Monday, February 21, 2011

Awesome Agra

Camel Cart

I remember visiting Delhi and Agra for the first time some forty years ago, when my father, a railway employee, took us there for a holiday. I was in my teens, we were not very well off then, and the infrastructure, I think, was also limited. I remember him taking us around Delhi on a phat-phat (auto rickshaw with a bigger body and fitted with motorcycle engine) driven by a Sardarji – a quick tour to see the Parliament House, Rashtrapathi Bhavan, India Gate, Teen Murti Bhavan and the Big Masjid, all from the outside and back to the railway station for food!  Either there were no restaurants or my father could not afford one, too vague memories to focus on the details. We made a quick one-day trip to the Taj Mahal by train. The memory of standing awe-struck by the sight of the marvelous Taj Mahal from the entrance is still fresh in my mind.

The second time was about 8-9 years ago, when I could take my family (my wife and two children) out comfortably, availing the leave travel concessions – mine for the expenses and my wife’s for the train tickets by air-conditioned class. Delhi had grown big by this time with an explosion in traffic, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls. With the death of several members of the Nehru family in the intervening period, their residences had been turned into memorials and added to the tourist map of Delhi. We had gone at the peak of summer and engaged a car throughout our stay, for going to Haridwar and Rishikesh on one side and Mathura, Agra and Jaipur on the other side, keeping Delhi as the base. I do have good memories of that visit, along with some nice photographs taken with my Nikon AF 35mm compact camera. All this was before the age of digital cameras.

After the advent of digital camera and after I acquired one, my interest in photography has undergone a sea-change. The eagerness to click anything attractive has opened my mind to learn about the things I shoot, thus improving my knowledge of flowers, insects, birds and places. My willingness to share this with others through the internet has improved my writing skill too, and the appreciation received from people all around encourages me to travel more, photograph more and share more than ever. It is thus you are reading this now!

The Taj Mahal has been on top of the list I wanted to record and share. An opportunity came my way when I had to visit Delhi on work on an extended stay. As soon as work was over, I pulled my family from Chennai to join me in Delhi and off we took to Agra. Since we had already travelled the same distance by car during the last trip, we decided to skip Mathura and take the train to Agra this time. Arriving around noon, we were immediately engulfed by a group of taxi drivers. Shirking them off one by one, we made our way to the pre-paid taxi booth, but one particular driver was following us from the beginning and we were directed to engage his taxi at the pre-paid booth. A little convinced now about his genuineness, I engaged in conversation with him.

Talking to the driver (me in broken Hindi to him and he in broken English to me), I found that there is a set of taxi drivers who have formed an association with the intention of protecting the arriving tourists from touts and cheats and taking them safely through places in around Agra. He introduced himself as Surendar Sharma and taking in my arrival and departure details, suggested a good itinerary for the period of our stay. As his suggestion matched my requirements, I engaged him without any further hesitation, and that proved to be a good decision, as you will see.

Allowing us time to bathe and change (we had left Delhi at 7 am in the cold of winter), he picked us up again at 2 pm to first have lunch at a decent restaurant and then to take us to the Agra Fort. After that, he would take us to Baby Taj and then to the Sunset Point on the other side of Yamuna. The next day would be Taj Mahal in the morning, and Fatehpur Sikri in the afternoon before catching our train to Jaipur at 5 pm.

Part 1 – The Agra Fort

Agra Fort  Agra Fort

After a good North Indian food at a restaurant, we arrived at the Agra Fort. The Agra fort was astounding. Since we had a little more time at our disposal this time, we enjoyed seeing around the place at leisure and in good detail, taking in thoughts of how life must have been in the days when the fort was being built and how the place must have been teeming with rulers, servants, artisans, construction workers and their families. It was particularly interesting to observe that while the Taj Mahal might be the most wonderful monument of love on earth, its construction had so depleted the resources of the state and thrust hardship on the life of people as all resources were directed to serve the needs of those working for the Taj Mahal that the Emperor Shah Jahan’s son Aurangazeb thought it fit to dethrone and put him in a prison for the rest of his life. The place of Shah Jahan’s last days still evokes mixed feelings, one of awe and respect at his love for his wife and the enormous task he so passionately pursued and finished, and the other of pity for ending up a prisoner at his own son’s hands.

Agra Fort  Agra Fort

Well, the Agra fort is not just the history of Shah Jahan and Aurangazeb. It has a history of more than a thousand years and has seen many wars and many rulers taking possession of it by war. Agra was the capital of the Mughal Empire for five or six generations. It has been rebuilt several times and a number of additions and destructions have taken place in the walled complex. Today, a major portion of the fort is controlled by the Indian Army. What is open to the public gives ample evidence of the long history of the fort and the splendor of Agra itself. You can easily get lost in time if you sit and start thinking at every portion of the various parts of the fort. We took nearly two hours to go one round around the Fort, but for the interested person, even a full day may not be sufficient.

Agra Fort

Part 2 – The ‘Baby Taj’

BabyTaj

Even though I had okayed the driver’s suggestion to visit the ‘Baby Taj’, I had no idea of what it would be. Only after getting in to the place that I realized that this is one place in Agra that visitors should not miss. This building is actually the tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, father of Nurjehan whom Jehangir married. Mumtaz was Nurjehan’s niece. Mirza Ghiyas Beg served Emperor Akbar and was given the title of ‘I’timad Ud-Daulah’, meaning Pillar of the State. After his death, Nurjehan commissioned this mausoleum, where, later on, tombs of other relatives of her family have also been added.

