When my family returned from a recent trip to India, I asked my two sons which experiences stood out in their minds. While they predictably listed our safaris and a whitewater rafting excursion, I was thrilled to hear that they were also extremely impressed with what my seven-year-old, Murphy, insisted on calling, “the Taj.” Since Murphy only uses diminutives to express affection, I didn’t discourage this even though “the Taj” technically translates to “the King” which is not, I’m guessing, what Murphy intended.
The Taj Mahal does inspire affection and even an unwarranted sense of proprietorship. Maybe that’s because we could actually walk around and through it with our shoes off. Built in the mid-17th-century, “the Taj” is emblematic of Mughal architecture from that time period. What impressed Murphy and his older brother, Spencer, was the sheer size of the mausoleum. “The reason why you don’t see any people in pictures of the Taj Mahal,” said Spencer, “is because the people in those pictures look like tiny dots.”
Up close, however, the Taj Mahal is even more magnificent. Spencer’s logician’s soul was truly satisfied by the symmetry that Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal) demanded in every aspect of the monument. Even the inlaid jeweled designs are perfectly symmetrical. Spencer couldn’t believe this was all accomplished without modern tools. I thought the beauty of precious jewels inlaid into white marble might simply appeal to the girly girl in me. But the boys were particularly taken with how deep the jewels were inlaid, which was clearly demonstrated when our guide shone a light through the actual jewels, making them glow.
In contrast, the thousand-year-old Hindu temples of Khajuraho are unadorned and built with red sandstone. What distinguish these tall buildings are the sophisticated sculptures that cover the outside walls. Many of these depict domestic scenes, but the most famous are erotic. Any concerns I had that these particular sculptures would kick off a slew of questions I might not have age-appropriate answers for, were quickly dismissed. Murphy’s attention was taken by the sculptures of elephants marching in a row all around the temples. Elephants were believed to hold up the world and were, therefore, chiseled into the stone “to hold up the temples.”
Spencer marched up several sets of steep steps to explore the incarnations of major Hindu deities, enshrined in the inner chambers of the temples. He especially liked the incarnation of Vishnu as a boar. Only once did he announce disappointment. “I liked the architecture,” he said, then rolled his eyes, “but why is this whole temple dedicated to parts of the body?”
Proving much harder than simply buying tickets to see architectural masterpieces was listening to Sufi devotional singing, called qawwali, (pronounced kuh-WAH-lee). Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam, and we visited the shrine of Sufi saint Nizamuddin in New Delhi where this type of singing is quite famous. That said, we didn’t see many western tourists jostling in the crowds as we wound our way through narrow streets teeming with foot traffic. We stopped to take our shoes off and cover our heads half the way to the courtyard where the ceremony would take place. Once there, we heard the imam give a call to prayer, at which point several rows of men knelt and bowed their heads to the ground. Many of the women sat behind a grate. I had heard that these women can go into a trance-like state during the ceremony. Spencer and Murphy sat next to me, wide-eyed, as several men pressed back the crowd to make room for the musicians. In this case, we spotted a two-sided drum and a harmonium, which is a hand-pumped keyboard. The singing we heard that night was call and response between a male singer and the rest of the men. When the women behind the grates joined in with their ecstatic shouting, Spencer grabbed my hand and we looked back at the women’s fingers poking through the grate.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Spencer, pulling him close. “I’ve had days like that.”
He smiled and relaxed as the music picked up tempo and volume. Murphy hummed along and bopped to the beat of the drum. Later, when I asked them what they had liked about the singing, both of them replied, “The drum.” Spencer said that the beat went right through his whole body.
We would see a very similar two-sided drum again in Rajisthan, just outside the city of Alwar. We were staying at the Hill Fort Kesroli, a 14th-century fort that has been converted into a hotel. The only thing that could pull the boys away from playing knights, versus an unknown alien force on the battlements, was the dance program before dinner. Their attention was drawn to the sparkly costumes lit by a dramatic fire in front of them. Three male musicians accompanied themselves in song, while the oldest of them danced with bells on his ankles. Spencer was particularly impressed that the dancer could shake the bells in time with the music and keep dancing. Along with the bells and drum, we heard a single-stringed instrument called an ektara (ech-TAR-ah). Murphy tried moving his hands in circular motion like the dancer who wore a bright orange turban on his head. We talked with the musicians after their performance and found out they were grandfather, father, and son. Apparently this is common because music is often a trade that is generationally passed down in India.
Fortunately, my sons are young enough to claim that living and working with their parents forever, like the Rajisthani musicians, would be “way cool.” And, while my husband and I suspect that their sentiments will change, that kind of togetherness was the real treat of experiencing a new culture with our children. Recently at the dinner table, Murphy described a building as having a roof like the “Taj” if the “Taj” was orange, a lot smaller, flatter, and in Los Angeles.
We all knew what he meant.
Make it Happen
Some recommendations when traveling abroad with children:
I was initially worried about how my very American children would handle traveling in a country with very few of the amenities they were used to, including drinkable water. What I remembered the first few days of our journey was that children are highly adaptable, and they love having uninterrupted time with the family. So don’t underestimate the resilience of your children.
That said, there are ways to make the trip easier for you and for them:
- I recommend giving each child his own backpack that he can fill with personal items. I noticed my sons’ backpacks became their home away from home, filled with entertaining books, but also with a few comfort items like a foam football.
- When traveling with children, I do my best to limit myself to one sight-seeing event per day. As much as I would like my kids to be as enthusiastic about cultural experiences as I am, they need time to simply flop around and be kids. They might even discover new pastimes. My sons, for example, spent a couple of hours watching cricket in a hotel room in India. They finally figured out most of the rules and became real converts, later scouring the newspapers for cricket headlines.
- Keep the information about each event or site simple. Children are less interested in exact dates and details than they are in anecdotes. Telling them a couple of good stories (like the builder of the Taj Mahal being jailed by his own son) is the best way to fix the experience in their minds.
- One way to bring their attention to new artistic forms is to make comparisons. Ask them, for example, if this music sounds like anything they’ve heard before. At one point, Spencer noted that some of the singing he heard sounded like crying.
- Don’t worry about how much your children are absorbing and remembering. My kids ran around temples, playing games, and chattering about Pokémon. Sometimes I wondered if they even noticed they were running through gorgeous thousand-year-old buildings, but they’ve referenced those temples several times since we returned.
- Finally, if you really want your children to soak up the experience, ditch the electronics even on trains and long bus rides. This will push them to look around and engage with their new environment. They’ll be hungrier for entertainment of any kind and won’t be dreaming about getting to the fifth level of whatever game they’re into, while gazing upon Humayun’s tomb.