Travelogue ISC 4: Agra

AGRA

19-20 November 2012

After a 4 hour bus ride, as we arrived in Agra, we crossed the bridge over Yamuna River, the western most tributary of the river Ganges. Cows and buffaloes were wallowing in it and Yusef told that they are like homing pigeons – they go off for the day and return to their owners (in the crush of the dusty dirty town centre) in the evening to get fed and milked. The land is barren and their owners are poor, so there is little food for them bar what little they are given. The water buffalo are revered because they produce more fatty milk than cows, preferred by the Indians, and the cows are holy, said to stem from their role as surrogates providing rich milk for babies who lost their mothers in childbirth, which used to be a frequent occurrence.

The river doesn’t flow as deep as it once did, so there are numerous sand banks. Washerpeople stand knee-deep in the water around these and thrash the washing, then spread it out on the sand to dry.

Agra was established as a more central (than Delhi) dispatch area for Indian troops around the country. There are still big army bases in the city, which even as a smaller city still claims a population of 2,6 million people.

We stopped at a garden restaurant for lunch. They had some kids in traditional dress entertaining with drums, singing and puppet shows with marionettes in elaborate traditional outfits.

Christian wasn’t feeling 100% (churny belly, inevitable Delhi fall-out) so he had a vegetable curry to up the veg content without losing out on the house speciality entirely. I was feeling aces so had Masala Gost (mutton curry with egg) and garlic naan.

Yusef had offered the group the option to alter our itinerary slightly, moving the Red Fort tour to the next morning so as to allow more time at Taj Mahal, but also meaning we could linger over lunch and have a leisurely stop while checking into our hotel, the Raj Mahal (where we were greeted with marigold garlands). It worked beautifully – and meant we could have a few hours at Taj to include sunset so we could see the subtle change in the colour of the marble.

The monument was built by Shah Janah for his favourite wife, who he’d named Mum Taj Mahal (“Chosen Crown Palace”), as her final resting place after she’d died giving birth to their 14th child. The designed was inspired by the description of the Gardens of Paradise and House of Allah in the Qu’ran and it took 20,000 people 22 years day and night to build it. It is perfectly symmetrical, in that it looks exactly the same from all 4 sides; the only deviation from this is the placement of the Shah’s body in the mausoleum, to the left of his wife’s, which is the exact epicentre.

This OCD carried through to every element and the gardens are mirrored on either side, the fountains elevate water to exactly the same height (requiring some quite sophisticated engineering for those times) and there was a mosque sitting to the West of the building that he had mirrored with a perfect replica on the East side (that was used to house visiting dignitaries).

There is conjecture about the Shah ordering the chopping off hands of the workmen when the building was completed so they couldn’t make another Taj, but Yusef claims this is just scandalous rumour and that the king had made extra effort to ensure that the reputation of the building was flawless to maintain his wife’s honour. He was apparently quite shrewd in some of his gestures, like clearing the site by offering the building material leftovers to the people – quite some feat with the high ramps it must have taken to complete the highest sections – and everything was gone in 2 days, when it would have taken months of waged employees to clear it!

Stories aside, it was clearly built to last, having been completed in 1653 and still requiring no restoration, just a river sand mask that peels off all the dirt to give it a clean every few years. It’s just a pity that the Shah didn’t get to complete his dream, which was to build an exact replica (but made from black marble) across the river to be his mausoleum, with a bridge connecting the two. His plan was thwarted when his son put him under house-arrest for the last 8 years of his life, meaning he never got to start the project.

Over time the opposite bank had become home to factories and plants, but the government has closed these down since they posed threat to the Taj not only from pollutants, but from their effect on the river flow. The Taj was built intended to be indestructible to an earthquake up to 8 on the Richter scale (even including details like angling the minarets ever so slightly outward so that in event of earthquake they fall away from the mausoleum, minimising damage), but this all rests in the firm foundation which is from rubble and bamboo. Affecting the river could mean that the bamboo dries up and the Taj could sink and become vulnerable and unstable.

That would be a real shame. It’s such a prolific icon. At least the authorities are protecting it adequately, with very stringent security checks on entry that even disallow cigarettes and chewing gum – to the point that there are x-rays machines, bag checks and confiscation. Good for them though; looking at the rest of India that we’ve seen so far, it’d be just another big dustbin if left to the hygiene compass of the common people. And there are lots and lots of common people at the Taj. As with at the other sites, there are discounted tickets for locals, but they have to queue for entry into the mausoleum where “high value ticket holders” are ushered in (by gun-wielding police guards) straight from the front of the queue.

 

After an hour’s repose at the hotel, we were bussed to yet another restaurant for dinner. We were put off by the curry all being on the bone, so opted for a radical change and went Chinese. Every menu has had an entire Chinese section, but we hadn’t even considered before. Very glad we did tonight though – we had the most gorgeous lamb with mushroom and garlic in a rich thick brown gravy as well as a chicken and pineapple in creamy lemon sauce. Both were incredible… And now we’ll have to try Chinese somewhere else to see if it was just that restaurant or if Indians are better at Chinese than SA – and possibly better at Chinese than Indian!

 

The next morning kicked off with a visit to Red Fort. The great mughals lived there and the country was governed from there, including the treasury and mint. The mughals were descended from Mongolian mothers and Turkish fathers, hence had oriental eyes and lighter skin from their maternal side and were Muslim from their patronage. Over generations their facial features evolved and their skin darkened as they inter-married with Indians.

Although the Red Fort has stood in one form or another since 11th century (first written reference was 1060), the rebuild to its current red sandstone form only started in 1560, upgrading it to include additional safety features like the double moat – one with tigers and one with water – and 2 gates at right angles to retard possible charging elephant rams. Above the enormous wooden entrance gates are also windows they could throw stones and boiling oil out of; it’s no wonder nobody ever tried to force entry!

