Today's flight takes us across India's northern plain, over the legendary Taj Mahal and then over one of the nation's most sacred cities, Varanasi, as it spreads along the west bank of the Ganges River. We'll then head north into the mountainous country of Nepal and land at the capital, Kathmandu.
India is one nation, but did you know it's made up of 28 states and eight union territories? Similar to the United States, each of India's states or territories has a distinct character and identity. They range from the tropical state of Kerala in the nation's deep south to the arid deserts of Rajasthan in the north. For today's journey, we'll start in the Delhi National Capital Territory, where Indira Gandhi Airport is located, and then fly south/southeast into the state of Uttar Pradesh. It's about 120 miles to Agra, a large industrial city, which is where the Taj Mahal rises on the banks of the Yamuna River.
The Taj Mahal! Over the centuries, it's become an international symbol for beauty in general and architectural perfection in particular. It was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Construction lasted 16 years, from 1632 to 1648 A.D. At the time, the Mughals were at the peak of their power, and Emperor Jahan brought in top craftsmen from across India and beyond to work on the project, which included elaborate grounds surrounding the main structure. For nearly 400 years, the Taj Mahal has attracted visitors from all over the world who draw inspiration from its beauty. Rather than fumble for our own words, let's rely on a UNESCO description to capture some of what's special about it:
"The Taj Mahal is considered to be the greatest architectural achievement in the whole range of Indo-Islamic architecture. Its recognized architectonic beauty has a rhythmic combination of solids and voids, concave and convex and light shadow; such as arches and domes further increases the aesthetic aspect. The color combination of lush greenscape, reddish pathway, and blue sky over it show cases the monument in ever changing tints and moods. The relief work in marble and inlay with precious and semi-precious stones make it a monument apart."
Despite its perfection, one problem the Taj Mahal has is standing up to modern-day pollution. It was built to be a brilliant white, which was fine before the advent of heavy industry and fossil fuels. During the 20th century, however, surrounded by ever-increasing exhaust fumes from traffic and industry, the Taj Mahal was becoming noticeably discolored. To solve this problem, in 1996 India's Supreme Court declared an area of 4,000 square miles around the Taj Mahal as a special protected zone in which businesses could no longer burn coal, but had to switch to natural gas, move, or shut down. There's a lot more about the Taj Mahal in the links in today's pilot log.
We now continue east/southeast about 400 miles, generally following the course of the mighty Ganges River, which plays an important role in Indian life. In Hinduism, The Ganges is a sacred life-giving presence, and worshipped as the goddess Ganga. As it makes its 1,500-mile journey through northern India, Hindus bathe in the Ganges, use its waters to worship their ancestors, place ashes of cremated remains to carry them to the afterlife, and weave its presence into their lives in hundreds of ways. It generally flows south and east, but in a very few places it turns to the north, almost as if to honor its sacred origins in the great Himalayan mountains. These places are regarded as auspicious, and no place is more so than the ancient city of Varanasi.
For more than 4,000 years, Varanasi has occupied the west bank of the Ganges where the mighty river makes a prominent swerve to the north, making this an especially sacred location. Because of this, no place along the Ganges is more longed for at the moment of death by Hindus than Varanasi. For centuries, the city has been the site of end-of-life pilgrimages for Hindus, who come here to die, be cremated, and then achieve the equivalent of salvation by having their ashes immersed in the Ganges. This ancient ritual continues today; the city has crematoriums operating 24 hours a day along the river, with temples called ghats lining the banks with stone steps leading down to the waters, which rise or fall greatly depending on the season, leaving huge silt deposits that must be shoveled away.
Like the Ganges at Varanasi, we too turn north, but we continue in that direction for about 250 miles, eventually crossing India's border with the landlocked mountain kingdom of Nepal. About the size of the U.S. state of Georgia, and home to about 29 million people, Nepal is considered one of the least developed nations in the world. Economically, it often ranks among the world's poorest nations, with a per capita income of just over $1,000. But many Nepalese live in rural areas, where they live off the land, growing and harvesting crops and raising animals in ways unchanged for centuries. Some remote areas of the country are reachable only by footpath.
One interesting fact about Nepal is that it's one of the very few nations that was never subject to colonial rule by the European powers, or any other invader. During their occupation of India, the British tried to control Nepal by military force, but failed. Traditional Nepali Gurkha warriors were so well respected that they were eventually recruited to attend Sandhurst, Britain's prestigious royal military academy, and serve in the British armed forces.
As an independent kingdom, Nepal for centuries was an absolute monarchy ruled by members of a royal family. In 1990, King Birendra agreed to reforms, creating a parliament to collaborate in governing the nation, with the King as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. On June 1, 2001, the royal family was the victim of a tragic palace massacre in which nine of its members, including King Birendra, were shot by Crown Prince Dipendra, the king's son. Three days after the attack, Dipendra died of self-inflicted wounds, making the king's brother Gyanendra the new monarch. The episode served to weaken the nation's faith in the monarchy, which was ultimately abolished by a parliamentary vote in 2008. Today, Nepal is governed by a parliamentary democracy and is officially named the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.
Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, is set in valley at an elevation of 4,600 feet. Kathmandu's population is 2.5 million people, making it the nation's largest city by far. The area has been settled since ancient times, but has long been remote and isolated due to the surrounding terrain. Indeed, the first modern road linking Kathmandu to the outside world was opened only in 1952! (Prior to that, access was by footpath.) Recent decades have seen the city expand enormously, in part due to the presence of Tribhuvan International Airport, the only field in Nepal hosting flights to the outside world. Because of its mountainous terrain and lack of roads, air service has emerged as a key method of traveling within Nepal. Kathmandu lies on an earthquake fault zone; in April 2015, the city suffered a major 7.8 earthquake that claimed nearly 9,000 victims and caused major damage that's still being repaired.
We'll land at Tribhuvan Airport and begin our brief stay in Kathmandu. From here, our next flight will take us to the highest peak on the entire planet: Mount Everest! See you then.
Resources to learn more about today's flight: