The Taj Mahal
Another early morning and our last breakfast with Darshan and Murli for now. We did manage to find out that the dad downstairs negotiated his way down to 11,000 Rupees, the same as his neighbor paid, with the Transvestite Mafia. We grabbed a car to the New Delhi Train Station and grabbed a baggage porter, a tiny little 65 year old looking man dressed in a red jacket with an official armband that he proudly showed me. The only English he spoke was numbers and we agreed on a mildly inflated price for him to carry our bags, on his head, to our train. Actually things are fairly organized if a bit crowded and noisy at the station, but he was an excellent investment, eventually helping us find our car.
Cindy awoke feeling none to pleasant internally (actually, bizarrely enough, we think she might have got a bug from our Chicago visit, not from food here) and so, once we climbed aboard our Third Class AC train, she climbed up into the top berth to rest.
I ended up speaking with two nice Hindi guys who were off for some management training so that they could get a promotion to the next level of bureaucracy in their clerical jobs. They were both really nice and spoke a little English and we managed to carry on a conversation for most of the 3 hour train ride. At one point, a Russian Hari Krishna guy who also spoke a bit of Hindi came by chanting and grubbing for money - the Indian guys just laughed at him. The train wasn’t bad (not sure Cindy agrees) but a bit grimy. There are something like eight classes of service on Indian trains - 3rd AC is comprised of a compartment without a door of six fold down berths where everyone sits on the bottom berth during the day (a good reason to request top berths!). I have a feeling we may upgrade a level next time if it is a longer train ;-)
The Taj Mahal
We made it to Agra with no delays and walked out to the pre-paid cab booth to avoid the touts and paid the fare to the Trident Hilton.
It makes it hard to bargain when you are asking to be taken to a high-end hotel here, even if you are staying with points (a concept hard to explain to the locals who all think you must be rich if you are staying at the Hilton) This is where we met Murari, a nice enough seeming cabbie who actually speaks English fairly well (through betel-nut reddened teeth). He took us to the Hilton where a tall, turbaned, hugely mustachioed Rajasthani doorman greeted us and ushered us off to check-in. I got Murari’s cell after negotiating a price for a day tour of Agra and told him we would call later based on how Cindy was feeling. This whole Indian SIM thing makes life a lot easier - I would highly suggest you travel with an unlocked phone here if you are coming!
The Taj Mahal
Upon check-in, the gentleman at the HHonors desk informed me that, as I am a Diamond member, the HHonors “upgradation programme” would bump us to a “superior view room” which ended up being a room with a single large bed and a view of the pool.
Another nice woman escorted us to our room and I asked if HHonors guests received complimentary breakfast (which is kind of usual for Hilton - upgraded room, complimentary breakfast and often Happy Hours…ok so I am spoiled J ) and she said no, however she would tell the GM (General Manager) that I “insisted”. I tried to politely refuse but she was persistent and ended up calling us later to inform us that she convinced GM to give us complimentary breakfast for the two point redemption stays (however probably not for the night for which we were actually paying. Strange.)
The Taj Mahal Main Gate in Reflection
We went to the room which was comfy enough and icy cold with AC and Cindy though she would take a rest. A bit later, I thought I would join her and the next thing you know, it was 7:00pm and time for dinner. The staff were nice enough but this wasn’t up there with some of our more memorable Hilton stays (says the guy staying for free…)
Cindy felt much better when we woke up at 4:30am or so and so we figured we would get up and shower and then try calling Murari the driver guy.
I was about to hang up when he answered and he said he could arrive in 20 minutes and would bring a guide. I tried to convince him that this was unnecessary but to no avail and we figured we really wanted to get to the Taj early so what the hell…
Us looking like we are sitting in front of a fake back drop of The Taj Mahal (we are really here, I swear...)
The Taj Mahal (meaning “Crown of the Palace”) is one of those places that, as touristy as it can be, is truly unbelievable. Getting there early is a good idea as it is really prettiest at sunrise, sunset (very crowded) or full moon (the only time the Taj is open at night and now apparently requiring advance reservations and extremely limited availability). It has been described by Nobel Laureate Indian poet Tagore as “a teardrop on the face of humanity”.
Here is the quick history lesson for those of you who don’t know the history of the Taj (which kind of reads like a modern day soap opera).
Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor was in love with Mumtaz Mahal (Jewel of the Palace - she has another name but I forgot it…) however his father did not approve of the relationship as she was not of royal blood so he forbid the relationship. Shah Jahan (supposedly with Mumtaz whispering in his ear) being a smart guy, married the woman his father chose, whereupon he soon took over as emperor.
The Taj Mahal
His wife died several years later (not clear on how but our guide assured me it was of natural circumstances) and he promptly married Mumtaz. Fast forward a bit and in child-birth for the fourteenth time (take that P. Hood and C. Lenihan - the Catholics got nuthin on the Mugals!) Mumtaz dies and Shah Jahan is distraught, ignoring his political duties and finally deciding to build the Taj Mahal as a memorial to his wife.
It takes 20,000 Persian workman 22 years to complete the amazing building and rumors have it that, upon completion, he had the right hand of the master mason cut off so it could never be replicated.
The Taj Mahal
Fast forward again a bit and Aurangzeb, third son of Shah Jahan, kills his brothers so that he can take the thrown. Meanwhile, having completed the Taj Mahal, rumor has it that Shah Jahan was going to build himself his own Black Taj Mahal mausoleum for his funerary across the river, all of course at ridiculous expense. He actually started the building but it was never completed since his own son Aurangzeb imprisoned him at the Agra Red Fort (with a tantalizingly sadistic view of the Taj Mahal across the plains). Nice kid! He was the last of the great Mughals and, eventually when Shah Jahan died, his daughters convinced their brother Aurangzeb to entomb dad with mom at the Taj. Sucks to be filthy rich I guess!
