Thursday, 3 November 2011

Day 2 - Agra and the Taj Mahal.

We were up at 5am local (i.e. 12.30am UK!) for a 6am departure to Agra & the Taj Mahal, with a 4 hour coach journey. Usually this section is done on the train, but this week is Diwali, and a time of chaos on the railways! Junaid was concerned that the train might be several hours late, so we were given a coach instead.

Driving out of Delhi, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed at the incredible poverty by western standards. It seems like none but the very grandest of houses is not partially ruined, filthy and falling apart. Many sections of waste ground have families camping, with shelters made from sticks and plastic bags or tarpaulins. Everything is covered in beige dust, and we saw many cows and in some places, Monkeys, roaming. Men stand with their backs to the road, urinating in public.

Further out from Delhi there are better buildings, and although the squalor is still intense, it feels slightly less crushing. All villages seem built on dust/dirt, and people also appear to throw their rubbish beside the road, where it was often seen smouldering in heaps. There were lakes and rivers and frequently pools of stagnant water, dark and foetid looking.

We have been given packed breakfasts by the hotel including salad sandwiches. We do not eat these! My pack was egg-free by request. In a stroke of irony, the apparently ‘lemon’ flavoured’ crisps in my pack taste intensely of eggs, thanks to the sulphur dioxide preservative used.

Many people are on the road, and at this point it’s worth mentioning the traffic. There are apparently rules for road use, and I suspect the first of them is “don’t get caught”.

Traffic is worse than chaotic, although Junaid assured us that they have few bad accidents because generally people travel slowly, even though or perhaps because the roads are so full. It is astonishing how pedal rickshaws & scooters, motorcycles, cars coaches and trucks all seem to want the same space, yet seldom collide hard. Almost all vehicles have some damage, and it’s just that driving under these conditions, some collisions are inevitable.

One is also required to use the horn before overtaking to ensure the other driver knows you’re coming. In a city as crowded as Delhi the result makes Rome or Paris seem peaceful. Our Seikh driver has a 2 tone horn, for which the word ‘blast’ is a good description.

If we though that whole families using scooters was scary in Thailand, here is worse. The Thais normally rode in line, front to back. Here, women are in saris, and almost always sit side-saddle with an arm around their husband to keep them on. If they have a baby then it is sat on the woman’s lap with her other arm around the child. An older child would stand in the footwell, holding on to the middle of the handlebars. The most we ever saw was 6 young adults on a single scooter.

We felt sorry for the rickshaw drivers, usually slender men and mostly short too. Many of them are clearly very poor indeed, and in the early afternoon we frequently saw them asleep on their rickshaws, stretched out in their stained and worn clothes. You know people are poor here when they can no longer afford to pretend they are well off.

Everyone seems on the move, for Diwali. Every tuk-tuk is full to bursting, there are people sitting on top of busses, filling the back of trucks, pedalling, walking and in some cases, standing beside the road with pink and yellow floral pattern suitcases in shiny plastic, clearly waiting for a lift. On the way to Agra we pass a place described as BS Elementary School.

We arrive in Agra at a more ‘international’ hotel – Yamuna View.

The hotel is ‘in the middle of nowhere’ in the centre of Agra. India seems like America, in that there are few pavements or parts of the road set aside for walking and everything is completely orderless. Pedal rickshaws were everywhere, the drivers desperate to earn money, and as we discovered when trying to actually go for a walk, you cannot prevent them pestering and demanding that you ride with them. We really wanted to get out and stretch our legs in the time before lunch, but after about 100 yards had acquired a rickshaw driver that followed us around in a circle for the entire block, not letting us go until we re-entered the hotel grounds. It makes me wonder how people manage if they just come for themselves, and not with a tour company.

So we were collected in our coach, and taken to the fort at Agra. Basically just a big castle, it’s constructed from a dark red sandstone, with gates that would look in keeping with Warwick castle, double moats once apparently containing crocodiles and lions and an entrance that turns 90 degrees between one gate and the next, providing a courtyard in which enemy soldiers could be trapped.

Our guide here was a young man called Ibrahim, who looks as John Lennon might have done if he’d been born in Agra instead of Liverpool. He, like Junaid, is a moslem, and he carried one of their fine lace skull caps in his back pocket.

Agra fort isn’t really old – 1600 something – but I got the impression that nothing lasts long in India. large sections inside the fort are still in use by the military but the palace buildings are still open for tourists. The fort and the Taj Mahal were built by Moghuls: Moslems from Uzbekistan arriving via Afghanistan, rather than Indians, and the architecture is more Persian & Arab influenced than Indian, with Koranic verses inscribed. A lot of the decoration wouldn’t have looked to out of place in English buildings of the period, and for all the spectacular size and strength of the fortress, it is a little disappointing. The one exception was a section of the palace built for a Indian princess who married one of the Moghul emperors, and this part was richly decorated and much more in the style one would expect for an Indian palace.

