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The rest of Agra

Started: 2012-06-23 18:58:38

Submitted: 2012-06-24 18:48:07

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator goes shopping and continues his adventures in Agra

After seeing the Taj Mahal, I still had an afternoon to see the the other tourist sites in Agra before taking the express train back to Delhi in the evening. First, though, my guide took me to a large shop on the main road where, he assured me, I would get to see the descendants of the craftsmen who created the elaborate pietra dura (marble inlaid with colored and semi-precious stones) in the Taj Mahal executing their craft -- and have the opportunity to buy some for myself. I watched a video of the marble quarries in Rajasthan, drank some chai, and saw three men sitting on the floor in the next room with a variety of hand tools demonstrating their craft for tourist-customers: one was polishing the tiny fragments of inlaid stone and one was carving the perfectly-sized hole in the master piece of marble for the inlaid stones. I was led into a showroom with a bunch of inlaid marble pieces of various sizes, mostly configured as table tops or decorative plates. They were all impressive, and I enjoyed walking around looking at them, but I didn't have any particular use case (nor the inclination to pay enough to buy them).

I expressed some interest in the coasters I saw in a corner (which seemed at least plausibly functional) and was whisked behind a curtain into another room, which failed to have any coasters; when I indicated my continued interest I was whisked through another curtain into another room that did, in fact, have coasters in a little display case. I looked through them and found some floral patterns, inspired by the stylized patterns on the Taj Mahal itself, that I thought would be a worthwhile souvenir.

Inlaid marble coasters
Inlaid marble coasters

I also spotted a six-inch-high marble Buddha that looked as if it would fit my small collection of idols. I purchased both pieces, which involved walking into the next room to find the actual point-of-sale terminal; this room featured bronze idols of various Hindu gods, and I spotted at least one Shiva Nataraja (which was the one item officially on my shopping list), but I'd already spent enough money that I didn't pay much attention. I was done shopping, and tried to find my way out but was diverted to look at elaborate embroidered wall hangings and Kashmiri carpets, then finally walked out past the other shawls and silks and other textiles, each of which featured a salesperson who perked up when I walked by and slouched, resigned to not making a sale, when I walked by.

Marble Buddha statue
Marble Buddha statue

Our next stop was the other UNESCO World Heritage Site in town, the Agra Fort, which was the center of government for the Mughal empire until Shah Jahan moved his capital two hundred kilometers up the Yamuna River to Delhi (where it languished and suffered invasions for a couple hundred years before finally being put out of its misery by the British in 1858). As we drove, I studied Agra out the car window and tried to make sense of what I saw. I wasn't yet used to the spectacle of driving in India: cars of various shapes and sizes (from the occasional aging indigenous Hindustan Ambassador to imported Toyotas and Hondas (in made-for-India models) to various Tata cars) shared the road with trucks, busses, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, hand carts, bullock carts, pedestrians, stationary food carts, and the occasional camel cart (which appeared to be intended exclusively for tourists). Most of the streets were large enough for multiple lanes in each direction, and were painted as such, but no one paid the lane markers any attention: they weaved and merged at the slightest provocation, passing on the left and on the right. I quickly developed an appreciation for the nearly-constant din of car horns: almost every blast signaled another vehicle that it was about to be overtaken, and included a suggestion that the other vehicle ought not to suddenly weave into the adjacent lane. Cows and feral dogs roamed the streets and grazed their way through trash piles. At first glance, the whole thing seemed hopelessly chaotic to my suburban western eyes, but as I observed I began to sense the emergent patterns that kept the system under control.

My guide took me through the Agra Fort, which was interesting, and filled with more history than the Taj Mahal, but since the fort was built for function and not form, it was often difficult to figure out exactly what I was looking at, and to visualize it in the context of history. From the eastern edge of the fort I could see the Taj, from the same vantage point that its creator Shah Jahan had after he was deposed and imprisoned by his son in the fort. I saw the audience chambers, noticed the crenulated arches (which the architecture book I read on the train suggested originated with indigenous Hindu architecture and were adopted by the Mughals), and looked into the massive step well.

With my tour of the Agra Fort complete, my driver took me back to the Gateway Hotel for a late lunch and to wait before seeing the moonlight gardens on the opposite side of the river around sunset. Once I finished eating lunch, faced with the prospect of hanging out at the hotel for another two hours with nothing to do while in the midst of India, I asked the security guard at the front door to call my driver and asked my driver to take me to Akbar's Tomb, another major tomb from the Mughal Empire (built for Shah Jahan's grandfather, Akbar the Great).

