Monday, March 16, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 9: Agra (The Taj Mahal)



When I told the driver who showed me around Delhi that the hotel wanted to charge me an arm and a leg for a driver to take me to Agra, he wasn't surprised. He offered to call the travel company he used to work for to find a cheaper option for me. This is how things just work out in India, you know? I took him up on his offer and the next morning, I met another driver around 6:30. It was a roughly 3 hour drive to get to Agra and the rain was worse than it was the day before. This weather was not normal for this time of year. The rain was unlike anything I'd ever seen. I would not have driven in it. That's how bad it was. No visibility. Sheets of monsoon-like rain made me question my decision to go see the Taj Mahal. Perhaps I should have stayed local and gone to the mall or something. The driver insisted that the weather would clear up. How could he be so confident?
Passed this guy on the way to the gate of the Taj Mahal
We stopped at a rest stop on the highway about half way through our trip. I ran reluctantly through the pouring rain to get a cup of chai and a pastry. When we got back to the car, I put on my eye mask and travel pillow, reclined the seat, and fell asleep to Alec Baldwin interviewing Julie Andrews in my headphones. Here's the Thing didn't drown out the sound of the rain. I woke up as we exited the highway, which, by the way, was the only road in India that was not entirely occupied by vehicles. The new toll road passed through idyllic fields of wheat dotted by straw huts where I imagine life is nothing like the city life I'd seen up close.
These camels, and the guys offering camel-drawn carriage rides, didn't seem too happy.
The skies began to clear as we entered Agra. Unbelievable. A local guide joined us and took me to the gate of the Taj Mahal where I paid for my ticket and reluctantly agreed to allow a kid with a camera accompany us. There were cows roaming near the ticket counter and monkeys on the roof of the building adjacent to the security line.
An absolutely normal sight
I couldn't believe it, but the sky was gradually turning from grey to blue. Would the sun make an appearance?
Still raining at the ticket counter

Red sandstone. Jewel-inlayed marble.
The Taj Mahal was beautiful. I felt like a silly American tourist getting so many ridiculous pictures taken. My guide and the photographer had me assume cliche poses for my Taj Mahal photo shoot. My running shoes and extra pudge (both courtesy of my recent foot surgery) didn't bode well for the photographer. I bargained for 4 prints and a CD of the images. I didn't need any of them since we took most of the pictures with my camera as well, but I felt bad giving him an outright no after he worked so hard to get me to sit, stand, look, turn, and smile in so many places.

We visited the museum against the advice of my guide. He didn't think it was worth it and I can see why, but the small building housed small paintings of the wife of the Mughal emperor for which the Taj Mahal was built. She died giving birth to their 14th child and the Taj Mahal is her tomb, not a palace as is often presumed. The building itself is constructed of marble and decorated with intricate jewel inlay. I donned the special shoe coverings to go inside and see the tombs up close. I wondered what the common people of the time thought about this ridiculously lavish grave.

Lunch. At an Indian buffet. In India.
The river on which the Taj Mahal was built is nearly dry now, but I imagine it was a beautiful river when construction began. I also imagine I would have enjoyed an audio tour of the grounds, as my guide, who had lived his whole life in Agra, didn't shed much new light on the tomb that I hadn't already read in my Lonely Planet. After the Taj Mahal, I insisted that I stop for lunch. I was so hungry and suggested a few places from my guidebook to the guide and the driver. They weren't thrilled with the idea of stopping since we had more to see, but I needed to eat something. The restaurant we ended up at had a buffet upstairs that included some Indian and Chinese staples and was full of tourists. Go figure.
Jewels being inlayed into marble
After lunch, we stopped somewhere so I could see how the jewels are carved for marble inlay. 4 men worked diligently on the floor shaving jewels and chiseling marble slabs as another explained how these men are the descendants of the ones who adorned the Taj Mahal with the same jewels they were using today.
Descendants of the workers who did the jewel inlay at the Taj Mahal

Then I got lead into a room full of marble tables. I was well-versed at this game by now, looked the sales guy square in the eyes and said firmly, "I live in a small apartment. I don't have the space, the need, or the money for anything in this room. I'm not going to buy anything here." I was so proud of myself... until I was lead to a smaller room with smaller items made of marble. There were candle holders and trinket boxes and ash trays. I emphasized my disinterest as I eyed a small marble box with green jewel inlay. It would make a wonderful gift for my mother-in-law, but I wasn't sure she'd like it and for the money, I knew I could find her a gift she would like and use more. I stood firm and asked to leave. Our next stop was a jeweler where I could see some of the fine jewels that were only available here in Agra. Nope, sorry dude... not buying anything! I knew where the exit was this time and used it promptly.
Red Fort
The driver and the guide were disappointed when I returned to the car empty-handed. Next, we went to The Red Fort of Agra. This one was interesting because it served so many purposes over multiple generations: a fort; a palace; a prison. It was equipped with plumbing. Parts were made of sandstone while others were comprised of marble depending on who built them when. There were wonderful views of the Taj Mahal and beautiful gardens within the walls.

The Red Fort of Agra 
Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Agra Fort, from which he had a view of the building erected for his deceased wife. I won't bore you with more things you can learn elsewhere. If you're a history lover, you might enjoy this quick read: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/251.

Parts of the Red Fort are constructed of white marble 
We didn't spend long at the Fort. Again, I felt like an audio tour would have done it more justice, but time was running out and I was exhausted! The skies remained clear for the journey back to Delhi and I managed to stay awake long enough to admire the agricultural landscapes dotted by straw huts. As we got closer to the city, it became evident that the farms were being developed as one of the world's largest megacities continued its expansion. Delhi has become the world's second most populous city after Tokyo, more than doubling its population since 1990 to 25 million (source). The skyscrapers that would house luxury condos being constructed prompted me to ask my driver whether the growth was due to migration from the country like in China. He said no, it's mostly from familial growth.

View of the Red Fort from the entrance
We chatted about our families for a bit. He asked me about my husband and specifically asked if it was a "love marriage." I explained that arranged marriages weren't really a thing in the US, which he found quite curious. I asked about his family. Both of his parents were dead and he cared for his high school aged brother and college aged sister. I got the impression that not having parents to help arrange a marriage for him was weighing on him. It was clear that he wanted to be married but it seemed like that just wasn't an option for him at the moment. For now, he was trying his hand at a sales job at a bank but he didn't like it and driving apparently paid more.

As we left Agra, there were tons of these panchii shops that sold candy. My driver hopped out to get me a piece to try.
As we got closer to the hotel, the traffic intensified. It was a bit scary in the dark. We stopped at one more emporium where I would have bought a bedding set had we not just received a beautiful one for our wedding. I got a few small souvenirs, but was holding out for the mall attached to the hotel. Unfortunately it was pretty late by the time we got back and the mall was closed. I ate a very global dinner at the hotel restaurant, which had stations representing every continent, and went back to shower, pack, and nap before my 4 am flight to LA for the next segment of this 19-day road trip.
Life on the streets of Agra
I have been trying to add pictures to some of the previous posts in this series. It's slow-going but Mumbai pictures are up here