The most beautiful man-made image of India has to be the ‘monument to love’ known as the Taj Mahal. The Taj, visible from approaching trains long before you arrive in Agra, is a must on any visit to northern India, but be prepared to be disappointed by Agra, the ugly town in which it is located; like a parasite, its dusty streets and haphazard architecture seem to exist solely because of its host. (I have visited twice in the last decade; astonishingly, the town has done little to improve itself).
Once inside the walls of the Taj Mahal complex, the visitor can leave behind the rubbish strewn, potholed roads, the fetid open sewers and hassles from rickshaw drivers and beggars, for one of the architectural wonders of the world. The whopping $33 entrance fee (for two foreigners) is well worth it.
As dramatic as the plot of a Bollywood blockbuster, the story of the Taj combines myth, heartbreak, family rivalries and death. It was commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child. So bereft was Shah Jahan, that he is said to have aged upon receiving the news, turning grey virtually overnight. Later that year construction began; it took until 1653 for the entire complex to be completed by an army of 20,000 artisans and construction workers from India and Central Asia and Europe.
Shah Jahan was subsequently overthrown by his son and imprisoned 1.5 km away in Agra Fort. For the rest of his life, he was tortured by the distant view of the Taj Mahal, unable to be near his beloved wife until his death in 1666. Today, they lie buried side by side inside the Taj.
The simplicity of the decoration, combined with calligraphic inscriptions of ayahs from the Qu’ran, combine to make it a stunning example of Islamic art. We are both learning Arabic at the moment, so we took a bit of extra time trying to decipher the calligraphy, but unfortunately given our remedial level of Arabic literacy, they were completely unintelligible!
The most striking thing about the Taj Mahal, apart from its size, is the brilliance of the white marble, which is studded with thousands of semiprecious stones. In 2002 it was decided that The Taj was looking a bit haggard, so she was given a multani mitti (face-pack). Made from an ancient Indian recipe used by local women, the mixture managed to turn back the signs of aging caused by traffic pollution. The result is a rejuvenated façade, positively radiant at sunrise, reflected in the ‘mirror’ of water in front of her, which confirms that she is ‘the finest of them all’.
There was one thing we simply had to do in Kolkata (Calcutta): visit ‘Mother’.
When Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Üsküp (now Skopje, capital of Macedonia) in 1910, her parents probably did not realise that one day their daughter would become the most famous Albanian since Skanderbeg.
Known worldwide for her efforts to alleviate suffering in the slums of Kolkata, Mother Teresa, the ‘Saint of the Gutters’, has been described as the embodiment of humility and charity, working tirelessly to heal the sick and comfort the dying.
A visit to the Motherhouse is humbling. The understated welcome from the Missionaries of Charity begins with you being ushered into a tiny courtyard, where two statues of ‘Mother’ stand. On the ground floor two rooms can be visited, with the exception of ‘Mother’s room, the rest of the house is the preserve of the sari clad nuns who serve the poor. The first contains Mother Teresa’s tomb, a large Bible, a crucifix and a few small benches. Visitors silently observe the tomb, occasionally groups enter and prayers are uttered aloud as a volunteer plucks marigold petals which are then laid on the tomb. Tranquillity fills the room and the bustle of Kolkata feels like it is a million miles away.
Next door, an exhibition room charts Mother Teresa’s life with ‘Mother’s’ quotations accompanying pictures of her with Pope John Paul II and various heads of state. The letters which she wrote as a teenager brim with religious fervour and a clear sense of vocation. In the age of the Internet and budget airlines it is hard to imagine that once she joined the Irish Order of Loreto nuns she never saw her parents again. This indomitable woman, who became hunched with old age, feet twisted with bunions, traded her habit for a white sari (the clothing of street sweepers). Her willingness to identify with the poor in a way which missionaries in India had not previously done changed the world.
Upstairs visitors can peek into Mother Teresa’s room (photography is prohibited). A bed, desk, crown of thorns and world map are all that adorn the space. Though its location above the kitchen makes it the hottest room in the house, ‘Mother’ insisted that no AC or fan be installed.
In the West, Mother Teresa is revered, stories of how she eschewed all luxury, waste and frivolity abound (For the first and only time in history, the Nobel Prize banquet was cancelled in 1979, she requested $7000 which would have been used to pay for the lavish dinner for 250 guests be donated to charity). Yet some in Kolkata felt that she made the city famous for all the wrong reasons (slums, poverty and disease) while others criticised her inflexibility on the question of contraception in the face of the explosion of AIDS and Hepatitis.
Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, has also questioned her acceptance of donations from dictators and corrupt tycoons including Robert Maxwell who stole $450 million from his employees’ pension funds, the Duvaliers in Haiti and Enver Hoxha in Albania. . An unwillingness to disclose the sources or amount of donations received by the Missionaries of Charity has also led to controversy. Mother Teresa has also been criticised for her anti-abortion stance and was famously called a “religious imperialist” by the feminist Germaine Greer.
Whatever you think of Mother Teresa, it is undeniable that her work has shed light on the plight of the poor, those she called “the throwaway of society”, the invisible poor, the “pavement people” those whom the world has forgotten and failed. A visit to the Motherhouse is one of the highlights of Kolkata – you will be amazed to see how this woman continues draw together people from all over the globe 14 years after her death.
Our arrival in Varanasi, the holiest place for Hindus to die and be cremated, is an experience that will stay with us for a very long time. We arrived on a long distance train from Calcutta (Kolkotta) and were absolutely exhausted after being on the move for over 40 hours. The train had been a shock for Martin – I saw the look on his face the moment we boarded the sleeper carriage and made our way towards our upper bunks in Sleeper Class.
Anyway, we had made it to Varanasi shortly before midnight, and by the time we negotiated the auto rickshaw fare to the guesthouse we had randomly selected from the Lonely Planet and fended off various attempts by the driver to drop us off at a hotel where he could earn commission it was getting very late indeed.
Upset that we could not be convinced to go to a hotel recommended by him, the driver eventually delivered us to the backstreets of Varanasi with a curt flick of the hand, spitting the words:
“You walk! Manikanika Ghat, you walk 500 metres. Down there.”
“Down where?” we wondered.
We walked. First down brightly lit alleys where policemen with shotguns sat chatting, then the wrong way down towards where the ‘untouchables’ (those from the lowest castes in Indian society) had stacked huge amounts of wood for the funeral pyres that Varanasi is famous for. We were so lost that only when a local came towards us shouting did we notice that we were surrounded by wood and dangerously near the ‘burning ghat’ (the area where corpses are burned each day). Turning back, we walked down alleys which looked identical except that sometimes the amount of cow dung was greater, or there were goats rather than stray dogs, or, and this was the most frightening: bulls!
Bulls seemed to be unsettlingly common in the back alleys that night. Black, with large horns illuminated by the moonlight, they stood like minotaurs observing us with unblinking eyes. Eventually we got to a place where it was so dark that we had to get out the torch, venturing into yet smaller, darker alleys reeking of urine and filled with a copious minefield of dung and dog faeces, we passed tiny temples and heard the chants of those who run through the streets bearing corpses on stretchers. The faint whiff of incense also clouded the air.
We confronted bulls that were blocking an entire alley and we were forced to take an alternative route. In another alley I hesitated just long enough for a massive bull to become tetchy and swing his horns at me, catching my backpack, I was only just able to steady myself enough to avoid being catapulted down a flight of stairs a metre away.
Just when we decided that this pamplonan nightmare was all too much, we found the guesthouse that we had been looking for. It was closed. For 10 minutes we stood outside shouting out hellos, hoping to wake someone there, weighed down by heavy backpacks, sweating, , T-shirts stuck to our bodies, which had not been washed since we left Chittagong two days before, we stank. The next morning we would go out for lassi with two NGO volunteers who would exclaim “Gee we didn’t get to bed until well after 2 am and come to think of it we did hear someone shouting in the street…”
Defeated, we decided to make our way to the desperate Kashi Guesthouse. We knew that Kashi must be desperate because they had painted a ridiculous number of ads on walls throughout the area, every one of which had arrows pointing in their directon. It was impossible to escape their self promotion in the labyrinth leading down to Manikarnika. This contrasted starkly with our original destination, Shanti Guesthouse, which was clearly so popular that word-of-mouth was enough. We gave in and shuffled back to Kashi, where the lights were on, the gate was open, but nobody appeared to be home. As Martin climbed the stairs up into the house a dog began barking wildly. A neighbour then entered the property and woke the owner who told us that there were no rooms left. Hopelessly, we turned to leave, but then he mentioned that he did have a dorm.
The dorm consisted of 5 beds in the creepy basement, when he turned on the light we saw that one was occupied by an Indian man. The prison-like single beds looked older than both of us, the room resembled a windowless dungeon with a bare concrete floor. With nothing else open, this was our only choice; the owner set the price at $1.3 per bed. We asked if there was a shower and if we could have some clean sheets and then bedded down fully clothed for a few hours until dawn. When we rose, we scrubbed ourselves in the filthy bathroom with soap and cold water, changed our clothes and checked out in a hurry.