Northern Exposure – Agra

On Sunday morning, at the unearthly hour of 4.30 am, I’m bleary-eyed, smearing toothpaste over my teeth and cursing Hubby, as I attempt to get decent for our two-hour train journey to Agra to see the Taj. I’m not feeling very benevolent towards the Taj at the moment as you can well imagine, nor towards Hubby for booking the earliest train on the planet, but that’s usual 😉 I brave the chilliness in the air and pull on my various woollen layers, before waking up Ishaan. Contrary to your expectations dear reader, this is much easier than you think! My son is a light sleeper and an early riser. Two qualities that will undoubtedly be long gone by the time they become desirable and necessary! But for now, he rolls over and sits up immediately, rubbing sleepy eyes and asking in that adorable baby-voice, “Mamma! Where we going?” And so I bundle him up in his woollens and we make our way to the waiting taxi. Twenty minutes later we are at the New Delhi Railway Station, where it could just as easily have been ‘lunch-hour’, what with the bright lights and throngs of people.

Anyone who has ever experienced an Indian Railway Station will know exactly what I’m talking about! They’re like microcosms of a bustling Metropolis, with all kinds of people doing all kinds of things, on the long platform strips that become their home while they wait between journeys. So you have families huddled around a little kerosene stove, cooking a meal, their luggage walling them off from prying strangers; people sleeping on their ‘chatais’, blankets drawn over their heads in a vain attempt to shut out the constant drone of human conversation and regular chugging of approaching trains; groups of students playing card games; porters pretending to be busy; lost dogs and beggars going about doing whatever it is they do; the irritating static-ridden announcements that are always either too loud or too soft to make any sense; and pervading everything and everyone – the hallmark stench of urine! Welcome to the Great Indian Railroad Circus! Entry’s free 😉 Entertainment guaranteed 😛 But I digress!

We’re on Platform 1, which is thankfully the first platform upon entry. I walk through a rusty looking metal detector frame with Ishaan while Hubby lugs our two handbags onto the screening belt. There is much jostling, because this is India and the concept of queuing up is alien 😉 Ishaan trips and falls, but thankfully decides not to bawl and I lead him through the chaos until I find a space where the ammoniacal odour is bearable. Miraculously, the train is on time J It’s the Bhopal Shatabdi and it will travel the 700 odd km from Delhi to Bhopal in about 8 hours. We get in and immediately find ourselves in a seat dilemma, also a staple of train travel in India! I have no clue what the Railway authorities have against families travelling together but they don’t seem to take too kindly to it and so parents and children, husbands and wives routinely find themselves assigned to seats that are far apart. Again, this is India, and nobody’s about to let a tiny seat number get in their way 😉 We arrange ourselves in our seats, after an agreeable compromise has been reached with all concerned, and settle in for the short journey. Ishaan falls asleep stretched out between us, while we consider breakfast options. I’m impressed with the train – the mineral water bottles they give each one of us and the breakfast they serve are included in our fare which is just Rs. 300! A pittance! They offer three breakfast options, a non-veg option of an omelette, a veg option of ‘poha’ and a south-indian option of ‘upma’ and ‘wadai’ which is what I settle for. It’s hot and fresh and it does me good J When we pull into Agra, right on schedule at 8.30, I’m refreshed, eager and ready to see the Taj at last.

Finally! A Parrot 🙂

The whole world and his uncle have turned photographers and there’s a crazy amount of clicking going on around us. There are government approved photographers that take pictures for a fee, the usual ones…sitting on Lady Diana’s bench, the illusion of picking up the Monument in a finger-pinch…the usual suspects! We get our own photographer and take the requisite pictures before heading off towards the Taj, where I promptly go into photographic overdrive! And yet, although the Taj has a sombre beauty to it, for me the whole is more beautiful than its parts. Without the history and the tragedy associated with it, it’s just another tomb, just another example of fine Moghul architecture of which India has more than her fair share! I stare at the trickle behind the Taj, all that remains of what was once a major Indian river, the hallowed Yamuna. It looks sad and lost and forlorn, rather like the Taj itself, even with all the throngs that surround it. I wonder what the Taj would say if it could speak? We wander around the buildings, from the dark, musty enclosed tombs where husband Shah Jahan, and beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal lie interred to the bright sunshine outside and suddenly it sinks in – ‘There! I’ve done it! I’ve seen the Taj Mahal!’ And oddly enough despite my many reservations, the thought makes me happy 🙂 Perhaps there is something about this edifice, an aura of sorts that’s making me feel this way. Maybe it’s the great love that the Emperor felt for his wife that still lingers in the smooth marble walls, permeates the coloured inlays, soars through the towering minarets. Yes that must be it…this attempt at coaxing the intangible into solid form that warms my heart. I raise an invisible salute to the majestic dome and to the love that birthed it. Wah Taj! 

The Taj Mahal in all its somber Glory!

We stay until lunchtime and after a brief rest at the Hotel, we’re on our way to The Red Fort! Now this is a Monument I’ve been longing to see. I must confess that I know nothing about its history other than the fact that Shah Jahan was imprisoned here in the last years of his life by his son Aurangzeb, and he watched his beloved’s tomb the Taj, from a tiny window in the room that served as his prison cell. I had caught a glimpse of the Fort from the Taj, but nothing prepares me for the grandeur and sheer size of this massive structure. I must warn you that I’m likely to gush here, coz I fell in love with the Fort completely and utterly! It made me sit up and take notice, as if it were actually speaking to me and saying, “Look! Look at me! See who I am. Know me. Here I stand indestructible, proud and eternal, home and prison to kings and emperors. Look at me!” We enter through a massive doorway and climb the slope into the Fort grounds. They are huge, as are its solid double ramparts that seem to go on forever.

Massive gateways! This is just the top-half and I was fascinated by the Star of David emblems on it!!

The Fort is more like a city really, in the way Forts were meant to be. It has several palaces and structures within, each with their own unique style. It has two enormous gates, The Delhi Gate and the Lahore Gate that stand tall like two sentinels guarding the ancient roads to Delhi and Lahore. In one courtyard, there’s a massive brass bath, which was apparently hauled along whenever Jehangir travelled so he could bathe in royal comfort! On the day, it was squirrels and children scurrying over this relic from the past. The intricate inlay work, the stone carvings, the seemingly endless passageways, the massive doors, the sprawling terraces, the painted and engraved ceilings, all steal my heart and make me shutter-crazy! If I were a beloved queen, I would want someone to build me a Fort like this one 😉

Passage to Infinity!

Later I read about the Fort and discover that it’s older than I thought, built in the 11th Century by Rajputs and then lived in by several Sultans of Delhi from Ibrahim Lodi to Akbar. It was in Shah Jahan’s time however that it took on its present incarnation. The guy was a ‘builder’ if ever there was one! I love the contrasting styles of the older red sandstone structures of Akbar’s era with the typical white marbled structures that Shah Jahan favored. I prefer the red sandstone myself. It seems fitting somehow and more alive.

The stone-sculpted doorways!

I could easily have spent many more hours happily wandering the Fort grounds, but of course Ishaan has other ideas. He’s tired and sleepy and we head back, reluctantly to our Hotel. I know as we leave for the railway station to take out train to Bhopal, which of the two Monuments is my favourite 🙂 I know I will come again to the Fort and let it reveal new secrets!

The Emperor's Darbar!

As you can imagine I took a lot of pictures, but both these buildings are way beyond mere visuals. They are special and precious not only for what they are physically, which is undoubtedly overwhelming, but for what they represent…a glorious if violent past and the superb craftsmanship of India’s artisans in days bygone.

Onwards to Bhopal!

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