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Agra

Started: 2012-06-21 20:16:56

Submitted: 2012-06-21 21:36:17

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator visits the greatest mausoleum in the world

I awoke around 04:00 IST on Saturday morning, 9 June and, despite being tired, slept only fitfully until my phone rang at 05:30 with my wake-up call. I showered, packed my day-bag, and headed down to the restaurant in the lobby for a cup of coffee and a bit of breakfast, though the hot breakfast buffet wasn't yet available. I reported to the travel/concierge desk and got my hard-copy train tickets and met the driver who was to take me to the train station. There are two express trains catering to tourists that travel daily between Delhi and Agra; I opted to travel on the one departing at 07:10 from the Hazrat Nizamuddin train station on the south side of New Delhi to give myself an extra hour of sleep in the morning.

The newly-risen sun, shining with a yellow pallor through the smoke and haze, gave me my first daylight glimpse of Delhi on this trip. Early in the morning the temperature wasn't yet oppressively hot, but showed signs of the heat to come. We drove first through the nearly-empty boulevards of New Delhi before reaching the crowded streets near the train station. My driver pointed out Humayun's Tomb, one of the tombs of the Mughal empire predating the Taj Mahal. We parked at the train station and my driver walked me to the right platform and found the right coach, one of the A/C chair cars used on short day routes. I found my seat, in a coach packed with Indians plus one white woman, and settled in for the three-hour train ride to Agra.

I watched the train station outside the window while waiting for the train to depart, and when the train departed, I watched India roll by. We were on an electrified trunk route connecting Delhi with the rest of the Gangetic plain, and even on a Saturday morning both freight and passenger traffic seemed heavy. As we rolled out of Delhi, I could see residential and industrial developments, mostly two- and three-story houses built of reinforced concrete and brick packed together in tight neighborhoods. These were several steps up from the slums and shanty-towns I passed the night before, but I still saw plenty of life, including one man squatting to relieve himself next to the train tracks. Further outside the city I saw farm fields, mostly fallow at the tail end of the dry season, awaiting the monsoon rains sometime in the next month, scattered with towns and villages and the occasional massive industrial complex. I read the Approach Guides ebook Mughal Architecture in India, which gave me the architectural background of the Taj Mahal and its predecessors and helped prepare me for what I was about to see.

The train arrived in Agra and I disembarked and set out to find the driver who was supposed to be waiting for me. When I asked my hotel for help getting a train ticket I ended up with a package tour that included a driver and guide in Agra at a price that looked absurd in rupees and was high enough to make me wince when converted into US dollars. The Lonely Planet traveler inside me rebelled at the thought of paying that much when I could get a local driver and guide for some small fraction of that price, but the only way I got my last-minute Tatkal-quota ticket was through my hotel's help (which, I presume, involved sending someone to queue for hours at the train station to get the ticket). I learned to stop worrying and embrace my status as a wealthy foreign business traveler (even if I was wearing a t-shirt in the summer heat).

I found my driver waiting at the train station and he whisked me away, in air-conditioned comfort, through the streets of Agra to the Gateway Hotel, a sister property of my hotel, where (after passing the vehicle security gauntlet at the gate and the metal detector at the front door) I met my guide and ate a quick second breakfast before heading to see the main attraction of the morning: the Taj Mahal.

My guide took me to the eastern entrance; he went inside the visitor's center to buy my ticket while I waited in the oversized golf cart that shuttles visitors through the petrol-vehicle exclusion zone that surrounds the Taj in an attempt at keeping the worst ravages of pollution at bay. I went through an efficient security screening at the outer gate for the compound, and once inside the grounds my guide pointed out a few key points while I tried to orient myself. My guide whisked me into the gateway providing the first direct view of the tomb itself, and as I glimpsed the perfect white marble dome through the wide opening of the red sandstone gateway I remembered reading that the Mughals tried to carefully control the views given to visitors of their monuments by surrounding the monuments in walled gardens. I knew I was being manipulated, and I didn't care, because it was simply sublime.

Taj Mahal framed by the meeting hall
Taj Mahal framed by the meeting hall

My guide took my picture, and the obligatory "holding the Taj" photo, and led me down the main axis of the gardens toward the entrance. I saw how the main monument was placed on an elevated base but the stairs leading up were not visible from the front, which seemed to be (according to the architecture book I read on the train) a uniquely-Indian feature of Mughal architecture.

Jaeger at the Taj Mahal
Jaeger at the Taj Mahal
Somewhat-poorly-aimed shot of Jaeger holding the Taj Mahal
Somewhat-poorly-aimed shot of Jaeger holding the Taj Mahal

We ascended to the base of the main building, put on our only-for-foreigner shoe protectors, and joined the throng of barefoot Indian tourists to ascend to the main level and walk around the replica tombs under the main dome. Here the proper serenity of the tomb was shattered by the police whistle to keep the crowd in order, but I was impressed by the intricately-carved screen surrounding the tombs and the fine inlaid marble detail. There was simply too much to see for me to take it in, but I let the building and its intricate details wash over me and enjoyed every minute.

Main entrance of the mausoleum at the Taj Mahal
Main entrance of the mausoleum at the Taj Mahal
Minaret above the Yamuna at the Taj Mahal
Minaret above the Yamuna at the Taj Mahal

My guide left me to wander the grounds on my own, and I circumnavigated the building, studied the minarets, and posed for a picture with a group of Indian tourists who were amused by the presence of a white guy in their country. (It was the height of summer in Agra, with a forecast daily high in the neighborhood of 110°F, so most western tourists with any choice picked a more pleasant season. (There were a couple other white people at the Taj, including the white woman from my train carriage, but we were a distinct minority.) It was the middle of summer break for Indian school children, so the Taj (as well as the rest of the tourist sites I saw in Agra and Delhi) were mobbed by Indian tourists from all over the country. I posed for a dozen pictures at the Taj.) I wandered around the complex, taking pictures, posing for pictures, and simply enjoying the imposing perfection of the most beautiful building in the world. If I saw nothing else in India I knew I could go home happy.

The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal
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