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Ferozabad mosque. Tamerlane prayed here before he sacked Delhi.

Pyramid with Ashoka's pillar.

Babur, the first Mughal emperor.

Jama Masjid gate, seen from the Meena Bazaar.

Chawri Bazaar

Traffic on Chandni Chowk.

Nut-and-spice market

Markets in Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi)

Pearl market, near Chandni Chowk

Jain religious procession in the middle of traffic on Chandni Chowk.

Rashtrapati Bhawan, former home of the British viceroys and current home of Indian presidents

Iron Pillar at Lal Kot

Qutb Minar

Sultan Iltumish's tomb

Ruined bastion at Tughluqabad

Lotus Temple


Humayun's Tomb

Gardens at Humayun's Tomb

Purana Qila (Old Fort)

Sher Mandal, where Humayun met his end.

Marwar's dominions

Jodhpur, The Blue City

Jodhpur Old City

Jodhpur's old city

Tuk-tuk in Jodhpur's old city

Mehrangarh looming over Jodhpur's old city.

Mehrangarh, Jodhpur's fortress.


Intricately carved wooden jharokas (balconies) with bangla-roof eaves.


Looking over the Rathore cenotaphs from Mandor.


Mike's camel, Bulldozer

Into the Thar Desert

Jaisalmer, the golden city

Jain temple within Jaisalmer's walled city

Salim Singh-ki-haveli

Rohet Garh

Bishnoi village

Drinking opium tea

Chaumukha Temple, Ranakpur

Chaumukha Temple

Om, sound marking the beginning of the omniscient consiousness

Chaumukha Temple

Carved columns in the Chaumukha temple


Walls of Kumbalgarh

Badal Mahal, the Palace of the Clouds at Kumbhalgarh

Vishnu's feet, for the common people

Jagdish temple carvings, Udaipur

Krishna, 8th avatar of Vishnu, as depicted in the Udaipur City Palace

Udaipur, the white city

Udaipur City Palace

Dilkushal Mahal, Udaipur City Palace

Udaipur City Palace

The Lake Palace

Akbar's siege of Chitorgarh.

Detail of Vijaya Stambha exterior carvings

More Vijaya Stambha carvings

Sheikh Chishti's tomb, Ajmer

Brahma's temple, Pushkar

5-faced Brahma (his other two faces are looking backwards)

Amber Fort

Elephants at Amber fort

Jai Mandir, Amber fort

Women's palaces, Amber fort

City Palace, Jaipur

Peacock Gate, Jaipur City Palace

Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh's astronomy/astrology park

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur

Inside the Hall of Private Audience, Fatehpur Sikri

Astrologers' pavilion and Hall of Private Audience

Jesuits at Akbar's court.

View from Akbar's palace. Panch Mahal on the far left, Anup Talao in the foreground.

Palace of the Christian Wife

House of Miriam-uz-Zamani

Mumtaz Mahal

Gate to the Taj Mahal

First glimpse of the Taj from inside the gate.

Taj Mahal

Floral carvings, interior of the Taj Mahal

View of the Bagh-i-Mahtab and the Yamuna river from the Taj Mahal.

Interior of the Mihman Khana

Amar Singh Gate, Agra Fort

Cusped Mughal arches in the Hall of Public Audience, Agra fort.

Emperor's balcony, Hall of Public Audience, Agra Fort


Shah Jahan's prison cell, Agra fort.

Shah Jahan's prison, Agra Fort

Either remaining or restored gilding on the ceiling of the emperor's bedroom, Agra fort.

Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula, Agra

Nur Jahan

Akbar's tomb

Akbar's tomb

Lahore Gate, Red Fort

Emperor's throne in the Hall of Public Audience, Red Fort

Life-Bestowing Paradise Garden

Royal tower and pavilion


Hall of Private Audience

Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne

Khass Mahal

Rang Mahal


On December 12, 1911, King George V, Emperor of British India, announced plans to move the British Raj’s capital to Delhi, near the ruins of India’s former capital cities. Exactly one hundred years after George V’s announcement, our plane landed in Delhi. From the airport, we sped through a thick blanket of smog, skirting Delhi’s information technology hub, past thousand-year-old ruins and onto the broad avenues of New Delhi.

Thirty-six years after George V’s announcement, the British left India. Perhaps the king should have heeded the legend that whoever builds a new capital in Delhi will lose it. Despite the ominous legend, for millennia new rulers built their own cities next to older capitals, which then became new old Delhis. At least eight ancient cities (but probably more) now dot the city’s landscape.

We started our exploration with the ruins of Delhi’s fifth city, Ferozabad. After the Muslim conquest of Delhi in the 13th century, a series of five Turkish-Persian-Afghan dynasties ruled what was known as the Delhi Sultanate up until the mid-16th century. The third of these ruling families, the Tughluqs, built three of Delhi’s ancient cities, including this modest citadel that Delhi’s neighborhoods engulfed long ago. Feroz Shah, who ruled in the twilight of the Tughluq dynasty, built Ferozabad.

We noticed that locals used nearly every niche in the ruins as a makeshift shrine. In a sense, these shrines reclaimed the site from its Muslim builders. We relied on John Keays’ survey of Indian history (India: A History) for context. In that book, Keays points out the Delhi Sultanate’s failings:
Despite two centuries of dominance in most of northern and western India the sultanate had failed to establish a pan-Indian supremacy, and had not even attempted an Indo-Islamic accommodation...[I]n Delhi, as in the sultanate’s provincial capitals, the court remained largely a preserve of the Turkish, Persian and Afghan elites. The same was true…of senior posts in the administration, and of much of the military. Ethnic as much as religious exclusivity made the Delhi regime totally alien to most of India’s peoples.

The ruins include a mosque in which Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) prayed in 1398. His visit was not a pleasant one for Delhi. He invaded the Delhi Sultanate on the pretense that the Tughluqs treated their Hindu subjects too leniently. After Timur put Delhi to the sword "...nothing stirred, not even a bird, for two months." On his way out, Timur took so much plunder (including enslaved Indian craftsmen) that his army could move no more than four miles a day.

However, Timur did not steal the citadel’s highlight, which is much more ancient than the Tughluq dynasty itself. On the top of a monumental pyramid is a pillar of Ashoka, ruler of the Mauryan Empire from 269 to 232 BCE. Ashoka ruled almost the entire Indian subcontinent while Rome still struggled to conquer Sicily. After one particularly violent conquest, Ashoka embraced Buddhism and non-violence. He was probably responsible for much of Buddhism’s spread throughout South and Southeast Asia, and the edicts on his pillars promote Buddhist ideals. Nineteen survive with inscriptions, including the one that we saw.

Feroz Shah recognized that this column was ancient even in his time, although he would not have known who created it or why. He took great trouble to bring the pillar to his capital from the Punjab. Maybe possession of such an ancient relic legitimized his own rule over India—a continual challenge for the subcontinent’s foreign rulers.

Script on Ashoka's pillar, Ferozabad.

Next, we walked into a more recent incarnation of Delhi—Old Delhi. From here, the Mughals ruled over more of the subcontinent than anyone since Ashoka. The first of the great Mughals, Babur, a descendant of both Timur and Genghis Khan. Babur hoped to reconstitute Timur’s empire, but when that failed, he attacked Delhi on the pretense that Timur’s conquest made this his rightful inheritance. The Indians referred to his Mongol lineage, hence the name Mughal. However, as the Mughal Empire’s wealth grew, the connotation with wild, plundering horsemen from the steppes faded. Today, the Mughals lend their name to the term for powerful and wealthy individuals—"moguls."

India didn’t impress Babur, but he had clear reasons for staying:

Hindustan is a place of few charms…The cities and provinces are all unpleasant. The gardens have no walls…There is no beauty in its people, no graceful society, no etiquette, nobility or manliness…There are no good horses …no ice, cold water, no good food…no running water in their gardens or palaces and in their buildings no pleasing harmony or symmetry…The one nice aspect of Hindustan is that it is a large country and has masses of gold and money. 

Babur's great-great grandson Shah Jahan put those masses of gold and money to use creating the Mughals’ architectural legacy. His largest creation is the modestly named city of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). When he compeleted it in 1649, Shahjahanabad would have been one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities in the world, full of traders selling exotic luxuries. Nowadays, as William Dalrymple described in City of Jinns: A Year in Delhi, it is run down and very crowded:

The Old City had been built at the very apex of Delhi’s fortunes and had been in slow decline virtually from the moment of its completion…The fabulous city which hypnotized the world travellers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries…the seat of the Emperor, the Shadow of God, the Refuge of the World, became a ghetto, a poor relation embarrassingly tacked on to the metropolis to its south...It has become more remarkable for its junk markets and car parts bazaars than for any fraying beauty or last lingering hints of sophistication.

Shah Jahan

Friends had told us of the smells. Incense from the makeshift shrines mixed with activity on the street to create a combined scent of wood smoke, urine, marijuana, cow dung, cloves, and hot cooking oil. A friend of Mike’s who later worked in Delhi referred to it as "stank masala."

We visited the Jama Masjid, the spiritual centerpiece of Shah Jahan’s city. This enormous mosque is the largest in India. Its courtyard can hold 25,000 people. From its perch on a hill, the mosque looms over an open air bazaar, and we walked past tables with shoes, clothes, and then blankets with religious materials, from pictures of the Kaaba in Mecca to garish depictions of Hindu gods and Jesus Christ.

The streets themselves function as bazaars, and it was behind the mosque that we got our first taste of the crowded madness of Old Delhi. We jostled with shoppers dallying in front of stores, shuffling ascetics, and laborers carrying enormous bags stuffed full of commodities on their heads, yelling at everyone else to get out of their way. At one point, Mike spotted what looked like a dead body on a street median (we later saw many people sleeping in odd places, like on the shoulders of major highways). Monkeys watched from the rooftops and feral dogs scoured the sidewalks for morsels. In Chandni Chowk, the commercial center and most crowded area of Old Delhi, a Jain religious procession erupted and marched up the length of this central thoroughfare against traffic. Everyone went about their own business, and no one noticed us.

Shah Jahan created Chandni Chowk as his capital’s ceremonial parade route. We had some difficulty imagining the area's imperial glory, much as William Dalrymple did:

Chandni Chowk [was]...renowned for its wide avenues, its elegant caravanserais and its fabulous Mughal gardens. Having read the description of this great boulevard, once the finest in all Islam, as you sit on your rickshaw and head on into the labyrinth you still half-expect to find its shops full of jasper and sardonyx for the Mughal builders [or] mother-of-pearl inlay for the pietra dura craftsmen…But instead, as you sit stranded in a traffic jam, half-choked by rickshaw fumes and the ammonia stink of the municipal urinals, you see around you a sad vista of collapsing shop fronts and broken balustrades, tatty warehouses roofed with corrugated iron…All is tarnished, fraying at the edges.

Behind the Jama Masjid, we explored the paper and sari markets. On Chandni Chowk, we found the nut-and-spice market, the sugar-pickle-preserve market, and the silver market. At the end of Chandni Chowk we encountered a Jain temple, the Lal Mandir, with a Jain bird hospital behind it.

Jainism is a small, ancient religion that has figured prominently in Indian history. We had read about Jainism in Philosophies of India by Heinrich Zimmer, who argued that Jainism grew from beliefs of the ancient, pre-Aryan peoples of India, a view religious historians do not universally accept.

Modern Jainism began with the teaching of Vardhamana Mahavira, the last of twenty-four Jain saints (called Tirthankaras). He reached enlightenment in 526 BCE, around the time of the Buddha, and the two religions’ iconography struck us as very similar. According to the Jain timeline, the lives of the twenty-four Tirthankaras stretch far into prehistoric times. The twenty-third Tirthankara, Parsva, preceded Mahavira by about 250 years. The twenty-second, Bhagavan Aristanemi achieved nirvana 84,000 years before Parsva.

To Jains, the universe’s morphology mirrors the human body’s, with a hierarchy of purity from most impure at the bottom (the feet, representing the lowest level of hell) to the top (the crown of the skull, representing the highest level of heaven). We reside at the waist. Karma, the moral consequence of human actions, pollutes the soul and weighs it down. This weight manifests itself in the level of one’s birth in the next life. Very pure souls rise to higher stages of heaven. Dirtier souls sink to lower levels of the universe. During reincarnations as people, animals, and gods, the Tirthankaras finally freed themselves of desire, emotion, and possession. This purity allowed their souls to float like a bubble up to the top of the universe.

Tirthankaras are beyond the reach of human prayers and Jains do not worship them as gods. They pray to Hindu gods (who live on more accessible levels of heaven) about everyday issues. Images of the Tirthankaras serve as motivation for Jains' own pursuit of nirvana.

Ideally, Jains should possess nothing, and one notable feature of Jain non-materialism is nudity. One sect, the Digambaras, avoid the karma-pollution of clothing. believe that clothing weighs down the soul. Judging from the posters at the Lal Mandir’s gates, this congregation is among the "sky-clad" (nudist). The other main Jain sect, the Svetambaras, believe that wearing light, white clothing is sufficiently minimalist and attracts negligible karma to one’s soul.

Violence in any form attracts a heavy negative karma, so Jains observe strict vegetarianism. The religion rules out vegetables that require killing the entire plant for harvesting, like onions, potatoes, and carrots. Similarly, Jainism prohibits animal products that require the animal’s death, such as leather, but it reveres milk as our first food and therefore the source of life.

The Jain focus on nonviolence seems extreme sometimes. As we walked around Old Delhi, we noticed Jains wearing cloth masks over their mouths and noses. The masks prevent them from swallowing flying insects and from disturbing the air. As Zimmer explains:

The [Jain] monk…avoids as far as possible the squeezing or touching of the atoms of the elements. He cannot cease breathing, but to avoid giving possible harm he should wear a veil before his mouth: this softens the impact of the air against the inside of the throat. And he must not snap his fingers or fan the wind; for that disturbs and causes damage. If...people on a ferryboat...throw a [Jain] monk overboard, he must not try to make for shore with violent, flailing strokes, like a valiant swimmer, but should gently drift, like a log, and permit the currents to bring him gradually to land: he must not upset and injure the water-atoms. And he should then permit the moisture to drip or evaporate from his skin, never wipe it off or shake it away with a violent commotion of his limbs.

