And I'm off!... Almost a full month to travel around the north-west of India, in a hectic attempt to take in as many fascinating cities and landscapes as possible! As I mentioned in my last entry, the first leg of my journey was an overnight train to Agra. Unfortunately, this was heavily over-booked, so finding a berth to get some sleep was fairly tricky. After hours of shifting here and there, a kind family took pity on me and harangued the ticket-collector into giving me a berth of my own. I did manage to nod off for a few hours but had to be up early as the train was due in Agra at 0405. Unfortunately we were delayed a few times, ("the first time it's ever happened!" the conductor assured me earnestly), but I had a good time sitting around with other Agra-bound travellers. My few Hindi words & phrases, knowledge of some of the common free-TV ads, and appreciation for the gorgeous Bollywood 'heroines', won me lots of laughs and instant friends. Of course, as always, the eyebrow piercing was the first thing they all asked about.
In the end, we finally pulled in to Agra at 0730
so my grand plan of watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal didn't quite work out, (or at least, it was delayed til the next day). Stepping off the train, I had to smile at my own reaction to seeing my first foreigners for a couple of months. The elderly American couple passing me in the station didn't even seem to notice me, but I did a sort of double-take and I'm sure the look on my face could best have been translated as "Whoa, check it out, foreigners!..." Exactly the sort of look I've gotten pretty much every day over the last three months in Paratwada. =P
After fending off a few half-hearted auto drivers (the auto is basically like Thailand's tuk-tuk), I located the 'pre-paid' counter, (set rates for given locations), and set off for Taj Ganj. This is the busy slum area just to the south of the Taj Mahal, originally housing the army of builders and craftsmen who worked on the Taj, (from as far afield as Central Asia and Europe). Quickly settling on one of the many cheap hotels in this area, (a room to myself for less than $5 a night), I
dropped my bag in my room, happily reaquainted myself with flush toilets (and toilet paper!), and then wearily climbed the steps to the hotel's rooftop restaurant. As I emerged from the staircase, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, there in front of me was the Taj... Words fail me when I try to describe the feeling of seeing this incredible building for the first time. Rudyard Kipling called it "the embodiment of all things pure". Rabindranath Tagore, (an Indian poet), "a teardrop on the face of eternity". Neither came close.
You may be a little skeptical at this point, especially considering the quality of the photos that I'll be putting up with this entry. You'll just have to take my word for it - none of my photos comes even close to capturing the beauty of the Taj.
I spent ages trying to figure out exactly what it is that makes the Taj so inspiring. In the end, I think my mum (who visited when she was 12) was right on the money when she said it's at least partly due to the contrast between the majestic Taj and the slums that surround it. In a master-stroke
Kids take a bit of time off herding buffalo
Of course, the big smiles are mostly because I gave them a few rupees after (unsuccessfully) trying to sneak a photo of their buffalo in front of the Taj.
of design, it was built on a raised platform, so the backdrop is always sky. This makes the luminous building seem to rise up out of the congested & filthy slums below - even to float serenely above them. I am certain that if you were to somehow shift the Taj to a cleaner, more peaceful city, it would lose a lot of its power. As it is, when you're gazing up at the Taj, surrounded by the hustle & bustle of the dark streets and smoky shacks, it feels as if you're looking into another world. The movement of the hawks lazily circling the soaring minarets, the tourists swarming like ants over the base, the hectic lives being lived in the streets below... All of this just seems to emphasise the untouchable serenity of the Taj Mahal.
For anyone interested in a little history: the Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife, who died in childbirth, (giving birth to their fourteenth child!). Evidently the emperor was particularly fond of her, to put it lightly. The Taj is often called the most glorious monument every built for the sake of love.
Legend has it that he was so distraught at her death, that his hair turned grey overnight. Construction on the Taj began the same year, (1631), and continued for 22 years.
(By the way, just in case anyone is impressed by my erudite literary references and grasp of local history, I should admit that I'm usually just shamelessly paraphrasing the Lonely Planet guide. =P)
I only stayed in Agra one full day, then caught a bus on to the next destination on my whirlwind tour. The desert state of Rajasthan is a land with a fascinating history of chivalry, honour and romance. I'd been looking forward to travelling here since I first found out I'd be working in India. Will it live up to my expectations?... Find out in the next exciting (cough, cough) installment of my adventures in India. =)
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