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.