India

Wednesday 10/24/07 - Train to Agra, Itimad-ud-daulah (Baby Taj), Agra Fort, Taj Mahal, Marble Artisans

We received our wake-up call at 4:30 am (and they gave us a 5 minute snooze call afterwards just in case). They were so polite: "Please, ma'am...thank you, ma'am..." We quickly got dressed, headed downstairs to the business center to shoot off a quick email, and checked out.The hotel didn't have a central front desk. Instead it had various small desks placed along the perimeters of the lobby with comfortable armchairs for guests to sit in while they checked in or out. I took some photos of the gorgeous Mughal art and architectural details of the lobby. We were picked up at 5:30 in a comfortable car which had throw pillows on the seats. Before we departed, someone remembered that the hotel had packed an enormous boxed breakfast for us to take with us. They ran to get it and brought it to the car. As we drove to the train station, we passed the other nearby 5 star hotel (the Shangri-La) and arrived at the train station at 5:50.

We stood in the vast station. We woudl have felt rather intimidated had we not known that a Peirce and Leslie guide would be here to meet us and help us to find the correct train. We took in the scene, which for now was rather calm, but would grow more chaotic as more people arrived. Our Peirce and Leslie representative arrived and led us to the platform for the Shatabdi Express rom New Delhi to Bhopal. He led onto our assigned car. We got settled into nice seats in the center of the air-conditioned car with a table in front of us. We were seated facing one another on opposite sides of the table, After getting our bearings, we realized that Craig would be riding backwards. He doesn't care for it, and I don't mind either way, so we swapped seats. As the train pulled out of New Delhi, we passed through some slums on the outskirts, but soon we were passing through the countryside. The sun was a glowing orange orb rising in the smoggy sky. Little did we know we wouldn’t need our enormous boxed breakfast, as plenty of food and drinks were served on the ride. We were served cold bottled water, tea, and biscuits. Our packed breakfast contained 4 large bananas, 2 apples, 4 hard boiled eggs, 2 croissants, and 2 small blueberry muffins. The train also offered a hot breakfast and cereal. I've never seen so much food, and we felt guilty even carrying the boxed lunch, like we were somehow "above" the train food. We ate what we could and offered some to our neighbors. We chatted with a finance teacher named Jay who was on holiday with his wife and daughter.

With good food and good conversation, the 2 hour plus train ride flew by. As we pulled into the Agra station, we noticed some people going to the bathroom on the rails,. We had heard a lot about this, and it seems to bother quite a few westerners, and contribute to the reputation that India sometimes gets as a "dirty" country. People had told us that what you see from the train is just horrible. But our viewpoint was different. These people were just doing what they had to do, and they had no other place to do it. They weren't trying to offend anyone. We were sad for them that they had no other options, and thought that rather than be offended, westerners should thank their lucky stars that they themselves didn't have to resort to such a thing, and feel compassion for those who did. Regardless, it wasn't the enormous display that everyone had made it out to be, and was hardly something to dwell on or detract from the experience.

When we arrived in Agra, we were met by a local guide named Sanjay. He knew exactly which car we would be seated in, and met us immediately. He brought us to the parking lot, where Raj was waiting. It was nice to see a familiar face. We still had a whole box of leftover breakfast, and we wanted to give it to somebody who could use it. We took one look at the train station's parking lot, full of beggars of all age and physical condition - from young mothers with infants to men with no legs propelling themselves by their arms on a skateboard - and were immediately overwhelmed. We felt so helpless. What good ws one box of food going to combat so much need and suffering? And how would we decide who to give it to? We asked Sanjay for help. He scanned the crowd and gave the box to a young mother with an infant. We got into the car and closed the door as a crippled man on the ground reached up and clawed at my window. It wasn't a threatening gesture; it was an entreaty for help - a last ditch effort before we inevitably drove away.

We drove for around 15 minutes to the Oberoi Amarvilas, and it was truly an oasis in Agra. We knew that this would be an experience. We were only staying one night in Agra, and it was the last hotel stay of our trip, so we decided to pamper ourselves. This hotel is only 600 meters from the gate of the Taj Mahal, and all rooms have a view of the monument. This was something we couldn't pass up. We pulled into the driveway and there was a small reflecting pool with a statue, elephant statues bedecked in marigolds, and employees in fancy ethnic dress. We walked by a courtyard area. There were many marble walkways over a pool of water, and at their convergence a man playing a flute sat cross-legged on a mat.

