The Italian art of “pietra dura” was imported and used on the façade with tiny slivers of precious and semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, carnelian and turquoise were arranged in stylized floral designs set into the marble. Decorative panels flank the lower parts of the building with carved relief flowering plants and black marble calligraphy inlaid into the white marble with Koranic passages.

Shantum Seth and Negendra accompanied us and Shantum suggested a “walking meditation” as we approached the Taj, something I’d never thought of for previous groups, but it was very special. Eventually our meditative mood was broken by the un-suppressible urge to pull out cameras and start clicking. The monument was bathed in the golden light of the early morning, and I was very impressed to see that the gardens were planted and being tended to—an improvement since my last visit. Pictures were taken and memories forged as we went into the inner sanctum of the mausoleum which has an intricately carved marble screen around the two tombs. Interestingly, the placement of Shah Jahan’s tomb is the only asymmetrical element of the entire complex. Our visit was rounded out by Shantum reciting a Discourse on Love from Buddhist teachings while gazing at one of the largest symbols of love in the world and I share it with you below:

Discourse on Love

“He or she who wants to attain peace should practice being upright, humble, and capable of using loving speech. He or she will know how to live simply and happily, with senses calmed, without being covetous and carried away by the emotions of the majority. Let him or her not do anything that will be disapproved of by the wise ones.

“(And this is what he or she contemplates:)

“May everyone be happy and safe, and may all hearts be filled with joy

“May all beings live in security and in peace – beings who are frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, invisible or visible, near or far away, already born, or yet to be born. May all of them dwell in perfect tranquility.

“Let no one do harm to anyone. Let no one put the life of anyone in danger. Let no one, out of anger or ill will, wish anyone any harm.

“Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. Let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below, and across. Our love will know no obstacles. Our heart will be absolutely free from hatred and enmity. Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake, we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart. This is the noblest way of living.

“Free from wrong views, greed, and sensual desires, living in beauty and realizing Perfect Understanding, those who practice boundless love will certainly transcend birth and death”

Etena sacca vajjena sotthi te hotu sabbada.

(repeat three times)

(By the firm determination of this truth, may you ever be well.)

Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata 1.8*


Final preparations were made for packing and we embarked on our last (and thankfully the shortest) drive of the trip back to Delhi. Thanks to a much improved new highway, the drive time is now just 3-1/2 hours. We had day rooms at the sleek and chic Oberoi Gurgaon, conveniently situated just 15 minutes from the international airport, and our closely knit tribe disbanded in anticipation of late night departures. Helen gave me the great idea of ordering a pizza from room service which I hand carried on the plane and enjoyed 10 hours later somewhere over the north Atlantic as a far-preferable option over Air India’s limited menu on my long flight to Chicago. My own idea of condensing my number of checked pieces by packing the two pottery lamps I bought in Jaipur into one of my duffle bags was a bad one – both sustained “major injuries…”

I arrived home to Pittsburgh with sub-zero temperatures and more than a foot of snow on the ground, but rest assured, dear reader, that the memories of “Incredible India” burn brightly for all of us…Until the next time…

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