Main building of Akbar's Tomb
Main building of Akbar's Tomb

I recognized many of the dominant aspects of Mughal architecture in Akbar's Tomb: the entry gate, the garden, and the tomb itself. I found that I liked the entry gate better than the tomb itself, and the gardens had lost some of their luster in modern India. (I did notice a herd of deer ambling through the field that used to hold the ceremonial gardens, and a family of monkeys that reminded me of Willy's experience with marauding temple monkeys in Darjeeling.) I walked down the long, elevated walkway from the entry gate to the tomb in the late-afternoon heat and took off my shoes to descend into the burial chamber itself. I wasn't quite sure how (or whether) I ought to pay my respects to an emperor who died four hundred years ago.

Marauding monkey family at Akbar's tomb
Marauding monkey family at Akbar's tomb

I studied the architecture of the complex and ultimately decided that it was an interesting development in Mughal architecture but it ultimately left me unfulfilled: the Taj Mahal was poetry expressed in white marble, but Akbar's Tomb felt more like a rough draft.

Looking back at the entry gate at Akbar's tomb
Looking back at the entry gate at Akbar's tomb

I emerged from the complex, found my driver, and rode back across Agra to the moonlight gardens on the opposite side of the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal. From here I had another excellent view of the Taj; I could see tourists crawling like ants around the complex, but the river separated me from the bustle of the complex itself. The sky was overcast, cheating me of the sunset view, but the cloud cover caused the temperature to drop a bit, so it was no longer oppressively hot but merely quite warm. I sat on a wall overlooking the river and the Taj and decided this view would be sublime if the light were better and the river were higher, but as it was, it was still a stunning view of an amazing monument. I simply sat and watched, and presently wondered whether the fire I saw across the river was in fact a cremation at the burning ghat, and whether it was the smoke I smelled in the air.

Taj Mahal and the Yamuna River
Taj Mahal and the Yamuna River

I returned to the car and got a ride back to the Gateway Hotel in the fading light. I ate supper, with some Darjeeling tea, and was heading out to get a ride back to the train station when the clerk at the travel desk intercepted me with word that my train, originally scheduled to depart Agra at 20:30, had been delayed by three hours. I was not especially happy to hear this -- I had been a little worried about not getting back to Delhi until 22:30, since I needed to get as much sleep as I could to adjust to my new time zone -- but there was nothing that could be done so I settled into a chair in the lobby and waited. I reviewed my tour book for things to see in Delhi the next day, cross-referenced with the list Willy gave me, and tried not to fall asleep in the lobby. The travel desk clerk tried to keep me occupied by some shopping (since it was well after dark and there was little else to do), and after some sharp words in a language I didn't understand (Hindi, I presume, but I can't prove it) my driver explained that the other local handicrafts industry was leather-working, and took me a few blocks away to a small store packed with leather goods. The wallets and belts (and leather jackets) were very nice but I was tired and had absolutely no interest in further shopping, so I headed back to the hotel and returned to my chair.

Setting sun over Agra
Setting sun over Agra

At length it was time to go to the train station to catch my train back to Delhi. My driver pointed out the platform I needed (platform 2, across a bridge from the main concourse), and I crossed to the platform, then wandered around trying to find proof that my train was, in fact, arriving at that platform. I eventually saw my train on the monitor, scheduled to arrive at 00:30. I was exhausted, and tried not to think what time it was back home (in the middle of the afternoon). Although it was nearly midnight, the air was still hot and sticky. Indians of all shapes and sizes and colors waited languidly on the platform, some lying down on newspapers, others sitting on their suitcases.

The train eventually arrived at 00:30. I found my seat in one of the dozen chair car carriages and settled in for the ride to Delhi. I declined the offer of dinner that apparently came with my ticket but ate the proffered ice cream when it arrived while worrying whether I ought to worry about its food safety. (It seemed mostly frozen so I figured it couldn't be all bad.) I leaned my seat back and tried to sleep in the fully-lit car. Half-way through the trip the train seemed to be delayed and slowed by what looked like engineering works on the line, and I fantasized about designing express tracks and tried to figure out how they would connect to the regular-speed up and down lines.

When I was still some distance from the New Delhi train station, my phone rang with what looked like an Indian number. I answered (remembering in the back of my mind the international roaming rate for my phone, US$1.99/minute, or about Rs. 100) and talked to the hotel's travel desk, who was trying to figure out exactly where I was, since the driver was apparently at the New Delhi train station and my train hadn't arrived. I looked out the window and it looked as if we were passing through the Hazrat Nizamuddin train station, which suggested I ought to arrive soon.

I did, in fact, arrive shortly at New Delhi's massive central train station. I found my driver waiting on the platform and followed him to the car park, across the bridge traversing the dozens of platforms, where families were sleeping in the hot night air. We reached the car and I rode back to the hotel. I waved at the night clerk on the travel/concierge desk (who had called me) to reassure her that I was, in fact, back, and went to bed at 03:30, exhausted after seeing Agra and the Taj Mahal, but satisfied with my adventure so far.

Our target coordinates, sunken gardens. Neelix relinquished
any Strange pleasure. Show up with difficult; in class.
- jwz's dadadodo, from Jaeger's journal entries