Look where we were!
Today we drove from Delhi to Agra, about five hours. We dropped our bags at Parador (where we received welcome tea served in a light bulb!) then it was straight back in the car for a tour of Agra Fort.
|Light Bulb Glass|
I think I was a little put off by forts after Aguada, as it had been very hot and crowded. Today was also hot and quite crowded, but the fort could more than accommodate. The outside walls gave away nothing of the surprise inside.
|This impressive moat was once filled with crocodiles and other wild animals.|
|Amar Singh Gate|
Main Public Gate
The Indian military take up about two-thirds of the fort, leaving a smaller portion open to the public who enter through the Amar Singh Gate. In olden days, beautiful women would throw petals on visitors from either side of the entrance tunnel, whilst a musician played beneath. Once inside, you come to the Elephant Gate, so named because it looks like the hind legs of an Elephant.
It was once painted with precious stones, but much of it has been pilfered or decayed over the years. Apparently, paint made from crushed precious stones such as rubies, sapphires and emeralds, doesn't fade with time, which is why what remains still looks good. The portion of the fort that is open to the public is still vast, and the architecture is incredible.
|The Wind Palace|
Where the king would entertain in the evenings to catch the cool breeze.
I think my favourite part was the Muasamman Burj, which our guide called the Jasmine Palace. It's small and absolutely beautiful, but hides a dark legend. It's said that Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in honour of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, was imprisoned there by their son Aurangzeb in a hungry power grab. He eventually died there, overlooking the Taj Mahal, where he would eventually be buried alongside his wife.
I really did enjoy our trip to Agra Fort, perhaps because it was so unexpected in its breadth and beauty. I was expecting to be impressed by the Taj Mahal, but I didn't know anything about Agra Fort or its history. It really showed the transition of architecture over the ages. The ancient Mughal forts were all built from red sandstone. Shah Jahan much preferred white marble, so started introducing it into his buildings, such as Agra Fort. His final triumph, the Taj Mahal, was built entirely of white marble.
That's where we went next. I tried to smuggle Percy in, but security is extremely tight and anything that isn't a camera or a purse has to stay behind. He was effectively held hostage! We had to pay a ransom to the security guard on the way out to get him back!
He wasn't the only one waiting outside. There were a couple of friends to be made...
The Taj Mahal is a perfectly symmetrical building, apparently. Not a brick out of place. Shah Jahan built it in honour of his wife Arjumand Banu, on whom he bestowed the name Mumtaz Mahal (the Exalted One of the Palace). Taj might even be an abbreviation of Mumtaz. He paid such excruciating exactitude to the symmetry of the building that it's bitterly ironic his own coffin was placed next to his wife's, making it the only non-symmetrical part. There is a legend which our guide told as truth, that the Shah's original idea was to build a second mahal (palace) on the opposite side of the river for himself. It was going to be carved from black marble and connected to his wife by a bridge. Unfortunately, his son was not willing to follow through on that idea - the son who imprisoned him in the Jasmine Tower until his death. Archaeologists seem to think that the remnants of marble found across the river were actually part of a pool which reflected back the image of the Taj, again for symmetry.
There are eleven cones on this side of the gate, and eleven on the back, denoting the twenty-two years it took to build the Taj. Inside, there are fifty-three fountains and sixteen gardens, representing the date of completion: 1653. Everything in our pictures is a bit hazy because there was quite a lot of mist that day. Apparently, if you're there on a completely clear day, the Taj changes colour throughout the sun's cycle because the quality of the marble is so fine that it reflects back the rays - or something to that effect.
The thing people don't tell you about the Taj is that it's incredibly, incredibly busy. If you're expecting a nice, serene view and time to contemplate it, you're sorely mistaken. It's absolutely worth booking a tour there rather than just turning up. If you go with a tour, you get VIP access up the steps and around the complex. As difficult as it is for a Brit to accept queue jumping, on this occasion, I welcomed it. The standard queue goes on forever, standing in a stagnant line up several flights of steps.
There's also a seat that Princess Diana once sat on and people queue for hours to get a picture of themselves sitting on it. Then there's the obligatory 'I'm a little teapot' stance, which every tour guide seems to cherish. You see people standing on benches everywhere you go, doing this:
I had no idea why until I saw the picture. Dad's came out best. I went for a more traditional pose, but our guide was insistent that I put on his shades for one last clever capture.
Everyone always takes a picture down the fountains to the Taj, but have you ever wondered what you would see if you pointed your camera the other way?
The Taj is really incredible inside. Carved entirely from white marble with precious stones used as inlay: jade, onyx, malachite and more. One of the Shah's favourite stones was carnelian. We saw a demonstration where one of the guides pushed a torch against the stone. In the interior darkness, the carnelian glowed like fire.
There were so many tricks of geometry woven into the building. For instance, the calligraphy running up the sides of the walls grows ever so subtly larger the higher it reaches, to give the impression to someone on the ground that the writing is all the same size - otherwise it would grow smaller the higher it went.
This pillar is also an incredible optical illusion. When you look at it from a distance, you'd swear it has six sides. Then count the ledge further up - only four. The zigzags confuse the eye.
Safety was also a factor in the design of the building. Although the four towers surrounding the Taj look like they're straight, close-up they're built at a very slight angle away from the palace. This was in case of earthquakes. The architect wanted them to fall backwards, away from the Taj. It was easier to rebuilt towers than an entire palace.
We took our leave via a view of the North Gate. It had been a really long day driving from Delhi and then going round the fort and the Taj Mahal. A really incredible experience, but we were in need of rest. We headed back to our hotel and decided to wander out in search of food. Agra isn't like Delhi, at least, our part wasn't. The hotel felt a bit remote and nothing looked to be within easy walking distance. We got partway down the road when a really aggressive tuk-tuk driver pulled over. He just wouldn't take no for an answer. He was so persistent that we ended up turning around and fleeing back to the hotel - and he reversed up the street after us!
We ducked into a downstairs room with a sign saying food and beer. It turned out to be an incredible restaurant called Bon Barbecue. You know it's going to be a good night when the waiter presents a small yang-shaped dish with a white dot in the middle, adds water and your napkin suddenly unfolds before your very eyes. The food came as shish kebabs over a mini fire pit in the centre of the table. They just kept bringing it until we only had room left for dessert. Everything was delicious. A truly wonderful meal.
We had to poke our heads out the door before running upstairs to our rooms - just to check the tuk-tuk driver had gone!