Some of the best moments of my trip to India were spent in Agra and Jaipur. Both are cities in northern India, and together with Delhi form the Golden Triangle, a tourist circuit that holds many of the countries cultural gems and gives a good variety of India’s landscapes.
You may have never heard of Agra, but it is the home of the Taj Mahal. There was no stopping me from seeing this historical icon on my trip, and thankfully India has made it easy to travel there with an actual expressway! We set out the morning after the wedding with a hired driver and translator. While English is a national language, not everyone speaks it, including our driver Sonu. An hour after leaving New Delhi, we were having some major communication problems, so we turned back around and picked up a translator for our trip. Tajji was the perfect companion to our trip. Well connected, finding us guides in each city, he was also unbelievably friendly and a music lover. On the last leg of the trip back to New Delhi, we had all become such fast friends that we were sipping on beers like old friends and laughing about the trip. (According to Tajji, it’s legal to drink while driving as long as you’re not the driver. While, I don’t know this for sure, I can defiantly say that Indian police have more trouble to deal with – ahem, public urination- than some folks that aren’t driving having fun in the car.)
We arrived in Agra and checked into our swanky hotel with unlimited toilet paper, a true luxury in India. After having a nice dinner, we headed straight for bed since we were getting up early to sight see. Our first stop was to the Red Fort, technically a walled city that was built sometime before 1080. The Indian Army uses 80 percent of the fort, but the palace is open to the public. Some of its most famous residents include Akbar, and his grandson, Shah Jahan, who built the beautiful Taj Mahal in memorial for his wife. At the end of his life, Shah Jahan’s own son imprisoned him in the Red Fort’s palace in effort to stop him from bankrupting the kingdom with his building projects. It is said Shah Jahan intended to build a mirror Taj Mahal using black marble for his final resting place across the river from the one he built for his wife. His son, Aurangzeb, who had him restrained in a tower made of white marble with a balcony view of the Taj Mahal, is to blame for leaving us without what would have been another wonder of the world.
After visiting the Red Fort, we made our way to Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb. The tomb is the beginning of the transition in architecture from the red sandstone used during Akbar’s reign, to the opulent refinement of the white marble buildings. The tomb influenced the design of the Taj Mahal and is just as beautiful on a smaller scale. It’s known as the ‘Baby Taj’ because it features the same type of beautiful mosaics of inlaid precious and semi-precious stones. Leaving the tomb, our guide took us to see some of the handcrafts made in Agra, including handmade rugs, jewelry, musical instruments, and marble work. When it was all said and done, we were leaving the city with two rugs, a sitar, and a boatload of carved elephants. They saw us coming from a mile away!
That night, we took some time to relax at the hotel’s spa and got in bed early for our morning call time of 6 am. We wanted to hit the Taj Mahal before it got too hot and too crowded. The morning was muggy and overcast. As we arrived to the monument, it even started sprinkling. But nothing could put a damper on the majesty of the Taj Mahal. Turning through the entrance gates and seeing the building in its full glory, I could only look on in amazement. Even on a rainy day, it somehow managed to glisten. Its curves were so sensuous and its scale so large, it was hard to take your eyes off of it. Up close you can see the details; stones are inlaid into the marble everywhere in flower motifs or even as written prayers. Our guide showed us how when light shines on the stones they glow, especially in the moonlight on a clear evening. This is something I plan on traveling back to India to see in person.
Sadly, after seeing this amazing building, it was time to depart Agra, but we had Jaipur to look forward to, if only we could get there. Since it had been drizzling all day, the road out of town had completely flooded. Sonu forged ahead while I sat in the back squeezing Roark’s hand in terror. It was quite possible the engine could flood, and then what would we do with 3 suite cases, 2 rugs, and a sitar in the back… Thankfully, we somehow made it though. Tajji, who actually owned the car we were in, was not even scared. He told us this wasn’t a flood. “It’s only wet!” he reassured us. Well, I’m quite interested in seeing his definition of a flood then.
Arriving at our hotel in Jaipur was a relief. We choose to stay in a heritage hotel, which was once the manor house for the royal family. Because we were starving, we headed to the hotel’s restaurant for some Rajasthani cuisine. Since I was craving some vegetables, I ordered the Black Dahl, a recipe I’m sharing below, and Roark enjoyed a lamb dish traditional in the area. We both sat in wonder of the intricate scenery we were dining in, with murals covering every inch of available space. I was sad to leave, but happy to know we would be back for breakfast.