Inside the royal section, where the emperor and his most important harem members lived, was where the illicit goings-on and more indulgent lifestyle happened (opiates and wine, which are forbidden by the Qu’ran but excused in the Palace because of royal status). One of the wives attempted growing grapes to make wine, so an elaborate garden was dug, 10 feet deep with brick dividers to keep the different grapes separated. Of course, the climate wasn’t conducive, so a more conventional, although far from ordinary, garden was made from it, with a thick carpet effect delineated by the swirling brickwork dividers.

Shah Jahan’s prison is adjacent to the gardens. Not the usual jail, made from marble with floral designs inlaid with jasper, turquoise, malachite, onyx and cornellian (called fire stone because it glows when light is shone on it). The torturous part really was that he had a perfect view of his best creation, the Taj Mahal, from his prison… But he couldn’t go there. That, and being imprisoned by his own son of course. Quite a story really since it was Shah Jahan’s 3rd and 4th sons that colluded to murder the 1st and 2nd sons so they’d be first in line for the throne. Then the 3rd son (Aurangzeb) murdered the 4th son to take out the competition. But since there were only daughters remaining, the 3rd son imprisoned his dad and seized the throne. He reigned for 59 years and wasn’t the usual money-grabber, living a simple(r) life and not taking money from the treasury. But it was him that started driving the wedge between the Muslims and the Hindus.

Back to the bus and off to the marble factory. Different merchandise (to the gemstone factory shop in Bangkok, ‘handicrap’ factory in Viet Nam, carpets in Turkey etc etc), but same hard sell. “No obligation to purchase”, but a salesman breathing down your neck showing equally unattractive pieces at escalating prices – clearly showing pieces that make more sense to his target than our tastes. It’s a pity because the craftsmanship is painstaking (we were demonstrated the process and had a chance to try the various stages of manufacture) and it really is a fine art that would be far more enjoyable to be able to absorb the showroom like a gallery, appreciating the patience and effort it takes to conceptualise the design, shape the stones and mould the marble to fit – irrespective of how flowery the design and how unlikely it is to ever feature in our lounge (even if it weren’t hundreds of Pounds). But we were more focused on out-running our adversary and responding with vague and polite answers and glazed smiles.

 

Sikri is the village next to Agra that comes from the Arabic word for ‘thank you’, and was built by Akbar, considered to be the greatest of the Moghals. He ruled from the age of 14, so traded education for his royal duties and was virtually illiterate. He was generally very tolerant and was the first Muslim king to marry a Hindu – even allowing her to continue to practice her religion and build a place to worship and store her religious books in the Red Fort. He also allowed a Portuguese christian missionary to build a church in the fort in Sikri.

The Palace seems a bit excessive for just the emperor and his wives until you consider that his harem was about 2000 women. There are the wives (Islam allows 4), the contract wives (marriage for a limited defined period to save widows’ virtue when their husband, lest she be turned to prostitution to support herself), concubines (on a good day used as human pieces in a life-size pachisi board in the recreation courtyard) and slaves.

The Palace at Sikri was short-lived; it took 6 years to complete, but was only lived in for 15 years, including construction time. Akbar had no male heirs so nominated one of his sufi’s (priest / mystic) sons and moved to where the sufi was in order to carry on the moghal line. Unfortunately there was no river here, so he built a dam, but it wasn’t sustainable as a water source so they moved back to Agra.

We left Sikri for the long bus ride to Jaipur, stopping at a restaurant for a buffet lunch, with tandoori and mustard chicken as the stars. We’d been passing through farmlands and Yusef had explained that India theoretically should be the self-sufficient from a food production point of view, being among the top producers of wheat, rice, tea, potatoes and tomatoes. They also produce vast quantities of mustard, ergo the local mustard chicken dish on the buffet.

Chicken is generally a winner as a pretty safe choice. Most of the time when you order beef, it’s likely to be water buffalo, reason being that the God of Death rides a water buffalo so they’re not sacred like cows. Similarly, the mutton is often goat meat. Add to this the fact that almost all curries are described as a combination of tomato/onion/capsicum/thick/rich/pungent/aromatic (or better still, where it is from with no clues to the ingredients), the menu is just the vaguest of guidelines as to what to expect! Today’s lunch was included, expressly for the purpose of having us taste the water buffalo.

India is such a dichotomy. So much pride taken in some things and so much blatant disregard for others. For example, most big trucks are gaily painted (permanent) and decorated with garlands of flowers (possibly just for Diwali), while the shop stalls are dusty little hovels lining streets strewn with litter. At least the cow pats are recycled, being dried and made into methane cakes for fires (we were assured that they don’t smell once dried or burnt), but India really could use more dustbins and a good “zap it in the Zeebie” campaign!

With the dirty dusty state of things, the unconventional (compared to Western) way these towns seem to operate and the vast expanses between towns, I’m very glad we got an organised tour for this part of the trip instead of fashioning our own itinerary online as we usually do. Looking at the conditions and locations of some of these self-proclaimed “resorts”, I doubt we could have come right with all our choices based on the very one-dimensional views our usual websites present – and I’d have hated to end up in dodgy accommodation in the middle of nowhere spending time and money getting to the sights these places claim to be close to. It has been a pleasure being guided and informed on a luxury bus between the great iconic treasures that this part of the country holds, with convenient and clean hotel rooms guaranteed each night, and a double bonus that this kind of tour is better priced for us South Africans (at ZAR 4000 a person) than our Aussie counterparts (AUS $2000 per person).