Driving from Delhi Campsite to Agra, we came to a fork in the road. With no indication as to which road we should take, we asked some people standing around.
‘Agra, which road?’ My question was met with a myriad of glazed looks. ‘Agra, Taj Mahal, which way?’ I repeated.
‘Ah, Agra. No, this no Agra, this Delhi.’ Came the reply. As if we didn’t know.
‘Yes, this Delhi, but which way Agra?’ I repeated.
‘No this Delhi.’ One insisted pointing at the ground by his feet for emphasis. Over hearing our request, a very thin knowledgeable old man, without any teeth stepped forward from the crowd and offered to put us on the right road. He pointed precisely between the two roads, adding in a very definite tone, ‘Agra.’
In Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, we found the Akbar Inn, a tourist guest house, where we camped in the grounds. A tok-tok driver was surreptitiously hovering in the driveway with his eye firmly fixed on us new arrivals, ready to offer us a ‘big discount’ tour of Agra. His starting price was 500 Rupees (then about £6.25) but we haggled him down.
He picked us up the following morning and dropped us off at the entrance to the Taj Mahal, then declared that he had to go.
‘But you agreed to be our guide for the day.’ Protested Alan. It had little effect. We gave him 50Rs, which was too much and he buzzed away into the distance amidst a cloud of black tok-tok smoke.
‘Two tickets please.’ We asked the man in the ticket office.
‘Fipty Rupees.’ Came the prompt reply from a man with a waggling head in the depths of the tiny ticket hut.
’50 Rupees!’ Alan exclaimed. ‘We were told it was only 15 Rupees.’
‘Yes OK then, fipteen Rupees.’ He said rather sheepishly.
‘Nice try.’ I told him, as a muffled laugh came from inside the ticket hut.
The Taj Mahal is a truly stunning building, magnificent from every conceivable angle. The fact that it was built for the adoration of a woman, only deepens its beauty and splendor. The story, which led to the existence to this awesome building, is rather sad. The construction of the Taj was started in 1631 after Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the Emperor Shah Jahan, died giving birth to their 14th
child. So distraught was the Emperor from losing his beloved wife after 17 years of blissful marriage, that he built the Taj Mahal as a token of his love to her. Built on the edge of the River Yammuna, it took 22 years to complete. 20,000 stone masons from afar afield as France, Italy, were under instruction of the main architect who was from Shiraz, Iran and whose name remains a mystery. Ancient records refer to the materials used; the white marble came from Makrana, and for the precious and semi-precious stone inlay work within the marble, coral from Arabia, agate from Yemen, turquoise from Tibet, carnelian from Baghdad, lapis lazuli and sapphires from Lanka. Garnets from Bundelkhand, diamonds from Jaisalmer, onyx and amethysts from Persia. The marble walls are adorned with inlayed Ko’ranic inscriptions and floral designs, of which a flower could be composed of up to 48 pieces of precious stones. The four minarets, which stand 40.23 meters, lean outwards by 6°, so that in the event of an earthquake the towers will not fall onto the main building. The finial was covered in 44,000 tolas of pure gold, which was plundered by the British troops in 1803. No expense was spared to build what was to become the finest mausoleum ever created by man, much to the disgruntlement of the Shah’s subjects. When the Taj was completed, it was agreed that the stonemasons could continue to live in houses they had built around the main entrance. Generations later and stonemasons still live there and are employed to carry out renovation work, as well as providing stone inlay pieces for tourists. The story doesn’t end there because Shah Jehan never recovered from the loss of his beloved queen. So deep was his grief that the Shah locked himself away for five years. For his own death he planned to build a mirror image of the Taj Mahal, in black on the opposite side of the River, but when his son and heir heard of this, he had the Shah deposed and imprisoned in the Red Fort, believing that he had gone mad. It was in the Red Fort that the Shah spent the rest of his miserable days, looking out along the river at the final resting place of his beloved Mumtaz.
We left Agra and made our way towards Sariska Tiger Reserve. The road out of Agra provided some sad sights. We were appalled to see a number of magnificent Himalayan Bears, being goaded and prodded by men holding sticks and pulling a length of chain which was firmly fixed to a ring on the end of the bear’s nose. These were so called ‘dancing bears’ which were illegal in India. As we approached the bears the men forced them to ‘dance’ in our path, causing us to swerve to avoid them. One bear was proving to be a handful and was fighting his handler. I realized that being angry with the men would not be helpful. They were only doing something that had been done for centuries, to put food on the table for their growing families. In the past we all loved to see the performing animals in the travelling circuses and would not question for many years the fact that many of the circus animals were kept in degrading unhealthy conditions for our own pleasures.
We stopped further down the road at a market to buy some provisions. As we walked through the market I almost tripped over a man. His appearance I found most shocking. He was shuffling along in the dirty, dusty street on his back. He had lost his toes and fingers and had deep festering raw wounds over at least 30% of his thin undernourished body. All he wore was a loincloth and no one took any notice of him. In fact the locals were more intrigued with my reaction to him, than with his awful situation. As a Westerner it is almost impossible to comprehend how a man could exist under such conditions. I felt helpless and very sad and walked away feeling I should have done something. Such sights in India are common.
One section of the road to Sariska, went through the middle of what looked like a man made lake, with a couple of roof tops poking out of the water. We gingerly carried on, to discover the road had disappeared into the middle of the lake! Not knowing how deep it was and unable to turn around as the road was too narrow, we decided to wait for another vehicle. We didn’t wait long before a truck squeezed past us and we watched as he drove onwards over the hidden road. We decided to follow, keeping to the path made by the truck. At first the water didn’t seem that deep, until we saw the rear axle of the truck disappear under water. Our poor Sherpa van was not an off road vehicle and we braced ourselves, fully expecting to get stuck.
‘Oh no.’ I groaned. We did make it to the other side, but only to be greeted by one almighty bang from under the van. A rear back spring had snapped clean in half. It was one of six to break in India. We ended up having to have the main ones specially made which was very time consuming, frustrating, and costly by Indian standards.
At Sariska Tiger Reserve we decided to splash out and spend the night in the government run Tiger Den Hotel. We asked the receptionist if he had a room. After 20 minutes deliberation and much paper shuffling, he decided that a room was possible, but which one! This posed a few more minutes deliberation and booking alterations, in what appeared to be an empty hotel. ‘What on earth is the problem?’ I quizzed, having stood for what seemed an interminably long time. It had been a long day and we needed some rest. ‘OK, I give you room 211.’ He said handing us the key to room 121. We followed him to room 231, and crashed down on the bed almost immediately, only to be woken a few minutes later by what sounded like a dog whining at the balcony doors. We ignored it, but the whining became more urgent accompanied by a forceful rattling of the doors. Alan leaped out of bed and started to fill a bucket with some water.
‘What are you doing?’ I mused. ‘I’m going to get the little buggers.’ Retorted Alan.
‘Wait. Let me help.’ I said half asleep and falling out of bed to fill another bucket up not knowing what would greet me the other side of the door. We stood there poised by the doors then opened them at the same time as blindly throwing the water onto the balcony. The monkeys scarpered, but one was too slow and got a liberal dousing of cold water. He screeched the loudest. In the kafuffle I ran out onto the balcony and trod in something wet and sticky. It was the monkeys’ latrine!
We did eventually fall sleep. The following day we saw a magnificent wild tiger, which came almost as close to us as the monkeys!