We woke before sunrise and did not partake of breakfast such was our wont to reach our destination. And what a destination it was! For many this was ‘the reason‘ for travelling to India, for others it was ‘the photo opportunity of a lifetime’ not to be missed. I felt myself already beginning to regret those extra ‘Kingfisher’ beers consumed on the hotel rooftop terrace the night before. Sensible people had hit the sack well before 10.00 pm, but not myself and my (not-so-sensible-either), brother-in-law, no we knew better, we needed beer and plenty of it. Now deeply regretting the previous nights stupidity I stood swaying gently from side to side in a queue beneath the early light of morning, waiting for the great gates to open to let us in to the gardens of the Taj Mahal.
The Taj – oh the Taj, the 8th Wonder of the World, the memorial to Shah Jahan’s great love Mumtaz Mahal. Seen a hundred times before on television, in films and in photos and now we were here to see it for ourselves.
The gates were large and old, hewn from solid oak – I would guess. Slowly they began to open, creaking and moaning resisting the guards vain attempts to force them apart for us. The whole setting was reminiscent of one of the scenes in ‘King Kong’ when the giant gates are opened and Kong is revealed for the first time. Monkeys contunually jumped across the roofs of the watchtowers and an unexpected herd of camels were rushed past us by their owners at breakneck speed. The whole scene was becoming quite surreal.
Finally we made it past the over zealous security at the gate and entered the outer walled gardens for the first time, yet still we were not able to see the Taj. Was it really here or was this just some elaborate hoax by the Indian Tourist board, it was hard to fathom out at this ungodly time of the morning.
Then slowly creeping into view from beneath the archway through which we quietly passed I caught my first glimpse of what many believe to be the most beautiful building in the world, The Taj Mahal!
The sun was just casting its first rays upon the gleaming white minarets slightly glancing the great domed copula of this majestic building. The early morning birds of dawn were swooping about its heights welcoming in the new day. India jewel in the crown sat before us its perfect proportions were there for all to see, the symmetrical gardens and the fountains all neatly laid out in front of it – just as in the many images we had seen. The films did not lie either, nor had the TV programs, or the countless photos seen a trillion times before, the Taj is truly a magnificent piece of architecture and a wonder to behold by all who set eyes upon it!
But the famous Taj is of course in India – lest we forget – and soon enough that precious moment of personal introspection which we were all indulging in was shattered as people jostled and shouted and pushed and shoved their way past us to get their own up close and personal views, personal views it must be pointed out that are shared with hundreds of others in unison.
We fought our way to the first photo point, then the second, then Diana’s chair and so on throughout the morning. You cannot help but wonder what many of these people are really here for. Are they here to see the beauty, to gaze in awe and try to understand the meaning of why this incredible monument was built, or are they just here to tick it off on a to-see-list on some package holiday agenda.
We escaped to the right hand side of the gardens where there were less people, and less recognisable views of the great mausoleum. I can recommend this strategy for anyone who actually wants to sit and admire the Taj away from the crowds and at a distance. From here I got many of my favourite photographs of the building and could afford some time to compose my shots without getting an elbow in my back or in my ribs (or worse) at almost every juncture.
Finally with time to sit and reflect I consumed some of the startling facts and fixtures associated with this amazing building. Below are my favourite numbers: it cost nearly 41 million rupees and 500 kilo’s of gold to build, around 20,000 workers laboured for almost 22 years to complete it, it was completed in 1653, it has 4 minarets (but is not a mosque), each one being 131ft high.
Having thought about these facts we donned the obligatory silly overshoes to walk in and around the actual tomb and carefully began to negotiate the shiny, slippery marble steps up to the platform. Having not broken our necks via this precarious route we gazed out over the Yamuna river which runs behind the complex and across and beyond to Aggra Fort where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son many, many, years ago.
All too soon it was time to leave this wonderous place. On reflection it was actually a good time to leave as scores of tourists now fully awake and fed from their breakfasts began to pour into the gardens like water bursting through a faulty dam. We said our farewells to this beautiful spot in the world and began to run the gauntlet of hawkers and beggars back to our transport parked some distance away.
Some 30 minutes later we were back at the hotel, somewhat hungry, thirsty, and more than ready for some breakfast. But the day was not done, in fact it still had many hours to run due to our insanely early start and Aggra has so many amazing sites, smells and sounds to soak up. So with this in mind we commandeered a Tut-Tut and sped towards Aggra Fort.
Our Tut-Tut driver assured us he was very good and very cheap and would wait for our return from the fort to take us back to our hotel. Riding shotgun with him was a young Slumdog who stared intently at these strange westerners in the back of his friends Tut-Tut. We swerved and braked, and lurched and beeped our way into Aggra arriving eventually at the famous fort itself.
