Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 3: Agra)

Nov. 6, 2011 — Agra, and The Taj Mahal

Where the only horns in the streets that aren’t blasted every few moments are the ones on the cows.

Agra Street Scene

I was more impressed with the traffic in Agra and the massive Red Fort than I was with the Taj Mahal, but the title of this blog post would have been far less interesting if it had read, “Red Fort, Agra.”

“More impressed” probably isn’t the right term. I was impressed with the Taj Mahal: how could one not be impressed with a 186-foot-square mausoleum that is considered one of the seven wonders of the world, is made entirely from white marble with floral designs and arabesques inset with jasper, carnelian, emerald, crystal, jade and many other precious stones, is perfectly symmetrical in four directions in the Muslim style — even its four gardens subdivided into four and four again — and stands as a testimony to the greatest love in the world ever, from all accounts: that of the mighty Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his third wife Munoz Mahal. When she died during the birth of their fourteenth child, a still-born girl, the emperor went into such a terrible depression that he did not emerge from seclusion for seven days and when he did (according to our guide) he had “lost his height.” What a lovely way of expressing the effect his sorrow had on his physical presence!

The Taj Mahal

The queen had told him that if anything happened to her he should create something to commemorate her, and the Taj Mahal is the result. It is a truly astounding edifice, and if I had not seen Agra’s Red Fort earlier in the day, I would have been knocked flat. My biggest wonder, though, is what wives One and Two thought of all of the attention bestowed on wife Three: “What have you done for me lately, my Esteemed Husband?” they might have wondered — with some justification.

Queue at the Taj Mahal

When we were there, it was a Sunday during the holiday season, and there were thousands upon thousands of Indians there to see the Taj, mainly Hindu people.

We observed that the many fine qualities of Indians we have observed so far do not seem to include the ability to stand patiently in line (as, for example, Canadians and Brits have been raised to do). As we approached the main mausoleum in single file, the line ahead of us grew as flocks of Indians stepped into line ahead of us — despite the frantic disapproving whistles of security guards. We finally got in to the inner sanctum just after dark, saw the crypt by artificial light and made our way around by flashlight. (I did have the opportunity to go back the next morning before our bus for Jaipur but I declined. I needed coffee and a bit of quiet by then.)

Backflash: From Delhi to Agra

That morning we’d taken a six a.m train from Delhi to Agra, which meant we were up at 4:30, and as promised the trip by Indian train was an experience — although thankfully, we did not need to climb onto the roof or hang out the door… quite the contrary, in fact: a two course-breakfast was served on board and we were given the Sunday papers with which to amuse ourselves for the two-hour trip. The Sunday papers include the “matrimonials” (personals section) in which suitors advertise for prospective brides and grooms in the most flowery language they can think of, making what seemed to this skeptical outsider at least to be some doubtful claims to fortune and stature.

Gridlock, Agra style

We checked into our hotel in Agra, which was very safe, but plain and filthy. (Later in the day, exhausted and desperate for a shower, I realized there were no towels, so I called the desk and the towels were delivered by a man with an expectant look like an extended hand. But since our group had decided that we would all pitch in to cover tips at all the hotels throughout the trip and that the tour leader would pay them, and since I felt that towels were fairly basic, I just said, “The group is tipping.” He left, wearing an expression that said, “Oh well. I gave it my best shot.” That much achieved, I pulled off my clothes and turned on the water: nothing came out of the faucets. I put my clothes back on and called the desk. They sent someone up who magically turned the water on then expectantly waited for a tip. Sigh.)

Constructing a wall

I have come to trust few people in the “service industry” in India when it comes to money, and I leave the dickering to the tour guides and just don’t engage in conversation with the street vendors and beggars. We’re warned to make sure we’ve agreed to a price for travel before we enter a cab or a rickshaw, and not to pay until we’ve alighted at the end of the trip. I sure don’t begrudge anyone their fair share, or a bonus for extra service, and the prices are very cheap, and I understand that to many of these people we are simply rich foreigners with bottomless pockets — and that relative to them, we all are. But I tip what I am told is reasonable. (I am sure the situation is quite different for those with more expansive budgets: I’m talking “service industry” at a fairly basic level here.)

I also follow the instructions of our group leader not to give money to kids who ask for it (“We do not want the next generation to grow up to be beggars,” he said) or to take an elephant ride in Jaipur (“G Adventures does not believe the elephants are well treated”) or to admire the snake charmers, whose cobras are defanged and kept in baskets, which is also cruel. Our guide pointed out that there are excellent foundations and programs to which we can donate if we want to help the poor in India, especially the children, and if we felt we wanted to give money to poor women or the disabled in the street, that was up to us. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of opportunity to do that.

