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Published: March 14th 2013
Taj Mahal 1'The Pearl of India' - India - 7 Mumbai-Udaipur-Ranakpur-Jodhpur-Nagaur-Roopangarh-Jaipur-Ranthambore-Keoladeo-Fatehpur Sikri-Chambal-Agra-Delhi
A sharp intake of breath......
-Shimla-Dharamsala-Pong-Amritsar Agra to Delhi 5th March 2013 'The Pearl of India'
And so we came to Agra.
For, as the Eiffel Tower is to France, Sydney Harbour Bridge is to Australia and the Statue of Liberty is to The United States of America, so the Taj Mahal is to India. It is impossible to miss. Impossible to miss on your first visit to India. Impossible to miss at any given opportunity, as my little brother Mike will tell you. This is his fifth visit.
The city of Agra is much like any other; at least any other in the India we have observed on this journey. There is richness indeed and there is poverty aplenty. But there is also much of beauty. And there is little doubt from our reading that the Taj Mahal is a thing of beauty beyond belief.- and best seen at sunrise or sunset.
Another long night, dreaming of tomorrow. It's 06.30 and we're standing in the long queue waiting for security and body checks as
Sunrise Taj Mahal
A giant pearl glistening in mellow sunlight, a fine romance in symmetry.
the gates open at sunrise, 06.41.
There is only one real reason to visit Agra and this is the moment. Through the gate the pace quickens, much in the way a football crowd faces the moment of anticipation, the kick-off in an important match.
It's sunrise at the 17th century Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Love is a very powerful thing; and it shows the very instant the long awaited image appears through the entrance arch. A giant pearl glistening in mellow sunlight, a fine romance in symmetry, a 44m high dome at its centre, cornered by four tapering minarets; a true masterpiece of feminine elegance. This first sight is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath as the throng stands silently in awe. A lady beside us, British perhaps, wiped her eyes with a tissue. 'I'm sorry', she sobbed. 'I can't help but cry.'
For it is indeed a tear-drop. The Taj Mahal stands in a world of its own, without the distraction of any thing other than a cobalt Indian sky; a white marble monument to love, embelished with intricate floral patterns of
inlaid precious stones. Above the Lotus Pool, people jostle to be photographed on the 'Diana' marble bench as we join the camera snappers for one last classic picture. This is without question the world's most beautiful building. We had to see it twice.
Our arrival in Agra at midday the previous day allowed us time to visit the 16th century Mughal marble tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah. Intricate stone inlay sparkled in the afternoon sunlight and latticed stone partitions threw dappled light on the marble floors of this quite delightful garden tomb, often referred to as the 'Baby Taj'. On reflection we were marking time; delaying the raptuous moment when we first set our eyes on the real thing. That moment was scheduled to be savoured at sunset; around 6.30pm, from Mehtab Bagh, the gardens across the river.
Still marking time, we ventured to Agra Fort. Yes, another Red Fort, high above the Yamuna River, its red sandstone ramparts standing proudly beyond the dry moat. There are many beautiful buildings within the walls of the fort but the imposing arches of the courtyard of the Diwan-i-Aam, where the emperor held public audiences are a delight to
behold. It's possible to sneak a preview of the Taj Mahal from the fort ramparts, half a mile distant, our first peek so to speak, a stolen moment while the magical lady is not looking. In our excitement we finally arrived across the river with an hour to spare, strolled the gardens of Mehtab Bagh and sat on a wall behind the barbed-wire security fence patrolled by armed guards, staring in quiet disbelief as the sun's warm glow finally fell across the dazzling white marble dome and minarets.
Later that same evening, we returned to the fort for the 'Son et Lumiere', in English. Sad to relate, we all nodded off. It had been another long day. An Indian lady introduced herself to us while we waited for the show. Dorothy told us she teaches English at a school in Delhi. Now we understand why all Indains speak English with that delightful lilting Indian accent.
The Agra to Delhi toll motorway has been open for just 6 months, cutting a great swathe through flat farmland and acres of brickworks, but there is little traffic using the six lanes and it all seems rather a
Agra Fort 1
The imposing arches of the courtyard of the Diwan-i-Aam,
waste of money just yet. Perhaps it's the tolls that restrict the traffic. Many lorries stood broken down on the hard-shoulder and rescue vehicles were busy pulling wrecked cars from the surrounding fields. Speed awareness and proper vehicle maintenance will come with time no doubt and speed is evidently the cause of most accidents in the country - or is it wandering cows? Signs by the roadside read; 'Divorce your speed, not your wife', 'Kill your speed - better late than never', and 'We like you, but not your speed'.