We had noticed the swastikas in the religious parade on Chandni Chowk, and we saw more of them decorating the Jain temple. Swast in Sanskrit translates as "it is well," and for Jains, the symbols represent the seventh Tirthankara, Suparsvanatha. In Hinduism, the swastika stands for the cosmic dance around a fixed center and it guards against evil, which explains why we saw homes sporting the symbol. We don’t know if the Aryans really used the symbol, but the Nazis certainly believed so and adopted it for their own uses. Ironically, another common Hindu symbol is a six-pointed star (resembling a Star of David), which represents spirit and matter held in balance.

We devoted the next day to other old cities of Delhi. William Dalrymple perfectly captured the transition from Old to New Delhi:

Leaving behind the press and confusion of Shahjehanabad—the noise and the heat, the rickshaws and the barrow-boys, the incense and the sewer-stink—I would find myself suddenly in a gridiron of wide avenues and open boulevards…This was the Rajpath—once the Kingsway—one of the great ceremonial ways of the world. It was planned as an Imperial Champs Elysees—complete with India Gate, its own butter-colored Arc de Triomphe.

Sir Edwin Lutyens, the British chief architect of the city, designed India Gate to commemorate the Indian soldiers who died in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. It houses India’s tomb of the unknown soldier. While we were there, the Indian armed forces were conducting a dress rehearsal for Republic Day (January 26).

India Gate through the smog

We next made our way down the Rajpath to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, heart of Lutyen’s Delhi. From here, the last five British viceroys ruled India. Now, the President of India lives in this building, the largest residence of any head of state in the world. We couldn’t get very close, and the view rapidly worsened as the smog grew heavier. However, we could discern the seal with three lions on the gate. This image is taken from the capital of an Ashoka pillar (not the one at Ferozabad). Ashoka’s idea of a pan-Indian empire transcending all religions and castes still appeals to the modern Republic of India.

Three-lion symbol from one of Ashoka's pillars, now the symbol of the Republic of India.

From the wide boulevards and tree-lined streets of New Delhi, we ventured into suburban Delhi for the city’s  roots. In 736, a king, Anangpal Tomar founded the city of Dhili and built a red fortress (Lal Kot). In 1180, Prithviraj Chauhan inherited the city and held it for twelve years before Muhammad of Ghor’s Muslim armies conquered Delhi and northern India in 1192. Upon Muhammad of Ghor’s death in 1206, his general and former slave, Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, founded the Delhi Sultanate.

As in Ferozabad, the site contains an artifact from a much earlier era. The second great pan-Indian empire, the Guptas, reigned for 230 years (320-550 CE), and historical accounts describe this as a golden age, solidifying the basic elements of what we recognize today as Hindu culture. Chandragupta II (375-413 CE) commissioned an iron pillar for a site several hundred miles south of Delhi. Strangely, the pillar has not rusted in 1600 years.

The Iron Pillar reached Lal Kot in the 10th century CE. In an attempt to claim some of the Guptas’ glory, a ruler of Dhili brought it to a Jain temple complex in Lal Kot. Qutb-ud-Din Aybak repeated the pattern by placing it in the courtyard of his Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque.

Ironically, the decoration for Qutb-ud-Din Aybak’s mosque bears an inscription honoring Vishnu. It reads:

…By him, the king, who attained sole supreme sovereignty in the world, acquired by his own arm and [enjoyed] for a very long time; [and] who, having the name of Chandra, carried a beauty of countenance like [the beauty of] the full-moon, having in faith fixed his mind upon [the god] Vishnu, this lofty standard of the divine Vishnu was set up on the hill [called] Vishnupada.

The site’s centerpiece is the red sandstone Qutb Minar (minaret). It stands like redwood tree, narrowing near the top. Its height is impractical; worshipers might not hear a call to prayer from the tower’s summit. Rather, it symbolizes Islam’s victory in India. As John Keays describes:

…The Qutb mosque in Delhi boasts a tower of victory which doubles as India’s, and perhaps Islam’s, most massive minar[et]. Five balconied tiers tall, many of them fluted and the whole thing heavily tapered, it rears above the now outrageously-priced housing of south Delhi…Such triumphalism is substantiated by [the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque’s] construction from the reassembled components—pillars, capitals, lintels---of what had previously been twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples. Evidently the first sultans were more anxious to see their mosque open for worship than to gratify architectural purists.

Indeed, we marveled at the mosque’s columns containing blocks displaying Hindu deities and symbols. Aybak’s successor, Shams-ud-Din Iltumish (another former slave), added to the complex with his own palace and mausoleum, "…the first in a long and sublime succession of Indo-Islamic mausolea…As if by way of a nod to the later glories of Humayun’s tomb and the Taj Mahal, white marble makes its Delhi debut in the interior of Iltumish’s resting place."

Hindu figures on the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque

Here, as at many sights, the attention that we attracted from Indian tourists surprised us. In Old Delhi’s markets, no one noticed us. In tourist areas, our mere presence eclipsed millennia-old World Heritage sites. At first, we figured that only the school groups at the Qutb Minar wanted their pictures with us, but it happened everywhere we went, with Indians of all ages.

During all of our pre-travel reading, pictures of Delhi’s third city fascinated Mike. The thick bastions looked like a textbook example of walled city. One of Feroz Shah’s Tughluq dynasty predecessors built the city and named it, appropriately enough, Tughluqabad. Its massive bastions did not disappoint. What they lacked in Mughal sophistication, they made up for in weight of stone. William Dalrymple described Tughluqabad as "the most uncompromisingly militaristic ruin in Delhi, perhaps in all India."

We walked to what must have been a massive tower and then through ruins where someone appeared be doing their laundry. We found a subterranean passage under a portion of Tughluqabad’s residential section all the way to the city wall. Near the wall sat a deep reservoir, but not deep enough to meet the city’s demand for water, which led residents to desert the city. Local legend explains that the Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq commandeered all laborers to build his new city. This disrupted construction of a local Sufi saint’s monastery. In anger, the Sufi prophesized Tughluqabad’s abandonment, saying that it would provide shelter only to shepherds and nomads.

From our pre-travel reading, we knew what we wanted to see several weeks before arriving in Delhi. However, our driver insisted that he knew which sights to visit. We had to negotiate a bit to see the old cities of Delhi, including Tughluqabad. In exchange, we let our driver bring us to the Lotus Temple, a Baha’i house of worship.

Judging from the crowds, Indian tourists love the Lotus Temple. While the fifteen year-old temple has no historic significance or any connection to indigenous Indian religion or culture, the building itself, shaped like a lotus flower, is interesting. However, busloads of school kids converged upon the temple, and the shrieking and yelling of hundreds of children outside shattered any semblance of sanctuary. We had no pretense of seeking a spiritual experience in India, but we found the supposed holy places of India to be typically the least serene.

Moving on, we returned to the Mughals at Humayun’s tomb. Humayun, Babur's son, had the most difficult reign as Mughal emperor. Some accounts attribute his bad luck to the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which he obtained after he conquered Agra. However, his opium addiction probably played a role.

…[T]hough [Humayun] reigned for twenty-six years, he ruled for barely ten. ‘As remarkable for his wit as for his urbanity’…Humayun was ‘for the most part disposed to spend his time in social intercourse and pleasure’. Like his father [Babur] he could be a formidable campaigner but, more wayward, more indulgent and much more indolent, he knew neither how to counter failure nor how to capitalize on success…The long interludes of passivity which punctuated his campaigns are therefore ascribed to his addiction to opium, a drug which in various ‘confections’ Babur too had used and on which Humayun seemingly depended.

Facing simultaneous threats from nearby kingdoms and his own brothers jockeying for the throne, Humayun sought the comfort of an opium pipe. We he emerged, he lost two decisive battles to an Afghan, Sher Shah, who attacked from Bengal. Humayun fled into the desert with his wife.

At one point, the group had to eat its horses to survive. In January 1544, Humayun reached Persia and the shah welcomed him as an honored guest. Humayun handed over the world’s largest diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, which undoubtedly improved his reception.

After 13 years in Persia, the shah provided an army, and Humayun defeated his brothers. He eventually took advantage of a succession crisis after the death of Sher Shah’s son. He won back Delhi in 1555.

The Mughals loved walled, symmetrical gardens in a quadripartite plan in the Central Asian and Persian traditions. The Old Persian term for "around a wall," pairidaeza, describes these gardens. Later, the word entered English through Greek as "paradise," which is appropriate because the Mughals considered these gardens to be earthly representations of heavenly paradise for the entombed. This Persian-Mughal concept of an ordered garden contrasts with Hindu tradition, as William Dalrymple noted:

…[W]hat an intrusion any Mughal garden is into the Indian scene. Hindus revere nature but never feel any need to marshal or mold it into a design of their own: a banyan tree will almost be encouraged to spread its drooping creepers into the middle of any village market…It is revered for itself; however it develops, that end is regarded as a sort of perfection. The Muslim tradition is quite different. Inheriting the Greek love of order and logic, Islamic gardens—like their buildings—are regimented into lines of perfect symmetry; balance and design is all; nothing is left to impulse or chance. With these qualities, the Mughal gardens dotted around the subcontinent are…alien to the Indian environment. Outside the garden, all is delightful chaos; inside, reflecting the central concept of Islam, spontaneity is crushed by submission to a higher order.

We headed next to Gandhi Smriti, a memorial to Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi used to stay as a guest in this bungalow within a large walled enclosure. As a patriotic exhibit, the museum started with an outdoor exhibit on the First War of Independence in 1857 (known in British history as the Indian Mutiny). The building itself offered several exhibits, including one explaining the Jain tenet of ahimsa. Gandhi adopted this concept, believing that when faced with his own injustice, the oppressor’s sense of fairness would lead him to stop. The highlight was the room where Gandhi spent his final 144 days, with his few personal items displayed, including glasses and spinning wheel.

Where Gandhi slept. His few personal items are still here.

As we made our way back through New Delhi, we stopped at the Purana Qila, or old fort. The fort is also on the 5000 year-old site of Indraprastha, which figures prominently in the Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata. The Pandava family, one of the story’s combatants, had its capital here. The Mahabharata describes the city’s incredible splendor:

With Krishna’s blessings…a brilliant city came into being. It contained a palace with every luxury; mansions; broad roads and highways, shaded with trees; fountains and squares; and shops filled with rare merchandise. Many citizens and traders…came to reside there, attracted by its beauty and convenience. The name of the city was changed to Indraprastha, since it matched the splendor of the City of God [Indra].

Ancient Indians founded Indraprastha during the Vedic period of Hinduism, spanning from the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age (1500-500 BCE). During this period, the earliest Hindu literature, the Vedas, developed in the Aryan language, Sanskrit. Four collections of hymns and liturgical material comprise the Vedas. Orthodox Hindu traditions regard the Vedas as the absolute authority on religious matters, as revealed to humans. Delhi tradition closely ties the site of Indraprastha to these ancient texts:

…the site of Delhi was already sacred many millennia before the Mahabharata. The legend relates that once upon a time…soon after the creation of the world, Brahma, the Creator, suffered a fit of divine amnesia and forgot all the Vedas and sacred scriptures. In order to remember them, the God performed a series of yogic exercises and austerities, before diving into the [Yamuna River]. Soon afterwards, during the monsoon when the waters were in full spate, the flooded river miraculously threw up the sacred texts on the right bank of the river...

Indraprastha’s history remains highly speculative, but the fort’s museum displays shards of clay pottery and small figurines from this earliest era. Nothing resembled the splendor in the Mahabharata. However, every layer of Delhi’s history shows up there, through the Mauryan, Gupta, and Rajput eras, to the dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. One reason for placing New Delhi at its location was the proximity to Indraprastha. The British also wanted to borrow Indian history to claim their legitimacy to rule.

The fort itself dates from the early Mughal era. Humayun began construction on the fort, and Sher Shah used it as his seat of power. After Humayun regained India, he took up residence here.

By this time, Mike had started reading Diana and Michael Preston’s book, Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire. Our books made it clear that Humayun, indeed, most of the Mughal emperors, loved astrology. The Prestons described that Humayun "…wore different colored clothes and varied his pursuits to suit the governing planets of the days of the week. On Sunday, for example, he wore yellow and dealt with state affairs, and on Monday green and made merry. On Tuesday he wore warlike red and acted wrathful and vengeful…" After he returned to Delhi:

…Humayun unsurprisingly devoted himself to astrology and to literature. He established an observatory and refurbished a small octagonal sandstone pavilion in Sher Shah’s palace, known as the Sher Mandal, to become his library…But his fate continued to belie his name of "fortunate." One evening toward sunset in late January 1556, he was sitting on the flat roof of the Sher Mandal discussing with his astronomers when Venus would rise into the night sky, since he thought this would be a propitious time for important announcements. After a while he decided to return to his living quarters. As he was setting foot on the Sher Mandal’s narrow, steep and sharp-edged stone steps, he heard the call to prayer from the neighboring mosque and "his blessed foot caught in the skirt of his robe…He lost his feet and fell upon his head, his right temple receiving a serious blow so that blood issued from his right ear." He slipped in and out of consciousness, dying three days later with the words, "I hear the divine call."

The Sher Mandal still stands, but unfortunately, the interior and its dangerous staircase were closed when we visited.

The next day we boarded a plane for the next stage of our journey, the Indian state of Rajasthan. Before the Delhi Sultanate, the Hindu Rajputs controlled northern India. These Rajputs formed India's native aristocracy, from families that claimed descent from the sun, moon, and fire, and whose genealogies reached back to the epics and the Vedas. They passionately held to their warrior caste precepts of honor and chivalry, and "were in many ways the knights of Hindu India."

Although they opposed foreign incursions into their territory, their inability to unify against stronger forces limited their power. In fact, they usually squandered their energies fighting one another. As a result, invaders pushed these warrior princes to the arid hills and deserts of what is today the Indian state of Rajasthan.

Muslim attacks on Rajputs rarely yielded enough benefit to justify the cost, and the Rajputs were never unified or powerful enough to unseat the powers in Delhi and Agra. Some Rajput kingdoms entered the Mughal nobility system through diplomatic marriages. Others became fair-weather vassals of Delhi, acknowledging Mughal suzerainty under strong emperors but opportunistically causing trouble during periods of unrest.

When the British arrived, they found a feudal political system that made perfect sense:

Frequent references to the Rajputs’ clan organization and aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige went down especially well with an audience steeped in British history; and in the feudal structure of Rajput society [British historians] saw an exact equivalent of that which had pertained nearer to home in Anglo-Norman times.

The connection with Britain remains strong among the aristocratic Rajputs. During our visit to Rajasthan, the descendants of these families whom we met still clung to their anglophile visions of aristocracy.

