There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Agra and the Taj Mahal: Part 9 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh

Despite a latish night caused by the tardiness of our train from Lucknow, we rose early next morning. According to received wisdom the best time to see the Taj Mahal is at dawn, but it does not open until daybreak, so we settled for dawn’s closest approximation.

To protect the stonework from pollution, internal combustion engines are banned near the Taj so we travelled the last two hundred metres in an electric tuk-tuk. We would have been happy to walk, and given the air quality in India's major cities, I doubt that a two hundred metre cordon sanitaire makes a significant difference, but it provides much-needed jobs for drivers.

Electric tuk-tuk to the Taj
There was a short queue. I had feared worse, visiting one of the world's greatest tourist attractions is never going to be a solitary experience.

Beyond the inevitable ‘security’ we entered a courtyard where an impressive red sandstone gatehouse cunningly concealed the Taj from view.

The Taj Mahal gatehouse, Agra
Everybody knows what the Taj Mahal looks like. I remember seeing photographs as a child and thinking, 'I want to go there, I want to see that.' With such a long held ambition in imminent danger of being realised, I found myself fretting; it was only a building, how could it possibly justify the hype?

The Taj appears almost suddenly as you walk through the gatehouse. The first sight has the power to stop people in their tracks and most – including me – then raise their cameras. Some will experience the Taj almost entirely through the viewfinder of a camera.

First glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the gatehouse
At the far end of a serene, slightly misty and at this hour almost empty garden, was a building of gleaming white marble apparently floating in the air. It was taller than I expected, though perhaps not as wide, but the proportions are, in a way I do not really understand, absolutely perfect.
The Taj Mahal floating in the morning sky

We entered the garden, which is quartered by water in the Persian style, in imitation of the Garden of Paradise. We had seen Humayun’s tomb, an earlier - and also magnificent – variant on this theme in Delhi, but the Taj, blending elements of Ottoman and Indian style with the Persian, is the pinnacle of Mughal architecture - and it is not just the building that dazzles the eye and takes away the breath, it is the setting, too.

Shah Jahan was the fifth Mughal emperor, great-great-grandson of Babur, the founder of the dynasty and great-grandson of Humayun. He came to the throne in 1628 during the Mughal golden age. Mumtaz Mahal was his favourite wife (he had nine to choose from) and the love of his life. She died in 1631, aged 38, giving birth to her fourteenth child and the Taj Mahal is the tomb her grief stricken husband built for her. Starting in 1632 it took 21 years to complete.
On Princess Diana's seat, Taj Mahal

We took our time walking through the garden. About half way down is the bench where Princess Diana once sat looking rather lonely. Every tourist on God's earth now needs to have themselves photographed sitting on that seat.  There are often queues, but we had to wait only for the people who were on it to move off and then Solanky did the honours with the camera. The picture is distinctly unoriginal but, hackneyed as it may be, I still like it.

Solanky left us to look round on our own saying he would wait by the entrance. How many times, I wondered, had he been here? How many times do you have to visit before it becomes just another day at work? Does it ever? We should have asked him.

A closer look at the Taj
After our slow, almost reverent, approach to the building, we climbed the stairs onto the plinth on which it stands. Close up it was no less magnificent, still seemingly ethereal and floating despite its vast bulk. We felt compelled to touch the wall as though placing a palm flat against the marble connected us to all the people who have done that before, to Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, to the unknown craftsmen who built it and to concepts of love and beauty. I sometimes see myself as an amateur Vulcan; logical, sceptical and calm, but not here, not on this day.

An even closer look
Taj Mahal, Agra
The decoration is as remarkable as the building. There is calligraphy,…..
Calligraphy round the doorway, Taj Mahal

….. there are plants carved in the marble….

Carvings, Taj Mahal
… and everywhere the walls are covered with Pietra Dura work, a technique in which a pattern of shallow indentations is carved in the marble, into which small carefully shaped pieces of tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and semi-precious stones – cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx and topaz - are fitted. They looked as fresh and bright as on the day they were made. The attention to detail is meticulous, the calligraphy around the doorways becomes larger at it ascends, so from the readers' point of view it all looks exactly the same size, straight lines part slightly as they retreat into the distance so the onlooker perceives them as being parallel.

