The most famous story I know that has its origins in India is that of the blind men and the elephant. It’s a parable that in various forms and tellings has been claimed by Bahá’I, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Sufis.

This story was made famous in Europe when 19th-century American poet Johnblindmen1 Godfrey Saxe wrote a poem about it, one that has been put to music and animated for use in corporate training workshops dealing with conflict resolution and negotiation. Apparently it’s also found its way into physics classrooms where it’s used as an analogy for wave-particle duality, and into biology labs where it helps explain polyclonal B cell response. Not bad going at all.

Each variation on the same theme cautions us regarding subjective experience and its failure to take all truth into account. Each of the six blind men is asked to describe an elephant. Each touches a particular part of the animal; none touches the whole. Not surprisingly, they each come up with a different answer and then fight amongst themselves to determine who is right.

Differences between the various versions stem from how the parts of the elephant are described. For example, the elephant’s trunk is described as the branch of a tree (Jain), a plough (Buddhist) and a water spout (Sufi). The stories also differ with regard to the degree of conflict between the blind men and how they resolve (or fail to resolve) their arguments.

I was reminded of this when in Hyderabad recently. At lunch one day, conversation turned to the world’s view of India and how so much depends on personal experience. Unlike Ireland or Hungary, in my experience India evokes an either/or response. Either you love it, or you don’t. Many people love/like, hate/dislike or are completely indifferent to Hungary and Ireland. But not so with India.

Those travelling there to do business might return full of enthusiasm for the myriad electronic and technology hubs that are sprouting up in cities such as Bangalore and Greater Noida. They might tout the development the country is undergoing as a commendable sign of progress and growth.

Others might just see the extreme poverty and inequality that breed in the shadows of the high-rise apartments built to house the growing middle class and at the foot of the glass-walled skyscraper complexes built in homage to new industry. They might return with such talk that it would turn others off going at all.

More still might never see the outside of their hotels, tour buses and the routes planned by their guided-tour operators, shielded from anything deemed unsavoury and exposed only to handpicked tourist sites, five-star restaurants  and government-approved vendors.

And, just as in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, to paraphrase Saxe, each one would be partly in the right but all would be in the wrong.

India is an elephant, a massive, glorious, multifaceted beast that takes the concept of extreme to a whole new level. A quick internet search reveals the village of Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra, a village that is so safe its houses have no doors, its bank has no locks and it has no need for a police station. The village of Pothanikkad in Kerala was the first in the country to reach 100% literacy. The village of Hiware Bazar, also in Maharashtra, boasts 60 millionaires. Imagine.

On the love/hate side, I’m definitely in love. Over the course of three separate visits in ten years, I’ve seen some massive changes and have come to appreciate the differences between north and south. My advice: give it a chance. See for yourself. Take an open mind and an open heart with you and you’ll come home all the richer. Go discover your truth about India.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 January 2016

Way back in the early 1980s, when faced with the choice of moving to Dublin or making the 20-mile commute up and back each day, it was a no-brainer. It would be unthinkable to drive that distance every day. Fast forward through life in Alaska when I’d happily drive 612 miles round trip just to play 18 holes of golf, to life in twenty-first century Ireland where people commute to the capital from all over the country and some even commute to London. It’s all a matter of perspective. So when faced with a 70km drive to see Delhi when staying in Greater Noida, the only question to be answered was ‘Am I likely to be back this way again’ – and as the answer was far from a convincing yes, I hired a car (and a driver) and took off.

Delhi Gandhi's grave

Delhi Gandhi's grave

The only place on my list of must-sees (given that the city was shrouded in either fog or smog) was where the great Mahatma Gandhi had been cremated. Raj Ghat is where the ashes of the great man are entombed. Inscribed on the memorial are the last words he spoke on being assassinated – Hey Ram.  I never knew that. The eternal flame that burns is testimony to the lasting influence he has on so many people from so many different cultures. I’m glad I took the time to drop by and pay my respects.

