Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Agra – Home of the Most Beautiful Building in the World

Waiting for the train
We caught a late afternoon express train for Agra.  This train experience was much better than our overnight trip but still pretty rough around the edges.  Unbelievably, they kept plying us with food during the relatively short trip (2 ½ hours): snacks, sandwiches, hot tea etc.  Most of which we didn’t eat – if you think U.S. train/plane food is bad, wow!! You are in for a real treat here.....
Train stations in India are real horror shows, with overcrowded platforms of travelers, beggars, and people lying around sleeping on the concrete floors (or are they dead?).  Luckily, we had a handler to make sure we got on the right train in all this mess.  We consider ourselves “train experts” in any other part of the world but wouldn’t attempt it on our own here.  We actually met a couple from Idaho at the train station named Bill and Bobbie, who also had a handler to get them oriented.  It’s always fun to commiserate with fellow Americans about the trials and tribulations of traveling in India (although we would have to say that we seem to be handling it much better than most).
The incredible Taj!
We arrived about 8:30 p.m. in the city of Agra – after dark and too late to see anything, although we did get a distant first glimpse of the Taj Mahal from our hotel balcony.  Yes, this is the city where the grandest building in the world resides (in our humble opinion).  Our hotel room looked terrific, but as always in India, things are not what they appear to be.  The seemingly modern shower with its touchpad controls looked like a dream until we stepped in and realized that the water temperature fluctuated wildly on its own from scalding to lukewarm, and the water was a disgusting yellow/green color.  Such are the realities of travel here.
Monika shows us the gorgeous inlays of
the Taj Mahal

The next morning, we were totally psyched to visit the world famous Taj Mahal with our new Agra guide, Monika Sharma -- she was our first female guide here in India, and by far our best guide yet.  Monika was everything we like in a guide: knowledgeable, smart, curious, enthusiastic, energetic, and just so much fun.  She showed us the sights, but also taught Frank lots of helpful Hindi words, and told Anne all about Hindu weddings (which tend to last for 15 days).  What a wealth of information she provided.   We wanted to pack her up and bring her home with us!
The Taj Mahal is simply the most beautiful building we have ever seen.  We wondered how it could possibly live up to the hype, but the Taj was better than we ever dreamed.  We arrived about 8:30 a.m. when the lighting was ideal, and it wasn’t overly crowded.  It is impossible to describe the glimmering white marble and the wondrous reflection in the mirror pool in front of the building.  You have all seen the pictures, but they do not begin to capture the grace and elegance of this place when you see it in person.
Up close, the Taj was a revelation with the most beautiful floral designs created with inlays of precious and semi-precious stones.  The marble itself sparkles from the crystals embedded in it, and the semi-precious stones glittered in the sun like so many diamonds.  The Taj Mahal was created by Shah Jehan as a memorial mausoleum to his favorite wife, Mumtaz, who had died giving birth to their 14th child.  The couple is buried side by side in the basement, but replicas of their caskets are on display in the rotunda located in the center of the memorial at ground level.  This room has a sacred feeling to it much like a cathedral.  One of the many things that make the Taj so pleasing is the perfect symmetry of every aspect of the complex.  Only one thing lacks symmetry:  Shah Jehan’s tomb is not quite identical to Mumtaz’s tomb – it’s bigger!
Reflection pool showing the symetry of the Taj
Oddly enough, the Taj Mahal is built over a large well, an engineering design which helps makes this beautiful palace earthquake resistant.  If an earthquake occurs, the Taj foundation will “float” on the waters of the well, and the destructive shaking forces transferred to the structure are minimized by the damping action of the water. This also means that the river immediately behind it is an advantage and actually part of the anti-earthquake design, since it keeps the well beneath the structure always automatically filled with fluid, protecting the Taj for eternity – or until the river runs dry.  The details of the unusual foundation were discovered by the British when they tried to move the Taj.  Yes, the Brits in a fit of arrogance during their tenure here, tried to uproot the Taj and move it back to merry old England!  Anyway, happily for all, their plans failed, and the Taj remains just where it was always meant to be.

