Friday, 21 December 2007

The Taj Mahal

We had now used up one of our four remaining weeks. We departed Delhi by train in the morning to head to Agra, home of the Taj-Mahal. It was a short journey of only a couple of hours, but long enough for a free paper, bottle of water and a decent breakfast served on a tray that beat most of the big flights we've taken on the trip. The journey was fine and finding a hotel was also fairly effortless. We had three days now to see the town, the Taj and possibly pop out to see an abandoned Mogul city too if we could be bothered.

Our first day was spent around town. The Taj is no small tourist attraction and the roads through the town give some clue to the number of coaches they must serve by their size. As is our tradition, we walked for miles in the midday heat to find lunch and then find the tourist district. Our hotel was a little bit out of the zone, the cost of affordable accommodation. Pizza Hut served us well for lunch, and once again provided a much better menu for vegetarians than back home (you see this was still a cultural experience, not just the soft option). Then we found where to come the next day for the Taj. There was a new sight here, which was introduced without explanation - camels. Carts pulled by camels, ponies and cattle plied the route between the Taj-Mahal and the ancient fort, carrying tourists between the two destinations. We followed on foot and made an off the hoof decision to pop into the fort and see it for ourselves.

The setting sun gave a beautiful cast across the walled courtyards and terraces protected within the mighty walls. From one of the ramparts, we could look across the haze of the town and see the Taj-Mahal in the distance, recreating the legendary past time of the committed king who had built the grand tomb and then been imprisoned by his son for squandering the empirical funds. An old phenomenon was starting to recur again while we were here and it would continue the following day too at the Taj-Mahal. Groups of people, usually teenagers would ask us to pose for a photo with them. The best instance was earlier in the day though when we posed beside a camel with an entire family around us who thrust their new born baby into Nikki's arms while we posed grinning down the lens.

The fort was mostly red sandstone, cut with intricate details and with latticed windows of stone and narrow alleys and corridors. There were also examples of the trade mark mogul design which the Taj is such a famous example of; the cut marble with precious stone and jewel insets. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the mini-city, exploring the interlacing multilevel walkways and gardens. As night fell it was time to head back and prepare for our big visit the next day.

We arrived at the Taj Mahal around 9 o'clock in the morning. We had considered going earlier to see the sunrise and beat the queues but we were advised against it and quite right too. The queues, which had been huge the previous afternoon (Sunday) were really quite small the following morning and we were through them in no time. Also the cool winter sun was only just beginning to burn off the mist when we got there so if we had been any earlier we wouldn't have seen a lot.

After passing through the ticket check, we followed the crowd into a huge courtyard. The buildings on the right and left followed the Moguls fascination with symmetry and when these finally opened into the square, so that road we had just walked down was also mirrored in front of us with an opposite road leading in. To our left was an almighty tower with a massive doorway in the middle of it. Through this arch, perfectly framed was the Taj-Mahal behind. It is impossible to take a bad photo here because everything seems to follow the magic equation for lining up beautifully. The Taj-Mahal itself has an identically proportioned archway and it was possible to stand so that these seemed to be one. After taking a few moments to take all this in it was time to step through the archway into the central complex.

The area is a giant square with the Taj-Mahal standing at the opposite side to the gate house where we were. Between us and it are the gardens. Perfectly manicured lawns, tended by gardeners and an ox pulled lawnmower. At both of the other two sides of the square are what are called the water houses. These are where the water poured into the complex from outside the walls. At one time the buildings had small waterfalls that poured down from the middle of them and fed the geometric system of canals that run around and through the grounds. Today the water seems to come from an undisclosed source.

From where we were standing the Taj-Mahal was only just visible through the morning mist and looked rather ghostly as it glowed feebly from the distance. I felt thoroughly short changed at first but the mist did burn off and the sight which we saw again on our way out was really rather impressive. We had been given shoe covers when we bought our tickets which meant we didn't have to take our shoes off to go up into the building. The Taj is flanked on either side by symmetrical mosques which are open faced. We had a wander around the left hand one first, watching a little bit of the restoration work that was being carried out on it. Then in keeping with all that we have learned on our travels we circumnavigated the Taj in a counter clockwise direction. The sun was now starting to rise quite high in the sky and as it proceeded around the building we could see the subtle shifting of shadows and the colour of the light as it reflected off the white marble.

They say the building is losing its pristine white colour to marble cancer - the effects of the corrosive pollution in the air. In an attempt to prevent this the government has banned traffic from driving in a 100 meter radiance of the site, unless you are important enough and your car is big enough in which case the rules don't really apply. That said, it's still pretty white for now but apparently it is starting to go a little off colour.

Once we'd walked around the building and took a little rest in the shadow behind it, it was time to climb up on to the giant marble plinth it sits upon. One more lap of it again to get the feel from it up here next, walking between the building and the four pillars that guard each of it's corners. Then it was time to pop inside and give it a sniff. The building is a tomb and inside there is a walkway that runs around the inside hidden behind marble latticing that you can't go into. Next is the inner chamber where everyone goes, and in the centre of that, inside more latticing are the two coffins of him and her. The whole indoors area is even more intricately embedded with precious stones, marbles and jewels than the outside. The locals who came to see the Taj from around India paid a far cheaper entrance fee than us, and in return didn't get shoe covers, meaning they had to remove their footwear before entering. What we discovered on our sniff inside was that the place really smells of sweaty feet.

We had great day at the Taj-Mahal and left suitably impressed in the early afternoon. By chance we bumped into Nick and Esther, our two friends from the remedial Kayaking group in Nepal later in the day and spent the night enjoying a very good but small dinner at a restaurant near our hotel.

The next day was our last in Agra. We would be getting a train back to Delhi in the evening, spending a night there and then flying south the next morning. We were tossing up whether we could be bothered going to see Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city or not. In the end we decided we would go. We packed our bags and checked out of our hotel and then checked our bags in at the train station before taking an auto rickshaw to the bus station to get a bus to Fatehpur.

The city was built as a new capital city for the Mogul region but only served for a couple of decades before everybody packed up and left it. It would seem that the water supply was too salty to serve the king and people and so the buildings and courts were left to time. The British restored the city during their reign and today the site stands perfectly preserved like a walk back in time. The buildings are all perfectly intact and you have complete freedom to walk around them although some upstairs floors were locked. By the time we had gotten there and then had lunch, we only had a couple of hours to see it all before heading back. Again we had got it right though and the setting sun served again to really bring out all the details of the buildings and make it all the more remarkable. Because it was the end of day there weren't too many people there adding further to the sense of it being a ghost town where everyone suddenly saw you coming and just vanished.

We saw it all, took many more great photos and then successfully made it back to our old faithful hotel in Delhi, enjoying another fab meal on the train and crashing out on our beds exhausted.

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