Keep Calm and Carry Ohm

21/11/08 Day 8 - Agra

The moment I woke up this morning I wanted to see India's most iconic landmark, the Taj Mahal. I excitedly sprung out of bed and opened the curtains but all I saw was the hotel's manicured gardens.

The hotel's literature said that you could marvel at the marble majesty of the Taj from here but reading further it continued to say "from a viewing platform". So on our way down to breakfast I couldn't let the opportunity pass and we climbed all the way up to the top.

Above the rooftops of Agra in the hazy distance we saw the unmistakable dome of a true wonder of the world. We just stood there with beaming smiles across our faces. It felt so magical.

Taj Mahal over the rooftops of Agra

We couldn't wait for our day to start, to get out there and see the Taj Mahal up close but wait we had as we weren't being pick-up until 9:00am.

The breakfast room was large and grand but very humid, in need of air conditioning. Julie was also a little disappointed by what was on offer. All she had in the end was a croissant.

My regular favourite of Dal Sambar was this morning accompanied by an interesting bread pakora to dip in, followed by a tasty fried lentil fritter and a very different noodle based Upma.

I was more than content with my choices.

After having too much time on our hands it was quite embarrassing arriving late for our pick up in the foyer. It was our new alarm clock to blame as it had already lost 15 minutes over the last few days. Rob & Carol and our guide were waiting patiently for us beneath the giant chandelier.

We clambered into a mini bus and drove the 1km from our hotel to a point 500m away from the entrance gates.

Bhanu, our guide, explained that in an aim to reduce the pollution in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal no petrol or diesel fuelled vehicles were allowed any nearer.

There was an array of options to shuttle us the short distance to the entrance gate from camels, elephants, donkeys, peddling rickshaws, or battery powered bus.

Banhu got us onto the least adventurous as we hummed our way on a shuttle bus towards the ticket office at the East Gate.

rickshaw peddler, Agra
East Gate, Taj  Mahal

He sorted out our entrance fees and chaperoned us through the security checks. Bhanu was a cheerful soul despite being short!

The Taj Mahal was surrounded on three sides by a tall red sandstone perimeter wall. We entered into an inner courtyard alongside a columned arcade. This area would have housed stables, a mosque, and the homes of some of the more important artisans who worked on building the Jewel of India.

I must admit wasn't expecting such a large complex. In it's centre we came to the main entrance, Darwaza-i rauza, the Great Gateway.

Our first glimpse of the stunning white marble perfectly aligned through the arch of the south entrance was absolutely exhilarating.

It was such a spectacular illusion. The Taj Mahal was still quite some distance away yet the "looking through the keyhole" perspective made it appear far closer.

It was fascinating to notice how the arch of Darwaza-i rauza perfectly matched that of the Taj Mahal. The accuracy of the design was astonishing.

We stood here for a while whilst Bhanu filled us in on its fascinating history.

Darwaza-i rauza, Taj Mahal, Agra

The grief stricken Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal fulfilling his third wife Mumatz Mahal's dying wish. Her life ended whilst in childbirth with their fourteenth child, (of which only six survived) and with her last breath she asked Shah Jahan to build her a mausoleum more beautfiul than any the world had ever seen.

She also slipped in another request asking Shah Jahan to promise to never marry again, to which he agreed and kept. This was a tragic love story.

Taj Mahal, Agra

I can't begin to describe how the anticipation built as we walked through the great gateway and the exquisite Taj Mahal was revealed.

To see its full splendour left us speechless.

Bhanu had to usher us to one side as we were blocking the entrance. We were completely awestruck.

Caught in its spell all we could do was stand and stare, just trying to take it all in, delightfully mesmerised, absorbing the most famous sight in the world.

Shah Jahan certainly fulfilled his promise. This was the single most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.

Bhanu had warned us that many visitors are overcome with emotion when they see the Taj Mahal for the first time. He wasn't lying.

