The Moment We’ve All Been Waiting For

There’s nowt like sipping a freezing cold Kingfisher on a roof terrace whilst gawping at the Taj Mahal. I believe beer is essential fuel when preparing oneself to do battle with the endless touts wanting you to change money or book a bus ticket, auto and cycle rickshaw drivers persistently offering you the services of their “Indian helicopter” despite the fact you’re only going 500 metres up the road, shopkeepers asking you to “Have a look, just have a look, ma’am!” and restaurant owners promising you the best food in India. Agra is fucking hard work!

Being in Agra basically means photographing the Taj Mahal from every conceivable angle. There’s a nature walk you can do which is a park with some good views (₹100 park entry for us foreign types) and it’s a welcome break from the constant hassle of Agra. Or for a ₹250 round trip in an auto plus ₹100 park entry you can go to Metab Bagh which is where most folks go to watch the sunset. You can even photograph it from an epic distance from Agra Fort should you be wielding a camera with one of those fancy zoom lenses that are longer than a Meat Loaf lyric sheet and would double as a handy weapon should you be attacked by a tiger or a small child trying to sell you some pens.

Cheeky little panorama of the Taj from Metab Bagh

But anyway. Once again on Monday morning I found myself shuffling through the streets at an hour even the sparrows would cringe at if someone suggested they should probably be awake and functioning by then. I’d already bought a ticket the previous night so I wandered to Shilpgram which is where the East Gate ticket office is to have my free shoe covers and bottle of water thrown vaguely in my direction in typical Indian fashion before I continued to the gate itself to join a queue whilst repeating, “No thanks, I don’t want a guide. Or a rickshaw. Or a guide. Or a tiny, soapstone Taj Mahal. Or a guide. Or a rickshaw. Or a postcard. Or a guide.”

At 6.30am they started letting us in, men and women have to queue separately and they’ll scan and search your bag for shit you’re not allowed to take in such as torches, tobacco, nuclear weapons and the like. Then you’re in and it’s a mad dash to join the bundle of people stood at the end of the reflecting pool brandishing phones and cameras, jostling for their turn to take The Shot. Y’know, that one your mates are expecting to see uploaded to Facebook. Only then can you take a step back and appreciate it, take in the view, forget about the hordes surrounding the monument and realise that no photo will ever do this work of art justice.

The postcard shot, achievable with an early start and liberal use of elbows whilst waiting your turn

Most people know that the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died whilst spawning their 14th sprog. He was genuinely devastated, he spent his days pretty much constantly in mourning and this beautiful mausoleum crafted from white marble is testament to this. He’s buried there too, now. His cenotaph is bigger than hers but they both lie on their sides underground, beneath the decorative cenotaphs in crypts as is common in Islam, facing Mecca. And the thing I love most about Mughal architecture? The fucking symmetry! God I love it when shit matches because I’m an anal little shit like that. He had a mosque built then had a jawab (which means answer) built on the other side, purely for the symmetry. The mosque is more ornately decorated inside and out and the jawab, also known as Mehman Khana, was used as a guesthouse back in the day but still. That’s like building a shed in your garden to keep your lawnmower dry in then building an identical shed on the other side to scratch an OCD itch and housing the cat in it to prove it wasn’t a waste of money after all.

The mosque, and there’s an identical building across the way literally only built to match it.

And those minarets? Purely decorative, made from red sandstone and covered with white marble blocks, the joins of which are filled with black stone. They lean imperceptibly outwards, maybe so if one fell it wouldn’t fall into the Taj. And the mausoleum itself, set atop a marble plinth, with passages from the Qur’an carved into the doorway, the calligraphy on the outside telling of divine forgiveness and within the mausoleum, the pleasures of paradise. The detail is epic. The pierta dura consists of precious stones from around the world. It’s incredible. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of putting a load of Taj into my eyeholes. It’s such a pretty building and no, he didn’t have the craftsman killed or maimed to stop them from building anything as stunning ever again. There are monuments built since the Taj that bear the hallmarks of the same craftsman that worked on India’s most famous landmark.

