20.01.2010 - 21.01.2010 15 °C
My train from Delhi to Agra in the Uttar Pradesh province was half an hour late, but I was one of the fortunate ones, I heard several announcements over the station's PA for trains that were running as much as 28 hours behind schedule... the end of these announcements always ended with a monotone, "...We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause". My train crawled so slowly most of the way, you could have jumped off, walked along beside it for a while and then jumped back on using the same door. Apparently the problem was that the train conductors rely a lot on their sight to avoid collisions (hence the apalling safety record) and that night visibility was only a few meters due to the heavy fog. At one point we stopped at a deserted platform for over an hour.
Delayed at a foggy train platform somewhere between Delhi and Agra
While we were stopped at this platform, I started playing a game on my ipod. After about 15 minutes, I heard a knock on the window but all I could see outside was pitch black darkness. I held my hands around my eyes and pressed against the window only to find a large group of young Indian guys crowded up to the window, smiling from ear to ear. They looked absolutely fascinated and must have been standing there for a while spectating. They tried to have a conversation with me, but the glass was too thick and I couldn't hear a word of what they were saying, not that this little problem stopped them from trying. They must have been travelling on the same train because soon afterwards the train started moving and they scampered like rabbits back to their carridge.
The four hour journey ended up taking ten, so we arrived in Agra at 4 am to a relatively empty train station by Indian standards. Of course there was the usual welcoming committee of ricksaw wallahs offering their services. I asked a few of them if they knew where my hotel was, but none of them did (or at least they pretended they didn't) so they of course offered me with some helpful alternatives. I knew the hotel I was going to was only about a kilometer from the station so I gave up and decided to walk. Once on the main road out of the station, things got extremely quiet and the heavy fog along with the typically dim orange street lights of India gave the place a spooky kind of glow. It was hard to make out anything more than 20 meters away which was probably a good thing because it meant that I too had become invisible to others.
A curious cow peering at me through the fog at 4 am as I walked to my hotel in Agra
In the absence of street signs, I had to rely on the vague map of Agra from my Lonely Planet (LP) - I would like to mention now, if there's something about the LP's that I don't like (apart from their bulkiness), is their maps, sometimes they are just not very accurate or detailed enough, especially for someone like me with a terrible sense of direction. It took me what seemed like an eternity to find my hotel, which was tucked away in a small side street which I walked through by sheer accident. I was met at the reception by a grumpy and sleepy looking man, who after asking me for my name, responded with, "Yes, we waited", then lifted a small sign from behind the counter that read, "Joshua - Rose Home Stay", meaning that he'd sent a driver to the station to pick me up. I shrugged my shoulders, laughed and asked him how I could possibly have any control on the train schedules. You'd think a local would be well aware of how frequently trains are late in India.
To say my room at the hotel lacked character is an understatement. It was a scene straight out of East Germany during the cold war (or so I imagine), with light yellow and lime green painted walls and an incredibly ugly orange coloured headboard on the bed. The room was absolutely freezing and the AC didn't work, the shower I decided to take just to warm up, turned cold after only a couple of minutes. The bed only had a bottom sheet with stains on it and the blankets provided were made of coarse and scratchy fibers. This ended up being the bleakest, most depressing hotel room I've ever been in. I stood there for a long time staring at the bed contemplating whether I should ask to change rooms or just check out immediately so I could get the hell out of there, but by this stage it was already about 6:00 am and I was absolutely exhausted after having not slept on the train not to mention my little excursion in the fog. So I decided to unpack my sleeping bag liner (that I brought with me to use as an emergency sheet on occasions such as these) and I hopped into bed wearing socks and my thermal underwear. My plan was to catch a few hours of sleep until check-out time later the same morning after which I could try to find another hotel for the next night.
I ended up sleeping like a baby for a few hours until my alarm woke me up 15 minutes before check out. In what seemed like a complete blur, I had checked out, jumped on a ricksaw and arrived at a hotel recommended by LP, much closer to the center of town. Thankfully they had a room for me and I was able to breathe a big sigh of relief. This hotel was much better, it had a large peaceful courtyard restaurant and the hot water was plentiful.
After a hot shower and a big breakfast, I felt alive again which was handy considering I had a big tour planned for that day. I set off on the 1 km walk to Agra Fort, considered the most important fort in India due to the number of Mughal Emperors who lived there. It houses several palaces, halls and mosques which were added throughout the centuries by the different rulers. From the towers and balconies facing the Yamuna river, you can get (somewhat hazy) views of the Taj Mahal. Supposedly, Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb who imprisoned him in Agra Fort not long after the Taj's completion. Shah Jahan spent the last years of his life in one of the marble towers which had an excellent views of the Taj.
The entrance path over the mote bridge to Agra Fort
Cheeky monkeys on mote bridge of Agra Fort
The buildings inside Agra Fort were very impressive, though the most impressive mosque, Moti Masjid, was under renovations and closed to the public.
