Saturday, 25 October 2014

Agra - City of the Taj

No visit to India would be complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal, so on our way out of Rajasthan, Angela and I travelled with our driver Bubloo to Agra, the host city of the world's most famous mausoleum. The Taj Mahal may be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, but Agra itself is a dirty rundown dump of a city, even by already very low Indian standards. As we drove in and searched for our hotel, we passed streets piled with so much rubble and trash it felt like the aftermath of a war. We tried to find some character or charm during our navigations of the city, but every single street seemed just as grimy and drab as the next, all of them completely lacking in the colour and energy that permeates much of India.

Fortunately, the city's premier attraction, the Taj Mahal, makes a visit to Agra more than worth it, and easily lives up to its reputation as the crown jewel of Muslim architecture in India. Most of the time when you visit a famous sight like this, there's an overfamiliarity that takes away from its majesty, the same way that knowing spoilers for a film can take away from its power to move or surprise. Usually, I find, a monument's surroundings become more interesting than the monument itself: the grassy knolls and whitewashed pantheons surprise you more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa; the mist straddling the Marin headlands is more eye-catching than the Golden Gate Bridge; oh, and perhaps the best example from this particular trip: Angkor Wat is probably the least impressive of the major temples in that complex. The Taj Mahal, however, is one of the few famous sights I've visited that actually looked considerably more striking than it ever did in those hundreds of photos I'd seen in books or on the web. Those pearlescent marble columns, the Persian calligraphy and floral motifs dancing over the arch tops, all topped by that gorgeous mosaic onion of a roof... It was easy even for us architecturally inept types to just stand there and gawp at its beauty.

Our drive from Pushkar to Agra took about seven or eight hours.
The arid outcrops of Rajasthan.
Speeding through a tunnel that looked like the inside of an asteroid.
As we got closer to Agra, we passed through a region filled with these tall, chimney-like towers.
It was a weekend, so there was a lot of traffic heading into the city.

Once in the city, it didn't take us long to realise what a dump we were in. None of the cities we visited in Rajasthan had looked so unashamedly disarrayed and filthy.
Rubble, rubble, everywhere.
I think this is the spot where we saw a lady squatting down to take a crap among the piles of trash, in full view of all the passing cars. India is such a strangely contradictory place. There are such strict and conservative rules about what to wear and how to behave in public, especially for women, yet no one bats an eye lid while this woman goes to the toilet in front of hundreds of passersby.

We passed some men celebrating for some festival by covering themselves in multicoloured dust.
That evening, Angela was feeling a little ill so she stayed in our hotel room while I enjoyed a Thali Set at a local restaurant.
The next morning we were up at 5 in the morning to see the Taj Mahal.
It was a Sunday so we were worried we'd have to queue for hours, but fortunately it wasn't too busy. Not yet, anyway.
Entering the main gate.
Our first view of the most beautiful building in the world.

The rising sun.
So glad we came here early for the gorgeous morning colours.

Monkeys! Ever since one attacked me in Delhi I've steered well clear of these mischievous little buggers.
The Yamuna River, which flows through Agra as well as Delhi, is so polluted that this awful sulphurous stench envelops the surrounding city. As you explore the beautiful Taj Mahal, you want to be overcome by the fragrance of a luxury perfume, but instead, everything stinks like rotten eggs.
"There, there, little one. One day, our people shall retake what was once ours."
The crowds by the main gate were starting to get much bigger.
Inside the Taj Mahal.

Cremations on the river.
Agra Fort from afar.

Heading back into Agra.
Agra also has a big fort that looked pretty impressive from a distance, but we didn't go inside since we'd seen enough forts and palaces in Rajasthan. We departed the next day, glad to have ticked another World Wonder off our bucket list, but even gladder to get the hell out of that shitehole of a city.

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