We had always heard that the best time to view the inimitable, world-famous Taj Mahal was at dawn, just as the sun was rising. However, our guide Peter told us that he’d seen the Taj at different times of the day and it didn’t look any different. Therefore our wake-up call this morning came at a more civilised 7.00am. 🙂
We enjoyed a substantial breakfast in the airy dining room washed down with good strong coffee to set us up for the day. Then we gathered together sun cream, camera and everything we’d need for today, as we had a lot to pack in.
Off we went into the manic traffic on the crowded streets, several times with our hearts in our mouths as our bus pulled out at junctions, forcing other traffic to brake amid the usual cacophony of blaring car horns. It was the same with overtaking; it didn’t matter if something was coming the other way; whichever vehicle was the biggest invariably won! It didn’t make for a very relaxing journey, however. 🙁
Luckily it was only a short ride until the bus parked up, and we were split into groups of eight or nine for the next short part of the journey, a ride in an electric buggy-type vehicle with open sides, similar to golf buggies but larger. It was only a half-mile or so before we all alighted and waited for Peter and Vikram to lead the way into the manicured lawns and garden which formed a picturesque backdrop for the Taj Mahal.
While we stood in the shade of a tree, I suddenly felt something wet on my left hand and found, to my disgust, that a bird had crapped on me! The sh*t was down the side of my top and on the pocket of my cropped jeans, as well as being all over my water bottle and my hand. Yuk! A couple of our fellow travellers luckily had some wet wipes which they gave me, and I tried to get the worst of the mess off me while Trevor thought it was all hilariously funny. 🙁
After cleaning myself up somewhat, we walked under an archway, through a short tunnel and out into the sunshine; there before us was the magnificent Taj Mahal, its white façade gleaming in the morning sunlight. Wow!
The Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum located on the southern bank of the Yamuna River in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife of three, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth after her 14th child.
The marble with which the Taj is built was mined from local quarries and was painstakingly chiselled and shaped to form intricate minarets, cornices and trellis work. The marble is inlaid with semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, malachite and pyrite and has a gorgeous translucence which causes it almost to glow in the light. We were told that viewing the Taj Mahal during a full moon is special because the tiny sparkles in the marble reflect the moonlight and appear to glitter.
Our group were introduced to a professional photographer who said he would take a photo of us standing with the Taj Mahal in the background; each photo would only cost 100 rupees, or one pound. Can’t complain about that!
We walked down the terraces towards the building; a waterway with fountains and lined with small trees leading the way right to the front. As expected, there were quite a few tourists (we were some of them!) but it wasn’t too crowded. At the entrance to the building we had to put shoe-covers on before entering.
It was cool and dim inside the building, and we marvelled at the lavishly-decorated walls and ceilings. The workmanship was magnificent, and we said that in this day and age a building such as this could never be achieved as the cost would be prohibitive, using the materials such that they had, not to mention the decades of manual work. It was an amazing privilege to be here and to experience this, and another famous world landmark that we can tick off our list. 🙂
Once we’d spent about two and a half hours looking round, we reassembled and walked outside to board the electric buggy once again for the short ride back to the coach park, fighting off the persistent hawkers on the way. I did end up purchasing a couple of ankle bracelets with jingly-jangly small bells on them; 100 rupees for both.
When we arrived back at the bus, the photographer had our packets of photos ready; ten 7”x 5” photos cost 1000 rupees, or 10 quid, so we bought all of them. It wasn’t a bad price; the cruise ships charge about a tenner each for professional shots.
The bus set off and soon we arrived at our next destination, which was to a marble and stone workshop in which items were created using the same sort of white marble, from quarries in the same area, as that from which the Taj Mahal was built.
When we arrived, we were offered a hot or cold drink (Trevor and I chose a Kingfisher each!) and watched a short film showing how the marble was laboriously dug out of the quarries, lifted in huge blocks, then cut, chiselled and shaped to form exquisite items from furniture (benches, tables and chairs) to chess boards and pieces to plant holders and lampshades all the way to tiny jewellery and trinket boxes.
Once the marble was cut and shaped, a fine chisel was used by the craftsman to cut out intricate designs to the depth of one millimetre before semi-precious stones were shaped and cut to the exact thickness and size to form the inlay.
After the film we visited the workshops to watch the artisans shaping the stones on a hand-driven millstone to a fraction of a millimetre; it was a skill that was passed from father to son and it took many years to perfect the craft.
We then went into the emporium to look at the array of finished products. Of course, the whole point of our visit was for them to try to tempt us to buy something, but in actual fact the prices were lower than what I had thought. For a example, a solid marble table top about two feet in diameter, inlaid with semi-precious stones was only about £180.00 – less than I’d imagined considering the materials and amount of work that had gone into it.