Delhi Gandhi's grave

Delhi Gandhi's grave

Lotus temple

One of the more famous temples in Delhi is the Baha’i Lotus Temple. And as with all other temples, shoes have to be removed before entering the grounds. This involved a rather clever underground room open at both sides – one to drop off your shoes, and the other to pick them up. No exceptions. The temple, while visibly stunning from the outside, is so plain inside that it seems almost half-finished. Not one picture or statue. No ornaments or embellishments of any kind. It was quite a shock to the senses. It’s this way because it’s open to all people of all faiths to come and pray and have some quiet time with their god, whomever he or she might be. Quite something.

Delhi India Gate

Delhi India GateWe stopped by India Gate, another must-see on the Delhi tour and I was struck by how similar it was in feel to the Arc de Triomphe. And yes, on checking, I discovered that this national monument of India was inspired by its French counterpart.  The walls are inscribed with the names of the soldiers who died in WWI and the Afghan Wars with the monument itself taking 10 years to build. There was a lot of writing. The eternal flame that burns here, though, is a later addition. The flame of the Jyoti burns in remembrance of those  soldiers who died in the Indo-Pakistan War of December 1971.

Delhi is famous for its Red Fort, which, apparently, was originally white but painted red by the British and while Rampor was quite keen on my visiting it, I was forted out. Hyderabad and Agra had done it for me. Likewise with the Qutab Minar, but some cross-communication fated otherwise. I wasn’t sure why I was paying to go into a market but didn’t argue the point until it was too late. And I got a right talking to, as well. He was a little pissed off at me because I was in a mood (amazing how intercultural my moods are). Eleven days into India and being told what to do was taking its toll. Worse, not being listened to was making a dent. [No, I don’t want to go to another bloody government shop.] And I’d decided that for some unfathomable reason, I preferred Southern India.

Delhi Red Fort

Delhi Qutab Minar

The Minar, standing some 73 m tall, was started back in 1200. It took three generations of rulers to finish it over 115 years  and it is yet another amazing testament to the craftsmen of old. Although blanketed in fog/smog, the detail up close was more than impressive.  As to why it was built, the jury is still out. It might have been to commemorate the start of Muslim rule in India or it might have been built as a minaret to the muezzins to call the faithful to prayer. Decide for yourself which you’d prefer it to be. Apparently 27 Hindu Temples were razed to build this compound … a sore point for some I’d imagine. The colours were amazing and in full sunlight it has to be spectacular.

Delhi Qutab Minar

One thing I’ve noticed is that Indians have little regard for statistics or facts or figures. Few could tell me the population of whatever city I was in. These trivia simply aren’t an issue. Were I to relocate, that would take some getting used to. Another would be not getting my own way. But I’m stubborn. And eventually we made it to Janpath Market – I could spend a day there being bullied by the stall owners who told me in no uncertain terms that IT WOULD FIT ME … but, of course, it didn’t. And yet no amount of arguing would do – I had to show and tell. Colour, life, soul, and certainty – the key essence of India – were all encapsulated here. And if I were to return to Delhi, this is where I’d head for.

Delhi Janpath Market

 

 

What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough. So said French Romantic painter, Eugene Delacroix a couple of centuries ago.  I wonder if there is any such thing as original thought left to be had or has everything already been said and just keeps on being said in a different way? Millions of variations on so few themes? I had thought that the Taj Mahal was an original, a one of a kind, but apparently it is based on the baby Taj down the road in Agra. What a disappointment that was. An irrational one, admittedly, as whether or not the Taj is original doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to my world – but it did upset me.

Baby Taj

Baby Taj

The tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah is admittedly much smaller but nonetheless just as grand as the Taj Mahal it is said to have inspired. If anything, the rundown feel  adds to its charm. The tourists are noticeably absent. There was only a handful of people there besides myself. Even my guide decided to give it a miss, saying that I could just pop in on my way back to Greater Noida. I nearly gave it a miss, too. We had actually driven past it and were on the road home when I had second thoughts and doubled back. I didn’t want to regret not seeing it and am I glad I did.

