No trip to India is complete without a visit to the world’s most famous building, the Taj Mahal. From Varanassi, we took an overnight train to Agra. We were lucky enough to be seated with two Canadian backpackers, Josh and Marisa, who we hit it off with immediately. We passed the first few hours exchanging travel stories and advice before climbing into our small bunks to get a few hours of sleep. We awoke around 5:30 AM to prepare for our early arrival, but it just wouldn’t be India if there wasn’t some delay. We were several hours behind schedule and happy to go back to sleep.
Every guidebook and every tourist whose ever been there has warned us that Agra is a terrible place for touts and scams. We actually didn’t have this experience at all. The city was much quieter than other Indian cities we had visited and we easily fended off our unwanted “friends.”
It’s a little bit like opening your presents on Christmas Eve, we couldn’t wait any longer; we were ready to see the Taj the first day. And we wanted to catch the sunset. Everyone has an image of what the Taj Mahal looks like; we’ve seen pictures, it has been used in advertising, movies, etc. But for me it was really impossible to appreciate it until we saw it in person. Imagine being in the middle of a country that is noisy, dirty, disorganized, colorful, flavorful, adventurous, dynamic…India…and stumbling upon something clean, white, pure, perfectly symmetrical, the same as it was 500 hundred years ago…and changing only with the light of day. This was the Taj Mahal. Sometimes architecture can be as inspiring as nature. We spent the afternoon examining the building from every angle, trying to find the perfect photo spot, sitting on the lawn while the parakeets and chipmunks played around us. Of course we starred in a few more family photos. Then we watched the Taj change from pink to purple to grey to blue as the sun set.
“The Agra Fort”
The Agra Fort was built by Emperor Akbar (the grandfather of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.) All of the important architecture in this area (including Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri) was built by the Mughals. The Mughals ruled India for almost 200 years (1526-1707) and their greatest contribution was by far the elaborate architecture. Our second day, we visited the fort, which is built out of red sandstone. It is quite impressive, with ruins of old palaces, a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal (from where Shah Jahan spent his last days imprisoned and staring at his precious monument), small mosques, a bazaar and gardens. For us, it was very similar to the Red Fort in Delhi (which was built in the same period and style.) It is surrounded by a huge moat, which is now a bubbling cesspool, probably still deterring unwanted visitors.
Itimad-ud-Daulah or “The Baby Taj”
After the Agra Fort, we wandered through the old bazaar, which is always a fascinating experience. You can find anything in the bazaaars, and sometimes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time 200 years. We saw a man assembling stoves out of various metal parts. We then crossed the river to visit the “baby Taj.”This is the mausoleum of Mirza Ghiyas Beg. It was built by his daughter out of solid marble and exquisitely decorated with pietra dura, or stone inlay (like the Taj Mahal.) We found very few tourists there, and spent a quiet afternoon admiring it’s beauty and tranquility on the lawns next to the river.
The last stop on our tour of Mughal architecture. Fatehpur Sikri is a little village about 40km west of Agra. It has a very strange history. Emperor Akbar commissioned a palace here, only to close it 15 years later because of water shortages. Most of what’s left are 400 year old ruins, although part of it has been restored by the archaelogical society. There is an enormous mosque, Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque. We found a guesthouse right at the bottom of the mosque’s steps which was quite cheap and made all of the food fresh just for us. We visited the restored palaces, which I wouldn’t mind living in myself, and we also visited the ruins to watch the sunset. We ran into our Swiss friends (from the Darjeeling train fiasco) and watched the sunset and had dinner with them. We also visited the mosque which was beautiful, but we were disturbed by all of the souvenir sellers inside. We were approached by a boy who wanted to show us around. We told him firmly that we didn’t want a guide and that we wouldn’t give any money, but he insisted he was a Muslim student and only wanted to practice his English. He thought that both Fabien and I were French so he also tried to use some French words. At one point, I asked him to repeat something he had said in English, and he told me, that it was okay, he spoke “petit francais” and I spoke “petit English.” Fab and I had a good laugh after that one.
Tags: BIG TRIP 2005-2006, In English 2005-2006, India