A heady cocktail of irrepressible excitement at simply being here; the astonishment at its sheer beauty and majesty; a surging sentiment over a classic love story; it all accumulated to overwhelm me. (Not that I have much alpha male emotional barriers. I cry at the "Britain's Got Talent" auditions!)

I turned to Julie at the moment her tears breached their boundaries and trickled slowly down her cheek. It was such an inspirational moment. We hugged and cried and hugged some more.

We were in the presence of something special and it felt wonderful.

Taj Mahal, Agra

Taj Mahal, Agra

After Bhanu had taken photos of Julie and I and Rob and Carol, we began walking towards our goal.

It was strange, almost implausible but despite strolling for quite some time we didn't feel like we were getting any closer. The sheer scale of the building was deceiving our perception of the distance.

When we reached the lotus pool, halfway between the entrance and the Taj Mahal, Bhanu explained that this was the ideal location to benefit from the full view. Any nearer and we would begin to lose elements of the panorama.

The lotus pond is now forever associated with a modern day tragic love story. Back in 1992 Diana Princess of Wales issued her heart-rendering statement of her solitude by sitting alone and forlorn on a bench at the edge of the pool.

The pool is now busy with couples queuing up to have their photograph taken on the "Diana bench". Julie failed to see the attraction of sitting on a bench of such sorrow

Of course not everyone sitting on the bench were there because of the Princess of Wales, it was actually the best position to have a photograph taken with the whole Taj Mahal behind you and without the interference of the crowds.

the Diana Bench, Taj Mahal, Agra

(Also, technically, the bench used isn't the Diana bench as she sat on the other side but I suppose that was immaterial.)
Taj Mahal, Agra

The closer we got the Taj Mahal the more beautiful it seemed to get. We were beginning to see the detail on the white marble.

It added another element to what was already stunning.

Large panels framed the entrance to the mausoleum with fine Arabic calligraphy inscribing Koranic passages.

They were made with inlaid black marble.

Taj Mahal, Agra

 

Taj Mahal, Agra

This decorative method that was used extensively all over the structure especially in the recurring pattern of a delicate floral design, enveloping the main arch.

It was a style called Pietra Dura and was believed that Emperor Jahangir, (Shah Jahan's father) imported the Florentine technique.

Bhanu told us that the skills and even the pattern books of the artisans who constructed the Taj Mahal's façade were carefully passed down from father to son for generations and whose direct descendents can be visited today in Agra.

He continued with the next chapter of the tragic tale of love and loss with a twist that I was not expecting.

Rumour had it that Shah Jahan had begun planning his own mausoleum, an exact replica of the Taj Mahal but in a black marble.

How mind-blowing would that have been!

It was going to built on the opposite side of the Yamuna river with a marble causeway linking them together in their paradise.

Excavations over the river in the area they call the Moonlight Garden uncovered large pieces of black marble adding some credence to rumour. Or was that just another rumour to perpetuate the myth?

Myth or not the fact is Shah Jahan never got to build his dream.

Taj Mahal, Agra

Taj Mahal, Agra

In 1657 during a moment of weakness brought on by illness his three youngest sons rebelled against him, executing the eldest son and heir. He also assassinated his other two bothers.

Aurangzeb, declared himself the 6th Mughal Emperor by calling Shah Jahan unfit to rule and imprisoning his own father at the Red Fort of Agra.

His only wish was a view of the Taj Mahal from his prison cell.

The legend goes that when he was confined to his deathbed and unable to see his great homage to the love of his life he asked for a precious diamond from which he gleened its reflection.

He died in 1666 still looking at the most beautiful mausoleum the world had ever seen.

The Mughal Empire was never the same again.

Bhanu led us to the base of the plinth upon which the Taj Mahal is built.

Before stepping onto the white marble we either had to remove our shoes or wear comical paper socks over the top of our footwear.

We followed Bhanu's lead and slipped on the socks.

I was struggling to get them on. My size twelve sandals didn't fit that easily into the tearable paper bag.

Then I heard a rip.

I decided to 'make-do' the best I could and followed everyone else onto the plinth.

