As the home of the Taj Mahal, Agra is a must for the tourist. I had expected the absolute worst, but it actually turned out not to be so bad. Perhaps I was so experienced at that point that nothing would surprise me, but I do think that it was fairly easygoing. Agra is an industrial city and the air was very noticeably bad, but for one day it's not that big an issue.
Of course, the night we arrived, there was incredibly loud music booming up from the street. It was so loud, in fact, that the room shook. I had thoughts of being up all night, and went downstairs to see what it was. It turned out to be a wedding, and I rushed to get my camera. It was a traditional wedding, with the groom on a white horse. He was surrounded by a party with florescent lanterns, and a canopy with brightly-colored, mandala-shaped lights. It could have been Agra, but it also could have been Las Vegas.
I snapped away, thinking that it was light enough, and my camera happily let me do it. "R.T.F.M.," we say in my profession, and one of these days, though, I'm going to have to read the manual. I should have used a flash, and I deserve every kick that I'm giving myself, because the only picture I have to show is a verbal one. In any case, the wedding procession was moving a few feet at a time, and with any luck, by bedtime they'd be long gone.
The next morning we set out at 6:30 to see the Taj Mahal. Not only is the Taj beautiful in the first light, there's the extra advantage that no one else is there yet. It becomes a nut house by afternoon. The Taj is a national treasure, and they have some of the most stringent security I've seen. I was patted down and searched pretty carefully, as was everyone else waiting to get in. I was told that during the war with Pakistan the whole Taj Mahal was covered up, in case Pakistan did the unthinkable. The Pakistanis must have maps, and it's unlikely they would attack a Muslim monument, but it would be very interesting to see how they covered up the building.
The Taj Mahal is a beautiful piece of work, and it deserves all the praise it gets. Though it's big it's very graceful, and the workmanship is utterly amazing. We had to take our shoes off to walk around the building, and the cold, smooth marble floor on bare feet added to the creamy feeling it exudes. Perhaps this is a philistine thought, but there's so much that you can look at it and there are only so many pictures you can take. I overheard a lot of tourists who said they were going to stay all day, and I'm not sure I really get it.
The people were a spectacle in themselves, and a part of the Taj experience. There were tourists from all over. My favorites were two guys in their early twenties, looking cool in brown polyester suits from the 70's, but it was a full mix of people. Everyone wanted to have a photo of themselves in front of the Taj, and all taste went completely out the window. There was a roaming photographer who put people up on a bench with one arm in the air. Through the magic of perspective, the finished photo looks like they have their hand on the dome. I actually thought that was pretty clever.
A few hours at the Taj was enough. We had some lunch, and then set out to look at the rest of Agra. We had hired bicycle rickshaws for the day. Though we didn't have a lot of time left in Agra, we were overloaded from 2 1/2 weeks of going from sight to sight, and decided that we would take it easy. If there was something we wouldn't see, then we wouldn't see it.
Agra Fort was a must, in any case. Today, Agra is the Taj Mahal, but the Taj Mahal is in Agra because it was the Mughal capital. In earlier times it was the site of a Rajput fort called Badalgarh (which is now probably under Agra Fort.) The town was then taken by the Lodi (Afghans) until they were deposed by the Mughals. The fort itself was begun by Akbar, and continued by his descendents.
We hired a guide and took the full tour. He had a lot of interesting information, some fanciful assertions, and a few issues to boot. Tour guides are helpful, but you always need to take them with a grain of salt. I found myself arguing (fruitlessly) with one guide, for instance, that the Mughals weren't from Mongolia. But if these guys were historians they wouldn't be hawking their services at the front gate. Their job is to make the public happy, even if it means concocting a local legend or two.
Interesting fact: the holes in the wall of the fort were for pouring boiling oil on approaching enemies. This I liked at home I always put the kettle on for company. He put particular emphasis on the royal concubines, since that sort of thing usually plays well. The issues came up with Aurangzeb, who imprisoned his father, Shah Jahan, for blowing out the treasury on the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb was an all-around tough customer, so locking up his father and then poisoning him wasn't out of character.
No Hindu child would do that to his father, said the guide. I'm sorry, but where politics are involved, anyone will do anything to anyone. I discounted the remark, but the attitude was what interested me. It turned out that our guide was a Sikh, and after the communal violence he had cut his hair and shaven his beard in an attempt to blend in. Still a little nervous, I suppose.
Actually, one thing this man did was unexpectedly nice. To get a shot without tourists in it, I often have to wait forever for them to leave, and then try snap something as quickly as possible before the next bunch comes along. He saw me doing this, walked up to the people I was waiting for, and asked them if they wouldn't mind moving for a minute. They did! Sometimes life can be very easy.
Our next (and last) stop was Itimad-ud-Daulah a famous tomb, and a building thought to be a precursor of the Taj Mahal. We had suddenly run out of tourism, and everyone agreed to be in, around and out in 20 minutes. It's a beautiful building, and it was quiet, since everyone else in the whole world was running around at the Taj Mahal. We met a few school kids and a group of Indian tourists, and that was it. One of the tourists insisted on having his picture taken with us, especially the blond, young woman in the group. He posed with her in one arm, his mobile phone in the other very clever. That's as close as he'll get to playing James Bond..
At this point we had absolutely had it, and all we wanted to do before catching the train to Delhi was nothing absolutely nothing. On the way back, I thought it was really nice that the rickshaw driver didn't try take us to any of the shops, a good end to a somewhat stressful holiday. I was grateful, and thought I'd give him a huge tip for being such a gentleman. I reasoned that if this happened enough times, people would get the idea that there were other ways of making money.
As we got near the hotel, though, the driver mentioned that he knew a nice place to go shopping. I told him I was exhausted, and then explained my scheme. I think he understood, but it still made him nervous. I went over it with him: he had half a day free, and could find other customers (paid twice), plus double his money. Whatever the shopkeeper didn't give him he'd get from me, and more.
He changed his approach. This time he begged us to please go in for just one minute, as a favor to him. In the end we had to refuse outright. With a big tip in his hand, he still walked away unhappy. But who knows, the seeds of a kinder, gentler capitalism may have been planted on that day. Probably not.