The six of us set off early around 7.00am from Delhi to try and avoid the manic traffic as best we could. Aad (Art) and Mike set off at their own pace and would catch up at our Home Stay. The 4×4 went in convoy with the ANIMAL. We had the pleasure of seeing the sunrise over India…..despite the dense pollution haze everywhere…..surprisingly there was still quite a lot of traffic on the road even at the early hour. We had about 6 or 7 toll booths to go through and this took a little time to get through. We managed to work out how to pay for our trip and that we just had to show the receipt at subsequent toll booths – initially we thought we might have to pay at each station.
Whenever we had to stop and wait the ANIMAL caused great interest from locals and a few people wanted us to stay for photos etc…..but we had to keep up with our convoy…. so where we could we obliged but when we had to go….we had to go. At one point we found ourselves engulfed by about 40 motorbikes…..very cool…..people waving, giving the thumbs up etc. A way further down we had a sports bike rider try to get us to pull over on the expressway for photos….but we had to keep up with the 4×4 ahead as Claire and Emiel were relying on our GPS when we got to Agra …so we couldn’t let them down……and let’s face it pulling up on an expressway is not safe! We later got a bit of a telling off by email from the rider concerned (he must have got our address from our stickers on the panniers) but hey you can’t please everyone all the time. I think people forget that although they are just one person and its just one photo…..that we have a whole day of it and we can’t just stop our own schedule to suit a photo that they want….nor will we do something that is dangerous like stopping unnecessarily on an expressway. So sorry to disappoint….we are friendly and try to accommodate where we can…..but that’s just life.
We had a little bit of trouble navigating through to our Indian Home Stay – Sri Radha Krishna Kunj 73 Sector 2 Vibhav Nagar, Agra and a one point the GPS took us into some very narrow streets, where we were completely surrounded by locals – literally about 8 deep…..I was so worried that Vince may run over a child as they kept crowding in and when we were riding they would run along side the bike shouting excitedly. The 4×4 got some “local help” to end up reversed into an open sewer…..not much fun….but thankfully what they thought was tyre tred falling off was just a black plastic bag stuck to the wheel…Phew! In another attempt to find our accommodation, we found ourselves only about 500m from away….but we could not find it. Eventually a helpful Tuk Tuk driver let us follow him (for 200INR) and led us to the right place….where we were welcomed with open arms by our Hindu hosts, Anil and his wife (Sunjay?).
On 3rd Oct, I booked a tour for Vince and I (the others didn’t want to come due to expense)….this time checking that the details advertised were indeed accurate. It wasn’t cheap (4800INR each) but that included the driver, parking, fuel, car hire, Guide, entrance fees (750INR for Taj most other places 250INR or 300INR if you go on the same day) and lunch…..so we were ok with that. We got collected at 6.00am to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal. Vince had been moved when he first saw it alone a few years ago and was eager to share it with me on our honeymoon…….a very special day and a dream come true for us both. The line was very long….and basically 4 lines, 2 women and 2 men. The men’s line moved exceedingly fast and I saw Marino (one of the Italian 4×4 drivers from Pakistan) pass me….along with Emiel, Aad (Art) and Mike…. who all came long after me. The other line was for local women and it moved slower than both men’s lines but also much faster than the foreigner women’s line I was in…….always good to know your place! I waited in the heat and confined space for at least 50min (I didn’t start timing straight away) but had the opportunity to watch the antics of the monkeys who entertained us by running up and down the tarpaulin awning above our heads.
Vince and our Guide, Fazian (23yrs), had a long wait inside for me…..but eventually I got to security and once the Guard realised that my lip balm was not a lighter…I was finally reunited. I have to admit the wait was so worth it…..it was quite an emotional moment for me seeing the Taj Mahal for the very first time….even if we had missed the sunrise due to my delay…the peace and tranquility was evident despite the massive crows of people. Our Guide was very informative and we had a photo taken on the famous seat where Princess Diana sat for that iconic photo.
Shahabuddin Muhammad Shah Jahan (5 January 1592 – 22 January 1666), also called Emperor Shah Jahan (r.1628-58) built the Taj Mahal in memory of his favourite and third wife, Arjumand Banu Begum (also called Queen Mumtaz Mahal) upon her death in 1631. Constructed of brick and faced in India’s finest marble, quarried at Makrana near Jodhpur, it took 12 years to build involving 20,000 craftsmen from all over Asia. No slaves were used to build it as the Emperor Shah Jahan wanted only love in each piece. The tomb and other buildings are set around a garden divided into four by raised walkways with central water channels. The domed white marble mausoleum stands on a plinth with tapering outward tilted minarets on each corner. There is a high recessed arch or ‘pishtaq’ at the centre of each of the building’s four facades; each central niche is flanked by small double arches. It’s harmonious and symmetrical proportions and high quality of its craftsmanship have made the Taj Mahal one of the most famous and most photographed buildings in the world. It was truly breathtakingly beautiful to behold.
