Agra and The Taj Mahal 2009

Doosa is

8-20.11.2009. Arriving at 6am on another cold and misty morning, Agra was the home to the most famous iconic Indian tourist attraction being the Taj Mahal. I had three days here to see four main attractions, busy times ahead. Although being very tired and annoyed with the pestering all the time, I was becoming very aware that India was a huge country. With so much diversity and so many places to see with so little time.

I was going to see the Taj Mahal the next day and I was going to visit it at sunrise. Sunrise is the best time of the day to see the monument. The morning light the alllows all the colours to be thrown onto it by the rising sun. Also it was to avoid the thousands of lazy tourists favoring their beds instead of an early start. After a short snooze at my latest non descript guesthouse I ventured out into the town in search of the Agra Fort and the “Baby Taj””. I stepped out of the hotel to head to the Fort on a Tuk Tuk. Upon arrival at the fort I battled my way through 1,000’s of hawkers and touts outside the fort to get in.

The impending huge walls of the fort constructed of red sandstone.  It was an imposing sight even in this day and age. It was built in part by the Emperor Akbar in 1565 but additions where continually made up to 1658. The Fort is a colossal structure with walls 20m high around a number of many different structures, mosques and buildings inside the fort. The main attractions inside the fort are Diwan-i-Am and Diwan-i-khas (Halls of Audiences),Mussamman Burj (octagonal tower) and Jehangirs Palace. The buildings inside the fort were all beautifully preserved and carved with many fancy scribes and styles. It was here from the walls of the fort where I first saw the mighty Taj Mahal. The Taj rose from the surrounding area and glowed a beautiful reddish colour in the afternoon sun. It left me speechless as it was such an impressive sight that jutted out amongst the surrounding area.

I spent a couple of hours around Agra fort not only for the beautiful architecture but also for the peace and quiet. I had also started to note the increase in tourist groups. There were a lot of large Americans all huffing and puffing their way around in the mid day heat. After the fort I headed on a short tuk tuk ride across the river to Itimad-ud-Daulah nicknamed the “Baby Taj”. This is due to the design comparisons of the bigger Taj Mahal. The Baby Taj holds the tomb of Ghiyas Beg and his daughter and he built the tomb from 1622 – 1628. It is built entirely of marble and although short and squat compared to the real Taj Mahal it has fine marble lattice work and patterns.

Later back at the hotel I was treated to the hotel porter knocking on my door asking every 5 mins if I wanted anything. Obviously the security guard was looking for “baksheesh” (tips). I guess here you get hassle even in the supposed safety of your hotel room.

I went out later for a meal across the road and possibly the best curry so far in India – Chicken Tikka Ladaber. A fiery red tomato based curry with a couple of butter nans. Exquisite and still I had no Dehli belly yet in India! Asian street food had served me well and built up my constitution. The next morning i was up bright and early. 5am to be exact and I was speeding through the cold and dark back streets of Agra. I was on my way to the most extravagant monument ever built for love – The Taj Mahal.

After partly seeing this huge marble mausoleum the previous day I was looking forward to seeing what India’s most famous tourist emblem was like close up. I was not going to be disappointed. The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in child birth in 1631. His first wife obviously didn’t leave as much of an impression on him! However, his second wife left him heartbroken and is said that the pain turned his hair grey overnight after her death.

It took 22 years to complete and used around 20,000 people from all over India and Central Asia and cost around $60m in today’s money. The central structure is built upon a raised marble base at the northern end of ornamental gardens. On each corner of the of the platform are towering minarets. Gracing each side away from the center piece are  two red sandstone buildings, one of which is a mosque. The one facing west is purely for symmetry due to its counterparts position facing mecca.

I entered the complex through the west courtyard with around 50 other eager tourists, luckily 5am was too early for many hawkers too. After a very imposing body and bag search you enter into the main complex where you get your first view of the Taj Mahal. It is stunning to say the very least. From here you battle for position amongst the other tourists to take your first photos of this magnificent monument in the morning sun. The Taj Mahal is a huge spectacle which gradually changes colour as the sun burns through the early morning haze.

As you walk through the gardens and get closer to the Taj Mahal you start to notice the intricate designs adorning the front and sides of the building. Constructed of pure marble and carved with inlaid semi precious stones in wonderful patterns the building is pure symmetry. Also across the four massive archways of the central building are quotations from the Quran and on top of this building sits the iconic bulbous dome.

Sitting inside and directly below the central dome is the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal and the beside that is the cenotaph of Shan Jahan. This is the only non symmetrical part of the whole masterpiece. I stayed in and around the Taj Mahal for well over two hours taking photos from varying points around it but mostly standing and sitting in awe of the magical and amazing structure. Soon it was time to press on as hordes of tourists where transcending on the monument. It was back outside amid a frenzy of hawkers and artifact shop keepers and onto to the next tourist attraction of the day.

It was a short one hour public bus ride (20p) from the main bus depot to Fatehpur Sikri. Onto see the fortified ghost city of Emperor Akbar and capital of the Mughal empire between 1571 and 1585. A short reign in history mainly due to the site on which he constructed this amazing city suffered massive water shortages. The city was abandoned shortly after his death but is well worth a visit due to its very different architectural style. Abkar himself was regarded as one of the greatest Mughals. This is mainly due to his bloody expansion of the empire, abolition of varying taxes but also due to his religious views. He believed in Sulh-i-Kul (peace for all) and believed in a tolerance of all religious views. His views were so lenient that amongst his 5,000 or so wives (how he entertained them all is somewhat mystifying!) his favourite three wives were one of each religion – Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

The complex of Fatephur is made up of Jama Masijd (which holds the beautiful mosque) and the old city which contains the palaces for the late great Akbar. Jama itself seems like a huge massive courtyard and is an impressive sight on its own bar the many stalls selling hand carved ornaments. The old city however is much more beautiful with stunning architecture. The design inside the city are made up of blends from Hindu, Christian, Muslim and even some Chinese. The varying attractions in the old city from Palace of Jadh Bai, Panch Mahal (area for ladies of the court), the Treasury and the Diwan-i-Khas (audience hall) are a myriad of red sandstone beauty. It took me around 2 hours to maze my way around the complex. I even opted for my own personal tour guide for the princely sum of £1.20 which was well worth it.

Afternoon was drawing in and I headed back to Agra after battling through yet more masses of hawkers. I was heading back for a well deserved rest from the extensive sight seeing foray. Later that night I ventured back onto the streets to enjoy a Doosa. A Doosa is a southern Indian dish with a large lentil crepe which is filled with curried potatoes. Around the Doosa are varying accompliments or pickles and dahls. Stunning and completely different from one I had when I first arrived in India. I woke the next morning after a huge 13 hour sleep feeling refreshed and ready to head on up to Dehli only a short 6 hour train journey away from Agra.

And so it was onto the capital of India for a short stopover before heading to the South of India. I was going to make a slight detour to Sri Lanka on the way to see my cousin Nigel and his family. If I thought Agra was busy then I was in for a shock when I arrived in Delhi.

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