It’s not often I get out of bed before Shell. Nor at 5:15am. But when the incentive is seeing one of the most famous places in the world, you kinda make an allowance. Just a shame the sun wasn’t considerate enough to rise a little bit later.
By 6am it’s fairly light and we stumble down to meet today’s guide who introduces himself simply as DK. He seems very enthusiastic and instructs our driver, Inder, to a point which we are informed is a shortcut to the Taj Mahal. “Six minutes’ walk from there,” DK tells us. Camera fully charged and ready to go, I can’t wait. The rush hour traffic is still in bed, so we have no problem getting there quickly. The air is cool but comfortable and we march quickly past several locals on the way to the main event.
Gorillapods in the midst
As we arrive in the courtyard at the entrance, we get pounced upon. “Hello sir – do you want book? Lovely book.” A seller flicks through a souvenir book of many photos in front of my face. I decline but he is persistent, “Maybe later? My name is Raj. You remember that when you come out later: Raj.” Ok, Raj, how about you let me go in so I can take my own photos? DK sorts the tickets, we step through the metal detector and have our bags searched. We have a spot of trouble with my camera bag, containing my extremely dangerous and potentially lethal Gorillapod. Obviously not recognised as a small tripod, the security guard bends it curiously, perhaps waiting to see what weapon it can transform into. It has to be confiscated. DK manages to sort out where it can be collected later, assuming it has not been subjected to a controlled explosion.
The courtyard is assembled from a deep-red brick, sandstone local to here. The first thing we see is a huge square arch through which promises the Taj itself. All around the edge of this entrance is large Arabic script from the Koran. It’s not painted on, though – it’s black marble inlaid into white marble. We marvel at the effort and the detail. This place was clearly not done half-heartedly. Time to enter…
Strike a pose
We’re here! I’m looking at the view of the Taj Mahal that you see in the photos, the movies and all the postcards: facing the front with the water leading up to it. Where do I start clicking? The sun is weak still from the east but is gradually lighting up one side. The sky is blue with a few streaks of cloud. More importantly, not too many people are here yet. I am like a starving kid in front of a buffet table of all his favourite dishes. I start to snap away, but I soon discover DK has a menu of his own he wishes to share with us. “Go down there. Take one here then I shall take one of you two up here. See the reflection – get a good shot there.” Blimey. Well, he has said he’s been here about 4000 times, so I guess he knows the good shots. We are soon hurried to the Diana table, as it’s now known after Diana, Princess of Wales visited here and her now infamous pose in 1992. DK takes our photo there, after a short wait behind a woman desperate to recreate Diana’s sad look. Next, DK delights me in offering to take photos of an Andy/Shell Speciality: the star jump pose. Cue lots of energetic jumping, checking, different angles and looking like a fool. He even takes a cute dangling-the-Taj-from-our- fingers photo. I begin to think of others but we’re off again, this time for a closer look.
The eastern corner of the main building now sparkles as the sun’s rays hit the detail of the building. As we walk up to the plinth, we begin to appreciate just how beautiful and detailed the outside is. It’s so clean, so immense, revealing more and more as you move nearer. But DK doesn’t want us to go too near just yet – more silly photos are needed! We then sit down and listen at length to the history of the Taj.
Kiss and tell
Some people order a nice headstone when their spouse dies. Others dedicate a park bench in their memory. Shah Jahan decided to construct a mausoleum for his third wife, Mumtaz, taking 20,000 people 22 years and 85 million rupees to build. Fair play – after producing 14 kids for him she probably deserved more than just an obituary in the local newspaper. DK proceeded to tell the whole love story, from the king’s first sighting at the women’s market to his vow on her death bed to never forget her. If his love was as beautiful and perfect as what is now in front of us, he was a lucky man.
DK seemed intent on ensuring we were to show each other the same affection. “No wife, no life!” he said many times to me. Every section of the story demanded a kiss between us. He then took my camera and started taking more photos of us with the eastern side in the background, demanding we give him a good subject. “Pose number 1…” We stand side by side. “Pose number 2…” We embrace. “Pose number 3…” We kiss. By pose number 7, I begin to wonder if he wants to get us arrested.
We eventually move to the guest house and get more history, from plans for a second Taj across the river (which we had unknowingly visited the night before) and how the king’s son didn’t like his father spending so much on his obsession and his eventual imprisonment as a result. More kisses ensued. Was DK just getting a kick out of this? As nice as it was hearing the story, after a while I just want to see and explore further and of course capture more of its beauty. Soon, we enter the mausoleum.
Intricate doesn’t do it justice. We aren’t allowed to take photos inside which is a shame because there’s so much detail here I’d love to record. The light within is neither strong nor weak, just enough for respect and warmth. An entire slab of marble has been carved with delicate patterns. Flowers aren’t painted – they’re made from small, cut precious and semi-precious stones and stuck within the white marble with unerring precision. What’s more is that they are arranged to form heart shapes, allegedly to indicate the king’s broken heart at her death. The two tombs lie side by side in the centre, forever encapsulated by this beauty. Above the chatter of tourists I detect a gentle whooshing sound rebounding off the upper walls. Everything perfect, quality superlative. The effort and craftmanship is outstanding. I shuffle around with my cloth overshoes in awe.