We were escorted into the lobby and tilaka (red powder marks) were applied to our foreheads. We were met by Nainci, who sat us down at a little table and explained the amenities of the hotel and checked us in. We were served fresh watermelon juice, along with cool wet facecloths, which were both quite refreshing. Through the window you could see a hazy outline of the Taj Mahal, almost as faint as a mirage. We stepped onto the balcony overlooking the gardens and pool, gazing at the ghostly Taj in the distance. Nainci commented that the visibility wasn't great today, because of the "clouds." We though it had more to do with pollution. The air was heavy with it. But one man's clouds are another man's pollution, I guess. Check-in time isn’t until later, but they try to accommodate train passengers as they arrive. We were supposed to meet our guide and begin touring at 10. It was now 9, and Nainci said that our room should definitely be ready before we needed to leave. We sipped our juice and admired the surreal view while seated on a sofa. The sitting room was very nice, with large flower arrangements, crystal chandeliers, and walls adorned with gold leaf. A man playing a hammered dulcimer sat on the landing of a grand marble staircase and the notes filled the lobby and sitting room.

One by one, other guests disappeared to their rooms, and soon it was coming up on 10:00. We weren’t sure what to do with our baggage, as we would soon be touring with our guide. Sanjay, who had met us at the train, asked if we were ready to go, and we told him we didn’t have a room yet. He immediately went to an employee who came over in full apology mode, thinking we were unhappy or that we thought everyone else got priority with room assignment. We tried to tell him that we weren’t upset in the least, but he kept apologizing. He went to get Nainci and she apologized too. We tried to explain that we were merely wondering what to do with our bags, and not complaining about the fact that we hadn't been shown to our room yet. We could tell this was a "customer is always right" sort of place, and we eventually gave up on trying to fight it and accepted their promise to show us to the room immediately.

We were quickly introduced to Mukul, our guide, who had been patiently waiting on the other side of the lobby. He looked rather professorial in a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt, and he was immediately very friendly. He told us to take our time and get settled, and that he would be here whenever we were ready. Nainci brought us to our room. It was gorgeous. The bed had a large upholstered headboard, eight throw pillows, and a pretty quilt. There was a comfortable chair with ottoman, a marble side table inlaid with semi-precious stones, a desk, a TV, a bathroom with a separate tub and shower stall, walk in luggage room with two silk robes...and then, there it was, the view through the large windows of the Taj's minarets, dome, and gate peeking above green trees. Nainci asked if we'd like to make dinner reservations, which would be a necessity if we wanted to eat in the Indian restaurant, which featured live music. We weren't sure of the day's exact itinerary, but we knew we'd be on our own for dinner. We made a reservation for the late seating (9:30 pm), and Nainci said there would be no problem with canceling if our plans changed.

We quickly got a day pack ready for the day and headed downstairs for a proper introduction to Mukul. Raj pulled the car around and we were off. Mukul immediately started imparting his extensive knowledge of the area, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Mukul directed our attention to a couple of men leading a gigantic "tusker" down the street. I was floored by the sheer size of the elephant as it came within a foot of the car. Asian elephants are actually smaller than African elephants, but you could have folled me. It seemed much larger than the adult elephants we had viewed in Kenya and Tanzania from a greater distance. Mukul gave the lead man a tip so that I could take a picture, but it seemed that the man was deliberately trying to block my view in order to get even more money. I managed to get a pretty good photo despite his best efforts. The elephant was 30 years in age, and was named Rajesh.

Raj drove us through some neighborhoods, and there were a million things to look at. Mukul pointed out elaborate facades of havelis (architecturally beautiful old houses of nobles). We saw water buffalo and camels, rickshaws, TSR's (Tricycle Rickshaw Scooters, known as tuk-tuks in other parts of the world), etc. People were carrying eggplants, cow patties, milk cans, sugar cane, anything and everything you could think of. Mukul pointed out that people's balconies were enclosed by bars. He said that they were a deterrent for burgling - but not by humans. Rhesus monkeys become pests and enter people's homes in search of food. If they can't find food, they will take material items which they hold for ransom. They will take clothing and only give it back in exchange for food. Monkeys are amazing creatures!