Baby Taj

Baby Taj

Its faded glory is just as appealing as the grandeur of the Taj. The marble is the same as is the use of inlay and while a little restoration would do wonders for it, I found myself more engaged with its ruin that I might have been with its potential splendour. Given how impressed I was with the restored tombs in Hyderabad, that was a little surprising. Perhaps it’s that it seems to hold secrets, a treasure of stories that had I had the time to sit and listen it would happily have divulged. Or perhaps it’s that it’s comfortable being the poor cousin, happy with who it is. Or perhaps the whole India thing is getting to me and I’m putting too much effort into humanising these mausoleums. No matter. If you’re in Agra, don’t miss out.

Baby Taj

Baby Taj

The cows I’d gotten used to. The dogs, too. But turning a corner and coming face to face with a camel while monkeys cavorted like mad things wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Driving through Agra on my way to see Agra Fort was like driving through an open-air zoo. Pigs rut in the garbage. Goats walk the streets with a nonchalance that comes from being the undisputed kings of their home territory. Monkeys run amuck, so used to people that they practically come up to you and introduce themselves. Camels work pulling carts, doing the work horses might do elsewhere. It’s all rather weird but definitely rather wonderful. Mad.

Agra camel

Amidst all of this, life goes on, in the streets. Barbers set up stalls on the roadside, complete with mirrors, and men are shaved in full view of the world. It seems like everything is on show. Northern India has a different feel to it. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. But there’s definitely a difference.Agra street barber

Agra street barber

I’d been to the Taj Mahal, had the tour of the marble factory, and was headed to see Agra Fort, something I was assured was quite different to other forts I might have seen in that this was one in which people actually lived. Fair enough.

Agra Fort

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Agra Fort

It was here, in one of the many palaces, that the Shah who built the Taj Mahal was imprisoned by his son in an attempt to keep his dad from squandering his inheritance on yet another massive tomb. Mind you, if you had to be imprisoned, this wouldn’t have been a bad place to live. It is absolutely stunning. The decor, the carving, the marble. Absolutely stunning. That said though, a prison, no matter how beautiful it may be, is still a prison.

Agra Fort

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Agra Fort Beauty BazaarElsewhere in Agra Fort, there’s a lot going on. There’s the beauty bazaar where the Shah fell for his third wife. Apparently, only beautiful women were allowed into the bazaar and it was the Shah who decided what he meant by beautiful. A lot of subjectivity going on there, me thinks. I wonder if the gentleman preferred blondes? In the rooms overlooking the courtyard lived the harem. It is still hard to get my head around all of this, around what it must have been like to live there.

Agra Fort whisper wall

There are all sorts of nooks and crannies that hold  secrets and wonders. In one room, if two people face the wall at opposite ends and whisper to each other, their whispers are transmitted through the walls and ring out clearly. No secrets there.  In another the air conditioning and heating systems of old are clearly visible.  By pouring hot or cold water into the walls, the rooms were heated or cooled. You have to wonder at the minds who thought all this stuff up. And figured it out. And made it work. And did this so many years ago.  A friend commenting on one of my posts recently recapped a conversation he had had while in India when he expressed amazement at how they do so much with so little. The reply:  We wonder why you do so little with so much. Yes, the mind boggles.

Agra Fort

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Agra Fort is more like a walled city that a fort. Rebuilt in red sandstone in the 1500s, it too 1,444,000 builders 8 years to finally complete it in 1573. A large part  was converted by the British into military barracks and even today the majority of the grounds is still in accessible to the public and under military use. Definitely worth a look if you’re in the neighbourhood: Rakabganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.

 

With so many of the world’s corporates searching for cheaper and cheaper labour, outsourcing has become a way of life. The uncertainty that comes with not knowing how long you can stay competitive is something that has seeped into most aspects of our lives. There’s only so much you can cut before there’s nothing left to cut. I know. Up the road from me, a couple of Polish girls who have been turning out delicious sandwiches for three years and even more delectable cakes are throwing in the flour and shutting shop. They’re not making any money, in spite of the hours they’re putting in.

Years ago, in a previous life, I remember contracts being negotiated that left very little by way of margin for my Indian colleagues. I wondered then how they were making ends meet. And I wonder now.

I was hijacked in Agra. Nothing new there. Whether it’s a private car hire or an auto-rickshaw, if you’re not behind the wheel you are at the mercy of whoever is. Having witnessed the splendour of the Taj Mahal and hearing how the craftsmen from Kabul had taken 21 years to decorate the marble walls in slivers of precious stones, I simply had to see how it was done. Or so I was told.

