#2 To Agra and the Taj Mahal

Sent: Friday, September 14, 2001 2:07 PM

The windows on the train share something in common with the viscious air conditioning unit that attacked me yesterday. They too are designed for people shorter of stature than me. A slumping, sloping, half lying sideways posture is required if I want to see more than the first 12 feet of India beyond the train window.

Our first train journey, to Agra on the Mulhedra Express offers strong evidence for the prosecution in the case of Regina .v. The World's Railways. The charge? "Wilfully showing the arse end of every country to its' railway travellers."

Shanty communities living in tiny homes constructed from the dusty remnants of what the marginally better off chuck away give way to the marginal buildings of the brick and mud communities, fringed with tiny shops each providing a service to what must be a truly tiny catchment area to judge by the rate at which each type of shop recurs.

In the midst of all the dust an island of green, clipped lawns and purposeful gardeners. The relative unimportance of power station semi-conductor fields in my grand scheme of things only serves to highlight the apparent perversity of Indian priorities.

We are here at the tail end of the monsoon which has dropped less water than it ought this year. This accounts for the fierce heat we have felt since arrival, unmitigated by any cooling downpours. The landscape is a verdant green, almost at the height of its' productivity. Murky streams and ponds are thick with the dust which lines the normally dry channels for the majority of each year.

I regret that it is some other kind of person who has taken the trouble to get to know what all the different crops are. Three of four staple crops recur time and again as the train makes progress that has more to do with ambling than rattling along, but I won't insult your intelligence by trying to guess what the crops might be.

I'm trying to move on from my Pudsey Bear and Puerto-Rican homeboy phase. Today's look is Christopher Walken in the Deerhunter, substituting a white bandage for his red bandana but accurately reproducing his demented sneer. Just don't let me near a service revolver or I'll have it pressed to my temple and be clicking away before you can say 'Ho Chi Minh.' Unfortunately all I have achieved is a likeness to that tosser in a headband on Ready Steady Cook, the one from Yorkshire who looks like he likes tasting his work a little to much to judge from his ever expanding girth.

The bastions of India continue to fall at our feet. Train travel also means that we get to drink chai. I've lost count of the number of warnings I've read about what sweet and sickly tea this is. Maybe we are fortunate in taking one sugar in our tea back home but, though it is sweet, both of us find it quite drinkable.

Having seen and read nothing but english in Delhi it is striking to see all the posters and painted walls facing the tracks written in Hindi.

Most of the romantiscm of the view from the train is stripped away by the volume of the waste covering the trackside. Governed by its' own geological rules the waste, so much of it plainly non-biodegradeable, forms shallow peaks like gently sloping volcanoes of crap around the point at which it is dropped over a wall, or, in more exposed areas, drifts to form flood plains laying down layer upon sedimentary layer. In Delhi we saw government publicity promoting the use of non-plastic containers and our view of the arse-end of the villages and towns we pass makes plain the importance of the message.

Our guidebooks warn us that the touts in Agra are as aggressive as any in India so as the train coasts to a halt we set our shoulders square and our eyes to icy stare, but the hassle proves to be not too bad.

Our hotel is in the Tajganj, a travellers enclave in the oldest part of town. After the relative luxury of the YMCA the concrete cube that will be home for a couple of days is a bit of a shock, but it is clean and spacious and the loo is western stylee, hooray!

The auto-rickshaw driver repeats the warning given by the guidebooks not to eat out in the Tajganj area because of as scam involving making you ill and dodgy doctors keeping you ill while charging your insurers barrow loads of cash to 'cure' you.

The driver has an angle, naturally, on this terrible phenomonen. We should read the many testimonials from travellers of all nations in his little book and then entrust ourselves to his safekeeping. One scam orbits another, dependant upon the gravity of the first.

We nearly don't go to Agra Fort after our disappointment with the Red Fort in Delhi. The price at Agra nearly puts us off. 460 rupees is approximately 6.50 pounds each. But we stump up and are rewarded with a spell-binding experience.

Entering through two sets of steepling sandstone ramparts and walking up a long, high-walled ramp it is easy to see how the British held out for four months while besieged during the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Our visit starts in Jahangar's Palace, 2 small sandstone courtyards with exquisite carvings that remind me of scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I half expect to see people running across the rooftops at any moment. The second courtyard is open on the East side giving views up the Yamuna river to the Taj Mahal, 2km away.

Within the fort one palace gives way to another and yet more. All similar, yet each unique. The use of water we saw in the Red Fort is repeated here, channels dividing a courtyard into 4 quadrants, the Islamic image of the Gardens of Paradise. Sandstone gives way to marble, warm to the touch in the late afternoon sun .

