The trip down to Agra is fascinating. It is good to leave the city of Delhi and get out into the countryside. My camera is constantly ready. During the course of the trip I managed to take over 1200 stills and about 2 hours of video. Everywhere you look there is a terrific picture in the making. Unfortunately, there are many great pictures you can take that you miss traveling by car, but I do take my share. Those others still reside in my head.
The trip to Agra takes about 4 hours to complete. Pradeep, my driver, is very good and in spite of the crazy driving conditions of India, I still feel very safe. As it was, I asked him to stop no fewer than 10 times to either take a shot or at least observe life in the countryside. Farming always interests me. The houses are make of thatching and straw, sometimes wood. Animals. like buffaloes, cows, sheep and goats roam freely. It is interesting to see people off to work at that time in the morning traveling in overloaded modes of transport be it tuk-tuk, bus, cars, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, and carts drawn by everything imaginable— horses, camels, buffalo, cattle, tractors, you name it! We even pass a group of elephants making their way to God-knows-where. Women, and some men, in their colorful costumes carry loads large and small on top of their heads walking ram-rod straight.
As we enter the city of Agra we stop at the tomb of Akbar, one of the great Mogul emperors. He is actually buried in either Lahore or Samarkand now. I told Pradeep I would be back in one hour—– an hour and a half later I was still making my way among these awe-inspiring monuments. Over the next few days, I would get a wonderful crash-course on Mogul art and history. The interesting thing about these tombs is that they are very elaborate, but the actual crypts are very austere, especially the early ones. Akbar believed that all religions worshipped the same God and the motifs on the decorations reflects this. Akbar married three wives, one Christian, Muslim and the other Hindu. This was done for political reasons, but also showed how religiously tolerant he was, or given the populations of his empire, had to be.
Not to waste any time, we pick up the tour guide for Agra, Dayal. He has a very thick accent, so it is often difficult for me to figure out what he is saying, but we managed. I find out quickly that he is from the first caste, Brahmin all the way. He sports a twist of long hair in the back of his head as a sign of his status. Though it doesn’t have the cache it once held in India. Our first stop after checking into the hotel, is the Red Fort. This was one of the residences of Akbar in his day. It is huge! Only 25% is open to the public, but that alone takes you several hours to do! The fort, as is most structures in this area, is made of sandstone and marble. There are beautiful floral designs of precious and semiprecious stones, like lapis lazuli, malachite, jasper, emerald and mother of pearl embedded in the marble. Absolutely phenomenal!
We get to the second story and make our way to the ramparts of the fort overlooking the river. I turned slightly to the right, and there just a short distance away on the river bank was the Taj Mahal itself. Finally, after all these years! It is a marvel to see from that point. Because of the heat and humidity, it is shrouded in a misty haze which only adds to its allure for me.
On the way back to the hotel, we go through the bazaar. It is made up of small ancient shops and narrow dirt lanes. It is teeming with people, animals and every kind of product imaginable. Factories have been moved out of Agra because if the effect of the pollution on the Taj. It is good for the city in one respect, but not for the people who earned their living at the factories!
The next day we are up early to get to the Taj for sunrise when it is supposed to be at its most beautiful. The Taj Mahal’s colors change slightly with the available sun and moonlight. We would have neither today! It was cloudy the whole time, but that did not take away much from the experience for me. You enter a check-point. Times are tense in India right now with the bombings, so security is tight. No food, gum, candy is allowed (for practical reasons) and no electrical devices (even calculators) are allowed for other reasons. It is a 1/2 kilometer walk into the site itself. I don’t want to take one of the many pedicabs. I want to walk. My guide finds this amusing. Indians would rather do anything but walk in that heat, even at that time of the day! He’d “suffer” with that all day—- I walk everywhere!
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan, a Mogul emperor, to commemorate his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died at a relatively early age of thirty-something. In the 23 years of their marriage, she bore 19 children! No wonder she died at an early age! Other than the obvious aesthetic beauty of the place, this is a mathematicians dream! Everything is symmetrical here! There is a point in the crypt itself that if you look through it, the complex is divided in a perfect symmetrical half. Everything has symmetry, even the intricately carved marble screens. Here again are the exquisite pietra-dura carvings in the marble of floral designs in lapis, malachite and jasper as at Akbar’s tomb. You find other little intricacies at the Taj as well. If you walk up to one of the four minarets that flank the Taj, you will see a traditional zig-zag pattern. If you look up the column, the illusion is created so that the pattern looks like a flat line. The minarets themselves are built on a 95 degree angle so that if there is an earthquake, they will fall away from the Taj! Such attention to detail!
Dayal, although a wonderful guide, talks incessantly about the Taj and expects you to be a good listener. I am actually happy when he tell me he has to go to the bathroom—- I tell him I’ll meet him in 20 minutes by the entrance. I take the opportunity to walk the site in as much silence as I can find. I sit on a bench looking at this amazing structure and just enjoy taking it all in in parts and whole. It is over an hour before I can tear myself away from the place. Lots of people are arriving and it seems like the morning was the best time to go.
Now you would think that after the Taj anything else on this trip would be anticlimactic, but we then went to the relatively small tomb of Akbar’s relative through marriage and chief finance minister, Itimad-ud-Daulah. It is here that the pietra-dura technique is taken to a new level. It is amazingly intricate and sublime.
Get back to the hotel at nightfall. Totally exhausted, but in a good very satisfied way. India is a photographer’s heaven.
We leave early the next day in the rain and I am very grateful to have had the Taj on a cloudy day rather than the one settling in over Agra that day! We are bound for Jaipur by way of Fatchpur-Sikri.