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Irene's Adventures

India - Agra

INDIA | Thursday, 9 September 2010 | Views [742] | Comments [1]

We had only the Lonely Planet to help us find a place to stay.  Our tuktuk driver, from the train, made a recommendation (I’m sure for a finding fee) that was a bit more than we wanted to pay.  Len scouted out the room and came down the stairs with a huge smile and said “we’re staying here, you’ll love it.”  It was 400 rupees a night!  (44.5 rupees per $1)  Through the lobby the size of a closet with construction workers sawing and hammering, through the open and muddy courtyard the size of a bedroom, up the steep stairs to the third floor to another covered courtyard.  Our rooms were spacious and very nice, BUT the best part was the roof top.  There were flower pots filled with lovely blooming plants surrounding the roof top cafe that had a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal!  As we were tired and hungry, we opted to order a lunch and enjoy the breeze and the view. 

Len & Michaela 

There were 2 men who were obviously from the pot-painting caste (the caste system may be outlawed and not exactly in-your-face, but it is there if you look) who were sitting and having a smoke when we went up.  Shortly after seating ourselves, they decided that they had to paint the pots that were right beside our table.  They didn’t say a word, they just squeezed their way in between us, our table and the pots and started taking the pots over to a spot a meter from our table and began painting them.  Now these flower pots had been there for quite some time, as the foliage had grown in and around the lattice work.  We moved our table next to a German fellow and shared our lunch conversation with him.  The painters squatted, with cigarette in mouth, and every few seconds gave a single swipe of paint to the pot.  It was like they were in a slow motion trance. 

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his favourite wife, having died giving birth to their 14th child.  (horney old goat)  It took 17 years to build and some of the stone and craftsmen came from as far away as Europe.  His son took over the empire and had his father imprisoned for 8 years in the Agra Fort, where he could only view his beautiful memorial to his beloved wife through his prison window.  He is buried beside her upon his death in the prison.  It is encircled with a red sandstone, fort-like structure, with massive waterways and gardens adding a very tranquil atmosphere to the Taj.

Reportedly, the white marble changes colors and becomes almost translucent with the morning and evening sun.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy the full 2 days we were here.  It is closed to visitors on Fridays, open only for worshipping Muslims going to pray in the mosques that are on either side of it.  Since we arrived on Thursday and were planning on leaving Friday, we hurriedly went for a visit.  The ticket price for locals is 20 rupees, for foreigners 750 rupees – but they do give you a bottle of water and little shoe covers to wear inside the actual Taj.  Woo-hoo!

Taj Mahal   

We thought it would be an in, out, been here, cross it off our list sort of place.  In the end we spent 3 hours wandering around and enjoying the beauty and peace of the complex.  Not only is the white marble structure beautiful beyond description and is more spectacular than any picture can do justice to, the flanking mosques are also some of the most beautiful I have ever seen.  The walkways leading up to the Taj are red sand stone, but the actual Taj sits on a table of white marble with red sandstone designs.  You must leave your shoes with a shoe check guy and either go barefoot or leave the shoes on and cover them with the bootie things provided earlier.  We opted to go barefoot.  It was like walking on warm glass. 

Taj Mahal   

This is where one did a time warp into the past.  Imagine, if you can, this massive white marble structure (55 x 55 x 55 meters) with intricate designs etched, painted and inlaid into it, with women in the most beautiful and colourful sari’s imaginable and men with Gandi-like garb, others with brilliantly coloured turbans all milling about.  Of course there are the modern dressed Indians and tourists, but looking around one could not but see the beauty and contrast between the stark white marble and colourful, cloud-like, flowing sarees.


The interior of the memorial is the actual mausoleum, where the emperor and his wife are entombed.   Their ‘coffins’ are enclosed within a stone lattice fence, inlaid with flowers made of beautiful semi-precious gemstones, as are the coffins themselves.  There is no light in the inner chamber and thankfully I had a small flashlight so we could see them better.  The whole thing is cordoned off with a metal fence to protect the inner chamber.

  Taj Mahal - inner chamber

It was nearly dusk by the time we were leaving, and the Taj closes.

We found a great little restaurant that didn’t look like much from the outside, but had terrific food.  You had to walk up 3 flights of very, very narrow and steep stairs and past 3 very smelly bathrooms to get to the roof top, but it overlooked  the ‘intersection’ leading to the south gate of the Taj, crowded with fruit vendors and people continuously on the move.  It was a great place to take pictures of life in Agra. 

  roof top view 

Once again I must address the garbage situation.  The streets are swept, with a broom, on a regular basis.  It is swept into a pile and either burnt (not so nice, but efficient) or picked up by a garbage truck and taken to some location that I probably don’t want to know where, such as the river, to be dumped or burnt.  The shops may look grungy but they do their best to keep them clean, despite the dirt streets and cow shit.  What is the correct way to deal with it all?  I really don’t have the answer.  Is burying it in the neighbouring town’s backyard then calling it ‘green space’ down the road any better?  One thing I have noticed in India, there is nothing hidden.  Life and death (there is a dead cow at the entrance of a hotel in Varanasi, which is where I am writing this, not our hotel, though), natural bodily functions and consumer waste is in your face.  They don’t hide it and pretend that it doesn’t exist, or pawn it off somewhere for someone else to deal with. 