Raj tried to drive us over the bridge so that we could get a glimpse of more local culture, but a police officer turned us around, saying that they were only letting small vehicles cross right now. There was a lot of traffic and it seemed unlikely that we could physically turn around, but, this being India, Raj pulled it off. We passed all kinds of interesting small shops, saw cows eating trash on the side of the road, people eating in front of street food stands, etc. There was so much I wanted to photograph, but the frenetic pace of the road meant you couldn't slow down or pull over for a second. So Craig and I snapped photos furiously as we wound our way through Agra's streets.Mukul started to tell us a story from Mughal history. He would continually interrupt himself when he saw something to which he would want to direct our attention. Once we had observed the sight, he would launch back into the story without missing a beat.

Our first stop was the tomb of Itimad-ud-daulah, colloquially known as the “Baby Taj”. It is a small Mughal mausoleum which is somewhat similar in style. It gets a lot fewer tourists than a lot of the other Agra sites, but its very beauty leads it to be called a jewel box. "Itimad-ud-daulah" translates to "Pillar of the State", a title given to Mirza Ghiyas Beg (whose granddaughter, Mumtaz Mahal, would eventually be immortalilzed in her own tomb, the Taj Mahal). Itimad-ud-daulah's daughter, Nur Jahan, built this tomb for her father and mother, Asmat Begum, and it was completed in 1628.

We entered through a large red sandstone gate with white decorative detailing. We passed through the center archway into a a beautiful courtyard with green lawns and flowers. The gate was a lot larger in scale than the sandstone wall which surrounded the courtyard. The mausoleum itself was lovely. It was made of white marbe and was very intricately decorated with carvings and inlaid stones. Its footprint is a square, and on each corner is a octagonal tower topped with a dome. The center of the building has a square "barahdari" rather than a dome. A man put navy blue booties over our shoes, and we climbed the handful of steps up to the mausoleum. This was the first white marble building in the area, previous architecture being made of sandstone. The gorgeous marble is inlaid inside and out with stones. The patterns depict Persian motifs such as stars, plants, vines, flowers, trees, and vases, as well as tessellated geometric shapes. In addition to the delicate and exquisite inlay work, there was also stucco and paint work, much involving gold leaf. Marble was also carved in bas relief. There were very intricate jali (carved marble screens), one of which consisted of patterns of concentric stars and hexagons.

It was overwhelming, everywhere we looked there was something beautiful to behold - walls, ceilings, floor...all were intricately decorated and we were snapping photos furiously.We saw the cenotaph of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, made of white marble and containing the raised oblong "pencil box", which indicates that it is the cenotaph of a male. It was housed in a room with inlaid patterns on the floor as well as on the walls. The site had a view of the Yamuna River, and we could see water buffalo wading in the river, and locals washing laundry in its waters and laying it out to dry on the banks. There was wildlife in the gardens, including mongoose, egrets, black kites, and something that looked to us like a chipmunk with a squirrel's tail. We were amazed by how few tourists were there: maybe five other than ourselves. It is a delightfully beautiful and intricate monument not to be missed. We had expected to be impressed by the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, but this was a lovely surprise, and was an up-close-and-personal introduction to Mughal art and architecture on a scale that is a bit more digestible.

As we got back into the car, Mukul picked up his Mughal history lesson just where he had left off. Not to be deterred, when we got back to the car, Raj successfully attempted to cross the bridge from the other direction. We could see why Mukul wanted us to experience this bridge crossing. Kids in school uniforms were riding bicycles, women in gorgeous brightly colored saris were riding in rickshaws, white cattle wearing ribbons and necklaces pulled a load of flattened cardboard on carts with large tires, people on bicycles carried everything from stalks of bamboo, eggplants, banana leaves to be used as disposable plates, milk jugs, and huge loads piled up higher than seemed physically possible without tipping. We could see people washing clothes on the riverbanks. We got across the bridge and then passed some more intricate havelis. We passed a shop which sold statues made of sun-dried clay, and saw a veiled Muslim bridegroom riding a horse. It was sensory overload; a beautiful chaos.

