The Taj Mahal
So, I have a habit of being naturally argumentative when it comes the things that are described as a ‘must see‘ but given the Taj‘s status as one of the wonders of the world, there was no way we were going to miss it. However, I had said to Sarah already that I had a suspicion it‘ll be no more impressive than the Golden Temple. Once again, allowing my preconceptions to cloud my judgement on something I had only seen online and I was proved wrong. Very wrong.
The Taj Mahal is simply astonishing. Words and photos cannot do it justice. In this information age, where with a keyboard and screen, anyone can find out about and ‘see‘ almost anything on the planet - it’s easy to assume that some things don’t need visiting.
At over 350 years old, and built using very primitive tools and worked by masters of stonework, from the carved Muslim prayer made from solid strips of onyx around the hallway entrance, to the immaculate precious stones inlaid into the pristine white marble of the Palace itself, it is truly exquisite.
There is something about being there that is mesmerising. With the exception of all the ‘sheep’ queueing up to sit on a bench Diana sat on in a very planned device photo on a visit to India in February ‘92. Frankly, this ridiculous notion of ‘copy a famous person‘ for a photo is beyond me but there you go… The photographers you have to compete with there make a living from it, so I guess that‘s something. Rant over.
The palace‘s size is strange. It‘s actually smaller than I had imagined it but still fantastically impressive. It‘s almost perfectly symmetrical on each axis of the compass and the only thing that throws this off is the tomb of Shah-Jahan V sitting next to his perfectly centrally tombed wife. His intention was to be buried in a black Taj on the opposite bank of the river which would cost far more, as the black marble was far more expensive. Given the current one would be approximately $700 million in today’s money and would be raised in taxes, his plans were thwarted by his 3rd son who, after killing his two older brothers to get in line, put his father under house arrest in the Red Fort (see below) and halted the foundation construction of his mausoleum on the opposite bank from where the sunset view of the Taj is spectacular.
Agra's Red Fort
Many Indian cities have forts similar to Agra’s but we were told that Agra’s was one of the best maintained and presented. It is an extremely interesting and massive ancient fortified town and the place where the grieving Maharaja was placed under house arrest by his son in an attempt to prevent him from building his own Taj Mahal.
The fort is massive. It takes a while to look around but only 20% is open to tourists and the rest is occupied by the military. The moat is awesome. The first stage was water-filled and also contained crocodiles and sea snakes etc to inflict maximum damage on any prospective attackers. They would then, assuming they were lucky to get past the prehistoric reptiles to moat 2 between the outer walls and this one was dry. But… full of tigers and other deadly creatures.
The apartment in which Shah-Jahan V was held is immaculately preserved and beautifully decorated in the same marble and jewels as the Taj and overlooks the phenomenal building in the background - a request from Father to son under very unusual circumstances.
Food and crafts
Agra is tiny and has very little going for it with the exception of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. Both are what sustains the old city and the many hotels where people stay for a few days to see the main attractions and move on. Believe it or not, Agra used to be a Capital City under the Moguls when India was still separated into waring Kingdoms and long-before unifying the whole country and moving the capital to Delhi.
As the home of the Taj, it is understandable that the descendants of the highly skilled craftsmen still work on it, trapped by birth into their caste system and historical familial lineage. They work on the palace every Friday when it is closed to the public. A set of coasters made by these men costs over £600 depending on the complexity of the design. This is time consuming work. There is a table costing over £100K.
A second trip was to a Persian rug factory, where we had a tour with the chance to tie a couple of our knots in a bespoke rug. Just don’t buy the round one, it has some bad knots in. They subtly lifted a decent number of Pounds sterling from our bank accounts in return for the rugs we chose, looking forward to seeing them laid out in our bedroom for years to come. The Treasurer was surprised as none of us had anticipated buying one. We left poorer but very happy. The experience in the rug shop was far greater than the over-polished and rather ‘salesy’ marble shop. Oh, and we didn’t have £100,000 for a table or even £650 for 6, yes SIX wine coasters!
That evening, we had a food tour where we had some of the best chicken tikka of our entire trip and some amazing deserts, called Petar which like everything else stems from the building of the Taj. It used to be fed to the workers, made from the pumpkin that would grow on the river bank.
Contradictory to some friends who have also been to The Pink City (that is actually orange) and loved it, we were fairly unimpressed with the City itself - and not because of the poor colour-based label. There are some magnificent redeeming features like the inaccessible Lake Palace, the astrological Janter Manter but the stunning Amber Fort is the main reason for the hoards of visitors. On our first night, our driver (Mr Bharti) was explaining how all the drivers in Agra were ‘very worse drivers’ and then promptly drove head on into a cyclist at a T-junction while a motorbike went into the back of our car. We were instantly surrounded by approximately 30 people all shouting at one another and staring into the car to see who was in there. The motorcyclist clutched his wrist and walked around the car a couple of times until he realised that no-one was paying attention and headed off on his merry way and the cyclist - who was personally uninjured - had a completely inverted front wheel and was unceremoniously handed R200 (£2). The crowd dispersed with Mr Barti moaning that that was to come ‘out of my pocket pay’.
The next day, we headed early to Elefantastic. This was a wonderful experience where very well cared for elephants are looked after under the Indian Governments initiative to save and care for India’s largest native animal‘, introduced in 2012. They plan to have all Indian elephants ‘chipped and tracked’ within ‘a few years’ to help maintain their populations throughout the country. This sounds ambitious but a step in the right direction.
The elephants we were allocated were amazing. One had been rescued from a circus where she had been blinded in one eye and had undergone a privately funded cornea surgery to recover the failing sight in the second eye. These elephants would share food and rumble to one another while we would continually feed them sugar cane and talk to them while generally making contact - they like to have their faces stroked and would really lean into you it if you stopped for just a second. Each has an ‘apartment‘, where they live with their Mahout and his family and where they continually care for each one as a member of their own. They were mesmerising.
The fort is a huge palace and is very beautiful. There are passages and walkways everywhere, courtyards and archways a-plenty. Once a royal residence, the now UNESCO World Heritage Site according to Wikipedia, attracted 1.4 million visitors in 2007.
You can ride an elephant up to the fort but having been to Elefantastic and spoken to real carers for these beautiful creatures, they told us that the animals used at the fort are not particularly well looked after and there are plans and hopes that the ‘pachyderm chairlift’ will be stopped late this year. Many of the elephants are likely to be moved to the sanctuary for care.
On our final morning - we made it up to the top of a monster flight of stairs that made my heart feel like it was about to explode! I am unfit but this was a real challenge. Many of the steps were well over 12 inches high and I was racing against sunrise as I could not wait to see the view from the top of the defensive wall!
After a leisurely return from the wall, we headed to Delhi to set off the Jaisalmir and the Thar Desert…