The next day we headed out to Jaipur’s fort, Amer Fort. The scenery was breathtaking on the ride out of town and up into the mountains. A quick stop to take a photo turned into a visit by a snake charmer. After Roark got close enough to pose for a photo, we were on our way to the fort. You have a choice, either walk up or pay to ride an elephant up. Obviously, we chose the elephant. It was such an experience! Their stride has the sensation of a rocking boat, and being so high up, you really need to hold on for safety. Admittedly, I did feel a twinge of guilt riding such an intellectual animal, and will most likely never do it again, but in the moment, as the band started up right as we entered the fort’s courtyard, we felt like the King and Queen. Inside the fort there were some really unique rooms, like this one that used pieces of mirrors to make a mosaics. The mirrors would help reflect the heat in the winter keeping the royal family warm.
After our tour of the fort, we headed into town again to visit the City Palace. Roark was a bit hesitant to pay the $50 to get inside the Chandra Mahal, the actual palace where the maharaja still resides, but I’m so glad we did. We had the place to ourselves and were able to see some of the most impressive décor in India. One of my favorite views was at the very top of the palace where we got a 360-degree view of Jaipur. The city, tucked in its little valley and painted pink, looked beautiful in the sunlight. Though, nothing could compare to the Shobha Niwas, or House of Beauty, with its walls completely covered with rubies, emeralds, and sapphires the size of my fists. I wish I had photos to share, but we were not allowed to take any and then armed guard following our every move was certainly ready to stop us. Here is a photo from the museum’s website so you can see.
Somehow we still managed to fit in a trip to Hawa Mahal, or the Palace of the Winds, built for the queen to watch the city without being seen, and Jal Mahal, or the Water Palace that is seemingly afloat when the monsoon rain fills the Man Sagar lake. One of my other favorite sights in Jaipur was Jantar Mantar, a observatory park built by one of the kings. He felt that with larger instruments, he could more accurately record time and movement of the solar system, and it appears he was right as his largest sundial at 90-feet high tells the local Jaipur time with an accuracy of three seconds.
Overall, our trip outside of Delhi was wonderful; yet, since it only lasted a total three nights, we’re really itching to go back sometime and take it all in with more depth. Until then though, we’ve got the memories, photos, and food to keep our mind occupied.
This Black Dahl is a staple in Northern India. Because of the numerous spices used in the dish, it has a rich, yet sweet and spicy, taste on the tongue. It’s perfect for these rainy days we’ve been having this summer, and a great recipe to have on hand once it gets colder in winter and fall. To make the Dahl creamy and melt in your mouth, you cook it on the stove first, then in the oven. Although it takes a bit of time to make, it is well worth the wait.
- 2 Cups Black Lentils
- 2 Cinnamon Sticks
- 2 Bay Leaves
- 1 Tablespoon of Whole Coriander Seeds
- ½ Tablespoon of Whole Cumin Seeds
- 1 teaspoon of Fennel Seeds
- 3 Serrano Chilies
- 5 Whole Cloves
- 1 Star Anise
- 1 Tablespoon of Butter
- 2 Tablespoons of Canola Oil
- 1 Yellow Onion, diced
- 4 Cloves of Garlic, minced
- 2-inch piece of Ginger, grated
- 1 teaspoon of Garam Masala
- ½ teaspoon of Cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon of Black Cardamom
- ½ teaspoon of Cayenne Pepper
- 8-ounce can of Tomato Paste
- 1 Cup of Hot Water
- 2 Cups Plain Greek Yogurt
- ⅓ Cup of Heavy Whipping Cream
- ⅓ Cup Cilantro, chopped
- Soak the Lentils for an hour. When ready to cook them, place the Lentils in a large pot with the Cinnamon Sticks and Bay Leaves. Bring the Lentils to a hard boil for 10 minutes all the while skimming foam off of the top. Turn the heat down and low simmer the Lentils for 30 minutes or until they are soft but still retain their shape. Drain the Lentils and then set them aside.
- While the Lentils are simmering, you can assemble the spice mix. In a medium size skillet, add the Coriander, Cumin, Fennel, Chilies, Cloves, Cardamom, and Star Anise. Heat on low until fragrant. Then grind the spices into a fine powder using a spice grinder, food processor, or blender.
- Preheat the oven to 300F.
- Then once the Lentils are done, use an oven safe pot to heat the Butter and the Oil. Add the Onion to the pot, cooking it until it softens. Then toss in the Garlic and Ginger, cooking for an additional minute. Then combine the Tomato Paste, Spice Mix, Garam Masala, and Cayenne Powder in with the Onion mixture. Keep the mixture cooking for 10 minutes, stirring often, and then add in the Lentils and yogurt making sure everything is well combined. Continue cooking the Lentils for 10 minutes. Test your spices, and add Salt to taste.
- Cover the top of the pot with foil, then with the lid, and place it low in the oven. Cook the lentils for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the oven and stir in the Heavy Whipping Cream and Cilantro. (If you want to freeze the Dahl, don’t add in the Cream or Cilantro. Do so once you reheat.) Adjust any of the seasonings and serve with Rice or Naan Bread.