Agra: A Tale of Two Taj

Barbs and I would be up with the sunrise on the very last day of 2019. At home, my day would usually consist of eating Christmas leftovers and desperately trying to stay awake until midnight so my friends don’t think I’m a grandma (too late). Here, it would consist of frantic sightseeing, a whole load of junk food, and an impromptu Bollywood party. What a day I was in for.

Our rickety old coach took us to Agra Fort first thing in the morning. We faced the late 16th century fort’s imposing red sandstone walls and battlements – so far, so fort-y.

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Yup, looks like a fortress to me. What else is new?

As soon as we crossed the moat and passed under the gate, though, Agra Fort took on a character of its own. Beautiful tiling, reminiscent of the glorious Central Asian mosques, climbed up the towers. Parakeets sang from their high perches, and there were even palm trees growing. I certainly hadn’t expected this.

But its beautiful exterior was a ploy, a distraction from its deadly interior. This was a war machine made out of bricks. Back in the day, it was probably the most impenetrable fortress in India.

To start with, there weren’t one, but two moats. One was watery and filled with crocodiles. The other was dry, and home to a group of hungry tigers. If you’d somehow made it across these alive, and fought your way past the armed guards, there were more traps lying ahead. As we walked up a steep ramp, our guide Saif informed us that we were right in the path of a boulder trap. I practically squealed in excitement. This was the stuff of Tomb Raider games, and here I was at the heart of it.

This place is SO badass that the Indian army still uses it as a base. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody has ever captured Agra Fort – at least not by force.

If you were lucky enough to be invited to Agra Fort on a peaceful matter, you’d be treated like a king (but you probably were one if you were mates with the Mughals). The Fort’s beauty would once again become its defining trait. From the outside, you’d never know that so many palaces and gardens lay within.

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This was, after all, the primary residence of the Mughal Emperors.

The first major courtyard you come to is in inside Akbar’s Palace (above). It’s surrounded by four thrones, from which the Emperor Akbar, his wife, and members of their family watched beautiful dancers whirl around the floor. There were also bedrooms and lounging areas just off it, kept cool by holes in the wall and an underfloor cooling system. The beautiful prayer room, meanwhile, provided a space for quiet reflection in the mayhem of the palace.

As a historian, this place was a dream – my mind took me to the heyday of the Mughals. I saw Akbar being fanned on his chair, as the colourful curtains rippled behind him. The dancers, meanwhile, sweated it out on the dance floor as their jewellery tinkled and skirts crumpled. Akbar’s wife glared at him as he admired them. Not sure why I thought Akbar looked like Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh, but hey. He’d be a good fit for the role.

On a clear day, you can see the Taj Mahal from the balcony, as it’s only a mile away. But today was not a clear day, so we moved on to the white marble section of the Palace. This bit was built by the famous Shah Jahan, the man who commissioned the Taj Mahal – and to be honest, the use of marble should have been a giveaway. He seemed to have a thing for it.

Shah Jahan spent his days in the lovely Khas Mahal, which looked quite similar to the one in Delhi. Next to it were two pavilions, built for his two daughters, Roshanara and Jahanara. Jahanara was, by far, Shah Jahan’s favourite – she was his eldest child, and reminded him of his beloved wife, Mumtaz. She took care of him in his old age, and had a special bond with her father. Roshanara didn’t. Thus, Jahanara got the loveliest pavilion on the Shah’s right hand side, and Roshanara got a rather meagre offering to his left.

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From the  guy who built the Taj Mahal, this is a bit of a piss poor offering. Do better.

Perhaps that’s what drove Roshanara to side with her crazy brother Aurangzeb when he usurped power from their Dad. We’ll never know….

The palaces face onto a lovely courtyard, where it’s said Shah Jahan met Mumtaz for the first time. She was a market seller, who had come to the palace to sell her wares to the royal ladies. He was so struck with her beauty, he turned to his advisors and informed them he would marry her. She played hard to get for a bit, but relented, and so began one of history’s greatest romances. Or so Saif says. I can’t find any evidence that corroborates this story, but I prefer it to the arranged marriage that probably happened, so let’s stick with Saif’s story.

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The field where love blooms? Let’s hope so.

The finale of Agra fort is Diwan-i-Aam, or ‘Hall of Public Audience’. Again, it looked very similar to the one in Delhi, only this time we were able to take a closer look at where the Emperor would have sat.

