Published: January 11th 2009January 3rd 2009
The classic Taj photo
with artistic crookedness
The driver started doing that trick again, revving the engine, honking the horn and inching forward. But by now we knew it didn't amount to anything and after a minute or two of this he got bored and went back to snoozing behind the wheel, the engine ticking over. I sighed with self reproach as I watched yet another near-empty government bus roll by. I passed the time by observing the subtleties around me that betrayed the fact that we were back in India; the whiff of paan in the air, the distorted bollywood music being played at excessive volume, an insurmountable level of activity going on outside which made the cramped bus seat feel quite luxurious.
Two hours earlier, crossing the border, we tried to prepare ourselves for the inevitable onslaught which lay beyond the checkpost. "Whatever happens," I said "let's just make sure we get on a government bus. We don't want a repeat of last time." But we'd become unaccustomed to making decisions under pressure. We reached the bus stand and tried to elicit information from the crowd of men gathered around us. The government bus was empty and wasn't scheduled to leave for another 45 minutes, but
the private bus idling nearby had only two vacant seats left. Casting aside our hard-earned prejudices against Indian private buses, we clambered aboard. The other passengers were sitting patiently, absorbed in the movie being screened at the front. We took our seats, relieved with the knowledge that we would indeed catch the morning train from Gorakhpur. But when we bought the tickets we'd forgotten that lack of seats is no indication of fullness in Indian buses.
When we did finally depart, the journey to Gorakhpur was swift and we arrived by about 10pm. The area around the train station is pretty squalid, but the fifth hotel we looked at didn't seem completely rat infested. After sitting down to our first thali for four months we began to feel quite excited about being back in India.
The train journey to Varanasi was fairly uneventful. A number of times random guys would approach me, point to my torn and ragged trousers then flip their hand over, palm up, fingers outstretched in that ubiquitous Indian gesture which can only be translated as "What the fuck?" I was getting tired of hearing about this. For several days now the kids at Happy Home had
been constantly bringing my attention to the growing rip in the knee, "Uncle, broken!" they would proclaim in horror. But looking around now it was clear that we were by far the worst dressed people on the train. I was suddenly very conscious of tattered and ragged attire and our status as bums. I began to feel that our revolution was over, that we'd lost. Perhaps we should do what our parents did and get a job. It was they who'd bought me the only respectable looking garments I was wearing; my hiking trainers. Despite 6 months of continual wear and 8 weeks of trekking in the Himalayas they were still holding up nicely.
After a few hours' wait in Varanasi we boarded the train to Agra. It was busy and almost every berth was taken. As we tried to make ourselves comfortable a stream of begging lepers began to flow through the carriage. One was particularly persistent and knelt down on the floor by me, touching my bare feet beseechingly. After firmly shaking my head a few times I proceeded to ignore him and buried my nose deeper in my book. Eventually he gave up and scuttled off without
stopping to ask anyone else for alms.
Soon the train rolled out of the station and it wasn't long before people started preparing their beds for the night. Following suit, I got up to go to the latrine. But reaching under the bunk I couldn't find my trainers. I pulled out the other luggage stowed under there but it revealed no shoes. They were gone. Then it dawned on me. That leper was a very sneaky man. The initial shock and anger I felt was soon overcome by a sense of awe at how smooth and crafty he was. I am usually quite cautious but I'd never suspected him of foul play.
The train was only 4 hours late and arrived in Agra at the more reasonable time of 10am. I got myself a cheap pair of slippers at the station and we marched through the wall of rickshaw drivers gathered at the entrance and out into the city. Like so many Indian cities, modern day Agra is crowded and grotty. Many of the open sewers are dangerously close to overflowing and the noise and fumes created by the excess traffic are less than comforting. But it must have been
a different story 350 years ago. From the mid 16th to mid 17th century the massive Agra fort was the seat of the Mughal empire. The city is home to many grand buildings from this period, including the impressive Jama Masjid, the mausoleum of Akbar the Great and of course the Taj Mahal. The Taj is the mausoleum of Mumatz Mahal, Emperor Shah Jehan's favourite wife. She died giving birth to her 14th child in 1631. She and Shah Jehan both now lie in tombs inside the Taj Mahal but they are off limits to visitors.
In 1571 Akbar the Great moved the capital to nearby Fatehpur Sikri. In a short period of time he succeeded in erecting an amazing array of palaces and mosques before it was discovered that there was an insufficient water supply to support the population. After only 20 years the capital was moved back to Agra, but the palaces remain and represent some fine examples of splendid mughal architecture.
Agra is not the sort of place where one feels the urge to linger unnecessarily, so after seeing some of the main sights we said goodbye and boarded a bus heading towards India's wild west, the
state of Rajasthan.
There are more photos below