It was very surreal to see a street sign that read "Taj Mahal 1.7 km Agra Fort 0.7 km". We were actually here! We continued the 0.7km to Agra Fort The colossal red sandstone structure was visible from the road and its scale could only truly be appreciated from a distance. The fort is surrounded by 2.4 km of 70-foot-tall sandstone walls and sits on the western bank of the Yamuna River. Only a quarter of the fort is open to the public, as three quarters are still used by the Indian military. It seems fitting that this place is still used as a military stronghold after all of these years. The fort, as it stands today, was constructed by the Mughals in the mid-1500's, though there are accounts of an older, brick fort on the same site that dates back to 1080. Agra was originally called "Akbarabad," after Akbar, the Grand Mughal, who moved his capital to Agra in 1565. Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan, added considerably to the construction of buildings within the walls of the fort. The fort is crescent shaped, but its large scale prevented us from noticing that until we viewed aerial photographs of it in a book.

We entered through the tourist gate along with many other tourists. We were pleased to see that many of the tourists were Indian. We saw one group of Indian children on a school field trip. We were channeled through a hallway with very high walls, and through some other archways, and arrived at a courtyard with an extremely green lawn in front of an ornate sandstone structure. This building had white marble inlay in geometric designs, and had towers on the corners, much like the "Baby Taj" had. We continued on to a garden of alternating green and brown plants. The garden looked like a series of interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. Around the garden were white marble buildings. We went inside the buildings, which were very ornately decorated with carvings and paintings in gold leaf.

Next we saw Musamman Burj, the gorgeous octagonal "Jasmine Tower" where Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb. It was originally the quarters of Jahangir, but was rebuilt to suit Shah Jahan, who spent the last years of his life in this tower. This tower is very ornate. It is made of white marble, has many columns, and is inlaid with precious stones in floral and geometric patterns. Jali screens have been carved out of the marble. There is a "rug" carved into the floor, and it is said that Shah Jahan filled it with red water to decorate his quarters. There were rings embedded in the marble onto which curtains were hung to keep the rooms cool. Incense was burned to add the the tranquil atmosphere. Some of the gold-leaf paintings here had been restored to their former grabndeur, showcasing just how lovely it would have looked shining next to sparkly inlaid gems in the marble. Shah Jahan is said to have gazed over the Yamuna River at the beautiful mausoleum of his beloved wife, the Taj Mahal, until his death in 1666. This spot was indeed a prime location for viewing the Taj. As the day progressed, the air was getting less smoggy, and we had a clearer view of the Taj than we had had from our hotel. This was why we would be visiting the Taj last...both to see the sunset and to get the clearest visibility.

We marveled at the dry moats which surrounded the walls of the Agra Fort, and saw various buildings and public assembly spaces. One of the most popular attractions for the Indian visitors was the Throne of Jangahir. This was a black slab of 6-inch-thick marble which was over 10 feet long by nearly 10 feet wide. It was built in 1602 amd brought to Agra from Allahabad in 1610. Indian tourists sat on it to get their photos taken. The throne was once hit by a cannonball, and it was so solid that it did not break at the point of impact. There was a small divot, but the force of the impact split the slab on the opposite side. The cannonball bounced off of the throne and hit a nearby marble wall, creating a round hole. Mukul directed our attention to the trajectory, and there, as if staged, in the hole in the wall sat a wild bright green parakeet with a bright red beak. "He is posing for you!" said Mukul excitedly. And indeed he seemed to be. The parakeet sat nonchalantly in the hole, with cracks radiating outwardly around him through the marble. It was surreal.

There was so much more to explore here...we could have easily spent several more hours at this one site. However, we had a mere two days to spend in India, and we had a schedule to keep. At 1:00, we headed back to the hotel for lunch. As we walked from the exit gate to the car, we were bombarded by young men selling souvenirs. One had a small elephant carving that was kind of cute. I had wanted to buy some Indian elephant carvings, but he was asking $10 USD. This was way too much, and I stood firm at 100 rupees. He continued to follow me and even when I got into the car, he stuck his arm into the car and though he eventually agreed to my price, his aggressive behavior turned us off and we shooed him away. We arrived back at the hotel and had nothing else scheduled for the day other than the Taj Mahal visit. Though the goal was to be there at sunset, Mukul wanted to be sure that we maximized our time there, and suggested that we head over around 3:30. This sounded great to us. The more time the better! We said goodbye to Mukul for the moment, and he advised us to bring as little as possible to the Taj. Due to security, they do a thorough check of bags, and don't allow electronic equipment other than cameras. Even at that, you are not allowed to bring extra batteries or memory cards. Basically, he said we should be carrying a camera and that is it. We appreciated the advice, because, left to our own devices, we would have brought a daypack, extra batteries and memory cards, etc.

