India: Oct 11: Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri

We got up before dawn in order to see the Taj Mahal as the sun rose. At that time of day, getting a rickshaw was more difficult than usual. Fewer were on the streets and thus we lacked negotiating power. One of the first that stopped for us refused our price, saying, it's "better for you to go on the walk." (That is, take a walk. :> ) Nevertheless, we got one at a reasonable price within ten minutes of leaving the hotel. Competition is good.

As vehicles are prohibited from getting within a quarter of a mile (or so) of the Taj, after our rickshaw driver dropped us off, we had a short walk. It wasn't unpleasant. This surprised us, given our experience walking in Agra the previous day. Some monkeys fought on the path.

I took many pictures today, especially of the Taj Mahal, under the assumption that I probably would never see it again.

After seeing the Taj, we grabbed a cycle-rickshaw back to the hotel, had breakfast, and took naps. Or at least J and N napped. When they awoke, we boarded a bus for a day trip to see Fatehpur Sikri, an old capital palace complex for the Mughals, and its neighboring mosque.

Our bus drove crazily. We nearly had at least one head-on collision. We were happy the ride only lasted an hour.

Once there, the most direct route from the bus station to the mosque and Fatehpur Sikri was up a hill through what appeared to be a garbage dump. N passionately hates how monuments in India and the areas around them are not maintained.

We took off our shoes at the entrance and carried them. Around then, J acquired a fan, by which I mean a person who seemed mesmerized by her. We didn't pay him much heed and he eventually left.

The mosque, mostly open to the air, was filled with people laying around in the shade. Given all the stone, it's probably cooler than elsewhere, and it's also likely the equivalent of a town center.

After we walked a third of the perimeter, we acquired a friendly Muslim student. Although at first we thought he was a tout a la the characters at the entrance (pay me and I'll give you a tour; if you're with me, you get in for free (note: it's already free)), he kept insisting he didn't want any money. He said the mosque itself asked its students--people studying the Koran seriously for multiple years--to volunteer to give tours to visitors. He was more persuasive and friendly and fluent than many others, and we let him guide us around. His name was "Chand", which he said means moon. Over the course of the interaction with him, we learned he speaks some French, German, and a few other languages.

Under his guidance, he led us into places where we might not have felt comfortable going. For instance, we entered the shrine in the center of the mosque. We took turns going in because, for this, we had give our shoes to someone else else to hold--we couldn't enter while carrying them. The shrine, with many pilgrims asking for blessings, was richly decorated with mother of pearl, colorful shawls, and wish ropes.

He also showed us the main prayer area of the mosque. As he walked us through, he got yelled at by a Muslim kid saying he couldn't do that and we shouldn't even be carrying our shoes there. Our guide was more advanced in his studies and overruled him. The younger student left, muttering something that I believe roughly meant "I'm gonna tell."

It's interesting that the mosque seemed better maintained than some other places we've visited. For instance, the gilded tiles inlaid around the archway hadn't been stolen. On the other hand, there was a huge net above the prayer area to catch pieces of the ceiling in case they fall.

The guide showed us a hollow part of the wall that reverberated nicely when tapped.

Elsewhere, he pointed out the sunken entrance to underground tombs. He claimed a tunnel leads from the tombs/catacombs all the way to Agra. I find that a bit hard to believe. Regardless, the cool air emanating from the steps--effectively an air conditioning unit--was a nice, though brief, relief from the heat.

Our guide wasn't entirely altruistic--at the end of the tour, he led us to a person who sold small carved statues and the like. Obviously, he'd get a cut if we had bought something.

We left the mosque to explore Fatehpur Sikri, the original reason we came to the town. It's an elaborate palace complex that was only briefly inhabited. I don't have anything to add not already in the pictures.

The bus ride back to Agra, though in a bigger and emptier bus than the one we took to Fatehpur Sikri, nevertheless remained traumatic. (Watch the video!) Also, as we drove, we passed industry (mostly stone grinding and construction companies) and billboards on buildings. Parts of this road were being expanded; that's good: it could use it. Furthermore, on the way, we saw some fires burning on the side of the road.

Once near Agra, the bus sometimes hit things (e.g., cycles, awnings) on crowded pre-festival streets. Twice the driver needed to get out of the bus to move things out of the way. Eventually the bus driver decided, due to the gathering crowd because of the festival, he couldn't go any farther. From that location, we needed two rickshaws to get back to our hotel: one to get to the bus station and one from the station to the hotel.

We were happy to be back in the hotel. J said the whole visit to Fatehpur Sikri had as much hassles as Bombay, a statement she said was damning. Given the dirt and bus trip, I can see why some travelers go for high-class hotels and rent drivers (in air-conditioned vehicles with windows) for the day.

We cleaned up for dinner. Oddly, the hotel had HBO but no hot water (which we actually didn't mind given the heat). We saw on the news a report about a bomb in the main temple (dargah) in Ajmer. We had been planning to visit Ajmer to visit its famous dargah, supposedly the most sacred and impressive Islamic site in India. The explosion made us cancel our plans.

For dinner, we went to The Mughal Room, located in a nice hotel, the Clark Shiraz. It was quite formal, as exemplified by incredibly starched napkins. Musicians played throughout dinner: a nice touch. Two of our dishes were quite good. At the end of meal, we filled out a comment card--I don't recall why--and were asked about it by the manager as we left.

No comments: