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Wednesday 16 Mar 2011
Agra, India

Taj Mahal ...Part one

Slept in waaaaaay past the 4am time I had set on my alarm clock (to catch the 5.25 train to Agra) ... had to go to the train station and try my luck to see if I could get on another train or get my money back. This involved joining a queue of jostling Indian men, many of whom don't know the concept of queueing. Anywhere else in the world, you wait your turn. In India, you wander up to the first guy, stick your ticket in past his face ... and then get served ahead of him! This sort of thing made me pretty angry on several occasions in India.

Anyway, as it happened there was another train heading at 11.25 and coincidentally it cost EXACTLY the value of the refund I was able to get back: 427 Rs

Only in India can you get a refund for a ticket AFTER the train has left the station on time and you just arrived late...

In the sleeper carriage...
In the sleeper carriage...

Later on I also found out that the 5.25 train had been cancelled earlier anyway, so I would have been MAJORLY pissed off had I actually made it. Cancellations and last-minute schedule changes seem to be very common in India .. even on flights - as I experienced on some of the flights I booked.

The train trip was fun. I had a 2AC bunk which was basically a "bed" (a flat leather seat that hung on chains). It was actually quite comfortable and long enough that I could stretch out straight. I'm glad I took this train (as it's the only one I'll be able to take on this trip) as I could see how it's an effective-ish way of getting around the country. I say "-ish" as last-minute cancellations are rife... as mentioned above.

Despite the later arrival time of around 1pm, it was still perfect for seeing the Taj Mahal in all its splendour and the weather was perfect.

Taj Mahal entrance
Taj Mahal entrance

The Taj Mahal is, of course, the world famous mausoleum that was built by Shah Jahan for his favourite wife Mumtaz (out of the many he had in his hareem). From the moment you approach the main entrance, you can already see the famous building peering through the small Persian-style portico. The use of geometry is outstanding in the entire complex, and the first (of many) illusions you experience as you approach is that the Taj Mahal actually appears larger the further you are from the gateway. Hence it appeared gigantic when I first glimpsed it, but gradually normalised as I got closer to the entrance.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

Unlike many famous sites I've visited in the past, the Taj Mahal really DOES live up to it's fame. It's quite simply a staggeringly beautiful piece of art. It's also considerably huge and I never realised just how big it was until I saw it with my own eyes. The entire mausoleum is built with marble, which reflects the surrounding light, especially awesome during sunset. The textures are so vivid and the geometry of the gardens so refined that it looks like a painting set against a blue sky. I literally had to pinch myself as I got closer to make sure that what I was seeing was real.

Predictably, the crowds in the place were staggering, as this is probably the most famous site in India. Again most tourists seemed to be other Indians. This is a good thing in many ways as Indian women really go out of their way to dress up in stunningly-decorated brightly-coloured saris whenever they visit places like this, and this in fact adds to, rather than detracts from, any photos I take.

Of course, being a famous site, it had it's own stereotypical perspective shot that all the kids wanted to replicate (like the famous "Holding up the Tower of Pisa" shot everyone takes in Italy). For the Taj it was "pretending to pick up the Taj using your index fingers". When will people learn?

Once you are up close, the place still mesmerises with wonderful plant motifs and exquisite pietra dura inlay on the marble walls. The tour guides were showing how some of the stones inside the mausoleum reacted to light, and the stones were so varied in colour, and so perfect a fit, as to look like they were painted onto the marble.

The cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal is positioned geometrically centered in the middle of the Taj Mahal, but Shah Jahan's son (who imprisoned his father after taking control) didn't care for such details and placed his father's cenotaph just to the left of Mumtaz'. Even in death he loved to piss off his father!

View of Taj Mahal...
View of Taj Mahal...

While looking for the best strategic position to take photographs of the Taj from the sandstone "Meeting Room" building on the east side, a local man (who I thought at first was just a guard), pointed out a vantage point that I should try. As with most Indians that I was to meet on this trip, he had no English (another stereotype blown out of the water), but was able to communicate perfectly well by pointing at the spot where I should stand, and then pointing at the angle of the shot. And wouldn't you know it, the photo angles he pointed out were incredible. Clearly he had watched professionals over the years and decided it would be an clever way to make a few bob (I quickly guessed he was looking for cash, rather than just being helpful*, after the 3rd vantage point was shown to me Laughing)

*I was to find this was all too common in India. Cash is king, and tourists are basically viewed as walking dollars. Any time a local befriended you, it was usually (though not always) the case that money was going to come into the equation at some point.

As the Taj Mahal stole my heart for 8 hours I didn't have time to see the other sights in Agra (like Agra fort) ... but it was worth every minute of that 8 hours and I had a much-needed relaxed time while there instead of rushing around (remember I was still severely jet-lagged at this stage). I stayed well until the sun had set and the crowds had dispersed, and almost had the entire place to myself for around 10 minutes.

Continued...

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Photo Album

  • In the...

    Agra

    India

    In the sleeper carriage on my way to Agra
  • Taj Mahal...

    Agra

    India

    Taj Mahal entrance
  • Taj Mahal

    Agra

    India

    Taj Mahal
  • Taj Mahal

    Agra

    India

    Taj Mahal