Our first destination was Jodhpur, capital of the Rathore dynasty and its kingdom, Marwar. As one might expect, we found people riding horseback just outside the airport (although no one actually appeared to be wearing jodhpurs). We couldn’t tell if these were the famous Marwari horses, with their inwardly curving ears.

On our first day in Jodhpur, we decided to explore the old city and find the fort, Mehrangarh, which dominates the skyline. Jodhpur’s old city holds some beautiful buildings, with ornate wooden enclosed balconies from which women used to peer out onto the streets below. Huge carved doors mark the old mansions’ courtyards. High-caste families painted many of the walls blue—a practice using indigo to repel mosquitoes. For this reason, Jodhpur’s epithet is the blue city. Nowadays, many of the balconies and doors look like they’re about to fall off of their buildings, and the old blue walls are cracking and crumbling.

Walking through old Jodhpur was anything but relaxing. Most cars don’t fit the city’s narrow streets, but the mix of pedestrians, tuk-tuks, horse carts, motorbikes, cows, and other feral animals overwhelmed us. With so many different types of traffic moving in so many different ways, every vehicle with a horn competed for attention. Delhi was loud, but Jodhpur shoved all of that noise into a small, walled city, which made it all the more striking.

After getting terribly lost in the alleys, someone pointed us to a staircase that set us on the right path. By that point it was so late, that we headed back to the hotel and hired a car to show us the sights the next day.

The number of cows surprised us. We expected to find cows, but we didn’t expect them to outnumber dogs. Jodhpur was the first place in which cows constituted a major factor (and hazard) in traffic. Their nonchalant attitude toward the chaos surprised us most—it was not uncommon to see a group of cows sitting in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, unfazed by the cars speeding at them. Traffic didn’t miss a beat either; it just adjusted to the impromptu lane closures.

We began our tour with the Umaid Bhawan, the modern home of the Rathore maharajas. Construction on the "Indo-Art-Deco" building (although it looks more like an Albert Speer creation) began in 1929 and lasted through World War II. The Lonely Planet referred to the palace as a "pink-and-white monster," but it looked beige to us.

The exhibit took us through a large ballroom with murals of famous battles involving Marwar. The exhibits offered mild hagiography about the palace’s original owner:

There is about Maharaja Umaid Singh something uniquely exciting, an extravagance of vision, power not only to dream but even to realize; in many ways, albeit on a smaller scale, not unlike that of the Mughals. He enjoyed polo, so he took his own team to England…and Jodhpur emerged a world polo power…His famine relief policy, which shames many a modern day development project, gave rise to one of the largest and most magnificent royal residences in the world and a dam that remained, half a century later, Jodhpur’s main source of water…Yet there was in him an astonishing simplicity, a grace he was born with and carried always…Feted in the most fashionable of salons the world over he was…equally at home at a boy scout’s camp on the dusty grounds of his palace! It was this simplicity and humility, together with his stature and style that earned for the thirty-sixth Rathore ruler of Marwar the nickname "The Monarch." And it was always used with affection and respect.

"The Monarch" should probably get credit for at least pretending to be a humanitarian. The other royal palaces that we visited wouldn’t even bother with this pretense.

Umaid Bhawan, current home of the Rathores.

The Rathores are an ancient dynasty. The clan originated in 470 CE in Kannauj and feuded with Prithviraj Chauhan, ruling from Delhi’s Lal Kot. One story says that Prithviraj kidnapped the Rathore king's daughter and married her, cementing the hatred between the two houses. Facing a divided Rajput enemy, Mohammed of Ghor conquered them both. After the Muslim conquest, the clan moved to the Jodhpur area. One hundred years later, Rao Chandra (1383-1424) established the Mandor fortress as the Rathore seat of power. In 1459, Raja Jodha (1459-1489) built Mehrangarh.

We were eager to get inside the fort. As we approached the main gate, we first noticed the balconies perched high above the walls. It looked like something created for a film, and indeed, 2012’s Batman movie, the Dark Knight Rises, featured Mehrangarh as an exotic despot’s stronghold.

Near one of the gates, we noticed a collection of small orange handprints that commemorate Maharaja Maan Singh’s (1803-1843) wives who committed sati by throwing themselves upon his funeral pyre in 1843. The practice originates with the story of Sati, one of the wives of the god Shiva, whose faithfulness led her to choose death rather than endure an insult to her husband’s dignity. Who knows if Maan Singh’s wives immolated themselves willingly, but in many cases, sons or other family members may have thrown women into the fire against their will. The Mughal emperor Akbar actually attempted to ban the practice in the 16th century. Nowadays it rarely happens, but many stories of sati during Rajput rule survive.

Memorial to the maharaja's wives who committed sati.

The highlights of the fort were the ornate halls and palaces. Maharaja Abhai Singh (1724-1749) enjoyed watching girls dance under the gold filigree roof (made with gold leaf, glue, and cow’s urine) of his Palace of Flowers. Takhat Singh (1843-1873), the last maharaja to reside in the fort, hung Christmas ornaments hanging from the ceiling of his hall, the Takhat Vilas. We ended up in the Moti Mahal, or Pearl Palace. Sawai Raja Suraj-Mal (1595–1619) built this large hall and polished the plaster on the walls to a shiny, pearl-like quality.

Mehrangarh was not impregnable. Humayun sought refuge in Marwar during his wanderings in the desert, but Jodhpur's ruler Maldeo (1532-1562) turned him away. Despite Marwar’s cold shoulder to Humayun, Sher Shah attacked in 1544 and occupied the fort. Sher Shah died shortly thereafter and Rao Maldeo reoccupied the fort. Seventeen years later, Akbar avenged his father, Humayun, and captured Jodhpur. Maldeo’s son Udai Singh (1583-1595) formalized Jodhpur’s vassal status under the Mughals in 1583 and regained the fort.

However, loyalty to the Mughal Empire was not always enough.In 1658, Maharaja Jaswant Singh I (1638-1678) backed Emperor Shah Jahan’s heir apparent. After Shah Jahan's least favorite son, Aurangzeb, defeated the chosen succeessor, he packed Jaswant Singh off to Afghanistan, killed Jodhpur's heir with a poisoned robe, and bestowed the throne to Jaswant’s unpopular but more pliable nephew. Jaswant’s surviving son, Ajit Singh, hid until Aurangzeb died in 1707. Ajit launched a guerrilla campaign and the Mughals eventually recognized Ajit’s rule (1679-1724).

Phul Mahal, Mehrangarh

Takhat Vilas, Mehrangarh

Moti Mahal, or Pearl Palace, inside Mehrangarh.

Street in Mehrangarh

From Mehrangarh, we traveled a short distance to the Jaswant Thada, a memorial to Maharaja Jaswant Singh II (1873-1895). The tomb-and-garden-obsessed Mughals inspired the Rajputs to create permanent memorials for their dead. The musty, dimly-lit interior glowed from the sunlight hitting the marble’s exterior. The whole area was peaceful—quite a change from our old city experience the day before.

Jaswant Thada

We ended our day at Mandor, the Marwari capital from the 14th century until Jodha built Mehrangarh in 1459. The area is a city park that just happens to contain 700-year-old ruins.

The Rajputs founded Mandor in 623. As with Mehrangarh, it experienced several Muslim onslaughts. In 1227, Sultan Iltumish (whose marble tomb sits in Lal Kot) defeated its original owners, the Parihar Rajputs, and occupied the fort. In 1294, Jalal-ud-Din Feroz Khalji, founder of the second Delhi Sultanate dynasty, attacked the fort and held it for a century. In 1395, the Parihar Rajputs wrested it from the Muslims, but found it difficult to hold, so they gave it to the Rathors.

Rao Chandra (1383-1424) established Mandor as the Rathors’ seat of power, but his son Ran Mal (1427-1428) lost it after starting a war with the neighboring kingdom of Mewar. In 1453, Mewar's king, Kumbha, returned it to Ran Mal’s son Jodha. Jodha recognized that he needed a more secure capital, and he founded Jodhpur.

We wandered amongst the park’s monkeys and stray dogs looking for the ruins. We followed some Indians go up a hillside and found Mandor. We could make out several houses and foundations for temples to the gods Shiva and Brahma. A cow lay in the ruins, chewing grass. In another ruin’s footprint, someone repurposed stones to create a new temple. From the old Brahma temple, a monkey watched us while we admired the cenotaphs. On our way back down, the dogs eagerly devoured monkey waste, while the monkeys enjoyed bananas that someone had left for them.

It had been a full day, but we had a long night ahead. We had only made the wait list for the night’s train, and we wouldn’t know until a couple of hours before our scheduled departure whether we would have train tickets. Our hotel sat across the street from the train station, and we ran over to check several times. Food vendors, beggars with contorted limbs, and sleeping people wrapped in blankets surrounded the station. Inside, whole families slept on the floor together. It looked like a shelter during a natural disaster. In the midst of this stood a modern computer reservation kiosk, where we confirmed our berths.

The Jodhpur-Jaisalmer overnight train has only third class cars. An Indian-American friend of ours warned us of "the lepers" on anything lower than first class. We didn’t see any lepers, but Mike met a lovely Indian-American couple from Silicon Valley. 

After breakfast, we sauntered about the "Golden City." Jaisalmer was much smaller than any other destination we visited in India. As in Jodhpur, cows and dogs filled the streets, but other animals, especially pigs and goats, joined them. At one point, we spotted swine eating from a pile of burning trash. Nearby, a rail-thin old woman yielding a stick chased a huge bull away from the front of her house.

Incredible India.

On the way to our camp site, we stopped at Badabagh, an area with extensive Rajput cenotaphs. Monochromatic stone pavilions house the cenotaphs. Stone icons depict the rulers on horseback.

Memorial stone, Badabagh cenotaphs

Moving on, we met our ride to the sand dunes where we would camp in the desert. Mike’s mount, named Bulldozer, led our little caravan an hour through the scrubby, rocky landscape until we saw the dunes. Bitter apple plants (citrullus colocynthis) and their small, unripe-watermelon-looking fruit littered the dunes. Every few feet, we passed tough calotropis procera (apple of Sodom) in bloom, its whitish-purple flowers contrasting against its silvery-green foliage.

The Sam dunes are tall hills of sand in the flat landscape. We climbed the dunes and watched the sun set. As the sun sank below the horizon, a wind arose from behind us, as if the sun were dragging the air—and all the warmth—down with it.

After sunset, we ate our fill of dal (split lentil stew) and chapattis and scoured the crystal clear night sky for shooting stars. We had no tents—just thick bedrolls. Later, the camels wandered over to a bush near our heads for a midnight snack, and the loud munching woke Mike up. Then they started defecating. Luckily, they didn’t hit anyone, but the camel driver awoke, yelled, and swatted their rears with a stick until they lay down.

Sam sand dunes

Sunset on the Sam dunes

Sunrise in the desert

The morning was cold, but the day warmed up during the ride back through the desert. This was the very desert in which Humayun sought refuge in 1542, after Sher Shah’s conquest of Delhi a couple of years earlier. With no empire left, Humayun and his wife Hamida had few friends, even among their traveling companions:

When Hamida and Humayun…crossed the Rajasthani Desert…Humayun had hopes of alliance with the raja of Marwar (Jodhpur). However, these soon came to naught, and the party turned back across the blistering, shimmering desert in the hottest months of the year. Hamida was by then eight months pregnant. Even so, the disdain some of his officers now had for Humayun was such that when, one day, Hamida was left without a horse, none would lend her one. Eventually, Humayun gave her his own and clambered on a camel—an undignified and inauspicious mount for an emperor. Finally, an officer relented and handed Hamida his horse, allowing Humayun to climb down.

On the way back, our inauspicious mounts, Sprite and Pepsi, brought up the group’s rear. The motion and the fact that our saddles (basically a couple of blankets) had no stirrups made it difficult to adjust our posture when we sank into our saddles or slid to the side. Going uphill was bad, but going downhill was even worse.

Back in Jaisalmer, we spent the day exploring the fort (really a small walled city). A sage advised a Rajput named Jaisal to find a triangular hill, and he stumbled upon Trikuta Hill. He built Jaisalmer in 1155.

The city’s walls stand out for the number of bastions. Between 1633 and 1647, the rulers of Jaisalmer embarked on a bastion-building frenzy. Today, ninety-nine bastions ring the city walls.

Inside the walls, Jaisalmer is strangely quiet, even eerie. The fort is small, so even when we lost our way, we couldn’t stray too far. More cows than people wandered the warren of little alleys. We explored an empty Hindu temple and found a closed Jain temple. As we tried to figure out how to enter another Jain temple, we almost found ourselves caught between an amorous bull and the object of his desire.

At one time, Jaisalmer sat on the trade routes from India to Central Asia and grew fabulously rich. Jaisalmer’s greed sometimes caused problems. At one point, its rulers waylaid and stole the Delhi sultan’s treasury. In retaliation, Sultan Ala-ud-Din Khalji attacked and occupied the city in 1295. In 1316, the nephew of Jaisalmer’s king convinced Ala-ud-Din to return the fort to him. Later, Jaisalmer attacked Feroz Shah Tughluq. Predictably, the sultan returned the favor and 16,000 people committed suicide before Feroz Shah sacked the city.

The bastions of Jaisalmer

We also visited the one of the city mansions, or havelis, for which Jaisalmer is famous. Salim Singh, a fearsome prime minister, commissioned the Salim Singh-ki-Haveli in the late 17th century. He intended to build two more floors and an elevated walkway from his haveli to the fort, but the maharaja nixed his plan. Perhaps because of his original plan, the lower levels of the building are slim, but the upper levels have balconies that jut out, creating a blocky mushroom shape.

The next day, we changed gears. We had arranged all of our own travel at the beginning of the trip, but we asked a travel agency to help us arrange the rest of our trip. In the morning, Babulal, our driver, joined us for the rest of the trip. Babulal didn’t say much. We never really had a chance to chat with him, since he would disappear each night as soon as he dropped us off at our hotel.

We spent the next day driving to a small heritage hotel in the town of Rohet. The current owner’s family has occupied Rohet Garh since 1622. As Rohet Garh’s website explains: "Bestowed upon the first amongst our kin Thakur Dalpat Singh I for his exemplary courage and bravery in numerous military campaigns under the banner of the Rathores, Rohet became one of the most important Jagirs (fiefdoms) of the state of Marwar." This family, like other Rajput descendants we would meet, still considers itself to be nobility.

In 1990, the owners converted a part of the fort (really a walled country mansion) into a hotel. These "heritage hotels" are a popular way to connect with the romantic past of the Rajputs. After the dusty and chaotic places we had stayed, it felt like paradise to us. Later, the owner told us that our room was originally a stable. They certainly had cleaned it up nicely.