We parted company with our chaperones and ventured towards the imposing Amar Singh Gate at the south of the fort, fully believing we would never see our driver again, left here alone and possibly stranded in the centre of Aggra.
Resigned to this eventuality we gazed forlornly upon the fort for the first time. Built by Akbar between 1565 and 1573 this really is what you call a fort. Massive battlements, monumental towers and giant sandstone ramparts still standing just as they had all those centuries ago, built to ward off any wannabe imposters to the Mughal throne.
Sweating in the queue for an entrance ticket we engaged in a one-sided often comical conversation with a two-toothed official fort guide. “What will you see? You know nothing of the fort! What will you tell people, you came all the way to India and found out nothing! I am guide for 25 years, you, you no nothing!”
As sales patter goes this was pretty basic and pulled no punches, but we stuck to our guns explaining we had been here before and knew everything there was to know about the fort at Aggra. We pressed onward.
The fort is amazing and equally amazingly vast. It is a complex maze of halls, courtyards, galleries and dungeons. A man without a guide could get lost easily, and sure enough it was not long before these men without a guide were lost walking aimlessly round and round in ever decreasing circles, completely and utterly lost.
Sitting in some shade as the sun beat down we rehydrated as best we could and avoided the tetchy subject of being temporarily navigationally challenged. We watched some monkeys at play in the courtyard below as an irate gardener shooed them away with some wierd simeon like attempts at noises. We wandered some more until eventually we decided the heat had won and it would be a good time to embark on the return journey back to the comfort and relative safety of our hotel.
Amazingly our driver was waiting outside, just as he said he would. This travelling around India lark is not too bad we thought to ourselves and so we congratulated each other on our travel savvy knowledge of a foreign land and we plonked ourselves in the rear of the waiting Tut-Tut. Only now did the real travel experience unfold before us as we were bombarded with offers to take us to his brothers, if not his brothers then maybe his uncle’s shops, no, then maybe his friends jewellery abode. Did we want precious stones? Something else maybe? The next 20 minutes were spent refusing offers and declining requests of a reroute taking us around the commercial district of Aggra. Finally and thankfully we drew up outside our hotel. We said our thankyou’s paid quickly and scuttled hot and exhausted into the safe confines of the Clarks Shiraz Hotels’ garden.
Feeling a bit like a couple of brave but beleaguered soldiers of bygone days who had just survived a brush with the crocodiles which used to dwell in the moat surrounding Aggra’s Fort we made hastily for the poolside bar and from there considered ourselves lucky to arrive fairly unscathed from our little jaunt into Aggra.
We joined our ladies around the pool and for the first time since arriving in India behaved like typical holidaymakers. We drank and sun bathed, we ate poolside snacks and became inevitably slightly sunburnt as the intense sun beat down.
Feeling slight heat stroke all too soon I made for the cool darkness of my room after only a couple of hours. I wanted desperately to recover because as the sun was beginning to set over Aggra we still had one more destination to visit on this long and tiring day.
Aggra is a town which possesses incredible monuments of immense beauty but is also a town of immense poverty and deprivation. Along the banks of the Yamuna you see all that is so very sad about India. The poverty on display along the streets could depress even the most hardened traveller. No matter how much of this you see, it never becomes easy on the eye and nor should it, some of the scenes we encountered were straight out of your worst nightmares.
Slowly, as we drew up outside the Baby Taj we knew we would have to battle our way through yet another waiting mass of beggars and street children. Alas in this part of the town they do not even ask for money, they ask merely for shampoo! I wished for the first time that I could help, but of course I was not carrying any shampoo about my person. Who on earth would ever be carrying shampoo – I thought to myself, but then again I had a lot to learn about India and maybe someone somewhere did or had once carried shampoo, which was why they asked for it now. It was a depressing scene and one I will take away from Aggra.
The contrast inside the gardens of the Baby Taj could not be more different from that of the heaving masses outside it. The Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb is a beautiful white marble structure adjourned with beautiful lattice-work and coloured mosaics, it is surrounded by peaceful symmetrical Islamic lawns and water featured walkways, the tomb really is – as described, a “jewel box in marble”.
There we sat in quiet contemplation in one of the many doorways situated on the shady side of the tomb, and together with my brother-in-law set out to find some divine inspiration from above, (or below) for it mattered not which. Around us birds chirped and swooped as dusk approached, and the sun set slowly behind the great Yamuna River running beside us. We had come to the end of a long and eventful day where we had seen many things and learnt even more about this strange and alluring foreign land. Tomorrow was another early start as we would be heading still further into India, our destination – Rajasthan!