India (Days 27-29) – Taj Mahal & Agra Fort 19 July 2009

First, a small mundane note: Upon our arrival in New Delhi at the Imperial, I got a pedicure! tajI think it was the most divine pampering I have ever experienced, given that my feet had been in boots and [mostly] sandals in dust, mud, and rock and sorely neglected, for weeks. I felt like new!

Also, an observation on arriving in India… I was expecting, when we exited the airport, a literal mass of children and beggars to swarm us as we left the main buildings (much as I remember the Philippines years ago), but that was not the case at all. In fact, I found the parts of Delhi we visited to be very cosmopolitan. Yes, there are TONS of people and vehicles (4 lanes of them where only 3 are marked), but in fact Nepal was *far* more chaotic than Delhi.

The very next morning, yep, we climbed back into another vehicle for a 4+ hour drive to Agra, to spend many hours enjoying the Taj Mahal – it was worth every minute of the drive. The local tour company, Creative Travel, took very good care of us with great guides in both Agra and Delhi, and our driver Rati Ram was excellent, and knowledgeable. Throughout our drive we observed small groups of pilgrims walking along the road dressed in orange carrying elaborately framed water from the sacred Ganges – it can never touch the ground. Some had walked over 300 miles to bring the water to an annual festival at their local Hindu temple.

We found the Taj Mahal to be as sublime as everyone claims. tajOur trip was planned so we would be able to see it at sunset and again at sunrise, which was great. As you probably know, it was built by Mughal sultan Shah Jahan for his beloved Muslim 3rd wife Mumtaz Mahal, his favorite, when she died at 39 while giving birth to their 14th child. Before she went into labor, Mumtaz had a dream with a vision of a huge memorial, and realized that she would die. She told him of the dream, and asked him to build a memorial. They had been married 20 years and she had gone everywhere with him, pregnant or not. He was devastated by her death, and went into seclusion for about a year; when he emerged, work on the Taj began.

It took 22 years to build; all the expert craftsmen and artisans – mosquefrom all over the world – were well paid (contrary to popular myth), and the number ‘22’ is repeated in many of the patterns of the complex. Most of the major features of the mausoleum complex are built in exact symmetry – the dome, corners, and minarets, etc. The building on the west (left) is a mosque, and the identical building on the right is believed to have been for travelers’ use. One fascinating aspect is that the Persian Koranic lettering (actually ALL verses of the Koran are imprinted throughout the complex) around the door arches is larger at the top than at the bottom, so that it appears the same size to the viewer! The semi-precious stone inlaid roses (zoom into this photo) use 64 individual pieces of cut stone! The four minarets actually lean slightly out, so in case of collapse, they will not likely fall on the main building.

agra fortAfter sunrise at the Taj, we toured Agra Fort, which was built by Shah Jahan’s grandfather, and which Shah Jahan increased in size with palaces for his three beloved wives. Like the Taj built of redstone and white marble, it is also where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his 3rd son after his son rebelled and murdered his brothers; for 8 years until his death Shah Jahan was confined to a small area of the fort with a view of his beloved Mumtaz’s mausoleum!

Agra did have more of a feel of the India I was expecting, with more poor beggars and many more animals on the street (particularly sacred cows) as you can see here!