Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Agra: Taj Mahal and More!

On February 9th at 5:45am our driver picked us in the pouring rain to begin a full day in Agra before an 8pm Shatabdi Express back to get back to Delhi. Pavan's father was scheduled to meet us in Delhi at about 10pm so we could drive to Jagroan. Jagroan, six or seven hours away, is the location of Pavan's longtime family home. The map below shows our general travel plan:

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Anyway, at 6am in the pouring rain we arrived at the ticket booth for the Taj. The booth was closed and the only people about were guards with AKs. They told us tickets were not available until 7am. Over the next 45 minutes we hung out with the guards and watched as tourists trickled in. The earliest arrivers were all younger misinformed Europeans.

At about 6:50am the ticket booth opened and we finally got a ticket. At 7ish the gate opened and we queued up for a surprisingly perfunctionary security check. In at last! The entrance to the main Taj grounds, inside the main wall and security check, was quite nice.

Luckily the rain proved to be scared of the light so as it began to brighten it also ceased raining. On passing through the gate we got our first look at the Taj for the day.

The dude with the umbrella really wanted to help us take pictures. And to lighten our tiresome load of rupees. We assume we sure showed him (by taking our own pictures).

There are a variety of little other buildings around the edges of the Taj compound, some of which are quite nice. Most people make a  beeline for the Taj and ignore them so as soon as you stroll even a little away from the central path you get the area largely to yourself.

Of course making a beeline for the Taj is rather understandable!

The Taj is in fact so impressive we found it helped to stop and examine one of the "simpler" elements - a single minaret - to put it in perspective. This tower would be more impressive on its own than some things we've visited!!

While at the Taj one must endeavor not to damage the marble. This is accomplished by issuing people with bags to put over their shoes. One set of shoe-bags and a bottle of water is included in your 750 rupee admission ... but only if one thought to request the extras at the entrance when buying tickets. If not, the hapless tourist will be charged for another pair of shoe-bags by a "helpful" vendor near the entrance to the marble parts. This provides another opportunity to feel like a walking cash cow (a common feeling in Asia!).

To simply work in marble is not enough; it is necessary to carve and inlay anywhere a suitable surface presents itself.

As we wandered around the exterior we observed that if one dislikes the shoe-bags barefoot is also marble-friendly.

As the sun began to beat back the fog and rain monkeys came out to play.

By this time tour groups had started arriving in a big way. We headed towards the exit and our waiting (hopefully) driver. Next stop Agra Fort (aka Red Fort).

Last glimpse!

The Red Fort lives up to its name:

In order to get from the drop point to the paid tourist area of the Red Fort one must get through an amazing gauntlet of vendors. Twenty or so guys mobbed us to sell stuff. Each salesman had one product. There were only four or five different products so people would attempt to sell you the exact same items you'd already refused three or four times. The sheer number of vendors made them into a literal wall of flesh blocking your path to the door. As politely as possible we refused all the vendors and gently shouldered through.

Agra Fort sports an entrance that looks like something out of a video game. Maybe Assassin's Creed III can visit some Indian locations...
The Jahangiri mahal has the nicest lawn we can recall seeing at an Indian attraction.
Red is a flattering color for columns.
Large sections that look very promising are inaccessible. According to the chap by the door (rather small in the picture) this is because the military use large sections of it!!
Must love columns!
In the distance, the Taj. In the foreground, Rod's foreleg, adorned with scrapes acquired while attempting Elephant navigation in Thailand. In the battle to turn the elephant one must kick the ear. Elephant skin is very think so you have to kick fairly hard to get noticed. Human skin is somewhat less thick and is damaged in the process.
Pavan paused for a moment to contemplate.
Who doesn't have a marble wading pool to cool their feet! Bonus points for the view out the window being the Taj Mahal though.
A light at the end of a tunnel...?
Pavan thought this little girl was adorable and to the delight of her parents took her picture.
At risk of being repetitive, the whole structure looks like it was designed specifically to be clambered around in Assassin's Creed!
Some sections are rather less maintained than others. At some points in this part you can walk up to a window through a massive wall, peek out, and realize there is a rather sheer drop. This must be the less frequented part as the rest of the structures all have fences or barriers at locations where tourists might be inclined to plunge.

