As we left Jaipur I fulfilled my dream of riding in an Ambassador taxi to the station. These ubiquitous, classic white cars are still built in India chiefly to cart around bigwigs and politicians. They’re really comfy but I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone over 6 foot. I guess that’s why they suit smaller Indians.
After a stand-off with a coolie at the station, disgruntled that I hadn’t tipped him enough despite me instructing him to leave our luggage alone as we were perfectly capable of carrying the cases ourselves, we boarded the train for Agra.
This was our first train trip in India, something I’d hoped would be akin to the film Darjeeling Express. I was mildly disappointed as I took the top bunk and froze to death under the screaming a/c. At least it worked I suppose; a lesson the London Underground could learn from.
Either side of the railway was littered with rubbish and people crouching as they went for a dump
It was an early start so we dozed, but as we approached the outskirts of Agra I woke up and saw that either side of the railway was littered with rubbish, sh!t and people going for a dump. Ironically I’ve just been reading the bit in Rohan Mistry’s novel, A Fine Balance, in which the two tailors are taken to a railway track for their first dump in the city. It seems this is par for the course here in India. Later on in our trip I spotted a small child having a crap at the front of his parent’ dwelling, two metres from the main road. He didn’t give a shit, if you’ll excuse the expression.
Agra has few discerning features. Split into the old town and the new, a sprawling mass of dirty industrial streets makes it a shocking juxtaposition to the beauty of the sights within it. The Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building in the world, but the streets are some of the dirtiest I’ve seen.
We threw in a trip to Agra Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that first afternoon. I thought Agra was just about the Taj Mahal but I was quite wrong. Agra Fort is a tremendous red sandstone fort built by Akbar – grandfather of Shah Jahan, Mr Taj Mahal himself – over the remnants of an earlier brick fort. Shah Jahan tore down some of his grandfather’s red sandstone buildings and replaced them with incredible white marble palaces, one of which became his cell. When he took over from his father, Aurangzeb locked up Shah Jahan for eight years until his death. At least he died in an exquisite marble tower, with an unparalleled view of the spectacular Taj Mahal. The very same view was my introduction to that enigmatic building.
Not content with our view from afar we instructed our rickshaw driver, a toothless, illiterate but friendly, lad younger than me, to take us to the famous sun-set viewpoint across the river at Mehtab Bagh park.
We watched the Taj Mahal turn from bright ivory to yellow ochre.
Its magnificence is beyond compare but we still hadn’t seen it from close up. Although Liz had visited Agra thirty years ago with her mother, she was still keen to view it close up once more.
Getting up at 5am for the third day in a row was taking its toll, but we were rewarded with first place in the queue to the Taj Mahal. Actually, we were behind a group of extremely excitable Koreans who talked incessantly and jumped around like little children. I’m not a morning person. With our tickets we queued by the east door and waited around whilst the security jobs-worths diligently searched all possessions. We supposed it’s a potential terrorist threat so remained patient, despite the typically convoluted process of handing a ticket to one person, then another etc etc.
We were the first to the mausoleum; the acoustics in this dark, tall room were incredible
Liz and I raced to the central pond and found the plinth and marble bench where she and her mum had been photographed thirty years ago, mimicking the famous Princess Diana shot. By complete fortune there was a chap there with the same camera and lens as me who knew what he was doing; he obligingly took the most fantastic shot of Liz and myself in front of the Taj at 6am, with NO ONE ELSE AROUND!
Even more fantastic, though, was walking up to the Taj Mahal itself straight into the mausoleum. We were the first there too and the acoustics in this dark, tall room were incredible. I’ve podcasted the whole experience of course.
My impressions of the Taj Mahal? It is the most beautiful building I have ever laid eyes on. Remember this is a mausoleum built by Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz. The complex took 22 years to complete, and is, without doubt, the greatest monument to love. The whole thing is covered in stunning pietra dura – semi-precious stones inlaid into the marble.
Anyone who fails to be impressed by it has no soul.
Getting there so early meant we could watch as the sun rose and turned the dull, pearly white into a brighter flame filled orange. You have to take your shoes off to enter the mausoleum and the cool marble floor felt smooth under our feet. Even after taking all our photos, podcasting our experience and wandering around the Taj Mahal itself, there were still not many people there. It only really started to fill up around 8.30, about the time we were getting ready to leave. Idiots!
If you’re going to see one of the most recognisable, most beautiful and exquisite attractions in the world, get there for sunrise! It was unforgettable.