Pietra Dura, Taj Mahal

Everywhere there is symmetry. The building is symmetrical, the gardens are symmetrical and the mosque facing the Taj on its left is balanced by family quarters on the right. The tomb of Mumtaz Mahal stands in the very centre of the building – where else should she be? – but in 1658 when Shah Jahan died, Aurangzeb, his son, successor and for the final years of his life, his jailer, decided his father and mother should lie beside each other in death. Ironically, only the tomb of Shah Jahan breaks the symmetry he created.
The mosque beside the Taj Mahal

Having seen the tombs we walked over to the mosque, a red sandstone building of interest in its own right,….

Inside the mosque, Taj Mahal
… walked behind the Taj where the Yamuna River flows quietly past and….
The Yamuna River behind the Taj Mahal

....walked in the gardens and watched the egrets and pond herons.

The sign says 'No Perching'
Gardens, Taj Mahal
We were reluctant to leave, but eventually we had to move on. Not long ago a day ticket would allow you to return as often as you wished and see the Taj changing colour as the sun moved across the sky. Nowadays our 750 Rupee (£9) Ticket (reasonable by western standard, but Indian citizens pay 20 Rupees) allowed us in once only. It is a shame, but many thousands want to see the building every day; we have to share and it had been a privilege to be there.

We returned to our hotel for breakfast and then set off to see the 'Baby Taj'. Agra is full of monuments that would be major attractions elsewhere but once you have seen the Taj Mahal the others have an 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' feel.
The tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah
The 'Baby Taj', Agra
The so-called Baby Taj, though, was worth the trip. Officially it is the tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah (The Pillar of the State) whose real name was Mirza Ghiyas Beg. He was the father of Nur Jahan, the wife of Emperor Jahangir, and the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal. It was built under Nur Jahan's instructions between 1622 and 1628.

Inside the tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah, Agra.
When you have a tomb this good you have to share

The tomb of Humayun in Delhi provided the template for the Taj Mahal, but like all earlier Mughal tombs it was built of red sandstone. The Baby Taj breaks with this tradition being constructed, like the Taj Mahal, of white Rajasthan marble. All the decorative techniques used in the Taj Mahal, notably Pietra Dura, are here, too.

Pietra Dura, Baby Taj, Agra

It has been described as a draft for the later building, but that is a judgement of hindsight; Mumtaz Mahal was still alive when it was completed.
Ceiling, 'Baby Taj', Agra

Despite its exquisite decorations, the proportions are not quite right, the building looks dumpy and the cap on the roof looks to have fallen over its eyes.

The tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah, Agra
The 'Baby Taj'
We moved on to the Agra Fort. Sitting on a bend in the Yamuna River two and a half kilometres north of the Taj, it was captured by Babur, the first Mughal emperor, in 1526 as he established his empire. He captured the Koh-i-nor at the same time, but that ended up a jewel in somebody else’s crown.  First mention in 1080, the fort was originally brick but by the time Babur’s grandson Akbar moved his capital here, it was largely sandstone. His grandson Shah Jahan added the white marble buildings inside.

Into Agra fort over the dry moat

We entered what is more of a walled city than a fort by the Amar Singh gate, as all tourists must - the Indian military still occupies part of the fort and the Delhi gate is for their use only. Crossing the now empty moat, we walked up a long sunken passage. The acoustics, Solanky informed, us allowed the servants advance warning of the approaching emperor. It also provided a place where invaders would prefer not to be trapped.

Inside Agra Fort

Inside are the usual range of halls and apartments, royal chambers having ingenious water features to keep the rooms cool.

Cooling water feature, Agra Fort - though now without water
When the Emperor Jehangir came to the throne 1605 he began one of the earliest experiments in open government. The ‘Chain of Justice’ was slung over the castle wall so that any citizen with a grievance could give it a tug, ring the bell and receive a hearing. I have no idea how well the system worked, but it would be a brave man indeed who would tug on the emperor's bell rope.
Royal Apartments, Agra Fort

A Mughal emperor could usually expect to see his sons killing one another until only the most cunning and ruthless was in a position to succeed. This happened to Shah Jahan and he would hardly have been surprised when, in his dotage, power was rested from him by his son Aurangzeb, who kept him a prisoner in the fort. Legend says - and may, for once, be accurate - that he died on the white marble balcony from which his father hung the Chain of Justice.

