Window on Agra

No prizes for guessing where we were some years ago! The name, Agra, instantly equates with this UNESCO World Heritage-listed monument.

"You want to ride? I take you." "What's you name?" "Where you from? Sydney? I have friend (brother, aunt) in Sydney!"

Welcome to the 'other' Agra, a three-hour freeway trip from Delhi. Suddenly we were ejected into a city (pop. 1 million-plus) choked with traffic, dusty, polluted, rubbish-strewn. Worse, thrown into the melee of rickshaw-wallahs and touts, all desperate for our dollars.
Our hotel, Mansingh Palace, was in a compound just off a major street, so we decided to take a walk. Not the best choice! Hardly had we stepped onto the road than we had a man at our elbow. With his rickshaw.

Although we really did want the exercise, we had to do it with our half-dozen new best-friends in tow - begging to take us to the market, to the bazaar, the leather factory, asking our names, ages, home town, family status - every excuse of ours implacably countered with more suggestions. More questions.

A self-proclaimed holy man squatting on a corner pleaded 'I have a problem'. We paused to ask him what it was. It seemed he needed money, but something did not ring true, we felt.

Tourism can do this to places, and Agra's attractions bring millions of visitors annually, so who can blame the locals for wanting a share of the cash that visitors carry? Little wonder they become desperate, willing to do (or say) anything to make a few rupees. Nevertheless, from what we saw of the town, we nicknamed it, perhaps unfairly, 'Agro'.



Next morning in the silky pre-dawn light we travelled the few kilometres to perhaps the world's most famous landmark, certainly its premier example of a man's love for his wife. 

The magic moment - when you first see 'that' view of the Taj Mahal.

Perhaps the most extravagant memorial ever built, it also has to be the most photographed. The name means 'crown of palaces' and it is easy to see why.

It is easy to think of shimmering white marble in relation to the Taj Mahal, but the local red sandstone also features for adjacent buildings, accented with painted areas, or marble, or inlay (as below).

Away from the chatter of tourists and clicking cameras, there is birdsong - finches, koels, turtledoves, mynahs - even voices are muffled, and squirrels nip across the grass to shimmy up trees.

The ornamental gardens follow the classical Mughal patterns, symmetry always the key, and act as the perfect reflective foil for what is always the star - the main mausoleum itself.

The essence of the creation of the Taj Mahal is love, so it's little wonder that it awakens the romantic in us all. 

The perfect symmetry of the Taj Mahal is overwhelming. Built to the Golden Mean, said to be nature's most perfectly balanced design - as seen in the nautilus shell and sunflower seed-heads - this building seems to demand symmetry in return.

It is said that French and Italian experts were brought in to consult on the project and instruct the workers in some of the finer points of carving the marble screens and creating the inlay work. Quotations from the Quran feature in many places too, as in this arch.

The skilled artisans hired to complete the work probably would have felt honoured to have such a huge project on which to display their skills.

Carved bas relief, sculpture, and the intricate pietra dura, or inlay work in several colours, is integral to the architecture of Shah Jahan's time, but when you consider that they also worked in intense heat for much of it, then it is not hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for them all, too.

In the cool and hushed tomb area, light streams through a mesh of perforated marble. The logistics of creating even this is bewildering. While photographs may be taken outwards, none is permitted of the tombs. Shah Jahan lived only 13 years after the mausoleum was completed and he lies in a tomb here beside his wife.

The grounds are so extensive, that there are many places where people can sit and rest. Time to reflect on the beauty. Time to count the blessings of still being able to explore such a place over 350 years after it was built.

Shah Jahan had the Taj Mahal created as the mausoleum for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who tragically died in childbirth. That was in 1631. The Shah was so heartbroken, the story is that his hair and beard turned white overnight. It took 22 years, 22,000 workers and tonnes of priceless materials to complete this flawless work.

And yet, as you walk around it, it seems impossible to believe that such a work of art and skill could have been planned and executed so quickly!

One gruesome postcript to the building of the Taj Mahal is that it is said the Shah ordered that the hands or thumbs of some of the workers who had laboured on the building were to be amputated - in order that the glory and perfection could never be repeated.

Despite the endless numbers passing through the entrance gates, there are still places of stillness and emptiness, like this side corridor. Away from the shimmering marble and watercourses, here is the simplistic, almost austere, face of Moghul architecture, invoking images of other places, such as  Morocco and the Middle East.

Not far away on the banks of the Yamina River, the Red Fort built by Emperor Akbar in 1565 predates the Taj Mahal by almost a century. It is built of the glowing red sandstone of the area and was originally a military fort. All entry is via the massive Amar Singh Gate.

Shah Jahan's life was not a happy one. Bereaved, by loss of the love of his life, he was imprisoned just five years after the Taj Mahal's completion, in 1658. Ironically he was delivered to the fort for imprisonment after his own son seized power, and even more cruelly he was forced to live out his days in the Octagonal Tower (Mussanman Burj) which offered uninterrupted views of his exquisite labour of love.

The fort's double walls are around 20 metres high, now offering the ideal promenade for visitors wishing to see both the fort and the Taj Mahal across the river plain. The interior of the fort is open and plainer than the Taj Mahal because its purpose was very different.

There are interminable cloisters and arches, carved pediments, stairs, pavilions and courtyards for various uses such as the ladies' bazaar where merchants (also female) came to sell goods to the ladies of the court. Despite the tourists it is easy to slip back into imagining life as it was - that is, until the sounds of a train, or an ambulance siren on the road far below, wafts up.

In the grounds of the fort are lawns and gardens, and these small creatures, too. This squirrel has been tamed by someone with a handful of something it obviously loves. 

It's a family place too, with children running around excitedly, as they would do anywhere. For others it's an opportunity for the mothers to honour the importance of the outing with full decoration of themselves and their child....

....even if the youngster is unaware of what all the fuss is about!

As the shadows lengthen, the visitors eventually leave and the fort's colours deepen. 

For us, we returned once more, at sunset, to see the Taj Mahal in, quite literally, another light. As the domes blushed from gold to glowing pink, the local people came (not quite accidentally) to pass by the tourists who had entered by the West Gate for the viewing.

While their choice of bundle may seem random, we knew that they (and others elsewhere carrying trays of heaped pomelos or watermelon) were seeking to mimic the domes, and perhaps earn a modelling fee as well. And who could blame them? 




Romantically, it is also possible to view (not tour) the Taj Mahal by moonlight. See details....


For more information on India ....... or travelling in this area.....




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