Tuesday, February 20, 2007

India - The Main Event

Taj Mahal

We woke up at 5am today and started getting ready for the trip - sunscreen, fully charged all the batteries for the cameras, took care of business before the road-trip, etc. Afterward, we had a quick breakfast with Sudhir where he gave us some advice that might have been intelligible if we were fully conscious, and then hit the road at ~6:30am with his driver Budprakash.

Taj Mahal (pronounced taj mah-Hel) is located in a city called Agra, which is about 200km SW of Delhi. We had the option of either taking a train or hiring a car. Both require about the same amount of time, and while the train is significantly cheaper for two people (~US$75 difference in price), the car option is far more flexible. Plus, Sudhir had suggested that we also take some time to go visit a place called Fatehpur Sikri, which is about 40km west of Agra, so the car simply made more sense.

I found the drive itself to be very, very interesting in a lot of ways. Since Delhi is the capital of India (with the closest major airport) and Agra contains the most famous site in India, I had somehow expected a more sanitized journey between the two - presuming that an oft-traveled tourist route would somehow be prettied up for foreign consumption. This turned out to be an incredibly stupid supposition.

First off, the region between the two cities is pretty much entirely rural, and its denizens appeared to be either agrarian or impoverished. This was the first major shock that I had on this trip. Along the way, we saw:

  • People piled high and proud on various modes of automobile
  • People packed like sardines into an auto rickshaw (basically 10 people in a vehicle that appeared to be designed to carry 3~4)
  • People traveling via elephant or camel
  • People sleeping on the side of the road
  • People squatting by the side of the road
On this last point, I want to go into just a bit more detail. We had initially assumed that the people that we saw squatting by small bodies of stagnant water near the road were simply resting themselves in the wee morning hours. It was only when we saw somebody take advantage of the puddle for sanitary purposes did we realize that they were in fact "dropping the kids off at the pool", so to speak. Once we had undergone this little paradigm shift, it became obvious that most of these people were men, that they were taking care of both numéro un and deux deux, and that there was really no legitimate reason to assume that they would have any better places to do so.

This just pretty much confirmed what I had begun to suspect upon our arrival, which was that this trip to India would be better enjoyed as an adventure than a vacation...particularly when, despite my best efforts, I began to realize that nature was calling for me as well.

But enough with the scatological ramblings, let's get back to the sites and sounds.

About an hour before the Taj Mahal in Sikandra, we passed by an impressive looking structure off to the east, which turned out to be Akbar's Tomb. No, not the one from Life In Hell, but it is spelled the same way. Unfortunately, since we knew that we had a lot of things to do this day, we decided against making an actual stop and instead just drove briefly through the parking lot and took a couple pictures. I would have liked to seen more of this, it just wasn't meant to be. The best that I can offer you is a pretty link to a pretty good PBS website on Akbar's Tomb.

From there, we continued on to Agra proper, finally arriving at around 9:30am. We later found out the reason for this, but the parking lot for all vehicles (tour bus, car, rickshaw, camel) is about 1km away from both the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. Before Budprakash was even able to park the car, we could feel the tension in the air rising as various enterprising transporters started to gather around the car to offer their services. Budprakash had a brief and what appeared to be a somewhat heated conversation with the group, and then indicated that we should just follow him on foot for a ways. He led us to a small dirt path that led to what was presumably the Taj Mahal - at first we were a bit skittish, but we were more worried about the rest of the touts and there were also various other tourist-looking types going the same way, so we decided to just take his advice and hoof it.

What happened next was irritating as hell, but actually pretty funny when I look back on it. We were accosted the entire 1km walk by guides trying their very best to offer us their services (starting price - 450 Rupees, or ~US$10). We tried various tactics to get rid of them (ignoring them, saying no gently, saying no aggressively, ignoring them again, speeding up, slowing down, stopping to take pictures, etc.), and while we were able to shed most of them, one particularly persistent tout simply would not be denied. His price continued to drop every 50 meters or so and eventually, after he had come nearly the full kilometer with us, we agreed that he could be our guide for 20 Rupees. He then proceeded to give us the old bait-and-switch, but this turned out well since this resulted in us getting a good guide named Rahees – still at the same price (20).

Rahees took us to the entrance and started to tell us (with a pretty darn good command of the English language) about the history of the place and the people involved in its construction. He told us about Shah Jahan and the history of the Mughal emperors. He told us about Mumtaz, the other wives, and their children. He told us how one of the sons (Aurengzeb) "got rid" of the others and rose to power, imprisoning his father in the Agra Fort for the last 7 years of his life with only a view of the Taj Mahal so that he could spend the rest of his life "thinking about his mistake". He told us of how prior to this, Shah Jahan had actually planned to build a black twin to the Taj Mahal across the river from the white one, but never got around to it thanks to the Big-Pious-A. He rounded these details out with tidbits about the inlay work in the main structure, explanations about the style of architecture, observations about the 4 towers (they lean away from the main structure so as not to damage it should they fall), and informed us that the reason the building is yellowish instead of its original stark white was due to pollution, causing the Indian government to ban all traffic and factory presence within 1km of the grounds.

