S arrived promptly and we checked out and set off towards the Fatehpur Sikri, two monuments built in the mediaeval period. We paused for breakfast at a rest stop (poori) and continued to the hills. The roads in and around Agra had more than their fair share of potholes and I felt lucky to arrive with all my teeth still intact! S recommended we get a guide, which we did, and he parked up while we got into a rickshaw for the final hill with the guide hanging on with the rickshaw driver.
After getting tickets and avoiding the souvenir sellers we went into the palace, which was built to house Akbar and his three wives. The guide explained that Akbar was the grandfather of the builder of the Taj Mahal, and had ruled in a very secular way, taking a Catholic wife, Hindu wife and Muslim wife to show his great impartiality. He had had trouble producing an heir, and finally succeeded with the Hindu wife, who had the largest living quarters as a result.
We also saw the Catholic wife’s palace, and the Muslim wife’s palace, which was tiny. Our guide was quick to explain that though the palace was small it wasn’t a reflection of Akbar’s attitude towards her, as hers was the most richly decorated with beautiful stone screens and carvings. Though the air temperature was cool, the sun was relentless and I enjoyed having the chance to duck into the different rooms.
We also saw the royal bedroom, a massive bed raised six feet in the air with space for at least ten people! Something tells me that Akbar didn’t suffer if it was a cold night. Another highlight was the court which had a central pillar decorated with motifs from many world religious and cultures. This pillar supported spokes where the advisers would sit and… Advise. There was also an astrologer’s consultation room, and in the centre of the palace complex a huge stone throne sat, where Akbar would play pachisi with servant girls as pieces. He always won…
From the gardens and in the distance we saw the tomb of an elephant, which took the form of a huge cylindrical tower. This elephant had been Akbar’s favourite and also the palace executioner; people judged guilty would have their heads cracked open by the great beast’s foot.
Next was the neighbouring mosque, a beautiful and bustling place with tonnes of white marble forming the inner part of the mosque, very striking within the red walls. It was about here that we acquired a fourth member of our party, a small girl trying to sell us pens. We all went around together and saw the mosque and its tombs. We even went out to the front gate which revealed a set of steep steps where we perched precariously to look at what had been the biggest door in the world back in the day. A baby goat nestled in the steps, bleating, and was given a good stroke by an incoming worshipper.
We went back to the rickshaw and rode down the hill, with the pen seller hanging on the back like a limpet. Even as we were getting in the car to go to the next site, she stood with us repeating her offer. Maybe she just wanted a free lift down the hill, but I’m not so sure…
The guide came with us to the ATM where we paid him, and S drove us back towards the city with my spine getting slowly compressed by the bouncing. He finished his water bottle and flung it cheerfully out of the window exclaiming proudly that he was able to do so with impunity because (beaming grin) “This is Agra!” He chatted to Sellappan along the way, occasionally pausing to spit out the remnants of his paan, and told us all about his family waiting at home – he could talk for India and definitely lent some excitement to proceedings…
We proceeded to Agra Fort, yet another spectacular red sandstone complex with gorgeous carvings and impressive arches. We emerged onto a rooftop courtyard and spotted the Taj Mahal shimmering in the distant haze – our first glimpse! Naturally this prompted a million photographs and a declaration from Sellappan that he was bored of this style of architecture now and we should get underway. I could certainly see his point (though it may have proved unpopular with Agra tourist board if there is such a thing) and we headed back to S to go back to town for lunch, excited by the prospect of the Taj Mahal in the afternoon.
S took us to a restaurant called the Silk Road which was popular with tourists. It seemed to be a purpose-built tourist attraction, heavily decorated, air conditioned and with very smart service and knives and forks. Most of the customers were westerners, some sitting with a local who seemed to be guiding them (though I wouldn’t like to make assumptions…) through the menu choices and dispensing advice. Two couples sitting near us were French, so we eavesdropped a bit as we ate our lunch.
I have to point out that at this point I was feeling very odd and touristy, and I think Sellappan felt the same! The one of the French couples was struggling a bit with the menu due to a communication failure about dal/lentils, so we heroically intervened to save them. They were very pleased and chatted with us for a while, asking for recommendations. They were from Lyon and said they had been eating the same thing every day because they didn’t have the confidence to try something new, they ended up ordering what we had – i hope they enjoyed it! It turned out that their daughter worked in Newcastle. Small world… I was feeling very weird by this point!