One side note, as much as we appreciate that 1) The Taj is an Indian treasure and we are foreigners lucky enough to be able to see the splendor of it and 2) there are big differences in income levels between India and the west, the entrance fee is now 750 Rupees (about $18), almost twenty times that of the locals price of 20 Rupees (about fifty cents).
When I was here in the 80’s it was 2 Rupees - it just feels a bit wrong and actually the whole city sometimes feels like they are trying to reach deep into your pockets. Get’s old…
The Taj Mahal Details of Inlay
After the Taj and breakfast back at the hotel, Murari and our guide began the torturous handicraft visit routine, first visiting an interesting Marble Factory where we saw a demonstration of how the supposed descendants of the original Persians who built the Taj, still painstakingly do the incredible inlay work of semi-precious stones that the Taj is known for. Next of course came the hard core sales pitch (very expensive stuff) and the “guarantee” that they are a state run organization that includes all shipping and insurance charges, the implication being that state sponsored means “honest” or something. Anyway, we escaped unscathed since the inlay stuff is not really our style (and quite honestly, it’s one of those things that, unless you love it and understand the quality, you would probably be just as happy buying stuff at Cost Plus.
Ladies in Sari's at the Taj
The almost mandatory carpet making tour (which is interesting but we have seen it plenty elsewhere) was not to long and “Bobby” our carpet guy gave up pretty easily. The final stop (we demanded no more shopping after that) was a jewelry store with a really strange looking, dyed red head, pony-tailed man who insisted on continually calling Cindy “mum“, no doubt bringing about glorious visions of be-jeweled, fair-skin maidens from the time of the Raj to mind. When we passed on his opportunity to buy diamonds, emeralds, rubies, etc at “one-fifth of prices at home” (which was not true) he moved to costume jewelry and then on to t-shirts. When the power went out (for probably the 10th time that morning) I thought about dashing out.
Finally we escaped and headed across town and the river to the Red Fort which was built by Akbar (Shah Jahan’s Grandfather) and then added to by both Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb his son.
It does have nice views of the Taj Mahal across the river as well as a pretty Char Bagh quadrant garden in front of the large, carved marble buildings with baths and inlay work. Ultimately, this is where Aurangzeb imprisoned his father when he decided that all this spending on dad’s obsession with the Black Taj was enough. Supposedly, Akbar had three wives housed here, one Hindu, one Muslim and one Christian, as well as 362 concubines, all housed in the buildings here. Not sure what kind of cat fights that provided but I am sure it was interesting. Our guide tried to convince us to pay a bribe to some guy with a key to the Mirrored Baths of Mumtaz (or one of the other wives of the Emperors, I kinda forgot…), actually asking for 600 Rupees to see the little, mirror mosaic room. This used to be open, but locals were stealing the mirrors and jewels and now, you could only go in with his “help”. We thought that another $15 paid to someone would just further inspire the local attitude that tourists will dole out money for just about anything and we passed.
Cindy at the Taj Mahal
A bit later, our guide said that the man told him that it was a slow day and he would take whatever we offered as his bribe to start the day off well. Cindy told the guide we wouldn’t pay more than one hundred Rupees and he quickly lost interest (guess his cut wasn’t enough) so we passed.
Marble Inlay Process
After the fort we went to I’timad-ud-Daulah, also (and more easily pronounceable) known as the Baby Taj since it was the first of the Mughal buildings sheathed in inlaid white marble. It was built as a mausoleum with yellow marble tombs for Ghiyas Beg who was the Persian father of the wife (Nur Jahan) of Jahangir, second Mughal and son of Akbar. She was also the aunt of the infamous Mumtaz who inspired Shah Jahan to build the Taj. This think reads like a Kennedy Family Saga…
We drove through some crazy traffic and over the most crowded, two decker bridge we have ever seen to view the Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River from the location of the now crumbling foundation of the beginnings of the “Black Taj Mahal” mentioned above.
Somehow we walked the wrong way and, seeing an entrance fee booth, immediately paid like two zombie tourists unable to say no. Ends up we were paying to see the “Gardens” that Akbar had built which were sort of weed ridden orchards and a fountain that had a wry sense of humor and nearly douched me as I was kneeling to shoot a picture of the Taj. It was a nice view but hot and dusty and little goat herder kids attacked us asking for pens, money and inconceivably, chocolate (not sure how you could carry around solid chocolate in this heat…)
Agra Fort - where Shah Jahan was imprisoned
We ended the day with a siesta at “The Lilton” and a dip in the cool, blue pool.
Bhutan Update: Well things are looking up - the wire transfer is underway and hopefully we are off to Bhutan on the 28th with our cultural/trekking itinerary :-D woohoo!
Well after waking up at 3:00am with World War Three in my gullet, I was feeling none to well today.
The weird thing is that, having killed my insides in the 80’s here and getting fixed at the Tropical Disease Institute outside of Amsterdam, I am generally impervious to food stuff. We are pretty convinced that whatever made both of us ill was US based, how ironic! Other than eating toast and bananas for breakfast, we pretty much hung out napping and watching bad movies all day. Cindy must have been bored out of her mind.
Agra Red Fort Domes
Bhutan Update: - Well we tried to Fax the authorization letter to Andy again several times today (at greatly inflated rates at the Hilton - hope they don’t charge us for Comm Error non-sent FAXes.
We finally decided to take a digital photo of the signed document and email it to Soma and Andy which will hopefully suffice at least to get the wire transfer done.
Tombs at the Baby Taj Mahal