Any place you visit after seeing the Taj Mahal will have a difficult time measuring up.
Like every tourist to Agra, I stood before the Taj Mahal and quickly concluded that what I was seeing would be difficult to describe in my diary. While I was in line waiting my turn to walk through the interior of this magnificent structure, I heard someone behind me say “seeing the Taj is like taking a peek into paradise.”
This was my second, and I am confident it was my last visit to the Taj Mahal. In my view, attempting to describe the sheer majesty of this place reaches well beyond the outer boundaries of our own meager, earthly vocabulary. Yet, I knew there were other sights yet to see. I would have to move on. One of these was the Amber Fort near Jaipur.
The concierge at my hotel in Agra had booked a car and driver for my journey to Jaipur and the nearby Amber Fort. This “golden triangle'' (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Delhi) is the most frequented tourist route in the storied country of India.
Some travelers with stronger constitutions than I make this journey in just a couple of days. It would take me longer. One reason was that I was unable to resist making a couple of stops along the route between Agra and Jaipur.
My car and driver arrived at the forecourt of my hotel promptly at 7 a.m. that bright Saturday morning. As I rode along in the air-conditioned comfort of a late-model car, I witnessed sights that I will never forget.
Not the type of tourist attractions that draw millions to India every year. No. What I saw was the gut-wrenching level of poverty in the rural areas of India. I saw healthy, full-grown cows sleeping in the morning sun right in the middle of the roadway such that the driver had to slow down and find another way around these animals.
And if that weren’t enough, these cattle were flanked on either side of the road by young, starving children whose stomachs were distended from the lack of food. The sight of this kind of abject poverty shook me to the core and I found myself reflecting on the disparity that sometimes exists between religious beliefs (the sacredness of cows) on the one hand and world hunger on the other.
Then, after about 2 ½ hours of driving, I arrived at the city of Mehndipur for a visit to one of the most famous temples in Hinduism. The Balaji Temple is a significant site for the devotees of Hinduism.
This temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity, Hanuman. Unlike similar religious sites, it is located inside the city rather than out in the countryside. Its reputation for ritualistic healings and the exorcism of evil spirits attracts many pilgrims from throughout India.
This is the only temple in India that is specifically known for curing people under the influence of black magic or evil spirits.
By worshiping Hanuman on a Tuesday or Saturday and writing the name of Shri Ram on the leaves of a fig tree, devotees believe that all of their sorrows will be removed. The worshipers further believe that by offering jasmine oil on a Tuesday or a Saturday, all of their wishes will be fulfilled.
My only regret was that I arrived at this 1,000-year-old temple on a Saturday, and I was unable to see the interior.
The rest of the drive to Jaipur was uneventful. As always, I stopped to take way too many photos and videos of the marvelous country. It was late afternoon when I checked into my hotel in Jaipur. I booked a taxi for the early hours of the next morning, and after eating a quick dinner, I retired for the night.
The taxi was waiting when I exited the hotel at 6 a.m. the next morning. It would take me to the small town of Amber which lies about 8 miles outside the city of Jaipur.
Amber is situated in an exotic area that is home to several grand palaces that reflect the glorious past of the Rajput culture. The grandest of these is the Amber Fort which is also very popularly known as the Amber Palace (sometimes spelled as “Amer”).
It was built of red sandstone and marble, and it is at once both exquisitely charming and elegantly beautiful. The palace reflects elements of both Hindu and Muslim architecture.
During my years of traveling the world, I have had the opportunity to visit several of the most famous palaces that belonged to once powerful rulers. Some were crowded with thousands of people but in others, I was almost alone as I walked the long corridors.
These places ranged from the extremely beautiful to the patently ugly. As far as I am concerned, the Amber Palace would definitely rank at the top of the “beautiful” group.
The town of Amber, as well as the Amber Palace itself, was originally built by the Meenas in the late 16th century during the reign of Raja Man Singh I. Located in a picturesque setting, the Palace sits upon a hill overlooking Maota Lake — a man-made lake that is its main source of water.
Tourists flock to take photos that include the Palace’s near-perfect reflection in the waters of this small lake.
The Amber Palace is known for its intricate, artistic elements and its large ramparts, as well as its many gates and cobbled pathways. Yes, there are numerous other palaces throughout the world. But they are almost all variations on certain recurring themes: huge, extravagant, elegant.
To a layman like myself, it often seems that palace designers have taken bits and pieces from past experiences and arranged them in different ways to create a new, but familiar architecture.
India, on the other hand, has not only broken out of those norms but it has found a way to exceed the boundaries of traditional, historical palace designs to create a unique beauty that defies description.
In my view, there is simply no other palace in the world that can truly be compared with the Amber Palace.
To enter the Amber Palace, visitors must either walk up the hill or ride up on the back of an elephant. I had chosen the latter mode of transport, and because I did, I was advised to depart from my hotel very early since this mode of traveling up to the gate is extremely popular. I was pleased that at this early hour the line was not long at all — I was number 20 in the queue.
There are fewer than 100 elephants ferrying tourists up to the Palace. The ride can take up to 30 minutes as these majestic creatures are anything but fast. The guide told me that the elephants transport up to 900 visitors per day, but that there is a strict limit to the total number of journeys each elephant can make per day.
This maximum is monitored closely, he said, in order to safeguard against the possibility of overworking the elephants.
The dawn had fully arrived when I climbed the several steps to the top of a loading platform. The handlers maneuvered the huge, majestic animal up to the wooden structure on which I was standing. It literally shook as the elephant’s huge body bumped against it.
Two young men steadied me as I settled into a large “saddle” attached to the elephant’s top side. This contraption was encircled by rails that would ensure that I would remain safely “on board” as the animal ferried me up the hill. In front of me was a young man who served as a kind of “conductor” for this short, yet amazing journey that would deliver me to the massive gates of the Amber Palace.
Once through the main gate, the guide pointed me to several steps on the right that led up to a small temple where sacrifices were once offered. He told me that, according to an ancient legend, human heads were once sacrificed here before the gods were persuaded to accept goats. I was unsure as to whether I should believe him or not.
The Amber Palace consists of a series of four courtyards that contain various palaces, halls and gardens. Near its entrance lies the primary courtyard, known as Jaleb Chowk. It was here that the king’s soldiers paraded before their ruler. Both the Sun Gate and Moon Gate open into this large courtyard.
There is a stairway from the first courtyard that leads to the second. It includes a beautiful public hall. This was where the Maharaja would hold meetings with people of his court, ambassadors and other royal guests.
There are 27 evenly divided columns resting on a raised platform. Each is crowned with an elephant-shaped sculpture near its top.
The third courtyard is accessed through a large, ornate doorway with many tiers that are painted like a mosaic. This intricate painting was carried out by artists who were brought in from Persia.
This gate, which is further adorned with multiple sculptures, opens into the area that contains the private quarters for the Maharaja, his family, and various attendants. There are two buildings in this courtyard, one opposite the other. They are separated by a beautiful garden which is laid out in the typical Mughal fashion.
The building on the left-hand side is called the Hall of Victory. It is exquisitely embellished with glass inlaid panels and multi-mirrored ceilings. These mirrors are designed in such a manner that the flickering light from candles below is gently reflected downwards. The other building is known as the “Palace of Pleasure.” It is where the king “relaxed” with his ladies.
The fourth courtyard is where the royal women of the palace lived. Sometimes known as the “Royal Zenana,” it consisted of many rooms in which the concubines of kings resided. There is also a hall where private audiences with the Maharajas were held. This hall is richly decorated with alabaster relief work and floral glass inlays.
The Amber Palace, along with the Taj Mahal, are the two most spectacular buildings I have ever seen. But know this should you ever contemplate a visit to India. It is not an easy place in which to travel.
The hoards of people, the streets, the traffic and public transportation are stretched beyond what any one living in Manhattan or L.A. could even imagine. And then, at every turn, extravagant wealth is juxtaposed alongside abject poverty that is almost unfathomable.
Rampant overpopulation has only exacerbated the already unmanageable logistical problems; however, strides are being made that aim to usher India into the 21st century without sacrificing the uniqueness of its timeless, historical treasures. I, for one, fervently hope that these worthy goals can one day be realized.
Watson E. Mills has traveled to 176 of the 193 member-countries of the United Nations. He is a long-time member of the Travelers Century Club and to date has visited 274 of the 318 countries and regions listed by this club.