Since we only had 2 1/2 hours before our Taj visit, and we had to make sure our camera gear was self-contained and ready, we opted for in-room dining so that we could make the most of our time. It was also warm and rather oppressive outside due to the air being thick with pollution, so we would also enjoy the air conditioning. We each ordered a simple lunch of a chicken burger with cheese, aioli, and fries. They asked if we would like a garden salad and we said yes. Craig ordered a Kingfisher beer and I had a Fanta. The room service was delivered on a rolling table with a heating oven in front, like we had had last night in Delhi. The presentation was simpler, but the food was tasty. The "garden salad" was almost comical; I would have mistaken it for a garnish.

After a quick freshen-up, as well as making sure that our cameras had fresh batteries and memory cards, we still had a little bit of free time, and decided to spend it exploring the grounds of the hotel. We walked around the poolside terraces, and the water looked extremely tempting in the afternoon heat. The lawns were stunningly green and accented with purple and yellow flowers. White egrets were a stark color contrast to the grass. As we walked by the pool cabana, the staff were very attentive, and asked if we would like towels, etc. We told them that we were just walking around for a few minutes before heading to the Taj, but thanked them very much. Not content to not be able to help us, they insisted that we take ice-cold mini bottles of water, which we gladly accepted and swilled down. We walked to a small concourse of boutique shops. They were extremely high end, boasting shiny silver tea services, silk clothing, etc. We browsed around and then went into the one affordable shop, a small book and stationery store. There were some interesting items here, and we browsed here as well.

At the appointed time of 3:30, we met Mukul in the lobby. Guests at the Oberoi Amarvilas get complimentary golf cart rides to the Taj. Due to the effects of pollution on the monument, gasoline-powered vehicles are restricted from getting too close. Golf carts, rickshaws, and animal-drawn carriages are the only methods of transportation allowed within a certain radius. A hotel staffer picked us up in the golfcart, and drove us an embarrassingly short distance to the Taj gate. We felt like this treatment was a silly extravagance; we could easily have walked! But this is the kind of service that you get from luxury hotels in India. We got out of the golfcart in an area lined by gift shops and some freelance souvenir sellers. We were harrassed slightly by these hawkers, but nowhere near as badly as we had expected to be. Mukul explained that the police are active in this area to make sure that the sellers don't give the tourists too much trouble. The last thing the tourist industry wants is India's reputation for panhandling and selling. We were on a mission to get into the Taj, and a simple but firm "no thank you" did the trick of discouraging most of the sellers.

Mukul procured our tickets, along with bottled water and shoe booties which are included in the entrance price. Mukul's valuable advice not to take anything other than our cameras and wallets allowed us to breeze through security. There was no line whatsoever. Mukul’s timing was impeccable, as later there would be a long queue as people made the mad dash to arrive in time for sunset. We approached the entrance gate, which is topped by 22 small domes, one to represent each year of construction of the Taj (the gate was the last thing to be built, the finishing touch of the monument). The gate is massive and made of sandstone with marble and precious-stone inlay. When you pass through the gate you get your first full glimpse of the Taj’s glory, framed by the gracefully simple archway of the gate. Mukul suggested that we stop in the center of the gate. Taking a slow step forward the Taj seems to retreat from you. Taking a slow step backwards it seems to follow you. This is the first of many illusions we would experience during our visits to the Taj Mahal.

When you emerge from the gate, you arrive at the most crowded part of the compound. You are directly in front of the reflecting pool, where everyone wants their photo to be taken. Mukul was a pro at this and managed to get some great photos of us here (looking as though we are the only people there) before quickly moving on and letting others have a turn. We admired the Taj from a distance and then started walking through the grounds. Mukul found a park bench in the shade where we sat, gazing at the Taj, while he told us about its history. Always vigilant while still giving full attention to the stories that he was telling us, Mukul caught sight of a vacant bench with an even better view, and we headed over there. It was amazing how well he knew the place, and he always knew the best places to sit, the best angles for photos, etc.

