A Great Time in Agra




And so after our first contact with the pain and suffering that the Indian Railway service can cause, we arrived in Agra. I wrote an entire post whining about this, but after meeting a charming Indian family on the train, I am resolved to focus on the good times. As we parted, they insisted on giving us Diwali gifts, leaving Sam and I feeling very moved, with our faith restored. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about India so far; it’s the small gestures and moments that make things like waiting in a train station for six hours worthwhile. Either that or it’s so crazy here, that you cling onto these fleeting moments to keep yourself sane.

I’ve had a few of these moments since arriving in Agra. Sam and I must be starting to get to grips with it here, as we made our first good decision to stay in Taj Ganj – a slightly quieter part of Agra with views of the Taj Mahal. I suppose the little moments I mentioned don’t really do justice to setting my eyes on the Taj Mahal for the first time, atop a rooftop eating banana pancakes for breakfast (I’m now absolutely addicted to these and the view). It’s paradoxically striking and yet seamlessly blends into the permanently hazy sky here, and I can hardly take my eyes off it (considering I wasn’t too bothered about seeing it before I came – being of the ‘if I can see it in pictures then I don’t need to see it in person’ school of thought).

Other little moments that have made an impression on me here include mine and Sam’s attempt at do-gooding by taking a rickshaw (a potentially very old man riding you around on his bike). It provides a livelihood for these men and protects the environment – and anything that doesn’t contribute to the choking fumes that fill the streets is fine by me. However, I immediately felt incredibly sick being driven around by a man with legs as thin as my arms, bandaged and far too old to be doing a job like this. We met hills, or should I say minute inclines, and his exertion became so much that Sam jumped off and pushed us along. At the end of this extended palaver (he insisted on waiting for us as we ate) we decided to offer him double what the journey was worth, which Sam pushed us for most of, only to find that the cheeky bugger had double this figure in mind. Lesson learnt; don’t use a driver that can’t physically make the journey, sad though it is.

Fatehpur Sikri and Sikandra

When we weren’t lazing on the rooftop restaurant of our hotel watching the world and monkeys go by, we crammed in a lot of sight-seeing in Agra. Most of these monuments were centred around the figure of Akbar the Great. Illogically, the first place we visited was where he was buried, and the second place was where he lived. Only after we had seen where he lived, did his grand burial place make sense.

The mausoleum in Sikandra (20 minutes from Agra) was set off a typical busy Indian highway. But as we passed through the towering gateway into the monument’s grounds, it felt as though we had entered a place that was frozen in time. The tranquility felt exactly as Akbar intended when he ordered the place to be built 400 years ago. The design was said to be disjointed, as Akbar died before it was finished and didn’t leave plans to how he wanted it finishing. However, this made the place more special in my opinion, as the story that comes from the imperfections makes the place and it’s history, more of a place of burial than just a monument.

It’s easy to get lost in such a surreal place, as the extensive gardens are almost as beautiful as the buildings themselves. As we passed through the manicured lawns filled with grazing deer, the distant hum of the nearby road melted away completely, a very rare and treasured feat in India.

Akbar’s vast palace at Fatehpur Sikri was much less peaceful than this. One of the main buildings was teeming with touts and tour-guide impersonators, so much so that you simply could not get a second to even look at the place. The palace, which you had to pay to get into, was much less crowded and the sprawling red sandstone structure, set into the hills, was certainly impressive and extensive. The women’s quarters at the rear, said to hold his many, many wives had the feel of a fortress or a prison (probably as intended). Despite it’s grandeur, it felt incredibly stifling. Even the part in which Akbar lived was somewhat oppressive and without the same character and beauty of Sikandra (maybe his tastes refined in his later years). All in all, it was simultaneously over-whelming and under-whelming, and I certainly know which I preferred. And it definitely wasn’t the worth the hour long, morbidly over-crowded bus journey there.


The Taj Mahal
Now we’d seen a fair bit of the Taj without paying to get in yet; we’d viewed it from the hotel roof most mornings, from the restaurant during the day, and even over the river as the sun set. I’m not leading up to saying that this was a fine substitute for going to see it, but I am saying that this somewhat sapped my excitement, as it definitely would have been best to have the initial ‘wow’ of seeing it up close before all of these other viewings.

We went to see it at sunrise, which i would definitely recommend, as it was pretty busy even at 6am. I hated the feeling that I was just one of those gawping ants, part of the football ground style hum that I’d surveyed from across the river two nights previously and it felt kind of silly trying to look at it whilst people were taking selfies with their iPads.

This aside, when we approached the main central building, there were only a few people there. Set against the misty river with the sun rising it looked truly magical. I was thankful of my decision to forgo the plastic shoe covers, as the sensation of the warm, smooth marble under my feet was something like shaking the hand of a celebrity. The detail up close was so intricate, it’s hard to understand how it could ever have been made by human hands. The place has a tragic beauty about it as the 22,000 craftsmen that built and slaved lovingly over the Taj had all of their 44.000 hands cut off, so they would never be able to produce anything to rival it.