Agra's Red Fort

Almost immediately after our arrival in Agra, we headed out to the Red Fort which is magnificent and I will try to post some photos of it here as soon as I figure out how to get them off my iPad. (An iPad is a great thing to travel with, by the way. It’s light to carry and I haven’t even needed to buy a SIM card: we’ve had access to wireless internet here and there, and I supplement by using hotel computers and internet cafes to do the things the iPad can’t.)

The Red Fort

The Red Fort was built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, on the site of the ruins of a 2500-year old fortress, and it incorporates both Muslim and Hindu art and architectural styles — showing the deep roots of the respect for other religions in addition to one’s own that makes India so remarkable (even if the Mughals did steal everything in sight when they took over the territory — including untold wealth that included what later became known as the Koh-i-Noor diamond). The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been described as a “walled city,” and that is a good way to envision it. Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan extended the fortress even further, using marble which was his preference (he was the one who built the Taj Mahal) and which is much cooler than sandstone.

Every room is different, but all of them are enormous. There are passages with filigree stone screens from which the women watched proceedings in the more public areas (i.e., where the men were), extensive women’s quarters, vast open areas where the rulers heard petitions from the public and made decisions, rooms that were built to capture the coolness of the air and to encourage breezes, stone planes that created indoor water cascades and fountains (also intended to cool the air). Outside were massive gardens whose flowerbeds provided not only colour but also scent to be carried inside on the carefully captured breezes.

Our guide showed us where the musicians would have been posted in the middle of spacious courtyards and, there, one can feel the ambiance they must have experienced in those huge stone rooms with their pillars and carved arches (both Moslem and Hindu shapes), nooks and crannies; it is possible to imagine the perfumed breezes, the brilliant flower gardens, the curtains wafting against the pillars, the music. The excesses of both detail and scale of the Agra Fort are magnificent. There is even an enormous square right in the middle of the fort where the Mughal installed a great deep pool that he stocked with fish. Our guide showed us where the emperor would lean against a pillar and expansively cast off the balcony.

The son of Shah Jahan overthrew his father (in good old Mughal fashion) and allegedly locked him up in a section of his own wing of the Fort, where he lived for the last eight years of his life: the only concession to his lifetime achievements being a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance (now almost impossible to see from the Fort through the humidity and smog).

Traffic

The traffic in Agra was an eye-opener for me. It made me realize what terrible drivers we are in North America: we can’t even get down relatively empty roadways sporting lane markers, street signs and signal lights that other drivers actually respect, much less talk on a cellphone and smoke a cigarette at the same time. We’re wimps. Here, although they are certainly travelling at much lower speeds than the ones in North America, the confusion is something one can only sit back and admire.

There are trucks of every description imaginable in the streets, from tiny to large, full of people and goods and brightly painted to honor various Hindu deities and to speak to their fellow drivers (“Blow horn!” they urge, as though any other driver needed an encouragement.) There are auto rickshaws or tuk-tuks — so named because of the sound they make. There are bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, buses, camels, horse- and mule-drawn carriages, pedestrians and motorcycles, and they are all going wherever the hell the want to go, and they are all doing it at the same time with their horns blowing. I would not last five minutes as a driver in this traffic — and until I realized nobody seemed to be bumping into anyone else and began to just sit back and watch and marvel, I did not think I would last five minutes as a passenger, either. Sometimes your knees are so close to the rider’s of a motorcycle that they nearly touch — and it behooves you to keep your elbows and belongings well inside. Sometimes a bicycle comes across an intersecting road ahead of you going east-west as you go south-north and a collision seems inevitable, but your driver swerves, narrowly missing a pedestrian, a dog, a hugely horned cow and another tuk tuk, and suddenly all is well. I loved it.

So on Sunday, we travelled from Delhi to Agra, we saw the Red Fort, the Baby Taj (… look it up), and the Taj Mahal and somewhere in the middle of all that had a fabulous South Indian lunch. By the time most of us got back to the hotel, we were dead on our feet and the amount of dirt in the bedrooms no longer seemed to matter.

(See these and other photos from Agra, on Picasa.)

6 responses to “Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 3: Agra)

  1. Wonderful writing, I am vicariously enjoying this trip immensely. Keep up the good work.

  2. vivid. i can practically hear those horns, feel that humidity, see that saffron. don’t stop.

  3. Mary you are a terrific travel writer. Thank you for taking me with you. Incidentally when I was in Mumbai I gave money to two children and I was literally swarmed by children almost instantly. Sad.
    Larry

  4. Thank you all! The feedback is great!

  5. Hello Mary!
    I am an Indian. I found this entry through Reddit. Really liked it.
    I’ve never been to Agra myself but I can understand it could be quiet overwhelming to see undisciplined-traffic, like that.
    Also, I visit delhi 4 times a year and subway system still confuses me (and I know Hindi)… You got accustomed to that in a day. That’s an achievement right there.

    I hope you’ve had a great time here…
    Really liked your writing style.

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