Sunday, 20 March 2011

Wah, Taj!

The Taj Mahal….I had such great expectations from the monument, thanks to all that has been written & said about it. I almost didn’t want to visit for fear of being disappointed. Did I like it? At first, it was nice….okay, very nice. I’d say I wasn’t disappointed.  But, slowly, over the course of the next couple of days…. we were drawn to it repeatedly. So much so, that our Agra trip became predominantly a trip to the Taj Mahal. By the end of our stay at Agra, I was awestruck by the Taj! I know I sound all moony about the Taj, but that’s what it did to me! We managed to enjoy the other monuments at Agra as well, but, we need to go back to do them more justice. 

On our first visit, we went at 9 am & it was crowded! As it was a Sunday, there were lots of families out for a visit. But, we were told by the security guard that it was a very un-crowded day & during peak travel season, you can barely stand in the entrance court, without somebody stepping on your toes! When you first glimpse the Taj from the beautiful sandstone gateway, it looks really tiny! As you walk out onto the podium, it amazes you. The Taj Mahal was pure white, against a blue morning sky. The more we gaped at it, the more unreal it looked. Jostling for space with other visitors, we got our first photograph of this famous monument, from the uppermost podium. Unfortunately, the water body along the central axis was under maintenance so we could not see the reflection. 

Soon, we were surrounded by photographers offering to click our photos in ‘attractive poses’, as they put it…LOL! Armed with albums showing photos of Bollywood to Hollywood stars & the who’s who of the world (they claimed to have clicked all the pictures); it did make for a very effective sales pitch! We decided to take the plunge & get ourselves clicked, uncomfortable as the prospect of posing in public was! It was a laugh riot posing for the amusing pictures (and having numerous other people around us do the same helped to not make us feel like freaks). It’s given us a fun album to browse through now…something to remember the day by & laugh at the silliness of it all! After about 30 minutes of our ‘photoshoot’, the photographer left us, promising to have the album ready in an hour. We sauntered off to admire the Taj from the various podiums & platforms leading up to it. Finally, at the last podium, we took off our shoes at shoe minders’ stall & walked on the cool stone floor. We went into the mausoleum, where Mumtaz Mahal & Shah Jahan are buried next to each other. Of course, the beautiful marble tombstones that you see are just for visitors to pay their respects at…the actual tombs are 2 levels below & inaccessible. The incredible marble jali-work (lattice) around the tombs is breathtaking! We walked around the podium for some time, admiring the Pietra Dura (inlay work) up-close. You can also gaze at the Yamuna, which, at this time of the year, had very little water. We exited via the South gate & stopped for lunch at one of the small eateries there. 

In the afternoon, we decided go across the Yamuna. When we had enquired earlier about going across the bank, we were told that it is difficult to do so without a car & that there wasn’t anything to see! Incredulous, we called up our guide for the next day, Sunil, to ask for directions. He said that he was free & would like to join us, if we didn’t mind. He picked us up & we drove across the Yamuna, to Itmad-ud-Daula (the prime minister’s tomb). 

This marble tomb is a predecessor to the Taj Mahal. It has intricate inlay & lattice work that shone beautifully in the early evening sunlight. There were very few people here & we spent some time admiring the building. Don’t miss the beautifully painted dome when you enter the tomb. It’s worn out, but still displays some of the original brilliant colours – blue, turquoise, red & gold. 

Next, we went to Mehtab Bagh to view the Taj at sunset. There were hardly any people here as well & we walked till the edge of the river & sat on the ruins (rumoured to be the site of the Black Taj Mahal that was never built). As we waited for the sun to set, we could see the evening crowd milling about on the Taj’s podium & we were glad to be able to watch the monument in peace, from here.  It was a slightly hazy view due to winter, but, to watch it change colour with the evening light was great! 

The sun rays even caught a gemstone on the main dome that glinted brightly & could be seen all the way across the river. We pictured the Yamuna in full flow & could only wistfully sigh at how much more beautiful this might have been then. As soon as the sun set, we were roused by the security guards & asked to leave. After a snack of freshly made omelettes & tea outside Mehtab Bagh, we drove back, chatting away with Sunil about Agra.

Another day, we were there at the Taj by 7 am. We had walked to the East gate all the way from our home-stay. It was cold & a bit foggy and fun to walk through the narrow inner roads, watching Agra begin to bustle about. We had far fewer crowds this time around. And, the monument was glowing in the early morning sun! The marble looked far from white, yet, it was beautiful. With the water channel filled this morning, we had our fill of the reflections as well. We walked around the main podium & also went to the two buildings on either side of the Taj. One is a mosque; the other was supposed to be a guest-house for visitors to the mausoleum. The Taj can be seen from here, with a beautiful foreground of sandstone tiles. 

