Agra Fort

Yogapose in front of the Taj Mahal

elephant ride at the Amber Fort

Humayon’s Tomb

Fatehpur Sikri

At noon in Jaipur, it is a major challenge to cross the smog-filled streets without getting run over by impatient motorcycles or herds of stray cattle. I can only pray to one of the 330 million Hindu deities for my life. Blithely disregarding traffic lanes, hordes of trucks, cars and auto-rickshaws crammed with nervous tourists whiz by at organ-recoiling speed on the seemingly lawless highway, all honking incessantly. The smell of gasoline exhaust mingles with the aromas of the market, of overripe pineapples, pomegranate, cumin, coriander and chicken curry. Cows and dogs scrounge through garbage heaps while monkeys frolic by the roadside. As the traffic comes to a halt, swarms of women with babies come out of nowhere to tap on car windows for alms. Hawkers weave through the snarl of vehicles to scream their carved camels and elephants, greasy snacks and glittering pieces of jewelry. At a nearby intersection, a young man and his monkey twirl around in brightly colored robes to entertain snobbish passers-by. Adding to the clamor of horns and eardrum-shattering street drills, devotional chants blare like an air-raid siren from the roof of a run-down temple, refusing to be drowned by a Bollywood hit pulsating from the loudspeakers of a souvenir shop across. I am shocked, and nothing could’ve prepared me, or anyone, for this insane introduction to India.

With over 1.2 billion people, representing a myriad of language and ethnic groups, India is an extremely diverse country held together largely by centuries-old religions and social customs. India is the home of one of the world’s oldest civilizations-dating back more than 3,000 years- and the birthplace of several religions, including Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion that is still the faith of most Indians. While it may take a lifetime to fully experience India, a visit to the Golden Triangle (cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra) allows visitors a glimpse of the country’s cultural and historical splendor. It is called such because of the triangular shape formed on the map by the three cities, each boasting a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here are 6 sites you should not miss:

1.) Taj Mahal (Agra)

yours truly at the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal at dawn

As my guide rattles off history and overwhelming statistics about the mist-shrouded Taj Mahal, I slip into an ethereal coma, my mind awash with awe, wholly consumed by its beauty as it glows rosy pink in the early morning sun. I am a little teary-eyed. I know it is the famous Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but I had no idea about its grandeur, complexity and how seeing it for the first time would have an emotional impact. Walking up a steep path, past the perfectly sculpted Persian-style gardens and a pool that mirrors the white-marbled mausoleum, I see details not normally captured in postcard photos. Throughout the building, Arabic inscriptions in black marble are used as decorative elements. “Those are passages from the Quran,” my guide says. I let my eyes survey the pointed arches and exterior walls of the monument, moving across the labyrinth of intricate floral carvings, precious stone inlays and geometric and abstract designs inch by inch. Like a glistening, almost-translucent crown, a voluptuous onion-shaped dome adorns the mausoleum’s roof, its colors ever changing to emulate the reflecting sun and sky. Besides its physical allure, the Taj Mahal is also perfectly symmetrical. In fact, if not for the landscape and reflection pool, it is difficult to tell which side is the front.

At the dome’s corners are four smaller domed chattris (kiosks), impeccably placed to emphasize its curves and enormity. Towering by the mausoleum’s corners are four elegant minarets, each divided into three levels and topped with a balcony surmounted by a chattri that echoes the design of the ones surrounding the central dome. On both sides of the mausoleum are red sandstone buildings; to the west a mosque and to the east an identical building built only for symmetry.

Handcrafted for 22 years by 20,000 skilled workers, the Taj Mahal was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 to house the tomb of his second and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. According to stories, they could not bear to be apart from one another, and Mumtaz would often travel with the emperor even to war. It was on one expedition in 1631 that she died while giving birth to their 14th child. Shortly, Shah Jahan employed some of the best architects, builders and artisans from different parts of the world to build a unique memorial in ivory-white marble as a symbol of his grief and eternal love, spending almost all of the treasury’s money. The Taj Mahal is considered the finest example of Mughal Architecture, a style that combines elements from Persian, Indian and Islamic architectural styles.

2.) Agra Fort (Agra)

Agra Fort

Agra Fort’s colossal entrance

There are plenty of white-marbled buildings at the Agra Fort

view from the Kras Mahal at the Agra Fort

Like Jaipur, Agra hits me like a shockwave, and before I can even regain my balance, I see homeless men squatting by the roadside, defecating in plain sight for everyone to see. Over the next few minutes we drive past shirtless men rolling their bodies along the dusty road. According to my driver, many Hindu male devotees in Southern India roll on the road to reach the temple as an act of penitence. This practice is called the Shayanapradikshanam. Further, we come across painted camels loaded with bricks going the wrong way down the fast lane, causing heavy traffic. Soon, my eyes are captured by the burst of colors exploding everywhere from the roadside bazaars, which are usually swarmed by women in bright sarees. We pass by humpback cows sleeping in the middle of the highway, beggars sleeping on the sidewalk and women gathering up cattle feces and laying it out to dry. There is no shortage of bizarre things to see on my way to the Agra Fort, another grand monument to attest the architectural brilliance of the Mughal Dynasty.