As I was admiring the super shiny floor of the base I saw Bhanu pointing to my feet. "You're shoes, you're shoes. They're touching the marble. Oh my God" he said a bit flustered, albeit it in a cheerful way as not to upset me.

But the message was clear.

I readjusted my ripped paper sheath a little better across to cover the souls of my shoes. I felt terrible that I could have caused offence. I paid closer attention to my feet after that.

We made our way towards the main entrance.

Before stepping inside the mausoleum Bhanu explained the process of how craftsmen grind down colourful semi precious stones into thin slithers which they insert into identical recesses in the white marble.

After he had stressed the complexity of this meticulous process he reminded us that later we would have the opportunity to visit a store where the artisans' ancestors preserve the skills.

We couldn't deny the loveliness of the artwork.

The floral design in relief was remarkable in its realistic detail.

Apparently the Mughals were great naturalists who believed that flowers were symbols of the divine realm, of heavenly paradise.

We had to queue a little to get inside the tomb chamber where a bottleneck of tourists had naturally built up.

All the waiting was worth it however to see the marble sarcophagi of Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumatz Mahal laying side by side. (Their real grave is actually 30ft below in a crypt which is now closed to the public due to safety concerns.)

As striking as they were their thunder was somewhat stolen by the octagonal screen that surrounded them.

The intricate detail was utterly mesmerising especially when you consider that each panel was carved from a single piece of marble.

courtesy of wkipedia

Bhanu continue to talk about the accomplished work and the source of the materials used in creating such a jewel. "Gems from all corners of the Mughal Empire" he theatrically said.

The delicate partition gave him the opportunity to demonstrate the translucent quality of the marble and one of the colourful gem stones. Rob produced his pocket torch and Bhanu shone the light through the other side of the screen. An orange bloom illuminated brightly as the whole flower filled with the light. It was the only stone to have this quality. I'll be damned if I can remember what stone it was??

We continued our clockwise tour around the tombs until we had reached the entrance once again.

The inner chamber was flanked by four halls which in contrast to almost every other part of the Taj Mahal were rather plainly decorated.

Julie and I with some friends

In the first hall Julie noticed a young girl tugging at the sleeves of her partner and pointing in our direction. Seconds later he approached us to ask for a photo.

"No problem" I said despite Bhanu having explained earlier that no photography was allowed inside. I thought just a quick one won't do any harm.

It turned out however that they didn't want us to take their photo but actually wanted us to be in the photo with them!

Firstly he took a photo of Julie and I with his young wife in the middle, he then handed his camera to Bhanu who looked around very nervously before taking the picture.

It felt strange posing with strangers but to finish off the photo shoot I handed Bhanu my camera so that I could also have a photo of the four of us.

Confused and amused we exited through the Taj Mahal's back door where Bhanu left us to our own devices arranging to meet near the great gateway Darwaza-i rauza in half an hour.

Standing here in the shade we saw the river for the first time.

One couldn't help but imagine a black marble equivalent on the opposite bank!

The Yamuna is one of India's longest yet is still just a tributary to the Ganges.

It had flowed from its source in Himalayan hills, avoiding the Ganges by flowing through Delhi arriving here in Agra before giving itself up to Mother India at Allahbad.

There was already an architectural mirror image already in existence here. On opposing sides of the dazzling Taj Mahal were two identical red sandstone buildings.

The western building was a mosque Taj Mahal Masjid, where the other was built purely for the sake of balance, for architectural aesthetics. Identical in almost every respect it would have been used as a guesthouse.

After struggling to control the flapping paper socks I eventually gave up and decided that it was far easier to take my shoes off and carry them around.

I found the marble floor surprisingly cool on my feet despite baking in the sun.

We walked all the way around the Taj Mahal before deciding to step down off the plinth and spend what little time we had remaining relaxing in the ornamental garden, the Char Bargh.

We sat down facing the Taj Mahal.

"Will you build me something like this when I die?" asked Julie.

"Oh, absolutely," I said "but I've only ever built is a pizza oven. I suppose it's the same thing really only bigger!"

