For love or money
24.07.2012 - 26.07.2012 32 °C
You are in a deep sleep in the sleeper class cabin of an Indian Railways train bound for Agra. Before hitting the hay, you read and signed off a document which told you to beware of people on the train who may drug you or steal your bags. You backpack is your pillow and your dreamland is shattered by SCREAM SCREAM!!!!!!! Being on the top of a 3 tier bunk, you shoot up and hit your head on the roof of the train. The grate that separates your bunk from your neighbour is all you see in the darkness whilst still in a sleepy/bumpy daze. At this point I had no idea of when, what and where I was as heartbeats rang in my ears.
Needless to say the entire carriage woke up and with half of it filled with westerners, no doubt everyone had the same thoughts as I did being snapped out of the sleepy daze... Someone is trying to steal her bags. Out of nowhere a train guard runs along the corridor but nothing eventuates as one girls bad dream left us all sleeping a little lighter after that!
Apart from the screams, our second Indian train ride was uneventful and again much more comfortable than our expectations before coming to the country. We pulled into Agra early in the morning and haggled a still overpriced tuk tuk to take us to our accommodation overlooking the local rooftops and Taj Mahal.
It was only 9am and with a pretty good sleep on the train, we still had all day to explore. This is why sleeper trains are the way to travel! We decided to leave the Taj for the following day and try to get out to Fatehpur Sikri (FS) 40km outside of Agra. The local busses left from out near the bigger train station so we took the opportunity to book our next tickets to the Himalaya foothills. There were no tickets available, but the man said that we could go on the waiting list which should be fine. We weren’t so sure when he said that we were numbers 63 and 64 on the waiting list, but we left with some more convincing.
The bus ride out to FS was pretty straightforward although we had an extremely friendly and talkative Indian man sat next to us. It would have been nice except that his Indian English accent was incredibly thick. I have worked with a number of Indian guys in my recent work so think that I have a better ear for it than most, but looking blankly at this guy as he asks you the same thing 6 times just feels rude.
Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal empire for 14 years from 1571. The emperor constructed the city after a prophecy (given to him in the village) came true that he would have an heir to the throne. Prophecies or not, an inadequate water supply led to the city being abandoned shortly after his death becoming the ghost city it is today. The short prominence resulted in well built palace and mosque that have been well preserved.
It may have been a ghost city after its exodus, but the modern day draw of tourism crowds means that another bustling town welcomed us close to the ruins when the bus pulled in. As tourism and touts go hand in hand in India, we politely tried to shoo away our followers. One particularly persistent guy followed us all the way to the mosque giving us directions again and again as we tried to ignore them. The mosque was impressive with imposing gates standing high on a rocky outcrop above the market town, but it was impossible to peacefully take in the surroundings with continually being approached by tout after tout.
We successfully snuck out of the mosque without our follower spotting us. Thankfully, in the palace ruins only official guides are allowed in which meant there was only one non pushy guide waiting inside the gate and then we were into peace and quiet at last. It was pretty quiet around the extensive ruins so we could slowly walk around and take in the intricate carvings and palace ruins calmly without always being on the defensive.
There were plenty of dark clouds looming while we looked around the palace grounds, but luckily nothing fell while we were there. On the drive back to Agra we passed through some towns that had felt the wrath of the monsoonal rain storm.
A typical scene of rubbish and animals in India
Back at our hotel in Agra we woke up early the following day to see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, but a thick blanket of cloud stopped that for us. We got another few minutes of sleep again and headed out of the guesthouse to try and get to the Taj Mahal early to beat the crowds. Even though we ended up getting there 15 minutes after the west gate opened, we were quite surprised to find that there was hardly a queue at the ticket window or gates. The extreme markup on ticket prices that foreigners pay makes it an expensive morning out, but i guess it has to be made cheap for the Indian tourist otherwise no one would be able to visit.
