15/10/09 - 14/10/10
One can’t see everything and I had to make the decision to cut Khajuraho and its fascinating ‘Kama Sutra’ temples and Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, from my list. I am heading west to Rajasthan and they are both in the opposite direction. There is one place, however, that I would never miss and that is Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.
I took another night train, twelve hours, to Agra. Being woken up at 5.00AM by people talking, singing, playing music on their mobiles and <em>Chai-wallahs </em>shouting at the top of their voices, was very annoying especially since I’d had a bad night sleep courtesy of four nails poking out of the wall one end of my bunk and into my feet.
Our arrival into Agra and its outskirts was heralded by defecators lining either side of the train tracks. It is very curious that the strict modesty code does not reach toilet habits and Indians (mainly male) although, apparently, reluctant to be seen naked by their spouses, have no compunction about squatting in full view of the general public.
I had been warned by many people that Agra is filthy so the quiet tree-lined boulevards leading up to Taj Ganj (where Taj Mahal is) came as a pleasant surprise, actually Varanasi is much worse. Exploring Agra I found I liked it, away from the annoying touts and hawkers I found some really lovely market streets where no-one bothered me at all.
After dumping my bags at the hotel, with growing anticipation I raced to the South Gate entrance hoping to miss the huge throngs of people the guide books warn about. I paid my Rs750 (the price for foreigners entrance, compared to Rs20 for Indians), collected my little, white shoe covers, was thoroughly frisked and searched and I was in – no queue at all. I held my breath for my first view of probably the most famous and arguably most beautiful building (sarcophagus) in the world.
The Taj does not disappoint. I overheard an American say to his wife “Now I can die happy, knowing I’ve seen the Taj Mahal.” I understood what he meant, it being a big tick off my list.
Perfectly symmetrical from all sides and exquisitely beautiful and intricate, it <em>is</em> awe inspiring. I am sure anyone who has ever seen it could never forget just how stunning it is. I spent time just sitting in the shade, looking at it and wandering around the grounds soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. Apart from the magnificence, it has to be the cleanest place in all India. Certainly one of the few places that actually has bins - I was quite distracted by them almost stopping to take photos of these strange installations.
My favourite view of the Taj was at sunset. I went down by the river and watched the sun sink behind it, turning the sky orange and pink and silhouetting the domes and minarets perfectly. Far from being a dirty, hectic cess-pit for me Agra and the Taj Mahal has been one of the most serene places I have visited.