Agra: final sejourn in Uttar Pradesh

Posted: January 14, 2011 in India
Tags: , , , ,

We were glad to leave Lucknow, though it was 31hrs later than planned. However, our train pain continued as the train, due to arrive at 21.20 finally docked at 04.00. We had arranged a station pick-up and amazingly the driver was there, ready and waiting. The journey to the hotel passed in a daze and hours later we woke up with the first sounds of daily life in Agra.

Agra is a big draw card thanks to the allure of the gleaming Taj Mahal. However, beyond this obvious attraction, Agra is an interesting place thanks to its legacy of the Mughal empire that has bequeathed a littany of forts, temples and grandiose architecture. Agra reached the peak of its magnificence during the 16th and 17th centuries through the reigns of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan. In 1638 Shah Jahan built a new city in Delhi and his son moved the capital there 10 years later.

Tourism the easy way

Muneeza’s Dad put us in touch with the manager of a local tour company, Raj Kumar. He had previously been the Khan family driver on their last visit to India about 7 years ago. A bit jaded by train travel, we opted to meet him and discuss how he could reduce the burden with a personalised driver service. We soon realised that the costs were prohibitive. Not because we can’t afford them if we really wanted to splash the cash but because we want to travel on a budget. We had to ration the indulgence and instead pay for a private driver to show us the sights of Agra and then work our own way to Delhi and beyond. So at midday we were picked up and whisked off to the first destination, the Red Fort.

Lal Qila (Red Fort)

With the Taj Mahal as its backdrop, the Red Fort has an auspicious panorama. Beautiful in its own right, it dominates the banks of the Yamuna River. Emperor Akbar began construction in 1565 and the other Mughal rulers made various, and often extensive, additions. Ironically it became the prison of Shah Jahan after his son Aurangzeb seized power and overthrew him. Having built the stunning Taj Mahal he was left to stare at it for 8 years from his prison across the river.

Having successfully avoided the persistent touts by hiding behind the veneer of french language, we took a little stroll around the fort. It is an impressive structure, though the outside is much more beautiful than the inside. The entry via the Amar Singh Gate is incredible and the fort ramifications loom large over your head. You can imagine how intimidating this would have been to any invading forces when it was in its prime.

We walked idly for a few hours, taking in the sights and giving close inspection to the intricate Mughal architecture including endless archways and splendid minarets. The most inspiring thing is the sheer scale of this building. The labour required to complete it blows your mind.

The most beautiful building in the world

It’s an impossible claim but we can understand why it has this moniker. Described by Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity” and revered by Rudyard Kipling as the ’embodiment of all things pure’, the Taj is undeniably a beautiful memorial. Perhaps it is the love story behind its construction that attracts such admiration. It was built by Shah Jahan to commemorate the death of his 2nd wife, Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their 14th child (he was an energetic man). Work started in 1631, the year of her death, and the entire complex only finished in 1653.

I’m quite cynical about mass tourist sights but this took my breath away, though not literally as it’s important to breath when admiring beauty. The entrance is via a huge South Gate and expansive ornamental gardens adorn the paths that lead to the Taj itself. The scale of the main building is incredible and the sheer amount of white marble used to construct it is impressive. What is truly inspiring is the symmetry of the buildings; not only is the Taj itself completely symmetrical but it is beset on both sides by identical mosques made from red sandstone. The sight from just inside the main gate is definitely beautiful and up close it tantalises the eyes.

I was left rather let down by the inside, mainly due to my ignorance about the Taj. I thought it was a palace and that the inside would be filled with resplendent grandeur. However, it is a memorial, so the inside is barren save for the central false tomb, the Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal. The story behind the building is incredibly romantic but I much preferred to sit by the main gate and look down upon the gardens and the Taj Mahal, glorious in the distance.

Day tripping to Fatehpur Sikri

We decided to spurn the advances of Raj Kumar and head by local bus to Fatehpur Sikri on Tuesday 11th Jan. Fatehpur is the magnificent fortified ancient city about 46km west of Agra. It was the short lived capital of the Mughal Empire between 1571 and 1585. The story is amusing; Emperor Akbar visited the village of Sikri to consult a Sufi Saint who predicted the birth of an heir to the throne. When the prophecy came true, Akbar opted to build his new capital here. However, the site suffered from a chronic lack of water so was abandoned shortly after his death, an no doubt that of countless others.

We had a brief visit because we didn’t want to pay R300 each to access the palace buildings. Instead we walked through the chaotic narrow market lanes to reach the Jama Masjid, main mosque. We had an ejoyable walk through the mosque courtyard and various antechambers but were soom jaded by the persistent and annoying children who insisted that “no guide, no money, just information” before trying to exhort money. It was more intrusive here than anywhere else we have visited.

So we quickly descended to the main road and returned to the bazaar to catch the bus home. Whilst on the bus waiting for it to leave, a local Muslim man questionned me about my religion and that of Muneeza. I explained the situation as simply as possible; I am an atheist but respect other people’s beliefs and Muneeza and her family are Muslim. He didn’t get it and gave me a rather disapproving look when I confirmed that I don’t pray. Oh well, his issue not mine. We got back to Agra late afternoon and hit the Internet cafe to book flights for the longest parts of the India journey and to avoid any more horrible train journeys. Money well spent.

Leaving Uttar Pradesh

We indulged in our last dash of oppulence by paying for a private taxi to drive us the next day to Delhi in Haryana, a 4hr drive. The reasoning was that we need to reach the Bangladesh Consultate before 10.30 am to submit the visa application. It turned out to be a superb investment as we got there early and hit the front of the queue. Given the aggrevation of long queue delays it meant we started our Delhi experience relaxed.

Hope you enjoyed the latest episode.

love jamer & muneeza x



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