After leaving Varanasi, we spent a hot day on the train to Delhi, and by the next morning we were back on a train to Agra, home of another Wonder of the World, the Taj Mahal. We marched straight to the prepaid taxi booth and found ourselves on the road with a very chatty driver, named Ali. After resting for a couple hours at our new hotel, we found Ali again and headed out on a short tour of Agra. He took us to Old Agra, the twisted sandy streets where people have resided for centuries. Our first stop was the Moon Garden, which gives a view of the back of the Taj…but Ali advised us to skip the entrance fee and just walk along the service road. Sure enough, there was a fabulous view of this iconic building from the back, across the river.
Our next stop was the Tomb of I’timadud Daulah, which predates the Taj Mahal, which makes sense because it houses the remains of Mumtaz Mahal’s grandfather. This time, we paid our entrance fee, and walked into the serene grounds. While smaller than the more famous mausoleum here, I liked the charm of this place. Passing the small waterways carved into the ground, we first walked into one of the three buildings that framed the central structure. In the trees, we saw large birds of prey feeding their young high in the branches. In the back building, we found a nice porch overlooking the river, with a view of dogs playing in the water to cool off from the 43 degree day (that is 110 Fahrenheit!). Finally, we headed into the main mausoleum through its back entrance. Room upon room of detailed carvings laid into ocher colored stone led us into the main room with two cenotaphs. There were no guards and no rules, and we enjoyed the cooling cross breezes inside that sanctuary before leaving.
The next few stops happened in a blur. We stopped to see the outside of Agra Fort, but the extreme heat and the 300 rupee entrance fee kept us on the outside. Then, we visited a gem workshop and a marble workshop…of course, they would pay our driver if we bought something…but we are not in the market for jewels or marble! However, it was really fascinating t.o learn about the unique Agra Star stones that are only found in the area…and we got to see a craftsman making carvings and inlaying them with precious stone, using the same techniques they used in creating the Taj. That evening, we ate dinner on our hotel roof, enjoying the sunset view of the main attraction, as well as the scenes of local life spread out on the rooftops in front of us.
The next morning, we awoke a bit early and arrived at the South Gate in time to be the second people in line to buy tickets. The doors creaked open, and we were the first across the threshold and through the security check. A few moments later, there it was…soaring above the gardens that stretched out, lush and green, before us. Try to take pictures all you like, there is just something transcendent and stunning about that sight that cameras are never going to capture fully.
After several such photo opportunities, we made our way up towards the entrance, removing our shoes as we climbed up to the first layer of white marble. First, we made a circuit around the outer wall, appreciating the things you don’t notice in photos…like the Arabic verses inlaid with black marble stretching from the ground to the roof. Next, we put away the camera for the plunge into the mausoleum itself. The echoes inside that chamber…the intricately laid out precious stones in shapes of different flowers…the hushed winds that circulate through the carved screens…it all lends a magic to the legend of the two lovers buried there in the center.
After that, we took our time wandering through the faux mosque built on the east side (the real mosque was under renovation and off limits), which is also stunning. I really loved the contrast of the white stone inlaid into the red sandstone. We became a bit of an attraction in there…no less than seven people asked to take photos with us…we felt like celebrities. Finally, we visited the small, but informative Taj Museum before taking our last long look and leaving the grounds.
The next morning, we had to catch a 5 AM train to Jaipur, but at least we got lucky with our seatmate this time. His family was on the way to his sister’s wedding, and we had a nice little chat during the four hour ride. The ride itself was quite the adventure, as we were in general seating class, where people just stand in the aisles and hang out the doors…and occasionally start chanting political slogans or singing!
Jaipur is known as the Pink City, and in our day of exploring, we found out exactly why! Most of the buildings in the old part of the city are painted a desert-faded shade of salmon…with the occasional yellow or tan creeping in. We arrived at the city gates long before any shops or attractions were open, which was fine with us. We passed the outside walls of such sites as Jantar Mantar and the City Palace…but we were distracted by herds of people rushing through the morning market. We followed them to a large temple where they were chanting “Sita Ram” and cheering, with herds of men circumambulating in the center. Then, with no warning, the ceremony was over.
Shortly after, we caught a city bus to the Water Palace…which you cannot enter, but you can take all the photos you want for free! We wandered that neighborhood, finding the large grounds of another temple before catching another bus back to the city.
We were packed in like very sweaty sardines by the time we had to get out in front of the Hawa Mahal. This palace is the image most often associated with Jaipur, a wedding cake confection of pink, white, and colored glass. The local merchants were helpful in pointing out the best way to photograph it and we climbed up into a temple to get some good shots of it. By this time, the heat was intense, and we headed for our guesthouse through the sweltering streets.
We hung out, eating and trying to cool off, for the next few ours before our midnight departure on the overnight train to Jaisalmer, our two week home in the far western deserts of India.