World travel: One couple’s passage to India

Photo: Thor A. Larsen The incredible Taj Mahal in the morning light.

Photo: Thor A. Larsen
The incredible Taj Mahal in the morning light.

Arlene & Thor Larsen
Fishkill, N.Y.

India was the most difficult trip we ever embarked upon. The streets of the cities are crowded with all manner of humanity and animals, and no one seems to be in charge. The odd thing is that in the middle of all this madness no one suffers road rage, and there is no shouting or horn honking, as no one seems to mind. Clearly defined, asphalt-covered roads are almost non-existent. Most roads are filled with enormous ruts and holes, with large clouds of dust swirling up and around the open cars and buses.

One of the most disturbing sights was the low-hanging bundles of electric wires strung from pole to pole distributing uncertain electricity to the masses. While the hotels are modern and attractive, the electric service isn’t always working, so it is not totally unusual for the water to stop and the lights to go out as you are in the middle of a shower at the end of a long day.

However, India would qualify as the most exotic venue we ever traveled to and the most unusual culture we had ever experienced. The diversity of religions, languages, and ethnicity adds richness to the culture and translates to a dazzling array of styles in the architecture and the art of the nation. The nature is beautiful (once you leave the cities) and the colors out in the countryside are extraordinary. The gardens are painstakingly planned and the flowers lush and brilliant. The most vivid of all are the colors of the women’s saris, especially out in the country, walking along roads and out in the fields. The the extraordinary detail on the saris is just like nothing we ever see in the west.

The people are a delight to deal with. Often they speak perfect English and are more than helpful and hospitable to strangers.

Just outside the capital city of Delhi, there is a huge archeological park called Mehrauli, consisting of a complex of ancient monuments. Here you can wander amongst the ruins of political and religious buildings and temples that can trace the tumultuous and historical development of a nation, the rise and fall of kingdoms and leaders. This UNESCO World Heritage park began as a Hindi/Rajput settlement, but after the Mughals defeated the Raja princes, new cities were built right on top of the old ones.

In 1193 Qutbbin Aibak (a Muslim slave-general) established this area as the center of the first Muslim kingdom in northern India, and this is where the first Muslim mosque in northern India was built. Aibak started building the Qutb Minar (a five-storey ornate tower) to celebrate the Muslim victory over the Indian people and mark the beginning of the rule of the Sultans.

A few yards away from Aibak’s beautiful tower stands an impressive iron pillar, that is seven meters high and constructed in the fourth century. At the top of the pillar (written in Sanskrit) it tells us that it was made by order of Chandragupta II (who ruled 375 to 413 AD) but fails to divulge just what technology they used. How were they able to produce such a feat of metallurgy in the fourth century and why hasn’t it disintegrated in all that time?

Photo: Thor A. Larsen Bathing on the banks of the Ganges in the city of Varanasi.

Photo: Thor A. Larsen
Bathing on the banks of the Ganges in the city of Varanasi.

An absolute must on a trip to India has to be a visit to the sacred city of Varanasi located on the west bank of the Ganges River. All Hindus try to make a pilgrimage here to perform rites of passage and rituals. For four miles the west bank of the Ganges is lined with temples, ghats (sets of steps) and crematoriums where the faithful pray, wash clothes, bathe, and burn their dead.

To experience the true essence of life on the Ganges, hire a boat just before dawn to see the sun rise on the river when people release hundreds of paper floats on the water (with flowers and lit candles). As the sun rises the faithful come down to the river’s edge to perform their daily rituals. A constant somber sight along the river is the funeral pyres that burn day and night and the bodies wrapped in shrouds waiting their turn. To die and be cremated in Varanasi is a dream to every Hindu. Hindu scriptures profess that the water of the Ganges can help your soul on its final journey to freedom and salvation.

The state of Rajasthan is called the “land of kings” (once the home of 18 princely kingdoms) and is still rich with magnificent palaces, forts, and bazaars. Beautiful Jaipur is called the “pink city” because its main buildings are made of pink sandstone and it is fitting for this busy and attractive city to be the capital of royal Rajasthan.

