Tuesday, August 5, 2008

On to Agra and the Taj Mahal

The time difference between Indiana and Delhi, India, can sometimes be jarring. Monday morning at about 7:30 a.m., I tuned the television to ESPN -- yes, the sports channel but with an Asian orientation -- to find a live broadcast of a game from Yankee Stadium. It’s almost 9 p.m. in New York. On the plane, I’ve ironically been reading a book, “Memories from Yankee Stadium.”

According to the book by sportswriter Scott Pitoniak, the first game at the “House That Ruth Built” was on April 18, 1923. On Tuesday, the stadium will be the site of the final Old Timers game as it is scheduled to be demolished early next year. Less than 90 old and the sports shrine will soon be no more.

By comparison, now we will be taking what is expected to be as much as a five-hour trip to see the Taj Mahal, which Shah Jahan built for his wife, who died at age 39 during the childbirth of her 14th child. Completed in 1654, the “Taj” remains one of the wonders of the world and a World Heritage site.

Students indeed have been most excited about seeing the place where Shah Jahan, the next to the last of the Mogul emperors, laid his wife to rest. Because of the long drive through Haryana and into Utter Pradesh provinces, a distance of more than 200 kilometers on heavily traveled and congested roads, we set out early.

In addition to the business and economic information that students have received in their class in the Kelley School of Business, they’ve also learned about the culture and religious beliefs of India. One thing they learned about was the Hindu religious system and its gods, including Shiva, “the Destroyer.” Not that anyone on the bus has converted to Hinduism, but as our schedule for the day began to blow up, some could have joked about the role of a higher power.

Traffic was heavy as usual on the first work day. Watching pedestrians weave across four lanes of traffic and avoiding cars in the process was like seeing the old video game Frogger played out in real life. Within the first hour, we were out of the city and into the lush countryside.

Soon, our drivers decide to pull to the side of the road for a “routine check” of the tires. We stop at a service station. Shortly, we are back on the road, but within 15 minutes, what our drivers feared comes to pass. Not one, but two tires need repair, which takes an hour and half. The tour company drives out from Delhi with another bus tire.

As we get within a few kilometers of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, something else happens which for a while raises questions about whether our group, which has traveled more than 6,000 miles to get here, will get to see what they’ve come for.

Local police have directed our drivers to take a detour. Today is the culmination of a major, month-long festival, Kailash Mela, which attracts tens of thousands of additional people to this city of 3 million each year.

Perhaps weighing in the minds of the authorities is the fact that the day before, about 150 people were killed in a stampede at a temple far away in Himachal Pradesh. Apparently, the authorities are concerned about a similar situation taking place in Agra and have closed all major streets leading into the heart of the city.

As we meander through a series of country roads and villages, another two hours goes by. After making it into the city, we were turned back at nearly every opportunity. It’s a sea of people everywhere.

In the morning, we were scheduled to visit Shah Jahan’s Red Fort at Agra, the palace where he lived the last years of his life as a prisoner. After a lunch break, we were to visit the Taj Mahal in the afternoon.

Like Jahan, we were now asking ourselves if we prisoners of time. The sun sets here at about 7 p.m. Thankfully, we finally found our opening, and after a quick lunch, we met the drivers who would take us to the Taj.

Because of concerns about pollution, gas emission vehicles are not permitted within a small radius of the Taj Mahal. Electric vehicles are customary, but we opt for the more exciting horse and rickshaw ride.

In the Taj Mahal, the traditions of Indian Hindu and Persian Muslim architecture are fused together to create arguably a perfect work of art. The mausoleum’s symmetry, along with its luminescence, have to be appreciated in person, as the students now realize.

In addition to seeing one of the most beautiful places in the world, students now find that they also are desirable. Indian families and individuals come up to students and ask if they can take their picture with them. Babies are held and smiles are repeated. It seems like many people want to know who these people are from Indiana.

Before setting back for Delhi, we also tour Jahan’s Red Fort.

It is now monsoon season here. The humidity each day has been more than 85 percent, making the 95-degree heat seem like well more than 100. But the weather has been cooperative. The rains come, but wait until we’ve seen what we’ve come for -- memories that will last a lifetime.

At the “House that Shah Jahan Built.”

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