Monday, 23 January 2012


4th - 11th Jan 2012

Day 6. Agra

A wall and moat of Agra Fort.
So I enjoyed a pleasant lie-in rather than slink off into the cold dark dawn to watch birds on Lake Ghana near Bharatpur where the train was parked. We ( because I was by no means alone in chickening out ) met the returned bird-watchers at breakfast. They had got a bit cold ( hypothermic by the look of Rebecca ) Some of their trip involved a journey in a rickshaw and the lake was fog-bound, they told us. So watching birds in the fog? They said they enjoyed seeing many green pigeons and a duck. I never did see their photos. The train then set off for Agra which is about 2 hours to the east, out of Rajasthan and into Uttar Pradesh.

Anyway, on arrival Mr Mouse introduced us to our guide for the day, said a lot of words in a language that he's made all his own, understood neither by Indian nor Englishman, although a group of South Africans who spoke Africaans professed to understand him a bit, and off we went to the fort.
The Agra Fort is one of the finest maintained Mughal ( Muslim ) forts in India. It was built on the Yamuna river in 1565 by Emperor Akbar. His grand-son, Shah Jahan, added many extravagant buildings to make it into a palace. He was very keen on white marble. It was Shah Jahan's third wife, Mumtaz, who died giving birth to her 14th child in 1631, for whom he built the mausoleum; the Taj Mahal.
Some of the fort is out of bounds because the Indian army occupy a substantial section of it ( as did the British army previously ), part is out of bounds because it is undergoing renovation work including much of the underground sections and the rest is open to the public.
It is an impressive and well maintained place with a mixture of military and palatial buildings and, of course, a few mosques which had been for the benefit of all the devout mosquitos of the day. Much of the palace building is in white marble ( Jahan's favourite building material ) and the rest in red sandstone ( as per right ).

As always our guide was both articulate and knowledgeable. This marble edifice ( left ) was the kings's audience hall where complaints and problems from the public were listened to and proclamations made, probably along the lines of "pull the other one mate, I wasn't born yesterday. Now piss off".
The emperor/king or whatever he was, held court sitting on a fabled 'Peacock Throne', which was inset with precious stones and was subsequently stolen and then dismantled by Persians.

Shah Jahan was eventually imprisoned by his son, reputedly for squandering too much of the family fortune building things, and he was kept in an octagonal marble tower on the eastern end of the fort,  a sort of gentle house arrest, really, once his cheque book had been confiscated. It was from here, on this balcony, that the poor old sod could gaze out at the mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, in which was entombed his late wife. It was more than we could because it was hidden in the mist.

Left: Mr Mouse and Lili ( from Bali ) standing outside the entrance which is in the building behind, now locked, to a staircase that leads down to a two storey underground labyrinth of passageways and rooms where a previous ruler housed his 500-strong harem. That must be an exaggeration. I didn't gather why it was locked. Maybe undergoing renovation, or being re-stocked.

Right: A palace within the palace. This fashionable residence, a blend of many architectural styles, was reputedly built by Emperor Akbar for his son.

After this tour we went off for another hotel style lunch.

That afternoon was to be our final guided jaunt; to the Taj Mahal. Our guide was waxing lyrical about the place from a long way out and working up quite a head of steam over how spiritual an experience it is to see this famous, fabulous structure. How it is one of the unofficial 'wonders of the world', and how he never tires of seeing it, however often, and how it is infinitely more impressive to see in real life than from pictures which can never do it justice. "The beauty of this building and the majesty and awe that it inspires is breathtaking and often reduces people to tears", he continued, at length, his voice cracking with emotion, "and I defy any of you not to be overwhelmed when you see it in it's real-life glory for the first time". I couldn't help but think he was exaggerating a touche, but it was our 'finale' after all so he could be forgiven a few theatrics.
Fossil fuel powered transport has to park some couple of kilometres away because, after much effort has been spent cleaning off pollution and grime and titillating the place, the authorities don't want to have it subjected to fumes again. So we were taken off our bus and put into a battery powered one, which took us to the site.

The first thing I noticed, and who wouldn't, was this board ( left ) which pictures all the things which are prohibited. I thought the Aussies were the world champions at prohibiting things but this is in a class of it's own. It was difficult to understand what you could actually take in. I notice, second from the left on top row, that black hands are taboo. Mr Obama was let in! Fortunately cows are banned, but no mention of elephants or chickens, or crocodiles for that matter.
We queued up in separate barriered lines, women in one line, men in another, and there was a third line for something else, although it was not made clear what. There was quite a crowd trying to get in but being POW we were afforded priority treatment. It was then that I suffered a serious misfortune. I thought I had carefully complied with all the restrictions but, after being thoroughly frisked and scanned and sniffed by a mangy dog with a wet nose, the heavily armed and unsmiling guard opened my small bag and found inside a stuffed toy rat. Good grief, he looked horrified and immediately called over reinforcements. I thought he was going to shoot me, or the rat, or at least arrest me. To cut a slightly embarrassing story short, and much to the amusement, indeed hilarity, of my GG colleagues, with great public display and held up at arm's length for the thronging crowds to see, the rat was promptly and noisily confiscated! I was shocked. I pleaded and asked "why?", but to no avail, just a bit of head wobbling. The rat has not made an appearance for some time and I was going to give it a much needed and belated photo-opportunity at this important landmark. My plan was ruined. I hadn't even thought to conceal it about my person and if I'd known how much fuss and bother the rat would cause, I would surely have stuck it in my underpants. It might have attracted a few admiring glances but I doubt if the guard would have found it. I was seriously pissed off. Sod the bloody Taj Mahal, I thought, and it's humourless stupid jobsworth guards.
So we wended our way to the entrance gates to the Taj and the guide was still banging on about how we were going to be amazingly impressed.

