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 🙂