Sunday, October 14, 2012

Exploring Agra

As promised, the car turned up at 6:30am at my hotel and I was pleased to see quite a new Tata Indigo and driver (named Sonul) waiting for me. Sonul was a cheery chap with reasonable English, and explained that another Spanish guy had paid to come along to Agra. We went to his hotel but waited for over an hour and a half, calling his mobile and asking the staff to check on his room, but he never turned up. So Sonul and I eventually set off South through the suburbs of Delhi and onto the main road while listening to the hiphop tunes of 'Yo Y Honey Singh'... I learnt a lot about Indian music and also culture on that trip. All very interesting especially the family attitudes etc - Sonul works 7 days a week just so that his only son can have a good education when he grows up (he's just 5). But his son isn't lonely because their family lives in a very extended family, with lots of other children (cousins) for company.

At the border to Uttar Pradesh, we stopped for Sonul to pay the tax. In front we could see another tourist car already being hassled by the tat-sellers and monkey- and snake- charmers who then descended on my car. But Sonul had warned me not to open the windows to them - keen to obey that command, I just shouted 'no thankyou' at them through the window. I'd fended off tat-sellers in the past but none so determined as these!

Shortly afterwards, we stopped for brunch at a touristy restaurant at about the half way point of Delhi and Agra (about 200km between them). A huge and expensive lunch later(about £15), taking over an hour and a half, I rejoined Sonul just as he was about to start looking for me! We had only started driving for about 5 minutes when we came across a car accident, involving another tourist car. A car in front of them had suddenly braked very heavily to avoid a massive pothole and their driver had ended up rear-ending the other car. It was really just a fender-bender but the presence of large amounts of green fluid seemed to spell the end of that particular car's journey. Naturally, a huge crowd formed and my driver stopped to join the discussion. However, my driver could offer something that the others couldn't, and that was an empty car with free seats to Agra.

So with that, I was joined by Dave and Nora, a couple from Ireland (Dublin) and Northern Ireland (Derry) who are currently living in Edinburgh and celebrating their honeymoon in India! But they didn't seem the least bit annoyed to have to share the journey to Agra with yours truly, in fact they were quite relieved to be still going!

We passed a few sights en route, including the Raj Mahal (still under construction, and looking suspiciously like a casino), but mostly just flat farmland and the odd cafe. We also passed another 'accident', this time two lorries who happened to have punctures at the same location and hence blocking the road completely. We had to drive contraflow on the other side of the road to avoid this - but this was a rather ad-hoc arrangement!


Eventually we arrived at Agra, quite clearly a city built up around one major tourist attraction, based on the number of photos and posters we saw showing the Taj. We were then passed on to our guide, called Amar (or something similar) who took us towards the Taj itself through one of the parks which also offered camel taxis. Clearly, judging by the driver's laid-back position (actually reading a book), camels don't need much driving!!

After buying a ticket after all (only 750Rp, £8), we made our way through the West Gate and into the main courtyard. Now here, Amar started his exceptional guided tour, but rather than repeat everything he said, I will just give you a photograph tour of what I thought were the most impressive sites:

This is the main gateway to the Palace and a lovely mix of white marble and red sandstone (which is also the same material as all the walls surrounding the compound - it's quite to build with and easy to replace).

Up close, you can admire the incredible inlay which makes up the Arabic script (part of the Qu'ran) around the whole gate. You also get your first glimpse of the Taj Mahal itself...


...which when it reveals itself, is absolutely stunning! It is more white and more beautiful and more intricate than I could possibly imagine. People might say that knowing what it looks like in advance just spoils the experience. I would fully disagree - seeing it for real makes you realise that it is far more huge and more intricate than you imagined. And there is the joy of seeing for your own eyes what you have seen in photos for your whole life. And this is one of my own photos too - not a stock photo, see the dark splodge in the top left corner?!

But of course you can't see a beautiful mausoleum like this without taking some joke shots. Here are Amar, me and Dave doing the Bollywood pose, and me picking up the Taj (it's not so big after all).


In order to explore the interior, we had to remove our shoes (after all it is a mausoleum) and we went inside to see the tombs of Shah Jahan and his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, for whom it was built after she died in childbirth after giving him 14 children in 19 years. He then spent another 22 years building this monument to her, and of course part of the captivation of the building is the very romantic story!

Inside were some beautiful tombs and, all around, decorations of flowers and scripts inlaid into the white marble in the most exquisite and fine patterns. Amar told us how all the different stones which made up the flowers came from countries as far away as Belgium, China and South Africa, showing how no cost was spared! The marble itself came from a town 300km away and thousands of elephants and camels were conscripted to move it to Agra for the building. But Shah Jahan was a much-loved king so apparently his subjects didn't mind him spending this much tax money on his wife's tomb! Also the 4 minarets surrounding the main mausoleum are actually on a 3 degree tilt away from it - just in case there is an earthquake, they will topple away from the main structure! Impressive engineering for 1655.

We also learnt that the Taj is actually a square building, looking identical from each side. I was blown away by the amazing contrast between beauty on the grand scale and intricacy on the small scale - no other building or work of art I have ever been to is able to satisfy both the macro and the micro scales of perfection.

Alas, even here the westerners cannot avoid having their photos taken! Nora was taken in by this group of Indian ladies...

Looking back towards the main Entrance Gate.

After we had had our fill of the Taj, which actually took quite a few hours while Amar answered all our many questions, he took us back to Sonul and his car and then we found ourselves at a marble workshop, learning for ourselves how the inlay is made. Yes it was a fascinating experience but we all knew what was coming next - being led through the gift shop while being subjected to the 'hard sell' of coffee tables, chess sets and tat-boxes which we were very interested and completely uninterested in!

We then drove quickly through the ancient streets of Agra....

...trying to get to see the Taj at sunset. Sonul really started to speed here, and we had to ask him to slow down after he nearly knocked a kid off his bicycle! But Sonul had been a fantastic driver up to that point so all was forgiven. And we could see why he was rushing, because we got to Sunset Point on the other side of the rive just a little bit too late to see the Taj glow through its full range of colours. D'oh! Why did we spend so much time in the marble shop! But nonetheless we can still say that we saw that Taj at Sunset, and arguably that's what matters more :-)

So we then started the 5 hour drive back to Delhi. Sonul was a star, driving through the night, and we stopped off at a sweet store to grab some treats for his son (which he didn't even let us buy for him!)  and for us to try. I tried napping in the car but the frequent swerves and sharp braking and horn use which is just normal driving in India meant that I couldn't really settle!!

We got back to our hotels just after midnight and said farewell to first Dave and Nora, and then to Sonul, who had earned himself a healthy tip. He had been up and driving for about 16 hours and never complained, probably to do the same again tomorrow, and was kind enough to give Dave and Nora a free ride to and from Agra, of course though he will come to some arrangement with their original driver. Was it worth the extra money? Definitely! So much more excitement, and comfort, than the train (might otherwise have had) - and most importantly, a guarantee that I would get to see the monument I have always wanted to. Nice to meet these other people as well, and of course without their company, my day would have been quite a lot more boring...
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