Sunday, 5 April 2009
Agra and the Taj Mahal
After broken sleep we awoke half an hour before the train arrived at our stop to find that the countryside was no longer the sand, nor the sorry looking trees that stretched out in the never-ending landscape of Rajasthan, but the more lush vegetation and arable land of Uttar Pradesh.
As our train made its approach to Agra Fort station, the railway tracks were lined
with hundreds of people squatting, doing daily routines that we would only consider doing behind our locked bathroom doors. They were mostly in small groups of friends or family members during this ritual, and we have learned that going to the toilet in public is no big deal in India, unlike at home. Leaving the station, for once we weren’t thronged with dozens of rickshaw drivers hassling us, just one young man who looked like he needed the business. An older man then came over and tried to undercut him heartlessly, so we decided to go with the first guy. All ok so far? Well, not quite… Simon said ‘Shanti Lodge, please!’ and the young man them fumbled for a small card in his wallet. ‘No, no, no’ he said; ‘the Sai Palace is much much better’. Oh dear, what to do? Well, we decided to go with the flow, for after all, our time in Agra was to be short: just one day. Enough time to relax, have breakfast, do the Taj justice, try a few curries and then take the train onwards for our next experience. Off we trundled, and it was THEN that it finally happened. After all the dreaming and mental images, there it was, appearing out of the morning mist in a glow that was illuminated by the rising sun. We took a quick snap from across the River Yamuna before checking in at the hotel to get some shut-eye, after a sleepless night on the train.
We woke up later in the morning and had a quick look around Taj Ganj, a suburb of Agra, which had a bazaar of small winding roads bustling with life, and we stopped by at Sheela’s Bar for a naan and a lassi (you should know us by now…). Simon tried a chocolate flavoured lassi and Jon had a papaya lassi. We never knew that there we so many more flavours so we had to try something new.
At about 4:00pm we went to the Taj Mahal. We went late to avoid the majority of the tourists, though there were still too many. Neither of us could believe it when we saw it. From a distance it is very beautiful and almost white. But seeing it close up and in more detail really changed our ideas. One of the most amazing aspects was noticing that the words of the Koran had been inscribed on all arches of the Taj Mahal, and it is from this ancient scripture that the Arabic language is derived. This wonder is made of marble and, when close, it is possible to see little detailed carvings and inlaid decoration. If you are really nosey, you can look through decorative carved holes in the marble walls to some rooms inside, though all we could see was a few logs of wood.
We walked up some more steps and approached the entrance to the building itself where the apparent tombs of the creator of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, and his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, lie together. However, word has it that the real tombs are beneath the ground on which we were standing. The Taj took about 23 years to build with 20,000 labourers.
In addition to the building, the gardens were very well kept and home to wildlife including green parrots, and we even saw a monkey on one of the walls.
We watched the sun go down at a rooftop restaurant with loads of other people from all parts of the globe, over the best vegetable passanda known to man! On the roofs of houses nearby were children flying kites and one boy lost control of his, resulting in it almost ending up in some guy’s dinner! As the Taj Mahal became shrouded in darkness, the glowing lights of the suburb came on as the muezzins chanted their exotic call to evening prayers from the surrounding mosques. Also the moon, though not full, was giving off a brilliant glow.
To end another great day, we had to go to the station to catch the train to our next stop in Varanasi. Since we only booked the train a few days ago, our names had been put on a reserve list so the thoughts of not being able to get on the train were unwelcome. But luckily, there were seats for us and here we are writing this blog. Tomorrow is to be yet another thrilling and exciting day, for we will wake up in the ancient city of Kashi, the city of light known as Benares, the holiest site in Hinduism, and known to us as Varanasi.