Taj Mahal, Agra

one for the family album, Taj Mahal, Agra

Julie continued "I hope Hannah can visit here one day." triggering another wave of emotion.

"And the boys" I added. "and I'm sure they will."

There weren't many children here but we did see a young couple taking photographs of their insanely wrapped child being hurled up in the air and caught by the safe hands of its mother.

Of course the baby will be too young to remember ever visiting but at least there will be a set of great photographs in the family album.

Despite being full of visitors in never once felt overcrowded or too busy to be comfortable. In fact it often felt as if we were the only two there. We were in a world of our own when our gaze was fixed on the elegant beauty of the Taj.

The fifteen minutes or so spent sitting in the garden was perfect. We could have sat there all day but it was soon time to get up and walk back towards the gateway. We met up with Rob and Carol near the Lotus pond and arrived at the rendezvous with Bhanu on time.

With a steady flow of people pouring in through the main entrance we exited through a side door, turning around for one final look.

Darwaza-i rauza, Taj Mahal, Agra
Taj Mahal, Agra

It was a view that one could never tire of; a sight that continued to amaze despite having looked at it for the past few hours!

It was difficult to say goodbye but eventually we turned our backs on the Taj and walked out through the side door.

The dream was over. We were welcomed back to the real world the moment we stepped outside the East Gate and were set upon by a swarm of hawkers.

We weren't that bothered however as we've become quite good at our "No thank you. No thank you. No thank you." brush off.

 

Bhanu had also warned us not to be fooled by anyone selling marble pieces as it wouldn't even be proper marble and the colourful inlaid gemstones would have been pieces of porous stones soaked in food colouring.

"We will be going to the Emporium next" he added "where you can buy the real thing"

camel transport, Agra

As we left on our buzzing battery bus we were entertained watching everyone else arriving on the back of an elephants, or in camel a cart or squeezed in the back of a large cycle rickshaw.

back of a rickshaw, Agra

I was certainly envious of their more adventurous mode of transport.

We swapped our bus and set off for the marble centre in our diesel fuelled charabang.

inlay marble, Agra

When we arrived we were ushered into a room with several rows of seats, enough to accommodate the bums of a large tour group. On a raised platform, (it could almost have been called a stage), the master craftsmen picked up their tools and jumped to work.

The elder gentleman was busy grinding down the gem stones for the inlay. He manually turned the grinder with a long bow that he pushed and pulled with his right arm whilst he held the wafer thin slices of colour against the grinding stone with his fingers. I was surprised he had any fingers left!

A sales man was giving us a running commentary and drew our attention next to the son who was placing the slithers of gem stones into the recess he'd hewn out of the marble.

Next we were taken into the store where he showed us various examples of their work. "You can spill red wine or coca cola on it and it won't stain" he said and to prove his point he opened a half empty bottle of flat coke and poured it over the white marble table top. We all made the appropriate "ooh, we are impressed" noises.

We were then followed around the store by a personal shopping assistant. Within a minute or so ours was visibly disappointed he had chosen us.

We were completely disinterested and he knew he wasn't going to get a sale out of us.

inlay marble, Agra

Rob and Carol on the other hand were keen on buying something and they decided on a very attractive design on white marble.

There were some stunning examples on show. The large octagonal table tops were a bit out of our price bracket at nearly a thousand pounds! We did see a set of four coasters that we thought perhaps we could stretch to but at £60 they were still a lot of money for something just to place my mug on to avoid staining the bedside cabinet, especially when a beermat does the same trick!

I was now beginning to get very hungry but thankfully it was time for food.

restaurant, Agra

Bhanu took us to a great restaurant where we sat outside in the sunshine.

Ravenous I ordered what they called the Mumatz Thali, described on the menu as a complete meal. They weren't lying but they forgot to mention that it all came on the one tray!

A starter of dhal was next to a deliciously sweet dessert called khir a rice pudding with cardamom, with a bhindi bhaji (okra curry) and a brinjal bhaji (aubergine curry) in close proximity. The meal was completed with a portion of pulao rice and a puri bread; all washed down with a refreshing lassi.

