Bicycle traffic jams.

Jam-packed dusty streets, hundreds of bicyclists, auto and pedal propelled rickshaws, mopeds, hand pulled trolleys, sputtering motorcycles, tinsel-draped trucks, horse drawn buggies, camel carts and cows walking calmly through throngs of beggars is one view of looking at India, a land of some 1.2 billion people who have been under British rule for some 250 years.

Another view is the fascinating blocks of temples, forts, Mosques and colonial mansions and the world renowned Taj Mahal, a huge white pristine marble monument portraying what is essentially, and the beauty of eternal love.

A commemoration of the memory of Shahjahan's beloved wife, Mumtaz, the Taj Mahal is without doubt India's rich tribute to womanhood, and one that attracts millions the world over annually.

The timeless Taj Mahal in Agra.

Renowned for its aesthetic beauty, the extravagant building of timeless beauty reflects a unique combination of passion and architectural exuberance and excellence unmatched today and unequalled the world over.

This beautiful proportioned octagonal masterpiece topped by a perfect dome, is balanced by four soaring minarets at each corner of this magnificent structure.

Perhaps some background to the construction of this magnificent monument is fitting. In 1612, Arjumand Banu Begam, better known by her other name, Mumtaz Mahal was married to Shah Jehan (then Prince Khurram), the fifth Mughal emperor. The marriage, the second for the Emperor, was a real love match, and Mumtaz was her husband's inseparable companion on all his journeys and military expeditions. She was his comrade, his confidante and counselor and she inspired him in acts of charity and benevolence towards the weak and the needy.

The beautiful Mumtaz.

She bore him 14 children, and died in childbirth in 1630, only three years after his succession to the throne in Burhanpur in the Deccan where she had accompanied him on a military campaign.

Shah Jehan was overpowered by grief and was determined to perpetuate her memory for immortality. He decided to build his beloved wife the finest sepulcher ever, a monument of eternal love — the Taj Mahal.

It was Shah Jehan's everlasting love for Mumtaz that led to the construction of the monument. The sad circumstances which attended the early death of the Empress, who had endeared herself to the people, inspired all his subjects to join in the Emperor's pious intentions. After 22 laborious years and the combined efforts of over 20,000 workmen and master craftsmen, the Taj Mahal was finally completed in 1648 on the banks of the river Yamuna in Agra, the capital of Mughal monarchs.

There is also another side to this beautiful masterpiece and that is, Shah Jehan retired to Agra in 1636 and fell ill in September 1657. He was imprisoned by one of his sons and died in prison in 1666. Add to this the fact that after the Taj Mahal was completed, the King ordered to cut off all the workers hands so that they could not build another such monument.

Visiting the Taj Mahal with my wife Rasulan is an experience one can never forget. It was always one of my fervent desires and eventually I was able to accomplish this and at the same time visit Uttar Pradesh where my great-grandfather was born. My grandfather was born in 1900 on the S.S. Whitby as it sailed to British Guyana with a group of indentured laborers. His indentureship began on May 5, 1838 four years following the abolition of British colonial slavery on August 28, 1834. The East Indians were taken to British Guyana to replace the African slaves. During the period 1838 to 1917 some 234,000 East Indians were taken to British Guyana to work on the sugar plantation.

Click photo to book The
Crowne Plaza Surya, New Delhi.

Having accomplished my life long dream I now turn my attention to my week long visit appropriately named the Taj Mahal Express which began in New Delhi, the capital. It was described as a visit to the "Golden Triangle" of India. The 44 member touring party arrived around 10.30 p.m. and after clearing customs we were taken by bus to the Crowne Plaza Hotel Surya. The reception was exceptional, each member of the party being garlanded and ushered into our respective comfortable rooms. Regrettably we only spent the night at the five star hotel.

When you enter through the majestic doorway, you leave the hustle and bustle of New Delhi and enter a world of fine furnishings and grand living. Every detail of the hotel is designed to appeal to even the most discerning traveler.

The Crowne Plaza is the closest five star hotel to the Taj Mahal, about three hundredd miles away. Luxurious and comfortable, the hotel is also a conveniently central point to explore the tourist and historical attractions of the city.

Matching the quality of the hotel, the rooms are immaculately furnished with modern conveniences. There are five in-hotel restaurants that can serve up something delectable whatever is one's culinary taste.

The rooftop Chinese restaurant, Sampan, serves Szechwan and Cantonese specialties along with a panoramic view and pleasant live music. Another restaurant is called The Seven which showcases seven different styles of Indian cuisine from all parts of the country.