Agra marbleAfter the obligatory tea, I got a short introduction to the history of the Agra marble factory – it’s been in the family for generations and uses the same traditions that were used to build the Taj Mahal. Then I got a short introduction to the various stones used in the Taj and where they come from. The onyx from Belgium threw me a little but hey – what I know about stones, precious or otherwise wouldn’t fill the tip of a chisel. Then I had a crash course on how it’s all done. I may be missing a few steps but bear with me.

Agra marble

Agra marble

Agra marble

The stones are cut into tiny slivers using machines that look like they came out of the dark ages. The finished pieces are sold according to how many individual pieces of stone it took to make the design so this bit is important. The white marble is then washed so that sweat stains don’t mark it. The pattern is set and then pressed so that the outline is left on the stone. Then the master craftsman takes over. He gets to carve the pattern 2mm into the stone. Apparently he can work for about 30 minutes before needing to break for 90. The work is very fiddly and I would imagine there’s blood, although I saw no evidence of this – it’s just my imagination. Each individual piece is then glued into place using a glue made from tree gum, rice water, honey and a secret ingredient. The whole process takes days, weeks, months, depending on the size of the piece. How can this make economic sense?

Agra marble

With the basics in hand, I was then taken inside to the Agra marble showrooms. Aladdin’s cave comes to mind. Of course, by now I know that it will be anything but cheap. The stage has been set. The man hours noted. And regardless of what the boys are being paid, each piece takes an age to put together.

Agra marble

Agra marble

I sat and oohed and aahed all the while repeating that I had no money. And no, I had no credit on my credit card, either. I converted my Hungarian wage to rupees and I could see that he wasn’t impressed. I held strong … for about an hour. And then I saw the piece I’d love had I the money (the hexagonal green marble table inlaid with mother of pearl) – a stunning number that had 8950 individual pieces and could be mine for just €8000. Door to door. But even at that price, I couldn’t make the sums add up. The workers must be working for pittance.

The more I saw, the more I liked and the more I appreciated the work that went into it all. All hand done. Laboured over. Painstakingly worked. And I caved. I bought a piece he said I could use as a chopping board – just like his mother did. Yeah right.

I’m torn though. Yes, it is worth every cent I paid but what are they being paid to produce it? Is it just one man getting rich through it all? It’s hard to know. Should I not have bought? But then no customers mean no work at all and is some work better than nothing? The angst.

Agra marbleAnd while the moral arguments gave me a headache, I am grateful that I got to see it all, how it was done. I’m grateful that I’ve not yet been deadened by the false economy of mass production. I’m grateful that I have it in me to appreciate a job well done. And I’m particularly grateful to Emirates for their generous baggage allowance. Without them, it would still be just a photograph.

I also got a sneak preview of how the Taj Mahal changes in the various light of day… stunning.

Agra marble

Sunlight

On a full moon Taj Mahal

On a full moon

The world is in a mess, a terrible mess. Decisions being made in the hallowed halls of power in one country are affecting the lives of ordinary people in another. Natural disasters are occurring all too regularly, depriving many of their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods. Unnatural disasters like mass shootings have become so frequent as to warrant little more than a raised eyebrow and a tut-tut from those not affected. Our morals are skewed and our values warped. We have relinquished control of our lives, lives that are now dictated by a constant search for success, be it material, fame, or power.

I can do nothing to change the world at large. I can’t stop the wars. I can’t reverse climate change. I can’t eradicate poverty. And much as I would like to, I can’t turn the clock back to an era where family and friends came before work and progress on our list of priorities. But that doesn’t stop me wishing it would all get better, that we would find a way to live together in peace and harmony, to share our resources, and to look out for our fellow man. Yet where would we start?

I’m writing this from India. I’ve been here for a week now and have been struck, once again, by the hospitality of the people, the pride they take in a job well done, and their constant good humour. When they smile their infectious smile, it’s as if someone switches on a light inside them. They’re quick to laugh, and seem to take genuine pleasure out of ordinary, simple interactions.

