Friday, December 23, 2011

A foggy visit to the Taj Mahal

After a great hour at the local market in Khajarahu, we had a long drive to Agra. We were promised a basic but modern hotel with wifi so everyone was in a good mood. We arrived around 6:00, met our fixer Ali and were all off to do our own thing for dinner. Al and Anja popped in to everyone’s rooms to let us all know that the restaurant in the hotel was busy, but we could order room service with no additional charge.

Then the door buzzer began ringing repeatedly as different hotel employees, came by to ask about laundry, dinner etc. I was madly trying to get the wifi to work which was my first priority and Marc was busy in the bathroom, which was his, so the constant disturbance was a reminder that a full service hotel in India is simply one where the hotel employees were looking for a way to get tips. When we first arrived, we had one such employee buzz to show us how the lights worked and then stood in the door for what seemed like hours waiting for Marc to give him a tip!

Ali, had rented tuk tuks for us for the whole day, just like in Varanasi. Our plans were to meet downstairs at 5:15 to jump into our tuk tuks and be at the entrance to the Taj Mahal in time for sunrise. It was unusually cold the next morning but we were all up and ready to go as planned, anticipating a great morning at the Taj. When we arrived though, there was no one there. No one in the ticket booth and no tourists lining up. An elderly local tour guide informed us that the opening hour had changed and the ticket booth would only open at 7:00. Al was immediately on the phone to Ali, who arrived within minutes apologizing profusely for the wrong information. We all found a street vendor and had our morning Masala tea and before we knew it, the sun was up, the ticket booth open, and we were in line to enter the Taj complex. Al apologized for the mix up, to which we all said “no worries Al, cheers!”

One problem. The fog was so thick, we couldn’t see one meter in front of us. The Taj Mahal was out there somewhere but we couldn’t see it! We all took pictures of fog and then went inside to enjoy the interior.

Then we all got back in our tuk tuks and went over to Ali’s home where a wonderful breakfast was waiting for us prepared by his wife and two daughters. We all sat cross-legged on the carpet and enjoyed an eclectic Indian/western breakfast.

Then we were off to a marble factory where we learned about the art of precious stone inlay work, which Agra is famous for.

The masterpieces we saw there were absolutely spectacular. We were not allowed to photograph the actual work, offered for sale, but take my word for it, the work was museum quality. It was the first time so far on the trip, that I really wanted to buy something. The patterns were so intricate and the colour schemes so spectacular that I was beside myself. I was heartbroken not to at least have the chance to photograph the work, since I would not be packing a 40 lb marble elephant or table top with me on an around the world trip. I tried to record as much as I could in my memory. That was just going to have to do.

We had a full day of touring including the Red Fort which was very impressive, a visit to the Jami Masjid Mosque and the adjoining local Bazaar, Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb, or the Baby Taj Mahal as it is affectionately called here and a final opportunity to see the Taj Mahal at sunset. The fog lifted enough by the end of the day to finally see the Jewel in the Crown of India! We stood on the riverbank taking it all in. It was as if the Taj Mahal was floating on a cloud. It would have been great of course to see it clearly at sunrise, but it was truly special to view it from a distance at dusk.

So of course you now know that the photo of me at the top of this post in front of the Taj Mahal, was in fact a photo of me in front of a “photo” of the Taj Mahal, but it was a great experience all the same.

That night we all went to a local Indian restaurant and had a great Indian meal, and said our farewell’s to Agra.

In the morning we took a short ride to Fetehpur Sikri where we were met by a local guide who took us through the Palace built by the Emperor Akbar the Great to house his three wives (one Hindi, one Moslem and one Christian) and hundreds of concubines. An enlightened ruler, he believed that all of the religions had something to offer and created his own religion combining Hindu, Moslem and Christian values. His Palace was decorated in a combination of motifs from all three religions. It was another foggy day, but we managed to get a good look at the Palace before returning to the bus, and the rest of our drive to Jaipur including a local lunch.

An amazing hotel and experience was waiting for us there!
(coming soon!)

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