Some not-so-terrible hours in India

The Taj Mahal

Day 175: 10/09/19
Location: Agra, India
Miles Driven: 0

Our day started very early – waking up before dawn to visit the Taj Mahal for the sun rise. As we’d sussed out where to buy tickets the previous day, we were the first in line for the tickets, and then the first people to be let in when it opened. The sun rising over the Taj Mahal was not quite as I imagined – for a start it is west facing, so the sun was behind us, and the pollution in the sky was so thick, that everything was an dull orange hazy colour. The reflecting pool, a long narrow pond in line with the Taj Mahal was reflecting nothing as it was completely empty. Nonetheless we could still appreciate the magnificence and beauty of the place and we sat on a bench at the far end of the walkway, soaking up the view before walking over and getting a closer look. Despite it not being perfect, it was easy to see why the Taj has been listed as one of the new seven wonders of the world. Entering the grounds with a limited number of people (compared to the masses that visit later on in the day), was truly a once in a lifetime, tick it off the travel bucket list experience.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan in the 17th century to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It was designed and created to be perfectly symmetrical. The story goes that Shah Jahan also commissioned a perfectly symmetrical copy of the Taj Mahal, but in black, on the other side of the river. This is where he intended his body to be laid to rest when he died. Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son, and unfortunately for him, his son had other ideas. The Black Taj never progressed further than the foundations, and when Shah Jahan died, his tomb was placed to the left of his wife’s, ruining the perfect symmetry he had strived so hard to achieve.

As we sat I thought it was fairly representative of India as a whole – so much potential to be beautiful, and yet hindered by more than preventable factors – pollution, empty ponds, grass cut in wonky lines.

My thoughts were disturbed (and reiterated) by a tour guide with a large group:
“Mam, you need to move so I can take a photo of my group”
“Uh, sorry, I’m not done sitting yet, can’t you take a photo from over there?”
(i.e. a foot away from us)
“No mam, you need to move. This bench was made for photos, not for sitting on”
“It is a bench. It is for sitting on. I’m sitting here, I’ve paid for my ticket, I have every right to sit on this bench and you cannot make me move”

The photo bench.
Arriving before sunrise meant that we had the place almost to ourselves! It was absolutely worth waking up so early, and we felt so lucky to be able to see it without the crowds of visitors

He wasn’t happy, but after a minute or so he gave up, and directed his group to stand to the side of us for their all important photo. Looking around, our few glorious moments of being almost alone at the Taj Mahal were over, it was before 5am, but already crowds of people were making their way into the surrounding gardens. We meandered our way through the grounds, and buildings, spending most of our allotted three hours there before heading back to our hotel for breakfast.

The intricate Pietra Dura work on the walls of the Taj Mahal
5:30 am – starting to get a bit busy
Our final view as we left the gardens

Days 176-177: 11-12/09/19
Location: Agra, India
Miles Driven: 0

The next couple of days were spent seeing the other sights of Agra: Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri.

Agra Fort

The intimidating red sandstone walls of Agra Fort encase the 94 acre city that once lay within. The majority of the grounds are closed off to tourists, but we were still able to spend a few hours meandering around the areas that are open. Both the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort are located along the bank of the Yamuna River. The curve of the river allows for a fantastic view of the Taj Mahal from one of the towers within the fort. It is rumoured that towards the end of Shah Jahan’s life, he was imprisoned within the tower by his son, leaving him to spend the rest of his life gazing at his creation.

Not too far down the road is Fatehpur Sikri – another (significantly smaller) ancient fortified city that was briefly the capital of the Mughal empire between 1572 and 1585. The site, built under the reign of Akbar, is made up of a mosque and three palaces – one for each of Akbar’s wives. We walked around with Mathieu – an overlander from France who we had joined during our tour in China. By happy coincidence we were reunited in Agra, and it was great to catch up on our travels since we had seen him last in Pakistan.

Catching up with Mathieu in our hotel’s rooftop pool (!)

Days 178-180: 13-15/09/19
Location: Agra – Gwalior – Agra, India
Miles Driven: 157

Our penultimate Indian destination was Gwalior. A small city, south of Agra, that is known for yet another magnificent fort. In 2005, Chris had undertaken a school exchange with The Scindia School which is located within the grounds of the fort itself. Prior to our arrival, we contacted the school and they kindly allowed us to stay in their guest accommodation. We stayed for three nights, enjoying the luxury of being served three delicious meals a day, and wandering the grounds of the fort between meals. Chris took us on a tour of the school, recounting his memories from his previous stay here. Walking through the grounds, we had finally found a place in India where its full potential had been met. Everything was neat and tidy, there wasn’t a piece of rubbish in sight. The staff and students all greeted us with big smiles as we walked past. It was an absolute pleasure.

By the time we left we were full to the brim of rice and curry, and felt ready to brave the terrible roads back to Delhi – the last stop of our shortened India tour.

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