The Taj Mahal

Finally, the day for my Taj Mahal visit arrived. I was so excited! I had wanted to see it ever since I learned about it as a child.

First you buy a ticket, which comes with a bottle of water and a pair of disposable shoe covers. Then a shuttle takes tourists within one short block of the entrance gate. You run the gauntlet of touts, but the shopkeepers mostly let you pass unhindered.

Entrance gate to the grounds of the Taj Mahal.

After passing through security, you are then on the grounds of the Taj Mahal complex.

One more gate to pass through, but the white marble of the Taj can be seen peeking through the archway.

Hundred of visitors were filing through the archway, many of them taking  pictures first.  The morning was a bit hazy, but the first glimpse was still powerful. I arrived early in the morning.

The straight-on view of the Taj Mahal may be a cliché, but nevertheless it’s the most flattering and beautiful.  Unlucky for me, the reflecting pool had been drained.

The story of the Taj Mahal is not exclusively a love story. Mumtaz, for whom Shah Jahan commissioned its construction, was not his only wife, but his third. Just because she was his favorite did not mean he gave up sexual relations with his other two wives or dozens of concubines.

The Taj Mahal is flanked by two identical buildings, just as at the tomb of Itmad ud Daulah.

There was a much darker side to Shah Jahan’s life, including such discord with his father that led to a civil war. He had his brother, uncle and two male cousins murdered so he would accede to the throne unhindered.

At the foot of the stairs leading up to the plinth (the platform upon which the Taj Mahal is built), you must either take off your shoes or you can put on disposable shoe covers. The day I was there, people were only being allowed inside one room, which had nothing of interest. I did not see the room where the tombs were.

The Yamuna River flows to the rear of the Taj Mahal.

Visitors resting at the side of the Taj Mahal.

Shah Jahan’s life ended, imprisoned by his eldest son, in a cell across the Yamuna from which he could look upon the incredible white marble monument for his favorite wife that took him 20 years to build, a monument that over two million people visit each year over 350 years later.


Tomb of Itimad ud Daulah

Fatehpur Sikri was very close to Agra. After checking in to the hotel, I had lunch. The hotel didn’t have parking or driver’s facilities, so Prem had to stay elsewhere. He was to pick me up for a little sightseeing later in the afternoon when it wasn’t so hot.

I wanted to see the tomb of Itimad ud Daulah. Mughal mausoleums all seem to have been built on the same plan. There was an elaborate gate at the entrance. The tomb was built at the center with gardens surrounding it, and it was flanked by identical buildings on each side.

The tomb is also known as the Baby Taj, but it was built between 1622 and 1628, a decade before the Taj Mahal. Itimad ud Daulah (pillar of the state) was the title of Mirzā Ghiyās Beg, the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. Mirzā Ghiyās Beg was the treasurer of Emperor Jahangir, who ruled just prior to Shah Jahan.

This building and another identical one were on either side of the mausoleum.

There was a third building directly behind the mausoleum.

This tomb is distinctive because it was the first time white marble had been used for a Mughal mausoleum. Up until then, red sandstone had been the favorite material, as had been used in the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb. The tomb represents a jewel box.

This was a very enjoyable visit. It was small, and no guide was needed. It apparently wasn’t very heavily visited, as no touts were around. My bad luck, all the water features were empty.

Fatehpur Sikri

Prem wasn’t impressed with Fatehpur Sikri. He suggested I skip it. It was right on the way to Agra, and the guidebooks recommended it highly. I decided to see it anyway. I forgot that there are countless movies that the critics rate highly that I can’t stand.

It was interesting, but less impressive than some of the places I’d already seen by this time. The guidebooks have way overhyped it. Prem teased me mercilessly about stopping here, so afterwards I couldn’t let on that I thought he was right.

I didn’t want a guide, but Prem insisted. I only need a guide to shoo the flies away: to keep the touts and others from pestering me while I’m trying to take pictures. I don’t trust most of what they tell me because most of it can’t be verified, and this is a culture where the truth is — well, relative. I don’t really want to hear a lot of bla bla bla because I don’t remember it five minutes later, and it distracts from my picture taking. At Fatehpur, I got the worst guide of the trip.

The guide was a pain-in-the ass Fascist. He droned on and on interminably while he had me nailed to one spot. At the rate he was going, we would have been there all day. I had to tell the guy to move on.

I did not at all care for the way he ordered me around. “MADAM!” He barked as I was trying to take some pictures. “Come over HERE!!!” Well, I wasn’t interested in over THERE, I was interested in something else. I ignored him. Actually, I didn’t ignore him entirely. I had words with him. “I ignored him” is a rather giant euphemism.

He didn’t keep pests from annoying me. He wasn’t helpful at all. He was anti-helpful, and he was really getting on my nerves.

Bla, bla, bla, bla, bla. My ears were bleeding. I don’t remember a single thing he said.

Temple at Fatehpur Sikri.

There was a temple nearby, but it was getting scorching hot, so I decided to skip it. In front of the temple, there was a spot where shuttles picked up tourists to ferry them a half mile to the parking lot.  There was no line for the shuttle, as people in India don’t usually queue up for anything.

When the shuttle came, it quickly filled up. People appeared out of nowhere and piled inside.  My pain-in-the-ass guide ordered me to get on it. It was stuffed to the rafters, and I informed him that under no circumstances was I getting on. He said he was going to lodge a complaint with the Tourist Commission. A complaint because the bus was full? Are you kidding me???

After a long wait, a tuk-tuk finally showed up. He didn’t price gouge me, possibly fearing a complaint to the Tourist Commission, so we took the tuk-tuk back to the parking lot where Prem was waiting.

I told him all about my horrible guide. He was very upset, especially the part about the shuttle and waiting so long for the tuk-tuk, and wanted to complain to the Tourist Commission about the guy. I said no, so he immediately got on the phone with Jawahar. I don’t think Namaste India Tours is going to use that guy again.

The worst parts of any trip always  end well, because those are the parts you can end up making the funniest travel stories from. There was nothing funny about the best guides I had on this trip. But this Fascist pain-in-the-ass guide will always make me think of the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. And that always makes me laugh.

Abaneri Step Well

We had spent four days in Jaipur, and now it was time to move on.  We were going to stay overnight in Bharatpur, where there was something special Prem wanted me to see that sounded like “word century.” I thought I had gotten used to his accent, but this one stumped me. Oh, well. It would be a surprise.

On the way to Bharatpur, Prem said there was something else special that wasn’t on the itinerary, something he knew I would like:  Chand Baori, the Abaneri step well.

Imagine yourself with a full basin of water on your head, going up 13 flights of stairs and then continuing on to your home to wash clothes. Now count your blessings.  I asked did it ever get full during monsoon season. The guide said no, but maybe half to two-thirds.

There was also a collection of pieces of a temple that was destroyed by invading Mughals.

Prem goofing off, pretending to pick up a piece of a column.

I liked this place very much, especially this final photo of yet another blue lady of the monuments.