The next day we wanted to go to Agra Fort.  The guide book said it was a 2 km walk, and we could walk along the river, by the ghats (where they burn the dead).  Ok, sounds good.  We took a shortcut through the park, thinking it would be cooler.  It was at least 10 degrees hotter and humid.  We came to a lovely little path along the river with murals painted on the cement wall.  A bit further we came to some cement structures that we assumed were part of the ghats.  Sure enough, before we knew it three large trucks pull up loaded with men.  They hopped out of the back of the trucks and proceeded to unload a shrouded and flower laden body on a rugged stretcher from each truck.  The trucks unceremoniously zoomed off, leaving the men to place the body on a cement platform.  Again, life and death are in your face in India and the traffic that was blocked by these trucks were blasting their horns and squeezing past.  It was kind of like, ‘ok, bury your dead, but get the hell out of my way.”  Remember, this is not a road, but more of a one vehicle bush trail.  We didn’t hang around long, as we weren’t sure what the protocol was regarding the dead and foreigners and especially taking pictures. 


A bit further we came to the main road, a proper busy city street, with every mode of transportation zipping along and squeezing into any space with an inch to spare for their vehicle.  Coming up the road is a procession of men, chanting and carrying another dead body.  I wish I could have captured the men holding the corpse with one hand and waving to us with the other.  Yup, buddy died, but I’m still smiling... 

The fort was on our left, with no visible means of entry.  We walked to the end of the fort – at least a kilometer, turned left, along the back of the fort, turned left again and, you guessed it, ended up totally circling the fort before we found the entrance.   Had we not turned right onto the busy street we would have been about 50 meters from the entrance.  LOL.  Oh well.  It was an entertaining stroll.  We saw a laundry service drying clothes on bushes, we saw a guy pooping, we saw quite a few guys sleeping on the cement wall and in rickshaws, we saw a large troop of monkeys, and we saw a river of water bottles.  We got accosted by children wanting their picture taken.  We saw a sea of tuktuks at the bazaar.  We saw guys with hammer and chisel shaping large sandstone blocks to refurbish the fort.  You can’t buy that much entertainment from one stroll in Alberta!


The fort, as you may have guessed is massive, albeit, a lot of the outer walls are enclosing land and not buildings.  We read that the Indian army uses the grounds for training.  None the less, the fort is huge.  The older part is red sandstone with the newer part being white marble.  It was in the newer marble part that the Shah was imprisoned.  He had it pretty good, from the looks of it.  There are geometric gardens, marble baths and fountains, and cool covered marble balconies (multiple) overlooking the river and the Taj.  When I say cool, I am referring to temperature, and not awesome looking (although they are that too).   The grounds and buildings have either been carefully preserved or meticulously reconstructed, as you can easily imagine it being medieval times.


We had a few hours to kill before our night train to Varanasi, so we went back to our hotel and spent the remainder of the day exchanging and deleting digital pictures.  It started to rain, which was a welcome cool.  However, it made for an interesting tuktuk ride to the train. 

First of all, the power went out, again.  The streets are now totally dark, with the exception of the odd shop that has a generator or battery spilling light onto the street.  We squashed in to the tuktuk – which is basically a glorified golf cart – and head off.  Now most of the vehicles, which there are very few cars, have no lights; neither headlights nor taillights.  The bicycles have nothing.  The people and cows for sure have nothing.  The tuktuk had no windshield wiper.  We are zipping along with raindrops sticking to the windshield and every little light reflecting off the drops. Remember how I described traffic, like a school of fish vying for a spot?  Try that with a dim headlight, most other traffic with nothing, and no street lights.   Finally the driver pulls over and wipes tobacco on the windshield, which prevented the drops from sticking but left a smudgy mess to semi-look through.

power failure

We arrive at the train station.  It looked like the holocaust.  There were people sleeping, camped out on the platform, waiting for their trains.  Most people have made a pilgrimage here and have no money for a hotel room, or food.  They bring what food they have, throw down a tarp, blanket or cardboard and simply go to sleep.  There were little children, babies, old and young men and women, all lying in cord-like fashion.  It was an organized mess.


Our train was similar to the sleeper coach we had taken to Agra, but the berths were turned down and it had A/C J .  You got a sheet, pillow and blanket.  It was a 12 hour journey and thankfully we all slept like babies.  Michaela and I chained our large bags together then attached them to part of the berth.  We slept with our smaller packs by our heads.  Len was in a separate berth, but in the same coach.

Train interior

I forgot to add this picture of a guy selling bicycle tires at a red light in Delhi. They sell everything at red lights - coconut, combs, trinkets, even tires....  The kid in the foreground was simply begging and latched himself to Michaela's legs.  The tuktuk driver told him to bugger off.

selling tires at a red light

We arrived in Varanasi about 10 AM, only 1.5 hours behind schedule and proceeded to find accommodation.  Yet another adventure in what would normally be a routine task......

Varanasi next............




Very interesting blog. Everything ok here except the weather. Frost warnings in Edmonton and west and north but none here. Still lots of rain and clouds. Went to Kelowna Aug 31st then to Calgary, Ponoka and Edmtn. Arrived back in B'ville this afternoon. Mom and dad are fine.

  June Cabay Sep 12, 2010 11:05 AM

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