A feast fit for an Queen for only 355 rupees. (Why couldn't they have called it after the King Shah Jahan?!)

Julie wasn't at all hungry but feeling obliged to order something she went for Tadka Dhal which I managed to help her out with.

Whilst browsing the menu Carol confessed to not being a big fan of spicy food. That could be quite a disadvantage whilst travelling in India! We steered her towards a mild palak spinach curry and after they removed the paneer cheese from it I think she enjoyed it.

A small condiments tray on the table, filled with aniseed flavoured seeds to aid the digestion, caught my eye. It was a turning point in my perception of the swastika. Not once did I think Nazi paraphernalia.

I found it to be a very attractive piece of plastic tableware and had to stop myself from slipping into my large bag.

swastika box, Agra
snake charmer, Agra

Beyond the prancing musicians we stopped to browse their little gift shop.

We bought Rory and Tyler a small pop-up paper cobra that sprung up out of its little wicker basket.

Moments later we saw the real thing popping out of a much bigger wicker basket. He also had a fat python in his hand.

Julie gave it a very wide berth on the way back to the minibus.
prancing

Along the way to our next attraction Bhanu amused us by saying that Agra wasn't a large city, it only has a population of 3.2 million, that's all!

Birmingham, the UK's second largest city is only one million!

Agra Fort, Agra

We arrived at the imposing castle-like fort complete with moat and ramparts.

As we walked over the bridge Bhanu began his tour guide history lesson but went off on a tangent when he said "Hey, have you heard of Michael Jackson's conversion to Islam?"

He carried on. "He has changed his name to Mikaeel!" which he found hilarious. I suppose it was a bit feeble, he could have changed his name to something more interesting like "Ali Akbar the artist formerly known as ....".

Cat Stevens did it 1977 and changed his name to Youssef.

Back to the history lesson.

In 1558 the third Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great decided to relocate the capital to Agra. He built on top of an existing brick fort and created a palatial walled city.

Emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan added their own mark on extending the fort.

Walking in through the arches of the Amar Singh gate was extremely atmospheric.

It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. 

Amar Sing gate, Agra Fort
Diwan-i-Aam, Agra Fort

Before long we had come to a large courtyard where a public hall called Diwan-i-Aam stood at the far end.

The emperor would have sat on the fabled Peacock Throne (which has long gone) and met his subjects.

The succession of scalloped arches were quite hypnotic, like an optical illusion; like peacock tail feathers perhaps.

It was fascinating, even if it left me feeling quite dizzy.

Diwan-i-Aam, Agra Fort
Anguri Bargh, Khas Mahal, Agra Fort

The head continued to be placed in a spin as we entered the next area of Agra Fort.

Beyond the public hall we entered a large garden area in front the Khas Mahal, a small white marble palace.

The Anguri Bagh garden was in four identical quarters with a large square pool in its centre. It was however the way it was carpeted by light and dark shades of green that caught the eye. The jigsaw puzzle pattern actually looked like a giant rug.

We didn't stay long here as we followed Bhanu to the left and left the garden to find Shah Jahan's prison cell.

The Musamman Burj was the "cell" in which he was incarcerated until his death.

I had imagined a grim and miserable room with bars on the windows so I was certainly surprised to see such a lavishly decorated room with inlaid white marble as in the Taj Mahal and niches for candles and jewels.

We shouldn't have felt cheated by the tragedy however as this was a gilded cage. He was held under house arrest left alone to suffer his loss. The loss of his freedom, all of his power, his three sons and the love of his life, Mumatz. Now that's more suffering that I would ever care to experience in one lifetime.

Musamman Burj, Agra Fort
glimpse of the Taj Mahal from Musamman Burj, Agra Fort

Bhanu repeated the tale of the emperor's imprisonment by his third son Aurangzeb and how the heart-broken king lost all hope.

His only joy was to gaze over the Yamuna River towards his monument to love.