Peacocks strutted in the lawn and ate ornamental cabbage plants. That evening, they flew up into the trees, and we could hear their mating calls--like soprano vuvuzelas. We thought that the hotel had released them, but we later found peacocks everywhere in the wild. In Islamic tradition, the peacock was the gateway to paradise. Peacocks eat snakes, and legend has it that the peacock carried the devil in its stomach into paradise, where it escaped and set the trap for Adam and Eve.

Peacock at Rohet

The next day, we explored the area around Rohet. We started by going out into some fallow fields to see blackbuck. The male is black on its back and the outside of its legs, but has a white belly, eyes, ears, and nose. Most notable are its long, twisted horns. The females have light brown backs, sometimes with white stripes along their sides.

We also met the blackbuck’s protectors, a village of Bishnoi people who regard the blackbuck as their reincarnated ancestors. Originally members of the warrior caste, Bishnoi dropped out of the caste system to become farmers throughout northwestern India. Their name means twenty-nine and it refers to the number of tenets by which they live. Among these tenets are bans on killing animals and cutting down green trees. Unlike most Hindus, they bury their dead so that they do not burn wood. The Bishnoi are rural, and the homestead that we visited consisted of only a few small mud huts with thatched roofs. They were friendly hosts, but there's a thin line between learning about people's lives and putting them on display.


Next, we visited a Brahmin village. When the Aryans arrived in India, their society probably already categorized people by occupation. These became the castes—priests and teachers (brahmins); warriors and administrators (kshatriyas); merchants, ranchers, and farmers (vaisyas); and peasants (sudras). The Rig Veda describes how different castes emerged from the sacrifice of a man named Purusha:

[The gods] anointed the Man, the sacrifice born at the beginning, upon the sacred grass. With him the gods…and sages sacrificed…

When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his arms and thighs and feet?

His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Warrior [kshatriya], his thighs the People [vaisyas], and from his feet the Servants [sudras] were born.

Under the caste system, not all people are created equal. They have different talents and skills, and most importantly, different histories of previous lives. A person who fulfills the duties, or dharma, of his or her caste will find a better position in the next life. By the laws of dharma, a breach of caste invites social disorder and ultimately destruction.

Our guide took us into an entire village of blue houses where we met a group of older brahmin men in pink turbans. To our surprise, they planned to demonstrate their opium tea ritual. They take dried sap from a poppy seed pod, mix it with molasses, and let it harden to make a sort of opium brittle. They melt that over a flame, dissolve it in water, and slurp it out of their friends’ hands. Apparently, opium tea does not affect one’s ritual purity. We politely declined.

The brahmins guard their status as the only caste sufficiently competent and pure to recite the Vedas without causing grave danger. As such, they hold a monopoly on rituals and on the rites that confer divine status on rulers. From Hinduism's earliest days, priests have used this position to make larger and larger financial demands on the other castes.

Whenever people chafed under brahmin dominance, other religions found an opening. By the sixth century BCE, Mahavira and the Buddha challenged this arrangement. The Mauryan kings patronized Jainism and Buddhism and spread their teachings of equality among castes.

Hinduism was resilient. It adopted several non-Aryan practices, such as reincarnation and the concept of karma. Taking a cue from the Jains, it ended ritual sacrifice and began to revere cows as the Holy Feeder. From Buddhism, it adopted Buddha himself into the Hindu pantheon of gods as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu.

We traveled to a major center of an early challenger to brahmin power. After a beautiful drive through the Aravalli Hills, we arrived at the Chaumukha Temple, one of the largest in Jainism and a major pilgrimage site. A businessman named Dharna Sah built the temple in 1458 on land that the king of Mewar, Rana Kumbha, had donated. The area took the name Rana Kumbha Pur ("pur" means "city"), which later became Ranakpur.

Carved lions and elephants cover the roof, which spans twenty pillared halls. Each entrance leads to a central four-faced image of Adinath, the first Tirthankara, in the main hall. "Chaumukha" means "four faces," and Adinath’s faces symbolize the Tirthankaras’ mastery of the four cardinal directions and ultimately the cosmos.

We came to see the temple’s carvings. 1444 unique stone columns, each in milky white marble, fill the hall. Nymphs, elephants, and demons occupy the columns. The ceilings feature thousands of intricate lacy carvings, all culminating in a single lotus flower. Om, the original sound marking the beginning of the all-encompassing divine consciousness, is the subject of one particularly noteworthy carving. Om symbols nest within other om symbols, progressively getting smaller and smaller like an M.C. Escher work. Freestanding carvings also sit in the temple. These include several large elephants, a carving of snakes with unending tails, and what look like stone advent calendars with tiny images in each "window." A tree grows inside the temple itself, with a stone platform hugging its trunk. We watched the shadows advance in the temple, changing the carvings from golden to bluish-white.

Chaumukha Temple interior

At Ranakpur and other places, we regularly saw Westerners pretending to worship at sites for religions about which they probably know very little (perhaps we're unfairly mirroring our glancing familiarity with Indian religions onto our fellow travelers). The praying yogi is an archetype for spiritual experience, and perhaps this mimicry looks good for the folks at home, but it looks silly in a temple full of people earnestly practicing their faith.

As we examined the carvings, a priest offered to apply saffron bindis to our foreheads, for a fee. Another priest panhandled for donations. For a religion that regards material possession as a weight on one’s soul, we found it interesting that the priests would try to lighten our wallets. We scurried from the money grubbing priests before they further offended our atoms.

The next day, we learned more about Mewar. Unlike its fellow Rajputs, Mewar’s Sisodia dynasty never formally submitted to the Mughals.

We stopped first at Kumbhalgarh. Local traditions say that Ashoka's son built a fort and several Jain temples here. Rana Kumbha (1433-1468) built this fort in a dense forest in 1443.

As we approached Kumbhalgarh, the fort’s squat ramparts reminded us of Tughluqabad or Jaisalmer. As we explored the battlements, we peeked through the crenels and saw the walls and ramparts snake on to the horizon. In fact, the walls of Kumbhalgarh are over 22 miles long. It is the second longest continuous wall after the Great Wall of China.

After exploring the walls and ruined temples, we scaled the hill to the palace itself. At the top, we entered several courtyards surrounded by crumbling buildings. One bare room advertised itself as the birthplace of Pratap Singh (1572-1597). Pratap acceded to the throne during a period of turmoil. Akbar’s brutal siege and destruction of the capital, Chitorgarh, traumatized the Sisodias. Four years later, Pratap’s father Udai Singh II died, and a succession crisis gripped Mewar. Pratap managed to secure the crown, and he and his trusty steed would later symbolize Rajput resistance to the Mughals.

However, some Rajputs allied themselves with the Mughals. Raja Bhar Mal of Amber (later Jaipur) gave his daughter in marriage to Akbar. This infuriated Pratap, who insulted Bhar Mal’s grandson, Man Singh. In response, Man Singh attacked Pratap in the Battle of Haldighati in 1576. Pratap fought Man Singh to a draw despite Amber’s 4:1 numerical advantage, but he barely managed to escape. In the end, he lost Chetak, his favorite horse, a white Marwari.

Ten years after destroying Chitor, Akbar vowed to finish Mewar. His armies besieged Kumbalgarh, Pratap’s stronghold. When the fort’s water ran out, the defenders made a desperate suicide attack. Pratap managed to escape, and for the next twenty years he fought a guerrilla war against the Mughals.

Maharana Pratap Singh of Mewar

The Badal Mahal, or the Palace of the Clouds, crowns the fort. While most buildings in the fort are collapsing, the Badal Mahal still retains some refinement. It is relatively new; Maharana Fateh Singh (1884-1930) built this palace in the 19th century. Cusped Mughal arches separate rooms in pastel blue and green paint. The dados feature fighting elephants and crocodiles. The roof offers a bird’s eye view of the hazy hills and forest below.

At our next destination, Udaipur, we ended up with the best room in the hotel, with a great view of the City Palace and the Lake Palace against the backdrop of the mountains. As night fell, the palace lights glittered in the lake.

Unfortunately, Mike began feeling ill, and ended up in the hotel room all night. Chad befriended the hotel staff and they took great care of us, bringing several extra blankets, some chapattis, and a space heater. Mike’s request for mint tea mystified the staff, but they obliged by giving him hot water with fresh mint leaves.

The next day, Mike felt much better. We met a guide who took us first to the city’s main Hindu temple, the Jagdish Temple. Maharana Jagat Singh (1628-1654) built and dedicated the temple to Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. Vishnu has appeared in nine incarnations (avatars), including the Buddha, Krishna, and Rama, hero-king of the Ramayana epic poem. Rama is particularly important to Mewar because the Sisodias trace their lineage to him. Vishnu's tenth and final avatar has not yet appeared, but it will save humanity from moral degeneracy and begin a new era of justice.

Within the temple courtyard, worshippers touched a set of white marble feet decorated with kumkum powder and swastikas. Inside, brahmins attended to a black, four-armed image of Vishnu, adorning his feet in devotion (the feet outside are for the laity). Our guide approached a table separating the inner sanctum of from the prayer hall, prayed to the image of Vishnu, and sipped some holy water. 

Hinduism is more like a set of associated local traditions than an organized religion. As Aryans settled in India, their religion absorbed local cults of the peoples among whom they settled, and many of the traditions and deities remain local. There are perhaps up to 330 million gods, most of them local. 

A few common strands do exist. Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, is everywhere. His father, Shiva, is the object of reverence for one religion within the Hindu tradition, Shaivism. In contrast, Vaishnavism and Shaktism, consider their central figures—Vishnu and Shakti (the great divine mother), respectively—to be the supreme being. However, these traditions do not deny the supremacy of other gods for their own followers.

Others believe all gods are simply manifestations of the one unknowable universal consciousness, Brahman (not to be confused with the brahmin priests or the god Brahma), and that Hinduism ultimately is monotheistic. Perhaps a sharp distinction between monotheism and polytheism does not exist for many Hindus. It appears that the Hindu tradition does not have any problem with ambiguity. Even the creation hymn from the Rig Veda, which distinguishes the gods from Brahman, poses more questions than it answers:

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?…

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat...

…Was there below? Was there above?…There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know.

We observed the carvings on the temple’s exterior. Our guide pointed out the demons near the ground representing hell and the dancing figures at the top identifying heaven. The middle layer represents aspects of earthly life, including several scenes of lovemaking. Below that, a band of horses symbolized strength, and another band of elephants symbolized wealth. Nearby, camels represent love. Several defaced images marked Aurangzeb’s invasion in 1680; as a pious Muslim, he destroyed prohibited images of living things wherever he went. Holy water from the interior (the same water that our guide sipped) drained out of a crocodile-mouth gargoyle. As we exited, we passed a caged basil plant, a common feature of Hindu temples.

Next, we visited the City Palace, seat of the Sisodia dynasty. A large genealogical table at the palace's entrance claims that the Sisodias are the longest uninterrupted dynasty in the world. They claim descent from both Rama and the sun god, but their history really takes shape when their king Bappa Rawal (734-753) captured Chitor, which remained the Sisodia capital for the next 800 years.

In the 16th century, the Sisodia king Rana Sangha (1509-1528) invited the Mughals to attack the Delhi Sultanate to clear the way for his own takeover. However, after Babur decided to stay in India, Rana Sangha led a Rajput army to expel the foreigner. When the two armies met, the Rajputs’ characteristic infighting prevented them from pushing the Mughals out of India.

A doorway led us into a courtyard where Maharana Udai Singh II met the hermit who convinced him to build his new capital here after Chitor’s fall in 1568. Off of this courtyard, several small exhibit halls and a gallery prominently heralded Pratap Singh I. A model of his beloved horse Chetak wore a false elephant trunk. As our guide explained, this gave the impression that Pratap rode an elephant, thereby intimidating the enemy. History is silent on the tactic's effectiveness.

Is that an elephant?

Under Pratap and his successors, Mewar continued to irritate the Mughals. Despite his victories, Akbar failed to conquer Mewar. The Mughal Emperor Jahangir sent his son, the future Shah Jahan, to negotiate for Mewar's submission. The Mughals offered generous terms, including no humiliating public show of submission and lavish gifts. The good relations didn't last. Aurangzeb's religious chauvinism stoked the Sisodias’ resistance, and they quickly opposed him in Jodhpur’s succession crisis. In 1680, a Mughal army sacked Udaipur, but failed to capture the maharana.

The City Palace is a series of palaces that maharanas built on top of one another. Stained glass windows lined the inside passages. The Dilkushal Mahal (Palace of Joy) features glass and mirrors in a wave pattern to the wall. The reflected light of just one candle could light the whole room. Another room has floor-to-ceiling paintings of festivals in Udaipur. Blue and white porcelain tiles from China and the Netherlands cover the rooms of the adjoining Chini Chitra Sali.

Another hall, the Surya Chopad, holds a large gold image of Surya, the sun god, for the maharana’s use. On a wall in a balcony, facing outward high above the main square is a version of the god for the commoners to worship. Before they installed the commoners' sun, the maharanas, descendants of the sun, would sit in a nearby balcony for the adoring sun worshippers on cloudy days.

Surya, the sun god, the Sisodias' ancestor and object of affection

Farther on, we found the complex’s most beautiful area, the Mor Chowk or Peacock Courtyard. Stained glass windows, mosaics, and a beautiful green balcony drew our attention, but three green glass mosaic peacocks stand out. Each peacock represents one of the three seasons—summer, winter, and monsoon. The large, three-dimensional mosaics contain thousands of tiny glass pieces.

Detail of Mor Chowk glass mosaic

The Manak Mahal, or Ruby Palace, finished off our visit. The hall served as a dining room, but the maharana also granted formal audiences here.

The Maharanas' dining room

At the end of the day, we took a boat cruise on Lake Pichola to visit the lake palaces. From the lake, we had great views of the City Palace and the white buildings of Udaipur, and we circumnavigated Jagniwas Island, site of the Lake Palace. Maharana Jagat Singh II (1734-1751) built the first palace on Jagniwas Island. In the 1960s, Maharana Bhagwat Singh (1955-1971) converted the decaying palace into a luxury hotel in order to fund its upkeep. We thought about staying here, but it was a little steep for us. Those who have stayed here include Queen Elizabeth II and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Jagmandir Island, another floating palace, and Octopussy's lair.

Next, the boat headed to Jagmandir Island, where Karan Singh II (1620-1628) built a palace in 1622. Four stone elephants welcomed us. We wandered around the marble courtyard and buildings and admired our view of the Lake Palace and the City Palace.