On to the Taj Mahal. The plan was that by visiting a bit later we’d see the Taj at sunset, glowing pink in the changing light.

This building has been presented to us by everyone we know who’s seen it as being incredibly beautiful, and the guide described it as the most beautiful building in the world (as well as bigging up the technology used in the design). It is approached by electric or LPG powered vehicles – no petrol or diesel powered vehicles are permitted close to it. Then one has to go through checks that first segregate men and higher class persons from women – lower class persons and Indian women – lowest class persons: there were metal railings that took each class through to separate metal detectors, screened off from each other.

After the screening we were admitted through a large ornate stone gate. There are a total of 3 such gates, each leading to a long footpath between gardens, and the footpaths meet at a crossroads, with the 4th path from the cross taking the walker through another and much larger gate constructed of red sandstone and white marble. Through this gate lay the way to the Taj Mahal.

Earlier in these descriptions I mentioned the smoky, misty air. The atmosphere on the day of our visit was very misty indeed, and as a consequence, the Taj appeared as grey upon grey – very far from the sparkling white structure normally shown against a blue sky. From the entry gate there were gardens and footpaths right and left, with a long, slender section of water running all the way up to the building, broken by a square raised marble platform about half way along. In front of the Taj there is a raised courtyard with steps taking visitors up from the garden level, and from the courtyard a second set of hidden steps taking people to a smaller balcony courtyard and entrance to the mausoleum itself.

The structure itself is impressive and pleasing to the eye. Maybe my view has been slightly prejudiced by everything we’d heard, by the poor weather and because we were also tired at the end of a long and jet-lagged day. It was very large, true, and certainly impressive. Yet somehow it was not the place of amazing beauty that I was quite fully expecting, not quite having the clean smooth lines of elegant simplicity, nor the incredible depth of fine detail that a major Thai temple usually has. Once again there were echos of classic English architecture, but given a Persian spin on an American scale.

In order to enter the upper courtyard and mausoleum it is necessary to remove shoes or wear overshoes, and we chose the latter. We ascended and then made our way inside where we were quickly whipped through a few dark rooms made of marble before being ushered outside again. Good, but not amazing. Chris and I both wonder if we’ve become spoiled by all the wonderful things we’ve seen: the Duomo in Florence is more striking as a structure, the coliseum in Rome more amazing for it’s construction. However compared to all the other buildings we’ve been exposed to thus far in India, the Taj is certainly the most appealing visually.

After our whistle-stop tour of the interior we returned to the gardens. Walking up the opposite side of the long ornamental pond, with the breeze blowing gently across from our right we caught the sweet scent of frangipan trees that were blooming in the gardens. India is full of constantly changing smells, and so often it seems that there have been attempts to adjust the aroma to please rulers, whether by planting strongly fragrant flowers or using rose water in various places.

We returned to the gate through which we entered and regrouped while the sun continued to set. As promised, the Taj did become a gentle shade of pinkish grey against an orange-pink misty grey sky, but without substantial tweaking, our photographs are unlikely to reflect this. As darkness fell the guards blew whistles to signal that visiting time was over: people streamed back from the Taj in a great throng and we fought our way back through the hawkers to our coach.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped by a workshop reputedly operated by some of the same families that were involved in construction & inlay on the Taj. Everything is quite hand-crafted, and the inlays are to a very high quality (if Gibson guitars could employ these guys then their days of shoddy inlay work would be over). They sell everything from place-mats at about £20 to tabletops at thousands of pounds, based on how many days labour to relieve the marble, shape the inlays and the value of the stones used. Chris bought a small ‘coaster’ type white marble platter for about £29 while others spent more. Their stuff was very good, but we don’t do nic-nacs.

Wednesday night was Diwali night.

We ate dinner at an open air restaurant, obviously designed to cater to tourists but with some Indians too. I seem to have been out-matched by Chris on menu choices, where she has consistently picked the ‘best’ dinners, but tonight was good, regardless. After my lunch-time experience of Rogan E Gosht (mutton was almost entirely fat, with a small amount of bone) I had chicken Bodami, which was like a korma but more spicy.

After the meal was over, our waiters brought plates of Indian style sweets (mostly based on semolina and sugar syrup, sometimes with pistachios) and then spontaneously set off a firework display less than 20 meters from where we sat.


Back in the hotel, and at times it was not possible to hear a break in the sound of explosions, so many and frequently did they come. Even after 11pm there was a continuous racket with the celebrations going on. The Indians do like their bangs and bright flashes, and really go to town. Hopefully sleep will happen fairly soon.

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