Thursday, April 18, 2013

Agra, India

If I had to describe India in a single phrase, I think it would be "functional chaos." Everywhere I look, everything appears to be in a state of utter chaos, and yet, it works. I have no idea how.

Every mode of transport conceivable is used in India, everything from bicycles to pushcarts to motorbikes to motorbike taxis to bicycle rickshaws to trucks, cars, buses, ox-drawn carts, horse-drawn carts, elephants, and so on. All of these could be present on a single road at any time. Lanes are optional, and generally ignored. Horn honking is an art. Cows randomly block the road. I have no idea how people ever learn to drive here, because it looks pretty damn intimidating.

Only in India have I ever seen a motorcycle carrying a family of five: Father driving, with a child in front of him, another child behind, mother sitting sidesaddle (always), beautiful saree flowing behind her, with an infant in her arms. On a motorcycle.  With no helmets. Given the way we practically bubble-wrap our children for car rides in the US, you'll forgive me for finding this a bit bewildering.

We flew from Goa to Delhi, spent a night in Delhi, and then hired a car and headed to Agra. 15 years ago Doug and I took the train, but it actually wasn't all that much more expensive to hire a car and driver for the entire time we'd be in Agra. There is even a new freeway between Delhi and Agra, so the drive was incredibly easy -- between the cities, at least. Within the cities is a whole other story.

As soon as we hit Agra, it was chaos on the roads once more. People herd their buffalo from the river down the street to their homes, which only adds to the traffic.

This is what it looks like most of the time. Note that there aren't really any lanes; people just move forward as there is space available.

We stayed at the fantastic Oberoi Amarvillas Hotel. The moment you enter the grounds, it feels like an oasis. It's just gorgeous!

Our room was lovely, and it had a balcony looking out over the hotel grounds with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

We spent several afternoons hanging out by the hotel pool. It was hot, close to 100 degrees by midday, so we got up early to do our sightseeing and then spent the afternoons relaxing.

On our first morning, we woke up at dawn to watch the sunrise touch the Taj Mahal in the distance. And then the call to prayer began, and the scene was just magical. There have been several moments during this trip when I've felt transported, like I was in a completely different place and time, out of my own life in almost every way. This was definitely one of them.

(I have a fantastic video of this, and I'm going to have to come back and embed it later. The bandwidth at this hotel can't handle it.)

We headed over to the Taj Mahal as soon as we got dressed. The hotel had a golf cart shuttle that took us as far as motorized vehicles are allowed to go, and we walked the rest of the way. We were here 15 years ago and it was very different. There were shuttle buses you took from a common parking lot, and the buses took you right to the front gate. Of course, 15 years ago when I was here, I was as sick as I've ever been in my life, so my memory is probably not terribly reliable.

We walked the gauntlet of souvenir vendors, showed our tickets at the gate, and then made our way in. This is the view you come here for:

The Taj Mahal is actually a mausoleum, built by a 17th century emperor for his wife. (You can read more about it here.) It's an incredible sight, and even more incredible when you get close and look at all of that intricately hand-carved marble. The main structure is very large. Here is the view from the back of the mausoleum.

Here we're looking back at the entryway to the grounds from the mausoleum, with the reflecting pool in the background.

The grounds are very large, with many buildings. Here is a picture of Carter and me in front of just one of them.

We spent afternoons in the pool and watched sunsets from our balcony. We ordered beer and snacks from room service and had our own little happy hour, looking out over the Taj Mahal, listening to the evening call to prayer, and watching the sky fill with kites.

It really is lovely to see how the changing light affects the color of the marble.

On the other mornings we were in Agra, we went to see a few other important sites. When Doug and I were here 15 years ago, we spent the entire time cooped up in our hotel room with food poisoning, and we only ventured out to see the Taj Mahal on the way to the train station to go back to Delhi. And even that was almost too much. This time, we did much better and were able to see a few other things!

We went to the "baby Taj", the mausoleum of Etimad-ud-Daula, which predates the Taj Mahal by a century and is apparently considered to be its inspiration.  It does indeed look like a smaller version of the Taj Majal, with a similar layout and white marble structure.

And unlike the Taj Mahal, it was possible to take photos inside the mausoleum, so I was able to photograph some of the beautiful carvings and stonework.

I liked these two shots of the street outside the Baby Taj, so they're randomly inserted here.

There are monkeys everywhere. This one was climbing along the roof of a building.

We also visited the Agra Fort, a 1000-year-old structure that was the 16th century stronghold of Ackbar when he ruled the area. The complex is huge, and the outer walls are made of red stone.

There were more monkeys hanging around outside, to our delight. I'm sure the people here consider them pests, but they are still so freaking cute!

Carter seemed to enjoy exploring this complex. It's nice when we visit a place where he can run around and explore. We try to avoid dragging him to places where we have to keep a hand on him at all times, but of course, sometimes it's unavoidable.

The inside of the complex was full of more beautiful examples of Muslim architecture.

The outline of the Taj Mahal is visible in the distance. The pollution was pretty bad the days we were here. It's interesting that, as much as we were worried about the pollution in Beijing, it was actually worse in India.

We enjoyed our last sunset on the balcony that evening, and the next day headed back to Delhi for a night before our flight to Nepal. Overall, these weeks in India have helped me come to a new appreciation of the country. We had such a difficult experience fifteen years ago that I wasn't sure I wanted to go back. And to be honest, it feels like cheating to say we really experienced it when we stayed in very nice hotels and were driven around by a private driver the entire time, but it made a huge difference. I was able to focus on the things that are beautiful, rather than the things that are not.

We're now in Kathmandu, Nepal, which was a new country for all of us. Lots of pictures and stories from here in the next post.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! amazing pictures. I can't believe the contrast between the crazy packed streets and then the amazing beauty of the hotel and the Taj Mahal. I am really enjoying the postings, heavens know I am :)