Posts Tagged With: agra

The Bears that Danced into My Heart

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS


Before returning to Delhi, the last stop on our Golden Triangle road trip was the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. I had learned about this rescue organization and immediately knew I had to fit this into our itinerary. The Agra Bear Rescue Facility, managed by Wildlife SOS, is home to sloth bears that were rescued from captivity by the Kalandar tribe of India. For generations, the Kalandar people have been “training” (read: torturing) these bears to dance and then exploiting the “dancing bears” for money. Unfortunately, India has a very long history of animal exploitation, and this is by far the worst example that I am aware of. 
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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS


Poachers would kill a mother sloth bear after she left her den to forage for food. They would then capture and sell the cubs to the Kalandar people. What happened next was extremely barbaric, as they pierced the cub’s muzzle with a hot iron stake, as well as removed the canine teeth, all without any anesthetic. They looped rope through the freshly pierced hole in the cub’s muzzle and it was used as a make-shift bridle to control the cub’s head. When the “owner” pulled up on the rope, the bear would stand on his hind feet in an attempt to lessen the pain. The bears lived their whole lives on a four-foot rope, all while being tortured as tourists paid money to watch them “dance.” 

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

The Kalandar people would cover the holes on their muzzles so the tourists wouldn’t see the wounds that were often infected and gruesome. I still don’t understand why tourists would have paid money to see these bears “dance.” Everything about this scenario screams animal cruelty. I guess ignorance is bliss? Public Service Announcement: People of the world…please educate yourselves so you don’t perpetuate this type of exploitation and cruelty!

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

The good news is that it is now illegal to hold these wild animals captive. The bad news is that the captured bears wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild. Wildlife SOS stepped in to care for and rehabilitate these adorable bears. Most of the bears seemed very comfortable and happy at the rescue facility, while others still displayed periodic signs of post-traumatic stress. The cuteness factor is almost too much to handle as you watch these bears play with their toys and enrichment activities, but the horrific scars on their muzzles is a constant reminder of what they had been through. Many of the bears have life-long illnesses or injuries resulting from their captors. For instance, several of the bears are now blind because the optic nerve was damaged during the piercing of the muzzle.   

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS

In addition to rehabilitating the bears, Wildlife SOS sought out to rehabilitate the Kalandar people. Having relied on the sloth bears as their main source of income for generations, they didn’t have any employable skills. So they were taught a skill or trade so they could ethically earn a living. The rescue facility has a gift shop of craft items handmade by the Kalandar people and 100% of the proceeds are returned to them. I purchased assorted watercolor note cards and a scarf hand-dyed with the unmistakable silhouettes of sloth bears.

  

 I was allowed to take pictures at the rescue facility, but I was asked that they remain for “personal use only” and not be shared on social media. Therefore, the pictures in this post came from Wildlife SOS or their affiliated partners. Wildlife SOS is also making extraordinary strides for the treatment of elephants in India. I really wish we had time to visit their nearby elephant conservation center.  You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about the amazing work they do, all while getting daily doses of cuteness.

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Photo courtesy of Wildlife SOS


 

 
 
 

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Categories: Destinations, India | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Taj Mahal: A Closer Look

Taj1Taj Mahal means Crown Palace, but it is actually not a palace at all, nor was it ever intended to be a palace. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum; built to honor Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. (I’m no expert in polygamous relationships, but I imagine the other wives might have been a tad bitter or a bit jealous.)
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The Taj Mahal lies adjacent to the Yamuna River, and as I mentioned in my previous post, you can see the Taj Mahal from the north on the opposite side of the river. But the Taj Mahal complex was actually designed to shield it’s beauty. There are three large gates (east, west & south) from which to enter the complex. But even once you have entered the complex, you still cannot capture a full picture of her beauty. The Royal Gate is an interior gate with adjacent walls that guard the Taj Mahal from full view. The Royal Gate is made of red sandstone and the calligraphy is Koran scripture made of stone, inlaid into white marble. While standing directly in front of the Royal Gate, you can only see two windows of the Taj Mahal. Our tour guide told us it was specifically designed this way so that the gate would act as a burka, revealing only the eyes, and covering the rest of her beauty.