At the "Baby Taj"

Agra has two other places of interest as well: the “Baby Taj” and the Agra Fort.  The “Baby Taj” is older than the Taj and was probably the inspiration for it.  As its name implies, it is a mausoleum similar to the Taj, but on a smaller scale.  Both buildings were created by Persian workers and many of the walls and ceilings look like Persian carpets, only they were formed with marble and semi-precious stones instead of cloth.  Designed by a woman (Mumtaz’s aunt), this building has a delicacy that feels very feminine.  The marble inlay is gorgeous here as well, especially the Tiger’s Eye stones.

Red sandstone walls of the  Agra Fort

The Agra Fort is a huge place made of red sandstone that is part palace and part military installation.  Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj, was imprisoned here by his 3rd son (after a “little misunderstanding” over the issue of succession to the throne) for 8 years before Jehan died.  Shah Jehan could gaze at his beloved Taj Mahal across the river, but he never entered it again during his lifetime.  However, don’t feel too sorry for Shah Jehan -- his prison was a fabulous suite of rooms with plenty of inlaid gems, an intricately carved fountain, and a wonderful pillared balcony.  Also, his seeming altruism and bereavement in building the Taj for his lovely wife Mumtaz nearly bankrupted the kingdom, and he probably deserved  imprisonment for his blind waste of treasury coffers.  Another interesting fact: beneath this fort lies a network of tunnels that are said to lead all the way to Delhi!
 As we were walking around taking in the sights, we heard a voice call out, “There’s Frank and Anne!”  We were momentarily stunned -- nobody knows us here.  Turns out, it was the couple from Idaho who we had met in the train station.  Quite a coincidence to bump into two familiar faces in these crowds of tourists!
Thirsty Monkey at the Agra Fort!
That night we ate dinner on the hotel’s rooftop terrace.  We noticed a rifle hanging on the side of the building (which was a bit alarming).  Suddenly, while everyone was eating at the terrace tables, a big old monkey jumped down from one of the trees and scared the living scheiss out of all; a hotel waiter grabbed the rifle and shot the monkey!  Actually, he only scared him away, but we were pretty impressed that the hotel staff goes to extreme lengths to keep its patrons safe!  You never know what’s going to happen next around here.
We left Agra after just two nights, but Monika came with us to a nearby place called “Fathepur Sikri.”  Our ace guide Monika was her usually chatty self, telling us all about her brother who recently had a “love marriage” (instead of an arranged marriage that is still very common here in India).   Monika told us that if she cannot find the right guy for herself for a marriage, she will let her parents arrange a marriage for her because, as she said, “then they will be responsible for the choice, not me!”
The 5-story pyramidal-shaped entertainment complex
 at Fathepur Sikri
Fathepur Sikri is an ancient fortified city built by the famous Mogul ruler named Akbar.  Akbar was a pretty bright and open-minded guy – he was a big fan of religious tolerance and proved the point by marrying three women: a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian.  Each wife had her own designated area in the palace, and the architecture of each area was a mix of these 3 religions.  The Hindu wife even had her own Hindu Temple, and a kitchen that never saw a piece of meat.
Anne checks our Akbar's giant stone platform bed
Akbar had a lot of toys: a gigantic stone platform bed that required an 8 foot ladder to reach (and a lot of cushions to make it comfortable!).  He created a life-size game board (similar to chess) in the stone floor of the open courtyard – and reputedly using his harem girls as game pieces!  Akbar also had a favorite “execution elephant” who crushed those found guilty of serious crimes.  The condemned person’s only hope of a pardon was to appeal directly to the elephant – Akbar trusted the elephant’s judgment, and if his elephant hesitated to crush a person, they were free to go.

Anne and tour guide Monika examine the beautiful art work 


  1. Hi how are you? Thank you so much writing about me some nice lines I suddenly found this today!

    1. Hi Monika -- How nice to hear from you! We are doing very well. Are you still working as a guide in Agra? We think of India often and hope to return some day!