India Part 4: Agra and The Taj Mahal

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So after Shimla and getting my suit made, I spent a day and night chilling back in Delhi.  I really missed Shimla.  I enjoyed the mountains and incredible views of the valley below from my host family’s home.  Delhi is kind of a mess and it was dissappointing to be back in the noise and filth.  All the constant honking of horns, and the overwhelming traffic and people is really crazy.  Anytime I walked the streets alone in Delhi, locals would approach me wanting to talk, asking me where I was going, where I was from, and how long I had been in the country.  It was entertaining at first, but got old fast.  In India, locals will commonly ask if this is your first time to India, and how long you’ve been in the country to gage how experienced you are to scams.  I learned to ignore them, and pretend they weren’t there.

No worries, I would be heading out of Delhi the following day to begin a week long adventure through India’s famous Golden Triangle.  The triangle refers to the three cities of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.  I would be doing an extended tour and also seeing the holy city of Pushkar which is also in Rajasthan.  I mentioned in my first post on India that I went with arranging for tours.  I found ones in my budget, and would have guides with me most of the time.  I still saw this as wimping out a bit, but it would allow me to experience more of the culture and not worry much about running into trouble.  I would also have a driver for this tour… Victor.  He would navigate the crazy roads of India like a zen master.  As for my guide, I would have Mehar’s friend Vicky.  Vicky and I had already hung out in Delhi.  He took me around and showed me all the main temples of New Delhi.

The road trip started when we left Delhi on a Monday morning in late January for city of Agra.  Agra is the home of the Taj, but I would learn it was the location for some other cool places.  On the way to Agra, I got to see how most people get around India… packed full in whatever means of transportation was available.  For example, auto rickshaws…IMG_5104

Trucks…IMG_5111

And motorbikes.  It wasn’t uncommon to see an entire family of four on one motorbike.  Dad driving, older kid right behind, and mom on the back holding a baby.  People would travel for dozens of kilometeres this way.IMG_5128

One of the regions we passed through is famous for its milk.  It’s used to make a number of delicious treats.  Victor, the driver, was eager to stop at this particularly popular place and I got my first taste of Indian sweets.  I don’t really know how to describe them, because we don’t have anything quite like them in the States.  They’re either balls or in cake form, and made with milk, sugar and spices.  In particular, there are several made with the spice cardamom which I found to be a serotonin tripping experience. IMG_5122

On that first day, we reached Agra late in the afternoon, but still had time to explore.  I never visited a zoo in India, but there’s really no need to since exotic animals seem to be everywhere. IMG_5148 IMG_5151 IMG_5155 IMG_5156

Vicky knew the perfect spot to view the Taj.  There’s an area behind the famous wonder that is a dried up lake bed.  There’s a sort of park area beyond that, and it’s actually well guarded by police.  It’s kind of hidden, so there weren’t too many people despite the incredible view of the Taj at sundown.IMG_5162

One one side of the landscape… a beautiful sunset.  On the other, the Taj.  IMG_5163

This might be one of my favorite pictures of the whole trip.  I changed the photo used in the “About Me” page of this blog to match it.IMG_5165

The next morning, we got up early and headed straight to the Taj in an attempt to beat the crowd.  One of things that annoyed me the most with India was the foreigner pricing.  It didn’t bother me that it existed, only the degree to which it manifested itself.  There are two types of foreigner pricing in India… overt and covert.  Covert includes things like taxi and rickshaw drivers overcharging you because as a tourist, you don’t know any better.  If you know what you’re doing, then you can mitigate it a little with haggling.  But there’s the other kind of foreigner pricing that is right in front of your face.  All throughout India, at just about any place charging admission, there’s the Indian citizen price, and the foreigner price which can be up to thirty times the price a local would pay.  For example, entrance into the Taj Mahal.  The ticket above is Vicky’s, and guess whose is below.IMG_5185

750 rupees = $15 USD.  20 rupees = 40 cents.  One plausible argument is that Indian tax dollars go towards maintaining the Taj, so obviously they get in almost for free.  But the difference in this case was pretty bad.  I guess you could also say that’s just the free market at work, but I’ve never seen anything like it in all my travels.  Obviously the ticket price is not a problem, there was a long line, even early in the morning.IMG_5186

This is the main gate to enter the Taj.  IMG_5189

And once you step through that gate, this is what you see…IMG_5191

I kind of forgot about the ticket pricing at that moment.  The Taj was one of those bucket list things, and here it was right in front of me.  I got up closer to get a shot without all the crowds.  It’s packed there everyday as you might imagine.IMG_5196

There’s this haze in the air which creates that ethereal quality of the Taj at a distance.  It’s almost like it’s a mirage and at any moment it will dissolve into the sky.  But as you get closer, it begins to come into focus.IMG_5203IMG_5207 IMG_5209

The scripts below are from the koran, and are wider at the top then the bottom.  This creates the effect of having a uniform appearance when viewed from the ground.IMG_5212

The lattice work below is all hand carved marble.  It’s completely polished smooth and is one of those things that makes you wonder how they even built the Taj in just 22 years.IMG_5213

So what is the Taj Mahal?  A temple?  Perhaps a monument? Maybe a palace or a king’s summer retreat?  I bet the vast majority of people have no idea it’s really a mausoleum.  The Taj Mahal is also a love story.  It was built in the middle 1600’s by the Mughal ruler of the region by the name of Shah Jahan in memory of one of his wives who died during childbirth.  The story goes that Shah Jahan was so inconsolable at the loss of his wife that he went into seclusion for one year.  Immediately afterwards, construction of the Taj Mahal began.  It took 22 years to complete, and in 1983 became a UNESCO World Heritage site.  After the death of Shah Jahan, he was entombed in the Taj as well next to his wife.  It kind of floored me to think that so much money, time and resources would go into something that was essentially a grave.  I guess that’s what makes the love story of the Taj so impressive.

Once inside the mausoleum, no photos are allowed out of respect for the dead.  But I also wonder if it’s because to keep the mystique alive.  Honestly, once inside there isn’t much to see.  You can walk around in it in a minute or two and see everything.  There are upper level walkways that are inaccessible to the public, the ground floor is pretty much it.  I was told there are some underground rooms as well, but those are closed to the public as well.  I have to admit, my initial reaction was that it was underwhelming.  It’s a very impressive structure from the outside.  It’s almost like something from a fairytale brought to life.  Such a massive amount of white marble and incredibly beautiful and intricate carvings make the Taj what it is… a wonder of the world.  Looking back, I’m still glad I went, but I think my massive expectations got the best of me.  I guess it doesn’t really need to be amazing on the inside because it has enough going on outside.IMG_5214

The gardens surrounding the Taj never seem to make it into the photos people assoicate with the tomb.  However, I found them to be pretty impressive as well.IMG_5217 IMG_5216

So that’s the Taj.  It was really cool to finally see it up close.  My expectation of seeing something incredible inside left me feeling less thrilled about the Taj than I imagined.  True, it is unique on this earth, and I can’t think of anything remotely similar to it.  It was really a once in a lifetime sort of thing.

Afterwards, Vicky took me to explore a place called the Agra gate, but is also known by it’s original name… Fatehpur Sikri Palace.  India has several sites like this, and I never got tired of seeing them.IMG_5314IMG_5318IMG_5275IMG_5284IMG_5307

My guide Vicky is below.  Thanks bud, there’s no way I would have seen all of Agra like I did without your help.  So many people told me that the only thing to see in Agra was the Taj, but between the Fort and Gate complexes, and the sweets we had on the way there, I feel like I had the full experience.IMG_5279

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