APTI, Day 16 – Agra, The Taj Mahal & The Red Fort

On our arrival in Agra the previous evening, we had questioned the driver about our start time the next morning.  When he responded, without a hint of irony, with “6 O’clock,” we let out a communal groan.  The flying, the driving, and the whirlwind touring had taken their toll, and the appeal of seeing the sun rise on the Taj Mahal was being trumped badly by the siren call for more sleep.  Fortunately, a representative of the tour company was also present, so we were able to negotiate a nine o’clock start.

Our day began with meeting our Agra guide and setting off for the Taj Mahal.  The guide was competent enough; his English was good, and he was knowledgeable, but we all got the impression that he was operating on auto-pilot.  As he was explaining the history behind the sites we toured, his eyes would wander off in the distance as if he weren’t really present at the moment; he certainly lacked the passion our Delhi guide had shown the day before.

Indian authorities have decided that, to protect the marble surfaces of the Taj Mahal and the tourism cash cow that it represents, no internal combustion vehicles will be allowed within one kilometer of the site.  Therefore, our driver took us to a parking lot from which were shuttled to the Taj site by electric rickshaw.  I’m not entirely convinced that, given the level of pollution in Agra as a whole, that the one kilometer restriction is going to make all that much difference, but I suppose it’s a start.  In other efforts to reduce smog and pollution, both Delhi and Agra allow only natural gas rickshaws within their city limits.   That appears to have some effect in lessening the choking black smoke at street level, at least.

We had been warned, both by our guide and others, to prepare ourselves for the gauntlet of hawkers and beggars that lined the streets on the final walk to the gates to the Taj, so we were mildly surprised that there were so few, perhaps because it was off-season and the pickings weren’t nearly so good.  Our guide’s advice to totally ignore them confirmed our earlier experiences at tourist sites.  A polite “No thank you” only encourages them to continue to pester.

Here is some advice, if you ever intend to visit the Taj Mahal:

  • Go in the off-season, as we did.  In tourist season, the daily numbers can spike to 40,000, which I would imagine, might seriously colour the experience, as it did for this blogger.  As it was, we had enough people to contend with, particularly within the confines of the mausoleum itself, but it was certainly manageable.
  • Leave your video camera in the hotel or in the car (if you have a driver to watch it).  You can only use a video camera within about ten meters of the gate; then you have to return to the gate and surrender it to a locker.  While the video camera fee is only rs 25, it still ain’t worth it.
  • Ditch everything except your digital camera.  That includes your camera case, any extra batteries, cables, cell phones, purses (other than very small ones), … you name it.  I had forgotten that my video camera case had a mini tripod in it (which I knew was a no-no), so they stripped us of everything we had and forced us to return to put it in a locker.
  • If you have a guide, make sure you ditch him for a while to wander around and establish your own timelines.  These guys aren’t interested in spending a couple hours at a site they visit every day.  For them time is money.  For you, money is time.  You didn’t get to India on cereal boxtops, so make it worth your while.
  • Start with a fresh set of batteries in your camera, because you won’t be able to replace them while you are there.  Then take tons of photos, from all angles, even though the numbing symmetry of the site almost screams for symmetrical shots.  If you want that head-on shot of the Taj, buy a book or download one from the Internet.
  • The last piece of advice applies to most tourism venues in India: take along some coin.  We grew tired of constantly being “nickled and dimed” at these places.  There were the little charges for camera access, the dude who looked after your shoes while you were inside, the old crone that who wanted to give you a monosyllabic tour of the place – each of these requested some small pittance for their services.  I certainly didn’t begrudge them the five or ten rupees (12-25 cents CDN) for their trouble, but what grew tiresome was the effort of trying to keep small change on hand, especially since most rickshaw drivers and small vendors have perfected the “no change” excuse as a way of eking out a little extra cash from each tourist transaction.

One Possible Reason for Taking a Video Camera

would be to catch the item at the beginning of this clip. Yup, that’s an oxen-drawn lawnmower; don’t see one of those every day. But remember that there are no internal combustion engines allowed with a 1 Km radius of the Taj

I won’t consume space here with the background story behind the Taj Mahal.  You can read about that here and here.

I have to preface my impressions of the Taj Mahal by saying that it was Irene’s idea to go there.  In the early planning stages, I had cast a vote for depth over breadth, sampling one area of India and doing it up right, but my dear wife had countered, with, “You can’t go to India and not see the Taj Mahal.”  So Steven and I had capitulated.

