India Holiday – Day 18: Agra and Taj Mahal

The fog this morning reigns supreme: Visibility is at an all-time low. Our room is directly opposite the Taj Mahal, and although it is just 800m away it could just as well have been on the far side of the moon. Anything that is more than 50m away is lost in the thick, grey haze.

It’s also bitterly cold, and our guide is wearing a warm top hat; I quickly regret not bringing the one I bought in Ranthambore along. Once outside the Oberoi, it’s evident that the residents of Agra also find it very cold: there a lots of groups of people huddled around small fires everywhere, on the street, inside the tiny roadside shops, and on the bit of garbage-filled dirt that may generously be referred to as the pavement.

The pavement is generally not actually paved, but sometimes it is. There is also sometimes a kerb, but more often than not it is badly broken, more resembling a disorderly line of rubble than an actual kerb, but mostly the pavement is simply the bit of the road/dirt continuum where there are more pedestrians than vehicles.

When men need to relieve themselves, they seem to not take much notice of where they are, resolving it there and then, mostly against a wall or pile of rubble in the street or next to the shops. Thankfully, I have not seen many number-twos being done this way, so I assume they do their more serious business elsewhere 🙂

It all adds to the sensory overload that is India: It is colourful, friendly, supremely busy, and the outside does not smell very good. The numerous animals (mostly cows, pigs and monkeys) that also live in the streets and feed off the garbage simply adds to the cacophony of impressions. It’s hard to convey in words, but to my eyes it’s pretty amazing 🙂

This morning, we start by visiting the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, commonly referred to as the “Baby Taj” because it precedes the Taj Mahal and it looks like much inspiration was drawn from there. This is where we are first introduced to the impressive technique that is particular to the monuments and artefacts of Agra: intricately carved marble inlaid with complex patterns of semi-precious stones.

Since the colours of the patterns is made from stones (cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, topaz, etc) rather than from paint, it means that they don’t fade over the centuries, and remain as vibrant now as they were then – except perhaps for the inevitable layer of smog-induced film and dust overlaying everything.

The marble used is very hard, not water permeable, and is hard to carve – but this also means it’s very durable and can be carved until it’s quite thin and translucent, allowing for a subtle light to enter structures built from it. It’s beautiful.

Amazingly, at the entrance to the Baby Taj, we met the swiss couple we first met at Rohet Ghar. They also went to Ranthambore but did not manage to see a tiger and are duly impressed that we did 🙂

Agra Fort is a World Heritage Site and feels more like a walled city than a fort. The grand entrance is interesting in how it can repel invaders: If attackers manage to get to the main gate, just behind it is a huge ramp onto which defenders would pour hot oil. The huge volume of oil would press against the gates, making them very hard to open, and if breached the attackers would be badly burned. Ingenious. Nowadays, the vertical channels are used for only the more mundane purpose of channeling rainwater.

The emperor who built the palace clearly knew how to have a good time! The fort includes numerous palaces as well as a huge pool with carved niches for him and 25 or so concubines to use, a big area where they would watch elephants fight – after giving them loads of rum to make them extra aggressive – and a fishing competition area.

The so-called Fish Enclosure is a large raised courtyard, around which each concubine has a residence, and where large pools filled with fish are set in the marble at ground level. The emperor would sit at one end with a fishing rod, and his opponent at the other end – enabling a grand fishing expedition from within the comfort of your living room 🙂 In addition, the Fish Enclosure is used for “Harem functions”; use your imagination 🙂

Several enclosed areas in the fort have a flat roof, rather than the common domed or arched ones we have seen everywhere else. How such a large flat roof built from what is obviously hundreds of heavy, large marble blocks can maintain structural integrity is not obvious at first sight, and the solution is ingenious. To make it, the builders cut deep groves into the top of the marble blocks, then put them next to each other, and then pour a molten metal mixture in there, effectively binding them together forever.