Fazian explained all about the symmetry and the meanings for the inlay designs, such as the double hearts in the actual tomb. He also explained that what we were seeing was really a copy of the tombs, the real ones are underneath in a lower chamber and in fact the bodies are buried in graves below that. The actual tomb is only opened once a year. He said that “Taj” means pearl facing the sky and it is made entirely of translucent white marble that changes colour in different light. Its walls are decorated with exquisite pietra dura (stone inlay) work…..this involves many small pieces of gemstones such as carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise and malachite (and others I can’t remember) arranged in complex floral designs hand set into the marble…Fazian explained that the gems come from 7 different countries (but I can’t remember which). We saw the foundations of the Black Taj Mahal across the river….white being the purity and love and black being the sadness and dispair that followed the death of his wife. He was Muslim and she was his third wife, but the only one he married for love, the others were for political advantage. She bore him 14 children in 18 years of marriage…..but only 6 survived, 4 boys and 2 girls. One of the boys killed his 3 brothers and imprisoned his father…..not very nice! Fazian told us that linage goes Emperor Akbar (3rd Mughal Emperor), Emperor Jahangir (4th Mughal Emperor), Emperor Shah Jahan (5th Mughal Emperor) and his cruel son, Emperor Abdul Mjzaffar Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad Aurangzeb (14 October 1618 – 20 February 1707), commonly known as Aurangzeb Alamgir (6th Mughal Emperor). It really was quite fascinating to make the connections. The Taj Mahal is everything they say it is…..a very special experience I will treasure always and shared with my husband. Vince said he would to build me a Taj Mahal……I said but “do I have to die first?”……he replied “Oh….we can leave that part out”…..glad about that one!
We stopped off at Costa Coffee and grabbed a drink and a muffin – as we had not eaten…and our Guide shared photos of his motorbike and also his girlfriend (of 2 years), who is a fashion design student of very short shorts….Vince said if that was his daughter he would not let her out of the house in those shorts! Then we set off for the next attraction, enroute our Guide stopped off to show us a local family who despite their poverty and live on the street, do not beg….they make pots to sell…..and even the potters wheel is moved by hand….true craftsman handed down from generation to generation…..our guide gave them a 100INR gift….and they insisted on giving us a small pot as a gift…..we have little space but I will find some room for this little treasure!
Next we travelled 46km out to the East to see the Fatehpur Sikri, or Ghost City. It was the palace of Emperor Akbar for a time….as he wanted to be near the Religious Man who blessed him….he had four wives but only one was married for love and she gave him a son. She was Hindu, and her palace was the biggest in the complex….right next to his. We saw his KING sized bed and the bats that are responsible for the noised in the Ghost City at night. It was very hot outside but inside the palaces was very cool. Fabian explained the water cooling system to us. He also told us about Akbar’s favourite elephant, that he bought for 4600 horses. When the elephant died he build a monument tower to it and buried it beneath…..I found it a bit confusing because the tower is decorated with elephant ivory tusks sticking out…..a bit bizarre to me if you loved elephants. Fabian gave us good advice about avoiding the many hawkers around, and arranged for us to be picked up from our bus (cars are not allowed at the top of hill so we had to take a mini bus) at an alternative point to avoid the tourist throng.
We then went to the “office” to pay for our tour….and met Mr Amin, the owner. I did look and have a feel of some of the pashminas he had in his shop….as Fazian had told me the real ones come only from the beard of the goat….but at 2500INR (A$50) I didn’t buy one. Next it was off for lunch and we could choose from the full range on the menu, including drinks at Indiana’s. Before we knew it, it was back to our hotel for a little break until the evening. Back at the homestay both Faizan (Guide) and Shahid (Driver) had a photo with the ANIMAL.