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And this is the view you’d have if you were looking up at him, because he wants you to know who’s boss.

Well, I certainly departed Agra Fort with the impression that you shouldn’t mess with the Mughals, so I guess it worked.

Back on the coach, we drove across the Yamuna River to the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah. Our route was an interesting one – vast swathes of cloth were being laid out on the ground to dry, while cows stood idly by, watching the motorbike nutters swerve in and out of traffic. This was the India I had been expecting, and I was glad to see it.

I seem to expect more from the general vibe of a place than I do from its landmarks. Frankly, I didn’t even know what the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah was until we got there. I’ll give you a clue – its nickname ‘Baby Taj’ is very apt indeed.

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Looks like a baby Taj to me.

And that’s exactly what it is – an elaborate mausoleum built for a much-loved Mughal. This time, it was for the parents of Nur Jahan, the most powerful woman in the Mughal realm. She ruled as an equal to her husband, and what she said, went. So when she wanted a magnificent tomb built for her parents, that was that. Baby Taj was born.

The tomb is set in a square, perfectly symmetrical garden, with dry waterways and carefully trimmed bushes all around. It’s also on the banks of the Yamuna, so you might even be able to take a breath of fresh air or two. Baby Taj is, quite literally, a hidden gem – everyone seems to miss it off their Agra itinerary. Barely anybody else was there. I’m mystified as to why, because it was easily the highlight of my Agra visit.

20191231_113340Barbs and I disturbing the peace since 2013. Photo credit: our adoptive Korean parents, who we bonded with in the back of the chilly coach.

You take your shoes off before you go in, which Mohammed thinks adds to the atmosphere. I suppose it does – your feet connect with the old stone, and you can feel every crevice and step.

Inside the tomb, it’s dark and cold, but the atmosphere is surprisingly warm. The walls are beautifully adorned with marble inlay – no paint here – and the nooks and crannies are decorated with motifs depicting stuff the deceased liked. There’s a mural for music, a mural for flowers, and even a mural for wine (the Mughals were Muslims, but it was one set of rules for them, one for everyone else). It was joyful, personal, and heartfelt. Even through the ages, you can feel the playful relationship Nur Jahan had with her family.

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See what I mean about the decor?

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Mohammed loves it so much, he can’t stop touching it. This would be a recurring theme on our adventure.

As we strolled over to the Yamuna, modern India slapped us in the face. We peered over the railings, down to the banks of the river, where three young boys were picking through the litter. Noticing us, the kids started waving, and dabbing (I know dabbing isn’t cool anymore, but give them a break). There’s not a lot I can say here that won’t make me sound like a privileged white person on a gap yah – which is basically what I am – so I’ll simply say it was horrifying and thought-provoking in equal measure.

Then, there were the toilets, which were also horrifying. I’d had enough of modern India and was raring to return to the India of the past, by now. But first – lunch.

Domino’s was the only place we had time to wolf down some grub. And let me tell you, Indian fast food is an absolute spectacle.

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Paneer and pepper pizza, stuffed all the way through with a kind of cheese spread. Accompanied with the saltiest garlic bread ever, and of course, the classic masala fries.

I’m not sure if I loved or I hated it. On the one hand, it was all the things you should be eating on NYE. Carbs, fat and spice – this pizza was cheese on cheese on cheese. But on the other, it was too much, even for me. Mohammed wasn’t a fan, either. Still, we ate what we could, and darted out the door.

We were hurrying to our next destination, because it was the one place most visitors to this beautiful country are dying to see. It’s the symbol of India, the pinnacle of Islamic architecture, and the teardrop on the face of eternity. Can you guess what it is yet?

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I really hope you got that one right, otherwise there’s another amazing landmark in Agra I totally missed out on.

Saif was to be our guide, once again. He met us outside the main entrance, which is a classic Indian experience by itself. You have to go through airport-style security, guarding your place in the queue from the pushy people who will try to take it from you. All the while, monkeys leap on the roof above you. Don’t forget to watch your bag, or they might steal it. Once you get through that, you’re on the home stretch to India’s greatest monument.

History lesson time. So, the aforementioned Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz were having a nice marital life, getting along rather well. So well that Mumtaz Mahal was pregnant with their 14th child by the time Shah Jahan went away on campaign. But as she gave birth, she haemorraghed, and died of blood loss. Shah Jahan was heartbroken, and vowed to build her a magnificent tomb. The Taj Mahal was borne of his grief.

