(For part I of this travelogue, click here).
The next morning, we’d planned to go as early as possible to the Taj. This, given that the LO eats in a very leisurely style, meant that we eventually ended up leaving the hotel by around 8.30. It was a little cloudy at the time, but nothing, we thought, that might be a problem.
You can use fossil fuel transport till only outside a kilometre of the Taj; so our Ola taxi dropped us off, and we set off on foot, pursued hotly all the way by guides offering their services. We managed to fob them all off (we’ve been here several times before, and given that I did a lot of research on the Taj and Agra in general for my book Engraved in Stone, I do know a fair bit), and bought our tickets (Rs 200 per adult Indian if you want to go inside the mausoleum; Rs 50 if you’re content to see everything else but not enter the mausoleum).
Security, of course, is quite stringent, and this was where we ran up against an obstacle.
For the Agra trip, the LO had brought along a prized possession, a plastic tiara. This she insisted on wearing, in the fond belief that Mumtaz Mahal deserved a visit from someone dolled up like a maharani (never mind that the tiara didn’t quite match with the jeans, T-shirt, and Crocs the LO was clad in).
Unfortunately, this jazzy silver-and-mauve tiara caused a problem: the guards at security wouldn’t let it through. Eventually, we had to leave it in the cloakroom, where the attendant used a washable marker to write an N on the inside before storing it on a shelf. The LO was very indignant: why was her tiara just kept any old how? Worse, why did that man write on it? Worst, why did he write an N on it? ‘My name doesn’t begin with an N!’
I suggested, jokingly, that the attendant had perhaps mistaken her for Noorjahan? And that he was really impressed that Noorjahan had come to see her niece’s resting place? The LO thought this was quite amusing, so that helped defuse the situation.
By the time we got to the huge platform on which the Taj sits, the first drops of rain began to come down, and even though we raced into the mausoleum, we got pretty wet. Once inside, we took a brief while to admire the beauty of the carving and the parchinkari, then made our way towards the exit—only to find that it was pouring now, and so everybody already inside the mausoleum had stayed inside. For the next half hour or so, all of us were in there, packed like sardines and unable to step out.
Once the rain ebbed to a drizzle, we went out, to see the Mehmaan Khaana (the ‘guest house’, meant to house visitors to the tomb) and the Masjid, its mirror image, both exquisitely decorated in red sandstone and white paint. I had been explaining various aspects of the Taj, its construction and in particular its symmetry, to the LO: how every bit of not just the mausoleum but the complex itself is mirrored somewhere else. While her parents took photos, the LO convinced herself that no, it wasn’t all symmetrical. Just because she couldn’t see a certain minaret, a little architectural detail, from her vantage point, she figured that meant it didn’t exist.
We paid a brief visit to the small and very dingy Taj Museum (within the garden of the Taj, housed in the Jal Mahal). This one has some interesting depictions of the Taj, specimens of the semi-precious stones used in its construction (along with details of where they were brought from), and miscellaneous Mughal artefacts. Most interesting, though, were the farmaans and other documents pertaining to the purchase of land and the construction of the Taj Mahal itself: fascinating.
After our hectic (and wet) jaunt to the Taj, we took time off to go back to the hotel, bathe, rest a bit, and have lunch, before we set off for Agra Fort. Agra Fort, down the river and not very far from the Taj, has a long history to it: it had been around for quite a while before Akbar built some palaces here. Jahangir did, too; but it was Shahjahan who left the greatest mark, replacing many of the former structures with his own, constructed in his trademark white marble.
This part of the fort, built around a square central garden named Angoori Bagh, is somewhat reminiscent of the palaces at Delhi’s Red Fort (which, the LO reminded me with a little impatience, I had yet to take her to visit). There is the Shah Burj (or Musamman Burj), where the Emperor would give his subjects a daily darshan; this spot was also where, earlier, Jahangir had had suspended the zanjeer-e-adl, the ‘chain of justice’, which anybody with a petition was allowed to pull in order to alert the Emperor to their woes.
There’s the Diwan-e-Khaas, the Hall of Private Audience, and the Emperor’s own apartments, the Khaas Mahal. When Aurangzeb deposed Shahjahan and imprisoned him in the Agra Fort for the rest of his life, it’s said that Shahjahan would look out from here, across the intervening stretch, towards the Taj Mahal, which can be seen pretty clearly from here.
After admiring the lovely Nagina Masjid (the mosque for the ladies of the zenana) and the impressive Diwan-e-Aam (the Hall of Public Audience), with its rows of cusped arches, so much a replica of the same hall at the Red Fort…
… we made our way to the older part of the fort, the Jahangiri Mahal. This is all predominantly red sandstone, beautifully carved in a style that always reminds me of pre-Islamic Indian architecture: this could well be a temple!
Little remains of what Akbar and Jahangir built here, and what there is, is somewhat dusty and dingy, but it’s beautiful, nonetheless.
