It helps in India to know your Aibaks from your Akbars. Without this fundamental knowledge you enter into a world of confusing names and dynasties that all sound similar to western ears. The reason I mention this is because I spent the best part of an hour looking in wonderment and exploring intently around a World Unesco Monument which I thought was built by the Mughal ruler ‘Akbar the Great’ only to then find out that I was several centuries and many dynasties out in my historical assessment.
When armed with the correct knowledge one realises that what you are actually looking at is in fact even more incredible and awe-inspiring than you had originally thought. The Qutub-Minar at 72.5 meters is the world’s tallest brick minaret. Construction began in AD 1193 or 1199, dependent on where you read, and took until around 1386 to complete. The fact that the tower served no real purpose other than as a statement of intent makes it all the more incredible.
Even more amazing, and typical of the paradoxes I was beginning to encounter in India, is the fact that for all the genius in building such a grand monument the architects and builders both forgot about ‘keystones‘. So what! Well, without keystones in archways there can be no roofs! So these talented and advanced craftsmen forgot, or never knew, a fundamental building block, (excuse the pun) of construction a keystone.
The result … a roofless complex that served no real function, yet must have cost an extortionate amount of money to build and subsequently became a folly to successive rulers. Only in India could so much extravagance and money be spent and wasted on something so pointless! From the dawn of time until the present day the same problems seem to dog this country. So rich in ideas and expression but ultimately so poor and impoverished in execution.
It is impossible not to see a distinct correlation between this real world tower and the fabled two towers in J. R. R. Tolkien‘s book of the same name, the whole site could have been lifted straight out from a film set or vice-versa. Even though it was early in the morning you are never far away from people when in India. True to form as we wondered around the temples and ruined buildings people and animals started to appear out of the shadows. One elderly gentleman looked particularly splendid in his immaculately turned out attire. Quite how the people managed to stay so clean, cool and serene in the stifling heat was beyond me.
Luckily for us we had arrived early in the day on our way to Agra to visit this unique UNESCO site. This would mean we avoided the terrible heat of later on in the day. With no roofs to offer any shade the site would soon be as hot as an inferno, still it was to our great relief that no sooner had we arrived than we were departing, settling down once more into our familiar seats aboard our small air-conditioned coach for a long and somewhat arduous road trip across Uttar Pradesh towards its provincial capital the sprawling city of Agra.
The sprawling suburbs of Delhi seemed to be never-ending and it became hard to tell whether we were beyond the city limits and in another town or still stuck in India’s chaotic capital. Nothing can prepare you for travel in India no matter how well-travelled you are. The sight of an old holy man taking a dump in the middle of a busy dual carriage way as cars, cows, mopeds, oxen and carts swerved to avoid him will stick in the mind for a long time.
As if that were not enough to then see a one-legged man squatting using his crutch as a support while carrying out his ablutions by the roadside completely oblivious to the roar of traffic around him boggles the mind. In retrospect though it’s genius, because who in their right minds is going to hit someone having a crap! No-one would want the ensuing mess on their windscreen or worse for example if they were on a moped. It’s a 100% safe way to have a dump in a public space, as primarily you are considered totally mad so no-one comes near you and secondly no-one comes near you anyway because you are having a crap. Only in India!
Apart from the amusing roadside shenanigans the countryside between Delhi and Agra is fairly uninspiring and as the heat of the day strengthened we all began to drift slowly in and out of a heat induced sleep, dreaming of Rajput princes and Mughal rulers in foreign lands. Lunch came and went consisting of vegetarian samosas and various Indian snacks and after yet another 40 winks I woke to listen to the facts being relaid to me by Dillip, our Indian guide, about the startling facts associated with Agra.
Agra evidently is one of the most violent cities in India where many people carry guns or worse, the permits are easily obtainable by a series of bribes to local police and due to frequent power cuts it is not advisable to go wandering off down the many badly lit side streets at night. So armed only in our case with this precautionary tale we stepped off the coach at the Tomb of Akbar the Great somewhere amid the outskirts of Agra.
The tomb at Sikandra in Agra was in total contrast to all the horror stories of earlier in the day, a peaceful beautiful almost serene oasis set amidst wondrous gardens and a menagerie backdrop of desert antelope, monkeys, chipmunks and peacock. The final resting place of Akbar is laid out in a classic charbagh garden style complex aligned with the points of the compass and surrounded by walls. Broad paved avenues with water channels represent the four rivers of paradise in its grounds.
As ever, all is not what it seems in paradise and a series of nesting wasp colonies had to be negotiated if an unscheduled visit to the hospital was to be avoided. Skilfully avoiding any contact with the before mentioned wasps we spent some quality time wondering aimlessly around the vast comple basking in its beauty and grandeur. We indulged in the tourist pastime of talking into the whispering archways where your voice can be heard by someone else at the other end of the arch, even at incredibly inaudible levels. Was this an architectural fluke or a design brief from the off, no one knows for sure another yet another tale lost in the mists of Indian time.
All too soon we had to leave this beautiful setting and head off towards the chaos of town and on to our next port of call the 5 – star Clarks Shiraz hotel. Not in itself an architectural wonder in any way shape or form and certainly not benefiting from any Indo-Mughal influences but it did have the bonus of a well stocked bar and air-con. Tomorrow we would awake before dawn as we had a date with the most famous image of India, the day everyone had been looking forward to, the visit to the unique and iconic Taj Mahal.