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View from inside the Royal Gate


The view as you walk through the Royal Gate is spectacular!
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The white marble is somewhat translucent which means the color of the Taj Mahal alters in the changing light of the day. For this reason, I originally wanted to get up extra early to see the Taj at sunrise. Luckily, our driver Raj discouraged me from doing so because he warned there would likely be a lot of “fog.” I’m glad I heeded his advice because we enjoyed beautiful, clear blue skies by postponing our visit just a couple of hours. (Refer to the bottom of this post to see the sunrise view that wasn’t.) Typically the complex is only open until 7 p.m., however if you time your visit just right, there are full moon tours available at night 5 days a month. Tourists can see the Taj Mahal aglow by the full moon light on the night of the full moon, as well as two days before and two days after. Sadly, our visit did not coincide with the lunar calendar, but believe me, I checked.
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Stone inlays and marble lattice


The white marble building took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete! But that is no surprise given the intricate craftsmanship. Just like the Royal Gate, the Koran scripture is not painted onto the marble. It is all made out of stone and inlaid into the marble. The size of the text gradually gets larger from bottom to top so that it can be read without appearing skewed when reading from ground level. The floral designs are also inlaid into the marble, made of semi-precious stones. And the intricate lattice work is all hand-carved out of the marble.

You are allowed to go inside the Taj Mahal, but photos are not allowed. Inside are replicas of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s tombs. The real tombs are in a lower level of the building. Emperor Shah Jahan never intended to rest inside the Taj Mahal. It was meant to honor only his beloved wife. But when his plans to build a twin Taj Mahal for himself were derailed because he was imprisoned by his son…well I guess they had to improvise.

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Mosque & Guest House

There are two identical buildings on either side of the Taj Mahal. The building to the west is a mosque and the building to the east is a guest house. These buildings are not open to the public. However, the mosque is open to descendants of the Muslim builders of the Taj Mahal. For this reason, the Taj Mahal is not open to tourists on Fridays, as this is when those descendants go to the mosque for prayer.

Tip for Tourists: Air pollution is VERY bad in India during the winter. The smog is so bad that you will literally choke on it. With cooler temps and lower air pressure, the smog settles closer to the ground. As the day gets warmer and the air pressure rises, the smog is lifted. It seemed to us that most of the Indian population was ignorant to this air pollution and they referred to it merely as “fog.” I can assure you it is not fog. Have you ever choked on fog? Of course not. Had we visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise as I initially intended, this would have been our view.

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Hotel rooftop view at sunrise

 

Categories: Destinations, India | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Taj Mahal: A First Glimpse

 
One of the reasons we left Fatehpur Sikri in such a hurry was because I wanted to get to Agra before sunset for our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. We went to Mehtab Bagh (The Moonlight Garden) which lies directly opposite the Taj Mahal, on the other side of the Yamuna River. Mehtab Bagh is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal, making it an ideal place to take pictures. Emperor Shah Jahan realized this was a great viewing location, so the Moonlight Garden was created. Additionally, Mehtab Bagh was supposed to be the location of a twin Taj Mahal. Emperor Shah Jahan intended for this location to be a mausoleum for himself, made entirely of black marble. Unfortunately, his vision never came to fruition because he was imprisoned by his son. (I don’t understand why men care so much about having a male heir? A daddy’s girl never would have done that!)  

 Tip for tourists: There is a small entrance fee to enter Mehtab Bagh (only 100 rupees). However, you can get (almost) the same view for free without entering the garden complex. Our driver, Raj, tipped us off that we could walk down to the river on the public street adjacent Mehtab Bagh and still have an awesome view. So we decided not to enter the garden and took a free peek at one of the 7 Wonders of the World!  I’m not suggesting you skip the actual tour of the Taj Mahal, but it was nice to see the Taj from a different vantage point, away from the massive crowds of tourists.   

Categories: Destinations, India | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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