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Everything here is perfectly symmetrical, except one thing – Shah Jahan was hastily entombed here, next to his wife, and against his wishes. His tomb stands slightly taller than hers, and really messes with the geometry of the place, which is exactly what he was trying to avoid. Damn you Aurangzeb.

Mohammed and I strolled towards the Taj, wowed by what was before us. We’d made it here, to this Wonder of the World, and couldn’t help but marvel at it. At several moments, we opted to simply sit and stare at this amazing monument. There’s so much detail to pour over – whether it’s the way the light hits the translucent marble, or how small the people are compared to it, or how the minarets have been designed to fall away from the Taj in the event of an earthquake. It’s simply breathtaking.

The downside of it being so famous is that it is very, very busy. Getting a clear, central view of it is basically impossible. And a photo on the ‘Princess Diana bench’? You can get one, but you are literally going to have to elbow other irritated tourists out of the way.

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Me pretending I haven’t just trodden on an auntie’s toe.

 

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Mohammed pretending to ignore the sari-wearing white girl.

It’s not the place for solitary reflection it once was, but it is still marvellous.

Barbs and I deposited our shoes with the shoe guy. My NRI (non-resident Indian) friend asked in Hindi how to get into the Taj, and we listened as he told us we’d come in the entrance for Indians, not foreigners. No matter – when in Rome and all that. I nodded along as they talked, and shoe dude was very surprised I could understand Hindi. I don’t, really, but knowing the context and a few basic words is everything. Still, confusing Asians has become a hobby these past five years. Just ask Anaab’s family.

Going round the back of the monument with all the Indians, we circled around, and reached the doors to the Taj. There were so many people trying to get in and out that once inside, I got separated from Mohammed by a group of Indian nuns, who pushed me deeper into the tomb. This gave me the chance to admire the asymmetry of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan’s graves, but only for a minute, before I was shoved about again. The noise, too, was immense – it was like an echo you’d get in a European cathedral, only ten times louder, because this is India.

Mohammed found me again towards the exit, and we ducked under the doors into the late afternoon sun. We briefly admired the mosque adjacent to the Taj (which is still functioning) before continuing our pondering and wandering about the Taj’s gardens.

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It’s that red sandstone again. But it does contrast nicely with the glowy white marble.

Speaking of marble, that’s exactly where Mohammed went next. While I went home to rest, the tour group went to a marble inlay workshop, run by a Muslim family whose ancestors decorated the Taj Mahal. They show you exactly how the beautiful patterns we’d been seeing all day were created. First, on a large slab of marble, geometric grooved patterns are carved out. Then, like a jigsaw puzzle, coloured pieces of marble are slotted in, et voila – you have yourself a Taj. Mohammed said it was like watching great works of art come together, and he bought lots of gorgeous souvenirs to take home with him. The best bit? They gave him a discount, because he was Muslim. Gotta get those mates’ rates.

Coming home beaming, Mohammed put his swag bag down, before we met up with the tour again for what promised to be a ‘cultural experience’. We headed into the mirrored auditorium, and I immediately knew it would be a bit of a tourist show – it was glitzy, huge, plus each seat had headphones to translate the stage performance into English, Mandarin, and many other languages. It may not have been the off-the-radar musical delight Mohammed expected, but it was definitely an experience, that’s for sure.

The show, which tells a semi-mythologised version of the Taj Mahal origin story, began with a glittery dance sequence. Naturally, the singing was dubbed, as you might expect of a Bollywood-esque play. The makeup and costumes were stunning, as was the expensive staging, mocking up the interior of Shah Jahan’s palace. The actors opened their mouths to speak, but no sound came out – their voices had been replaced by an overly dramatic Urdu voiceover. I’d opted to ditch the headphones, because the English dub was too cringe, and it meant I was missing out on the hard work of the actors.

I love Indian cinema and all its excess drama, so while the show was neither authentic nor cultural, I still had fun. Mohammed, not so much. The factually challenged history and cheesy acting antics of the play had become a bit grating.