However, my favourite view of the Taj was from our rooftop, so I fear I was spoiled too soon. True, I couldn’t feel the marble against my skin. True, I couldn’t eavesdrop on the expert tour guides telling of it’s history. And true, I couldn’t marvel at it’s size. But still, no one wants to be pushed and shoved in a crowd of people wearing blue plastic shoe covers or have the magnificence tarnished by seeing so many of these, floating discarded in the ornamental pools.


Resting in Rishikesh





After the mayhem of Delhi, we decided to head North to the refuge of the Himalayan foothills, a little place called Rishikesh. Now Rishikesh I had heard varied reviews of; words like “Butlins” and “touristy” were thrown around by our guidebook, and I admit, far from being apprehensive of this, I secretly craved a smoother ease into Indian life. And Rishikesh was exactly this.

We stayed in the truly breath-taking Lakshman Jhula, connected to Rishikesh by a monkey-guarded, springy footbridge over the Ganges. And these monkeys of questionable intent were just an introduction into this weird and wonderful place. Hundreds of Hindu pilgrims travel to Rishikesh daily, walking bare foot through the streets to the shrines and to bathe in the river Ganges. I myself was too nervous to take a dip, but was taken aback by how clear and inviting the turquoise waters were. Sam and I shared a calming moment as we sent burning flowers down this most sacred river. It hardly even mattered that mine washed into the rocks seconds later…

The peaceful moments continued with lunch atop a roof, which we were lucky enough to have to ourselves. Although it transpired the reason we had it to ourselves was because the place was over-run with those pesky monkeys, who were bold enough to snatch icecream from the hands of poor defenceless children. But fear not; we were accorded the special honour of our very own monkey- guard (or a teenage boy brandishing a stick).

Asides from the hazy summer days nestles in the safety of this hillside sanctuary, there is another force at work here; the Westerners.

On days were there are few pilgrims, there is probably one Westerner to each Indian person. It’s not hard to see why we flock to this beautiful paradise, but this has had quite a strange effect on the place. One can get too comfortable here. I glance over disdainfully at the next table ordering a pizza, only to find myself tucking into one the very next day.

You can barely walk a pace without glimpsing a Westerner wearing not only “authentic” Indian garments, bindis and Aladdin pants, but the self-satisfied air of one who has mastered Indian living and become at one with this vast country and it’s people. However, of this vast country all they have experienced is Western comforts. With a coffee shop at every corner -pizza, pasta and a vegan bakery – they have mastered nothing. The population of ageing American wannabe philanthropists and dread-locked hippies starts to leave a sickly taste in one’s mouth, as you can barely sit down for dinner without hearing people trying to out-zen one another or bragging about yoga expertise.

It’s a credit to the natural beauty of the place that it isn’t ruined by all of this. It’s certainly not the “authentic” India I was looking for, but I appreciated and enjoyed it nonetheless.


An overdose on Delhi (and it’s only been 2 days)

The journey from the airport was magical. And when I say magical, I mean it was magical how on a three-lane strip of road, five or even six cars would drive aside one another. And when I say drive aside one another, I mean dodge in and out of one another, fitting into spaces that didn’t even exist seconds before. All the while, the incessant and agitated beeping that slowly begins to lose all meaning. The beep could mean, “get out of the way old man on your bike,” “you can’t cross in front of me small child,” “I’m coming – get out of my way or I will knock your wing mirror off,” or the most common, ” I haven’t beeped in 5 seconds so I’d better beep again.”

So aside from the road situation, chaos ensues on the pavements (or lack of) too. The main bazaar is a bustling street of the obligatory beeping tuk-tuks and roadside vendors selling anything from fruit to children’s underwear. You can barely walk a metre without being greeted and persuaded into shops, restaurants and again tuk-tuks offering to take you to God knows where. A man without complete resolution and a firm plan will quickly find himself lost in this crazy city.

But the place has a certain charm, one that an inexperienced traveller such as myself can only glimpse – beautiful greenery and gardens in the most unlikely corners, and delicious food in interesting set-ups. To navigate one must have a will of stone, as the slightest smile could have you led down a side-street buying hand-made silk rugs or fake plane tickets to Kolkata. Neither of which has happened I add; I would have bought the silk rug voluntarily.

The people are hard to read – what meant to be a (very optimistic) 20 minute stroll to the railway station became an hour long onslaught of people telling us we couldn’t buy tickets at the station, or that the ticket office was closed due to some religious festival and we had better follow them quickly to some alternative tourist office… We returned to the hotel tail between legs and empty handed. Lesson learnt – do not speak to anyone at New Delhi railway station. In fact do not go to New Delhi railway station full stop. The over-priced tickets from the tourism guy in the hotel start to hold a new appeal. In the kindest possible way and said with the fondest of smiles – get us out of Delhi!