Rising over 70 feet in height, Agra Fort’s colossal red sandstone walls are indeed impressive. Fending off touts and beggars and clutching my wallet tighter, I enter the lofty Amar Singh gate only to find another impregnable gate inside, wisely built to delay attackers who made it past the first line of defense. You see, Mughal Emperor Akbar originally built this fort as a military structure in 1565. Later on, it was converted into a grand palace and court by his grandson Shah Jahan, the emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal. The straight path leads to a courtyard and a maze of red sandstone and white-marbled buildings, forming a city within a city. According to my guide, there used to be more than 500 buildings here, but most of them were destroyed when the British colonizers used the fort as garrison. Among the most exquisite buildings are Jahangiri Mahal (palace used mainly by the wives of Akbar), Khas Mahal (an open-air edifice overlooking the garden, built for the women of the royal household), Musamman Burj (the ornamental pavilion of Mumtaz Mahal, whom the Taj Mahal was built for), Diwan-I Khas (Hall of Private Audience), Diwan-I-Aam (Hall of Public Audience) and Mina Masjid (Heavenly Mosque). It was in Musamman Burj where Shah Jahan spent his remaining years as a prisoner by his power-grabbing son, Aurangzeb. According to stories, the emperor died looking at the Taj Mahal, which can be viewed from the tower’s marbled balcony.

3.) Fatehpur Sikri (Agra)

After a 40-kilometer drive to the western part of Agra, I am whisked away by a bus to yet another heritage site, a hilltop ancient city called Fatehpur Sikri. Desperate for a son, Mughal Emperor Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri in 1556 as homage to a saint named Shaikh Salim Chishti, whose blessing gave him three children. Shortly after its completion, the magnificent fortified city was made the political capital of the Mughal Empire for a mere 15 years. In 1585, Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned due to scarcity of water and the capital was moved back to central Agra.

At first glance, one may think that the Buland Darwaza, the city’s massive gate built with red sandstone and marble, alone had wiped half of the empire’s treasury. It may take time to get past the gate, as everyone pauses by the steps to admire its carved ornamentation, lofty arches and carved verses from the Quran. One of the Persian inscriptions even reads “Jesus son of Mary”, which I find fascinating since it is an Islamic edifice. According to my guide, the gate was built in 1575 as a triumphal arch following Emperor Akbar’s success in conquering the state of Gujarat. Inside, I am drawn to the Diwan-I Amm (public audience hall), towering over a vast colonnaded courtyard. Not as ornate as the surrounding buildings, the Diwan-I Amm used to be the place where the emperor interacted with the commoners and pronounced punishment for those guilty of crimes. Not far away, the Diwan-i-Khas (hall of private audience) easily catches attention with its four chattris on top and a central pillar that some some of the most intricate Hindu carvings I have ever seen. Here, the emperor used to hold discourse with foreign dignitaries, kings and different religious leaders. Without doubt, the most eye-catching structure is the section is the Panch Mahal, a five storey-building that is crowned with a domed chattri. It was once the living quarters of the royal ladies and mistresses. Running my fingers on the walls, I realize that there’s hardly a pillar or wall in the complex that is not covered in intricate carvings and inscriptions. Walking further, I come across three grand apartments, built for each of Emperor Akbar’s three wives- one Christian, one Muslim and one Hindu. It is said that the sizes of the apartments vary depending on the Emperor’s fondness of the lady. The Hindu wife’s quarter is the biggest, since it was she who gave the emperor children. Among the numerous lavishly decorated buildings inside the palace complex, he tomb of the saint Salim Chishti is considered the most important. Built in 1580, it lies in the huge courtyard of the Jama Masjid (a mosque) and the only structure here made out of carved white marble.

4.) Amber Fort (Jaipur)

Perched atop an enormous brightly tattooed elephant, my feet resting on its silk-laden body, I imagine myself as a maharaja being transported up a hill to the Amber Fort and Palace. Soon, I am clinging firmly to the handrails of the basket-like seat, enjoying the toss and turn of a bumpy ride and the view of the fortified walls circling far out through the rugged mountains, which are mirrored by the lake below. The magnificent Amber Fort dates back to 1592 during the reign of Raja Man Singh I of the Kachhwaja dynasty. Built with white marble and yellow and red sandstone, the fort and palace complex was completed two centuries after.