The lake palaces have been a place of refuge, not only for maharanas trying to escape the heat, but for folks in danger. During the Great Rebellion of 1857, Maharana Swaroop Singh (1842-1861) sheltered European families here. Earlier, in 1623-24, Karan Singh II hosted Shah Jahan at his palace on the island. Locals claim that the palace inspired Shah Jahan’s greatest masterpiece, the Taj Mahal.

More recently, both the Lake Palace and Jagmandir starred in the James Bond film Octopussy as the eponymous character’s lair. Local hotels screen the film daily.

Back at the City Palace, we found men riding the famous Marwari horses. We watched them circle the track several times. We know nothing about horses, but we liked their distinctively inward-curling ears.

Marwari horse with its distinctive curved ears.

Mike felt progressively better throughout the day, and he was ready for normal food again. Chad tried to skip dinner entirely and get ice cream, but the young waiter who had taken care of us wagged his finger and told him to eat dinner first. Chad complied.

The next day, we departed Udaipur. On the road, we spied a sign saying Chitorgarh was only 7 km away, and we asked Babulal if we could stop. He sighed, but he turned off the road and we approached Mewar’s former capital.

Chitor, or Chitorgarh, served as the center of Mewar for over 800 years. As we entered the fort, we found the Rana Kumbha palace. The buildings differed from those at Kumbhalgarh; at Chitor, the builders had added more ornamentation, particularly stone carving.

Akbar delivered the fort’s most famous defeat in 1568. Mewar’s refusal to submit to the Mughals frustrated Akbar, and he decided to settle matters. After a four-month siege, the defenders could no longer hold out. The battle for Chitor "…became one of the great set-pieces of the age, avidly followed, gloriously recorded and in the end bloodily concluded." Indeed, Akbar had a single-minded obsession with Chitor:

…[I]n contrast to his usual policy of reconciliation, Akbar ordered a massacre of those remaining alive within Chitor, mostly farmers seeking shelter. Perhaps he did so because Chitor was a long-standing symbol of Rajput power, or perhaps he was simply showing future enemies that the greater the resistance the greater would be his retaliation.

Maharana Pratap Singh also obsessed over Chitor. During his guerrilla war against the Mughals, he vowed to sleep on bare floors and not to use plates until he had avenged his father’s loss. He never fulfilled his ambition. In 1615, the Mughals restored Chitor to Amar Singh II, Pratap’s successor, in his treaty with Jahangir and Shah Jahan on the condition that he never repair it.

Farther on, we reached the Vijaya Stambha (Tower of Victory), which the Lonely Planet guidebook describes as "…a particularly masculine expression of triumph. Erected by Rana Kumbha between 1458 and 1468, it rises 37m [121 ft] in nine exquisitely carved storeys." We decided to walk up to the top floor on the cramped and narrow staircase. 544 years of use have worn the stone steps to a glossy polish; walking in socks (no shoes allowed) in dim light proved somewhat treacherous. The interior had almost as much carving as the exterior of the temple, although we had little time to stop and admire the work as we jostled with others going up and down the steps. The top had more intricate carving, along with modern graffiti, and great views of the fort.

Vijaya Stambha, Tower of Victory

We moved on to Padmini’s Palace. Rana Ratan Singh’s (1302-1303) wife, Padmini, had legendary beauty. After the Delhi Sultan, Ala-ud-Din Khalji, attacked Chitor in 1303, one story says that he agreed to withdraw if the rana would allow him to glimpse the queen. Ratan Singh let him view her reflection in the lotus pool beside the palace and then escorted his guest to the fort’s gate, where the sultan’s troops took the rana prisoner. The queen rescued her husband from Ala-ud-Din’s camp with a Trojan horse tactic (warriors hid in her elephant palanquin). Ala-ud-Din then attacked the fort more ferociously. Confronting a hopeless situation, the Mewaris committed suicide; Padmini supposedly did so in the cellar of the Rana Kumbha palace. We stood on the balcony overlooking the small green lake in which Ala-ud-Din supposedly saw Padmini.

Padmini's Palace. The pond is where Ala-ud-Din Khalji supposedly glimpsed her reflection.

As we departed, construction blocked our ramp onto the highway. Babulal swiftly took the car up the off ramp and we drove the wrong direction on the shoulder of a four-lane highway until he found a place to turn around. Driving in India is an art of improvisation.

A few hours later, we arrived at our second heritage hotel. Fort Barli dominates its tiny village, and as we drove up, all we saw were the tremendous walls abruptly rising out of the ground. In contrast to Rohet Garh, which is really an enclosed palace complex, Fort Barli looks like a fort.

Fort Barli

Our hosts provided a fun evening of dancing, including some audience participation. A girl demonstrated some quick twirling moves, while a boy waved around a large scepter. Then the girl returned with a pot on her head. The musicians lit the contents of the pot, and flames leapt out of it while she continued her twirling. Then the owner led us in a circle dance in which we each kept time with sticks.

The next day, our host gave us a tour of the fort. Her family traces its lineage to Rao Maldeo of Jodhpur. In 1675, the family founded Fort Barli, and they’ve been adding to the complex ever since. One of the upper floors held a chamber resembling the ornately painted rooms of Mehrangarh or Udaipur's City Palace. From the roof, we had a great view of the small nearby lake and verdant fields. As we explored the rooms, she described how her grandmother had lived in the fort and her childhood memories in the fort.

After the tour, we continued to our next stop, Ajmer. The Chauhan dynasty had occupied this area for centuries. One king, Ajaya-raja, established his capital here in the late 7th century and called it Ajaya-meru. A successor, Vigraha-raja, later expanded the kingdom to include much of the Punjab and northwestern India. He even added an inscription to one of Ashoka's pillars. By coincidence, Feroz Shah Tughluq later moved this same pillar to Ferozabad, which we saw on the first day of our trip.

Under Prithviraj Chauhan, Ajmer and Delhi (Lal Kot) served as dual capitals until Mohammed of Ghor established Muslim control of north India. However, Islam had already arrived in Ajmer before Mohammed of Ghor's conquest.

Legend has it that the Prophet Muhammad instructed Shaikh Muin-ud-Din Chishti to travel to India. Once he arrived in Ajmer, he taught his followers to renounce material goods, to observe a strict regimen of personal prayer, to participate in Sufi meditation ceremonies focusing on music and chanting (which can produce the trances of whirling dervishes), to remain independent of political powers, to practice generosity toward others, and to tolerate and respect religious differences. Today, his tomb is the most important Sufi shrine in India, located in the middle of Hindu Rajasthan.

We hadn’t realized that our visit would coincide with Friday prayers until we arrived. Barriers blocked cars from entering the streets around the shrine, and as we approached, we joined the crush of pilgrims. Somehow, a few cars and tuk-tuks managed to mingle with the foot traffic, bicycles, and cows. In front of the gate, a man began describing the entrance procedures to us until a car lightly hit him from behind.

We watched the sea of people entering the gate. Vendors shooed us away from their garlands of flowers and other holy accoutrements—we weren’t their target audience. The crowds and street activity overwhelmed us and we decided to move on.

Just a few miles through a winding road sits another pilgrimage site. Pushkar hosts one of the few temples dedicated to the god Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman, the supreme consciousness). Three gods—Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma—form the Hindu tradition’s trinity. Vishnu is the preserver of the universe, Shiva is the destroyer, and Brahma is the creator. While Vishnu and Shiva command large followings, very few people worship Brahma. Shiva usurped his role by claiming both destruction and recreation (or destruction with the intent of re-creation).

We found three main story lines (and many variations) to explain Brahma’s paltry following. In the first, Brahma created a daughter to help him perform his job. Her beauty entranced him, and he sprouted five faces to watch her every move. In one version, the woman changed into different creatures to avoid his gaze. Every time she changed, he became the animal’s male version, thus creating every animal in the world. Either Brahma’s wife or Shiva cursed his lechery, condemning him to have few worshippers.

A second story says that Brahma and Vishnu raced to find the end of a never-ending shaft of light (some accounts characterize this as Shiva’s flaming penis). When Brahma lied that he had found its end, Shiva exposed his trickery. Once again, Shiva cursed Brahma, even though Brahma wasn’t the one bragging about his infinite member.

A more sympathetic story says that Brahma had to perform a ritual at Pushkar’s lake, and his wife either couldn’t or wouldn’t attend. When he married another wife for this ritual, his first wife cursed him.

One might think that Pushkar would be quiet, since only a few people worship Brahma. Instead, its curiosity creates a carnival-like atmosphere full of hawkers, rapacious priests, and thieves. As soon as we arrived, we sensed an aggressiveness to the hustle surrounding the Brahma temple. We visited the temple in turns, climbing the long marble staircase to enter the complex. Inside, the temple had a bright red tower and blue columns. Priests chanted in front of a niche containing a statue of Brahma wearing garlands of flowers. In the darkness and the distance between the inner sanctum and the prayer hall, we couldn’t see Brahma’s characteristic red faces. From the temple, we walked to the ghat, where people put flowers into the lake as offerings for their prayers. Priests stood by, pressuring people into buying prayers for loved ones.

We left Pushkar to begin the final portion of our trip, the Golden Triangle between Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi. After a couple of hours traveling past bright yellow fields full of mustard plants, we reached Jaipur.

The next day, our first stop was Amber Fort, just north of the city. The Kachwaha dynasty ruled from here for several hundred years. In 1006, Dhola Rai (1006-1036) subdued the locals here and made Amber his capital. The Kachwahas later allied themselves with Prithviraj Chauhan and fought his wars against Jaichand of Kannauj and Mohammed of Ghor.

Nearly 400 years later, the Kachwahas accommodated themselves to Muslim rule. In 1562, Akbar married a Kachwaha princess. This rewarded the rulers of Amber for their loyalty to Humayun and secured that loyalty for future Mughal emperors. The alliance also gave the Kachwahas some security, status, and comfort that their more rebellious cousins did not enjoy.

On our way to Amber (pronounced "Amer"), we stopped to view of the fort’s peach-colored chhatris nestled among the hills behind Maota lake. A walled garden, one of several that resemble carpets, floated on the lake. As we stood there, a snake charmer approached us. He even offered to let Chad put the cobra around his shoulders, which Chad vigorously declined.

What a snake

Raja Man Singh I (1589-1614) built this fort in 1592. As the Kachwaha-Mughal alliance grew closer, Man Singh grew more powerful in Emperor Akbar’s administration. By the time he built this fort, he was Akbar’s principal war commander (and had already fought Pratap Singh at the Battle of Haldighati).

Most tourists enter the fort in traditional maharaja style—by elephant. We loaded ourselves on our howdah and ascended the hill, rocking back and forth. The return procession of pachyderms made their way down behind us. Some of them wore colorful painted designs on their foreheads and trunks.

The elephant deposited us in a large outer courtyard. We proceeded up some steps to another courtyard containing the maharaja’s pink and white Hall of Public Audience. Unlike the relatively cramped palaces in other Rajput palaces, the Kachwahas built their halls and palaces on a grand scale, resembling Mughal architecture but with a few Rajput twists, including elephant-trunk corbels with lotus finials.

Elephant trunk corbels

The third courtyard features another carpet-design garden and the Jai Mandir, or Hall of Victory. Although the Jai Mandir is essentially a hall of mirrors, the inset mirror- and colored glass-work was much more delicate than what we had seen in earlier palaces. The mirrors alternated with white polished plaster. Black stone borders surrounded marble relief flower vases in the dados.

The fourth courtyard contained the women’s residences. Each wife had an apartment for her and her children facing onto the courtyard, and an outer ring of corridors also connected them. Through these passages, the maharaja could discreetly visit his wives separately at night. The wives competed for primacy and for their children to become heir to the throne, so they would have watched carefully with whom the Maharaja spent his time.

Turmoil early in Jai Singh II’s reign (1700-1743) forced him to think about the defense of his fort. Aurangzeb demoted the Kachwahas and demanded greater contributions to his wars in southern India. When Mughal forces occupied and sacked both Jodhpur and Udaipur, Jai Singh realized that a lack of water would limit his ability to defend Amber. In November 1727, he relocated his seat of government to an area 12 kilometers to the south with better access to water. In true maharaja style, he named the new city after himself—Jaipur.

To the Blue City (Jodhpur), the Golden City (Jaisalmer), and the White City (Udaipur), we now added the Pink City (Jaipur) to our list. The color is more of a cross between orange and red, like terra cotta. The paint came almost 150 years after the city's founding to honor a visit by the Prince of Wales (Prince Albert Edward, later King Edward VII).

Jaipur’s centerpiece is the City Palace. We immediately noticed the palace’s unusual flag. Despite the strained relations between Aurangzeb and Jai Singh, the emperor bestowed the Kachwaha with the grudging title of Sawai ("one and a quarter"), signifying that he was 25% more man than most others. Jai Singh’s successors adopted this honorific, and even today Jaipur’s maharajas fly their standard with an extra, quarter-sized pennant above it.

1 1/4 flag for a 1 1/4 ruler

In the palace, we encountered the Hall of Private Audience. This building has three large cusped archways supported by white double columns on each side. A Christmas tree filled the center space, but the main attractions are two huge silver urns, the largest silver objects in the world. In 1901, Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II (1880-1922) traveled to London for King Edward VII’s coronation. As a pious Hindu, he could not drink foreign water, so he commissioned these urns to carry ritually pure water from the Ganges. Rumors say that the maharaja filled these vessels with whisky (somewhat less ritually pure) for the return trip.

Silver urns for carrying ritually pure water from the Ganges. Or whisky.

We proceeded to the next courtyard, the Pitam Niwas Chowk. Four colorful gates, each representing a season, distinguish this courtyard. The peacock gate, symbolizing spring, quite literally stood out with its five bas relief birds adorning the inside wall and ceiling of the entrance niche.

Our final destination in the City Palace was the Mubarak Mahal. This served as a reception center for foreign dignitaries, and it contains the clothes of Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh I (1751-1768), who weighed 550 pounds. His clothing was almost four feet wide, like bed sheets. That didn’t hurt his marriage chances; he acquired 108 wives.

Upon leaving the City Palace, we visited the Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh’s observatory, which is really a park with a collection of large freestanding structures used to make astronomical measurements. This includes the largest sun dial in the world (the Samrat Yanta), standing about 80 feet tall and accurate to about two seconds in Jaipur local time. The World Heritage list describes the Jantar Mantar as an astronomy park: "…an outstanding example of a very comprehensive set of astronomical instruments, in the heart of a royal capital at the end of the Mughal period in India." In reality, this place is about astrology. The planets’ positions signaled auspicious dates, to which both the Mughals and the Rajputs paid careful attention. The stars told them when to marry, when to go to battle, when to enter their forts, and their children’s destinies. Even modern India’s first leaders consulted with astrologers to determine the date of the country’s independence from Britain. 

