Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Day in Agra

Today started with a relatively long drive from Delhi to Agra.  I didn't time it, I'm afraid, and I did fall asleep for part of it.  The early stretches were incredibly surreal.  The perpetual haze was as strong as ever, and the road runs past many high-rise buildings under construction.  They loom out of the gray, these clusters of building skeletons, each crowned with a crane.  On and on.  Some day, I'm sure, they will be completed, and residents will move in, but for the moment, they're oddly creepy ghost towns.

We stopped for a break at a dhaba, a roadside restaurant.  In this case, it included things like Subway and Costas Coffee.  I had a snack bar packed, so I ate that.  I also discovered that sometimes, the western-style toilet just isn't worth it.  Too icky, and the Indian option was just much more appetizing.  Grateful to have packed my own TP, though.  This was one of the few places where I didn't have to pay to use the services.

Agra comes up quickly out of fields of potato crops.  So many potatoes, I almost felt like I should have been in Idaho.  The city is almost as crowded as Delhi, but it has a very different feel to it.  The buildings are generally much lower. One or two stories.  Animals proliferate here.  I finally saw my first water buffalo.  And the next, and next, and WOW, that's a lot of water buffalos meandering down the street!  They like to hang out on the banks of the Yamuna river, along with a lot of people doing their laundry.  Given the smell of the river, the last thing I would want to do is wash my clothes in it.  I take that back.  Drinking it or swimming in it are farther down the list.  But still.

The first site we visited today was what Hitesh calls the "Mini Taj."  It was built by Emperor Jehangir's wife as a memorial to her father.  It is very like the Taj Mahal, in that it is built of white marble worked with inlay, has the square gardens around it, and an entry gate.

This may sound somehow sacrilegious, but I actually prefer the Mini Taj to the big one.  Its small (relative) size is not so overwhelming.  The inlay work is in many brilliant colors, with floral designs and wine bottles and other geometric patterns.  It's also much less crowded.  I enjoyed the serenity and the beautiful colors.  Hitesh calls it a jewel box, and that's just about right.

Next, we moved on to the Red Fort at Agra.  This was built by Emperor Akbar, and is very impressive.  As with many things in the area, the bulk of it is built of red sandstone from Rajasthan.  There are several parts to the fort, including a section built for Jehangir, Akbar's son, and the stunning white marble palace where Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) lived out the end of his life under house arrest.  He could see the Taj from out of the filigree-edged windows of his prison.

Next I got to learn about the dying art of marble inlay work.  It's amazingly intricate, and the work is being done by people who are direct descendants of those who worked on the Taj.

After learning about the inlay process, I checked into my hotel and then it was on to the Taj Mahal.  Firstly, yes, it is as beautiful as all the photos.  It would be more beautiful if there was any actual sky to see, since the white marble tends to wash out in the haze, but I explored all around.  A large number of domestic tourists come to see the monument, and there are two different lines.  General Value and High Value.  As a foreigner, I had a High Value ticket, which meant shorter lines, and basically going straight in.  Hitesh warned me that if there were a lot of Indians going into the mausoleum itself that I should avoid going in, because it gets very suffocating and he wasn't sure I'd handle it well.  I decided to brave the crowd and go in, and I'm glad I did.  There was quite a crush getting in the door, but once inside there was more than half an inch of breathing room between people, and I was able to see the tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan.

In writing this up, I think that I've pinpointed my odd sense of ambivalence about this world wonder.  Its perfection is simply overwhelming. While I can appreciate it on an aesthetic level, I find I'm more comfortable with things that are smaller or less perfect.  I actually spent a decent amount of time walking along the lanes, which are lined with many varieties of native trees, all conveniently labeled so I could know what I was looking at.  Those trees were easier for me to relate to, and I very much enjoyed the opportunity to learn about them.

Please don't take this post to mean that I didn't enjoy the Taj Mahal.  I most certainly did.  But, for me, the quaint Mini Taj and the grand fort were more my speed.

Tomorrow is the longest drive day--from Agra to Jaipur--with a stop at Fatehpur Sikri, a ruined city that was built by Akbar.

And now for bed.  There's been music outside my window for the last several hours.  By far more music here than I've encountered thus far.  Oh, for dinner I had the most delicious dal masala ever.  Super-yummy.


  1. I know what you mean about how something spectacular can be overwhelming. I felt that way about the Sistine Chapel.

    Wondering about the exchange rate and how the dollar stacks up against the rupee. What's the purchasing power like?

    1. Suzie, right now it's about 67 rupees to the dollar, which is a pretty darned good exchange rate. Of course, prices for things are often in the hundreds or thousands of rupees, particularly in the places where I'm staying, or feel safe to go. Dinners have been running about 1000 rupees with tip. Indian food is less expensive than western with a side bonus of being less likely to make me sick. Oddly, I really haven't been eating lunch. It's so hot I'm just not hungry, or I'll just eat a snack bar, so I'm saving money there, too. And losing weight. My first hotel had a scale and I'd lost four pounds since I left home. :)

    2. Somehow I don't think the money you're saving on food is going to balance out the cost of the trip, so that makes those lost pounds pretty expensive. ;)