The white marble minarets (towers) of the Moti Masjid mosque in the background, taken from the steps of Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences)
The Anguri Bagh garden with the white marble Musamman Burj (octagonal tower) and Khas Mahal (palace) in the background
The view across the Yamuna River with the Musamman Burj (white marble octagonal tower) on the right, if you look really closely in the background you can get a first peek at the Taj Mahal through the haze
The walls of Agra Fort and the Yamuna River as seen from the edge of the Kash Mahal
I could have spent more time wandering around the Fort, but I really couldn't wait to see Agra's (and possibly India's) most famous attraction, so I headed out of the gate ready to take the short 2 km walk along Shahjahan Park. As soon as I'd crossed the bridge over the mote, a ricksaw driver walked up and offered me a ride there. I figured my legs did hurt a little so why not go for a quick ride. When he said, "Indian helicopter", I didn't quite know what he meant, but I soon discovered this was what they call leg powered cycle ricksaws (as opposed to auto ricksaws, the CNG fueled motorized ricksaws that I had been using in India up to that point). They cycle ricksaws are much slower and less comfortable, but since it was only 2 km away, I figured why not and jumped on board. The poor guy must have been in his 50's or 60's and he struggled a bit going up hill, at one point hopping off to push it. I felt so bad for him that I wanted to jump off and help, but I figured he must do it all the time and he probably would have thought I was more weird rather than helpful. Instead I payed him double the amount that we had agreed which was undoubtedly a much better way of helping him out. Not surprisingly, after receiving such a helthy tip, he eagerly offered to wait for me outside the Taj so he could give me a ride back to my hotel, but I didn't want to worry about someone waiting outside for me for some unknown period of time so I politely declined his offer.
The view from my "Indian Helicopter" along Sahjahan Park, I could have walked there faster, but the driver was a real battler
I entered through the West Gate, which I heard was usually crowded with tour groups, but being in the late afternoon, the queues were small and I got through relatively easy. The admission price for foreigners was 750 Rupees (NZ$23), by far the highest admission price I payed in India (locals pay 20 Rupees). I've heard many complain about the cost, but by the end I personally thought it was definitely well worth it.
The main internal gate to the Taj Mahal complex taken from the outer courtyard
So, I took a deep breath and walked through the internal main gateway. What I saw on the other side has to be the most impressive building I have ever seen. Never used the word majestic to describe anything before, but the Taj thoroughly deserves it. Perhaps it was because I'd heard a lot of hype about the Taj and I had subconsciously played it down so that I wouldn't be disappointed. If you haven't visited the Taj yet but you plan to one day and want to be just as impressed as I was, then perhaps you should stop reading the rest of this blog because this will probably be a spoiler for you.
I think the real reason I was so impressed, was because it was so symmetrical and more importantly, it is much, much larger than I had ever imagined.
The Taj Mahal from just inside the front gateway
In the above photo, the people seen standing towards the end of the pond are actually standing on a large marble platform in the middle of the garden which is not the actual base of the Taj. There is another pond of the same length on the other side of this central platform and if you look closely at the bottom of the Taj's front archway, there is another group of people a little higher up which appear to be about 1 mm tall, that's how colossal this building really is.
A portrait view of the Taj Mahal from the central marble platform
Me on the bench in front of the inner gateway - I got this one taken for my mum who made a joke before I left NZ about me doing a Princess Diana pose on a bench in front of the Taj (though she sat on a different bench and she had her legs closed, but I thought it was close enough)
It was crowded, but never so much that I had to wait long to get a photo or two from the best vantage points, nor was it difficult to move away from the crowds and sit at the edge of a platform or in the garden where you could just appreciate the building in relative peace. I must have sat and gazed at it for a couple of hours from various locations, just letting it all soak in.
Side view of the Taj from the east side
View of the sunset over the mosque on the west side of the Taj's platform
The pink glow of the Taj at sunset taken from the west side
One of the four 40 meter tall minarets
I was very surprised to find out you could walk inside and wander through the various internal chambers, including the central dome which housed the (false) tombs of Mumtaz Mahal (for whom the Taj was built), and the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan (Mumtaz's husband and builer of the Taj). When I say "false", I mean that these are just the ornamental tombs - the real ones are locked away in the basement below the main chaimber and cannot be viewed, I kind of like this fact because it makes the real hidden tombs a little mysterious. It was supposed to be strictly no photos inside the main tomb chamber, but flashes were going off from all directions and no guards were complaining so I took the opportunity to take a quick snap too, though later I heard a guard yelling at people so he must have been out having a cigarette when I walked through.
The false tombs of Shah Jahan (left) and Mumtaz Mahal (right) in the main chamber
One of the four outer ornamental chambers
As I was walking through the empty ornamental chambers, it dawned on me about how utterly impractical this huge building was. All the money, effort and labour used to build something that was always meant to be empty, except for a small marble tomb, which wasn't even a real tomb, is just absolutely crazy. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it was built simply because it's amazing to look at. But the reasons behind its existence don't really impress me and to me were just a vulgar display of Shah Jahan's uncontrolled narcissism. But then again, you could say that about a lot of other buildings and monuments around the world created for no practical purpose whatsoever, and if it weren't for these disgusting displays of self-obsession, the world would be quite a boring place and all you'd see in this blog is pictures of me in front of bus stops.
Anyway, I digress ...by the time I walked back towards the entrance the sun was setting fast and the Taj had an amazing pink glow to it.
The pink Taj, this photo, taken from the garden, would have come out even better had it not been so hazy
The ornamental garden around the Taj Mahal
The sun setting behind the West Gate taken from the outer courtyard
I left the Taj Mahal complex and headed to the Taj Ganj area to find dinner, but I didn't find any reliable looking restaurants so decided to head back to the hotel which was supposed to serve decent food.
The streets around Taj Ganj in Agra
Dinner in the courtyard at the hotel
The next day I left Agra headed for the Rajasthan province. I really liked the two attractions I visited in Agra, but the city itself is nothing to write home (or on a blog) about. I think if it wasn't for the Fort and the Taj, this city would be a mere blip on the radar. Instead it is full of ricksaw wallahs and cheap looking hotels.
Well, that's it for this edition.