There are signs of progress in the countryside too. Mahindra, Ford, Farmtrac and Massey Ferguson tractors feature amongst the home-made variety, all towing excessive loads or carrying a dozen or two farmhands to the fields in trailers. Newspapers talk of a horrific scam surrounding government loan waivers given to farmers to purchase new tractors. Only a tiny proportion of the money ever bought tractors or reached the farmers aparently. An investigation is under way. Corruption is rife here if you believe the newspapers and that's not helping the economy. Delhi
Imagine! A city of 20m people. India's capital city. With only a day
or two here, there's insufficient time for us to count them all. Tower block after tower block rises on the skyline as we navigate our way to our homestay near the centre. Our priority is to visit Old Delhi, to savour the sights, sounds and smells of this ancient city centre. Hankering for some relief from the hot spices of Indian food we ventured into a Chinese restaurant, only to be disappointed. The Chinese are hedging their bets and serving their meals spiced up for the Indian palette!
A ten-minute walk to the Metro took us past pavement dwellers in their tarpaulin shelters, washing at the communal tap, kids playing, mums cooking, holes in the footpath and no manhole covers. The streets are clean and Delhi's Metro is fast, efficient and also spotless. Two Metro journeys for the three of us totalled 130 Rupees, £1.37! To get things underway we made a start at the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, a fascinating complex of Muslim ruins from the late 12th century. The focus is the monumental Qutb Minar victory tower standing 72.5m high. One cannot wonder at the skills required to erect such a structure using bamboo poles and
rope for scaffolding and manual labour to craft the stone. Deep in this thought, I sat quietly in the shade for a moment, mopping perspiration from my brow - and managed to sit on my glasses! Bad news. But this is not necessarily the end of the world for the seasoned traveller who always carries his old prescription glasses somewhere in the suitcase - which happens to be back at the homestay. Never mind. Press on regardless but watch where you're going and don't expect to read the menu at lunchtime.
Somehow we found our way to the Old Delhi we had come to see and with lady-luck back with us ended up in vision alley! Spec shops galore! We picked the most friendly looking shop, where Janice produced one lens and a screw from her bag and I scrabbled around in my pocket for the rest. The optician looked down at the tangled mess of wire, two loose lenses and a couple of tiny screws, shaking his head in disbelief. 'Can you do anything with this?' I ventured to ask.
He waggled his head right and left, right and left, in true Indian fashion. I'm
thinking the worst. Still shaking his head, he wandered to the back of the shop and returned from behind the curtain five minutes later with my glasses as good as new. The charge for repair? Ten Rupees (£0.12p). I generously offered twenty in true gratitude but he wouldn't accept my offer! We laughed with them, stiill shaking their heads. That's India.
I don't think we have ever experienced such chaos as met us in the Old City's Chandni Chowk. The ear-numbing roar of cars and lorries, motorised tuktuks and tooting taxis, bikes and scooters, donkey carts and rickshaws, all in as many lanes as it takes to keep the traffic splashing in puddles and every last man fighting for supremacy. At great risk to life and limb we crossed the road into the narrow trafficless streets and bazaars and into the noisy land of scintillating commerce. This is a land of hulabaloo, the jostling crowds all looking and listening amongst the litter and glitter of jewels, the hub-bub amongst the rubble, the rickshaw riders, the porters with sacks and sorters of rubbish, the sneezing of spices that tickle the nose and the nuts and pickles that overflow
the sidewalk. Here is the street with peppers and chilllies, tea by the ton, shoes for mum and shoes for the kids, a lane for leather and a lane for cooking, a cycle rickshaw runs over your toes. There's an alley for Bolywood DVDs and another for paper and invites for weddings - and best of all the wholesale fabrics, the colourful crescendo of silk and turbaned Sikh! Utter wonderful chaos! And up above, the crumbling buildings, faded paint and broken shutters, electric cables and telephone wires all in a tangle like grandma's knitting.
For light relief we popped into Karim's for dinner; mutton biryani, brain curry, plain rice, chicken burra, butter naan, another pub with no beer, just across the road from the three marble-domed 17th century Jami Masjid, India's largest mosque.
Further afield and built in more recent times, the Lotus Temple, Baha'i House of Worship, built in 1986, brought our brief affair with Delhi to an end. The Baha'i faith follows the belief of humanity as one single race, the 'Lotus the dream of all cultures' depicted by the 27 magnificent white-marble petals and 9 surrounding pools. Here, followers of all
faiths may pray and meditate within the peaceful auditorium. A delightful contrast of faith and architecture for us to ponder as we prepare to depart from Delhi.
Tomorrow we plan to move on to Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas, the summer seat of the Raj. It's a long train journey and we have to catch the 05.20 from Delhi Station, so we'll say good-night for now, and set the alarm for 4am.
For my little brother, Mike's, take on our five-weeks in India, go to: Keep Smiling
David and Janice
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