Our trip to see the Taj Mahal was a little impromptu, it was something we thought we would make the time to do while in India but if it didn't happen we were not bothered... after all it is an old leaky building.
However, Ray thought it would be great to spend some informal time one of the German Board members (Dirk) and a friend of his (Alfons), who mentioned they were heading down to Agra, and offered to for us all to travel together in the one vehicle. This meant we could share the cost of transport if we hired a car and of course the more the merrier. We set off early one morning for the 4 hour drive south, stopping at a roadside tourist stop for breakfast. It must have been one of those places where tourist buses frequent as there was imported chocolates, cookies and other luxuries from all over the world. In India everything has been given a set retail price which is printed on the label, but in this tourist stop that rule did not seem to apply. If a roll of toilet paper said 50 rupees on it they would charge you 80. The shop also sold loads of local arts and crafts also at over inflated prices. Needless to say I am not a fan of such places. I am not saying I want to beat people down to the lowest price possible, but I would rather pay a more reasonable price to a person who was perhaps involved in the manufacture or is at least a little closer to the source.
By lunch time we arrive at our hotel...Hotel Maya-meaning illusion in Hindi. It was a quaint little hotel with a rooftop view to the Taj. One of the first things I did of course was to head up there and check it out. Dirk and I both looked at it rather unmoved and I simply said I hope its more spectacular up close.
Before heading off on our site seeing jaunt we sat down for lunch at the hotels outdoor balcony restaurant. It was a great place made more enjoyable for the kids by the fact that the waiters carried sling shots aptly named monkey guns to deter the would be food thieves. Unfortunately for some, the waiters were not always on the ball and we watched as a monkey deftly swooped on a table and took off with a nice piece of chicken tikka in hand.
After lunch we headed to the Taj. The parking place is about 500 metres away and the second we pulled up we were swamped by every kind of service imaginable- cycle rickshaws, horse drawn carriages, advice on what to do, guides, guide books and every kind of Taj Mahal paraphernalia imaginable. In the end we settled on an over priced guide and insisted that we walk to the Taj- afterall we had been in a car all day. The walk was entertaining with everyone hounding us to buy there wares or trying to entice us into their store. So we made it to the ticket gate with our foreigners price of 750 rupees ready to hand over (thank you Bill Clinton- locals only pay 20) thankfully the kids were free. As with everywhere the security is pretty tight, we queued up for the ubiquitous metal detector scan and bag check. Once through you enter the outer area. Here we had a long and interesting explanation about the layout, architecture, history etc but really I couldn't wait to head in through the main gate and finally see what all the fuss is about.
Well... I have to admit it truly is an amazing structure. So what makes it so amazing? The precision for the era in which it is built; the detail of the intricate marble and semi precious stone work; the 20,000 people working 24 hours per day for 22 years to build it and the story behind it. Interestingly the guy that commissioned it had planned to build a second Taj Mahal for himself; it was to be made of black marble and was to be opposite the white one on the other side of the Jamuna river, with a marble bridge connecting them both. You can see the site where construction started but was ultimately abandoned when the guys son put him in gaol in the Agra fort overlooking the white Taj Mahal. Can you imagine if the black one was completed... what a sight!
We enjoyed several hours at the Taj exploring the grounds and just enjoying being in India. I think I photographed it from just about every possible angle and Hunter once again was very popular with all the Indian tourists and posed for many photographs. Before we left we all sat at the entrance of the main gate and enjoyed watching the setting sun change the light over the white marble. Well worth the experience, even if it did cost $20US
As we walked back to the car I think we were approached by twice as many touts. We did stop at one marble shop with workers demonstrating their intricate craft of inlaying semi-precious stones...apparently they were decedents of those who actually worked at the Taj. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, their work was amazing.
It seems that most things in Agra are made from white marble... this included our beds at the hotel which were a thin foam mattress on a raised platform of white marble... great hotel and bargain price at $15 per person per night!
That night we ate at a restaurant aptly named the Taj Mahal, where I discovered Afghani Chicken... I am sorry India but the Afghans know their flavours pretty well also! Does anyone know if you can get this in Australia?
Day 2 in Agra we kept up with seeing the sites. First we headed to the Agra Fort, where we decided to forgo a tour guide and simply rely on the Lonely Planet. Another amazing place but I am not going to go into the detail because anyone but me would find my description boring and frankly you have to see it to appreciate it (unless you are some kind of history buff, which I am not). From Agra fort we crammed all 6 of us plus a driver into an auto rickshaw and headed to a market place. We spent a few hours wandering around the crowded market place taking in the sites and watching the paan vendors mix their creations and wrap them up in a paan leaf (one day I will try one). Dirk led us down some of the narrow alleyways that led into a very condensed housing area, it was interesting to see inside the real Agra, with water rushing through narrow drains, small children running around unattended, monkeys climbing on every building and trying to reach through the thickly screened windows trying to snatch some food. It is sobering to think that any one of us could have been born into the city of Agra and have a totally different life to the one we are accustomed too. The unfortunate thing about Agra is that for the amount of tourist dollars that is being poured into the city very little is being spent on fixing up the city itself... I hate to sound harsh but Agra itself is a dive.
Our final stop for the day was Akbar's tomb, which once again housed some amazing architecture with intricate inlaid detail. The gardens of this tomb housed a deer park as well as several species of monkeys and a few exotic birds including peacocks all wandering around together free range. Sam really enjoyed being a wildlife photographer while in the garden and took some great snaps, some of which I have uploaded to Picasa.
From Akbar's tomb we headed back to Delhi. The trip was largely uneventful aside from the horrendous traffic and Ray having a slight episode of Delhi belly. I have to say I found the drive home particularly tedious. By this stage I was feeling a little worn out from the weeks of travel and I was looking forward to a few days at home doing nothing. I think it is very easy to become worn out in India; it is such a busy place and such an assault to the senses. You really need time here to be able to stop and find a quite place to recover every now and then.
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