Sprawling on the banks of the river Yamuna, Delhi, the capital of India, typifies the soul of India, where many layers of civilizations flourished for more than 3,000 years. Since those early days, many dynasties and rulers flourished on its regal soil. The legacy of that past survives in the many monuments left behind by the regents, each a chronicle of the glory of its time and an imprint of the character of the ruler. Today the city is a curious blend of the modern and the traditional, skyscrapers, beautiful gardens and wide tree-lined avenues perpetuate the Mughal passion of landscaping and architectural excellence.

Suit and tie businessmen rub shoulders with traditionally dressed orthodox Hindus and Muslims, turbaned snake charmers tease hypnotizing moans out of curved pipes, pundits pontificate while Sadhus, (holy men) smoke their chillums, and ragged beggars clutching dusty and half naked children plead for help.

Shops trade in goods from every corner of India and within short distance you can find anything from Tibetan carpets, antiques and jewelry to modern art and designer clothes, all at highly competitive prices.

Delhi's history is as ancient as the story of its origin and derives more from mythology than written history. Recorded history has it that at least eight different cities have been established and through the ages, different rulers and their followers left their own mark on New Delhi in the form of numerous architectural gems of great historical and social value.

The group awoke early the next morning and after a hearty breakfast, boarded two buses for Agra, an ancient city that came into prominence in Medieval times under the patronage of the Mughal rulers. The five hour drive through almost impassable terrain was a challenge to all of us, but we took it in stride as the driver made stops along the way.

An interesting feature of this ride was that if the buses stopped at an intersection or village, scores of vendors would swarm the vehicles offering to sell trinkets ranging in prices from US$5 upward. But most of the members of the touring team were good at bargaining and sometimes got the items offered at US$1 each. Getting off the buses would cause the vendors to swarm around us, each shouting and gesturing for you to purchase something or other.

Eventually after some five hours of through hot, dusty and jam packed streets, with every conceivable means of transportation that anyone can imagine. The riders of bicycles, scooters, taxis which were converted from a motorcycles and on which a box was placed with two seats, rickshaws which were either motorized or bicycle propelled as well as animal drawn vehicles. It is the most amazing sight to see the tens of thousands of vehicles and animals all scrambling for use of the sometimes narrow roads. It was almost like pandemonium being controlled at some higher level that defies human appreciation and logic. The closest example I can muster up is that of an ants nest where thousands of ants just keeping moving in and out, around and inside, but yet make their way to whatever is their destination. It was an unforgettable experience especially so since there were only two minor accidents in the week we were there.

Clarks Shiraz Hotel near the Taj Mahal.

We eventually reached our destination and checked into Clarks Shiraz Hotel, cramped, bruised, battered and tired, but happy and eager to visit the Taj Mahal. We saw groups of women and children begging for assistance. The group was generous and gave willingly recognizing that these people, for the most part will spend their lives on the streets, being the lowest in the society. Children and mothers beg in a team, putting the children forward to gain the sympathy of the onlookers and they succeed in their efforts.

Clarks Shiraz offers up one of the most majestic backdrops on earth, with views of the Taj Mahal right from its guest rooms. Synonymous with Indian hospitality, the Clarks has hosted numerous dignitaries and celebrities including Muhammad Ali.

Superior Comfort at
Clarks Shiraz Hotel.

The five star hotel has 237 luxuriously furnished guest rooms, almost all offering a breathtaking view of the Taj Mahal. All guest rooms are equipped with modern amenities and are air conditioned. Dining in the Shehnaz offers one a sampling of authentic Indian cuisine. The roof top restaurant offers a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere while gazing at the amazing Taj Mahal.

As we settled in, our guide informed us that being a Friday, the Taj Mahal was closed and therefore the visit was planned for the next morning. We had dinner that night in the hotel which was host to a number of celebrities including Mohammed Ali.

No one thought of venturing out that evening as the throngs on the streets discouraged even the most adventurous.

After breakfast the next morning the group set out for the Taj Mahal We were on the Number One bus driven by Ram Singh, a Sikh who is a experienced and talented individual who handled the road with such dexterity that it appears easy.

As we arrived at our destination, we got off our bus and headed for the entrance to the Taj Mahal. Throngs of vendors converged on us with trinkets, chains, necklaces, plaques, drawings, T-shirts, etc. We had to rush towards the entrance of the Taj Mahal where security was tight. Each bag or purse was checked and then we filed in single line towards the metal detector check-in.

We were given strict instructions not to take any pictures in the Taj Mahal and that no photos were allowed to be taken as you ascend the stairs leading up to the magnificent structure. In addition we were all given slip-ons so that we do not scratch the marble surfaces as we walk towards the monument.

Jaipur pink marble is exquisite.

