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Published: April 13th 2011
So much to catch up on! We'll stay chonologicallyas much as possible...
On Tuesday, April 5, Holly's birthday, we hired a driver to to take us to and from Agra where the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort are located, about a 3 hour drive frm Gobind Sadan. This was our first venture beyond the insulation of the ashram, into a broader experience of the region.
Keeping in mind that driving is on the left in India, the road between Delhi and Agra is 4 lanes with a medium strip of varying widths (2 lanes in each direction). Some sections have been upgraded to "highway" standards with shoulders and fully painted lanes. Other sections, especially those transversing towns, have no painted boundary between the outer lane and the side of the road. This creates a rather vague zone between vehicular space and human/animal space. As a result, we were in for a driving experience like no other!
The road serves all without exception. Unlike US highways that forbid and enforce limitations on bicycles, pedestrians, horses and so on, the road between Delhi and Agra included everything imaginable. Beyond the expected cars, trucks, and buses, there were motorcycles with anywhere
Semi-precious stone inlay
These stones glow in the moonlight!
from 1 to 4 adults. Families of 2 adults and 3 small children on a motorcycle were common. Motorcycle helmets were sold by vendors along the way, but most riders were helmetless. The green and yellow, 3-wheeled motorized rickshaws frequently served as comuter vans, filled with a dozen ormore people. Bicycles were ubiquitous, often with more than 1 rider and/or a load of cargo, anything from a stach of 20 foot long PVC pipes to a mountain of cut grasses or sticks that virtually obscured the bicycle.
Finally, add those on foot to the melee, both 2-footed and 4-footed. Along with carts pulled by horses, buffalos, and camels, cows, goats, and dogs roamed freely. Countless times, we saw cows and large bulls standng or lying in the medium strip, or even in the middle of an intersection with traffic negotiating its way around them. Along with walking along the roadway, people were often gathered, sitting on the shoulder or road edge, inches from the vehicular traffic whizzing by. In towns, vendors even set up their carts partially in the outer lanes. And in the more open stretches, some vendors actually setup baricades across both lanes which we had to
Agra Fort King's cell
A well-appointed prison cell!
weave through. Presumably, their thinking was that if we had to slow down, perhaps we'd be more likely to stop and buy a soda or bottled water.
The ultimate irony was seeing a traffic sign that read "Lane Driving is Safe Driving". The 2 lanes heading our direction at that point were, in actuality, 4 lanes across filled with the myriad collection of vehicles and beings, painted lane lines clearly irrelevant!
Many times on this drive, we clutched hands thinking this was it, and glad our life insurance premiums are paid up! Happily, our driver was excellent, not too speedy, but confident and skilled. This was helpful in our surrender which began when he picked us up at 5am. We had reached for our seatbelts and he said "No problem." Upon further investigation, we found that the buckle section of our belts was missing in our otherwise new-looking Tata sedan (seen everywhere, including trucks).
We had been forewarned that trash is everywhere in India, and these warnings were not exaggerated. The towns, especially, were ridden with trash. Certain areas appeared to be intentional heaps, and it was common to see cows, dogs and pigs rummaging through the debris.
Despite the chaos of the multitude living amidst the trash and dust, there was a sense of ineffable beauty at the same time.The age-old dilemma of individual freedom vs. the welfare of the group surfaced in our minds. Freedom can certainly appear chaotic at times. It was easy to imagine the dangers of these arrangements along the Delhi/Agra road. Yet, in 6 hours of driving, we saw 1 dead dog, compared to the many beloved animals we, alone, have lost in our regulated and quiet little Gurleyville.
There is no question that many people along the way appeared strained if not desparate. Sometimes, when we stopped at a red light (we never did figure out what prompted our driver to stop at some red lights and not others!), children surrounded the car begging. They were filthy, forlorn, and utterly heart-breaking. And the thought that they might be victims of human trafficking, on top of it all, was gut-wrenching. It highlighted the beauty of the mission here at Gobind Sadan where even if someone is poor, they are safe and reflect joy in life.
In many ways, the drive was the most, literally, impressive part of the day. Nonetheless, the Taj Mahal is impressive, indeed. Photos do not do it justice. Bult in the mid-1600s, it is more than a mausoleum structure and is surronded by beautiful gardens and an array of enormous outer buildings, gates and walls. The mausoleum overlooks the Yamuna River (1 of the 3 sacred rivers of India along with the Ganges and the Srasvati), diagonally across from Agra Fort (dating back 1000 years) which served as the residence of the Mugel dynasty. (Wikipedia can offer the whole story much better.) The king who built the Taj Mahal was imprisoned for the last 8 years of his life by his youngest son who apparently felt Dad was way overspending the family money. The king's "cell" in Agra Fort, itself quite beautiful in white marble, has the most spectacular view of the Taj Mahal mausoleum, so he was able to commune with his beloved queen from afar.
The mausoleum is all in beautiful white marble, covered with relief sculpture and amazing inlay work of jaspur, lapis lazuli, carolinean and other semi-precious stones. Some of these reflect light in wondrous ways which creates the famous moonlight glow. The surronding walls, gates, and other structures are from red sandstone, setting off the white marble of the mausoleum to great effect. No wonder it is included on the list of the 7 wonders of the world.
Agra Fort is enormous with 70 foot high walls surrounded by a moat (now dry) complete with drawbridge. Largely red sandstone, it also contains some exquisite white marble structures (such as the king's "cell") built by the same king. Historically, there were many more of these marble edifices that were destroyed by the British during their occupation of Agra Fort.
The city of Agra was chaotic and littered, but we were intrigued by what appears to be a new movement of awareness. We saw many signs sporting the encouragement "Green Agra Clean Agra". The city also had some impressive statues in roundabouts of historical figures on horseback. Speaking of statues, we also passed, en route, several enormous statues (as much as 100 feet tall), one of which we did recognize as one of the 3 main Hindu gods, Shiva.
We arrived back at Gobind Sadan around 6:30pm, totally overstimulated and delighted with our amazing day.
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