In which I lay eyes on the Taj, am swindled, and discuss strange things with my driver

Agra Travel Blog

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First glimpse of the Taj Mahal -- it is breathtaking

Got up this morning at 5:00 am in order to see the Taj Mahal in the cool of the morning hours, before the expected crush of thousands of fellow visitors arrived.  (The Taj opens to visitors at 6:00 am.)  Downstairs in the lobby of Clarks, the staff practically pushed me into the restaurant to eat breakfast, but I was too excited to have more than a few pieces of papaya (fleshy, red, tangy, cut into slippery little cubes) and a few sips of tea before dashing out to the front of the hotel to look for my driver.  Anand picked me up around 6:10, and we were off to the Taj.


We arrived at the east parking lot, where Anand would wait for me.  Because no petrol-fuelled cars are allowed within a certain radius of the Taj (to protect it from the damaging effects of the exhaust) you can: walk to it; pay for a bicycle rickshaw; take a free electric bus; take a paid electric auto-rickshaw.

Reflected in the shallow pools of water.
  I was so impatient to get there that I took a bicycle rickshaw (the bus only departs when it is full), but it wouldn’t have been too far to walk, either.  There was no line at all at the ticket counter, and I was able to get my ticket and get through security (another rickety plywood metal detector, another bored female security card to rapidly pat me down and look cursorily at my camera before waving me on, impatient to get back to her conversation with the other guard) in the blink of an eye.


You enter the Taj complex through one of three gates, into a pretty, introductory sort of ornamental garden, with an enormous, imposing fourth gate at the north end.  This north gate rises above you, and is beautiful in and of itself, all red stone with inlaid white marble elements, soaring upwards into the sky • Mughal architecture echoed and repeated in many of the monuments that I’ve seen on this trip.  The north gate leads into a second, enormous, oblong garden at the back of which the Taj sits, and because I approached it from the east, rather than the south, I still couldn’t see the Taj yet, but would have to turn the corner into the north gate to have it in view.

  I was practically holding my breath in anticipation.  What would it be like to lay eyes on this so-called wonder of the world?  Would it be as wonderful as they say…?


Oh yes, yes, yes!  Oh heavens, yes! 


Entering the north gate the Taj was finally there before my eyes, the most breathtakingly beautiful architectural creation I believe I have ever seen. 


My first overall impression was of the pearly, glistening whiteness of the Taj’s marble, almost liquid in the still blue-pink light of the early morning.

Tabs at the Taj!
  This white marble reflects the light, so at that moment it had tinges of blue-pink highlighting its curves and corners, which were reflected once again in the long, shallow pools of water in the garden before it.  The effect was of soft morning light coming at your eyes from above, from straight ahead, and from below, with the Taj sparkling like a gemstone in the center of it.  (It was probably just before 7am at this point.) 

Looking at the Taj invoked both a physical and emotional response in me.  It was truly lovely with its soft curves (rounded, tear drop shaped), shimmering pearly white marble and the delicate carvings and inlaid gemstones which you see once you get close.  An exercise in perfection in its proportions, shape, and layout, which makes other great architectural monuments look inferior in comparison.  Impossible for me to do justice to it here �" I’ll just say that if you ever have the chance to see it then you must.


After visiting the Taj I left Agra for Fatehpur Sikri.

Inside the mosque complex at Fatehpur Sikri. The white marble tomb of the Sufi saint is in the background.
  Fatehpur Sikri is a palace complex built by Akbar in the late 1500s, and lies about an hour away from Agra.  It includes a beautiful mosque complex, and the remains of several palace buildings.  Important information this, which I neglected to check up on before arriving!


On arrival, our car was immediately swarmed by guides, all of whom tapped on the window, offering their services.  My driver seemed to know one of them, so I negotiated a price with that one, on top of a fee for an auto rickshaw to take me up.  (On retrospect, I’m not sure if this was part of the scam, or if cars really can’t approach Fatehpur Sikri �" which was certainly true of the Taj Mahal.)


It was only late morning, but it was already scorching hot and I could feel myself beginning to wilt and wither in the heat as soon as we got out of the rickshaw.  This wasn’t helped by the droves of boys and men who trailed me throughout my tour with the guide, determinedly waving everything from bangles to wooden elephants to fake marble candlestick holders under my nose, hoping for a lucrative sale.  They would hardly be put off, persisting even in the face of “No,” “Not interested,” and “Absolutely not.”


The guide spent about 1.5 hours with me, showing me around what I thought was everything to see at Fatehpur Sikri, but which turned out to be only the mosque complex, and its Sufi tomb/shrine.  He never took me to see the palaces, but I didn’t notice this because I didn’t bring the guidebook with me, or check it before the tour.  Though swindled out of seeing the palaces, I did enjoy the mosque and the lovely white marble shrine, including the beautiful (and shaded) colonnades surrounding the entire mosque complex.  The shrine was visited by Akbar himself, who desperately wanted a male heir.  One of his three wives produced one soon after, and since then this particular shrine has apparently drawn many devotees wishing for babies of their own.  You can yourself make a wish for something by tying a thread to the marble lattice work at the back of the tomb, while stern faced officials look pointedly at you and demand donations to the shrine in far from gentle tones.


After Fatehpur Sikri my driver and I set off for Jaipur, the so-called Pink City.  It took a good 4-5 hours, during which time Anand and I chatted about a number of topics, some of which I found rather strange.  Non-strange topics included how to stay safe in India (one of Anand’s tips is to always inform folks back home of exactly where you are and where you are planning to go, passing on names and phone numbers of hotels, inns, etc. as frequently as possible); Anand’s family and work; and arranged marriages in comparison to love marriages.  (Anand said that he couldn’t understand why Westerners change boyfriends/girlfriends around so much, and my explanation was that they keep switching around until they find their perfect love match, that love is valued as one of the primary criteria for marriage.)  Strange topics included Anand’s story of the murder of a young German woman who made friends with some locals on her travels in India, who later killed her for her money and goods.  The morals of the story according to Anand are that you can’t trust anybody (so watch your back), and that everybody wants to get money out of you (so watch your back).  Another strange topic was Anand’s firm belief that a significant number of female travelers in India want to amuse themselves with Indian boy toys and are happy to pay a little extra to have this service thrown in with the chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning, etc. that they pay for anyway.  I tried to make it abundantly clear that I was not such a traveler, while also reflecting on the fact that though such activities are probably more frequently engaged in by male travelers, it’s the female travelers that get heavily criticized for it.

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First glimpse of the Taj Mahal -- …
First glimpse of the Taj Mahal --…
Reflected in the shallow pools of …
Reflected in the shallow pools of…
Tabs at the Taj!
Tabs at the Taj!
Taj, detail
Taj, detail
Inside the mosque complex at Fateh…
Inside the mosque complex at Fate…
photo by: rotorhead85