The Taj Mahal without doubt is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the monument of love. This 17th century white marble mausoleum was built by Shah Jehan to enshrine the mortal remains of his Queen, Mumtaz Mahal. The beauty lies on the outside as the inside was dark and save for the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal there was nothing else to see.

Completing our tour, we gathered together to return to Clarks Shiraz Hotel. It would be putting it mildly to say that we actually had to bulldoze our way towards the bus as the throngs of vendors increased in number. Some of us bought items just to get the vendors off our backs so to speak. We made it safe into our bus and returned to the hotel.

There were many boutiques inside the hotel and many of us made purchases inside rather than risk going out to the shopping centers. That night a group of us decided to venture out to dinner at a restaurant a few hundred yards from the hotel.

We began walking out of the compound only to be accosted by scores of taxi drivers, horse drawn carriers and others, each vying for the opportunity to take us to the restaurant for free. We learned later that for each passenger they take they will qualify for ten rupees. Taking advantage of the offer my wife and I took separate carriages to the restaurant which served a local dishes of chicken, curried chicken and rice, dholl, and roti, water or soft drink.

It was a tasty dinner and worth the money we paid. A colleague of mine, Peter Webley and his wife Maureen, enjoyed the spicy curry and dholl and so did other members of the group. The waiters, all male, did everything possible to please us and therefore were elated when they were given tips of US$2 each.

After a good night's sleep and a sumptuous breakfast, we set off for Fatehpur Sikri, the once glittering capital which was abandoned due to scarcity of water. The ride through small towns and cities took another three hours or so. The packed streets made traveling difficult as our driver had to cope with the hundreds of other users of the road including some straying cows which refused to give way to the bus. We were told that the cows had outgrown their usefulness and therefore were allowed to roam wherever they liked. They are sacred in India so no one would hurt them.

Fatehpur Sikri Palace near the Taj Mahal.

As we were nearing Fatehpur Sikri, we marveled at the well preserved buildings erected by the Maharajas of the time, each seeking to build a better monument than the other. They were not only superbly built but the intricate work left one wondering how such marvelous work could have been done in the days when the technology was nowhere as advanced as today.

Fatehpur Sikri is now a World Heritage site. The royal city at Fatehpur Sikri, situated 26 miles west of Agra, was built on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The Palace of Five Storeys and the Buland Darwaza, a massive gate which provides entrance to the Complex, is numbered among the finest specimens of Mughal architecture. With its elaborate palaces, formal courtyards reflecting pools, harems, tombs and a great Mosque, the complex is looked upon as one of the greatest accomplishment of Mughal architecture.

The beauty and the Corinthian grace of unsurpassable work on the well preserved buildings and sandstone palaces left a lasting impression on the group.

Also the cleanliness of the entire complex was unbelievable. The few workers around were properly attired and clean, and a young boy who approached us asking for pens was clean and his clothes immaculate. This once glittering capital was later abandoned due to scarcity of water.

The group later boarded our buses and made our way to Jaipur, an approximately five hour drive away. Popularly known as the Pink City, Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan state. It is also the former capital of a princely state of the same name. The city was founded in 1728 by Maharaja Jai Singh 11, the ruler of Amber.

It was built of pink stucco in imitation of sandstone and is remarkable among pre-modern Indian cities for the width and regularity of its streets. The city is laid out into six quarters, separated by broad streets.

Jaipur is considered by many urbanists as one of the best planned cities. During the British rule, Jaipur was ruled by the Rajput Mararajas of the Kachwaha clan.

Jaipur, The Pink City of India.

The grounds of the former Maharaja's palace occupy one seventh of the municipal area. Among Jaipur's famed art products are jewelry, enamels, and muslins. Its industries include metalworking, engineering and manufacturing in glass, carpets, hosiery, shoes, blankets and chemicals. Rajasthan University is also located there and just outside on the sidewalk can be seen women and children poorly clad and sleeping on cardboards. The city also had its slum area where poverty and destitution stared you in the eye. It was a sight that many of us will not forget. You cannot miss the stench and the low level of livelihood in some areas.

Hotel Mansingh in New Delhi.

We later checked into Hotel Mansingh, located near all the famous tourist attractions and commercial centers. With its elegantly decorated guest rooms equipped with modern amenities, the hotel has 100 rooms , each with air condition and direct dial telephones.

The Sheesh Mahal provides mouth-watering delicacies, a light lunch or full dinner. Ripples coffee shop starts the morning with a delicious cup of coffee or tea and a selection of sweets. The Indian Folk and Cultural Show is an additional attraction at the hotel, staffed by courteous and efficient personnel.