Our guide says that the molten iron is iron mixed with food items such as crushed lentils, yoghurt and sugar to give it extra strength. Sounds weird to me, but maybe it’s true. It certainly makes for a memorable story!

The palace within the fort is also where the emperor that built the Taj Mahal lived. She died giving birth to their 14th child, and he pledged to build the Taj as a testament to his love for her. Unfortunately, one of his younger sons wanted to succeed him as emperor so badly that he killed all of his elder brothers and imprisoned his father in the palace, from where he could look at the Taj Mahal every day, but not visit it.

As the fog is still very heavy and we can’t see the Taj from the fort even now, we decide to visit a workshop where they make items made from marble and inlaid with stones, inspired by or copied from designs found in the Taj Mahal. It is beautiful, unique work, and we end up buying a small box with inlays for Iain and a stunning octagonal serving tray with intricate flower structures inlaid for ourselves. We will frame it and put it on the wall at home I think, as a fitting memory of Incredible India 🙂

To prevent terrorism, there are lots of restrictions on what you can take when you visit the Taj Mahal. Prohibited items include electronics (but not cameras, phones and iPads), anything with a keyboard, anything edible, any tobacco products, headphones, flags, books, and tripods. I’m not sure how flags, books and headphones can be used by terrorists, but it’s probably just a lack of imagination on my part.

The restriction against tobacco products is much more understandable: people in India chew a lot of “gutka”, a form of tobacco that includes crushed betel nut. The users regularly spit, leaving a characteristic ugly red stain on almost every wall and building – definitely not something we want to see on the Taj Mahal. A ban against gutka has just come into effect across much of India and it will be interesting to see how quickly that can help reduce the high rates of oral cancer seen in India.

To prevent pollution from eroding the beauty of the Taj, there is a ban on polluting vehicles and open fires within a 500m radius of the monument and we take one of the electric golf-cart vehicles as far as we can. Right where we are dropped off there are several diesel-based tuktuks and the usual number of people – including heavily armed security guards – that huddle around open fires burning whatever they can find, so it seems like a fairly futile gesture. Thick, heavy smog and haze still envelops as we approach, although the sun is finally beginning to break though.

We approach the main gate to the Taj, and already Iain is awed: “Is this really just the gate? OMG!” I worry that the expectation level is so high that it can only be a disappointment to see the “real thing”.

Walking through the gate, we get our first glimpse of the Taj, and it’s breathtaking; it looks like a floating, ghostly palace and it’s hard to believe it is real. The sun shines on it gently and the fog just enhances it; it really is stunning. The answer is that it’s not disappointing 🙂

There are several spots where our guide points out “standard” pictures are to be taken, and we faithfully go through them all: From just inside the gate, outlining the Taj majestically, from the beginning of the alley of fountains leading to it, on a bench to side, first pretending to hold the Taj from the fingers, then Mamta and me in a lover’s pose, and finally up close. I’m sure they will be lovely!

As a “high value ticket holder”, we are supplied with shoe covers and so don’t need to take off our shoes to go up on the platform where the Taj itself resides. The shoe covers are a good idea, but they clearly are not designed for somebody with feet as big as mine in mind 🙂

The sheer size of the Taj Mahal is astonishing; it is quite simply huge. The big double-vaulted dome alone is 35m high and weighs more than 20,000 tonnes – that is a lot of marble, and it’s beautifully and intricately carved. The four corner minarets accentuate the main structure, which is octagonal, and the whole thing is built to be completely symmetrical in so many ways.

This is where the art of inlaid marble is taken to perfection: Even the inscriptions (In Arabic, from the Koran) are inlays made of jet-black onyx, offsetting the marble perfectly.

Off to one side of the Taj is a big mosque built for muslim visitors, and to maintain the symmetry of the place, the emperor built an identical structure on the other side, to be used as a guest house for visitors.

The only flaw in the symmetry is the Taj itself: The emperor intended to built an equivalent structure on the other side of the river, and make it out of black marble or onyx, to perfectly complement his wife’s resting place. As he was held prisoner by his son for the last 8 years of his life, this project never happened and he was simply interred inside the Taj, next to his wife, in a way that I’m sure would have disturbed his sense of the symmetrical.

