Saturday, 28-02-2015. Day 192.
Long drives, eternal love, palace intrigue.
Rakesh arrived at the hotel right on time at 8:00 a.m. and in short order we were off a long drive to Agra to see the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal.
The Drive to Agra
Agra is a five-hour drive from Delhi, and the first hour and half of that was just getting through Delhi. It was insanely busy, possibly worse than Bangkok due the the general chaos—traffic seemed to come at us from every direction, even occasionally from straight ahead of us. It was a Saturday, and Rakesh told us that traffic was better than if would have been on a weekday.
We were a a little surprised by Delhi—it wasn't quite what we expected. Aside from the sheer number of stray dogs roaming the streets, it was a reasonably clean city. Sure, it was no Singapore, but it was on par with areas of Ho Chi Minh City and parts of Bangkok. However, once we were out of Delhi, the rest of India pretty much met expectations. We passed through many small towns on our trip through the Golden Triangle, and each of these had piles of trash strewn about everywhere with dogs, pigs, and cows digging through the refuse looking for food.
We didn't see many (if any) women working in Delhi, but along the roads there were plenty of women in colorful saris making cow dung bricks (for burning) or harvesting wheat and mustard in the fields.
At 11:00, we stopped at the halfway point, a questionable and all but deserted restaurant and hotel that had the feel of a classic tourist trap. Near the parking lot entrance there was a man who was keeping a monkey on a leash, which looked as sad as it sounds. At the front door a man in period Indian garb, complete with a large ceremonial sword, greeted us with a low bow and a smile, so we went inside.
The place felt a little questionable, so we didn't eat here. But we did pick up some snacks and use the restroom. We were followed into the restroom by a man (he followed me) and a woman (she followed the girls) who handed out napkins to wipe off our hands in return for a tip. A solid reminder of our lesson yesterday—everyone in India wants to get paid for something, so travel with small bills.
As we pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the road, the man with the monkey was shouting "Monkey! Monkey!" and I noticed the monkey was wearing a dress and had makeup painted on its face. Despite how I feel about monkeys, I felt really bad for that monkey.
We arrived in Agra about 1:30 p.m. and checked into our hotel. Aside from the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, there's not a heck of a lot going on in Agra—and the service industry reflects that. The service at our hotel was pretty poor and, in general, the restaurants reviews were lackluster. Samantha does all the bookings for this here adventure, so she went up to handle the check in while I handled the luggage ... and this is where we discovered that Indian men do not like to do business with women. With the exception of Rakesh (our driver), nearly every man we dealt with only wanted to deal with me. It would make them visibly uncomfortable when I told them to talk to my wife.
After we checked in to our two rooms (most of the hotels in India—at least in our price range—didn't have more than two single or one double bed), Rakesh took us to a nearby restaurant for lunch, then we met our guide, Mr. Sherma, who was hands-down our best guide during our time in India, and we all headed off toward the Agra Fort.
Although the Agra Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, had existed for many years (at least since the 11th century) before the arrival of the Mughal Empire, it had fallen into disrepair until the third Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great (the son of Humayun, whose tomb we had visited the day before) realized the strategic importance of Agra and had the fort rebuilt and fortified in 1573.
While Akbar did a lot of renovation, the Agra Fort didn't really shine until his grandson, Shah Jahan (the fifth Mughal Emperor and the same guy who commissioned the Jama Masjid that we visited the day before in Old Delhi) decided to renovate it further. Akbar was content to build things out of red sandstone he had quarried out of Rajasthan, but Shah Jahan was more into white marble. Like really into white marble—this is the gent who built the Taj Mahal (more on that later), which is constructed entirely out of white marble.
So Jahan tore down a lot of older red sandstone construction inside the Agra Fort to build his own buildings with white marble. So while the outside of the Agra Fort resembles the Red Fort in Delhi, inside its walls there are a lot of white marble buildings inlaid with intricately carved precious gems.
And here's where our story takes a darker turn. Aurangzeb, one of Jahan's younger sons, under the influence of his older sister, killed his two older brothers (ahead of him in the line of succession) and presented their heads to his father. Then he deposed Shah Jahan and took over the Mughal Empire, imprisoning his father in Muasamman Burj, a tower inside the Agra Fort.
From his luxurious prison, the former emperor had a constant, unobstructed view of his crowning achievement—the Taj Mahal, just two kilometers away. The Taj Mahal was where his widow (and mother of Aurangzeb) was buried—but again, more on this in a moment. And just to pile on the humiliation, the daughter who allegedly masterminded the whole takeover, fratricide, and imprisonment visited Shah Jahan every day until his death to taunt him with tales about how she was the one behind his downfall.
