I don’t feel like I’m on vacation as I stumble out of the Master Guest House at 4:00 in the morning to meet Mashtan, our driver downstairs. Only he wasn’t exactly downstairs. The gates to the neighborhood had been closed and hadn’t been reopened yet, so we walked a couple of hundred feet to meet him there, and set out for Agra.
A word about residential streets in Delhi. They all have gates. At a certain time during the night they get closed and locked. This doesn’t prevent foot traffic, but does keep the rickshaws, cars and scooters off the roads while people are trying to get some shuteye. It seems strange until you realize how quiet the street gets when the vociferous horn-using Delhi drivers are taken out of the picture. With the hustle and bustle kept on the main roads, the neighborhood sounds like any other the world over. At least for a few hours a day.
Driving through the darkness towards Agra, the streets were already filled with Holi celebrators, no doubt still a little tipsy from the bonfires the night before. Faces and shirts smeared in red, green, blue and purple were turning up in the villages along the way, and Mashtan said Holi would be in full swing until around 1:00 PM. I fell asleep a few times, and roughly half way through got the opportunity to use a road side "toilet" at a petrol station. Like most Asian countries the crapper is just a hole in the ground, and you squat over it. Enough said.
Observation: Indians are fantastic squatters. As a pseudo-athlete I mean this in the most complimentary way. I’ve seen everyone from children to the elderly drop down into a full ass-to-ankles squat and sit there for a long time. I watched a child put his shoes on this way. I saw a group of men playing cards this way. It seemed universal. I was envious of that kind of flexibility and it was a reminder that much of the world’s population doesn’t have to sit with their ass in a chair all day.
We made a stop on our way to Agra at the nearby Akbar’s Tomb. Akbar was the famous 16th century Mughal ruler who established much of what can be seen at Agra, and set the stage for his son and grandson to expand upon. At this point it was still very early; I assume that most of the world was either asleep or playing Holi, and as a result the site was completely docile. We were one of only a few visitors. We got to absorb it in almost complete silence, broken only by the occasional cry from a peacock.
On the grounds we found more well-maintained gardens, populated by hundreds of peacocks and some kind of Indian deer that looked like a cross between a goat and an ibex. You can walk down into the tomb, which is lit only from a small window above. The site is highly symmetrical, with a number of gates and a small mosque as well. It was a great way to start the morning, especially with the notoriously busy Taj Mahal coming up on our itinerary.
We arrived at the Taj early, around 9:00 AM. After taking a half mile walk up a hill to get to the gates (cars aren’t allowed near the gates), we entered the grounds of the monument without issue. We had steeled ourselves for hundreds of wares peddlers and guides, but were pleasantly surprised by how few were actually there, I assume because of Holi.
No picture can prepare you for the scale of the Taj Mahal. It is massive. Not quite as imposing as the Coliseum in Rome, but still a truly gargantuan piece of work, especially considering it’s marble construction. Upon entering you walk a straight path towards the tomb through gardens and pools; like most of the major monuments so far the grounds were well-maintained. The tomb itself is flanked by additional sandstone structures, mausoleums for Jahan’s other wives, which closely resemble the architecture of the Jama Masjid and Akbar’s tomb. like Akshardham, the entire site is located on the banks of the Yamuna River. In recent times the river has flooded and receded a number of times, and apparently the water level will often reach the base of the walls surrounding the tomb.
The interior of the tomb is simple. there are eight marble chambers surrounding the main dome, each with a view into the tomb itself. The main dome is the highlight of course. Inside, the din of tourists whispering to one another turns into a chorus of echoes. Cary and I spoke to one another on one side of the chamber and I could swear by the time we had walked to the other side I could still hear myself repeat the same sentence via echo. A young man decided to take advantage of this and began to sing a song. I plan on recording my next vocal session there. The final highlight in the main chamber is the screen around the actual tombs of Shah Jahan and his beloved wife. Hand carved from white marble, it is an impressive piece of artwork.
We wandered the grounds a bit more, checked out a museum for the low low price of 5 rupees each, then made our way back toward the car. It was time for a break, and we sorely needed it. Mashtan dropped us off at our hotel, where we ate and rested until the heat subsided. At 3:00 PM, when we left for Agra Fort, it was still extremely hot, but we moved out anyway.
Agra fort was the domicile of Shah Jahan in his lifetime, but it’s history extends much further. Built on the banks of the Yamuna river, the fort has a respectable view of the Taj Mahal. The site itself is one of the largest we’ve visited; one can easily spend a half a day here and not see it all. We spent the entire afternoon wandering the palaces, mosques, diwans, and courtyards. There were a few gardens, not to mention several examples if Indo-Islamic architecture.
And then there were the monkeys. India is teeming with life, both domestic and wild. So far we had only seen a handful of monkeys, we seem to have found where they were all living though when we made our way into an older section of the fort. The monkeys had congregated at the top of a tower, and all at once a chorus of barking began. Apparently one smaller monkey had upset the social order by mounting an older female, and the other males were chasing him off. We were witnessing a monkey fight. It looked like things were getting out of hand, and we thought we might get caught up in the action, but we watched the monkeys duck and dive around us as though we were just part of the architecture. The beauty of the fort was amazing, but the highlight of our visit was definitely the monkey fight.
Drained by the sun we left later in the afternoon towards our hotel for a quick rest before dinner. We had dinner in a restaurant called Peshawri, located in another hotel that served Mughal food: kebabs and tandoori, spiced meats and breads. Cary and I both had wheat for the first time in eight months, and realized that we weren’t missing anything. Naan, even in the country of it’s origin is just not good enough to keep in our diets all the time.
A final word about Agra. It’s a tourist town. The local restaurants and hotels know they have a captive audience, and as such you should expect to pay a lot without great quality or service. We knew this would be the case going into it so it didn’t bother us, but in retrospect I think we will find that Agra, despite housing some of the worlds finest monuments, will be a low point on the trip.
In the morning we would set out for Jaipur. This time at a reasonable hour.