Having said that, it certainly is impressive in any number of ways.  From the main gate, some 300 meters away, it looks big enough, but as we walked toward it, we began to gain an appreciation of its true dimensions.  The plinth on which the Taj rests, which seems almost inconsequential from a distance, is almost 100 meters square and its platform raises the Taj Mahal almost seven meters above ground level.

Perhaps the best way to gain some perspective on its dimensions is to note the size of the people standing on this raised platform.

or two Arches Our guide explains the stone inlay process Another group shot to prove we were there.

The obligatory shot

A notion of scale

Stone inlay detail

Proof we were there

Perhaps just as impressive as the size is the quality of the stone inlay work. I had always thought, for example that the Koranic inscriptions which grace the columns of the Taj were simply engraved in the marble. While they are certainly engraved, those engravings are then painstakingly inlaid with semi-precious stones.  The other thing that impressed me were the intricately carved jali screens which surround the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. and appear in numerous other places in the building.  Their lace-like appearance belies the fact that they are carved from a single, enormous piece of marble.  Unfortunately, since photography is not allowed in the interior of the mausoleum, I don’t have any of my own pictures of that feature, although this is a slightly less delicate example from the Red Fort.

Nevertheless, as physically impressive as the Taj Majal may be, it left me somehow vaguely unsatisfied.  When I try to get to the bottom of that sentiment, I come up with these explanations, which I understand may be inadequate for some:

  • The interior of the Taj Mahal, which houses the most impressive gemstone and inlay work is incredibly dark.  Even after my eyes adjusted to the murky light, I found it hard to make out the detail.  And, of course, this is the most congested area in the whole complex, so lingering is awkward.
  • This criticism is going to sound petty, but as a person who strives to find balance without symmetry in anything I design, I find the slavish devotion to symmetry that characterizes Mughal architecture in general, and the Taj Mahal in particular, to be mind numbing. For example, historians presume the huge “guest house” that flanks the Taj Mahal on its east side was built with only one “purpose” in mind – to serve as a mirror image, or “answer” to the identical mosque on the west.  I realize there are some religious reasons for the symmetry, but still … come on, people.
  • Despite all its physical grandeur, the Taj is, after all, a tomb.  That diminishes it somehow for me.  Temples are, or were, living places of worship; forts protected and sustained life and carved a place for themselves in history; the Taj is a grave.  No one ever lived in the Taj Mahal, no battles were ever fought there; and the course of history was never altered by its construction.
  • Call it a monument to love, if you will, but I call it a monument to megalomania and narcissism, one man’s attempt to fend off mortality by building an edifice so grand that countless generations would speak his – and his wife’s – names.  Remember, too, Mumtaz Mahal wasn’t Shah Jihan’s only wife; she was just his third, and favourite, wife.
  • Then there’s the fact that Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child.  Ouch.  Maybe she did deserve a monument after all.
  • I know that I shouldn’t judge these things through the distorting lens of historical change.  These were times in which exploitation was the norm, but to occupy 20,000 workers for 22 years on such a selfish project seems a tad over the top for me.  Perhaps I should simply view it as Medieval “workfare.”

Tangential observation begins…

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this kind of reaction.  It happened last summer too, when we were touring Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, a mansion that coal baron and statesman Robert Dunsmuir built with the fortunes he amassed through strike-breaking and otherwise exploiting his workers.  It stands atop a hill in Victoria, a kind of crown jewel in a nineteenth century mansion-building pissing contest.

When confronted with this kind of conspicuous self-aggrandizement, a very juvenile part of me wants to shout out to the world, “Stop visiting these places.  Don’t you see; that’s exactly what the narcissistic bastards wanted.”  But then that small part of me with a bit more maturity chimes in to counter that history doesn’t litter the planet with monuments to the poor and humble.  Then, I remember our perfunctory visit to Raj Ghat in Delhi, and wistfully regret that we didn’t spend more time there.

… Tangential observation ends, and we return to the topic at hand.

Don’t get me wrong,  I don’t regret visiting the Taj Mahal, but if I ever get back to India, there are at least a dozen other places I would want to see first before I would be tempted to return.