Now I'm not sure how exactly how true all that is. People have mentioned that Indian tour guides have been known to make things up. Historically, Aurangzeb did take over from his father and have a feud with at least one of his brothers, so who knows? In any case it makes for a great story.
After we left the Arga Fort, our guide was in a hurry because sunset was approaching. He was concerned that if we didn't move fast enough, the sun would set before we could enter the Taj Mahal. And if that happened, we wouldn't be able to see anything.
The Taj Mahal, another UNESCO World Heritage site, is a tomb built for one woman, Mumtaz Mahal, the third and favorite wife of Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor. She died giving birth to their 14th child, and he was so devastated he had the Taj Mahal built in her honor.
To see the Taj Mahal, one must travel 600 meters from the entrance. Of course you can walk, but you can also take an auto rickshaw or ride a camel. We were in the mood to walk, so we hoofed it up the street, dodging a legion of enterprising salesmen along the way. The price of admission for foreigners is 750 rupees (about $12 U.S.), and that comes with a bottle of water and a pair of booties to cover your shoes. Then we were split up, because there's a separate entrance for men and women. I don't know about the girls, but I had to go through an metal detector and my bag was searched. Camera tripods are expressly forbidden, and video cameras aren't allowed past a certain point, and they inspected my bag carefully looking for this contraband. I had neither, except for a smartphone and DSLR that both shot video, but they didn't seem to care about that.
The girls and I met back up just beyond the security checkpoint and walked through the impressive Darwaza-I-Rauza (Great Gate), which has 22 small domes on top of it, one for each year that it took to build the Taj Mahal. And after we passed through the arches of the Great Gate, we laid eyes on the Taj Majal, which was as incredible as it's supposed to be. Our only regret about the whole thing is that the reflecting pool was drained for cleaning when we were there.
It's a huge structure that's amazing for many reasons, but the most astounding feature of the place is the precise symmetry of it. The building looks identical no matter which side it's viewed from. And this symmetry extends beyond the Taj Mahal itself. On the west side there's a mosque. To balance this out, an identical building, known as a jawab, was built on the east side. Although this building has no real architectural purpose or meaning other than to add symmetry to the site, it is used as a guesthouse for important people.
Then we slipped on our protective booties and, along with hundreds of other visitors, went inside the Taj Mahal (where no photography is allowed, though many people took pictures and no one seemed to enforce the rule) to see the tomb proper. From what I understood, what tourists see is a replica of the two cenotaphs (one for Mumtaz Mahal and one for Shah Jahan); the real tomb is actually resting beneath the facsimile on display.
Apart from a single lantern hanging over the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal in the center of the main chamber, there's no artificial lighting inside the Taj Mahal. Only a little natural light makes its way into the chamber, so it's very dim inside. It was also very crowded as we walked around the central chamber, looking at the tomb and the inlaid precious gems that quite literally cover the interior walls. Even inside, these designs are symmetrical. The level of detail is astounding. There are also inlaid gems on the outside of the building, as well as numerous inscriptions and, my favorite feature, smooth pillars that are designed to look jagged.
When construction on the Taj Mahal was finally completed, Shah Jahan asked the architect if he could build another like it. The man, probably quite proud of his work, is said to have answered "Yes. In fact I could build an even grander one." So Shah Jahan cut off his hands. There's a lesson in that.
Sales Opportunity Number Two: Marble Inlaid with Precious Gems
As we walked back to the car, our guide asked us if we wanted to see how they cut the gems that made up the inlaid work of the Taj Mahal. That sounded interesting, and we had not yet figured out that this was code for "I'll be taking you to a place where they'll try hard to sell you something." So we said sure.
We were taken to a nearby shop where three gents were sitting out front going through the motions of cutting gems while a fourth explained to us that the three were direct descendents of the family that had cut the stones for the Taj Mahal and were keepers of the knowledge about the ancient process—especially the proprietary glue used to fasten the cut gems to the carved marble.
Then we went inside the shop where this fellow gave us some tea and proceeded to sell us on all the virtues of owning one of these pieces. This was more to our liking than the rugs from the day before, but at $750 to $1,000 for a white marble bowl with inlaid lapis lazuli, we were able to resist and managed to get out of the shop with our pocketbooks intact.
Agra is not known for its high cuisine, but Samantha, who can find a great restaurant in any city, had read about a place called Pinch of Spice that was supposed to be excellent, so we asked Rakesh to take us there. It turned out to be the second-best meal we'd had in India.
Then it was back to the hotel to our separate rooms and turned in for the night. We had another early morning the next day—we were heading off to Jaipur (with a few stops along the way).
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 2 (21 cumulative)
- Dead dogs by the roadside: 2
- Whooping cranes: 3
- Traffic accidents: 3
- Puppies: 2