Oct 16,17 – Agra
Agra is only a two hour train ride south of Delhi, but for us because of our bikes, it means getting up at 3:30 am. We cycled in the dark around to the north side of the train station, got separated yet again and made our way separately to the baggage office where we negotiated rides for our bikes. There is much paperwork and labelling on or bikes to do, and so I wasn’t too worried about Rich finding his way to the office; particularly as we had been there on a trial the day before. I did try our new phones, but of course his was still off. Rich turned up in plenty of time to roll our bikes across a few tracks, up and over a few others to our track and the baggage car, in time for our 6:00 am departure.
The two hour train ride gets us out of Delhi avoiding many ugly stressful cycling hour and it puts us into Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, possibly the most beautiful structure in the world and the Red Fort, possibly the most important Mughal fort in India.
We had pre-arranged a hotel and after checking in I headed out to the Red Fort. Rich had been there before and would rest awhile and then choose one of the lesser attractions. I wandered a bit on my bike before finding the huge red sandstone walls that rise above the river.
Entering the labyrinth of ramps and gates built to slow invaders, I was struck by the work using age-old methods cutting slabs and carving details in replacement red sandstone. Initially, it was the sheer size that impressed me, but once inside my interest was again drawn to ornate intricate details of the Moghul architecture which I have becoming attuned to of late. There are many structures within the Red Fort, some in red sandstone and some in beautiful while marble. The carving of rock is of various themes. Some panels are of inter- woven vines and flowers, others geometric and on others intricate calligraphy. As the Red Fort was once the capital of the country, the carvings are of high quality, quite deeply incised and often is inset with semi-precious stones.
Walking along the western parts of the Fort the windows open onto a view along the river to the Taj Mahal’s bulbous domes rising in the afternoon haze.
My second day had me at the Taj Mahal in the morning. There are three gates in the Taj, I had been at the Western gate yesterday and on my cycle here this morning I went by the East Gate. These two gates are designed to serve tour buses while the South Gate is hidden within the rabbit warren streets of the old city, and quite un-approachable by bus. By entering via the south gate the iconic images of the Taj Mahal unfold as you pass through each enclosing structure. Finally, you stand on a raised marble platform and the Taj rises into the sky with a series of symmetric water ponds, pathways and gardens acting as foreground. Symmetry is a huge part of the theme here. To the left, as you face the Taj, is a Muslim mosque. An identical building was built to the right that has no purpose other than symmetry.
Often long awaited visits can be a disappointment. My initial impresions of the Taj Mahal surpassed my expectations. I continued my visit by walking on down the main pathways, stopping often to try to capture some of the visual impression I was experiencing. I was thinking about the love that the Emperor Shah Jahan must have had for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. She had died giving birth to their fourteenth child. It was his broken heart that lead to the Taj. The monument, the main iconic building we know, took eight years and the entire complex another 12 years to complete. Sadly, a year after its completion Shah Jahan was deposed by his son Aurangzeb and spent the next eight years until his death imprisoned in the Red Fort.
As you finally enter the mausoleum itself, and the fine detail of the carving and inlaid stones become more apparent a feeling of reverence, if it is possible for me to have such a thing, came over me. The Taj is a mausoleum. Its walls are intricately carved lattice work and as such it is not an enclosed building. This entire place is an homage to one man’s love for his wife and sadness at her death. I was deeply impressed.
I spent the next two hours walking the grounds, sitting on some of its many peaceful benches enjoying visages of the Taj as it poked its faces at me through the trees. I tried going back through the mausoleum before I left, but by now it was filled with loud visitors and the feeling was gone.
The Taj Mahal experience is a highlight of all of my travels.
Tomorrow we hope to get away early for a full day of cycling that should include a stop at an ancient city Fatephur Sikri and for the evening we should arrive at Keoladeo, a world class birding site.