What I found fascinating about the marble and some of the stones (e.g. carnelian) was that they were translucent; I thought how they would make a lovely tealight candle holder so I made it my quest to see if I could find one.
After having a good browse around, I saw an oval-shaped tealight holder with an intricate lattice work around the edge and an inlay of carnelian and lapis lazuli in the lid. It was less than 42 quid so I just had to buy it. Fantastic – what a great souvenir of India and the Taj Mahal. To think it is made out of the same type of pure white marble from the same area of India! 🙂
Once we were all rounded up it was back on the bus and time to return to our hotel for lunch. We had an hour and a half before our next visit for the day. One thing about these ‘escorted tour’ holidays – they certainly pack a lot in!
Lunch was delicious – I ordered an Indonesian nasi goreng but it was preceded by a yummy onion soup which was included as part of the overall meal. Nasi goreng is a savoury rice dish and includes prawns and chicken as well as egg and vegetables. It was accompanied by a couple of skewers of chicken and a dish of satay sauce. It was totally scrumptious – I used to enjoy eating nasi goreng as a child, when I lived in Singapore.
Afterwards we all assembled outside again for our next destination, another UNESCO World Heritage site – this time, the Agra Fort.
The Agra Fort is about 2.5km northwest of its more famous sister monument, the Taj Mahal. I suppose it could be more accurately described as a walled city.
The present-day structure was built by the Mughals, though a fort had stood there since at least the 11th century. Agra Fort was originally a brick fort known as Badalgarh, held by Raja Badal Singh Hindu Sikarwar Rajput king (c. 1475). It was mentioned for the first time in 1080 AD when a Ghaznavide force captured it. Sikandar Lodi (1488–1517) was the first Sultan of Delhi who shifted to Agra and lived in the fort. He governed the country from here and Agra assumed the importance of the second capital. He died in the fort at 1517 and his son, Ibrahim Lodi, held it for nine years until he was defeated and killed at Panipat in 1526. Several palaces, wells and a mosque were built by him in the fort during his period.
The fort and its many buildings were certainly spread out over a large area and, being an elevated site, afforded a fantastic view over the countryside towards the Taj Mahal in the distance. The afternoon sun beat down on us and we sought refuge in the cool interior of the buildings whenever we could. Brightly coloured birds flew around; we saw lime-green parakeets and a darker green pigeon, as well as some pigeon-like birds with dusky-blue backs and wings.
Once we left the fort our final stop for the day was to a jewellery emporium that specialised in rubies and emeralds. But it wasn’t just the jewellery that was worth seeing; it was also famous for housing some of the finest works of the textile artist Padmashri Shams.
Shams invented a unique three dimensional embroidery technique. He first of all made sketches of his subjects, then used coloured cotton and silk threads to embroider them over and over until he achieved the correct thickness and movement. His works are completely original and unparalleled and it was an absolutely amazing experience to see them first hand. One of them had taken over 10 years to complete and they had received an offer from the USA for three million dollars, which they turned down.
Although Shams was a Muslim, he had produced an overwhelming piece called “The Good Shepherd” which depicted Jesus and a flock of sheep; in the tableau he is holding a tiny lamb while the ewe looks up trustingly at him. The work measures 99”x75” and took 18 years to complete and, even though I am not at all religious, the sheer detail of the piece took my breath away. The sheep looked 3D and almost ready to walk out of the scene, while the serene expression on Jesus’s face as he looked at his flock was beyond words. It truly was amazing.
After we’d looked at the masterpieces in embroidery we then went to the floor where the jewellery was housed. Some was in precious stones (e.g. emeralds, sapphires, rubies) while other was in semi-precious (e.g. amethyst, citrine, rose quartz etc.). As I make jewellery for a hobby, I didn’t buy anything as I felt I could make some of the stuff I saw.
When we came out of the jewellery place, we only had a fairly short ride back to the hotel, where we arrived fairly tired but happy. We had an hour or so to get washed and changed for dinner.
Dinner was, as ever, an Indian feast and we tried various different dishes whilst enjoying the convivial company of our fellow travellers.
Afterwards we decided to go along to the hotel bar, but before we did so we noticed that there was some sort of ‘entertainment’ on around the pool area. A magician had set up and there were half a dozen or so chairs arranged in front of him; we joined another two couples and watched. He did one or two sleight-of-hand tricks before the main part of the show which was, basically, to show us how to do the tricks and sell us the props to do so!
Likewise with a puppet show (a sort of Indian “Punch and Judy”) where the show was followed by the puppeteer trying to sell us similar puppets to the ones he’d used.
In the bar we had a drink before tiredness started catching up with us. We had certainly seen and done a lot today, so we decided to go back to room 114 and settle down for the night.
We slept soundly.