I was relieved as the morning train pulled away from scam-heavy Khajuraho and brought us to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The train ride was uneventful except for an old man tapping my shoulder with great concern saying, “You better close his mouth,” as he pointed to Byron sleeping with his mouth gaping open. I was confused but nudged Byron and told him to shut his mouth. The man continued in his broken English, “It’s not right. Fly get in there.” I found the situation to be quite comical.
All we saw of Agra today was the auto rickshaw ride from the train station to Hotel Siddartha, and that was fine with us. The hotel was the first nice one in a long time, and other than the cold water and constant power outages, we were living comfortably. We didn’t even have to leave the premises to enjoy a delicious Indian dinner, thanks to a cheap restaurant located in the hotel courtyard. We spent the rest of the evening trying to plan a return flight to the US, while trying to squeeze in as many travel days as possible.
Unfortunately we happened to be in Agra on the one day the Taj Mahal was closed, but we didn’t want to let that ruin our time. We squeezed onto a local bus built in the 1960s with little to no improvements since then, and found the last two seats. It was crowded, noisy, and hot as more and more people hopped on the bus regardless of the lack of seats.
Forty kilometers later, we stepped off at the ancient fortified capital city of Fatehpur Sikri. Emperor Akbar built the palace and mosque complex in the 1500s and shared it with his many wives.
After almost getting lost in the maze of a bazaar, we emerged at the daunting staircase leading up to the towering, 54 meter, red sandstone gate at the Jama Masjid Mosque entrance. As soon as we climbed the last step, a man led us to an area to deposit our shoes and gave Byron a cloth to wrap around like a skirt to cover his bare knees. He followed us as we entered the complex, listing random facts about the mosque’s history and the emperor. I insisted we weren’t going to pay for a guide, as this is a common scam in India, but he pulled out his official mosque license and insisted no charge because he works for the mosque. I was skeptical, but allowed him to lead us across the courtyard to a marble tomb, which we tried to do as gracefully as possibly, but the searing hot stone forced us to sprint our bare feet across to the cool white marble. The outer walls of the tomb were carved marble screens, about two inches thick. The delicate way they were carved allowed for the person inside to see outside, but it doesn’t allow people from the outside to see in. We briefly peeked inside the mosque, with an ornately decorated men’s room and a sparse female prayer room located next to the toilets. Sure enough, as we finished our tour of the complex, the man brought us to a carpet with many carved goods for sale. He recited the history of his humble family and their mastery of stone carving, and promised he could give good prices for each piece he shoved in our hands. Kindly declining his goods, I walked away disappointed that my skepticism had been justified.
Just as we descended the massive red stairs, the first lines of the Muslim call to prayer emanated from the loud speakers at each minaret. Only a few moments later, we heard the first lines originating from another mosque in the distance.
The fort complex was built in the same reddish sandstone as the mosque and it contained every possibly building an emperor would need, from a treasury to harem housing for his numerous female companions. We learned that one of the courtyards was used to play an ancient board game, and the emperor used his colorfully dressed concubines as life-sized game pieces.
We got equally lost leaving the bazaar as we did coming in, but luckily found our retro bus waiting to whisk us back to Agra. The rest of the evening was spent relaxing, reading, and officially booking our flight home–less than three weeks away!
We came to Agra to see one thing, and we were determined not to let anything get in our way. The alarm went off at 5am and we reluctantly rolled out of bed and walked down the street to the ticket line, already sizable at this hour. We paid the foreigner fee, went through security, and walked with the crowds to the massive outer stone gates. There it was! Although still far away, I immediately recognized the bulbous white dome and the minarets at each corner as if I’d been to the Taj Mahal a hundred times before. Not only is the building spectacularly beautiful, but the story behind it is equally sweet as a loving tribute to a cherished one. I’ll let the guidebook describe the details:
The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. The death of Mumtaz left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey virtually overnight. Construc- tion of the Taj began the following year and, although the main building is thought to have been built in eight years, the whole complex was not completed until 1653.
Aside from some slight discoloration due to pollution, I imagine the Taj has stayed just as pristine as when it first opened due to the huge effort to preserve the world’s most beautiful building. We walked along the rectangular pools of water and spent a good few minutes trying to get the perfect Taj picture, just like every other tourist. With each step closer, the building grew bigger and bigger until I had to crane my neck to see it in full. At the entrance, I was awed by the detailed stonework, or pietra dura, that depicted delicate flowers and vines. Here’s more from the guidebook to explain some of the technical beauty:
The central inside room contained two marble cenotaphs, or tombs, for the emperor and his wife, protected by a stone screen. The tombs were also decorated with thousands of inlaid precious stones and carvings. It was magnificent and exceeded every expectation I came with. As we walked back down the watercourse, I kept looking back trying to savor one last glimpse of the Taj before exiting the gate.
Only about an hour after we got back to the hotel, Byron started feeling sick and needed to rest up until our train ride at 5pm. I selfishly was glad that he didn’t get sick until after the Taj and the experience wasn’t ruined.
Somehow we ended up on a special train that kept stuffing us with complimentary food. I had eaten before because we never got food on any of our other trains, let alone a multi-course meal. They provided sandwiches, samosas, rolls, chicken, vegetable curry, yogurt, chapati (more bread), cake, ice cream, and tea. I practically waddled off the train in Jaipur and into the hotel’s complimentary rickshaw pick-up.