13.11.2013 - 16.11.2013
Finally, Agra - a place where we'd been told to 'be careful' as people would rob us in the street, a setting that I feared would be tourist-crazy, an ugly picture frame for spectators. We stayed in a hostel near the Taj... surely the worst place for that? I arrived with my gut twisting with the same awful feeling it had in Varanasi. I wondered, will I ever eat rich curries and spicy parathas again?
And outside the Taj loomed in the night, and emerged from the morning mist like a fairy thing, something created overnight that could vanish any minute. A huge mythic thing, just up the road...
On our first day we sought lesser wonders, and visited Fatehpur Sikri – the short-lived capital of the Mughal Empire before Akbar changed his mind. After an over-long bus journey we had lunch at a hotel whose grounds were swarming with yellow miniature hornets (I asked if they were dangerous as they were prevalent around the toilets, and was given a wide-eyed 'not really' and ushered into the nearest empty hotel room to do my business), and then had a minor mission to get out money (broken ATM, twiddling of thumbs in a bank). We then accidentally went to the nearby Muslim divine's tomb rather than the main palace complex – nonetheless beautiful, a white marble building with screen walls – marble that had had millions of chunks removed to create intricate patterns – sat in the centre of a huge square, the entrances of which are dominated by the many teardrop archways one thinks of as stereotypically Arabian (never mind this is India!). Because of our bus and bank shenanigans we were short on time, and so didn't resist when a boy appeared and assumed the role of guide. It was a whirlwind tour, fun and partially incomprehensible; he babbled about separate tombs for men and women as we stepped between the stones, about how the screens were one piece of marble, etc, ushered us, heads covered, into the tomb, told us to make a wish – and then led us to his family's 'marble' stall, and successfully sold us probably alabaster or soapstone candlestick holders and ornaments. It was worth the sight of Rich sighing and saying 'oh all right' when one for 450 became two for 600 and then three for something else. We reached the palace complex and had a nice if confusing wander before starting back.
Agra was unexpectedly full-on for senses other than vision. In the late afternoon some gigantic speakers appeared on our street, and almost comically large megaphones encrusted a couple of lamp posts. Ear-splittingly loud music poured out of these, as well as the incoherent screaming of a man with a microphone. It did not initially sound too bad or too loud – we ate out at a rooftop restaurant, and in a somewhat subdued mood – Rich latterly for the very concrete reason that the waiter forgot his order, and I for a combination of things – for being ill and having to eat dull food, and because of the Russian girls filming themselves dancing to music on their phones at the next table, and drinking beer, and attracting the attention of a 'photographer' in a rather clichéd manner (all right, so I was kind of jealous of the mindless fun they were having). Then as we got back to our room we realised how loud and awful the sound had become – catering to little or no audience, and rattling our windows with its volume-distorted blare. This continued all night long. Tired and irate, we asked the hotel manager about it, and he explained that it was a small section of the city's Shi'ites mourning the death of Hussain in a way that most people disagreed with.
That next day we got an all-day rickshaw to take us around everything that wasn't the Taj – as there ARE apparently other things in Agra! We began with Agra Fort, its walls a vibrant, glowing red, and a part of its insides an exquisite white marble. As with Fatehpur Sikri, not much was signposted and we had trouble working out where one of the Shahs had sat and watched elephants fight, etc (did I mention the ludo board where Akbar apparently played with live dancing girls at Fatehpur Sikri?).
Afterwards we went to the Friday Mosque not far away, a large red impressive building, the neighbourhood of which our Hindu driver was reluctant to wait in for long (afterwards he spoke about there having been violence and trouble in that district). We had delicious thalis at a small, dingy, very local-looking place, whose owners broke into grins when I tried out my Hindi – “aachar kana hay!” In trying to find the entrance to the mosque we stumbled through a dense covered market filled with locals buying textiles – until almost the last stall no one tried to sell to us!'. Unfortunately as soon as we entered the mosque, a man who paraded as a devout appointed himself a guide and demanded a large tip. We escaped to our driver, and then went and saw the Baby Taj (again, extremely beautiful... again, white marble...) and then the tomb of Shah Jahan's vizier, where green parrots fought and picked off the remains of the blue stones covering the outside to dash them on the ground. Throughout all this we were repeatedly approached by Indians wanting to have photographs with us, and who all seemed embarrassed when asked why.
We then drove to the bank opposite the Taj to watch the sun go down. There was, though not as obviously as promised, a subtle play of colour from white to yellow to grey, as the sun sank into the fuggy twilight seemingly endemic to Indian cities.
That evening we went to Joney's Place, eating delicious food produced in the smallest kitchen I've ever seen.
We slept in peace, and got up at some crazy hour to have breakfast in the same place with some other tourists before joining the already sizeable queue. The time had come to see the Sight, the spectacle that outshone all the others.
People go on about seeing the sunrise at the Taj, but the doors don't open until then. It didn't matter. The Taj was... actually fantastic. Increasingly magnificent as the sun climbed, a fabulous yellow tinged white, it was so vast that we seemed to walk towards it forever without it appearing any closer, as though we faced some vast optical illusion. The inside was elaborate but nowhere near as impressive as the outside. I thought, I can't believe I'm here, and I'm glad I did it, I made it. I remained for a long time, and tried an unsuccessful sketch that drew much attention. Too much attention – I found myself in a circle of guys, posing for a photographer who unwisely leapt onto the grass and drew the guards, who then informed me that I “wasn't allowed to paint the Taj Mahal”. (How bizarre...)
"You can't paint the Taj Mahal" would have been more apt. I've become more and more annoyed at being a spectator in India, a voyeur-tourist who looks but does not connect. The Taj Mahal is an exception, maybe the only hypnotic exception. It will not allow the snapshot-and-then-away treatment. Stand and stare. Really, do!