The elephant ride concludes at the Suraj Pol or the Sun Gate, and after handing a hundred-rupee tip to the elephant driver (many locals ask for tips for almost everything!), I hop out into an elevated platform and wander around the Jaleb Chowk or the fort’s main courtyard, where returning armies during the ancient times would display their war booties to the populace. Soon, I walk up a large stairway that leads to the main palace, where I am greeted by another courtyard. Just like other forts and palaces, the Amber Fort also has a Diwan-i-Amm, an open-air ornamented hall where the emperor listened to the public’s sentiments. Towards the opposite side is the ivory-inlaid Sukh Niwas or the Residence of Pleasure, where the emperors and their women hung out to unwind. Fronted with a well-sculpted garden, the hall has a small channel that carries cold water across the rooms, an ancient method for keeping a place cool. From here, one can enjoy a panoramic view of the mountains, the palace walls, the parade of elephants and the Maota Lake below. Further, I find the maharaja’s apartment or Ganesh Pol, which surrounds the third courtyard. Like the other halls, its walls are festooned with paintings and swirling floral designs. It also has a screened balcony where the maharaja could look out unseen on the activities below. Secluded in the fourth courtyard is the zenana, or the women’s quarters. The chambers are built independent, wisely designed so the king could visit his wives and concubines without the others knowing. Here, it is impossible to miss the Sheesh Mahal or the Mirror Palace. Every bit of space on its walls and ceiling is embellished with intricate patterns and glasses. According to stories, this palace was built for a queen who loved sleeping under the stars. Back then, women were forbidden to sleep in open air so the king had a building constructed and filled with tiny pieces of mirrors to resemble the stars.

5.) Jama Masjid (Delhi)

 

I am dazzled by the energy, traffic and crazy tangle of humanity outside Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. There are bearded men in flowing robes, women in brightly colored sarees and groups of young men weaving through the crowds, some holding hands, which I find odd in an ultra-conservative country. It turns out that for Indians, the gesture is just a sign of deep friendship. Beggars, their hair and clothes thick with dust and dirt, hound every non-Indian looking person for a rupee as vendors and hawkers scream their wares melodiously. “Shoes and slippers are not allowed inside,” says the dark-skinned man at the mosque’s gate. I reluctantly remove my favorite Nike’s, not knowing if I’ll see them again.

Glancing down, I find myself tiptoeing frantically to avoid pigeon droppings scattered in the sprawling courtyard in front of the mosque. According to my guide, the courtyard can accommodate up to 25,000 worshippers at once. Every element of the mosque is grand and eye-catching, which is not surprising since it was Emperor Shah Jahan, the man behind the Taj Mahal, who ordered the construction of this edifice in 1650 after he moved his empire’s capital from Agra to Delhi. On top of the mosque are three massive onion-shaped domes in black and white marble, and its entrance is adorned with imposing arches, floral carvings and calligraphic inscriptions. Right in front of it is the hauz, or pool, where worshippers can wash their hands, feet and face before entering the mosque. On both sides of the mosque are two lofty minarets, standing 40 meters high, decorated in longitudinal stripes of white marble and red sandstone. It is said that over 5,000 laborers and artisans worked together to finish the mosque in six years.

6.) Humayon’s Tomb (Delhi)

At first glance, Humayon’s tomb looks more like a luxurious palace than a mausoleum. Not as world-famous as the Taj Mahal, the magnificent tomb of Emperor Humayon actually became the inspiration of Emperor Shah Jahan to build the Wonder of the World, which was only constructed about century after, and many other important structures throughout the Mughal Empire. In 1569, 14 years after the death of Emperor Humayon, his first wife Bega Begum commissioned a grand mausoleum to house the remains of his husband which was exhumed twice, first in Purana Quila in Delhi and second in Punjab. Walking around the edifice. I discover that each side is the exactly the same with the others, just like the Taj Mahal. The mausoleum is a two-storey structure built in red sandstone and topped with a massive Persian double dome that towers 43 meters from the roof. On the corners of the dome are four marble-flanked chattris, a distinct Indian architectural feature. Surrounding the tomb is a well-maintained garden that is divided into four sections by causeways, in the center of which runs shallow water channels.

Admiring the tomb from afar, I realize that India has some of the most amazing architectural innovations in the world. It has an enormous treasure trove of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, among the top countries that have the most. Have I mentioned India’s groundbreaking contributions in the fields of medicine, mathematics, science and technology and the arts? Don’t be discouraged by the mendicants and garbage heaps. As long as you keep your mind and senses open, you will surely see how incredible India is.

Getting There:

There are no direct flights from the Philippines to Delhi in India. You may take a flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, then take another flight to Delhi.

You must apply for a visa through this website: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html