Take the service industry as a case in point. Nothing is too much trouble. Everyone is so obliging. And the attention to detail is meticulous. Whether it’s the auto-rickshaw driver or the hotel chauffeur, the concierge or the officer janitor, the shop assistant or the restaurant manager – each one seems to want to do what they can to make my life better. And the more I express my gratitude ‒ a simple thank you, an acknowledgement of what they’ve done ‒ the better it gets.

I made a lot of comparisons with Hungary and Ireland over the first couple of days, mostly unfavourable ones. If I could wave a magic wand, I would arrange for customer service everywhere to be like it is in India. It’s so refreshing not to see miserable faces, not to have to deal with recalcitrant attitudes, not to be dragged down by bad moods and foul humours.

And it’s not just the service industry. I’ve met a lot of different people in different cities and circumstances, people from all over India. And each one delights in the ordinary. It’s contagious. It’s hard to complain when all around you are actively looking for the best in everything. It’s hard to be negative when those with so little can still smile. It’s hard to be unhappy when everyone you meet finds joy in simply being alive.

None of this is new. As far back as the fourteenth century, Amir Khusro, poet-courtier-soldier-chronicler-linguist, nailed it:

How exhilarating is the atmosphere of India!
There cannot be a better teacher than the way of life of its people.
If any foreigner comes by, he will have to ask for nothing
Because they treat him as their own,
Play an excellent host and win his heart,
And show him how to smile like a flower.

My Christmas wish is that we might be infected by the spirit of India and learn to take delight in the ordinary, to appreciate those around us, and to count our blessings rather than our burdens.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 December 2015

Had I been one of Shah Jahan’s harem, I might have had to do my wifely duties once, say, every 18 months. Had I not loved him, I probably could have lived with it. But knowing I was just one of many would have done my head in. The seventeenth-century ‘King of the World’ had three legal wives. Wife No. 1 was Christian. Wife No. 2 was Hindu. Wife No. 3 was Muslim. The 460 other wives in his harem were probably a mix, too. Wives 1 and 2 were without issue but Wife No. 3 produced 14 children in 19 years, 6 of whom lived. And as it is said that she was so beautiful the moon hid in shame when she appeared, Mumtaz Mahal was clearly the Shah’s favourite wife of all. Born Arjumand Bano Begum, the name the Shah gave her – Mumtaz Mahal – means Chosen One, or Jewel of the  Palace. On her deathbed, she made him promise to build her a tomb, a testament to his love. And he did. And we know it as the Taj Mahal.

Taj MahalWe’d driven through three hours of dense fog to get to Agra from Greater Noida, leaving the hotel at 5.30 am. I was really looking forward to seeing this wonder of the world up close and personal. I was hoping to get there by sunrise and see it in its dawn glory but as it turns out, I was lucky to see it at all. The fog was terrible. But I took heart that I hadn’t paid $1000 for a room in the Oberoi Hotel boasting a view of the great monument. That would have been a right waste of money.

No matter which side you view it from, the Taj looks the same. Perfectly symmetrical. The four minarets tilt slight outwards so that if they collapse, they won’t damage the main building itself. Inside there are just four tombs – two are real, belonging to the Shah and his favourite wife. These are open for viewing on 7 July each year. The two that are on view year round are exact replicas. I’d never have known the difference had I not been told.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

There are four gates through which you can enter. Back in the day, the south gate was for the workers, the west gate for the VIPs, the east gate for the locals and the north gate for the royals. This is the one in use today.  It has 22 domes on top, one for each year it took to build the Taj: one year to build the structure and then 21 years to add the detail. It took 20 000 craftsmen to do the job, most of whom were important from Kabul. Seventeen generations later, their descendants are still plying their trade in the city of Agra.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal marble walls

Security was grim. They took my pocket torch. I wondered what damage I could do with a torch and when inside I saw. My guide borrowed one from the security guard and showed me how the semi-precious slivers of gems in the marble glow in the light. Magnificent. Among the 28 or so types of precious stones uses, the malachite comes from South Africa, the lapis from Chile, the onyx from Belgium, the mother of pearl from New Zealand and the turquoise from Turkey. The marble – a lot of which comes from the town of Makrana in Rajasthan – reflects the light so that at various times the Taj appears to be a different colour: pink in the morning, milky white in the evening, and golden at night when lit by the moon. It is said that this change in colour resembles the changeable moods of women … and presumably that of the favoured wife.