Jai Singh was a renaissance man. One story says that in 1719, he witnessed an argument at the Mughal court over how to make astronomical calculations. Not content with building his new city or administering various provinces for the Mughals, he built these enormous instruments to enable more accurate measurement. He built several parks like this, including one in Delhi, but his Jaipur collection, dating from 1728, is the largest.

We checked the time in various ways, all of which were accurate in Jaipur local time, but don’t quite match our modern time zones. 

Samrat Yanta, the world's largest sundial

Exiting the Jantar Mantar and City Palace complex, we came across the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds. This mound-shaped building is mostly façade; the building’s depth extends only a few feet. The screened balconies allowed the palace women to watch the street life and enjoy cool breezes.

That evening, we attended our mandatory Christmas Eve dinner. This must be a common component of packages for Westerners during the holidays. Judging from the decorations, Hindus have no problem borrowing religious holidays from other traditions. The hotel owner seemed genuinely excited (more than his guests) to celebrate Christmas. A scrawny little Christmas tree (possibly a houseplant with ornaments) formed the centerpiece of the hotel courtyard. Santa Claus ran around the hotel in whiteface and a cottonball beard, handing out candy.

Traditional Indian musicians started off the celebration with a rendition of "Jingle Bells" on sitar, drums, and what sounded like an oboe. During an odd marionette show, male and female puppets chased each other to the soothing tones of a kazoo. Dancers emerged, bestowing a multicolored turban on guests as an invitation to dance. Only Santa didn’t seem to enjoy himself; we called him Sad Hindu Santa when we saw him frowning in a corner. Afterwards, we enjoyed an eclectic menu of Italian pasta, Hungarian goulash, Burmese noodles, curry, and egg drop soup. All in all, we had a lot of fun.

Christmas party

On Christmas Day, we headed east. Flowering mustard surrounded both sides of the road. Brick factories, each consisting of a huge smokestack and piles of clay blocks, punctuated the landscape. Not far outside of Jaipur, we came across a huge marble-producing area. Trucks hauled huge chunks of marble, and yards along the highway held rows of marble fountains and slabs. Farther along, we passed quarries of red sandstone.

Fields of mustard

At our next stop, we saw how the Mughals used these materials. By the late 1560s, Emperor Akbar worried that he had no heir. On his return from destroying Chitor, he paid homage to the Chishti shrine in Ajmer, and he followed this up by visiting a member of the Chishti community in the village of Sikri. The Sheikh reassured Akbar, and even predicted (correctly) that he would have three sons. In 1569, Akbar’s Rajput wife (the daughter of the Kachwaha Rajput of Jaipur) gave birth to a son in Sikri. In his delight, the emperor decided to create a new capital on the site. The son was Jahangir and the city became Fatehpur Sikri, capital of the Mughal Empire for twelve years. As John Keays describes:

Its construction, Akbar’s wildest extravagance and his wierdest folly, began in 1571, the same year in which the great tomb of his father [Humayun] was completed in Delhi. Both are regarded as classics in Mughal architecture, being artfully staged compositions, mostly in a rose-to-ruddy sandstone, of monumental scale and majestic outline.

We found Akbar’s Diwan-i-Khass, or Hall of Private Audience. This building’s interior features a central pillar and a series of serpentine brackets supporting a second-story landing with diagonal walkways to the corners. Arrays of similar brackets support the walkways in the corners. Our guide told us that Akbar granted private audiences to representatives of different religions here. Perhaps, but legend says that another building, the Ibadat Khana, hosted theological debates between these representatives. That building probably no longer exists.

Regardless, Emperor Akbar invited Sunnis, Shia, Isamailis, different Sufi orders, Shaivites, Vaishnavites, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs to explain and debate their creeds. In 1580, he invited Portuguese Jesuit priests. "[I]nterpreting the imperial summons as evidence of divine intervention…the padres hastened…confident of the most sensational conversion of all time. In the event they were disappointed—as were all other disputants." The Jains scored one small conversion; they convinced Akbar of the benefits of vegetarianism.

Akbar’s interest in religion was genuine, but his motives transcended spiritual enlightenment. His tolerance toward these faiths gave him legitimacy to rule them all: "…as it has been our disposition from the beginning…to this day not to pay attention to differences of religion and variety of manners and to regard the tribes of mankind as the servants of God, we have endeavored to regulate mankind in general." In time, he grew tired of his squabbling clerics and attempted to create an improved religious tradition to unify his realm. John Keays explains:

[Akbar] sought a faith which would satisfy the needs of his realm as well as those of his conscience, one based on irrefutable logic, composed (like Fatehpur Sikri) of the finest elements in existing practice, and endowed with a universal appeal, something monumental and sublime which would transcend all sectarian differences and unite his chronically disparate subjects. It was a tall order and one which even a bazaar-ful of theologians could not fulfill.

This loosely-defined tradition accepted the principles of reincarnation and karma. Akbar encouraged forgiveness and toleration toward all living things. Conveniently, he argued that "the divine will manifests itself in the intuition of kings," making himself the sole intermediary for divine messages. Akbar did not explicitly claim divine status, which would have gone too far, but his attempt to introduce new practices worried Muslims that his new tradition had diverged from Islam. His biographer defended the emperor, saying that only the "’ill-informed and the unfair’ accused him of claiming divinity, or at least prophethood, of being anti-Muslim, a Shia, and partial to Hinduism." Despite the syncretistic nature of Akbar’s faith, even Hindu allies such as Man Singh of Amber disliked the innovations. A few nobles in the inner circle accepted these new practices, but probably no more than twenty ever belonged to this community. Perhaps the criticism deterred him from proselytizing this religion.

Akbar’s interest in Indian culture extended to architecture, and Fatehpur Sikri offered a blank canvas on which he could showcase the subcontinent’s influences. Not far from the Hall of Private Audience stands the clearest example of Hindu and Jain influences. Akbar’s astrologers would augur auspicious dates and provide his horoscope in a small pavilion. The pavilion featured struts that resemble nothing in Islamic architecture. They look like variations of the elephant-trunk corbels at Amber Fort, but much more elaborate. At the bottom of the corbels, toothed animals open their jaws wide, releasing an intricate carved serpentine form with finials. Similar but less ornate struts also decorate the treasury behind the astrologers’ pavilion.

Moving on, the Panch Mahal, or Five-Storey Palace, forms one side of the central square. The building tapers towards the top, ending in a single chhatri. The court ladies lived there. Although open now, screens once filled each opening, allowing the ladies to catch cool breezes in summer. The design borrowed heavily from Buddhist temples. In front of it stands a raised platform on which the emperor could view his games of parcheesi below. Akbar’s builders embedded the game boards in the courtyard, and he used people (perhaps his wives) as the game pieces.

On the opposite side of the square is the Hujra-i-Anup Talao. This building has a nondescript exterior, but inside, intricate carvings of animals and plants cover the dados. The ceilings feature complex geometric carvings. Aurangzeb defaced several animal figures in a spasm of puritanical iconoclasm.

At the far end of the central square is the Anup Talao, an ornamental pond with a central platform and four bridges. Court musicians performed on the platform, and from a pavilion at the front of his palace, Akbar could enjoy their soothing melodies.

Animal images defaced by Aurangzeb.

Near Akbar’s palace stands the Palace of the Christian Wife. Akbar supposedly married a Christian woman from the Portuguese coastal enclave of Goa. We found other references to this wife, including in the Lonely Planet guide, as Mariam. In reality, Mariam was a different wife, and Akbar may not have even married a Christian. Whatever the case, the house displays some remaining paint. In one room, the low ceiling and walls exhibit colorful geometric decoration. Our guide said that the colors came from precious stones. Who knows if that's true, but the baby blue, dark green, red, and yellow give a sense of the Mughals’ gaudy aesthetics. Several mural fragments also remain; we could make out the face of a young woman and another of a couple of turbaned men. In the outer arcade, beams still show some blue and white paint and some Persian writing.

One of the largest palaces in Fatehpur Sikri is the Jodh Bai Palace. Jodh Bai is actually Mariam-uz-Zamani Begum Sahiba, the Muslim name given to Hira Kunmari, eldest daughter of the Kachwaha Raja Bhar Mal. Her marriage to Akbar cemented the Mughal-Kachwaha alliance that would last for two hundred years.

As mother of the first son, she clearly enjoyed special status. Her palace has a large central courtyard, and the two side palaces have blue tile roofs, reminiscent of Timur’s Samarkand. Her winter palace sits on one side of the courtyard, facing her summer palace on the opposite side. Attendants would hang large wool curtains in the winter palace. The summer palace stays cooler due to its exposure.

At the end of our tour, we asked to see the Buland Darwaza. This massive gate (177 feet tall) might be the largest in Asia. The gate forms the entrance to the mosque and tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti, the Sufi saint whose prophesy led Akbar to build this city. Our guide warned us not to go to the shrine, saying that touts and "holy men" would demand payment (or "donations to the shrine") for unwanted blessings. Given our experiences at other sites, we didn’t doubt our guide, but we still wanted to see the gate.

The gate’s name means "high gate," which is appropriate, if not very creative. Akbar built this gate in 1601 after one of his military victories. The inscription over the entrance of the gate reads: "Jesus, son of Mary said: 'The world is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen." Shaikh Salim’s tomb remains unseen, but we did ascend the steps and peer in to see the mosque.

Buland Darwaza, possibly the tallest gate in Asia

Our guide explained that Akbar abandoned the city for lack of water. The real story is probably more complex. During a military campaign in Afghanistan, Akbar moved his court to Lahore (now in Pakistan) to be closer to the fight. Afterwards, he could have moved his capital back to Fatehpur Sikri, but he probably had soured on what the city represented:

Akbar’s ideology had outgrown the devotion to the Chishti saints which had prompted the choice of the site in the first place. A display of Islamic piety was no longer appropriate. Moreover, disillusioned with his royal heirs, he had become disillusioned with the shaikh who had foretold them and with the site which celebrated the prophecy.

In 1600, while Akbar was fighting in southern India, Jahangir tried to seize Agra. Two years later, he proclaimed himself emperor, and a few weeks before Akbar’s death, he re-erected an Ashoka pillar in the Ganges valley, inscribing his own genealogy next to the Mauryan king’s edicts to establish his authority as the ruler of India.

From Fatehpur Sikri, we made our way to Agra, where our hotel had decked the halls. A Christmas tree stood in the lobby, and the staff had decorated the floor with colored rice that spelled out "Merry Christmas." The lobby had other, even more unusual decorations, such as a nativity scene constructed with bread and six-sided Merry Christmas signs (resembling either the Hindu symbol for the universe in balance or a Star of David). Not long after we arrived, Santa Claus passed out candy. Instead of white face, this one wore a mask with dead eyes. If Jaipur had Sad Hindu Santa, then this was Scary Hindu Santa.


Scary Santa

Our next destination, the Taj Mahal, embodies a story of love and power. The histories describe Shah Jahan as a devoted husband. He gave his wife the title Mumtaz Mahal, meaning "Chosen One of the Palace," partially to reflect her status and partially to prevent common people from sullying her original name, Arjumand Banu. Although Shah Jahan had other wives for political reasons, they "had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention, and favor which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence [another title for Mumtaz] exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other."

Shah Jahan and Mumtaz were inseparable. Mumtaz even accompanied Shah Jahan at war, which was unusual for a woman who was always pregnant. The dynasty took great pride in her fecundity; court chroniclers described her as a "mine teeming with gems of royalty." However, on June 17th, 1631, while with her husband in southern India, Mumtaz gave birth to their fourteenth child. After the birth, her condition deteriorated and she died that night. She was thirty-eight years old.

Our guide explained that Mumtaz made two requests of Shah Jahan on her deathbed: 1) he should not marry again, and 2) he should build the world’s most beautiful tomb for her. However, this story does not appear in the Mughals’ documents. Our guide probably fed us a tall tale.

The historical accounts do record Shah Jahan’s reaction:

Shah Jahan broke down completely, wept uncontrollably, and put on a white garment, the Indian color of mourning. His whole court was made to don mourning clothes. The emperor did not appear for a whole week in audience…He even considered abdicating, dividing the empire between his sons, and living as a religious recluse…For two years the emperor gave up listening to music, wearing jewelry and rich and colorful clothes, and using perfumes, and altogether presented a heartbroken appearance.

Her death also affected him physically. He wept so much that he needed glasses. His beard turned completely white.

However, the Taj Mahal is more than a love story. As Ebba Koch describes in her book, The Complete Taj Mahal, the floral motifs and gardens all supported a political narrative:

The writers and poets of Shah Jahan eulogized him as ‘the spring of the flower garden of justice and generosity’…under whose rule ‘Hindustan has become the rose garden of the earth and his reign…has become the spring season of the age in which the days and nights are young’…The image of the garden and its flowers was the main metaphor of Shah Jahan’s imperial symbolism: it stood not only for himself and his good government but also for his court and his family.

Shah Jahan undoubtedly mourned his wife’s passing, but he also took the opportunity with the Taj Mahal to reinforce a political message of good governance that gave him the legitimacy to rule.

In the Taj Mahal’s forecourt, we found the Great Gate. Inlaid marble and eleven chhatris framed the building. The builders here used both red sandstone and white marble, similar to Humayun’s tomb. The more important a building, the more white marble they used, echoing Hindu architectural principles. The Vishnudharmottara-purana, an 8th century CE Hindu encyclopedia, instructs that "White…is opposed to red as the purity of the brahmin is opposed to the ruling power of the [kshatriya]." The Mughals’ choice of building materials identified them with Hinduism’s two highest castes. Much as Akbar borrowed elements of Indian religions to establish his legitimacy to rule all Indians, Shah Jahan employed Hindu architectural symbolism to demonstrate his rightful rule of India.

We asked our guide about the calligraphy surrounding the gate’s central niche. He babbled something about the calligraphy being indecipherable. We knew from our reading that the calligrapher, Amanat Khan, understood that perspective would make the script appear to taper in towards the top of the inscription. To compensate for the illusion, Amanat Khan gradually increased the size of the script going up the gate. From the ground, everything looks perfectly uniform. The inscription itself is sura 89 of the Quran, which finishes with an invitation to paradise: "…you, soul at peace: return to your Lord well pleased and well pleasing; go in among My servants, and into My Garden."