One thing that makes me reluctant to return is Agra itself, a dirty, rather backward city full of beggars, hucksters and shysters.  Nowhere on our journey smacked of “tourist trap” quite like Agra.  In the evening we tried to take a walk to get some fresh air and perhaps find a neighbourhood chai wallah.  What we got instead was an obnoxious barrage of restaurant owners, shop keepers and rickshaw drivers pestering us.  We returned to our hotel room, shellshocked.  The rickshaw drivers were definitely the worst, promising to take us on a tour “all over Agra” for twenty rupees (50 cents).  I’m not exactly sure where twenty rupees would would have taken us, but I can just about guarantee the destination wouldn’t have been pretty.  Perhaps Agra can best be summed up by an instant messaging conversation Steven had with one of his work colleagues, Sid.  When Sid found out where we were, he shot back with, “Agra! Who the f___ told you to go there, idjit?”

According to our guide, Agra has only two industries, tourism and crafts/artisanship.  For me, that essentially boils down to one industry – tourism.  In other words Agra’s only appealing assets are its monuments and historical sites; everything else is built around capitalizing on those.

From the Taj Mahal, our guide took us to an artisan shop that specialized in stone inlay work.  His intention was to give us an appreciation for the painstaking, meticulous craft that had gone into so much of the Taj Mahal.  It worked.  The workmanship of the hundreds of pieces we saw here was nothing short of stunning.  After a brief demonstration of the carving of the marble and the intricate grinding of the tiny inlay pieces, we toured the showroom for about half an hour with our jaws gaping.  In a way, we were lucky that two major impediments, price and weight, kept us from buying, or we would surely have dropped some coin here.  If anything ever drew me back to Agra, it would probably be this place, assuming we could ever find it again.  There were table tops of all sizes, plates, elephants, you name it, all decorated with the most unimaginably delicate inlay work that, for beauty, rivalled or even surpassed the Kashmiri carpets we had ogled in Kerala.  Even the smallest pieces represented hundreds of myopia-inducing hours of craftsmanship.

From the artisan’s shop we moved on to the Red Fort, yet another legacy of the Mughal Dynasty.  Personally, although the Red Fort lacks some of the majesty and intricate architecture of the Taj Mahal, I found it more engaging in that one could imagine the Mughal kings living there, holding court, and fending off their enemies.  Our guide once again tended to sugar-coat the attending history of the place, stopping just a little shy of the full story with comments like,  Shah Jahan and his son, Aurangzeb, “didn’t get along that well.”  Considering that Aurangzeb murdered his three brothers to ensure his ascension, besieged the Red Fort and cut off its water supply until his father capitulated and conceded the throne, then confined his father to eight years of house arrest in the Red Fort until his eventual death, yeah, I guess you could say they “didn’t get along that well.”   Fortunately, we had researched the history enough to fill in some of these details, which helped to bring the Red Fort alive in our imaginations.

Exterior wall and moat Irene on Black throne of Jehangir, Taj in background, across the river View toward Musamman Burj

The exterior wall and moat

Black throne of Jehangir,
Taj in background

View toward Musamman Burj,
the tower where Shah Jahan
spent his eight years of house arrest

Although our tour guide had also wanted to take us to see an embroidery factory, the day was heating up, so we chose to finish our tour with a visit to Itmad-Ud-Daulah, sometimes referred to as The Jewel Box or The Baby Taj. Despite the diminutive moniker, the Baby Taj actually predates the Taj Mahal by a decade.  Curiously, it was commissioned by the Nur Jahan, stepmother to Shah Jahan, and aunt to Mumtaz Mahal, to house the remains of her father (Mumtaz Mahal’s paternal grandfather).  Yes, it’s incestously complicated, and the polygamy doesn’t simplify matters.

Perhaps the more modest dimensions appealed to us (It’s almost exactly half the size), or perhaps the draw was the lack of crowds, but something about this place caught us in a way that the Taj hadn’t.  After all, when a grave site has throngs of humanity crawling all over it, it loses some of its reverence.  At any rate, we were able to take our time here and, partly due to the smaller scale, appreciate some of the decoration more fully.  The only distraction was the “shoe man” who, when we opted to carry our shoes instead of checking them with him, insisted on trying to give us an impromptu and unwanted tour.  Steven and I managed to shrug him off and focus on taking pictures, but Irene, whose kinder soul shines like a beacon and pulls like a magnet for every beggar and hawker, got dragged around for a while.

The tomb, built by his daughter, Empress Nur Jahan Tomb interior, with flash Archway detail

The Baby Taj

Tomb Interior

Arch Detail

Knowing that the next day involved both the drive back to Delhi and the flight to Pune, we chose to call it a day at this point and return to our hotel and seek refuge from the heat in the swimming pool.

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