We could see a door in the corner of this palatial cell. It led to a balcony from which we could just about catch a glimpse of the Taj Mahal.

Unfortunately a barrier stopped us from stepping any further inside the Musamman Burj and standing on the same balcony.

We needn't have worried though as we had plenty of other opportunities to see to glorious sight of the magical Taj in the distance.

We returned back through the Khas Mahal paying more attention to the view rather than the paintwork on the palace's marble ceilings.

Taj Mahal, view from Agra Fort
Taj Mahal, view from Agra Fort

Next we entered the Jahangiri Mahal where the views of the Taj were equally breathtaking.

Even from this distance and unusual angle the Taj Mahal looked impressive.

Bhanu brought our attention back to Agra Fort when he explained that the Jahangiri Mahal was a zenana, an area built to house the emperor's numerous wives. The idea of having an extensive harem but also a "favourite" wife, one who you would build the most beautiful mausoleum the world had ever seen is a little strange to our conservative ways and customs .

Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort,  Agra

It was the way of the world back then in 16th century India. It's strange how the practice hardly exists anymore!

Except for pockets of renegade Mormons perhaps.

Bhanu described how the harem would have live in exquisite splendour. How the walls would have been encrusted with gold and gemstones.

Jahangiri Mahal, Agra Fort,  Agra

"It's a shame it's not been kept intact like the Grand Palace in Bangkok" said Julie.

"That'll be the marauding invaders" I added.

The Mughal's themselves were of course marauding invaders of their time and one of the spoils of war found here when the first emperor Babur captured the brick fort on this hill was the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond.

The British then marauded and appropriated what was once the largest diamond in the world. The 105 carat stone can now be seen set with the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.

We followed Bhanu through the main entrance and out into another quartered garden. In its centre was a large stone tank, reputedly the bathing tub of Nu Jahan, Jahangir's "favourite" wife.
Jahangiri Mahal, Arga Fort
Jahangiri Mahal, Arga Fort

Legend has it that she bathed in water filled with a thousand rose petals.

As we walked down to the Singh Gate we discussed what to do next. Bhanu asked if we'd be interested in visiting a market. "What would you like to buy from India?" he asked.

"A dhal bowl" I replied. He looked at me confused. "But I don't know where." he conceded.

Rob and Carol asked if they could return to the Taj Mahal for the sunset and after a little persuasion Bhanu agreed to take them.

Taj Mahal viewing platform, Mughal Sheraton Hotel, Agra

Even though it was only 4pm Julie and I decided to return to the Mughal Sheraton hotel and experience the sunset from the viewing platform whilst sipping a glass of chilled Indian wine.

How very civilised.

We had the tower to ourselves as we looked over the rooftops towards the ever changing hue of the fairy tale Taj Mahal.

We just sat their with wonderful smiles on our faces. It was a lovely experience. If someone asked me today to "think of a happy place" I would probably return to this moment.

sunset, Agra
sunset at the Taj Mahal view from Sheraton Hotel

Eventually the sun's fading glow left the Taj behind and the moment was over. Time to move on and relocated to our room.

After finding Julie asleep sitting up in bed I decided that we were far too tired to get all dressed up for supper. In a repeat of lunch we ordered exactly the same choices from room service. A rudely awoken Julie just went for a bowl of Tadka Dhal.

"I'm not very hungry" she explained.

I can't remember exactly the point she transferred her appetite over to me but she must have slipped it across when I was sleeping. I was so starving I went for the full Thali.

It consisted of a Dhal Makhani, Paneer Tikka, Aloo Methi, rice, spiced yogurt, tomato and cucumber, and a dessert called Galub Jamin a super sweet doughnut submerged in honey .

I loved every single delicious mouthful.

the full Thali, Mughal Sheraton Hotel, Agra

We were over a week into our Indian Odyssey and all the travelling was beginning to catch up with us. I was still eating when Julie decided to roll over and go to sleep and I followed her as soon as I found myself asleep with a pen in my hand half way through writing up today.

It was only 9pm!

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