Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Agra

We took the 19'666' Udaipur-Khajuraho express to Agra from Gandhinagar railway station Jaipur. It came right behind the double decker express to Delhi. We took general tickets and later upgraded to sleeper tickets from the train and got allotted the same empty seats we were sleeping in after getting on.

Outside Agra Cantonment railway station, there was government approved sightseeing packages with small cabs at ₹750 for half day. We had only one place to visit, actually - the Taj Mahal.

Taj is large and Agra is small (like Mysore palace and Mysuru). There are multiple gates to the Taj. We took the one near the red fort. (The red fort of Agra is not the red fort of Delhi as I used to believe. At least, that explains how Shah Jahan could see the Taj Mahal from his prison in red fort where he was put by his son). The crowd of rickshaw riders, camel riders, vendors, guides, and photographers who approach you here is larger than you would expect. We fought our way through to the Taj, yet falling for buying some shoe covers.

There is tight security at the entrance. Bags are checked and so are people. The entry ticket was a QR code printed on a rectangular piece of paper. It was scanned at the entrance.

Once inside, we got a guide for ₹100 which was cheaper than all the guides outside and also stupid because he didn't "guide" us for more than 10 minutes and also led us into a photographer's ambit. More about that later.

There is a row of houses just opposite to the grant entrance gate of Taj Mahal which supposedly belong to the descendants of the sculptors who built the Taj Mahal. The story that Shah Jahan cut the hands of the workers so they wouldn't build another Taj Mahal is most probably a myth. I was imagining how cool their address would be - "House 21, Taj Mahal".

The design of Taj Mahal complex is mostly symmetric. For every building on the left, there's a similar building on the right. The Taj Mahal itself looks the same from all four sides. The only asymmetry for us was that when we went, two diagonally opposite minarets were being cleaned because of all the color they've been losing and these were draped in metal stands so the workers could sit on them while scrubbing the white turned yellow marbles with some ancient technology of scientific restoration. The entire Taj seems to have turned as yellow as my teeth and I'm sure the next time I go, it'll be the central dome that is being cleaned like this.

There were giant writings on all walls, especially at the darwaza (door). The first look at Taj Mahal from front through this door is quite a moment. The monument is very large, larger than what you would expect from photos. And it just stays there. White. Stone.

Just inside there is a large number of photographers telling you how the mobile camera is not as good as their professional camera in capturing both your faces and Taj Mahal's simultaneously. Our guide, at this point, told us the story of how Shah Jahan wanted to build a black Taj behind the white across Yamuna (which is a myth and a fantasy created by a writer later, according to wikipedia) and about how the minarets are inclined by 5 degrees outwards so that in the event of an earthquake they won't fall on the dome, and then he led us to a photographer who would waste our time and vice versa. First, he tells ₹25 per photo. Then he tells, only hard copies. What would one do with printouts? He said he can give soft copies too. We took so many photos. Then we chose 4 photos and he said he can't "waste" a CD for just 4 photos. So we chose to get hard copy of just one group photo and then he got so angry and deleted all the photos he took. I had started walking towards the Taj with one of my friends while this drama was happening because after all, people enjoyed Taj even before photography was invented.

There is a long and narrow garden and pool in front of Taj which is well maintained. At just about the right spot for photographs there is an elevated platform. When you walk right from right below the Taj, you reach the free shoe racks to keep your shoes. We turned in all our shoes. Even those of us who had shoe covers. For a moment we thought the shoe cover is a shoe made of cloth to be worn on naked foot, but just as we moved away from the racks we saw others wearing the shoe cover over their shoes. I was walking barefoot anyhow, because I wanted to feel the marble. All of us walked barefoot.

There are two paths everywhere. One for general tickets, one for VIP tickets. I assume the VIPs are those foreigners who are forced to pay ₹500 and above. The general entrance is towards the right again. We get to enter the Taj from behind. There are two buildings just flanking the minarets. One of these is a mosque. Among the other buildings in the complex is a VIP guest house where ministers and others can stay when they come to Agra.

The marble was cold even though it was around noon when the skin of our feet touched it. Like I said, the general ticket holders enter via the backside and so we saw the Yamuna first. The river flows parallel to the backside of the Taj. There is a garden on the exact opposite bank and nobody can be blamed for thinking Shah Jahan wanted to build a black Taj Mahal for himself there.

Once you climb on the platform where the minarets are, you can no longer see the dome and therefore the Taj Mahal becomes so unlike what you know from all the pictures. The symmetry of the construction is mathematical. Yet there is an entrance at the front wall, the marble sides of which are carved with flowers and other designs. The entrance directly leads to the dimly lit tombs of Mumtaj and Shah Jahan. There was a tunnel to go underground where the actual tombs are, but it remains closed now and we can only see representations in the top. The marble here is translucent, as demonstrated in the transilluminence test at a corner by me and many others. There are glass doors everywhere with small round glass arranged like honeycomb on them. People trying to write their name on this glass had broken several of the comb compartments already.

We came outside and sat on the marble and under the shade of the marble mausoleum for a while. Yamuna brought breeze. After collecting our shoes and calculating how much money the shoe keeper would get as "happiness allowance", we walked through the less busy side road into the Taj Museum.

The museum welcomes you with a read board that describes what it exhibits - coins, maps, letters, pictures, stones. The center piece is this map of the entire Taj Mahal complex which definitely didn't include a black Taj. My hypothesis is that Shah Jahan wanted to build a small house for himself on the other bank where he could sit and watch the Taj Mahal till his death. (Remember Aurangzeb put him in the nearby Red Fort (which is not the Red Fort of Delhi) which had a similar view, probably on his request)

We went to the toilets in one corner which is free for foreigners (payback for paying so much to enter) and well maintained. Displayed on the wall outside till the exit, are pictures of various monuments in India pretty many of which I'm yet to see. While exiting, I couldn't fail to notice the awe and wonder on the face of people who were entering then and getting their first glimpse of the Taj. Once outside we had to rush to our car escaping from the e-carts, rickshaws, and camels. And then through the waste-filled gullies of Agra to the inter state bus terminal where we would catch a fast bus that plies on the Yamuna express way to Noida.


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