There were professional photographers swarming thr grounds, showing photo album portfolios and trying to get visitors to pose. Whepolitely declined, and when we showed our own camera, they left us alone completely (except for one guy who surreptitiously snapped a quick photo of us when we were posing for Mukul - we suspect that we will be a part of his portfolio someday).

After the organic, irregular qualities of the monuments (stupas and chortens) we had seen throughout Bhutan, the Taj seemed impossibly perfect and precise in its architecture. I felt as if I had wandered into a sketch by M.C. Escher. The structure was idealized, not of this world. It doesn't follow the rules of perspective. Mukul pointed out that the Arabic lettering of the Koranic verses on the gate and the Taj itself got bigger toward the top of the building, giving the illusion from afar that it is a constant size. Each Arabic letter is carved from its own piece of black marble. Craig noticed that the minarets of the Taj are not straight. Mukul was thrilled with this, and said that Craig was the only one of his clients to ever mention this unprompted. This is yet another illusion, so that the building looks completely straight from a distance. They are an impressive 133 feet in height. Other features of the architecture provide the illusion that the building is floating (and the smog contributes that illusion as well).

The monument is totally symmetrical. The red sandstone building to the west of it is a functioning mosque which faces West towards Mecca (this seemed odd to us - being from the USA we always hear of mosques having to face EAST towards Mecca, and here we were on the other side of the world!). There is an identical building on the eastern side of the Taj compund which can never be used as a mosque because it faces the wrong direction. It was constructed for the symmetry alone, and is known as the "javab" or "reply." We learned that mosques can be identified because they have three domes, whereas mausoleums only have one. We heard the call to prayer while we were there. The scale of the Taj is almost unbelievable. The people swarming around on its plinth looked to be the size of ants.

The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan (formerly Prince Kurram) in memory of his most beloved wife, Arjumand Bano Begum (known as Mumtaz Mahal, "beloved ornament of the palace"). She died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child. He contracted artisans from throughout the Mughal Empire, central Asia, and Iran to work on this monument. When Shah Jahan died in 1666, his daughter saw to it that he was buried here as well, though that was not his own plan.

The grounds were alive with birds and wildlife, and as we walked around, a monkey walked past Craig. I wasn't able to get a good photo, though. While there was still enough daylight, Mukul suggested going inside. We put our shoe booties on and headed up the stairs and inside the mausoleum. This was pretty chaotic, as many people were trying to squeeze in all at once. Photographs are not permitted inside of the building, as posted placards warned. However, it seemed that everyone other than us was snapping photos inside, both with and without flash, and no one stopped them. Mukul said that it was up to us whether to take pictures or not - that you weren't supposed to, but that he didn't want us to feel that we were losing out when all of these other people ended up with photos of the interior. We told him not to worry; that we found their behavior very disrespectful and that we did not have the desire to take photos; we preferred to follow the rules.

The interior of the Taj is a lot smaller than we had expected, because it is in fact a building with a building. Inside there is an intricate three dimensional white marble jali screen, each section cut from a single piece of marble, which surrounds Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph. The octagonal screen is an amazing work of craftsmanship which took 10 years to complete. It is eight feet tall, and gives the impression that you are looking upon her resting place through an intricate lace veil.

She is buried in the exact center of the building. To the west of her is her husband, Shah Jahan’s cenotaph. This is the only element of the Taj which is not symmetrical. Shah Jahan did not intend the Taj to be his own burial site. He planned it strictly for his most beloved wife. But after his death, his daughter decided that it was only fitting for her father to be entombed with his true love, within the beautiful tomb which was a testament to their love. The couple's cenotaphs are made of white marble inlaid with intricate floral motifs of precious stones. Since Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth, she is considered to be a martyr by Islamic tradition. Because of this, her cenotaph is inlaid with Koranic verses in black marble, while her husband's is not.

We circled the tomb clockwise and then stepped out of the crowd into the outer perimeter of the building. We stepped out the back and looked over the Yamuna River. There is a lot of mythology built up around the Taj Mahal, and I couldn't help but ask about one story which I had heard which stuck in my head. Had the artisans who built the Taj really been maimed at Shah Jahan's order so that they could not produce art so beautiful ever again? Mukul explained that this is a misunderstanding of the facts. In actuality, the artisans were paid so well for their efforts that they never had to work again after the monument was completed. If they were approached for work which they didn’t want to do, they would say “My hands are cut; I cannot do it,” much the way we would say “my hands are tied.” They weren’t literally cut or maimed; it was an expression which has been misinterpreted over the years.