Outside I get more shots, dropping behind Shell and DK, determined to get as much as I can. We see the Agra Fort in the distance, our next destination. More poses, more silly shots and kissing. Some of them are quite cute, I think, maybe a future picture for our own castle. But time ticks on and we soon have to go. I marvel for the last time at the symmetry and scale of the site. As we leave, I’m relieved to have my Gorillapod returned to me unscathed. We then see Raj, back as promised, eager to sell us books of images we’d just seen. I decline after a brief viewing, a tad disappointed we didn’t have more time to take more photos; I could have stayed for hours and filled a hard drive of pictures. Still, the laughs, the poses and the memories will live forever, hopefully like this wonderful place itself.
Hold that fort
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we’re plunged into Agra traffic on the way to the fort. This time it’s special: an impromptu bit of roadworks have apparently popped up ahead so everyone is turning round. I’m no longer sure which direction is which as the road now resembles a rugby scrum. If it was in England, the ref would have blown and it would have taken an age to sort out. Here, we slip through like a skilled pro and arrive at Agra Fort.
Blimey. There’s nothing small scale around here. A huge gate, long slope and massive courtyard is just the start. Moved as a display piece in front of one of the buildings is the king’s bathtub, with probably enough room to hold the synchronised swimming Olympic final. DK shows us the queens’ rooms and the dancing square where the ladies strutted their stuff whilst the king watched. If a girl was lucky, she was taken behind the screens for the king to entertain her. A gentleman’s club for the 1500s. DK was keen to emulate his event. “Pretend you’re the king! Take your lady behind the screen!” I begin to wonder if he has hidden cameras around here.
The views from here of the Taj Mahal are cool, reminding me of the Eiffel Tower views from Notre Dame in their closeness to the cities’ main attraction. We see where the start of the king’s love affair began, overlooking the green square that was the women’s bazar where he first saw her. We also see its end, the prison where the king was held by his son, where his final sights were of his creation in her memory. We peek in a mosque again and also where the king held his public audience, all the time DK describing the history. It sounds like the king was happy to talk to his people, listen to their problems and try to help them, like a live Dear Deirdre for the masses. I take my opportunity and ask DK for fifteen minutes of photos on our own, and the schedule allows it. We’re free! I run off with Shell and take a few shots I had my eye on when we were going through. Content with the collection, we head out, contending with more beggars and sellers of tack as we wait for the car. We’re off to Jaipur, five hours’ drive away, but we’ll stop en route to a ghost town called Fatehpur Sikri.
Another journey, another chaotic section of road. This time the road had pretty much descended into a rough track through a small village. It feels like we’re driving through a market as people, shops, camels, horses, carts and bikes are on every side. We’re the widest vehicle here. As always, the chaos is navigated and we get through. A little later we arrive at the foot of what is actually a walled city. Getting out, we navigate through a group of yet more sellers before jumping on a bus full of locals to the top of a hill to see the main buildings.
It’s a trap!
The city was built by Emperor Akbar, who also built Agra Fort, and was the grandfather of Shah Jahan, he of Taj Mahal fame. Akbar had three wives, one Christian, one Muslim and one Hindu, and built a house for each, sized accordingly to the children each gave him. Nice way to cause resentment between women there, then. Due to a promise to a priest who predicted three children, he had to stay here ten years. When he left, the place eventually deserted. This was pretty lucky for us, seeing as we were nosing around today. The parliament house with its raised walkway, public audience courtyard, market square, the king’s own house and bedroom, complete with awesome raised bed were all very interesting to walk around and hear DK’s explanations. (plus less enforced kissing). Everything ornate and pretty, except for some bats up a chimney I was asked to photograph.
We forgo a bus ride back down the hill which we are told would bring us out into all the shops – i.e. hassle. Instead, we walk, and get escorted by a horde of small children offering to sell us pens. It’s extremely hot, I’m thirsty and I’m not interested, thank you. They soon give up. Unfortunately we get to the car park and attract another group, this time slightly older. “I’m a good boy!” says one, who looks as innocent as Dennis the Menace. We shrug them off and get into the car, saying goodbye to DK down the road with a tip to send him off with. No doubt he’ll be back at the Taj tomorrow asking for more kissing photos. Next up: a long drive to Jaipur to complete India’s “Golden Triangle”.
The roads are losing their wow factor now. I’m nonchalant about trucks and cars coming at us on the wrong side of the road. Men clinging onto the back of cars doesn’t faze me. I’ve given up on planning a Keep India Tidy campaign. And then just when you think you’ve seen it all…”Jesus!!!!” Ok, it maybe wasn’t the most appropriate word to exclaim, but we’ve screeched to a halt on the dual carriageway for a dog that must have wanted to commit suicide. The fact that Inder beeped 300 yards away and that the dog was clearly looking at us didn’t stop it from crossing the road as if one of its parents was a hedgehog. We even had to wait for it to complete its slow journey to the centre, probably for another attempt on the other side. Luckily, the trip passed without further excitement and we arrived for our final leg of the tour.
Spice, spice baby
Jaipur seems a big city, certainly a lot nicer than Agra. It’s richer, too, and it clearly shows in its buildings. We stop at the Golden Tulip for the first of two nights. We’re tired, so we check in to a seventh-floor room with a good view of the city, snooze for a bit and then go down for dinner in the “Spice Loft”. We have a nice meal, even if the service was a bit erratic in bringing out our drinks and dishes at different times to each other. I have an extremely spicy chinese chicken soup and a masala that looks suspiciously like a balti. I say to Shell that I’m so happy that we’ve seen the Taj Mahal today because my biggest fear was to get “Delhi Belly” and be forced to miss out. “So far, so good, though.”
Half an hour later and I feel like I’ve had a chilli enema.
After a wonderful day full of fascinating sights, the inside of the hotel toilet isn’t exactly my idea of capping it off. Now pass me the spare bog roll…