Monday, November 30, 2009

The Taj Mahal - Seven Wonders of the World

Work has brought me to some places that I would never have otherwise visited. During my recent travel to New Delhi, I managed to squeeze in a day trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The 200 km journey to Agra was long - it took us almost 6 hours. Despite it being a Sunday, traffic was heavy. In addition to cars, the roads were crowded with all forms of transportation - motor-powered and animal-driven. From time to time, a cow may block the road, oblivious to the traffic or the honking. One thing about Indian driving that drove me up the wall is the honking. People there love to honk with or without good reason. In fact, the trucks have a sign painted on the back "Please honk". Go figure!

Despite the long and tedious journey to Agra, the Taj Mahal is definitely worth a visit. It is truly a spectacular specimen of Mughal architecture. It's no wonder the Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Taj Mahal has a romantic history. It was built by a grief-stricken emperor, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Despite her pregnancy, Mumtaz followed the Emperor to the battle field. She went into labour at the battle field and died whilst bearing their fourteenth child. According to our guide, Mumtaz had a vision of the Taj on the bank of the river Yamunna and had requested the Emperor to build the mausoleum in her honour. The Taj Mahal took approximately 22 years to construct.

The main gateway to the Taj Mahal is the Great Gate "Darwaza-i rauza".

As you walk through the archway of the main gate, you will see the Taj Mahal centered through the archway. Symmetry is one of the key features of the Taj Mahal, a theme that one sees over and over again.

Once you pass through the gate, you will see the Taj Mahal, a towering image of white marble against the backdrop of the brilliant blue sky and surrounded by lush green gardens. Our guide informed us that the Taj was meant to be seen as a live painting, with the primary colours of white, blue, green and red. Indeed, it is a masterpiece. When the fountains are off, you can see the reflection of the Taj Mahal in the water of the pool. The four surrounding minarets not only adds depth and dimension to the Taj Mahal (if you covered the minarets, the tomb complex would appear one-dimensional), it also reflects the symmetrical theme prevalent throughout the Taj Mahal.

Close-up, it's impossible not to be impressed by the mastery of the Taj's builders and designers - from the Islamic calligraphy to the sculpted flowers...When one considers that the Taj Mahal was constructed in the 1600's without the tools of modern day construction, it is an amazing feat indeed.

At each side of the main complex, there are two red sandstone buildings which are mirror image of each other. The building on the left side is a mosque, which is still used today for Friday afternoon prayers. The building on the right side was built for architectural symmetry.

The Taj Mahal truly does deserve its spot in the Seven Wonders of the World. It is not only a stunning display of Persian, Indian and Islamic architecture but a display of true love from an Emperor for his beloved wife.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What New Delhi Taught Me About Gratitude

There is a Sunday school song that goes something like this "Count your blessings one by one". Too often, we forget to do that. It's only when we see others less fortunate than ourselves that we are reminded of how much we have been given.

On my first trip to India, I saw first hand how the poor in one of the world's largest populated nations live. It's not something one forgets easily - families building make-shift homes on the sidewalk. I was told that some of these people have to pay "rent" for the sidewalk space. Livestock and strays forage for food in piles of rubbish. Horses, cows and donkeys that pull carts filled with supplies look mal-nutritioned. People cram into buses, three-cycle motorcyles, trucks and tractor or animal pulled carts, some hanging precariously. Children have to work, be it in the paddy fields or selling souveniers to tourists.

Of course, not all of India is like that. But during my 5-hour car ride from Delhi to Agra, home to the magnificent Taj Mahal, I saw these scenes repeatedly. After an experience like that, I'm not likely to be complaining about the "hardships" of life anymore. My troubles compared to the daily struggles of these people and animals just to survive day to day seems insignificant. If there's one thing my experience in India has taught me is to count my blessings one by one.

"Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have, we will not be happy - because we will always want to have something else or something more."

Brother David Steindl - Rast

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Taxi Phenomenon in Singapore

It's been years since I was last in Singapore. Last night I experienced what I would call the "taxi phenomenon" in Singapore. M & I decided to go to Vivocity for dinner at the Serenity Spanish Restaurant. After a delicious meal of paella and tapas, we decided to head back to the hotel. We followed the taxi signs in the mall. As we had no trouble catching a taxi there, we did not expect any difficulties for our return journey. After all, we saw a long line of taxis queuing for passengers when we were dropped off. Boy,were we in for a surprise!

Once we were outside, we saw people scattered around the curb, sticking their heads out looking out for taxis. There were a couple of taxis, which had the hired signs on without passengers. We were puzzled. So, we asked someone where the taxi queue was and was told it was further ahead. Later in the queue, we discovered from a local in the line that the taxis we saw earlier were pre-booked. We soon learnt the hard way why people pre-book the taxis - after one hour of being in the queue, which by all intents and purposes wasn't really that long, the lack of available taxis at 9.30 pm became very clear to us. As visitors to the country, we were caught unaware by this phenomenon. We were so desperate that we even considered taking the limousine across the taxi queue. The $40 quote stopped us. The wait - 1 hour, the journey - 10 minutes.

The question is - does the lack of taxis at the stands cause more pre-booking or does the increase in pre-booking perpetuate a shortage of taxis at the stands? Or maybe, they just feed each other. Whatever the answer, I have now programmed the phone number of a taxi company on my phone - just in case!