#4 Sore Throats, Terrorism and Palaces

Sent: Thursday, September 20, 2001 11:46 AM

Emperor Akbar was the grandfather of Shah Jehan, the guy who built the Taj Mahal, and he was an Emperor who captured many kingdoms and built an empire that fused Muslim and Hindu influences. He was a brilliant general with a reputation for moving his troops at great speed. His most famous speed march saw insurgents in Gujarat put up little resistance, largely due to the element of surprise caused by Akbar marching his men 1000km in just 9 days. If you do the sums that is a staggering 66 miles a day.

Akbar had a liking for a Sufi cleric called Sheikh Salim Chisti and when Chisti foretold three sons for Akbar a year before the birth of his first male child Akbar made the huge decision to move his entire court from Agra to a palace he would have built from scratch next to the mosque where Chisti lived, in Fatehpur Sikri. The palace was built over the the course of fifteen years and Akbar took up residence in 1585, but the water supply proved insufficient and by 1600 Akbar had departed to set up court in Lahore. So for the past 400 years the palace has stood empty and has been ransacked many times. Now only the buildings remain but they are in fantastic condition, preserved by the dry desert air.

Before we paid another King's Ransom to get into the palace we first visited the mosque,whose entrance stands on top of an escarpment which rises steeply for maybe 100 metres above the town. Atop the escarpment stands a massive 54 metre high red sandstone gate around which birds soar and glide. If the gate were not so obviously Islamic we could be forgiven for thinking that the birds were swirlig around the entrance to Dracula's castle.

To get in we have to fight off the usual touts and guides, the fact that we are the only people staying in our hotel giving an accurate indication of how persistent they prove to be.

The mosque consiusts of a huge open square surrounded by cloisters. To the left of the gate is the Juma Masjid (prayer room) including three Mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca. In front of us and slightly to the left stands the tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti. It's white marble stands in stark contrast to the red sandstone which surrounds it. As we walk around the shaded cloisters a teenage lad starts to chat to us, spinning a line about just wanting to practise his english and how not every Indian is simply after money, 'every finger on the hand is different' he promises. The truth, as ever, is more complex. Deepak is too young to be a bonafide unnofficial tour guide and the older guides will beat him up if they catch him taking money off us. But his English and his manner are each a refreshing change and we spend a very interesting couple of hours in his company.

Deepak's self-taught english is excellent, far better than the strongly accented, barely decipherable talk we hear from the older guides who pass within earshot.

Sheikh Salim Chisti's tomb is a most beautiful place. A small, square, low-slung building with a shallow sloping roof which protrudes well beyond the walls offering cooling shade. The roof is supported by brackets designed to look like the raised trunks of elephants, curling skywards in a gentle 'S' shape, everything in white marble. The outer walls of the tomb are made of large panels of marble, huge single pieces measuring at least 2 metres square carved into the most beautiful, never recurring, finely-detailed floral pattern which allows only a dimly dappled light to penetrate while also keeping the room pleasantly cool.

The tomb, inside a smaller central chamber, sits beneath a bright green and red circular silk hanging which obscures the small dome above and a navy blue canopy similar to a four-poster bed. Onto one half of the tomb are laid alternating layers of brightly coloured materials and red and orange flowers, repeated in a mille-feuille of offerings to the saint buried below. The inner chamber is also enclosed on three sides by marble screens from which hang thousands of yellow and red threads. We are handed these as we enter and invited to make a wish while tying them to one of the screens. Women travel long distances to tie threads in the belief that it will bring them fertility. The beauty of the setting and the reverence of the other people there creates a powerful atmosphere of devotion. We both tie threads and as we leave we are admonished not to reveal our wishes lest they won't come true.

After the mosque Deepak takes us clambering over all sorts of ancient and modern rubbish tips showing us various bits of the old palace. At one point we round a corner to find a boy crouched crapping. He carries on and so do we. We are becoming adept at dodging shopping opportunities, partially because of space considerations but also because neither of us has a very strong interest in local crafts. But we submit ourselves to 10 minutes with Deepak's mate who tries to sell us roughly hewn white marble elephants of varying size and complexity. We chant our itinerary as a mantra of refusal on luggage space grounds. We pay Deepak, quietly, out of sight of his elders and he swears us to secrecy about the money changing hands.

The searing heat has progressively got the better of us the last few days and we return down the hill to our hotel room where we hide from the noon-day sun.

Our first batch of mozzie bites has appeared on our legs so we apply some cooling cream to the bites and resolve to increase our vigilance. In the evening, over the course of 20 minutes, we will clumsily fight our way to an understanding of how the mosquito net can be unpacked in a tenth of the time. But before we will wrestle with the net we first spray on lots of repellant and head back up the hill to see the palaces.

The architecture of these palaces is noticeably different from Agra Fort which it precedes by 70 years. A magnificent 5 storey villa sits in the centre of the palace. Each storey is open on three sides, supported by columns and each is smaller than the floor beneath giving the building a triangular appearance. The top floor, supported on just 4 columns and topped by a dome, is where Emperor Akbar would sit in the cool afternoon air while his wives and nobles reached differing floors below dependant upon their relative standing.