Mukul explained that another commonly held belief is that Shah Jahan planned to build his own mausoleum (an exact replica of the Taj, but in black marble) on the other side of the Yamuna River. This myth of the "Black Taj" seems to have come about due to an octagonal “foundation” on the other side of the Yamuna river. This wasn’t the foundation for a building, however. It was actually a reflecting pool in which Shah Jahan could look at the Taj by moonlight from his favorite location. It was great to have someone as knowledgeable as Mukul who could tell us what is fact and what is mere myth.

We continued our walk through the grounds, and Mukul took photos of us in various spots, including the “Princess Diana bench” where the beloved princess had been photographed. The sun was getting low and red in the sky, and reflected off the stone floors and peeked behind domes and minarets. It was quite lovely, and the Taj itself had a soft orangey-pink glow. When the light really started to wane, Mukul said that the views would only get worse, and we should leave on a high note and come back for sunrise. At this point the queues to enter were very long, and there surely wasn’t enough light to see anything inside the mausoleum. We were very glad that we had such a professional and expert guide to get us in at just the right time to avoid most of the crowds and have plenty of time to see everything that the site had to offer.

Near the gate, the professional photographers displayed the photos they had taken so that people could pick them up and pay for them. The prices were quite reasonable, actually. I had expected it to be an expensive scam. But in fact it is a good alternative if people don't have a camera of their own. The only downside is having to wait for the print to be developed. As we exited the grounds and approached the golf cart, we were accosted by some young folks selling souvenirs. I played hardball with a guy selling a carved elephant and got it for 200 rupees. I think Mukul was impressed by my unwillingness to compromise. A police officer was watching the entire transaction to make sure that I was satisfied. When he saw a kid harassing another tourist, he threw a stone at the kid. This wasn't a warning shot, either. He hit him square in the back.

We took the golf cart back to the hotel, freshened up, and then Mukul told us we were going to visit some local artisans. We met up with Raj, who drove us to the Marble Emporium. It was an unassuming building, but there were quite a few employees, a few of whom looked like security. Four men were sitting cross-legged on the floor, working hand-powered grinding wheels which they controlled with a bow, painstakingly shaping 2 millimeter thick semi-precious stones to be inlaid into marble. This is the age-old technique called pietra dura, which was used by the artisans who created the Taj Mahal, the tomb of Itimad-ud-daulah, and various marble buildings inside the walls of Agra Fort.

The manager of the emporium explained the process to us as the men worked. He explained that most of the artisans work from their homes, but some came into the showroom to do demonstrations,like these men. One of these men was a master craftsman and the others were apprentices. One of the apprentices was carving out a template into white marble (this Indian marble is the hardest in the world) so that the stones could be inlaid, polished, and the mosaic surface should be completely smooth. The detail of the work is amazing. Some of the inlays are so small that you can barely see them without a magnifying glass. The manager said that fifty years ago, this art had nearly died out, but there had been a concerted effort to bring it back, as it was so important to the area's history and culture.

After watching the artisans, the manager took us around the showroom, and showed us some gorgeous pieces. We saw marble and alabaster replicas of the Taj Mahal, which reminded us of one we had seen at the Peabody Essex Museum back home. We wondered if this is where it had been made. We used a magnifying glass to see the delicate details on the tabletops that were displayed hanging on the walls. Most of the designs were traditional Persian influenced designs of floral or geometric patterns (under Islamic law, images of animals, birds, or humans are forbidden), though there are also some European designs with birds and animals, and they are increasingly exporting work to Italy.

We were really starting to appreciate the beauty of Islamic art. It is so intricate and imaginative! Although the artists were restricted in what subject matter they could depict, it seems to have brought out their creativity. A finite number of elements (geometric shapes, botanical forms, and still life) can be formed into infinite dazzling combinations.

