The Harem Shade in the Red Fort of Agra

The ghost, it is supposed, come forth to the upper air.  Every door post is pitched to light the way for the earthly souls.  Near the gardens of the Taj Mahal stands the important 16th-century Mughal monument where the shadows of the wondering shades still linger.  The shadow bore witness to families, sacrifice, love, and its own departure.  Amidst all this, the arts within these walls were never forgotten.  The musical revels echo through the garden if you hold still long enough to hear. Nor the petting choir of song and dance in honor of their Sultan.

The chambers of the harem house the shade of the wonderer but never the change, the change of seasons that brought its state victory or defeat.  The blossoming of the marigolds hear the voice of the fragrant spring and whisper them along to all who will hear; when yellow clusters are flung on the lap of the earth; and the sweet smell of wine and lust become braided in the hair and the choirs chanting hymns to their king; the heart of the earthly become overflowed with merriment.

Always there for the abundant jollity the shade is never invited to share in the universal revel behind the sandstone walls.  The palace is alive with the bustle and fun of the harem as the conjuring’s and scent of wine fill up the hours.  The wondering shade looks to join the procession by the torch light, but never can.  In the darkness it remained, and now the concubines, royals, musicians and teachers now join the shade as the earthly souls once again wonder the halls and gardens while they can never join but only watch from the shadows.

 

Words by Keishla Gonzalez-Quiles

Photography by Oscar Diaz

Royalty and Poverty in The Golden Triangle

In New Delhi, Capital of India, we drove past impressive parliamentary buildings and the statues of many famed & decorated politicians from throughout India’s history.

We looked on with awe as we kept driving past green public areas; some parks, others mere strips of land dividing the road, but this instead illustrated generations of poverty that forced Indian families to live out in the open under the blue tarps of their humble shelter.

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In Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, we walked around the gardens surrounding one of the seven wonders of the world. A breathtaking testimony of love and power from a ruling kingdom destined to leave a mark on Earth.

We saw men pushing their wooden carts full of goods; sometimes produce or flowers, but at times heavier piles of wood or metal, through traffic in the winding roads of the city.

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In Jaipur, the Pink City, we marveled from our rooftop at the palace submerged in the lake as the sunrise rays peaked through the mountains. Inside Emer Fort, glass mirrors decorated the walls and ceilings of the rooms atop a mountain accessed by elephant.

After visiting the City Palace, we learned of a young prince adopted into the royal Maharaj family since there were women only left as direct descendants. Shortly after leaving, a young boy knocked on the windows of our van begging for a few rupees to eat his next meal.

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A land of extremes.

Within the Golden Triangle, as its famously dubbed (New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur), we played witness to illustrious wealth and power, among widespread poverty and disenfranchisement.

Luxury among the struggle of the everyday.

And I wonder, when will those at the bottom of the triangle enjoy India’s gold?

Two Men Holding Hands

Walking down the streets of New Delhi.
Entering the Arabian Sea by the beaches of Goa.
Shopping in the markets of Jaipur.

I turn my head and my eyes do not deceive me: two men holding hands.

You see, in many cities around the world a transparent rope of masculinity and patriarchy ties us down. It strangles us into submission declaring pink feminine and blue masculine. It herds us into boxed fences of the gender binary, punishing those who dare to step out with lashes.

Unnatural. Immoral. Queer.

But, for some reason, the social constructs of gender and sexuality, the tightened grip around our wrists, allows two Indian men to hold each others hands.

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It is not a cultural marker that defines your sexuality. It is a measure of neither masculinity nor femininity.

Rather, a subtle expression of trust, a notion of friendship, a touch of humanity.

Seeing two men holding hands makes me long for our liberation from the patriarchy and gender binary.

Untie our masculinity. Untie our femininity. Free us from ourselves.

Let us be human.

The Taj and me

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

When you visit the Taj Mahal, your first glimpse of the structure is framed through an archway that you have to walk through in order to make your way into the complex where the tomb is located. I kid you not, as I caught my first glimpses of the Taj, I got goosebumps on my neck and shoulders.

On our drive to the Taj, our tour guide told us numerous times that pictures don’t do it justice. And he was absolutely right. I don’t think I’ve ever physically seen anything more awe-inspiring in my life. There’s not a better way to describe it than perfect. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I realized how [initially] underwhelming the interior of the Taj is.

For starters, it’s much smaller than what you expect after seeing the exterior. The reason being because you can only occupy an octagon of surface area located directly in the middle of the structure. Everything else is closed off and/or empty space.

Nevertheless, there was something mystical about being inside. It might have been because we went during the evening and it was very dark inside, which added a bit of spirituality to our trek around the interior. It might have also been because our tour guide used a flashlight app on his smartphone to illuminate the different carvings on the walls so we could clearly see what we were touching.

I remember of sense of awe coming over me as I glided my fingers across the marble carvings, trying to contemplate how such exquisite work was created some 400 years ago — not to mention how perfectly intake it has remained.

Alexa said something along the lines of “Can you believe we just touched something from the 17th century!?” And she was right. It was mind-boggling that we were connecting with a period in history that is almost impossible to conceptualize because of how long ago it was.

There’s not many famous monuments that fully live up to their respective hype. The Taj definitely does.

 

Lessons from Agra

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

Agra is rough around the edges.

