Today we move on to Agra for our visit to the Taj Mahal, the driving force for the whole trip! We are at the dining room when it opens at 7AM and enjoy another good breakfast buffet. We are loaded and on our way with Rishi by 8:15AM. Being Sunday, the traffic is noticeably reduced and we pick up a new freeway quality road with very light traffic heading South.
The first thing of interest is a huge sports complex being built by private money. This thing has multiple stadiums to include soccer, track and field, horse racing, auto racing and more. This complex runs for miles down either side of the highway.
The poor of India work constantly and we pass many miles of wheat fields being harvested by hand in the biblical way. Both men and women, most dressed in colorful saris, squat with a hand sickle cutting the grain stalks and tying them into bundles or sheaves. These sheaves are left in orderly rows behind the workers as they progress slowly into standing grain. The only other place we have seen this done is along the Nile in Egypt. In fact the farming and the building style remind us of Egypt.
Interspersed among the wheat fields are smoke stacks that mark brick making kilns. The wheat straw is used along with dirt that is carefully removed from the land in geometric patterns. They then plant the bottom of these dirt excavations with more wheat as they don’t just dig out a pit but scrape off the land and leave a flat bottom.
The drive to Agra is an interesting and uneventful 200 plus kilometers with only one stop for a bathroom break. Dick uses the facilities and they are no better or worse than similar rest stops along US highways. Once off the main highway, we make our way toward Agra and, perhaps, the true India begins to emerge.
"Chaos Thy Name Is India."
We drop off the new highway into a traffic nightmare consisting of every known land conveyance used during the last 5,000 years; camels, bullocks, animal drawn carts, human push carts, bicycles, motorbikes of all descriptions, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, tractors, feet, etc. This would not be so bad, but there are, literally, no rules of the road!
Agra is an ancient city and the roads, streets and alleys follow paths set down over 1,000 years ago; i.e., no rhyme nor reason for modern traffic. Trash and garbage burns in the streets or blows about in the hot wind. Animals wander on and off the roadways and little children seem to dart everywhere.
Our first stop is the Itimad-ud-Daula or "Baby Taj," the tomb Mirza Ghiyath Beg that predates the Taj Mahal. It is a bejeweled marble box on the Yamuna River, but much less grand than the Taj. Dick pays for tickets and gets back some small change bills that are filthy. He carefully segregates them in his pocket and, for the first time, hopes for a beggar to appear.
We walk into the complex and view the city from the wall above the river. Across lies old Agra. Children are playing below the wall in the filthy water and heaven only knows what is floating by in the stream. Shoes must come off to go into the tomb and Carolyn elects to watch Dick’s shoes, his only pair on the trip, while he climbs the steep stairs and goes inside. A self appointed guide immediately begins pointing out the best photo spots and does a good job. Dick tips him 100 rupees ($2), and receives blessings on his house and family forever. Dick gives the filthy rupees he received earlier to a little girl of nine or ten and receives a beautiful smile and bow in return. Money well given and it is no longer infecting his pocket.
Next we stop at the Agra Fort another World Heritage Site and wade into the throng, after paying 400 rupees for the privilege, to see this seat of power during the middle ages. The fort was built originally of brick and is mentioned in history for the first time in 1080 when it was captured by a Ghaznavide force. In the 15th century Lodhi governed the country from Agra fort. When in the 16th century the Mughal’s assumed power, Agra and its fort came into its heyday
Once inside it is not as crowded as at the entrance area but it is very hot, 102o or so, and a hot wind is blowing. Surprisingly, it is not too bad in the shade. Dick observes that being Mughal was good but you were still hot! We explore this massive complex and enjoy our first real view of the Taj Mahal. Again there are many Indian families out today and the grounds are a riot of color...it is worth it to just people watch for a few minutes from shaded park bench.
Rishi picks us up at the gate and we head for our hotel. We finally make it to the Oberoi Hotel AmerVilas and enter an oasis of calm and green in the middle of the brown dirt and chaos. As in Delhi, we are met in high style by liveried doormen, a lady in native costume, who is the services manager, and the hotel chef complete with toque. As promised, our room is lovely, without a balcony, and looks out over the hotel pool and gardens to the Taj Mahal in the middle distance; about 1.5 miles or so. To the left beyond the hotel grounds are the hovels of Agra, but the view from our room is as promised and worth the price.
After a restful afternoon, our driver, along with a Taj Mahal guide we requested, picks us up for the drive back across the river to view the Taj at sunset from a public garden area. This is a holy day holiday and the road to the gardens goes through a small village that is gearing up for an evening of partying..the road is packed with revelers and we creep along to the gardens. Once there, the guide does a good job of explaining the history but we make a note to cut off the genealogy lesson if it starts again tomorrow morning. There is a thundershower in the area and the wind kicks up as we are looking across the river at the Taj and at the place where Hindus cremate their dead. As we watch, the cremation flames begin to grow and climb as another soul is sent on to the great beyond.
Between the music for the festival, the smoke, dusty wind and just what is actually going on in the distance, it makes for an ethereal scene and experience.
We return to the hotel right at good dark and head for our room where we scrub some of Agra off our bodies.
The hotel bar is closed tonight due to the holy day holiday and there is no bourbon or rum in the mini bar so we have a light dinner and cocktails of coke over ice in the room! We are to meet our guide at 5:45AM to head for the Taj Mahal at sunrise.