After seeing how gorgeous all of the items were, we had to buy something. It took us a long time to decide. They gave us each a Coke while we browsed. There were some absolutely gorgeous boxes with incredibly detailed work and intricate patterns. There were also lamps, tabletops, coasters, replicas of the Taj Mahal, vases, trivets, etc. We found a box that we really liked, but we wondered about displaying it. It wasn’t cheap, and we wanted something that we would really enjoy looking at. In the end we decided on a lamp. It is a curved surface and therefore more difficult to inlay, so the detail isn’t as granular as the smooth sided boxes. But it is a gorgeous Persian floral motif. The lamp itself is shaped like an urn and has a small cover. A lightbulb goes inside and the white marble is translucent, so it absolutely glows. We had considered getting one with jali latticework carvings, as it would project interesting shadows, but we didn’t like the fact that you could see the naked bulb inside, so we opted for the solid one instead. They packed it up for us in newspaper and hay. We were quite happy with our purchase.

Mukul had been incredibly patient while we were browsing, and as soon as we were done, he re-appeared. He said that he had hoped to show us some embroidery and gem work tonight as well, but it was now too late (it was after 7 pm already!) We were initially disappointed and wondered if we had taken too long in our browsing, but Mukul re-assured us that everything was fine. We could see the embroidery and gems in the morning before heading out of Agra. That sounded great to us.

We headed back to the hotel and were greeted at the entrance by Nainci. We said our godnights to Mukul and Raj, and decided to cancel the dinner reservation and opt for in-room dining instead. Though the restaurant looked very cool and there were live sitar players, we felt underdressed and a bit tired, and would rather just relax in the room. We took some night photos of the grounds (the pool was all lit up and there were large torches burning, etc) and then headed back inside. We ordered in-room dining. Craig took a shower and I simultaneously took a bubble bath while waiting for the in-room dining to arrive. It felt so decadent. We lounged in the silk robes and slippers provided by the hotel.

Our dinner arrived. We had a Greek salad with particularly delicious feta cheese, a kathi roll with cottage cheese (sort of an Indian spring roll) murg tikka makhni, and kori kempu (chili chicken served on a leaf). Craig drank Kingfisher Beer, and I drank Fanta. It was a very nice meal, but last night's in-room-dining experience had set the bar so high that it was impossible for this one to measure up to its standards. Still, we enjoyed it quite a bit, and were happy to be relaxing in the room rather than eating at a "seating" in teh facy restaurant (though we would have liked the live sitar music...) I wrote in the journal while Craig watched some Indian TV. The advertising was as bad (if not worse) than in the USA, and was really distracting. But overall the Indian TV experience was very tiring - every channel looked like a Bollywood version of MTV. After we packed up for our departure tomorrow, we went to sleep at 12:30.
Craig boarding the Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Agra

Craig boarding the Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Agra


Jay and Steph on the Shatabdi Express

Jay and Steph on the Shatabdi Express


Arrival at the Oberoi Amarvilas

Arrival at the Oberoi Amarvilas


View of the Taj Mahal from our room at the Oberoi Amarvilas

View of the Taj Mahal from our room at the Oberoi Amarvilas


Elephant on the street in Agra

Elephant on the street in Agra


Agra 'traffic'

Agra 'traffic'


Itimad-ud-daulah

Itimad-ud-daulah


Cenotaphs of Nur Jahan and Asmat Begum

Cenotaphs of Nur Jahan and Asmat Begum


Itimad-ud-daulah

Itimad-ud-daulah


Itimad-ud-daulah

Itimad-ud-daulah


Bridge traffic, Agra

Bridge traffic, Agra


Cardboard

Cardboard


Agra Fort

Agra Fort


Agra Fort

Agra Fort


Musamman Burj (Jasmine Tower)

Musamman Burj (Jasmine Tower)


Musamman Burj (Jasmine Tower)

Musamman Burj (Jasmine Tower)


Parakeet in a cannonball hole

Parakeet in a cannonball hole


Oberoi Amarvilas pool

Oberoi Amarvilas pool


Taj Mahal gate

Taj Mahal gate


Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal


Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal


Sunset at the Taj Mahal

Sunset at the Taj Mahal


Sunset at the Taj Mahal

Sunset at the Taj Mahal


Sunset at the Taj Mahal

Sunset at the Taj Mahal


Craig, Steph, and Mukul at the Taj Mahal

Craig, Steph, and Mukul at the Taj Mahal


Craftsmen inlaying marble

Craftsmen inlaying marble


Marble inlay process

Stages of the marble inlay process


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