30.03.2012 - 02.04.2012 38 °C
Walking through the station on our way to the metro on the previous few days we'd heard announcements that trains were running up to 5 hours late but all the trains we’d taken to this point had arrived and departed more or less on time. Considering the huge distances they cover - some trains go from Kanyakumari right in the South to Delhi in the North or Kolkata in the East - it’s an impressive feat. Our luck ran out in Delhi though as our train to Agra was an hour late. A few hours later we arrived and got a rickshaw to Hotel Shah Jahan which was run by an kind old Muslim man and his family. We arrived just in time to watch the sun set over the Taj Mahal from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant which was beautiful to say the least. After a short explore of Taj Ganj – the area around the Taj – we had tea at a restaurant which was showing the film Erin Brokovich. We spent the rest of the evening watching India versus South Africa (cricket from Johannesberg!) and chatting to our hotel’s proprietor.
The next morning we headed off to see possibly the biggest tourist attraction in the whole of India – the Taj Mahal. We felt pretty bad skipping the long queue of Indians who were waiting to get in but when we realised that tourists had to pay 15 times more than Indians we didn’t mind so much. The Taj Mahal is known as the world’s biggest monument to love because Shah Jahan, Mughal emperor in the 17th century, built it as a shrine for his favourite wife, Mumtaz. The first thing that strikes you when entering the gates to the Taj is its sheer size. From the hotel’s rooftop it’s difficult to conceptualise the size of the dome and how far apart the grand gateways and towers are. When you’re standing up against them you realise they’re enormous. The gardens between the gateway and the mausoleum represent the Muslims’ garden of paradise with four streams (representing honey, wine, milk and water) converging at a central pool. They’re a little run down at the moment and the fountains were unfortunately switched off but, again, the size of the garden was striking. While we were queuing up to get into the mausoleum we admired the walls which are exquisitely ordained with flowers cut from semi precious gems (such as coral) embedded into marble. As we approached the small opening into the central chamber the queue became a scrum so viewing the tomb of Mumtaz, and the tomb of her husband which was lain beside her after his death some years later, was quite difficult and a little uncomfortable. Still, we were able to appreciate the details of carving in the marble and the beauty of the Koranic verses on the tombs (which are actually false sarcophagi above where the actual bodies were buried). We enjoyed wandering around the outside of the Taj and comparing the mosque (on the left) with the Jawab – a ‘fake mosque’ which resembles the mosque exactly from the outside but which can’t be used as a mosque because it doesn’t face Mecca. Interestingly, the insides of the two buildings are slightly different and the Jawab was significantly more dilapidated. All in all the trip to the Taj Mahal was as awe inspiring as Patrick had hoped it would be although Ffion, who had been there 7 years ago, didn’t think it was worth an expensive second visit!
After a bit of lunch we set off to Agra’s second tourist attraction – Agra Fort. Delhi’s red fort, which we had visited a few days earlier, was modelled on the Agra Fort so it was interesting to see how the lay out and the function rooms (such as the specific room for meeting members of the public and another for meeting with his closest council) were similar. There was one section excitingly called the fish pond but the British, when they took over the fort and used it as an army barracks in the 19th century, had filled it in and used it as a training ground. From the ramparts of the fort there was a stunning view of the Taj Mahal and it was here, looking out at his wife’s mausoleum, where Shah Jahan died having been imprisoned in the fort by his son Aurangzeb.
The following day we got up at sunrise to see the Taj Mahal in a different light. Agra is a very polluted town (the nearby sulphur works make all stagnant water smell like rotting eggs) so the sun sort of slinked into view behind a thick veil of smog rather than rising gloriously and shining bright rays onto the white marble of the Taj. We went back to bed for a few more hours sleep feeling a little disappointed. We had thought to visit Fatehpur Sikri, the capital of the Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan’s father Akbar, but the sun was oppressively hot even at 10am so we decided against two bus rides and an afternoon exploring a medieval city in the glare of the midday heat. Instead we walked to where we’d seen ‘craft village’ marked on our map. When we arrived the market seemed to be closed, perhaps because it was a Sunday. We asked some men in an office if they knew where the market was. They gestured around the corner but Ffion said to them that she thought it was closed. “No closed, madam” came the adamant reply. They sent one of the young men to show me the market area. When we got there is was still closed. “Closed” said the man. We tried to figure out which days it was open but were told that it was open on all days, even Sundays. We suspected that, for all the young man knew, the market might have closed down completely so we decided not to bother coming back tomorrow. On our way back to the hotel we were amused by the overgrown golf buggies that were carting tourists from the posher hotels to the doorstep of the Taj. The Agra council is very aware of the damage pollution is causing to the marble of their most precious tourist attraction so their response has been to set up an exclusion zone for petrol vehicles around the immediate parameter of the building. We suspect more needs to be done if any real impact is to be seen.
On our final day we mostly ate, drink lots (the heat was unbearable again), used the internet, shopped for jewellery, played backgammon and prepared ourselves mentally for the long journey ahead of us. We also took a walk down to a small Krishna temple by the rivers’s edge from where we had an unspoilt view of the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and also a young boy herding some water buffalo on the other side of the river.