Wednesday, November 17, 2010

India Travelogue #4

Nearly everybody is aware that one of the world's greatest monuments is in Agra – the Taj Mahal. “The City of Love”, Agra was the capitol of India in 1501 but after while it alternated with Delhi as the Mughal capitol for the next 2 centuries. It is located on the Yamuna River and is heavily industrialized, something the government is trying to deal with to prevent further deterioration of the Taj Mahal from the excessive pollution. There is a zone around the monument where only electric carts or horse-drawn carts are allowed.
The Taj Mahal is Shah Jahan's monument and mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. She was 39. Building started the same year and took 20,000 workers 22 years and cost 41 million rupees to build. 500 kilos of gold was used along with other precious stones and white marble.
Before we visited the monument, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant which had an outdoor eating area on the second floor with a huge tree nearby. The food was good and well-priced but the big fun was the little chipmunks running along the branches nearby and then a troop of monkeys came over the roof and launched themselves onto the branches above us. Immediately the staff came running with long poles to chase them away. I suspect that these animals would have joined us for lunch if they had been allowed access.
At the lot where our bus parked, we took an electric vehicle that looked like a long golf cart and which took us down near the east gate of the Taj Mahal entrance. There was a hotel there which was used by the basic Intrepid group and where Mayur told us what to do at the monument, and where they gave us our 750 rupee tickets along with a little bag containing a bottle of water and shoe coverings. Mayur would wait for us at this hotel. Off we went and experienced a very thorough screening process to get in. At most of the monuments we have visited here, we not only have to go through a scanner and send our bags through one, but we are thoroughly patted down by a woman guard. So every place has a women's line and a men's line. You can't even bring extra camera batteries in with you. Once inside, we observed that only foreigners were carrying these little bags and wearing shoe covers. I'm sure the cost of our ticket was much higher than Indian people pay. I think it cost 750 rupees.
Even the gate was impressive, having been built of red sandstone, big and elaborately carved. People were pouring in from other gates and it was getting very crowded very fast. We were with some of the couples from our group long enough to take pictures of each other at the best spot, with the water fountains leading up to the monument behind us and the monument centered behind us as well. As we were taking our first pictures near the best viewing place, Indian families were doing the same and some of them asked us to pose with them. So we got some pictures of them too. The main goal while building was symmetry. Every structure, except the main hall had to have a balancing structure on the other side. The 4 minarets, 2 on each side, are built leaning outward slightly so that if they fall, they will not fall on the monument and damage it. Two red sandstone buildings are on each side, one is a mosque and the other is a guesthouse which was no doubt only used by royalty. The Yamuna River runs right behind these structures. After marveling at the building and the very meticulously tended grounds, we proceeded to the upper level where the entry to the monument is. People have to remove their shoes before going onto the white marble area near the monument and this is where we put our shoe covers on. Probably Intrepid is afraid that if we leave our shoes outside along with the thousands of others, someone will steal our shoes. There was a very long line which went all the way around to the back, so we hurried to get in it. Everywhere were India women wearing incredibly beautiful and colorful saris so we tried to get some pictures of them. While we were in line, a girl of about 12 came up and asked if she could borrow my hat to wear in a picture. Then her mother wore it too. It is just a white Tilley hat with a few pins in it from our South Africa trip, but they were very happy that we let them use it. Then they took a picture of us too. This kind of interchange went on for our entire time at this monument. Eva is a cute young Canadian woman in our group and lots of teenage Indian guys wanted to have a picture taken with her. Finally we got into the monument and it was fairly dark in there. Tip for anyone else visiting – bring a flashlight. In the center there is a carved screen all around the tombs of Shah Jahan and his beloved wife, and this is the mausoleum. There is a big sign asking people not to take pictures but when we entered there were flashes going off everywhere. The tombs are the only thing in this entire complex that aren't symmetrical because her tomb is in the center and his is to the side but higher than hers, of course, because he is the man. This is a very sexist country. There are nice marble carvings in the walls but no depictions of any people or animals because this is a Muslim monument. Outside, we walked around, taking more people pictures and enjoying watching the interactions of the families. We walked back to the river, passing the guesthouse, and enjoyed the grounds a bit more. Happily, it was a beautiful sunny day with the clearest sky we had experienced yet, so perhaps the steps they are taking in Agra to reduce pollution are working.
When we returned to the parking lot area by electric vehicle, we were dropped off in the back, near a whole double row of tables selling stuff, so that we would have to walk through them and possibly buy something. Everyone else was dropped off in front, so I guess only foreigners experience this.
The next stop was the Agra Fort, also called the Red Fort. It was very similar to the one we toured on our own in Delhi. It was built in 1565 and three mogul emperors lived here, including Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. We only toured a very small part of it but it took several hours and we had an excellent guide. The Taj Mahal can be seen in the distance, although the pollution was heavy so it was difficult. After many years of ruling, Shah Jahan was imprisoned in a tower of this fort for 8 years by his son, who took over from him, and who also killed his other 3 brothers. So the irony of it all was that he could see his impressive monument from his prison.
By the time we left it was getting dark but Sandrina wanted to go to a carpet factory so we all stopped there. It turned out to be an informative and enjoyable visit. We have been to carpet places in both Morocco and Turkey and this it was abundantly clear that the carpets made here are vastly superior. The owner explained all the processes and had required some of the workers to stay past quitting time to demonstrate the steps for us. They start with the raw wool or silk and go from there. It is very labor intensive but the finished products were incredible. In the showroom, we were offered a drink or tea while they trotted out various styles and sizes of carpets. Eventually Sandrina and Eva had each bought one. They pack them up into very tiny packages which can be carried on the plane.
From there we went to the Hotel Karawan Grand Casa, which looked very nice from the front and which was very modern and white in the rooms. We all quickly got ready to go out to dinner for David's birthday. When he was planning this trip, he went to a travel agent in the UK and said that he wanted to be at the Taj Mahal on his 50th birthday so find him a trip that was there on Nov. 8 and which also went to Varanassi. The one they found was this trip! The restaurant we went to was outdoors on a big lawn with fancy tables and colored lights and a noisy fountain right behind us. Most of the diners were tourists. The food was good but not great, and it was expensive. Mayur had arranged for a big birthday cake too. The evening was even a bit cool out there. We were all happy to go right to bed afterwards because it had been a big day.

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