Agra (29 December 2013)
The hotel in Agra was a far cry from the squalor of the train station. The moment I stepped into the hotel a powerful rose scent pierced my nose. The lobby was clean, big and lavish. The scent however was overwhelming. I felt giddy after a few minutes.
I think there should always be a limit to lavishness. On the other hand that desire to make everything lavish allowed Agra to become a tourist magnet. I had come to Agra to see two lavish Mughal masterpieces.
My first stop in Agra was the Agra Fort. I realised that this was very reminiscent of the Red Fort in Delhi but much better preserved. The current structure of the fort is a product of Shah Jahan, the same lovelorn guy who had built the Taj Mahal.
Emperor Shah Jahan was an important character in the stories that I would hear from my guide L. One story I heard was about his two daughters, Jahanara and Roshanara. Jahanara the elder daughter was Shah Jahan’s favourite and his favouritism was quite blatant. Although the two princesses had living chambers that did not look any different from each other, one was built with marble and the other with concrete.
When his son Aurangzeb usurped the throne, Shah Jahan was kept under house arrest in the octagonal tower Masamman Burj. He had originally built it for the love of his life, Mumtaz Mahal. It became his prison in the last eight years of his life. He however at least had a good view of the Taj Mahal from his prison.
I suppose it is also necessary to make some mention of the Peacock Throne when one is talking about Shah Jahan. The phenomenally expensive gold and jewel-encrusted throne, apparently even more so than the Taj Mahal, was commissioned by the emperor and one of the jewels laid into it was the diamond Koh-i-Noor. It is said that any male wearer of the diamond would be cursed. Although Shah Jahan did not actually wear it on his person I suppose it was enough that he had used it. He was cursed with his own son’s usurpation and imprisonment by the same son.
Jahangir Mahal was built by Akbar for his son Jahangir who was Shah Jahan’s father. The building, a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, was used by the women of the royal household.
I enjoyed Agra Fort more than I did Red Fort. Not only was the weather better in Agra on the day of my visit its fort looked more beautiful. I decided to do another circuit round the fort after my tour with L and he made me feel a little bad when he decided to take the walk with me.
The pièce de résistance of Agra came after lunch. The Taj Mahal must be the main reason most people go to India. Security was tight and I had to get off the car and take either a tram or a horse cart for the last few hundred metres of the way to the gate.
I have to say that I had gone to India not expecting much about the Taj Mahal. I had seen so many beautiful and grand buildings in my life. Taj Mahal would just be another. And then I saw the monument and the feeling aroused by that first sight overwhelmed me a little for no apparent reason. L asked me how I felt and I thought I sounded like a blabbering idiot when I tried to reply. He assured me that he understood what I meant.
The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan for Mumtaz Mahal after she had passed away. It took more than a decade, thousands of workers and artists and enough money to buy entire kingdoms to complete just the mausoleum. Some people therefore call it the greatest monument of love.
The details on the mausoleum was really quite intricate. I especially liked the inlaid decorations. L had brought me to a factory earlier where I saw how coloured stones were inlaid into marble. It was painstaking work!
There is a legend of how Shah Jahan had originally intended to build an identical but black mausoleum across the Yamuna for himself. Though probably quite romantic, it sounds more like just a legend.
Shah Jahan was buried next to his beloved Mumtaz after his death.
Visiting inside the mausoleum however was not a pleasant experience. I know that the Taj Mahal is always crowded but nothing I had ever heard or read could have prepared me for that sort of crowd. It was incredible and annoying but bearable outdoors. But I feared for my life indoors. It almost felt like the whole of India was there and trying to create a spectacular disaster as everyone pushed and shoved the person in front seemingly just for the sake of it. An old lady behind me kept pushing me forward as if that would help move the twenty-person deep crowd in front of me. I almost tripped a few times.
L knew that I liked the Taj Mahal and encouraged me to hang around for as long as I liked. I spoke to him a little and took the chance to ask him what he thought about the relationship between India and Pakistan. I had heard from two Hindu Indians working in Singapore on the subject and I thought that I should hear about it from a Muslim Indian this time. L said that the grudges between the two countries were played up by politicians for their own reasons. It sounded like the people of the two countries really got along. That was however not the impression I got from the two Hindu Indians. One told me that Muslim Indians would cheer when India lost a cricket game to Pakistan. The other would never use any product that was even remotely Pakistani.
Although I would have loved to enjoy the Taj Mahal longer, the sun was setting and I was getting tired. I was still sick after all. I will not say that the Taj Mahal was the best thing that I had seen on this trip to India since I still think that Varanasi was more fascinating. Nevertheless, if I ever get to return to northern India I will try to visit Agra and the Taj Mahal again, And the next time I will hopefully be able to schedule my visit to the Taj Mahal for a better time of the day, if there is ever such a thing.