A Travel Blog for Book Lovers: Part 4
Guest Blog by Mirah Welday
Welcome back to my literary travel series! I am wrapping up this four-part series with a travel experience that currently ranks as the best of my life. I sincerely hope I do the country, author, and novel the justice they all deserve in this post. I have to admit, I’m feeling the pressure!
On October 10, 2010, I posted the following on Facebook:
“I’m reading an incredible book (Beneath a Marble Sky) and now I’m itching to get to India to see the Taj Mahal!”
After reading Beneath a Marble Sky, I knew John Shors would be one of my favorite authors. Since then, I have read everything he has published, including his young adult sci-fi trilogy The Demon Seekers. John is the perfect author to highlight in a post on literary travel; I would consider all of his books to be destination reads. John has a true gift of turning a location into another character in the story.
Beneath a Marble Sky is told from the perspective of Princess Jahanara, the daughter of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. Through the eyes of Jahanara, the reader learns not only of the deep love her parents share but also the deep and divisive conflict within her family and country. After her mother dies in 1631, her father begins the endeavor of building a final resting place to honor the memory of his beloved wife- what would become the Taj Mahal. Through the building of the Taj Mahal, Jahanara herself finds both true love and despair. Beneath a Marble Sky is a stunning novel and reading it made me yearn to travel to India.
In 2014, John started John Shors Travel to offer readers an opportunity to join him on literary adventures to the locations of his novels, including India, Cambodia, Thailand, and Japan. John’s books are so well-researched; it makes perfect sense that he could offer incredible insights to these locations. I was in awe of these amazing vacation itineraries, the timing just never worked…until 2022. John had a trip to India planned and I could finally make it happen. I was beyond excited that I was going to India with John Shors to see the Taj Mahal. Someone, pinch me!
On October 10, 2022, 12 years to the day of my previously mentioned Facebook post, I was in India for the official first day of John’s “India - Exploring the Land of the Taj Mahal” adventure (cue the ‘dream come true’ music). I still can’t even believe it; it was like literary travel fate. What transpired was an epic journey that made me laugh, cry, and embrace a country like I never expected.
Come explore with me as we embark on a bucket list adventure to beautiful, amazing India!
Our India adventure begins in Mumbai. Some of our destinations include a Jain temple, the Gateway of India and Taj Palace Hotel, National Gallery of Modern Art, Mahalaxmi Dohbi Ghat (extensive outdoor laundry complex), and National Gandhi Museum. In the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Judi Dench’s character describes India as ‘an assault on the senses’, and isn’t that the best possible description? The sounds, smells, and colors of the city are all unlike any we’ve ever experienced.
Mumbai is just the first stop on this adventure so let’s pack our bags and board our flight to Udaipur!
Welcome to the beautiful Trident Hotel Udaipur! The rooms are expertly appointed and the grounds are lush. For our first night in Udaipur, we dine at a nearby rooftop restaurant. I have never seen a view quite like this one, have you? We can see the city below, the City Palace and Lake Pichola, and mountains in the distance. The colors as the sun sets are spellbinding.
We’ve had a great night’s rest, come join me on a walk of the hotel grounds where we see peacocks, flowers, and trees with wide canopies. After our walk, let’s settle in for some reading over breakfast- it is a literary trip, after all. I know it’s a blissful way to start the day but we don’t have long to relax….we’re off to the City Palace for a tour!
We arrive at the City Palace, which is located on the shore of Lake Pichola. The tour guide is so informative and we meander from room to room, looking down at Udaipur below through the various windows and archways.
Now that we’re done at the City Palace, we’re hopping on a boat for a cruise of Lake Pichola and we’re stopping at Jagmandir Island Palace. It’s a remote island and we have it pretty much to ourselves. There is a light breeze and the lanterns sway ever so slightly in the plumeria trees.
After a wonderful stop in Udaipur, get your travel bags ready for the Pink City of Jaipur. In 2019, Jaipur was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list for all of its pink sandstone buildings. Our hotel in Jaipur is a former palace, with an intricate entrance and interior gardens and alcoves. What a unique hotel experience for our trip!
In Jaipur, before we start our tour of the City Palace, we look on in amazement at Jantar Mantar, a collection of astronomical instruments built in the 18th century that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. After seeing the palace, we load into Jeeps and bump along the streets and up to the Amber Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 16th century.
Up next, John has promised a unique experience. Elefantastic is a sanctuary for elephants and we get to feed, paint (with water-based, safe paints), walk, and bathe the elephants! This is truly an amazing part of our journey. Can you believe we are this close to our elephant? She is so friendly and very hungry for sugar cane. While spending quality time with her, we can see the depth of her soul in her eyes. What an unforgettable experience!
I know we’ve had a busy few days, I hope you aren’t getting too tired. Dare I say we are getting to the best part?
From Jaipur, our amazing driver whisks us away to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. That evening before dinner, we go to a viewing location on the Yamuna River to see the ‘back’ of Taj Mahal at sunset. This moment is so incredibly special. All of the birds flying in concert and calling to one another is a sight to behold. It is mesmerizing and, in some ways, feels surreal. We are all trying our best to soak in this moment and capture the memories with our cameras. I am snapping away…and I get a dream shot! I cannot tell you how I captured a bird in flight so perfectly above the Taj Mahal. I know every time I see this image, I will feel that I am back in this moment. Seeing the Taj Mahal from this perspective, with its reflection on the river, is absolutely magical. But let’s say goodbye to the Taj Mahal for now and head to dinner and back to the hotel. We’ve got a big day tomorrow!
Good morning! It’s time to visit the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort…are you ready? We walk into the grounds and words cannot describe what it is like to see the Taj Mahal in person. In addition to being considered one of the Wonders of the World, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, along with Agra Fort.
After reading Beneath a Marble Sky and learning the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal and the challenges of building the Taj Mahal, it is incredible to see this enormous monument. And we are here with the author of the book who made us yearn to make this trip. Soak in this moment!
Throughout the novel, we learn about the struggles of the construction, the vast amount of money invested, and the artisans who contributed their talents. Seeing the Taj Mahal in person gives us a chance to see the detail and craftsmanship that went into every corner. It is an architectural and artistic wonder!
There is a small area inside the Taj Mahal where we can walk to pay our respects at the replica tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. When we emerge back outside into the sunshine and see Agra Fort at a distance, I am overcome with emotion. One of my fellow travelers sees I have tears in my eyes. She hugs me and tells me she understands; it’s a lot to absorb. I will always appreciate her compassion in this moment.
I know we can spend all day walking around the grounds and enjoying the Taj Mahal, but our group has to keep moving so we make our way to Agra Fort.
In Beneath a Marble Sky, Agra Fort is known as the Red Fort; it is the primary residence of Shah Jahan and his harem and is where he is ultimately imprisoned by Dara, his power-hungry son. Coming up, we can see Jahanara’s rooms and the imprisonment rooms. As we approach Jahanara’s rooms, there is a group of ladies in colorful saris walking toward us. It feels like we have stepped momentarily into Jahanara’s memories of the women in the harem and her life at the fort as a child. The pages of the book have come to life before our eyes. And even though the imprisonment rooms are beautiful, we can’t imagine Shah Jahan’s heartbreak of seeing the Taj Mahal construction happening at a distance and it serves as a constant reminder of the loss of his wife. We look out into the distance and see the Taj Mahal and marvel at the view.
As much as we don’t want this portion of our journey to end, it is time to leave Agra and continue our journey to our final destination- Delhi. During our full day in Delhi, we tour the Qutb Minar Complex. The complex’s primary stone tower was built in the 12th century to celebrate the Islamic victory over the Rajput king. The tower and surrounding buildings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. We walk amongst the buildings and admire all of the carved stones and structures. That evening, we have one final group meal and then each go to our rooms to pack for our return trips home. The once-in-a-lifetime bucket list adventure in India is over but I am forever changed.
For me, my India adventure was monumental on so many levels! I know my time in India would not have been as magnificent as it was without John’s unbelievable itinerary and all he did as our coordinator and guide, our friendly and knowledgeable local guides, our amazing driver Umesh who never seemed fazed by the chaotic traffic, and my incomparable fellow travelers. I am 100% certain that my wonderful experience in India was due in very large part to my travel companions. We were a very small group of five travelers plus John and we were always taking group photos, laughing together, and telling stories over shared meals. I am forever grateful for sharing this journey with them.
I hope you enjoyed experiencing part of my India journey and that you are inspired to read Beneath a Marble Sky and learn more about India and the Taj Mahal. I suppose my parting words as I wrap up this literary travel series are to always remember books bring the world to us and, if we want to, we can take a step to explore that world on a deeper level. And you don’t have to travel as far as India to have a literary adventure. Literary adventures are everywhere! You can also plan a literary adventure in reverse. Once you plan a trip, do some research and find books set in that location. While in India, in addition to listening to the audiobook Beneath a Marble Sky (narrated by Mozhan Marno of NBC’s The Blacklist), I read The Henna Artist and The Taste of Ginger. Each book helped me explore India and its culture and people in different ways.
Safe travels, fellow readers.