Weird but wonderful

IMG_1880 (800x600)The cows I’d gotten used to. The dogs, too. But turning a corner and coming face to face with a camel while monkeys cavorted like mad things wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Agra is like an open-air zoo. Pigs rut in the garbage. Goats walk the streets with a nonchalance that comes from being the undisputed kings of their home terrritory. Monkeys run amuck, so used to people that they practically come up to you and introduce themselves. Camels work pulling carts, doing the work horses might do elsewhere. It’s all rather weird but definitely rather wonderful. Mad.

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IMG_2059 Amidst all of this, life goes on, in the streets. Barbers set up stalls on the roadside, complete with mirrors, and men are shaved in full view of the world. It seems like everything is on show. Northern India has a different feel to it. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. But there’s definitely a difference.

I’d been to the Taj Mahal, had the tour of the marble factory, and was headed to see Agra Fort, something I was assured was quite different to other forts I might have seen in that this was one in which people actually lived. Fair enough.

IMG_1980 (800x600)IMG_1987 (800x590)It was here, in one of the many palaces, that the Shah who built the Taj Mahal was imprisoned by his son in an attempt to keep his dad from squandering his inheritance on yet another massive tomb. Mind you, if you had to be imprisoned, this wouldn’t have been a IMG_1976 (800x600)bad place to live. It is absolutely stunning. The decor, the carving, the marble. Absolutely stunning.

That said though, a prison, no matter how beautiful it may be, is still a prison.

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IMG_1947 (800x600)IMG_1991 (800x600)Elsewhere in the fort, there’s a lot going on. There’s the beauty bazaar where the Shah fell for his third wife. Apparently, only beautiful women were allowed into the bazaar and it was the Shah who decided what he meant by beautiful. A lot of subjectivity going on there, IMG_1954 (600x800)me thinks. I wonder if the gentleman preferred blondes? In the rooms overlooking the courtyard lived the harem. It is still hard to get my head around all of this, around what it must have been like to live there.

There are all sorts of nooks and crannies that hold  secrets and wonders. In one room, if two people face the wall at opposite ends and whisper to each other, their whispers are transmitted through the walls and ring out clearly. No secrets there.  In aIMG_1972 (600x800)nother the air conditioning and heating systems of old are clearly visible.  By pouring hot or cold water into the walls, the rooms were heated or cooled. You have to wonder at the minds who thought all this stuff up. And figured it out. And made it work. And did this so many years ago.  A friend commenting on one of my posts recently recapped a conversation he had had while in India when he expressed amazement at how they do so much with so little. The reply:  We wonder why you do so little with so much. Yes, the mind boggles.

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The fort is more like a walled city that a fort. Rebuilt in red sandstone in the 1500s, it too 1,444,000 builders 8 years to finally complete it in 1573. A large part  was converted by the British into military barracks and even today the majority of the grounds is still in accessible to the public and under military use. Definitely worth a look if you’re in the neighbourhood: Rakabganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.


The mists of time

Had I been one of Shah Jahan’s harem, I might have had to do my wifely duties once, say, every 18 months. Had I not loved him, I probably could have lived with it. But knowing I was just one of many would have done my head in.

The seventeenth-century ‘King of the World’ had three legal wives. Wife No. 1 was Christian. Wife No. 2 was Hindu. Wife No. 3 was Muslim. The 460 other wives in his harem were probably a mix, too. Wives 1 and 2 were without issue but Wife No. 3 produced 14 children in 19 years, 6 of whom lived. And as it is said that she was so beautiful the moon hid in shame when she appeared, Mumtaz Mahal was clearly the Shah’s favourite wife of all. Born Arjumand Bano Begum, the name the Shah gave her – Mumtaz Mahal – means Chosen One, or Jewel of the  Palace. On her deathbed, she made him promise to build her a tomb, a testament to his love. And he did. And we know it as the Taj Mahal.

IMG_1892 (596x800)We’d driven through three hours of dense fog to get to Agra from Greater Noida, leaving the hotel at 5.30 am. I was really looking forward to seeing this wonder of the world up close and personal. I was hoping to get there by sunrise and see it in its dawn glory but as it turns out, I was lucky to see it at all. The fog was terrible. But I took heart that I hadn’t paid $1000 for a room in the Oberoi Hotel boasting a view of the great monument. That would have been a right waste of money.

No matter which side you view it from, the Taj looks the same. Perfectly symmetrical. The four minarets tilt slight outwards so that if they collapse, they won’t damage the main building itself. Inside there are just four tombs – two are real, belonging to the Shah and his favourite wife. These are open for viewing on 7 July each year. The two that are on view year round are exact replicas. I’d never have known the difference had I not been told.

IMG_1887 (800x600)IMG_1911There are four gates through which you can enter. Back in the day, the south gate was for the workers, the west gate for the VIPs, the east gate for the locals and the north gate for the royals. This is the one in use today.  It has 22 domes on top, one for each year it took to build the Taj: one year to build the structure and then 21 years to add the detail. It took 20 000 craftsmen to do the job, most of whom were important from Kabul. Seventeen generations later, their descendants are still plying their trade in the city of Agra.

IMG_1904 (800x592)IMG_1903 (800x600)Security was grim. They took my pocket torch. I wondered what damage I could do with a torch and when inside I saw. My guide borrowed one from the security guard and showed me how the semi-precious slivers of gems in the marble glow in the light. Magnificent. Among the 28 or so types of precious stones uses, the malachite comes from South Africa, the lapis from Chile, the onyx from Belgium, the mother of pearl from New Zealand and the turquoise from Turkey. The marble – a lot of which comes from the town of Makrana in Rajasthan – reflects the light so that at various times the Taj appears to be a different colour: pink in the morning, milky white in the evening, and golden at night when lit by the moon. It is said that this change in colour resembles the changeable moods of women … and presumably that of the favoured wife.

IMG_1902 (800x593)excerpts from the Quran are etched on the wall – the pressure not to make a mistake must have been fierce. I wonder if it was proofread? The level of detail is simply stunning. I have it on good authority that the building itself is made of brick and is covered in marble. Whatever works. It certainly doesn’t take from anything. Rumour has it that the Shah had intended building himself a black Taj across the river, but his son and heir decided that he was frittering away his inheritance and promptly put him in prison – well, a prison of sorts.

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Some of the pillars, while made of three slabs of marble, are designed in such a way that there looks to be six. What would it cost to build the Taj today, I wonder. And would we even know where to begin?

I came, I saw, and I left wanting more. I want to come back, on the night of  a full moon in summer and see it in all its glory.

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