We do visit the inside of the mausoleum as well, but it is poorly lit with just a single light bulb hanging in the centre of the huge structure and if its beauty matches that of the outside, it is not visible to us. It is also hugely, hugely crowded and we are herded like cattle through the area inside before being ushered outside again. And the outside is where the real beauty and majesty of the place is visible, so I don’t mind.

The finish is amazing, and the workmanship outstanding. We walk around the monument a couple of times to take it all in. Mamta says she would like one of those too, but I’m not sure where I’d put it. It is as I said rather large!

Although it is beautiful up close; I think it is best at a slight distance, when you can take it all in. Stunning. If you haven’t visited it, you should do so – it’s worth it 🙂

Back at the Oberoi, we relax and absorb the day’s events, and try to get used to the fact that our holiday is nearly over. Tomorrow, it’s back to Delhi, where we hopefully can meet the relatives before flying back to normal life in London on Friday…

It’s been epic! Wish we could stay a while longer, but tomorrow it’s the Return to Delhi 🙂

India Holiday – Day 17: Tigers, Trains and Agra

They say that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

It certainly feels insane to me that we – after 3 safaris with no tigers – choose to set the alarm clock for 05:30 on January 1st, in order to try it one last time. When it actually goes off after just 5 hours of sleep, it feels no less insane. Happy New Year.

We are as ready as it’s possible to be at 06:15 and trudge over to the outdoor waiting area to get a cup of coffee and a biscuit before leaving. It’s cold, very cold; perhaps 4C, and very, very hazy. Any tigers that come our way will have to be less than 20 meters away or they’ll be invisible. And our jeep persists in not turning up at 06:30, nor at 06:45, nor at 07:00. What does finally turn up at 7 is a canter – a big 20-seater that we have so far avoided, being favoured with the smaller, nimbler and more comfortable jeep.

We seriously consider going back to bed at this point. We’re tired and cold already, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we are well under way to pick up more passengers when the guide tells us that we’re going to Sector 5 – where nobody saw any tigers yesterday – we are not impressed. He explains that the selection of sector is done by computer, implying that since a computer is involved, the selection is flawless. I am sceptical.

The amount of leg room in the jeep was a problem; it was hard for me to sit comfortably and I ended up sitting behind with my a knee on either side of the driver’s seat. On the canter, the legroom available is if anything worse and the only seat I can use is in the middle seat of the back row. It does not seem to offer any advantages other than legroom, but at least I now fit in the vehicle 🙂

As the canter fills up, it soon becomes clear that I am the only “gora” (white person) onboard – everyone else is Indian. I don’t mind, but I’m fairly certain we are not going to see any tigers and seriously consider ways to get back to my warm, comfortable bed to sleep for a few more hours rather than endure more cold, bumpy roads.

Mamta is no less cold and reminds me it’s worth staying positive so I put on my happy face and hope for the best.

We drive for about 45 minutes into the park, along roads that are familiar from the day before, and see very little other than hazy landscape and more Samber deer. I just wish it would be over soon, frankly.

Then – in a flash – everything changes. A jeep in front of us is stopped and someone says “There!” – and there it is indeed, right next to the road: A Royal Bengal Tiger in all her glory. Everybody rushes to the side of the canter, standing up to take photos, pointing and smiling.

The guide immediately tries to ushers me to a favourable position in front – I guess he knows on which side his bread is buttered – but I am so tall that if I stand up it doesn’t really matter where I am and I don’t want to block everyone else’s view 🙂

The tiger moves along slowly, limping, and clearly has a severe injury on her front left leg or paw. Why she comes so close to the road and us I don’t know, but it offers us a minute or two of time where she is in view, and I snap several photos.

The tiger we see is a fairly recent mum with 3 cubs, and the theory is that she has been fighting a male tiger over one of the cubs – which is male. Male tigers will readily kill any other male tiger to eliminate competition for the females, even their own offspring. It’s a tough world out there.