Taj Mahalexcerpts from the Quran are etched on the wall – the pressure not to make a mistake must have been fierce. I wonder if it was proofread? The level of detail is simply stunning. I have it on good authority that the building itself is made of brick and is covered in marble. Whatever works. It certainly doesn’t take from anything. Rumour has it that the Shah had intended building himself a black Taj across the river, but his son and heir decided that he was frittering away his inheritance and promptly put him in prison – well, a prison of sorts.

Taj Mahal pillars

Taj Mahal

Some of the pillars, while made of three slabs of marble, are designed in such a way that there looks to be six. What would it cost to build the Taj today, I wonder. And would we even know where to begin?

I came, I saw, and I left wanting more. I want to come back, on the night of  a full moon in summer and see it in all its glory.

Taj Mahal

 

 

I’m not used to young men, either on their own or in groups, blatantly giving me the eye. Initially it was a little disconcerting but two cities and myriad sights later, I was becoming used to it. The girl who still lingers in me preened a little in response and, on occasion, when the mood was right, even threw the eye back. I was safe. They were children. Relatively speaking.

I’m not used to 20 questions about my age and marital status, and the accompanying shocked ‘Why?’ that inevitably followed my saying no, I’m not married. But that, too, found its own level of amusement. Apparently I neither act nor dress appropriately for my age. That was me told and put back in my box.

IMG_1783 (800x600)I was in Hyderabad, in Golconda Fort, a very impressive structure built back in the mid-twelfth century atop a 120 m high hill. So much of it is still standing (wasn’t I just talking about this yesterday?) that it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how it might have been in the day.

IMG_1786 (800x600)Back then, there was no intercom, no mobile phone, no doorbell. There was no way of announcing yourself to those inside except by clapping. Yup. Clapping. If you clap your hands while standing near the domed entrance of the Fateh Darwaza (victory gate), you can be heard 1 km away on the top of the hill. Pretty amazing, given how long ago these architects figured all this out.

IMG_1788 (800x600)The place was pleasantly full. I was struck, not for the first time, but how much monument sites are used in India. They’re not just for school tours and tourists, although busloads of kids are to be found every day at one or all of them. Ditto the tourists. But couples, families, groups of friends venture out, too. They sit, they read, they have a picnic. Some simply sleep in the sun. And it’s nice, nice to see these age-old places still be enjoyed for what they are.

IMG_1789 (800x600)There were two separate groups of lads who seemed particularly intrigued with me. Perhaps it was because I was on my own. Guideless. Manless. Clueless. They followed me, doing a very poor job of trying to make it all look as if it was by chance that we ended up under the same arch at the same time. Hilarious. I was waiting to be asked for a photo, but it would seem that they couldn’t decide amongst themselves who would do the asking. And while I was enjoying the attention, indecisiveness drives me demented.

IMG_1802 (600x800)So I wandered – not at all sure at what I was looking at but enjoying it immensely nonetheless. It fascinates me to think that all of this was built by hand, hewn out of the granite hill on which it sits. It’s an amazing mix of Hindu and Muslim styles (not that I’d know either one of them if they bit me) but I bow to those who do know. It’s very, I dunno, very … well …. there. It’s as if it belongs. As if it is growing out of its environment, spewing forth.
IMG_1804 (800x600)I quite liked the little mosque, still standing, still peaceful, still requiring silence from those who walked by. I read later that it’s a city within a city. And today, it’s famous for its diamonds. So famous that it is from here that celebrity diamonds like the Regent Diamond, the Hope Diamond, and Kohinoor are thought to have come from. Who’d have thunk it…

Golconda-Fort-at-NightLike the Charminar, it’s at night it needs to be seen – for the disneyland effect. But I missed it. So I have to go back. Not that I need an excuse. Hyderabad is one very impressive city.

Next stop, Delhi.