We piled back into the car with S and he took us to a marble factory and jewellery shop where we inspected the goods – this is a common theme and i think the drivers work on commission or get paid to bring people to the shop. It’s a good arrangement for them and sometimes maybe for the customer too, as long as you aren’t afraid of bargaining or the incredibly-hard sell. It’s perfectly possible to come back out of the shop without making a purchase as we demonstrated at the jeweller’s – he lost our business as soon as he fingered the necklace Rajini had given me!
Dear reader if you have made it this far you must be almost as ready as we were to just get to the Taj Mahal! But no, this was the time to pick up some of the local speciality sweet, made from lotus plants. The closest I cancan come to a comparison is those big fruit jelly sweets you get at Christmas, but somehow lighter and not coated with sugar. These came in plain batons or colourful balls decorated with silver leaf. Sellappan quickly bought a couple of kilos for the folks at home.
Off we went on the rollercoaster to the West gate of the Taj Mahal. S dropped us off and told us to watch for pickpockets and scam artists, ignore everyone and walk quickly. The walk to the ticket counter was a kilometre gauntlet of horse/camel/auto drivers and souvenir sellers, which six-foot Sellappan strode through with me trotting beside like an overheated chihuahua. We got to the ticket counter and paid for our ticket (mine was 25 times the price of Sellappan’s, which sounds bad until you realise that it’s still only £2.50 for this amazing place) and we went through the security check. Separate queues for men and women and the imbalance of the gender of visitors meant I whizzed through the process and then had a little wait for Sellappan.
The Taj Mahal was still nowhere in sight, and we walked around to the gate in the red wall to see it framed beautifully in the archway. Excitement! We went along with the crowds and went through the arch, as the gardens and fountains revealed themselves below us. The manicured gardens were so simple they didn’t pull focus from the main attraction, and we walked alongside them towards the building.
After some fuss with shoes and getting in the right queues to get in, we entered the tomb itself and made the circle around the cool marble room. Signs calling for silence were wilfully ignored, not least by the security guard who blew his whistle at people who touched things. We came back outside and did two laps around the building before descending and getting our shoes back on.
One thing I had insisted on (and Sellappan agreed) was that we should spend plenty of time at the taj Mahal, so we left a full three hours to relax and really enjoy it. I was so glad that we did, because I ended up getting suncream in my eye which took up a good quarter of an hour! Of course, we took far too many pictures from every possible angle and with every imaginable pose, but the best part was finding a shaded bench and just looking at the building through the gardens. Despite the thousands of other tourists, we found a very peaceful spot and even managed to relax a bit for the first time since leaving Jaipur.
The Taj Mahal changed slowly under the setting sun, and despite having been inside and walked the marble halls, I could still hardly believe we were really sitting there. I have spent the first 27 years of my life looking at this incredibly beautiful, faraway thing on posters and book covers and being there just felt totally surreal. The scale of the building really blew me away too. You know it’s big before you go, but it’s just… HUGE! The hours disappeared and we headed out to run the gauntlet again, very happy that we had made it to this lovely place.
Next stop, bus station! I think it’s fair to say that we had both found Agra fairly stressful and a bit uncomfortable at times, despite the amazing places we had seen. When we got to the bus station, S squeezed us for a little bit of extra cash and sent us off with a cheerful paan-stained and aromatic grin as we promised to send more business his way if we ever had friends visiting Agra. It’s true that our visit wouldn’t have been the same without him! Sellappan visibly relaxed as we found our stop, and he bought chocolate to celebrate our triumphant Agra adventure. We boarded the bus to Delhi (big air conditioned Volvo) and settled down to chew over the day as well as the big bar of Dairy Milk.
By the first rest stop we hadn’t slept (it was only just outside of Agra) so Sellappan bought ice creams which we munched on the bus – talk about emotional eating! This new sugary snack trend was most welcome. At some point we dozed off and Delhi appeared, a little later than expected. We got off at the terminus near our hotel (The Southern) and Sellappan got us a rickshaw to cover the last few kilometres.
We finally arrived at the polished front desk at about 11pm, but happily the restaurant was still open, so we had a very southern meal of dosa which was gobbled down quickly! We filled in the millions of required forms and finally got upstairs. Sellappan went to the travel desk to arrange our cab for the next day, and we arranged to get up to leave by 8am. I soaked and washed my filthy feet (sandals) and read a bit more of Three Dog Night before sparking out.