We would have been fine had the show ended there, but there was more. A woman in a blue lehenga (a glorious Indian skirt) came bounding onto the stage, asking if we’d enjoyed the performance. Awkward silence. She asked again. A half-hearted “yeah” emanated from the audience. Lehenga lady spoke again. “As it’s New Year’s Eve, we have a special treat for you! Yay!” We looked to tour leader Manu, who looked like a rabbit in the headlights. This was uncharted territory, and as the lights went down, we awaited our fate.

What happened next was the stuff of nightmares. Clowns filled the stage, doing acrobatics and generally being terrifying, all to the soundtrack of late 90’s techno music. But, it was okay, because RoboCop (?) burst onto the stage to save us. Nope, not that either, he simply joined in with the clown gymnastics as the music got louder. I think I speak for everyone in that room when I say that relief washed over us as the ‘Happy New Year’ banner rolled out, signifying that our ordeal was over.

But, all’s well that ends well. As the group filed out of the auditorium, we cracked up with laughter at what we’d just seen. And besides, the night was still young – it was barely dinnertime by the time we came out. Time to celebrate NYE properly.

Mohammed and me got all dolled up, and left the hotel in search of a fancy dinner. Which is easier said than done, if you’re in Agra and you haven’t booked or researched a damn thing. In this city, there are no pavements, and there weren’t many restaurants nearby either. We trudged through the mud as nearby bhangra beats filled me with excitement, and Mohammed with embarrassment because I cannot help but dance. No restaurants were to be found, and as we rounded a corner, a cow came out of nowhere. Best head back to familiar ground, methinks.

Thankfully, an establishment close to the hotel looked promising. GMB was an unassuming sweet shop with a restaurant set up in its back room, complete with big family tables and scruffy-looking menus. We walked in, a stylish NRI and me, a clumsy white girl. There were stares. There were smiles. But most importantly, I was the only gori (pasty face) in there, which meant the food was bound to taste good.

Oh, we were right. It was divine.

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That chana masala is one of the best I’ve ever had. And don’t even get me started on the butter paneer.

We devoured our delicious food, ordering more naan as we went to mop up the sauce. I hope one day to return to India solely for this place. That’s how good it was.

The best thing is, if you’re still hungry, you get to walk through the sweet shop on the way out. It’s not sweets or candy in the western sense, but crumbly, boiled milk-based Asian delicacies such as mithai, barfi, and rasmalai.

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Mohammed in action shot.

We crafted a pick ‘n’ mix box together, so we could celebrate the new year with our tour group and dish out delicious morsels. Bags full of barfi, we stepped outside into the night air. There were just two things missing – a hot cup of chai, and some Hindi party tunes.

By happy coincidence, our hotel seemed to be having a noisy bash. It was £13 entry fee, however, so we decided to go back to our room. Which was right beneath the party. Bad for two reasons:

1) I could hear all the fun I was missing out on.
2) Barbs was flagging, but there’d be no sleep ’til bedtime.

We opted to ring in the new year with that hot cup of chai in the (very dead) hotel restaurant, much to the confusion of the wait staff. The TV played India’s answer to Jools Holland’s Hogmanay, and we watched as the clock hit 11:59. The countdown begun, but with 30 seconds to go, the lights went off. Was this a brutal curfew, a la Pakistan? Or was this one of India’s notorious powercuts?

It was the latter – at 0:01 on 1st January 2020, the lights at the Hotel Seven Hills Agra returned. After shaking hands with the waiters, we headed upstairs. Since the party was still raging, there was no point going to the room, so I continued to the rooftop to wish the staff upstairs a very happy new year. They smiled back. This was the second time they’d seen me that evening, clearly desperate to go to the party. Feeling a bit sorry for us, a kindly uncle let us go into the party to “look at the pool”. He didn’t come back for us, so we stuck around, finding a private rooftop vantage point.

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The DJ below put on tune, after tune, after tune. From Tunak Tunak Tun (the Punjabi song that went viral for all the right reasons) to the latest Bollywood classics, Barbs and I danced the night away. I prefer Hindi music to Western music these days, because the bhangra beat is really energising. You don’t need alcohol to dance in India – you just have to allow the music to take hold.

When the music abruptly cut off at half past midnight, we decided it was time to wind down our NYE. Which had turned out to be surprisingly epic – 2020 had begun on a rooftop in India, dancing to my favourite songs with my best mate. And on that (bhangra) note, we waved goodbye to Agra, to get set for a road trip the next day.


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