Afterwards, we visited the museum within the complex. It houses a small, interesting collection of art-work. We were hoping to see the original blue-prints of the Taj, but they had been taken away for maintenance & we were disappointed. We were told that the fountains would be turned on by 9:30 am & we waited, but they weren’t. As we waited, seated at the entrance podium, the crowd began pouring in. Being in front of the Taj does weird things to people… some recorded videos of themselves & spoke about their experience, others jumped with joy, some uninhibitedly sang aloud & serenaded their loved ones. Yet others danced…..A group of boys put up a happy & energetic tap dance performance, cheered by the crowds.  It is entertaining to people watch at the Taj!

When we visited at sunset, it was teeming with people. This time, we visited with our guide, Sunil. He gave us many insights into the monument, its history & construction. We saw the ‘fire’ stone (cornelian?), a semi-precious stone used in the inlay work, which was apparently Mumtaz Mahal’s favourite stone. When you shine a light over the stone, it glows as if on fire….brilliant! We sat watching the Taj as it turned from golden to a muddy brown & finally, till it was nothing more than a silhouette against a multi-coloured sky.

From the Agra fort, the view of the Taj Mahal is very different. We saw it from near the room where Shahjahan was imprisoned. In my opinion, it probably doesn’t have the best view of the Taj. It was sad knowing that Shahjahan could not see the monument that he so lovingly visualized & built, in all its splendour.

It is very difficult & challenging to photograph the Taj Mahal. It’s probably one of the most widely photographed monuments & hence, it’s very difficult to get a ‘different’ or ‘new’ picture of the Taj. We went berserk with our camera, trying to capture every colour change that it went through & every angle from which it looked beautiful (and that resulted in quite a large number of photographs!). Salute-worthy, is the exquisite craftsmanship of all those who built the Taj Mahal! It is difficult & tiring to even imagine the painstaking time spent on each & every piece of marble that went into the monument. Delicate works like the inlay & lattice work is very difficult to get right & they got it bang on! Looking at the Taj as I was, with a critical architect’s eye, I couldn’t fault anything….. From the proportions of the structure, to the symmetry, the effort in each every panel, the fluid lines of the inlay, the brilliant colours & the craftsmanship. The Taj would not have been as beautiful without the skill of the thousands who toiled over it. It was their labour of love too, as much as Shahjahan’s!

With every visit, we noticed something new & enjoyed a different experience. Sunrise & sunset seemed to bring out the best of the monument. We reached Agra 2 days after the full moon night & missed that. We could only imagine how beautiful it might have been! Sometimes, as you gaze at the Taj, it looks unreal…almost like a paper cut-out; like stage backdrop that will soon be dismantled. When the world polled to choose the 7 wonders, I didn’t vote. I hadn’t seen the Taj Mahal & wasn’t sure. Now, having seen it, I would have voted. 

In between all the Taj visits, we had scheduled a full day Agra tour with our guide, Sunil. Knowing our tendency to linger at sites, we had decided to leave as early as possible. We drove straight to Sikandra (Akbar’s mausoleum). Built in red sandstone, with very little white marble, it was set in a peaceful garden. We saw some deer around & numerous other birds too. I was really impressed by the ornate gateway to the tomb. And, the lattices in sandstone were intricate, competing with the marble lattices at the Taj & Itmad-ud-Daula.

From Sikandra, we drove to Fatehpur Sikri. We began at the Diwan-e-am & ended at Jodha Bai’s palace. To see an entire group of buildings built in red Sandstone is something else! My favourite parts were the Diwan-e-khaas with its central column holding the king’s seat & the connecting bridges, the beautiful 5-tiered Panch Mahal, the game of Pachisi (ludo) inlaid in the floor, the pool – also a venue for concerts, the queens’ palaces-each planned so differently, the beautiful carvings in sandstone – of birds, animals and very tempting grapes & pomegranates! I could almost picture the royals & their staff bustling about, hopping on the Pachisi squares, musicians playing in the background… evocative were the surroundings.  I mistook the turquoise Persian roof tiles in Jodha Bai’s palace to be shoddy restoration work using blue asbestos sheets…LOL!  I made a mental note to complain about it in the visitors’ book at the entrance….thankfully that was averted by Sunil telling us what it actually was! My other favourite part at Fatehpur Sikri…..the massive Buland Darwaza! It lorded over the surroundings, such was its presence.  It looked beautiful, the humungous bee-hives notwithstanding. We lost track of time at Fatehpur Sikri. When hunger pangs made us realize that it was well past lunch time, we rushed to Agra, grabbed our lunch at the drive through at McDonalds & drove straight to the fort.

It was early evening as we reached the fort & this made the sandstone look even more beautiful. We wandered through the various buildings, admiring the vast gardens that surrounded most of them, something very different from the other forts we had seen.  Listening to tales of crocodile infested moats, the Peacock throne, the emperors’ opulent lifestyles, the markets for women, the various palaces within the fort & Shahjahan’s imprisonment by Aurangzeb, we wished we had more time to spend here….. Maybe on our next trip to Agra!

Link to the entire set of photos: