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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Taj Mahal: Agra

Tuesday | February 10, 2015 | Day 3

Today began in Delhi at the Oberoi where we joined our friends again for breakfast. Ordinarily, breakfast is not a highlight worth recounting in these pages, but today was interesting. For at dinner last night, our waiter, Punjyab, befriended my friend, Bob, in an odd way. Not once, but at least five times, Punjyab insisted that we have breakfast at his table and he promised to arrange a “special breakfast” for us – well really, for Bob. The rest of us arrived first and Punjyab was relatively attentive to me, but he was constantly stealing furtive glances over his left shoulder, anxiously awaiting Bob’s arrival. When Bob and his wife finally made their way to the table, Punjyab’s eyes lit up. He ran over to Bob with rapt concern, offering coffee, juice, water and anything else Bob might desire. Bob expressed interest in “some milk,” but that only led to a panoply of necessarily relevant questions such as: “Hot or cold?” “What temperature?” and others. I suggested that Bob would prefer something between 72 and 74 degrees, but Punjyab was not amused by me.  And then, as the rest of us were giggling, Punjyab pranced over to the table with some “traditional Indian food” for Bob to sample. To his credit, Bob paid close attention and gave Punjyab much more of a reaction than had been the case the night before, perhaps opining that would satisfy Punjyab and dissuade any further interest. But his approach backfired. Instead of being dismissed, Punjyab then promised Bob a plate of wholly different northern Indian foods to sample and he promptly delivered. This time, he brought Bob a long phallic offering, as well as about 5 other foods, and smiled broadly as Bob dug in to all of Punjyab’s treats. Sadly, I had to run up to the room to finish packing, but I can only imagine the good byes and personal information exchange that must have occurred after my departure.

We checked out of our hotel and were off to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The ride was to be a little over four hours, so we all settled in to relax. Fortunately, with so many rows of seats available to us, that is exactly what we did. Most of the ride was on a newly-constructed eight lane highway, but the last hour or so was through local towns, and that is where we experienced the true flavor of rural India.

The land was about as flat as anything I have ever seen – more so than is the case in Kansas, Missouri or Minnesota. For four hours, never did we encounter so much as 3 or 4 degrees of incline or decline. We saw an occasional school or two – large, plain concrete structures that looked almost unfinished, with absolutely no decoration or adornment on the outside. Large protrusions of rebar extended from most every corner of the buildings.

Farming was, of course, the prevalent occupation we observed. Men and women alike grew countless miles of mustard, potatoes and even cotton. Brick factories dotted the landscape as densely as popcorn bags in a movie theater. From each one extended a brick smokestack. Tens of thousands of straw huts along the roadsides housed food storage. Brick walls appeared out of nowhere, cordoning off areas for no apparent reason.

In the cities, and along some of the main thoroughfares, we saw hundreds of armed soldiers, each carrying semi-automatic weapons, stationed sometimes no more than 200 feet apart from one another. Soldiers were encamped behind large mounds of sandbags, designed to give them protection and cover from incoming gunfire.

But in the small towns, we saw an entirely different population – one of stray dogs, pigs, donkeys, camels, oxen and cows roaming freely about. Often, we had to pause to allow one of the massive animals to wander in front of the bus. To the driver, guard and guide, this was no problem at all, but to us, this was a scene out of a Hemingway book. From our windows, we could see into countless shops where people traded goods, had their hair cut, bartered livestock, sampled fresh vegetables, made naan and baked sweets.

Finally, we arrived at Agra where we encountered many fascinating things before we even arrived at the Taj Mahal. Among them where the countless monkeys that adorned the windows of many buildings and swung across telephone wires, also sitting on top of trucks and cars. Fascinating as well was the commercial laundry service – which consisted of about 20 men washing thousands of garments by the river and leaving them to dry on the dirt and rocks.

And finally, we saw wild water buffalo – herds of hundreds of them, freely meandering in and along the river.

Agra is reputed to date back many thousands of years but historical evidence dates it back to only 500 years. It grew into an important cultural and commerce center in around 1500 A.D. Perhaps its most famous resident was Shah Jahan (King of the World), who ruled for about 30 years beginning in 1605. At the time, he was known as the richest man in the world. (At that time, he had as much money as Bill Gates has today.) Although he had three wives, his most beloved wife was Mumtaz Mahal, to whom he was married for 21 years. During the span of those years, Mahal gave birth to 14 children, six of whom lived. She traveled with him to all his battles (as a good luck charm) and, in fact, died during the birth of her last daughter, on June 17, 1631 at the age of 37, while she was on a battlefield. On her deathbed, she implored the Shah to grant her three wishes: 1. that he never remarry; 2. that he take care of her children; 3. that he do something specialto remember her. He never did remarry, and he did something very memorable as she wished – he commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal.