We spend the rest of the time waiting for the tiger to reappear (she doesn’t) and then on driving slowly back towards the gate following some male tiger marks, but we don’t see any more tigers. One was enough though; our spirits are immeasurably higher now than before.

Apparently, seeing a tiger is good luck, and we choose to take the timing as a sign that 2013 will be a lucky year for the Mertner family 🙂

Having been on four safaris, I can also reveal the pattern they all seem to follow: First, the guide suggests that the safari focuses just on tigers, ignoring smaller game. Then he spots tiger prints or hears a noise or something, and a hectic, lengthy chase follows. And then, if no tiger is seen, the rest of the safari is spent looking at smaller game, without acknowledging that the “tiger focus” is off. Seems to work 🙂

Back at the hotel, we quickly grab breakfast and rush out the door as we need to make sure we don’t miss our train scheduled for a 12:30 departure: We are going to Bharatpur by train where we meet our driver and then drive from there to Agra.

The station is full of interesting people, from the old man chewing something to the “cleaning lady” that ineffectually sweeps the platform and the businessman crossing the tracks between platforms with his briefcase, and of course – this being India – many, many more. As the train turns out to be 25 minutes late, we have plenty of time to observe.

The train is the longest I have ever seen; the platform is 1km long, and the train fills all of it! It stops slowly and stays stationary for just a minute or two, so it’s important to be in the right area before the train arrives if you want to avoid boarding the train after it has started leaving again – something that looks very common. Fortunately, it takes a little while for such a long train to get up to speed!

We are in a 1st class sleeper carriage that is spacious and clean but has seen a lot of heavy use and is clearly not of recent manufacture. Sadly, the windows are filthy, making it impossible to take any photos while on the move – it makes me very happy with the choice of driving everywhere as it’s so interesting to see what is happening along the road.

After the attendant makes the bed for Mamta, she decides to nap, while Iain plays an iPad game and I write the post for yesterday, only just finishing as we arrive in Bharatpur. A pleasant 3-hour train ride – definitely not a bad way to travel, if only the windows were in good shape!

Bharatpur is a major railway junction and the station is incredibly busy, heaving with crowds that have made themselves at home on the platforms, between the tracks and even on the tracks in some cases. We are convinced to take a porter – a good thing as the walk along the platform to the car turns out to be 2km! The porter whizzes our heavy suitcase onto his head and motors away at high speed while talking on his cellphone and navigating the crowds. It’s a mad, mad, crazy country.

Mr Prakash then takes us to Fatehpur Sikri – a huge abandoned palace on the way to Agra. Our guide is frantic with worry as we get there just 2 minutes before they close the gates, but we make it inside and it’s well worth it.

The palace was built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the late 1500s and was abandoned just 3 years after it was complete, because of a lack of drinking water in the vicinity. It’s very well preserved and has a lot of interesting features – for example, Akbar married 3 wives, one Christian, one Hindu and one Muslim (to keep the peace) and built each of them a palace inside the palace, each more lavish than the other.

It’s 6pm by the time we finish at the palace, the sun has gone down, it’s cold, it’s hazy/smoggy again, and we’re now both tired and hungry – breakfast was a long time ago! Agra is only 35km away though, and our hotel is the swanky Oberoi Amarvilas hotel so we decide to wait until we arrive and then have dinner in style there.

Night driving in India is not my favourite, but it was this evening that I discovered that night parking isn’t great either. One our way to Agra, a gridlock that would impress even Parisians on a bad day held us virtually stationary for more than 2 hours before we finally got through the choke point and could get going.

Agra is extremely foggy as expected but the Oberoi looks fantastic when we finally arrive at around 9:30, and we dive straight into the restaurant to get filled up and then crash into bed, exhausted but happy. What a day.

Tomorrow, it’s time to see the Taj Mahal, and we don’t start until 10am. Bliss.