If you had asked me before I left London I would have said that the curly-wurly school of Indian/Persian architecture was not my cup of tea, being a bit too fussy for my tastes. But as I walk from room to room, each linked by parallel doorways giving long, shaded internal vistas, and stand in the octagonal towers topped with steeply curving domes looking out over the Taj, the atmoshphere engendered by the carefully considered spatial relationships gradually overtakes me and I am left with a feeling of peace and relaxation that takes me, quietly, by surprise.

After a series of smaller palaces comes the Hall of Public Audience. It is laid out in a rectangle some 300 metres by 200 metres with a white-stucco, open-plan, collonaded hall standing on a dais in the centre of one long side and sandstone 2 storey arcades running around the rest of the perimeter. The grandeur of the Diwan-i Am is a fitting finale to a visit that unexpectedly moves me.

In the evening we go for a walk round the Tajganj to scout out the route we will take to the Taj Mahal the next morning. We don''t quite get lost in the network of alleys and narrow streets, hitting, for a second time, a street we recognise just before needing to switch on the GPS. I love our stroll, the streets are shrouded in darkness illuminated only by pale yellow light from light bulbs so dim it is a close call whether they subtract or add to the darkness. When we passed a small dwelling painted luminous blue outside and in and lit by a flouroscent tube it is as though Cyberdog have turned their hand to interior decorating as well as flouro clubbing clothes. It appears that here the palm of one hand represents a boutique, 4 sq ft a shop, 15 sq ft a supermarket and anything larger will probably say 'Selfridges' over the door.

Our first night without air-con is not a raging success. Our room converts nicely into an oven after nightfall and we simmer for hours on gas mark 4. Sausage plays our trump card and fishes out some earplugs which enable us to grab a couple of hours sleep despite the squeak from the ceiling fan, but regular power cuts throughout the night mean that every time we drop off we soon awake to still air and climbing temperatures.

Despite so little sleep we still feel excited as we crawl out of bed at 5.45am in order to see the Taj Mahal as the sun rises and before the crowds arrive.

One half of the couple in front of us baulk at paying 960 rupees (14 pounds!) to go in, and even I have to concede it is quite a contrast to the 20 rupees an Indian pays.

The first thing that strikes me is the symmetry. As your eyes scan each and every image is echoed. Then, with an initial jolt followed by creeping incredulity, you start to realise the scale of the mausoleum in which you are immersed.

You enter at the Southern gate, at the far end of the formal gardens. It is when you notice the tiny specks of humanity moving across the facade of the Taj itself that the tide of disbelief starts rising. Having left the narrow streets and persistent hawkers only moments before the sense of calm and tranquility is acutely tangible. As we make the long walk up the gardens to the Taj the only sounds are of birdsong, including cuckoos and pigeons which immediatley transport me back to my bedroom as a kid, lying there listening to their billing and cooing in the early morning. But the squawking of the luminous green parrots soon yanks me back to reality.

Leaving our shoes at the bottom we climb the steep stairs and stand on the immense marble table which surrounds and supports the Taj. The building climbs up before us, 55 metres to the top of the main dome not allowing for a further 17 metres of brasswork on top of that.

There is no paint anywhere on the building. The colourful flower motifs and long quotations from the Koran are all inlaid in various semi-precious stones, as many as 60 pieces being used to form one flower that is 4" in circumference. Inside it is a dimly lit, cool, compact octagonal space excepting the ceiling which rises to 24 metres in the apex of the dome. The (false) tomb of Mumtaz-i Mahal lies in the exact centre. Her actual remains lie in the crypt below in line with Islamic tradition. Standing behind the tomb we look straight down the ornamental gardens to the gate where the body first enterted its' mausoleum in 1653, 22 years after Mumtaz-i Mahal died bearing Shah Jahan his fourteenth child.

Hubby lies next to wife, off-centre, and the jury is currently out on whewther Shah Jahan intended to lie down next to his wife on his death in 1666. Recent archeological work on the opposite side of the Yamuna river suggests that he may have planned a matching mausoleum in fetching black marble for himself.

Slightly at odds with the Taj's reputation as the ultimate expression of romantic love is the manner of Shah Jahan's death. Incarcerated in Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb we are asked to believe he died of a heart broken by the death of his wife. In fact it is most probable that he overdid it on opium, aphrodisiacs and shagging. But this small discrepancy makes no dent at all on the impact of this wonderful place.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages