Agra and the Taj Mahal

After the challenges of finding a suitable bed in the capital it was a relief to get out of Delhi for a while. Especially when the trip to Agra involved an icon of travel, the Indian rail network. And so we found ourselves shivering on a pre-dawn platform awaiting the 6.20am Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Agra and beyond. Don’t ask me why, but Indian Railways still print out a passenger manifest and post it on the platform prior to departure. Mind you, given that we’d booked our tickets online, via an intermediary, and held no ticket per se, it was actually a relief to find our names and know that our booking was valid.

Two hours later, after a wholly unremarkable train ride, we were there, Agra, site of the world famous Taj Mahal. Most descriptions of Agra from those in the know were not pleasant and invariably involved expletives. The consensus appeared to be to do it as a day trip, get in, and get out again. But not us. We’re always keen to see things in all their glory, or lack thereof, and were staying for a whole night. No half measures there then eh?

And it was a relief to discover that the hotel in which we would spend that one night, the Howard Park Plaza, offered no nasty surprises whatsoever; although having apparently booked for only one person – an easy mistake to make in the world of drop-down menus – we did have to pay a second-person supplement. But the room was normal, the bed a double, the water hot, the fridge cold, and everything, well, worked.

And then we were immediately off to the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum built between 1632 and 1653 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite (?!) wife, Mumtaz Mahal. And it is truly impressive in so many ways, not least of which was the sheer number of people who turned up to see it on the same day that we did. They might have closed it for Princess Diana to have the picture which came to symbolise her estrangement from Charles, but not for us. It was bloody mobbed.

Taj Mahal

Sublime symmetry and perspective

Not least by the locals, which is not surprising given that Indians pay 10 rupees (10p or HK$1) to get in, compared to the 500 rupees (£6 or HK$60) foreigners pay – which is still of course a bargain. The approach takes in the main gateway (the darwaza) – which is a monumental structure in itself – before you’re rewarded with a first glimpse of the sparkling Taj Mahal tomb. And it genuinely does take your breath away. Whether it’s the gleaming whiteness, the history, the reputation, or the love and devotion on which it was built, I don’t know, but it is utterly, genuinely, gobsmackingly, beguiling.

And it’s not just the familiar onion-domed marble mausoleum with its intricate external and internal decoration. There are the perfectly symmetrical gardens which draw the eye to the mausoleum and provide depth and perspective. The three-dimensional effect created by the four minarets. The aforementioned gateway at the opposite end of the gardens. The smaller tombs to his other wives; Mumtaz merely having been the ‘favourite’. The symmetry is everywhere, even down to the building’s mirror image in the reflecting pool. To the right of main building stands the mosque (the masjid), and opposite, perhaps my favourite, the jawab, the mosque’s ‘answer’, whose primary purpose is architectural balance. An entire structure, generously proportioned in it’s own right, erected simply for symmetry, for balance, the ‘answer’. (And although I claim not to believe in such things, that probably sits well on my Libran scales.)

You could spend days, even years, studying this place, and I’m sure some do, but after spending a couple of hours marvelling at Mumtaz’ mausoleum, we located our driver and headed off to Agra Fort. Apparently the most important fort in India, it’s a large, sprawling, red sandstone complex dating from 1573. And while there are a few notable buildings within, the most striking aspect is simply the deep red colour, and the varying shades it produces in different lights at different times of day. Not to mention a discreet view of the omnipresent Taj Mahal framed in a window.

Red Fort Agra

The reddest of red forts

A drive through the city revealed that yes, Agra is not the finest city on earth, but nor is it without its charm, and there is more to it than the one monument. The tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, also know as the Baby Taj, is not surprisingly, much smaller than the Taj, built before the Taj, and apparently regarded as a draft for the Taj. A wee experiment before they went for the Big One. Which may or may not be true, but what is true is that it is considerably quieter than the Taj Mahal, and as a consequence a lot more peaceful and serene. Baby or not, it’s a lot easier to become contemplative about life, the universe and everything when there aren’t hordes of tourists pushing and shoving their way in front of you.

After a final look at the backside of the inescapable Taj from the opposite side of the Yamuna River we were done for the day, and headed back to the delight of a hot shower to wash away the grime of the city.

For a second day in Agra, we’d secured the services of the same two drivers, so duly checked out of the hotel and waited outside for them. And waited. And waited. And eventually accepted that they were never going to turn up. They must have got a better offer, or got so lashed up on the dosh we’d overpaid them yesterday they couldn’t get out of bed. Bastards.

But there are always alternatives so we negotiated a new deal with a driver hanging around outside the hotel; 1,100 rupees to take us to Fatehpur Sikri and back, and then wherever else we wanted to go in Agra. And best of all the guy was driving an HM Ambassador, “The king of Indian roads”; a car originally based on the Morris Oxford III, which has been in production since 1958, and has barely had any modifications since. Apparently it is the most popular car in India and is the choice of India’s political leadership, police and other government officials. Lord knows why as it looks and feels like a dinosaur – which of course made it all the more entertaining for it.

And the driver himself turned out to be a canny feller. While we were a little mistrustful given that we just picked him and his cab up off the street – or vice versa – he’d a quick smile and a cracking laugh.

The ride out to Fatehpur Sikri, about 30kms out of Agra, saw us spend about an hour stuck in slow moving traffic down tightly congested market streets, packed with traders and shoppers, beggars and bystanders, and with the world and his auntie just inches from the windows. It could have been hellish but was actually fascinating and afforded an opportunity to observe and photograph some genuine Indian street life – and of course to shove a camera in people’s faces with relative discretion.

There’s also a 500 rupee fee to get into Fatehpur Sikri and although all the websites said that the Taj Mahal ticket covered this as well under the banner of the Archaeological Survey of India, I have a feeling I paid again; although we did notice that the ‘local’ entry fee includes citizens of SAARC, including Thailand, and Sue therefore counted as a local, and got in for 10 rupees. I’m not sure how thrilled she was at the idea of being considered to be anything other than Thai, but I was happy to compromise her identity to save a few bucks.

Fatehpur Sikri is, or was, an ancient city constructed by the Mughal emperor Akbar, beginning in 1570 and serving as the empire’s capital from 1571 until 1585, with a population of some 30,000. And though it took fifteen years to build, it was abandoned after only fourteen years because the water supply was unable to sustain the growing population. Now I’m no architect, engineer, developer or urban planner, but doesn’t that seem a little short-sighted? These dudes were capable of engineering marvels such as the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri itself, and they didn’t spot the absence of any water?

Modest in depth but not in height – the main gateway of the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri

The site itself is now a ghost town, although it is missing any air of ghostliness. While the temples of Angkor maintain a thrilling sense of mystery through their dishevelment, Fatehpur Sikri seemed a little too clean. It’s as if Wimpey built a nice new housing estate on the edge of Milton Keynes last year, but then walked away once it was done. That said, the immaculate preservation does give it a unique perspective and affords a clear insight into what life in the city and the society must have been like. The mosque, Jama Masjid, and the main gateway, Buland Darwaza, are quite awe-inspiring. The gateway, substantial in height yet modest in depth, appears eerily one-dimensional. While the courtyard (if that is the correct term) is immense, designed, one assumes, to house the entire 30,000-odd population.

Then it was back to the Ambassador, back to Agra, and back to the station for the 8pm Shatabdi back to Delhi – a journey unamusing save for the sheer impunity with which the feller on the opposite aisle openly burped and farted his way from Agra to Delhi without so much as an admonishing glance from his dear – and presumably – long-suffering wife. Perhaps one day she’ll have her own onion-domed tribute to her patience and devotion.

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