The next morning some members of the group opted for individual outings while others went on a tour of the city. We, that is my wife, Peter and his wife Maureen, opted for a visit to Babu Bazaar, named after the famous Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. As we stepped out of the hotel, we were approached by several taxi drivers who wanted to charge us 80 Rupees, about US$2 for taking us about three miles. Before we left the hotel, one of the managers advised us to only pay $50 rupees. One young driver, Lokesh Visnu said he would take us to the Bazaar for $50 Rupees and the four of us hopped into his taxi.

He spoke English fluently and told us that he would willingly wait on us and take us to any other areas we desire. As we started off, we encountered the by now customary wide array of users of the road including buses, vans, trucks, cars, motor cycles, scooters, hand pushed rickshaws and pulleys as well as motorized rickshaws, bull carts, etc., all seemingly in a mad scramble for access to the road.

The throng of New Delhi..

Lokesh handled the traffic with calm and along the way we came across people clad in different types of clothing, and also others who barely had any clothing. Some who had were obviously in the lower class of society as their attire was torn and dirty.

He parked the vehicle a distance from the Bazaar and we weaved a path across the road, under dangerous conditions as no one gave you the opportunity to cross. Lokesh led the way and we eventually entered the bazaar.

The stores were jam-packed and were on each side of the street. Numerous stores offered spices, drinks, dried tea, peppers, curry power, cinnamon, and herbs while others offered sandals, shoes, leather bags, slippers, clothing, bedspreads, shirts, blouses, art work, paintings, antiques, jewelry, craftwork, chains, necklaces, books with photos, framed photos, and other souvenirs and of course replicas of the famous Taj Mahal.

Lokesh remained with us and helped us in the bargaining. Any prices put forward by the merchant was met by a 50 percent reduction in our offer, but eventually we had a very good deal with all of our purchases. Shanker Saree Emporium at Shop No 29 at Bapu Bazaar offered a wide selection of sari and suit pieces, while Sapna at shop 171 Bapu Bazaar dealt exclusively with Salwar suits and dress materials.

A Historical Atlas of India

A Historical Atlas of India

Jetsetters Magazine recommendation.

After hours of shopping, we decided that it was time to return to the hotel. Lokesh offered to take us out to dinner that night at his parents home or at a restaurant but we declined since we had to awake early to leave for Delhi.

We retired early to bed after taking a light dinner and awoke at 5 a.m. showered, had breakfast and prepared to depart for another six to seven hours ride to Delhi. We slept some of the way and stopped for lunch at a restaurant.

As we neared Delhi we could notice the modern and huge buildings, the wide streets, construction for miles and miles of new and expanded roads and overpass with what seemed to reflect an economic boom. Along the way we sighted huge apartment complexes and homes that must belong to the affluent. Office buildings were of the most modern and up to date.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, the Crown Plaza Hotel where we were warmly greeted. The staff welcomed us and ushered us into our respective rooms with a wake up call set for 2 a.m. as we had to get ready to go to the airport. My wife wanted to purchase a DVD of the latest Indian movie so we asked our guide. He informed us that we can take a five minute walk to a store a short distance away so we set out. We were accosted by several taxi drivers who offered to take us for 10 Rupees. We eventually picked one driver, and we set out. He sped out of the parking lot at such a rate that we felt our hearts were in our hands. My wife kept saying that she did not want to go anymore but wanted to return to the hotel. The driver said "I am a Sikh, I do not lie. Five minutes more only." So we decided to hang on. He took us to a store which sold brass products and after we complained he took us to the equivalent to a radio shop. We did not find the DVD so we returned to the hotel. I paid him the 10 Rupees we agreed upon.

The journey was not long but treacherous and nail biting. But to his credit, Jairam Singh handled the traffic with ease.

Later, we gathered for a festive farewell dinner at a popular NewDelhi Restaurant, 45 minutes away from the Crowne Plaza. It was another nightmarish journey but Singh got us there safely, but the drive was worth it as the dinner was excellent. Chicken and rice was the main dish along with curry and roti (bread).

Jetsettersblog for Travel AdbiceAs we returned to the hotel, each person had one objective and that was to pack and prepare for our return trip home.

We were up early and put out luggage out so that the staff could take them to the bus. One couple did not receive the wake up call so were very late in departing for the airport.

At the airport, we said our goodbyes and got out seats assigned for a long flight to New York and then from New York to Miami.

My wife and I were happy that we were able to visit the Taj Mahal and see Uttar Pradesh, the birth place of my great grandfather. For us, it was a memorable trip.

Feature and most photos by Edwin Ali, Jetsetters Magazine Moslem Features Editor.

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