The first view you get of the Taj Mahal is through the gates of the inner walls. Breathtaking is certainly an apt description. Like a lot of other major buildings and monuments around the world, you have seen countless pictures of them over time which can take away from the initial surprise and leave you a little underwhelmed. I mean the India Lonely Planet graces its cover with the Taj, so we had been looking at it a hundred times a day to this point anyway. Thankfully, seeing the Taj Mahal in person blows every picture out of the water. Its something about the imposing size of the place, the white marble, the intricate carvings that you can’t comprehend from a sole picture of it. Anyway maybe it’s just us, but we weren’t expecting much before coming to Agra but we were happy to have those expectations blown out of the water.
So I think most people would have heard the story that the Taj Mahal was built by the Emperor for his wife as a symbol of his love for her. But to add some further context to the story, the Emperor was grief stricken when his third wife died giving birth to their 14th child (14!! Im not surprised!!). The mausoleum and surrounding buildings took 22 years to complete utilising a workforce of 20,000 Indians and 1,000 elephants bringing materials from all over India, the Arab World and China. Around 2 million tourists pump through the gates each year to take in the marvel although 90% of those tourists are Indian. As the number one tourist attraction, it still doesn’t fail to bring in some healthy rupees for the city.
We started off by taking in the classic view of the Taj from the South entrance looking up past the pools and gardens. There weren’t a great deal of people around, but it still required a bit of waiting around and watching out for queue jumpers to get front and centre for some photos.
We then walked along the pools and through the gardens on our way up to the mausoleum taking in the views as the Taj looms more and more overhead. Taking our shoes off (its a requirement) we walked around the Taj and through the mosques that stand side by side with the tomb. Going inside the Taj Mahal itself you get to see the tomb of the dead wife sat perfectly in the middle of the main dome room. When the Emperor himself died, he was put in a marble coffin next to the wife’s, but it kind of throws out the symmetrical feel that the rest of the place has to it. Legend says that there was going to be an identical black Taj Mahal built on the other bank of the river to the north for the Emperor.
After the relatively quick visit to see the tomb, Tan and I sat down at the base of one of the 4 towers that surround the building and watched the other tourists as they came and went. It was really nice to just take in the place. There isn’t actually much to do here and you could see everything in 20 minutes, but we enjoyed not feeling like we needed to rush around and just sit down and enjoy some relative quiet which you don’t get that much of in India. As we were walking out the thick clouds started to break up a little and offered some hazy blue sky to our photos
After a quick morning tea break we got a tuk tuk out to the train station and made our way back to Delhi ready to head north to the Himalaya foothills. So far our other train journeys had been overnight trains, so you don’t really get to see much from the train. However it was interesting and enjoyable to travel by the day. For the first time we really got to see the India outside of the big cities. The train rumbled by past lots of farmland and small towns. The sleeper class section of the train is really good to watch the world go by with open windows in the carriage. Although my favourite place to experience Indian trains is from the doorways. Unlike our western trains with locked doors while the train is in motion, safety is less of a concern and the doors are left wide open the whole way. I liked standing at the doorway feeling the warm breeze, getting a rush as the trains passed in the opposite direction and watching India pass by. Also you see a lot of the slums that have built up on the vacant land that immediately surrounds the train network. You witness simple tarpaulin on a few poles with a family of 6 sleeping on bare floor with only a small gas stove and you realise that life doesn’t come much poorer than this.
Living at its simplest form
The train came to a stop regularly on the journey and it was funny to watch everyone jump out of the carriages to relieve themselves in the bushes by the tracks and have a smoke. I caught this one such time on camera where a few people were nearly caught out as the train pulled away shortly after coming to a stop.
Daniel – We only came to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal because we thought we had to, but actually it was an impressive sight. Fatehpur Sikri was a worthwhile daytrip and we have mostly figured out the game that you play with the touts now.
Tanya – So the Taj Mahal, if I had have been wearing socks they would have truly been blown off. It was an incredible sight with a cute story to make it special. We have read a lot of advice recommending people to get out of Agra town immediately, but the 2 days we spent there were enjoyable enough and very quiet compared to Varanasi so well worth the stop.