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The best day of the trip!

Dec 31 – On to Agra

We caught an early morning train to Agra getting there about 11:30am. The train ride was uneventful but we did meet a young girl who engaged us in conversation for quite a while. It started out with the typical peak around the corner from her berth, ducking back, giggle, pause then another peak again. We expected the usual, "Where are you from?" line of questioning. Only she started with 'where have you been' so I started telling her where we had been in India, which puzzled her so she ducked back away. We heard murmuring and then she poked her head out again and asked ‘where are you from?’ and, the conversation went on from there. At one point she asked if we had an American Dollar. This was immediately stopped by someone sitting with her. A pause…then, ‘how many rupees for an American dollar?’ We answered 50; more discussion, then, she produced 100Rs so we exchanged $1 US and 50 RS. She was very happy. We also answered all the typical questions, do you have children etc. and after a while, we were taking photos and exchanging emails. Her name is Visala and her older brother was coaching her. Her younger brother was curious but very shy. She is in the 6th grade. It will be fun if she will communicate via email or Facebook. Her older brother was very keen on seeing us on FB.

Arriving in Agra: We had arranged with our home stay to have a taxi there for us and they were ready and waiting. We headed to the Garden Villa Home Stay and were warmly greeted by Mr. R and his brother. We discussed the itinerary for the day and headed out with another taxi driver. We called him ‘Raj’ – not sure why as he never introduced himself – at least that we were aware of. He is an elderly gentleman with a big white mustache and beard and wears a saffron turban.

We visited Agra Fort, where we got our first view of the Taj Mahal from the apartments/prison of Shah Jehan; the ‘baby Taj’ and a park across the river from the Taj Mahal where we sat until sunset watching the glimmering structure from a distance.

Agra Fort is another impressive structure. Less fort-like and more like a group of palaces surrounded by a stout wall. It was, in fact, the home of at least a couple of Mogul kings, including Shah Jahan who had the Tal Mahal built for his 3rd and most beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to his 14th child.

He and his family lived in the fort and when his son Aurangzeb overthrew him, he imprisoned his father in his apartments which overlook the Taj Mahal. History is a little sketchy on whether this was after it was completed or while it was still being built. No matter, he was a very old, ill man by this time and had lost all power to his nasty son, who toppled the Mogul empire with is greed and ambition for greater power.

The ‘baby’ Taj is the monument to Mizra Ghiyas Beg, the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, and is almost an exact replica of the real thing, only much smaller, thus the 'baby'. It is a quick visit but well worth it.

We then went to Mehtab Bagh park which was originally meant to be the home of Shah Jahan’s black ‘Mahal’ – his own mausoleum. The plan was for it to be an exact replica of the Taj Mahal only made of all black marble and it would face the tomb he built for his beloved wife. Aurangzeb decided it was a waste of money and stopped the whole thing but the park remains and it is quite lovely. You walk along pathways through rows of shrubs and flowers towards the river and there is a lovely view of the back of the TM.

We had lunch and dinner at Dasaprakash a south Indian vegetarian restaurant that Mr. R recommended. It is also in the LP guide. He had suggested we eat lunch there and dinner at a new restaurant called Pinch of Spice but when we arrived they were having a ‘small problem’, which to us looked like a broken sewer line – not the kind of ‘problem’ you want at any restaurant, anywhere! So we went back to Dashraprakash and were perfectly happy. The food is delicious. Lots of things made with lentils, rice and of course, vegetables. With every meal comes a piping hot ewer of Sambar – hot and spicy.

Jan 1, 2012! Happy New Year!

We had heard it raining overnight and it was still overcast and rainy when we got up. We were to head out a 7:30a but we left an hour later since there would be no real sunrise in this weather. We headed to the Taj Mahal. ‘Raj’ was once again our driver. The entry to the Taj Mahal is quite a big deal. Cars cannot go directly to it anymore in an effort to keep exhaust pollution to a minimum so we were dropped off and we walked to the ticket window. We hired a guide and then queued up to go in. Women and men enter in different lines. Apparently this is for security as women tend to carry more ‘stuff’ so the check point is slower. There is a long list of things that are not allowed into the TM area – any kind of food item, gum, crayons, knives etc. They thoroughly check bags and pockets for these things.

Once inside, you walk through the main gate (west gate). Before walking through the gate you can see the Taj Mahal and it is lovely even on a rainy day. I was not prepared for the impression/impact of seeing it once I stepped through the gate. I have seen a lot of awesome, ancient structures but when you walk through that gate and the Taj Mahal comes into full view with the gardens laid out in front of it, it just got me. I got quite emotional. It is, without question, the most beautiful, man-made thing I have ever seen. It really does shimmer and, because of the way it is positioned on a marble platform, there is nothing in the background but sky so it also seems to float. The white marble looks like it has been freshly polished. The rain helped because it cleared the air and at one point while we were there, the sun came out for a few minutes and there was a rainbow – unbelievable!!! Our guide was very good and we took our time gazing and wandering around this amazing spectacle. He also took ‘Lady Di’ photos which are a hoot! We will have to see how they compare to the real thing!!

We then headed out to Fatehpur Sikri. This is another ancient fort/group of palaces. Home of Akbar and his 3 wives – one Hindu (from Rajasthan), one Muslim (from Turkey), one Catholic (from Goa/Portuguese). Each wife had her own palace built to replicate important aspects of her religion. Importantly, Akbar, was quite enlightened and believed all religions had their place in the world and, ideally wanted everyone to observe one religion which was a combination of all. This is represented in all the architecture he directed in his time. The fort is quite large and also includes a Buddhist temple which is white marble among all the red sandstone. It was a very busy place today being Jan 1st and there were long lines of people waiting to be blessed and to pray for good wishes. Our guide was a bit pushy and did not want to wait in line. It wasn’t super important to us to ‘be blessed’ but it would have been interesting so we were a bit annoyed with him. He kind of rushed us through the entire complex.

We then headed to Akbar’s tomb. Another amazing structure. He designed it for himself and his family members. There are many instances of perfect symmetry here as well as all the other ancient architecture we have seen here. There are open chambers throughout this building that if you stand in opposite corners, facing the corner, you can talk to one another in practically a whisper. Makes me wonder if the architects who built Union Terminal in Cincinnati ever visited here….

Another meal at Dasaprakash and then to the railway terminal where I am sitting on my backpack, writing this part of the blog. Lots of activity around us and lots of ‘over the shoulder lookers’. Our train leaves at 9:20pm and we get into Varanasi at 6:15a tomorrow.

First view through the west gate

First view through the west gate

Princess Di and Prince Phillip pose

Princess Di and Prince Phillip pose

It glimmers in the sunshine

It glimmers in the sunshine

Spectacular even in the rain

Spectacular even in the rain

Posted by CWalts 17:00 Archived in India

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