Our first stop was the site I was most looking forward to seeing, the Taj Mahal. A few individuals I know who had already visited the site all believed it was one of the most amazing historical sites they had ever seen, on top of that it is considered one of the seven wonders of the world. I was a little nervous when we first arrived, the fog was very thick and I wanted to be sure I was able to get a good view of this structure in all of its glory (and some good pictures to show everyone at home). Luckily the fog let up a bit while we were there, and I was not disappointed at all, it was an amazing sight to see. The story behind the Taj is almost as intriguing as the structure itself. It was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. The Emperor loved this wife more than any other wife, she unfortunately died while giving birth to their 14th child. Soon after the Taj was completed, the Emperor was thrown from power by one of his sons who had him imprisoned in Fort Agra, close enough to overlook the Taj. The circumstances regarding the building of the Taj and the eventual imprisonment of the Emperor by his son, seem to loosely reflect some cultural themes I observed while in India. Building this magnificent structure to show the love he had for his wife, and the extreme grief her passing caused him, the Emperor portrays the high importance of family that seems to be ingrained in the Indian culture. Even among non-family members such as co-workers, they seem to have a bond and closeness that is not often seen in my experience. Conversely the act of the Emperor's son executing all of the heir apparents to the thrown and imprisoning his own father to gain control exhibits a very brutal side of Indian culture, I see this in the poverty that exists all throughout India. It was especially sad to see the harsh conditions some of the Indian children were living in, especially considering all the wealth that surrounds them. In some ways these impoverished children, and all the extremely impoverished in general are like the imprisoned Emperor, who during his imprisonment, was only able to look upon the Taj as a symbol of the prosperity of his land, but he would never be able to really experience it again.
After visiting the Taj, we headed over to Fort Agra and got to see first had where Emperor Shah Jahan was imprisoned. The fort was very large and very decorative like the Taj, however I believe the fort is much older than the Taj, although I'm sure it has gone through phases of renovation and new construction over the years. During our time exploring Fort Agra, I felt as if I was a guest in the house of the monkeys. They were everywhere, it was really fun to watch them as they jumped around and climbed anything they felt like climbing. They didn't seem to mind being around people at all, it seemed as if they were just waiting for us to either leave, so they could have full run of the fort, or drop some food, so they could come swoop it up. A few of us tried to get close enough to get a good picture with a monkey while still maintaining a safe distance, and they would let you know if you were getting a little too close. Overall the fort was another amazing place to visit, the architecture was very detailed and elaborate, I can't begin to comprehend the work that went into all of the carvings and inlays found throughout the fort. The man hours and cost to build such a grand structure indicate that this was a very important sight during the time it was used as an actual fort and dwelling of the first Sultan of Delhi who lived at the fort.
The next morning we had the pleasure of riding an elephant to visit the hilltop Amber Fort. Much like Fort Agra, Amber Fort has very detailed and brilliant architecture. The inside is very ornate with many decorative carvings and inlays, I was once again amazed at the detail and what must have been the great cost that would have been needed to create such a structure. The elephant ride and the fort offered great views of the city surrounding the fort. One of the most notable attractions apart from the elephant ride was the Hall of Mirrors, although I tried to get a good picture of the mirrors reflecting the flash from my camera, it didn't turn out, but it was pretty amazing none the less. I later read after returning home, that it is said the entire hall can be lit at night by a single candle because of all the mirrors, that's something I'm going to have to see to believe.
Back in Delhi, we were able to visit Akshardham Temple, this is a Hindu Temple that unlike all the other places we had visited, is very new. The Temple was officially opened on November 6, 2005, that is a date that was easy for me to remember as it is my birthday. This temple was simply amazing, unfortunately we were unable to take pictures while inside the complex. The entire main complex was covered with carvings in stone, my favorite carvings were the elephants that were laid out around the main temple and told a story of Hindu history, specifically how the elephants were involved in history and why they are such an important animal. The gardens, fountains, and pools were exquisite, I only wish we would have been there to witness one of the water and light shows I saw in some of the post cards I bought at the gift shop. Considering that this structure was built in recent times, the cost of creating such an elaborate temple must have been staggering, but they did a great job making this truly impressive.
We visited a number of other important and interesting sights including the house that Gandhi stayed at while he was in Mumbai, it was interesting to read some of the letters he sent to people such as FDR and Adolph Hitler. We visited a number of Hindu Temples, museums and Elephanta Island. I could go on in detail about each of these but overall, I believe that I came away from my visits to these cultural sites with a great appreciation for Indian culture in general. I've traveled to many places in the world and I must say that the things I saw in India were more impressive and also more in number than anywhere I've visited before. I can see there is a great sense of pride in India regarding their past and place in history. This is a very strong culture, I have a feeling that I have only scratched the surface of all the greatness the country has to offer, and I am very grateful I have had the opportunity to see as much as I have.