The site of the Taj Mahal is also worth a sentence or two. It was not on any property owned by the Shah. Instead, it was on property owned by a Hindu maharajah.  The actual site is a place where the Shah and his wife began courting when they were only 14 years old.  But in order to obtain that piece of coveted property, the Shaw had to trade 17 palaces for that single special garden.

Of the 6 surviving offspring of Shah Jahan & Mumtaz Mahal, four were boys and two were girls. The youngest boy ended up killing all three of his brothers so he could become the Shah (king). But even then, one thing stood in his way to the throne – his father. So, as a result, he had his father imprisoned for eight years, until his death, in the Agra Fort.

The Agra Fort is where we began. It is surprising that before today, I had never heard of this sensational edifice, even as a history student. The fort is said to have been constructed from 1565 through the next three generations of the Mughal dynasty. Built of red sandstone, it is crescent shaped with the longer side adjacent to the Yamuna river and the other two sides facing the city of Agra. The fort has a circumference of about a mile and a half, and 21 meter high double walls that are fortified with bastions and guarded with a drawbridge over a deep moat which was home to dozens of crocodiles. The detail on the entire building is simply magnificent. Unfortunately, it was looted by the conquering Persians who stripped it of all the gold, silver and jewels.

We saw the many rooms that housed the Shah’s innumerable concubines, the terrace over which one of his tax collectors was thrown to his death (twice) after he murdered the Shah’s chief accountant who had discovered his fraud and self-dealing. We saw the terrace and rooms in which the Shah was held under house arrest by his son for the last eight years of his life. Sunil pointed out to us the way the marble was striated so the horses and elephants would be able to walk on it, how the walls contained sleeves into which oil would be poured in the event of an attack, causing the elephants and horses to slip and slide and not be able to make it up the ramp, how the entrance into the fort was not a straight line, but a series of weaving turns that would confuse an attacker, and not enable an elephant to get up a full head of steam to ram through a door. In all, the Agra Fort is a highly significant and important architectural and historical building that saw more “real action” then the Taj Mahal, which is essentially a mausoleum.

Next, we checked into our hotel, the Oberoi Agra which I would have to rate as one of the three finest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. Not only were the outrageous Indian costumes of the bellmen and lobby staff beyond flamingly sensational, but the view from our suite and balcony was even more impressive. Standing on our marble terrace, we looked down to see a gorgeous turquoise pool, perfectly manicured lawns (the first we saw in India) – and a full-on panorama of one of the world’s most magnificent structures ever built. And the service was beyond responsive; it bordered on premonition, anticipating our every desire even before we did. We unpacked briefly and headed downstairs for a golf cart ride to the Taj.

The Taj Mahal instructed of a very special (Markana) marble that is unique in three ways. First, it is crystallized. Second, it is nonporous, and third, parts of it are translucent. It is such a hard marble that it had to be chiseled using diamond tipped instruments. It is supported by massive amounts of teak and 144 water wells, all of which are designed to prevent the massive structure from sinking into the riverbed. It is believed that nearly 20,000 workers, consisting of laborers, carpenters, craftsman, artists and engineers work incessantly for almost 22 years (1631-1653) to bring this project to a fine fruition. In addition to the spectacular marble, a wide variety of jewels, precious metals and stones like gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires were obtained from China, Burma, Persia, Baghdad and Europe.

When we first arrived at the Taj Mahal, we were ushered through an “Exclusive Guests Only” entrance.

But what was most remarkable at the gate was the incredibly tight security. Not only were we not permitted to bring in the usual offending suspects, weapons, lighters, etc. – but we were prohibited from being in anything that could leave a mark – Chapstick, make up, gum, toothpaste, medicine, pens or pencils. Basically, it was our wallets, our cameras and us.

Sunil set us up with a professional photographer for the duration of our visit of the exterior of the building. This man, whose name we never did learn, was an extraordinary photographer. He had an eye for the light and the right expressions, but most importantly, he knew all the right spots on which to pose us. In fact, there were times when he pressed his luck, monopolizing benches or certain special positions, and screaming at others that they were not allowed to get in his shot. Fortunately, although there were hundreds of people there, there were not thousands of people, as we were told is usually the case. At the end of the day, each couple bought 100 photographs, and the corresponding disk containing those photographs, for only $180 each.

Beyond what I have explained above, there is really not much to say about the Taj Mahal – most of the speaking must be done through photographs and visual representations.

After our visit, Sunil took us to a building where boys are employed to set semi precious stones into marble. The owner/salesman was very slick and we were immediately put off by him. Nevertheless, we were forced to endure a short presentation and sales pitch. I actually did find a few pieces I found attractive, but they were quite small and his asking price of over a thousand dollars each, combined with how tired we were, caused us to leave.

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed cocktails before dinner. Of note, one of my friends had a Grey Goose on ice with olives, even after a discussion about the wisdom of having ice; (the waiter assured her the ice was made from purified water). Dinner was good, but not as extraordinary as the dinners we had at the Oberoi Delhi.


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