Our monumental effort had us a little hungry so we headed out, once again running the vendor gauntlet. We knew it was coming so running the gauntlet was fairly literal: we more or less jogged through in a largely successful effort to avoid giving the vendors enough time to surround us and obstruct movement.

In the parking lot of the restaurant there was a snake charmer. Rod wanted to play but Pavan is terrified of snakes. To the point that even getting her to come within ten feet and snap a picture of Rod with a small python was difficult.

When the cobras popped out it became almost impossible to get any pictures. Ah well, we did get a good one of the pure happiness of a man who has just been paid!
After lunch we headed out once more.

Our last major attraction for the day was Itimad-ud-Daulah aka "Baby Taj". Built shortly before the Taj Mahal (completed in 1628, Taj began in 1632 according to Wikipedia) with many of the techniques used in the Taj, it is set next to the river and adorned with waterways though these were dry when we visited.
The Baby Taj is an island of calm amidst the chaos of Agra's tourist areas. Relatively few tourists, almost no vendors at the entrance, and small but charming grounds where one could easily picture hanging out for a few hours with a book.

The edge of the complex looks down on the riverbank. Locals were lounging in the sun below. Children, possibly theirs, were also racing about. Naturally the children all asked for money.

Inside the main structure is a novel combination of inlaid marble - which doesn't fade with age much - and painted work that fades with age a great deal.

The exterior is of course not entirely without decoration.

Monkeys (small in foreground) come to visit!
After this we had a few hours left before our train and nowhere to go! There were some major attractions we would have liked to visit but they were too far to reasonably visit in the time remaining. We tried to visit a noted market to see the chaos, only to discover it was closed. Our driver then "generously" offered to take us to see some local crafts (eg to buy stuff for which he gets kickbacks). It sounded at least somewhat interesting so for lack of a better idea we said yes. First stop was a marble inlay shop. This was actually fairly impressive. A table like this costs a fortune and weighs a ton. In fact the weight was the biggest problem with the marble as a souvenir.
We didn't buy anything and were pleasantly surprised that the sales pressure wasn't too high. They certainly took great effort to tour us around but there were no problems when we walked out without purchase. Guidebooks and tales from other travelers suggest this is not always true!

Our next stop was an "Indo-Persian rug maker". Observing a chap placing the individual knots for a rug with blinding speed was really impressive.
The shop owner then took us downstairs to see their inventory. We really liked the carpets and examined a great deal of them. Apparently this vendors offers three major grades of carpet:

  1. Wool knots on woolen threads (the vertical strands on the loom to which knots are affixed)
  2. Silk knots on wool threads
  3. Silk knots on silk threads

Silk is much finer and thus produces substantially sharper edges. It is also much more expensive. First wool on wool:
Then some silk on silk pieces:

We liked the silks so much we actually ordered one. Doubtless we overpaid grossly. It is supposedly to be shipped to us; who knows if anything will arrive or if what we ordered will arrive. Ah well ... being a sucker now and then can be fun :)

After a our longer than expected stop at the carpet shop we got on our fancy train to head back for Delhi. It was certainly better than our train from Delhi to Agra although "fancy" might still be a stretch.

The best part of the train trip was that they fed us. In India cheap vegetarian food is good so it was actually quite decent. And, amusingly, provided labelled "meals on wheels".
After a three and a half hour train ride that was supposed to take two hours we got to Delhi at around 11:45pm and met Pavan's father. He had arrived early, we late, so he'd been waiting for some time. After some cell phone difficulties he managed to call his driver and we set out for the last leg of our journey: a six or seven hour drive north to Jagroan and the family home. We arrived in Jagroan at six or seven in the morning, quite exhausted.

Our plan for the next few days was to hang out in Jagroan, visit some of Pavans relatives, visit Amritsar and the Golden Temple, then drive down to Chandigarh before heading south to Kerala and then on to England for the last leg of our tour.

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