 

 

 

 

Where did it all go wrong? Way back, long before electricity was born, long before we had drills and jack hammers and tall cranes, long before we had the myriad man-made materials we have today, we were building stuff that lasted. Stuff that stood the test of time. Stuff that was literally made by hand.

And today? Our apartment buildings and tower blocks are failing us after just ten years (a sore subject in Dublin these days).

IMG_1810 (800x600)IMG_1814 (800x600)In Hyderabad, at the Qutub Shahi Tombs, I was given good reason to curse progress, to grieve for the craftsmen who are watching their trade die out because they have no one to whom they can pass them on. No one who wants to learn. These amazing feats of architecture date back to IMG_1815 (800x600)the sixteenth century, and blend three architectural styles: Persian, Pashtun, and Hindu. The stone is intricately hand carved and even today, during the renovations, the boys were out with their chisels, their only nod to technology being the iPod earphones.

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IMG_1818 (800x600)Back in the day, the tombs would have been furnished with carpets and rugs and chandeliers. Readers would recite from the Quran, strategically stationed on lecterns dotted about the place. The tombs of the Sultans would have had golden spires fitted to the top of their domes to show that royalty resided within, but apparently these disappeared along with the British (or so rumour has it). Hard to know who to believe. The chap wearing a vest emblazoned with ‘Tourist Police’ told me that as a single foreign woman I would need a guide to be safe. When I asked ‘safe from what’, he said ominously that someone might run away with me. I figured I was safe enough wandering around on my own.

IMG_1831 (800x600)IMG_1816 (800x600)The seven tombs belong to the seven kings of Hyderabad, each one housing the king and his companions. Plenty of room for all. The grandest of the them all, currently under reconstruction, is that of Muhammed Quli Qutub Shah, dates back to 1602. He built it himself, as was the custom back then. Nothing like taking care of your accommodation after your departure. The tomb of Fatima Sultan (Muhammed’s sister) has been partially renovated and is looking well on it.

IMG_1819 (800x600)IMG_1820 (600x800)My vote, though, would go to the twin tombs – but I couldn’t figure out if they were the tombs of the Sultan’s two favourite hakims (physicians)  — Nizamuddin Ahmed Gilani and Abdul Jabbar Gilani — which date back to 165i, or the tombs of Premamati and Taramati, his favourite courtesans built a few years later. Whoever is lying in side, they’re certainly enjoying it. The tomb is exquisite. The carving ornate. And to think it was all done by hand is simply mind-boggling. Why, why, why do we not value these crafts more?

I’m as guilty as anyone for balking at the price of handcrafted items. We’ve become way too conditioned to those mass-produced goods that are so much cheaper. Is it any wonder that crafts like this sort of stone working are dying out – no one wants to pay for it any more.

The gardens are seeing a facelift. Money is dribbling in to restore the tombs and to bring them back to their former glory. Here’s hoping that the reconstruction helps keep these trades alive.

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Originally known as Lagar-e-Faiz Athar (a place for bountiful entertainment) in the days of the Qutub Shahi rulers, musical and dance shows would be staged each evening to keep the poor entertained. Now, that one I’m still mulling over …

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Some memories, no matter how deep they are buried, refuse to stay buried. Way back when, on my first (and I think my only) package sun holiday, anklets were all the rage. Everyone was wearing them. Never really one for staying on trend, for some reason I was determined to get in on this one. The sun was probably getting to me. I spent ages with one trader from Algiers, who promised that he had the most extensive range of anklets on the street. His blanket was covered with them. All sorts. All colours. All sizes. And I tried them all. And none of them would fit. Of course, the more embarrassed I got, the more anxious he became to make a sale. Eventually, he sat back on his haunches, and gave his diagnosis: I had fat ankles. And then he gave his prognosis: It was very unlikely that I would ever find an anklet to fit me; the only possible treatment was to buy a necklace and loop it around twice. I ran.

Since then, whenever I think of reincarnation, I thinking of coming back with ankles. Real ankles. And if memory serves me correctly, in my very brief appearance in SC’s Budapest Short on Leprechauns, when asked what my one wish would be – I said ‘ankles’. Fixated I am.