We got picked up at 4.30pm to visit the Agra Fort from where the Mughal Emperor governed the whole country. The fort has 3 gates, the one we entered through (West) a river gate which is now blocked off, and an East Gate that is only used by the military. Only 25% of the site is open to the public ….the rest is military. Fazian showed us the Shish-Mahal (Glass Palace) built from 1631-40 AD, where the queen would bathe. It has beautiful glass (mirror) mosaic and only Eunuchs and women would be allowed in. It is not open to the public. We also saw the Muthamman Burj (Sha-Burj & Jharokha – 1632-4- AD) where Shah Jehan could have a full view to the East of the Taj Mahal during the 8 years of his imprisonment (1658-1656) there, and where he died. His body as later taken by boat to the Taj Mahal to join his beloved wife. The crypt is the only asymmetrical place in the Taj Mahal….as the Queen is the centre given that the palace was initially only built for her. Emperor Akbar (Emperor from Fatehpur Sikri (Ghost City) and Shah Jahan’s grandfather) originally built it from red stone and used it for Darshan and sun worship everyday at sunrise. Emperor Jehangir (Shah Jahan’s father) also used it as Jharokha. He also added his Adl-i-zanjir (chain of justice) on its south side. The name Muthamman-Burj is due to the octagonal shaped towers. Vince and I were reminded of the beautiful palaces we had seen in Esfahan and Shiraz, in Iran. We also saw Emperor Jahangir’s Hauz, a circular bowl shaped monolithic tank, 5ft high, 8ft in diameter and 25ft circumference. It was made in 1610 for 4th Mughal Emperor Jahangir to use as a bath and could be moved around for the Harem.
We then went to Mehtab Bagh (Full Moon Gardens) on the river opposite the Taj Mahal) to take some sunset photos…..I have included a number at the end of the photo strip….one has had a special effect applied…..can you guess which one?
We asked Faizan to stop off and get some “Petha” – a melon and syrup desert unique to Agra, that he told us about…..so that we could take it back to the homestay for everyone. They also stopped and got us some beer and breezers. We gave both our Guide, Faizan, and our Driver, Shahid, a 500INR tip each – as after our Delhi experience it was lovely to have such good service in a very comfortable car with a careful and thoughtful driver.
There are a few other attractions in Agra that it would be great to experience – such as Akbar’s Tomb (Sikandra), Etimad-ud-Daula, The Baby Taj, Jama Mosque, Kinari Bazaar and a live Show “Mohabbat the Taj” at Kalakriti Cultural & Convention Centre. But somehow I don’t think we will have the time for those….who knows! It had been a great day sight seeing!
The 4th and 5th were really chill out and chore days….route planning, washing, catching up on emails, downloading and sorting photos and videos……the work of a traveller never ends! On the evening of the 4th Vince and I watched Gandi on our laptop computer….a very moving film and I recognised places we have been to now. Earlier that day, we had a knock on the door and it was Aad (Art) asking for me to come and have a look at young Mike – he was bitten by something last Thursday and the antihistamine I had given him on Friday was not really helping much…..after looking at it through his beard, and seeing the photos his dad took of what had already been expressed….I advised he needed to see a doctor and quickly…..Vince suggested I go with them in his words “She’s good with Doctors”…….and I was bit worried they might try to fob him off with just some antibiotics….so all 4 of us headed down to the local Hospital – at least it wasn’t for me for a change! Just as I predicted the doctor had to operate and clean out the sinus in his chin, remove part of what he thought was a poisonous spider, remove the necrotic tissue and stitch Mike up. 10,000INR later he was back at the Home Stay.
Once Mike moved to surgery, Vince and I had left and gone back to the Home Stay only to find a wedding preparation party going on next door…..this was most colourful with music, a loud speaker and brass band…..a highly decorated horse for the Groom and fireworks! We sat out front and watched. The bride’s brother came out and spoke us and we wished them all well for their future…..he ended up inviting us to the party but I said I had nothing to wear…..he said the Home Stay host can loan you a Shari…and she confirmed she had many……but not wanting to intrude I took it no further. I did however accept the beckoning when the street dancing began and my Home Stay host told me I did very well. I’m not so sure about that…..but it was all good fun. Many of the street urchin children came up and wanted to shake hands….which I willingly did until one of then wanted money in return…….Hmmmmmmm? I soon discovered that with the departure of the Groom, the Bride’s Brother was throwing money out and the children were scurrying to collect it. It was a big privilege of us to see this….our Home Stay hosts (who are Hindu) explained this goes on for 3 days in a Muslim Wedding. We might get to see the Bride at some point.
The morning of the 5th we all eagerly awaited the appearance of Claire, who was celebrating her 34th Birthday…..her husband, via the Home Stay hosts, had organised balloons as well as a birthday cake for her. She had gifts of jewellery, including from our Home Stay hosts, and Vince and I had given her an Ayurvetic 6 Piece Facial Kit we had bought for her at the Chandigarh Mall. We all had a quiet day with plans for a celebration dinner of Claire’s choice tonight.
We are still trying to plan our route but think we will leave tomorrow for Darjiling enroute to Sikkim. Aad (Art) and Mike will stay on at least an extra day as Mike has to go back to the hospital for check up. Not sure what Claire and Emiel are thinking ……..but we will all see each other again at the border I’m sure ready for Myanmar.