Day 126 – the Taj Mahal

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We wake up early to get to the Taj Mahal before the tourist crowd. We are lucky to be here in the middle of the off-season so it is extremely quiet and we actually get photos of each other standing alone in front of the building. It is not too hot as the sun slowly rises around the four pillars and the marble glitters. It is so stunning. The inlay of black onyx, carnelian, mother of pearl, tiger’s eye, jasper, bloodstone and lapis lazuli are in intricate floral designs and verses from the Qu’uran.

After breakfast we go to see the Red Fort, which was a palace and then later a prison for Emperor Shah Jahan. As we walk through with the guide, my imagination does me the favour of filling the courtyards with bustling courtiers in sheer veils, jewel encrusted lords and politically weighted glances. I am not listening to a word the guide is saying. I snap back to attention but it is getting really hot and it is only 10.30.

We are taken to see some workshops where local artisans embroider velvet with silk and carve intricate marble and gemstone tables, plates and statues of gods and elephants, but by mid-afternoon we just go back to the hotel and its swimming pool. I start doing laps and realise how much I miss the ocean. I haven’t been immersed in water since Bali. Over a month. That is probably the longest I have gone without a salt-water fix. Within minutes my breath, strokes and mind find simple rhythm and I feel my mind return to the same focus and meditative state I used to get when I swam across the bay at Malabar. I finally get tired and get out to sit by the pool and read but the flies are driving me insane in the thick, hot air. I can’t read so I sit and stare at the bright blue water. I’m suddenly overcome with the knowledge that this spiritual path in starting to overtake everything else in my life. Suddenly, nothing else seems as important. Everything has been sacrificed for this journey to enlightenment; my relationship, my physical home, my university degree… Everything has just dissolved in this burning fire of desire for union with the divine truth that is the universe. Love has gone from the external as it now comes from deep within, money has become a means to walk the physical path in search of that consciousness, family and friends are either either supportive of my decisions or secretly think I’m crazy and yet I have never felt more alive, more close to that truth and more aware of my essential nature that permeates all illusion. After last night’s ‘supermoon’ I feel driven to pursue this spiritual passion has gone from a flickering candle to a raging inferno, illuminating my one true path.

Day 125 – the beauty of Vrindavan, Agra and Miss India

After the continental hotel breakfast, Pri and her friend Ashley and I leave Delhi. I have missed hotel food like this but I can’t help but feel guilty that I get to enjoy this luxury. It feels so far from my spiritual purpose and from the rest of India.

We stop in Vrindavan to see a 400-year-old Govinda temple where we have to keep our glasses in our pockets. The guide has told us that the monkeys will take our eyewear straight off our faces, so as we enter the temple he grabs a 3-metre pole to keep the primates at bay. The guide then leads us to the Yamuna River and speaks quickly about its significance. We ask to get closer to see it and maybe put our hands in it and although he says yes, he turns around and takes us straight back into the home of Krishna where we wash our hands with the water from the holy Yamuna River anyway. We don’t buy the garland of jasmine flowers, but continue in through the tiled walls. Each tile is inscribed with the names of families that have made considerable donations to the temple. The guide leads us in a prayer at a non-descript corner and then into the room where Krishna apparently rested after battling the cobra in the Yamuna river. In this room, a priest sitting before a curtain speaks in a barely audible whisper in what we believe is a prayer. Suddenly, in one swift dramatic gesture, he flings back the sparkling curtain, revealing a setting of statues that include the baby Krishna, his parents Vasudheva and Yusodra and the black-faced incarnation of Yamuna. The priest then he pulls out his receipt book and is asking our names. I am so grateful Pri is sitting next to me; she is switched on enough to realise exactly what he is doing. He is trying to get us to repeat that we will donate over 11,600Rs ($232 USD) for our own family tiles. He tells us that the donation will go to the widows home, feeding them while they pray endlessly over the inscriptions of our names. I start to feel guilty that I haven’t brought my wallet with me (who thinks to bring a wallet to the temple), so that I can’t even make a small donation but the priest quickly becomes frustrated when Pri refuses to agree to pay the 11,600Rs. He becomes argumentative before reluctantly finishing the blessing, tossing a jasmine garland over our heads and giving us a small spoon of sugar to eat. He all but kicks us out of the holy home of Krishna. As we re-emerge into the street amid the stalls hawking images of the young blue god and his trademark flute, the smells of open sewerage and the roaming gangs of monkeys, Pri tells the guide as he walks too quickly that Hinduism is not about that. The guide seems annoyed and as we get caught behind a rickshaw, we lose him for a moment in the winding back streets. He finally turns around and yells at us to keep walking through the crowd. We hurry back to the car. Apparently it is too late in the day to stop at Mathura, so we leave immediately for Agra and I am glad to be leaving Vrindavan.

As we enter the city of Agra, I am suddenly filled with this overwhelming feeling of pure love. I am about to see the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, one of the greatest monuments of marital devotion and the image of which I have been staring at in travel magazines for years. Here I am, entering Agra, about to see this incredible building. I almost want to cry with joy. The white dome comes into view in the distance. Although it looks like a mosque, it is actually a tomb for the second wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child.

At the hotel, we see a sign that says Miss India will be visiting so we make a point to dress up and then smiling at the concierge at the door, end up inside the private party. We accidentally sit in the VIP section and with a mouthful of free samosa we have to answer an official about which group we are with. Trying to think quickly, I say we are journalists and Ashley mentions the name of an American magazine. It seems her English has momentarily confused the official, who politely asks us to move to the media section. We endure the painful dance routine, wait through the short fashion show and the awkward silences on stage before Miss India finally emerges in a long sparkling purple gown. We take a photo of her and then move on to dinner as the real media circle the stage.

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