Lots of people. Always lots and lots of people.

Anyway. If you keep hold of your Taj Mahal ticket you can get slightly discounted entry into other places around the city including Agra Fort so I had a wander up that way, pausing to purchase a really shit gift for Tarrant because would wouldn’t want a tiny, Taj Mahal snow globe keyring to impress… well… probably no one with?
I decided not to bother forking out for an audio guide for this one because I figure if you’ve seen one massive, red fort you’ve seen them all, right? So basically this meant I had no fucking idea what I was looking at. Not an inkling. I have no idea what half the rooms were and I don’t have a fucking clue why there’s a fuck off great big hole in the courtyard. Its not railed off either. In the west, if someone fell into an un-railed hole they could sue the shit out of the venue. In India they’ll probably just ask you what you were doing so close to the fucking hole in the first place.

A bit of that famous pierta dura detail.

But I did overhear a guide telling her group that the walls in one particular room which was for the women of the court were hollow to allow for pipes containing hot water to heat the room. This resulted in a bunch of tourists slapping the walls to hear the hollowness. She didn’t mention why heating would be required in a city with daytime temperatures hot enough to melt steel. I also know it’s a Mughal structure but it’s on an ancient site which used to be home to a brick fort. When Akbar moved his capital to Delhi, he saw this ruined brick place and built his massive red sandstone fort on the same site. I also knew that my brain had turned to mush inside my skull and that I needed to seek shade so I headed for a tree where I met a French couple, Alex and Laurie, who I just chilled with for an hour, feeding the squirrels and just taking time out from the heat.

Red Fort, Agra

Well I’d heard tell (ok ok, I read it in the Lonely Planet) that if you walked down to the river you could probably get a boatman to take you out to watch the sun set. They were keen for this idea too so we met up later along with a bloke called Tito to see what the go was. The LP says maybe don’t wander down here on your own which is fair enough. Tito had been told by a policeman he’d asked that you couldn’t get out on a boat and this is almost true. You can’t cross the river, at least tourists can’t. There’s one guy on a wooden boat which doesn’t look like staying afloat is on its list of things to do today and he ferries Indians from the north bank, the same side as Metab Bagh, over to the south bank which is where we were standing, wondering if we should see what he said or just get a rickshaw over to Metab Bagh to join the people on the other side waiting for sunset.

I reckon this is better than the postcard shot, but I’m really rather fond of sunsets.

Turns out the boatman does this shit all the time. He waved us over and told us he couldn’t take us across but he could take us out to the middle for some good photos, and all for ₹100 each, a price he wouldn’t budge on. He told us to wait for the sun to get lower whilst he bailed some water out of the boat (comforting) then when the time came he did indeed row us out and angled the boat for the perfect photo. Shah Jahan chose this spot to build the Taj on account of a bend in the Yamuna River (he didn’t have it diverted as one myth states) where the water was still and calm. It was lovely, really worth it. The reflections are near perfect, it’s a lot quieter than Metab Bagh and there’s nothing like floating on yet another Hindu holy river, watching the fiery sky ball sink as you enjoy the sight of what really is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

Our boatman and his floating collection of nailed together wood.

And in other news, Agra is the first place since I got to India where I’ve properly been savaged by mosquitoes thus resulting in the usual skinning of my own legs and feet as I claw at itchy welts of insect spit. To be honest I was getting a bit of a complex, I was beginning to think they didn’t like me any more. I was this far from finding the nearest body of stagnant water, stripping naked and shouting, “What’s wrong with my blood, hey? WHAT’S FUCKING WRONG WITH IT?!?” Clearly, now they’ve decided they want my sticky, red goodness in their faceholes I’m fending them off with all manner of chemicals. That’s more like it. It’s not proper travelling unless you’re full of bite holes and reek of DEET is it.

Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India
Stayed at: Zostel Agra

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