That’s Celcius, not latitude; 109.4 Fahrenheit was the recorded high temp during my visit.
The day started at 5:50 AM when my new driver, Akaz, arrived to pick me up from the New South Extension in Delhi. There were many beggars along our way, and they’d come right up to the car windows if we were stopped on the road, knocking on the windows and refusing to go away until the car moved. They included lots of little kids, women with babies, and also people with tourist stuff to sell. There were guys with monkeys who are known to put the monkey into the car at the first opportunity and then expect you to pay to remove it. Maybe I am just heartless, but I didn’t roll down the window for anyone. Four hours later, we arrived in the once-capital city of Agra.
First stop: Akbar’s tomb, Sikandra. This was a large garden with (I think) antelope, surrounded by red stone walls with entry through a large and beautiful red sandstone gate full of carvings and inlay work. Akbar was the third Mughal emporer, and he, his wives, and their children are buried in the tomb here. After you pass through the gate, you can walk across the long stone walkway of the garden to the tomb building. At the tomb, there is a long gallery of domes surrounding all sides of the tomb, and each dome is so perfect that you can hear whispers in opposite corners of the supports and can create echos standing directly under the center. No photography is allowed of Akbar’s tomb itself, but it’s down a long hallway, in a dark and quiet room, with indirectly lit upper windows. There are birds that live here and sit in the windows, creating a lovely silhouette against the incoming light. Outside, the sandstone was so hot I couldn’t stand in one place too long – I could feel it burning through my shoes. You can learn more about Akbar at Wikipedia if you like. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agra,_India#Akbar.27s_Tomb.2C_Sikandra
After Sikandra, we stopped at the local office of Indian Panorama Travel Agency, picked up our guide Arti and headed to the Taj Mahal.
India knows that automotive emissions are damaging to the marble of the Taj Mahal and has banned them within a two kilometer radius of the structure. You can instead take a camel-drawn rickshaw, a bicycle rickshaw, an electric shuttle bus, or the electric open vehicle resembling the Disneyland parking lot shuttle. The last one is the least expensive so I took that one. I know – I am jaded, eh? I saved the bicycle rickshaw for Old Delhi instead, and that was just fine.
You don’t see the Taj Mahal immediately upon arrival. Instead, you see a large stone gate and the wall surrounding it. Once you show your ticket there, and have your bag inspected, you are allowed to enter the complex. Still, it is a fair walk before you get to the inner stone gate, pass through and then finally get sight of the Taj. The price of admission includes shoe covers (this is a holy place and street dirt is not allowed) and a bottle of water. Both of these items are very important to have, as it turns out. You might even say it would be unsafe not to have them. It was enormously hot on bright white marble. Imagine walking on that for a while in bare feet with no water… You could feel the heat actually radiating off the marble. I am grateful they gave me shoe covers instead of making me take off my shoes, because I think I could get second degree burns at this time of year. Even with the water, I was really feeling a little sunstroke by the time we got done, and I had to get more water from a shop nearby. The nice young lady travel agent, Arti, made sure I was doing okay.
The only people allowed to do business in the Taj complex past the ticket gate are the tour guides with visitors and also professional photographers. These guys take photos of the visitors, print them on the spot and sell them. I think I may have had more modern digital equipment than any of them, but what got their attention was my 1937 twin lens reflex Rolleiflex camera. I think every single photographer there came to have a look at it – they gathered in a big group and looked through it when I let them handle it. The older guys told the younger ones how it worked, showed them how to focus and turn the camera upside down for a higher viewpoint, and generally knew all the tricks. I made a lot of friends. They all said “is good” about their own equipment but then nodded at the Rollei and said “but that is best”. Turns out many of the guys used Rolleis until the advent of digital, and I got to hear some stories. Makes sense that the Rollei would have been in heavy use in Agra since they are tough and all mechanical.
I sat on the bench where Princess Diana had her picture taken with the Taj Mahal, where everyone now wants their photo taken (you must wait your turn). Arti gave my camera a try. It is a beautiful spot there. The best part of the grounds, in my opinion, is the group of fountains. It just adds this beautiful dimension to the whole place, and adds another color to the palette.
The story of the Taj Mahal is one of a lover’s devotion, as you probably know. The emperor was so in love with his second wife that she traveled everywhere with him. When she died in childbirth, at age 39 with their 14th child, her dying wish was that he not marry again and that he build her a beautiful tomb that would show his love for her. The result was the Taj Mahal. The emperor was so bereaved that he took really no interest in running the kingdom for two years. Eventually, his advisors staged a sort of intervention and he agreed that he would move the capital to Delhi (from Agra) and begin to govern again. They tell me it was too painful for him to stay in Agra with all the memories, so he chose to move an entire capital instead.
Once I got my shoe covers on and got up the steps, we were on the big platform of the Taj. There were lots of visitors, with no photography allowed inside in the tomb (that rule did not stop some people, though it did stop me). We saw beautiful inlaid semi-precious stones in floral tracery and carved marble garlands. The flowers and carvings grew more in number and in intricacy as we got closer to the tomb. Her grave is a narrow raised marble coffin, perfectly in the center of the building, in a perfectly symmetric position. As you look at it from the rear of the building, you see it framed in sunshine from the front entry, looking onto the fountains, the garden and the further stone gate. When the emperor died, his children buried him next to her in a matching coffin, though the plans for this tomb did not include a place for him. It messes with the symmetric effect a bit. Legend has it that he had planned a tomb for himself to mirror this one, in black marble, across from this site. Since one of his sons managed a coup and the emperor died in prison, his plans were never realized.
It took 22 years to complete this Taj Mahal complex. In that time, the marble inlay workers from Persia settled and took wives and had families. Their descendants are today still doing marble inlay work nearby, using a mortar secret only to them and using the same techniques and materials. You can purchase their work if you like, but better yet, you can watch them at their craft.
All in all, a very worthwhile journey, despite the heat and the long drive.
If you need a good tour guide, I can recommend Ms. Arti Singhal at email@example.com.