The Shah Burj, from which the Chain of Justice was hung and where Shah Jahan
may have died, Agra Fort

It has a view down the river to the Taj Mahal. If mud flats occupied the bend in the river as they do today, it was probably a good idea for him not to look down, but to keep his failing eyes fixed on the distant building, which from this range looks every bit as enchanting and enchanted as it does from close up.

The Taj Mahal from the Shah Burj, Agra Fort

As Mughal power waned and British power waxed, the fort inevitably fell into British hands. In the rebellion of 1857 John Russell Colvin, Lieutenant Governor of the North West Provinces was trapped here with a small force. His diplomatic skills ensured they survived, but Colvin himself died of cholera. Unable to bury him outside the fort, he was laid to rest inside, right in front of Hall of Public Audience, which was considered a little insensitive. The Hall once contained the Peacock Throne, which later made its way to Delhi, and later still to Tehran, where we saw it in the treasury in 2000.
The grave of John Russell Colvin, Agra Fort

We finished the morning at a pietra dura workshop. Using diamond tipped wheels turned by muscle-power, they cut the gemstones to fit the spaces carved in the marble. Many hours of highly skilled work are required to produce a finished article, which can be as small as a drinks coaster or as large as a dining table. Solanky described the workers as the descendants of the men who built, or at least decorated, the Taj. In a spiritual sense they undoubtedly are and, quite possibly, that they are in a literal sense too.

Grinding the stones for Pietra Dura. Agra
The pieces seemed expensive - but not when you consider the work that goes into them. We did not need a set of drinks coasters, but they are extraordinarily beautiful and provide some sort of ersatz link with the building down the road. After a short bargaining session we became their owners. The coasters are handmade, so they are all different, but you have to look closely to see that.
Pietra Dura Coasters

We fancied a light lunch and a snack of fried pakoras filled the bill nicely. I was delighted to find, for the first time on this whole trip, that we were in a restaurant that sold beer. Many years ago a wise man told me that there is no such thing as bad beer, there is only beer and good beer. In his binary world, Kingfisher is definitely beer.

In the afternoon we took a walk. Our hotel was situated on Highway 62 as it starts to leave the town which is not the most interesting area, but this being India, there was plenty to see, a cow walking up the road….

Highway 62, Agra

…. a bicycle repair shop located in a banyan tree…..
Bicycle repair man, Highway 62, Agra

…. a roadside barber's….
Having a shave beside Highway 62, Agra

… and a small shrine to Hanuman the monkey god.

Small shrine by Highway 62, Agra
On one side of the road there was squalor, on the other the wrought iron gates outside the homes of the prosperous. We came across a smart looking self-service shop selling a peculiar selection of packaged foods and cooking utensils. We bought some crisps, which pleased Lynne as her stomach was still not right, but she can always manage a crisp.

There was little choice locally in the way of restaurants but there was one smart looking place within easy walking distance. Most of the clientele were from a large tour group. A few other couples and foursomes were dotted around room, but they too were all European; the only Indians diners were the guides with the group.

Lynne had a snack and a lime juice. I had my second beer of the week – and of the day - and ordered murgh badami, a dish I sometimes cook at home; I wanted to see how it should be done. It ought to have a rich sauce based on ground almonds and be gently spiced; that is the theory, but what I was served could only be described as ‘bland’. This was not how Murgh Badami should be, this was the regrettable result of a restaurant frightened of offending even the most unadventurous of western palates.

Delhi and Uttar Pradesh
Part 4 Varanasi


  1. To protect the stonework from pollution, internal combustion engines are banned near the Taj so we travelled the last two hundred metres in an electric tuk-tuk. We would have been happy to walk, and given the air quality in India's major cities, I doubt that a two hundred metre cordon sanitaire makes a significant difference, but it provides much-needed jobs for drivers.

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