By John S. Hamalian

Some folks say India is a poor country. But after many visits to this unique place I believe India is actually a rich country: rich in history; rich in culture; rich in character. Filled with beautiful, colorful people; overflowing with vibrancy, passion and emotion. India is a fascinating destination largely because it is a land of contrasts: from the abundant to the meagre; snow-capped mountains to parched-dry deserts; wheel of life to crescent of hope. It is these contradictions, so firmly sewn into the magical tapestry of the country’s attire, that so well-characterize India and its unique persona. Indeed, is it not this legacy of extremes that defines us as humans?

If you travel around India, you will experience markedly different faces, dress, customs, religions and languages. In a sense, India is actually a country of many different nations. Yet all these distinctive features somehow elope into a marriage of cultures, nearly seamlessly blending into one another, forming a rich collage of interwoven humanity that is just waiting to be explored. All you need is but an open heart and an open mind, and your compassion and curiosity will be amply rewarded with the experience of a lifetime.

TIMELESS MONUMENT TO LOVE

From his confines at the fort, the deposed emperor had nothing left to live for, save for the memory of his beautiful, loving wife. Imprisoned by his own son, in his last gasp of life, the defeated man gazed at a mirror on the wall, catching a final reflection of the monument he built for his lady. As his eyes closed for the last time, his memories faded away along with him, yet his love for her was to be immortalized forever.

The man: Shah Jahan. His wife: Mumtaz Mahal. The monument: the Taj Majal. In its complexity lies simplicity. In its grandeur lies modesty. In its subtlety lies intimidation.

When I first laid my eyes on the Taj Majal it was from afar - from the same fort where Shah Jahan was confined and lay on his deathbed. It appeared suddenly, as if from a dream. I froze immediately. It is hard to describe the captivation, the sheer power that this structure possesses. Though the monument is quite far from Agra Fort, it seemed to be much larger than it objectively should have been. Light reflecting off the finely polished white marble provides a stunning halo effect. Later, as I stood directly in front of the Taj, I could feel the full impact of its magical influence. Its beauty is so timeless. As you walk away from it, you can feel its presence behind you. It is inescapable. When finally forced to depart, you are persuaded to turn around for one last gaze and try to etch it into your memory. I did not wish to ever leave that wonder of humanity.

A COMPLEX TAPESTRY OF CULTURE

Although India is predominately Hindu, there are significant numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and others, adding an interesting variety to the vast cultural landscape of this diverse country. The Taj Mahal itself is actually a celebration of Islamic architecture, perhaps at its finest. Most pictures of the Taj do not show the two large, graceful mosques that flank it. They were incorporated to give balance to the overall design. One of the mosques was never meant to be used as its main arch does not point to Mecca.

As part of a strikingly simple yet exceedingly intelligent blueprint, the four tall minarets, or towers, that surround the Taj Mahal are slightly tilted outward so as not to fall on the central building in the event of an earthquake. The main structure itself is one of the pinnacles of human artistic achievement, possessing a sense of architectural balance virtually unparalleled in the history of construction. Its overall proportions have been exhaustively studied in an attempt to mathematically unlock the secrets to its majestic stance. Above the arched entrance hovers elegantly flowing Arabic script, meticulously inlaid into the ivory-like façade with contrasting black marble. A feat of not only design and engineering, but also of the human spirit, the Taj Mahal has certainly earned its rightful place among the current Seven Wonders of the World.

EXQUISITENESS IN RAJASTHAN

To visit a Jain temple is a truly unforgettable experience, as they are absolutely breathtaking in their level of detail, craftsmanship and beauty. The pillars, walls, roofs and adornments of the temples, such as the splendid ones at Ranakpur in Rajasthan State, are magnificently carved with superb intricacy. The Rishabji Temple that I ventured into features no less than 1,444 columns, each one unique from the other. Jain builders almost exclusively use shimmering white stone to craft their amazing works of art, an architectural reflection of one of the foundations of their religion: purity. Jains believe in respect for life to such a high degree that they sometimes cover their mouths with masks to avoid harming any living creatures. With the Jain, art, customs and beliefs all coalesce into a singular train of existence that is most admirable.

And the princely state of Rajasthan offers much more, including the enchanting ‘Blue City’ of Jodhpur; the great Lake Garden Palace of Udaipur (location for much of the James Bond film, Octopussy); the impressive ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur; the palatial magnificence of Bikaner; and the immense fortress sitting high atop the ‘Golden City’ of Jaisalmer. Rajasthan is a must-see part of India and can surely be a trip in itself. It took me several short trips to see all the places highlighted above, but you could cover it in one trip if you can block off at least a week, ideally two.

CAVERNS OF WONDER

One of the most impressive manifestations of Buddhist thought, art and culture can be found in the marvelous ancient caves I visited at Ellora and Ajanta (in the western state of Maharashtra), among the most important historical sites in all of India. In Ajanta there are thirty caves, the earliest of which date back to the 2nd century BC. The sculptures and frescoes that dot the interiors of these caves are considered to be artistic masterpieces and depict religious figures, as well as stories on the life of the Buddha. Incredibly, the entire area was swallowed up over time by the surrounding jungle and only rediscovered by accident in the early 19th century.

In Ellora, there are over a hundred man-made ‘caves’, which can perhaps be more accurately described as huge sculpted temples and monasteries made by cutting out rock from a hill face. Amazingly, the work started from the top of the rock formations and then moved downwards, requiring intricate planning and construction techniques that took literally generations of builders to complete. One section in particular, known as Kailasha temple, features the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world. As opposed to Ajanta, the Ellora caves represent the artistic styles and religious themes of multiple faiths: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The fact that they all occupy the same space shows the way that religions in India often coexist and indeed intertwine with one another in a brilliant display of the adaptability of humanity.

A BRIGHT SHINING LIGHT

As my thoughts turn to an attempt to summarize my various travels to India, I struggle to make sense of the myriad of memories I have of this fascinating place: admiring the beautiful, colorful dress of the women, whose everyday attire seems like it should be their ‘Sunday best’; spotting a bus with tons of people casually hanging off the side and sprawled on the roof; meeting the cheerful Indian on the plane, who happily offered his contact number in case I had any problems in his country; watching a lone cow calmly lounging in the middle of a frenzied highway.

Then I remember a term I had heard along my travels: ‘mashaal’, the Hindi word for ‘torch’. Like a bright, shining light, I realized that India represents the passion, diversity and interlocking fabric of humanity itself. The world is full of vibrant differences, colorful contrasts and vivid extremes - and perhaps nowhere else on earth is that epitomized as it is here. Yet no matter which side of the extreme they are on, whether dressed in pants or robes, driving Benz or bike, wearing turban or kufi, the people of this vast and varied land will always live their lives with one common, beautifully human trait: spirit.