Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Travel Blog

Travel Blog

Agra and the world’s most famous tomb


Fatehpur Sikri is only 37 km away from Agra, so we thought the bus ride would be no problem. Far from that! We had to take a minibus, there was no other means of public transport available. Our luggage was safely stored in a separate compartment and when we got in and took our seats, we knew why: there was absolutely no space inside. Mind you, the seats were so small that even Klaudia’s knees touched the back of the front seat, and she really isn’t very tall. Stephan called it a shrunk bus and was wondering whether we were not riding on a recycled school bus. This trip was the most uncomfortable one so far, the streets inside Agra were so full of potholes that you could no longer see any tar and are a real shame for a city housing the world’s most famous building (according to our guidebook). Already on our way from Barathpur we had got a foretaste of this driving from the railway station to the bus stand, had disliked it then and did not like it any better today. We wanted to stay in a hotel close to the Taj Mahal and really got a room there, how exciting to sleep in the vicinity of such a famous monument, furthermore at reasonable prices. What attracted us most at the place was its lush garden, where you could sit until late in the evening if the mosquitoes did not eat you up before. One day, we met a French-speaking family there, it turned out she was French, he was Tunisian and they were living with their two kids in Cairo. We sat with them and had a long interesting chat, it is so nice to meet people of different walks of life when travelling!

The Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal complex Full Image
On both sides of the tomb you can see two identical red sandstone buildings, one of them a mosque, the other a replica used for symmetry reasons as well as the Red Fort lie by the Yamuna River, and in our typical European point of view we thought the surrounding districts to be posh, but this is India and it was not a residential area at all. Close to the Taj there was a commercial street, very busy and crowded, driving there in an auto-rickshaw was a nightmarish experience, walking even more so. Although we had arrived early in the afternoon, we did not visit the Taj Mahal the same afternoon because the sky was whitish and Stephan’s honour as a photographer would not allow the famous Taj in such a sky. Klaudia needed a rest because she was still weak and Stephan went to explore the surroundings. He walked alongside the eastern side and spotted many stone cutters, who were busy repairing the outer wall. Unlike in the South they did not use any machines for the initial stages, one could watch the guys chiselling away chunks of red sandstone until the slates were approximately flat. Close to the river there was a gate with a turnstile leading down to the river and a small temple with several steps leading into the water, a typical ghat where people would gather for bathing and washing the laundry. From there you already had a nice view of the backside of the Taj Mahal and following a small footpath it got even better as you approached the building. The view from there was stunning but the filth was repelling. The riverbank by the Taj Mahal was unbelievably dirty, a real shame for the city of Agra, where foreign tourists leave so much money every day. You pay the usual 250 Rupees (ca. EUR 5) which go to the Archaeological Survey of India and they really do good work with
Corner building Full Image
All buildings around the tomb as well as the outer wall are of red sdandstonethe money, the monuments are clean and the parks and gardens are nicely kept. You have to pay additional 500 Rupees as a toll tax, which go to the city of Agra and they definitely do not use the money in an appropriate way. With the sum foreign tourists pay every day, they could easily employ several guys to clean the riverside.

Next day we were up early and went to see the Taj Mahal, we hoped for blue sky so that the photographer could take good pictures. Stephan is perfectly aware of our readers’ expectations and he was quite stressed to live up to these. In spite of the very early hour there were already many visitors around and it was practically impossible to photograph the Taj Mahal without people around or with just the person you wanted to. The beauty of the complex does not only stem from the stunning building of white marble with intricate stone inlays, but is also due to the fine Muslim garden. In the Koran the garden is repeatedly seen as a symbol of paradise, the old Persian word pairidaeza even means garden. Muslims venerate water, without which plants will not grow, this is the more understandable as Islam was born in the deserts of Arabia. The “charbagh” (= quartered garden) is typically Moghul, its idea originates in the four main rivers of paradise (water, milk, wine and purified honey). This concept was also applied in the Taj Mahal, the charbagh is separated by watercourses originating from the central pool and the quarters are furthermore divided into 16 flowerbeds, making a total of 64. It is well kept nowadays but is nothing compared with its former glory. Due to the water shortage, most of the channels remain dry and offer a rather sordid sight.
Detail of corner building Full Image
Beautiful white marble linings as well as lovely stone carvings and a fine jali screenThe Taj Mahal is definitely a sublime building, but we have to admit that we were not as awe-struck by it as many other visitors. Maybe this due to the fact that we have seen so many wonderful buildings in India before or maybe our expectations were just too high.

We still had plenty of time that day as we had started very early and took a bicycle-rickshaw to Agra's second famous monument, the Red Fort. It is already visible from the Taj Mahal, you can get a glimpse of the massive walls of red sandstone. There are solid fortifications with a heavy exterior gate and a still working draw-bridge, it must not have been easy to conquer it. If an aggressor managed to get through the outer gate they would have to make a right hand turn and thereby expose their flank to the defenders on the inner wall. The inner gate is a good example for the fort's defensive power and is flanked by two massive towers, but has been attractively decorated with tiles. The Red Fort covers a huge area and is endowed with the known buildings, like Hall of Public and Private Audience, you can see an interesting throne as well and a small private mosque, several towers in the bastion can be visited, in one of them the emperor even had his bedroom due to the coolness, in one of the courts we found a very nice garden with interesting display of water. The buildings were in a very good state and the stone carvings and inlay works absolutely amazing. We liked it much better than the Red Fort in Delhi, if you are short of time you can skip the Delhi monument, but do not miss the one in Agra!

It was still early afternoon, the
Main building Full Image
The first glimpse you get of the Taj Mahal is incomplete, its grandeur is only slowly revealedweather was wonderful (nice blue sky for top pictures) and we were feeling good, so we hired a taxi for the last of Agra's three great monuments, the I'timad-ud-Daulah, sometimes called "Baby Taj". The rickshaw took us to the east bank of the river, through horrible streets, once we passed a bridge so full of potholes (!) that we could hardly advance. We were glad to get off the rickshaw and to walk again, this way we felt much safer. This mausoleum is the least visited monument in Agra, though it does not deserve this nor the slightly pejorative sobriquet. It set a startling precedent as the first Moghul building (1678) to be faced with white marble inlaid with contrasting stones. Unlike the Taj, it is small, intimate and has a gentle serenity. Repair works constantly go on and we watched the inlay work being performed, really fascinating. We spent quite a long time in the nice garden and admired the exquisite stone inlays or watched kites feeding their chicks in the nest. When you are in Agra, please do not miss it, it left a strong impression on us.

We had visited three impressive monuments that day, but we were still not tired of culture and Klaudia was again feeling fit. She was tired, though, and Stephan had to convince her to make another stop. He had in mind a romantic walk on the riverbank at the backside of the Taj Mahal. We arrived there without any problems and were there almost on our own. The light was perfect and finally Stephan could take the fabulous pictures everybody awaited. It was really marvellous though it was not as romantic as Klaudia had hoped, the riverside was too dirty and we were disturbed by a boy who absolutely wanted us to
Tomb with minarets Full Image
In the next step, the minarets become visibletake a picture of the Taj Mahal with a camel, what a strange idea. Still we were glad to have seen the Taj Mahal from this side, too.

So a long day ended, once again we were exhausted but we had seen beautiful buildings and were again ready for new adventures after Klaudia's illness. Agra's monuments are fantastic but we disliked the industrial, chaotic and dirty city lacking of atmosphere. Next day, we headed towards Khajuraho with several stops in between, the first one at Gwalior.

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