Agra, India: Tajarific

Agra is synonymous with the Taj Mahal, but I don’t want to take you there just yet as there is more to see in Agra than just that.  We arrived at the train station in the middle of a very hot day and got an official taxi (non-air conditioned) driven by a guy who looked like a mix between Kapil Dev and a washed up Bollywood star.  He had the bouffant hairstyle favoured by Indian cricketers of the 80s and a matching moustache.  With big aviator sunglasses and an intriguing scar on his cheek he looked like a character but turned out to be very polite and – apart from pushing a few shop stops – he was a good choice to not only take us to the hotel but drive us around the sights.

The Red Fort in Agra is even more impressive than its Delhi counterpart both in scale and detail.

We hopped from shady spot to shady spot in a bid to shelter from the scorching sun but eventually had to concede defeat and move on to the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah, otherwise know as the Baby Taj.  While nowhere near as grand as its bigger sibling the Baby Taj is incredibly detailed.  The marble inlaid with semi-precious stones are stunningly beautiful and the site was blissfully uncrowded.  We had a nice time wandering the grounds and soaking up the atmosphere.

On the way out a troupe of monkeys trotted past, some scaling a wall with the help of a rope as though they were cat burglars.  Monkeys are seen as a problem here.  We saw one stealing a tomato from a roadside vendor who, paradoxically, threw food at it to drive it away.  They congregate at the intersections where drivers sometimes toss edible items out.

As the sun went down we visited the park called Mehtab Bagh on the other side of the river to the Taj Mahal and watched the sinking sun tint its white marble, excitedly anticipating our dawn visit the next day.

The Taj is even more majestic up close.  We arrived soon after it opened in the cooler post-dawn air when the crowds had not yet built up.  Unlike a lot of landmarks which seem familiar on seeing them in person, the Taj still invokes awe and wonder at its scale.  Not only is it stunningly elegant, it’s a massive building as well, something that is hard to appreciate without being there.  While it has this huge scale it also has intricate detail in the Arabic, floral and geometric carvings and decorations which draw you in.  It really is a remarkable building.  Built out of love as a tomb for Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of Shah Hahan who died while giving birth to their 14th child.  Heading inside the mausoleum it is remarkably peaceful.  The wind wistfully whistles through and even the guides sound like ghosts.

We headed from there straight to the train station, disappointing our driver by deciding not to buy a carpet even though we had a very interesting demonstration of how they make them (and we accepted a cold drink while watching them unroll dozens of carpets in front of us).  At least the driver was honest about the commission he got if we bought one.  At the train station the first cracks started to appear in our Indian rail experience.  The train we were catching was a couple of hours late, and we were a couple of hours early as well.  We trudged around the station checking whether we could get another ticket, being sent from counter to counter and waiting in line as people pushed in at the counter, lining up in the Indian horizontal fashion rather than vertically.  We eventually discovered that there were no other options and brushing aside the stupidly overpriced taxi quotes we headed to the platform where we at least had seats on a hard wooden bench to review photos in the sweltering heat while waiting for the train to pull up.  Our only consolation were curried crisps, a mass marketed brand but much more flavourful than an Australian brand would be.  The packet listed a dozen different spices that were used to get just the right tang.

At the appointed hour of arrival the train was delayed by another hour and when it finally pulled in and we piled on the train sat at the station for another ninety minutes in the broiling heat.  We had not managed to get an air-conditioned berth for this trip so we were doubly grateful when the train started moving and graced us with a breeze like a blast from a hairdryer.  We were sitting in a sleeper compartment with a very nice Indian family, a mother travelling with her adult son and a couple of other unrelated gentlemen, all of whom had been on the train for over twenty hours but were still smiling.  Sarah’s views on marriage not being essential shocked the mother, although she didn’t show it.  The son assured us that she was indeed shocked and he would not get away with espousing such views himself.  The mother gave Sarah some good tips for what to look for when buying saris.  She is in the sari business herself and travels the country buying fabrics.  Her son was a former television host and typical of the ‘new’ India full of optimism and opportunity. He had quit his media job to try his luck at a start-up, filming properties for the real estate market to appeal to time-poor, cashed up middle class tenants too busy to go to open houses all over town.

I was plugged into my phone listening to Late Night Live podcasts and trying to hang in there.  We eventually made in back to Delhi and the coolness of Master Guesthouse where we showered, ate and collapsed.

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