Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Last Days of the Maharajas

It is eight a.m. in India, but outside our airplane window, it is pitch dark. I have no idea where we are in our flight path right now – all I know is that the sun will be rising when we land in Frankfurt.When I last wrote, we were packing to leave Chennai. Our last few days there passed in a flurry of good-byes, gifts, final meals, and frantic attempts to stuff all our belongings into our suitcases. We were sad to be leaving our temporary home on Karpagam Avenue 3rd Street, but excited to be taking one last excursion before heading back to the United States. This time, we planned to visit a little of Northern India, with a day reserved for Agra – home of the Taj Mahal.

We set out from Delhi on December 26, stopping to pick up our friend, fellow Fulbright Teacher, Evelina, who would be joining us for our travels. Our first day did not bode well for the trip (inauspicious!), as we encountered horrible traffic driving into Agra. We got in so late that we had to postpone visiting the Taj until the next morning, which actually worked out better, since we got there as the sun was rising. Our first glimpses of the monument were stunning – slightly enveloped in the early morning mist, it looked ethereal and I felt like we had stepped back in time. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with the bright idea of viewing the Taj at sunrise, as a lot of people were already there when we arrived. However, the site is so spread out that we never felt too overwhelmed by the crowds. We wandered for hours, checking out the beautiful marble-work up close and taking loads of photos (including the famous “touching the Taj” trick photos). As the sun rose, the Taj emerged from the mist, giving us a perfect view, although, in all honesty, no photograph can do justice to the monument.

After the Taj, we did not linger in Agra, but went on to Jaipur, stopping en route to visit Fatehpur Sikri, the former palace and royal city of Emperor Akbar, that served as the capital of the Mughal Empire for fourteen years, during the 16th century. We reached Jaipur around sunset, then checked into the Narain Niwas Palace Hotel – a heritage hotel that was once the country residence of a nobleman who served the one of the Rajput Maharajas. Even more impressive than the arched facade of the hotel and the peacocks strolling the grounds, were our rooms – huge suites that were the size of small apartments, each one with a giant, gaudy chandelier, carved teak furniture, high, painted ceilings, and portraits of past maharajas and other Rajput noblemen. Yes, for our final two nights in India, we were going to live like royalty.

Jaipur is also known as the “pink city” for the distinctive pink sandstone buildings found in the Old City. On our day of touring, we drove through this area, stopping to take photos of the visually stunning “Palace of the Winds” with its dozens of windows. Then it was on to the Amber Fort, one of the most amazing palace/forts I have seen in India. Even from a distance, it loomed up on the hill, surrounded by a huge wall. We spent hours exploring the 16th century fort, crawling up tiny, hidden passageways (thank goodness for James’infrared mini-scope!), waving from the balconies where the ladies of the court would have watched processions, and taking photos of the audience hall that whose ceiling and walls were covered with thousands of tiny mirrors. After the fort, it was on to the Jantar Mantar, a really funky, huge outdoor observatory/astronomy park built in the 18th century. The park was full of huge structures that looked kind of like giant wheels and skateboard ramps, all of which were used for various astronomical purposes, such as charting the sun’s position, calculating the angle of the planets, and so on. The kids and I could not understand any of it, but Mike was clearly in his element.

On our last full night in India, we sat outside, in the cool evening air, warmed by bonfires, eating delicious chicken tikka and tandoori kebabs, while being entertained by a Rajasthani cultural program. We felt very fortunate to have come this far, and to be ending our stay on such a pleasant note. James got one last chance in the spotlight when one of the performers – a young boy his age wearing a turban – asked him up to the stage to join in the dancing. To his credit, James did a great job in keeping up with the other boy’s moves. The next morning, we left Jaipur to return to Delhi for our 2:00 a.m. flight. And now we are here, flying over Europe, slowly making our way back to the U.S. As excited as I am to be coming home, I’m sad that our journey is finally at an end. It has been a difficult, amazing, transforming experience, and none of us will ever forget it. When you leave someone’s home in South India, it is customary to say “Poitu varain,” which is Tamil for, “I will go and come back.” In return, your host responds, “Poitu vanga,” meaning, “Please go and come back.” So, India, I will not say good-bye, only “Poitu varain.” And in return, I hope you will reply, “Poitu vanga.”


  1. Hey guys, I just ran into your blog while I was googling. I went to school in VM about 8 years back. I have been there my whole life till my 12th grade, so its like a second home to me. I am doing my PhD in the US (Vandy) now. Your blogs (I am still reading them) are really nice and very, very nostalgic to me. I am quite sure you guys would have had a whale of a time in Chennai and VM. Thanks for bringing back my wonderful memories.

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