The thrill of seeing Jaipur in an open “tuk-tuk” cart as your driver swirls and jostles you amongst the cars, camels, elephants and such, is an experience you think you’ll never survive. Just as you stop marveling at all the chaos, animals, and your broken-down vehicle driven by a madman, your guide has another new experience for you.

He convinces you that the only way to get up the hill to see the magnificent palaces and gardens at the famous Amber Fort is to do so by elephant. Luckily our mahout was a calm and reassuring young man who promised he was on intimate terms with this elephant (he had grown up with him) and he was well cared for and very safe. As we ambled up the hill on our benign pachyderm we passed the stunning gardens and towers of the huge complex of palaces and temples that make up the Amber Fort. It was built by Man Singh I (1621–1667) with lavish rooms, halls, and temples decorated with ornate carvings, silver doors, stone work, and other Hindu works of art. It was challenging to take in all this art and history along with elephants, snake charmers, and monkeys that surround you in the courtyards of the Fort.

The most breath-taking site you will see in all of India has to be the world-famous Taj Mahal. Often referred to as the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj is located in the city of Agra, in the center of India on the banks of the Yamuna River. Our experience in viewing this masterpiece of architecture was heightened by approaching it at dawn as the blue-white haze of morning slowly lifted to reveal a dreamy image of the massive monument. Nothing can prepare you for the scale of this icon. Rudyard Kipling called it “The embodiment of all things pure.”

Sweeping down from the north, the Mughals brought Islamic merchants, artists, preachers, and scholars with new ideas, art, and architecture. The Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, built this stunning mausoleum as a sign of his love and devotion for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, and the two of them are entombed here. Many of its brilliant white-marbled walls and ceilings inside and out are hand-carved in floral designs called pietra dura. This art of marble carving depicts flowers, vines, and leaves that have been inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones of turquoise, lapis, carnelian, etc. It is supposed to resemble a garden paradise as described in the Islamic holy book, a perfect image of the hereafter. Many of the walls have been delicately filigreed to give the illusion of a veil surrounding the tombs. The whole complex is encompassed by fountains, gardens, and pools of water to reflect the images and give a feeling of coolness to the intense heat and sun of India. This edifice dedicated to love and devotion cost 41 million rupees and l,l02 pounds of gold to build and took 20,000 men 12 years to complete, being finished in l643. What a perfect Valentine.

Photo: Thor A. Larsen Examples of the spectacular stone carvings on the Jain Temples in Khajuraho.

Photo: Thor A. Larsen
Examples of the spectacular stone carvings on the Jain Temples in Khajuraho.

Khajuraho is a tidy little town in the state of Madhya Pradesh (in the middle of nowhere) with a stunning collection (25) of “kama sutra” inspired and decorated temples. These Hindu and Jain temples were built by the Chandela dynasty (between the 9th and l0th centuries) and because of their remote location, they were spared being ravaged by Islamic raiders. They remained hidden in a forest for over 700 years and were only discovered in l838 by an English engineer.

These ornate temples represent the high point of north Indian temple art and architecture and are embellished with spectacular stone carvings of erotic scenes of gods and goddesses, sensuous maidens, dancers, and warriors. These “naughty” depictions have rendered Khajuraho a very popular architectural attraction with tourists. Having said that, the workmanship is amazing.

India left us wanting more. We want to see more of those exotic and lavish temples, more of the grandiose forts, the national parks, colorful bazaars, and more of the nature of Kerala, Goa, and Tamil Nadu in the south. India is a dreamy and magical place and we highly recommend it.

Born in Stavanger, Thor A. Larsen immigrated to New York City with his parents in 1948. Now retired from a 40-year career as physicist and engineer, Thor draws and paints, and writes travel and arts articles for a local publication. He’s been married to Arlene for 49 years, and they have two adult children and three grandsons.

Arlene was born in Sheeps­head Bay, Brooklyn. After marriage she studied Education at SUNY New Paltz, receiving a BS in 1977 and MS in 1984. In Woodstock, she was a per diem teacher for the Kingston Consolidated School District. She has been a volunteer with the CPS education program for 20 years and taught religious education for 14 years.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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