When we emerged, we stopped for a while at Jahangir’s Bathtub, which stands in front of the gate. The LO was thoroughly intrigued, as well as amused. ‘A giant teacup’ was what she named it, and wondered why Jahangir needed to have his bath in something so large.
We were very hot by this time (‘I want a cold drink 10 kilometres long!’ said the LO), so we returned to the hotel and treated ourselves to some fizzy drinks. The LO, allowed to have Coke, was in seventh heaven; she guzzled her drink, munched on masala peanuts, and generally enjoyed herself. Her drink over, she realized it was almost time for the evening round of kiddie fun at the Trident: a magic show, a puppet show, and a pottery class. Shepherded by her father, she managed to attend all of these, and liked the magic show in particular ‘because the man first showed us the tricks, and then he explained how he did them!’
The next day, we had planned to set off for home, but with some stops along the way. First of all, we’d stop at Devi Ram, an iconic sweet shop, to buy laddoos to take home for family. I had also heard that Devi Ram made a mean aloo-bedai (bedai is Agra’s version of Delhi’s bedmi, a crisp kachori-like puri filled with a lightly spiced mixture), and this I was eager to sample. After Devi Ram, we’d stop first at Sikandra to see Akbar’s tomb; and then on to the Radha Swami Temple, which my father had recommended for the beauty of its shell inlay (the temple had been in the process of construction for 50 years when my father studied in Agra’s St John’s College, back in the late 1950s).
Breakfast at the Trident, besides the usual buffet, that day offered aloo-bedai, and so divine that we stuffed ourselves on it (the LO, chilli wimp that she is, refused to touch it with a barge pole, even though it wasn’t hot at all). We ate so much that by the time we reached Devi Ram, we couldn’t think of eating any more aloo-bedai.
The road to Sikandra goes past St John’s College. This, at first glance, looks more like a Mughal palace than anything else: all domed chhatris etc in red sandstone (it was designed by the famous architect Swinton Jacob, who had a penchant for the Indo-Saracenic style). There’s a long-standing story that back in the days before Google Maps and other easily obtainable travel guides, wily rickshaw-wallahs, instead of pedaling all the long way to Sikandra, would point this out to unwitting tourists as Sikandra!
Both of the LO’s grandfathers are St John’s alumni, so she was interested in this building. She couldn’t, at first, believe that it was British-built, and then was indignant: why was something built by the British still around? The British had been such tyrants in India? I treated her to a brief insight about the advantages of British rule in India, and left it at that.
Because we were going past the Institute of Mental Health and I had told her to ‘behave yourself, or they’ll spot you and drag you off’. So, naturally, the LO had to suddenly go all bonkers and start throwing her arms and legs around and screeching like a banshee. Much to her disappointment, the Agre ka paagal khana looked all too prosaic, and no alarm bells rang when a car with an obviously nutty child in it went past.
Sikandra, named for Sikandar Lodhi (who had shifted base from Delhi to Agra in order to better carry out his campaigns to capture Gwalior) is where Akbar has his tomb. From the gateway itself—a gorgeously intricate celebration of parchinkari—you can see that Akbar, like his grandson, was no mean aesthete. He had begun this tomb, and his son Jahangir finished it after Akbar’s death, but the similarities to other Akbar-era structures, especially Fatehpur Sikri, is unmistakable.
The walk from the gate to the rauza (the mausoleum) is fairly long, and the extensive parkland on both sides, dotted with trees, is home to a herd of black buck, the descendants of a single pair introduced by the British.
The LO looked unimpressed, but she perked up a bit when we stepped into the ‘vestibule’, so to say, of the rauza: the painted ceiling here is exquisite.
From here, a sloping corridor, very dim and drab, leads down into a large, echoing chamber with Akbar’s cenotaph—plain white marble, almost completely unadorned—in the middle.
This the LO didn’t like; the dark, the gloom and the general lack of pretty decorations was not her style at all, and she was more than happy to go back up and out, into the light. We briefly entered a pretty little chamber next door to examine two other sarcophagi, of Akbar’s daughters, and then we went on a tour of the arched corridor surrounding the rauza. This has some interesting acoustics, including the popular one (I’ve seen this in countless forts and palaces across India) where, if you whisper in one corner of a chamber, it can be clearly heard at the opposite end by anyone pressing their ear to the wall. The LO loved this. It was so exciting, she kept running from one corner to another, trying to get her parents to hear her whispers.
On our way back to the car park, we also stopped briefly at the Kaanch Mahal, another lovely building (lots of beautiful parchinkari and carving) that stands at an angle to the main gate of the tomb. Kaanch Mahal was once used as a hunting lodge by Jahangir.
By this time, the LO (and we, I must admit) were really hot and really thirsty. It was late, too, past noon; so we dropped the idea of visiting the Radha Swami Temple. Instead, we got onto the Yamuna Expressway, bought ourselves some cold drinks, and headed back home.
‘Can we go to Bhubaneswar next? There’s a Trident there,’ the LO said.