Tuesday, November 25, 2008
We got up at 4:45am to go to the train station to take the train to the City of Agra. The train ride is a little over 2 hours long. When we arrived at the Delhi train station it was like a trip back to the time of Rudyard Kipling. There was a mass of humanity, sleeping on the floor or sitting in all kinds of small groups. I don’t think we ever would have found our train with out the aid of our guides. The guides are very specialized. At every train station or airport we are met by a guide whose only job is to make sure we and our luggage get on or off the train/plane and walks us to our car. Then his job with us is over and he turns us over to another guide to show us around.
Agra is home to the Taj Mahal. NOTHING can prepare you for the Taj. No picture, no description, no viewing in movie, no reading about it in a book (and we have done all 4!). There is lots of security. No vehicle can come with in 1 kilometer of it. You are dropped off and get into little electric cars that drive you to the entrance of the grounds. There is no view of the Taj as you approach. After being dropped off by the electric cars you walk into the grounds. Eventually there is a gate and when you pass through you see the Taj in the distance. The Indian Government has restored the Taj to a pristine state. It is huge and majestic. It is gleaming white. There is no graffiti anywhere. There is no litter anywhere. It is a magical building. It is set on the banks of a river and there are no other buildings in your view to spoil the setting. There are some hawkers and beggars before you enter the grounds, but not an overwhelming number.
We were all simply blown away by the building, the grounds and of course the tragic love story that accounted for the Taj. For those of you that don’t know, the Mugal King Shaw Jahan fell deeply in love with a princess Mumtaz Mahal. They were married and they had 14 children. He was obsessed with her, and when she eventually died he built this monument to their love. Before it was completed his son overthrew him and he was kept prisoner in the mammoth Agra fort where he could watch the construction of the Taj. They are both entombed there. The walls of the Taj are inlayed with precious stones. It was a wonderful experience and it far exceeded anything that we expected.
We then were driven to a studio where they make marble tables and other inlayed marble objects in a similar fashion to the Taj. As I we walked in and I saw dollar signs in our guides eyes (I am sure he gets a commission) I said to myself “No way are we buying anything”. I was wrong!
After a good Indian lunch we went to visit the Agra Fort. It is a giant castle like fortress. Several times we have seen the famous Indian movie Mugal-E-Azim set in the time of the ruler Akbar at the fort. There is a famous scene in the movie where there is a dance in a mirrored room. We had assumed the room was created from the directors imagination (“Great place for a dance number”). The room really exists! We got to see it! We had also read a great (and erotic) book simply called “Taj” about the King and Queen and there relationship (think Burton and Taylor). In the book the imprisoned King Shaw Jahan looks out across the river and watches the construction of the Taj as a memorial to his late wife. It was amazing to be in the real Fort, in his room, and see these views, that were so vividly described in the book. He wasn’t restricted to a cell. It was more like he was under house arrest, and couldn’t leave the fort, and he had no authority.
We then drove through typical Indian dirty congested streets (that we find fascinating) to the Baby Taj. I had never heard of this place before. As the name implies it is much smaller than the Taj but built in a similar fashion. It was built before the Taj, and you can see how the architecture evolved.
We then drove to a spot across the river, where we could see the Taj reflected in the river at sunset. Nearby a cremation was taking place, and we could smell the funeral pyre and hear the chants.
We then drove across the most narrow congested bridge I have ever been on (it seemed to take forever – but it was amazing to see the traffic, to a very posh hotel for lots of drinks. Our train was scheduled to leave a little after 8pm. As we awaited the train, I noticed a family of rats on the train platform, that would appear and eat some crumbs on the floor of the train station that scoot away only to reappear. Unbelievably we were sort of fascinated by the rats and watched them. Only in India! From the Taj Mahal to rats and we loved it all. We arrived back at our hotel at 11:30 and skipped dinner and fell fast asleep. It was a fabulous day!