We did just that, stopping with other tourists in the middle of the gate to get a perfectly symmetrical view of the mausoleum. We progressed down the axis of the garden to the central fountain. Several young Western ladies wearing silk saris had hired professional photographers at the monument, and they monopolized the fountain’s platform to capture their coy poses for the folks back home. We pushed our way in and took a couple of quick pictures before the portraitists shooed us away for more young blonde clients. The far end of the platform offered another good view of the mausoleum. At one point, a fight almost broke out between tourists vying for the perfect shot.

Red sandstone cartouches led us directly to the mausoleum. At the base of the marble platform, we donned little cloth booties over our shoes. On the main level, we admired the intricate pietra dura (inlaid semi-precious stonework) of the exterior, then we entered the building. A delicately carved stone screen separated us from Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph, which sits in the center of the mausoleum. Shah Jahan’s monument sits off-center, next to his wife’s, one of the complex’s few dreaded asymmetries. Both cenotaphs feature pietra dura flowers and Quranic inscriptions. The cenotaphs are thin because the emperor and his wife lie on their sides facing Mecca, the correct position for the Last Judgment. Their tombs rest in a crypt beneath the main level.

As we exited the central chamber and entered the outer rooms of the mausoleum, we found more carved flowers in the dados. In some cases, we recognized the flowers as lilies or poppies. In other cases, the image combined flowers and leaves from different plants. It seems that the stonecarvers could take botanical liberties, as long as these supported the "garden of good governance" theme.

The building deposited us on the Yamuna River’s edge. During Shah Jahan’s time, tomb-garden complexes lined the river banks. As Koch explains:

By the time Shah Jahan came to the throne in 1628, Agra was…‘a wonder of the age—as much a centre of the arteries of trade both by land and water as a meeting-place of saints, sages and scholars from all Asia…a veritable lodestar for artistic workmanship, literary talent and spiritual worth’…[Visitors] thought that it was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of perhaps 700,000 people. The nucleus was formed of gardens lining the river on both sides…The gardens contained the residences of the imperial family and the highest-ranking nobles; some had been transformed as settings for tombs. The center of Agra thus had a suburban character. The riverfront garden was the microscopic module of this urban landscape. The city reflected the concept of the garden as primordial residence of the Mughal dynasty, and in a wider ideological sense, served as a symbol of the flowering of Hindustan under the just rule of Shah Jahan.

Mughal and Persian nobility began the trend with walled gardens. Although all land belonged to the Emperor, Mughal tradition allowed families to establish title to land upon which they had built tombs. As a result, noble families grew much more devoted to their ancestors. Even Hindus created symbolic tombs, like the Jaswant Thada in Jodhpur or the cenotaphs at Badabagh, memorializing their cremated relatives.

Remnants of walled garden complexes in Agra

Across the river is the Bagh-i-Mahtab Padshali, a garden that Shah Jahan’s great-great-grandfather Babur designed and built. Our guide said that Shah Jahan planned to build a black-marble version of the Taj Mahal across the river, with a bridge linking the two buildings. However, the Mughals made no mention of such a plan; a French traveler of the time originated the story. When the Archaeological Survey of India excavated the Bagh-i Mahtab in the 1990s, it found no evidence that the Mughals had prepared to build another mausoleum on the land.

The minarets lean slightly outwards. This alarmed the Taj Mahal’s caretakers when they first discovered the tilt in 1984, but the minarets’ bases contain no cracks or other signs of damage. Perhaps the builders designed them to lean out to prevent the minarets from toppling into the mausoleum in the event of an earthquake. Another theory says that the entire plinth rises convexly from its center. Similar to the calligraphers, the builders may have introduced this imperfection so that optical illusions would not make the complex look sunken.

An almost identical mosque and assembly hall flank either side of the mausoleum. We headed for the assembly hall, or Mihman Khana. The designers added this building to provide symmetry to the mosque on the other side. Originally, the emperor may have used it for subdued gatherings to mark the anniversary of Mumtaz Mahal’s death. White marble framed the central niche (pishtaq), the vault of which displays complex qalib kari decoration of white outlines criss-crossing against the red sandstone. In many places, chunks of missing plaster interrupted geometric floral patterns in the frescoes of the sandstone ceilings and walls. The dados feature carved flowers, some real, some fantastic, but all in the building’s red sandstone. A zigzag pattern of black and white intarsia frames the carvings.

Dado carving, Mihman Khana interior

We walked back through a shaded and less crowded area, near the outer walls. Here, we could stroll among the sandalwood trees and admire the gardens. No one knows exactly what Shah Jahan planted in the gardens, but judging from the buildings’ floral decorations and other Mughal records, it may have included poppies, tulips, lilies, cypresses, oranges, roses, jasmine, and carnations.

On the street, vendors rushed at us with merchandise. They made our hapless guide ask us in English if we wanted to purchase their trinkets. We thought back to the Prestons’ book: "[In Shah Jahan’s time], as now, the streets of Agra swarmed with hawkers energetically striving for a living…The streets were so crowded that people pressed themselves against the walls as chariots drawn by white, gilded-horned oxen trundled past, carrying nobles to court."

Not much has changed. The streets are wider, but we probably traveled the very same route as the nobles to our next destination, the Agra Fort. This fort hosted the seat of the Mughal empire under Akbar, Jahangir, and part of Shah Jahan’s reign. Even after the capital permanently moved to Delhi, the fort remained prominent for its most famous prisoner.

The last of the Delhi Sultanate dynasties had constructed a mud-brick fort on this site. In 1564, Akbar rebuilt it in red sandstone. An incident a couple of years earlier may have encouraged him to strengthen its defenses:

…[O]ne hot May afternoon in 1562,…[a noble named Adham] coolly walked with his guards into the imperial palace at Agra, where a rival minister was giving public audience. As the minister…rose to greet him, Adham gestured to one of his henchmen to knife him. Sword in hand, Adham made for the adjoining harem where Akbar was asleep, but a eunuch slammed the door shut and bolted it from the inside. Nineteen-year-old Akbar, now wide-awake, emerged from a side door, rushed toward Adham and smashed his fist into his face [and knocked out the intruder]…Akbar ordered Adham’s still unconscious body to be thrown from the palace wall, which was more than thirty feet high, but the first fall did not kill him. Akbar had him hauled up by his hair and flung down again, this time headfirst. Thus, "…his neck was broken and his brains destroyed."

Our entrance was less dramatic. We crossed a dry moat and entered through the Amar Singh gate. Amar Singh was the disinherited heir to Jodhpur's throne. Shah Jahan welcomed the Rajput into his service, but a disagreement broke out and Amar Singh ended up stabbing a minister with his dagger in the presence of the royal court. A chase ensued, ending with Amar Singh jumping the wall of the Agra Fort on his beloved Marwari horse. The horse died from the fall, but Amar Singh escaped.

Past the Amar Singh gate, we beheld the Akbar Gate, the imperial family's entrance into the fort. The walls still cling to some of their original blue, green, and yellow tile work. A ramp led us to a courtyard with the Daulat Khana-i-Khass-u-Amm, the "Palace Building for the Special Ones and the Wider Public." The marble and the multitude of pillars reveal Shah Jahan’s hand in designing this building (he renovated much of the fort), and the emperor capitalized on every opportunity to legitimize his authority through architecture. As Ebba Koch describes:

[The Hall of Public Audience’s] other designation was Chihil Satun (‘Forty-Pillared’)—the name by which the ruins of Persepolis were widely known. The building epitomizes Shah Jahan’s concept of rulership. By recreating their famous audience hall, the Mughal emperor claimed the status of the ancient kings of Iran, considered as exemplary rulers in the Islamic world. Unlike the Iranian prototypes, in plan the Mughal halls followed a mosque scheme…Thus the Mughals combined their re-creation of Persepolis with a revival of the connections between mosque and audience hall of earliest Islamic architecture, to signify that Shah Jahan’s authority was not only worldly but also spiritual.

The Emperor’s balcony forms the centerpiece of the building’s back wall. Small, elaborate niches for porcelain vessels, along with floral pietra dura designs cover the balcony. On February 14, 1628, Shah Jahan appeared here during his accession ceremony to receive his regal titles: Father of Victory, Star of Religion, Second Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, King of the World ("Shah Jahan"), Emperor, and Warrior of the Faith.

Moving deeper into the fort, we reached a two-story arcade surrounding a courtyard. On the eastern side of the courtyard, a raised terrace looked over the river. At one end is the Hall of Private Audience, where Shah Jahan held his privy council and listed to musical performances. 

From here, we looked out over the Yamuna River. A highway and scrubby trees claimed land within the historical river bed. In the Mughals’ time, the water came up to the fort itself. Looking southeast, we could barely make out the Taj Mahal through the winter fog and pollution.

On the terrace itself sat a large black stone bench. Our guide called this Jahangir’s throne, and if true, the seat was one of Jahangir’s few marks on the fort. Much as his grandfather Humayun’s struggle with opium addiction cost him the empire for fifteen years, Jahangir’s alcoholism may have prevented him from leaving a greater mark on Mughal history. His father, Akbar, tried to keep him away from alcohol, but Jahangir’s attendants snuck it in under their clothes in cow’s intestines. As time went on, the situation worsened:

He started drinking every day, soon abandoning wine for spirits. By his late twenties he was swallowing "twenty phials of double-distilled spirits" a day and existing on a meager diet of bread and radishes. Racked by hangovers and with his hands shaking so badly that he could no longer hold a glass, he sought the help of court physicians. They warned that if he did not desist he would be dead in six months. [Jahangir] cut back to six cups of wine mixed with spirits and fourteen grains of opium a day.

Eventually, the emperor outlawed alcohol from his court…except for himself. "He only indulged, he insisted, while overlooking the many occasions he was too drunk to stand, ‘to promote digestion of [his] food.’"

The red sandstone Royal Tower, bulging out of the riverside wall, marks the fort’s principal palace, the Khass Mahal. On either side of the central building stand two pavilions with bowed bangla roofs. Shah Jahan presented himself to his subjects each morning from the northernmost of these pavilions, the Bangla-i-Darshan.

Humayun first drew upon ancient Persian traditions of sun worship. He began a practice of wearing a veil over his crown; and commanded people to exclaim "Light has shone forth!" when he removed it. Shah Jahan mastered this art. Large drums announced his presence at sunrise, and he made his appearance, or darshan—a Sanskrit term referring to the viewing of an idol or saint. His subjects "perceived two suns, the heavenly one in the sky and the imperial one here on earth." As a court historian explained: "The object…was to enable His majesty’s subjects to witness the simultaneous appearance of the sky-adorning sun and the world-conquering Emperor, and thereby receive without any obstacle or hindrance the blessing of both these luminaries."

Bangla-i-Darshan, where Shah Jahan appeared to his subjects.

If such devotion ever existed, it proved temporary for Shah Jahan. All four of his sons rebelled against him. In 1657, Shah Jahan fell ill "’from constipation and stangury’…For three days, Shah Jahan could not urinate and disappeared from the view of his subjects." His least favorite son, Aurangzeb, grabbed power. A year later, after defeating his brothers, he proclaimed himself emperor and imprisoned his father in the Agra Fort. 

The apartment where Shah Jahan spent his final years clings to the upper reaches of the tower. Ironically, in renovating the fort years earlier, he ultimately designed his own prison. From the tower, he could view his wife’s final resting place. One legend says that Aurangzeb blocked his father’s direct view of the Taj Mahal to torment him, allowing Shah Jahan only to see its reflection in the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

In the central Imperial Sleeping Pavilion, the shadows of former gilding cover the marble walls. Looters or thieves must have taken the gold long ago, but delicate vine-and-leaf designs remain. The sun glowed through the thinner sections of marble.

Sunlight glowing through the marble in the emperor's bedroom, Agra fort.

We exited the fort and asked Babulal if we could make two extra stops on our way out of town. As we made our way through the traffic of Agra, we passed forlorn remnants of riverfront garden complexes that the city has swallowed up. As the Mughals’ power faded, especially after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, hard times hit the city. Throughout the eighteenth century, armed bands intermittently controlled the city. In 1719, a Mughal noble raised an army and plundered the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal. Later, British soldiers would occasionally chisel cornelian or agate out of the Taj Mahal’s walls as gifts or souvenirs.

Our next stop was the tomb garden of Itimad-ud-Daula. Our guide called it the "baby Taj," and we could see why. Four thick minarets dominate the structure. Floral and geometric inlay work of gold, yellow, and gray covered the entire building. Not only did the Mughals experiment by completely covering the tomb in marble, but they innovated with the inlay of cornelian, lapis lazuli, jasper, onyx, and topaz in geometric and floral shapes. The progression is easy to see from Humayun’s white dome to the minarets on Akbar’s tomb to Itimad-ud-Daula’s elaborate inlay work all the way to the Taj Mahal.

Floral and vase murals cover every niche and panel inside the tomb. Two golden cenotaphs for Itimad-ud-Daula and his wife rest in the center of the room. The qalib kari network covering the ceiling feature a different color in each section. Floral or geometric reliefs—some in gold—decorate several sections of the ceiling.

Jahangir granted the noble title of Itimad-ud-Daula (Pillar of the Empire) to Ghiyas Beg Tehrani, an immigrant from Persia. Ghiyas Beg arrived in India destitute and over time gained the emperor’s confidence, rising to the innermost circles of influence at court. Eventually the two families intertwined. Despite the legendary love story between Prince Salim (Jahangir’s original name) and a slave dancer (immortalized in the Bollywood film Mughal-e-Azam), his soul mate was undoubtedly Itimad-ud-Daula’s daughter, who eventually took the name Nur Jahan (Light of the World). Itimad-ud-Daula’s granddaughter (through his son) also married into the family; this was Mumtaz Mahal.

Jahangir and Nur Jahan married in 1611. Nur Jahan didn’t just pull the stings—she openly exercised power, particularly during Jahangir’s benders. Keays describes that:

[Nur Jahan] acted as co-ruler and, during periods of imperial incapacity, as the supreme sovereign. Public business ‘sleepes’, reported [the English] ambassador, unless it was referred to her; she ‘governs [Jahangir] and wynds him up at her pleasure’. In an unheard of division of Islamic sovereignty, coins were even struck in her name…

Nur Jahan doubted her ability to control her stepson Shah Jahan, and she supported one of his weaker siblings as heir. Shah Jahan defeated her candidate, then proceeded to eliminate his one remaining brother and other male relatives just to deprive her of any more protégés. Nur Jahan accepted her defeat gracefully and retired from politics to concentrate on designing this tomb for her father and one in Lahore for her husband.