Wandering around Laad Bazaar in Hyderabad is quite the experience. [Laad means lacquer, by the way.] It’s colourful, loud, and full of bangles.  I was there during the day but having watched the video of a night visit, I know I definitely have to go back to Hyderabad and see the Old City by night. There are more than 40 shops on the one street, some of which have been in families for generations. It’s an old market, a very old one. It’s where Bollywood comes to buy its bangles. Mind you, I wouldn’t have recognised a Bollywood star if they’d come up to me and introduced themselves by name. But I have it on good authority that they’re regular visitors to the bazaar.

IMG_1716 (800x600)Tourists were few and far between. I had an address for one store that specialised in glass bangles, but Krishna was with me and I was feeling the pressure NOT to wander. He’s a lovely lad, but a tad impatient. We tried one stop but they had no glass bangles at all. They were quite insistent though and I had to start the trying on process. Surprise, surprise. They couldn’t find a bangle to fit me. Son called over Dad and Dad in turn called Grandad and the three of them stood discussing the challenge. Other customers were earwigging and throwing surreptitious glances my way as Dad decided that a plastic bag would do the trick. He stuck my hand into the bag while Son tried to slip on the bangle over it. One pulling, the other pushing, me grimacing in pain. Okay, okay, I have wide hands. Not fat ones, or big ones, just wide ones. Wide knuckles. They eventually  gave up and sent us to another shop.

IMG_1717 (600x800)There, they didn’t try the plastic bag trick but they did try everything else, including hand lotion. They seemed mesmerised. Wide hands are obviously not the norm in Hyderabad. By this stage, I was a little tired of being the attraction, so I didn’t hang around. But the search will be resumed next time I’m in town.

IMG_1664 (800x600)Hyderabad is also famous for its pearls, with an entire street – Patther Gatti – lined with shops selling all sorts of pearls in all sorts of settings. And yes, I know it’s miles from the sea. I did ask the question. But apparently, back in the day when the Nizam-ul-Mulk was in charge (about 200 years from the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century), they brought pearls from the Arabian Gulf to Hyderabad. Today, in the village of Chandanpet just outside the city, almost everyone is a pearl driller – a craft that requires a certain skill. Some of the pearls that I saw were tiny.  And when the first set I fancied was in danger of choking me, Aman assured me that he would extend it a couple of inches – no problem. Before I bought (and not for me as I know it’s bad luck to buy pearls for yourself) I had him take a cigarette lighter to random pearls to be sure they were real. It’s not that I doubted him – he was lovely – it was more that I would hate to think I’d be taken for a ride. [I’m well aware of my gullibility – every saleman’s dream I am – and the self-beratement that comes with being had does my head in. I really should do my homework.]

All I actually wanted to buy on this trip, though, was a kurti – a tunic top worn over leggings that are scrunched up at the ankles. Indian women look so pretty, so vibrant, so colourful. And I figured I could cut a dash in one over the festive season. Strangely though, it’s only men serving in the government-sanctioned tourist shops, and lovely though they are, they just don’t get it.

‘Yes, ma’am, we have all sizes.’ And  indeed they did. And everything in my size fit to perfection, except the bust. And it’s not as if the poor lad didn’t try. He must have pulled out ten different styles in fifty different colours. And none worked. I remembered this from last time, too.

So, what have I learned? From my research, I have concluded that the average Indian woman has petite hands, a slender neck, and a small chest. And I just don’t fit the mould. For me, it’ll have to be custom-made. But then I had more time and even after going to the the tailor and specifying exactly what I wanted in terms of neckline and roominess, I was flattened and my decolletage censored.

It’s been a mad week  full of  sensory overload and people, lots and lots and lots of people. I’m sick of hearing myself talk. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends (what’s new?) trying to fit in as much as possible and still work and I’m mentally and physically exhausted. But it’s a good kind of exhaustion. A healthy kind. One that comes from an onslaught of new and a deluge of different, one  that has given me a new perspective.

One of the greatest things about travel, particularly to places that are so different from my norm, is that it gives me a chance to miss things, to miss people, to miss places that I might sometimes take for granted. And for that opportunity, coming as it does in the delight that is India, I’m truly grateful.

So, where to next?