Leaving the mausoleum part aside, this building marks a landmark departure from redstone buildings and is completely don with marble exterior. It is often called the ‘jewel box’ and no wonder – you can see such marvelous work on marble done so beautifully in a building that is so symmetrical, that it can easily be said to be the model or inspiration for the Taj Mahal that was built by Shah Jahan some decades later – the octagonal design, the minarets, the garden around, the gates, et al.

BabyTaj   BabyTaj   BabyTaj 

I must thank our driver Surendar Sharma for suggesting this place, for I found this monument as interesting. astonishing and worthy of visit as the Taj Mahal itself. If you plan to visit Agra, please do make a note in your diary to add this in your itinerary. I assure you that you will not regret it.

BabyTaj

Part 3 – The evening Taj

Taj Mahal

I could not grasp it when Surendar said sunset point, for the term is generally used only at places of high elevation like hill stations, or vast openness like seashores.

What he meant was the moonlight garden or moon garden as it is known, on the other side of Yamuna to the Taj Mahal. There is evidence to some kind of big construction plans at this place. There is talk that Shah Jahan wanted to build another building very similar to the Taj Mahal, but in black (or blackened) marble. The octagonal trench lends credence to this idea, but it has not been conclusively proved.

The view one gets of Taj Mahal from this place is fantastic. It must be more so when Yamuna is flowing full, with calm waters. The golden rays of the setting sun made such a beautiful impact on the marble dome of the Taj that we stayed put there for more than half an hour, just taking in the sight as the sun sank beneath the trees the western horizon.

Taj Mahal

After dark, it was a leisurely drive and some light window-shopping before heading back to the hotel.

Part 4 – The morning Taj

When I asked him what would be the best time to see an uncrowded Taj in the morning, Surendar’s immediate reply was “how early can you get up?” As with Archeological Survey of India heritage sites, the Taj also is open to public from sunrise to sunset, and the best time would be to be there at the start of the day.

However, since we had had a long day the previous day and even longer and tiresome day in Delhi the day prior to that, my family wanted a good rest and I was not allowed to get them ready before 8.30. After breakfast, Surendar dropped us at the west gate, from where the Taj Mahal is just walkable distance, though we rode a cycle rickshaw just for the fun of it.

Security is tight at the Taj. They allow you to carry your camera, mobile, money-purse (handbag for ladies) and a bottle of water. All other things are just not allowed. Taj Mahal is not open for public on Fridays - I was told that only those muslims who wish to offer prayer are allowed on Fridays, that too only into the mosque on the west side of the Taj.

Entry is through the main gate, which itself is a grand structure. I sighted hornbills on trees outside the gate, but they flew before I could find a spot from where to photograph them.

Taj Main Gate  Taj Mahal 

The Taj Mahal is so well hidden from the outside that the first view you get of it as you enter is just breathtaking. The beauty of the building takes its own sweet time to slowly sink in your mind, as you gradually cross the platform and enter the area where the fountains start, a good point to photograph the Taj Mahal without people obstructing the view.

Most cameras can hold a good full view of the Taj only up to half the distance of the fountain path, where there is another platform with benches for visitors to sit and take photographs with the Taj Mahal on the background. Beyond that, the monument is so huge that the camera frame would not accommodate it fully, and you have to only take pictures of parts of Taj Mahal thereafter.

Taj Mahal

Early February weather is so cool and pleasant that you do not get tired of walking around the Taj any number of times. Wearing shoes is not permitted on the Taj Mahal. On either sides of the Taj Mahal you can find a big gate with identical structure, the one on the west serving as a mosque and the one on the east, probably used as guest house, just to balance the other side. You are awe-struck by the symmetry of the design.

That reminds me of an irony that I read somewhere – the symmetry of Taj Mahal was disturbed by the very person who built it – for he was buried to the left of his dear wife's tomb which is placed right in the centre of the Taj Mahal.

The size of the Taj Mahal is to be seen to be believed. From a distance, people look like ants on the grand platform. The minarets are so huge that humans stand no comparison under them. The Taj looks beautiful from any side and any distance. We spent quite a few hours, catching as much of it in the eye of our minds as we could, before reluctantly leaving the place.

Good bye, Taj!

Taj Mahal

Part 5 – Fatehpur Sikri


In the afternoon we visited Fatehpur Sikir, a city built by Emperor Akbar in honour of Saint Salim Chisti who he revered and who foretold the birth of a son – later to be known as Jahangir. Though it took Akbar 14 years to build this vast complex housing the palaces of his three queens besides his secretariat, a huge courtyard, the marble mausoleum of Saint Chisti and the largest gate the Buland Darwaza, it had to be vacated in the next 15 years because it could not be sustained with supplies, for natural and political reasons.

A few interesting photographs of this place.

Fatehpur 
Fatehpur  Sikri

Good bye, Agra!  I know I skipped Akbar's mausoleum, but won't there be another visit to Agra?  I will cover it then!



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