Visiting the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

Visiting the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal

Sunrise at the Taj Mahal

After a long week of working in Bangalore, my colleagues and I had planned to take advantage of being in India and visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. We boarded our plane and landed in New Delhi, the closest major airport to Agra, the city where the Taj is located.

 It took about an hour to get from the airport to the hotel, due to dodging all the rickshaws, incredible traffic, and a whole herd of Brahma bulls walking home in the evening after a day of grazing in the streets. Apparently they spend the day roaming the streets eating scraps and digging in garbage. The huge animals unpredictably walk diagonally right in front of oncoming traffic, plodding along their merry way. These are giant animals, so they can take a whole lane of traffic out, narrowing the road. This type of parade continues all day, every day as they walk around the city.

We woke early on Saturday morning to drive the six hour journey to Agra to see the Agra Red Fort (the Mugal Royal residence) and the Taj Mahal. This is a long ride in and out of small towns and rural farmland areas. This is where you begin to see what real life is like outside the major cities.

 Here the third world begins to emerge. At times I felt like I had traveled back in time a hundred years...we saw people making and drying cow patties for fuel and laying them in the sun to dry. After the patties are dry they were stacked and stored in little mud huts for protection from the elements, or piled on top of the roofs of houses for easy access. The dung patties are the major source of fuel for cooking and heating.

 I witnessed people standing outside next to a large round cistern... this was actually the community bath. The men would stand with a cloth around their waists, soap up and pour cold water over their bodies while standing in the dirt. This was a shower. Women in beautiful, colorful saris walk along the road with large stacks of sticks, or water jugs on their heads. It looks very exotic, but this is an incredibly hard life.

 Their stores and restaurants are literally along the edges of the road. Cars, rickshaws and motorcycles are constantly streaming past in close proximity to the merchants, and meanwhile, people are crossing in and out of traffic on foot. It is the true meaning of chaos.

 Along the road we witnessed many overloaded vehicles. You might see twenty people on, or in, a rickshaw, piled inside, hanging out the back and standing on the running boards. When there is no more room inside… don’t worry, at least five people can sit on the roof. It is such a contrast to the modern world, it is like witnessing life through a lens of the past, with reminders of the modern amenities like cell phone and cars.

The hardest thing for me to witness was the constant stream of beggars coming directly to your window and asking for money. This occurs almost every time the car stops.

 Our driver was a safe driver, but I have to tell you the car was not all that clean. I did not want to touch anything... even the seat belt was filthy. I was missing Ravi, my driver from Bangalore, and the pride he took in his car and his job. As I reached for my seatbelt, having trouble digging it out from between the seats, the driver reminded me, “Don’t worry madam, you don’t have to wear your seat belt in India... it is not required.” I looked at my teammate with raised eyebrows, and both of us immediately buckled up. The driver was not someone we enjoyed all that much. He talked on and on as if he was an authority on everything, especially Americans. We remained mostly silent, choosing not to respond to his ridiculous stories. He was boastful, sometimes crude, and had absolutely no understanding of American women. I am not sure he had ever actually had the experience of transporting American women...so we remained quiet and were thankful for the lift. I forgave him for his crudeness as I could not expect anyone in a foreign country to have an understanding of my world, but It certainly let me know how differently women are treated outside the US. I chalked it up to a cultural clash but by the time we got to Agra, I was ready to get out of the car, just so I didn’t have to hear him talk anymore.

The gates to the Taj open at sunrise and close at sunset every day, and we chose to be there early. It was dark, and at precisely dawn, the gates opened. Once inside, we hurried to the area where you sit on the bench in front of the long water pools leading to the Taj. This is the prized picture spot.

You have to be fast to get a place on the bench. After a time or two of getting edged out from our turn on the bench, all three of us shooed the next group of men away. They were surprised at our insistence and they immediately got up and gave us our turn.

After we took our coveted pictures, we made our way to the tomb itself. Oh my, was it ever beautiful in the morning light, with the sun reflecting off the white marble. As we approached, it just increased in aesthetic value. It is elaborately carved with all colors of precious stone inlay. It was built in the 1600‘s... and is mind-boggling when you realized the availability of building tools at that time. There is no question why this is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is a masterpiece in every way. 

You must put on shoe covers or go barefoot to enter the mausoleum, which is under the famous teardrop dome. Here sits the tomb of Shah Jahan and his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. I “stood beneath that marble sky” in amazement.  Mumtaz Mahal was called “Taj Mahal”, a term of endearment, by her husband.  She holds center court here, as the monument was built in her honor. The Shah joined her after his death, as it was his wish to be at her side. He is placed to her left. 

 The coffins are elaborately decorated with colors of semiprecious stone inlaid into white marble. Surrounding the graves is a stylized lattice fence, carved out of marble. It was such a beautiful sight. Photos are not allowed inside the tomb, but we all took hundreds of pictures of the outside of the building and the gardens. As we prepared to leave, we each immersed ourselves those last moments to drink it in, before turning toward that dreaded six hour drive back.

 After our trip back to Delhi we shared a room to freshen up and take a quick rest before we went our separate ways to begin the long journey home.

Late that evening, as we drove to the airport, we saw a young girl, of perhaps eight years old, standing on the corner.  She held a sleeping baby while she was begging. She was the only person around. Children are the caretakers of babies. 

The airport in India is a completely challenging event.  You must show your itinerary or ticket just to enter the airport and then again about ten times before you board the plane.  

 After passing through all the checkpoints to exit the country, you arrive at the security gate. At this point, men and women are separated. Women are taken behind a curtain and a hand-held metal detector is used to scan their body, and then they are patted down. Men go through this process in public view.

 All in all, this process takes about one and a half hours on a good day. The inefficiency takes extreme patience. Indians just think it is normal. The lengthy process makes it hard to come into the country and hard to leave. I understand the extra security due to terrorist activities, but even then, it feels excessive. By the time I got on the plane it was two a.m.  I was dog tired...I had gotten up at 4 a.m. to see the Taj, traveled six hours by car back to New Delhi, took a rest and showered, and got ready for the long flight.   

 I fell sound asleep quickly and didn’t even remember the takeoff. I was actually startled when I woke up and realized I was in the air.

 I had a full day layover in Hong Kong and it was an enormous relief to land there. It is CLEAN, and efficient. I took the train to immigration, passed all the requirements, and had my bags in less than forty-five minutes. I went to the Marriott window at the airport, where they had my name on the list for arrivals. They called a car and took me to the hotel within fifteen minutes.

When I arrived at the hotel, I was greeted by my room escort, who had my keys ready, took me to my room and privately checked me in. I was unbelievably grateful for the efficiency, and to be in a beautiful room overlooking the harbor. I had a foot reflexology massage in the hotel that afternoon. At one point I winced in pain and asked the therapist what part of the body that area represents...“sleep”...hmmm… Let the renewal begin… 

 

 

Just after sunrise.
Full daylight at the Taj Mahal. The tomb is under the center dome.
The river on the back side of the Taj
The Agra Fort- The royal residence
Carving inlay detail on fron of the Taj Mahal
The royal residence at the Agra Fort
Agra Fort
The community bath- Agra Fort
Woman at the Agra Fort
The sacred cow on the highway
Auto-rickshaw driving along highway
the grocery store
The guy was talking on his cell phone.
Roadside market
The motorcycle is sometimes the family car
These buildings sit on either side of the Taj Mahal

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Mark j. | Reply 18.11.2013 19.06

Picturesque.

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18.11 | 19:06

Picturesque.

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