 The first glimpse of the thing was through the west, or was it east, gate. There was quite a crush of visitors and some people have these large 'i-pads' which they hold up above their heads like notice-boards to take their ruddy photos and block out the view for people behind ( see right ).
Shah Jahan started construction on this the year after Mumaz, his wife, died in 1631 and the whole complex was finally completed in 1653. We were told that 20,000 workers and craftsmen were employed on the site. It has a mosque on one side and, for symmetry, there is an identical building ( but not a mosque ) on the other.
Following his death in 1666 ( not in the Great Fire of London ) Shah Jahan was entombed here alongside his wife.
We filed along the reflecting pond and up and through the mausoleum itself where instead of removing our shoes we were given plastic bags to wear over them. It was a bit of a scrum to be honest. I thought it looked just like all the pictures I had previously seen, except that in real life there are crowds of tourists around jumping up and down for the benefit of their families' cameras and pushing and shoving. My breath was not taken away, and anyway I was still in a grump over the damned rat incident. We were given lots and lots of info as to how it was all constructed and how the semi-precious stones were inlaid into the marble. Squadrons of 'professional' photographers were on hand to take 'romantic' pictures of tourists with the Taj as the backdrop, and they were kept very busy. We had a Green Group team photo done. One family in our group, who shall remain nameless, but comes from a well known holiday island, had a total of 28 photos taken in various poses!

The thing that most fascinated me was something that my friend JP told me about when I was in Bombay. He said that when he visited he had noticed a strange pigmentation in the vaulted marble ceiling at the rear side of the building. No guide or anyone else has ever mentioned this. It shows quite clearly the unmistakable and characteristic visage of Albert Einstein. ( see left ). Now that is interesting!

We then filed back out. It was interesting also to observe most of the Indian contingent removing their plastic shoe covers and just flinging them on the ground. The Indian population has a complete disregard for litter, even at their most valued and prestigious locations.
Right: This is the reverse view back to the gate from the mausoleum. The crowds were thinning out a bit by this time.

So that is the Taj Mahal. It does what it says on the packet. It sits there and looks like.....the Taj Mahal. I find it extraordinary that someone should have spent so much time and money building such an amazing construction which, however beautiful, is in effect completely useless, just for his dead WIFE! Maybe the son had a point when he decided to lock his Dad up.

The slightly cheering news I received when leaving was that our guide had secured the release, unharmed, of the rat. I suspect this was only because of our POW status. It was battery-mobile back to the bus and then, saints preserve us, another 'shopping opportunity' at, this time, a factory shop which is one of the 'very rare places' nowadays to practice the skill, as witnessed at the Taj Mahal, of inlaying semi-precious stone designs into marble. They showed us how it is done in their back yard using primitive tools operated by skilful men with calloused and gnarled hands ( and it is probably also done much better and cheaper and quicker in a factory by sophisticated machinery ). The end product, concerning which we were treated to a polished sales patter, plus 'tea, caffee, biscuits and cookies', or a beer in my case, was quite impressive, I must admit. There were marble tables of varying size and other marble flat things with pretty stone inlays. The price of an average size coffee table was in the region of $1500, and the big ones up to $15,000. Shipping and any import customs duty payable extra. I didn't see anyone buying anything, but then I wasn't looking.

Right: The team photo. Green Group, which consisted of Americans ( Bill the GP from Michigan is on the left ), 4 South Africans, some Aussies, the Bali family, a couple of Indians and a couple of ladies from UK. Absent: The rat.

The last night on the train included the normal debauched dinner. We then set off back to Delhi and arrived at Safdarjung station to be kicked off after breakfast at 0730 hrs the next morning. Rajesh and Rajendra handled all our luggage for us. They were brilliant. The POW blurb says in black and white 'no tips', but we mutually agreed to give our carriage staff a present, and contributed to a 'pot' for the other train staff. On leaving the station Mr Mouse was hovering around expecting a little something too! Cheese?

The POW is certainly an amusing and luxurious experience, the sort of thing to be done once in a life-time, perhaps. It rather puts the much more expensive ( per day ) Aussie Ghan, with it's rulebound, bossy jobsworths ( can't lift more than 20kg mate ) and flea-ridden upholstery to shame.  Strongly recommended.

OK, back to reality and another night in dusty, dirty Delhi. Then onwards by more mundane transport to the unknown delights of Calcutta. Oh! Calcutta.

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