Sunday, April 13, 2014

Love and the Taj Mahal




Obligatory crazy shot
(jumping is no longer allowed)
Next stop on our tour of India was Agra, which at its high point was capital of the Mughal empire. Its main claim to fame now is as the location of the Taj Mahal. Built in 1653 by Shah Jahan, it took 22 years and 20,000 workers to create this white marble monument to his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. They are now laid together inside this mausoleum. I expected a single building that you could see from the street but instead I found a whole complex surrounded by large walls and flanked on both sides by temples to complete the Taj's symmetry. It does take your breath away as you enter through large ancient doors and the Taj is revealed step by step in all its glory, beautifully presented with a leading foreground of ponds and gardens.




Shah Jahan's prison
Seen outside Fatehpur Sikri

Agra has many other impressive archaeological sites including the Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned until his death by his son in a magnificent area of the palace overlooking the Taj. We were told that this was because he wanted to build a black onyx Taj and his son thought this excessive and wasteful. He was right of course, but it would have been amazing. We also went to see Fatehpur Sikri (another fort), which was the capital at one stage but abandoned due to a lack of water. It's incredible how many local people want to take photos with you and turnabout became fair play when I was dared to ask a group of sari dressed girls if I could have my picture taken with them. They very kindly agreed.


From there we left the frenetic cities for the more rural towns to get a feeling for Indian country life, travelling first to the small town of Orchha of around 9,000 people. The difference was palpable as the streets were cleaner and quieter and the town had a much more tranquil feel about it. It still had the requisite fort and accompanying palace (Raja Mahal), but straight behind the first palace is a second palace Jahangir Mahal. It was built by the then ruler Vir Singh Deo in honour of his friend the Mughal king Jahangir. It apparently took decades to build and was only used for one night. Hmmm, more money than sense.

View from the palace
We took a pleasant walk around the fort to the river and had our first morning run since Mexico. The palaces would be a great location for a 5km park run (2 laps around the perimeter). It was strange to see the river being used simultaneously for rafting, swimming, washing clothes and bathing, where they soap themselves up before rinsing in the river. The views from anywhere in this place are fantastic as the awesome scenery is complemented by the many temples, palaces and cenotaphs.






The girls making Chapati
Enjoying our meal
One of our most interesting experiences was when we had dinner with a local family, the husband being an autocycle rickshaw driver. It was really nice of them to open up their home to us, and our tour group girls helped make chapatis for dinner. We watched cricket with their boys (the 20/20 India vs Australia match - we were thrashed) and then ate a delicious meal of rice, tandoori chicken, salad, lentil soup and veg curry. As teachers we were disappointed to learn that their 15 year old daughter had recently given up high school because it had been decided that the school was too far to go (15km). Literacy is at 64% for boys but only 42% for girls (courtesy Wikipedia). It will take a long time for their traditional values to change.

This was a refreshing inclusion in the itinerary and even smaller villages were coming up.

Some random photos from Orchha








Monkey business at the fort





















Our early morning run