While he was telling us all of this, we had the surreal experience of actually walking around a truly amazing place. Nothing that I had seen or read about it really prepared me for the experience of actually being there. The epic sense of beauty, space and symmetry that effuses every molecule of the place was simply breathtaking. Visiting the Taj Mahal has been one of my life's goals, and here I was standing - right in front of it, about to step inside!

As we walked up past the reflecting pools and approached the main structure, we continued to be blown away by the experience of it all. It turns out to be much larger than you would think from the pictures that you come across. It is also far more impressive in person due to all of the fine detail that went into the design. We also happened to luck into a perfect day - clear blue skies and comfortable weather. This was more like it!

Before you can ascend the dais and go into the main structure, it is necessary for all people to remove their shoes. This led to another unexpected aspect of the Taj Mahal that you don't typically read about in travel guides: the smell inside. I can only guess what could cause human feet to reach that level of funklitude, but it hits you like a wall as you cross the threshold and go inside. I can only hope that the memory of the awful/offal smell will fade in time, leaving me with a purer memory of the inside of the place, but for now it remains...

We went back outside, breathed the glorious air again, and then proceeded to walk the grounds a bit. This was also quite fun since the grounds are apparently occupied by monkeys in the early hours of the day and squirrels for the rest of the time the sun is up. We didn't get to see any monkeys, but the squirrels were everywhere. Melanie again went gaga over these cute little critters, which are smaller and admittedly cuter than their American cousins. We also got to see the Taj Mahal version of a lawnmower, which is essentially a spinning scythe with a collection basket pulled behind two cows. The best part is that the process is self sustaining since the cows get to eat the fruit of their labors, which results in fertilizer for the grass. Truly a self-sustaining system.

For the last part of the tour, we stopped off in a gift shop where the supposed descendants of the family that did the original inlay work were still plying their trade for souvenirs. Rahees was obviously on commission, so we stayed long enough for him to get at least a little $$, paid him his 20Rp + a decent tip, and then parted ways - heading back to the car. Again we were accosted by various rickshaw drivers offering us a ride back to the parking lot (price went from 150 Rp down to 5Rp), but we decided to just walk back down the path. We realized at this point that nothing looked familiar since we had flown by it all the first time as we were trying to escape the guide earlier in the day. It was a good thing that we had given Rahees a good tip since he happened to be sitting outside and watching us as we started off in the wrong direction - he called out to us and told us the actual way back, and so we went.

Fatehpur Sikri

Afterward, we headed over to Fatehpur Sikri. The road there is narrow 2-lane road, and it was slightly reminiscent of the car ride over to Batina, Croatia (passing, overtaking, interesting smells) but far more destitute and far more cows. It was similar to the drive down to Agra, except the view was nicer, there were fewer people squatting, and we got to see these bizarrely stacked piles of dung, sometimes up to 2m tall.

If you look up towards the top of the archway, you will see a bunch of very large, fungus looking things. These are actually active beehives. I'm guessing that these are still here because (a) they look fascinating in both their size and shape and (b) there weren't a whole lot of volunteers for this particular clean up duty.

When we arrived, we managed to get a nice enough guide named David. He gave us adequate information, but I think we were still too close to Agra to get truly good service.

While this place was also fascinating, the day was starting to wear us down, so we only stayed a couple of hours, took a few pictures, and then headed on home after a quick pitstop at David's family's gift shop.

I'd like to digress again and rant a bit on the dichotomy that is India. On one hand, this is a country rich in culture, regal majesty, architecture, music, etc. On the other, it is insanley impoverished and underdeveloped: poopers by the side of the road, rail thin people of all ages, a belief in reincarnation, but we often saw people acting with some cruelty to animals, tourists being overwhelmed with people offering trinkets, baubles, guided tours, photographs, etc.


We went back to the Sabharwal residence and had a nice late dinner with Sudhir and Aruna. Sudhir gave us the nicer back bedroom for our last night in Delhi, and he even went so far as to invite us back for a free night at his place during the final leg of our trip before we return to Taiwan! Sudhir and Aruna have become increasingly parental over the course of our time spent here, but I am afraid that after 8 days in India, we will really need to stay in a cushy hotel rather than their home. They are a lovely couple, so this is no slight to them - just a supposition about the way we'll feel in a week.

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