While Delhi’s a charmer, Agra is more of a “get in your face” kind of city. The reason being — in my opinion — is because the poverty is more pronounced. There are prolonged stretches of land dominated by dirt and dust, filled with shack homes and people huddled around fires during the cold hours. Don’t get me wrong, there are signs of moderate wealth, but a majority of the land is dominated by obvious poverty; some moderate and some extreme.

There’s also a more aggressive initiative within the locals to coerce tourists for money — whether it be via begging or a makeshift business plans. You can’t really blame them, though. If I lived in the same city as the Taj Mahal, I’d milk it for all its worth, too.

Speaking of the Taj, we visited it two days ago (Jan. 5). Our tour guide — who was nothing short of incredible — warned us of the locals who would try and sell us various Taj-related trinkets as we made our way toward the monument. He told us that the best way to avoid someone nagging us was to cold shoulder any seller who made a pitch. And we all did just that.

However, as we made our way back to the van after our time at the Taj concluded, this one guy started walking beside a few members of the group trying to sell what looked like small posters of the famous tomb. After being ignored, the guy sped up, strided right past our entire group and stationed himself by the door of our van. I thought he was going to pitch each of us as we made our way into the van. But that wasn’t the case.

Instead, he let all of us into the van without a word before saying something — in what I assume was Hindi — to our tour guide. Our guide then explained that the guy had pictures he wanted to sell us. But they weren’t generic pictures of the Taj, they were pictures of us at the Taj!

The guy stealthily took pictures of all of us — both group and individual shots — and then more than likely followed us around the complex to make sure he could make a sales pitch before we departed. Incredible, right?

We wound up buying the pictures (they were only 100 rupees), so his plan wound up working.

Nevertheless, for every clever scheme, there are three or four heart-wrenching ones. As we were standing in a semi-circle waiting for our van after a trip to the Agra Fort, a boy of seven or eight, with ragged clothes and skin highlighted with dust marks came up to each one of us with his right and cupped, as his left fingers pointed to his mouth. He wanted money to buy food.

For more than a couple of reasons, we’ve been instructed not to give to beggars. But following that direction is so much easier said than done — especially when the beggars linger next to you until you finally leave the scene.

Forgive the cliche, but the whole process of cold-shouldering beggars pulls on your heartstrings. In your mind, you want to help, but in reality, are you really helping if you don’t know where the money is going once the beggar leaves? Plus, it’s impossible to calculate the consequences the beneficiary will have to face if fellow locals get jealous of what he/she receives. There’s so many different layers to society — in India and all over the world — that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing; especially if your time in the area is temporary, as you won’t be around to either clean up your mess or build upon your progress.

So, you’re left with a small sense of defeat, but also an inherent sense of appreciation for your own “blessings.” I know you can’t quantify appreciation, but sometimes it’s better to get in tune with your personal situation before you can lend a helping hand to another’s.

Like I said before, Agra is rough around the edges. But it taught me a lesson. And, after all, no meaningful lesson is learned without any bumps in between.

*Pictures will be added once/if the WiFi improves.*

I Can’t Breathe

By: Alexa Chanelle

I literally can’t breathe in New Delhi.

In years past I read books that described the Indian sky. The picture painted in my mind was that of a lazy sun hanging in a hazy sky. How beautiful it must be, I thought. However, when I stepped outside the fantasy of lazy sun rays and hazy skies turned into a huge coughing fit that left me searching for my Ricola cough drops in my overstuffed backpack.

I never appreciated the New York City air until that moment. Being from Florida, I never thought I’d say that.

The smell of the air was that of burnt rubber which must be caused by the amount of vehicles on the road. Tut-Tuts, motorbikes, busses and vans weaved their way throughout traffic contributing to the smogtastic city. In a place where 20 million people live it’s quite understandable why there are so many vehicles on the road at once. Cigarette smokers on my left and right made me wonder how people could have the urge to smoke when breathing felt like smoking. It was an aura that I couldn’t escape and made being outside miserable. I was relieved to get inside of the hotel until I found the smog and it’s smell greeting me at the door. It lingered in the hallways and by the end of the night found its way to my lungs. Causing another coughing fit.

This morning we left New Delhi for the city of Agra. I thought maybe the smog will disappear, but it didn’t. It was just as intense as the day before. However, I was glad to get on the road to Agra and escape it’s suffocating grip. Yet, as we drove, I began to see the smog from a different perspective. The experience became more visual and less physical.

The haze became apart of the landscape. It made anything that was 20 feet away disappear into its mystery. The buildings that stretched up into the sky looked like stairways to heaven as they faded into the dense fog. Clusters of trees looked like low hanging clouds. The sky no longer blue but changed from a deep orange sunrise to a pale yellow morning sky. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s almost as if God used the rise filter and tilt shift tool from Instagram to create this view. The dreamlike haze revealed pieces of the city little by little forcing you to appreciate and take in what’s in front of you, a life lesson maybe… Or I could be justifying years worth of pollution. I’ll stick with the life lesson though.

It was this ride to Agra that I saw and fully appreciated the beauty of the Indian sky. I found what I was longing for and a cough I am currently nursing. Through this, India taught me my first lesson– sometimes you have to view things from a different perspective to see its beauty. Oh and to bring a gas mask next time I come to New Delhi.