We continued to our second additional stop. Traffic stood still on the major highways. Several additional lanes formed off of the shoulder as a quart of traffic squeezed into a pint of road. Vendors and beggars came up to the cars and tapped on the windows to get our attention. A broad-shouldered yet surprisingly curvy hijra in a yellow and teal sari said something to Babulal through the window. Babulal, clearly uncomfortable, looked straight ahead. We considered asking him if he knew that lovely lady, but we decided against antagonizing him.

We had seen Humayun’s and Shah Jahan’s tombs, but we wanted to see one more—Akbar’s tomb. The gate displayed large geometrical patterns. To us, the design in the central pishtaq looked like a Hawaiian shirt. Four massive white minarets rose from the top of the gate, dominating the entire entrance.

Pattern on the gate of Akbar's tomb

Akbar commissioned his mausoleum during his lifetime, but the architects altered his design to their own tastes. On a visit, Jahangir ordered workers to pull down parts of the original structure, and he also added the gate's minarets. We expected something like Humayun’s tomb or even the Taj Mahal. Instead, Jahangir borrowed Buddhist elements. The open, arched colonnades resembled the open, five-story Panch Mahal that Akbar built in Fatehpur Sikri. Perhaps Jahangir wanted to honor his father in death with elements from the city that Akbar had built to honor his birth.

Inside, the niches and qalib kari designs still held on to some of their paint and decoration. We entered a downward-sloping dark tunnel that took us to Akbar’s cenotaph. Flowers and offerings of paper money rested on an embroidered cloth covering the marker. A group of men chanted in reverence, and their echoes filled the chamber. An English traveler to the as-yet-uncompleted mausoleum in 1610 described a similar scene:

[The tomb is] much worshipped both by the Moores [Muslims] and Gentiles [Hindus], holding him for a great saint…Every one approaching neere makes his reverence and puts off his shoos, bringing in hand some sweete smelling flowers to bestrew the carpets or adorn the tombe.

Akbar the Great was illiterate and perhaps dyslexic, but he managed to unite more of the subcontinent than any ruler since Ashoka, nearly 2,000 years earlier. Upon Akbar’s death, India probably had the largest population and GDP in the world.

Ceiling Qalib kari decoration, foyer of Akbar's tomb, Sikandra (near Agra)

We left Akbar and began our return trip to Delhi. Traffic had not improved; we averaged 25 miles per hour on this leg. In this standstill, we noticed people hanging onto (or on top of) cars on the highway. Sometimes four or five people would cling to one another on the back of a little motorbike. Ten or more people could squeeze into a tuk-tuk. It struck us just how much Indian infrastructure groans under the weight of all of its people.

We saved our visit to the Mughal Empire’s cultural apex, the Red Fort, for our final day in Delhi. As William Dalrymple described it:

The Red Fort is to Delhi what the Coliseum is to Rome or the Acropolis to Athens: it is the single most famous monument in the city. It represents the climax of more than six hundred years of experimentation in palace building by Indo-Islamic architects, and is by far the most substantial monument—and in its day was also by far the most magnificent—that the Mughals left behind them in Delhi. Viewed from the end of Chandni Chowk, the sight is superb: a great rhubarb-red curtain wall pieced by a pair of magnificent gates and fortified by a ripple of projecting bastions, each one topped with a helmet-shaped chhatri.

We had glimpsed that ripple of bastions on day one while we wandered around Shahjahanabad. As we passed the "stank masala" of Netaji Subhashi Marg past the Jama Masjid, we again beheld the crown jewel of Shah Jahan’s city.

Murals in the Drum House

We passed through a covered bazaar until we saw the British garrisons. In Shah Jahan’s day, shops and offices for craftsmen, astrologers, poets, military administrators, and tax collectors lined this street, along with horse, camel, and elephant sheds. Now, modern fencing funnels visitors to the large white Naqqar Khana, or Drum House. This building hosted a music gallery on its second floor that announced the emperor’s arrivals and departures. Shah Jahan actually gilded the building's exterior sandstone carvings to stand out better against the red background.

From here, we spotted the Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audience. From the outside, the building looks like a red version of its counterpart at the Agra Fort. However, in Shah Jahan’s time, a layer of polished white plaster covered the entire building, inside and out. Silk carpets would have covered the floor and heavy curtains would have softened the cusped archways. The marble "Seat of the Shadow of God" sits in the center of the back wall. As our guidebook explained:

Shah Jahan used to spend about two hours a day here between 8 and 10 in the morning. He worked on the routine matters of government; choosing people for posts, receiving military reports, reading letters from provincial governors and petitions from citizens. On Wednesdays, justice was meted out from here…The Emperor’s hangmen with their axes and whips were nearby as the sentences were carried out promptly.

We strolled to one of the few remaining gardens in the fort, the Life-Bestowing Paradise Garden. The entire complex symbolizes the monsoon. Water emerged from two pavilions on the eastern and western ends of the garden, falling into a couple of channels in the red sandstone platform. Two hundred and eighty one silver-plated fountains in the channels simulated the monsoon’s torrential rains.

One of our books estimated that in the aftermath of 1857, the British destroyed eighty percent of the buildings in the Red Fort. William Dalrymple describes his disappointment at how little remains:

Miniatures still survive showing…the palace decked in all its splendour with shady silk awnings of brilliant scarlet, gilded cupolas shining atop the chhatris and, lying open to pavilions, the Hayat Baksh or Life-Bestowing Paradise Garden, planted with cypress, mangoes, apricots and sweet-smelling nargis, kuzah and fulal. Though everything runs the bubbling runnel of the canal, the Nahr-i-Bihisht or River of Paradise, punctuated by pools, carefully carved water-chutes and groups of free-flowing fountains. Today the inner enclosure should still be the climax of the fort, but the sight of it produces only a sensation of severe anticlimax…Inside the walls,…the conquerors destroyed most of the courtyards of the palace, leaving—and that grudgingly—little in the inner enclosure except the Pearl Mosque and a single strand of pavilions spaced out also on the [Yamuna] battlements. Even the Mughal gardens were uprooted and replaced with sterile English lawns.

Several years ago, Indian authorities unveiled plans to reverse some of these changes, improve interpretation in the fort, and give visitors better tools (like marking out foundations of demolished buildings) to help them more clearly imagine Shah Jahan’s vision.

We encountered a marble pavilion with a lovely curved bangla roof. Carved columns with artichoke finials support the roof. A marble waterfall with inwardly-pointed, scalloped edges emerges from an ornate niche in the back of this pavilion. Behind this pavilion was Shah Jahan’s most private work area, where only a handful of officials and his sons could discuss matters of state with him.

One of those sons, Aurangzeb, emerged from history as the most controversial Mughal emperor. A pious Muslim, he did not share his great-grandfather Akbar’s attraction to local religious traditions or his father’s interest in co-opting ancient Persian and Indian symbolism. "Akbar [had] disrupted the Muslim community by recognizing that India was not an Islamic country: Aurangzeb disrupted India by behaving as if it were." His legacy was to change the character of Mughal rule: "It was no longer the inclusive, tolerant empire bound together by mutual trust and interdependence established by Akbar. Instead the Moghuls were once again, as in the time of Babur, an occupying power."

Aurangzeb’s role as villain sometimes clouds the facts. In Chitorgarh, Mike commented to Babulal how much damage Akbar had wrought. Babulal immediately blamed Aurangzeb for the destruction, commenting, "Akbar was a great man." Perspectives of Aurangzeb tend to differ between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Pakistan, which regards itself as the inheritor of the Mughals’ legacy, embraces Aurangzeb. In 2010, its navy named a frigate after him (the third ship that it has named after him), using his regal title Alamgir. John Keays describes his supporters’ point of view: "Aurangzeb’s apologists argue that Shah Jahan had also discriminated against non-Muslims and targeted temples, that Aurangzeb in fact destroyed comparatively few temples, and that to others he even offered [land grants]…"

Whatever Aurangzeb’s place in history, he undoubtedly alienated many Hindus who had made peace with his predecessors and had even served the empire. He continues to have a public relations problem with non-Muslims.

The Diwan-i-Khas, or Hall of Private Audience, must have inspired awe. On the walls, caretakers have restored a couple of small sections of gold leaf to the marble carvings, just to give a sense of what it looked like. The dados feature pietra dura flowers that are more delicate than their counterparts in the Taj Mahal. Above several of the central arches, a Persian inscription reads: "If there is a Paradise on earth…it is here, it is here, it is here."

Pietra Dura in the Hall of Private Audience

This hall displayed Shah Jahan’s most famous possession, the Peacock Throne. He had six other thrones (you always need a backup), but the Peacock Throne epitomized Shah Jahan’s sumptuous tastes:

One of Shah Jahan’s first acts was to commission the famous Takt-i-Taus, or "Peacock Throne," to display the most splendid gems in the imperial collection. A true connoisseur, he selected the stones himself from the seven treasure houses spread across his empire. The treasury at Agra alone held 750 pounds of pearls, 275 pounds of emeralds and corals, and topazes and other semiprecious gems beyond count…The eight-foot-long, six-foot-wide, twelve-foot-high throne would take seven years and 1,150 kilos of gold to complete. According to Shah Jahan’s court historian, Lahori, "The outside of the canopy was to be of enamel work with occasional gems, the inside was to be thickly set with rubies, garnets, and other jewels and it was to be supported by twelve emerald columns. On the top of each pillar there were to be two peacocks set with gems, and between each two peacocks a tree set with rubies and diamonds, emeralds and pearls."

In the 1630s, the Peacock Throne with all of its gold and gems might have been worth up to ten million rupees. Just to give a sense of what that means, Shah Jahan spent perhaps five million rupees to build the Taj Mahal. During the same time period, an Indian employee of the Dutch East India Company in Agra might have earned approximately 3 rupees per month.

In 1739, the Persians under Nadir Shah defeated Mughal forces, occupied Delhi, and went on a spasm of looting and murder on Chandni Chowk, killing 30,000 people. Nadir Shah stayed in the Red Fort for two months until he had gathered enough booty to return to Persia. This included the Koh-i-Noor diamond and Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne. Ever since then, the Peacock Throne has served as shorthand for the Iranian shahs.

Next we came to the Khass Mahal. Remnants of light and dark blue paint cover the petals and leaves of carnations and lilies carved in the marble. A few darker spots on the panels suggest that gold once brightened up the walls. In the back of the palace, a balcony overhangs the walls of the forts. From here, Shah Jahan continued the practice of greeting his subjects with the sun each morning. Aurangzeb stopped the practice as idolatrous.

The nearby Rang Mahal, or Colored Palace, housed the harem. Several rooms near the river include carved niches and glittery qalib kari cross-veining up to a rectangular medallion on the ceiling. A series of cusped arches cover a water channel running through the arcade. A lotus fountain in the center of the hallway supplied the water. Despite the palace’s beauty, the ladies sometimes grew bored in their mirrored cage:

There was an eighteenth century woman, the Empress of Jahandar Shah [1712-1713], who sat gazing out at the river one day and remarked that she’d never seen a boat sink. Very shortly afterwards a boat was capsized so that she could entertained by watching the people bobbing about and listening to their cries for help before they drowned.

Underneath the Khass Mahal, we found a neglected gate that the emperors once used. Shah Jahan entered the fort for the first time through this gate, at a date and time that the astrologers deemed auspicious. The throne’s last occupant exited this way too, but under less auspicious circumstances in 1857.

Emperors' private entrance

Historians debate the causes of the events of 1857. Mughal Power had waned for over a century, providing the British with an opportunity to expand their influence. Local soldiers, or sepoys, had grievances against the British regarding pensions, pay, and overseas service. Conspiracy theories emerged that the British planned to destroy Indian religions. The introduction of new ammunition containing beef and pork fat supported these rumors, and both Hindu and Muslim soldiers rose up in May 1857. The rebellious soldiers rallied around the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II, who accepted their allegiance after some hesitation. The Rajputs and Sikhs supported the British, mostly to oppose the restoration of Mughal power.

European communities in India panicked. Maharana Swaroop Singh sheltered Europeans in Udaipur’s lake palaces. Six thousand non-combatants sought refuge in the Agra Fort. In Cawnpore (Kanpur, 180 miles west of Agra), a thousand British men, women, and children surrendered to Indian soldiers, who promised safe passage out of town. As the British attempted to board boats to depart, Indian forces fired (perhaps accidentally at first), killing most of the refugees. The remaining 200 women and children became hostages, but Indian commanders, fearing British reprisals, decided to execute their captives and escape. Indian soldiers refused to carry out the order, so their commanders recruited local butchers to kill and dispose of the prisoners in a nearby well: "Their slaughterhouse methods, clumsy rather than sadistic, constituted an atrocity which would haunt the British till the end of their Indian days."

At the same time, British troops began their siege of Delhi. In mid-August, Sikh and Pashtun troops reinforced the British. Siege artillery reached Delhi in September. On September 14, British troops attacked Shahjahanabad, and after a week of street fighting, they entered the Red Fort. Two months after the events of Kanpur, the British troops ran amok. A letter published in the Bombay Telegraph recounted the scene:

...All the city's people found within the walls of the city of Delhi when our troops entered were bayoneted on the spot, and the number was considerable, as you may suppose, when I tell you that in some houses forty and fifty people were hiding. These were not mutineers but residents of the city, who trusted to our well-known mild rule for pardon. I am glad to say they were disappointed.

Later, the British moved their artillery to the Jama Masjid and bombarded the neighborhoods of Old Delhi.

Bahadur Shah II escaped through the Khass Mahal gate to Humayun’s tomb. On September 20, the British captured him and executed his sons. A military commission tried Bahadur Shah II (Zafar) for treason, then exiled him to Burma. He spent his last four years in an opium-induced torpor in Yangon. Somehow, he composed the following epitaph for his grave.

The days of life are over, evening has fallen/I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb

How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial/Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved.

Thus ended the Mughal dynasty.

From old Delhi’s morbid and violent history, we sped into New Delhi for some last-minute shopping on the shiny new Delhi subway. When we returned to Old Delhi, an escalator ride took us from sleek modernity to the grime of crumbling Mughal glory. The sun had set, and in the unfamiliar streets surrounding the metro, we lost our way. After some wandering through the 17th century city, we found our hotel just in time to collect our things and prepare for the trip home. The Delhi smog embraced us as we rewound through time once again towards the airport, from the boulevards of New Delhi past monuments of Rajput pride and Muslim conquest.

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