The palaces are stunning, but suffer from their similarity to the other forts we have already visited. It's obvious if you think about it that if you set out to trot round all the castles in England in a couple of weeks that you would see alot of, well... castles, frankly, but we didn't really spot this when planning our itinerary.

In the early evening we amble down the hill for the last time and, dodging the camels, their carts and the many tractors bring agricultural workers back from their days work, we return to our hotel.

One big question conmes to mind when surveying a street scene in Fatehpur Sikri that is typical of many we have seen: Where are all the women? While you see a small number of women carrying shopping, children, or both the teeming streets are 70% male, 15% children (mostly male), 10% female and 5% livestock and wildlife. The majority of times we see women out of the home they are working their butts off, either ditch digging, farm working or begging. Wherever they are they are never hard to spot, the brightly coloured material of their saris constantly catches our eyes.

In common with several people who approached us in the mosque the owner of the Goverdhan Guest House has only one thing he wants to discuss with us, the attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The islamic angle is completely absent from the discussions people have with us, analysis going no further than 'America - bad place.' It's hard to fathom how much of this is the language difficulty and how much a lack of understanding about the motivation for the attack, or possibly some sympathy for the motives? The owner of the hotel fears for his business, worrying that American tourists will stop getting on planes. He is right to worry, I remember when the Americans stopped visiting the UK during the IRA mainland bombing campaign in the 1970's and the decimating effect it had on tourism in Chester where I grew up.

The next morning Sausage gets up complaining of a sore throat. She thinks it is caused by the constantly shifting air, a product of the ceiling fan through the night. We have to have the fans on to get it cool enogh to sleep but it looks like we'll need to make sure it's on its' lowest setting. Some of our rooms also have coolers, basically big electric fans that fire fresh air into the room through what used to be a window, the air passing over some rather nasty, old, cooling, water on the way in. Factor in the change in our diet, the pollution and the fact that we are doing virtually no exercise and we really can't be surprised that our metabolisms might be a bit shaky.

We catch the bus back from Fetehpur Sikri to Agra where we need to overnight in order to get a 7.15am train tomorrow morning. After a siesta we set off to find a hospital to remove my stitch, Sausage having declined my invitation to remove it herself.

On the way we stop at the bank. It is every bit the tragi-comedy we have been led to expect. We arrive at 2.20pm having allowed time for everyone to get back from lunch which is alleged to finish at 2pm. There are three men behind the open plan counters as a we arrive. Eventually one of them looks up and tells us that if we want foreign exchange we must wait half an hour until lunchtime is over. We ask whether it would be better if we came back later and are told that we must return by 3pm at the latest! So we sit and wait, watching a veritable parade of employees saunter back in, generally with a scratch of somwhere private and a good spit. The man who will eventually serve us arrives back at 2.40pm. He talks over the counter to colleagues for 10 minutes and then disappears into an office for a further half an hour. He eventually reappears after we've done lots of (fruitless) incontinent-flamingo-hopping-from-one-leg-to-another movements to demonstrate our quiet frustration. When he finally emerges, an hour after we arrived, our man apolgises and is as nice as pie. Every warning we have heard proves to be true, but you have to roll with it or you would go mad, and it's not like we are in a tearing hurry.

Onwards to hospital where it takes only 15 minutes to reach the treatment room and a further minute for a very nice man to prepare the area, remove the stitch and clean the wound, which is healing really well. All for 100 rupees (1.40 pounds). Sausage tells the doctor about her sore throat and is given a prescription. Unfortunately the process of picking up the prescription at the pharmacy is so shambolic that by the time the drugs are in her hand Sausage has lost all confidence in the whole situation.

In the evening we have a pleasant meal and a really funny ride back to our guest house. As we leave the restaurant the sky is illuminated with distant lightning and a few drops of rain start to fall. The auto-rickshaw driver is joined in the front of his tiny 3-wheeled machine by his uncle. He decides to teach his uncle some english and gets him to repeat, parrot fashion, 'It is raining!' This proves tricky, but we get there in the end amidst much giggling. He then moves on to the phrase 'Where are you going?' It's dark and raining, he has no windscreen wipers and divides his time between peering ahead and turning to bellow at uncle over the high-pitched squeal of his noisy lawnmower engine. But all uncle can say is 'Where am ... I ... going?' Round and round in linguistic circles we go, all four of us roaring with laughter as time and again uncle proves not quite up to the task of substituting 'you' for his beloved 'I'. Even as we pull up outside the guest house unlce has one last try, pausing for thought before the crucial word and spits out 'Where am ...... I.... going?' I pay for the ride with tears of laughter in my eyes. True to form the driver promises to us that he will be waiting to take us to the station at 6.30am the next morning. Sure enough, he isn't.

Lots of Love The Travelling Sausages (not Wilburys)